Windswept & Interesting – Billy Connolly

I grew up watching Billy, first on VHS and then on DVD. I laughed along before I was even old enough to understand what was so funny. I was in the audience for three of his concerts, one of which was during his final tour of Australia. I met him twice and have the photos to prove it, including the one where my camera unexpectedly decided it needed a flash. Billy’s surprised expression is just as awesome as you’d expect. I even managed to get some Billy autographs and a Billy hug.

I’ve laughed so much my body has gotten confused and morphed into ugly crying. I’ve learned to be wary of beige people and to appreciate the freedom of naked dancing (vicariously, not personally). I’ve identified as windswept and interesting for as long as I can remember.

Of course I was going to read this book, and preorder a signed copy. 

It was just as wonderful as I’d hoped. You can hear Billy in your head as you read his story. I’m going to hear him in my head for real when I listen to the audiobook version. Naturally I needed a copy in every format I could find but the audiobook is going to be an absolute treat; I can’t wait to hear his laughter.

You’ll learn “wee interesting things” about Billy here, some you’ll already know as if it’s your own autobiography, but you won’t care because it’s Billy. The new things may build on things you already knew; they’ll give you an even greater appreciation of the man he is and the things he’s overcome in order to delight you with his worldview.

I highlighted too many quotes to share with you here but I need you to read some of them.

On fashion: 

I once wore a pair of black patent brogues with furry black and white spotted panels on a plane. A flight attendant said, ‘I like your shoes.’ I said, ‘Thanks – I had them made abroad. The shoemaker had a big box of Dalmatian puppies, and you could pick your own …’ It was the only time in my life I was smacked by a flight crew member. 

On weight: 

I can’t control my weight and eat the things I like, so I eat the things I like.

On libraries: 

Everything I’ve achieved in my life has been because of the library. 

On Australian wildlife: 

I’m warning you. Australia is a dangerous place! Australians must be the bravest buggers on the face of the earth. Imminent danger every fucking day. 

On snorkelling: 

I was a bit nervous because I’d just seen Jaws for the first time – you know that movie about a shark that plays the cello? It put me off being in the sea. Every time I put my head underwater, I heard, ’dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun …’

On scuba diving: 

My favourite underwater trick is to get my buoyancy bang on and stand still vertically. Just stand there looking bored when people swim past. Nod to them as if you’re waiting at a bus stop. Look at your watch. You get the most extraordinary looks from people. 

This is the Billy you already know and love, but in book form. If anything, it made me love him more. 

‘I’m William F. B. Connolly the Third. Here’s some parting advice for you: “Lie on your back and you won’t squash your nose.”’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In his first full-length autobiography, comedy legend and national treasure Billy Connolly reveals the truth behind his windswept and interesting life.

Born in a tenement flat in Glasgow in 1942, orphaned by the age of 4, and a survivor of appalling abuse at the hands of his own family, Billy’s life is a remarkable story of success against all the odds.

Billy found his escape first as an apprentice welder in the shipyards of the River Clyde. Later he became a folk musician – a ‘rambling man’ – with a genuine talent for playing the banjo. But it was his ability to spin stories, tell jokes and hold an audience in the palm of his hand that truly set him apart. 

As a young comedian Billy broke all the rules. He was fearless and outspoken – willing to call out hypocrisy wherever he saw it. But his stand-up was full of warmth, humility and silliness too. His startling, hairy ‘glam-rock’ stage appearance – wearing leotards, scissor suits and banana boots – only added to his appeal.

It was an appearance on Michael Parkinson’s chat show in 1975 – and one outrageous story in particular – that catapulted Billy from cult hero to national star. TV shows, documentaries, international fame and award-winning Hollywood movies followed. Billy’s pitch-perfect stand-up comedy kept coming too – for over 50 years, in fact – until a double diagnosis of cancer and Parkinson’s Disease brought his remarkable live performances to an end. Since then he has continued making TV shows, creating extraordinary drawings … and writing.

Windswept and Interesting is Billy’s story in his own words. It is joyfully funny – stuffed full of hard-earned wisdom as well as countless digressions on fishing, farting and the joys of dancing naked. It is an unforgettable, life-affirming story of a true comedy legend.

Girls of Paper and Fire #3: Girls of Fate and Fury – Natasha Ngan

“The small bird flies on the wings of the golden-eyed girl” 

Nine Paper Girls. Each claimed their very own piece of my heart in Girls of Paper and Fire. While I loved them all, I identified mostly with three: Lei, the Moonchosen, trained assassin Wren and Blue, winner of the girl with the most attitude award. Then there was sweetheart Lill, not one of the nine but so darn adorable that I couldn’t help but want to protect her from the big, bad world.

My favourites all returned in this final book of the trilogy, a book I’d both anticipated and dreaded. I needed to know what would happen to each of my girls and I couldn’t wait to spend more time with them, loving them and learning from them, but I wasn’t ready to say good bye to them just yet. Although I’m sad to be leaving them behind (for now; I know they’ll be waiting for me when I return for my reread), I’m also grateful because my heart is so full having known them. 

These girls are everything I want in characters, and in myself, if I’m going to be honest. They’ve been through absolute hell but, despite everything, they keep showing up. Although literal survival would be a triumph at this point, they’re always reaching for more. They want justice, they want peace and they’re going to fight, in an actual war, to achieve it. Their resilience, their courage, their ability to still love and be loved, is extraordinary. 

When the world denies you choices, you make your own. 

That’s not to say that they don’t feel the effects of what they’ve survived so far. There are the nightmares, the flashbacks, the dissociation, the times when the past tries its darnedest to swallow them whole. PTSD, although it’s not officially diagnosed in Ikhara (none of our girls really have the time to make an appointment with a psychologist anyway), is evident in the various trauma impacts the reader is privy to. Coping mechanisms, healthy and otherwise, are as varied as the individual characters, and I adore that about this series. There is no one correct way to respond when you’ve experienced the kind of trauma these girls have; all of their responses are normal. 

“Fire in. Fear out.” 

While recovery from sexual assault remains something our girls are all dealing with, another character is having to figure out her life post-disability. This character is a total badass and one of my new favourites. They’re able to acknowledge their disability and the impact it has on their life without it defining them and I loved them even more for that. The authenticity and sensitivity evident in the writing, already proven by the way the author has handled the experience of and survival after sexual assault, are extended to the experience of disability.

There will be reviews that will talk about the story and others that will talk about its themes. I’m here to tell you that I love these girls even more now than I did before I began this book. I got to return to the Hidden Palace to confront the past and spent precious time with characters I didn’t think I’d cross paths with again. 

This isn’t only Lei’s story. We’re also given chapters written from Wren’s perspective in this book and I couldn’t help noticing the differences between the two. Lei, who is more open and leads with her heart, has chapters written in the first person. Wren, the trained assassin who guards her heart more, has chapters written in the third person, almost as if she needed to keep the reader at arm’s length because she’s not certain they’re worthy of her trust.

This is a story for all Paper Girls both on and off the page. Like the books before it, I felt seen in its pages. I was reminded that you can survive your past. You can continue to fight even when your mind and body are telling your spirit you can’t. It’s okay to accept help from the supportive people around you. You are not the labels others place on you. You can look forward to a future where your past, while it can never be undone, doesn’t have to define you. 

“Give them hell, girls. For all of us.” 

Content warnings include mental health, misogyny, racism, references to sexual assault, self harm, torture, violence and war.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

‘Don’t struggle, Lei-zhi. It’s time to take you back to the Hidden Palace. You’re going home.’

The jaw-dropping conclusion to Girls of Storm and Shadow left the fates of Lei and Wren hanging in the balance. There’s one thing Lei knows – she can never return to the Hidden Palace. The trauma and tragedy she suffered behind those opulent walls will plague her forever. She cannot be trapped there with the sadistic king again, especially without Wren.

The last time Lei saw the girl she loved, Wren was fighting an army of soldiers in a furious battle to the death.

With the two girls torn apart and each in great peril, will they reunite at last, or have their destinies diverged forever?

1922 – Stephen King

I believe that there is another man inside of every man, a stranger, a Conniving Man. 

Wilfred James’ Conniving Man causes him and those around him all sorts of trouble in this novella. Determined to live out his days on the family farm, Wilf does everything in his power to convince his wife not to sell her 100 acres of land to the Farrington Company.

Wifey has other ideas and, as a result, she’s about to have a very bad day. Then there’s the whole chain reaction of all things not very nice that follow, because this story originated in the horror show that is Stephen King’s mind. 

A tale of greed and people determined to get what they want when they want it, this quick read reminded me that even when we think we’ve gotten what we want, life can serve up some pretty nasty plot twists. If you’re as fond of rats as Indiana Jones’ dear ol’ dad is, you might want to avoid this one. 

In true King fashion, there were some notable quotables in this novella. The standouts for me were memorable for very different reasons, though.

This little beauty added to my arsenal of excuses to swear (you can never have enough): 

‘The truth is never cussing, Son.’ 

Then there was the one that made my blood boil. The Sheriff reminded me why fee-males should hope to never be mad, bad or sad enough to be written into the King-dom: 

‘Sometimes a fee-male needs talking to by hand, if you take my meaning, and after that they’re all right. A good whacking has a way of sweetening some gals up.’ 

Every time the rats made an appearance, I couldn’t help thinking of the beating of Poe’s tell-tale heart. I kept involuntarily seeing the rat scene from The Bone Collector movie. Naturally, I heard Indiana Jones telling his father ‘There were rats, Dad’ on numerous occasions.

Readers who haven’t reached their quota of rats with appetites after finishing this novella may want to get their swattin’ pole ready to meet Hunter Shea’s Rattus New Yorkus

Do you like how things have turned out, Wilf? Was it worth it? 

Content warnings include mention of abortion, death by suicide, death of animals and racial slurs. Readers will emetophobia may have trouble with this read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The chilling novella featured in Stephen King’s New York Times bestselling collection Full Dark, No Stars1922 is about a man who succumbs to the violence within – setting in motion a grisly train of murder and madness.

Wilfred James owns eighty acres of farmland in Nebraska that have been in his family for generations. His wife, Arlette, owns an adjoining one hundred acres. She wants to sell her land but if she does, Wilfred will be forced to sell as well. James will do anything to hold onto his farm, and he’ll get his son to go along.

Betrayal, murder, madness, rats, 1922 is a breathtaking exploration into the dark side of human nature from the great American storyteller Stephen King.

Apt Pupil – Stephen King

‘You are a monster’ 

Well, that was disturbing. Todd Bowden, thirteen years old at the beginning of this story, has discovered his “GREAT INTEREST” and it’s a doozy. His fascination with the atrocities committed during the Holocaust take on a whole new life when he meets a new fiend. No, that’s not a typo. Mr Dussander, the Blood Fiend of Patin, lives in Todd’s neighbourhood and Todd’s keen to learn all of the “gooshy stuff” from Dussander’s past.

Two psychopaths hanging out together is a recipe for all things bad, and there’s a lot of bad in this book. There were bits that made me squeamish and bits that had me wondering why I wasn’t putting this book aside for a reasonable length of time. Like forever. 

I wondered how King was able to do mundane, everyday things while he was inhabiting the darkness necessary to bring these characters to life. I thought about all of the times over the years that I considered reading this book and instead chose something lighter because I just couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to spend their time gazing into the abyss. Even when I picked this book up again this morning I was certain it would be returned to the library unread. But it sucked me in, even as I was mentally trying to backpedal.

See, there’s a part of me that needs to know what it is about specific people that makes them act in ways that I will never truly understand. There’s this other part that wants to stick around long enough to see evil receive its comeuppance. Because there has to be a comeuppance, right? That part won in the end.

I spent most of the book detesting both of the main characters, eagerly anticipating what I hoped would be appropriately hellish demises. It’s always a little disconcerting to learn what twisted things your imagination can come up with when you’re face to page with some of the worst of what humanity has to offer, but I guess there’s darkness in all of us. I came up with some gruesome let the punishment fit the crime scenarios. 

‘If I die today … tomorrow … everything will come out. Everything.’ 

I feel like I need a long, hot shower to wash away any traces of these characters. That, or cleanse my reading palette by devouring something full of rainbows and unicorns and all things sugary sweet. King has done a really good job of making me uncomfortable and intrigued and disgusted all at once. I’m horrified by humanity and at my own ability to come up with some pretty disturbing revenge fantasies. 

I both hate and love this book. I never want to think about it again but I suspect it’s not going to leave me quietly. 

Content warnings include death by suicide, murder of animals, racial and religious slurs, sexual assault, suicidal ideation and war crimes.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

If you don’t believe in the existence of evil, you have a lot to learn.

Todd Bowden is an apt pupil. Good grades, good family, a paper route. But he is about to meet a different kind of teacher, Mr. Dussander, and to learn all about Dussander’s dark and deadly past … a decades-old manhunt Dussander has escaped to this day. Yet Todd doesn’t want to turn his teacher in. Todd wants to know more. Much more. He is about to face his fears and learn the real meaning of power – and the seductive lure of evil.

A classic story from Stephen King, Apt Pupil reveals layers upon layers of deception – and horror – as finally there is only one left standing.

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.

A History of the Universe in 100 Stars – Florian Freistetter

Translator – Gesche Ipsen

Class, today’s lockdown lesson is brought to you by the letter A.

I haven’t studied science since high school but the older I get, the more interesting I find it. I’ve been fascinated by astronomy since I was a kid and you know how much I love fun facts. Whenever I stumble across a book about stars I can’t help myself; I need to find out more.

It never fails to floor me whenever I read about how unfathomably ginormous the universe is.

The Milky Way has a “few hundred billion stars” and it’s only one of up to a quadrillion other galaxies in the universe. Each of those consist of “hundreds of billions of stars”.

61 Cygni is 11.4 light years away from Earth. Only twelve stars are closer than it.

I learned the names of the stars that make up the Southern Cross, the first constellation I was able to identify and a symbol that’s tattooed on so many Australians.

Four of the stars that make up the Southern Cross are pretty boring: Acrux, Becrux, Gacrux and Decrux. They were named because the constellation is called Crux and the Bayer system for naming stars is related to how bright they are; the brightest star is Alpha, the second brightest star Beta, third Gamma, fourth Delta, etc., so Alpha Crucis became Acrux. The fifth star, however, actually has a more appropriate name, Ginan, and I love this so much!

In the stories of the Wardaman people of northern Australia, a ginan is a traditional bag filled with stories and songs and myths about the creation of the world.

Apologies in advance if I’m ruining your childhood here, but did you know that shooting stars aren’t actually stars?

They are miniature lumps of rock only a few millimetres wide, and you can find them as space dust everywhere between the planets of our solar system. When Earth meets one of these grains of interplanetary dirt, we see a shooting star. The speck of dust hits the Earth’s atmosphere with a typical speed of between 30 and 70 kilometres per second. During its high-speed flight through the atmosphere, it rips electrons from the shells of the atoms of which the air consists; and when these now shell-less atoms recapture one of the liberated electrons and reattach it, they emit energy in the form of light, which we then perceive as a shooting star.

The whole thing takes place about a hundred kilometres above us and lasts only a few seconds.

Then there’s the “brightest and most massive” star. This honour goes to R136a1 from the Tarantula Nebula, which is almost 180,000 light years from Earth.

If R136a1 was where the Sun is, it would exceed the Sun’s brightness by as much as the Sun’s exceeds the Moon’s. R136a1 is a whole 265 times heavier than the Sun, and if it really was the centre of the solar system, the massive increase in gravitational force would shorten Earth’s orbit from 365 days to a mere 21.

This book reminded me that not only did The X-Files teach me Latin, it also taught me astronomy. So many years later, I came across the term syzygy in this book and not only did I know what it meant, I also remembered the storyline of the episode that introduced me to the word. Thank you, Chris Carter.

Even without a scientific background, I didn’t have any trouble understanding the author’s explanations. I would have loved for the book to have included photos of some of the stars; Google helped me fill this void.

I haven’t read a lot of astronomy books but I found Lisa Harvey-Smith’s The Secret Life of Stars an easier read. If I lost concentration during this book I’d have to reread at least a paragraph to figure out what I’d missed. There was a small amount of repetition, which I can put down to the fact that the author states in the foreword that you can read the chapters in any order.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Astronomer Florian Freistetter has chosen 100 stars that have almost nothing in common. Some are bright and famous, some shine so feebly you need a huge telescope. There are big stars, small stars, nearby stars and faraway stars. Some died a while ago, others have not even yet come into being. Collectively they tell the story of the whole world, according to Freistetter. There is Algol, for example, the Demon Star, whose strange behaviour has long caused people sleepless nights. And Gamma Draconis, from which we know that the earth rotates around its own axis. There is also the star sequence 61 Cygni, which revealed the size of the cosmos to us.

Then there are certain stars used by astronomers to search for extra-terrestrial life, to explore interstellar space travel, or to explain why the dinosaurs became extinct.

In 100 short, fascinating and entertaining chapters, Freistetter not only reveals the past and future of the cosmos, but also the story of the people who have tried to understand the world in which we live. 

The 22 Murders of Madison May – Max Barry

“You know, I love you, Madison. In every world. Even when you don’t love me back.”

For Clay, it was love at first sight. The Madison May he fell for was the character she played in a movie, although Clay is certain that Maddie, the person, is the woman for him. He’s so sure that he’s been stalking her travelling across multiple parallel dimensions for their happily ever after.

The only pesky problem is that he hasn’t found a Maddie yet who meets his expectations and what’s a loved up guy supposed to do when that happens? Kill that Maddie and move on to the next one. Yeah, our Clay isn’t exactly the poster child for optimal mental health.

Along for the ride is Felicity Staples, a newspaper reporter who doesn’t usually report on murders. Felicity saw firsthand what Clay’s ‘love’ is capable of in the life where Maddie was a real estate agent. Now she’s trying to stop Clay from murdering other Maddies but Clay always seems to be one step ahead.

“The details are different. But it’s her. It’s the same person, murdered in a different place.”

When I read the blurb for this book, my immediate thought was, ‘Oh, so it’s like Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls.’ No, I haven’t read that one yet so I can’t say for sure but it seems I’m not the only reader to pick up on the similarities.

Parallel universes are one of the things I love to read about. They raise so many questions that my brain enjoys teasing out. Things like, if you travel from one parallel universe to another, what happens to the you that lives there? Does You #1 erase You #2 by showing up in world #2? Does You #2 wind up in the world you left, trying to make sense of subtle or not so subtle differences? Are you now a missing person in your world? If you travel to a third world, does You #2 get to resume their life in world #2? I could go on forever like this.

This book come up with its own answers for how parallel universes work. It made sense, although it was a sadder concept than what I’d like to believe. I did enjoy the idea of moorings, although I would have liked more explanations for how everything worked, including how the first person to ever travel between universes figured out how to do it.

Clay’s obsession with Maddie is downright creepy and I expected to feel something every time I watched her get murdered. However, I never formed an emotional connection with any of the characters so while I was interested in seeing how it would all pan out, I felt like more of a casual observer than someone who was invested in the lives of Maddie, Felicity, Clay, etc.

“You’re the reason for everything.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

I love you. In every world.

Young real estate agent Madison May is shocked when a client at an open house says these words to her. The man, a stranger, seems to know far too much about her, and professes his love – shortly before he murders her. 

Felicity Staples hates reporting on murders. As a journalist for a midsize New York City paper, she knows she must take on the assignment to research Madison May’s shocking murder, but the crime seems random and the suspect is in the wind. That is, until Felicity spots the killer on the subway, right before he vanishes.

Soon, Felicity senses her entire universe has shifted. No one remembers Madison May, or Felicity’s encounter with the mysterious man. And her cat is missing. Felicity realises that in her pursuit of Madison’s killer, she followed him into a different dimension – one where everything about her existence is slightly altered. At first, she is determined to return to the reality she knows, but when Madison May – in this world, a struggling actress – is murdered again, Felicity decides she must find the killer – and learns that she is not the only one hunting him. 

Traveling through different realities, Felicity uncovers the opportunity – and danger – of living more than one life.

Oliver the Curious Owl – Chad Otis

Oliver’s family are quite happy staying very close to the big tree they call their home. They’re also only concerned with “Who?” questions. But Oliver is different. Not satisfied with knowing “Who?”, he also wants to know “What?”, “When?”, “Where?” and “Why?”. His quest for answers leads him to wonder about “life outside the big tree”.

Fortunately, Oliver meets a bug called Bug, who shares his curiosity. Although he’s worried about getting lost if they were to go on an adventure, something unforeseen happens and soon Oliver and Bug are exploring a whole new world. Along the way they meet new friends and enjoy new experiences.

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Oliver’s family are a lot more cautious than he is and I expect parents reading this book to their own owlets will probably want to make it clear that it’s not okay to wander off without their family knowing where they are. Having said that, this is an adorable book that encourages kids to be open to new who’s, what’s, when’s, where’s and why’s.

I’m not sure how well this book would go down with family members who already hear “But why?” several hundred times each day but I love Oliver and Bug and their boundless curiosity about the world around them. The illustrations are full of personality and Bug, in particular, is really cute.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Oliver the owl questions anything and everything!

The only question Oliver’s family ever asks is “Who? Who? Who?” But he wants to know more:

WHO lives in those faraway woods?
WHERE does the river go?
WHY can’t I leave our tree?

When his curiosity gets the better of him, Oliver – and his best buddy, Bug — travel far from the safety of home to get answers about the wonderful world they live in. But after a day of exploration, how will the friends find their way back?

In this charming story of discovery, an inquisitive owl inspires those around him to let their curiosity take flight! 

Witness – Louise Milligan

An analysis by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald newspapers of sexual assault statistics published in September 2019 found that of the 52,396 sexual assaults reported to NSW Police between 2009 and 2018, charges were only laid in 12,894 cases.

Of the 12,894, 7629 went to court. Of those, 2308 were dropped at trial, 1494 found not guilty. The remaining 3827, or roughly 50 per cent of the total that went to court, were found guilty. That’s just 7 per cent of the cases that originally went to police.

I’m one of the 39,502 whose report to the police resulted in no charges being laid. Because there were no witnesses. Because the detective who took my statement didn’t even know how to classify the crime that was committed. [I checked. Section 61I of the Crimes Act 1900 No 40 says it has a name. It’s called sexual assault.] Because the second detective I spoke to didn’t believe me. Because the entire police investigation consisted of the second detective asking my psychologist if I had a mental illness that would cause me to make something like this up.

After reading this book I’m grateful that my retraumatisation was only at the hands of the police, that I never had to experience cross-examination in court, where

complainants and witnesses are treated like they are the villains, in order to defend the accused.

This book was an eye-opener in the most brutal way. I already knew the court system in Australia didn’t do any favours for people who have experienced violent crimes. I didn’t realise it was this bad.

I learned about the culture within the legal community, ensuring barristers are seen as not having been affected by the horrific offences they are defending. Without being able to acknowledge their own vicarious trauma or get help for it, barristers disregard the impact of trauma on victims they cross-examine in their courtrooms, making it easier to dehumanise them and rip holes in their testimony.

This is a system where teenagers are called ‘madam’ to make it sound as though they are older than they are. Where children are not allowed to take teddy bears with them when they testify because their presence would remind the jury that the victim is a child. Where the accused has a lawyer protecting their rights in court but the victim doesn’t. Where barristers behave towards victims in ways that would get you fired in pretty much any other job, but it’s mostly allowed because in court it’s all about establishing reasonable doubt.

And that’s where we come to that oft-repeated phrase from victims – that the cross-examination was as bad, if not worse, than the original abuse.

Psychologist Michelle Epstein says her patients who go through the court process generally say they would recommend others not to do it.

My take-away from this book?

If you’re sexually assaulted in Australia and your case is one of the few that actually makes it to court, you’re likely to wish it hadn’t. There you can expect to be traumatised at a level on par, if not more so, than the abuse you experienced to get you there in the first place.

This is a real indictment on the legal system (I almost said justice system but it appears justice is but a pipe dream for most survivors). Until real change occurs (and this is a system that moves imperceptibly slow, so don’t hold your breath), I predict that fewer survivors will feel safe enough to report what happened to them and perpetrators are going to keep on perpetrating, knowing, statistically, they’re very unlikely to be punished for their crimes.

‘It’s like you are alive, and you’re having an autopsy done on you.’

Julie Stewart

People who actually have the power to make a difference need to read this book immediately! Well written as it is, it made me feel so sad and angry, and utterly powerless. Now that I’m suitably dejected and disillusioned, I’m going to take a much needed mental health break. If you’d care to join me, I’ll be floating on a cloud made of cotton candy and hanging out with some unicorns.

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide, mental health, sexual assault and suicidal ideation.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

From the best-selling author of Cardinal comes a searing examination of the power imbalance in our legal system – where exposing the truth is never guaranteed and, for victims, justice is often elusive. 

A masterful and deeply troubling expose, Witness is the culmination of almost five years’ work for award-winning investigative journalist Louise Milligan. Charting the experiences of those who have the courage to come forward and face their abusers in high-profile child abuse and sexual assault cases, Milligan was profoundly shocked by what she found. 

During this time, the #MeToo movement changed the zeitgeist, but time and again during her investigations Milligan watched how witnesses were treated in the courtroom and listened to them afterwards as they relived the associated trauma. Then she was a witness herself in the trial of the decade, R v George Pell.

She interviews high-profile members of the legal profession, including judges and prosecutors. And she speaks to the defence lawyers who have worked in these cases, discovering what they really think about victims and the process, and the impact that this has on their own lives. Milligan also reveals never-before-published court transcripts, laying bare the flaws that are ignored, and a court system that can be sexist, unfeeling and weighted towards the rich and powerful. 

Witness is a call for change. Milligan exposes the devastating reality of the Australian legal system where truth is never guaranteed and, for victims, justice is often elusive. And even when they get justice, the process is so bruising, they wish they had never tried. 

Girls of Paper and Fire #2: Girls of Storm and Shadow – Natasha Ngan

Wren and I might not be Paper Girls anymore, but we are still capable of creating fire. And now we have a whole world to set ablaze.

It’s been a couple of weeks since Lei and Wren faced off against the Demon King. Now fugitives, they are regrouping and strategising for the upcoming war, part of a disparate group consisting of both familiar and new faces. New alliances will be formed and trust will be broken as sides are chosen.

Hindered by secrets, distrust and the enormity of the task before her but determined to prevail, Lei begins training with Shifu Caen. Wren and Hiro, a shaman boy, are working together to protect the group with magic. Bo and Nitta, leopard demon siblings, add some levity to their dire situation. Bo in particular enjoys tormenting Merrin, an owl-form demon.

I know that sometimes the combination least expected can forge the strongest bonds.

I often have trouble with sequels and it took a while for me to get into this book, which surprised me given how much I loved Girls of Paper and Fire. I think part of my problem was the time initially spent travelling. I’m a bit of an ‘are we there yet?’ reader, anxious to get to the next location so I can meet new characters and enjoy the action. I only started to get into the story once the group made it to the White Wing Clan.

There are still some characters I love and those I breathed a sigh of relief over when I learned they had survived the events of the first book. Similarly, characters I loved to hate in the first book haven’t endeared themselves to me yet. At least one person I adored in the first book disappointed me greatly with their actions in this one, so much so that I’m not entirely sure who I want to win the war at this point. I experienced the same disconnect I felt in the first book between what I thought I should be feeling and what I actually felt when events impacted characters I liked, and I’m still not sure why.

Most of the story is told from Lei’s perspective, although there’s also a chapter each focusing on Naja, Aoki, Kenzo and Mistress Azami. The trauma impacts relating to what the Paper Girls were subjected to in the first book are explored in this one. Although it’s not mentioned by name it was clear to me that these experiences have resulted in PTSD, as evidence by nightmares, flashbacks, startle responses and the coping mechanisms used to manage their distress.

Not even death could take away the scars he left upon me, imprinted deep, the way history carves its marks into the very bedrock of a kingdom, forever to shape and influence its future.

The impacts of this trauma felt authentic to me and I particularly appreciated that they were present throughout the book. There is no magical recovery and the past comes back to haunt them at inconvenient and unexpected times, just like it does when it happens off the page. I loved that the characters still managed to accomplish some extraordinary feats despite their pain, which both highlighted their resilience and gave me hope. There is life after trauma but it doesn’t look the same as it did pre-trauma.

This is a language I understand. A language of pain and horror that I, too, have learned. That too many girls have had to learn.

I have a bunch of unanswered questions that I really hope will be answered in Girls of Fate and Fury. Some of my questions are spoilery so I won’t mention those but I still need to know what the deal is with Lei’s eyes and more about shamans. At this point it looks like there are two main sides in the war to come but I’m hoping against hope that a third side will emerge as I’m not sure I’ll be entirely satisfied if either of the two I currently know about succeed. The bloodshed is revealing aspects of certain characters that make it harder to like them. I’m not sure who is going to be able to live with the person they have to become in order to survive.

“It’s the fact that it isn’t easy, that we have to constantly work and work at it, make ourselves believe in our own strength even when it feels like we’re worth nothing, have nothing, can do nothing … that’s power. That’s resilience” …

“There is nothing stronger than people who endure the worst hardships in the world, and still raise their fists at the start of a new day to fight all over again.”

Content warnings include death by suicide (other readers may disagree with me and it’s called sacrifice in the book but ultimately I still read it as suicide), self harm, trauma impacts related to sexual assault and violence.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In this mesmerizing sequel to the New York Times bestselling Girls of Paper and Fire, Lei and Wren have escaped their oppressive lives in the Hidden Palace, but soon learn that freedom comes with a terrible cost.

Lei, the naive country girl who became a royal courtesan, is now known as the Moonchosen, the commoner who managed to do what no one else could. But slaying the cruel Demon King wasn’t the end of the plan – it’s just the beginning. Now Lei and her warrior love Wren must travel the kingdom to gain support from the far-flung rebel clans. The journey is made even more treacherous thanks to a heavy bounty on Lei’s head, as well as insidious doubts that threaten to tear Lei and Wren apart from within.

Meanwhile, an evil plot to eliminate the rebel uprising is taking shape, fueled by dark magic and vengeance. Will Lei succeed in her quest to overthrow the monarchy and protect her love for Wren, or will she fall victim to the sinister magic that seeks to destroy her?