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?

The Institute – Stephen King

‘Did you see the dots?’

‘No.’

‘You will.’

I love the King-dom! I felt the same way after finishing this book as I did the first time I read Carrie; I need to read every book Stephen King ever writes.

After being kidnapped in the middle of the night, Luke awakens in a bedroom that’s almost identical to his own. He’s in the Front Half of the Institute and that’s where his nightmare really begins.

‘I know as long as they’re testing you, you stay in Front Half. I don’t know what goes on in Back Half, and I don’t want to know. All I do know is that Back Half’s like the Roach Motel – kids check in, but they don’t check out. Not back to here, anyway.’

I was always going to adore Luke. He’s beyond genius level smart but he’s also a wonderful friend and someone I’d enjoy talking with. He’s an avid reader, so even if he had nothing else going for him, I’d be wanting to hang out with him for that reason alone. I related to him when his reading habits were described:

He read the way free-range cows graze, moving to wherever the grass is greenest.

but it was this passage that confirmed I would read any book ever written that followed any part of this kid’s life:

Luke Ellis was the guy who went out of his way to be social so people wouldn’t think he was a weirdo as well as a brainiac. He checked all the correct interaction boxes and then went back to his books. Because there was an abyss, and books contained magical incantations to raise what was hidden there: all the great mysteries.

Fortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it), Luke’s not alone in Front Half. There are a revolving door of kids and the core group of these become somewhat of a found family (I love found family stories!), supporting one another as they attempt to navigate their bizarre new reality. My favourite kid was 10 year old Avery, but I also wanted to adopt Kalisha, George, the class clown and Nicky, the rebel. Okay, so maybe I wanted to adopt them all.

Great events turn on small hinges.

I’m always ready to cheer on a group of people who are railing against injustice. The fact that this group were kids with telekinetic or telepathic abilities who had been kidnapped and experimented on only served to add more oomph to my armchair cheerleading.

I loved to hate most of the Institute’s staff, with the exception of Maureen who, despite the fact that she’s older than me, I also wanted to adopt. It’s easy to despise anyone even tangentially involved in harming children. However, it always amazes me that Stephen King can add greys to what I know to only exist in black and white.

While I was appalled at their treatment of the children under the “care”, I was intrigued by the psychology that had to play out within the individual staff members; what was it about them that made them behave the way they did? What unknown overarching purpose of the Institute could possibly warrant them believing the methods they used were anything close to approximating okay?

No one who fully grasped the Institute’s work could regard it as monstrous.

I could almost see Mulder and Scully in the periphery of this book. This investigation would be right up their alley. Naturally Mulder would lose his gun at some point and Scully would blink at the exact moment the truth was laid bare.

I can’t wait for my next King fix! I’m all in for an author who can make sentences that on the surface appear like harmless fun make me want to cringe when I know their true meaning.

“We’re having a movie this evening, you know. And fireworks tomorrow.”

Content warnings include death by suicide, mention of depression and suicidal ideation, kidnapping, PTSD, slavery and torture.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents – telekinesis and telepathy – who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”

In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.

As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of ItThe Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E. Harrow

Perhaps one cannot walk through a door and back out again without changing the world.

This was a book within a book, worlds within a world, dream come true. I was enchanted and mesmerised from the very beginning. My heart is full of hope and possibilities, and my imagination is so happy and fulfilled, yet because you can never have enough magical portals in your life, I’m left yearning for more.

I want to tell you everything about this book but don’t want to ruin it for you so I’ll only tell you this:

January Scaller finds a Door when she’s seven but, because she’s so eager to please, she focuses her attention on becoming the “good girl” she’s expected to be.

I spent the years after the blue Door doing what most willful, temerarious girls must do: becoming less so.

Years later, the memory of that Door resurfaces when she finds a life changing book.

It smelled like adventure itself had been harvested in the wild, distilled to a fine wine, and splashed across each page.

I believed in the worlds behind these Doors without hesitation. Perhaps some of my belief can be explained away by the fact that I’ve casually sought my own door since first reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and more fervently since Every Heart a Doorway but it’s really because this book was just that good!

Whenever I read a book that mentions another book I always investigate further. Does that book exist in my world? Do I need to add it to my ever expanding to be read list? If it doesn’t exist in my world, will the author ever write it? I was thrilled that the primary book January reads in this book actually exists and its chapters are included within this book! This is one of my dreams come true! Of course, the book within the book had references to other books, which don’t exist (yet – I checked), but I was so excited to be reading an actual book within a book and it was perfect!

The Ten Thousand Doors of January explores the power of words, the nature of power and the price of freedom. January experiences abandonment and loss, and I ached for her as she longed for acceptance and belonging. I empathised with the feeling of being pressured to conform to others’ expectations of you even when they diminish you and the courage it takes to live beyond your labels, learning to follow your own truth.

January’s Doors take her to places, physically and internally, that compelled me to want to follow in her footsteps. This book took a lot longer than I had planned to read due to illness, but each time I picked it up I was immersed in January’s story again within a paragraph.

I learned of Alix E. Harrow’s brilliance when I read A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies during my (ongoing) 2019 Hugo Awards readathon. I reviewed it here. My love of this short story resulted in my unceremoniously moving The Ten Thousand Doors of January to the top of my reading queue.

I highlighted so many passages as I read this book; there were so many beautiful sentences I know I’ll need to revisit. January is a bookworm, so a kindred spirit of mine, and often spoke of books and reading in ways that felt like she was reaching into my own soul:

There’s only one way to run away from your own story, and that’s to sneak into someone else’s.

Some of the sentences I highlighted tell you nothing of the story but said plenty to me about the talent of its author. This is someone who can transform the ordinary into something memorable.

His hair clung to his skull in a white scimitar, as if the heat of his working mind had burned it away from the top of his head.

She shrugged again; I began to see them as practical gestures, designed to shed the weight of resentment threatening to settle on her shoulders.

While I greedily want a sequel I mostly hope there isn’t one. This book ends so perfectly that I want the exquisite agony of needing more to linger. I knew there was something special about this author when I read and reread A Witch’s Guide to Escape but after going through the Doors with January I’m certain of it. I don’t care what Alix writes about next; I’ll be reading it no matter what.

Content warnings include racism, xenophobia, assault on beloved dog and actions that could be described as self harm, except the intention is different than what I would consider true self harm behaviour.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Orbit, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group (UK), for the opportunity to fall in love with this book early. I want everyone to read it!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In the early 1900’s, a young woman embarks on a fantastical journey of self-discovery after finding a mysterious book in this captivating and lyrical debut.

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

The Undoing of Arlo Knott – Heather Child

When I read the blurb for this book it reminded me of an episode of one of my favourite TV shows growing up, Round the Twist. Paul Jennings was one of my favourite authors and I loved encountering the unexpected in his stories. He wrote the episode, Spaghetti Pig Out, where a main character finds a remote control that can pause, fast forward or rewind anything or anyone it’s aimed at. This coincides with a spaghetti eating competition and the school bully just so happens to find out about the remote before the competition begins. Naturally he decides to use the remote control to attempt to win the competition, with amusing and quite disgusting results. I loved that episode! Anyway, I digress.

I was intrigued by this book’s blurb. Arlo can reverse whatever he just did. Imagine the possibilities. The mistakes you could fix. The pain you could undo. Who hasn’t imagined what they’d do if they had their life to live all over again. If only …

This book begins at Part 6! I loved that! Given Arlo’s ability to reverse actions it was the perfect touch for me; simple but so smart. I also appreciated the simplicity of the chapter headings, guiding me through Arlo’s life by telling me the age he was during the events of each chapter.

I’m currently surrounded by a constellation of ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ reviews so am keenly aware that I’m an outlier where this book’s concerned. I absolutely adored the concept, which reminded me not only of the TV series you’ve probably never heard of but also The Butterfly Effect and Groundhog Day. I even thought I could detect small traces of Final Destination.

The first problem was that I really didn’t like Arlo from the beginning. At all. He was arrogant, self centred, immature and lacked empathy. I don’t generally mind not liking characters and I’m usually fairly enthusiastic about loving to hate certain characters, but when the main character is so obnoxious I find it harder to care what happens to them. Sure, Arlo does grow as a character, some of the things I hated about him aren’t as prominent as his story progresses and some positive attributes emerge, but he never became someone I’d want to have a conversation with.

When he begins using his ability, power, gift, curse, genetic abnormality or whatever else you may want to call it, I found myself fairly consistently pleading with him not to be a cliché and then rolling my eyes as he gambled, womanised or otherwise disappointed me. Thankfully he does eventually find more interesting and varied ways to manipulate people and circumstances but the majority of these manipulations are ego driven.

While I learned the facts of a number of characters’ lives I didn’t connect emotionally with anyone. I was definitely interested in finding out more about several but my interest never extended far enough for me to worry about their future or consider reaching for a tissue if their lives encountered anything resembling tragedy. Given my propensity to ugly cry while reading, I was surprised by my lack of emotion.

I found Arlo’s story too drawn out for my liking and found myself getting bored early on. By the end of Part 6 (remember, this was the first part in this novel) I would have abandoned it if I hadn’t committed to reviewing it and temporarily set it aside to read another book before picking it back up again. Had I not continued I would have missed out on the final part, which I found intriguing but predictable. As I was reading I kept thinking that there was only one possible way for this book to end. Nevertheless, I anticipated and hoped for a blindside, but it didn’t happen.

If you enjoy novels that are more character driven, where you experience the excitement and the mundane throughout the years with a flawed main character, you’ll probably really enjoy this book. I expect it will be a popular book club choice, given the questions of morality, philosophy and psychology that it raises. I’d encourage you to check out some ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ reviews as well before deciding if this book is for you or not.

Content warnings include death by suicide.

Thank you to NetGalley and Orbit, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group (UK), for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

What if your life had an ‘undo’ button?

Arlo Knott discovers he can rewind time – just by a minute or two – enough to undo any mistake, say the right thing or impress his friends with his uncanny predictions …

But second chances aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. As wonderful as his new life is, a mistake in Arlo’s traumatic childhood still haunts him and the temptation to undo, undo and keep undoing could be too much to resist. 

Speak – Laurie Halse Anderson

This book … I’ve wanted to read it for so many years but I always feared I’d Humpty Dumpty if I read it. I didn’t trust that I’d be able to reassemble the pieces if I shattered. When I read SHOUT I knew it was time to Speak but it still took me another couple of months to gather my courage to begin Melinda’s story. The verdict? It was everything I wanted it to be and more!

Now I’m preparing to ask Doc if I can borrow his Delorean so I can give this book to me when I was Melinda’s age, before it was published. I ached for a book like this in high school but never found one. It would have been life changing. I know this book has already touched countless lives before mine but I’m excited about the lives it will continue to change.

Sometimes I think high school is one long hazing activity: if you are tough enough to survive this, they’ll let you become an adult. I hope it’s worth it.

High school is already hard enough when you have friends. As an outcast Melinda’s experience is excruciating and I honestly don’t know how she made it through that first year as well as she did. Her growth, despite her trauma, despite the depression, despite all of the adults that could and should have been supporting her but didn’t, is remarkable.

The whole point of not talking about it, of silencing the memory, is to make it go away. It won’t. I’ll need brain surgery to cut it out of my head.

Melinda’s voice throughout this book is so authentic. Trying to navigate her way through the aftermath of her sexual assault with no support contributed greatly to her inability to speak. I loved her sarcasm and dry humour; being the outcast she was able to observe clearly the absurdity of many aspects of the high school experience.

I wanted to sit quietly with Melinda until she was ready to break her silence, just so she knew she wasn’t alone. I wanted to get to know Ivy more. I wanted to listen to David talk about whatever was on his mind each day. I imagined flaming meteors obliterating Heather’s perfectly coordinated wardrobe but appreciated her written outcome better. I wanted to drop kick Rachel into another dimension, preferably one with giant hornets staring her down.

I wanted to shake most of the adults in Melinda’s life awake, especially her emotionally neglectful parents but also every school staff member who saw and chose to do nothing. I constantly wanted to high five Mr Freeman, the only safe adult I saw in Melinda’s life, the only one who truly saw her and reached out. Mr Freeman is responsible for what’s currently my favourite sentence:

“When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time.”

While I’d obviously prefer to live in a world where a book like this wasn’t needed, I love that I live in a world where survivors of sexual assault are beginning to have voices. We have a long, long way to go but books like this are catalysts for change. I know Speak is a life changing book; I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say it’s also a life saving one. Knowing you are not alone in your experience is powerful! I need all the stars that have ever existed for this book!

Content warnings include sexual and physical assaults, depression, emotional neglect, self harm, isolation and a whole bunch of high school crap that seems vitally important at the time you’re living it.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. If you are experiencing sexual assault or have in the past, please know that you are not alone. The full responsibility lies with the perpetrator; you are not to blame. There is help available and you are worthy of receiving it.

In America, the National Sexual Assault Hotline offers confidential, anonymous support to survivors 24/7/365. It’s never too late to get help. 800.656.HOPE or https://hotline.rainn.org/online.

If you live outside America and don’t know who to contact in your country, a good place to start is http://www.hotpeachpages.net.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The first ten lies they tell you in high school.

“Speak up for yourself – we want to know what you have to say.” 

From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless, outcast, because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. As time passes, she becomes increasingly isolated and practically stops talking altogether. Only her art class offers any solace, and it is through her work on an art project that she is finally able to face what really happened at that terrible party: she was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. Her healing process has just begun when she has another violent encounter with him. But this time Melinda fights back, refuses to be silent, and thereby achieves a measure of vindication. 

In Laurie Halse Anderson’s powerful novel, an utterly believable heroine with a bitterly ironic voice delivers a blow to the hypocritical world of high school. She speaks for many a disenfranchised teenager while demonstrating the importance of speaking up for oneself.

The Devil Aspect – Craig Russell

Spoilers Ahead!

‘Maybe it would be best,’ she said at last, ‘if you left the Devil alone in his hiding place.’

This book had so much to love – a serial killer on the loose, a medieval castle with a dark history that’s now an asylum and a psychiatrist delving into the minds of the most notorious murderers in Europe, all steeped in folklore and mythology and set in the lead up to WWII.

I adored the settings, from the creepy castle to the shadowy forests and the bone church. The writing flowed well and it felt like the author had done a lot of research, particularly around Central European myths and legends, which I need to learn more about now that I’ve had a taste. I really enjoyed the blend of psychology and mythology.

Here am I and I here stay, for this is where Evil resides. Here am I and I here stay, for this is where the Devil hides.

The idea of having a front row seat (nestled behind the safety of the pages) when infamous criminally insane people told their stories was a big draw card for me. While I was interested in the backgrounds of each of the Devil’s Six, none of them gave me the chills I experienced when I first met Hannibal Lector so many years ago.

I found myself just getting into one of the Six’s stories and then it would be over; I’d want more but the story moved on. Each of the six could have had an entire book devoted to their story so sitting in on one session with their psychiatrist was never going to be enough for me. I was disappointed when I found some of their stories fairly predictable, especially the Vegetarian’s.

Has obsessing over more than 300 episodes of Criminal Minds finally ruined me? I am notoriously terrible at figuring out who did it and why, yet there’s been a disturbing recent development; I’ve been working out who did it early on and then spending the rest of the book hoping for a blindside that never arrives. It happened again here and I don’t know if it’s because I’ve magically levelled up in my ability to sniff out the clues from the red herrings or if it really was that obvious.

Content warnings include mental health, suicide, references to the death of a child, description of an animal’s slaughter, anti-Semitism, sexual assault, child abuse, murder and torture.

Thank you to NetGalley and Constable, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group UK, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In 1935, Viktor Kosárek, a psychiatrist newly trained by Carl Jung, arrives at the infamous Hrad Orlu Asylum for the Criminally Insane. The state-of-the-art facility is located in a medieval mountaintop castle outside of Prague, though the site is infamous for concealing dark secrets going back many generations. The asylum houses the country’s six most treacherous killers – known to the staff as The Woodcutter, The Clown, The Glass Collector, The Vegetarian, The Sciomancer, and The Demon – and Viktor hopes to use a new medical technique to prove that these patients share a common archetype of evil, a phenomenon known as The Devil Aspect. As he begins to learn the stunning secrets of these patients, five men and one woman, Viktor must face the disturbing possibility that these six may share another dark truth.

Meanwhile, in Prague, fear grips the city as a phantom serial killer emerges in the dark alleys. Police investigator Lukas Smolak, desperate to locate the culprit (dubbed Leather Apron in the newspapers), realizes that the killer is imitating the most notorious serial killer from a century earlier – London’s Jack the Ripper. Smolak turns to the doctors at Hrad Orlu for their expertise with the psychotic criminal mind, though he worries that Leather Apron might have some connection to the six inmates in the asylum.

Steeped in the folklore of Eastern Europe, and set in the shadow of Nazi darkness erupting just beyond the Czech border, this stylishly written, tightly coiled, richly imagined novel is propulsively entertaining, and impossible to put down.

Girls of Paper and Fire – Natasha Ngan

READ. THIS. BOOK. PLEASE.

I have so many library books at the moment that I’ve been desperate to read for so long and of course too many were due at the same time. I almost sent this book back unread and I’m so glad I didn’t! It turns out it’s one of my favourite reads of the year!

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

Lei’s nightmares are haunted by the raid on her village seven years ago that saw her mother ripped from her life. This time the soldiers have come for Lei, a Paper caste girl with golden eyes. She is to undergo training as one of the Demon King’s Paper Girls, which is supposed to be an honour yet feels anything but.

I think of the Paper Girls who came before me. The dreams of theirs that might have died within these very walls.

The extravagance of palace life is unlike anything Lei has ever experienced with her loving family, who lead humble lives running a herb shop in their remote village. In the palace she is surrounded by exquisite gardens and is dressed by her own personal maid in stunning clothes with magic weaved through them! 😍 The glamour is only on the surface though, as Paper Girls are essentially the Demon King’s concubines, and this life feels like a prison to Lei.

There’s so much I loved about this book, from the gorgeous descriptions of the different castes of Ikhar and their history and spirituality to the strength of the women who inhabit it. There’s action, betrayal, loyalty, friendship, a romance that didn’t make me want to vomit and an underlying hope despite brutality.

“They can take and steal and break all they want, but there is one thing they have no control over. Our emotions,” she says at my nonplussed look. “Our feelings. Our thoughts. None of them will ever be able to control the way we feel. Our minds and hearts are our own. That is our power, Nine. Never forget it.”

I absolutely adore the cover image and Jeff Miller’s jacket design is simply breathtaking! I especially loved the Birth-blessing pendant on the front of the hardcover book.

I loved learning about the world our characters inhabit and I became immersed in Ikhara. I believed in this world and yearned to learn more about its history, its magic, its spiritual beliefs and its customs. I don’t think Ikhara would have come alive for me if not for the gorgeous descriptions that made me want to sigh with the satisfaction they gave me. I highlighted so many sentences that made me want to follow Natasha Ngan around and have her describe to me whatever she sees. Two of my favourites were about time and winter:

But time has a way of folding itself, like a map, distances and journeys and hours and minutes tucked neatly away to leave just the realness of the before and the now, as close as hands pressed on either side of a rice-paper door.

Colors drain from the gardens like calligraphy paints being washed away.

Wren was the standout character for me but I was surprised to discover that I also had a soft spot for acerbic Blue, despite and maybe because of all of the reasons that I probably should have loved to hate her. Lill was a sweetheart but I didn’t get much of a sense of her personality. Similarly the twins didn’t appear to have distinct personalities and unfortunately they became interchangeable for me. There were also a few characters that didn’t have a great deal of page time but I wanted to know more, who I felt more of a connection with than most of the Paper Girls: Zelle, Kenzo and Merrin.

I don’t want an easy life. I want a meaningful one.

I want so much to give this book 5 stars for the world the author transported me to alone but there’s something that’s niggling at me. This may be a problem with me, not the book, but sometimes I felt a disconnect between what I thought I should be feeling and what I was actually feeling. Without getting too spoilery, events would happen that would affect one or more of the Paper Girls and I’d think I should be crying, full of rage, joy, something … but wasn’t. I was always interested in knowing what was going to happen next but my emotions didn’t fire up. I was more upset by Lei’s dog getting skewered than anything that happened to the girls. I’m hoping a reread will clear this up for me.

What I Need Included in the Sequel/s

More Shamans – I loved the information about the shamans in this book but need more! I need to know more about their history, all of the cool stuff they can do, how they’re trained, and I need to get to know one personally.

Lei’s Eyes – There’s more than meets the eye here (sorry, I had to! 👀). I need their backstory!

More Mythology – There’s no such thing as too much mythology as far as I’m concerned. An entire history book about Ikhara? Sign me up!

Also, I need the next book in the series sometime soon. Tomorrow is good for me. 😜

We might be Paper Girls, easily torn and written upon. The very title we’re given suggests that we are blank, waiting to be filled. But what the Demon King and his court do not understand is that paper is flammable.

And there is a fire catching among us.

Content warnings include sexual assault and graphic violence.

P.S. I tried to buy a signed copy of this book from Barnes & Noble but they can’t ship it to Australia! I’m sure I’ll get over this at some point but not for a while. 😢

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honour they could hope for … and the most demeaning. This year, there’s a ninth. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

In this richly developed fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards for an unknown fate still haunts her. Now, the guards are back and this time it’s Lei they’re after – the girl with the golden eyes whose rumoured beauty has piqued the king’s interest.

Over weeks of training in the opulent but oppressive palace, Lei and eight other girls learns the skills and charm that befit a king’s consort. There, she does the unthinkable – she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens her world’s entire way of life. Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.

The Grerks at No. 55 #1: Nelly the Monster Sitter – Kes Gray

Illustrations – Chris Jevons

‘If monsters are real, how come I’ve never seen one?’ said Nelly.

‘Because they never go out,’ said her dad.

‘Why don’t monsters ever go out?’ said Nelly.

‘Because they can never get a babysitter,’ said her dad.

So Nelly becomes “Nelly the Monster Sitter!”, which is pretty much everything you imagine it is. Think The Baby-Sitters Club except it’s just Nelly, not a club, and she babysits monsters, not kids; although to be fair, some of the kids the BSC looked after were more monstrous than the monsters in this book. Nelly even keeps a record of her monster sitting experiences, just like the BSC girls did.

Nelly’s parents are comfortable with her monster sitting although her twin sister Asti, like many people, is afraid of monsters. Although fun and lighthearted, this book does have a subtle commentary underlining it about acceptance of those who don’t look like you and finding friendships with amazing people/monsters that others are too scared to get to know.

The Grerks at No. 55 is the first in the series so introduces Nelly and her family and sets the scene for future books. The only thing that had me a little squirmy about its inclusion was when Nelly glues millions of fleas to the wall, gets her friends to paint over the still alive but stuck fleas and calls it decorating.

The monsters in this book are imaginative and easy to picture, especially when the descriptions are paired with lovely illustrations that bring the monsters to life. I’m interested to see what adventures Nelly experiences when she knocks on the doors of her future monster customers.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Ever played catch with a six-legged Gog, or made pancakes with an oozy orange Squurm? Every time Nelly rings on a new monster family’s doorbell she’s up for a new challenge. Come on her monster-sitting adventures in this laugh-out-loud funny first book in the series.

Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker #2: Incognito – Shelley Johannes

Operation Upside has only just begun and Beatrice has made a big mistake. She secretly awards her teacher a certificate and Mrs Tamarack can’t see the compliment in her ‘Most Strict’ award. Now there’s a Wanted sign hanging in Beatrice’s classroom and if Beatrice is going to avoid detection then she’s going to have to go incognito, which for Beatrice can only mean wearing pink instead of her usual ninja attire.

Flying high was so much easier than lying low.

When incognito Beatrice tries to give helpful Wes an award it winds up in the wrong hands. If Operation Upside is ever going to be successful Beatrice is going to need her thinking cap and a window of opportunity to fix her mistakes and keep herself out of trouble.

I love Beatrice’s irrepressible nature. She’s adorable and while she only wants to make people smile her impulsivity and enthusiasm means that she is incapable of flying below the radar. The quirky illustrations add to the fun of reading this series.

I really liked the inclusion of Sam in this book. Her downcast demeanour, reluctance to speak to her classmates and interest in Morse code added some intrigue to this otherwise lighthearted book and I kept wondering what her backstory was. I would have loved it if Beatrice had wanted to include Sam for any other reason than wanting something from her and her motivation dimmed some of Beatrice’s sparkle for me, but at least they still became friends.

This is a series that I love as an adult and I’m certain I also would have loved it as a kid. I’d recommend reading Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker first to get the background on the main characters, how Operation Upside began and why all of these elementary school girls are playing Veterinary Clinic at recess.

I wish the Morse code alphabet was included at the end of this book. Kid me would have written secret messages to friends in Morse code as soon as I’d finished reading so I would have found it helpful.

I definitely need another Beatrice book and I want to know more about Sam!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In book two of the Beatrice Zinker series, Operation Upside is finally in full swing! But when Beatrice’s over-enthusiasm lands Mrs. Tamarack with a Strictest Certificate, the team has to scale back a bit.

Lying low is not exactly Beatrice’s strong suit, especially when she sees someone who desperately needs to be recognised. But when the certificate meant for him falls into the wrong hands, Beatrice and Lenny have to find a way to widen their circle once again to save Operation Upside, and themselves, from trouble.