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.

The Astonishing Future of Alex Nobody – Kate Gilby Smith

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

It’s always just been Alex and her Uncle Henry. That is, if you don’t count the consistent groups of strangers who have been trying to sneak a peek at Alex her entire life. There are actual coaches full of them. But, hey, maybe this is normal. It’s not like Alex has any friends to compare notes with.

Until she meets Jasper on her twelfth birthday. We love Jasper, although we don’t really know a lot about him for the longest time.

For a boy who loved asking other people questions, he was an expert at avoiding them himself.

We do know he’s a sweetheart, though, and he’s a really good best (and first) friend to have. We adore him, even after he suddenly disappears before Alex’s eyes. Fortunately, Alex likes Jasper as much as we do so she’s determined to find him. No matter what.

‘And this time I don’t think logic is the answer.’

I spent the entire book trying to figure out what I could possibly say about it that didn’t give away the whole time travel component, which is one of my all time favourite things to read about. I needn’t have worried; one look at the book’s blurb and I discovered that what I thought was a secret is well and truly out of the bag. I probably would have read this book sooner had I known. All I had to go by when I decided this was the book for me was the title and Thy Bui’s incredible cover illustration.

Speaking of design, something so simple yet so appropriate accompanied the chapter titles. Remember how I mentioned the literal coaches full of people who want to catch a glimpse of Alex? A coach starts appearing in the first chapter and slowly makes its way across the page, chapter by chapter. Brilliant!

Besides loving Alex and Jasper, I also wanted to get to know Uncle Henry, whose ideas on learning were all I needed to know to want to hang out with him forever. I also really liked Gerty, who Alex meets when she’s searching for her missing friend.

I adored the way time travel is explored in this book. There were a couple of time travel related head-scratchers, though. The Laws of Time all made sense to me but I had trouble believing, based on my extensive time travel experience with Marty McFly, that a Time Tourist hadn’t inadvertently rewritten history by now. Although, if Timeless is to be taken as time travel gospel, then maybe only the people personally involved in the rewrite would remember how things used to play out.

The time travel quandary that remains for me is why the bazillion Time Tourists who not so secretly spied on Alex as she was growing up didn’t immediately recognise her in the future. Sure, it’s not like she was expected to show up there unannounced and oftentimes we don’t recognise the obvious right before our very eyes when we don’t expect them to be there, but … someone should have been pointing at her and whispering to the person next to them, ‘Hey, look! Doesn’t that girl look like Alex when she was young?’

I figured out fairly early on who future Alex was going to be and why she became famous. If kid me had read this book, though, it would have been your job to pick me up off the floor once I’d made it to the reveal.

Although the time travel is absolutely wonderful and it made me want to do it even more, my take away from this book is going to be the friendship between Alex and Jasper. It made me feel all warm and squishy inside. In a good way.

‘Never underestimate the power of a best friend. A friend who loves you for who you are, who believes in the person you will become even when you don’t. Who believes you are stronger, smarter, better than you believe yourself to be. A friend who can put you in your place when you need it. More than talent, more than success, friendship is what matters most.’

Book in a book: Jasper gives Alex a copy of The Secret Garden, one of the many reasons I loved him.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

On the day Alex was born, crowds surrounded the hospital. On her first day of school, people spied from the gates. And recently, strangers came to watch her perform in her school play … as the llama.

But why? Alex has always been a nobody.

Then a mysterious boy named Jasper starts at school and he alone seems to know the answer. But before he can tell Alex, he disappears … into the future. Can Alex brave traveling into the future to discover what’s happened to him and to unravel the secret of her own astonishing destiny … before time runs out?

The Girls I’ve Been – Tess Sharpe

Spoilers Ahead! (in content warnings)

Sometimes what doesn’t kill you messes you up so bad it’s always a fight to make through what you’re left with.

What didn’t kill me didn’t make me stronger; what didn’t kill me made me a victim.

But I made me stronger. I made me a survivor.

Well, me and Lee and my very patient therapist.

I am so obsessed with this book! Going into it I knew a few things: it has a great cover, it’s about a girl who winds up in the middle of a bank robbery with her ex-boyfriend and current girlfriend, and there’s more to the girl than meet the eye.

I didn’t expect it to be such a compulsive read. From beginning to end there’s practically non-stop action and reveals. I also didn’t expect my review to basically consist of a string of quotes but there were so many things I wanted to highlight and even if I did decide to desecrate my library book, I’d have to return it at some point, and I want to be able to revisit them.

So, our main character is Nora but that’s just the name she answers to now. Her mother is a con artist who groomed her daughter to play a role in each of her cons, so there have been many girls before Nora.

She was Rebecca.

Being Rebecca teaches me how to lie. How to look into someone’s eyes while there isn’t a true word coming out of your mouth, but they believe it because enough of you believes it.

She was Samantha.

Samantha has no needs or wants. She exists to serve someone else’s.

She was Haley.

Haley is unobtrusive. No one really pays her any mind in the crowd.

She was Katie.

Katie is not quiet. She is not silent. She is not invisible. She is the first spitfire Mom lets me be, the closest thing to me I’ve been in years.

She was Ashley.

And that’s when it hits me: There aren’t any more rules.

I didn’t just break them. I broke free of them.

Nora is not the only character you’ll be thinking about long after you finish reading, though.

There’s also Lee, Nora’s badass older sister, a tough, smart, determined woman who is willing to play the long game to get what she wants. Lee is someone you definitely want on your side but, like Nora, life has left her with scars.

Broken girls, both of us, growing up into women with cracks plastered rough over where smooth should be.

Wes, Nora’s ex-boyfriend, is basically my idea of the perfect boy. He’s a wonderful friend, he’s protective of the people he loves, he’s this sort of intoxicating combination of strong, sensitive and damaged, and he forgets that he’s a terrible singer when he’s stoned.

This we share. Scars and knowledge and broken safety that was never really there in the first place, because we were born to bad apples.

Iris, Nora’s girlfriend, is absolutely everything! She’s smart, she’s intuitive and she wears clothes that I can only dream of looking that amazing in. She’s brave and she’s resilient and she can think straight and stay upright even when she’s experiencing intense chronic pain from endometriosis. She’s basically my idea of a superhero.

She is heedless and gleeful and has the self-preservation instincts of a moth drawn to dares and flames.

Lee, Wes and Iris are not cardboard cutout characters cast in a supporting role. They’re each deserving of their own books. They certainly have enough personality and backstories to fill them.

Although their story is set during a bank robbery, these four already share stories of survival, even though they don’t necessarily know all of each other’s secrets.

I felt Nora’s pain deep in my soul: wanting to be the person people tell you you’re supposed to be, holding onto your secrets and your shame because you don’t know if anyone will ever be able to love the real you, needing to protect the people you care about from you because you don’t want the parts of you that you hide to hurt them, trying to survive your past without it consuming your future.

There were lines that made me smile.

“Very original. Do you have some evil-dude bingo card stashed somewhere?”

But more often, what I wanted to highlight were truths that spoke to me, things I know in my heart but that I’m going to need to revisit so I can be reminded of them.

“Men like that don’t stop”

You don’t have to just be taught to trust, you have to grow up in a life with people who are worthy of it.

“There is no normal,” Amelia says. “There’s just a bunch of people pretending there is. There’s just different levels of pain. Different stages of safe. The biggest con of all is that there’s a normal.”

Content warnings include mention of abortion, domestic violence, emotional abuse, gun violence, physical abuse and sexual assault. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with a couple of scenes. The author has provided a more extensive list of content warnings here.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

As an ex con artist, Nora has always got herself out of tricky situations. But the ultimate test lies in wait when she’s taken hostage in a bank heist. And this time, Nora doesn’t have an escape plan …

Meet Nora. Also known as Rebecca, Samantha, Haley, Katie and Ashley – the girls she’s been. 

Nora didn’t choose a life of deception – she was born into it. As the daughter of a con artist who targeted criminal men, Nora always had to play a part. But when her mother fell for one of the men instead of conning him, Nora pulled the ultimate con herself: escape. 

For five years Nora’s been playing at normal – but things are far from it when she finds herself held at gunpoint in the middle of a bank heist, along with Wes (her ex-boyfriend) and Iris (her secret new girlfriend and mutual friend of Wes … awkward). Now it will take all of Nora’s con artistry skills to get them out alive. 

Because the gunmen have no idea who she really is – that girl has been in hiding for far too long … 

The Extraordinaries – T.J. Klune

I’m coming to you live from Nova City for Action News, filling in for Rebecca Firestone, who is currently indisposed. (Don’t ask!)

As you can see, in the sky above me, a battle is raging. Shadow Star and Pyro Storm are at it again! No one knows who’s behind the masks of these Extraordinaries or how Extraordinaries even become so extraordinary in the first place. Did some awful tragedy befall them in their childhood? Were they born with their powers?

While we wait to learn what this latest skirmish is all about (and I dare say it will be something extraordinary), I’ll be talking to local boy, Nick Bell. Nick is widely known for his Extraordinary fan fiction, where he goes by the screen name ShadowStar744. With over 250,000 words already written about this superhero/supervillain dynamic, I’m sure he has a lot to say. Welcome, Nick.

“Uh. Er. Glugh. Blargh.”

It’s lovely to talk to you as well. So, Nick, what’s so extraordinary about Extraordinaries?

“They can manipulate shadows and fire and pose on tops of buildings while the sun sets behind them!”

Do you have a favourite Nova City Extraordinary?

“One is a jerk who burns things because he’s a pyromaniac or something. The other is a paragon of virtue who saves people and controls shadows and climbs walls.”

Right. So Team Shadow Star then.

“You have to get me the security tapes! So I can watch them over and over again for my own personal reasons that don’t involve anything weird.”

Um, I’m not sure that would be appro-

“What did I ever do to you? Aside from all those things I did?”

I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, is there anything you want our viewers to know, Nick?

“I need my own origin story”

Anything else?

“Operation Turn Nick into an Extraordinary and Live Happily Ever After with Shadow Star in a Villa Off the Coast of Italy Where We Feed Each Other Grapes by Hand is underway!”

That sound intriguing, Nick, but unfortunately that’s all we have time for today. Until next time, “Always remember to keep to the shadows!” This is me, signing –

THUD!

Steve from the Action News desk [whispers]: Guys, did that chunk of building just flatten our reporter? I sure hope Rebecca Firestone is available to take over the commentary …

So, I am absolutely obsessed with this book! If it’s not already on your TBR list, please remedy that immediately! Nick’s story is a binge worthy combination of awkward, heartwarming and funny. I spent so much time smiling as I read that I probably resemble the Joker at this point.

Nick is so endearing and his ADHD, combined with his extraordinarily high adorability/cluelessness quotient, made me want to listen to every single thing that was on his mind, no matter how off topic he wandered.

Nick’s attention had a deficit, and he was hyperactively disordered.

The banter between Nick and anyone who manages to stumble into a conversation with him was one of my favourite things about this book. There wasn’t a dud character in the bunch. I need to find a way to infiltrate Nick’s group of friends because I need people like them in my life; their support of one another is matched by their ability to lovingly detonate truth bombs when required. The best way to introduce them has already been taken by the author:

Seth was too smart. Nick was too loud. Gibby was too butch, and Jazz had once been like everyone else before Gibby had put her lesbian magic all over her and taken her to the dark side.

Alongside the superpowers, the queerness and the almost incomprehensible relatability of every character, you also get the bonus messages, which include but are not limited to:

  • Having a disorder doesn’t make you disordered
  • Your embarrassing moments don’t have to define you
  • Trauma changes you
  • Forgetting to human happens to the best of us, and
  • Old people are inherently weird. (Hold on! By this book’s standards I’m an old person. I won’t claim that but I will happily claim the weird.)

I personally learned that I can overcome my romantiphobia when the occasion calls for it, like when my heart needs to melt over watermelon flavoured Skwinkles Salsagheti, being able to fly is the first superpower I will achieve, and I may need to take steps to become a supervillain if I don’t get to find out what happens next really, really soon.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for the opportunity to fall head over heels in love with this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In Nova City, there are people capable of feats that defy the imagination. They’re called Extraordinaries.

There is Shadow Star: a protector who can manipulate darkness in his quest to protect those who cannot protect themselves. 

His arch-nemesis is Pyro Storm: an Extraordinary capable of controlling fire who is bent on bringing Nova City to its knees.

And then there’s sixteen-year-old Nicholas Bell: who isn’t Extraordinary in the slightest.

He’s Shadow Star’s number one fan, writing fan fiction of their adventures together and dreaming of a day where he too dons a costume and fights crime. Too bad ADHD isn’t a superpower, otherwise Nick would be golden.

Instead of stopping villains and their convoluted schemes of global domination, Nick must contend with starting his junior year, a father who doesn’t trust him, and a best friend named Seth, who may or may not be the love of Nick’s short, uneventful life. It should be enough.

And it is … until a fateful encounter with Shadow Star forces Nick to realise his true destiny. He’s tired of being ordinary, and he’ll do whatever it takes to become something more.

Something Extraordinary.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn – Melissa Bashardoust

There was and there was not

… a girl who was cursed. Soraya lives her life in the shadows, knowing she is poison to everyone around her, including her mother, Tahmineh, and her twin brother, Sorush, the shah of Atashar.

She had read enough stories to know that the princess and the monster were never the same. She had been alone long enough to know which one she was.

Hidden from the world, Soraya spends most of her time in her golestan (a walled rose garden) or navigating the passages hidden within the palace walls. She longs to belong but can only catch distant glimpses of the life that could have been hers. She would do anything to break her curse.

Soraya wasn’t as easy for me to love as Mina and Lynet from Girls Made of Snow and Glass. This seemed fitting to me as it can sometimes feel like we’re approaching a caged animal when someone is hurting like Soraya is. We tend to push people away when we see ourselves as unloveable, making it difficult to accept (or even recognise) when someone is trying to reach out to us.

When we feel like we exude poison into the world we either burrow deep inside of ourselves or lash out at others, opposites with the same intent. Hurt them before they hurt you. Don’t allow yourself to get too close to them because they’ll leave you in the end anyway. Don’t get your hopes up for someone to love you for who you truly are because, frankly, who in their right mind would?!

Anger and shame fought for control within her, and so she forced her body into the position of shame, because it was safer.

As I spent more time with Soraya I began to love her because of, not despite, her pain. The pain of not belonging is amplified when it’s your own family that declares you an outcast, through their actions if not their words. I yearned for Soraya to find acceptance.

I grew to love Parvaneh, a parik, almost as much as I adore her name, which is Persian for “moth or butterfly”. I wish I could have gotten to know the other pariks better and wanted the opportunity to learn more about their history and culture. I also wanted to find out more about the other divs, the drujes and the kastars; I don’t know nearly enough about them.

I loved the way Persian mythology was woven into the story, and I particularly appreciated the Author’s Note at the end of the book where the ways various elements in this story line up with and also diverge from their origins were explained.

I’ve seen parts of myself in all of Melissa’s girls so far and I quickly become immersed in the worlds she creates. I can’t wait to see what world she’ll invite me to explore next.

“It’s time for you to become who you were meant to be.”

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A captivating and original fairy tale about a girl cursed to be poisonous to the touch, and who discovers what power might lie in such a curse.

There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story. 

As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison. 

Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming … human or demon. Princess or monster.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass – Melissa Bashardoust

“This is what you were meant for.”

This book surprised me in the best way possible. I’m not usually interested in reading retellings [I know. Unpopular opinion. Boo! Hiss!]. I’m always searching for something new and have always thought that if a story has already been written, especially if it’s known around the world, then there’s not much point in telling it again. I may need to rethink this prejudice after loving this character driven book so much.

I may be getting into semantics here but I see this story as more of a reimagining than a retelling. Sure, you have some elements from Snow White. There’s the stepmother, stepdaughter, doting father, huntsman, even a mirror. Not an apple, but there is a peach, even if it’s not there for the reason you’re expecting. Then there’s the so much more, and that’s what captivated me.

If they love you for anything, it will be for your beauty.

Whenever a story is told from various perspectives I usually have a favourite, someone I wish had more page time, or even all of the page time. Not the case here. I fiercely loved both Mina and Lynet. Mina, the stepmother, has a glass heart and thinks she’s broken. Told from an early age that she’s incapable of giving or receiving love, she seeks a substitute through power. Lynet, the stepdaughter, is a warm and loving girl who is made of snow, but she seeks freedom and an identity separate from the mother she never knew.

The supporting cast are just as interesting. King Nicholas’ grief is all-encompassing; the result is a distorted facsimile of love that I found exceedingly creepy. Meanwhile Gregory, Mina’s father, is a psychopath who I was eager to see dispatched of in increasingly painful, drawn out deaths. Outside of the two main characters my favourite was Felix, quite possibly the most human of them all. I wanted more time getting to know Nadia, a surgeon whose own backstory warranted more exploration.

One day they would both start to see each other differently, and Mina couldn’t imagine how they could become anything but enemies on that day.

I loved the complexity of the relationship between Mina and Lynet. The bond between mothers and daughters is complicated here by the story’s fathers. Circumstances could have easily cast either of these women in the role of villain, their lives dictated by the past and those who would gain from their mutual hatred.

I always have such an appreciation for stories that cause me to reflect on my own life, in particular my choices and my character. Having the courage to step out of the shadows of the past to write our own future is something I can empathise with. I also thought a lot about how we can simultaneously want to push people away and have them love us when we feel unlovable.

If she shone brightly enough on the outside, could she blind everyone to what lay underneath?

Also, there’s magic in this book and it is wonderful!

Content warnings (from the author’s website):

  • “Parental abuse – mostly verbal/emotional abuse and some physical intimidation, but including instances of physical abuse.
  • Mentions of suicide, suicidal ideation, and self-harm.
  • Violence/assault (but no sexual violence/assault).
  • Death and grief.”

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for the opportunity to love this book. I can’t wait to read Girl, Serpent, Thorn!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Sixteen-year-old Mina is motherless, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone. In fact, it has never beat at all, for her father cut it out and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle, Mina forms a plan: win the king’s heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that she’ll have to become a stepmother.

Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queen’s image. Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina, but when her father makes her queen of the southern territories, Mina starts to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do – and who to be – in order to win back the only mother she’s ever known … or else defeat her once and for all.

Elevation – Stephen King

Illustrations – Mark Edward Geyer

The awesomeness? Scott is living every metabolism challenged person’s dream; he’s consistently losing a steady amount of weight while eating whatever the heck he wants to. He can eat breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner/supper and round it all off with a double helping of dessert, and the scales still smile on him. What a dream!

The downside? No matter how much weight the scales say he’s lost Scott still looks exactly the same, protruding belly and all. All of that weight loss and you don’t even get to see the difference? No fair!

The downright weird?

‘No one weighs the same naked as they do dressed. It’s as much a given as gravity.’

This is a Stephen King novella; nothing is a given.

Set in Castle Rock, Elevation was a compulsive read for me. I loved the people I met. I loved the friendships. I loved that the homophobia expressed by some of the townsfolk was challenged. I loved the reminder that one person can make a difference in other peoples’ lives and their community as a whole, even in the current political climate and even a town where a fairly considerable amount of bigots reside.

‘Sometimes I think this is the world’s greatest weight-loss program.’

‘Yes,’ Ellis said, ‘but where does it end?’

I’ll tell you where it ends. In tears! I enjoyed Gwendy’s Button Box but I loved Elevation. I didn’t expect to feel so much for characters that I only knew for just over 130 pages but I smiled, I laughed and I wanted to have dinner with these people. Then I smiled some more while I ugly cried for the final 10% of the book. I’d tell you how many tissues I used but I didn’t; I was too busy reading through the waterfalls cascading down my face to reach over to grab a Kleenex.

There’s something about Stephen King in my mind that makes him exempt from the eye rolling and accompanying groan when I find references to an author’s other books in the one I’m reading. With anyone else I’d be rambling to myself about ‘blatant self promotion’ but in the King-dom I find the Easter eggs charming and amusing, and I think I’m so smart each time I find one. My knowing smiles in this book included a reference to the Suicide Stairs and a garage band that temporarily rename themselves ‘Pennywise and the Clowns’.

I’m one of those irritating there/they’re/their fanatics and another one of my reading quirks is picking up on inconsistencies between what the author has written and what the illustrator has drawn. It’s not a deliberate thing; it just seems to happen and once I see it I can’t unsee it. In chapter 3 of Elevation we’re told that two characters put their numbers for the Turkey Trot race on the front of their shirts. In chapter 4’s illustration both characters are shown from behind; their numbers are on their backs.

Does this matter in the scheme of things at all? Not one iota. Why do I mention it? Because my brain’s stupid and won’t shut up about it. That said, I really did love Mark Edward Geyer’s illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. They were gorgeous; naturally my favourite was the creepy Halloween pumpkin.

I need an entire series of novellas set in Castle Rock. I need to meet more of these weird and wonderful people.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Although Scott Carey doesn’t look any different, he’s been steadily losing weight. There are a couple of other odd things, too. He weighs the same in his clothes and out of them, no matter how heavy they are. Scott doesn’t want to be poked and prodded. He mostly just wants someone else to know, and he trusts Doctor Bob Ellis.

In the small town of Castle Rock, the setting of many of King’s most iconic stories, Scott is engaged in a low grade – but escalating – battle with the lesbians next door whose dog regularly drops his business on Scott’s lawn. One of the women is friendly; the other, cold as ice. Both are trying to launch a new restaurant, but the people of Castle Rock want no part of a gay married couple, and the place is in trouble. When Scott finally understands the prejudices they face – including his own – he tries to help. Unlikely alliances, the annual foot race, and the mystery of Scott’s affliction bring out the best in people who have indulged the worst in themselves and others.