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.

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.

The Outsider – Stephen King

… there were monsters in the world, and their greatest advantage was the unwillingness of rational people to believe.

Whenever I start a Stephen King novel I tend to flip through the first couple of pages searching for a list of characters. If I find one I panic a little, wondering how I’ll ever figure out who’s who in the King Zoo if he had to write a list of its inhabitants. If there’s no list I panic a little, wondering how I’ll remember who lives in the Zoo without a guide. There’s no list of characters at the beginning of The Outsider and it’s a testament to Mr King’s ongoing awesomeness that even though I totally sucked at reading this book (it took me over five weeks to finish it!) I was able to pick it up and get drawn back into his world immediately each time. And I knew who everyone was!

People are blind to explanations that lie outside their perception of reality.

You don’t need me to tell you the synopsis for this book. There are so many wonderful reviews already written by people who seem to have read every King book in existence. What I can tell you about is my very drawn out reading experience. When I started this book I had no idea that I would be meeting anyone from Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers and End of Watch or that at some point between starting to read and passing the point of no return parentheses would appear after the book’s name on Goodreads to inform me I was reading the fourth book of the Finders Keepers series. I own some of the responsibility for this ignorance as I have been a disgrace to the Kingdom by not having already read the first three books. Boo! Hiss! I suck! I know!

Strange, the things you noticed when your day – your life – suddenly went over a cliff you hadn’t even known was there.

Had I realised though I still would have read this book but after I’d read the first three. If you’re not planning on ever reading the first three books (no judgement here but I am quietly wondering what is wrong with you 😜) you can get away with reading this book as a standalone. If you venture into The Outsider without having already read the others then I need to warn you that you will prematurely learn how previous cases wrapped up, who died and most likely other bits and pieces that I don’t even know are spoilers yet.

‘How weird can this get?’ ‘Weirder,’ she said. Another thing of which she had no doubt.

Despite my own already stated failures in reading this book I would recommend it, but with a content warning for fairly graphic descriptions of the sexual assault and murder of a child. I had trouble stomaching a particular component of the description but once I made it through that section I had no further problems. Like many others before me I really enjoyed hanging out with Ralph and Holly. I also had quite a soft spot for Ralph’s wife, Jeannie, and would enjoy catching up with her over a coffee.

The more you find, the wronger it gets.

I’ve previously avoided the other books in the Finders Keepers series as my favourite King books have involved such fun as telekinesis, diners that belong in Back to the Future, super fans who understandably need their next read yesterday and the infamous dome surrounding Springfield. I usually get my crime fix through authors like Tess Gerritsen and haven’t wanted to really go there with Mr King before. Having read The Outsider now I do plan on reading Mr. Mercedes, etc, and will most likely reread this one once I’ve finished the first three, but I think I want to remedy some of my glaring omissions in early King lore first.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

When an eleven-year-old boy is found murdered in a town park, reliable eyewitnesses undeniably point to the town’s popular Little League coach, Terry Maitland, as the culprit. DNA evidence and fingerprints confirm the crime was committed by this well-loved family man.

Horrified by the brutal killing, Detective Ralph Anderson, whose own son was once coached by Maitland, orders the suspect to be arrested in a public spectacle. But Maitland has an alibi. And further research confirms he was indeed out of town that day.

As Anderson and the District Attorney trace the clues, the investigation expands from Ohio to Texas. And as horrifying answers begin to emerge, so King’s propulsive story of almost unbearable suspense kicks into high gear.

Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy but there is one rock-hard fact, as unassailable as gravity: a man cannot be in two places at the same time. Can he?