The Forevers – Chris Whitaker

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

She was seventeen years old.

She would die in one month.

Mae has grown up knowing that she and her sister, Stella, won’t live long enough to become adults. Asteroid 8050XF11, A.K.A. Selena, is on a collision course with Earth.

So, what do you do when an Extinction Level Event is imminent? Some people put their faith in God and wait for a miracle. Others place their hope in science. If disaster movies have taught us anything, it’s that scientists will consistently fail until just before the credits roll. Then they’ll come up with a solution that’ll save the world. Surely they can do this in real life, too. 

There are the leavers, people “who said their goodbyes or those that simply tired of the wait and disappeared in search of more.” Then there are those who are living like there’s no tomorrow. They figure if you’re not going to live long enough for the consequences to catch up with you, then you might as well do whatever you want.

The countdown is on. There’s one month to go until God performs a miracle, science comes through with the biggest win in the history of the world or everyone dies.

Mae and many others in West spend much of their final month attending school and working. I doubt I would be doing either if I knew the end was nigh. Mae’s also trying to learn the truth behind the recent death of Abi, her former best friend.

Impending doom doesn’t negate the usual high school drama, with popular kids, bullies and outcasts all featured. Some of these kids have significant difficulties in their lives, though, even if you ignore the whole 70 mile wide asteroid that’s going to obliterate them in the very near future thing.

I liked Mae but adored Stella, her eight year old sister, who stole every scene she was in. With such heavy content, I was especially grateful for the comic relief that came in the form of Felix. He was all about sleeping when he’s dead and becoming visible to the love of his life, despite the fact that she already has a boyfriend.

A lot of characters were introduced but I didn’t form a connection with a number of them, due to their personality or because I didn’t get to know them well enough. There’s practically an entire alphabet of content warnings at the end of my review, with so many important issues touched on. However, individual circumstances didn’t always have enough page time for them to be explored in the depth I would have liked. 

For example, for most of the book Sally is pretty much only ever referred to in terms of her weight. She’s the fat girl. She‘s almost always consuming copious amounts of food whenever we see her. She’s fat shamed. A lot. When I finally learned something else about her, I wanted an entire book dedicated to her. There’s so much complexity and emotion there, and it felt like I only just scraped the surface of who she was.

The mystery of what happened to Abi faded into the background at times as the struggles of other characters were explored. There was a resolution, though, and many characters were given the opportunity to do what they needed to in order to finish their stories on their own terms.

Sometimes it took me a while to figure out which character was in a scene with Mae, especially when they’d only be referred to as ‘he’ for several paragraphs before they were named. Some scene changes felt jarring and for a while around the middle of the book I wasn’t even sure if I was enjoying it. 

But this was a compulsive read and Mae and Stella’s relationship kept me invested. An ugly cry snuck up on me at the end and I’m still thinking about several characters. I’m definitely interested in reading more books by this author and I absolutely adored Muhammad Nafay’s cover illustration. 

We made Forever for the creeps and the weirdos, the freaks and the outlaws.

Content warnings include abortion, addiction, alcoholism, bullying, death by suicide, domestic abuse, fat shaming, homophobia, mental health, overdose, physical abuse, self harm, sexual assault, slut shaming and suicidal ideation.

Thank you so much to Allen & Unwin for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Thirty days until the end of the world. What would you do?

They knew the end was coming. They saw it ten years back, when it was far enough away in space and time and meaning.
The changes were gradual, and then sudden.

For Mae and her friends, it means navigating a life where action and consequence are no longer related. Where the popular are both trophies and targets. And where petty grudges turn deadlier with each passing day. So, did Abi Manton jump off the cliff or was she pushed? Her death is just the beginning of the end.

With teachers losing control of their students and themselves, and the end rushing toward all of them, it leaves everyone facing the answer to one, simple question…

What would you do if you could get away with anything?

MonsterMind – Alfonso Casas

Translator – Andrea Rosenberg

“This isn’t the triumphant tale of a hero who defeated his monsters … it’s just the story of somebody who’s learning to live with them.”

Most readers will already be well acquainted with at least some of the monsters in this book. Featured monsters include doubt, fear, social anxiety, past trauma and sadness.

The author uses personal examples to introduce readers to his monsters and explore how they interact with him day and night, from doubts that keep him awake to anxiety about the future.

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I could readily identify some of the monsters, like the cute little sowers of doubt, but others weren’t as easy to name. It would have helped me if the monster mugshots had introduced the story instead of being hidden at the end.

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While I had originally hoped the illustrations would be in colour, it felt more and more appropriate for them to be in grayscale. While there is some hope towards the end of the story, I felt like I was walking through molasses sometimes.

I haven’t found the humour yet. Despite that, I really liked the illustrations and found many of the stories very relatable.

Thank you so much to NetGalley, Ablaze and Diamond Book Distributors for the opportunity to read this graphic novel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Alfonso Casas’s MonsterMind is a very personal account of the inner monsters that live inside his head. But, who doesn’t have a monster inside them? Who has never heard that voice inside their head undermining everything they do? You’re not good enough… You just got really lucky… There are people far better and more qualified than you… In a very honest exercise, Alfonso Casas identifies and introduces his own monsters to his readers: Mr. Past Traumas, Mr. Fear, Mr. Social Anxiety, Mr. Impostor Syndrome, Mr. Sadness, Mr. Doubt… The pessimistic, the insecure, the self-demanding, the monster that keeps you from sleeping while you think of what you could have said back in that conversation two years ago, or that keeps you looking over the punctuation of every text message to figure out the tone lurking beneath the surface. All those monsters make up the bestiary of contemporary society. But the anxiety generation is expert in more things: in looking inside themselves and their lives, and – why not? – in laughing at their own neuroses as best they can. In the end, if the monsters won’t leave us, we might as well get to know them and laugh at them! Anxiety is another pandemic, but the monsters dwelling inside us are funny, too (especially as drawn by Alfonso Casas).

When Things Get Dark – Ellen Datlow (editor)

This anthology features short stories from some of my favourite writers, including Seanan McGuire. It also introduced me to some writers whose work I hadn’t read before. All are paying tribute to Shirley Jackson.

Like any collection of short stories, there were some I absolutely loved. My favourites in this anthology were those by M. Rickert, Elizabeth Hand, Seanan McGuire, Joyce Carol Oates, Josh Malerman and Kelly Link.

Although the other stories were well written, I often failed to connect with either the main character or the plot. Some I enjoyed, until I realised I’d run out of story before the thing I felt was missing showed up. I don’t expect to love every story in an anthology, though.

Usually when I review anthologies, I’ll include a short quote and a sentence to describe each story: what it’s about, its theme, or what I loved or didn’t love about it. I started doing that here but then abandoned the idea. There were some stories that I couldn’t explain in a sentence without spoiling them for you.

There were others that I couldn’t explain because, quite honestly, I need someone to explain them to me. Perhaps a reread will help me find the missing puzzle pieces. Maybe what I perceived as deliberate ambiguity was actually the literary equivalent of a joke’s punchline going over my head. I may read the review of someone smarter than myself and when they explain it, the lightbulb will finally turn on above my head.

So, instead of giving you an explanation and a quote, I’m only providing a quote here.

Funeral Birds by M. Rickert

The truth was she rarely went to the funerals. Delores was special.

For Sale By Owner by Elizabeth Hand

“That’s trespassing.”

“Only if we get caught,” I replied.

In the Deep Woods; The Light is Different There by Seanan McGuire

She moved here for a haunting, and even if the house refuses to be haunted, she fully intends to be.

A Hundred Miles and a Mile by Carmen Maria Machado

It’s strange, the knowing-not-knowing. It twitches like something that won’t die.

Quiet Dead Things by Cassandra Khaw

“We’re going to die for what happened.”

Something Like Living Creatures by John Langan

“You saw something!” Samantha said.

“Did you?” Kayla said.

“Yes,” Jenna said.

Money of the Dead by Karen Heuler

On one side, life; on the other, death. It was almost, sometimes, as if they could see across the divide, or hear a furtive, melancholy whistle.

Hag by Benjamin Percy

“Without you, the island starves.”

Take Me, I Am Free by Joyce Carol Oates

“Just sit here. Don’t squirm. I’ll be watching from the front window.”

A Trip to Paris by Richard Kadrey

Why won’t you stay dead?

The Party by Paul Tremblay

“I do get into the spirit of my themes. Perhaps too much.”

Refinery Road by Stephen Graham Jones

It was just the three of them, same as it had always been. Same as it would always be.

The Door in the Fence by Jeffrey Ford

“Some people, when they get old, all they can think about is dying. Some, on the other hand, find freedom.”

Pear of Anguish by Gemma Files

The past is a trap and memory is a drug.

Memory is a door.

Special Meal by Josh Malerman

“Do you really not know what today is?” Dad asked. “It’s okay if you don’t.”

Sooner or Later, Your Wife Will Drive Home by Genevieve Valentine

Never be stuck on the road alone, that was the rule.

Tiptoe by Laird Barron

Trouble is, old, weathered pictures are ambiguous. You can’t always tell what’s hiding behind the patina. Nothing, or the worst thing imaginable.

Skinder’s Veil by Kelly Link

Skinder may show up. If he does, DO NOT LET HIM IN.

While I didn’t find any of the stories scary, there were some that were accompanied by a growing sense of dread. Others were unsettling. Then there were those that left behind confusion in their wake. But that’s the beauty of anthologies; there’s usually something for everyone. The times where a question mark appeared over my head? Those stories are probably someone else’s favourites.

Content warnings include child abuse, death by suicide, domestic abuse, mental health and self harm.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Titan Books for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A collection of new and exclusive short stories inspired by, and in tribute to, Shirley Jackson.

Shirley Jackson is a seminal writer of horror and mystery fiction, whose legacy resonates globally today. Chilling, human, poignant and strange, her stories have inspired a generation of writers and readers.

This anthology, edited by legendary horror editor Ellen Datlow, will bring together today’s leading horror writers to offer their own personal tribute to the work of Shirley Jackson.

Featuring Joyce Carol Oates, Josh Malerman, Paul Tremblay, Richard Kadrey, Stephen Graham Jones, Elizabeth Hand, Cassandra Khaw, Karen Heuler, Benjamin Percy, John Langan, Laird Barron, M. Rickert, Seanan McGuire, and Genevieve Valentine. 

The Project – Courtney Summers

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

Huh. Before I read a word of this book I already knew what the opening line of my review was going to be: Another Courtney Summers book, another ugly cry.

But there were no tears and I’m all kinds of confused. So, heads up: this review is basically my messy way of trying to process my response, or lack thereof.

Part of it has to be a result of my astronomically high anticipation. I tried and failed so many times to get my hands on this book from the moment I fell in love with its cover.

I requested copies through NetGalley and Edelweiss. I emailed the publisher begging for an ARC. I joined Instagram for 24 hours to enter a competition to win a copy. I tried to preorder a signed copy but it couldn’t be shipped to my country. Each time the ebook was listed on sale I’d immediately click the link, only to find out that it wasn’t on sale in my country; I couldn’t afford to pay full price because, you know, life and all that.

Finally I got my hands on a library copy. I loved the emotional gut punch of Sadie and was sure I was in for the same here. I even timed my read so I was at peak ugly cry vulnerability.

I was so hopeful because I was already gearing up for a cry in the prologue.

Having a sister is a promise no one but the two of you can make – and no one but the two of you can break.

I was ready for the sisterly bond. I was ready for the charismatic, yet nefarious cult leader. I was ready for the anguish that crossed over from emotional to physical pain. But my eyes are the Sahara and I’m baffled.

“There’s so much you don’t understand”

I felt so removed from the characters and I didn’t expect that.

Gloria. Latin. Glory.

Sure, Lo was desperate to free her sister from the grip of the cult but when she heard that her sister was no longer a member, she didn’t file a missing person report. No, she kept interviewing the cult leader and his minions so she could show her boss that she’s a writer, dammit, and should be promoted yesterday. Her priorities were all over the place.

Beatrice. Italian; Latin. Bringer of Joy.

Then there was Bea, who I’m sure I would have connected with if her story wasn’t told in a series of flashbacks.

Lev. Hebrew; Russian. Heart; Lion.

Lev was always going to give me skeevy vibes because of the whole cult leader thing. He could have promised me the world and I would have side eyed him. I fully acknowledge my bias there, even though at first glance, The Unity Project’s mission does sound kind of amazing.

What The Unity Project offers people, in its simplest terms, is food if you’re hungry, water if you’re thirsty, clothes and shelter if you need it, and family if you lack it. All it asks in return is being part of, and upholding the tenets of, a revolution that pays it forward.

But that’s how they suck you in, isn’t it? If people thought they were signing up for a cult, membership would dry up. Like my eyes. I can understand the initial appeal, though.

You want to belong. You’re hurting. You don’t believe anyone who knows you could ever love you. But someone convinces you that they see you, all of you, and love you anyway. You have a purpose. You are wanted. Enticing, right?

“Do you know what that’s like, Lo? To be really, truly seen?”

You don’t get to see behind the curtain until you’re already well and truly invested. Cult leaders like Lev make it sound so appealing and the message is close enough to the real thing that if you’re listening with your emotions, you might not realise you’re worshipping a man, not God. Or maybe you do notice but you don’t care because what this man is offering seems worth the adulation and the cost.

Bea and Lo had so much potential. The story, when I explained it to someone who hasn’t read the book, sounded so good. Courtney Summers definitely knows how to write a book that you don’t want to put down.

I wanted to care so much about these sisters that I hurt for them. I wanted to ugly cry myself into a equally ugly mess. But I didn’t like Lo, I didn’t really get to know Bea and for the longest time I didn’t feel the urgency of their story.

Because this is a Courtney Summers book, I’m going to assume part of the problem is me and will eagerly await her next release.

Book in a book: Lo and Emmy read Creepy Pair of Underwear! together. That kid’s got good taste in books.

Content warnings include (and I’m sure I’ve forgotten some) branding, death by suicide, emotional abuse, mental health, overdose, physical abuse, self harm and sexual assault (implied).

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Lo Denham is used to being on her own. After her parents died in a tragic car accident, her sister Bea joined the elusive community called The Unity Project, leaving Lo to fend for herself. Desperate not to lose the only family she has left, Lo has spent the last six years trying to reconnect with Bea, only to be met with radio silence.

When Lo’s given the perfect opportunity to gain access to Bea’s reclusive life, she thinks they’re finally going to be reunited. But it’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t want to be found, and as Lo delves deeper into The Project and its charismatic leader, she begins to realize that there’s more at risk than just her relationship with Bea: her very life might be in danger.

As she uncovers more questions than answers at each turn, everything Lo thought she knew about herself, her sister, and the world is upended. One thing doesn’t change, though, and that’s what keeps her going: Bea needs her, and Lo will do anything to save her.

A Dark History of Chocolate – Emma Kay

You know chocolate accompanied me on my journey through this book, don’t you? You might think that makes this book an outlier. You’d be so wrong. Professional chocoholic here! So much so that if you’re missing some chocolate, it’s fair to assume I‘m responsible.

What this book did give me was a new excuse for my binge reading, chocolate binge combo: immersive reading. You can’t read a book about chocolate without eating some. That would be like watching Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory while eating cabbage soup.

I enjoyed learning about chocolate’s dark history, with the obvious exception of the information concerning slavery. In this book, you’ll learn about chocolate’s role in history, from crime to the arts.

Pirates raided ships with cacao on board. Jeffrey Dahmer worked in a chocolate factory. Chocolate is a final meal choice for many death row inmates.

Poisoned chocolate remains one of the most common methods of murder throughout history.

Chocolate was on the menu both the day the Hindenburg crashed and the Titanic sunk.

Chocolate is practically everywhere, it seems. It’s even accompanied astronauts into space.

There was the seemingly ingenious marketing idea of having chocolate rain down from planes, which may have worked better if the ‘bombs’ didn’t result in people below being badly bruised.

Chocolate laced with methamphetamine was marketed to “German homemakers, along with the strap line ‘Hildebrand chocolates are always a delight’. Two to three chocolates a day were recommended to make housework more fun!”

I was sometimes amused and often flabbergasted by the conditions chocolate has been used to ‘treat’ over the years, from headaches, fevers and infections to asthma, heart conditions and burns. It’s also been used as a slimming aid and to “Cleanseth the Teeth”.

Chocolate has even been ‘prescribed’ as a love potion. Handy hint: don’t eat love potion chocolate. You don’t want to know the other ingredients it may contain.

Scattered throughout the book are a bunch of recipes, from Chocolate Creams to the more dubious Chocolate Coated Candied Garlic.

Content warnings include mention of abortion, addiction, alcoholism, attempted suicide, death by suicide, domestic abuse, human trafficking, immolation, mental health, sexual assault, slavery and torture. People with emetophobia may have trouble with a passage in the third chapter.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Pen & Sword History, an imprint of Pen & Sword Books, for granting my wish to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A Dark History of Chocolate looks at our long relationship with this ancient ‘food of the Gods’. The book examines the impact of the cocoa bean trade on the economies of Britain and the rest of Europe, as well as its influence on health, cultural and social trends over the centuries. Renowned food historian Emma Kay takes a look behind the façade of chocolate – first as a hot drink and then as a sweet – delving into the murky and mysterious aspects of its phenomenal global growth, from a much-prized hot beverage in pre-Colombian Central America to becoming an integral part of the cultural fabric of modern life.

From the seductive corridors of Versailles, serial killers, witchcraft, medicine and war to its manufacturers, the street sellers, criminal gangs, explorers and the arts, chocolate has played a significant role in some of the world’s deadliest and gruesome histories.

If you thought chocolate was all Easter bunnies, romance and gratuity, then you only know half the story. This most ancient of foods has a heritage rooted in exploitation, temptation and mystery.

With the power to be both life-giving and ruinous.

The Good Luck Girls – Charlotte Nicole Davis

Aster, Clementine, Mallow, Tansy and Violet are Good Luck Girls, something that sounds fortuitous until you know what that term truly means. With the exception of Violet, they were taken from their families to Green Creek welcome house with the promise of a better life.

Favors, the welcome house version of branding, are such a contradiction: aesthetically beautiful, yet representative of such pain and suffering.

Good Luck Girls begin working as daybreak girls. On their sixteenth birthday, daybreak girls become sundown girls, through a rite of passage called their Lucky Night.

When Clementine accidentally kills a brag on her Lucky Night, her sister, Aster, is determined to protect her. Now five Good Luck Girls are on the run, pursued by both the living and the dead. Their only hope is to find the Lady Ghost, but as far as anyone knows she’s only a bedtime story.

This book could have broken me, given the darkness of what the girls have experienced, if it wasn’t for the girls themselves. Initially I thought Clementine was going to be the star of this show but Aster and Violet were the two I bonded with the most.

Slightly older than the others, Aster and Violet have experienced trauma the other girls haven’t. I loved them for their strength and courage, despite the odds stacked against them. Given what they’d been through, it would be easy for the darkness to overwhelm them but they refuse to give up, holding onto whatever scraps of hope they can carry.

Although it’s not specifically named here, the girls clearly exhibit signs of PTSD. What I loved, if you can say you love anything where PTSD is concerned, were the nuances. The trauma was expressed differently amongst the girls, with each utilising their individual strengths to survive, both physically and emotionally. There was an authenticity to their portrayal, from the dissociation and flashbacks to the difficulties trusting others and themselves.

The character that caused me the most conflict was Zee. I so wanted to trust him but, like Aster, I wasn’t sure if it was safe to do so. I ended up spending most of the book silently pleading with him to be worthy of the girls’ trust.

It felt as though Aster and Lei from Girls of Paper and Fire were kindred spirits. The raveners reminded me of Dementors, but as a physical embodiment of PTSD. The names of the girls brought to mind Lex and the other girls I met in What Unbreakable Looks Like. This book stands on its own two feet, though.

I was immersed in this world. The threat of the raveners and vengeants were ever-present. The divide between fairbloods and dustbloods was clear. The danger was unrelenting. But hope shone through as brightly as a covered favor.

This is a real underdog story, where you have the opportunity to cheer on a group of girls who have been so downtrodden that you can’t help but become invested in their journey. You want them to win. You need them to win. Because any other outcome would hurt too much.

Content warnings include addiction, death by suicide, human trafficking, mental health, racism, sexual assault, slavery, suicidal ideation and torture.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Hot Key Books, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK, for the opportunity to read this book. I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Aster. Violet. Tansy. Mallow. Clementine.

Sold as children. Branded by cursed markings. Trapped in a life they never would have chosen.

When Aster’s sister Clementine accidentally murders a man, the girls risk a dangerous escape and harrowing journey to find freedom, justice, and revenge – in a country that wants them to have none of those things. Pursued by the land’s most vicious and powerful forces – both living and dead – their only hope lies in a bedtime story passed from one girl to another, a story that only the youngest or most desperate would ever believe.

It’s going to take more than luck for them all to survive. 

Anxious People – Fredrik Backman

Translator – Neil Smith

‘All interesting people have done something really stupid at least once!’

This is one of those books that gives you hope for humanity. And may make you ugly cry as you comfort eat your way through your leftover chocolate ice cream. Wait, was that too specific?

This is, without doubt, my favourite read of the month. Apologies in advance to all of the other books yet to come.

It was already on my special book radar before I began reading. It was recommended to someone I know by a local bookstore staff member. They loved it and told me enough about it, including the ugly cry, to pique my interest. I then waited, not so patiently, for my library reservation to magically transform into the book that’s barely left my hands since I started it.

The whole thing is a complicated, unlikely story. Perhaps that’s because what we think stories are about often isn’t what they’re about at all. This, for instance, might not actually be the story of a bank robbery, or an apartment viewing or a hostage drama. Perhaps it isn’t even a story about idiots.

Perhaps this is a story about a bridge.

This is a book where what seems to be and what is can be vastly different things, where a bunch of strangers who wouldn’t normally interact discover they have commonalities and where “sometimes Christmas lights are just Christmas lights.”

I loved all of the idiots in this book, even Zara. I may have liked her the most. There’s something about being privileged enough to be able to catch a glimpse at what lies beneath the surface of people who present themselves to the world with their armour firmly affixed, their edges carefully sharpened so only the exceptionally brave or exceedingly stupid will attempt to approach them. I also had a huge soft spot for Estelle.

And then there’s the rabbit. It took me a long time to find this book and I may not have found it yet if not for the person who told me about it, not realising that I’m a bit of a book stalker. You tell me about a book and I’m almost always going to need to read it. I could say it’s because it interests me and most of the time that’s part of it. It is a book, after all. But it’s also because I want to get to know you better and learning what books you love gives me an insight into who you are at your core.

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It would have taken me no time at all to find this book if I had seen this cover before now. How anyone could see this design and then think that this book should be packaged in any other way is beyond me. It’s perfection!

I don’t think I have even been so emotional over a bank robbery and hostage situation. I knew very little about this book going into it and am certain that‘s the best way to approach it.

I want to quote most of the book to you but am going to restrain myself and instead leave you with my three favourites:

The truth, of course, is that if people really were as happy as they look on the Internet, they wouldn’t spend so much damn time on the Internet, because no one who’s having a really good day spends half of it taking pictures of themselves.

They say that a person’s personality is the sum of their experiences. But that isn’t true, at least not entirely, because if our past was all that defined us, we’d never be able to put up with ourselves. We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we’re more than the mistakes we made yesterday. That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows.

‘Worst hostages ever.’

Content warnings include addiction, death by suicide, domestic abuse, mental health and suicidal ideation.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In a small town in Sweden it appears to be an ordinary day. But look more closely, and you’ll see a masked figure approaching a bank…

Two hours later, chaos has descended. An attempted robbery has developed into a hostage situation – with the offender refusing to voice their demands.

Fear turns to irritation for the seven strangers trapped inside. If this is to be their last day on earth, shouldn’t it be more dramatic? 

But as the minutes tick by, they begin to suspect that the criminal holding them hostage might be more in need of rescuing than they are… 

Everything Harder Than Everyone Else – Jenny Valentish

“There’s still a part of me that wants to be validated through doing things that other people don’t.”

Charlie Engle, an ultrarunner

In this book, Jenny Valentish introduces you to people who push themselves beyond what most people are capable of or even want to do. She interviewed endurance athletes, performance artists, a rogue scientist, bodybuilders, those who participate in BDSM, martial artists, porn stars, wrestlers and fighters.

Sometimes fascinating, sometimes sad and sometimes disgust inducing, their stories took me into their worlds. They attempted to give me some understanding of why people do things like running in heat that can melt your shoes, attempt to overcome your “notions of disgust by eating what many would consider to be inedible” or putting your body in situations where extreme physical pain is to be expected, not avoided.

Some flog their reward pathways like dopamine jockeys; some careen towards injury because of an unwillingness to slow their pace; some goad themselves on to ever-greater heights or more depraved depths; some explore new frontiers of physical pain as a form of self-flagellation; some have knitted their identity so tightly to their pursuit that they risk tumbling into an abyss if it’s taken away.

In some instances, trauma seems to have provided both the impetus to attempt the activity in the first place and the ability to endure, when body and mind are both screaming at you to stop. A need to prove something, to yourself or other people, is a motivating factor for other people. Others simply went for a run one day and discovered they loved it.

The final chapter also addresses what can happen when you have worked so hard to reach a goal and finally achieve it, leaving in its wake a void as you wonder where you go from here. I found the discussion around having your identity so closely linked with an activity or job and how difficult it can be to find your bearings when that is taken from you unexpectedly particularly relatable.

One word that I absolutely adored, which I haven’t specifically come across before, was ikagai. It’s a Japanese concept that is all about your reason for being; what gives your life meaning, worth or purpose.

Some people might read a book like this and be inspired to take up running or wrestling, but that’s not me. Although I marvel at the people who are able to push their bodies so hard, you’re definitely not likely to see me running anywhere anytime soon. Unless, of course, someone’s chasing me, and even then I’ll be stopping as soon as it’s safe to do so.

While I read some books because they mirror my life in some way, I read books like this so I can get a glimpse of what things like bodybuilding are like without having to actually do it myself.

Content warnings include mention of addiction, alcoholism, bullying, child abuse, death by suicide, domestic abuse, eating disorders, mental health, self harm, sexual assault and suicidal ideation.

If you’re squeamish, don’t want to read about the variety of animals people have eaten or what they have done to their bodies for ‘art’, or don’t want to experience someone making a mockery of COVID, maybe don’t read the second chapter.

There is also a doctor, who prescribes performance and image enhancing drugs, that I found extremely problematic. They’re speaking to the author about their blood test results here. “In fact, my immune system is so good, he says, that the coronavirus won’t stick; at which point I wonder if the phrase ‘with a pinch of salt’ ought to apply to everything.” You think COVID doesn’t have serious impacts on previously healthy people? Seriously, doctor?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

When Jenny Valentish wrote a memoir about addiction, she noticed that people who treated drug-taking like an Olympic sport would often hurl themselves into a pursuit such as marathon running upon getting sober. What stayed constant was the need to push their boundaries.

Everything Harder Than Everyone Else follows people doing the things that most couldn’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t. Their insights lead Jenny on a compulsive, sometimes reckless journey through psychology, endurance and the power of obsession, revealing what we can learn about the human condition.

There’s the neuroscientist violating his brain to override his disgust response. The athlete using childhood adversity as grist for the mill. The wrestler turning restlessness into curated ultraviolence. The designer who hangs from hooks in her flesh to get out of her head. The performance artist seeking erasure by manipulating his body. The BDSM dominant helping people flirt with death to feel more alive. The bare-knuckle boxer whose gnarliest opponent was once her ego. And the porn-star-turned-fighter for whom sex and violence are two sides of the same coin.

Darkly funny and vividly penetrating, Everything Harder Than Everyone Else explores our deeper selves and asks: what are your limits? 

Savage Island #2: Cruel Castle – Bryony Pearce

It’s been six months since the Iron Teen Tragedy, something that readers of Savage Island will immediately recognise as PR spin. Only Grady, Ben and Lizzie know the truth about what really happened on Aikenhead, Marcus Gold’s private island.

While Ben and Lizzie have been in hiding from Gold, Grady has been working for him. For the past four months he’s been one of the participants in Gold’s graduate programme in London. When he learns he’s being sent on a team building weekend at Stowerling Keep, Gold’s castle in Scotland, Grady knows this won’t be any ordinary team building exercise. He is certain it’s going to be Aikenhead 2.0.

Stowerling Keep. It’s going to make Aikenhead look like Disneyland.

Accompanying conspiracy theorist Grady on this potential bloodbath are several of his fellow graduates:

  • Aanay, who seems too nice to have made it into Gold’s graduate programme
  • Bella, a girl who uses her looks to manipulate others into doing her bidding
  • Dawson, one of the “clones”, who won’t let anyone see what he’s written in the notebook he carries in his trouser pocket
  • Iris, who doesn’t talk to anyone.

Of course, Ben and Lizzie aren’t going to let an opportunity to expose Gold’s nefarious deeds to the world go to waste. They may not have received a personal invitation from Gold to come to Stowerling Keep but that’s why infiltration was invented.

Savage Island was one of my favourite reads of 2018 and while many books I’ve read since then are now pretty fuzzy in my mind, my memory of it remains sharp. If I had to describe it in three words, it would be Survivor: Psychopath Edition. It felt fresh. It surprised me. I didn’t know where it was going. I’m all for gore in my horror and it gave me some “ew!” moments. I absolutely adored it!

Naturally, I was all in when I learned there was a sequel. I enjoyed it but it didn’t pack the punch of the original for me. In horror sequels I expect the body count to be higher, the deaths to be more gruesome and the twists to just keep on coming.

This sequel plays out in a series of escape rooms, which I’ve seen done so many times now, and for it to have given me the wow factor of the first book it would have needed to up the ante in a massive way. There is plenty of blood to paint the walls with, there’s bone crunching and some insides that are now your outsides action to look forward to but it felt somewhat tame to me when I compared it with Savage Island.

Told in four voices, Ben, Lizzie, Grady and another whose name I won’t mention because spoilers, I got a sense of what everyone’s state of mind was as we progressed through the ‘team building’. Switching up the perspectives also helped to propel the story along and provided opportunities for flashbacks to help explain the relevant backstories.

While I liked being able to get inside Grady’s head, I never really bought what was going on with Ben. If I hadn’t already encountered that explanation multiple times before, in books and movies, then it might have made sense to me but I’ve seen it done too many times (and usually not well) so I wasn’t as receptive to it here. This probably won’t be a problem for younger readers, who won’t have come across this or escape rooms as many times as I have.

It probably sounds like I didn’t have fun reading this book. I did, though, and I’m really looking forward to reading more books by this author. If anything, because I loved Savage Island so much, my expectations for this book may have been unreasonably high.

If a third book in the series is ever written, I’ll be there at the front of the queue to read it. I’d just hoped this book would be completely over the top (in a good way) like the first book was.

I would still recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA horror. For context, though, and to understand what the three main characters have already survived, you’ll want to read Savage Island first.

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide and mental health.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Stripes Publishing, an imprint of Little Tiger Group, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

They thought the island was the end. It was only the beginning…

Having survived the horrors of Savage Island, Grady is now stuck working for Gold, the psychopath who masterminded the gruesome competition. Sent on a “team-building exercise” in a remote castle, he starts to plot his escape.

Ben and Lizzie are in hiding, presumed dead after escaping the island. If they’re ever to return to their families, they need to bring Gold down. So they secretly join Grady in the castle. But as the doors slam shut and the series of deadly challenges between them and freedom are revealed, it looks like history is going to repeat itself…

A Red Eye horror novel for teens, this gripping sequel to Savage Island is full of fast-paced action and gruesome twists and turns. 

Snowflake – Louise Nealon

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine

This book is an exploration of mental health and it’s a coming of age story. It’s about our relationships, with other people and with ourselves. It’s about how our feelings of not being good enough, pretty enough, thin enough, smart enough, [insert your own adjective here] enough can manifest in self-destructive behaviours. It’s about cows and snowflakes and stars and dreams.

Debbie grew up in Kildare. She and her Mam, Maeve, live on a dairy farm owned by her uncle Billy. Billy lives in a caravan on the property. Maeve has been writing a book about dreams practically forever and Billy is an alcoholic.

Debbie doesn’t have any friends and her most complicated relationship is with the boy who stands at the back of mass, a boy she’s never spoken to. Now Debbie, a self-proclaimed culchie, is going to university. There she meets Xanthe.

My only friend. Friend? Acquaintance? Person who knows my name?

I’m struggling to think of ways to explain what I liked about each character without getting into spoiler territory. Instead of telling you about specific characters, I’ll tell you what I loved about the characters as a whole.

Every major character is damaged in some way, whether by a personal trauma or the way they see themselves. Every character is trying the best they can with what resources, external and internal, they have to work with. Things might knock them down but they don’t stay down. Everyone is a work in progress.

‘There’s no way to catch a snowflake. And I haven’t met anyone who is able to catch a dream.’

There was an authenticity in the way mental health conditions and emotional pain were addressed throughout the book. Sometimes a sentence that appeared simple enough on the surface felt more profound when I slowed down and reread it.

The bathroom is where I go to recharge, let myself cry and pull myself together just enough to define my edges so I seem solid on the outside.

There were aspects of the story I wanted to delve into further: Maeve’s dreams, Debbie’s dreams, Billy’s mental health…

A character that I could have read an entire book about was Audrey. I wanted to go with her on the journey that led to her making her curiosity cabinet. I felt like she had a backstory that was worth exploring.

Oh, and that quote at the beginning of my review? It’s an Irish saying that means “People live in each other’s shadows.” Basically put, we need one another. I love it!

Content warnings include alcoholism, attempted suicide, disordered eating and mental health.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Eighteen-year-old Debbie White lives on a dairy farm with her mother, Maeve, and her uncle, Billy. Billy sleeps out in a caravan in the garden with a bottle of whiskey and the stars overhead for company. Maeve spends her days recording her dreams, which she believes to be prophecies.

This world is Debbie’s normal, but she is about to step into life as a student at Trinity College in Dublin. As she navigates between sophisticated new friends and the family bubble, things begin to unravel. Maeve’s eccentricity tilts into something darker, while Billy’s drinking gets worse. Debbie struggles to cope with the weirdest, most difficult parts of herself, her family and her small life. But the fierce love of the White family is never in doubt, and Debbie discovers that even the oddest of families are places of safety.

A startling, honest, laugh and cry novel about growing up and leaving home, only to find that you’ve taken it with you, Snowflake is a novel for a generation, and for everyone who’s taken those first, terrifying steps towards adulthood.