How I Saved the World in a Week – Polly Ho-Yen

Illustrations – George Ermos

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” I couldn’t get this Joseph Heller quote out of my head when I was reading this book. Billy’s mother, Sylvia, teaches him survival skills every chance she gets. Never mind that a lot of the time this preparation takes place during school hours. 

‘You have to be ready.’

‘Ready for what?’ 

While he loves spending time with his mother and learning new skills, like how to make fire without a match, Billy doesn’t love needing to change schools regularly. 

I mean, what’s the point in trying to get to know someone when you might disappear at any moment?

He also misses his father, who he hasn’t seen for years.

When people start turning grey, Billy starts to think that this is what his mother has been preparing him for. Only his father won’t believe him, believing instead that Sylvia’s preoccupation with teaching her son survival skills is merely a symptom of her mental illness. 

I wouldn’t, couldn’t, believe that everything Sylvia had taught me was all for nothing. 

Thankfully, Billy is about to meet Anwar, who is enthusiastic and loves conducting experiments, and Angharad, who’s loyal but isn’t always that great at keeping her promises (you’ll forgive her for breaking the ones she does, though). His new friends believe Billy about the Greys because they’re kids, so thankfully they haven’t yet learned to disbelieve the unbelievable. 

I think: this is what friends are to each other – someone who knows, without you having to explain, that right at that moment all you need is their help. 

Although it’s not mentioned in the author’s note at the end of the book, I got the feeling this book was written, at least in part, during the pandemic. Especially when I read sentences like this: 

It’s like we’re cut off from the world even though we’re surrounded by people. 

The resolution was a bit too easy and neat for my liking but, taking into consideration the fact that I’m decades older than the target audience, my thoughts on this aren’t especially relevant. If I’d read this book when I was a kid I would have needed everything to work out the way it did.

Although there’s plenty of action, at its heart, this book is about hope, resilience and having trusted people you can rely on. 

‘This thing happening, it shows us the things that are really important. The things that really matter. Everything else … everything else just drops away.’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Rule number one: Always be prepared …

Billy’s mum isn’t like other mums. All she wants is to teach him the Rules of Survival – how to make fire, build shelter and find food. She likes to test Billy on the rules until one day she goes too far, and Billy is sent to live with a dad he barely knows.

Then the world changes forever as people begin to be infected with a mysterious virus that turns their skin grey. As chaos breaks out, Billy has to flee the city. Suddenly he realises that this is what his mum was preparing him for – not just to save his family, but to save the whole world.

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?

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead – Emily Austin

Twenty-seven year old Gilda is the new receptionist at St. Rigobert’s Catholic Church. She’s also sort of, not really dating a “self-actualized reality strategist”. That’s life coach speak for being a life coach, if you’re Giuseppe. Between being an “undercover atheist” working at a church and being a gay woman with a girlfriend who’s sort of, not really dating a man, Gilda’s life is kind of complicated these days.

Gilda is on a first name basis with the staff at the emergency department and she’s currently cultivating a dirty dishes sculpture. Her parents could have an entire book dedicated to their own foibles and her younger brother is an alcoholic. Add all of that up and you realise that Gilda could have really used that therapy on the flyer that led her to St. Rigobert’s in the first place. Oh, and the lovely old lady whose job Gilda stumbled into may have been murdered. Nothing to see here, folks.

Because I apparently love books about fellow misfits going about their daily lives, I got sucked straight into this one. Although they’re entirely different people, the socially awkward protagonists of Snowflake and Convenience Store Woman came to mind as I read. 

Gilda’s fascination with, and fear of, death fascinated me. 

I wonder if my death will be what defines me. 

The depiction of mental illness, specifically depression and the panic attacks that accompany anxiety, was authentic. 

I’m “okay” in the loose sense of the word, meaning mostly: I can breathe. I am probably, however, not truly okay. Something is obviously wrong with me. I feel like I just escaped a bear attack. Why does my body react like it is being chased down by predators when it’s not? Am I physically in-tuned to some sort of impending doom that I can’t perceive otherwise? Am I sensing something, or am I just out of whack? Why do I feel this terrible physical dread? Do I have cancer? Am I—

Stop. 

I loved Gilda’s take on so many things:

The preoccupation people have with the way they look… 

“I think our appearance is meaningless,” I sputter. “We’re all just skeletons covered in skin.” 

Biblical loopholes… 

I can’t help noting the use of the male pronouns. I wonder whether this directive applies to me. Am I subject to a womanly loophole? Whoever wrote this book prioritized men so much, he forgot about the other half of humanity. It seems like I can curse my parents with no repercussions at all. 

On not being as invisible as you feel… 

I find it so bizarre that I occupy space, and that I am seen by other people. 

Telling it like it is… 

“It’s easy to feel like you understand everything in life when you’re big-headed, self-important, and stupid.” 

And telling it like it is Part 2… 

Don’t worry, Jeff, life is meaningless; it’s strange and inexplicable that we exist to begin with. We are all basically dead already in the grand scheme of things, and our feelings of sadness are pointless – they are just how our meat sacks react to the chemicals in our bodies. 

Did I mention that Gilda’s essentially a ray of sunshine wrapped in a meat sack?

Content warnings include alcoholism, bullying, death by suicide, mental health, self harm and suicidal ideation. Readers with emetophobia may have difficulty with one scene.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Meet Gilda. She cannot stop thinking about death. Desperate for relief from her anxious mind and alienated from her repressive family, she responds to a flyer for free therapy at a local church and finds herself abruptly hired to replace the deceased receptionist Grace. It’s not the most obvious job – she’s queer and an atheist for starters – and so in between trying to learn mass, hiding her new maybe-girlfriend and conducting an amateur investigation into Grace’s death, Gilda must avoid revealing the truth of her mortifying existence.

A blend of warmth, deadpan humour, and pitch-perfect observations about the human condition, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is a crackling exploration of what it takes to stay afloat in a world where your expiration – and the expiration of those you love – is the only certainty.

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 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.