Our Wives Under the Sea – Julia Armfield

Miri’s wife was supposed to be gone for three weeks but was missing for six months. Biologist Leah, engineer Matteo and marine ecologist and conservationist Jelka were conducting research for the Centre for Marine Enquiry but things didn’t exactly go to plan. 

“I think,” she says, “that there was too much water. When we were down there. I think we let it get in.” 

Hypochondriac Miri thought she’d never see her wife again. Now Leah has returned but the Leah who left is not the one that returned. 

The problem, of course, was that nothing was wrong, aside from the fact of the obvious. 

With the narrative alternating between Miri and Leah, the author explores the history of their relationship and the incomprehensible changes in Leah. 

“How will we ever explain this” 

The deliciously unsettling cover image and quotable beginning set my expectations unreasonably high. I was ready for creepy and claustrophobic. I wasn’t expecting so much of the story to be about the relationship between the wives. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy this book (I did), only that it wasn’t the read I thought I was signing up for. 

It isn’t that her being back is difficult, it’s that I’m not convinced she’s really back at all. 

The author really captured the feeling of being alone in the presence of others. The pain that accompanies loss, whatever form it takes. The struggle to hold on to what no longer exists. The resistance against letting go. 

“I think,” Juna says after a pause, “that the thing about losing someone isn’t the loss but the absence of afterwards. D’you know what I mean? The endlessness of that.” 

You will find answers in this book but not all of them. If there’d been even a teensy bit more of a focus on what happened in the depths of the ocean, I would not have been okay with this. At all. 

Because I became invested in the aftermath, I was able to sit more comfortably in the ambiguity. That’s not to say that I’d turn away anyone who wanted to spoon-feed the rest of the answers to me.

This book is really quotable, as I’m sure you’ve already picked up from my review. The first sentence, though, it’s a doozy. I’ve seen it quoted in so many reviews already but it’s what sucked me in so I have to share it too. 

The deep sea is a haunted house: a place in which things that ought not to exist move about in the darkness. 

Now, this is not important in the scheme of things but it’s still running through my head so I’m passing it along to you: Miri wonders why so many people keep bringing her coffee. I’m wondering how I can get more people to bring it to me.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Miri thinks she has got her wife back, when Leah finally returns after a deep-sea mission that ended in catastrophe. It soon becomes clear, though, that Leah is not the same. Whatever happened in that vessel, whatever it was they were supposed to be studying before they were stranded on the ocean floor, Leah has brought part of it back with her, onto dry land and into their home.

Moving through something that only resembles normal life, Miri comes to realise that the life that they had before might be gone. Though Leah is still there, Miri can feel the woman she loves slipping from her grasp.

Our Wives Under The Sea is the debut novel from Julia Armfield, the critically acclaimed author of salt slow. It’s a story of falling in love, loss, grief, and what life there is in the deep deep sea.

The Cat Who Saved Books – Sosuke Natsukawa

Translator – Louise Heal Kawai

‘You know, I’ve been thinking about books.’ 

I absolutely love books about books! This one was all the more interesting to me because, not only does it feature a used bookstore and bookish missions, the missions are led by a talking cat!

Tiger, a ginger tabby, casually shows up at Natsuki Books in the week after Rintaro’s grandfather dies. It turns out this feline, who’s not backward in coming forward, needs the bookish assistance of hikikomori Rintaro. 

‘We’ve come to free your books.’ 

Together, this unlikely team enter a series of labyrinths to save books from those that don’t treat them with the reverence they deserve. 

‘Helping people may not be my forte, but when I hear that books need my help then I’m ready.’ 

I was so ready to tag along for these magical quests in aid of the written word. I was anticipating the fun of confronting readers who perpetrate bookish crimes like failing to return them to their owners and the owners whose books are sad because they’ve been patiently waiting in the TBR line for years already, yet their owner refuses to stop buying more.

The actual confrontations were less exciting than I’d anticipated and the talking cat wasn’t as much of a novelty as I’d hoped. 

I found some bookish quotes I loved. 

‘A cherished book will always have a soul. It will come to its reader’s aid in times of crisis.’ 

I really enjoyed thinking about what it is about books that makes them so extraordinary and how they impact on the lives of readers. 

Unfortunately, though, there was a disconnect that I was unable to resolve. I’d hoped this would be a book I’d be raving about to anyone who’d listen, but it fell flat for me.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Grandpa used to say it all the time: books have tremendous power. But what is that power really?

Natsuki Books was a tiny second-hand bookshop on the edge of town. Inside, towering shelves reached the ceiling, every one crammed full of wonderful books. Rintaro Natsuki loved this space that his grandfather had created. He spent many happy hours there, reading whatever he liked. It was the perfect refuge for a boy who tended to be something of a recluse.

After the death of his grandfather, Rintaro is devastated and alone. It seems he will have to close the shop. Then, a talking tabby cat called Tiger appears and asks Rintaro for help. The cat needs a book lover to join him on a mission. This odd couple will go on three magical adventures to save books from people have imprisoned, mistreated and betrayed them. Finally, there is one last rescue that Rintaro must attempt alone…

The Cat Who Saved Books is a heartwarming story about finding courage, caring for others – and the tremendous power of books. Sosuke Natsukawa’s international best seller, translated from Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai, is a story for those for whom books are so much more than words on paper.

Nine Perfect Strangers – Liane Moriarty

‘In ten days, you will not be the person you are now.’ 

Ten days at a health and wellness retreat. Five of those days spent in silence. Bliss! But you can’t read or write during them. Hold on. What is this place?!

Masha, the director of Tranquillum House, is keen to implement her new protocol. 

Nine people were depending on her. Nine perfect strangers who would soon become like family. 

Stranger 1: Frances, formerly a bestselling romance novelist, has back pain, a bad cold and a paper cut. We hear about her paper cut a lot. 

I’m only temporarily tragic 

Stranger 2: Jessica is married to Ben and loves plastic surgery, maybe more than she loves Ben. 

She couldn’t shake the feeling that if she didn’t record this moment on her phone then it wasn’t really happening, it didn’t count, it wasn’t real life. 

Stranger 3: Ben is married to Jessica and loves his car, maybe more than he loves Jessica. 

He avoided looking at her. He was trying really hard to get over that. 

Stranger 4: Heather, a midwife, is at Tranquillum House with her husband, Napoleon, and daughter, Zoe. 

The rage hit her with the power and momentum of a contraction during active labour. There was no escaping it. 

Stranger 5: Napoleon, a schoolteacher in a disadvantaged area, loves to talk. He’s at Tranquillum House with his wife and daughter. 

But he wasn’t broken. 

Stranger 6: Zoe, who just broke up with her boyfriend, is at Tranquillum House with her parents. 

She tried so hard to be everything for them while they tried so hard to pretend that she wasn’t their only reason for living. 

Stranger 7: Tony runs a sports marketing consultancy and has brilliant tattoos. 😃😃 

Tony would never forget the shocking clarity of the moment that followed. 

Stranger 8: Carmel has four children and is at Tranquillum House to lose weight. 

‘I love everything about this place’ 

Stranger 9: Lars is a family lawyer. 

‘I’m a health-retreat junkie. I indulge and atone, indulge and atone. It works for me.’ 

With a gorgeous location and mandatory smoothies six times a day, our health retreat participants are hopeful that they will go home changed. For the better. All of them have their issues but I suspected from early on that the ethereal Masha might have more than her share.

Reading this book felt like I was bingeing an entire season of a soap opera at once. I don’t mean that as criticism; soap operas are fun to binge. There’s so much drama. The plot lines are delightfully over the top while just barely staying within the realms of possibility. 

I loved the drama of this book and I loved the personalities all bouncing off one another (after they were allowed to speak, that is). Although I laughed at the absurdity of some of the things that happened, nothing happened that I couldn’t imagine actually happening off the page. The entire read felt like a guilty pleasure.

New favourite word: toska. 

There was no adequate English word to describe the kind of anguished longing she felt for something she could not have and did not even want. 

Most of Liane’s books already live in my Kindle’s black hole of good intentions and I loved bingeing Big Little Lies. I’ve been planning to binge this series, too, but wanted to read the book first this time. Now that I’ve read it, I’m even more intrigued to watch Nicole Kidman as Masha and see how it all plays out outside of my imagination. 

This was not how it was supposed to go. 

Content warnings include addiction, death by suicide (including the method used), domestic abuse and mental health.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Could ten days at a health resort really change you forever? Nine perfect strangers are about to find out…

Nine people gather at a remote health resort. Some are here to lose weight, some are here to get a reboot on life, some are here for reasons they can’t even admit to themselves. Amidst all of the luxury and pampering, the mindfulness and meditation, they know these ten days might involve some real work. But none of them could imagine just how challenging the next ten days are going to be.

Frances Welty, the formerly best-selling romantic novelist, arrives at Tranquillum House nursing a bad back, a broken heart, and an exquisitely painful paper cut. She’s immediately intrigued by her fellow guests. Most of them don’t look to be in need of a health resort at all. But the person that intrigues her most is the strange and charismatic owner/director of Tranquillum House. Could this person really have the answers Frances didn’t even know she was seeking? Should Frances put aside her doubts and immerse herself in everything Tranquillum House has to offer – or should she run while she still can?

It’s not long before every guest at Tranquillum House is asking exactly the same question.

What Happened to You? – Bruce D. Perry & Oprah Winfrey

As you move through the experiences of your past, know that no matter what happened, your being here, vibrant and alive, makes you worthy.

You alone are enough.

Sometimes a book will come into your life at exactly the right time. Traumas, both from childhood and more recent times, have been making themselves known to me with an urgency I haven’t experienced before, at a time that seems more inconvenient than pretty much any other time in my life. Although I’d love to push it all to the side, with a ‘Not now! Can’t you see I’m busy reading?’, there’s also a knowing that there’s never going to be a good time and that maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason it’s all coming up for me now.

So, here I am, trying to figure out what healing will look like for me and having conversations with people who are seeing my resilience from the outside in vastly different ways than I’m perceiving it from the inside. Then this book, which covers the trifecta of what my brain has decided is my priority right now (trauma, resilience and healing), makes its way into my world.

The shift from asking ‘what’s wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you?’ is something I’ve yearned to hear for most of my life. Western society is so fixed on labels, which I know have their place and can be useful, but all too often pasting a diagnosis (or multiple diagnoses) on someone marginalises them more than it helps them. If we don’t get to the core of why a person behaves the way they do then we’re really missing the point, and the opportunity to best support them.

All of us want to know that what we do, what we say and who we are, matters.

Dr. Perry’s work in understanding how the brain’s development is impacted by early trauma helps explain why we behave the way we do, for example, why some people lash out in anger and others withdraw into themselves.

There’s science in this book but it was explained in a way that made sense to me, someone who hasn’t formally studied science since high school. Even if you don’t understand a concept the first time it’s mentioned it’s okay as it will be referred to in later conversations. If words like ‘brainstem’, ‘diencephalon’, ‘limbic’ and ‘cortex’ make you want to disengage, I’d encourage you to hold on because how the science relates to someone’s life will be explained. This, in turn, will make it easier to apply what’s being said to your own life. You’ll read about people Dr. Perry has worked with, people Oprah has interviewed and about Oprah’s own experiences.

Knowledge truly is powerful and simply having an understanding of why a smell or sound (‘evocative cues’) can cause people with PTSD to have flashbacks, making them feel as though they’re right back in that moment, feels like half the battle. If you’re not caught up in judging yourself for your brain responding the way that it does, then it frees up so much energy that you can use to regulate yourself.

I learned about how our view of the world becomes a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, why self harm makes so much sense to the people who do it (even though it baffles the people who don’t), the importance of rhythm in regulation, how vital connections with other people are to healing and why I need to learn more about neuroplasticity.

I gained a much better understanding of flock, freeze, flight and fight. Dissociation, which I thought I knew all about from personal experience, make much more sense to me now, as does why I find reading so helpful in my everyday life.

I love facts and there were some that really put what I was reading into context for me.

During the first nine months, fetal brain development is explosive, at times reaching a rate of 20,000 new neurons ‘born’ per second. In comparison, an adult may, on a good day, create 700.

This book isn’t about blaming anyone for your trauma and it’s not giving you an excuse for bad behaviour. It does explain why you react the way you do and can help silence the voice inside you that tells you there’s something wrong with you because of it – your reaction is reasonable given your history but there is also hope; you can heal.

I would recommend this book to so many people. Before I’d even begun reading I’d recommended it to my GP and would not hesitate in recommending it to anyone who works in a profession that brings them into contact with young children and their families or trauma survivors.

To this day, the role that trauma and developmental adversity play in mental and physical health remains under appreciated.

I would recommend it to trauma survivors, although with a few caveats: that they stay safe while reading (some of the content is bound to be triggering), read at their own pace and make good use of their support system as needed. Loved ones of trauma survivors will find explanations for why their friend or family member behaves the way that they do and ways they can help.

I’m not someone who usually listens to audiobooks but if there’s a book that would be more suited for that format than this one, a series of conversations between Dr. Perry and Oprah, I can’t think of it. Of course, having grown up with Oprah, I heard everything she said in her voice as I read anyway but I’m definitely planning to reread via audiobook.

It takes courage to confront your actions, peel back the layers of trauma in our lives and expose the raw truth of what happened.

But, this is where healing begins.

Content warnings include mention of addiction, alcoholism, bullying, death by suicide, domestic violence, foster care, gun violence, mental health, murder, neglect, physical abuse, physical health, poverty, racism, self harm, sexual assault, slavery, suicidal ideation and traumatic loss.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Bluebird, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Through wide-ranging, and often deeply personal conversation, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Perry explore how what happens to us in early childhood – both good and bad – influences the people we become. They challenge us to shift from focusing on, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ or “Why are you behaving that way?,” to asking, ‘What happened to you?’ This simple change in perspective can open up a new and hopeful understanding for millions about why we do the things we do, why we are the way we are, providing a road map for repairing relationships, overcoming what seems insurmountable, and ultimately living better and more fulfilling lives.

Many of us experience adversity and trauma during childhood that has lasting impact on our physical and emotional health. And as we’re beginning to understand, we are more sensitive to developmental trauma as children than we are as adults. ‘What happened to us’ in childhood is a powerful predictor of our risk for physical and mental health problems down the road, and offers scientific insights in to the patterns of behaviours so many struggle to understand.

A survivor of multiple childhood challenges herself, Oprah Winfrey shares portions of her own harrowing experiences because she understands the vulnerability that comes from facing trauma at a young age. Throughout her career, Oprah has teamed up with Dr. Bruce Perry, one of the world’s leading experts on childhood trauma. He has treated thousands of children, youth, and adults and has been called on for decades to support individuals and communities following high-profile traumatic events. Now, Oprah joins forces with Dr. Perry to marry the power of storytelling with the science and clinical experience to better understand and overcome the effects of trauma.

In conversation throughout the book, the two focus on understanding people, behaviour, and ourselves in the context of personal experiences. They remove blame and self-shaming, and open up a space for healing and understanding. It’s a subtle but profound shift in our approach to trauma, and it’s one that allows us to understand our pasts in order to clear a path to our future – opening the door to resilience and healing in a proven, powerful way.

Grounded in the latest brain science and brought to life through compelling narratives, this book shines a light on a much-needed path to recovery – showing us our incredible capacity to transform after adversity.

The Book of Hope – Jonny Benjamin & Britt Pflüger (editors)

This book introduces you to the lived experience of 101 contributors, people whose experiences run the gamut of what it means to be human but who have all struggled with hopelessness and found reasons to hope. Rather than attempt mini reviews for each contributor, instead I will share my favourite quote from each of the book’s eleven sections.

Always Hope

To me, hope is a gentle bridge between what is and what could be. A bridge that if crossed will lead you from desire, to belief, to knowing. Knowing that tomorrow will be different and can be better. Hope is the understanding that things will change and that life will eventually move for you, too.

Jada Sezer

Acceptance

This is some of the best advice I have had: to take each day as it comes. Just focus on the next hour and reach for support if you need it, from people or helplines. Don’t suffer in silence as you are never truly alone, even if it feels that way.

Eleanor Segall

Peace

It’s ok to not be ok. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or a bad person. Admitting you’re unwell is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Oliver Kent

Tool Kits

It generally feels better when you say it out loud. It enables you to reality check your thoughts and feelings, to shine a light on them and test them out, rather than keeping them hidden in the echo chamber of your mind. Above all, it gives you the chance to connect with others and to realise you are not alone.

Benna Waites

Compassion

For it is people who create hope; it is people who give us the strength to carry on.

Dick Moore

Courage

Imparting hope is profound and may just be enough to save a life.

Erin Turner

The Right Words

Trying to avoid it, because you’re scared of how it will make you feel, will only make things worse. So instead you let the feeling be. ‘This is me,’ you can say to yourself, ‘experiencing grief.’ Does it hurt? Yes. Will it kill you? No. Will it pass? Yes. Is it serious and important? Yes. Is it also just a feeling? Yes.

Aaron Balick

Inspiration

So here’s my first piece of advice: be gentle and forgiving with yourself, as if you were talking to someone you loved. It’s OK to be weak and fallible, or at least just human, to have limits. It’s OK to stop and take a moment for yourself.

Frank Turner

Resilience

And yet hope is determined, hope is always there, even if you can’t see it or hear it. It’s in the tiniest of moments, shining its dim light, hoping you notice it. And hope is potent stuff, you only need the smallest glimmer, the tiniest drop, to make a difference.

Jo Love

Kindness

‘You don’t have to wait to be in a crisis to get help,’ Leah said, thirteen soothing words that finally granted me permission to speak.

Amy Abrahams

Connection

Everyone’s feelings make sense once you get to know their story.

Martin Seager

There are plenty of darkness and light analogies, things that contributors would like to tell their younger selves and many writers who mentioned the importance of good nutrition and getting enough sleep and exercise. I know we all know the importance of these in maintaining both our physical and mental health but there’s something about hearing things you already know from people with lived experience that make you want to pay attention. If they helped these people, then maybe, just maybe, they might work for you too.

Some contributions had sections that read a bit like a Hallmark card, although I’m not certain that that’s a criticism; Hallmark haven’t made bajillions by telling people things they don’t want to hear. It wasn’t always clear to me why specific contributions were included in a section.

One of my favourite contributions was from David Wiseman, whose descriptions of what life looks like from inside PTSD are some of the most authentic that I’ve ever come across. I highlighted more of David’s words than any other writer. I can’t choose a favourite passage so I’ve chosen the shortest one that I highlighted.

Living with PTSD means having to have a busy mind because a relaxed mind will automatically fill with things you don’t want to think about. It means being tired all the time because that amount of thinking takes energy.

Content warnings include mention of addiction, bullying, death by suicide, domestic violence, eating disorders, homophobia, mental health, racism, self harm, sexual assault, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Bluebird, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

There is always hope, even when we cannot seem to seek it within ourselves.

From the best advice you’ll ever get to the joy of crisps, the 101 brilliant contributors to The Book of Hope will help you to find hope whenever you need it most. Award-winning mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin, MBE, and co-editor Britt Pflüger bring together people from all walks of life – actors, musicians, athletes, psychologists and activists – to share what gives them hope.

These 101 key voices in the field of mental health, from the likes of Lemn Sissay, Dame Kelly Holmes, Frank Turner and Zoe Sugg, to Joe Tracini, Elizabeth Day, Hussain Manawer and Joe Wicks, share not only their experiences with anxiety, psychosis, panic attacks and more, but also what helps them when they are feeling low. This joyful collection is a supportive hand to anyone looking to find light on a dark day and shows that, no matter what you may be going through, you are not alone.

Edinburgh Nights #1: The Library of the Dead – T.L. Huchu

Fourteen year old Ropa lives with her Gran and younger sister, Izwi. She’s got green dreadlocks, black lipstick and a sizeable chip on her shoulder. She’s also a ghostalker.

Me personally, I find the whole haunting business a bit pathetic.

But a girl’s got to pay the bills, so Ropa delivers messages from ghosts to their loved ones. Things have gotten a bit complicated recently because a particular ghost refuses to play by the terms and conditions. Their son is missing and they can’t move on until they know he’s okay. The problem is, this ghost doesn’t have any money and Ropa isn’t in the business of handing out charity.

I had trouble connecting with Ropa when I first met her. She is both book and street smart, but her book smarts can appear at odds with the slang and crass language she uses at times. Life hasn’t been easy for Ropa and as a result she’s built a fairly impenetrable wall around her. She softens when she’s around her family and you get to see another side of her when she’s with her friends but in the beginning she came across as someone I didn’t think I’d be able to get to know.

‘Meh. Tough world, get with the program.’

This book has ghosts, magic and a mysterious library, which is a pretty happy trifecta in my eyes. I met plenty of ghosts and got a taste of the magic that exists in Ropa’s Edinburgh but the reality of this book diverged from my expectations at times.

I had hoped to spend a great deal more time in the library. Hopefully it will be given more page time as the series progresses. The mystery was more prominent than I’d expected but I got sucked into it quite quickly. Although my expectations didn’t entirely line up with reality, I ended up really enjoying this read (once I got used to Ropa’s abrasiveness).

There are some characters I took to immediately and others that I don’t feel I know well enough to be able to form a strong opinion about yet. I loved Gran and look forward to getting to know her more as the series progresses. She’s someone who brings warmth and wisdom.

‘It’s in the most trying times, when we ourselves have nothing, that we mustn’t forget there are higher virtues like compassion, kindness and solidarity. Doing something when it is hard, because it is the right thing to do, matters more than doing it when it’s easy.’

However, I didn’t get much of a sense of Izwi’s personality. I’m fairly certain Jomo will begin to feel like more than a means to an end in future books but so far he hasn’t made a huge impression on me. Making up for him was Priya, who’s fearless and fantastic. I can’t wait to hang out with her again.

Ropa’s world is quite dark and there’s hints about the “catastrophe” that shook things up, but I anticipate there is a lot more information to come. I wondered if pop culture no longer exists here as many of the references aren’t current, even now.

The mystery of this book is solved but there’s a lot more this world has to offer. I’m hoping future books will allow me to spend more time in the library, teach me more of its magic, introduce me to many more ghosts and give me a lot more Gran and Priya time.

Quote of the book:

‘I’m just getting to like you; don’t die stupidly on me now.’

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Tor, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

When ghosts talk, she will listen …

Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghostalker – and she now speaks to Edinburgh’s dead, carrying messages to the living. A girl’s gotta earn a living, and it seems harmless enough. Until, that is, the dead whisper that someone’s bewitching children – leaving them husks, empty of joy and life. It’s on Ropa’s patch, so she feels honour bound to investigate. But what she learns will change her world.

She’ll dice with death (not part of her life plan …) as she calls on Zimbabwean magic and Scottish pragmatism to hunt down clues. For Edinburgh hides a wealth of secrets. And in the process, she discovers an occult library and some unexpected allies. Yet as shadows lengthen, will the hunter become the hunted?

The Happiest Man on Earth – Eddie Jaku

This is the most important thing I have ever learned: the greatest thing you will ever do is be loved by another person.

No matter how many books I read by Holocaust survivors, I always manage to encounter horrors I’ve never heard of before and marvel anew at the capacity humans have to survive the unimaginable. In his first sentence Eddie Jaku introduces himself as your new friend and I found that so endearing. It got me immediately invested in his story and I would have thought it was a clever way to grab you emotionally from the get to if I didn’t believe he meant it wholeheartedly. But I did believe him.

Intermittently addressing you, his friend, throughout the book, Eddie tells you his story. From his school days to his experiences in multiple concentration camps and beyond, you can’t help but feel you’re sitting across from him as he regales you with his stories and the wisdom he’s accumulated along the way.

Kindness is the greatest wealth of all.

Despite taking you on a journey through the darkest humanity has to offer (the murder of his dog hit me particularly hard, probably in part because it was before Eddie stepped foot in a concentration camp so I wasn’t expecting the brutality of this), Eddie has managed to hold onto hope.

There are always miracles in the world, even when all seems hopeless. And when there are no miracles, you can make them happen. With a simple act of kindness, you can save another person from despair, and that might just save their life. And this is the greatest miracle of all.

This is a quick read, one that is undeniably heartbreaking at times. I felt like Eddie was probably holding back on describing some of the more difficult aspects of his story, but fair enough. I can’t even begin to imagine how painful it was for him to write about any of his early life.

Ultimately, my experience of this book was one where I felt better after reading it than I felt before I began. I made a new friend, albeit one I’ll probably never meet. I was reminded that it is possible to be happy and live a fulfilled life, even when you’ve experienced pain that feels insurmountable. I was encouraged to inject some more kindness into the world.

It is never too late to be kind, polite, and a loving human being.

My only quibble, and this is simply because Eddie made me care deeply about them, is that I yearn to know what happened to Henni after she moved to Australia and to Kurt. I adored reading about Eddie and Kurt’s friendship and to leave Kurt’s story in 1946, without any information about their (I hope) continued friendship, hurt a little.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful. It is up to you.

Eddie Jaku always considered himself a German first, a Jew second. He was proud of his country. But all of that changed in November 1938, when he was beaten, arrested and taken to a concentration camp.

Over the next seven years, Eddie faced unimaginable horrors every day, first in Buchenwald, then in Auschwitz, then on a Nazi death march. He lost family, friends, his country.

Because he survived, Eddie made the vow to smile every day. He pays tribute to those who were lost by telling his story, sharing his wisdom and living his best possible life. He now believes he is the ‘happiest man on earth’.

Published as Eddie turns 100, this is a powerful, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful memoir of how happiness can be found even in the darkest of times.

Max Crack #2: Crack Up – Jules Faber

I think creating quests might have been the single best idea I have EVER HAD.

Max Crack and Frankie Doink, our self-proclaimed “Masters of Quests”, are back in Max’s second quest diary. I enjoyed this diary even more than the first and it already feels like I’ve made two new friends. These kids are just so relatable!

If I’d been in Mrs F’s class with them I would have been jostling to get an invite to help them achieve their quests. If they didn’t let me join in on the fun I probably would have either competed against them or come up with my own adventures. Adult me has even started thinking about the types of quests I could be working on now.

There’s plenty of questing in this book to keep your imagination active. Max and Frankie try to find a meteorite, which could actually be a UFO (you never know!). They embark upon shooting “Thine Moving Picture Questeth the Second”, become Heroes of Science and attempt to get their names in the record books.

When they’re not busy questing, they’re perfecting their secret handshake, making good use of their ninja skills and freaking themselves out with their imaginations. They even have the opportunity to make “coin of the realm”.

We learn about mythological foot soldiers and cosmological archaeology, encounter a honking mad goose and experience Stalac-pop fatigue. We ponder the important things in life: whether aliens travel on meteorites, why the return trip always seems quicker than the trip there and the difficulty in getting grown-ups to commit. Max and Frankie may also be experiencing their first crushes, but don’t tell them I said that; I’m sure they’d deny it.

We heard about the Mistress of the Dark Arts in the first book but in this one we actually get to meet her and she’s my new favourite character. I absolutely love everything about her, from her interests to the way she speaks. I can’t wait to have an excuse to spend more time getting to know her.

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In the Doink house, Frankie’s brothers have been in the spotlight. I would also like to get to know his sisters. I loved the inclusion of the new characters and hope they find their way into future diaries.

Books within a book I need in my life:

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  • Extreme Unknown Mysteries of the Mysterious Unknown Extremes
  • Alien Invaders on Your Pizza.

Once again I had fun seeking out the variations of well known names. I chuckled when I read about Playbox games, but my absolute favourite was when the comic book creator, Stanley le’Stan, was mentioned.

I got to enjoy more of Frankie’s theories, like the Invisible City Theory and the one that puts forth a compelling argument for Santa’s alien origins.

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While you could jump right into the series with this diary I’d recommend you read them in order. This one assumes you know about the quests Max and Frankie have already completed, so you’ll step in some spoilers for the first book along the way.

If anyone needs me I’ll be waiting for the next bridge accident to happen. I was intrigued but a bit hesitant when I began this series as I’ve previously only loved Jules Faber’s work as an illustrator but I’m hooked and can’t wait to see what quests Max and Frankie come up with next.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan Australia for introducing me to this fun new series.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Max Crack and his best friend Frankie are back with even more quest-ordinary adventures!

Armed with a shiny new quest list, they are on a mission to find a meteorite, make a movie, solve a sisterly feud, eat truckloads of chocolate, set a World Record …

Read all about it!

Max Crack #1: The Quest Diaries of Max Crack – Jules Faber

I’ve discovered a fun new children’s series and it’s written by the illustrator of one of my favourite children’s book series, Anh Do’s WeirDo. Written in diary form and featuring oodles of illustrations, we meet Max Crack, who’s just moved to Piddown.

While Max didn’t want to move house, at least the kids in his new school don’t know the embarrassing things he’s done. He’s determined to make the best of it so decides to embark upon a series of quests. His first quest is to find a best friend and it’s lucky he does because now he has a partner in crime for all of his future quests.

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Frankie tells Max all of the important stuff about the town, like where the Mistress of the Dark Arts lives, and introduces him to his Doink family. The Doinks have lots of children so their house can be chaotic, but for only child Max it’s a novelty. The Doink’s even have their own vocabulary!

The new best friends share a love of adventure, comics and jokes. Happily for me, there are even some pirate jokes.

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Max experiences some brand new embarrassing moments and together he and Frankie discover dinosaurs, search for Loch Ness monsters and tell fart jokes (they’re a requisite for pre-teen boys, aren’t they?). They compete in a spelling bee with some super dooper hard words and hunt for buried treasure, where O marks the spot.

Whatever our next quest will be, we’re going to do it together. I’m learning that THAT’s what best friends do.

I enjoyed the variations on well known people, foods and other items. Mars bars become Pluto bars. A famous rock band becomes Peck. My favourite minor character in this book was Nick ‘No Nickname’ Name.

I also had a favourite neighbour: Mrs Pembroke, who has an abundance of chocolate to give away.

I found the kids very relatable. I look forward to hearing some more of Frankie’s theories, which currently include the Sacrificial Skunk Theory. Some of his theories made more sense to me than others but I’m not a pre-teen boy, so what do I know?!

My favourite line involved Frankie mishearing Max when he mentioned a paradox.

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I always look forward to Jules Faber’s illustrations in Anh Do’s WeirDo series. Even if I didn’t know Jules had written this book I would have picked he’d illustrated it in a heartbeat. This is pure conjecture but I’m going to go out on a limb here. I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in the future there’s a WeirDo/Max Crack crossover where we learn that Max and Weir are distant relatives.

If you don’t believe I could possibly be right, check out this illustration from the second WeirDo book and tell me you don’t see the family resemblance between Max and Mrs Do.

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This is Max Crack, legend, quest-seeker and awesome best friend SIGNING OFF.

Time to begin book 2!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Hi everyone! I’m Max Crack and this awesome book is all about me and my quests and my best friend Frankie!

Buried treasure, new school, doodles, peanut butter and honey toast, best friends, horrible blobs, mysteries, Meddlyslop, spelling bees (hard words, harder words), more doodles, comics, World War Undies … this book has it ALL.

Adventures on Trains #1: The Highland Falcon Thief – M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman

Illustrations – Elisa Paganelli

All aboard!

Uncle Nat is a travel writer who loves trains and is thrilled to be a passenger on the Highland Falcon’s final journey. It’s the summer holiday and Hal is not looking forward to spending four whole days on board a train with his weird uncle.

‘I don’t like trains. They’re boring.’

Hal isn’t bored for long as it turns out there’s a jewel thief on board and he’s quickly caught up in the action.

‘Often the best place to hide something is in full view.’

On board the Highland Falcon and potential suspects are:

🚂 Harrison (Hal) Beck – 11, enjoys drawing
🚂 Nathaniel (Nat) Bradshaw – Hal’s mother’s older brother, a travel writer
🚂 Sierra Knight – a film star who is friends with the princess
🚂 Lucy Meadows – Sierra’s personal assistant
🚂 Countess of Arundel, Lady Elizabeth Lansbury – onboard with her dogs (Trafalgar, Viking, Shannon, Fitzroy and Bailey), her husband recently died
🚂 Rowan Buck – the Countess’ gentleman-in-waiting/dog handler
🚂 Ernest White – was the head steward on the royal train for 47 years, allergic to dogs
🚂 Baron Wolfgang Essenbach – friend of the prince
🚂 Milo Essenbach – the Baron’s youngest son
🚂 Steven Pickle – reality TV star, entrepreneur, runs a train company called Grailax
🚂 Lydia Pickle – Steven’s wife
🚂 Isaac Adebayo – the royal photographer
🚂 The prince and princess

🚂 Marlene (Lenny) Singh – 11, the train driver’s daughter
🚂 Mohanjit Singh – train driver, Lenny’s father
🚂 Gordon Goulde – head steward on the royal train
🚂 Graham – train guard
🚂 Amy – waitress
🚂 Joel Bray – fireman
🚂 Daniel and Kerry – the night shift.

Lenny, with her enthusiasm and tool belt, was always going to be my favourite character, especially when she was described (with a smile) as “the most disobedient girl ever to be born”. The surprise stand out for me was Uncle Nat, who turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected him to be. From his six watches, because “It’s good to remember that there are other places on the planet, filled with wonderful people”, to his love for trains, Nat is the person I’m most looking forward to spending more time with as the series progresses.

‘This will be a journey you’ll remember for the rest of your life.’

With a mystery unfolding and a group of mostly rich people with various agendas on board, this was a fun adventure. Train enthusiasts will enjoy the information about how steam trains operate and detectives in training will have their work cut out for them separating the red herrings from the clues, which are found in the text and in Elisa Paganelli’s illustrations. The details in the illustrations matched the text most of the time.

I was personally upset by how the dogs were treated at various times during the story, especially when a dog was kicked, but was relieved to know the dogs all went on to live happily ever after.

I’ll definitely be on board for Hal and Uncle Nat’s next adventure.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Macmillan Children’s Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan UK, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Harrison Beck is reluctantly joining his travel-writer Uncle Nat for the last journey of the royal train, The Highland Falcon. But as the train makes its way to Scotland, a priceless brooch goes missing, and things suddenly get a lot more interesting. As suspicions and accusations run high among the passengers, Harrison begins to investigate and uncovers a few surprises along the way. Can he solve the mystery of the jewel thief and catch the culprit before they reach the end of the line?