Witness – Louise Milligan

An analysis by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald newspapers of sexual assault statistics published in September 2019 found that of the 52,396 sexual assaults reported to NSW Police between 2009 and 2018, charges were only laid in 12,894 cases.

Of the 12,894, 7629 went to court. Of those, 2308 were dropped at trial, 1494 found not guilty. The remaining 3827, or roughly 50 per cent of the total that went to court, were found guilty. That’s just 7 per cent of the cases that originally went to police.

I’m one of the 39,502 whose report to the police resulted in no charges being laid. Because there were no witnesses. Because the detective who took my statement didn’t even know how to classify the crime that was committed. [I checked. Section 61I of the Crimes Act 1900 No 40 says it has a name. It’s called sexual assault.] Because the second detective I spoke to didn’t believe me. Because the entire police investigation consisted of the second detective asking my psychologist if I had a mental illness that would cause me to make something like this up.

After reading this book I’m grateful that my retraumatisation was only at the hands of the police, that I never had to experience cross-examination in court, where

complainants and witnesses are treated like they are the villains, in order to defend the accused.

This book was an eye-opener in the most brutal way. I already knew the court system in Australia didn’t do any favours for people who have experienced violent crimes. I didn’t realise it was this bad.

I learned about the culture within the legal community, ensuring barristers are seen as not having been affected by the horrific offences they are defending. Without being able to acknowledge their own vicarious trauma or get help for it, barristers disregard the impact of trauma on victims they cross-examine in their courtrooms, making it easier to dehumanise them and rip holes in their testimony.

This is a system where teenagers are called ‘madam’ to make it sound as though they are older than they are. Where children are not allowed to take teddy bears with them when they testify because their presence would remind the jury that the victim is a child. Where the accused has a lawyer protecting their rights in court but the victim doesn’t. Where barristers behave towards victims in ways that would get you fired in pretty much any other job, but it’s mostly allowed because in court it’s all about establishing reasonable doubt.

And that’s where we come to that oft-repeated phrase from victims – that the cross-examination was as bad, if not worse, than the original abuse.

Psychologist Michelle Epstein says her patients who go through the court process generally say they would recommend others not to do it.

My take-away from this book?

If you’re sexually assaulted in Australia and your case is one of the few that actually makes it to court, you’re likely to wish it hadn’t. There you can expect to be traumatised at a level on par, if not more so, than the abuse you experienced to get you there in the first place.

This is a real indictment on the legal system (I almost said justice system but it appears justice is but a pipe dream for most survivors). Until real change occurs (and this is a system that moves imperceptibly slow, so don’t hold your breath), I predict that fewer survivors will feel safe enough to report what happened to them and perpetrators are going to keep on perpetrating, knowing, statistically, they’re very unlikely to be punished for their crimes.

‘It’s like you are alive, and you’re having an autopsy done on you.’

Julie Stewart

People who actually have the power to make a difference need to read this book immediately! Well written as it is, it made me feel so sad and angry, and utterly powerless. Now that I’m suitably dejected and disillusioned, I’m going to take a much needed mental health break. If you’d care to join me, I’ll be floating on a cloud made of cotton candy and hanging out with some unicorns.

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide, mental health, sexual assault and suicidal ideation.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

From the best-selling author of Cardinal comes a searing examination of the power imbalance in our legal system – where exposing the truth is never guaranteed and, for victims, justice is often elusive. 

A masterful and deeply troubling expose, Witness is the culmination of almost five years’ work for award-winning investigative journalist Louise Milligan. Charting the experiences of those who have the courage to come forward and face their abusers in high-profile child abuse and sexual assault cases, Milligan was profoundly shocked by what she found. 

During this time, the #MeToo movement changed the zeitgeist, but time and again during her investigations Milligan watched how witnesses were treated in the courtroom and listened to them afterwards as they relived the associated trauma. Then she was a witness herself in the trial of the decade, R v George Pell.

She interviews high-profile members of the legal profession, including judges and prosecutors. And she speaks to the defence lawyers who have worked in these cases, discovering what they really think about victims and the process, and the impact that this has on their own lives. Milligan also reveals never-before-published court transcripts, laying bare the flaws that are ignored, and a court system that can be sexist, unfeeling and weighted towards the rich and powerful. 

Witness is a call for change. Milligan exposes the devastating reality of the Australian legal system where truth is never guaranteed and, for victims, justice is often elusive. And even when they get justice, the process is so bruising, they wish they had never tried. 

See What You Made Me Do – Jess Hill

We talk a lot about the danger of dark alleys, but the truth is that in every country around the world the home is the most dangerous place for a woman.

If you only ever read one book about domestic abuse, please make it this one. While I’d like everyone to read it, I think it should be mandatory for so many professions, including anyone involved in the judicial system, medicine, politics, teaching and counselling.

Domestic abuse is not just violence. It’s worse. It is a unique phenomenon, in which the perpetrator takes advantage of their partner’s love and trust and uses that person’s most intimate details – their deepest desires, shames and secrets – as a blueprint for their abuse.

I thought I knew a lot about domestic abuse already. I’ve experienced it firsthand. I’ve read plenty of fiction and non-fiction books that talk about it. I have a psychology degree. I worked in a women’s refuge for a short time. Yet I learned so much from this book.

What should surprise us about domestic abuse is not that a woman can take a long time to leave, but that she has the mental fortitude to survive.

When the author introduced Biderman’s ‘Chart of Coercion’, saying there are parallels between the experiences of returned prisoners of war and domestic abuse survivors, I admit I was a tad wary. Even as someone well versed in the experience of domestic abuse, I wasn’t sure how the two would or could line up. The way the author outlined the techniques, step by step, sucked me in though. It all made perfect sense and it was horrifying, but I was learning something new and I needed to find out more.

Accompanying extensive research are stories of people who have perpetrated and been victimised by domestic abuse. Prepare to brace yourself as you read these accounts as they are invariably brutal and heartbreaking, but please don’t bypass them, even though that would be easier. (Or else you risk missing out on aha! moments, like when emotional abuse is explained as someone bashing someone with their emotions instead of their fists.)

If you’ve experienced domestic abuse yourself, you will easily recognise the truth of these accounts. If you are fortunate enough to have made it this far without being impacted by this type of trauma, know that these stories are representative of so many people’s lives. Friends, family, neighbours …

I can’t imagine reading these accounts without having a visceral reaction and if you’re struggling to ‘witness’ them on the page, please be sure to practice self care. I don’t know if what helped me will apply to other readers but each time I came across something that was too difficult, I told myself that my discomfort wasn’t even in the same ball park as the horror of actually experiencing that firsthand.

The people who have told their stories have courage beyond my comprehension and I feel we owe it to them to not shy away from their words. It’s too easy to maintain the status quo; maybe what we all need is a wake up call to spur us into action.

There’s so much we still need to do. A recent Australian survey, conducted by White Ribbon, found that

Four in ten young men do not consider punching and hitting to constitute domestic violence

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald 25/10/2020

In NSW, Australia, coercive control is not even a criminal offence. Yet. Hopefully this will change, if proposed coercive control laws aren’t squished by the powers that be. You can find Women’s Safety NSW’s proposal here.

I want people to stop asking ‘Why does she stay?’ and start asking ‘Why does he do that?’

SURVIVOR, QUEENSLAND

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide, domestic abuse, mental health and sexual assault.

P.S. There’s going to be a three part TV series in 2021 hosted by Jess Hill.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

At the office of Safe Steps, Victoria’s dedicated 24/7 family violence response call centre, phone counsellors receive a call every three minutes. Many women are repeat callers: on average, they will go back to an abusive partner eight times before leaving for good.

‘You must get so frustrated when you think a woman’s ready to leave and then she decides to go back,’ I say.

‘No,’ replies one phone counsellor, pointedly. ‘I’m frustrated that even though he promised to stop, he chose to abuse her again.’

Women are abused or killed by their partners at astonishing rates: in Australia, almost 17 per cent of women over the age of fifteen – one in six – have been abused by an intimate partner.

In this confronting and deeply researched account, journalist Jess Hill uncovers the ways in which abusers exert control in the darkest – and most intimate – ways imaginable. She asks: What do we know about perpetrators? Why is it so hard to leave? What does successful intervention look like?

What emerges is not only a searing investigation of the violence so many women experience, but a dissection of how that violence can be enabled and reinforced by the judicial system we trust to protect us.

Combining exhaustive research with riveting storytelling, See What You Made Me Do dismantles the flawed logic of victim-blaming and challenges everything you thought you knew about domestic and family violence.

The Passengers – John Marrs

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

In a world where self-drive cars take the hassle out of getting from A to B, eight people go for a drive one morning. A hacker has set them on a collision course. Only one will survive. It’s up to the public to decide which one.

‘I have programmed your car to take you on an alternative route this morning. And in two hours and thirty minutes, it it likely that you will be dead.’

Scheduled to meet their maker in the near future are:

Passenger 1: A married young woman who is 7 months pregnant. She’s a teaching assistant who is driving to her husband’s workplace this morning.

Passenger 2: An unemployed and homeless young man who is suicidal.

Passenger 3: An elderly actress who is on her way to a hospital to visit teenage cancer patients. Even if you decide you don’t like her, then surely you wouldn’t kill her dog, who is travelling in the car with her, would you?

Passenger 4: A mother of two and a police officer.

Passenger 5: The husband of Passenger 4. He runs a refurbishment and construction company. He and his wife are travelling in separate cars.

Passenger 6: A stay at home mother of five who is trying to escape from an abusive husband.

Passenger 7: A disabled war veteran who’s on their way to the hospital.

Passenger 8: An asylum seeker.

It’s kind of like the trolley problem …

if it was on steroids.

Who would you save?

How do you determine which life is the most valuable when you don’t know the whole story?

That is the task Libby, a mental health nurse with PTSD, has before her today.

‘For every one of your actions today, there will be a reaction.’

This entire book is like watching a car crash unfold. Literally. And because I’m apparently all about realism, I read some of this book while I was sitting in my car. It was not moving at the time.

Like all John Marrs novels I’ve read so far, I loved the concept and quickly made my way through the chapters. Unlike previous novels I didn’t become emotionally involved in the story. I think it was because I didn’t get to spend much time getting to know each passenger.

While I understand it was integral to the story that the people who are deciding the fates of the eight unfortunates don’t know much about them, I never felt an urgent need for a specific passenger to survive so I wasn’t as caught up in the drama as I’d hoped.

You don’t need to have read The One to enjoy The Passengers but they’re set in the same world. There are several mentions of Match Your DNA in this book, which won’t mean a lot to you if you haven’t read The One.

‘What’s not to love about a bit of anarchy?’

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide, domestic violence, human trafficking, mental health, miscarriages, paedophilia, racism, sexual assault and xenophobia. I didn’t make notes of these while I was reading so have only mentioned the ones I can think of off the top of my head. I doubt I’ve remembered them all.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Eight self-drive cars set on a collision course. Who lives, who dies? You decide.

When someone hacks into the systems of eight self-drive cars, their passengers are set on a fatal collision course.

The passengers are: a TV star, a pregnant young woman, a disabled war hero, an abused wife fleeing her husband, an illegal immigrant, a husband and wife – and parents of two – who are travelling in separate vehicles and a suicidal man. Now the public have to judge who should survive but are the passengers all that they first seem? 

Mercy House – Alena Dillon

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

“Two eighty-four Chauncey Street. It’s the one with the angel doorknocker. Arrive any time. Day or night. You can be safe.”

Sisters Evelyn, Josephine and Maria have run Mercy House for twenty five years, providing a safe place for women who are escaping violence. Although they are undoubtably effective in their mission, they don’t always play by the strict rules of the Catholic Church.

“It’s what we’ve feared,” Josephine said. “It’s him.”

Bishop Hawkins is coming to visit Mercy House. His visit is part of the ‘nun-quisition’, which puts the actions of nuns under the microscope because of their “secular mentality” and “feminist spirit”. (Never mind that the same church actively moves priests between parishes and pays hush money to sweep much greater offences under the rug.) Besides the fear that the methods they employ in their ministry won’t stand up to close scrutiny, Evelyn has her own personal reasons for never wanting to see this ‘man of God’ again.

When you think of nuns, Evelyn is probably not who you have in mind. She loves what she does but still grumbles at getting woken up in the middle of the night when it’s her turn to answer the door. Her beliefs aren’t as strictly tied to her faith as you’d expect and if there’s a loophole that will produce better results, you can be sure she’ll find it.

Actually, none of the Sisters who run Mercy House line up with stereotypical nuns. Would you ever expect nuns to have a conversation like this?

“Crap baskets,” Maria said.

“Yeah. Major crap baskets,” Evelyn agreed.

Love it!

As much as I loved the three Sisters, I hated Hawkins and spent much of the book overcome by a seething fury, imagining all of the ways that I wanted to see him suffer. You don’t want to just angry your way through a book though. Fortunately there were some amazing women who balanced out my rage with wonder at their courage and resilience. These women are dealing with shame and secrets, and trying their best to survive their past.

While I liked each of the residents of Mercy House, it was Desiree who stood out, and for good reason. Desiree has this in your face brashness. She acts tough but she’s vulnerable as well, although she definitely doesn’t want you to acknowledge that part of her. She speaks her mind and oftentimes says what everyone else is thinking. You’d want to be her friend but she’d make a fierce enemy so don’t get on the wrong side of her. She was responsible for most of my smiles while I was reading.

“This is sweet and all, but we were promised we’d get pizza if we came to church. So …”

The women of Mercy House have been through some really difficult life experiences, none of which are glossed over. Please be safe while reading, especially if you are likely to be triggered by any of the content.

Although it made the narrative neater, it seemed unlikely to me that during the course of the book, no new residents came seeking refuge at Mercy House after we met Lucia.

I don’t know if publishers don’t know about readers like myself but whenever there’s a website included in a book I’m going to look it up. There’s a website in this book, SaveMercyHouse.com, that doesn’t exist. Given the book’s themes, I would have loved to have seen a page that represented what was mentioned in the book, along with details of relevant helplines and organisations that readers could donate to.

I think I understand why the author left the story where they do. Although there are many characters who make their mark on the lives and/or hearts of the nuns who run Mercy House, this story really is Evelyn’s. Her story ends with possibilities for the future but overall the book didn’t give me the answers I hoped for.

😇 Did Mercy House stay open?

😇 Was Evelyn ever called Sister again?

😇 What happened between Evelyn and Eloise?

😇 Were there any consequences for the bishop?

😇 Were there any consequences for John?

😇 What happened to the five Mercy House residents we got to know?

What wonders can be built from broken stuff.

Content warnings include abortion, addiction, domestic violence, gun violence, homophobia, racism, self harm and sexual assault.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn stands a century-old row house presided over by renegade, silver-haired Sister Evelyn. Gruff and indomitable on the surface, warm and wry underneath, Evelyn and her fellow sisters makes Mercy House a safe haven for the abused and abandoned. 

Women like Lucia, who arrives in the dead of night; Mei-Li, the Chinese and Russian house veteran; Desiree, a loud and proud prostitute; Esther, a Haitian immigrant and aspiring collegiate; and Katrina, knitter of lumpy scarves … all of them know what it’s like to be broken by men.

Little daunts Evelyn, until she receives word that Bishop Robert Hawkins is coming to investigate Mercy House and the nuns, whose secret efforts to help the women in ways forbidden by the Church may be uncovered. But Evelyn has secrets too, dark enough to threaten everything she has built.

Evelyn will do anything to protect Mercy House and the vibrant, diverse women it serves – confront gang members, challenge her beliefs, even face her past. As she fights to defend all that she loves, she discovers the extraordinary power of mercy and the grace it grants, not just to those who receive it, but to those strong enough to bestow it.

How To Be Ace: A Memoir of Growing Up Asexual – Rebecca Burgess

When Rebecca was growing up they weren’t interested in talking about relationships and sex like the rest of their classmates. They didn’t understand why sex was such a big deal but assumed they’d “grow into” it when they got older.

They tried to have relationships but it just didn’t feel right. They thought that something must be wrong with them.

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It wasn’t until they were at university that they began to accept that being different was okay and that they didn’t have to pretend to be like everyone else.

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Rebecca’s story takes the reader from the bullying they experienced in childhood through to managing their mental health. Information about asexuality is scattered through the graphic novel, with insights into what relationships can look like for people who identify as asexual.

There was a greater focus on mental health than I had expected. I didn’t personally learn anything new about asexuality from the panels that provide information but they do give readers a good introduction. I anticipate that being able to follow Rebecca’s journey from struggling with their sexuality to their eventual acceptance of who they are will be helpful for readers who can relate to her experiences and provide new understanding for those who don’t understand asexuality.

There are resources at the end of Rebecca’s story. Because asexuality is so misunderstood I’m including them here so you can check them out for yourself.

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Content warnings include anxiety, bullying, emetophobia, OCD and mention of sexual assault.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Jessica Kingsley Publishers for the opportunity to read this graphic novel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

“When I was in school, everyone got to a certain age where they became interested in talking about only one thing: boys, girls and sex. Me though? I was only interested in comics.”

Growing up, Rebecca assumes sex is just a scary new thing they will ‘grow into’ as they gets older, but when they leaves school, starts working, and does grow up, they starts to wonder why they doesn’t want to have sex with other people.

In this brave, hilarious and empowering graphic memoir, we follow Rebecca as they navigate a culture obsessed with sex – from being bullied at school and trying to fit in with friends, to forcing themself into relationships and experiencing anxiety and OCD – before coming to understand and embrace their asexual identity.

Giving unparalleled insight into asexuality and asexual relationships, How To Be Ace shows the importance of learning to be happy and proud of who you are.

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida – Clarissa Goenawan

Spoilers Ahead! (in the content warnings)

She’d said she wanted to tell me something. Maybe I could find out what, if I traced her path somehow.

Miwako Sumida was only 20 when she died. Her story is told by three people who each knew part of it. Ryusei was the man who loved Miwako. Chie, who began her life as a “transparent girl”, was Miwako’s best friend. Fumi, Ryusei’s sister, was Miwako’s employer. I want to tell you all about them but can’t, because spoilers.

I really liked Miwako. She was blunt. She could be stand-offish. If you wanted to know her at all, you had to work for it. But she was worth the effort.

“You know, she just made everything better. More intense. More colorful. When I looked at her, I used to think, ‘Hey, maybe the world isn’t such a bad place.’”

Her kindred spirit potential was evident to me early on, right about the time she bailed on karaoke with her friends to go to a bookstore. However, even though I saw her through the eyes of three people who knew her best, I still didn’t truly feel like I knew Miwako and I loved that about her.

Miwako was quite deliberately unknowable and although this would usually frustrate me, it somehow endeared her to me even more. It wasn’t until after her death that the secrets she was carrying were revealed and even then, it wasn’t an easy reveal. There was work involved.

I was sad that Miwako’s secrets weighed so heavily on her and that she never sought the support she deserved. Even though I knew from the blurb that she died by suicide I kept wanting her to reach out to one of the people who loved her, to trust them enough with the parts of herself that filled her with shame.

Miwako was not the only one keeping secrets. Ryusei, Chie and Fumi’s stories each highlighted, through their own stories or their memories of Miwako, the pain we feel when we keep parts of ourselves hidden and how secrets can change the course of our lives.

Given the difficult content that’s explored in this book I was surprised that I felt almost meditative while I was reading it. There’s something that I haven’t identified yet about the way it was written that made it feel like the words were washing over me.

It was really easy for me to get into. I found myself dreading the introduction of a new voice each time a new part began because I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the one I’d been spending time with. Each time, though, the new voice would suck me in and I’d be wanting to learn more of their story.

I was keen to spend more time with Ryusei in the months between his part of the story ending and the next time I saw him. I need to know how he spent his days and how he managed his grief over time, and his story is unfinished in my mind because I don’t have those details.

I really liked Chie and enjoyed getting to know different aspects of Miwako through their shared experience. Overall, though, it seemed to me that Chie’s main role in this story was to provide information to Ryusei and I don’t think she will stay with me. In contrast, I expect Ryusei and Fumi’s stories to linger with me.

Although I’m still having trouble deciding between Miwako and Fumi, I’m almost positive Fumi is my favourite character. And I can’t tell you why, because spoilers. Again!

The final revelation about Miwako’s life read a bit like an info dump to me and I wasn’t entirely sold on all of the details, but in the end it didn’t matter. I loved this book, so much so that I bought my copy of the author’s debut, Rainbirds, before I’d even read a quarter of this one.

But when it came to Miwako Sumida, nothing was as I expected.

Content warnings include abortion, bullying, death by suicide and sexual assault.

Thank you so much to Scribe Publications for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A bewitching novel set in contemporary Japan about the mysterious suicide of a young woman.

Miwako Sumida is dead.

Now those closest to her try to piece together the fragments of her life. Ryusei, who has always loved her, follows Miwako’s trail to a remote Japanese village. Chie, Miwako’s best friend, was the only person to know her true identity – but is now the time to reveal it? Meanwhile, Fumi, Ryusei’s sister, is harbouring her own haunting secret.

Together, they realise that the young woman they thought they knew had more going on behind her seemingly perfect façade than they could ever have dreamed. 

Liar Liar – Laurie Katz

Before I say anything else, I want to make a few things clear. I believe Laurie. What she experienced – being sexually assaulted, the perpetrator’s subsequent behaviour, the harmful responses she received from friends and university staff members – was horrific and she is not to blame for any of it. She deserved to be believed and supported while she was at college and she deserves those same things now.

What Laurie has accomplished here is remarkable. Writing about the events of your life is a difficult task under the best of circumstances. Needing to write accounts of my own experiences of sexual assault for non-public reasons has given me a general idea of just how daunting and painful a process this can be. I can’t even begin to imagine the vulnerability people must feel sharing this publicly and I commend Laurie for the courage and resilience this finished book represents.

Laurie was raped on the third Saturday of her freshman year of college. She was not only discouraged from reporting this to the police by university staff members but was also denied justice through the university’s own reporting process. Worse still, she was formally accused of lying by the university.

After essentially trying to cope with this trauma by herself, managing the best she could by overachieving and self-medicating, Laurie eventually found the support she deserved from the very beginning.

Given the subject matter, this was always going to be a difficult read, even though the book itself is quite short. If you find descriptions of sexual assault triggering, please be safe while reading this book. I had psyched myself up for the details I knew would be coming but was surprised by a few additional descriptions that I didn’t have time to prepare for. In particular, I thought the book was winding up so I let my guard down, then got hit by a major new revelation in the final chapter.

The next part of this review is difficult for me to write. I don’t feel like I have the right to judge anyone’s experiences or the choices they make so this isn’t that. However, I’m also uneasy critiquing the way anyone writes about their experiences, and that’s what this feels like.

Having said that, at times Laurie’s story came across as quite disjointed and could have benefited from some further editing. I recognise that traumatic memories are not formed in the nice, neat, linear way that non-traumatic memories are. Sometimes memories are only retained in flashes. They’re not necessarily remembered in the right order. There may be aspects of a sexual assault a victim never remembers.

All of this makes it harder to form a step by step narrative in our own heads, let alone when we try to make sense of it with others. I asked myself if I needed to take that into consideration as I was reading this book. I’d wonder about things, like where Sarah was or why no one accompanied Laurie to court, only to find out the answers in later chapters. The narrative jumped back and forth in time, making it more difficult to get a clear idea of the order of events.

The publisher says this book is part of a series that “tells the stories of the people who have battled and beaten mental health issues.” Although this should be obvious I feel I need to point out that sexual assault is not a mental health issue. Granted, it can result in a wide variety of trauma impacts, some of which include depression, anxiety and PTSD, but in and of itself it is not a mental health issue.

Content warnings include bullying, eating disorders, mental health, self harm, sexual assault and suicidal ideation.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Trigger Publishing for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Like any student about to start university, Laurie Katz was excited to see what the year would bring. Little did she know that just three weeks into her first term, her life would come crashing down around her. What had started as a fun night out with friends ended with Laurie, alone with a terrible secret: she had been raped.

Traumatised and confused, she set out to get justice against her attacker. But when the authorities at her university dismissed her case, and warned her that she could be expelled, she was left unsure where to turn. It seemed as though things couldn’t get worse, then her attacker filed his own case.

Laurie’s story is a brave and honest reminder of the injustice still felt in society around sexual abuse. Laurie offers readers her advice, and provides them with the hope that they too can overcome a similar trauma.

Fighting Words – Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

I could always count on Suki. Suki fixed everything.

Della has always been able to rely on Suki, her older sister. Suki has taken care of and protected Della her whole life. Now the sisters are in foster care and their mother’s boyfriend, Clifton, is in prison. Della keeps getting in trouble at school and Suki wakes up screaming each night.

I’ve learned that some things are almost impossible to talk about because they’re things no one wants to know.

I think we can sometimes underestimate the importance of young readers being able to see themselves in books. Although it’s wonderful to be able to escape into a world that only exists in your imagination, watching a character live through an experience that you can relate to is its own special type of magic.

Della and Suki’s story has the potential to reach readers who have experienced, or are still experiencing, sexual assault. I want Della’s words to reach through the page to let those readers know that they’re not alone and that there are people who will help them.

I loved Della. She’s a little spitfire but she’s also so courageous and resilient. Despite everything she’s experienced she is still loving and fiercely loyal. Her bond with Suki was beautiful, although the beauty was tinged with some sadness because Suki should never have been put in the position of caring for and protecting her younger sister.

I really hope this book finds its way to the readers it needs to. The story of these sisters is heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful. It clearly shows how important people’s responses to disclosures of sexual assault are to those who have the courage to speak up. Some of the impacts of this type of trauma are explored, as are some of the ways they can be managed.

Sometimes you’ve got a story you need to find the courage to tell.

While I was relieved that the abuser in this story was incarcerated I know that this will not be part of the story for so many survivors. The majority of perpetrators of sexual assault will never spend a day in prison. The statistics are absolutely horrifying.

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I don’t say this to discourage people from reporting what was done to them. It’s just that the majority of stories I’ve read that address sexual assault result in the conviction of the perpetrator. This is not a complaint about this book, merely a general observation.

We want the baddies to have consequences for their actions. I understand that. But when fiction only represents the outcome for the minority of victims of this crime, do we risk sending the message that being able to heal from this sexual assault is reliant upon the incarceration of the offender?

There are discussion notes at the end of the book, where the recommended reading age is said to be 14+. When I was a kid I only read books about kids who were my age or older so at 14 I wouldn’t have picked up a book where the main character was 12, but that’s probably just one of my quirks.

I can pretty much guarantee the word ‘snow’ will take on a whole new meaning once you’ve read this book.

Content warnings include addiction, bullying, foster care, sexual assault, suicide attempt (includes the method used), and verbal and emotional abuse.

Thank you to NetGalley and Text Publishing for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Della can’t work out why her adored older sister Suki screams in her sleep. Suki has always been Della’s protector, especially after their mother went to prison and her boyfriend took the sisters in. But who has been protecting Suki?

Della is in trouble at school for having a big mouth, but after she stands up to the class bully other girls rally to her cause. When Suki tries to kill herself, Della decides it’s time to tell their secrets and speak out about the terrible things that happened to Suki. Bound by love and trauma, these two sisters must find their own voices before they can find their way back to each other.

Based on the author’s personal experience, this gripping and essential story explodes the stigma around child sexual abuse. Written from the heart, with tenderness, compassion and humour, Fighting Words is about finding the words to talk about the most difficult things in young adults’ lives.

The Raven – Jonathan Janz

Humans have always been monsters. We just needed a push to embrace our shadow side.

In a world of monsters, Dez is a Latent. That sounds fancy, like his superpowers are just about to emerge. It actually means Dez is one of the few people that don’t have any powers, which is especially unfortunate considering he’s surrounded by cannibals, vampires, werewolves and satyrs. Dez has managed, against all odds, to survive for two years since the Four Winds but any moment could be his last.

Although it was the promise of monsters and blood spatter that drew me to this book, it was Dez himself that sucked me in. Despite all of the horrors he’s witnessed and participated in to stay alive, he has retained his humanity. He still has feelings. The grief and guilt he lives with for surviving while so many of his loved ones didn’t threatens to consume him. Although the odds are very slim that she’s still alive, Dez maintains hope of finding Susan, who he last saw being dragged away.

I learned enough about Dez’s personal history to become invested in his survival. The details provided about the various monsters enabled me to picture them, but I also understood that Dez still has a lot to learn, if only he can survive long enough.

So much blood is shed you could probably swim laps in it. I’m a huge fan of visceral horror so loved the descriptions of the carnage, where “shredded guts oozed like wine drenched cutlets” and a “chest was a wicker weave of stringed meat”.

I’m really hoping for a sequel that will take me to Blood Country. Some answers are given in this book. New people and monsters are introduced, and many are eviscerated, bludgeoned and ripped to shreds. But we’re on a journey here, and we’re not even close to the finish line. We need to search for loved ones, get to know new acquaintances (who are hopefully trustworthy) and battle more monsters.

This book surprised me in the best possible way. When I first saw the cover image I found it striking but didn’t really think it was signalling that this was the book for me. It was the blurb that enticed me and I’m so glad I took a chance on The Raven because it was a winner. I’m definitely going to be seeking out more books by this author.

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide, drug addiction and sexual assault. I’m all for slicing and dicing so I was keen for the gruesome deaths, though I was concerned about the satyrs and the potential for on page sexual assaults. Thankfully, while past assaults are mentioned, graphic details were not provided.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Flame Tree Press for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Fearing that mankind is heading toward nuclear extinction, a group of geneticists unleash a plot to save the world. They’ve discovered that mythological creatures such as werewolves, vampires, witches, and satyrs were once real, and that these monstrous genetic strands are still present in human DNA. These radical scientists unleash the bestial side of human beings that had been dormant for eons, and within months, most people are dead, and bloodthirsty creatures rule the earth. Despite the fact that Dez McClane has no special powers, he is determined to atone for the lives he couldn’t save and to save the woman he loves. But how long can a man survive in a world full of monsters? 

Afterlife #1: The Afterlife of the Party – Marlene Perez

Spoilers Ahead!

Join Tansy as she embarks on a road trip with her friend/crush Vaughan. They’re following a band that’s on tour, but not because they’re groupies. They’re trying to save Tansy’s best friend, Skylar, from the clutches of Travis, the band’s lead singer. Travis is a vampire that’s been feasting on Skylar.

The first in a planned trilogy, The Afterlife of the Party sucked me in straight away. (See what I did there? 🧛🏼‍♂️) I felt like I already knew Tansy, Skylar and Vaughan, and enjoyed hanging out with them. I loved the name of the vampire’s band, ‘The Drainers’, and I was keen to learn all about Tansy’s witch heritage.

I appreciated that consent was addressed in a vampire story, although after the vampires were introduced there were a number of scenes that had me scratching my head. I do need to acknowledge that I read an uncorrected proof so it’s entirely possible that the things I struggled with may not be included in the final version. Having said that …

Rose and Thorn mostly wandered in and out of scenes and didn’t contribute a great deal to the story. I anticipate they will have a larger role in the sequels, and I hope they do because their characters have the potential to become very interesting. However, by the end of this book both they and the Paranormal Activities Committee they work for seem pretty irrelevant.

I didn’t always feel the urgency of Tansy and Vaughn’s attempts to find Skylar. Especially when Tansey found Skylar close to death, did a quick healing spell on her and then left her again.

Sometimes terms that had already been defined, like Bleeders, would be reexplained in later chapters.

Tansey says she told Granny the “entire story” but less than ten paragraphs later she mentions a key part of the story that she has kept from her.

I knew I’d have to tell her eventually, but I wasn’t quite ready for the look of disappointment I’d see.

The showdown that I knew was inevitable as soon as a certain character was introduced disappointed me. It was over and done with much too quickly for my liking. If someone is going to try to take out a Big Bad I want there to be more of a fight, and maybe a cliché Big Bad monologue to go with it. While there are still plenty of baddies left for our heroes to deal with in the sequels, if it was that easy to get rid of the Big Bad then won’t their underling’s deaths be even easier?

I hope the sequels reveal the identity of Tansy’s father and explain what the deal is with Connor. I want more time with Granny, who could become my favourite character if I got to know her better. I’d also love to see Tansy and her friends cross paths with other hidden world creatures.

Content warnings include the violent death of an animal and mention of sexual assault. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with some scenes.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Entangled Teen, an imprint of Entangled Publishing, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

When my best friend Skyler told me about this party in the Hollywood Hills, I was less than enthused. As it turned out, my feelings were more than justified. That party ruined my life.

Tansy didn’t even want to go to the party. It’s hard enough living in one of your best friend’s shadows and secretly in love with your other best friend.

And now she’s leaving it a vampire.

Now her best friend Skyler is stuck on the road trip from hell, on tour as a groupie with a literal band of vamps. Tansy sets out with Vaughn, her other BFF turned maybe more, to save Skylar’s life and take down the band. But when they find themselves in the middle of a vampire war, will Tansy be able to make the ultimate sacrifice to save her friends?