Vox – Christina Dalcher

Imagine a world where, if you’re female, you are only allowed to speak one hundred words a day. When you utter word one hundred and one, your wristband will shock you. The more you exceed your quota, the greater the shock.

Not only that, you are no longer allowed to work. You’re no longer allowed to read. You’re not allowed to own a phone, computer or anything that connects to the internet.

Your child’s education is no longer educational; they will learn how to become a submissive housewife but that’s about it.

Welcome to Jean’s world. Run as fast as –

And that’s already one hundred words. Now you’re silenced for the rest of the day. Your wristband’s counter will reset to zero at midnight.

I’ve become a woman of few words.

In Jean’s world, the word count may be small but the indoctrination is big. People saw this coming. Some protested. Others sheltered behind denial, sure that something like this couldn’t actually happen. It did.

They didn’t think it could get any worse. It could.

“This would never happen. Ever. Women wouldn’t put up with it.”

“Easy to say now,” Jackie said.

I was hooked for the first half of the book but the second half seemed to unravel. Some things were a bit too convenient. The ending was a bit too rushed and seemed to go against the message of the book up until that point. I didn’t connect with the characters.

Still, this book made me think about the things I consider to be rights and how easily they can be removed. It made me angry every time I thought about how easily this fiction, or something similar to it, could become fact.

Reading just a few reviews has made it obvious how divisive a read this book has been. It’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer but it made me think so it did its job.

Think about what you need to do to stay free.

Content warnings include mention of abortion, animal experimentation, death by suicide, homophobia, physical abuse and sexual assault.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, Vox is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed to speak more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial – this can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning.

Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard.

But this is not the end.

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

Such a Pretty Smile – Kristi DeMeester

Lila’s mother, a famous artist, keeps her past a secret from her daughter.

Tell me. Tell me about before.

Thirteen year old Lila wants more freedom but her mother refuses to give it to her.

Caroline is haunted by her past. She’s convinced that The Cur is back and wants to protect her daughter from experiencing what she has.

“There are things that I’ve seen … Things I can’t ever forget.”

Told by Lila in 2019 and Caroline in 2004, this is a story of fear, nightmares and accidental art. It’s the past intruding on the present, it’s patronising men, it’s equating being good with being safe, it’s about what happens when we refuse to be silenced.

I was interested in the relationship between this mother and daughter. I wanted to find out what had happened in Caroline’s past. Some of Caroline’s art fascinated me.

As I read about Caroline’s sculptures, I could see them. There was some repulsion attached to them due to some of their components but I could imagine myself finding treasures from nature, random leaves and branches (not some of the other objects Caroline uses), and attempting to create art from them.

I expect this will be a polarising read. I finished reading this book over a month ago and still don’t really know how I feel about it. Where this book lost me was the ending. After having me hooked until that point, I just didn’t buy the explanation. Maybe I missed something and a reread will fill in some blanks for me.

Content warnings include mental health, murdered and mutilated children, mutilated dog and sexual assault.

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

There’s something out there that’s killing. Known only as The Cur, he leaves no traces, save for the torn bodies of girls, on the verge of becoming women, who are known as trouble-makers; those who refuse to conform, to know their place. Girls who don’t know when to shut up.

2019: Thirteen year old Lila Sawyer has secrets she can’t share with anyone. Not the school psychologist she’s seeing. Not her father, who has a new wife, and a new baby. And not her mother – the infamous Caroline Sawyer, a unique artist whose eerie sculptures, made from bent twigs and crimped leaves, have made her a local celebrity. But soon Lila feels haunted from within, terrorised by a delicious evil that shows her how to find her voice – until she is punished for using it.

2004: Caroline Sawyer hears dogs everywhere. Snarling, barking, teeth snapping that no one else seems to notice. At first, she blames the phantom sounds on her insomnia and her acute stress in caring for her ailing father. But then the delusions begin to take shape – both in her waking hours, and in the violent, visceral sculptures she creates while in a trance-like state. Her fiancé is convinced she needs help. Her new psychiatrist waives her “problem” away with pills. But Caroline’s past is a dark cellar, filled with repressed memories and a lurking horror that the men around her can’t understand.

As past demons become a present threat, both Caroline and Lila must chase the source of this unrelenting, oppressive power to its malignant core. Brilliantly paced, unsettling to the bone, and unapologetically fierce, Such a Pretty Smile is a powerful allegory for what it can mean to be a woman, and an untamed rallying cry for anyone ever told to sit down, shut up, and smile pretty.

Weyward – Emilia Hart

Altha – 1619

Altha is on trial, accused of being a witch.

Night had already fallen for me.

Violet – 1942

Violet’s father is appalled by her behaviour (climbing trees is most inappropriate) and is threatening to send her to finishing school so he can marry her off to an eligible young man. Violet wants to be a scientist. She would also like to be allowed to wear trousers. No one understands her “insect obsession”.

‘Is there something wrong with me?’

Kate – 2019

When Kate leaves her abusive relationship, she goes to Weyward Cottage, which was owned by her great-aunt. It is here that she will come to terms with her past and discover her heritage.

I am the monster.

The first Weyward child is always a girl. This is the story of three of them, centuries apart yet connected.

Although each Weyward is given a voice in this story, Altha’s is the only one told in first person. I found something to like about all three women. In particular, their affinity with nature endeared them to me.

Be aware that on page violence against women is part of the story in every timeline. The graphic nature of some of this abuse may be triggering for some readers. Thankfully, women reclaiming their power and having the courage to be themselves was also part of the story.

Favourite no context quote:

Perhaps one day, she said, there would be a safer time. When women could walk the earth, shining bright with power, and yet live.

Content warnings include abortion, domestic abuse, mental health, miscarriage, physical abuse of an animal, racial slur, sexual assault, stillbirth and suicidal ideation. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with some scenes.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and The Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins UK, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Kate, 2019
Kate flees London – abandoning everything – for Cumbria and Weyward Cottage, inherited from her great-aunt. There, a secret lurks in the bones of the house, hidden ever since the witch-hunts of the 17th century.

Violet, 1942
Violet is more interested in collecting insects and climbing trees than in becoming a proper young lady. Until a chain of shocking events changes her life forever.

Altha, 1619
Altha is on trial for witchcraft, accused of killing a local man. Known for her uncanny connection with nature and animals, she is a threat that must be eliminated.

But Weyward women belong to the wild. And they cannot be tamed…

Weaving together the stories of three women across five centuries, Weyward is an enthralling novel of female resilience and the transformative power of the natural world.

Bizarre – Marc Dingman

I’m fascinated by why humans do the strange things we do. This book answered some of the questions I’ve had, as well as some I didn’t have until I started reading.

While I have an interest in neuroscience, I don’t have a scientific background so am usually hesitant to dive into books that explore it. The blurb made this one sound like it would be accessible without a bunch of prior knowledge so I took a chance. I loved it so much that I practically inhaled it.

I have so much more appreciation for the complexities of the brain and how much we still don’t know about how it works. Given how many of its parts are involved in tasks that we often do without a second thought, it’s astounding that we function at all.

Just speaking a simple sentence, for example, requires the successful execution of operations such as word retrieval, the application of syntax (i.e., the rules used to properly arrange words in a sentence), coordinating the activity of the muscles involved in speech, sprinkling in appropriate changes in tone and pitch, and so on. Each of these tasks might require the contribution of different parts of the brain, causing language to be reliant on a large number of functioning brain regions for it to be fully operational.

This book explains how the different parts of the brain work but I’m also much more aware now of the many ways that things can go wrong. Illness, trauma and other unexpected bumps in the road that affect even one part of the brain can have life changing consequences.

Each chapter covers a different area of behaviour: identification, physicality, obsessions, exceptionalism, intimacy, personality, belief, communication, suggestibility, absence, disconnection and reality.

There are so many disorders and syndromes covered in this book, some I’d already heard of but others that were new to me. There’s Cotard’s syndrome, where you’re convinced you’re dead or have lost organs, blood or body parts, and Capgras syndrome, where you believe people close to you have been replaced by imposters. There’s clinical lycanthropy/zoanthropy, pica, hoarding, objectophilia, dissociative identity disorder, the placebo effect, folie à deux, agnosia, alien hand syndrome, Alice in Wonderland syndrome and more.

Despite how strange some of them may seem, they often just represent the extremes of the spectrum of normal human tendencies – and they are not completely foreign to us.

A lot of the stories will stay with me but probably none more so than that of Kim Peek, who had a condition called an encephalocele, “where an incompletely developed cranium allows part of the brain to bulge outside the skull – potentially twisting, distorting, and damaging brain tissue in the process.” Despite considerable brain damage, Kim was able to do something extraordinary.

He eventually could read a page in 8 to 10 seconds while memorizing all the information on it. He even began reading and comprehending the right and left pages of a book simultaneously (with his right and left eyes).

By the time he died in 2009 at the age of 58, Kim had read – and memorized – more than 12,000 books.

Morbid curiosity may make you want to read this book but, thanks to the author’s approach, you never lose sight of the fact that these are real people you’re reading about, people who have often suffered greatly as a result of what’s happening in their brain.

This book did what I’m always looking for in non-fiction. I learned plenty of interesting new things. It held my attention. It made me think. It made me want to learn more.

Content warnings include domestic abuse, gun violence, mental health, self harm, sexual assault and suicidal ideation. Readers with emetophobia may have some trouble.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Nicholas Brealey Publishing, an imprint of John Murray Press, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The human brain is an impossibly complex and delicate instrument – capable of extraordinary calculations, abundant creativity and linguistic dexterity. But the brain is not just the most brilliant of evolutionary wonders. It’s also one of the most bizarre.

This book shows a whole other side of how brains work – from the patient who is afraid to take a shower because she fears her body will slip down the drain to a man who is convinced, against all evidence, that he is a cat, and a woman who compulsively snacks on cigarette ashes.

Entertaining though they are, these cases are more than just oddities. In attempting to understand them, neuroscientists have uncovered important details about how the brain works. Bizarre will examine these details while explaining what neuroscience’s most unusual patients have taught us about normal brain function -ideal both for readers seeking a better appreciation of the inner workings of the brain and those who simply want some extraordinary topics for dinner party conversation.

Gothic – Philip Fracassi

Spoilers Ahead (in purple)

Tyson Parks, once upon a bestselling author, is struggling both creatively and financially. He’s already spent the advance he received for the book he was supposed to be writing and his agent isn’t exactly thrilled that the work in progress Tyson presents to him doesn’t even remotely resemble the pitch. Sent away with an impossible deadline and strict instructions to write the book he was supposed to be writing, Tyson feels defeated.

Sarah, Tyson’s partner, goes all out for his birthday, buying him a one of a kind antique desk. They both hope this will give Tyson the boost he needs to get back in the game.

Now, instead of completing the historical horror novel he wanted to write, Tyson finds himself embroiled in a real life historical horror, one that’s almost three hundred years in the making.

I found this book easy to get into and I was keen to see how the history of Tyson’s desk impacted on his present. Almost immediately I started comparing Tyson to Jack Torrance. It was hard not to. The author even references Jack, and adds a few other King references in for good measure.

I was completely on board until the on page rape scene. I love so many types of horror: body horror, slashers, supernatural horror, gore, psychological horror, monster horror… This rape scene, though? It seemed to me that it was only there as a plot device, showing the reader that the desk is influencing Tyson to act in a way that he never would without it. There are so many ways you can show me that someone is morphing into a bad guy without using rape to do it. Sexual assault has its place in fiction but not when there’s no sensitivity given to the material.

But here’s the reality: when you are joined with someone for over a decade of life, and when that decade has been a good decade – a litany of loving moments, shared compassion and consistent, unflagging support – you build a level of trust, a balustrade of understanding, of love.

Of forgiveness.

This just made me mad. Oh, and then there’s this.

It was up to Sarah to decide now. Was their story over, or had the future already been written? Sarah let out a held breath, her shoulders slump and she leans forward, her forehead to his chest.

She allows him to give himself back to her, and she to him.

Tyson, Sarah might forgive you for brutally raping her but I don’t.

If it wasn’t for this scene, I probably would have continued to enjoy this read. It coloured everything I read after it, though, and I never made it back to my initial enjoyment.

Because I really liked the way this novel started, I’d be interested in trying another book by this author. I’d definitely check out the reviews first to make sure I chose one that’s right for me.

Content warnings include domestic abuse and sexual assault.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Cemetery Dance Publications for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

On his 59th birthday, Tyson Parks – a famous, but struggling, horror writer – receives an antique desk from his partner, Sarah, in the hopes it will rekindle his creative juices. Perhaps inspire him to write another best-selling novel and prove his best years aren’t behind him.

A continent away, a mysterious woman makes inquiries with her sources around the world, seeking the whereabouts of a certain artifact her family has been hunting for centuries. With the help of a New York City private detective, she finally finds what she’s been looking for.

It’s in the home of Tyson Parks.

Meanwhile, as Tyson begins to use his new desk, he begins acting… strange. Violent. His writing more disturbing than anything he’s done before. But publishers are paying top dollar, convinced his new work will be a hit, and Tyson will do whatever it takes to protect his newfound success.

Even if it means the destruction of the ones he loves.

Even if it means his own sanity.

The One Thing We’ve Never Spoken About – Elfy Scott

I know quite a few people who live with depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD and bipolar disorder, but no one has disclosed to me that they live with schizophrenia. This is not to say I don’t know anyone living with this condition, only that so much stigma is attached to schizophrenia that people often don’t feel comfortable sharing their diagnosis with the people in their life. I’m hopeful that books like this one will help break the silence that surrounds it.

Prior to reading this book I probably could have muddled my way through the DSM-5 criteria and maybe rattled off some statistics. However, the only times I’ve only heard from people who’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia is in documentaries about mental health whose focus is invariably on the more well known diagnoses of depression and anxiety. The stories about those with schizophrenia were told in passing, usually referred to in hushed voices and terminology that you’d expect more in reference to people who are terminally ill.

The truth is, the schizophrenia many of us think we know fails to reflect the reality of the schizophrenia that most people experience.

In this book, the author opens up the conversation about what life looks like for people living with schizophrenia and their loved ones. They look at environmental risk factors, such as trauma and poverty, and explore the stigma that surrounds diagnosis and the different models of mental health. Contrary to their portrayal in the media, people with schizophrenia are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

The importance of peer support and the limitations of our health care, housing and justice systems are explained. The experiences of a number of people living with schizophrenia are told throughout the book, and it becomes abundantly clear the role privilege plays in the way schizophrenia is treated (or not) and how individuals are able to manage their condition.

I was encouraged by how well the author’s mother’s schizophrenia has been managed but was also very aware of the privilege that facilitated such positive outcomes. Being able to afford and access appropriate medical care from the time that symptoms appear, as well as having secure housing and a network of supportive family and friends are luxuries that many people don’t have.

I was relieved that Elfy’s mother didn’t have to deal with a lot of the struggles that other people diagnosed with mental illness face but, as someone who needs to advocate for myself in a broken health system, I also found myself envious of the privilege that allowed her to get the treatment she’s needed when she’s needed it. I imagine if I was reading this book as a family member of someone diagnosed with schizophrenia, this disparity would hit me even harder.

The author openly acknowledges this privilege. This book also includes the voices of people who I expect would represent the majority of people who live with schizophrenia, those who don’t have access to adequate medical care and who don’t have secure housing and an abundance of supportive people in their life.

Even with all of the resources their family had, their mother’s schizophrenia was an open secret for Elfy and her siblings when they were growing up.

Her condition didn’t feel shameful to speak about so much as it just felt quite scary and dark – too jarring to make sense in our day-to-day lives outside of the house and too big to concern other people with. And so it became a secret.

One of my pet peeves, talking about what we’re going to talk about before getting into the talking about it, was present in this book. To be fair, this is something I come across more often than not in nonfiction reads and it probably says more about my impatience to get on with the learning than anything else. Once I made it past the introductory material, the stories shared by the people with lived experience hooked me.

Where this book shone was its inclusion of the voices of so many people living with schizophrenia, as well as schizoaffective disorder and bipolar disorder. Diagnostic criteria and statistics can only take you so far. It should go without saying but if you want an understanding of what it’s like to live with a condition, listening to the people who know it from the inside is invaluable. You can know in theory that people who live with schizophrenia experience stigma but until someone with lived experience explains how that impacts them personally, you can stay several steps removed from that reality.

If a quarter of all Australians are affected by a complex mental health condition in some way, whether through firsthand experience or by way of a relative or friend, then we’re forced to ask: Why aren’t we talking about these issues on a national scale? Why does it seem like nobody cares? And who does it serve for us not to care?

Content warnings include mention of bullying, death by suicide, domestic abuse, homelessness, mental health, racism, self harm, sexual assault and suicidal ideation.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

An investigation into the failings of Australia’s mental healthcare system, grounded in a personal story of a mother–daughter relationship.

Journalist Elfy Scott grew up in a household where her mother’s schizophrenia was rarely, if ever, spoken about. They navigated this silence outside the family home too; for many years, this complex mental health condition was treated as an open secret.

Over the past two decades, we have started talking more about common mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. But complex conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and psychosis have been left behind, as have many of the people who live with these conditions or who care for them.

Part memoir, part deep-dive investigation, The One Thing We’ve Never Spoken About is filled with rage at how our nation’s public discourse, emergency services and healthcare systems continue to fail so many people. It is also a work of care, telling the little-heard stories of people who live with these conditions and work at the front lines of mental health. Above all, this timely, compelling book is informed by hope and courage, breaking down taboos and asking big questions about vulnerability, justice and duty of care.

Meredith, alone – Claire Alexander

For better or for worse, life can change in a matter of seconds. People take their first and last breaths. Cars crash, planes plunge into oceans. The healing process after decades of hurt can begin with a simple gesture.

Or a question: ‘Are you all right?’

When we meet Meredith, she hasn’t left her home for 1,214 days. Fred, her cat, is her constant companion. Her only visitors are the Tesco delivery man, Sadie (her best friend) and Sadie’s kids, James and Matilda. Meredith spends a lot of her time working on jigsaw puzzles.

I’ve been collecting boxes filled with places I’ll never go – works of art I’ll never see.

Meredith doesn’t have any contact with her mother or Fiona (Fee), her older sister. It’s complicated.

On day 1,215, Meredith meets Tom from Holding Hands.

On day 1,219, Meredith meets Celeste, AKA, CATLADY29.

My life is divided into before and after, and the before remains out of my grasp.

Over the course of just over 300 days, the puzzle pieces of how Meredith’s before became her after come together.

I binged this book in a day and enjoyed getting to know Meredith and the people who found their way to her front door. What struck me most was how vital the people around Meredith were to her, giving her the connections she needed and the safety to both confront her past and grow beyond her limitations.

A lot of social issues are explored in this book, many of which have the potential to be quite confronting. While their inclusion made sense in the context of the story and individual characters, some deserved more page time.

While I spent the book cheering Meredith on, sometimes her wins felt like they came too easy. Yes, she did work hard to achieve everything she did. Considering what her life looked like when we met her, though, I would have expected her recovery to be more two steps forward, one step back than it was, over a longer period of time.

Meredith can cook for me anytime she’d like.

I love when books teach me new concepts. Oubaitori comes from kanji for four trees that bloom in spring: cherry blossoms, plum, peach, and apricot.

桜梅桃李

While each blossom looks similar, they bloom differently, with varying shapes and smells. Oubaitori applies this concept to people.

In Japanese philosophy it’s the art of never comparing yourself to others, but recognizing value in your own unique character.

Content warnings include attempted suicide, domestic abuse, eating disorder, mental health, miscarriage, self harm, sexual assault, stillbirth and suicidal ideation.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Meredith Maggs hasn’t left her house in 1,214 days. But she insists she isn’t alone… 

She has her cat Fred. Her friend Sadie visits when she can. There’s her online support group, StrengthInNumbers. She has her jigsaws, favourite recipes, her beloved Emily Dickinson, the internet, the Tesco delivery man and her treacherous memories for company. 

But something’s about to change.

Whether Meredith likes it or not, the world is coming to her door… Does she have the courage to overcome what’s been keeping her inside all this time? 

Letters to the Lost #2: More Than We Can Tell – Brigid Kemmerer

I’m so late to the party with this book and it had already well and truly sucked me in before I realised it was a sequel to a book I haven’t read. Thankfully this didn’t matter.

I fell for Rev and Emma straight away. I can’t go past an outcast, troubled teen story, especially when the characters are dealing with so many huge things on top of simply surviving adolescence.

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“Seeing me.”

Rev was fostered and eventually adopted by Geoff and Kristin after he was removed from his preacher father’s care. Rev’s father has made contact with him for the first time in ten years and it’s bringing back all of the emotions and memories he’s tried so hard to bury. Rev hides beneath his hoodie.

Emma’s mother is critical of her and her father, who she adores, is too busy with technology to be aware of anything that’s happening in her life. Emma is really proud of the game she designed but online isn’t the safe space it used to be. Emma hides behind her computer.

“I think I need someone real, too”

Rev and Emma worked so well together. I am a tad obsessed with the scene where they sit back to back texting because it’s easier than sitting face to face talking.

“I’m not good at this.”

“Not good at what?”

He gestures between us. “This. I’m not – I’m not good with people.”

“I’m not either.”

Their awkwardness endeared them to me. Their courage to face their past and present encouraged me. The fact that they retained some softness rather than being made up entirely of sharp edges inspired me. I love underdog stories!

Where Emma’s arc led her was predictable and we never found out for sure who N1ghtmare was, although I suspect they were the person she was in the car with when she sent Rev her location.

I would step in front of a speeding train for Texas, Emma’s Labrador. She can have as many chicken nuggets as she wants.

I hurt for Matthew. The secrets he’s been carrying are absolutely heartbreaking. I need to know what his life looks like in the years after this book.

I spent most of the book wanting to know more about Declan, wishing I could read his story. Lo and behold, the author has already worked their magic. Dec is one of the stars of the first book, which I bought as soon as I finished reading this one. It’ll be my next read. Because Dec and Rev are best friends, I’ll also get to hang out with Rev some more.

My main niggle was with Cait’s character. She had so much potential, yet she was pushed to the background for most of the story. I need her to teach me how to do makeup.

Once she made her face look like she was unzipping her skin

I’ll be her guinea pig whenever she wants to experiment with new weird and wonderful makeup ideas.

As usual, I sent a test email to Robert and Rev’s email addresses. Neither of them wanted to talk to me; both emails were undeliverable.

Favourite no context quote:

“We all push sometimes, just to make sure someone is on the other side, pushing back.”

Content warnings include emotional abuse, foster care, miscarriage, online harassment, physical abuse, religious abuse, sexual assault and stalking. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with one scene.

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Every day Rev struggles with the memories and demons of the time before he was adopted. He’s always managed just fine, until a letter from his birth father brings hellfire, fear and danger back into his life.

Emma escapes her life in an online game she built herself. Virtual reality is so much easier than real life. But then another player joins the game and suddenly ultra-violent threats start to stream in…

When Rev and Emma meet, they are fighting a darkness they can’t put into words. But somehow they hear each other and together they might be able to find a way out…

The Witch Haven – Sasha Peyton Smith

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

“Something bad is coming”

Frances Hallowell is mourning the recent death of her brother. Her life gets a lot more complicated when her super slimy boss attacks her after hours and she sorta kinda accidentally kills him. Oops!

When it looks certain that Frances is going to be convicted as a murderer, salvation comes to her by way of an ambulance. She’s told she’s very unwell and is promptly taken to Haxahaven Sanitarium to be ‘treated’. Only Haxahaven isn’t what it’s advertised to be. It’s actually a school for witches…

The premise of this book hooked me: secret witchy school, murder mystery, underdog battling the Big Bad. The reality of the book surprised me, and I’m still conflicted.

I was entirely engaged until I learned that the witchcraft that was being taught at Haxahaven was limited to producing good little wives and domestic help. I switched off a little at that point and was even able to put the book aside for a few weeks without any trouble.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to finish reading but figured I’d give it another try. I found it easy to get back into. I hadn’t forgotten who the characters were or what was happening for each of them when I pressed pause. It didn’t take me long to get into the rest of the story, the parts that didn’t involve magical bread-kneading.

While I wasn’t the hugest fan of Frances, I absolutely adored Maxine and Lena. I wanted to get to know Oliver better.

I think perhaps this is how we survive in the world. Passing little bits of our magic back and forth to each other when the world takes it from us. It’s survival. It’s love. It’s family.

Content warnings include attempted sexual assault including suffocation, domestic abuse, mental health and a character who was removed from her home and taken to a residential school. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with some scenes.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In 1911 New York City, seventeen year old Frances Hallowell spends her days as a seamstress, mourning the mysterious death of her brother months prior. Everything changes when she’s attacked and a man ends up dead at her feet – her scissors in his neck, and she can’t explain how they got there.

Before she can be condemned as a murderess, two cape-wearing nurses arrive to inform her she is deathly ill and ordered to report to Haxahaven Sanitarium. But Frances finds Haxahaven isn’t a sanitarium at all: it’s a school for witches. Within Haxahaven’s glittering walls, Frances finds the sisterhood she craves, but the headmistress warns Frances that magic is dangerous. Frances has no interest in the small, safe magic of her school, and is instead enchanted by Finn, a boy with magic himself who appears in her dreams and tells her he can teach her all she’s been craving to learn, lessons that may bring her closer to discovering what truly happened to her brother.

Frances’s newfound power attracts the attention of the leader of an ancient order who yearns for magical control of Manhattan. And who will stop at nothing to have Frances by his side. Frances must ultimately choose what matters more, justice for her murdered brother and her growing feelings for Finn, or the safety of her city and fellow witches. What price would she pay for power, and what if the truth is more terrible than she ever imagined?

The Girl in the Green Dress – Jeni Haynes & George Blair-West

With Alley Pascoe

Four years of police interviews, 900,000 words in victim statements, endless therapy sessions, a lifetime of pain

I thought I was going to tell you that this is one of the best books I’ve read about mental health and sexual assault but, while that’s accurate, it falls short of what I really want to say. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. One of the most painful and difficult to read, sure, but absolutely one of the best.

I’ve read about Multiple Personality Disorder/Dissociative Identity Disorder (MPD/DID) before so I thought I already knew the basics and I guess I did. Before this book, though, I’d never truly appreciated how incredible people with MPD/DID are.

There are three factors that typically cause DID: the experience of the most extreme forms of abuse, usually extending over many years; this abuse is perpetrated by caregivers, typically parents, that the child relies upon; and it begins while the child’s mind is young, or plastic, enough, to employ high-level dissociative strategies.

The fact that such unimaginably horrific abuse is perpetrated on young children by people they should be able to trust to protect them is mind-boggling. That the brain is able to develop such a highly developed coping strategy to survive abuse of this magnitude is awe-inspiring.

Told by Jeni, some of her alters and their psychiatrist, Dr George Blair-West, this is the most comprehensive account of MPD/DID you are likely to ever read. Jeni has Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) so is able to recall, in detail, her experiences from when she was an infant.

MPD/DID is a response to being a victim of extreme criminal acts.

Because so much of what Symphony and the alters she created have experienced is more brutal than anything you’ll likely see in your worst nightmare, this isn’t a book you’ll want to binge. You’ll need time out to take care of yourself: go for a walk, remember that the world still holds beauty, remind yourself that Jeni, against all odds, is okay.

I really appreciated the care shown by both the publisher and Dr Blair-West, warning readers of the potential impacts of reading this book before you’ve even begun. A couple of times Jeni warns you that the content you’re about to read is even more difficult than what you’ve encountered to that point, giving you the option to skip that section.

While I read those parts, I was grateful for the warnings so I could prepare myself as best I could. At the same time, though, the fact that Jeni and her alters spent their entire childhood protecting her mother and siblings and is now taking steps to protect readers both touched and saddened me. No one protected Jeni from the torture she experienced, yet she cares enough about people she’ll likely never meet to want to make sure they’re okay.

Jeni even protects the reader by not including all of the details of the unrelenting abuse she was subjected to. Her police statement, at 900,000 words, didn’t even cover everything that happened to her. For context, that’s significantly longer than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Jennifer Margaret Linda was the original birth child, with Symphony taking her place when she was six months old. Symphony then created the alters. In this book we hear from Jennifer Margaret Linda, Symphony, Erik, Little Ricky, The Rulebook, The Assassin, Jenny, Linda, Muscles, Captain Busby, Janet, Squadron Captain, Amber, Judas, Happy, Zombie Girl, Magsy, The Joker, Maggot, Volcano, The Student, Ed the Head, Charlotte, Gabrielle, Mr Flamboyant, Jeni and The Entity Currently Known as Jeni.

That Jeni even survived her childhood is a testament to how incredibly well her system works. The fact that she’s able to function and is even surthriving is remarkable.

Life should be about thriving as we find meaning and purpose – hence the idea of rising above to ‘surthrive’.

Everyone who works in a helping profession should read this book. Jeni’s case was the first to use a diagnosis of MPD/DID for the prosecution, not the defence, paving the way for other survivors of extreme abuse to seek justice. This book, because of the openness of the alters who contributed to it, will provide much needed insights, so hopefully others with MPD/DID won’t be failed by the people who should be helping them the way Jeni was.

My abuse didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened before a school fete, behind the closed doors of my father’s respectability.

I’ve spoken a lot about Jeni and her alters but I need to point out that I found the insights Dr Blair-West gives in this book so helpful. He has the ability to take something that’s complex and explain it in a way that makes it feel like it’s not complex at all. I’ve read a lot about PTSD, dissociation and the way the brain manages trauma but Dr Blair-West’s explanations have given me a much better understanding of them.

To Jeni, Symphony, the alters who contributed to this book and those I haven’t met: Thank you for telling your story. I feel honoured to have been introduced to so many of you. I can only imagine how traumatic it was to revisit these experiences in order to write about them. Your story means more to me than you’ll ever know. You are brave and resilient and I’m in awe of you. You are truly extraordinary.

Content warnings include death by suicide, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, mental health, miscarriage, neglect, physical abuse, sexual assault, suicidal ideation and torture.

Thank you so much to Hachette Australia for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

‘I didn’t know that you’re only supposed to have one personality. I didn’t realise that having lots of voices in your head was abnormal. But you are protecting yourself. You are protecting your soul, and that’s what I did.’

An intelligent, poised woman, Jeni Haynes sat in court and listened as the man who had abused her from birth, a man who should have been her protector, a man who tortured and terrified her, was jailed for a non-parole period of 33 years. The man was her father.

The abuse that began when Jeni was only a baby is unimaginable to most. It was physically, psychologically and emotionally sadistic and never-ending. The fact she survived may be called a miracle by some – but the reality is, it is testament to the extraordinary strength of Jeni’s mind.

What saved her was the process of dissociation – Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) – a defence mechanism that saw Jeni create over 2500 separate personalities, or alters, who protected her as best they could from the trauma. This army of alters included four-year-old Symphony, teenage motorcycle-loving Muscles, elegant Linda, forthright Judas and eight-year-old Ricky.

With her army, the support of her psychiatrist Dr George Blair-West, and a police officer’s belief in her, Jeni fought to create a life for herself and bring her father to justice. In a history-making ruling, Jeni’s alters were empowered to give evidence in court. In speaking out, Jeni’s courage would see many understand MPD for the first time.

The Girl in the Green Dress is an unforgettable memoir from a woman who refused to be silenced. Jeni Haynes is an inspiration and her bravery and determination to live is a powerful reminder of the resilience of the human spirit. This is a unique and profoundly important book as it is not only a story of survival, it also includes incredible insight from Dr George Blair-West, Jeni’s psychiatrist and an expert in DID.