The Project – Courtney Summers

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gloria. Latin. Glory.

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

Beatrice. Italian; Latin. Bringer of Joy.

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

Lev. Hebrew; Russian. Heart; Lion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

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

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

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

Ellery Hathaway #4: Every Waking Hour – Joanna Schaffhausen

“Not again,” she said. “This can’t be happening again.”

Ellery and Reed aren’t actively looking for their next case. They’re spending time with Tula, Reed’s seven year old daughter, when they learn that twelve year old Chloe Lockhart has gone missing. Ellery knows only too well what Chloe may be experiencing, having barely survived a serial killer when she was a child.

There’s no shortage of leads to track down, with multiple potential suspects. It turns out that this is not the first time the Lockhart family have lost a child and they may not be the only ones who are keeping secrets.

“Where there’s one secret, you’ll find others. There’s something hiding in the middle of that family, something they’re not telling us.”

Meanwhile, Ellery’s home is much more crowded than it usually is. Ellery’s not comfortable with this development although Bump, her basset hound, is delighted by all of the extra humans who are on call for snuggles and treats.

Sarit, Reed’s ex-wife, expressed some of my feelings about Ellery and Reed’s relationship but I have to admit they’re growing on me. It’s weird though, because they seem to make complete sense and no sense at the same time. They likely never would have crossed paths if it wasn’t for Coben, the serial killer who had Ellery in his closet, and no matter how much they want it to be otherwise, he’s always going to be associated with the two of them.

He couldn’t climb into the darkness with her. But he could stand in the light and extend his hand and wait patiently to see if she would join him.

The characters are really well developed in this series. I feel like I know both of our leads, understanding their motivations and fears. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a series that tackles the long term effects of sexual assault in such an authentic way. I don’t think I will ever get the image of nails in a closet out of my mind.

Ellery has physical and psychological scars from her abduction and these continue to impact on her life. She is resilient and brave and strong, despite her experiences and maybe even because of them. I see her as a survivor role model. Her struggles only make her more realistic to me.

I was delighted to find a couple of X-Files taglines in conversations.

You could read this book as a standalone but to fully understand the nuances of the main characters and their journey together you really need to start at the beginning. This will also show you just how much Ellery has grown since we first met her.

The fifth book, which I’m really hoping is not the last, promises something I’ve been eagerly awaiting: the chance to peer inside the mind of Coben, the Big Bad of the series. Although I absolutely despise him, I’m intrigued by the possibility of finding out what makes him tick.

Content warnings include death by suicide, drug addiction and sexual assault.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

After surviving a serial killer’s abduction as a young teenager, Ellery Hathaway is finally attempting a normal life. She has a new job as a rookie Boston detective and a fledgling relationship with Reed Markham, the FBI agent who rescued her years ago. But when a twelve-year-old girl disappears on Ellery’s watch, the troubling case opens deep wounds that never fully healed.

Chloe Lockhart walked away from a busy street fair and vanished into the crowd. Maybe she was fleeing the suffocating surveillance her parents put on her from the time she was born, or maybe the evil from her parents’ past finally caught up to her. For Chloe, as Ellery learns, is not the first child Teresa Lockhart has lost.

Ellery knows what it’s like to have the past stalk you, to hold your breath around every corner. Sending one kidnapped girl to find another could be Chloe’s only hope or an unmitigated disaster that dooms them both. Ellery must untangle the labyrinth of secrets inside the Lockhart household – secrets that have already murdered one child. Each second that ticks by reminds her of her own lost hours, how close she came to death, and how near it still remains.

Ellery Hathaway #3: All the Best Lies – Joanna Schaffhausen

“He didn’t just want to kill her. He wanted to obliterate her entire existence.”

Bump is back for his third adventure! Of course Ellery, his human, and Reed, FBI agent and the person who saved Ellery from a serial killer when she was fourteen, are also back and technically they’re the main characters. But let’s get our priorities straight here: my favourite basset hound is back and he’s ready to slobber all over Reed.

Speaking of Reed, while he’s been integral to the previous two books in this series, this is the first time where it’s one of his cases we’re focusing on, not one of Ellery’s. And this isn’t just any case: it’s a cold case and it’s personal.

When Reed was four months old his mother was murdered in their apartment. He was adopted into an affluent family consisting of a father (a politician), mother and three older sisters. But there have always been question marks surrounding his birth mother’s unsolved murder and, even though the case has officially been closed, Reed has a new lead to follow.

“I need to find out the truth,” he told Ellery quietly. “No matter what it is.”

Luckily Ellery is currently suspended from her job as a cop so she’s available to travel to Vegas with Reed to investigate and hopefully solve this mystery that’s over four decades old. Unfortunately this means Bump can’t come along for the ride, so he doesn’t have many scenes. However, the focus on Ellery and Reed well and truly make up for the missing Bump antics.

There’s enough time spent on interviewing suspects and people who knew Reed’s mother to carry the Investigation along but what really stood out to me were the characters. I have loved Ellery and Reed since I first met them but there’s a depth to them that I don’t see that often in murder mysteries.

I feel like I’ve been alongside Ellery as she continues to survive her past, figuring out what trusting a man looks like and challenging herself to let down her walls, even if it’s just for moments at a time. She’s never thought that she could have anything approximating ‘normal’ but now she’s wondering what might be possible for her.

This was the thing about Reed, though: the more he accepted her just as she was, the more she wanted to try out a new version.

Reed is someone I’ve wanted to get to know more and I got that opportunity with this book. Although he grew up in a loving, privileged family, he’s always felt different. His skin colour is different to his sisters and he was the only adopted sibling. His origin story was pretty hazy before now.

From the reviews I’ve read it seems like readers are either all for an Ellery/Reed romance (I think I’ll call them Ellereed) or they’re completely against it. I’m not seeing much middle ground. So, where do I stand on Ellereed?

Firmly against, but with an acknowledgement that they don’t turn my stomach like I thought they would. I understand people wanting these two to fall in love and live happily ever after; Ellery in particular is seriously overdue for some HEA.

I just can’t get past the circumstances in which they met and the power imbalance that existed between them at the time. The age gap isn’t a problem for me but I can’t see this ever being an equal relationship. I imagined how I’d feel if I was Ellery and the idea of being in a romantic relationship with the person who saved me from a serial killer, when I was a child and they were an adult, just creeps me out. I do want them to both be happy though and it’s not like they need my permission to fall in love.

Even though the words made their only appearance in the first fifty pages, I couldn’t get ‘Neon Boneyard’ out of my head as I was reading. I kept imagining a cover image where the Las Vegas skyline was composed of various human bones, the outlines glowing neon.

Readers could jump into the series with this book but to truly appreciate the relationship between Ellery and Reed (and to understand Ellery’s past) I’d recommend reading them in order. It’s been over two years since I read the second book in this series but it felt like no time had passed at all when I started this one. It didn’t feel like I was being reintroduced to the characters; it was like I was catching up with old friends. I was hooked immediately and stayed hooked the entire time.

I can’t wait to read the rest of this series.

Content warnings include mention of sexual assault and its impacts.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

FBI agent Reed Markham is haunted by one painful unsolved mystery: who murdered his mother? Camilla was brutally stabbed to death more than forty years ago while baby Reed lay in his crib mere steps away. The trail went so cold that the Las Vegas Police Department has given up hope of solving the case. But then a shattering family secret changes everything Reed knows about his origins, his murdered mother, and his powerful adoptive father, state senator Angus Markham. Now Reed has to wonder if his mother’s killer is uncomfortably close to home.

Unable to trust his family with the details of his personal investigation, Reed enlists his friend, suspended cop Ellery Hathaway, to join his quest in Vegas. Ellery has experience with both troubled families and diabolical murderers, having narrowly escaped from each of them. She’s eager to skip town, too, because her own father, who abandoned her years ago, is suddenly desperate to get back in contact. He also has a secret that could change her life forever, if Ellery will let him close enough to hear it.

Far from home and relying only on each other, Reed and Ellery discover young Camilla had snared the attention of dangerous men, any of whom might have wanted to shut her up for good. They start tracing his twisted family history, knowing the path leads back to a vicious killer – one who has been hiding in plain sight for forty years and isn’t about to give up now. 

Devil Sharks – Chris Jameson

Alex and his wife, Sami, are on their way to paradise for a reunion with Alex’s friends from university. Harry, who Alex has a complicated history with, has invited them to spend a week on board his 100 foot luxury sailing yacht. All expenses paid!

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The ocean is crystal clear, the weather is gorgeous and the alcohol is flowing. Except it’s not all smooth sailing aboard the Kid Galahad. They’re hundreds of miles from civilisation, sharks are circling and a not so merry band of pirates have made their acquaintance. What could go wrong?

Plenty, it turns out. It isn’t very long before their laughter turns to screams and the only thing flowing freely is blood.

Something bumped his thigh, nudged him hard, and then he felt razor teeth clamp down and rip his flesh, felt himself dragged and twisted, and he screamed as he went under for a second time.

Some of my favourite movies are B grade delights where humans find themselves knocked off the top of the food chain. It turns out that reading about especially bitey sharks is just as much bloody fun, although I definitely want to see this book made into a movie.

There is some time spent in the beginning setting up who’s who but it quickly all goes to hell. With a body count in the double digits, the tension is fairly consistent for over half of the book.

I initially took note of everyone’s occupation and personality so I could try to figure out who had the best odds of making it through the book with their flesh intact. It didn’t really seem to matter though as most of the characters are now in the process of being digested.

My only disappointment was the pirates. They had so much potential, but once they’d successfully ramped up the danger level for our group of friends they essentially disappeared. It was easy to forget they were even part of the story when the final battle for survival was taking place. The sharks well and truly made up for them though.

“What do you know about sharks?”

Alex cocked his head. “Mainly that I don’t want to be in the water with them.”

These sharks are relentless so there’s little chance your favourite character will survive. The person I most wanted to survive died and the person whose gruesome death I was looking forward to the most survived.

While this is my first Chris Jameson shark read, it will not be the last. Shark Island and Shark Beach are going to be bloodying up my imagination in the near future.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A pleasure cruise in Paradise leads a group of friends to a shark-infested Hell in Chris Jameson’s Devil Sharks …

When Alex Simmons is invited to a college reunion in the Hawaiian islands aboard the private yacht of his old pal Harry Curtis, he is not sure what to expect. The two men had a falling-out years ago over the suicide of one of their friends. Could this be Harry’s way of making amends? Or is something more sinister in store?

The crew sets sail and arrives at Orchid Atoll, the site of a deserted former Coast Guard station. But they are far from alone. Out here, three hundred miles from civilisation, Alex and his friends are about to encounter two very different brands of evil – one human, the other with fins – unlike anything they could have possibly imagined. They have entered a place where there’s no law, no mercy … and no way out.

The Mall – Megan McCafferty

Cassie has her life all planned out. The plan consists of a summer job in the mall with her boyfriend of two years, followed by moving to New York together to attend colleges across the road from one another. The plan did not include her getting mono, missing prom and graduation, her boyfriend breaking up with her or losing her job.

Taking place almost exclusively within the mall during the summer of 1991, there are plenty of 90’s references, from 90210 to Nirvana, from big hair to lycra. This was a quick and easy read, and I enjoyed the nostalgia. I adored the cover design and absolutely loved the “90210 Scale of Parkway Center Mall Employment Awesomeness”, where Dylan McKay is obviously the coolest.

“There’s a fortune hidden somewhere in the mall,” Drea said, “and I’m determined to find it.”

While I liked the concept and was thrilled when the quest for hidden treasure made its way into the story, overall the story fell flat for me. I wanted to get to know two of the characters better, Zoe and Drea, as they had an edge that interested me. Most of the other characters were fairly generic.

Along with the drama of teenage friendships and boys, there’s also slut-shaming, a revenge makeover and a catfight. The list of people Cassie needs to avoid in the mall grows fairly steadily as the story progresses.

Cassie is quite elitist, knowing full well that she’s never going to be one of the mall’s lifers, as she’s destined for bigger and better things in New York. Although she is unarguably book smart, she’s not as mature as she seems to think she is. Often she behaved as though she was closer to 13 than 17.

Something that gave me pause: on the copyright page the author’s name appears after Alloy Entertainment, a book packaging company. It made me wonder how much creative control the author had when they were writing.

Thank you to NetGalley and Wednesday Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The year is 1991. Scrunchies, mixtapes and 90210 are, like, totally fresh. Cassie Worthy is psyched to spend the summer after graduation working at the Parkway Center Mall. In six weeks, she and her boyfriend head off to college in NYC to fulfill The Plan: higher education and happily ever after.

But you know what they say about the best laid plans …

Set entirely in a classic “monument to consumerism,” the novel follows Cassie as she finds friendship, love, and ultimately herself, in the most unexpected of places.

Mayhem – Estelle Laure

“Don’t you want to know what’s really going on, Mayhem?”

Mayhem and Roxy, her mother, have recently moved in with Elle, Roxy’s twin sister, and her foster children. Roxy always swore she’d never return to Santa Maria but Mayhem doesn’t know why. It turns out there’s a lot she doesn’t know about being a Brayburn.

This book covers a lot of ground: family legacies, the secrets we keep from ourselves and others, the impacts of trauma and the ways we try to reclaim our power.

I was only three. Lyle saved us. That’s the story.

The portrayal of what it’s like for a child living in a home where domestic violence is the norm was painfully authentic. I could feel what it was like for Mayhem as the abuse was happening to both herself and her mother, the impacts of which were evident throughout the story.

I particularly appreciated the fact that once there was some physical distance between the abused and abuser, life didn’t automatically become sunshine and roses. The abuse wasn’t sensationalised but it also wasn’t sugarcoated.

Roxy doesn’t cry. Neither of us do. We don’t talk about it, even to each other, like if we never say it out loud, it will stop.

There were some sentences that resonated with me so much that I had to reread them immediately and then pause while I absorbed them. I anticipate these quotes will be staying with me for quite a while:

“Don’t let the idea of people overshadow truth.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to hear things, because then you have to admit other things and the story you’ve been telling yourself unravels so fast you can barely handle it.”

I found the names of several businesses in the story absolutely delightful. I’d stop reading when I came across those as well, but only long enough to say to the nearest person, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’. My favourite was We’ve Got Issues, a comic book store. Brilliant!

Then there were the parts of the story that hovered over my head, just out of reach. In particular, I wasn’t always entirely sure what was happening during the scenes where magic happens. There often wasn’t enough detail given to allow me to ‘see’ what was going on.

There was one scene involving the serial killer where this was especially evident; I didn’t even know what happened until I was given more information a few pages later. Incidentally, I had hoped the serial killer would have more page time than they did. The resolution of their part of the story was much too quick and easy for my liking.

I began to read some reviews to find out if I was the only one who wasn’t always getting it. Plenty of reviewers have mentioned the similarities between this story and The Lost Boys. I’ve never seen that movie and I’m still not sure if it was an advantage or disadvantage coming into this book uninitiated.

It has made me wonder if some of the more magical components of this story were written using a kind of shorthand, where if you were familiar with the movie you’d know exactly what the author was talking about without needing the additional descriptions that would have been beneficial for me.

The person I most wanted to get to know was Neve but she remained somewhat of a mystery to me. I wanted to find out more about her life before she lived with Elle but I only caught a couple of glimpses.

“They do not mess with us,” Neve murmurs, almost to herself. “For good reason.”

I’ve never been a fan of insta-love although sometimes it grows on me as a story progresses. It didn’t here. I also became frustrated as the story never really came together for me, even though there were plenty of elements that I should have loved.

Aspects of the story didn’t have the depth I was looking for and neither did some of the characters. I wanted to come away having a detailed understanding of the way the magic worked but I could only explain it to you in vague terms. I don’t even really know how to explain it but it was like I got a taste of many things but never the entire experience.

“People want to keep secrets from you, but it’s not right. You need to know everything.”

Content warnings include addiction (alcohol and other drugs), child abuse, death by suicide, domestic violence, emotional abuse, murder, physical abuse and sexual assault. Further information can be found on the author’s website.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Wednesday Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

It’s 1987 and unfortunately it’s not all Madonna and cherry lip balm. Mayhem Brayburn has always known there was something off about her and her mother, Roxy. Maybe it has to do with Roxy’s constant physical pain, or maybe with Mayhem’s own irresistible pull to water. Either way, she knows they aren’t like everyone else. 

But when May’s stepfather finally goes too far, Roxy and Mayhem flee to Santa Maria, California, the coastal beach town that holds the answers to all of Mayhem’s questions about who her mother is, her estranged family, and the mysteries of her own self. There she meets the kids who live with her aunt, and it opens the door to the magic that runs through the female lineage in her family, the very magic Mayhem is next in line to inherit and which will change her life for good. 

But when she gets wrapped up in the search for the man who has been kidnapping girls from the beach, her life takes another dangerous turn and she is forced to face the price of vigilante justice and to ask herself whether revenge is worth the cost. 

What Unbreakable Looks Like – Kate McLaughlin

He names them after flowers. Daisy. Ivy. Iris.

This is Poppy’s story. She’s one of the lucky ones, if you can call her that, considering all of the trauma she has experienced. He called her Poppy. Her real name is Alexa.

Am I ever going to feel like a whole person again?

If you are on the fence, for whatever reason, about how crucial having supportive people around you after trauma is, this is the book for you. I don’t know how extraordinary Lex’s experiences of trafficking are, although I suspect they’re fairly typical. What is extraordinary about Lex’s story is the support she is given from so many people once she’s finally rescued from the life.

The matter of fact way that the events at the beginning of the story are told matched Lex’s flat affect, a result of the trauma she’s experienced, the withdrawal she’s currently experiencing and the dissociation that has helped her survive. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the portrayal of the survivors of human trafficking but given how much I could relate to the trauma impacts of sexual assault that were explored through Lex’s thoughts, feelings and actions, I have to assume they were also pretty much spot on.

This might sound silly (they’re characters in a book, after all) but if you have experienced sexual assault, take what you need from Krys. Take what you need from Jamal, Zack, Elsa, Detective Willis and Dr. Lisa. Each of them, over the course of this book, will say something that will resonate with you. Something you wish someone had said to you. Something you wish you were worthy of hearing (trust me; you are). Personally, I’m trying to figure out a way to adopt Krys or vice versa; I know I need to hear what she’s got to say.

“Honey, you’re here. Sometimes that’s all the strength you need.”

If you’ve experienced sexual assault and haven’t been believed or have needed to find a way to heal without the love and support of the people who should be there for you, I’m so sorry. You deserve to be believed. You deserve to feel safe. You deserve to be loved, safely. You didn’t ask for it, whatever ‘it’ may be, to happen to you and it was not your fault.

“You did nothing wrong. I’m going to keep telling you that until you believe it.”

So, this probably reads like a PSA at this point but, even if there is only a slim chance that someone reading this needs to hear that what happened to them wasn’t their fault, I need to say it.

Prepare yourself for some ugly crying as you hear Lex’s story. If you’re like me, some tears will come as a result of what has been done to her but even more will fall because you’re just so damn proud of her resilience. I was so still as I read this book that I thought I could almost hear my heart breaking at the same time I felt it.

Did I have “Zack is too good to be true” on repeat in my head as I read? Absolutely! Do I hope there really are Zack’s in the world? Do I ever!

When books navigate as much potentially triggering content as this one does it can be difficult to figure out where the line should be drawn between enough information to show the gravity of the situation and graphic content whose only purpose seems to be the shock value. This book walked the line perfectly for me. I learned things about trafficking, particularly around how it can begin, that made my blood boil but the details that were provided, while obviously upsetting, felt necessary to the telling of Lex’s story.

I’m leaving this story (for now) with the wannabe activist inside me trying to figure out the way I can best support people like Lex. Although I’m all sorts of sad and mad after having read Lex’s story, my takeaway is hope. Hope for healing. Hope for more people to understand how to support survivors. Hope that enough people will get riled up over human trafficking that, sooner rather than later, more people don’t experience Lex’s story firsthand.

Content warnings include alcoholism, child pornography, death by suicide, domestic violence, drug use, human trafficking, mental health, miscarriage, racism (challenged), self harm, sexual assault, suicidal ideation and violence.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Wednesday Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Lex was taken – trafficked – and now she’s Poppy. Kept in a hotel with other girls, her old life is a distant memory. But when the girls are rescued, she doesn’t quite know how to be Lex again. 

After she moves in with her aunt and uncle, for the first time in a long time, she knows what it is to feel truly safe. Except, she doesn’t trust it. Doesn’t trust her new home. Doesn’t trust her new friend. Doesn’t trust her new life. Instead she trusts what she shouldn’t because that’s what feels right. She doesn’t deserve good things. 

But when she is sexually assaulted by her so-called boyfriend and his friends, Lex is forced to reckon with what happened to her and that just because she is used to it, doesn’t mean it is okay. She’s thrust into the limelight and realises she has the power to help others. But first she’ll have to confront the monsters of her past with the help of her family, friends, and a new love.

Kate McLaughlin’s What Unbreakable Looks Like is a gritty, ultimately hopeful novel about human trafficking through the lens of a girl who has escaped the life and learned to trust, not only others, but in herself.

Ellery Hathaway #2: No Mercy – Joanna Schaffhausen

I fell in love with Bump immediately in The Vanishing Season and now he’s back, shedding fur throughout the pages of No Mercy. Ellery and Reed are back, too. After the events of the first book (you could read this book as a standalone but I’d highly recommend reading them in order) Ellery has been suspended from her job and forced into group therapy with other survivors of violent crimes.

Because this is Ellery she’s not so interested in looking inward because, ugh, feelings! Rather, this is the perfect opportunity to get herself personally involved in the crimes affecting some of the other group members. Ellery starts investigating an unsolved sexual assault, whose perpetrator may be responsible for a number of other assaults. She also manages to get entangled in a historic arson case despite the convicted arsonist having already spent decades in prison.

Naturally Ellery, who is strong, determined and at times petulant, jumps in head first and pretty soon Reed, FBI profiler and the man who rescued her from Francis Coben’s closet many years ago, has joined her in Boston. Even though Ellery basically has Reed wrapped around her little finger I still really like him, or maybe I just want him to cook for me. No matter how much I like Reed he’s a runner up to his adorable daughter, Tula, who’s my favourite human character of this book. Sorry, but no human could ever own a piece of my heart like Bump does!

I loved that there was more of a focus on Ellery and Reed’s relationship in this book. Their initial interactions in the first book were understandably awkward because of their shared history up to that point. While they’re still finding their way they’re more comfortable in each other’s presence and they’re building a more equal relationship, although Reed still feels the need to protect Ellery and Ellery still understandably chafes at physical and emotional closeness with any man, even Reed.

Cover Rant: When I reviewed The Vanishing Season I’d only seen the American cover and thought it was nice enough, if a bit tame as a representation of Ellery’s personality and story. Then I saw the UK version which, pardon the pun, nailed it! The American cover for No Mercy again falls short for me while the UK version shines. The American cover for this book doesn’t give the reader any sense of who Ellery is or what this story is about. I think Ellery would be disappointed that there isn’t anything gritty or honest about this cover. Sure, looking outside the window you can tell that the story has moved to the city, but the matches on the UK cover? They grab my attention and make me want to know more!

Content warnings include sexual assault and family violence.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, for the opportunity to read this book. Please publish the third book soon! I’m hanging off a cliff here waiting to find out what’s next for Reed!!!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Police officer Ellery Hathaway is on involuntary leave from her job because she shot a murderer in cold blood and refuses to apologise for it. Forced into group therapy for victims of violent crime, Ellery immediately finds higher priorities than “getting in touch with her feelings.” 

For one, she suspects a fellow group member may have helped to convict the wrong man for a deadly arson incident years ago. For another, Ellery finds herself in the desperate clutches of a woman who survived a brutal rape. He is still out there, this man with the Spider-Man-like ability to climb through bedroom windows, and his victim beseeches Ellery for help in capturing her attacker.

Ellery seeks advice from her friend, FBI profiler Reed Markham, who liberated her from a killer’s closet when she was a child. Reed remains drawn to this unpredictable woman, the one he rescued but couldn’t quite save. The trouble is, Reed is up for a potential big promotion, and his boss has just one condition for the new job – stay away from Ellery. Ellery ignores all the warnings. Instead, she starts digging around in everyone’s past but her own – a move that, at best, could put her out of work permanently, and at worst, could put her in the city morgue.

Sadie – Courtney Summers

Sometimes I don’t know what I miss more: everything I’ve lost or everything I never had.

I don’t usually say this but for this book I will. Please don’t read too many reviews prior to reading this book, but please, read this book! I finished reading only a few minutes ago and the tears that haven’t been soaked up by several tissues are currently drying on my face, which I expect looks like a mess!

It’s not about finding peace. There will never be peace.

This was my first, but certainly not my last Courtney Summers book and I didn’t know what to expect other than knowing there was a mystery. I know Sadie, the book and the character, will haunt me. Before I’d finished the first 50 pages I was already searching my library catalogue for more of Courtney’s books. This surprised me because I often struggle with books that switch between formats; in this case some chapters are told from Sadie’s perspective in first person and others are transcripts of podcasts. In this book I loved the different voices that contributed to the story and never felt the jarring that can happen during transitions from one to the other.

Ever since Mattie died, it’s been like this, this surfacing of ugly things, forcing me to witness them because living through it all wasn’t enough. When Mattie was alive, I could push it down inside me because I had things to do, I had to look after her. And now … I still have things to do.

In the beginning the podcast is well behind Sadie as she searches for her sister’s killer. I both longed for and feared the podcast catching up to her in its timeline. This book tackles so many painful topics but for the most part I didn’t feel weighed down; instead I was bouyed by Sadie’s sarcasm, along with her perseverance and resilience. I will definitely remember “Becki with an i” and hold a place in my heart for Javi with the silent J, Cat, Nell, May Beth and even Claire.

I wish his darkness lived outside of him, because you have to know it’s there to see it. Like all real monsters, he hides in plain sight.

One of my favourite bookish things happened in this book; another much loved book was referenced in this one. I may have gotten a teensy bit excited when a character was seen reading The Baby-Sitters Club and I’m not ashamed to tell you that I knew the exact one they were reading from the description of the cover image alone.

I did start to think I may have fallen into some plot holes but every one was filled in along the way. All of my questions were answered; all except for the most important one, but I was strangely satisfied with the ‘fill in the blanks yourself’ component. In the hands of a less capable writer I would have been really frustrated by this but with Sadie it only feels right that my heart should be conflicting with my mind.

Content warnings include murder, missing persons, violence, addiction, sexual assault, grief, child abuse, and abandonment.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A missing girl on a journey of revenge. A Serial-like podcast following the clues she’s left behind. And an ending you won’t be able to stop talking about.

Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.

When West McCray – a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America – overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

Ellery Hathaway #1: The Vanishing Season – Joanna Schaffhausen

I’ve done it! I’ve finally done it!! I’ve found an author whose writing is worthy of being compared to Tess Gerritsen in a sentence like “I’ve finally found an author as good as Tess” or “This book had everything I love about Tess books and more, and it’s not even written by Tess!”

Friends, please allow me to introduce you (if you haven’t already discovered her) to Joanna Schaffhausen. I’m going to go out on a limb here and call it early … remember this name because Joanna’s ability to immerse you in her character’s world has bestseller written all over it. I feel as though nothing I say here can possibly do justice to her debut but I’ll give it a shot and encourage you to read it yourself so we can gush together about how much we loved it.

Ellery Hathaway is the sole survivor of infamous serial killer Francis Michael Coben. Saved by Agent Reed Markham before she became Coben’s seventeenth murder victim, Ellery now works as a police officer in a quiet town where no one knows who she really is. She is the only one who believes there’s a link between three seemingly unconnected disappearances in three years in her town, which all occurred around her birthday, the day she was abducted fourteen years ago. Ellery’s next birthday is approaching and she calls Reed, knowing he is the only one who will believe her.

I wanted to both rush through The Vanishing Season and read as slowly as possible to draw the experience of the first read out for as long as possible. I became immersed by about paragraph 3 and each time I came back to where I’d left the story I got sucked straight back in. I wound up so engaged that I didn’t realise I’d said, not thought, “I knew it!” until one of the people that had been respectfully honouring my ‘don’t you dare interrupt me until I finish my book or there will be dire consequences’ look came from the other side of the house to find out what my outburst was about. Oops!

I know a book has its hooks in me when I start repeating a phrase to myself while reading, as if the number of times I repeat it can magically increase the likelihood of my being able to influence the outcome. Yes, in my mind I wield that much power! In this case I had two magical phrases:

  1. Please don’t let Bump die!”
  2. “Let the killer be anyone but 🤚.” (And, no, I’m not telling you who the hand represents but it seemed an appropriate substitute given the content of the book.)

I adored Bump. The loyal and trustworthy male in Ellery’s life, Bump is a basset hound who loves walks and rides in the car, liberally distributing slobber over humans he likes and dreams of the day when someone will accidentally drop a piece of chocolate in his vicinity. Also, the story surrounding the choice of his name is wonderful and dog owners everywhere will relate and wonder why they didn’t think of naming their dog Bump.

I loved the people characters as well. No one was perfect. All of the major players had pasts which influenced the way they thought and acted in the situation they found themselves in. There were questionable ethics and life choices, secrets galore and issues surrounding trust were hiding beneath the surface, and shame and guilt were both explored.

I really enjoyed Ellery and Brady’s banter. Their friendship felt comfortable and their bond over 80’s music and quips about what they disagreed on made me feel like I was being included. I almost wanted to add my own opinion a couple of times. I’m looking forward to reading Ellery and Reed banter in future books. There were hints of it here but good banter takes time to develop in a friendship so I’m thankful it didn’t happen immediately.

Coben gave me a what a fantastic yet disgusting and interesting in a disturbing way vibe that was similar to the way I felt when reading about Hannibal Lecter. Which brings me to the gore. It was gruesome enough to satisfy the disturbed side of me that watches B grade movies in part to cheer when the gigantic shark leaps out of the water and takes down a plane, yet it wasn’t so focused on the brutality of the murders that it detracted from the interactions between characters and the mystery of who was behind the murders and why.

Content warnings include domestic violence and sexual assault.

The references to sexual assault are not gratuitous by any means but I felt the character directly affected was so realistic that if this has been your experience you are likely to see parts of your own response mirrored back at you (which incidentally I applaud because life after sexual assault is rarely written well). I wasn’t personally triggered while reading, instead feeling hopeful when I encountered ‘me, too’ moments.

I’m always interested, when someone is rescued after being kidnapped or otherwise traumatised, in what happens next. What becomes of the survivor? What does their life look like now compared to what it looked like prior to whatever happened to them? How do they cope? Do they think they’re a victim or a survivor? So many books that explore the effects of sexual assault portray the person who experiences it as either a victim hiding from the world in a corner or someone who’s taking on the world and has no residual physical or psychological impacts in their life.

The character in The Vanishing Season who’s been sexually assaulted was irrevocably changed by their experiences and is a wonderful mix of strength and vulnerability. They’ve overcome so much but there are still physical reminders on their body and in their home that speak to the pain they carry with them. They’re at a point in their life where they’ve worked so hard to no longer be the victim yet they still feel the need to hide. I loved the dichotomies and the implication that healing from sexual assault isn’t a one size fits all process.

If I were to nitpick I’d tell you that I wanted more details of the Big Bad’s background. It’s not as though we don’t know some pivotal moments in their life that help set their particular brand of crazy in motion and we’re given access to the twisted way they think, but I wanted more. To be fair, I have an obsession interest in what causes people with similar genetic and environmental factors to take drastically different paths in life, so my need to know more says more about me than it does about this book. I was also left wanting to know what happens to Anna after the book finished.

And now for your chance to laugh at and with me, I’ll tell you my favourite How Stupid Am I moment I encountered while reading. Initially when I read the town’s name I got Woodbury confused with Woodsboro and for a while I was thinking of how funny it would be if there was a cameo of some random person in a Scream mask running through a scene. 🤪

I love debut novels but I often wind up disappointed by a feeling of knowing how good a book could have been if only that brilliant idea had the execution you usually only expect with experience. Joanna’s debut had the excitement of a first time author’s passion but was written with the character development, story arc, backstories, delightful twists and sucked into a reading black hole ability I only expect of the greats once they’ve found their feet. There were some sentences where the imagery made it feel like I was reading poetry.

I don’t even know Joanna yet I feel proud of her for writing such an impressive debut. If this is what she can accomplish with a first novel I can only imagine how much fun it’s going to be to read her future novels. If anyone has any spare stars I’d love to borrow some because ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ aren’t enough.

Thank you to NetGalley, Minotaur Books and St. Martin’s Press for ✨ granting my wish ✨ and giving me this opportunity to read this book. I don’t know if I can wait for the next Ellery/Reed/Bump book to be released. I’ve found a new author whose books will be added to my to be read list sight unseen.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Ellery Hathaway knows a thing or two about serial killers, but not through her police training. She’s an officer in sleepy Woodbury, MA, where a bicycle theft still makes the newspapers. No one there knows she was once victim number seventeen in the grisly story of serial killer Francis Michael Coben. The only victim who lived. 

When three people disappear from her town in three years, all around her birthday – the day she was kidnapped so long ago – Ellery fears someone knows her secret. Someone very dangerous. Her superiors dismiss her concerns, but Ellery knows the vanishing season is coming and anyone could be next. She contacts the one man she knows will believe her: the FBI agent who saved her from a killer’s closet all those years ago.

Agent Reed Markham made his name and fame on the back of the Coben case, but his fortunes have since turned. His marriage is in shambles, his bosses think he’s washed up, and worst of all, he blew a major investigation. When Ellery calls him, he can’t help but wonder: sure, he rescued her, but was she ever truly saved? His greatest triumph is Ellery’s waking nightmare, and now both of them are about to be sucked into the past, back to the case that made them … with a killer who can’t let go.