The Forevers – Chris Whitaker

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

She was seventeen years old.

She would die in one month.

Mae has grown up knowing that she and her sister, Stella, won’t live long enough to become adults. Asteroid 8050XF11, A.K.A. Selena, is on a collision course with Earth.

So, what do you do when an Extinction Level Event is imminent? Some people put their faith in God and wait for a miracle. Others place their hope in science. If disaster movies have taught us anything, it’s that scientists will consistently fail until just before the credits roll. Then they’ll come up with a solution that’ll save the world. Surely they can do this in real life, too. 

There are the leavers, people “who said their goodbyes or those that simply tired of the wait and disappeared in search of more.” Then there are those who are living like there’s no tomorrow. They figure if you’re not going to live long enough for the consequences to catch up with you, then you might as well do whatever you want.

The countdown is on. There’s one month to go until God performs a miracle, science comes through with the biggest win in the history of the world or everyone dies.

Mae and many others in West spend much of their final month attending school and working. I doubt I would be doing either if I knew the end was nigh. Mae’s also trying to learn the truth behind the recent death of Abi, her former best friend.

Impending doom doesn’t negate the usual high school drama, with popular kids, bullies and outcasts all featured. Some of these kids have significant difficulties in their lives, though, even if you ignore the whole 70 mile wide asteroid that’s going to obliterate them in the very near future thing.

I liked Mae but adored Stella, her eight year old sister, who stole every scene she was in. With such heavy content, I was especially grateful for the comic relief that came in the form of Felix. He was all about sleeping when he’s dead and becoming visible to the love of his life, despite the fact that she already has a boyfriend.

A lot of characters were introduced but I didn’t form a connection with a number of them, due to their personality or because I didn’t get to know them well enough. There’s practically an entire alphabet of content warnings at the end of my review, with so many important issues touched on. However, individual circumstances didn’t always have enough page time for them to be explored in the depth I would have liked. 

For example, for most of the book Sally is pretty much only ever referred to in terms of her weight. She’s the fat girl. She‘s almost always consuming copious amounts of food whenever we see her. She’s fat shamed. A lot. When I finally learned something else about her, I wanted an entire book dedicated to her. There’s so much complexity and emotion there, and it felt like I only just scraped the surface of who she was.

The mystery of what happened to Abi faded into the background at times as the struggles of other characters were explored. There was a resolution, though, and many characters were given the opportunity to do what they needed to in order to finish their stories on their own terms.

Sometimes it took me a while to figure out which character was in a scene with Mae, especially when they’d only be referred to as ‘he’ for several paragraphs before they were named. Some scene changes felt jarring and for a while around the middle of the book I wasn’t even sure if I was enjoying it. 

But this was a compulsive read and Mae and Stella’s relationship kept me invested. An ugly cry snuck up on me at the end and I’m still thinking about several characters. I’m definitely interested in reading more books by this author and I absolutely adored Muhammad Nafay’s cover illustration. 

We made Forever for the creeps and the weirdos, the freaks and the outlaws.

Content warnings include abortion, addiction, alcoholism, bullying, death by suicide, domestic abuse, fat shaming, homophobia, mental health, overdose, physical abuse, self harm, sexual assault, slut shaming and suicidal ideation.

Thank you so much to Allen & Unwin for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Thirty days until the end of the world. What would you do?

They knew the end was coming. They saw it ten years back, when it was far enough away in space and time and meaning.
The changes were gradual, and then sudden.

For Mae and her friends, it means navigating a life where action and consequence are no longer related. Where the popular are both trophies and targets. And where petty grudges turn deadlier with each passing day. So, did Abi Manton jump off the cliff or was she pushed? Her death is just the beginning of the end.

With teachers losing control of their students and themselves, and the end rushing toward all of them, it leaves everyone facing the answer to one, simple question…

What would you do if you could get away with anything?

Anxious People – Fredrik Backman

Translator – Neil Smith

‘All interesting people have done something really stupid at least once!’

This is one of those books that gives you hope for humanity. And may make you ugly cry as you comfort eat your way through your leftover chocolate ice cream. Wait, was that too specific?

This is, without doubt, my favourite read of the month. Apologies in advance to all of the other books yet to come.

It was already on my special book radar before I began reading. It was recommended to someone I know by a local bookstore staff member. They loved it and told me enough about it, including the ugly cry, to pique my interest. I then waited, not so patiently, for my library reservation to magically transform into the book that’s barely left my hands since I started it.

The whole thing is a complicated, unlikely story. Perhaps that’s because what we think stories are about often isn’t what they’re about at all. This, for instance, might not actually be the story of a bank robbery, or an apartment viewing or a hostage drama. Perhaps it isn’t even a story about idiots.

Perhaps this is a story about a bridge.

This is a book where what seems to be and what is can be vastly different things, where a bunch of strangers who wouldn’t normally interact discover they have commonalities and where “sometimes Christmas lights are just Christmas lights.”

I loved all of the idiots in this book, even Zara. I may have liked her the most. There’s something about being privileged enough to be able to catch a glimpse at what lies beneath the surface of people who present themselves to the world with their armour firmly affixed, their edges carefully sharpened so only the exceptionally brave or exceedingly stupid will attempt to approach them. I also had a huge soft spot for Estelle.

And then there’s the rabbit. It took me a long time to find this book and I may not have found it yet if not for the person who told me about it, not realising that I’m a bit of a book stalker. You tell me about a book and I’m almost always going to need to read it. I could say it’s because it interests me and most of the time that’s part of it. It is a book, after all. But it’s also because I want to get to know you better and learning what books you love gives me an insight into who you are at your core.

description

It would have taken me no time at all to find this book if I had seen this cover before now. How anyone could see this design and then think that this book should be packaged in any other way is beyond me. It’s perfection!

I don’t think I have even been so emotional over a bank robbery and hostage situation. I knew very little about this book going into it and am certain that‘s the best way to approach it.

I want to quote most of the book to you but am going to restrain myself and instead leave you with my three favourites:

The truth, of course, is that if people really were as happy as they look on the Internet, they wouldn’t spend so much damn time on the Internet, because no one who’s having a really good day spends half of it taking pictures of themselves.

They say that a person’s personality is the sum of their experiences. But that isn’t true, at least not entirely, because if our past was all that defined us, we’d never be able to put up with ourselves. We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we’re more than the mistakes we made yesterday. That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows.

‘Worst hostages ever.’

Content warnings include addiction, death by suicide, domestic abuse, mental health and suicidal ideation.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In a small town in Sweden it appears to be an ordinary day. But look more closely, and you’ll see a masked figure approaching a bank…

Two hours later, chaos has descended. An attempted robbery has developed into a hostage situation – with the offender refusing to voice their demands.

Fear turns to irritation for the seven strangers trapped inside. If this is to be their last day on earth, shouldn’t it be more dramatic? 

But as the minutes tick by, they begin to suspect that the criminal holding them hostage might be more in need of rescuing than they are… 

The Once and Future Witches – Alix E. Harrow

Spoilers Ahead! (in the content warnings)

Once there were three sisters.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January was my favourite read of 2019 and The Once and Future Witches is my favourite read of 2020. I know there are still plenty of pages to fall in love with this year but trust me, friends, this is the one!

The wise one, the strong one and the wild one. There’s a bit of each of us in at least one of the Eastwood sisters; hopefully all three. This is a story of sisters and suffragists. Of fairytales and the power of words. Of survival and sacrifice. Of transforming the story you were given into a better one. Of “witchcraft most wicked”.

The wayward sisters, hand in hand,

Burned and bound, our stolen crown,

But what is lost, that can’t be found?

Sometimes you read a book that feels like it was written with you in mind. Sometimes characters will draw you into their world and you feel like they’re kin or, at the very least, kindred spirits. Sometimes a story speaks to your soul in such a way that when you lift your head after the final page you are certain you grew wings while you were reading. That’s just some of what this book was for me.

I want to ramble about characters, surprises and heartbreaks, love found and battles waged but, consistent with other books that have so deeply worked their magic on me, this review is more personal. Sorry if this isn’t the review you were looking for.

Don’t forget what you are.

As I read I felt my spine straightening. My will strengthened. My courage blazed. My heart opened, warming and knitting itself together, even as it broke. My tears threatened many times before the inevitable ugly cry (it was so ugly!). This was the perfect book for me at the perfect time.

I made a deal with myself weeks before I started reading. I had a really difficult task ahead of me and I wanted this book to be my reward for completing it. Not allowing myself to dive in before I won my battle was its own special brand of torture but knowing the witches were waiting for me spurred me on. Being able to finally immerse myself in the lives of Agnes, Bella and Juniper was worth the wait. And then some.

I now have a task equal, if not greater, to face than the one that preceded it but this book has fortified me and given me the courage I need to shine a light on the next shadow on my path.

Together they dared to dream of a better world, where women weren’t broken and sisters weren’t sundered and rage wasn’t swallowed, over and over again.

I can’t wait until someone I know has read this book so I can get all gushy about the specifics. Until that time, a warning: if you see me out in the wild, prepare yourself. Our interaction is likely to consist of me emphatically telling you to “Read this book!” as I shove it in your face. Protect your nose accordingly.

“Maleficae quondam, maleficaeque futurae.”

Content warnings include “Child abuse, both physical and psychological; parental death; arrest and imprisonment; mind control; pregnancy and childbirth, including forced hospitalization; racism; sexism; homophobia, both external and internalized; threat of sexual assault, averted; torture (mostly off-the-page, but alluded to); execution (attempted); child abandonment; major character death.” The author lists these on Goodreads. I’m adding to these the mention of abortion, on page death of an animal, physical abuse of an animal and sexual harassment.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Orbit, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, for the opportunity to fall in love with this book early.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters – James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna – join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote – and perhaps not even to live – the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

A Many Feathered Thing – Lisa Gerlits

I would have talked about the wings. His and mine and everybody’s.

In order to become tortured enough to consider herself to be a real artist Clara decides she needs to do hard things. She begins by doing the hardest thing she can imagine, talking to a stranger, Mr Vogelman, who is rumoured to collect teeth.

Knocking on Mr Vogelman’s door isn’t the only scary thing Clara needs to face. There’s a new girl in her class, her friendship with Orion (who she’s known her entire life) is changing and, possibly scariest of all, she needs to find her voice so she can deliver a presentation at school.

Drawing had saved me where my voice failed.

I had planned on reading this book sooner but put it off for several weeks. From the first sentence I knew that no matter what else I found in this book, an ugly cry was certain and I wasn’t in the right head space at the time. Now I’m on the other side of my ugly cry and I can say that although there were several times where it hurt to read this book, hope was also threaded through it.

I loved Clara’s best friend, Orion. His integrity and loyalty endeared him to me and I wanted to watch him as he focused on making things and worked on his intricate knots. I liked Clara most of the time but was anxious for her to pay more attention to other peoples’ struggles and be a better friend. I’d like to spend more time with Elise, the new girl in Clara’s class, who sometimes behaved as though she was much older than eleven.

“You’ve got to have something inside you that no one can take away”

Birdman, as we come to know Mr Vogelman as, teaches Clara about much more than art.

“Every effort is valuable. We must not rub out our failures. They are most important to our success.”

Although I managed to catch a few glimpses of his life outside of his friendship with Clara, I would have liked to have learned more about him. He had a complexity that I wanted to be explored further.

While I understood why this was the case, Frouke’s character felt two dimensional until very near the end of the story. Even now I’m not entirely sure what her relationship was to Birdman … Housekeeper? Friend?

At its heart this is a book about friendships and having the courage to face the hard things. It’s also about finding ways to connect with people, even if it’s through failed knock-knock jokes. It’s about tying knots and unravelling them. It’s about seeing, truly seeing, by looking deeper and continuing to look even when you think you’ve understood all there is to see. It’s about hope and love.

“Love is not one shape. It is not always a red heart. Sometimes it is a tree. Or a bird. Or a bicycle bell.”

I’m always drawn to books where children connect with and learn from older people. I’m especially keen when I get the opportunity to peek into the lives of the people who live in the neighbourhood’s scary house. You know the one. It’s the house that children avoid on Halloween. There are rumours about the horrors that may befall you if you wind up on the wrong side of the door. The outcasts, the recluses, the mysterious. Birdman is one of those people. I dare you not to fall in love with him.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Eleven-year-old Clara is known as the girl who draws, but she’s not tortured enough to become a real artist. Her only suffering, besides embarrassment over her real name Clarity Kartoffel, German for Clarity Potato is a crippling inability to speak in public. When Clara and her oldest friend, Orion break their neighbor’s glass gazing ball, Clara decides that in order to suffer like a true artist, she will do every hard thing in her path … starting with knocking on scary old Mr. Vogelman’s door. That’s when she meets Birdman. That’s when she sees his swirling painting. And that’s when everything changes.

To pay for the broken glass ball, Clara begins working for Birdman in his atelier. He challenges her to throw away her eraser and draw what she sees, not what she wants to see. But as Clara discovers, seeing, really seeing is hard. Almost as difficult as befriending the new girl at school, or navigating awkward feelings for Orion or finding the courage to speak in front of the entire class. But little does Clara know, the biggest challenges are yet to come. To cope with tragedy, she will have to do more than be brave. As Birdman teaches her, she will have to bring the hope. 

Scars Like Wings – Erin Stewart

Spoilers Ahead!

“Everyone has scars. Some are just easier to see.”

All the stars!!! That was gorgeous! It’s been almost three weeks since I finished reading this book and I’m still struggling to form meaningful sentences about it. There isn’t anything I can say that would do justice to the ways Ava and Piper made me feel so please just trust me when I say I want everyone to read this book.

Also, you may want to make sure you have plenty of tissues on hand before you begin. I was close to tears when I read the author’s note about eight year old Marius, whose own story helped to inspire Ava’s, and that was before the first chapter. Couple that with the comparisons between Scars Like Wings and Wonder, and you’ve essentially already got a foolproof recipe for a good ol’ ugly cry. And ugly cry I did, as well as some more minor dehydration inducing episodes, but they were of the ‘this is so beautiful!’ variety.

When a wound’s that deep, it’s the healing that hurts.

Ava survived the fire that claimed the lives of her parents and her best friend, but she doesn’t feel like the lucky one. After a year of excruciating treatments on her scarred body, 60% of which was burned, Ava is leaving hospital to live with her Aunt Cora, the “self appointed CEO” of the “Committee on Ava’s Life”, and Uncle Glenn.

The scars are all I see.

Ava doesn’t want any part of finding a ‘new normal’ but reluctantly agrees to attend school for two weeks to appease the Committee. If she can just make it through ten school days and show her Aunt she’s attempted ‘reintegration’, she will be able to resume hiding from the world indefinitely because she’ll have concrete evidence of its failure. She’s certain of it.

Those girls have no idea that I used to be a normal girl with friends

Except Ava doesn’t expect to meet people like Piper and Asad. Piper was my favourite character, partially because of her fluency in sarcasm and eccentricity, and also because I understand what it’s like to have a car accident turn your life into a Before and After. I appreciated her use of humour to deflect and deny the pain she was feeling.

“It’s like the universe dealt us this horrible hand in life and it’s our duty to scream back: ‘Well played, craptastic cosmos, but you haven’t met me yet.’”

Asad is a theatre geek, whose passion and personality stole my heart. Their empathy and compassion made me consistently want to give them bear hugs but they also snagged some great lines. About Wicked:

“It is nothing like The Wizard of Oz. It is like taking the yellow brick road and twisting it until it snaps in half and then you look inside and there’s a whole other world in that road that’s dark and deep and soul-exposing.”

I would tell you that Ava’s story is inspirational but she hates that word so instead I’ll tell you that it’s a reminder that the love, support and acceptance of others can make all the difference when you’re in pain, for whatever reason.

“She conquered her demons and wore her scars like wings.”

I loved the complexities of the characters. I can’t think of a single person who remained inside of the box that was initially labelled with them in mind. Perception or circumstances may have cast them in a specific role and while sometimes that may have been accurate to a degree, that’s not all they were; oftentimes they were also the opposite and I find that so encouraging.

At one point I nearly convinced myself to refuse to turn the page because I didn’t think I could handle it if what I feared was going to happen actually did. Thankfully I was mostly wrong about that part of the story. Had I been right, I’d probably still be ugly crying!

I figured out who was sending the messages to Piper early on, quite possibly accidentally, but this didn’t affect the way I felt about this book. By the time the truth was revealed it actually made even more sense to me why it had to be this person.

Content warnings include bullying, homophobia, ableism, depression and a suicide attempt.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster (Australia) for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Everyone has scars. Some are just easier to see …

16-year-old Ava Gardener is heading back to school one year after a house fire left her severely disfigured. She’s used to the names, the stares, the discomfort, but there’s one name she hates most of all: Survivor. What do you call someone who didn’t mean to survive? Who sometimes wishes she hadn’t?

When she meets a fellow survivor named Piper at therapy, Ava begins to feel like she’s not facing the nightmare alone. Piper helps Ava reclaim the pieces of Ava Before the Fire, a normal girl who kissed boys and sang on stage. But Piper is fighting her own battle for survival, and when Ava almost loses her best friend, she must decide if the new normal she’s chasing has more to do with the girl in the glass – or the people by her side. 

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone – Lori Gottlieb

Do you know how difficult it is to whisper an ugly cry? I do. There I was at 3:30am, relaxed and enjoying the insight and surprising humour of this book, caught up in a ‘just one more chapter’ loop. Then, out of nowhere, I was ugly crying as quietly as possible so I didn’t wake up the sensible people in my home, those who actually sleep when it’s considered an acceptable time to do so. Okay, so it wasn’t exactly ‘out of nowhere’; I knew it was coming at some stage with that particular patient but I wasn’t expecting it right then.

That wasn’t the only time I cried during this book (there may have been another four tissue grabs and some very dignified sniffling involved) and it wasn’t the only time my tears caught me off guard (who knew I’d cry about the patient I initially loved to sneer at!) but it did remind me of some of the reasons why I never formally used my psychology degree.

Reason #1: Although I don’t cry a lot about my own stuff, I am a champion crier when it comes to pretty much anything else. Movies. TV shows. Songs. Books. When you cry about your stuff. When I think about your stuff and consider how brave, resilient, [insert any number of adjectives here] you were, are or are going to be. Who wants to come to therapy and feel like they need to console their therapist about their reaction to their patient’s problems?!

Reason #2: There would be certain types of people and life experiences where I just know I couldn’t remain impartial. ‘Oh, so you’re a child molester? Allow me to introduce you to another patient of mine, the one that keeps getting imprisoned for assault. I’m sure you’ll get along just fine.’

Reason #3: The goodbyes. See Reason #1.

Full disclosure: I started reading this book while my own therapist was on leave. Besides confirming my decision to not actually be a therapist (you’re so welcome, all of the people whose lives would have crossed my path in this way. I hope you found a Wendell instead!) I also got a glimpse of what it’s like behind the scenes for therapists, something I’ve always been interested in, something that’s difficult to obtain because of that pesky ‘confidentiality’ thing.

I’m not ashamed to say that I have my very own Wendell, who is awesome by the way. None of us get out of life unscathed and I think pretty much everyone could benefit from therapy at some point in their lives. One of the perks this book offers is a therapeutic ‘try before you buy’; if you’ve been considering therapy but are hesitant to schedule that initial appointment, then reading this book will give you some idea of what to expect – from the therapist, from the experience, and how it looks when it’s done right.

Sitting-with-you-in-your-pain is one of the rare experiences that people get in the protected space of a therapy room, but it’s very hard to give or get outside of it

I enjoyed Lori’s down to earth approach, her compassion and ability to bring truth to a situation, while still making me smile along the way. She humanises our experience of pain and even when she’s talking about her own therapy, her insight and openness had me smiling in recognition much more frequently than the narrative made me cry. Of her own therapy:

Yes, I’m seeking objectivity, but only because I’m convinced that objectivity will rule in my favor.

Of her therapist:

He looks at me meaningfully, like he just said something incredibly important and profound, but I kind of want to punch him.

A quote I love:

defenses serve a useful purpose. They shield people from injury … until they no longer need them. It’s in this ellipsis that therapists work.

And another:

People often mistake numbness for nothingness, but numbness isn’t the absence of feelings; it’s a response to being overwhelmed by too many feelings.

Oh, and I have to share this one too:

When the present falls apart, so does the future we had associated with it. And having the future taken away is the mother of all plot twists. But if we spend the present trying to fix the past or control the future, we remain stuck in place, in perpetual regret.

I highlighted so many passages in this book that each time I started another binge read it felt like I was experiencing my very own mini therapy session. I saw myself in Lori and in her patients, even the initial ‘love to sneer at’ one, probably because I saw something of myself in them as well. I saw my own therapist in Wendell and felt probably too much pride in having found myself such an amazing ‘Wendell’ to help me navigate my presenting problem as well as the real issues behind the facade.

From the presenting problem to the “doorknob disclosures”, “what-aboutery” and self-sabotage, all the way to the “termination” (seriously, can therapists collectively find a less aggressive way to label someone’s graduation from therapy?), I ‘just one more chaptered’ my way through this book.

Although at times I felt voyeuristic, have some outstanding questions about Lori’s patients I’m not entitled to know but still want to (Would you please tell me John’s real name or at least the name of the TV show you kept referencing so I can binge watch it?) and had at least one ugly cry headache as a result of reading this book, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to pretty much anyone.

Much like the way Lori talks about who therapy can’t help, I think the only people who wouldn’t benefit in some way by reading this book are those “who aren’t curious about themselves.” I’ll leave you with what’s currently my favourite quote:

There’s no hierarchy of pain. Suffering shouldn’t be ranked, because pain is not a contest.

Content warnings include mention of suicidal ideation, addiction, mental health, grief, chronic illness and a whole pile of other reasons people seek therapy in the first place.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

One day, Lori Gottlieb is a therapist who helps patients in her Los Angeles practice. The next, a crisis causes her world to come crashing down. Enter Wendell, the quirky but seasoned therapist in whose office she suddenly lands. With his balding head, cardigan, and khakis, he seems to have come straight from Therapist Central Casting. Yet he will turn out to be anything but.

As Gottlieb explores the inner chambers of her patients’ lives – a self-absorbed Hollywood producer, a young newlywed diagnosed with a terminal illness, a senior citizen threatening to end her life on her birthday if nothing gets better, and a twenty-something who can’t stop hooking up with the wrong guys – she finds that the questions they are struggling with are the very ones she is now bringing to Wendell.

Speak – Laurie Halse Anderson

This book … I’ve wanted to read it for so many years but I always feared I’d Humpty Dumpty if I read it. I didn’t trust that I’d be able to reassemble the pieces if I shattered. When I read SHOUT I knew it was time to Speak but it still took me another couple of months to gather my courage to begin Melinda’s story. The verdict? It was everything I wanted it to be and more!

Now I’m preparing to ask Doc if I can borrow his Delorean so I can give this book to me when I was Melinda’s age, before it was published. I ached for a book like this in high school but never found one. It would have been life changing. I know this book has already touched countless lives before mine but I’m excited about the lives it will continue to change.

Sometimes I think high school is one long hazing activity: if you are tough enough to survive this, they’ll let you become an adult. I hope it’s worth it.

High school is already hard enough when you have friends. As an outcast Melinda’s experience is excruciating and I honestly don’t know how she made it through that first year as well as she did. Her growth, despite her trauma, despite the depression, despite all of the adults that could and should have been supporting her but didn’t, is remarkable.

The whole point of not talking about it, of silencing the memory, is to make it go away. It won’t. I’ll need brain surgery to cut it out of my head.

Melinda’s voice throughout this book is so authentic. Trying to navigate her way through the aftermath of her sexual assault with no support contributed greatly to her inability to speak. I loved her sarcasm and dry humour; being the outcast she was able to observe clearly the absurdity of many aspects of the high school experience.

I wanted to sit quietly with Melinda until she was ready to break her silence, just so she knew she wasn’t alone. I wanted to get to know Ivy more. I wanted to listen to David talk about whatever was on his mind each day. I imagined flaming meteors obliterating Heather’s perfectly coordinated wardrobe but appreciated her written outcome better. I wanted to drop kick Rachel into another dimension, preferably one with giant hornets staring her down.

I wanted to shake most of the adults in Melinda’s life awake, especially her emotionally neglectful parents but also every school staff member who saw and chose to do nothing. I constantly wanted to high five Mr Freeman, the only safe adult I saw in Melinda’s life, the only one who truly saw her and reached out. Mr Freeman is responsible for what’s currently my favourite sentence:

“When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time.”

While I’d obviously prefer to live in a world where a book like this wasn’t needed, I love that I live in a world where survivors of sexual assault are beginning to have voices. We have a long, long way to go but books like this are catalysts for change. I know Speak is a life changing book; I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say it’s also a life saving one. Knowing you are not alone in your experience is powerful! I need all the stars that have ever existed for this book!

Content warnings include sexual and physical assaults, depression, emotional neglect, self harm, isolation and a whole bunch of high school crap that seems vitally important at the time you’re living it.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. If you are experiencing sexual assault or have in the past, please know that you are not alone. The full responsibility lies with the perpetrator; you are not to blame. There is help available and you are worthy of receiving it.

In America, the National Sexual Assault Hotline offers confidential, anonymous support to survivors 24/7/365. It’s never too late to get help. 800.656.HOPE or https://hotline.rainn.org/online.

If you live outside America and don’t know who to contact in your country, a good place to start is http://www.hotpeachpages.net.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The first ten lies they tell you in high school.

“Speak up for yourself – we want to know what you have to say.” 

From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless, outcast, because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. As time passes, she becomes increasingly isolated and practically stops talking altogether. Only her art class offers any solace, and it is through her work on an art project that she is finally able to face what really happened at that terrible party: she was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. Her healing process has just begun when she has another violent encounter with him. But this time Melinda fights back, refuses to be silent, and thereby achieves a measure of vindication. 

In Laurie Halse Anderson’s powerful novel, an utterly believable heroine with a bitterly ironic voice delivers a blow to the hypocritical world of high school. She speaks for many a disenfranchised teenager while demonstrating the importance of speaking up for oneself.

We Are Okay – Nina LaCour

Marin was raised by her Gramps; her mother died before she was three and she never knew her father. Now she’s alone in her dorm room in New York, the only student on campus during winter break, and her best friend Mabel is coming to visit for three days. Mabel, who she hasn’t spoken to since everything happened.

The space between us is worse than our awkwardness, worse than not knowing what she’s thinking during our long stretches of silence.

Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone she knew in California since she left. This is a story about the ghosts that haunt us, the losses that change us and loneliness that is all consuming.

I wonder if there’s a secret current that connects people who have lost something. Not in the way that everyone loses something, but in the way that undoes your life, undoes your self, so that when you look at your face it isn’t yours anymore.

I only knew what this book’s blurb told me when I began reading and I highly recommend allowing the story to unfold as you go rather than seeking information that may spoil the experience. It’s written beautifully and besides the amazing cover, the artwork inside the cover is absolutely perfect. It’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming so make sure you have tissues handy.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

You go through life thinking there’s so much you need …

Until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother.

Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

Summer Bird Blue – Akemi Dawn Bowman

I knew I’d have to read everything Akemi Dawn Bowman ever writes when I fell in love with Starfish. With Summer Bird Blue has confirmed her place as one of my favourite authors.

🚨 UGLY CRY ALERT! 🚨

Sorry in advance for the ramble. I’m still an emotional wreck from this book so this review may not be overly coherent.

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Rumi is one of the most acerbic characters I’ve loved in a long time. She’s angry, she’s confused, she’s mean, she feels guilty as hell. Lea, the good sister, daughter, friend, human being, died in an accident and Rumi is left to try to figure out how to do life without her best friend. Her mother has abandoned her, shipped her off to Hawaii for the summer to live with Aunty Ani, who’s practically a stranger, and Rumi is furious.

Rumi’s grief is so palpable that I needed to take a few breaks from reading just so I could breathe for a while without inhaling pain. The portrayal of grief in this book was brilliant – visceral, uncomfortable, painful and so real. Normally I would be annoyed if a character’s thoughts were as repetitive as Rumi’s were at times but it added to the authenticity of her character.

People were shown to be grieving differently in this book; there wasn’t a one size fits all portrayal. I hope this book makes its way into the hands of young people who need to know that they’re not alone, that their feelings are valid and that it’s okay to need help.

Sometimes I’m not sure if there is anywhere left in the world I can look where I won’t see the empty spaces she left behind.

Some of my favourite conversations in this book included Rumi’s ‘sandwich method’, where she wraps what she really feels inside two compliments, including,

“I like your eyeshadow today. I feel like I’m eating neon-colored mucus. Thanks for cooking.”

As I read I kept finding ways to use sandwiches as an analogy. For example, Aunt Ani’s house is sandwiched between the homes of Kai and Mr. Watanabe who, while they’re polar opposites in many respects, befriend Rumi and support her while she’s grieving. Then, if you want to take it even further, Rumi is sandwiched between the memories of her sister and the fear of having a future without her.

My favourite character was Aunty Ani’s lonely neighbour, Mr. Watanabe, who has a yappy dog called Poi and is hiding a beautiful heart beneath his grumpy exterior. While he’s comfortable with silence, when he speaks he’s certainly worth listening to.

“Grief is only a visitor, but it goin’ stay mo’ longer when it sees you hiding from it.”

I loved the way music is woven into this book and the lives of its characters. Rumi’s unique way of describing different songs helped me ‘hear’ and feel them in a way that I don’t remember experiencing in a book before.

The piano music is like vanilla lattes and sugar cookies. Cozy. Homely.

I cannot tell you how thrilled I was when I learned one of the characters in this book was asexual. I was overjoyed that this wasn’t just casually mentioned and then set aside. The representation was realistic and the reactions of other characters when they discussed it was everything I hoped it would be. It was never portrayed as a weakness or something to be ashamed of and I loved that kissing an attractive person didn’t magically change this person’s sexuality. I definitely want to read more books featuring asexual and aromantic characters.

I promised myself I wouldn’t cry before Rumi did and with some strategic reading breaks I made it!!! almost made it. When I finally did cry it was definitely the ugly kind; I essentially sobbed through most of the final 10%, obliterating about half a dozen tissues along the way. I’m now nursing a fairly spectacular ugly cry hangover headache but it was entirely worth it.

Before I finish I have to mention the amazing cover! It was Sarah Creech’s gorgeous cover of Starfish that drew me to Akemi’s debut and once again Sarah’s cover design and illustration complement the story perfectly.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Ink Road, an imprint of Black & White Publishing, for the opportunity to read this book. I want to recommend it to everyone!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Rumi Seto spends a lot of time worrying she doesn’t have the answers to everything. What to eat, where to go, whom to love. But there is one thing she is absolutely sure of – she wants to spend the rest of her life writing music with her younger sister, Lea.

Then Lea dies in a car accident, and her mother sends her away to live with her aunt in Hawaii while she deals with her own grief. Now thousands of miles from home, Rumi struggles to navigate the loss of her sister, being abandoned by her mother, and the absence of music in her life. With the help of the “boys next door” – a teenage surfer named Kai, who smiles too much and doesn’t take anything seriously, and an eighty-year-old named George Watanabe, who succumbed to his own grief years ago – Rumi attempts to find her way back to her music, to write the song she and Lea never had the chance to finish.

SHOUT – Laurie Halse Anderson

This is the story of a girl who lost her voice and wrote herself a new one.

I expect I’m one of the only ones reading SHOUT before they’ve read Speak. I’ve had Speak on my ‘I absolutely have to read this book’ list for as long as I can remember but still haven’t read it. I searched my local library for it but they don’t own it. I tried for several years to buy it on Kindle but it wasn’t available to purchase in my country (I just checked and it’s still not an option). I finally bit the bullet and added it to my Book Depository order last year and it’s been looking at me ever since from my shelf, quietly asking me why I haven’t opened its pages.

Honestly? It’s intimidated me. It’s the book about sexual assault and while I’ve read so many others, I think I’ve worried about what it will bring up for me when I do finally read it. So, long story slightly shorter, my plan is to SHOUT, then Speak, and then SHOUT again. I’m interested to see if my perspective on SHOUT changes after I’ve read Speak. I guess time will tell.

The first section of this book is essentially memoir in free verse. Laurie takes the reader on a journey through a series of childhood memories; a father haunted by war when alcohol isn’t numbing his memories, a mother silenced, her own experiences of school, work and surviving sexual assault. I really loved reading about Laurie’s experience as an exchange student in Denmark and would happily devour as much information as I could about those 13 months; what I’ve read has sparked an interest in Danish culture.

The second section, which begins almost two thirds of the way through the book, broke my heart as Laurie shared just a handful of stories about her interactions with other survivors, whose young bodies have been invaded and lives changed, most often by those they know and should have been able to trust. Although this section made me cry one of the things that got to me the most was something hopeful – the colourful ribbons tied to fences in Ballarat, Australia in support of the abused, which ultimately created Loud Fence. The images of those ribbons of support broke me.

This section includes responses from readers, students who have heard Laurie speak, teachers and librarians; those who need to share their story, those who don’t understand what was so bad about Melinda’s experience in Speak, those who want to censor “inappropriate” reading material.

I’m not sure how to sum up the third section other than to say that it was the shortest section but also the one in which I shed most tears. Laurie’s final poems about her parents simply gutted me.

Although it’s clearly stated in the blurb I still hadn’t thought there’d be as much memoir as there was in this book. I’d expected a greater percentage of poems to be directly addressing sexual assault, even though there are plenty that do. When my expectations didn’t line up with reality I thought I’d be disappointed but I wasn’t and I’m already ready for a reread. I expect that I will revisit this book each time I read one of Laurie’s books that are mentioned here, to search out her favourite scenes and glimpses of the story behind the story.

There’s a vulnerability here and it’s entwined with strength, determination, courage, resilience and so much compassion. While I finished this book with a contented sigh I’m still yearning for more. Luckily for me, as this is the first of Laurie’s books that I’ve read (shame on me!), I still have plenty to explore.

Thank you, Laurie Halse Anderson, for sharing some of your life in this book, for breaking my heart, growing my empathy, giving me so many amazing passages to highlight and inspiring me. I will see you on Ultima Thule.

Content warnings include sexual assault, PTSD, war, physical abuse, fat shaming, alcohol and other drug use.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson is known for the unflinching way she writes about, and advocates for, survivors of sexual assault. Now, inspired by her fans and enraged by how little in our culture has changed since her groundbreaking novel Speak was first published twenty years ago, she has written a poetry memoir that is as vulnerable as it is rallying, as timely as it is timeless.

In free verse, Anderson shares reflections, rants, and calls to action woven between deeply personal stories from her life that she’s never written about before. Searing and soul-searching, this important memoir is a denouncement of our society’s failures and a love letter to all the people with the courage to say #metoo and #timesup, whether aloud, online, or only in their own hearts. Shout speaks truth to power in a loud, clear voice – and once you hear it, it is impossible to ignore.