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.

description

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.

Elevation – Stephen King

Illustrations – Mark Edward Geyer

The awesomeness? Scott is living every metabolism challenged person’s dream; he’s consistently losing a steady amount of weight while eating whatever the heck he wants to. He can eat breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner/supper and round it all off with a double helping of dessert, and the scales still smile on him. What a dream!

The downside? No matter how much weight the scales say he’s lost Scott still looks exactly the same, protruding belly and all. All of that weight loss and you don’t even get to see the difference? No fair!

The downright weird?

‘No one weighs the same naked as they do dressed. It’s as much a given as gravity.’

This is a Stephen King novella; nothing is a given.

Set in Castle Rock, Elevation was a compulsive read for me. I loved the people I met. I loved the friendships. I loved that the homophobia expressed by some of the townsfolk was challenged. I loved the reminder that one person can make a difference in other peoples’ lives and their community as a whole, even in the current political climate and even a town where a fairly considerable amount of bigots reside.

‘Sometimes I think this is the world’s greatest weight-loss program.’

‘Yes,’ Ellis said, ‘but where does it end?’

I’ll tell you where it ends. In tears! I enjoyed Gwendy’s Button Box but I loved Elevation. I didn’t expect to feel so much for characters that I only knew for just over 130 pages but I smiled, I laughed and I wanted to have dinner with these people. Then I smiled some more while I ugly cried for the final 10% of the book. I’d tell you how many tissues I used but I didn’t; I was too busy reading through the waterfalls cascading down my face to reach over to grab a Kleenex.

There’s something about Stephen King in my mind that makes him exempt from the eye rolling and accompanying groan when I find references to an author’s other books in the one I’m reading. With anyone else I’d be rambling to myself about ‘blatant self promotion’ but in the King-dom I find the Easter eggs charming and amusing, and I think I’m so smart each time I find one. My knowing smiles in this book included a reference to the Suicide Stairs and a garage band that temporarily rename themselves ‘Pennywise and the Clowns’.

I’m one of those irritating there/they’re/their fanatics and another one of my reading quirks is picking up on inconsistencies between what the author has written and what the illustrator has drawn. It’s not a deliberate thing; it just seems to happen and once I see it I can’t unsee it. In chapter 3 of Elevation we’re told that two characters put their numbers for the Turkey Trot race on the front of their shirts. In chapter 4’s illustration both characters are shown from behind; their numbers are on their backs.

Does this matter in the scheme of things at all? Not one iota. Why do I mention it? Because my brain’s stupid and won’t shut up about it. That said, I really did love Mark Edward Geyer’s illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. They were gorgeous; naturally my favourite was the creepy Halloween pumpkin.

I need an entire series of novellas set in Castle Rock. I need to meet more of these weird and wonderful people.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Although Scott Carey doesn’t look any different, he’s been steadily losing weight. There are a couple of other odd things, too. He weighs the same in his clothes and out of them, no matter how heavy they are. Scott doesn’t want to be poked and prodded. He mostly just wants someone else to know, and he trusts Doctor Bob Ellis.

In the small town of Castle Rock, the setting of many of King’s most iconic stories, Scott is engaged in a low grade – but escalating – battle with the lesbians next door whose dog regularly drops his business on Scott’s lawn. One of the women is friendly; the other, cold as ice. Both are trying to launch a new restaurant, but the people of Castle Rock want no part of a gay married couple, and the place is in trouble. When Scott finally understands the prejudices they face – including his own – he tries to help. Unlikely alliances, the annual foot race, and the mystery of Scott’s affliction bring out the best in people who have indulged the worst in themselves and others.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape – Sohaila Abdulali

The author considers the difficulty of categorising this book and I agree; it’s a blend of personal experience, other peoples’ experiences and insights. What kept popping into my head as I was reading was that it’s a conversation. I loved Sohaila’s down to earth tone and how she makes this multifaceted and too often silenced experience approachable. Her writing is considered and empathetic. She doesn’t shy away from the gravity of the trauma associated with rape, yet at the same time I came away feeling hopeful and validated.

Discussions about rape are so often irrational, and sometimes outright bizarre. It’s the only crime to which people respond by wanting to lock up the victims. It’s the only crime that is so bad that victims are supposed to be destroyed beyond repair by it, but simultaneously not so bad that the men who do it should be treated like other criminals.

Although titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape this book is also about what we don’t talk about when we talk about rape, like how

it’s the weirdest things that can get you. Like dentophobia.

When I was two thirds of the way through this book I’d already recommended it to a counsellor who works for my state’s rape crisis hotline and would recommend it to anyone who has experienced sexual assault, knows someone who has experienced sexual assault, works with people who have experienced sexual assault or want to read an intelligent, thoughtful book about this truly global issue. While there are stories of people from America in this book there are also those from all of those other places that aren’t America, like India, Australia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. There’s also a wonderful cross section of peoples’ experiences, from the poorest and most marginalised to well known cases and celebrities.

Although I’ve read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction, about sexual assault and experienced more than my fair share, I still came across a lot in this book that made me pause and reevaluate my own preconceived ideas. I also found some lightbulb moments which have helped me make some sense out of nonsense.

The whole notion of institutional consent, which holds to account both men and women, was surprisingly new to me;

you know you can get away with it because the whole system is set up to help you get away with it.

My favourite lightbulb moment during my first read of this book (I expect it will be the first of many reads) came when I encountered an acronym that has validated my experience so much. Jennifer Freyd, writing about betrayal trauma theory in the nineties,

proposed that abusers frequently respond to accusations with “DARVO” – Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.

This has helped me understand why a rapist overtly threatened me with legal action twice (so far) for reporting him and covertly attacked my credibility. While he had a serious amount of institutional consent behind him and is currently the owner of a Rape Free Card, this new knowledge has helped me in the best possible way … I know I’m not alone and there’s even an acronym to prove it.

There were a few sections that seemed a bit disjointed to me and details of some stories were repeated in a couple of chapters, although the repetition did serve to remind me which person’s experience I was reading about. Absent from this book was any mention of women who rape; while uncommon, it does happen, and I would be interested to hear what this author has to say about it.

This book is sociological, political, personal and contradictory. Now, contradictory may sound like a criticism but it’s not and as Sohaila expresses, rape and the way we talk about it is contradictory, so to highlight these contradictions is vital to an honest discussion. I loved/hated the “Lose-Lose Rape Conundrum”; it is so infuriatingly accurate:

If you talk about it, you’re a helpless victim angling for sympathy. If you’re not a helpless victim, then it wasn’t such a big deal, so why are you talking about it? If you’re surviving and living your life, why are you ruining some poor man’s life? Either it’s a big deal, so you’re ruined, or it’s not a big deal and you should be quiet.

Content warning: Naturally a book with ‘rape’ in its title is going to come with a content warning from me. This book is confronting so I would caution you to be aware of the potentially triggering nature of the content, but it was one of the best I’ve ever read on the topic.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and The New Press for the opportunity to read this book. My current activism level is set to: Need to do something positive immediately!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Thoughtful, provocative and intelligent, this game-changing book looks at sexual assault and the global discourse on rape from the viewpoint of a survivor, writer, counsellor and activist.

Sohaila Abdulali was the first Indian rape survivor to speak out about her experience. Gang-raped as a teenager in Mumbai and indignant at the deafening silence on the issue in India, she wrote an article for a women’s magazine questioning how we perceive rape and rape victims. Thirty years later she saw the story go viral in the wake of the fatal 2012 Delhi rape and the global outcry that followed.

Drawing on three decades of grappling with the issue personally and professionally, and on her work with hundreds of other survivors, she explores what we think about rape and what we say. She also explores what we don’t say, and asks pertinent questions about who gets raped and who rapes, about consent and desire, about redemption and revenge, and about how we raise our sons. Most importantly, she asks: does rape always have to be a life-defining event, or is it possible to recover joy?