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?

Sadie – Courtney Summers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

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

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

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

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

Small Things – Mel Tregonning

How to break my heart yet still give me hope 101

Step 1: Put this book in front of me.

Mel Tregonning’s artwork takes you inside the lonely world of anxiety and depression in such a beautiful but haunting way. The monsters that lurk and chip away at the main character piece by piece are perfect. Each monster is unique but clearly from the same monster gene pool. Once you’ve seen them you can identify them but would have trouble explaining them to someone who hasn’t seen them. Anxiety and depression feel like that. How can you truly explain to someone who hasn’t seen those monsters what they look like and how living with them impacts every part of you.

Step 2: Show me the book’s dedication.

This book is dedicated to Mel, the illustrator. How can that be?!

Step 3: Investigate further.

Upon investigating I came across this article and Mel’s website.

Step 4: Cry.

Step 5: Be grateful for the hope provided in this book, but maybe cry a bit more first.

At the heart of this book is a powerful message about early intervention. Support from people who care about you truly can make all the difference. There are ways to make the monsters retreat. You are not alone. Please know there is hope.

My heart breaks for Mel’s family. If she can have this much of an impact on me just because I ‘read’ her book I can’t even begin to imagine what her loss must be like for those who loved her in life. 💕

Content warnings include mental illness and suicide.

I ordered this from the library mostly because of the haunting cover illustration. I needed to know more. Now I do and while I don’t have as many tissues as I did before I started I’m so glad I found this book.

It’s part of the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge (Challenge Level 5-6) and I’m so glad it’s there. Children (and adults) need the message of this book. It’s not one that I’d just hand a child and go on with my day though. This is a book that deserves to be discussed.

P.S. There are a list of the reading challenge books here if you’re interested. My library has heaps of them. I love my library!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

On the cusp of having everything slip from his grasp, a young boy has to find a way to rebuild his sense of self. An ordinary boy in an ordinary world. With no words, only illustrations, Small Things tells the story of a boy who feels alone with worries but who learns that help is always close by. An extraordinary story, told simply and with breathtaking beauty.

Boy in the Shed – Tammy Kraynik

This book! I finished reading this itty bitty book about two weeks ago and I still don’t really know what to say about it. It’s not that I didn’t feel anything. I felt eight soggy tissues worth of anguish and heartache. I felt so mad, wanting to scream at Raylene until she finally did what I told her to. I felt this righteous anger bubbling up inside me as an entire community failed this young boy and his father.

I felt inspired, wanting to reach out to child protection workers everywhere, urging them to make this book required reading. I felt drained, knowing that all too often voices that need to be heard are silenced. I felt like I needed to read a book about sunshine and daisies and unicorns dancing through rainbows after finishing this one because I needed to remember that the world doesn’t just suck.

This is one of those books where you know almost immediately that you’re walking straight into a crime scene. The title gives you a hint – Boy In The Shed. In case you have any illusions that this is a lovely story of a boy who loves to play in a shed, stop right there. This boy lives in the shed. This boy is beaten brutally for merely existing. This boy has no formal education. This boy has not heard his name for so long that he can no longer remember what it is.

This is not the kind of book that you can finish and say you enjoyed it. It’s the type of book that will haunt you and get under your skin, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing because we should be affected by child abuse. If you have children I hope this book brings home how vital it is to have tough conversations with them, about what they can do and who they can tell if they or a friend of theirs is being abused. It sounds so clichéd saying that evil triumphs when good people do nothing but this is what abusers rely on from you in order to continue getting away with it – silence, looking the other way, pretending you don’t know what’s really going on.

Thankfully this book is also about a beautiful friendship between this boy and 14 year old Raylene. There’s this sweet innocence between the two, which in a way makes the brutality of the boy’s circumstances seem so much more horrific. Raylene brings him much needed food and provisions. She teaches him how to read. She offers him kindness, love and friendship when all he’s ever known is pain. They become family to one another.

The writing style feels young and comes across as though a young teen is writing about her experience. I did feel as though the children in this book acted younger than 14 but that may boil down to their shared innocence.

If you read Boy In The Shed, remember to have a box of tissues nearby and a stash of comfort food. Whatever you do, don’t try to quiet cry in the middle of the night while everyone else is asleep because your body will want to sob and denying it that is how migraines start. I should know. I wound up with a doozy. 😃

This book was recommended to me by Elyse (thanks, Elyse! 💕) and while I don’t imagine that I could endure the heartbreak of a second read through, I am glad I read it. Looking through the blur of tears I also discovered a beautiful friendship and that’s what I want to take away from this experience.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

I hide behind a few trees and make my way to the shed. As I kneel behind it to make sure there is no one in the house, I hear a faint “Hello.” The voice knocks me to the ground and I nearly scream from fright. I steady myself on my knees and look through a hole in the shed. There I see a young boy who must be around my age. He is crouching in the corner of the shed under a dirty blanket. He looks as if he has never taken a bath in his life or had a proper hair cut – his hair hangs in his eyes. I wonder how he can see out of it. The shed is dirty inside with lots of cobwebs everywhere. I can also see mouse droppings everywhere, along with piled-up junk. 

“Hi,” he says again. 

“Hi, what are you doing in there? Are you lost?” I ask. 

“No I live here.” 

“You live here?”

Ebb and Flow – Heather Smith

First, an admission. I used to be a free verse snob, prejudging something I had no experience reading. That all changed the day I discovered Ellen Hopkins and realised that some of the most emotional and engaging books are written in this format, so I was excited to see what Ebb and Flow had in store for me. Beside the joy of appreciating the story and characters, it also had me ugly crying in the form of “This is so beautiful!” 😭. So, to all of the free verse authors out there, my sincere apologies. I’ve reformed and am converted now!

The past year of Jett’s life has gone from bad to worse. His father is in prison, his mother moved him to the mainland and Jett has allowed victimhood to define him and his behaviour. As a result he’s made some really poor decisions and he’s been sent to stay with his granny for the summer, a well needed time out for Jett and his mother.

I adored Jett’s cotton candy granny, whose hair colour coordinates with her house colour. She is one of the coolest grannies ever! Her unconditional love for Jett came across as so genuine. She loves him no matter what and she gives him the space he needs to work through the guilt and shame he’s carrying about the events of the past year, yet also gently pushes him when he needs it.

Jett’s granny reminded me of my Nan and that’s probably one reason why I instantly connected with her. My Nan and I also played board games (except she always played to win whereas Jett’s granny takes it a little easier on him), she’d take me to visit her friends (Jett’s granny takes him visiting as well) and she was my favourite person in the entire world (I expect Jett feels much the same). My Nan passed on her love of reading, her quirkiness and her ‘normal is boring’ attitude to me.

The most valuable thing Nan ever gave me, which mirrors what Jett’s granny gives him, was her unshakeable belief in my goodness and ability to do whatever I set my mind to. Even now, over a decade after she went to hold my seat at the canasta table in heaven, I can still hear her telling me, “I knew you could do it” every time I accomplish anything, big or small.

Without Jett’s granny I expect things would have turned out a lot differently for this 11 year old. I know he’s going to look back years from now and credit his granny and those experiences with her that summer with the man he becomes. Now I’m talking about him like he doesn’t live on pages but if any author can make me ugly cry at how beautiful their book is, their characters are going to become a part of me. Especially when I cry while thinking about them to write my review – that’s a first!

Jett’s summer is one of respite, of taking stock and learning to take responsibility for his actions. He has the opportunity to consider the kid he was before he went to the mainland, who he became once there and the man he wants to become. Shining a spotlight on how difficult it is to face up to the actions you regret and forgiving others as well as yourself, Jett’s journey is ultimately one of redemption and hope.

While this is marketed as a children’s book, it has a lot to offer adults as well. The writing is simply gorgeous and reminded me why I love this author. There’s at once a simplicity and depth to the way Heather Smith writes and as with The Agony of Bun O’Keefe I was happily motoring along, loving the book but not realising my emotional investment in her characters until the ugly cry escaped. I wound up on the final page of Ebb and Flow with a satisfied sigh and tears running down my face, and the only word I could think of was beautiful.

Heather Smith’s writing reminds me of the feeling I get reading a Billie Letts book. There’s a vulnerability, openness and loveable quirkiness in their characters, and you’re permitted access to the real person beneath the façade. As you gradually delve into Jett’s rotten year you meet Alf who is adorable and childlike and the alleged villain of the story who I really liked, and whose emotions and acts I could empathise with. Cotton candy granny will remain my favourite character in this book, but she definitely had some pretty impressive competition for that title.

Ebb and Flow is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. I half want to say that I hope schools use this book as part of their English curriculum but if schools are still like they were back in the olden days when I attended, they tend to analyse the fun out of really good books, and I’d hate for that to happen to this one.

Content warnings include domestic violence and child abuse.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Kids Can Press for the opportunity read this book. I can’t wait for Heather Smith’s next book!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

One summer,
after a long plane ride
and a rotten bad year
I went to Grandma Jo’s.
It was my mother’s idea.
Jett, what you need is a change of scenery.
I think she needed a change of scenery, too.
One without me.
Because that rotten bad year?
That was my fault.

Thus begins the poignant story, told in free verse, of eleven-year-old Jett. Last year, Jett and his mother had moved to a new town for a fresh start after his father went to jail. But Jett soon learned that fresh starts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. When he befriended a boy with a difficult home life, Jett found himself in a cycle of bad decisions that culminated in the betrayal of a friend – a shameful secret he still hasn’t forgiven himself for. Will a summer spent with his unconventional grandmother help Jett find his way to redemption?

Writing in artfully crafted free-verse vignettes, Heather T. Smith uses a deceptively simple style to tell a powerful and emotionally charged story. The engaging narrative and the mystery of Jett’s secret keep the pages turning and will appeal to both reluctant and avid readers. This captivating book offers a terrific opportunity for classroom discussions about the many ways to tell a story and how a small number of carefully chosen words can have a huge impact. It also showcases the positive character traits of empathy resilience, courage, and responsibility. 

The Agony of Bun O’Keefe – Heather Smith

When her 300 pound hoarder mother tells this smart as a whip yet extraordinarily literal 14 year old daughter to get out, Bun does and leaves the remote place she has always resided (I refuse to call it a home or living). She finds her home in the city with a group of strangers, the names of almost all we never learn.

Bun’s father left when she was five, at which point her mother made her invisible. Telling everyone Bun had gone with her father, her mother withdrew her from school after she’d only attended Kindergarten and proceeded to focus solely on her hoard. Bun taught herself everything she knows from the various books and VHS tapes that made their way into the house with the towers of stuff her mother gathered. Yes, you read that right. I said VHS. We travel back to the 1980’s in this book.

So, with all of Bun’s book smarts, incredible talent for memorising entire documentaries (here’s to you, Jimmy Quinlan) and her lack of any form of contact with the world except possibly on Tuesdays when she’d walk half an hour to shower at the RV park, Bun is completely naive regarding social norms. She doesn’t lie, doesn’t tell jokes and she doesn’t do sarcasm. What comes out of her mouth is usually delightfully inappropriate and giggle worthy.

I’m bleepin’ certain that my heart grew larger while reading The Agony of Bun O’Keefe and I’m pretty sure Bun is going to inhabit that extra space for a long time to come. This story should be a tragedy, covering a range of themes including sexuality, abuse, neglect, abandonment, rejection, sexual assault, suicide, grief, discrimination and outright bigotry, yet it’s not. The reason it’s not? Bun O’Keefe and her family. Not the family she was born into. Nope. They suck.

I’m talking about her other family that all live in the same temporary accommodation – Busker Boy, Big Eyes (thanks for the lesson in fake swearing, Big Eyes), Chef and Cher who is sometimes Chris. [Oh, and Dragon Man lives in the attic in the temporary accommodation but he is most definitely not family and doesn’t deserve precious words wasted on him.]

This book follows the lives of a bunch of society’s supposed misfits who we’d all be better off knowing and we would be so blessed to be grafted into their family. Everyone in this family have histories that haunt them and as we learn more about them and their pasts, we learn to love them all. This group of loveable outcasts show compassion that they haven’t been given, understanding that they’ve been denied and a purity of love that I doubt they’ve often felt, if ever.

The writing style made me want to beg Heather Smith to give me writing lessons. There was a simplicity to the way this book read, like you’re listening in on a conversation, but told in such a gorgeous way. I almost feel as though Heather bewitched me because I can’t tell you exactly how she made me connect so deeply and so quickly to this many diverse characters but she did a brilliant job. This book brought echoes of Billie Letts’ writing style to mind, perhaps because of the host of quirky characters and the ability to put a knife through my heart yet give me hope at the same time.

This should be one of the most depressing stories you’ve ever read but it’s told with such grace and beauty that I wound up smiling at all of the funny little things that made their way out of Bun’s mouth. Beneath the surface you are sure to feel an ache for her and the life that she and her new family have endured, and sometimes that ache will flare into an open wound, but you will be OK because this family won’t let you wallow in your sadness for long. Yes, I did need Kleenex and yes, I did cry six times but I promise you that over half of those times they were ‘oh, that’s so beautiful’ tears.

The ending was so sweet I could almost taste it but that didn’t bother me in the slightest. After what these people have been through, they deserve every snippet of happiness that comes their way.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Penguin Random House Canada for the opportunity to read this book. This book is now one of my all time favourites. Whatever Heather Smith writes, I plan to read, no questions asked.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Set in 1980’s Newfoundland, The Agony of Bun O’Keefe is the story of a 14-year-old girl who runs away to the city and is taken in by a street musician who lives with an eclectic cast of characters: a pot smoking dishwasher with culinary dreams; a drag queen with a tragic past; a Catholic school girl desperately trying to reinvent herself; and a man who Bun is told to avoid at all cost.