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

With Alley Pascoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lighthouse – Alex Bell

Don’t go near the lighthouse.

There’s not much to do on Bird Rock. The island has no shops, locals or phone reception. What it does have are thousands of gannets, some stone bothies, a lighthouse and an abundance of guano.

Fifteen year old Jess Oliver is definitely not keen on spending two weeks of her summer vacation there. Rosie, her twelve year old sister, is more positive about the trip and hopes to take an award winning photo while she’s there.

Their father and his new wife, Kate, both ornithologists, are working on the island. The sisters will be meeting Charlie, their stepbrother, for the first time.

“The lighthouse is haunted. Cursed. It’s a dangerous place. Something will happen if you stay here. Something bad-”

Because this is an Alex Bell book, and a Red Eye one at that, it’s not long before strange things begin to happen. This was a compulsive read, with a centuries old mystery at its heart, some great creepy moments and a dose of sadness.

I enjoyed the gradual reveal of the history of the lighthouse and absolutely loved that I wasn’t able to figure out what was behind the mystery ahead of time.

Knowing what I now know, I want to return to Bird Rock and experience it all over again.

“I know you’re there.”

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide and mental health. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with some scenes.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Stripes Publishing, an imprint of Little Tiger Group, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

On Bird Rock, gannets circle and thick mist surrounds the lighthouse at its centre, hiding the secrets of a tragic past within …

From the second they set foot on the island to join their dad and his new family, Jess and Rosie feel that something’s wrong. Nightmares haunt their dreams and there seems to be someone, or something, else with them in the lighthouse – their home for the summer.

Counting down the days until they can leave, Jess and Rosie decide to investigate. But when Rosie disappears, the countdown takes on a new meaning. Especially when no one but Jess remembers Rosie at all…

The Butterfly Assassin – Finn Longman

No mercy, no hesitation, no witnesses.

I finished reading this book two weeks ago and I’m still having trouble figuring out what to say about it. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it. I did. I flew through it. It’s not that I didn’t love the characters. I did. So much! It’s that practically everything I want to say about this book wanders into spoiler territory and I don’t want to ruin it for you.

Isabel Ryan is trying her best to reinvent herself as Bella Nicholls. Isabel was trained as a contract killer by Comma, one of Espera’s two guilds. Bella is an ordinary high school student, a civilian.

She’s seventeen, she’s safe, and she got out.

One day maybe that will feel true.

Isabel is one of the best badass characters I’ve ever survived. She’s resilient, surprisingly vulnerable and all kinds of lethal when the situation calls for it.

‘It’s my trauma. You don’t get to tell me how to deal with it.’

Emma is one of the best friends you could ever hope to meet.

She smiles like it’s nothing. Show her how she can help, give her the knowledge to do it, and there it is: joy.

Grace is a librarian, which made her one of my favourite characters even before I knew anything else about her.

‘All I can offer is books and friendly advice, I’m afraid.’

This is a book about surviving against the odds. It’s about extricating yourself from the past when it’s holding on for dear life. It’s about control: being controlled, losing control and taking it back.

Isabel’s past is essentially layers of trauma and her present isn’t any easier. Not only is she trying to cope with the physical and emotional fallout from her life in the guild, she’s doing her best to create a new life for herself in hopes of having a future. Although not specifically identified as such, the portrayal of PTSD was authentic.

I loved that the chapter titles were in Esperanto as well as English. I loved the worldbuilding. I hated being constantly worried about the safety of my favourite characters but loved that, despite the darkness of this book, there was enough light to find them in the first place.

Favourite no context quote:

‘A candle can’t do much against a black hole.’

‘So light another candle.’

Content warnings include child abuse (emotional, medical, neglect, physical, verbal), foster care and mental health. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with some scenes.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Children’s UK for the opportunity to read this book. I need the sequel immediately!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Trained and traumatised by a secret assassin programme for minors, Isabel Ryans wants nothing more than to be a normal civilian. After running away from home, she has a new name, a new life and a new friend, Emma, and for the first time in Isabel’s life, things are looking up.

But old habits die hard, and it’s not long until she blows her cover, drawing the attention of the guilds – the two rival organisations who control the city of Espera. An unaffiliated killer like Isabel is either a potential asset … or a threat to be eliminated.

Will the blood on her hands cost her everything?

Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke And Other Misfortunes – Eric LaRocca

Julia Lloyd’s cover art might have been what brought me here in the first place but I was sucked in by each of the three stories included in this collection.

Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke

Over the course of three months, Agnes and Zoe exchanged a series of emails and instant messages. This redacted communication give you unprecedented access to their relationship, which continually ups the ante in its toxicity. It’s compelling and cringey and unsettling, and I couldn’t look away. And to think, this all happened because of an apple peeler.

“What have you done today to deserve your eyes?”

The Enchantment

Parents grieving the loss of their son become winter caretakers on an island. A knock at the door changes everything.

“I’m here to share a message”

You’ll Find It’s Like That All Over

Mr. Fowler finds something in his backyard that shouldn’t be there. His discovery leads him to his neighbour’s home, where the stakes are raised.

“But I bet you’d fancy another bet.”

I flew through this book. While I wish there were more stories included, I enjoyed all three. There’s a common theme of connection and some very memorable scenes of body horror.

The son’s manner of death in The Enchantment didn’t seem physically possible but, because it fit with one of the themes of the story, I wasn’t overly concerned about the question marks that popped up over my head when I read about it.

The story that’s going to stay with me the longest is Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, especially the scene describing Agnes’ dinner. I definitely want to read more books by this author.

Content warnings include mention of child abuse, death by suicide, death of animals, homophobia, miscarriage, racism and suicidal ideation. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with some scenes.

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Three dark and disturbing horror stories from an astonishing new voice, including the viral-sensation tale of obsession, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke. For fans of Kathe Koja, Clive Barker and Stephen Graham Jones.

A whirlpool of darkness churns at the heart of a macabre ballet between two lonely young women in an internet chat room in the early 2000s – a darkness that threatens to forever transform them once they finally succumb to their most horrific desires. 

A couple isolate themselves on a remote island in an attempt to recover from their teenage son’s death, when a mysterious young man knocks on their door during a storm…

And a man confronts his neighbour when he discovers a strange object in his back yard, only to be drawn into an ever-more dangerous game.

From Bram Stoker Award finalist Eric LaRocca, this is devastating, beautifully written horror from one of the genre’s most cutting-edge voices.

What have you done today to deserve your eyes?

All Good People Here – Ashley Flowers

with Alex Kiester

If you’ve ever involuntarily blurted out ‘And I’m Britt’, this is the book for you. If you’ve pounced on this book before reading the blurb, allow me to enlighten you: this is a novel, not a super long episode of Crime Junkie in book form. Not that I’d ever open a book, see A Novel after the title and question every assumption I’ve ever made.

All Good People Here (A Novel) primarily takes place in Wakarusa, Indiana, where Ashley and Britt grew up. It’s also somewhere I need to visit because of two really important words: Pumpkin Tree!

description

In 1994, six year old January Jacobs died. Everyone in town knew Krissy, January’s mother, murdered her but the case has officially remained unsolved.

“You don’t want to go back to that sad little town where that terrible thing happened.”

Margot hasn’t lived in Wakarusa for twenty years but has returned to care for her beloved Uncle Luke. When a young girl is reported missing in a nearby town, Margot believes the person who killed her childhood friend has struck again. Margot is determined to use her crime reporting skills to solve the cases but she seems to be the only one seeing their similarities.

This may be a small town but many of its residents are living with secrets.

“What did you do?”

Hearing the story from Krissy and Margot’s perspectives, you learn about the dynamics of the Jacobs’ family, how the investigation into January’s death unfolded and the impact it has had on everyone close to the case in the subsequent years. A few key details about January and her death made me think of JonBenét Ramsey. Once I made that connection, I had trouble seeing anything else.

I enjoyed tagging along as Margot followed up leads, although I did get a bit bogged down at times with what was happening with Luke. I guessed some of the reveals but, rather than being disappointed by this as I usually would be, it made me feel like I was being a good Crime Junkie.

It’s taken me two weeks since finishing this book to attempt writing a review and that’s mostly due to the last time we see Margot in this book. Readers will likely either love or hate this scene. I loved it but, because I don’t want to get all spoilery, I can’t tell you why I loved it and that’s what I really want to talk about.

I’m looking forward to reading future books by Ashley. Until then, I’ll keep getting my Crime Junkie fix whenever I can and remembering to always “Be weird. Be rude. Stay alive.”

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide, domestic abuse, kidnapping, miscarriage, murder and sexual assault.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and HarperCollins UK for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

What really happened to January Jacobs?

A MYSTERIOUS COLD CASE…

Twenty-five years ago, January Jacob’s parents awoke to find their daughter’s bed empty, a horrifying message spray-painted onto their wall. Hours later, January’s body was found discarded in a ditch. Her murder was never solved. But the town remembers.

A DANGEROUS OBSESSION…

Journalist Margot Davies is tired of reporting meaningless stories. One night, she stumbles upon a clue in the most infamous crime in her hometown’s history: the unsolved murder of six-year-old January.

A TOWN FULL OF SECRETS…

As Margot digs deeper, she begins to suspect that there is something truly sinister lurking in the small community: a secret that endangers the lives of everyone involved…including Margot.

Girls From the County – Donna Lynch

If ghosts exist, perhaps this is how it happens. The marks of things that happen in a place never really go away, nor do the pieces of us we leave there.

Girls From the County explores dark truths: personal stories and those of young women the author grew up with, as well as rural legends and folklore. It’s about trauma and the illusion of safety. Given the subject matter, this was at times a difficult read.

I had a number of favourite poems but my top five were Drag, Plot, Girls From the County, Education, and Thirty-two Years (Eighteen Years Reprise).

The one that’s probably going to stay with me the longest, though, is Grave. While it’s the shortest poem in the collection, it certainly packs a punch.

She grew up and became a mortician

so that when he finally died

she could make sure.

Content warnings include mention of addiction, death by suicide, mental health, murder, sexual assault and trauma.

Thank you so much to Raw Dog Screaming Press for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

This book is merely a record of dark events, the kind that you can sometimes move on from, yet can’t help but see in every old house, high school, or crumbling bridge.

In the county, eerie stillness can be mistaken for stagnation. In the county, rumination on pain and guilt can be confused with omens and curses. In the county, feelings of claustrophobia stem from understanding what the encroaching darkness brings with it.

You’ve heard of country girls, and city girls, but what of the forgotten girls from the in-between space of the county? Confronting the things too wild for urban areas, and too methodically malevolent for the countryside, girls from the county are often dismissed by popular narratives, left to solve riddles of grief and rage for themselves.

Known for weaving folk horror with confessional poetry, unflinching true crime approaches with myth and fable, contemporary appetites with gothic literature, award-winning author Donna Lynch has composed a lyrical reconstruction for readers to navigate the lives – and deaths – of girls from the county.

When Women Were Dragons – Kelly Barnhill

“All women are magic. Literally all of us. It’s in our nature. It’s best you learn that now.”

Sometimes a cover image is enough to reel me in. Sometimes I only need to read the blurb to know for sure that a book is destined to become a favourite. Sometimes, just sometimes, I’ll only make it to the third page before I buy the ebook so I can highlight passages to my heart’s content. This is that book.

Marya Tilman’s transformation on 18 September 1898 was the “earliest scientifically confirmed case of spontaneous dragoning within the United States” but there were records of dragoning occurring centuries prior. You might believe that it was all over after the Mass Dragoning of 1955 but you’d be wrong. So very wrong.

For those whose feet remained firmly on the ground on 25 April 1955, life went on. People still went to work. Children still went to school. It was business as usual. But this new normal came at a cost.

Dragoning is unmentionable. Don’t talk about what happened.

Forget those who dragoned. They never existed in the first place.

Keep your eyes on the ground. You don’t want any dangerous ideas.

Perhaps this is how we learn silence – an absence of words, an absence of context, a hole in the universe where the truth should be.

This is Alex’s memoir (of sorts). Alex saw her first dragon when she was four. She was still a child when the Mass Dragoning happened. Through her eyes, we not only see how the Mass Dragoning changed society as a whole but also how it impacted upon Alex’s own family.

Through dragoning, this book explores trauma and the silencing that often takes place in its aftermath. It’s about how women diminish themselves to fit into the shape that society prescribes and the toxicity of secrets. It’s the power of women taking up space and refusing to be gaslit anymore.

When I started this book I thought it was going to be about an alternate 1950’s, one where women got pissed off with the patriarchy and turned into dragons. And it is. Sort of. But it’s so much more. There’s rage in this book but there’s also joy.

It is joy that burns me now, and joy that makes my back ache for wings, and it is joy that makes me long to be more than myself.

I fell in love with auntie Marla and Beatrice. I met the best librarian ever. I felt rage and helplessness alongside determination and hope and love. I ugly cried. Oh, did I ugly cry.

I felt a kinship with the characters who dragoned and a fire inside that I fully expected to result in my own dragoning. I love this book so much!

“Today’s the day!”

Content warnings include mention of alcoholism, death of animals, domestic abuse, racism and sexual assault.

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In a world where girls and women are taught to be quiet, the dragons inside them are about to be set free …

In this timely and timeless speculative novel, set in 1950’s America, Kelly Barnhill exposes a world that wants to keep girls and women small – and examines what happens when they rise up. 

Alex Green is four years old when she first sees a dragon. In her next-door neighbour’s garden, in the spot where the old lady usually sits, is a huge dragon, an astonished expression on its face before it opens its wings and soars away across the rooftops.

And Alex doesn’t see the little old lady after that. No one mentions her. It’s as if she’s never existed.

Then Alex’s mother disappears, and reappears a week later, one quiet Tuesday, with no explanation whatsoever as to where she has been. But she is a ghostly shadow of her former self, and with scars across her body – wide, deep burns, as though she had been attacked by a monster who breathed fire.

Alex, growing from young girl to fiercely independent teenager, is desperate for answers, but doesn’t get any.

Whether anyone likes it or not, the Mass Dragoning is coming. And nothing will be the same after that. Everything is about to change, forever.

And when it does, this, too, will be unmentionable…

Just Like Home – Sarah Gailey

You’re returning to your childhood home for the first time in twelve years. Your job is to watch your mother die and then clean out the house. There’s a stranger living in the shed because your mother’s been cashing in on the fact that your father, who built the house, was a serial killer. Everyone in town hates you because of who your father was.

Welcome to Vera’s world.

The house was the same, but everything everything everything was different.

This is my first Sarah Gailey book and it was amazing! It was unsettling in the best way possible.

I know what it is to love a ‘monster’. Some of Vera’s responses to hers were scarily familiar. Others were (thankfully) more foreign. The ritual she completed to ensure her safety as a child made complete sense to me, as did its reappearance when she returned to Crowder House.

They remembered what they were supposed to do to keep her safe, remembered from when she was young enough to develop a superstition without reasoning herself out of it.

This book introduced me to a mother-daughter relationship that has been twisted and contaminated by their shared history. This is a story that explores the power of secrets to change you and a past that no longer wants to remain in the shadows.

It’s about loneliness and belonging, what makes a house a home and the inexplicable loudness of the things have been left unsaid in our lives.

Lemonade will never be the same.

I want to see.

Content warnings include domestic abuse.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

“Come home.” Vera’s mother called and Vera obeyed. In spite of their long estrangement, in spite of the memories – she’s come back to the home of a serial killer. Back to face the love she had for her father and the bodies he buried there.

Coming home is hard enough for Vera, and to make things worse, she and her mother aren’t alone. A parasitic artist has moved into the guest house out back, and is slowly stripping Vera’s childhood for spare parts. He insists that he isn’t the one leaving notes around the house in her father’s handwriting… but who else could it possibly be?

There are secrets yet undiscovered in the foundations of the notorious Crowder House. Vera must face them, and find out for herself just how deep the rot goes.

Black Mouth – Ronald Malfi

Any day that includes me being able to say that I’ve found a new favourite author is a good day. Today is a good day!

I’m a tad embarrassed to admit that this is my first Ronald Malfi read. On the flip side, because I’m late to the party, I’ve got so many books to catch up on and new favourites to find. Did I mention today is a very good day?

Black Mouth is essentially a big melting pot of the types of characters and themes I will always want to read about. You’ve got your group of outcasts who experienced something scary, traumatic and potentially supernatural when they were kids. The ghosts of the past, possibly even the literal kind, haunt said kids well into adulthood. Adults who have been trying to outrun their childhood trauma can’t run anymore, and it just keeps getting better and better.

The things that happened down in the heart of Black Mouth that summer had been inexplicable, magical, and ultimately deadly things – things I still can’t fully comprehend or even care to dwell on.

There’s a carnival. Magic. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A group of friends I want to join. And best of all? There’s Dennis, who is now one of my all time favourite characters. I adore Dennis!

I loved this book so much! The characters, the location, the atmosphere, the way the past bled into the present, even the surprise misty eyed moment. I loved it all!

I can’t wait to read more books by this author.

As usual, I sent test emails to the email addresses listed for two characters in this book. As usual, they were undeliverable. Yes, I’m going to keep sending random emails to book characters until one finally responds.

“Do you want to see a magic trick?”

Content warnings include abuse of animals, alcoholism, bullying, child abuse, death by suicide (including method used), domestic abuse, sexual assault and a suicide attempt. Readers with emetophobia, beware. There are also a bunch of cringeworthy slurs that I won’t be repeating here; although I hated reading the words, it made complete sense that those characters would be saying them.

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

For nearly two decades, Jamie Warren has been running from darkness. He’s haunted by a traumatic childhood and the guilt at having disappeared from his disabled brother’s life. But then a series of unusual events reunites him with his estranged brother and their childhood friends, and none of them can deny the sense of fate that has seemingly drawn them back together.

Nor can they deny the memories of that summer, so long ago – the strange magic taught to them by an even stranger man, and the terrible act that has followed them all into adulthood. In the light of new danger, they must confront their past by facing their futures, and hunting down a man who may very well be a monster. 

Goth Girl, Queen of the Universe – Lindsay S. Zrull

Jess has moved from house to group home to house for the past nine years. Having entered the foster care system at seven, Jess doesn’t know what it’s like to have a safe place to call home.

Foster Care Pro-tip number eight: Never become emotionally involved with anyone. Ever.

Jess doesn’t expect this placement to be any different but Barbra, Jess’ new foster parent, is unlike any of the ones she’s had before.

Jess’ look is inspired by the “patron saint of goths”, Edgar Allan Poe. This has acted both as a protective layer and a way to express herself. She never expected her creativity to lead to cosplay but if that’s what she needs to do in order to make it to New York to see her biological mother, then that’s what she’s going to do.

Who knew dressing up in costume after the sixth grade could be so much fun?

Barbra was a foster kid’s dream come true. A big part of me tried to keep her at arm’s length, just like Jess did, because she seemed too perfect and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Ultimately, though, I ended up loving her to bits and allowing myself to hope that she actually does represent reality for some foster kids.

Goofy, geeky Oscar was absolutely adorable and stole my heart early on. His enthusiasm and passion were infectious and I wanted to watch him as he created the foam weapons of my dreams.

This is a story of found family, of learning to be vulnerable and to trust, and letting people get to know the real you. The experience of being a foster kid was realistic and the discussions about mental health were refreshingly honest.

It’s suddenly hard to believe that I’ve lived this long without knowing another human being who understands what this is like.

The cover image, which I loved and was what drew me to this book in the first place, had me expecting a middle grade story. Imagine my surprise when Jess’ first day of school included a stranger mid psychotic break trying to get as many swear words in a sentence as possible and a reference shortly thereafter to a “kinky sex dungeon”. Spoiler: Not a kinky sex dungeon.

I did get irritated at times by Jess fairly consistently saying “thank the Goddess” and the way it all played out was predictable, but … the story was just so heartwarming, the pop culture references abounded and I loved watching Jess’ journey through the pages.

As I’ve come to expect, an email address that was mentioned during the story doesn’t currently exist. Every time I see one in a book I test it out, hoping that one time a publisher will figure out the marketing potential and set it up with an auto-reply. I keep hoping for something fun like a message from one of the characters, behind the scenes info from the author or a secret competition to win book swag. One day I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Until then I’m going to keep sending test emails into the void.

Content warnings include mention of abuse, bullying, death by suicide, fat shaming, foster care, mental health and neglect. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with one scene.

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Bounced between foster homes since the age of seven, Jessica knows better than to set down roots. Most of the kids at her new Michigan high school think she’s a witch anyway (because, you know, goth). The only one who gives her the time of day is geeky Oscar, who wants to recruit her fashion skills for his amateur cosplay group. But Jess is fine showing off her looks to her Insta fans – until a woman claiming to be her biological mother barges into her DMs.

Jess was claimed by the state when her bio mum’s mental illness made her unstable. While their relationship is far from traditional, blood ties are hard to break. There’s only one problem: Jess can’t reunite with her mum in New York City without a bunch of paperwork and she worries her social worker will never approve the trip. That’s when she remembers Oscar’s cosplay group, which is aiming for that big convention in New York …

So, Jess joins Oscar’s team – with every intention of using them to get to her mum. But her plan gets complicated when she discovers that, actually, cosplay is pretty great, and so is having friends. And Oscar, who Jess thought was just a shy nerd, can be as gallant and charming as the heroes he pretends to be. As the big convention draws near, Jess will have to decide whether or not chasing a dream of “family” is worth risking the family she’s built for herself.