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.

The Red Labyrinth – Meredith Tate

I am brave. I am strong. And I am not afraid.

I always love the opportunity to cheer for an underdog. Zadie lives in Trinnea and is a Blank in a society dominated by people with Skills. Zadie’s family had to pay for her be allowed to live within the walls of Trinnea but she will never be considered equal to the Skilled, whose abilities range from super-hearing to telekinesis and levitation.

Blanks are considered abominations – genetic mistakes.

Traumatised by years of childhood slavery and abuse, and continually tormented and bullied by the Skilled, Zadie lives her life in fear. She’s loved her best friend and protector, Landon, for years, but then he disappears into the labyrinth and Zadie is the only person who can remember him.

No one who enters the maze comes out the same.

Zadie is determined to save her best friend but to do this she’ll need to team up with the Dex, the Devil of Trinnea, and find a way through the maze of the labyrinth. Zadie doesn’t know which will kill her first.

I loved facing the dangers of the maze with Zadie and Dex, never knowing what challenge it would send their way next. Zadie’s tenacity despite her fear endeared her to me and her responses to trauma felt authentic. Throughout the book I kept thinking that Zadie had PTSD and although this is never stated, learning the author has a master’s degree in social work has only strengthened this belief. Regardless, Zadie’s determination inspired me.

My favourite character was Dex. His complexity made me want to keep digging beneath the surface to find out more about his history, motivations and character. He did not let me down.

I was engaged and entertained for the duration and enjoyed getting to know the main characters and their backgrounds. I didn’t have any problems navigating the transitions between the past and present, and felt the flashbacks added necessary background and context to the narrative.

I was disappointed by one of Zadie’s decisions near the end of the book, even though I understood the reasons behind it. Her initial damsel in distress mode, where she had a practically pathological need to be saved by a man, made me cringe. I also found the sand guardian annoying at times. Overall though, these were only fairly minor quibbles in a book that pleasantly surprised me.

I was torn between satisfied and frustrated by the way this book ended. While some answers are given, more questions do arise and there are plenty of loose ends, so a sequel feels inevitable. If there’d been a definite resolution for Dex then I probably would have been happy with a standalone. There’s definitely scope for a lot more to happen with Dex and Zadie, and there’s plenty more in this world to discover. I’ll be there for the sequel.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Flux, an imprint of North Star Editions, for the opportunity to read this book and discover a new (to me) author.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The massive labyrinth was built to protect Zadie Kalver’s isolated desert town. Unfortunately, living in the maze’s shadow makes her feel anything but safe. Even without its enchanted deathtraps and illusions, a mysterious killer named Dex lurks in its corridors, terrorizing anyone in his path. 

But when Zadie’s best friend vanishes into the labyrinth and everyone mysteriously forgets he exists, completing the maze becomes her only hope of saving him. In desperation, Zadie bribes the only person who knows the safe path through Dex into forming a tenuous alliance. 

Navigating a deadly garden, a lethal blood-filled hourglass, and other traps with an untrustworthy murderer for her guide Zadie’s one wrong step from certain death. But with time running out before her friend (and secret crush) is lost forever, Zadie must reach the exit and find him. If Dex and the labyrinth don’t kill her first.

The Quiet You Carry – Nikki Barthelmess

none of us can understand what’s going on in another person’s life from the outside looking in. No one can really see the quiet you carry, unless you let them.

Victoria lives with her father, stepmother and stepsister. Well, she did until the night her father locked her out of the house. Suddenly this shy, studious 17 year old finds herself stuck attending a new school in a new town and living with a foster mother who appears to hate her. Everything she thought she knew about her life has crumbled around her in a confusing mess.

Foster care isn’t one size fits all in how kids wind up in care in the first place or their experiences once there. There are so many negative stereotypes about foster kids so I was delighted to discover that Victoria wasn’t a stereotype. It never occurs to her to quit school and give up on her dreams because of circumstances outside of her control. There’s no smooth sailing here but she’s determined to move on from this experience and not allow it to define her.

Victoria’s foster care experience, while it sounds horrendous, is fairly average. Some foster kids fortunately land in families that provide the love, protection and encouragement they so desperately need and at the other end of the spectrum there are those who wind up in abusive situations that mimic those they were removed from. The portrayal of overworked caseworkers is sadly realistic and the shame of being a foster kid is all too real.

Nikki Barthelmess notes that while this book is fiction, she spent a number of years in foster care herself. I think it’s a testament to Nikki’s resilience that she has managed to articulate so well the way foster care feels. While there are some minor details in the way things unfold in the story that I could perhaps question (and will in a minute) I have nothing but praise for the authenticity of Victoria’s feelings from beginning to end.

I loved that Victoria has Christina and a boy named after a vegetable supporting her the entire time, before they know her story and, even more importantly, after. She also has supportive teaching staff, who truly can make a world of difference in a foster kid’s life.

I only hope that foster kids who read this book have someone in their corner as well because foster care can be such a lonely and terrifying experience. Even with support being a foster kid can make you feel so separate from other kids, who are worried about things like makeup and clothes while you’re worrying about the potential consequences if you tell the truth about what’s happened to you and where you’ll go next if this foster home doesn’t work out.

I found it difficult to believe (maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part) that in juvie a male worker would be responsible for searching a teenage girl. I would hope that if it was protocol to do a physical search for new arrivals that a female worker would do this for girls. I also found it weird that Victoria’s best friend doesn’t try to make contact with her when she drops off the face of the Earth; sure, Victoria doesn’t have access to a phone or social media anymore but her email account is still active.

Because of my own experiences and those of other foster kids I’ve known I had expected this book’s contents to be more brutal. I’m not saying everything is peachy or anything. My content warnings alone give you some indication of what to expect. I’m sure that what’s described in this book would be shocking for a lot of people so I expect I’m an outlier in this regard.

There needs to be more YA and kid’s books about the foster care system. When I was in the system I would have loved to have seen any aspect of my experience mirrored by a character I was reading about. This book will hopefully be an eye opener for people who don’t know the foster care system from the inside and provide much needed empathy and validation to those who find themselves fostered, for whatever reason.

Content warnings include foster care, grief, sexual assault, family violence, physical and mental illness, eating disorders, self harm and a suicide attempt (the method used is included).

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Victoria Parker knew her dad’s behaviour toward her was a little unusual, but she convinced herself everything was fine – until she found herself locked out of the house at 3:00 a.m., surrounded by flashing police lights. 

Now, dumped into a crowded, chaotic foster home, Victoria has to tiptoe around her domineering foster mother, get through senior year at a new school, and somehow salvage her college dreams … all while keeping her past hidden.

But some secrets won’t stay buried – especially when unwanted memories make Victoria freeze up at random moments and nightmares disrupt her sleep. Even worse, she can’t stop worrying about her stepsister Sarah, left behind with her father. All she wants is to move forward, but how do you focus on the future when the past won’t leave you alone?

Holo #2: Contribute – Kristy Acevedo

Major nerd points to Kristy Acevedo! This book took me such a long time to finish, not because I was bored but because I didn’t want it to be over! I wanted to spend more time with Alex and the crazy lady. My favourite characters in this book were the crazy lady (she was also my favourite from the first book but I admit I was wrong about who I thought she’d turn out to be), the loveable cuddly bear Dr A., and SIDEKICK.

When I received a copy of Contribute from NetGalley I took a closer look and realised it was the second book of a two book series. I was so excited about Contribute but made the decision to take the plunge and buy the first book (Consider) and read that first. I’m so glad I did! While Contribute could be read as a standalone if you really, really wanted to, you gain so much from having experienced Consider first. The first book was a 5 star book for me and this one has to be as well. It’s not often that second books in a series don’t fall flat on their paperback faces.

I won’t wreck either book for you because you need to read them for yourself but during the first book the world is counting down to an apocalypse and individuals are given the choice to stay on earth and hope for the best, even though it’s an extinction level event, or take a chance on the unknown by travelling through a hologram (vertex) to a parallel world. During the second book you follow the final person through the vertex to whatever is on the other side. The blurbs give you more information than this but I’d recommend reading the first book before looking at the blurb for this one.

While the first book had a large focus on Alex’s mental health and it’s still explored in this book to a lesser degree, the overall feel of this book felt darker than the first book to me. I loved the darkness and felt it was necessary in this book. There was a war to fight after all.

Reading this book reminded me of one of lines from Powder (love that movie!!!) that Jeff Goldblum’s character says, “It’s become appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity.” This quote is generally attributed to Einstein although there’s no evidence he ever said it, but that’s not my point. Contribute offers one possible outcome for society when technology beyond our wildest dreams becomes available and raises so many questions.

Do you trust what the leaders of another society tell you if you never see them in person, only as holographic representations?

If you had the chance to live a life of leisure with free food, free accommodation, free entertainment, free everything, and no work, and all you had to do in exchange was pledge that upon your death your mind minus emotions would be used to power the society for a set period of time, would you do it?

If it sounds too good to be true, is it?

Possibly most importantly, if you had clothes that allowed you to change their holographic design at whim, could you pull off an ocean themed design with sharks swimming across it?

Just like in book one, I spent most of my time reading a few paragraphs, then highlighting either a sentence or a paragraph, then rereading my highlighted passage, then reading a few paragraphs, then highlighting … You get the point. Lots of wonderfully thought out sentences that made me pause and want to think about them and save them for future rereads.

My only real quibble with this book is that the final act felt a bit rushed to me. There was such a lead up to it and yet it felt like, we’re fighting, we’re fighting, we’re winning, we’re losing, we’re … What? It’s over? Although to be fair, maybe I just didn’t want the series to finish.

Ms Acevedo, I really hope you’re hard at work writing your next book. No pressure or anything but I’m sitting here waiting for it!

Oh, and a review of this book wouldn’t be complete without a creepy “May your contribution lead to freedom”.

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The holograms lied to everyone on Earth and only Alexandra Lucas knows the truth. Now she’s trapped in the year 2359 without family or friends —worse, without her anxiety medication. Alex attempts to reconcile the marvelous scenery, technological advances, and luxurious living with the knowledge that the holograms weren’t being completely honest — what else are they lying about?

With a secret that could shatter her society, Alex tries to find her place among strangers, convicts, and a rebellion striving to bring the holograms down. Alex struggles to find the best way to reveal the truth and reunite with those she loves. But when surrounded by beauty and every convenience, Alex wonders if truth becomes irrelevant in a perfect world.

Fix Me – Lisa M. Cronkhite

If I had ever wanted to consider taking drugs this book would stop me from trying them. While the images of purple skies and the thought of being able to manipulate what you see and hear during hallucinations sounds intoxicating and inviting, I’d much rather use my imagination to do the same thing minus the side effects.

I found it so hard wanting to continue reading when there wasn’t a single character I liked or cared about. Pen, our protagonist, is one of the most self centred characters I’ve ever come across. Her self esteem is in the toilet (unlike her vomit which invariably ends up wherever she is at the time) and while she gets used by almost every other person in the book it was hard to feel sorry for her as she was in turn using everyone else as well.

Overall I was disappointed by this book. What started out promising turned into a series of descriptions of people getting high and the last quarter of the book felt rushed. I rarely ever work out who the murderer is in books until the big reveal, yet I figured out not only who they were but their motive early on. Hint: it’s the only person in the book with a motive.

The lack of attention to detail really annoyed me, with contradictions consistently made with what we’d already been told, sometimes even as recently as the page before. Also, why is Pen continually surprised that she is hallucinating the day after she takes Fix when it’s already been established early in the book that Fix’s side effects can last for a significant period of time after you stop taking it?

What I wanted to eat while reading this book:

  • Absolutely nothing! Between the frequent descriptions of Pen wanting to vomit and what her vomit looked like there was no way I was going to eat while reading this book. I guess those descriptions do make a valid point about drug addiction though … no matter how disgusting the side effects, if you’re hooked on a drug they pale in comparison to the need to get high.

I was so excited about this book after reading the blurb and the first couple of chapters but if I’d borrowed it from the library I doubt I would have made it past chapter 4. However, as I’d requested a review copy, I felt I needed to persevere. Thank you to NetGalley and Flux for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Penelope Wryter’s life has been a mess ever since her sister committed suicide a year ago. Now Pen’s hooked on Fix, an illegal drug that makes her feel, think, and see differently. The hallucinations are intense, but there’s one vision that keeps Pen coming back for more – Nate. He’s the only person who cares about her. Too bad he’s just a side effect of the drug. Pen knows she’s going nowhere fast. She’s desperate to change. But when she tries to say goodbye to Nate, he professes his love for her making her more confused than ever. Then, when a girl from school goes missing during a bad Fix trip, Pen realizes she may be in a lot more danger than she ever imagined. Unless Pen straightens up and faces reality quick, she might be the next missing girl on the list.