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.

Unwritten #2: Rewritten – Tara Gilboy

“Writing has brought me so much trouble.”

In the six months since they returned to the real world, Gracie and some other characters from Bondoff, their storybook world, have been living with Gertrude Winters, the story’s author. They’re all in hiding from the story’s villain, Cassandra. Cassandra still has the Vademecum, a magical book that can generate portals between the real world and the world of the author’s imagination.

Gracie is struggling to distance herself from the character Gertrude created for her. This isn’t easy when everyone remembers what happened while they were in Bondoff.

She wished she didn’t have to keep being reminded of the past.

Gracie meets siblings Mina and Bryant when she travels to Blackwood Hall. Their world is nothing like Gracie’s storybook dimension; they are characters in a “feminist gothic horror novel”.

“Don’t read that one. It’s too scary for children.”

Rewritten tackles fractured mother-daughter relationships, the difficulty of forgiveness and the struggle to rewrite our stories. A number of themes from the first book continue to play out here. Running through both books is the difficulty of breaking out of roles that others place upon you. A couple of characters battle both the urge to run away from the past and the desire to confront it.

The lines between good and evil remain somewhat fuzzy. The villains aren’t always immediately obvious and their actions aren’t always intended to have dastardly consequences. One character who has been written as a villain is desperately trying to prove to themselves and those around them that that’s not who they are. Even those who appear to be heroes can have selfish motivations and make questionable choices.

Gracie, who I loved without reservation in Unwritten, started to annoy me when her recaps and ruminations became repetitive. I didn’t always agree with the decisions she made in this book but I have to give Gracie credit for her imaginative decorating choices. Her bedroom ceiling features quotes from books in glow in the dark paint! Why didn’t I think of that?!

While you could read Unwritten and Rewritten as standalones, I’d recommend reading them in order. Given how this story ends I’m definitely expecting this series to become a trilogy. I haven’t had enough page time with Cassandra yet and am crossing my fingers that she’ll wind up with a happy ending. Yes, I know she’s supposed to be the villain so technically she shouldn’t get one, but I’m still holding out hope. I’m also looking forward to Walter being given the opportunity to shine.

It was Jomike Tejido’s cover illustration that originally drew me to Unwritten and, even though I was unaware a sequel was in the works, as soon as I saw the cover of this book I had no doubt that this was it. Just like last time, I decided I needed to read this book before I knew what it was about.

“You can’t stop reading the stories. It’s your destiny.”

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

Review originally posted on 6 April 2020.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

After learning the truth about her own fairy tale, twelve-year-old Gracie wants nothing more than to move past the terrible things author Gertrude Winters wrote about her and begin a new chapter in the real world. If only things were going as planned. On the run from the evil Queen Cassandra, the characters from Gracie’s story have all been forced to start over, but some of them cannot forget Gracie’s checkered past. 

Even worse, Gracie discovers that as long as Cassandra has her magical book, the Vademecum, Gracie’s story is still being written and none of the characters are safe, including her mum and dad. In a desperate attempt to set things right, Gracie finds herself transported into another one of Gertrude’s stories – but this one is a horror story. Can Gracie face her destiny and the wild beast roaming the night, to rewrite her own story?

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?

Unwritten – Tara Gilboy

“What if every story ever written is a world in another dimension, waiting for us to find it?”

I was enchanted by this book from the very beginning. It explores the complexities of good and evil, and the power we have to write our own story, regardless of the roles and labels others have placed upon us. There’s action, drama and so much heart.

Gracie may look like a normal 12 year old girl but she’s actually the creation of Gertrude Winters, an author whose unpublished story includes Gracie, her mother and Walter, a boy in her class and an aspiring scientist. Gracie gets story glimmers, glimpses of what her life would have been like in the story, but she doesn’t know the whole story and is frustrated that her mother won’t tell her.

When Gracie learns the story’s author will be coming to her town she can’t resist. Here is the opportunity she’s been waiting for! If only she can speak to the author then she may finally find out who she really is and what her story contains. Things don’t go quite as planned and Gracie, her mother and other characters wind up in the world of the story.

I was captivated the entire time I was reading. I loved the greys in this story; the villains weren’t all bad and the heroes didn’t always make the right choices. I was easily able to imagine the story world and wanted to stay longer to meet more of the people who live there.

While this book works well as a standalone I’m greedily hoping for a sequel and/or spin-off. I’m interested in knowing what happens next for Gracie, Walter and Cassandra in particular. I’d also love to see how Gertrude, the author of Gracie’s story, would react if another of her storybook characters walked into her life and wonder what their story would be about.

I would like to know more about Cassandra, particularly her background and more about her motivations. She was an intriguing character who deserves more page time. I’m not sure if this was intentional or not but Cassandra in this story has some similarities to Cassandra from Greek mythology; although different in so many aspects they were both able to foresee the future.

Jomike Tejido’s cover illustration is absolutely gorgeous and captures the essence of this story so well. I’m not sure I would have read this story’s blurb without that cover sucking me in and I would have missed out on a gem.

Over the course of a single book Tara Gilboy has cemented her place in my ’Have to Read Everything They Ever Write’ Hall of Fame. I can’t wait to read whatever comes next!

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Twelve-year-old Gracie Freeman is living a normal life, but she is haunted by the fact that she is actually a character from a story, an unpublished fairy tale she’s never read. When she was a baby, her parents learned that she was supposed to die in the story, and with the help of a magic book, took her out of the story, and into the outside world, where she could be safe.

But Gracie longs to know what the story says about her. Despite her mother’s warnings, Gracie seeks out the story’s author, setting in motion a chain of events that draws herself, her mother, and other former storybook characters back into the forgotten tale. Inside the story, Gracie struggles to navigate the blurred boundary between who she really is and the surprising things the author wrote about her. As the story moves toward its deadly climax, Gracie realises she’ll have to face a dark truth and figure out her own fairy tale ending.

The Long-Lost Secret Diary of the World’s Worst Dinosaur Hunter – Tim Collins

Illustrations – Sarah Horne

I blame myself for needing wanting to read every book with ‘dinosaur’ in the title. Not being familiar with this series it took me a little while to realise that our main character Ann lived in the 1800’s. It took me until the end of the book to find out that it’s set in 1870. Ann’s story is told in diary form and is inspired by the life of Mary Anning who, along with her brother, found the first complete Ichthyosaur skeleton in 1811.

Ann finds fish lizard bones and her father, who’s essentially a snake oil salesman, sells them to tourists as a “cure” for whatever he deems wrong with them. His scams and tactless sales pitch tends to get him into trouble and Ann appears to take on somewhat of a parental role, trying to keep him out of trouble and entertained.

One day a surgeon who collects fossils encounters her father’s stall, realises the scientific importance of her discovery and after some setbacks Ann and her father wind up visiting the New World (America) on an expedition to hunt dinosaurs. Despite the old men at the Geological Society dismissing her due to her age and gender Ann is determined to become a great scientist.

I never really connected with Ann’s character although the story did grow on me over time. I found the writing to be very matter of fact and mostly a series of “I did this”, “I went there” and “That happened”. Ann’s continual references to believing she was cursed each time something went wrong irritated me after a while. Perhaps it just wasn’t my type of humour but there was only one part that I found smirk worthy and based on the blurb I’d expected ‘hilarity’.

I still don’t know how Ann qualifies as the “World’s Worst Dinosaur Hunter” as she seemed pretty great at it, so much so that even though she is uneducated, unqualified and a girl (shock, horror!) she is the first to discover several dinosaur species.

I did like the ‘Get Real’ facts scattered throughout the book, my favourite of which involved William Buckland who “attempted to eat his way through the entire animal kingdom, and is known to have served his guests mice on toast and roasted hedgehog.” Ew!!

The sections at the end of the book where I learned about Mary Anning’s life and some other notable dinosaur hunters were interesting. Also included are a timeline and glossary.

Thank you to NetGalley and Jolly Fish Press, an imprint of North Star Editions, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Meet Ann – a smart but unlucky teenager keeping a diary of her life as she hunts for dinosaur bones. When she gets an opportunity to search for fossils in the American West, Ann is determined to turn her luck around and show the world her discoveries.

The hilarious Long-Lost Secret Diary series put readers inside the heads of unlucky people in unfortunate situations. The accessible, irreverent stories will keep young readers laughing as they learn the importance of not being afraid to learn from one’s mistakes. Get Real fact boxes featured throughout, as well as a glossary and additional back matter, provide historical context and background.