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ARC Review – The Winnowing by Vikki VanSickle

Title: The Winnowing

Author: Vikki VanSickle

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Marivic Stone lives in a small world, and that’s fine with her. Home is with her beloved grandfather in a small town that just happens to be famous for a medical discovery that saved humankind — though not without significant repercussions. Marivic loves her best friend, Saren, and the two of them promise to stick together, through thick and thin, and especially through the uncertain winnowing procedure, a now inevitable — but dangerous — part of adolescence.

But when tragedy separates the two friends, Marivic is thrust into a world of conspiracy, rebellion and revolution. For the first time in her life, Marivic is forced to think and act big. If she is going to right a decade of wrongs, she will need to trust her own frightening new abilities, even when it means turning her back on everything, and everyone, she’s known and loved. A gripping exploration of growing up, love and loss, The Winnowing is a page-turning adventure that will have readers rooting for their new hero, Marivic Stone, as they unravel the horror and intrigue of a world at once familiar but with a chilling strangeness lurking beneath the everyday. 

Huge thank you to Scholastic Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I want to preface this review by saying a couple of truths: I am a wuss who is easily spooked. I love things that can’t entirely be explained.The Winnowing is such a departure from VanSickle’s previous, more contemporary novels. This is her foray into science fiction, and her love letter to the strange and whimsy.

I will not lie, I was hesitant to read this book even after talking with Vikki at a conference we were both attending. I love her contemporary middle grade novels, I read If I Had a Gyphon during my storytimes, but this book was different. Vastly different. Thankfully, I had prepared myself for this book by watching Stranger Things earlier this year andThe Winnowing is an interesting middle grade novel to say the least.

This is a book about a world where children can be born with powers. If unwinnowed, these powers can manifest into something much more dangerous. To be winnowed is a rite of adolescent passage, it’s an attempt at normalizing. The problem is that the world Marivic and Saren live in, is one that is anything but. Marivic in particular also holds the key to a larger mystery in the story in regards to her family, the town of Darby and the school her mother worked at which was obliterated. The blurb on the back of the book gives you just enough information, but it’s definitely a book that is good going blind into.

What I loved about this book is how unexpected some of the twists and turns were. Some were a little obvious, but I found myself buying into so much of what was happening to these characters,
I was so invested in the atmosphere of the story — it is creepy and uncomfortable. Marivic and her friends felt very believable, their flaws felt real, and I truly felt for them on this journey. My favourite character in the story was Gumps, Marivic’s grandfather. He’s everything I love in a curmudgeon-y old man. A grump who is secretly loving and a little overprotective.

With the circumstances that occur in this novel, you see incredible growth in these characters. Every single one of them. The children in this story are all forced to grow up very quickly given the situation regarding the world and the process of the winnowing. In a lot of ways, these kids are robbed of their childhood and that was so heartbreaking. Marivic in particular shoulders a lot of burden in this story and she’s forced in a lot of ways to think and act more mature than someone normally her age. This is written very well because you can see she’s wrestling with both her circumstances and her actual age and what kids her age should be doing.

There’s a lot of weird and strange in The Winnowing. It’s the kind of book for people who love the X-Files, Stranger Things, Are You Afraid of the Dark?. While two of the references I’ve mention date me, I think they are accurate to what one can expect when reading this book. It’s weird, mysterious, atmospheric and wondrous. I love seeing authors jump out of their comfort zones with genre, because sometimes an experiment can blossom into something extraordinary.

ARC Review – Lost Boys by Darcey Rosenblatt

Title: Lost Boys

Author: Darcey Rosenblatt

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Based on historical events, this unforgettable and inspiring tale for middle-grade readers is about a young boy torn from the only life he’s ever known and held captive as a prisoner of war.

In 1982, twelve-year-old Reza has no interest in joining Iran’s war effort against Iraq. But in the wake of a tragedy and at his mother’s urging, he decides to enlist, assured by the authorities that he will achieve paradise should he die in service to his country.

War does not bring the glory the boys of Iran have been promised, and Reza soon finds himself held in a prisoner-of-war camp in Iraq, where the guards not only threaten violence—they act upon it. Will Reza make it out alive? And if he does, will he even have a home to return to?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Lost Boys is both a beautiful people of historical fiction. While this book is classified as middle grade fiction, it actually reads much older in some aspects of the story, but regardless of that it’s a very heartbreaking and beautiful story about friendship in Iran during 1982. According to the author’s note, parts of the story where based on an account by her neighbour who had been growing up in Iran.

Reza is a wonderful protagonist who is both kind as he is curious. You learn about Reza’s love of Western music which he got from his Uncle. You learn his love of modern music and the kinds of songs that were present in the 1980s. In some regards this makes Reza seem a little older than he actually is, but I found him to constantly be endearing throughout the story. His friendship with Ebi and Miles are both unique aspects in the story as Ebi at the tender age of twelve believes young boys need to die for their nation, while Miles an Irish aid worker tries to instill a different perspective…

…And it works well in this story. In this story you see Reza feeling torn between the love of his family and country, but also struggling with his feelings towards the political environment in Iran. Characters like Ebi break your heart because they are the product of propaganda, the belief that every man must die for his nation. There’s an idealism in this notion, but the story shows how many of the children are completely robbed of childhoods.

Lost Boys is a very thoughtful read, and Rosenblatt is a beautiful writer. I appreciated much of the leg work that went into this novel, and if you haven’t read the Author’s Note it is worth checking out just to get some extra context to where the author was coming from with the story. This book will leave you sad yet very hopeful in the end.

ARC Review – Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

Title: Little & Lion

Author: Brandy Colbert

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.

But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself–or worse.

Huge thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started Little & Lion. The synopsis gave me some indication that this book was going to be about sexuality and mental illness, but I wasn’t anticipating the intensity that Colbert puts into this story. I haven’t read Pointe yet, but I had only heard amazing things about Brandy Colbert’s characters and her writing.

Little & Lion was slow going for me. Not because it was a bad story, but because it is an emotionally exhausting and rewarding story. Little’s narrative is very heartbreaking, sometimes tough to read. She cares a lot for Lionel, especially when it comes to how his mental illness has transformed him. You see bits and pieces of his character’s evolution and at times it feels hard to read.

I also loved the way Colbert explored Little’s sexuality and being bisexual. I think showing her conflicting romantic feelings was done in a very sensitive way, and it was easy to emphasize with Little’s emotions throughout the story. Between iris, Rafela, and Emil, you see three different kinds of romantic feelings throughout the story, and Little’s connection to each person hints at a bigger picture in regards to her understanding her bisexuality. I felt like I knew each of her love interests very well when I was reading this story.

I liked Saul as a character as well, and I think he gets some great development with Little in terms of helping her understanding her sexuality, her connection to Judaism, and her family life. He doesn’t make things easy, somewhat overreacts, but does it entirely out of love. Family as a theme in this story is just spectacularly done here, and you see the emotionally drain that Lionel does put on his family. This isn’t shyed away from, which I appreciated so much.

This book is emotional, it’s intense, it’s thoughtful, and it leaves you thinking long after the story is over. Little & Lionhas a lot to offer for those who lover tougher contemporary YA. It only has solidified that I need to get off my butt and check out Pointe.

ARC Review – These Things I’ve Done by Rebecca Phillips

Title: These Things I’ve Done

Author: Rebecca Phillips

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Before: Dara and Aubrey have been inseparable since they became best friends in sixth grade. However, as they begin their sophomore year of high school, cracks in their friendship begin to form, testing the bond they always thought was unbreakable.

After: It’s been fifteen months since the accident that killed Aubrey, and not a day goes by that Dara isn’t racked with guilt over her role in her best friend’s death. Dara thought nothing could be worse than confronting the memories of Aubrey that relentlessly haunt her, but she soon realizes it isn’t half as difficult as seeing Ethan, Aubrey’s brother, every day. Not just because he’s a walking reminder of what she did, but because the more her feelings for him change, the more she knows she’s betraying her best friend one final time.

Huge thank you to Harper Collins Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I’ve had a copy of These Things I’ve Done since February, and I had constant hesitation to pick this book up. Books that deal with both guilt and grief are sometimes a topic that I need to be emotionally in the right frame of mind for, and this book based on the blurb told me I was going to have all the feels.

I did have feels, they just seemed to happen in the last hundred pages of the book.

This is a slow burn and one where the writing style really took me a bit to get into. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in the slightest, but I know writing style can always be a tricky thing, especially if you feel turned off at the beginning. Dara is a character that for the most part I struggled to connect with. I could empathize with her a lot, but I never felt a huge connection between her and I while I was reading the book, which is very important to me as a reader. I also weirdly could have done without the romance part of this book because I found myself unable to entirely buy into it. I think other readers will adore it, but I found it a little too obvious and frankly, really dull. It’s like Dara and Ethan couldn’t decide if they had or didn’t have chemistry, if that makes sense.

That being said, the subject matters this book tackles are utterly heartbreaking and that’s what I was there for, and I think Phillips delivers on that. Dara’s grief, her pain, and her guilt all translate so well in this story, and when she talked about life without Audrey, those were the parts of the book I lived for. When the book was in the sophomore year sections when Audrey was alive, I enjoyed it somewhat, but it was the living without sections that I found I was really glued to. I wanted to know what Dara did and why she felt the intense pain she did. I wanted to know the full extent of her damage, and I think the build to that is something the author did extremely well. I think she captured so much in Dara’s feelings that even though I had moments of disconnect with her, I somewhat understood why.

really loved many aspects of this book and it’s one I’ll be happy to recommend to the teens I work with at the library. I think Rebecca Phillips captures the spirit of teenage grief in a really well understood way, and I think it will definitely resonate with a lot of other readers. While I wasn’t in love with this book the way I thought I would be, I still am super glad I read it and didn’t DNF it like I originally was going to with that rocky start.

ARC Review – Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home by Nicole J. Georges

Title: Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home

Author: Nicole J. Georges

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: When Nicole Georges was sixteen she adopted Beija, a dysfunctional shar-pei/corgi mix—a troublesome combination of tiny and attack, just like teenaged Nicole herself. For the next fifteen years, Beija would be the one constant in her life. Through depression, relationships gone awry, and an unmoored young adulthood played out against the backdrop of the Portland punk scene, Beija was there, wearing her “Don’t Pet Me” bandana.   Georges’s gorgeous graphic novel Fetch chronicles their symbiotic, codependent relationship and probes what it means to care for and be responsible to another living thing—a living thing that occasionally lunges at toddlers. Nicole turns to vets, dog whisperers, and even a pet psychic for help, but it is the moments of accommodation, adaption, and compassion that sustain them. Nicole never successfully taught Beija “sit,” but in the end, Beija taught Nicole how to stay.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I knew this book was going to emotionally wreck me. This is the story of Nicole J. Georges and her dog, Beija. Beija is a shar-pei/corgi mix with some behavioral troubles. She’s not comfortable with people petting her, she’s somewhat aggressive when people emit different kinds of energy levels. She is constantly told by people that she is a horrible, no good, bad dog. However, reading this graphic memoir you can see through Nicole George’s perspective that Beija is also a misunderstood dog.

As someone who owns a bulldog, I actually found myself understanding where the author was coming from. It’s hard because in some circumstances you understand why people see and say what they do when they think something is wrong with a dog’s behavior, but the fault in that is that often people don’t give certain breeds of dog a chance to become better.

It’s very evident in this story how much the author loved her dog and how much her dog helped me with a dark period of her life. Animals have magic powers in this regard, they know when their companion needs them and will do anything to try and make things better. I also loved the artwork in this graphic memoir. It’s got great visual appeal and the author does an amazing job of illustrating the story that she wanted to tell.

I really loved this story, and I definitely want to check out more of Nicole J Georges graphic memoirs. Fetch is both funny as it is heartbreaking, and if you are an animal lover and owner it will probably make you cry. I know I did.

ARC Review – Bubbles by Abby Cooper

Title: Bubbles

Author: Abby Cooper

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Sophie Mulvaney’s world has been turned upside down. Mom lost her job at the TV station and broke up with Pratik, whom Sophie adored. Her teacher is making them do a special project about risk-taking, so Sophie gets roped into doing a triathlon. And to top it all off, she’s started seeing bubbles above people’s heads that tell her what these people are thinking. Seeing other people’s thoughts seems like it should be cool, but it’s actually just stressful. What does it mean that Pratik wishes she and Mom were with him to eat dinner? Is her best friend Kaya really going out with their other best friend, Rafael, whom Sophie also has a crush on? And can Sophie’s mom ever go back to her old self? In this funny, heartwarming novel, Sophie comes to learn that people are more than what they seem—or what they think.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I will admit, I am unfamiliar with the works of Abby Cooper. She is well loved in the middle grade sphere for her first book Sticks & Stones (which after reading Bubbles I now want to read). I wasn’t sure what I was going to get with Bubbles, but what is presented is a very sweet story of friendship with a pinch of magical realism.

This is a book entirely looking at perceptions of others. Sophie, our heroine, can see thought bubbles over people’s heads and she is instantly given an impression of the people that surround her. It’s a pretty interesting concept for a middle grade novel, also given that this is a story about risk-taking and essentially trying to be the best version of yourself. There’s some wonderful messages in this book that I feel will appeal to middle grade readers, as well as adults who love middle grade.

My favourite aspects of this book were Sophie’s relationships. She is constantly given reasons to pre-judge people with her ‘bubbles’ ability, and it’s interesting to see her mind fight with the images that she sees. Sometimes she finds herself agree with what the bubbles show, and other times you see that she struggles to see the best in everyone. I think Abby Cooper does a good job of showing this balance, which I think can be hard to do given the novel concept of seeing thought bubbles.

Bubbles is a very genuine novel. It’s one of those stories where the author does a fantastic job of tapping into the insecurities and impressions that young children can often have as they are growing up. I definitely want to check out Cooper’s first novel, but Bubbles definitely left me thinking long after I had closed the book.

ARC Review – Get It Together, Delilah! by Erin Gough

Title: Get It Together, Delilah!

Author: Erin Gough

Rating: ★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Seventeen-year-old Delilah Green wouldn’t have chosen to do her last year of school this way, but she figures it’s working fine. Her dad is on a trip to fix his broken heart after her mom left him for another man, so Del’s managing the family café in his absence. Easy, she thinks. But what about: homework and the nasty posse of mean girls making her life hell – or how one of Del’s best friends won’t stop guilt-tripping her – and her other best friend is so in love with his tutor he might go to jail for her if Del doesn’t do something

But who cares about any of that really, because above all else, she can’t stop thinking about beautiful Rosa who dances every night across the street until one day Rosa comes in the café door . . .

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I was very excited for Get it Together, Delilah!, but I will admit this book felt a bit far-fetched at times. This is the story of Delilah, a young lesbian who is in love with a beautiful Latina who works across the street from her father’s cafe. Delilah ends up running her father’s cafe while he is away mending his wounded heart, and that’s when the chaos begins. She’s unable to “get it together” between the cafe and school, needing to figure out how to do it all at once.

I will say I really loved Delilah’s voice. Her voice felt very authentic to the story and I found the way in which she described the world around her to be very interesting. I was less huge on her friends, particularly Charlie who rubbed me the wrong way for a large chunk of the story until he was redeemed. I liked Rosa’s character, although she felt a little too perfect and too good to be true.

Which leads me to my largest issue with this book: everything that happens is easily resolved. Like, too easily resolved. It’s hard to suspend your disbelief when for every bad thing, it’s easily fixed without a lot of effort. Every conflict Delilah faced seemed so easily fixed, and her dislike towards her competitors seems a little one-sided. These were the moments where I had a bit of trouble connecting to the narrative. Also, what was the deal with Delilah’s dad? I feel like even int he ending he accepts things way too easily.

I will maintain that the writing was comforting and easy to get into, but for a contemporary novel that should have been filled with tougher issues, I just had a hard time getting behind how simple and trivial a lot of the issues felt in the story. While Delilah and Rosa’s romance is adorable, and Rosa’s family story is wonderfully portrayed, it’s hard for me to praise the book any further.

So I liked this book, but I feel like the over-simplification of things damped the story a lot for me. I feel like there should have been bigger consequences for specific moments in the story. The parts I liked just didn’t outweigh the things I didn’t like, making this a hard book to recommend in the end.