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Late to the Party ARC Review – Freeing Finch by Ginny Rorby

Title: Freeing Finch

Author: Ginny Rorby

Rating: ★★ 1/2

Synopsis: When her father leaves and her mother passes away soon afterward, Finch can’t help feeling abandoned. Now she’s stuck living with her stepfather and his new wife. They’re mostly nice, but they don’t believe the one true thing Finch knows about herself: that she’s a girl, even though she was born in a boy’s body.

Thankfully, she has Maddy, a neighbor and animal rescuer who accepts her for who she is. Finch helps Maddy care for a menagerie of lost and lonely creatures, including a scared, stray dog who needs a family and home as much as she does. As she earns the dog’s trust, Finch realizes she must also learn to trust the people in her life–even if they are the last people she expected to love her and help her to be true to herself. 

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Freeing Finch is an important story about a young trans-girl who has lost her mother, is forced to live with her step-father, and who is learning to come into her own. It’s the story of unlikely friendships, how to cope with being different, and there’s a lot of uncomfortable moments from bullying, to trans-shaming, to just uncomfortable dialogue.

I want to stress this is not a bad book, but it is a book that is written with very specific intentions. It concerns me that Finch is forced to stay with an abusive parent (and then is weirdly just okay with him later on), and there’s just a lot of disturbing instances in this story that I wondered a bit about. The bits with Finch and her dog were wonderful and I wanted to cry, but her interactions with other people outside of her neighbor Maddy were difficult to read about. There is a lot of misgendering in this story, and there’s so much tragedy in this story to the point where it felt like torture and it was too much at times. I think given the author was not writing from experience, there may have been instances where she missed the mark on the subjects she was trying to display in the story.

This was a quick read, regardless of my complaints. I read it in two sittings and there was moments that I did genuinely enjoy, mainly which were the interactions with Maddie and her step-mother actually admitting her failures of misgendering and standing up for Finch in the story. I just wish this story hadn’t entirely been all about abusing Finch as a character, because there is so little hope in this story, and for middle grade readers — we need some hope!

ARC Review – Little Universes by Heather Demetrios

Title: Little Universes

Author: Heather Demetrios

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: When a tsunami strikes the island where their parents are vacationing, it soon becomes clear that their mom and dad are never coming home. Forced to move to Boston from sunny California for the rest of their senior year, each girl struggles with secrets their parents’ death has brought to light, and with their uncertainty about the future. Instead of bringing them closer, it feels like the wave has torn the sisters apart.

Hannah is a secret poet who wants to be seen, but only knows how to hide. The pain pills she stole from her dead father hurl her onto the shores of an addiction she can’t shake and a dealer who turns her heart upside down. When it’s clear Hannah’s drowning, Mae, a budding astronaut suddenly launched into an existential crisis—and unexpected love—must choose between herself and the only family she has left.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I had mighty feelings from start-to-finish reading Little Universes. Heather Demetrios knows how to craft a story that is focused on difficult subject matters and just punch readers in their feelings. This is the story of two sisters who lose their parents in a plane crash, they are forced to relocate with their aunt to Boston from sunny California. Both girls are grieving in very different ways, with Mae obsessing over space while having an existential crisis, while Hannah is fostering an addiction that is struggling to kick the habit of.

Ooof. This book is an emotional roller coaster, and for someone like me who has had a sibling struggling with addiction and has gone to rehab, too much of this book was hitting close to home. A lot of Mae’s crisis and her feelings were all emotions I wrestled with in the past, and seeing her spiral in feeling helpless when it comes to Hannah was so difficult to read about. It was like looking in a mirror. Hannah’s side of the story was equally heartbreaking and challenging to read, because you want her to pull through, but she at times doesn’t want to. That last bit is SCARY. The idea that someone doesn’t WANT to get better, and they are willing to be okay with their behavior. It’s a lot, and for anyone who has dealt with addiction in some shape or form, keep that in mind before you consider checking this book out.

I loved this book, and while it’s over 400 pages, I read it in two long sittings and cried through chunks of it. Little Universes is a difficult read, and even more challenging if you’ve lived through what Hannah and Mae have. Demetrios continues to amazing me with each book she publishes, and I don’t think my heart can handle another book like Little Universes for a long while!

Late to the Party ARC Review – Taylor Before and After by Jennie Englund

Title: Taylor Before and After

Author: Jennie Englund

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Before, Taylor Harper is finally popular, sitting with the cool kids at lunch, and maybe, just maybe, getting invited to the biggest, most exclusive party of the year.

After, no one talks to her.

Before, she’s friends with Brielle Branson, the coolest girl in school.

After, Brielle has become a bully, and Taylor’s her favorite target.

Before, home isn’t perfect, but at least her family is together.

After, Mom won’t get out of bed, Dad won’t stop yelling, and Eli…

Eli’s gone.

Through everything, Taylor has her notebook, a diary of the year that one fatal accident tears her life apart. In entries alternating between the first and second semester of her eighth-grade year, she navigates joy and grief, gain and loss, hope and depression.

How can Taylor pick up the pieces of what used to be her social life? How can her house ever feel like home again after everything that’s happened? And how can she move forward if she can’t stop looking back?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Ho boy, this book. For a book that is considered middle grade, this actually feels like it should have been categorized in young adult. I want to stress that this book goes over a lot of difficult subject matters, and I am not saying a middle grader can’t comprehend them, but what I am saying is just be aware that this is a wonderful but difficult book with some hard conversations attached.

Taylor Before and After is told in a unique “before” and “after” style, alternating between two timelines. It’s a style that even with the journal entries will take a bit of getting used to. This is a story of friendships going wrong, family relationships crumbling at the seams, and one girl’s attempt to comprehend all of it as she compares her past to her present. Taylor is difficult, she’ not the most open of protagonists, and often the journal entries require a bit of detective work to get the whole story of why she is friendless or why her brother is missing. It’s done very well, might I add, and Taylor is a character you definitely can empathize with.

I want to add this book is very hopeful, and the style is inviting to say the least. I found myself constantly wanting to know what was happening between the timelines and piece together the large part of this story. It’s a bit of a mystery, which I appreciate, but it’s also a story that rings true I think for a lot of kids who may be coping with too much happening at once and are struggling to articulate it. Taylor Before and After is a very rewarding read, and one I’ll happily recommend to those who love difficult stories with complex kids at the heart of it.

ARC Review – Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds

Title: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You

Author: Jason Reynolds

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: The construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, to create dynamics that separate and silence. This remarkable reimagining of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning reveals the history of racist ideas in America, and inspires hope for an antiracist future. It takes you on a race journey from then to now, shows you why we feel how we feel, and why the poison of racism lingers. It also proves that while racist ideas have always been easy to fabricate and distribute, they can also be discredited.

Through a gripping, fast-paced, and energizing narrative written by beloved award-winner Jason Reynolds, this book shines a light on the many insidious forms of racist ideas–and on ways readers can identify and stamp out racist thoughts in their daily lives.

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

Sam’s Review:

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You is not a history book, through it explores history as a means to explain it’s thesis. Jason Reynolds remixes Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped to explain why issues of racism still exist, why we need to be better allies, and why systemically issues of race exist in the first place.

I want to stress what an important and value read this book is. I am not American, so having American historical context for a lot of the content in this book actually helped me understand the larger issues faced by POC in America. Reynolds goal with Stamped is to get readers to understand why racism still exists, how even certain ideas can be racist, and what we can do to combat specific kinds of racist thinking and turn it on itself head. It even offers meaningful ways to stamped out racism from conversations with friends and family, which for someone like me who is white — I found it helpful. I am privileged in so many ways, so I appreciated that this book basically told me to check that at the door and listen up.

Stamped is a fantastic work of non-fiction that will offer readers into fantastic insight regarding racism and its deep rooted history in America. Even with that American lens, I feel like readers from any country, of any background, can gain wisdom from this book. I look forward to checking out Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped, just to see how it compares!

ARC Review – The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Title: The Only Black Girls in Town

Author: Brandy Colbert

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Beach-loving surfer Alberta has been the only black girl in town for years. Alberta’s best friend, Laramie, is the closest thing she has to a sister, but there are some things even Laramie can’t understand. When the bed and breakfast across the street finds new owners, Alberta is ecstatic to learn the family is black-and they have a 12-year-old daughter just like her.

Alberta is positive she and the new girl, Edie, will be fast friends. But while Alberta loves being a California girl, Edie misses her native Brooklyn and finds it hard to adapt to small-town living.

When the girls discover a box of old journals in Edie’s attic, they team up to figure out exactly who’s behind them and why they got left behind. Soon they discover shocking and painful secrets of the past and learn that nothing is quite what it seems. 

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

Sam’s Review:

Want to read a wonderful book with great characters and a good mystery? The Only Black Girls in Town is Brandy Colbert’s middle grade debut, and my goodness was it a chef’s kiss of a story.

Albert and her family for the longest time, were the only black family in town. Her best friend, Laramie, though wonderful, cannot necessarily understand everything that Alberta goes through in terms of how differently at times she is treated by others. When Alberta learns that a new black girl has moved to town, she is elated. While Alberta is hoping that she and the new girl, Edie, will be fast friends, she starts to learn that Edie is struggling with being homesick for Brooklyn, New York. When the girls begin to explore Edie’s new home, they find old journals sharing painful secrets of someone’s life who was left behind.

I loved this book! I loved the distinct voices between Alberta and Edie. I love how genuine both girls are with each other and how they don’t shame others for not necessarily knowing what it’s like to be black — in fact this story has the characters doing a great job of educating others! The best parts of the story were the girls reading the journals that had been left behind and having the desire to find out who they in fact belonged to. There’s a really good mystery there, and I loved the end results of the story because the payoff was very good.

This is a great middle grade debut that offers a lot to younger readers. It’s a great story about being different and yet having your differences be complimented and wanted. I love how so many elements, such as Alberta having two dads, is very normalized in the story, and I loved and wanted to hug Edie when she felt homesick. Definitely check out this book if you love a good contemporary story!

ARC Review – The Newspaper Club by Beth Vrabel

Title: The Newspaper Club

Author: Beth Vrabel

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Shortly after Nellie Murrow, named for one of the fiercest journalists who ever lived and daughter of two (former) newspaper reporters, move to sleepy Bear Creek, Maine, rumors of vandalism and attacks at the only park in town are keeping Nellie saddled to the house.

Some townspeople say the attacks are gang recruitments. Others blame a vagrant spotted on the hiking trails around town. But when Nellie thinks like a reporter, none of those explanations make sense. Something is happening at the park, but what? All of the fake online news and rumors are clouding the real news.

Nellie wants to break the story–and break free from the front yard-but she can’t do it alone. She needs a whole club if she’s going to start the town’s first independent newspaper–The Cub Report. Creating a newspaper from scratch is going to be tough; but for Nellie, making friends is even harder.

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

Sam’s Review:

I loved and read Beth Vrabel’s The Humiliations of Pipi McGee last year, and thought it was such a fun and fantastic middle grade novel. Humour and character connection is definitely a strong point for Vrabel, so I was excited to dig into her latest book, The Newspaper Club.

The Newspaper Club focuses on Nellie Murrow, a talented and up-and-coming journalist, who comes from a long line of news writers and enthusiasts. With rumours of vandalism swirling around Bear Creek, townspeople have become concerned about the safety of their small town. Nellie decides that the larger newspapers aren’t going to look into this situation, she will!

This book is adorable and spunky. Nellie is such a fun heroine! She is inquisitive, clever, almost Harriet the Spy-esque in terms of her abilities. She’s not afraid to speak her mind and seek the truth, something she feels all good reporters should be able to do. When Nellie starts to realize that this story is bigger than her, she creates a club that encourages other children to be apart of.

This is a fantastic story about community engagement and loving your town. There is civic pride, and I love that Nellie is a character who chooses to ask for help because she recognizes that this story is bigger than she can handle on her own. There are strong themes of friendship and camaraderie. While the mystery element is core to the plot, I feel like this book is more about just building relationships and strengthening community.

The Newspaper Club is a fun and fast romp into media. It’s book that you can easily read in a day because it’s just so charming and entertaining.

ARC Review – Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli & Aisha Saeed

Title: Yes No Maybe So

Author: Becky Albertalli & Aisha Saeed

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: YES
Jamie Goldberg is cool with volunteering for his local state senate candidate—as long as he’s behind the scenes. When it comes to speaking to strangers (or, let’s face it, speaking at all to almost anyone), Jamie’s a choke artist. There’s no way he’d ever knock on doors to ask people for their votes…until he meets Maya.

NO
Maya Rehman’s having the worst Ramadan ever. Her best friend is too busy to hang out, her summer trip is canceled, and now her parents are separating. Why her mother thinks the solution to her problems is political canvassing—with some awkward dude she hardly knows—is beyond her.

MAYBE SO
Going door to door isn’t exactly glamorous, but maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world. After all, the polls are getting closer—and so are Maya and Jamie. Mastering local activism is one thing. Navigating the cross-cultural romance of the century is another thing entirely. 

Huge thank you to Harper Collins Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I love me a cute and unlikely romance. I am not a huge romance reader per say, but I have enjoyed many stories by Becky Albertalli, though this book was my first real foray into Aisha Saeed’s works.

Yes No Maybe So is a book about voting, societal values, and political action. The friendship turned romance in this story is definitely one readers will root for. Jamie and Maya’s friendship is chockful of fun, humour, and it’s completely genuine from start to finish. While Jamie and Maya spend time going door-to-door to canvass in an upcoming election, both characters find commonality in their backgrounds — Jamie being Jewish, and Maya being Muslim.

What I loved about this story is how genuine both perspectives in the story feel. I feel like readers could easily be friends with either Jamie or Maya, and I feel like they are real people and more than just fictional characters. With this story being politically charged, it offers readers a glimpse into looking at issues of racism, prejudice, and even just how broken the American voting system is. I will say, I loved Maya’s chapters over Jamie’s, but I think it’s because Maya is a bit more closed off and the reader has to work a bit harder to feel like they know her. Saeed does an amazing job of making Maya into this onion who needs each layer to be peeled back until you get to her very kind core.

I think most readers will definitely enjoy Yes No Maybe So. It’s just such a fun story, and I think it handles the political elements very well to readers who may be unfamiliar. This book also makes me want to check out more by Aisha Saeed, as a feel like I’ve now discovered a new author to enjoy. Yes No Maybe So is charming, entertaining, and it will pull your heartstrings in such a wonderful, if predictable way.

ARC Review – A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

Title: A Galaxy of Sea Stars

Author: Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: At a time when everything in her small town of Seaside, Rhode Island, seems like it’s changing, eleven-year-old Izzy Vitale wants things to stay the same. She wants her dad to start acting like he did before he was deployed to Afghanistan, she wants her mom to move back to the marina where they live, but most of all, she wants best friends – Piper and Zelda (dubbed the Sea Star Posse by their kindergarten teacher) – to stay best friends as they begin sixth grade at the regional middle school.

Then, Izzy’s father invites his former Army interpreter from Afghanistan and his whole family – including eleven-year-old Sitara — to move into the upstairs apartment at the marina. Izzy doesn’t know what to make of Sitara with her hijab and refusal to eat cafeteria food. She does know that her constant presence has become like a rogue wave disrupting the normally easy flow of the Sea Star Posse. But as Izzy gets to know Sitara, she can’t help but admire her self-confidence and pride in her Muslim faith. Little by little, Izzy begins to realize there exists a world much larger than her safe but insulated harbor in Seaside.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Last year, I fell in love with Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo’s debut Ruby in the Sky — it was an emotional story about a girl whose mother was potential on her way to prison. It was touching, heart-breaking, and full of feelings. This year, she released A Galaxy of Sea Stars, and showed she is going to be a great new voice in middle grade.

A Galaxy of Sea Stars tells the story of Izzy, a girl with many friends, but who wants life to stay the same. She wishes her dad would go back to normal, but he suffers from PTSD after being deployed in Afghanistan, her mom hasn’t been the same either, and she meet a new friend in Sitara, who’s father was an former Army interpreter from Afghanistan, and with him comes his daughter Sitara, who changes Izzy’s life forever.

This book is a hard read, but it depicts middle grade difficulties with gentleness and looks are issues in a very direct way. Izzy and Sitara’s relationship is amazing to read about, and the trials and tribulations of it feel very real. Izzy’s failures at being a good friend to Sitara are uncomfortable, but show great moments for growth and learning. The way in which Izzy’s friends treat Sitara are horrific and uncomfortable, and this book looks at how do you stand up to injustice when you’ve never had to before? Izzy learns so much in this story, and the wrongs that she has done are great learning points for this age group.

This is a story of becoming comfortable in your own skin, finding and championing social inequality, and speaking important truths. It’s about understanding that the world will never be stagnant, and that things always change, and that no person’s course in life stays the same. A Galaxy of Sea Stars offers so much to readers of all ages, and tackles these subject matters effortlessly. I even cried a few times!

ARC Review – Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir by Robin Ha

Title: Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir

Author: Robin Ha

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: So when a vacation to visit friends in Huntsville, Alabama, unexpectedly becomes a permanent relocation—following her mother’s announcement that she’s getting married—Robin is devastated. Overnight, her life changes. She is dropped into a new school where she doesn’t understand the language and struggles to keep up. She is completely cut off from her friends at home and has no access to her beloved comics. At home, she doesn’t fit in with her new stepfamily. And worst of all, she is furious with the one person she is closest to—her mother.

Huge thank you to Harper Collins Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

What a fantastic and heartfelt memoir! I loved Robin Ha’s Cook Korean! earlier this year, but I also thought it was such a novel concept — a graphic novel cook book. Almost American Girl, however, looks at Ha’s immigration to America, her feelings of displacement and loneliness, and how she and her mother attempt to find their place in a foreign land.

Ha’s story begins in Seoul, South Korea, when she and her mother decide that life would be better if they moved to America. With Ha’s father out of the picture, Robin and her mother decide it’s time to explore new paths. Robin, however, isn’t happy with the move to Alabama, feeling like an outsider, with only her comics to keep her company. The story moves swiftly though Robin’s feelings of displacement and loneliness, but it also looks at how she handles her family who have been living in America for a long time, and how different their lives are. This book bursts with so many different emotions all boiling over at once, so it’s easy to sympathize with Robin and her mother throughout.

I want to share that while the ARC was mainly in black and white, there were some full colour pages in the book as well. Ha’s art and colour use is breathtaking and intricate, and she does an amazing job of pouring her story through her artwork. There is so many beautifully drawn scenes that evoke so much emotion in this story, that I think a variety of readers and art lovers will gravitate towards this book.

Almost American Girl was an emotional read that offers a lot of hope to readers on how to overcome change and displacement. It’s asks readers to put themselves into Robin’s shoes and understand the difficulties that she feels. This book wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve and it’s so deeply personal, that I think many readers will find solace in Robin’s story and connect with it on a variety of different levels.

ARC Review – The Night Country (The Hazel Wood #2) by Melissa Albert

Title: The Night Country (The Hazel Wood #2)

Author: Melissa Albert

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: In The Night Country, Alice Proserpine dives back into a menacing, mesmerizing world of dark fairy tales and hidden doors. Follow her and Ellery Finch as they learn The Hazel Wood was just the beginning, and that worlds die not with a whimper, but a bang.

With Finch’s help, Alice escaped the Hinterland and her reclusive grandmother’s dark legacy. Now she and the rest of the dregs of the fairy tale world have washed up in New York City, where Alice is trying to make a new, unmagical life. But something is stalking the Hinterland’s survivors―and she suspects their deaths may have a darker purpose. Meanwhile, in the winking out world of the Hinterland, Finch seeks his own adventure, and―if he can find it―a way back home…

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I have to say, I was surprised to see a sequel to The Hazel Wood. Perhaps it’s because I felt the first book wrapped up everything so well, so I was skeptical going into The Night Country. Turns out I was wrong about the need for a sequel — so very wrong in fact.

Melissa Albert knows how to weave a story. Whether you enjoyed The Hazel Wood or not, I think there is something to be said about writing that has the ability to make you feel discomfort. One element I loved from The Hazel Wood that is very present in this sequel, is how sinister the world feelings, the disjointedness of how everything is collapsing in on itself, and Albert’s ability to make the reader feel uncomfortable and lost.

Alice is still as frustrating as ever, but I think it’s why she is a good protagonist for stories that feature disjointed world-building. She questions things, she is curious, she is angry, and most of all, she has a will to change things for better or worse. The new characters in the book are fairly fascinating as well, and how they play into the world’s transformation feels very original and something out of video game.

There is so much I can’t talk about with this being a sequel, but I feel like if you enjoyed the first book, this one starts immediately after the first book, so rereading or quickly checking a summary is a good plan before hopping into this book. The twist and turns in this sequel are fantastic, the world building is top notch, and there is just so much mystery and intrigue to keep the reader pushing forward. I really enjoyed this sequel, and I’m happy it exists in the world.