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Late to the Party ARC Review – Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

Title: Caterpillar Summer

Author: Gillian McDunn

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Cat and her brother Chicken have always had a very special bond–Cat is one of the few people who can keep Chicken happy. When he has a “meltdown” she’s the one who scratches his back and reads his favorite story. She’s the one who knows what Chicken needs. Since their mom has had to work double-hard to keep their family afloat after their father passed away, Cat has been the glue holding her family together.

But even the strongest glue sometimes struggles to hold. When a summer trip doesn’t go according to plan, Cat and Chicken end up spending three weeks with grandparents they never knew. For the first time in years, Cat has the opportunity to be a kid again, and the journey she takes shows that even the most broken or strained relationships can be healed if people take the time to walk in one another’s shoes.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Caterpillar Summer was a total cover grab for me. There’s something about two adorable children and fishing that just screams a summer read. This book is a gentle look at sibling relationships, grief, and learning to walk in someone else’s shoes, even if it’s for a little while. There’s also a lot about fishing in this book, which definitely gave me fond memories of my childhood at my parent’s cottage.

Cat and Chicken are lovable characters, each with the ability to control each other. It’s very clear that Cat, in particular, has had to grow up very quickly and become responsible for Chicken at such a young age, so it was nice to read a narrative where the author takes that concept and offers the character an opportunity to be a child again. There is such a reluctance from Cat’s character at times, almost as though she is afraid of having the rug swept from under her feet.

There is a kindness and curious nature in that book that makes it a slow, but compelling story. This is very much a character focused story, and one where you are watching both Cat and Chicken grow. I loved their grandparents, and I also appreciated in the story how they were okay with the hesitation from Cat and Chicken given the estrangement. There’s a lot of growing and learning in this story, and I love that both cat and Chicken wear their flaws on their sleeves.

Caterpillar Summer is a lyrical book about childhood and grief, but it’s full of gentleness and hope. Coupled with some beautiful illustrations throughout, if you are someone who loves a softer middle grade story, this one is easily for you.

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ARC Review – The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert

Title: The Revolution of Birdie Randolph

Author: Brandy Colbert

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Dove “Birdie” Randolph works hard to be the perfect daughter and follow the path her parents have laid out for her: She quit playing her beloved soccer, she keeps her nose buried in textbooks, and she’s on track to finish high school at the top of her class. But then Birdie falls hard for Booker, a sweet boy with a troubled past…whom she knows her parents will never approve of.

When her estranged aunt Carlene returns to Chicago and moves into the family’s apartment above their hair salon, Birdie notices the tension building at home. Carlene is sweet, friendly, and open-minded–she’s also spent decades in and out of treatment facilities for addiction. As Birdie becomes closer to both Booker and Carlene, she yearns to spread her wings. But when long-buried secrets rise to the surface, everything she’s known to be true is turned upside down.

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

Sam’s Review:

Brandy Colbert has yet to disappointment. Her stories are have such raw portrayals of teens coping with difficult issues, and it’s why I always keep coming back to them. The Revolution of Birdie Randolphlooks at a disjointed relationship between sisters, a girl who is forced to study and has no means of blowing off steam, and a boy who’s been to juvie and is trying to make amends for his actions.

If there is one thing Colbert is a master of, it’s writing family dynamics in such a realistic way. Birdie’s home-life and her relationship with her parents has moments of discomfort, but also moments of joy. I think the book also has some fantastic twists and turns in terms of large scale secrets, and I think Colbert gives the right amount of bread crumbs to get those conclusions. I found myself very engaged by the family plotline (as I usually do), but I actually also liked the relationship storyline between Birdie and Booker (our boy outta juvie) as well. Romance isn’t normally my bag, but this one worked for me most of the time.

I think what I loved about Booker’s character in particular is that he recognizes the kind of harm he caused in his past and he wants to atone and become a better person. I also appreciate how sex-positive this book is, in that he never pressures Birdie into anything either. I feel for Booker through, simply because he gets pigeon-holed by so many people in the story and it takes awhile for people to warm up to him due to his past.

If I am being honest, I really loved all the characters in The Revolution of Birdie Randolph, and I like that the majority of them grow with the story, each with their own flaws. The flaws feel true to the nature of the story and don’t feel shoe-horned in any way. If you’ve read and enjoyed Colbert’s novels in the past, then this book is a no brainer. However, if you’ve been meaning to read Brandy Colbert’s works and haven’t, this one is a pretty good place to start.

ARC Review – The Miraculous by Jess Redman

Title: The Miraculous

Author: Jess Redman

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Eleven-year-old Wunder Ellis is a miracologist. In a journal he calls The Miraculous, he records stories of the inexplicable and the extraordinary. These miracles fill Wunder with the feeling that he is not alone, that the world is magical, that he is part of something brighter than he can imagine.

But then his newborn sister dies, at only eight days old. If that can happen, then miracles don’t exist. So Wunder gets rid of The Miraculous. And he stops believing.

Then Wunder meets Faye—a cape-wearing, outspoken girl with losses of her own. Together, they find an abandoned house by the cemetery and the old woman who lives there—and who might be a witch. The old woman asks for Wunder and Faye’s help. She asks them to go through graveyards and forests, to townhalls and police stations, by bike and by train. She asks them to believe. And together, they go on a journey that leads them to friendship, to healing—and to miracles.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Jess Redman’s debut The Miraculous starts with a hard punch to the gut. It’s seldom that middle grade novels look at the death of a sibling, and even worse an infant. Our main character, Wunder, has stopped believing in miracles, and is convinced that miracles are not real.

That snippet of information should immediately tell you what a rough ride The Miraculous is going to be. Wunder meets Faye, a girl who has also suffered extreme loss, and the two become friends, creating an understanding that grief strikes when it wants to. I could easily connect with this story, especially as someone who has lost people who are valuable to me. Faye’s responses to her trauma are much more aggressive and even vocal, which admittedly, was also something I connected with.

Despite its over arching theme of grief and loss, I want to stress thatThe Miraculous is a hopeful read, and one filled with a lot of magical realism. There’s so many fantastical elements in the story that create such a rich reading experiences, and the larger themes (both positive and negative) are highlighted in interesting or magical ways. What I equally love about this book is that its such a fast-paced read, so much so that I read it in two one hour lunch breaks because I needed to know what was happening to Wunder and Faye throughout the story.

I do think those who love story-driven magical realism will definitely love this book. I won’t lie though, as I do think the harshness of Wunder’s trauma may be difficult for some younger readers to understand or even bear. Even with that in mind, The Miraculous is a beautiful story that will fill readers with both hope and “wunder”!

ARC Review – Shout Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts by Esta Spalding

Title: Shout Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts

Author: Esta Spalding

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: The plucky Fitzgerald-Trout siblings (who live on a tropical island where the grown-ups are useless but the kids can drive) are back! After losing the boat that had become their home, oldest Fitzgerald-Trout, Kim, has put finding a home back on her to-do list. When her sixth-grade history assignment offers a clue about the ruins of a volcanic house built by an explorer on Mount Muldoon, she and her siblings set out to find it.  The castle they discover surpasses their wildest dreams. But having a permanent home offers more challenges than the Fitzgerald-Trouts expect, especially when they begin to suspect their home is haunted. The siblings must figure out how to fix the cracks in their family foundation before one of them is lost for good.

Huge thank you Penguin Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Have you ever read a series that just make you laugh so hard you cry? That’s what I love about the Fitzgerald-Trout series. The Fitzgerald-Trout kids are just so charming and lovable, and they get into some interesting mischief. This particular installment involved a baby, a crazy lady who sells baby products, and what it means to be homeless.

I swear this series is up there with the Penderwicks. It just has such a fantastic balance of humour and heart, and it’s hard not to love all the characters in the story. Kimo continues to be my absolutely favourite, because anything that boy does is pure comedy gold. He also just has such a sweet heart and he means so well in everything he does. Sometimes, I just want to read a series that makes me feel good about the world and this one does it.

What I love about The Fitzgerald-Trout series is that it is full of heart, and it makes you feel so good. This series is such a quick read and so engrossing given how comedic and kind it is. Sometimes you need a light-hearted series to remind you that the world can be a good and gentle place, and every time I read this series it just gives me the warm and fuzzies. I cannot wait to see if this series will continue because I am going to miss the Fitzgerald-Trout kids if they don’t have another adventure soon!

ARC Review – Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis

Title: Extraordinary Birds

Author: Sandy Stark-McGinnis

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Eleven-year-old December knows everything about birds, and everything about getting kicked out of foster homes. All she has of her mom is the bird guide she left behind, and a message: “In flight is where you’ll find me.” December believes she’s truly a bird, just waiting for the day she transforms. The scar on her back is where her wings will sprout; she only needs to find the right tree and practice flying.

When she’s placed with foster mom Eleanor, who runs a taxidermy business and volunteers at a wildlife rescue, December begins to see what home means in a new light. But the story she’s told herself about her past is what’s kept her going this long. Can she learn to let go?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Have you ever read a book that was just so weird, yet so captivating? That’s what reading Extraordinary Birds was like for me. It’s the story of girl who believes she is metamorphosing into a bird, and it’s just so wonderful and strange.

December is a fascinating main character and her desire to be a bird who can fly away is intriguing throughout. Given this book looks at foster care, it’s fitting that December has an obsession with birds and flight, and throughout the story you see so many attempts of her trying to find the perfect tree in order to practice flight. This is also a book about trying to find a home when you’ve never truly had one, and I think being in December’s mind for a lot of this story allows the reader to empathize with her need for transformation. She wants someone to want her, to love her, and to need her. It’s really heartbreaking.

I also really adored Eleanor, her foster mother. Eleanor is a taxidermist, she’s sharp a whip, and I love the way in which she allows December to come into her own and build trust. Eleanor is always caring and empathetic — she wants to see December flourish and doesn’t judge her desire for flight or being insecure. It’s really a beautiful relationship to read about! Even the friendships that December forges are just really thoughtful, and I think the author does a great job of portraying issues such as anxiety and even bullying in the story.

The more I read, the more I really believed that December was transforming into the bird. Stark-McGinnis has a style of writing that is so inviting and enticing that it’s so easy to fall into. Extraordinary Birds is an emotional read that will fill the reader with so much hope. It’s a wonderful look into what it’s like being a child in foster care, while also trying to find your own wings to take flight, and finding the courage to transform into who you truly want to be.

ARC Review – Birthday by Meredith Russo

Title: Birthday

Author: Meredith Russo

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Two kids, Morgan and Eric, are bonded for life after being born on the same day at the same time. We meet them once a year on their shared birthday as they grow and change: as Eric figures out who he is and how he fits into the world, and as Morgan makes the difficult choice to live as her true self. Over the years, they will drift apart, come together, fight, make up, and break up—and ultimately, realize how inextricably they are a part of each other. 

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Reading Birthday was an intense experience. Spanning five years, the book reaccounts Eric and Morgan’s birthdays, the amazing friendship-turned-romance. The book also goes through the transition period of Morgan, as she learns about who she wants to become.

I read this book very slowly, and it was such a difficult read. It’s emotional and raw, and the friendship between Eric and Morgan is one of the most beautifully written that I’ve encountered in awhile in YA. Russo does an amazing job building her characters up, and the reader is just able to connect with them in a variety of ways. There were few moments in the story where I found myself yelling at the parents in this book, or even empathizing with them.

The challenge of this book really comes from how Morgan and Eric’s relationship is perceived by others. They are bullied, shamed, and even beaten. It’s heartbreaking, and I felt so much for both of them as the story progressed. Both of them are also forced to make such hard decisions at their age, and are made to feel as though they are less than by others because of their differences.

Meredith Russo is a writer who knows how to hit her readers right where it needs to hurt. I found myself feeling so much for Eric and Morgan and the ending does this amazing job of showing how at eighteen they are able to fight and move beyond the bullcrap that they constantly were subjected to. Birthday is hard-hitting and deeply moving, and I hope more readers give this wonderful gem a chance.

ARC Review – All the Ways Home by Elsie Chapman

Title: All the Ways Home

Author: Elsie Chapman

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Sometimes, home isn’t where you expect to find it.

After losing his mom in a fatal car crash, Kaede Hirano–now living with a grandfather who is more stranger than family–developed anger issues and spent his last year of middle school acting out.

Best-friendless and critically in danger repeating the seventh grade, Kaede is given a summer assignment: write an essay about what home means to him, which will be even tougher now that he’s on his way to Japan to reconnect with his estranged father and older half-brother. Still, if there’s a chance Kaede can finally build a new family from an old one, he’s willing to try. But building new relationships isn’t as easy as destroying his old ones, and one last desperate act will change the way Kaede sees everyone–including himself.

This is a book about what home means to us–and that there are many different correct answers.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I felt emotional reading All the Ways Home. Not only did the book make me nostalgic for my recent trip to Japan, but it made me feel for Kaede, a boy who just wants someone to love him after the death of his mother. While I cannot relate to way Kaede’s mother dies, I can in the sense that like him, there are days where I pine for my folks because there is so much I want to tell them, and no way to truly do so.

This is the story of Kaede returning to Tokyo after the death of his mother. He’s on the verge of failing 7th Grade, he’s accidentally hurt his best friend back home in Vancouver, and he’s trying to define what ‘home’ means to him. Arriving in Tokyo, he meets up with his brother Shoma, who takes him in for the three weeks he is there. Hoping to see his famous father while in Tokyo, Kaede learns that not every person is as they seem. The growth of Kaede and Shoma’s relationship is one of my favourite aspects of this story. It’s subtle, it shows how people can move from estrangement to a level of comfort, especially as Shoma recognizes that he hasn’t been around for Kaede in such a long time, but when you learn why, you’re able to empathize with him as much as Kaede.

I also loved the visuals that Chapman provides in this story. There’s so many places that she references that I’ve been to, and it really took me back to my trip. At times I found myself poking my husband and yelling “WE’VE BEEN THERE!” which is silly, but it made me yearn for that kind of adventure again. Tokyo is an intense city, and I loved reading the bits where Kaede gets lost in Kabukicho, which was one of my favourite places to visit. Reading about the hustle and bustle of people’s lives and being able to visualize it so clearly is a wonderful feat and Chapman makes the story feel so authentic, especially when she talks about both Canada and Japan. She reminded me of the beauty of both places in such a short novel.

Kaede’s story is beautiful, and I was invested the whole way. My heart wept when he finally got to “meet” his father, his determination to find the meaning of home, and just how difficult it is to navigate the world when you’re grieving everything you’ve lost. There is so much that me, as a thirty-year-old woman could relate to, even though this story is geared towards a middle grade audience. This is one of the sweet, most difficult middle grade novels I’ve read in a long time, and I urge everyone to check out because it’s an emotional ride.