Tag Archives: contemporary

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.

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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.

ARC Review -There’s Something About Sweetie by Sandhya Menon

Title: There’s Something About Sweetie

Author: Sandhya Menon

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Ashish Patel didn’t know love could be so…sucky. After being dumped by his ex-girlfriend, his mojo goes AWOL. Even worse, his parents are annoyingly, smugly confident they could find him a better match. So, in a moment of weakness, Ash challenges them to set him up.

The Patels insist that Ashish date an Indian-American girl—under contract. Per subclause 1(a), he’ll be taking his date on “fun” excursions like visiting the Hindu temple and his eccentric Gita Auntie. Kill him now. How is this ever going to work?

Sweetie Nair is many things: a formidable track athlete who can outrun most people in California, a loyal friend, a shower-singing champion. Oh, and she’s also fat. To Sweetie’s traditional parents, this last detail is the kiss of death.

Sweetie loves her parents, but she’s so tired of being told she’s lacking because she’s fat. She decides it’s time to kick off the Sassy Sweetie Project, where she’ll show the world (and herself) what she’s really made of.

Ashish and Sweetie both have something to prove. But with each date they realize there’s an unexpected magic growing between them. Can they find their true selves without losing each other?

Huge thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I swear, Sandhya Menon writes some of the best rom-coms I have ever had the pleasure of reading about. Not only does she create these wonderfully fleshed out characters, but her storylines have this addictive “just one more chapter” quality to them. I adored When Dimple Met Rishi the year it came out, so colour me happy when Ash, one of my favourite characters from that story, gets his own romance.

Ash and Sweetie are undeniably charming. Both characters have such unique personalities, yet you’re rooting from them to be together the whole damn story because all the nay-sayers who say they don’t fit are HECKIN’ WRONG. I will even argue that I loved Sweetie far more than I did Dimple, if only because Sweetie’s level of conviction and lack of apology for who she is, it is completely refreshing in a YA heroine. She has so much passion and I think how she discusses the word “fat” is it’s own wonderful revelation as well. Even just her storyline with her family, you get the sense that Sweetie truly loves her folks no matter what they even say to her.

Then there is my beloved Ash, who is just so darling and funny. It was nice to see more somber and thoughtful moments with him, given how high energy he was in When Dimple Met Rishi, and I like the way in which Menon handles his past relationships and how he is the sad boy trying to figure out what is wrong with him! Ash is swoony in a way that Rishi wasn’t for me, and it’s funny given I generally don’t find myself falling for the athletes in any contemporary story. Ash’s family, however? My goodness they are hilarious and his dad killed me.

In all fairness, read There’s Something About Sweetie. It has so much laughter with equal parts heart, and in a world where news spreads and things feel hopeless, it’s wonderful to be reminded of stories that evoke so much kindness and humour. If you want a fun little rom-com that doesn’t ask much of it’s read, this book is 100% for you.

ARC Review – Hurricane Season by Nicole Melleby

Title: Hurricane Season

Author: Nicole Melleby

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Fig, a sixth grader, wants more than anything to see the world as her father does. The once-renowned pianist, who hasn’t composed a song in years and has unpredictable good and bad days, is something of a mystery to Fig. Though she’s a science and math nerd, she tries taking an art class just to be closer to him, to experience life the way an artist does. But then Fig’s dad shows up at school, disoriented and desperately searching for Fig. Not only has the class not brought Fig closer to understanding him, it has brought social services to their door.

Diving into books about Van Gogh to understand the madness of artists, calling on her best friend for advice, and turning to a new neighbor for support, Fig continues to try everything she can think of to understand her father, to save him from himself, and to find space in her life to discover who she is even as the walls are falling down around her.

Huge thank you to Thomas Allen & Sons for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Hurricane Season was a book I grabbed on a whim while I was at the OLA Super Conference early this year. It totally sounded like the kind of middle grade read I would love: a young girl trying to figure herself and her family out, while also learning to deal with large scale change. Fig is a sixth grader who at her tender age, is forced to become a caretaker to her father, a famous pianist, who has had a mental break down. In order to understand her father’s breakdown, Fig enlists in the help of her local library and begins to research Vincent Van Gogh, one of the world’s most well-known painter’s, but is equally known for his decent into madness.

This is a beautiful debut story, and Fig is such a kind, slow, quiet protagonist, making her very different from a lot of the characters you encounter in popular middle grade. She is placed in an uncomfortable position for a younger child, and yet she is determined to both support her father and understand his condition. This is not a fast paced story by any stretch of the imagination, it’s very quiet and thoughtful. Fig also has so much so support in this story, even if most of it comes from unlikely sources such as Hannah, who works at her local library.

I think what I love the most about Hurricane Season is that it’s a book all about taking risks, and how even if they don’t pay off or pay off unexpectedly, they are still worth attempting. There’s a positive message throughout this story that children can find and muster amazing and profound strength when they need to, and it’s very apparent in this story as Fig does this repeatedly, each time more difficult, but she in turn grows stronger for it.

Hurricane Season is beautiful and quiet, and it’s a book that offers so much to its reader, while being somewhat small in size. I highly recommend this book if you love tougher middle grade stories that offer opportunities to reflect on what it means to be a caretaker and how one’s life can easily be transformed in the blink of an eye.

ARC Review – You Must Not Miss by Katrina Leno

Title: You Must Not Miss

Author: Katrina Leno

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Magpie Lewis started writing in her yellow notebook the day her family self-destructed. That was the night Eryn, Magpie’s sister, skipped town and left her to fend for herself. That was the night of Brandon Phipp’s party.

Now, Magpie is called a slut whenever she walks down the hallways of her high school, her former best friend won’t speak to her, and she spends her lunch period with a group of misfits who’ve all been socially exiled like she has. And so, feeling trapped and forgotten, Magpie retreats to her notebook, dreaming up a place called Near.

Near is perfect–somewhere where her father never cheated, her mother never drank, and Magpie’s own life never derailed so suddenly. She imagines Near so completely, so fully, that she writes it into existence, right in her own backyard. It’s a place where she can have anything she wants…even revenge.

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

Sam’s Review:

I adore Katrina Leno’s writing, and You Must Not Miss reminded me of the level of versatility that she has when creating stories. While a lot of Leno’s books have a magical or fantastical element, they are still deeply rooted in the real world and often its the overall tone that provides a uniqueness to each and everyone one of her books.

Magpie is wonderfully intense and destructive as a character. Her overall suffering and deep hatred of herself places the reader in a difficult position when reading this book. There’s a lot of anger, there’s so much venom being spouted throughout this story from both those that surround our heroine, but also Magpie herself. I won’t lie, trying to be supportive of Magpie is challenging in this story, especially given some of the “decisions” she makes, but I think it’s a great deconstruction of dealing with mental illness or dealing with immediate crisis even.

The suffering and self-sabotage by Magpie’s character in this story is oddly a draw. Leno has this amazing way of dragging the reader into the minds of her heroines — sometimes you feel like you are steps ahead of them, and others, like Magpie make you feel lost or question what will happen next. This reminded me a lot of Leno’s first novel, The Half Life of Molly Pierce where I was so emotionally exhausted but equally invested in what was happening.

I recognize that I am being purposely vague about the plot in You Must Not Miss and it’s with good intention. It’s one of those books where the twists and turns feel weird, crazy, and often you’ll ask yourself what the heck you read — but that is actually what makes this story so appealing in my eyes. I got completely lost in it, but didn’t feel a compulsive need to rush through the story. It’s a difficult read, no questions asked, but it’s equally a rewarding, twisty, mess of a story that keeps you guessing from the get-go.

ARC Review – Megabat and Fancy Cat (Megabat #2) by Anna Humphrey & Kass Reich

Title: Megabat and Fancy Cat (Megabat #2) b

Author: Anna Humphrey & Kass Reich

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Daniel Misumi has just moved to a new house. It’s big and old and far away from his friends and his life before. AND it’s haunted . . . or is it?

Megabat was just napping on a papaya one day when he was stuffed in a box and shipped halfway across the world. Now he’s living in an old house far from home, feeling sorry for himself and accidentally scaring the people who live there.

Daniel realizes it’s not a ghost in his new house. It’s a bat. And he can talk. And he’s actually kind of cute. Megabat realizes that not every human wants to whack him with a broom. This one shares his smooshfruit. Add some buttermelon, juice boxes, a lightsaber and a common enemy and you’ve got a new friendship in the making!

Huge thank you to Penguin Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I have not read the first Mega Bat book, but now I kinda want to. This is a chapter book series that I’m positive you don’t need to read in order, but considering how fun this book was, I wanna check out the first book. I can totally see why kids would love this chapter book series — it’s funny, clever, and super duper sweet.

This is a quick read, and Daniel, our main hooman character is wonderful. This book has a wonderful lesson teaching what it means to be different and how to love comes in different forms. Mega Bat and the cat’s relationship is funny and I love how the author teaches these lessons through the two characters. Also I LOVED the artwork in this book and I think it reflects the characters and story well. It’s cute, detailed, and very soft looking.

I look forward to sharing this series with parents and kids looking for chapter books that are great for beginner readers moving into that realm. It’s so so so so adorable!

ARC Review – The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhathena

Title: The Beauty of the Moment

Author: Tanaz Bhathena

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Susan is the new girl—she’s sharp and driven, and strives to meet her parents’ expectations of excellence. Malcolm is the bad boy—he started raising hell at age fifteen, after his mom died of cancer, and has had a reputation ever since.

Susan’s parents are on the verge of divorce. Malcolm’s dad is a known adulterer.

Susan hasn’t told anyone, but she wants to be an artist. Malcolm doesn’t know what he wants—until he meets her.

Love is messy and families are messier, but in spite of their burdens, Susan and Malcolm fall for each other. The ways they drift apart and come back together are testaments to family, culture, and being true to who you are.

Huge thank you to Penguin Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I really enjoyed this book! Did I love it as much as Bhathena’s debut? No, but to be far her sophomore book is such a delicate book compared to A Girl Like That. This book looks at immigration, parental expectations and forbidden romance. This book looks at Malcolm and Susan, two teens who fall for each other despite their religious backgrounds. Susan dreams of being an artist, while Malcolm is still trying to figure out who he wants be and hasn’t thought that far regarding his own future.

My favourite aspect of this book was easily the family dynamics of both Malcolm and Susan’s families. They couldn’t be more different in terms of their beliefs. The discussion of immigration is very key to this story, especially when we are reading Susan’s perspective and learning about their parent’s struggles of adapting to Canadian society, and how certain professions don’t transfer over the same way. As someone who works in a library that is populated by newcomers, this is something I learn about from my clientele every day. Canada is a place of opportunity and safety to a lot of new immigrants, and it’s unsurprising that Susan’s family is very strict when it comes to wanting her to have the best opportunities possible. Malcolm’s family has similar ambitions for him as well, but Malcolm is very much of a case of “finding himself.”

I struggled with our main characters somewhat when reading this. Perhaps it’s because I found the beginning a bit slow, but Susan in particular is a difficult character for me: she’s a bit of a doormat through a lot of this book and it isn’t until towards the end that we see her grow into someone with a lot more insight into themselves. I did find myself yelling at the book being like “Stop being so passive! Stop being afraid!” and I had to remember that I was very fortunate growing up that my parents were supportive of anything I wanted to do and that is not Susan’s situation at all. Malcolm at times for me was too much of a stereotypical bad boy, which I know for some folks is swoon-worthy, but he’s not my taste.

I think The Beauty of the Moment will appeal to a lot of readers, especially those who love family stories and romance. While this book is no Girl Like That, I will say that I think this is a much more accessible follow-up novel, and one where I believe many readers will easily connect with.