Tag Archives: contemporary

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 – Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern

Title: Just Breathe

Author: Cammie McGovern

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: David Sheinman is the popular president of his senior class, battling cystic fibrosis.

Jamie Turner is a quiet sophomore, struggling with depression.

The pair soon realizes that they can be their true selves with each other, and their unlikely friendship develops into something so much more. But neither Jamie nor David can bring themselves to reveal the secrets that weigh most heavily on their hearts—and their time for honesty may be running out.

Huge thank you to Harper Collins Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I love me a Cammie McGovern novel. Often her books know how to hit the right notes with me in terms of how emotional her books often are, and how often my heartstrings are tug at. This particular book focuses on chronic illness, specially Cystic fibrosis (or CF), I always feel a bit weary when reading these stories if only because I worry the accuracy and how connected I am even as someone who doesn’t suffer from one. One of my dearest friends has CF, so I don’t know how accurate this book is, but in terms of storytelling, I was attached to David and Jamie’s story.

I am not a romance reader, but what I do like in McGovern’s books is that she always does a good job of making a relationship feel organic to the story. David and Jamie are friends, they bond over each other’s lives and their desires to get better, and then a romance occurs and it doesn’t feel forced or awkward the way other YA books love to do these sick-kids-in-love-stories. David has CF and Jamie has depression and they are essentially just trying to build each other up.

What I equally like, however, is that McGovern does a great job of showing how difficult it is to have a positive attitude towards chronic illness, as well as the up-and-downs that the characters are facing while coping with their situations. I also want to point out that the reactions that adult characters have in this story feels very spot on. There’s one scene in particular that illustrates how parents also have to come to terms with chronic illness and the struggles of trying to do what is best for their child, but also what it means to be in a survivor’s mentality (something I’ve had first hand experience with).

While this is not my favourite Cammie McGovern book (that still goes to Just My Luck, I think this story shows that she puts a lot of thought and care into her stories. She knows how to add the emotional punch when needed, and I appreciate that she’s unapologic about the challenges of the situations that her protagonists are facing. While I wish Jamie’s depression was addressed a bit more, I still cared for her just as much as I did David.

ARC Review – The How and the Why by Cynthia Hand

Title: The How & The Why

Author: Cynthia Hand

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Cassandra McMurtrey has the best parents a girl could ask for. They’ve given Cass a life she wouldn’t trade for the world. She has everything she needs—except maybe the one thing she wants. Like, to know who she is. Where she came from. Questions her adoptive parents can’t answer, no matter how much they love her.

But eighteen years ago, someone wrote Cass a series of letters. And they may just hold the answers Cass has been searching for.

Huge thank you to Harper Collins Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Cynthia Hand has a magic power: she makes me cry at the drop of a hat. The How and the Way is a book that explores adoption, family, and how we deal with the unknown. After finishing the book and reading the author’s note, it’s abundantly clear that this is Cynthia Hand’s most personal book to date, and may be my favourite one that I’ve read of hers.

This book is an emotional book — it’s out to make you cry, having a million feelings, and just be an exploration experience. There is so much I didn’t know about the adoption process and system, let alone the amount of trauma it can cause on both the one giving up the child and the child who years later has found the courage to look for their biological parent. Cassandra’s experience of having a great adoptive family and having constant support from them was so beautiful to read about, and I appreciate the way this book handles its characters — every single one is flawed and nuanced.

I also like the way this book is told in letters from Cassandra’s biological mother and the present time. Cassandra has so much courage in this story, but I equally like that she has moments of weakness, and the process of her trying to find her mother organically unfolds. Everything about this book is slow and thoughtful.

I devoured the book in four days on my lunch breaks and I always felt sad when I had to put it down because Hand gives you just enough at the end of each chapter to make you want to keep reading. This book is emotional for sure, and is definitely for fans of Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Break in Case of Emergency by Brian Francis

Title: Break in Case of Emergency

Author: Brian Francis

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Life has been a struggle for Toby Goodman. Her mother died by suicide five years ago, and her father left their small town before Toby was born. Now a teenager living on her grandparents’ dairy farm, Toby has trouble letting people in. She keeps even her closest friend, the brash but endearing Trisha, at arms’ length, and recently ended her first relationship, with Trisha’s burnout brother, Mike. Convinced that she is destined to follow her mother’s path, Toby creates a plan to escape her pain.

But with the news that her father is coming home and finally wants to meet her, Toby must face the truth of her family’s story. Not only is her father gay, but he’s also a world-famous female impersonator—and a self-absorbed, temperamental man-child who is ill-prepared to be a real parent.

When Toby’s careful plans go awry, she is forced to rebuild the life she thought she knew from the ground up. While she may not follow an expected path, through the support of a quirky but lovable circle of friends and family, Toby may finally put together the many different pieces that make up her past, her present, and her future.

Huge Thank You to Harper Collins Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

THIS BOOK.

This book is a beautiful surprise. Break in Case of Emergency tells the tale of Toby Goodman, a girl who lives with her grandparents on their diary farm. Toby feels like her life is meaningless, especially after the loss of her mother and the disappearance of her father. Constantly contemplating suicide, Toby considers ending her life, until one day her father returns to her, though not what he seems.

I loved this book. Toby is such an intriguing heroine who isn’t exactly chummy with the reader. If anything, she is somewhat distant, often frustrated, and she is trying to cope with the concept that neither of her parents “loved her.” She also lives with her grandparents who are sheltered, somewhat bigoted, but mostly have a good heart. They want to protect Toby, even if they don’t entirely understand what she is feeling. When her father Arthur returns, there’s a sense of the grandparents that Toby needs to be protected from him, but by the other side of it, there’s this understand that Toby needs to deal with him on her own.

Brain Francis’ characters are absolutely wonderful, each well-developed and full of life. Each character offers a different perspective in Toby’s sheltered world, and the revelation of Toby’s father returning is such a raw and intense moment in the story. Arthur is a fantastic character, equally on par with Toby. He’s awkward, but like Toby, is also somewhat distant. His story is so heartbreaking, though it doesn’t excuse his behaviour. There’s a great lesson in novel involving forgiveness, especially in the idea that forgiveness must be earned, but just given, and it plays such a huge role for a lot of the characters in the story.

Watching Toby grow and change in this story is also a delightful aspect, as it unfolds in such an organic way. Toby has had so much loss and hardship, to the point of wanting to commit suicide, and yet she also grows to understand the value of life and what it means to live fully and freely. Everything about this story from new beginnings, to new relationships, to mending fences, are all interesting and emotional.

There’s just so much to love and connect with in Break in Case of Emergency. It’s a story of displaced family, found family, and it means to be alive. Brain Francis has written a story that is deeply moving, as it is funny and poignant. If you love your young adult stories to be full of raw emotion and small triumphs, than this novel is easily for you.

ARC Review – Give and Take by Elly Swartz

Title: Give & Take

Author: Elly Swartz

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Maggie knows her new baby sister who smells like powder isn’t her sister for keeps. Izzie is a foster baby awaiting adoption. So in a day or a week, she’ll go to her forever family and all that sweetness will be gone. Except for those things Maggie’s secretly saving in the cardboard boxes in her closet and under her bed. Baby socks, binkies, and a button from Bud the Bear. Rocks, sticks, and candy wrappers. Maggie holds on tight. To her things. Her pet turtle. Her memories of Nana. And her friends. But when Maggie has to say goodbye to Izzie, and her friend gets bumped from their all-girl trapshooting squad to make room for a boy, Maggie’s hoarding grows far beyond her control and she needs to find the courage to let go.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I am clearly a huge fan of books featuring turtle pets in them.

All hail Bert the Turtle.

Anyways,

Years ago, I read Elly Swartz’s debut novel Finding Perfect, and adored it. Swartz has this amazing ability to tackle tough subjects in middle grade in such a way where it is both gentle and effective. Give & Take looks at twelve-year-old Maggie, who falls in love with a baby her parents are fostering, but is forced to learn that not everything in permanent and change can be challenging.

What I love about this book is it’s portrayal of coping mechanisms. In this story Maggie hordes anything and everything. She has an compulsion to keep things like candy wrappers and garbage, but treats it with the utmost care. She knows where everything is in her room, and throughout the story is grasping with two concepts: the idea that she has a lot of things but struggles to part with them, and the understanding that she attributes value to items that are deemed valueless. When Izzie, the baby her parents are fostering comes and goes in the story, Maggie’s triggers become clearer in the story and she is aware in a lot of ways that she is grieving something beyond her control.

This book is beautiful and sad, but super hopeful as well. Maggie learning to manage herself is difficult to read at times, but Swartz does it in a way where the reader is rooting for her. We want to see her succeed, we want to see her grow, we want her to know that grieving is a natural thing. There’s a lot of emotional impact in this story, but it’s very subtle throughout.

Give & Take is a fantastic read for those who love gentler books but want them to still have an emotional punch. This book took me awhile to read, and that’s mainly because I was so absorbed in Maggie’s world and wanting to understand her and her thought process. I think many readers will be able to identify with Maggie in some way, and her voice and charm really do make her the MVP of this very emotional read.

ARC Review – Stargazing by Jen Wang

Title: Stargazing

Author: Jen Wang

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: When Moon’s family moves in next door to Christine’s, Moon goes from unlikely friend to best friend―maybe even the perfect friend. The girls share their favorite music videos, paint their toenails when Christine’s strict parents aren’t around, and make plans to enter the school talent show together. Moon even tells Christine her deepest secret: that she sometimes has visions of celestial beings who speak to her from the stars. Who reassure her that earth isn’t where she really belongs.

But when they’re least expecting it, catastrophe strikes. After relying on Moon for everything, can Christine find it in herself to be the friend Moon needs?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Jen Wang does no wrong in my eyes. I’ve loved every single graphic novel she has put out and her art style and stories are always engaging. Stargazing is an amazing story about friendship, and it packs a surprise gut punch that the reader won’t see coming.

Christine has grown up with strict parents and a lack of fun in her life — that was until Moon and her family become her next door neighbors. Moon is a Buddhist, she is a vegetarian, she’s tough, and assertive. She’s everything Christine isn’t, and yet they create a very unlikely friendship. This book looks at how friendships are formed, even in the strangest of circumstances and how being different gives us strength. Both girls are characters I think readers will be able to relate to, and I feel like they will offering dueling perspectives for those trying to understand what it means to be unique.

As always, Wang’s artwork is vibrant and gorgeous, with such beautifully fleshed out characters. I loved both Christine and Moon and I found I could relate to them even if I’m much older than the characters in the story. Seriously, though, the plot twist in this book — it killed me! I loved it and was so surprised by it as well. Stargazing is an amazing edition to anyone’s graphic novel collection, as this heartfelt book packs an emotional and memorable gut punch that will remind readers how powerful friendship and empathy can be.

ARC Review – Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden

Title: Tillie Walden

Author:  Are You Listening?

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Bea is on the run. And then, she runs into Lou.

This chance encounter sends them on a journey through West Texas, where strange things follow them wherever they go. The landscape morphs into an unsettling world, a mysterious cat joins them, and they are haunted by a group of threatening men. To stay safe, Bea and Lou must trust each other as they are driven to confront buried truths. The two women share their stories of loss and heartbreak—and a startling revelation about sexual assault—culminating in an exquisite example of human connection.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Once again, Tillie Walden blows me away with her storytelling. In Are You Listening? the narrative focuses on Bea and Lou, two young women on the run from their pasts. Through a chanced meeting, the pair go on a road trip through West Texas, driving through blizzards and buried secrets. There is also the desire to win the affection of a white fluffy cat.

If there is one thing I love about Tillie Walden’s books, it’s that they wear their emotions on their sleeves. Her characters are often uncomfortable and raw, often seeking redemption. Bea and Lou’s relationship grows throughout the story as the two confess their secrets to one another, and I love that they are accepting of each other’s flaws and supportive when necessary. Bea’s reveal is heartbreaking and left me with so much anger, while Lou’s story is just so sad and full of discomfort. I felt emotionally connected to both girls throughout the story, and I think Walden continues to do a great job of providing characters that readers can relate to on various levels.

I will say the book can be a bit confusing at times, and the ending is a bit lacking. I do think, however, that given this isn’t plot-driven story that a lot of what Walden does here, as abstract as it is, will work for readers who want a more character-specific story. I cannot wait to see what Tillie Walden publishers next, because I continue with each new book to be very impressed.