Tag Archives: contemporary

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.

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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.

ARC Review – Some Places More Than Others by Renée Watson

Title: Some Places More Than Others

Author: Renée Watson

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: All Amara wants is to visit her father’s family in Harlem. Her wish comes true when her dad decides to bring her along on a business trip. She can’t wait to finally meet her extended family and stay in the brownstone where her dad grew up. Plus, she wants to visit every landmark from the Apollo to Langston Hughes’s home.

But her family, and even the city, is not quite what Amara thought. Her dad doesn’t speak to her grandpa, and the crowded streets can be suffocating as well as inspiring. But as she learns more and more about Harlem—and her father’s history—Amara realizes how, in some ways more than others, she can connect with this other home and family.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I love getting a new Renee Watson book. There is something about her characters that I am always drawn to, and Amara in Some Places More Than Others is no exception. This story follows Amara’s journey to New York City, to spend time with family members whom she is unfamiliar with. This story looks at family dynamics, how we can be both so close and yet so far away from those we care about, and what it means to be apart of something bigger than yourself.

Grandpa Earl was probably my favourite character in this story. I liked his charisma and his desire to help Amara see the best parts of herself. I love how Amara has to learn about the complicated relationship between her grandfather and father, and how she has a desire to get them to reconcile. It’s interesting because it’s not like they hate each other, but Amara recognizes differences in both of them that it’s troubling. There’s also a lot of poetry sprinkled into this book and how the power of words can give someone unfounded strength.

Some Places More Than Others is a quick read, but a powerful one. I appreciate Watson’s deeper look into the complications of family and how she connects it with the crowdedness and discomfort that New York City can provide to newcomers. I think Amara’s story is one that will definitely resonate with a lot of younger readers.

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.

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.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Watch Us Rise by Renée Watson & Ellen Hagan

Title: Watch Us Rise

Author: Renée Watson & Ellen Hagan

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Jasmine and Chelsea are sick of the way women are treated even at their progressive NYC high school, so they decide to start a Women’s Rights Club. They post everything online—poems, essays, videos of Chelsea performing her poetry, and Jasmine’s response to the racial macroaggressions she experiences—and soon they go viral. But with such positive support, the club is also targeted by online trolls. When things escalate, the principal shuts the club down. Jasmine and Chelsea will risk everything for their voices—and those of other young women—to be heard.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

The premise of Watch Us Rise had me curious. I love books that focus on activism, and I appreciate discussions on larger topics such as body shaming, LGBTQIA+ issues, and what it means to be a woman of in our modern world. Watson and Hagan’s novel explores all these topics and more in a fresh take on school activism and how students deserve to take stands when necessary.

I appreciate all the messages that are woven into this story, though I will say it’s a lot and at times I felt the book was a bit unfocused. I really liked the friendship between Jasmine and Chelsea, and I loved how they both lifted each other up, while also using their platform to try and empower women and make them see that they are valuable. That they matter. I also appreciate that the book tries to be inclusive as well, as a lot of the commentary focuses on what can be done now and how we should want to help others.

Even with what I’ve written above, I think having so much jammed into this book is what made me “like it” but not be “in love” with it. I wanted to lovelovelove this given I have adored every book I’ve read by Renee Watson. I think the writing is good, but for a book about activism, I didn’t find myself cheering as much as I wanted to, or highlighting important phrases. I think a lot of young adult readers will enjoy this book and will gain a lot of interesting and inspiring knowledge. I think my issue came from moments of disconnect, mainly from the poetry sections, which I found to be a bit hit-or-miss.

Watch Us Rise is a great introduction for young adults who want to learn about activism. I do wish this book focused more on Jasmine, as I thought her story by far was much stronger than Chelsea’s, but I appreciate Watson and Hagan’s efforts to show two different girls going through both different and similar challenges. There’s definitely some value in this book that I think readers will definitely connect with, and that makes it worth recommending. If you are looking for a fictional book that is much deeper in terms of understanding feminism, this one might not be what you’re looking for.