Tag Archives: family

Late to the Party ARC Review – The Other Half of Happy by Rebecca Balcárcel

Title: The Other Half of Happy

Author: Rebecca Balcárcel

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Quijana is a girl in pieces. One-half Guatemalan, one-half American: When Quijana’s Guatemalan cousins move to town, her dad seems ashamed that she doesn’t know more about her family’s heritage. One-half crush, one-half buddy: When Quijana meets Zuri and Jayden, she knows she’s found true friends. But she can’t help the growing feelings she has for Jayden. One-half kid, one-half grown-up: Quijana spends her nights Skyping with her ailing grandma and trying to figure out what’s going on with her increasingly hard-to-reach brother. In the course of this immersive and beautifully written novel, Quijana must figure out which parts of herself are most important, and which pieces come together to make her whole. This lyrical debut from Rebecca Balcárcel is a heartfelt poetic portrayal of a girl growing up, fitting in, and learning what it means to belong.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I really enjoyed The Other Half of Happy! It was my first time reading a story with a Guatemalan protagonist. Quijiana is a wonderful heroine to follow — she cannot speak Spanish, she doesn’t know how to play guitar, and she spends a lot of the novel fighting her family’s traditions.

This book tells the story of someone who is clearly Americanized but learning how to preserve her family’s culture. When the novel is about Quijana’s family, her interactions with her grandmother or the fights with her father, this book is fabulous and raw. Some of my favourite moments in particular, were any cases where Quijana would text her grandmother for advice or when she was feeling down. It was so pure and sweet! I also love the scenes with Quijana’s father, mainly because I feel for him — he wants to share his family’s heritage and get Quijana to appreciate his roots but he struggles to communicate these feelings to her and so they clash. The way in which family is portrayed in The Other Half of Happyis what makes this story feel so special.

The other half of the novel regarding Quijana’s school life and her crush… I admit, I didn’t dig those parts as much. The parts of the story regarding her crush didn’t add anything special to the story for me, but perhaps for another reader I could see it working for them. I just found those parts of the story to meander and not add anything special to the overarching theme, which was family and cultural identity. I wish I loved that part as much of the rest of the book, but unfortunately it didn’t work for me.

Do I still recommend The Other Half of Happy? Absolutely! I feel like many younger readers will definitely find the story engaging, and I think Quijana is a character many readers will be able to relate to. This is a fantastic story about growing up, accepting parts of your roots, and coming to terms with cultural differences. This is a great book for readers who love a good family-centered narrative.

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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.

ARC Review – American Panda by Gloria Chao

Title: American Panda

Author: Gloria Chao

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth–that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?

Huge thank you to Simon Teen Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

American Panda has a misleading cover. From first glance, it seems like this book would be a cute, fluffy read — and it is in parts. This book also at times takes a bit of a darker tone, which is rather unexpected. Even with that tonal shift at times, I happily want to recommend this book.

This book follows the story of Mei, a Taiwanese-American girl who has very strict parents. Her family wants her to be a doctor, marry someone who is Taiwanese and also aspiring to a similar career. Under no circumstances is Mei allowed to date someone who is not Taiwanese or approved by her parents. In fact, her parents already have Mei’s life plotted out for her.

This was such a difficult read for me at times as I found myself sympathizing with Mei a lot. I recognize that I am not Asian and have never had this experience, but I was a former ESL teacher whose main clientele were all Asian, and on numerous occasions I would have conversations with my students about their home lives and parent’s expectations. It broke my heart a lot of the time given many of the teens I dealt with just wanted to be understood by their parents, and you definitely see that here with Mei. She wants her parents approval, but she still also wants to be her own individual with her own choices being made. There is a huge tug-and-pull between following traditions and choosing your path in this story, and it makes for an interesting story, if one I’ve heard many times before.

Some of my favourite parts of this book were Mei’s interactions with her disowned brother, Xing. Xing and Mei’s re-connection is one of the strongest parts of this story as it gives you a lot of insight into just how important certain traditions to older generations. Being Italian, I oddly can understand this given many Italian parents only want their children to marry other Italians. I really just loved how close the siblings became given the circumstances involving Xing’s becoming disgraced.

One area where this book didn’t quite work for me was some of the humour. I found it to be pretty hit-or-miss, and oddly found myself loving the book more when it was about the family relationships and less about Mei’s interest in Darren (though I’ll admit, they were very cute!). I really felt for Mei’s mother in the story, regardless of how overbearing she was.

American Panda is a story I’ve read before, but one I still very much enjoyed. I found Mei’s perspective very informative and her feelings were completely worn on her sleeve. She’s a girl I definitely found myself connecting with even though our circumstances are so different. Don’t let this fluffy, cheerful cover fool you — Gloria Chao doesn’t shy away from punching the reader in the feelings.

ARC Review – Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein by Jennifer Roy & Ali Fadhil

Title: Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein

Author: Jennifer Roy & Ali Fadhil

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: At the start of 1991, eleven-year-old Ali Fadhil was consumed by his love for soccer, video games, and American television shows. Then, on January 17, Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein went to war with thirty-four nations lead by the United States.

Over the next forty-three days, Ali and his family survived bombings, food shortages, and constant fear. Ali and his brothers played soccer on the abandoned streets of their Basra neighborhood, wondering when or if their medic father would return from the war front. Cinematic, accessible, and timely, this is the story of one ordinary kid’s view of life during war.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I was intrigued by Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein when I heard about it during Raincoast’s Fall #TeensReadFeed preview. It’s a story about living through bombings, yet still trying to live life despite constant fears. This book takes place during 1991 when Saddam Hussein goes to war with the United States. Ali Fadhil, an eleven year old boy, who just wants a normal life of loving soccer, video games and American television.

This was an interesting read since it’s grounded in historical events. Ali is such a sweet main character who seeks normalcy with his friends and family. His siblings Ahmed, Shirzad and Shireen are also such wonderful characters. You learn so much about their family life and how as children they have to cope with a war that is surrounding them. I felt so many feelings read this book, from sadness to laughter. There’s a lot of emotion in this very short read and a lot of Ali’s feelings truly pack a punch.

Overall, I really enjoyed Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein. It’s a very compelling read, and the author’s note is really intriguing given Ali’s life situation and who he becomes much later in life. I wish there had been a bit more characterization to all the other characters as they did feel a touch one note, but since this book is more about an event and a family’s connection to it, I can be forgiving. This is a great story and an absorbing read.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life by Shelley Tougas

Title: Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life

Author: Shelley Tougas

Rating: ★★★

Synopsis: A life on the prairie is not all it’s cracked up to be in this middle-grade novel where one girl’s mom takes her love of the Little House series just a bit too far. Charlotte’s mom has just moved the family across the country to live in Walnut Grove, “childhood home of pioneer author Laura Ingalls Wilder.” Mom’s idea is that the spirit of Laura Ingalls will help her write a bestselling book. But Charlotte knows better: Walnut Grove is just another town where Mom can avoid responsibility. And this place is worse than everywhere else the family has lived—it’s freezing in the winter, it’s small with nothing to do, and the people talk about Laura Ingalls all the time. Charlotte’s convinced her family will not be able to make a life on the prairie—until the spirit of Laura Ingalls starts getting to her, too.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I admit, I am not a huge Little House on the Prairie fan. It’s not something I grew up around so I will say I did have a bit of a difficult time with this one. While the story is an adorable tale of a mom moving her kids to the birth place of Laura Ingalls in an attempt to write her masterpiece of a novel, there were a few things that didn’t work for me on this one.

On one hand, this is a story about friendship and growing up, but I won’t lie and say that Charlotte is a likable character. In this regard, I think Tougas does a good idea of showing how easily judgmental children can be. These issues of friendship in particular are handled well and I feel like the children in this story were far better developed than the adult characters. It was great to watch Charlotte develop friendships with Bao and Julia, and I appreciated that their discomfort of each other went both ways.

The adults in this book, however, are the actual problem. They are very flat or lacking in any characterization. Charlotte’s mother in particular was a bit of a caricature as opposed to a character, as her only defining characteristic is her positive attitude. Whenever Charlotte deals with her in the story, those bits were sometimes difficult to shallow because I felt like Charlotte’s mother forcing her positive attitude may not have been what was best for her children. There’s also her obsession with Laura Ingalls, which I admit, I didn’t understand or really care for. I think if I had been a fan of Little Housethis book likely would have appealed more to me.

With all this said, I do think Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life is a delightful read for the most part. There’s moments of well-timed humor and I think Charlotte is a heroine that many kids will be able to relate to whether they like her or not. I am still glad I read this book and gave it a chance, and I’m curious as to what Shelley Tougas has in store for middle grade audiences in the future.

 

The Bonaventure Adventures by by Rachelle Delaney (Review and Q&A)

I love Rachelle Delaney’s The Metro Dogs of Moscow series. They were some of the cutest, most perfect middle grade reads, and they are books I always recommend when I am working with younger readers at the library. They are just plain fun! Rachelle’s latest book is a departure from that series, but it is equally amazing! Seriously, I cannot wait for more people to get their hands on The Bonaventure Adventures.

Penguin Canada approached me in regards to sharing both a review and a Q&A with Rachelle for you all. I hope you all enjoy my review, as well as the intriguing responses Rachelle has shared in regards to my questions. Make sure to check out The Bonaventure Adventures when it releases today, May 2nd!


Title: The Bonaventure Adventures

Author: Rachelle Delaney

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Sebastian Konstantinov comes from a long line of talented circus performers. Somehow, however, he has not inherited any of their acrobatic skill: he has no balance, he’s afraid of heights, he can’t even turn a somersault. But there’s one thing he does know: his father’s circus, which travels through Eastern Europe, is out of date and is fast running out of money.

Seb has a solution, though: if he can somehow get into the Bonaventure Circus School in Montreal, Canada, he might be able to learn something valuable to help his father. Seb secretly writes to the Directrice (an old friend of his father’s) and is accepted into the school. All he has to do is convince his father to send him away — oh, and keep his lack of talent a secret from all his teachers and classmates. Fortunately for him, he befriends two other students, who also don’t seem to quite fit in.

Seb is not the only one with secrets, it turns out. The school is literally crumbling beneath the feet of its students, and the directrice may be counting on Seb’s “talent” to save the day. Can he and his new friends figure out what’s really going on in the school that bills itself as the World’s Best Circus School?

Huge thank you to Penguin Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I loved Rachelle Delaney’s Metro Dogs of Moscow series. They were fun, quirky little adventures that warmed the heart and offered tons of excitement. Her latest effort The Bonaventure Adventures offers a similar feel for those familiar with her work, but I will say that this book is easily her most magical.

Sebastian has grown up in Europe as part of his father’s travelling circus. Everyone who works for the circus is a part of his family and when the circus starts to fall on hard times, Seb decides to find a means to keep the circus in business. One day his father is sent a letter from the Benventure Circus School, and Seb decides that even with his lack of skill, this might be the only way to save his father’s business and the only family he has ever know.

Seb is a wonderful protagonist. I love that given the setting for this novel is a circus school and our hero is hapless when it comes to performance. It makes for a great coming of age story! And Seb is lovable, and he his a strong desire to protect his family, his father’s business, and he wants to become someone worthy of of both those things. Seb is sweet, but determined, and I loved reading about him. I found I could relate to a lot of his desires. I also want to point out that his supporting cast in Sylvain, Frankie and Banjo were just utter perfection. They were hilarious, supportive, and I loved how they compliment both Seb and the story.

And truthfully, I simply loved this story. There wasn’t any point where I wasn’t enjoying myself. While I questioned the existence of Seb’s mother on more than one occasion, I got the sense that this was more about Seb’s desire to become someone better, someone worthy of himself and others. This book is so genuine, it’s funny, it’s quirky, it offers so much for every kind of reader. If you haven’t read her previous books, check them out. I really cannot wait for readers to get their hands on The Bonaventure Adventure, because you’re in for a magical treat of a story.


Q&A With Rachelle Delaney!

  1. Where did the inspiration for the The Bonaventure Adventures come from?

The idea came to me about five years ago, when I was teaching creative writing to some kids enrolled in circus arts classes. It struck me as such an interesting way to study art, sport, and performance at once, and so I started researching circus school as a potential setting for a novel. Through my research, I discovered that Montreal is not only home to a national circus school for young performers but also to a unique circus arts scene. So I spent some time there and quickly became enamoured with both the city and the circus world.

  1. I’ve been told that for research purposes you took some circus lessons. How did that help with the shaping of this novel?

I did indeed take some circus classes, which is kind of hilarious because I’m terribly uncoordinated and not at all acrobatic. But I wanted to know what it felt like to attempt all these amazing skills, like juggling and trapeze and aerial silks. Answer: it’s really, really hard. And painful! The day after my aerials class always involved a lot of whimpering. But that was helpful, because my main character, Sebastian, is a hopeless beginner with very few skills. So I was able to put myself in his place and understand what he might feel like.

I also mustered up the courage to take a parkour workshop, since one of my other main characters, Frankie, is a parkour expert (and also I have this little-known, inexplicable love of ridiculous parkour movies). That ranks up there with the most humbling days of my life. I can’t say I recommend taking up scaling walls in your mid-thirties.

  1. Speaking of your circus lessons, what was your favourite thing you learned?

Once I’d developed some strength, I came to love the aerial hoop. I only ever learned the most basic tricks (and my minor fear of heights will prevent me from ever progressing), but it felt amazing to find myself able to do them. Watching a professional performance never fails to blow my mind. If you haven’t ever seen one, get thee to YouTube.

  1. Sebastian is a young boy with no talent for the circus, but has a ton of heart when it comes to keeping his family together. Do you think younger readers will be able to identify with Sebastian?

I hope so! Seb adores the circus, but he’s had to come to terms with the fact that he’s not cut out to be a performer, at least not in the traditional sense. I think a lot of readers, young and old, have had the experience of realizing that they’ll never be an expert at something they love, whether that’s playing hockey or violin or juggling knives. And yes, I think Seb’s desire to keep the Konstantinov Family Circus together also makes him relatable. When we’re deeply ingrained in a family or community that’s in danger of falling apart, I think a lot of us are compelled to fight for it.

  1. One thing I noticed is that Sebastian’s mother is never really mentioned or revealed. What’s the story there?

She is a mystery! Seb’s mother left the Konstantinov Family Circus when he was very small, and Seb has given up trying to find out why, since his father always offers a different story. His father, as you know, is a giant narcissist, but inside he harbours a lot of guilt about her leaving. It’s easier for him to make up stories (like the one about her taking off to fulfil her dream of going to dental school) than admit that he and his travelling circus lifestyle were a big part of the problem. Seb’s mother decided that the caravan lifestyle wasn’t for her. I picture her living a quiet life someplace, maybe in a little flat in Paris or Barcelona.

  1. I love novels that take place in a boarding school. Why have this novel take place in a boarding school, and more specifically what prompted you to select Montreal as the location for The Bonaventure Adventures?

It was the idea of a boarding school for future circus stars that drew me in. I figured you’d have the usual boarding school antics, but with acrobatics and juggling pins! It’s like my dream. And I set the story in Montreal because it’s such a unique city culturally, and like no place else in North America in terms of its vibrant circus scene.

  1. Sylvian loves his candy, and in fact has candy for breakfast. I will admit that I like cookies for breakfast once in a blue moon. Have you ever had candy for breakfast?

I think the question should be: how often in any given week do you eat chocolate for breakfast? Answer: way more often than I should probably admit to.


Huge thank you to Penguin Canada and Rachelle Delaney for their time in answering my questions and sharing this wonderful book with me. Remember that you can pick your copy up at your favourite local bookstore!

ARC Review – Speed of Life, by Carol Weston

Title: Speed of Life

Author: Carol Weston

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Sofia wonders if 14 might be the worst possible age to lose your mom. Talking with her dad about puberty and s-e-x is super-awkward (even though he is a gynecologist). And when she wants to talk about her mom, her friends don’t know what to say and her dad gets sad.

When Sofia discovers Dear Kate, an advice columnist from Fifteen magazine, she’s grateful to have someone to confide in about everything from crushes to mourning—someone who is completely, wonderfully anonymous. It feels ideal—until Sofia’s dad introduces her to his new girlfriend, Katherine Baird, a.k.a., Dear Kate…

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

If I am being honest, I wasn’t prepared for Speed of Life. Having read and adored Carol Weston’s Ava and Pip series, Speed of Life feels vastly different in a lot of ways. I felt a lot for the heroine, Sofia, who spends a lot of this novel trying to cope with the loss of her mother and the fact that her father is dating someone new.

A lot of Sofia’s feelings regarding the loss of her mother really resonated with me. I lost my mother last April and I admit, I’m still feeling a lot of grief and sadness. When Sofia talks about her smell, her clothes, anything reminiscent of her, I admit, it left me feeling really emotional. A lot of her feelings, people telling her how to deal with her grief, she’s super justified in her feelings. While I wouldn’t be brave enough to confide in someone such as “Dear Kate,” I thought this was an interesting way to tell the first half of Sofia’s story, especially given that Kate becomes the love interest.

There’s good characters in this series, even if the writing has some awkward moments — preferably at the beginning when reader’s are introduced to Kiki, Sofia’s bestie and “Dear Kate.” The story does fall on the much younger spectrum of YA — it’s not a bad thing, but I admit given the amount of YA I read, this threw me off a bit at first (the beginning reads so much closer to a middle grade novel to me). However, I think Weston dos do a great job of showing the reader a story where transition during a period of grief is challenging, even terrifying at times.

I think the support characters in this story are really well done. Kiki kind of urked me at first, but as the story went on she started to really grow on me. Same with Alexa and Kate. Weston’s characters are flawed in a great way — they aren’t likable at first but they are constantly trying to redeem themselves. Even Sofia’s dad, who you can tell is constantly trying to stay strong for his daughter. There is so much character growth in this story, and I love the way the book tries to acknowledge to the reader that change isn’t always a bad thing. It can be scary, but you never know what may be in store for you.

Speed of Life is a great read and one that offers a lot of depth to its readers. There’s great characters with a lot of heart and humour. Sofia is someone who becomes so strong and thoughtful throughout the course of the story. I really enjoyed my time with this book, and definitely would recommend it to younger YA readers.