Tag Archives: family

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 – The Liars of Mariposa Island by Jennifer Mathieu

Title: The Liars of Mariposa Island

Author: Jennifer Mathieu

Rating: ★★★

Synopsis: Every year, summer begins when the Callahans arrive on Mariposa Island. That’s when Elena Finney gets to escape her unstable, controlling mother by babysitting for their two children. And the summer of 1986 promises to be extra special when she meets J.C., the new boy in town, whose kisses make Elena feel like she’s been transported to a new world.

Joaquin Finney can’t imagine why anyone would want to come to Mariposa Island. He just graduated from high school and dreams about going to California to find his father and escape his mother’s manipulation.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I am SO SAD right now. Jennifer Mathieu is finally one of my favourite authors, so I am super heartbroken that I didn’t love her latest, The Liars of Mariposa Island. This book is a contemporary, with a mystery wrapped in it, and it’s just… all right.

Generally, what I love about Jennifer Mathieu’s books is the writing an her characters. I always adore her heroines, but Elena and Joaquin just never spoke to me the way some of her other heroes have. This book is written in two perspectives, one that takes place in 1986, the other during the Cuban Revolution. The sections that were about Carrie, who is related to Elena and Joaquin, were my favourite bits of the book. Carrie is fleeing Cuba during the Cuban Revolution as a teen and she is trying to find freedom in America. Carrie’s story is challenging and heartbreaking, and its definitely very difficult to read about.

I do feel for Elena in this story, especially given she is trying to become a version of herself that she would feel satisfied with. There is a prickliness to her character that really suggests that she is not someone who wants people (or even the reader) to get close to her and that I think is something intriguing about this novel. Elena and Joaquin spend a lot of this book unraveling family truama and lies, though they weren’t as shocking as I was anticipating given the title of this book.

I think why this book didn’t grab me the way all of her other books did, is that it really doesn’t go anywhere and there isn’t much resolve. There doesn’t really feel like a lot of hope in this story either, which is usually a big part of a Jennifer Mathieu story. I am so torn because I do think elements of this book are wonderful, but I simply just didn’t connect to a lot of it.

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.

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.