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Late to the Party ARC Review – Freeing Finch by Ginny Rorby

Title: Freeing Finch

Author: Ginny Rorby

Rating: ★★ 1/2

Synopsis: When her father leaves and her mother passes away soon afterward, Finch can’t help feeling abandoned. Now she’s stuck living with her stepfather and his new wife. They’re mostly nice, but they don’t believe the one true thing Finch knows about herself: that she’s a girl, even though she was born in a boy’s body.

Thankfully, she has Maddy, a neighbor and animal rescuer who accepts her for who she is. Finch helps Maddy care for a menagerie of lost and lonely creatures, including a scared, stray dog who needs a family and home as much as she does. As she earns the dog’s trust, Finch realizes she must also learn to trust the people in her life–even if they are the last people she expected to love her and help her to be true to herself. 

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Freeing Finch is an important story about a young trans-girl who has lost her mother, is forced to live with her step-father, and who is learning to come into her own. It’s the story of unlikely friendships, how to cope with being different, and there’s a lot of uncomfortable moments from bullying, to trans-shaming, to just uncomfortable dialogue.

I want to stress this is not a bad book, but it is a book that is written with very specific intentions. It concerns me that Finch is forced to stay with an abusive parent (and then is weirdly just okay with him later on), and there’s just a lot of disturbing instances in this story that I wondered a bit about. The bits with Finch and her dog were wonderful and I wanted to cry, but her interactions with other people outside of her neighbor Maddy were difficult to read about. There is a lot of misgendering in this story, and there’s so much tragedy in this story to the point where it felt like torture and it was too much at times. I think given the author was not writing from experience, there may have been instances where she missed the mark on the subjects she was trying to display in the story.

This was a quick read, regardless of my complaints. I read it in two sittings and there was moments that I did genuinely enjoy, mainly which were the interactions with Maddie and her step-mother actually admitting her failures of misgendering and standing up for Finch in the story. I just wish this story hadn’t entirely been all about abusing Finch as a character, because there is so little hope in this story, and for middle grade readers — we need some hope!

Late to the Party ARC Review – Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey by Magdalena & Nathaniel Newman

Title: Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey

Author: Magdalena & Nathaniel Newman

Rating: ★★★

Synopsis: Who is to say what this word means? For Magda Newman, it was a goal. She wanted her son Nathaniel to be able to play on the playground, swim at the beach, enjoy the moments his friends took for granted. But Nathaniel’s severe Treacher Collins syndrome–a craniofacial condition–meant that other concerns came first. Could he eat without the aid of a gastrointestinal tube? Could he hear? Would he ever be able to breathe effortlessly? But Nathaniel looks at “normal” from a completely different perspective.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Normal is a memoir by a boy who has Treacher Collins syndrom, a craniofacial condition that is very unique. Written from the dual perspective of Nathaniel and Magda Newman, this book follows Nathaniel’s life growing up with TC and being the inspiration for R.J Palacio’s “Auggie” in her famous book Wonder!

This was a fast and compulsive read. What I enjoyed about this book was the honest and difficultly that comes with talking about such a subject matter, and I loved particularly Nathaniel’s parts given he is very forthcoming about how he was treated by other kids, how he handles his condition, and ultimately how Wonder helped a generation of kids learn to accept people born with unique differences. There’s a lot of good conversation starters for kids in this book, and I think there’s a lot of value in learning about how someone survives given unique circumstances. This family clearly has had hardship, but they also show amazing resilience as well.

I think for younger readers who are curious about the inspiration for Wonder will definitely find some enjoyment here. I don’t know how much of a book there would have been given the importance of Wonder in this family’s life, but I think Normal is a good and accessible memoir for younger readers, and I think Nathaniel’s struggles and triumph’s will definitely resonate for many people.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Taylor Before and After by Jennie Englund

Title: Taylor Before and After

Author: Jennie Englund

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Before, Taylor Harper is finally popular, sitting with the cool kids at lunch, and maybe, just maybe, getting invited to the biggest, most exclusive party of the year.

After, no one talks to her.

Before, she’s friends with Brielle Branson, the coolest girl in school.

After, Brielle has become a bully, and Taylor’s her favorite target.

Before, home isn’t perfect, but at least her family is together.

After, Mom won’t get out of bed, Dad won’t stop yelling, and Eli…

Eli’s gone.

Through everything, Taylor has her notebook, a diary of the year that one fatal accident tears her life apart. In entries alternating between the first and second semester of her eighth-grade year, she navigates joy and grief, gain and loss, hope and depression.

How can Taylor pick up the pieces of what used to be her social life? How can her house ever feel like home again after everything that’s happened? And how can she move forward if she can’t stop looking back?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Ho boy, this book. For a book that is considered middle grade, this actually feels like it should have been categorized in young adult. I want to stress that this book goes over a lot of difficult subject matters, and I am not saying a middle grader can’t comprehend them, but what I am saying is just be aware that this is a wonderful but difficult book with some hard conversations attached.

Taylor Before and After is told in a unique “before” and “after” style, alternating between two timelines. It’s a style that even with the journal entries will take a bit of getting used to. This is a story of friendships going wrong, family relationships crumbling at the seams, and one girl’s attempt to comprehend all of it as she compares her past to her present. Taylor is difficult, she’ not the most open of protagonists, and often the journal entries require a bit of detective work to get the whole story of why she is friendless or why her brother is missing. It’s done very well, might I add, and Taylor is a character you definitely can empathize with.

I want to add this book is very hopeful, and the style is inviting to say the least. I found myself constantly wanting to know what was happening between the timelines and piece together the large part of this story. It’s a bit of a mystery, which I appreciate, but it’s also a story that rings true I think for a lot of kids who may be coping with too much happening at once and are struggling to articulate it. Taylor Before and After is a very rewarding read, and one I’ll happily recommend to those who love difficult stories with complex kids at the heart of it.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Don’t Read the Comments by Eric Smith

Title: Don’t Read the Comments

Author: Eric Smith

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Divya Sharma is a queen. Or she is when she’s playing Reclaim the Sun, the year’s hottest online game. Divya—better known as popular streaming gamer D1V—regularly leads her #AngstArmada on quests through the game’s vast and gorgeous virtual universe. But for Divya, this is more than just a game. Out in the real world, she’s trading her rising-star status for sponsorships to help her struggling single mom pay the rent.

Gaming is basically Aaron Jericho’s entire life. Much to his mother’s frustration, Aaron has zero interest in becoming a doctor like her, and spends his free time writing games for a local developer. At least he can escape into Reclaim the Sun—and with a trillion worlds to explore, disappearing should be easy. But to his surprise, he somehow ends up on the same remote planet as celebrity gamer D1V.

At home, Divya and Aaron grapple with their problems alone, but in the game, they have each other to face infinite new worlds…and the growing legion of trolls populating them. Soon the virtual harassment seeps into reality when a group called the Vox Populi begin launching real-world doxxing campaigns, threatening Aaron’s dreams and Divya’s actual life. The online trolls think they can drive her out of the game, but everything and everyone Divya cares about is on the line…

And she isn’t going down without a fight.

Huge thank you to the Dewey Divas for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I loved Don’t Read the Comments. As a person who has worked on and off in the gaming industry for over ten years, these are words you often have to remind yourself of, especially if you’re a woman with an opinion. Eric Smith’s book does a great job tackling issues women in particular often face such as harassment, doxing, and stalking, all which appear in this novel.

We follow two protagonists in this story: Divya, a popular streamer with a huge fanbase who has been receiving threatening messages about being in the wrong “space.” Then we have Aaron, a young man who wants to break into the industry by writing the next great RPG. Aaron starts to take an interest in Div when he realizes that she loves a lot of the same games he does, and soon he gets drawn into the drama of the Vox Popli, who are out to make Div and her fans disappear from the game’s sphere.

This novel is delightful! It does so much right in terms of understanding games and gaming culture, while also the pitfalls faced by women who are breaking into the hobby. Div receives so many threats, she and her friends are stalked, but Div is a great heroine for this story because she is one that builds upwards. She learns from her mistakes and constantly is willing to fight back for those she loves and cares about. Aaron is adorable, sensitive and kind, but he has to learn the hard way about being a knight-in-shining armor, in a female space where it’s not acceptable. Aaron befriends Div and her friends, and he starts to learn a lot about himself and what he wants from his life, versus what his parents want, which is for him to go into the medical field.

This book is chock with great writing, and even better banter. All the characters really jump off the page and there’s something truly fun about feeling gaming culture through the lens of someone else. My only complaint with this book is that Smith pieces a lot of very old gaming references, which I don’t know how many teens of today might necessarily know. Like I adored Remember Me, but it’s now a fifteen year old game that was met with mediocre reviews. Still, I applaud Smith for referencing games he’s clearly very passionate about, and who knows, maybe people will check some of those older gems out after reading this book!

Don’t Read the Comments is a love-letter to gamers and gamer culture, while also being a fun contemporary story about friendship. Part of me hopes that Smith revisits these characters at some point, because I’d love to have more stories featuring them!

Late to the Party ARC Review – Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore

Title: Blanca & Roja

Author: Anna-Marie McLemore

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters; they’re also rivals, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl, and trap the other in the body of a swan.

But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them. Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Can I just say how much I love Anna-Marie McLemore’s books? They are such a whirlwind of magic, curiosity, and discomfort. At least, that is definitely what reading Blanca & Roja was like. This story is a dark fairy tale about two sisters, swans, and familial expectations. There are four protagonists, each who get wrapped up into this weird, wild story about sisters, and how they all must face what demons posses them in order to feel a sense of freedom.

I read this book in a day as I was trapped in my car while waiting for my sick dog to be checked out at the vet. I was completely engrossed in the story from the first page, and totally loved the twists and turns of who the “liar” was between Blanca and Roja. In the end, I was more a Roja fan in that her anger and frustrations felt so real and something I could in a way, identify with. There is an amazing discussion in this book about being non-binary and gender-fluid, and they are done in a way that for those who are unfamiliar can understand it well.

Anna-Marie McLemore is one of those writers where they have an amazing grasp of the written language. Their books are beautifully written and they truly transport readers into worlds that are not familiar, but feel familiar, which is always a challenge when writing magical realism. I am sad it took me so long to finally read this book, and I cannot wait to read the other two books I have by them that are sitting on my shelf. If you want something dark, twisted, that will keep you guessing, then read Blanca & Roja as it will not disappoint.

 

Late to the Party ARC Review – A Bird on Water Street by Elizabeth O Dulemba

Title: A Bird on Water Street

Author: Elizabeth O Dulemba

Rating: ★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Living in Coppertown is like living on the moon. Everything is bare-there are no trees, no birds, no signs of nature at all. And while Jack loves his town, he hates the dangerous mines that have ruined the land with years of pollution. When the miners go on strike and the mines are forced to close, Jack’s life-long wish comes true: the land has the chance to heal.

But not everyone in town is happy about the change. Without the mines, Jack’s dad is out of work and the family might have to leave Coppertown. Just when new life begins to creep back into town, Jack might lose his friends, his home, and everything he’s ever known.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

A Bird on Water Street was a quick read, but that might be all it has going for it. I was interested in reading it because it’s a book about unions, lack of equality, and has a strong environmental theme running through it.

Here’s the thing: the bits about climate change and the political elements of this book were great, I will not take that away from the book. However, the writing style is flat, and while I read this book quickly, I wasn’t in love with or interested in a lot of what was happening. Jack, the protagonist in this story learns so much so quickly, yet he doesn’t feel like a real kid in the story for me. When he feels like a kid in the story, it’s very wooden and he lacks a lot of personality. If I am being honest, I barely remember Jack having much of a personality in this story.

I feel bad being harsh regarding A Bird on Water Street, but it’s one of those middle grade books that for me is one that teacher’s and schools will love, but I don’t actually know how many middle grade kids would actually pick this book up. I think it has a lot of valuable messages, but don’t come to this book looking for a character you can connect with, because Jack is simply not that.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Under the Broken Sky by Mariko Nagai

Title: Under a Broken Sky

Author: Mariko Nagai

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Natsu and her family live a quiet farm life in Manchuria, near the border of the Soviet Union. But the life they’ve known begins to unravel when her father is recruited to the Japanese army, and Natsu and her little sister, Asa, are left orphaned and destitute.

In a desperate move to keep her sister alive, Natsu sells Asa to a Russian family following the 1945 Soviet occupation. The journey to redemption for Natsu’s broken family is rife with struggles, but Natsu is tenacious and will stop at nothing to get her little sister back.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

While I am not a huge lover of historical fiction, Under the Broken Sky caught my eye because it’s a book rooted in Japanese history. More specifically, the 1945 Soviet occupation, which ended up pushing so many Japanese family apart for a variety of reasons, none of them good.

Under the Broken Sky is a story written in verse, as it looks as twelve-year-old Natsu, who has lived with her family near the Manchurian/Soviet border for her entire life. When the Russian began to push into Manchuria, Natsu and her sister Asa are forced to flee, and become orphaned in the process. Even worse is in this period upon which they are destitute, Natsu is forced to sell her sister Asa to a Russian Family in order to ensure her survival.

This story is heartbreaking from start to finish. It’s a difficult tale of losing everything and having to cope with so much happening at a young age. Natsu’s story is horrific, and you feel for both the destruction that she witnesses, and the sacrifices she must make being only twelve-years-old. While I wouldn’t recommend this book to younger middle grade readers, I feel confident that older readers will enjoy the story. It’s a challenging story to stomach at times, but it’s also a very valuable one to say the least.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Wayward Son

Author: Rainbow Rowell

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: The story is supposed to be over.

Simon Snow did everything he was supposed to do. He beat the villain. He won the war. He even fell in love. Now comes the good part, right? Now comes the happily ever after…

So why can’t Simon Snow get off the couch?

What he needs, according to his best friend, is a change of scenery. He just needs to see himself in a new light…

That’s how Simon and Penny and Baz end up in a vintage convertible, tearing across the American West.

They find trouble, of course. (Dragons, vampires, skunk-headed things with shotguns.) And they get lost. They get so lost, they start to wonder whether they ever knew where they were headed in the first place…

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this finished copy!

Sam’s Review:

I admit, I think I read Carry On at a wrong period in my life and since rereading it, I have a bit more appreciation for the story. I knew when I received Wayward Son, I was going to need to reread the first book because I barely remembered what happened. Wayward Son offers an entertaining road trip story, that is totally fun and fancy free.

What I liked and disliked about this book is that there are more perspectives in it. It was fun to have Penelope’s perspective, but I was sad (even with the plot points) that there wasn’t a lot for Agatha. I didn’t entirely care for a lot of the new characters, but I did adore the shenanigans throughout the story in terms of learning about America, and dealing with a vampire coven.

Wayward Sons is pure fun, but it doesn’t add a lot to this series. I still think I will read the third book when it releases, but I am hoping it will solidly finished up the flufftastic adventures of Simon and Baz. Silly Simon and Baz!

Late to the Party ARC Review – The Crossover by Kwame Alexander & Dawud Anyabwile

Title: The Crossover

Author: Kwame Alexander & Dawud Anyabwile

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: “With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . . The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. ’Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” raps twelve-year-old Josh Bell. Thanks to their dad, he and his twin brother, Jordan, are kings on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood—he’s got mad beats, too, which help him find his rhythm when it’s all on the line.

See the Bell family in a whole new light through Dawud Anyabwile’s illustrations as the brothers’ winning season unfolds, and the world as they know it begins to change.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I adored Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover a few years back. As a person who has very little interest in sports, I loved the way Alexander wove sports and family together through his beautiful poems. I loved the Bell family, I loved Josh’s narration, and there was also something about the twists and turns in Alexander’s prose that just had me completely head-over-heels.

This graphic novel version of The Crossover may even be better than the original. Having Dawud Anyabwile’s gorgeous illustrations accompany Alexander’s poetry is phenomenal. I felt like Anyabwile’s artwork really showcased the heart and soul of the Bell family’s trials and tribulations in such a way where it connected to the text perfectly. I loved the artwork, and how Josh and Jordan were designed, and I loved the attention to detail throughout.

The Crossover is still a wonderful and powerful story about family. A lot of what Alexander’s words stated in 2014, are just as true in 2019. This edition boasts amazing artwork to accompany Alexander’s beautiful words, and is a great addition to anyone’s graphic novel collection or just for anyone who loves story about family and the turbulence than comes with being a part of one.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Heroine by Mindy McGinnis

Title: Heroine

Author: Mindy McGinnis

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: When a car crash sidelines Mickey just before softball season, she has to find a way to hold on to her spot as the catcher for a team expected to make a historic tournament run. Behind the plate is the only place she’s ever felt comfortable, and the painkillers she’s been prescribed can help her get there. The pills do more than take away pain; they make her feel good.

With a new circle of friends—fellow injured athletes, others with just time to kill—Mickey finds peaceful acceptance, and people with whom words come easily, even if it is just the pills loosening her tongue. But as the pressure to be Mickey Catalan heightens, her need increases, and it becomes less about pain and more about want, something that could send her spiraling out of control.

Huge thank you to Harper Collins Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Oof. This is one of those books I knew I wasn’t going to be able to read when it came out because I knew it would hit too close to home. I admit, I have never been great with stories that focus on addiction, mainly because of my sibling’s former addiction problem. I always feel uncomfortable and touchy on the subject matter, despite also full well knowing how important the topic is. Heroine focuses on Mickey, a star player on a softball team, who ends up injured and becomes addicted to Oxycontin.

The title, Heroine, has a fantastic double meaning in this story, because not only is it about Mickey’s drug use, but it’s also about how she was the “heroine” of her softball team. There’s a lot of this book that is super hard to read, especially instances of Mickey spiraling in her need to “find the dragon,” how she loses to much of herself to her disease, and just the challenges she faces of feeling like things she just be the way they were when in actuality she destroyed who she once was. Some of the scenes in this book are graphic, and McGinnis does a great job of giving the reader a lot to think about in terms of Mickey’s choices.

I enjoyed the book, but I admit, I read it very slowly and there were times where the narrative wasn’t always holding my interest. There’s a bit of repetition in this story that I know is valuable, but I also didn’t care for. Mickey is an important character, and being inside her mind was interesting, but I didn’t always feel engaged in her inner narrative as much as I think I’d want to be.

I still think Female of the Species is still McGinnis’ best book to date, and I feel like Heroine tries to follow it, but doesn’t quite succeed. I think if you are someone who has an addiction or has dealt with someone who has/had one, there will be a lot in this story that you will be able to relate to. I appreciate that the ending has a hopeful tone, but otherwise this novel is fairly bleak and it’s definitely going to be one of those books that you’ll need to prepare your headspace for.