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Late to the Party ARC Review – Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Title: Prairie Lotus

Author: Linda Sue Park

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Prairie Lotus is a book about a girl determined to fit in and realize her dreams: getting an education, becoming a dressmaker in her father’s shop, and making at least one friend. Hanna, a half-Asian girl in a small town in America’s heartland, lives in 1880. Hanna’s adjustment to her new surroundings, and the townspeople’s prejudice against Asians, is at the heart of the story.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I am not a big historical fiction fan, nor I am I a huge fan of Little House on the Prairie. What I am a fan of, is reimaginings or retellings of popular stories, which is what drew me to Linda Sue Park’s Prarie Lotus. This is the story of Hanna, a young Asian girl who dreams of getting an education during the 1880’s. Hanna must endure racism, prejudice, while also tackling what it means to have a dream that others who are privileged might not understand.

Hanna’s story is very powerful, and reading it, I felt so sad that she had to constantly deal with being labelled as different or strange. It’s heartbreaking to be a kid who constantly is being “othered” by those who choose not to educate themselves or even risk a conversation. In the Author’s Note, Linda Sue Park talks about how this novel is based off of actual experiences she faced growing up, and the frustrations of not seeing Asian representation in middle grade fiction that wasn’t racist in some way. She states that part of the reason Hanna has so much strength and courage to speak out about her situations, is because Park has stated she didn’t know how to do it when she was a kid.

I really loved this story, and Hanna’s strength really is admirable. She constantly defends herself and tries to educate others even though she shouldn’t have to. Hanna wants to show people her dressmaking skills, and she wants people to see in her little Dakota town how valuable she is as a person. Poor Hanna constantly has to justify her existence, which is so wrong! Since this is the story of new immigrants moving from their home in China where people were being murdered to America where their difference is seen as “othering.” Hanna and her family constantly show courage in this story, and they show that tenacity in a new place where they refuse to be mistreated.

Prairie Lotus is an intelligent, heartfelt story about finding strength and courage, but also dealing with issues such as racism head on. There are many difficult and powerful moments in this story, and it definitely has its place in being a very important story about loving yourself regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.

Late to the Party Arc Review – We Hunt the Flame (Sands of Arawiya #1) by Hafsah Faizal

Title: We Hunt the Flame (Sands of Arawiya #1)

Author: Hafsah Faizal

Rating: ★★★

Synopsis: Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the king. If Zafira was exposed as a girl, all of her achievements would be rejected; if Nasir displayed his compassion, his father would punish him in the most brutal of ways.

Both are legends in the kingdom of Arawiya—but neither wants to be.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I am super torn on We Hunt the Flame. On one hand, there is some fantastic world-building and some kick ass visual language at work here. There is an interesting premise, but then it goes to macguffin town (which is fine), and also just misses a spark for me in terms of its characters. I am a character reader, so while the plot had great peaks and valleys, the characters left a lot to be desired for me.

And really, that is just on Nasir. I don’t dig the passive assassin trope mainly because I find it to be such a weird oxymoron. Compassionate assassin is a neat idea, but given how this book is set up, it just didn’t gel with me. I think one of the other elements I struggled with was that both characters stories read a bit too similarly for me. I loved Zafira’s story and I think hers was easily the stronger of the two and I feel like she got to be a protagonist who gave a crap about her people, who was willing to sacrifice herself for her people, and her motivations just make so much more sense compared to Nasir.

I think there is great ideas in this book, but I wish there had been a bit more action and a little less angst. I found the angst didn’t help this story either. I really loved the world and the relationships that Zafira forges in the story, and I thought the writing was decent too! It’s just one of those fantasy novels where I don’t know if it will stick with me long term, sadly.

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!