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Late to the Party ARC Review – Crier’s War (Crier’s War #1) by Nina Varela

Title: Crier’s War (Crier’s War #1)

Author: Nina Varela

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: After the War of Kinds ravaged the kingdom of Rabu, the Automae, designed to be the playthings of royals, usurped their owners’ estates and bent the human race to their will.

Now Ayla, a human servant rising in the ranks at the House of the Sovereign, dreams of avenging her family’s death…by killing the sovereign’s daughter, Lady Crier.

Crier was Made to be beautiful, flawless, and to carry on her father’s legacy. But that was before her betrothal to the enigmatic Scyre Kinok, before she discovered her father isn’t the benevolent king she once admired, and most importantly, before she met Ayla.

Now, with growing human unrest across the land, pressures from a foreign queen, and an evil new leader on the rise, Crier and Ayla find there may be only one path to love: war.

Huge thank you to Harper Collins for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I heard about Crier’s War when I went to Harper Collins Canada’s Fall Frenzy event. Some buzz words the book had were adventure, politics, revenge, and a lesbian romance. I love all those things in my fantasy novels, so I knew I needed to get my hands on this book, and lo and behold it was in my grab bag.

I enjoyed Crier’s War. It’s not the most ground breaking fantasy novel, there’s a lot that has been done before, and yet I devoured the story and found myself entertained by the characters. Crier was difficult at first for me because she’s an android “playmate” essentially, meaning she doesn’t have much will of her own. That type of character is always a hard one for me to enjoy because I like my leads in fantasy to have energy and motive, but I will say Crier grew on me throughout the story. When she starts to realize she is defective and begins to understand human agency, there’s a wonderful shift and growth in her character that is VERY rewarding. Ayla on the other hand, has very one-dimensional goals (aka. revenge, revenge, and REVENGE) and while she is energetic and a go-getter, she takes a lot of time for development and I still didn’t feel like she grew enough for me to connect with.

The romance in this novel is adorable and cheesy. It’s definitely the kind of romance that steams from hate-to-love, and it’s not necessary the most well-developed at times, but I totally bought into it. It’s corny and charming, and I think that can be a great thing in a story that is a bit too serious and dark, which Crier’s War has in spades.

The writing through is solid, there’s definitely some beautiful passages, and I think the world building is very interesting throughout. I think Crier’s War succeeds in being a plot-heavy story, but not necessarily a character driven one. There’s definitely some fantastic character driven moments (Crier’s awakening being fantastically portrayed), but I don’t feel it’s entirely equal throughout the story.

I had fun reading Crier’s War and I am definitely intrigued to see where Varela goes with the sequel given how the book ended. I look forward to seeing Ayla and Crier grow some more, and I think there’s a lot of great ideas in this book. It was such an enjoyable read and easily something I can recommend to those who want a book that is just an easy, plot-driven fantasy novel.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Lintang and the Pirate Queen (Lintang #1) by Tamara Moss

Title: Lintang and the Pirate Queen (Lintang #1)

Author: Tamara Moss

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Lintang is an island girl who longs for daring and danger. When she meets the feared pirate Captain Shafira and her all-female crew, Lintang is determined to join them. Secrets within secrets, life-or-death battles with spectacular monsters, and hair’s breadth escapes keep readers turning the pages of a story populated by women of color who are fighters, adventurers, and leaders. 

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review: 

Lintang and the Pirate Queen is a wonderful fantasy romp starring a young and adventurous heroine who dreams of escaping her day-to-day life in hopes of sailing the high seas and battling mystical creatures. Sporting fantastic characters, a vivid world, and gripping storytelling, this middle grade fantasy is the complete package for even reader’s who may be reluctant.

Lintang is such a fantastic heroine who is flawed, but spunky. She has a lot of energy, she’s resourceful, and she’s a fun character to follow around because she has just the right amount of innocence. Bayani, her best friend, is kind and quiet and his storyline is truly something special. All the characters in this story have strong will, they make mistakes (and learn from them). The writing is rich in adventure and whimsy, that its the kind of fantasy where you are whisked away and the world is eye-catching and visible.

Moss weaves a wonderful tale of hope, adventure, friendship, and trust. I think readers will fall in love with the cast of characters, and I look forward to sharing this wonderful book with a variety of readers. I also hope that the sequels come to North America because I couldn’t put this book down!

Late to the Party ARC Review – Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker

Title: Scary Stories for Young Foxes

Author: Christian McKay Heidicker

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: The haunted season has arrived in the Antler Wood. No fox kit is safe.

When Mia and Uly are separated from their litters, they discover a dangerous world full of monsters. In order to find a den to call home, they must venture through field and forest, facing unspeakable things that dwell in the darkness: a zombie who hungers for their flesh, a witch who tries to steal their skins, a ghost who hunts them through the snow . . . and other things too scary to mention.

Featuring eight interconnected stories and sixteen illustrations.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Trigger Warning: animal abuse.

I FINALLY finished this. Scary Stories for Young Foxes is a bit of a difficult book to unpack. Author Christian McKay Heidicker pulls zero punches in what should be some “spooky stories in the dark.”

Scary Stories for Young Foxes is admittedly, not for the faint of heart. There’s so much darkness and discomfort that at times I had to stop reading and give myself a break from the kinds of imagery being presented. There’s so many disturbing images of animals being abused, chloroformed, and being turned into “their true selves.” There’s a demented version of Beatriz Potter in this story who gave this reader some nightmares, especially given some of the implications of the stories she wrote that already exist in the world. Yes, I knew there was some weird undertones in her stories, but this book takes it to a completely different level.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to put a book down, and here’s the thing: I LIKE this book a fair bit because I think that aesthetically it does an amazing job of being haunting and disturbing in a way where you’re getting just the right amount of information. Heidicker gives the reader a carrot on the stick — just enough to keep you moving, then the wall hits you. The little foxes in this story are ones you sympathize with, ones you understand their discomfort. The ones who you know are trying to be brave just are so frightened at the same time.

Mia and Uly story of separation and survival is captivating, as it is, disturbing as all hell. All eight stories offer such strange and weird vibes that are both enjoyable but unnerving at the same time.

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.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Anya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack

Title: Anya and the Dragon

Author: Sofiya Pasternack

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Headstrong Anya is the daughter of the only Jewish family in her village. When her family’s livelihood is threatened by a bigoted magistrate, Anya is lured in by a friendly family of Fools, who promise her money in exchange for helping them capture the last dragon in Kievan Rus. This seems easy enough—until she finds out that the scary old dragon isn’t as old—or as scary—as everyone thought. Now Anya is faced with a choice: save the dragon, or save her family.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I enjoyed Anya and the Dragon. It weirdly reminded me of the 1996 film Dragonheart. This book features a Russian-Jewish heroine who is trying to protect her family’s livelihood. Anya is lured by a group called The Fools into finding the last dragon in exchange to be able to provide for her family. She accepts, but doesn’t realize what the mission is truly about.

I want to stress a few things about this book: this book is slow and thoughtful. If you are not a patient reader, this book is 100% not for you. Everything takes a lot of time to develop and the build is very thoughtful throughout. Anya’s relationship with the dragon is easily the best part of the book, and those moments show the more subtle side to the story. There were times due to pacing where I was definitely into the story and curious about where it was going to move, and other times where I admit, I was bored and skimmed. For me, it wasn’t a story that was consistently interesting, and that is okay.

But I will say there are some excellent themes in this story — particularly what it means to love and protect your family, being brave when you’ve never had to, and finding courage to speak up and speak out against injustice. The friendship between Anya and Ivan and the dragon is easily one of the most heartwarming and charming I’ve ever read about, and it was easily some of my favourite moments in the story.

Anya and the Dragon is a great debut for a specific kind of reader. I think if you’re someone who loves a gentler story and doesn’t mind a slow pace, this book will hook you very easily. If you’re like me and you need a bit more movement and flow, this book can feel a bit rocky at times. In spite of my criticisms, I think overall it’s an interesting debut, and I’d definitely read another book from Sofiya Pasternack in the future.

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.

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

Title: Watch Us Rise

Author: Renée Watson & Ellen Hagan

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

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

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

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

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

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

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

Late to the Party ARC Review – Salt by Hannah Moskowitz

Title: Salt

Author: Hannah Moskowitz

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Even though their parents disappeared during a hunt three months ago, seventeen-year-old Indi and his siblings, Beleza, Oscar, and Zulu, continue to roam the Mediterranean on their sailboat and hunt down monsters–but Indi yearns for a more settled life for his family, and he hopes that his parents’ journal with its tantalizing hints of a treasure, will provide them all with the means of escape from their nomadic and dangerous life before it is too late.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

This was a fun read. There’s not a lot of pirate stories out there, let alone one with a more modernized twist to it. Salt takes a look at a group of siblings who have a strong desire for adventure, as they hit the high seas.

Salt has a fantastic ensemble cast. Each of the siblings has a distinctive voice, each with memorable quirks and personalities. I think the book captures the good aspects of a pirate novel — there’s plundering, adventure, and a desire for independence. I think what also makes this book interesting is that there’s definitely a sense of existential dread that looms over the characters as well. I think what I struggled with though, is that while the characters felt well developed, the story just plodded along and it didn’t feel like a lot happened. I suppose in a way I thought this would be a more plot intensive book, given that most pirate stories are. Perhaps that was the wrong assumption to go into with this book.

I generally have a mixed relationship to Hannah Moskowitz’s books. I either love them to the ends of the earth, or they are just pretty good. Generally, I find I love her contemporary books over her fantasy novels, and that it true of Salt. This book has fantastic characters, but if you’re looking for a plot intensive book, that isn’t what Salt is about. Sadly for me, as much as I loved the characters and found it to be a quick read, ultimately, it’s going to be a forgettable one as time passes.

Late to the Party ARC Review – The House in Poplar Wood by K.E. Ormsbee

Title: The House in Poplar Wood

Author:   K.E. Ormsbee

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: For as long as the Vickery twins can remember, they’ve only ever been able to leave the house together once a year, on Halloween. The rest of the year, Lee and his mother serve Memory, while Felix and his father assist Death. This is the Agreement.

But one Halloween, Gretchen Whipple smashes her way into their lives. Her bargain is simple: If the twins help her solve the murder of local girl Essie Hasting, she’ll help them break the Agreement. The more the three investigate, however, the more they realize that something’s gone terribly wrong in their town. Death is on the loose, and if history repeats itself, Essie’s might not be the last murder in Poplar Wood.

Simultaneously heartwarming and delightfully spooky, The House in Poplar Wood is the story about a boy’s desire to be free, a girl’s desire to make a difference, and a family’s desire to be together again.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I love a K.E. Ormsbee middle grade novel. Would you like to know why I love her books? Her middle grade novels always have a large mystery in need of unraveling, with wonderfully mysterious child characters who often adventure into the unknown and always come out stronger in the end.

Gretchen, Lee and Felix were so memorable. I do want to praise the disability representation in this book as Felix is blind in one eye and Lee is deaf in one ear. It’s done very well and these two characters are portrayed as though its a part of who they are and its very normalized. Felix and Lee are twins and they are intriguing at times because they were separated in a peculiar way that I do not want to spoil. In fact, that particular moment in the novel made me really feel for the boys!

Then there is Gretchen, who is strong-willed and not afraid of much… well, until a bit later in the story. She gets some interesting growth in the novel and while her behavior is not always likable, its makes sense in the process of the story. Actually, a lot of this book is a slow read, but it’s the engaging, mysterious kind of slow that keeps you interested, wanting to understand more and more about the world, the characters, and the murder of local girl, Essie Hasting, which is a huge part of Gretchen’s narrative.

This is very much a fall read, and one that I think will appeal to those who love the idea of a slow burn mystery. This is not a fast-paced middle grade read, but rather the kind of book that takes its time setting its atmosphere and tone, which are a large draw in this story. Ormsbee is a beautiful writer, and I love her worlds so much! If you like peculiar characters and an eerie but interesting world, check outHouse in Poplar Wood.