Tag Archives: middle grade

ARC Review – The Winnowing by Vikki VanSickle

Title: The Winnowing

Author: Vikki VanSickle

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Marivic Stone lives in a small world, and that’s fine with her. Home is with her beloved grandfather in a small town that just happens to be famous for a medical discovery that saved humankind — though not without significant repercussions. Marivic loves her best friend, Saren, and the two of them promise to stick together, through thick and thin, and especially through the uncertain winnowing procedure, a now inevitable — but dangerous — part of adolescence.

But when tragedy separates the two friends, Marivic is thrust into a world of conspiracy, rebellion and revolution. For the first time in her life, Marivic is forced to think and act big. If she is going to right a decade of wrongs, she will need to trust her own frightening new abilities, even when it means turning her back on everything, and everyone, she’s known and loved. A gripping exploration of growing up, love and loss, The Winnowing is a page-turning adventure that will have readers rooting for their new hero, Marivic Stone, as they unravel the horror and intrigue of a world at once familiar but with a chilling strangeness lurking beneath the everyday. 

Huge thank you to Scholastic Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I want to preface this review by saying a couple of truths: I am a wuss who is easily spooked. I love things that can’t entirely be explained.The Winnowing is such a departure from VanSickle’s previous, more contemporary novels. This is her foray into science fiction, and her love letter to the strange and whimsy.

I will not lie, I was hesitant to read this book even after talking with Vikki at a conference we were both attending. I love her contemporary middle grade novels, I read If I Had a Gyphon during my storytimes, but this book was different. Vastly different. Thankfully, I had prepared myself for this book by watching Stranger Things earlier this year andThe Winnowing is an interesting middle grade novel to say the least.

This is a book about a world where children can be born with powers. If unwinnowed, these powers can manifest into something much more dangerous. To be winnowed is a rite of adolescent passage, it’s an attempt at normalizing. The problem is that the world Marivic and Saren live in, is one that is anything but. Marivic in particular also holds the key to a larger mystery in the story in regards to her family, the town of Darby and the school her mother worked at which was obliterated. The blurb on the back of the book gives you just enough information, but it’s definitely a book that is good going blind into.

What I loved about this book is how unexpected some of the twists and turns were. Some were a little obvious, but I found myself buying into so much of what was happening to these characters,
I was so invested in the atmosphere of the story — it is creepy and uncomfortable. Marivic and her friends felt very believable, their flaws felt real, and I truly felt for them on this journey. My favourite character in the story was Gumps, Marivic’s grandfather. He’s everything I love in a curmudgeon-y old man. A grump who is secretly loving and a little overprotective.

With the circumstances that occur in this novel, you see incredible growth in these characters. Every single one of them. The children in this story are all forced to grow up very quickly given the situation regarding the world and the process of the winnowing. In a lot of ways, these kids are robbed of their childhood and that was so heartbreaking. Marivic in particular shoulders a lot of burden in this story and she’s forced in a lot of ways to think and act more mature than someone normally her age. This is written very well because you can see she’s wrestling with both her circumstances and her actual age and what kids her age should be doing.

There’s a lot of weird and strange in The Winnowing. It’s the kind of book for people who love the X-Files, Stranger Things, Are You Afraid of the Dark?. While two of the references I’ve mention date me, I think they are accurate to what one can expect when reading this book. It’s weird, mysterious, atmospheric and wondrous. I love seeing authors jump out of their comfort zones with genre, because sometimes an experiment can blossom into something extraordinary.

ARC Review – Lost Boys by Darcey Rosenblatt

Title: Lost Boys

Author: Darcey Rosenblatt

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Based on historical events, this unforgettable and inspiring tale for middle-grade readers is about a young boy torn from the only life he’s ever known and held captive as a prisoner of war.

In 1982, twelve-year-old Reza has no interest in joining Iran’s war effort against Iraq. But in the wake of a tragedy and at his mother’s urging, he decides to enlist, assured by the authorities that he will achieve paradise should he die in service to his country.

War does not bring the glory the boys of Iran have been promised, and Reza soon finds himself held in a prisoner-of-war camp in Iraq, where the guards not only threaten violence—they act upon it. Will Reza make it out alive? And if he does, will he even have a home to return to?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Lost Boys is both a beautiful people of historical fiction. While this book is classified as middle grade fiction, it actually reads much older in some aspects of the story, but regardless of that it’s a very heartbreaking and beautiful story about friendship in Iran during 1982. According to the author’s note, parts of the story where based on an account by her neighbour who had been growing up in Iran.

Reza is a wonderful protagonist who is both kind as he is curious. You learn about Reza’s love of Western music which he got from his Uncle. You learn his love of modern music and the kinds of songs that were present in the 1980s. In some regards this makes Reza seem a little older than he actually is, but I found him to constantly be endearing throughout the story. His friendship with Ebi and Miles are both unique aspects in the story as Ebi at the tender age of twelve believes young boys need to die for their nation, while Miles an Irish aid worker tries to instill a different perspective…

…And it works well in this story. In this story you see Reza feeling torn between the love of his family and country, but also struggling with his feelings towards the political environment in Iran. Characters like Ebi break your heart because they are the product of propaganda, the belief that every man must die for his nation. There’s an idealism in this notion, but the story shows how many of the children are completely robbed of childhoods.

Lost Boys is a very thoughtful read, and Rosenblatt is a beautiful writer. I appreciated much of the leg work that went into this novel, and if you haven’t read the Author’s Note it is worth checking out just to get some extra context to where the author was coming from with the story. This book will leave you sad yet very hopeful in the end.

ARC Review – Bubbles by Abby Cooper

Title: Bubbles

Author: Abby Cooper

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Sophie Mulvaney’s world has been turned upside down. Mom lost her job at the TV station and broke up with Pratik, whom Sophie adored. Her teacher is making them do a special project about risk-taking, so Sophie gets roped into doing a triathlon. And to top it all off, she’s started seeing bubbles above people’s heads that tell her what these people are thinking. Seeing other people’s thoughts seems like it should be cool, but it’s actually just stressful. What does it mean that Pratik wishes she and Mom were with him to eat dinner? Is her best friend Kaya really going out with their other best friend, Rafael, whom Sophie also has a crush on? And can Sophie’s mom ever go back to her old self? In this funny, heartwarming novel, Sophie comes to learn that people are more than what they seem—or what they think.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I will admit, I am unfamiliar with the works of Abby Cooper. She is well loved in the middle grade sphere for her first book Sticks & Stones (which after reading Bubbles I now want to read). I wasn’t sure what I was going to get with Bubbles, but what is presented is a very sweet story of friendship with a pinch of magical realism.

This is a book entirely looking at perceptions of others. Sophie, our heroine, can see thought bubbles over people’s heads and she is instantly given an impression of the people that surround her. It’s a pretty interesting concept for a middle grade novel, also given that this is a story about risk-taking and essentially trying to be the best version of yourself. There’s some wonderful messages in this book that I feel will appeal to middle grade readers, as well as adults who love middle grade.

My favourite aspects of this book were Sophie’s relationships. She is constantly given reasons to pre-judge people with her ‘bubbles’ ability, and it’s interesting to see her mind fight with the images that she sees. Sometimes she finds herself agree with what the bubbles show, and other times you see that she struggles to see the best in everyone. I think Abby Cooper does a good job of showing this balance, which I think can be hard to do given the novel concept of seeing thought bubbles.

Bubbles is a very genuine novel. It’s one of those stories where the author does a fantastic job of tapping into the insecurities and impressions that young children can often have as they are growing up. I definitely want to check out Cooper’s first novel, but Bubbles definitely left me thinking long after I had closed the book.

ARC Review – The Song From Somewhere Else by A.F. Harrold & Levi Pinfold

Title: The Song From Somewhere Else

Author: A.F. Harrold & Levi Pinfold

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Frank thought her summer couldn’t get any worse–until big, weird, smelly Nick Underbridge rescues her from a bully, and she winds up at his house.

Frank quickly realizes there’s more to Nick than meets the eye. When she’s at his house, she hears the strangest, most beautiful music, music which leads her to a mysterious, hidden door. Beyond the door are amazing creatures that she never even dreamed could be real. For the first time in forever, Frank feels happy . . . and she and Nick start to become friends.

But Nick’s incredible secrets are also accompanied by great danger. Frank must figure out how to help her new friend, the same way that he has helped her.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I admit, I wasn’t familiar with A.F Harrold’s works until I read The Song From Somewhere Else. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from this book, but it’s pretty swell.

This book is a very sad yet whimsical middle grade read. There’s a beautiful blend of magic realism that is used to tell a story of bullying and self-empowerment. Frank is a great character to follow and I like how the author shows her growth in the story, especially after being bullied. She’s easy to sympathize with, and her friendship with Nick Underbridge is one of the more beautiful aspects of this story.

I will say the twist was a little odd for me in this book. Not bad, just odd. I wonder if it’s something that middle grade readers would be surprised by or put together on their own. I did find the writing, though lovely, very flowery at times. However, despise my complaints I whipped through this book in two sittings because I did find the story very compelling and watching Frank’s grow became very important to me. I will say, the artwork that accompanies the story is gorgeous, and I like the way it compliments what is happening in the story, adding an extra bit of depth to Frank’s story.

I think The Song From Somewhere Else is a fun read, and an easy book to read in one or two sittings. It’s very compelling and it does a great job of grabbing the reader and wanting to see the mysterious elements through to the end.

Late to the Party ARC Review – The Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head (The Curiosity House #1) by Lauren Oliver & H.G. Chester

Title: The Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head (The Curiosity House #1)

Author: Lauren Oliver & H.G. Chester

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: The book is about, among other things: the strongest boy in the world, a talking cockatoo, a faulty mind reader, a beautiful bearded lady and a nervous magician, an old museum, and a shrunken head.

Blessed with extraordinary abilities, orphans Philippa, Sam, and Thomas have grown up happily in Dumfrey’s Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders. Philippa is a powerful mentalist, Sam is the world’s strongest boy, and Thomas can squeeze himself into a space no bigger than a bread box. The children live happily with museum owner Mr. Dumfrey, alongside other misfits. But when a fourth child, Max, a knife-thrower, joins the group, it sets off an unforgettable chain of events.

When the museum’s Amazonian shrunken head is stolen, the four are determined to get it back. But their search leads them to a series of murders and an explosive secret about their pasts.

Huge thank you to Harper Collins Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I recognize this book has been out for two years already, but I always feel obligated that when I get an ARC from a publisher, even if I haven’t read it right away that I always give it a review. I LOVE Lauren Oliver’s middle grade books, and I would argue that those are her better works over her YA offerings. The Spindlers was imaginative, Lisel & Po has remained a favourite to this day, and then there is The Curiosity House series, which is unique to say the least.

What I enjoyed about The Shrunken Head is that it has this old timey vibe to it, from how the murder mystery elements are set up, to even the whimsical side of the narrative. It also builds of the old circus tropes from a bearded lady, to mind readers, and even a talking bird. There’s a lot of weird and whimsy in this book, and I will argue that that is what makes it so engaging. The Shrunken Head takes so many crazy twists and turns for a middle grade story that it easily keeps the reader engaged.

I will say that the kids took awhile to grow on me. I feel like they just weren’t as fleshed out compared to characters in Oliver’s other novels. This isn’t a bad thing, but it did damper my enjoyment at times because I found it so hard to connect to the children. On the opposite end, I loved how ridiculous the adults were in this story. They were extreme and utterly crazy.

While I wasn’t in love with this first installment to the The Curiosity House series, I still want to read the rest of them. I feel like this series has the potential to grow into something that is truly special, and I look forward to reading on and seeing what the next adventure has in store.

ARC Review – I Love You, Michael Collins by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Title: I Love You, Michael Collins

Author: Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: It’s 1969 and the country is gearing up for what looks to be the most exciting moment in U.S. history: men landing on the moon. Ten-year-old Mamie’s class is given an assignment to write letters to the astronauts. All the girls write to Neil Armstrong (“So cute!”) and all the boys write to Buzz Aldrin (“So cool!”). Only Mamie writes to Michael Collins, the astronaut whowill come so close but never achieve everyone else’s dream of walking on the moon, because he is the one who must stay with the ship. After school ends, Mamie keeps writing to Michael Collins, taking comfort in telling someone about what’s going on with her family as, one by one, they leave the house thinking that someone else is taking care of her—until she is all alone except for her cat and her best friend, Buster. And as the date of the launch nears, Mamie can’t help but wonder: Does no one stay with the ship anymore?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I read this book in a day, and my goodness is it adorable. This book is the story of Mamie, a young girl who has a school assignment wherein she must write letters to an astronaut. While every other kid in her grade selects Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin, Mamie selects Michael Collins, the man responsible for orbiting around the moon.

Through a series of letters, Mamie pouring her heart and soul, sharing all her feelings to Michael Collins. Since this story takes place in 1969, a lot of this story looks at the space race, Vietnam, and other historical events that Mamie is witnessing through television. Each letter shares a bit more about what is personally going on with Mamie, from her parent’s falling out, to her sisters growing up, to her feelings for her best friend Buster. This story is so sweet, and so sad at the same time. It’s also just a very quick read as Mamie is so easy to love as a character.

This short and sweet read is for anyone who loves middle grade contemporary. Mamie is delight and her letters will easily pull you in.

Book Review – The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart by Lauren DeStefano

Title: The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart

Author: Lauren DeStefano

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Lionel is a wild boy, who doesn’t much like to be around other people. He’d rather be a purring cat or a wolf stalking the woods.

Marybeth is a nice girl. She doesn’t need to be told to comb her hair or brush her teeth, and she’s kind to everyone at the orphanage . . . Lionel most of all.

Different though they are, Lionel and Marybeth are best friends in a world that has forgotten about them. So when a mysterious blue spirit possesses Marybeth—and starts to take control—they know they must stop it before the real Marybeth fades away forever.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I have a very hit-and-miss relationship with Lauren DeStefano’s books. There are some books of hers, like the Chemical Garden series which I found just “okay” and other books like A Curious Tale of the In-Between, which I utterly adored. I really enjoyed The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart, though it’s definitely not as strong as other books of hers I read.

One thing I will say for this book is that for middle grade, it’s outright creepy at times. DeStefano has this wonderful way of writing very unnerving and uncomfortable descriptions, which I think is stellar. You always get a sense of discomfort in Lionel and Marybeth’s stories, which I think helps given that this is a very atmospheric read. For me personally, I love a book that has a very distinctive feel to it, but I feel like for some readers that is the ultimate challenge here. The characters are interesting because of the atmosphere of the story, not because they are interesting characters.

And here’s the thing: I love the mysterious, ghostly aspects of this book. I loved uncovering Marybeth’s story and seeing where it was going to go at times. I was invested when I was trying to understand what was happening with the blue-hearted creature. I loved the amount of empathy that both Lionel and Marybeth share for the creature, and I like that DeStefano keeps the reader moving at such a swift pace. Her writing is beautiful, and there were times where I know I was sucked into the prose.

The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart is a very good read, and definitely should be read in the fall, which I think was intended given the atmosphere that is played so well into the story. I think readers will be disappointed by the lack of action or strong characterization, but I think there is something to be said about books that make you feel through the setting, which is definitely what is happening here. I am eager to see what Lauren DeStefano’s next middle grade venture will be.