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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.

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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.

ARC Review – The Miraculous by Jess Redman

Title: The Miraculous

Author: Jess Redman

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Eleven-year-old Wunder Ellis is a miracologist. In a journal he calls The Miraculous, he records stories of the inexplicable and the extraordinary. These miracles fill Wunder with the feeling that he is not alone, that the world is magical, that he is part of something brighter than he can imagine.

But then his newborn sister dies, at only eight days old. If that can happen, then miracles don’t exist. So Wunder gets rid of The Miraculous. And he stops believing.

Then Wunder meets Faye—a cape-wearing, outspoken girl with losses of her own. Together, they find an abandoned house by the cemetery and the old woman who lives there—and who might be a witch. The old woman asks for Wunder and Faye’s help. She asks them to go through graveyards and forests, to townhalls and police stations, by bike and by train. She asks them to believe. And together, they go on a journey that leads them to friendship, to healing—and to miracles.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Jess Redman’s debut The Miraculous starts with a hard punch to the gut. It’s seldom that middle grade novels look at the death of a sibling, and even worse an infant. Our main character, Wunder, has stopped believing in miracles, and is convinced that miracles are not real.

That snippet of information should immediately tell you what a rough ride The Miraculous is going to be. Wunder meets Faye, a girl who has also suffered extreme loss, and the two become friends, creating an understanding that grief strikes when it wants to. I could easily connect with this story, especially as someone who has lost people who are valuable to me. Faye’s responses to her trauma are much more aggressive and even vocal, which admittedly, was also something I connected with.

Despite its over arching theme of grief and loss, I want to stress thatThe Miraculous is a hopeful read, and one filled with a lot of magical realism. There’s so many fantastical elements in the story that create such a rich reading experiences, and the larger themes (both positive and negative) are highlighted in interesting or magical ways. What I equally love about this book is that its such a fast-paced read, so much so that I read it in two one hour lunch breaks because I needed to know what was happening to Wunder and Faye throughout the story.

I do think those who love story-driven magical realism will definitely love this book. I won’t lie though, as I do think the harshness of Wunder’s trauma may be difficult for some younger readers to understand or even bear. Even with that in mind, The Miraculous is a beautiful story that will fill readers with both hope and “wunder”!

ARC Review – Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis

Title: Extraordinary Birds

Author: Sandy Stark-McGinnis

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Eleven-year-old December knows everything about birds, and everything about getting kicked out of foster homes. All she has of her mom is the bird guide she left behind, and a message: “In flight is where you’ll find me.” December believes she’s truly a bird, just waiting for the day she transforms. The scar on her back is where her wings will sprout; she only needs to find the right tree and practice flying.

When she’s placed with foster mom Eleanor, who runs a taxidermy business and volunteers at a wildlife rescue, December begins to see what home means in a new light. But the story she’s told herself about her past is what’s kept her going this long. Can she learn to let go?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Have you ever read a book that was just so weird, yet so captivating? That’s what reading Extraordinary Birds was like for me. It’s the story of girl who believes she is metamorphosing into a bird, and it’s just so wonderful and strange.

December is a fascinating main character and her desire to be a bird who can fly away is intriguing throughout. Given this book looks at foster care, it’s fitting that December has an obsession with birds and flight, and throughout the story you see so many attempts of her trying to find the perfect tree in order to practice flight. This is also a book about trying to find a home when you’ve never truly had one, and I think being in December’s mind for a lot of this story allows the reader to empathize with her need for transformation. She wants someone to want her, to love her, and to need her. It’s really heartbreaking.

I also really adored Eleanor, her foster mother. Eleanor is a taxidermist, she’s sharp a whip, and I love the way in which she allows December to come into her own and build trust. Eleanor is always caring and empathetic — she wants to see December flourish and doesn’t judge her desire for flight or being insecure. It’s really a beautiful relationship to read about! Even the friendships that December forges are just really thoughtful, and I think the author does a great job of portraying issues such as anxiety and even bullying in the story.

The more I read, the more I really believed that December was transforming into the bird. Stark-McGinnis has a style of writing that is so inviting and enticing that it’s so easy to fall into. Extraordinary Birds is an emotional read that will fill the reader with so much hope. It’s a wonderful look into what it’s like being a child in foster care, while also trying to find your own wings to take flight, and finding the courage to transform into who you truly want to be.

ARC Review – Birthday by Meredith Russo

Title: Birthday

Author: Meredith Russo

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Two kids, Morgan and Eric, are bonded for life after being born on the same day at the same time. We meet them once a year on their shared birthday as they grow and change: as Eric figures out who he is and how he fits into the world, and as Morgan makes the difficult choice to live as her true self. Over the years, they will drift apart, come together, fight, make up, and break up—and ultimately, realize how inextricably they are a part of each other. 

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Reading Birthday was an intense experience. Spanning five years, the book reaccounts Eric and Morgan’s birthdays, the amazing friendship-turned-romance. The book also goes through the transition period of Morgan, as she learns about who she wants to become.

I read this book very slowly, and it was such a difficult read. It’s emotional and raw, and the friendship between Eric and Morgan is one of the most beautifully written that I’ve encountered in awhile in YA. Russo does an amazing job building her characters up, and the reader is just able to connect with them in a variety of ways. There were few moments in the story where I found myself yelling at the parents in this book, or even empathizing with them.

The challenge of this book really comes from how Morgan and Eric’s relationship is perceived by others. They are bullied, shamed, and even beaten. It’s heartbreaking, and I felt so much for both of them as the story progressed. Both of them are also forced to make such hard decisions at their age, and are made to feel as though they are less than by others because of their differences.

Meredith Russo is a writer who knows how to hit her readers right where it needs to hurt. I found myself feeling so much for Eric and Morgan and the ending does this amazing job of showing how at eighteen they are able to fight and move beyond the bullcrap that they constantly were subjected to. Birthday is hard-hitting and deeply moving, and I hope more readers give this wonderful gem a chance.

ARC Review – This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews

Title: This Was Our Pact

Author: Ryan Andrews

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: It’s the night of the annual Autumn Equinox Festival, when the town gathers to float paper lanterns down the river. Legend has it that after drifting out of sight, they’ll soar off to the Milky Way and turn into brilliant stars, but could that actually be true? This year, Ben and his classmates are determined to find out where those lanterns really go, and to ensure success in their mission, they’ve made a pact with two simple rules: No one turns for home. No one looks back.

The plan is to follow the river on their bikes for as long as it takes to learn the truth, but it isn’t long before the pact is broken by all except for Ben and (much to Ben’s disappointment) Nathaniel, the one kid who just doesn’t seem to fit in.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

This Was Our Pact is a very interesting graphic novel. It tells the story of two young boys who during their town’s Autumn Equinox Festival, decide to follow a bunch of paper lanterns down stream. What the uncover, ends up being a surreal experience. Legend has it that the lanterns are transported to the Milky Way and friends Nathaniel and Ben want to find out!

The artwork in this graphic novel is stunning. The choice of such soft colours throughout makes the reader feel like they are going on this journey with Ben and Nate to the Milk Way. There’s something almost comfortable about the artwork, and yet this is a true adventure lover’s story from start to finish. It also has a talking bear who is THECUTESTTHINGEVER. There’s just so many unexpected friendships and twists in this story that I feel like most readers will instantly fall in love with the characters!

This truly is both a magical story that also has a deep focus on friendship. While I have been intentionally vague about the story, its only because the surprises are worth the wait. This graphic novel is great for middle grade readers, or lovers of magical realism. Coupled with the stunning artwork, This Was Our Pact has so much to offer readers of any age.

ARC Review – Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo

Title: Somewhere Only We Know

Author: Maurene Goo

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: 10 00 p.m.: Lucky is the biggest K-pop star on the scene, and she’s just performed her hit song “Heartbeat” in Hong Kong to thousands of adoring fans. She’s about to debut on The Tonight Show in America, hopefully a breakout performance for her career. But right now? She’s in her fancy hotel, trying to fall asleep but dying for a hamburger.

11 00 p.m.: Jack is sneaking into a fancy hotel, on assignment for his tabloid job that he keeps secret from his parents. On his way out of the hotel, he runs into a girl wearing slippers, a girl who is single-mindedly determined to find a hamburger. She looks kind of familiar. She’s very cute. He’s maybe curious.

12:00 a.m.: Nothing will ever be the same.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I have clearly been in a fluffy romance mood, and Maurene Goo knows how to fit that bill for me. I have enjoyed all of her books and I seem to read them at the right periods of my life. Somewhere Only We Know is about K-Pop, love, and the courage to be who you wanna be. I was easily shipping Lucky and Jack while reading this.

I think what I love about Maurene Goo’s books is that her characters are always a ton of fun and they feel like real people. There always feels like there’s a magic element to her stories, and this one takes place mostly through the course of a day. It’s weird for me because I generally despite insta-love, but this one I think worked for me given the circumstances of how the two characters meet each other.

I loved Lucky, and I felt for her whenever she talked about her homesickness or her need to have her family’s love and support. It’s very clear throughout the story how much she values their opinions. I also loved Jack despite a few things he does in the story that made me cranky. He’s got a good energy and sense of humour, so I see how this all works together.

Ultimately, this is one of those stories I think you need to be in the right headspace for. It’s cute, the drama is a bit over the top, but the book has a ton of heart in it. Maurene Goo knows how to capture her readers into a fun romance and make them feel the same intensity her characters are experiencing and it’s why I keep reading her books. Somewhere Only We Know is a wonderful book about facing imperfection and embracing the kind of person you want to become.