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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.

ARC Review – Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld, Alex Puvilland, & Hilary Sycamore

Title: Spill Zone

Author: Scott Westerfeld, Alex Puvilland, & Hilary Sycamore

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Nobody’s ever really explained the Spill. Was it an angelic visitation? A nanotech accident? A porthole opening from another world? Whatever it was, no one’s allowed in the Spill Zone these days except government scientists and hazmat teams. But a few intrepid explorers know how to sneak through the patrols and steer clear of the dangers inside the Zone. Addison Merrick is one such explorer, dedicated to finding out what happened that night, and to unraveling the events that took her parents and left her little sister mute and disconnected from the world.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I. hate. creepy dolls. I’ve never been a fan of the living doll trope that exists in horror, mostly because I am a wuss. Also because I love toys and the idea of them being murderous or possessed frightens me. Which brings me to The Spill Zone, Scott Westerfeld’s latest effort that is both intriguing and creepy as all hell.

I will admit that it took me awhile to get into the artwork of The Spill Zone. It’s something I didn’t warm up to until I was about half way through because there are moments where some panels look very rushed or not proportioned right. I generally don’t mind a sketched style, but it’s definitely something where the end of the book looks far cleaner than the beginning. Since this was an ARC there were only a few colour panels, so I’d be interested to see the colour choices given that the colour panels that did exist in the ARC really popped!

But the story, oh my goodness, the story — creepy, disturbed, and it ended on a horrible cliffhanger that made me wish I had the second book. Vespertine the doll gave me the willies and made me so uncomfortable most of the time. I felt bad for Addison’s sister Lexa, who still can’t talk about life after “The Spill.” Addi’s taking photos illegally, risking her own life to get the perfect shot. I feel like this first installment didn’t give me enough of the characters, and while I enjoyed their presence, I can only hope book two will give more information about Addi and Lexa’s past beyond the snippet we get here in book one.

The Spill Zone is a very fast-paced graphic novel, and one that just oozes with creepiness. There’s interesting plot developments and characters, which I am sure will get more developed when the time comes. There’s an interesting world at play in The Spill Zone and I am curious as to where Westerfeld plans to take this story further.

ARC Review – Real Friends by Shannon Hale & LeUyen Pham

Title: Real Friends

Author:  Shannon Hale & LeUyen Pham

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Shannon and Adrienne have been best friends ever since they were little. But one day, Adrienne starts hanging out with Jen, the most popular girl in class and the leader of a circle of friends called The Group. Everyone in The Group wants to be Jen’s #1, and some girls would do anything to stay on top . . . even if it means bullying others.

Now every day is like a roller coaster for Shannon. Will she and Adrienne stay friends? Can she stand up for herself? And is she in The Group—or out?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Have you ever read a book that you felt perfectly reflected parts of your life? That’s how I felt when I was reading Real Friends and watching Little!Shannon go through the motions of making friends. Being that this is an autobiographical graphic novel, it’s interesting to see how the artwork and the story co-exist — truthfully, the art does an amazing job capturing this story.

I felt for Shannon throughout the whole book. I was one of those kids who was forced out of “The Group” or was picked last because they didn’t always fit in. I was bullied, shamed, and pushed around. It got to the point where throughout my elementary school years that I really struggled to make friends with other girls (boys, hilariously, no issue). I wanted girl!friends, but when sixth grade began I remember what a dark place I was in. How different I was compared to the other kids in my grade. Like Shannon who was connected to writing her novels and having imagination time, I was similar in my love of drawing, colouring and playing with toys. I always had ongoing plotlines that would span weeks and weeks of “episodes” but by sixth grade, no one thought playing with toys was cool anymore.

And that’s what a lot of this story is about. It’s about Shannon trying to make connections with others while also staying completely true to herself, which in this day and age is hard to do. Children are surrounded with so many new pressures that they lose sight of the person they want to be and become, and I love and appreciate the message that Hale and Pham share throughout this story and being yourself. I found myself nodding a long to the story, cheering for Shannon in her successes, but also having those same possessive feelings when you feel like a friend only belongs to you and no one else (which is totally how kids think when they are young, I did it repeatedly).

I think many kids and adults will love Real Friends and I think it offers some important commentary about what it means to grow up and figure yourself out. Packed with gorgeous artwork and it’s strong storytelling, Real Friends is the perfect book for those in the awkward middle stage, who may need a small helping hand.

ARC Review – Forget Me Not by Ellie Terry

Title: Forget Me Not

Author: Ellie Terry

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: A girl with Tourette syndrome starts a new school and tries to hide her quirks in this debut middle-grade novel in verse.

Calliope June has Tourette syndrome. Sometimes she can’t control the noises that come out of her mouth, or even her body language. When she and her mother move yet again, she tries to hide her TS. But soon the kids in her class realize she’s different. Only her neighbor, who is also the class president, sees her as she truly is—a quirky kid, and a good friend. But is he brave enough to take their friendship public?

As Callie navigates school, she must also face her mother’s new relationship and the fact that she might be moving again—just as she’s starting to make friends and finally accept her differences. This story of being true to yourself will speak to a wide audience.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!
Sam’s Review:

Forget Me Not is a very unique read with an important message. I think Ellie Terry’s novel has so much value in teaching readers about Tourette syndrome. Her protagonist, Calliope suffers from Tourette syndrome, is forced to go to a new place every year, and she never feels like she gets to settle or be herself. A lot of kids look at her strangely because of her tics, and she struggles to make friends due to this condition. She meets a boy named Jinsong who takes a shine to her and they embark on a wonderful friendship.

Calli is an easy character to love and feel sympathy for. She wants to feel like everyone else, wants to feel as though her Tourette syndrome doesn’t define her, and simply, she wants to feel normal. These are all very reasonable things. However, I will admit that I struggled with this book half being written in verse. As much as the poems were beautiful, I found they made me feel distanced from Calli a lot of the time. I felt like could understand her feelings, but by the other side of it, I struggled to really connect with her. In a lot of ways, I did love this story and I do feel it is super important, I think I just wish I could have connected more with the writing. I also think books in verse can be a hard sell to middle grade audiences, regardless of how amazing the story or subject matter is.

Jinsong’s sections were written much more traditionally, and I actually found his sections worked much better for me as a reader, and I loved the way Terry merged the two narratives together. Jinsong and Calli’s relationship is insanely sweet and so genuine. Their moments were easily some of my favourites in the story.

What I adored about Forget Me Not is its sheer honesty. I have never read a book where a character had Tourette syndrome, and I found this read to be very eye opening as well. I think it’s also amazing of the author to share her personal experiences with Tourette syndrome with the reader, just to give them a sense of how truly close to the topic they are. This book was a learning experience for me in a lot of ways, and I appreciate so much of what the author was doing in using her characters to not only educate the reader, but offer a perspective that perhaps they weren’t thinking about. Forget Me Not is a beautiful story through-and-through, and I can only hope more readers pick it up as a means to educate themselves a bit more about life with Tourette syndrome.

 

ARC Review – Things I Should Have Known by Claire LaZebnik

Title: Things I Should Have Known

Author: Claire LaZebnik

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: From the author of Epic Fail comes the story of Chloe Mitchell, a Los Angeles girl on a quest to find love for her autistic sister, Ivy. Ethan, from Ivy’s class, seems like the perfect match. It’s unfortunate that his older brother, David, is one of Chloe’s least favorite people, but Chloe can deal, especially when she realizes that David is just as devoted to Ethan as she is to Ivy.

Uncommonly honest and refreshingly funny, this is a story about sisterhood, autism, and first love. Chloe, Ivy, David, and Ethan, who form a quirky and lovable circle, will steal readers’ hearts and remind us all that it’s okay to be a different kind of normal.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!
I have adored Claire LaZebnik’s books in the past. They are cheeky, funny, and always full of heart. That’s not entirely the case where with Things I Should Have Known. This book is definitely full of heart and it definitely comes from a deeply personal place. I admit I had a bit of a rough start with this book, but it’s only because the introduction to Claire and Ivy is a slow burn with a lot of ground to cover. Once I got a few chapters in, I felt the spark from this book.

This book, at it’s core, is a book about autism and sisterhood. Ivy is autistic, while Claire is the older sister who becomes in a lot of ways, Ivy’s pillar of support. Claire teaches Ivy about dating, integrating with others, and through the story we come to learn that not only is Ivy autistic, but she is also gay. There’s a lot of exploration in this story revolving Ivy’s sexuality, how her autism affects her, and how she wants to feel like everyone else, despite knowing she is anything but. I really loved the way LaZebnik sheds light on the sister’s relationship: it shows a lot of strength and there is a part of me that could really relate the sister’s situation. Claire has to sacrifice parts of herself for Ivy, but it’s only because she cares so deeply for her sister and her happiness.

I really adored how real this book felt. The large conflicts at play, be it Ethan’s plotline or Claire’s relationship with David — there is something in how LaZebnik connects all these people together that just works so well. I also liked how long it took Claire and David to get together, it felt so organic and I found it made a lot of sense as I was reading a long. The only thing I can say in regards to the romance that I disliked was Claire trying to force Ivy into a relationship towards the beginning. I really didn’t like that, but I did understand Claire’s point of view in this regard (even if it didn’t make it right). I appreciate that this gets remedied later on when Claire and Ivy start to undercover Ivy’s sexuality more. It’s very interesting and thoughtful.

I feel like those who love raw YA novels will definitely love Things I Should Have Known. This is an amazing and well researched book that has really great characters, and it shows a lot of sensitivity. There’s a gentleness in this novel that is appreciated as it is thoughtful. If you love tough YA, this book is worth checking out.

ARC Review – Windwitch (The Witchlands #2) by Susan Dennard

29939390Title: Windwitch (The Witchlands #2)

Author: Susan Dennard

Rating: ★★★

Synopsis: After an explosion destroys his ship, the world believes Prince Merik, Windwitch, is dead. Scarred yet alive, Merik is determined to prove his sister’s treachery. Upon reaching the royal capital, crowded with refugees, he haunts the streets, fighting for the weak—which leads to whispers of a disfigured demigod, the Fury, who brings justice to the oppressed.

When the Bloodwitch Aeduan discovers a bounty on Iseult, he makes sure to be the first to find her—yet in a surprise twist, Iseult offers him a deal. She will return money stolen from him, if he locates Safi. Now they must work together to cross the Witchlands, while constantly wondering, who will betray whom first?

After a surprise attack and shipwreck, Safi and the Empress of Marstok barely escape with their lives. Alone in a land of pirates, every moment balances on a knife’s edge—especially when the pirates’ next move could unleash war upon the Witchlands.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

So I feel like I am in a minority with this series. I thought Truthwitch was delightful candy, but Windwitch was just… more candy. I didn’t find this sequel as compelling to read as the first book, which is a real shame given how fast I whipped through Truthwitch. I think the reason I didn’t enjoy Windwitch as much was that there just wasn’t enough Safi and Iseult.

Safi and Iseult were easily my favourite parts of Truthwitch. I loved their friendship, I loved their banter, and I maintain that they are the superior ship over Safi/Merik (mostly due to my dislike of Merik). Sadly, this book didn’t change my feelings of Merik, which I hoped it would given he had much more of a larger focus in this installment. I still find him bland and cheesy, and there is part of my brain that is still not computing why Safi and Iseult are the main ship. Well, they can be the mainship in my heart.

I actually liked the way this book separated all the different plotlines that were at work, but like any story that focuses on multiple plotlines, some are going to be stronger than others. My personal favourite of the bunch was Iseult and Aeduan scenes, which I thought were pretty stellar. I also really enjoyed Vivia’s plotline as well. I feel like Safi got the short end of the stick in this book, because her sections felt very out of place a lot of the time, or didn’t feel like they connected fully with the rest of the book. I still adore Safi as a character, but I feel like she didn’t get her due in Windwitch.

I just found this book to be all over the place. I feel like Dennard had a bit too much going on in this novel and it was simply missing a lot of the cohesion that existed in Truthwitch. That being said, I do think the book was still fun to read, and it’s definitely fantasy candy for me. If you liked Truthwitch, keep your expectations in check when you read Windwitch because your feelings may go either way.

ARC Review – Blueberry Pancakes Forever (Tuesday McGillycuddy #3) by Angelica Banks

Title: Blueberry Pancakes Forever (Tuesday McGillycuddy #3)

Author:  Angelica Banks

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Winter has fallen in the world of story, and at Brown Street, Tuesday’s typewriter lies silent. Far away in the Peppermint Forest, Vivienne Small fears that she will never again feel the touch of the sun…But when the mysterious Loddon appears in Vivienne’s treehouse, he brings with him terrible danger. Without warning, Tuesday is swept up into the world of story as she has never seen it before. In this forbidding and unfamiliar place – and without her beloved dog Baxterr at her side – Tuesday becomes Loddon’s captive. But who exactly is this strange boy? And will she find a way to defeat him?..Blueberry Pancakes Forever will capture the hearts of everyone who is entranced by the power of story.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I am so depressed that the Tuesday McGillycuddy series is completed. This has been one of my “go-to” middle grade series that I love to recommend to kids at my work. It’s funny, it’s enchanting, the writing is stunning, the characters are delightful — it’s the complete package for any middle grade lover. I loved each installment of this series, but reading Blueberry Pancakes Forever was both wonderful and bittersweet all the same.

I can’t go into too much detail for this review because it is a series and there are events leading into this finale. There’s a lot of drama in this book, particularly involving Vivian Small, Tuesday’s mother’s leading character in her popular children’s series. Baxterr the dog also has some awesome moments in the story as well (although let’s be real here, Baxterr is always the best). I also love the incorporation of food in Blueberry Pancakes Forever, and we get to see more of Tuesday’s family dynamic as well.

There’s also some very heavy moments in this story. For all this series’ humour, there are some gut-punching moments that I know got me as I was reading along. Especially in the first few pages, even! But in all honesty, if you’ve never read the Tuesday McGillycuddy series and you love middle grade, this is A+, will read again material. If you have a young one who loves magic and fun characters, this series is equally for them. While I am sad that this is the last book in the series, I really cannot wait to see what Angelica Banks has in store next.