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ARC Review – Give and Take by Elly Swartz

Title: Give & Take

Author: Elly Swartz

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Maggie knows her new baby sister who smells like powder isn’t her sister for keeps. Izzie is a foster baby awaiting adoption. So in a day or a week, she’ll go to her forever family and all that sweetness will be gone. Except for those things Maggie’s secretly saving in the cardboard boxes in her closet and under her bed. Baby socks, binkies, and a button from Bud the Bear. Rocks, sticks, and candy wrappers. Maggie holds on tight. To her things. Her pet turtle. Her memories of Nana. And her friends. But when Maggie has to say goodbye to Izzie, and her friend gets bumped from their all-girl trapshooting squad to make room for a boy, Maggie’s hoarding grows far beyond her control and she needs to find the courage to let go.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I am clearly a huge fan of books featuring turtle pets in them.

All hail Bert the Turtle.

Anyways,

Years ago, I read Elly Swartz’s debut novel Finding Perfect, and adored it. Swartz has this amazing ability to tackle tough subjects in middle grade in such a way where it is both gentle and effective. Give & Take looks at twelve-year-old Maggie, who falls in love with a baby her parents are fostering, but is forced to learn that not everything in permanent and change can be challenging.

What I love about this book is it’s portrayal of coping mechanisms. In this story Maggie hordes anything and everything. She has an compulsion to keep things like candy wrappers and garbage, but treats it with the utmost care. She knows where everything is in her room, and throughout the story is grasping with two concepts: the idea that she has a lot of things but struggles to part with them, and the understanding that she attributes value to items that are deemed valueless. When Izzie, the baby her parents are fostering comes and goes in the story, Maggie’s triggers become clearer in the story and she is aware in a lot of ways that she is grieving something beyond her control.

This book is beautiful and sad, but super hopeful as well. Maggie learning to manage herself is difficult to read at times, but Swartz does it in a way where the reader is rooting for her. We want to see her succeed, we want to see her grow, we want her to know that grieving is a natural thing. There’s a lot of emotional impact in this story, but it’s very subtle throughout.

Give & Take is a fantastic read for those who love gentler books but want them to still have an emotional punch. This book took me awhile to read, and that’s mainly because I was so absorbed in Maggie’s world and wanting to understand her and her thought process. I think many readers will be able to identify with Maggie in some way, and her voice and charm really do make her the MVP of this very emotional read.

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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.

Blog Tour & Review – Ninth House (Ninth House Series #1) by Leigh Bardugo

There’s something to be said about writer’s like Leigh Bardugo, who storm onto the young adult scene and create one of the most memorable universes in recent memory. It also takes a lot for young adult authors to then transform their work into something more “adult.” I am very excited to be a part of Raincoast’s blog tour for Ninth House, as I think Leigh Bardugo does an amazing job of bridging her reign as Queen of YA and moving into the realm of adult fiction.


Title: Ninth House (Ninth House Series #1)

Author: Leigh Bardugo

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I have been waiting forever for this book. When it was originally announced I remember how excited I was over a new Leigh Bardugo book that also focus on Ivy League Secret Societies. Ivy League schools often have such rich histories surrounding them, with some having more “cult-like” behaviours than others.

Alex Stern is a woman who has been granted a full-ride to Yale. Given her horrific upbringing of losing her family and being hospitalized, Alex questions the choice, but decides that she’s going to accept her new life on Yale’s terms. But why her? And what is secretly going on behind the scenes?

Ninth House is a wonderful mixture of fantasy and mystery clashing together. Bardugo has crafted a fantastic urban fantasy setting with the use of Yale and the other Eight Houses, and there’s something to be said about how she has masterfully crafted so much in a world that feels both unfamiliar and familiar at the sametime. Alex is also just an intriguing protagonist to follow as well — she’s difficult, unhinged, and pretty fearless to be honest. Darlington is another wonderful character who made me feel so much together out the story, and I am glad his POVs were included to add another layer to the story.

My main complaint with this book is that it starts out very slow and it’s a slow-burn overall. It’s the kind of book that builds layers and put down a lot of foundation, but once the story has it’s momentum, it’s not fast-paced, it still meanders at a pace that is only giving you tidbits of information at a time. For it being a story of dark magic and secret societies, I think the pace works well in its favour, but I wish it had built just a wee bit quicker. My other complaint is also I think I like as well – the ending is a tad abrupt, kinda rude, and is a bit of a smack in the face. I have to wait for the next book, and the last hundred pages of this book were just SO GOOD.

If you are expecting something like the Grishaverse, you will be disappointed in The Ninth House. This book has it’s own unique vibe, with characters who are not easy for readers to attach onto. By the other side of it, The Ninth House has a lot of great twist and turns for both fantasy and mystery lovers alike, and I think it’s weirdiness works completely in its favour. You won’t find anything like Ninth House out there, and that makes it a wonderfully devilish read.


Please check out these other stops on our blog tour!

ARC Review – The Liars of Mariposa Island by Jennifer Mathieu

Title: The Liars of Mariposa Island

Author: Jennifer Mathieu

Rating: ★★★

Synopsis: Every year, summer begins when the Callahans arrive on Mariposa Island. That’s when Elena Finney gets to escape her unstable, controlling mother by babysitting for their two children. And the summer of 1986 promises to be extra special when she meets J.C., the new boy in town, whose kisses make Elena feel like she’s been transported to a new world.

Joaquin Finney can’t imagine why anyone would want to come to Mariposa Island. He just graduated from high school and dreams about going to California to find his father and escape his mother’s manipulation.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I am SO SAD right now. Jennifer Mathieu is finally one of my favourite authors, so I am super heartbroken that I didn’t love her latest, The Liars of Mariposa Island. This book is a contemporary, with a mystery wrapped in it, and it’s just… all right.

Generally, what I love about Jennifer Mathieu’s books is the writing an her characters. I always adore her heroines, but Elena and Joaquin just never spoke to me the way some of her other heroes have. This book is written in two perspectives, one that takes place in 1986, the other during the Cuban Revolution. The sections that were about Carrie, who is related to Elena and Joaquin, were my favourite bits of the book. Carrie is fleeing Cuba during the Cuban Revolution as a teen and she is trying to find freedom in America. Carrie’s story is challenging and heartbreaking, and its definitely very difficult to read about.

I do feel for Elena in this story, especially given she is trying to become a version of herself that she would feel satisfied with. There is a prickliness to her character that really suggests that she is not someone who wants people (or even the reader) to get close to her and that I think is something intriguing about this novel. Elena and Joaquin spend a lot of this book unraveling family truama and lies, though they weren’t as shocking as I was anticipating given the title of this book.

I think why this book didn’t grab me the way all of her other books did, is that it really doesn’t go anywhere and there isn’t much resolve. There doesn’t really feel like a lot of hope in this story either, which is usually a big part of a Jennifer Mathieu story. I am so torn because I do think elements of this book are wonderful, but I simply just didn’t connect to a lot of it.

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.

ARC Review – Stargazing by Jen Wang

Title: Stargazing

Author: Jen Wang

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: When Moon’s family moves in next door to Christine’s, Moon goes from unlikely friend to best friend―maybe even the perfect friend. The girls share their favorite music videos, paint their toenails when Christine’s strict parents aren’t around, and make plans to enter the school talent show together. Moon even tells Christine her deepest secret: that she sometimes has visions of celestial beings who speak to her from the stars. Who reassure her that earth isn’t where she really belongs.

But when they’re least expecting it, catastrophe strikes. After relying on Moon for everything, can Christine find it in herself to be the friend Moon needs?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Jen Wang does no wrong in my eyes. I’ve loved every single graphic novel she has put out and her art style and stories are always engaging. Stargazing is an amazing story about friendship, and it packs a surprise gut punch that the reader won’t see coming.

Christine has grown up with strict parents and a lack of fun in her life — that was until Moon and her family become her next door neighbors. Moon is a Buddhist, she is a vegetarian, she’s tough, and assertive. She’s everything Christine isn’t, and yet they create a very unlikely friendship. This book looks at how friendships are formed, even in the strangest of circumstances and how being different gives us strength. Both girls are characters I think readers will be able to relate to, and I feel like they will offering dueling perspectives for those trying to understand what it means to be unique.

As always, Wang’s artwork is vibrant and gorgeous, with such beautifully fleshed out characters. I loved both Christine and Moon and I found I could relate to them even if I’m much older than the characters in the story. Seriously, though, the plot twist in this book — it killed me! I loved it and was so surprised by it as well. Stargazing is an amazing edition to anyone’s graphic novel collection, as this heartfelt book packs an emotional and memorable gut punch that will remind readers how powerful friendship and empathy can be.

ARC Review – Some Places More Than Others by Renée Watson

Title: Some Places More Than Others

Author: Renée Watson

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: All Amara wants is to visit her father’s family in Harlem. Her wish comes true when her dad decides to bring her along on a business trip. She can’t wait to finally meet her extended family and stay in the brownstone where her dad grew up. Plus, she wants to visit every landmark from the Apollo to Langston Hughes’s home.

But her family, and even the city, is not quite what Amara thought. Her dad doesn’t speak to her grandpa, and the crowded streets can be suffocating as well as inspiring. But as she learns more and more about Harlem—and her father’s history—Amara realizes how, in some ways more than others, she can connect with this other home and family.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I love getting a new Renee Watson book. There is something about her characters that I am always drawn to, and Amara in Some Places More Than Others is no exception. This story follows Amara’s journey to New York City, to spend time with family members whom she is unfamiliar with. This story looks at family dynamics, how we can be both so close and yet so far away from those we care about, and what it means to be apart of something bigger than yourself.

Grandpa Earl was probably my favourite character in this story. I liked his charisma and his desire to help Amara see the best parts of herself. I love how Amara has to learn about the complicated relationship between her grandfather and father, and how she has a desire to get them to reconcile. It’s interesting because it’s not like they hate each other, but Amara recognizes differences in both of them that it’s troubling. There’s also a lot of poetry sprinkled into this book and how the power of words can give someone unfounded strength.

Some Places More Than Others is a quick read, but a powerful one. I appreciate Watson’s deeper look into the complications of family and how she connects it with the crowdedness and discomfort that New York City can provide to newcomers. I think Amara’s story is one that will definitely resonate with a lot of younger readers.