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ARC Review – The Daughters of Ys by M.T. Anderson & Jo Rioux

Title: The Daughters of Ys

Author: M.T. Anderson & Jo Rioux

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Ys, city of wealth and wonder, has a history of dark secrets. Queen Malgven used magic to raise the great walls that keep Ys safe from the tumultuous sea. But after the queen’s inexplicable death, her daughters drift apart. Rozenn, the heir to the throne, spends her time on the moors communing with wild animals, while Dahut, the youngest, enjoys the splendors of royal life and is eager to take part in palace intrigue.

When Rozenn and Dahut’s bond is irrevocably changed, the fate of Ys is sealed, exposing the monsters that lurk in plain view. M. T. Anderson and Jo Rioux reimagine this classic Breton folktale of love, loss, and rebirth, revealing the secrets that lie beneath the surface.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

The Daughter of Ys is one of the most beautiful graphic novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It’s art style is vivid, it’s powerful, and just sweeps you through a somewhat messy and convoluted story. I won’t deny the eye candy of this graphic novel, but I found myself a bit lost a times with the story.

The story is a fairy tale of Queen Malgven, who uses magic to keep out the sea from entering the world of Ys. After her death, her daughters Rozenn and Dahut begin their own quest for personal glories. Rozenn enjoys a life with natural despite being heir to the throne, while Dahut loves and gets lost in political intrigue. There is a lot of murder and uncertainty in the story, and it makes for an interesting tale.

I feel like if I knew what Daughters of Ys was based off of, I would have likely enjoyed it more. The writing is sharp, it’s elegant even at times, but I still found myself a bit lost and having to reread bits. I adored Jo Rioux art style, and felt it did a great job of conveying the discomfort and whimsical elements. I think if you are familiar with the tale its based off of, you’ll get more out of this story. I found it to be an enjoyable read, and perhaps one I’ll revisit with a bit more knowledge behind me.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Freeing Finch by Ginny Rorby

Title: Freeing Finch

Author: Ginny Rorby

Rating: ★★ 1/2

Synopsis: When her father leaves and her mother passes away soon afterward, Finch can’t help feeling abandoned. Now she’s stuck living with her stepfather and his new wife. They’re mostly nice, but they don’t believe the one true thing Finch knows about herself: that she’s a girl, even though she was born in a boy’s body.

Thankfully, she has Maddy, a neighbor and animal rescuer who accepts her for who she is. Finch helps Maddy care for a menagerie of lost and lonely creatures, including a scared, stray dog who needs a family and home as much as she does. As she earns the dog’s trust, Finch realizes she must also learn to trust the people in her life–even if they are the last people she expected to love her and help her to be true to herself. 

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Freeing Finch is an important story about a young trans-girl who has lost her mother, is forced to live with her step-father, and who is learning to come into her own. It’s the story of unlikely friendships, how to cope with being different, and there’s a lot of uncomfortable moments from bullying, to trans-shaming, to just uncomfortable dialogue.

I want to stress this is not a bad book, but it is a book that is written with very specific intentions. It concerns me that Finch is forced to stay with an abusive parent (and then is weirdly just okay with him later on), and there’s just a lot of disturbing instances in this story that I wondered a bit about. The bits with Finch and her dog were wonderful and I wanted to cry, but her interactions with other people outside of her neighbor Maddy were difficult to read about. There is a lot of misgendering in this story, and there’s so much tragedy in this story to the point where it felt like torture and it was too much at times. I think given the author was not writing from experience, there may have been instances where she missed the mark on the subjects she was trying to display in the story.

This was a quick read, regardless of my complaints. I read it in two sittings and there was moments that I did genuinely enjoy, mainly which were the interactions with Maddie and her step-mother actually admitting her failures of misgendering and standing up for Finch in the story. I just wish this story hadn’t entirely been all about abusing Finch as a character, because there is so little hope in this story, and for middle grade readers — we need some hope!

Late to the Party ARC Review – Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey by Magdalena & Nathaniel Newman

Title: Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey

Author: Magdalena & Nathaniel Newman

Rating: ★★★

Synopsis: Who is to say what this word means? For Magda Newman, it was a goal. She wanted her son Nathaniel to be able to play on the playground, swim at the beach, enjoy the moments his friends took for granted. But Nathaniel’s severe Treacher Collins syndrome–a craniofacial condition–meant that other concerns came first. Could he eat without the aid of a gastrointestinal tube? Could he hear? Would he ever be able to breathe effortlessly? But Nathaniel looks at “normal” from a completely different perspective.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Normal is a memoir by a boy who has Treacher Collins syndrom, a craniofacial condition that is very unique. Written from the dual perspective of Nathaniel and Magda Newman, this book follows Nathaniel’s life growing up with TC and being the inspiration for R.J Palacio’s “Auggie” in her famous book Wonder!

This was a fast and compulsive read. What I enjoyed about this book was the honest and difficultly that comes with talking about such a subject matter, and I loved particularly Nathaniel’s parts given he is very forthcoming about how he was treated by other kids, how he handles his condition, and ultimately how Wonder helped a generation of kids learn to accept people born with unique differences. There’s a lot of good conversation starters for kids in this book, and I think there’s a lot of value in learning about how someone survives given unique circumstances. This family clearly has had hardship, but they also show amazing resilience as well.

I think for younger readers who are curious about the inspiration for Wonder will definitely find some enjoyment here. I don’t know how much of a book there would have been given the importance of Wonder in this family’s life, but I think Normal is a good and accessible memoir for younger readers, and I think Nathaniel’s struggles and triumph’s will definitely resonate for many people.

ARC Review – Little Universes by Heather Demetrios

Title: Little Universes

Author: Heather Demetrios

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: When a tsunami strikes the island where their parents are vacationing, it soon becomes clear that their mom and dad are never coming home. Forced to move to Boston from sunny California for the rest of their senior year, each girl struggles with secrets their parents’ death has brought to light, and with their uncertainty about the future. Instead of bringing them closer, it feels like the wave has torn the sisters apart.

Hannah is a secret poet who wants to be seen, but only knows how to hide. The pain pills she stole from her dead father hurl her onto the shores of an addiction she can’t shake and a dealer who turns her heart upside down. When it’s clear Hannah’s drowning, Mae, a budding astronaut suddenly launched into an existential crisis—and unexpected love—must choose between herself and the only family she has left.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I had mighty feelings from start-to-finish reading Little Universes. Heather Demetrios knows how to craft a story that is focused on difficult subject matters and just punch readers in their feelings. This is the story of two sisters who lose their parents in a plane crash, they are forced to relocate with their aunt to Boston from sunny California. Both girls are grieving in very different ways, with Mae obsessing over space while having an existential crisis, while Hannah is fostering an addiction that is struggling to kick the habit of.

Ooof. This book is an emotional roller coaster, and for someone like me who has had a sibling struggling with addiction and has gone to rehab, too much of this book was hitting close to home. A lot of Mae’s crisis and her feelings were all emotions I wrestled with in the past, and seeing her spiral in feeling helpless when it comes to Hannah was so difficult to read about. It was like looking in a mirror. Hannah’s side of the story was equally heartbreaking and challenging to read, because you want her to pull through, but she at times doesn’t want to. That last bit is SCARY. The idea that someone doesn’t WANT to get better, and they are willing to be okay with their behavior. It’s a lot, and for anyone who has dealt with addiction in some shape or form, keep that in mind before you consider checking this book out.

I loved this book, and while it’s over 400 pages, I read it in two long sittings and cried through chunks of it. Little Universes is a difficult read, and even more challenging if you’ve lived through what Hannah and Mae have. Demetrios continues to amazing me with each book she publishes, and I don’t think my heart can handle another book like Little Universes for a long while!

Late to the Party ARC Review – Taylor Before and After by Jennie Englund

Title: Taylor Before and After

Author: Jennie Englund

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Before, Taylor Harper is finally popular, sitting with the cool kids at lunch, and maybe, just maybe, getting invited to the biggest, most exclusive party of the year.

After, no one talks to her.

Before, she’s friends with Brielle Branson, the coolest girl in school.

After, Brielle has become a bully, and Taylor’s her favorite target.

Before, home isn’t perfect, but at least her family is together.

After, Mom won’t get out of bed, Dad won’t stop yelling, and Eli…

Eli’s gone.

Through everything, Taylor has her notebook, a diary of the year that one fatal accident tears her life apart. In entries alternating between the first and second semester of her eighth-grade year, she navigates joy and grief, gain and loss, hope and depression.

How can Taylor pick up the pieces of what used to be her social life? How can her house ever feel like home again after everything that’s happened? And how can she move forward if she can’t stop looking back?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Ho boy, this book. For a book that is considered middle grade, this actually feels like it should have been categorized in young adult. I want to stress that this book goes over a lot of difficult subject matters, and I am not saying a middle grader can’t comprehend them, but what I am saying is just be aware that this is a wonderful but difficult book with some hard conversations attached.

Taylor Before and After is told in a unique “before” and “after” style, alternating between two timelines. It’s a style that even with the journal entries will take a bit of getting used to. This is a story of friendships going wrong, family relationships crumbling at the seams, and one girl’s attempt to comprehend all of it as she compares her past to her present. Taylor is difficult, she’ not the most open of protagonists, and often the journal entries require a bit of detective work to get the whole story of why she is friendless or why her brother is missing. It’s done very well, might I add, and Taylor is a character you definitely can empathize with.

I want to add this book is very hopeful, and the style is inviting to say the least. I found myself constantly wanting to know what was happening between the timelines and piece together the large part of this story. It’s a bit of a mystery, which I appreciate, but it’s also a story that rings true I think for a lot of kids who may be coping with too much happening at once and are struggling to articulate it. Taylor Before and After is a very rewarding read, and one I’ll happily recommend to those who love difficult stories with complex kids at the heart of it.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore

Title: Blanca & Roja

Author: Anna-Marie McLemore

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters; they’re also rivals, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl, and trap the other in the body of a swan.

But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them. Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Can I just say how much I love Anna-Marie McLemore’s books? They are such a whirlwind of magic, curiosity, and discomfort. At least, that is definitely what reading Blanca & Roja was like. This story is a dark fairy tale about two sisters, swans, and familial expectations. There are four protagonists, each who get wrapped up into this weird, wild story about sisters, and how they all must face what demons posses them in order to feel a sense of freedom.

I read this book in a day as I was trapped in my car while waiting for my sick dog to be checked out at the vet. I was completely engrossed in the story from the first page, and totally loved the twists and turns of who the “liar” was between Blanca and Roja. In the end, I was more a Roja fan in that her anger and frustrations felt so real and something I could in a way, identify with. There is an amazing discussion in this book about being non-binary and gender-fluid, and they are done in a way that for those who are unfamiliar can understand it well.

Anna-Marie McLemore is one of those writers where they have an amazing grasp of the written language. Their books are beautifully written and they truly transport readers into worlds that are not familiar, but feel familiar, which is always a challenge when writing magical realism. I am sad it took me so long to finally read this book, and I cannot wait to read the other two books I have by them that are sitting on my shelf. If you want something dark, twisted, that will keep you guessing, then read Blanca & Roja as it will not disappoint.

 

Late to the Party ARC Review – A Bird on Water Street by Elizabeth O Dulemba

Title: A Bird on Water Street

Author: Elizabeth O Dulemba

Rating: ★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Living in Coppertown is like living on the moon. Everything is bare-there are no trees, no birds, no signs of nature at all. And while Jack loves his town, he hates the dangerous mines that have ruined the land with years of pollution. When the miners go on strike and the mines are forced to close, Jack’s life-long wish comes true: the land has the chance to heal.

But not everyone in town is happy about the change. Without the mines, Jack’s dad is out of work and the family might have to leave Coppertown. Just when new life begins to creep back into town, Jack might lose his friends, his home, and everything he’s ever known.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

A Bird on Water Street was a quick read, but that might be all it has going for it. I was interested in reading it because it’s a book about unions, lack of equality, and has a strong environmental theme running through it.

Here’s the thing: the bits about climate change and the political elements of this book were great, I will not take that away from the book. However, the writing style is flat, and while I read this book quickly, I wasn’t in love with or interested in a lot of what was happening. Jack, the protagonist in this story learns so much so quickly, yet he doesn’t feel like a real kid in the story for me. When he feels like a kid in the story, it’s very wooden and he lacks a lot of personality. If I am being honest, I barely remember Jack having much of a personality in this story.

I feel bad being harsh regarding A Bird on Water Street, but it’s one of those middle grade books that for me is one that teacher’s and schools will love, but I don’t actually know how many middle grade kids would actually pick this book up. I think it has a lot of valuable messages, but don’t come to this book looking for a character you can connect with, because Jack is simply not that.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Under the Broken Sky by Mariko Nagai

Title: Under a Broken Sky

Author: Mariko Nagai

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Natsu and her family live a quiet farm life in Manchuria, near the border of the Soviet Union. But the life they’ve known begins to unravel when her father is recruited to the Japanese army, and Natsu and her little sister, Asa, are left orphaned and destitute.

In a desperate move to keep her sister alive, Natsu sells Asa to a Russian family following the 1945 Soviet occupation. The journey to redemption for Natsu’s broken family is rife with struggles, but Natsu is tenacious and will stop at nothing to get her little sister back.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

While I am not a huge lover of historical fiction, Under the Broken Sky caught my eye because it’s a book rooted in Japanese history. More specifically, the 1945 Soviet occupation, which ended up pushing so many Japanese family apart for a variety of reasons, none of them good.

Under the Broken Sky is a story written in verse, as it looks as twelve-year-old Natsu, who has lived with her family near the Manchurian/Soviet border for her entire life. When the Russian began to push into Manchuria, Natsu and her sister Asa are forced to flee, and become orphaned in the process. Even worse is in this period upon which they are destitute, Natsu is forced to sell her sister Asa to a Russian Family in order to ensure her survival.

This story is heartbreaking from start to finish. It’s a difficult tale of losing everything and having to cope with so much happening at a young age. Natsu’s story is horrific, and you feel for both the destruction that she witnesses, and the sacrifices she must make being only twelve-years-old. While I wouldn’t recommend this book to younger middle grade readers, I feel confident that older readers will enjoy the story. It’s a challenging story to stomach at times, but it’s also a very valuable one to say the least.

ARC Review – Gloom Town by Ronald L. Smith

Title: Gloom Town

Author: Ronald L. Smith

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: When twelve-year-old Rory applies for a job at a spooky old mansion in his gloomy seaside town, he finds the owner, Lord Foxglove, odd and unpleasant. But he and his mom need the money, so he takes the job anyway. Rory soon finds out that his new boss is not just strange, he’s not even human—and he’s trying to steal the townspeople’s shadows. Together, Rory and his friend Isabella set out to uncover exactly what Foxglove and his otherworldly accomplices are planning and devise a strategy to defeat them. But can two kids defeat a group of ancient evil beings who are determined to take over the world?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Gloom Town is the story of twelve-year-old Rory, who decided to apply for a job at a spooky mansion called Foxglove, as a means to help out his mother who is financially struggling. Rory thinks the job should be easy, until he uncovers that their may be something more sinister going on at the manor. Rory finds out that his new employer is a shadowy figure who likes to steal people’s shadows — he’s not even human! Rory and his new friend Izzy must stop the crazy cultists of Foxglove Manor before more people potentially lose their shadows!

This book was a lot of fun and I quite enjoyed it. It definitely has a spooky Harriet The Spy vibe floating through the narrative and Rory and Izzy make for fun investigators to follow. I sort of wished the big bad in this story felt like a real big bad, but I appreciate the effort that went into this book for understanding that cultists might in fact be hard to pitch to a middle grade audience. The friendship between Izzy and Rory is easily the book’s strongest element, especially as they are trying to uncover the big bad, but I just wish that the big bad and it’s reveal had been stronger.

I do think this is going to be a great book to recommend to middle grader fans, if only because it moves at such a quick pace and the mystery element is good, even if the payoff isn’t as strong. There is a lot of fun and quirkiness in this story, and I truly enjoyed my time reading it.

ARC Review – A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

Title: A Galaxy of Sea Stars

Author: Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: At a time when everything in her small town of Seaside, Rhode Island, seems like it’s changing, eleven-year-old Izzy Vitale wants things to stay the same. She wants her dad to start acting like he did before he was deployed to Afghanistan, she wants her mom to move back to the marina where they live, but most of all, she wants best friends – Piper and Zelda (dubbed the Sea Star Posse by their kindergarten teacher) – to stay best friends as they begin sixth grade at the regional middle school.

Then, Izzy’s father invites his former Army interpreter from Afghanistan and his whole family – including eleven-year-old Sitara — to move into the upstairs apartment at the marina. Izzy doesn’t know what to make of Sitara with her hijab and refusal to eat cafeteria food. She does know that her constant presence has become like a rogue wave disrupting the normally easy flow of the Sea Star Posse. But as Izzy gets to know Sitara, she can’t help but admire her self-confidence and pride in her Muslim faith. Little by little, Izzy begins to realize there exists a world much larger than her safe but insulated harbor in Seaside.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Last year, I fell in love with Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo’s debut Ruby in the Sky — it was an emotional story about a girl whose mother was potential on her way to prison. It was touching, heart-breaking, and full of feelings. This year, she released A Galaxy of Sea Stars, and showed she is going to be a great new voice in middle grade.

A Galaxy of Sea Stars tells the story of Izzy, a girl with many friends, but who wants life to stay the same. She wishes her dad would go back to normal, but he suffers from PTSD after being deployed in Afghanistan, her mom hasn’t been the same either, and she meet a new friend in Sitara, who’s father was an former Army interpreter from Afghanistan, and with him comes his daughter Sitara, who changes Izzy’s life forever.

This book is a hard read, but it depicts middle grade difficulties with gentleness and looks are issues in a very direct way. Izzy and Sitara’s relationship is amazing to read about, and the trials and tribulations of it feel very real. Izzy’s failures at being a good friend to Sitara are uncomfortable, but show great moments for growth and learning. The way in which Izzy’s friends treat Sitara are horrific and uncomfortable, and this book looks at how do you stand up to injustice when you’ve never had to before? Izzy learns so much in this story, and the wrongs that she has done are great learning points for this age group.

This is a story of becoming comfortable in your own skin, finding and championing social inequality, and speaking important truths. It’s about understanding that the world will never be stagnant, and that things always change, and that no person’s course in life stays the same. A Galaxy of Sea Stars offers so much to readers of all ages, and tackles these subject matters effortlessly. I even cried a few times!