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Late to the Party ARC Review – At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

23735614Title:  At the Water’s Edge

Author: Sarah Gruen

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to color-blindness. Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and, when he finds it, he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day, the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. Meanwhile, Maddie undergoes a social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and, finally, to love.

Huge thank you to Random House Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

This was a book I put off for months reading, worried I wouldn’t like it. I adored Water for Elephants, a book I assumed by title alone I wouldn’t enjoy. I was worried afterwards that At the Water’s Edge wouldn’t live up to my expectations of what Sarah Gruen is capable of.

However, I flew through this book. I couldn’t stop turning the pages because I was so engrossed by Maddie’s narrative, along with the quest to see the Loch Ness monster. I found myself completely enchanted by the way in which the story was woven together, and I loved how Gruen opens this novel and then surprises readers by the end of it with a reference to the beginning. There’s so many subtle nuances in this story, and the writing is quite lovely.

Mostly though, I loved Maddie, Anna, and Meg. I found each of the heroines in the story so strong in their own right, and I found that how they approached others in the story to be quite interesting. I wanted to hurl things at Ellis and Hank, but I understood their rational in a lot of the situations within the story. I gotta say though, the ending quite surprised me, and I loved how the story wrapped up.

Is the story a tad melodramatic and ridiculous? Absolutely! And if you don’t like that, then I definitely don’t recommend this book. However, if you don’t mind a little drama, and some really, really, lovely writing, I definitely recommend At the Water’s Edge, because if anything, it’s quite a page-turner.

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Middle Grade Monday – LGBT Issues in Middle Grade

This is the first time I am attempting Middle Grade Monday, as I was encouraged by my dear friend Vikki VanSickle. We discuss middle grade a lot, and I always appreciate Vikki’s recommendations when she finds a new middle grade novel to squee over. I thought for my first post for this Middle Grade Monday, I’d look at a topic that has kind of hit me in the face recently, and that is LGBT representation in middle grade fiction, particularly in the books We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen (2015) and From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun
by Jacqueline Woodson (1995).

19405297One thing that I found interesting about both We Are All Made of Molecules and From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun was the approach to the protagonists having homosexual parents. In We Are All Made of Molecules, Ashley’s father comes out as being gay and end ups moving outside the family home and into the guest house in the backyard. Ashley spends a lot of the novel struggling with he father’s newfound sexual identity and blames him for the divorce because of this. Interestingly, Stewart, Ashley’s step-brother, is the one who ends up be-friending Ashley’s father, ultimately treating him as though his sexual preference shouldn’t matter. It’s an interesting parallel in the novel, as Ashley worries frequently that her classmates are going to find out about her gay father and start treating her like she’s a “gay lover.”

I could empathize with Ashley in this situation, even if I didn’t agree with her behaviour. She spends a lot of the novel questioning if she’s going to be come “like him” and feels as though because her father is gay, her social world is completely over. She blames him for everything going wrong in her life because she cannot accept that her parents aren’t together anymore, and that her father is a gay man. It’s interesting, therefore that it’s Stewart who forges a relationship first with Ashley’s father — but Stewart being an outcast in the story I feel is why their connection is so instantaneous, Stewart has nothing to judge Ashley’s father on and therefore is able to listen and share his feelings in an honest and open way. What I loved even more in We Are All Made of Molecules is how long it takes Ashley to befriend her father again. It felt very realistic given the situation and how long it takes her to learn to accept others (including Stewart), and it makes for some wonderful character development.

Similarly, I read From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson, a book that was 8285986already tackling what We Are All Made of Molecules did back in 1995. In Woodson’s novel, Melanin Sun’s mother also has a sexual awakening and attempts to tell her twelve year old son that she is a lesbian who happens to be in love with a white woman. Melanin has so much angry towards her mother, stating that she has ruined their family by not essentially being hetrosexual. Moreover, he outright asks his mother why she can’t “be like everyone else,” making the assumption that everyone is hetrosexual. What I loved in this particular novel is that Woodson doesn’t shy away from the topic, but she still fuses strong family values into the narrative as her way of approaching the topic. Melanin thinks that because his mother is a lesbian that there is something wrong with his family, that she won’t love him anymore, and that he might “become gay.” The resolving conversation is what won me over in this novel, as his mother states that gay or straight, love is love and it shouldn’t matter who Melanin Sun wants to become in his life and that you shouldn’t be constrained to your sexual identity. Since Melanin and Mama grew up in a single family household, he has a harder time accepting Kristin, his mother’s lover because she is a white privileged woman. He even goes as far to say “What would people think of a black woman dating a white woman?” to which Mama states that “it shouldn’t matter.” However, Melanin refuses to get to know Kristin because of what he has pre-conceived as the truth, which is the other problem.

I really loved when Mama tells him that he shouldn’t pass judgement on someone he doesn’t know and that he needs to try and accept Kristin. Woodson does this phenomenal job by the end of the novel in making Melanin see the error in his ways, and while he hasn’t totally accepted them by the end of the novel, you can see that he has somewhat changed his tune.

Both of these novels explode children having homosexual parents in such a realistic and valuable way. While both Melanin and Ashley has the same response to their parents newfound sexual identity, it’s interesting how both novels have very similar outlooks on this subject matter. Both authors do a great job of exploring the topic on a level that a middle grader can understand and comprehend, while being able to see a clear resolve to the situation. Both novels open a dialogue for children and parents to discuss the topic, which is ultimately why they both work so well. I definitely would recommend checking out both these middle grade novels if this is a topic that interests you. We need more approaches to LGBT in middle grade, and I feel like both We Are All Made of Molecules and From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun successfully investigate this topic with such an open eye.

If you have any recommendations for other middle grade novels that focus on LGBT issues, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

ARC Review – Wind/Pinball: Two Early Novels by Haruki Murakami

24013720Title:  Wind/Pinball: Two Early Novels

Author: Haruki Murakami

Rating:  ★★★★

Synopsis: The debut short novels–nearly thirty years out of print– by the internationally acclaimed writer, newly retranslated and in one English-language volume for the first time, with a new introduction by the author.

These first major works of fiction by Haruki Murakami center on two young men–an unnamed narrator and his friend and former roommate, the Rat. Powerful, at times surreal, stories of loneliness, obsession, and eroticism, these novellas bear all the hallmarks of Murakami’s later books, giving us a fascinating insight into a great writer’s beginnings, and are remarkable works of fiction in their own right. Here too is an exclusive essay by Murakami in which he explores and explains his decision to become a writer. Prequels to the much-beloved classics A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance, these early works are essential reading for Murakami completists and contemporary fiction lovers alike.

Huge thank you to Random House Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

So I spent many, many years looking to find a translation for both of these novels. Believe it or not a translation did exist forHear the Wind Sing, but the price to get a physical copy of it was beyond absurd. So colour me thrilled when this collection was announced (and once again translated by an old professor of mine). Wind/Pinball is a bind up of Hear the Wind Sing andPinbal 1973, and are Murakami’s first two “novels” if you wish to call them that.

What I loved about this collection was that we get to see the beginnings of a young Haruki Murakami. We see the themes that are now considered staples in his works showing early life. Isolation, love, jazz, it’s all here in it’s rawest forms. Personally, I really enjoyed the visit in both these stories, especially because it gave me a lot of insight into Murakami as an early writer, and it shows the rougher areas in his writing where you can tell he was still new to the craft. It felt like such an enriching experience. The downside, however, to this is that while these were his first novels, they don’t actual feel like anything new. I could sense that some of his later works were influenced by these first two stories, particularly South of the Border, West of the Sun, which I’d argue is still a better novel than both of these.

However, I enjoyed and read both novels in one sitting. Murakami’s writing is still captivating, and it was interesting to see the origins of The Rat, who is a popular character in A Wild Sheep Chase. You get to see two very distinctive and different sides to this character when reading Wind/Pinball, and yet you know it’s the same person from all three stories. I adored both novels but for different reasons: in Hear the Wind Sing, I loved how the hero was a disc-jockey, yet he didn’t have the greatest social skills. Reading that particular story gave me a huge appreciation for why jazz and its culture is so prevalent in Murakami’s works.

Pinball 1973 was the more quirky of the two stories, as once again we have a jazz loving protagonist, with an interest in pinball, but can’t seem to get the ladies to like him. Again, we have all of Murakami’s signature themes, but in this story we start to see more of the quirky sense of humour that Murakami has. My favourite part was these two twins and the protagonist could never figure out how to identify them separately, and they play being identical twins up so hard on him. It’s gets so bad that they get sweat-shirts with different numbers on them, and when he asks if he can call them by number, they take off their shirts and switch them. I thought that was hilarious.

I think for hardcore Murakami fans, this is a must read in the sense that it’ll provide you with some historical insight into his early works, as well as his writing process. The introduction in this collection alone is worth reading for those curious about his habits, where he came from, and why he reuses the same themes throughout his stories. Both stories offer a lot of interesting moments, though similarly they don’t offer anything that feels new or that you haven’t seen from Murakami before. They’re worth the read, and then while your at it, go read A Wild Sheep Chase to simply see how the Rat’s story comes to end.

 

Toronto Comics Art Festival 2015, Festival of Trees, and #SusanSusin Events!

crowd1I’ve had an insanely busy and bookish May so far. Last weekend I had the chance to attend the Toronto Comics Art Festival (aka TCAF), and it was my first time going to the event. For those who are not familiar, TCAF is a celebration of comics, art, and culture, and it takes place at the Toronto Reference Library. I went with my partner-in-crime, Kiki, and we went around exploring some of the major events that were occurring this year. One amazing event that was happening was the comics versus games panels, and in honour of this, there was a pop-up arcade on the second floor of Toronto Reference. Kiki and I ended up playing a game called Moon Hunters (I wrote an impression for RPGamer.com) and I really cannot wait for its release in 2016. It’s a lot of fun.

And comics! So many different kins of comics, local artists, folks from all over the world, coming and enjoying the event. I had the chance to meet a ton of talented artists, while also seeing friends who were participating as well. Here’s some folks I met!

roraina

Raina Telgemeier, author of Smile, Sisters, and Drama!

noelle

Noelle Stevenson, co-author of the Lumberjanes and author of Nimona! She’s SO CUTE AND NICE!

chipAnd Chip Zdarsky, who is a terrible, hilarious flirt, and artist of Sex Criminals. He will write pornographic things in your book!

haul

And finally, the book haul (the part we all know everyone cares about the most!)

Overall, I had an amazing time at my first TCAF. Everyone, authors, comic fans, alike are just so friendly and they want to fanboy/girl their favourite artists and comics. It’s easy to get swept away in the positivity that surrounds the festival, and it’s impressive the kinds of guests that it attracts. If you live in the city, or love graphic novels and comics, you owe yourself the opportunity to come and visit Toronto while TCAF is on.


CE5M3ZXUMAIvFT0The second event I attended this month was the Ontario Library Association’s Festival of Trees. For those unfamiliar, it’s their Rock Concert of Reading, wherein they allow school children and teens to vote on their favourite Canadian novels over last year. Program Info Here!

A former classmate and I decided that since we both want to specialize in children and young adult fiction that we would go and investigate the Festival of Trees. The event featured authors such as Eric Walters, Vikki VanSickle, Heather Smith, Eve Silver, Kenneth Oppel and many more. Let’s just say, the authors were such amazing sports, signing autographs, performing workshops, and of course there were the awards themselves. Every author had long lines with students piled up waiting to meet and chat with them. I admit, I waited in line for Eve Silver and Vikki VanSickle, though they are my friends and I’m a huge supporter of both their works. CE5M5jLUMAALrzd

The winners ended up being…. (and I’ll just focus on Fiction in this case)

Blue Spurce (Picture Books!) – Maureen Fergus & Mike Lowery’s “The Day My Mom Came to Kindergarten”

Red Maple (Non-Fiction!) – The Last Train: A Holocaust  Story by Rona Arato

Red Maple (Fiction!) – Eric Walter’s “The Rule of Three” (which I reviewed here)

White Pine (YA!) – Eve Silver’s “Rush” (who I interviewed back in 2013 @ RPGamer)

All in all, The Festival of Trees was such a rewarding and unique experience. Honestly, seeing students get so jazzed about reading, voting and having a voice in literacy is so empowering for authors, publishers, library professionals and the students themselves. Events like this remind us that Canada has some amazing talent and that it needs to be more valued and recognized. Though with the 10,000 attendees, I feel like that statement is all the more successful. It’s clear that reading and writing are not dying arts, and to those who say that, I counter with: “So, did you check out the Festival of Trees. It’s the good kind of chaos.”


susansusinFinally, the last event I was able to attended occurred right after the Festival of Trees. I was given a personal invite to visit the Random House Canada office to meet Susan Juby, author of “The Truth Commission” and Susin Nielson, author of “We Are All Made of Molecules” (review). The event allowed local bloggers and bookstore employees the opportunity to have wine and snacks before Susan and Susin headed off for the Brampton leg of their #SusanSusin tour.

It was such a wonderful and casual event. Both authors mingled and chatted with everyone, and they were just so funny and down to earth. I was very nervous because I know how awkward I can be at times, but they both so kind. (I am sorry my flash blinded you, Susin!). It made me appreciate how open authors can be with fans and bloggers, and it’s totally appreciated. I know now though that I need to check more of Susan (Alice, I Think!) and Susin’s books (Seriously, Word Nerd, I need it).

susinIt’s Susin Nielson!

susan

And Susan Juby!

Huge thank you again to Random House Canada for the invite, I had an AWESOME time! And seriously, check out both their recent novels. I loved “We Are All Made of Molecules” and I started “The Truth Commission” on my train ride home last night — SO FUNNY and quirky! If you want to read some hilarious and truthful novels, look no further than both these releases.

ARC Review – We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen

19405297Title: We Are All Made of Molecules

Author: Susin Nielsen

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Thirteen-year-old Stewart Inkster is academically brilliant but “ungifted” socially. Fourteen-year-old Ashley Anderson is the undisputed “It” girl of grade nine, but her marks stink. Their worlds are about to collide when Stewart and his dad move in with Ashley and her mom. “The Brady Bunch” it isn’t. Stewart is trying to be 89.9% happy about it, but Ashley is 110% horrified. She already has to hide the truth behind her parents’ divorce; “Spewart” could further threaten her position at the top of the social ladder. They are complete opposites. And yet, no matter their differences, they share one thing in common: they–like the rest of us–are all made of molecules.

Huge thank you to Random House Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

To be honest, I am aware that Susin Nielsen is a house hold name in Canadian Kit Lit, having written quite a number of middle grade novels and was a writer on Degrassi (which I enjoyed as a youngin’). This is my first Susin Nielsen book, and I can easily say it will not be my last. We Are All Made of Molecules is just such a peculiar book, chock full of humour and heart.

Stewart has lost his mother to cancer, his father is remarrying, and he gets himself a new sister. At first he’s completely thrilled, thinking he and his new sister will be besties. Scratch that out when Stewart meets Ashley, a dippy, full of herself girl who wants nothing more than her father to NOT be gay and her mother to NOT remarry. She wants nothing to do with Stewart, and that’s where the novel begins.

For the record, Nielsen plays with a lot of different stereotypes, but she does it in such a wonderful and charming way. Ashley is very ditzy, but speaks in such a matter of fact way, and yet she’s not actually as stupid as she comes across. Part of it is a defence mechanism, the other felt like she was sincere when she didn’t know something. She’s quite the frustrating character, and reminds me a bit of my own sibling in terms of having to always be right, always needing the approval of others, which really is what makes her work so well contrasted to Stewart.

Stewart simply wants to be accepted. He’s hyper-intelligent, kind, and social awkward. He feels as though he has some great qualities and yet he doesn’t entirely understand why he’s at the bottom of the food chain at school. He’s a character that wants to build relationship with others his own age, and yet he gravitates to those much older to him. I could totally relate to his character, especially at his age because I did a lot of the same things because I felt like people didn’t understand me or want to accept me. Nielsen does a great job making both Ashley and Stewart feels so natural.

And the humour in this book is wonderful and cheeky. There are so many moments where both Stewart and Ashley just made me burst out laughing because they are both crazy and yet neither of them see it. I also liked how Nielsen handled parents in this novel, as they all felt just real enough, especially when they would intervene between the two protagonists.

I found myself very fond of Ashley’s dad, who came out very late in his life, and admits to changing his family’s dynamic, but never ever loving them any less. Ashley struggles throughout the novel with having a gay parent — she feels it will make her less popular or people will pick on her, and yet her father gets it, respects it, but tries to make her see that this is something she must either accept or walk away from. Nielsen nails this with ease, and she makes the problems between Ashley and her father complicated, but really moving at the same time.

I loved, loved, loved this book and I’m so happy I was given the opportunity to check it out. Susin Nielson really knows how to balance humour, complicated emotions, and heart with such ease. Plus her writing is just a lot of fun. I found myself constantly thinking about this book well after I finished it, because I loved the complexity of the characters in this story, even if they really were built off of simple stereotypes. This one is definitely worth checking out, especially because Stewart really will warm his way into your heart.

ARC Review – The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Lexicon of Life Hacks for the Modern Lady Geek

22926684Title: The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Lexicon of Life Hacks for the Modern Lady Geek

Author: Sam Maggs

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Fanfic, cosplay, cons, books, memes, podcasts, vlogs, OTPs and RPGs and MMOs and more—it’s never been a better time to be a girl geek. The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy is the ultimate handbook for ladies living the nerdy life, a fun and feminist take on the often male-dominated world of geekdom. With delightful illustrations and an unabashed love for all the in(ternet)s and outs of geek culture, this book is packed with tips, playthroughs, and cheat codes for everything from starting an online fan community to planning a convention visit to supporting fellow female geeks in the wild.

Huge thank you to Random House Canada and Quirk Books for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

You know what I love about Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy? All of it. Okay, that’s an overstatement, but I really did love this book cover to cover. There’s a little self-help, a lot of strategies for those who struggle to embrace their lady geek, and the message throughout the book is wonderfully positive.

I love that Sam Maggs gives a large overview of the geek lexicon and the way in which geeks interact with fandom and other geeks. She doesn’t shy away from the complicated aspects of what it means to be a lady geek in a male dominated, boys club called ‘fandom’. I totally found myself nodding along when she discussed what it meant to have her geek prowess ‘tested’ just because people didn’t want her to feel included — I know exactly how that feels like.

I also loved her promotion of what it means to be a feminist and how women need to stop competing with one another and instead attempt to work together. I used to struggle a lot with that myself being a woman in the game’s industry, but now, as I’ve gotten older, I’m finding myself embracing the idea of letting other women into my life. The Fangirl’s Litany is inspiring and truthful, because really, who wants to be a companion, when you can be the doctor? It’s so true!

Honestly, there’s so much to this very compact guide that I could go on forever about how wonderful and inspiring it is. It will make you feel like you can combat and overcome issues that stand in your way, but it also offers a lot of common sense that often is forgotten by those in fandom. Like be awesome to each other — why is that one so damn hard to remember? In any case,Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy is personable, humorous and charming to the geeky core. There’s so much fun to be had in this book, and Sam Maggs really is a wonderful guide through the complexities of what it means to be a modern day fangirl.

ARC Review – The Prom Goer’s Interstellar Excursion by Chris McCoy

21494581Title: The Prom Goer’s Interstellar Excursion

Author:  Chris McCopy

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Just a few days before prom, Bennett pulls off something he never imagined possible: his dream girl, Sophie, agrees to be his date. Moments afterward, however, he watches Sophie get abducted by aliens in the middle of the New Mexico desert.

Faced with a dateless prom (and likely kidnapping charges), Bennett does the only thing he can think of: he catches a ride into outer space with a band of extraterrestrial musicians to bring her back.

Huge thank you to Random House Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

This book. This book will break your brain. With a title like The Prom Goer’s Interstellar Excursion there’s bound to be crazy, right? Absolutely. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I started reading this book, but it was a surprising amount of fun.

In fact, the book is downright insane. Bennett’s prom date is abducted by aliens, he also gets taken, he’s forced into a rock band, and it just goes from there. I mean, the characters live near Roswell, New Mexico, so everyone is insanely in some way in this story (loved the red neck who wanted to get abducted to the point where he’d just put himself out there, begging to be taken). Everyone is a little quirky, and rightful so given Roswell’s history. Bennett has no prospects in life, was lucky enough to get the girl of his dreams to go out with him and then those gosh darn aliens took her away.

And that’s just it. This book is crack, but it’s the kind of crack you have to be in the right mood for. This book runs on the appeal that you can throw your cares away and just accept Bennett’s reality for what it is. At times in the story it works really well, and other times it comes across a bit too easy (which sadly, is true of the ending). However, given the ending of the novel, I appreciated how McCoy ends the story, one which I won’t spoil, but I was pleasantly surprised by.

I don’t know why, but I loved the aliens and I thought they were a ton of fun. Call me strange, but I feel like hanging out with them would have been entertaining. That being said, I had a hard time with both Bennett and Sophie. I found Sophie a bit one dimensional at times, which made her hard to connect with, and Bennett was a bit too emo for my tastes. The story itself is insanely fun, but I struggled to make connections with the characters because the story was so extraordinary.

This book is unique, and if you love cracktastic books that will take you to a far off journey, this is a great one. However, it’s not some of those books that will reinvent wheel as it still features a lot of the YA tropes out there. Still, sometimes you just want a book that is cheeky and likeable, and The Prom Goes Interstellar Excursion fits the bill nicely.