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Late to the Party ARC Review – Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life by Shelley Tougas

Title: Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life

Author: Shelley Tougas

Rating: ★★★

Synopsis: A life on the prairie is not all it’s cracked up to be in this middle-grade novel where one girl’s mom takes her love of the Little House series just a bit too far. Charlotte’s mom has just moved the family across the country to live in Walnut Grove, “childhood home of pioneer author Laura Ingalls Wilder.” Mom’s idea is that the spirit of Laura Ingalls will help her write a bestselling book. But Charlotte knows better: Walnut Grove is just another town where Mom can avoid responsibility. And this place is worse than everywhere else the family has lived—it’s freezing in the winter, it’s small with nothing to do, and the people talk about Laura Ingalls all the time. Charlotte’s convinced her family will not be able to make a life on the prairie—until the spirit of Laura Ingalls starts getting to her, too.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I admit, I am not a huge Little House on the Prairie fan. It’s not something I grew up around so I will say I did have a bit of a difficult time with this one. While the story is an adorable tale of a mom moving her kids to the birth place of Laura Ingalls in an attempt to write her masterpiece of a novel, there were a few things that didn’t work for me on this one.

On one hand, this is a story about friendship and growing up, but I won’t lie and say that Charlotte is a likable character. In this regard, I think Tougas does a good idea of showing how easily judgmental children can be. These issues of friendship in particular are handled well and I feel like the children in this story were far better developed than the adult characters. It was great to watch Charlotte develop friendships with Bao and Julia, and I appreciated that their discomfort of each other went both ways.

The adults in this book, however, are the actual problem. They are very flat or lacking in any characterization. Charlotte’s mother in particular was a bit of a caricature as opposed to a character, as her only defining characteristic is her positive attitude. Whenever Charlotte deals with her in the story, those bits were sometimes difficult to shallow because I felt like Charlotte’s mother forcing her positive attitude may not have been what was best for her children. There’s also her obsession with Laura Ingalls, which I admit, I didn’t understand or really care for. I think if I had been a fan of Little Housethis book likely would have appealed more to me.

With all this said, I do think Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life is a delightful read for the most part. There’s moments of well-timed humor and I think Charlotte is a heroine that many kids will be able to relate to whether they like her or not. I am still glad I read this book and gave it a chance, and I’m curious as to what Shelley Tougas has in store for middle grade audiences in the future.

 

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ARC Review – Thornhill by Pam Smy

Title: Thornhill

Author: Pam Smy

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: 1982: Mary is a lonely orphan at the Thornhill Institute For Children at the very moment that it’s shutting its doors. When her few friends are all adopted or re-homed and she s left to face a volatile bully alone, her revenge will have a lasting effect on the bully, on Mary, and on Thornhill itself.

2016: Ella has just moved to a new town where she knows no one. From her room on the top floor of her new home, she has a perfect view of the dilapidated, abandoned Thornhill Institute across the way, where she glimpses a girl in the window. Determined to befriend the girl, Ella resolves to unravel Thornhill’s shadowy past.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Thornhill is easily the creepiest middle grade book I’ve read. Hands down. It’s a book that is spooky, unnerving, and heartbreaking. It’s a story from two perspectives, Mary Baines who is writing a diary in 1982 while living in Thornhill Institute, and in present day we have Ella, who has moved next door to the historical site and becomes entranced by the idea of uncovering the mystery behind the building.

What makes this novel even more interesting is that Mary’s sections are written as a diary, and Ella’s are fully illustrated without dialogue. Mary’s sections are difficult to read given they focus on her lack of friendship, her deeply rooted abandonment problems, and that she has been bullied her whole life. Her diary entries are dark and uncomfortable to read. You really feel for her even though towards the end of the book you see that her sanity and emotions are deteriorating. I really felt for her.

Meanwhile, Ella continues to see Mary from her window, which is why she becomes fascinated by Thornhill. She even breaks in the abandoned building because she is convinced she has seen a young girl from her window. She leaves Mary messages and gifts. She wants to befriend her. What I loved in Ella’s sections is that Smy’s illustrations do a great job of capturing the emotions and intent behind the story. You get a sense that Ella has empathy for Mary and wants to gain a sense of understanding so many years later. The art is mostly great, though it has some awkward moments as well.

Thornhill is a book that is very dark and comes from a deeply emotional place. It’s not for reader’s looking for a whimsy time, and that’s where I’d recommend this to older middle grade readers who can understand concepts such as bullying and death. The ending hurts, and there’s no other way to describe it. Pam Smy’s Thornhill is a unique but difficult read. Reader’s need to be in a particular headspace to really grasp how loaded this story truly is.

ARC Review – A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith

27414389Title: A Darkly Beating Heart

Author: Lindsay Smith

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: No one knows what to do with Reiko. She is full of hatred. All she can think about is how to best hurt herself and the people closest to her. After a failed suicide attempt, Reiko’s parents send her from their Seattle home to spend the summer with family in Japan to learn to control her emotions. But while visiting Kuramagi, a historic village preserved to reflect the nineteenth-century Edo period, Reiko finds herself slipping back in time into the life of Miyu, a young woman even more bent on revenge than Reiko herself. Reiko loves being Miyu, until she discovers the secret of Kuramagi village, and must face down Miyu’s demons as well as her own.

Huge thank you to Macmillan for sending me an ARC of this book for review!

Molly’s Review:

Okay, so I know that this book doesn’t come out until October, but I HAD to read it as soon as I got it. For those of you who DON’T know, I lived in Japan for seven years and I generally find a lot of issues with YA books set in Japan. I’ve kinda taken it upon myself to read them and pick them apart. So I went into this book both excited and leary because I don’t believe that the author has actually lived or even spent a significant amount of time LIVING in Japan (I did read her author’s note and she went there for a vacation, I know).

That said I REALLY enjoyed this book. This is the story of a troubled Japanese-American girl who goes to Japan to stay with her Uncle and cousin while she tries to work out her issues. She’s waiting to hear back from colleges and planning her own perfect revenge against… well you find out later on who and why, but for most of the book you just get glimpses at those who wronged her.

Reiko is an angry girl. She’s a cutter (trigger warning) and she spends A LOT of time thinking about how she’s going to kill herself and get revenge on her ex-girlfriend, brother, parents, and later this extends to her cousin and friends. We find out that Reiko had a passionate relationship with a girl named Chloe who unleashed Reiko’s dark artistic side. Reiko is swept up in Chloe’s orbit and does thing that she normally wouldn’t, which later gets her into a lot of trouble.

While in Japan Reiko works for her Uncle’s web design company and spends time with her cousin and the other employees who are also employed by the cousin, Akiko, who is trying to become a J-Pop idol. Akiko has her own lifestyle brand that she’s trying to sell via her youtube channel, blog, cell phone novel and website. The other employees are basically her entourage as she tries to find ways to get her name out there. And Akiko’s boyfriend, who is a washed up idol himself, gets Akiko a gig at a culture festival in a remote Japanese village.

So the group travels to Kuramagi village where Reiko is swept away to another time, the Edo period, where she inhabits the body of a young woman who is filled with her own rage and revenge plots. Reiko loves being in Miyu’s body and feeling all of Miyu’s hate. At first, when Reiko time travels, she thinks that her antidepressants are making her crazy and she gets rid off them. But we later find out that something much more sinister is happening, something that happens every year at the festival, something that the village is desperately trying to stop.

So the story was good, I really enjoyed it. As for the writing I thought that the whole”I walk the path of vengeance, I must get my revenge” parts were a LITTLE heavy handed. Like, we got it, Reiko is angry. And while I liked the glimpses of what had happened, and we do get the full story by the end, I was sometimes frustrated that I didn’t have a full picture and was just filling in gaps and wasn’t quite sure if I was even right.

As for the Japanese aspects a lot of them were pitch perfect. My only two nitpicks are:

1. Why in the world did Smith keep using the world “pallet” for a futon!? This boggled my mind to no end. She uses TONS of Japanese words (well) in the text with either direct translation or translation that follows not too long after. But the entire time they were sleeping on “pallets”. And I really don’t see why the word futon wasn’t just used, defined, and then used for the rest of the book.

2. Names. In Japan it’s Surname followed by Given name. There are many different honorifics that are used much like Mr/Mrs, Sir/Ma’am etc. Usually these name conventions fall away around foreigners. In the group and at work they should have ALL been referring to each other by Last name + san. Instead they all use first names. I chalked this up to them being around Reiko and falling out of the convention because of her, but from my own experiences even around myself the Japanese people (especially while speaking Japanese) would not have used first names. So while Reiko was being called Reiko and using everyone’s first names, Akiko would NOT have been calling Kenji by his first name unless they were VERY good friends and even then she probably should have added “kun”.

And then in the Edo period it was very odd that everyone was again using first names. Especially for Miyu who was so hated. And she would not have called Jiro by his first name from the very start. I’m not even sure if she would have used it after they got closer.

So yeah, those were my only two real issues. The rest of the Japan stuff felt very authentic and true to my experiences as well as those around myself. I enjoyed that Smith didn’t get too heavy with the “weird” Japan and that she really seemed to have a grasp on the lifestyle brand culture that Akiko was going for. Major props.

Sam’s Review:

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

I love books set in Japan despite having never visited. There’s always something very atmospheric and lore driven, which A Darkly Beating Heart follows to a tee. I loved how well put together the story was, I thought the characters were very interesting, and the use of time travel was something quite special given our heroine goes backwards in time.

I loved Reiko and I thought she was a great character. I feel like we get such a huge sense of her emotions, her desire for revenge, and how she is struggling to define her anger given her circumstances. I also loved the Miyu half, because I think it perfectly manifests angry and aggression in a way that feels almost symbolic given Miyu’s story. They were a neat fusion of characters, and I liked how Smith blended them together.

I also thought the way idol culture was presented was really interesting here. Aki comes across like quite the nutjob at times, but it’s because you spend a lot of the story seeing her as her brand rather than a person. She’s malicious and calculating at times, but it’s interesting because you see it more from her being a businesswoman than just that type of person outright. It also doesn’t help that certain characters really pander to her branding, which made for some great moments in the story. Personally, I liked Kazuo. He likes the PlayStation Vita, which makes me happy given that no one seems to love the Vita.

While I think the ending wraps up a bit too neatly, I do love this story and I think Smith has a knack for doing balanced research and transforming it into an interesting narrative. I loved reading her Author’s Note where she explains where her inspiration came from, as well as the extent of her research went. There’s a great sense of tension and emotion in A Darkly Beating Heart and if you love books that feel dark and mysterious, check this one out.

ARC Review – Afterward by Jennifer Mathieu

27414452Title: Afterward

Author: Jennifer Mathieu

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: When Caroline’s little brother is kidnapped, his subsequent rescue leads to the discovery of Ethan, a teenager who has been living with the kidnapper since he was a young child himself. In the aftermath, Caroline can’t help but wonder what Ethan knows about everything that happened to her brother, who is not readjusting well to life at home. And although Ethan is desperate for a friend, he can’t see Caroline without experiencing a resurgence of traumatic memories. But after the media circus surrounding the kidnappings departs from their small Texas town, both Caroline and Ethan find that they need a friend–and their best option just might be each other.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I think I just might be in love with Jennifer Mathieu. I consider Devoted to be one of my all time favourite books in recent years, and her debut The Truth About Alice left me broken yet hopeful. Her latest release, Afterward focuses on a kidnapping, and how people attempt to return to a “normal life” after such a traumatic event.

This novel focuses on two narratives: Caroline, who’s younger brother with autism is kidnapped on her watch, and Ethan, a young man who was taken at a young age and longs to feel normal again. Both boys are suffering from PTSD, remembering horrific things from the time they were removed from their families. Caroline befriends Ethan in hopes of learning about her brother’s kidnapping and why he has become much more closed off.

The friendship between Caroline and Ethan was superb in this story, and I loved that Mathieu did not make them into a couple. The novel shows the gradual build of their friendship, and it looks at how important having a good friend can be when dealing with mental stress. The plot twist that Mathieu throws in, though I had some hunches about, I was not actually expecting the way she executed it and it totally ripped me to shreds.

I also loved the way that Mathieu explores autism and families who have children who are autistic. This felt very authentic to me, and written with a very keen eye and a genuineness to understand. I think that is what I loved about reading the relationship between Caroline and Dylan, and I loved how she feels she’s the reason he was kidnapped, and how she in some ways, wants to atone for what happened.

This novel is impeccability researched and is constantly thoughtful of its every move. I really loved both main characters, I loved how fleshed out their families were given the circumstances of what happened to Ethan and Dylan, and I think just reading about the afterwards of something so horrific is unique and interesting in itself. I am so thankfully that these situations are rare, but it doesn’t make these kinds of stories any less important.

If you love tough!YA and want to read a beautiful, heartbreaking story that offers the reader so much in terms of subject matter, then Afterward is the kind of book you need in your life. Upon finishing the book it left me reflecting on the story and its characters, and even when it ended, there was a part of me that didn’t want to let go to these characters.

Jennifer Mathieu, I think I’m a fan for life. Thank you for these stories and sharing these voices.

ARC Review – Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

22718682Title: Devoted

Author:  Jennifer Mathieu

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Rachel Walker is devoted to God. She prays every day, attends Calvary Christian Church with her family, helps care for her five younger siblings, dresses modestly, and prepares herself to be a wife and mother who serves the Lord with joy. But Rachel is curious about the world her family has turned away from, and increasingly finds that neither the church nor her homeschool education has the answers she craves. Rachel has always found solace in her beliefs, but now she can’t shake the feeling that her devotion might destroy her soul.

Huge thank you to Raincoast Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I fell deeply in love with Jennifer Mathieu’s first novel The Truth About Alice last year and remembered being completely enamoured by her writing. There’s a raw and rich quality to her work, and she leaves the reader with so much to think about both as the story progresses and when it ends. Colour me excited when Devoted showed up in the mail, because I admit, books on religion are something that always make me a touch nervous.

Devoted is written with honesty, kindness, and raw force. Rachel is the kind of heroine who a reader can connect with because she is someone who is being ripped a part at the seams. We can sympathize with her because she wants to be a devoted Christian woman, but she also has a strong desire to see the world beyond the walls of Calvary Christian, the commune she lives in.

And here’s the thing, the book does a wonderful and respectful job of looking at both of Rachel’s wants. She understands what is right and wrong about the cult she grew up in, she’s sympathetic to the people she once lived with, and yet the other half of her knows that (and through discovering Lauren’s blog) that there’s more to the world outside of it. She wants an education, she wants to have a job, she wants more for her life than simply baring children and being a good helpmeet.

I really adored the characters in this story. Rachel’s family is exceptionally frustrating, but I found myself sympathizing with them at times, particularly Rachel’s sister, Ruth, who seemed the most frazzled by Rachel’s abrupt departure. I also loved Lauren and how she comforts Rachel, and I love her genuine attitude towards helping her get settled into a normal life. I loved the Treats family, especially Diane, who was just so nutty and fun. Mark was a cutie too, and I liked that Mathiu didn’t try to force a romance between he and Rachel, but rather went very subtle about it. This book was more about Rachel’s growth, and Mark has such a sweetness about him that he wants to encourage her transition than spoil it.

So I am two for two with Jennifer Mathieu, and I know that I’ll be reading more of her books as they are published. She knows how to provide such thoughtful reads, and with such a touchy topic like religion, does it with such grace. I encourage everyone to check out Devoted, simply because it’s one of those books that offers a perspective often not considered, and it leaves  such a lasting impression. This is a tough read, but it’s the kind that is also so rewarding, that you’ll still be thinking about it well after it’s over.

ARC Review – The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

18885674Title: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place

Author: Julie Berry

Rating: ★★★

Synopsis: There’s a murderer on the loose—but that doesn’t stop the girls of St. Etheldreda’s from attempting to hide the death of their headmistress in this rollicking farce.

The students of St. Etheldreda’s School for Girls face a bothersome dilemma. Their irascible headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her surly brother, Mr. Godding, have been most inconveniently poisoned at Sunday dinner. Now the school will almost certainly be closed and the girls sent home—unless these seven very proper young ladies can hide the murders and convince their neighbors that nothing is wrong.

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a smart, hilarious Victorian romp, full of outrageous plot twists, mistaken identities, and mysterious happenings.

Huge thank you to Roaring Brook Press and Netgalley for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I enjoyed The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, but unfortunately not as much as I thought I would. There is a crazy amount going on in this book all at once, with so many characters to follow, that for a middle grade novel, I found it surprisingly overwhelming at times to read. The positives to this book are that it sends a strong message of friendship, girls communicating with one another without aggression or jealousy, and that being sassy has its perks.

The negatives, however? Well, I admit, the writing style in this book irked me a great deal. It’s very dry, often lacking the same kind of punch the characters actual have. I often found it overly descriptive, yet because there’s so many characters, it’s really hard to get to know them without remembering that each girl has a “character trait” attached to her name and it’s a core part of who she is, but I needed more to attach myself to them, and I just struggled a lot of the time because the writing and I just didn’t get along. The overly Victorian style just didn’t work for me — the writing just felt so stilted and samey.

However, this book is immensely creative, quirky and I feel like it does have a lot to offer. The mystery elements in the story are really well done, very humourous, and it definitely keeps you asking questions throughout. However, getting tot he end of the story and realizing what everything was? I’m not sure whether it was genius or just awkward.

I wish I hadn’t had such a hard time reading this book because I feel like the premise itself is wonderful but the execution was just lacking for me. This was really a case of ‘its not you, its me’ and I wish it wasn’t that way because I feel like it had everything going to be a favourite middle grade pick for the year, and my expectations just fell too short of what I actual got. It’s not a horrible book by any means, in fact, with the right reader who appreciates Victorian style storytelling will likely appreciate this more than I did. There’s certainly a likeable story here.

Though I will admit, that cover is amazing.