Tag Archives: tough issues

ARC Review – Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz

27414408Title: Finding Perfect

Author: Elly Swartz

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: To Molly Nathans, perfect is:

• The number four
• The tip of a newly sharpened number two pencil
• A crisp, white pad of paper
• Her neatly aligned glass animal figurines

What’s not perfect is Molly’s mother leaving the family to take a faraway job with the promise to return in one year. Molly knows that promises are often broken, so she hatches a plan to bring her mother home: Win the Lakeville Middle School Slam Poetry Contest. The winner is honored at a fancy banquet with table cloths. Molly’s sure her mother would never miss that. Right…?

But as time goes on, writing and reciting slam poetry become harder. Actually, everything becomes harder as new habits appear, and counting, cleaning, and organizing are not enough to keep Molly’s world from spinning out of control.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for a finished copy of this novel!

Sam’s Review:

Finding Perfect is my kind of middle grade novel — it focuses on tough subject matters but does an amazing job of making them accessible to younger audiences without feeling patronizing or overly complicated. This is a novel about a girl named Molly who slowly learned throughout the novel that she suffers from OCD.

I want to throw out there what a delightful debut this novel is. I fell for Molly right from the get-go, and it’s because Swartz has this really inviting style of writing that eases the reader into Molly’s thoughts and feelings. Molly has her ticks, but they are introduced so organically into the story that it also makes it easy for the readers to understand where she is coming from, as well as sympathize with her. I loved her personality, and I found her emotions to be so rawly portrayed.

Actually, I should say her family is really well portrayed given that they all feel like they are suffering from neglect from a mother who had to take a job in Toronto to support her family. All of the siblings deal with this in such different ways, so it gave a very layered perspective on how siblings cope with an absent parent. I also loved Molly’s friends, I enjoyed that her environment was (mostly) supportive.

Most importantly, I love the way Swartz tackles the topic of OCD. I felt like I gained such a huge understanding of it and how young children my cope with it. I also loved the amount of research that went into making this novel authentic, and I am so happy that voices like Molly’s exist for readers who may have OCD and want representation. This novel does it with such grace and sensitivity, and I felt like I was very much a part of the story being an outsider who was looking in.

Fidning Perfect is nearly perfect. While it ends on a soft note (I admit, I would have loved to have known more), I feel like this is one of those middle grade books that will stay with the reader long after the book has been completed. Molly is such a wonderful heroine and I am looking forward to seeing what other stories Swartz will pen in the future.

 

Book Review – Wish by Barbara O’Connor

27414384Title: Wish

Author: Barbara O’Connor

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Eleven-year-old Charlie Reese has been making the same secret wish every day since fourth grade. She even has a list of all the ways there are to make the wish, such as cutting off the pointed end of a slice of pie and wishing on it as she takes the last bite. But when she is sent to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to live with family she barely knows, it seems unlikely that her wish will ever come true. That is until she meets
Wishbone, a skinny stray dog who captures her heart, and Howard, a neighbor boy who proves surprising in lots of ways. Suddenly Charlie is in serious danger of discovering that what she thought she wanted may not be what she needs at all.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for a finished copy of this book!

Sam’s Review:

Wish was a middle grade novel that wasn’t on my radar at all. I admit to being unfamiliar with Barbara O’Connor’s work, especially given she is a quite the name with quite the plethora of work in the land of middle grade. This book is about a young girl who comes from a broken home, is transplanted to live with her aunt and uncle, and has to learn to live in a new environment.

Charlie isn’t the sweetest girl given her upbringing — she’s very rough around the edges, very self-involved at times, and she struggles to understand right and wrong. This makes her a difficult character to be in the mind of at times because her emotions are completely founded, but she can also be so nasty to others at time. O’Connor does a great job of making her feel like a kid with problems and she doesn’t sugarcoat Charlie’s responses to others, which I appreciate so much. However, I feel like if I was a younger reader enjoying Wish, I think I would struggle to actually like and root for Charlie. I found my brain at odds with her character, because adult!me understands her character well, but child!me would have really disliked her as a character.

This is also a book about a girl who wants a dog, in this case, a stray named Wishbone. I won’t lie, the bits about wanting to trap Wishbone actually upset me at times, and even rubbed me the wrong way. I am happy, of course, that nothing happens to the dog, and I am even happier that Wishbone is able to help Charlie cope with her life problems, because I do believe in the healing power of animals, which this book shows very well. I also like the growth between the two characters, and how Wishbone brings Charlie out of her shell. The friendships that are forged in this book are so strongly written, so organically grown in the story, and those were my favourite parts when reading it.

Wish is a tough read — it will fill you with so many emotions as you’re reading it, and O’Connor does a good job of keeping her readers engaged in Charlie’s development. I wish the story had ended on a bit of a strong note, but I won’t deny the enjoyment I felt watching our heroine grow in the story. I loved her aunt and uncle, though I wish they had been more a part of the story, I adored Wishbone, in a way, I wish this book had been a bit longer so their could have been more character development. Still, I think this is a strong middle grade novel that is sure to win many awards and reader’s hearts.

ARC Review – Hundred Percent by Karen Romano Young

28645644Title: Hundred Percent

Author: Karen Romano Young

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: The last year of elementary school is big for every kid. Christine Gouda faces change at every turn, starting with her own nickname—Tink—which just doesn’t fit anymore. Christine navigates a year’s cringingly painful trials in normalcy—uncomfortable Halloween costumes, premature sleepover parties, crushed crushes, and changing friendships. Throughout all this, Tink learns, what you call yourself, and how you do it, has a lot to do with who you are.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this finished copy!

Sam’s Review:

You know what I love about Hundred Percent? It discusses a topic in middle grade that tends to get ignored, overshadowed, and it just seems like folks are afraid to talk about — puberty. While I am not a fan of the Judy Blume classic, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, I think Hundred Percent might be that book that tackles so many middle grade issues at once, but it definitely does an awesome job looking at how a person can change both physically and mentally.

Tink and Jackie couldn’t be more different — Tink has started to develop while Jackie is still a bit of a twig, and yet they wish in some ways they could switch. There friendship is the larger focus of this story, and I REALLY adored the way Romano Young shows the changes in their friendship and the ways in which Tink and Jackie growing up shows how they can be both closer together, but also be driven further apart.

I mean, they are at that age where they are beginning to transform, feel different, even older, and yet it’s fun to watch Tink in particular fight back. In fact, she spends a lot of this book still throwing childish tantrums and being called out on it by Jackie, and you know what? I can’t even fault her on a lot of those because her mind and body are in two different places. I loved the way all all these feelings were expressed in the novel! I just wish at the same time Tink would have tried to be a bit more thoughtful during some of the arguments, but I also get what the author was trying to do as well.

I think my biggest criticism of this book, however, is that there were just way too many topics being handled at once, particularly when you look it discussing promiscuity, losing your best friend to the popular kids, puberty, forcing to forge on one’s own, it’s a lot packed into a tight squeeze, and sometimes I felt like it was too much. Again, I do think it works given that Tink spends a lot of the novel having so many problems to face at her age and trying to understand each of them head on, but I almost wish the book had been a tad longer to explore a lot of these issues further.

I do think Hundred Percent is a great and important middle grade book, and I love that it doesn’t shy away from the issues it presents in the text. I loved both Tink and Jackie, and I think Romano Young has brought up some important issues with this novel that perhaps need better address in middle grade today. I definitely think if you love contemporary middle grade, especially books focusing on those tough middle years, than Hundred Percent is worth looking into.

Blog Tour – Speed of Life by J.M Kelly (Review & Excerpt)

Speed of Life is a book that came in my grab bag during one of Raincoast’s #TeenReadFeed events. The moment I pulled it out of the bag and read the back I had a feeling that this was a Sam!Book. I love tough contemporary novels and I love books that look at family dynamics. This novel in particular focuses on two twins, poverty, a baby, and big dreams. I loved Crystal and Amber’s story, and since reading the book, have recommended it for purchase at my library that I work at. It’s such a beautiful story that I think so many teens and adults would easily be able to read and gravitate towards.

If you haven’t checked Speed of Life out, you’re missing out. Especially if you love contemporary YA, you need to check this book out. Check out my review below if you don’t believe me, then read the excerpt provided by Raincoast to see if it might be up your alley.

But seriously, GO READ THIS BOOK.

And as always, huge thank you to Raincoast for having me on this blog tour and supplying me with a copy of this book. They are book angels.


28114594Title: Speed of Life

Author: J.M Kelly

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Twins Crystal and Amber have the same goal: to be the first in their family to graduate high school and make something of their lives. When one gets pregnant during their junior year, they promise to raise the baby together. It’s not easy, but between their after-school jobs, they’re scraping by.

Crystal’s grades catch the attention of the new guidance counselor, who tells her about a college that offers a degree in automotive restoration, perfect for the car buff she is. When she secretly applies—and gets in—new opportunities threaten their once-certain plans, and Crystal must make a choice: follow her dreams or stay behind and honor the promise she made to her sister.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

It upsets me how much this book isn’t being talked about. This is one of those contemporary gems that has no buzz behind it, and it’s just such a genuine and thoughtful read. Speed of Life is about two twin sisters who share everything, are dirt poor, and are looking to get out of their backwater town and make real lives for themselves and the child that one of them has had out of wedlock. While this doesn’t sound like the most original plot line, there is something so engaging about the way in which Kelly shares this story.

What I loved about this novel is Crystal’s narrative. She’s very thoughtful, has a huge sense of pride in herself and her abilities as a mechanic, and she wants to be able to rescue herself, her sister, and the baby they are raising from the poverty that they face. I love the way the author establishes the sister’s relationship to both each other and their friends and family. The writing and looking at the world through Crystal’s eyes are just so vivid. She has aspirations, she has goals, and she hopes that Amber will share those goals with her. When the fall out in the story occurs, it just really broke my heart into several pieces because I just connected so deeply with the sisters conflict, despite not having experienced it personally.

I think the author does such a great job of sucking the reader into the story and making the reader connect with the girls and connect with their story. I think what I also loved about Speed of Life is that there is such a larger mystery going on with who is Natalie’s parents, why are the girls caring for her, and I think Kelly does an amazing job keeping the reader looking for these answers.

I wish more folks would read this wonderful novel, especially those who love contemporary. Speed of Life is raw, heartfelt, and it asks the reader to open themselves up to a situation that is just so emotionally exhausting. I hope when this novel releases that more readers consider checking this one out. Everything about it just left me emotionally drained in the best kind of way.


An Excerpt from Speed of Life

Raincoast was kind enough to send an excerpt from the novel. I think the bit that they sent over will give you a good indication of what one can expect from this novel, and especially the kind of character our narrator, Crystal, is.

~*~

I’m pretty sure our school’s new guidance counselor’s got a college degree in perky with a minor in enthusiasm. Even her green sweater is bright and cheerful, like spring grass. Except so soft looking, I kind of want to pet it.

“So,” Ms. Spellerman says. “Miss Robbins, isn’t it?”

I want to say, “No, actually, it’s Crystal. I’m eighteen, not thirty.” But I nod instead. In the middle of our sophomore year we got a new principal, and he decided that as a matter of respect, all teachers and staff would refer to the students by their last names prefaced with Mr. or Miss. You can imagine how much more respect is flying around now. It obviously never occurred to anyone in charge that last names like Cochran and Dykster are so much easier to make fun of than Robert or Ashley. But whatever.

Ms. Spellerman holds out her hand to me. “Nice to meet you.” She’s got long fingers and perfectly pink nails. When we shake, all I feel are skin-covered bones.

She shuffles through some papers for a while, the huge diamond on her engagement ring catching the fluorescent light and hypnotizing me. I wonder if we’re ever going to get to the reason I’m here. I’ve made it through three years of high school without seeing a guidance counselor, so I can’t imagine why they called me in when I’m almost done. As far as I know, I’m doing fine in my classes. I’m even doing okay in Amber’s classes. Not that anyone knows about that.

I hide a yawn behind my hand — I’m super tired and missing the little nap I usually take in English. Ms. Spellerman holds up a sheet of paper and squints at it. Then she slips on a pair of square pink-framed glasses and smiles. “Don’t look so worried, Miss Robbins. I just want to talk to you about your college plans.”

Is she kidding me?

“Now that I’ve joined forces with Mr. Akerman, we’re not so short on guidance counselors,” she explains. “So I’m working my way through a list of those of you who haven’t previously requested an advisor.”

Maybe not asking was a clue that we didn’t want one. I don’t say anything, though. I don’t think she expects me to.

“Now,” she says, “you might be wondering how your name came up so early in the school year. Well, I’ll tell you a little secret.” She leans in across her desk and practically whispers, “I started at the end of the alphabet instead of the beginning!”

I wonder if I’m supposed to clap or something.

“So,” she continues, “what are your plans for college? Where are you going to apply? What’s your dream school?”

“Umm . . . I don’t have one?”

“No dream school? Well, that’s understandable. There are so many choices! Do you think you want to stay in Oregon, or go somewhere out of state — get away from it all, that sort of thing?”

Is this where I tell her I’m not going to college?

“You must’ve thought about it,” she says when I sit there speechless.

“Umm . . . not really.”

“Not at all?”

“I’m not going to college,” I finally admit.

Her eyebrows shoot up. “What? Why not?”

I’m thinking I was wrong about her minor being enthusiasm. It must’ve been stupidity. Does she think she’s somehow landed at a private school? Or maybe one of Portland’s fancy high schools? This is Sacajawea High, and half the kids can’t even spell the name of it by the time they graduate. If they graduate. College is not part of the plan here.

I try to keep it simple for Ms. Spellerman. “I’m gonna . . .you know . . . get a job.”


A huge thank you to Raincoast for providing me with this opportunity to share more about Speed of Life, as well as J.M Kelly for her beautiful words and fantastic novel. If you are curious to learn more about J.M Kelly’s debut, why not check out the other stops on the blog tour! 🙂

unnamed

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.

Late to the Party ARC Review – You Were Here by Cori McCarthy

25679559Title: You Were Here

Author: Cori McCarthy

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: On the anniversary of her daredevil brother’s death, Jaycee attempts to break into Jake’s favorite hideout—the petrifying ruins of an insane asylum. Joined by four classmates, each with their own brand of dysfunction, Jaycee discovers a map detailing her brother’s exploration and the unfinished dares he left behind.

As a tribute to Jake, Jaycee vows to complete the dares, no matter how terrifying or dangerous. What she doesn’t bargain on is her eccentric band of friends who challenge her to do the unthinkable: reveal the parts of herself that she buried with her brother.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

THIS BOOK EMOTIONALLY MESSED ME UP.

Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch, but it did make me very emotional as I read it. This is a book about friendship, it’s about reconnecting with someone you’ve lost (in this case who has died). There is a huge mystery surrounding Jake’s death, and Jaycee wants to recreate his death-defying stunts so that she can connect to him in another way. She and her group of friends, who are all going through different problems, accompany her on this journey, sometimes trying to talk her out of things, other times to be supportive and it’s just, wow.

Grief makes you feel and do strange things. In Jaycee’s case, there’s this strong desire to find connection in her brother’s death. It’s heartbreaking, but totally something I could understand and sympathize with, having recently dealt with the death of my own mother. You miss someone to the point where you wish them back into existence — you want them to still be flesh and bone yet the world has taken them from you.

The friendship in this story is one of my favourite aspects, and I thought every character was strongly written. Natalie’s plotline was particularly engaging, and I actually loved how some of the prespective was told in different formats. There’s poetry, an ongoing comic, artwork, and it all fits into this story. It doesn’t feel out of place or strange, it’s just perfect actually. I loved these additions because it gave us so much insight into each character. Heck, I generally am not huge on the romance, but Mik and Jaycee’s romance was really well developed. I also liked Zach and Natalie as well, and my heart went out to Zach a lot throughout the novel.

This book is one that needs to be talked about more. It offers an insightful look to dealing with grief, while also weaving so many exceptional smaller stories along the way. Easily one of my favourite reads this year, and one that I hope others will try because there’s just so much going on in this novel, and it’so good at making the reader feel like they are a part of this story. The emotional investment I had felt so real, and I felt really connected to this story and its characters.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng

23399029Title: Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness

Author: Jennifer Tseng

Rating: ★★★

Synopsis: Books may be Mayumi Saito’s greatest love and her one source of true pleasure. Forty-one years old, disenchanted wife and dutiful mother, Mayumi’s work as a librarian on a small island off the coast of New England feeds her passion for reading and provides her with many occasions for wry observations on human nature, but it does little to remedy the mundanity of her days. That is, until the day she issues a library card to a shy seventeen-year-old boy and swiftly succumbs to a sexual obsession that subverts the way she sees the library, her family, the island she lives on, and ultimately herself.
 
Wary of the consequences of following through on her fantasies, Mayumi hesitates at first. But she cannot keep the young man from her thoughts. After a summer of overlong glances and nervous chitchat in the library, she finally accepts that their connection is undeniable. In a sprawling house emptied of its summer vacationers, their affair is consummated and soon consolidated thanks to an explosive charge of erotic energy. Mayumi’s life is radically enriched by the few hours each week that she shares with the young man, and as their bond grows stronger thanks not only to their physical closeness but also to their long talks about the books they both love, those hours spent apart seem to Mayumi increasingly bleak and intolerable. As her obsession worsens, in a frantic attempt to become closer to the young man, Mayumi nervously befriends another librarian patron, the young man’s mother. The two women forge a tenuous friendship that will prove vital to both in the most unexpected ways when catastrophe strikes.

Huge thank you to Penguin Canada for this finished copy!

Sam’s Review:

When Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness came through my mailbox, I was both intrigued and worried. I don’t mind books with taboo subject matters, but I was sure I was going to feel quite uncomfortable with the relationship between Mayumi and the Boy. Oddly, I wasn’t as disturbed as I thought I would be, though I did find elements of this book weirder than the taboo relationship.

First I am going to praise the writing, because I did read this book in the span of two days and it’s pretty captivating. Tseng really envelopes the reader into her prose, even when there’s barely anything going on story-wise. The story itself goes through four seasons of Mayumi and the Boy’s relationship, her connection to Violet, his mother, and the worry that she will be discovered by her husband and others. That is the whole book in a nutshell, and yet the prose really makes the reader feel connected to what is going on.

That being said, I disliked Mayumi’s character and the stereotyping of librarians in the novel. That rubbed me the wrong way more than the relationship between Mayumi and the Boy, because there is this stupid assumption that library people, though friendly, don’t want to talk or really deal with patrons (not true, by the way). Mayumi plays into this stereotype so badly, and makes for frustrating character to care about. There’s no real drama in the novel, no real climax. The ending is pretty much a cop out given this larger build that were are given between Mayumi and the Boy. In a lot of ways, I felt rather cheated.

But I kept reading on, because seriously, Tseng’s prose and descriptions were what kept me going. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness isn’t a bad book at all, but there’s larger holes that don’t get filled very well. If the taboo subject matter isn’t your thing, I’d definitely recommend staying clear, but if you can get past that, there is an interesting narrative being discussed here.