Tag Archives: tough issues

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!

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.

ARC Review – The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Title: The Only Black Girls in Town

Author: Brandy Colbert

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Beach-loving surfer Alberta has been the only black girl in town for years. Alberta’s best friend, Laramie, is the closest thing she has to a sister, but there are some things even Laramie can’t understand. When the bed and breakfast across the street finds new owners, Alberta is ecstatic to learn the family is black-and they have a 12-year-old daughter just like her.

Alberta is positive she and the new girl, Edie, will be fast friends. But while Alberta loves being a California girl, Edie misses her native Brooklyn and finds it hard to adapt to small-town living.

When the girls discover a box of old journals in Edie’s attic, they team up to figure out exactly who’s behind them and why they got left behind. Soon they discover shocking and painful secrets of the past and learn that nothing is quite what it seems. 

Huge thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Want to read a wonderful book with great characters and a good mystery? The Only Black Girls in Town is Brandy Colbert’s middle grade debut, and my goodness was it a chef’s kiss of a story.

Albert and her family for the longest time, were the only black family in town. Her best friend, Laramie, though wonderful, cannot necessarily understand everything that Alberta goes through in terms of how differently at times she is treated by others. When Alberta learns that a new black girl has moved to town, she is elated. While Alberta is hoping that she and the new girl, Edie, will be fast friends, she starts to learn that Edie is struggling with being homesick for Brooklyn, New York. When the girls begin to explore Edie’s new home, they find old journals sharing painful secrets of someone’s life who was left behind.

I loved this book! I loved the distinct voices between Alberta and Edie. I love how genuine both girls are with each other and how they don’t shame others for not necessarily knowing what it’s like to be black — in fact this story has the characters doing a great job of educating others! The best parts of the story were the girls reading the journals that had been left behind and having the desire to find out who they in fact belonged to. There’s a really good mystery there, and I loved the end results of the story because the payoff was very good.

This is a great middle grade debut that offers a lot to younger readers. It’s a great story about being different and yet having your differences be complimented and wanted. I love how so many elements, such as Alberta having two dads, is very normalized in the story, and I loved and wanted to hug Edie when she felt homesick. Definitely check out this book if you love a good contemporary story!

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!

Late to the Party ARC Review – The Crossover by Kwame Alexander & Dawud Anyabwile

Title: The Crossover

Author: Kwame Alexander & Dawud Anyabwile

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: “With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . . The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. ’Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” raps twelve-year-old Josh Bell. Thanks to their dad, he and his twin brother, Jordan, are kings on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood—he’s got mad beats, too, which help him find his rhythm when it’s all on the line.

See the Bell family in a whole new light through Dawud Anyabwile’s illustrations as the brothers’ winning season unfolds, and the world as they know it begins to change.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I adored Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover a few years back. As a person who has very little interest in sports, I loved the way Alexander wove sports and family together through his beautiful poems. I loved the Bell family, I loved Josh’s narration, and there was also something about the twists and turns in Alexander’s prose that just had me completely head-over-heels.

This graphic novel version of The Crossover may even be better than the original. Having Dawud Anyabwile’s gorgeous illustrations accompany Alexander’s poetry is phenomenal. I felt like Anyabwile’s artwork really showcased the heart and soul of the Bell family’s trials and tribulations in such a way where it connected to the text perfectly. I loved the artwork, and how Josh and Jordan were designed, and I loved the attention to detail throughout.

The Crossover is still a wonderful and powerful story about family. A lot of what Alexander’s words stated in 2014, are just as true in 2019. This edition boasts amazing artwork to accompany Alexander’s beautiful words, and is a great addition to anyone’s graphic novel collection or just for anyone who loves story about family and the turbulence than comes with being a part of one.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Heroine by Mindy McGinnis

Title: Heroine

Author: Mindy McGinnis

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: When a car crash sidelines Mickey just before softball season, she has to find a way to hold on to her spot as the catcher for a team expected to make a historic tournament run. Behind the plate is the only place she’s ever felt comfortable, and the painkillers she’s been prescribed can help her get there. The pills do more than take away pain; they make her feel good.

With a new circle of friends—fellow injured athletes, others with just time to kill—Mickey finds peaceful acceptance, and people with whom words come easily, even if it is just the pills loosening her tongue. But as the pressure to be Mickey Catalan heightens, her need increases, and it becomes less about pain and more about want, something that could send her spiraling out of control.

Huge thank you to Harper Collins Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Oof. This is one of those books I knew I wasn’t going to be able to read when it came out because I knew it would hit too close to home. I admit, I have never been great with stories that focus on addiction, mainly because of my sibling’s former addiction problem. I always feel uncomfortable and touchy on the subject matter, despite also full well knowing how important the topic is. Heroine focuses on Mickey, a star player on a softball team, who ends up injured and becomes addicted to Oxycontin.

The title, Heroine, has a fantastic double meaning in this story, because not only is it about Mickey’s drug use, but it’s also about how she was the “heroine” of her softball team. There’s a lot of this book that is super hard to read, especially instances of Mickey spiraling in her need to “find the dragon,” how she loses to much of herself to her disease, and just the challenges she faces of feeling like things she just be the way they were when in actuality she destroyed who she once was. Some of the scenes in this book are graphic, and McGinnis does a great job of giving the reader a lot to think about in terms of Mickey’s choices.

I enjoyed the book, but I admit, I read it very slowly and there were times where the narrative wasn’t always holding my interest. There’s a bit of repetition in this story that I know is valuable, but I also didn’t care for. Mickey is an important character, and being inside her mind was interesting, but I didn’t always feel engaged in her inner narrative as much as I think I’d want to be.

I still think Female of the Species is still McGinnis’ best book to date, and I feel like Heroine tries to follow it, but doesn’t quite succeed. I think if you are someone who has an addiction or has dealt with someone who has/had one, there will be a lot in this story that you will be able to relate to. I appreciate that the ending has a hopeful tone, but otherwise this novel is fairly bleak and it’s definitely going to be one of those books that you’ll need to prepare your headspace for.

ARC Review – Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern

Title: Just Breathe

Author: Cammie McGovern

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: David Sheinman is the popular president of his senior class, battling cystic fibrosis.

Jamie Turner is a quiet sophomore, struggling with depression.

The pair soon realizes that they can be their true selves with each other, and their unlikely friendship develops into something so much more. But neither Jamie nor David can bring themselves to reveal the secrets that weigh most heavily on their hearts—and their time for honesty may be running out.

Huge thank you to Harper Collins Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I love me a Cammie McGovern novel. Often her books know how to hit the right notes with me in terms of how emotional her books often are, and how often my heartstrings are tug at. This particular book focuses on chronic illness, specially Cystic fibrosis (or CF), I always feel a bit weary when reading these stories if only because I worry the accuracy and how connected I am even as someone who doesn’t suffer from one. One of my dearest friends has CF, so I don’t know how accurate this book is, but in terms of storytelling, I was attached to David and Jamie’s story.

I am not a romance reader, but what I do like in McGovern’s books is that she always does a good job of making a relationship feel organic to the story. David and Jamie are friends, they bond over each other’s lives and their desires to get better, and then a romance occurs and it doesn’t feel forced or awkward the way other YA books love to do these sick-kids-in-love-stories. David has CF and Jamie has depression and they are essentially just trying to build each other up.

What I equally like, however, is that McGovern does a great job of showing how difficult it is to have a positive attitude towards chronic illness, as well as the up-and-downs that the characters are facing while coping with their situations. I also want to point out that the reactions that adult characters have in this story feels very spot on. There’s one scene in particular that illustrates how parents also have to come to terms with chronic illness and the struggles of trying to do what is best for their child, but also what it means to be in a survivor’s mentality (something I’ve had first hand experience with).

While this is not my favourite Cammie McGovern book (that still goes to Just My Luck, I think this story shows that she puts a lot of thought and care into her stories. She knows how to add the emotional punch when needed, and I appreciate that she’s unapologic about the challenges of the situations that her protagonists are facing. While I wish Jamie’s depression was addressed a bit more, I still cared for her just as much as I did David.

Late to the Party ARC Review – Break in Case of Emergency by Brian Francis

Title: Break in Case of Emergency

Author: Brian Francis

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Life has been a struggle for Toby Goodman. Her mother died by suicide five years ago, and her father left their small town before Toby was born. Now a teenager living on her grandparents’ dairy farm, Toby has trouble letting people in. She keeps even her closest friend, the brash but endearing Trisha, at arms’ length, and recently ended her first relationship, with Trisha’s burnout brother, Mike. Convinced that she is destined to follow her mother’s path, Toby creates a plan to escape her pain.

But with the news that her father is coming home and finally wants to meet her, Toby must face the truth of her family’s story. Not only is her father gay, but he’s also a world-famous female impersonator—and a self-absorbed, temperamental man-child who is ill-prepared to be a real parent.

When Toby’s careful plans go awry, she is forced to rebuild the life she thought she knew from the ground up. While she may not follow an expected path, through the support of a quirky but lovable circle of friends and family, Toby may finally put together the many different pieces that make up her past, her present, and her future.

Huge Thank You to Harper Collins Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

THIS BOOK.

This book is a beautiful surprise. Break in Case of Emergency tells the tale of Toby Goodman, a girl who lives with her grandparents on their diary farm. Toby feels like her life is meaningless, especially after the loss of her mother and the disappearance of her father. Constantly contemplating suicide, Toby considers ending her life, until one day her father returns to her, though not what he seems.

I loved this book. Toby is such an intriguing heroine who isn’t exactly chummy with the reader. If anything, she is somewhat distant, often frustrated, and she is trying to cope with the concept that neither of her parents “loved her.” She also lives with her grandparents who are sheltered, somewhat bigoted, but mostly have a good heart. They want to protect Toby, even if they don’t entirely understand what she is feeling. When her father Arthur returns, there’s a sense of the grandparents that Toby needs to be protected from him, but by the other side of it, there’s this understand that Toby needs to deal with him on her own.

Brain Francis’ characters are absolutely wonderful, each well-developed and full of life. Each character offers a different perspective in Toby’s sheltered world, and the revelation of Toby’s father returning is such a raw and intense moment in the story. Arthur is a fantastic character, equally on par with Toby. He’s awkward, but like Toby, is also somewhat distant. His story is so heartbreaking, though it doesn’t excuse his behaviour. There’s a great lesson in novel involving forgiveness, especially in the idea that forgiveness must be earned, but just given, and it plays such a huge role for a lot of the characters in the story.

Watching Toby grow and change in this story is also a delightful aspect, as it unfolds in such an organic way. Toby has had so much loss and hardship, to the point of wanting to commit suicide, and yet she also grows to understand the value of life and what it means to live fully and freely. Everything about this story from new beginnings, to new relationships, to mending fences, are all interesting and emotional.

There’s just so much to love and connect with in Break in Case of Emergency. It’s a story of displaced family, found family, and it means to be alive. Brain Francis has written a story that is deeply moving, as it is funny and poignant. If you love your young adult stories to be full of raw emotion and small triumphs, than this novel is easily for you.

Late to the Party ARC Review – The Other Half of Happy by Rebecca Balcárcel

Title: The Other Half of Happy

Author: Rebecca Balcárcel

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Quijana is a girl in pieces. One-half Guatemalan, one-half American: When Quijana’s Guatemalan cousins move to town, her dad seems ashamed that she doesn’t know more about her family’s heritage. One-half crush, one-half buddy: When Quijana meets Zuri and Jayden, she knows she’s found true friends. But she can’t help the growing feelings she has for Jayden. One-half kid, one-half grown-up: Quijana spends her nights Skyping with her ailing grandma and trying to figure out what’s going on with her increasingly hard-to-reach brother. In the course of this immersive and beautifully written novel, Quijana must figure out which parts of herself are most important, and which pieces come together to make her whole. This lyrical debut from Rebecca Balcárcel is a heartfelt poetic portrayal of a girl growing up, fitting in, and learning what it means to belong.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I really enjoyed The Other Half of Happy! It was my first time reading a story with a Guatemalan protagonist. Quijiana is a wonderful heroine to follow — she cannot speak Spanish, she doesn’t know how to play guitar, and she spends a lot of the novel fighting her family’s traditions.

This book tells the story of someone who is clearly Americanized but learning how to preserve her family’s culture. When the novel is about Quijana’s family, her interactions with her grandmother or the fights with her father, this book is fabulous and raw. Some of my favourite moments in particular, were any cases where Quijana would text her grandmother for advice or when she was feeling down. It was so pure and sweet! I also love the scenes with Quijana’s father, mainly because I feel for him — he wants to share his family’s heritage and get Quijana to appreciate his roots but he struggles to communicate these feelings to her and so they clash. The way in which family is portrayed in The Other Half of Happyis what makes this story feel so special.

The other half of the novel regarding Quijana’s school life and her crush… I admit, I didn’t dig those parts as much. The parts of the story regarding her crush didn’t add anything special to the story for me, but perhaps for another reader I could see it working for them. I just found those parts of the story to meander and not add anything special to the overarching theme, which was family and cultural identity. I wish I loved that part as much of the rest of the book, but unfortunately it didn’t work for me.

Do I still recommend The Other Half of Happy? Absolutely! I feel like many younger readers will definitely find the story engaging, and I think Quijana is a character many readers will be able to relate to. This is a fantastic story about growing up, accepting parts of your roots, and coming to terms with cultural differences. This is a great book for readers who love a good family-centered narrative.