Review: Missing Mike by Shari Green

Review: Missing Mike by Shari Green
Source: Hardcopy courtesy of Pajama Press. Thank you!
Publication: May 11, 2018 by Pajama Press (in Canada)
Book Description:

He’s a rescue, a mutt. Maybe there’s a little golden retriever in him, although he’s not exactly pretty. He’s had a run-in with coyotes and he’s missing an eye. But Mike is eleven-year-old Cara Donovan’s dog, and they love each other absolutely. Usually her pet follows Cara everywhere, but on the day the family first smells smoke in the air, Mike becomes anxious. Pine Grove is in the path of a wildfire, and the family is ordered to evacuate. In the ensuing chaos, Mike runs off. And then the unthinkable happens; there is no time to search for Mike. They are forced to leave him behind.

Shocked and devastated, Cara watches helplessly as the family drives through a nightmare, with burning debris falling from the sky and wild animals fleeing for their lives. Once in the city far from the burn zone, the Donovans are housed with a volunteer host family. Jewel, the hosts’ daughter, is nice, but Cara can only think about what she may have lost. What will happen if nothing is left? But as she reflects on what “home” means to her, Cara knows only one thing. She is not going to lose Mike. She will do what it takes to find him, even if it means going back to Pine Grove on her own.

The wildfires are bad this year
new ones popping up every day

It’s hard to tell how far away the smoke is
but the tightness in my gut
says it’s not far enough.

Canadian author Shari Green, author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning novel-in-verse Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess, returns with Missing Mike, a middle grade novel (also in free verse) about a young girl’s unbreakable bond with her rescue dog Mike and what happens to Mike, her family, and their community when a devastating, seemingly unstoppable wildfire hits their town.

That’s when I saw Mike.
He wasn’t a puppy
and he wasn’t cute
but I was pretty sure
he needed somebody to love him.

We meet Cara Donovan and her dog, Mike (full name Mike Wazowski, after the famous monster), shortly before she and her family have to evacuate their home of Pine Grove (hours north from Vancouver) due to rapidly-spreading wildfires. In first-person narrative, Cara takes readers through the terror she, her older sister Sloane, and their mom and dad feel as they are faced with ten minutes to vacate their house. In the immediate sharpness and disorientation of the moment, Cara and her family quickly pack, taking their pre-prepared ‘just in case’ bags with whatever they think their must-have items could be. Cara, in the middle of brushing her beloved one-eyed rescue mutt, leaves Mike in their backyard, with the plan to take him to the car promptly after packing. The only thing is, when Cara goes back to their fenced-in backyard, Mike is gone: “Mike’s not in the yard / probably jumped clear over the lousy fence / searching for a cool spot / a not-so-smoky spot / a safe spot”. Cara pleads with her family to let her search for her best friend, but the utter urgency of their evacuation orders overrides everything. Even looking for a much-loved family member. We follow Cara and her family as they are taken in by a well-meaning, hospitable couple and their child Jewel, who becomes a friend and ally when Cara attempts, multiple times, to locate her dog. Woven in Missing Mike is Cara’s exercise- stemming from her love of crossword puzzles- in figuring out different words for home…and what ‘home’ really means in the midst of tragedy and displacement, while feeling and receiving kindness and warmth from strangers brought together in crisis. The main thread in Missing Mike, though, is that of Cara’s unyielding quest to, beyond all hope, find her much loved dog. Never resting, Cara is proactive in her multiple searches, helped by Jewel and even her strangely distant sister, providing readers with just enough small rays of hope to believe that her resilient dog Mike might just be out there, facing down coyotes and fires, waiting for his best friend to come back.

Overall, Missing Mike is a touching, lyrical story with the beautiful, boundless relationship of Cara and Mike as its core and anchor. Shari Green’s writing style is effortless and candid, a perfect match for Cara’s natural and appropriately trusting, childlike narrative. Readers who love stories about human-animal bonds, children’s novels told in free verse, or middle grade titles that explore family dynamics and strength in facing adversity might find much to love about Missing Mike. Those who enjoy the writing of authors such as K.A. Holt, Katherine Applegate, Barbara O’Connor, Beth Vrabel or Alison Hughes might also want to check this moving middle grade novel out.

I received a copy courtesy of Pajama Press in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.

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Review: Knockout by K.A. Holt

Review: Knockout by K.A. Holt
Source: Hardcopy courtesy of Raincoast Books. Thank you!
Publication: March 6, 2018 by Chronicle Books
Book Description:

Levi just wants to be treated like a typical kid. As a baby, he had a serious disease that caused him respiratory issues. He’s fine now, but his mom and overprotective brother still think of him as damaged, and his schoolmates see him as the same class clown he’s always been. He feels stuck. So when his dad-divorced from his mom-suggests he take up boxing, he falls in love with the sport. And when he finds out about a school with a killer boxing team and a free-study curriculum, it feels like he’s found a ticket to a new Levi. But how can he tell his mom about boxing? And how can he convince his family to set him free?

Surprise!
I make them laugh.
I make them point.
That way
the tightrope is mine
to control.

The excellence of middle grade literature continues! So far this year, I’ve had the pleasure of reading a number of terrific, moving, unique children’s fiction titles, and that train of awesome continued with my back-to-back reading of K.A. Holt’s House Arrest and Knockout. A companion novel-in-verse to 2015’s House Arrest, Knockout tells the story of twelve-year-old Levi Davidson as he begins a tumultuous and audacious year.

Knockout is told in the first-person narrative of Levi. We are introduced to Levi and his world as he sets himself up to begin grade seven alongside his best friend Tam. Levi and Tam met back in kindergarten and discovered commonalities: both were born premature at two pounds and required an inhaler. However, as Levi tells us, the differences are vast. Levi had a trach as a child; his life has been in and out of hospitals, with him still having to go for major annual checkups. His mom (divorced from his dad) and Timothy continue to hover and set boundaries, watching, warning, and pleading with Levi to be careful. To always be safe. When Levi’s dad suggest that Levi try a sport, he doesn’t expect to fall in love with boxing, but he does. Levi discovers a raw aptitude for boxing; surprising everyone with tenacity and lightening speed that make up for his lack of height and slight build. As Levi’s year marches on, he continues to hide boxing from Tam, his mom and brother-who would be terrified for his health- until one boxing accident lands him in the hospital, injured, vulnerable and with lies unveiled. As with House Arrest, Knockout is utterly compelling from opening to ending- Holt’s writing is beautiful and seamless. Levi’s voice is unforgettable here, and readers get to experience his fears, his mistakes with Tam, his highs, and hopes for a more independent future at a sports-focused school through dynamic and heartbreaking verse. Especially moving throughout the novel are the extraordinary moments and reveals between Timothy and Levi, which we get to read via their written exchanges to one another.

I take out an earbud
offer it to Timothy
and we listen together
head to head,
song after song,
the same music as always, and yet…
different now.

Overall, Knockout is terrific- profound, wise and funny, told in a blistering pace that wonderfully allows for both consequential and quiet moments to permeate. Readers who previously read and loved K.A. Holt’s House Arrest might definitely be itching to read more about the Davidson boys- and to find out what Timothy is up to in his twenties! It is probably not necessary to have read House Arrest prior to Knockout, though I personally loved having read Timothy’s story first and having been introduced to Levi when he was a baby. It’s a win either way to get to read two tremendous, affecting and memorable books! Readers looking for more novels in verse in the vein of Kwame Alexander, or those who like authors such as Kate Messner, Beth Vrabel, Leslie Connor or Lisa Graff might especially love K.A. Holt’s Knockout.

I received a copy of Knockout courtesy of Raincoast Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.

Graphic Novel Review: Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

Review: Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol, color by Alec Longstreth
Source: Hardcopy courtesy of Raincoast Books. Thank you!
Publication: April 24, 2018 by First Second
Book Description:

All Vera wants to do is fit in – but that’s not easy for a Russian girl in the suburbs. Her friends live in fancy houses and their parents can afford to send them to the best summer camps. Vera’s single mother can’t afford that sort of luxury, but there’s one summer camp in her price range – Russian summer camp.

Vera is sure she’s found the one place she can fit in, but camp is far from what she imagined. And nothing could prepare her for all the “cool girl” drama, endless Russian history lessons, and outhouses straight out of nightmares!

There are a few sub-genres of children’s books that I have long loved reading about: one being about adventures at boarding school, and the other being about experiences at camp. Maybe because I’ve only ever been to outdoor school once- and never summer camp!- I have always been curious to read about other kids camp experiences. And Vera Brosgol’s graphic novel Be Prepared, an autobiographical story about the author’s childhood experience at Russian summer camp, is all-around fascinating, unsparing, and touching.

Be Prepared opens with a poignant vignette: we meet eight (almost nine) year old Vera attending her friend Sarah’s birthday party. Vera carefully notes all the American factors of the time that make her friend’s party perfect: Carvel ice cream cake, stuffed crust Pizza Hut pizza, cool party favours, and a sleepover. As a few girls point out Vera being from Russia, her lack of expensive doll-of-the-moment, and their own plans for various summer camps, Vera starts feeling more than left-out. Readers then see Vera attempt- as dauntlessly as anyone could- to recreate the same ‘cool’ American party for her own ninth birthday and watch as things falter. When Vera and her younger brother attend a service at their Russian Orthodox church, Vera learns about and begs her mother to let her go to Russian summer camp. Finally, Vera thinks, a place where she might actually belong, where her being Russian won’t be considered strange! She’s going to finally have that elusive summer camp experience!

Except, when Vera and her brother arrive at the ORRA- Organization of Russian Razvedchiki in America- camp, things are not exactly what Vera had been hoping for. As Vera meets her older, disparaging bunk mates, gets a glimpse at the terrifying- truly horrid- outhouse, less-than-friendly conditions and witnesses her brother seem to have a pretty awesome time of things, she despairs. We then follow Vera as she weathers through an big error in judgment as well as major upsets and frustrations with her fellow bunk mates, her brother, and her mother. Not all is horrible or lost though, as Vera inches her way to a friendship with a younger camper and makes a daring, utterly brave nighttime search and retrieval. With a touching opening and introduction to Vera and her family- and some of their Russian traditions- Brosgol settles readers in to the core of the camp story easily and smoothly. Vera’s time at the ORRA camp is absolutely compelling; raw, sometimes funny, and reveals Vera’s struggle of being and feeling Russian yet not Russian enough at camp. The selective colour palette of the graphic novel- black, white, various shades of greens- works so well here and highlights both the outdoor component and often bittersweet nature of the story. Be sure to read the entirety of the Author’s Note and Word of Thanks at the end, as it all adds even more resonance and insight to the graphic novel.

Overall, what a memorable story; a fantastic graphic novel that is beautifully illustrated and terrifically told. I read Be Prepared in one big gulp, I could not put this one down! Brosgol’s adventures in Russian camp are unlike anything I have yet read, and seeing her amalgamated experiences come alive on the page really make for an affecting, honest read. Any readers who have clamored for the work of Raina Telgemeier, Victoria Jamieson, or loved titles like Cece Bell’s El Deafo, Jimmy Gownley’s The Dumbest Idea Ever, or Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s Real Friends might especially appreciate this title. Readers who have previously read and loved Brosgol’s storytelling and art in the Eisner Award-winning Anya’s Ghost or Caldecott Honor book Leave Me Alone! might want to check this one out! As Be Prepared ends on a wee bit of a cliff-hanger, I am wondering whether Vera Brosgol has plans for a companion novel? I for one would love to read more of her- and her family’s- story!

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I received a copy of this title courtesy of Raincoast Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.

Must Read Monday (81): Supriya Kelkar, Natasha Farrant, Ashley Herring Blake & more!

Welcome to another edition of Must Read Monday!

This feature is where I spotlight older, recent, or upcoming releases I am looking forward to. The lists will include all genres I like to read, everything from picture books to comics, children’s lit to adult fiction!
 


 
This week: middle grade titles! A mix of debuts, series entries, and new titles from read and loved authors. All of the following titles are ones that I have either read tremendous reviews for, happily discovered through social media or through browsing! This week’s list of can’t miss titles includes: Sunny, the third entry into to critically acclaimed Track series by Jason Reynolds; The Orphan Band of Springdale, a new historical fiction title from Anne Nesbet; Ashley Herring Blake’s contemporary middle grade novel Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World; the acclaimed historical fiction title Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar; Natasha Farrant’s boarding school story The Children of Castle Rock; and Tiffany Park’s mystery-centered debut, Midnight in the Piazza. Let’s take a closer look!

Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar
Publication: October 1, 2017 by Lee & Low/Tu Books
Book Description:

In 1942, when Mahatma Gandhi asks Indians to give one family member to the freedom movement, ten-year-old Anjali is devastated to think of her father risking his life for the freedom struggle.

But it turns out he isn’t the one joining. Anjali’s mother is. And with this change comes many more adjustments designed to improve their country and use “ahimsa”—non-violent resistance—to stand up to the British government. First the family must trade in their fine foreign-made clothes for homespun cotton, so Anjali has to give up her prettiest belongings. Then her mother decides to reach out to the Dalit community, the “untouchables” of society. Anjali is forced to get over her past prejudices as her family becomes increasingly involved in the movement. When Anjali’s mother is jailed, Anjali must step out of her comfort zone to take over her mother’s work, ensuring that her little part of the independence movement is completed.

 

The Children of Castle Rock by Natasha Farrant
Publication: March 1, 2018 by Faber Faber
Book Description:

Like many girls, Alice Mistlethwaite idolises her father, Byron. He is a hero: brave, kind and impossibly funny. It’s just a shame that he’s always in and out of prison… After a particularly naughty outing, Alice’s Aunt Patience decides to take action. Alice is to be sent to St Cuthbert’s School for Winners – where competition runs deep, and being ‘outdoorsy’ is not optional.

Much to her own surprise, Alice fits in far better than she ever has before, swiftly making friends and enjoying running wild in the Scottish countryside. But then Byron disappears – or rather his letters stop – and Alice becomes convinced something has happened to him. Aunt Patience is much less sure (and worse, seems to think he has something to do with a robbery that’s making the news), but Alice is undeterred. Armed with her new friends, and a handy opportunity to escape from school, she sets off on an epic quest to find her father, prove everyone wrong about him – and perhaps discover some home truths about herself and her family along the way.

 

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake
Publication: March 6, 2018 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Book Description:

When a tornado rips through town, twelve-year-old Ivy Aberdeen’s house is destroyed and her family of five is displaced. Ivy feels invisible and ignored in the aftermath of the storm–and what’s worse, her notebook filled with secret drawings of girls holding hands has gone missing.

Mysteriously, Ivy’s drawings begin to reappear in her locker with notes from someone telling her to open up about her identity. Ivy thinks–and hopes–that this someone might be her classmate, another girl for whom Ivy has begun to develop a crush. Will Ivy find the strength and courage to follow her true feelings?

 

Midnight in the Piazza by Tiffany Parks
Publication: March 6, 2018 by HarperCollins
Book Description:

Beatrice Archer may love history, and Rome may be chock-full of it, but that doesn’t mean she wants to move there!Too bad Beatrice’s father got a job as the head of the history department at the American Academy in Rome—now, Beatrice has no choice but to get used to the idea.

When she arrives in Rome she explores her new city as much as she can, but it isn’t until she hears talk of a strange neighborhood legend that Beatrice perks up. A centuries-old unsolved mystery about the beautiful turtle fountain outside her window? Sounds like fun! Before Beatrice has a chance to explore, though, she sees a dark figure emerge from the shadows of the square in the middle of the night—and steal the famous turtle sculptures that give the fountain its name.

When no one believes her story, Beatrice knows that it’s up to her to solve the crime and restore the turtles to their rightful place. With the help of her new friend Marco, she navigates a world of unscrupulous ambassadors, tricky tutors, and international art thieves to unravel one of Roman history’s greatest dramas—before another priceless work of art is stolen.

 

The Orphan Band of Springdale by Anne Nesbet
Publication: April 10, 2018 by Candlewick Press
Book Description:

With the United States on the verge of World War II, eleven-year-old Gusta is sent from New York City to Maine, where she discovers small-town prejudices — and a huge family secret.

It’s 1941, and tensions are rising in the United States as the Second World War rages in Europe. Eleven-year-old Gusta’s life, like the world around her, is about to change. Her father, a foreign-born labor organizer, has had to flee the country, and Gusta has been sent to live in an orphanage run by her grandmother. Nearsighted, snaggletoothed Gusta arrives in Springdale, Maine, lugging her one precious possession: a beloved old French horn, her sole memento of her father. But in a family that’s long on troubles and short on money, how can a girl hang on to something so valuable and yet so useless when Gusta’s mill-worker uncle needs surgery to fix his mangled hand, with no union to help him pay? Inspired by her mother’s fanciful stories, Gusta secretly hopes to find the coin-like “Wish” that her sea-captain grandfather supposedly left hidden somewhere. Meanwhile, even as Gusta gets to know the rambunctious orphans at the home, she feels like an outsider at her new school — and finds herself facing patriotism turned to prejudice, alien registration drives, and a family secret likely to turn the small town upside down.

 

Sunny (Track #3) by Jason Reynolds
Publication: April 10th 2018 by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Book Description:

Sunny is just that—sunny. Always ready with a goofy smile and something nice to say, Sunny is the chillest dude on the Defenders team. But Sunny’s life hasn’t always been sun beamy-bright. You see, Sunny is a murderer. Or at least he thinks of himself that way. His mother died giving birth to him, and based on how Sunny’s dad treats him—ignoring him, making Sunny call him Darryl, never “Dad”—it’s no wonder Sunny thinks he’s to blame. It seems the only thing Sunny can do right in his dad’s eyes is win first place ribbons running the mile, just like his mom did. But Sunny doesn’t like running, never has. So he stops. Right in the middle of a race.

With his relationship with his dad now worse than ever, the last thing Sunny wants to do is leave the other newbies—his only friends—behind. But you can’t be on a track team and not run. So Coach asks Sunny what he wants to do. Sunny’s answer? Dance. Yes, dance. But you also can’t be on a track team and dance. Then, in a stroke of genius only Jason Reynolds can conceive, Sunny discovers a track event that encompasses the hard hits of hip-hop, the precision of ballet, and the showmanship of dance as a whole: the discus throw. As Sunny practices the discus, learning when to let go at just the right time, he’ll let go of everything that’s been eating him up inside, perhaps just in time.

 

Review: P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy

Review: P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy
Source: ARC courtesy of Raincoast Books. Thank you!
Publication: March 6, 3018 by Feiwel & Friends
Book Description:

Evie is heartbroken when her strict Catholic parents send her pregnant sister, Cilla, away to stay with a distant great-aunt. All Evie wants is for her older sister to come back. Forbidden from speaking to Cilla, Evie secretly sends her letters.

Evie writes about her family, torn apart and hurting. She writes about her life, empty without Cilla. And she writes about the new girl in school, June, who becomes her friend, and then maybe more than a friend.

Evie could really use some advice from Cilla. But Cilla isn’t writing back, and it’s time for Evie to take matters into her own hands.

P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy is a heartfelt middle grade novel dealing with faith, identity, and finding your way in difficult times.

Jen Petro-Roy‘s middle grade title P.S. I Miss You is a stunner of a debut. It is a read that immediately takes you in to the world of an unforgettable, uniquely voiced young narrator and beautifully- achingly- proceeds to put you through a storm of emotions.

P.S. I Miss You is narrated by twelve-year old Evie and told entirely through letters that Evie is writing to her older sister Cilla. Evie begins writing letters shortly after her sixteen-year old pregnant sister leaves the family to stay out the rest of her pregnancy with an isolated great-aunt. Readers soon learn more from Evie about her life and upbringing, which seems to have been most influenced by her parents’ substantial involvement in their Catholic church and in their mostly Catholic community. Readers also learn that Evie’s parents’ reactions to their eldest daughter’s unplanned pregnancy not only culminated in Cilla’s decision to leave home, but also altered plans for what would happen to the baby, and what Cilla’s plans would be after giving birth.

While this mountainous emotional turmoil is happening, Evie- who is increasingly frustrated with her closed-off, unyielding parents and not hearing from Cilla- begins a new school year. Evie gets to know June, a girl new to their town and to her grade seven class, and is soon exposed to some entirely surprising (at least for their community) ways of thinking about and approaching religion. Evie continues to dig and scrutinize her religion, her parents’ own hypocrisies, prejudices, perceptions about guilt, sin, and heteronormative biases when things come to a head. As Evie continues to write to Cilla, pleading for some guidance about her identity and growing, intense feelings for June, Evie decides that she can’t bear it anymore- she needs to see her older sister. For fear of spoiling too much, I won’t say more- just know that Petro-Roy navigates searing turns, sorrow and grief, and the resulting aftermath in the most skillful and beautiful of fashions.

Overall, an excellently written, emotional and riveting middle grade title and one I highly recommend. Children’s author Erin Dionne, in a blurb for P.S. I Miss You , writes that Petro-Roy “has created a character [in Evie] with the potential to be as iconic as Judy Blume’s Margaret” [from Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret], and what an apt sentiment. Evie is that standout, lionhearted kind of protagonist, whose heartfelt story and deeply personal narration will stay with you for a long time after finishing the novel. Readers who enjoy epistolary novels, or the work of authors such as Susin Nielsen, Kat Yeh, Firoozeh Dumas, Lisa Graff, Barbara Dee or Rebecca Stead, might especially appreciate P.S. I Miss You.

I received a copy of this title courtesy of Raincoast Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.

Review: The Strange and Deadly Portraits of Bryony Gray by E. Latimer

Review: The Strange and Deadly Portraits of Bryony Gray by E. Latimer
Source: Hardcopy courtesy of Tundra Books/Penguin Random House Canada. Thank you!
Publication: February 13, 2018 by Tundra Books
Book Description:

Bryony Gray is becoming famous as a painter in London art circles. But life isn’t so grand. Her uncle keeps her locked in the attic, forcing her to paint for his rich clients . . . and now her paintings are taking on a life of their own, and customers are going missing under mysterious circumstances.

When her newest painting escapes the canvas and rampages through the streets of London, Bryony digs into her family history, discovering some rather scandalous secrets her uncle has been keeping, including a deadly curse she’s inherited from her missing father. Bryony has accidentally unleashed the Gray family curse, and it’s spreading fast.

With a little help from the strange-but-beautiful girl next door and her paranoid brother, Bryony sets out to break the curse, dodging bloodthirsty paintings, angry mobs and her wicked uncle along the way.

When I saw the great cover and read the blurb for E. Latimer‘s The Strange and Deadly Portraits of Bryony Gray I thought it sounded terrifically spooky and added it to my reading list. A gothic historically-set middle grade novel, inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray? Count me in! More sinister and more fantastical than I imagined, Latimer’s novel is a surprising treat.

The novel opens with a prologue that takes us into the extravagant, lush and self-indulgent life of Lady Dashworth, who is eagerly awaiting the delivery of a portrait of herself done by a supposedly odd but extremely talented thirteen year old girl. Upon opening, Lady Dashworth finds the portrait stunning…remarkable…so remarkable in fact, that the portrait seems too life-like. It is then that Latimer takes the already eerie opening and takes the story to its darker core: the portraits being done by that thirteen year old artist- Bryony Gray- are coming to life, ripping from their canvases and causing deadly mayhem in London. As readers meet Bryony and the terrible aunt and uncle who keep her prisoner in their attic, the story takes one fascinating turn after another.

Having planned an escape from her attic confines for some time, Bryony finds herself freed quite suddenly by accident when a portrait she purposely painted to look monstrous tears itself to life off the canvas. It is then, as Bryony escapes into the city slowly being tyrannized by her art, that she meets siblings Mira and Thompson- the next-door neighbors she had only dreamed to meet one day. Latimer weaves multiple elements as the story continues to unfold: Bryony experiencing London, her surroundings, and children her own age for almost the first time in her life; the trio of children having to escape for their lives time after time while attempting to help Bryony stop the madness; and perhaps the biggest thing of all, Bryony finally learning truths about her long-absent father who presumably cursed the Gray family. It is a lot to pack into a tale, but Latimer does a solid job of maintaining all of the elements, adding some bombshell reveals, and threading in some very interesting ties to an imagined incident that lead to The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Overall, The Strange and Deadly Portraits of Bryony Gray is wonderfully unusual and atmospheric, with terrifying and surprising moments. It is written with such precise, intriguing detail that I vividly pictured the story from beginning to end, and even thought to myself how incredible it would be to see this story brought to life on-screen! Readers who enjoy gothic, scary stories or the work of authors such as Claire Legrand, Charis Cotter, Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl or Laura Amy Schlitz might especially enjoy this dark tale.

I received a copy of this title courtesy of Tundra Books/Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.

Review: Bringing Me Back by Beth Vrabel

Review: Bringing Me Back by Beth Vrabel
Source: ARC courtesy of Sky Pony Press. Thank you!
Publication: February 6, 2018 by Sky Pony Press.
Book Description:

Noah is not having a good year.

His mom is in prison, he’s living with his mom’s boyfriend—who he’s sure is just waiting until his mother’s six month sentence is up to kick him out—and he’s officially hated by everyone at his middle school, including his former best friend. It’s Noah’s fault that the entire football program got shut down after last year.

One day, Noah notices a young bear at the edge of the woods with her head stuck in a bucket. A bucket that was almost certainly left outside as part of a school fundraiser to bring back the football team. As days go by, the bear is still stuck—she’s wasting away and clearly getting weaker, even as she runs from anyone who tries to help. And she’s always alone.

Though Noah ignores the taunts at school and ignores his mother’s phone calls from jail, he can’t ignore the bear. Everyone else has written the bear off as a lost cause—just like they have with Noah. He makes it his mission to help her.

But rescuing the bear means tackling his past—and present—head-on. Could saving the bear ultimately save Noah, too?

Bringing Me Back is the latest contemporary middle grade title from children’s author Beth Vrabel. Having read and enjoyed Vrabel’s well-received and well-reviewed Pack of Dorks series, A Blind Guide to Stinkville and A Blind Guide to Normal, I was looking forward to Vrabel’s newest children’s title immensely.

In Bringing Me Back, we follow the first-person narrative of middle schooler Noah Brickle. Noah, as we learn, is going through a very difficult time. His mom is serving time in prison, he’s become a social pariah at school- almost entirely without any friendly face- and is now under the guardianship of his mom’s boyfriend Jeff. In just a short span of time, Noah’s world has gone from pretty great- having a best friend, playing football at school, and having his mom and Jeff in a stable and good relationship- to just about everything being broken. Readers learn about Noah’s mom’s struggle with alcohol and how one night of relapse- and a dangerous football accident caused by Noah the day after- changed his world. On top of everything Noah is experiencing at home and at school, he also becomes fixated with a lone bear cub seen around the perimeters of the school. Soon Noah becomes determined to save the life of the young bear, especially when the bear is spotted with a bucket stuck on its head and looks to be growing frail. As the prison release date of Noah’s mom grows closer, Noah finds himself at a head with emotions: his remorse for the accident he caused; complicated feelings for his mom and the damage she caused; his growing feelings for his new friend Rina; with how much Jeff really means to him; and for how far he’s willing to go (and why) to save the life of a dying bear cub.

Noah is a terrifically written, interesting young narrator: complicated, open, hurting, and struggling to keep his head above water. The course of his relationships with two supporting characters- his one new and surprising school friend Rina and now-guardian Jeff- are so well-done and at different turns, emotional and heart-wrenching. Vrabel gets the voice of young protagonists spot on and writes them brilliantly; I think Bringing Me Back, with its well-drawn cast of main characters and excellent story, is the strongest of her novels so far. Overall, a strong, beautifully written, affecting middle grade title, with wonderfully drawn characters set in a unique story. Readers who have enjoyed Beth Vrabel’s previous children’s titles or readers who enjoy the work of authors such as Leslie Connor, Kate Messner, or Sarah Weeks might especially enjoy Vrabel’s latest.

I received a copy of this title courtesy of Sky Pony Press in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.

Must Read Monday (79): Children’s Titles from Angela Dominguez, Tae Keller, Jarrett Lerner, Dana Simpson & more!

Welcome to another edition of Must Read Monday!

This feature is where I spotlight older, recent, or upcoming releases I am looking forward to. The lists will include all genres I like to read, everything from picture books to comics, children’s lit to adult fiction!

 

This week: children’s fiction, including graphic novels and middle grade fiction! We have the Zoey and Sassafraas series by Asia Citro and Marion Lindsay; Susan Tan and Dana Wulfekotte’s Cilla-Lee Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire; Angela Dominguez’s Stella Diaz Has Something to Say— I have been hearing and reading terrific things about these titles from authors and illustrators I follow on Twitter! Next up are children’s fiction titles EngiNerds from Jarrett Lerner, and The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller. Last but definitely not least, we have new entries into series I adore: Judd Winick’s HiLo, Dana Simpson’s Heavenly Nostrils, Elise Gravel’s Olga, and the third and final entry in Chronicles of Claudette by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado.

Dragons and Marshmallows (Zoey and Sassafras #1) by Asia Citro, illus. Marion Lindsay
Publication: March 14, 2017 by The Innovation Press (paperback)
Book Description:

With magical animals, science, mystery, and adventure — the brand new series Zoey and Sassafras has something for everyone! Easy-to-read language and illustrations on nearly every page make this series perfect for a wide range of ages.

In the first book of this series, Zoey discovers a glowing photo and learns an amazing secret. Injured magical animals come to their backyard barn for help! When a sick baby dragon appears, it’s up to Zoey and Sassafras to figure out what’s wrong. Will they be able to help little Marshmallow before it’s too late?

 

Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan, illus. Dana Wulfekotte
Publication: March 28, 2017 by Roaring Brook Press
Book Description:

Priscilla “Cilla” Lee-Jenkins is on a tight deadline. Her baby sister is about to be born, and Cilla needs to become a bestselling author before her family forgets all about her. So she writes about what she knows best—herself! And Cilla has a lot to write about: How did she deal with being bald until the age of five? How did she overcome her struggles with reading? How do family traditions with Grandma and Grandpa Jenkins differ from family traditions with her Chinese grandparents, Nai Nai and Ye Ye?

Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire is a novel bursting with love and humor, as told through a bright, irresistible biracial protagonist who will win your heart and make you laugh.

 

EngiNerds by Jarrett Lerner
Publication: September 12, 2017 by Aladdin
Book Description:

Ken is an EngiNerd: one of a super-smart group of friends—all nerds—who have been close since kindergarten.

They may be brainiacs, but they’re just like everyone else: they fight with one another, watch too much TV, eat Chinese food, and hate walking their dogs. Well, maybe not just like everyone because Ken’s best friend Dan has been building robots. He then secretly sent one to each of the EngiNerds, never letting them know he’s the mastermind.

At first Ken is awed and delighted: what kid hasn’t dreamed of having a robot all their own? Someone who can be their friend, clean their room, walk the dog, answer homework questions…how amazing is that?

But be careful what you wish for: Dan’s robot, Greeeg, may look innocent, but his ravenous consumption of food—comestibles—turns him into a butt-blasting bot. And once the other robots ‘come alive’ it’s up to the motley crew of EngiNerds to not only save the day, but save the planet!

 

HiLo Book 4: Waking the Monsters (HiLo #4) by Judd Winick
Publication: January 16, 2018 by Random House Books for Young Readers
Book Description:

DJ and Gina are TOTALLY ordinary kids. But Hilo isn’t! Has Hilo finally met his match? Not if D.J. and Gina can help it! ALERT! ALERT! ALERT! Mega Robot Monsters are suddenly waking up all over and they’re TOO BIG and TOO STRONG for Hilo to fight on his own! Luckily, he doesn’t have to! He has GINA and some brand new SUPER POWERS on his side! Being heroes can be super fun-but it can also be SUPER dangerous! And the closer Hilo and Gina get to saving their world from the monsters–the closer Hilo gets to the dark secret of his past. Does he really want to know? Do WE?!

 

Stella Diaz Has Something to Say by Angela Dominguez
Publication: January 16, 2018 by Roaring Brook Press
Book Description:

In her first middle-grade novel, award-winning picture book author and illustrator Angela Dominguez tells a heartwarming story based on her own experiences growing up Mexican-American.

Stella Diaz loves marine animals, especially her betta fish, Pancho. But Stella Diaz is not a betta fish. Betta fish like to be alone, while Stella loves spending time with her mom and brother and her best friend Jenny. Trouble is, Jenny is in another class this year, and Stella feels very lonely.

When a new boy arrives in Stella’s class, she really wants to be his friend, but sometimes Stella accidentally speaks Spanish instead of English and pronounces words wrong, which makes her turn roja. Plus, she has to speak in front of her whole class for a big presentation at school! But she better get over her fears soon, because Stella Díaz has something to say!

Stella Díaz Has Something to Say introduces an infectiously charming new character with relatable writing and adorable black-and-white art throughout. Simple Spanish vocabulary is also integrated within the text, providing a bilingual element.

 

The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller
Expected publication: March 6, 2018 by Random House Books for Young Readers
Book Description:

How do you grow a miracle?
For the record, this is not the question Mr. Neely is looking for when he says everyone in class must answer an important question using the scientific method. But Natalie’s botanist mother is suffering from depression, so this is The Question that’s important to Natalie. When Mr. Neely suggests that she enter an egg drop competition, Natalie has hope.

Eggs are breakable. Hope is not.
Natalie has a secret plan for the prize money. She’s going to fly her mother to see the Cobalt Blue Orchids–flowers that survive against impossible odds. The magical flowers are sure to inspire her mother to love life again. Because when parents are breakable, it’s up to kids to save them, right?

An extraordinary story about the coming-of-age moment when kids realize that parents are people, too, and that talking about problems is like taking a plant out of a dark cupboard and giving it light. Think THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH meets THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH.

 

Monsters Beware! (Chronicles of Claudette #3) by Jorge Aguirre, illus. Rafael Rosado
Expected publication: March 13, 2018 by First Second
Book Description:

Claudette is back AGAIN, and she’s ready to kick major monster butt!

She’s fought giants, clobbered dragons, and now Claudette faces her biggest challenge yet… herself! Well, that and a gang of vile monsters. It all begins when Claudette’s town hosts the annual Warrior Games. After some sneaky maneuvering, Claudette manages to gets herself, Marie, and Gaston chosen as her town’s representatives. But none of Claudette’s past battles has prepared her for this. And to make matters worse, they must stop the vicious Sea Queen and her evil children from using the Warrior Games to free the dark Wizard Grombach and conquer the world!

In Monsters Beware!, the third and final book of the Claudette graphic novel series, Claudette is put to the ultimate test. With her honor on the line will she learn that there’s more to a fight than just winning?

 

Olga: We’re Out of Here! by Elise Gravel
Expected publication: March 13, 2018 by HarperCollins
Book Description:

Animal lover and kid scientist Olga is back! Great for fans of the acclaimed graphic novels Real Friends and Invisible Emmie.

In this second installment of a series Franny K. Stein creator Jim Benton called “great, kooky, monstrous fun,” Olga wants to leave earth in search of Meh’s home planet, but first she’ll have to discover why Meh is acting so strange.

Olga: We’re Out of Here is jam-packed with facts and fun: Elise Gravel’s classic comic illustrations, hilarious word bubbles, space travel facts, and a diverse cast of memorable characters.

 

Unicorn of Many Hats (Heavenly Nostrils #7) by Dana Simpson
Expected publication: March 20, 2018 by Andrews McMeel Publishing
Book Description:

In this installment, Phoebe decides to start the school year off right by offering a peace treaty to frenemy Dakota, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils becomes the unlikeliest of babysitters, and Phoebe is totally surprised to find out that her Secret Santa isn’t Dakota or Max!

Best of 2017, Part 1: Children’s Lit, Young Adult, Adult Fiction & more!

Hope everyone is having a wonderful, safe and lovely holiday season, whatever your celebrations may be!

I am rather late in posting this, but I wanted to get in my 2017 reading highlights before the end of the year. In no particular order, here are my book selections for part one, hope you enjoy!

 

Children’s Fiction/Middle Grade:
The Goat by Anne Fleming
Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
Greetings From Witness Protection by Jake Burt
Karma Khullar’s Mustache by Kristi Wientge
Greenglass House (Greenglass House #1) by Kate Milford
Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand
Howard Wallace, P.I. by Casey Lyall
Shadow of a Pug (Howard Wallace, P.I #2) by Casey Lyall
Ghost (Track #1) by Jason Reynolds
The Cat Stole My Pants (Timmy Failure #6) by Stephan Pastis
Royal Crush (From the Notebooks of a Middle School Princess #3) by Meg Cabot
Roll by Darcy Miller
The World’s Greatest Detective by Caroline Carlson
Jolly Foul Play (Murder Most Unladylike #4) by Robin Stevens
Mary Anning’s Curiosity by Monica Kulling
The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter
Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere (Olga #1) by Elise Gravel
Catstronauts series by Drew Brockington (graphic novel)
Wallace the Brave by Will Henry (graphic novel)
Lint Boy by Aileen Leijten (graphic novel)
Bird and Squirrel on Fire (Bird & Squirrel #4) by James Burks
Real Friends by Shannon Hale, illus. LeUyen Pham, color by Jane Poole (graphic novel)
Phoebe and Her Unicorn in the Magic Storm (Heavenly Nostrils, #6) by Dana Simpson (graphic novel)
Grandfather and the Moon by Stéphanie Lapointe, illus. Rogé, translated by Shelley Tanaka

 

Young Adult:
The Agony of Bun O’Keefe by Heather Smith
The Fashion Committee by Susan Juby
Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen
Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined by Danielle Younge-Ullman
Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig
Short for Chameleon by Vicki Grant
Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson
The Other F-Word by Natasha Friend
You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour & David Levithan
Well, That Was Awkward by Rachel Vail (YA/MG crossover)
The Dead Inside by Cyndy Etler (YA non-fiction)

 

Adult Fiction & Mysteries:
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Nine Lessons (Josephine Tey Mystery #9) by Nicola Upson
Hunting Hour (Timber Creek K-9 Mystery #3) by Margaret Mizushima
Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia
On Turpentine Lane by Eleanor Lipman
Forgotten City (A Claire Codella Mystery #2) by Carrie Smith
The Boy is Back (Boy #4) by Meg Cabot

 

Adult Non-Fiction, Humour and Other:

Big Mushy Happy Lump (Sarah’s Scribbles #2) by Sarah Anderson
It’s All Absolutely Fine by Ruby Elliot
I Hate Everyone Except You by Clinton Kelly
Texts From Dog II: The Dog Delusion by October Jones
Fowl Language: Welcome to Parenting by Brian Gordon
Onward and Downward: The Twenty-Second Sherman’s Lagoon Collection by Jim Toomey

 

Note: Some titles appearing on this list may have been published in previous years; titles on this list are ones that I read in 2017. Some titles appearing on this list may also have been provided by publishers in exchange for honest reviews; this has no bearing on making this list. These are my personal selections.

Must Read Monday (74): Children’s Titles from Pam Smy, Natalia O’Hara and Lauren O’Hara & Lorena Alvarez

Welcome to another edition of Must Read Monday!

This feature is where I spotlight older, recent, or upcoming releases I am looking forward to. The lists will include all genres I like to read, everything from picture books to comics, children’s lit to adult fiction!

 

 

This feature has been absent for a few weeks as I’ve been working my way through my already lengthy to-read pile and reviews! But it is back this week, with some new and intriguing titles. On the roster this week are three mysterious, wondrous looking and sounding children’s titles: Thornhill by Pam Smy; Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia O’Hara and Lauren O’Hara; and Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez.

 

Thornhill by Pam Smy
Publication: August 29, 2017 by Roaring Brook Press
Book Description:

Parallel stories set in different times, one told in prose and one in pictures, converge as Ella unravels the mystery of the girl next door.

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.

 

Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia O’Hara, illus. Lauren O’Hara
Publication: October 5, 2017 by Puffin
Book Description:

A haunting, original fairy tale from two dazzling debut picture book talents, in the spirit of Neil Gaiman and Carson Ellis.

Hortense is a kind and brave girl, but she is sad–even angry–that her shadow follows her everywhere she goes. She hates her shadow, and thinks her shadow must hate her too. But one cold, dark night, when bandits surprise her in the woods, Hortense discovers that her shadow is the very thing she needs most.

This stunningly illustrated story stirs the soul with its compelling, subtle exploration of self-esteem, self-identity, and finding inner strength.

 

Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez
Publication: March 14, 2017 by Nobrow Press
Book Description:

Every night, tiny stars appear out of the darkness in little Sandy’s bedroom. She catches them and creates wonderful creatures to play with until she falls asleep, and in the morning brings them back to life in the whimsical drawings. When a mysterious new girl appears at school, Sandy’s drawings are noticed for the first time…but Morfie’s fascination with Sandy’s talent soon turns into something far more sinister.

Nightlights is a beautiful story about fear, insecurity, and creativity, from the enchanting imagination of Lorena Alvarez.