The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Dan Gemeinhart
Genres: Middle Grade, Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

Middle Grade is such an underrated genre and there are so many quality books out there. Even though I generally enjoy it, I don’t read that much middle grade unless it’s by an author I already know and like, but I always pick something out from the Goodreads Choice Awards every year to read in November. The book that appealed to me most in the long list was The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, which I was pleased to see also made it into the shortlist.

Coyote has been travelling America with her dad, Rodeo, in a refurbished school bus for the last 5 years. They’ve been having a great time exploring all over the country, but there is a certain loneliness that comes with always being on the move. Coyote is 12 years old, but she hasn’t really developed any lasting friendships and the only ongoing relationship she has is with her grandma, who she calls once a week on Saturday.

Coyote and Rodeo never talk about it, but they share a secret; they’re both trying to outrun the grief of having lost 3 other family members 5 years prior. The entire topic of their family is a “no-go” with Rodeo and Coyote is fine to go along with that, until she receives a call from her Grandma that really makes her want to return to her hometown, and in a hurry. But she knows Rodeo would never go for it and deceives him on a separate mission that will take them in close proximity to their old home. They’re both on a journey they don’t even really know they’re on and along the way they pick up some individuals who finally start to challenge their lifestyle and make them confront the demons they’ve been running from for 5 years.

It’s a book about grief, but the author balances the story with lots of humour and fun characters. Coyote has a lot of spunk and I loved how the cast of characters kept growing with each new plan Coyote hatches to try and get her closer to home. I love how children’s lit is able to tackle such emotional themes without being dark or upsetting, while also being super perceptive and comforting. Coyote still struggles with losing her mother and sisters, but it’s Rodeo who is really running away from the past. I liked that it’s a book about how a young girl deals with her grief, but also about how she helps her father to finally deal with his grief too.

Ember and the Ice Dragons

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Heather Fawcett
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. date: Oct. 1, 2019 (read Oct. 2019)

I wish I didn’t wait so long to write my review for this book because I really loved it! Heather Fawcett is killing it with her books and I’m really drawn to the settings she creates. I loved her Himalaya inspired fantasy world in Even the Darkest Stars and loved the blend of fantasy she created in Ember and the Ice Dragons.

Ember and the Ice Dragons is a middle grade fantasy series set in our world, but with magic. Ember’s adoptive father is a magician that chases storms because they are where he gets his magic from. On one adventure he discovers a baby dragon, Ember, and turns her into a human to save her life and hide her, because unfortunately the fire dragons have since been hunted to extinction.

As you might expect, Ember struggles in England because she has a tendency to randomly burst into flames and as such, is afraid to make friends. Eventually she convinces her father to ship her off to Antarctica to live with her Aunt because she is much less likely to catch fire in the cold climate. Once in Antarctica, Ember is surprised when two other children, Nisha and Moss, attempt to befriend her. She’s also enraged to discover that the ice dragons of Antarctica are also being hunted and targeted, same as the fire dragons were in England. She teams up with Nisha and Moss to take down the hunt and save the ice dragons.

Like I said, I loved the setting. Most of the book is set in Antarctica and loved reading about it. Fawcett likes to set her stories in the bitter cold outdoors and it just makes for such an enjoyable reading experience in the fall and winter. Ember is the perfect heroine – with just the right amount of spunk and vulnerability. I liked watching her come of age and finally starting to make friends and build relationships with those around her instead of constantly being afraid of being discovered. Fawcett is also good at writing perfect villains and anti-heros and I like that some of her characters are flawed, yet still good.

This read like a standalone, so I’m not sure if Fawcett is planning on expanding the world or not. I kind of hope not because I think this works well as a standalone and I want to see what other types of worlds she will dream up!

The Next Great Paulie Fink

Rating:
Author: Ali Benjamin
Genres: Middle Grade
Pub. date: Apr. 16, 2019 (read, Apr. 2019)

Happy pub day to The Next Great Paulie Fink! Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada who provided me with a free advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

I loved Ali Benjamin’s debut novel, The Thing About Jellyfish, and she hasn’t published anything new in several years, so I was thrilled when I saw she was publishing a second novel! Both of Benjamin’s books are middle grade and I’ll admit, when I read the plot synopsis for Paulie Fink, it didn’t appeal to me quite as much as her first book because it sounded more juvenille. But don’t let that deter you from reading this one because I ended up really liking it!

The Next Great Paulie Fink is about 7th grader, Caitlyn Breen, who is a new student at Mitchell School. Caitlyn’s mom got a new job and moved them both to rural Vermont from New York, a decision that was not very popular with Caitlyn. Her new school seems totally backwards from her old school and doesn’t seem to follow any of the social “rules” she learned in New York. The kids in her new class all seem eccentric to Caitlyn and they are caught up in the disappearance of one of their former classmates, Paulie Fink.

Paulie was the class clown and beloved by his classmates. But he doesn’t return for 7th grade and no one knows what happened to him. He leaves a void behind that the kids want to fill with a new Paulie, so they decide to have a reality show competition to find the Next Great Paulie Fink. Caitlyn’s struggles to get on board with the competition since she never knew Paulie, but her classmates convince her to judge the competition and suddenly she’s thrust into a totally new world that scares her, but challenges her.

Granted, it’s been a few years since I read The Thing about Jellyfish, but this book had quite a different tone from that book. It’s a lot funnier and it has a large cast of characters to carry the story. It’s overwhelming at first trying to keep track of Caitlyn’s classmates, but eventually they all start to develop personalities of their own, and while Caitlyn is always our central character, I really loved some of her classmates as well.

Like I said, I initially wondered if I would glean much from this book as an adult reader, or if it really was tailored for kids. But I ended up really liking it and even though the themes were younger, I still thought the author did a great job at making this a well rounded story that could be enjoyed at any age. I particularly liked how she approached bullying in this book. Moving to a new school and finding it absent of the social structure that was in her last school, Caitlyn starts reflecting on some of the interactions she had with her former classmates and how some of her actions may have been hurtful. Because her class is so small (a dozen students), and because they are so rural, her classmates are all very supportive of one another and Caitlyn initially struggles with that. She protected herself in her old school by growing a hard shell and disconnecting her emotions from those around her, and in her new school, she struggles to let herself be vulnerable and that hard shell actually creates a barrier with her new classmates.

I also really liked the author’s exploration of legends and kleos (glory). Paulie was a legend at Mitchell and in their search for the next Paulie, the students learn about kleos and what makes someone memorable or a legend. The catch is, kleos can make us forget things too. When we glorify someone, it’s easy to forget the things that made them human or the things that annoyed you about them. We later discover that Paulie was really just as human as the rest of the students, but because of the reputation he developed at Mitchell, the students started over-hyping who he was and to an extent, lost sight of the real Paulie and failed to notice the unique things that they have to offer in their quest to be more like Paulie.

I liked a lot of the secondary characters, but (no surprise I’m sure) Fiona was definitely my favourite. Fiona wears a power suit to school every single day because she wants to one day be a powerful woman. She’s not great at school and struggles to pay attention in class. But she is buoyed by her belief that “well-behaved women seldom make history”. All of the students at Mitchell had so much spunk and I loved watching a group of kids be so great at supporting one another. Was it realistic? I’m not really sure. But I think that was kind of the point. Mitchell school was doing something right – it didn’t seem like a place should exist like this, but somehow it did. When you find something special like that, it’s worth protecting, even if it challenges your worldview.

Mostly though, this book was just a lot of fun. There’s lots to make you laugh and lots to make you think. I think Caitlyn’s classmates are right in that sweet spot where they’re still children, but are about to become teenagers. Caitlyn was pushed to mature a little earlier growing up in New York, which is why she has hardened herself against the world. But these students are still idealistic and not yet jaded about the world. Overall, I loved the balance of humour and life lessons about growing up.

Heidi

Rating: 
Author: Johanna Spyri
Genres: Children’s, Middle Grade, Classic
Pub date: 1880 (read Jan. 2019)

Oh Heidi, a girl after my own heart. I bought a new copy of Anne of Green Gables last year after my childhood copy was accidentally donated and decided to pick up copies of both Heidi and the Secret Garden, which had cute matching covers. I never read Heidi as a child, but I was into the mountain setting and was basically hoping for Anne of Green Gables set in Switzerland.

Heidi definitely does not have the same charm as Anne, who is one of my all-time favourite female characters, but I could appreciate her love of the simple life and the fresh mountain air. Heidi is a little orphan girl who, up to the age of 5, lived with her Aunt in the small Swiss town of Dorfli. At the age of 5, her aunt decides she has spent enough resources on Heidi and drags her up the mountainside to instead live with her Grandfather. Her grandfather is seen as a bit of a hermit by the townspeople and is fairly misunderstood, so they all pity Heidi when they see her on the way up the mountain.

However, Heidi immediately settles into life at her Grandfather’s cabin and is totally enamored with the beautiful mountain views, the wildflowers, and her neighbour Peter, the local goat-herder. Likewise, her Grandfather’s life is taken over by Heidi and he starts to find a new joy in life. I thought the whole mountain setting – two misfits finding love with one another – story was brilliant and was totally into this book at the beginning. I can see why it’s a classic, but like I said, Heidi just doesn’t have quite the same charm as my other beloved children’s books and it’s pretty slow moving. I struggled through the story at times and unfortunately, the ending of the book hasn’t really aged all that well.

It is a sweet story with christian undertones and themes. In the middle of the story, Heidi is extremely distraught when she is removed from her grandfathers and forced to live in Frankfurt. She finds the town so dark and dreary and she doesn’t understand the way of life, so she is misunderstood by those around her and yearns more than anything to return to Grandfathers. She learns about God and is taught to put her trust in his plan and is ultimately rewarded by her prayers and faith. While some elements were problematic, I was impressed that this book features both a girl in a wheelchair and a blind person.

I can’t write this review without discussing the ending, so if you’re unfamiliar with this classic and plan to read it, please stop reading here. SPOILERS AHEAD.

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So I didn’t really like the ending of this book. I definitely don’t fault the author for it because this was written in the 1800’s, but in my opinion the ending doesn’t really hold up today. I had two issues with the ending, the first of which is that Peter sucks! Peter is a pretty big introvert, whereas Heidi loves people and making new friends, and he is constantly threatened by Heidi’s other relationships and acts out pretty aggressively in his jealousy (both with the Doctor and Clara). My problem was that Peter’s behaviour was totally wrong, but he never really suffered any consequence from it. He destroys Clara’s chair for heaven’s sake and though he feels bad after, no one ever holds him accountable to his actions. They were just teaching him it’s okay to be an asshole.

My second issue was with Clara suddenly gaining the ability to walk by sheer force of will and the power of fresh mountain air (supposedly). I don’t fault the author because I’m sure people with disabilities had it rough in this era and their disabilities were not as well understood. So gifting her character with the ability to walk again seems like the perfect ending to a childhood story. It just doesn’t really stand up today and I’d hate for little girls in wheelchairs to read this book and be preached the message that if they just pray and want it enough, they might be able to walk again too. Or to feel like they can only achieve happiness by the curing of their disability and that the ultimate dream is to escape your disability. I liked Clara because despite her disability and sickness, she had a great attitude and didn’t actually seem that hampered by her disability. Being in a chair is nothing to feel bad about and is not an impediment on happiness. So I just don’t think this ending holds up in light of the body positivity movement and is a little insulting to the less able-bodied.

3 stars for the sweet story and setting, but beware some of the ideas are a little preachy and out-dated.

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow

Rating: 
Author: Jessica Townsend
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Pub date: Nov. 13, 2018 (read Nov. 2018)
Series: Nevermoor #2

Happy Pub Day Wundersmith!

Hachette Book Group was so kind as to send me an early copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. And all I can say is that this book is WUNDERFUL!

I heard some really great stuff about Nevermoor, the first book in this series, so I read it a few months ago and absolutely loved it! It’s a middle grade book that I can’t help but compare to Harry Potter. They have a lot of similar elements, but are still quite different. In my opinion, Nevermoor incorporates all the features that made Harry Potter a phenomenon and I feel like it’s the series I’ve been searching for since Harry Potter ended.

Over the last few years, Throne of Glass has been my go to series, but it’s over now and now I just can’t stop thinking about Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor. The second book in a series is super important because author’s can often get the second book blues after a really successful first book, and the chance to prove to your readers that you’re not just a one-book phenomenon. After finishing Wundersmith, I am totally on the Jessica Townsend bandwagon and even MORE obsessed with this series.

First of all, the covers are gorgeous and I think they perfectly capture the whimsical nature of these books. Just to give you a quick synopsis, Nevermoor is about 11 year old Morrigan Crow. Because of when she was born, she’s spent her entire life as a cursed child, being blamed for all the misfortune that happens in her town in the Wintersea Republic. Until one day, red-head Jupiter North shows up on her doorstep and invites Morrigan to move to the mythical city of Nevermoor to compete in the trials for the Wundrous Society.

Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead for Nevermoor if you haven’t read it, but I will keep the rest of the review spoiler free for Wundersmith.

At the end of Nevermoor, Morrigan is successful in passing her trials and is invited to join Wunsoc. However, she is shocked to discover that she is a Wundersmith. The last Wundersmith in Nevermoor was Ezra Squall, who committed such evil acts that he was forever banned from Nevermoor. For this reason, Wundersmiths are not well liked or accepted and Morrigan is forbidden from learning the arts of the Wundersmith or from telling anyone her talents. But when strange events start taking place in Nevermoor and she is bullied by her classmates, she questions whether all Wundersmiths really are bad,

This book was everything I wanted from the sequel. It had all of the whimsical elements that the first book had, while continuing to test Morrigan, introduce new characters, and deepen the plot. I said in my review for Nevermoor, and I’ll reinterate here, that what I like so much about this series is the gradual world building and the fact that you can tell this world is going to have so much more depth than what has been revealed to us. The entire book is a plot within a greater story. What made Harry Potter so good was Rowling’s ability to tell one story, while simultaneously building on that larger story arc. Our questions are not always answered in a single book and the story continues across the greater series. I loved Rowling’s foresight in Harry Potter and her ability to craft her arcs and mysteries in advance of writing each book and then weave them together over the course of the novel and series. I can’t be sure because we’re only two books in, but I suspect Townsend is following a similar format.

I think it takes a very accomplished author not to rush through their world building – to tell a fun and fascinating story, while still withholding enough of the secrets to keep us coming back for more. There can be a tendency to overload your reader with information about the world you’re creating, but slowly introducing parts of that world is a much more effective way to draw your reader in and not overwhelm them. I keep learning more about Nevermoor, yet it already feels like a fully formed place. I don’t feel as if Townsend is trying to explain her world to me, but rather is gradually building that fully formed world around me. It’s hard to explain, but it makes for a really enjoyable reading experience.

The Harry Potter feels continue in this book and I feel like Townsend is setting us up for a substantial series. Morrigan enters the Wunsoc society in this book and we get to know the 8 other students that make up her unit (unit 919). Wunsoc parrots the belief that your unit is your family and that you must learn and grow together. A success or failure on behalf of one person is a success or failure for the entire unit. Morrigan’s initial draw to the society was the opportunity to have 8 ready made friends, something she never had as a cursed child. But she soon learns that Wunsoc is not as perfect as she believed and that trust, respect, and friendship are still things that will need to be earned.

Morrigan is tested in this book. Wunsoc is essentially a little Hogwarts type world where she will attend school for the next 6 or 7 years (can’t remember exactly how many), before pursuing greater endeavors. Her classmates are all signed up for fun and interesting classes, but as a secret Wundersmith, the society is a bit at a loss for what to do with Morrigan. She is forbidden from learning how to use her talents as a Wundersmith, but as wunder keeps gathering to her, her talents can no longer be ignored.

I don’t want to give away any of the plot, so I’ll just say that I loved the mystery element to this book and I loved the characterization. Hawthorne is just as fun in this book as the first book and I really liked getting to know Cadence a bit more in this book. It was a little hard at times to keep track of all 9 of the Wunsoc students as 6 of them are brand new characters to us, but I’m really excited to get to know them better as the series progresses. We’re also introduced to the Scholar Mistresses at the school in this book and I can’t wait to see where the next book takes us with the two different streams of study at Wunsoc. Townsend builds on the relationships of the folks living at the Hotel Deucealion. Jupiter continues to be an elusive, eccentric, Dumbledore type character and I have a lot of questions about what he’s really up to. Fen continues to be one of my favourite characters and I hope to see more of her and Jack in later books.

In conclusion, I still highly recommend this series and I loved every part of this book. My only regret is reading it too fast and having to wait too long for the next book!