Hello everybody! Today, I have a review post for you, which isn’t totally themed around festive books but a few do pop up throughout, and they’re all middle grade contemporary. Onto the post!
A Soft Place to Land by Janae Marks
As you might know by now, given how much I rave about it, Janae Marks’ debut the Faraway Truth was one of my very favourite books in 2020. I had high hopes for her follow up release, which focuses on a girl named Joy, who has to move into a new apartment complex after her father is made redundant and the unexpected friends and safe haven she finds there. Then anonymous messages start appearing on the walls of the Hideaway and Joy begins writing back, and investigating who the messages that she relates to hugely might be from. Joy, excuse the pun, truly is a joyful character, despite how difficult a time she’s going through in this book. She’s really struggling with the move and her family having to readjust financially, yet she is still so caring and kind and community-spirited towards everybody. I also really liked her support network, especially her friend Nora and her super-sweet little sister. The dog walking business plotline is unbelievably fun and lovely and just my exact cup of tea, and I loved the messages about being there for your friends and the people around you. While the plot of this is significantly less high stakes than that of the Faraway Truth’s main storyline with Marcus being falsely imprisoned and Zoe trying to prove his innocence, it still felt like I couldn’t put this down because I was so invested in the characters’ wellbeing and the outcome. This is just perfection and it’s one I’ll be recommending a LOT.
Melissa by Alex Gino (previously published as George)
While I own a very old edition of this book, since I bought it not long after it was first published in the UK, the title has now changed to better reflect the main character’s true name and gender rather than their dead name, and as such I didn’t want to include it under its previous title (just popping this in as a disclaimer to avoid any confusion!). I have wanted to read this for a very long time and I’ve come so close to reading it so many times, but my TBR is honestly borderline insane at this point, so something has always gotten in my way. It’s the story of Melissa, a trans girl who has not yet come out yet, and how her teacher’s refusal to let her play Charlotte in the school show of Charlotte’s Web ends up changing her life. Melissa is such a phenomenal character and my heart just broke and soared for her at different points throughout the story, and I loved the supporting cast who help Melissa through the journey she goes on during the book, especially her friend Kelly. Kelly is a true ally and I loved her with my whole entire heart. I was definitely not such a fan of Jeff or Rick, though, so I was interested to see that the author has now written a book from Rick’s POV, and hope that maybe changes my opinions somewhat. This is really just so beautiful and moving and perfectly pitched, and I’m absolutely intending to pick up more by Alex Gino at some point.
The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent (recieved a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review)
This is the author’s debut novel, which I’ve been looking forward to ever since it was announced, and it was just the most perfect festive read to kick off December with. It’s about a family who celebrate Christmas all year round, as they move to a new area and their daughter Holly starts school for the first time after having been home schooled up till that point, only to discover that not everyone is quite as enthusiastic about Christmas as the Carrolls. Holly is such a funny, bright character with lots of cheer and joy to spread, and I loved seeing her learn more about how to be a friend and how the true spirit of the festive season isn’t just about liking tinsel and lights. Other characters I particularly loved were Holly’s friend at school Archer, and Reggie the donkey (sorry, I mean reindeer, I don’t want to make him upset!!). I also really liked the message that not everything is as it seems, which especially applies to two characters who end up being very different to who I thought they were, and it was really nice to see that. Excuse me for being a bit cheesy, but this is a true holly jolly delight, and I can’t wait to catch up with the Carrolls and co next Christmas!
A Puppy Called Sparkle by Helen Peters and illustrated by Ellie Snowdon
Given that I got a puppy called Sparkle in September and this book takes place in December, I just had to borrow a copy from my library and fit it into this post! I’ve been meaning to read this series for years as I love Helen Peters’ older MG books, and just keep forgetting to, but I’m very glad the name choice of this puppy finally prompted me to read them as this was a joyful little read and I just had a great time with it. It’s about the rescue of a puppy called Sparkle, and what happens when she is abducted from her temporary home, where she’s staying with the series’s main characterJasmine until they can find the perfect home for her. The plot line with the dog thieves and the information about puppy farms are sadly very relevant to this time, and I got so emotional reading about them (especially the thieves!) because I live in absolute terror of anything happening to either of my dogs, but I also really liked how informative it is about assistance dogs. Overall, this is a short, sweet book for anyone who enjoys animal-centric stories and is looking for a modern day Animal Ark kind of vibe in their reading!
Keeper of Secrets by Sarah J. Dodd
This is the story of a girl named Emily, who has moved to a new village with her veterinarian father just before Christmas after the sudden death of her mum, and her quest to keep a baby lynx she finds beside its mother’s dead body, safe from those in the village who want to kill her too. Emily is going through something unspeakably awful, and I think your heart would have to be made of stone not to absolutely feel for her. She is flawed and complicated, and I didn’t always approve of her choices, but I understood why she made them and I think she was more likeable for her imperfections, if anything. Lotta is a brilliantly portrayed animal character, and I loved the relationship between her and Emily. I wasn’t expecting the reveal of who shot Lotta’s mum at all, and I loved the discussions about looking after our wildlife and our planet, and it’s got a very wintry, Christmas feel which makes it perfect to pick up around this time of year. If you’re a fan of Lauren St John’s White Giraffe series or Jess Butterworth’s When the Mountains Roared, I think you’ll really like this too!
Almost Flying by Jake Maia Arlow
I was originally planning to read this during Pride month, and ended up getting sidetracked with other things, but I really wanted to make it an end of year priority and I’m so glad I did! It’s about a girl named Dalia, who is reeling after finding out her dad is getting remarried and a road trip she goes on with her almost-stepsister Alexa, some of Alexa’s friends, and Dalia’s new friend Rani, who she’s pretty sure she might have a crush on. First things first, I love that this is an LGBTQ+ middle grade book with a lot of representation that will allow many people to have literary mirrors, and normalise seeing diverse characters for other readers. LGBTQ+ middle grade makes my heart so, so happy and I hope we continue to see more of it in the years to come, as the amount has definitely increased in the last couple of years. Dalia is such a lovely protagonist and I really, truly felt for her because the situation her dad puts her in is just totally unacceptable, but Alexa was undoubtedly my favourite person in the whole book. She is initially not super friendly to Dalia and Rani, but as the book progresses and we learn more about her, I just started loving her more and more because she’s such a good person. Sara also deserves a shoutout for being so supportive and brilliant, and for getting Alexa to open up a bit and show her softer side. The rollercoaster park visits were great fun to read about even though I can’t actually go on roller coasters myself, and I think this was a really special debut from Jake Maia Arlow, with gorgeous messages about found family as the cherry on top of the cake. I was absolutely SOBBING at one point!! I can’t wait to read more of their work in the future!
The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser
I reviewed the first book in this series back in either September or October, and so I wanted to get to this second one before the end of the year since I enjoyed that one so much. This one follows the Vanderbeeker siblings as they try to create a community garden for their elderly neighbours Miss Josie and Mr Jeet, the latter of whom has just had a stroke and is very ill in hospital. The Vanderbeeker siblings are all such delights in their own way, and I love that they all bring their own unique skills to their adventures, and the relationship between them and their parents really warms my heart too. If I was forced to pick a favourite, it would probably be Oliver, given his love of books and how much he makes me laugh, but Laney’s animal training makes her a strong contender as well! The messages about the importance of the community they live in is also super lovely and it really brings the Harlem setting to life to the point that I almost feel like I’ve been there. I’m definitely planning to read the rest of the series, hopefully within the next year!
Beauty and the Bin by Joanne O’ Connell
This is the story of a girl named Laurie, whose family are very environmentally friendly and engaged with trying to stop the climate crisis, to the point where they’ve started “garbage guzzling”, much to Laurie’s mortification! However, Laurie is also very invested in saving the planet and one of the ways she does her part is by creating homemade beauty products, and when her school announces a business competition, the most popular girl in school demands that Laurie teams up with her to sell her products. Laurie is such a great character, who I felt a lot of sympathy for, especially because she’s a bit of a people-pleaser, but I also loved how ingenious and passionate she was with her products and how much she loved her family despite them often making things quite difficult for her. Her relationships with Fern and Radzi were so sweet, and I also really liked her friends Emilia and Zainab, who are just so supportive and lovely! Charli is someone I had very mixed feelings about, but I did feel sorry for her and I liked her ambition- the business competition plot was really fun to read because of it. The ending is super uplifting and heartwarming, and I definitely think I’ll be picking up Binderella once it’s out given how much I enjoyed the little preview of it.
Jaz Santos Vs the World by Priscilla Mante
I am distinctly not a fan of football, so I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy this, but I was so pleased to find that I had an absolutely excellent time meeting Jaz and her friends. It’s the first in the Dream Team series, which is about a group of girls banding together to start their own football team, and this specifically focuses on their team captain Jaz, whose parents have just separated. I think Jaz’s wonderfully distinctive and fun narrative voice was probably my biggest highlight here, because I just loved the way she saw the world and all her nicknames for people and I got so frustrated alongside her when people just kept misunderstanding her. The rest of the team were great too, I loved their mentor figure Rhiannon who has a very interesting plot arc of her own, and Jaz’s family were really well represented as being flawed and imperfect yet still loving. And of course, the message that girls can do anything is an absolutely great one, and I loved seeing the Bramrock Stars proving girls can play football too. It’s so looking forward to continuing on in this series, first of all with Charligh’s story when it comes out in May!
Emmy Levels Up by Helen Harvey
This is another 2021 debut, and it follows a girl named Emmy, who is a bit of a superstar in her online gaming community, but who is really struggling at school because mean girl Vanessa and her band of followers are making her life hell, for things like not having the right clothes and not being as good as them at certain school subjects. I think most people, at some point, will have come across a Vanessa throughout their life, and I actually got really emotional reading this because she reminded me so much of some that I’ve met. Emmy is very loveable and I really, truly felt for her throughout the book, and I loved how passionate she is about Illusionary Isles. Supporting characters-wise, I obviously despised Vanessa because she is just vicious, but I really liked the way Jude and Ryan support Emmy, and I liked Emmy’s mum and her boyfriend Paul very much too; I especially loved that Emmy’s mum was a tattoo artist because I’m lowkey obsessed with tattoos and it’s not something I see talked about in books super often. If you liked Aisha Bushby’s A Pocketful of Stars, I think the gaming part of this will really appeal, and while the contemporary themes are different, they’re handled as brilliantly as Aisha tackled certain subjects. I’m really looking forward to reading more from Helen in the future!
Thank you so much for reading! Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them, or are they on your TBR? I’d love to chat with you in the comments!