Rummanah Aasi
  I'm thrilled that there are more and more books being published about mental health. This is a topic that we need to destigmatize and talk freely about, especially when it concerns seeking help, building empathy, and understanding.

Description: Vicky Cruz shouldn’t be alive.That’s what she thinks, anyway—and why she tried to kill herself. But then she arrives at Lakeview Hospital, where she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her an acceptance she’s never had. Yet Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up—sending her back to the life that drove her to suicide—Vicky must find her own courage and strength. She may not have any. She doesn’t know.

Review: After a failed attempt to commit suicide in her bedroom, Vicky Cruz wakes up in the psychiatric wing of the hospital. Exhausted and nearly catatonic, Vicky goes through the motions asked of her by the quiet but firm Dr. Desai. Vicky knows that if she just stays at the hospital for the mandatory time, she will try again to harm herself so she agrees to stay as long as needed for her own safety and joins a group therapy with other three young people on the ward. All of the teens in the group therapy have some form of mental illness which Vicky learns as we progress through the book.
   Unlike many books that feature teens and suicide, Memory of Light is solely about the recovery process. Vicky takes her time in understanding depression. She has always felt sad though it was exasperated by the loss of her mother. Through her interactions with a supporting doctor and her group therapy which features teens in similar situations and from all walks of life, Vicky evolves from someone who lacks emotions and has a bleak worldview to someone who is warm, strong, and able to fight for her needs. I loved the interactions between Vicky and her domineering father. Vicky's father has very high expectations and adds stress to Vicky's life. Though he means well, he has a very hard time understanding that depression is not an excuse for 'misbehaving' or 'being lazy', but an actual, legitimate disease that needs to be addressed.
  While the book excels on many levels, there are two incidents where HIPPA Privacy laws were violated that took me completely out of the story. I do understand that the reason to break the rules was made as a plot device, however, it is not realistic. Despite this flaw, Memory of Light is an important read because Stork's depiction of depression is not preachy nor romantic, but accurate, heartbreaking, and hopeful.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, allusions to sex, and underage drug use. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, Breath by Jackie Kessler, It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
Rummanah Aasi
 Noelle Stevenson's graphic novel series, Lumberjanes, is a fast and fun read that highlights female empowerment and friendship. Each volume is filled with humor, adventure, and a nod to a developing romance. I highly recommend picking up this wonderful series for both younger and older readers alike.

Description: Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley are not your average campers and Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types is not your average summer camp. Between the river monsters, magic, and the art of friendship bracelets, this summer is only just beginning. Join the Lumberjanes as they take on raptors and a sibling rivalry that only myths are made of.

Review: Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley, aka. the Lumberjanes, continue their adventures at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types with as much energy, excitement, and wonder as in the first volume of the series. The first volume had bizarre things happening without much explanation, but thankfully this volume clears up those unanswered questions while adding crazed dinosaurs, possessed insects, and competitive Greek deities to the mix. I love how this series manages to blend and balance the fantastical elements to the story with the everyday, slice of life moments of camp where they struggle with first crushes, friendship troubles, and self-doubt. The addition of sibling rivalry between two Greek deities was an added bonus. The Lumberjanes have their own lingo and substitute words for swearing which adds humor and is infectious. The illustrations, like the story and its characters, are also bursting with energy and vivid colors such as the forest greens in outdoor daylight scenes and grays and dark blues of nighttime scenes. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

Description: Trying to take advantage of the first quiet day at camp in a while, Mal and Molly's date takes a bizarre turn with the appearance of the Bear Woman! Back at camp, Jo, April, and Ripley must stay on their toes as they try and earn every badge possible, which ends up being a lot harder than any of them planned.

Review: While there may not be as much as action in this third volume of Lumberjanes, this was still a very enjoyable read. There are two subplots in this volume as Jo, Mal, Ripley, April, and Molly focus on earning badges. We follow the girls in hilarious mishaps as they conceive and execute a plan that will guarantee them to a badge. Meanwhile, Mal and Molly are looking for some quiet time to see where their potential romantic relationship will take them, but they are soon transported to a dangerous, dinosaur-infested alternate universe. The romance between Mal and Molly is very chaste and sweet. Even though there isn't a lot of story in this volume, the humor, adventure, and enthusiasm carries and holds the reader's attention through the volume.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like these books try: Lumberjanes Vol. 4 by Noelle Stevenson, Princeless series by Jeremy Whitley, Ms. Marvel series by G. Willow Wilson, Foiled by Jane Yolen
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Flight attendant Summer Benson lives by two rules: Don’t stay with the same man for too long and never stay in one place. She’s about to break rule number one by considering accepting her boyfriend’s proposal—then disaster strikes and her world is shattered in an instant.

Summer heads to Black Dog Bay, where the locals welcome her. Even Hattie Huntington, the town’s oldest, richest, and meanest resident, likes her enough to give her a job. Then there’s Dutch Jansen, the rugged, stoic mayor, who’s the opposite of her type. She probably shouldn't be kissing him. She definitely shouldn't be falling in love.

After a lifetime of globe-trotting, Summer has finally found a home. But Hattie has old scores to settle and a hidden agenda for her newest employee. Summer finds herself faced with an impossible choice: Leave Black Dog Bay behind forever, or stay with the ones she loves and cost them everything.

Review: The Common Cure for Breakup is a light, breezy, beach read. I didn't have any expectations for this book except for it to be entertaining and it was for the most part in a Hallmark movie kind of way. Summer is the heroine of this whimsical story. She is a beautiful girl whose charm is loved by all even by the most grumpy character.
  We meet Summer as a flight attendant who is known for wearing stilettos. She has been going out with the incredibly famous and gorgeous pilot. Summer does not do serious relationships well and she starts to freak out when she hears that her boyfriend is about to propose. Before the actual proposal, the plane crashes and she is later dumped by her boyfriend. I had a really hard time buying into Summer's heart break. The relationship was doomed and it seemed as if the breakup would be okay if she was the dumper and not the dumpee. Summer escapes from reality to a resort called Black Dog Bay which is known as heartbreak central. People come here to get over a heartache and a fresh start. At Black Dog Bay, Summer finds love, friends, and a second chance.
 I liked Summer at first. She is witty and funny, but her novelty soon wore off and she became annoying. She didn't act her age of a woman who was in her thirty's but more like a popular teenager. Though I liked the chemistry between Summer and Dutch (who is almost a mirror of Luke Danes from Gilmore Girls minus the diner), their relationship moved too quickly. For a guy who hasn't dated or been in a relationship for ten years, he is sudden he's interested in Summer, and is proposing marriage to her within weeks of knowing her. 
 The rest of the book focused on how Summer saves the resort from a bitter, elderly woman named Hattie who has been holding a grudge for several years. There are fun secondary characters who are unfortunately one dimensional and none of them stood out to me. There are moments where things get serious such as showing a peek into Summer's past and explaining why she is so flighty about commitment, but other than that everything was just peachy keen. I actually wanted to know more about the plane crash. What happened to the passengers? Did anyone die?
 If you are looking for a book to relax and turn off your brain for a little while, then check out The Common Cure for Breakup. You will be entertained for a few hours and after a little while you will forget about it.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, allusions to sexual situations, and crude humor. Recommended for older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: New Uses for Old Boyfriends by Beth Kendrick,
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Raymie Clarke has come to realize that everything, absolutely everything, depends on her. And she has a plan. If Raymie can win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father, who left town two days ago with a dental hygienist, will see Raymie's picture in the paper and (maybe) come home. To win, not only does Raymie have to do good deeds and learn how to twirl a baton; she also has to contend with the wispy, frequently fainting Louisiana Elefante, who has a show-business background, and the fiery, stubborn Beverly Tapinski, who’s determined to sabotage the contest. But as the competition approaches, loneliness, loss, and unanswerable questions draw the three girls into an unlikely friendship — and challenge each of them to come to the rescue in unexpected ways.

Review: Raymie Clarke has a plan to reunite her broken family. Her father has run off with a dental hygienist without a word, but Raymie is certain that if she wins the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, her father will see her picture in the newspaper and return. With this goal in mind, she begins baton-twirling classes with two other girls, Louisiana Elefante and Beverly Tapinski. Both Louisiana and Beverly have their own reasons for entering the competition. Louisiana needs the prize money, and Beverly wants to sabotage the event. 
  I really appreciated the female friendship that was formed by these three very different girls. All three have lost people close to them, and each girl deals with her loss in different ways. With each small adventure, whether it's finding a lost book or rescuing a beloved pet, their friendship grows into an undeniable bond. Though Raymie Nightingale is a quick read with its short, precisely crafted chapters, there is so much heart and emotions demonstrated by her unique characters. Raymie is memorable. She is observant, thoughtful, and sensitive as she struggles to make sense of the world around her. My heart broke for her many times throughout the book. 
 I appreciated how the story was told in simple, straightforward way without the author sacrificing and shying away from exploring complex themes which is very tricky especially if you are writing for younger readers. Expect this to be discussed and short-listed on several award lists.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: Raymie's father has an affair and leaves her family. There are also allusions to physical abuse. Recommended for strong Grade 4 readers ad up.

If you like this book try: Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor,
Rummanah Aasi
 If you only have time to read just one YA book this year, then I would highly recommend picking up We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson. This book was exquisitely written and left me thinking about it long after I closed the last page. It is my first 5 star read of 2016.

Description: There are a few things Henry Denton knows, and a few things he doesn’t.
Henry knows that his mom is struggling to keep the family together, and coping by chain-smoking cigarettes. He knows that his older brother is a college dropout with a pregnant girlfriend. He knows that he is slowly losing his grandmother to Alzheimer’s. And he knows that his boyfriend committed suicide last year.

What Henry doesn’t know is why the aliens chose to abduct him when he was thirteen, and he doesn’t know why they continue to steal him from his bed and take him aboard their ship. He doesn’t know why the world is going to end or why the aliens have offered him the opportunity to avert the impending disaster by pressing a big red button. But they have. And they’ve only given him 144 days to make up his mind.

The question is whether Henry thinks the world is worth saving. That is, until he meets Diego Vega, an artist with a secret past who forces Henry to question his beliefs, his place in the universe, and whether any of it really matters. But before Henry can save the world, he’s got to figure out how to save himself, and the aliens haven’t given him a button for that.

Review: The writing style of We Are the Ants is very reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five. While the book is categorized as science fiction, it is mostly science fiction in the allegorical sense. Henry Denton is a depressed, nihilistic teen who is having an existential crisis. He has been abducted by aliens and have been told by them that the world will end. Strangely, they give Henry a red button that he can press to save the world but is the world and humanity worthy enough to be saved? From Henry's point of view, humans are not the center of the world, we are actually as significant as the little ants crawling on the ground.
  All throughout the book Henry asks the same question over and over again: if you were given the chance to save the world, would you take it and why? For Henry, the answer is not an easy one. His life is in tatters in a town called Calypso where the flaws of the characters tether them down and prevent them from growing much like Odysseus and Calypso from Homer's epic The Odyssey. Henry's first love and boyfriend, Jessie, has committed suicide. His father left his home and some point to Henry's 'abductions' as a reason, his chain smoking, alcoholic mother is struggling to make ends meet while taking care of his dementia ridden grandmother. His older brother and fiance are expecting a child though neither of them are adults or capable of supporting themselves. On top of all this, Henry is bullied and used as a play toy for the closeted gay bully.
  It is hard to be Henry and be optimistic when there is so much negativity and sadness revolving around him. Henry blames himself for Jesse's death and further drives the nail in his self loathing coffin. I liked how Hutchinson uses Jesse as a symbol of Henry's self-worth because Jesse is the only person who made Henry feel loved and accept despite his quirks. Jesse was Henry's safety net, but when he is tragically ripped away due to Jesse's own mental health issues he helplessly watch Henry go in a similar downward spiral until he meets the charismatic Diego who shows up in town.
 Like Henry, Diego is also dealing with his own personal demons, which Hutchinson sprinkles throughout the story. Instead of turning to aliens to help him sort out the meaning of life, Diego uses art to express himself. I really appreciated that the book focuses on the friendship and connection between Henry and Diego while leaving the possibility of a romantic relationship open. Diego and Henry do not solve each others issues miraculously because they find each other, but they do form a supportive network that is immensely important. There is also Audrey, a mutual friend of Jesse and Henry, who gives us a more realistic account of Jesse instead of Henry's romanticized view of his boyfriend. Ultimately, we are all on the edge of our seats wondering if Henry does really have the freedom of choice he thinks he has or will push the button to save the world?
  We Are the Ants is an excellent novel that is much needed in our world that often seems uncaring and meaningless. Each character is complex, necessary, and most importantly true to life. There are both light and dark moments in the book much like real life. The novel is never didactic and perfect for readers who love character driven stories and it would make a fantastic book club discussion.

Some favorite quotes:

“Depression isn't a war you win. It's a battle you fight every day. You never stop, never get to rest.”
“We may not get to choose how we die, but we can chose how we live. The universe may forget us, but it doesn't matter. Because we are the ants, and we'll keep marching on.”
“Dreams are hopeful because they exist as pure possibility. Unlike memories, which are fossils, long dead and buried deep.” 
“We're not words, Henry, we're people.
Words are how others define us, but we can define ourselves any way we choose.” 
Rating: 5 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language throughout the book, drug use and underage drinking, allusions to sex, and scenes of bullying. Recommended for Grade 9 and up.

If you like this book try: The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd, Someday this pain will be useful to you by Peter Cameron, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, and for similar writing style definitely check out Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
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