Rummanah Aasi
  After working with students for quite some time I have realized that they are hesitant to go anywhere near historical fiction. They assume that once they hear it is about history they equate the book to their boring history textbooks. I'm always on the look out for historical fiction that don't really read as one. In other words where there is other things happening in the book in which I can entice my reluctant readers with so that the historical aspects don't really stick out and just become part of the story. The Tales from Alcatraz series is a perfect example where there is enough coming of age story, intrigue, and humor to keep the reader's attention.

Description: It's 1935. Moose Flanagan lives on Alcatraz with his family, the other families of the guards, and a few hundred no-name hit men, con men, mad dog murderers and a handful of bank robbers too. And one of those cons has just done him a big favor.
  You see, Moose has never met Al Capone, but a few weeks ago Moose wrote a letter to him asking him to use his influence to get his sister, Natalie, into a school she desperately needs in San Francisco. After Natalie got accepted, a note appeared in Moose?s freshly laundered shirt that said: Done.
  As this book begins, Moose discovers a new note. This one says: Your turn. Is it really from Capone? What does it mean? Moose can't risk anything that might get his dad fired. But how can he ignore Al Capone?

Review: Al Capone Shines My Shoes is a great sequel to the Newbery Honor-winning Al Capone Does My Shirts and could be read as a standalone. I think in order to become a bit more comfortable with the setting and the book's subplots you may want to read the first book. 
  In the first book Moose's autistic sister, Natalie, is attending a special school in San Franciscodue to strings presumably pulled by Al Capone, the notorious mobster. Moose assumed he was off the hook until he receives a note through the prison laundry, stating, "Your turn." In addition to the fear that he now owes a con and struggling with his conscious, he also needs to focus on negotiating the constantly shifting friendships, crushes, and grudges among his friends at school and on Alcatraz, where he lives. 
  The historical details of daily life on Alcatraz in 1935 which is also expanded upon in the author's note at the end of the book really brings the book to life. The children living in Alcatraz maintain a titillated fascination with the convicts, most especially with the notorious Al Capone. I had no idea that the well-behaved convicts who, because of the difficult economic times, are allowed to do manual labor for the island's civilians. 
  The pace and plot for the book never got boring as we try to figure out if Moose's predicament in assisting Al Capone is legitimate or not. His personal mystery leads to other questions and mysteries among the convicts, and it's up to the children (especially Natalie) to foil a dangerous escape plan.    Moose is a very likable character. He cares deeply for his sister and protects her from the other bullies who don't seem to understand her autism. I also liked how Natalie was important to the plot and not just there for the sake of being there. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended for strong Grade 4 readers and up.

If you like this book try: Al Capone Does My Homework (Tales from Alcatraz #3)
Rummanah Aasi
 Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch was a debut novel of 2014 that I really wanted to read last year. With comparisons to my favorite YA fantasy novel, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, I was very eager to read Raasch's debut. While Snow Like Ashes is not quite like Cashore's novel, it is a satisfying read for readers who enjoy fantasy with a touch of romance.

Description: Sixteen years ago the Kingdom of Winter was conquered and its citizens enslaved, leaving them without magic or a monarch. Now, the Winterians’ only hope for freedom is the eight survivors who managed to escape, and who have been waiting for the opportunity to steal back Winter’s magic and rebuild the kingdom ever since.
  Orphaned as an infant during Winter’s defeat, Meira has lived her whole life as a refugee, raised by the Winterians’ general, Sir. Training to be a warrior—and desperately in love with her best friend, and future king, Mather — she would do anything to help her kingdom rise to power again.
   So when scouts discover the location of the ancient locket that can restore Winter’s magic, Meira decides to go after it herself. Finally, she’s scaling towers, fighting enemy soldiers, and serving her kingdom just as she’s always dreamed she would. But the mission doesn’t go as planned, and Meira soon finds herself thrust into a world of evil magic and dangerous politics – and ultimately comes to realize that her destiny is not, never has been, her own.

Review: Snow Like Ashes is an enjoyable fantasy with the right balance of action, intrigue, and romance. Raasch has created an interesting fantasy world. In Primoria, the world our heroine Meira inhabits, there are eight kingdoms: four Seasons, in a perpetual state of the season they're named for, and four Rhythms that cycle through all four. Meira is one of the remaining eight free Winterians, a kingdom who was enslaved and ravaged by King Angra of Spring sixteen years ago in order to slay the Winterian Queen and to destroy its Royal Conduit (a locket used by a female ruler to magically aid her country).
  Meira is a scrappy, likable female character with a good head on her shoulders. She hates that she can't be taken seriously or given important tasks just because she is female. Refreshingly she is not focused on her own comforts and problems, but longs to take an active role in helping to free the people of her kingdom. In order to show her fellow Winterians that she is indeed useful she goes on a dangerous mission and reclaims half the of the coveted locket. Meira is captured but thanks to her quick thinking and her military training, she escapes. Born an orphan Meira always longed for affection whether its familial in which she seeks from her stoic leader Sir or romantically with Mather, heir to the Winterian throne and best friend, though she constantly reminds herself that their relationship can not be because of their social ranks. I didn't really feel any romantic connection between Mather and Meira and often thought it was one sided. I also wished that Mather's character was a bit more fleshed out too.
 Meira's doesn't get the celebration she thought she would she would receive from retrieving the half locket and instead Spring scouts follow her to camp and the refugees must flee to the Rhythm of Cordell, where court intrigue ensue and Meira meets the instantly likable Prince Theron. While it is clear that with two love interests there would be a love triangle, however, I think Prince Theron is the most logical choice. 
  The running theme throughout Snow Like Ashes is what does it take to become a leader? There are many important decisions that the rulers of Primoria need to make. Meira's role is constantly shifting, especially as the story unfolds, the history of the provinces is revealed, magic explained, and all is not as it seems. I'm looking forward to finding out what happens next.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong violence. Recommended for Grade 7 and up.

If you like this book try: Shadow and Bone series by Leigh Bardugo
Rummanah Aasi
 I really liked Brian K. Vaughan's space opera graphic novel, Saga, but haven't been able to get the second volume of that series. Since I liked his writing and the illustrations of Saga, I thought I would check out his earlier series called Y The Last Man. 

Description: When a plague of unknown origin instantly kills every mammal with a Y chromosome, unemployed and unmotivated slacker Yorick Brown suddenly discovers that he is the only male left in a world inhabited solely by women. Accompanied by his mischievous monkey and the mysterious Agent 355, Yorick embarks on a transcontinental journey to find his girlfriend and discover why he is the last man on Earth. But with a gang of feminist extremists and the leader of the Israel Defense Forces hunting him, Yorick's future, as well as that of the human race, may be short-lived.

Review: Y: The Last Man: Unmanned is a dystopian graphic novel that has a really intriguing premise. A plague of unknown origin has spread and killed every mammal with a Y chromosome with the exception of one young man named Yorick and his male monkey pet. We don't find out the explanations for the plague or why Yorick and his monkey were saved, which is actually a good thing because there are several possibilities. 
  This graphic novel and I'm guessing the remainder of this series takes a satirical viewpoint of gender issues and the continual fight between progressive science versus the natural order of things. There is also a lot of humor and not so subtle social criticisms/satire as women commemorate the dead man at The Washington Monument (take a moment and think about it). We also have what society would dub as the crazy feminists who take on the role of the ancient Amazons and tear off one breast and take to believing Mother Earth meant to eradicate the males. Politicians are not left unscathed as Republican wives of dead senators show up with guns, arguing they should have a voice in the new government.
 Our main protagonist Yorrick is a likable slacker who is sometimes clueless. He is more concerned about reaching his girlfriend who he wants to marry and his sister. We are meant to believe that the survival of humanity rests in his head and let me tell you, it doesn't look good. 

  With its humorous dialogue, great illustrations, fun characters and a fast-paced story, I'm willing to take the journey with Yorrick to find out the answers to my questions.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: This graphic novel contains strong bloody violence, nudity, and language. Recommended for mature teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: Y: The Last Man: Cycles (Vol 2) by Brian K. Vaughan
Rummanah Aasi
 Navigating Early is one of those special middle grade reads that can be appreciated by young readers and adults for its complex narrative and excellent character development. After reading this book I was not surprised by how many starred review and accolades it has received. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it landed on my Top 14 reads from last year.

Description: When Jack Baker's father sends him from his home in Kansas to attend a boys' boarding school in Maine, Jack doesn't know what to expect. Certainly not Early Auden, the strangest of boys. Early keeps to himself, reads the number pi as a story, and refuses to accept truths others take for granted. Jack, feeling lonely and out of place, connects with Early, and the two become friends.
   During a break from school, the boys set out for the Appalachian Trail on a quest for a great black bear. As Jack and Early travel deeper into the mountains, they meet peculiar and dangerous characters, and they make some shocking discoveries. But their adventure is only just beginning. Will Jack's and Early's friendship last the journey? Can the boys make it home alive?

Review: Navigating Early is a story about memories, personal journeys, interconnectedness, adn teh power of stories. On its surface, it is a tale of two outcast boys from a boarding school developing a friendship and overcoming loss; however, if you dig deeper you will realize that the book in fact is composed of three stories that beautifully weave together by the last page.
  Jack enters boarding school in Maine after his mother's death at the end of World War II. He mourns and feels guilty for not taking care of his mother. He also resents his Navy father who appears to him like a stranger and in Jack's eyes kicked Jack out of the only home that he has known. Jack quickly befriends Early Auden, a savant whose extraordinary facility with numbers allows him to "read" a story about "Pi" from the infinite series of digits that follow 3.14. It takes some time for Jack to accept Early as he is, but there is a powerful scene that shows how Jack and Early's solidified their friendship. Jack accompanies Early in one of the school crew team's rowing boats on what Jack believes is his friend's fruitless quest to find a great bear allegedly roaming the wilderness--and Early's brother, a legendary figure reportedly killed in battle. While on their journey, Early tells an evolving saga of Pi  and the boys encounter memorable individuals and adventures that uncannily parallel those in the Pi's stories.
 To be honest, I was not very interested in Navigating Early at first. I wasn't sure where the story was going when it started to include pirates and Pi's crazy adventures, but once I figured out the allegorical connection to Pi's story with that of Jack and Early's everything clicked for me. Jack and Early may appear to be very different from one another because of their abilities, but they are very much alike. Both are trying to accept the loss of their loved ones and are trying in their own ways to understand their realities. Jack prefers to internalize and analyze his thoughts. His voice does seem a lot older than a thirteen year old. Similarly, Early makes sense of his situation by creating a story using what he knows best: numbers.
 Vanderpool ties all these details along with Jack's growing maturity and self-awareness together masterfully and poignantly, though humor and excitement leaven the weighty issues the author and Jack frequently pose. Some of Pi's adventures require a bit of suspended disbelief and there are some coincidences that may seem a bit too convenient in the story. Despite these minor flaws, Vanderpool has created a stunning novel with a very eloquent and moving ending. Navigating Early requires patience, thought, and concentration but it is well worth the effort. 

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended for strong Grade 5 readers and up.

If you like this book try: Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Rummanah Aasi
 These Broken Stars was one of my favorite books from last year. I was really looking forward to reading the next book in the series. While being different from the first book, the sequel does not disappoint. Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for an advanced copy of this book.

Description: Jubilee Chase and Flynn Cormac should never have met.
  Lee is captain of the forces sent to Avon to crush the terraformed planet's rebellious colonists, but she has her own reasons for hating the insurgents.
  Rebellion is in Flynn's blood. His sister died in the original uprising against the powerful corporate conglomerate that rules Avon with an iron fist. These corporations make their fortune by terraforming uninhabitable planets across the universe and recruiting colonists to make the planets livable, with the promise of a better life for their children. But they never fulfilled their promise on Avon, and decades later, Flynn is leading the rebellion.
  Desperate for any advantage against the military occupying his home, Flynn does the only thing that makes sense when he and Lee cross paths: he returns to base with her as prisoner. But as his fellow rebels prepare to execute this tough-talking girl with nerves of steel, Flynn makes another choice that will change him forever. He and Lee escape base together, caught between two sides in a senseless war.

Review: This Shattered World is the second book in the Starbound trilogy, however, it can be read even if you haven't read the first book in the series. This book focus on new characters and a new world. Unlike the space-opera romance in the first book, This Shattered World as the title implies is much darker, gritter, where the mystery takes center stage with hints of romance.
 Captain Jubilee Chase is the longest serving soldier on the partially terraformed planet of Avon, the only person who has proved immune to "The Fury," the mindless rage that strikes off-worlders who come to serve on Avon. Flynn Cormac is a member of the native Fianna rebels, who hopes that by kidnapping Chase, he can discover more about a mysterious facility hidden in the swamp to the east of the military's main outpost.
 Jubilee and Flynn are opposites of the war and see each other as the enemy, however, neither of them wants the shaky ceasefire between their sides to be over. At first Jubilee and Flynn can only see and focus on their differences, but as the two characters spend more time throughout the story they come to understand that they share many similarities particularly their tragic losses of their loved ones. As the characters spend more time with one another they develop a mutual respect that grows to something more-even as their alliance comes to be seen as a betrayal by both sides. They both uncover mysterious and conspiracies that have been plaguing Avon and quite possibly other planets in their galaxy. It was nice seeing Tarver Merendsen and Lilac LaRoux, the main leads in the first book make appearances and have a real purpose besides fanfare, tying the many unexplained events in this title to those in the first volume of the "Starbound" trilogy.
  There is plenty of action in This Shattered World and the mysteries that Jubilee and Flynn uncovered kept me turning the pages. I did, however, find the romance and the chemistry between these two characters are a bit underdeveloped and lacking. I find it a bit hard to believe that can find romance especially when their world is quite literally falling apart. Nonetheless This Shattered World is a very strong second book that can be enjoyed by young and adult readers. I look forward to seeing how every thing gets resolved in the next book of this series.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong war violence but most of it takes place off the page. There are some disturbing images and minor language. Recommended for strong Grade 7 readers and up.

If you like this book try: Across the Universe series by Beth Revis, Sky Chaser series by Amy Kathleen Ryan
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