Rummanah Aasi
  Then and Always is a book that a quick read that easily sucks you in with its unique premise and mystery. I didn't have any expectations for the book and had it on my to be read pile for quite sometime but I don't really remember why I had placed it there. I knew I had to suspend some disbelief given the blurb on the back of the book. Overall I was enjoying the story until the abrupt ending that made me wish I could take back the hours I spent on reading the book.

Description: Rachel’s life is perfect. A handsome boyfriend, great friends and the prospect of starting at university in a few weeks means she’s never been happier. But in a single heartbeat her world falls apart forever.

Five years later, Rachel is still struggling to come to terms with the tragedy that changed everything. Returning to her hometown for the first time in years, she finds herself consumed by thoughts of the life that could have been. But when a sudden fall lands her in hospital, Rachel awakes to discover that the life she had dreamed about just might be real after all.

Unable to trust her own memories, Rachel begins to be drawn further into this new world where the man she lost is alive and well but where she is engaged to be married to someone else. 

Review:   Then and Always is another book that fits into the "awesome premise but failed in the execution"  category. The story reminded me a bit of the movies P.S. I Love You and The Vow. Rachel, along with her boyfriend and friends, are having one last get together before they all split up to go their own ways at uni. Rachel has been feeling a bit distant towards her boyfriend, who she has some suspicions of his unfaithfulness, and has grown romantic feelings for her best friend Jimmy. Before Rachel could take action in her love life, a car barrels through the restaurant severely injuring her and killing Jimmy instantly. Five years later Rachel still bares the guilt of Jimmy's death and is plagued with "what if" questions circling her mind. She even visits Jimmy's grave to mourn, but then has a nasty fall and hits her head. When Rachel wakes she is taken to an alternative world where Jimmy is alive and is given a second chance in living her life, except Rachel knows that something is wrong and is determined to find out what happened to her.
  I have several issues with Then and Always. The writing is heavily filled with telling rather than showing. We are told how close Rachel and her friends are, but we don't witness their interactions. Similarly, we are told that Jimmy has grown feelings for Rachel, but we never feel it which makes their relationship and our yearning for them to be a couple wane. There is also hardly any character development for any of the characters. What we know of them are either told by their physical descriptions or their stock stereotypes of a rich and aloof boyfriend, a mean girl, and a best friend. As you all know from my blog, I'm a very much character-driven novel reader and this aspect of the book fell very flat to me. I would have overlooked this part if the mystery behind the 'alternative life' would have been strongly constructed.
  In the alternative version of Rachel's life, she is able to her and see things others around her can not. She still remembers details of her 'previous' life like names of her neighbors in the building she lived in or the fact that the security guard's wife at her job is sick with cancer. Atkins doesn't give us any hint as to why these incidents happen or why she lets her heroine have these flashes of the past. And just when we are finally about to get some answers the ends with this huge twist that leaves us asking more questions. This is one of the rare times when I wanted to throw the book across the room because I was so frustrated, felt cheated, and completely let down.    

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language and a fade to black sex scene. Recommended for teens and up.

If you like this book try: Watch Over Me by Daniela Sacerdoti, The State We're In by Adele Parks, Remember Me? by Sophie Kinsella, and What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
Rummanah Aasi
I am not a fan of dragons, but Rachel Hartman's award winning debut novel Seraphina won me over with its brilliant writing and wonderful characters. When I heard there would be sequel, I was very excited but unfortunately the book did not meet my expectations. Many thanks to Random House and Netgalley for an advanced copy of the book.

Description: The kingdom of Goredd: a world where humans and dragons share life with an uneasy balance, and those few who are both human and dragon must hide the truth. Seraphina is one of these, part girl, part dragon, who is reluctantly drawn into the politics of her world. When war breaks out between the dragons and humans, she must travel the lands to find those like herself—for she has an inexplicable connection to all of them, and together they will be able to fight the dragons in powerful, magical ways.
  As Seraphina gathers this motley crew, she is pursued by humans who want to stop her. But the most terrifying is another half dragon, who can creep into people’s minds and take them over. Until now, Seraphina has kept her mind safe from intruders, but that also means she’s held back her own gift. It is time to make a choice: Cling to the safety of her old life, or embrace a powerful new destiny?

Review: World building is an important aspect of a book in which the book's setting is a place other than our real world. For a reader world building can grab your interest and make you invest your time in spending and exploring the author's world. It can also deeply hinder the reader's enjoyment if it is not too clear and detailed. Like too much of any good thing, world building can also be overwhelming and overshadow every aspect of the book, which happened in the case of Shadow Scale.
  For more than half of the book, Hartman spends her energy and focus on detailing kingdoms, their constitutes, and every aspect of their customs as Seraphina goes on a mission to find other half-human/half-dragon beings. With her loyal friend, Abdo, she searches the lands for the creatures she has only met in her mind garden. While I loved the intricate details that Hartman showcases, Seraphina's travels become repetitive and tedious. Though I understand that Serphina's mission is important in building the theme of family and community since our heroine has only lived in isolation because of her hybrid identity, I gave up on reading closely to this aspect of the story and skimmed quite a lot. The over abundance of world building is what hindered the book's pacing.  
  The plot of Shadow Scale picks up a little bit as we are introduced to the main villain and I would argue the star of the novel, Jannoula. Jannoula is a half-dragon whom Seraphina contacted telepathically in a time before she knew there were others like her, once usurped Seraphina's consciousness, and it was only by great effort and luck that Seraphina managed to fight her off. I really liked the complexity of Jannoula's character who does garner some of our sympathy as we learn how horribly she was treated and abused, but also admire and are terrified by her powers of manipulating her foe's strengths against them. She really reminded me of Queen Levana from the Lunar Chronicles. Jannoula is a worthy foe of Seraphina, but unfortunately it took Seraphina quite some time (i.e. hundreds of pages) to stop dawdling, gather her courage, and finally take some action.  I was disappointed that it took Seraphina a very long time to pull herself together along with a deux ex machina to come in the 11th hour of the civil war to defeat Jannoula. I was sad to see all the characteristics that made me love Seraphina in the first book disappear in this one.
  I was also disappointed in not actually seeing the civil war, which is what Shadow Scale was building up to and it felt very anti-climatic as it happened in what seems like less than a page. There were many new twists that seemed to be haphazardly thrown without any development or explanation in such as solving the love triangle between the Queen, Kiggs, and Seraphina, which made me scratch my head in confusion. I would have loved to see more romance between Kiggs and Seraphina. I would also have loved to see more of Orma who was hardly present in the book at all. 
 Overall Shadow Scale did not live up to my expectations and I was disappointed. What would have been a highlight in my reading for the month of April turned out to be a chore to read. Hartman is clearly a gifted writer, but she lost me early on in this lengthy book and could not win me back. I do, however, look forward to what she writes next. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some violence such as mental torture and a character getting stabbed, however, it is not graphically detailed. There is also minor language. Recommended for Grades 7 and up.

If you like this book try: Eona by Alison Goodman, Seven Realm Kingdom series by Kristin Cashore
Rummanah Aasi

 Crossover by Kwame Alexander won the Newbery Award last year. Though marketed for younger readers, this title has crossover appeal to teens and even adults. I really enjoyed reading this book.

Description: Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story's heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family.

Review: Crossover is a fun read that can be enjoyed by sports fans and reluctant readers. This novel in verse is the story of Josh and Jordan (JB), identical twin sons of former basketball phenom Chuck "Da Man" Bell, are ball legends themselves, and they aren't yet thirteen. Josh is the only kid in his school who can dunk, while JB has a mean three-point shot, and together they're a well-oiled machine on the court. Josh and Jordan's relationship begins to change as JB gets a girlfriend and Josh loses his brother and friend, Their relationship is strained to the point of a mid-game altercation that lands Josh on the bench for weeks. In addition to not playing ball, there is the constant worry Josh has for his Dad's poor health.
  Some readers tend to shy away from novel in verse books, but Alexander takes this fear away as the words on the page come alive. The exciting play-by-play game details makes you feel as if you are sitting in the stands at Josh's school cheering him and his brother on the court. There is also some insightful middle-school observations, and poignant portrayals of sibling dynamics and familial love. The words move on their own as the wordplay and alliteration roll out like hip-hop lyrics, and the use of concrete forms and playful font changes keep things dynamic. This is a quick read that I think many readers will enjoy.

Rating: 4 stars

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

If you like this book try: D-Bow's high school hoops series by Ken Waltman, Hoops by Walter Dean Myers, Travel Team by Mike Lupica
Rummanah Aasi
 I thoroughly enjoyed Heather Demetrios's paranormal romance, Exquisite Captive, and I couldn't wait to read another book by her. Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for an advanced reader's copy of the book.

Description: If seventeen-year-old Skylar Evans were a typical Creek View girl, her future would involve a double-wide trailer, a baby on her hip, and the graveyard shift at Taco Bell. But after graduation, the only thing standing between straightedge Skylar and art school are three minimum-wage months of summer. Skylar can taste the freedom—that is, until her mother loses her job and everything starts coming apart. Torn between her dreams and the people she loves, Skylar realizes everything she’s ever worked for is on the line.

Nineteen-year-old Josh Mitchell had a different ticket out of Creek View: the Marines. But after his leg is blown off in Afghanistan, he returns home, a shell of the cocksure boy he used to be. What brings Skylar and Josh together is working at the Paradise—a quirky motel off California’s dusty Highway 99. Despite their differences, their shared isolation turns into an unexpected friendship and soon, something deeper.

Review: I'll Meet You There is mixture of a coming of age, love story, and a war story. It is the story of two lost teens, Skylar and Josh, who live in a very small, rundown town in California, who are struggling to escape from their personal demons and desperately searching for a fresh, new start. 
 Skylar lives in a trailer with her mother and struggles to keep her little family afloat in the aftermath of her father’s death years before. She dreams about leaving her town of deadbeats and dead-ends for a new beginning of studying art in a college in San Francisco. I liked Skylar and admired her for taking up so much responsibility for a teen, acting more like the adult than her mother, as well as her resilence to move forward despite watching helplessly as her mother goes on a downward spiral into alcohol abuse. 
 Unlike Skylar it took me a while to warm up to Josh due to his several defensive walls that he built around himself and tries to distract himself from his own thoughts by seeking refuge in bad hookups and drinking. It is obvious that Josh is not the same person after his deployment. Most notably he is missing part of his leg and harbors internal wounds from the war. Demetrios does a great job in describing and tackling the issue of PTSD as well as survival guilt that slowly eats away Josh, which is clearly evident in the short chapters written in Josh's stream of consciousness. 
  The romance between Skylar and Josh is subtle and slow burn. They slowly begin to forge a friendship though I would say that definitely use each other as a distraction more than an anchor. Personally, I was not convinced of Skylar and Josh's relationship. I didn't feel any chemistry between the two characters mainly because I grew frustrated with both of them when they would not be open about their problems and they could have prevented melodrama and heart ache had they communicated effectively. Despite this issue, however, I did like how the romance did not conquer all of Skylar's and Josh's problems, but gave us a hopeful ending that they are on a hopeful and bright path. Overall I'll Meet You There is an enjoyable read that romance fans would certainly enjoy. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language including homophobic slurs, underage drinking and drug usage, two sex scenes which are mentioned but not in graphic detail. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Something like Normal by Trish Doller, The Summer I Found You by Jolene Perry, 
Rummanah Aasi
 I have been anticipating the release of Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson ever since the news came out that there will be a Pakistani-American, Muslim, female superhero. I had high hopes for this graphic novel and for the most part it met my expectations and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Description: Kamala Khan is an ordinary girl from Jersey City — until she's suddenly empowered with extraordinary gifts. But who truly is the new Ms. Marvel? Teenager? Muslim? Inhuman? Find out as she takes the Marvel Universe by storm! When Kamala discovers the dangers of her newfound powers, she unlocks a secret behind them, as well. Is Kamala ready to wield these immense new gifts? Or will the weight of the legacy before her be too much to bear? Kamala has no idea, either. But she's comin' for you, New York! 

Review: The theme of identity runs throughout the graphic novel. Our main protagonist, Kamala Khan is an ordinary teen who just happens to be a Pakistani-American and Muslim. Her culture and religion play a big part in her life, but they do not overshadow the graphic novel. I found Kamala to be adorkable, a genuinely good person who wants to do the right thing, and a fan of superheroes. She laments of not being able to fit in with the rest of peers, which is a nice metaphor for her struggling to accept her responsibilities, and limitations of being Ms. Marvel. 
  The author does a great job in showing how Kamala is indeed very much like ourselves by showing Kamala's relationship with others around her like her friend Nakia and Bruno, the neighborhood boy who has a very obvious crush on our heroine who is of course oblivious. The strongest relationship in my opinion is that of Kamala's strict, overprotective yet loving parents. The inclusion of the parents definitely highlights the cultural aspects of Kamala's Pakistani-American background. 
 Ms. Marvel: No Normal is very much an origins story. Kamala must come to terms that she is a superhero and has to figure out how to lead a double life as well as harness new skills and keep her power in check. The action part of the graphic novel was a bit weak. The villain wasn't as interesting nor scary as I had hoped but hopefully he will get fleshed out in the later volumes.  
 The artwork of Ms. Marvel: No Normal is well done. The characters look like real people and the colors used make the illustrations pop and are appealing to the eye. Despite some minor issues, I definitely look forward to continuing this series and I do hope that this graphic novel does pave the way for more diverse characters appearing in mainstream comics as well as debunking myths regarding Pakistanis and Muslims..  

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is a small scene of underage drinking in which Kamala does not participate in, there is some minor language. Recommended for Grades 8 and up. 

If you like this book try: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang, Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson
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