Rummanah Aasi
  Reading a book by Neal Shusterman is always an adventure. His stories are so bizarre, original, and unexpected. The characters draw you in and challenge you to be in their shoes. Shusterman's novels some how manage to not only suck you in, but also absorb your thoughts days after you finish it. I was recently carried away by one of his novels called Everlost that explore the gray boundary between life and death.

Description: Nick and Allie do not survive a car accident. They are no longer alive, but have not yet reached the end of their journey. They land in Everlost, a color-bleached plane populated with child and teen spirits. There are rules in Everlost that new "greensouls" must learn to survive: keep moving, don't fall into a routine, don't seek the living, watch out for gangs, and steer clear of the McGill, Everlost's resident monster. Such rules are immortalized in the many books on Everlost penned by Mary Hightower, the leader of a large community of souls residing in the inanimate ghosts of New York's Twin Towers. Nick feels like he has found a home with Mary, while Allie fights to escape montony of Everlost and yearns to go back to the living.

Review: I finished Everlost in one afternoon. The action-packed plot moves quickly and is fully developed. I was never bored while reading the book. There is even a twist at the end that I did not see coming at all. I love when that happens! Nick and Allie along with the various Everlost characters grow and change as they learn to cope with their new existence. Thankfully, this is a trilogy and the first book so I look forward to reading more about Nick and Allie's adventures. Although Everlost does read as a complete and satisfying one volume book. I would have liked more of a discussion of life and death and hope to read more of that in the other books in the series. Everlost would be a great read for those who like adventure, fantasy, and science fiction.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is a few curse words sprinkled in the book. The concept of death might be too much for elementary school students, but I think this would be a great book for a book club suggestion for 7th graders and up. Here is a great discussion guide in case you do decide to use the book in a book club.

If you like this book, try: Everwild by Neal Shusterman or Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin
Rummanah Aasi
  I think the dictionary is one of things that we take for granted. It's usually stuck in some place collecting dust or a dark lit area in the library, which no one visits. Have you ever wondered who came up with the idea of creating a dictionary? Who wrote it and what their lives were like? Perhaps this is the librarian in me speaking out loud and who came across The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester and was intrigued.

Description: The Professor and the Madman explains how the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was created and discusses the relationship between the editor and one of his most influential contributors, a psychotic murderer in one of England's cruelest asylums.

Review: I really wanted to like this book, but it failed to hold my attention. I was hoping for a good nonfiction narrative that would meet the expectation of the book's attention grabbing exerpt. Instead I was left with a book where the author is carried away with is passion of etymology and lexicography and left the two main characters of the story as an afterthought. The Professor and the Madman should have been two books, where one book should solely focus on what a dictionary is and its evolution and the other book discuss the lives of the OED's creators. The book opens when Professor James Murray meets his co-editor Dr. William Minor for the first time. Professor Murray is informed and shocked to learn that his co-editor has been in an insane asylum after murdering a man in London. The book's prologue is the only exciting part of the book, what follows is a melodramatic account of what might have happened when the two meet since their meeting was not recorded by anyone. Much of why Minor is diagnosed of certifiably insane is conjectured by the author- ranging from post traumatic stress disorder that Minor went through after the Civil War to his potential sex addiction and paranoia. The sections on the doctor is repetitive and frankly, short on facts. Winchester's writing seem to have been intended to ring true to the 19th century, but I found him to be pretentious, dry, and dull. This book would have made a great long magazine or book article, but as a book it manages to be exaggerated and not fulfilling.  

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There are some mature themes discussed in the book including and not limited to sexually transmitted diseases and physical torture.

If you like this book, try: The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester
Rummanah Aasi
  Throughout my years of being in English classes, I was always advised on two cardinal rules on writing: 1. Write what you know and 2. Show don't tell. Paul Volponi beautifully captures these two rules in his novel entitled Rucker Park Set Up. According to his official website, Volponi got his inspiration for writing Rucker Park Set Up from his passion of playing street ball:

I often say that I grew up in New York City, but I think the real truth of the matter is that I grew up on a basketball court, because I learned so much there. The court I grew up on was a lot like a war zone, with nicknames such as “Pirate” and “Snake” for some very rough players. But in this mix of aggression, anger, stubbornness and fortitude, exists a real brotherhood.

Coupled with his passion of playing ball and a news story where a player was murdered on the court he was playing, Volponi began writing his action packed and thought provoking novel.

Description: Mackey and J.R. have been best friends since fifth grade. They both have big dreams in winning the Rucker Park Street Ball Championship, which they believe will help pave their road to play in the NBA. Unfortunately, J.R.'s dream is cut short when he is murdered on the basketball court. Now, Mackey feels responsible in J.R.'s death and believes that J.R.'s father knows that he is somehow involved in the murder. Did Mackey kill J.R. in order to full his dreams? If not, then who did and what will Mackey do about it?

Review: I thoroughly enjoyed reading Rucker Park Set Up. The plot was fast paced and it never slowed. All of the action takes place on the basketball court where J.R. was killed, yet the action did not sacrifice the back story of J.R. and Mackey's friendship nor Mackey's guilt of what happened to his best friend. J.R. and Mackey's relationship is shown in Mackey's painful flashbacks. In addition to Mackey's point of views, there are other characters such as J.R.'s father, and the opposing two coaches also get their own chapter. Volponi's description of the game is so vivid that I felt like I was sitting on the bleachers watching the game unfold right before my eyes. I kept turning the pages to find who killed J.R., which is revealed in the last pages of the book and incidentally the last few minutes of the game. I really liked the unresolved ending, which made the book realistic and will keep readers debating on how well Mackey dealt with his best friend's death and if he could ever be forgiven. A must read for reluctant readers and for those who enjoy sports, especially basketball.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language throughout the book and a scene of violence, which helps sets the tone of the story.

If you like this book, try: Black and White by Paul Volponi or Monster by Walter Dean Myers   
Rummanah Aasi
  A fellow librarian recommended the Parasol Protectorate series to me. She and I have similar tastes, except when it comes to sparkly vampires then I'm on my own. ;) She described the first book, Soulless,  to me as a mixture of a paranormal romance/steampunk tale with lots of dry humor, fashion commentary and awesome character interactions. Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that usually takes place during the industrialized 19th century, where our existing technology is used to imagine a more advanced and complex 19th century. Confused? Read a great article on Steampunk 101 from is Well, she had me at paranormal and dry humor and I knew it was a book that I needed to find. I just finished it and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Description: Meet saucy, sassy, stubborn, and assertive Alexia Tarabotti, a spinster who is soulless, has a large nose and tan skin due to her Italian patronage. She her lack of a soul is truly unique and a well kept secret even in a 19th-century London that mostly accepts and integrates werewolf packs, vampire hives and ghosts. The only man who notices and successfully enjoys her is the brash, mercurial,  Lord Conall Maccon, a Scottish Alpha werewolf and government official. After she is rudely attacked by a vampire at a party, Alexia must work with Lord Maccon to clear her name after she is suspected of the disappearances of other undead members of high society.

Review: Soulless is a fun, quick, and incredibly funny read. It is an excellent blend of Victorian romance,  screwball comedy of manners that Britain is known for, and alternate history. I absolutely loved Alexia. She is truly a force to be reckoned with and isn't afraid to stick her nose where it does not belong. Her interactions with Lord Maccon are funny, sweet, and the best parts of the book. Other secondary characters, such as the flamboyant Lord Akeldama is a hoot. At first I was worried that the steampunk aspect might over power the novel, but it does not at all. In fact, the gadgets are interesting and add an additional angle to the story. I look forward to reading Alexia's adventures in the next book in the series.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language. Sex is implied, but not graphic. Teens who are looking for angst ridden werewolves and vampires might get bored. I think this book is more suited for adults and those who enjoy dry humor.

If you like this book, try: Changeless by Gail Carriger, 2nd book in the Parasol Protectorate series
Rummanah Aasi
  I remember when I read my first book by Roald Dahl. I was in the fifth grade when I came across Matilda. My school librarian, Mrs. Katlubiack, recommended the book to me. I was astonished to read a book where a child is much more mature and smarter than her scheming parents. Needless to say, Dahl had captured my attention and imagination. I was recently going through my shelves and came across The BFG. Feeling a bit nostalgic, I picked it up to read.

Description: Sophie is an eight-year-old orphan. One night she is kidnapped by The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) and taken to Giantland, where she learns all about the giants-including their diet. Sophie and the BFG strike up a friendship and a plan to get rid of all the evil giants. The only thing they need is the help of the Queen of England, but will the Queen believe them?

Review: The BFG is a great read and an adorable book. Dahl has once again crated a character who is not only funny but sweet. The BFG has his own language, because he taught himself how to speak. His language is so funny and quirky that I laughed out loud several times while reading this book. Sophie is a precocious eight year old who not only understands the BFG, but devises a great plan to get rid of the evil giants. Once again, the child is a leading character who essentially helps to save the day. Although Sophie's plan might be a little to easy if seen through the adult eyes, but to children who are afraid of giants lurking in their rooms it is quite reassuring. The BFG would be a great book to read aloud to either a classroom or to your kids. It's quite possibly my second favorite Roald Dahl book. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None.

If you like this book, try: Matilda by Roald Dahl
Rummanah Aasi
    I have been hearing great buzz about Catherine Fisher's best selling novel called Incarceron on the YALSA listserve. After reading a description of the book and viewing it's book trailer I knew I had to the book on my "to be read pile" immediately and read it soon. Luckily, my public library had a copy and I had weekend to unwind. I finished the book yesterday and I can't help but think about it today. Check out the book trailer below and see if it caught your attention as it did mine:

Description (from the publisher):  Incarceron-a futuristic prison, sealed from view, where the descendants of the original prisoners live in a dark world torn by rivalry and savagery. It is a terrifying mix of high technology a living building which pervades the novel as an ever-watchful, ever-vengeful character, and a typical medieval torture chamber chains, great halls, dungeons. A young prisoner, Finn, has haunting visions of an earlier life, and cannot believe he was born here and has always been here.

In the outer world, Claudia, daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, is trapped in her own form of prison a futuristic world constructed beautifully to look like a past era, an imminent marriage she dreads. She knows nothing of Incarceron, except that it exists. But there comes a moment when Finn, inside Incarceron, and Claudia, outside, simultaneously find a device a crystal key, through which they can talk to each other. And so the plan for Finns escape is born.

Review: If you're looking for a complex, multilayered fantasy novel with a great cast of characters, look no further than Incarceron. The story starts off with a bang and it never slows down. Although the book looks large, 442 pages to be exact, I couldn't believe how fast I was reading. The storyline is intelligent and I was fascinated with the world that Fisher created. Her Inside and Outside worlds are so incredibly detailed that I could picture them clearly in my head. I was initally confused by the many characters and had to reread sections to find out who was who, but I didn't seem to mind because all of the characters were interesting, deeply flawed and complex. My favorite parts of the book are actually how each chapter is begins- a quote from the past that describes how Incarceron was invented and the lives of the first prisoners. There are plenty of twist and turns in the story, some of which I guessed and others that took me by a complete surprise. I look forward to reading the sequel, Sapphique, later this year.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There are a handful of curse words in the book. Although the book is very violent and most of the violence takes place off stage, it may be too much for those in elementary school. For the elementary school level, I would suggest The City of Ember series by Jeanne DuPrau. I think strong 7th grade readers and above should have no problem with the book.

If you like this book, try: Sapphique by Catherine Fisher, The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, or The City of Ember series by Jeanne DuPrau.
Rummanah Aasi
  My sisters are a fan of Jane Austen, whether it's reading her novels or watching movie adaptations. As a teen, I didn't understand all the hoopla that surrounded Austen. One of my sisters tried to get me to read Pride and Prejudice when I was a freshman. I couldn't get through the book. The witty dialogue and the interesting characters didn't do anything for me. I was irritated and fixed on the heroines of the novel. How could two highly intelligent, good mannered women of the middle class just sit home and wait for some guy (of noble class of course) come along and marry them? Figuring this was just one plot to one of Austen's novel, I tried another and then another, and finally gave up.
     It was not until my sophomore year of college that I appreciated Austen's novels after learning about the historical context in which she was writing or in my opinion, critiquing, and her own biography. I was fascinated by the notion that this author who is known for her romances and the happily ever after is a marriage never married herself. If you do a close examination of her books, you'll notice that the hero and the heroine don't connect unless there is a financial problem. Of course women at that time didn't have economic security or heck, independence of any kind really. To this day, I'm not entirely convinced that Elizabeth and Darcy truly loved one another. I think Elizabeth married him because she had no choice. Darcy did her family a huge favor and as a payback, she was married. Case closed.
     Marriage in this light is not about a happy union between two people as we like to define it. Marriage is more like a necessity or a profession that women have been trained to want since their birth. Have you noticed that in a slew of romantic comedies a highly successful and professional woman is seen to have everything except a man in her life? Have we really come far since Austen's time? No, this blog post is not a rant on marriage or Jane Austen, but these were the thoughts that I had in my head when I picked up Kavita Daswani's aptly titled novel For Matrimonial Purposes.

Description: Anju is thirty four years old and single. In the eyes of her family, there must be something wrong with her. Her mother desperately seeks answers from spiritual guides and matchmakers to find a suitable match for her daughter. Once all the potential suitors turn out to be duds, Anju decides she wants a different life for herself. She applies to a New York university and convinces her parents to study abroad in hopes of finding a husband. Will Anju finally be married and more importantly, will he be Indian?

Review: I found For Matrimonial Purposes to be a funny, warm, and a very accurate of how Southeast Asians, in this case India, view the institute of marriage. There were many moments where I laugh out loud at Anju's ridiculous suitors and other moments where I nodded my head at Anju's introspective notions of 'Indian dating' and how being an independent, working woman who lived in New York was seen as 'ruining her reputation' or 'too modern' by the people back home. As Anju keenly observes, the wedding is much more important than the marriage. As long as someone is married, whether they are happy or not does not matter in the eyes of the community. Marriage in the eyes of a Southeast Asian is a requirement, an identity, because a woman is not given anything else. Anju is allowed to go to America or 'Umerica' as her parents calls it, not because she will advance in her college degree but because she will have a higher probability rate in finding a husband.
   I had two problems with this novel. First, I was at times confused with the timeline. The first part of the book explores Anju's return to Mumbai after living in New York for a cousin's wedding. The second and third half jumps back and forth from Anju's initial plight in going to New York and the happy ending. It was a bit too jumpy for me and thought it could have been smoother. Second, I think it's very important to point out that Anju comes from a very well off family. Coming to America for a couple of courses and living in New York of all places is not cheap. The plausibility of Anju's growth process is a bit unbelievable. Overall, a great light read that made me think.  
Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is mild language. I think teens might find this interesting, but I think it would appeal much more for adults.

If you like this book try: The Village Bride of Beverly Hills by Kavita Daswani
Rummanah Aasi
   I was never a big fan of Superman. To be honest, I'm more of a Batman girl. Superman is just way too nice and proper. There is no edge or angst to him. I mean to have your alter ego be a meek, newspaper reporter who combs his hair differently and puts on a pair of glasses as your disguise, come on! I never understood how people in the comics and other adaptations didn't put things together. Needless to say, I do catch an episode here and there of Smallville, seen the Superman movies, and was avid watcher of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Can you really blame me when it's Dean Cain and Tom Welling playing the lead?  When I saw The Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman on the Bluestem reading list, I realized that I knew nothing about the history behind Superman and decided to read it.

Description: In this nonfiction picture book, the story of how two Cleveland teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, came up with the idea and created Superman.

Review: The Boys of Steel is a good introduction to the history of comic books to younger readers. The book begins with a cultural setting of The Great Depression as well as the personalities of Siegel and Shuster. Though I doubt children will completely understand how socially awkward the writer and illustrator were, but I think they would understand it through the illustrations. The illustrations are great: they are colorful and convey the message simply and directly. The only fault that I found with the picture book is that I found the afterward much more interesting than the main story as a whole. The picture book ends with a happy ending in which Siegel and Shuster find a publisher to publish the Superman comics. The afterward, however, details the legal and business struggle that Siegel and Shuster had in gaining the copyright and royalties of their creation. I can understand that explaining these technical terms to children in a picture book is hard to do, but I think it's wrong to give the children the impression that all is well when that's far from the truth. Overall though, I did enjoy the book and learned new information about the creators of Superman as well as new history of the comic book industry. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of caution: None. I'd recommend it to Grades 1 to 3.

If you like this book, try:  The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Dan Yaccarino  
Rummanah Aasi
  I was struck by a Young Adult Symposium that discussed the phenomenon of fat literature. I had to reread it several times to make sure my mind did not translate phat with fat. Surely, I thought it was a typo until I saw this description of the seminar:

As more teens struggle with their weight, YA lit is increasingly featuring vibrant, complicated main characters that happen to be overweight. But as the “Fat Lit” genre matures, it finds itself torn between fostering positive body image and “fat acceptance” among teens while at same time acknowledging the psychological and physical health issues often present with obesity.
Then I got to thinking that yes, indeed, I have just finished reading two books that would perfect fit into this genre: Artichoke's Heart by Suzanne Supplee and Fat Cat by Robin Brande. Both of these books have an overweight female protagonist who are trying to build their self esteem as well as get healthy amongst other obstacles they face. I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast these titles as I read them back to back. Both of the books were great reads and they differed slightly on how the main characters dealt with their weight. What fascinated me about both books is that yes, weight is an issue, but it was actually a product of how the each of the characters are living their lives. Let's take a look at Artichoke's Heart first.

Description of Artichoke's Heart: Rosemary decides she is sick of being overweight, mocked at school and at Heavenly Hair, her mother's beauty salon. She decides to take control when she finds out that her mother has been diagnosed with cancer. Trying to become healthy and having a boyfriend for the first time, Rosemary soon discovers that people are not perfect.

Review: In first half of the book, Rosemary discusses her insecurities of being overweight. She takes solace in junk food and uses it as her coping mechanism. She is constantly mocked at school for her weight and is given advice from everyone on how she should 'control herself'. After she finds out her mother is sick, Rosemary realizes that how her mother is dealing with her illness is not that different on how she is dealing with her weight and relationships. She soon creates a strict diet and exercise routine, which allows her not only to lose weight, but also to go outside of her social and psychological comfort zone. Her relationship with her boyfriend is sweet and honest. There are parts that were kind of unrealistic such as Rosemary being pursued as friend by a popular girl. Also, I couldn't help but wonder if Rosemary would succeed socially without losing weight. I'd like to think so. Overall, Artichoke's Heart is a fun read. Rosemary is a sassy, smart and funny heroine. The serious issues of weight and cancer are handled with humor and don't drag the book down. The Southern dialect at first slowed my reading speed, but I got over that hump and thought it gave the book personality.

Rating: 4 stars

Now let's see how Fat Cat differs from Artichoke's Heart:

Description of Fat Cat: Ever since being called Fat Cat in middle school, Catherine has been trying to deal with her weight. When she is given science project for her class where she must emulate the ways of how hominims, the earliest ancestors of human beings, lived by eating an all-natural diet and foregoing technology. 

Review: Cat is first and foremost a scientist. When she is given a science project about eating healthy and abstaining from using technology, she thinks this is the perfect time for her to change. What first starts out as a passion to win first place in the science fair now becomes a life-changing event. What I loved about this book is that Cat not only studies the science behind obesity and healthy living, she also explores how becoming healthy has changed how she interacts with other people. As a result of slimming down, she gains confidence, starts to like herself, and begins to attract the attention of the opposite sex, which never happened before. Cat and her friends are smart, witty, and very observant. I would love to hang out with them. It was refreshing to read a book where intelligence is just as sexy or more so than physical appearance.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of caution on both of these books: There is mild language in both books as well as scenes of underage drinking at a high school party. I'd recommend these books to 7th graders and up.

Curriculum Connections:  Health and Science

If you like these books, try: The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler and My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught.
Rummanah Aasi
   I have been hearing great buzz around Kimberly Derting's debut novel called The Body Finder. After reading a description of the book and viewing it's book trailer I knew I had to read it. When I saw a copy at my public library, I had to check it out. I finished it in one afternoon, because it was that good and plus, it already had a hold from the library. Check out the book trailer below and see if it caught your attention as it did mine:

Review: The Body Finder is a good balance between a paranormal romance and a mystery. It was nice to read a book where all the major characters already knew Violet's special ability. The author doesn't spend the first 100 pages in discussing the special ability and its revelation. The book opens with an attention grabbing prologue and I immediately knew that I was going to enjoy the book. The alternating chapters between Violet and the serial killer kept my attention and made me turn the pages quickly. The romance between Violet and Jay, her best friend/almost boyfriend, is cute and doesn't overshadow the mystery. Teens looking for a good mystery coupled with great characters, snappy dialogue, and a good romance will be satisfied in reading The Body Finder. There is a sequel called Desires of the Dead and I'm already looking forward to reading it.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of caution: There is mild language in the book and a brief scene of underage drinking at a high school party. The book is strictly PG-13. I would recommend this to strong 7th grade readers and up.

If you like this book, try: Wake trilogy by Lisa McMann
Rummanah Aasi
   Like many children, I grew up reading, listening or watching adaptations of fairy tales or folktales on tv. Albeit, they were mostly from Disney and almost all of them had a "and they lived happily ever after" at the end where the good were awarded and the evil were punished. As I look back as an adult, I realize that all the famous fairy tales and folktales did not have a happy ending nor was their audience small children even though children sometimes played the lead roles. Why are these stories so important? Are they made to tell a lesson, which happen to be adapted several times and passed down from one generation to the next? Or are these stories a reflection of our own nightmares and dreams? The last question is asked in John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things.

Description: Twelve year old David mourns the loss of his mother. He refers to his books, once treasures to his beloved mother, as a way to cope with her death and to keep him company. As his anger at her death and his father's new life grows with each day, the books begin to speak to him, telling their wild tales of dragons, princes, and knights. Soon reality and fantasy collide. David suddenly himself in a land unlike his own, where monsters, evil sorceresses, and werewolves dwell. Will David ever find his way back home or will he remain in the fantasy world alone? 

Review: The Book of Lost Things is a well written novel that reads like a Tim Burton movie. Not only do the lines of fantasy and reality blur, but also the development from childhood to adulthood. While in the 'otherland', one can not help but get lost and forget what is happening in the real world. All the reader knows for a time setting is that World War II has begun. The author makes a good use of twisting the famous fairy tales such as "The Little Red Riding Hood" and "Snow White" among many others to his advantage. These tales are closer to their Brothers Grimm counterpart. It is obvious that particular tales were chosen to represent David's own fear of getting a new stepmother, being forgotten or replaced by a step-sibling. I thought the ending, which wasn't a total surprise for me, was well done and challenges the reader to look at the stories through the eyes of an adult instead of a child.  

Rating: 4 stars

Words of caution: Although David is 12 years old at the beginning of the novel and famous fairy tales are mentioned in the book, this is not a book for children. There is lots of gore and violence.

If you like this book, try: Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link or The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Rummanah Aasi
   My older brother was an avid comic book reader. He still has boxes full of Batman, Xmen, Spiderman, and other superheroes somewhere. Each volume is covered in its original plastic cover. Essentially, I grew up with comic book heroes because of him. My favorite series is the Xmen because it had my favorite female heroine: Rogue. Rogue contained femininity, strength, flaws, and complexities all wrapped into one. She is also a needle in a haystack of female characters who dress scantily in comics with absurd physical descriptions. I found another Rogue-like character in Joss Whedon's first comic heroine, Melaka Fray.

Description: Hundreds of years in the future, Melaka Fray learns she has a great destiny that may unite a fallen city and save mankind from a demonic plot to destroy the world.

Review: Fray has many similarities with Buffy the Vampire Slayer: a girl of superpower strength chosen to fight against all the evils of the world. Once again, Whedon's focus on girl power takes front stage. Fray has shades of good and bad wrapped into one. She is a thief by day, yet works hard to try to protect her loved ones. She feels guilty in not being able to save her twin brother and can't help but constantly fight her sister, Erin, who is a complete opposite to her. Whedon's witty dialogue, plot twists, humor, and complex relationships shine in this graphic novel. The illustrations are fantastic and I couldn't help but be swept away in the action. A must read for Whedon fans.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of caution: There is fantasy violence that is PG-13 and might be too much for elementary kids. There is some language.

If you like this book, try: Astonishing Xmen by Joss Whedon
Rummanah Aasi
   I have been a big fan of greek mythology ever since middle school. My favorite book on the greek myths is Mythology by Edith Hamilton. I had read it so much that it began to come apart and needed to buy a new copy and transfer my notes (yes, I write notes as I read. It's been a habit of mine for a while and it was fueled even further during my college years as an English major). I was one of two people in my high school freshman english class to actually enjoy reading Homer's Odyssey. I was more than happy to read it again in college. In fact, when I heard The Illiad was going to be a movie called Troy, I read the entire epic. Unfortunately, Troy was awful but The Illiad made up for it. So, when I come across a modern retelling of the myths, I'm all for reading it. This is how I found The Mark by Jen Nadol.

Description: Cassandra "Cassie" Renfield has always seen the mark, a candlight glow, around certain people. When she first saw it, she thought she was seeing a trick of the light. Until she watches a man awash in the mark die. Cassie realizes she can see a person’s imminent death. She does not know how or where, but only when.  Cassie begins to explore her “gift,” seeking those marked for death and probing the line between decision and destiny. If you know today is someone’s last, should you tell them or should you help them prevent it?

Review: The Mark is a modern retelling of Cassandra and the three Fates in greek mythology. Instead of focusing on the origin of the mark, Nadol focuses her debut novel on the ethical implications of Cassie's so-called gift. Should Cassie alert those who are marked to die or should she let fate takes its course?

There is very little in terms of plot in the book. So little in fact, that I think Cassie is misplaced in the "adult world" that she is forced to face after the death of her grandmother. The life and death choice seems far removed from her, which is probably why I felt her struggle with her gift wasn't much of a problem but rather 'a freaky thing that happens time to time'. The crux of the novel is actually the classical debate on predestination and free will. In fact, the philosophy class that Cassie takes is a device that Nadol uses to allow Cassie to reflect on how she should deal with her 'gift'. I found this aspect of the novel very interesting, but I also wanted the origin of the mark to also be explored more. Nadol does touch of the myth as an explaination, but it comes off as more of an afterthought and doesn't use the myth to further strengthen the story. While I do not agree with Cassie's final decision at the end of the book, I do believe readers will find a lot to discuss in this book. Overall, a quick read and an enjoyable book but I wouldn't rush to the library or the bookstore to read it.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of caution: There is some mild language. Since Cassie does she death and watches two people die, the book may be frightening for elementary school readers. I would recommend it for strong 7th grade readers and up.

If you like this book, try: Numbers by Rachel Ward. If you are looking for a good modern retelling series for 4th graders and up, I highly recommend Rick Riordan's excellent Percy Jackson series. The first book is called Lightening Thief.
Rummanah Aasi
  Julie had such a great time doing her first review that she wanted to do another one. I didn't even have to bribe her with chocolate! Thanks again, Julie, for being my guest blogger. Enjoy her review of March!

   I’m always intrigued and not a little wary when an author attempts to take on the embellishment in some way of a beloved classic such as Little Women. I can’t begin to count the number of books published around Austen’s character of Mr. Darcy. Do an Amazon search--I dare you. Even Winnie-the-Pooh spawned a series of philosophy books. I’m not a huge fan of fan fiction either. I find most of it somewhat self-indulgent on the author’s part. March sets itself up not as a sequel or an alternative storyline, but as a companion to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, exploring the experiences of Mr. March while he was away from the girls during the Civil War.

Description: March imagines the wartime experiences of the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's beloved classic Little Women.

Below is an outtake from The American Masters segment about Louisa May Alcott, where Brooks is interviewed:

Review: Little Women holds a very special place in my heart as it was the book my mother sat and read to me over the course of a week when I was eleven years old, recovering from major surgery. She patiently read, I yelled at both the characters and the author, she waited and then read some more. At the time my favorite character was Beth, but I see my life has played out much more like Jo’s even though I can identify in some way with all the girls. Clearly that is a major part of Little Women’s timeless appeal; we all see some piece of ourselves alive and coming of age in its characters. In shelving her book next to Alcott’s classic, Brooks had some really big shoes to fill and for most of the book I wasn’t entirely convinced she pulled it off. I’ve always believed, however, that every book is ultimately made or broken by its ending. March ends well.

    Much of the book serves as a social commentary on the issues of slavery and racism. Very often I felt preached at. That’s not entirely without base since Mr. March was a preacher, army chaplain, and teacher. He is a man of ideals and strongly held beliefs. It is completely within his character to see the world, internalize it, and then sermonize on it. (At times the audio version even makes March sound pompous. I’m not sure, however, if that should be attributed to the author or the actor’s interpretation.) In any event, the overwhelming feeling is one of helplessness to effect any change for both Captain March and the reader since he is up against such appalling and prolific inhumanity. Capt. March has every one of his dearest held beliefs challenged by the realities of war, pervasive public opinion, and even his own mortal weaknesses.

  March is very well written and dove-tails beautifully with the original. Brooks clearly did her research, even basing her characterization of Capt. March on Alcott’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott. Alcott freely admitted that Little Women was based on herself and her sisters. The last third is told from Marmee’s prospective when she leaves Concord for Washington to bring a very much changed Capt. March home again. This is where I could insert myself easily into the story. Marmee voiced the uniquely female perspective that is Alcott’s strength. This is where I was finally returned to what I loved about Alcott’s book. Given its subject matter and prose, I’m not surprised it won the 2006 Pulitzer.

Note: Alcott did write three sequels to Little Women with Good Wives, Little Men and later Jo’s Boys, but I wonder where she would have taken Mr. March’s story since her own attachment as a writer always seemed to be toward her female characters. Perhaps she intuitively knew that tracing Captain March’s travels and experiences would be as harsh as Brooks wrote it to be. I liked Brooks’ development of the courtship between Marmee and March, how their marriage endured the separation, and the introduction of both Hannah and Aunt March.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There are graphic descriptions of the treatment of slaves and heavy philosophical questions are raised, which is why I think it is more fitting as an adult book, however; I would recommend this book for mature readers over fifteen.

If you liked this book, try: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.
Rummanah Aasi
  I first heard of the author Erik Larson when I read his phenomenal, page-turning, best selling book called The Devil in the White City. I loved his style of writing a history book with a dash of a true crime story. I couldn't stop reading it and came away with not only being informed about Chicago's World Fair, but also an obscure serial killer that committed crimes right under people's noses. In its essence, a novel-like nonfiction book that would not stay on the shelves at the high school and my local public libraries. Since I had a great time reading his previous book, I was looking forward to the same great read with Larson's other book called Thunderstruck.

Description:  Thunderstruck follows the same structural formula of The Devil in the White City by pairing a historical, progressive development which in this case the invention of the wireless telegraph with a notorious, famous murder case of Dr. H.H. Crippen.

Review: When I read this book, there were thunderstorms in the forecast and I had watched an episode of BBC's Coupling (think a British version of Friends, which is hiliarious by the way) where one of the main character, Steve, is trying to break up with his current girlfriend, Jane, who doesn't seem to get the hint that their relationship is over. Steve repeatedly tells Jane that he doesn't want to be the next Dr. Crippen. Is it a coincidence that these two things when I picked up Thunderstruck? I don't really know. I just happend to find the book at my public library and thought, "Oh, yeah, I wanted to read this book for a while. I think I'll check it out".

  Like Devil, Thunderstruck is very well written and full of historical facts. In fact, I had absolutely no idea of the wireless telegraph. I had thought the telegraph to do the same thing and was obviously mistaken. There are two plot threads, which read more like two biographies of Marconi, the inventor, and Crippen, the murderer. Both are woven seamlessly, but I couldn't help but wonder why these two stories were chosen until I was well in 3/4 of the book. Initally, I thought the invention was kind of boring and tedious. I wanted to know more of the murder case, but felt like that was more of an afterthought since its chapters were much shorter than the invention story. The book didn't take off for me until the crime was committed and the investigation began.

  I was appalled to know that I kind of felt sorry for Crippen. His wife was horrible and abusive, but I couldn't help but wonder why he resorted to murder instead of divorcing her? Perhaps divorce was a taboo at the time. There are some unclear facts as to how Crippen murdered his wife and there have been many theories as Larson tells the reader. Overall, I thought Thunderstruck was a decent read, but I did put it down several times while I read it.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of caution: The body of the dead Mrs. Crippen is graphic. Larson goes into detail of how it was discovered and the body's condition. For this reason, I would recommend this book to adults but I think high school students will also be interested.

If you like this book, try: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson or In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Rummanah Aasi
   Things were so simple when we were young, weren't they? I don't understand why we thought growing up was so alluring. Sure, we get to drive, vote, and be independent, but we also have to worry about how to support ourselves. The older that I get, the more I wish I could go back to being a kid. I wouldn't mind being 11 years old again, where my primary concerns would be school and friends. Wouldn't that be nice? Since I know that's impossible and a time machine hasn't been invented yet (What's the deal with that? We're in 2010 already. Could someone start that project?), I would have to live vicariously through Amanda and Leo, the protagonists of Wendy Mass's sweet and adorable book called 11 birthdays.

Description: Amanda and Leo have literally been best friends since birth. See, they were born on the same day and have celebrated their birthdays together for 9 years. They had a fall out on their 10th birthday and haven't spoken to each other for an entire year. Now when they prepare to celebrate their 11th birthday separately, strange things are starting to happen. They began to celebrate their birthday over and over again! What's going on? Will Amanda and Leo become friends again and solve the mystery together? 

Review: 11 birthdays is an adorable, sweet, clean, and enjoyable read. It's basically the kids' version of the movie, Groundhog Day. The writing is fresh and all of the characters were delightful. The universal themes of doing well in school coupled with the power of changing friends rings true in the novel. Amanda and Leo take advantage of the time warp to try different things to see what the outcomes would be and to see if their actions would fix time so they could see Saturday. It was refreshing to see how Amanda and Leo's thought process changed while they try to solve the mystery. I would recommend this book to children in 3rd grader and up.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Absolutely clean.

If you like this book, try: Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass
Rummanah Aasi
    I am an unabashed fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. When I first heard about the original movie and then the popular television series, I thought it was a refreshing concept. For once a girl is in charge and has the power instead of being one of the side-kicks or love interest. Buffy proved that a woman can be strong both in physical and in the emotional sense of the word. She has flaws, but with her close friends and Watcher by her side she is able to save the world a lot. I've never seen the show consecutively until this past year. Thanks to my good friend, Sam, I was able to watch the entire 7 seasons of the show. When the last episode ended, it was bittersweet for me, which I'm sure a lot of people did too. It was hard to let the characters go, but knowing Whedon's creativity I knew there was something up his sleeves. Imagine how happy and thrilled I was to find out that there is an 8th season of Buffy in graphic novels!

Description: The 8th season of Buffy starts off with a bang! The novel takes place right after the last episode of the TV series. Buffy and the gang are facing a new evil called Twilight.

Review: I loved the first volume of the graphic novel. All of the characters were excellently drawn and resemble very close to the actors who played them. This may sound weird, but as I was reading the graphic novel I could hear the actor's voice in my head-that's how good the drawings are. Whedon's dialogue is still fresh, funny, and poignant at the same time just like the TV show. The only negative thing that I will say about the graphic novel is that there is no information for people who are new to Buffy. So I would definitely recommend this to the Buffy fandom.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of caution: The graphic novel does contain some language, which is nothing more than what's allowed on TV. There are some senses of sensuality, but nothing of much concern. Since Buffy is a slayer, violence is involved.

If you like this book, try: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Volume 2: No Future for You
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