Rummanah Aasi
Description: The Five Worlds are on the brink of extinction unless five ancient and mysterious beacons are lit. When war erupts, three unlikely heroes will discover there's more to themselves and more to their worlds than meets the eye.
  The clumsiest student at the Sand Dancer Academy, Oona Lee is a fighter with a destiny bigger than she could ever imagine. A boy from the poorest slums, An Tzu has a surprising gift and a knack for getting out of sticky situations. Star athlete Jax Amboy is beloved by an entire galaxy, but what good is that when he has no real friends? When these three kids are forced to team up on an epic quest, it will take not one, not two, but 5 WORLDS to contain all the magic and adventure!


Review: 5 Worlds is a new exciting  middle grade graphic novel series that is full of action, adventure that will easily appease any science fiction, fantasy, or graphic novel reader of any age. With gorgeous, colorful artwork, the graphic novel is able to tackle today's contemporary issues such as race, class, and privilege as we explore the graphic novel's fleshed out multi-planet system.
Oona is very fortunate to have grown up in the affluent Sand Dancer Academy. She is constantly reminded and remains in her sister's shadow. Oona is clumsy and the last person anyone would expect to have any special powers. An Tzu ekes out a meager life as a thief in the slums surrounding the academy and suffers from a rare disease that will only get worse if he doesn't find a cure fast enough. Jax Amboy is a star athlete who is also hiding a big secret. 
  All three characters find themselves in a dangerous situation when Toki rebels from one of the moons making up the five worlds attack the main power station. Oona believes her sister, the true Sand Warrior, can conjure her magic to stop the attack but she needs An and Jax's help to find her. The three characters despite their differences learn to trust one another and form friendships that will only grow stronger as the graphic novel series begins to develop. Meanwhile the Toki forces are curiously insistent on capturing Oona, and try to make sense of some enigmatic clues they discover along the way. 
 At first I was a little lost when I started 5 Worlds because the creators just drops the reader right into the middle of the story, but after reading a few pages it was easy to navigate in this expansive world. I really appreciated the diversity of the story. The characters appear in a wide variety of sizes, shape, and skin tone. Though I was able to figure out the plot twists early in the story, I still found the graphic novel to be an enjoyable, quick  read and I look forward to picking up the next volume in this series.

Rating: 4 stars


Words of Caution: There are some disturbing images. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Kazu Kibuishi, and Naruto manga series by
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Julia and Cassie have been friends since nursery school. They have shared everything, including their desire to escape the stifling limitations of their birthplace, the quiet town of Royston, Massachusetts. But as the two girls enter adolescence, their paths diverge and Cassie sets out on a journey that will put her life in danger and shatter her oldest friendship.

Review: The Burning Girl examines the tumultuous friendship among young girls into their teenage years. Messud's book is beautifully written and dense. Purely character driven, the author takes her time in exploring the various aspects of her character's lives.
Since their nursery school years, Julia and Cassie Burnes have been more like sisters than friends. They have shared adventures and dreams, but as they cross the pivotal threshold also known as middle school where friendship, loyalty, and peer pressure can either make the friendship stronger or break it into tiny fragments, Julia starts to feel a separation with Cassie. To the reader, the splint between Julia and Cassie is inevitable especially as the two girls begin to take to different interests,  Cassie is drawn to boys, alcohol, and drugs while Julia hasn't reached puberty yet.
 There is a clear distinction between the two girls. Julia comes from a stable household where her parents take an interest in her, but Cassie's unreliable mother transfers her affection to a controlling lover who destroys Cassie's sense of security. Desperately unhappy, Cassie discovers her "dead father" who was put on a heroic pedestal may actually not be dead and sets out to find him, which begins a spiral of self-destruction that Julia, now no longer Cassie's intimate friend, must hear about from the boy they both love.
  There are beautiful and biting passages that perfectly captures the wild roller coaster of puberty and coming of age that settles on being a girl from the biological changes that are thrust upon you to the scary realization of female vulnerability where "being a girl is about learning to be afraid". Ultimately, Julia notes that everyone has a mysterious story and that parts of those stories are composed of myths that we create. Though I enjoyed the writing of the story quite a bit, I was hoping for more of originality to the plot. I feel like this story has been written before. I found myself reading it in bits and pieces because it wouldn't hold my attention. If you are a fan of quiet, character-driven novels I would recommend picking it up.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There are strong language, underage drinking and drug use in the book. Though the book features teen characters, the slow plot may not hold many teen readers' attention and therefore might be more suitable for adults.

If you like this book try: Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah
Rummanah Aasi
Description: For some kids summer is a sun-soaked season of fun. But for Steve, it’s just another season of worries. Worries about his sick newborn baby brother who is fighting to survive, worries about his parents who are struggling to cope, even worries about the wasp’s nest looming ominously from the eaves. So when a mysterious wasp queen invades his dreams, offering to “fix” the baby, Steve thinks his prayers have been answered. All he has to do is say “Yes.” But “yes” is a powerful word. It is also a dangerous one. And once it is uttered, can it be taken back?

Review: Kenneth Oppel's The Nest is a creepy, subtle horror read that is perfect for the Halloween season. Steve has always been a worrier, but since his baby brother was born with a rare congenital disorder he's become even more anxious. After a curious gray and white wasp from the hive above their house stings Steve, he develops the ability to speak to the hive's queen, who promises to replace the ailing baby with a new one. Agreeing to the queen's offer, Steve confronts a dangerous traveling knife sharpener, his parents' concerns over his mental health, and strange phone calls from Mr. Nobody, a family legend turned real, it seems. As Theodore's health deteriorates, Steve must decide what is best for his brother and what he will do to save him. The more he learns about the wasps' plan to "fix" the baby's congenital condition, the more he's conflicted. The tension and unease grow as Steve begins to wonder if the wasps are real or imagined.
 The Nest is not blatantly dark but quiet yet emotionally haunting. The book is exclusively written in Steve's perspective so the sense of safety and anxiety in particular are heightened in the story. The book comes to a climactic end that is cathartic and comforting while also showing the beauty of imperfection. I also like the sneaky way of including scientific information on the life cycle, anatomy, and behaviors of wasps is woven into the story. Readers who enjoyed being frightened by reading Coraline by Neil Gaiman will really enjoy this book.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are some disturbing images in the book that might be too much for younger readers. Recommended for strong Grade 5 readers and up.

If you like this book try: Coraline by Neil Gaiman, The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
Rummanah Aasi
Description: What if everything you set yourself up to be was wrong?
Frances has always been a study machine with one goal, elite university. Nothing will stand in her way; not friends, not a guilty secret – not even the person she is on the inside. But when Frances meets Aled, the shy genius behind her favourite podcast, she discovers a new freedom. He unlocks the door to Real Frances and for the first time she experiences true friendship, unafraid to be herself. Then the podcast goes viral and the fragile trust between them is broken.
  Caught between who she was and who she longs to be, Frances’ dreams come crashing down. Suffocating with guilt, she knows that she has to confront her past. She has to confess why Carys disappeared.
Meanwhile at uni, Aled is alone, fighting even darker secrets. It’s only by facing up to your fears that you can overcome them. And it’s only by being your true self that you can find happiness. Frances is going to need every bit of courage she has.

Review: Radio Silence is one of the very few books that depict an authentic, platonic friendship between a boy and a girl. The story also touches upon what makes friendships work while also discussing sexual identities and the universal theme of being yourself despite the several expectations placed upon you by others.
  Frances Janvier is extremely book smart and has focused everything on getting into Cambridge University. Her public persona is quiet, academic nerd, but in private, she is a spunky teen who loves creating fan art for her favorite podcast, Universe City, and pop culture in general. Frances has a hard time making friends mainly because she doesn't really know how. She is afraid of bringing her private life into focus in fear of embarrassment. She is a huge fan of Universe City, whose agender main character (who is also the show's creator) goes by the name of Radio Silence. Frances feels a powerful connection to Radio Silence and when she is contacted by the show's creator to provide graphics for the show, she can't believe it. Frances is even more dumbfounded when she discovers that the mysterious Radio Silence is, Aled Last, her reserved neighbor. Similarly, Aled can't believe that his graphic artist, Toulouse, is Frances.
  Like Francis, Aled is quiet, extremely smart and talented though he also appears socially awkward. He created Radio Silence as his creative outlet, escaping his demanding and emotionally abusive mother. He also desperately tries to shield his public and private personas as well though he is not always successful. The majority of the book is dedicated to how Francis and Aled come together as friends as they spend the majority of the summer working together on the podcast. Their closeness confuses others who can't believe there is nothing romantic between them.
 As the start of Frances's senior year in high school and Aled's first year at university approach, a revelation changes their close relationship. With their friendship in ruins and Aled miles away and spiraling into a dangerous depression, Frances must face long-buried fears and desires to find a way to save him.
  I really like how the author manages to create lifelike characters who take time to open up and reveal their vulnerabilities. All of the characters are intelligent and they all face the daunting task of navigating expectations whether their own or their parents. The writing is simple yet witty, a nice balance between angst and humor while also touching upon the significance of fandom and the various definitions of success and happiness.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, allusions to animal abuse and emotional abuse. 

If you like this book try: How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, Sweethearts by Sara Zarr
Rummanah Aasi
Description: November 1989. Communism is collapsing, and soon the Berlin Wall will come down with it. But before that happens there is one last bit of cloak & dagger to attend to. Two weeks ago, an undercover MI6 officer was killed in Berlin. He was carrying information from a source in the East -- a list that allegedly contains the name of every espionage agent working in Berlin, on all sides. No list was found on his body. Now Lorraine Broughton, an experienced spy with no pre-existing ties to Berlin, has been sent into this powder keg of social unrest, counter-espionage, defections gone bad and secret assassinations to bring back the list and save the lives of the British agents whose identities reside on it.

Review: When I picked up The Coldest City I was expecting an action-packed graphic novel starring a female spy much like what was shown in the trailer for Atomic Blonde (which is based on the graphic novel) starring Charlize Therone and James McAvoy, but what I got instead is a slow, spy noir a la John Le Carre. Once I got over my hurdle of disappointment, I had to buckle down and read it.
 The story is slow going as our protagonist, Lorraine Broughton who is neither blonde nor atomic, is assigned to hunt down a list containing all the spies working undercover in Berlin at the height of the Cold War. The story and its plot twists relies on the characters, which is quite hard to do because the graphic novel is cloaked in black and white illustrations and shadows.  Although these artistic choices add to the noir and mysterious atmosphere, it also hinders the reader for getting a good grasp on the graphic novel. Overall, The Coldest City is a mediocre graphic novel that I would only recommend to those who enjoy espionage and spy stories.      

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language and violence. Due to the slow pace and political context of the graphic novel I would recommend it for adults.

If you like this book try: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre
Rummanah Aasi

Welcome to my new feature called Forbidden Reads! Join me in celebrating our freedom to read. My goal for this feature is to highlight challenged and/or banned books from each literary audience: children, YA, and adult. Not only will I be doing a review of the book, I will also include information as to where and why the book was challenged/banned. Today I'll be reviewing one of the top 10 books most challenged books in 2015 and 2016, I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel, Jazz Jennings, and .

Description: From the time she was two years old, Jazz knew that she had a girl's brain in a boy's body. She loved pink and dressing up as a mermaid and didn't feel like herself in boys' clothing. This confused her family, until they took her to a doctor who said that Jazz was transgender and that she was born that way. Jazz's story is based on her real-life experience and she tells it in a simple, clear way that will be appreciated by picture book readers, their parents, and teachers.


Review: I am Jazz is an enlightening autobiographical picture book of Jazz Jennings, a transgendered activist. The book is very straightforward, upbeat, and positive. Jazz proclaims in the opening sentences that she has "a girl brain but a boy body" and knew from the time she was two that despite her physical body she wasn't really a boy. Young Jazz was passionate about her love of mermaids, dancing, and dress-up as well as her conviction that her gender identity was female. Readers are taken through her journey including Jazz's family in understanding her real identity as a girl and Jazz's own struggles of being included such as playing soccer on a girl's team. The illustrations are non-explicit, pink-hued watercolor illustrations that are a good complement to the cheerful tone and positive message of the story. Though defining transgendered simplistically, the book does introduce readers to a new concept and to embrace and value differences.


Rating: 4 stars

Why it was challenged: This children’s picture book memoir was challenged and removed because it portrays a transgender child and because of language, sex education, and offensive viewpoints. 

I can see how this book can be a shock to parents who may feel uncomfortable about approaching this subject with their children, but it I don't see why the conversation can't happen at this age. I am Jazz teaches empathy, acceptance, and diversity.

Words of Caution: None.

If you like this book try: Jacob's New Dress by Ian and Sarah Hoffman, Red: A Crayon's Story by Michael Hall, Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by
Rummanah Aasi



   Book bans and censorship are not of a thing of the past. It occurs even today.  Banned Book Week is officially underway. I have been busy presenting and advocating our intellectual freedom to a variety of classes at my school. Students are shocked and appalled about the book challenges and we are having lots of great discussions. 

   Check out of my Forbidden Reads feature if you are curious about some of the books that I have highlighted on this blog. You can also see what Banned/Challenged Books I've read in 2010, 2011, and 2012. I will also be reading and reviewing books that have been banned/challenged in 2015 this week.

  Here are the Top 10 Challenged/Banned of Books of 2016:




 Once again 7 out of the 10 books that are challenged and/or banned contain diverse contest, specifically LGBTQ+ as the vague complaint "sexually explicit" is on the rise. For the first time in the history of ALA's Top 10, a book was challenged solely because of its author.

Of the 10 books listed below, I have read 7 titles and I have linked my review down below:

  1. This One Summer written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
    This young adult graphic novel, winner of both a Printz and a Caldecott Honor Award, was restricted, relocated, and banned because it includes LGBT characters, drug use, and profanity, and it was considered sexually explicit with mature themes.

  2. Drama written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier
    Parents, librarians, and administrators banned this Stonewall Honor Award-winning graphic novel for young adults because it includes LGBT characters, was deemed sexually explicit, and was considered to have an offensive political viewpoint.

  3. George written by Alex Gino
    Despite winning a Stonewall Award and a Lambda Literary Award, administrators removed this children’s novel because it includes a transgender child, and the “sexuality was not appropriate at elementary levels.”

  4. I Am Jazz written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, and illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas
    This children’s picture book memoir was challenged and removed because it portrays a transgender child and because of language, sex education, and offensive viewpoints.

  5. Two Boys Kissing written by David Levithan
    Included on the National Book Award longlist and designated a Stonewall Honor Book, this young adult novel was challenged because its cover has an image of two boys kissing, and it was considered to include sexually explicit LGBT content.

  6. Looking for Alaska written by John Green
    This 2006 Printz Award winner is a young adult novel that was challenged and restricted for a sexually explicit scene that may lead a student to “sexual experimentation.”

  7. Big Hard Sex Criminals written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky
    Considered to be sexually explicit by library staff and administrators, this compilation of adult comic books by two prolific award-winning artists was banned and challenged.

  8. Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread written by Chuck Palahniuk
    This collection of adult short stories, which received positive reviews from Newsweek and the New York Times, was challenged for profanity, sexual explicitness, and being “disgusting and all around offensive.”

  9. Little Bill (series) written by Bill Cosby and illustrated by Varnette P. Honeywood
    This children’s book series was challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author.

  10. Eleanor & Park written by Rainbow Rowell
    One of seven New York Times Notable Children’s Books and a Printz Honor recipient, this young adult novel was challenged for offensive language.
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Shabnam Qureshi is a funny, imaginative Pakistani-American teen attending a tony private school in suburban New Jersey. When her feisty best friend, Farah, starts wearing the headscarf without even consulting her, it begins to unravel their friendship. After telling a huge lie about a tragedy that happened to her family during the Partition of India in 1947, Shabnam is ready for high school to end. She faces a summer of boredom and regret, but she has a plan: Get through the summer. Get to college. Don’t look back. Begin anew.
  Everything changes when she meets Jamie, who scores her a job at his aunt’s pie shack, and meets her there every afternoon. Shabnam begins to see Jamie and herself like the rose and the nightingale of classic Urdu poetry, which, according to her father, is the ultimate language of desire. Jamie finds Shabnam fascinating—her curls, her culture, her awkwardness. Shabnam finds herself falling in love, but Farah finds Jamie worrying.
  With Farah’s help, Shabnam uncovers the truth about Jamie, about herself, and what really happened during Partition. As she rebuilds her friendship with Farah and grows closer to her parents, Shabnam learns powerful lessons about the importance of love, in all of its forms.

Review: I had high hopes for Karim's That Thing We Call a Heart especially with two starred reviews from two esteem journals, Kirkus and the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, but unfortunately for me the book fell flat in its execution.
  Shabnam is a secular Muslim who doesn't feel any attachments to Islam or her Pakistani culture in general. She feels comfortable fading into the background and just wants to get through her senior year of high school without any incidents so she can finally live her life on her own terms in college. Shabnam's summer before college brings lots of challenges and questions. Although she and her best friend Farah were once practically sisters, there's a distance between them now that Farah has chosen to wear hijab. Farah's bold and visual stance on religion draws attention to both her and Shabnam.
  I appreciated the variation of Muslim representation in the book. I didn't mind that Shabnam was not religious but her snide running commentary got on my nerves. Her careless actions, self absorbed personality, and her spineless personality is what I disliked most about Shabnam. She would not stand up for her best friend or even for her ethnicity when they were attacked in a tasteless Islamophobic jokes. I frankly lost respect for her and I did not understand why Farah, a vibrant character, would ever be best friends with her.
 Unlike Shabnam, Farah was a much more complex character that I wished got more page time. While she wears the hijab, she also has issues with religion and Pakistani culture. She talks about her frustrations of being perceived as 'not Muslim enough for her Muslim friends and too religious to her non-Muslim friends' due to her fashion statements and actions. I would have loved to get to know more of her and I wished the book spent more time juxtaposing Shabnam and Farah as it seems to indicate in the book's description.
 Regrettably, the book spends a lot more time on Shabnam's romance with Jamie, a boy she bumps into at the mall. The romance falls completely flat and insta-lovey as Shabnam is smitten quickly by being called "beautiful" a handful of times. Jamie feels more like a plot device than a fleshed out character. He comes off as a carefree person, but to me, he felt as someone who wanted to check off 'date an exotic brown girl' off his dating bucket list. It irritated me that Shabnam is willing to sleep with Jamie despite only being acquainted with him for twelve days and not knowing anything about his past, his family, or even his present/future. Her shock of her relationship status of being a summer fling was very anticlimactic.
  Karim makes a point to include the 1947 Partition between India and Pakistan as well as including famous Urdu poets in the story, but both of these story threads would have added a much needed layer of depth to this story, but they were used superfluously and did not add much to Shabnam's character development besides maintaining her exotic status in Jamie's eyes and those of her classmates. I was really looking forward to an exploration of what it means to be a Muslim American teen in That Thing We Call a Heart, but I only found glimpses of it in this book.  

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, underage drinking, drug use, and crude sexual humor in the book. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah, I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister by Amélie Sarn
Rummanah Aasi

 I wanted to post a book list of books from a variety of genres and reading levels in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month. National Hispanic Heritage Month commemorates the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. If you would like to learn more, please visit the National Hispanic Heritage Month website.

 I've read quite a few of these titles and others are on my ever-growing to be read pile. This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are hundreds of titles out there to choose from. All of these titles are either feature Hispanic characters and/or are written by authors from Hispanic backgrounds. If I have reviewed the book, I will link my review.


Children's Picture and Chapter Books


 Mango, Abuela, and Me by Meg Medina: Mia’s Abuela has left her sunny house with parrots and palm trees to live with Mia and her parents in the city. The night she arrives, Mia tries to share her favorite book with Abuela before they go to sleep and discovers that Abuela can’t read the words inside. So while they cook, Mia helps Abuela learn English ("Dough. Masa"), and Mia learns some Spanish too, but it’s still hard for Abuela to learn the words she needs to tell Mia all her stories. Then Mia sees a parrot in the pet-shop window and has the perfect idea for how to help them all communicate a little better. An endearing tale from an award-winning duo that speaks loud and clear about learning new things and the love that bonds family members.

Juana & Lucas by Juana Medina: Juana loves many things — drawing, eating Brussels sprouts, living in Bogotá, Colombia, and especially her dog, Lucas, the best amigo ever. She does not love wearing her itchy school uniform, solving math problems, or going to dance class. And she especially does not love learning the English. Why is it so important to learn a language that makes so little sense? But when Juana’s Abuelos tell her about a special trip they are planning—one that Juana will need to speak English to go on—Juana begins to wonder whether learning the English might be a good use of her time after all.

Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Méndez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh: Almost 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Sylvia Méndez and her parents helped end school segregation in California. An American citizen of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage who spoke and wrote perfect English, Méndez was denied enrollment to a “Whites only” school. Her parents took action by organizing the Hispanic community and filing a lawsuit in federal district court. Their success eventually brought an end to the era of segregated education in California.

Niño Wrestles the World (Niño) by Yuyi Morales: Señoras y Señores, put your hands together for the fantastic, spectacular, one of a kind . . . Niño!

Fwap! Slish! Bloop! Krunch! He takes down his competition in a single move!

No opponent is too big a challenge for the cunning skills of Niño—popsicle eater, toy lover, somersault expert, and world champion lucha libre competitor!


Children/Middle Grade Reads



The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya: For Arturo, summertime in Miami means playing basketball until dark, sipping mango smoothies, and keeping cool under banyan trees. And maybe a few shifts as junior lunchtime dishwasher at Abuela's restaurant. Maybe. But this summer also includes Carmen, a cute poetry enthusiast who moves into Arturo's apartment complex and turns his stomach into a deep fryer. He almost doesn't notice the smarmy land developer who rolls into town and threatens to change it. Arturo refuses to let his family and community go down without a fight, and as he schemes with Carmen, Arturo discovers the power of poetry and protest through untold family stories and the work of Jose Marti.

The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan: Neftali finds beauty and wonder everywhere: in the oily colors of mud puddles; a lost glove, sailing on the wind; the music of birds and language. He loves to collect treasures, daydream, and write--pastimes his authoritarian father thinks are for fools. Against all odds, Neftali prevails against his father's cruelty and his own crippling shyness to become one of the most widely read poets in the world, Pablo Neruda. This moving story about the birth of an artist is also a celebration of childhood, imagination, & the strength of the creative spirit. Sure to inspire young writers & artists.

The Lightning Queen by Laura Resau: Nothing exciting happens on the Hill of Dust, in the remote mountains of Mexico in the 1950s. There's no electricity, no plumbing, no cars, just day after day of pasturing goats. And now, without his sister and mother, eleven-year-old Teo's life feels even more barren. And then one day, the mysterious young Esma, who calls herself the Gypsy Queen of Lightning, rolls into town like a fresh burst of color. Against all odds, her caravan's Mistress of Destiny predicts that Teo and Esma will be longtime friends. Suddenly, life brims with possibility. With the help of a rescued duck, a three-legged skunk, a blind goat, and other allies, Teo and Esma must overcome obstacles-even death-to fulfill their impossible destiny.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan: Esperanza thought she'd always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico--she'd always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn't ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces. When their new life is threatened, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances--Mama's life, and her own, depend on it.

YA



Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas, #1) by Zoraida Córdova: Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust, but who may be Alex’s only chance at saving her family.

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall: When Lupita learns Mami has cancer, she is terrified by the possibility of losing her mother, the anchor of her close-knit family. Suddenly, being a high school student, starring in a play, and dealing with friends who don't always understand, become less important than doing whatever she can to save Mami's life.
  While her father cares for Mami at an out-of-town clinic, Lupita takes charge of her seven younger siblings. As Lupita struggles to keep the family afloat, she takes refuge in the shade of a mesquite tree, where she escapes the chaos at home to write. Forced to face her limitations in the midst of overwhelming changes and losses, Lupita rediscovers her voice and finds healing in the power of words.

Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Peña: Danny's tall and skinny. Even though he’s not built, his arms are long enough to give his pitch a power so fierce any college scout would sign him on the spot. Ninety-five mile an hour fastball, but the boy’s not even on a team. Every time he gets up on the mound he loses it.
  But at his private school, they don’t expect much else from him. Danny’ s brown. Half-Mexican brown. And growing up in San Diego that close to the border means everyone else knows exactly who he is before he even opens his mouth. Before they find out he can’t speak Spanish, and before they realize his mom has blond hair and blue eyes, they’ve got him pegged. But it works the other way too. And Danny’s convinced it’s his whiteness that sent his father back to Mexico.
   That’s why he’s spending the summer with his dad’s family. Only, to find himself, he may just have to face the demons he refuses to see--the demons that are right in front of his face. And open up to a friendship he never saw coming.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero: Gabi Hernandez chronicles her last year in high school in her diary: college applications, Cindy's pregnancy, Sebastian's coming out, the cute boys, her father's meth habit, and the food she craves. And best of all, the poetry that helps forge her identity.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez: New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz: Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork: 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.

Nonfiction 



When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago: Esmeralda Santiago's story begins in rural Puerto Rico, where her childhood was full of both tenderness and domestic strife, tropical sounds and sights as well as poverty. Growing up, she learned the proper way to eat a guava, the sound of tree frogs in the mango groves at night, the taste of the delectable sausage called morcilla, and the formula for ushering a dead baby's soul to heaven. As she enters school we see the clash, both hilarious and fierce, of Puerto Rican and Yankee culture. When her mother, Mami, a force of nature, takes off to New York with her seven, soon to be eleven children, Esmeralda, the oldest, must learn new rules, a new language, and eventually take on a new identity. In this first volume of her much-praised, bestselling trilogy, Santiago brilliantly recreates the idyllic landscape and tumultuous family life of her earliest years and her tremendous journey from the barrio to Brooklyn, from translating for her mother at the welfare office to high honors at Harvard.

The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande: When Reyna Grande’s father leaves his wife and three children behind in a village in Mexico to make the dangerous trek across the border to the United States, he promises he will soon return from “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side) with enough money to build them a dream house where they can all live together. His promises become harder to believe as months turn into years. When he summons his wife to join him, Reyna and her siblings are deposited in the already overburdened household of their stern, unsmiling grandmother. The three siblings are forced to look out for themselves; in childish games they find a way to forget the pain of abandonment and learn to solve very adult problems. When their mother at last returns, the reunion sets the stage for a dramatic new chapter in Reyna’s young life: her own journey to “El Otro Lado” to live with the man who has haunted her imagination for years, her long-absent father.

Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life by Catherine Reef: Nontraditional, controversial, rebellious, and politically volatile, the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are remembered for their provocative paintings as well as for their deep love for each other. Their marriage was one of the most tumultuous and infamous in history—filled with passion, pain, betrayal, revolution, and, above all, art that helped define the twentieth century.

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle: It is 1896. Cuba has fought three wars for independence and still is not free. People have been rounded up in re-concentration camps with too little food and too much illness. Rosa is a nurse, but she dares not go to the camps. So she turns hidden caves into hospitals for those who know how to find her. Black, white, Cuban, Spanish—Rosa does her best for everyone. Yet who can heal a country so torn apart by war? Acclaimed poet Margarita Engle has created another breathtaking portrait of Cuba.

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda: Drawn from the most intimate and personal associations, Pablo Neruda's most beloved collection of poetry juxtaposes the exuberance of youthful passion with the desolation of grief, the sensuality of the body with the metaphorical nuances of nature.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle: Margarita is a girl from two worlds. Her heart lies in Cuba, her mother's tropical island country, a place so lush with vibrant life that it seems like a fairy tale kingdom. But most of the time she lives in Los Angeles, lonely in the noisy city and dreaming of the summers when she can take a plane through the enchanted air to her beloved island. Words and images are her constant companions, friendly and comforting when the children at school are not. Then a revolution breaks out in Cuba. Margarita fears for her far-away family. When the hostility between Cuba and the United States erupts at the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Margarita's worlds collide in the worst way possible. How can the two countries she loves hate each other so much? And will she ever get to visit her beautiful island again?

Adult Fiction



The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende: Here is patriarch Esteban, whose wild desires and political machinations are tempered only by his love for his ethereal wife, Clara, a woman touched by an otherworldly hand. Their daughter, Blanca, whose forbidden love for a man Esteban has deemed unworthy infuriates her father, yet will produce his greatest joy: his granddaughter Alba, a beautiful, ambitious girl who will lead the family and their country into a revolutionary future.

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez: Uprooted from their family home in the Dominican Republic, the four Garcia sisters - Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia - arrive in New York City in 1960 to find a life far different from the genteel existence of maids, manicures, and extended family they left behind. What they have lost - and what they find - is revealed in the fifteen interconnected stories that make up this exquisite novel from one of the premier novelists of our time.

The Brief Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz: Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fukœ-the curse that has haunted the Oscar's family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still waiting for his first kiss, is just its most recent victim.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón: Barcelona, 1945 - just after the war, a great world city lies in shadow, nursing its wounds, and a boy named Daniel awakes on his eleventh birthday to find that he can no longer remember his mother’s face. To console his only child, Daniel’s widowed father, an antiquarian book dealer, initiates him into the secret of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library tended by Barcelona’s guild of rare-book dealers as a repository for books forgotten by the world, waiting for someone who will care about them again. Daniel’s father coaxes him to choose a volume from the spiraling labyrinth of shelves, one that, it is said, will have a special meaning for him. And Daniel so loves the novel he selects, The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax, that he sets out to find the rest of Carax’s work. To his shock, he discovers that someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book this author has written. In fact, he may have the last one in existence. Before Daniel knows it his seemingly innocent quest has opened a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets, an epic story of murder, magic, madness and doomed love. And before long he realizes that if he doesn’t find out the truth about Julian Carax, he and those closest to him will suffer horribly.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez: After their daughter Maribel suffers a near-fatal accident, the Riveras leave México and come to America. But upon settling at Redwood Apartments, a two-story cinder block complex just off a highway in Delaware, they discover that Maribel's recovery--the piece of the American Dream on which they've pinned all their hopes--will not be easy. Every task seems to confront them with language, racial, and cultural obstacles. At Redwood also lives Mayor Toro, a high school sophomore whose family arrived from Panamá fifteen years ago. Mayor sees in Maribel something others do not: that beyond her lovely face, and beneath the damage she's sustained, is a gentle, funny, and wise spirit. But as the two grow closer, violence casts a shadow over all their futures in America.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of the rise and fall, birth and death of a mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buendia family. Inventive, amusing, magnetic, sad, alive with unforgettable men and women, and with a truth and understanding that strike the soul.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel: A sumptuous feast of a novel, it relates the bizarre history of the all-female De La Garza family. Tita, the youngest daughter of the house, has been forbidden to marry, condemned by Mexican tradition to look after her mother until she dies. But Tita falls in love with Pedro, and he is seduced by the magical food she cooks. In desperation, Pedro marries her sister Rosaura so that he can stay close to her, so that Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all the odds.
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Leaving the safety of America, Teera returns to Cambodia for the first time since her harrowing escape as a child refugee. She carries a letter from a man who mysteriously signs himself as “the Old Musician” and claims to have known her father in the Khmer Rouge prison where he disappeared twenty-five years ago.
   In Phnom Penh, Teera finds a society still in turmoil, where perpetrators and survivors of unfathomable violence live side by side, striving to mend their still beloved country. She meets a young doctor who begins to open her heart, immerses herself in long-buried memories and prepares to learn her father’s fate.
   Meanwhile, the Old Musician, who earns his modest keep playing ceremonial music at a temple, awaits Teera’s visit with great trepidation. He will have to confess the bonds he shared with her parents, the passion with which they all embraced the Khmer Rouge’s illusory promise of a democratic society, and the truth about her father’s end.

Review: Music of the Ghosts is a lyrical, heart breaking, and haunting novel about Cambodia's past. The story opens in 1979 and grabs the reader's attention right away as teen Teera and her aunt flee the Khmer Rouge soldiers who decimated their village, trying to make their way into Thailand. This heart pounding, anxious escape sets the tone for the rest of the novel. The story jumps to 2003, when Teera makes the journey back to Cambodia from Minnesota, where she and her aunt settled 25 years earlier. Teera has received a letter from an old man who claims to have known her father in a Khmer Rouge prison. Desperate to learn any information about her father’s disappearance and ultimate demise, Teera makes the journey back to Cambodia.
 The story's narrative is then divided between Teera's experiences as a native and foreigner's experience in Cambodia and those of the old man who was friends with Teera's father. Teera's point of view offers hope and beauty as we learn about her past and that of her family until that frightful night. The old man's point of view is full of pain, despair as he recounts his life in captivity faced with excruciating pain and torture by the Khmer Rouge. Though the book's pacing is slow, the story and its characters are mesmerizing and it really opened my eyes as to what happened in Cambodia during those tumultuous times.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are graphic depictions of torture and war violence mentioned in this book. Recommended for older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner, The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Whether it is basketball dreams, family fiascoes, first crushes, or new neighborhoods, this bold anthology—written by the best children’s authors—celebrates the uniqueness and universality in all of us.

Review: Flying Lessons and Other Stories is a short stories collection for middle grade readers, published in partnership with We Need Diverse Books. The stories are written by some of the best middle grade/young adult writers: Kwame Alexander, Matt de la Peña, Jacqueline Woodson, Soman Chainani, Grace Lin, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Federle, Meg Medina, Tim Tingle, and Kelly Baptist. All of these stories feature protagonists who deal with issues associated with growing up- fitting in, being excluded, dreams, family, friendships, crushes, and even learning life lessons along the way.
 I enjoyed all of these stories, however, there were a few that stood out to me. I loved how Matt de la Peña's story where playing basketball is the same as surviving and escaping a cage where the protagonist feels is too confining. Though he is faced with roadblocks from being taunted about his appearance and his lack of time on the court, the main character still manages to learn important lessons on and off the court. Woodson's haunting "Main Street" follows Celeste, the only girl of color in an all-white New Hampshire town, and her friendship with lifetime resident Treetop. Both are suffering from different losses: Treetop's mother has recently passed away, and Celeste isn't accepted in her new home. Their warm connection soothes their mutual pain and promises to last even after Celeste and her mother decide to return to familiar and welcoming New York. In Soman Chainani's story the main character is forced to go on vacation with his eccentric and emotionally distant grandmother only to find out that she wasn't distant at all but wanted her grandson to take risks and go out of his comfort zone. This is a very inclusive, strong short stories collection.

Rating: 4 stars

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

If you like this book try: Amina's Voice by Hena Khan, Ghost by Jason Reynolds
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Miles Morales is just your average teenager. Dinner every Sunday with his parents, chilling out playing old-school video games with his best friend, Ganke, crushing on brainy, beautiful poet Alicia. He's even got a scholarship spot at the prestigious Brooklyn Visions Academy. Oh yeah, and he's Spider Man.
   But lately, Miles's spidey-sense has been on the fritz. When a misunderstanding leads to his suspension from school, Miles begins to question his abilities. After all, his dad and uncle were Brooklyn jack-boys with criminal records. Maybe kids like Miles aren't meant to be superheroes. Maybe Miles should take his dad's advice and focus on saving himself.
  As Miles tries to get his school life back on track, he can't shake the vivid nightmares that continue to haunt him. Nor can he avoid the relentless buzz of his spidey-sense every day in history class, amidst his teacher's lectures on the historical "benefits" of slavery and the importance of the modern-day prison system. But after his scholarship is threatened, Miles uncovers a chilling plot, one that puts his friends, his neighborhood, and himself at risk. It's time for Miles to suit up.

Review: I was first introduced to Miles Morales in one of the volumes of Ms. Marvel graphic novels. I didn't know much about him besides the fact that he was Spider-Man so I was really excited when I found out that Jason Reynolds was tapped by Marvel to write a Miles Morales book. After reading quite a few of Reynolds' other books I knew that Miles Morales was in very capable hands.
  I very much appreciated that Reynolds moved beyond an origin story and the novelization of a graphic novel. This book is more interested in Miles' personal journey grappling with his identity of being a half black/half Puerto Rican teen and a superhero, both of which limit and define him.
 Miles is an incredibly smart, loyal, and responsible teen. He is keenly aware of his surroundings and social status. Unlike many students in his elite prep school, Miles is a scholarship student who comes from the Brooklyn projects where crime is a way of life. His parents are tough but they fiercely love their son and want what is best for him.
  Reynolds also addresses racism in the book both explicitly and implicitly throughout the book. Miles' history teacher is racist and proclaims that slavery was beneficial in America and African Americans were better off because of it. I had a really hard time with this teacher especially because it is unfortunately very timely today. I also understood how helpless Miles felt in confronting the teacher given the fact that his father is an ex-convict, Miles knows that society also expects him to follow the same footsteps into crime. Though Miles got his powers from his uncle Aaron's criminal past, Miles is always at a crosswords on what type of person he can become. While surviving his junior year at high school and all the angst that comes along with it, Miles can't help but worry if he too will become a victim of nature or a nurturer who will break the glass ceiling that was placed above him.
  I will admit that the superhero aspect of the book was a bit clunky at times, but given the fact that the character development and themes were so strong that this didn't bother me as much. The villain felt a bit flat and underdeveloped, especially since he appeared after the half way mark of the book. I really hope there is another book featuring Miles since there are so many other aspects of his character and the book's themes to explore.  

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language in the book. Recommended for Grades 6 and up.

If you like this book try: Miles Morales, The Ultimate Spider-Man Edition graphic novel series by Brian Bendis, Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo, Black Widow by Margaret Strohl
Rummanah Aasi
Description: In a suburb outside Cleveland, a community of Indian Americans has settled into lives that straddle the divide between Eastern and Western cultures. For some, America is a bewildering and alienating place where coworkers can’t pronounce your name but will eagerly repeat the Sanskrit phrases from their yoga class. Harit, a lonely Indian immigrant in his midforties, lives with his mother who can no longer function after the death of Harit’s sister, Swati. In a misguided attempt to keep both himself and his mother sane, Harit has taken to dressing up in a sari every night to pass himself off as his sister. Meanwhile, Ranjana, also an Indian immigrant in her midforties, has just seen her only child, Prashant, off to college. Worried that her husband has begun an affair, she seeks solace by writing paranormal romances in secret. When Harit and Ranjana’s paths cross, they begin a strange yet necessary friendship that brings to light their own passions and fears.

Review: I must admit that I was drawn to this book mostly because of its title. I have lost count on how many times my name has been mispronounced and misspelled. No Once Can Pronounce My Name is a slice of life book that explores what constitutes the identity of an Indian American. 
   The story revolves around two main characters who feel isolated in their own lives and are desperately seeking an awakening. Harit is a middle-aged department store salesman, who is still grieving over the loss of his sister. He takes care of his elderly mother and cross dresses in his deceased sister's clothing to show his mother that her daughter is still alive. Though the ruse isn't fooling anyone, it is heartbreaking to witness and acts as his catalyst to change to his life by becoming socially active. Ranjana is a loyal and obedient wife to her distant husband, and the mother of an American-born son, Prashant, a freshman at Princeton. Like Harit, her life has become cold and empty as she feels her identifiers as wife and mother become too confining. Ranjana rebels against Indian convention and strikes her independence by working outside the home, writing paranormal romance on the sly, and striking up male friendships, including one with Harit. Similarly, her son Prashant tries to meet cultural and parental expectations while asserting his independence. 
  I appreciated how the author captures his characters' experiences within a close-knit Indian community and offering a wide range of representation. Harit and Ranjana both slowly grow and become more rounded characters as they become more open minded and open to change around them. The book does drag in the middle and I found myself wanting to know more of the personal lives of the secondary characters such as Ranjana's husband and Harit's wise mother. I also liked the tongue-in-cheek criticism on being an author, the publishing world, and book shaming when it comes to the romance genre that was included in the book. Overall a decent read on the difficulties of immigrants assimilating to a new culture and redefining themselves.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is mature themes, sexual content, and drug use in the book. Recommended for adults only.

If you like this book try: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar, and  The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang
Rummanah Aasi
Description: A California girl born and raised, Mai can't wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, though, she has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is going back to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam War. Mai's parents think this trip will be a great opportunity for their out-of-touch daughter to learn more about her culture. But to Mai, those are their roots, not her own. Vietnam is hot, smelly, and the last place she wants to be. Besides barely speaking the language, she doesn't know the geography, the local customs, or even her distant relatives. To survive her trip, Mai must find a balance between her two completely different worlds.

Review: Listen, Slowly is a thought provoking story about reconnecting to your cultural roots and the secrets that shape our lives. Mai has been really looking forward to spending her summer vacation at the beach and finally having a chance to talk to her secret crush before starting junior high. Her plans are derailed when her parents announce that she will be escorting her grandmother to Vietnam instead. New information may have surfaced about her long lost grandfather, who disappeared over 40 years ago in the Vietnam War. 
 Mai is not familiar with her family roots. She doesn't speak Vietnamese or doesn't know the culture, and everything she knows about Vietnam is from a PBS documentary on the Fall of Saigon. While her parents are excited for her to learn more about her roots, Mai is aware of how her own parents came to America since its a topic that they really talk about. I really connected with Mai because I too didn't know much of my Pakistani relatives and background when I visited Pakistan for the first time when I was in elementary school. The lost in translation experience rang true to me and I loved watching Mai grow and embrace her Vietnamese heritage. 
  The contrast between Mai's life of luxury in America is a stark contrast of that living in a village with limited internet access and other amenities. The sights, smells, and tastes of Vietnam's cities and villages come alive on the page and transports the reader to the setting. There are plenty of touching and funny moments in the story that are balanced well with the more serious, dark tones as Mai witnesses her grandmother's desperate attempts to find out how her husband lived his last days. I enjoyed how Mai slowly makes friends and bonds with her grandmother, with whom she was very close as a small child. Mai's character growth is slow and believable. She begins to appreciate and acknowledge of how privileged she is as well as gaining a new respect for her elders.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is mention of bribing and war violence in the book. Recommended for Grades 5 and up.

If you like this book try: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, Gaither Sissters series by Rita Williams-Garcia, Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Captain of the soccer team, president of the Debate Club, contender for valedictorian: Taylor's always pushed herself to be perfect. After all, that's what is expected of a senator's daughter. But one impulsive decision-one lie to cover for her boyfriend-and Taylor's kicked out of private school. Everything she's worked so hard for is gone, and now she's starting over at Hundred Oaks High.

Soccer has always been Taylor's escape from the pressures of school and family, but it's hard to fit in and play on a team that used to be her rival. The only person who seems to understand all that she's going through is her older brother's best friend, Ezra. Taylor's had a crush on him for as long as she can remember. But it's hard to trust after having been betrayed. Will Taylor repeat her past mistakes or can she score a fresh start?


Review: Defending Taylor is an ambitious book in the Hundred Oaks series that doesn't quite meets its mark. Kenneally tackles some tough topics in the book such as parental expectations, perfectionism, drug abuse, and dyslexia which is admirable and gives the book some depth. Taylor is a driven heroine who feels like her life has always been mapped out before her. Daughter of a political, she is expected to excel in her classes and extracurricular activities and go to an Ivy League school just like her siblings. Everything comes crashing down when Taylor made a mistake that not only tarnished her reputation but also put a stain on her father. 
  I liked Taylor for the most part because she felt like a real, flawed character. Everyone can relate to her because we all make mistakes. I admired her drive and grit to dust off herself and get back into the game though occasionally she does whip out the victim card a bit too much. Taylor's mistake is a plot device used for the character to analyze what she really wants to do with her life, which is sort of hinted in the book but I would have liked this aspect fleshed out a bit more since teens especially feel like their life is mapped out for them by their parents and they don't get to have a say. I would have liked Taylor be more self aware and driven in this aspect. Taylor's family play a big role in the book but we don't get to spend too much time with them. I wanted to learn more about her siblings and see how they interact with each other.
 The relationship between Taylor and Ezra was cute though it developed too quickly than what I would have liked. Tackling a learning disability like dyslexia was refreshing to read, but it wasn't explored enough for me. I was also happy to see some of the characters in previous books like Jack and Savannah pop up in the book. Overall Defending Taylor was a decent addition to the Hundred Oaks series. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: Drug use and underage drinking is mentioned in the book. There is also some strong sexual content and language in the book too. Recommended for Grades 10 and up.

If you like this book try: Faking Perfect by Rebecca Phillips, Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen


Description: All of Maggie’s focus and free time is spent swimming. She’s not only striving to earn scholarships—she’s training to qualify for the Olympics. It helps that her best friend, Levi, is also on the team and cheers her on. But Levi’s already earned an Olympic tryout, so Maggie feels even more pressure to succeed. And it’s not until Maggie’s away on a college visit that she realizes how much of the “typical” high school experience she’s missed by being in the pool.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Maggie decides to squeeze the most out of her senior year. First up? Making out with a guy. And Levi could be the perfect candidate. After all, they already spend a lot of time together. But as Maggie slowly starts to uncover new feelings for Levi, how much is she willing to sacrifice in the water to win at love?


Review: Coming Up for Air is the concluding book in the Hundred Oaks series. I am sad to see this series end as I am always looking forward to reading it every summer. Though Coming Up for Air was an enjoyable, quick read, it still left me unsatisfied. The first half of the book is dedicated to Maggie's insecurity of feeling left out in the romance department and we don't get to see much of swimming. She wants to have an experience before she graduates high school and seeks help by selecting Levi, her best friend, as her coach. Normally I love the friends to lovers trope, but I was not convinced by Maggie and Levi's chemistry and I think this is mostly because we didn't really get a chance to see them interact alone. It frustrates me when authors don't feel like they need to develop/explore a relationship because the characters already know each other for a long time. I wanted to learn more about Maggie and Levi as individuals before they were a couple. I would have loved a more emotional relationship between Maggie and Levi instead of them jumping into a physical relationship way too quickly.
 I actually liked the second half of the book much more where we finally get back to the sport of swimming. Roxie, Maggie's rival, had a big impact on Maggie and  I was curious to see how this story line would play out but Roxie remained your stereotypical mean girl. I also wanted to learn more about Georgiana and her mother and Hunter's romantic troubles. It was important to see Maggie's self confidence came back, but it irritated me that she came to her "ah ha" epiphany after she is in a romantic relationship and not before one. The book also ends abruptly and the question of whether or not Maggie and Levi made it to the Olympics is never answered though it was fun to see what happens to Jordan and Sam in the future. Overall, not the strongest book in the Hundred Oaks series. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong sexual content in the book as well as underage drinking and some language. Recommended for Grades 10 and up.

If you like this book try: On the Fence by Kasie West, Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Angoisse Ashe, the oft-forgotten middle sister of the Ashe royal family, is locked in a castle deep in the swamp. Not only is her castle guarded by zombies, but the swamp is full of dangerous hazards. Everything from quicksand to goblins to swamp monsters to VAMPIRES! But does that give Adrienne pause? Unfortunately not, as she and Bedelia dive head-first into their most dangerous adventure yet!

Review: The Princeless series continues to be an entertaining, thought provoking, and inspiring series. The stories continue to feature strong female characters, vibrant and colorful illustrations, and great messages that give it depth. In each volume Adrienne learns something about herself and about her relationships with her sisters and friends become stronger. This volume is no different as it tackles self worth, beauty, unhealthy relationships, and gender roles while having a fun plot to entertain you as you turn the pages.
  In a self reflecting prologue, Adrienne opens up about her insecurities. She is very different from her sisters and she never felt beautiful like them mainly due to her unruly hair. We watch as her hair stylist try to unsuccessfully try to tame her hair. It isn't until Adrienne cuts her hair and sees herself in a new light does she begin to understand that beauty isn't defined as one way and self worth isn't dependent on how you look but how you view yourself.
  The plot gains speed as Adrienne and Bedelia have to survive a cannibalistic tribe of goblins in a monster infested swamp in order to reach Angoisse's tower. On the way, they befriend unlikely allies and encounter a plant-like terror. In the meantime, Adrienne's brother, Devin, refuses to embrace traditional masculine gender roles and activities, which continues to infuriate his tyrannical father. Devlin has no interest in hunting and becoming king, but would rather pursue his passion for the arts. Devlin and his strained relationship with his father is the classic struggle of meeting parental expectations and following your own heart. I loved how Devlin wants to take the investigative approach to solving the mystery of what happened to his mother. 

  The unhealthy relationship portion is tactfully presented in the interactions between Angoisse and her fiance Raphael. It is clear that Raphael is a not a great example of a romantic interest as he peppers Angoisse with flowery comments in order for her to get what he wants. Angoisse is torn between her love for Angoisse and doing what she knows is wrong. Once again Whitely addresses the common misconception that having someone as a love interest equals your self worth. Angoisse learns this lesson as she, Adrienne, and Bedelia defeat the evil Raphael. Be Yourself is a great addition to the Princeless series and I'm looking forward to reading more from this series.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended for Grades 3 and up.

If you like this book try: Ninja-rella by Joey Comeau, Princess Ugg by Ted Naifeh
Rummanah Aasi
Description: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on an intimate journey of many years across the Indian subcontinent, from the cramped neighborhoods of Old Delhi and the roads of the new city, to the mountains and valleys of Kashmir and beyond, where war is peace and peace is war.
The engine of Roy's story is a heejra (India's third gender) named Anjum, and the story begins with her unrolling a threadbare Persian carpet in a city graveyard she calls home. Anjum's charisma draws a vibrant assemblage of outcasts to join her--other hijras, Kashmiri freedom fighters, activists, orphans, low-caste Hindus and Muslims, and a host of animals. Anjum's home is a place where the formerly unwanted embrace each other's true selves.
  We encounter the odd, unforgettable Tilo and the men who loved her, including Musa, sweetheart and ex-sweetheart, lover and ex-lover. Their fates are as entwined as their arms used to be and always will be. We meet Tilo’s landlord, a former suitor, now an intelligence officer posted to Kabul, and then we meet the two Miss Jebeens. The first is a child born in Srinagar and buried in its overcrowded Martyrs’ Graveyard. The second is found at midnight, abandoned on a concrete sidewalk in the heart of New Delhi.

Review: I absolutely loved Roy's debut novel, A God of Small Things, and I have been anxiously awaiting the release of her next novel. Like many of her fans, I didn't realize that it would be twenty years until her next book. Roy has been and continues to be a social and political advocate in India which translates over to her new novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
  The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a dense yet beautifully written novel that gives a panoramic view of all the various conflicts and societal issues such as gender rights and war plaguing the Indian Subcontinent. While it does have a loose plot line, the characters are mainly used as anecdotes to explain the conflicts and their consequences. The pace is deliberating slow, allowing the reader time to absorb what he/she is reading. Readers anticipating a novel featuring a gripping family saga like Roy's debut novel might be disappointed.
  The book follows two central protagonists. Anjum is born intersex and raised as a male per her parents decision in order to avoid shame and embarrassment. Embracing her identity as a woman, she moves from her childhood home in Delhi to the nearby House of Dreams, where gender non-conforming individuals like herself live together, and then to a cemetery when that home too fails her. The home that tries to create herself becomes an enclave for the wounded, outcast, and odd. The other protagonist, the woman who calls herself S. Tilottama, fascinates three very different men for various reasons but she loves only one, the elusive Kashmiri activist Musa Yeswi. When an abandoned infant girl appears mysteriously amid urban litter and both Anjum and Tilo have reasons to try to claim her, all their lives converge. The unknown baby girl is much like the motherland India who is home to a vast number of people from different states, religions, and ethnicity. While the book turns a sympathetic eye to the victims of India's social and political turmoil, it also very critical particularly when it comes to Kashmir's long fight for self rule. The book shifts through various emotions, time periods, and even narrating style from first-person and omniscient narration with "found" documents to weave everything together to make a "novel".

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language, some sexual content, and mature themes in the book.

If you like this book try: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, City on Fire by Garth Risk
Rummanah Aasi
Description: It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin's class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. All the other kids picked countries like France or Germany, but when Caitlin saw Zimbabwe written on the board, it sounded like the most exotic place she had ever heard of--so she chose it. Martin was lucky to even receive a pen pal letter. There were only ten letters, and forty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one. That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

Review: I Will Always Write Back is an uplifting memoir that depicts a six year long pen-pal correspondence between Caitlin, an American girl, and Martin, a Zimbabwean boy, that blossoms into a lifelong friendship. In alternating chapters, Caitlin and Martin relate their story, which begins in 1997 when middle-schooler Caitlin chooses a boy in Zimbabwe for a pen-pal assignment because she thought Zimbabwe was an exotic sounding country.
 The difference between Caitlin's and Martin's life is stark and eye opening. Caitlin has a privileged life in Pennsylvania and her woes of friendships and crushes appear so superficial First World problems when compared to Martin's hardscrabble life in millworkers' housing, where his family shares one room with another one. The top student in his class, Martin dreams of studying at an American university, but even just continuing high school in Zimbabwe seems like a long shot.  
   Caitlin, not recognizing the extent of Martin's poverty, sends some of her babysitting money with her letters, and Martin's family uses it for food. Eventually, Caitlin and her parents become Martin's sponsors for his studies and help him obtain a scholarship to Villanova University in 2003.
  While I thoroughly enjoyed the book's sentiment of doing-good, being generous, and the power of making a change, I thought the story was dragged out for a full length novel and at times reads like an after school special. I think it would have worked better as a magazine article. There is some suspense as to whether or not Martin will be accepted to Villanova and come to the United States. Overall the book ends a positive note and this would be a good choice for readers looking for an inspirational memoir featuring teens making a difference.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is a scene of underage drinking at a party and there drug use is mentioned. Recommend for strong Grade 6 readers and up.

If you like this book try: Taking Flight by Michaela DePrince, How Dare the Sun Rise by Sandra Uwiringiyimana with, Abigail Pesta
Rummanah Aasi
Description: She has no allies. No throne. All she has is what she’s always had: herself.
 
After failing to secure the Wallachian throne, Lada Dracul is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her blood-strewn path. Filled with a white-hot rage, she storms the countryside with her men, accompanied by her childhood friend Bogdan, terrorizing the land. But brute force isn’t getting Lada what she wants. And thinking of Mehmed brings little comfort to her thorny heart. There’s no time to wonder whether he still thinks about her, even loves her. She left him before he could leave her.
 
What Lada needs is her younger brother Radu’s subtlety and skill. But Mehmed has sent him to Constantinople—and it’s no diplomatic mission. Mehmed wants control of the city, and Radu has earned an unwanted place as a double-crossing spy behind enemy lines. Radu longs for his sister’s fierce confidence—but for the first time in his life, he rejects her unexpected plea for help. Torn between loyalties to faith, to the Ottomans, and to Mehmed, he knows he owes Lada nothing. If she dies, he could never forgive himself—but if he fails in Constantinople, will Mehmed ever forgive him?
   
As nations fall around them, the Dracul siblings must decide: what will they sacrifice to fulfill their destinies? Empires will topple, thrones will be won…and souls will be lost.

Review: In White's captivating series opener, And I Darken, she introduces her reader to a dark alternate historical fiction set in the Ottoman Empire where espionage, passion, and conquest rule the story (although some people say it's a historical fantasy, there are no magical elements in the story) and Vlad the Impaler is a girl. Many readers pointed out that the pacing of And I Darken was too slow and there was not enough bloody action scenes as you would expect considering the fact of Vlad the Impaler's notoriety. Now I Rise addresses this criticism and rises above the dreaded middle book syndrome.
  The story's narrative is split into two different story lines as we witness the Dracul siblings' first taste of power and its consequence. Despite Sultan Mehmed's initial support and loyalty, Lada has made little progress in achieving her goal of securing the Wallachian throne. Feeling her acute lack of people and diplomacy skills like her brother Radu, she contacts her brother for his guidance but when she doesn't get a response that she likes she forges ahead and makes her own, violent decisions as well as taking sides in tough betrayals. Though I'm deathly afraid of Lada, there is a part of me that admires her assertiveness and for taking what she wants without feeling apologetic especially in a time where women were considered mere property and baby making factories.
  Unlike Lada who lets her anger guide her, Radu uses his heart. Even though he knows his love for Mehmed will go unrequited, Radu continues to put Mehmed's needs before his own to demonstrate his love and loyalty. Mehmed sends Radu away to Constantinople as a double agent right before launching a brutal siege. As the fall of Constantinople nears Radu's loyalty and opinions become conflicted as he begins to admire the people comes in contact with at the doomed city. The siege’s brutality and atrocities from both sides shake Radu at his core and will most likely alter him forever. I am curious as to how the events in this novel with shape his future.
  Now I Rise shows the best, worst, and nuanced side of human nature. The complex politics and drive for power allow great and good people to commit terrible acts. The book is bursting with diversity in its multi-ethnic cast, strong LGBTQ representation, and wide range of religious diversity. Though the different plot lines don't converge, they are both compelling, devastating, exciting, and grabbed my attention right away. I easily flew this sequel in a couple of days because I needed to know what happened next. Lada, Radu, and Mehmed will change the world though their souls may not survive. This is a bloody, terrific sequel and I can't wait for the series finale.   

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong and at times graphic violence throughout the book. There is also a small sex scene in the book. Recommended for Grades 10 and up.

If you like this book try: Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Shecter, Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
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