Rummanah Aasi
Description: Doaa and her family leave war-torn Syria for Egypt where the climate is becoming politically unstable and increasingly dangerous. She meets and falls in love with Bassem, a former Free Syrian Army fighter and together they decide to leave behind the hardship and harassment they face in Egypt to flee for Europe, joining the ranks of the thousands of refugees who make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean on overcrowded and run-down ships to seek asylum overseas and begin a new life.
  After four days at sea, their boat is sunk by another boat filled with angry men shouting threats and insults. With no land in sight and surrounded by bloated, floating corpses, Doaa is adrift with a child’s inflatable water ring around her waist, while two little girls cling to her neck. Doaa must stay alive for them. She must not lose strength. She must not lose hope.

Review: A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea is a story of heartbreak, hope, and a human crisis. This memoir follows a teen Syrian refugee, Doaa Al Zamel’s perilous and personal journey to Europe in hopes of pursuing a future of peace and opportunities. Initially a subject of a TED talk by Melissa Fleming, the head of communications and chief spokesperson for the United High Commissioner for Refugees, the book expounds upon the topic. Doaa Al Zamel was only nineteen years old when she and her family flee from their homeland of Syria due to a civil war and a brutal government who crushed any opposition. The book gives a general yet clear understanding of the complexities of the ongoing Syrian civil war. The numbers of Syrian civilians who are either displaced or have been killed during the civil war is daunting and eye opening.
  We follow Doaa as she is awaken to the disparities of what has become of her homeland. She joined demonstrations and joined the rebellion which was sparked by the Arab Spring, but soon she realizes that revolution and the desire for change comes at a very high cost as her neighborhood is continuously shelled, held under martial law, and the lives of her family are at stake. The family seeks temporary shelter in Egypt, but soon the change of the Egyptian government had looked down upon refugees. The book has plenty of dark moments but there are also lighter ones such as Doaa finding love in the very unlikely place and hope once again bloomed in her heart for a new chance at life in Europe.
  Doaa left with the vaguely formed idea of making her way to asylum in Europe. The trip nearly cost her life. In the hands of smugglers, beset by rough seas and pirates, she survived a horrific shipwreck, so far among the deadliest in the annals of illegal migration from Africa to Europe. With the exception of a handful of survivors, all the other refugees including her fiance, died from either drowning, hypothermia, and/or dehydration. Set adrift at sea for four days, she barely survived while also saving the life of a toddler, earning awards from humanitarian agencies and calling renewed attention to the plight of refugees from Syria. Finally resettled in Sweden, Doaa’s story is one of the few refugee tales that seem to have a happy ending yet her struggles are far from over.
  I like how this book is very upfront and puts a personal face to a humanitarian crisis. There is no sentimentality attached to the story. Doaa is not propped as a role model from the get go. She is human who has flaws such as a being incredibly stubborn and having a bad temper. She is an ordinary woman who has gone through extraordinary and tragic events in her life. Her ordinariness is extremely important and a reminder for everyone to see that a refugee is a human being and no different from you and I. She is not a terrorist nor is she out to snatch away anyone's benefits, jobs, or rights away from them, but a symbol of hope. Doaa's story reminds us that a refugee is a human being not any other label that people attach to it, but an individual that wants freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are scenes of sexual harassment, attempted sexual assault, strong violence of war, and disturbing images. Recommended for teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: The Unwanted by Don Brown, Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Meet Yasmin! Yasmin is a spirited second-grader who's always on the lookout for those "aha" moments to help her solve life's little problems. Taking inspiration from her surroundings and her big imagination, she boldly faces any situation, assuming her imagination doesn't get too big, of course! A creative thinker and curious explorer, Yasmin and her multi-generational Pakistani American family will delight and inspire readers.

Review: Meet Yasmin is a much needed diverse book in children's chapter books in which a fun, curious, spunky, and creative Pakistani-American girl solve problems and have adventures. This book is compiled of four separate sections give Yasmin lots of adventures and opportunities to explore her character. “Yasmin the Explorer”, Yasmin makes a map of her neighborhood and uses it when she goes to the farmers market with her mother. “Yasmin the Painter” doesn’t know what to create for the art contest at school, but when she tinkers with a paint set gifted to her by her Baba (her father), she gets an idea that proves successful. “Yasmin the Builder” is once again stumped over a class project, but after a few false starts and moments of frustration, she comes up with a brilliant contribution. Finally, “Yasmin the Fashionista” is bored at home with her grandparents while her parents eat out together. She complains of having nothing to do, but when she stumbles into her mother’s closet, the hijabs and saris and a new kameez give her lots of ideas.
  Each of these adventures has two to three chapters. Each spread has full- or half-page art in attractive, bold colors that bring the characters to life. Yasmin's personality shines through as she gets herself in and out of trouble. Though her dilemmas seem small, they are significant when seen through the eyes of a child. I also loved how the Pakistani culture is seamlessly woven into the story from the clothes that Yasmin's parents and grandparents where, terms of endearment that are used, and the tiny details that caught my eye such as the Dawn newspaper, Pakistan's prominent newspaper. The book does include backmatter such as discussion questions intended for child readers to think and talk about from the stories, an index of Urdu words presented as a fun way to learn the language, facts about Pakistan, a recipe, and a craft. I am so glad Yasmin is out for readers to discover and for young Pakistani readers to see themselves.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None.

If you like this book try: Yasmin the Teacher and Yasmin in Charge by Saadia Faruqi
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Melati Ahmad looks like your typical moviegoing, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds though, Mel also believes that she harbors a djinn inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied.

But there are things that Melati can't protect her mother from. On the evening of May 13th, 1969, racial tensions in her home city of Kuala Lumpur boil over. The Chinese and Malays are at war, and Mel and her mother become separated by a city in flames.

With a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take the help of a Chinese boy named Vincent and all of the courage and grit in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and her djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.

Review: The Weight of Our Sky is an intense historical fiction novel set during the May 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, an event that I had no prior knowledge before reading this book. The political tensions between the Chinese residents and the Malays have reached a critical breaking point, each spurred by their own politicians. The riots break out while she's at the movies one afternoon, and Melati is saved and sheltered by a compassionate Chinese family, but she constantly imagines the worst for her mother while waiting for the chance to return home. Melati experiences acts of brutal cruelty and everyday heroism. She is racked with guilt as her best friend is taken away by an execution squad and killed. Melati's new acquaintances from both Chinese, Indian, and Malays risk their lives to offer her aid. Melati's severe obsessive compulsive disorder is exacerbated by the stress of her experiences and the anxiety of the unknown, which pushes her to her breaking point. Melati Ahmad sees her OCD as a tragedy-invoking djinn that can only be appeased through counting and tapping rituals; if she doesn't complete them, Melati fears, her mother will die a terrible death. The manifestation of a mental illness through a djinn is very common in Islamic tradition where mental illness is barely understood and poorly treated, especially in this era. What I really appreciated about this book is that Melati is not stunted by her mental illness. She continues to persist, her determination to reunite with her mother and help others in need gives her the inner strength to hold on. While her illness is not magically cured at the end, she is more open to talk about it and there is hope that she can find medication and help. I also appreciated that the author does a great job in informing the reader of the visceral, volatile setting without resulting to info dumping and bias. The secondary characters from different ethnic backgrounds are fully dimensional and balanced. The Weight of Our Sky is not an easy novel as it tackles death, racism, mental health issues, and riot violence, but these inclusions are necessary to portray contentious moment in time that is hardly discussed outside of Malaysia.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, and strong violence that take place mostly off the page but is alluded to in the story.

If you like this book try: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, Under Rose-Tinted Skies by Louise Gornall
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Kamala Khan continues to mix super-heroic adventure with fun and friendship! Starting with... a slumber party! But if calamity strikes Jersey City while Kamala is having a sleepover with Nakia, Zoe and Mike, how can Ms. Marvel save the day without bailing on her best friends?

And speaking of BFFs, Bruno is back — and he and Kamala are learning how to be pals again. What better bonding experience than geeking out over a little science? And what better experiment to run than trying to figure out how Ms. Marvel's powers work?

But when things go awry and with her uncanny abilities on the fritz, Kamala will have to pull it together to battle a classic Marvel villain!

Review: Ms. Marvel Volume ten is end of G. Willow Wilson writing the graphic novel series that has meant so much to me. Though Ms. Marvel will continue and be written under a different writer, I will really miss Ms. Willow's writing who has brought warmth, culture, humor, and diversity which is much needed in the Marvel Comics. Kamala Khan is the first time I saw myself on the page though I don't have her embiggening powers or her responsibility of being a superhero, but I do understand the struggle of wanting to be a normal adolescent and also needing to be an unabashed Paksitani American Muslim. Though the villains are hokey in this series and not as serious as your traditional comic book, I return time and again to the wonderful characters in this series. 
  Fittingly we return to the roots of this graphic novel series in this tenth volume. Kamala is tired of leading a double life and finally reveals her superhero identity to her girlfriends at a slumber party which is continuously being interrupted by hijinks, but of course, everyone already knew. A very cute moment. We are also reunited with Kamala's best friend Bruno who has returned from Wakanda as they battle a lesser known Marvel villain named Shocker. This section allows us to examine Kamala's powers from a scientist point of view. I did not completely understand all the sceience behind Kamala's powers but it was nice to see Bruno and Kamala reconnect after several issues being apart and it was also cool to see Professor X make a cameo. I also loved seeing the various future renditions of future Kamala which leaves the door open for Saladin Ahmed to pick up the series under the new title Magnificent Ms. Marvel. There is also a weird time travel trip to 1257 A.D. to discover one of Kamala's Inhuman ancestors, and there’s some "quest game" wormhole story going on that puzzled me, but the important things is that in the end Wilson and crew brought the energy and love that was the cornerstone of the series.
  It was also fun to see a lot of people who wrote and contributed to this volume such as such as Hasan Minhaj, Rainbow Rowell and Eve Ewing. Though there were so many writers involved in this volume, I did not notice any problems with tone, character consistency, etc. I will for sure read the new run Magnificent Ms. Marvel, but Wilson's Ms. Marvel will always have a soft spot in my fangirl heart.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended to Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: Champions by Mark Waid, A-Force Vol 1 by G. Willow Wilson
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Young Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a strange letter arrives summoning him away from his family. He is to begin an apprenticeship as a Bookbinder—a vocation that arouses fear, superstition, and prejudice among their small community but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.
   For as long as he can recall, Emmett has been drawn to books, even though they are strictly forbidden. Bookbinding is a sacred calling, Seredith informs her new apprentice, and he is a binder born. Under the old woman’s watchful eye, Emmett learns to hand-craft the elegant leather-bound volumes. Within each one they will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, a binder can help. If there’s something you need to erase, they can assist. Within the pages of the books they create, secrets are concealed and the past is locked away. In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, rows upon rows of books are meticulously stored.
  But while Seredith is an artisan, there are others of their kind, avaricious and amoral tradesman who use their talents for dark ends—and just as Emmett begins to settle into his new circumstances, he makes an astonishing discovery: one of the books has his name on it. Soon, everything he thought he understood about his life will be dramatically rewritten.

Review: In Collin's adult fantasy debut novel, The Binding, books are dangerous things in an  alternate Victorian England. People visit to rid themselves of painful or treacherous memories. Once their stories have been told and are bound between the pages of a book, the slate is wiped clean for the individual and their memories lose the power to hurt or haunt them. After having suffered some sort of mental collapse and no longer able to keep up with his farm chores, Emmett Farmer is sent to the workshop of Seredith, a binder, to live and work as her apprentice.
  As you can imagine there are those who exploit the binders market to their own purposes. Among them is Mr. de Havilland, Seredith’s son, who, after her suspicious death, appropriates her stock of secret bindings, which, like loaded guns, will make explosive appearances later. He also takes charge of Emmett.
  The middle section of the novel changes from a third person to Emmett's point of view as Emmett eventually discovers there is a book with his name on it, and it holds an essential secret about him. Emmett is back on the farm with his parents and his sister, Alta. In this flashback we learn the source of Emmett’s ailment and also his connection to the Lord Lucian Darnay as the two have a forbidden romance. Except for the fact that a corrupt binder’s wares play a role, the concluding section, told from Lucian’s point of view, presents a mostly fact-based dystopia of Victorian aristocracy and its excesses. The romance is slow burn and sweet, but it is tragically cut short.
 While I would have loved to explore this alternative Victorian a bit more, I did like Emmett and Lucian as characters. There were a few plot threads that are fully discussed such as Lucian's vial and predatory father and the backstory of Mr. de Havilland. The worldview of this novel is bleak, but the ending is hopeful. This a unique blend of historical fiction, dystopian, mystery, and romance. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language and allusions to rape. Recommended for older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Rebellions are built on hope.

Set in a horrifying near-future United States, seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her parents are forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens.

With the help of newly made friends also trapped within the internment camp, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp's Director and his guards.

Review: I was not a fan of Samira Ahmed's debut novel, Love, Hate, and Other Filters, which I read for last year's Ramadan Reading Challenge, but after seeing the many starred reviews for her sophomore novel I decided to give it a chance and lowered my expectations. Internment has a powerful and horrifyingly very possible premise in which in the near fifteen minutes of the future Muslim Americans have been registered and detained in internment camps because they have been labeled as a threat to the United State's security. They are sent to internment camps where their constitutional rights have been stripped and they are forced to comply.
  I had a very hard time getting into the novel as the themes of inequality, privilege, and activism among many others are very heavy handed. I had to remind myself that this novel is not written for readers who are well informed with our current politics, but those who are completely oblivious to it. With this in mind I was able to overcome my first hurdle.
   My second hurdle for this book is the weak execution of the novel that had so much potential to be better. There is  a lot of telling instead of showing in this novel. Ahmed misses the opportunity to explore several key items that could have brought the book to life such as the actual politics from both the policy makers and those protesting against the Muslim ban, tying the internment camps to the actual camps during World War II to emphasize that history is actually repeating itself, exploring the intersectionality of the Muslim community which she attempts to do but barely skims the surface, and finally, but most importantly creating an activism movement that slowly builds and brings the Muslim community together rather than having a couple of reactive teens do things haphazardly.
  I also wanted to dig in deeper to the characters. Layla is a sarcastic teen who doesn't know when to shut up and when to have an interior monologue. She constantly puts her family in danger because she throws a temper tantrum that she can't speak to her boyfriend David, which sets the novel in motion. I understand her rage and her desire to do something, but she is dangerously impulsive and naive to the point of stupidity to think that her actions do not have consequences. She does grow and show bravery towards the last half of the book, however, other characters especially the guards who oppose their commands are not explored. The teen led activism could have been stronger and inspirational like the #Neveragain movement, but it was handled sloppily. The Director is also a cartoonish villain and one dimensional. Despite my issues with this book, I do think Internment is an important read because of its premise, but I wish it read like a novel rather than an author's soapbox. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language and scenes of strong physical abuse. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
Rummanah Aasi
Description: When Huda meets Hadi, the boy she will ultimately marry, she is six years old. Both are the American-born children of Iraqi immigrants, who grew up on opposite ends of California.

Hadi considers Huda his childhood sweetheart, the first and only girl he's ever loved, but Huda needs proof that she is more than just the girl Hadi's mother has chosen for her son. She wants what the American girls have--the entertainment culture's almost singular tale of chance meetings, defying the odds, and falling in love. She wants stolen kisses, romantic dates, and a surprise proposal. As long as she has a grand love story, Huda believes no one will question if her marriage has been arranged.

But when Huda and Hadi's conservative Muslim families forbid them to go out alone before their wedding, Huda must navigate her way through the despair of unmet expectations and dashed happily-ever-after ideals. Eventually she comes to understand the toll of straddling two cultures in a marriage and the importance of reconciling what you dreamed of with the life you eventually live.

Review: First Come Marriage is a heartfelt, engaging story about culture expectations clashing with reality. Huda Al-Marashi is a Shia Iraqi American who grew up in America and with the the romantic, impractical, Americanized belief that rings and proposals and wedding-day highs laid the foundation for a loving marriage, which she encountered time after time in television and movies. These romantic notions often collided with her conservative Islamic family values. Before marriage, Al-Marashi believed that a traditional, family-sanctioned union to a boy from her same background would lay the foundation for a happy life. Her lived experience, however, requires Al-Marashi to unlearn both of sets of beliefs.She often felt that her marriage to Hadi, a childhood friend and fellow Iraqi American, did not live up to her high expectations. Hadi's lack of romantic gestures before and after her marriage was often a source of contention in their relationship. For years, she struggles to explain her marriage angst to her husband and wants him to figure it out on his own. This resentment grows to a boiling point when Hadi is accepted to medical school in Mexico, forcing Al-Marashi to move to Mexico; suspend her own graduate work; and struggle to fill large blocks of empty, lonely time. The pair is constantly fighting until the brink of divorce. By self reflection and exposing a long list of what she got wrong, including her own beliefs and the idea that her husband is an extension of herself rather than his own person, Al-Marashi finally gets to what’s right.
  I found this memoir to be an easy read. The author's high school and college experiences were highly relatable. There were many moments where I understood her frustration, having too grown-up with the rituals of attending prom (which I never did nor did I resent not attending) and wondering about a happily ever after that everyone seems to get in books, television, and movies. I wished there was a bit more insight towards the last half of the book. Regardless, I enjoyed it and read it in one sitting.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are brief mentions of sex and some language. Recommended for older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: Love in a Headscarf by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.

Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.

Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they've been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.

Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?

It will take all of Mia's courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?

Review: Front Desk is a wonderful debut middle grade novel that explores a multitude of themes that are nicely woven into a story of activism. Mia Tang and her family has immigrated from China two years ago in dreams of starting over. After being fired from their restaurant jobs, Mia and her family are struggling to make ends meet and needing to live in their car, they are beyond thrilled to become motel managers for the Calivista MotelTheir dream job, however, is a nightmare after a series of setbacks for the Tang family. The washing machine breaks down. A customer’s car is stolen. Mia’s mother is beaten by robbers. Mr. Yao, the miserly and racist, motel manager mistreats the Tang family and cuts their wages at every turn. Meanwhile Mia is learning the unfair treatment and plight of immigrants as well as the gradual understanding of racism and prejudice in America. Mia is also fighting a personal battle among her peers who ridicule her for wearing thrift-shop clothes and her desire to be a writer when her mother insists she must study math because she can never compete with the natural English born students.
  I absolutely adored Mia. She is spunky and creative when it comes to solving her family's issues. She turns to activism to call out racist behavior and finds a way to help out poor immigrants find shelter. I was constantly rooting for her even when the competition of writing an essay to win a motel seemed like a very shady deal. I just wished we learned a little bit more from the people who stayed at the motel. This is a great book that demonstrates what persistence, creativity, and activism can do to change what seems like insurmountable situations.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There are racist and anti-immigrant sentiments addressed in the book without any slurs. There is talk of a physical assault. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh, Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Seventeen-year-old Edgar Poe counts down the days until he can escape his foster family—the wealthy Allans of Richmond, Virginia. He hungers for his upcoming life as a student at the prestigious new university, almost as much as he longs to marry his beloved Elmira Royster. However, on the brink of his departure, all his plans go awry when a macabre Muse named Lenore appears to him. Muses are frightful creatures that lead Artists down a path of ruin and disgrace, and no respectable person could possibly understand or accept them. But Lenore steps out of the shadows with one request: “Let them see me!”

Review: The Raven's Tale is a fictionalized account of Edgar Allen Poe's teen years.  Edgar “Eddy” Poe is desperate to escape the suffocating life of upper-crust Richmond, Virginia. He is looking forward to going to college and being free to follow his passion for poetry as well as getting away from his controlling foster father. The passionate and talented Edgar is close to achieving his goal when she appears. A girl in a dress of ashes and raven feathers, she is Eddy’s muse, whom he names Lenore. Lenore is fierce, powerful, and hungry for words, but she needs Eddy to commit to her so she can evolve from her new frail human form into a higher being. Poe has to decide whether or not he can continue his artistic expression or live his life without it.
   The story is narrated by Poe and his personified muse in alternating chapters. Edgar and Lenore share the present-tense narration in distinctive first-person voices. Several of Poe’s most well-known works are given the nod in the narrative, however, I found the alternating chapters at first engaging, but I soon found it tedious and repetitive. There is not much character growth for Poe as he whines and complains about his financial woes. I also found the discussion surrounding the family slaves to be troubling and problematic. I normally really like Cat Winter's infusion of supernatural into her stories, but The Raven's Tale was unfortunately a complete miss for me.

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There are some disturbing images and underage drinking. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Blood red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Aven Green loves to tell people that she lost her arms in an alligator wrestling match, or a wildfire in Tanzania, but the truth is she was born without them. And when her parents take a job running Stagecoach Pass, a rundown western theme park in Arizona, Aven moves with them across the country knowing that she’ll have to answer the question over and over again.

Her new life takes an unexpected turn when she bonds with Connor, a classmate who also feels isolated because of his own disability, and they discover a room at Stagecoach Pass that holds bigger secrets than Aven ever could have imagined. It’s hard to solve a mystery, help a friend, and face your worst fears. But Aven’s about to discover she can do it all . . . even without arms.

Review: Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is an uplifting story about three teens with serious disabilities forming an unlikely friendship as they struggle to cope with everyday life.  message of empathy especially from abled bodies. Aven Green is a tween that tween me would love to have as a friend. She is smart, funny, loves planning pranks, and plays on the school soccer team.  Though Aven was born without arms, she has never let her "lack of armage," as she calls it, deter her from doing anything she sets her mind to. She does not need your pity, but would really appreciate it if you would not stare and call her a freak. When her father gets a job as the manager of Stagecoach Pass, a rundown Western theme park out in Arizona, the family's move, right after Aven has started eighth grade, presents her toughest challenge yet.
  Along with dealing with the new kid jitters, Aven has to everything from scratch including dealing with the many stares and questions of new schoolmates. Aven sorely misses her old life back in Kansas;  however, her optimistic spirit and her infectious sense of humor, keeps her afloat. She is not immune to the constant spotlight of being disabled or labeled weird. She is persistent and looks for the silver linings in her new life in Arizona, such as making friends with the cute but prickly Connor (who has Tourette's syndrome) and Zion who lacks self confidence because of his weight, or enjoying the ability to wear flats all year-round. Aven, Connor, and Zion get wrapped up in the unusual mystery at the heart of Stagecoach Pass: the disappearing tarantulas, a missing photograph, and a secret necklace. Aven is determined to get to the bottom of the secret.
  The characters make this story. As an able bodied person, it is an eye opening read and a reminder of the stigma that is attached to disability. Aven, Connor, and Zion alienate themselves because they've been labeled by others as freaks, but as these characters grow more confident they push back at these expectations. The journey to this point is hard, heartbreaking, and not easy. The author seems to have done her homework in portraying the characters authentically. The mystery in the story, however, is underwhelming and takes a backseat to the character development and relationships. I am happy there will be another book featuring Aven and the crew and I am very much looking forward to reading it.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are mentions of bullying. Recommended for Grades 3 and up.

If you like this book try: Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, Not So Different: What You Really Want to Ask About Having a Disability by Shane Burcaw
Rummanah Aasi
Description: It is summer in Phoenix, and seventeen-year-old Maximo offers to help a Jordan, a fellow student in high school, with the food truck that belonged to Jordan's deceased father, and which may be the only thing standing between homelessness for Jordan and his mom; the boys are strongly attracted to each other, but as their romance develops it is threatened by the secrets they are hiding--and by the racism and homophobia of those around them.

Review: Maximo (who prefers to be called Max) is a popular high school athlete who spends most of his free time with his two best friends, playing video games and joking around. Max has a secret that he hasn't told anyone, not even his buddies, that makes his heart pound and his hands sweat. He is trying to be a man, a fighter his father raised him to be. A fighter pushes through the fear and pain.
    Jordan is an awkward, anxious, introverted teen who is attempting to help take care of his mom after the death of his father. He also dreams of striking out on his own, pursue a career in writing and be in a relationship. In order to save their home Jordan and his mom work on their food truck, but thing are not going according to plan. In fact neither Jordan nor his mom know how to run a food truck. Jordan hires Max to work the food truck with him, and two boys who thought they had nothing in common find that they are more alike than they thought.
   The Music of What Happens is a character driven story with an easy, conversational tone. The story is told from alternating points of views of Max and Jordan. Max is confident though he is afraid to show and talk about his feelings because that is not what a fighter does. Max grapples with understanding whether he has actually been raped and what he should do about it; the consequences of the rape also cause him to question the lessons his father taught him as a young child. While the author makes clear what happened to Max, the assault is not described in graphic detail. This topic of consent and rape are rarely mentioned between boys (or at least from the YA books that I have read thus far). Max also laughs off crude sexual jokes regarding promiscuity and homophobic slurs until he himself becomes woke and comfortable enough to have an honest talk with his friends. Jordan is struggling with self confidence and keeping his mother afloat. Oftentimes he ends up being the adult and she the child.
  We follow these boys as they uneasily become friends and into a budding romance along with getting to know their separate groups of friends. The plot is balanced nicely between heavier topics such as toxic masculinity, homophobia, racial microaggressions, consent, addiction, and sexual assault. None of these topics are heavy handed but they are also not sugar coated either. There are some truly heartbreaking moments that Max and Jordan go through, but ultimately it is an uplifting and relatable story.   

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, mentions of underage drinking, allusions to rape, crude sexual humor, and homophobic slurs. Recommended for Grades 10 and up.

If you like this book try: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Bloom by Kevin Panetta, Release by Patrick Ness
Rummanah Aasi

Ramadan Mubarak! Ramadan officially begins today. I am very excited to participate in the #RamadanReadathon hosted by Nadia at Headscarves and Hardbacks. The purpose of this readathon is to celebrate and support Muslim authors during the holy month of Ramadan. The readathon this year will be taking place between May 6th and June 4th!

The main focus this year is a bingo board that is themed around the five pillars of Islam. Each pillar has four different prompts and one free space to complete! To participate in this reading challenge, you must choose one or more of the pillars to complete and, beginning at the bottom, work your way up the board. I am going to aim for the Faith and Prayer Pillars. Below is my tbr pile for the readathon:

Multiple Point of Views: 

Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn't want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century.

Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and the unsettling new gossip she hears about his family. Looking into the rumors, she finds she has to deal with not only what she discovers about Khalid, but also the truth she realizes about herself.

Recommended to You:

 Set in a horrifying near-future United States, seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her parents are forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens.

With the help of newly made friends also trapped within the internment camp, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp's Director and his guards.

Historical Fiction:

 Set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultanate in the Iberian peninsula, The Bird King is the story of Fatima, the only remaining Circassian concubine to the sultan, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker.

Hassan has a secret--he can draw maps of places he's never seen and bend the shape of reality. When representatives of the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrive to negotiate the sultan's surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, not realizing that she will see Hassan's gift as sorcery and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With their freedoms at stake, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan and escape the palace walls?

As Fatima and Hassan traverse Spain with the help of a clever jinn to find safety, The Bird King asks us to consider what love is and the price of freedom at a time when the West and the Muslim world were not yet separate.


Doaa and her family leave war-torn Syria for Egypt where the climate is becoming politically unstable and increasingly dangerous. She meets and falls in love with Bassem, a former Free Syrian Army fighter and together they decide to leave behind the hardship and harassment they face in Egypt to flee for Europe, joining the ranks of the thousands of refugees who make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean on overcrowded and run-down ships to seek asylum overseas and begin a new life.

After four days at sea, their boat is sunk by another boat filled with angry men shouting threats and insults. With no land in sight and surrounded by bloated, floating corpses, Doaa is adrift with a child’s inflatable water ring around her waist, while two little girls cling to her neck. Doaa must stay alive for them. She must not lose strength. She must not lose hope.

Free Space:

Kamala Khan continues to mix super-heroic adventure with fun and friendship! Starting with... a slumber party! But if calamity strikes Jersey City while Kamala is having a sleepover with Nakia, Zoe and Mike, how can Ms. Marvel save the day without bailing on her best friends?

And speaking of BFFs, Bruno is back — and he and Kamala are learning how to be pals again. What better bonding experience than geeking out over a little science? And what better experiment to run than trying to figure out how Ms. Marvel's powers work?

But when things go awry and with her uncanny abilities on the fritz, Kamala will have to pull it together to battle a classic Marvel villain!

The next big step for Kamala Khan begins here!


 Number/Name in the Title:

Every explorer needs a map! Baba encourages Yasmin to make one of her own. But when Yasmin loses sight of Mama at the farmer's market, can her map bring them back together?

 Recently Bought/Released:

Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the king. If Zafira was exposed as a girl, all of her achievements would be rejected; if Nasir displayed his compassion, his father would punish him in the most brutal of ways. Both are legends in the kingdom of Arawiya—but neither wants to be.

War is brewing, and the Arz sweeps closer with each passing day, engulfing the land in shadow. When Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the king on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds—and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.

Contemporary Fiction:

 From William C. Morris Award Finalist Ali comes an unforgettable romance that is part "The Sun Is Also a Star" mixed with "Anna and the French Kiss, " following two Muslim teens who meet during a spring break trip.

Free Space: 

 A music-loving teen with OCD does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in this heart-pounding literary debut.

Part of a Series:  

 Elias and Laia are running for their lives. After the events of the Fourth Trial, Martial soldiers hunt the two fugitives as they flee the city of Serra and undertake a perilous journey through the heart of the Empire.

Laia is determined to break into Kauf—the Empire’s most secure and dangerous prison—to save her brother, who is the key to the Scholars’ survival. And Elias is determined to help Laia succeed, even if it means giving up his last chance at freedom.

But dark forces, human and otherworldly, work against Laia and Elias. The pair must fight every step of the way to outsmart their enemies: the bloodthirsty Emperor Marcus, the merciless Commandant, the sadistic Warden of Kauf, and, most heartbreaking of all, Helene—Elias’s former friend and the Empire’s newest Blood Shrike.

Bound to Marcus’s will, Helene faces a torturous mission of her own—one that might destroy her: find the traitor Elias Veturius and the Scholar slave who helped him escape…and kill them both.
Rummanah Aasi
Description: One night in an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a first-year student stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep--and doesn't wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. When a second girl falls asleep, and then a third, Mei finds herself thrust together with an eccentric classmate as panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. A young couple tries to protect their newborn baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. Two sisters turn to each other for comfort as their survivalist father prepares for disaster. Those affected by the illness, doctors discover, are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, higher than has ever been recorded before. They are dreaming heightened dreams--but of what?

Review: I loved Walker's imaginative debut novel The Age of Miracles and was looking forward to reading more from her. Her latest, The Dreamers, has same atmospheric and philosophical musings like her debut novel. The Dreamers begins in a college dorm in an isolated town in the hills of Southern California, where a freshman thinks she is coming down with the flu. In fact, she has a mysterious disease that causes its victims to fall into a deep, dream-laden sleep from which they cannot be woken, and which sometimes leads to death. The disease spreads slowly at first, then more rapidly, and soon the whole town is under a quarantine.
  The story is told from multiple perspectives ranging from Mei, a lonely college freshman; 12-year-old Sara, who copes with an unhinged survivalist father; Sara's neighbors, a faculty couple with a newborn baby; and aging biology professor Nathaniel. Unfortunately we do not get a chance to spend time and learn more about these characters besides a touch and go as they deal with the disease. I would have much rather proffered if we had one character to explore, but the large number of characters does add to the sense of suspense and urgency to find a cure to this mysterious disease. Walker gives us a lot to think about when it comes to human nature, the state of dreaming and of consciousness, and the nature of epidemics. The text is sparse but beautifully written. It's not a book filled with action nor character-driven but I found it thoroughly fascinating.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: Sexual situations, child abandonment, and some minor language are in the book. Recommended for adults and older teens.

If you like this book try: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King
Rummanah Aasi
Description: When Candice finds a letter in an old attic in Lambert, South Carolina, she isn't sure she should read it. It's addressed to her grandmother, who left the town in shame. But the letter describes a young woman. An injustice that happened decades ago. A mystery enfolding its writer. And the fortune that awaits the person who solves the puzzle.
   So with the help of Brandon, the quiet boy across the street, she begins to decipher the clues. The challenge will lead them deep into Lambert's history, full of ugly deeds, forgotten heroes, and one great love; and deeper into their own families, with their own unspoken secrets. Can they find the fortune and fulfill the letter's promise before the answers slip into the past yet again?

Review: Part historical fiction and part suspenseful mystery, The Parker Inheritance is an absorbing read and does not sugar coat a town's struggle with hatred and racism. Candice and her mother have moved temporarily from Washington, D.C., to her mother's hometown in Lambert, SC, while her parents finalize the plans of their amicable divorce. Candice is miserable until she meets Brandon and finds an old letter addressed to her from her deceased grandmother with a puzzle enclosed. Twenty years prior, her grandmother had tried unsuccessfully to solve the puzzle that would yield a great deal of money to the town and the person who solved it. Candice's grandmother's attempts to solve the puzzle have been ridiculed, but Candice thinks she can solve it but will need some help. Wanting to escape ennui, Candice and Brandon make their own attempt.
  The plot moves along quickly and seamlessly between the past and present. Candice and Brandon follow clues and use their critical analysis skills to pursue leads. The characters are varied, authentic, and well developed. I was interested in both time periods. I also enjoyed seeing Candice and Brandon's friendship grow and develop. There is a lot to unpack in this book, but it would a great supplemental and personal link to social studies curriculum surrounding race relations in the United States for younger readers. Appended author notes offer additional context.

Curriculum Connection: Social Studies

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: A brutal beating as a hate crime is mentioned in the book without being overly graphic. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Breakout by Kate Messmer, Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Rukhsana Ali tries her hardest to live up to her conservative Muslim parents’ expectations, but lately she’s finding that harder and harder to do. She rolls her eyes instead of screaming when they blatantly favor her brother and she dresses conservatively at home, saving her crop tops and makeup for parties her parents don’t know about. Luckily, only a few more months stand between her carefully monitored life in Seattle and her new life at Caltech, where she can pursue her dream of becoming an engineer.
  But when her parents catch her kissing her girlfriend Ariana, all of Rukhsana’s plans fall apart. Her parents are devastated; being gay may as well be a death sentence in the Bengali community. They immediately whisk Rukhsana off to Bangladesh, where she is thrown headfirst into a world of arranged marriages and tradition. Only through reading her grandmother’s old diary is Rukhsana able to gain some much needed perspective. Rukhsana realizes she must find the courage to fight for her love, but can she do so without losing everyone and everything in her life?

Review: Like many first generation of American immigrant teens Rukhsana is straddling two cultures-her Bengali culture and her American culture. The push and pull of pleasing her conservative parents and following her individual desires of pursuing college of Caltech and no longer hiding her girlfriend, Ariana is exhausting and hard. Rukhsana is a relatable character and who is a glimmer of a reflection rather than a clear mirror. This is mainly due to the debut author pitfalls in this book. We are told about Rukhsana's struggles with her Bengali culture, in particular with making her girlfriend and her friends understand why is it not easy for her to come out to her parents. Similarly, we are told how Rukhsana's family would be ostracized by their community if Rukhsana came out. I wished both of these important topics were fleshed out because they serve as the driving source for the novel. I also wanted to explore more of the Bengali culture besides the overdone gender double standards as well as the girl marries as soon as she is college bound cliche.
   The plot also meanders. The first three quarters of the book follow Rukhsana hiding her sexuality until she is caught making out with her girlfriend at home. Soon she is whisked away to Bangladesh under false pretenses to get married to a boy and attempts at exorcism of a jinn who is responsible for her homosexuality. In the last quarter we get backstories of Rukhsana's maternal grandmother who endured a child marriage, rape and physical abuse from her husband while being helpless in watching her daughter (Rukhsana's mother) be sexually abused. This attempt to ground the story and perhaps give context to the conservative upbringing are clunky because readers are not given a sufficient, balanced overview of the culture as a whole. What really left a bad impression on me is how an LGBTQ+ character's death served as a plot device and allowed Rukhsana's parents to do a complete three hundred and sixty degrees in accepting their daughter's love and life choice. Again there is an attempt to tell readers the dangers of being LGBTQ+ individual in Bangladesh rather than showing it.
  While I am beyond thrilled that more Muslim voices are being written and some even feature LGBTQ+ characters, I am still looking for a great title to support. The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali fails to fully explore the entire intersectionality of its main character. It might be great to have now, but we definitely need better.

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There are mentions of homophobic and Islamophobic comments, language, and underage drinking, rape, and sexual abuse. Recommended for Grades 9 and up

If you like this book try: Autoboyography by Christina Lauren, Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Raina Anand may have finally given in to family pressure and agreed to let her grandmother play matchmaker, but that doesn't mean she has to like it--or that she has to play by the rules. Nani always took Raina's side when she tried to push past the traditional expectations of their tight-knit Indian-immigrant community, but now she's ambushing Raina with a list of suitable bachelors. Is it too much to ask for a little space? Besides, what Nani doesn't know won't hurt her... As Raina's life spirals into a parade of Nani-approved bachelors and disastrous blind dates, she must find a way out of this modern-day arranged-marriage trap without shattering her beloved grandmother's dreams

Review: I was hoping for a fun, light, romantic comedy with The Matchmaker's List, but unfortunately I was disappointed by this debut novel. Raina Anand is raised by her Nani, her maternal grandmother, and terrified of not meeting Nani's expectations. Raina Anand isn’t exactly happy that she’s 29 and still single but Nani is scandalized. After getting over a heart wrenching break up, Raina finally agrees to let her nani set her up with a long list of eligible Indian bachelors, none of whom Raina actually likes. As her best friend, Shay, plans a wedding (that, in a terrible coincidence, is happening on Raina’s 30th birthday), the pressure is on for Raina to find a nice man—any nice man—and settle down. After a string of disastrous dates, Raina can’t let go of the one who got away, a dashing charmer named Dev who broke her heart with his inability to commit. Now that Dev’s back in the picture, but just as noncommittal as ever, Raina finds herself unable to stomach the endless list of bachelors. Eager to ease the pressure of being the perfect Indian granddaughter, Raina lets her Nani believe she’s a lesbian. Raina finds temporary relief, but her little white lie threatens most of her relationships.
  The Matchmaker's List is more of a drama than a romantic comedy. The author does a great job in exploring Raina's conflicting views of her culture and family. She wants to be her own person, but Nani's influence and the fear of being like her lost single mother quarantines Raina to her comfort zone. Even as she feels stifled by their expectations and pressure, she loves the strength of her community and how they always support one another through hard times. Raina’s desire to both please her family and stand up for herself is deeply relatable and it was the strongest aspect of the book. I loved watching Raina's character grow and soon realizes that she has never made a decision based on her own individual desires and dreams. Raina's self realization is what kept me reading. I also loved her relationship with Nani who I adored and loved. The romance unfortunately is a big let down. We are told of the romantic tension between Raina and an unexpected love interest, but I wanted it to be shown. I also did not buy her relationship with Dev which developed too quickly and ended abruptly for me. I would have also loved a more developed and nuisanced relationship with Raina and her mother, which was hinted at in the book. Overall a pleasant look at identity and culture, but short on the romance.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, mentions of drug and underage drinking, and sexual situations. Recommended for older teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: For Matrimonial Purposes by Kavita Daswani, The Marriage Clock by Zara Raheem (July 2019)
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Like his fellow lunarnauts—otherwise known as Moonies—living on Moon Base Alpha, twelve-year-old Dashiell Gibson is famous the world over for being one of the first humans to live on the moon. And he’s bored out of his mind. Kids aren’t allowed on the lunar surface, meaning they’re trapped inside the tiny moon base with next to nothing to occupy their time—and the only other kid Dash’s age spends all his time hooked into virtual reality games.

Then Moon Base Alpha’s top scientist turns up dead. Dash senses there’s foul play afoot, but no one believes him. Everyone agrees Dr. Holtz went onto the lunar surface without his helmet properly affixed, simple as that. But Dr. Holtz was on the verge of an important new discovery, Dash finds out, and it’s a secret that could change everything for the Moonies—a secret someone just might kill to keep.

Review: It's 2041, and biracial Dash Gibson lives with his family in Moon Base Alpha, the first lunar outpost. Life is mostly dull and monotonous, contrary to the program's advertisements until Ronald Holtz, beloved base physician, dies under suspicious circumstances. Some believe Holtz did not wear his space suit correctly before exiting the spaceship, but Dash believes something more sinister is afoot. Despite warnings from the base's strict commander, Dash continues to investigate the incident as a possible murder despite a threatning warning to do so. The plot is a fun Agatha Christie murder mystery set in space with a  plot from Scooby Doo. The story is fun, fast paced with lots of bathroom humor and space facts that will keep young readers entertained. There are multiple suspects, each with a seemingly plausible motive-the scientist who accuses Dr. Holtz of stealing his brilliant idea; the shoddy psychiatrist whom Holtz tried to keep off of the mission; even Lars Sjoberg, the hapless and arrogant billionaire space tourist. The mystery is solved in the end and the chance encounter of aliens leaves plenty to explore in the next few books of this series.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some bathroom humor. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Spaced Out by Stuart Gibbs (Moon Base Alpha #2), Masterminds series by Gordon Korman
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Every Friday night, best friends Delia and Josie become Rayne Ravenscroft and Delilah Darkwood, hosts of the campy creature feature show Midnite Matinee on the local cable station TV Six.

But with the end of senior year quickly approaching, the girls face tough decisions about their futures. Josie has been dreading graduation, as she tries to decide whether to leave for a big university and chase her dream career in mainstream TV. And Lawson, one of the show's guest performers, a talented MMA fighter with weaknesses for pancakes, fantasy novels, and Josie, is making her tough decision even harder.

Scary movies are the last connection Delia has to her dad, who abandoned the family years ago. If Midnite Matinee becomes a hit, maybe he'll see it and want to be a part of her life again. And maybe Josie will stay with the show instead of leaving her behind, too.

As the tug-of-war between growing up and growing apart tests the bonds of their friendship, Josie and Delia start to realize that an uncertain future can be both monstrous...and momentous.

Review: I have been a huge fan of Jeff Zentner since his debut and Morris Award winner novel The Serpent King. His first two novels dealing with grief and complex family dynamics were heavy and thought provoking. His latest novel, Rayne & Delilah's Midnite Matinee is much lighter in comparison though it too has important themes such as mental health, depression, abandonment, and chasing your dreams.
  The story rests on the shoulders of best friends Josie and Delia who dedicate their Friday nights to recording their public access TV show, Midnite Matinee, about old terrible horror movies (think Svengoolie). The tv show means different things for each of the girls. Josie sees it as a stepping stone towards a career in the TV industry while Delia has a more personal connection. Delia views the show as her one last connection to her absentee father. Unlike Josie, Delia simply wants things to remain the same even if that means holding Josie back from her dreams.  Delia sets up a meeting at a horror convention in Florida. Little does she know, the whole future of the TV show rides on this convention.
   Zentner has crafted a female friendship centric book that surprisingly feels authentic and organic as it discusses relationships and the future. Josie and Delia feel real and their deep bond with one another is realistic. Their humor and personalities balance one another and it is evident with how they react to one another even in nonverbal moments. While it did take me some time to understand how their relationship worked, I soon struck a chord with these two young women. Promises, secrets, and betrayals fuel the relationships in this narrative, but they are not of the catty kind which is often associated with women. The girls do want what is best for the other, but there is envy and privilege infused in their relationship. While there is drama and tension in the story it is not overly melodramatic. Josie begins a romantic relationship with Lawson which is incredibly sweet and adorable, but thankfully it does not overtake her existence and you can be relieved to know there is no love triangle. Delia confronts her long-lost father in a heart wrenching moment that reveals how flawed adults can be. Secondary characters are also fleshed out and add depth. If you are looking for a quick read full of humor and depth, be sure to pick up Rayne and Delilah's Midnite Matinee.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, mentions of sexual harassment, and drug abuse. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
Rummanah Aasi
Description: From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless--an outcast--because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. Through her work on an art project, she is finally able to face what really happened that night: She was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. With powerful illustrations by Emily Carroll, Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak: The Graphic Novel comes alive for new audiences and fans of the classic novel.

Review: I read Laurie Halse Anderson's debut YA novel, Speak, when I began library school and it has stayed with me ever since. The novel is told from Melinda's point of view and mostly through her inner monologue as she recounts her harrowing freshmen year of high school as a social pariah. We get glimpses of what has happened, mainly from other people's perspectives, that she had called the police in an end-of-summer party and now everyone shuns her. Unable to tell anyone what actually happened at the party, Melinda withdraws more and more into herself. She loses her voice and herself as she ditches classes and spirals downward into apathy and depression. One of the few people to reach her is her art teacher, who helps her express with art what she has so deeply and painfully buried. It is through art that Melinda finds her voice to speak.
  The graphic novel adaptation of Speak highlights the importance of art in the novel. It blends words and images to bring Melinda's story to life. We get a visual survival journey of Melinda as she loses her voice, fights the daily battles she must wage to find it again, and the triumph of finally being able to speak out. Carroll who is known for her horror graphic novels perfectly depicts in gray artwork the starkness of Melinda's depression through strong ink lines and striking panels that rely on pencil and charcoal textural effects for the backgrounds. In the original text Melinda was so removed, regulated to the background as an observer. In this graphic novel we get to be an active part of her story. The graphic novel is a faithful adaptation with the dialogued pulled directly from the novel. Despite some minor changes the graphic novel evokes the style and emotions of the original novel seamlessly. It adds a layer of complexity to the story. It is a timely, haunting, and powerful read that is not to be missed.

Rating: 5 stars

Words of Caution: There are allusions to sexual assault, underage drinking and partying. Recommended for Grades

If you like this book try: Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson, All the Rage by Courtney Summers, The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith
Rummanah Aasi
Image Credit

  Life has been extremely hectic lately. There are quite a few things that I am handling and work has been extremely busy as we head into the last quarter in just a few days. Unfortunately, I can not keep up with the blog so I will be taking an extensive blogging break. I will hopefully be back sometime in April. Thank you for your patience during this busy time. 
Rummanah Aasi

Description: It is the summer of 2011, and Nour has just lost her father to cancer. Her mother, a cartographer who creates unusual, hand-painted maps, decides to move Nour and her sisters from New York City back to Syria to be closer to their family. But the country Nour’s mother once knew is changing, and it isn’t long before protests and shelling threaten their quiet Homs neighborhood. When a shell destroys Nour’s house and almost takes her life, she and her family are forced to choose: stay and risk more violence or flee as refugees across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in search of safety. As their journey becomes more and more challenging, Nour’s idea of home becomes a dream she struggles to remember and a hope she cannot live without.
  More than eight hundred years earlier, Rawiya, sixteen and a widow’s daughter, knows she must do something to help her impoverished mother. Restless and longing to see the world, she leaves home to seek her fortune. Disguising herself as a boy named Rami, she becomes an apprentice to al-Idrisi, who has been commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily to create a map of the world. In his employ, Rawiya embarks on an epic journey across the Middle East and the north of Africa where she encounters ferocious mythical beasts, epic battles, and real historical figures.

Review: I really wanted to love The Map of Salt and Stars, but unfortunately I had a few issues with the book. There are two parallel stories running throughout the book. The contemporary story line is told by Nour, a twelve year old girl who has synthesia, and recalls her family's flight into exile from the Syrian civil war. The historical story line is narrated by Rawiya a girl of a similiar age in the twelfth century who is hoping to help her mother by disguising herself as a boy and working as an apprentice to al-Idrisi, a famous mapmaker, as he traveled around trade routes.
  Nour was born and raised in Manhattan by immigrant parents, her mother a cartographer and her father a bridge designer. Shortly after her father’s death from cancer in 2011, her mother moves Nour and her two older sisters, Huda and Zahra, to Homs, Syria, where they have relatives to help out. Soon civil war is underway and the family is not safe.  As the family takes flight, Nour comforts herself with a fairy tale–like story her father used to tell about Rawiya.
 While I enjoyed both stories and can definitely make the connections of symbolism and metaphors that run throughout the book, I did not get a firm grasp on the characters. Though I can empathize with the struggles and pain Nour's family goes through, I could not tell the characters apart and the plot dragged for me. The transition from Nour's and Rawiya's story was not smooth either and would abruptly weave in and out. Personally, I think the book would have been stronger if it just focused on story and fleshed out the characters instead of two. At times I would find Nour's story compelling at other times I found Rawiya's. It is fascinating to see both girls travel though Nour's purpose is to find refuge and Rawiya's a romantic adventure full of wonder and magic. The themes of finding a home both in the physical and spiritual sense will make this book a good candidate for book clubs.  I appreciated the lush imagery, but wanted something more concrete to grasp in this story.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language and a scene of attempted sexual assault. Recommended for older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: Dark at the Crossing by Elliott Ackerman, In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner, Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Nicki Demere is an orphan and a pickpocket. She also happens to be the U.S. Marshals’ best bet to keep a family alive. The marshals are looking for the perfect girl to join a mother, father, and son on the run from the nation’s most notorious criminals. After all, the bad guys are searching for a family with one kid, not two, and adding a streetwise girl who knows a little something about hiding things may be just what the marshals need.
  Nicki swears she can keep the Trevor family safe, but to do so she’ll have to dodge hitmen, cyberbullies, and the specter of standardized testing, all while maintaining her marshal-mandated B-minus average. As she barely balances the responsibilities of her new identity, Nicki learns that the biggest threats to her family’s security might not lurk on the road from New York to North Carolina, but rather in her own past.

Review: Greetings from Witness Protection! is a delightful balance of mystery, humor, and heart. Nicki Demere has been living in foster care ever since her father was arrested, biding her time until her father comes to bring her home. She has been trained by her Grammy to an expert pick pocketer with a keen eye on people watching. She records her stories in hopes of relaying them and connecting to her father, but he never comes. The FBI agents arrive first and they want Nicki to be part of an inaugural program that trains and places selected foster children with families under witness protection, thereby changing the nature of the families' makeup so they are harder to track down. When she learns that her father was recently released from jail and has no desire to contact her, Nicki reluctantly agrees. Besides she gets a do-over with a new family. Maybe for once she can be normal.
  I loved Nicki. She is snarky and hilarious. Despite her tough exterior, she finds herself building bonds and connecting with the new people in her life: shy gamer Britt who is bullied by her classmates, perky yet lovable student council member Holly, and, most of all, her new family, even her sullen "brother" Jackson. I loved how she helped those around her and used her skills for pick pocketing for good. Interspersed with Nicki's ordinary life as a middle schooler, we get a mystery woven throughout as the infamous mafia is out looking for the Trevor family. The book handles tough topics such as foster care, bullying, anxiety, and what makes a real family quite nicely and balances it with humor to keep the story afloat.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are some disturbing, violent images. Recommended for Grades 5 and up.

If you like this book try: Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter
Rummanah Aasi
 Description: Fall in love, break the curse.
It once seemed so easy to Prince Rhen, the heir to Emberfall. Cursed by a powerful enchantress to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he knew he could be saved if a girl fell for him. But that was before he learned that at the end of each autumn, he would turn into a vicious beast hell-bent on destruction. That was before he destroyed his castle, his family, and every last shred of hope.
  Nothing has ever been easy for Harper. With her father long gone, her mother dying, and her brother barely holding their family together while constantly underestimating her because of her cerebral palsy, she learned to be tough enough to survive. But when she tries to save someone else on the streets of Washington, DC, she's instead somehow sucked into Rhen's cursed world.

Break the curse, save the kingdom.

A prince? A monster? A curse? Harper doesn't know where she is or what to believe. But as she spends time with Rhen in this enchanted land, she begins to understand what's at stake. And as Rhen realizes Harper is not just another girl to charm, his hope comes flooding back. But powerful forces are standing against Emberfall . . . and it will take more than a broken curse to save Harper, Rhen, and his people from utter ruin.

Review: A Curse So Dark and Lonely is a refreshing retelling of Beauty and the Beast. In my opinion a successful retelling uses the main plot points of the classic fairy tale or novel while also constructing a new story to stand on its own. Kemmerer's latest succeeds.
  Prince Rhen, the sole heir to Emberfall, is cursed to repeat the autumn of his 18th birthday until he can find a woman to fall in love with him despite his seasonal transformation to a monstrous beast. The season resets after every failure-all 327 of them. When Harper intervenes in what looks like an abduction on the streets of Washington, DC, she is transported into Emberfall. She is desperately looking for a way back to D.C. so she can tend to her dying mom and help be the lookout for her brother as he tries to pay off their absent father's debts to a loan shark. The last thing Harper needed is to be at the center of the curse. Harper is shocked to learn that she is Rhen's last chance to break the curse, but Harper isn't sure if she can fall in love with Rhen.
   The story is told from dual points of view. Harper is written in modern voice and is absolutely the true hero of our story. She has cerebral palsy, but does not let her disability define her. Kemmerer does a fabulous job in dodging the disability inspiration tropes we often see in fiction stories where characters have a disability. Harper is also fallible. She is impulsive to the point of recklessness, but also incredibly generous, strong, and persistent. She stands toe to toe with Prince Rhen and challenges him to think of helping his kingdom who has suffered greatly while he has been sequestered and aloof.
  Rhen's chapters are written with a historical, refined voice. He is also a complex character. Interestingly, Kemmerer does not make him a full time Beast. The threat of monstrosity is always in the back of Rhen's mind. He bears the burden of the fate of his family as well as the dire circumstances of his kingdom. His interactions with Harper has given him inspiration to fight for something even if his curse can not be broken. I would have loved to get a clearer understanding of the curse and why it happened. We do get some backstory, but I wished it was fleshed out a bit. 
  The romance between Harper and Rhen is delightfully of the slow burn kind. Harper demands trust and friendship first from Rhen, before romance is suggested. Even though the story is problematic when it comes to consent given Harper's abduction which is talked about, consent is taken seriously. Rhen and Harper do not touch unless Harper gives her explicit consent. 
   There are other secondary characters that are equally captivating as our main characters. I loved Grey and want to know more of his story. His interactions and friendship with Rhen is compelling. Freya and Zo are both examples of strong female friendships that Harper has in the story. Though we find out what happens to Rhen, there is a still a lot unknown as we discover more secrets in Grey's past. I'm really looking forward to reading more about him in the future.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong violence which takes place mostly off the page, threats of sexual assault, and minor language. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Hunted by Megan Spooner, A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas
Rummanah Aasi

Description: The Carls just appeared. Coming home from work at three a.m., twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship--like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armor--April and her friend Andy make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. News quickly spreads that there are Carls in dozens of cities around the world--everywhere from Beijing to Buenos Aires--and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the center of an intense international media spotlight...Now April has to deal with the pressure on her relationships, her identity, and her safety that this new position brings, all while being on the front lines of the quest to find out not just what the Carls are, but what they want from us.

Review: Hank Green is the brother of John Green, one of the well known young adult authors. Hank's debut novel is a great entryway into speculative/science fiction for those who are unfamiliar with the genre. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is a social commentary on social media and fame as well as a science fiction mystery. April May is a twenty year old graphic artist who works in a creative-sucking job at a Manhattan setup. She longs to use her art degree and do a passion job. Ironically, her creativity sparks an overnight sensation when she vlogs a funny introduction to a an armored humanoid figure, which turns out to be alien in nature, who she calls Carl. The video goes viral and suddenly Carls have been appearing all over the world. While the Carls remain motionless, they spark curiosity, paranoia, and fear. After they discover a complex riddle involving the Queen song “Don’t Stop Me Now,” the mystery becomes a quest for April and her friends.
  An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is highly readable. I found myself more drawn to the human aspect of the story, especially where April has to deal with her instant celebrity status. We live in a time of social media where we present a version of ourselves online, perhaps a fabricated one without flaws. April juggles with her fame and the pressures of constantly churning out material to feel the high of attention. Her celebrity status changes her relationships with those around her, making her wonder if people want to be around her so they can be famous by proxy or if they really like her. The mystery of the Carls isn't boring, but it took some time for me to get interested in it. The clues are sprinkled throughout the story and the dream sequences are quite bizarre. There is a cliffhanger in the end of the book, which makes me very hopeful that we will see more of the Carls and April.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language, some disturbing images, and a small fade to black sex scene. Recommended for teens and adults.

If you like this book try: Themis Files series by Sylvian Neuvel, Touch by Courtney Maum

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