Rummanah Aasi
Description: London, 1887. At the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women, Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task--saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Ramsforth, accused of the brutal murder of his mistress, Artemisia, will face the hangman's noose in a week's time if the real killer is not found.
But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems, and unmasking her true identity is only the first of many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural-historian colleague, Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer. From a Bohemian artists' colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed.

Review: If you are looking for an entertaining, well written historical mystery with large dashes of humor and a promise of romance then I would highly suggest picking up Deanna Raybourn's Veronica Speedwell series. There are currently five books out in this series and while you can read them independently you will miss out on character backstories and development.
  In this second installment, Veronica is sought out by Princess Louise to help exonerate Louise’s friend who is about to be hanged for the murder of his mistress, but Louise knows he is innocent. She tasks Veronica and her working partner cohort/roommate/potential love interest?, Stoker, to identify the real culprit. Though Veronica has unpopular feelings towards royalty, her intrigue and desire for adventures propel her to take the case. The investigation leads them from London’s competitive art community to a covert paradise for sexual deviants. Although this mystery includes classic suspicious characters and unexpected twists, Veronica’s modern attitude and disregard of Victorian social mores along with her humorous banter with Stoker are the biggest draw to this series. It is highly entertaining in seeing Veronica and Stoker assess their mystery just as they were working on their own fields of interest, for Veronica that would be studying butterflies and for Stoker taxidermy. With each book we peal more layers to the Veronica and Stoker's backstories. Another exciting installment in Raybourn’s promising historical-mystery series. I think this series will get better and better with each new book and I can't wait to read them.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong sexual content in the book, which includes sexual humor and imagery, scenes of an opium dens, and some language. Recommended for older teens and adults. 

If you like this book try: A Trecherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn (Veronica Speedwell #2), Merriweather and Royston mysteries by Vivian Conroy
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Madrid, 1957. Under the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, Spain is hiding a dark secret. Meanwhile, tourists and foreign businessmen flood into Spain under the welcoming promise of sunshine and wine. Among them is eighteen-year-old Daniel Matheson, the son of an oil tycoon, who arrives in Madrid with his parents hoping to connect with the country of his mother's birth through the lens of his camera. Photography--and fate--introduce him to Ana, whose family's interweaving obstacles reveal the lingering grasp of the Spanish Civil War--as well as chilling definitions of fortune and fear. Daniel's photographs leave him with uncomfortable questions amidst shadows of danger. He is backed into a corner of difficult decisions to protect those he loves. Lives and hearts collide, revealing an incredibly dark side to the sunny Spanish city.

Review: After reading a slew of glowing reviews and learning that Ruta Sepetys' latest novel takes place during the Spanish Civil War, I had high expectations and looked forward to reading it. Unfortunately, I had a really hard time with this book and encountered many issues which distracted me from enjoying it.
 Aspiring photographer Daniel Matheson is visiting Spain with his Texas oil tycoon father. Daniel is eager for the opportunity to flesh out his portfolio for a photography contest, perhaps an insider look at the daily life in Franco's Spain, but he gets repeated warnings, some quite aggressive, against looking too closely. Daniel is also ill prepared to start a possible relationship with Ana, a beautiful and overly qualified maid at the Castellana Hilton, where he’s staying with his parents. As their relationship starts to grow and their affection for one another deepens, so do their stark differences: Ana, daughter of executed anti-Fascists, lives a tightly constrained existence, while Daniel has privileges and is unaware of the harm he puts Ana in. 
  While I overall liked the plot of The Fountains of Silence, I had a very hard time getting into the book. The book moves very slowly despite the multiple points of views of different characters pinging from page to page. The constant shifts from character to character did not allow me to connect to any of them. I liked Daniel and Ana just fine, but I was not invested in their story as I should be and did not get emotional as their romance hit bumps. This book would have been much better if it limited the number of point of views and expanded on them to show the reader their slice of life under Franco's dictatorship. There is a subplot of the story that eventually intrigued me and I was eager to learn more about it as Sepetys slowly unspools the plot, but it only skimmed the surface which made me frustrated as I stuck with this page through all of its 512 pages and sighed, "that's it?"
 There is no doubt Sepetys did her research thoroughly and painstakingly as evidenced by quotes, photographs in between chapters and an extensive bibliography list found at the end of the book. This book will appeal to die hard historical fiction fans, but might not work for the average reader who will likely find its slow pace, length, and writing style to be too daunting.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There are disturbing images including mentions of torture and execution, allusions to sexual harassment, and scenes of bull fighting,

If you like this book try: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron
Rummanah Aasi
 I hope you are all are healthy and safe. Since Illinois has been on lock down due to the pandemic, my school has shifted to remote learning. Virtual schooling has its challenges, one of which is screen fatigue. After spending eight hours a day, five days a week, I couldn't bring myself to write blog posts. I'm still working on fitting the blog into my schedule so I apologize in advance for the sporadic posts. 

Description: Tai Pham lives in the apartment above his grandmother's store, where his bedroom is crammed with sketchpads and comic books. But not even his most imaginative drawings could compare to the colorful adventure he's about to embark on.
  When Tai inherits his grandmother's jade ring, he soon finds out it's more than it appears. Suddenly he's being inducted into a group of space cops known as the Green Lanterns, his neighborhood is being overrun by some racist bullies, and every time he puts pen to paper, he's forced to confront that he might not be creative enough or strong enough to uphold his ba's legacy. Now Tai must decide what kind of hero he wants to be: will he learn to soar above his insecurities or will the past keep him grounded?

Review: In this graphic novel, Green Lantern is reimagined as a thirteen years old Vietnamese boy named Tai Pham who wakes from a dream to see his Bà Nội's, (grandmother’s) jade ring by his side. Though he tries to return the ring, it reappears at his side. Confused, Tai learns from Bà Nội that the ring has chosen him and then the next day she’s passed. Suddenly, Tai unbeknownst to him has been a superhero overnight and is introduced to the existence of the Green Lantern Corps, an “intergalactic peacekeeping force.”
  I have read a few of DC imprints for middle school and YA audiences and for the most part they are a mixed bag. Green Lantern: Legacy is a solid graphic novel that blends old and new traditions. All of the superhero journey: origin story, training montage, introduction of the villain, etc. are nicely done and well paced. I liked the nods to the familiar faces and references to the Green Lantern universe but it's not necessary to know them in order to enjoy this installment. What I loved most about this graphic novel is its infusion of Vietnamese culture, diverse cast, and the emphasis on community and compassion. The superhero, though very present in the story, does take a back seat to activism. Tong’s energetic panels, dominated by greens, oranges, steel blues, and purples, keep the visuals dynamic, and cultural details are a delight. Overall, a solid graphic novel and a great pick for younger readers who are anxiously awaiting to see the next superhero movie or tv show.

Rating: 4 stars

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

If you like this book try: Zatanna & the House of Secrets by Matthew Cody
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Keah Brown loves herself, but that hadn’t always been the case. Born with cerebral palsy, her greatest desire used to be normalcy and refuge from the steady stream of self-hate society strengthened inside her. But after years of introspection and reaching out to others in her community, she has reclaimed herself and changed her perspective.
   In The Pretty One, Brown gives a contemporary and relatable voice to the disabled—so often portrayed as mute, weak, or isolated. With clear, fresh, and light-hearted prose, these essays explore everything from her relationship with her able-bodied identical twin (called “the pretty one” by friends) to navigating romance; her deep affinity for all things pop culture—and her disappointment with the media’s distorted view of disability; and her declaration of self-love with the viral hashtag #DisabledAndCute.

Review: The Pretty One is an entertaining, informative, and candid collection of essays on the intersectionality of race, gender, and disability. Keah Brown is an activist for disabled representation in media and the creator of the viral campaign #DisabledAndCute, which empowers people with disabilities to own their cuteness and fight back against the daily able bodied microaggressions they face daily.
  Brown's tone is welcoming and her essays honestly reveal her own insecurities, shortcomings, and her strengths. Her desire to be beautiful, her angst about not yet knowing romantic love, and her longing for designer clothes are interwoven with stark realities of living with cerebral palsy. While reading these essays I was constantly reminded of my own abled bodied privileges that I took for granted. I was also taken aback about the lack of representation by disabled people by the media and even if they are present, almost all of them are acted by abled bodied people who act as if they had the disability (i.e. Glee, Daredevil). By discussing pop cultural alongside experiences of physical pain and encounters with the world's disregard for her disabled body, Brown presents herself as a complex person who is not defined by her labels. By far my favorite aspect of this collection of essays is Brown's insistence that she is continuing on her journey of self-love and it is not easy. There is much to love and learn in this memoir. I highly recommend it to readers who are looking to further their knowledge of social justice, disability rights, or simply want to read a story featuring a strong, beautiful young woman who wants to change the world for all of us.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are mentions of an eating disorder, mental illness, self harm, and suicidal thoughts. Recommended for teens and adults.

If you like this book try: Being Heumann by Judith Heumann, Such a Pretty Girl: A Story of Struggle, Empowerment, and Disability Pride by Nadina LaSpina
Rummanah Aasi
Description: The haunted season has arrived in the Antler Wood. No fox kit is safe.

When Mia and Uly are separated from their litters, they discover a dangerous world full of monsters. In order to find a den to call home, they must venture through field and forest, facing unspeakable things that dwell in the darkness: a zombie who hungers for their flesh, a witch who tries to steal their skins, a ghost who hunts them through the snow and other things too scary to mention.

Featuring eight interconnected stories and sixteen hauntingly beautiful illustrations,Scary Stories for Young Foxes contains the kinds of adventures and thrills you love to listen to beside a campfire in the dark of night.

Review: Young readers who like scary stories without the blood and gore will love Scary Stories for Young Foxes. The book begins as seven fox kits are eager to hear some scary stories. For “a story so frightening it will put the white in your tail,” their mother sends them to “the old storyteller,” an elderly fox in a cavern, who proceeds to spin a tale of vulpine horror. At first the stories seem unrelated and anti-climatic to the kits considering the warning the adults give them; Mia is separated from her loving family, while Uly is exiled. Soon the kits’ stories intertwine as the horrors they survive increase and multiply.
  The book moved slowly for me at first as the narratives and its characters found their footing, but soon the stories begin to pick up. These scary stories are definitely creepy and are borderline disturbing. The menacing tone and horror ratchets up with each story and the author does not spare its characters. There are domestic horror stories in which Mia barely survives an encounter with her beloved teacher, who’s gone rabid, and Uly is terrorized by his sisters and father because he’s disabled. The most menacing story that gave me goose bumps is when Mia is trapped by Beatrix Potter, who murders animals after using them as inspiration for her stories, which gave me flashbacks to button eyes in Neil Gaiman's Coraline. There are sixteen, beautiful and gothic sketches that add to the atmosphere, with appealing fox kits set against menacing backgrounds. The stomach-clenching fear and suspense are resolved by a happy ending, but this might be a hard read for sensitive readers, especially those who are animal lovers. Definitely a must read for budding horror fans.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are some disturbing images such as the process of taxidermy and cruelty to animals. Bullying and references to domestic abuse are also mentioned in the stories. Recommended for strong Grade 4 readers and up.

If you like this book try: Coraline by Neil Gaiman, The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste, Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods by Hal Johnson
Rummanah Aasi
Description: When Frankie’s mother died and her father left her and her siblings at an orphanage in Chicago, it was supposed to be only temporary—just long enough for him to get back on his feet and be able to provide for them once again. That’s why Frankie's not prepared for the day that he arrives for his weekend visit with a new woman on his arm and out-of-state train tickets in his pocket.
Now Frankie and her sister, Toni, are abandoned alongside so many other orphans—two young, unwanted women doing everything they can to survive.
   And as the embers of the Great Depression are kindled into the fires of World War II, and the shadows of injustice, poverty, and death walk the streets in broad daylight, it will be up to Frankie to find something worth holding on to in the ruins of this shattered America—every minute of every day spent wondering if the life she's able to carve out will be enough.

Review:  Laura Ruby's latest is an ambitious historical fantasy that tackles the cruelty and injustices in American history witnessed by the eyes of its female characters. The story is narrated by a ghost and it seems to mainly follow the story of Frankie, a girl who is placed in a Catholic Orphanage because her father could not afford to take care of her and her siblings after her mother allegedly tries to harm her family during the Great Depression. When her father remarries, Frankie realizes the real truth, she and her sister and brother are abandoned. Frankie suffers under the nuns' strict regime, but she also makes friends, grows up, and, eventually, falls into forbidden, passionate relationship that is tested by America's entry into World War II. As Frankie's story is well underway our ghostly narrator imbues her own ongoings as she floats, haunts around Chicago, and unveils her own story.
 The book's narrative structure will be the deciding point on whether or not you will enjoy this book. While I liked how the story was told through the ghost's omnipresent voice, it did lack consistency. If the ghost seems to only haunt Chicago, then why does it have world weary knowledge outside of the city such as the atomic bomb and the Nazi death camps. The narrative structure also distracted me from Frankie's story just when I got invested in it and wanted to know more. Though I was also curious with the ghost's identity and its past, I did not think it was well developed as Frankie's story. There is a lot important themes packed into this book such as misogyny, racism, and socio-economic inequities many of them remain surface level. I wanted the book to dig a little deeper than it did. Despite these issues, I did enjoy reading about the history of Chicago that was not about crime and the mob. Ruby is a skillful writer and she clearly shows us that the issues we are dealing with today about social injustices are not new, but have been part of American history for a really long time.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There are mentions of sexual content including pregnancy, attempt of sexual assault, violence and some disturbing images in the book. Recommended for Grades 10 and up.

If you like this book try: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (for omnipresent narrator structure), Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Rummanah Aasi
Description: What does it mean to lose your roots—within your culture, within your family—and what happens when you find them?

Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From early childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hopes of giving her a better life; that forever feeling slightly out of place was simply her fate as a transracial adoptee. But as she grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.

Review: All You Can Ever Know is a candid and insightful memoir about growing up as a transracial adoptee. Chung writes about identity, race, motherhood, and her journey to find her true self. Chung writes openly about constantly felt like an impostor both within or outside her family. She ruminates how she had to learn how to defend herself against racial microaggressions from a very young age that her white family will never face. Chung also has felt no ties to her Korean heritage either since she can not speak the language or had no references to it in her predominately white suburb. Until her own pregnancy, Chung has debated on whether or not to find out about her birth family. Would finally getting her questions answered be worth it if the answer is that her birth parents simply did not want her? The book digs deeper as Chung takes the leap in finding out about her birth family which sometimes unveils difficult and hard topics. I also appreciated that Chung does not show her adopted parents as villains but as humans who also had flaws. 
  As someone who is constantly trying to identity herself, I found much to enjoy in All You Can Ever Know. The racial microaggressions felt familiar and I, too, lacked the language to deal with it. Though the answer to "who am I?" might not be answered fully, Chung has a better understand of herself and the book ends on a hopeful note. I would recommend this memoir to readers who enjoy stories that intersect race, gender, and motherhood.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: Racial microagressions, including racial slurs, are addressed in the book and mentions of physical abuse. Recommended for older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Not Quite White by Sharmila Sen
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning. She doesn't remember it, but it changed her life forever. The zap gave her genius-level math skills, and ever since, Lucy has been homeschooled. Now, at 12 years old, she's technically ready for college. She just has to pass 1 more test — middle school!
   Lucy's grandma insists: Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that's not a math textbook!). Lucy's not sure what a girl who does calculus homework for fun can possibly learn in 7th grade. She has everything she needs at home, where nobody can make fun of her rigid routines or her superpowered brain. The equation of Lucy's life has already been solved. Unless there's been a miscalculation?

Review: When Lucy was struck by lightning at age eight, her brain was damaged, resulting in her acquired savant syndrome. She becomes a mathematical genius and develops obsessive-compulsive disorder. She has been homeschooled ever since the accident. Though Lucy feels safe at home with her uncle and grandmother and wants to enroll in college math courses, her grandmother wants Lucy to get real life experience such as having a real friend, participate in one new activity, and read a book that isn't about math. With all of this in mind, her grandmother enrolls her in seventh grade, but fails to prepare her about the growing pains of middle school and about bullying in particular. Lucy hides her math abilities to blend in by making answering a certain number of questions wrong on her tests, and she's bullied by popular girl Maddie, who dubs her "cleaning lady" because of Lucy's obsessive-compulsive need for cleanliness, but when she and another student, Windy, team up with classmate Levi for a community service project, a true friendship grows.
  The three help out at the Pet Hut, a no-kill shelter where Lucy, who has never liked animals, bonds with a dog named Cutie Pi. After Cutie Pi is diagnosed with cancer-which means that she will likely be transferred to a state shelter and put down-and Windy betrays Lucy by revealing a secret, Lucy must learn how to solve problems of the heart. The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is a quick read that manages to realistically portray Lucy's OCD and her struggles in middle school. Lucy's voice rings true, highlighting her own insecurities and strengths. I loved watching Lucy embrace her strengths, stand up for herself, and realize that she is worthy to have friends. Her journey is full of hope, wisdom, and even a love for math which is rarely seen in literature.

Curriculum Connection: Math, STEM

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are scenes of bullying and talks of pets being put down to sleep. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Each Tiny Spark by Paolo Cartaya, Roll with it by Jamie Sumner, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling, Rules by Cythnia Lord
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Reiko loves the endless sky and electric colors of the Californian desert. It is a refuge from an increasingly claustrophobic life of family pressures and her own secrets. Then she meets Seth, a boy who shares a love of the desert and her yearning for a different kind of life. But Reiko and Seth both want something the other can't give them. As summer ends, things begin to fall apart. But the end of love can sometimes be the beginning of you.

Review: Reiko seems to have it all: she is popular, pretty, smart, and comes from an affluent family. Reiko also secretly hides her grief for her lost beloved sister Mika and still has frequent imagined conversations with her. Reiko has a hard time talking to anyone else about her loss and the idea of going back to the ocean where Mika died is unbearable.
  Reiko is haunted by survivor's guilt and tries to live her life for both Mika and herself, but is failing to do so. She tries to fill this emotional void by starting a secret relationship with Seth, a poor boy live in a trailer from her school who she has never really noticed before. Reiko claims that her rationale for keeping a secret relationship has to do with her uncertainty of being a romantic relationship rather than being unsure about how to handle their very different social and class statuses. As Seth's social status at school rises due to Reiko's association,  Reiko feels more uncertain about her own position and privilege.
 The publisher has marketed this book as a story of grief and romance, but Reiko's grief provides the emotional backbone for this uneven novel. The author does a good job in showcasing Reiko's journey of grief; however, I wanted the epiphany moment to be much stronger and personal. It is actually Reiko's best friend, Dre, who makes the discovery instead of Reiko. I also had issues with Reiko who comes across as conceited and self absorbed. The author mentions that Reiko is biracial-her mom is white and her father is Japanese, but this adds nothing to her character and comes across as a diversity checklist.
  Readers who might pick this book up in hopes of a sweet romance will be disappointed. The romance is non-existent. Seth teeters on the verge of being an abusive boyfriend who pouts and whines when Reiko wants to spend her time with her friends though he does have a point in being used by her. Similarly, Reiko also uses Seth as an emotional band-aid. One can argue that the lack of romance emphasizes the point of the author: nothing can fix you unless you fix yourself. I agree with that statement, but I think book would have been more efficient and stronger if this book centered on a full character arc of self-discovery without the romance subplot.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some minor language, scenes of underage drinking, and a scene of making out that goes too far. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: The Beauty that Remains by Ashley Woodfolk
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Orla Cadden is a budding novelist stuck in a dead-end job, writing clickbait about movie-star hookups and influencer yoga moves. Then Orla meets Floss―a striving wannabe A-lister―who comes up with a plan for launching them both into the high-profile lives they dream about. So what if Orla and Floss's methods are a little shady and sometimes people get hurt? Their legions of followers can't be wrong.
 

Thirty-five years later, in a closed California village where government-appointed celebrities live every moment of the day on camera, a woman named Marlow discovers a shattering secret about her past. Despite her massive popularity―twelve million loyal followers―Marlow dreams of fleeing the corporate sponsors who would do anything to keep her on-screen. When she learns that her whole family history is based on a lie, Marlow finally summons the courage to run in search of the truth, no matter the risks.
  

Followers traces the paths of Orla, Floss and Marlow as they wind through time toward each other, and toward a cataclysmic event that sends America into lasting upheaval.

Review: Megan Angelo's clever dystopian debut novel, Followers, is a social and cultural analysis on how and why we use social media. Followers has elements of the film Truman Show and George Orwell's classic dystopian 1984, but it manages to stand on its own. In alternating narratives beginning in 2015 and 2051, she creates two chilling versions of celebrity culture entrenched with technology.
  In 2015 staff blogger Orla Cadden writes for a website called Lady-ish , an online version of tabloids meets Cosmo. Orla is an aspiring and talented writer who is stuck at a dead end, soul sucking job unless she can catch a break and possibly land a literary agent. Unlike Orla, her roommate Florence "Floss" does not want to take the winded road in showcasing her talent as a singer and is willing to do anything to become a famous Kardasian type celebrity. Orla and Floss combines each others strengths (Orla's writing and social media skills and Floss's physical beauty) to create a public profile for Floss which is kicked off by a post titled “Sooo What Does The World’s Most Expensive Brow Gel Actually Do? One Instagram It Girl Finds Out” in which a Maybelline mascara tube is scrubbed off for the photo shoot. The post goes viral and soon Orla and Floss become overnight celebrity names.
   In the 2051 plot, we meet Marlow, a young wife in Constellation, California, a closed town populated with government-selected celebrities devoted entirely to the production of a reality show watched by everyone who does not live there. Marlow's story line is the most disturbing of the two as her privacy and freedom are stripped away and technology is literally embedded into people's bodies. Everything is either scripted or sponsored and all actions are curated to maintain the optimum numbers of followers.
  Both the 2015 and 2051 plots revolve around a mysterious event called the Spill, which was bit vague considering its buildup and characters' reaction to it. The alternating timelines show a cause and effect of the main characters' decisions and actions. I was less interested in the reality tv aspects of the story and more interested in the character arcs. The book is highly readable and fast paced with short chapters. This is a smart dystopian novel that asks us how addicted are we to social media, fame, and attention and to what lengths are we willing to go in order to uphold them.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, allusions to sexual situations, and a suicide is mentioned. Though it is an 'adult' book, it is has massive crossover teen appeal and is suitable for advanced high school readers.

If you like this book try: The Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, The Circle by Dave Eggers, Sociable by Rebecca Harrington, Attention: a love story by Casey Schwartz
Rummanah Aasi
Description: The Black Death has returned to London, spreading disease and fear through town. A mysterious prophet predicts the city’s ultimate doom—until an unknown apothecary arrives with a cure that actually works. Christopher’s Blackthorn shop is chosen to prepare the remedy. But when an assassin threatens the apothecary’s life, Christopher and his faithful friend Tom are back to hunting down the truth, risking their lives to untangle the heart of a dark conspiracy. And as the sickness strikes close to home, the stakes are higher than ever before.

Review: I really enjoyed Kevin Sand's debut novel, The Blackthorn Key, which mixes historical fiction and mystery into a fun, action-packed story. Mark of the Plague is the second book in the series which technically could be read independently, but why would you?
  In this equally delightful sequel Sand mixes hysteria, history, science, and humor. It is 1665, and the plague has arrived in London, bringing with it prophets of doom and unscrupulous swindlers hoping to prey upon the fears of the desperate citizens. Christopher, former apprentice to the late apothecary Benedict Blackthorn, finds himself at the center of a conspiracy that will end in either a cure for the Black Death or the destruction of society. Melchior, a charismatic prophet, draws followers by predicting where the plague will strike next. The arrival of an unknown apothecary who claims to have the cure increases the frenzy. It is up to Christopher and Tom, the baker’s son and Christopher's best friend, to solve the mystery swirling around both men.
  Sands does not offer a sanitized version of history to his young readers. London here is gritty, dirty, mesmerizing, and often terrifying in the treatment of lower classes. Desperate poverty, magical thinking, and a complete disregard for life are everyday realities for those living during the Great Plague of London. Along with mysteries and action that will hold the reader's attention throughout, I love the genuine friendship between Christopher and Tom and their earnest desire to help others. This book also provides us an addition to the duo in the fearless, street-savy and smart Sally who provides the perfect balance for the loyal friends. The villains of this story are really clever and villainous and not cartoon-y by any means. If you enjoy history, puzzles, action, and a little fantasy I would highly suggest picking up the Blackthorn Key series.

Rating: 4 stars

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


If you like this book try: The Assassin's Curse by Kevin Sands (The Blackthorn Key #3), York series by Laura Ruby, The Mark of the Thief by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Rummanah Aasi
Description: The Larkin family isn't just lucky-they persevere. At least that's what Violet and her younger brother, Sam, were always told. When the Lyric sank off the coast of Maine, their great-great-great-grandmother didn't drown like the rest of the passengers. No, Fidelia swam to shore, fell in love, and founded Lyric, Maine, the town Violet and Sam returned to every summer. But wrecks seem to run in the family: Tall, funny, musical Violet can't stop partying with the wrong people. And, one beautiful summer day, brilliant, sensitive Sam attempts to take his own life.
  Shipped back to Lyric while Sam is in treatment, Violet is haunted by her family's missing piece-the lost shipwreck she and Sam dreamed of discovering when they were children. Desperate to make amends, Violet embarks on a wildly ambitious mission: locate the Lyric, lain hidden in a watery grave for over a century.
  She finds a fellow wreck hunter in Liv Stone, an amateur local historian whose sparkling intelligence and guarded gray eyes make Violet ache in an exhilarating new way. Whether or not they find the Lyric, the journey Violet takes-and the bridges she builds along the way-may be the start of something like survival.


Review: The Last True Poets of the Sea is a character driven novel that is loosely inspired by Shakespeare's gender bending comedy play Twelfth Night and invokes so many emotions about family, friendship, and mental health. Violet's family splinters after her twin brother Sam's suicide attempt and hospitalization. Violet Larkin reacts by flirting with a man in the waiting room. This last year, her partying has gotten out of control, and bewildered by their fragile son and wild daughter, her parents send her to Lyric, Maine, to stay with her mother's brother Toby. Lyric is significant to Violet's family as legend has it that the town was founded by Violet's great-great-great-grandmother Fidelia, the only passenger aboard the Lyric to survive a shipwreck, and her descendants have disaster in their blood. Violet is determined to find the shipwreck and find a way to reconnect with her family.
  Exiled at Lyric, Violet feels adrift and wrecked with self-guilt and shame. In hopes of finding and anchoring herself, she assumes a new identity, both physically by shaving off her luscious locks and trading her form fitting attire with loose clothing and internally by vowing to change her reckless personality. At first glance Violet comes across as very abrasive and a rebel without a cause. Though she loves her Uncle Toby, she is unable to open up to him and shuts down immediately when asked to talk about her emotions. I loved Violet's humor, her candidness about her sexuality, and her self awareness. As readers get to know her, they realize that Violet's party girl behavior is her cry for emotional intimacy in all of her relationships, whether it is familial, platonic, and romantic. 
   The book is centered on Violet's internal and metaphorical journey of a shipwreck. As she digs deeper into her family history and becomes obsessed with finding the shipwreck, Violet begins to make real friends while she volunteers at the local aquarium with Orion and his group of friends.  Like Shakespeare's play, a complicated love triangle between Violet, Orion, and Liv develops but it is resolved slowly as Orion and Liv begin to develop as three dimensional characters. At first glance Violet is attracted to Orion on a physical basis only, but soon realizes that she is attracted to him because of his soulful connection to music, which also plays a pivotal role in Violet's life. Unlike Orion, Liv and Violet both come from families who are trying and failing to deal with conflict. I really appreciated that this love triangle was not just a typical YA trope in the book, but a literal device in showing both Violet's, Orion's, and Liv's character growths.
     I also really appreciated Drake's handle on familial relationships in this book. Interwoven with Violet's life at Lyric, we also get flashbacks, which are interestingly narrated by an omnipresent third person, on the impact of Sam's mental illness on Violet's family. The book underlines the danger of stigmatizing mental illness as Violet begins to contend with her own anxiety and her near paralyzing fear about her brother’s illness. If you enjoy character driven stories of self-discovery with a hopeful ending that talks candidly about serious issues, I highly suggest picking up The Last True Poets of the Sea

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, underage drinking, mentions of drug use, a fade to black sex scene, frank discussions of sexuality, and mentions of suicide and self harm. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert, We Are Okay by Nina LaCour, and Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Mads is pretty happy with her life. She goes to church with her family, and minor league baseball games with her dad. She goofs off with her best friend Cat, and has thus far managed to avoid getting kissed by Adam, the boy next door. It's everything she hoped high school would be... until all of a sudden, it's not. Her dad is hiding something big--so big it could tear her family apart. And that's just the beginning of her problems: Mads is starting to figure out that she doesn't want to kiss Adam... because the only person she wants to kiss is Cat. Just like that, Mads's tidy little life has gotten epically messy--and epically heartbreaking. And when your heart is broken, it takes more than an awkward, uncomfortable, tooth-clashing, friendship-ending kiss to put things right again. It takes a whole bunch of them.

Review: There is a lot that I liked about the National Book Award graphic novel finalist, Kiss Number 8, specifically its attempt to address transphobia, sexuality, religion, and hypocrisy, but the execution of the story fell flat for me. Amanda lives in a conservative community with her deeply religious parents. Her social circle includes her friends from Catholic school, Cat, Adam, and Laura, but her best friend is her father. After overhearing a phone conversation and a mysterious letter that upsets him, Amanda realizes that he's hiding something and assumes he is having an affair, but her parents refuse to answer her questions, leaving her angry and betrayed. While dealing with the turmoil at home, Amanda also ponders why her first seven kisses, all with boys, aren't as stirring as kiss number eight, with Laura, and why she feels something deeper than friendship for Cat. While both of these subplots occur simultaneously, there is an explosive confrontation with her parents and grandparents lead to a difficult realization, shaking up all of Amanda's familial relationships and friendship.
  I thought the narrative for this graphic novel was a bit convoluted and both subplots seemed underdeveloped to me. The secrets behind Amanda's trans-grandparent was the strongest of the two story lines, but it was resolved too quickly as the characters spend more time proclaiming their trans- and homophobic views and then suddenly changed their way of thinking towards the end. I also was really confused about Amanda's 'crush' on Cat as I didn't see any indication of her questioning her sexuality until it was blatantly expressed by Jess and even then it is still unclear. I also did not appreciate Cat's character as there were strong undertones male characters slut-shaming her and her being a truly awful friend. I liked the art's retro feel and thought it was strong when depicting the contrast between truth and lies, but I was also a bit confused as to the time period of the graphic novel. The earlier panels seem to indicate that the story takes place post 2000, but the characters use IM and old phones. While I appreciated what the graphic novel was trying to do, it felt very surface level to me.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, transphobic and homophobic slurs, crude sexual humor, a brief scene of sex and nudity, undertones of slut shaming, and scenes of underage drinking. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Jessie Archer is a member of the Athena Protocol, an elite organization of female spies who enact vigilante justice around the world. Athena operatives are never supposed to shoot to kill—so when Jessie can’t stop herself from pulling the trigger, she gets kicked out of the organization, right before a huge mission to take down a human trafficker in Belgrade.
  Jessie needs to right her wrong and prove herself, so she starts her own investigation into the trafficking. But going rogue means she has no one to watch her back as she delves into the horrors she uncovers. Meanwhile, her former teammates have been ordered to bring her down. Jessie must face danger from all sides if she’s to complete her mission—and survive.


Review: I have always been frustrated with the James Bond and Mission Impossible movie franchises especially with their reductive treatment of women who are either the femme fatale caricuture or an "agent" who is suppose to be capable and fierce but really are used as plot devices for the male lead. Athena Protocol takes my frustrations and turns into a female driven thriller that focuses on the mistreatment of women worldwide and female spies who enact justice for those exploited women.
    Jessie Archer, a white British woman, works for Athena, a female-led London-based secret division of global corporation Chen Technologies, helping to covertly take down crime lords who traffic and kidnap women and children. When a high-tension mission goes awry, Jessie is taunted by the idea of temporary justice given to this warlord who will very likely repeat his cycle for violence. She makes an impulsive decision and kills him, violating not only the main creed of Athena but also endangering Athena’s secrecy. As a result Jessie is subsequently kicked off the team right as they are departing for Belgrade for another operation against a major human trafficker coming up, and Jessie's determined to be involved whether they'll have her or not. As she begins her rogue investigation, she has to avoid both the people she's investigating and the Athena agents working in parallel to her. Jessie uncovers information that endanger her and the Athena team, especially as her feelings for the trafficker's daughter become complicated.
  There is a lot that I enjoyed in the Athena Protocol, but there are some aspects that are underdeveloped. The book is highly inclusive and includes diverse and queer characters. We get flashes of layered and complex backstories for these characters but wanted them to be a bit more fleshed out. There are also moments within the book in which Jessie examines her privilege with occasional flippant snark, but I would have liked to see this a bit more in the book too. I also appreciated the questions about global power dynamics and the treatment of women around the world.
  The writing is clearly indicative as a debut novel. Though there is a lot of action and the plot moves quickly, there is a lot of exposition with a lot of telling instead of showing. The actions that Jessie takes require a suspension of disbelief, which is normal for a YA thriller. I would have liked more dialogue from the secondary characters. Some readers have called the romance to be queer bait, but I'm not sure as the romance did not develop fully for me and I saw Jessie as just coming to terms with her sexuality. The mission does come to a close in the book, but the door is left open for more books to follow which leads me to believe this is a series starter. If that is the case then I look forward to reading more because it does have good potential to be a great series. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong violence, language, and disturbing images in the book. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Embassy Row series by Ally Carter
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Long before George Takei braved new frontiers in Star Trek, he woke up as a four-year-old boy to find his own birth country at war with his father's -- and their entire family forced from their home into an uncertain future.

In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten "relocation centers," hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard.

They Called Us Enemy is Takei's firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother's hard choices, his father's faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.

Review: George Takei is famously known as the solo Asian American actor who played Sulu on the original Star Trek. In his beautifully and heart wrenching graphic memoir he revisits his childhood and his experience growing up in Japanese internment camps during World War II. Takei had not yet started school when he, his parents, and his younger siblings were forced to leave their home and report to the Santa Anita Racetrack for “processing and removal” due to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. The graphic memoir weave the daily slice of life of the Takei family while allowing readers to simultaneously experience the daily humiliations that they suffered in the camps and providing readers with a broader understanding of the federal legislation, lawsuits, and actions which led to and maintained this injustice. While the focus is largely on the Takei family as the parents struggle shelter their children from the danger and hatred they face and the childhood innocence of George and his brother offers some levity to the story, there is a also a good and fine balance displaying the heroes who fought against this civil rights injustice such as Fred Korematsu, the 442nd Regiment, Herbert Nicholson, and the ACLU’s Wayne Collins and the politicians who reveled in fear mongering and racism to ensure their power in the government.
  My only minor complaint about this graphic memoir is that its narrative structure is not consistent. It begins as a TED talk, but quickly loses that structure as Takei takes the reader into his childhood and then a big time jump into adulthood. Despite this minor quibble, this graphic memoir is an important part of U.S. History that is often overlooked and forgotten and should be read widely; however, its reality echoes loudly and clearly in our current political climate.

Curriculum Connection: U.S. History and English

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some minor language including racial slurs and some violent images. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins, for more graphic memoirs that talk about racism try the March series by John Lewis
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn't commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinkmanship--and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer's coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

Review: After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1988, Stevenson traveled to Alabama and an internship that involved assisting inmates on Alabama's death row. He saw firsthand the injustices suffered by the poor and disadvantaged, who due to lack of securing legal representation were quickly executed. To help such people, he founded the Equal Justice Initiative.
 One of his first clients was Walter McMillian, a young black man accused of murdering a white woman and imprisoned on death row even before he was tried. Stevenson alternates chapters on the shocking injustice in McMillian’s case, including police and prosecutors misconduct, and racial bias with other startling cases. The pipeline of school to death row for teens was startling and eye-opening, particularly for non-homicidal offenses. There were two cases that feature teens broke my heart: a 14-year-old condemned to death for killing his mother’s abusive boyfriend and a mentally ill adolescent girl condemned to life in prison for second-degree murder for the death of young boys killed in a fire she started accidentally. Through these cases and others, Stevenson details changes in victims’ rights, incarceration of juveniles, death penalty reforms, inflexible sentencing laws, and the continued practices of injustice that see too many juveniles, minorities, and mentally ill people imprisoned in a frenzy of mass incarceration in the U.S.
  When I started Just Mercy, I had anticipated in just following the McMillian case, but there are  multiple cases to keep track of that got a bit tricky, especially when Stevenson jumps back and forth between them. I wished this book was a bit more streamlined yet the sheer amount of cases that he discusses in this book drives home the point of much needed change to our judicial system. This book is much more than a memoir of a budding lawyer, but a call for change and compassion when it comes to our justice system, the law, and the death penalty. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language including the "n" word used as a racial slur and mentions of rape, domestic abuse, and executions of prisoners. Recommended for mature teens and adults.

If you like this book try: The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Rummanah Aasi
Description: This story was going to begin like all the best stories. With a school bus falling from the sky. But no one saw it happen. They were all too busy—

Talking about boogers.
Stealing pocket change.
Skateboarding.
Wiping out.
Braving up.
Executing complicated handshakes.
Planning an escape.
Making jokes.
Lotioning up.
Finding comfort.
But mostly, too busy walking home.

Jason Reynolds conjures ten tales (one per block) about what happens after the dismissal bell rings, and brilliantly weaves them into one wickedly funny, piercingly poignant look at the detours we face on the walk home, and in life.


Review:  Writing short stories is hard, but writing ten different stories that feature ten blocks in one neighborhood that takes place all at the same time is unimaginable yet Jason Reynolds make it very easy. On these ten blocks, Jasmine and TJ wonder what they are made of-dust and water. Four friends hustle for change all day and maneuver their capital into buying an urgently needed treat for one of their moms who is battling cancer. Ty sprints to check on Bryson, who stayed home to recover from getting jumped the day before. Fatima manages the unpredictable by writing lists of things that don't change and keeping track of things that do. Gregory's friends give him a makeover and offer advice  as they walk him over to Sandra's house so he can finally tell her he likes her. And Canton, the son of the crossing guard who got injured by a school bus a year ago, sits at his mom's intersection doing homework.
  In each of these stories Reynolds manages to tell them with heart, humor, and seriousness in equal measure. The young characters cope with difficult and real problems, from stressed-out parents and aging grandparents to siblings they've lost to death or prison, but there problems do not define them. They are not caricatures nor stereotypes. These characters are first and foremost ordinary, good kids. We see parts of ourselves in these children and they also serve as windows for us, but we care for all of them. I loved how interwoven all these stories are as they cleverly share names, jokes, and details, which shows up how interconnected everything is, but also reminds us that we never know what someone is going through.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is mention of bullying, but it is not too graphic. Recommended for Grades 5 and up.

If you like this book try: Some Places More Than Others by Renee Watson
Pet
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Pet is here to hunt a monster. Are you brave enough to look?

There are no monsters anymore, or so the children in the city of Lucille are taught. Jam and her best friend, Redemption, have grown up with this lesson all their life. But when Jam meets Pet, a creature made of horns and colors and claws, who emerges from one of her mother's paintings and a drop of Jam's blood, she must reconsider what she's been told. Pet has come to hunt a monster, and the shadow of something grim lurks in Redemption's house. Jam must fight not only to protect her best friend, but also to uncover the truth, and the answer to the question--How do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit they exist?

Review: Pet is a slim novel that does not have much of a plot but it is packed with representation and big questions regarding justice, truth, and remembering. Jam is our protagonist, a transgender hearing person who communicates selectively, using both sign language and vocal speech. She was born after a revolution in which human (and some supernatural) "angels" rid her now-utopian town of monsters. The author defines monsters as anyone who oppresses and manifests evil.
  When Jam trips over a painting made by her artist mother, she is cut with blades embedded in the work. Jam's blood hits the canvas, and the grotesque figure her mother created comes to life. The creature has goat legs, a twisted torso, feathers, horns, and human hands and has been named Pet has returned to Jam's world in order to hunt a monster. Worse yet, this monster is said to live in the house of Jam's best friend, Redemption.
  We follow Jam as she investigates Pet's claims and the monster that haunts Redemption's family is slowly revealed. The story moves along, however, I wished the plot had been more complex and fleshed out. I wanted to explore the concept of angels and monsters a bit more. We are told of monstrosities, but I would have much rather seem them come to light. The book waffles between being metaphorical and heavy handedness as the author strives to create a world that is universal and not specific to a certain place or time.
  For me the Pet shines in its inclusive and diverse representation. Jam's announcement of being transgendered is taken seriously by her parents and the teen has the autonomy to take control of her body and transition without her parents permission. I also appreciated that Jam's parents are from the African diaspora and does not have a one-story background. There is also a well loved librarian who is in a wheel chair, but this does not define him. Redemption is also from a loving three parent household. The themes and close examination of self-proclaimed bias- or harm-free spaces gives the reader a lot to think about. Pet is an unusual book and it would be greatly appreciated by close reading and those who like to ask big questions.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There are allusions to child abuse and disturbing images. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Bea is on the run. And then, she runs into Lou.
This chance encounter sends them on a journey through West Texas, where strange things follow them wherever they go. The landscape morphs into an unsettling world, a mysterious cat joins them, and they are haunted by a group of threatening men. To stay safe, Bea and Lou must trust each other as they are driven to confront buried truths. The two women share their stories of loss and heartbreak--and a startling revelation about sexual assault--culminating in an exquisite example of human connection.

Review: Are You Listening? takes a simple conceit of a road trip and turns into a quiet, introspective study of heartbreak, grief, and identity.  Bea and her adult acquaintance Lou find themselves unlikely companions on a road trip through Texas. There are many wordless panels as the Bea and Lou start their trip, but they soon open up to one another. We discover that the two women have two things in common: both are gay, and neither is going somewhere so much as escaping something. Bea is fleeing sexual abuse by a cousin and the shame that has prevented her from telling anyone; Lou is avoiding dealing with her grief following her mother's death.
  As Bea and Lou drive to one of Lou's relative in a remote location in Texas, they share their own personal anecdotes and Bea works on her driving skills, they find a lost cat whose ID tag bears an address in "West, West Texas" at a rest stop. Bea names the cat Diamond, and insists they deliver her home. Up to this point the trip has been pretty normal and peaceful, but unease builds as the trio sets out for West and their surroundings become increasingly surreal. Snow falls heavily; roads appear and disappear. There's something off about the locals-who imply that the town exists only some of the time. Most bizarre are the menacing male "Road Inquiry" officers who have an aggressive interest in the cat. Lou's fierce protectiveness of Bea is mirrored by Bea's of Diamond; their growing fear and anger are reflected in a darkened palette and distorted figures, panel frames, and speech bubbles.
  I got lost pretty quickly when the illustrations became surreal and took a magical realism turn. The pacing is inconsistent and I still didn't fully understand the purpose behind Diamond. I wish I got more of a backstory for Lou like we did for Bea. The protagonists and their emotions drive this story and if you can go with the odd turn into the surreal, I think Are You Listening? is worth the read.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language in the graphic novel. One of the characters reveals she has been sexually assaulted by a family member. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Will and Whit by Laura Lee Gulledge
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?
  Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.


Review: Ninth House is a dark fantasy/murder mystery that takes place in Yale University's secret societies. Galaxy "Alex" Stern is our main character who has recently woke up in the hospital after an overdose to learn two things: that she was the only survivor of an unsolved bloody multiple homicide and that because of her ability to see ghosts, she was being offered a spot in Yale's freshmen class, provided she join Lethe, the clandestine group that monitors the school's eight secret societies. At Yale, each secret society or house specializes in a discipline of the occult, from necromancy to divination, and the members of Lethe are responsible for making sure their activities don't harm anyone, inside or outside of the societies.
  Ninth House is very different from Bardugo's YA novels. The world building is quite solid, however, fantasy takes a back seat to the murder mystery which surprised me. The pace is very slow for the first 200 pages or so as we try to wrap our heads around the secret societies and learn about Alex through flashbacks. The narrative is initially told from two perspectives: Alex in the present at Yale and from Darlington, Alex's mentor until he abruptly goes missing.
  It took me a while to warm up to Alex. She is constantly numbing herself either through drugs or alcohol and she is very cagey, abrasive, all of which are defensive mechanisms. Though she seems to flounder in her day to day routines and is exhausted by trying to act "normal", she seems to find her footing when trying to solve a girl's murder, which no one seems to care. Bardugo efficiently demonstrates female rage as well as the power of privilege and class through out the story.  Readers can tell she is greatly influenced by the #MeToo movement.
  I would have liked a bit more explanation regarding the ghosts and Alex's connections to them, which I was most interested in the book. The book's uneven pacing and a lot of information to keep track of took me out of the story multiple times, but I am still interested to see where this series goes. Had I expected less fantasy and more of a murder mystery, I may have liked this book a lot more than I did.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language, drug use, overdosing, gore, self-harm, rape, sexual assault, talk of suicide, physical abuse, sex, and forced eating of human waste. Recommended for adults and mature teens only. 

If you like this book try: Broken Girls by Simone St. James
Rummanah Aasi
Description: When Jameela Mirza is picked to be feature editor of her middle school newspaper, she's one step closer to being an award-winning journalist like her late grandfather. The problem is her editor-in-chief keeps shooting down her article ideas. Jameela's assigned to write about the new boy in school, who has a cool British accent but doesn't share much, and wonders how she'll make his story gripping enough to enter into a national media contest.
   Jameela, along with her three sisters, is devastated when their father needs to take a job overseas, away from their cozy Georgia home for six months. Missing him makes Jameela determined to write an epic article--one to make her dad extra proud. But when her younger sister gets seriously ill, Jameela's world turns upside down. And as her hunger for fame looks like it might cost her a blossoming friendship, Jameela questions what matters most, and whether she's cut out to be a journalist at all.

Review: More to the Story is a diverse and loosely inspired nod to Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. In this story we follow four Pakistani Muslim sisters in their daily lives. All four girls are given distinctive voices and equal time on the page.Our narrator is Jameela (who goes by the nickname Jam), a seventh grader bent on becoming a journalist. She runs and chronicles her family's accomplishments in a monthly newsletter called the Mirza Memos, but she fights to make her voice heard on her school newspaper and wants to write important subjects. Her older sister, Maryam, is in high school. Maryam is known for her beauty, but this attribute does not limit her as she is also studious, responsible, and caring. The youngest, Aleeza, is a bit spoiled and throws temper tantrums when she does not get her way which is pretty typical for her age. While Aleeza brings out the worst of Jam’s temper, gentle Bisma brings out Jam’s protective, loving instincts.
 The girls must work together to help their mother when their father goes overseas for an international work contract. They also befriend Ali, a cute British Pakistani boy who immigrates to the United States after the death of his father. The Mirza's deal with financial problems and the sudden discovery of a serious illness for Bisma. Readers of Alcott's famous book will immediately recognize simple plot points in this story, however, Khan adds her touch by infusing Pakistani culture into her story. There is also a great discussion of microagressions for young readers. I had a great time reading this book and I wished it was a bit longer as I would have loved to see all of these characters grow up into adults.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is a racial slur mentioned in the book and discussion of racial microagressions in the book. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Strange Birds by Celia C. Perez
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson is known for the unflinching way she writes about, and advocates for, survivors of sexual assault. Now, inspired by her fans and enraged by how little in our culture has changed since her groundbreaking novel Speak was first published twenty years ago, she has written a poetry memoir that is as vulnerable as it is rallying, as timely as it is timeless. In free verse, Anderson shares reflections, rants, and calls to action woven between deeply personal stories from her life that she's never written about before.

Review: Like many readers my first introduction to Laurie Halse Anderson is through her powerful, heart wrenching debut novel, Speak, which I read during my first year of library school and it has resonated with me since then. I had no idea that the root of that novel stemmed from personal experience. In this powerful, timely, candid, and exquisite memoir told in free verse, Anderson delves into her past and that of her parents, sharing experiences of being a sexual assault survivor at the age of 13 and dealing with her father's PTSD and rageful episodes as a World War II veteran.
  Anderson's writing is clear, raw, and lyrical as she traces the years from her childhood to the start of her writing career, describing how the memory of her rape finally spurred her to write the truth and to become an activist against censorship and rape culture, which are both addressed in the book along with confusing social messages surrounding sexuality. Her road to reclaiming her voice and facing her demons is long, hard, and painful but also incredibly inspiring. Silence is a repeating theme throughout the memoir whether is it done subconsciously or forced upon in fear of not being believed. Shout should be required reading just like teaching consent should be required at all grade levels.

Rating: 5 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language and candid discussions of sexual assault, sexual harassment, drug abuse, underage drinking, and domestic abuse. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try:
Rummanah Aasi
Description: With just five dollars and a knapsack to her name, fifteen-year-old Harleen Quinzel is sent to live in Gotham City. She's not worried, though--she's battled a lot of hard situations as a kid, and knows her determination and outspokenness will carry her through life in the most dangerous city in the world. And when Gotham's finest drag queen, Mama, takes her in, it seems like Harley has finally found a place to grow into her most 'true true' with new best friend Ivy at Gotham High. But when Mama's drag cabaret becomes the next victim in the wave of gentrification that's taking over the neighborhood, Harley's fortune takes another turn. Now Harleen is mad. In turning her anger into action, she is faced with two choices: Join activist Ivy, who's campaigning to make the neighborhood a better place to live, or team up with her anarchist friend Jack, who plans to take down Gotham one corporation at a time.

Review: Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass takes on gentrification in its anti-heroine origin story. In this version Harley is a bubbly and outgoing teen that actually has a moral compass. When she is sent to live with her grandmother in Gotham City, she discovers her grandmother has died, but apartment manager Mama, a white, gay man who also manages the local drag queen bar, lets her stay. Harley finds her place among a colorful “mutiny of queens” and makes a new best friend, Ivy Du-Barry also known as Poison Ivy. Harley is introduced to the concept of gentrification and activism as the two form protests against the high school film club, who refuses to include movies directed by women and people of color. Gentrification hits home for Harley when Mama receives news of an impending eviction and crosses paths with the Joker.
  Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass is a fast, fun read. The text pops just like Harley's personality. I liked the juxtaposition between activism and chaos that Harley and Joker are known for in the DC universe. I also enjoyed learning more about Harley's background in flashbacks, shaded in orange. The diverse cast of characters is a huge plus and welcomed. While I appreciated the discussion of the impact of gentrification, it did come across as a bit heavy handed. I also did not care for the Joker and his real identity is a bit anti-climatic. The illustrations by Pugh are fantastic and really make this graphic novel come alive. When characters are truly in their element, their trademark colors are used: a red and black scheme for Harley, shades of green for Ivy, and the Joker’s purple. Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass is a nuanced, social conscious graphic novel that will not have a hard time finding an audience.


Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some minor language and some strong violence. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale by Lauren Myracle
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Rory Thorne is a princess with thirteen fairy blessings, the most important of which is to see through flattery and platitudes. As the eldest daughter, she always imagined she'd inherit her father's throne and govern the interplanetary Thorne Consortium. Then her father is assassinated, her mother gives birth to a son, and Rory is betrothed to the prince of a distant world. When Rory arrives in her new home, she uncovers a treacherous plot to unseat her newly betrothed and usurp his throne. An unscrupulous minister has conspired to name himself Regent to the minor (and somewhat foolish) prince. With only her wits and a small team of allies, Rory must the Regent and rescue the prince.

Review: How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse is an enthralling and highly entertaining read that combines elements of fantasy, science fiction, and fairy tales with a feminist lens. It is pitched as The Princess Bride meets Star Wars, which seems like a really odd combination but works beautifully. Despite these multiple elements it is very readable and easy to follow, especially if you do not get too hung up on genre labels.
  The story is shared by a historian and a mix of third person and omniscient point of views which highlight a character's internal monologue. A lot of the internal monologues provided me with lots of laugh out loud moments. The world building is solid while the narrator fills in the reader with necessary information without resorting to info dumping, which I greatly appreciated.
  Eason heavily borrows from the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, but subverts a lot of its themes and plot. When Rory was born she was given gifts and not cursed by a sleeping spell. She is bestowed gifts by the thirteen fairies, which either help or hurt her throughout her odyssey of 16 years in this story.  During this time, she gets all the best training possible from the Vizier of Thorne, Rupert, and her body maid/protector, Grit. I enjoyed watching Rory grow over the course of the adventure, putting to use and expanding upon her training. There are some suspenseful and hard times in this book, but the light moments and humor balances it out quite nicely.
  In addition to the main cast, the supporting characters also add to the story and to Rory's journey. I loved how the female characters held substantial roles unlike the traditional fairy tales. A lot of male characters where just okay and were in the shadow of female greatness.
  There are possible romances in the works or at least I am shipping some characters together because of their great chemistry such as Grit and Rupert and Jade, younger and sweet son of Regent Moss (the villain) and Rory. I would love to see this title on the Alex Award lists as it is a perfect YA/adult crossover.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some minor language in the book. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, Lady Janies series by Brodi Ashton, Cynthia Hand, and Jodi Meadows
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Jude never thought she’d be leaving her beloved older brother and father behind, all the way across the ocean in Syria. But when things in her hometown start becoming volatile, Jude and her mother are sent to live in Cincinnati with relatives.
  At first, everything in America seems too fast and too loud. The American movies that Jude has always loved haven’t quite prepared her for starting school in the US—and her new label of “Middle Eastern,” an identity she’s never known before. But this life also brings unexpected surprises—there are new friends, a whole new family, and a school musical that Jude might just try out for. Maybe America, too, is a place where Jude can be seen as she really is.

Review: Other Words for Home is a beautifully written novel in verse that covers war and displacement, resilience and adjustment to a new culture and country.  Growing up in a coastal town in Syria, Jude’s days revolve around her family and best friend, watching American romantic movies, and going to school. There is war looming in Syria and Jude’s brother, Issa, gets involved in the resistance movement. Jude and her mother leave Syria before the civil war peaks and move in with Uncle Mazin and his family in Cincinnati. The novel’s blank verse form works beautifully to capture Jude’s wide range of emotions as she leaves the only life she's known behind, dread with worry about her father and brother who are still in Syria and she adjusts to her new life in America. Friendships, complicated family relationships, microaggressions, Islamophobia, and a new language are just a few of the layers Warga weaves into Jude’s consciousness. Jude is keenly aware of the roles she embodies and the complexities associated with them. She is also becoming aware of the labels that are placed upon her in America such as "Arab American". Her voice is both wise and hopeful despite the obstacles that she faces. Her bravery is admirable and accessible. After a few emotional crescendos, the story is resolved with satisfying closure and believable new possibilities. I would not be surprised if this book pops up as a Newbery nominee.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is a hate crime in the book in which a Middle Eastern restaurant is vandalized and destroyed. There is also talk about menstruation and female puberty in the book. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Refugee by Alan Gratz, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Jay Reguero plans to spend the last semester of his senior year playing video games before heading to the University of Michigan in the fall. But when he discovers that his Filipino cousin Jun was murdered as part of President Duterte's war on drugs, and no one in the family wants to talk about what happened, Jay travels to the Philippines to find out the real story. Hoping to uncover more about Jun and the events that led to his death, Jay is forced to reckon with the many sides of his cousin before he can face the whole horrible truth -- and the part he played in it.

Review: After finding out about his cousin Jun’s violent death, Jay Reguero travels from America to the Philippines to uncover the truth behind the mysterious death. Jay does not have much of a connection to the Philippines, the place of his birth, and has recently discovered that the nation has changed in the face of a sweeping drug war initiated by President Rodrigo Duterte, a war that Jun’s father, Tito Maning, enthusiastically endorses. Jay digs into the circumstances of Jun’s death, which is much more complicated than what he had anticipated.
   I really enjoyed The Patron Saints of Nothing which deftly weaves a mystery/suspense elements regarding Jun's death and a coming of age story that taps into the deep, nuanced, and complicated yet realistic family drama between family members who stayed in Philippines and that of Jay's father who decided to raise his children in America. Ribay perfectly captures the feelings of those who straddle two different cultures. He faces microaggressions at school and while attempting to try to convey his feelings to his American friends. Yet he also feels like an outsider in the Philippines because he does not speak the language though he looks Filipino.
  This book is a window for me in terms of learning about the current the current-day war on drugs ravaging Filipino society, characterized by extrajudicial vigilante killings endorsed by the highest levels of government, which unfortunately I do not hear too much about in the news. The author also touches upon the Filipino history of colonization, occupation, and revolution, but I needed a bit more to fully wrap my head around. After reading this book I can definitely see why it was nominated for the National Book Award for Young Adults.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is language and discussion of drug abuse, sex trafficking, and violence initiated by the government and police. Recommended for Grades 10 and up.

If you like this book try: Monday's Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson
Rummanah Aasi
Description: As a transfer student to the Georgia O’Keeffe College for Arts and Subtle Dramatics, former sports star Charlie is struggling to find her classes, her dorm, and her place amongst a student body full of artists who seem to know exactly where they’re going. When the school’s barely-a-basketball-team unexpectedly attempts to recruit her, Charlie’s adamant that she’s left that life behind…until she’s won over by the charming team captain, Liv, and the ragtag crew she’s managed to assemble. And while Charlie may have left cut-throat competition in in the dust, sinking these hoops may be exactly what she needs to see the person she truly wants to be.

Review: Charlie Bravo is a recent transfer to the Georgia O’Keeffe College of Arts and Subtle Dramatics. She is determined to keep to herself and focus on her film studies. Charlie finds it hard to stick to her goals when she runs into a girl named Liv who sets her sights on getting Charlie to join her newly minted basketball team. Liv is full of energy, brimming with optimism, loves leading teams and incessantly tries to woo Charlie for her basketball team. Liv has a great heart, but she can come on way too strong so she ends up recruiting the rest of her ragtag basketball crew to convince Charlie—each in their own unique fashion—just before the first game. Ashley, Nicole, Jay, and Tiffany eventually wear her down with their numerous and humorous attempts, not only welcoming her to their team, but also into their circle of friendship. It takes Charlie some time to thaw and reveal some hurtful memories of her last university. At her new university, however, Charlie might rekindle her love of basketball with her new team and possibly find a new romance.
  Avant-Guards is a fun, quick read that puts female sports in the front and center. The cast of characters are diverse in gender expression (one is nonbinary), race, and sexual orientation. There is also plenty of diversity in secondary characters too. The illustrations were bright and energetic just like the characters. There is a nice balance of humor, heart, and action, but I did feel that there is little plot for the first volume of this graphic novel. Overall a promising start to a new series that features diversity, inclusion, and female sports. I look forward to reading the next volume in the series.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some minor language and scenes of drinking. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Avant-Guards Vol 2 by Carly Usdin, Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu, Giant Days series by John Allison
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