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

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

Rating: 3.5 stars

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

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

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

Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5 stars

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

If you like this book try: Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Shecter, Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Camp is about more than just crafts and acquiring badges when you’re a Lumberjane. When April, Jo, Mal, Molly, and Ripley all decide to learn more about the mysterious Seafarin’ Karen, things take a turn for the strange. Shapeshifters, strange portals, and friendship to the max make for one summer camp that never gets boring!

Review: This volume has a similar plot as the previous volume in which the Lumberjanes are trying to acquire a knot making badge. We meet a new counselor named Seafarin' Karen who informs the girls that they need to earn their badges by working as a team which irritates the girls since they always work as a time. As usual April's curiosity to learn more about their new counselor's secrets gets out of hand and pretty soon the Lumberjanes and Seafarin' Karen are in a heated battle with a band of selkies who took over Karen's ship and refuse to return it.
   Ever since the Noelle Stevenson left as an illustrator to the series, the artwork has been inconsistent and oftentimes a game of hit or miss with me. Unlike the first three volumes which had a complete story arc, the last few volumes have more of an episodic feel. There is a potential for a new story arc as it is hinted that Molly might become Bear Lady's heir or assistant.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended for Grades 6 and up.

If you like this book then try: Princeless series by Jeremy Whitley
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Meet Ove. He's a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn't walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time? Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness.
  So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove's mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents' association to their very foundations.

Review: A few of my coworkers and students recommended A Man Called Ove to me. I've seen this title circulate pretty heavily and thought I would check it out for the summer. It has been a long time where a book has made me laugh and fracture my heart in alternating chapters. Ove is a fifty-nine, curmudgeon widower who is upfront with his dislikes. As the book slowly reveals in episodes is that below the veneer of a grumpy old man is a man who has a heart of solid gold. The book's plot is not elaborate or hard to figure out, but its characters make it shine. Told in alternating time lines, we see Ove in the present day and his past slowly revealed in alternating chapters. Ove is naturally grumpy and pessimistic but his life is turned around when he meets and marries the love of his life, Sonja, who balances Ove's rough exterior with warmth, optimism, and light. When Sonja dies of cancer,  he's in a place of despair yet again and is making several attempts to reunite with Sonja again, except another woman who turns him around a second time: spirited, knowing, pregnant Parvaneh, who moves with her husband and children into the terraced house next door and forces Ove to engage with the world. The back story chapters have a simple, reflective quality that give reasons for Ove's personality, while the current-day chapters are episodic and often hysterically funny. There is a nice balance between light and dark moments of the book. The book has excellent pacing and I loved the Like the characters and the cat that repeatedly burst through Ove's doors, In both instances, the juxtaposition of Ove's grumpiness and his good deeds that prevent the book from being repetitive. After reading the book I can see why it is very popular and I would recommend it if you are looking for an uplifting, heartwarming story. I plan on watching the movie adaptation of this Swedish bestseller.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language and mention of suicide attempts. Recommended for mature teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
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