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
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