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
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