Rummanah Aasi

Description: Three years ago an event destroyed the small city of Poughkeepsie, forever changing reality within its borders. Uncanny manifestations and lethal dangers now await anyone who enters the Spill Zone. The Spill claimed Addison's parents and scarred her little sister, Lexa, who hasn't spoken since. Addison provides for her sister by photographing the Zone's twisted attractions on illicit midnight rides. Art collectors pay top dollar for these bizarre images, but getting close enough for the perfect shot can mean death--or worse. When an eccentric collector makes a million-dollar offer, Addison breaks her own hard-learned rules of survival and ventures farther than she has ever dared. Within the Spill Zone, Hell awaits--and it seems to be calling Addison's name.

Review: Spill Zone is cloaked in mystery surrounding an event that has caused residents of Poughkeepsie to hang suspended in the air like floating zombies where demonic wolves and sentient twisters appear out of nowhere. From what we can gather from the little clues in the book is that it wasn't aliens, it wasn't a nuclear attack, and the military isn't talking. In fact the lack of a backstory is what kept me filling through the pages of this bizarre graphic novel. Ultimately, it's the characters that drive this story. 
  Addison and her mute sister, Lexa, are on their own after their parents were caught in the Spill Zone. Addison photographs this quarantined area-the Spill Zone-and its bizarre happenings. She sells the images to support herself and her sister, Lexa. Her talent of weaving in and out of the Spill Zone undetected leads Addison to a deadly mission inside the Spill Zone with a reward of a million dollars should she succeed. Meanwhile, the North Korean government, which had its own Spill incident, wants to meet with Addison for their own ominous purposes. The story becomes even more twisted when Lexa begins to talk without any explanation and her creepy rag doll, Vespertine, who whispers devious thoughts in Lexa's mind.
  There are lots of different things developing this graphic novel. It starts off slowly but picks up the pace as more mysteries are layered on top of one another. The world that Westerfeld and Puvilland have created is imaginative and nightmarish with drawings composed of hectic lines and loud, vivid colors. Addison is an intriguing character who is forced to act like an adult though she is only in her teens. She is sympathetic but her personality can be abrasive. Her decisions are morally questionable, which makes her complex and appealing.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language and violence throughout the book. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Broken Vow (Spill Zone #2) by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland coming in July 10, 2018, The Silver Six by A.J. Lieberman
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Fifteen-year-old Matt Wainwright is in turmoil. He can’t tell his lifelong best friend, Tabby, how he really feels about her; his promising basketball skills are being overshadowed by his attitude on the court, and the only place he feels normal is in English class, where he can express his inner thoughts in quirky poems and essays. Matt is desperately hoping that Tabby will reciprocate his feelings; but then Tabby starts dating Liam Branson, senior basketball star and all-around great guy. Losing Tabby to Branson is bad enough; but, as Matt soon discovers, he’s close to losing everything that matters most to him.

Review: Awkward high school freshman Matt Wainwright has two goals in life. He wants to elevate his basketball skills from JV to Varsity and get the girl: his longtime next-door neighbor and unattainable best friend Tabby. Unfortunately, life doesn't follow Matt's plans. He systematically chokes and is error prone whenever Tabby is around, which prevents him from disclosing his true feelings for Tabby. After a school tragedy leaves Matt reeling as he risks losing everything important to him.
  I got many flashes to John Green's novels while reading The Short History of a Girl Next Door, but it didn't have the same emotional punch or moments of epiphanies. Where the author does succeed is the authentic voice and the inner monologues. Matt's voice is that of an authentic freshmen teenager filled with insecurity, awkwardness, and self deprecating humor. His infatuation with Tabby feels real and we spend a lot of time with Matt pining Tabby. The second half has a tragic twist that brings out  Matt's grief-induced selfishness, self-pity, and occasional outright cruelty. Matt's warm relationship with his grandfather unveils some surprises and sets Matt on the road to deal with his grief and loss in a positive manner.
  The book's short chapters, brisk pacing, and the in-depth descriptions of basketball will make this book appealing to reluctant readers. I had hoped we would spend more time Matt on his road to recovery, but it ends in an uplifting note.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language throughout the novel and some crude sexual humor. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: The Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner, The History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, Looking for Alaska by John Green
Rummanah Aasi
Description: For ten years, figure skating was Tillie Walden's life. She woke before dawn for morning lessons, went straight to group practice after school, and spent weekends competing at ice rinks across the state. It was a central piece of her identity, her safe haven from the stress of school, bullies, and family. But over time, as she switched schools, got into art, and fell in love with her first girlfriend, she began to question how the close-minded world of figure skating fit in with the rest of her life, and whether all the work was worth it given the reality: that she, and her friends on the figure skating team, were nowhere close to Olympic hopefuls. It all led to one question: What was the point? The more Tillie thought about it, the more Tillie realized she'd outgrown her passion--and she finally needed to find her own voice.

Review: Spinning is a quiet, contemplative graphic memoir about competitive ice skating, growing up, and coming out. Walden offers a candid examination of her experiences in figure skating from her passion for the sport and the embarrassments to experiences that marked pivotal moments in her adolescence, and how she eventually came out to family and friends as a young teen.
  Like the subtle text of the graphic novel, the art does not have any bells and whistles. It is very simple and mostly chromatic with a small color collection: indigo, white, and occasional splashes of yellow. The cold tone is reflective of the cold ice skating ring that Walden attended each morning before the sunrises as well as the teenage angst of a young woman trying to find her own place. Instead of focusing on the seedier side of figure skating, Walden focuses her own relationship with the sport and how she fell in and out of love with it. Various relationships are discussed though mostly are held at an arm's length particularly that of her strained relationship with her mother and her first romantic relationship which is both sweet and heartbreaking. Written when she is only 21 years old, Walden has lots of talent and I hope to read more from her.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some minor language. There are scenes of bullying and of unwanted sexual advances and attempted assault in the graphic novel. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Blankets by Craig Thompson
Rummanah Aasi

Description: After years in foster care, Ginny is in her fourth forever family, finally with parents who will love her. Everyone tells her that she should feel happy, but she has never stopped crafting her Big Secret Plan of Escape. Because something happened, a long time ago – something that only Ginny knows – and nothing will stop her going back to put it right.

Review: Ginny Moon is a much darker read than I had first expected. It is a bracing coming of age novel, but also an examination on what makes a family. When Ginny Moon was nine, she was removed from her abusive mother Gloria's custody and placed in foster care or as Ginny calls them "forever homes". Due to her autism, Ginny has never found a perfect forever home until her fourth forever home with a well meaning couple who are having problems having a child on their own. Ginny is approximately satisfied but she needs to rescue Baby Doll who left in a suitcase 8 years ago in at Gloria's apartment to keep her safe. Now Ginny is 14, how can she be comforted when her Baby Doll is not safe? What is Baby Doll and is Ginny's cherished possession still in the suitcase? This is the central mystery of the book.
  Ginny's first-person narration reveals the gulf between her internal life and her ability to communicate with the outside world. I felt a wide range of emotions both for Ginny and her loving foster parents. On the one hand, I couldn't help but feel frustrated for Ginny as she is constantly misunderstood and at odds with those around her. I knew what she was referring to as Baby Doll and it pained me to see her inability to communicate what she really means. On the other hand, it was heartbreaking to see Ginny's tunnel vision on rescuing Baby Doll while seemingly oblivious to the protections in place that prevent her from returning to Gloria, creating turmoil within her new family. Ginny isn't completely ignorant of Gloria's abuse as she mentions it constantly with her urgency to find Baby Doll.
  I wouldn't necessarily call Ginny an unreliable narrator, but the details of the story are spread out evenly in the book and gradually coalesce and make sense while upping the suspense. What I found interesting after I read the book and remarked on how accurate it feels is that the author incorporated his own personal experience as the adoptive father of a teen with autism.
  Ginny Moon is a heartfelt and often heartbreaking debut novel that has adult and YA crossover appeal, especially with readers who enjoy character driven stories.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language in the book. Allusions to child neglect, child abuse, drug abuse and death of an animal are made in the book. For the mature themes I would recommend this book to older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Rummanah Aasi

Description: JOSEF is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world . . .

ISABEL is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety in America . . .

MAHMOUD is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe . . .

All three kids go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers -- from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, shocking connections will tie their stories together in the end.

Review: With immigration being a hot topic and feverishly discussed and debated in the news, Alan Gratz's stirring middle grade novel, Refugee, is timely and important. It is focused on the different reasons why immigrants flee their native homelands. The book is told in three parallel stories of three different tween refugees from different eras, Josef from Nazi Germany in 1938, Isabel from 1994 Cuba, and Mahmoud from 2015 Aleppo, Syria, that eventually intertwine for maximum impact. 
  Although these countries, time periods, and three brave protagonists are very different, Gratz shows us how they share many things in common. Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud traverse a landscape ruled by a dictator and must balance freedom, family, and responsibility. Each initially leaves by boat, surviving at sea, struggles between visibility and invisibility in fear of safety, experience heart-wrenching loss, and ultimately gaining resilience in the process. In each alternating chapter we get a snapshot of being on their perilous journey with the people involved. What I found interesting is that the behavior of the children remained constant, however, the adults were unpredictable. There were many adults who exploited the vulnerabilities of the refugees, others who were constrained by their obligations not to help either due to their own safety being endangered or those dictated by their law or government, and a few who were driven by kindness and sincerity.
    Though Refugee is written for the middle grade audience, Gratz does not sugar coat the disastrous living conditions of each setting. He manages to be poignant, respectful and historically accurate in the book without resorting to shock value or making one dimensional characters. The chapters are short and fast paced. You can either read one narrative all the way through to the end, but I would suggest to read the book as it is formatted to get the full effect of how these stories are interwoven and effect each other. Though they are plenty of dark moments in the book, the ending does show us signs of hope for the future. The powerful author's note explains why Gratz wrote this book. Refugee is an excellent book for book discussions for older middle grade and above in classrooms, book groups, and/or communities looking to increase empathy at time when it is most needed.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is mention of bombings, gunfire, and other war violence in the book. Recommended for Grades 6 and up.

If you like this book try: Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai, Escape from Aleppo by N.H. Senzai
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