Rummanah Aasi
Description: Captain of the soccer team, president of the Debate Club, contender for valedictorian: Taylor's always pushed herself to be perfect. After all, that's what is expected of a senator's daughter. But one impulsive decision-one lie to cover for her boyfriend-and Taylor's kicked out of private school. Everything she's worked so hard for is gone, and now she's starting over at Hundred Oaks High.

Soccer has always been Taylor's escape from the pressures of school and family, but it's hard to fit in and play on a team that used to be her rival. The only person who seems to understand all that she's going through is her older brother's best friend, Ezra. Taylor's had a crush on him for as long as she can remember. But it's hard to trust after having been betrayed. Will Taylor repeat her past mistakes or can she score a fresh start?


Review: Defending Taylor is an ambitious book in the Hundred Oaks series that doesn't quite meets its mark. Kenneally tackles some tough topics in the book such as parental expectations, perfectionism, drug abuse, and dyslexia which is admirable and gives the book some depth. Taylor is a driven heroine who feels like her life has always been mapped out before her. Daughter of a political, she is expected to excel in her classes and extracurricular activities and go to an Ivy League school just like her siblings. Everything comes crashing down when Taylor made a mistake that not only tarnished her reputation but also put a stain on her father. 
  I liked Taylor for the most part because she felt like a real, flawed character. Everyone can relate to her because we all make mistakes. I admired her drive and grit to dust off herself and get back into the game though occasionally she does whip out the victim card a bit too much. Taylor's mistake is a plot device used for the character to analyze what she really wants to do with her life, which is sort of hinted in the book but I would have liked this aspect fleshed out a bit more since teens especially feel like their life is mapped out for them by their parents and they don't get to have a say. I would have liked Taylor be more self aware and driven in this aspect. Taylor's family play a big role in the book but we don't get to spend too much time with them. I wanted to learn more about her siblings and see how they interact with each other.
 The relationship between Taylor and Ezra was cute though it developed too quickly than what I would have liked. Tackling a learning disability like dyslexia was refreshing to read, but it wasn't explored enough for me. I was also happy to see some of the characters in previous books like Jack and Savannah pop up in the book. Overall Defending Taylor was a decent addition to the Hundred Oaks series. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: Drug use and underage drinking is mentioned in the book. There is also some strong sexual content and language in the book too. Recommended for Grades 10 and up.

If you like this book try: Faking Perfect by Rebecca Phillips, Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen


Description: All of Maggie’s focus and free time is spent swimming. She’s not only striving to earn scholarships—she’s training to qualify for the Olympics. It helps that her best friend, Levi, is also on the team and cheers her on. But Levi’s already earned an Olympic tryout, so Maggie feels even more pressure to succeed. And it’s not until Maggie’s away on a college visit that she realizes how much of the “typical” high school experience she’s missed by being in the pool.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Maggie decides to squeeze the most out of her senior year. First up? Making out with a guy. And Levi could be the perfect candidate. After all, they already spend a lot of time together. But as Maggie slowly starts to uncover new feelings for Levi, how much is she willing to sacrifice in the water to win at love?


Review: Coming Up for Air is the concluding book in the Hundred Oaks series. I am sad to see this series end as I am always looking forward to reading it every summer. Though Coming Up for Air was an enjoyable, quick read, it still left me unsatisfied. The first half of the book is dedicated to Maggie's insecurity of feeling left out in the romance department and we don't get to see much of swimming. She wants to have an experience before she graduates high school and seeks help by selecting Levi, her best friend, as her coach. Normally I love the friends to lovers trope, but I was not convinced by Maggie and Levi's chemistry and I think this is mostly because we didn't really get a chance to see them interact alone. It frustrates me when authors don't feel like they need to develop/explore a relationship because the characters already know each other for a long time. I wanted to learn more about Maggie and Levi as individuals before they were a couple. I would have loved a more emotional relationship between Maggie and Levi instead of them jumping into a physical relationship way too quickly.
 I actually liked the second half of the book much more where we finally get back to the sport of swimming. Roxie, Maggie's rival, had a big impact on Maggie and  I was curious to see how this story line would play out but Roxie remained your stereotypical mean girl. I also wanted to learn more about Georgiana and her mother and Hunter's romantic troubles. It was important to see Maggie's self confidence came back, but it irritated me that she came to her "ah ha" epiphany after she is in a romantic relationship and not before one. The book also ends abruptly and the question of whether or not Maggie and Levi made it to the Olympics is never answered though it was fun to see what happens to Jordan and Sam in the future. Overall, not the strongest book in the Hundred Oaks series. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong sexual content in the book as well as underage drinking and some language. Recommended for Grades 10 and up.

If you like this book try: On the Fence by Kasie West, Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Angoisse Ashe, the oft-forgotten middle sister of the Ashe royal family, is locked in a castle deep in the swamp. Not only is her castle guarded by zombies, but the swamp is full of dangerous hazards. Everything from quicksand to goblins to swamp monsters to VAMPIRES! But does that give Adrienne pause? Unfortunately not, as she and Bedelia dive head-first into their most dangerous adventure yet!

Review: The Princeless series continues to be an entertaining, thought provoking, and inspiring series. The stories continue to feature strong female characters, vibrant and colorful illustrations, and great messages that give it depth. In each volume Adrienne learns something about herself and about her relationships with her sisters and friends become stronger. This volume is no different as it tackles self worth, beauty, unhealthy relationships, and gender roles while having a fun plot to entertain you as you turn the pages.
  In a self reflecting prologue, Adrienne opens up about her insecurities. She is very different from her sisters and she never felt beautiful like them mainly due to her unruly hair. We watch as her hair stylist try to unsuccessfully try to tame her hair. It isn't until Adrienne cuts her hair and sees herself in a new light does she begin to understand that beauty isn't defined as one way and self worth isn't dependent on how you look but how you view yourself.
  The plot gains speed as Adrienne and Bedelia have to survive a cannibalistic tribe of goblins in a monster infested swamp in order to reach Angoisse's tower. On the way, they befriend unlikely allies and encounter a plant-like terror. In the meantime, Adrienne's brother, Devin, refuses to embrace traditional masculine gender roles and activities, which continues to infuriate his tyrannical father. Devlin has no interest in hunting and becoming king, but would rather pursue his passion for the arts. Devlin and his strained relationship with his father is the classic struggle of meeting parental expectations and following your own heart. I loved how Devlin wants to take the investigative approach to solving the mystery of what happened to his mother. 

  The unhealthy relationship portion is tactfully presented in the interactions between Angoisse and her fiance Raphael. It is clear that Raphael is a not a great example of a romantic interest as he peppers Angoisse with flowery comments in order for her to get what he wants. Angoisse is torn between her love for Angoisse and doing what she knows is wrong. Once again Whitely addresses the common misconception that having someone as a love interest equals your self worth. Angoisse learns this lesson as she, Adrienne, and Bedelia defeat the evil Raphael. Be Yourself is a great addition to the Princeless series and I'm looking forward to reading more from this series.

Rating: 4 stars

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

If you like this book try: Ninja-rella by Joey Comeau, Princess Ugg by Ted Naifeh
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
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