Rummanah Aasi
Description: Emilia Torres has a wandering mind. It's hard for her to follow along at school, and sometimes she forgets to do what her mom or abuela asks. But she remembers what matters: a time when her family was whole and home made sense. When Dad returns from deployment, Emilia expects that her life will get back to normal. Instead, it unravels.
   Dad shuts himself in the back stall of their family's auto shop to work on an old car. Emilia peeks in on him daily, mesmerized by his welder. One day, Dad calls Emilia over. Then, he teaches her how to weld. And over time, flickers of her old dad reappear. But as Emilia finds a way to repair the relationship with her father at home, her community ruptures with some of her classmates, like her best friend, Gus, at the center of the conflict.

Review:  I have enjoyed every book by Pablo Cartaya thus far and Each Tiny Spark is no exception. This time Cartaya has been inspired by his own daughter and created a story that centers around a young Latinx girl named Emilia Rosa Torres. Emilia has inattentive type ADHD, which causes her trouble in keeping up with schoolwork and concentrating on one thing at a time, but her software-developer mother and super involved abuelita help her keep on task. Days before her father’s return to their Atlanta suburb from his most recent deployment, her mother goes on a business trip, leaving Emilia with her distant father and her abuela to take care of her. She struggles to juggle and understand her father's mood swings, her friend troubles, and her looming assignments all on her own. When a social studies project which debates whether or not students from a poor school be allowed to go to her school opens Emilia's eyes to injustices past and present, Emilia begins to find her voice and use it to make an impact on her community.
  Each Tiny Spark tackles tough subjects such as immigration, PTSD, and microaggressions sensitively and appropriately through the lens of a budding tinkerer and activist. Conversations on race and gender crop up through the narrative as Emilia’s grandmother likes to emphasize her family’s European heritage while her mother insists of celebrating her culture's Yoruba's roots. All of these larger issues are effortlessly woven in with skill and humor, as is the Spanish her family easily mixes with English. Emilia often doesn't understand the complex questions that surround her, but she asks insightful questions which is important for young readers to understand. This is another great realistic fiction book from Cartaya that will spark discussion, help build empathy, and offer a lot of food for thought after the last page.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina
Rummanah Aasi
Description: When his dad is caught embezzling funds from half the town, Rob goes from popular lacrosse player to social pariah. Even worse, his father's failed suicide attempt leaves Rob and his mother responsible for his care.
      Everyone thinks of Maegan as a typical overachiever, but she has a secret of her own after the pressure got to her last year. And when her sister comes home from college pregnant, keeping it from her parents might be more than she can handle.
    When Rob and Maegan are paired together for a calculus project, they're both reluctant to let anyone through the walls they've built. But when Maegan learns of Rob's plan to fix the damage caused by his father, it could ruin more than their fragile new friendship .

Review: Family dynamics is the front and center of Brigid Kemmerer's Call It What You Want. The story is told from dual perspectives, Rob and Maegan, who are grappling with serious and complicated issues. Rob is a former popular student whose father sustained a profound brain injury after a failed suicide attempt after he was turned in for embezzling his investors’ money. Rob now carries the burden to take care for his father. He is also wracked by guilt and constantly reminded that his father’s clients, many of whom are his peers’ families, lost everything. Many people in his community suspect that Rob knew of his father's actions since he interned at his father's company, but Rob adamantly claims he is innocent. Suspicion tracks Rob everywhere and makes him a social pariah until an unsuspected olive branch is presented in the form of a math project.
  Maegan is the dutiful and caring daughter of a police officer who struggles in the shadow of her lacrosse-star older sister, who is now home from college unexpectedly pregnant. Maegan is dealing with the fallout of last year when she is caught cheating on the SAT a year earlier, causing the scores of everyone in the room to be invalidated. Like Rob, Maegan is also working through her own guilt and never feeling good enough.
  Kemmerer's has a a knack for creating flawed characters who are complex and real. Rob and Maegan both live in the gray moral boundaries and are trying to remove the taint of their reputation, whether it is by their own action or the actions of others. Both characters are wrestling with questions about ethical responsibility and grief. The romance between Rob and Maegan is a slow burn one where they  slowly become confidants and chip away at one another’s defenses—and their burgeoning attraction causes fallout of its own. There is a lot tackled in this romantic realistic fiction novel that could weigh it down, but the story is well-grounded with funny dialogue. There is also a natural discussion of race and privilege in the book, which I appreciated. This is another winner from Brigid Kemmerer.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, scenes of underage drinking, and references to an attempted suicide.

If you like this book try: Just Listen by Sarah Dessen, Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich, Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
Rummanah Aasi
Description: In a small town in Maine, recently widowed Eveleth "Evvie" Drake rarely leaves her house. Everyone in town, including her best friend, Andy, thinks grief keeps her locked inside, and she doesn't correct them. In New York, Dean Tenney, former major-league pitcher and Andy's childhood friend, is struggling with a case of the "yips": he can't throw straight anymore, and he can't figure out why. An invitation from Andy to stay in Maine for a few months seems like the perfect chance to hit the reset button. When Dean moves into an apartment at the back of Evvie's house, the two make a deal: Dean won't ask about Evvie's late husband, and Evvie won't ask about Dean's baseball career. Rules, though, have a funny way of being broken--and what starts as an unexpected friendship soon turns into something more. But before they can find out what might lie ahead, they'll have to wrestle a few demons: the bonds they've broken, the plans they've changed, and the secrets they've kept. They'll need a lot of help, but in life, as in baseball, there's always a chance--right up until the last out.

Review: As far as everyone in her small town knows, Evvie Drake is a grieving widow. Her husband died in a car accident, and she’s been living all alone in their big house, rarely venturing out except to get breakfast with her best friend, Andy. In actuality Evvie is hiding a big secret from everyone, she is not grieving as she should be and that she was actually planning to leave her emotionally abusive husband on the night of his death. She plays the role of a grieving widow because that it is what is expected of her, but is exhausted by play acting and wants to restart her life but doesn't know how.   When Andy suggests that his old friend, former baseball player Dean Tenney, move in to the apartment attached to Evvie’s house, she agrees. Much like Evvie, Dean’s life hasn’t turned out the way he wanted it to. After pitching for years, he’s struggling with “the yips”—he’s unable to pitch for reasons that neither he nor any professionals can figure out. Evvie and Dean are both mourning their old lives, for very different reasons, and the two of them quickly become friends—and then, slowly, something more than friends.
  Evvie Drake Starts Over is a quick and satisfying read mainly because the writing is so smooth and natural. Evvie and Dean are authentic adults who are kind, but incredibly flawed. They are trying their best, but they are reluctant to open up to one another. Evvie shuts down when asked about her her husband and Dean with a ban on discussing anything remotely related to baseball. I absolutely loved the slow burn romance between Evvie and Dean who speak to each other with natural but hilarious dialogue, making their conversations and this book an enjoyable read.  Refreshingly, Evvie and Dean’s relationship hurdles come about because of real life problems, their own share of emotional baggage and not because of easily fixed miscommunications. The book is not just centered on Evvie and Deane's romance, but also many other story lines that add to the character development of Evvie and Dean, such as the changing friendship between best friends Andy and Evvie and Evvie’s need to stand up to her family. Evvie Drake Starts Over is a smart romance that is fulled with nuisance and humor.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language and sexual situations in the novel. Recommended for older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: In the Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman, Landline by Rainbow Rowell
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Chase does not remember falling off the roof, in fact he does not remember anything about himself, and when he gets back to middle school he begins to learn who he was through the reactions of the other kids--trouble is, he really is not sure he likes the Chase that is being revealed, but can he take the opportunity amnesia has provided and restart his life?

Review: After falling off his roof, Chase Ambrose learns he was not a great person before his fall and knows that his past is not what he wants for his future. He wants to reinvent himself, but he quickly realizes that it is not easy to escape his past and his mistakes.
 Before his fall, Chase was the star and captain of the football team, following in his father's footsteps. He was also the biggest bully in his middle school, had made many students' lives miserable, and was serving a community service sentence for the damage that his bullying had caused. His dad and his former best friends, Bear and Aaron, recall the tough Chase that they love and want him to revert to, however, the new Chase is a kinder, more sympathetic person who struggles with his past and becomes friends with his former victims. Chase starts to earn his new friend's trust but it is rightfully fragile. As he works with the video club geeks, he forms a relationship with elderly Mr. Solway. I liked the juxtaposition of Mr. Solway's slow thawing of his icy exterior and sharing of his Korean War memories with Chase's own search for his own past.
 Korman is known for his humor in his books, but Restart has a more serious tone. There are humorous moments in the book such as the pursuit of making a viral video of stupid tricks, but they are sprinkled evenly in the story and more of the book's focus is on self reflection. The book is also told through multiple points of view, primarily of students who encounter and have different relationships with Chase and helps make Chase into a fully three dimensional character. Despite the strong anti-bullying theme, the story is never heavy handed but thoughtfully presents questions about loyalty, identity, owning up to mistakes, forgiveness, and the possibility of a new start in a way that appropriately fits the middle school setting.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are scenes of bullying in the book. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks
Rummanah Aasi

Description: With a price on her head, the evil Queen Sophia out for blood, and no idea who to trust, Camellia Beaureguard, the former favorite Belle, must race against time to find the ailing Princess Charlotte, who has disappeared without a trace. Sophia's imperial forces will stop at nothing to keep Camille, her sister Edel, and her loyal guard, Remy, from returning Charlotte to the palace and her rightful place as queen. With the help of an underground resistance movement called the Iron Ladies-a society that rejects beauty treatments entirely-and the backing of alternative newspaper the Spider's Web , Camille uses her powers, her connections, and her cunning to outwit her greatest nemesis, Sophia, and attempt to restore peace to Orleans. But enemies lurk in the most unexpected places, forcing Camille to decide just how much she's willing to sacrifice to save her people.

Review: I really enjoyed reading Dhonielle Clayton’s well crafted fantasy The Belles and eagerly anticipated for the sequel especially after the explosive events left me dangling from a cliffhanger.  Given the unknown status of this series (is it a duology? trilogy?) I have mixed feelings about The Everlasting Rose though I mostly enjoyed it.
 The Everlasting Rose picks up immediately where The Belles has ended. Camille’s innocence has been stripped away and she has become awakened to the exploitation of her Belle sisters. She is driven to liberating her sisters, finding the missing Princess Charlotte, and dethroning Sophia in Orléans. Of course large obstacles stand in Camille's way as Sophia's imperial forces are hunting her,  and her handsome guard Rémy. When Camille learns Sophia is constructing a prison to enslave Belles and chain them to the ugly demands of the kingdom, the stakes spike higher than ever and reinforces Camille's determination to restore Princess Charlotte to the throne before Sophia is crowned queen.
 The Everlasting Rose gives the reader a broader view of Orléans, a world that is a kaleidoscope of beauty, ugliness, whimsical and terrifying all at once. Under the guise of attaining beauty, the reader is exposed to the darker, underlying structures of enslaved magical labor and implicit violence, and the dehumanizing attitudes Sophia emboldens throughout the kingdom endanger Belles everywhere. Although Camille is our heroine, she too is not free from Orléans' taint as she must navigate various alliances such as the new revolutionary group called the Iron Ladies who resist all beauty treatment. 
   My main problem with The Everlasting Rose is that it feels like a middle book. The pacing is inconsistent where the action slowly builds and then everything feels rushed to the end. The Iron Ladies intrigued me and I wished they had more page time to develop in the book. With these issues in mind, I am really hoping for another book in this series as I still have many questions that remain unsolved. Overall this series poignantly uses a harrowing, fantastical tale to illuminate the very real horrors of unattainable beauty standards and the enslavement of marginalized bodies. Don't let my rating for this book deter you from picking this series up. It is well worth the read.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong violence that take place mostly off page and disturbing images. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.


If you like this book try: Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld, North of Beautiful by Justina Ireland, The Fold by An Na, Such a Pretty Face edited by Ann Angel
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