Rummanah Aasi
Description: People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys. Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Review: In rural Sweden there is a small town called Beartown where hockey is more than just a sport. For some it is a religion, an identity, and for others it is a means to overcome short comings and aspire to be better. A team of junior hockey players are on the cusp of changing everything for Beartown. If the players can win the championship, the small town may attract new businesses, improve its ailing economy, and recover its dismal sport dignity. Everyone in the town shares a link to the teen players, from the local bar owner to the mother who cleans the rink, is affected whether they win or lose. Star players are raised on pedestals and considered immortal despite their social standing in the community.
  After a night of celebrating a memorable semifinals win, the star player is accused of raping the general manager's daughter. The community must decide between holding the alleged rapist accountable, and thereby forfeiting their chances at success, and overlooking the crime. I was completely taken aback by this book. I was anticipating a regular underdog sports story, a subgenre that I don't read often. This is far from a typical sports story. Backman provides a panoramic analysis of the sexual assault and all the ripples it causes within the community. There is a large cast of characters, some of which you root for and cherish and others that you hate. Due to the size of the cast, I didn't feel like I had a good amount of character development as I would have liked, but enough to make a decision if I found them to be likable or not. The book is very timely, unfortunately, as sexual assault and sports is a common story and in the time of the #MeToo movement. I was not surprised by the outcome of events though angered and frustrated how the survivor of the assault was not taken seriously or believed. I could not help to think that this would make a wonderful TV show as I constantly thought how much this reminded me of Friday Night Lights TV series which I adored. Beartown is a lighthearted book like the author's previous popular works. This is a serious look at how the actions of one or two people can affect an entire town.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language, scenes of bullying, sexual assault, mentions suicide, homophobic slurs and jokes, and underage drug use. Recommended for older teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: Us Against Them by Frederick Backman, Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Nadia stands at the center of attention in her parents’ elegant dining room. This is the best day of my life, she thinks. Everyone is about to sing “Happy Birthday,” when her uncle calls from the living room, “Baba, brothers, you need to see this.” Reluctantly, she follows her family into the other room. On TV, a reporter stands near an overturned vegetable cart on a dusty street. Beside it is a mound of smoldering ashes. The reporter explains that a vegetable vendor in the city of Tunis burned himself alive, protesting corrupt government officials who have been harassing his business. Nadia frowns.
    It is December 17, 2010: Nadia’s twelfth birthday and the beginning of the Arab Spring. Soon anti-government protests erupt across the Middle East and, one by one, countries are thrown into turmoil. As civil war flares in Syria and bombs fall across Nadia’s home city of Aleppo, her family decides to flee to safety. Inspired by current events, this novel sheds light on the complicated situation in Syria that has led to an international refugee crisis, and tells the story of one girl’s journey to safety.

Review: Nadia is enjoying her birthday with her family and friends when news arrives of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man who set himself on fire to protest harassment and corruption of government officials in Tunisia. Nadia is not aware of the new's significance, but the elders in her family watch as protests spread from Tunisia throughout parts of the Middle East in what is called the Arab Spring. Soon the Arab Spring comes to Syria as citizens begin to demand their rights and desires for improved living conditions. Instead of optimism the movement promised, civil war breaks out in Syria as multiple factions face off one another. As her family attempts to flee to Turkey and reunite with her father, their home is bombed and Nadia is left behind. With her cat, Mishmish, and the help of an old, mysterious man—Ammo Mazen—Nadia begins the journey.
  After reading a little about the Syrian Civil War, Escape from Aleppo does a better job in explaining the origins and complexity of the civil war. The author is not afraid to touch upon the politics and uses simple terms for young readers without dumbing it down for them. Flashbacks of Nadia’s life before the war are interspersed with those detailing her struggles to find her father. Nadia gains courage and trust throughout her journey, thanks to her companions, all while struggling to understand why there is such sadness and unfairness in this world. There are dark moments in the book such as kids playing in a cemetery that formed a lump in my throat, but there is also a nice balance of kindness and hope too. Though there are moments of unrealistic events in the book that hinder the story, Escape from Aleppo is a necessary reminder and primer of what is happening in Syria and what many people in war town areas of the country live through every day.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is war violence in the book such as planes dropping bombs and guns firing in the book. Recommended for strong Grade 4 readers and up.

If you like this book try: Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab, Refugee by Alan Gratz
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Winnie Mehta was never really convinced that Raj was her soulmate, but their love was written in the stars. Literally, a pandit predicted Winnie would find the love of her life before her 18th birthday, and Raj meets all of the qualifications. Which is why Winnie is shocked to return from her summer at film camp to find her boyfriend of three years hooking up with Jenny Dickens. Worse, Raj is crowned chair of the student film festival, a spot Winnie was counting on for her film school applications. As a self-proclaimed Bollywood expert, Winnie knows this is not how her perfect ending is scripted.
  Then there’s Dev, a fellow film geek, and one of the few people Winnie can count on to help her reclaim control of her story. Dev is smart charming, and challenges Winnie to look beyond her horoscope to find someone she’d pick for herself. But does falling for Dev mean giving up on her prophecy, and her chance to live happily ever after? To get her Bollywood-like life on track, Winnie will need a little bit of help from fate, family, and of course, a Bollywood movie star.

Review: Bollywood has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, whether it is through listening to music from Bollywood movies or watching the movies on the weekend. So I was super-excited to read Sharma's debut novel when I saw its title alone. My So-Called Bollywood Life is an adorable romantic comedy filled with humor, drama, family, and of course romance just like a good Bollywood rom-com.
  Vaneeta "Winnie" Mehta is a Bollywood junkie and loves film. She aspires to be a movie critic and study film with a specialty of South Asian films at the prestigious NYU film school. Winnie had a life pretty much planned out. She would go to NYU and eventually marry her best friend and movie buff Raj as it was fated in her janampatri (natal star chart). As we start the book, Winnie's world is turned upside down as she finds out via social media that Raj was hooking up with another classmate while they were on a break. To make things worse, Raj takes over the film festival, Winnie's moment of glory to showcase her skills and passion for film and was to be her key to NYU, and club member Dev is now starting to be interested in her. Remorseful Raj wants to win Winnie back. Needless to say Winnie has to figure out her complicated romance and find a new way to showcase her love of movies. More unsettling, she must decide if she believes in destiny, and if so, what is hers?
  I absolutely loved the inclusion of Bollywood throughout the novel, particularly the dream sequences starring one of Bollywood's mega stars Shah Rukh Khan. Each chapter headings references Bollywood films, which are detailed in the back of the book for those who are unfamiliar and a good starting guide for those who want give Bollywood movies a try. Since I saw all the films listed, I had a fun time making the connections. Those less familiar with the genre may be a little overwhelmed by the movie details that sprinkle the text, but there are plenty things that they will love about the novel that this might be overlooked. Winnie is a solid heroine who is smart, funny, and ambitious. What I loved most about her, apart from the fact that I also use movie and tv references to explain situations when I can't find the right words, is how proud she is of her culture. I also loved her relationship with her family and best friend. There are plenty of romantic and swoony moments too that brought a smile to my face. My So-Called Bollywood Life is a solid and charming debut. I can't wait to see what Sharma writes next.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language and crude sexual humor. Recommended for Grades 7 and up.

If you like this book try: From Twinkle, with Love by Sandhya Menon
Rummanah Aasi

Description: In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
   But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Review: I absolutely loved Miller's debut novel, The Song of Achilles, which is a retelling of Homer's Illiad. Miller had even a fresh voice and allowed me to change my perception of Achilles. Similarly in her next novel, Circe, she returns to Homer and takes a snippet of The Odyssey to give us an unique take on Circe, one of the famous witches in Greek Mythology.
  Unlike Achilles, whose fighting skills and passions are renown, there is not much known about Circe except her lineage and her witchcraft which is mentioned briefly in The Odyssey. This gives Miller a lot to play around and lends the book to be more than a retelling but also a coming of age story about a complex female figure who has to fight to make her own place. Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife Perse. Though she doesn't have characteristics or abilities of a goddess, Circe's compassion and soft heart often make her the outcast in her family. She stumbles upon her power as a sorceress by accident when she longs to make a mortal companion immortal, but it goes horribly wrong and she is banished to the island of Aeaea. Watching Circe evolve from a quivering nymph to a formidable figure is fascinating. Her isolation at Aeaea allows her to focus on herself and build her own skills in learning about herbs and potions while surrounding herself with lions and wolves as companions. Before reading Circe, I was under the impression that Circe used her witchcraft as an evil person, but this book presents her in a different light. For Circe, witchcraft is a means for survival both for physical protection (where kindness and hospitality to lost mortal men result in rape) and an identity. In fact, Circe is not deceived by Odysseus as we are told by Homer, but she is well aware of his cunning. Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s central theme. She is well aware of how men work. She makes Hermes and Odysseus her lovers, but not expecting a fairy tale romance. The birth of her son Telegonus and the surprised ending makes me wonder how The Odyssey would be told differently if Homer was a woman. There are different mythologies also told in the book from the creation of Scylla, Daedulus and his tragic son Icarus, the creation of the maze, and the birth of the Minotaur, but the focus and spell of Circe holds the readers attention. A definite read if you are interested in reading Greek Mythology with a feminist bent to the well told epic poems.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language and violence. Sexual situations are alluded to in the book but not graphically depicted. There is also a rape scene that is mentioned but not graphically described. Recommended for older teens and adults with an interest in Greek Mythology.

If you like this book try: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, Medea by Kerry Greenwood
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Six years ago, Moss Jefferies' father was murdered by an Oakland police officer. Along with losing a parent, the media's vilification of his father and lack of accountability has left Moss with near crippling panic attacks.
  Now, in his sophomore year of high school, Moss and his fellow classmates find themselves increasingly treated like criminals by their own school. New rules. Random locker searches. Constant intimidation and Oakland Police Department stationed in their halls. Despite their youth, the students decide to organize and push back against the administration. When tensions hit a fever pitch and tragedy strikes, Moss must face a difficult choice: give in to fear and hate or realize that anger can actually be a gift.

Review: Moss had witnessed his unarmed father's fatal death at the hands of the police. He is still dealing with tragedy in the form of anxiety and night terrors, but his friends and mother help him through panic attacks. He is not a big fan of protesting as it was not fruitful for his family and only seems to make his anxiety worse. Moss also struggles with his self confidence and body image as a large, gay, African American. His dating life has been nonexistent-until he meets Javier, an undocumented immigrant from a different school, and begins to fall in love.
  Oshiro addresses many issues in his debut novel: racism, police brutality, civil rights, and gentrification to name a few and covers each of these topics well. As Moss begins his junior year at West Oakland High, a school whose student population is predominately made up of African Americans and Latinos, there are very limited resources for students. Students have to use books that are in irreparable conditions or even worse photocopied pages of textbooks for their classes. Due to low test scores on standardized tests (a battle that is unfortunately very common across the U.S.), there are limited grants. Now the school is adding metal detectors and random locker searches. Both new policies cause immediate issues for innocent students.
  Moss's group of friends is affected and they begin organizing. Tragedy strikes during a planned school walk out. Moss's inner demons are awakened and now he must stand up and fight for what is right. I really appreciated this book's honesty and realism in a unresolved, everything tied up in a bow happy ending. The heartbreaking last lines are a call to action. Notably, there are no good models of white ally-ship, putting a sharp eye on white privileged and the title is stronger for this fact. While the book does drag in bits and could have used some editing to tighten some passages, the diversity of this title is its biggest strength: sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, race, disability, and ethnicity are all portrayed in Oshiro's inner-city Oakland setting. This timely title will provoke much-needed discussion and would make an excellent book discussion.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong violence and language. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, How I resist : activism and hope for a new generation edited by Maureen Johnson
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