Rummanah Aasi

Description: When Poornima first meets Savitha, she feels something she thought she lost for good when her mother died: hope. Poornima's father hires Savitha to work one of their sari looms, and the two girls are quickly drawn to one another. Savitha is even more impoverished than Poornima, but she is full of passion and energy. She shows Poornima how to find beauty in a bolt of indigo cloth, a bowl of yogurt rice and bananas, the warmth of friendship. Suddenly their Indian village doesn't feel quite so claustrophobic, and Poornima begins to imagine a life beyond the arranged marriage her father is desperate to lock down for her. But when a devastating act of cruelty drives Savitha away, Poornima leaves behind everything she has ever known to find her friend again. Her journey takes her into the darkest corners of India's underworld, on a harrowing cross-continental journey, and eventually to an apartment complex in Seattle.

Review: Girls Burn Brighter is a story of sacrifice, exploitation, and reclamation, but most of all it is a story of true and enduring friendship. Poornima and Savitha are two friends and talented weavers who navigate poverty, abuse, and the relentless pressure to find suitable husbands in contemporary South India. In Indravalli their paths cross when Poornima’s father hires Savitha to help him meet the demand for new cotton saris. Savitha is very skillful with the charkha, the spinning wheel, and weaving with Poornima is respite from searching garbage dumps for metal and plastic to sell to support her family. Savitha finds in Poornima a sister and friend. Mourning the recent death of her mother from cancer, Poornima finds in Savitha a mother figure, a gifted storyteller, and a confidante. Though weaving brings their world together, a horrific crime tears them apart. Out in the world alone, with no knowledge of each other’s whereabouts, they must find a way to maneuver the cruelties lobbed at women with no education, little money, and a desire to want more from life in both India and the United States.
  Girls Burn Brighter is a difficult read that gets bleaker as it continues. There is no glimmer of happiness for neither woman as they find themselves in brutal circumstances and a constant fury of abuse, almost entirely at the hands of men. It is telling that there is not one redeemable male character in the entire book and those who have the potential to be so are problematic. There were many times I had to put the book down because I could not endure Poornima's and Savitha's pain and suffering. The narration alternates between Poornima's and Savitha’s points of view. I had no problems distinguishing the two voices because they were each distinct characters. What kept me reading is how resilient and brave Poornima and Savitha are as women whose indefatigable courage it took to escape their circumstances and their undying hope to reunite. I hated the abrupt and ambiguous ending mainly because I wanted to see these women happy after all they have endured. Girls Burn Brighter will make you uncomfortable and rage against the many injustices against women, it will also make you think. A great choice for book clubs and book discussions. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: Domestic abuse, rape, violence, and human traffiking are heavily featured in the book. Recommended for mature teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: The Color of Our Sky by Amita Trasi  
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Charlotte Lockard and Ben Boxer are separated by more than a thousand miles. On the surface, their lives seem vastly different—Charlotte lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, while Ben is in the small town of Lanester, Louisiana. Charlotte wants to be a geologist and keeps a rock collection in her room. Ben is obsessed with Harry Potter, presidential history, and recycling. But the two have more in common than they think. They’re both highly gifted. They’re both experiencing family turmoil. And they both sit alone at lunch.
  Over the course of a week, Charlotte and Ben—online friends connected only by a Scrabble game—will intersect in unexpected ways as they struggle to navigate the turmoil of middle school. You Go First reminds us that no matter how hard it is to keep our heads above troubled water, we never struggle alone.

Review: Erin Entrada Kelly's You Go First perfectly captures the insecurity, isolation, and fragile friendships in middle school. For most people online Scrabble game is just a game, but it is serves as a lifeline for middle schoolers Charlotte and Ben. Though they have  never met in person, Charlotte and Ben share many commonalities: both are incredible smart, lonely, and are suddenly coping with heartache in which they can't seem to solve on their own. Soon their online rivalry turns into real friendship as they communicate outside of the game. 
  The narrative is divided between Charlotte and Ben's point of view. Charlotte's father is hospitalized after experiencing a heart attack. Her best friend is drifting apart and moving towards a new social circle that is not inviting for Charlotte. Suddenly Charlotte's hobbies and interests are uncool. Ben is struggling to fit in a new school. He has a hard time finding peers who share his interests in encyclopedic knowledge of presidential history and reading. It is also not helping that his new project of finding friends by being a student council member has now placed a bully target on his back. His parents has also just announced their divorce.
  I loved both of these characters. The author knows her audience and uses key moments to elicit our heartaches and emotions along with these characters. I hated that they were struggling, but I also remember feeling the same way when I was a tween. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to reach inside the book and give both of them a hug. Foreshadowing facts lead each of Charlotte's chapters and information about sea stars is perfectly incorporated in a powerful scene about bullying. I loved the message of the book about resilience, how finding your people will take time, and things will be okay. Middle school is a rough time for many younger readers and I think this book will help them navigate all the unexpected challenges they will face.

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: Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
Rummanah Aasi

Description: In a star system dominated by the brutal Vathek empire, eighteen-year-old Amani is a dreamer. She dreams of what life was like before the occupation; she dreams of writing poetry like the old-world poems she adores; she dreams of receiving a sign from Dihya that one day, she, too, will have adventure, and travel beyond her isolated moon.

But when adventure comes for Amani, it is not what she expects: she is kidnapped by the regime and taken in secret to the royal palace, where she discovers that she is nearly identical to the cruel half-Vathek Princess Maram. The princess is so hated by her conquered people that she requires a body double, someone to appear in public as Maram, ready to die in her place.

As Amani is forced into her new role, she can’t help but enjoy the palace’s beauty—and her time with the princess’ fiancĂ©, Idris. But the glitter of the royal court belies a world of violence and fear. If Amani ever wishes to see her family again, she must play the princess to perfection...because one wrong move could lead to her death.

Review:  On her majority night, a coming of age ceremony, Amani is forcibly taken by Imperial droids and carted off her moon to the mother planet Andala, home of Vathek royalty. Amani grew up in an impoverished village, Cadiz, under Vathek occupation and knows their cruelty. She is shocked to discover that she is a doppelganger to the ruthless and hated half-Vathek Princess Maram. In response to increased rebel attacks, Amani is groomed as a body double and must navigate the complexities of court, including the charms of Maram’s fiance, Idris.
  Mirage has a slow burning plot. I felt the first half of the book was slow going for me as we are introduced to the Vathek court and key players. I was, however, fascinated by the Moroccan influence that has shaped Daud’s world. The book covertly addresses important issues such as colonialism, appropriation, suppression, and erasure. The cast of characters are diverse and people of color. I was also excited to learn about the Indigenous Amazigh of Northwest Africa, including the warrior queen Dihya, who serves as a symbol of feminism and anti-colonialism. I had never heard of her before nor this group of indigenous people of North Africa.
 I did not get invested into the story until the second half of the book as Amani becomes involved in the court politics, brewing rebellion, and becomes involved with Idris. I enjoyed their star-crossed romance, but was happy to see that it was not the focus of the story. I also really appreciated that Maram was not your token villain, but also had layers to her character. She reminded me a lot of Queen Levana from the Lunar Chronicles who evoked sympathy and hate in equal measures. Despite the uneven pacing issues, I still want to know more about this world and am looking forward to the next book.

Rating: 4 stars

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

If you like this book try: Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, Diabolic by S.J. Kincaid
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles.
  But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she thought only existed in childhood stories is real. For the warrior tells her a new tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling hawks are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass, a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.
  In that city, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences. After all, there is a reason they say be careful what you wish for...

Review: The City of Brass is a rich Middle Eastern fantasy series opener. The story is told from two points of view. Nahri is a young con woman who lives on the streets of 18th-century Cairo. She has the unique ability to diagnose and heal diseases without any proper training and uses this talent to swindle Ottoman nobles by pretending to wield supernatural powers she doesn’t believe in. During a exorcism con gone wrong, she accidentally summons a mysterious djinn warrior named Dara, whose magic is both real and incomprehensibly powerful. Dara insists that Nahri is no longer safe and they  must travel to Daevabad, a legendary eastern city protected by impervious magical brass walls. At Daevabad Nahri is astonished to learn that she is the daughter of a legendary healer of the Nahid family, a once powerful family who ruled Daevabad until it was overthrown by the Ghassan clan who stole Suleiman’s seal, which nullifies magic. It is very surprising and suspicious when the current Ghassan king welcomes her. The second point of view belongs to Prince Ali, the king's younger son, Prince Ali, who is caught in between fealty to his father and the throne and his moral duty to help the Shafit, the lower and oppressed class of djinn who are of mixed blood of djinn and humans.
  The City of Brass is a complex, multilayered story that centers on the kingdom's deeply divisive religious, political, and racial tensions. The world building is excellent as clues are sprinkled evenly throughout the story will leaving mysteries that need to be solved. I loved the inclusion and infusion of Middle Eastern culture throughout the novel. Though Daevabad is fictional, I can see how different Middle Eastern countries and cultures have influenced it, which is credited to the author's attention to detail and her research of this geographical region. The magic and terrifying creatures used in this book feel new. I am thrilled that this story is fresh and original and not a derivative of Game of Thrones with a dash of djinns instead of dragons. My only complaint is that I wish the glossary was a bit more fleshed out particularly with the various djinn tribes whose names can be confusing at times.
 The characters are flawed, three dimensional, and enigmatic. There are many times where the characters surprised me with their actions and unveiling a part of their backstories made my opinions of them change constantly. These characters are not kept in clean boxes of good and evil. Nahri is a cunning and fiercely independent woman. Though she can hold her own in Cairo, she is very much a novice in Daevabad and has to learn how to play the court's political game in order to outwit the king who would very much want her to be his pawn. Similarly, Prince Ali is constantly questioning how Daevabad should be ruled much to the chagrin of his father who rules with an iron fist. Dara’s emerging history and personality grow more and more bewildering and ambiguous.
  The story's pace is a bit slow going as we learn along with Nahri as she journeys to Daevabad, but once she is at court the story takes off. There are a few character inconsistencies (mostly new information about the characters that appear out of nowhere without any hints or allusions) and subplots that are not flushed out as I had hoped, especially with Prince Ali's older carefree brother, but they didn't take my enjoyment away from this story. I just wanted to know more and I hope we do because there were huge reveals in the end along with a shocking cliffhanger that has me on the edge of my seat. I can not wait for book two.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong violence and language in the book. Recommended for teens and adults.

If you like this book try: The Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy #2) coming out 2019, Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Dark Carvan Cycle series by Heather Demetrios, Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Obayda’s family is in need of some good fortune. Her father lost one of his legs in a bomb explosion, forcing the family to move from their home city of Kabul to a small village, where life is very different and Obayda’s father almost never leaves his room. One day, Obayda’s aunt has an idea to bring the family luck—dress Obayda, the youngest of her sisters, as a boy, a bacha posh. Now Obayda is Obayd.
  Life in this in-between place is confusing, but once Obayda meets another bacha posh, everything changes. The two of them can explore the village on their own, climbing trees, playing sports, and more. But their transformation won’t last forever—unless the two best friends can figure out a way to make it stick and make their newfound freedoms endure.

Review: After Obayda’s father loses his leg in a car-bomb attack, her family is forced to move in with extended family in a village far from Kabul. As her father lies housebound and despondent, an aunt advises Obayda’s mother to make Obayda a bacha posh in order to bring good luck to their homes. Bacha posh, or preteen girls dressed in boys’ clothing and treated like boys, are a tradition in some parts of Afghanistan. These disguised boys are allowed to leave their homes and hold jobs in order to help their families financially. Once Obayda becomes Obayd, she is excused from house chores and other female responsibilities. Now Obayd is frightened of facing the boys at school, especially Rahim, an older boy who singles her out. Brave, athletic, and brash, Rahim sees right through Obayda’s disguise—because Rahim, too, is a bacha posh. The two, now allies, share many free-spirited adventures, including searching for a waterfall they believe will turn them into boys permanently (notably because they enjoy the values attached to the male gender and  not because they identify as males), since the specter of their return to the female underclass is always present, horrifyingly so in Rahim’s case.
 The theme of gender inequality is very strong in the book, but it becomes repetitive and redundant due to the lack of plot in the book. We are told that girls and boys are treated differently, but I wish this was shown more in the story. Obayd is not so different from Obayda in terms of  character arc. To me she was not interesting enough as a main character. For the lack of a better world, this book felt too sanitized for a younger audience. I was more intrigued by Rahima and I later found out that the author did a whole book on on Rahima called The Pearl That Broke Its Shell. I was also disappointed that there is no movement to women's empowerment in the story and it is overshadowed by the arrival of a baby brother who will once again bring luck to the family in the future. Still One Half from the East allows readers a sneak peek into the traditional culture of Afghanistan that is not seen and represented in literature. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is mention of suicide bomb, drug addicts, and child marriage. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi, The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis, Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai
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