Rummanah Aasi
 2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Review: I have tried and failed to write a review for My Dark Vanessa since I finished it last April. This was the darkest book that I have read in a very long time and honestly, was probably not the best book to read during the pandemic, but once I started this book I could not put it down and I could not stop thinking about it. I had and continue to have a swirl of emotions when it comes to this book. I will do my best to review this without transforming into She-Hulk. 
   My Dark Vanessa is told in two very different timelines in 2000 and 2017. In 2017 Vanessa is a numbed twenty something year old who can not hold down a job and whose life is a series of one night stands and drug and alcohol infused black outs. Vanessa is forced to confront her past and relationship with her teacher, Jacob Strane, at the height of the #MeToo movement when a young woman, Taylor Birch, steps forward and accuses Strane of sexual abuse.  When a young journalist reaches out to Vanessa to corroborate Taylor's story, Vanessa's world begins to unravel. What is Vanessa's relationship with Strane and what led her to her current situation today? 
  Russell effortlessly weaves Vanessa's memories of high school together with her current timeline. We follow Vanessa as she struggles to determine whether the "love story" she has told herself is in fact something incredibly tragic and unthinkable. The reader follows Vanessa as a bright eyed 15 year old teen who was looking forward to start a new chapter in her life at Browick, a prestigious, private boarding school, but she does not fit in and becomes isolated. She is groomed and preyed upon by her 42 year old English teacher, Jacob Strane, who gives her special attention from lending out his personal copies of Plath's poetry and Nabokov's Lolita to bolder intrusions of furtive caresses in his back office. It does not take long for Vanessa to revel in her newfound power of attraction, pursuing sleepovers at Strane's house, and conducting what she feels is a secret affair right under the noses of the administration. 
  Now revisiting those scenes, Vanessa begins to question if her story is of abuse because she has pursued it, but as readers we take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and do not see her "relationship" with Strane as anything romantic but a real, devastating, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. The book highlights that we live in a culture of enablement where the young women as always seen as the seductress and the harm we allow young women to shoulder while we brush off any responsibility to abusive men.  
 Readers have pointed out that the book does not develop any of the characters around Vanessa besides Strane and I believe this is intentional. Her trauma has consumed her entire life, which is why she is so desperate to want to believe it was a love story, that she is completely unaware of anything else around her. I have conflicted feelings of how the book ends, but I think that has more to do with me as a reader who wanted more justice for Vanessa than the actual book itself. Yes, this book is very dark, disturbing, gut wrenching, and rage inducing but it highlights the complexities of the #MeToo movement and it should read. 

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong graphic sexual content and sexual assault, gaslighting, emotional abuse, language, underage drinking and drug abuse. Recommended for mature teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: Dark Horses by Susan Mihalic
Rummanah Aasi
 As the only Indian American kid in her small town, Lekha Divekar feels like she has two versions of herself: Home Lekha, who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food, and School Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when someone teases her for being Indian.
    When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too! Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha. To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.
    When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.

Review: Like many first generation immigrants, Indian American Lekha is having trouble with navigating her two worlds. Lehka's family is the only Indian American family in her predominantly white suburb of Detroit. She is comfortable in expressing her Indian culture and flavorful foods at home. When she is at school, however, she tries her best to fade in the background and silence her voice as her classmates mock her for her bindi shaped-birthmark on her forehead. She allows teachers and students to mispronounce her name and to make disrespectful comments about her heritage. Lekha knows she should speak out but wouldn't that just make the situation worse?
  When a new Indian American family-with a daughter Lehka's age-moves to her neighborhood, she is thrilled, assuming that her new friend Avantika will also struggle like Lekha, but Avantika confidently talks about her family and traditions at school and fights back against microaggressions. Lehka is simultaneously inspired and confused. As she begins taking tentative steps toward speaking up about what matters to her, a classroom assignment to write an opinion piece becomes the catalyst for embracing her identity. 
  I could relate a lot to both Lekha's and Avantika's characters. The safety in being invisible is real and strong. Sadly, that's how I acted in my predominately white high school. What is most distressing is that I acted subconsciously and started with the best things such as clothes and music. It took me a while to reach Avantika's confidence but I am still working on it. There are two scenes that really hit me hard in the book such as downplaying a holiday that should be celebrated and decorating for the holiday. Lekha pleads with her parents to not put up a swastika (which in India represents prosperity, well being, and good luck) and on their family door for Diwali in fears of it being misinterpreted as a Nazi symbol. Both of these scenes highlight what it feels like to the "other" and having to feel that you can only choose one side (assimilation) and not both. I also appreciated that Avantika is not perfect. She also has her struggle in confronting colorism by using skin bleach cream to lighten her skin and standing up to her mother. I wish this was also explored more and we see Avantika use her own voice to speak out against internalized racism. 
 Despite these issues, American as Paneer Pie is a good book club pick where students can talk about race/ethnicity, microaggressions, and assimilation. Things do not wrap up in a bow at the end, but Lekha is starting to use her voice and stand up for herself.
Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some bullying and microaggressions present in the book. There is also a racist incident in the book. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Amina's Voice by Hena Khan, A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan
Rummanah Aasi
 Senator Anthony Ruiz is running for president. Throughout his successful political career he has always had his daughter’s vote, but a presidential campaign brings a whole new level of scrutiny to sheltered fifteen-year-old Mariana and the rest of her Cuban American family, from a 60 Minutes–style tour of their house to tabloids doctoring photos and inventing scandals. As tensions rise within the Ruiz family, Mari begins to learn about the details of her father’s political positions, and she realizes that her father is not the man she thought he was.
   But how do you find your voice when everyone’s watching? When it means disagreeing with your father—publicly? What do you do when your dad stops being your hero? Will Mari get a chance to confront her father? If she does, will she have the courage to seize it?

Review: Mariana "Mari" Ruiz has always supported her charismatic father’s political ambitions. Mari and her family have been by his side during every campaign, from local South Florida positions to his current role in the U.S. Senate. Now Senator Ruiz has eyes set on being the first Latino and Republican candidate for the President of the United States. As the Florida primaries approach and the primary race is in full throttle, Mari's is taken aback by the growing demands expected of her (i.e. no social media presence and being on her best behavior) and the breaches of her privacy. Running away right before a national televised family interview, she becomes the focus of viral videos and manufactured tabloid articles.
  The first half of the book is slow and the focus is on Mari's sudden impact of her father's campaign and her gradual awakening that her parents are fallible and not heroes that she placed on pedestals.  There are allusions to her mother's issues with the campaign as well, particularly her assistance in writing her husband speeches and being involved in other aspects of his campaign that are not acknowledged and taken advantaged of by her husband. The second of the book, in my opinion, is much stronger and layered as Sylvester weaves political issues such as immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, the environment, and gentrification. Senator Ruiz is a multifaceted politician who is trying to stay true to his Latinx heritage and family while catering to developer donors in order to pursue his political interests. I have not encountered many young adult novels in which a person of color is running for office or has political privilege so I found that aspect really refreshing. I was intrigued by the white passing Latino narrative to be interesting as well and I wished this was explored a bit more in the novel. The diversity of South Florida is represented here with nuance; Mari’s friends have Haitian, Dominican, and Peruvian ancestry, and some important secondary characters identify as LGBTQ+. Spanish is also sprinkled throughout the novel and enriches the narrative’s setting. While I did sympathize for Mari as her individual rights were overlooked, I liked her much more when she started her journey of being an activist as she looked beyond herself and held her father accountable for his actions. I appreciated the book's messages about the power of activism that come through but do not feel didactic. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language and a scene while Mari's body is being objectified in the media and in school. There is also allusions of inappropriate conduct of one of the campaign staffers towards Mari. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert, Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisa Saeed
Rummanah Aasi
 The ongoing struggle for women's rights has spanned human history, touched nearly every culture on Earth, and encompassed a wide range of issues, such as the right to vote, work, get an education, own property, exercise bodily autonomy, and beyond. Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists is a fun and fascinating graphic novel-style primer that covers the key figures and events that have advanced women's rights from antiquity to the modern era.

Review: Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists is a graphic nonfiction that is informative, appealing, and self aware. Set in a futuristic classroom, the topic of women's rights (yes, I know it should be actually called human rights) and whether or not progress has been made. The narrative traces the history of women’s rights around the globe from the ancient civilizations of Sumer to present day activism. The class and readers learn about influential women from diverse backgrounds by highlighting the struggles and achievements of nearly 200 individuals who were leaders in a variety of areas of pursuit. Popular and well known women such as Pharaoh Hatshepsut and Harriet Tubman as well as others who been removed from history but rightly deserve to be better known. The content is both historical and up to the minute, with relevance to current issues, covering, among other topics, colonization, suffrage, civil rights, redress movements, the wage gap, sexual harassment, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights. Short comings of feminism, particularly white feminism is called out. I learned of many contemporary women activists that were not on my radar until now such as Naelyn Pike, an environmental and Indigenous rights activist, and Alice Wong, who advocates for disability rights. 
   Given the content of the graphic nonfiction, there is a nice balance between text and images. Diversity and inclusion is taken seriously. The unnamed students represent a diverse range of identities and gender expression: Five of the six students are people of color, one has a prosthetic limb, and another is hijabi. While this is a great primer into women's fight for rights, I wished the graphic novel would have source notes and suggestions for further reading, because I am definitely interested in reading and learning more.  

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: The oppression of women throughout history is not sugar coated and discussed frankly in the book. Recommended for Grades 9 and up. 

If you like this book try: Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad, Finish the Fight by Veronica Chambers
Rummanah Aasi
 Sheriff Sunshine Vicram finds her cup o' joe more than half full when the small village of Del Sol, New Mexico, becomes the center of national attention for a kidnapper on the loose.

Del Sol, New Mexico is known for three things: its fry-an-egg-on-the-cement summers, strong cups of coffee - and, now, a nationwide manhunt? Del Sol native Sunshine Vicram has returned to town as the elected sheriff - thanks to her adorably meddlesome parents who nominated her--and she expects her biggest crime wave to involve an elderly flasher named Doug. But a teenage girl is missing, a kidnapper is on the loose, and all of this is reminding Sunshine why she left Del Sol in the first place. Add to that the trouble at her daughter's new school, plus and a kidnapped prized rooster named Puff Daddy, and, well, the forecast looks anything but sunny.

But even clouds have their silver linings. This one's got Levi, Sunshine's sexy, almost-old-flame, and a fiery-hot US Marshall. With temperatures rising everywhere she turns, Del Sol's normally cool-minded sheriff is finding herself knee-deep in drama and danger. Can Sunshine face the call of duty - and find the kidnapper who's terrorizing her beloved hometown - without falling head over high heels in love or worse?

Review: In her new series Jones introduces her readers to a sexy, funny, tough new heroine in Sunshine Vicram, the police chief of Del Sol, New Mexico. Sun fled her hometown years before after the horrifying experience of being kidnapped when she was a teen, an experience she doesn’t talk about, but also can not forget. After becoming a police officer, she worked most recently only half an hour away in Santa Fe keeping true to her promise of never returning to Santa Fe and that's before her parents nominated her for chief without telling her. Now that she and her teen daughter, Auri, have settled into a cottage in her parents’ backyard, she lands a case that brings back all her worst fears and cracks open suppressed memories. 
    Sun adjusts to her new job, but also seems to run into a long time crush Levi Ravinder, owner of the Dark River distillery and a member of the dysfunctional, law breaking family. The sexual tension between Levi and Sun is tangible and makes readers curious to learn more of their history. Auri’s first day at school is ruined by mean girls and rumors that identify her as a police snitch. The best part of Auri's day is meeting heart-stopping Cruz De los Santos, a talented poet who has a rough exterior and is also the coolest guy in school. 
  The mystery concerning Marianna St. Aubin's missing daughter and Levi's missing nephew brings the story lines of mother and daughter quite well. Like her Charley Davidson series, Jones handles humor, mystery, and smoldering romance quite well. I liked how Sun and Auri work together. Auri is comes off as an ordinary teenager, but her mother respects her and is never condescending. The pace and the focus is much more streamlined that the Charley Davidson series.  literally crashes into the police station to report the kidnapping of her daughter, Sybil. For years Sybil told her parents about dreams that she’d be taken and killed before her 15th birthday, but they never believed her. Though the mystery is nicely wrapped up by the end of the novel, there are many lingering questions left unanswered and a great promise for another fun entertaining series. I can't wait to see what other mysteries this mother-daughter duo will solve. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, crude sexual humor, and a sexual situation at times graphic. Recommended for older teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, A Good Day for Chardonnay (Sunshine Vicram #2) coming in July 2021
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