Rummanah Aasi
  When I joined the Middle Eastern Challenge hosted by Helen over at Helen's Book Blog, I was curious to read books that were written for children and young adults. I was under the impression that there are not that many children books written about this region, but as I started to look more closely, I was so wrong. I found some great titles from a list of the Middle Eastern Book Award. The Middle Eastern Book Award was established by the Middle East Outreach Council (MEOC) in 1999 to “recognize books for children and young adults that contribute meaning-fully to an understanding of the Middle East. Books are judged on the authenticity of their portrayal of a Middle Eastern subject, as well as on their characterization, plot, and appeal for the intended audience“.The first title that I read from this long list of books is The House of Wisdom by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliad and illustrated by Mary Grandpre, which won the Middle Eastern Book Award in 2000.

Description: A young boy in 9th century Baghdad, inspired by his scholar father, goes on a search for knowledge and wisdom. The book sheds a bright light on the great work of scholars during this golden period of Islamic civilization.

Review: Many of our history classes and their textbooks don't really pay much attention to the educational achievements of the Islamic Empire in the 9th century. From Morocco to Iraq, many universities, hospitals, bookstores, roads, highways, etc. were created. It was the Arab-speaking world that rediscovered and translated many of the Ancient Greek woks. I'm not sure how many people know that Baghdad was a cultural and educational mecca of the golden period of the Islamic civilization.
  In 830 AD, the Caliph (Muslim ruler of Baghdad) al-Mamun (pronounced al ma MOON) created a great institution called bayt al hikmah, The House of Wisdom, where scholars lived, studied, and translated many works from the Ancient World into Arabic. Ishaq (pronounced ISS hak), our protagonist, is the son of a translator who lives in The House of Wisdom. From a very age, Ishaq has seen his father be immersed into his work. Puzzled by his father's passion for learning, Ishaq also yearns to experience the same passion that his father has, but he also longs for adventure and exploring the world too. Luckily, all of his desires are met when he begins traveling the world to buy books for the Caliph, even locating an unknown book by Aristotle. Ishaq later discovers the magic of learning and devotes his life to the philosopher's works, becoming their greatest translator.  
  Even though the protagonist of this story is a youth, this picture book for older readers is a different story to tell mainly because there are so many elements that children may be unfamiliar with, however, it will serve as a great initiation into learning about the great achievements of Islamic civilization. Despite the book's difficulty, the vibrant, detailed, sensual art that mirrors the characteristics of Islamic art and the lyrical text brings this book to life and layered with complexity that it can be read on several levels. Even if children aren't captivated with the story, there are most likely to connect to the themes of being passionate about reading and learning as well as be entranced by the beautiful illustrations by Mary Grandpre, who has also worked on the Harry Potter books.
   It is clear from a thorough note at the back of the book as well as a bibliography that the authors and illustrator have done a significant amount of research. I just wished that they also included a brief section introducing the Islamic civilization, in particular, Baghdad to set the setting a bit more. Although the bibliography is extensive, it mainly consists of books that are written for adults at a college reading level and not a level that elementary schools can use with their students nevertheless, it provides a starting point. 

Curriculum Connection: Social Studies

Rating: 4.5 stars

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

If you like this book, try: Day of Ahmed's Secret
Rummanah Aasi
  I thoroughly enjoyed reading Andrea Cremer's debut novel, Nightshade, last year. The complex world building, intriguing characters, and a fresh new take on the paranormal romance genre had me captivated. When I finished the book, I was left with numerous questions and not only because it is the beginning of a series but rather the books themes and the decisions that the characters make. I contacted Andrea and hoped I would score an interview with her. I am very lucky that she made time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions about the world, characters, and themes of Nightshade as well as what we should expect next in Wolfsbane, book 2 in the Nightshade series. Below is our chat. Enjoy!

Rummanah: Hi Andrea! Welcome and thank you so much for stopping by! I love the names you have given to your characters. I grew up with people mispronouncing my name all the time, so I’m sensitive in mispronouncing names. How do you pronounce them? How did you come up with them?

Andrea: Thank you - finding the right name for a character is incredibly important to me. I can't write if the name isn't working. Calla's name is like the flower 'cal - lah,' Shay is just like it's spelled, and Renier is 'ren - yay'. The names tie in to the origin of the Guardian packs. The Bane pack is of French descent and the Nightshade pack of English.

Rummanah: I knew that the Bane pack must be connected to the French in some way, but I wasn't sure of the Nightshade pack. It's uncanny how these two packs are from the countries that have a long rivalry. As I mentioned in my review, Nightshade is the most interesting paranormal romance book I’ve read in 2010. The blending of tumultuous history and lore created a world that sucked me in right away and which I loved discovering in your book. Did you always know what themes you wanted to address in Calla’s world or did you include them as you continued to write the book?

Andrea: Thank you so much for the great review! I don't plot my books, but let the story unfold as I'm writing. I love being surprised by what characters say and do and turns in the plot that I wasn't expecting. I do tend to know the answers to big questions while I'm writing though. I knew how the series would end while I was still writing the first book.

Rummanah: I don't think I could handle letting the story unfold. *Grin* I'm much more an outline kind of person. If I don't have one, I tend to go off track and forget about the point(s) that I'm trying to make. The idea that the Guardians are made from magic is fresh and original. Were you always intrigued about witchcraft and magic from a young age?
Andrea: Fantasy has always been my favorite genre and as a historian I focused my research on a period of history where magic and the occult played a dominant role in society, so yes I'm pretty sure I've always been drawn to those subjects.

Rummanah: What I love about Nightshade is that you learn what makes history. There is a well known quote that says something to the fact that the victor is the one who writes history, which is what Shay alludees to in the book. The questions of what the real history is and why Callah and others in the pack are in the dark about it is what drives the book. Nightshade is filled with various hierarchies of political and social power. In Calla’s world, how does one become an alpha? Is this status also designated by the Keepers?

Andrea: Alpha is an inherited role. Alphas can only be born, not made. Keepers influence the role by setting up alpha mates but they couldn't force a non-alpha wolf into the role - the others wolves wouldn't recognize a non-alpha as their leader.

Rummanah: I had a feeling that would be the case, but since the Keepers have such a strong hold in Callah's society I wasn't completely sure. Speaking of Callah, she is such a wonderful, strong heroine, who also happens to be a female alpha. As we get deeper in the story we see the negatives of being an alpha, especially female, doesn’t seem all that great. For instance, she loses individual freedoms, but most disturbingly, she is overshadowed by the alpha males. I couldn’t help but wonder if the label of a female alpha is an oxymoron. What are your thoughts of a female alpha? I would like to believe that Calla will still be a strong and powerful heroine even if she wasn’t an alpha. Is this possible?

Andrea: I love this question! The term 'female alpha' is an oxymoron insofar as the social hierarchies in Calla's world force her to always submit to a male alpha. However, that submission isn't a reflection of weakness on Calla's part it's simply a result of the restrictions set up by her masters.

Rummanah: I completely agree and I think she's also realizing this as she gets closer to her union. Two of my favorite scenes in Nightshade revolves around philosophy: Shay’s philosophical debate regarding Hobbes’s exclusion from the school’s curriculum and the clever use of Plato‘s Caves. I would love to take Calla’s Big Ideas class. I was wondering, do you have a favorite 17th century or classic philosopher?

Andrea: Part of the reason I chose Hobbes as the central philosopher in the series is because I find the his concept of the state of nature fascinating. I'm also a fan of Immanuel Kant (18th century) and the 19th century Transcendentalists.

Rummanah: Very interesting picks because their ideas are so different from one another! Okay, I'm going to ask you a question which I'm sure you've been asked a million times before, but I can't help it. I am really conflicted about Calla’s love interests. Ren and Shay have both good and bad qualities.  I know that Shay is popular with lots of readers and he has his own website, but I’m intrigued about Ren. There is more to him than his bravado. Ren, to me, represents the status quo for Calla yet he isn’t happy with their world either. Shay represents the unknown to Calla, but his insistence to support his way of thinking irritates me. I’m leaning towards Ren. Without spoiling anything, can you give us any teasers about what will we learn about these guys in the next two books?

Andrea: You'll learn more about who Shay really is and the importance of Ren's past.

Rummanah: I can't wait! I wonder if my loyalties will shift. There is just so much I don't know! It seems like YA is filled with paranormal books lately. In your opinion, what is the best and worst thing about writing in the paranormal genre?

Andrea: The best thing about writing paranormal is creating new worlds and mythologies or giving traditional myths fresh twists. The worst thing is when anyone assumes you're only writing paranormal because it's popular with readers right now. It breaks my heart anytime that assumption is made.

Rummanah: I can understand that. I know that in addition to the Nightshade series, you are also working on a steampunk series as well. I'm really looking forward to that series as well. Can you tell us more about that? What interests you about steam punk?

Andrea: The steampunk series is a work in progress so I'm not sure when you'll see it in stores, but hopefully in another couple of years! Steampunk intrigues me because I love alternate histories and that I'll be able to invent all sort of ridiculous machines and gadgets.
Rummanah: I will definitely will be on the look out for it. Andrea, thanks so much for stopping by.

Andrea: Thanks so much!

Readers you can learn more about Andrea and the Nightshade series by visitng her website. If you are Team Shay, be sure to fan him on his very own Facebook page! Wolfsbane comes out July 26th, 2011. 
Rummanah Aasi
  I have been interested in seeing Inception ever since I saw its trailer when I saw James Cameron's Avatar. With an incredible director like Christopher Nolan and a very well cast, how could I not see this movie?! Unfortunately, I couldn't find anyone to see it with me when it came to the big screens. My brothers, who I thought would be all on board to watch this movie, were simply not interested. Others had already seen it and apparently, had headaches trying to sort the film out. So I had to put the movie on my "get as soon as it's on DVD list" and grudgingly waited while I kept hearing either glowing or disappointing reviews.
  Unlike many movie watchers that I know who think movies are meant for mindless fun, I like to watch movies that make me think. Yes, I can sit back and laugh at a Will Ferrel movie but its not the same feeling as say watching The Matrix and trying to sort out what is reality and was it the illusion. I'm notorious for analyzing movies after I finish watching it. To me, movies are active books i.e. have plots, characters, themes, etc that the director and screenplay writer are trying to convey. Inception is one of those movies that stay with long after I finished watching it. Its been a few weeks since I saw it, yet there is still some parts of it that sticks to my brain and once in a while it still leaves me puzzled.

Description: Dom Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) is an extractor and a con artist who is paid to invade the dreams of various business tycoons and steal their top secret ideas. Cobb robs forcefully the psyche with practiced skill, though he is increasingly haunted by the memory of his late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who has a nasty habit of showing up in his subconscious and ruining his missions. Cobb had been involved so much in work that he seems to have lost in touch with reality. He is tired of being on the run and only wants to go back to his two little kids. His opportunity to leave the heist behind is to do one last job: A wealthy business man Saito ( Ken Watanabe) wants to destroy his business rival Robert Fischer Jr.'s (Cillian Murphy) empire, but the only way to complete the task is to plant a new idea: 'Inception' into Fischer's mind. Are you lost? I don't blame you, it's quite complicated. Maybe the trailer might help:

Review: On a surface level, there is really nothing exceptional about Inception. Movies based on dreams, subconscious that challenge us to differentiate reality from illusion has been done before such as the philosophical, sci-fi thriller The Matrix. What makes Inception different is its multiple layers of storytelling. While it may look like a mash up between The Matrix and Oceans 11, in my opinion, a brilliant film that held my attention and my head reeling from the moment it began to the seconds where the credits rolled. Really, the less you know about this movie going in, the more you will be entranced by seeing it.
   Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a world class criminal who, with the help of a team of sleep experts, works his way into people's subconscious and steals what people value most: their ideas. You can't help but root for Cobbs yet at the same time question his motives. Is he really ready to leave the heist and face the troubles of reality? What does he think is currently happening to the two children he abandoned? We know that his wife has died and has invaded his dreams and jobs. Does Cobbs have something to do with her death?
   One of the most memorable scene in the movie is where Cobbs and Ariadne (played by Ellen Page) revisits/dreams of his house. He has an elevator that takes them to the different floors. In the elevator, we kept help but feel caged just like them, anxious of what lies ahead once those doors open. With this simple scene and various camera shots, we are physically aware that each level represents Cobb's guilt and shame. The build upon one another until we are firmly in the dark 'basement' that represents his nightmare.
   The power of Inception, for me at least, is the strong emotional connection to the story. Like Cobbs, I wanted to relieve the burden of shame and guilt that he carries on his shoulders. I also wanted to erase the fear of disappoint that plagues Robert Fischer Jr. Yet while I was pulled in different directions, I was completely enamored by the dream world and lost in its comfort. I can completely see how addictive and harmful living in the dream world can be.
   DiCaprio is good in his role, but unlike many of his other films he does not have to carry the movie on his shoulders. The ensemble cast is terrific and makes this movie work, very much in the same fashion that their counter parts in the movie collaborate to create the heist. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and Tom Hardy are especially good in their roles and stand out.
   The special effects in this film were also very good and seem simple compared to those used in the Matrix movies. There are plenty of slow-motion shots to indicate dreams, but no impossible kung fu fighting sequences. My favorite part of the special effects are not in the action scenes, bur rather the architecture of certain dreams, and impossible sequences are filmed in a way I that I could never imagine.
  However, the special effects would mean nothing without a good story (don't get me started on Matrix sequels, ugh). The story sucks you in right from the beginning and doesn't leave you until the very end where a something as simple and bland as a spinning top holds your undivided attention. The plot moves at a feverishly pace, leaving the viewer no time to get bored. There plenty of twists and turns in the film, but thankfully, they don't get in the way of the story. Details and rules of the dream world are rapidly given, which may make you want to see the movie again for the second time in order to keep them straight. The layers upon layers of dreams and tracking of who's dreams you are following might cause headaches, but I assure you it's worth it in the long run.
  Many of my friends had asked me about what I thought happened in the end of the movie. There have been large debates about the ending ever since the movie released in July 2010. Nolan refuses to give a conclusive answer. Some believe they 'figured it out' and believe it is 'x' while others have taken a step further in dissecting and analyzing the movie frame by frame looking for a definitive answer and proof to their theories. I certainly do have my ending, but more importantly though, I think Nolan is asking us is to define is the journey that allows us to differentiate the dream world and reality and whether or not we really need reassurance of our answer. That being said, Inception is well worth its praise, hype, and accolades. I just wish I saw it on the big screen as it is meant to be seen. It is an incredibly entertaining movie, but it also makes you think and continues to do so after you leave the theater or in my case turn off your DVD player.

Rating: 5 stars (Must see)

Words of Caution: This movie is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout
Rummanah Aasi
  Stephenie Perkins' debut novel, Anna and the French Kiss, has received nothing but glowing reviews from bloggers and authors. Once again the cynic in me wants to challenge whether this book is worthy of its praise. In the last few months or so, I've been bombarded with this book and wonder if its hype raised my expectations for it. Unfortunately, with Ship Breaker, my reaction to its constant praise is anticlimactic. I thought it was okay/good but I didn't love it as much as others. I was afraid that Anna and the French Kiss would result in the same way. I'm glad to say that it didn't and that it has satisfied my cravings for a well done romantic comedy movie.

Description: When Anna's famous, Nicholas Sparks-like romance writer father gained popularity and wealth, he feels it is time for his daughter to be cultured, which of course means to send her to an elite American boarding school in Paris for her senior year of high school. Anna hates the thought of leaving her best friend and current crush to travel to another continent. Alone in a new country where she doesn't speak the language and feels out of place, she meets the perfect boy but there's only small problem. He already has a girlfriend, but he keeps giving Anna mixed signals. Is he really interested or is he just being overly friendly?

Review: Anna and the French Kiss is a charming, sweet, contemporary romance. Its vivid descriptions of the culturally and historically rich city of Paris reminded me of my trips to the city itself. The atmosphere is romantic yet the character's introspective attitude and voice prevents this book from being to flimsy or overly contrite.
  Anna is a lovable yet flawed heroine. She struggles to find an identity and her niche amongst her elite classmates. Her love for movies resembles my own passion for the motion pictures. While she is keen to observe the flaws of others, she mistakenly doesn't see what is happening right in front of her which is mostly due to her neurotic, over-analysis of everything and her fear to be alone. Interestingly enough, I didn't think Anna had a distinct physical description except for her hair which she dyes and a wide gap of her tooth. She also narrates the book in the first person present voice, which is very unusual in YA literature that I have read so far. I think Perkins does this purposefully in order to get the reader, which in this case let's be honest, are mostly girls who will see themselves as Anna. I couldn't help but notice my teen self think and be like Anna. A lot of her inner monologues mirrored my own when I was a teen, especially when it comes to trying to differentiate between friendship, people who really aren't what we think they are, a crush, and a relationship that is something much deeper.
  Etienne St. Clair, Anna's boy who is a friend and maybe something more, is dreamy yet three dimensional. He is undeniably physically attractive, but I was more drawn to his lay back, charming attitude and his incredible passion toward history. Oh yeah, he also has a swoon worthy British accent. In addition to these attributes, he is also flawed and has insecurities. Like Anna, he is also afraid of change which may result in him being lonely. He dances around the lines of friendship and interest in Anna, which are very chaste and innocent. We can see how he opens up to Anna as well as build walls around him when times get tough. I love the fact that he is uncomfortable with his height and that he bites his nails when he's nervous. It makes Etienne real and makes me wish I had an Etienne of my own. 
  The wide range of emotions and the development of Anna and Etienne's relationship are the best parts of the book. These characters leap off the page and you can't help but get swept away in their drama, waiting on pins and needles whether or not they will kiss or who will make the first move. The annoying questions we plague our teen-selves such as "Does he/she like me? Are we just friends? Did he/she just smile at me? Does that smile mean something?" can become quite annoying yet it works in this book because I felt that it was natural for Anna to feel those things and not forced. I also loved the book's notion that the idea of home isn't necessarily a place but could also be a person.
  While I really enjoyed this book, I did think that the secondary characters were a bit one dimensional. Anna and Etienne have a circle of friends that they spend lots of time with, however, I didn't feel like I got to know them at all. Some of the plot twists were predictable and stretched out, which is why I gave a 4.5 star rating instead of 5. If you're looking for a uplifting, romance that will bring a smile to your face and warm your heart, then look no further than Anna and the French Kiss. You won't be disappointed.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language and some crude sexual humor. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: The Ruby Oliver series by E. Lockhart, Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen
Rummanah Aasi
  The Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda has been checked out several times from my public library and was also on a list of choices for an adult book club book. I took a look at the book's description and thought it would be a good choice to start off my Southeast Asian Reading Challenge. I finished the book this weekend and thought it was just okay, but it left me wanting more.

Description: In a small Indian village, Kavita's has unfortunately given birth to another baby girl when her husband family demands a son. She has lost her first child, also a girl, and now must fight to save her second daughter. The only choice that Kavita has is giving her newborn daughter up for adoption. Meanwhile, Somer, an American doctor, yearns to have a child of her own, but finds out that she is to have children at all and decides to adopt a baby girl from a Mumbai orphanage. Is it the same girl that Kavita lost or does she belong to someone else?

Review: Godwa's 2010 debut novel, The Secret Daughter, began with a lot of promise. She weaves together two compelling stories. In India in 1984, Kavita secretly and safely deposits her newborn daughter to an orphanage, knowing that if she doesn't her baby would most likely be dead. In their social structure, a daughter has no value and is a financial burden on her family. That same year across the globe in San Francisco, two doctors, Somer and Krishnan suffer from another miscarriage and consider adoption. They adopt Asha, a 10-month-old Indian girl from a Mumbai orphanage.
  In alternating chapters, Gowda traces Asha’s life in America such as her struggle with not knowing anything about her culture, clueless about her biological parents, and simply not fitting in despite her comfortable lifestyle. We also learn about Kavita's hardships and struggles such as living in Dharavi, Mumbai's infamous slum, and trying to make a living. 
 Gowda does a good job describing the contemporary setting of India. She isn't shy of showing the desperate poverty as well as the luxury of the upper middle class. She writes her characters with compassion and doesn't judge them. Despite the great, vivid, descriptions and great characters of the book, however, I had two major issues that prevented me from really enjoying it. One, the author flips points of views very quickly that it gave me literary whiplash. Each chapter is small, about 4 pages, and is from a different perspective. While I enjoyed reading about different characters, I had a hard time developing a connection to them. When I started to be intrigued by their personality and flaws, I was rushed on to someone else. My other major problem is with the author's writing. There large chunks of this book that tell what the characters are feeling or thinking, but they are not shown through dialogue or body language. It was as if someone was telling this story instead of me actively reading it. I think if this book was flushed out a bit more and focused on a few of the central characters, then it would have made the book that much emotionally stronger and powerful. Overall, it just made me want more than what I had. The Secret Daughter is an okay book that I'm sure will generate a lot of questions about gender equality, motherhood, and contemporary India, but in my opinion, it just touches these topics on a very superficial level.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language and quite a few disturb scenes in the slums of India. Recommended for mature teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: Cutting for Stone by
Rummanah Aasi
  I'm learning a lot of things that I didn't know about this week. I wasn't aware that there was an influenza pandemic in 1918 to 1919 that killed more people than World War I? Reportedly, between 20 and 40 million people died from this pandemic. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague, which spread throughout Europe, from 1347 to 1351.Can you believe that? To learn more about the influenza pandemic of 1918, visit this page by Stanford University. Now that the history lesson is over, let's get to the book shall we? The reason why I brought this up is because this pandemic serves at the back drop of Lafeye's latest title The Keening.

Description (from inside panel): Born into an artistic and eccentric family, Lyza laments that her only talent is carving letters into wood. That is, until the devastating loss of her mother to influenza during the pandemic of 1918. The illness has settled on their small coastal town in Maine, and the funeral marches pass Lyza’s house almost daily. When her unconventional father begins to prepare for the return of his dead wife, Lyza is the only one to protect him from being committed to the work farm. Awash with grief and longing for her mother, Lyza journeys into the thin territory that divides the living from the dead.
            Relying on her courage, and an undiscovered talent, Lyza must save her father and find her own path. From the celebrated author of Worth, a powerful story of love that persists beyond the grave.

Review: I had expected The Keening to be a very depressing story filled with pages of people who have died, but I was pleasantly surprised. While characters important people to the story die, this is not the sole focus of the book. The book is primarily about Lyza trying to care for and protect her eccentric father after the death of her mother as well as discovering new traits about herself.
  The characters of this story are interesting and original. Lyza’s pater (i.e. father) is quite unusual and very easily written off by others as insane. He does seem to have some signs of being autistic. He spends most of his time carving realistic faces into anything available. He's so absorbed in his craft that most days he forgets to eat and he wouldn’t even get dressed if not for the constant reminders from Lyza’s mother. Lyza’s mother’s side of the family is fully committed to send Lyza's father to an asylum and use Lyza's mother's inheritance for something else. However, when Lyza's mother dies, she is left with this arduous task in protecting her household. Soon Lyzya discovers that her father isn't crazy, he just has a unique talent and maybe she does too.
  The book is written with a dreamlike atmosphere, which really drew me in but may turn off some readers. Lyza constantly imagines herself being in a boat trying to get to some shore that she sees but can't reach. Lyza is a strong character who is struggling to find her own identity while keeping her loyalties to her family. Her voice is much older than her physical age, which I guess is common on how people spoke and thought in 1918. She yearns to become close to her distant father, whom she slowly begins to understand his unique personality while the book reaches its climax.
  The description of The Keening are excellent and there is a paranormal twist, which I didn't expect. The paranormal aspect didn't feel forced, but rather comes across as being natural as if it could really happen. While the book may technically fall under the historical fiction genre, it's actually more of a story of a father's and daughter's relationship, which I think many people will enjoy. It's definitely worth a read.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended for Grades 7 and up.

If you like this book try: Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson or The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Rummanah Aasi
  I never heard of Nicholas Flamel nor Dr. John Dee until now. Apparently, the are both real, historical figures. Flamel was one of the most popular alchemists of his time. He was born in 1330. It has been rumored that Flamel had discovered the two greatest secrets of alchemy in a book called The Book of Abraham: how to turn metal into gold (also known as the philosopher's stone) and how to become immortal. Historical records show that he died in 1418, but when people dug up his grave it was empty and more rumors spread. Dr. John Dee, like Flamel, was also an alchemist but he was also a spy for Queen Elizabeth I, a mathematical, a geographer, an astronomer, and an astrologer. Flamel and Dee play a major role along with mythology and magic in Michael Scott's best selling series The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Famel. I recently finished the first book of the series called The Alchemyst.

Description: Sophie and Josh are ordinary fifteen year old twins, who finds themselves in an extraordinary situation. Unknowingly, they find themselves caught up in the deadly struggle between two archival alchemists, Nicholas Flamel and John Dee, over the possession of an ancient book called The Book of Mage, which holds the most powerful spells. If the book is in the wrong hands, the world as we know it will be destroyed. The more that Sophie and Josh learn about the book and the alchemists, it seems that the power to save the world is in their hands, but can they trust what anyone says?

Review: I really wanted to love this book. It had everything that I could love in a complex fantasy: mythology, magic, compelling characters, and historical figures yet I thought the book was just okay. The pacing of The Alchemyst is feverishly fast. We are immediately plunged into an explosion and lots of characters are thrown at the reader without much explanation. Once the explosion has cleared, however, we slowly begin to understand that Sophie and Josh have unwillingly find themselves in midst of a catch and chase game between rivaling alchemists, Flamel and Dee. Flamel and his wife, Perry, has had the most covet magical book, The Book of Abraham, for eons. Dee is constantly pursuing the Flamels and is dead set on getting the book and getting rid of the Flamels for once and for all. Sophie's and Josh's problem grows exponentially when they come to find out that they are involved in a prophecy where the safety of our world lies in their hands.
  The characters that Scott introduces in his complex story are derived from history as well as several mythologies including Celtic and Egyptian. Flamel is an intriguing character that is shady at best. I constantly questioned what his real motive is throughout the book, which is something he advised the twins to do so too. Dee is also maliciously good. He has everything that makes a great villain: ambition, smarts, and a clear goal. Sophie and Josh are pretty good too. They are twins, but first and foremost, they are friends who depend on one another for support, but most importantly they balance each other out. For instance, Sophie is more prone to think things over and stay calm while Josh is reckless, emotional, and impulsive. Needless to say this says something about the prophecy in which they play a major role. Unlike the human characters, the mythological creatures are hard to pin down, mostly because I don't know anything about them which is my major complaint about this book and what hindered me from enjoying it.
  The Alchemyst is filled with action scene after action scene with minimal explanations. I could easily identify the mythological creatures yet I was scrambling to find some context in which they appear. Unlike Greek or Roman mythology, I am not at all familiar with Celtic and Egyptian mythology which is why I really had a hard time enjoying this book because the deities were mentioned by name but know brief information was given about them.
  I hate when authors withhold information from their readers. I don't mind researching. Heck, that's what I do for a living, but I would like to read a book where at least I have some key terms to use to find the information. Besides the names of the creatures, I really had no where to go from there. Perhaps kids and teens who read this book overlook this lack of information, but I found the book hard to read when I know there are some significant meanings behind symbols and not knowing what it is. I found myself putting down the book, researching, picking the book up again, and then putting down again. This cycle got tiring and took me out of the story, but I did finish because I liked the characters.
 Another thing that bothered me while reading the book is that I was puzzled why Flamel and his wife needs the book for the recipe to stay immortal when they already have had the book in their possession for centuries upon centuries? Wouldn't they have memorized it by now?
  Despite these obstacles, I plan on reading the rest of the 6 book series. Perhaps I'll look up the characters and do some research before reading them to actually sit back and enjoy the complex story arc and characters. This book was just a bit much for me and I would not recommend reading this book when you have a cold or a foggy brain. It doesn't help at all.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong fantasy violence throughout the book. Recommended for Grades 7 and up.

If you like this book try: The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan, The Magician by Michael Scott (Nicholas Flamel #2)
Rummanah Aasi
  I had an enjoyable mini-vacation. The weather held up and was actually sunny. Unfortunately, I didn't plan on getting sick and being in bed for 3 out of the 4 days but I did manage to finish a few books. The first one I finished was Bright Young Things which is a new series written by Anna Godbersen who is also the author of the popular Luxe series. The Luxe series was my guilty pleasure of 2009 and my palpable version of Gossip Girl.

Description: It is 1929. Three women, Astrid, Cordelia, and Letty, are care-free girls who are seeking for adventure and love in New York. They each envisioned their perfect life and will achieve their dreams no matter what and are willing to pay the cost. The lives and fortunes of these three women will rise and fall, both together and apart, during the infamous prohibition. When you are young, beautiful, rich, and full of optimism, what can go wrong?

Review: Readers who have read the Luxe series will be very familiar with the format of Bright Young Things. As the book opens, Cordelia and Letty, are two newly arrived Midwestern transplants who have very different motivations for fleeing their boring and stifling Ohio home in order to seek a new thrilling life in New York City. Cordelia is seeking a father, who she has never known, but who might be a famous, wealthy bootlegger. Letty, who comes from a large family, desperately wants to become a performer just like her mother and get out of her shell. Astrid, unlike the other two women, is a young flapper who has a seemingly picture perfect life: wearing expensive clothing, attending numerous parties, etc. Readers follow these ladies as they navigate their way in the larger than life backdrop of New York in the Jazz Age.  
 Bright Young Things is not deceiving. The prologue is very straightforward and alerts its readers what awaits them. It is a historical fiction filled with scandals, betrayal, and love affairs gone wrong. After reading the prologue, the omnipresent, third person narrator tells us exactly what will happen:

They were all marching toward their own secret fates, and long before the decade rolled around, each would escape their own way--one would be famous, one would be married, and one would be dead.

The fun with Godbersen's books isn't knowing what will happen, but rather who will things happen to.

  Normally, I breeze through Godbersen's books because of their fast plots and being absorbed on all of the insanity taking place in the characters lives. Unfortunately, I had to put Bright Young Things down several times due to its unbalanced writing, minimal plot and character development. The book is filled with 90% of description, which is something Godbersen is very good at writing. While I was able to be transported back in time to the 1920s, I had a hard time caring for the characters or being interested in the snail pace plot. While the historical details were vivid and appealing, it did become too gratuitous and well...boring. The details got so cumbersome that it took me completely out of the story and I completely forgot about it. I finally skimmed a lot of the description so I could get to plot or dialogue. I got the sense that Godbersen either didn't know how to write her characters or was just starting to figuring out what she wanted to do with the book.
  After a promising prologue and first chapter, the book falls flat and left me with a lot of issues. There is nothing striking or memorable about our three protagonists. Cordelia feels she is entitled to a better lifestyle. By coincidence she meets a wealthy bootlegger who just so happens to have her same last name and convinces him almost immediately that she is his daughter. This circumstance just happened way too quickly and easily for me. How can a man, of that high stature, just take any random girl and accept her as his daughter without any further questioning? I found this hard to swallow even when I tried suspending my disbelief.
  Letty is your quintessential naive farm girl who has no clue about the city life. There were moments where I did feel sorry for her, but I knew what would happen several pages before she did. Her connection to Cordelia isn't really defined. They are not really best friends as Letty believes, but come across as good acquaintances who happen to live in the same neighborhood and have the same desire to have a better life. Due to their lack of warmness or importance towards one another, their fight which sets them apart is neither anticlimactic nor surprising. It is just meh.
  When Cordelia is embraced by her father, she meets the flapper Astrid and they instantly become best friends. Again I found it hard to believe that anyone from a wealthy class immediately accepts a lower class girl like Cordelia. Astrid is your cliched spoiled rich girl who hides behind a facade of living the perfect life. While she says she fully commits to her boyfriend, she shamelessly flirts with other guys and quickly becomes bored when she is not in someone's spotlight. She really annoyed me.
  As for the plot, there is nothing that really surprised me. I had a feeling of how things were going to happen to each of the characters. I didn't care for any of the girl's potential love interests. I am hoping that second book will make up for the lackluster plot, absent characters, and give me what Godbersen does best: a social commentary of history. The only reason why I will pick up the second book in this series is because I'm curious how the author addresses the Great Depression, which is on the horizon for the characters. If you're really looking to see Godbersen's talent, then definitely check out the Luxe series and put this one on the back burner or at least check it out from your library.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: Since this is the era of the Prohibition, abundant underage drinking and smoking takes place as well as a few allusions to sex.

If you like this book try: Vixen by Jillian Larkin, Gatsby's Girl by Caroline Preston, or The Luxe series by Anna Godbersen
Rummanah Aasi
Dear Readers,

I wanted to drop a note that I will be MIA for the next few days. I'm visiting family over at the East Coast, which unfortunately, is also having a winter storm. I just survived that here in Chicagoland but now have to brace myself for what's on the ground there. *Sigh* Oh well, I hope to have a fun time regardless of the weather. I will be taking the following books with me in case I get snowed in:
  •   Bright Young Things by Anna Godbersen
  • The Secret Daughter by Shilpi Godwa
  • The Alchemyst by Michael Scott
  • Drowned Sorrow by Vanesssa Morgan
Check back next week for new book reviews!
Photo Credit:
Rummanah Aasi
  Thanks again to Thomas for his willingness to answer my questions and provide a free ebook copy of his novella, Life in the Slow Lane, for my giveaway. Thanks also to all the people who have entered in this giveaway. The winner was randomly selected. The winner for this giveaway is Una! Congratulations, Una. I will be sending you an email regarding Thoma's contact information. I hope you enjoy the novella as much as I did. 
Rummanah Aasi
  I reviewed and enjoyed reading Life in the Slow Lane by Thomas M. Sullivan last year. I had quite a few questions for him after reading the novella. Thomas has an extensive educational background. He has more degrees under his belt than I could count! He is a long time teacher who quite familiar with the murky and lightly regulated world of private vocational education. He has worked for companies that either dramatically fell apart or that were investigated by the federal government for fraud. His novella, Life in the Slow Lane, takes a closer look at private Driver's Education that is far from professional. I hope you enjoy this interview and participate in the giveaway (details below)!

Rummanah: Welcome and thank you for stopping by my blog, Thomas. Given your educational background, the last thing I imagined you doing is being a Driver’s Education teacher. Why did you choose this profession?

 Thomas: I sort of fell back into teaching after trying other things. A few years prior to the job I graduated from a two-year program in a computer related field but couldn’t find work in Portland. So I went to work as a cartographic draftsman at a government agency in Salem (the capitol). The environment there was really grim, so I decided to return to teaching (I had previously taught software to unemployed and job-injured adults in retraining for a number of years before moving to Portland). 

Rummanah: And now, you’re a writer. What made you turn to the writing profession?

Thomas: Our scheduling for student lessons was so erratic that I’d end up with hours between lessons. So I’d drop into a coffee shop and jot down accounts of funny things that happened during the day. Over time my “material” piled up and I decided to shape it into a book-length account of being a driver’s education instructor. So it wasn’t really a conscious decision but rather a way to make the best of a largely dysfunctional (but always entertaining) situation. 

Rummanah: Now that's what I call using your time wisely! Did you have any other memories from the Driver's Education company that you wanted to put into your novel, but didn’t?

Thomas: Fortunately, I was able to tell the whole story. From what I’ve heard, a lot of authors end up with editors that need to feel in control and radically rework a book to make it safer and more marketable. On this count my editor was wonderfully cooperative, which is a real blessing (small presses rock!).
Rummanah: That's great! As a teen what was your most memorable driving memory?

Thomas: Our family had two used cars, a Mazda and a Camaro with this monstrous stick shift that looked like it belonged on a flatbed truck. One day I was driving home in the Camaro and went to downshift to climb a big hill. For some unknown reason I thought I was in the Mazda and was shifting from 3rd gear to 2nd. But on the Camaro the same spot on the shifter was actually Reverse. When I shifted and let off the clutch the car screamed, slammed to a stop, and started to smoke. Perhaps teaching drivers ed became a future form of penance for that destruction. 

Rummanah: *Laughs* If I ever did that, my parents would never let me get near a car much less drive one! How would you describe your writing style?

Thomas: Firstly, “accessible” – I try to write as if I’m talking to someone and telling them a story, not trying to impress them with smart-sounding words and complex sentences. My hope is that this makes reading my work quick and light. Secondly, “irreverent” – I write from the position that every institution and every belief in life needs to be open to reasonable inspection and questioning if we want to avoid stagnating or morphing into a closed society. 

Rummanah: I think that definitely comes across in Life in the Slow Lane. While there is humor in the book, I could still tell there was a serious problem with that driving school. On that note, what would you like your readers to take away from your book?

Thomas:  Primarily, that we can learn a lot from the easy-going wisdom of kids, who haven’t been tainted by greed or the need to control or an overwhelming drive to feel successful. In my book there’s a stark contrast between the way the kids respond and the way the adults respond when things go haywire, and I think it’s instructional. The kids shrug it off and move on, the adults bicker and blame (probably myself included). That was the remarkable thing about being around kids day after day – what struck me was that they exhibited an accepting lightness and that seems to evaporate in middle aged adults. I’m not denigrating American parents, who now have less security and support than ever before and should probably be demanding more, I’m only saying they can learn from the young.
   Secondly, I’d like people to consider (especially now in an era of budget challenges) the wisdom of privatizing essential functions like education or water systems or highways. I’d like to believe that my experience was unique, but I don’t think it is. Privatizing is always presented as the best way to gain “efficiencies,” but you run the risk of entrusting crucial necessities to companies that (by design) care primarily about maximizing profit. Private enterprise works for most things, but it’s not a panacea for everything.

Rummanah: I hear you loud and clear on that, but I can't help but notice a common critique of your book is the social commentary you included in the middle of the book. Some readers thought it was a bit offensive. What was your purpose of adding that commentary there?

Thomas: I wanted to encompass the whole range of my experience and not be limited to funny, feel-good stories about being in a car with teenagers. I also felt that the nature of the time and setting of the story were factors in the dysfunction permeating the situation. My story takes place mid-decade, when the housing bubble was raging, suburbs were booming, reckless greed was in, and people were buying big houses and huge SUV’s. At the time, it seemed to me that the drive for wealth and power were crowding out other more important (in my opinion) concerns. And I was sitting in the middle of all this. The town I worked in celebrated a sort of “free-market-triumphalism.” My employer was a perfect example of “profit-above-all-else,” like Enron. So, the general mood of the cultures surrounding me felt aggressive and selfish and unsettled. So the social elements seeped into my story and shaped it. And the prevailing mindset impacted the effectiveness of my company in meeting its true responsibility, the one that really mattered, which was teaching kids.
    I suspect that my comments on religion were the primary thing people found “offensive”. But my story does beg the question – how does one claim openly to be a dedicated Christian, but then run a company that is basically predatory and concerned primarily with profit? 

Rummanah: I see. Thomas, if you could offer any advice to aspiring writers what would it be?

Thomas:  Try to find a voice and style of your own and trust it. This can be hard since a lot of traditional venues for writers want things that are familiar and comfortable, which tempts one to change their voice and style to “fit in.” But these restraints that kill innovation are now driving new opportunities to arise. The web is really opening up possibilities, with online journals, audio magazine, e-publishers, blogs, etc. So my one bit of advice would be: don’t change what or how you write, change how you try to get your work out there.

Rummanah: Thanks for the advice! Do you have any other projects that you’re working on at the moment?

Thomas: I’m finishing a collection of humorous non-fiction essays that I think could be called “flash-nonfiction.” A number of these have appeared online. If anyone wants to take a peek I have a link to a few on my website.

Rummanah: Thanks so much for stopping by and answering my questions!

Thomas: Thank you so much for this opportunity. I’m really starting to appreciate the book blogging community and have found some great books that I would never have found through traditional channels. So thanks for that too! 

Readers, Thomas has kindly offered to give away an electronic copy of Life in the Slow Lane. Here are the giveaway rules:
1. You must be 13 years or older.
2. Leave your name/alias along with an email in the comments so that Thomas can send the ebook to you. 

This giveaway is open internationally! You do not have to follow my blog, but if you like what you see here then it would be greatly appreciated. Giveaway ends 11 pm EST on 1/11/11. The winner will be notified via email and announced on my blog 1/12/11. Good Luck!

Rummanah Aasi
  I have been looking forward to this morning and anxiously awaiting the announcement of several Children and Young Adult book awards. The Young Media Awards are like the Oscars for many librarians, including myself. The awards took place at the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting at San Diego, California. Although there are many awards honored today, I was looking forward to finding out the winners for the Caldecott, Newberry, Morris, and of course the Michael L. Printz Award. You can find the other winners on the Association for Library Services to Children website and the Young Adult Library Services website (YALSA).

The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of  Randolph Caldecott, who was a nineteenth-century English illustrator. The award is given annually by the Association for Library Service to Children to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.

Winner of the 2011 Caldecott Medal is:
A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead.

Honorees of the 2011 Caldecott are:

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill and illustrated by Bryan Collier

Interrupting Chicken written and illustrated by David Ezra Stein The Newberry Medal was named in the honor of John Newberry, who was an eighteenth century British bookseller. Like the Caldecott, it is also awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

Winner of the 2011 Newberry Medal is:
Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Honorees of the 2011 Newberry are:

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Rick Allen

The William C. Morris YA Debut Award was first awarded in 2009 by YALSA. The award is given to a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.

Winner of the 2011 Morris Award is: 

Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston 

Honorees of the 2011 Morris Award are:

Hush by Eishes Chayil

Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey

Hold Me Closer, Neromancer by Lish McBride
Crossing the Tracks by Barbara Stuber

 The Michael L. Printz Award was named in the honor of Michael L. Printz, a school librarian in Topeaka, Kansas, who was a long-time active member of the Young Adult Library Services Association. The Michael L. Printz Award is an award given annually by the Young Adult Library Services Association to a book that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature.

Winner of the 2011 Michael Printz Award is:

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Honorees of the 2011 Printz Award are:

Nothing by Janne Teller

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

Stolen by Lucy Christopher

  Well, the library associations have spoken. What do you think of these book awards? Will you read the books that have won and have been honored? I, personally, was a little suprised by Ship Breaker winning the Printz. It's a well written book, however, I didn't find anything really exceptional about it. I do have most of the other books already on my tbr pile. I guess, I will post them up higher just to see what made them so special.
Rummanah Aasi
  I have mixed feelings about reading series. I like well developed plot arcs, meeting and seeing characters grow with each volume, and getting a clearer picture of the world that the author has created. What I don't enjoy is reading a series where the story and characters go no where, which is why I dropped the House of Night series by mother-daughter duo, P.C. and Kristen Cast, despite the fact that I already read 7 books in the series. I'm lenient with series than with any other books because I know how difficult it is for an author to set up their world and establish their characters. The series may have its flaws but eventually the author finds his/her stride, the writing becomes clearer, and the characters become alive, which makes the book take flight. As my friend Kayla mentioned once to me (I'm paraphrasing here. Sorry, Kayla, if I jumbled your words): "Give me fascinating characters and I will follow the author where ever he/she goes". I feel the exact same way with the Mercy Thompson series and the third book, Iron Kissed, especially.

Description: When her former boss and mentor, a fae, is arrested for murder and left to rot behind bars by his own kind, Mercy is determined to clear his name and show he is innocent regardless of how dangerous it is for her. Time has also come for Mercy to decide which of the two alpha male werewolves, Sam or Adam,  she will claim as her mate, because if she doesn't one of them will decide for her. Mercy has got a lot on her plate, what will she do?

Review: The Mercy Thompson series gets better with each book. The world building becomes sharper, the plot arc slowly builds, the pacing gets better, and the writing is a smoother. Like the previous books, Moon Called and Blood Bound, which focuses on a specific paranormal community, werewolves and vampires respectively, Iron Kissed continues the trend and spotlights the fey. The paranormals live amongst the humans yet they face discrimination and strict laws that are pretty similar to Marvel's Xmen. With each book, I enjoy the new mythology and folklore that Briggs introduces. 
  Iron Kissed picks up where Blood Bound leaves off. Mercy is still haunted by her actions in the last book, which Briggs nicely sums up to bring the reader new to the series up to speed without slowly down for those who are already updated. A new mystery arrives when Mercy receives a frantic call from her former boss about powerful fae instruments stolen and murders occurring on the fae reservations. Things get worse when her boss is framed for murder and is thrown in jail. There are a lot of twist and turns in the plot, some of which I had anticipated before hand and others that took me by complete surprise, but it is Briggs' dynamic characters that bring this series to life and the only reason why I continue to read this series.
  Mercy is a heroine that I admire. She is a complex and strong. I appreciate Briggs creating a character of color, who for once is the main lead and not a sidekick character. Mercy is utterly loyal and will do anything to help those who she loves. A child of a single teenage parent, she was raised by a pack of werewolves and has always fought to stay independent. While she is physically strong, she is also vulnerable. She is constantly trying to fit in and create a place to call home. We see more of this come to light in this book. Unlike the two previous mysteries, this current conflict is much more personal to Mercy. To her, her boss is like a surrogate father who has guided and cared for her, which is why she doesn't hesitate to put her live in danger in order to save him. Mercy goes through strong emotions and turmoil in Iron Kissed, but how she maturely deals with her problems is what makes her real, appealing, and admirable.
  Sam and Adam, Mercy's love interests, are honorable men who also have a fair share of flaws. To be honest, I have been conflicted with both of them. It is clear that both of them care deeply for her and have to come to her aid regardless if their own lives are at risk. While there is a traditional love triangle in this book, I thought Briggs did a great job in not dwelling on the angst or have a character walk off because of the outcome, which took me by surprise. The love triangle wasn't solved completely out of emotion, but rather logic. While it may come across as anticlimactic for some, I loved how maturely it was dealt with and how the characters stayed true to themselves throughout it. Finally, there is a resolution but no baggage that characters carry.
  As for the mystery, I figured out the identity of the murderer ahead of time but I did not expect how it unfolded nor the emotions that were revealed after. I won't mention what happened exactly because that would be a huge spoiler, but I will say that it was very powerful and made me reread the section quite a few times to really understand what had happened. What took me off guard completely, but in a good way, is the character of Ben. Ben, in the first two books, came off as being prickly and shady. I didn't care for him at all, especially with how he acted around Mercy. My opinion of him, after reading Iron Kissed however, completely changed how I see him now. Ben is a man who has a dark and tragic past, who is working on his recovery. I have warmed up to him and now understand him better.
  If you are considering to read the urban fantasy genre or looking for a book that has mystery, suspense, romance, and great characters, I think you will really enjoy this series. I really look forward to reading the next books to see what else Briggs has in stored for me.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language and an allusion to rape. Although the series is marketed to adults, I think this a pretty clean series to recommend to strong teen readers.

If you like this book try: Bones Crossed (Mercy Thompson #4), Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews or  Paranormalcy by Kiersten White
Rummanah Aasi
  After reading the Emmy and The Incredible Shrinking Rat by Lynne Jonell, I finished the list for the Bluestem Award. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Bluestem Award, is a Reader's Choice Award for books that are written for Grades 3-5. Books are selected by students, librarians, and teachers. Participating schools in this award hosted by the Illinois School Library Media Association (ISLMA) hold an election and a winner is announced. I really enjoyed reading the nominees this year and can't wait to see the list for next year. I'm glad that I finished Emmy and The Incredible Shrinking Rat and ended the reading list on a happy note.  

Description: Emmy Addison was perfectly happy as the daughter of bookstore owners, but then her parents inherited a lot of money and she suddenly became invisible. She can't understand why her formerly attentive, loving parents are always constantly away and leaving her alone with the strange and controlling Miss Barmy, her nanny, who gives strange concoctions to Emmy to drink and eat. To much of Emmy's dismay, it's not just her parents who don't notice her, but also everyone in her classroom. When she is bitten by the classroom pet rat, called appropriately Rat, she discovers that she can understand what he says and so can her fellow classmate, Joe, one of the cool kids in her class. Things really get challenging and odd when Rat bites Joe and Joe shrinks to Rat's size.Determined to unshrink her friend, Emmy discovers Miss Barmy's hidden agenda. Could Miss Barmy be the reason why Emmy is invisible to her parents and her classmates? What is in those drinks and food that Miss Barmy serves at Emmy's house?

Review: Emmy and Incredible Shrinking Rat is a charming and very funny story. The beginning, especially the scene where Rat admonishes Emmy for being too nice, hooks the reader right away. Emmy, our heroine, is adorable. She is very frustrated by being invisible to others, even when she is physically present in front of them. She yearns for her parent's attention and adoration. We see her desperately tying to capture their attention by excelling in school and other extra curricular activities but to no avail. So when Rat and Joe seek her friendship and help, she immediately jumps on board and thus begins to uncover the agenda of the evil nanny, Miss Barmy. As a villain, Miss Barmy is not too scary and serves as excellent fodder for jokes. The real star of the story, however, is Rat. I absolutely loved his snarky voice. He had me constantly laughing and smiling.
   A mystery regarding Miss Barmy is cleverly woven into this fun story, but at times it seems to take the story off track and thus slow down parts of the book. As an adult, I was able to figure out the mystery and Miss Barmy's motive, but I still enjoyed on how Emmy, Rat, Joe, and other characters work together to resolve the conflicts. I would have also liked a clearer explanation of how the animals have powers, but I think kids will be most invested with the talking animals and the jokes and not mind the obvious plot line or this hole in the story. I  thought the illustrator did a neat job in decorating the margins with drawings that produce a flip-book effect: the rat falls from the bough of a tree, covering his eyes as he somersaults backward in mid-air to land in Emmy's outstretched hand. It is very different than your average illustration between the text. Emmy and The Incredible Shrinking Rat is a funny, fun filled read that I'm sure many kids and adults will love.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: None. Although the reading level is suitable for Grades 3 and up, Grades 1 and 2 will definitely enjoy this story and the book would be a great choice for a read aloud.

If you like this book try: Emmy and The Home for Troubled Girls by Lynne Jonell, Matlida by Roald Dahl, or The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Rummanah Aasi

Nailer scavenges ships in order to stay alive. When he finds a rich, beached ship with a girl in the wreckage, he has to decide if he should strip the ship for its wealth or rescue the girl. Is the girl the ticket he needs to get out of poverty or will she drag him down further into his hellish world?

dirty and dangerous job is to crawl deep into the wrecks of the ancient oil tankers that line the beach, scavenging copper wire and turning it over to his crew boss. Quota must be met or you might not live for the next day. Nailer and his crew live in extreme poverty where food and clean drinking water is scarce. While the book is considered a dystopian and futuristic society, one can't help but feel that the dire situation mirrors what reality is for many, if not all, impoverish communities living in many countries today. The division between the haves and the have nots is staggering, but unfortunately not startling. While the world may not be different from today's economic times, what is startling to see is the lengths humans are willing to go to in order to survive. Like the resources that are limited in Nailer's world, trust, loyalty, and family is almost nonexistent, which is portrayed both by the book's characters as well as the distant, third person narrative.
   Nailer, our main character, is not our usual male hero that we have seen in YA literature. He is short, scrawny, and horribly scarred. In fact in order for Nailer to make a living and to survive, he must stunt his growth so he can fit into the small crevices of the ship to scavenge. Descriptively, he is very far from the typical tall, athletic, and attractive hero we generally read about. Unlike his looks, his living condition is not unusual. Like many children in severe poverty, he is forced to become an adult very quickly and make his own living. To make things worse, he is also living with his drug addict, alcoholic, and abusive father. While I understood Nailer's difficult situation and decisions, I couldn't connect with him beyond the superficial level. I had already met this type of character before in other books I've read.
  In fact I thought a lot of the secondary characters share very similar characteristics with Nailer. I felt if you could switch their names with his, you essentially get the same person. The only exception to this is a genetically engineered character named Tool who is composed of hyena, tiger, dog, and human. Half-men like Tool are created for the sole purpose of being utterly loyal to his patron/master and having a fierce temperament whenever he is called upon. Unfortunately, the side effect of this experiment is having a face that looks a bit canine. While he may not look physically attractive to us, Tool's face is supposed to inspire fear, especially since his breed are mostly employed as thugs and bodyguards. Tool is definitely menacing, but he is also unique. His rebellion against the natural order of half-men (thus the irony of his name) make him mysterious and that aura is heightened with the lack of a back story. Tool's past is never revealed, but he constantly reminds Nailer and those around him how unexpected his actions are. At first I was a bit frustrated with not knowing Tool's history, but then I realized if it was given then it would be not only inconsistent with his social rank but also might lessen my fascination of him.
 Ship Breaker is a gripping and fast paced story that I'm sure many reluctant readers will enjoy. I learned a lot about the job of being a ship breaker, which I did not know about until I read this book. I really appreciate Bacigalupi in using racially and culturally diverse characters in his novel. Both the female and male characters have equal presence and importance in the novel. I can definitely see boys and girls liking this book. Themes such as environmental responsibility and social/economic inequity make the book a good choice for a book discussion.

Rummanah Aasi

 It's Tuesday and time for another list for the weekly Top Ten Tuesday meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! The purpose of this weekly meme is to share our lists with people who love to read and to engage with fellow bloggers. Today's topic is books that I resolve to read in 2011. I always have good intentions of reading a book, especially when it has been constantly brought up in discussion. A lot of the books that I listed below have been on my shelves for several years. For some, I wasn't in the right mood to read them and for others, I really don't have an excuse. I hope to finally read them and use them for my Off the Shelve Reading Challenge this year. 

Top 10 Books I Resolve to Read in 2011 (in no particualr order):

    The Time Travler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger- I can not tell you how many times I have heard my girlfriends gush and talk about this book. I know that it's a love story featuring a time traveling librarian and it is set in Chicago. All of the reasons why I would love this book. The only reason why I have been hesitant to read it is because almost all of my girlfriends cried a lot while reading it. I am going to get a box of tissues just in case I'll get emotional and finally read it.   

    Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides- I have read glowing reviews for this book and it has been recommended to me several times when I was in high school and in college. Again, I purchased this from a used public library book sale and it has sat on my shelve since then. I have no excuse why I didn't read this one.

    A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens- I was an English major in college and I'm ashamed to say that I haven't read a full Charles Dickens novel yet. I've tried Great Expectations several times and have failed to pass page 10 without falling asleep at the exact same paragraph. I'm hoping that the setting of the French Revolution will keep me awake this time and finish one book by Dickens for my Victorian Literature Reading Challenge.

    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee- I have no idea why I haven't read this book yet. Surprisingly, I never had to read it for middle school, high school, or college. I had intended to read it for Banned Books Week last year, but ran out of time. I'm determined to read it this year. 

    The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper-  This series was constantly checked out at the elementary school where I student taught 2 years ago. The series has been critically acclaimed and on several people's favorites for children's fantasy books. I happened to find and bought all of the books at a used public library book sale last fall.

    Honey, Baby, Sweetheart by Deb Caletti- This book has been recommended to me repeatedly, especially after I finished any book by Sarah Dessen. I bought this title at a while ago and it has sat on my shelve for several years.

    The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf- My dad recommended this title to me and borrowed his colleague's copy for me to read. Since then, it has been sitting on my shelve. My dad and I don't see eye to eye on books. He is more of the scholarly, philosophy mind set where as I tend to drift towards "novels" (i.e. books that have a story, characters, etc) as he calls them. I've been afraid that this was one would go right over my head, but the more I read it I realize that it actually isn't bad. I'll be reading this for my Middle Eastern Reading Challenge for this year.
    Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead- I've been wanting to read this series for quite some time. I patiently waited until this series was complete (yes, I know there is a spin off series), because I was tired of keeping track of yet another series. Now, I'll finally get to know a girl named Rose, the mysterious Dimitri, and everything else in between.

    Midnighters series by Scott Westerfeld- I loved Westerfeld's other books, the Uglies series and his steampunk novel, and I'm not sure why I haven't picked this series up. Once again, I purchased them at a book fair. Is it just me or am I seeing a trend of buying books and then having them sit on my shelves for no good reason?

    Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut- My best friend from college and I discovered the brilliance of Kurt Vonnegut in of our English classes. We both read and loved Slaughter House Five and Cat's Cradle. Her favorite Vonnegut book is Mother Night, which I haven't read but wanted to do so for a really long time. Hopefully, this will be the year when I read it.
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