Rummanah Aasi
 Unlike many readers I did not fall in love with Water for Elephants, but I did like Sara Gruen's writing style and wanted to give her latest book, At the Water's Edge, a shot. Her latest book's premise sounds promising and it gave me a Downton Abbey vibe set in Scotland.

Description: After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colorblind. To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants.

Review: Maddie, her husband Ellis, and their very close friend Hank live a luxurious life filled with parties and leisure, safe in their own bumble while World War II is raging on. Hank and Ellis are  exempt from the battle due to one of the men being colorblind and other being "flat-footed," which I never heard of before I read this book. After disgracing their aristocratic family by being overly drunk at a social event, all three characters are exiled to Scotland to find the Loch Ness Monster to restore their honor.
  Readers interested in the actual search for Loch Ness Monster will be disappointed as this aspect of the story becomes more of a plot device that boils up when it is convenient for the plot, but otherwise simmers noiselessly in the background. Much more of the story is dedicated to Maddie's self awakening and the relationships between her and Ellis, Hank, and the people they meet at the inn they stay at in Scotland who are, in my opinion, the stars of the book. Personally, I preferred watching Maddie grow from a spoiled, self centered, one dimensional woman to a three dimensional person who found her voice and grew a backbone much more than the search for the Loch Ness Monster. Her journey is well done and believable for the most part, but it is uneven when it comes to the other subplot of the story. 

  In addition to Maddie bursting out of her own bubble, we are also introduced to the lives of the Scottish residents who also face a variety of domestic tragedy such as  death and divorce. The women of the story come alive and have a strong presence, but I wished the male characters were just as nuanced. For example, Maddie's husband, Ellis, is a cad and doesn't have any additional layers to his characters while their friend Hank is an overt philander. Some of Scottish men we meet aren't any better. 
  The story veers off a few times on the melodramatic with Maddie fainting a few times and the ending that is solved too conveniently and in part takes away the strength of Maddie's journey. There are a few times where Gruen info dumps wartime statistics for paragraphs at a time that aren't particularly relevant to the specific story she's telling. Overall I would recommend At Water's Edge if you are looking for a historical beach read or a lazy Sunday read.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, domestic violence, and small sexual situations. Recommended for mature teens and adults.

If you like this book try: Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam, The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Scarlet’s true identity has been revealed, but her future is uncertain. Her forced marriage to Lord Gisbourne threatens Robin and Scarlet’s love, and as the royal court descends upon Nottingham for the appointment of a new Sheriff, the people of Nottingham hope that Prince John will appoint their beloved Robin Hood. But Prince John has different plans for Nottingham that revolve around a fateful secret from Scarlet’s past even she isn’t yet aware of. Forced to participate at court alongside her ruthless husband, Scarlet must bide her time and act the part of a noblewoman—a worthy sacrifice if it means helping Robin’s cause and a chance at a future with the man she loves.

Review: Lady Thief rises above the dreaded middle book syndrome providing plenty of action, surprises, and more swoon inducing romance for its readers. Scarlet faces a new challenge in returning to her aristocratic title of a lady and as Gisbourne's wife, in order to obtain an annulment and marry Robin Hood, her true love. Rob rightly fears for her life, but Scar is adamant that the end will justify the means though she knows it will not be easy. Much to our liking, Scarlet does not abandon her own ways of being independent and strong when she becomes a lady. She defies Gisbourne's every request to be a demur wife while continuing to aid the commoners and still keeps her slang and improper grammar when she speaks. Her adventures as a "lady thief" are brought to a halt, however, when she learns the shocking truth of her birth and as a result becomes the victim of Prince John's brutality. There were a lot of moments where I did not see the plot twists coming. I shouted in horror at the injustices that Scarlet and the towns people faced. I was not expecting this sequel to be dark and gritty, but it made the story more realistic for its time period. I also really enjoyed the seamless blending of both a feminist retelling of Robin Hood along with the historical context of the Crusades.The book does end in a cliffhanger and I'm glad that I waited to read it close to the release of Lion Heart, the final book in the Scarlet series.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong violence, crude humor, minor language, and attempted rape. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Lion Heart by A.G. Gaughen, His Fair Assassin series by Robin LaFevers, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund

Description: Imprisoned by Prince John for months, Scarlet finds herself a long way from Nottinghamshire. After a daring escape from the Prince's clutches, she learns that King Richard’s life is in jeopardy, and Eleanor of Aquitaine demands a service Scarlet can’t refuse: spy for her and help bring Richard home safe. But fate—and her heart—won’t allow her to stay away from Nottinghamshire for long, and together, Scarlet and Rob must stop Prince John from going through with his dark plans for England. They can not rest until he’s stopped, but will their love be enough to save them once and for all?

Review: In this finale to the Scarlet trilogy, Scarlet is imprisoned for months by the ruthless Prince John. She dares to escape, only to learn that King Richard's life is in jeopardy. Eleanor of Aquitaine asks her to serve as her knife-wielding spy in order to bring King Richard home safely, but Scarlet is given a new title and responsibility as the Lady Huntingdon. Scarlet must now face her fate and decide how she wants to live regardless of the expectations placed up on her shoulders by her society. She must also reunite with her true love, Robin Hood. As with the previous books in this series, the finale is replete with action, suspense, court intriguing, and romance to continually engage its readers. There were a few slow moments that dragged the plot just a bit. Scarlet once again emerges as a complex, well-developed protagonist who can carry the entire series on her shoulders, while supporting characters such as Rob, Eleanor, and Prince John are quite well-rounded secondary characters. While I would have liked to see a harsher sentence for Prince John, I can understand how the author wanted to keep her story as close to the historical facts. I was also happy to see a happy ending for Scarlet and Rob. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with these characters and I am sad to see them go.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong violence, crude humor, minor language, and attempted rape. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Maids of Honor series by Jennifer McGowan, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson
Rummanah Aasi
 Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples is not the typical graphic novel that I tend to drift to, but I picked it up after reading several starred reviews. Saga is a hard to describe. I guess the best way to wrap your head around it is picturing a hybrid of Star Wars meets Romeo and Juliet with a lot of bizarre creatures and worlds.

Description: Saga is sweeping tale of one young family fighting to find their place in the universe. Thanks to her star-crossed parents Marko and Alana, newborn baby Hazel has already survived lethal assassins, rampaging armies, and horrific monsters, but in the cold vastness of outer space, the little girl encounters her strangest adventure yet... grandparents.

Review: Hazel, the newborn daughter of Marko and Alana, continues to narrate the story of her parents from an unknown point in the future. Marko and Alana, both soldiers from two warring alien races, have a forbidden romance that gives Romeo and Juliet a run for their money. On the run as fugitives from their respective races, they continue to search the universe for a safe place to live, love, and raise Hazel. Their mission is much easier said than done as bounty hunters continue to plague them and, worst of all, the sudden appearance of ex-flames (an enraged Gwendolyn, Marko's one time fiancée) and in-laws (Marko's parents seek out their wayward child at the worst possible of times, complicating his escape with Alana).
 This volume provides back stories on several significant characters, including how Marko and Alana met, as well as the history of the relationship between The Will and The Stalk, the star-crossed (and antithesis to Marko and Alana's relationship) bounty hunters hot on their trail. The stakes are raised higher with more mature content with sex and violence. The relationships are also established with maturity, being real without being romanticized. Despite the over-the-top worlds that Vaughan has created, the reason I keep coming back to this series is the human touch that is expressed with the beautiful artwork of illustrator Fiona Staples as well as incorporating universal human themes such as family and love that gives this otherwise cartoonish graphic novel substance and staying power. 
Words of Caution: There is strong language, violence, and sexual content including nudity. Recommended for adults only.

If you like this book try: Saga Vol. 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Alex + Aida Vol 1 by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughan
Rummanah Aasi
  Rules for Riders is a young adult romance novel by Natalie Scott. It is a fast paced coming-of-age story set in the competitive world of equestrian riding. Today I have an excerpt from the book. If you are interested in wanting to read more, enter the giveaway below!


I can still remember the first time I saw him...

He’s seventeen hands high, a dark bay, almost black, a white star on his forehead, and two white socks on his hind legs. I’m fifteen years old when I spy King bucking and rearing and giving the grooms a terrible time. I think he’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

I point straight at him, “I want that horse.”

My father (otherwise known as the Colonel) rolls his eyes. “No, he’s wild. You just want him because he’s difficult like you.”

We’re at our neighbors, the O’Rileys, on a crisp Sunday morning. Jim O’Riley owns Starlight stables and is one of the best horse trainers in Connecticut. Jim winks at me. “For God’s sake, Colonel, everyone knows you made a ton of money in the stock market. Let her have the damn horse.”

“I said no,” shrieks the Colonel, remaining unconvinced. “Besides, who’ll train her?”

“I will,” Billy O’Riley, Jim’s oldest son, steps forward. His clear green eyes stare straight at King. “He’s a warm blood, sir, from Holland. We just bought him.”

The Colonel growls at Billy. “Listen son, I don’t care if he’s from friggin’ Japan! For God’s sake you’re only a couple of years older than my daughter.”

We all stand there watching, while his face turns bright red with rage. There’s no way in hell he's going to let me have this horse now. That would be too perfect. Instead, he shocks the pants off of me!

“Fine, but if you break your neck, don’t blame me.”

First thing the next morning I race over to the O’Rileys. By the time I reach the stables, I’m out of breath. Billy’s busy brushing down his horse, Stargazer. I walk over to King and stroke his mane. Then I pull a sugar cube out of my pocket. “Hey, boy.”

Billy looks up. “That’s funny, he doesn’t usually take to people so quickly. So let me guess, you want to take a ride?”

God, I’ve been riding since I was six! Okay, I admit it— Billy’s a hottie. I’ve had a crush on him forever. But it makes me crazy the way he still treats me like a little kid. He leans closer and places his hands firmly on his hips.

“Bebe, if I’m going to train you, there are rules for riders. The first one’s commitment. Without it, none of the other rules exist. If I agree to train you, you’ve got to give me 100 percent.”

I stare right back at him, giving him my best killer smile. “I’m all yours!”

For the next few weeks, he insists I do nothing but flat work. He hardly lets me ride across the yard without making sure I am doing it properly. Unlike the Colonel, Billy brings out the best in me and plays down the worst. Whatever I lack, he teaches me with infinite slowness; guiding King and I so we both gain confidence.

“That’s right. Keep your back straight, hold your head up, shoulders back.”

I learn from Billy that difficult horses become easy once you know how to handle them. With Billy’s training, I’m right on course. The Colonel’s threats don’t scare me. Instead, they fuel me, making me even more determined to succeed.

A few days later, I get to the stables early for some quiet time with King. Billy sneaks up behind me. I can feel his breath against my neck.

When I turn around, he has an amused look on his face. “So, do you finally want to take a ride? Isn’t that what you’ve been dying to do—jump every fence this side of Connecticut?”

I have this wild urge to hug him. Instead, I saddle up King. “C’mon, boy.”

King and I take off.

“Tell me what you’ve learned when you get back!” Billy shouts.

After a near fatal riding accident, Bebe Barkley is banned from riding and sent off to boarding school. Finn Foxley, her roommate and partner in crime, devise a plan to get themselves kicked out of school, in order to return to the world they love. 
Once back on the Equestrian circuit, best friends will become deadly rivals! Enter Billy O'Reilly, Bebe's handsome trainer, who will enforce 7 Rules that will turn Bebe's world up upside down forever.


 Thanks to the publisher I have one (1) kindle edition of Rules for Riders to giveaway. To enter please leave your name and email address so I can contact you. This giveaway is open internationally. You do not have to be a follower of my blog to enter the giveaway, but it is much appreciated. This giveaway will run until August 7, 2015. The winner will be randomly chosen. Good Luck!
Rummanah Aasi
 The Dresden Files is a fun, long running, urban fantasy series set in Chicago. It is a great series for those who are fans of the paranormal and mystery as Harry is a wizard and a private investigator. You can still watch the short lived television show to get a feel if this series is right for you. 

Description: Ever since his girlfriend left town to deal with a life shattering change, Harry Dresden has been down and out in Chicago. He can't pay his rent. He's alienating his friends. He can't even recall the last time he took a shower. The only professional wizard in the phone book has become a desperate man.
 And just when it seems things can't get any worse, in saunters the Winter Queen of Faerie. She has an offer Harry can't refuse if he wants to free himself of the supernatural hold his faerie godmother has over him--and hopefully end his run of bad luck. All he has to do is find out who murdered the Summer Queen's right-hand man, the Summer Knight, and clear the Winter Queen's name. It seems simple enough, but Harry knows better than to get caught in the middle of faerie politics. Until he finds out that the fate of the entire world rests on his solving this case. No pressure or anything.

Review: The Dresden Files is a series that I have on the back burner and savor when I need an urban fantasy fix without any cliffhangers. Each book gets better and better as Butcher sharpens his writing. The world building is great and vast as Butcher incorporates the classic folklore of vampires, shape shifters, fae, etc. along with adding new concepts. Chicago comes alive and a character in of itself quite nicely.
  Like the world building, the characters are also the backbone of this series. Harry reminds me of the classic noir detective who is always down on his luck, has a gravely voice, and full of deadpan, self deprecating humor. He may be blunt and he isn't shy to take note, appreciate an attractive female. In the Summer Knight, Harry has had better days and suffering from depression. His serious girlfriend has taken off and doesn't anything to do with him. He has a mile long of a list of people who want to assassinate him. He may have started a war between the Red Court of Vampires and the White Council of Wizards. He is also on the verge of being kicked out of the wizard council. And this all happened in the first three books! Things really get desperate when Harry accepts a job from Queen Mab.
 We learn quite a bit of the fae in this book. Alluring, dangerous, and very cunning, Queen Mab is just how I pictured her. She definitely stood out in this book and gave me the chills. I'm sure we will see her again later in this series. It was fun watching Harry keeping himself in check as he gets caught in the web of fae politics. The mystery of surrounding who murdered the Summer Knight is nicely structured. There are plenty of red herrings sprinkled and there were a few twists that I didn't see coming throughout the book. The mystery is solved in the end without any cliffhangers. It was also really nice to see favorite secondary characters such as Murphy, Bob the skull, Toot the fairy, and the shapeshifters have some page time. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong violence, language, and some crude humor. Recommended for mature teens and adults.

If you like this book try: Death Masks (Dresden Files #5), Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne, Nightlife by Rob Thurman
Rummanah Aasi
 I thoroughly enjoyed Gennifer Choldenko's Tales from Altracaz historical fiction series and was very excited to learn that she has a new historical fiction/mystery titled Chasing Secrets which is set in San Francisco during the Gilded Age. Please note that this review is based on the advance reader's copy of the book provided by the publisher via Netgalley. Chasing Secrets will be released on August 4th, 2015.

Description: San Francisco, 1900. The Gilded Age. A fantastic time to be alive for lots of people . . . but not thirteen-year-old Lizzie Kennedy, stuck at Miss Barstow’s snobby school for girls. Lizzie’s secret passion is science, an unsuitable subject for finishing-school girls. Lizzie lives to go on house calls with her physician father. On those visits to his patients, she discovers a hidden dark side of the city—a side that’s full of secrets, rats, and rumors of the plague.
   The newspapers, her powerful uncle, and her beloved papa all deny that the plague has reached San Francisco. So why is the heart of the city under quarantine? Why are angry mobs trying to burn Chinatown to the ground? Why is Noah, the Chinese cook’s son, suddenly making Lizzie question everything she has known to be true? Ignoring the rules of race and class, Lizzie and Noah must put the pieces together in a heart-stopping race to save the people they love.

Review: Chasing Secrets is an ambitious historical fiction/mystery read. It tackles injustices that exist within gender, class, and race. It shows us a very dark and seedy side of San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. Choldenko does a great job in bringing the historical details of medical experimentation and immunization politics to life along with heightening hysteria, propaganda, and xenophobia during the outbreak of the bubonic plague, which are seen through the eyes of Lizzie Kennedy.
  Lizzie Kennedy is a plucky heroine of a middle class family. She attends the prim and proper Miss Barstow's School for Young Women, courtesy of her affluent aunt and uncle, much to her dismay and she would rather accompany her father on his medical house calls. She longs to follow in her father's footsteps, unheard of for a girl during her time. To ease her school loneliness, Lizzie relies on her friendship with Jing, her family's beloved Chinese cook, who never fails to brighten up her day. When Jing fails to return home one night from Chinatown, Lizzie fears he may be stuck and put under quarantine. Rumors about the plague infecting San Francisco originating in Chinatown begin to circulate and increase in speed, only Chinatown is put under quarantine. The race to get Jing out begins. Lizzie is desperate to find him, not only for herself, but for Jing's son, Noah, who is hiding out in Jing's upstairs room. 
 I really liked Lizzie and Noah's secret friendship which grows with genuine tenderness. Both characters are self aware of the dangers their friendship causes, but they resort to making their bonds stronger despite these huge obstacles. I was disappointed that the mystery took too long to get started and was resolved quite quickly, which effected the book's uneven pacing. I would have liked the book to go a bit deeper in highlighting how the Chinese immigrants were treated in America during this time. Overall despite these issues I think reader's would be happy with a strong female protagonist and a solid story of friendship.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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

If you like this book try: Deadly by Julie Chibbaro, Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Rummanah Aasi
  I have been on a roll with mystery/suspense books. Here are three YA books that I enjoyed and read recently. Please note that the reviews of these books are based on the advanced reader's copies that I received from the publisher via Netgalley. All of these books have been released and can be found in your libraries and/or bookstores.

Description: Meet Scarlett, a smart, sarcastic, kick-butt, Muslim American heroine, ready to take on crime in her hometown of Las Almas. When a new case finds the private eye caught up in a centuries-old battle of evil genies and ancient curses, Scarlett discovers that her own family secrets may have more to do with the situation than she thinks -- and that cracking the case could lead to solving her father's murder.

Review: Scarlett Undercover is a delightful read. It is an unique blend of the retro-detective noir with a dash of Middle Eastern folklore. Scarlett is a self appointed detective who tries to help a little girl prove her brother’s friend was forced to commit suicide. Suddenly an ordinary mystery is given a fantastical spin as a centuries-old legend and crazed cultists are involved. 
  I really loved Scarlett and her sassy attitude. I was so happy to find a diverse detective. Scarlett is an Egyptian Muslim. The author acknowledges both her heritage and faith in the book, showing that these aspects are a natural part of her character. I loved the contrast of Scarlett who isn't overly religious unlike her sister who thinks Scarlett should spend more time at the mosque praying and less time getting into trouble. There is also an underlying problem where Scarlett must confront her issues of her past and her relationship with her religion. 
  Though I liked how the mystery progressed, I was surprised with the paranormal aspect. I would have rather preferred the author stuck to the realistic storytelling, but that is a personal preference. I thought the author walks the fine line between paranormal and realistic storytelling, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions about the truth of the various characters’ beliefs. Though one character’s transformation at the end of the tale is a little abrupt, the action and suspense, as well as Scarlett's likable character make this a worthy read.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is discussion of religion and how it influences the paranormal aspects of the mystery in the story. There is also some strong violence. Recommended for Grades 7 and up.

If you like this book try: The Girl is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines, Conspiracy of Us by Maggie Hall

Description: After accidentally setting her father’s stables on fire while performing a scientific experiment, Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam is sent to Stranje House. But Georgie has no intention of being turned into a simpering, pudding-headed, marriageable miss. She plans to escape as soon as possible—until she meets Lord Sebastian Wyatt. Thrust together in a desperate mission to invent a new invisible ink for the English war effort, Georgie and Sebastian must find a way to work together without losing their heads—or their hearts.

Review: School for Unusual Girls is an intriguing series opener that mixes a a great concoction of daring, conspiracy, adventure, and romance set against the Napoleonic Wars of 1814. Napoleon is in exile on Elba, dignitaries from across Europe are gathering at the Congress of Vienna, and assassination plots as well as Napoleon loyalists try to restore him in power are rumored. 
 A select group of girl who have been labeled as unruly by their parents and benefactors are sent away to the dark and mysterious Stranje House and taught to become proper ladies. Georgiana Fitzwilliam is one of these girls who has an unconventional aptitude and enthusiasm for math and science. When one of her experiments accidentally leads to a fire in her father's stables, Georgie is banished by her exasperated parents to the Stranje House. Georgie gradually discovers that the Stranje House is not as it seems. The school is not just a reforming school with harsh punishments, but rather a secret spy school. Her classmates have special talents; her headmistress is a clever, well-connected, resourceful teacher; and visiting Lord Sebastian Wyatt is on a covert mission. Georgie's invention of invisible ink becomes a vital secret communication weapon supporting the new order in Europe. 
  I loved the blending of all of the different genres in this book. Each of the girls is talented in their own areas and support one another. Though we are given clues about their pasts, I'm really hoping that each new book features a new character and goes in depth about them. There is plenty of humor as the girls gracefully walk the line of being "appropriate" girls who only care about the frivolities as they are expected by their society as well as the modern girl who is not afraid to think for herself and be assertive. There is also a nice slow burn romance as well that add a nice flavor to the story without completely overwhelming it. I'm really looking forward to the next book in this series.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended for strong Grade 6 readers and up.

If you like this book try: Finishing School series by Gail Carriger, Gallagher series (for a more modern take) by Ally Carter, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia Wrede

Description: The Program has sent Boy Nobody on countless missions, instructed to kill whichever target he was given. But now, after going rogue, he is on his own mission to rescue his friend Howard who was captured by The Program. Boy Nobody manages to free Howard as well as Tanya, a mysterious girl who was being held with him. Howard and Tanya help Boy Nobody collect information about his father, eventually revealing a dangerous secret that teaches Boy Nobody a valuable lesson -- he can't trust anyone.

Review: I have been a fan of the Unknown Assassin series since the first book and was really looking forward to the conclusion to this action packed trilogy. While the book has plenty of its action and suspense trademark, I wish it focused a bit more on character development. I know what Zach is capable of and am no longer as impressed by his almost super human skill set. Unfortunately, no new skills were revealed in this book. I also wanted a bit more on the background of the Program which we do get, but it seems as if it was tacked on in the end. I would also have loved for the shining female character, Tanya, to be a bit more fleshed out though I did I like that we are unsure where Tanya's loyalties lie. It just seemed a out of character that Zach who is very paranoid about whom he trusts would trust Tanya so quickly.
 I was entertained by the nonstop action and the pacing was at a neck breaking speed. The ending, however, left many questions and it did not feel like a finale at all. I am left with more questions about what happens next and I hope Zadoff decides to continue his story since it seems only one chapter of Zach's life has finished. While this is my least favorite book in the trilogy, I still would recommend this trilogy to my reluctant readers who love espionage, adventure, and action stories.  I would also recommend that this trilogy be read in order so readers will want to start with the first book, I Am the Weapon.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong violence throughout the book along with some minor language, as well as a fade to black sex scene. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz, The Shadow Project by Herbie Brennan, Bourne series by Robert Ludlum
Rummanah Aasi
 I have read Stead's two previous books, When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy, without any success. I was not able to connect with the characters and I thought the books tried too hard. I guess the third time is the charm as I found her latest book, Goodbye Stranger, to be delightful because of her fleshed out characters and an engaging plot. Please note that this review is based on the advanced copy of the book provided by the publisher via Netgalley. Goodbye Stranger will be published on August 4, 2015.

Description: Bridge is an accident survivor who's wondering why she's still alive. Emily has new curves and an almost-boyfriend who wants a certain kind of picture. Tabitha sees through everybody's games--or so she tells the world. The three girls are best friends with one rule: No fighting. Can it get them through seventh grade? 
  This year everything is different for Sherm Russo as he gets to know Bridge Barsamian. What does it mean to fall for a girl--as a friend? 
On Valentine's Day, an unnamed high school girl struggles with a betrayal. How long can she hide in plain sight?

Review: Junior high is a turbulent time where your friends transform inexplicably, your own body and emotions perplex you, and the world seems fraught with questions, and perhaps the most confusing ones of all concern the nature of love. Stead expertly brings all the emotions and frustrations we felt during this time in our lives by focusing on Bridge Barsamian, her best girlfriends, and her newest friend Sherm-a boy who is definitely not her boyfriend (probably). 
 Bridge and her girlfriends have vowed from elementary school to stay friends and to never fight. Their friendship is tested in seventh grade when each girl begins a new transformation. Emily has suddenly developed a figure that attracts a lot of attention. Tabitha is an increasingly committed human rights activist and becoming a budding feminist. Bridge is trying to shake off her anxiety and nightmares of an accident that almost cost her life and seeks security from wearing a headband with black cat's ears. 
  Stead's set up might not sound unique, but instead of following the all too common path of friends being divided due to their different interests, the author goes with a different approach by examining (and really) celebrating female friendship along with various forms of love. The seventh graders aren't the only characters working out relationships. There are married parents and divorced parents who interact with one another. There is also Sherm's grandfather who has suddenly left his wife of 50 years and moved to New Jersey with a new family. There's also a mysterious character whose Valentine's Day is doled out in second-person snippets interspersed within the rest of the story. 
 Stead also explores how we communicate and how messages, both digital and verbal, often get distorted. I really liked the discussion of sexting in the book. It was unexpected but handled with maturity and levity that would I hope spark conversation with both young readers and their parents. All of the themes in the book are taken seriously, but the writing is never condescending. There are plenty of humor, delightful coincidences, and the drama that can seem life-shattering to a tween and a teen alike. The book ends on a high note as characters realize their faults and short comings with grace, forgiveness, and kindness. The big reveal of the mystery person subplot comes nicely together in the end.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is discussion of sexting in the middle school, slurs, and bullying. Recommended for strong Grade 5 readers and up.

If you like this book try: Shug by Jenny Han, Secret Language of Girls by Frances O'Roark Dowell,
Rummanah Aasi
 I thoroughly enjoyed Gier's time traveling romance series and I was very happy to hear that there is another series that centers around dreams that is just as delightful. Dream a Little Dream is the first book in the Silver Trilogy. Please note that this review is based on the advanced reader's copy of the book provided by the publisher via Netgalley. The book is currently published and now available in libraries/bookstores.

Description: Mysterious doors with lizard-head knobs. Talking stone statues. A crazy girl with a hatchet. Yes, Liv's dreams have been pretty weird lately. Especially the one where she's in a graveyard at night, watching four boys conduct dark magic rituals.
  The strangest part is that Liv recognizes the boys in her dream. They're classmates from her new school in London, the school where she's starting over because her mom has moved them to a new country (again). But what's really scaring Liv is that the dream boys seem to know things about her in real life, things they couldn't possibly know--unless they actually are in her dreams? Luckily, Liv never could resist a good mystery, and all four of those boys are pretty cute.

Review: Liv Silver is an unconventional teenager. She has lived all over the world thanks to her mother's constant job changes. Her arrival at her new home has a new surprised in store for her, Liv is shocked to learn that not only does her perpetually single mom have a serious boyfriend (a widower with twin 17-year-olds), but that their families plan to "merge." She and her little sister have to move to their stepfather's London home and be students at an exclusive preparatory school that step-siblings Grayson and Florence attend. Out of the two step-siblings, Liv's eyes are drawn to the constantly distracted Grayson. 
  Grayson runs in a conspicuous quartet of fellow handsome upper-class boys, Arthur, Henry and Jasper, who are also on the  school's most wanted list. They seem to be hiding a dark secret, which Liv soon discovers after finding herself in a vivid dream with the boys when she falls asleep in Grayson's borrowed sweatshirt.  It becomes clear that these are not ordinary dreams. With a bit of her own investigation and observation, Liv soon discovers that the boys can enter and exit the dream world but at a very high and dark cost that involves with the supernatural. The boys are now in need of another partner and Liv may just fill that void.
  Dream a Little Dream is much darker in tone than the free, light weight of the Red Ruby trilogy. The plot moves quickly because there are many things happening in the plot. Liv is an adorable character full of wit and sass, always keeping the other characters on their toes. The boys are also alluring, each with distinguishable personalities. The ones that catches my eyes the most are Henry, Liv's interest, and Grayson, soon to be Liv's step-sibling, since they interact with her the most.  This series opener offers the right ratio of answered and unanswered questions, just enough to keep us interested in the next installment. Full of plot twists, swoony romantic moments, a touch of humor, and a scary culmination make for a thoroughly enjoyable read. I plan on recommending this to my students who can't get enough of paranormal romance. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some crude humor and discussion of sex along with underage drinking. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Lynburn Legacy series by Sarah Rees Brennan, Arkwell Academy series by Mindee Arnett
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
  Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.
  To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.

Review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a disappointing read in which I did not understand its humor nor its characters as was promised by the book's blurb. Though cleverly constructed via emails and other various forms of documents, the book is essentially an offbeat domestic comedy about a wife/mother/genius architect named Bernadette who left Los Angeles years earlier after a professional disaster and neighbor drama that destroyed her house. Now she lives in Seattle with her equally genius husband, Elgie, who is working on a big project in artificial intelligence at Microsoft, and their genius eighth-grade daughter, Bee, whose devotion to her mother is the only redeeming quality that I found in this book. 
 Bernadette may be brilliant and funny to some, but I found her to be mean and self absorbed with large doses of entitlement issues. She hates everything about Seattle, especially the other mothers at Bee's private school. After her vendetta against one of her Seattle mommy-enemies goes terribly awry, Elgie begins to wonder if Bernadette is having a mental breakdown. Meanwhile, Bernadette decides she wants to get out of a planned family trip to Antarctica. Days before the trip, Bernadette disappears. I didn't care for Bernadette at all and I could care less about what happened to her.
 Like Bernadette, I also found Elgie to also be self centered and a workaholic who is oblivious to everything until it is too late. He stops and starts an affair with his sycophantic, lovesick, administrative assistant. Through it all it slowly dawns on him to take care of his precocious daughter, Bee.
  Bee was the only character that I liked though I found it hard that she could care for such absent parents so much. It is she who tries to make sense of her mother's disappearance by creating a book by collecting the Internet postings, public records and private emails she has received from an anonymous source. Although there are moments when I chuckled, I thought this book tried too hard to be funny. It used the city of Seattle as the butt of its many jokes, many of which went over my head. 
 For me Where'd You Go, Bernadette was a chore to read, but some might find it to be a fun beach read and might appreciate the book's humor and quirky characters. 

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language sprinkled throughout the book and it also contains allusions to sexual situations. Recommended for teens and adults.

If you like this book try: Dometic Violets by Matthew Norman, Truth in Advertising by John Kenney
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Callie's younger brother Travis keeps bringing home strays. And Callie has her hands full keeping the animals—Travis included—away from her mother's critical eye.
 When a storm blows change into town in the form of a visiting veterinarian, Callie discovers a life and a vocation she desperately wants. But with societal expectations as they are, she will need all her wits and courage to realize her dreams.

Review: The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate is a thoroughly enjoyable companion novel to the Newbery award winner The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. You don't have to read the first book in order to enjoy the companion novel and Kelly quickly fills readers in on essential background (only girl in the family, with six brothers; Callie’s avid pursuit of nature studies with quirky, formidable Granddaddy). Callie's love of science and her curiosity is contagious. I just loved seeing her be so passionate about learning. 
 The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate is episodic, highlighted by birthdays and holidays and major events such as the September 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston. What holds the book together and drives the plot is Callie's one-year-younger brother Travis’s heartwarming search for a pet by bringing home strays and taking care of them, which provides some comic relief as well as heartbreak. I loved watching Callie interact with Travis and watching her assume the role of his elder and providing him support and advice when he needs it the most. 
 The most important part of the book for me is Callie’s growing understanding of herself as a young woman of intellect and ability in a world that isn’t ready for her. She is being to realize that her society's expectations of her gender is limiting and will be an obstacle in finding her way to veterinary college, but I love Callie's determination and tenacity to prove everyone wrong. She is definitely a believable character who is so easy to root for. 
  The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate is a book that will not only appeal to young readers who like science, learning about animals, but also readers who love characters who are determined to realize their dreams. It is a thought-provoking and engaging read. I do hope we get another book to see how Callie fairs with adolescence and finds her foot in the door of the college of her choice. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some details on animal ailments that might be a bit much for those with a light stomach. There is also a scene where a dog is put to rest. 

If you like this book try: Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson, Riding Freedom by Pam Munoz Ryan, Vet Volunteers series by Laurie Halse Anderson, Voyages of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
Rummanah Aasi
  You, Me, and Him is a quick and for the most part an enjoyable read about the complexities of friendship and romantic relationships. Please note that this review is based on the advanced reader's copy that I received from the publisher via Netgalley. You, Me, and Him is now available in bookstores and/or libraries.

Description: Maggie and Nash are outsiders. She’s overweight. He’s out of the closet. The best of friends, they have seen each other through thick and thin, but when Tom moves to town at the start of the school year, they have something unexpected in common: feelings for the same guy. 

Review: When I first heard about You, Me, and Him, it reminded a lot of the archetypes common in YA. The novel is aware of the cliches surrounding its story and its characters, but it manages to plant some seeds of complexity if you are willing to give the book a shot and dig deeper into the story. 
 What kept me reading You, Me, and Him are the characters. Our protagonist and narrator, Maggie, is a self deprecating outsider and knowingly labels herself as the fat girl. She has been painfully aware of her weight, a sensitive topic which her mother constantly addresses. She is fine living on the outskirts of her high school social circle by hanging out with her best friend Nash who happens to be gay and working at a cool but underused record store where she blasts songs by The Smiths. I wanted to hug Maggie many times and wished she would realize how awesome she is as a person. It just takes her a long time and heartache to fully understand and appreciate herself in particular with accepting her body image as someone who is healthy and active while not necessarily being a size two as well as someone worth loving.
  The inevitable unrequited love triangle forms when Tom, the new cute guy at school comes into play. Nash calls dibs on Tom and tries to make a move, however, Tom possibly likes Maggie, who in turn might like Tom but is scared to lose Nash in the process. Each character's expectations along with both the positive and negative aspects of their personality come into play in various aspects of the narrative, each with their own motive. The author does a good job in addressing the complexities of friendship from the thin line of wanting to be loyal versus being a pushover, when to be selfless vs. being selfish. 
 All of the protagonists, but especially Maggie, are pushed to ask themselves what expectations other people have of them and whether or not they have accepted these as their own. I really liked the epiphany Maggie has toward the end of the book which pushes her to stand up for herself, but I felt this important aspect of the book was rushed towards the end of the book. I would have liked the author expand on Maggie's evolving relationship with her mother along with delving into Nash's personal story. I also thought the argument between Nash and Maggie resolved too quickly after they were not on speaking terms for weeks. I also wanted to know what Tom truly felt rather than see him flip flop on his decision and not use his constantly moving as an excuse for his behavior. Though I liked the message about self acceptance and strong friendships and was pleased that the book did not end neatly, I thought You, Me, and Him was a decent story though it is not one that will stick with me.   

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, crude humor, attempted sexual assault, and underage drinking. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Fat Cat by Robin Brande, The Misfits by James Howe, Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List by David Levithan and Rachel Cohen
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