Rummanah Aasi

Description: Atticus’s apprentice Granuaile is at last a full Druid herself. What’s more, Atticus has defrosted an archdruid long ago frozen in time, a father figure (of sorts) who now goes by the modern equivalent of his old Irish name: Owen Kennedy. And Owen has some catching up to do. Atticus takes pleasure in the role reversal, as the student is now the teacher. Between busting Atticus’s chops and trying to fathom a cell phone, Owen must also learn English. For Atticus, the jury’s still out on whether the wily old coot will be an asset in the epic battle with Norse god Loki—or merely a pain in the arse. But Atticus isn’t the only one with daddy issues. Granuaile faces a great challenge: to exorcise a sorcerer’s spirit that is possessing her father in India. Even with the help of the witch Laksha, Granuaile may be facing a crushing defeat. As the trio of Druids deals with pestilence-spreading demons, bacon-loving yeti, fierce flying foxes, and frenzied Fae, they’re hoping that this time, three’s a charm.

Review: I completed the Iron Druid Chronicles earlier this year and enjoyed the ride. I am, however, behind on reviewing the last few books in this series. Shattered is full of action as Atticus is running away from a peeved Loki, Granualie is a fully fledged druid, and the archdruid Owen from ancient Ireland has awoken. Unlike the previous books in the series thus far, Shattered is narration is split in three sections as Atticus, Granualie, and Owen are off to their separate adventures until they converge in the last half of the book. The point of views was a little jarring at first because I was not expecting it, but each character has a distinct voice so it was easy to tell which chapter belonged to our three main characters.
  It was wonderful to see Granualie kick butt and be a strong character instead of being in the shadow of Atticus like she has been. She is on a personal mission and we get a glimpse of her back story and her desire to become a druid. I also loved the foul mouthed Owen as he tries to navigate the modern world and understand English idioms. His confusion and commentary on the modern word provides the humor in the story. There is no time to be bored in Shattered as the story moves at a fast pace and there are plenty of action scenes and mythological characters to keep this book fun and entertaining. A handy summary of the book allows new readers to join in, but I would definitely recommend reading the previous books to get a better hold on the characters and the interesting world Hearne has created.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language and violence throughout the book. There are also allusions to sex in the book too. Recommended for older teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: Staked by Kevin Hearne (Iron Druid Chronicle #8), Age of Misrule trilogy by Mark Chadbourn
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Matthew Corbin suffers from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. He hasn't been to school in weeks. His hands are cracked and bleeding from cleaning. He refuses to leave his bedroom. To pass the time, he observes his neighbors from his bedroom window, making mundane notes about their habits as they bustle about the cul-de-sac. When a toddler staying next door goes missing, it becomes apparent that Matthew was the last person to see him alive. Suddenly, Matthew finds himself at the center of a high-stakes mystery, and every one of his neighbors is a suspect. Matthew is the key to figuring out what happened and potentially saving a child's life... but is he able to do so if it means exposing his own secrets, and stepping out from the safety of his home?

Review: The Goldfish Boy is a multilayered mystery that is suspenseful and an eye-opening look at mental illness. Matthew Corbin has severe obsessive compulsive disorder and his illness has caused him to be agoraphobic, where he won’t go beyond his bedroom and the office across the hall. When he isn’t washing his hands and cleaning his surroundings, Matthew watches his neighbors in their cul-de-sac. He writes down his observations with meticulous care, and when his neighbor’s grandson, 15-month-old Teddy, suddenly goes missing, he realizes that he could have vital information. Reluctantly, he joins forces with neighbor and classmate Melody to solve the mystery.  
   While readers learn clues about Teddy's disappearance, Matthew comes to terms with the root of his condition and learns that everyone has secrets and stories. Matthew narrates the story with a voice that is initially slow paced, stilted and formal but which fills out as he lets go of his fears and develops compassion for his parents and neighbors. By locking into Matthew’s perspective, the reader gets a better understanding of his mental illness while also waiting for the book's suspenseful resolution regarding Teddy. While the ending is hopeful with Matthew on the road to recovery, the author does note that his mental illness will not miraculously disappear at the end of the book.

Rating: 4 stars

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

If you like this book try: Footer Davis is Probably Crazy by Susan Vaught
Rummanah Aasi

Description:  For Penny Lee high school was a total nonevent. Her friends were okay, her grades were fine, and while she somehow managed to land a boyfriend, he doesn’t actually know anything about her. When Penny heads to college in Austin, Texas, to learn how to become a writer, it’s seventy-nine miles and a zillion light years away from everything she can’t wait to leave behind.
    Sam’s stuck. Literally, figuratively, emotionally, financially. He works at a café and sleeps there too, on a mattress on the floor of an empty storage room upstairs. He knows that this is the god-awful chapter of his life that will serve as inspiration for when he’s a famous movie director but right this second the seventeen bucks in his checking account and his dying laptop are really testing him.
  When Sam and Penny cross paths it’s less meet-cute and more a collision of unbearable awkwardness. Still, they swap numbers and stay in touch—via text—and soon become digitally inseparable, sharing their deepest anxieties and secret dreams without the humiliating weirdness of having to see each other.

Review: Unlike her flirtatious and gregarious mother, Penny Lee is much reserved but she hopes that things will change when she goes off to college in Austin, Tex., in hopes of becoming a writer. She soon meets Sam, her roommate's 21-year-old uncle, a college dropout and talented baker who works (and lives) at a local coffee house. They barely know each other, but, after Penny catches Sam in a vulnerable moment they agree to be each other's emergency contacts. Soon, they are exchanging texts and sharing secrets they've never divulged.
  Emergency Contact is very much a slice of life story that has great potential, but unfortunately the author does not take full advantage of her characters and their issues. Penny is a smart and funny but hides under a quiet and at times abrasive manner. Sam plays the role of a tortured artist quite well, he is still trying to get over a serious relationship and become sober. In alternating chapters we see Penny and Sam slowly come out of their shells and act like real people. The book does discuss some serious issues such as abandonment, addiction, and identity which I liked but wished it explored more in the story. This book read like an episode of "Girls" and was at times long winded. I would not consider this book to be a meet-cute romantic comedy as its description implies. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language, underage drinking and drug use mentioned, allusions to sex and sexual assault. Recommended for Grades 10 and up.

If you like this book try: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Jubilee Jenkins is no ordinary librarian. With a rare allergy to human touch, any skin-to-skin contact could literally kill her. But after retreating into solitude for nearly ten years, Jubilee’s decided to brave the world again, despite the risks. Armed with a pair of gloves, long sleeves, and her trusty bicycle, she finally ventures out the front door—and into her future.
    Eric Keegan has troubles of his own. With his daughter from a failed marriage no longer speaking to him, and his brilliant, if psychologically troubled, adopted son attempting telekinesis, Eric’s struggling to figure out how his life got so off course, and how to be the dad—and man—he wants so desperately to be. So when an encounter over the check-out desk at the local library entangles his life with that of a beautiful—albeit eccentric—woman, he finds himself wanting nothing more than to be near her.

Review: Jubilee is deathly allergic to other people. For Jubilee, skin-to-skin contact with anyone else could lead to horrific reactions, even death (the proteins in her skin trigger an extreme intruder alert in her immune system). Unfailing vigilance, ever-present gloves, and self-imposed isolation help Jubilee survive her allergy and school until just before high school graduation. One kiss with a popular guy puts her into anaphylactic shock and results in nine years of seclusion after her mother marries a rich man and moves away. Jubilee adjusts to her agoraphobia since she has been receiving checks to take care of her finances and she spends her time with books and various delivery services.
However with the sudden death of her mother and the liable checks stop, Jubilee is forced to re-evaluate her lifestyle. Self-help for agoraphobia and an old bike bring the protagonist into the orbit of Madison, a high school classmate, and then lead to a job as a library assistant (Side note: it really irritates me when people assume that anyone working in a library is a librarian. There is a clear difference between being a library assistant and a librarian. End of rant.).
  Reclaiming her independence in small steps leads her into contact with Eric, a recently divorced man who has moved with his traumatized and introverted adopted son to Jubilee's New Jersey community. Eric's first-person chapters are interspersed with Jubilee's to personalize all the quirks and hurdles of this most impossible, charming romance. I liked the romance between Jubilee and Eric, but the plot idles and goes nowhere. The realistic situations turns into a Hallmark movie with a perfectly wrapped up bow ending.

Rating: 3 stars

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

If you like this book try: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Save the restaurant. Save the town. Get the girl. Make Abuela proud. Can thirteen-year-old Arturo Zamora do it all or is he in for a BIG, EPIC FAIL? For Arturo, summetime in Miami means playing basketball until dark, sipping mango smoothies, and keeping cool under banyan trees. And maybe a few shifts as junior lunchtime dishwasher at Abuela's restaurant. Maybe. But this summer also includes Carmen, a cute poetry enthusiast who moves into Arturo's apartment complex and turns his stomach into a deep fryer. He almost doesn't notice the smarmy land developer who rolls into town and threatens to change it. Arturo refuses to let his family and community go down without a fight, and as he schemes with Carmen, Arturo discovers the power of poetry and protest through untold family stories and the work of Jose Marti.

Review: The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora is a warm and at times heartbreaking story filled with family, tradition, and community. Every summer Arturo is looking forward to a Miami summer filled with friends, ice cream, and working at his family’s popular restaurant, La Cocina de la Isla, but his plans get derailed from the start. Carmen, his mother’s goddaughter, comes to visit, and Arturo may have a crush on her. He is confused whether or not he and Carmen are related. His "promotion" at the restaurant is harder than he thought, and worst of all, his family’s plan to expand into an adjacent empty lot seems hopeless when flashy real-estate developer Wilfrido Pipo comes to town with plans of his own.
  Arturo hopes the community his abuela and abuelo loved for so long will support them, and with the help of his family, friends, and the work of Cuban poet and revolutionary hero José Martí, Arturo finds the strength to fight for what he believes in. I absolutely loved this book is organically filled with family and culture without feeling like it is checking a list of requirements. The characters are lively and Arturo's family comes to life and leave you feeling like they are part of your family. The story is also interspersed with letters, poems, and Twitter messages, offers a timely tale of a community steeped in tradition and multiculturalism, working together against encroaching gentrification. Arturo’s is a great narrator and one the reader can easily root for. This is a quick and uplifting read. A great choice for those looking for books to help celebrate Hispanic Heritage month.

Rating: 4 stars

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

If you like this book try: Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina, Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Review: I often heard the word brutal when describing the Ember in the Ashes series. I use to think this was a hyperbole until I actually picked it up as part of my Ramadan Reading Challenge this summer. Brutal is the perfect adjective for this series. Tahir's strong debut fantasy series opener is set in the Martial Empire, an ancient Rome-like setting. Elias Veturius is the scion of a proud Martial military family and an outstanding soldier, but he dreams of escaping Blackcliff Academy, the elite military academy where he has nearly completed his training as a Mask, and his inevitable future as a ruthless killer. Elias and three fellow students will be facing the Trials, dangerous and rigorous challenges that will determine the next emperor. Laia is a Scholar, one of many oppressed groups living under the rule of the Martials. When nearly all of Laia's family is killed and her brother is arrested for having a sketchbook depicting Martial weapons, she goes to the Resistance in desperation. The rebel leaders plant her as a spy at Blackcliff Academy, where she must pose as the personal slave of the Commandant, promising that in return they will rescue her brother. Though their story lines are told separately in alternate in dual point of views, Elias and Laia interact with one another and converge as they each face treachery and political schemes.
  Tahir's world-building is wonderfully detailed and is set apart from the derivative of lost heirs reclaiming the throne trope in the recent fantasy trends. Though inspired by ancient Rome, Tahir also manages to weave in Middle Eastern/Southeast Asian mythology and culture with the inclusion of jinns and other ghouls as well as the physical descriptions of the characters and the names of places within the Empire. I loved finding these little nods throughout the story. The ebb and flow of the jinns and ghouls are truly creepy and have peeked my interest. We are only just learning about them and I can't wait to see how this aspect of the story develops as the series continues. 
  All of the characters, even minor ones, are fully realized with flaws and strengths. I immediately liked Elias for his strong moral compass and felt horribly when I learned of his harsh childhood. I also appreciated the inclusion of Laia's quiet strength and resilience as she grew from a whimpering, insecure girl into an established woman and Helene's physical strength as being the sole female at Blackcliff. The Commandant is a genuinely evil and frightening villain. She reminded me so much of Darth Vader. There are hints of various romantic relationships, but I am waiting to read more of this series before I start allying myself with teams.
 The author doesn't pull any punches; her descriptions of torture, punishment, and battle are graphic and brutal, and her realistic depictions of the treatment of slaves include rape and physical abuse. I could only read a few chapters at a time because of its dark tones, but each chapter felt like it ended on a cliffhanger so I had to read more to find out what happens next. Luckily, I can catch up with this series and will not have to wait too long for the series finale. I am so glad that I waited for the hype of this series to die down before judging it on its own merits.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong violence, often graphic, in the book. There are also alluded scenes of rape and physical abuse. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir (Ember in the Ashes #2), The Winner's Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski, Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta, Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas,
Rummanah Aasi

Description: After everything that the citizens of Beartown have gone through, they are struck yet another blow when they hear that their beloved local hockey team will soon be disbanded. What makes it worse is the obvious satisfaction that all the former Beartown players, who now play for a rival team in Hed, take in that fact. Amidst the mounting tension between the two rivals, a surprising newcomer is handpicked to be Beartown’s new hockey coach.
   Soon a new team starts to take shape around Amat, the fastest player you’ll ever see; Benji, the intense lone wolf; and Vidar, a born-to-be-bad troublemaker. But bringing this team together proves to be a challenge as old bonds are broken, new ones are formed, and the enmity with Hed grows more and more acute.
   As the big match approaches, the not-so-innocent pranks and incidents between the communities pile up and their mutual contempt grows deeper. By the time the last game is finally played, a resident of Beartown will be dead, and the people of both towns will be forced to wonder if, after all they’ve been through, the game they love can ever return to something simple and innocent.

Review: Backman returns to Beartown, the hockey-obsessed small-town in Sweden, which was rocked was rocked after a junior team member was convicted of rape the previous spring. We are still witnessing the ripple effects of the incident. The Beartown team is in a precarious situation. The hockey club is in danger of being liquidated. General manager Peter Andersson is under intense scrutiny-particularly from one aggressive group of fans who call themselves "The Pack"-and enters into a questionable agreement with slippery local politician Richard Theo in order to save the team. When an unconventional new coach arrives, Beartown's hopes fall on the shoulders of the four remaining hockey star teens who can resuscitate the hockey club and return the town's pride.  untested (and possibly unreliable) teenagers. As tension between Beartown and its rival town, Hed, comes to a boiling point over hockey, jobs, and political squabbles, each member of the community confronts the same questions about loyalty and friendship.
  I read Us Against You shortly after reading Beartown and I enjoyed it a bit more. You can read Us Against You as a standalone but I would not recommend it. Reading Beartown first gives you a better understanding of the community and its characters. Backman keeps his panoramic writing style, but since I had a familiarity with the characters already it did not bother me as much. We do get to spend more time with the characters, but I still selfishly want more. The running theme of loyalty is showcased throughout the story from the troubles of Andersson's marriage, the shame of little brother Leo who feels hopeless in not defending his sister and his sudden interest in violence, and the secret of Benji's sexuality that alienates him from his community. I also liked how the author asked rhetorical questions surrounding masculinity and violence and not shying away from addressing rape culture and homophobia. Definitely pick this one up if you enjoyed Beartown.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language including homophobic slurs, violence, and scenes of bullying. Recommended for older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: The Locals by Jonathan Dee, Girl in the Snow by Danya Kukafka
Rummanah Aasi

Description: With the help of some demigod friends, Lester managed to survive his first two trials, one at Camp Half-Blood, and one in Indianapolis, where Meg received the Dark Prophecy. The words she uttered while seated on the Throne of Memory revealed that an evil triumvirate of Roman emperors plans to attack Camp Jupiter. While Leo flies ahead on Festus to warn the Roman camp, Lester and Meg must go through the Labyrinth to find the third emperor—and an Oracle who speaks in word puzzles—somewhere in the American Southwest. There is one glimmer of hope in the gloom-filled prophecy: The cloven guide alone the way does know. They will have a satyr companion, and Meg knows just who to call upon.

Review: The Burning Maze is another enjoyable installment of the Trials of Apollo series.  Old favorite characters from both the Percy Jackson and the Olympian series and the Heroes of Olympians series make an appearance in the story. It is highly recommended to read those series first before reading the Trials of Apollo as they all connect. This time Apollo, Meg, and Grover find themselves in the smoldering ruins of Palm Springs. Fires and drought are putting the dryads in danger, and Apollo knows that the only way to restore the rightful order is to free the oracle hidden below ground in a dangerous labyrinth. The stakes are higher in this book and the villain is vicious, savoring any and all opportunity for cruelty. There are new developments in this new book. Apollo experiences loss and sacrifice firsthand as a mortal, the god loses some of his ego and begins to suspect his punishment is more than a consequence of Zeus’ short temper. We also learn more of Meg's secret past.
  While the tone is much darker in The Burning Maze, there is plenty of Riordan's trademark snarky banter and comedy mixed to balance the story. There is of course a cliffhanger ending which will make me eager for Apollo's next adventure.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong violence and disturbing images in the story. Recommended for Grades 5 and up.

If you like this book try: The Tryant's Tomb by Rick Riordan (Trials of Apollo #4) coming Fall 2019, Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan, Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan, The Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series by Rick Riordan, and The Serpent's Secret by Sayantani DasGupta
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Zarin Wadia is many things: a bright and vivacious student, an orphan, a risk taker. She’s also the kind of girl that parents warn their kids to stay away from: a troublemaker whose many romances are the subject of endless gossip at school. You don't want to get involved with a girl like that, they say. So how is it that eighteen-year-old Porus Dumasia has only ever had eyes for her? And how did Zarin and Porus end up dead in a car together, crashed on the side of a highway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia? When the religious police arrive on the scene, everything everyone thought they knew about Zarin is questioned. And as her story is pieced together, told through multiple perspectives, it becomes clear that she was far more than just a girl like that.

Review: When Zarin and her friend Porus die in a car accident in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, everyone, from the religious police to Zarin's classmates and neighbors, is suspicious. What were Porus and Zarin doing? Was Porus one of Zarin's many romantic liaisons? Only the deceased teens know the truth, and as their spirits hover above the wreckage, they look back on what led up to this point.
  Zarin has been doomed since her illegitimate birth. She is the daughter of an Indian gangster and a bar dancing "loose" Parsi mother. Her origins are a shameful secret to her family and follows her like a black cloud over her head. Raised by aunt and uncle, Zarin moves to Mumbai, India to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for work and hopes of escaping rumors of Zarin's mother's death. In Jeddah Zarin's domineering, abusive, and paranoid aunt fears Zarin will follow the same path as her mother, keeps a tight grip on Zarin, removing all signs of physical femininity from her haircut to her clothes and shielding her from boys and men, to no avail. Zarin defies convention, dating boys and smoking, developing a bad reputation at school. It was only after reconnecting with Porus, a Parsi friend from Mumbai, whomoved to Jeddah for work, that Zarin began to reconsider her behavior—and her capacity for love.
  Bhathena's debut tackles rape culture in Saudi Arabia and for the most part does it quite well. The book addresses double standards and the gender expectations among men and women. Men are expected to demonstrate their masculinity by taking what they want and being aggressive. Women are expected to be "pure" and submissive. The narrative is split between five points of view: Zarin, Porus, Zarin's ex-boyfriend Abdullah; his righteous sister, Mishal, and Farhan, Abdullah's best friend and the popular student on whom Zarin nurses a crush. All of these points of views attempt to give the reader a multi-layered view of Zarin's reputation. Due to the numerous voices, it was hard to distinguish between the many voices and witness character development especially from Mishal and Farhan when they want to repent for their actions. The timeline between past and present jumps around and was confusing to follow.
      What I found troubling with A Girl Like That is the treatment of its Muslim characters. With the exception of the angelic Porus, the Muslim males are stereotyped and one dimensional. Abdullah follows his father's behavior of tossing one girl aside and moves on to the next when he is unable to have sex with her. Farhan takes this behavior to the extreme and uses the date rape drug to make scores on his "man card" even though he seems to be desired by virtually every female he sees. The drug dealer who supplies Farhan is also Muslim. While rape culture is unfortunately not limited to one country, due to the lack of wide range of male characters the book dangerously implies that it is limited to one group of men.
   Similarly, Muslim women are not complex characters either. Mishal is Abdullah's sister who bullies and harasses Zarin by spreading rumors about Zarin around social media and in school. The other female classmates are also bullied for their wayward actions and some are survivors of sexual assault though their stories are not talked about nor are they believed. It is also hinted at several times that Zarin's aunt suffers from mental illness but it is also not addressed in the story. Overall A Girl Like That tackles an important subject and gives the reader a lot to think about. I just wished it was more nuanced, fleshed out, and balanced. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: The novel contains graphic descriptions of abuse and sexual assault. Recommended for Grade 10 and up.

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

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

Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4 stars

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

If you like this book try: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, How I resist : activism and hope for a new generation edited by Maureen Johnson
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Ebo: alone. His sister left months ago. Now his brother has disappeared too, and Ebo knows it can only be to make the hazardous journey to Europe. Ebo's epic journey takes him across the Sahara Desert to the dangerous streets of Tripoli, and finally out to the merciless sea. But with every step he holds on to his hope for a new life, and a reunion with his sister.

Review: Horror stories of immigrants trying to escape in order for a chance at a better life have graced several pages in the newspaper and online. Recent policy changes regarding immigration have reignited the hot topic of immigration in the United States and Europe. While some have welcomed immigrants, others have not.
Illegal is a resonating and timely graphic novel that humanizes an immigrant's plight. The graphic novel is told in two different timelines. In the present Ebo and his brother Kwame along with 12 other people are aboard a leaking dinghy made for six, are desperately trying to reach Italian shores. In the past timeline we are given a road map to all the steps Ebo and Kwame have taken to get to the dinghy: their parents have died, their sole caretaker Uncle Patrick is always drunk and unable to care for them, and their older sister Sisi has made her way to Italy in search of a better life. Both brothers want to reunite with her and get a fresh start. The transition between the two timelines are jarring. There were multiple of times where it took me out of the story. A linear narrative approach would have worked better.
   The brothers have endured a harrowing journey through the Sahara Desert to Tripoli, Libya, hoping to cross the Mediterranean and land as refugees. The horrors Ebo witnesses especially with the cruelties of human smugglers who value money more than human life, dehydration and hunger, as well as the impossibilities he survives constitute a haunting testimony to the human spirit. Though the graphic novel is not based on one particular person, but a composite of people who have endured this journey, it is eye opening, engaging, and will hopefully educate people that refugees are not statistics and no human is illegal.

Curriculum Connection: Social Studies (Current Events/Debate/Government), English, and Art

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some depiction of strong violence and disturbing images. Recommended for Grades 6 and up.

If you like this book try: Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Macy Sorensen is settling into an ambitious if emotionally tepid routine: work hard as a new pediatrics resident, plan her wedding to an older, financially secure man, keep her head down and heart tucked away. But when she runs into Elliot Petropoulos—the first and only love of her life—the careful bubble she’s constructed begins to dissolve. Once upon a time, Elliot was Macy’s entire world—growing from her gangly bookish friend into the man who coaxed her heart open again after the loss of her mother...only to break it on the very night he declared his love for her.
  Told in alternating timelines between Then and Now, teenage Elliot and Macy grow from friends to much more—spending weekends and lazy summers together in a house outside of San Francisco devouring books, sharing favorite words, and talking through their growing pains and triumphs. As adults, they have become strangers to one another until their chance reunion. Although their memories are obscured by the agony of what happened that night so many years ago, Elliot will come to understand the truth behind Macy’s decade-long silence, and will have to overcome the past and himself to revive her faith in the possibility of an all-consuming love.

Review: Love and Other Words is a touching best friends to lovers romance story. The story is divided between the past and present, where Macy Sorenson and Elliot Petropoulos fall in love, lose each other, and have the possibility of a second chance. In the past we see how Macy and Elliott meet and fall in love with each other in the closet of her dad’s vacation home, where they hide out to discuss their favorite books. In the second, Macy is working as a pediatrics doctor and engaged to a single father, and she hasn’t spoken to Elliot since their breakup. But a chance encounter forces her to confront the truth: what happened to make Macy stop speaking to Elliot? Can they ever go back to how close they once were? Does Macy even want to rebuild her relationship with Elliott which is separated not by time or physical remoteness but by emotional distance?
  While I enjoyed both story lines, I loved the past as we watched Macy and Elliott come together. After losing her mother at a young age, Macy is navigating her teenage years without a female role model, relying on the time-stamped notes her mother left in her father’s care for guidance. She doesn't want to be pitied or known as the sad girl who lost her mom. With each other they both can just be Macy and Elliot.
  Whenever I read a book that features best friend romances, we are often cheated out of how the two characters became friends before moving on to lovers. It is just told that the two characters are close and I always felt cheated in that aspect of the story. This is definitely not the chance in Love and Other Words. We see how Macy and Elliot become everything to each other and their absolute honesty with one another is terrifying and at the same time admirable. For teen Macy, Elliot and her dad become her world and her home until one moment and bad decision changed everything.
 In the present day, Macy takes comfort in complacency in a relationship where she doesn't have to be emotionally invested and ready made. She throws herself into her work and rarely comes up for air, not even to plan her upcoming wedding. Since Macy is still living with her fiance while grappling with her feelings for Elliot, the flashbacks offer steamy moments, tender revelations, and sweetly awkward confessions while Macy makes peace with her past and decides her future. I read this book fairly quickly as I got so wrapped up into the characters and story. While I understand why the book is written in two time periods, I am a greedy reader who wanted to know what happened to Macy and Elliot when they separated. Love and Other Words is an emotional rollercoaster, but it worth all of the bumps along the way.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language, crude sexual humor, and a few sex scenes. Recommended for older teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: Family Tree by Susan Wiggs, The Summer I Turned Pretty series by Jenny Han
Rummanah Aasi

Description: It’s Christmas Eve in Harlem, but twelve-year-old Lolly Rachpaul and his mom aren’t celebrating. They’re still reeling from his older brother’s death in a gang-related shooting just a few months earlier. Then Lolly’s mother’s girlfriend brings him a gift that will change everything: two enormous bags filled with Legos. Lolly’s always loved Legos, and he prides himself on following the kit instructions exactly. Now, faced with a pile of building blocks and no instructions, Lolly must find his own way forward.
  His path isn’t clear—and the pressure to join a “crew,” as his brother did, is always there. When Lolly and his friend are beaten up and robbed, joining a crew almost seems like the safe choice. But building a fantastical Lego city at the community center provides Lolly with an escape—and an unexpected bridge back to the world.

Review: Wallace “Lolly” Rachpaul lives in the St. Nick projects at 127th street in Harlem, New York. While he loves his neighborhood, he is keenly aware of the poverty, gang violence, drugs, and the gentrification that plagues it. Lolly and his mother are grieving the loss of Jermaine, Lolly's older brother, who sold drugs and joined a gang in order to help his family and was killed due to “crew” violence. His mother has embraced her queer sexuality and his father has left. By making masterpieces with the LEGOs his mom’s girlfriend, Yvonne, brings him, Lolly is able to channel his grief into creativity and art, but he is having trouble with understanding his emotions surrounding Jermaine's death. Luckily, at the community center Mr. Ali is able to reach out and help Lolly though Lolly initially sees it as a punishment, but soon he is able to create his own utopia made out of Legos and befriends an outcast named Rose who has autism. Things seem manageable for Lolly until two gang members who are interested in recruiting Lolly to their side and his friend Vega thinks about joining a gang for protection. Lolly has to decide what steps to take next.
  Lolly has an incredibly strong voice. He is very observant of his neighborhood and though he is just twelve years old, he seems so much older. Lolly is well aware of "street life" and how his neighborhood crosses many intersections. These intersections are present in many thoughtful ways throughout the novel such as family relationships, particularly those who accepted Lolly's mom's queer sexuality and the friction it still causes with Lolly's father. For Lolly Jermaine was much more than a brother, but a role model and a father figure. Mr. Ali is also a male guardian who though strapped for financial resources, provides a place for black and brown youths to seek help and build a community away from gangs. The Stars Beneath Our Feet is very much a slice of life story where tweens have to make very adult life choices. In many ways it is heartbreaking, but also a powerful story of hope for a better future disguised by blocks of Legos.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, street violence, and mention of gangs and drug dealing. Recommended for Grades 5 and up.

If you like this book try: When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Kady, Ezra, Hanna, and Nik narrowly escaped with their lives from the attacks on Heimdall station and now find themselves crammed with 2,000 refugees on the container ship, Mao. With the jump station destroyed and their resources scarce, the only option is to return to Kerenza—but who knows what they'll find seven months after the invasion?
   Meanwhile, Kady's cousin, Asha, survived the initial BeiTech assault and has joined Kerenza's ragtag underground resistance. When Rhys—an old flame from Asha's past—reappears on Kerenza, the two find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. With time running out, a final battle will be waged on land and in space, heroes will fall, and hearts will be broken.

Review: Obsidio is the last and finale book in the action packed science fiction thriller Iluminae Files series. While the book may appear to be long reads due to its page size, it is actually a fast read due to its unique format. Like its previous installments, Obsidio is also written in a mixture of textual formats, which includes case files, emails, online text messages, and images of hand written notes. It is absolutely necessary to have read the first two books before picking this one up as characters, events and consequences from the previous series play a vital role in this book.
  Another countdown. Commercial giant BeiTech’s invading forces are trapped in a seven-month orbit around the politically unstable mining colony of Kerenza IV, pushing to restore their ship’s power so they can get home; meanwhile, the surviving Kerenza colonists are hanging onto their lives and families by a thread. Elsewhere, battered survivors of other BeiTech aggressions are aboard the gunship Mao, on a collision course with Kerenza that will either save or kill them all.
  Obsidio retains all of the elements that has made it so popular: unlikely heroes, star-crossed lovers, space opera tropes, and its unique storytelling format which grabs its readers' attention right away and does not let go until the very last page. The body count in this book is large and the strong violence allows the reader to explore the important issues such as responsibility, accountability, the reliance and/or danger of artificial intelligence, and the duality of right and wrong. I don't think I have ever been captivated by an AI like Aiden before who is able to quickly strip away all emotions in order to ask questions that plague humanity. Although the action goes on just a bit too long, the book does deliver a satisfying conclusion to a great series.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language (though most of it is censored out), strong violence, and some crude sexual humor. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Starbound trilogy by Amie Kauffman and Megan Spooner, Sky Chaser series by Amy Kathleen Ryan, 2001: Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, Lifelike series by Jay Kristoff
Rummanah Aasi

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

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

Rating: 3.5 stars

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are scenes of bullying in the book. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
Rummanah Aasi

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5 stars

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 stars

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

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

Description: Lulu Saad doesn't need your advice, thank you very much. She's got her three best friends and nothing can stop her from conquering the known world. Sure, for half a minute she thought she’d nearly drowned a cute guy at a party, but he was totally faking it. And fine, yes, she caused a scene during Ramadan. It's all under control. Ish. Except maybe this time she’s done a little more damage than she realizes. And if Lulu can't find her way out of this mess soon, she'll have to do more than repair friendships, family alliances, and wet clothing. She'll have to go looking for herself.

Review: Lulu is ready to tackle junior year and any other obstacles as long as she has her three best friends by her side. After one hookup goes sour, her friendships start to tear apart. To make matters worse, she's on thin ice with her mom. Lulu struggles to put back the pieces of her life and find herself in the process. Not the Girls You're Looking For is a character-driven, coming-of-age story that explores relationships and identity in many forms, which is mostly done well.
  Lulu is an abrasive, "in-your-face" character that took me a long time to warm up to. She is smart, flawed, sexual, and vulnerable. Lulu is approachable when she opens up and lets her guards down. We learn that due to Islamophobic bullying, she has to develop a thick skin and become aggressive. Lulu is not particularly religious either. She drinks, smokes pot, and casually hooks up with boys though she does fast during Ramadan, which is when the story takes place. I wished the author would have explored more about the significance particularly of self awakening, spiritual aspect that is the core part of observing Ramadan. Once again an educating opportunity is slipped and what pained me about it most that it made Lulu ashamed to talk about it because she was afraid of being bullied.
  The exploration of female friendships takes the center stage in the book. Each girl brings something to the group, but it messy, mean, and uneven at times which makes it realistic. The discussion of slut shaming, a candid look at consent, and sexual assault is also an important aspect of the book, but it could have been fleshed out more. The inclusion of a healthy romance where consent is taken seriously plans a good contrast so readers can distinguish the two different behaviors. I do wish the author spent more time in tackling one character's alcoholism and having another character confide with an adult about sexual assault. I was unhappy about another character's sexuality and coming out just through into the story as a plot point to get to Lulu's light bulb moment. 
  Personally, I was more engaged in the book when Lulu explores her biracial and mixed culture identity (Lulu has a white mom and an Arab dad) in all its joys and struggles. Her frustrations of always being labeled as "other" and the feelings about being an impostor or having impostor syndrome is poignant and thought provoking. I would have much rather preferred if the book was just about unpacking her identity. The plot sometimes suffers from uneven pacing, but Lulu's voice is strong and I was curious to see where the story went.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language, underage drinking and drug use, scenes of sexual harassment/assault, and a brief sex scene in the book. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Despite their many differences, Detective Rachel Getty trusts her boss, Esa Khattak, implicitly. But she's still uneasy at Khattak's tight-lipped secrecy when he asks her to look into Christopher Drayton's death. Drayton's apparently accidental fall from a cliff doesn't seem to warrant a police investigation, particularly not from Rachel and Khattak's team, which handles minority-sensitive cases. But when she learns that Drayton may have been living under an assumed name, Rachel begins to understand why Khattak is tip-toeing around this case. It soon comes to light that Drayton may have been a war criminal with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995.
  If that's true, any number of people might have had reason to help Drayton to his death, and a murder investigation could have far-reaching ripples throughout the community. But as Rachel and Khattak dig deeper into the life and death of Christopher Drayton, every question seems to lead only to more questions, with no easy answers. Had the specters of Srebrenica returned to haunt Drayton at the end, or had he been keeping secrets of an entirely different nature? Or, after all, did a man just fall to his death from the Bluffs?

Review: In Khan's debut mystery series opener two Toronto detectives are handed a politically sensitive case. Esa Khattak is a second-generation Canadian Muslim who heads the new Community Policing Section, created to deal with delicate cases involving minorities. When a call from Tom Paley, chief historian at the Canadian Department of Justice, drops Esa and his partner, Rachel Getty, into the mysterious death of Christopher Drayton, who may have fell or jumped or was pushed off a cliff. As they investigate Drayton's past, new information leads Esa and Rachel to believe Drayton has a connection to the Bosnian Genocide of 1995.
  I really like how this mystery is written. It is evident that the author did a lot of research into the Bosian Genocide. In alternating chapters, we get eyewitness accounts of the atrocities of the genocide. Slowly these pieces connect meaningfully to the overall mystery arc. As we learn more details of the past, the mystery goes beyond the simple "who killed Drayton?" as it first appears.
 There is also a wide and interesting cast of characters. Esa is a reserved character who has lost his wife in a car accident and still feels guilty about it. I didn't feel like I had a good grasp on his character, but since it's the first book in a series, I am hoping I will learn  more about him when I continue the series. I did get a good grasp on Rachel who also has personal issues regarding her family such as abusive, alcoholic famed ex-cop father, her meek mother, and her desire to reconnect with her estranged brother who left home at 15 and never looked back.
 The Unquiet Dead is a solid mystery that features complex characters and issues, which at times are hard to read about. I do plan on continuing this series and learning more about these characters.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong genocide violence including rape, suicide, and torture. This some language and crude sexual humor in the book. Due to the mature topics in the book, I would recommend it to mature teens and adult readers only.

If you like this book try: Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanat Khan (Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak #2), Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Now that she is ten, Lailah is delighted that she can fast during the month of Ramadan like her family and her friends in Abu Dhabi, but finding a way to explain to her teacher and classmates in Atlanta is a challenge until she gets some good advice from the librarian, Mrs. Carman.

Review: Lailah recently moved from Abu Dhabi to Peachtree City, Georgia, and while she misses her friends back in the Middle East, she is very excited to be old enough to fast during Ramadan. Lailah is in a difficult situation. She is the new kid in school and also different from her classmates. How can she participate in Ramadan when no one in class knows what it is and what if she is the only one fasting? When her mother gives Lailah a note excusing her from lunch, Lailah hides the note when it is time to give it to her teacher Mrs. Penworth, and she has to endure the tempting smells of food and kind offers of her classmates to share lunch. After escaping to the library, the school librarian encourages Lailah to write down her feelings and share them with her teacher. After all, who knows what could come of sharing her culture?
 Lailah's Lunchbox is a story that will hit home to a lot of younger Muslims and it also reminded me of my own childhood explaining why I would not eat and drink for an entire month to my classmates and teachers in school. Lailah's is proud of her religion and culture, but is unable to express herself until a librarian advises her to explain her feelings. This picture book is a great introduction to Ramadan for both young Muslims and non-Muslims.The large, often full-page watercolor illustrations provide gentle details that add depth to the text. A note and glossary round out the story, giving context from the author's life and information about Islamic culture. A great addition to a growing number of books that educate about Islam without being preachy or heavy handed.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended for Grades 1-3.

If you like this book try: Moon Watchers: Shirin's Ramadan Miracle by Reza Jalali,

Description: Yasmeen, a seven-year-old Pakistani-American girl, celebrates the Muslim holidays of Ramadan, "The Night of the Moon" (Chaand Raat), and Eid. With lush illustrations that evoke Islamic art, this beautiful story offers a window into modern Muslim culture—and into the ancient roots from within its traditions have grown.

Review:  Yasmeen's mother points out the little sliver of the crescent moon to remind her of the beginning of a new month of Ramadan. The significance of the moon is directly correlated to the lunar Islamic calendar. As Yasmeen moves through the month and the moon changes its shape, she learns the lessons of the celebration. Night of the Moon expertly captures the spirit of observing Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, and celebrating Eid Al-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan. I loved how the author weaves information about the cultural traditions of Ramadan and Eid along with Yasmeen's love of her family and growing understanding of her role in the outside world. The gentle and reflective text reflects the simple arc of the month focusing on the spirit rather than being bogged down to the minute details. The illustrations are colorful and stunning incorporating a lot of Islamic art. The Night of the Moon is a warm, lovely, educational read and highly recommended.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended for Grades 1-3.

If you like this book try: It's Ramadan, Curious George by Hena Khan
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