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
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Maya Aziz is torn between worlds. There's the proper one her parents expect for their good Indian daughter: a good school, an arranged marriage. And then there is the world of her dreams: going to film school, living in New York City, pursuing the boy she's liked for ages. But unbeknownst to Maya, there is a danger looming beyond her control. When a terrorist attack occurs in another Midwestern city, the prime suspect happens to share her last name. In an instant, Maya's community, consumed by fear and hatred, becomes unrecognizable, and her life changes forever.

Review: I was really looking forward to picking up Samira Ahmed's debut novel, Love, Hate & Other Filters because it featured a Muslim main character, took place in Illinois, and tackled Islamophobia. While I did like some aspects of the book and think it is worthwhile to read, I did have several issues with it.
Maya Aziz wants to go to film school and attend NYU to pursue her dreams of being a documentary filmmaker. She secretly applied to NYU and got accepted, but her parents think she will attend a local college. With her parents expectations combined with anti-Muslim backlash from a recent terror attack threatens to derail Maya's dream. 
  I have conflicting thoughts about Maya. I admire her tenacity and her ambitions of perusing a life that is not of a traditional Indian woman (i.e. going to the medical, engineering, law fields of study). I also respect her insistence of establishing her independence, however she has little to no pride of her Indian culture and blames almost everything she thinks she can’t have on her cultural constraints and on the fact that she’s different. There were many times where I pictured her as a petulant child who stomped her foot and yelled whenever she was refused something she wanted without giving any consideration to her parents' point of view. Her repetitive phrase of wanting to be "normal" got on my nerves because it implied being anything but a white, Christian girl is abnormal. I also found it very hard to believe that Maya never felt isolated being the only Indian American Muslim at her school.
  While her Indian American identity is discussed or rather ranted about throughout the novel, there is little to no discussion of her Muslim identity. If it was not for the references of the Quran or going to the mosque made by her parents or her common Muslim last name of Aziz, the reader would not know of her Muslim identity. There is a moment in the book where Kareem, a potential love interest, drinks wine though it is forbidden in Islam to drink alcohol. It is laughed off that Kareem observes Islam in other aspects except this one really rubbed me the wrong way. I understand that author might be showing readers that people observe religion in their own ways, but this was a missed teaching moment. While Maya is not a religious person, a lot of the "constraints" she feels is closely tied to her religion. Her issues are very relevant to Muslim teens today and I wished they were talked about in the book. The author instead zeroes in on the romance aspect of the book, which fell totally apart for me. Phil, Maya's very bland love interest, and their drama took me out of the book. I kept waiting for something meaningful to happen. It is not until half way of the book that we see Maya being affected by Islamophobia in the book, both from the backlash of the terror attack and her parent's tighter restrictions. 
  I know that not every #ownvoices Muslim novel will not mirror my life and it is only an indication that we need more stories, but you can't write a book where religion is a central theme of the book and not talk about it. Personally, I felt very disappointed with the book and I understand why so many of my students returned the book without finishing it. I'm not saying Maya's story is unimportant, it is, but it barely skims the surface.

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language and a scene of physical assault in the book. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you want a book that does a better job explaining Islamophabia and having conflicts with ones Islamic culture try: The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah, Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Civil War II is behind her, and a brand new chapter for Kamala Khan is about to begin! But it's lonely out there for a super hero when her loved ones no longer have her back. It's time for Kamala to find out exactly who she is when she is on her own. Plus: it's election time! Kamala gets out the vote!

Review: Volume 7 is the weakest volume of the otherwise fantastic Ms. Marvel graphic novel series. Though the first story focuses on an important issue of the importance of voting and how to register to vote, it comes across as a public service announcement instead of a story in a graphic novel. I also didn't care for the second story with its nod to the gaming culture and what happens when it goes too far. Out of the three stories, I did enjoy the last one where see Bruno in Wakanda and seeing how he is adjusting to his new school and environment. Definitely not my favorite in the Ms. Marvel series.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong violence and minor language. Suitable for middle grade readers and up.

Description: The villains are at Kamala's door, and Ms. Marvel has to save a city that doesn't want saving. The malleable Ms. Marvel continues her hero's journey as an enemy from her past begins targeting those closest to her, a challenge that calls into question everything about her -- not just as a super hero, but as a human being! Who can Ms. Marvel trust when everyone in Jersey City is against her? As Kamala's life hangs in the balance, a new crime fighter moves in on her turf. Plus: Bruno may be far away at a prestigious school in Wakanda, but even thousands of miles from his former best friend, Kamala Khan, adventure still finds him!

Review: We are finally back on track with the latest volume in the Ms. Marvel graphic novel series! The inclusion of Pakistani and Islamic culture along with the fun action adventure of superheroes is what makes this graphic novel series stand out and a personal favorite of mine. I identify with Kamala on many levels though I sadly lack her super powers. This volume like the last one uses our contemporary political issues as a platform. Ms. Marvel is more than a superhero, she is a social activist who is ready to help her community, but she is demonized and targeted by right wing members who want to make New Jersey great again by removing people with super powers and placing stricter immigration policies which directly affects Kamala's own family. As Kamala tries to make sense of the situation, she is rejoined by her friend Kareem who she met while in Pakistan. Kareem is the Red Dagger who brings chemistry and intrigue to the series. I really like his banter with Kamala and I'm hoping he will be a continuing character/ possible new love interest. The dialogue in this volume is smart with the right amount of zing and humor, which matches the introspective and action panels alike. There were many times when I laughed out aloud. I'm really looking forward to the next volume.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong violence and minor language. Suitable for middle grade readers and up.

If you like these book try: The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North, Thor: The Goddess of Thunder by Jason Aaron, The Adventures of Superhero Girl by Faith Erin Hicks
Rummanah Aasi

Description: They are the wild and the broken. The werewolves too damaged to live safely among their own kind. For their own good, they have been exiled to the outskirts of Aspen Creek, Montana. Close enough to the Marrok’s pack to have its support; far enough away to not cause any harm.
With their Alpha out of the country, Charles and Anna are on call when an SOS comes in from the fae mate of one such wildling. Heading into the mountainous wilderness, they interrupt the abduction of the wolf–but can’t stop blood from being shed. Now Charles and Anna must use their skills–his as enforcer, hers as peacemaker–to track down the attackers, reopening a painful chapter in the past that springs from the darkest magic of the witchborn.

Review: I normally devour a Patricia Briggs' book whenever it releases, but I had a really hard time finishing Burn Bright, her latest in the Alpha and Omega series. Though I loved the world and the characters that Briggs created, Burn Bright is not the strongest book in the series and many things about this book felt off to me.
  Burn Bright takes place shortly after the events in Silence Fallen, the latest book in the Mercy Thompson series. Bran is away and has left Charles in charge and he is bumping heads with his stepmother Leah. When one of the Wildings (feral werewolves who are too dangerous to be in the pack and who Bran protects) calls warning of danger, Charles and Anna are dispatched to figure out what is going on.
Charles and Anna quickly realize that it looks like someone is out to take out the Wildings and potentially the other werewolves. Many characters from both the Mercy Thompson and the Alpha and Omega universe are either mentioned and/or play a vital role in this book. I would not recommend reading this if you haven't read the rest of any of the two series.
  My main issues with Burn Bright are the uneven pacing and the unbalance amount of information that we are and are not given in the book. My biggest hurdle (and I am not alone) is wrapping my head around the conversation about Bran and Mercy which taints how you see Bran's character as well as his interactions with Mercy. This conversation came out of nowhere and I really didn't feel like it was Anna's and Charle's place to comment on it given their own big elephant in the room conversation about their own futures.
  After that revelation, the story is topsy-turvey. We spend quite some time being acquainted with the Wildings. Anna deals with big issues of her past that is glossed over and never talked about. She is then trying to use her Omega powers on a wildling which leads us to another revelation and more info dumps that took me out of the story. After a promising start and a drawn out explanation in the first half of the book, the second half is rushed with quick reveals that felt inconsistent with what we know about the characters particularly with Leah. I find it very hard to believe that the big twist was not noticeable to the pack beforehand and the possible plan to undermine Bran. I wanted this to be further explained. I know Briggs had her own personal tragedy with the loss of her husband this year and I'm sure that this has affected the book somehow, but I am optimistic that Burn Bright is a fluke and we will get a much better story in the future.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong violence, some language, and small sexual situations in the book. Recommended for older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, Women of the Otherworld series by Kelley Armstrong
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Aliya already struggles with trying to fit in, feeling confident enough to talk to the cute boy or stand up to mean kids—the fact that she's Muslim is just another thing to deal with. When Marwa, a Moroccan girl who shares her faith if not her culture, comes to Aliya's school, Aliya wonders even more about who she is, what she believes, and where she fits in. Should she fast for Ramadan? Should she wear the hijab? She's old enough for both, but does she really want to call attention to herself?

Review: The Garden of My Imaan reminded me very much of Judy Blume's classic Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, but with an Islamic twist. Aliya is an Indian-American, Muslim tween who struggling with her own imaan, an Arabic word for faith, her religious identity, and dealing with Islamophobia.   With Ramadan fast approaching, Sister Khan asks Aliya's religion class to set Ramadan goals and write about what they learn. Like Margaret before her, Aliya pours out her worries from fretting over puberty, an unrequited crush at school, and the introduction to Marwa, a new girl at school who is from Morocco and wears the hijab. Asked to befriend Marwa at school, stirs up mixed emotions in Aliya. She is first annoyed and then intrigued at how Marwa finds a place for herself without sacrificing her religious principles. Marwa is a quiet leader who stands up for herself with educating others around her instead of insulting them. She is clearly a role model for Aliya, however, I would have loved if the author created her as a three dimensional character instead of a perfect girl. We don't see Marwa develop except at school and I wanted to know more about her.
  To be completely honest, I was afraid to read this book because the synopsis and the cover made me believe that the author has a certain bias, but I am so glad that I was wrong. The author makes clear of Islamophobic acts that Muslims face, from being called names and be told to go "back to your country", but she also includes the dangers of girl's being attacked by someone who rips their hijab off. The downside of open observance is clear to readers, but she also enlightens others about the beliefs and intentions underlying these religious observances, especially hijab. The hijab is worn proudly by Marwa and she doesn't feel weird about it. It is how she expresses her faith. For Aliya's mother, who doesn't wear it, "hijab is a symbol of modesty--a good symbol but a figurative one." Aliya's mother demonstrates modesty by the clothes that she wears. Zia points out that there is more than one way Muslims observe their religion and one is not more acceptable or right than the other.  Don't be afraid to pick up this book, it is a refreshing story that will serve as mirrors to Muslim readers and a window to others who want to know more about Islam without any heavy handedness.

Rating: 4 stars

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

If you like this book try: Amina's Voice by Hena Khan
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Aspiring filmmaker and wallflower Twinkle Mehra has stories she wants to tell and universes she wants to explore, if only the world would listen. So when fellow film geek Sahil Roy approaches her to direct a movie for the upcoming Summer Festival, Twinkle is all over it. The chance to publicly showcase her voice as a director? Dream come true. The fact that it gets her closer to her longtime crush, Neil Roy—a.k.a. Sahil’s twin brother? Dream come true x 2.
When mystery man “N” begins emailing her, Twinkle is sure it’s Neil, finally ready to begin their happily-ever-after. The only slightly inconvenient problem is that, in the course of movie-making, she’s fallen madly in love with the irresistibly adorkable Sahil. Twinkle soon realizes that resistance is futile: The romance she’s got is not the one she’s scripted. But will it be enough?

Review: I absolutely adored Menon's debut novel, When Dimple Met Rishi, and I could not wait to read her latest novel, From Twinkle, With Love. Though I didn't love From Twinkle, With Love as much as I loved her debut novel, it was still thoroughly enjoyable and a delightfully sweet contemporary romance.
  Twinkle Mehra is a self pronounced wallflower and groundling, a social status that complements her family's working class financial situation. Tired of being overlooked by her former best friend, Maddie, who has recently elevated her social status by hanging out with the popular crowd, and ignored by her busy working parents, Twinkle wants to be noticed by someone else besides her lovable, unconditionally supportive, and eccentric Dadi (her paternal grandmother). She is also an aspiring filmmaker who dreams of going to film school and becoming a great woman of color director. Twinkle fills her journal, given by Dadi, with entries dedicated to sorting out her feels and frustrations, addressed to her favorite female movie directors, among them Mira Nair, Sofia Coppola, Nora Ephron, and Ava DuVernay. The repetitiveness of directors that Twinkle writes to is indicative of the necessity of more female directors in the film industry.
 Twinkle is a fun, flawed character who is also frustrating to read about because you want to shake her and tell her she is making big mistakes. She has tunnel vision of becoming a new shinier version of herself which features a confident girl who speaks up for herself and be in a relationship with Neil Roy, a biracial white-Indian golden boy, who can elevate her status. When an opportunity arises to make her mark for a local film festival with Sahil, Neil's awkward identical twin brother, she reluctantly accepts the challenge as a way to become close to Neil, realize her romantic ambitions, and thus improve her social standing at school. As she chronicles her journey on working with her film, Twinkle's relationship with Sahil changes which makes things complicated especially when she begins receiving admiring emails signed only “N,” she assumes her mystery fan to be Neil. Like any other romantic comedies, Sahil has had a crush on Twinkle for years and the true identity of her anonymous fan becomes a tantalizing mystery.
  Menon knows how to write a romantic comedy. The budding relationship with Twinkle and Sahil is beyond adorable and grows throughout the book. It is agonizing to wait for Twinkle's light bulb to go off and realize that Sahil is the right person for her. Both characters share a love for film and are able to be themselves around each other. I really appreciated that the characters were able to show each other their good sides and bad sides instead of characters who just wear rosy tinted glasses because they are in love. I felt frustrated for Sahil when Twinkle would not be honest with him and fully commit to be with him. The inclusion of Sahil's anonymous blog and his text messages between his two best friends provide his viewpoint of his complicated relationship with Twinkle and made me laugh out loud several times.
 The familial relationship is also done quite well, particularly with Twinkle and her Dadi. I loved  how Dadi played an important role and constant in Twinkle's life. She was her confidant and support network when her parents were away. I also understood Twinkle's own feeling of neglected from her parents. I just wished we explored a bit more of her mother's mental health issues which were hinted in the book. I would have also loved to have seen more of Sahil's own insecurity of constantly being compared to Neil.
 In addition to all the various relationships in the book, the theme of privilege is well handled in the book from the obvious comparing and contrasting the have and have-nots of Twinkle and her circle of friends, but also of Twinkle and the at-risk kids that her father works with is also highlighted in the book. Though this book covered a lot more themes than When Dimple Met Rishi, it read much younger to me which is not a bad thing just an observation. If you enjoyed Menon's debut novel you will really like From Twinkle, With Love. Menon is quickly becoming my auto-read author for romantic comedies and I can't wait to see what she writes next.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some innuendo mentioned in the book. Recommended for Grades 7 and up.

If you like this book try: My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma, To All the Boys I Loved Before series by Jenny Han
Rummanah Aasi

Description:  The story spans six years in the lives of Walid, his wife Dalia, and their two children, Amina and Youssef. Forced to flee from Syria, they become asylum-seekers in Lebanon, and finally resettled refugees in the West. It is a story that has been replayed thousands of times by other families.
  When the family home in Aleppo is destroyed by a government-led bomb strike, Walid has no choice but to take his wife and children and flee their war-torn and much loved homeland. They struggle to survive in the wretched refugee camps of Lebanon, and when Youssef becomes fatally ill as a result of the poor hygienic conditions, his father is forced to take great personal risk to save his family.
  Walid's daughter, the young Amina, a whip-smart grade-A student, tells the story. As she witnesses firsthand the harsh realities that her family must endure if they are to survive -- swindling smugglers, treacherous ocean crossings, and jihadist militias -- she is forced to grow up very quickly in order to help her parents and brother.

Review: While the news coverage of the Syrian Civil War and the refugee crisis has graced the headlines of newspapers for many years now, it is hard to personalize the many tragedies and losses of those who are involved and/or affected by the war. Escape from Syria, successfully depicts a fictionalized account of a family caught in the middle of the war. The author has captured the refugees's plight by using her knowledge as a Lebanese journalist who has covered the civil war in the English-language Lebanese newspaper called the Daily Star.  
  Amina's ordinary life in Aleppo, Syria, is forever changed when a bomb destroys her neighborhood and her family joins the millions of refugees fleeing Syria. The graphic novel uses flashbacks and spare text to narrate her journey from living a happy life in Syria to resettling in Canada as a refugee. We follow Amina and her family as they make a series of heartbreaking decisions such as leaving their home and loved ones behind in order to flee for safety in Lebanon, where they end up in a refugee camp. Amina is lucky enough to go to school, but it is a challenge as the school teaches in three languages: Arabic, English, and French. Soon their savings run out and her brother becomes sick. Once again the family makes hard choices in order to pay for his lifesaving medications. When the stress of renewing expensive visas becomes too much and unethical smugglers make life impossible, Amina finally finds help with a resettling agency.
 The story is eye opening and unforgettable, but never pandering to their reader's sympathy. The hardships that Syrian refugees face are written in a very matter of fact way. The reader connects to them as fellow humans not as "the other". There are plenty of dark moments throughout the book, but it does end on a hopeful bittersweet note on Amina's family trying to re-establish their home in a foreign land where many other obstacles are in their future. There are extensive endnotes at the end of the graphic novel which highlight the true events and explain references in the book. Escaping from Syria is a timely graphic novel that provides context on an ongoing, devastating, and complex war for readers.

Curriculum Connection: Social Studies, English

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: War violence is depicted including images of heads of men impaled on sticks, sexual harassment is also alluded in the graphic novel. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: A Game for Swallows by Zeina Abirached, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
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