Rummanah Aasi

Description: Ashish Patel didn’t know love could be so…sucky. After being dumped by his ex-girlfriend, his mojo goes AWOL. Even worse, his parents are annoyingly, smugly confident they could find him a better match. So, in a moment of weakness, Ash challenges them to set him up. The Patels insist that Ashish date an Indian-American girl—under contract. Per subclause 1(a), he’ll be taking his date on “fun” excursions like visiting the Hindu temple and his eccentric Gita Auntie. Kill him now. How is this ever going to work?

Sweetie Nair is many things: a formidable track athlete who can outrun most people in California, a loyal friend, a shower-singing champion. Oh, and she’s also fat. To Sweetie’s traditional parents, this last detail is the kiss of death. Sweetie loves her parents, but she’s so tired of being told she’s lacking because she’s fat. She decides it’s time to kick off the Sassy Sweetie Project, where she’ll show the world (and herself) what she’s really made of.

Ashish and Sweetie both have something to prove. But with each date they realize there’s an unexpected magic growing between them. Can they find their true selves without losing each other?

Review: I absolutely adore Sandhya Menon's debut novel, When Dimple Met Rishi, but I have been curious to see what the author did which Rishi's brother, Ashish's story. I am happy to report that I love his story even more. There's Something About Sweetie is a contemporary romance that is full of heart while also tackling fat shaming, identity, privilege, and self confidence.
  Ashish Patel is the rich and handsome basketball star of Richmond Academy. Bummed after being dumped by his college girlfriend and his self confidence taken a big beating, he challenges his parents out of a moment of weakness to make good on their constant threat to find him a suitable Indian American girl to date. Their choice is Sweetie Nair, Piedmont High’s track star. When Ashish’s mother proposes the match, Sweetie’s mother adamantly insists that their children are not compatible. The Patels are extremely affluent, but the main reason Mrs. Nair refuses is because Sweetie is fat and is trying to protect her daughter from social humiliation.
  Sweetie embraces her body and does not feel ashamed about it. Her weight is always the focus of her mother's concerns whether it is Sweetie's diet or her lack of drive just to "lose some weight". Overhearing her mother's refusal to Mrs. Patel hurts Sweetie deeply and sparks her to start the "Sassy Sweetie Project" in which she will overturn all her insecurities into strengths. The Sassy Sweetie Project is my favorite part of this story. It upends the makeover trope which often seen in teen movies of the geeky girl being hot under her frumpy clothes. This project is personal for Sweetie and it shapes her character arc really well and strongly. She becomes assertive and takes matters into her own hands to live her best life even if it means agreeing to the Patels’ four-date contract without telling her parents.
 Ashish and Sweetie accept the arrangement, each feeling they have something to prove to themselves. For Ashish the relationship is his way to bounce back to the person he use to be and for Sweetie is an empowering move to prove to herself that she is desirable and deserves love. Both characters have vulnerabilities and wonder if this arranged match will work, and not knowing what will happen when Sweetie’s parents find out. Ashish and Sweetie share narrative duties, and both are flanked by supportive friends and caring parents—even if their approaches to love is flawed and can be painful at times. It is a pleasure to watch Ashish and Sweetie fall for each other in the quiet moments and allowing them the space and pace to make decisions, succeed or fail, learn, and blossom. I know some reviewers have see Sweetie as someone who is magically perfect, but I disagree. She waivers in her self confidence which felt real and her perseverance to fight is really admirable. Kudos to the author on creating a fat character who is not ashamed of her body nor focused on physical descriptions.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, mostly in the form of texting, and some crude humor. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: Dumplin' by Julie Murphy, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn’t want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century.
When a surprise engagement between Khalid and Hafsa is announced, Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and his family; and the truth she realizes about herself. But Khalid is also wrestling with what he believes and what he wants. And he just can’t get this beautiful, outspoken woman out of his mind.

Review: Ayesha at Last has been pitched as a Muslim Pride and Prejudice retelling, but I would describe it as an homage to the Jane Austen classic featuring Muslim characters set in Toronto, Canada. Smart, witty, and aspiring poet Ayesha Shamsi juggles her dreams and the stifling expectations of her tight-knit Toronto's Indian-Muslim community. Instead of pursing her artistic passion, she picks a practical career as a high school teacher in order to pay back her financial loans to her uncle and watches as her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, collects marriage proposals like trading cards. Ayesha is the non-desirable type as she is an outspoken feminist, and ancient according to the desi marriage clock.
  After a misunderstanding, Ayesha pretends to be Hafsa while planning a youth conference, where she is required to collaborate with conservative Khalid, a newcomer to the area. Ayesha pegs Khalid as rigid and judgmental on their first meeting because of his white robes, long beard, and ultra-conservative behavior. She doesn't object to arranged marriages, but believes compatibility is important, and she scorns Khalid's complacency with accepting his mother's choice of bride. Khalid pegs Ayesha as those types of Muslims who appear devout but goes to bars and interacts with men. The clash of these two opposing viewpoints on how to practice their religion is a constant tension between Khalid and Ayesha. As Ayesha and Khalid work on the conference together, Khalid learns to accommodate different viewpoints. 
  Family loyalty and reputation are a recurring theme throughout the novel. Khalid is overly reliant on his mother and completely passive about his future so long as it appeases his mother as his family's reputation was rocked by his rebellious sister Zareena. Ayesha is trapped between being loyal to uncle and aunt while being a pushover to her spoiled and immature cousin. I loved this book for its candid yet critical view of the social pressures facing young Muslims as well as the universal question of "What makes a good and bad Muslim?" which all Muslims ask themselves. I appreciated the author's inclusion of Muslims of a wide faith range from the devout to the secular as they are without figure pointing of what they should be. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments, mostly at the cost of Khalid's comment in not getting with the 21st century and abundant cultural references, which elevates Ayesha at Last beyond just another Austen adaptation/retelling. Along with witty social critique there are other serious issues that the author does not shy away from such as workplace discrimination, alcoholism, and abortion. I did, however, think the ending was a bit rushed and I selfishly wanted an epilogue, but this is one of my favorite books that I have read this summer and I highly recommend it.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: A pornography website featuring younger age girls is mentioned in the book along with crude humor, mentions of drugs and alcohol, and language. Recommended for Grades 10 and up.

If you like this book try: Pride, prejudice, and other flavors by Sonali Dev
Rummanah Aasi

Description: There are ninety-six things Genesis hates about herself. She knows the exact number because she keeps a list. Like #95: Because her skin is so dark, people call her charcoal and eggplant--even her own family. And #61: Because her family is always being put out of their house, belongings laid out on the sidewalk for the world to see. When your dad is a gambling addict and loses the rent money every month, eviction is a regular occurrence.
What's not so regular is that this time they all don't have a place to crash, so Genesis and her mom have to stay with her grandma. It's not that Genesis doesn't like her grandma, but she and Mom always fight--Grandma haranguing Mom to leave Dad, that she should have gone back to school, that if she'd married a lighter skinned man none of this would be happening, and on and on and on. But things aren't all bad. Genesis actually likes her new school; she's made a couple friends, her choir teacher says she has real talent, and she even encourages Genesis to join the talent show.

But how can Genesis believe anything her teacher says when her dad tells her the exact opposite? How can she stand up in front of all those people with her dark, dark skin knowing even her own family thinks lesser of her because of it? Why, why, why won't the lemon or yogurt or fancy creams lighten her skin like they're supposed to? And when Genesis reaches #100 on the list of things she hates about herself, will she continue on, or can she find the strength to begin again?

Review: Genesis Begins Again is a heartbreaking yet ultimately uplifting look at internalized racism and colorism. Genesis Anderson is a black tween who has a very hard life. She’s had to move several times because her family keeps getting evicted thanks to her alcoholic, gambling father, who inappropriately uses the rent money. Genesis hates her circumstances and adds the things that she hates to herself to her ever growing list including her dark skin. Genesis is routinely verbally abused by her mean drunk father who is also also dark skinned and takes no pride in their resemblance. Compounded by the fact that her Grandmother also spouts racist thoughts of those who have dark skinned believing they are lazy, backward, and will never measure up to anything in life. Genesis wants nothing more than to look like her light-skinned mother. With kids bullying her and calling her names like Charcoal, Eggplant, Blackie, it is not surprising to witness Genesis desperately wanting to be accepted, even causing herself physical pain to bleaching her skin and changing her hair in order to attain it.
   Her fragile self confidence slowly starts to build as her talent to sing demands that she stand out. She develops friendships with those who also feel like outsiders either due to mental issues or not feeling like fit in a neat tidy box. With the help of her chorus teacher, Genesis discovers a way to navigate the pain she carries as well as face her own personal prejudices. Genesis' road to self confidence is emotional, painful, yet a still hopeful adolescent journey. I have never read a book that tackles colorism so head on and in a candid way. I also enjoyed the references to notable black activists, athletes, artists, and, notably, musicians such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Etta James. These inclusions added to the story in particular with the musicians that Genesis used as a mirror. This is a powerful debut novel that should not be missed.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are references to Genesis' father appearing drunk and racist comments made by her grandmother. Recommended for strong Grade 4 readers and up. 

If you like this book try: The Skin I'm In by Sharon Flake, The Fold by An Na
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Mystery-book aficionado Birdie Lindberg has an overactive imagination. Raised in isolation and home schooled by strict grandparents, she’s cultivated a whimsical fantasy life in which she plays the heroic detective and every stranger is a suspect. But her solitary world expands when she takes a job the summer before college, working the graveyard shift at a historic Seattle hotel.
    In her new job, Birdie hopes to blossom from introverted dreamer to brave pioneer, and gregarious Daniel Aoki volunteers to be her guide. The hotel’s charismatic young van driver shares the same nocturnal shift and patronizes the waterfront Moonlight Diner where she waits for the early morning ferry after work. Daniel also shares her appetite for intrigue, and he’s stumbled upon a real-life mystery: a famous reclusive writer—never before seen in public—might be secretly meeting someone at the hotel. To uncover the writer’s puzzling identity, Birdie must come out of her shell…discovering that the most confounding mystery of all may be her growing feelings for the elusive riddle that is Daniel.

Review: After loving Alex, Approximately and Starry Night by Jenn Bennett, I have been really looking forward to another great contemporary romance. Unfortunately her latest novel, Serious Moonlight, which features a mystery and a romance fell completely flat for me.
  The book is set in Seattle, Washington where Birdie Lindberg is a home schooled and extremely sheltered teen with narcolepsy. After the death of her single mother, Birdie was raised by her grandparents and her wild, eccentric-artist "Aunt" Mona. Birdie is great at solving mysteries and lives vicariously through her novels, but she can  not find her footing in real life. On the surface Birdie is a character that I would have loved as I too was a mystery loving teen, but she read far too young for an eighteen year old. I understood her awkwardness but I never felt connected to her. When the book opens we find out that Birdie had very first sexual encounter with a boy she just met and ghosted him, which kick starts this novel. I had a very hard time believing that a teen so sheltered would do this when all of her personality descriptions suggest otherwise. 
  We met Birdie's mysterious boy, Daniel Aoki, when Birdie begins working the graveyard shift at the historic Cascadia Hotel, where Daniel drives the hotel van. He wants to understand what happened between them, but Birdie just wants to forget. Still, she can't resist his invitation to help solve an intriguing puzzle about a local author who takes great pains to hide his identity in weekly visits to the hotel, and their sleuthing takes them all over the city.
  I thought Daniel was adorable, but he was not fleshed out as I had hoped. Bennett attempts to balance a happy, breezy love interest and one who is battling depression. I had hoped the mental health aspect would be further explored but it is not. I appreciated once again the inclusion of diversity of Daniel being half Japanese and half white with a hearing difficulty. Overall I felt pretty underwhelmed with this book and I did not feel surprised with the final reveal of the mystery either.

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, sex is referenced and implied, and weed candy is consumed. Recommended for Grades

If you like this book try: Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson
Rummanah Aasi

Description: More than three thousand years ago, two armies faced each other in an epic battle that rewrote history and came to be known as the Trojan War. The Iliad, Homer's legendary account of this nine-year ordeal, is considered the greatest war story of all time and one of the most important works of Western literature. In this stunning graphic novel adaptation -- a thoroughly researched and artfully rendered masterwork -- renowned illustrator Gareth Hinds captures all the grim glory of Homer's epic. Dynamic illustrations take readers directly to the plains of Troy, into the battle itself, and lay bare the complex emotions of the men, women, and gods whose struggles fueled the war and determined its outcome.

Review: Hinds' latest graphic novel is an ambitious and compelling adaptation of Homer's The Illiad, an epic poem that covers the tenth year of the Trojan War. Though the story of the whole Trojan War is complex and long, Hinds reminds faithful to the large plot points of the war in particular the internal conflict between two Greek leaders (Achilles and King Agamemnon) as they seek to conquer the city of Troy, the rage of Achilles, and the death of Trojan prince Hector. There is a lot to cover in this graphic novel adaptation, but Hinds does a great job in highlighting the main events without dragging down the pace of the graphic novel. I also really liked how he included the Zeus and the other gods and goddesses's involvement as fickle and meddlesome war agents, regularly resorting to acts of trickery, mischief, and deadly interference as they played with mortal lives.
  Of course the book is mainly focused on the battle scenes since it's covering a war, but it surprisingly does not rely on gore for their dramatic effect even though there is plenty of blood and violence. Instead, the artwork consisted of pencil, watercolor, and digital illustrations propel readers from scene to scene, shifting from neatly organized panels during moments of peace to angular layouts during times of physical and emotional strife.
  The graphic novel does capture the story's "war is glory" attitude and hypermasculinity but it also shows the emotions involved in the war. The themes of glory, pride, hubris, as well as the harrowing sorrow and desolation of women and children of the conquered. Even Hinds' Helen is aware of the destruction brought by her arrival (though Hinds notes that the reasons for the Trojan War is possibly many). I appreciated the purposeful color palette assigns each god his or her own vivid, monochrome hue, while a subtle red and blue color scheme helps differentiate between the Greeks and Trojans. Due to the sheer size of characters it was a bit confusing at times to identity who is who. Some panels have large text panels, but the text was necessary to understand the plot. There is extensive back matter which includes an author’s note, a map, extensive notes, and a selected bibliography for further reading. Hinds has succeeded in creating an accessible adaptation of a great epic poem for those who are encountering Homer for the first time as well as those who are already familiar with the original work. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong violence in the graphic novel, but not gratuitously gory. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: The Age of Bronze series by Eric Shanower, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (for a more personal insight to the character)
Rummanah Aasi
Description: My name is Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman, and I am a car mechanic. And a coyote shapeshifter. And the mate of the Alpha of the Columbia Basin werewolf pack.
   Even so, none of that would have gotten me into trouble if, a few months ago, I hadn't stood upon a bridge and taken responsibility for the safety of the citizens who lived in our territory. It seemed like the thing to do at the time. It should have only involved hunting down killer goblins, zombie goats, and an occasional troll. Instead, our home was viewed as neutral ground, a place where humans would feel safe to come and treat with the fae. The reality is that nothing and no one is safe. As generals and politicians face off with the Gray Lords of the fae, a storm is coming and her name is Death. But we are pack, and we have given our word. We will die to keep it.

Review: The eleventh book in the Mercy Thompson series, Storm Cursed, continues to be strong and suspenseful. I would highly recommend new readers who are interested in picking up this excellent urban fantasy series to start at the very beginning as there are a large cast of characters and this book refers to many past story lines. In this book Mercy faces a dark coven of witches intent on displacing the current witch family, which may have a profound impact on the delicate alliance between the paranormal races in the Tri-City. While Elizaveta, head of the Tri-City witches, is still in Europe after having helped to free Mercy from Milan's master vampire, her family is attacked. Elizaveta isn't quite the victim they think she is at first. Mercy and Adam face some hard choices with what they find in the witch's home. 
 Like Mercy I had a strange feeling about Elizaveta. I was glad to have her as an ally yet I did not trust her one bit. I am still a bit unclear with the Elizaveta and Adam relationship, but my understanding is that Adam saw Elizaveta as a motherly type figure. This book in particular takes a closer look into loyalties, especially when it impacts pack members. I enjoyed the growing relationship with Mercy and Honey, which was distant and cold in the last few books. I was also glad to see the return of Stefan as I missed him and his Scooby van. The enemies in this book are terrifying yet complex figures which Briggs does so well in her books.

Rating: 4 stars

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

If you like this book try: Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs, Allie Beckstrom series by Devon Monk
Rummanah Aasi
Waiting on Wednesday is a meme hosted by Jill of Breaking the Spine! This week I am waiting for the release of Natasha Diaz's debut novel Color Me In.

Color Me In by Natasha Diaz
Publish date: August 20, 2019
Publisher: Delacorte Press

  This own voice and diverse novel covers racism, religion, and self identity. 
 Who is Nevaeh Levitz?

Growing up in an affluent suburb of New York City, sixteen-year-old Nevaeh Levitz never thought much about her biracial roots. When her Black mom and Jewish dad split up, she relocates to her mom's family home in Harlem and is forced to confront her identity for the first time.

Nevaeh wants to get to know her extended family, but one of her cousins can't stand that Nevaeh, who inadvertently passes as white, is too privileged, pampered, and selfish to relate to the injustices they face on a daily basis as African Americans. In the midst of attempting to blend their families, Nevaeh's dad decides that she should have a belated bat mitzvah instead of a sweet sixteen, which guarantees social humiliation at her posh private school. Even with the push and pull of her two cultures, Nevaeh does what she's always done when life gets complicated: she stays silent.

It's only when Nevaeh stumbles upon a secret from her mom's past, finds herself falling in love, and sees firsthand the prejudice her family faces that she begins to realize she has a voice. And she has choices. Will she continue to let circumstances dictate her path? Or will she find power in herself and decide once and for all who and where she is meant to be?
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Rosa Santos is cursed by the sea-at least, that's what they say. Dating her is bad news, especially if you're a boy with a boat. But Rosa feels more caught than cursed. Caught between cultures and choices. Between her abuela, a beloved healer and pillar of their community, and her mother, an artist who crashes in and out of her life like a hurricane. Between Port Coral, the quirky South Florida town they call home, and Cuba, the island her abuela refuses to talk about.
   As her college decision looms, Rosa collides - literally - with Alex Aquino, the mysterious boy with tattoos of the ocean whose family owns the marina. With her heart, her family, and her future on the line, can Rosa break a curse and find her place beyond the horizon?

Review: Given the cover and the title, I expected Don't Date Rosa Santos to be your basic summery romantic comedy, but I was delightfully surprised to learn the story is so much more. Rosa Santos is Cuban American and has Cuba in her blood. Living in a seaside community in Southern Florida with her abuela, she knows only part of the family stories that tie her to Cuba where her ancestors lived, but not the actual country. Now that she is on her way to start college, Rosa's desire to learn more about her family roots, culture, and to Cuba has grown stronger and a source of tension between her mother and her grandmother. Both her mother and grandmother have experienced tragedies related to the sea, and they caution Rosa to stay away from the water at all costs.
  I adored Rosa who is a driven young woman with a set of plans. It was so refreshing to see her complete high school and attend community college to set her sights further. I loved how she had a plan set forth for her future as well as saving her local community  of a wide range of Latinx cultures from commercial builders. Most children of immigrants will see themselves in Rosa as wants to learn more about her roots. The relationship Rosa had with her mother, an artist who abandoned Rosa to travel the country, returns intermittently, and her abuela is complex and fascinating as each faced their own fears. The romance between Rosa and Alex, an attractive sailor who works by the docks, is incredibly sweet but it does not overwhelm the story. It was so nice to see that Alex is not the stereotypical Latinx male figure, but incredibly charming, sweet, and has a great knack for cooking. Don't Date Rosa Santos is a solid, own voices book in which the Latinx culture is celebrated and infused into a realistic fiction novel and the classic coming of age story. I love forward to reading more from this author.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some minor language and scenes of underage drinking. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: The Universal Laws of Marco by Carmen Rodriguez
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Seventh grader Jordan Banks loves nothing more than drawing cartoons about his life. But instead of sending him to the art school of his dreams, his parents enroll him in a prestigious private school known for its academics, where Jordan is one of the few kids of color in his entire grade.
As he makes the daily trip from his Washington Heights apartment to the upscale Riverdale Academy Day School, Jordan soon finds himself torn between two worlds—and not really fitting into either one. Can Jordan learn to navigate his new school culture while keeping his neighborhood friends and staying true to himself?

Review: New Kid may seem like another title about being the new kid in school, but this graphic novel is so much more. It is a candid and accessible story about race, class, microagressions, and the quest of self identity when you clearly do not fit into clean boxes.
Jordan Banks is the new kid from Washington Heights, Manhattan, a stigma and list of its own set of rules that entails so much more than getting lost on the way to homeroom at the prestigious and affluent Riverdale Academy Day School, which is located at the opposite end of Manhattan. The school may as well be in a foreign land where pink clothing is called salmon, white administrators consistently mistake a veteran African-American teacher for the football coach, and white classmates use  African-American Vernacular English to make themselves sound cool. 
  Jordan is a gifted artist and it is through his drawings we get a better understanding of his two worlds and his methods of coping with existing in the precarious in-between. I love how Craft uses the graphic novel format to its fullest extent in providing an great and wide cast of characters who each have their own struggles. I, myself, related a lot to Jordan's bizarre journey and wished I had this graphic novel when I was his age as I too had to navigate the Wonderland-like journey of race, class, and privilege as I transitioned from city life to suburbs when I was in middle school and even in high school.
Rating: 4 stars

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

If you like this book try: Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai, Unidentified Suburban Objects by Mike Jung
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Imogen Lovelace is an ordinary fangirl on an impossible mission: save her favorite character, Princess Amara, from being killed off from her favorite franchise, Starfield. The problem is, Jessica Stone—the actress who plays Princess Amara—wants nothing more than to leave the intense scrutiny of the fandom behind. If this year's ExcelsiCon isn't her last, she'll consider her career derailed.
   When a case of mistaken identity throws look-a-likes Imogen and Jess together, they quickly become enemies. But when the script for the Starfield sequel leaks, and all signs point to Jess, she and Imogen must trade places to find the person responsible. That's easier said than done when the girls step into each other's shoes and discover new romantic possibilities, as well as the other side of intense fandom. As these "princesses" race to find the script-leaker, they must rescue themselves from their own expectations, and redefine what it means to live happily ever after.

Review: The Princess and the Fangirl is a loose retelling of The Prince and the Pauper where a celebrity wants to be recognized as an acclaimed actress and a person and a fan just wants to be somebody. Having played Princess Amara in the movie reboot of cult sci-fi show Starfield, Jessica Stone has been battling the crazy Starfield fandom who has trolled, bullied, and even sexually harassed her. She is thankful that her character has died at the end of the movie and she can now move on to more serious roles and be recognized as an actress with a capital "A". Fangirl and self-proclaimed nobody Imogen Lovelace idolizes the independent space princess and is campaigning to #SaveAmara.
  When the look-alikes collide at the annual ExcelsiCon and switch places each gains a new perspective on fandom. I liked this novel but it was slow going for me. I had a really hard time warming up to Jess. I understood her dislike and confusion to the importance of Starfield, but she comes across so mean and abrasive. Of course her prickly personality is come with her experience of being a young actress who is constantly needs to be on the alert for exploitation, trolling, sexual harassment among other things. Once Jess's walls come down a bit as she revels in normality and hesitantly explores romance with Imogen’s online friend, Harper Hart, she becomes relatable. I really enjoyed Imogen's chapters with her bubbly personality and her desire to be in the limelight and spars and sparks with Jess’ personal assistant, overly serious Ethan Tanaka.
  I liked how this book addresses the toxicity of fandom, which we have seen in many popular fandoms. Diversity is heavy highlighted as interracial and same-sex relationships are central—Jess and Imogen are white, Harper is black and female, Ethan is Japanese-American, and Imogen has two moms and a gay brother, but this inclusion feels natural and doesn't come across as the author checking boxes off. I also liked the gender-bending aspects of fandom, cosplay, and cons. The very unlucky situation is acknowledged and entertainingly explored. Readers who have read Geekerella will smile at some of the returning characters. A cute and breezy read. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some minor language, instances of sexual harassment and cyber-bullying, and a scene of underage drinking. Recommended for Grade 8 and up.

If you like this book try: The Geek's Guide to Unrequited Love by Sarvenaz Tash
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the king. If Zafira was exposed as a girl, all of her achievements would be rejected; if Nasir displayed his compassion, his father would punish him in the most brutal of ways. Both are legends in the kingdom of Arawiya—but neither wants to be.
   War is brewing, and the Arz sweeps closer with each passing day, engulfing the land in shadow. When Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the king on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds—and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.

Review: We Hunt the Flame is one of my most anticipated reads of 2019. I know the author Hafsah Faizal who is a book blogger and creative artist behind Icey Designs. I could not wait to read another thrilling fantasy series set in a mythical Arabia and I am so happy that she has received lots of rave reviews for her debut novel.
 I enjoyed We Hunt the Flame, but not as much as I would have liked and perhaps my expectations for this book was too high. This fantasy debut novel is set in the Kingdom of Arawiya where its five caliphates can only be saved by an artifact that will restore magic once again to the land. We follow two perspectives, the hunter and the assassin, in alternating chapters. The Hunter is able to navigate the cursed forests in order to save his caliphate of Demenhur, which is covered in snow where there once was sand and its people are on the brink of starvation. Few know that the Hunter is actually a girl named Zafira, who is disguised as a man since women are perceived as tainted in Demenhur. Nasir is both prince and assassin, his targets the perceived enemies of his father, the tyrannical, abusive sultan. When Zafira is summoned to embark on a quest for the lost jewel, Nasir is sent after her, to take it and kill her. They are soon thrown together, first as enemies and then reluctant allies, by the secrets and whispers of an enemy who poses an even greater threat.
  I loved the world that the author created which is clearly inspired by ancient Arabia and has a vibe of the Assassin’s Creed video games. I liked the attention to detail, but sometimes it seems way too much and drags the plot down. My biggest problem with the book is its pacing issues. We spent a lot of time with Zafira and Nasir in their own settings where nothing happens and then suddenly in the last 50 pages or so of the book all the twists and major developments occur without any downtime to understand how it affects the characters. The themes of morality and understanding others beyond stereotypes are present throughout, which I really enjoyed. There is a large cast of characters and attempts at diversity among skin tones and various fantastical creatures are appreciated. There were times, however, where it was hard for me to keep up with who is who and some characters, particularly important secondary characters, are not well-fleshed-out but I think will hopefully be in the next book. We Hunt the Flame is an appealing fantasy and what is hopefully a growing genre outside of Eurocentric stories. I am curious to continue with the series and learn about the characters and their fates.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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

If you like this book try: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultanate in the Iberian peninsula, The Bird King is the story of Fatima, the only remaining Circassian concubine to the sultan, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker.

Hassan has a secret--he can draw maps of places he's never seen and bend the shape of reality. When representatives of the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrive to negotiate the sultan's surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, not realizing that she will see Hassan's gift as sorcery and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With their freedoms at stake, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan and escape the palace walls?

  As Fatima and Hassan traverse Spain with the help of a clever jinn to find safety, The Bird King asks us to consider what love is and the price of freedom at a time when the West and the Muslim world were not yet separate.

Review: The Bird King is a historical fantasy set during the final days of the Reconquista in Spain.  According to outsiders Fatima has had a relatively pampered life in the Alhabra palace, but Fatima has never experienced freedom, serving the sultan of Granada as his favorite concubine in the palace harem and his mother as her close companion. Her "security" is jeopardized as the sultan prepares to surrender his lands to Ferdinand and Isabella, rulers of the recently united Spain and she inadvertently betrays her beloved friend Hassan to the Inquisition, which believes him to be a sorcerer.
  Hassan is a gay cartographer who regularly prays and meditates and has a narrow but powerful magic: He can create new shortcuts between places with his maps as well as draw locations he has never seen, including some which don’t become real until he draws them. Fatima and Hassan make a desperate escape, aided by capricious jinn, but the Inquisition seems always to be just behind them. Their only possible refuge might lie in the fragment of an old poem called the Conference of Birds (a real and very popular Sufi poem in Persian) which the two companions have pored over since childhood, about the mysterious island of Qaf, hidden refuge of the king of birds.
  The Bird King started a bit slow for me, but once Fatima and Hassan were on the run I was easily pulled into Wilson's story. The world building is well-constructed, but I would have loved to have explored more of the jinns that Wilson created. I found the jinns to be fascinating. The real focus of the story however is the character development, particularly that of Fatima's growing understanding of the nature of freedom and responsibility. Wilson also delicately explores the concept of a love outside the physical through the complex and very genuine relationship shared by Fatima and Hassan. Luz, the Dominican lay sister who serves as an Inquistor for the Holy Office is terrifying and one questions her evil nature. As Fatima and Hassan reach the island of Qaf, the story also becomes an allegory of the contentious debate of immigration and freedom. Bringing all of today's relevant topics makes The Bird King a thoughtful and beautiful historical fantasy.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, strong violence including a scene of attempted rape, disturbing images, and mentions of torture. Recommended for older teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, and Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Grandma wears it clasped under her chin. Aunty pins hers up with a beautiful brooch. Jenna puts it under a sun hat when she hikes. Zara styles hers to match her outfit. As a young girl observes six very different women in her life who each wear the hijab in a unique way, she also dreams of the rich possibilities of her own future, and how she will express her own personality through her hijab.

Review: The hijab or veil is the visual clue for the Islamic faith. It has been a source of controversy both within the Muslim community as well as the Western tradition. Hena Khan's beautifully diverse and illustrated picture book explores the various ways women wear or do not wear the hijab. A young, unnamed girl narrates and observes the women in her lives in public situations where they wear hijab and other situations where they do not. The narrator pays particularly close attention as to how the hijab revolves around the wearer's personality and their environment. For instance the narrator's Grandma's hijab is nicely folded when she is at work baking, but she fixes her hair in a bun when she is at home. Jaleel’s illustrations are vibrant, beautiful, and paired well with the text. I loved how the illustrator took note of the various ways a hijab is styled. Though there is no specific ethnicity mentioned, the reader can tell that the family is most likely multiracial as various characters have various skin tones. Body diversity and age are also mentioned in the story, which I appreciated. Under My Hijab is direct and simple to understand without hiding any nefarious agendas. An endnote provides further information about hijab, what the word means, when women choose to wear it, why they choose to wear it, and that some women, like the author of the book, choose not to wear it. I am so glad picture books like this are made available. I would love to see more book like this published.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None.

If you like this book try: Mommy's Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

Description: A young girl plays dress up with her mother’s headscarves, feeling her mother’s love with every one she tries on. Charming and vibrant illustrations showcase the beauty of the diverse and welcoming community in this portrait of a young Muslim American girl’s life.

Review: This delightful picture book gives us a glimpse into a young African American Muslim girl’s family and community as she walks around in “Mommy’s khimar,” or headscarf. Our energetic main character loves wearing her mother's khimar, imagining it transforms her into a queen, a star, a mama bird, a superhero. Note how all of these imaginings are very different from the Western stereotypes of oppression. Adults in her life delight in her appearance in the bright yellow khimar, including her Arabic teacher at the mosque, who calls it a “hijab,” and her Christian grandmother, who visits after Sunday service and calls out “Sweet Jesus!” as she scoops her granddaughter into her arms. Though her grandmother practices a different religion, the family loves one another. The illustrations feature soft pastel colors with dynamic lines and gently patterned backgrounds that complement the story’s joyful tone. I also loved the addition of cultural details that will serve as mirrors to those who share the cheerful protagonist’s culture and a window that will enlighten readers who don’t. With a universal message of love and community, this book is a winner.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None.

If you like this book try: Yo Soy Muslim by Mark Gonzalez, Under My Hijab by Hena Khan
Rummanah Aasi
Description: A marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes—because they make French fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.

An oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how “bad” Muslims are. But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry. When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break. Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, “nicer” version of herself in a place where no one knows her. Then her path crosses with Adam’s.

Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam’s stopped going to classes, intent, instead, on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister. Adam’s also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father. Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals. Until a marvel and an oddity occurs. Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting. Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting.

Review: I really enjoyed Ali's debut novel, Saints and Misfits, and was really looking to reading her contemporary romance Love from A to Z. Love from A to Z has all of the traits of what I love in a great contemporary romance: enjoyable characters, a coming of age story where the characters find themselves, a great setting, and of course romance. What elevates Love from A to Z for me personally is that it also unabashedly addresses Muslim identity and features two Muslim teens who fall in love. This is a love story which I found myself quite nicely represented.
   Zayneb Malik is a high school senior, hijabi though not extremely religious, who has high ambitions of attending the University of Chicago. When she gets suspended over an incident with an Islamophobic teacher, she starts her spring break early, leaving her town in Indiana to visit her aunt in Doha, Qatar. Her trip is an odd combination of relaxation while also giving her the chance to simmer her emotions down as Zayneb is very hot headed.
   Also on the way to Doha, via London, is Adam Chen, returning to his dad and sister. He stopped attending his college classes two months earlier after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the same illness his mother had, and instead he has been making various things. Interestingly, Adam and his remaining family converted to Islam when he was eleven years old or so. As Adam and Zayneb spend time together, their feelings for one another intensify.
  I love how the story is told in alternating viewpoints through the characters' journal entries, each divided into sections of Marvels and Oddities (the good and the bad). The journal entries allows the reader to get a closer look at Zayneb and Adam's emotions and thoughts. Ali does a great job in explaining how relationships work in an Islamic context as the two don't indulge in their physical desire, which is not easy. Muslim identity and culture are authentically and unapologetically infused throughout without overexplanation but are still accessible for a wide audience. Cultural appropriation, racism, the effects of war, and the impact of everyday Islamophobia are all explored with nuance. The only thing I wanted more from this book is the exploration of Zayneb's Islamophobic teacher. I also loved the inclusion of family, particularly that of Aunt Nandy who is not Muslim and Adam's kid sister. Love from A to Z is a great, diverse contemporary romance read.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, Islamophobic and racist comments. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try:
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Doaa and her family leave war-torn Syria for Egypt where the climate is becoming politically unstable and increasingly dangerous. She meets and falls in love with Bassem, a former Free Syrian Army fighter and together they decide to leave behind the hardship and harassment they face in Egypt to flee for Europe, joining the ranks of the thousands of refugees who make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean on overcrowded and run-down ships to seek asylum overseas and begin a new life.
  After four days at sea, their boat is sunk by another boat filled with angry men shouting threats and insults. With no land in sight and surrounded by bloated, floating corpses, Doaa is adrift with a child’s inflatable water ring around her waist, while two little girls cling to her neck. Doaa must stay alive for them. She must not lose strength. She must not lose hope.

Review: A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea is a story of heartbreak, hope, and a human crisis. This memoir follows a teen Syrian refugee, Doaa Al Zamel’s perilous and personal journey to Europe in hopes of pursuing a future of peace and opportunities. Initially a subject of a TED talk by Melissa Fleming, the head of communications and chief spokesperson for the United High Commissioner for Refugees, the book expounds upon the topic. Doaa Al Zamel was only nineteen years old when she and her family flee from their homeland of Syria due to a civil war and a brutal government who crushed any opposition. The book gives a general yet clear understanding of the complexities of the ongoing Syrian civil war. The numbers of Syrian civilians who are either displaced or have been killed during the civil war is daunting and eye opening.
  We follow Doaa as she is awaken to the disparities of what has become of her homeland. She joined demonstrations and joined the rebellion which was sparked by the Arab Spring, but soon she realizes that revolution and the desire for change comes at a very high cost as her neighborhood is continuously shelled, held under martial law, and the lives of her family are at stake. The family seeks temporary shelter in Egypt, but soon the change of the Egyptian government had looked down upon refugees. The book has plenty of dark moments but there are also lighter ones such as Doaa finding love in the very unlikely place and hope once again bloomed in her heart for a new chance at life in Europe.
  Doaa left with the vaguely formed idea of making her way to asylum in Europe. The trip nearly cost her life. In the hands of smugglers, beset by rough seas and pirates, she survived a horrific shipwreck, so far among the deadliest in the annals of illegal migration from Africa to Europe. With the exception of a handful of survivors, all the other refugees including her fiance, died from either drowning, hypothermia, and/or dehydration. Set adrift at sea for four days, she barely survived while also saving the life of a toddler, earning awards from humanitarian agencies and calling renewed attention to the plight of refugees from Syria. Finally resettled in Sweden, Doaa’s story is one of the few refugee tales that seem to have a happy ending yet her struggles are far from over.
  I like how this book is very upfront and puts a personal face to a humanitarian crisis. There is no sentimentality attached to the story. Doaa is not propped as a role model from the get go. She is human who has flaws such as a being incredibly stubborn and having a bad temper. She is an ordinary woman who has gone through extraordinary and tragic events in her life. Her ordinariness is extremely important and a reminder for everyone to see that a refugee is a human being and no different from you and I. She is not a terrorist nor is she out to snatch away anyone's benefits, jobs, or rights away from them, but a symbol of hope. Doaa's story reminds us that a refugee is a human being not any other label that people attach to it, but an individual that wants freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are scenes of sexual harassment, attempted sexual assault, strong violence of war, and disturbing images. Recommended for teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: The Unwanted by Don Brown, Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Meet Yasmin! Yasmin is a spirited second-grader who's always on the lookout for those "aha" moments to help her solve life's little problems. Taking inspiration from her surroundings and her big imagination, she boldly faces any situation, assuming her imagination doesn't get too big, of course! A creative thinker and curious explorer, Yasmin and her multi-generational Pakistani American family will delight and inspire readers.

Review: Meet Yasmin is a much needed diverse book in children's chapter books in which a fun, curious, spunky, and creative Pakistani-American girl solve problems and have adventures. This book is compiled of four separate sections give Yasmin lots of adventures and opportunities to explore her character. “Yasmin the Explorer”, Yasmin makes a map of her neighborhood and uses it when she goes to the farmers market with her mother. “Yasmin the Painter” doesn’t know what to create for the art contest at school, but when she tinkers with a paint set gifted to her by her Baba (her father), she gets an idea that proves successful. “Yasmin the Builder” is once again stumped over a class project, but after a few false starts and moments of frustration, she comes up with a brilliant contribution. Finally, “Yasmin the Fashionista” is bored at home with her grandparents while her parents eat out together. She complains of having nothing to do, but when she stumbles into her mother’s closet, the hijabs and saris and a new kameez give her lots of ideas.
  Each of these adventures has two to three chapters. Each spread has full- or half-page art in attractive, bold colors that bring the characters to life. Yasmin's personality shines through as she gets herself in and out of trouble. Though her dilemmas seem small, they are significant when seen through the eyes of a child. I also loved how the Pakistani culture is seamlessly woven into the story from the clothes that Yasmin's parents and grandparents where, terms of endearment that are used, and the tiny details that caught my eye such as the Dawn newspaper, Pakistan's prominent newspaper. The book does include backmatter such as discussion questions intended for child readers to think and talk about from the stories, an index of Urdu words presented as a fun way to learn the language, facts about Pakistan, a recipe, and a craft. I am so glad Yasmin is out for readers to discover and for young Pakistani readers to see themselves.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None.

If you like this book try: Yasmin the Teacher and Yasmin in Charge by Saadia Faruqi
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Melati Ahmad looks like your typical moviegoing, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds though, Mel also believes that she harbors a djinn inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied.

But there are things that Melati can't protect her mother from. On the evening of May 13th, 1969, racial tensions in her home city of Kuala Lumpur boil over. The Chinese and Malays are at war, and Mel and her mother become separated by a city in flames.

With a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take the help of a Chinese boy named Vincent and all of the courage and grit in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and her djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.

Review: The Weight of Our Sky is an intense historical fiction novel set during the May 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, an event that I had no prior knowledge before reading this book. The political tensions between the Chinese residents and the Malays have reached a critical breaking point, each spurred by their own politicians. The riots break out while she's at the movies one afternoon, and Melati is saved and sheltered by a compassionate Chinese family, but she constantly imagines the worst for her mother while waiting for the chance to return home. Melati experiences acts of brutal cruelty and everyday heroism. She is racked with guilt as her best friend is taken away by an execution squad and killed. Melati's new acquaintances from both Chinese, Indian, and Malays risk their lives to offer her aid. Melati's severe obsessive compulsive disorder is exacerbated by the stress of her experiences and the anxiety of the unknown, which pushes her to her breaking point. Melati Ahmad sees her OCD as a tragedy-invoking djinn that can only be appeased through counting and tapping rituals; if she doesn't complete them, Melati fears, her mother will die a terrible death. The manifestation of a mental illness through a djinn is very common in Islamic tradition where mental illness is barely understood and poorly treated, especially in this era. What I really appreciated about this book is that Melati is not stunted by her mental illness. She continues to persist, her determination to reunite with her mother and help others in need gives her the inner strength to hold on. While her illness is not magically cured at the end, she is more open to talk about it and there is hope that she can find medication and help. I also appreciated that the author does a great job in informing the reader of the visceral, volatile setting without resulting to info dumping and bias. The secondary characters from different ethnic backgrounds are fully dimensional and balanced. The Weight of Our Sky is not an easy novel as it tackles death, racism, mental health issues, and riot violence, but these inclusions are necessary to portray contentious moment in time that is hardly discussed outside of Malaysia.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, and strong violence that take place mostly off the page but is alluded to in the story.

If you like this book try: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, Under Rose-Tinted Skies by Louise Gornall
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Kamala Khan continues to mix super-heroic adventure with fun and friendship! Starting with... a slumber party! But if calamity strikes Jersey City while Kamala is having a sleepover with Nakia, Zoe and Mike, how can Ms. Marvel save the day without bailing on her best friends?

And speaking of BFFs, Bruno is back — and he and Kamala are learning how to be pals again. What better bonding experience than geeking out over a little science? And what better experiment to run than trying to figure out how Ms. Marvel's powers work?

But when things go awry and with her uncanny abilities on the fritz, Kamala will have to pull it together to battle a classic Marvel villain!

Review: Ms. Marvel Volume ten is end of G. Willow Wilson writing the graphic novel series that has meant so much to me. Though Ms. Marvel will continue and be written under a different writer, I will really miss Ms. Willow's writing who has brought warmth, culture, humor, and diversity which is much needed in the Marvel Comics. Kamala Khan is the first time I saw myself on the page though I don't have her embiggening powers or her responsibility of being a superhero, but I do understand the struggle of wanting to be a normal adolescent and also needing to be an unabashed Paksitani American Muslim. Though the villains are hokey in this series and not as serious as your traditional comic book, I return time and again to the wonderful characters in this series. 
  Fittingly we return to the roots of this graphic novel series in this tenth volume. Kamala is tired of leading a double life and finally reveals her superhero identity to her girlfriends at a slumber party which is continuously being interrupted by hijinks, but of course, everyone already knew. A very cute moment. We are also reunited with Kamala's best friend Bruno who has returned from Wakanda as they battle a lesser known Marvel villain named Shocker. This section allows us to examine Kamala's powers from a scientist point of view. I did not completely understand all the sceience behind Kamala's powers but it was nice to see Bruno and Kamala reconnect after several issues being apart and it was also cool to see Professor X make a cameo. I also loved seeing the various future renditions of future Kamala which leaves the door open for Saladin Ahmed to pick up the series under the new title Magnificent Ms. Marvel. There is also a weird time travel trip to 1257 A.D. to discover one of Kamala's Inhuman ancestors, and there’s some "quest game" wormhole story going on that puzzled me, but the important things is that in the end Wilson and crew brought the energy and love that was the cornerstone of the series.
  It was also fun to see a lot of people who wrote and contributed to this volume such as such as Hasan Minhaj, Rainbow Rowell and Eve Ewing. Though there were so many writers involved in this volume, I did not notice any problems with tone, character consistency, etc. I will for sure read the new run Magnificent Ms. Marvel, but Wilson's Ms. Marvel will always have a soft spot in my fangirl heart.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended to Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: Champions by Mark Waid, A-Force Vol 1 by G. Willow Wilson
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Young Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a strange letter arrives summoning him away from his family. He is to begin an apprenticeship as a Bookbinder—a vocation that arouses fear, superstition, and prejudice among their small community but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.
   For as long as he can recall, Emmett has been drawn to books, even though they are strictly forbidden. Bookbinding is a sacred calling, Seredith informs her new apprentice, and he is a binder born. Under the old woman’s watchful eye, Emmett learns to hand-craft the elegant leather-bound volumes. Within each one they will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, a binder can help. If there’s something you need to erase, they can assist. Within the pages of the books they create, secrets are concealed and the past is locked away. In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, rows upon rows of books are meticulously stored.
  But while Seredith is an artisan, there are others of their kind, avaricious and amoral tradesman who use their talents for dark ends—and just as Emmett begins to settle into his new circumstances, he makes an astonishing discovery: one of the books has his name on it. Soon, everything he thought he understood about his life will be dramatically rewritten.

Review: In Collin's adult fantasy debut novel, The Binding, books are dangerous things in an  alternate Victorian England. People visit to rid themselves of painful or treacherous memories. Once their stories have been told and are bound between the pages of a book, the slate is wiped clean for the individual and their memories lose the power to hurt or haunt them. After having suffered some sort of mental collapse and no longer able to keep up with his farm chores, Emmett Farmer is sent to the workshop of Seredith, a binder, to live and work as her apprentice.
  As you can imagine there are those who exploit the binders market to their own purposes. Among them is Mr. de Havilland, Seredith’s son, who, after her suspicious death, appropriates her stock of secret bindings, which, like loaded guns, will make explosive appearances later. He also takes charge of Emmett.
  The middle section of the novel changes from a third person to Emmett's point of view as Emmett eventually discovers there is a book with his name on it, and it holds an essential secret about him. Emmett is back on the farm with his parents and his sister, Alta. In this flashback we learn the source of Emmett’s ailment and also his connection to the Lord Lucian Darnay as the two have a forbidden romance. Except for the fact that a corrupt binder’s wares play a role, the concluding section, told from Lucian’s point of view, presents a mostly fact-based dystopia of Victorian aristocracy and its excesses. The romance is slow burn and sweet, but it is tragically cut short.
 While I would have loved to explore this alternative Victorian a bit more, I did like Emmett and Lucian as characters. There were a few plot threads that are fully discussed such as Lucian's vial and predatory father and the backstory of Mr. de Havilland. The worldview of this novel is bleak, but the ending is hopeful. This a unique blend of historical fiction, dystopian, mystery, and romance. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language and allusions to rape. Recommended for older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Rebellions are built on hope.

Set in a horrifying near-future United States, seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her parents are forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens.

With the help of newly made friends also trapped within the internment camp, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp's Director and his guards.

Review: I was not a fan of Samira Ahmed's debut novel, Love, Hate, and Other Filters, which I read for last year's Ramadan Reading Challenge, but after seeing the many starred reviews for her sophomore novel I decided to give it a chance and lowered my expectations. Internment has a powerful and horrifyingly very possible premise in which in the near fifteen minutes of the future Muslim Americans have been registered and detained in internment camps because they have been labeled as a threat to the United State's security. They are sent to internment camps where their constitutional rights have been stripped and they are forced to comply.
  I had a very hard time getting into the novel as the themes of inequality, privilege, and activism among many others are very heavy handed. I had to remind myself that this novel is not written for readers who are well informed with our current politics, but those who are completely oblivious to it. With this in mind I was able to overcome my first hurdle.
   My second hurdle for this book is the weak execution of the novel that had so much potential to be better. There is  a lot of telling instead of showing in this novel. Ahmed misses the opportunity to explore several key items that could have brought the book to life such as the actual politics from both the policy makers and those protesting against the Muslim ban, tying the internment camps to the actual camps during World War II to emphasize that history is actually repeating itself, exploring the intersectionality of the Muslim community which she attempts to do but barely skims the surface, and finally, but most importantly creating an activism movement that slowly builds and brings the Muslim community together rather than having a couple of reactive teens do things haphazardly.
  I also wanted to dig in deeper to the characters. Layla is a sarcastic teen who doesn't know when to shut up and when to have an interior monologue. She constantly puts her family in danger because she throws a temper tantrum that she can't speak to her boyfriend David, which sets the novel in motion. I understand her rage and her desire to do something, but she is dangerously impulsive and naive to the point of stupidity to think that her actions do not have consequences. She does grow and show bravery towards the last half of the book, however, other characters especially the guards who oppose their commands are not explored. The teen led activism could have been stronger and inspirational like the #Neveragain movement, but it was handled sloppily. The Director is also a cartoonish villain and one dimensional. Despite my issues with this book, I do think Internment is an important read because of its premise, but I wish it read like a novel rather than an author's soapbox. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language and scenes of strong physical abuse. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
Rummanah Aasi
Description: When Huda meets Hadi, the boy she will ultimately marry, she is six years old. Both are the American-born children of Iraqi immigrants, who grew up on opposite ends of California.

Hadi considers Huda his childhood sweetheart, the first and only girl he's ever loved, but Huda needs proof that she is more than just the girl Hadi's mother has chosen for her son. She wants what the American girls have--the entertainment culture's almost singular tale of chance meetings, defying the odds, and falling in love. She wants stolen kisses, romantic dates, and a surprise proposal. As long as she has a grand love story, Huda believes no one will question if her marriage has been arranged.

But when Huda and Hadi's conservative Muslim families forbid them to go out alone before their wedding, Huda must navigate her way through the despair of unmet expectations and dashed happily-ever-after ideals. Eventually she comes to understand the toll of straddling two cultures in a marriage and the importance of reconciling what you dreamed of with the life you eventually live.

Review: First Come Marriage is a heartfelt, engaging story about culture expectations clashing with reality. Huda Al-Marashi is a Shia Iraqi American who grew up in America and with the the romantic, impractical, Americanized belief that rings and proposals and wedding-day highs laid the foundation for a loving marriage, which she encountered time after time in television and movies. These romantic notions often collided with her conservative Islamic family values. Before marriage, Al-Marashi believed that a traditional, family-sanctioned union to a boy from her same background would lay the foundation for a happy life. Her lived experience, however, requires Al-Marashi to unlearn both of sets of beliefs.She often felt that her marriage to Hadi, a childhood friend and fellow Iraqi American, did not live up to her high expectations. Hadi's lack of romantic gestures before and after her marriage was often a source of contention in their relationship. For years, she struggles to explain her marriage angst to her husband and wants him to figure it out on his own. This resentment grows to a boiling point when Hadi is accepted to medical school in Mexico, forcing Al-Marashi to move to Mexico; suspend her own graduate work; and struggle to fill large blocks of empty, lonely time. The pair is constantly fighting until the brink of divorce. By self reflection and exposing a long list of what she got wrong, including her own beliefs and the idea that her husband is an extension of herself rather than his own person, Al-Marashi finally gets to what’s right.
  I found this memoir to be an easy read. The author's high school and college experiences were highly relatable. There were many moments where I understood her frustration, having too grown-up with the rituals of attending prom (which I never did nor did I resent not attending) and wondering about a happily ever after that everyone seems to get in books, television, and movies. I wished there was a bit more insight towards the last half of the book. Regardless, I enjoyed it and read it in one sitting.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are brief mentions of sex and some language. Recommended for older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: Love in a Headscarf by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.

Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.

Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they've been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.

Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?

It will take all of Mia's courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?

Review: Front Desk is a wonderful debut middle grade novel that explores a multitude of themes that are nicely woven into a story of activism. Mia Tang and her family has immigrated from China two years ago in dreams of starting over. After being fired from their restaurant jobs, Mia and her family are struggling to make ends meet and needing to live in their car, they are beyond thrilled to become motel managers for the Calivista MotelTheir dream job, however, is a nightmare after a series of setbacks for the Tang family. The washing machine breaks down. A customer’s car is stolen. Mia’s mother is beaten by robbers. Mr. Yao, the miserly and racist, motel manager mistreats the Tang family and cuts their wages at every turn. Meanwhile Mia is learning the unfair treatment and plight of immigrants as well as the gradual understanding of racism and prejudice in America. Mia is also fighting a personal battle among her peers who ridicule her for wearing thrift-shop clothes and her desire to be a writer when her mother insists she must study math because she can never compete with the natural English born students.
  I absolutely adored Mia. She is spunky and creative when it comes to solving her family's issues. She turns to activism to call out racist behavior and finds a way to help out poor immigrants find shelter. I was constantly rooting for her even when the competition of writing an essay to win a motel seemed like a very shady deal. I just wished we learned a little bit more from the people who stayed at the motel. This is a great book that demonstrates what persistence, creativity, and activism can do to change what seems like insurmountable situations.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There are racist and anti-immigrant sentiments addressed in the book without any slurs. There is talk of a physical assault. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh, Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Seventeen-year-old Edgar Poe counts down the days until he can escape his foster family—the wealthy Allans of Richmond, Virginia. He hungers for his upcoming life as a student at the prestigious new university, almost as much as he longs to marry his beloved Elmira Royster. However, on the brink of his departure, all his plans go awry when a macabre Muse named Lenore appears to him. Muses are frightful creatures that lead Artists down a path of ruin and disgrace, and no respectable person could possibly understand or accept them. But Lenore steps out of the shadows with one request: “Let them see me!”

Review: The Raven's Tale is a fictionalized account of Edgar Allen Poe's teen years.  Edgar “Eddy” Poe is desperate to escape the suffocating life of upper-crust Richmond, Virginia. He is looking forward to going to college and being free to follow his passion for poetry as well as getting away from his controlling foster father. The passionate and talented Edgar is close to achieving his goal when she appears. A girl in a dress of ashes and raven feathers, she is Eddy’s muse, whom he names Lenore. Lenore is fierce, powerful, and hungry for words, but she needs Eddy to commit to her so she can evolve from her new frail human form into a higher being. Poe has to decide whether or not he can continue his artistic expression or live his life without it.
   The story is narrated by Poe and his personified muse in alternating chapters. Edgar and Lenore share the present-tense narration in distinctive first-person voices. Several of Poe’s most well-known works are given the nod in the narrative, however, I found the alternating chapters at first engaging, but I soon found it tedious and repetitive. There is not much character growth for Poe as he whines and complains about his financial woes. I also found the discussion surrounding the family slaves to be troubling and problematic. I normally really like Cat Winter's infusion of supernatural into her stories, but The Raven's Tale was unfortunately a complete miss for me.

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There are some disturbing images and underage drinking. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Blood red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Aven Green loves to tell people that she lost her arms in an alligator wrestling match, or a wildfire in Tanzania, but the truth is she was born without them. And when her parents take a job running Stagecoach Pass, a rundown western theme park in Arizona, Aven moves with them across the country knowing that she’ll have to answer the question over and over again.

Her new life takes an unexpected turn when she bonds with Connor, a classmate who also feels isolated because of his own disability, and they discover a room at Stagecoach Pass that holds bigger secrets than Aven ever could have imagined. It’s hard to solve a mystery, help a friend, and face your worst fears. But Aven’s about to discover she can do it all . . . even without arms.

Review: Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is an uplifting story about three teens with serious disabilities forming an unlikely friendship as they struggle to cope with everyday life.  message of empathy especially from abled bodies. Aven Green is a tween that tween me would love to have as a friend. She is smart, funny, loves planning pranks, and plays on the school soccer team.  Though Aven was born without arms, she has never let her "lack of armage," as she calls it, deter her from doing anything she sets her mind to. She does not need your pity, but would really appreciate it if you would not stare and call her a freak. When her father gets a job as the manager of Stagecoach Pass, a rundown Western theme park out in Arizona, the family's move, right after Aven has started eighth grade, presents her toughest challenge yet.
  Along with dealing with the new kid jitters, Aven has to everything from scratch including dealing with the many stares and questions of new schoolmates. Aven sorely misses her old life back in Kansas;  however, her optimistic spirit and her infectious sense of humor, keeps her afloat. She is not immune to the constant spotlight of being disabled or labeled weird. She is persistent and looks for the silver linings in her new life in Arizona, such as making friends with the cute but prickly Connor (who has Tourette's syndrome) and Zion who lacks self confidence because of his weight, or enjoying the ability to wear flats all year-round. Aven, Connor, and Zion get wrapped up in the unusual mystery at the heart of Stagecoach Pass: the disappearing tarantulas, a missing photograph, and a secret necklace. Aven is determined to get to the bottom of the secret.
  The characters make this story. As an able bodied person, it is an eye opening read and a reminder of the stigma that is attached to disability. Aven, Connor, and Zion alienate themselves because they've been labeled by others as freaks, but as these characters grow more confident they push back at these expectations. The journey to this point is hard, heartbreaking, and not easy. The author seems to have done her homework in portraying the characters authentically. The mystery in the story, however, is underwhelming and takes a backseat to the character development and relationships. I am happy there will be another book featuring Aven and the crew and I am very much looking forward to reading it.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are mentions of bullying. Recommended for Grades 3 and up.

If you like this book try: Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, Not So Different: What You Really Want to Ask About Having a Disability by Shane Burcaw
Rummanah Aasi
Description: It is summer in Phoenix, and seventeen-year-old Maximo offers to help a Jordan, a fellow student in high school, with the food truck that belonged to Jordan's deceased father, and which may be the only thing standing between homelessness for Jordan and his mom; the boys are strongly attracted to each other, but as their romance develops it is threatened by the secrets they are hiding--and by the racism and homophobia of those around them.

Review: Maximo (who prefers to be called Max) is a popular high school athlete who spends most of his free time with his two best friends, playing video games and joking around. Max has a secret that he hasn't told anyone, not even his buddies, that makes his heart pound and his hands sweat. He is trying to be a man, a fighter his father raised him to be. A fighter pushes through the fear and pain.
    Jordan is an awkward, anxious, introverted teen who is attempting to help take care of his mom after the death of his father. He also dreams of striking out on his own, pursue a career in writing and be in a relationship. In order to save their home Jordan and his mom work on their food truck, but thing are not going according to plan. In fact neither Jordan nor his mom know how to run a food truck. Jordan hires Max to work the food truck with him, and two boys who thought they had nothing in common find that they are more alike than they thought.
   The Music of What Happens is a character driven story with an easy, conversational tone. The story is told from alternating points of views of Max and Jordan. Max is confident though he is afraid to show and talk about his feelings because that is not what a fighter does. Max grapples with understanding whether he has actually been raped and what he should do about it; the consequences of the rape also cause him to question the lessons his father taught him as a young child. While the author makes clear what happened to Max, the assault is not described in graphic detail. This topic of consent and rape are rarely mentioned between boys (or at least from the YA books that I have read thus far). Max also laughs off crude sexual jokes regarding promiscuity and homophobic slurs until he himself becomes woke and comfortable enough to have an honest talk with his friends. Jordan is struggling with self confidence and keeping his mother afloat. Oftentimes he ends up being the adult and she the child.
  We follow these boys as they uneasily become friends and into a budding romance along with getting to know their separate groups of friends. The plot is balanced nicely between heavier topics such as toxic masculinity, homophobia, racial microaggressions, consent, addiction, and sexual assault. None of these topics are heavy handed but they are also not sugar coated either. There are some truly heartbreaking moments that Max and Jordan go through, but ultimately it is an uplifting and relatable story.   

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, mentions of underage drinking, allusions to rape, crude sexual humor, and homophobic slurs. Recommended for Grades 10 and up.

If you like this book try: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Bloom by Kevin Panetta, Release by Patrick Ness
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