Rummanah Aasi
 Catherine House is a school of higher learning like no other. Hidden deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, this crucible of reformist liberal arts study with its experimental curriculum, wildly selective admissions policy, and formidable endowment, has produced some of the world's best minds: prize-winning authors, artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents. For those lucky few selected, tuition, room, and board are free. But acceptance comes with a price. Students are required to give the House three years--summers included--completely removed from the outside world. Family, friends, television, music, even their clothing must be left behind. In return, the school promises a future of sublime power and prestige, and that its graduates can become anything or anyone they desire.
    Among this year's incoming class is Ines Murillo, who expects to trade blurry nights of parties, cruel friends, and dangerous men for rigorous intellectual discipline--only to discover an environment of sanctioned revelry. Even the school's enigmatic director, Viktoria, encourages the students to explore, to expand their minds, to find themselves within the formidable iron gates of Catherine. For Ines, it is the closest thing to a home she's ever had. But the House's strange protocols soon make this refuge, with its worn velvet and weathered leather, feel increasingly like a gilded prison. And when tragedy strikes, Ines begins to suspect that the school--in all its shabby splendor, hallowed history, advanced theories, and controlled decadence--might be hiding a dangerous agenda within the secretive, tightly knit group of students selected to study its most promising and mysterious curriculum.

Review: The promise of a Gothic novel set at an exclusive boarding school is what lured me to pick up Elizabeth Thomas' Catherine House. Unfortunately, it failed to deliver that promise and is yet another classic example in which a book's premise is actually a lot better than the book. To be honest, I am not completely sure what this book is about even after I finished it but I will do my best in trying to give you a synopsis. Students are accepted to the mysterious and prestigious Catherine House only if they agree to give up contact with the outside world for three years in exchange for unimaginable power and influence. Ines arrives at Catherine House because she has nowhere else to go. After months spent partying, she has barely graduated high school and is failing to deal with a traumatic memory that left one person dead. Ines sees Catherine House as her last chance, but she quickly realizes that she doesn't fit in at Catherine House either. She lacks the motivation that drives other Catherine students and she seems to be the only one leery of the cult-like mediation sessions  and the possibility that students are being experimented on at the school.  
  Though I had a difficult time following the plot, I was intrigued enough to keep reading. Ines had the potential to be a fascinating character. I wanted to know more about her back story and learn the truth of the traumatic event. Ines is kept at a distance from the reader, which makes sense considering how hard she tries to bury down her trauma, but she does not make an interesting character to follow. She is constantly drunk (apparently alcohol flows like water at this school) and sleeping in some different stranger's bed constantly. After a while the plot felt repetitive and the mention of the "plasm" experiment was convoluted and confusing. I definitely think this book has a niche audience and I was definitely not a member of that club. 

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There are many allusions to sex, drug and alcohol usage. Recommended to older teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: The Secret Society by Donna Tart, Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Estefania "Stef" Soto is itching to shake off the onion-and-cilantro embrace of Tia Perla, her family's taco truck. She wants nothing more than for her dad to get a normal job and for Tia Perla to be put out to pasture. It's no fun being known as the "Taco Queen" at school. But just when it looks like Stef is going to get exactly what she wants, and her family's livelihood is threatened, she will have to become the truck's unlikely champion.

Review: Stef Soto, Taco Queen is a delightful quick read that will make you hungry as well as warm you up. Estefania “Stef” Soto is the daughter of hardworking, rule-abiding Mexican-American parents; she is a skilled artist, but at school she’s best-known for Tía Perla, their family food truck. When not stationed at parks or convenience stores, Papi can be found driving it to and from school to chauffeur Stef, which humiliates her. Stef is an only child who speaks Spanish at home and finds herself translating for her dad from time to time. Stef yearns for independence like being home alone and having a cell phone, but her parents argue that she is not old enough. She is aware that her parents work extremely hard. For Papi Tía Perla is his pride and joy, a symbol of his hard work and their American Dream. Mami works evenings as a cashier at the open-all-night grocery store. 
  The book moves from an ordinary middle grade novel into a story with more depth and meaning. The depletion of art-class supplies in art class leads to a student-driven fundraiser. A new city-government rule threatens the family's food-truck business. Both of these plot-lines allow Stef to use her voice and stand up for important issues. Woven through the story are Spanish words and phrases, which gives the book its authenticity and nod to the Mexican culture. There is also diversity among the other characters too. I couldn't help but cheer for Stef Soto, her family, and Tía Perla. The book is so short and I wanted to spend more time with the characters. Just a friendly warning, don't read this book if you're hungry. 

 Rating: 4 stars

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

 If you like this book try: The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya, The First Rule of Punk by Cecila C. Perez
Rummanah Aasi
 Every week, Tracy Beaumont writes letters to Innocence X, asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row. After seven years, Tracy is running out of time—her dad has only 267 days left. Then the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy’s older brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a “thug” on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Determined to save her brother, Tracy investigates what really happened between Jamal and Angela down at the Pike. But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering of the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the present?

Review: Every week Tracy has been writing letters to Innocence X, a non-for-profit organization that helps those who are unjustly in jail for a crime they did not commit, on behalf of her father, who has been sentenced to death row in their home state of Texas and wrongfully accused of murder. With less than three hundred days, Tracy is in a race against time to free her father. Tracy holds on deeply to hope that  her father will be exonerated and people will recognize failures in our justice system. As if this was not hard enough, Tracy and her family are thrown for a second loop when her older brother Jamal, a track star, is accused of killing his secret white girlfriend. Could these two cases be connected? 
    Weaving together gripping murder mysteries and a heartfelt narrative about a girl trying to save her family, Johnson explores the systemic, generational effects of police brutality, mass incarceration, and racism on the Black community. The discussion of racism, both explicit and implicit, are not sugar coated  and will be poignant for many readers. My minor qualms of the novel is an unnecessary love triangle that is a bit distracting from the overall narrative. I also wanted a bit more discussion regarding the skeletons in the closet in regards to the big reveals in the book. Nonetheless, This is My America is timely, powerful, thought provoking, and Tracy is a budding activist who demands change.  

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, mentions of lynching, hate crime, and a scene of underage drinking at a party. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

 If you like this book try: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Dear Justyce by Nic Stone, Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusuf Salaam
Rummanah Aasi

 For as long as she can remember, it’s been Robin and her mom against the world. Growing up in the 1990s as the only child of a single mother in Seoul, Korea, wasn’t always easy, but it has bonded them fiercely together.

So when a vacation to visit friends in Huntsville, Alabama, unexpectedly becomes a permanent relocation—following her mother’s announcement that she’s getting married—Robin is devastated. Overnight, her life changes. She is dropped into a new school where she doesn’t understand the language and struggles to keep up. She is completely cut off from her friends at home and has no access to her beloved comics. At home, she doesn’t fit in with her new step-family. And worst of all, she is furious with the one person she is closest to—her mother.

Then one day Robin’s mother enrolls her in a local comic drawing class, which opens the window to a future Robin could never have imagined.

 Review: Almost American Girl is a moving graphic memoir about belonging, family, immigration, and the love of art. Chuna's mother brought her to Albama, United States, under the pretense of another mother-daughter temporary trip. She is shocked and hurt to find that her stay in Alabama is actually permanent when her mother marries a man.  Now grappling with culture shock, bullying, and integrating into a new family, Chuna feels adrift. Her mother is still her hero, and she recognizes the sacrifices she has made in order for them to survive. Despite her attempts to join her new stepfamily, it is not easy and they are not very supportive. Chuna is also having a hard time at a predominate white school and is bullied for being Asian. It’s rough going though, especially when the rest of the Kims, her new stepfamily, are not very supportive. Understandably, Chuna feels isolated and out of place. She misses her friends and life in Seoul. It isn’t until her mother reminds her of her love of comics and drawing that Chuna becomes her own person, going by the name of Robin, and begins to thrive.
    The universal theme of desiring to belong and the common immigrant's plight to adjust to their new life isn't unique to this graphic novel, however, I very much appreciated a peek into the Korean culture. I did not know that there is a strong stigma against single-parent homes in Korea, which is the reason Robin is bullied in Korea. I also liked that Robin's mother, though flawed, was not a frequent stereotype of a quiet, submissive wife. Her mother is fiercely independent and did everything she could to help her daughter. The bond between her and Robin is the core for this graphic novel. Readers who enjoy graphic memoirs will find much to enjoy.

 Rating: 4 stars

 Words of Caution: There is some language, and scenes of bullying and racism. Recommended for Grades 7 and up.

 If you like this book try: Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka, The American Dream? by Shing Yin Khor
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