Rummanah Aasi

2020 is a year many of us would like to forget. It was a hard year for all of us, but there were a lot great books released this year to help us distract and educate ourselves. Though I have not posted many reviews in 2020, I did read a lot of great books. Here are my favorite books of 2020. As a quick disclaimer, these books may not all be 2020 releases but I did read them in 2020. These books are ranked according to the interest level. 

Favorite Adult Books

I have not read as many adult titles that I would have liked to in 2020 due to the serious content and the ongoing pandemic. I noticed that I read mainly for escapism, especially from the months of March-December, but there were two serious books that I absolutely loved.  

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin: I read James Baldwin for the first time in the fall of 2019 as part of my library's classic literature book club. I spent the whole day reading and rereading this exquisite book. There is so much to unpack in this book: sexuality, race, masculinity, freedom, privilege, etc. Is it tragic or hopeful? Can it be both? Neither? I don’t know, but I will be thinking about this book for a long time.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell:  My Dark Vanessa was by far the hardest book I read this year. The book highlights the complexities of the #MeToo movement. I had so many emotions swirling in me after finishing this book. It is hard to say “I enjoyed” this book because of its content but it has given me a lot to think about and I need to find someone to discuss it. You definitely have to be in the right head space to read this one, but definitely do pick it up. *Review coming soon.

Favorite Children Books

I read quite a few good children/middle grade reads this year, but two books stood out to me this year.

The Prettiest
by Brigit Young: The Prettiest by Brigit Young brings the #MeToo movement to middle school in an accessible, inclusive, and ultimately empowering story about fighting against toxic masculinity and sexual harassment.

Three Keys by Kelly Yang: A wonderful companion novel to Yang's debut middle grade novel that covers racism, immigration, privilege, and xenophobia. *Review coming soon

Favorite YA Books

Young Adult books dominate my reading pile. I had a hard time keeping up with all the new releases for 2020. I read a lot of memorable books so it was very hard to narrow down this category. 

Clap When You Land
by Elizabeth Acevedo: My favorite Elizabeth Acevedo novel to date. This is a beautifully written story about sisters, family secrets, toxic masculinity, and grief among other things. 

Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake: The Last True Poets of the Sea is a character driven novel that is loosely inspired by Shakespeare's gender bending comedy play Twelfth Night and invokes so many emotions about family, friendship, and mental health.

Parachutes by Kelly Yang: Parachutes is an insightful look at privilege, power, race, identity, and class.
*Review coming soon

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi: A young adult adaptation of Dr. Kendi's award winning novel Stamped from the Beginning, which traces the history of racism and the many political, literary, and philosophical narratives that have been used to justify slavery, oppression, and genocide.  *Review coming soon

This is My America by Kim Johnson: 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.

This is My Brain in Love by I.W. Gregerio: A great discussion of mental health and the stigma of mental health particularly in communities of color. *Review coming soon

Favorite Graphic Novels/Manga

I read several fantastic graphic novels in 2020. This was another category that was hard to narrow down.

Check, Please! Book 2: Sticks and Scones
by Ngozi Ukazu: A great conclusion to a graphic novel series that will warm your heart. 

Heartstopper Volumes 1 and 2 by Alice Oseman: Two teens sorting out their identities and falling in love.

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed: The best graphic memoirs that I have read thus far this year. 

Honorable Mentions

The following books are the ones that left a lasting impression on me that I would also highly recommend reading:

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists by Mikki Kendall
American as Paneer Pie by Supriya Kelkar
Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Burn by Patrick Ness
Cosmoknights Vol 1 by Hannah Templer
Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram
Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
Fence Vols 1-4 by C.S. Pacat
Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin
Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Land of the Cranes by Aida Salazar
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki
The Pretty One by Keah Brown
Punching the Air by Yusef Salaam and Ibi Zoboi
The Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko
Sigh, Gone by Phuc Tran
Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang
Tell Me Who You Are by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi
This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewel
Tweet Cute by Emma Lord
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown
When They Call You a Terrorist (YA Edition) by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
Rummanah Aasi
 Jessica and Emily Burnstein have very different ideas of how this college tour should go.

For Emily, it’s a preview of freedom, exploring the possibility of her new and more exciting future. Not that she’s sure she even wants to go to college, but let’s ignore that for now. And maybe the other kids on the tour will like her more than the ones at school. They have to, right?

For Jessica, it’s a chance to bond with the daughter she seems to have lost. They used to be so close, but then Goldfish crackers and Play-Doh were no longer enough of a draw. She isn’t even sure if Emily likes her anymore. To be honest, Jessica isn’t sure she likes herself.

Together with a dozen strangers–and two familiar enemies–Jessica and Emily travel the East Coast, meeting up with family and old friends along the way. Surprises and secrets threaten their relationship and, in the end, change it forever.

Review: Abi Waxman's I Was Told It Would Get Easier attempts to capture the mother-daughter relationship like the television show Gilmore Girls but does not quite succeed. The book's plot is pretty simple: Jessica Burnstein accompanies her daughter, Emily on a week-long bus tour of top-notch colleges. The two women have a strained relationship and do not meet eye to eye on a lot of things.  Jessica, a successful lawyer and single mother, wants the best for Emily, which includes getting her into a top college. Jessica purchased a pricey package deal to tour big-name colleges up the East Coast from Georgetown to Columbia with all the bells and whistles including the inevitable tension and arguments. 
   Emily is unsure if she wants to go to college and is constantly aware that she is an utter disappointment to her ambitious and workaholic mother. Emily's dialogue tries too hard to be hip, but shes does act like a teenager, pushing her mother away; Jessica does the parent act, managing her emotions without drowning in them. The college tour is not really exciting and features the typical peppy tour guide, hectic schedule, anxious parents, and annoyed kids. Waxman does try to make her story timely with subplots such as a #MeToo sexual harassment incident at Jessica's job and a nod to the college admission scandal at Emily's school in Los Angeles; of course neither of which mother or daughter has shared with the other. There is nothing that wowed me with this book and I did get a few chuckles here and there. Overall an easy read, but it will not leave a lasting impression once you have finished it.  If you wanted to pick up a book by Waxman, skip this one and read The Bookish Life of Nina Hill instead.  

Rating: 3 stars

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

If you like this book try: Today will be different by Maria Semple
Rummanah Aasi
 After eleven-year-old Ollie's school bus mysteriously breaks down on a field trip, she has to take a trip through scary woods, and must use all of her wits to survive. She must stick to small spaces.

Review: Small Spaces is Katherine Arden's debut middle grade novel. This spooky tale follows Ollie who is still reeling from the death of her beloved mother. Ollie has drawn inward, grieves on her own, and does not socialize with any of her classmates. When she has a strange encounter with a distressed woman and retrieves the book the woman is trying to discard, Ollie finds herself captivated by its tale of two brothers; Beth, the woman they love; and a sinister “smiling man.” 
    On a school field trip the next day, a series of eerie mishaps strands Ollie and a busload of her classmates near a farm exactly like the one in the book. Only two other students, Coco and Brian, believe her when she insists they are all in danger. Ollie knows that the smiling man’s army of once-human scarecrows can attack them if they’re found out in the open. She has been told to stick to small spaces as the book title suggests. The entire class is doomed to be the victims of an age-old bargain unless Ollie, Coco, and Brian can save them. 
    Not only does Small Spaces have a captivating plot that will keep the pages turning, the characters make this story pop. Ollie, Coco, and Brian are an unlikely trio but they help one another overcome their fears and learn to trust while breaking down their preconceived notions of each other. The characters come off as likable and believable, hinting at self actualization along with making mistakes due to their immaturity. While the book concludes nicely with an uplifting ending, there are indications that the story is not over. Small Spaces is a great Halloween pick or if a young reader is eager to read a creepy but not overtly scary book. I look forward to seeing what adventures lie ahead for Ollie, Coco, and Brian.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are some disturbing and creepy images. Recommended for Grades 5 and up.

If you like this book try: Dead Voices by Katherine Arden, Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and Nightbooks by J.A. White
Rummanah Aasi
 1800, Joseon (Korea). Homesick and orphaned sixteen-year-old Seol is living out the ancient curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Indentured to the police bureau, she’s been tasked with assisting a well-respected young inspector with the investigation into the politically charged murder of a noblewoman.
  As they delve deeper into the dead woman's secrets, Seol forms an unlikely bond of friendship with the inspector. But her loyalty is tested when he becomes the prime suspect, and Seol may be the only one capable of discovering what truly happened on the night of the murder.

Review: The Silence of Bones is an intricate and gritty historical mystery set in gritty mystery, set in the Joseon dynasty of 1800. Our main protagonist is Seol, a teen, indentured servant to the Hanyang police. When the daughter of a high-ranking government official is found dead with her nose sliced off, Seol's curiosity and keen observational skills lead the enigmatic Inspector Han to recognize her natural sleuthing skills and promise post-investigation freedom if she cooperates. As in any mystery, nothing is what they seem. Through bits and pieces of Seol's memories we learn of her backstory: her father's death, her mother's suicide; and of her kind older brother who has been missing for several years-keep interfering with her duties. These two narratives eventually collide. 
  This book requires patience as the pacing is a bit slow as Hur builds suspense carefully while offering a noir-tinged atmosphere of late nights, mist-shrouded streets, and clandestine meetings. I had not heard of the Korean concept of han before reading this book so this part of the book fascinated me and kept me turning the pages. The customs, language, and politics, are woven flawlessly into the narrative, which is firmly grounded in the novel's historical basis: looming Catholic persecution, the Shinyu Bakhae of 1801, another element that I had never learned of and was intrigued by in the book. Some readers may solve the mystery ahead of Seol, normally a pet peeve of mine when reading mysteries; however I was so drawn in by the historical and cultural elements that I did not mind. The author does not shy away from cruelty in the book so sensitive readers may need to skip the abuse and torture scenes. I would recommend The Silence of Bones to readers who are eager to learn about cultures outside of Western-centric countries and a well written mystery. I look forward to reading more from Hur in the future. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution:  There are scenes of abuse and torture sometimes graphic, including attempted rape. 

If you like this book try: The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur (April 2021), The Agency series by Y.S. Lee, Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley
Rummanah Aasi
 Omar and his little brother, Hassan, arrived in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya, seven years ago. Their father was killed the day they left home, and they haven't seen their mother since they joined their neighbors who were fleeing to Dadaab. Now Omar is eleven and Hassan is nine, and Omar has quit school to look after his brother, who has an intellectual disability.
     When Omar is given the opportunity to return to school and carve out a future for himself and Hassan, he feels torn. He loves school and could have the opportunity to earn a coveted scholarship to a North American university--and with it a visa for himself and Hassan. But is it worth the risk and heartache of leaving his vulnerable brother for hours each day?

Review: When Stars Are Scattered is one of the best graphic memoirs that I have read thus far this year. We follow the day in the life of Omar Mohamed and his younger brother, Hassan, who live in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya and their dreams of being resettled in a new land like the United States. We learn early on that Omar has to take care of Hassan, who has a seizure disorder and is unable to talk. Both boys are looked after by their foster mother, Fatuma, an elderly woman assigned to them in their parents’ absence. The boys’ father was killed in Somalia’s civil war, prompting them to flee on foot when they were separated from their mother. They desperately hope she is still alive and looking for them, as they are for her. 
   The graphic memoir covers six years, during which Omar struggles with decisions about attending school, juggling his responsibilities as an older brother along with his personal desire to want more for his future. True to life, the graphic memoir depicts the highs of learning and making new friends along with the lows and the difficulties of keeping hope for a future when the present time is so dark and grim. Through Omar’s journey, and those of his friends and family members, readers get a close, powerful view of the trauma and uncertainty that attend life as a refugee as well as the faith, love, and support from unexpected quarters that get people through it. I would have loved to see Omar's new life in the United States, but we are told in a narrative of his achievements. When Stars Are Scattered is another personal and human story to a much controversial topic of immigration. Jamieson's illustrations and panels are easy to read and follow. She captures the emotions of Omar and his friends so effectively. If you have not picked up this graphic memoir yet, I highly recommend it.  

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: Horrors of war are mentioned and most of the violence occurs off the page. There are a few instances of bullying portrayed. There are allusions to drug abuse and domestic violence. Recommended for Grades 5 and up.

If you like this book try: Stormy Seas by Mary Beth Leatherdale and for older readers The Unwanted by Don Brown
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