Rummanah Aasi
Description:
 After her life falls apart, recruitment consultant Layla Patel returns home to her family in San Francisco. But in the eyes of her father, who runs a Michelin starred restaurant, she can do no wrong. He would do anything to see her smile again. With the best intentions in mind, he offers her the office upstairs to start her new business and creates a profile on an online dating site to find her a man. She doesn’t know he’s arranged a series of blind dates until the first one comes knocking on her door.
   
As CEO of a corporate downsizing company Sam Mehta is more used to conflict than calm. In search of a quiet new office, he finds the perfect space above a cozy Indian restaurant that smells like home. But when communication goes awry, he's forced to share his space with the owner's beautiful yet infuriating daughter Layla, her crazy family, and a parade of hopeful suitors, all of whom threaten to disrupt his carefully ordered life.
  
 As they face off in close quarters, the sarcasm and sparks fly. But when the battle for the office becomes a battle of the heart, Sam and Layla have to decide if this is love or just a game.

Review: After a disastrous breakup, chaotic and passionate Layla Patel has hit rock bottom. She moves back home and starts her own recruitment agency in the office above her parents’ bustling restaurant. Layla's father has a heart attack before he is able to terminate the existing lease on Layla's new office space. He also doesn't have a chance to tell her that he posted her bio data on a desi dating/marriage website and selected 10 candidates for her to meet. 
  Unbeknownst to Layla, Sam Mehta, a CEO of a corporate downsizing company is also sharing the same office space. Sam is the opposite of Layla, organized, reserved, and overly confident. As expected these two clash constantly. They come up with a solution and truce which involves Sam acting as Layla's chaperone on her dates and if she finds a husband, he gets the office to himself. 
  This romantic debut has great characters. Layla and Sam have great chemistry. Their witty banter and chemistry fly off the page and was a joy to read. There is plenty of humor from Layla's horrendous dates and her noisy 'aunties' and family. It is an easy and quick read. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the book.
    The book, unfortunately, falls apart in the second half where it addresses the conflict. We are constantly told that Sam has one goal in mind: to avenge his sister who has suffered from domestic abuse which has left her in a wheelchair. The conflict is underdeveloped and what could have been an intriguing and much needed look at disability in the South Asian community, devolves to an ableist plot device. Though Sam's sister is present and has an off the page romance of her own, she is not given a voice and sufficient time to develop. I would have loved to learn more about her and Sam's family.
  A pet peeve of mine is when ethnic names, particularly South Asian ones, are Anglicized. I would have much preferred if Sam was called Samir, his full name (really, is it that difficult to say Samir?). I also left to wonder many times as to Layla's ethnicity and how she identifies as religiously, which were vague. There are times when comments about these aspects of her identity are made during her dates, but it is never clearly addressed.  
 In spite of these issues, Sara Desai shows a lot of potential as a writer and I am curious to see what she has in stored for her second novel which features one of the secondary characters in The Marriage Game

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language, sexual situations that are quite graphic, and allusions to domestic violence. Recommended for adults only.

If you like this book try: The Dating Game by Sara Desai (coming out in March 2021), The Trouble with Hating You by Sajni Patel
Rummanah Aasi
Description:
 This poem is a love letter to black life in the United States. It highlights the unspeakable trauma of slavery, the faith and fire of the civil rights movement, and the grit, passion, and perseverance of some of the world's greatest heroes. The text is also peppered with references to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others, offering deeper insights into the accomplishments of the past, while bringing attention to the endurance and spirit of those surviving and thriving in the present.

Review: In his beautifully illustrated poem, The Undefeated, Kwame Alexander weaves the past and present triumphs and struggles of African Americans in the United States. Alexander does not shy away from pain and trauma such as enslavement and lends a voice for "unspeakable" who have lost their lives during the Middle Passage as well as the present abuse of police brutality. Despite these struggles, the book also does a marvelous job in also celebrating Black joy, achievements, and triumphs by highlighting popular individuals from a variety of fields such as artists, civil rights activists, poets, and writers. The book depicts recognizable individuals such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Jesse Owens, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but also lesser known but nonetheless remarkable individuals too such as Sarah Vaughan and Romare Bearden. 
   The text also has visual cues signal meaning as some words are in a larger font to signal signficance and others words that reference to movements or concepts are in italics. Nelson's illustrations are magnificent, photo-realistic and are rendered in oil. His attention to detail is incredible. The book concludes with an afterword from Alexander and a glossary of the individuals mentioned in the book. I would have liked a little more detailed back matter and a bibliography for further reading. Despite these quibbles, it is clear why The Undefeated was awarded the 2020 Caldecott, the 2020 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and was the 2020 Newbery Honor Book. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: The poem does not shy away from the traumas of slavery and police brutality. Recommended for Grades 3 and up.

If you like this book try: Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison, Young, Gifted, and Black by Jamia Wilson
Rummanah Aasi

 Description: Jocelyn Wu has just three wishes for her junior year: To make it through without dying of boredom, to direct a short film with her BFF Priya Venkatram, and to get at least two months into the year without being compared to or confused with Peggy Chang, the only other Chinese girl in her grade.

Will Domenici has two goals: to find a paying summer internship, and to prove he has what it takes to become an editor on his school paper.

Then Jocelyn's father tells her their family restaurant may be going under, and all wishes are off. Because her dad has the marketing skills of a dumpling, it's up to Jocelyn and her unlikely new employee, Will, to bring A-Plus Chinese Garden into the 21st century (or, at least, to Facebook).
What starts off as a rocky partnership soon grows into something more. But family prejudices and the uncertain future of A-Plus threaten to keep Will and Jocelyn apart. It will take everything they have and more, to save the family restaurant and their budding romance.

Review: The recently awarded Schneider Family Book Award, This My Brain in Love is a nuanced look at mental health issues in the communities of color. After years of missing New York City, Chinese American Jocelyn Wu has finally settled in Utica. She’s got a best friend who understands and supports her and is doing well in school despite being constantly be mistaken for Peggy Chen, the popular and only other Chinese girl at school. When her father announces that their family has to move back to the city because their restaurant is bankrupt, Jocelyn is determined to keep her family business afloat and steps in the role of business manager after her parents reluctantly agrees. 
  Biracial Will Domenici (Nigerian/Italian) is a budding, driven journalist who has been passed over as editor for his school paper due to lack of investigative skills. He was advised to find real life experience to help build his investigative and communicative skills, which is hard for Will who lives with acute anxiety. 
   Jocelyn and Will's worlds collide as Jocelyn hires Will to help with the restaurants social media marketing. Sparks fly, and what started out as a summer internship becomes a full-blown romance—one that Jocelyn’s father, Mr. Wu, stipulates can continue only if the pair fulfills the terms of a contract that include raising the restaurant’s revenue by thirty percent before the end of the summer. 
  This is My Brain in Love is told from dual perspective. Jocelyn and Will are equally lovable and fully developed characters. As we watch Jocelyn take on a mission with initially selfish motives slowly develops into a career path, which highlights her strengths. The pressure of the restaurant's success, her own desire to succeed, and her parental expectations start to wear her down and she begins to suffer from her own mental health issues. Though Jocelyn is unable to figure out what is 'wrong' with her, Will immediately notices the signs of depression through years of his own therapy for his anxiety. As he attempts to help Jocelyn, she withdraws. Can their relationship survive?
   What I appreciated the most in this book that it addresses complex issues such as navigating interracial relationships and the stigma of mental health with sensitivity and nuance. Will communicates his difficulties of his anxiety honestly and his desire to help not fix Jocelyn is genuine. It is also important to note that Jocelyn's and Will's relationship with their mental health do not miraculously disappear at the end of the story because of their romance, but they have created a supportive network for each other. Readers who are looking for romance may be slightly disappointed as it is really a subplot, but it is sweet and adorable. This is My Brain in Love is the best book that I have read thus far that depicts mental health within a smart romance.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language in the book. Recommended for strong Grade 7 readers and up.

If you like this book try: When We Collided by Emery Lord, Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maureen Goo
Rummanah Aasi
Description:
 Drew Ellis recognizes that he is't afforded the same opportunities, no matter how hard he works, that his privileged classmates at the Riverdale Academy Day School take for granted, and to make matters worse, Drew begins to feel as if his good friend Liam might be one of those privileged kids and is finding it hard not to withdraw, even as their mutual friend Jordan tries to keep their group of friends together.

Review: Class Act is a companion graphic novel to Jerry Craft's Newbery Award winner New Kid and could be read on its own. Class Act follows Drew Ellis, a friend of Jordan, who also struggles with racial microaggressions and trying to fit in his predominately white and affluent Riverdale Academy. Craft points out other differences that separates Drew from his other classmates though some differences make a bigger impact than others. Drew is physically developed at a faster rate than Jordan and it is hinted in the graphic novel that Drew would now be considered a "dangerous man" in society. 
  What struck me the most in this graphic novel is the economic disparities in the graphic novel. Drew lives with his loving grandmother and they struggle to stay afloat financially. In contrast, his white and affluent friend Travis lives in a mansion-like house with a hired Latinx nanny and a Black driver though Travis parents are absent from his life. Another telling moment when a school visit from a predominately Black and Latinx students take in the differences between their school and Riverdale Academy.  
  The Class Act is another accessible and discussion starter graphic novel that highlights inequity, which younger readers are just beginning to be socially aware and question. 

Rating: 4 stars

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

If you like this book try: Clean Getaway by Nic Stone
Rummanah Aasi
Description:
 Samiah Brooks never thought she would be "that" girl. But a live tweet of a horrific date just revealed the painful truth: she's been catfished by a three-timing jerk of a boyfriend. Suddenly Samiah-along with his two other "girlfriends," London and Taylor-have gone viral online. Now the three new besties are making a pact to spend the next six months investing in themselves. No men, no dating, and no worrying about their relationship status.
   For once Samiah is putting herself first, and that includes finally developing the app she's always dreamed of creating. Which is the exact moment she meets the deliciously sexy, honey-eyed Daniel Collins at work. What are the chances? When it comes to love, there's no such thing as a coincidence. But is Daniel really boyfriend material or is he maybe just a little too good to be true?

Review: The Boyfriend Project, the first in a new contemporary romance series by Farrah Rochon, is a celebration of Black joy and Black love. The series is established Samiah, London, and Taylor, three professional women, discover they have been cat-fished by the same guy and their discovery was posted online and has gone viral. Samiah, London, and Taylor immediately bond, become fast friends, and form a pact in which they all will focus on a goal that makes them happy before dating again, which might be easier said than done for Samiah.
    Samiah is a brilliant and successful app developer. Her intelligence, fierceness, and beauty catch the eye of a new coworker named Daniel who is too good to be true. Though both know starting a work relationship is probably the last thing they should do, the chemistry between them is undeniable. So a tentative relationship starts, but based on a lie:  Daniel is actually an undercover FBI agent who is investigating a nefarious scheme at Samiah's work. 
  I really enjoyed reading The Boyfriend Project and read it in a few days. I am thrilled to see more diversity in the romance genre. Rochon's book is smart, funny, sweet with a dash of steamy and mystery. Samiah is a fully three dimensional heroine, who holds her own. She is an extremely successful, driven, and strong (naturally and not because she needs to be) woman of color in the STEM field. I truly appreciated Samiah's upfront and candidness of having the burden of representation on her shoulders in her career, which I found to be extremely relatable and true. I also loved the friendship that she, London, and Taylor formed in the book. The romance is a nice added bonus for Samiah, but she does not need it to become whole.
  I also liked Daniel, who is also gifted and talented. I just wished I got to know him more personally. Due to his profession as an agent we don't really get to hear much of his background as we do for Samiah. His inner conflict of lying to Samiah and advancing his career rings true. The lying plot line didn't bother me as much because I knew Daniel's intention was not to use Samiah, but it was coincidental. Their chemistry together was very cute and their romance was delightfully of the slow burn kind. 
 The mystery wraps up quite nicely, but I thought the ending was a bit rushed. I would have liked more clues to the mystery before the big reveal. Overall, The Boyfriend Project was an enjoyable read and I look forward to continue reading this contemporary series.   

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language and sexual situations. Recommended for adults only.

If you like this book try: The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai
Rummanah Aasi
Description: 
Mia Tang thinks she’s going to have the best year ever. She and her parents are the proud owners of the Calivista Motel, Mia gets to run the front desk with her best friend, Lupe, and she’s finally getting somewhere with her writing! But as it turns out, sixth grade is no picnic: 

1. Mia’s new teacher doesn’t think her writing is all that great.
2. The motel is struggling, and Mia has to answer to the Calivista’s many, many worried investors.
3. A new immigration law is looming and if it passes, it will threaten everything—and everyone—in Mia’s life.

It’s a roller coaster of challenges, and Mia needs all of her determination to hang on tight. But if anyone can find the key to getting through turbulent times, it’s Mia Tang!

Review: Three Keys is a great sequel to Yang's delightful Front Desk. Things are really looking up for Mia Tang as starts middle school. Her family are now the proud owners of the Calivista Motel. The motel is doing well, but the racist and xenophobic rhetoric of a rising political campaign and upcoming election.  California's Prop 187 would ban undocumented immigrants from access to health care and public schooling and it is on the ballot. The book's plot does a great job in showcasing the progress and setbacks that Mia experiences such as personally being faced with microaggressions by her teacher in class and taking note of similar experiences by her classmates of color. There is also a discussion of assimilation and class in which Mia feels a sense of guilt of losing her Chinese culture that her parents hold so dearly and Mia's mom wanting to buy an expensive dress to in order to impress other Chinese women. Though her family does well in business, there are still close to poverty. 
  The struggles of undocumented immigrants hits closely to Mia as her friend Lupe reveals that her family is undocumented, creating a portrait of fear as her father is jailed. The impending vote has significant consequences for all immigrants, not just the Garcias, as racial threats increase. With the help of a cast of strong supporting characters, Mia bravely uses her voice and her pen to change opinions—with family, friends, teachers, and even voters. She also learns what it means to be a good ally: to listen, to care, and to continue fighting for what is right. This timely novel is a great read and make an excellent book discussion for younger readers. 

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There are microaggressions made by a teacher to her students of color and xenophobic comments. Recommended for Grades 4 and up

If you like this book try: The Land of the Cranes by Aida Salazar, Efren Divided by Ernesto Cisneros
Rummanah Aasi
Description:
 Vernell LaQuan Banks and Justyce McAllister grew up a block apart in the Southwest Atlanta neighborhood of Wynwood Heights. Years later, though, Justyce walks the illustrious halls of Yale University and Quan sits behind bars at the Fulton Regional Youth Detention Center. Through a series of flashbacks, vignettes, and letters to Justyce--the protagonist of Dear Martin--Quan's story takes form. Troubles at home and misunderstandings at school give rise to police encounters and tough decisions. But then there's a dead cop and a weapon with Quan's prints on it. What leads a bright kid down a road to a murder charge? Not even Quan is sure.

Review: Dear Justyce is a companion novel to Nic Stone's extremely successful debut novel Dear Martin. Both books could be read independently of each other. In Dear Justyce, Stone turns her critical eye to the broken and injust criminal justice system. Though Quan and Martin were both raised in the same neighborhood and came from fractured family homes, their lives were led in two completely different directions: Martin to an Ivy school and Quan from the school to prison pipeline. 
  With his father in prison, Quan works hard to excel in school, avoids his mother’s abusive boyfriend, and has the added responsibility to raise and protect his younger siblings. Fast-forward to the present is an incarcerated Quan, remembering the day his father was arrested two years after that meeting. While in custody, Quan writes to Justyce at Yale. Through "snapshots" and letters we learn the circumstances and decisions that led to Quan's arrest as well as his tumultuous friendship with Justyce. When Quan professes that he didn't commit the crime for which he was incarcerated, Justyce becomes committed to clearing his name. 
  Through Quan, we see not just an incarcerated Black youth, but as a whole, humanized person with their trauma, hopelessness, and awareness of the impact of racial disparities in their lives and how it shapes their future. Unlike Dear Martin, I had a hard time with the narrative structure of the book. Though I understand Stone's purpose, I felt the constant back and forth of the timeline took me out of the story and I was often confused as to when the event was taking place. I found Quan's letters to be powerful and compelling much more than the fairy-tale like ending of Quan's fate (which is incredibly heartbreaking to think of it that way and it is addressed in an author's note). Once again Justyce can be seen as the 'exceptional' Black man and his ability to help Quan needed a suspension of disbelief. Though I am happy with the uplifting ending, I don't think it would have made a stronger impact if Stone chose to stick with gritty reality. 
  I also wanted to point out having the gang be named "Black jihad" made me feel incredibly uncomfortable as a Muslim reader.  Jihad is often defined as 'holy war' in western media. Jihad simply means struggle. To use jihad as part of a gang name is to perpetuate the ideology that Islam and violence are intertwined, though that might have not been Stone's intention.  Like Dear Martin, I did wish the secondary characters were a bit fleshed out. Overall Dear Justyce has a great message, but for me it is not as strong as Dear Martin.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, allusions to domestic abuse, and trauma. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Punching in the Air by Yusef Salaam and Ibi Zoboi, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, This is My America by Kim Johnson, The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore
Rummanah Aasi
Description:
 Sometimes, the world is too much for Mona Starr. She’s sweet, geeky, and creative, but it’s hard for her to make friends and connect with other people. She’s like a lot of sensitive teenagers. Mona’s struggle with depression takes on a vivid, concrete form. Mona calls it her Matter. The Matter gets everywhere, telling Mona she’s not good enough, and that everyone around her wishes she would go away. But through therapy, art, writing, and the persistence of a few good friends, Mona starts to understand her Matter, and how she—and readers—can turn their fears into strengths.

Review: Mental health, often called as an invisible disability, is visualized and discussed in the graphic novel The Dark Matter of Mona StarrMona lives with crippling depression and anxiety. She envisions her dark emotions to be elemental and expansive and names them as "matter" which can manifest as a black hole, fog, or take on a ghost-like form that hovers over her. Matter prevents Mona from truly living her life and engaging with the world. She is privileged to have a very supporting family and the means to seek therapy.  Therapy helps and, through various techniques like meditation, recognizing behavior patterns, and drawing, Mona slowly begins to reconnect with her friends, family, and the art she loves so much. She even breaks out of her shell and tentatively expands her social circle. While Mona is able to manage her depression and anxiety, her journey is hard and takes time. I appreciated how the graphic novel takes a realistic yet hopeful look at mental illness. Mona's inner monologue is introspective and it made me think. The illustrations pay close attention to Mona’s range of emotions, which are heightened by different visual metaphors—walls, trees, outer space, and black shadowy forms all give a literal shape to her Matter. Since there is a lot of interior monologue in the book the overlapping panels and dreamlike sequences keep the images flowing smoothly in the graphic novel. The Dark Matter of Mona Starr can be a hopeful and honest mirror to those who deal with mental health issues and provide a window to others on how some people experience it.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended for Grades 7 and up.

If you like this book try: Guts by Raina Telgemeier
Rummanah Aasi
Description:
 2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Review: I have tried and failed to write a review for My Dark Vanessa since I finished it last April. This was the darkest book that I have read in a very long time and honestly, was probably not the best book to read during the pandemic, but once I started this book I could not put it down and I could not stop thinking about it. I had and continue to have a swirl of emotions when it comes to this book. I will do my best to review this without transforming into She-Hulk. 
   My Dark Vanessa is told in two very different timelines in 2000 and 2017. In 2017 Vanessa is a numbed twenty something year old who can not hold down a job and whose life is a series of one night stands and drug and alcohol infused black outs. Vanessa is forced to confront her past and relationship with her teacher, Jacob Strane, at the height of the #MeToo movement when a young woman, Taylor Birch, steps forward and accuses Strane of sexual abuse.  When a young journalist reaches out to Vanessa to corroborate Taylor's story, Vanessa's world begins to unravel. What is Vanessa's relationship with Strane and what led her to her current situation today? 
  Russell effortlessly weaves Vanessa's memories of high school together with her current timeline. We follow Vanessa as she struggles to determine whether the "love story" she has told herself is in fact something incredibly tragic and unthinkable. The reader follows Vanessa as a bright eyed 15 year old teen who was looking forward to start a new chapter in her life at Browick, a prestigious, private boarding school, but she does not fit in and becomes isolated. She is groomed and preyed upon by her 42 year old English teacher, Jacob Strane, who gives her special attention from lending out his personal copies of Plath's poetry and Nabokov's Lolita to bolder intrusions of furtive caresses in his back office. It does not take long for Vanessa to revel in her newfound power of attraction, pursuing sleepovers at Strane's house, and conducting what she feels is a secret affair right under the noses of the administration. 
  Now revisiting those scenes, Vanessa begins to question if her story is of abuse because she has pursued it, but as readers we take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and do not see her "relationship" with Strane as anything romantic but a real, devastating, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. The book highlights that we live in a culture of enablement where the young women as always seen as the seductress and the harm we allow young women to shoulder while we brush off any responsibility to abusive men.  
 Readers have pointed out that the book does not develop any of the characters around Vanessa besides Strane and I believe this is intentional. Her trauma has consumed her entire life, which is why she is so desperate to want to believe it was a love story, that she is completely unaware of anything else around her. I have conflicted feelings of how the book ends, but I think that has more to do with me as a reader who wanted more justice for Vanessa than the actual book itself. Yes, this book is very dark, disturbing, gut wrenching, and rage inducing but it highlights the complexities of the #MeToo movement and it should read. 

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong graphic sexual content and sexual assault, gaslighting, emotional abuse, language, underage drinking and drug abuse. Recommended for mature teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: Dark Horses by Susan Mihalic
Rummanah Aasi
Description:
 As the only Indian American kid in her small town, Lekha Divekar feels like she has two versions of herself: Home Lekha, who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food, and School Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when someone teases her for being Indian.
    When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too! Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha. To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.
    When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.

Review: Like many first generation immigrants, Indian American Lekha is having trouble with navigating her two worlds. Lehka's family is the only Indian American family in her predominantly white suburb of Detroit. She is comfortable in expressing her Indian culture and flavorful foods at home. When she is at school, however, she tries her best to fade in the background and silence her voice as her classmates mock her for her bindi shaped-birthmark on her forehead. She allows teachers and students to mispronounce her name and to make disrespectful comments about her heritage. Lekha knows she should speak out but wouldn't that just make the situation worse?
  When a new Indian American family-with a daughter Lehka's age-moves to her neighborhood, she is thrilled, assuming that her new friend Avantika will also struggle like Lekha, but Avantika confidently talks about her family and traditions at school and fights back against microaggressions. Lehka is simultaneously inspired and confused. As she begins taking tentative steps toward speaking up about what matters to her, a classroom assignment to write an opinion piece becomes the catalyst for embracing her identity. 
  I could relate a lot to both Lekha's and Avantika's characters. The safety in being invisible is real and strong. Sadly, that's how I acted in my predominately white high school. What is most distressing is that I acted subconsciously and started with the best things such as clothes and music. It took me a while to reach Avantika's confidence but I am still working on it. There are two scenes that really hit me hard in the book such as downplaying a holiday that should be celebrated and decorating for the holiday. Lekha pleads with her parents to not put up a swastika (which in India represents prosperity, well being, and good luck) and on their family door for Diwali in fears of it being misinterpreted as a Nazi symbol. Both of these scenes highlight what it feels like to the "other" and having to feel that you can only choose one side (assimilation) and not both. I also appreciated that Avantika is not perfect. She also has her struggle in confronting colorism by using skin bleach cream to lighten her skin and standing up to her mother. I wish this was also explored more and we see Avantika use her own voice to speak out against internalized racism. 
 Despite these issues, American as Paneer Pie is a good book club pick where students can talk about race/ethnicity, microaggressions, and assimilation. Things do not wrap up in a bow at the end, but Lekha is starting to use her voice and stand up for herself.
 
Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some bullying and microaggressions present in the book. There is also a racist incident in the book. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Amina's Voice by Hena Khan, A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan
Rummanah Aasi
Description:
 Senator Anthony Ruiz is running for president. Throughout his successful political career he has always had his daughter’s vote, but a presidential campaign brings a whole new level of scrutiny to sheltered fifteen-year-old Mariana and the rest of her Cuban American family, from a 60 Minutes–style tour of their house to tabloids doctoring photos and inventing scandals. As tensions rise within the Ruiz family, Mari begins to learn about the details of her father’s political positions, and she realizes that her father is not the man she thought he was.
   But how do you find your voice when everyone’s watching? When it means disagreeing with your father—publicly? What do you do when your dad stops being your hero? Will Mari get a chance to confront her father? If she does, will she have the courage to seize it?

Review: Mariana "Mari" Ruiz has always supported her charismatic father’s political ambitions. Mari and her family have been by his side during every campaign, from local South Florida positions to his current role in the U.S. Senate. Now Senator Ruiz has eyes set on being the first Latino and Republican candidate for the President of the United States. As the Florida primaries approach and the primary race is in full throttle, Mari's is taken aback by the growing demands expected of her (i.e. no social media presence and being on her best behavior) and the breaches of her privacy. Running away right before a national televised family interview, she becomes the focus of viral videos and manufactured tabloid articles.
  The first half of the book is slow and the focus is on Mari's sudden impact of her father's campaign and her gradual awakening that her parents are fallible and not heroes that she placed on pedestals.  There are allusions to her mother's issues with the campaign as well, particularly her assistance in writing her husband speeches and being involved in other aspects of his campaign that are not acknowledged and taken advantaged of by her husband. The second of the book, in my opinion, is much stronger and layered as Sylvester weaves political issues such as immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, the environment, and gentrification. Senator Ruiz is a multifaceted politician who is trying to stay true to his Latinx heritage and family while catering to developer donors in order to pursue his political interests. I have not encountered many young adult novels in which a person of color is running for office or has political privilege so I found that aspect really refreshing. I was intrigued by the white passing Latino narrative to be interesting as well and I wished this was explored a bit more in the novel. The diversity of South Florida is represented here with nuance; Mari’s friends have Haitian, Dominican, and Peruvian ancestry, and some important secondary characters identify as LGBTQ+. Spanish is also sprinkled throughout the novel and enriches the narrative’s setting. While I did sympathize for Mari as her individual rights were overlooked, I liked her much more when she started her journey of being an activist as she looked beyond herself and held her father accountable for his actions. I appreciated the book's messages about the power of activism that come through but do not feel didactic. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language and a scene while Mari's body is being objectified in the media and in school. There is also allusions of inappropriate conduct of one of the campaign staffers towards Mari. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert, Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisa Saeed
Rummanah Aasi
Description:
 The ongoing struggle for women's rights has spanned human history, touched nearly every culture on Earth, and encompassed a wide range of issues, such as the right to vote, work, get an education, own property, exercise bodily autonomy, and beyond. Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists is a fun and fascinating graphic novel-style primer that covers the key figures and events that have advanced women's rights from antiquity to the modern era.

Review: Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists is a graphic nonfiction that is informative, appealing, and self aware. Set in a futuristic classroom, the topic of women's rights (yes, I know it should be actually called human rights) and whether or not progress has been made. The narrative traces the history of women’s rights around the globe from the ancient civilizations of Sumer to present day activism. The class and readers learn about influential women from diverse backgrounds by highlighting the struggles and achievements of nearly 200 individuals who were leaders in a variety of areas of pursuit. Popular and well known women such as Pharaoh Hatshepsut and Harriet Tubman as well as others who been removed from history but rightly deserve to be better known. The content is both historical and up to the minute, with relevance to current issues, covering, among other topics, colonization, suffrage, civil rights, redress movements, the wage gap, sexual harassment, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights. Short comings of feminism, particularly white feminism is called out. I learned of many contemporary women activists that were not on my radar until now such as Naelyn Pike, an environmental and Indigenous rights activist, and Alice Wong, who advocates for disability rights. 
   Given the content of the graphic nonfiction, there is a nice balance between text and images. Diversity and inclusion is taken seriously. The unnamed students represent a diverse range of identities and gender expression: Five of the six students are people of color, one has a prosthetic limb, and another is hijabi. While this is a great primer into women's fight for rights, I wished the graphic novel would have source notes and suggestions for further reading, because I am definitely interested in reading and learning more.  

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: The oppression of women throughout history is not sugar coated and discussed frankly in the book. Recommended for Grades 9 and up. 

If you like this book try: Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad, Finish the Fight by Veronica Chambers
Rummanah Aasi
Description:
 Sheriff Sunshine Vicram finds her cup o' joe more than half full when the small village of Del Sol, New Mexico, becomes the center of national attention for a kidnapper on the loose.

Del Sol, New Mexico is known for three things: its fry-an-egg-on-the-cement summers, strong cups of coffee - and, now, a nationwide manhunt? Del Sol native Sunshine Vicram has returned to town as the elected sheriff - thanks to her adorably meddlesome parents who nominated her--and she expects her biggest crime wave to involve an elderly flasher named Doug. But a teenage girl is missing, a kidnapper is on the loose, and all of this is reminding Sunshine why she left Del Sol in the first place. Add to that the trouble at her daughter's new school, plus and a kidnapped prized rooster named Puff Daddy, and, well, the forecast looks anything but sunny.

But even clouds have their silver linings. This one's got Levi, Sunshine's sexy, almost-old-flame, and a fiery-hot US Marshall. With temperatures rising everywhere she turns, Del Sol's normally cool-minded sheriff is finding herself knee-deep in drama and danger. Can Sunshine face the call of duty - and find the kidnapper who's terrorizing her beloved hometown - without falling head over high heels in love or worse?

Review: In her new series Jones introduces her readers to a sexy, funny, tough new heroine in Sunshine Vicram, the police chief of Del Sol, New Mexico. Sun fled her hometown years before after the horrifying experience of being kidnapped when she was a teen, an experience she doesn’t talk about, but also can not forget. After becoming a police officer, she worked most recently only half an hour away in Santa Fe keeping true to her promise of never returning to Santa Fe and that's before her parents nominated her for chief without telling her. Now that she and her teen daughter, Auri, have settled into a cottage in her parents’ backyard, she lands a case that brings back all her worst fears and cracks open suppressed memories. 
    Sun adjusts to her new job, but also seems to run into a long time crush Levi Ravinder, owner of the Dark River distillery and a member of the dysfunctional, law breaking family. The sexual tension between Levi and Sun is tangible and makes readers curious to learn more of their history. Auri’s first day at school is ruined by mean girls and rumors that identify her as a police snitch. The best part of Auri's day is meeting heart-stopping Cruz De los Santos, a talented poet who has a rough exterior and is also the coolest guy in school. 
  The mystery concerning Marianna St. Aubin's missing daughter and Levi's missing nephew brings the story lines of mother and daughter quite well. Like her Charley Davidson series, Jones handles humor, mystery, and smoldering romance quite well. I liked how Sun and Auri work together. Auri is comes off as an ordinary teenager, but her mother respects her and is never condescending. The pace and the focus is much more streamlined that the Charley Davidson series.  literally crashes into the police station to report the kidnapping of her daughter, Sybil. For years Sybil told her parents about dreams that she’d be taken and killed before her 15th birthday, but they never believed her. Though the mystery is nicely wrapped up by the end of the novel, there are many lingering questions left unanswered and a great promise for another fun entertaining series. I can't wait to see what other mysteries this mother-daughter duo will solve. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, crude sexual humor, and a sexual situation at times graphic. Recommended for older teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, A Good Day for Chardonnay (Sunshine Vicram #2) coming in July 2021
Rummanah Aasi
Description:
 Donte wishes he were invisible. As one of the few black boys at Middlefield Prep, he feels as if he is constantly swimming in whiteness. Most of the students don't look like him. They don't like him either. Dubbed the "Black Brother," Donte's teachers and classmates make it clear they wish he were more like his lighter skinned brother, Trey. Quiet, obedient.

When an incident with "King" Alan leads to Donte's arrest and suspension, he knows the only way to get even is to beat the king of the school at his own game: fencing. With the help of a former Olympic fencer, Donte embarks on a journey to carve out a spot on Middlefield Prep's fencing team and maybe learn something about himself along the way.

Review: With Black Brother, Black Brother Rhodes elevates a sports novel with a message to tackle on timely and important issues such as systemic racism, colorism, and bullying. Donte is having a difficult time adjusting to life at Middlefield Prep as being one of the only black boys in a predominately white school. Donte and his brother Trey are biracial (black and white) though Donte is the darker of the two and is constantly bullied and taunted with being called "Black Brother, Black Brother". His brother Trey is white passing and thus passes through school with ease. 
     Donte's bullying is relentless and he undergoes a cyclic inner turmoil of yearning to be invisible, shame, confusion, and anger. On a day when Donte could not take the bullying anymore, he throws down his backpack in class in anger and he is then swiftly arrested by police and charged. The book actually opens with Donte awaiting judgement for his "crime". Thankfully, his crime is dismissed as Rhodes points out Donte's privilege in being well off, and how the court is willing to treat him differently after seeing his white father and white-passing brother. 
  We soon see Donte driven to beat his bully, Alan, the captain of the school fencing team at his own game, but learning how to fence evolves to a deeper longing for Donte to claim something for himself. This quest sets Donte and Trey off on a mission to find Mr. Jones, a black former Olympic fencer and Boston Boys and Girls Club employee, who agrees to teach them how to fence. Along the way, Donte makes friends, becomes an excellent fencer, and finds his place in the Boston area. 
  Donte's story is a good primer for younger readers on microaggressions. I appreciated how direct and honest Rhodes is in the depiction of how differently Donte and Trey are treated. I actually liked that the book began with the mistreatment of Donte and then smoothly transitioned with his fencing journey. Learning of the back story and discrimination of Mr. Jones brought these two plot lines quite nicely. The depiction of Donte's confidence growing with each lesson and as he makes friends at the Boys and Girls Club is also welcoming and exciting, showing hope for the future. As a reader who generally has a hard time reading the same sport story over and over again, it is nice to have one that has a strong social message along with the excitement of a sport that is often not written about. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are scenes of bullying. Recommended for Grades 5 and up.

If you like this book try: Track series by Jason Reynolds
Rummanah Aasi
Description:
 Ever since Margot was born, it’s been just her and her mother. No answers to Margot’s questions about what came before. No history to hold on to. No relative to speak of. Just the two of them, stuck in their run-down apartment, struggling to get along.

But that’s not enough for Margot. She wants family. She wants a past. And she just found the key she needs to get it: A photograph, pointing her to a town called Phalene. Pointing her home. Only, when Margot gets there, it’s not what she bargained for. Margot’s mother left for a reason. But was it to hide her past? Or was it to protect Margot from what’s still there? The only thing Margot knows for sure is there’s poison in their family tree, and their roots are dug so deeply into Phalene that now that she’s there, she might never escape.

Review: Burn Our Bodies Down had an intriguing and suspenseful plot, but I found it to be too convoluted and the surprise ending did not pay off. Margot Nielsen knows nothing of her family history and she is tired of living in the dark. She has a strained and unhealthy relationship with her cagey mother who is emotionally distant, manipulative, and has a strange set of rules. When a clue about their family history surfaces, Margot follows it despite several dangers that suggest otherwise. She finds the grandmother her mother never wanted her to know living on the family homestead in an economically depressed town where the Nielsen name seems to be shrouded in a cloud of suspicion that inspires trepidation among locals. Despite ominous foreshadowing, Margot still longs to find in her stoic grandmother, Vera, the love and connection that have been withheld from her. Their relationship is quickly complicated by a fire on the farm that results in the death of a girl with an uncanny physical resemblance to Margot—and whose existence her grandmother refuses to explain. 
     Powers creates a great, creepy ambiance in her work, but it also unfortunately interferes with her character development and created plot holes that readers are forced to accept and move along. Lots of questions begin to pile up but the answer are too pat for this book that wants to straddle the genre lines of thriller, speculative fiction, and horror. The plot's pace is also inconsistent as the creepy moments happen too close together and the unsatisfying solutions lag quite far behind. While I may not be the right reader for Burn Our Bodies Down, readers who are looking for a unique story line may be intrigued to pick it up. Though this one is a miss for me, I am still interested to see what Powers does next. 

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language and disturbing images. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Dreaming Darkly by Caitlin Kittredge, What We Buried by Kate Boorman
Rummanah Aasi
Description:
 All Freddy Riley wants is for Laura Dean to stop breaking up with her.

The day they got together was the best one of Freddy's life, but nothing's made sense since. Laura Dean is popular, funny, and SO CUTE ... but she can be really thoughtless, even mean. Their on-again, off-again relationship has Freddy's head spinning — and Freddy's friends can't understand why she keeps going back.

When Freddy consults the services of a local mystic, the mysterious Seek-Her, she isn't thrilled with the advice she receives. But something's got to give: Freddy's heart is breaking in slow motion, and she may be about to lose her very best friend as well as her last shred of self-respect. Fortunately for Freddy, there are new friends, and the insight of advice columnist Anna Vice, to help her through being a teenager in love.

Review: Freddy struggles to navigate friendship and getting out of a toxic relationship. Though apparent to everyone but her, it is now dawning on Freddy that she needs to break up with her girlfriend, but it is complicated. She loves Laura Dean and when they are together Freddy shines and is happy, but it often comes at a cost. Laura constantly cheats on Freddy, gaslights and emotionally manipulates her, and what is even worse fetishizes her due to her biracial identity (Freddy is East Asian and white). After Laura breaks up with her for a third time, Freddy writes to an advice columnist and, at the recommendation of her best friend Doodle, (reluctantly) sees a psychic who advises her that in order to break out of the cycle of her “non-monogamous swing-your-partner wormhole,” Freddy needs to do the breaking up herself. As she struggles to fall out of love and figure out how to “break up with someone who’s broken up with me,” Freddy slowly begins to be drawn back into Laura’s orbit, challenging her relationships with her friends as she searches for happiness. I really liked how this graphic novel explores the complexities of both romantic and platonic relationships with raw tenderness and honesty. It is not hard to put yourself in Freddy's shoes in dealing with a toxic relationship, whether platonic friendship or a romantic relationship, and being so wrapped up in your own world that you forget that you have responsibilities toward others too. Valero-O’Connell’s art is realistic and expressive, bringing the characters to life through dynamic grayscale illustrations featuring highlights of millennial pink. The pink color scheme works in depicting various emotions, especially the rose-tinted lens that Freddy often wears when Laura is seen. I also really appreciated the inclusivity and diversity of body shapes, gender expressions, sexualities, and skin tones. There is a minor subplot involving Doodle and her involvement with an adult that is troubling, which I wished was explored more, but overall I really enjoyed this graphic novel. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, scenes of underage drinking, and allusions to sex with an adult and an abortion. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzalez and Keeping You a Secret by Julia Anne Peters 
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