Rummanah Aasi
Shy and softhearted Charlie Spring sits next to rugby player Nick Nelson in class one morning. A warm and intimate friendship follows, and that soon develops into something more for Charlie, who doesn't think he has a chance. But Nick is struggling with feelings of his own, and as the two grow closer and take on the ups and downs of high school, they come to understand the surprising and delightful ways in which love works.

Review: Heartstopper began as a webcomic featuring two side characters in Alice Oseman's debut novel Solitare. The webcomic became so popular and spawned a kickstarter project to be turned into a print graphic novel series. This series manages to beautifully capture the fragility of first love, discuss serious topics, while also managing to be uplifting and full of joy. It warms my heart that this series exists.
  In this first volume we meet Charlie and Nick who on the surface seem to be complete opposites. Charlie is the only openly gay boy in his British all-boys grammar school. Charlie was been relentlessly bullied when he came out, but things have settled down. He is now in a secret yet toxic relationship with Ben, who hooks up with Charlie when it's convenient for him. Ben is closeted and won't tell anyone about their relationship. Not wanting to draw further attention, Charlie goes along with Ben. 
  When Charlie is assigned to sit next to Nick for an assignment, he is apprehensive. Nick appears to be intimating due to athletic physique due to being one of the school's best rugby players and is very popular. To Charlie's surprise, Nick treats him just like anyone else. Nick is super kind, attentive, interesting, and supportive. Soon Charlie and Nick form a platonic friendship and become close. As the graphic novel progresses, both characters want to their friendship to be more. Charlie fears he is falling for Nick, who he believes is straight, and he is hurling towards heartbreak. Meanwhile Nick who has always assumed he was straight, begins to question his identity and realizes that Charlie is his first boy crush. Both Charlie and Nick realize how bewildering and wonderful love can be. 
   This graphic novel series is definitely an episodic, slice of life story. The sweet, two-color, manga-inspired art seems simplistic at first glance, but detailed expressions convey the boys' longing, uncertainty, and joy. Oseman doesn't overwork her story with too much dialogue and plot, but allows Charlie and Nick to develop organically. If you are looking for a series that is incredibly endearing from start to finish, be sure to check it out. I highly recommend it.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is mild profanity and references to bullying and sexual harassment.

If you like this book try: Heartstopper Volume 2 by Alice Oseman, Bloom into You by Nio Nakatani, and Check, Please series by Ngozi Ukazu

 Nick and Charlie are best friends. Nick knows Charlie's gay, and Charlie is sure that Nick isn't. But love works in surprising ways, and Nick is discovering all kinds of things about his friends, his family and himself.

Review: The second volume of Heartstopper picks up immediately where the first book ends as Nick and Charlie's platonic friendship develops to something more. Still things are quite complicated for the two boys. What is their relationship status? How does Nick feel about it? 
 While the relationship between Charlie and Nick is the core of the graphic novel, the focus has shifted more to character development, particularly as it concerns Nick. Nick must confront his own personal confusion and fear surrounding his sexuality. I really like how Oseman shows Nick doing research in finding out where he is on the sexuality spectrum and also demonstrates that the characters have an open and honest communication with one another., a key concept that is important but rarely shown in young adult romances. Charlie doesn't rush or give Nick an ultimatum to find an answer either but reassures Nick that sexuality is fluid. When Nick does find an sexual orientation that feels right, it is up to Nick to decide when and who to tell his truth. 
  Charlie also grows in this volume too. He gains confidence to push back against Ben and Ben's toxicity. He stands up for himself and realizes that he deserves love, not a conditional and unhealthy relationship that he felt once stuck in. In addition to Charlie and Nick, we also meet Charlie's circle of friends who are diverse in ethnicity as well as sexual identities. 
  The illustrations in this volume are lovely and subdued, allowing the characters to take up space and match the whimsical tone of the graphic novel series. Nick and Charlie’s lighthearted and tender romance is delightful, and the genuine heart present in the characters makes for an uplifting read from start to finish. 

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language and homophobic taunts in the graphic novel.

If you like this book try: Bloom into You by Nio Nakatani, and Check, Please series by Ngozi Ukazu, Bloom by Kevin Panetta
Rummanah Aasi
Five years after a suspicious fire killed his mother, a closeted Syrian American trans boy sheds his birth name and searches for a new one. He has been unable to paint since his mother's ghost has begun to visit him each evening. The only time he feels truly free is when he slips out at night to paint murals on buildings in the once-thriving Manhattan neighborhood known as Little Syria. One night, he finds the tattered journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z; whose past is intimately tied to his mother's--and his grandmother's--in ways he never could have expected. Following his mother's ghost, he uncovers the silences kept in the name of survival by his own community, his own family, and within himself, and discovers the family that was there all along. Please note: The author has clearly said that his main character is trans non-binary whose preferred pronouns are he/his.

Review: The Thirty Names of Night is a complex story with multiple layers. It is a story of visibility, being, and belonging. It is a story of artists who connected by unspoken personal histories. It is a story of immigrants trying to find themselves. It is a ghost story. It is a story about birds. It is a mystery. It is also possibly the most beautiful book that I have read thus far in 2021.
     In this exquisitely, lush, and lyrical book we follow two main story-lines that will ultimately converge. In one story line we follow an unnamed narrator (for majority of the book) in contemporary New York City who is struggling with gender dysphoria, coming to terms to his own gender identity, and grieving the loss of his mother who died tragically in an Islamophobic hate crime. The narrator is unnamed because the name he was given at birth no longer fits him. Our narrator is an artist who has a creativity block, because he is constant restricted to the limitations of art just like his gender. He longs to be limitless, label-less in a world that constantly wants to place people in neat boxes. During the day our narrator cares for his ailing grandmother and during the night he paints murals of birds across New York City as an homage to his ornithologist mother as well as to Laila Z, an artist his mother admired and whose journals he discovers. 
  Our second story line follows Laila Z, a Syrian artist whose story begins in 1920 in French occupied Syria. After her family immigrates to America, she becomes an acclaimed illustrator of birds. Through Laila Z's diary we see the construction of Little Syria and its people in New York City. There is a profound sense that there has always been people who identify as LGBTQ+ in Syria in which our narrator finds comforting. It is also through Laila Z that our narrator also finds the key to unlocking himself.
  It did not take me long to get absorbed by Thirty Names of Night. I found both narratives equally compelling. Though both story lines are written in the second person and addressed to another character, it did not deter me from connecting to the characters. I read these two story lines as confessionals that are much easier told to another person than to yourself. Having our main character be unnamed is powerful and highlights the importance of agency:

“I think to myself, It is terrifying to be visible, and then I think, I have been waiting all my life to be seen."

    Little Syria, an area that I was not familiar with at all until reading this book, also becomes a character in the novel. We follow the plights of the Syrian American community and watch how it evolves from a bustling cultural community that is slowly being destroyed by gentrification. The author does not shy away from Islamophobia, struggles with faith, nor the discourse surrounding the uncertainty of the Muslim community's inclusion of the LGBTQ+ individuals, which I appreciated. 

 I will confess that I did not follow all of the details surrounding ornithology, but I liked how birds was used metaphorically throughout the book. I also really liked the secondary characters, particularly our narrator's group of friends and I wanted to know more of them. Despite these minor issues, Thirty Names of Night is a beautiful book that you should definitely add to your reading piles.  

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, implied sex scene, and Islamophobic hate crimes. Recommended for older teens and adults. 

If you like this book try: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, How Much of These Hills are Gold by C. Pam Zhang
Rummanah Aasi
 Frustrated by a day full of teachers and classmates mispronouncing her beautiful name, a little girl tells her mother she never wants to come back to school. In response, the girl's mother teaches her about the musicality of African, Asian, Black-American, Latinx, and Middle Eastern names on their lyrical walk home through the city. Empowered by this newfound understanding, the young girl is ready to return the next day to share her knowledge with her class.

Review: I absolutely loved this picture book and I wished I had this book when I was younger. Like the main character of the book, I too have a name that often gets stuck in people's throats. My name has been butchered countless times and I have grown numb to the pain it causes. I had teachers who would never say name, but would only give me visual cues if they were talking to me.  My name is very hard to Anglicize and I even tried a nickname "Rum" which I thought would prevent the mispronunciation and help lessen the blow, but I started to distance myself from the nickname because that is not me.
   At the end of the first day of school, a young Black Muslim protagonist, shares her sorrow with her mother over her teacher and classmates' inability to pronounce her name. Her mother's response lifts the girl's-and readers'-spirits by illuminating the resonating meaning and power of diverse names from many different cultures through song. As the gently rendered scenes of this heartfelt talk unfold, Uribe's expressive details capture the musicality of different names. Fine, swooping lines and blooming silhouettes of pastel color flow through each page, matching the mother's musical notes and the young child's growing sense of understanding and confidence in her ability to pass this lesson on to others. When again confronted with a verging microagression, the young child gives a teachable moment to her teacher and class of how to pronounce her name, Kora-Jalimuso, and others as a songThe book concludes with a glossary and a pronunciation guide, emphasizing the beauty and significance of all the names featured.  This beautiful affirming book reminds us that we all deserve to have our names pronounced correctly and that names are an important part of our identity and cultural heritage.

Rating: 5 stars

Words of Caution: None.

If you like this book try: Alma and how she got her name by Juana Martinez-Neal, Always Anjali by Sheetal Sheth

 With her new backpack and light-up shoes, Faizah knows the first day of school is going to be special. It's the start of a brand new year and, best of all, it's her older sister Asiya's first day of hijab--a hijab of beautiful blue fabric, like the ocean waving to the sky. But not everyone sees hijab as beautiful, and in the face of hurtful, confusing words, Faizah will find new ways to be strong.

Review: Faizah is excited for her first day of school but even more excited for her older sister, Asiya. Asiya is starting sixth grade with her brand-new blue hijab. As Faizah walks to the school in her new light-up shoes and backpack, she admires her sister who looks like a princess in her blue head scarf. When the sisters approach the school there is a wide ranging reactions to Asiya's hijab. Some students celebrate with her, some are ambivalent, and some faceless, nameless bullies taunt her with insults calling her hijab a "tablecloth". Their mother has prepared her daughters with wise words and how to respond. I found Faizah's rebuttal to the bullies and questions about her sister's hijab to be most profound from whispers of correcting misconceptions to a much louder, confident voice as the story progresses. 
   The illustration and the colors are just as powerful as words conveying the passionate message of how to be proud of one's culture, individuality, and religion and how to stay strong and keep one's faith. This is an empowering book for young readers who can see themselves in Asiya or know someone like her. I also love how unapologetic the book is displaying Asiya's strength and the sister's joy. I would have liked a bit of back matter in explaining the hijab to younger readers. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None.

If you like this book try: Under My Hijab by Hena Khan, My Mommy's Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
Rummanah Aasi
 Nima doesn't feel understood. By her mother, who grew up far away in a different land. By her suburban town, which makes her feel too much like an outsider to fit in and not enough like an outsider to feel like that she belongs somewhere else. At least she has her childhood friend Haitham, with whom she can let her guard down and be herself. Until she doesn't.
   As the ground is pulled out from under her, Nima must grapple with the phantom of a life not chosen, the name her parents didn't give her at birth: Yasmeen. But that other name, that other girl, might just be more real than Nima knows. And more hungry.And the life Nima has, the one she keeps wishing were someone else's. . .she might have to fight for it with a fierceness she never knew she had.

Review: Nima is a Muslim, working class, a daughter of a single mother, and implied Sudanese American who feels invisible and unmoored. She lacks ties to her native land, not speaking Arabic fluently nor does she feel American as her bullies constantly remind her of her accent and calling her a terrorist because of her Muslim faith. Nima lives alone with her hijabi mother; her only friend is an energetic boy in her building named Haitham, who feels like a sibling. As rising Islamophobia in their suburban American community increases both the bullying at school and Haitham who is physically assaulted in a hate crime, Nima longs for the life she believes she would have had if she had been named Yasmeen as her mother originally planned. She constantly plays the "what if?" game in which she imagines a life of happiness and belonging that are captured in old family photos. With her desire to become Yasmeen growing, Nima begins seeing glimpses of her other self while beginning to disappear. Nima's introspection and the constant feeling of not being 'enough' is beautifully and heartbreaking captured in verse. Readers, especially those who are immigrants, may find Nima and her pain and search for a 'home' to be highly relatable and palpable.  
   There is a dash of magical realism that is introduced halfway into the book. After a string of incidents leaves her feeling desolate, Nima meets Yasmeen, launching both into their parents' past and a battle between reality and what could be begins to form. I found the magical realism a bit hard to follow at times, especially the way it ends and the segue-way back to reality; however I understand the purpose of having Nima's visions of 'possibilities' manifest in the book and finally coming to the conclusion of self acceptance and being enough. Elhillo is a renowned and award winning poet and slam poet performer. Her skillful lyricism and carefully chosen words are artfully profound and achingly beautiful. I read this book a bit slowly than I normally do in order to savor her words. She is definitely an author to follow and I can not wait to see what she writes next.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is a physical assault related to a hate crime, bullying, and failed attempts of sexual assault. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Every Body Looking by Candice Illoh
Rummanah Aasi
 Pinky Kumar wears the social justice warrior badge with pride. From raccoon hospitals to persecuted rock stars, no cause is too esoteric for her to champion. But a teeny-tiny part of her also really enjoys making her conservative, buttoned-up corporate lawyer parents cringe.

Samir Jha might have a few quirks remaining from the time he had to take care of his sick mother, like the endless lists he makes in his planner and the way he schedules every minute of every day, but those are good things. They make life predictable and steady.

Pinky loves lazy summers at her parents’ Cape Cod lake house, but after listening to them harangue her about the poor decisions (aka boyfriends) she’s made, she hatches a plan. Get her sorta-friend-sorta-enemy, Samir—who is a total Harvard-bound Mama’s boy—to pose as her perfect boyfriend for the summer. As they bicker their way through lighthouses and butterfly habitats, sparks fly, and they both realize this will be a summer they'll never forget.

Review: 10 Things I Hate About You is a companion novel to There's Something About Sweetie and features two of Ashish's close friends: Pinky Kumar and Samir Jha. You don't have to read There's Something About Sweetie before picking this book up. There are quite a few romantic tropes used in the book such as hate to love and fake dating, which will delight romance readers. 
   Pinky is a rebel with a cause, who is proud, unafraid to voice her opinions and makes impulsive decisions much to her mother's frustration. An incident involving a fire at her family's vacation home makes Pinky a usual suspect, but she is falsely judged. Tensions escalate between her mom and gives Pinky a new cause to fight for: proving her mom that she is capable of making the right choices. She concocts a relationship with the perfect, parent approved boyfriend. She knows the right person, but will he agree to join the scheme?
    Samir is Pinky's polar opposite. He is extremely organized, looks after and is close to his ailing mother. He is content to follow his plan on having an occupation in corporate law. When his dream summer internship falls through, Samir is left spinning until Pinky invites him to play her boyfriend for the duration of their coastal summer vacation. 
  While Pinky and Samir have great chemistry and banter, they each have a lot of personal baggage that were not fleshed out and hindered their character development. Pinky has a strenuous relationship with her mother, which was only explored at a surface level. There is a pivotal moment in which we learn bits of Pinky's mom backstory that highlights how mother and daughter share more similarities than differences, which I wished was explored much more. Samir has issues of anxiety and control which were spurned on by his mother's diagnosis of cancer when Samir was very young. Mental health continues to be a taboo topic in the South Asian community and this would have been the perfect time to address it in the book, but unfortunately it is glossed over. Instead of addressing these hard issues, the book spends more time in Pinky's and Samir's activism in trying to fight and conserve a butterfly habitat. Although it was nice to see teen activists, it didn't interest me much. 
  Overall I enjoyed 10 Things I Hate About Pinky, but I don't think it is the strongest book in the When Dimple met Rishi universe. The pacing felt uneven and I wanted more introspection from the characters. Readers who are looking for a breezy romance read may feel different. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

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

If you like this book try: Rent a Boyfriend by Gloria Chao, Fake It Till You Break It by Jenn P. Nguyen
Rummanah Aasi

Ramadan Mubarak! Ramadan officially begins today. I am very excited to participate in the #RamadanReadathon hosted by Nadia at Headscarves and Hardbacks. The purpose of this readathon is to celebrate and support Muslim authors during the holy month of Ramadan. The readathon this year will be taking place between April 12 to May 12!

 There does not seem to be any specific details about the readathon this year, so I have went back to my original plan of reading Muslim authors from a variety of genres and reading levels. My to be read pile is ambitious, but here are the books that I plan on reading during Ramadan:

Children and Middle Grade Books

Your Name is a Song by Jamilah Bigelow-Thompkins: Frustrated by a day full of teachers and classmates mispronouncing her beautiful name, a little girl tells her mother she never wants to come back to school. In response, the girl's mother teaches her about the musicality of African, Asian, Black-American, Latinx, and Middle Eastern names on their lyrical walk home through the city. Empowered by this newfound understanding, the young girl is ready to return the next day to share her knowledge with her class.

The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad: With her new backpack and light-up shoes, Faizah knows the first day of school is going to be special. It’s the start of a brand new year and, best of all, it’s her older sister Asiya’s first day of hijab–a hijab of beautiful blue fabric, like the ocean waving to the sky. But not everyone sees hijab as beautiful, and in the face of hurtful, confusing words, Faizah will find new ways to be strong.

In My Mosque by M.O. Yusekl: a picture book celebrating the traditions and joys found in mosques around the world.

Like the Moon Loves the Sky by Hena Khan: With vibrant illustrations and prose inspired by the Quran, this charming picture book is a heartfelt and universal celebration of a parent's unconditional love.

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian: My parents decided it would be a good idea to move house AND move me to a new school at the same time. As if I didn't have a hard enough time staying out of trouble at home, now I've also got to try and make new friends. What's worse, the class bully seems to think I'm the perfect target and has made it his mission to send me back to Pakistan. But I've never even been to Pakistan! And my cousin told me the pizza there is YUCK.
   The only good thing is that Eid's just around the corner which means a feast of all my favourite food (YAY) and presents (DOUBLE YAY). I'm really hoping I can stay in Mum and Dad's good books long enough to get loads

Amina's Song by Hena Khan: It’s the last few days of her vacation in Pakistan, and Amina has loved every minute of it. The food, the shops, the time she’s spent with her family—all of it holds a special place in Amina’s heart. Now that the school year is starting again, she’s sad to leave, but also excited to share the wonders of Pakistan with her friends back in Greendale. After she’s home, though, her friends don’t seem overly interested in her trip. And when she decides to do a presentation on Pakistani hero Malala Yousafzai, her classmates focus on the worst parts of the story. How can Amina share the beauty of Pakistan when no one wants to listen?

A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi: Mimi is not thrilled to be spending her summer in Karachi, Pakistan, with grandparents she’s never met. Secretly, she wishes to find her long-absent father, and plans to write to him in her beautiful new journal.
  The cook’s daughter, Sakina, still hasn’t told her parents that she’ll be accepted to school only if she can improve her English test score—but then, how could her family possibly afford to lose the money she earns working with her Abba in a rich family’s kitchen? Although the girls seem totally incompatible at first, as the summer goes on, Sakina and Mimi realize that they have plenty in common—and that they each need the other to get what they want most.

The Girl and the Ghost by Hana Alkaf: Suraya is delighted when her witch grandmother gifts her a pelesit. She names her ghostly companion Pink, and the two quickly become inseparable. But Suraya doesn’t know that pelesits have a dark side—and when Pink’s shadows threaten to consume them both, they must find enough light to survive  before they are both lost to the darkness. 


Thorn by Intisar Khanani: Between her cruel family and the contempt she faces at court, Princess Alyrra has always longed to escape the confines of her royal life. But when she’s betrothed to the powerful prince Kestrin, Alyrra embarks on a journey to his land with little hope for a better future.
  When a mysterious and terrifying sorceress robs Alyrra of both her identity and her role as princess, Alyrra seizes the opportunity to start a new life for herself as a goose girl. But Alyrra soon finds that Kestrin is not what she expected. The more Alyrra learns of this new kingdom, the pain and suffering its people endure, as well as the danger facing Kestrin from the sorceress herself, the more she knows she can’t remain the goose girl forever. With the fate of the kingdom at stake, Alyrra is caught between two worlds and ultimately must decide who she is, and what she stands for.

All American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney: Allie Abraham has it all going for her—she's a straight-A student, with good friends and a close-knit family, and she's dating cute, popular, and sweet Wells Henderson. One problem: Wells's father is Jack Henderson, America's most famous conservative shock jock...and Allie hasn't told Wells that her family is Muslim. It's not like Allie's religion is a secret, exactly. It's just that her parents don't practice and raised her to keep her Islamic heritage to herself. But as Allie witnesses ever-growing Islamophobia in her small town and across the nation, she begins to embrace her faith—studying it, practicing it, and facing hatred and misunderstanding for it. Who is Allie, if she sheds the façade of the "perfect" all-American girl? What does it mean to be a "Good Muslim?" And can a Muslim girl in America ever truly fit in?

Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo: Nima doesn't feel understood. By her mother, who grew up far away in a different land. By her suburban town, which makes her feel too much like an outsider to fit in and not enough like an outsider to feel like that she belongs somewhere else. At least she has her childhood friend Haitham, with whom she can let her guard down and be herself.Until she doesn't.
    As the ground is pulled out from under her, Nima must grapple with the phantom of a life not chosen, the name her parents didn't give her at birth: Yasmeen. But that other name, that other girl, might just be more real than Nima knows. And more hungry.And the life Nima has, the one she keeps wishing were someone else's. . .she might have to fight for it with a fierceness she never knew she had.

I am the Night Sky and Other Reflections by Muslim American Youth: During an era characterized by both hijabi fashion models and enduring post-9/11 stereotypes, ten Muslim American teenagers came together to explore what it means to be young and Muslim in America today. These teens represent the tremendous diversity within the American Muslim community, and their book, like them, contains multitudes.

Court of Lions by Somiya Daud: After being swept up into the brutal Vathek court, Amani, the ordinary girl forced to serve as the half-Vathek princess's body double, has been forced into complete isolation. The cruel but complex princess, Maram, with whom Amani had cultivated a tenuous friendship, discovered Amani's connection to the rebellion and has forced her into silence, and if Amani crosses Maram once more, her identity - and her betrayal - will be revealed to everyone in the court.
   Amani is desperate to continue helping the rebellion, to fight for her people's freedom. But she must make a devastating decision: will she step aside, and watch her people suffer, or continue to aid them, and put herself and her family in mortal danger? And whatever she chooses, can she bear to remain separated, forever, from Maram's fiancé, Idris?


 The Bride of the Sea by Eman Quotah: During a snowy Cleveland February, newlywed university students Muneer and Saeedah are expecting their first child, and he is harboring a secret: the word divorce is whispering in his ear. Soon, their marriage will end, and Muneer will return to Saudi Arabia, while Saeedah remains in Cleveland with their daughter, Hanadi. Consumed by a growing fear of losing her daughter, Saeedah disappears with the little girl, leaving Muneer to desperately search for his daughter for years. The repercussions of the abduction ripple outward, not only changing the lives of Hanadi and her parents, but also their interwoven family and friends—those who must choose sides and hide their own deeply guarded secrets.
And when Hanadi comes of age, she finds herself at the center of this conflict, torn between the world she grew up in and a family across the ocean. How can she exist between parents, between countries?

Hana Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin: Sales are slow at Three Sisters Biryani Poutine, the only halal restaurant in the close-knit Golden Crescent neighbourhood. Hana waitresses there part time, but what she really wants is to tell stories on the radio. If she can just outshine her fellow intern at the city radio station, she may have a chance at landing a job. In the meantime, Hana pours her thoughts and dreams into a podcast, where she forms a lively relationship with one of her listeners. But soon she’ll need all the support she can get: a new competing restaurant, a more upscale halal place, is about to open in the    Golden Crescent, threatening Three Sisters.
    When her mysterious aunt and her teenage cousin arrive from India for a surprise visit, they draw Hana into a long-buried family secret. A hate-motivated attack on their neighbourhood complicates the situation further, as does Hana’s growing attraction for Aydin, the young owner of the rival restaurant—who might not be a complete stranger after all. As life on the Golden Crescent unravels, Hana must learn to use her voice, draw on the strength of her community and decide what her future should be.

Empire of Gold by S.K. Chakraborty: The final chapter in the Daevabad Trilogy, in which a con-woman and an idealistic djinn prince join forces to save a magical kingdom from a devastating civil war.

Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood: Following two families from Pakistan and Iraq in the 1990s to San Francisco in 2016, Bad Muslim Discount is a hilarious, timely, and provocative comic novel about being Muslim immigrants in modern America.

Muslim Women are Everything by Seema Yasmin: A collection of riveting, inspiring, and stereotype-shattering stories that reveal the beauty, diversity, and strength of Muslim women both past and present.

Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar: Five years after a suspicious fire killed his mother, a closeted Syrian American trans boy sheds his birth name and searches for a new one. He has been unable to paint since his mother's ghost has begun to visit him each evening. The only time he feels truly free is when he slips out at night to paint murals on buildings in the once-thriving Manhattan neighborhood known as Little Syria. One night, he finds the tattered journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z; whose past is intimately tied to his mother's--and his grandmother's--in ways he never could have expected. Following his mother's ghost, he uncovers the silences kept in the name of survival by his own community, his own family, and within himself, and discovers the family that was there all along.

It's Not About the Burqa edited by Mariam Khan:  In 2016, Mariam Khan read that David Cameron had linked the radicalization of Muslim men to the ‘traditional submissiveness’ of Muslim women. Mariam felt pretty sure she didn’t know a single Muslim woman who would describe herself that way. Why was she hearing about Muslim women from people who were neither Muslim, nor female? Years later the state of the national discourse has deteriorated even further, and Muslim women’s voices are still pushed to the fringes – the figures leading the discussion are white and male. 
   Taking one of the most politicized and misused words associated with Muslim women and Islamophobia, It’s Not About the Burqa is poised to change all that. Here are voices you won’t see represented in the national news headlines: seventeen Muslim women speaking frankly about the hijab and wavering faith, about love and divorce, about feminism, queer identity, sex, and the twin threats of a disapproving community and a racist country. Funny, warm, sometimes sad, and often angry, each of these essays is a passionate declaration, and each essay is calling time on the oppression, the lazy stereotyping, the misogyny and the Islamophobia. What does it mean, exactly, to be a Muslim woman in the West today? According to the media, it’s all about the burqa. Here’s what it’s really about.
Rummanah Aasi
 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
 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
 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
 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
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
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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
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