Rummanah Aasi
 Liz Rocher is coming home . . . reluctantly. As a Black woman, Liz doesn't exactly have fond memories of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a predominantly white town. But her best friend is getting married, so she braces herself for a weekend of awkward and passive-aggressive reunions. Liz has grown, though; she can handle whatever awaits her. But on the day of the wedding, somewhere between dancing and dessert, the bride's daughter, Caroline, goes missing-and the only thing left behind is a piece of white fabric covered in blood.

Review: Jackal is a taut, debut thriller that is steeped in real life terror. For more than three decades, Black girls in the predominately white town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania have been killed and/or gone missing. The missing women's lives are forgotten or have been slandered which provides a convenient excuse for the police to not open an investigation. 
  The book is told in two narratives. In one narrative we follow our protagonist, Liz Rocher who has reluctantly returned to her hometown because of her best friend's wedding. Liz is one of the handful of Black residents and has constantly been berated with racial microaggressions. We learn that she has been seeking therapy and has recently ended a toxic relationship. The author does a good job in making the reader care for Liz as we get to know her past in small details throughout the story. 
  The second narrative is the "jackal", which is interestingly told in the second person narration. These chapters intersect Liz's story and provide its chilling atmosphere. It is through the jackal's chapter that we learn more about the young Black women who have been essentially hunted and preyed upon. 
  The two narratives intersect when Liz's godchild and best friend's biracial daughter goes missing and her Liz's mother is being threatened to leave her residence. Unable to let the police botch another investigation, Liz sets out to take on the town's entrenched racism and confront the jackal after she begins to recognize the pattern of the disappearances that others have ignored. 
  I had a hard time putting this thriller down. The suspense and horror that these Black women go through is certainly spine tingling. The mystery surrounding the jackal had me hooked and I was surprised to find a supernatural element woven throughout the story. The supernatural element didn't quite work for me, but it didn't hinder my engagement of the story. The real beast here is racism which will slowly kill you. I would definitely recommend this book to readers who enjoy thrillers with social commentary or movies like Jordan Peele's "Get Out" or "Us" or the television show "Lovecraft Country". 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong violence at times gory, language, and a fade to black sex scene. Recommended for older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: For teens try Monday's Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson, For adults try As The Wicked Watch by Tamaron Hall, Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
Rummanah Aasi
 Jeremy is not excited about the prospect of spending the summer with his dad and his uncle in a seaside cabin in Oregon. It's the first summer after his parents' divorce, and he hasn't exactly been seeking alone time with his dad. He doesn't have a choice, though, so he goes and on his first day takes a walk on the beach and finds himself intrigued by a boy his age running by. Eventually, he and Runner Boy (Evan) meet--and what starts out as friendship blooms into something neither boy is expecting.

Review: The Language of Seabirds is a quiet, tender story that looks into how relationships change-for better or for worse. Told primarily through the point of view of Jeremy, we follow him as he and dad spend their summer at a seaside cabin in Oregon. Jeremy's parents have recently divorced and this summer allows his dad to try to get a fresh new start. This summer also brings on new stress for Jeremy as he navigates his big feelings, a new discovery that he's gay, and try to figure out how to adapt to his dad's mood swings. There is a lot unsaid about Jeremy's father from his erratic disciplinary rules to Jeremy noticing a lot of empty beer cans around the cabin. I would have liked to have this aspect of the story developed a bit more. 
  Jeremy is a sweet, earnest tween who is trying his best to make the most of his summer. Luckily, he finds solace and companionship with another tween, Evan, who is a runner and shares his interest in learning about birds. I loved watching Jeremy and Evan's relationship grow and creating a new language in which they can communicate their emotions and they can exclusively understand. I appreciated that the author allowed these two tweens to explore their big emotions and find solace in one another without any fall-outs, backlash, or negative repercussions by others around them. I also learned a lot about the different types of seabirds. 
Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are allusions to Jeremy's father's spiral into alcoholism including a loud, drunk argument in a restaurant which forces Jeremy to come out. Recommended for Grades 5 and up.

If you like this book try: Thanks a lot, Universe by Chad Lucas
Rummanah Aasi
 When Georgia Avis finds the dead body of Ashley James outside the gates of an exclusive resort, she teams up with Ashley's older sister Nora to find the killer, and she is thrown into a world of unimaginable wealth and privilege--and the fight for her life.

Review: Drawing inspiration by the Jeffrey Epstein trial, Courtney Summers has written another gritty, raw, and unflinching thriller. Though I didn't have a visceral reaction to this book like I did with Sadie, this book did infuriate me on many levels. 
  I found Georgia to be a very frustrating character. There were many times when I wanted to shake her until I realized she was purposely written as a painfully naive character. Once that clicked for me, I was able to let go all of my frustrations and become a watcher. Georgia has been led to believe that she is essentially worthless if she can't use her body and beauty to make something of herself. Her dream is to become an Aspera girl, a girl who is beautiful, put together, affluent, and works for the private and exclusive club. While her deceased mother who is knowledgeable of the on goings of the club has tried to pull Georgia away, Georgia only interprets this as a confirmation that she is not worthy. Desperate to seek love, validation, and affirmation, Georgia takes desperate steps to fight her way to Aspera no matter what. 
 Summers interrogates the themes of privilege, power, glamour, deceit, and complicity throughout the novel. As a reader you are very well aware of what is going on in Aspera and watch in horror as Georgia is quickly groomed and used by others. There are moments in the book that made me very uncomfortable, but like gapers delay while driving I couldn't look away. There are lighter moments in the book in which Georgia has a romantic relationship with Nora, Ashley's sister, but even this relationship is one of shared grief and a desperate attempt to figure things out when you can't trust the adults in your life. 
 It would be unfair to compare this book to Sadie though it is thematically similar. I think Summer's intent with I'm the Girl is to show the reader how easily young women are preyed upon and the toxicity of misogyny that we live in our daily lives. While it is a powerful, unrelenting, and bleak read, it is definitely not a book for every reader. I very much needed a lighter book after finishing this one.    

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: Grooming, sexual assault, gas lighting, sex with minors, underage drinking and drug use, death of a parent from cancer, and pedophilia. Recommended for mature and older teens only.

If you like this book try: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson
Rummanah Aasi
 Things are heating up for Lila Macapagal. Not in her love life, which she insists on keeping nonexistent despite the attention of two very eligible bachelors. Or her professional life, since she can't bring herself to open her new cafe after the unpleasantness that occurred a few months ago at her aunt's Filipino restaurant, Tita Rosie's Kitchen. No, things are heating up quite literally, since summer, her least favorite season, has just started.
  To add to her feelings of sticky unease, Lila's little town of Shady Palms has resurrected the Miss Teen Shady Palms Beauty Pageant, which she won many years ago--a fact that serves as a wedge between Lila and her cousin slash rival, Bernadette. But when the head judge of the pageant is murdered and Bernadette becomes the main suspect, the two must put aside their differences and solve the case--because it looks like one of them might be next.

Review: One of my reading goals for this year is to rekindle my love of mysteries and thrillers. I read my first culinary cozy mystery, Arsenic and Adobo, and really enjoyed it. I was hoping to enjoy the second book in the series just as much, but unfortunately it didn't work for me.
  Lila Macapagal is an extremely likable character who suddenly found herself to be an amateur sleuth in order to protect her family's Filipino's restaurant and reputation. This time around she is reluctantly involved in a local beauty pageant, which had a history of souring her relationship with her cousin Bernadette. I enjoyed the set up for the mystery and getting to know more about Lila's past, however, the bulk of the book is really examining where Lila is mentally after being traumatized during her first murder case. I found the tonal shift quite jarring, not that I don't think this is an important topic to discuss. Due to the tonal shift, we don't get to see Lila do really any of the sleuthing, which becomes the subplot of the book. By the time the pieces to the mystery began to come together, I was taken out of the story and found myself not really caring all that much. I had expected the mystery to take center stage, but because I really enjoyed the series' cast of characters I hung around but was ultimately underwhelmed and disappointed. Still I do plan on reading the third book in the series and hope to see more sleuthing done by Lila and company. I would also continue to recommend it by its excellent diverse cast of characters, light humor, and warmth.  

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is discussion of post traumatic disorder and the stigma of seeking help for mental health issues. There is also some minor language.

If you like this book try: Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chen and A Deadly Inside Scoop by Abby Collette
Rummanah Aasi
 Aafiyah loves playing tennis, reading Weird but True facts, and hanging out with her best friend, Zaina. However, Aafiyah has a bad habit that troubles her--she's drawn to pretty things and can't help but occasionally "borrow" them.
  When her father is falsely accused of a crime he hasn't committed and gets taken in by authorities, Aafiyah knows she needs to do something to help. When she brainstorms a way to bring her father back, she turns to her Weird but True facts and devises the perfect plan, but what if her plan means giving in to her bad habit, the one she's been trying to stop? Aafiyah wants to reunite her family but finds that maybe her plan isn't so perfect after all.

Review: I picked up and read Golden Girl by Reem Faruqi as part of my Ramadan Reading Challenge and I really enjoyed it. Told in the format of a novel in verse, we meet out-going, Pakistani American Aafiyah who is has a bad habit of "borrowing" things that are shiny and new despite having sufficient things at home. Her 'once in a while' habit becomes uncontrollable as her father is detained in Pakistan for a crime he did not commit after a family trip. As Reem witnesses her mother's stress in juggling financial problems coupled with a grandfather who is undergoing chemo therapy, Aafiyah wants to help any way that she can. She concocts a plan to betray her best friend in order to save her own family. 
I    I enjoyed this nuanced and flawed portrait of a South Asian tween who is struggling to find a way to help her family. I appreciated that the narrative moves beyond the troubles with immigrant families, but focuses on how to deal with an invisible illness which the author revealed is actually based on a person she met in her life. Aafiyah's Muslim identity is woven nicely throughout the story without being didactic. I would recommend this quick read for readers who enjoyed Hena Khan's Amina Voice

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: Mentions of a family member diagnosed with cancer and is receiving chemo treatment. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Amina's Voice by Hena Khan
Rummanah Aasi
 Serene dreams of making couture dresses even more stunning than her mom’s, but for now she’s an intern at her mom’s fashion label. When her mom receives a sudden diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, all that changes. Serene has to take over her mother’s business overnight while trying to figure out what happened with her dad in Beijing. He left before she was born, and Serene wants to find him, even if it means going against her mom’s one request—never look back.
   Lian Chen moved from China to Serene’s mostly white Southern California beach town a year ago. He doesn’t fit in at school, where kids mispronounce his name. His parents don’t care about what he wants to do--comedy--and push him toward going to MIT engineering early. Lian thinks there’s nothing to stick around for until one day he starts a Chinese Club after school and Serene walks in. Worlds apart in the high school hierarchy, Serene and Lian soon find refuge in each other, falling in love as they navigate life-changing storms.

Review: After reading and enjoying several of books by Kelly Yang, I have become a fan. I immediately added Private Label to my reading pile without paying much attention to the book's description. This is a heavy read, but despite its heaviness I did find it thought provoking and enjoyable. 
  Like her other books thus far, Yang explores the themes of gender, racism, class, and identity. Serene and Lian both identify as Chinese Americans though they express themselves very differently. Serene has more or less assimilated to her mostly white affluent community and school. Due to her mother's well known designer brand and the fact that she can give designer clothes to friends and has the most popular boy as a boyfriend, she is accepted at the top of her school's social circles. Lian comes from a traditional, middle class Chinese family in which he is pushed to succeed in the STEM field and get into a cutthroat early admissions engineering program at MIT though he dreams of being a stand-up comic. Where Serene is at the top, Lian is constantly ridiculed and singled out for his "Asian-ness". 
    Serene's and Lian's worlds collide when Serene receives the life altering news that her mother has been diagnosed with stage three pancreatic cancer and she wants to reach out to her elusive father who lives overseas. Serene seeks out Lian's help through his Chinese club at school by learning Chinese though his club is actually a ruse for him to carve out private space to practice his stand-up for a local competition. I really enjoyed watching Serene's and Lian's relationship grow. They find acceptance, solace, and support in one another. It is their romance that buoys the novel that would otherwise be too dark. I found their conversation surrounding assimilation to be enlightening and often mirroring that of my own experience.
  Fashion does play a prominent role in the book, though I would argue it is less of a slapstick like "Devil Wears Prada" which is what the book comparison calls for. I loved the idea of embracing ones culture and expressing that in the fashion. I did, however, have to suspended my disbelief that a teen would take over her mother's brand, but that didn't hinder my enjoyment of this book. I thought it was a nice touch of Serene's journey of self discovery. If you are looking for a realistic fiction novel with vibrant characters and that balances the heaviness of coming of age with a romantic subplot do check this book out. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, scenes of racial microaggressions, sexting, and a fade to black sex scene. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: This Place is Still Beautiful by XiXi Tan, Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Rummanah Aasi
 It's the first day of sophomore year, and now that Winifred's two best (and only) friends have transferred to a private school, she must navigate high school on her own. But she isn't alone for long. In art class, she meets two offbeat students, Oscar and April. The three bond through clandestine sleepovers, thrift store shopping, and zine publishing. Winifred is finally breaking out of her shell, but there's one secret she can't bear to admit to April and Oscar, or even to herself--and this lie is threatening to destroy her newfound friendships.

Review: Sarah Winifred Searle's semi-autobiographical graphic novel follows Winifred who is not looking forward to starting a new school year after her two closest friends move to a different school. Alone, introverted, Winifred is a talented artist who is filled with self doubt and self loathing. She loves and finds joy in her drawing and photography classes, but her low self esteem and insecurity about her weight bring her down. Though she is lactose intolerant, she eats foods that she knows will make her unwell. Luckily, she does make friends with fellow classmates April and Oscar who take note of her talent and share a sense of comradeship with their own issues and insecurities. April also has an eating disorder and identifies as nonbinary though it is not accepted by their emotionally absent parents. Oscar is identified as being pansexual and is struggling with a learning disability. The trio's friendship deepens as they open up to each other and collaborate on a zine together. 
  Despite all the heavy topics that this graphic novel covers from mental health to navigating gender and sexuality identities, I really like how introspective, poignant and quiet it is without losing its candor. The graphic novel within the graphic novel format is not only meta but it also allows Winifred to express herself through storytelling and gain self confidence. With the help of her friends and the zine she is able to reach out to her mom and ask for help. The book ends on a hopeful note with Winifred beginning to discover herself worth and being happy.    

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is mention of self harm, characters with an eating disorder, emotionally absent parents, and some language. Recommended for Grades 9 and up. 

If you like this book try: The Dark Matter of Mona Starr by Laura Lee Gulledge and Slip by Marika McCoola
Rummanah Aasi

Ramadan is is the holy month of fasting and the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. During this month Muslims abstain from food and drink (including water) from sunrise to sunset. We break our fast when the sunsets. Many people tend to focus on the physical hardships of the month, but I like to view it as a spiritual reassessment. During this month I am always reminded of how fortunate I am, exercise my willpower, strengthen my empathy skills, and most importantly making my faith stronger. This year Ramadan begins on April 2nd.
  In past years I found a Ramadan Reading Challenge online from Nadia's awesome blog Headscarves & Hardbacks, but I am not sure if there is an official reading challenge this year. I am creating one on my own with a particular focus on reading and supporting Muslim #ownvoices authors. I've listed my tbr pile for this challenge. Check it out below:

Ramadan Reading Challenge TBR:

Children Picture Books

Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers by Lina Al-Hathloul: Loujain watches her beloved Baba attach his feather wings and fly each morning, but her own dreams of flying face a big obstacle: only boys, not girls, are allowed to fly in her country. Yet despite the taunts of her classmates, she is determined that some day, she too will learn to do it--especially because Loujain loves colors, and only by flying will she be able to see the color-filled field of sunflowers her baba has told her about. Eventually, he agrees to teach her, and Loujain's impossible dream becomes reality--inspiring other girls to dare to learn to fly. Inspired by co-author Lina al-Hathloul's sister, formerly imprisoned Saudi women's rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Loujain al-Hathloul, who led the successful campaign to lift Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. This gorgeously illustrated story is lyrical and moving.

One Wish by M.O. YukselFatima al-Fihri loved to learn. She wanted to know everything, like how birds flew, why the sky was blue, and how flowers grew. But more than anything, she wanted a school for all, where anyone could study and become whatever they wanted, like teachers, scientists, and doctors. As she grew older, Fatima carried her one wish inside her, through good times and bad. Fueled by her faith and her determination, she worked hard to make her one wish come true. For over a thousand years, Fatima’s one wish—her school—served students and scholars from around the globe, and it continues to do so today!

Amira's Picture Day by Reem Faruqi: Ramadan has come to an end, and Amira can't wait to stay home from school to celebrate Eid. There's just one hiccup: it's also school picture day. How can Amira be in two places at once?

One Sun and Countless Stars by Hena Khan: From one sun to countless stars, this gentle introduction to numbers also celebrates the many diverse traditions of the Muslim world, encouraging readers young and old to reflect upon—and count—their many blessings.

Bilaal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed: Six-year-old Bilal is excited to help his dad make his favorite food of all-time: daal! The slow-cooked lentil dish from South Asia requires lots of ingredients and a whole lot of waiting. Bilal wants to introduce his friends to daal. They’ve never tried it! As the day goes on, the daal continues to simmer, and more kids join Bilal and his family, waiting to try the tasty dish. And as time passes, Bilal begins to wonder: Will his friends like it as much as he does?

Middle Grade Fiction

Samira and Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds by Samira Ahmed: A genie informs twelve-year-old Amira and her younger brother Hamza that they are the chosen ones who must defeat a monstrous demon of Islamic folklore to save the Earth and a parallel dimension.

Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi: Yusuf is excited to start middle school in his small Texas town, but with the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks coming up, suddenly it feels like the country's same anger and grief is all focused on his Muslim community.

Omar Rising by Aisha Saeed: Omar must contend with being treated like a second-class citizen when he gets a scholarship to an elite boarding school.

Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz: After months of rebuilding a new life in Bangladesh with her family, Samira decides to become a Bengali surfer girl of Cox's Bazar, in this novel in verse about a young Rohingya girl's journey from isolation and persecution to sisterhood, and from fear to power.

Golden Girl by Reem Faruqi: When her father is accused of a crime he didn't commit, seventh grader Aafiyah, a Pakastani American girl who has a habit of "borrowing" glittery things, decides to use her bad habit to reunite her family.

Ahmed Aziz's Epic Year by Nina Hamza: A Indian American boy endures a family move from Hawaii to frigid Minnesota and, with the help of three life-changing books he reads in school, he learns to like reading, and ultimately, himself.

YA Fiction

All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir: Salahudin and Noor are more than best friends; they are family. Growing up as outcasts in the small desert town of Juniper, California, they understand each other the way no one else does. Until The Fight, which destroys their bond with the swift fury of a star exploding.
   Now, Sal scrambles to run the family motel as his mother Misbah's health fails and his grieving father loses himself to alcoholism. Noor, meanwhile, walks a harrowing tightrope: working at her wrathful uncle's liquor store while hiding the fact that she's applying to college so she can escape him--and Juniper--forever. When Sal's attempts to save the motel spiral out of control, he and Noor must ask themselves what friendship is worth--and what it takes to defeat the monsters in their pasts and the ones in their midst.

This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi: To all the world, Alizeh is a disposable servant, not the long-lost heir to an ancient Jinn kingdom forced to hide in plain sight. The crown prince, Kamran, has heard the prophecies foretelling the death of his king. But he could never have imagined that the servant girl with the strange eyes, the girl he can't put out of his mind, would one day soon uproot his kingdom--and the world.

The Wrong Side of the Court by H.N. Khan: Dreaming of being the world's first Pakistani to be drafted into the NBA, fifteen-year-old Fawad Chaudhry must convince his mother to let him try out for the basketball team while dealing with the neighborhood bully.

You Truly Assumed by Laila Sabreen: Sabriya has her whole summer planned but those plans go out the window after a terrorist attack near her home. When the terrorist is assumed to be Muslim and Islamophobia grows, Sabriya turns to her online journal for comfort .Soon two more teens, Zakat and Farah, join Bri to run 'You Truly Assumed' and the three quickly form a strong friendship. When one of them is threatened, the search to find out who is behind it all begins, and their friendship is put to the test when all three must decide whether to shut down the blog and lose what they've worked for.

Adult Fiction

Good Intentions by Kasim Ali: It's the countdown to the New Year, and Nur is steeling himself to tell his parents that he's seeing someone. A young British Pakistani man, Nur has spent years omitting details about his personal life to maintain his image as the golden child. And it's come at a cost.
Once, Nur was a restless college student, struggling to fit in. At a party, he meets Yasmina, a beautiful and self-possessed aspiring journalist. They start a conversation--first awkward, then absorbing. And as their relationship develops, so too does Nur's self-destruction. He falls deeper into traps of his own making, attempting to please both Yasmina and his family until he must finally reveal the truth: Yasmina is Black, and he loves her.

Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron: Reena Manji doesn't love her career, her single status, and most of all, her family inserting themselves into every detail of her life. But when caring for her precious sourdough starters, Reena can drown it all out. At least until her father moves his newest employee across the hall - with hopes that Reena will marry him. But Nadim's not like the other Muslim bachelor-du-jours that her parents have dug up. If the Captain America body and the British accent weren't enough, the man appears to love eating her sourdough creations as much as she loves making them. She sure as hell would never marry a man who works for her father, but friendship with a neighbor is okay, right? When Reena's career takes a nosedive, she decides to follow her heart by entering a video cooking contest to win the artisan bread course of her dreams. The one problem? It's couples only. Nadim happily agrees to fake an engagement so they can enter the contest, but as cooking at home together brings them closer and her family gets wind of the situation, Reena can't help thinking her faux fiancé might just be the real deal.

Mismatch by Sara Jafri: After graduating from university, Soraya Nazari decides it’s time to get the life experience she is lacking due to her strict upbringing and distracts herself with Marcus Evans, with whom she could never fall in love, until she realizes there is more to him than she originally thought.

Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed: Raised in India, Seema is the beloved daughter of a commanding, erudite, Romantic-poetry-loving doctor father who cut her off when she came out to him as a lesbian. Now living alone in San Francisco, estranged from her African American ex-husband, Seema is one week away from delivering a baby boy, Ishraaq. Ishraaq's arrival has brought to Seema's side, for the first time in 15 years, her terminally ill mother, Nafeesa, and her devoutly religious, hijab-wearing sister Tahera, an ob/gyn living with her husband and two young children in Irving, Texas. But there is to be no easy reconciliation. Instead, this fateful week, narrated by the new-born Ishraaq, ends in an emergency delivery, revealing both a family and a country in distress.
Rummanah Aasi

 Love is already hard enough, but it becomes an unnavigable maze for unassuming high school student Taichi Ichinose and his shy classmate Futaba Kuze when they begin to fall for each other after their same-sex best friends have already fallen for them.

Review: Blue Flag is a relatively short manga series with a total of eight volumes. This manga is much more of a slice of life rather than a shoujo/romance, although readers may be immediately drawn to it for its love quadrangle. 
  Blue Flag is centered around four teenagers as they navigate through high school, their identity and their relationships. Despite having a love quadrangle in the story, the manga series is surprisingly low on the angst and melodrama. Kaito is much more interested in focusing on how our choices shape our identities, which caught my attention and drew me to this manga. All four characters are flushed out in the series and at times surprised me as they went beyond their cookie cutter box such as the jock, the awkward nerd, the ice queen, and the cute ditsy girl. Each character is frustrated with their label and want to become someone else, which is highly relateable and yet coming to this realization at a young age is actually quite profound. 
  While there are romantic elements in the series, they are downplayed. I think readers who are true romance fans will be a little disappointed in this series. Though two characters fall within the LGBTQ+ umbrella, the exact words are never actually uttered by the characters but inferred within context of the story. I am not sure if this choice is indicative on how sexuality is addressed in Japan or the creator's choice. I did love the character development and how the characters interacted with one another, especially during the vulnerable moments when they quietly voiced their doubts and fears. The silent panels and the zoom close up into the characters' facial features during these moments are exquisite. The first seven volumes of the manga flow naturally and remain consistent in terms of theme and character development.The final volume, however, was my least favorite and felt rushed with huge, confusing time jumps, and an underdeveloped ending which really hindered my enjoyment of the series. Overall, I mostly enjoyed this series and I think this is a good pick for manga readers who are drawn to character driven and slice of life stories.

Rating: 3.5 stars for the entire series

Words of Caution: There is mention of sexual abuse from a secondary character, partial nudity in a shower scene, and suggestive poses of female characters in negligee. Recommended for Grades 9 and up. 

If you like this book try: Boys Run the Riot by Keito Gaku, Sweet Blue Flowers by Takako Shimura, and Our Dreams at Dusk by Yuhki Kamatani
Rummanah Aasi
 Ari Abrams has always been fascinated by the weather, and she loves almost everything about her job as a TV meteorologist. Her boss, legendary Seattle weather woman Torrance Hale, is too distracted by her tempestuous relationship with her ex-husband, the station’s news director, to give Ari the mentorship she wants. Ari, who runs on sunshine and optimism, is at her wits’ end. The only person who seems to understand how she feels is sweet but reserved sports reporter Russell Barringer.
  In the aftermath of a disastrous holiday party, Ari and Russell decide to team up to solve their bosses’ relationship issues. Between secret gifts and double dates, they start nudging their bosses back together. But their well-meaning meddling backfires when the real chemistry builds between Ari and Russell. Working closely with Russell means allowing him to get to know parts of herself that Ari keeps hidden from everyone. Will he be able to embrace her dark clouds as well as her clear skies?

Review:  Ari Abrams loves her job and is passionate about weather. She has always looked up to Torrance Hale, the reigning queen of all things meteorological at KSEA 6, and hoped Torrance would be her mentor in guiding her career, but recently the nonstop hostility between Torrance and her ex-husband, the station’s news director, has made the workplace stressful. It’s particularly hard for Ari until one evening at an office holiday party she finally opens up and vents to the cute, sports anchor Russell Barringer. When Russell suggests he and Ari get their bosses back together to improve their dispositions, she thinks it’s worth a try and is glad to have made a friend who listens to her. As Ari and Russell spend more time with each other, their friendship blooms into something more. 
  I would not label Weather Girl as a romantic comedy though it has the setup for one. The hijinks and the romance is more subdued as Solomon is more concerned and focused on the exploration of mental health and its impact on relationships. I adored Ari right from the start. Her love for her career is genuine, but she is starting to get burnout. Ari has used her energy in masking her clinical depression with relentless cheeriness and a happy go-lucky attitude. She is afraid to show her true self because she would be misunderstood as a woman who is "too much to handle" as she witnessed her own mother say. Like Ari, her mother also battles with chronic depression and had her own roller coaster of failed relationships and neglected her own children before she sought out help. Luckily Ari does have help from a therapist and has a supportive, lovable brother and brother-in law, but the fear of allowing someone new see her bad days is what keeps her arms length from allowing Russell fully into her life. 
  I liked Russell and thought he was adorably shy and quiet. He also loves his job as a sportscaster and wants to advance in his career, but he also has his hangups. Russell is insecure about his physical appearance, which is nice to see because often times it is usually women who have that insecurity. Like Ari, Russell has not had a real relationship since he and his high school girlfriend had a baby. Forced to grow up really quickly and assume responsibility, Russell has not thought of a future for himself until Ari stepped into his world. Though I would have liked Russell's character to be developed and explored more, I did enjoy this mature romance. The often, irritating miscommunication trope doesn't really exist, but it's more like an aha! moment for Ari as she begins to realize that she is purposefully self-destructing and correct course. I thought the romance between Ari and Russell is sweet and is more of a slow burn type. I appreciated there is subplot of Ari trying to reconcile with her mother too. Overall, I enjoyed this substantial romance.   

Rating: 4 stars

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

If you like this book try: Love, Lists, and Fancy Ships by Sarah Grunder Ruiz, Twice Shy by Sarah Hogle 
Rummanah Aasi
 Since Gran died a few months ago, Molly has been navigating life's complexities all by herself. No matter--she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. Her unique character, along with her obsessive love of cleaning and proper etiquette, make her an ideal fit for the job. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms at the Regency Grand Hotel to a state of perfection.
     But Molly's orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself dead in his bed. Before she knows what's happening, Molly's unusual demeanor has the police targeting her as their lead suspect. She quickly finds herself caught in a web of deception, one she has no idea how to untangle. Fortunately for Molly, friends she never knew she had unite with her in a search for clues to what really happened to Mr. Black--but will they be able to find the real killer before it's too late?

Review: Nita Prose's debut novel, The Maid, has been one of the buzziest book of 2022. From webinars to review journals, this book was everywhere. Since I wanted to reignite my love for the mystery genres I thought I would give it a shot. 
  The Maid is a charming cozy, locked room mystery set in a hotel room. Our main protagonist is Molly Gray, a hotel maid whom few hotel guests acknowledge or really even see. She is focused on being the hotel's best maid and cleaning, neatness brings her utmost satisfaction. Raised by her beloved and now deceased grandmother and abandoned by her parents as a baby, Molly finds herself adrift and unexpectedly the main suspect of a murder of a very rich man named Mr. Black. 
  While the plot and pace moves swiftly, the overall mystery of the book is pretty underwhelming. The clues and problems are conveniently solved. Normally, I would have abandoned the book early on, however, I loved Molly as a character and the network that she created around her. Though not explicitly stated in the book, strong evidence seems to suggest that Molly is on the autism spectrum. She has a very hard time reading social clues which makes her come across as extremely naive and socially awkward to other characters. The real the real perpetrators of the crime, of course, take advantage of her. Prose does a fine job in not making Molly the butt of a joke, but allows Molly to take agency and develop friendships with genuinely good people such as Juan Manuel and Mr. Preston who help clear her name and support her through kindness. I would gladly read another book featuring Molly and crew should Prose decide to write another book.  

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, mentions of physical and drug abuse, and drug trafficking. Recommended for teens and adults. 

If you like this book try: Under Lock & Skeleton Key by Gigi Pandin
Rummanah Aasi
Description: When boys in her class start touching Mila and making her feel uncomfortable, she does not want to tell her friends or mother until she reaches her breaking point.

Review: Maybe He Just Likes You tackles sexual harassment and gaslighting in middle school. Mila is being targeted by a group of boys with unwanted attention. It began with a coerced hugging and then escalates to distressing incidents of lewd comments and touching. Mila's friend Zara seems envious of the boys' attention and tells her that she's overreacting while her quiet friend Omi doesn't like confrontation. Confused, frustrated, angry, and scared Mila tries different tactics to avoid being the boys' spotlight. She tries wearing bagging clothes and avoids being alone in the same room as them. Whenever she attempts to stick up for herself, Mila is effectively silenced by accusations of “overreacting.” She does not want to burden her mother with school issues because she can barely hold on financially to a toxic job. As Mila's anxiety and fears of sexual harassment grows she begins to find an outlet of karate classes which teach her to stand up for herself and empower her to speak the truth. She finally takes Max's advice and reports the harassment to her teachers. Max also faced discrimination on account of his sexuality. The group of boys are disciplined though the conclusion is a bit rushed.  This is a great discussion starter for parents and educators who want to teach their children and students about consent and harassment. The description of the harassment is not gratuitous but it does convey Mila's extreme discomfort. 

Rating: 4 stars

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

If you like this book try: The Prettiest by Brigit Young
Rummanah Aasi
When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free.

However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He’s determined to find out what happened and tie up some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave.

Review: Unlike the rest of his family, Yadriel is kept from having a quinces, the traditional coming-of-age ceremony to become a brujo. Yadriel is trans and gay, but it is his gender identity that prevents him from participating in his family responsibility of guiding the dead to the afterlife. His family is reluctant to look deeper and see if Yadriel's gender identity actually has any affect his abilities. Yadriel grows tired and frustrated from being on the sidelines. He decides to hold his own ceremony with the help of a fellow "outcast" of the family, his best friend and cousin Maritza. Since magic requires a blood sacrifice, human and/or animal, Maritza refuses to use her healing magic based on her vegan principles thus making her an odd ball. When Yadriel calls on Lady Death to bestow her blessings upon him and make him a brujo, Yadriel and Martiza both feel an acute loss of their own when their cousin Miguel dies suddenly and a new spirit named Julian mysteriously appears. Are these two deaths connected? Why can't they find Miguel's body?  How can they guide Julian's spirit to the afterlife? Yadriel and Maritza begin their adventure and seek answers of their own as they team up with Julian.
   Cemetery Boys is a delightful adventure, mystery, and a slow burn romance. I loved the seamless integration of Spanish phrases and the Dia de los Muertos traditions from many different Latin countries such as Mexico and Cuba. There are no explanatory commas that drag the story down, but rather context clues to figure out what is being said. I also loved the ethnic diversity within the characters. Yadriel is Cuban and Mexican while Julian is Colombian. What really makes Cemetery Boys standout from other LGBTQ+ fantasy books is that Yadriel and Julian belong to this community unapologetically and that is only one part of their identity. Thomas is more focused on themes of what makes a family (both what you are born into and one that you create), death, loss, abandonment, and rejection as we unpack Yadriel and Julian's identities and learn of their backstories. While Yadriel's father has a hard time seeing and accepting his son, it is not because of being transphobic but I see it as his struggle between upholding traditions without question and striving for full self-acceptance. I think it is really important that we see Yadriel's father make mistakes but takes steps to fully understand and embrace his son.
  The mystery is not surprising and close readers can figure it out before Yadriel does, but I was more invested in the characters' journey. I also didn't quite feel the romance between Yadriel and Julian, but I enjoy seeing them together. While there is a central romance between Yadriel and Julian, the book does explore love in both familial and platonic terms too which I really appreciate. Overall this a joyful and enchanting story that will surely bring a smile to your face. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language both in English and in Spanish and scene of underage drinking and drug usage.

If you like this book try: The Witch King by H.E. Edgmon, Beyond the Black Door by A.M. Strickland
Rummanah Aasi
 Spencer Harris is a proud nerd, an awesome big brother, and a David Beckham in training. He's also transgender. After transitioning at his old school leads to a year of isolation and bullying, Spencer gets a fresh start at Oakley, the most liberal private school in Ohio. At Oakley, Spencer seems to have it all: more accepting classmates, a decent shot at a starting position on the boy's soccer team, great new friends, and maybe even something more than friendship with one of his teammates. The problem is, no one at Oakley knows Spencer is trans--he's passing. So when a discriminatory law forces Spencer's coach to bench him after he discovers the 'F' on Spencer's birth certificate, Spencer has to make a choice: cheer his team on from the sidelines or publicly fight for his right to play, even though it would mean coming out to everyone--including the guy he's falling for.

Review: The Passing Playbook is a super sweet and uplifting read. Review journals have classified the book as a romance, but I think it belongs to realistic/contemporary fiction. The romance, while present, is a subplot to the story and more of a budding relationship type. Readers looking strictly for a romance would be disappointed. 
   We follow Spencer, a trans biracial (his father is Black and his mother is white) teen who is starting at his new school. Spencer wants to blend in and keep his identity private until he feels safe to disclose it. It is referred that he was horribly bullied when he came out as trans at his old school. When he is given the opportunity to join the boys soccer team, Spencer can’t resist the challenge. He was a star player at his old school and misses the game plus the cute vice captain says he doesn’t think Spencer has what it takes. Soccer means everything to Spencer, and he refuses to give up his shot to play, even if he has to keep it a secret from his overprotective parents. There are some plot points that you need to suspend your disbelief such as a coach allowing a player to play without getting parental permission and Spencer's ability to hide playing soccer. 
   Soccer is a large part of the book as Spencer begins to develop camaraderie with his teammates. There are plenty of scenes of the game, but since I know virtually nothing about soccer I can't comment on the sports accuracy. I did, however, love the idea that there are other queer characters such as the team captain who is bi and who also play soccer and it is not a big deal. When Spencer's true identity is revealed and he is disqualified by the soccer league but he is supported by his team, his coach, and his family.
  Spencer is given fully agency to voice his feelings, which he communicates to his parents. I think it is important to note that Spencer's parents are supportive, but they make mistakes. It is wonderful that Spencer's mother is actively in a support group for transgender and non-binary youths. This is a complete contrast to Justice's family who comes from an ultra-conservative Christian family and he can not disclose that he is gay in fear of his family's reaction.
 The romance between Spencer and Justice is sweet and wholesome. I actually wished their romance played a bigger part of the story, but it adds a nice layer of nuance to the coming-out narrative. There is also discussion of Spencer’s connection to his younger brother, Theo, who is autistic, is also woven into the story. The plot moves very quickly as I finished it in two days. Overall, I really enjoyed it and I look forward to reading whatever Fitzsimons writes next. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, a scene of a homophobic conservative talk show on a radio, and homophobic imagery in a haunted house. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Simon vs. the Homosapien Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee
Rummanah Aasi
 Living in a new country is no walk in the park―Nao, Hyejung, and Tina can all attest to that. The three of them became fast friends through living together in the Himawari House in Tokyo and attending the same Japanese cram school. Nao came to Japan to reconnect with her Japanese heritage, while Hyejung and Tina came to find freedom and their own paths. Though each of them has her own motivations and challenges, they all deal with language barriers, being a fish out of water, self discovery, love, and family.

Review: Himawari House is a slice of life graphic novel that I absolutely adored. The premise of the graphic novel is very simple: The Himawari House is a shared house in Tokyo and we follow the lives of its residents as they live abroad. The graphic novel itself, however, is anything but simple. This is a character driven graphic novel and each section devotes its page time to one of the female characters.
    Nao, is a biracial Japanese American teenager (her mother is Japanese and her father is white), arrives in Tokyo for a gap year. While growing up in America, Nao has slowly rejected her Japanese heritage. She forgets the language and presses her mother to speak English. She stops bringing Japanese food for lunch in a bento box because her classmates loudly complain that it is too smelly and weird. Now Nao is hoping that her gap year will allow her to reconnect with her heritage.
 As Nao arrives at Himawari House, she quickly befriends her female roommates Tina, who is Chinese Singaporean, and homesick Hyejung, who is Korean and her two male Japanese roommates, Shinichi and Masaki, who are brothers. Like Nao, Tina and Hyejung are also trying to learn Japanese and on a larger scale, come to Japan to make sense of their lives. 
   Tina is very energetic yet she struggles to study and pass her Japanese classes, mainly because she spends most of her time trying to pay for the school's tuition by working. Hyejung came to Japan to find herself as she made the first active decision in her life. She was tired of pleasing her parents, broke up with an uncaring lover, and needed to start over. Hyejung struggles with balancing her own desires and the desires of her parents who she has been estranged from for a year.
  As we spend time with these friends, we learn about the Japanese life and culture-combini, izakaya, obaachans, cherry blossoms, and matsuri. I found learning about Japanese culture to be utterly fascinating. What really touched my heart, however, is Becker's focus on language and identity. Interestingly, the speech bubbles are written with Japanese characters and subtitled English underneath. Not all words, however, are translated, which heightens the disconnect the characters have while learning the Japanese language.  There are countless intersecting modes of communication even within Nao's social circle: Tina's Singlish, Hyejung's thickly accented English are not created to make fun of the characters, but call to attention on accents and their paths to Japanese acquisition. Nao often wonders if she can label herself Japanese even when she can't speak the language fluently or has correct Japanese grammar (I also struggle with the same question as my Urdu is not fluent and my grammar is atrocious). I also loved the contrast of Masaki's fluent written but poorly spoken English against those of the girls. Masaki is constantly mistaken for being rude or arrogant because he does not interact with his other roommates, but his aloofness is due to his self consciousness of speaking English.  
  I fell in love with these enduring characters instantly and it was very hard to say goodbye as I finished the book. I only wished that we got an epilogue. I also wanted to know more about the brothers too. If you love stories of character growth, self discovery, and friendship then I highly recommend picking up this graphic novel. 

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some scenes of casual racism from Nao's American classmates, some panels suggest sexual situations but nothing graphic is seen on page, Tina is harassed at her waitress job and there is drinking. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.   

If you like this book try: The Dischantments by Nina LaCour, Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen
Rummanah Aasi
 Ellice Littlejohn seemingly has it all: an Ivy League law degree, a well-paying job as a corporate attorney in midtown Atlanta, great friends, and a “for fun” relationship with a rich, charming executive—her white boss, Michael. But everything changes one cold January morning when Ellice goes to meet Michael and finds him dead with a gunshot to his head.
And then she walks away like nothing has happened. Why? Ellice has been keeping a cache of dark secrets, including a small-town past and a kid brother who’s spent time on the other side of the law. She can’t be thrust into the spotlight—again. But instead of grieving this tragedy, people are gossiping, the police are getting suspicious, and Ellice, the company’s lone Black attorney, is promoted to replace Michael. While the opportunity is a dream-come-true, Ellice just can’t shake the feeling that something is off.
When she uncovers shady dealings inside the company, Ellice is trapped in an impossible ethical and moral dilemma. Suddenly, Ellice’s past and present lives collide as she launches into a pulse-pounding race to protect the brother she tried to save years ago and stop a conspiracy far more sinister than she could have ever imagined.

Review: All Her Little Secrets is my first legal thriller that I have ever read. Since I had no expectations for the book, I ended up enjoying it a lot more. The author Wanda M. Morris is a corporate attorney and her expertise clearly shines through the book without resorting to legal jargon. I found the plot to be gripping and it quickly intensifies the further Ellice digs into the company. While Ellice does make impulsive decisions, you can actually understand her thought process as her backstory is slowly revealed. Though I had inklings on who was behind Michael's murder, the reasoning behind the company's shadier dealings caught me by surprised. 
  I did like Ellice with her flaws and all. I had a better understanding of how much she risked hiding her childhood secrets, her distrust in the police, and her moral compass. I did love her loving and supportive mother-figure Vera Henderson who practically raised Ellice and her brother. Morris effectively tackles workplace racism and sexism without it being heavy handed. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, a reference to sexual abuse of a child, at-home abortion, neglect, an alcoholic mother, microaggressions, misogyny. Recommended for Adults only.

If you like this book try: And Now She's Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall
Rummanah Aasi
 When two Niveus Private Academy students, Devon Richards and Chiamaka Adebayo, are selected to be part of the elite school’s senior class prefects, it looks like their year is off to an amazing start. After all, not only does it look great on college applications, but it officially puts each of them in the running for valedictorian, too.
Shortly after the announcement is made, though, someone who goes by Aces begins using anonymous text messages to reveal secrets about the two of them that turn their lives upside down and threaten every aspect of their carefully planned futures. As Aces shows no sign of stopping, what seemed like a sick prank quickly turns into a dangerous game, with all the cards stacked against them. Can Devon and Chiamaka stop Aces before things become incredibly deadly?

Review: Ace of Spades is an intense thriller that captivated me right from the first page. There are plenty of books out there that feature Black characters with a thriller/horror vibe that automatically get a comparison to Jordan Peele's debut film "Get Out". While the comparison often falls flat, Ace of Spades has legitimate "Get Out" vibes that are chilling, real, strong, and frankly disturbing.
    Senior year is off to a promising start for Niveus Private Academy students Chiamaka Adebayo and Devon Richards, who were both awarded prefect titles. Chiamaka is at the top of the popularity social chain. She comes from an affluent household, earns perfect grades, wears designer clothes, is working her way to getting a perfect boyfriend, and also getting into Yale, her dream school. Devon is a musician who comes from a working, single parent household, and due to being bullied relentlessly by his homophobic classmates at his old school, prefers to keep a low profile. Soon after the announcement is made, Chiamaka's and Devon's lives are turned upside down by anonymous texter, Aces, who divulges information that ruin their reputation and possibly their future. The chase to unmask Ace propels the story forward.
  The story is narrated by Chiamaka and Devon's alternating points of view. I immediately liked Devon's chapters. He is already such a vulnerable character but watching him get by hit invisible arrows was heartbreaking and infuriating. Though I liked Chiamaka as a character who is unapologetically ambitious and confident, her chapters took me a while to get invested in; only because I knew that despite her being of the same class status as the popular kids, she will always be "othered" because of the color of her skin, but once she came to that conclusion herself, her chapters became much more enjoyable. 
  While the setup for Ace of Spades sounds like your typical teen thriller, what elevates this thriller is Àbíké-Íyímídé keen insight on themes such as systemic racism, structural white supremacy, privilege, microaggressions, class, and homophobia. Like the movie "Get Out", there is this creepy, uncertainty that something is not right at Niveus Private Academy and the themes are a constant shadow that follow Chiamaka and Devon around, the part in which both of our main characters discover the reason behind Aces is horrifying. Each of these themes are discussed in length but not in a heavy handed way and like Chiamaka and Devon you begin to see the harm and trauma it causes. My only small problem with the book is its deus ex machina ending that was just too simple and convenient for an otherwise complex thriller. If you are like me and are extremely picky when it comes to mysteries/thrillers, definitely give this one a shot. I had a really hard time putting this book down and its twisty plot kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time I was reading it. I am definitely looking forward to whatever Àbíké-Íyímídé works on next.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language, reference to sexual situations (occurs off the page), emotional and psychological torture, gaslighting, outing sexual orientation, and underage drinking and drug use. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Time Will Tell by Barry Lyga, The Other Black Girl by Zakiyah Dalila Harris
Rummanah Aasi
 Meet Ben Dane: brilliant, devastating, devoted, honest to a fault (truly, a fault). His Broadway theatre baron father is dead—but by purpose or accident? The question rips him apart.
  Unable to face alone his mother’s ghastly remarriage to his uncle, Ben turns to his dearest friend, Horatio Patel, whom he hasn’t seen since their relationship changed forever from platonic to something…other. Loyal to a fault (truly, a fault), Horatio is on the first flight to NYC when he finds himself next to a sly tailor who portends inevitable disaster. And who seems ominously like an architect of mayhem himself.
   Meanwhile, Ben’s ex-fiancé Lia, sundered her from her loved ones thanks to her addiction recovery and torn from her art, has been drawn into the fold of three florists from New Orleans—seemingly ageless sisters who teach her the language of flowers, and whose magical bouquets hold both curses and cures. For a price. On one explosive night these kinetic forces will collide, and the only possible outcome is death

Review: The King of Infinite Space is a modern retelling of Hamlet with a fun mash up of mystery and light touches of magical realism. You do not have to be familiar with Hamlet to read this book, but it added to my appreciation of the clever changes to the bloody play. 
   When she was engaged to Benjamin Dane (the book’s Hamlet character), Lia (Ophelia) was an alcoholic performance artist. Now, after their very bad, very final breakup, she creates flower arrangements for the Three Sisters Floral Boutique, managed by a trio of strange ladies who seem to put those bouquets to magical use. Lia also finds herself appearing in Ben’s dreams as he anguishes over the recent death of his father, owner of the New World’s Stage Theatre, and the swift remarriage of his mother, Trudy, to brother-in-law Claude. To help him prove Dad wasn’t a suicide, Ben summons his grad school buddy Horatio, who’s still getting over the one-night stand with Ben that sent him scurrying back to London.
  I really like the changes that Faye has made to the play while keeping its core themes in place. Ben is neuro-atypical. He continues to have philosophical thought spirals and is obsessed with death, but he is self aware which makes him much more likable than in the play. He knows when he is being a jerk, especially to the two loves of his life, Lia and Horatio. Ben's sexuality isn't defined but it is clear that he loves both Lia and Horatio equally. Unlike the play's tragic heroine, Lia gets a large speaking role this time around. She is not tied to her relationship with Ben, but she is living her life on her own terms. Horatio is still the strong constant force, but making him Indian and gay adds layers to an otherwise straightforward character. The love triangle between Ben, Lia, and Horatio is done really well and you feel for each of the characters.
 The book is told from Ben, Lia, and Horatio's alternating perspectives which allows you to connect to the characters on a personal level. I thought Ben's sections were fun to read as Faye experimented with her writing-large and small texts to alert you of Ben's state of mind as well as passages of stream of consciousness. There are two plot twists to the story that surprised me in a good way. I can usually predict plot twists but not this time. Overall I thought this was an incredibly clever and smart book. I will definitely pick up another book by Faye.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language, mentions of attempted suicide, and strong violence. Recommended for adults. 

If you like this book try: Dark August by Katie Tallo
Rummanah Aasi
 Damian is the new kid at school, and he has a foolproof plan to avoid the bullying that's plagued him his whole childhood: he's going to stop talking. Starting on the first day seventh grade, he won't utter a word. If he keeps his mouth shut, the bullies will have nothing to tease him about—right?

But Damian's vow of silence doesn't work—his classmates can tell there's something different about him. His family doesn't look like the kind on TV: his mother is dead, his father is gone, and he's being raised by his grandparents in a low-income household. And Damian does things that boys don't usually do, like play with Barbies instead of GI Joe. Kids have teased him about this his whole life, especially other boys. But if boys can be so cruel, why does Damian have a crush on one?

Review: Other Boys is an often heartbreaking graphic memoir in which the author explores familial loss, social isolation, and sexual identity. Damian lost his mother at a very young age due to domestic violence. He and his brother are raised by their loving grandparents. When we meet Damian, he is about to start seventh grade at a new school. Since he was bullied at his last school for being too "effeminate", he takes a vow of silence in hopes that it would make him invisible but it backfires and he is once again a target of bullying.
 Damian is very candid about working through death and loss. He seeks solace from loneliness from doodling, writing, reading, and playing video games. Damian also efficiently shows how he was harmed by toxic masculinity not only from the bullying from school but also from adults preventing him from activities that were deemed "unmanly" such as playing with dolls. It takes Damian time to figure out his sexual identity, but it is not a moment of victory until he sees a therapist who positively affirms it that he begins to open up.  While Damian faces hardship constantly in this graphic memoir, he does end it on a hopeful note. I really liked that he decided to use block colors as backgrounds for this graphic novel to show the characters' emotions, which allowed the characters to drive the story. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are scenes of bullying and homophobic slurs are used. Recommended for Grades 6 and up.

If you like this book try: Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka, Flamer by Mike Curato
Rummanah Aasi
 After failing to come into her powers, Voya--a Black witch living in near-future Toronto--is forced to choose between losing her family's magic forever, a heritage steeped in centuries of blood and survival, or murdering her first love, a boy who is supposedly her genetic match.

Review: After reading glowing reviews for Blood Like Magic, I was really excited to pick it up. I really wanted to love it as much as the reviewers did, however, I had a really hard time finishing it. 
  Blood Like Magic has a really intriguing premise. Voya comes from a long family line of witches. When she reaches puberty, she will go through her trial called "The Calling" in which her ancestors will give her a test to perform before disclosing her magic affinity. When Voya fails to complete her first Calling due to indecision, she begs for a second chance. Though her wish is granted, she has a harder trial: she has to destroy her first love or else the lineage of witches ends and her family loses all of their magic. Voya believes her first love is of the romantic kind and is set off to find someone to fall in love with and kill them within the span of a month.
 There are a lot of aspects that I liked about Blood Like Magic. I found Voya to be a likable character. She is a great cook and baker. She loves her family, but her greatest weakness is making a decision for herself. She will passively follow other people's decision but will never put herself first. When Voya gets her second chance at her Calling, she is constantly telling the reader how difficult the decision is and for over 400 pages it becomes tedious, tiring, and it negatively impacts the book's pace. 
 The book's world building is unique in that witches are commonplace and magic and technology work side by side. I just wish that this aspect was fleshed out a bit more or perhaps it took place more in the future than in the near future (2049). There were many times when I forgot the book took place in the future and it took me out of the story.
  I appreciated that the story has a really strong focus on family, history, and Voya's Trinidadian roots. The family is large and they each have distinct personalities, however, there are important issues such as a character that is dealing with an eating disorder or addiction but these issues are only dealt with on a surface level and it made me wonder why mention them at all if they are not addressed. As for the romance aspect of the book, I found it really disappointing. Luc, the love interest, is unlikable and I did not feel any chemistry between him and Voya. Needless to say, I will not be picking up the sequel.

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There is mention of eating disorders, addiction, and strong violence. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart
Rummanah Aasi
 When Lila Macapagal moves back home to recover from a horrible breakup, her life seems to be following all the typical rom-com tropes. She's tasked with saving her Tita Rosie's failing restaurant, and she has to deal with a group of matchmaking aunties who shower her with love and judgment. But when a notoriously nasty food critic (who happens to be her ex-boyfriend) drops dead moments after a confrontation with Lila, her life quickly swerves from a Nora Ephron romp to an Agatha Christie case.

With the cops treating her like she's the one and only suspect, and the shady landlord looking to finally kick the Macapagal family out and resell the storefront, Lila's left with no choice but to conduct her own investigation. Armed with the nosy auntie network, her barista best bud, and her trusted Dachshund, Longanisa, Lila takes on this tasty, twisted case and soon finds her own neck on the chopping block.

Review: One of the most popular requests that I get at the public library from patrons are for mystery recommendations. I have a really hard time recommending mysteries because I am such a picky mystery reader. I get so annoyed when I can solve a mystery before the detective/investigator and then I get bored. I'm so tired of the unreliable drunk/drug addled/mentally unstable female character trope in the latest slew of popular mysteries (i.e. The Girl on the Train, The Woman in the Window, The Silent Patient). A couple of coworkers suggested that I look into cozy mysteries, a subgenre of mysteries to rekindle my love of the genre. Arsenic and Adobo is a favorite staff pick at the library and I thought I would give it a shot.
  Arsenic and Adobo is my first culinary mystery and I really enjoyed it. Though I could have guessed the culprit, I was actually more delighted by its large cast of diverse characters. I also really liked that it took place in a fictional Chicagoland surburb.
  In this debut mystery, Lila Macapagal has returned to her small hometown of Shady Palms, Illinois, after being burned by her ex in Chicago. When Lila’s aunt asks her to help at the family’s Filipino restaurant, she’s happy to do so—until another one of her exes shows up. Derek Winters, a food critic, is the last person Lila wants to see, especially since a bad review from him could ruin the family. Lila does not have to deal with Derek for long because he actually drops dead at the dinner table, and Lila is the prime suspect. The suspect list grows as Lila begins to investigate and uncover secrets that Derek was hiding. Lila is funny and smart though she fumbles as being an amateur sleuth. I really liked how the mystery grew and following the complex clues. I definitely would not read this book on an empty stomach with its constant mouthwatering food descriptions. There is also a possible love triangle with two great love interests that I am excited to follow and I am curious to see how it develops. 
   As a Muslim, I really appreciated the added consideration that Lila makes sure there were food alternatives for her best friend and her brother who both happen to be Pakistani Muslim. Speaking of diversity, the book is not heavy handed about it but it felt completely natural. Characters are who they are without any megaphones about identity. I will definitely continue this fun series and look for other cozy mysteries to read.

One of my reading goals for 2022 is to read more mysteries and thrillers. If you have any suggestions for an intelligent thriller that is well written and does not dumb down to the reader, please let me know in the comments. Bonus if the main character isn’t a female who is drunk/high on drugs and have mental instability; and please spare me with the “I am a man and I’m here to help you” trope.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended for teens and adults.

If you like this book try: Aunty Lee's Delights by Ovidia Yu, Homocide and Halo-Halo by Mia P. Manansala (Feb 2022)
Rummanah Aasi
 Portico Reeves' secret identity as Stuntboy allows him to use his superpower keep everybody safe, but when his superhero parents start fighting a lot he feels the responsibility to save them.

Review: Stuntboy, in the Meantime is another delightful middle grade novel from Jason Reynolds. Reynolds has the incredible ability to grab even the most reluctant reader's attention. In his latest we meet Portico Reeves who lives in an apartment complex as large as a castle with a great and some not so great characters. Portico is a huge superhero fan and cleverly becomes one called Stuntboy. Stuntboy is not a scientific experiment gone wrong, but rather a superhero who will protect other people from harm by performing stunts and distractions. Portico transforms into Stuntboy with the help of his best friend Zola in order to calm his debilitating anxiety which he names as the "frets". One of the main source of Portico's frets is the bully Herbert Singletary the Worst, who makes sure to rain on everyone's parade, but lately a new source has emerged and that is the constant bickering of Portico's parents. 
  I found this middle grade to be extremely funny and cheeky, but also an age appropriate way to talk about anxiety and coming up with creative coping skills. Raul the Third’s illustrations are both dynamic and cleverly slapstick as Portico skillfully tumbles down stairs to prevent an older resident from falling or flops in front of his parents to momentarily stop them from fighting. The story moves at a brisk pace, but while being thoughtful. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None.

If you like this book try: One-Third Nerd by Gennifer Choldenko
Rummanah Aasi
 When her twin sister reaches social media stardom, Moon Fuentez accepts her fate as the ugly, unwanted sister hidden in the background, destined to be nothing more than her sister’s camerawoman. But this summer, Moon also takes a job as the “merch girl” on a tour bus full of beautiful influencers and her fate begins to shift in the best way possible.

Most notable is her bunkmate and new nemesis, Santiago Phillips, who is grumpy, combative, and also the hottest guy Moon has ever seen. Moon is certain she hates Santiago and that he hates her back. But as chance and destiny (and maybe, probably, close proximity) bring the two of them in each other’s perpetual paths, Moon starts to wonder if that’s really true. She even starts to question her destiny as the unnoticed, unloved wallflower she always thought she was. Could this summer change Moon’s life as she knows it?

Review: I was expecting How Moon Fuentes Fell in Love With The Universe to be a light, heart warming YA romance, but it was actually much darker than I anticipated. Though compared with The Hating Game, a popular adult romance, this book is not a romance. While there is a romance, it is not the main focus of the book. I would actually categorize it as realistic fiction with a dash of magical realism.
  Moon has always been in the shadows of her famous sister Star. While Star is described as willowy, light skinned, Moon has a darker complexion and is curvy. Star is Catholic and uses the concept of purity as a her trademark on Photogram, an Instagram-like application. Moon has strayed away from Catholicism, especially after being shamed and shunned when she loses her virginity, but feels drawn to her indigenous roots and knowledge. Star is their mother's pride and joy, but Moon is the forgotten one.
    When Star gets invited to an exclusive influencer retreat by the founder of Photogram, Moon is dragged along to be her sister's personal photographer as well as be in charge of selling merchandise at the retreat.  Her partner at the merchandise table is enigmatic, gorgeous Santiago, Andro’s younger brother. After a disastrous first meeting, Moon and Santiago slowly get to know each other through bickering and banter. She’s a flower lover who’s designing a deck of tarot cards; he’s an incredible gourmet cook. Their initial animosity turns to attraction and affection in a simmering, slow burn romance. 
  I really appreciated how Moon and Santiago are really foils of one another. They both share similar vulnerabilities and are both grieving from trauma in their lives. Moon has to work through her mother's emotional abuse and acknowledge that she uses sex as a coping mechanism to reassure herself of her self worth. Similarly, Santiago wants to cultivate his culinary career but has to constantly battle ableism due to an accident in which he lost his hand. While their romance is sweet, the most important romance in the book is Moon's journey of self-love and self-acceptance which was hard to read at times, but I cheered for her in the end.
  The story's magical elements is not heavy handed and adds a layer to the story. I really liked the emphasis on the natural world and found the discussion of ancient spirituality to be fascinating. 
The author’s prose is lush and lyrical. The book sensitively explores grief, trauma, abuse, mental illness, disability, and sisterhood. These characters are both Latinx: Moon and Star are Mexican American and Santiago and his brother are Colombian American. The characters are messy, but that is what makes them real and relatable. While there are heavy topics touched upon, it ends on a hopeful note. This would be a good choice for younger teens who want to try a Colleen Hoover book but not be ready for it. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, mentions of sex and sexting, mention of suicide, emotional and physical abuse, fatphobia and slut shaming. Recommended for Grades 10 and up.

If you like this book try: Call it What You Want by Brigid Kemmerer
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