Category Archives: fantasy

City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

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City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

I was excited to hear that another Rick Riordan/ Rick Riordan Presents books featured a Muslim character and was anxious to see how the multi god genre would account for Islamic tenants.  But I was completely giddy (that’s putting it mildly), when I found out that Sarwat Chadda is aka Joshua Khan, author of the Shadow Magic Series and that this book has practicing Muslim Characters front and center.  In his own words, “it has taken be twelve years and eleven books to get around to writing a Muslim tale.” That isn’t to say that it is Islamic fiction, there is gay romance that is there if you want to see it and has been confirmed by the author outside of the book, there are  numerous fake gods in Mesopotamian mythologies, there is death and violence, but it is fun, oh so fun.  It has salat, and going to the mosque, and an imam, and saying surahs and discussing jihad an nafs, and sadaqa and it says the shahada in Arabic and English, it presents Muslims authentically in their words and actions, and it isn’t just the characters’ backstories it is who they are and how they see the world.  The book is an AR 4.5 with 383 pages and like all Rick Riordan books, full of humor, sentiment, family, growth, and ancient mythology.

SYNOPSIS:

Sikander “Sik” Aziz is 13 and when not at school is at his family’s NYC deli working away.  The son of Iraqi immigrants, he is dedicated to helping his family especially since his older brother Muhammed, Mo, has passed away.  Mo’s lifelong friend Daoud has moved in to Mo’s old room and helps out in the deli, but is really an aspiring actor who does anything to get out of work.  When the book opens, Sik and Mo are closing up when the deli is attacked by rat faced men demanding to know where it is.  Sik has no idea what they are talking about and the two demons tear apart the family restaurant until a mysterious girl appears and sends them and their stream of insects, disease and destruction from the deli.

The next day at school Sik’s injuries are healing remarkably quick and he and the new girl, Belet, find themselves getting sent to the principal’s office together.  When he learns that Belet’s mom is Ishtar, goddess of love and war, or rather passion, and was the girl at the deli, he can no longer deny that the tales Mo used to tell him about Gilgamesh, Enkido, Nergal, Kasusu, and Mesopotamian mythology are very real.  

As Sik, Belet, Ishtar, Daoud, and an army of cats, Lamassu, learn that the plague god Nergal is behind what is going on and that he plans to destroy Manhattan, it is up to them to stop the destruction, save Sik’s parents who are in the hospital, and ultimately the world.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book was written before Covid 19 and the idea of a plague or pandemic was not yet on everyone’s mind, but when it was published in 2021 it sure become that much more relatable and close to home.  I love that some of the reactions of the characters and community to being around infected people and the backlash was so accurate to what we have all seen since 2020.  

The way that the oneness of Allah swt and the multi fake gods is reconciled is that the Mesopotamian cast are old and powerful, but not ALL-powerful, as Ishtar tells Sik, someone had to create us.  She also says that today people might call them something else.  It seems to leave open the idea that they have abilities and because of their abilities people worshipped them and the name stuck, not that they are creators or even claim to be. The concept of being between alive and dead is explored when Sik visits Kurnugi, he asks where Muhammad Ali is and Mo tells him he isn’t there, he went straight to Jannah.  It might not be a clear explanation, but it at least hints that Muslims in real life have a different view than the mythological one being explored.

I love the snark, and the humor, it flows so well and incorporates pop culture with ancient references very smoothly. I love that they say InshaAllah and AllahuAkbar and when Sik is presumed dead at one point and awakens he can’t go to the mosque because they are having his janaza and it would be awkward.  I love that there is a glossary that denotes if words are Arabic, Islamic, or Mesopotamian.  Muslim kids reading this will feel so seen and proud to be openly Muslim and inspired that they too can be heroes.

FLAGS:

Mythology, fighting, death, the use of the term badass.  Daoud and Mo’s relationship.  Daoud and Mo became friends in 5th grade and when Sik sees some photos of his brother that Daoud had taken, he says that he sees love.  When Sik and Mo are reunited in Kurnugi, Mo hints that there is more to the friendship, it is subtle.  In online interviews Chadda says they were in a romantic relationship.  It is not explored or heavily detailed.  The only other romance mentioned is that Gilgamesh in his prime refused Ishtar.

I think fans of Rick Riordan already know that there is going to mythological characters, creatures, battles and violence and a character or two that are LGBTQ+, some possible romantic angst between main characters, death, and unfaithful flirty gods.  This book is much “cleaner” than most, so 4th graders and up that are fans, will be fine reading this.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if I could do this as a book club selection.  The romance is minor, but once you sense it and know it is there, it is a factor.  I don’t know if it would have to be discussed and how an Islamic school would want me to handle it, because both Mo and Daoud are practicing Muslims.  I think the book does a sufficient job of not committing shirk and shirk like messages with the mythology, but as always with these types of books it is a judgement call if the children (and their parents) can understand where the lines of fiction are and where they stand.

Fandom: https://riordan.fandom.com/wiki/City_of_the_Plague_God

Mel and His Trouble with One Thousand Shoes by Somayeh Zomorodi illustrated by N. Broomand

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The book has a solid premise, although it reads a lot like The Very Greedy Bee, and has lovely 8.5 by 11 pictures on its 24 pages, but unfortunately the text is all over the place. The story contradicts itself, it is overly wordy, and way to rhymy. Yeah, rhymy isn’t even a word, but if it were, this book, would be a great example. I struggled with the font as well, the lowercase f looks like a capital F, and no matter how many times I read it, I’d get tripped up thinking an interior word was being capitalized. The book says that it is based on the ayat in the Quran that reads, “And do not walk on the earth proudly,” and even has two other ayats listed at the end as inspiration, but really it is a single page and a single character that blurts out the ayats from the Quran that talk about walking on the earth proudly and this world being a test. While the illustrations are fun, it just isn’t enough to make the book a solid read to convey humbleness and gratitude. Children will be lost in the text, confused by the inconsistencies, and disappointed in the super quick resolution.

Mel the millipede lives in a farm next to a well. He has one thousand feet and although he doesn’t need shoes, he likes to collect them. He has 950 and is working to find the remaining 50 to complete his collection.

It says, “No one was as happy as Mel; one could tell.” Then on the next page as he cleans his shoes with a blouse it is revealed that he isn’t happy in his heart because he is always alone. But the picture stills shows him smiling.

He finally has his 1,000 shoes, we don’t know how or where he got them, when a small snail tells him that “God says not to walk on the earth proudly. Only He knows best and this world is a test.” There is no explanation, Mel just says “it doesn’t matter, I am better than everyone.”

This whole time walking, Mel has been wearing his shoes although it has mentioned that he can’t wear them because they are heavy and he doesn’t want to get them dirty. As he watches the other bugs fly kites and balloons he is sad that he can’t play because his shoes are too heavy. But he has been walking outdoors and is on a mushroom lamenting with his shoes on. Those flying kites aren’t moving much…one is a worm, one a snail, very inconsistent.

One night a moth knocks on his door warning Mel of a flood. Mel ignores the frantic urgings, fearing that it is a trap to get his shoes. He thinks everyone is jealous of his shoeing. The flood waters sweep him and his shoes out of the house and throughout the night he risks his life multiple times to save his beloved shoes.

When morning arrives, he is still trying to save his shoes, when moth, attempts to save Mel. To get Mel back to his house, he will have to convince him to drop his shoes. Mel is tired and desperate and uninspired so he drops his shoes and is brought to dry land. I don’t think uninspired is the right word, shouldn’t be be grateful and willing to change to save his life? But even that notion is a stretch because in the illustrations he is so close to land. He could just swim over, shoes or no shoes, moth doesn’t need to be flying him to safety. Additionally, when the water recedes, won’t his shoes still be there?

The conclusion is Mel hugging moth and apologizing to the bugs. I’m not sure what he is apologizing to them for, nor is it explained. Since the book claims to be based or inspired by ayats, I feel like this would have been a good place for a moral cathartic lesson, but alas, it just says, “the end.”

Rumaysa: A Fairytale by Radiya Hafiza illustrated by Rhaida El Touny

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Rumaysa: A Fairytale by Radiya Hafiza illustrated by Rhaida El Touny

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This middle grades retelling of the classic fairytales: Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, replaces white characters with diverse Desi characters, reclaims female characters’ empowerment, and weaves the stories together with Rumaysa first freeing herself, and then using a magic necklace that takes her to those in need  (Cinderayla and Sleeping Sara) in her quest to find her long lost parents.  After a few chapters, I started writing a list of gaping-huge-ginormous plot holes, they are frequent and laughable, then I took a deep breath and recalled the similar eye-rolling inconsistencies that plague perhaps all fairy tales, but specifically Disney-esque ones. Once I let go of trying to understand why Rumaysa is wearing hijab while locked in an isolated tower, or how the witch can’t remember her name, but Rumaysa knows the name her parents gave her when she was kidnapped on the day of her birth, or that she knows she was kidnapped and her whole backstory, just to name a few, the book was much more enjoyable.  I still have major issues with some of the forced Islamization and cultural tweaks, but not because they existed, but rather because they weren’t strong enough.  Why have an Eid ball for all the fair maidens in the land.  It was awkward to read all the young people showing up to pair off, and then people asking the prince to dance, and him saying he didn’t know if he could.  Why not just make it an over the top Desi wedding with families, where dancing and moms working to pair their kids off is the norm. Having it be a ball for the maidens in the land, just seemed like it was afraid to commit to the premise of twisting the fairytales completely.  There are a few inconsistencies, however, that I cannot overlook.  This is a mainstream published books and there is at least one spelling error and grammar mistake.  I could be wrong, as it is British, and I am by no means competent in even American English, but I expect better.  Even content wise, Prince Harun for example, is wearing a mask, but the text comments on his blushing cheeks, eyes, eyelashes, and smile, not a typical mask perhaps? And don’t get me started on the  illustrations, the same awkward ball has Ayla leaving, and in the picture not wearing a mask concealing her face as the text states.  Overall, the inside illustrations are not well done.  The cover, by artist Areeba Siddique is beautiful with the shimmery leafing on the edges, that would have brought the inside pages a lot more depth and intrigue than the ones it contains.  Despite all the aforementioned glimpses of my critiques to follow, I didn’t hate the book and quite enjoyed the light handed morals and feminism that was interwoven with clever remarks and snark. The first story has Rumaysa wearing hijab, finding a book about salat and praying.  The second story takes place on Eid and Ayla eats samosas, discusses Layla and Majnun, and has a duputta. The third story I don’t recall any culture or religious tidbits other than keeping with the consistency of cultural names.  There is mention of romance between an owl who has a crush on a Raven, but the heroines themselves are learning to be self sufficient from errors of their parents/guardians and are not looking for any males to save them.  Other than that the book really needs an editor and new illustrations, I can see fairytale loving middle grade kids reading the book and finding it enjoyable, or even younger children having it read aloud to them a few chapters at a time, and being drawn in to the stories and eager to see what happens next. It would work for that demographic, but perhaps no one else.

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SYNOPSIS: (spoilers)

Rumaysa’s parents steal vegetables from a magical garden when there is no food or work to be found, as a result when Rumaysa is born, the owner of the garden, an evil witch, takes Rumaysa and places her in a tower protected by an enchanted forest and a poisonous river.  No one can get in, and Rumaysa cannot get out.  In the tower Rumaysa reads, no idea how she learned, and spins straw in to gold as she sings a song that channels the magic she consumed in utero from the stolen garden.  With only rations of oats to eat, a friendly owl named Zabina frequents Rumays daily and brings her berries and news .  When he brings her a new hijab, Rumaysa has the idea to lengthen the hijab with bits of gold over time, so that she might escape.  When she finally gets her chance, she is met by a boy on a magic carpet named Suleiman, and is both shocked and annoyed that someone got close to the tower, and only after she saved herself.  The two however, and Zabina, are caught by the witch and must escape her as well.  When that is all said and done, Suleiman gives Zabina a necklace that takes one to someone in need of help.  His parents want him to save a princess, he wants to study in his room, so he hands off the necklace hoping it will help Rumaysa find her parents, and he heads off on his flying carpet.

The necklace doesn’t transport Rumaysa to her parents, however, it takes her to a street where a girl is throwing rocks in desperation having been denied attending an Eid ball after her dress was torn to shreds.  The story starts with Ayla’s back story before Rumaysa arrives, but the two girls befriend each other, Rumaysa uses her magic gold weaving abilities to conjure up a new and beautiful dress and golden shoes and the girls head to the ball.  When Ayla heads off to get samosas she meets the prince, but doesn’t know he is the prince.  They argue about the play Layla and Majnun and when her stepmother asks about the dress, Rumaysa and Ayla make a run for it.  A shoe is lost, the stepmother comes to know, the guards search for the missing girl, and all is well.  Except Harun is incredibly shallow and superficial and only interested in Ayla’s clothes and status, so she rejects him and points out that she is much too young for marriage.  She instead reclaims her home, fixes her relationship with her stepsisters and begs Rumaysa to stay.  Rumaysa makes her excuses and is whisked away to a land that is being ruled by a man and his dragons.

Originally the land of Farisia is ruled by King Emad and Queen Shiva, but they have become unjust and disconnected from their people.  When Azra gets a chance to steal Princess Sara and take the kingdom, he does.  Rumaysa arrives to free a sleeping Sara from the dragon and restore apologetic and reformed leaders to the thrown.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I do like the spinning of familiar stories and either updating them, or twisting them, or fracturing them, so I am glad to see an Islamic cultural tinge available.  I feel like the first story was the strongest conceptually even if the details and morals weren’t well established.  The second story was strong in the messaging that Ayla, and any girl, is more than just a pretty dress, but the premise was a little shaky and not that different from the original.  The third story was a little lacking developmentally for me and all three I felt could have gone stronger in to the religion and culture without alienating readers or becoming heavy.  There are characters illustrated in hijab, some in saris, some in flowing robes. Princess Sara is noted to be a larger body type and I appreciated that in elevating the heroines, other’s weren’t put down.  Even within the book, there is diversity which is wonderful.  

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FLAGS:

There is lying and stealing with consequences.  “Shut up” is said.  There is magic, death, destruction, and a brief mention of an avian crush.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I could see this being used in a classroom for a writing assignment to urge students to write their own tales.  I think it is fourth or fifth grade that children read fairytales from different points of view: think the three little pigs from the wolf’s perspective or the Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, and this book would lend itself easily to that lesson as well.

Elisha the Eid Fairy by Daisy Meadows (Rainbow Magic)

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Elisha the Eid Fairy by Daisy Meadows (Rainbow Magic)

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If you are familiar with the Rainbow Magic fairy books, you know they are never ending, there are currently 228 titles in the collection that cover beginning readers, early chapter books, and longer solo chapter books.  They cover seasons, colors, flowers, jewels, musical instruments, pets, friends, holidays, etc., and now festivals.  They may not be the most intellectually stimulating, but they serve a purpose in getting young readers confident and engaged.  My daughter loved them in first and second grade and when this book was delivered a few days ago, she was so excited to see a Muslim fairy.  She is 14.  Representation will always matter, even when the story is a bit hokey and random, to see yourself in a beloved series, has power.  Yes, the story is predictable in the 80 drawing filled pages, but for first and second graders it is fun.  Elisha wears western clothes with her hijab, has a magical Pelita lamp that brings Eid joy to the human world, and hosts feasts with international foods.  Yes, the fairy is Muslim and Eid joy after Ramadan comes from an oil lamp apparently, it is a stretch, and if you are not comfortable with this imaginative representation of Eid joy coming from a magical creature’s enchanted item, then please don’t waste your time.  If your kids already read books about fairies, this book might be of great delight to them, and be a great conversation starter for you to have about what really makes Eid a joyous time.

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SYNOPSIS:

Jack Frost is still determined in this the third book in the four part festival series, to cancel Eid, Diwali, Hanukkah and Buddha Day to create his own Frost Day.  With the sighting of the new moon, in this book Eid is under attack.  Humans Rachel and Kirsty are summoned to help find Elisha the Eid Fairy’s magical Pelita lamp.  But, Elisha goes missing and the girls arrive on Festival Island to find goblins destroying the Eid decorations.  The fairyies divide up and Rachel and Kirsty in their fairy form are off to find Elisha, while the other fairies handle the goblins.  They find her in a tower surrounded by a hail storm, the can’t get her out unless they find her wand.  Once they find her wand they have to find her magical item.  The goblins have it and are trying to teach it to make Frost Day treats instead of the kleichas and baklava and turkish delight that it keeps creating.  With quick thinking, and an impromptu dance lesson, the lamp is recovered, Eid joy is saved, and the girls return to the human world, knowing that one more festival will need saving in the near future.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

First of all, I didn’t know what a pelita lamp or kleichas were, so I did learn something once I Googled it, but I’m not entirely convinced that a pelita lamp (sometimes it is capitalized and sometimes it isn’t) is critical to the celebration of Eid.  Aside from the religious uncomfortableness of attributing Eid joy to a magical creature and her enchanted item, the concept of the lamp seems a bit weak.  I like that information about Ramadan is included and Eid Mubarak is mentioned a few times, but a little bit more about a lamp or lantern perhaps as a cultural relic, would have really made more sense even in this fragile framework.  

I like that multiple cultures are represented in the concept of Eid and Elisha, she isn’t boxed in to one culture, she is universal.  The themes of team work and friendship are always present in these books which is a great way to show respect for multiple religions and festivals.  Jack Frost at times seems to be a good villain, but more in theory than in reality.  His spell that the fairies are trying to break:  “Ignore Eid and Buddha Day, Make Diwali go away.  Scrap Hanukkah and make them see- They should be celebrating me!  I’ll steal ideas and spoil their fun. My Frost Day plans have just begun.  Bring gifts and sweets to celebrate The many reasons I’m so great!” spells out his plans and make him the right amount of scary for early readers.

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FLAGS:

The premise of where Eid joy comes from.  The goblins say “shut up” at one point.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

It is a little young for a book club selection, but if you have Rainbow Magic books on your shelf, you should definitely have this one too.

 

The Theft of Sunlight by Intisar Khanani

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The Theft of Sunlight by Intisar Khanani

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Breathe, deep breaths, exhale, phew.  This book is good, like really good, but it ends on a cliff hanger and I was not prepared for it because I read a digital copy and didn’t think 528 pages had gone by.  Needless to say I was not emotionally prepared for there not to be a resolution.  Then the afterward said it was a duology, and I may have freaked out and contacted the wonderfully patient author and had her talk me down, because such words could imply that Thorn was book one.  Also, when I’m frantic I don’t read clearly, but now all is well, she assured me there will be a conclusion, inshaAllah, to Rae’s story.  Picking up chronologically where Thorn left off, this book is a companion in the Dauntelss Path series, but follows a different protagonist and while I highly suggest reading Thorn first, it is not necessary to understand this original tale.  So, phew, I am breathing again, and happy to venture back to Menaiya to share my review of a lovely story, written by an amazing Muslim who once again weaves such an engulfing tale that doesn’t drag or have holes in the narrative, is filled with strong female characters, and text that reads so effortlessly it just sweeps you away.  Truly it is fun for middle school and up (13+), and clearly I’m not passionate about books and fictional characters and don’t need to get a reality check.  

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens in a small village where Rae is in the market with her littlest sister Bean and their friends, Ani and Seri, when the unspeakable happens: Seri goes missing.  This isn’t a tale of a child who has wandered off, it is about a child taken by the snatchers and the materialization that the rumors and horrors they have been hearing of children being taken, becoming very real.  Niya, Rae’s middle sister is a secret mage who tries to track Seri, but can’t break through the mark that keeps her hidden.  As the townsfolk exhaust all resources and resolve she is just another child lost, Rae gets an opportunity to find answers.  Her pregnant cousin has invited her to spend the summer at the royal court and attend the wedding of Prince Kestrin and Princess Alyrra.  Convinced that the palace must have more information about the snatchers, Rae reluctantly agrees to go and investigate what is being done to stop the country’s loss of children.  Rae is nervous to leave her horse ranch, afraid of the teasing she will receive because of her twisted clubbed foot, but above all desperate to help her friend’s family.  

Everything about Tarinon baffles Rae: the extreme poverty on the outer skirts of the palace, the vacant stares of the children, the ignorance of the courtiers, the politicking and secrets.  She doesn’t get much time to ease into this new role though, because she is thrust head first in to it when asked to be one of Princess Alyrra’s attendants. She once again reluctantly agrees, with the hope of getting answers to help recover Seri and other lost children.  After tests to gage if the princess can trust Rae, the two join together to secretly unravel what is going on.  This work in and of itself is incredibly dangerous as those that ask questions often go missing.  Her work is compounded when the princess sends her to get information from the head of a thief ring, Red Hawk, and his informants.  The closer Rae gets to answers, the more perilous situations she gets in and out of, often having to count on her bravery, determination, and wit to stay alive.  She finds an unlikely ally in Red Hawk’s right hand man Bren, help and friendship in an employee in the tax office, Kirrana, and the need for favors from a Fae mage and his Cormorant.  As the investigation progresses, it leads to battles with neighboring thief rings, Rae held hostage at one point, getting her finger chopped off at another, the Circle of Mages seeming guilty, and royalty within the palace duplicitously involved.  All this while a week long royal wedding is underway and the princess’s brother is attempting to kill the princess.  No wonder 500 plus pages still ends with a cliffhanger, eh?

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the world building and detail and speed of the story, but I’ve really delayed writing this review as I try and pinpoint and articulate what it is about the characters that I truly am invested in.  And the answer is, I really don’t know, it probably it isn’t just one thing.  They are believable, and flawed, yet so very strong.  Rae in particular has her own self doubt and questioning, but she is a force and she makes mistakes, yet is still gracious and humble, she really is well rounded. There might be some romantic twinges between Rae and Bren, but she isn’t going to compromise one bit of who she is for him or anyone for that matter, which doesn’t mean though that she isn’t still growing and learning.  The book absorbs you right away, there aren’t dull parts that you skim over, or character’s that you mess up and have to go back and clarify.  Unequivocally, the writing is superb.    

The snatchers are inspired by the slave trade and child trafficking that unfortunately is not fiction and is all too real.  I think the edginess and intensity is heightened when that realization occurs for the reader to see that it isn’t just a fictitious conflict within a fantasy plot.

There is nothing Islamic in the book, the characters have their own religion that pops up as Speakers are involved in healing the recovered children and Alyrra goes to pray at one point, but it doesn’t detail what that looks like.  The author is Muslim.

FLAGS:

The book is remarkably clean, especially for the genre.  It does mention that some of the girls snatched end up in brothels, and the guards sent to investigate take advantage.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think I would absolutely do this for a middle school book club book.  To open the students eyes to quality writing, taking a real problem and nesting it in fiction to be sorted out, and just to see their response to the journey that Rae under takes would make for a great lunchtime discussion.  The book has not been released yet, so there aren’t a lot of reader’s guides or author interviews about it, but I suspect there will be soon.

The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

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The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

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A book meant for middle grades, 8-12 year olds, that has depth and layers and culture and strength is not something you find very often.  Over 275 pages, the book is at times dark and haunting, but what is truly remarkable is that it doesn’t talk down to young readers and with its pop cultural references and relate-ability,  the book is not dreary.  In fact, the true “haunting” occurs after the book is finished and the concepts of friendship, being alive, and forgiveness stick around and require thought and consideration.  The book is based on a Malyasian folktale, how much is a fleshing out, or simply a starting point, I do not know, but I do know that the characters are memorable, the concept thought provoking, the writing flawless, and the intertwining of Malay culture, Muslim characters and the supernatural, a combination that makes for an enjoyable read.

SYNOPSIS:

When an old witch dies, her pelesit, her ghostly demon, is passed on to her granddaughter Suraya.  Suraya lives with her mother, a teacher, and is lonely and emotionally neglected.  An adventurous girl, the pelesit, keeps the small girl safe, but waits to reveal himself to her in the form of a grasshopper when she is older.  When he does reveal himself to her, she asks him his name, and he doesn’t know it, so she names him Pink.

Suraya and Pink become best friends, and he provides company for her as she receives very little from her mother and has no friends.  Suraya had no knowledge of her grandmother and Pink modifies the stories to leave out how evil, cruel and vindictive she was through him.  As an evil being with no heart these acts never bothered him, although he stopped enjoying them long before she died.  With Suraya however, he feels things.  He is sad that she is unloved by her mother, teased by the other children, and that she doesn’t have the things other kids have.  Suraya is kind, and forgiving, and tries so hard not to let things bother her.  Pink however, with a twitch of his antenna can make things happen.  Bad things.  Things that might at first seem like a part of life, but when Suraya catches on, she scolds Pink.  She makes him promise never to use his magic to hurt people, ever.  He reluctantly agrees, she is his master after all.  Unfortunately he doesn’t keep his promise.

On Pink’s prodding, Suraya makes friends with a new girl at school, Jing, and their friendship makes Pink jealous.  He harms Jing and Suraya decides she no longer wants to be his master.  As a result Pink is determined to make Suraya’s life miserable.  As desperation mounts, Suraya tells her mom about Pink and a pawang is called in to separate the spirit from Suraya.  Something seems off about the pawang, and when Suraya investigates, she realizes that she must save Pink from him.  Together with Jing, Pink and Suraya are off on an adventure against the pawang and might just learn more than Pink’s backstory in their efforts along the way.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Suraya and her family are Muslim and that Jing is not and they are best friends.  Suraya and her family pray, celebrate Eid, give salams when at the graveyard, but obviously also believe in magic and ghosts, and somehow in the story it doesn’t seem to be contradictory or odd.  I love Suraya’s strength.  None of the relationships in her life are good.  Yet, she is good, and she forgives and fights to make those close to her better.  Pink is manipulative and controlling and abusive, but she still fights for him to be treated better and that says more about her, than whatever he is.  Suraya’s mom is distant and neglectful, but yet, there is still realistic hope that their future can be and will be better.  I love that all these layers are there and yet are subtle too.  Kids are smart and they will bring their own experiences, understanding, and expectations to decipher these relationships, and that is amazing.  I love that the characters in the story may be so different than the typical western reader, but they will still see themselves in this poor Malay girl from a small village, in her best friend Jing who lives and breathes Star Wars, or even in the religions pawang who is a power hungry charlatan; toxic friendships and family secrets make the book universal.

FLAGS:

Pink makes it look like blood is on a girls back side, implying a girls fear of leaking, but it isn’t explicit or named.  There is death and dying and supernatural and lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am thinking strongly about using this as a book club book, as the discussion would be delicious and varied among the participants.

Interview with the author: https://thequietpond.com/2020/08/20/our-friend-is-here-an-interview-with-hanna-alkaf-author-of-the-girl-and-the-ghost-on-writing-friendship-malaysian-childhoods-being-true-to-your-stories/

 

 

 

Thorn by Intisar Khanani

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Thorn by Intisar Khanani

thorn

I finished this book, all 512 pages, and before closing it at 12:44 am, I picked up my phone and sent the author a thank you message on instagram.  Yes, it was that good and that fun, and so well written and so encompassing that I don’t feel like I read a book, I feel like I got to know a friend.  There is abuse, and death and sexual assault, but I think thirteen and up can handle and appreciate the crimes and the severity of them, as they are not taken lightly.  The book has magic and royalty, but is so much more about choice and justice and making life meaningful, that Thorn will stay with you as you imagine her life, long after you turn the last page.  ***I did not know it was a retelling of Goose Girl by the Brothers Grimm prior to reading the book, and only read it after writing this review, so forgive me for being so swept away by Falada and Kestrin and loathsome to Corbe’ and Valka, if it so irks you that I am.***

SYNOPSIS:

Princess Alyrra is set to marry Prince Kestrin in a neighboring country.  Unloved and unwanted by her own mother and abused by her brother, none of the royal family can figure out why the King of Menaiya would be coming to see her and appraise the match.  One possibility is because the royal Menaiyan family tends to disappear at alarming rates, and Alyrra might just be a princess that no one will miss.  When a Menaiyan mage comes to warn her and is pushed aside by a magic Lady, Alyrra may be leaving an abusive brother, but getting herself a much bigger nightmare to manage.

Alyrra is known for her honesty.  She stood up for a servant against a Lord’s daughter and prospective wife for her brother, and since then, the royals despise her and the servants adore her.  She spends her time with the holsters and cooks and they keep her aware of her cruel brother’s locations.  When the visiting entourage comes, they see her tormentor and give her a security detail, as well as see how she is beloved by the staff.

Once the match is arranged she is off to Menaiya with Valka, the girl she revealed to be a thief.  Along the way, the Lady presents herself again and switches Valka and Alyrra’s bodies, to give Valka another chance to be queen and to use the real Valka as a tool to destroy the royal family.  The only person in the traveling group aware of the switch, and that can see through it, is Falada a white talking horse, that only speaks to the real Alyrra and refuses to be ridden.

When the girls arrive at the palace, the pretend princess dismisses Alyrra, who has decided to rename herself Thoreena, Thorn.  She asks the king if there are any available positions and thus becomes the Goose Girl.

Thorn is still summoned to the castle to write letters home for the imposter and the prince and former security quad find something off with a former lady of the court finding such contentment in manual labor.  As she settles in to life with the other employees she finds laughter and companionship and only Falada prods her to reclaim her position as princess and save Prince Kestrin from the Lady.

When Falada is killed, and street justice is called on to avenge the brutal rape and killing of a friend, Thorn must decide to enjoy her quiet life or step up and be the change the people and royals of Menaiya need.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it isn’t a sappy love story, it really could have been, but Thorn is calling the shots and she is enough without anyone or with everyone.  I love that she is secure in any role and that her sense of loyalty and obligation comes from within.  The writing is seamless, so often things are repeated and forced upon in a first person present tense story, but this read easily and held my interest.  I love the titles and some of the sprinkling of made up words, it gave depth and richness, as well as the struggle that Thorn had to go through to speak the language.  I loved that she had to work to acquire the skills to communicate and that it was a part of the story, it didn’t just happen, nor did it get swept aside.

Thorn is religious, but no idea what religion or what it means, she seeks going to the temple for peace and clarity, and we know she takes off her shoes, but that is about it.  The author is Muslim and the book is superb.  I had my daughter read it before I read it, and she in turn made me read it, even watching her younger siblings so I could sneak away.

FLAGS:

Death, murder, public execution, hanging, sexual assault, rape, abuse, violence.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am thinking to do it as a book club book if and when we return to school.  It would depend a bit on the group, but I think older middle school could handle it toward the end of the year.  There is a lot to discuss, a lot that readers could understand differently regarding the Lady, when her secret identity was blown, the value of love and choice, that I am confident that the conversation would be rich and enlightening.

Diana and the Island of No Return by Aisha Saeed

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Diana and the Island of No Return by Aisha Saeed

dianaThis Wonder Woman story of Princess Diana as a young girl is not noteworthy because of its groundbreaking storytelling, but more for the fact that the series and story is by a Pakistani-American Muslim author.  I am not sure how authors are assigned or chosen to  write these reimagined character series, but I think it is a great compliment to her writing and a great mainstream representation of diversity that we should celebrate.  Even more exciting is the subtle addition of Diana’s best friend, Princess Sakina, daughter of Queen Khadijah to the story, and that while they are citizens of fictitious world of Greek gods, they seem to spout Islamic wisdom on occasion, and be equally strong and important to the adventure at hand.  The book is meant for middle grades and at 288 pages is a fun light read for girls and boys of all ages.

SYNOPSIS:

Young Diana is anxiously waiting for the start of the yearly Chara Festival, when strong women from all over the world come to her island home of Themyscira to celebrate their different cultures and strengths.  Most of all Diana is waiting to spend the week with her best friend Sakina.  Frustrated that her mother is not allowing her to train with the other Amazonian women, Sakina listens to her and they hope to persuade Queen Hippolyta that this is the year.

As the women are arriving and gathering in the palace, Diana discovers a boy near the ships, Augustus.  Boys are not allowed on Themyscira.  There is no exception, but when all the women in the palace are drugged to sleep, her and Sakina are forced to trust him to try and save their loved ones.

Augustus confesses that a demon has hypnotized everyone on his island home, and that he was told to break the spell he needed to bring Princess Diana to the demon.  With no options and determined to prove her self, Diana and Sakina and her trusty bird fly off on a chariot to another world.

With tests around every corner, literally, the trio has to work together, to stay alive, gather the ingredients to make a potion to save the people on both islands, and push themselves to be brave.

WHY I LIKE IT:

So the story is ok, it is fun, I’m sure most kids that like superheroes and even many that don’t will enjoy the quick paced plot of the story.  There are definitely little nuggets of inspiration and motivation that make the book a positive influence on the reader.  The trio discuss bravery and how being scared doesn’t make you less brave, they encourage one another to push themselves and they forgive each other when they make mistakes.

Sakina and her people are scholars and on occasion says deep thoughts.  She says at one point, “My mother always says we are supposed to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong.” Which is a general principal, but the word choice sounds a lot like Surah 3 verse 110 “enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong,”

FLAGS:

There is talk of Zeus and the other gods.  There is lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I probably wouldn’t do this as a book club book, but I would definitely encourage kids to read it.  I think muslim kids will get a kick out of seeing the names Sakina and Khadijah in the book and feel like its a bit of a shoutout, which I think is awesome.  It seems like it is book one in a three part series, so I hope to have my kids read them all and make sure the 3rd-5th grade teachers at their school have them as well.

 

The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

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The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

flame

It takes about 124 pages to be swept away to the city of Noor, but once it happens, it is hard to come back.  The 391 page fantasy story takes a while to get going, but the character driven plot filled with amazingly strong and diverse women is worth the slow start.  Middle school readers and up (AR 5.8) will enjoy the blend of Islamic imagery, sub-continent Asian culture, fire, Ifrits, Djinn, family, relate-ablity and good quality story telling.  The fact that it is a main stream book, with so much religion and culture makes it all the more remarkable in its universal appeal.

SYNOPSIS:

Fatima is a Muslim girl adopted by a Hindu family, only everyone in the entire city was killed eight years ago except for Fatima, her adopted sister, and an elderly lady, when the Shayateen attacked.  The orderly Ifrit were asked to defeat the Shayateen and protect the city, and when they did, the wealthy returned along with people from other cities.  Thus Noor is now a vibrant city of different backgrounds, cultures, religions, and languages repopulated and ruled in halves by the Maharaja, Aarush and Ifrit Emir, Zulfikar.

Fatima works as a messenger and her favorite place to deliver packages to is an old book shop owned by Firdaus, an Ifrit she regards as a fatherly figure.  He has taught her languages and provides her a place to learn and grow.  When he dies in front of Fatima, she is forever changed, literally, he transfers his powers to her, and she is now not only part human, part Ifrit, but also the Name Giver, an incredibly powerful and important being in bringing the smokeless Djinn from their wold to her hers.

With rebel forces threatening the Maharaja’s rule, Ghul and Shayateen entering the city, a taint threatening the leader of the Ifrit, a traitor in each palace, and a budding romance between Fatima and Zulfiqar, the characters pull you in and create an enjoyable story that is vivid, fantastic, and hard to put down.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The story doesn’t have a neat and tidy plot culminating in a climax, but the character arcs and vivid world building pull you in and keep you interested.  I love that the characters are different and complex and unique, and that women are so so strong and celebrated for their strength in all spheres, not at the expense of the males, but solidly in their own right.  It is refreshing and glorious to see the matriarchal Ifrit world contrasted with the human world, and the strong females that emerge in both.

I love that there is so much diversity and tolerance and the book doesn’t shy away from presenting faith practices and acceptance in such an honest manner.  There is a four page glossary and it is needed, yet not overwhelming at the same time.  The most read page in the book for me however, was the Dramatis Personae page listing the characters.  Until that 124 page mark, I was constantly flipping back trying to keep everyone straight, not so much because the characters are confusing, but “what” they are took a little while to stick.

I got sucked in by this book truly, I ignored my children during our Corona virus quarantine one day to read the second half, and I don’t regret it one bit.  The romance, was a bit cheesy at the end, but it was clean, and sweet and presented as a way forward, not as a settling or sacrificing choice for either character which was greatly appreciated.

FLAGS:

There are a few kisses once the two main characters are married.  There is stalking and attempted sexual assault by a character, but Fatima more than took care of that with the support of many strong females.  There is mention of a homosexual relationship, but not dwelled on, and I think one could argue that there is  possibly something more going on between two of the females, but it isn’t explored.  There is death and killing and violence, but nothing extreme.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I had hoped to sneak this in for book club next month, but with school closed indefinitely, it might have to wait until next year. I think girls will gravitate more to it than boys, but I think that is ok, because often girls need more of a nudge, in my experience, to give fantasy a try.  I am trying to convince my daughter to read it, but the first 100 pages are pretty slow, so if I can’t force her through it, I don’t know what chance I’ll have, here’s hoping.

NPR Review: https://www.npr.org/2019/05/18/724120066/language-has-magic-in-the-candle-and-the-flame

Interview with Nafiza Azad and Hafsah Faizal (We Hunt the Flame) https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=hafsah-faizal-and-nafiza-azad-interview

The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

light at the bottom

At the risk of sounding pretentious or like I have written a book before, sadly this really reads like a debut novel.  At 311 pages, there is a lot to love about this Muslim authored, Muslim protagonist sci-fi/dystopian adventure, but I have so many more questions about everything after reading the book, than I did before I started, that unless the next book (assuming there will be one), really steps it up- all the world building will have fallen flat with the lack of character connection I felt. At times I had to force myself to read through the lulls in the story, while at other times, I sacrificed precious sleep to read just a bit more.  The story is pretty clean and would have no problem letting my 5th grader read it, even while knowing it will have more appeal to my 8th grader.

SYNOPSIS:

It is 2099, and Earth has flooded forcing everyone to live underwater.  Set in London, 16-year-old Leyla McQueen, a submersible racer, lives alone with her dog Jojo.  Her mother has passed away and her father has recently been taken away to an unknown place for an unknown reason.  It is Christmas, and Muslim Leyla spends the day with her best friends, twins Theo and Tabby.  With futuristic technology, the wealthy twins show the reader what life under the sea entails and the world the characters now inhabit.  Pausing to recall the day the Earth flooded, New Years brings a huge race, the London Marathon, and Leyla somehow gets one of the 100 spots to enter the dangerous submersible race.  The winner gets whatever they want, and Leyla hopes to win, so that she might ask for her father to be released.

By opting to not harm someone, Leyla’s last minute reactions earn her the championship title of the race, however, her request to have her father freed is denied and instead she is gifted a submarine and the attention of the authorities who have ransacked her apartment, and stolen and destroyed her home.  Feeling like she has no reason to stay in London, she plots to escape the borders and go search for her father alone.  A family friend, she calls Grandpa, knows more than he has ever let on, and forces a friend’s son to keep an eye on Leyla, Ari.

Ari and Leyla explore the ocean, while Leyla whines and makes poor decisions, narrowly getting out of each situation, but not seeming to really learn her lesson.  As people appear and help them along the way, she finds where her father is being held, but not much else, and then poof, a few action scenes later to try and rescue her father, and Ari is captured and the book ends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

You have to respect the author who’s bio on the back flap of a Disney, Hyperion published book starts off with, “a British-born Muslim of Afghan descent,” and who dedicates the book to “my fellow Pathans.  We too are worthy of taking the helm.” I love it! Seriously, way to be so confident in who you are, and your story, that you own it and wear it with pride.  Truly, I felt empowered and can only imagine what Pathan girls everywhere would feel opening the book.

Similarly, Leyla, owns her Islam by praying, reading Quran, saying Bismillah before she races, and inshaAllah when she hopes in for things in the future.  She does get a bit close to Ari and doesn’t find that a problem.  She doesn’t cover, and there are no other Muslim characters in the book, but she is definitely religious, and it is seamlessly woven into her character without mentioning anything about what Islam is or stands for, but giving it authentic attention.

There are a few twists, one particularly large one, but not a whole lot of answers, or details.  There is no understanding as to why Leyla’s father has been taken, what happened to everyone other than those in the UK (especially Afghanistan, where Leyla presumably would have family), why so many people are willing to help Leyla find her dad, why Grandpa tells Leyla nothing at all, about Ari’s friend who died, and so much more.  So often it just feels that Leyla is whining and getting no where in her rash and stubbornness, but everyone seems to love her. Perhaps, everyone but me.  I really never felt connected to her, and her annoyingly ever-present dog.  There is more telling about how great she is or her father is, and very little showing.  I think if there is a second book, it could really elevate this one, but as it stands, so little is resolved, explained, or emotional resonance, that I don’t know that the characters or book will leave a lasting impression.

FLAGS:

Some language and a kiss.  There is death, and disease, and battles and government lies.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m tempted to do this as a middle school book club selection, despite the one-dimensional characters, simply because it is clean and might introduce students to a genre they might not otherwise read.

Author’s website: https://www.londonshah.com/