Category Archives: YA FICTION

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

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The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

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This brand new middle school read is like a quick picture of a young girl’s life.  You get to know her as she is, you briefly meet those around her, you see a week or so of her life and then the book ends and you aren’t the same.  You wonder about her, you worry about her, and you find yourself wanting to reach out to those that maybe remind you of her.  Truly a wonderful book of 277 hard-to-put-down-pages that give insight into Malaysia in 1969, OCD, and the beauty of people willing to show their humanity in dire circumstances. My only concern is that I don’t know that there is anything relevant to the typical target audience western reader that would compel them to pick up the book and see it through.  All the reviews online that praise it seem to be from people older than the YA demographic.  Yes, I really enjoyed the book, but I know who the Beatles are, who Paul Newman is, I am a Muslim, I recently went to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and saw the diversity of religions and culture, I know people struggling with mental illness to the point of disability and the exhaustion that ensues; yet I don’t know if I could convince my 12 year old daughter to read it.  If I forced her, I don’t know that she would find the book as beautiful and powerful as I do.  I think a lot of it, she simply wouldn’t get, and even less of it she would relate to.  I probably will force her to read it at some point, and I’ll happily revise this review and swallow my assumption about what the youth these days can handle and identify with, but until then, please let me know if you are in the YA demographic and what you thought of the book. Thanks.

SYNOPSIS:

Melati is a 16 year old Malay girl in 1969, living with her mother, a nurse.  Her father, a police officer, has recently died, and with his loss, she has become crippled by OCD and the fear that her mother too, will die.  Counting numbers move from consoling her and keeping the horrific thoughts at bay, to becoming almost like an incantation that must be performed nearly constantly to keep her mother safe.  As race riots between the Chinese and ethnic Malays engulf the city one fateful afternoon when Melati and her best friend Safiyah are at the movie theater after class, watching the latest Paul Newman movie, the reader is shown how even in calm situations, keeping the OCD from consuming her is a full time job.  With no knowledge of treating and even diagnosing mental health, Melati tries to hide her visions and ticks from those around her as it has alienated extended family, and worries her mother.  The conclusion instead is that she is being haunted by a djinn and thus her mother takes her to different imams and healers, to no avail, and knowing that the common treatment at the time is to have those suffering carted off to an asylum and experimented on, something Melati’s mom, Salmah vows never to let happen, Melati suffers alone.

Once the movie ends, gangs enter the theater and Saf and Melati are separated.  Melati is saved by a stranger, a Chinese lady named Auntie Bee, and Saf is left at the hands of a Chinese gang.  Violence erupts, lasting for days, and curfews prevent Melati from searching for her mother.  While Auntie Bee and her family care for her and take in other neighbors, it is made clear that tensions between the two ethnic groups are high and have been for some time, but that good people exist on both sides too.  People who see people as people not just their culture. 

It is a YA book, so there is a little suspension of reality to reunite a number of the characters and give them the happiest ending such a gritty book can muster, but the author does warn the reader before the story begins that this book has violence and anxiety triggers, and death, she actually urges those that will be inversely affect by such things, to not read her book.  And it makes sense, it is graphic at times, and characters also die, and the tone is powerful, and the OCD is intense.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book embraces all its themes wholeheartedly, there is no happy ending, or magic cure for Melati’s illness, within one family there is racial tension and beautiful examples of selflessness, that two people can save each other but not like each other, and that families can be really disappointing.  At times the presence of the djinn is so annoying that the reader feels how crippling it must be to Melati, as it cripples the story as well, the balance is perfect though, it doesn’t drag the book to the point of wanting to put it down, if anything it makes you cheer harder when her little victories take place.  

I like that there isn’t a huge sappy reunion, because the danger is still going on and the characters presence of mind to the tasks still at hand is actually a subtle, yet powerful nod to the hope that Melati and her mom will be ok.  Can you tell I’m trying not to spoil too much, just suffice it to say, the women in this book are strong and determined and inspiring.

I like that Islam is present and that Melati has to grapple at times with her faith to find where it lies and how she accepts some of the events that have taken place, and the djinn fighting to consumer her. In many teens it is a right of passage, but for her it is amplified by the horrors she has lived through and seen and her own mental state.  Clearly the author is Malay and Muslim as she sprinkles words and phrases and traditions seamlessly into  the narrative that makes it flow with authenticity and vibrance.

I wish at times we knew more about the history of what lead up to the violence, or maybe even more about some of the characters, but alas I think this is Melati’s story and those that have turned their back on her and her mom really don’t deserve the ink needed to share their roles.  Some details about the resolution of the riots or how the country came back together might be nice, but a quick Google search can quell any curiosities.  I appreciate that the writing is smooth and intentional and well crafted and not a distraction to the internal turmoil and story being conveyed.

FLAGS:

Violence, racial tension, graphic death, anxiety triggers.  Melati and Vincent hold hands, it is a bit fuzzy if it is out of reassurance or something more.  There isn’t explicit sexual violence, but Melati does see a soldier pressing his body against a school girl who is of a similar age to her.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I want to do this as a book club, but I don’t know that the students will read it voluntarily.  I may have to bribe them and get permission from the school counselor.  I think they would benefit immensely from the insight in to mental illness and feel comfortable talking about their understanding of it, being it is presented in a fictional format.  I think the violence, because it is rooted in history can be understood and be discussed.  

Interview with the author: http://richincolor.com/2019/02/interview-with-hanna-alkaf-the-weight-of-our-sky/

Author’s website: https://hannaalkaf.com/the-weight-of-our-sky-2/

 

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Peeper and the Peeping Boy by Ayesha Marfani illustrated by Aisha Aamir

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Peeper and the Peeping Boy by Ayesha Marfani illustrated by Aisha Aamir

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I see the author regularly posting positive feedback for this book and after feeling let down by the last book of hers that I read, that had a great premise, I tentatively reached for this one.  The book is meant for children in grades 2 through 5, but the writing seems a bit all over the place and some of the vocabulary is above that level. The book is 67 pages and reads like a rough draft that has so much potential to be fleshed out, enhanced, and cleaned up.

SYNOPSIS:

The book takes place in Pakistan and is told from the perspective of Akram, an 11-year-old boy and a Jinn who he names Peeper.  Akram is apparently funny looking and behaves old for his age.  Those around him find him too contemplative and off compared to his peers.  He seems to be an only child and his family is middle class, but they live in a really weird neighborhood and while they have a maid, they are really tight with food and money.  Akram has a passion for peeking in on old houses and imaging stories for the inhabitants. 

Peeper is a Jinn, a good one, who doesn’t like to see suffering of small children.  He sneaks on Akram and sees what praying is and what being a Muslim is.  When he says “no” to his tribe to help plan a party for shaytan, he is punished and made human.  And as a human he and Akram explore the six abandoned houses next to Akram’s house snooping, making assumptions, involving the police and ultimately saving the day.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the premise of a boy and a jinn learning about Islam and trying to help those around them who are suffering.  I like that the foundation of being Muslim is what shapes both boys perception of the world as they pray and use AllahuAkbar as a super word to protect themselves.  Unfortunately the author’s writing style is very befuddled and these lessons are not clear.  The tenses change through out as does the point of view, with sometimes it being the characters being in the story and sometimes them preaching to the reader.  There is a lot of repetition of ideas, often disconnected random ideas, and in such a short book it really stands out.  Similarly, everything is really vague, no characters other than the main two are named, numbers of people aren’t identified, “…came in with 10 to 15 people, (page 62).”  Everything is very fluid and not in a helpful way.  The verdict of Peeper getting expelled from his tribe should have been a major plot point, but it is so quick and anti-climatic, that it really makes no impact. In a fantasy story, world building is critical, and there is nothing understood about the world of the jinns.  It says they are evil and horrid, but Akram misses them and wants to go back, which makes no sense and their are no details to show why he would think some in his tribe are good and kind, so when at the end they take shahada, it is completely fuzzy and confusing how one concept links to another.  Even the point of the story is befuddling, sneaking is wrong, but their intentions were pure, they got all their assumptions wrong, so they get medals and get rewarded and are encouraged to sneak more, but with permission? So, ya, all over the place.  The happy ending is that the mom is suddenly praying and religious, but no explanation of what changed her is given, so it falls rather flat.

Aside from my own thoughts on the story, there are blatant contradictions that aren’t explained.  Peeper says he wish he knew Arabic, but he came from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran, so how does he know English, but not Arabic from Syria?  Peeper also says on page 28 he doesn’t understand fajr, but on page 23 he says he watched Akram pray all 5 daily prayers.  The whole premise of Akram and Peeper being drawn to each other is their nosy curiosity and their compassion for others, but the whole scene with how they let the maid take the fall for the missing food is so out of character, and then when Akram is rude to Peeper about what his parents would say if they saw him is very jarring to how the character has previously been presented.  Neither situation is really resolved either and I really am worried that the maid lost her job and Akram didn’t even try to fix it.  The author tells us they are nice, but shows us two examples when they are not, so it isn’t very convincing that they truly are nice until they try to help the neighbors.  The inhabitant in one of the abandoned bungalows they assume is poor and deliver biscuits to him, but they note that he has bars of gold in his cupboards, so obviously he isn’t poor.  It is noted that Peeper can deliver the mail secretly with no one knowing where they came from, yet the police know that Akram is the one that alerted them to everything going on in the six bungalows, another contradiction that isn’t explained.

Some of the vocabulary was also troublesome for me.  The glossary at the end of the story and before the activity coloring and word search pages, jinn is defined as ghost, but they aren’t dead human spirits, so I disagree with that.  At one point the book mentions “elders of Islam” which is vague and odd, as well.  There are poems at the beginning of each of the 21 chapters, that are very forced rhyme and use words I had to look up:  hoary, momento mori, atavistic, not saying that kid’s can’t handle hard words, but there are many passages that have words more middle school in nature and with unconnected concepts, context clues are rather non existent.

There are little illustrations scattered throughout, but they are inconsistent in style and the copy quality is a bit poor, so they are not really helpful.  Akram does not have a face drawn in, but the jinn does. 

FLAGS:

There is nothing alarming.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club book, and I wouldn’t stress having a copy on a library shelf as I don’t think a child would willingly read it and understand it.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lulu and the Very Big Meanies by Mac McGooshie illustrated by Alexis Hogwood

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Lulu and the Very Big Meanies by Mac McGooshie illustrated by Alexis Hogwood

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I don’t know what is more frustrating: quality books that are poorly packaged (binding, illustrations, font, spacing, etc.) or beautiful books that miss the mark in storytelling and basic writing skills.  Both are equally annoying, and while yes, a good story should be the basis, this book is really well written that the presentation of it just makes me sad.  At 116 pages, the book is perfect for 3rd graders.  My daughter and son read it a few years ago when I first picked it up.  I made them read it.  And last week when I pulled it out to read myself, both remarked that it was a good story.  The fact that they remembered it and remembered liking it are huge pluses, and made the fact that I had to make them read it all the more disheartening.  I’m certain if you can get your kids to read eight maybe 10 pages they will zoom through the rest of the book.  It is the getting them to pick it up and start, that is the tricky part.  The book is paperback, thick and glossy, but the cover looks homemade almost.  If you thumb through it the font is too small, spaced too tight and the illustrations mean well, but don’t deliver.  Unfortunate, because like my children, I too think the story is fun and I’m disappointed that the book was published in 2013 as #1 in the Lulubug’s Week in the Life Series, and no further books have come out.

SYNOPSIS:

Laila (Lulu), and her family are American Muslims living in Southern Virginia.  Lulu’s mom is a lawyer and a convert, her dad is from Egypt and owns an Italian restaurant, and her older twin brothers are 12 and keep an eye on her.  Being incredibly bright Lulu has skipped third grade and is having trouble with some bullies in her new fourth grade class: Veronica B. and Veronica C.  aka the Veries.  Using help from her brothers, her neighbor and friend Toni, and some friends in class, a trap is set to get the bullies to confess to their evil mischief, but that unfortunately isn’t the only thing Lulu is going through this week.  Throw in her parent’s sudden decision to move closer to the masjid in another city, a litter of kittens abandoned on the side of the road, and some weird noises coming from the woods behind their house, and Lulu has a lot to deal with.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it shows the day-to-day of a typical Muslim family in a normal presentation.  They pray together, they watch what they eat, they know their neighbors and worry about each other.  It doesn’t idolize the family, making them better than anyone or preachy, but makes them very relatable and likable in a realistic way.  When bees are discovered or the kittens need carrying for, sunnahs and ayats are identified, but very seamlessly, that non Muslim kids will learn a bit about Islam and Muslim kids will be excited to see themselves.  My favorite scene regarding this is when the mom finds out there will be a middle-school dance, and even though the boys are not planning to go, know that it isn’t for them, and don’t even seem tempted by it, they still have a family meeting about it, to discuss.  I also like that at one point Lulu meets another Muslim girl and they don’t hit it off right away, the girls work through it, but it is nice to see some diversity in even the way Muslims are presented and possibly misunderstood even amongst one another.

There is a lot going on in the book in terms of action items, but there still is a lot of character development and dimensions to Lulu.  Lulu has to navigate relationships with her family and friends that ring true and aren’t over simplified.  Her friend and neighbor, Toni, expects Lulu to act different at school now that they are in the same class, but returns to her silly self once they are home.  Lulu clashes a lot with her mom, but can smile and get her way super easy with her dad and manipulates that a lot.  She has to balance her sassiness with her teacher and principal, pick her battles with the Veries, and abide by other adults’ rules and expectations.  The book reads in a similar vein as Junie B. Jones, or Clementine, just maybe a more mature and less obnoxious reincarnation.

I wish the adventure involving the backyard noises, was a bit more dramatic, and maybe even the unveiling of the trap involving the dye was more resolved.  At times the book seemed rushed to wrap up all the stories introduced and I think they deserved a little more time to be explored and enjoyed.  If the font and spacing and pictures could be tweaked I think the book would really speak to kids in a fun way.  Third and fourth graders can easily handle a 150-160 page book that has good pacing and is packaged in a tempting, non intimidating way.  I’m holding out hope that maybe the author will write some more, tweak this one, and give it the chance at reaching an audience that would benefit from the smart, fun, grounded life of Lulu.

FLAGS:

Clean, it does mention that Toni likes a boy, but Lulu thinks that boys are trouble.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If I still did an elementary book club, I think this book would work.  I think kids need a nudge to give it a try, but once the book gets going, girls and boys alike will enjoy it.  I may read it for a Lunch Bunch choice (I read once a week to 4th and 5th graders while they eat their lunch).  Kids will love seeing themselves, their stresses, their families, and their faith presented well.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

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Our local library automatically renews books, so I’ve had this 446 page AR 5.0 novel sitting on my night stand since October.  I got the online version when I went overseas, and I even downloaded the audio book.  Needless to say, I never opened it, in any form.  And then four days ago, I did.  I read the first page and then the second, and soon enough I knew that I would quickly be annoyed by my children needing food, and clean clothes and rides to school because, I was no longer present in the day-to-day functions of my life, I was in Serra hoping for happy endings and being really angry, like ready to contact the Muslim author during certain scenes, as I felt tears reminiscent of when Cedric Diggory was killed in book 4 of Harry Potter brimming.  The book was amazing, and yes, my kids are fairly well cared for, but there are two more books in the series out, and the fourth one apparently in the works.  I hope to read the series, but I have a feeling, this epic fantasy series will not be a happy read, it is dark, and violent, and definitely more suited for high school readers because of content then the AR level would suggest.  

SYNOPSIS:

Told from two different characters ‘perspectives: Laia and Elias, the world of Serra has tastes of the Roman Empire, current political headlines, Middle Eastern names, subcontinent ideas and lots of action.  Laia is a Scholar, an oppressed people who a half a millennium ago crumbled beneath the Martial invasion.  Her parents led a resistance and were killed a long with a sister.  She and her brother, Darin, are now raised by the grandparents: gentle people who heal others, keep their heads down, and don’t make waves.  The story quickly advances with Martials raiding the family home and Masks, the elite warriors of the Martials, killing Laia’s grandparents and imprisoning Darin.  Laia escapes by running, but hates herself for not staying and fighting for her brother, the only family she has left.

Elias on the other hand is a Martial soldier about to graduate as a Mask from Blackcliff Academy, a brutal (that’s putting it mildly) nearly all boy’s military school.  Abandoned by his mother as a baby, Elias is contemplating running away from the school, as his soul and conscience can no longer be pushed aside to complete the acts he is expected to do.  The complications abound, however, as the Commandant, is his mother, who wants nothing more than to see him dead, the penalty for desertion is death, but the penalty for most every infraction is a severe beating, and if death happens in the process, so be it.

The two characters come together as Laia reaches out to the Resistance to find help in rescuing her brother and in exchange is assigned to be the Commandant’s personal slave.  As the Empire is on the cusp of change, a new emperor is to be selected from the top four of the current graduating class, Elias, is the top of his class.  The four trials will leave one triumphant and the new leader, second place will be the Blood Shrike, the emperors blood bonded butcher, the others will be killed. 

The trails are named: Courage, Cunning, Strength and Loyalty and are administered by immortal, mind reading, cave dwelling Augurs.  The trails are vicious and cruel and evoke not only putting friends against friends, and test one’s fears, but they are amplified by creatures such as jinns, efrits, ghuls and wraiths.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is incredibly well written.  The way the author builds her characters’ worlds is seamless and smooth.  I didn’t get lost or confused, I never once felt bored by explanations or felt that something didn’t make sense, a feeling that makes fantasy stories cumbersome and daunting to me, and what I feared all those months looking at the book, too afraid to open it and dive in. 

The action and characters are well developed.  While the book is fast paced, I felt every character was given some nuance and depth.  It really isn’t a good vs. evil story.  Each character has more than one trait at any given time, and it makes them delightful to interact with and mull over.  There are strong females and sprinkled in ethnic names like Sana, Illyas, Tariq, Afya Ara-Nur, Mazen, Zain, Zara.  The subcontinent concept of Izzat, honor, is prominent among the Resistance and Scholars which is a nice bit of resonance in this fictional world as well.  And the concept of jinns, and the stories about their role in the book, reads like Arab folklore.

FLAGS:

The book has profanity, not a lot, but it is there, especially when talking about women.  The violence is incredibly graphic, killings, beatings, brutality, whippings, suffering, and death are on nearly every page.  The Martials are ruthless not only with those they occupy, but even amongst themselves: the students fight to their death, they lock their own children in cages without food so that only the strong of their society survive.  But even worse is that many of the people outside of the ruling elite are taken as slaves, and thus women are seen as property and rape abounds.  Rape by name is mentioned a lot, but it isn’t graphic, save one or two climactic points, if anything it is more disturbing because it is the norm and is accepted.  Prostitutes are mentioned, again, nothing detailed, but mentioned that the boys at the academy visit the docks to see prostitutes.  As Laia is being sold to a slave master, he considers placing her in the brothels rather than at the school.  Laia is nearly raped by a student, and a simmulated rape saves her at another time, in both instances the higher ups dismiss that there is anything wrong with raping a slave and the winner of the third trial is even given a slave for the night.  When the Masks kill Laia’s grandparents, one says he will rape Laia before he kills her.  So it is very much a part of the culture of the book, but it isn’t defined, just the words are used, which means I think high school kids could handle it, because it is not celebrated or graphic, but younger than that will have too many questions that can’t be swept away easily given the environment of the book.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book could work for a high school book club, because there is so much to talk about.  It won’t work for middle school, and I will keep my daughter from reading it until she is in 9th or 10th grade probably, even though she has read Hunger Games and the Divergent series.  Just want her a little older to handle all the rape references, in more mature way.

As for teaching or presenting this book, this series has a HUGE fandom, you can find everything on the book online and with little effort (maps, character lists, chat groups etc.).

The Author’s website: https://www.sabaatahir.com/

Teaching Books: https://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?a=1&tid=42018&s=n

One of many book trailers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbvyCrkVT7M

Enjoy! Happy Reading!

Boy vs Girl by Na’ima B. Robert

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Boy vs Girl by Na’ima B. Robert

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I read this book a few years ago and was blown away that Islamic fiction could explore these topics compellingly in a YA package.  I remember loaning out the book to a mom with middle school kids to see if she could tell me how accurate the storylines were.  Yeah, I never got the book back, and never got the feedback, and the book slipped my mind and thus I never wrote a review on it.  Fast forward to last month and I’m trying to find a middle school book club selection and I can’t believe that I don’t have a blog entry of this book to look back on.  Clearly, this shows why 1- I don’t loan out books anymore and 2-Why I have a blog, cause I remember nothing about the flags, relevance or appropriateness of the book, thus I bought another copy, read it, and am now documenting my thoughts.

The book is 260 pages and an AR 5.3, but the drug use and violence I’d say would warrant an older reader, 9th grade and up perhaps.  And while by the end, the book leaves a pleasant taste in your mouth and you would place it back on the shelf in a contented manner, I would be misleading if I didn’t confess that it took much self motivation to pick the book up and keep reading more than once, that it honestly took me a month to read.  The last third was hard to put down, but you have to get through a fair amount of frustration, stereotypes, and extremes to get there.

SYNOPSIS:

Sixteen year old twins Farhana and her brother Faraz live in London and are incredibly different from one another.  Farhana goes to a school where she excels both academically and socially.  She is queen bee, beautiful, and articulate.  Faraz on the other hand, goes to a different school and doesn’t really fit in anywhere, but in the art studio.  One thing that unites them, however, is their determination to grow and learn about Islam this Ramadan, and their home environment of a large extended Pakistani family that places culture above religion.

Both twins are close with the “black sheep” of the family, their Aunty Najma, a niqabi rebel set on marrying a white convert.  But, both twins have their own stresses as well.  Farhana has recently called it off with a boy named Malik, but isn’t really over him and Faraz has gotten himself involved in a street gang to find a place to belong, but the stakes are getting higher.  Both twins on the eve of Ramadan and with the coaching of their Aunt are determined to get their lives straightened out, fast properly, reconnect with their faith, and with each other.  They do, alhumdulillah, however, the spiritual high only lasts so long, as earlier decisions come back to haunt them.

Farhana makes the bold decision to start wearing hijab, but once the novelty wears off, she starts to question her choice.  It isn’t helped by her mom who is very, very against the need to veil and makes it difficult for her daughter.  Faraz meets some street artists at the masjid and while it looks like he could find a place to excel, his alliance with a gang, also comes with enemies from rival crews.  Physical fights and drug runs have him out at all hours of the night and the priority of fasting and praying fade as the the pressures of not getting killed or caught prevail.

As each kid has their ups and downs, and the parents prove to be out of touch with the lives of those in their homes, tidbits of Islam come through, but unfortunately so does a lot of cultural dogma that isn’t always clarified or pushed back on, making there a lot going on in this book, and making me wish it was a just a bit longer and more fine tuned.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book, I could argue set the foundation for the amazing pieces of literature currently available.  Published in 2010, the book really was a first of its kind.  Written by a Muslim, unapologetically written for Muslim and non-Muslims, and available in the mainstream.  The book tackles real issues, but seems to fall into stereotypes too.  That Farhana covers and is so beautiful, she looks like Aishwariya Rai, the Bollywood actress, why would she cover.  Malik decides to figure things out and wait for her, ahhh, so sweet.  There’s the rebel Asian girl who gets a lot of page space early on for her incredibly minor role, going on about Asian Girl Bachelor Parties and hooking up with everyone and anyone. There is the best friend who is religious and the Imam’s daughter and is also chubby.  The nice brother at the masjid who saves the protagonist.  I don’t know, they all seem predictable.  What I like about fiction is it allows Muslims to be seen in shades of gray not just black and white, and while this book tries to do it, I feel like only the main characters are allowed to grow and change, the minor characters hold on to their positions so resolutely that, they kind of seem dry.

I like that the tables on hijab are switched up, it isn’t the parents that want the girl to cover, but rather the girl her self, and some of the conversations about hijab and Farhana’s choice to do it compared to her friend who is forced allow for some powerful moments.  I also like, that she has doubts soon after opting to wear it.  I wish some religious reasonings were brought in to her understanding of hijab, but the aspects of choice and how to wear it, are present.  I’m grateful that Faraz’s storyline takes most of the action, so that it isn’t a romance novel, with Farhana pining relentlessly for Malik.  I had hoped for a little growth from the gang head, Skrooz, especially after Aunty Naj sheds some light on him, but his criminal act at the end after showing Faraz his cousin or maybe it was his brother seemed a bit off.  Again, it was only to benefit the protagonist, not to show that we all have our own battles.

The parents and extended family are irritating to say the least. To the extent of delaying iftar to get the food to the grandmas house and then serving the men first, like really? I don’t think so.  There is nothing that says the women have to eat after serving everyone else in religion and that is never challenged.  Yes, Farhana challenges her mom’s notion of women not going to the mosque, but the food bugged me.  I am Pakistani American, and the culture has its flaws, but the presentation in the book, is one big wide stripe of female oppression, which isn’t fair either.  Absolutely, their are families that the women cook all day and then eat in a corner, but I feel like the staging of this book as “authentic” either needs to show variation, or account that this is how one family views it, not that it is universal.

FLAGS:

There is talk of casual sex, physical violence with knives and fists, details about drugs: cocaine and heroin.  None of it is celebrated, but it is present and very much the norm in how it is presented.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I still sway back and forth on if this could be done as a book club selection, and in the end I would opt that no it can’t.  Not for the drug use, or boy girl relationships, but ultimately for how the backwards and closed minded the Pakistani culture is presented as being.  If the group was high school Pakistani heritage kids maybe, but I think Arabs and non Muslims in general will not think very highly of the culture after reading this book, and I think that is a disservice to be promoting in a book club selection.  

 

 

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

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Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

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I put off reading this book (I read the companion, Whichwood, first) because I had heard that the audio book was great and I wanted to listen to it with my kids.  Read by Bronson Pinchot, Cousin Balki from Perfect Strangers, the audio book takes 8 hours to cover the 401 page book, and it is delightful.  While Mafi’s circular repetitive world building, takes some slowing down to get used to, listening to it made the story move along when a physical book may have been abandoned.  An AR 5.5 the book is clean, but not gripping until about two-thirds of the way through.  As the main character grows in maturity, the story gets better and better, a mix between Alice and Wonderland and A Wrinkle in Time.  The book will require some determination to get through, but the journey will be worth it in the end.

SYNOPSIS:

Alice Alexis Queensmeadow is missing her father who left 3 years ago with only a ruler in his pocket, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.  Her life is a bit messy as she is being homeschooled by a mother who she doesn’t really think likes her and thus spends most of her days outside eating flowers and trying to avoid wearing clothes.  Alice lives in a world of magic and color, but Alice has no color, at least not externally, her magic, which she must learn to accept is to add and manipulate color to the world, to anything and everything, except herself.  As a 12-year-old she must surrender her magic and be given a task to prove her place in her world.  She thinks her best gift is dance and her surrender goes terribly wrong.  With no where to go after her humiliating performance, she decides to take Oliver Newbanks up on his offer to go with him to help him on his task, he is 13 years old, and find her father.  Their unlikely assistance to one another is fraught with mistrust and bickering as they journey to a world Alice didn’t even know existed, Furthermore.

In the land of Furthermore, magic is used very differently then in Ferenwood, and on their journey where up is down and paper foxes rip limbs off, and Time is actually a person.  The two companions will have to learn to be honest with one another as well as themselves in order to survive, let alone to find Alice’s dad.  With the threat of death and being eaten constantly plaguing them, they journey from village to village where the rules are different and the laws of logic ever changing, with the hopes of completing the task and reuniting a family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The details in the story are luscious and beautiful, and once you fall into it, you really do want to stay and look around a while.  There were times when listening to it, that the kids would get bored, yet now that we have finished it, all have mentioned that maybe we should get the book so they can reread parts again.  Mafi’s writing style is very thick that you don’t feel like you are making any progress, yet when you start to digest what you know, you realize in fact you have.  

At the beginning Alice is very annoying, and she stays that way for a while.  Her whiney nature isn’t sympathy evoking, but rather gets you irritated with Oliver as well, that he doesn’t just tell her stuff.  Both combined need to be bopped on the head.  Seriously, a bit of communication would really have taken out a lot of the unnecessary frustration the readers feel for the characters, and let the personal stuff they were hesitant to share with each other have more value.  It is a middle grades book, the empathy of understanding Alice and Oliver’s own fears and reticent in opening themselves up is a great lesson to explore through fictional characters, but because the kids have such poor communication skills about anything, their own fears lose potency.  The pacing of the story, is just as random as the villages they pass through as well, while they always seem in a rush, some of the places they stop they could chat at, rather than while they are running to save their lives, or while they are walking they could talk to give description through their eyes, to build up the characters, not just the world they are in.

Like in Whichwood, the narrator talks to the reader which is fun, and provides information that otherwise couldn’t be shared.  The characters names in each of the villages are clever and while the story could be mapped pretty straightforward, girl journeys to a new world to find her father with the help of a boy, who will become her friend, the twists and details, make the book memorable and worth the strain to get to the climax. 

I know this review sounds back and forth, and I think a lot of it stems from what you expect from the story before you begin.  I had tried to read the book and got a little discouraged, but I had a good feeling the audio book wouldn’t disappoint, so I plugged through and found myself enjoying and loving the story.  If you are expecting an action packed fully fleshed out rational story, you will be let down.  If you can just enjoy the whimsy on the surface and let the little tidbits of the larger story come at different times to complete the larger puzzle, you will love Alice and Oliver’s magical world and the fantastic journey that they go on.

FLAGS:

The book is clean.  A bit disturbing is that the people of Furthermore want to eat Alice and Oliver to absorb their magic.  It isn’t vulger, but it is silly that Alice doesn’t like wearing clothes.  While one could be nervous that Alice and Oliver develop a romantic relationship, rest assured they do not, they become friends and are 13 and 12 years old, so phew.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I can see me doing this as a book club selection, although I’d probably lean more to Whichwood, in an Islamic School environment because of the names. I think young Either one though, I’m positive Muslim kids will enjoy seeing a hijab wearing Muslimah pictured on the back flap and seeing that she can write a mainstream engaging fantasy novel about whatever she likes.

Author’s website: http://www.taherehbooks.com/book/furthermore/

The Victory Boys by Jamal Orme illustrated by Eman Salem

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The Victory Boys by Jamal Orme illustrated by Eman Salem

victory boys.jpg

I’m not sure why Amazon states the book is for pre-school and up, when the publisher, Kube, posts this book for ages 7 and up.  I think 3rd or 4th grade soccer/football fans will enjoy the book.  There are some slightly mature ideas presented and worked through, and the soccer lingo assumes the reader knows the sport.  Plus the quality of the illustrations and the small font isn’t going to entice someone not already excited to read the book based on the content within.  My boys, ages 8 and 9, enjoyed the book, as did I, once the story got going.  It doesn’t really grip you from the first sentence, but as the story progresses and the way Islam is woven in makes for some learning experiences in the midst of a few intense football matches.

SYNOPSIS:

The boys at the Sunday Madrasa do not enjoy their time there.  They find the Imam boring and thus are not inspired to learn. When they sneak a football into break time however, they suddenly feel more engaged and present in their lessons.  A change the Imam notices and appreciates, but doesn’t know the reasoning for as he strictly forbids football and finds it a waste of time.  Outside of Madrasa, Junayd is having a hard time at home.  He has to help out a lot at his father’s restaurant and his older brother Saleem has gotten in trouble with the police.  His mom prays for the kids, but is also at a loss as to how to help with the stresses at home.

During a secret game of football in the masjid courtyard, an arrant ball breaks the neighbor’s greenhouse window, and the boys are forced to come clean about their covert game.  The Imam demands the kids stop playing and that they tell their parents what they have done, so that they may earn some money to replace the window.  As the kids come through with the money and the Imam sees the kids resort back to their lackluster attitudes to learning.  He gets an idea to start a football club after madrasa classes.  The only problem is that he knows nothing about the sport and no parents are willing to help.

Saleem by chance comes to collect his brother one day, and as he hollers advice from the sidelines, the Imam recruits him to coach the team.  In response the Imam ever so gently uses football to teach not only the madrasa kids, but Saleem as well.  When the boys learn of an upcoming tournament, the Madrasa enters an A and B squad and the Shabab Al-Nasr, Victory Boys, will be tested not only in their play, but also in their manners, and understanding of what it means to be a team and Muslim.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the Imam grows and changes.  I mean it is a kids book about soccer, but really it is the adult in the story that shows the most heart.  He goes out of his comfort zone, reevaluates his opinions, and admits when he is wrong.  High five Imam!  I also like that he didn’t give up on Saleem, and the way he leads him is with such kindness and compassion, that even youngsters, will be impressed.  

The book does not talk down to the reader, which is nice, but at the same time I think it pushes the age appropriateness a bit with the detail devoted to alcohol being sold at the restaurant, Junayd’s father’s flaws, and even Adam’s dad’s tantrum of sorts.  There really aren’t any nice parents in the book.  We don’t learn much about the moms, but none of the dads seem too supportive.  Really the only nice adults are the Imam and the neighbor who’s window they broke.

The timeline isn’t entirely smooth, the kids come together and play well as a team remarkably fast for how intense the tournament is, and how well they perform. And some of the characters could have used some fleshing out, I couldn’t really tell you much about them.  The font is really small and the spacing often forgotten.  The book is about 95 pages with a glossary and an acknowledgement at the end, fortunately the 2nd book in the series seems to space the words and lines out more and is 155 pages.

The story is solid and for the most part well written.  I read it in one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed the lessons learned and then put into practice.  The book isn’t preachy, but you are glad to see the Imams words given life in the other characters’ actions.  Saleem changes quickly, but the author and story account for it in a way that is believable for the audience and the message of not giving up on one another comes through loud and clear.  There is a lot of technical detail about the sport, but it doesn’t drag on, it adds to the excitement even if you just know the basics.

FLAGS:

The talk of alcohol, of Saleem being with a group of kids and a stolen car, there is some yelling and aggressiveness from the adults.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The story is a bit short for a book club selection, but I would definitely consider it for Lunch Bunch (where I read to 4th and 5th graders while they eat lunch).  And I think most Islamic School libraries and classrooms should stock the series.  

https://thevictoryboys.com/