Category Archives: YA FICTION

The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

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The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

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At times this 352 mature YA book was really hard to read for a variety of reasons: the subject matter, the writing style, the pacing of the story, and the numerous characters and inconsistencies.  At other times, the book was descriptive, and ethereal and hard to put down.  It took me over a month to finish the book because it really is all over the place and a lot of internal force and motivation was required to get through it, yet for all its flaws, I find my thoughts drifting back to it often.  The book contains a lot of violence against women, as that is the thread that brings this feminist group together.  There are hetero, lgbtq+, trans, and nonbinary individuals and relationships in the book, but they are not explicit, the rape, assault, suicide, prostitution, child trafficking and murder are more detailed.  The book takes place all over the world, and often mentions the athan being called or a mosque being passed.  Many characters have “Islamic” names, but there is no religion specifically practiced in this hijabi authored women powered tale.

SYNOPSIS:

The premise of the book is simple and straightforward.  A girl, the daughter of a prostitute, is betrayed by her mother when she is sent to a man.  As she runs through the city to escape, she crosses paths with a young boy who tosses her a box that contains stars.  A star embeds itself in her palm and allows her to enter a place called the “Between.”  The Between is a magical corridor made of magic that contains doors that lead to locations all over the world.  Once she enters she stops aging and is now made of magic.  She has the power to scream which can destroy other middle worlders and she can go invisible when around normal humans.  She travels the world finding other girls betrayed by those who had been entrusted to protect them, and offers them a star and a place in the Wild Ones.  This has been going on for centuries.  When the boy with the star eyes is in danger, he is reunited with the girl and her gang, and they pledge to protect him.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The concept of the book is pretty good, but the plot for more than half of the book it seems focuses on the girls constantly arriving in a new location, exchanging diamonds for local currency, finding food, and getting settled in, before doing it all over again.  It is repetitive and pointless.  Sure it is nice to read about exotic locations and savor local foods, but these girls live forever essentially and we learn so little about them or what it is they do.  Toward the middle of the book you start to see them helping other girls, but this should have been made clear much earlier on, I’m sure many people stopped reading before they saw how part of each girls’ healing involved helping others.  It is not developed or shown, which I think other than the two encounters detailed would have created some connection between the characters and the reader.

The cause of most of the confusion is that there are 11 Wild Ones, and you never really get to know any of them, the point of view switches between Paheli, and unknown speaker, and it has pages of prose from other Wild Ones that are neither explanatory of their life before or in relation to what they are currently experiencing. The fourth wall is broken periodically, but inconsistently.  So often, I just had no idea what was going on.

At times the characters speak like they are the teens that they are when they entered the Between, really noticeably and painfully, but they are decades old at the youngest, and centuries old for some of them.  Also, Taraana is presented as a young small boy that needs coddling a lot, although he too is centuries old, but then as the girls start protecting him, he suddenly is this incredibly handsome man in love with Paheli.  I get that their physical ages are suspended, so a relationship really might be possible and not creepy, but Taraana seemed to change, and it wasn’t explained.

The world building overall is weak, which is a shame, because it isn’t disjointed from the real world, it is just a slight addition to what the reader already knows.  If the Between is just hallways how is there a library? Can you live in the Between? Can all middle worlders access it? If so why aren’t the corridors crowded?

The pain of the girls, their rage, their ability to deal with their traumas in their own way and time, is very empowering.  I wish the sisterhood was more mutual than blindly following Paheli, like lost little children.  These girls/women can decide what to partake it, and leave the group if they want, so they are strong and capable, they just don’t seem to get to show it as they bounce around from place to place to place eating and doing what they are told.

The book almost seems to have been written in sections and then dropped in to place.  Much of the character information comes too late to make the story resonate.  Sure part of it is intentional to clarify and create “aha” moments, but it creates really boring stagnant chapters, when these girls should be fierce and powerful, not lounging and mundane.

There were a few spelling errors and grammar gaps, but I read an advanced readers copy, so I’m hopeful they will be resolved.

FLAGS:

Prostitution, rape, assault, suicide, death, murder, child trafficking, torture, drowning, infanticide, girl/boy kissing, girl/boy and girl/girl flirting. Many of the online reviews make it seem more lgbtq+ than I felt it was.  There are two lesbian characters that flirt and imply that their relationship will move forward, but within the Wild Ones they aren’t all hooking up.  Paheli and Taraana kiss, but nothing more graphic.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think there is any way I could do this as a book club selection at an Islamic school, nor would I want to. The book has powerful commentary on the status and crimes against women the world over, and possibly older, say early 20 year olds, would benefit from reading and adding their voices to a dialogue regarding life experiences. But, the story line might be too simplistic for older readers to bond with, and the confusion and inconsistencies may not be worth the time needed to finish the book.

Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

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Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

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I really thought this book was a middle school book when I picked it up: the cover illustration, the length (265 pages), the larger font and generous spacing, but then I started reading it and the first two chapters alone have cursing, underage drinking, mention of sex and making out, straight and lesbian couples, and bullying.  The main character’s voice was enjoyable enough and the writing smooth, so I kept reading, but ultimately, I don’t know that high schoolers will find the climax that griping, and it definitely isn’t for middle schoolers, so I’m not sure who the target audience is.  The character never identifies as Muslim, nor does he correct or clarify to the many people around him that assume he is Muslim.  His deceased father was Arab Christian and his mother, Iranian Muslim that doesn’t “speak to God much since (his) dad died,” yet he is the victim of Islamaphobia and bullied as being a terrorist.  Pork is put in his locker, a doctored image of him dressed as an extremist is emailed out to the entire school, but he never says I am Muslim or I am not Muslim.  Perhaps when dealing with ridiculous bullies it doesn’t matter, but even commenting on that would, for me, have given the book more purpose.  The book was a quick easy read, and I enjoyed the basketball aspects and a few of the characters, but the constant drinking, predictability, and lack of intensity renders the book rather forgettable.  I’m only reviewing it so that if other’s see it and assume it is a middle school sports book that they will be aware that it is for older readers, has a decent amount of gay and straight non graphic romance, a lot of alcohol use, and crude talk.

SYNOPSIS:

Bijan is on loan to the Varsity basketball team from JV and when the star player gets in foul trouble, he is put in.  Bijan is a decent player, and when his intensity brings the team within range of a win and his winning shot seals the victory, Bijan is no longer just another face in the crowd at his private school, he is getting a lot of attention.  Most of the attention is initially appreciated, parties, a chance to talk to his crush Elle, leniency in turning in assignments, but things quickly change when a manipulated image is sent out to the entire school community- students, teachers, faculty, alumni, board- showing Bijan as a terrorist.  Was he targeted because of his brown skin, his instant popularity, his volunteering with a committee to change the school mascot from the Gunners to something less violent? The school says they will try and find the culprit, but it doesn’t look hopeful and Bijan just wants it to all go away. 

Bijan’s new stardom has him hanging out with the Varsity team after games and suddenly interfering with their social life. Bijan gets in a fight with a teammate, breaks up a fight between a teammate and his girlfriend, and finds himself being teased for being Muslim and brown.  The school is predominately white and Bijan stands out.  He notes who says his name, and who conveniently avoids it.  Physical altercations elevate whenever alcohol is present, which is often, but no clear motive is established.   The students’ parents are involved in trying to force the school to be more proactive against bullying and the board, staff and students squabble over the mascot. When Drew’s girlfriend breaks up for him in favor of a girl, another email is sent out shaming the girls’ relationship. Bijan and friends figure out who is responsible and everyone concludes that the two emails were sent by the same person, but Bijan has his doubts. 

The school basketball team makes it into the New England tournament and with the team on the road, the alcohol and physical assaults on and off the court escalate. When the opposing team’s fans dress up in turbans and beards and chant USA, Bijan has had enough and refuses to play.  He confronts his coach about never saying his name, and when they return to school the culprit of the email and of the pork in the locker is identified.  Bijan gives a speech about not being a terrorist while internally thinking of parts of the Quran and stats that he could be sharing, but isn’t.  Spoiler: he also gets the girl.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it isn’t a nerd to hero story that it so easily could have been.  Bijan is smart and clever and grounded.  He is a solid basketball player and has his flaws as well as his strengths.  It doesn’t seem that popularity has changed him, people are just now noticing him.  I enjoyed his wit and humor and friendship with Sean.  The commentary in Bijan’s head, voiced by NBA commentators, reflects what he feels and what he thinks, it is critical and entertaining and gives a great vehicle into conveying his thoughts.  

I felt a fair amount of the plot was predictable and obvious.  It was clear pretty quickly that Erin and Stephanie were in to each other, that Noah was jealous and capable of sabotage.  Drew had his own financial concerns, but seemed to obviously be the red herring to Jessica’s privilege.  Even the email and the taunting seemed fairly tame, Bijan himself didn’t seem that bothered by the email. Not saying it is ok, but in a book where the characters are drinking and filling lockers with meat, the severity wasn’t that gravitating.  And about the meat, I think it warranted more discussion.  Whether the pork offended him on a religious level or not, meat or food or anything of that magnitude stuffed into a gym locker is worthy of freaking out over.  

Bijan never says he is Muslim, he does remark that he doesn’t read Arabic or Farsi.  He doesn’t drink at the first few parties because he is terrified his mom will freak out.  He drinks at a later party.  At one party someone remarks that “Allah won’t mind,” and he doesn’t really respond.  His mom, it is hinted at, has been hung over before and may have drunk in high school and consumes wine at her book club.  When Bijan and Elle are figuring things out between them, she wonders if it is ok because of…and it kind of trails off to imply perhaps his religion, to which there really isn’t a response.

FLAGS:

Drinking alcohol, language, relationships (straight and lesbian), crude jokes and references.  There is kissing between a boy and a girl and two girls that is overheard by the main character.  Sex and making out are referenced but not detailed.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this for a middle school book club or suggest it for the high schoolers.

Enduring Freedom by Jawad Arash and Trent Reedy

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enduring freedom

This isn’t the type of book I am naturally drawn to, and had it not been offered to me as an arc, I didn’t even request it, I probably would not have read it.  So, to say that this young adult OWN voice 246 page post 9/11 war story had a lot to overcome for me personally, is putting it mildly.  I gave in and decided to read it for the simple fact that I was curious to see what the narrative is in today’s literature, as we approach the 20 year anniversary of the attacks on US soil.  The afterward is very clear that the agenda of the two authors, one an Afghan and the other a US veteran, was to show a personal view of growth and assumptions on both sides and how the future of Afghanistan needs to be rooted in education and stability.  I think the book accomplished its goals, and made very clear how the terrorists first victims were their own people, and that extreme ideologies of the Taliban were and are still not reflective of the larger population.  The pacing of the dual narratives, however, was a bit off to me, and I really felt that some of the major plot points didn’t get explored in a meaningful way, that they were simply glossed over and brushed aside to keep the book inline with the authors’ objectives.  The book is not overly political, and the Muslim characters are religious and knowledgeable, but for a book that talked about how even in war the people, the soldiers, are the story, I wanted to see more internal wresting with choices and their outcomes, then what was offered.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is told in alternating view points, one is that of Baheer an Afghan boy living with his large extended family in Kabul next to a Taliban compound.  The family is religious, Baheer’s grandfather, Baba Jan, is well read in poetry and religious text and often quotes the Quran by ayat and surah number.  The family sells carpets, and often hides the latest movies or news recordings in the rolls, so that they can be brought home, the blackout shades pulled and the tapes enjoyed.  They are fearful of being harassed for not having long enough beards, shaved heads, turbans and the like. Baheer and his brother Rahim do not enjoy school with the strict and abusive teachers.  The talibs seem to touch them inappropriately and scold them harshly.  Their older sister is not allowed to attend school and never has even though the family used to live in Pakistan where the boys enjoyed school. It doesn’t explain why they were there or why they returned.  One uncle is assaulted by the Taliban and soon after, a news clip showing the attacks on 9/11 is secretly watched by the family.  As a result they decide to move to Farah, in Western Afghanistan where Baba Jan has family and property, to be away from the impending US attacks and Taliban assaults.

Joe Killian is the other voice.  When the book starts he is sitting in class, his senior year, when news about the attacks on the World Trade Center starts to break.  He had joined the national guard that summer for the college money, and as his classmates sit glued to the televisions in Iowa, he is nervous that he is about to be called up to war.  He doesn’t get called up that day, he graduates, and is studying journalism in college when the call finally comes.  He is preparing for combat, but when he is deployed and discovers it is a reconstruction mission he is angry and annoyed.  A year of helping what he terms barbarians, is not what he signed up for.

The majority of the book reads like a ‘day in the life’ of each of these two voices, as they adapt to life in Farah, as they deal with each other’s presence and as their friendship forces their assumptions to change.  The interactions between Joe and Baheer show the power in getting to know someone to alter perceptions, and the threat of the Taliban on both the average citizen and the US forces on the ground as a unifying enemy to allow the friendship to grow.

The book concludes when Joe’s year of deployment is up, but really the authors’ notes at the end are a better conclusion to the real life friendship and growth of the two authors that resulted in the writing of the book

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the family sees the planes hitting the towers and is mortified at the brazen destruction and loss of life.  They immediately start praying for the victims even as they realize they will be the recipients of the backlash. I like that it highlights where practicing Muslims and extremists differ, by having the Quran quoted and explained as opposed to the rhetoric the Taliban is spouting.  Baba Jan’s manner for speaking the ayats is a bit awkward in that most people don’t in daily conversation source and reference their dialogues, but it does grow on you.  I think the book is very simplistic in making the Taliban to unequivocally be the ‘bad guys’ without any context of how they gained traction. It talks about the Soviets, but I think it will leave the readers wondering where this group came from and why the Afghan people allowed it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of nuances and complexities that are overlooked by such a simple narrative, and allow for an inaccurate picture to be formed.

I like that Baheer pushes back on Joe who thinks America is perfect and that Afghanistan is less than, by pointing out the flaws in American society as well as his own.  I was ok with Baheer pushing the cultural limits to talk to a girl, it was innocent and I think understandable. My biggest concern is that I really felt that there needed to be more space on the page dedicated to understanding the repercussions of him being an informant to the Americans, and his brother passing on information to the Talibs.  People were taken in to custody and injured and killed as a result of these boys’ actions and to just chalk it up to something to be forgiven, was not enough for me.  I wanted them to hash it out and wallow in their choices, not forgive and move on so quickly.  I also wanted to know more about their reconstruction efforts.  It seemed rather minimal: relocating explosives, helping a burn victim, sending supplies to a school, I think in a year, that there would be more mixing with the people than the book would suggest.  And finally, I felt like the sister not getting to go to school was handled as an obligation to address, not that any insight or understanding was really given to such a hot button issue.

The book is really slow and dragging at parts, I couldn’t tell you about any of the dozen or so soldiers that are mentioned, I don’t even recall any of their names. I think the book has a lot of potential, and perhaps it does shine in showing the effects of war and terrorism on the Afghan people.  It held my attention while actively reading it, but I just as easily could have put it down and forgotten about it if I wasn’t under obligation to offer an opinion in exchange for an early copy.

FLAGS:

There is language, stereotypes, physical abuse, sexual misconduct, death, killing, violence, acts of war, bloodshed, a crush. Upper middle school and high school can handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I’d select this book as a book club selection because I’m not sure what would be gained from the book.  The characters assumptions are challenged and evolve, but I think most minorities know that, getting to know someone is often the best way to have their image changed.  I think the book still functions to make Americans feel better about  invading Afghanistan, rather than have us question what the long term affects of our involvement have been.

An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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This 256 page YA OWN voice book is a real and raw look at a character and the many layers of life weighing down on her.  At the center of it all is a strong Muslim teen dealing with post 9/11 bigotry, the shattering of her family, toxic friendships, and a broken heart.  It is a love story, but it is so much more, as the protagonist’s voice draws you in to her crumbling world from the very first page and has you begging for more when the last page is read.  So often in Muslim-lead-mainstream-romance-themed novels, I want there to be introspection at the choices that the character is making and the internal processing of navigating their wants with their beliefs, and this book surprisingly does it.  There are some kissing scenes, cigarette smoking, cosmo magazine headlines, and waiting for her father to die, but not without introspection. Shadi reflects on her smoking quite often, she questions the repercussions of her actions, and she analyzes her father’s faith and approach to Islam as she forges her own relationship with the deen.  There is mention of a Muslim character drinking, doing drugs, hooking up, and it mentions he had condoms in his car, just those exact phrases, nothing is detailed or glorified, just stated.  There are also threads of mental health, self harm, death, and grief.  The characters are genuinely Muslim and some of their experiences are universal, and some specific to the faith, culture, and time.  Muslims and non Muslims will enjoy the book, and I would imagine relate to different things, but find it overall memorable and lingering.  For my Islamic school teens, I’d suggest this book for 17/18 year olds to early twenties.  It isn’t that they haven’t read more graphic books, but to be honest, Shadi has a lot going on, and if being close to Ali can lighten her load and help her find hope and joy, I’m all for it.  I know it is “haram,” but it is fiction, and it will have readers rooting for them to be together, not a message you may want to pass on to your younger teens.  As the author says in her forward, “we, too, contain multitudes.”

SYNOPSIS:

The layout of the book bounces between December 2003 and the year before.  In a previous time, Shadi’s life was easier, her brother was alive, she had a best friend, her Iranian immigrant Muslim family may have had stresses and issues, but they were a family. In 2003, Shadi is largely forgotten by her parents, her brother is dead, her father is close to death, her mother is self harming, her older sister preoccupied, and as a high school student Shadi is both falling and being crushed by her heavy backpack both metaphorically and literally.

The story opens with Shadi being approached by a police officer wondering why she is laying in the sun, he thinks she is praying, and she doesn’t have the energy to be angry by this assumption, she is exhausted, and doesn’t want to cause any waves that might get back to her fragile mother and cause any more stress than necessary.  So she drags herself up, and begins the walk to her college level math class miles away.  The sun is short lived and the rain begins to pour, she knows no one will come to pick her up.  Her parents have long ago stop being present in her life.  She once had a best friend, but that relationship, as toxic as it was, also has ceased to exist.  So she walks, and she is drenched, and she falls, so she is now soaking wet and bloody.  A car slows down to presumably offer her a ride, but then he speeds off drenching her in a tidal-wave.  The scene is set for the tone of the book. Shadi is drowning, we don’t know all the reasons why, they unfold slowly, but we know that it is going to get worse, her phone is nearly dead and her sister has just called to let Shadi know her mother is in the hospital.

I don’t want to detail my summary as I often do, because the way the story unfolds, would really make any additional information given act as a spoiler.  The book is short and a fast read, but along the way the introspection to the chaos that is Shadi’s life, makes it impossible to put the book down.  Shadi will have to confront her crumbling life and find away to reach toward hope.  She will have to keep walking to avoid drowning and along the way cling to the few precious things that give her joy: an emotion of great delight.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really enjoyed this book.  I loved the Islam and real approach to her volunteering at the mosque and calling out racism within the community and diving deep in to understanding is Islam more than just rules and toeing the line.  It was a great mirror for so many nuances in real life, that I will probably re-read the book again in the near future, to enjoy it all.  I absolutely love the unpacking of the toxic friendship.  When women tear each other down under the guise of caring it is brutal, and the acceptance and growth that Shadi is struggling with in regards to her best friend of six years, Zahra. who is also Ali’s sister, is a reminder that sometimes walking away is the only choice.  

The two criticisms I have of the book are: one-that the book is too short, I wanted, no, I needed more.  And two I didn’t understand why Ali’s family and Shadi’s family were no longer close.  I get that Shadi cut Ali out of her life and Zahra and Shadi had a break, but Ali/Zahra’s family still care for Shadi and she for them, so what happened between the parents? It seems that the death of a child would draw the friends out and make them protective, not push them to being aloof.  It seemed off to me and major plot hole.

FLAGS:

As I mentioned above: kissing, smoking, drugs, hooking up, referencing condoms, cosmo headlines, self harming, grief, death, alcohol.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think even high school could do this as a book club selection, because you really want to ship Shadi and Ali.  If you had like an MSA book club then I think this would be a great choice.  I would love to hear teens’/young adults’ thoughts about Shadi’s view of religion, her fathers approach, and how they view passing the deen on to their children.  I think it offer great role-play scenarios in empathy and how you’d react in real life to finding your mother struggling, your best friend taking off her hijab and being so jealous of you, the bullying, the assumptions, understanding your father and where to assign the blame for such a traumatic event that claimed your brother’s life.  There is so much to discuss, and I hope at some point I find the right forum to chat about this book and listen to other’s perspectives about it.

This Is All Your Fault by Aminah Mae Safi

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This Is All Your Fault by Aminah Mae Safi

 

img_8116I wanted to give the author another chance to win me over after really disliking her first book’s writing style and characters and while this book is an easier read, I was shocked when the Empire Records inspired story really crossed over to me to being almost plagiarism.  I was a huge fan of Empire Records as a teen in the 90s, and can quote the movie, recall with little effort when Rex Manning Day is (it was yesterday), and know what is going to  happen at 1:37 exactly, so I was really excited to see what this Muslim author did with her spin of turning a music store in to an idie bookstore and focusing the story on three high school females. I wasn’t expecting the spin to be so minor though, and to still find an AJ and a Warren in the character list, a girl shaving her head, an employee dance party on the roof, a scummy celebrity, a celebrity assistant hinted at romance, a character deciding that today is the day to tell her crush how she feels, you get the point, it is remarkably similar.  If you haven’t seen the PG 13 movie, the book isn’t terrible, but it is very scattered with three voices, a lot of side characters- often random, and unresolved story threads, the book takes place in one day after all, I don’t know that it is really worth the time to read it.  There is straight and LGBTQ+ romance and break ups mentioned, a kiss, alcohol, vape pens, marijuana, sexual assault, some violence (slapping), a theft, language and one character has Arab parents and mentions Middle Eastern poets as well as likens the book store connecting people to the concept of an Ummah in Islam.  I can’t think of a demographic that I’d really recommend the book to, nor do I think that I’d ever read it again, the author’s writing style for me improved slightly but the characters are forgettable and the story un original. In terms of appropriateness probably high school readers, 14 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Eli is closing up Wild Nights Bookstore and Emporium and accidentally opens the manager’s computer and accidentally logs in to her accounts and accidentally learns from her emails that the book store is closing in less than two weeks.  He then sees that the bank account is still logged in and finds a petty-cash account that has $9,000 and decides that he for once in his life is going to try and help out the store and invest in something to grow the money and hopefully delay the closing.  Unfortunately he buys nine grand worth of Air Jordan knock-off shoes, and is unable to return them.  The next day when the entire staff rolls in to work, bits of the story come out, some know the store is closing, others are sensing something is amiss when boxes are being unloaded that don’t contain books, and to top it all off a famous author is doing a book signing later in the day.  

Each of the characters has something going on as well on this particular day, Rinn is going to tell AJ she loves him and use her influencer status to try and rally support for Wild Night,  Daniella is going to lift the veil on her secret poetry writing and share it, and Imogen is going to break up with her girlfriend of nine months and shave her head.  None of the girls like each other, and go out of their way to be down right nasty to one another, but eventually they come around, they support one another in the face of them losing their beloved store, and helping each other when one is sexually assaulted by the famous author.  Along the way the reader meets the quirky characters that come to the bookstore regularly, some that never leave, a manager who never seems to be there, and an owner with weird rules about technology in the store.  

The climax is the girls stepping in to their own and becoming vulnerable to who they are to one another, the world, and ultimately themselves.  The book store isn’t saved in it’s entirety, but it isn’t lost either and the direction forward looks infinitely more unified than the crazy day the they all just had.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the wave of nostalgia that hit me as I recalled the regular watching and quoting of Empire Records from my younger days, but that really was about all the book gave me.  I wanted to love the girls coming together to save the day, but they were really crass and rough and while I’m glad they did get to a place of tolerance, the transition wasn’t cathartic because their original irritations with one another didn’t seem justified.  The lack of character connection made it hard to cheer for them when they broke free from what they perceived was holding them back as well.  For example, I wanted to be giddy with nerves when Daniella stepped on that stage, but the emotion just wasn’t there.  There was a lot of telling, not showing, and with three perspectives, it was just stretched too thin.

I kind of like that Islam and the concept of Ummah was referenced at the end, but really only someone like me looking for it and piecing together the poets she mentioned, her one parent being from Lebanon and the other coming to America after the six day war would even take that conversation as being in sync with the character.  She might not be Muslim, she is a lesbian has/had a girlfriend, and it is a non issue.  Religion is otherwise not mentioned in relation to her or any other character.  A French Tunisian customer calls her habibti and says ‘Handulullah.”  I probably am reading to much in to it, old habits die hard and even after writing over 500 reviews, I still get so excited to see someone in literature possibly identifying as Muslim.

One thing that really stood out to me as a hole in the story was that it never said what Danny’s plan was,  just kept hearing that it was a terrible, awful plan.  That bothered me. The pacing is also off, to have all this happen in one day you would think it was all happening so quick, but then there are really long winded tangents about cell phone cases and grape soda.  At times it is such a time crunch and at other times everyone is chilling on the roof or in the alleyway it is no surprise there is not enough business.

FLAGS:

Copied from above: There is straight and LGBTQ+ romance and break ups mentioned, kissing, alcohol consumption, a massive hangover, vape pens, marijuana, sexual assault, some violence (slapping), a theft, language. Nothing is really sensationalized though, the 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Not even tempted to use this as a book club, or recommend others to do so.  There is no real literary or representation value, in my opinion.

 

Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

home is not a country

This upper middle school/high school 224 page novel told in verse touches on familiar themes of finding yourself and wondering about what could have been, but is anything but predictable.  Through magical realism, religion, culture, and phenomenal imagery, this book is haunting and powerful as it sweeps you into the possible alternate reality of a young 14 year-old-girl yearning to be someone else, consumed by a life that could have been, desperate for the other half of her mirrored existence, and for a home that she does not know, but so desperately longs for.  As a Muslim child of an immigrant, the daughter of a single mother, and nearly invisible at school, readers will feel her story, more than know it, and find themselves in her own awakening.

SYNOPSIS:

Nima feels like she exists in pieces.  No one understands her and she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin.  At school she is invisible, she is foreign and teased for it.  She has one friend, Haitham who is always there for her at home, but just a familiar wave in public.  At home Nima enjoys old Arabic songs and movies, hobbies she is teased for at weekend Arabic school, her hardworking mother is graceful and beautiful, Nima is neither.  Her world is the aunties and family in her building, but her Arabic is weak and she doesn’t fit in anywhere.  Her father passed away before she was born in a country she has never known.  Her twin sister died before birth, one for each parent in each world.  Nima imagines if she wasn’t Nima, but Yasmeen instead.  If she was bright and loud and loved and confident. The name she was nearly given, an alternate life she has become obsessed with.

When Haitham and her get in a fight, when her mother removes her headscarf and the bullying intensifies, Haitham ends up in the hospital, assaulted, barely hanging on and Yasmeen appears to help a floundering Nima escape a meal she can’t afford, a man that intends to assault her, and a world where she might find answers. The two girls travel to the homeland in the photographs to understand their parents, to understand why their mother left and Nima to the realization that only one of the girls can truly exist.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that I had no idea where the story was going and how much would be spelled out and how much would be left for the reader to interpret.  It affected me in a way that I wasn’t expecting and reminded me of the blurred lines of reality from books like Beloved (Toni Morrison) and Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger).  I love that the Arabic script is present and often not translated.  The unapologetic connection to the character and author is powerful and beautiful to see in a deeply introspective book.  I enjoyed that the “country” wasn’t named as it added to the concept of not knowing you home, it was frustrating, but for all the right reasons.

There isn’t a lot of practiced Islam mentioned, she doesn’t talk about praying, but does talk about the athan and longing for it.  Her mother wears hijab, but takes it off and wears a hat instead. The daily life of living in two worlds is taken to mean something very literal and the journey to both worlds is remarkable and memorable.

FLAGS:
There is physical assault, theft, lying.  Nima has to escape a man that intends to rape her, his intention isn’t detailed, but Yasmeen helps her escape when he brings her to a hotel.  Haitham’s dad has an affair with his mom and she is pregnant with him when the story flips back to the past and the couple are not married.  There is singing and music and dancing throughout. I think 14 and 15 year olds will be able to grasp the intensity of such situations while also not being shocked by them.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am on the fence if I could do this as a middle school book club, I might suggest it to the high school advisor.  There is so much to unwrap in the lyrical text that will draw the students in and force them to reflect on their own impressions to understand Nima’s reality.  I think there would be so many conflicting thoughts that the discussion would be amazing.  

Here is a better synopsis than mine: https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

Q and A with the Author: https://thenerddaily.com/safia-elhillo-author-interview/

 

https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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In this third Ayesha Dean book, that can be read as a stand alone, the Australian teen sleuth finds herself on the other side of the law in the beautiful city of Lisbon in Portugal.  Over 333 pages, she must understand what she is being accused of and figure out how to clear her name, all while marveling at the beautiful historic sites, diving into the delicious food, and looking fabulous while she does it all.  Middle grade to early middle school readers will enjoy the fast pace mystery that has history, crime, adventure, and friendship.  There, as always, is a twinge of romance, but it all stays halal as Ayesha is a proud and practicing strong Muslim young woman.

SYNOPSIS:

Ayesha Dean is now 18 and has just arrived in Lisbon for three months as part of an internship program to help little kids with their english.  This is her first international trip without her beloved Uncle Day and her two closest friends Jess and Sara.  Not to worry, there are a lot of young people participating in the internship program and she will be rooming with two girls, Mara and Aveline. Things start of routine enough as Ayesha gets to know the handsome and kind Raimy from America and tries to figure out why Aveline doesn’t seem to like her.  But on her way to the school she will be working at, she finds a wallet filled with money and no identification, just a phone number.  When she calls the number and a meeting is setup, the stage is set for a series of events that will include telling Raimy off for mansplaining things to her, a man murdered, a chase scene, a necklace stolen, no memory of it all, and Ayesha being arrested.

Knowing only a few people in the city, and having just met them at that, Ayesha makes bail by getting help from her friend’s Aunt in Spain who comes to provide Ayesha a place to stay as well. She has some time before her formal hearing, and Ayesha is determined to figure out what she is being accused of and how to clear her name.  With the help of Mara, Raimy, a young girl in the elementary school Ayesha was working at, and some chance encounters, Ayesha finds herself risking her own safety in an underground environmental gang ring. I won’t spoil all the ups and downs and ultimate ending, but Ayesha Dean’s tae kwon do, faith, and wits will all be used and the last page will definitely leave you wanting more.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I feel like the writing has finally found the perfect balance between description and action, the first chapter was a bit choppy, but once it hit its stride it was smooth.  I was intrigued by the historical detail that was all new to me, and am pondering how to convince the author to lead a tour group through all these places that Ayesha visits.  As always the descriptions of food and architecture and fashion are all so spot on that you feel like you are there.  I absolutely love that religion is so genuinely a part of Ayesha, but it is for her, she doesn’t do it for any one else.  She prays, she wears hijab, she doesn’t drink, she clarifies to Raimy what she can do, she acknowledges possible stereotypes and discrimination, but chooses to move forward and not get bogged down by it.  She is physically and mentally strong, but doesn’t come off as arrogant or judgmental or unrealistic.

I like the diverse characters in this book, and in all of them.  The multi ethnic protagonist has friends from all sorts of backgrounds and it is really refreshing and natural.

FLAGS:

There is murder, assault, crime, drinking and alcohol.  Nothing is glamorized or anything a third grader couldn’t probably handle.  There is a hint of possible romance, but nothing that crosses any lines or standards.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle school book club if the majority of the participants are 6th graders as it would not have the same appeal to older 8th graders.  I think they would benefit the most and enjoy the strength and cleverness of such an inspiring lead.  Of the three books in the series, I think this one would work the best for insightful discussion and empathy.  It would great to hear them imagine themselves in her shoes: a foreign country, no family, no longtime friends, minimal language skills and accused of a serious crime. Oh I can’t wait to share this book with my reading friends!

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

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hana khanTechnically this book is adult fiction because the protagonist is 24 years old, but the halal rom-com is so sweet and considering the YA options that exist in the same genre, I think high school juniors and senior would do better to dive in to this light, enjoyable, albeit predictable, read over so many of the other options out there.  I read the 368 page book in two days, I was hooked and impressed with the strength of all the female characters, the step away from all the stereotypical tropes and the smooth writing style.  The book is for everyone and while packaged as a light read, there are some themes of immigration, family, choice, and OWN voice realizations that are presented and explored in a thoughtful and impactful manner.

SYNOPSIS:

Hana Khan’s mother owns and operates Three Sisters Biriyani Poutine in Toronto, there are not three sisters, biriyani poutine is not on the menu and business is bad, really bad.  The 15 year old restaurant that Hana named when she was nine is struggling even though it is the only halal option in the close-knit, diverse, golden crescent community.  When news hits that a new upscale halal restaurant is opening a few doors down, Hana chooses to ignore that the business was struggling and instead blames the new proprietors.  They are wealthy, corporate and insufferable.  Well, the dad is anyway, the son Aydin, he isn’t so easily defined.

Hana balances shifts at the restaurant, her internship at Radio Toronto and her own anonymous brown girl podcast.  Hana, real name Hanaan, comes from a supportive and close family.  Her dad was injured in a serious car accident, her older sister is pregnant, and her cousin from India along with a cousin-aunt have just arrived under suspicious circumstances.

As the new restaurant gets closer to opening, Hana finds herself stooping to all new lows to sabotage their success.  Encouraged by an anonymous podcast listener who she has been chatting with for quite a while, and inspired by her rebel cousin-aunt, Hana is determined to secure a permanent job in radio, save her family restaurant, and destroy the competition.  But, an attack downtown draws attention to growing Islamophobia and forces Aydin and Hana to work together.

In a fictional story where everyone knows everyone both in India and Toronto, crazy family members are endearing and loyal, it is no surprise that the main characters are more connected than they think.  As Hana finds her strength to carry on amidst change, she also figures out what direction to focus her energy, her talents, and voice.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I absolutely love the writing.  I was invested in many of the characters, not just the protagonist, and absolutely cheered as she gave a nod to so many assumptions so that she could move past them: forced marriage, hijab, acceptable professions, inclusion, etc.. The family is all about choice and not getting hung up on stereotypes show the power that OWN voices have in telling stories that resonate with everyone.  The book is full of religion, from waking up for fajr, to listening to the khutbah at jumah, going to the masjid to find peace, and believing in destiny.  It is not a preachy book by any means, but the characters are Muslim inside and out.  The traditional family does not pressure Hana to get married, her sister’s marriage was a love one.  She is often alone with her male cousin or brother in law, or best friend Yusuf.  She knows who she is and her family trusts her.

I love the food, the insight of immigrants and family.  I was particularly moved by her articulation of being told by outsiders what it means to be Muslim in Canada, or an immigrant and then not being listened to when pushed back upon. Her challenging a teacher on what the fourth pillar of Islam is and not being heard, resonated profoundly.

Within the first 100 pages or so the reader figures out who everyone is and how they are connected, save one surprise, but it is like watching a favorite movie, you keep going because it is fun, and enjoyable and the point isn’t to figure it out, but to enjoy the ride.

FLAGS:

There are relationship threads, but nothing more detailed than a hand touch after a funeral.  Her best friend Yusuf marries their best friend Lily an Agnostic, knowing that both families are against it.  There is music and racist talk and vandalism.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The high school book club usually tries to include a halal romance novel for the loyal participants that clamor for it in the group and I plan to suggest this one to them.  For as light and straightforward as the book is, there is a lot to discuss when the surface is peeled back.  There would be lot to explore from her podcast, internship experience, and her hate crime experience, that the romance part will be seen as simply a vessel to more profound issues to explore.

Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan

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Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan

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I have to be honest that this book really held my attention and was hard to put down for about two-thirds of the 416 pages.  I was genuinely invested in the characters and wanted to see how it all resolved.  Sadly, by the end, I was disappointed with the conclusion, the predictability, the stereotypes, and the cliche’ of it all.  The author mentions in the forward that she is representing her story, not a representation of all Bangladeshi- Muslim American girls, but for an OWN voice book with such a clever premise, I really wanted to be shown more than I was told, I wanted to feel the protagonists strength, and cheer her on as she found her happiness on her terms.  But alas I felt that she let other’s fight her battles and she really only threw her religion and culture around as weighted plot oppressors, not as strands of her life that she had to decide to embrace or understand in the process of growing into herself.  There was a lot of potential to discuss mental health and family expectation, but the end unraveled all that the book could have been.  Undoubtedly the author is a good writer, and brown Muslims are not a monolith, but I feel like sometimes we need to square away who we are before we just clamor for what we want.  This book has relationships, it is a romance novel afterall, but whether the characters are straight or LGBTQ+, there isn’t more than kissing and hand holding and would probably be fine for 9th grade and up if you are ok with a Muslim lead lying to her parents and having a boyfriend.

SYNOPSIS:

Karina Ahmed is 16 and expected to be a doctor when she grows up.  Her conservative Muslim parents are immigrants from Bangladesh and very over protective of their oldest child.  Samir her younger brother, a freshman, is a robotics nerd and the pride of their family.  Karina loves English and wants nothing more to major in English in college, but her parents are insistent and despite her struggles with math and science she is determined she has no choice in the matter and must make them proud by being a doctor.  This inability to be what her parents want has caused tremendous anxiety within Karina and when her parents leave for a vacation to Bangladesh for a month, she is hoping to be able to relax and enjoy life for 28 days with her Dadu, paternal grandma, and her friends, Cora and Nandini.

The only extracurricular activities Karina is allowed are Pre-Med Society and tutoring, where she helps others with English.  Her teacher asks her to tutor a classmate one on one to prepare for the end of the year exams, and reluctantly she agrees.  Very reluctantly.  The classmate is brooding resident bad boy Ace Clyde, a beautiful slacker that seems to not care about much.  In Karina’s efforts to get Ace to study and taking advantage of limited parental supervision, Karina goes with Ace to a sweetshop and even ends up at his house where she meets his family.  Ace is not ready to admit to his incredibly wealthy family that he is seeking help from a tutor and instead introduces Karina as his girlfriend.  Ace’s older brother Xander, the Student Body Class President, isn’t buying it, so Ace announces it on social media and shows up the next day with coffee for Karina as he walks her to class determined to convince everyone that they are indeed a couple. Karina is not ok with this, but he does promise her a dozen books a week and he is aware that the “relationship” can only last 28 days, so she is in.   Karina’s friends predict that they will fall hopelessly in love and they are pretty correct.  Over the course of the next three and half weeks the two grow closer, he even comes over and spends time with Dadu and Samir.  She encourages him to fix his relationship with his family, and he encourages her to fix hers.  And somewhere in the midst of pretending they decide to make it real and then Karina’s parents return.  She at this point has been cheered on to stand her ground on confronting them about not wanting to be a doctor by Ace, Cora, Nandini, Dadu and Samir.  The conversation does not go well and Karina goes into a two week slump pushing everyone out before she *spoiler alert* resolves to date Ace in secret as long as he respects her lines, and Dadu stands up to her parents for her.  The story concludes with her going to Jr. Prom and her resolved to just stay strong for a little while longer until she is “free.”

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that I really didn’t know if the book would turn cliche until it ultimately did.  I really liked the realness and rawness of Karina coping with her anxiety and her friends supporting her in Googling coping mechanisms and helping her test them out.  I feel like it was a missed opportunity for Karina’s parents to not reach out to her, or for Karina to even mention that they were missing it.  I think readers that see themselves in Karina would have hoped to see that story thread play out and give them hope of getting help and support or at least getting it out in the open to normalize it.  I love the growth of Samir once Karina make him aware of the double standard, but I feel like he doesn’t read with a consistent persona.  He has a job, he has friends, he likes a girl, but he reads like he is clueless and maybe 10 years old at best, not in high school.  A bit off for me.  And of course you have to love Dadu, a wise old woman who supports her grandchildren and sticks up for them.  I wish Karina would have taken her cues from her beloved grandmother and stood up to her parents with Dadu in the room rather than let Dadu fight the fight and just stand there.  I thought the big climax would be Karina standing up to her parents, so I felt let down when she let someone else fight her fight.  Yes Karina tried and failed, but I think her grandmother should have backed her up in round two, not taken over.

Karina throughout says she is Bangladeshi-Muslim and uses it as a reason to fear her parents and feel obligated to not date or study English.  She does say she isn’t against religion, and actually likes being a Muslim and praying and knows Allah loves her, but that it is the tradition that blindly is followed that gives her trouble.  Her maternal grandfather is an Imam and her mom is much stricter than her father, but he follows her lead in raising the kids.  My critique isn’t so much to argue with the author’s perspective about religious standards, but more a literary one, when the character says she is Muslim and uses that to reason why she has lines, but yet is never seen praying or wresting with what she wants and what she believes.  Never asking Allah for help with her anxiety or confronting her parents or anything for that matter.  As soon as her parents leave she is in a crop top, so where is the religious line and where is the cultural one?  Where is her understanding of her culture and where it fits in her life and where she wants it to fit in her future? Is she Muslim because her parents are or because she believes it? She won’t eat ham, and eats halal, but later eats meat at Ace’s house? Everyone, even fictional characters, get agency, but in a book where the premise is a fake relationship turned real turned rebellious because of religion and culture, a little introspection seems warranted.

The conclusion after hundreds of pages of being called lionhearted and brave and strong seemed diminished when going to prom and lying to parents and having grandma fight your battle is the happy ending.

FLAGS:

Relationships: The main couple hold hands and kiss. There is a supporting character that is bisexual as is a cousin, one is gay, they hold hands and kiss as well. Nothing more than that or detailed. There is lying and deception.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I would do this as an Islamic School book club selection because it would imply agreement with lying and going behind your parents backs.  Granted her parents are difficult and her grandma is aware and ok with the situation, but I still think it would send the wrong message to endorse such behavior from a religious school perspective.

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

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Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

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Four hundred pages of painfully powerful verse that you will have to force yourself to slow down and not rush through.  Yes, you want to know what happens to the young, black, muslim teen writing his truth, but to read it too quickly will deprive you of feeling and contemplating and absorbing the message that if, you, like me are a white (ish) person of privilege, need to surround yourself regularly with to understand.  The OWN voice narrative is co-written by one of the Central Park Exonerated Five and should be required reading for everyone 14 and up.

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SYNOPSIS:

Amal Shahid is 16 years old, and maintains he is being wrongfully accused of a crime that has left a white boy unconscious.  He acknowledges he threw the first punch, but is adamant that he didn’t throw the last.   From his trial to his incarceration in a juvenile detention facility, the narrative pushes forward as he adapts to confinement with flash backs to pivotal moments in his life.  He is a gifted artist and writer and his creativity and ability to express himself is what will hopefully provide him a way to survive.

I know I’m leaving this vague, because truly I cannot do it justice.  I started taking pictures of powerful sections, and when I found myself taking pictures of nearly every page, I realized that the book is something to be experienced in its entirety and will include just a few internal pages to tempt you.

 

 

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is impactful in that it claims only to share the protagonist’s truth, it doesn’t get off tangent from that, but allows for the reader to add to the narrative their own understanding to make it personal and resonate most profoundly.  His situation involves so many injustices plagued upon him only because of his skin color, and a system that is designed to keep racism alive and powerful.  He was at the wrong place at the wrong time perhaps, but while the book is heavy, hope is ever present.  I’d like to believe it is because of those that refuse to give up on Amal. I was swept away by the power of a mother’s love.  Truly, what strength for a young man in Amal’s situation to have the world betray him so often in his young life, to find unflinching love, support, belief, and determination in his mother.  

I love that his mother is a practicing Muslim, his grandmother attends church, and he loves them both and values their spirituality.  Allah, the Quran, and Islam are mentioned regularly.  It never is preachy, or gives much doctrine, but it is present, and is a tangible part of how Amal sees the world.

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FLAGS:

There is language and violence.  He has a crush on a girl and she writes him letters, nothing obscene.  There is racism, bullying, racial slurs.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is so much to discuss in this book, and so many resources online.  I think the book might be too mature for my middle school book club, but I am suggesting it to the high school book club.  This book needs to be read, discussed, breathed in, and experienced.  Plus the author’s real life experiences should be incorporated into the discussion as well as the student’s understanding of how present racism is and how they can use their voices and influence to create real, lasting, change, inshaAllah.