Tag Archives: fast paced

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

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The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

elephantI have to admit this 240 page middle grade OWN voice book had me invested and glued to the pages.  I was swept away to Sri Lanka and in disbelief at the boldness, cleverness, and spunkiness of the Robin Hood-esque 12-year-old protagonist.  I could not put it down as my head worked over time to figure out how this trio of children, one being a Muslim girl, was going to get out of the heap of trouble they had caused.  Yes, admittedly it wraps up a bit too quickly and simply, the main character Chaya doesn’t learn her lesson and is a terrible friend, and there isn’t a good moral of lying and stealing being bad.  But all that aside, the book is a fun adventure that while written pretty straightforward and clearly, is rich in adventure, culture, and excitement for second to fourth grade readers (and 40 year old moms that love strong girls).

SYNOPSIS:

Chaya is the daughter of a tribal representative, whose mother has passed away.  She goes to school, attends the temple once a week to learn Sanskrit, and at dawn is known to steal things to give to those in need.  At night time, people are on guard, expecting trouble, but dawn seems to be the perfect time to take what she needs from people that won’t even notice.  The book starts out with her stealing jewels from the Queen with the hopes of helping a friend who was bitten by a crocodile get medical help in the next town over.  The people in Sarendib have an unjust king, and stealing from his wife to help take care of people that need assistant is a job Chaya takes seriously.  Her heart is in the right place, but when a guard sees her she stops to visit a friend who works in a wood shop to hide the jewels until the heat dies down.  The box they hide the stolen goods in is purchased by a young Muslim girl, and now Chaya has to steal them back from her to get them to people that are in need.

The chain of events is just getting started, and when the jewels are discovered the wood working Neel takes the blame and is imprisoned, and the new girl in town, Nour, is determined to help free Neel from prison and save the villagers from being tormented by the royal guards.  Chaya devises a plan to free Neel from the palace dungeons, but nothing ever quite goes to plan and all the prisoners are freed.   As she runs to escape her own doom, she steals an elephant to get away, the king’s elephant.

The entire story is a series of follies and at each turn the children have really good intentions, they just keep snowballing into situations beyond their control with the stakes constantly multiplying.  I really don’t want to give it away, but they might just bring down a monarchy as they tromp through the jungle on an elephant, accidentally burn down villages, and find that even though Nour is a wealthy meat eater, they can in fact be friends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story is outrageous, yet grounded.  I was sucked in from the first few short chapters and didn’t look back.  Chaya is oh so plucky and her fallibility and flaws make her so endearing.  She is a bit of a mean girl to Nour, but I think she shows growth.  The slight raised eyebrow regarding her, is that she didn’t learn some grand lesson, and in fact is possibly emboldened by her thieving and getting away with it.  There probably should have been some humbling at the end, but she is bold and outspoken, and not one for regrets.  I absolutely love the letter she left her father owning up to her role in the whole hullaballoo, and as an afterthought acknowledging that she skipped two days of school.  She is a cheeky one, but her heart is huge and she has her own sense of integrity that is unwavering.

I like that Nour is acknowledged as being Muslim, eating meat, and going to mosques before she moved.  It doesn’t articulate that Chaya doesn’t like her for her faith, but it isn’t helping the two girls befriend each other either.  I love the elephant, and the plants, and fruits, and animals that bring the story to life.

FLAGS:

Lying and stealing. Some destruction of property.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I can’t see me doing this as a book club selection, it is just too young of a target audience, but it would be a blast to read aloud to a second or third grade class, or to assign in a classroom setting.  The chapters are really short that early chapter readers will feel accomplished when they complete the book, and the subject matter will compel them to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.

The Theft of Sunlight by Intisar Khanani

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The Theft of Sunlight by Intisar Khanani

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

The Battle by Karuna Riazi

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The Battle by Karuna Riazi

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This claims to be a companion book to The Gauntlet, but it does rely heavily on details from the first to make sense of who some of the characters are as this book does little to explain them and advance their story.  In reality the book is very similar to the first book, but sadly not as fun.  I was disappointed in the 295 page AR 5.2 book, but my fourth and fifth grade boys enjoyed it as they had few expectations and the fast pace kept the book fun.

SYNOPSIS:

It has been four years since Bengali American Ahmad Mirza has left the game world, Paheli, with his sister Farah and her friends.  The old board game has been destroyed and the reboot focuses on a new video game setup.  This time around Ahmad is the main character and with his ADHD he finds himself getting in trouble a lot in school and desperate for a friend.  When a mysterious package holding a video game shows up and Winnie sticks up for him, things are possibly looking up. When all of New York freezes at the insertion of the game, however it clearly is not.  Winnie and Ahmed are off to battle the Architect and MasterMind to unfreeze their beloved city and escape Paheli.

Different battles and characters inch the duo closer to winning, but facing their fears and  being sidetracked by remnants of the last game trying to return make everything complicated.  Ahmed’s uncle returns to the game, giant mice try and help, crazy monkeys distract, and flying rickshaws populate the eastern inspired world filled with Bengali, and Arab references.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is a Muslim kid with some struggles at the helm, but there is really so very little character building that it ultimately doesn’t count for much in the long run.  Just like the first book, the characters are taken from the “real” world and transported to a game world and they must win the game to return home.  The book is fast paced and fantastical, but I constantly felt confused.  The challenges were disjointed, there wasn’t a clear objective, Ahmed didn’t recall being there before or that Vijay bhai had somehow come back with them, the mice help and then they are absent, and there wasn’t really a big reveal or explanation resolving any of it.  It felt all over the place and with little world building I didn’t feel like I could even picture what Paheli looked like, so forget feeling what the characters felt or imaging the intensity that that the game was running on.  It seemed like an updated version of the first book, but not done as well at all.

FLAGS:

Pretty clean, some intensity, some fighting/battling, death, nothing detailed nor grotesque.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think the book is great to have in a classroom or on a home book shelf especially if the Gauntlet was enjoyed, but I wouldn’t use it as a book club book because it doesn’t offer much to talk about.  There isn’t a cathartic release or even an under current of family and friendship and loyalty, it really is just surface level story telling.

No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard

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No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard

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This YA Fiction book by a Muslim author filled with many Muslim characters has a lot going for it, and while I didn’t love it, and felt that it was trying to do too much in 304 pages, I think most early high school readers will enjoy the cyber hacking plot, the islamaphobia and white supremacy themes that keep the book fast paced, relatable and timely.  The main character is a Muslim and has a Muslim boyfriend and all family members are fine with it, she also gets a tattoo with her mother’s permission and breaks the law, but usually with worthy motives.

SYNOPSIS:

Salma Bakkioui is the high school aged daughter of a North African father and convert mother.  They go to the mosque a few times a year, but don’t really practice, it is more heritage than actual intentional praying five times a day, yet somehow ayats from the Quran and hadith do float in and out of the story.  It is Ramadan, and the Muslims in the book are fasting except for Salma, who suffers from EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome) a connective tissue disorder, her best friend Mariam, who lived next door has just moved away because her father’s chiropractic business was failing due to racism and Islamaphobia.  Salma tried to use her hacker skills to send him more business, but ultimately they moved to the UAE.  Amir, the supportive boyfriend, oud player, and fellow Edward Norton fan is steady and good and constant.  As are her partying friend Vanessa, her physical therapist and her daughter, unfortunately, things are about to get really crazy, really fast.

When Salma and Amir go over to meet the new neighbors that have moved in to Mariam’s old house the blaring TV broadcasts a terrorist bombing nearby in DC.  The neighbors seem nice, but something is off about them, and Salma can’t quite figure it out.  From the dad and son’s matching number tattoos, the mom’s nervous behavior, and snippets of overheard conversations, it becomes apparent that something infact fishy is going on.  Salma and her younger siblings start getting bullied by classmates, and teachers and administrators turn a blind eye, cops interrogate Salma at school, and illegal snooping on the dark web reveal that the neighbors aren’t as innocent as they claim. As more and more is uncovered about the neighbors, Salma learns that she better have a plan to get out, as she is about to be framed for a lot of destruction as the new face of Islamic extremism.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that Salma is relevant and relatable, and while I know a lot about her family and friends, and illness, for some reason I don’t feel invested in her, and I am totally willing to conceded that that is on me, and others would really identify with her, but for some reason as much as I wanted to connect with her, I didn’t.  The supporting cast is fairly fleshed out, I’m not entirely sure why Dora and Boots are highlighted so much and I didn’t feel a tug on the emotional heartstrings of Mariam leaving, of Amir leaving, of Salma possibly saying good-bye.  I felt like even Salma and Amir being a couple and being connected through Edward Norton and Fight Club was a bit forced.  I didn’t feel it was organic or natural, it was almost like the author was trying to make a point of Muslim youth having relationships, and finding imams that were ok with tattoos. Rather than it being a plot point it seemed like it was trying to voice the author’s perspective whether it fit smoothly into the storyline or not.

I do like the tech and and the parallels between extremism whether Islamic or Christian, foreign or domestic, that drove the action of the book.  The unraveling of pieces and connections seemed a bit rushed, with unnecessary tangents affecting the pacing overall of the book, but at least there were answers to help it all make sense at the end, and make the story feel complete.

Having never written a book, I don’t know if some of the hiccups are first novel related, but I really hope the author keeps writing and keeps changing up what the mainstream Muslim protagonist lead consists of.  I love that Salma is smart and level headed and aware of her world, while still growing and owning up to her faults.  It isn’t a coming of age story, but she sets a great precedence for continued growth, loving your family and trusting yourself too. I particularly like the nuances in racism.  Some of the kids at school are jerks and bullies, some staff and teachers are bigoted and prejudice, but the right wing conspiracy groups are actively working, and their level of hatred and intelligence to mask it is great to see in a YA book.

FLAGS:

Relationships, kissing, references to marijuana brownies being consumed, violence, cursing, lying, illegal activity.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I can’t use this book as a book club selection since the two main characters are making out in the first chapter, but the book really is more than a relationship story and I would be ok with my young teen reading it.  The illegal hacking is more problematic then helpful in the end, and the language, and other deviant behaviors exhibited aren’t done for shock value alone, I think a discussion after the book would be great: privacy, hate, conspiracy, faith, religion, friendships, etc.

 

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed

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Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed

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I really should give up reading Samira Ahmed books.  This is the third one I’ve read, and while she is definitely getting better, I still don’t know why her editors don’t fix her flat notes.  Like in Internment, the premise in this book is amazing, but other parts are just cringe-y and painful and really, really unnecessary.  My guess is, she would identify herself as a romance YA author, and yet consistently in her works, that is the most lacking part: the character building and forced romances.  The art history mystery, the inspiration and “real” life of the characters from the past, the setting of Paris in the summer, the fight for woman to be heard are all so well done and compelling and interesting that this romp that blurs fact and fiction might deserve a read, but you have to overlook the forced love triangle, excessive kissing, be willing to suspend reality regarding Alexandre Dumas, Eugène Delacroix, and Lord Byron, artifacts and sleuthing, but if you can do all that, this 337 page book for 9th grade and up, is definitely fun and hard to put down.

SYNOPSIS:
The protagonist is 17-year-old French-Indian-Muslim-American Khayyam, who is spending her summer in Paris with her professor parents like they do every year.  But this year is different as she is being ghosted by her boyfriend Zaid back in Chicago and has just been humiliated by her poor research attempts to link a missing painting from artist Delacroix to author Dumas in an entrance essay competition to her dream school.  Khayyam’s story is really just beginning though as she steps in dog crap and bumps into a descendent of Alexandre Dumas as she wipes it off.  A cute descendant, who shares the name with his distant grandfather, and viola’ the two of them are off on a whirlwind adventure of clues and attraction and mystery solving.

Khayyam’s story is interwoven and told between small glimpses of Leila’s story.  Leila is a Haseki, a chosen concubine of the Pasha in Ottoman Turkey, but the lover of Giaour and friend of the jin.  As we learn her story from 200 years earlier and her struggle to break free of her gilded cage in the harem, only to be defined by the artist and poets and author men around her, her story and Khayyams collide.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I know precious little of art history, I can name drop a few artists and paintings, but that is being generous, so the fact that I have no clue what is real and what is fake and what is possible, made this story all the more fun and engaging.  Yes, I researched, aka Googled, stuff as I read and am perfectly content to accept the fictional what ifs that the book offers.  I love how the art world and literary world are one in the book and that they inspired each other. The way the sleuthing, the finding of artifacts, and unraveling of it all is presented is indeed a romp.  Realistic? Not a chance, but fun.  I also love how both Khayyam and Leila had to define themselves and ultimately not do it in the reflection of a male.

The rest of the book, is a bit of a stretch.  Leila’s story naturally has holes in it as it is told in broken pieces, but Khayyam’s story does too.  I just didn’t care about her past boyfriend/ex-boyfriend/friend, whatever Zaid is or was, and clearly after moping about him for 300 pages and then not even giving him a proper goodbye, means that the author and character didn’t really care either, which made the already forced, cringe-y annoyingness all the more grating.  As for the relationship, the other piece in the triangle, with Alexandre, was fine in that there was angst, but they put it aside to solve the mystery, so it didn’t bother me too much.  Of course the fact that Khayyam is a practicing Muslim who seems to have no problems with boyfriends, and making out and that her parents don’t mind either, makes the faith aspect all the more befuddling.  I guess practicing might be a stretch, her mom and her go to Jummah prayer on Friday, thats about the extent, and she mentions she doesn’t drink.  Zaid, sets up a tutoring program at the masjid, but his instagram has him hanging all over girls too, so not sure why the characters are even Muslim.  I suppose it is good to have that diverse representation, but it doesn’t seem to make much necessary sense to the overall story.

FLAGS:

Implied concubine activities, with the Pasha and the lover.   Lots and lots and lots of kissing, nothing graphic, but annoying amounts of it being mentioned.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I want someone to discuss it with me and point out where the facts end and the speculation starts and when the full on fiction takes over.  I don’t think I could use this book as a book club book because of the center stage of the haram romances in both Khayyam’s time and Leila’s.  But if you have read it, talk to me about it, I’m curious!

NPR’s Review: https://www.npr.org/2020/04/11/831873365/in-mad-bad-dangerous-romantic-sleuths-uncover-a-byronic-secret

 

The Sign of the Scorpion by Farah Zaman

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The Sign of the Scorpion by Farah Zaman

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This is the second book in the Moon of Masarrah series, but can be read as a stand alone book if you are looking for a linear story with fast paced action, intense twists, decently developed characters and quality writing that brings the sleuthing of Muslim characters to life.  At 229 pages including the glossary, the book reads to me as a middle grades book, but the last 50 pages place a lot of emphasis on accusations of a character molesting servants in the castle and another character having an affair, which might be more appropriate for older readers.  Perhaps middle school readers would be a better target audience, but I’m waiting to hear back from the author regarding who she had in mind when she wrote it.  The author said she wrote it for Young Adult, ages 12 and up in mind.

SYNOPSIS:

Brother and sister, Adam and Layla are reunited with their friends, siblings, Zaid and Zahra after last summers intense adventure involving a diamond.  This summer as a result, they are the honored guests of Shaykh Sulaiman at his dessert home, Dukhan Castle. They arrive to find out that the Shaykh is bedridden from a stroke after learning his son has died.  With a house full of relatives with reasons to want their claim to the Shaykh’s fortune, the four teenagers start putting odd occurrences of a ghoul in white, a hooded horseman, a gypsy woman’s tale, and the idea that there has been foul play, together to try and arrive at the truth of what is going on.  As they piece more and more together about the tutor, the cousin, the fiance, the grandson, and a mysterious mole-man following them, they themselves get tangled in the sinister plot of revenge and must keep an eye out to figure out who the scorpion, Al-Aqrab, is before one of them ends up dead.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Set in a fictious land, the detail is the perfect balance between setting a stage and over describing it.  The book did not drag for me at any place, nor did I find myself confused about what was going on and why.  Granted I probably could not tell Adam apart from Zaid and Layla from Zahra, but the book is about their adventure and figuring out whats going on, not about their relationships or back story.  And with the focus on all the possible perpetrators and their motives taking center stage, having four people gathering clues makes the information come easier and smoother.

All the characters are Muslim.  Some of the women cover and some do not, some stop to pray and make regular references to Islamic hadith or Quranic Ayats, and some are suspects.  For example when they are exploring the dungeons beneath the castle, they liken the caves to the Sleepers in the Cave mentioned in Surah Kahf.  The book never gets anywhere near preachy, nor do the few references ever get annoying, they just flesh out that the characters are Muslim, and thus they see the world through that lens.

FLAGS:

The book has murder, lying, deception, all the ingredients for a good who done it.  And while the details are all clean regarding how the four teens interact with the opposite genders, the climax of the book is the coming to light of allegations of molestation and a failed marriage is attributed to a presumed affair.  No definition of the words is given, and I reread many of the passages and I don’t know that there is even enough context clues to decipher what the word molest means in the text.  Most kids however, could easily ask Siri or Hey Google or whatnot and may have more questions about what it means to sexually assault a person, specifically a woman or child, and why someone would do it.  I leave that for parents to decide at what age those in their charge can grasp such a word and concept.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m torn on teaching the book as the linear telling might not appeal to older kids, but the motive and revenge isn’t appropriate for younger kids.  I think if used to discuss broader issues the book could be really powerful, and not just a fun read.  I could see discussing with 9th graders or so the seriousness of false accusations, drawing on the Me Too movement and how sexual crimes and transgressions should be handled and treated.  I think the book could be a springboard for those discussions and seeing the effects of believing or not believing, and perhaps suspending judgement until research can be done.  In the case of the book, it would not have been difficult to pursue the allegations, while protecting any potential victims.

 

NOTE:

The first book in the series, The Moon of Masarrah, was originally published under the title, The Treasure at Bayan Bluffs, some changes have been made in the new printing, so while I don’t normally review second books in a series, I felt this book might bring attention to the new title of the first book and drum up interest for the upcoming third book in the series.  No, I don’t benefit in any way and I purchase my copies just like you, the stories are just really well done and I want readers to give them a try.  Happy Reading!

Ayesha Dean: The Seville Secret by Melati Lum

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Ayesha Dean: The Seville Secret by Melati Lum

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This is the second middle grade mystery story for globe trotting sleuth, Ayesha Dean, and much like her first adventure in Istanbul, this Spanish setting is infused with rich history, delicious food, relatable characters and quick paced action.  

SYNOPSIS:

Once again Ayesha and her two friends Jess and Sara are tagging along on a business trip with Uncle Dave, Ayesha’s uncle who has raised her since her parent’s passing.  As they wait in line to board the final flight of their lengthy journey from Australia, a young man drops his contents and Ayesha and him chat, later they are seated next to each other on the plane where he discloses his travels from England to Seville are to help locate his missing grandfather.  Ayesha volunteers herself and her friends to help him and they hit the ground in Spain determined to solve the case.

The boy, Kareem, is staying with the friends his beloved grandfather was staying with when he went missing, so that is where the detectives start their work.  In searching his room, Ayesha uncovers a 400 year old diary written in Arabic, and a pamphlet from the Archeology Museum with a necklace circled, the Collar de Pajaros.  Just enough to get them started and set their adventure in motion.

The group of teens rely on Kareem to translate the Arabic in the diary and Ayesha’s wit to decide what to follow up on and how to incorporate their sightseeing with the task at hand.  As they journey through the city of Seville, learning the history and tasting the food, nefarious characters start to notice the group and things get intense.  From Cathedrals, to cafes, to Museums, and even to an ancient city uncovered in Cordobo, Madina Al-Zahra, the chase is on, not only to find Kareem’s grandpa, but to also avoid being caught themselves and maybe even solving a centuries old mystery about treasure and a necklace along the way.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Ayesha in any situation stays true to her self.  She wears hijab, she prays, she is aware of the good looking guy, but doesn’t cross her own line, she is a good friend, an inquisitive person, and confident.  All amazing attributes for a fictitious hero and real ones too.  

Much like Nancy Drew and other middle grade novel series, the books don’t need to be read in order, and while they reference other adventures, they stand alone sufficiently too.  Also, like the aforementioned books there is definitely a formulaic pattern to how the author writes her books.  And while reading it I didn’t notice it intensely, as I write the review I do.  Ayesha travels abroad, she has her sidekicks that are not developed at all and truly have no barring on the story plot wise or as comic relief, they are simply foils to bounce conversation off of, there is a cute boy who could be pursued, but isn’t, someone passes out while she and her friends are sight seeing, and the spouses provide added clues, Ayesha gets locked in a small dark space, there is a twist and a surprise, a trap, and they all live to repeat the adventure in another city another day.  I don’t think I have a problem with it, but maybe because I am not the target audience age, I might get bored with it about book four or so.  As it stands right now, I’m anxiously waiting for book three.

While reading I was a little irked that Sara and Jess weren’t any more developed in Spain than they were in Turkey.  One of them could have been the one to administer CPR or to stumble on the diary in the room, something to give them some plot significance, but alas, the books do not bare their names.  I wish Kareem would have at least said “Salam” on occasion.  I like that the author shows he doesn’t know much about Islam and shows that his grandfather admits its been so long since he has prayed, but the boy is a Morisco and his parents immigrants from Algeria, he translates Arabic, he should say Salam when he meets Ayesha in her hijab wrapped head. 

The author does a much better job in this book staying with the characters and showing the city through their eyes rather than pulling them out of their scenes to convey something.  Only once at the end of a chapter did I feel there was some forced foreshadowing that was not needed, as the book is quick and chapters may end, but the pages still turn until the end is reached.  I had more trouble putting the book down than picking it up, and that is saying something as I read it online and I definitely favor physical books.

I wish there was an afterword or author’s note explaining what was real and what was fiction.  I googled Madinat al-Zahra and found it fascinating, but couldn’t find anything in English about the Collar de Pajaros.  Also a map or two would be great.

FLAGS:

None.  This book is clean and even the fights are not gory or over the top. Yay!

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely do this as an elementary book club selection, and can’t wait to get a copy to my children’s school library and their classrooms.  The book is an easy read and the history and culture is seamlessly interwoven in to the story that kids will enjoy the action and find they learned something about a culture along the way.   I think boys and girls will enjoy it, even if it appeals more to the girls.   The cover, the binding, the font is all spot on for the age group and I eagerly await Ayesha’s next adventure.

 

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!

The Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure Novel: Amazon & The Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure Novel: Mars by Hena Khan and David Borgenicht

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The Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure Novel: Amazon & The Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure Novel: Mars by Hena Khan and David Borgenicht

There is nothing Islamic or religious, with either of these books, but I wanted to review them, as the author Hena Khan, who has brought such lovely picture books to our book shelves (Night of the Moon, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets), inspiring elementary books to the mainstream (Amina’s Voice, On Point, Power Forward), and who showed Curious George what Ramadan is all about, is Muslim.  She has done a tremendous job of blending culture and religion with everyday life making her stories relatable and found on bookshelves across America.  She also has written books that are just good books void of any religion and culture, that hopefully they remind our youth that you can write books about anything, appeal to everyone, and be successful as well.

Both books are like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that I remember from the 1980s except these are much better written, and I think I might have learned facts about Mars, space travel, and the Amazon from them, without even realizing it.  Aimed at 3rd to 5th graders, these two books were checked out from the library and read countless times by my kids and myself alike.  They are entertaining and not easy to predict.  It is worth noting that while I did make it the entire length of the Amazon, after four tries I gave up trying to survive the journey to Mars and back.

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SYNOPSIS:

In both books the cast of teammates is given at the beginning and shows a good diversity of men and women from all over the world with a variety of skills and backgrounds to be on the expedition.  The books then give the set up of where you are going, and how you got chosen.  You then are advised to flip to the back of the book to look through the files and notes that will give you knowledge about what you will encounter.  These pages are in full color and are in diary, note style.  The adventure then begins and you make choices that lead you down different paths to success, or demise, it is up to you to decide how to survive.  

WHY I LIKE THEM:

I love that you learn while making decisions and attempting to make the story continue.  The books are fun and most of the choices aren’t obvious, naturally a few are, but they are well done.  There are comic book style pictures sprinkled throughout and regular black and white illustrations on many of the pages.  I particularly liked that the kids read them more than once and learned a bit about space travel, mars, what would be needed to set up a colony, the Amazon, various animals, and survival skills in the rain forest.

FLAGS:

You might get burned up, or bitten by a snake, but nothing too graphic, as you are the reader and obviously know it isn’t real.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

These books wouldn’t work as book club selections, but I think 3rd and 4th grade classrooms and school libraries would benefit from having these fun books on hand.  Struggling readers will enjoy the fast pace and the number of pages (about 200 each), irregardless of if they are read or not, and advanced readers will enjoy trying again and again to reach the successful end.

 

 

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

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The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

the gauntlet

Take Jumanji, turn it into a chapter book, flavor it with steam punk, set it in a Middle Eastern inspired marketplace, and have the protagonist be a Bengali-American, hijab wearing Muslim on a quest to save her little brother with her two BFFs from New York. Bam, you now have a 298 page AR 5.4 reading level booked called The Gauntlet.  

Published by Salaam Reads (Amina’s Voice) this book is written for all kids, the main character’s religion and culture just add depth and a connection to the game they have fallen in to.  I found this book on Scholastic, and when I got it, I handed it to my daughter to screen for me.  I asked her once she finished if it had any Muslims in it and how were they presented, to which she gaped at me and said, “umm mom the whole thing is about a Muslim girl and it is awesome!” So naturally I moved it higher up in the “to be read pile” and while I agree with her assessment, the book is more plot than character driven, and there isn’t a lot of theology in it, just a race against time to get out of the game alive.

SYNOPSIS:

It is Farah Mirza’s 12th birthday and while she should be downstairs visiting with her guests from her new school, she is holed up in her bedroom with her little brother Ahmad and her best friends from the old neighborhood, Essie and Alex, playing board games, the Mirza family’s favorite pastime .  When Aunt Zohra tries to coax them from the room she mentions a gift for the birthday girl is in her room, and the kids sneak off to get it.  Only it isn’t the book she brought to give Farah that they find, it is a bewitched game called the Gauntlet of Blood and Sand that lures kids in, and keeps them if they cannot out play the Architect.  When Ahmed falls in, the trio has no choice but to follow him in to try and rescue him and escape, before time runs out.

Once inside the game, they are in a city called Paheli. It resembles an old Middle Eastern city with large souks, market places, even a small masjid, surrounded by sand and levels absolutely breathtaking in both their beauty and in their threat to the children.  The inhabitants are those that played the game and lost. The challenges the kids must face range from a life size game of mancala to a taste test of Bengali/Indian sweets.  As they rush from challenge to challenge they meet a kind tea shop owner, giant lizards, spies and police of the architect and see fairly detailed descriptions of different parts of Paheli. The gamemaker/designer known only as the Architect senses that the kids will win, so he starts to cheat, and then feels bad and arranges to meet the players.  When the children meet him, and hear his story, they feel some sympathy for him, but not for the Jinn that holds the ultimate power over the game.  Obviously they do escape, but I won’t spoil the fun the process is, nor the sweet surprise of the reunion.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that at the core, the story is driven by love for a sibling and requires the teamwork and cooperation of friends.  The rest is just frills from this central and clear message that is woven throughout the book.  While it is idealistic, there are hints that it isn’t overly so.  Yes Ahmad with his ADHD is a lot to handle at times, and the friends do have their squabbles, but ultimately both friends and family are worth risking it all.  I love that Farah is Bengali, many of the foods are Indian, and they are set in the Middle East, but yet somehow it seems interchangeable, this made me laugh, and while in other instances might have annoyed me, I liked how connected it made everyone seem, more alike than different.  Essie and Alex know some of the foods and cultural lexicon from growing up in New York.  They don’t find things different, they had lots of kids in school that wore hijab. Readers unfamiliar with some of the words and names found in the subcontinent and Islamic history might be put off a bit by the regular use of these words and the lacking glossary, but if you identify with any of it, you will celebrate seeing yourself in this book, just as Farah relished in seeing something of familiarity in Paheli.  

The book is fast paced and the detail given to the setting and cultural aspects are fun, but I really don’t feel like I connected much with the characters as a result.  There is very little character development and I actually had to look back in the book for some of the names to write this review.  There also isn’t much religion in terms of belief or practice.  The buildings and the food and the tone all hint at Islam, but I would have loved to hear an athan, or even her pausing to pray.  Not even that is there.  She wears hijab and that is about it in terms of religion.  

Ultimately I love that it is a mainstream book, with a strong storyline that is action packed and fun for older elementary and early middle schoolers that is clean and familiarizes and thus normalizes a culture not often seen in young adult fiction.  

FLAGS:

None, it is clean, at times possibly a bit scary with human bones, but not anything overly haunting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be an amazing book for a book club, and I would play the games that they play in the gauntlet at the meeting.  There isn’t a ton to discuss in terms of introspection and growth, but there is enough, and it is fun.  Plus, there aren’t a lot of books like this for Muslim kids to see themselves in, that I think it would be a blast for them to read, and enjoyable for the adults to watch them get swept away.

Interview with the Author: http://ew.com/books/2017/03/27/karuna-riazi-gauntlet-jumanji/