Tag Archives: fast paced

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.

 

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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

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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/