Tag Archives: fiction

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 Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

 

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

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Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

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In many ways this 338 page dystopian YA fiction book focuses more on romance than the super human powers the 17 year old protagonist has and the role she will play in the resistance.  That isn’t to say the book is bad, just that it isn’t as high action, or reform-a-broken-world, or even use-my-super-powers-to-save-myself-and-those-around-me as I had hoped. It is more a lot of self loathing, desire, and anger.  That being said, I am on the fence about reading the rest of the series, as this is the start of a six book series, with two “half” novellas interjected in and being told from other characters’ perspectives.  If this was a show pilot, however, I would let Netflix automatically start the next episode until I had binge watched the entire season, not necessarily because the story is great, or the characters amazing, or the writing stellar, but because it is easy and fun and you really want to suspend belief and know who all these attractive mutated teens running a broken world are, and yes you will roll your eyes at the syrupy sweet lust filled pages, but it is YA so maybe I’m just overly cynical and 15 year olds and up will enjoy it.  It is an AR 4.3, but the language, violence, and romantic build ups should not be read by 4th graders.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with Juliette counting how many days she has been locked up in a cell, 264, void of human interaction of any sort and hinting at the reason her parents feared her and turned her in.  She is then joined by a male cellmate, Adam, one she slowly realizes she remembers from her youth and is in love with.  As he asks her questions we learn a bit about her power and the state of the world.  Juliette can kill people with her touch and apparently has killed someone, a child.  Her parents, along with everyone else, have always feared her, and not being hugged or touched her whole life has definitely been a painful existence for her.  Adam is a soldier and can touch her, he is also planted to learn about her as part of his job.  Warner, another teen, is in charge of a soldiers in the Reestablishment and has been following Juliette for a long time trying to see how they can weaponize her and use her for their cause.  Adam was playing a role, and now Juliette will have to play one in a world where the food is fake, the clouds the wrong color, and artifacts of culture and life before it all fell apart are destroyed and deemed illegal.  Along the way she will have to see the world in shades of gray and be willing to forgive and understand that people are not just for or against the way things, are, that sometimes you just have to do things to survive and protect the ones you love.

WHY I LIKE IT:

With all the talk of Iran in the news, I felt compelled to read a book with a Persian character, or at least by a Persian author, so I revisited the works of Iranian-American Muslim Tahereh Mafi.  The book reminds me of a Bollywood drama from the 90s where the hero and heroine do everything suggestive, except kiss, in this book they do a lot, but I guess don’t quite cross a line.  The scenes with Adam and Juliette are too much at times, where the story building about her understanding herself, her world, and what her powers can be, too little. The stage however, is set for the book and characters to grow in the series and with that optimism of knowing that the story stretches on, I have to hope the twists and turns make for a more interesting ride than this first book presents.  Most of the drama is already spelled out on the back cover, she can kill people just by touching them, she wrestles with seeing herself as a monster, or as being more than human.  It really doesn’t start getting good until she finds others like her, but then she is bored of them and the book ends.  The book has a huge following, so much like perhaps the Twilight series, maybe I’m just too cynical, and not in the target demographic, or maybe I need to keep reading.

FLAGS:

There is violence, *SPOILER* Juliette accidentally kills a child.  There is language, there is suggestive talk, there are romantic passages with kissing and touching.  For a book about a character who can’t touch, I feel like the majority of the book is about her touching and being touched.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club, because I feel like it really is just a book setting the stage for what more is to come and because it ends so abruptly it feels almost like a teaser, yes a 300+ page teaser.  I was hoping that I could at least suggest it to readers of Hunger Games, City of Ember, The Giver, etc., but I don’t think it spends enough time on the crisis of the world at hand, and the adjustments made by a select few to appeal to the same readers.  It really is a romance, at least thus far, and the destruction of life and the environment just a back drop for their storyline.

Internment by Samira Ahmed

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Internment by Samira Ahmed

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The premise of this book is amazing, the writing and execution of it, unfortunately, falls flat.  The failure to set the stage, develop characters the reader cares about, and create a world in the near future that is both riveting and horrifying doesn’t come through in the book’s 387 pages written on an AR 4.7, but meant for high school aged readers grade nine and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Indian-American Layla Amin is 17 and since the census that her family honestly filled out and identified themselves as Muslim, their life under the new president has been shattered to say the least.  Her poet father lost his job as a professor, her chiropractic mother has lost numerous patients, Layla has left high school and they all live in fear.  With curfews and people they’ve known their whole lives turning on them openly, the book opens with Layla chooses to sneak off to see her Yemeni Jewish boyfriend, David after curfew.  The next day suits arrive to take the family to an internment camp in the desert, near the old Manzanar detention camp used to house Japanese Americans during WWII.

The new camp, Mobius, is the first one to house Muslims and the first of many slated to be built.  The detainees are divided by ethnic background, Layla’s FEMA trailer is in a block of other Desi families, Arabs a few blocks away, LatinX, converts, etc., all given minders to control them from within their own community.  As Layla whines about her cell phone being taken away and how much she misses David, a guard, Jake, takes pity on her and regularly risks his own position and Layla’s, as he sneaks her access to phones, gets her burner cell phones and even sneaks David in so the two can make out.  Somewhere along the way it seems Jake and Layla develop feelings for each other, but it really isn’t explored.  Layla makes friends and somehow becomes a revolution leader with her writing notes about life on the inside and having Jake and David get them to the media.

Those that speak out against their situation or complain, disappear and never return.  The Director of Mobius, ensures it.  In their refusal to eat dinner one night, and their protest at the front gate in front of protestors and the media, eventually Layla gets taken, but with her friendly guards, she finds she isn’t completely alone and that she just needs to be brave a little longer, stand up at the right time and get incredibly lucky to be successful in the revolt.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The President in the book is undoubtedly Trump, and I love the passages that reflect how the fictitious America didn’t become racist overnight, but that the leadership allowing it, ignited the ugliness that already existed.  It mentions making America great again and really sets the foundation of a simple “what if” that really could happen very easily.

The parts that struggle are the story elements, I really didn’t find myself cheering or even liking Layla, I didn’t find her charismatic or interesting, she was really whiney and flat to me.  I didn’t care one bit about her and David’s relationship, it seemed forced and completely not necessary.  A friend or concerned neighbor might have been more hope inspiring than a high school boyfriend she is brooding over to save her.  Her sneaking out and sneaking him in, all seemed selfish and juvenile for a character who in other arenas seemed pretty mature and level headed.  The disconnect is pretty prominent and I really cringed at all of the passages involving the two of them.

There are flash backs to life before the new President, but it isn’t engaging and doesn’t really highlight how horrific life is now, because the lack of character development and world building, everything seems like it has to be said, not shown.  Random characters at the camp would show up and then disappear, and we knew nothing about them, so there was no emotional connection or attachment to what happens to them, it really had so much potential to have heart and fear and insanity and it just doesn’t.

Layla identifies as Muslim, and lovingly recalls ayats and duas of her grandmother, but the family firmly believes that “there is no compulsion in religion” and thus doesn’t hide who they are, but don’t visibly display it in their clothing, or actions much either.  They don’t have a problem with their daughter having a boyfriend and they support it.  Layla and her mom don’t cover, but Layla does show massive respect for the Muslims that do.  Layla’s parents seem to pray, Layla doesn’t, but she doesn’t seem against it.

FLAGS:

Lots of kissing between Layla and David, a gay couple that disappears in the camp, flirting between various other characters, violence, oppression, language, death, beatings.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I actually feel like this could work as a book club book because the discussion would be so great.  Yes, there are flags, but the relationship stuff is so annoying and awkward, I don’t think any kids will find it titilating or compelling at all. The writing is subpar, but the issues brought forth are important, and the students would have infinitely better plot lines for the characters that I think could make the books premise reach closer to its potential.

A letter from the Author: https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/articles/a-letter-from-samira-ahmed-author-of-internment/

Book Club Guide:https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/InternmentNovlBookClubGuide.pdf

Review podcast: https://teachnouvelle.com/internment-by-samira-ahmed/

There is a ton online, just google it and Happy Reading

 

Piece by Afshan Malik

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Piece by Afshan Malik

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This 168 page young adult book from Daybreak Press focuses on a small Muslim family in Texas, that has their own stresses and interpersonal relationships, but are thrown in to a whirlwind when the father of the family returns home from a medical mission to Syria and finds himself in the psych ward broken and troubled.  The effects each of the character’s struggles have on them as well as those they care about, makes for a haunting yet relatable read for fourteen year olds and up.

SYNOPSIS:

The Jamal family is made up of Hannah and her older high school aged sister Noreen and their physician parents Dahlia and Adam.  Hannah runs track and is more introverted in handling friends and her father’s life altering condition.  Noreen on the other hand is ultra organized and rational in her approach to life, much more like her OB mother.  To cope with the stress of her father’s return she commits herself to more clubs at school and staring at her phone.

Hannah doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends, and when the track team understands that Hannah’s dad is dead and Hannah doesn’t correct them until later, her comfortable acquaintances turn on her and she will have to learn to stand up for herself and use her voice in the course of the book.  Noreen’s character arc is a bit more dramatic as her involvement in yearbook club brings new people in to her life, mainly a boy, who might not be as a genuine in his goals as she is, and thus their climax results in a trip to the police station.  Dahlia has a close friend, and Adam has a few as well, but the story really stays pretty streamline in exploring the relationships of the family and how little things and big things affect them all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book takes on a serious issue like PTSD and is framed in such reality.  The scene where the dad blurs his past memories with the current real happenings, is done very well.  It conveys how fractured his brain is while showing the stress his situation lends to the mood of the home is powerful. There is also a very real situation of attempted physical and sexual assault that occurs when Noreen finds herself in a position with a male classmate who attempts to take advantage of her.  The book holds back in details, and she is able to defend herself, keeping the book clean, while still implying what his intent was, and how fortunate she is to get away.

More superficially, but also more relatable is the girls bickering and fighting and pushing each other’s buttons, and the mom trying to help, but is alas is frequently at a loss at what to do with them.  The situations the girls face at school are probable and relatable that I think a lot of middle school and high school readers will see themselves trying to balance extra curricular activities, friends, finding a quite place to pray and keeping their hijabs coordinating.  The family is Muslim and they dress the part, talk the talk, and pray together regularly.  Islam is very present, but not preachy, it is just what the characters believe and what they use to shape their view of many of the tests they are facing.

There are a few hiccups that are worth noting, but don’t overly deter for my appreciation of the story.  I struggled with the writing style in the first few chapters.  It took a bit to feel a connection to the characters and get what was going on sorted out.  It is written in 3rd person omniscient (I believe, it’s been a while) with each chapter more or less focusing on one of the four main characters.  As a result a handful of times the narrative gets awkward in explaining what one of the characters is doing or thinking, because the focus is on someone else, or the timeline overlaps a bit.  It doesn’t happen an awful lot, but the book is under 200 pages, so it is annoying that it happens at all, let alone more than once.

Story wise the characters seem oddly isolated.  The book tells us how small the town is, and shows us how everyone knows the parents regularly, the girls seem to be pretty lonely.  There isn’t any warmth from the schools or neighbors in helping them deal with their dad coming home so wounded.  In a town they have lived in for so long, this seems off to me.  Also if the town is so small, and the family so religious, there is an imam who visits once, you’d think there would be more of an Islamic community presence for the mom and girls to find support from.

FLAGS:

There is violence in the remembering of what happened in Syria.  There is some Islamaphobic talk as Hannah endures some verbal bullying and the attempted physical and sexual assault on Noreen.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this as a possible middle school book club choice.   It tackless some big things, and uses Islamic boundaries to talk about mental illness and sexual violence which is a huge plus when addressing our youth.  Noreen isn’t in a relationship or even overtly infatuated with the guy who puts her in a compromising situation.  But even if she was doing something “wrong” what he did is not ok, and the fact that the authorities believe her, and she plans to discuss it with her mom, and she is not further victimized by speaking out, is something our kids need to see and understand.

There are discussion questions at the end and I think males and females will benefit from reading and discussing this book.  Unfortunately, and possibly the only other disappointment in the book is the price.  Nearly twenty bucks for a short YA paperback book makes it hard to buy classroom sets for such activities, and I’m sure will even keep the avid reader debating whether they should purchase it or not.

 

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 Blessed Bananas: A Muslim Fable by Tayyaba Syed illustrated by Melani Putri

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The Blessed Bananas: A Muslim Fable by Tayyaba Syed illustrated by Melani Putri

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 A fable with lessons of kindness centered around the Salawat, definitely is a great premise and for the most part I really enjoyed the book. 

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The 8.5 by 8.5 hardcover, 50 page book feels great in your hands and the illustrations are sweet and expressive.  The book is long, and is text heavy so I’d say the target audience is maybe 6 to 10 years old.   The font is incredibly small and irritating.   It should have been larger and more inviting to children in my opinion.  It doesn’t match the size, binding, and illustrations, and actually becomes a distraction if trying to read it in a group setting.  

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The story itself is smooth and intentional.  Rico, a blessed, yet ungrateful monkey, lives atop an ever abundant banana tree.  However, he attributes his blessings to his own hands and does not thank Allah swt.  He is mean and greedy toward people and animals alike.  Yet, something is missing in his life and he doesn’t know what. 

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When a little mouse, Chico, comes to him to ask for a banana and gets scolded at instead.  Chico makes dua for Rico asking Allah to guide the monkey to goodness.

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Tucana, a toucan, then stops in Rico’s banana tree after a long flight to be rebuffed by a foul tempered monkey who wants to be left alone.  When Tucana  leaves she forgives Rico for his rudeness and asks Allah to be merciful to him as well.

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Rico then makes signs to keep people and animals away.  Which works for a while, but along comes Simon, an elephant, one afternoon to ask the monkey to climb his tree and help direct him back to his herd.  Rico of course refuses, and Simon reminds him that they are brothers in Islam and to please help. He begins shouting at the elephant to leave, and as Simon is pacing back and forth, he slips on the banana peels, grabs the tree to support himself and shakes the tree back and forth in the process.

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Rico begins hollering for help and sure enough the animals he had turned away previously, return to help him.  They had forgiven him as they hope Allah will forgive us all.  To calm the monkey, chico shouts, “Salawaat’alan Nabi!” in Simon’s ear and when he recites “Allahuma sali’ala Sayyidina Muhammad,” peace and calmness is restored.

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With all the bananas on the floor, many mushy and trampled, Rico has to decide if he learned a lesson, and how he will put his new knowledge into action, or if he will resume his life of ungratefulness.

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The book ends with each animals favorite banana recipe, information about the author and illustrator and benefits of reciting Salawat and an ayat from the Quran.

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The story and how it weaves Islam into the lessons is beautifully done, my only hiccup is the constant refrain of Rico counting his bananas.  I realize it is a fable, and maybe with talking animals interacting with humans, reality is notably suspended.  But, it seems misplaced to me.  How do you constantly count a perishable item? Does Rico only eat a certain amount a day? How many new ones grow a day? What is the number that he is adamant to have at all times? So, many questions, that I didn’t get why he was counting them, why he was irritated when he lost count, and why this detail was in the story and a big part of the story none-the-less.  Like the font, its a minor detail, but a distracting one for me unfortunately.  Clearly, however, I’m in the minority as the book has won the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award and the Islamic Writer’s Alliance Creative Story, so give it a read, and let me know your thoughts, jazakhAllah kher.

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Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet by Elizabeth Suneby and Rebecca Green

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Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet by Elizabeth Suneby and Rebecca Green

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It is a bit odd that this story is fiction, when it reads so much like a piece of nonfiction.  It is a picture book, but has an AR level of 4th grade 4th month.  So, while the story is great and highlights a country and culture, Bangladesh, not often seen, I don’t know that this book would appeal to many kids.  The kids that it does appeal to though and that can find it in a library or bookstore (not sure where it would be shelved), I think will not just like it, but possibly find it both inspiring and worth reading again and again.

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It is monsoon season in Bangladesh and the rains make Iqbal’s mom have to cook indoors.  As a result, she and the baby, Rupa are constantly coughing from breathing all the smoke from the woodburning stove.  Iqbal’s father mentions a propane stove he saw in the market, but the family cannot afford it, despite wishing that they could. 

Iqbal’s school has just announced the School Science Fair and the winners get cash prizes, if Iqbal can win, maybe he can buy his family the new stove.  His little sister Sadia offers her services to help him win and be his assistant.

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After a lot of thinking, pondering, and dreaming, Iqbal decides on the perfect project: a stove that didn’t produce smoke.

With the help of his teacher at school to find ideas and articles and plans on the internet, Iqbal and his sister build a solar cooker with foil and an old umbrella. 

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The science fair is a success, Iqbal wins, the family buys the stove and propane with the winnings, and when it isn’t raining, the family is able to use the solar stove Iqbal and Sadia built.

The book draws on ideas of sustainability, pollution, economic viability, problem solving, and education.  The culture provides the backdrop making all of these issues relevant and real, and mentioning Ramadan, Eid, and prayer provides some depth to the characters and adds to their culture.

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A lot of reviews online criticize that the mom is cooking and that the kids test an egg on the solar cooker and call her to eat it if it is supposed to be Ramadan, but I personally promise you, during Ramadan, we are always cooking.  And if she is nursing the baby, the mom wouldn’t be required to fast, there’s a lot of other reason she couldn’t/wouldn’t be fasting, but really, it is such a small portion mentioned in passing, no detail needs to be given, and it didn’t bother me at all.

Another complaint about the book is that if money is so tight the kids wouldn’t be at a school where they can just make copies, and buy eggs on their own.  I think there is some truth to this, but maybe a wealthy doner funds the school.  I think you could argue it either way.  I don’t know that the family is poor, it is the overall society, so kids could have pocket money, a propane stove is probably imported at least from a larger city so the expense would be more, similarily the infustruction of electricity and gas lines could hint more at why they cook the way they do.  Needless to say the family is smiling in the pictures, they have food, and they seem to be doing ok.  So the fact that the school printed a few articles and the kids bought some eggs without asking permission, didn’t bother me greatly.

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The illustrations are expressive and show the family connections and emotions.  I like that they bring to life a country many wouldn’t know, even if I wish it weren’t a work of fiction, but based on some child actually there.  

The end of the book has information about clean cookstoves, how to build one yourself, and a glossary.  The large 9×12 hardbound book would hold up well to multiple readings, and the amount of text on the pages would work well as a read-a-loud to younger kids who would find the subject matter interesting.  

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An Acquaintance by Saba Syed

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An Acquaintance by Saba Syed

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A young adult Islamic fiction romance novel, yes its a genre, albeit small one. I braced myself for stereotypes, cheesiness, over simplifications, sweeping condemnation, and preachy reprimands.  They never came.  I think this book is different, because from what I felt while reading it, and from what I’ve read the author say, this book is written for us: Muslim females, raised in the west, devout, strong, involved, and vulnerable.  It isn’t trying to convince anyone of Islam, or prove our place in America.  It isn’t trying to justify relationships or make us hide in our houses, rather it is taking us up to the line, showing us our strengths and weaknesses, and leaving us there to think.  In 282 pages, I saw myself crystal clear in the protagonist, the vilifying community, the determined best friend, and the steady parent.  It is easy to judge, but this book gets the nuances, the temptation, the justification, the internal battles, and it does it all without resorting to extremes that would make it inappropriate for upper middle and high schoolers. Yay!

SYNOPSIS:

Sarah Ali has grown up in small town Wickley, Pennsylvania, her whole life.  Her dad owns the local hangout, she is well known and well liked ,and very involved at school and in the masjid that her father helped start.  She has a best friend who is Muslim and although her mother has passed away, her home life with her dad and older brother is solid and supportive.  Senior year, however, is where the book takes place, and with Islamaphobes protesting and a new boy, Jason, in town coming to her rescue, the stage is set for her to have to decide how much their “friendship” crosses her internal boundaries of right and wrong, and when feelings are on the table, what choices she will make.

Throughout the book, there are numerous supporting characters that have their own roles in shining light on the situation from the outside and adding context to the world that Sarah lives in.  But this is ultimately Sarah’s story, told from her perspective, and the internal conflicts are believable because they are hers, the reader can see a mile a way what is going on and what will happen, but to see it unfold within her is at times a little naive, but considering her age, plausible.  It is her denial and acceptance of the situation at hand and what her role and hopes are that make the story very hard to put down.

The book in many ways is subtle, I don’t want to give to much of the plot away because it is obvious, it is a love story between two teenagers that can’t have a future based on the fact that she is Muslim and not willing to compromise that.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real feelings involved and real consequences to the choices that are made.  Throw in the gossip mongers at the masjid, an older brother who is concerned, an ever patient father, and a handful of others and the book feels incredibly real. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

Things are never black and white in real life, nor does reality prevent emotions and desires from breaking out.  There is no shaming in their tale (other than by the judgemental aunties), but there are consequences that are also given their time and spotlight.  From a parenting perspective it shows how a few questionable decisions can really get you in a heap of trouble and heartache, even if on the outside you can argue you did nothing wrong.  Even in the book Sarah remarks that they didn’t do anything, but yet, they did so much, this understanding is really powerful, and so needed for the teenage demographic. The book does not celebrate Sarah and Jason’s relationship, although I must admit I did kind of cheer for them at some points (I know, haram).  It shows that they are good people, but that there is a bigger picture.  It also shows there is life and hope, and forgiveness after, in the healing.

I love that Sarah’s dad is awesome and that his ultimate weapon is dua.  Not the stereotypical immigrant father trope, he is awesome.  I also love that Sarah’s best friend, Jasmine, is a person of color, so diversity gets a bit of a shout out.  The masjid politics is spot on, and the hypocritical aunties are as annoying in the book as they are in real life.  Yes, there are times where the dialogue is a little syrupy and long-winded, but overall, this book is calm and reflective and so, so important for high school and college girls to read.

Islam is the religion practiced, from praying, to how they talk, to how they dress, the subtlties there are brilliant as well.  You can tell the author is Muslim because it is natural and real, not researched and blotched.  The message is ultimately that Allah knows all, and that we do things for His sake alone.

FLAGS:

Truly the most Jason and Sarah do is hold hands, but the masjid ladies constrew that they do a lot more, and that Sarah ends up pregnant and gets an abortion. All untrue, but this revelation, that this is the gossip going around, is explored at the end of the book.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Oh how great would this book be as a book club for high school or even college age girls.  But, alas I’m not involved in anything like that so I will have to just recommend this book to anyone that meets that criteria looking for a good book. 

Having said that, part of me really thinks this book doesn’t need to be discussed.  Saints and Misfits was a book that needs to be read and discussed with our youth, this book, I kind of like it to stir and fester within each reader.  The lessons are there, and are clear, and some days I could see a girl really feeling one way and switching another.  Like the father in the book, our kids, inshaAllah, have been taught right and wrong, we have to see what they do when tested.  And this book can really speak to them, and offer them a bit of conciousness when faced with a seemingly small decision that could have big consequences.  This book will stay with a reader, and that’s a good thing.  I just don’t know if it will manifest the same with everyone, and I think that is a great thing.

 

Book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fraVJZI1xNU

From the Author: https://muslimmatters.org/2017/11/10/an-acquaintance-a-young-adult-novel/

 

Nightly News with Safa by Helal Musleh illustrated by Hatem Aly

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Nightly News with Safa by Helal Musleh illustrated by Hatem Aly

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Having Really liked Zaid and the Gigantic Cloud, I convinced myself to spend $15 on a 20 page book by the same author.  I knew it was paperback and 8×8, but I loved the message in Zaid, and the summaries of Nightly News with Safa online all talked about how a little girl creates her own newscast with a positive spin to tell her mom about her day. A lot of positives for me: a creative girl, problem solving, imagination, and journalism.   So I ordered it, and when it came, I thumbed through it, and counted only 10 pages of story, yes that is right, 10 pages.  The rest of the pages tell about the author, the illustrator or are colorful, but blank, before and after the story.

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Price and length aside, the book is really cute and clever.  The target audience is probably first grade to third grade, and the pictures are colorful, detailed and very well done. A girl, Safa, doesn’t like when her mom watches the news as it is sad, serious, and angry, so she builds a tv, puts herself inside and tells her mom about the happy highlights of her day at school in a news format.  Very creative, but that is it, there isn’t a message or really a point, or any story about Safa and her mom.

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With guidance and oversight, however, the book is a great starting point for how kids can be problem solvers, and is a great springboard for encouraging creativity and thinking outside the box to get your way.  The publishing company even has a free “Book Study Package” on their website http://www.myeverydayclassroom.com/2016/02/book-study-freebie-nightly-news-safa/  The package is 13 pages, it is longer than the book.  Which is funny to me, but not surprising, as there is a lot to discuss after reading the book.  My 10 year old enjoyed it and tried to convince my 6 year old who didn’t get any of it, all the lessons it alludes to.  It would work great in a classroom setting where you read the book, divide the class up and have them make their own newscast to talk about their day, or as a social studies or literature activity.

There is no mention of Islam in the book, the characters are not visibly muslim, there are no Islamic words, or references.  The character’s name is Safa, which may or may not signify faith.