Tag Archives: High School and Up

Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s most Infamous Prison by Sarah Mirk, introduction by Omar Al Akkad, illustrated by Gerardo Alba, Kasia Babis, Alex Beguez, Tracy Chahwan, Nomi Kane, Omar Khouri, Kane Lynch, Maki Naro, Hazel Newlewant, Jeremy Nguyen, Chelsea Saunders, and Abu Zubaydah

Standard

guantanamo voices

This 208 page graphic novel, is indeed graphic.  The unbelievable horrors detailed in the stories shared are all sourced and referenced in the nonfiction anthology. The intent isn’t shock and awe like the war that created such abysmal breaches of justice to be done in our name (Americans’), but is definitely a painful reminder of how fear and mismanagement allows the US treatment of individuals to grow and continue outside of the rule of law, and all that the US claims to represent.  The careful use of words such as “detainees” instead of “prisoners,” “enemy combatants” instead of “terrorists” or “criminals,” have allowed Muslim men to be held since 2002 without charges, legal representation, habeas corpus, or basic human rights.  When the prison was being filled, you’d hear about it in the news, when the government released heavily redacted reports on torture, you’d catch a headline or two, but there are still people being held, and for the most part, we, the world, have perhaps forgotten.  This book is a reminder, it is insight, it is so important that high school and college aged children are aware of what we are capable of, that adults are not allowed to forget what we are doing.  As it says in the intro, “To indict the people who did this is to indict the country that allowed it to happen.” We are all guilty, and this book is not an easy to read as it will make you angry, and devastated, and exasperated.  Don’t let the graphic novel format and simple text fool you, this is a difficult read, emotionally, and you should force yourself to sit with it- sit with the outrage and frustration, and see if it can spur you to action.

img_0435

SYNOPSIS:

The book is broken up to provide an introduction, map, facts, and a timeline, it then starts with the author arriving for a media tour to Cuba.  Some background stories about key individuals in understanding the effects of torture and better and more accurate ways to interrogate, and then the fateful day September, 11, that changed everything.  From here the stories are individual accounts of prisoners, lawyers, politicians, etc., each depicted by a different illustrator, to show a very rounded view of the effects of the prison, and thoughts by different people in a  variety of associations. 

img_0434

Some of the prisoners were swept up by neighbors responding to leaflets promising wealth for turning people in.  Some were taken from their homes for no reason, a few were taken from the battle field, but every single one has never had charges against them, nor a day in court, the few that have been able to be represented have been released without being accused of anything, hence, found to be innocent.  The doubling down on the concept of Guantanamo being the worst of the worst, administration after administration has made it so prisoners have to be released to countries they have never been to, with unknown rights or a way forward.  Those that are still detained have been there for nearly 20 years. 

img_0437

WHAT I LIKE ABOUT THE BOOK:

I like that the book is personal, it is harder to dismiss or forget, or be unaffected when you are looking at images and surrounding yourself with guards and lawyers that are saying over and over, that these prisoners are innocent.  I like that it challenges Americans to demand more of America, it isn’t just putting the USA down nor does it read like the narrative has it out for the USA, it is very much an personal calling out, that we have made errors and continue to make errors out of arrogance.    

img_0440

FLAGS:

The images and language are at times graphic and one should be aware of the potential triggers of torture, and abuse. There are curse words spoken, and violence detailed.  High school and up.

img_0439

Misfits in Love by S.K. Ali

Standard
Misfits in Love by S.K. Ali

misfit

I reread my review of Saints and Misfits before diving in to this sequel that can also work as a stand alone, and imagine my absolute delight when all the things I wanted more of: Muhammed and Sarah, the mom, Jeremy, etc., were explored in this wonderful high school and up, 320 page, romantic comedy story.  The romance stays halal and the comedy light, but seamlessly interwoven into a weekend wedding are very serious notions of racism and prejudice within the Muslim community.  The writing is flawless as I tried to tell the summary to my daughter I realized just how many characters there are in the book, yet while reading, I never once was confused about who someone was or how they fit in to the family, it really is quite remarkable how real and personal the characters all become.  In many ways the story is uniquely an American-Muslim (arguably) one with characters that are half this culture, a quarter that, wearing cultural clothes to coordinate with friends, mutli lingual, multi ethnic, and yet all coming together as friends and family.  We, nor are the characters perfect, but that our weakness is explored in fiction so that we all might benefit in reality, is truly remarkable.  I honestly couldn’t put it down, and my teen and tween children may or may not have had to figure out their own meals, as I hid in the corner to devour this book in a single day. I regret nothing.

SYNOPSIS:

Janna Yusuf has just graduated high school and has been spending the last few weeks at her father’s sprawling house on a lake to help with wedding preparations for her beloved older brother.  What started out with plans to be a small nikkah between Muhammad and Sara, has quickly snowballed into a “wedding” with a few hundred guests and an ever evolving color scheme.  With extended family and friends pouring in over the three days, Janna is anxious to see Nuah and finally tell him that she is ready to return his feelings, reunite with her mom after being apart for weeks, and see who her best friend Tats is bringing as her plus one.  But, Nuah is acting weird, her mom seems to be considering remarrying, and her father is revealing himself to be racist.  There is a lot going on, and in between wedding preparations, possible crushes, family drama, prejudice overtones, and a curious ice cream man, Janna is having an unforgettable weekend.

Janna and Muhammad are close, they are the children of an Indian American non practicing father and an Egyptian American religious mother.  Their parents have been divorced for a while, and their dad and his Greek wife Linda have two little boys and are hosting everyone and the wedding.  The heart of the story is Janna as she thinks she is ready to pursue something halal with Nuah, but is slightly intrigued by Sara’s cousin Haytham and very perplexed by her mother’s potential future new husband’s nephew Layth. Being it is a wedding, and many people are staying at her father’s house and many more at the hotel in town with their own families.  Jana is trying to figure stuff out about Nuah while hanging out with Nuah’s older pregnant sister.  She is constantly thrown together with Layth as she meets his Uncle Bilal, her mom’s college friend that has proposed to her, and who’s own daughters are friends of Sarahs.  Yeah, there is a lot of overlap, a lot.  It’s like real life. As attractions wax and wane in such a short time, it is the relationship Janna has with her own family and the contentment she must find within herself that ultimately matter most.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how authentic the story and its characters are.  I come from a small family, but a very close friend has a huge family, and this just reminded me of going to her family events and finding how interconnected and small the world really is.  I absolutely love Janna, she is Muslim by choice through-and-through and is genuine in her understanding and actions that, while the book is meant for Muslims and nonMuslims, she really sets the standard of how fictitious characters can positively affect their readers.  The only slightly forced thread for me was Janna suddenly loving animals and being ready to head to Peru.  I get that she was crushing, but it seemed a little too over the top for an otherwise very plausible plot.

The best part of the book, in my opinion is that it isn’t all fluff and fun, there are some very real issues that get spotlighted.  Like in Saints and Misfits where Janna is sexually assaulted by a seemingly devout, religious, well liked male, this story addresses racism and prejudice within the Islamic community.  Janna’s dad always felt treated as less than by Janna’s mom’s family for not being Arab.  He flat out warns Janna about her feelings for Nuah because he is Black.  Sarah’s Aunt is offended that the mendhi is more Desi than Arab.  The issues aren’t just pointed out, they require active acknowledgement and action.  The author’s note at the end, even discusses the significance and weight of such views at the end.

FLAGS:

There are mentions of the sexual assault that happened to Janna in the first book.  There is mention of periods, a possible affair, racism, and a character who drove while drunk and killed his son as a result.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that this book would be a great fit for a school book club, but I think a group of high school or college aged girls would thoroughly enjoy reading this and discussing it, and I would totally invite myself to their gathering to do so.

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

Standard

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood

Standard

more than just a pretty face

This book is a Muslim YA romcom OWN voice written by a Muslim male.  Woah, right? And the actual story, sigh (blush) I enjoyed it, and part of me is disappointed in myself for how much I enjoyed it.  Most of the characters are Muslim and all over the spectrum in their religiosity so to speak, there are a lot of jokes at the expense of tenants in Islam and trivializing of certain concepts which really isn’t something to celebrate, but it reads real and there is a lot of Islam that is front and center and deep and though provoking. For most non Muslim readers, I’m sure 15 or 16 and up would be fine with the content and 353 page length, but as a former Islamic School Librarian, I’d have to reserve recommendations to college age.  The protagonist is 19, there is talk of sex, but not crass, the main female character has a past that includes a sex tape, and there is a lot of language, but its also really funny and really relatable and really sweet and takes place in high school.

SYNOPSIS:

Danyal is a pretty face, but he isn’t very bright.  He goes to an elite private school though somehow, and while he is admittedly dingy, he is also very kind, innocent and generous.  He was held back at some point in school and is 19 as a senior in high school.  He works in a French restaurant and dreams of being a chef.  He has no desire to go to college and as the only son of Pakistani immigrants, they are not thrilled with their son’t future plans.  Danyal is pretty chill about it though and his mom wants to arrange his marriage, and he is willing, although he is crazy in love with his friend’s twin sister.  He is religious and hasn’t really broken any of the Islamic relationship rules, he prays fajr, and just kinda floats through life doing the best he can and forgiving himself and others when they mess up.

When his mom arranges a meeting with Bisma he is willing to get to know if they are a match.  She however, fully discloses her past to him when they head out for coffee, which involves her rebelling, once a few years earlier, against her father and going to a party, further rebelling and getting drunk and then making the poor and regrettable choice to sleep with someone.  To make matters worse, the event was video taped and spread around the community forcing the family to move.  Bisma is pretty religious and really studious and really sorry, but her father and most community people don’t let it go.  Danyal thinks that is stupid, one mistake shouldn’t haunt her forever, unfortunately he doesn’t think chivalry and pity are enough of a reason to marry her as he doesn’t think they are meant for each other.  Basically, he is still really crushing on Kaval.  So he and Bisma decide to be friends.

When Danyal’s history teacher in a fit of spite nominates Danyal for a prestigious Renaissance Man competition, Danyal calls on Bisma for help.  The topic is Winston Churchill, the beloved British leader, but Danyal quickly learns he is not beloved by most Indian subcontinent people.  Kaval offers to help so that Danyal can win the competition, impress her parents and then maybe give them a chance.  But, suddenly Danyal doesn’t know if that is what he wants.  He wants to be himself, he wants to be accepted, he wants Bisma.

WHY I LIKE IT:

You know how it is going to end, you don’t know entirely how it is going to get there, but you know where it is headed, yet the book is still compelling and fun.  Between the banter of the religious friend, and the no longer religious friend, the advice the French Chef bestows on Danyal and Danyal’s complete and utter cluelessness to everything, the book is really warm and the characters really like-able.  I dislike the stereotype of the “religious” character, but the other side characters are better developed.

On occasion I think Danyal’s stupidity is over done, he isn’t an idiot, he just isn’t book smart. So when he doesn’t know what “break a leg” implies for example, it seems a tiny bit off.  I know his friends say he isn’t funny, but I think he is hilarious, especially with his commentary on the Desi community.  “It is the curse of brown boys everywhere.  We either die young or we live long enough to see ourselves become uncles.”

The role of Islam is incredibly prominent, and the characters understand what it means to be Muslim differently.  Sometime I agreed with them, sometimes I didn’t, sometimes the characters didn’t agree with each other, sometimes they did.  There is a lot to think about: destiny, Allah’s mercy, Qalb-e-saleem (a pure heart), caring for the less fortunate.  Even politically there is a strong thread of colonialism, which the characters wrestle with and with being immigrant’s children.   There is a lot packed in, but it flows so smooth and the writing rich with authenticity, that quite often I would laugh out loud and read various lines to my young children.

FLAGS:

Talk of sex and losing virginity, but not detailed, just stated.  The chef is a lesbian.  There is lots of language including the F word, not thrown in effortlessly, usually for a reason, and often reprimanded.  There are a few kisses on the cheek and lips between Danyal and Bisma, but in a Disney princess movie sort of way.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Not for middle or even high school book club. I don’t think that it is a completely “halal” romance story, but I think I wouldn’t be concerned if juniors and seniors were reading it, I think they would love it, and I might just have a few that I want to suggest it to…

 

Internment by Samira Ahmed

Standard
Internment by Samira Ahmed

internment.jpg

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

 

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Standard

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy! Happy Reading!

Boy vs Girl by Na’ima B. Robert

Standard
Boy vs Girl by Na’ima B. Robert

9781847801500.jpg

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

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

 

 

You’re Not Proper by Tariq Mehmood

Standard

your not proper

This highly praised British young adult novel is intense.  If I was trying to sell you the book I would say that it is relevant, gritty, raw, and real, but as a reviewer, it is definitely more rough, all over the place, and random.  There is so much going on in the book that it should be well over 400 pages to resolve it all, but almost as if the publisher required that the book be less than 200 to fit the demographic, it all gets tied up way too simplistically and leaves dozens of tangents unresolved, unexplored, and hanging.  The main characters are 14 years old, but I think it is a bit too harsh for that age group and should probably not be read by them.

SYONPSIS:

Karen’s mom doesn’t believe in God but takes her to church.  Karen’s dad is a Pakistani Muslim who loves bacon and beer.  The book opens with Karen’s gang marking her forehead with a cross against her will, and her soon after deciding that she doesn’t fit in with her friends and will now be Muslim.  Part of this transformation involves her wanting her name pronounced properly, as Kiran and her wearing a hijab.  Her parents are pretty ok with the decision, but the author foreshadows that this will be the undoing of her family.  

The book gets crazy, like all over the place crazy, but because of the little hints that all this craziness is leading up to something, I kept reading thinking that the author had it under control.  But no, I don’t think he does or did. 

The most craziness comes from Kiran’s rival Shamshad who leads another gang and pretends to be really religious, but is a bit of a rebel and bully herself.  The author is told from both Kiran and Shamshad’s perspectives, and while at times the reader sympathizes with Shamshad, as her influential father is abusive, many of her actions are so jarring and awkward, that no, she isn’t really like-able at all.  She wants a computer, her parents are that strict, yet she goes out with a guy, gets drunk, hangs all over him, goes to a Halloween party/dance without seeming to have to sneak about doing it.  She is regularly beating people up, threatening to kill and maim people with scissors, not a nice 14-year-old, nor a believable one either.  

As Kiran tries to learn about Islam and figure out what is tearing her family apart, and Shamshad is trying to find her place, the two storylines come closer together before the big climax of learning what tied the two girls’ families together in Pakistan and then here in the same English neighborhood.  The climax/ point of the story is actually a good one, but the resolution of it, is so simplistic that it cheats the reader of any potential investment they may have skimmed from the crazy build up.  It seems like the author had an idea and just worked backward for his big reveal, which is probably how most books are written, but in good books, you connect with the character and join them in their journey, here there is no character connection.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like the idea of the book.  That there are good and bad Muslims and Christians, that things are diverse and complicated and that we all have our own baggage either at home, or in our heritage, or in our environment. But the book is not cohesive, the characters are really, really harsh.  And it doesn’t seem the author gets their voices right.  Plenty of males write beautiful complex female characters and vice versa, and plenty of adults get teens right, but I don’t think this author got either.  The girls are not believable and the minor characters are just as bizarre.

I think if you you live in a highly diverse area and you are acquainted with lots of minorities you can handle the way Islam is portrayed, but if you aren’t I think both Muslim and non Muslim readers alike will be shocked and offended by the portrayal of such crude characters.  This isn’t a book of accepting differences and finding a way to get along, it is more of a book showing how awful everyone is in varying degrees.  If it was an adult book perhaps you could argue it is realistic, but as a teen book, I think the lifestyle choices of all the characters will be eye-opening and not necessarily in a good way.  I do like that the book isn’t offering a moral statement or opinion on Islam, but the way Islam is presented isn’t inspiring either.

I’ll admit I’m a sucker for books that are meticulous, not boring, but deliberate.  Authors like John Irving who seem to map their stories with crime solving precision.  Where every sentence serves a purpose and every idea has a reason for being shared.  Most books leave something hanging, but this book, left everything hanging.

For two girls in gangs, the gang members by and large fade away before we even get to know them.  There is a rally being planned but resolved half heartedly.  Kiran has to fight with her parents to learn about herself in a really unrealistic way.  Kiran harasses her dad to learn about Islam, but then all of a sudden her paternal grandpa lives nearby and brings over a marriage proposal, why couldn’t she ask him about Islam, and why would a 14 year old be considering marriage?  The whole scene of Kiran getting a hijab is weird and pointless, why stress underwear and having another customer make a random comment for no reason.  What was the obsession with swimming for Shamshad and her mother, like there is a lot of space dedicated to this topic, and I don’t really get it.  Shamshad’s dad is also creepy, he seems to have a decent relationship with her, but is physically abusive to her mom, and he does a weird inappropriate thing with a pointer stick to Kiran at the masjid, that should be discussed more in my opinion.

Once the big reveal happens really there are more questions than answers.  Like I still don’t get why the families hate each other, if they had to make promises of secrecy in Pakistan, couldn’t they just ignore and be ambivalent to one another in England? Why so much hate and hostility? And what is up Jake? He seems like a good friend that makes some mistakes and Kiran is awful toward him, then all of a sudden she claims him as a brother.  And whats up with him going on and on about his brother in the military, I need closure! And last but not least why when Kiran’s mom is in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt, why does the Curry Club, that no one in the book ever liked, suddenly in the hospital room with them, when it should be a tender mother-daughter moment? Seriously, I was beyond annoyed.  There should have been a message, or a cathartic release, not annoying super side characters coming back for no reason.

FLAGS:

Lots of violence, alcohol, language. There are also romantic relationships and the celebration of Halloween.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would recommend this book to anyone.  I am willing to concede that some of it was lost in translation for me, but there is so much going on in the book that there is no way that it can excuse it all.  I would love to discuss some of my concerns with someone who has already read it though. So feel free to reach out, I’m all ears.

Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim

Standard

skunk girl

Having been pleasantly surprised with a few recent reads in the romance/islamic fiction genre I thought to give this slightly more cultural take a try.  Unfortunately, this book didn’t surprise me pleasantly, but rather left me disappointed and slightly annoyed.  At 231 pages and an AR 5.2, the book would have worked much better framed as a memoir or semi autobiographical dairy, as it stands as a novel there is no point to the story, no real character connection, no real lasting impression.  There are a few comical concepts, but only because I am Pakistani-Muslim and female did I get them, and sadly those few instances, aren’t enough to carry the book and make it worth recommending.

SYNOPSIS:

Nina Khan is in high school in a small New York town and her strict parents don’t let her do the typical high school stuff like date or talk to boys.  Her parents are not religious, unless her mom’s family is visiting and they put on an act.  Her parents aren’t awful, however, they are educated, kind, and quirky, but culturally strict none-the-less.  Nina has two amazing school friends, that she has grown up with that accept her and her social limitations for the most part.  When Nina falls for the new boy in school, Asher, though, they work overtime to figure out how to get them together.  In addition to the boy dilemma the other stress is Nina feeling like she is in her older sister’s shadow.  An older sister who is a genius and is away at Harvard. There’s a girl at school that annoys Nina, but really their interactions are petty and annoy the reader more than anyone else.

As Nina’s friends hook up with boys and Nina has various interactions with Asher, one involving him seeing down the back of her sweater and thus her stripe of back hair, we are also introduced to some of her Desi friends.  In my opinion the passages about her conversations with the ethnic kids trying to find their way in life and in love and still maintain their culture and religious values, is way more entertaining than the bantering back and forth with Helena and Bridget.  If the author were to rewrite the book as a diary or biography, and focus more on the Desi friends, the book would probably be more interesting, compelling, and relevant.

The climax, if there is one, is when Nina’s parents go out of town and she is able to sneak off to a party and try alcohol, getting blackout drunk, and then going on a ski weekend with Asher, making-out with him and then deciding that that’s not for her.  At least I think that is what she decided.  She decided she can’t be with him, and she heads off to Pakistan with her sister to meet her parents, but thats it.  There isn’t really a climax, there isn’t an ending. Literary structure might allow you to do one, but not having either a point or a conclusion, makes the book fall flat.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I read the whole book, so it wasn’t so atrocious that I couldn’t get through it, it just seemed to focus on the wrong things in the narrative and not make the main character relatable.  I wanted to grow with her, but her reflection at the end didn’t really make a strong point for her, so it didn’t make one for the reader either.  I think part of this is that the author, frustratingly to me, interchanges religion and culture a lot.  And while she might get them kind of right, I think non Muslims and non Pakistanis might find the two muddled.  She asks Allah to help her make a good impression with and Asher, yet constantly uses the Pakistani culture as the reason why she can’t date and drink in the first place.  My thinking is that the religion should trump the culture, but because being brown and Paki and Muslim are all viewed as being the same, the logic is kind of lost.  And granted in some households it really is that way with religion and culture, but the nuances aren’t explored, explained, or even acknowledged, unfortunately.

It is clear that the author knows Islam and Pakistan, her love of them (assumption) just doesn’t come through.  Her off hand remarks about a lota, and ayatul kursi, and her Pakistani ranking system are funny, and momentarily relatable.  Unfortunately, so often it seems the story is positioned so that the religion and culture are stifling and the western world is being denied to her.  Honestly after reading the book, I’m not really sure why she doesn’t rebel and do what she wants, the story doesn’t really show what she gets out of doing what her parents want her to do, and why it would matter to her in the long run to do what she wants as a “rebellious” teen.  

FLAGS:

There is alcohol mentioned and consumed.  There are a lot of relationship topics  explored throughout the book including the minor characters deciding to have sex and the  main character kissing.  For mature readers, high school and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t present this book to a book club, nor can I see myself suggesting anyone to read it.

 

 

An Acquaintance by Saba Syed

Standard
An Acquaintance by Saba Syed

acquaintance.jpg

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/