Tag Archives: Pakistan

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

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The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

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I was curious to see how partition would be presented in this book by an Indian Hindu author featuring characters who are half Hindu and half Muslim relocating to Hindu India.  Told in journal entries written by 12 year old Nisha to her deceased Muslim mother, the 264 page AR 4.5 book is wonderfully done, extremely compelling, and about so much more than the politics that birthed India and Pakistan.

SYNOPSIS:

Nisha and her twin brother Amil are opposites, yet they complete each other and care for each other in such a tangible and heart swelling way, that you can’t cheer for one while not rooting for the other one to find success and their place in the world as well.  As the twins turn 12 and Nisha is gifted with a journal from the families beloved cook Kazi, India and Pakistan too are about to come to fruition and Nisha’s journal entries detail her understanding of the larger events around her as well as her own struggles to come in to her own.

For Nisha words do not come easily.  She excels at school and loves to cook, but talking to people, or making friends eludes her and her longing for her deceased mother, make her a quiet reflective child.   She observes and  takes in so much around her, internalizes it, ruminates on it, and pieces it back together in a gifted way when she writes, that reading her entries, and the voice the author creates for her, is really amazing and fluid.  You feel like you really know Nisha and what makes her tick, what she fears, and how she thinks, you also get emotional attached to her and her world and find yourself surprised at how invested you are in not only her family’s successful migration across the new border, but also in her finding her voice and the confidence to use it.

Amil’s voice comes through Nisha, but her love for him and the way his strengths are her weaknesses and vice versa allows insight into the other family dynamics and attitudes to the two children.  Amil is an amazing artist, that suffers from dyslexia and does poorly in school.  He is weak and wiry, but fast, and he can talk and charm and ask all the questions that Nisha wants asked but can’t find the words for.  He and their physician father are rarely on good terms, as he isn’t the ideal strong boy with a medical degree in his future.

When it is decided that the family must leave their city where Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs live together and journey into Hindu India, the twins, their father, and their father’s mother, Dadi, must rely on each other to survive the riots and violence of the mass migration.  Nisha must also survive the understanding that with a Hindu father and Muslim mother there is so much about her own place in the world she doesn’t understand, and thus the journey is both an internal and external one, that will change Nisha forever.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the protagonists voice is so steady and believable.  I truly fell in love with Nisha and felt her pain, happiness, anguish and overall got emotional for her, it was a rollercoaster.  The author does an amazing job of painting the politics of Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi and Mountbatten in broad strokes, but believable ones to the understanding of a 12 year old.  She sees that one India held people of all faiths and that this breaking up of everything is leading to violence, upheaval, and horrors previously unimaginable.  She doesn’t understand why people had issues with her mother being of one faith and her father another, she loves her Muslim cook and loves listening to him pray five times a day as her paternal grandmother sings Hindu prayers in the other room.  She is both Hindu and Muslim and doesn’t see the contradiction within herself, suspending the reader’s own opinions on partition (if they have them), because how she sees it, does make sense for the story’s narrative.  The author takes Gandhi’s side of non violence and staying together, but balances very well and very intentionally that atrocities and humanity was seen from people of various faiths and political persuasions.  The role of British colonization and freedom from it, is slightly glossed over to the point of disservice, but again, being the target age of the reader and the age of the characters, I’m willing to over look it.  Families with Indian and Pakistani heritage will want to take the lacking information and help their children to fill in the blanks.

I love that the backdrop is the action of the story, but the relationship between the characters is truly the heart.  A lot of growth and compassion is conveyed very succinctly and powerfully.  Nisha wants so desperately to speak, but can’t, and her internal struggle and the pain she feels when she can’t speak up to help and participate in the world around her is gut wrenching.  As she confides in her diary, you realize that kids understand so much more than we adults often give them credit for.  The lesson is not lost on me.  I initially thought a book steeped in subcontinent history, with religious conflict and foreign words, wouldn’t appeal to a western elementary aged readers, after reading it, however, I now think this heartwarming story should be thrust upon them all.

FLAGS:

There is violence and death.  Not sensationalized, but detailed enough to set the tone of how serious the journeys were between the two countries when British rule stopped  There is some bullying and mention of the father smoking socially with friends.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is an Author’s Note, and a glossary at the back, and the inside covers have maps showing the journey the characters take.  I would absolutely do this as a Book Club selection for upper elementary, and will consider it even for middle school.  A lot of tools for teaching the book are available online, here are just a few:

Educator’s Guide: https://www.penguin.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/The-Night-Diary_Educator-GuideWEB.pdf

Children’s Discussion Questions: https://www.readbrightly.com/brightlys-book-club-for-kids-the-night-diary/

Classroom Bookshelf: http://www.theclassroombookshelf.com/2018/06/the-night-diary/

 

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

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Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

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This is not a YA book.  The back of the book and about 75% of the story could really make it seem ok for mature middle school and early high school readers, but I’m reviewing it as a “public service announcement,” that it really isn’t appropriate for a young adult demographic.  No where does the book claim to be YA, I’ve just seen a lot of people online ask if their 13-16 year old (ish) daughters would like it.  That being said, the 351 pages of halal romantic comedy a’ la Pride and Prejudice inspiration, really is a fun light summer read that I enjoyed and feel young college age girls and up will too.

SYNOPSIS:

Set in Canada, Ayesha is 27 and still sorting out what she wants in life while considering expectation, obligation, and passion.  Born in India, she came to Canada after her father died in secretive circumstances, and with a workaholic mom against marriage, a Nani who once studied to be a police officer, a Nana who quotes Shakespeare at all times, Clara, a best friend, and a flighty beautiful younger richer cousin, this cast of characters cheer her on, gently nudge her, and support her, giving a diverse and nuanced view of what a Muslim family looks like and how they interact.  Then throw in Khalid.  A very black and white character in his views on Islam, and culture and pretty much everything, and you have a storyline with a lot of potential, twists, and interconnections.  

Khalid works with Clara, lives across the street from Ayesha, and has an incredibly controlling mom who has just sent a marriage proposal to Ayesha’s flighty cousin Hafsa.  When a conference at the masjid forces Ayesha and Khalid to work together after meeting earlier, tension and sparks fly, and to top it all off Ayesha is pretending to be Hafsa. 

Khalid has his own team of supporting characters, Amir an alcoholic- womanizing-homeless colleague who for some reason is considered a friend, a sister who was banished to India and forced into an arranged marriage 12 years earlier, an Islamaphobe boss, and his own baggage regarding his father’s sudden death. 

Bring in the Wickham character of Tarek and the cast of characters is complete for all the action to go down at the mosque and give the Aunty Brigade a whole lot of gossip to process and spread.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is fairly predictable in the major story arcs, but there are a lot of twists that keep you hooked, and the author’s writing is smooth and fluid.  Being it is a loose retelling of a classic, I wasn’t expecting much and was pleasantly surprised how well the story would stand alone as an OWN voice piece about growing, maturing, changing and willing to challenge oneself. 

I love that every Muslim and desi character in the book is different and unique and not a cookie cutter of stereotypes and tropes.  Most of the females cover, but they are nuanced in how they do it, what it means, how they carry themselves etc., some shake hands with males some don’t, some are comfortable in bars, some are more reserved, some have never had a boyfriend, some have, and they really show the reader that Islam is a deeply personal conviction and the rules are interpreted and challenged differently for each person.  It also shows different male approaches and the internal struggles of doing what you want to do and what you know you should or shouldn’t do in a very realistic non preachy way.

My favorite relationship by far is that of Ayesha and Clara, I love that Ayesha’s non Muslim friend knows that Khadijah (RA) proposed to Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and jokes about rishtas and frequently asks “What would Nana do.”  Seriously, as someone of  Paki background, who started covering in high school, who is half American and proud to be Muslim, this is friendship goals!

The book is perfect for the beach, or a day at the pool, it is light and silly and really you just go with the outrageousness of some of the details.  There are a few thought provoking themes, but really it is just fun and sweet.

FLAGS:

I was really impressed how halal the main story romance remained, however a few of the side stories are a little intense for younger readers and don’t really appear until about 2/3rds of the way into the book.  Yes, Clara has a live in boyfriend and there are a few jokes and situations involving  hooking up, virginity and porn, along with some characters smoking and drinking and being around alcohol, but then the climax really puts more mature situations on center stage. 

Khalid’s sister had an abortion resulting from a pre-marriage relationship and thus was sent to India.  Amir shows Khalid a porn website where hijabi and niqabis strip and pose, a website that is discovered Tarek runs and Hafsa is featured on. The website and the pregnancy/abortion really are the crux of the book and it becomes a big portion of the last third of the book.  It isn’t that the content is overly detailed, it just what the concept presents.  It isn’t salacious or pornographic or titillating in presenting the information to the reader, but the mere presence of it in the story would make it inappropriate for a YA book or younger readers.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

No way the book could be taught in an Islamic school book club setting, however, if the teachers wanted to start a book club, this one would be a great candidate.

 

 

 

Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed illustrated Anoosha Syed

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Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed illustrated Anoosha Syed

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Aside from me desperately wanting to get Bilal’s family a pressure cooker this 40 page book does a good job, and follows a reliable tradition of using food to introduce a “foreign” culture while simultaneously showing universal themes that show how similar we all are when it comes to family, meals, friends and feeling loved.  

Bilal’s favorite food is daal, lentils, and when he is out riding his bike with his friends, his father calls him in to help him make it.  Confused as to why Bilal’s dad would need to start dinner so early in the day, Bilal’s friends join in, in helping make the slow cooking traditional asian subcontinent dish.

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They line up the spices, they put it in the pot, and then they wait.  They put their shoes back on and play hopscotch, they go swimming, they go for a hike and it still isn’t done. 

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At one point Bilal is worried his friends won’t like it, but after waiting all day and gathering more friends at each activity, when the time finally comes they all dive in and love it.

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I love the diversity of the friends and that the dad is cooking and involving his son.  I also like that everyone is willing to try something new and give it a chance.

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The book would work for all kids ages 4 and up with the expressive colorful illustrations, diction, and amount of text on the page.  The book is 9×8 so it works well in small groups and at bedtime.  

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If you eat daal your kids will love seeing themselves in the pages, if you have never had daal there is a recipe at the end following an Author’s Note. 

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There is nothing religious in the book, and anyone from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh could easily take ownership of the dish and story.  The Author’s note mentions that Bilal’s grandparents are from Pakistan and with a name of Bilal chances are he is a Muslim character.

 

The Jinni on the Roof: A Ramadan Story by Natasha Rafi illustrated by Abdul Malik Channa

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The Jinni on the Roof: A Ramadan Story by Natasha Rafi illustrated by Abdul Malik Channa

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This 37 page culturally Pakistani Ramadan story is super sweet and fun.  There is so much I feel like my critical self should not like about the story, but by about page 15 each time I read it, I find my self full on smiling and thoroughly enjoying little Raza’s antics and his endearing grandma’s method for dealing with him.

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Raza is too young to fast, but with a house full of relatives gathered for Ramadan, Raza awakens to the sound of his uncle snoring before the siren to signal the start of fasting and the azan calling the worshippers to pray echo through Lahore.  Before he can go back to sleep, however, he hears the cook heading up the stairs to wake up grandma and then the smell of the food hits him and he wants a paratha more than anything.

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Raza embarks on a mission that involves him sneaking up to the roof, pretending to be a jinni and scaring Amina the cook through the chimney to convince her to send up food and a blanket.  

Scared out of her wits, Amina gets the grandma, culturally wards off evil, and delivers the goods to the jinni on the roof.  But the joke is on Raza who is out-witted by his grandma and gets the punishment of washing dishes for the rest of Ramadan, and learning that fasting a whole day will take a lot of will power, if he couldn’t even wait a few hours to get his beloved parathas.

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The book informs the reader that the following year Raza is able to successfully fast, that he is rewarded with gifts and that all is well and forgiven.  There is a glossary, information about Ramadan and a recipe at the end of the story as well.

I love that the plan just happens, it isn’t premeditated or considered, so it takes the reader along for the ride as it is unfolding.  It isn’t a deep story, but there is room for discussion as to whether Raza was naughty, or just caught up in the moment.

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The book is illustrated well and with big 8.5 x 11 pages, the book is engaging for first and second grade readers and listeners, as there is a lot of text on the pages.  The book takes a bit to find its stride as the author tries to use Urdu words, show their Arabic counterparts and then describe them in English. 

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There is a lot of cultural stage setting with everyone in grandmas house, the traditions of the family, of Ramadan, etc.  I think Desi familiar kids will get the most out of the book, but theoretically Muslim kids and non Muslims too could learn and enjoy it too.  I wish jinn and jinni were explained just a bit in the text, not just in the glossary, along with why an 8 year old wouldn’t be fasting or be required to do so. 

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My own kids, aged 8, 9, and 12, struggled on the first two pages, but when I told them to keep reading they zoomed through the rest smiling and ended saying it was good while giggling and shaking their heads.  We are Pakistani American and I think they enjoyed seeing familiar words and phrases in the book and sympathizing with Raza as well, and his sneaky plan that almost nearly worked.

 

Peeper and the Peeping Boy by Ayesha Marfani illustrated by Aisha Aamir

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Peeper and the Peeping Boy by Ayesha Marfani illustrated by Aisha Aamir

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I see the author regularly posting positive feedback for this book and after feeling let down by the last book of hers that I read, that had a great premise, I tentatively reached for this one.  The book is meant for children in grades 2 through 5, but the writing seems a bit all over the place and some of the vocabulary is above that level. The book is 67 pages and reads like a rough draft that has so much potential to be fleshed out, enhanced, and cleaned up.

SYNOPSIS:

The book takes place in Pakistan and is told from the perspective of Akram, an 11-year-old boy and a Jinn who he names Peeper.  Akram is apparently funny looking and behaves old for his age.  Those around him find him too contemplative and off compared to his peers.  He seems to be an only child and his family is middle class, but they live in a really weird neighborhood and while they have a maid, they are really tight with food and money.  Akram has a passion for peeking in on old houses and imaging stories for the inhabitants. 

Peeper is a Jinn, a good one, who doesn’t like to see suffering of small children.  He sneaks on Akram and sees what praying is and what being a Muslim is.  When he says “no” to his tribe to help plan a party for shaytan, he is punished and made human.  And as a human he and Akram explore the six abandoned houses next to Akram’s house snooping, making assumptions, involving the police and ultimately saving the day.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the premise of a boy and a jinn learning about Islam and trying to help those around them who are suffering.  I like that the foundation of being Muslim is what shapes both boys perception of the world as they pray and use AllahuAkbar as a super word to protect themselves.  Unfortunately the author’s writing style is very befuddled and these lessons are not clear.  The tenses change through out as does the point of view, with sometimes it being the characters being in the story and sometimes them preaching to the reader.  There is a lot of repetition of ideas, often disconnected random ideas, and in such a short book it really stands out.  Similarly, everything is really vague, no characters other than the main two are named, numbers of people aren’t identified, “…came in with 10 to 15 people, (page 62).”  Everything is very fluid and not in a helpful way.  The verdict of Peeper getting expelled from his tribe should have been a major plot point, but it is so quick and anti-climatic, that it really makes no impact. In a fantasy story, world building is critical, and there is nothing understood about the world of the jinns.  It says they are evil and horrid, but Akram misses them and wants to go back, which makes no sense and their are no details to show why he would think some in his tribe are good and kind, so when at the end they take shahada, it is completely fuzzy and confusing how one concept links to another.  Even the point of the story is befuddling, sneaking is wrong, but their intentions were pure, they got all their assumptions wrong, so they get medals and get rewarded and are encouraged to sneak more, but with permission? So, ya, all over the place.  The happy ending is that the mom is suddenly praying and religious, but no explanation of what changed her is given, so it falls rather flat.

Aside from my own thoughts on the story, there are blatant contradictions that aren’t explained.  Peeper says he wish he knew Arabic, but he came from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran, so how does he know English, but not Arabic from Syria?  Peeper also says on page 28 he doesn’t understand fajr, but on page 23 he says he watched Akram pray all 5 daily prayers.  The whole premise of Akram and Peeper being drawn to each other is their nosy curiosity and their compassion for others, but the whole scene with how they let the maid take the fall for the missing food is so out of character, and then when Akram is rude to Peeper about what his parents would say if they saw him is very jarring to how the character has previously been presented.  Neither situation is really resolved either and I really am worried that the maid lost her job and Akram didn’t even try to fix it.  The author tells us they are nice, but shows us two examples when they are not, so it isn’t very convincing that they truly are nice until they try to help the neighbors.  The inhabitant in one of the abandoned bungalows they assume is poor and deliver biscuits to him, but they note that he has bars of gold in his cupboards, so obviously he isn’t poor.  It is noted that Peeper can deliver the mail secretly with no one knowing where they came from, yet the police know that Akram is the one that alerted them to everything going on in the six bungalows, another contradiction that isn’t explained.

Some of the vocabulary was also troublesome for me.  The glossary at the end of the story and before the activity coloring and word search pages, jinn is defined as ghost, but they aren’t dead human spirits, so I disagree with that.  At one point the book mentions “elders of Islam” which is vague and odd, as well.  There are poems at the beginning of each of the 21 chapters, that are very forced rhyme and use words I had to look up:  hoary, momento mori, atavistic, not saying that kid’s can’t handle hard words, but there are many passages that have words more middle school in nature and with unconnected concepts, context clues are rather non existent.

There are little illustrations scattered throughout, but they are inconsistent in style and the copy quality is a bit poor, so they are not really helpful.  Akram does not have a face drawn in, but the jinn does. 

FLAGS:

There is nothing alarming.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club book, and I wouldn’t stress having a copy on a library shelf as I don’t think a child would willingly read it and understand it.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Miss Never Pleased by Ayesha Marfani illustrated by Aisha Aamir

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Miss Never Pleased by Ayesha Marfani illustrated by Aisha Aamir

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I’ve been accused of being brutal in my reviews.  And while I don’t enjoy being mean, I do take some pride in the attribute, as I am paying for these books myself (unless I get them at the library) and it takes time out of my day to write these reviews.  I don’t get paid, I do it because I love books, I like supporting Muslim authors and those including Muslim characters in their stories.  I take recommending books to others serious, and can’t remember things if I don’t write them down, so here I am.  With this review I don’t want to be rude, or overly critical nor do I want to sound pompous and arrogant and privileged, but at the same time, I ordered the book off of Amazon for $7.99 so a fair review shouldn’t hold punches to spare what the author is trying to do and appreciating that she is writing for a cultural audience. 

Please believe me it isn’t personal, I am reviewing it based on my same criteria I review all the books through, my own personal bias.  That being said, if the reader is living in Pakistan, or has recently lived in Pakistan and English is a second or fifth language the 70 page story with games and activities at the end is decent.  Meant for ages 7-12 in that situation, that are intrigued by the moral lesson presented, I think the plot holes can be forgiven.  For those without ties to Pakistan, or with loose ties like me (I’m half Pakistani and grew up spending my summers visiting family) the book will be choppy, culturally specific, confusing and lacking.

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens with Habiba being distraught over her world crashing down on her and the pain she has caused her relatives consuming her.  She then opens her diary that she has kept for six years, starting back when she was seven recounting how she as Miss Perfect justified her self in incident after incident.  Thirty-one incidents to be exact, detailing how she would rat out her cousins, or critique elders food, or her tell her friends how to dress and what to study because it was the honest thing to do.   How she would decide who should be friends with who, if her family should go on picnics and how she didn’t want gifts but didn’t want to not get gifts either.  All-in-all Habiba is a self righteous awful, awful girl, I don’t think it is her trying to be perfect, I think she is just awful.  At the beginning she attributes it to praise she received as a child from her mom and grandma, but for this behavior to have gone on for so many years, I don’t think it was their praise, it was their lack of discipline that leads up to her catastrophic moment.  She fails her exams and then learns what her family really thinks about her in a poem, with a way too forced rhyme scheme, left lying around.  The story then returns to her undoing and a faqeer coming to cure her and her parents taking the blame for her poor upbringing.  She crosses out the title on her journal from Miss Perfect to Miss Never Pleased, to presumably denote how nothing could satisfy her.  The story then skips forward to her returning after University as the best international psychologist.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the concept of the book, that a girl thinking she was so perfect could realize in fact she is not.  The idea is great.  I think it is a bit sad that her parents and involved extended family took so little interest in correcting her behavior, but at the same time I didn’t think it believable that she was absolved of all responsibility either. 

I feel like this book was a great first draft.  It needs some fleshing out, and some continuity corrections.  Incident #3 makes no sense, it starts with a party, then her ruining the mood of everyone at the party, and then her crushing her cousin’s dream of being in a play for her own twisted reasons.  But the jump from one idea to another seems like something got edited out and the rest of the four-and-a-half-page story didn’t get altered to reflect the missing details.  I have no idea what the party was for, what a wish gift is, and why anyone in their right mind would take a child’s opinion regarding someone else’s life so strongly. 

There are also contradictions, for example on page 14 she makes a big huff about her cousin wanting to study to be a teacher saying she wouldn’t be good at it, then on page 49 saying she would be marvelous, and this is before her climactic change of heart.  There are some awkward passages as well, that I had to read a few times, which could have been do to a different style of English, but sometimes I think it was confusing on its own.  Page 24 was all over the place with her not wanting to thank people for giving her a gift because she deserved the gift, but then telling them she appreciated it, along with her saying the gift, a dress, appealed to her, but that they should not have gotten it because it was an inferior quality.  Inferior to what we don’t know. So she didn’t say thank you, but said she appreciated it, isn’t that the same thing?  She didn’t like the dress, but it had appealed to her? Very confusing and just one example.

I say it is for Pakistani’s because I don’t know that anyone outside the subcontinent would know what a faqeer is, yes there is a glossary at the back, but it seems assumed in the story as a religious practice, which I find some issue with.  When Habiba was trying to dress everyone she says that a fishtail would look nice on her cousins and she gets a blue one.  I have no idea what a fishtail is.  It is not really explained, an illustration would have been helpful, but is not provided. She also once refers to her cousin as “dark” in a negative connotation, and that seemed very out of place and inappropriate to me.  And ultimately, if you don’t know the Pakistani school system I’m not sure you would understand how important the exam she failed is, nor why the scores are in the newspaper,  or that they have to pick their fields of study so early.  That being said, how did she get to University and do so well? If at 13 they had to choose their college and she didn’t pass wouldn’t she not be allowed to continue? I am so confused. And then she comes back after University, but is already being written about in the papers as if she has had a long and successful career.

The book doesn’t tell how she makes things right with all those she wronged either, after so many incidents, I think a little self reflection and humbling should have occurred to those that felt her wrath for so many years.  There isn’t really even a solution, her dad comes and talks to her, she reads what people think about her and then boom, happily ever after.

The illustrations are sporadic, but not consistent in the book.  The style seems to be different in each sketch.

 

FLAGS:

The girl lies and is incredibly mean but there isn’t anything inappropriate in terms of language or violence.  Islam is mentioned at the end when she thanks Allah swt for His help.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club because it is so short, and I don’t know that kids would be compelled to read past the first few pages if it was in a classroom library.  

Book Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWoCiEnvg5U

If this book would have been written 20 years ago or so, I think readers everywhere would have given it a try as there was so little to choose from in Islamic Fiction, but there are options now, and much better ones.  I feel awful that I didn’t love the book, but I can’t suggest it either.  I plan to read one more book of the author’s to see if this one just didn’t work for me, and I’ll let you know what I think.

Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim

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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.

 

 

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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This book was suggested to me and I was thrilled to find it at the public library so quickly after its May 8, 2018 release date.  I love that it is an AR 4.2 and 226 pages about a girl standing up for her self, determined to be educated, and facing whatever society, and culture, and circumstance throw at her.  The protagonist is 12, but I think most middle school readers will find the story a bit too idyllic, perhaps even too simplistic and neat.  I really think the AR level of 4.2 is spot on in terms of writing level, interest, and story telling: 3rd through 5th graders will benefit the most from this inspiring, memorable and informative tale.

SYNOPSIS:

Amal lives in a small Pakistani village.   The book opens with her begrudgingly having to take time off from school, as the oldest, to help her mother who is about to deliver her fifth daughter.  The stage is quickly set to show a supportive father, but the cultural stress involved in educating a girl is incredibly strong.  The priority is to care for the home when push comes to shove and this fight is simplified in the book, but not completely belittled.  Right away we also see some class divisions with servants and landowners and the various positions in between.  It is easy to judge those with money as being evil, but the author does show some nuances in character aside from wealth and position.  As Amal’s mom struggles with recovering after the baby, it is decided that Amal will miss more school.  This devastates Amal who dreams of being a teacher.  Burdened by keeping up the house and carrying for everyone’s meals, laundry, and watching her younger sisters constantly, frustration mounts and she snaps when an arrogant man tries to take her pomegranate in the market.  Her simply saying no, is the catalyst that changes her life as the man she stands up to, Jawad Sahib, is the wealthy land owner everyone in town is indebted to.  Saved by his mother, Nasreen Baji, who is in need of a personal servant, Amal is now forced to pay off an impossible debt to a cruel powerful family. 

In  many ways the story doesn’t really get good, until Amal enters the Khan family’s world, about 50 pages in to it, but obviously the character building and detail is necessary, so if you find your kid is getting a bit bored, encourage them to keep going.  

Once, she arrives at the Khan compound, she begins to make friends, and enemies, and similarly see just how ruthless Jawad Sahib is, and can be.  As she finds her own voice and realizes her own role in determining how others treat her, what her future holds, and what power she does have, she is forced to wrestles with the choices in front of her. Ultimately, the reader will cheer for her to take a stand and be bold in doing what is right, no matter the cost.  And while one can guess, because of the target demographic, that it has a happy ending, I won’t spoil the climax, the resolution, or outcome of the young heroine.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that despite the themes, the story isn’t depressing, in many ways it is informative and inspiring. I think the fact that things are not left to ponder but clearly articulated, has its merits in a book for elementary children who might be overwhelmed by the cultural aspects to think critically on their own.  At the beginning, with the birth of yet another daughter, the biggest concern is that the mom is depressed because she hasn’t had a boy.  The mom even apologizes to the dad about this.  The neighbors, friends, everyone seems so upset about it, but Amal doesn’t understand why the women particularly seem disappointed, when they themselves were little girls once, and this simplistic point of view on such a complex and real issue, is so spot on and obvious, I loved it.  The mom and dad point out that it is God’s doing and they clarify that they are not sad the baby is a girl, and to me it seems obvious the mom is suffering from postpartum depression, but the book only describes it, it doesn’t identify it.  I also love that there is perspective on how while Amal is in forced servitude and thus not free, either is her female boss, who is unable to go visit her family, or to garden.  This helps amplify that even the wealthiest woman, is still limited to be truly free in the context of the character’s world.  

I like that the book is culturally authentic and not judgemental.  There are strong females, supportive male friends, and plenty of details to show that the author is writing about what she knows, and that she loves her culture.  Islam is mentioned only a few times with regards to prayer time, but nothing more.  There is nothing about praying for anything specific, or covering, or religious beliefs, practices, or traditions.   The book like the author’s first book Written in the Stars, almost oddly leaves religion out, and stresses culture.  Because this book is for a younger audience, it isn’t as obvious, and if I didn’t write reviews about books I probably wouldn’t notice.  

The presentation of culture, the idea of indentured servitude, and females being educated is balanced and explained pretty well.  At most many of the readers will know little of Pakistan, but may have heard of Malala, and the author talks about her in the Author Note.  I like that this book shows a fictional strong female in a similar vein as Malala, but also shows that it isn’t an outside force, the Taliban, preventing her from an education, but in some ways a whole societal view.  I think this expansion of paradigm is really the most powerful thing about this book.  It is important to understand that people may want their daughters educated, and opportunities may be available, but sometimes more is needed.   A lot more to change tradition, on a lot of different fronts.

The book also does a good job of showing some of the paradoxes that exist in developing countries as well: Amal rides in a car for the first time, but also is handed a cell phone from her mom, she knows all about email but has never used a computer.  For readers to see that somethings are very similar to their own lives, and some things are foreign, will make Amal and what she stands for have staying power and relevance, long after the end of the book.

FLAGS:

There is talk of physical violence when people are murdered, crops burned, and Amal is slapped.  There is some lying, but the truth comes out. Overall: clean.

 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely present this book as an Elementary Book Club selection and I would encourage teachers to use it as a novel study.  There is a lot of perspective to be had from this book, and its clean simple style will keep the keep points in focus.

Author’s website: http://aishasaeed.com/amalunbound/

Q & A with the Author: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/76814-q-a-with-aisha-saeed.html

Discussion Guide: http://www.penguin.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/AmalUnbound_Brochure.pdf

A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic by Lisa Papademetriou

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For a book about magic, featuring a girl who admittedly knows very little about Islam, a surprising number of tidbits sneak through and work to introduce Islam and Pakistani culture to those unfamiliar, while similarly exciting Muslims readers who can see a major climax point a mile away and get to feel “in” on the unavoidable “aha” moment.  Written on a 4.9 level this 297 page book, is clean and engaging, a rare combination, especially for advanced readers who are having a hard time finding books that are content appropriate.  I’m fairly confident that anyone, of any age, who reads this will learn something, whether it be about lepidopterology, violins, occupation and partition of the subcontinent, Rudyard Kipling, caskets, friendship, Islam, and finding a place to belong.

SYNOPSIS:

There are three main storylines in the book, Leila’s, Kai’s and The Exquisite Corpses’.  Leila is a Pakistani-American girl growing up in America who decides to visit her Pakistani dad’s family in Lahore for the summer.  Unfamiliar with the language and customs, she has a good attitude of learning as much as she can, and absorbing new things.  Her dad’s family speaks English, is not very religious, is wealthy, and pretty modern.  They have servants, and drivers, and while she gets to go to museums and landmarks, the lifestyle is partially simplified for reader understanding, and partially to not take away from the real point of the story: Leila moving out of her sister’s shadow, and finding comfort in her own multi-cultural skin.  

Kai is spending her summer with a great paternal Aunt in Texas that she has never met.  Her father passed away and her mom has recently lost her job, so a change of scene is what she is presented with.  Her Aunt is a character in and of herself, but by and large leaves Kai to her own devices and supports her adventures from a distance.  The real story for Kai is a budding friendship with the neighbor girl, Doodle who is determined to find and save a rare moth no longer found in the area.  Nervous to make friends Kai learns sometimes the value of things isn’t in the winning, or being the best, but in doing something because you enjoy it and it is the right thing to do.

The two girls story is tied together by them finding two parts of a magic book, The Exquisite Corpse.  The old book tells the story of Ralph T. Flabbergast and Edwina Pickle, in bits prompted by the girls’ own writings.  Like the game of writing a few sentences, folding over the page and having the next person add to the story, the book connects the girls and the readers in a tale that is as much about the two long ago sweethearts, as it is about families, overcoming obstacles, and believing in happy endings.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it is told from various voices, and as much as the story is plot driven, I truly felt connected to the main characters.  The only magic is the book, so the realism is very critical to gaining the readers interest and thankfully once you read about 70 pages or so I feel like the book does suck you in and take you for a fun ride.  The first few chapters are a bit confusing and I wasn’t sure where the story was going, Finally, at my 11-year-old daughter’s prompting I had to just barrel through without asking and wondering too much.  You don’t find out about Kai’s mom and dad or how Rudyard Kipling and “Kim” tie in to it all, almost until the end.  I like that the author doesn’t talk down to the reader, and as a result I learned a bit about so many things.  The twists and interweaving of stories and characters, and things as random as moths and music and saurkraut, remind me of well written adult novels that often aren’t found in books for fourth graders.  

Their isn’t much religion in a doctrine or even practicing sense, but through culture some is learned and shared, and I like that it isn’t completely washed out or removed.  The main character’s father says that he wasn’t religious in Pakistan so when he came to America he wasn’t about to start.  Leila mentions that her mom wants him to take the girls to the mosque or to see Eid, but again, they don’t, but do celebrate Christmas.  So, when she is in Pakistan and sees masjids, and fakirs, and people feeding birds as a sadaqa it is a nice inclusion.  Especially because the vocabulary is used and explained.  She mentions that her extended family goes for Jummah, yet doesn’t pray five times a day, she also touches on Ramadan as being a time of fasting but doesn’t know that there are two Eids.  As she learns, the reader does too.  It definitely isn’t how any practicing Muslim would want Islam portrayed, but it isn’t disrespectful and it is realistic.  Again, because the author doesn’t seem to talk down through her characters, there doesn’t seem much judgement and thus, hopefully also shows most readers some diveresity to the Pakistani stereotypes in the media.

FLAGS:

None, the book is clean, the love story between Ralph and Edwina, is just that they love each other. Nothing more than a sweet sentiment.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would definitely use this book as a Book Club selection because I think there is so much to connect to and discuss.  It would be fun to do as an interfaith book club with kids for the same reason.  While the main characters are girls, I think boys would enjoy it as well, there is some spying, sleuthing, action, and a whole goat debacle, that I think would be a blast to explore with students.

I don’t see any online reading guides, but there is so much to discuss it won’t be a problem.  Enjoy!

Ticket to India by N.H. Senzai

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In terms of plot and and believability, this 274 page 6.3 reading level book has moments of unrealistic twists, but the historical flashbacks and context make up for it as it delves into Pakistan, India partition without getting overly bogged down in politics and bitterness.  You can tell that the author writes from a place of love and warmth, as she talks about all sides involved: Pakistan, India, Great Britain.   The stories, fictional and historical, that weave through the novel make it informative and entertaining irregardless of one’s prior knowledge.

SYNOPSIS:

Maya is 12, and a little shy, especially compared to her older sister Zara.  The book starts with her writing a journal entry about her visit to Pakistan in an airplane somewhere over the ocean.  Maya, her older sister Zara, and their mother are heading to Karachi from America because of the death of Maya’s beloved grandfather.  Frequent visitors to Pakistan, Maya is familiar with the sights, traditions, and language.  As other family members arrive, Maya and Zara overhear their elderly grandmother planning to runaway to India to retrieve family heirlooms that were left during partition.  The plan had been in the works for the whole family to go, visas were already obtained, but with the unexpected death, the urgency is amplified.  Grandma wants to find a ring to bury with her husband.  In Islamic custom burials happen very very quickly, often the same day, so the delay and sending the body to America, is something you just have to go with as the reader.  Rather than convince Grandma to stay, the girls threaten to tell their mother if she doesn’t take them along, and the next thing you know the trio are off to India and on a treasure hunt.  There is a map at the beginning of the book, which is very helpful.  However, the adventure isn’t straightforward, not only in the trio’s adventures, but in that grandma ends up in the hospital, Zara and Maya decide to pursue the lost items on their own, and then Zara and Maya get separated.  Twelve-year-old Maya then is forced out of her shell as she is kidnapped, and running for her life, trying to keep her promises, and also in desperately trying to save her family from having to pay a ransom to save her.  A lot happens, and the intensity amplifies as it starts out as a elementary aged family story and turns into a middle school adventure.  A long the way are beautiful passages about the scenery, amazingly simplified, but factually and emotionally accurate explanations about partition and ultimately, through Maya, about finding your voice. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

The framing of the fictional story and the historical context is wonderful.  Partition, is such a pivotal moment for those that lived through it, but has less and less relevance to today’s generation that lives abroad.  So, to find a book that makes the gist of the events come through, is why I love using fiction to connect people and ideas.  I am making my daughter read this tomorrow, no question. She needs to know what her own grandmother endured, what decisions her family had to wrestle with, and this book allows us to have those discussions in an informed way.  I’m sure many would disagree and say that the reader should know about partition before reading the book, but I think the tidbits and delicate way the author convey the horrors, the agony, the manipulation, and the struggles in todays time, is far better than I could do to a sixth grader. 

Maya’s abilities seem to grow overnight, so while she was an ok protagonist, she might annoy some.  I actually had to google in the middle of reading how old Maya is, at times she seems like she is eight or nine and at other times like she is 15.  I do like that Maya constantly remarks how alike India and Pakistan are, a reality that today’s generation definitely agrees with, but is often afraid to voice to their parents.  I also like that there are good and bad everywhere, a theme that doesn’t get old, especially in books that deal with cultural and religious elements as presented to a wide audience.

There isn’t much religion in the book, the characters don’t stop and pray or wear hijab, but the setting does allow for mention of masjids, and a kind Imam back in California, the characters identify as Muslim and they discuss Muslims as a minority and political entity regularly.  One of the treasures the grandma is looking to retrieve is an old Qur’an with the family tree drawn within.  The book talks about how intertwined the two countries and many religions of India are, and Maya’s name articulates many of these crossroads.  In the end, perhaps the best lesson from the book, is how much alike we all really are.

There is a wonderful Author’s note in the back, along with a glossary.

FLAGS:

The book has some violent images as it discusses trains coming from India to Pakistan with only a few living aboard and vice versa.  The intensity as Maya is robbed, and then kidnapped, and then held hostage, could also be jarring for some younger readers. 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Like all her other books, I would absolutely include this in a Book Club, there is a lot to discuss, lots to understand, and lots to enjoy.

Author’s website: http://www.nhsenzai.com/ticket-to-india/

Reading Group Guide: http://www.nhsenzai.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Ticket-to-India_ReadingGuidePDF.pdf

YouTube book trailer: