This book fails on so many levels: the writing quality, the title, the representation of Islam and Ramadan, messages about weight and beauty, and female self-worth to name a few. This 299 page 5.0 AR book looked great as I was skimming through the library book catalog. I knew it was young adult romance and saw that it would involve crushes and boys, and “typical” teenage stuff, but really this book has so few redeeming qualities for any demographic, I’m not sure why it was written, why it was published, and why the library shelves it.
Almira is a 15-year-old girl of Persian-Syrian descent living an all American life in Florida. She has good friends, is a good student, and is financially well off. She is Muslim, but doesn’t really know what Islam is, “I’ve been to a mosque exactly twice in my life” she says. She doesn’t pray, her parents only do on occasion, yet she feels “different.” This over stretch is the first of many plot holes, that make the tone of the book more whiney and shallow, than the premise requires. Having tried fasting the year before and been found cheating by her culturally strict grandfather, Almira is determined to fast this Ramadan to lose weight and prove she has willpower. There is a glimmer that her shallowness will fade, but the weight issue is mentioned every few paragraphs and thus there is no pushing it away. The author presents Ramadan as one giant weight loss program. There is no mention that Ramadan as a spiritual time or reflective time. Nope. She is fasting to lose weight, and everyone around her is supporting it, by constantly commenting at how much better her size 8 is looking as the month progresses. The biggest storyline in the book is that Almira wants a boyfriend. Again, this is contrary to Islamic practices, but naturally crushes and crossing rules is a reality. However, even to girls not faced with a religion that forbids boyfriends, the messages in this book regarding boys is pretty pathetic. Almira changes her self to impress the boy, pretending to have interests that she doesn’t have. She is willing to sacrifice her best friend since Kindergarten to get said boy, and while they mention that everyone treats them superficial based on their looks, they too treat each other the same way. Almira and her friends get so much of their self worth and confidence from how boys ogle them that I found myself often cringing with disappointment. Now, granted it is a YA book, and 15-year-old romances probably are pretty shallow, but again the whininess just starts to be too much. There is a brief glimmer of hope when the family goes to the mosque and prays and breaks fast together, but it is short lived as Almira finally gets the boy, finishes Ramadan, and celebrates in a bikini on the beach, “And look at us, half naked on Eid,” she says to her Muslim friend, Shakira, as if that is the epitome of making it in America.
I don’t expect all books to have a message, but if you are going to have a moral message in a book, I would hope that a book written on a 5th grade level would have a good one. This book’s lesson is to lie and lead a double life. And no that is not me over simplifying and putting my own bias on the author’s storyline choices. “I’ll sneak out with Peter whenever I can, while I show my parents a goody-two-shoes facade that will be impenetrable. I can keep this secret,” thinks Almira as the book concludes (page 287) and everything is right in her world. She feels a tinge of guilt that she can’t talk to her parents, not guilt at her actions, which is really the epitome of my confusion to why the book has an Islamic implied title. Ok I get maybe she wants a bit of cultural layers to add depth to the characters, but why structure the book on religion when religion is made to be such a joke by failing to give it any substance? Had she made it more cultural and the characters culturally are Muslim, even that would have worked better. But, they aren’t. The parents are really really one dimensional. Mom is “hot” and even when the family is talking she is in the corner doing crunches. She loves karaoke and doesn’t like grandpa is about all we know about her. Nothing about her dreams, her family, her life growing up, her fears, her education. Dad similarly is pretty flat. He is a dentist and just looks at people’s teeth. He goes from being uber mellow and cool, to deleting pictures on her computer and yelling at her that she can’t date. Neither trait seem to define him, and make an already shaky premise, more awkward. Almira whines and complains about her parents, but they overall seem supportive and kind, again a plot hole that makes the book lose traction. Grandpa is the scary old-world stereotypical character, that calls everyone a prostitute that doesn’t dress modestly, but goest out of his way to teach Almira to drive. The grandma fades into the back ground, but oddly enough the author takes time to mention that recently she started wearing a scarf and used to wear heels and make-up, so did grandpa call her a prostitute? Again things don’t line up and once again the female characters are defined by their looks, and the males as being hot tempered and judgemental. It is unfortunate that the foundation of the book is so weak. Additionally, all the pop culture references, already start to date the book (it was written in 2011), most 15 year olds today probably are not obsessed with Robert Pattinson and Angelina Jolie. The author tries really hard to sound like a teenager, that at times it seems overly forced.
WHY I LIKE IT:
Obviously I’m not a big fan of the book, so finding things I like is a bit of a stretch. I have more hope that girls can be strong and independent and not completely boy and appearance obsessed. And while I know that is wishful thinking, this book just validates the sad idea that self worth is tied to looking good in a swimsuit and having a boyfriend. I feel like our daughters deserve more, are capable of more. I like that Almira is willing to try new things, like fasting and going to the mosque. And I do like that she more or less puts up with her grandfather in a kind manner, even though they disagree about most everything. In terms of the “romance” aspect at least the author didn’t go overboard. The characters kiss and hold hands, it does stay within the PG-13 guidelines. So, Alhumdulillah, if a young Muslima picks it up thinking she might actually read about an amazing, spiritual Ramadan experience, she will be terribly disappointed, but at least she wont be exposed to something R-rated.
The flags are with content, presentation, and writing style. There is no language. The idea of violence, if her grandfather caught her with her boyfriend stoning her, seems out of place and not a realistic threat. There is nothing negative per se about Islam, as there really is no Islam in it. I doubt even someone with no Islamic knowledge would equate anything in the book with Muslims. They may wonder if in fact we lose weight during Ramadan, but that is about it.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
There isn’t much to discuss in the book, just criticize unfortunately. The author’s blog reveals that Islam and cultural characters seem to be a common back drop in her books, but I doubt I’ll muster up the desire to read any other novels of hers to see if they ever serve more than that.