Category Archives: romance

Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim

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Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim

spice

I have no idea if the author identifies as Muslim. I saw the 2023 YA book described as a Middle Eastern fantasy, characters with Arabic names,  djinn representation and possibly a hijab wearing protagonist on the cover, so I requested an advanced reader’s copy, squealed with delight when I got approved, and happily fell into the 464 page world of The Sahir and Kingdom of Alqibah.  Their is no Islam in the book, it is not a hijab, but I’m sharing it here, not just to let readers know it isn’t Islamic rep, but to let them know that for the genre it is pretty clean, and the story is an engaging easy read.  At times Imani is whiney and annoying, but she has a developed arc, and the book has a few slow patches, but nothing that lasted long enough to tempt me to give up on it.  I think 14 year olds and up can handle the three brief kisses, the sexual assault that is thwarted, the lusting glances, the killing, the potential addiction, and the commentary on colonizers and oppressors.  It is the first book in a series, so this review is only for this book and not an evaluation of the rest of the books that perhaps are not even written yet.

SYNOPSIS:

In Qalia, the Shields protect their community from monsters with the Spice entrusted to them, misra, that magically empowers affinities in them.  The top Shield, Imani, has an affinity for iron, and with the support of her powerful clan she exists in a world of privilege and opportunity.  When her powerful brother, Atheer, is assumed dead after stealing misra and suffering from magical obsession, the family’s reputation is not as pristine as it once was.  Imani’s younger sister, Amira, is also keeping secrets as she is caught stealing, skipping school, and refusing to follow family orders and country laws.  When the two girls find themselves following Atheer’s horse into the forbidden waste, they learn that their brother might not be dead and that there is more to their world than they ever were allowed to know.  With desperation to learn more about her brother’s location clouding her judgement, the Djinni Slayer, Imani, bonds with Qayn, a djinni who claims to not only know Atheer, but to have been his close friend.  Imani scrambles to know what to do, and seeks out answers and permission from Council, that results in her and three other’s heading off on a rescue mission to the Kingdom of Alqibah.  Everyone’s orders, however, are not the same, and first they must survive the desert, the monsters, and each other if they are to find Atheer.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love  that the world building is not at the expense of character development.  The single linear story line does mean that at times side characters are seemingly forgotten, but the focus of the world through Imani’s eyes allows the gaps to be overlooked as her concerns and priorities take center stage.  I love the emphasis on family, it is sibling love that is motivating the protagonist and closeness to an aunt that allows for privilege and opportunity. The romantic threads and tangents never overshadow the familial importance- it isn’t a forced obligation it is very warm and it is nice to see and feel the truth in the characters approach to family.  I love the Arabic names, foods, and while my electronic version did not have a map, the author has one on her Instagram page that suggests the physical book will have a map.

I love that the book discusses colonizers and oppressors.  It may be fiction and fantasy, but there are some very real themes included in fleshed out way that would allow for a lot of deeper discussion and connections to be made. The book is well polished, I don’t know that it reads like a debut, which is always a good thing I suppose.  At times Imani is really unlikeable, but fortunately it doesn’t last too long, same goes for Amira and her bouts of childishness juxtaposed with her glimpses of maturity. Taha, is noted to be very different depending on the company he keeps, so while frustrating- it seems to be intentional. The only real hiccup I felt in the book was understanding how at times the language differences were such an obstacle and how at other times Imani could read the graffiti and be understood.

FLAGS:

Magic, romance, lust, kisses, flirting, attempted sexual assault, lying, killing, addiction, alcohol, drinking, murder, abuse, physical abuse, bullying, oppression, colonizing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would pick this as a book club read, but I would definitely shelve it in a class, school, or home library.  I think it is a fun read for teens and up and I look forward to the rest of the series.  The book releases in January 2023 and as always presales are the biggest way to show support to authors and titles.  You can find the book here.

 

 

The Love Match by Priyanka Taslim

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The Love Match by Priyanka Taslim

This new YA book features Muslim characters, but is not a religious conscious read that fits in the halal category.  There is a lot of Islam: waking up for fajr, celebrating Eid, a hijabi, mention of jummah, but the OWN voice rom com sets boundaries based on Bangladeshi culture and American perspectives.  The book does not other, or have internalized Islamophobia, or fall in to tropes of oppression and rebelling- quite the contrary- it normalizes everything: LGBTQ+ relationships, dating, music, etc.  The book is well written from a literary perspective: easy read, fleshed out characters, resolved plot lines, I wish there would have been more slow burn and heightened emotion, and cathartic release, but it happily held my attention for 388 pages, so I can’t really complain about plot holes or development.  The problem I have as an Islamic School Librarian is the non issue dating and romance is for the characters with their parents knowledge, both lesbian and heterosexual.  The book doesn’t get graphic, in fact there is only a handful of kisses, but there is a lot of hand holding and pdas in front of parents and even a sleepover with a lesbian couple in a Muslim family’s home, again, nothing “racy” occurs, but the normalization is worth noting for those thinking a Salaam Reads book is going to be a more Islamically centered publication.

SYNOPSIS:

Zahra Khan has graduated high school, and while she’d love to be heading to Columbia to study writing with her best friends, she is stuck deferring her admission and scholarships, and hiding her dream to be an author.  Two years earlier her father has passed away and Zahra works in a tea shop to help keep a roof over the heads of her mother, grandmother, and siblings.  In the Bangladeshi community in Patterson, New Jersey Zahra’s mom imagines arranging a marriage to a wealthy family for Zahra to ease their financial stresses.  When a potential match comes a possible reality, Zahra takes control to try and keep the peace and keep her dreams within reach.  In Jane Austin-y feels, a love triangle emerges, friends step up, culture and family touchstones shared and appreciated, and decisions about the future will have to be figured out at 18 years old.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I loved how easy a read the book is, the cultural framing was warm and rich and never overly explained or apologized for.  It is what it is, it is who the characters are, and while at times they push back on the negatives, it doesn’t disregard the love that exists at the core.  Unfortunately, I really struggled though with the ease in which the characters date with their parents’ knowledge, hold hands, cuddle.  I really couldn’t imagine a practicing Muslim family being so supportive of a lesbian daughter in the way that the Tahir family is and allowing a sleepover, nor could I see a hafiz attending musical concerts and Bollywood movies or an imam passing on “love” notes, even side comments about a loan between mother and daughter being paid back with interest felt off.  I know I know, there are lots of shades of Muslims, but the normalcy of haram I feel in a review of this book should be noted. It isn’t side mentions, they are central to the story and large portions of the book.  The reason I also feel they are worthy of note, is because the book includes a lot of Islam as well.  The characters pray and fast and eat halal.  They are conscious of chaperones in some settings and keeping things appropriate.  There is no doubt that the characters are Muslim, but I think intentionally, to avoid perhaps critiques such as mine, Islam is not used as a reason to do or not do anything, Islam is not used in the thought process or conscience of the characters, culture is.  There is no haram police setting boundaries, it just isn’t what “good Deshi girls do.” To be fair, I don’t think the author has ever claimed that this is a halal love story, or that the characters are exploring their Muslim identities, it is a love story that features Muslims is all.

FLAGS:

Straight and sapphic relationships, secret relationships, kissing, hand holding, hugging, lying, music, loss, bullying, interest.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would not be able to use this book, it would be very damaging to be given to a Muslim child from a Muslim teacher in an Islamic school.  It normalizes a lot of haram in a familiar Islamic framing that I think would really confuse YA readers who see themselves and see no push back or consequences for actions they know to be against Islamic ideology.

We are All We Have by Marina Budhos

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We are All We Have by Marina Budhos

all we have

In many ways this book reads like a reboot of the author’s 2007 book Ask Me No Questions, there are sprinkled in references to Islamic culture, but nothing about the characters or the author truly show the book to be a Muslim story, or Islam centered.   Much like Ask Me No Questions, the book is told through a female protagonist who is forced to figure out why a parent is detained, what to do now that they are on their own with a sibling, and figuring out why they are being forced to leave America if they are not undocumented, but asylum seekers.  And much like that book, the protagonist is really whiney, entitled, and annoying, as is the mother.  This 256 page middle school/young YA read draws drama from the 2019 Muslim ban and ICE raids, but is more a character based plot than a political focused telling.  Because of the similarities to the earlier published book, and the lack of Islam in the text, and being unclear regarding the faith of the author, I’m just going to write a quick review and move on. The book is a quick read it has flashbacks to Pakistan and in those scenes mentions mosques, Eid, and Ramadan in passing. A few cultural side characters mutter an inshaAllah on occasion and there is a clear #muslimintheillustrations like side character that is remarked to wear a scarf on her head named Amirah, but is barely in the story.  Worth being aware of for younger readers is romance, kissing, making out, between Rania and Carlos, and *SPOILER* that the mother left her husband for another man years earlier.

SYNOPSIS:

Rania is weeks away from high school graduation when an ICE raid casts a wide net and picks up her mother as collateral.  Rania has always known they check in regularly to appeal their status, but with her journalist father killed years earlier in Pakistan, the family fled to America for safety, Kamal was even born in America, it has never been a concern.  As her mother gets taken away, Rania starts to wonder about the secrets her mother has always kept and the truth starts to unravel.  In the process though, protective services takes her and her brother to a shelter where they meet Carlos and escape.  Once on the run, they attend Rania’s graduation, spend months on Cape Cod, gain protection from a congregation at a synagogue all while trying to piece together Rania’s truth.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it touches on the Muslim Ban and the fear that gripped the nation for anyone in the process of being a citizen or trying to travel to the flagged countries.  I wish it would have actually spent a bit more time on that.  The title of the book makes it sound like the family is completely alone and isolated, yet, they are constantly surrounded by people that are looking out for them and sympathetic in their choice not to ask too many questions.  I struggled with liking Rania, when you write a book about people that may or may not have broken a law, regardless of if you agree with the law or not, you really have to make it compelling. You have to get behind the character and their motives, and I never did.  I did not understand why she for example finally finds her uncle or an aunt and doesn’t demand answers, it is like, I’m tired, I’ll nap and we will talk later, no, not believable.  Additionally, I could not get a feel for the younger brother, I get that he is sheltered, but he reads like he is four years old, not that he is in second grade at best, I think he might be in fourth.  Really all over the place.  And the Rania and Carlos relationship, should have stayed awkward.  They at times are like siblings, and when the line is crossed, Carlos even remarks on it, and I think having it be weird, but clear that they have a bond, would have been a much stronger choice.  A lot of the plot holes make the story drag such as what was the problems at the bank for the uncle, but because it is short, I think older readers will get through it. I don’t think I’d suggest anyone read the book, but it isn’t so awful that I would warn too harshly against it.   The characters don’t identify or act Muslim, so when they kiss or lie, it isn’t a reflection on the religion.

FLAGS:

Kissing, lying, running away, making-out. Muslim friend sneaking out, drinking, partying, stereotypical oppressive Muslim dad and meek mom.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would throw the book out, but I wouldn’t actively seek to acquire it to shelve either.

The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

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The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

bird

I didn’t know what to expect as I opened this 416 page book: it was recommended to me, my library had it, and I wanted a break from reading on a screen, so I dived in.  The map, the character list, and the setting of 13th century Mongol empire had me bracing for a complex read. I gave myself a goal of a few chapters to see if I could connect, but by page 20 I was completely absorbed and not to be disturbed.  The character driven plot is written in a rather contemporary manner, although the setting is historical fiction (with a lot of noted liberties) it reads really quickly and easily.  It is definitely 16 and up, romantic YA and has triggers of suicide, murder, drowning, death, war, abuse, misogyny.  While reading it, there often felt like there were holes in the plot as the story builds on itself in quiet layers- the story is fairly linear just broken up and rearranged in time, but the informatio

n shared is gently teased out, and nearly every hole filled by the final page.  I think if someone told me about the book in detail, I would not have read it.  There are many things that I feel like I shouldn’t like about it, but truth be told, I enjoyed the story.  The tokenish Islam found a way to convince me it was done intentionally, the (few) main characters present held my intention at all times, the backmatter detailing the research and liberties just all combined masterfully, that I feel compelled to share the story on my platforms even though the Islamic rep is only slightly more that the YA equivalent of a #muslimsintheillustrations tag.

I tried really hard not to include spoilers, so forgive some of the vague sentiments.

SYNOPSIS:

The story without any spoilers is quite simple- a slave girl, Jinghua, is mourning her dead brother and comes across Prince Khalaf, son of Timur, the ruler of the Kipchak Khanate, while working in the family’s service.  Shocked by his kindness, and persona, she falls hopelessly in love with him and when his family is exiled she decides to stay with the prince and the khan rather than flee.  They journey together and their feelings grow.  To save his family’s rule, however, Prince Khalaf decides to attempt to wed the daughter of the the Great Khan.  Princess Turandokht is exceptionally beautiful, wise, and powerful.  She refuses to wed and has set up a test for any prince wishing to try and marry her.  She has three riddles, each one to be answered in seven minutes, anyone who answers wrong is immediately put to death.  Numerous suitors have been killed.  When Khalaf sneaks off in the night to test his wits, the story of how how intertwined Jinghua and Khalaf’s stories are comes to light before the final riddle is answered.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It is not OWN voice, it is researched and based on a tale from The Thousand and One Days, but having very little to no knowledge of Mongol history (I’ve read the book Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World years ago, but that is about it), and have never seen or read the opera, poetry, or stories that this tale has presented as, I have nothing to compare it to. The book does not need knowledge of the story or time frame to make sense, but the backmatter is well done and makes the process of the story more fulfilling.

For the majority of the book, Islam and the khan and prince being Muslim is just a label occasionally remarked upon when the khan praises the Eternal Blue Sky, instead of Allah swt, and that is about all.  In fact Allah swt I don’t think is ever mentioned in the book.  Based on the information in the back about Mongol’s and a few dialogues in the book it seems that many practices were a hodgepodge of many faiths and traditions, especially by leaders to unite their subjects.  A few ayats from the Quran are mentioned as are some hadiths loosely, which are sourced at the end.  Khalaf gets drunk, and acknowledges that it is haram, and sleeps next to Jinghua for warmth which he also notes is haram.  It mentions a few times that he prays.  There is a weird emphasis on his turban, but it could be culturally Muslim (?), so I let it slide.

The first person voice really sets a good pace for the story, and all of its twists and turns, but does make the love, crush, infatuation theme seem very naïve in the beginning, with more telling than showing.  I think it is accurate for Jinghua, but does require the reader to just accept it and keep reading.  It seems at times she is also rather helpless and so desperate to be seen that the stereotype is a bit cringe, particularly at the end.  I get that appearance and women’s worth is tied to the time and setting, but it still doesn’t completely absolve how triggering the main character’s portrayal can be.

Jinghua’s religious beliefs of the Song Dynasty made me understand the offerings made to her ancestors and the ghost of her slain brother to be religious in context, not literary fantasy.  Many places have labeled this a fantasy romance book, but I don’t know that the world building was fantasy as much as it was historical reimagining.  Either way, there are ancestral ghosts that the main character dreams about and often sees, the epilogue pushes this element, but in my mind still adheres to the same point of ghosts and ancestors being a religious thread.

A found the fear of water story detail a little forced as she was not scared of water when washing out the bloody clothing in the river alone, but then was terrified to stand near a river.  Perhaps a minor detail, but one that I noticed none the less.

My favorite character is the the cantankerous old goat, I’m not going to say much about him other than if at first you hate him, stick around, he might win you over.

FLAGS:

There are multiple suicides and it is glorified, seen as a mercy, and shown as an act of desperation.  There is cruelty and classism along with misogyny and reducing a woman to her appearance.  There is talk of penises and them being seen when urinating, as well as one scene of an erection being felt.  There is killing, war, battle. murder, death, that is fairly detailed.  There is language and crudeness.  There is talk of rape, and affairs, and fornicating.  There are a few kisses, one while a character is drunk, one forced upon a nonconsenting woman. Jinghua disguises herself as a boy. There are theological concepts present and ghosts.  Alcohol and wine are consumed. Nothing is over the top or overly stressed to the point of being obnoxious, but it is present and older YA readers can probably handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to discuss with readers, but not my students, I don’t think it would work for an Islamic school book club selection.  The “Muslim” character gets drunk, kisses two different women, has an alter to honor the dead, places offerings of wine.

Love from Mecca to Medina by S.K. Ali

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Love from Mecca to Medina by S.K. Ali

mecca to medina

This book is a game changer, or better yet: an industry changer.  It is about Muslims, for Muslims, by a Muslim- but it is MAINSTREAM and a huge panoramic window for anyone and everyone to see a “halal” fictional Muslim love story in action.  With every page proudly mirroring various Muslim experiences this sequel-ish standalone-ish book is unapologetically real, without compromising good storytelling, interesting characters, and engaging plot points.  In much the same way Reem Faruqi’s Golden Girl raised the bar for upper MG/lower YA, this book shows that upper YA Muslamic stories can be told.  That the publishing world isn’t always limiting OWN voices, and that it is up to us, the consumers, to purchase these particular books, pre-order them when announced and spread the word so that the message is loud and clear that we want more books like this.  I have no doubt S.K. Ali had to fight for her vision and advocate for her book at every turn, but now that it is here, we need to step up and show support with our purchasing power.  I’ve pre-ordered mine, and I hope you will do the same before the book releases on October 18, 2022, if you cannot, please purchase it when you can, and if that is not an option please request your libraries to shelve the book (and all of her books) and put them on hold so that the gate further opens for mainstream Islamic fiction.

Preorder link on Amazon

SYNOPSIS:

Adam and Zayneb are back after falling in love in Love from A to Z and getting their nikkah done.  They aren’t living together yet, though, and they are worlds apart with Adam jobless in Doha, and Zayneb homeless in Chicago.  When communication breaks down, exes show up, and a trip to Umrah is underway with the couple divided into gender segregated groups, the couple might fall apart in the same fashion that brought them together in the first place.  The steps of Umrah are beautifully highlighted and experienced, and characters from Misfits and A-Z come back to tie it all together and help the couple, keeping hope alive.  Throw in some marvels and oddities, artifacts and interpretive labels, a unifying cat, and a whole lot of love, and you have a sweet conclusion to a Muslamic love story.

WHY I LIKE IT:

So, I obviously love the standard of unapologetic Islam that this book offers on every page while still being accessible to the larger audience.  It took a little bit for me to be sucked in to the 352 page story, but by page 100 or so, I couldn’t put it down.  The steps of Umrah brought tears to my eyes and the awesome Sausun is fierce feminist friendship goals.  I honestly didn’t love the cat narrative that frames the story, but luckily it is sparse so I could see past it. I love that this book exists, I think I love the Misfit based duology a tiny bit more, but loved that this book had crossover characters and gave many of them a final bow of sorts as well. I read the book in two days and will probably re-read it when I receive my physical copy.  It really is remarkable how much Islam is present in a fictionalized story: not a oppressed Muslim story, or biographical memoir, or refugee story, but in a solid fiction story.   There is no “othering,” this is us, and this a love story about a Muslim couple trying to make it work with outside support and stresses, and beautiful writing.  Alhumdulillah, very well done.

FLAGS:

I’d encourage mature, older YA because the characters are married and sexually active and while it isn’t graphic or depicted it is often just the words mentioning them kissing, and sleeping together and sexting.  Nothing titillating or anywhere near inappropriate, but I think a bit of maturity would help it better reflect the values of Islamic marriages and relationships.  There is some minor language and hate speech.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely use the book for high school book club if it is mostly juniors and seniors.  I think it gives a good look at what a relationship can look like; the characters’ religious lens and lives will resonate with Islamic school students.

Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food and Love edited by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond

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Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food and Love edited by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond

hungry hearts

Occasionally I get asked about short story and/or essay from a collection that a college or high school student is hoping to share with a class that doesn’t take long to read, but shows Islamic representation.  And I never have a suggestion.  The middle grade collection Once Upon an Eid is amazing, but for younger readers.  When I learned about this collection that features two known Muslim authors, Karuna Riazi (The Gauntlet series) and S.K. Ali (Saints and Misfits, Love from A to Z), and involves food, I thought to take a look and see if I might finally have a suggestion.  Sadly, no.  None of the 13 stories wowed me, or really impressed.  A few I started then skipped, and none were really memorable.  The premise is unique: all the stories take place in the same neighborhood, feature food, and crossover characters, but some are love stories, others redemption, some have super heroes, others murder and gang violence, some really keep the food central, and others just mention it as being present.  There is familial love, romantic straight, lesbian, and trans love, there is friendship and food from many cultures served up to varying effects.  I admittedly read few short story collections, but even with that taken in to consideration, I think skipping this 353 page YA/Teen book is probably the best option.

SYNOPSIS:

I’ll only summarize the two Muslim authored stories.  A few of the others are culturally Indian, but they eat pork, so I’m assuming they are not Muslim, and the Persian one by Sara Farizan features alcohol and a lesbian romance, so since in a past book of hers I noted that I didn’t know if she or her characters identify as Muslim, I will skip reviewing hers as well.

Hearts a’ la Carte by Karuna Riazi:   Munira works at her families food cart, King of Kuisine and serves up Egyptian food to the people on Hungry Heart Row.  When a guy falls from the sky, she finds her self also falling hard for Hasan, as he regularly starts coming to eat and visit, but when it is revealed that he is a super hero (the Comet) and the reason her families cart is destroyed, Munira is not willing to pursue things further.

A Bountiful Film by S.K. Ali: Hania and her family have recently moved to Hungry Heart Row, where her father grew up and grandma Valimma lives.  Irritated that she had to leave her school, her job at Daily Harvest and friends behind, Hania is hoping to lose herself in putting together her film for the upcoming competition and beating her long time rival Gabrielle Rose.  With no clear idea of what her film should be about she starts with interviewing Valimma and her friends, which turns up a bit of an unsolved mystery involving a missing boy that keeps showing up on the security footage from local businesses.  Hania decides to pursue it, but finds herself being watched, and filmed in the process.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the stories are interconnected, I don’t know that it works, but I like the idea of it.  As for the two Muslim authored stories, I like that Islam and culture are included slightly, but that the story is much more than that, and the characters have more pressing issues to figure out.  I wish in both of these two stories, food was more fleshed out.  They seemed to be lacking the magical food premise that many other stories in the collection had.

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FLAGS:

See above paragraph for some collection flags.  Riazi’s story has crushes and a budding romance, but nothing overtly “haram.” Ali’s story is clean.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I wouldn’t probably even shelve the book in our Islamic school library, it doesn’t offer much in my opinion.

A Show for Two by Tashie Bhuiyan

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A Show for Two by Tashie Bhuiyan

a show for two

I didn’t love the author’s debut novel, but wanted to see what a second novel would offer, and sadly it really is a lot of the same: light funny romcom surface story featuring a Bangladeshi Muslim character lead mixed in with layers of mental health, a toxic family, high school stress, and cultural expectations driving the plot.  There is crude language, hetero, lesbian, bi, and pansexual relationships discussed, but nothing more than kissing is detailed in any of the scenes.  There is a lot of cultural trauma from the parents and to the book’s credit, it does establish pretty early on that the main character is not religious, but that she does believe in Allah swt.  Similarly, there is a Bangladeshi loving family in the story, so it is not making a critique on the entire culture, it is just the character’s family that is cruel.  Ultimately, at 416 pages I was surprised that there were gaps in character arcs and plot.  I never really liked the protagonist, Mina, but because of how underdeveloped and pivotal the best friend and younger sister were, when it all came to a climax, I found myself rooting for her, which is a very shallow reasoning in an OWN voice book. Additionally, the parents are terrible, and had I dnf-ed it (I was tempted until about 30% through it) I doubt I would have ever known that there was a time that they weren’t terrors.  The peeling back of the layers of the family came too late, too slow, and the progression was muddled.  I probably will not actively seek out further books from this author if the same themes and tropes are present, if she changes it up, I probably could be persuaded.  The book is marketed 7th grade and up, but with the triggers, hate, language, content, genre, language, length I would say 17 and up, if at all.

SYNOPSIS:
Samina “Mina” Rahman is waiting to leave New York and her hateful parents, and start her life at USC as a film student.  All she needs to do is win the Golden Ivy Film Competition, and get excepted to USC.  Her parents dismissing her dreams, passions, and abilities agree to only let her leave if she wins the competition, doubting that it would ever happen, they even put it in writing.  Co-president of the high school film club and best friend, Rosie is equally determined to win, there is just one big problem, every year the winning film has a cameo by a famous actor.  Cue accidental meeting of Mina and Emmitt Ramos, up and coming indie movie heart throb that is cast in the new Firebrand blockbuster.  Sent to Mina’s high school to research for his upcoming role, Mina is tasked with convincing him to make an appearance in their film.  It is a romance story, so you can see where it is headed in this enemies to lovers book.

As family, friends, and college admission stresses mount, the simplicity of what Mina wants and how to go about getting it will be called in to question as her walls crumble and she will have to evaluate people in her life and how they will be affected by her actions.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the story is based on real events in the author’s life, not just the religion, culture, mental health threads, but that an actor came to her high school in preparation for a part: Tom Holland.  I also like that while her parents don’t value her, she has found a support group of sorts that do.  At times Mina reads a lot older than she is, particularly when she is admonishing the freshman, but at other times she storms off pouting and seems to be very childish.  I vacillate between this being intentional and it being an inconsistency in the writing. The younger sister Anam is painfully written.  She is bold and confrontational, yet at the same time so clingy and needy and all over the place.  At one point I thought she perhaps was suicidal and was braced for a really dark twist in the story, but no it was just Anam being Anam, I suppose, and the stress was never revisited let alone resolved.

I truly dreaded the passages about Mina’s home life and her family, they all were just awful to each other and rather than taking Mina’s side because I was shown, I found myself questioning what I was missing in the before and after dynamic.  It is clear they are wretched, the victim doesn’t need to justify the abuse. The transformation of the family dynamic just felt lacking and in fiction when parts are explored it could have really showed some of the micro aggressions and changes that existed and made the relationship salvageable so that the reader would understand why saving and fixing the family were no longer options.  Generational trauma is real and serious and a little more attention I think could have provided an amazing mirror to readers dealing with similar elements.

If the book was half the length I would assume that details would be glossed over, but this book had room, and I don’t understand why so few photography and director references seem to find their way into the text to show that these characters truly are passionate about what they are claiming to desire.  I know the story isn’t a film story or a culture story, but they don’t spend hours editing the film or working on props? Emmitt is regularly pulled away from shoots, but always seems to have enough photos to choose from?  Mina talks of her dad cooking, but foods aren’t detailed, the connection of food to love to family and that being severed seemed like a gaping hole in the crumbling home scenes.  If halal food and no pork can make it into a love relationship, that much cultural/religious depth should have made it inside a families home.

As mentioned in the intro, it didn’t bother me from a religious perspective that Mina was off kissing a boy, that Anam had boyfriends, etc. because Islam was accounted for and the characters are not practicing, so I do appreciate that it didn’t become a stereotypical rebelling against religion book.  Truly, thank you.

FLAGS:

Language, relationships (straight, bi, lesbian, pan), kissing, making out, hand holding, lying, mental health, hate, deception, cruelty, emotional abuse, angry ex boyfriend, triggers.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Would not shelve or encourage young readers at our Islamic school to read this.

Lowriders to the Rescue by Cathy Camper illustrated by Raúl Gonzalez III

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Lowriders to the Rescue by Cathy Camper illustrated by Raúl Gonzalez III

lowriders

This is my first Lowriders book, so admittedly there was a lot going on that I really don’t feel confident that I understood, but even with that, it was a sweet story of first love (crush), Arab and Latinx joy, humor, social activism, environmentalism, gentrification, and fun.  I don’t know that the other books in this middle grades series explain the characters or their world any more or less, so I think it can be read as a standalone book, and I think the 140 page detailed illustration filled pages will tempt even the most reluctant readers to give it a try.

SYNOPSIS:

Sokar is an Arab Muslim monarch butterfly, and the fires have taken so many of her family, and cut the survivors off from being able to safely migrate.  She comes to town with a broken wing and in desperate need of help, only to find prejudice against her at every corner, until she meets the Lowriders:  Lupe, Flapjack, and Elirio.  Lupe is an impala, Elirio a mosquito, and Flappy a land octopus with brand new glasses who falls for Sokar at first sight.  Sokar, however, has concerns with the environmental impact the lowrider car has knowing that the fires and pollution are all related.  Add on that the Upscale Business Association gentrifying the neighborhood, and everyone is going to need to work together to save the monarchs, the neighborhood, the environment, and a tender friendship.  As characters find connections between Arab and Latin foods, Arabic and Spanish words, the readers will find similarities from the real world with this crazy one with people, animals, insects, and flying cars.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The author saw my review of Arab Arab All Year Long! and let me know that this book also had Islamic representation, and that I should check it out.  I love that there are Islamic phrases (inshaAllah, salam), a possible hijab on Sokar, connections to Moors of Spain, and Arab culture.  Part of me doesn’t love the love interest, crush thread, but it is between a land octopus and a butterfly and there is only a kiss on the cheek, so, I’m not sure it is that big of a deal.  I love that environmental concerns, discrimination and activism are the heart of the story, yet somehow it doesn’t read preachy.

The similarities of words, foods, and my favorite throwing of a chancla/throwing of a shabashib are all amazing for readers of all backgrounds to see and be made aware of.  I love the teamwork, altruism, and compassion that so many of the characters show, while not sacrificing the humor and quirkiness of it all.

I was a bit concerned with the posters going up everywhere, that seems like a lot of waste and excess, in every other instance they were so mindful: making the car solar powered, reducing plastic in the ocean, etc..

FLAGS:

Racism, discrimination, crush, kiss on the cheek, death, loss, destruction.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think this would work for a full on book club selection, but I think it would be a popular book to give to a kid to read and then chat about it with them when they finish.  The book has a lot to discuss and maybe in small groups it would be a good selection.  I’m hoping to get it in the library when it releases and I’ll come back and report on how it works with reluctant readers, avid readers, and in getting the kids reading, thinking, and laughing.  You can pre-order yours to show support for the author by clicking HERE.

All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir

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All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir

rage

The hype is correct: this book is moving, impactful, powerful, reflective, all the feels.  The writing superb, the plot gritty, the characters seem real, so real.  One of my all time favorite authors is John Irving because every word seems deliberate in his books, not every plot point or every paragraph, every. single. word.  And it has been a long time since I’ve read a book that strikes me in that same vein of the author being so in control of the story, and my (the reader’s) emotions being so completely at the mercy of the words to come.  I think I could read this book five more times and each time peel back a new layer and see something I hadn’t seen, or understood, or felt before.  I cried, I cheered, I sighed and unclenched my jaw, and I am still haunted by the lives of the characters.  Not just the “main” ones.  All of them, they all are real and fleshed out and have character arcs and live in shades of gray.  There are no checkboxes for skin tone or religion or sexual preference they each are more than a label, they are complex and real.  I could easily be convinced that they are in fact real people and that their world and stories are not fiction at all.  That is how well it reads, that is how hard it is to close the window on the world they let us see.  The book is YA (374 pages) and with the drugs, abuse, alcohol, relationship, complexities of it all, I would think 16 year old’s and up can, strike that, should, read this book.  The characters are Muslim, but it never even goes near being preachy, these are complex characters and stories, and remarkably there is no internalized Islamophobia or watering anything down, each character deals with faith, like everything else, in their own way.

SYNOPSIS:

The story bounces between the past in Lahore, Pakistan and the present in Juniper, California.  In Lahore it is Misbah’s story and in the desert it is her son’s, Salahudin and a girl she has taken under her wing, Noor’s.  When the book starts we see Sal with a drunk father dropping him off at school where his girlfriend is waiting, and his best friend, Noor, not speaking to him for the last few months after she confessed to bein in love with him.  Noor lives with her uncle after her entire village in Pakistan was destroyed when she was 6, and he wants nothing to do with Pakistan, Islam, or Noor going to college.  He owns a liquor store and makes Noor work there.  Sal’s mom is sick and has always been there for Noor, so when she takes a turn for the worse, Noor and Sal are brought back together, Noor’s uncle is enraged that she is missing shifts, and Sal’s father is constantly searching for the bottom of a bottle.  Things are bad, but they are about to get a whole lot worse.  Sal’s mom dies, the motel Sal’s family owns is in severe debt and the options for saving it are less than ideal.  The small town starts to feel familiar as everyone’s stories are fleshed out in Juniper and Lahore and two star-crossed narrators are forced to confront both the stresses of high school and impending adulthood, and deep, dark realities of abuse, loss, and generational trauma.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book could have been a thousand pages, and it still would have felt too short.  Much like her fantasy writing, the book seems to start with world building and roping the reader in to thinking that they can handle what is about to come, then much like a band-aid being pulled off, the pain hits, and the wound starts bleeding again.  Somehow despite it all, you can’t look away, you can’t stop reading, there is hope.  Hope for the characters, hope for happy endings, hope for survival and peace.

I absolutely love the quality of writing, things dangled early on, come back, often with subtly and restraint that you could easily miss them.  When discussing the book with @muslimmommyblog, I felt like we both were finding threads we had possibly not considered and connections that added nuance and staying power to the plot.

So often, the more religious a character in literature is, the stricter they are presented, the less kind they are seen, but in this book it was the opposite, the loving couple were the imam and his defense attorney wife, the glue that radiated kindness to Sal, Noor, and so much of the town is a hijab wearing strong woman.  So many tropes and stereotypes were uprooted, tossed aside, and reimagined.  There is compassion for a Muslim alcoholic, a liquor store being the employment of a Muslim, consequences for dealing drugs, yet nothing “haram” is really ever glorified, it is gritty and repulsive, but there is no judgement, there is only understanding and sadness.  Palpable despair that rattles your bones and makes you wish the world was different.

I don’t want to spoil the book, I was able to read it largely not knowing what the plot would delve in to. In many ways the trigger warning at the beginning was the only thing that braced me for what was to come. The level of religion and how it was woven is through the gentleness of some of the characters and hatred of others, was expertly done.  There are not ayats in the Quran quoted or speeches given, there is love, and faith and hope that manifest as duas and longing and finding ways to be Muslim in action, not just in appearance. When the characters start to make-out their Islamic conscious is drawn in, when they grapple with their hope and future- trust in something bigger is considered. It is not a Muslim book, not even an Islam centered book, perhaps Muslamic, but really about characters who are Muslim and dealing with the cards they have been dealt.

FLAGS:

Alcohol use, drug use, relationships, kissing, touching, longing, language, physical assault, physical violence, domestic violence, hate, racism, stereotyping, Islamophobia, there are mentions of a lesbian relationship and a bi relationship, a child out of wedlock, death, addiction, sexual assault, repressed trauma, bullying, teasing, lying, music,

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I have a 15 year old daughter, and I probably will have her read the book this summer, I think there is a lot to discuss and I think in the right hands the book could be used for a high school book club.

Available to purchase here on Amazon or here from Crescent Moon Store

The Lady or the Lion by Aamina Qureshi

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The Lady or the Lion by Aamina Qureshi

lion

I was kind of surprised how well done this YA culture rich 350 page romance story was in holding my attention.  I don’t know that I had any expectations, but I was genuinely engaged in the growth of the protagonist as she began to emerge from her naive political state, and I look forward to some resolution from the cliffhanger conclusion of this the first book in the Marghazar Trials series.  The characters are practicing Muslims who pray and mention Allah swt regularly, they also acknowledge when they make extreme departures from basic Islamic tenants such as drinking, dancing, murdering, exhibiting racist attitudes, and mixing freely with the opposite gender.  It doesn’t stop any of the characters from behaving as they wish, but at least it is noted. The Urdu words and Pakistani setting in this fictional reimagining is filled with warmth and love, and while there are some steamy scenes and outright cruelties, I think 15 year olds and up can handle the contents, and recognize the suspension of reality and moral laxities for the sake of telling a story.

SYNOPSIS:

The book makes clear from the onset that “In the very olden time, there lived a semi-barbaric king. . . This is not his story.” This is the story of 18 year old Durkhanai, an orphaned princess raised by her grandparents, the King and Queen of Marghazar.  Marghazar is a prosperous country that is waging war on two fronts and does not let outsiders in, ever.  When the book begins it is doing so begrudgingly to avoid war with the neighboring districts that are working to unify and have recently been attacked.  With ambassadors arriving to determine the guilt or innocence of the one district unaffected by the terrorist attacks, the foreigners are seeing the inner workings of the kingdom for the first time.  All the ambassadors are females of various ages and experience, save the one from Jardum.  Asfandyar is young, dark, and handsome, and immediately discriminated against by the Badshah for his complexion.  Additionally Shehzadi has been warned by many to stay away from Asfandyar, which naturally makes him a great character for her to be swept away by.  She holds out for a while, but with her people mysteriously getting ill, her betrothed melting in to the background, and cracks in her country making themselves obvious, Durkhanai will find herself struggling to understand her heart, her country, her family, and her future, and with the cliff hanger ending, no simple answers will be given to her, or the reader.

WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that there is a map at the beginning, and lots of supplemental offerings at the end.  There are a lot of Urdu words and phrases and while I am moving away from feeling like all OWN voice books need to include glossaries, I think non Desi readers will be appreciative in this particular book to have one available.  For someone with some knowledge of the language the inclusion of the titles and relations and phrases between the languages is expertly done and delightful. There is also an author Q & A, as well as reader discussion questions.  There is a content warning at the beginning alerting the readers to physical and sexual assault as well as racist behavior and language and makes clear that it is contained to the characters and the story and is not the reflection of the author and publisher.  I like that it is there, and I like that the princess makes a stance against the racism and the sexual assault that she witnesses.

The high school girls at our Islamic School are always wanting “halal” romance books.  Ok so really they just want romance books, but I try and keep their pickings halal, and so I am forever reading these books trying to find new titles to recommend.  The book is very 1990s Bollywood in terms of romance flags.  There is a lot of proximity and caressing of necks and longing, and familiar obligation.  There is some snuggling and kissing, so maybe 2000s Bollywood, but the characters thus far don’t cross “that” line.

I really appreciated that Durkhanai was fleshed out and relatable.  Even though the setting is long ago, and the genre is romance, she didn’t wait to be rescued, even when she was hurting or pining, she was still maintaining her obligations and moving forward.  I also love that it showed some depth to her emotions.  She recognized that Asfandyar would let her speak and would show his support by being there, but he pushed back on her and challenged her too.  Rashid on the other hand would speak for Durkhanai and would fawn over her in a very superficial way almost.  Sure neither relationship was ideal, but from her perspective at least she was able to see how various presentations made her feel.

I was a little lost in some places, but I was reading quick and had distractions so I’m not entirely sure if it is my carelessness or plot holes or if gaps will be filled in future books.  I needed more reasoning though, for why Durkhanai’s cousins, Zarmina and Saifullah, truly hated Asfandyar as much as they did, or what exactly Saifullah was plotting and how it connected to ratting out the princess.  For all that is seemingly going on, the Badshah and Wali always seem available to chat and are often just lounging around.  I know it is not their story, but the negotiations, the plotting, everything seems to be done very slowly and could really use some fleshing out to show some depth to the side characters.  Other than a few voices, the side details are lacking.

FLAGS:
Lying, killing, racism, sexual assault, physical assault, plotting, murder, kissing, manipulation, touching, caressing, sneaking around, theft, cruelty, cursing, romance.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is not an Islamic story or even a moral one, it is entertainment and it could possibly be used for a book club if the participants relish in these kind of books, but it probably wouldn’t have wide enough appeal and would alienate nearly all the boys from joining.