Category Archives: YA FICTION

Sway with Me by Syed M. Masood

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Sway with Me by Syed M. Masood

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This author won me over with More Than Just a Pretty Face, and his ability to celebrate and show flaws within our desi cultures while simultaneously presenting relatable Islamic experiences in a romantic comedy.   I have been yet to determine if this YA/Teen 328 page book follows in those footsteps, or cuts a little too critically and close on the Islamic presentation.  Undoubtedly the story is hard to put down, culture and Islam are present, but I don’t know what the lingering taste of Islam would be for a non-Muslim reading the book.  Would they see the faith separate from those that practice or actively don’t practice, would Muslim readers?  Literature is quickly showing how Muslims are not a monolith, but I worry that that nuance might be lost in this particular book, and the takeaway would be far more stereotype affirming, than critically thought provoking.  The packaging of the story is memorable characters and quality writing, even if the plot and purpose is a little shaky at times.  I admit for as much as I crave discussions on representation and twists and defined characters, this book has me at a bit of a loss on how to feel about the book overall.  I think it is possibly the first time I just haven’t seen myself and my experiences mirrored at all in a book with this much Islamic content. As a reviewer it makes me feel useless, but as an American born Muslim, I kind of love the uneasiness and challenge that my head is trying to wrap itself around.  The references, the language, lust, plentiful innuendos and physical abuse make the book a solid high school and up read.

SYNOPSIS:
Arsalan lives with his 100 year old Nana in Sacremento.  His mother has passed away, and his father is out of the picture in Arizona as he attempts sobriety.  Homeschooled and isolated from other kids, technology, and the world around him, he suddenly finds himself in a public high school trying to make his way.  Afraid that when his Nana passes he is going to be all alone in the world, he reaches out to the stepdaughter, Beenish, of the community match maker to see if she can help him with an arranged marriage.  She agrees on one condition, he dances with her at an upcoming competition.  He agrees, but first a makeover is required and before you know it a romance is blooming.  Awkward and formal and ever the gentleman, Arsalan uncovers that there is no competition, the dancing is required to break up Beenish’s sister’s wedding.  The girls’ biological mother was a dancer and the shame it brought on them all as it destroyed her career, her marriage, and the family has made her daughters the black sheep of the family and community.  The stepmom wants to get them out of the house as soon as possible and thus dancing of any kind is forbidden at Qirat’s upcoming nuptials.  Beenish despises the groom and hopes her dancing will not only remind the family that the mom has been banned from attending the wedding, but also hopefully prevent the wedding from taking place.  As the story moves forward with learning to dance, relationships must be reconciled, friendships developed, and growing pains felt, with some sass from Nana at every turn, more than one character will have to learn to make hard decisions and accept the outcomes that result.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Right from the start Arsalan makes it known that he is not a practicing Muslim, that he is “nominally one.”  His Nana has raised him to be a skeptic, his abusive father would beat him when feeling religious and guilty for his alcohol consumption, and his deceased mother was more spiritual than disciplined.  So, for the next few chapters, whenever Islam was mentioned I would snap a picture.  Twenty pages later and dozens of pictures of text made me stop and realize that this coming of age book is not a story about Islam, but rather the characters are dealing with their own identities and Islam just happens to be present, for all of them.  Arsalan remarks how our roots shape us as he quotes hadith, ok paraphrases them, and discusses sahaba, eventually having to accept that knowledge and wisdom and truth must be recognized, even when it comes from a source that he doesn’t favor.  Similarly, the most presenting tough guy, music and sports and appearance obsessed character is always hanging around the mosque, at the MSA, and encouraging Arsalan to come and pray.  The love interest calls out Muslims for their fake religiosity saying that her stepmom wears it as a fancy dress, she owns it, but takes it off when she wants.  Her father came to Islam late, and is relatively strict and conservative as a result, she is Muslim, but more culturally as she doesn’t seem to have sorted it out herself.  The characters dance, which involves touching and immodest clothing, at the end they do kiss.  There is language which is noted as being course and vulgar, and there really is no “model Muslim” or any characters that want to be.  So, similarly there are no haram police commenting when the characters, as individuals seemingly step out of line.  The sister character is quote unquote religious, but I don’t know if she covers, she doesn’t seem to be representative of anyone other than herself and she has her own cultural family issues, so her Islam is just stated, but not explored.  Some only eat halal, that gets included but not really opined on.   It really is the first time I feel like I’ve read so many Muslim characters in one place that represent only themselves, which is very much real life, but also a shift in Muslim rep in literature.

The story has some foundational issues which made me laugh when reading the author’s note that says he, “writes in the dark.”  Meaning he doesn’t know where he is going until he gets there.  I think it might show in this book more than he realizes. Aiza Aunty is shamed as scandalous because of her dancing in Lollywood (Pakistan’s version of Bollywood, which is India’s version of Hollywood) films.  She apparently got her sari a bit too wet in a waterfall scene, and it was too much shame to rebound from.  So why did that ruin her life? I mean any production has rehearsals, and blocking, and post editing, and retakes, why does one scene seem to fall squarely on her shoulders, every single decision maker along the way passed it through.  I’m not buying it.  I also don’t buy the whole wedding is hanging on a single thread of dancing, it tries really hard to make it make sense, and by the end the reader really is just prepared to go along with it, but holding auditions, not planning to tell Qirat, really is expecting the reader to suspend reality just a tad more than the genre should be asking one to do.

The book is smart and it expects the reader to be smart.  The references the character’s personas and need to be seen and loved is not always spelled out, it has to be pieced together and I love it.  The Thanksgiving scene, the misfit members of each family coming together and bonding with Nana and Arasalan is sweet, but actually really sad, and I love that it doesn’t say it, it shows it.

Of all the characters I love Diamond the most, I just wish we knew more about what motivates him.  He reads too nice and too puppy doggish and I wish we got just a bit more to see why he is the way he is.  Truly all the characters are memorable, and I’m pretty sure they will stay with me for a while.

FLAGS:

There is kissing, romance, crude language, lots of sexual innuendos, physical violence, physical abuse, child abuse, death, shaming, manipulation, alcohol addiction, religious zealousness, dancing, intimate dancing, body objectification, music, singing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I could never teach this book, but please, please, please, read it and help me to understand how I feel about it.

Salaam, with Love by Sara Sharaf Beg

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Salaam, with Love by Sara Sharaf Beg

salaam

This 288 page YA contemporary Islamic romcom is very Islamic centered, and the storyline provides some nice twists along the way.  Unfortunately the writing is terrible.  Not the storytelling or even grammar per say, but the contradictions, errors, underdeveloped characters, and the inconsistencies. Yes I read an uncorrected proof, but this book is a mainstream major publisher presented book coming out in a few weeks, and it is in desperate need of some attention.  I really don’t think it is the author’s fault, it reads as if this was a manuscript that got shopped around and picked up and then never refined, polished, and made to sparkle.  The only saving grace is that as terrible as it is literary wise, once the main character starts to get over her “internalized islamophobia” (thank you @bintyounus for bringing this concept to my attention), the book as a whole presents a lot of unapologetic specific Islamic content on every single page: how Eid salat is different than normal salat,  the beauty of tajweed, the meanings of so many duas and surahs said regularly, the list goes on and on and doesn’t just cover the basics.  The flip side is that the characters are in a band that performs Islamic songs, but with instruments and everyone is fine with it, there are artists in the book drawing faces and portraits hang on walls, it is a romance, but it at most an arm or hand is touched and when tropes about Desi college choices are pushed back on the parents break the stereotype and relent.  There are threads of cultural-ism within Islam, Islamophobia and a violent near death experience, but the book is very clean and  honestly has a lot of potential, I have no idea why it is so sloppy.  SO SLOPPY, and I took notes, so buckle up.

SYNOPSIS:

Seventeen year old Dua is an only child and her doctor father and caterer mom are the only Pakistani and only Muslims in their small Virginia town.  They decide for Ramadan that they are all going to go and stay with family in Queens, New York for the whole month.  They have given Dua less than 48 hours notice to plan to spend the end of her summer with cousins she hasn’t seen in five years.  The parents hope that Dua will benefit from being around family, being closer to other Muslims in the month, and enjoy the cultural environment.  Dua is not excited, but when bear hugs and genuine smiles meet her at the door, she is sucked in to a bustling house and the happiness and drama that is bound to unfold.  Sharing a room with her older, law school bound cousin Mahnoor is by far the hardest relationship to cultivate.  Newly engaged, Mahnoor is quiet, reserved and deeply unhappy.  Dua makes little progress, but with Ramadan starting and her cousins setting goals for the month, Dua is determined to do better in all aspects of her life.  As she gets close to Mahnoor’s best friend, Haya, she also gets closer to Haya’s brother Hassan.   It is Ramadan though, and she isn’t good around boys, but Hassan is a hafiz and is helping her reach her memorization goals for the month, Hassan is also in a band and needs Dua’s help.  When Mahnoor’s engagement is called off to Haya and Hassan’s brother, everything comes to a standstill between the families, but when a cousin is shot, the families come back together to support one another and deal with their decisions and their outcomes.  By the end of Ramadan, every character has changed and grown and is sad the month is over and that Dua and her family are leaving.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Suffice it to say I love how Islam centered it is. I honestly checked the publishing information because of how much Islamic content is included, also for the amount of errors.  The book did not start off well for me with Dua trying to separate herself from her “religious” cousins.  The ones who practice communally and wear hijab.  She was not like “them” and the dichotomy of measuring religiosity as acceptable or not, too much or too little, enrages me.  It sets up that she practices Islam but in a relaxed manner and has been taught by her parents, and it is who she is, but it isn’t a huge part of her life.  As the story progresses, it seems that she just doesn’t know a ton of surahs, she actually is pretty religious, and devout, it is very awkward and not presented clearly, which is why I attributed it more to her being in denial or embarrassed by her identity, not about her level of belief.  Dua is also not like-able, she is incredible privileged and arrogant commenting on the size of houses and rooms, and her shoes.  About half way through she starts to comes across as clumsy, not sure then why is she always wearing heels.  Ultimately she is just not well-developed and often reads like an annoying helpless child.  The framing of Dua being a musician and not being so religious is quickly questioned as she gifts her cousins music paraphernalia, and looks at portraits on their walls.  If most are like me, and both families are praying, fasting, reading Quran, active musicians and artists and ok with hanging pictures, one would assume they are pretty in-syc with one another on their religious views and in practice.

Dua is not the only character that is poorly voiced, fractured, and inconsistent.  Her parents are so unrealistic and awkward in the beginning I physically cringed reading them telling her their reasons for going to New York.  In the car on the way, they even quiz Dua on her cousins names.  She hasn’t seen them in five years, she isn’t a toddler, she should know their names, she has clearly purchased incredibly personalized gifts for them, and is filled with detailed memories of when they all met up in Pakistan together, the whole scene is pointless. One of the cousins, Ibrahim, is blind and Dua says that a few years ago her parents had to explain to her what it meant to be blind.  Seriously?  I get the learning how to let him take the lead and how to interact, but you as a teenager didn’t know what it means to be blind? When you met him in Pakistan you didn’t know he was blind? The four year old cousin is cute and adorable, and has the vocabulary and mannerisms of a seven or eight year old at times, most times.  The 12 year old cousin has the wisdom of an old uncle and why do none of the adults in the book seem to work?  The book probably should have started at chapter five, it seems the book hits a bit of a stride that at least makes it readable.  

A huge plot of the book is the band, Sheikh, Rattle, and Roll, but the details about it are terrible.  Mahnoor is walking out the door and her mom tells her to take Dua.  The reader doesn’t know where they are going, but Mahnoor reluctantly agrees and they head out on the subway.  Mahnoor constantly is telling Dua to hurry so they aren’t late and miss it, when they arrive, the band performs one song and that is when Hassan and Dua and Haya all meet.  But the other two band members are her cousins, she is staying in their house.  What? Rabia is constantly talking, that is her character quirk, how does Dua not know that they are performing? Not know they are in a band?  No way would it not be mentioned.  And why only one song? That is so random.  At the end when they perform again on Eid, it is a concert, it is again only one song.  A concert is not one song.  Do they not practice or load up equipment, how is all this going on in one house and Dua is so clueless? 

The inconsistencies are aplenty.  A few examples: it says her cousin doesn’t wear make-up, a few chapters later has a whole face of make-up, on Eid she even does Dua’s make-up.  When they all are sitting down to write their lists of plans for Ramadan it says they don’t have to share their lists.  Yet a few lines later Dua is singled out in a very creepy way to share hers.  In a single paragraph it says that at home she prays fajr half asleep, or late and in a rush before school, but concludes the description by complaining that praying in congregation is more difficult for her to focus in.  Huh? praying while half asleep or in a rush gives you more focus than praying in jammah?  Even non Muslims are going to be scratching their heads.  At one point as Dua is trying to figure out what she wants to study and if she wants to start an MSA in her high school, since she is the only Muslim, she internally discusses how she wants to prove herself to her parents.  Then when she decides what she wants to do for her, she remarks that she isn’t just doing it to prove to her parents, but because she wants it for her.  The only problem is, no where have we seen or has it been established that her parents are requiring this proof.  

There are odd errors as well.  The athan on a phone goes off, the Uncle reaches in to his pocket for his phone and turns off his iPad.  That is a big pocket indeed.  Dua gifts Hassan a CD, really a CD? What is this 1999? Who gifts CDs in 2021? Dua starts playing a keyboard in someone elses house and no one mentions it other than the two people with her, how big is the house that you can’t hear it? The Uncle gets upset that Dua doesn’t pray Asr right at time, but a lot of people prefer Asr specifically to be prayed later within the time frame.  In a two chapter frame it mentions letting out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding three times, word for word the same.

I was genuinely surprised that music being questionable was not brought up at all, two of the bandmates are huffaz.  The author lets her own qualifiers slip in, perhaps her own desire to not take a stand that could seem alienating.  She says, “allegedly” the time right before iftar is the best time to make dua.  As Dua tries to figure out what is going on with Hassan she often remarks how it is hard or confusing “especially because he is Muslim.” Would a relationship with a non Muslim be ok, less hard, more hard? There is no lowering of any gazes, which for as religious as everyone in the book is, should have at least been mentioned even if not adhered to.  The book puts on odd stress on tasbeehs and kufis, not sure why.  

I do like the genuine love the characters have for Islam, Allah, Ramadan, salat.  It is so much a part of every thing they do, and it is lovely.  I also love Dua’s friend in Virginia, Kat, she is fasting in solidarity and wants to join the MSA even though she isn’t Muslim, but a seemingly amazing friend.

FLAGS:

The on-gain-off-again engaged couple do touch hands at Eid prayer.  Hassan touches Duas arm when she is perceived as helpless.  There are anti Islam protests and an angry man shoots Adam.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If the sloppiness gets resolved, the book could be used as a high school book club choice.  Those girls love them some halal romance, and this book is incredibly religious and clean. 

House of Glass Hearts by Leila Siddiqui

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House of Glass Hearts by Leila Siddiqui

glass hearts

This 278 page magical realism YA book featuring a Muslim family grabs your attention and heart in the prologue, unfortunately it quickly releases it, and until you get over a third of the way in to the story, it is a struggle to read.  Once you accept that half of the book, the storyline set in the present, is going to be terrible, you enjoy the historical narrative and appreciate that the short book with a quick pace spends more time in the subcontinent during partition, than it does with the painfully underdeveloped characters trying to make sense of past secrets and their present day manifestations.  The book doesn’t have any major flags in terms of religious representation, it is just ritual acts of praying and reading Quran, nothing detailed or explored, and relationship-wise there is nothing high school readers can’t handle (spoilers and more details can be read in the FLAGS section).  Despite being a first time author, she works as an editor, so one would really expect the climax to hit harder with clearer writing, the characters to be developed, the details written to serve a purpose, and the protagonist teen’s voice not to read overwhelmingly at the beginning as a five year old.  The overall story concept and historical fiction component are exciting, the development of the characters just really failed an otherwise engaging read. 

SYNOPSIS:

Maera’s brother Asad goes missing in 2011 from their grandfather’s home in Pakistan while they are visiting.  They search and cannot locate him or a body, the loss devastates Maera’s family.  Ten years later, her grandfather passes away, and the next morning a greenhouse appears in their backyard in America.  Not just any greenhouse, her grandfather’s greenhouse from Pakistan.  Maera thinks she is going crazy, her mother doesn’t acknowledge the structure, she doesn’t acknowledge much, not about the reality in front of them, not the night Asad disappeared, or the needs of her daughter. Maera’s aunt (mom’s twin) and cousin come from Pakistan to mourn the loss of the grandfather together, he passed in Pakistan, not sure why Maera and her mom didn’t go there, but I digress.  Cousins Jamal, aka Jimmy, and Maera are the only two that seems determined to figure it all out.  Their grandfather’s journal turns up and with Maera’s friend Sara and Rob, the neighbor and former best friend of Asad, the four of them set out to understand what is going on in the greenhouse.

The greenhouse seems to be alive, and entering it dependent on the whims of something within, a churail,  a shape shifting creature of myth that is more than a witch, a succubus that targets men.  A woman who died violently and was wronged by men, whose feet are turned backward, and who is neither alive or dead.  As the four work through the journal, venture in to the greenhouse, and confront those within, secrets will be unearthed, exposed, and finally dealt with.

The historical interwoven story is that of the grandfather during colonial British rule and partition.  As a young boy Haroon is searching for his father fighting in Burma and the adventures he has along the way. Shah Jehan’s father takes Haroon in at one point, and the girl with an emperor’s name sneaks him out to watch the village deal with the churail who are killing the men in their village.  The incident scars Haroon, but his affection for Shah Jehan and the role she will continue to have in his life is established. The understanding that the subcontinent is being carved up and starved by the colonizers in the name of freedom is made clear in the characters that Haroon encounters and the quickly maturing boy grows in to a young man as he starts to understand the world around him and the larger powers at play.  When the migration and violence between Hindus getting to India and Muslims going to Pakistan occurs, the pieces in the past and present come together to reveal the terrors that the greenhouse houses. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I loved the commentary both in the text, and explicitly detailed in the afterward about how culturally the past is handled.  How little generations discuss what they have endured and been through.  I have been asked by my father-in-law a few times to try and coax my mother-in-law to detail her journey with their oldest son from India to Pakistan.  She has apparently never clearly told what happened, what she saw, and what they experienced.  She waves it off now, but her own children didn’t even know there was more to the story, and as my inlaws approach their 90s I have little hope of them recalling or sharing their stories.  Recently my son needed to hear some first person accounts of war, so he contacted my American grandfather to learn about his time in the Korean War, much of it I knew, Americans, generally speaking, talk about this type of experience in passing.  My son, also wanted to compare his story to someone who lived as a civilian through a war, and asked my mother-in-law, his Dadi, about her experience living through the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, not that long ago, and we all sat spellbound as she recalled the sirens and how they kept the children fed and calm and whatnot.  They were stories no one had thought to ask it seemed.  She has seven children and almost thirty grandchildren.  This book struck such a chord with me, I need to actively seek out these stories before it is too late.   Chances are no one else in the family will. Not speaking the language fluently has cost me my chance to learn my own father’s family’s stories and I need to find a way to gather my husband’s family’s stories before it is too late. I love that in the book, The Past is capitalized as if it is a named living person shaping the lives of so many.  It is, and these stories are wonderful reminders and motivators to ask the elders to share their memories.

The present day story thread, however, is chalked full of holes, one dimensional characters, and pointless tangents.  Sara and Maera read like they are early elementary aged.  They are so terribly voiced in the beginning, I have no idea, how an editor author and mainstream publisher did not require correction.  The dialogue, the action, the role of the parents, it is terrible.  Speaking of terrible, the mother and aunt are absolutely flat and useless.  They mope, sleep and sit in the corner.  I don’t understand why you wouldn’t develop them to link the past story to the present one.  I’m not being picky here, it is that bad.  I also wanted to know why the dad left.  Seems like it would flesh out the mom a bit, justify her approach to life.  Sara and Rob are obviously brought in to serve as vessels for the action, and for Maera and possibly Jimmy to play off of.  But their backstories are so pathetic.  How do you not know or see your neighbor for ten years.  Ok, I get that he was Asad’s best friend and your family in their grief and denial pushed him away, but he never checked the mail or took out the trash, or was seen? And Sara offers absolutely nothing to the story other than to be part of the forced crush/romance line pairing off her and Jimmy and Rob and Maera.  Alhumdulillah, it stays tame with the angsty longing and hand holding.  

Random details that serve no purpose reach a pinnacle with the paragraph long time spent on Maera wearing Rob’s tank top.   I have no idea why we should care that she is wearing a tank top.  Sure as a Muslim reviewer it furthered the notion to me, that she is probably more culturally religious, and yes I know Muslim’s dress to different degrees of modesty, but I really couldn’t find any other reason for the emphasis on the black tank top. Overall, all the friendships in the story seem so off: Rob and Asad, and Sara and Maera.  They should be easy plot points, but they don’t connect, or read believable.  

Plot wise: if you had a building magically appear in your back yard along with a journal, would you not read that journal as fast as possible? Sure you would lose sleep and maybe skip a meal or two, but hello, a building just appeared in your back yard that is moving and growing, your grandfather died and your brother’s body was never found: stop what you are doing and read the journal.  It mentions that when Asad went missing there were a lot of other kids, cousins at the house, so where are they now? Why was there no mention of them, and only Jimmy seems to have a vested interest in the grandfather passing, and the growing need to remember Asad.  I did not understand the sacrifice and hair connection and how that was what Maera understand the Churail to be asking for.  I did not understand the end of chapter entitled “The Separation,” it says they entered together, so…. ya?Off and on in the greenhouse there are multiple churail, this seems inconsistent with what we learn from the one churail about leaving.  The whole climax needs a Cliff’s Notes synopsis.  I honestly have no idea what happened.  The churail was scared of the beast, but they all went off together, affectionately? I’m trying not spoil anything here.  Why was the churail so different at the beginning compared to the end, why did she get a growth arc, when the other characters didn’t? Shouldn’t there have been some cathartic reprieve verbalized between the mom and SPOILER (sorry I tried) Asad? I felt deprived.  

There were a few grammar errors, but because I read an ARC, I’m hoping they have been corrected

FLAGS:

There is a little bit of language (F word at least once).  Children are conceived, it isn’t explicit, but the fact that it happened is critical to the story.  There are crushes, angsty/longing, hand holding, hugging.  There is sexual assault implied as a major plot point, but not detailed.  There is death, and killing, often gruesome, some real, (hits harder), some far fetched.  The book is YA and  ok for high school readers and up in my opinion.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would be interested in seeing if some of the muddled passages are cleaned up in the published physical copy, the book’s characters are weak, but the historical fiction component is a story that needs to be shared more and more as we, collectively, seek to understand the past, the impact of colonization, and the emergence of telling our OWN voice stories.  For all the flaws, I haven’t completely written off the book, I’m hopeful that even if this one doesn’t make the cut for a book club, that inshaAllah the author will keep writing and filling in the blanks.

The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat al-Himma translated and edited by Melanie Magidow

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The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat al-Himma translated and edited by Melanie Magidow

princess fatima

I’m not sure how to really review this 167 page book.  It is the translated YA work of an Arabic Epic that took place somewhere between the seventh and 10th centuries and began possibly being compiled in the 1100s.  It was told orally, but when written, comprised some 6000 pages.  The translator notes that the choices of what to include and how to translate, all potentially alter and reshape the narrative, so as a reviewer I’m simply going to review the text in my hands.  I have no outside knowledge of this epic woman, and approached the book as I would have in high school when reading The Odyssey or Beowulf: some of the history is accurate, the characters fictitious, the culture possibly representative.  As a result, I find the comparisons to Wonder Woman and Katniss Everdeen on the back cover, very odd choices.  At times the contemporary diction, in my opinion cheapens the narrative.  Sure I appreciate the modernization of the text to make it an easy read, but throwing in modern slang seems too much.  I found the book’s framing unfortunately counterproductive of what it hoped to achieve.  I have no idea what the other 5,900 pages include and what the translator had to choose from, but the majority of the book focuses on marriage, being raped by her husband, and working to prove who the father of her Black son is when her and her rapist husband are white.  I was prepared for battles, and conquering, and fighting misogyny, and saving the down trodden, not every one just wanting to marry her.  Many of the characters are Muslim, some convert to Christianity to escape Dhat al-Himma, the Quran is quoted, prayers are made, the Kaaba visited.  I do however, take issue with the explanation of the child’s skin coloring being attributed to intercourse (rape) occurring while Fatima is menstruating and a case of Prophet Muhammad (saw) being used as proof of this occurring.  So much of the text is footnoted, this instance is not, and I find it disturbing.  The book also contains a lesbian character who ends up marrying a man, violence, death, and many other potential flags (see below) that might make it better suited for older college age readers.

SYNOPSIS:

The story doesn’t begin with the birth of Fatima, but rather with her great great grandfather.  It sets the stage a bit to show culture, how women and honor are treated, and the line of her ancestry.  When we get to know Fatima a few chapters later she is being born and her gender is a disappointment, so she is hidden away.  As she grows away from her tribe she becomes an accomplished warrior and captures her father in a raid.  When she returns to her people, her cousin, Walid, born the same time as her, is struck by her beauty and wants to marry her.  She refuses.  Repeatedly.  Finally she agrees to battle him and if he wins, she will marry him.  She wins, and he still doesn’t back down, finally she is forced/tricked in to marrying him by the Caliph’s agent.  The two are pronounced wed, but little changes for Fatima, she is a warrior and does not seek intimacy or companionship.  Eventually, her husband Walid enlists the help of Fatima’s milk brother and friend, Marzuq, to have him drug Fatima, so that he can rape her.  He acknowledges the rape, the whole community does, but allows it, because he is her husband.  When the child is born he is Black and Walid and his family refuse to accept that the child is his.  Amira Fatima is socially put on trial for being a whore and that the child is illegitimate.  As Walid works to have them killed, Fatima works to prove her innocence and carry on with her life trusting in Allah swt completely, all while the Arab-Byzantine battles are raging in the borderlands.  As Abdelwahhab, Fatima’s son, grows he too becomes a formidable warrior and the two have continued adventures.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the richness of the culture coming through a compelling story. Fatima is incredibly devout in her worship of Allah, swt.  She does not falter, ever.  When she is being tested she needs only her faith, at one point a man converts to Islam upon having a dream as a result of her conviction in praying.  That being said, I genuinely don’t understand a few critical points.  How can a woman who single handedly destroys tribes not be listened to, to make her own decisions to lead her own life.  I get that that is perhaps the poignant point of the story in today’s context, but there are a lot of strong women in this book, so why does her marriage and being defined by her not wanting to marry get so much of the spotlight? Her father didn’t want her, but they don’t resolve anything, they just reunite and all is well.  I need more.  I want to know what happened to Walid once he became Christian, was it a permanent thing, a temporary fix? What ended up happening between her and Marzuq? He was her trusted advisor and immediately regretted drugging her, what happened to him.  I want more about her mother, maybe even her Aunt or other women to see how their lives compared and contrasted to the powerful women highlighted.  How did they view her, was she inspiration, an anomaly, beloved, loathed?

I appreciate the footnotes, the introduction, the Note on the Translation, the further reading list, help with pronunciation and the character list.  A map would have been nice.

FLAGS:

There is violence, killing, rape, talk of sexual intercourse and menstruation.  There is misogyny, racism, flirting, sexual temptation, a lesbian character, magic, jinn.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would not be able to lead a proper discussion on this book, I am just not knowledgeable enough on the larger story.  I think I would like to be a student or be able to join a discussion led by someone well versed in The Tale of Princess Fatima and all the subtext that brought her story to life and maintained it over time.  It would be fascinating.

Show Yourself by Adeeba Jafri

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Show Yourself by Adeeba Jafri

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At 98 pages the book claims to be two YA mental health novellas that bring attention to mental health in a relatable and contemporary audience through Muslim characters.  As someone with some experience in loving individuals going through some of the issues addressed in the book, I was thrilled that voices were making it on to the page and in a capacity to increase discussion about self-harm.  Unfortunately, the presentation of the two short stories baffled me and I don’t think the book will find its way in to many YA reader’s hands.  I don’t know why it is two novellas when the characters are the same and it very easily could, and should, have been fleshed out into a single longer novel.  I think it would have shown a better well-rounded understanding on the importance of knowing and recognizing signs of someone struggling with their mental health, how coping skills aren’t often enough and outside help is needed, how assumptions and stereotypes further alienate those suffering, and just overall made the characters deeper and more relatable.  Instead we get two isolated snapshots that subtly try to discuss mental health, but use a very immature cover story that misses the target audience.  The book as is, is better suited for middle school readers, but I think even they would get a limited view of how to help those close to them, or reach out themselves if they are hurting.  It needs to be five short stories with different characters and a unifying theme, or one complete novel.  Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to share this book with my teen daughter so we could discuss, I couldn’t convince her to read it, which is unfortunate, because the author can write, it just isn’t tempting presented as it is.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is two novellas, the first focuses on three female Muslim friends and one’s little sister.  The girls all go to school together, but are of different economic statuses, have different interests but support one an other, and have different family dynamics, that all come in to play.  The close knit community means the parents are social with each other as well, and one parent or another is always picking or dropping them off at each other’s homes.  When Hana gets a new phone, Aliya is clearly jealous, Lena tries to brush it off and keep the peace, but, when Hana’s phone goes missing, even she has to admit that “rebel” Aliya is looking guilty. As the girls search for the phone, Lena spends time with her family, goes to her brother’s robotics tournament and finally confronts Aliya.  Aliya’s mom has disappeared earlier, and with her purple dipped hair, sudden influx of funds for Ubers and new accessories, the girls fight and Aliya pulls away.  When Aliya and her dad don’t attend Hana’s younger sister, Sara’s ice skating performance, it seems the friendships are irreconcilable.  Aliya, however, shows up to the after party things are revealed and amends are made.

The second novella is the story of what happened with Aliya’s parents, particularly her mother.  Similar to Sara, Aliya’s mother was harming herself and eventually abandoned her family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it shows Muslims suffering, coping, and dealing with mental health issues.  The topic is way too taboo and it effects all swaths of the human population, we need to normalize discussions about it.  I wish the novellas would have stressed getting professional help more, sure it is great that Hana is going to try and put her phone down and pay attention to her younger sister, but that is not always enough.  Aliya mentions that after her mom left her and her dad went to therapy, but the mom claimed to leave to get help and then never came back.  I think there needs to be A LOT more emphasis on what “good” help looks like and what it can do to change lives.

The book is self published it seems through a publisher, so hopefully the author could ramp up the story telling, character building, and messaging, to really make the book shine.  I don’t understand the title, I don’t know why it is under a hundred pages.  I don’t know who the forward is written by.  If you want to write a book about mental health you really need to have done a lot of research, not just necessarily your own experience, and you probably should have a bunch of letters after your name.  Otherwise just write a work of fiction and touch on some of the issues that you want to support discussions about.  The book seems to straddle committing to one or the other, and ultimately it falters because of it.

I do like that the characters are Muslim, the book is not preachy, some seem to be more religious then others, but it isn’t really part of the story.  The characters’ culture and nationalities seem to be left intentionally vague.  It mentions gossip from the ladies at the masjid, which I think should have been drawn out more.  Really if you ask me, this is a great rough draft, it needs fleshing out is all, build it up to 250 pages and set out to reach middle school readers instead, and it will resonate and have the effect I think the author is hoping for.

FLAGS:

Self harm, abandonment, assumptions about a man Aliya seems to be sharing a meal with in a photograph, gossip, lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Because it doesn’t seem to stress how to help and what help is out there, I don’t know that the book would be a great read for all.  I think if you are looking to open a discussion with a small group of readers or individually, you may be able to assign the book and discuss in a safe environment.

It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi

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It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi

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Sometimes you just want a light fun, empty-calorie read, and in that regard I feel like this book really delivered.  The characters are in college, and yet it is published by HarperCollins Children, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, which perhaps added to the lack of expectation and increased forgiveness.  It reads very much like a Bollywood movie, there is dancing, angst, romance, redemption, culture, religion, and a sense that a certain arbitrary line of it all won’t be crossed to earn the book an R rating, and will keep it safe for Muslim high school teens.   I think the book is fine for Muslim’s in 10th/11th grade and will be enjoyed by those in college (and up) as well.  Over 429 pages the highly predictable tropes find their footing in their unique religious and cultural framing.  The plot is perhaps a bit on the nose and overly serendipitous, but individually the characters show range and complexities that will resonate with readers.  They have all made good and bad choices and continue to do so, but the big ones are largely in the past, and what we, the readers, get to see in many ways is them reaching for forgiveness in a contemporary whirlwind culmination of a wedding, overcoming addiction, a past felony, secrets, ex-significant others, familial expectations, loss, change, and school.  The book is not preachy, although there is a like-able imam as a side character and he gets some advice in.  The Muslim characters grapple with their faith as they would their culture; picking and choosing what to practice, but never really escaping it or wanting to completely abandon it either, it is just who they are and part of their identity. I enjoyed the book, reading it in two sittings and not feeling guilty that I lost sleep doing so, but like most rom-coms, the specifics and characters will blur over time.  It has a lot of similarities with Hana Khan Carries On, while not having quite the religious adherance of S.K. Ali’s characters or rawness of Tahira Mafi’s.  One thing that is uniquely it’s own, however, is the author’s beginning dedication, I don’t think I have ever read one quite so perfect, memorable, and possibly guilt causing.  I laughed out loud!

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SYNOPSIS:

Kiran’s mom passed away a year ago from ALS, and with her older sister Amira in law school at the time, she dealt with her mother’s illness and passing, largely alone as she additionally had just been ghosted by her first and only boyfriend, Deen.  Now that her sister is about to graduate, and Kiran is about to start university, they can finally be roommates and reunite the family.  Except, Amira has met someone, Faisal.  Someone who was there for her when her mom died, and they are planning to move across the country to California in a few months.  Devastated Kiran forces herself to be happy for her beloved older sister, until she finds out that Faisal is Deen’s older brother, and there are some gaping holes in his past.  With her sisters future on the line, promises to her deceased mother haunting her, and a serious lack of communication abilities (more on that later), she is determined to uncover the truth about Faisal and maybe even Deen in the process.

Alternating point-of-view chapters give Deen a chance to provide his side to the story: the reason he had to disappear from Kiran’s life, what happened to his brother, and the unreasonableness of his family.  As he struggles with his own conscious and stumbles around unsure of his own potential and worth, Deen comes across as selfish and arrogant, but ultimately only cares about his brother and making things up to him.  He is determined that Deen deserves to be happy and he is committed to keeping Kiran from destroying it.

In typical desi fashion, appearances matter and while all the behind the scenes sleuthing, plotting, and fighting is taking place, on the surface, wedding plans are being made and dances choreographed.

The book includes pages of texts from three years ago between Deen and Kiran as they meet at Sunday school and sneak behind the mosque.  There are also gaming dialogues between two anonymous fantasy characters that it is pretty obvious are Kiran and Deen.  The reveal isn’t a shock to the readers, only the characters, and proves a nice way to see redeeming traits in characters who’s present real actions aren’t exactly endearing.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The OWN voice representation of Desi culture and Islam is not in addition to the story, it is woven in to the characters and the plot.  The characters are largely liberal as the families are chill with dating, mixed gender hand shaking and dancing, and what not, but their Muslim upbringing is almost always close by.  The characters say “astagfirulllah” after kissing, they acknowledge that some of the Muslims drink and some have left that lifestyle, they miss visiting the mosque, they recognize that they aren’t praying, etc., while many flags are present, they really aren’t sensationalized or given more than a single word in print.  It strikes a pretty solid balance of showing where some thoughts or values come from, and where personal individuality takes over.  I don’t think Muslims will be offended, nor non Muslims confused.

The biggest issue I had with the characters is that it really could have been resolved, all of it, with a few decent sit down conversations.  Kiran and Amira, for example, are terrible at communicating and it blows this whole thing into a ginormous mess.  Sure, there is no book if there is no drama, but they never fix this.  So many lessons are acknowledged and the character arcs are shown or hinted at, this one, not so much, if at all.  They didn’t talk when their mom was sick, when she died, about what they were going through, about their dad, about their future plans, about the wedding, about the concerns with Faisal, about Kiran and Deen having a past, about moving to California,…the list really is exhaustive, and it doesn’t seem to show that they acknowledge their role in escalating everything and vowing to be better.  Sigh.

I read a digital ARC and it had a few spelling errors, it broke down the fourth wall in one paragraph, and I’m hoping the final copy will have resolved these issues.  It mentions that typically the bride and/or her family pay for the wedding in Islam, and this is erroneous, culturally possibly: the brides family would cover the nikkah and ruhksuti, with the groom covering the walima, but to put it on religion is just incorrect.

FLAGS:

Deen talks about “knowing women,” but it isn’t explored, and the groom is teased that he will be loosing his virginity card.   The kisses aren’t usually described, it is just conveyed as something that happened.  There is a bit of detail in the chemistry felt in the dances, but in true Bollywood fashion, they stop short of kissing. There is a stripper called to the bachelor party, but the characters are appalled and she is immediately escorted out. A religious character accidentally drinks alcohol and blacks out.  There is profanity, not excessive, but conversationally.  There is talk and repercussions of addiction to prescription drugs, a felony crime committed and punished for, deceit, lying, bullying, and physical altercations briefly recalled.  There are parties attended, alcohol consumed,and  at one point a female forcefully kisses an unconsenting male.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’ve gone back and forth with suggesting to the high school book club advisor to consider this book.  I think the right group of readers could really opine on the characters actions from the shy Faisal with a huge forgiving enduring heart to the nosey obnoxious Mona Khala, but there are some potential flags that might ultimately keep this book from being entirely Islamic School appropriate even for the highest grades.  Ahh, I’ll keep you posted on what I decide.

Zara Hossain is Here by Sabina Khan

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Zara Hossain is Here by Sabina Khan

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After reading a few chapters of this book, I really had no intention of finishing it, knowing that my review highlighting the main character’s bisexual identity and romance would draw critiques from both people that don’t want to see Muslim character’s identifying as any of the LGBTQ+ labels and those angered by my mentioning of them as potential flags.  Alas, I did finish the book, and I am reviewing it because as a (former) Islamic School Librarian, I would want to know how much romance is in any book that I would shelve or recommend, and this book particularly gives no insight about any romance in the blurb on the inside flap.  The author’s first book was very clearly about being a queer Muslim, but this YA short 244 page book focuses a lot on Zara’s relationships, her parents support and acceptance of her being bisexual, and her new romance with a girl.  The book is not graphic or even overly steamy, but the blurb suggests the book is only about immigration, hate crimes, and bullying.   So, I write this review to give a heads up to parents, like me, that might see this book on the library shelf or if like the author’s first book, which was picked up by Scholastic, in a school book fair, and not realize that there is a fair amount of discussion about her sexuality and how it is perceived in the Pakistani and Islamic culture, as well as how she doesn’t see the need to fast in Ramadan or pray five times a day, but still identifies as Muslim.  All that aside, I also didn’t love how the book was written, it is a lot of telling and not showing, I feel like the mom is painfully underdeveloped and flat, and the story threads don’t weave together consistently;  it reads scattered.  The book is pretty short for YA and with so many heavy themes, it ultimately can’t spend much time exploring any of them particularly well, a shame since the author in real life seems to have endured much of what she writes for her characters in regards to immigration status and citizenship.

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SYNOPSIS:

Zara Hossain is a senior at a Private Catholic school, in Texas, she has friends that have over the years become family as the parents too regularly get together.  Zara came to American when she was three.  Her family left Pakistan for more educational opportunities and after her father’s pediatric residency, he stayed on with a work permit and green card waiting for citizenship.  The process continues to drag on, and it isn’t finalized.

A boy at school, Tyler, is harassing Zara for being Muslim, an immigrant, and brown.  Her father wants to discuss it with the principal, her best friend Nick wants to beat him up, and her mother just worries.  When finally a meeting with the principal is set, Tyler’s father doesn’t show, and things escalate.  Zara’s locker is defaced with profanity, Tyler is suspended, and the Hossain’s house is vandalized.  When Zara’s dad, Iqbal, goes to talk to Tyler’s father, he is shot, by Tyler’s dad.  He ends up in a coma in the hospital.  During all this Zara is crushing and pursuing a relationship with Chloe, who has just come out to her parents.  Zara’s family is very accepting of Zara being bisexual, and take Chloe in when she needs a break from her conservative Christian family.

Tyler’s dad is well connected in Corpus Christi, and while Iqbal recovers, he is faced with trespassing charges.  Although trespassing is a misdemeanor, by pleading guilty and paying a $200 fine, a criminal record will further complicate their citizenship status, and where they call home.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it shows how messed up legal immigration often is. Dr. Hossain is the victim, he is shot,  he is a vibrant member of his community, but is being forced to leave and uproot his family.  The issue however about trespassing isn’t ever completely clear, the reader is never given a play-by-play account of what happened that night.  I wish we were.  It would be nice to not leave that area gray.  Also a lot of what lead up to Tyler causing Zara so much trouble is rather glossed over.  I wanted to hate him and be angry with him, and then be forced to examine how much was his doing and how much was his father’s, but I never really felt that emotion until the book told me to be mad.

I vaguely recall from the book that she is in a religious high school, the inside flap when I took the picture (see above) seems to stress it more than the story does.  She does mention that they couldn’t start a Pride Club, but I wish she would have talked a bit about being Muslim in a Catholic school, or better yet, shown the reader.  She doesn’t come right out and say that all Muslims are different and this is her.  I wish she would have, instead she talks a lot about being annoyed at having to explain why she doesn’t pray and fast.  Yet she never tells the readers why she doesn’t.  She goes to mosques to counter Islamophobic protests, and talks of going to Sunday school to learn Arabic as a child, but she is very clear that she was encouraged to question religion and God, but not what she found or why she still identifies as Muslim if she doesn’t believe it.  I was curious if she doesn’t believe it actually, why fast at all? If she is still questioning, why not say that.  I really felt that Islam and being Muslim was just a box to be checked to justify the hate crime, but really, she could have just focused on the culture.  There are Urdu phrases, and lots of foods mentioned, she clearly loves Pakistan and talks highly of it and often points out the good and bad in both Pakistan and America.  Food is in the book a lot, and not just Desi food, frozen yogurt is a crutch for the story, and it gets a bit annoying.  I wish there was as much character development as there was food detail and banter.

I liked that her parents defend and stick up for their daughter.  Whether you accept the lifestyle of Zara and her family or not, it is wonderful to see families stick together.  The nosey aunty got put in her place and if you have ever had to deal with the stereotypical aunties or the threat of what everyone will say, you had to cheer for Zara’s parents.  I don’t care what your thoughts are about LGBTQ+, that scene was awesome.  Great job Iqbal and Nilufer.  It was one time that Nilufer got to shine, I really don’t get why Zara’s mom is relegated to the cooking, feeding, worrying stereotype for much of the book.  I lost track of the number of times the book says, “no need to worry your mother,” or something to that effect.  The lady clearly is loving and strong, but doesn’t get developed, and it is frustrating.

The ending is a bit abrupt, yes time is ticking, and whether to move to Pakistan or stay and fight the system is definitely not an easy decision, but how is Canada suddenly the magical answer? I assume for most it is enough, and being the OWN voice tale seems to be very close to reality in this regard, I have no room to roll my eyes, but Canada has civil rights issues with Muslims too, and this 2021 published book kind of made it seem like it is just the perfect answer to all their problems.

FLAGS:

Violence, bullying, Islamophobia, profanity, vandalism, crime, shooting, stereotypes, hate, lying, straight and lesbian romance, crushes, kissing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would not work for an Islamic School middle school book club selection.

The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

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The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

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At times this 352 mature YA book was really hard to read for a variety of reasons: the subject matter, the writing style, the pacing of the story, and the numerous characters and inconsistencies.  At other times, the book was descriptive, and ethereal and hard to put down.  It took me over a month to finish the book because it really is all over the place and a lot of internal force and motivation was required to get through it, yet for all its flaws, I find my thoughts drifting back to it often.  The book contains a lot of violence against women, as that is the thread that brings this feminist group together.  There are hetero, lgbtq+, trans, and nonbinary individuals and relationships in the book, but they are not explicit, the rape, assault, suicide, prostitution, child trafficking and murder are more detailed.  The book takes place all over the world, and often mentions the athan being called or a mosque being passed.  Many characters have “Islamic” names, but there is no religion specifically practiced in this hijabi authored women powered tale.

SYNOPSIS:

The premise of the book is simple and straightforward.  A girl, the daughter of a prostitute, is betrayed by her mother when she is sent to a man.  As she runs through the city to escape, she crosses paths with a young boy who tosses her a box that contains stars.  A star embeds itself in her palm and allows her to enter a place called the “Between.”  The Between is a magical corridor made of magic that contains doors that lead to locations all over the world.  Once she enters she stops aging and is now made of magic.  She has the power to scream which can destroy other middle worlders and she can go invisible when around normal humans.  She travels the world finding other girls betrayed by those who had been entrusted to protect them, and offers them a star and a place in the Wild Ones.  This has been going on for centuries.  When the boy with the star eyes is in danger, he is reunited with the girl and her gang, and they pledge to protect him.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The concept of the book is pretty good, but the plot for more than half of the book it seems focuses on the girls constantly arriving in a new location, exchanging diamonds for local currency, finding food, and getting settled in, before doing it all over again.  It is repetitive and pointless.  Sure it is nice to read about exotic locations and savor local foods, but these girls live forever essentially and we learn so little about them or what it is they do.  Toward the middle of the book you start to see them helping other girls, but this should have been made clear much earlier on, I’m sure many people stopped reading before they saw how part of each girls’ healing involved helping others.  It is not developed or shown, which I think other than the two encounters detailed would have created some connection between the characters and the reader.

The cause of most of the confusion is that there are 11 Wild Ones, and you never really get to know any of them, the point of view switches between Paheli, and unknown speaker, and it has pages of prose from other Wild Ones that are neither explanatory of their life before or in relation to what they are currently experiencing. The fourth wall is broken periodically, but inconsistently.  So often, I just had no idea what was going on.

At times the characters speak like they are the teens that they are when they entered the Between, really noticeably and painfully, but they are decades old at the youngest, and centuries old for some of them.  Also, Taraana is presented as a young small boy that needs coddling a lot, although he too is centuries old, but then as the girls start protecting him, he suddenly is this incredibly handsome man in love with Paheli.  I get that their physical ages are suspended, so a relationship really might be possible and not creepy, but Taraana seemed to change, and it wasn’t explained.

The world building overall is weak, which is a shame, because it isn’t disjointed from the real world, it is just a slight addition to what the reader already knows.  If the Between is just hallways how is there a library? Can you live in the Between? Can all middle worlders access it? If so why aren’t the corridors crowded?

The pain of the girls, their rage, their ability to deal with their traumas in their own way and time, is very empowering.  I wish the sisterhood was more mutual than blindly following Paheli, like lost little children.  These girls/women can decide what to partake it, and leave the group if they want, so they are strong and capable, they just don’t seem to get to show it as they bounce around from place to place to place eating and doing what they are told.

The book almost seems to have been written in sections and then dropped in to place.  Much of the character information comes too late to make the story resonate.  Sure part of it is intentional to clarify and create “aha” moments, but it creates really boring stagnant chapters, when these girls should be fierce and powerful, not lounging and mundane.

There were a few spelling errors and grammar gaps, but I read an advanced readers copy, so I’m hopeful they will be resolved.

FLAGS:

Prostitution, rape, assault, suicide, death, murder, child trafficking, torture, drowning, infanticide, girl/boy kissing, girl/boy and girl/girl flirting. Many of the online reviews make it seem more lgbtq+ than I felt it was.  There are two lesbian characters that flirt and imply that their relationship will move forward, but within the Wild Ones they aren’t all hooking up.  Paheli and Taraana kiss, but nothing more graphic.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think there is any way I could do this as a book club selection at an Islamic school, nor would I want to. The book has powerful commentary on the status and crimes against women the world over, and possibly older, say early 20 year olds, would benefit from reading and adding their voices to a dialogue regarding life experiences. But, the story line might be too simplistic for older readers to bond with, and the confusion and inconsistencies may not be worth the time needed to finish the book.

Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

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Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

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I really thought this book was a middle school book when I picked it up: the cover illustration, the length (265 pages), the larger font and generous spacing, but then I started reading it and the first two chapters alone have cursing, underage drinking, mention of sex and making out, straight and lesbian couples, and bullying.  The main character’s voice was enjoyable enough and the writing smooth, so I kept reading, but ultimately, I don’t know that high schoolers will find the climax that griping, and it definitely isn’t for middle schoolers, so I’m not sure who the target audience is.  The character never identifies as Muslim, nor does he correct or clarify to the many people around him that assume he is Muslim.  His deceased father was Arab Christian and his mother, Iranian Muslim that doesn’t “speak to God much since (his) dad died,” yet he is the victim of Islamaphobia and bullied as being a terrorist.  Pork is put in his locker, a doctored image of him dressed as an extremist is emailed out to the entire school, but he never says I am Muslim or I am not Muslim.  Perhaps when dealing with ridiculous bullies it doesn’t matter, but even commenting on that would, for me, have given the book more purpose.  The book was a quick easy read, and I enjoyed the basketball aspects and a few of the characters, but the constant drinking, predictability, and lack of intensity renders the book rather forgettable.  I’m only reviewing it so that if other’s see it and assume it is a middle school sports book that they will be aware that it is for older readers, has a decent amount of gay and straight non graphic romance, a lot of alcohol use, and crude talk.

SYNOPSIS:

Bijan is on loan to the Varsity basketball team from JV and when the star player gets in foul trouble, he is put in.  Bijan is a decent player, and when his intensity brings the team within range of a win and his winning shot seals the victory, Bijan is no longer just another face in the crowd at his private school, he is getting a lot of attention.  Most of the attention is initially appreciated, parties, a chance to talk to his crush Elle, leniency in turning in assignments, but things quickly change when a manipulated image is sent out to the entire school community- students, teachers, faculty, alumni, board- showing Bijan as a terrorist.  Was he targeted because of his brown skin, his instant popularity, his volunteering with a committee to change the school mascot from the Gunners to something less violent? The school says they will try and find the culprit, but it doesn’t look hopeful and Bijan just wants it to all go away. 

Bijan’s new stardom has him hanging out with the Varsity team after games and suddenly interfering with their social life. Bijan gets in a fight with a teammate, breaks up a fight between a teammate and his girlfriend, and finds himself being teased for being Muslim and brown.  The school is predominately white and Bijan stands out.  He notes who says his name, and who conveniently avoids it.  Physical altercations elevate whenever alcohol is present, which is often, but no clear motive is established.   The students’ parents are involved in trying to force the school to be more proactive against bullying and the board, staff and students squabble over the mascot. When Drew’s girlfriend breaks up for him in favor of a girl, another email is sent out shaming the girls’ relationship. Bijan and friends figure out who is responsible and everyone concludes that the two emails were sent by the same person, but Bijan has his doubts. 

The school basketball team makes it into the New England tournament and with the team on the road, the alcohol and physical assaults on and off the court escalate. When the opposing team’s fans dress up in turbans and beards and chant USA, Bijan has had enough and refuses to play.  He confronts his coach about never saying his name, and when they return to school the culprit of the email and of the pork in the locker is identified.  Bijan gives a speech about not being a terrorist while internally thinking of parts of the Quran and stats that he could be sharing, but isn’t.  Spoiler: he also gets the girl.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it isn’t a nerd to hero story that it so easily could have been.  Bijan is smart and clever and grounded.  He is a solid basketball player and has his flaws as well as his strengths.  It doesn’t seem that popularity has changed him, people are just now noticing him.  I enjoyed his wit and humor and friendship with Sean.  The commentary in Bijan’s head, voiced by NBA commentators, reflects what he feels and what he thinks, it is critical and entertaining and gives a great vehicle into conveying his thoughts.  

I felt a fair amount of the plot was predictable and obvious.  It was clear pretty quickly that Erin and Stephanie were in to each other, that Noah was jealous and capable of sabotage.  Drew had his own financial concerns, but seemed to obviously be the red herring to Jessica’s privilege.  Even the email and the taunting seemed fairly tame, Bijan himself didn’t seem that bothered by the email. Not saying it is ok, but in a book where the characters are drinking and filling lockers with meat, the severity wasn’t that gravitating.  And about the meat, I think it warranted more discussion.  Whether the pork offended him on a religious level or not, meat or food or anything of that magnitude stuffed into a gym locker is worthy of freaking out over.  

Bijan never says he is Muslim, he does remark that he doesn’t read Arabic or Farsi.  He doesn’t drink at the first few parties because he is terrified his mom will freak out.  He drinks at a later party.  At one party someone remarks that “Allah won’t mind,” and he doesn’t really respond.  His mom, it is hinted at, has been hung over before and may have drunk in high school and consumes wine at her book club.  When Bijan and Elle are figuring things out between them, she wonders if it is ok because of…and it kind of trails off to imply perhaps his religion, to which there really isn’t a response.

FLAGS:

Drinking alcohol, language, relationships (straight and lesbian), crude jokes and references.  There is kissing between a boy and a girl and two girls that is overheard by the main character.  Sex and making out are referenced but not detailed.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this for a middle school book club or suggest it for the high schoolers.

Enduring Freedom by Jawad Arash and Trent Reedy

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Enduring Freedom by Jawad Arash and Trent Reedy

enduring freedom

This isn’t the type of book I am naturally drawn to, and had it not been offered to me as an arc, I didn’t even request it, I probably would not have read it.  So, to say that this young adult OWN voice 246 page post 9/11 war story had a lot to overcome for me personally, is putting it mildly.  I gave in and decided to read it for the simple fact that I was curious to see what the narrative is in today’s literature, as we approach the 20 year anniversary of the attacks on US soil.  The afterward is very clear that the agenda of the two authors, one an Afghan and the other a US veteran, was to show a personal view of growth and assumptions on both sides and how the future of Afghanistan needs to be rooted in education and stability.  I think the book accomplished its goals, and made very clear how the terrorists first victims were their own people, and that extreme ideologies of the Taliban were and are still not reflective of the larger population.  The pacing of the dual narratives, however, was a bit off to me, and I really felt that some of the major plot points didn’t get explored in a meaningful way, that they were simply glossed over and brushed aside to keep the book inline with the authors’ objectives.  The book is not overly political, and the Muslim characters are religious and knowledgeable, but for a book that talked about how even in war the people, the soldiers, are the story, I wanted to see more internal wresting with choices and their outcomes, then what was offered.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is told in alternating view points, one is that of Baheer an Afghan boy living with his large extended family in Kabul next to a Taliban compound.  The family is religious, Baheer’s grandfather, Baba Jan, is well read in poetry and religious text and often quotes the Quran by ayat and surah number.  The family sells carpets, and often hides the latest movies or news recordings in the rolls, so that they can be brought home, the blackout shades pulled and the tapes enjoyed.  They are fearful of being harassed for not having long enough beards, shaved heads, turbans and the like. Baheer and his brother Rahim do not enjoy school with the strict and abusive teachers.  The talibs seem to touch them inappropriately and scold them harshly.  Their older sister is not allowed to attend school and never has even though the family used to live in Pakistan where the boys enjoyed school. It doesn’t explain why they were there or why they returned.  One uncle is assaulted by the Taliban and soon after, a news clip showing the attacks on 9/11 is secretly watched by the family.  As a result they decide to move to Farah, in Western Afghanistan where Baba Jan has family and property, to be away from the impending US attacks and Taliban assaults.

Joe Killian is the other voice.  When the book starts he is sitting in class, his senior year, when news about the attacks on the World Trade Center starts to break.  He had joined the national guard that summer for the college money, and as his classmates sit glued to the televisions in Iowa, he is nervous that he is about to be called up to war.  He doesn’t get called up that day, he graduates, and is studying journalism in college when the call finally comes.  He is preparing for combat, but when he is deployed and discovers it is a reconstruction mission he is angry and annoyed.  A year of helping what he terms barbarians, is not what he signed up for.

The majority of the book reads like a ‘day in the life’ of each of these two voices, as they adapt to life in Farah, as they deal with each other’s presence and as their friendship forces their assumptions to change.  The interactions between Joe and Baheer show the power in getting to know someone to alter perceptions, and the threat of the Taliban on both the average citizen and the US forces on the ground as a unifying enemy to allow the friendship to grow.

The book concludes when Joe’s year of deployment is up, but really the authors’ notes at the end are a better conclusion to the real life friendship and growth of the two authors that resulted in the writing of the book

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the family sees the planes hitting the towers and is mortified at the brazen destruction and loss of life.  They immediately start praying for the victims even as they realize they will be the recipients of the backlash. I like that it highlights where practicing Muslims and extremists differ, by having the Quran quoted and explained as opposed to the rhetoric the Taliban is spouting.  Baba Jan’s manner for speaking the ayats is a bit awkward in that most people don’t in daily conversation source and reference their dialogues, but it does grow on you.  I think the book is very simplistic in making the Taliban to unequivocally be the ‘bad guys’ without any context of how they gained traction. It talks about the Soviets, but I think it will leave the readers wondering where this group came from and why the Afghan people allowed it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of nuances and complexities that are overlooked by such a simple narrative, and allow for an inaccurate picture to be formed.

I like that Baheer pushes back on Joe who thinks America is perfect and that Afghanistan is less than, by pointing out the flaws in American society as well as his own.  I was ok with Baheer pushing the cultural limits to talk to a girl, it was innocent and I think understandable. My biggest concern is that I really felt that there needed to be more space on the page dedicated to understanding the repercussions of him being an informant to the Americans, and his brother passing on information to the Talibs.  People were taken in to custody and injured and killed as a result of these boys’ actions and to just chalk it up to something to be forgiven, was not enough for me.  I wanted them to hash it out and wallow in their choices, not forgive and move on so quickly.  I also wanted to know more about their reconstruction efforts.  It seemed rather minimal: relocating explosives, helping a burn victim, sending supplies to a school, I think in a year, that there would be more mixing with the people than the book would suggest.  And finally, I felt like the sister not getting to go to school was handled as an obligation to address, not that any insight or understanding was really given to such a hot button issue.

The book is really slow and dragging at parts, I couldn’t tell you about any of the dozen or so soldiers that are mentioned, I don’t even recall any of their names. I think the book has a lot of potential, and perhaps it does shine in showing the effects of war and terrorism on the Afghan people.  It held my attention while actively reading it, but I just as easily could have put it down and forgotten about it if I wasn’t under obligation to offer an opinion in exchange for an early copy.

FLAGS:

There is language, stereotypes, physical abuse, sexual misconduct, death, killing, violence, acts of war, bloodshed, a crush. Upper middle school and high school can handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I’d select this book as a book club selection because I’m not sure what would be gained from the book.  The characters assumptions are challenged and evolve, but I think most minorities know that, getting to know someone is often the best way to have their image changed.  I think the book still functions to make Americans feel better about  invading Afghanistan, rather than have us question what the long term affects of our involvement have been.