Category Archives: YA FICTION

The Next New Syrian Girl by Ream Shukairy

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The Next New Syrian Girl by Ream Shukairy

next new syrian

This culture rich, American set, upcoming 416 page YA book proudly shows the characters’ Islam as it shares a story of pain, privilege, guilt, adversity, hope, and family dynamics.  The book is an easy read that is hard to put down, and is remarkably clean for the threads of romance, war, and mental health that permeate the pages (note that here are triggers of loss, separation, death, suicide, drowning, trauma, hate, and bullying).  There, however, are also some plot holes, contradictions, and weak threads that I feel obligated to note, but ultimately don’t make the book a bad read.  I think 16 year old readers, both Syrian and not, as well as Muslim and non Muslims will benefit from the characters sharing their lives and peeling back surface layers to show an intimate account of expectation and obligation for Syrian American girls in today’s world with the backdrop of war in Syria.  The book’s first few pages are powerful in their Islamic centering and unapologetic normalizing of salat and hijab and identity. The Islam in the forefront fades as the story progresses and I don’t think I can sign off on the relationship between two characters as being “halal,” but starting the story with fears of praying on the side of the road as a mom’s concern is next level.  Most book parents are trying to get their kids to pray, in this family- prayers are happening five times a day and on time, so the worry is knowing where you are when Maghrib time hits, because it obviously won’t be missed or delayed, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Khadija’s mom is queen bee in the tight knit Syrian community in Detroit and Khadija does not fit the mold of what the queen’s daughter should be.  It isn’t that Khadija is a rebel, she loves her mother, her faith, her roots, and well, boxing.  Khadija is wealthy, and privileged and so much of what is expected is for appearance sake only.  Khadija knows this, and takes boxing lessons for free in exchange for helping keep the gym clean as to establish this as her own thing, no strings attached.  When Khadija’s mom takes in a Syrian refugee and her daughter, Leene, Khadija has to figure out if she is threatened, jealous, or impressed by the new arrivals and what that means about her own family.

Leene shares the narrative with Khadija and shares her transition to life in America and in the Shaami home along with her past.  The loses she has faced, the obstacles overcome, and the secrets she keeps in order to face each new day show glimpses into the destruction of the Syrian war on a way of life and the beauty lost. 

The two girls are at odds with each other for much of the book, but as their stories start to intertwine, they find themselves with similarities and strengths that show they are a benefit to each other, despite their stubbornness and fiercely independent personalities.  In a race to reclaim what was once lost, the girls start to trust each other, and when family is further threatened the two girls allow themselves to be vulnerable and work together to save what matters.

Clearly I am trying not to spoil the book, nor takeaway from the climax, but I think most that start the book, will find themselves glued to the pages and will understand why I am choosing not to disclose too much.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The first chapter completely blew me away, I loved the idea of such a strong hijabi girl boxing and being so unapologetic about her Islam and culture.  I must admit I cried at the end as well.  It was tied up very neatly, arguably too perfectly, but there were tears none-the-less and no matter what I critique about the book, I was moved by it. The writing is engaging, and entertaining, no doubt, but alas, I have some questions, lots of questions in fact: How did the mom’s meet? One is super posh and high class, the other refugee with very little, how did their paths cross? How did Leene convince her mom to let her travel even if the ‘why’ was kept hidden? After everything they have been through wouldn’t being left to travel to the Middle East be a huge obstacle that needed to be overcome, it reads inconsistent and unbelievable. How hard was it for the “girls” to leave the “boys,” I would imagine it was devastating, yet it didn’t even get a mention.  

What changed so much about the family dynamic when they stopped going to Syria, the author shows the joy of Syria and being together for the family, but I think if you are not Syrian and do not know Syrians well, some of this thread, is going to fall short.  I talked to @muslimmommyblog and could see the reflection of the characters for her, but if I didn’t have her shared experience to flesh out the characters, I don’t know that I would have understood the weight of the guilt, the helplessness, and the frustration.  Similarly, only through talking to Shifa did I understand the pressures of being an American Syrian girl, if I’m being honest, Khadija the majority of the time, just reads whiney. Other family dynamic questions involve the dad and brother.  Was the dad always so absent? It must not have happened overnight, right? And exactly how old is Zain? He reads like he is 12, but he is in high school? Additionally, high school graduation is very important for both girls for very different reasons, but their is no talk of college or career plans, which was noticeably missing from the book.

Then there is the angsty storyline of Younes.  The perfectly selfless guy who doesn’t center his Islam as much, but does want to have a prolonged engagement.  What does that even mean, and how will that be ok Islamically, with them already laying on the 90s Bollywood style glances and loving confession?  Also why does Khadija frame morality through an Islamic lens for most things, but for the relationship resorts to worrying about what her mother will be ok with?  And was the family ok with Younes? How is he at the BBQ? Speaking of places he shouldn’t be, how was he at the party Nassima isn’t Arab enough for, when she at least speaks Arabic and he does not?

I think it best to just enjoy the story for what it is, not look too deep, not ask questions, and just enjoy the rep, the story, the characters, and the emotions released with the climax and conclusion.

FLAGS:

Romance, crushes, road rage, bullying, Islaophobia, mental health, death, killing, war, destruction, suicide, drowning, abandonment, separation, loss, grief, rebellion, angst, lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would not work for a middle school book club, and I really should say that this wouldn’t work for a high school book club either, but I know many older high school girls that would absolutely love this book and I think it might be possible to convince them that the relationship is more than the text shared, and was approved by the families and made halal.  Considering so many holes exist, it might be possible to control the narrative in a book club setting on the permissibility of the relationship.  It would definitely depend on the girls reading the book and I would strongly suggest that whether you read this book in a group or hand it to a teen, that you make it clear what a halal relationship looks like and that this is a work of fiction.

The book releases in March 2023 and as always to show support for OWN voice Muslim character filled stories please consider pre-ordering the book: you can do so here on Amazon.  And once the book releases please purchase, checkout from your library, and encourage your schools to shelve titles to encourage similar books to be published and made available, thank you.

We’re in this Together (Young Reader’s Edition of We Are Not Here to be Bystanders) by Linda Sarsour

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We’re in this Together (Young Reader’s Edition of We Are Not Here to be Bystanders) by Linda Sarsour

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I don’t have strong feelings one way or another about Linda Sarsour, so I read the book primarily to see what the messaging would be from a well-known Muslim activist to a mainstream audience, and I must say I was pleasantly surprised.  This YA adaptation of her adult book weaves together personal experiences with larger pushes for justice reform. It is not all memoir, there are historical blurbs, educational backstories, and centering of Palestinian occupation and Islamic tenants.  I feared that the book would be entirely self-promoting and it wasn’t, it shows her as a person, and her struggles, but the spotlight is bigger than her, as she talks about the efforts and accomplishments of others in promoting police reform, social change, elevating women’s voices, and working with Black Lives Matter.  The 229 page book is sourced and reads easily.  I think ages 13 and up will benefit from seeing the intersectionality of many current social struggles sprinkled in with historical landmarks that they have learned about in school, told through the lens of a personal, relatable Muslim, Palestinian, American voice.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with the Women’s March as the culmination of her status and then takes the reader back to show the pivotal moments that got her to that stage: the immigration of her parents to America, her childhood, her family’s bodega, trips to Palestine and finding her voice.  The book shows her in various stages of her life while showing what is currently happening regarding police brutality, national politics, and relatable historical movements.  It shares close relationships she has had professionally, as well as mentions her getting married, becoming a mother, and the loss of a close family member and mentor.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I was happy to see how much Islam and culture shaped her activism and identity, as both are generously sprinkled in, and are unapologetically presented.  The book is a memoir and many characters are introduced and shown to enhance her understanding or presenting her with opportunities,  yet I don’t feel I really got to “know” her or any of them.  The book is centered more on events and how she lent her voice in this arena or that.  I still don’t know that I have much of an opinion on her personally or on her work, or even felt motivated to take action because of her enthusiasm, but the book was an easy read, it was informative and reflective.

FLAGS:

Racism, oppression, murder, police brutality, car accidents, hate crimes, death, assault, systemic racism, slurs, misogyny, occupation, hate.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I probably wouldn’t read this book in a book club setting, but I think it would be a good addition to a school or library shelf.  I think you could require it in a history or civics or current events class and readers would find it compelling and relatable and be able to add their own life experiences to any discussions that would follow. It shows that the struggle in history books for justice and equality is not over, it is still ongoing and still very very real with horrific consequences.

Rebel of Fire and Flight by Aneesa Marufu

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Rebel of Fire and Flight by Aneesa Marufu

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I struggled with this 384 page young adult fantasy.  It skirts and plays with Islamic doctrine as the characters and plot points dance with fantasy and fiction; and because I never felt that the author was completely in control of the story and where it was going, I could never relax and be swept away.  The author identifies as Muslim and in the backmatter addresses how experiences with Islamophobia influenced her writing, yet I don’t know why jinn and hijab were in the book when fictionalized creatures and cultural dress would have sufficed.  Clearly the character on the cover is in hijab, the names of half the characters are Muslamic, the culture is very desi, the broad concepts of jinn, the ghaib, sihr, Prophet Sulaiman, call to prayer, are all Islamically rooted, but characters go to worship at temples, jinn and jinniya eat corpses and are described so often as looking like smoke.  There is no clear identifier that these characters are in fact Muslim, it is simply hinted at, which makes the fictional parts seem like extensions of religious doctrine and ultimately made me uncomfortable with much of the story.  It also makes me think readers will not know where the lines are, if my brain was muddled, I can’t imagine a  young teen reading it and keeping it clear.  There is a few rushed romantic scenes of kissing, there is a trans character who’s gender identity and born gender is a significant plot line in the story, and there is a lot of oppression, racism, death, abuse, misogyny and fear.  It is a dark read that metaphorically takes real societal concepts and sets them in shades of gray with the added use of fantasy. There are a lot of layers in the story, and while it wasn’t poorly written, there were definitely places it needed to be better.  I really didn’t like any of the characters, I didn’t understand their motives, their relationships, their drives, the commentary on occupiers and rebels was weak as was the push back on misogyny after the first few chapters.  I didn’t feel a love of hot air balloons or feel that the battle scenes accounted for many of the characters that would suddenly be missing from the scenes.  I think the dual perspectives kept the intensity of the climaxes at bay and halted the rising action.  Too many misses for me to recommend this standalone book, but if you’ve read it and can talk me through it, I’m willing to listen.

SYNOPSIS:

In a land where girls are running out of time to be arranged in marriage at 17 and transportation is done in hot air balloons, there are two groups of citizens: the darker Ghadaean’s are the rulers and the lighter skinned hāri are oppressed.  The book establishes this power dynamic early on in a quick synopsis: the hāri came from the Himala mountain range to trade to Ghadaea, but their greed and lust for power drove them to try and seize the land.  They failed, and now 90 years later the hāri are punished for the mistakes of their grandfathers (4%).  Both groups fear sihr and jinn.  Everyone is vegetarian because jinn are attracted to rotting corpses, animal and human, and thus anything dead is quickly burned.  When a radical hāri group, the Hāreef, is formed with a new leader, sihr and jinn are no longer enemies but tools to rebel against the racist oppression, and assist in the war to change the balance of power.  

Khadija is 16 and with her mother and younger brother deceased at the hands of some hāri, her older sister married and off in a balloon, her father is desperate to get her married.  Most females are not allowed to read, nor are they even allowed out of the house alone.  The fear of the jinn is weaponized to keep them in, and misogyny prevents from proving themselves.  While out meeting with a suitor, Khadija in a burst of desperation leaves her father and jumps in to an escaping balloon.  Khadija does not know how to fly a balloon, having never even ridden in one, but when it lands in different town she meets Jacob.

Jacob is hāri and the second of the dual perspectives telling the story, he is orphaned and is unique in that he is an apprentice of a glass blowing Ghadaean.  He meets Khadija and offers her food, and in the span of a few hours she saves him and he saves her and both seem to have a dead glass blower on their hands.  Add this to his growing rift with his best friend William, who has joined the Hāreef, and is now dead, and you have Khadija and Jacob escaping in a balloon, not trusting each other nor knowing who and what they support.

From here on the two’s friendship and motives wax and wane as they are drawn in to battle together, and against each other.  Neither are “good” or “bad” nor are their decisions always clear, but they will be forced none-the-less to figure out what they want and what they stand for as peri’s are tortured, nawab’s are killed, jinnya queens are called upon, wishes are granted and a group of hāri and Ghadeans known as the Wazeem offer a unified collective.  Unfortunately, change and power never come easy and when a dead son is brought back as an ifrit and an ancient princess in the jinn world is ready to battle, all the shades of gray that exist in politics, revolution, rebellions, families, hate, racism, gender identities, and control all come spilling out from balloon baskets and the ghaib. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I honestly kept reading to see how the author was going to bring it to a conclusion and wrap up all the loose threads.  And while the book lagged at times, she definitely got it concluded.  Aside from the religious signaling, but never owning identity problems, I struggled with the writing too.  The hāri Jacob doesn’t read like a little brother, he and Khadija read the same age, and so his importance in the Hāreef seems an ill fit.  Plus he is very duplicitous and I get that that is part of the story, but I never liked him so it just got annoying how many second, third, fourth chances he got, and I mean, why would anyone care? 

Khadija seems like she is going to battle misogyny early on, I hate that marriage and arranged marriage is equated to oppression, but the not being allowed out and not being educated seems to fizzle in the middle and then come out a bit in the final scene.  I hoped it would have been commented on in every new city they arrived at.  The set up was there, but because it wasn’t, it made it seem more of a shortsightedness of her own father, and not a larger problem when strong women existed elsewhere.  This also reinforced a “brown Muslim” man stereotype that is never pushed back on.  

The racism, power struggle oppression is more consistent, but with the foundation that the hāri came and tried to take over nearly  90 years ago makes it hard to feel too bad for them.  They tried to occupy and now are enslaved.  Neither is ideal, but why didn’t they just go back? We aren’t talking more than one generation, it is the “crimes of their grandfathers,” they had a home, they were kicked out, they should leave.  Yes, I know they are human and racism is wrong, my point is a literary one, that the foundation should have been stronger, more detailed.

The love interest I also felt was lacking, Darian comes out of nowhere, they are in love, he gives her his heart so he is saved, I didn’t feel the tension, I didn’t get it, not at all.  It was forced and cheesy and I just know he kept getting hurt, they would kiss, and then he was back to getting hurt or possessed or something, had no personality what so ever.

The seal of Prophet Sulaiman and the hundreds of pieces of it didn’t sit right with me, nor the jinns being smoky and eating corpses.  I truly don’t understand why very real Islamic concepts were brought in and twisted.  Why not just create your own characters and say they were loosely inspired.  I felt like the religious rep and OWN voice kept one foot in the religious inspired world and one in the fantasy is fiction so I can do what I want, and it didn’t work for me.  I think it crossed in to being disrespectful, and had the author not identified herself as Muslim, I would have been furious as the book reads like an outsider who doesn’t get that jinn are real, Prophet Sulaiman was real, sihr is real, the ghaib is real.  It really needed some some clarification on where the story existed and where the religion or religious inspiration started and stopped.

The trans character is worth highlighting because it does touch into Islamic rulings regarding hijab, even though we don’t know if Anam or any of the characters are Muslim. Anam is born a male, but leaves her family of exorcists and is a leader of the Wazeem as a female. She presents as a female, but when she enters a room where numerous Wazeem women are changing many hide, draw their hijabs, make horrified gestures etc., it has to be explained to Khadija why this is.  It does not bother Khadija. Story wise it is a critical point because the Jinniya Queen Mardzma is the queen of female warriors and it is unknown if Anam would be seen as female or male. When Anam went from being an exorcist to the greatest human warrior present is beyond me, but there was a lot of assumptions you had to accept while reading.

FLAGS:

Death, erroneous religious rep, kissing, murder, killing, lying, torturing, threat of sexual assault, murder, coming back from the dead, oppression, racism, trans, misogyny, abuse, hetero relationships, stealing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would not shelve this book in an Islamic school library or classroom, nor would I use it as a book club selection.  Although if my local public library or some adult Muslims read it and were planning to discuss, I would join to hear their thoughts about it.  I would not be able to lead, but I would enjoy picking it apart with others.

The book releases shortly, just because it didn’t work for me, if you think it sounds like something you would like, you can preorder and purchase it HERE.

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.

House of Yesterday by Deeba Zargarpur

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House of Yesterday by Deeba Zargarpur

house of yesterday

While reading this 320 page YA supernatural/contemporary book-I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.  When finished- I was bothered that certain threads weren’t resolved, now that I’ve ruminated a bit- I think the vagueness of the author’s prose in sharing her “fever dream” on paper has lingered and the gaps not as troublesome.  The author’s OWN voice Afghan-Uzbek Muslim identity adds layers to a story that is both haunting in the literal sense and familiar in the immigration inter-generational traumas and secrets shared.  Even deeper though, the book pokes at universal themes of regret, holding on to the past, family, friendships, and grief.   The book’s characters identify as Muslim, but the story is not Islamic, nor is there much religion save a few salams and mentions of Eid.  The supernatural elements in the book, whether you understand it to be ghosts, or personified memories, or jinn, are a large part of the book, but are not framed in a belief or spiritual manner, and while some may find it Islamically off-putting, I felt the book explored what the main character was enduring and what the weight of the past was doing to her, didn’t necessarily cross the haram line.  Her father has a girlfriend he is looking to marry, but it isn’t celebrated, and there are close male/female friendships, but the book is relatively clean for the genre and would be a good fit for high school readers and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Summer on Long Island has Sara retreating into herself.  Surrounded by nearly a dozen aunts and uncles and numerous cousins, it is the separation of her parents and trouble with her best friend that makes getting out of bed every morning a challenge.  As a result, her mother ropes her in to helping with her latest remodeling project.  When she enters an old crumbling house one morning to take “before” pictures, she starts seeing things, and feeling things.  Things about her past.  Things about her beloved grandma, Bibi Jan, who is alive and deteriorating from dementia.  What is the house trying to tell her? Why won’t anyone tell the truth?

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the mystery and the chills of the story.  As the reader you aren’t entirely sure where the story is headed, what you are to do with the bits of the puzzle you are given, but the intrigue to find out pulls you forward.  That being said, the book does reads debut, a few of the side story lines are not fleshed out enough to feel important, satisfying, or resolved and they come across as being abandoned.  I would have liked to see more of Sara and her father’s relationship, the details don’t seem to fit, and the continuity seems halfhearted.  At times so does the “night” it all changed with Sam.  I like the interpretive vagueness of the supernatural threads and that they are up for interpretation amongst readers not just at the end, but throughout the book.  I also like the family’s closeness even when they are disagreeing. For most of the book Sara and her cousins aren’t portrayed as particularly close and I didn’t invest time to differentiate one from another, but by the end, I felt that they were grounded and different and relatable, and I am not sure when that change occurred.  At times the writing seemed a bit repetitive, but the lyrical style would then catapult the story ahead.  There was one place that the fourth wall was broken though, and I was bothered by that slip.

Overall I loved that the Uzben Afghan culture sprinkles showed immigrant nuances, and that the love between the generations countered the trauma being shared as well.  The messaging is subtle but powerful long after the last page has been read.

FLAGS:

For the most part the book stays clean, the father has moved on and has met someone he would like to marry, the mom and aunts briefly recall sneaking out to attend a prom decades earlier.  There is mention of a child bride, and swimsuits, tank tops, and cocktail dresses being worn with no second thought.  For a YA book, the flags are incredibly minimal, save the “ghosts”(?). There are flags of a death that is detailed, the book is “spooky” at times, there is mental health, divorce, pain, dementia, abandonment, theft, running away, and fear.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to read this book with some high schoolers.  It is a quick read that would allow for a lot of self reflection, arguments, and entertainment.  The book is available here and releases in a few days, so if planning to purchase, please consider preordering and showing your support.

The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

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The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

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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.

As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh

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As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh

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Anything I write about this YA book will fail miserably in conveying how powerful, beautiful, lingering, moving, emotional, and overall masterfully written every one of the 432 pages are; it just might be my favorite book of the year.  I do know that this will be my new standard for Muslim OWN voice stories, as the authenticity was absolutely engulfing, I’m not Syrian and I could feel it and naturally, I also verified it.  There is no pandering to a western gaze, the story and characters pull you in and show you Syria from the ground, there is no telling, there is no lecturing, it is mesmerizing storytelling at its finest.  The book has mental health issues, war, and a sweet “halal” romance, that I think upper YA, 16 plus, can handle and appreciate.  I hope every adult will spend time with this book, it truly is incredibly well done, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Homs is under the protection of the Free Syrian Army, but that isn’t enough to keep pharmacy student Salama and her family safe.  Her mother is killed, her father and brother taken, and so she moves in with her best friend Layla, her pregnant sister-in-law, her only family left.  Working as a doctor in the hospital where anyone remaining is given responsibilities far above their skill level, education, and experience- every day is a struggle to survive.

Haunted by the physical manifestation of her fear, “Khawf,” who urges her to fulfill her promise to her brother of keeping Layla safe and getting them out of the country, Salama at eighteen years old has to find a way.

Before all the pieces come together to escape, a boy enters the picture, Kenan, who gives Salama hope, who distracts her from the death and destruction that has consumed their lives.  A boy unwilling to leave his beloved homeland.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I’m a crier, but this book brought out ugly angry tears, shocked tears, heartbroken tears, sentimental tears, you get the point, this book held me in its grasps and never let go. I.COULDN’T. PUT. IT. DOWN. If this is the author’s debut novel I can’t even fathom what is yet to come.

I love that the characters are Muslim, and that they pray together, that they plead with Allah (swt) and meet at the mosque.  It is who they are, it is not up for debate or in need of explanation, it is what it is and it is not anything to discuss.  The parts where a character pleads with Allah for death over being taken, absolutely wrecked me.  Just as efforts to keep everything halal between Salama and Kenan made me beam.  (If I’m completely honesty, I did on occasion get frustrated, I mean come on they are being shot at, bombed, nearly sexually assaulted, scoop her up in your arms and console, her, I know haram, but it is fiction and I was invested, and there is a war.  Thankfully, I am not an author and she kept it all clean and her characters much stronger and mindful of the shortness of this world.)

I love that there are political voices, but that it isn’t a political book trying to give back story to the conflict.  In so many ways the news has failed to keep a light shining on Syria and books such as this, remind those of us outside Syria without strong connections to the land, that the conflict is still raging.  If this was a journalistic article it would be a human interest piece, it is character driven.  Readers see themselves in the characters that live lives that most of us of privilege could never imagine, yet here we are spellbound by the characters, their choices, their dreams, and their safety.  This book shows the power of fiction in opening our eyes to the horrors that are happening in our time, by giving us a face and a character to care so deeply about, that we are spurred to action and determined to not remain apathetic.

FLAGS:

Death, torture, physical abuse, sexual assault, fear, loss, coercion, war, murder, torture, child abuse, crimes against humanity, starvation, mental health, PTSD.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to use this book in a high school book club.  The story and themes of the book would open themselves up to discussion so effortlessly and the beauty of the writing would be a gift to share with students.

Love from Mecca to Medina by S.K. Ali

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Love from Mecca to Medina by S.K. Ali

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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.

Dahling, If You Luv Me, Would You Please, Please Smile by Rukhsana Khan

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Dahling, If You Luv Me, Would You Please, Please Smile by Rukhsana Khan

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I’m not sure how I missed this 1999 published YA book by the OG-groundbreaking-industry-changing- Rukhsana Khan, but until @bintyounus mentioned it to me recently I didn’t even know it existed.  The book has so much Islam, ayats, hadith, salat- Islamic fiction self-published often doesn’t have as much as this mainstream book has, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that some of the content was a bit shocking.  Part of my surprise I think comes from the fact that the book is only 206 pages, it takes its title from a game I remember playing in elementary school at recess, the main character is in 8th grade and the cover is soft pinks.  This book is solid YA both now, and nearly 25 years ago, it carries some incredibly heavy themes: attempted suicide, topless photographs, sexual coercion, cigarette smoking, assault, racism, misogyny, toxic relationships, neglect and more (see flags below).  The book is memorable and hard to put down, the Islam is confident and explored, even when weaponized by an older sister, but there is no denying the story telling abilities of the author, and  while I won’t be letting my 11 or 13 year old read it any time soon, I know I benefitted from reading it- reminiscing about wanting Lucky Jeans and standing in awe of how EVERY. MUSLIM. DESI. author making it in mainstream today is benefitting from the path paved by Rukhsana Khan.  On behalf of readers everywhere- thank you.  Thank you for fighting to tell your stories your way, raising the bar, and offering real Muslim characters from a Muslim voice. 

SYNOPSIS:

Zainab has no friends and doesn’t own a pair of Lucky Jeans, she is the only one in 8th grade that doesn’t.  She feels like if she could trade in her polyester pants for the “cool” pants everyone has, she’d be accepted.  When that plan fails and lands her in trouble, she gets tasked with directing her house’s school play.  The teacher convinces her that it will be a way for her to make friends, and earn her classmates respect, but middle school is never that easy.  Everyone is in love with Kevin, including Zainab, but he is a jerk and if he isn’t the lead, no one else will audition.  Jenny is poor, but has a big chest, so even though she is nice to Zainab, she is more in love with Kevin who only wants her for one thing, and takes advantage whenever his girlfriend isn’t around.  Add to the drama Zainab’s very strict older sister who lists off Zainab’s faults every night with Islamic references to try and make Zainab a better person, and this coming of age story will require Zainab to sort through it all and find her own way to be.  There are a lot of subplots that circle around the play, social circles, toxic relationships, and self growth, that while the characters are worried if they will win the competition and break the curse, the readers (at least this 41 year old mama) are hoping that the characters will survive the year unscathed. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the family is the same family that will become its own story in Big Red Lollipop just grown up, with names changes, and that the story is summarized.  I’m still a little torn if I love the raw grittiness of the way the two sisters interact or if it goes too far and leaves a bitter taste about Islam.  I really am on the fence about how young readers, both Muslim and non Muslim, in 1999 and in 2022, would view the role of Islam in the dynamic.  I think it reads powerfully, but I had a hard time going back to look at it through my 13 year old eyes and it as an adult it is intense.  I still can’t believe that this book was published with how much Islam it contains, even the play put on in a public school was religiously centered.  White privilege is called out and stereotypes about whites are stated, a Hindu character and the Muslim main character work through their baggage, economic privilege is opined on, women’s rights and expectations discussed, comments about “othering” are present-  it really covers a lot. Quite impressive in a lot of ways. 

The relationship and love themes are not shied away from which caught me off guard.  I expected some making-out and heavy petting, but was surprised it went to topless photos, a character’s mom being a nudist, and that there is a lot of forced touching.  I think for most Islamic school 8th graders, this book would be too mature, in fact I genuinely hope it is. Not to say it is not accurate, but it is very critical to the story and I think would need some discussion.  

I love that the characters draw you in, as much as you despise everyone picking on Zainab, you know she isn’t a pushover and you really pull for her.  I didn’t want to put the book down and kept reading because I wanted to make sure she was ok, see what choices she made, and in a fairly short book, that is remarkable story telling.

FLAGS:

The book is for mature readers in my opinion.  There are relationships, assault, cigarettes’, nudists, kissing, spying, sexual assault, coercion, topless nude photographs, attempted suicide, bullying, teasing, cheating, physical assault, language, verbal abuse, stereotypes, talk of female anatomy, and use of Islam to hurt.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would shelve this in the library, I would see if perhaps there is a version with a different cover, one that might signal a more mature reader.  I would worry if an early middle schooler read this, I think it would be a lot for them to take in, process, and reflect on.  It isn’t a light read, and would need some discussion, but ultimately I don’t know that a middle school book club at an Islamic school would be the right place for it. It could be for sure, but not the one I’m currently at.