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Unlikely Friends by Sahar AbdulAziz

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Unlikely Friends by Sahar AbdulAziz

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Another wonderful book by a Muslim author that doesn’t discuss Islam, but is expertly written and such a great read, that I wanted to highlight it here on the blog.  At 293 pages and involving a teen character I was really on the fence if this would qualify as “young adult,” so I reached out to the author to ask, and she, mashaAllah, responded! Unfortunately, she felt it wouldn’t quite qualify, even though it is a bit of a coming of age story.  So, why am I still reviewing it?  Because I think high schoolers (muslim and non) would really enjoy the book, and with finals nearly over, anyone in that demographic looking for feel good story that is pretty clean (Ramadan is nearly here), I think this book would be a great choice! And full disclosure, yes I’m biased, the librarian is the hero!

SYNOPSIS:

Told from multiple points of view the linear story brings together two introverts, Irwin and Harper, that have a lot of real and serious issues pressing them.  Their traumatic back stories are slowly revealed as the two unlikely friends come together to deal with their current predicaments.

Irwin is an old ornery librarian that doesn’t like people or change.  He is set in his ways and the stubborn Harper, a young high school student for some reason latches on to him.  He tries to shake her, but finds he is genuinely concerned about her and despite his better judgement finds himself helping her and getting tangled in to her messy home life.  

Surrounded by a cast of developed and diverse characters the fictional world of Irwin and Harper is both believable and realistic.  Irwin’s author neighbor is losing her memory, slowly, but noticeably, his deceased fiance’s daughter passes away shaking his routine, and his colleagues at the library are funny and annoying in their own ways.  Harper’s father is released from prison and her mother must make a stand to resist falling into old drug habits, all while trying to make ends meet and put food on the table.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it reads so very smoothly.  You feel Irwin’s shell cracking and you see that he is so much more than just a stereotypical grumpy old man.  You also see Harper’s mother, Olivia concerned that her daughter and an old man are becoming friends.  You probably could predict how things will end up, but the way it is written you aren’t really worried, you are just enjoying getting to know the characters presented.  Overall, it really is a great lens to remind us all that friendship, real friendship is incredibly valuable.  In a world of filters and digital everything, sometimes our humanity is all we have.  I also like that people are given the chance to change and grow, the group of main characters are not stagnant or one dimensional, their challenges and dilemmas are brought in to the open and you feel for them as you would a real person.

The only two questions that stood out as inconsistent with the characters and story development are why didn’t Harper just get a job to help out her and her mother’s financial situation? Plenty of teens have jobs, so that seemed a little off to me.  Secondly, Olivia works at a supermarket presumably or a market of some sort, so it would seem that an employee discount or nearly expired food section would make their food insecure situation a little less severe.  Granted its fiction, but these two jarring concepts seemed to hold me back from completely being swept away.  

FLAGS:

The book is clean in terms of what is explicitly conveyed.  The details that make it possibly/probably not suitable for younger readers are the drug histories of Harper’s parents and what they did to acquire drugs, what they did when on drugs and what was allowed to take place around Harper when she was a child.  Darren, Harper’s father, believes that Harper was sexually abused by someone when he was high and this memory haunts him.  It isn’t explicit, but it is there.  Some mention of Olivia waking up in dealer’s beds is again mentioned in passing, but not detailed.  One could imagine two druggies trying to raise a child and get their next hit, but a lot of the understanding will come from the prior knowledge the reader has of such scenarios, not from the text itself. 

There is the idea that physical abuse was common between Darren and Olivia and is shown in Darren’s temper when he throws a vase against a wall after coming to Olivia and Harper’s home when released from prison.

There is some mention of Irwin’s fiance’s relationship with her ex-husband in that he cheated on her regularly.

So definitely, the book has elements for older readers, but the way the topics are discussed: drugs, abuse, infidelity, are not glorified or even detailed, more they set the stage in defining the current conflicts the characters face, the pasts they must over come, and the environments that they want to improve upon.  I think 15 and up could handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m thinking to recommend this book to the Sister that runs the high school book club.  I think there would be so much to discuss and myths to dispel that an older group would benefit from the experience and work the author does and writes about in this book.

Plus the fact that the author so easily responded to me, might inspire a group of teenagers to reach out and be equally inspired.