Tag Archives: Lila Riesen

Free Radicals by Lila Riesen

Free Radicals by Lila Riesen


This contemporary 400 page YA book about an American Afghan girl dealing with life and boys and worrying about family in Afghanistan since America’s withdrawal from the country, is written by an Afghan Australian, raised in America, and thus it seemed like a book I should review from an Islamic lens even if the blurb on the back seemed a little stereotypical with the oppressed-can’t-meet-with-boys theme.  Well, suffice it to say the blurb on the back is terribly misleading and this OWN voice book lightly sprinkles in Islam as cultural adoptions and there are flags, oh so many flags.  In the first 20 pages alone there is normalizing and discussion of sex, watching pornography, voyeurism, a females breast being exposed, drinking alcohol, a trans character changing, cheating, gossip of the main character circle jerking three guys, partying, a boy sneaking over, parents vacuuming to cover the sounds of their son and his girlfriend in the bedroom, attempted sexual assault, and the book doesn’t just say it is young adult, it specifies, 7th grade, ages 12 and up! I’m reviewing it as an Islamic School Librarian, but I am not ok with any 12 year olds reading this, and worry the American flag on top, the masjid on the bottom and the young girl on the side, just might entice a young reader to start reading, and that is alarming. The characters do not identify as Muslim, the grandpa known as Baba is a “conditional Muslim” he skips Ramadan, celebrates Christmas, and only prays a few times a week, so the drinking and the dating are really not concerns for the characters. I kept reading to see if there was some religious arc with the family in Afghanistan possibly coming, but SPOILER, I’ll save you the read, there is no Islam, a Quran is mentioned to be stored in a box with old shoes, the dad starts reading the Bible and considers “converting” and there are make-out scenes, a pan sexual character, vandalism, sexual assault rumors, just to name a few.  The writing is entertaining if not chaotic at times, but I cannot recommend this book for Muslim readers, and have reservations about some of the stereotypes for non Muslims, I will stay focused on the Muslim reader in this review, however, since the book is OWN voice, and just because I don’t like or agree with various aspects, does not mean that they are not accurate or real.


Mafi is 16 and since rumors about what she did at a party with three guys started circulating she finds herself friendless and unseen.  She has become the dealer of vengeance, working to ensure people get what is coming to them when the notes left in a tree are verified.  Living each day in sweats and hoodies she dreams of  Jalen, a basketball player, being more than just her brother’s friend.  When she starts to get sloppy in her justice “ghost” dealings she finds herself emotionally involved and her world changing as a result.  There are numerous side characters and side stories that keep this book buzzing: her parents relationship falling a part, her sister away at college, her grandfather’s dementia, her brother Rafi and his girl friend Bian, Rafi getting signed by a college for basketball that wants to make public his Afghan roots, a father who wants them to always deny their Afghan roots, Jalen’s own drive to be signed with a college, Jalen’s dad’s PTSD, motocross, driver’s license, the kid next door that smells of smoke, piercing noses, Brit, a popular trans activist with no sex drive who befriends Mafi, and rumors and gossip that poke and complicate every aforementioned character and relationship.


I have issues with the blurb on the back, the cultural/religious restraints are really non existent in the book, the SOL tree is only brought in for two acts of vengeance, and the age demographic is just too young to read about the sexual exploits, that are not detailed but are very present and normalized.  I have issues with the religious references that are present anecdotally for the dismissiveness it implies, but it is not an issue for the characters- because religion is not a part of their lives, and honestly- ultimately, I’m glad it was kept at arms length, because with so many “haram” story lines, it would be problematic to see the characters identifying as Muslim.  The writing at times was really engaging and smooth and I was shocked at how fast the pages were flying by.  At other times it seemed too chaotic and underdeveloped.  Keying a car seems such a sad planned act of vengeance, I wanted to know what acts she had done in the past other than the two mentioned in the book, there was a lot of set up to go deep on Bian, or Jalen’s dad or Mafi’s loss of friends, but it all just fizzled.  I never felt emotionally tied to the family in Afghanistan, or the dad on the deck.  I wanted to understand some of the walls the family established so that I could feel what the characters were feeling- and so often it just wasn’t there.  I absolutely loved the grandfather and his quirks and the sibling relationship of Rafi and Mafi as the story progressed.  After the initial shock value, the book really did settle down and have a lot of heart, but those first 20 pages were aggressive, and the last twenty seemed to just unravel.  I would have loved to see some commentary about the hypocrisy or ironies of Mafi’s life, she has insights, they just seemed missing when reflecting on her own family quirks: her family doesn’t want to identify as Afghan, yet all their nicknames are Afghani, she claims she can’t hang out with boys, but she seems to all the time with no problem, they have no Afghan friends and yet there is no acknowledgement of this when the man on the moped shows up, how long Baba has lived with them seems inconsistent, they eat dinner together most nights but seem like strangers.

Politically, the author has her views and thus the characters theirs.  For those not familiar there is enough information about Hazaras, and the Taliban, to understand her point of view, but I don’t know that the books really conveys a lot of the nuance or accounts for why the family would be heading to Pakistan while dropping jabs at Pakistan’s view of the Taliban. There is a bit of othering and we are the good ones not the terrorist ones that seems stereotypical, but the remarks are said in passing and not often.


Sex, kissing, making out, voyeurism, porn, female breasts exposed, trans character changing, Islamophobic remarks, misogyny, bullying, language, loss, dementia, discrimination, drugs, mental health, rumors, gossip, lying, sexual assault, violence, ptsd, relationships, pan sexual, racism, theft, hate speech, death, fear, threats, sneaking out, Halloween, alcohol, hung over, violence, mention of murder, masturbation word play, a child using a dildo as a sword, pretty much every flag you can think of is present in some form.

I would not shelve this book in an Islamic school library or classroom. I would hope that public libraries would not be displaying it near the books for younger YA as well.  It isn’t that I am holding it to a higher standard than other YA books, but it would be naive to think that the Afghan architecture on the bottom right of the cover that looks like a mosque and the light hearted blurb on the back, might excite young Muslim readers, and thus I’ve posted this review as much for my own conscious in making sure parents don’t pick this up for their kids as for warning Muslims that there isn’t Islamic rep in the book.