Tag Archives: mature

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

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

hungry hearts

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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FLAGS:

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

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

The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan by Salma Hussain

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The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan by Salma Hussain

mona

I really don’t know how to review this book. Is it funny and engaging, yes at times, but I am a 41 year old, and I can attribute it (hopefully/possibly) to satire, hubris, character voice, and commentary, except it isn’t written for me, it is written for 10-14 year olds.   There is no way would I put this in the hands of a fourth grader, let alone a high schooler.  The book starts on New Year’s eve with a “Muslim” family drinking alcohol, later the 11 year old drinks to get brave enough to meet up with her boyfriend (he wanted to wait until after Ramadan), after a bad haircut she starts wearing hijab and later takes it off, her period starts and she is baffled at which hole it comes out of, she is no longer allowed to be alone in a room with a boy because that is how babies are made, but it is ok to go to a school dance and kiss them, women are rather useless, old people (31 year olds and up)  should know their place and act their age, dark skin is bad, chests need to be big, slut is both something you are and something you can do,  Aisha (RA)’s age of marriage is criticized as is Khadeeja (RA)’s, no one is as good at her, Ramadan is annoying because she has to hide when she eats in public for a whole month, Friday prayers even though they rush through them limit their fun time, the Tablighi Jamaat have to be lied to and hidden from, her mom is pregnant months after coming out of her bedroom smiling, her father claims he will only ever enter a mosque horizontally, you can see the list goes on and on.  Yet at the same time, there are true moments of strength, such as when she fights back against the creepy sexual assault vibes from “uncle annoying” and then protects her sister when her parents dismiss it, when she sticks up to a bully to protect her gay friend in Canada, the dad getting caught one day praying salat, the love of family felt despite her perceived privilege while visiting Pakistan, her constant reference to Allah swt as she asks Him and tries to understand the world around her, and her terrible, terrible poetry.  The diary style is both brilliant in trying to show the world through Mona’s eyes, and irritating as NONE of the aforementioned concerns are given any context, explanation, reflection, anything.  The thoughts pour out of her head, onto the paper, and the reader is left to figure out if this is how things are, is this her naïve view, is she commenting on society, is the author, is this fact, is it satire, is it someone with an axe to grind on culture and religion, is it showing the ridiculousness of so many stereotypes? And to be honest, I have no idea.  Which is why I can’t say that the book is good or bad, I think it is well written, my problem with it is, I don’t know who it is written for.  I think it would be very damaging to young children, the vulgarity, misogyny, racism, arrogance, will hurt both those that see parts of themselves in Mona and those that read it and assume too much about what Mona represents.

SYNOPSIS:

Mona is an 11 year old girl, and this is her diary.  She is arrogant and opinionated, but she grows and mellows as her view of the world moves from privilege in Dubai to immigrant in Canada with a bit of an awakening in Pakistan in between.  It is her view of her life, her place in the world, and the greater society around her.  It is an easy read on the surface of her living through the war without getting any days off of school, friends, maturation, first loves, hoping for a bigger chest, pulling a fire alarm to get time with a boyfriend, feminism, and the annoyance of being better than everyone else in everything she does.  There are side characters that flit in and out and family members that shape her, but the point of view is uniquely hers in all matters regarding leaving the Middle East as a Pakistani living there, spending time with her mother and father’s families in Pakistan and the rift her parents’ love marriage caused on their acceptance of her, their move to Canada to start a more peaceful life that ends up being grueling and difficult and through it all threads of Islam, fitting in, and growing up.  It is a snapshot of so much that the reader is left to connect the pieces, assign them value, and understand the larger message, if one exists.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I still don’t know if I like it or dislike it.  I dislike it for kids.  I like it for adults as a light over the top snarky read, but I think my opening paragraph is sufficient and the 296 page book doesn’t need my concerns and praises rehashed here.

FLAGS:

Misogyny, anti Islam, sexism, racism, ageism, lying, vulgarity, cursing, crude talk, lying, disrespect, lack of religious respect, kissing, sexual assault (attempt), deceit, pulling a fire alarm, physical fighting/assault, family trauma, arrogance, pettiness, stereotypes, bullying, sexual innuendos,

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I have suggested a few ADULT friends read the book so we can chat, but no kiddos, no teens, no early twenties, old ladies (31 plus according to the main character)!

Compass, Vol. 1: The Cauldron of Eternal Life by Robert MacKenzie & Dave Walker illustrated by Justin Greenwood 

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Compass, Vol. 1: The Cauldron of Eternal Life by Robert MacKenzie & Dave Walker illustrated by Justin Greenwood 

compasscoverDo you ever find yourself in the middle of an amazing historical fiction fantasy adventure graphic novel, reading as fast as you can to find out what happens next, while simultaneously having absolutely no clue what is going on? Yeah, I am was confused often in this upper YA/Teen (16+) 136 page book set in Europe during the Islamic Golden Age and starring a female from the renown House of Wisdom.  I’m fairly positive it is my own limitations that made the book confusing, but for those wiser and more versed in graphic novels, I would recommend this book.  It has action, adventure, science, history, philosophy, a strong Muslim character, friendship, wisdom, ingenuity, a bibliography, Mongols, Druids, and a dragon.

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SYNOPSIS:
Shahidah El-Amin is a Compass from the House of Wisdom, she is not a thief, she seeks knowledge which means that she is incredibly educated, fierce, and scrappy: part Indiana Jones, part Tomb Raider perhaps.  She is a hijab wearing, dua invoking, Qur’an quoting, don’t give me alcohol even as you are about to kill me, strong confident Muslim. 

The book opens with her finding an artifact and being betrayed by a fellow scholar and friend, Ling Hua, a Chinese scholar.  The two race to Wales to get to the possibly rumored Calderon of Eternal Life for different reasons and using different methods.  Along the way Shahidah shows her skills in surviving, understanding what her priorities are, and learning about friendship.  She will battle Master Hua, the Khan, a dragon, a bear, the Druids, a leper just to name a few as the fantasy world is developed and built up with historical accuracies thrown in.

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WHY I LIKED IT:

I love that the lead is a fierce female Abbasid Muslim from Baghdad and that there are a variety of religions and cultures mentioned and depicted.  It refers to Shahidah as an Arab witch by the enemy and calls Muslims “Mohammedans” which takes a bit of getting used to and I never got comfortable with.  I love the inclusion of ayats in transliterated text of the Arabic, and the concept is wonderful.  I got lost though in some of the world building and plot.  I think the action and illustrations are clear, but the text needed a little clarity in my opinion.  Again, I acknowledge my lack of familiarity with the concepts and format of the book.

I loved the bibliography and the notes included at the beginning and end.  I actually would have liked more information on the House of Wisdom and as always, a map.

FLAGS:

The concept and references make it for more mature readers.  There is also violence, a mention to love making, and depicted death, gore, killing, etc..

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Even though it is for older readers, I think it would be great on a library shelf for middle grades and up.  It probably isn’t for everyone, and many wouldn’t be tempted by it even, but the few kids that like this kind of content, will absolutely love the book.

Wrong Side of the Court by H.N. Khan

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Wrong Side of the Court by H.N. Khan

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I don’t know what it is about male protagonist sports novels, but they often seem to be overly crass and crude.  Perhaps that is the real life environment that inspires such writings, or perhaps it is just male voiced YA books, but in this one in particular it seemed to stand out because the storytelling by-and-large is really enjoyable, it just has a lot of flags, A LOT.  Beside the language, sexual innuendos, drug use, violence and romance, it also has a few religious and cultural concerns that are possibly just specific to the niche that I review for, but did have me shaking my head out of confusion and sighing in disappointment. To its credit there is a decent amount of Islam featured, some male friendships that are quite heartwarming, and some emotional depth that presents really well.  The 312 page book is marketed to readers 12 and up, but there is no way I would encourage the book for anyone that young, Muslim or not.  For Muslim youth specifically I would say 17 plus.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is told from the perspective of fifteen year old Fawad who lives in Regent Park with his mom and sister.  He dreams of being the first Pakistani NBA player and the linear story bounces in time at the start and he sometimes even speaks to the reader, but the story is all his.  Regent park is a poor part of town pressed right up against a wealthy part of Toronto and the neighborhood is rough.  Fawad is a good kid: he doesn’t go out much after dark since his father died, he helps his mom, doesn’t run with a gang, he gets good grades, loves basketball, and doesn’t have a girlfriend, not yet anyway.  The story starts with him reliving the final minutes of a summer league basketball game where he opted to pass out of fear of the ever looming threat of Omar, rather than take the shot himself.  Omar ends up missing and they lose, oh yeah and Omar is the imam’s son.  Under the protection of Abshir, Fawad’s friend Yousuf’s older brother: Omar, Yousuf, and Arif have someone looking out for them on the streets.  Arif has some help from the Bengali crew, and Yousuf is Somali, but there are not enough Pakistani’s to make a stand or demand respect when out and about.  When Abshir gets murdered, Yousuf retreats into himself his music and smoking joints, Arif keeps his playboy ways to take his mind off things when he isn’t reciting Quran beautifully in classes at the masjid, and Fawad makes the high school basketball team and finds a girlfriend. Things with Omar physically escalate as well, while things at home have his mom putting in to action plans for Fawad to marry his cousin in Pakistan.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really like that Islam and culture are presented powerfully with OWN voice strength and detail.  Things are not defined or over explained and if you don’t know what haram or Ramadan or an imam are, figure it out.  I rarely find myself wishing the ending of books were different.  You hear a lot about that in movies, that they didn’t screen well or something, and so the ending was changed, and that is how I feel about this book.  *SPOILERS* Fawad and Omar should not have resolved their issues so easily, it was more than a respect thing, there was blood and hospitalizations.  We never even knew why they had issues in the first place. Arif and Nermin should not have hooked up. The whole book she comes across as the strong Muslim hijabi that blurs the lines by side hugging her guy friends, but not being ok with it, then she shows up to a dance, and then hooks up with Arif, didn’t like that at all.  I get the mixed signals of Fawad having a girlfriend from his mom, and while he seems to be connected to the mosque it never shares that he understands Islam more than just I have to do this and I can’t do this, but I didn’t like him going back to Ashley and wanted him to choose his own self-worth and respect over accepting her apology and going back to her.  I do not understand why Fawad waited so long to tell his mother about Nusrat. It was nothing that would upset his mom, I don’t get why he dragged it out.  I do love that the cousins were friends or friendly, but were fronting to their parents, but it was unnecessarily dragged out, and the more it got dragged out, the more complicated and intertwined it got with Fawad having a girlfriend.

I did not get the mom and sister relationship at all.  The mom seems to have just given up on her, but they seem to spend a lot of time together, so that was a disconnect for me.  At first I kind of liked the twist on the stereotype that the boy was not allowed freedoms to go out, but the sister was, but it kind of unraveled in the logic department.  I am desi, (half anyway) and the stereotype is that the boys are earning before they get married.  So to be arranging Fawad’s wedding at age 15 is bonkers.  To be arranging anybody’s wedding at that age is, but it is so contrary to custom, that I couldn’t even ignore it and move on, it was constantly blocking the story from being smooth.  The mom’s rationale is that she wants a daughter-in-law to take care of her.  Again kind of bogus, but maybe there is some truth there, unfortunately there is the big gaping hole that she, the mom, doesn’t take care of her in-laws, so why the difference of expectation.  Suffice it to say the mom and sister are both road bumps in the story for me.

I was impressed at how much basketball play-by-play was in the book and how it didn’t get boring.  I love that there were plenty of male role models in the community and that the three boys really looked out for each other, supported each other, were connected to each other’s families, etc..  I didn’t like the abusive religious imam trope.  I’m glad that Omar’s dad wasn’t blind to his son, but to be abusive was uncalled for.

I don’t know why Nermin is called, “Arabic,” at one point, that is clearly erroneous and I wish that the condom talk and sexual innuendos were greatly reduced.  There isn’t a lot of resolution regarding who killed Abshir, if Fawad caused any permanent damage by playing, or what the future holds for any of the characters and their relationships, but it was a quick read and held my intention and I did quite enjoy the writing.

FLAGS:
Lying, violence, murder, physical assault, kissing, making out, talk of arousal, talk of condoms and sex and getting physical.  Drugs and alcohol and addiction.  Child abuse, theft, stealing, threats.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is no way I could teach this to middle school or high school in an Islamic school.

Good Intentions by Kasim Ali

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Good Intentions by Kasim Ali

good intentions

There is a reason that I read juvenile fiction: from board books to YA, but lately the “New Adult” category has really been tempting me.  Muslamic romance novels, often really need the protagonist to be looking to get married to make the plot work with some authenticity,  which means the main character usually needs to be a bit older than in their teens.  I decided to start my tiptoeing into the genre with this book, because I was intrigued at the racial and mental health themes that the blurb teased.  Sadly after reading the 288 page story, I still was waiting for more racial and mental health insight or enlightenment or perspective or deeper appreciation or anything really.  I kept reading hoping for more character growth, and to find out if the relationship worked.  I understand after finishing, that the book was intentionally more subtle and nuanced, and part of me appreciates it, but I still felt the book ultimately provided too little in either regard for me to feel satisfied or content that I had spent time with the characters.  The abruptness and harshness of the first few chapters, seemed disjointed from the dialogue filled introspective remainder of the book that showed so much potential, but left me feeling strung along for no real purpose.  The book covers mature themes of sexuality, drug use, racism, co-habitation, relationships, culture, mental health, and more.  The characters’ identify as Muslim, but aside from Eid prayers, iftar, and mentioning once that they should pray more, there is nothing religious practiced, mentioned, or contained in the story.

SYNOPSIS:

Told in a variety of timelines that all follow the relationship of Nur and Yasmina, the story begins with Nur finally after four years getting up the nerve to tell his desi parents that he has a Black girlfriend, and wants to marry her.  He leaves out that they have been living together for years, and the book then flips back to how they met and bounces around filling in the gaps that bring them back to the big reveal.

While in college, Nur had just broken up with Saara, but still goes to her fairly regular house parties.  At one such party he meets Yasmina, as a small group at the party sneak off to smoke pot, and he is immediately crushing.  His hungover broken-hearted gay friend Imran calls him out on it immediately, and his roommate Rahat chastises him for going to his ex’s parties.  Nearly all the main characters are met early on, and the rest of the book focuses on Nur and Yasmina growing closer through college, after school, through their early years of jobs and grad school, and the overshadowing of the fact that Nur has yet to tell his family about Yasmina, while Yasmina’s family is fully aware and fully supportive that they are living together.

All the characters are Muslim, but practice is pretty minimally detailed.  Yasmina tells Nur at their first meeting that she wishes she prayed more, and later it is mentioned that her parents were raised strict so they have raised their own children less so.  It is possible that Nur’s mom wears a scarf, but not clear either way, and they don’t seem to be bothered that she is living with her boyfriend.  Nur on one of his visits home goes for Eid prayers with his father, his mother and sister do not go, and it mentions that they are fasting.  Rahat does not find dating is for him, and wants to have a traditional arranged marriage, but it does not disclose if this is because of religious or cultural views.  Imran discusses his family praying and that he had to square away his sexuality with Allah swt more or less.

Nur and Yasmina’s younger sister have mental health afflictions.  Nur has anxiety attacks, and Hawa severe depression.  It does not label or identify or diagnose, this is my assumption, it does detail their experiences though, and how they affect those around them.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I actually enjoyed the writing style and the ease in which it flowed-save the beginning of the book. The beginning was a little crass, almost like the author was trying too hard to get the characters’ environment to read that they were in college.  The crude talking about sex and them talking about their parents’ intimacy and smoking and drinking and being vulgar, was in such contrast to the very subtle nuanced rest of the book that tried to show the layers of Nur and Yasmina’s relationships and lives.  Once I got through it, I genuinely wanted to know if they could make the relationship work.  No I’m not going to spoil it, but that really is why I kept reading.

I was disappointed that the book didn’t draw mental health out in the open.   I also wanted some religious based push back on racism.  It is a big thing in our communities and the book really could have had the characters argue it and make their points, right or wrong, for the disconnect between faith and culture.  It didn’t have to be preachy, or even mean that anyone changed their opinions, but it mentions numerous times, something to the effect of Nur’s parents being racist, but doesn’t detail why that is the suffocating presence in disclosing his relationship.  In four years I would imagine the opportunity to correct his parents way of thinking would have arisen, and he could have challenged it.  I get that might negate Yasmina’s point that Nur is racist, but I think it should have been made more clear then that he didn’t speak up when opportunities presented, otherwise it just seems unexplored and we, the reader, are expected to just accept the characters on face value, when the book really very easily could have nudged us, to self reflect and look inward.

FLAGS:

There is sex, and drugs, and lying, and racism, and all the other flags that adult books often have.  There is one “steamy scene” between Nur and Yasmina, but the rest of the relationship is very mild.  Nothing else is graphic in detailing their day-to-day living, or the day-to-day relationships of the other characters in the book: gay or straight.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

No. Would never, could never encourage unmarried Muslims living together, fictionally or otherwise.

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

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Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

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I had heard about this 420 page YA thriller and how it was written by a Muslim student at University and the seven figure book deal that she earned. It is constantly described as a combination of Gossip Girl and Get Out, having never seen either of those, I relied on the back of the book and the inside flap to see if it was something I would like to read and suggest my young teenage daughter, (and followers to read). Based on the suspense teasing and plot involving racism, I figured a contemporary YA book set in high school would have some relationship, sexuality, language and drugs, so at the last minute I decided to read it first. Alhumdulillah, I’m glad I did. The book has sex and relationships and sensual encounters between gay, queer, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual characters on EVERY SINGLE PAGE. I considered stopping, it was a over the top, forced, and honestly a little hard to read at times, but I continued because the commentary on racism and suspense storyline was well done that I was genuinely curious to see the climax and resolution. I write this review as a heads-up and to opine on the lack of mention of the amount of romance and sex in the book and in its blurbs. As a reader and someone who recommends books to people a lot, knowing what the majority of the book is about is helpful. To completely not mention something that is such a huge part of the book is frustrating, and so I’m writing this up more as an FYI, than a thorough and in-depth review. There are no Muslim characters, and the only mention of religion is a side character reading the Bible. Coming from an Islamic School Librarian standpoint, without exception this book would be considered inappropriate.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is told in two alternating personalities, Devon and Chiamaka. Two senior black students at a prestigious private high school. The only two black students. Chiamaka is the top of the school hierarchy, head prefect, planning on Yale for pre-med and the girl everyone wants to be. Devon is a scholarship student who plays music and dreams of Julliard. He flies under the radar and has one friend. When the book opens both are named Senior Prefects at the opening assembly of the school year, and no one is more surprised than Devon. The glory of such an honor is short lived however, as anonymous texts start popping up exposing secrets about the two. The two characters have skeletons they would rather not have exposed, and even though they barely know each other, they eventually resolve they must work together to figure out who is out to destroy them.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the whodunit aspect really had me on my toes. I honestly, however, didn’t like either of the characters at all. The book has a lot going on, aside from the texts and secrets being exposed, that I wish would have gotten more page time. The two characters have very different, but very impactful home lives. Devon’s father is absent and it is learned he was executed on death row, his mom works three jobs, he has younger brothers and they struggle financial so that he has a chance at education. He lives in a tough neighborhood and runs drugs to help out with money. He hooks up with multiple guys in the book, and tries to keep it a secret so that he doesn’t get further harassed by the neighborhood guys, but it seems everyone knows he is gay even before the texts start coming. Chiamaka is Nigerian from her mom and Italian from her father. Her father’s family doesn’t accept her and her mom because of their skin color, so they no longer go to Italy to visit. Both parents are physicians and are never around. Chiamaka has no friends, picks boyfriends to further her power agenda, and spent her entire junior year having sex with her best friend, Jamie, with the hopes that he likes her too. She eventually realizes she likes a girl and hooks up with her. By-and-large for both main characters, only their sexual relationships are really explored, and most of them are brief. Thus it kind of limits the relatability to the characters in other facets of their lives. Not that people and characters have to be like-able, but they have a lot of layers, and it would have been nice to get to know them better as people, not just as shell minority representatives in a system built for them to fail.

Only a few side characters are developed, presumably just enough to make them suspect, but to drop information like one of them getting incarcerated and not explored, one diagnosed with diabetes and told without prompting and then dismissed, makes it feel like a lot is crammed in for no real purpose. As a debut novel by a young author, the writing is obviously amazing. I just didn’t connect to the characters, and the parts of the book I did like were overpowered by parts that I felt were overly forced. I will definitely read anything she writes in the future, although I will definitely research the books more thoroughly know what I’m getting in to.

FLAGS:

There is violence, sex (hetero, gay, and lesbian), cursing, drinking, drug use, drug selling, romance, kissing, hit-and-run, conspiracy, making out, drug dealing, physical beatings, passing out drunk, drunk driving, lying, cheating, racism, bigotry, hate speech, gaslighting, privilege, death, gun violence, destruction, murder, attempted murder, crude language, assault, blackmail, misogyny, homophobia, voyeurism, institutionalized racism, and probably more. Mature content.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is no way I would suggest, recommend, or encourage this book to Islamic School high schoolers.

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 Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

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The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

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I had debated picking up this book knowing that it isn’t labeled YA and I’m painfully behind on a stack of books I want to review, but after reading @muslimmommyblog’s review I opened the first page: that was 24 hours ago, I couldn’t put it down.  I’ve seen a lot of comments about this book being more YA than adult fiction because it tidies everything up so precisely at the end.  I’ve also seen critiques from non Muslims that it is overly preachy at times.  Many Muslims are so swept away by the rawness and presence in Islam in the book that they are making their teens read it.  So I wanted to read it and review it to determine if it is appropriate from my perspective for teens, and offer my take on it.  Ultimately I think while much of the Palestinian-American protagonist’s life story in the book occurs as a child and young adult coming of age, that the “flags” are so critical to the story and so numerous, that no matter how deftly and non specific she handles these issues and moments, that the book really is meant for more mature readers. I’ll detail it more below in the FLAGS section but to highlight a few mature spots mentioned in the book to varying degrees:  extra marital affair, alcohol, making out, groping, nudity, sex, voyeurism, killing, shooting, physical abuse, profanity, suicide attempt, bigotry, etc.  The writing is absolutely superb, and it isn’t sensationalized, but it is there and provides understanding as to why the characters often are as they are to a point that you need to understand them with a certain clarity.  I would think this 298 page book would most appeal to early college age readers where one is hopefully open minded enough to understand the characters relationship with religion whether they are Muslim or not, old enough to have some of their own life to reflect upon, and on the cusp of a new chapter that they realize the role their choices can make as they move forward.

SYNOPSIS:

Afaf’s life story unfolds out of order and with occasional interruptions from an outside point of view.  It opens with her at work, as a principal of an Islamic girls high school in Chicago as we see her dealing with parents upset with things taught at the school and the balance she tries to achieve in guiding her girls to be strong, confident, well-informed Muslims in a diverse America.  It then flips back to 1976 and begins the tale of Afaf’s life with her parents, immigrants from Palestine, her older sister and younger brother.  Not ever feeling like she fits in at school, she loses any sense of normalcy at home when her 17 year old sister Nada goes missing.   There were problems at home before: her mother never being happy, Afaf never feeling her mother’s affection, her father having having an ongoing relationship with another woman, but as days and months go by, and no clues can find Nada, it will be the event that seemingly tore the family apart.  Afaf’s mother has a mental breakdown, Afaf’s father takes to drinking, and thus Afaf and her younger brother Majeed have to navigate much of their life on their own.  In high school Majeed finds baseball and becomes the ideal student and son.  Afaf lets white boys feel her up and has a reputation for being easy.  She doesn’t cross the line, but her reputation and name on the back of bathroom stalls is fairly accurate.  When their father is involved in a car accident, he finds Islam.  The family is very cultural, but not religious at all.  Eventually Afaf and her brother accompany their father, much to their mother’s protests to the Islamic Center and while Majeed has no interest in religion let alone Islam and never returns, Afaf feels an instant peace and the opportunity to redefine herself and continues to go and study Islam.

The book jumps regularly in sections, not every other chapter, and at some point it shows Afaf as an elementary school teacher making the commitment to wear hijab and preparing to wed a Bosnian man with a broken war filled past.  It jumps and has her brother home from law school visiting and her mother attempting suicide by drinking drano and being found laying naked in a bath tub.  After recovering, her mother returns to Palestine and never returns.  In yet another vignette, it has Afaf and her husband and father preparing to go for Hajj, where her father passes away, and has her returning to find she is expecting her third child a little girl.  There are other surprises that I’ll not reveal, but some of these jumps are interrupted by a voice of a radical alt right mant who walks into the girls school and starts shooting, finding himself face to face with the principal, Afaf.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I am seriously blown away at the quality of writing, and the interweaving of religion and culture.  It is a main stream book and it has a lot of religion in it.  It isn’t so much long passages of preaching, the father would like it to be that way, but the other characters keep him in check.  But the quiet transformation of Afaf and having Islam save her from a life she was not content with.  I love that it has joy and happiness despite all the tests and obstacles.  The book could have been really heavy and drag, but it wasnt, it was compelling and hard to put down.  The characters will be with me a while and I can see myself rereading the book just to visit them again.  

I was a little confused with Afaf’s limited Arabic and her mom’s limited English.  How did they communicate? I get that perhaps it was symbolic of their broken relationship, but seriously when Afaf is seven and not understanding Arabic and her mom is not understanding the police and neighbor in basic English, something is a bit off.  I like that insight is given as to why Afaf is fooling around with any boy that wants her and that it shows it isn’t about the acts themselves.  I also like how it showed her conflicts in reporting an Arab child in her class being abused at home by her father and how the response was so sad by the community.  While Islam saves her and holds her to a higher standard, it doesn’t appeal to her brother, it doesn’t remove the hypocrisy of people who are Muslim: abuse, owning liquor stores, and it doesn’t make everything better for her.  She has to suffer consequences of her choices, she just feels that Islam gives her the tools to persevere and understand and have hope.  

I love the food, oh man, hearing all the dishes being cooked and served and cleaned up after, really made me very hungry.  The cultural elements of the music and songs and oud really ground the book and make the OWN voice value ring so true and strong.  The racism and bigotry feels very real as well.  The author is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants and the way that she articulates such pointed examples of not being given the chance to move up in the elementary reading group, side comments the high school coach makes to her, and the general stereotypes thrust upon her, are very powerful.

FLAGS:

So there is a lot, as stated in the intro, but I want to articulate a bit of why I maintain older teens for the book even though it isn’t overtly sensationalized. I’ll walk through some of the major flag themes.:

Take the drinking. The father is an alcoholic, but the mother and children hate it, Majeed drinks beer with his friends, but isn’t Muslim, yet the Khalti is somewhat religious and they pour amber drinks at Thanksgiving. So there is some moral lesson, which I think you could argue is fine in YA or even middle grades.

Relationships/sex/body: The father is having an affair with a much younger woman, they refer to her as sharmoota and everyone knows about it, no other details are given. Afaf lets boys touch her naked body, but draws the line at intercourse, she says she on some level doesn’t want to do that to her parents or something of that nature. Right before proposing marraige, her and Bilal do kiss. Once they are married it mentions them making love in the mornings. It mentions masterbating and blow jobs. The shooter and his girl friend have sex, the shooter watches an Indian neighbor nurse her baby through the door and sees her exposed breast with some detail and then goes home and masterbates. When the mother is pulled out from the tub after attempting suicide it doesn’t just mention she was naked, it comments on her pubic hair.

Violence: An Arab Muslim male classmate, drives Afaf away from her bike and the slaps her telling her basically that she should not be such a slut. Afaf punches another girl in a fight at school. A child in Afaf’s class is being hit by her father. Mother lashes out at Afaf, she ends up burned. The climax is a mass shooting where 14 students and a teacher are gunned down and killed. Self harm: car crash while drunk, suicide attempt with drano.

Minor: Yeah there is music, and Halloween,

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would make a great book club selection for those in their early 20s and up. It is well done, just not for younger readers. The book is very popular and numerous author interviews can be found with a quick Google search.

Not the Girls You’re Looking For by Aminah Mae Safi

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Not the Girls You’re Looking For by Aminah Mae Safi

This book did not work for me. Despite the fact that the main character is Muslim and it is Ramadan, no matter how much I wanted to connect with this multicultural lead and her friends, and see myself in her as she navigates high school, I just could not. The writing was choppy 3rd person which distanced the main character for me, the crude language on every page, the drugs and alcohol in every scene, the detailed sexual encounters throughout, the lacking growth of the characters and the muddled point of the book in general made the book difficult to read. The book is an AR 4.9 but content wise is more suited for mature 18 year olds. Even this review might be a little too much, I’ll do my best to keep it clean. Ultimately this book missed the mark for me in showing females defining themselves, celebrating friendships and diversity, or even just creating characters to cheer for as they navigate life.

SYNOPSIS:

Leila is half Iraqi Muslim from her dad’s side and half American Catholic from her mother. She doesn’t know how to pray as her father isn’t religious, but celebrates Ramadan and Christmas and defines the world on her own terms. She is fearless and owns herself, hence she hates her name and goes by Lulu instead. The book opens with her making out with a boy in a closet which she kind of regrets and then goes to join up with her friends at the party to drink and get high and attack one another for their poor choices resulting in drama. In this instance Lulu’s anger pushes a boy in the pool, and then the four friends devise a way to get home and work out the lies they will need to tell to the parents involved. This scenario with only slight variations repeats five or six times in the book.

Lulu is the fearless one, Lo, short for Delores, is the leader, Audrey is an alcoholic math whiz and Emma, not to be underestimated and often is forgotten (literally) is coming out in her first lesbian relationship. Yes these labels are limiting and stereotypical, especially in a book calling for girl power or what not, but sadly that is really the only space they flesh out, not a whole lot more is known about them. The girls defend each other fiercely to outsiders, but are truly awful and angry to one another all the time. They break apart and Lulu doesn’t really know why, so the path back to one another isn’t really cathartic. They pull a prank to get back at a boy that crossed the line with Lulu, but it fizzles when the threat of what the prank could do is enough to keep him away and they don’t have to complete it completely.

Between the parties there are some sub plots that weave in and out. Lulu has to spend time with Iraqi family friends who don’t accept her and are critical, in Arabic, of her mother. This gives some cultural layer to the story, but the characters are pretty flat and petty and hypocritical. The bombings in Paris a few years earlier, and the resulting bullying by classmates hardened Lulu, but there isn’t much info on how awful they treated her or how it defined her, so not much sympathy is garnered by the event nor does it help the reader get inside Lulu’s head. There is also a sweeter love story brewing than the one night stands that define Lulu, but then she goes with her mother to get birth control so she can sleep with him all while making it clear that he isn’t her boyfriend, she just wants to have sex with him- which she does on her seventeenth birthday.

Eventually the girls are back together and gushing with tales of sorrow and personal growth and vows that they will always be like sisters.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I don’t mind the premise so much as the execution of it. I get that people practice Islam differently, but I really don’t get the need to even bring her religion in to such a story. Culture maybe, but even that is a stretch. I don’t know if the story would be better if it was first person, I would like to think so, as not connecting with the main character was such an obstacle for me. I wanted to see her grow and change or at least have clarity in her decisions even if I didn’t agree with them or couldn’t relate to them. I wanted to feel her remorse or the weight of her decisions, but was often just told in passing that something scared her or was hard for her, not shown it. The theme of not belonging anywhere is a legit one, but I don’t know that this book explored it, it just sort of brushed by it almost as a trial to see if the emotions would stick. Which for a character built up to be unapologetic and unafraid to suddenly want a victim label without any real emotional ties, didn’t work for me. There are such holes in the story, that at times things didn’t seem believable or details were so specific with no context that I didn’t get their purpose. I would have loved to know more about her brothers and the tests they went through, or why her family was so loyal to the Arabs around them. I desperately wanted something that showed a different side of Lulu not just the anger and “F everyone who wants to change me” mantra. People are scared of her and she enjoys that power, but I don’t get why they are scared and why she enjoys it. It seems like a big part of her story and of the book in general to miss. Yes she is independent, and I get that can be misread, but she almost seems one dimensional and flat which defies the concept of defining yourself on your own terms and carving out where you want to belong among groups that see you as other, right?

The character is pretty open that she knows little about Islam, she also claims she isn’t interested. She fasts not so much because it is a commandment but more to appreciate poor people. She says this, but actions don’t seem to back it up. She tries not to drink during Ramadan but she still smokes, gets high, makes out, and lies once the sun goes down. At one point she calls a bride and her mother whores, and refuses to apologize, so her dad gets a fatwa issued. Lulu’s mom mentions that something went all Shiite on the situation, so I’m not sure if the fatwa issuing for such a specific thing is a shiite thing or something I’m just not aware of or familiar with as a tool for handling family dramas.

FLAGS:

The whole book really. Sex, drugs, alcohol, sexual assault, lying, cheating, blackout drunk, vaping, talk of orgasms and going down, lesbian relationship, hetero relationships, sexual encounters, language etc etc etc.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Would never cross my mind to share or suggest this book. Even religion representation issues aside, I don’t know that there is really a single “healthy” relationship highlighted among the main characters, some of the side characters maybe, but not enough information is given to really make that case. The characters just all seem so angry, not saying teenage years aren’t angry and messy, but this one doesn’t seem to add much perspective to that singular thought unfortunately.