Tag Archives: murder

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.

Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

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Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

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This 320 page YA book is hard to put down and middle school readers and up that love words, a good mystery, and fantastic writing are in for a treat.  I can’t recall the last whodunit that had me absolutely sure that I knew who was guilty, while simultaneously doubting myself until the reveal.  I mean, maybe there wasn’t even a crime to unravel? And fear not, I’m not going to spoil anything in this review.  Just know that this Muslim authored, Muslim character filled, Malaysian set, Scrabble feast is worth a space on your shelf as it will undoubtedly make a place in your heart and beg to be read again and again to see what you missed.

SYNOPSIS:

It has been one year since Najwa has competed in a Scrabble tournament, one year since her best friend, Trina Low, died playing Scrabble at the very same tournament, at the same hotel, with many of the same participants.  And with Najwa battling her angry negative thoughts, splotchy memory, nerves, and grief, she is walking a fine line of functioning and faltering.  When Instagram posts and messages start popping up from Trina’s account, everyone becomes a suspect in unraveling what really happened and doing it fast enough to prevent it from happening again.

The backdrop is the Scrabble games that are still taking place, the play on words, the scoring, the plotting, the twists, the scrambling, and unraveling of so many characters that are more connected than they first appear.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love Scrabble, my mom and I used to play weekly when I was in junior high through college, and while the games were “friendly,” and neither us very good, the game holds wonderful memories. Usually chess is referenced for strategies in real world approaches, so to see Scrabble on a competitive level and have it being in many ways a metaphor for the larger storyline truly had me giddy.  I’m still grinning in fact as I write this review.  The mixing of the two story lines is flawless, with the word play, and scoring, and definitions, that I am just beyond impressed with the writing, the clarity, the intensity, and the way it holds the readers attention.

Many of the characters are Muslim and they mention their hijabs, waking- or rather trying to wake each other up for fajr. At one point Najwa and Mark, Trina’s ex-boyfriend are meeting to talk and she acknowledges the halal gap left as they sit down and how they are both always mindful of her Muslimness and his non Muslimness.  Islam is there, but is not a big part of the story. I beamed when it popped up, but if doesn’t influence the story much, for example one night Najwa plans to sleep in her hijab incase she has to run for her life, so you know, she won’t be slowed down by trying to cover her head.  Yeah, the book has some dry humor too.

There is a large mental health role in the book, as it seems in all of the author’s books: The Weight of Our Sky and The Girl and the Ghost.  Najwa is coping with her grief and trauma and working closely with her doctor to improve her situation.  Other characters mention going to therapists and likewise getting professional help.  I love that it isn’t just a character trait, but that it is a big part of the story, and not in a negative way, but in an actively working to manage it way.

I like how the gender neutral character is handled and pronouns are used.  It is not opined upon, it is not in your face, it is a side character, they have a preference of how to be referred to as, a quip is made that if they win they don’t want to be queen of the tiles, but a more less gendered term perhaps monarch, and that is it.  It is not a judgement, it is not a big part of the story, and no one makes it a huge issue, the character isn’t fleshed out much, but they are respected and have more to their personality than this one facet.  I think that provides a great approach in seeing something in literature that can perhaps spark important conversations in real life in need be.

The only slight pauses the book gave me were when it talks about how incredibly wealthy and distant Trina’s parents were, but then for much of her life she lived in a modest town house style house.  Also, despite Mark and Najwa’s awareness of boundaries, and Najwa being called out for crushing on Mark, at one point he hugs her and I don’t know if that is an oversight or was intentional.

FLAGS:

There is death, murder (?), poisoning, deceit, plotting, cheating in multiple ways, kissing, crushes, relationships, multiple mental health threads, intense competition, danger.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to do this as a book club selection.  I think as long as no one spoils the outcome there would be so much to chat about: the twists and turns, the way Islam and Malay culture is shown, the influence of western culture, concept of competitive Scrabble, pronoun sensitivities, and healthy friendship.  Girls and boys in middle school will be drawn to the story, and I can’t wait to share.

The Lady or the Lion by Aamina Qureshi

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The Lady or the Lion by Aamina Qureshi

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I was kind of surprised how well done this YA culture rich 350 page romance story was in holding my attention.  I don’t know that I had any expectations, but I was genuinely engaged in the growth of the protagonist as she began to emerge from her naive political state, and I look forward to some resolution from the cliffhanger conclusion of this the first book in the Marghazar Trials series.  The characters are practicing Muslims who pray and mention Allah swt regularly, they also acknowledge when they make extreme departures from basic Islamic tenants such as drinking, dancing, murdering, exhibiting racist attitudes, and mixing freely with the opposite gender.  It doesn’t stop any of the characters from behaving as they wish, but at least it is noted. The Urdu words and Pakistani setting in this fictional reimagining is filled with warmth and love, and while there are some steamy scenes and outright cruelties, I think 15 year olds and up can handle the contents, and recognize the suspension of reality and moral laxities for the sake of telling a story.

SYNOPSIS:

The book makes clear from the onset that “In the very olden time, there lived a semi-barbaric king. . . This is not his story.” This is the story of 18 year old Durkhanai, an orphaned princess raised by her grandparents, the King and Queen of Marghazar.  Marghazar is a prosperous country that is waging war on two fronts and does not let outsiders in, ever.  When the book begins it is doing so begrudgingly to avoid war with the neighboring districts that are working to unify and have recently been attacked.  With ambassadors arriving to determine the guilt or innocence of the one district unaffected by the terrorist attacks, the foreigners are seeing the inner workings of the kingdom for the first time.  All the ambassadors are females of various ages and experience, save the one from Jardum.  Asfandyar is young, dark, and handsome, and immediately discriminated against by the Badshah for his complexion.  Additionally Shehzadi has been warned by many to stay away from Asfandyar, which naturally makes him a great character for her to be swept away by.  She holds out for a while, but with her people mysteriously getting ill, her betrothed melting in to the background, and cracks in her country making themselves obvious, Durkhanai will find herself struggling to understand her heart, her country, her family, and her future, and with the cliff hanger ending, no simple answers will be given to her, or the reader.

WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that there is a map at the beginning, and lots of supplemental offerings at the end.  There are a lot of Urdu words and phrases and while I am moving away from feeling like all OWN voice books need to include glossaries, I think non Desi readers will be appreciative in this particular book to have one available.  For someone with some knowledge of the language the inclusion of the titles and relations and phrases between the languages is expertly done and delightful. There is also an author Q & A, as well as reader discussion questions.  There is a content warning at the beginning alerting the readers to physical and sexual assault as well as racist behavior and language and makes clear that it is contained to the characters and the story and is not the reflection of the author and publisher.  I like that it is there, and I like that the princess makes a stance against the racism and the sexual assault that she witnesses.

The high school girls at our Islamic School are always wanting “halal” romance books.  Ok so really they just want romance books, but I try and keep their pickings halal, and so I am forever reading these books trying to find new titles to recommend.  The book is very 1990s Bollywood in terms of romance flags.  There is a lot of proximity and caressing of necks and longing, and familiar obligation.  There is some snuggling and kissing, so maybe 2000s Bollywood, but the characters thus far don’t cross “that” line.

I really appreciated that Durkhanai was fleshed out and relatable.  Even though the setting is long ago, and the genre is romance, she didn’t wait to be rescued, even when she was hurting or pining, she was still maintaining her obligations and moving forward.  I also love that it showed some depth to her emotions.  She recognized that Asfandyar would let her speak and would show his support by being there, but he pushed back on her and challenged her too.  Rashid on the other hand would speak for Durkhanai and would fawn over her in a very superficial way almost.  Sure neither relationship was ideal, but from her perspective at least she was able to see how various presentations made her feel.

I was a little lost in some places, but I was reading quick and had distractions so I’m not entirely sure if it is my carelessness or plot holes or if gaps will be filled in future books.  I needed more reasoning though, for why Durkhanai’s cousins, Zarmina and Saifullah, truly hated Asfandyar as much as they did, or what exactly Saifullah was plotting and how it connected to ratting out the princess.  For all that is seemingly going on, the Badshah and Wali always seem available to chat and are often just lounging around.  I know it is not their story, but the negotiations, the plotting, everything seems to be done very slowly and could really use some fleshing out to show some depth to the side characters.  Other than a few voices, the side details are lacking.

FLAGS:
Lying, killing, racism, sexual assault, physical assault, plotting, murder, kissing, manipulation, touching, caressing, sneaking around, theft, cruelty, cursing, romance.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is not an Islamic story or even a moral one, it is entertainment and it could possibly be used for a book club if the participants relish in these kind of books, but it probably wouldn’t have wide enough appeal and would alienate nearly all the boys from joining.

Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi

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Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi

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I saw this book at the library and was shocked: a Palestinian pov story written by an Israeli.  I checked it out, braced myself, and got ready to rage.  Except it isn’t blatant, and I can’t just chop it up to obvious hate, but that isn’t to say that the 183 page middle school book should be shared and deemed harmless: it subtly minimizes the occupation of an entire people, it in many ways glosses over the apartheid taking place.  It gives the inequity lip service, and I’m sure many western non Muslim, non Palestinian readers will find the book balanced, but I never could quite shake the looming shadow throughout, of trivializing the oppressive regime that is Israel.  I don’t know if the undermining is intentional, and I couldn’t find anything with a Google search to see how the book was received by Israelis in 1994 when it was published (it was translated in 2000), but either way it provides a great example as to why OWN voice books are so much more powerful.  This is not the oppressors’ story to tell.  I’m not saying the author isn’t sympathetic to the Palestinian struggles or that she actively supports encroachment of Palestinian homes, I honestly don’t know her stance.  I do know that the lived experiences of Palestinians though, is best left to be told by people that live it, have lived it, and those that feel loss because of it.  It is not a narrative to be told by the force that is causing the pain.  My biggest worry is that readers will take away from the story that the situation isn’t that bad, that Israelis are taking care of this poor injured Palestinian boy out of the goodness of their hearts so they must be nice, and at the end of the day the two sides are just two opposing forces, but the people once they get to know each other, bond over the fact that they pee the same and can be friends.  It waters down that it is, and was, major international powers backing the Israelis and that it is not, nor has it ever been, a simple disagreement between two equal sides. No I don’t expect every book about the region to detail the specifics, but don’t tell me that killing of children, a life of checkpoints, curfews, and fear can all disappear over a few months when the “enemy” provides medical care, regular meals, and arts and craft times. I’m not Palestinian and I can see the short-sided reality of that real quick.  It leaves young impressionable readers with a very skewed view, no matter how diplomatic the author attempts to be on the surface.  And I cannot support it.

SYNOPSIS:

Palestinian boy Samir injures his leg in a bicycle accident, quite seriously, and his mother who cleans for an Israeli lawyer is able to get him a special permit to be taken to the Jew’s hospital to be cared for by a visiting American surgeon.  He speaks broken Hebrew, but understands quite a bit as he has worked in a Jewish grocery store in the past.  When he gets to the hospital, he is placed in a room with other children to wait.  He stays there for weeks until the doctor can arrive and then even after the procedure he stays for physical therapy for weeks before he can return home.

While he is there, he gets to observe and know, in some ways, the other patients.  Yonatan is always buried in a book, but at night, when the other kids go to sleep he talks to Samir and plots with him a trip to Mars.  Yonatan’s mom lives in American, he lives with his dad who is an astronomy professor.  He also ethically is a vegetarian and saves his kabobs and chicken from his meals to give to Samir.  There is a girl that was hit by her father and refuses to see him, and one that is like a princess that doesn’t like to eat.  Tzahi wears a colostomy bag and is always jumping around and causing trouble.  His brother is a paratrooper in the Israeli army and he hates Palestinians.  It is hard for Samir when the brother comes to visit, the fear is real.

Samir’s younger brother Fadi was recently killed by Israeli soldiers and the memory, horror, and anguish is still very fresh for Samir and his entire family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

At first I really couldn’t articulate the saccharin taste the book was causing to form in my mouth as I read.  The curfews, and check points and loss of Fadi was being discussed and contrasted to the luxury of the Israeli hospital, and then it began to occur to me that, it was almost worse than just being blatantly hateful.  The placating and sugar coating slowly diminishes the horrors of reality.  At the beginning Samir doesn’t want to go to the hospital, he would rather have a limp, but the narrative slowly becomes about the kids in the hospital also have stressing and hard lives, and that seems sweet, except, their issues while specific, are universal.  Samir’s leg is as well, but the oppression of his people is systemic and helping him doesn’t erase that the same people running the hospital killed his brother, dictate his reality, and his future opportunities.  It is not enough for the “anti Palestinian child” to have a surgery that corrects his ability to urinate and at the very end, they pee in to the planters.  It might work on the surface, but it trivializes too much. If Samir would have gotten to tell them about his life and his pains, and his experiences, and they would have accepted them as valid, maybe I could see bridges being built, but bonding over basic human functions, and celebrating that an Israeli boy finally talks to a Palestinian, isn’t compassion, it is arrogance.

The only real positive takeaway I had of the book was that even in the tiniest human kindnesses Yonatan showed Samir it was something for Samir to contrast with his life long friendship with Adnan.  That growth of realizing what makes a good friend was more humanizing and affectionate than any other storyline in the book.

FLAGS:

Murder, fear, harassment, oppression, bullying, teasing, violence, gun violence, abuse, talk of urinating, showering in front of others.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

No way, I will never have Palestinian children read about their life experiences from an Israeli person speaking through a Palestinian character.

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.

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.

The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf

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The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf

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Woah! Domestic abuse, foster care, murder, astronomy, and above all hope and bravery. It is so, so much, and so beautifully dealt with from the perspective of a child, that I’m still living in Aniyah’s world and praying she is doing ok.  As the beginning of the book states, it is a story written for everyone, but it then goes on to say that there could be triggers and difficult things to read. So please, while it may be written for ages nine and up, you should know what your child can handle before suggesting they read such a heartbreaking 306 page book, and if they aren’t able to handle it yet, make a mental note to have a discussion when they are ready, it is important.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with a map of London and the chapters start with constellations, maps to the stars, and a little girl who wants to be a star hunter.  Drawing on Simba from the Lion King and wholeheartedly believing that stars are people who’s hearts were so big that when they die they light up the night, she maps the stars outside her foster house window, on the lookout for a new star, her mom.  Not remembering all the details that brought her to this foster home, she and her little brother Noah are trying to figure out their new life, the foster home rules, the loud pain they felt, and if they are winning the game of hide-and-seek with their father.

Unable to speak, Aniya, breaks her silence when a news story on TV tells of a star breaking the rules of gravity and flying by Earth.  Convinced it is their mom, Aniyah and Noah with the help of fellow foster kids Travis and Ben hatch a plan to go 73.6 miles from Waverly Village to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, to make sure the star hunters name the star the correct name, and not the random computer generated one the contest rules dictate.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is inspired by the author’s aunt who was a victim of domestic abuse and killed by her husband.  The love and pain she feels at her loss, I believe is conveyed through the pages and felt by readers of all ages.  I had my 10 year old son and my 12 year old daughter read the book, because this book’s topics are heavy and weighty, but handled with such sensitivity and childlike innocence that it is a great introduction to the topic, without being overly heavy and weighty.  The author is amazing, and I was curious how she would follow up her amazing debut novel The Boy at the Back of the Class, and I think this one is just as powerful, if not more so. 

All of the foster kids suffer from some form abuse and there is even a note at the beginning about how the author does not like the term “domestic abuse” and there are resources and information at the end of the book for children or adults suffering or how to help someone they know suffering abuse.  There is also a page about Herstory, the constellations, and some personal anecdotes about the author’s aunt.

The book is truly heartbreaking because as an adult reading the book I could easily figure out what happened, that the father killed the mother, and that the games the mom would have the kids play were not games at all, but ways to mask what was going on. The book is very subtle in how it talks about what the mom and kids endured and some kids will not get it, and others will, either way, parents should be aware and available to discuss that abuse is never ok and that if their friends or someone they know is suffering/surviving, there is help.

The book is powerful also in the way the foster kids for the most part stick together, I think the way they are so willing to help and risk their own chances at adoption is selfless and memorable.  Also the way they put up with Noah, a little kid, who gets annoying, but handled lovingly,  because family means so so much when you don’t have one. 

On the surface though, it is an adventure story, can a ragtag diverse group of kids with little money, injuries and a deadline travel nearly a hundred miles to name a star?  Its fast paced, interesting, and emotional on many levels.

There is nothing Islamic in the book, not even a Muslim name in passing, but the author is Muslim and the story universal.

FLAGS:

Halloween is when they run away.  There is a lot of lying, but they know it.  Lying when the mom covers her bruises and marks, and how she is doing, lying when the kids run away and steal the bikes and sneak on a bus without paying, and break in to the observatory.  The kids feel guilty and know right from wrong in every instance, but when they opt to do something uncouth they rationalize it because they have to name that star!

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m seriously considering reading this as a middle school book club selection.  It is written for a younger audience, but I think I want to open up the topic of abuse and have the school counselor come and listen to the discussion.  The book is that good, and that important, and that powerful, that a discussion and lessons, will keep these characters’ stories in the middle schoolers’ minds as they grow and hopefully teach them empathy, compassion, appreciation, and patience.

 

 

The Sign of the Scorpion by Farah Zaman

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The Sign of the Scorpion by Farah Zaman

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This is the second book in the Moon of Masarrah series, but can be read as a stand alone book if you are looking for a linear story with fast paced action, intense twists, decently developed characters and quality writing that brings the sleuthing of Muslim characters to life.  At 229 pages including the glossary, the book reads to me as a middle grades book, but the last 50 pages place a lot of emphasis on accusations of a character molesting servants in the castle and another character having an affair, which might be more appropriate for older readers.  Perhaps middle school readers would be a better target audience, but I’m waiting to hear back from the author regarding who she had in mind when she wrote it.  The author said she wrote it for Young Adult, ages 12 and up in mind.

SYNOPSIS:

Brother and sister, Adam and Layla are reunited with their friends, siblings, Zaid and Zahra after last summers intense adventure involving a diamond.  This summer as a result, they are the honored guests of Shaykh Sulaiman at his dessert home, Dukhan Castle. They arrive to find out that the Shaykh is bedridden from a stroke after learning his son has died.  With a house full of relatives with reasons to want their claim to the Shaykh’s fortune, the four teenagers start putting odd occurrences of a ghoul in white, a hooded horseman, a gypsy woman’s tale, and the idea that there has been foul play, together to try and arrive at the truth of what is going on.  As they piece more and more together about the tutor, the cousin, the fiance, the grandson, and a mysterious mole-man following them, they themselves get tangled in the sinister plot of revenge and must keep an eye out to figure out who the scorpion, Al-Aqrab, is before one of them ends up dead.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Set in a fictious land, the detail is the perfect balance between setting a stage and over describing it.  The book did not drag for me at any place, nor did I find myself confused about what was going on and why.  Granted I probably could not tell Adam apart from Zaid and Layla from Zahra, but the book is about their adventure and figuring out whats going on, not about their relationships or back story.  And with the focus on all the possible perpetrators and their motives taking center stage, having four people gathering clues makes the information come easier and smoother.

All the characters are Muslim.  Some of the women cover and some do not, some stop to pray and make regular references to Islamic hadith or Quranic Ayats, and some are suspects.  For example when they are exploring the dungeons beneath the castle, they liken the caves to the Sleepers in the Cave mentioned in Surah Kahf.  The book never gets anywhere near preachy, nor do the few references ever get annoying, they just flesh out that the characters are Muslim, and thus they see the world through that lens.

FLAGS:

The book has murder, lying, deception, all the ingredients for a good who done it.  And while the details are all clean regarding how the four teens interact with the opposite genders, the climax of the book is the coming to light of allegations of molestation and a failed marriage is attributed to a presumed affair.  No definition of the words is given, and I reread many of the passages and I don’t know that there is even enough context clues to decipher what the word molest means in the text.  Most kids however, could easily ask Siri or Hey Google or whatnot and may have more questions about what it means to sexually assault a person, specifically a woman or child, and why someone would do it.  I leave that for parents to decide at what age those in their charge can grasp such a word and concept.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m torn on teaching the book as the linear telling might not appeal to older kids, but the motive and revenge isn’t appropriate for younger kids.  I think if used to discuss broader issues the book could be really powerful, and not just a fun read.  I could see discussing with 9th graders or so the seriousness of false accusations, drawing on the Me Too movement and how sexual crimes and transgressions should be handled and treated.  I think the book could be a springboard for those discussions and seeing the effects of believing or not believing, and perhaps suspending judgement until research can be done.  In the case of the book, it would not have been difficult to pursue the allegations, while protecting any potential victims.

 

NOTE:

The first book in the series, The Moon of Masarrah, was originally published under the title, The Treasure at Bayan Bluffs, some changes have been made in the new printing, so while I don’t normally review second books in a series, I felt this book might bring attention to the new title of the first book and drum up interest for the upcoming third book in the series.  No, I don’t benefit in any way and I purchase my copies just like you, the stories are just really well done and I want readers to give them a try.  Happy Reading!

Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali

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Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali

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Now that there is legitimately a genre of YA Islamic Romance out there told in Own Voice, the expectations are high that a book is compelling, realistic, and unique somehow.  While the author’s first book, Saints and Misfits was pretty ground breaking, this 342 page was a great read, but not nearly as remarkable or memorable.  Granted it is not fair to compare the two books, and each day I do age out of the target demographic, but while the story reads authentic and true, albeit a bit serendipitous, it doesn’t have the teeth or grit I was kind of hoping for, and with a mother who suffers from multiple sclerosis my emotions were pretty invested.

SYNOPSIS:

Told from both Adam and Zayneb’s perspectives by way of their individual “Oddities and Marvels” journals, our two characters are presented by a narrator who keeps their story on track and interjects when their versions of an event differ. 

Zayneb is a high schooler and activist who has recently been expelled for threatening a teacher who consistently lets his Islamaphobic beliefs take over the days lessons.  In an environment filled with micro aggressions against Muslims, Zeynab’s parents are at a loss at how to keep their daughter from making waves, and thus allow her to leave her Indiana home a week before spring break to visit her aunt in Doha, Qatar.

Adam is at University in London where he has recently been diagnosed with MS and as a result has stopped going to classes, and is literally “making” the most of the time he has by making things.  As the term ends and he officially withdraws from school, he heads home to Doha to tell his dad and sister that he has the same disease that took his mother’s life years early.

The two characters meet at the airport briefly and then again on the plane and then at Adam’s house and the needless to say  their accidental meetings allow for friendship to grow, attraction to be built upon and a relationship to develop. Both characters have their own lives and own obstacles and own maturity that needs to occur in order for a happy ending to take place, and thus the book keeps you interested, invested and cheering them on.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the dynamic of how the book and characters are set up.  Both are practicing Muslims, both characters don’t cross a line, both characters have diverse mixed cultural backgrounds, and one is a convert and the other the daughter of a convert.  She is fiery and impulsive and emotional, he is pragmatic and calm and quiet.  While they have some background in common, their life experiences are rather different and it is very much a story about opposites attracting.  

I’ve been waiting for this book to come out, and so I knew my expectations would be too high.  That being said the book warns it is a love story and in some ways, that was what I kind of felt was lacking.  There was the physical attraction that was mentioned fairly often, but the deep connection of ideas or growing seemed a bit lacking.  

I really liked Adam, and his internal stresses and struggles and coming to grips with his disease seemed pretty developed.  Somehow though, and I’m probably in the minority, I didn’t love Zayneb.  She is impulsive and definitely learned and grew from the start of the book to the end, but I didn’t love her nuances with dealing with the Emmas and her friends back home and unraveling her teacher, it felt kind of forced and I can’t articulate why.  I’m glad she matured and she got answers about her grandmother, but maybe I should have felt so much in common with her and when I didn’t, I felt a little irritated.  Clearly I get too invested in fictional characters, I’ll admit that.

I like that Islam is presented in a non defensive way.  The parents aren’t evil, there is no rebelling, even the awful teacher spawns backlash and allies to Zayneb and her cause. There is no apologizing or overly explaining if the characters are pushing boundaries established by Islam or if they are establishing their own boundaries based on their understanding of Islam.  I like this, because it shows that Muslims are not a monolith, we are not one way good or bad.  Zayneb covers and prays and has friends that are boys and her family is kept in the loop of what she does, which alone breaks so many of the predominate stereotypes about Muslims.  Adam himself converted at age nine and plays the guitar and has friends that are girls, and is close to his sister, and likes dogs.  A side character is noted to be incredibly religious, but doesn’t cover.  The story takes place in an Islamic majority country, but attitudes at the swimming pool don’t allow Zayneb to dress modestly while she swims.  

Overall, the book is a delightful read that manages to keep the religious integrity in the characters and show their personalities as they come of age.  It may not be memorable years after reading, but what you do remember will be positive, and while you are reading it, you will have a hard time putting it down.

FLAGS:

There is angsty romance, and talk of sex.  The two main characters keep it pretty clean, but the side characters joke about hooking up, being horny, and sneaking off to hotel rooms.  The non Muslim aunt has a secret alcohol and cigarette stash that she gets called out on, but nothing more is mentioned about it. I think 9th or 10th grade and up will be perfectly ok to read.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is a lot to unpack in this book and I think if one just listens, teens will naturally add their own opinions and perspectives on EVERYTHING the characters experience, feel, question, and cope with.  The book just came out, but I would imagine that over time discussion questions will appear.

Author’s website: https://skalibooks.com/books/

Interview with the author: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/teen/an-interview-with-s-k-ali-author-of-love-from-a-to-z/