Tag Archives: mystery

Hollow Fires by Samira Ahmed

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Hollow Fires by Samira Ahmed

hollow fires

Every YA Samira Ahmed review I have written I remark at how amazing the premise is, how flat the characters are, and how forced the romance feels.  I am so happy that I did not dismiss this book, and when I return this copy to the library, I will be eagerly awaiting the purchased one to arrive so as to be placed on my book shelf.  There is connection to the protagonist, she is even likeable, the brief flirty romance is natural and not heavy handed, and the only thing better than the premise is the contemporary commentary.  The multiple writing styles, lyrical voices, and thriller/mystery elements make this 404 page teen book hard to put down.  Islam is present in different forms in different characters. There are very gentle elements of faith that really contrast the chaos of the plot and radiate peace: fajr salat, wanting a janazah, identifying as Muslim.  And while the book says 7th grade and up, I think it is more suited for high school readers.  There are strong themes of islamophobia, media, and privilege, there is killing, murder, a gay Muslim, a ghost, assault, language, planning to go to a school dance, racism, vandalism, misogyny, Halloween, relationships, hate crimes, and abuse of power, to name a few reasons that I think older readers (and adults) will appreciate and understand more deeply than most middle schoolers, how remarkable this book truly is.

SYNOPSIS:

Safiya is in her senior year at her elite private school, she’s a scholarship kid, and her passion is journalism.  As the editor of the paper she is unafraid to challenge the principal and spur others to action.  When a fellow Muslim kid, Jawad, at a nearby local school gets arrested for bringing a makerspace jetpack to school, it bothers her.  When Jawad goes missing, and events at school and in the community start putting Muslims and other minorities on edge, Safiya finds herself collecting bread crumbs and getting closer to the truth.  Throw in vandalism to her parents Desi store, smoke bombs in the bathrooms, swastikas graffitied at school, and a dead boy whispering to her and you have yourself an action packed thriller that hits close to home.  When the circumstances of how Jawad’s body are found and the clues start to fall in place, Safiya and readers will find themselves rushing against the clock.  Her to safety, and readers to see if their suspensions are correct.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love, love, love how each chapter starts with a fact, or a lie, or an alternate fact, or truth, I keep rereading them. They are so clever, and thought provoking as the short lines stare at you in black and white and get under your skin.

I don’t think the book explains if a ghost in Islamic doctrine would be possible, but I do like that the book on more than one occasions tries to explore it.  I think for me acknowledging that it doesn’t fit, but that jinn exist and that maybe it just is what it is allowed me to overlook it and read the story for what it is.  I appreciate that the author gave the characters presence of mind to try and view it through an Islamic perspective and see answers that way, even if it did come up short.

I love the parents in the book, all of them. There is no oppression or force or lack of understanding, from the parents which was a nice break from the normal YA Muslim family dynamic presentation.  As a result perhaps, Safiya has never gone to a school dance, but when asked to Winter Formal she doesn’t have any religious or cultural hesitation in agreeing to go.  Part of me wishes it would have crossed her mind, but I think the other part wins out- that for her it is a non issue and that her view and practice of Islam is just different than mine and that is ok.  I think part of the reason I am ok with it is because there is no overly forced make-out sessions or drawn out angsty scenes.  There is a kiss on the cheek and one on the forehead, a tiny bit of snuggling, and maybe a handhold.  Suffice it to say it isn’t overboard and extreme, it never says that Safiya prays, she notes her parents do, but it seems she goes to the mosque, she identifies as Muslim and she is unapologetic, so by moving the choice to her to go or not go to a dance allows Islam to stay Islam and her actions to stay her actions.  A subtle difference I’m sure for most, but for me a very powerful one in a book that is about more than Islam’s view of premarital relationships.  I think it is also promising in that it shows how far literature has come that these nuances can exist without being overly explained or made into black and white issues.

In a similar vein is how the three Muslim characters are presented.  At one point it says they all go to different mosques because of geography or ethnicity, but to them they are just Muslim.  This includes Usman a kufi wearing Shia Hazara from Afghanistan who is always crushing on his tennis partner, or some other guy.  There is nothing more said about it, and the book carries on.

The style of the writing between the alternating voices of Safiya and Jawad are nice, but I particularly liked the inclusion of the interviews, articles, excerpts, and court transcripts.  The change of pace made it feel like it was more than a fictionalized story about the characters at hand, and a societal trend that is impactful to us all.  Which of course is a theme of the book, and was a nice way to show and convey that sentiment without having to say it over and over again to be heard.

FLAGS:

Copy and pasted from above:  There are strong themes of islamophobia, media, and privilege, there is killing, murder, attempted murder, a gay Muslim, a ghost, assault, language, planning to go to a school dance, racism, vandalism, misogyny, Halloween, relationships, hate crimes, and abuse of power. The hand of Fatima symbol is apparent in the marketing of the book, it isn’t a huge part of the story itself.  It is a key chain that was given to a character and then passed on with a message that it will keep you safe.  Clearly it doesn’t keep you safe and the irony and the passing of it from one character to another (I’m really trying not to spoil anything, can you tell) is the only significance it has on the story.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I have already told my daughter she needs to read the book this summer after finals (she is 15), and while I would love to do this as a high school book club book, I don’t know that the ease of going to a dance, the normative presentation of a gay Muslim, and the ghost as a main character would be widely accepted at an Islamic school.  I think I will suggest it to high schoolers that I know, and would do so confidently as the writing, overall messaging, and critique on the media and privilege are so well executed in a compelling story, but I think the flags might keep me from “teaching” the book or shelving it in the school library.

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

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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.

An Ayesha Dean Novelette: The High School Heist by Melati Lum

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An Ayesha Dean Novelette: The High School Heist by Melati Lum

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If you are a long time fan of Ayesha Dean and you have been waiting for some children in your life to grow up just a little, so you can share the strong Muslim detective books with them, you are in for treat.  This book is a short novelette for middle grade readers!  It isn’t a prequel detailing her personal backstory, but it does show how she got her first taste of sleuthing at age 13.  If you are new to the series: the book like all the others is Islam centered, fast paced, authentically voiced, and an overall fun read.  Unique to this book is that it is for ages 8 and up, and takes place in Ayesha’s home country of Australia.

SYNOPSIS:

Ayesha is at a new school, she has recently started wearing hijab and she just wants to settle in to it all with friends Jess and Sara.  Things have been going missing from year eight lockers, but it isn’t until Ayesha is a victim does the concern really hit home.  Add to that getting paired with the jerk Dylan Wyley for a project in Indonesian class, and Ayesha is not having a good day.  When she senses some suspicious activity, she is on the case: ready to get her stolen book back, take down a bully, put her Tae Kwon Do training to use, and make it to the library to pray her salat on time.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really enjoyed the relatable voice of young Ayesha, having read all of the other books in the series, it was sweet to get a peek of her in her younger school days.  I love how much Islam is in the book, and not in a preachy way, but rather in a ‘I’m Muslim and this is how I see the world and this is what I do’ sort of way. I’m not going to lie though, I wanted more backstory on how she became friends with Jess and Sara, how she settled in to living with Uncle Day when her parents died, and all the backstory four books solving crimes around the world just couldn’t get to.  But I fully realize, that is just something I may never get (hint, hint) and will have to be content with the fast paced, culture and Islam rich stories that we thankfully get.  I’m not complaining, I just get overly invested.

To all my arrogant ignorant readers out there, that like me, might be a bit confused about Australian schooling and culture- I embarrassed and humbled myself and annoyed the ever gracious author to learn more about Ayesha’s world.  In Australia the lockers are located in the students’ homeroom classrooms (tute rooms), hence they don’t often padlock them.  High school refers to ages 12-17, and sometimes 11th and 12th grade are called senior school, and “How did you go” is a phrase in Australian English.  See, aren’t you glad I asked, now we know, and can widen our view together.

The only thing that I think I would have liked to see would have been a bit of pause before Ayesha got into a fight.  It is high energy, and she does it to help someone, but I feel like at 13 years old, in a book for 8 year olds, and as someone familiar with Tae Kwon Do, it should have been more articulated that she was nervous to engage in a physical altercation, and was only doing it because she could not diffuse the situation, get the victim away, and thus had to step in.  I recognize that pulling out of the scene might have made it lose momentum, but I felt a little off celebrating a school fight without that pause of introspection.

FLAGS:

Fighting, stealing, bullying, Islamohobia, racism, bigotry.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
The book is short and for a younger age than I meet with, but I look forward to purchasing the book on February 20, 2022 to have available in the school library for anyone to pick up and read, inshaAllah.

The Great (Food) Bank Heist by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Elisa Paganelli

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The Great (Food) Bank Heist by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Elisa Paganelli

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As an adult setting out to read this book, I imagined that the goal of the book was to bring awareness to a specific issue, food insecurity, and to rally support to help others with this basic need.  The beauty of Muslim author and activist Onjali Q. Rauf, however, is that even with such a clear intent, the storytelling, character building, and  enjoyment of the book makes you connect to the plot and issues and feel the message, not just be told it.  For children seven through 12  with no prior expectation of the book, they will be emotionally effected by the reality shown and feel empathy and compassion for characters that will hopefully translate into their real life.  My 10 and 12 year old boys read the book in about an hour, not realizing what the book was going to be about and hounded me to read it with glowing reviews.  This 103 page middle grades book has diverse characters (none are Muslim), and is a great story, a great educational tool, a great empathy check, and a great resource for how to get involved to start helping food banks, and breakfast clubs, all while being funny, relatable, kind, and engaging.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nelson, his younger sister Ashley, and their Mum work together to make hard “tricky” months manageable.  They are creative with their meals, they go to breakfast club, and they use their vouchers on Thursdays at the food bank.  Some times though, it isn’t enough, Mum has to pawn her jewelry, they go without meals, and generous friends share their snacks.  When the food bank starts running low, Nelson breaks his secrecy about breakfast club and his close friends Krish and Harriet are determined to help figure out why donated food isn’t reaching the bank and what they can do to make sure it does.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it shows how the family has food insecurities on a day-to-day basis and how never feeling full affects so much of the characters’ attention.  I also love that it shows their mom works, she is a nurse and works really hard, they don’t steal or load up on food that is donated, they are very grateful for all assistance given and their friends don’t judge them.  It shed light on a different narrative that many children perhaps don’t think about: that people they know and are close with, might be hungry.  I think the maturity of the kids is a lesson to adults reading the book too, that reminds us that kindness and assistance doesn’t need to come with judgement or arrogance.  The characters are all really likeable, they aren’t perfect, but even though the book is short, you feel your heart being affected by them in their handling of the mystery and the larger concept of hunger.

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FLAGS:

None

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would read this book aloud in a classroom (2nd-5th), and if I get a chance to participate in Lunch Bunch (where a book is read to children while they eat their lunch) at our local Islamic School, I will start off with this book.  I think kids have bigger hearts than we often think they do, and while they might not recall the less fortunate when you want them to finish all the food on their plate, they often notice kids without lunches at school and share without prompting.  

Here’s a great clip and reading by the author: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVYBLh0kODc

Happy Reading!

 

Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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In this third Ayesha Dean book, that can be read as a stand alone, the Australian teen sleuth finds herself on the other side of the law in the beautiful city of Lisbon in Portugal.  Over 333 pages, she must understand what she is being accused of and figure out how to clear her name, all while marveling at the beautiful historic sites, diving into the delicious food, and looking fabulous while she does it all.  Middle grade to early middle school readers will enjoy the fast pace mystery that has history, crime, adventure, and friendship.  There, as always, is a twinge of romance, but it all stays halal as Ayesha is a proud and practicing strong Muslim young woman.

SYNOPSIS:

Ayesha Dean is now 18 and has just arrived in Lisbon for three months as part of an internship program to help little kids with their english.  This is her first international trip without her beloved Uncle Day and her two closest friends Jess and Sara.  Not to worry, there are a lot of young people participating in the internship program and she will be rooming with two girls, Mara and Aveline. Things start of routine enough as Ayesha gets to know the handsome and kind Raimy from America and tries to figure out why Aveline doesn’t seem to like her.  But on her way to the school she will be working at, she finds a wallet filled with money and no identification, just a phone number.  When she calls the number and a meeting is setup, the stage is set for a series of events that will include telling Raimy off for mansplaining things to her, a man murdered, a chase scene, a necklace stolen, no memory of it all, and Ayesha being arrested.

Knowing only a few people in the city, and having just met them at that, Ayesha makes bail by getting help from her friend’s Aunt in Spain who comes to provide Ayesha a place to stay as well. She has some time before her formal hearing, and Ayesha is determined to figure out what she is being accused of and how to clear her name.  With the help of Mara, Raimy, a young girl in the elementary school Ayesha was working at, and some chance encounters, Ayesha finds herself risking her own safety in an underground environmental gang ring. I won’t spoil all the ups and downs and ultimate ending, but Ayesha Dean’s tae kwon do, faith, and wits will all be used and the last page will definitely leave you wanting more.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I feel like the writing has finally found the perfect balance between description and action, the first chapter was a bit choppy, but once it hit its stride it was smooth.  I was intrigued by the historical detail that was all new to me, and am pondering how to convince the author to lead a tour group through all these places that Ayesha visits.  As always the descriptions of food and architecture and fashion are all so spot on that you feel like you are there.  I absolutely love that religion is so genuinely a part of Ayesha, but it is for her, she doesn’t do it for any one else.  She prays, she wears hijab, she doesn’t drink, she clarifies to Raimy what she can do, she acknowledges possible stereotypes and discrimination, but chooses to move forward and not get bogged down by it.  She is physically and mentally strong, but doesn’t come off as arrogant or judgmental or unrealistic.

I like the diverse characters in this book, and in all of them.  The multi ethnic protagonist has friends from all sorts of backgrounds and it is really refreshing and natural.

FLAGS:

There is murder, assault, crime, drinking and alcohol.  Nothing is glamorized or anything a third grader couldn’t probably handle.  There is a hint of possible romance, but nothing that crosses any lines or standards.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle school book club if the majority of the participants are 6th graders as it would not have the same appeal to older 8th graders.  I think they would benefit the most and enjoy the strength and cleverness of such an inspiring lead.  Of the three books in the series, I think this one would work the best for insightful discussion and empathy.  It would great to hear them imagine themselves in her shoes: a foreign country, no family, no longtime friends, minimal language skills and accused of a serious crime. Oh I can’t wait to share this book with my reading friends!

Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz

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Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz

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This graphic novel jammed pack with sleuthing, friendship, and diversity is perfect for ages 8 and up.  The inclusive cast shows motive and growth keeping anyone from being entirely good or completely villainous and strikes a wonderful balance of insight, community building, and relatable fun.  From the main character’s mom wearing hijab, and random hijabis in the background panels, to characters of color, and characters with social obstacles, there are also bullies, cancer survivors, a character with two moms, working parents, and a missing gecko all coming together over 221 pages to leave the reader waiting for the next book in the series.

SYNOPSIS:

Jamila has just moved to the neighborhood and with older brothers as role models, she just wants to spend her summer shooting hoops and taking it easy.  Her mom, on the other hand, wants to send her off to science camp.  Shirley, is incredibly perceptive and wants to spend her summer solving neighborhood crimes, the ones adults won’t or can’t help with, but her mother has signed her up for dance camp.  When the girls cross paths at a yard sale, Shirley uses her wits to convince her mom and Jamila’s mom to let them spend the summer together at the basketball courts, thus both girls get what they want.  The two girls aren’t exactly friends, but the arrangement benefits them both, and the days go smoothly, until a gecko goes missing and Shirley and Jamila have to decide to break their parents’ rules to leave the courts and venture to the swimming pool to investigate.  Jamila and Shirley hit a snag in their understanding of one another and realize they want to be friends, something neither of them currently have.  As they work Oliver and Vee’s case to find Enoch the gecko, the reader meets lots of neighborhood characters, from life guards to daycare informants.  And as the clues come together so do a group of kids, all needing friendship, kindness, and a little understanding.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the Nancy Drew, Great Brain, Encyclopedia Brown, vibe of the story.  It is funny and plausible and about so much more than just the case.  It is quick and well drawn, and really just a joy overall.  I love the diversity and teamwork and innocence of a summer and some good old fashion kids using their brains to save the day.

Other than the mom wearing a scarf when out of the home and a few hijabis in the background there is no textual mention of religion.  The mom at one point says something in Urdu and the family has Muslim names.

FLAGS:

One of the side characters mentions that she has two moms.  It is mentioned once, it isn’t dwelled on, and in many ways I think a great way to explain to your kids, if they mention it, that they might have friends and classmates with different family structures.  I love that fiction allows for this conversations to occur in the abstract so to speak, you can guide your children how to handle these differences while talking about fictional characters, and imparting your families view of such matters in an open and hopefully non judgmental or hateful way.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

As always with graphic novels, they just aren’t the best format for book clubs as they are usually quick reads.  The target audience for this is middle grades as well and while middle schoolers might enjoy it, they would read it in less than a half an hour and there really wouldn’t be much to discuss once the case is solved.  I would highly recommend checking your local public library for the book, that is where I found my copy, and happy reading!

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Missing Diamonds by Annabelle Sami illustrated by Daniela Sosa

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Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Missing Diamonds by Annabelle Sami illustrated by Daniela Sosa

img_7104This engaging and fun early middle grades detective story set in England, features a female protagonist of Pakistani origin who stumbles on a crime at her cousins mehndi party.  Over 231 pages with illustrations and flourishes, Agent Zaiba along with her younger half brother Ali and best friend Poppy will have to solve a case, avoid a nosy cousin, try not to ruin their clothes and so much more while stuffing their pockets with samosas and pakoras, and making sure they make it back for all the traditional events as well.  There is nothing Islamic in this culture rich book, but with names like Fouzia, Samirah, Tanvir, Mariam, Maysoon, and Hassan, Muslim children or readers with sub continent familiarity, will feel an immediate reflection of themselves in the story.  I have no idea what religion the author identifies as either, but from what I can Google, it seems to be an OWN story book and the richness and integrity of the minor details would suggest first hand knowledge.  Anyone looking to see a strong minority female lead with good friends, an open mind, and impressive sleuthing skills, should hold on tight as the agents assemble to get to the bottom of a theft and save the day for a beloved cousin.

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SYNOPSIS:

Zaiba idolizes her Aunt Fouzia who is a real detective and owner of the Snow Leopard Detective Agency in Karachi, Pakistan.  Aunt Fozia’s daughter Samirah is getting married and with the Eden Lockett mystery books Zaiba inherited from her mom when she passed away, this party at The Royal Star Hotel is the perfect venue to test out her observation skills and other lessons she has learned from devouring the famous books.

When Zaiba, Ali, and Poppy learn that there is a VIP guest staying in the same hotel, the team gets a chance to explore the hotel and find out who the guest is.  What starts out innocently enough quickly elevates when a secret staircase is discovered, the VIP’s dog is set off his leash, and a jewel encrusted dog tag goes missing.   The three kids work together and set off to find the dog that has terrified Sam and ruined her mehndi, once that is done, the stakes get higher as Maysoon explains that the good luck charm is not just expensive, but a lucky token she needs to move her career from singing and hosting, to acting.  As the children work to find the diamonds and work their way through the list of suspects at the hotel, they have to make sure not get in too much trouble for missing key events of their cousins big day and getting in trouble with the tattling cousin Mariam.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is really for younger readers, second through early fourth grade, and shows the fun bits of a culture to a larger audience without being daunting.  I love the idea of a mehndi as a back drop for a whodunit, seriously, it has the perfect energy and vibe.  The family is amazingly supportive, Zaiba has a step mom, Jessica, that she adores, and a half brother that she loves.  Aunt Fouzia and Sam encourage Zaiba to go solve the crime and give her respect when she does her big reveal to the police.  It really is empowering to see the grown ups support.  I love that Zaiba grows even in such a limited time as she learns about her mom and we even see  Zaiba’s heart soften for Mariam.

Maysoon is a celebrity that is really flat and weak and whiney, at the end she shines a bit, but I really felt she was lame and under developed.  I’m not sure what a champagne reception is, but the fact that Maysoon is  having one would suggest she isn’t Muslim, not sure, I guess I’ll have to keep searching for clues.

The end of the book has a whole section to test the reader if they have what it takes to join the Snow Leopard Detective Agency:  an excerpt from Eden Lockett’s book, her detective tips, things to practice, code writing, and info about the Agency, including Aunt Fozia’s record amounts of chai consumed.

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FLAGS:

There is lying and stealing, it is a mystery after all, and the presence of champagne, both as part of the mystery solving and at the celebrity’s celebration.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I’d do it as a book club book, because there wouldn’t be a lot to discuss.  I do, however, plan to suggest and gift the two book series to some young mixed ethnic Pakistani girls I know that would love to see a strong desi girl in the lead.

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed

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Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed

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I really should give up reading Samira Ahmed books.  This is the third one I’ve read, and while she is definitely getting better, I still don’t know why her editors don’t fix her flat notes.  Like in Internment, the premise in this book is amazing, but other parts are just cringe-y and painful and really, really unnecessary.  My guess is, she would identify herself as a romance YA author, and yet consistently in her works, that is the most lacking part: the character building and forced romances.  The art history mystery, the inspiration and “real” life of the characters from the past, the setting of Paris in the summer, the fight for woman to be heard are all so well done and compelling and interesting that this romp that blurs fact and fiction might deserve a read, but you have to overlook the forced love triangle, excessive kissing, be willing to suspend reality regarding Alexandre Dumas, Eugène Delacroix, and Lord Byron, artifacts and sleuthing, but if you can do all that, this 337 page book for 9th grade and up, is definitely fun and hard to put down.

SYNOPSIS:
The protagonist is 17-year-old French-Indian-Muslim-American Khayyam, who is spending her summer in Paris with her professor parents like they do every year.  But this year is different as she is being ghosted by her boyfriend Zaid back in Chicago and has just been humiliated by her poor research attempts to link a missing painting from artist Delacroix to author Dumas in an entrance essay competition to her dream school.  Khayyam’s story is really just beginning though as she steps in dog crap and bumps into a descendent of Alexandre Dumas as she wipes it off.  A cute descendant, who shares the name with his distant grandfather, and viola’ the two of them are off on a whirlwind adventure of clues and attraction and mystery solving.

Khayyam’s story is interwoven and told between small glimpses of Leila’s story.  Leila is a Haseki, a chosen concubine of the Pasha in Ottoman Turkey, but the lover of Giaour and friend of the jin.  As we learn her story from 200 years earlier and her struggle to break free of her gilded cage in the harem, only to be defined by the artist and poets and author men around her, her story and Khayyams collide.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I know precious little of art history, I can name drop a few artists and paintings, but that is being generous, so the fact that I have no clue what is real and what is fake and what is possible, made this story all the more fun and engaging.  Yes, I researched, aka Googled, stuff as I read and am perfectly content to accept the fictional what ifs that the book offers.  I love how the art world and literary world are one in the book and that they inspired each other. The way the sleuthing, the finding of artifacts, and unraveling of it all is presented is indeed a romp.  Realistic? Not a chance, but fun.  I also love how both Khayyam and Leila had to define themselves and ultimately not do it in the reflection of a male.

The rest of the book, is a bit of a stretch.  Leila’s story naturally has holes in it as it is told in broken pieces, but Khayyam’s story does too.  I just didn’t care about her past boyfriend/ex-boyfriend/friend, whatever Zaid is or was, and clearly after moping about him for 300 pages and then not even giving him a proper goodbye, means that the author and character didn’t really care either, which made the already forced, cringe-y annoyingness all the more grating.  As for the relationship, the other piece in the triangle, with Alexandre, was fine in that there was angst, but they put it aside to solve the mystery, so it didn’t bother me too much.  Of course the fact that Khayyam is a practicing Muslim who seems to have no problems with boyfriends, and making out and that her parents don’t mind either, makes the faith aspect all the more befuddling.  I guess practicing might be a stretch, her mom and her go to Jummah prayer on Friday, thats about the extent, and she mentions she doesn’t drink.  Zaid, sets up a tutoring program at the masjid, but his instagram has him hanging all over girls too, so not sure why the characters are even Muslim.  I suppose it is good to have that diverse representation, but it doesn’t seem to make much necessary sense to the overall story.

FLAGS:

Implied concubine activities, with the Pasha and the lover.   Lots and lots and lots of kissing, nothing graphic, but annoying amounts of it being mentioned.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I want someone to discuss it with me and point out where the facts end and the speculation starts and when the full on fiction takes over.  I don’t think I could use this book as a book club book because of the center stage of the haram romances in both Khayyam’s time and Leila’s.  But if you have read it, talk to me about it, I’m curious!

NPR’s Review: https://www.npr.org/2020/04/11/831873365/in-mad-bad-dangerous-romantic-sleuths-uncover-a-byronic-secret

 

Mikaeel and Malaika: The Power of Dua by Kazima Wajahat illustrated by Gustavo Gutierrez

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Mikaeel and Malaika: The Power of Dua by Kazima Wajahat illustrated by Gustavo Gutierrez

power of duaMikaeel and Malaika are back in this 32 page hardback book that explores why duas sometime seem not to come true.  Done in a hilarious manner that brings in riddles and problem solving elements, it is perfect for 6-8 year olds.  Younger children will enjoy the beautiful illustrations and silliness, and older children (and parents) will thoroughly enjoy Big Boss’s play on words and the illustrations showing his parenting style.  I’ve read the book multiple times to myself, my toddler, and even my older kids; each time surpressing a smile and enjoying the message lovingly and entertainingly conveyed: “rewards are best when the time is right.”

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The book starts out with a problem to be solved, a mystery: who took the shoes from the masjid.  I know such a real world problem in a picture book, but fear not, super hero siblings Mikaeel and Malaika are on it.  There is just one problem, their super powers are gone.

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They head to Big Boss, aka their father, to find out what happened to their powers, only to learn they were part of a “14 day free trial” and their superjet? It was sold on Spamazon. At a loss of what to do, Big Boss reminds them that they have one super power left, the power of dua.

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The kids run to pray and then they wait.  When they can wait no longer, they go to see if the shoes have been returned, but…they haven’t. Big Boss gives them some sage rhyming explanaition that they don’t understand, but try to unravel in an apple orchard.  When that doesn’t work, he gives them more advice and they follow it up in a butterfly garden. With no answer insight, Mikaeel gets frusterated and wants to know why his dua won’t come true.

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Finally understanding that Allah (swt) does things at the perfect time and only at the perfect time, the children change their dua and the shoes are found, and the lesson learned and shared.

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I love Big Boss, and this book makes it much more clear than in Mikaeel and Malaika: The Quest for Love, that his advice and riddles are in rhyme, but that the rest of the text is not.  I love that he is a hands on parent changing diapers, cooking, and guiding his kids. His steralizing of an infintile waste unit, and skimming a superhero manual are awesome and silly.

The book is about Muslim children, for Muslim children, but I think any child would enjoy the story to learn what Muslims believe, and any religious child who believes that there is one creator would be able to relate to the story as well.

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The book ends with an ayat from the Qur’an in English promising that Allah swt answers the prayers of the supplicants.  InshaAllah there will be more Mikaeel and Malaika adventures, and more of Big Boss and Super Agent M.O.M., too.