Tag Archives: romance

The Next New Syrian Girl by Ream Shukairy

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The Next New Syrian Girl by Ream Shukairy

next new syrian

This culture rich, American set, upcoming 416 page YA book proudly shows the characters’ Islam as it shares a story of pain, privilege, guilt, adversity, hope, and family dynamics.  The book is an easy read that is hard to put down, and is remarkably clean for the threads of romance, war, and mental health that permeate the pages (note that here are triggers of loss, separation, death, suicide, drowning, trauma, hate, and bullying).  There, however, are also some plot holes, contradictions, and weak threads that I feel obligated to note, but ultimately don’t make the book a bad read.  I think 16 year old readers, both Syrian and not, as well as Muslim and non Muslims will benefit from the characters sharing their lives and peeling back surface layers to show an intimate account of expectation and obligation for Syrian American girls in today’s world with the backdrop of war in Syria.  The book’s first few pages are powerful in their Islamic centering and unapologetic normalizing of salat and hijab and identity. The Islam in the forefront fades as the story progresses and I don’t think I can sign off on the relationship between two characters as being “halal,” but starting the story with fears of praying on the side of the road as a mom’s concern is next level.  Most book parents are trying to get their kids to pray, in this family- prayers are happening five times a day and on time, so the worry is knowing where you are when Maghrib time hits, because it obviously won’t be missed or delayed, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Khadija’s mom is queen bee in the tight knit Syrian community in Detroit and Khadija does not fit the mold of what the queen’s daughter should be.  It isn’t that Khadija is a rebel, she loves her mother, her faith, her roots, and well, boxing.  Khadija is wealthy, and privileged and so much of what is expected is for appearance sake only.  Khadija knows this, and takes boxing lessons for free in exchange for helping keep the gym clean as to establish this as her own thing, no strings attached.  When Khadija’s mom takes in a Syrian refugee and her daughter, Leene, Khadija has to figure out if she is threatened, jealous, or impressed by the new arrivals and what that means about her own family.

Leene shares the narrative with Khadija and shares her transition to life in America and in the Shaami home along with her past.  The loses she has faced, the obstacles overcome, and the secrets she keeps in order to face each new day show glimpses into the destruction of the Syrian war on a way of life and the beauty lost. 

The two girls are at odds with each other for much of the book, but as their stories start to intertwine, they find themselves with similarities and strengths that show they are a benefit to each other, despite their stubbornness and fiercely independent personalities.  In a race to reclaim what was once lost, the girls start to trust each other, and when family is further threatened the two girls allow themselves to be vulnerable and work together to save what matters.

Clearly I am trying not to spoil the book, nor takeaway from the climax, but I think most that start the book, will find themselves glued to the pages and will understand why I am choosing not to disclose too much.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The first chapter completely blew me away, I loved the idea of such a strong hijabi girl boxing and being so unapologetic about her Islam and culture.  I must admit I cried at the end as well.  It was tied up very neatly, arguably too perfectly, but there were tears none-the-less and no matter what I critique about the book, I was moved by it. The writing is engaging, and entertaining, no doubt, but alas, I have some questions, lots of questions in fact: How did the mom’s meet? One is super posh and high class, the other refugee with very little, how did their paths cross? How did Leene convince her mom to let her travel even if the ‘why’ was kept hidden? After everything they have been through wouldn’t being left to travel to the Middle East be a huge obstacle that needed to be overcome, it reads inconsistent and unbelievable. How hard was it for the “girls” to leave the “boys,” I would imagine it was devastating, yet it didn’t even get a mention.  

What changed so much about the family dynamic when they stopped going to Syria, the author shows the joy of Syria and being together for the family, but I think if you are not Syrian and do not know Syrians well, some of this thread, is going to fall short.  I talked to @muslimmommyblog and could see the reflection of the characters for her, but if I didn’t have her shared experience to flesh out the characters, I don’t know that I would have understood the weight of the guilt, the helplessness, and the frustration.  Similarly, only through talking to Shifa did I understand the pressures of being an American Syrian girl, if I’m being honest, Khadija the majority of the time, just reads whiney. Other family dynamic questions involve the dad and brother.  Was the dad always so absent? It must not have happened overnight, right? And exactly how old is Zain? He reads like he is 12, but he is in high school? Additionally, high school graduation is very important for both girls for very different reasons, but their is no talk of college or career plans, which was noticeably missing from the book.

Then there is the angsty storyline of Younes.  The perfectly selfless guy who doesn’t center his Islam as much, but does want to have a prolonged engagement.  What does that even mean, and how will that be ok Islamically, with them already laying on the 90s Bollywood style glances and loving confession?  Also why does Khadija frame morality through an Islamic lens for most things, but for the relationship resorts to worrying about what her mother will be ok with?  And was the family ok with Younes? How is he at the BBQ? Speaking of places he shouldn’t be, how was he at the party Nassima isn’t Arab enough for, when she at least speaks Arabic and he does not?

I think it best to just enjoy the story for what it is, not look too deep, not ask questions, and just enjoy the rep, the story, the characters, and the emotions released with the climax and conclusion.

FLAGS:

Romance, crushes, road rage, bullying, Islaophobia, mental health, death, killing, war, destruction, suicide, drowning, abandonment, separation, loss, grief, rebellion, angst, lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would not work for a middle school book club, and I really should say that this wouldn’t work for a high school book club either, but I know many older high school girls that would absolutely love this book and I think it might be possible to convince them that the relationship is more than the text shared, and was approved by the families and made halal.  Considering so many holes exist, it might be possible to control the narrative in a book club setting on the permissibility of the relationship.  It would definitely depend on the girls reading the book and I would strongly suggest that whether you read this book in a group or hand it to a teen, that you make it clear what a halal relationship looks like and that this is a work of fiction.

The book releases in March 2023 and as always to show support for OWN voice Muslim character filled stories please consider pre-ordering the book: you can do so here on Amazon.  And once the book releases please purchase, checkout from your library, and encourage your schools to shelve titles to encourage similar books to be published and made available, thank you.

Rebel of Fire and Flight by Aneesa Marufu

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Rebel of Fire and Flight by Aneesa Marufu

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I struggled with this 384 page young adult fantasy.  It skirts and plays with Islamic doctrine as the characters and plot points dance with fantasy and fiction; and because I never felt that the author was completely in control of the story and where it was going, I could never relax and be swept away.  The author identifies as Muslim and in the backmatter addresses how experiences with Islamophobia influenced her writing, yet I don’t know why jinn and hijab were in the book when fictionalized creatures and cultural dress would have sufficed.  Clearly the character on the cover is in hijab, the names of half the characters are Muslamic, the culture is very desi, the broad concepts of jinn, the ghaib, sihr, Prophet Sulaiman, call to prayer, are all Islamically rooted, but characters go to worship at temples, jinn and jinniya eat corpses and are described so often as looking like smoke.  There is no clear identifier that these characters are in fact Muslim, it is simply hinted at, which makes the fictional parts seem like extensions of religious doctrine and ultimately made me uncomfortable with much of the story.  It also makes me think readers will not know where the lines are, if my brain was muddled, I can’t imagine a  young teen reading it and keeping it clear.  There is a few rushed romantic scenes of kissing, there is a trans character who’s gender identity and born gender is a significant plot line in the story, and there is a lot of oppression, racism, death, abuse, misogyny and fear.  It is a dark read that metaphorically takes real societal concepts and sets them in shades of gray with the added use of fantasy. There are a lot of layers in the story, and while it wasn’t poorly written, there were definitely places it needed to be better.  I really didn’t like any of the characters, I didn’t understand their motives, their relationships, their drives, the commentary on occupiers and rebels was weak as was the push back on misogyny after the first few chapters.  I didn’t feel a love of hot air balloons or feel that the battle scenes accounted for many of the characters that would suddenly be missing from the scenes.  I think the dual perspectives kept the intensity of the climaxes at bay and halted the rising action.  Too many misses for me to recommend this standalone book, but if you’ve read it and can talk me through it, I’m willing to listen.

SYNOPSIS:

In a land where girls are running out of time to be arranged in marriage at 17 and transportation is done in hot air balloons, there are two groups of citizens: the darker Ghadaean’s are the rulers and the lighter skinned hāri are oppressed.  The book establishes this power dynamic early on in a quick synopsis: the hāri came from the Himala mountain range to trade to Ghadaea, but their greed and lust for power drove them to try and seize the land.  They failed, and now 90 years later the hāri are punished for the mistakes of their grandfathers (4%).  Both groups fear sihr and jinn.  Everyone is vegetarian because jinn are attracted to rotting corpses, animal and human, and thus anything dead is quickly burned.  When a radical hāri group, the Hāreef, is formed with a new leader, sihr and jinn are no longer enemies but tools to rebel against the racist oppression, and assist in the war to change the balance of power.  

Khadija is 16 and with her mother and younger brother deceased at the hands of some hāri, her older sister married and off in a balloon, her father is desperate to get her married.  Most females are not allowed to read, nor are they even allowed out of the house alone.  The fear of the jinn is weaponized to keep them in, and misogyny prevents from proving themselves.  While out meeting with a suitor, Khadija in a burst of desperation leaves her father and jumps in to an escaping balloon.  Khadija does not know how to fly a balloon, having never even ridden in one, but when it lands in different town she meets Jacob.

Jacob is hāri and the second of the dual perspectives telling the story, he is orphaned and is unique in that he is an apprentice of a glass blowing Ghadaean.  He meets Khadija and offers her food, and in the span of a few hours she saves him and he saves her and both seem to have a dead glass blower on their hands.  Add this to his growing rift with his best friend William, who has joined the Hāreef, and is now dead, and you have Khadija and Jacob escaping in a balloon, not trusting each other nor knowing who and what they support.

From here on the two’s friendship and motives wax and wane as they are drawn in to battle together, and against each other.  Neither are “good” or “bad” nor are their decisions always clear, but they will be forced none-the-less to figure out what they want and what they stand for as peri’s are tortured, nawab’s are killed, jinnya queens are called upon, wishes are granted and a group of hāri and Ghadeans known as the Wazeem offer a unified collective.  Unfortunately, change and power never come easy and when a dead son is brought back as an ifrit and an ancient princess in the jinn world is ready to battle, all the shades of gray that exist in politics, revolution, rebellions, families, hate, racism, gender identities, and control all come spilling out from balloon baskets and the ghaib. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I honestly kept reading to see how the author was going to bring it to a conclusion and wrap up all the loose threads.  And while the book lagged at times, she definitely got it concluded.  Aside from the religious signaling, but never owning identity problems, I struggled with the writing too.  The hāri Jacob doesn’t read like a little brother, he and Khadija read the same age, and so his importance in the Hāreef seems an ill fit.  Plus he is very duplicitous and I get that that is part of the story, but I never liked him so it just got annoying how many second, third, fourth chances he got, and I mean, why would anyone care? 

Khadija seems like she is going to battle misogyny early on, I hate that marriage and arranged marriage is equated to oppression, but the not being allowed out and not being educated seems to fizzle in the middle and then come out a bit in the final scene.  I hoped it would have been commented on in every new city they arrived at.  The set up was there, but because it wasn’t, it made it seem more of a shortsightedness of her own father, and not a larger problem when strong women existed elsewhere.  This also reinforced a “brown Muslim” man stereotype that is never pushed back on.  

The racism, power struggle oppression is more consistent, but with the foundation that the hāri came and tried to take over nearly  90 years ago makes it hard to feel too bad for them.  They tried to occupy and now are enslaved.  Neither is ideal, but why didn’t they just go back? We aren’t talking more than one generation, it is the “crimes of their grandfathers,” they had a home, they were kicked out, they should leave.  Yes, I know they are human and racism is wrong, my point is a literary one, that the foundation should have been stronger, more detailed.

The love interest I also felt was lacking, Darian comes out of nowhere, they are in love, he gives her his heart so he is saved, I didn’t feel the tension, I didn’t get it, not at all.  It was forced and cheesy and I just know he kept getting hurt, they would kiss, and then he was back to getting hurt or possessed or something, had no personality what so ever.

The seal of Prophet Sulaiman and the hundreds of pieces of it didn’t sit right with me, nor the jinns being smoky and eating corpses.  I truly don’t understand why very real Islamic concepts were brought in and twisted.  Why not just create your own characters and say they were loosely inspired.  I felt like the religious rep and OWN voice kept one foot in the religious inspired world and one in the fantasy is fiction so I can do what I want, and it didn’t work for me.  I think it crossed in to being disrespectful, and had the author not identified herself as Muslim, I would have been furious as the book reads like an outsider who doesn’t get that jinn are real, Prophet Sulaiman was real, sihr is real, the ghaib is real.  It really needed some some clarification on where the story existed and where the religion or religious inspiration started and stopped.

The trans character is worth highlighting because it does touch into Islamic rulings regarding hijab, even though we don’t know if Anam or any of the characters are Muslim. Anam is born a male, but leaves her family of exorcists and is a leader of the Wazeem as a female. She presents as a female, but when she enters a room where numerous Wazeem women are changing many hide, draw their hijabs, make horrified gestures etc., it has to be explained to Khadija why this is.  It does not bother Khadija. Story wise it is a critical point because the Jinniya Queen Mardzma is the queen of female warriors and it is unknown if Anam would be seen as female or male. When Anam went from being an exorcist to the greatest human warrior present is beyond me, but there was a lot of assumptions you had to accept while reading.

FLAGS:

Death, erroneous religious rep, kissing, murder, killing, lying, torturing, threat of sexual assault, murder, coming back from the dead, oppression, racism, trans, misogyny, abuse, hetero relationships, stealing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would not shelve this book in an Islamic school library or classroom, nor would I use it as a book club selection.  Although if my local public library or some adult Muslims read it and were planning to discuss, I would join to hear their thoughts about it.  I would not be able to lead, but I would enjoy picking it apart with others.

The book releases shortly, just because it didn’t work for me, if you think it sounds like something you would like, you can preorder and purchase it HERE.

The Love Match by Priyanka Taslim

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The Love Match by Priyanka Taslim

This new YA book features Muslim characters, but is not a religious conscious read that fits in the halal category.  There is a lot of Islam: waking up for fajr, celebrating Eid, a hijabi, mention of jummah, but the OWN voice rom com sets boundaries based on Bangladeshi culture and American perspectives.  The book does not other, or have internalized Islamophobia, or fall in to tropes of oppression and rebelling- quite the contrary- it normalizes everything: LGBTQ+ relationships, dating, music, etc.  The book is well written from a literary perspective: easy read, fleshed out characters, resolved plot lines, I wish there would have been more slow burn and heightened emotion, and cathartic release, but it happily held my attention for 388 pages, so I can’t really complain about plot holes or development.  The problem I have as an Islamic School Librarian is the non issue dating and romance is for the characters with their parents knowledge, both lesbian and heterosexual.  The book doesn’t get graphic, in fact there is only a handful of kisses, but there is a lot of hand holding and pdas in front of parents and even a sleepover with a lesbian couple in a Muslim family’s home, again, nothing “racy” occurs, but the normalization is worth noting for those thinking a Salaam Reads book is going to be a more Islamically centered publication.

SYNOPSIS:

Zahra Khan has graduated high school, and while she’d love to be heading to Columbia to study writing with her best friends, she is stuck deferring her admission and scholarships, and hiding her dream to be an author.  Two years earlier her father has passed away and Zahra works in a tea shop to help keep a roof over the heads of her mother, grandmother, and siblings.  In the Bangladeshi community in Patterson, New Jersey Zahra’s mom imagines arranging a marriage to a wealthy family for Zahra to ease their financial stresses.  When a potential match comes a possible reality, Zahra takes control to try and keep the peace and keep her dreams within reach.  In Jane Austin-y feels, a love triangle emerges, friends step up, culture and family touchstones shared and appreciated, and decisions about the future will have to be figured out at 18 years old.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I loved how easy a read the book is, the cultural framing was warm and rich and never overly explained or apologized for.  It is what it is, it is who the characters are, and while at times they push back on the negatives, it doesn’t disregard the love that exists at the core.  Unfortunately, I really struggled though with the ease in which the characters date with their parents’ knowledge, hold hands, cuddle.  I really couldn’t imagine a practicing Muslim family being so supportive of a lesbian daughter in the way that the Tahir family is and allowing a sleepover, nor could I see a hafiz attending musical concerts and Bollywood movies or an imam passing on “love” notes, even side comments about a loan between mother and daughter being paid back with interest felt off.  I know I know, there are lots of shades of Muslims, but the normalcy of haram I feel in a review of this book should be noted. It isn’t side mentions, they are central to the story and large portions of the book.  The reason I also feel they are worthy of note, is because the book includes a lot of Islam as well.  The characters pray and fast and eat halal.  They are conscious of chaperones in some settings and keeping things appropriate.  There is no doubt that the characters are Muslim, but I think intentionally, to avoid perhaps critiques such as mine, Islam is not used as a reason to do or not do anything, Islam is not used in the thought process or conscience of the characters, culture is.  There is no haram police setting boundaries, it just isn’t what “good Deshi girls do.” To be fair, I don’t think the author has ever claimed that this is a halal love story, or that the characters are exploring their Muslim identities, it is a love story that features Muslims is all.

FLAGS:

Straight and sapphic relationships, secret relationships, kissing, hand holding, hugging, lying, music, loss, bullying, interest.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would not be able to use this book, it would be very damaging to be given to a Muslim child from a Muslim teacher in an Islamic school.  It normalizes a lot of haram in a familiar Islamic framing that I think would really confuse YA readers who see themselves and see no push back or consequences for actions they know to be against Islamic ideology.

A Second Look by Hannah Matus

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A Second Look by Hannah Matus

a second look

Ok, so y’all, don’t be like me, don’t judge this book by it’s cover, its inside font and spacing, or even the blurb on the back.  Judge it based on this sentence: A modern ISLAMIC Libyan cultural retelling of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice, that is done so, so well.  It is seriously so well written and so effortlessly adapted that for those that know the original by heart you will giggle and be giddy with anticipation of how the characters and plot points are turned Islamic.  And those that have never read or watched the original or any of the many adaptations, will be sucked in and swept away by the story at hand.  Oh sure it needs a few tweaks here and there, but truly this hidden gem sat untouched on my shelf with it’s unattractive cover for way too long.  Alhumdulillah for @bintyounus giving the book a start and squealing with glee until the entire @muslimbookreviewer crew dropped everything and read the book.  Not that it was hard, once started, this book stayed glued to me as I tried to sneak minutes at dismissal, at work, while cooking, and talking on the phone to stay in the world so masterfully created.  The book is  halal, but the characters for the most part are in their twenties and I think I wouldn’t object to older teens reading it, but it is an Adult or New Adult book, in both characters’ ages and readers’ interest and appeal.

SYNOPSIS:

The five sisters in the BenTaleb family are all unmarried, balancing life, school, jobs, and daily stresses as varied Muslim Libyan young women in America. With so many girls, the parents of Jana, Elizza, Maryam, Leedya, and Kawthar are known in the small Midwest community as Abu l’Banaat and Umm l’Banaat.  When two young businessmen from Libya come in to town to teach at the local university, the eligible bachelor’s are sough after and all the drama, angst, longing, and courtship comes to fruition. Throw in a distant cousin who is an imam, a scandal with a younger sister, social media updates, and cultural expectations, and you have yourself a book full of laughs, tears, cheering, and joy.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how seamless the retelling is, the pop culture references, and how relatable and rich the writing is.  I was blown away by the beautiful strong Islam present that somehow never comes across as preachy, but is so thoughtfully present in presenting ideology, cultural pushback, western conflict, that Muslims and non Muslims will enjoy the story.  I’m fairly certain every Muslim Jane Austen fan has thought how similar books written so long ago mirror the courting etiquette of Muslims, and this book delivers all of those hopes and imaginings: the names of the characters, the opposing perspectives of the sisters- I really can’t stop gushing, and haven’t since I finished the 200 page book.  There is so much Islam, swoon, and it is presented so well.

FLAGS:

As an Adult book it is clean, even as a New Adult book it is clean.  I hesitate to call it Young Adult because it is about marriage, and there is a scandal with a sister, and mention of wedding nights, and STDS and lingerie, nothing is explicit, but for as halal as it all is and how practicing the character’s all are, these few mentions elevate the story from suitable for a 13 year old, to being ok for older teens.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think everyone should read it and come gush with me.  You can purchase the book here.

The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

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The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

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I didn’t know what to expect as I opened this 416 page book: it was recommended to me, my library had it, and I wanted a break from reading on a screen, so I dived in.  The map, the character list, and the setting of 13th century Mongol empire had me bracing for a complex read. I gave myself a goal of a few chapters to see if I could connect, but by page 20 I was completely absorbed and not to be disturbed.  The character driven plot is written in a rather contemporary manner, although the setting is historical fiction (with a lot of noted liberties) it reads really quickly and easily.  It is definitely 16 and up, romantic YA and has triggers of suicide, murder, drowning, death, war, abuse, misogyny.  While reading it, there often felt like there were holes in the plot as the story builds on itself in quiet layers- the story is fairly linear just broken up and rearranged in time, but the informatio

n shared is gently teased out, and nearly every hole filled by the final page.  I think if someone told me about the book in detail, I would not have read it.  There are many things that I feel like I shouldn’t like about it, but truth be told, I enjoyed the story.  The tokenish Islam found a way to convince me it was done intentionally, the (few) main characters present held my intention at all times, the backmatter detailing the research and liberties just all combined masterfully, that I feel compelled to share the story on my platforms even though the Islamic rep is only slightly more that the YA equivalent of a #muslimsintheillustrations tag.

I tried really hard not to include spoilers, so forgive some of the vague sentiments.

SYNOPSIS:

The story without any spoilers is quite simple- a slave girl, Jinghua, is mourning her dead brother and comes across Prince Khalaf, son of Timur, the ruler of the Kipchak Khanate, while working in the family’s service.  Shocked by his kindness, and persona, she falls hopelessly in love with him and when his family is exiled she decides to stay with the prince and the khan rather than flee.  They journey together and their feelings grow.  To save his family’s rule, however, Prince Khalaf decides to attempt to wed the daughter of the the Great Khan.  Princess Turandokht is exceptionally beautiful, wise, and powerful.  She refuses to wed and has set up a test for any prince wishing to try and marry her.  She has three riddles, each one to be answered in seven minutes, anyone who answers wrong is immediately put to death.  Numerous suitors have been killed.  When Khalaf sneaks off in the night to test his wits, the story of how how intertwined Jinghua and Khalaf’s stories are comes to light before the final riddle is answered.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It is not OWN voice, it is researched and based on a tale from The Thousand and One Days, but having very little to no knowledge of Mongol history (I’ve read the book Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World years ago, but that is about it), and have never seen or read the opera, poetry, or stories that this tale has presented as, I have nothing to compare it to. The book does not need knowledge of the story or time frame to make sense, but the backmatter is well done and makes the process of the story more fulfilling.

For the majority of the book, Islam and the khan and prince being Muslim is just a label occasionally remarked upon when the khan praises the Eternal Blue Sky, instead of Allah swt, and that is about all.  In fact Allah swt I don’t think is ever mentioned in the book.  Based on the information in the back about Mongol’s and a few dialogues in the book it seems that many practices were a hodgepodge of many faiths and traditions, especially by leaders to unite their subjects.  A few ayats from the Quran are mentioned as are some hadiths loosely, which are sourced at the end.  Khalaf gets drunk, and acknowledges that it is haram, and sleeps next to Jinghua for warmth which he also notes is haram.  It mentions a few times that he prays.  There is a weird emphasis on his turban, but it could be culturally Muslim (?), so I let it slide.

The first person voice really sets a good pace for the story, and all of its twists and turns, but does make the love, crush, infatuation theme seem very naïve in the beginning, with more telling than showing.  I think it is accurate for Jinghua, but does require the reader to just accept it and keep reading.  It seems at times she is also rather helpless and so desperate to be seen that the stereotype is a bit cringe, particularly at the end.  I get that appearance and women’s worth is tied to the time and setting, but it still doesn’t completely absolve how triggering the main character’s portrayal can be.

Jinghua’s religious beliefs of the Song Dynasty made me understand the offerings made to her ancestors and the ghost of her slain brother to be religious in context, not literary fantasy.  Many places have labeled this a fantasy romance book, but I don’t know that the world building was fantasy as much as it was historical reimagining.  Either way, there are ancestral ghosts that the main character dreams about and often sees, the epilogue pushes this element, but in my mind still adheres to the same point of ghosts and ancestors being a religious thread.

A found the fear of water story detail a little forced as she was not scared of water when washing out the bloody clothing in the river alone, but then was terrified to stand near a river.  Perhaps a minor detail, but one that I noticed none the less.

My favorite character is the the cantankerous old goat, I’m not going to say much about him other than if at first you hate him, stick around, he might win you over.

FLAGS:

There are multiple suicides and it is glorified, seen as a mercy, and shown as an act of desperation.  There is cruelty and classism along with misogyny and reducing a woman to her appearance.  There is talk of penises and them being seen when urinating, as well as one scene of an erection being felt.  There is killing, war, battle. murder, death, that is fairly detailed.  There is language and crudeness.  There is talk of rape, and affairs, and fornicating.  There are a few kisses, one while a character is drunk, one forced upon a nonconsenting woman. Jinghua disguises herself as a boy. There are theological concepts present and ghosts.  Alcohol and wine are consumed. Nothing is over the top or overly stressed to the point of being obnoxious, but it is present and older YA readers can probably handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to discuss with readers, but not my students, I don’t think it would work for an Islamic school book club selection.  The “Muslim” character gets drunk, kisses two different women, has an alter to honor the dead, places offerings of wine.

As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh

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As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh

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Anything I write about this YA book will fail miserably in conveying how powerful, beautiful, lingering, moving, emotional, and overall masterfully written every one of the 432 pages are; it just might be my favorite book of the year.  I do know that this will be my new standard for Muslim OWN voice stories, as the authenticity was absolutely engulfing, I’m not Syrian and I could feel it and naturally, I also verified it.  There is no pandering to a western gaze, the story and characters pull you in and show you Syria from the ground, there is no telling, there is no lecturing, it is mesmerizing storytelling at its finest.  The book has mental health issues, war, and a sweet “halal” romance, that I think upper YA, 16 plus, can handle and appreciate.  I hope every adult will spend time with this book, it truly is incredibly well done, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Homs is under the protection of the Free Syrian Army, but that isn’t enough to keep pharmacy student Salama and her family safe.  Her mother is killed, her father and brother taken, and so she moves in with her best friend Layla, her pregnant sister-in-law, her only family left.  Working as a doctor in the hospital where anyone remaining is given responsibilities far above their skill level, education, and experience- every day is a struggle to survive.

Haunted by the physical manifestation of her fear, “Khawf,” who urges her to fulfill her promise to her brother of keeping Layla safe and getting them out of the country, Salama at eighteen years old has to find a way.

Before all the pieces come together to escape, a boy enters the picture, Kenan, who gives Salama hope, who distracts her from the death and destruction that has consumed their lives.  A boy unwilling to leave his beloved homeland.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I’m a crier, but this book brought out ugly angry tears, shocked tears, heartbroken tears, sentimental tears, you get the point, this book held me in its grasps and never let go. I.COULDN’T. PUT. IT. DOWN. If this is the author’s debut novel I can’t even fathom what is yet to come.

I love that the characters are Muslim, and that they pray together, that they plead with Allah (swt) and meet at the mosque.  It is who they are, it is not up for debate or in need of explanation, it is what it is and it is not anything to discuss.  The parts where a character pleads with Allah for death over being taken, absolutely wrecked me.  Just as efforts to keep everything halal between Salama and Kenan made me beam.  (If I’m completely honesty, I did on occasion get frustrated, I mean come on they are being shot at, bombed, nearly sexually assaulted, scoop her up in your arms and console, her, I know haram, but it is fiction and I was invested, and there is a war.  Thankfully, I am not an author and she kept it all clean and her characters much stronger and mindful of the shortness of this world.)

I love that there are political voices, but that it isn’t a political book trying to give back story to the conflict.  In so many ways the news has failed to keep a light shining on Syria and books such as this, remind those of us outside Syria without strong connections to the land, that the conflict is still raging.  If this was a journalistic article it would be a human interest piece, it is character driven.  Readers see themselves in the characters that live lives that most of us of privilege could never imagine, yet here we are spellbound by the characters, their choices, their dreams, and their safety.  This book shows the power of fiction in opening our eyes to the horrors that are happening in our time, by giving us a face and a character to care so deeply about, that we are spurred to action and determined to not remain apathetic.

FLAGS:

Death, torture, physical abuse, sexual assault, fear, loss, coercion, war, murder, torture, child abuse, crimes against humanity, starvation, mental health, PTSD.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to use this book in a high school book club.  The story and themes of the book would open themselves up to discussion so effortlessly and the beauty of the writing would be a gift to share with students.

Love from Mecca to Medina by S.K. Ali

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Love from Mecca to Medina by S.K. Ali

mecca to medina

This book is a game changer, or better yet: an industry changer.  It is about Muslims, for Muslims, by a Muslim- but it is MAINSTREAM and a huge panoramic window for anyone and everyone to see a “halal” fictional Muslim love story in action.  With every page proudly mirroring various Muslim experiences this sequel-ish standalone-ish book is unapologetically real, without compromising good storytelling, interesting characters, and engaging plot points.  In much the same way Reem Faruqi’s Golden Girl raised the bar for upper MG/lower YA, this book shows that upper YA Muslamic stories can be told.  That the publishing world isn’t always limiting OWN voices, and that it is up to us, the consumers, to purchase these particular books, pre-order them when announced and spread the word so that the message is loud and clear that we want more books like this.  I have no doubt S.K. Ali had to fight for her vision and advocate for her book at every turn, but now that it is here, we need to step up and show support with our purchasing power.  I’ve pre-ordered mine, and I hope you will do the same before the book releases on October 18, 2022, if you cannot, please purchase it when you can, and if that is not an option please request your libraries to shelve the book (and all of her books) and put them on hold so that the gate further opens for mainstream Islamic fiction.

Preorder link on Amazon

SYNOPSIS:

Adam and Zayneb are back after falling in love in Love from A to Z and getting their nikkah done.  They aren’t living together yet, though, and they are worlds apart with Adam jobless in Doha, and Zayneb homeless in Chicago.  When communication breaks down, exes show up, and a trip to Umrah is underway with the couple divided into gender segregated groups, the couple might fall apart in the same fashion that brought them together in the first place.  The steps of Umrah are beautifully highlighted and experienced, and characters from Misfits and A-Z come back to tie it all together and help the couple, keeping hope alive.  Throw in some marvels and oddities, artifacts and interpretive labels, a unifying cat, and a whole lot of love, and you have a sweet conclusion to a Muslamic love story.

WHY I LIKE IT:

So, I obviously love the standard of unapologetic Islam that this book offers on every page while still being accessible to the larger audience.  It took a little bit for me to be sucked in to the 352 page story, but by page 100 or so, I couldn’t put it down.  The steps of Umrah brought tears to my eyes and the awesome Sausun is fierce feminist friendship goals.  I honestly didn’t love the cat narrative that frames the story, but luckily it is sparse so I could see past it. I love that this book exists, I think I love the Misfit based duology a tiny bit more, but loved that this book had crossover characters and gave many of them a final bow of sorts as well. I read the book in two days and will probably re-read it when I receive my physical copy.  It really is remarkable how much Islam is present in a fictionalized story: not a oppressed Muslim story, or biographical memoir, or refugee story, but in a solid fiction story.   There is no “othering,” this is us, and this a love story about a Muslim couple trying to make it work with outside support and stresses, and beautiful writing.  Alhumdulillah, very well done.

FLAGS:

I’d encourage mature, older YA because the characters are married and sexually active and while it isn’t graphic or depicted it is often just the words mentioning them kissing, and sleeping together and sexting.  Nothing titillating or anywhere near inappropriate, but I think a bit of maturity would help it better reflect the values of Islamic marriages and relationships.  There is some minor language and hate speech.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely use the book for high school book club if it is mostly juniors and seniors.  I think it gives a good look at what a relationship can look like; the characters’ religious lens and lives will resonate with Islamic school students.

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.

A Show for Two by Tashie Bhuiyan

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A Show for Two by Tashie Bhuiyan

a show for two

I didn’t love the author’s debut novel, but wanted to see what a second novel would offer, and sadly it really is a lot of the same: light funny romcom surface story featuring a Bangladeshi Muslim character lead mixed in with layers of mental health, a toxic family, high school stress, and cultural expectations driving the plot.  There is crude language, hetero, lesbian, bi, and pansexual relationships discussed, but nothing more than kissing is detailed in any of the scenes.  There is a lot of cultural trauma from the parents and to the book’s credit, it does establish pretty early on that the main character is not religious, but that she does believe in Allah swt.  Similarly, there is a Bangladeshi loving family in the story, so it is not making a critique on the entire culture, it is just the character’s family that is cruel.  Ultimately, at 416 pages I was surprised that there were gaps in character arcs and plot.  I never really liked the protagonist, Mina, but because of how underdeveloped and pivotal the best friend and younger sister were, when it all came to a climax, I found myself rooting for her, which is a very shallow reasoning in an OWN voice book. Additionally, the parents are terrible, and had I dnf-ed it (I was tempted until about 30% through it) I doubt I would have ever known that there was a time that they weren’t terrors.  The peeling back of the layers of the family came too late, too slow, and the progression was muddled.  I probably will not actively seek out further books from this author if the same themes and tropes are present, if she changes it up, I probably could be persuaded.  The book is marketed 7th grade and up, but with the triggers, hate, language, content, genre, language, length I would say 17 and up, if at all.

SYNOPSIS:
Samina “Mina” Rahman is waiting to leave New York and her hateful parents, and start her life at USC as a film student.  All she needs to do is win the Golden Ivy Film Competition, and get excepted to USC.  Her parents dismissing her dreams, passions, and abilities agree to only let her leave if she wins the competition, doubting that it would ever happen, they even put it in writing.  Co-president of the high school film club and best friend, Rosie is equally determined to win, there is just one big problem, every year the winning film has a cameo by a famous actor.  Cue accidental meeting of Mina and Emmitt Ramos, up and coming indie movie heart throb that is cast in the new Firebrand blockbuster.  Sent to Mina’s high school to research for his upcoming role, Mina is tasked with convincing him to make an appearance in their film.  It is a romance story, so you can see where it is headed in this enemies to lovers book.

As family, friends, and college admission stresses mount, the simplicity of what Mina wants and how to go about getting it will be called in to question as her walls crumble and she will have to evaluate people in her life and how they will be affected by her actions.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the story is based on real events in the author’s life, not just the religion, culture, mental health threads, but that an actor came to her high school in preparation for a part: Tom Holland.  I also like that while her parents don’t value her, she has found a support group of sorts that do.  At times Mina reads a lot older than she is, particularly when she is admonishing the freshman, but at other times she storms off pouting and seems to be very childish.  I vacillate between this being intentional and it being an inconsistency in the writing. The younger sister Anam is painfully written.  She is bold and confrontational, yet at the same time so clingy and needy and all over the place.  At one point I thought she perhaps was suicidal and was braced for a really dark twist in the story, but no it was just Anam being Anam, I suppose, and the stress was never revisited let alone resolved.

I truly dreaded the passages about Mina’s home life and her family, they all were just awful to each other and rather than taking Mina’s side because I was shown, I found myself questioning what I was missing in the before and after dynamic.  It is clear they are wretched, the victim doesn’t need to justify the abuse. The transformation of the family dynamic just felt lacking and in fiction when parts are explored it could have really showed some of the micro aggressions and changes that existed and made the relationship salvageable so that the reader would understand why saving and fixing the family were no longer options.  Generational trauma is real and serious and a little more attention I think could have provided an amazing mirror to readers dealing with similar elements.

If the book was half the length I would assume that details would be glossed over, but this book had room, and I don’t understand why so few photography and director references seem to find their way into the text to show that these characters truly are passionate about what they are claiming to desire.  I know the story isn’t a film story or a culture story, but they don’t spend hours editing the film or working on props? Emmitt is regularly pulled away from shoots, but always seems to have enough photos to choose from?  Mina talks of her dad cooking, but foods aren’t detailed, the connection of food to love to family and that being severed seemed like a gaping hole in the crumbling home scenes.  If halal food and no pork can make it into a love relationship, that much cultural/religious depth should have made it inside a families home.

As mentioned in the intro, it didn’t bother me from a religious perspective that Mina was off kissing a boy, that Anam had boyfriends, etc. because Islam was accounted for and the characters are not practicing, so I do appreciate that it didn’t become a stereotypical rebelling against religion book.  Truly, thank you.

FLAGS:

Language, relationships (straight, bi, lesbian, pan), kissing, making out, hand holding, lying, mental health, hate, deception, cruelty, emotional abuse, angry ex boyfriend, triggers.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Would not shelve or encourage young readers at our Islamic school to read this.

All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir

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All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir

rage

The hype is correct: this book is moving, impactful, powerful, reflective, all the feels.  The writing superb, the plot gritty, the characters seem real, so real.  One of my all time favorite authors is John Irving because every word seems deliberate in his books, not every plot point or every paragraph, every. single. word.  And it has been a long time since I’ve read a book that strikes me in that same vein of the author being so in control of the story, and my (the reader’s) emotions being so completely at the mercy of the words to come.  I think I could read this book five more times and each time peel back a new layer and see something I hadn’t seen, or understood, or felt before.  I cried, I cheered, I sighed and unclenched my jaw, and I am still haunted by the lives of the characters.  Not just the “main” ones.  All of them, they all are real and fleshed out and have character arcs and live in shades of gray.  There are no checkboxes for skin tone or religion or sexual preference they each are more than a label, they are complex and real.  I could easily be convinced that they are in fact real people and that their world and stories are not fiction at all.  That is how well it reads, that is how hard it is to close the window on the world they let us see.  The book is YA (374 pages) and with the drugs, abuse, alcohol, relationship, complexities of it all, I would think 16 year old’s and up can, strike that, should, read this book.  The characters are Muslim, but it never even goes near being preachy, these are complex characters and stories, and remarkably there is no internalized Islamophobia or watering anything down, each character deals with faith, like everything else, in their own way.

SYNOPSIS:

The story bounces between the past in Lahore, Pakistan and the present in Juniper, California.  In Lahore it is Misbah’s story and in the desert it is her son’s, Salahudin and a girl she has taken under her wing, Noor’s.  When the book starts we see Sal with a drunk father dropping him off at school where his girlfriend is waiting, and his best friend, Noor, not speaking to him for the last few months after she confessed to bein in love with him.  Noor lives with her uncle after her entire village in Pakistan was destroyed when she was 6, and he wants nothing to do with Pakistan, Islam, or Noor going to college.  He owns a liquor store and makes Noor work there.  Sal’s mom is sick and has always been there for Noor, so when she takes a turn for the worse, Noor and Sal are brought back together, Noor’s uncle is enraged that she is missing shifts, and Sal’s father is constantly searching for the bottom of a bottle.  Things are bad, but they are about to get a whole lot worse.  Sal’s mom dies, the motel Sal’s family owns is in severe debt and the options for saving it are less than ideal.  The small town starts to feel familiar as everyone’s stories are fleshed out in Juniper and Lahore and two star-crossed narrators are forced to confront both the stresses of high school and impending adulthood, and deep, dark realities of abuse, loss, and generational trauma.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book could have been a thousand pages, and it still would have felt too short.  Much like her fantasy writing, the book seems to start with world building and roping the reader in to thinking that they can handle what is about to come, then much like a band-aid being pulled off, the pain hits, and the wound starts bleeding again.  Somehow despite it all, you can’t look away, you can’t stop reading, there is hope.  Hope for the characters, hope for happy endings, hope for survival and peace.

I absolutely love the quality of writing, things dangled early on, come back, often with subtly and restraint that you could easily miss them.  When discussing the book with @muslimmommyblog, I felt like we both were finding threads we had possibly not considered and connections that added nuance and staying power to the plot.

So often, the more religious a character in literature is, the stricter they are presented, the less kind they are seen, but in this book it was the opposite, the loving couple were the imam and his defense attorney wife, the glue that radiated kindness to Sal, Noor, and so much of the town is a hijab wearing strong woman.  So many tropes and stereotypes were uprooted, tossed aside, and reimagined.  There is compassion for a Muslim alcoholic, a liquor store being the employment of a Muslim, consequences for dealing drugs, yet nothing “haram” is really ever glorified, it is gritty and repulsive, but there is no judgement, there is only understanding and sadness.  Palpable despair that rattles your bones and makes you wish the world was different.

I don’t want to spoil the book, I was able to read it largely not knowing what the plot would delve in to. In many ways the trigger warning at the beginning was the only thing that braced me for what was to come. The level of religion and how it was woven is through the gentleness of some of the characters and hatred of others, was expertly done.  There are not ayats in the Quran quoted or speeches given, there is love, and faith and hope that manifest as duas and longing and finding ways to be Muslim in action, not just in appearance. When the characters start to make-out their Islamic conscious is drawn in, when they grapple with their hope and future- trust in something bigger is considered. It is not a Muslim book, not even an Islam centered book, perhaps Muslamic, but really about characters who are Muslim and dealing with the cards they have been dealt.

FLAGS:

Alcohol use, drug use, relationships, kissing, touching, longing, language, physical assault, physical violence, domestic violence, hate, racism, stereotyping, Islamophobia, there are mentions of a lesbian relationship and a bi relationship, a child out of wedlock, death, addiction, sexual assault, repressed trauma, bullying, teasing, lying, music,

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I have a 15 year old daughter, and I probably will have her read the book this summer, I think there is a lot to discuss and I think in the right hands the book could be used for a high school book club.

Available to purchase here on Amazon or here from Crescent Moon Store