Tag Archives: romance

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 their 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.

Count by Ibrahim Moustafa with Brad Simpson and Hassan Otsmane-Elhadu

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Count by Ibrahim Moustafa with Brad Simpson and Hassan Otsmane-Elhadu

count

This graphic novel retelling of the classic, Count of Monte Cristo, is for middle school readers and up and is by a Muslim author and illustrator. There is nothing Islamic or cultural in the text of this 136 page sci-fi twist, and there is some kissing, a whole lot of killing, brutality and violence, but I think the swashbuckling tale will appeal to early teens and adults who enjoy fast paced reads whether they have read the original tale or not.

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SYNOPSIS:

Commoner Redxan Samud is elevated to Captain and marries his beloved, the first few pages of happiness, however, quickly disintegrate as he is framed and wrongfully imprisoned by the jealous powers that be.  Life in the hovering prison are barbaric, but the meeting of Aseyr, provides him with a plan and means to move forward.  First he will have to survive the death battles in the prison, escape the inescapable fortress, before he can locate the Isle of Sorrow, take control of ARU and extract his revenge.  Oh, but his revenge is strong, so very, very strong.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I was admittedly hesitant to give the book a try, but when writer Shireen Hakim sent it to me, and my kids saw it, I thought I should read it first before letting them dive in.  I read it in one sitting, the story is engaging and clear.  I never was confused with who was who and why something was happening.  At times though it seemed too quick and that details were glossed over, or impact was minimized because major plot points were not given enough time to be felt.  I would have liked some answers provided of basic logistics and of character’s getting from one place to another, and how plans came to fruition shared in the story.  Additionally, some fleshing out of situations to ground the story a bit and make the revenge and extraction of revenge more cathartic, would have elevated the book and made it a popular choice in my house to be reread again and again.

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FLAGS:

Death, violence, murder, rage, kissing, torture, plotting, deceit.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Not a contender for a book club read, but I would shelve it in a middle school classroom and in the school library for graphic novel and comic book enthusiasts as well as for high school students who might be familiar with the classic it references.

The Lady or the Lion by Aamina Qureshi

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The Lady or the Lion by Aamina Qureshi

lion

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

Moonlight Hope: A Muslim American Coming of Age Story by Nora Salam

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Moonlight Hope: A Muslim American Coming of Age Story by Nora Salam

moonlight hope

This 354 page New Adult read is truly Islamic fiction, and as long as you know what you are getting in to, you probably will thoroughly enjoy it.  It is Islamic centered, it is preachy, it is idyllic, it counters many stereotypes about Muslims and various cultures, while simultaneously falling into other tropes that define the genre, it has mature framing that is not suitable for younger readers, but doesn’t detail anything that is super “haram.”  If you are looking for a potentially halal romance between YA and Adult ages with Islamic messaging this book is a solid choice.  If however, you will be annoyed by any of the aforementioned labels, this book will not hold your attention or beg to be finished.  It reminds me a lot of Umm Zakiyyah’s If I Should Speak and A Voice books where the story has its own twists and character arcs but it spends a lot of time preaching and setting itself up to tout an Islamic perspective, or concept as well.  I wanted to read two books in the “New Adult” category and see if I could spread my reviews to include them, and with this being the second,  I think I should resist the temptation, and stick to what my library background familiarized me with.

SYNOPSIS:

Told in alternating voices of Intisar and Majed, two individuals in New York City, at different places in their life, but finding that when they hit rock bottom, Islam is the answer.

Intisar is graduating nursing school when the story opens and has only one goal in mind, get married.  She has strict Sudanese parents and has put all of her dreams on finding freedom in the perfect spouse.  She meets a guy at a friend’s house and they secretly date, kiss, and hold hands.  When he ghosts her, she is devastated and reluctantly finds herself agreeing to marry a much older man of her parent’s choosing.  Loosing herself in the idea of marriage, she finds herself heartbroken, ostracized and falling apart.  She starts to put herself back together slowly by finding Islam, her confidence, and some much needed perspective.

Majed has a famous family: his mother a model, his father and siblings singers, and he manages their careers.  After passing out from drugs and alcohol more than once he really starts to examine his life and the road he is on.  He sneaks away to rehab and in the process stumbles on to Islam.  He is Egyptian, but the family is not religious at all, and infact stop talking to him when he converts.  The trials of being a Muslim in New York with no family are not easy, but he feels it is worth it and his journey to Hajj and through loss brings him closer to Allah (swt).

The two stories are parallel and collide slightly in the periphery, but the book ends with them finally coming together and the ever dreaded words of “to be continued,” leaving the reader hanging.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I do like that the story shows struggles when one comes (back) to Islam, it isn’t always a walk in the park, it has challenges and stresses.  The book starts each chapter with a verse from the Quran and is very open about what it is.  So, while at times, the preachiness did get to me, it was very clear what type of book it was from the beginning and I kept reading.

Some of the side characters I felt needed to be fleshed out a bit.  I didn’t understand many of the random friends, how they affected the main character often seemed off, or completely underdeveloped in what was revealed about them: particularly Izzedine, Parita, the girl that married Mansour, the uncle at the Masjid that thought Majed was a spy, etc..  I also really struggled with the presentation of Uncle Munir and his calling Majed, baby, and how he just happened to bump in to him outside the bar, and the kisses.  I’m guessing it was meant to show him as over the top affectionate, but it just read as odd.

I like that the book addresses hypocrisy, mental health, and expectations.  It doesn’t paint all Muslims as good or bad, nor society at large.  The book reads as a journey, and many characters are given a chance to correct their errors and be seen in a new light.

The majority of the book is written well, but right away the book gave me pause as Intisar and her friends chat all through the Jummah khutbah, I get that it is trying to show her disregard for intentional practice of her faith and her “boy crazy/marriage” obsession, but you cannot speak during the khutbah, it isn’t just dirty looks, you truly cannot talk for it to count, and it isn’t even remarked upon, and it made me skeptical of the book for a while.  There is a word missing from a sentence on page 161 and at one point a brother in the prayer hall aims a shoe to throw.  But you wouldn’t be wearing shoes in the room where you pray, and the mosque has hallways and a glassed off section for women, so this seemed like an obvious oversight that should be fixed.

FLAGS:

Drugs, alcohol, lying, overdose, sneaking out, kissing, hooking up, physical affection, violence, temptation, sexual predatory behavior, it is an adult book, so I’m not going to continue listing everything. Nothing haram is overtly detailed or glorified. Ages 17 and up, could handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Too mature for my book club crew, but I wouldn’t mind it on a shelf in the school library.

Good Intentions by Kasim Ali

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Good Intentions by Kasim Ali

good intentions

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

10 Steps to Us by Attiya Khan

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10 Steps to Us by Attiya Khan

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I try really hard to keep an open mind when reading Islamic YA romance books knowing that certain standards are probably not going to exist to move the story along, and of course I’m fully cognizant that Islam is practiced in a myriad of ways and chances are, I will disagree with a fair amount of any book in this genre.  This particular book though, was hard to read.  Ultimately I just didn’t like the protagonist, she was shallow and flimsy and her grasp on reality seemed lacking at times.  The premise of the book is that you can have a boyfriend, if the boyfriend is Muslim.  So by not agreeing with the very foundation; made the rest of the book hard to wrap my head around.  The book is largely about hijab, and the author starts the book thanking the individuals that “educated her about the hijab,”  yes, the article “the” is often used, and thus so much of the nuanced lived OWN voice experience of wearing hijab, is lacking.  The book features language, lying, kissing, making out, talk of wanking, condoms, groping, and a scene that nearly concludes with sex, but stops short, barely.  Perhaps high school seniors and college age teens could read this 231 page book, but I don’t know that the book is worth their time.  Practicing Muslims will be irritated by the lack of mirroring, cultural readers will be annoyed that the protagonist didn’t push back on toxic assumptions, and non religious readers will be left confused at what the book hopes to accomplish by including religion and culture to no real definitive purpose in a romance novel.

SYNOPSIS:

High school student Aisha wears hijab much to her parents protests, and tries to avoid the Islamophobic aggressions that she endures in her white Kent neighborhood.  She learns more about Islam than cultural superficiality from a family friend, an aunty, and she goes through her daily life largely unnoticed.  She has a close friend, who is popular and likes to party, but Aisha doesn’t go out much, yet Isabelle still finds ways to include her.  Everything starts to change however, when Darren moves in to town, defends Aisha at the bus stop and seems to be interested in being more than just friends.  Aisha doesn’t date, but reasons if Darren were a Muslim, nothing would stop her.  She devises a 10 step plan to make it all work, she just has to convert him.

While she sets her plan in motion, she finds herself lying to Isabelle, who has a crush on Darren, lying to her parents so that she can sneak around with Darren, and lying to Shafqat Aunty about her relationship with Darren.  Along the way, she will lose her friendship with Isabelle, uncover dangers of equating culture and religion, remove and reconsider her hijab, nearly lose her virginity, and have to decide where her boundaries are.  By the end of the book, nothing is clearly articulated for Aisha’s future or what she has decided regarding her relationship with Islam, hijab, and future boyfriends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I struggled with the book.  I like the flipped stereotype of the family not supporting hijab, but Aisha wearing it for her self anyway, unfortunately, I never felt that I understood why she felt strong enough to wear it, what brought her closer to Islam, and learning about Islam, and what the catalyst of it all was.  I think knowing more of Aisha’s backstory might have made her more like-able.  Throughout the book Shafqat Aunty is her whole Islamic touchstone.  She doesn’t seem to have any other way of learning, or studying Islam.  It seems that to come to Islam in high school would mean a level of maturity would exist that the character simply does not exhibit.  I started wearing hijab at 16, I was the first in my family, I did it for me, I was actively trying to be a better Muslim and understand Islam, and hijab was simply a physical, tangible manifestation of that.  So to see a character so passive in the learning, was a bit of a disconnect for me.  I’m not saying that everyone has an experience like mine, but her grasp of basic Islamic tenants seems so weak, and she doesn’t seem to have a way to acquire understanding, or even a desire to obtain it.  Often Darren seems to know more about Islam than she does.

I really struggled with the conceptual thread that her hijab prevents her from feeling comfortable making-out with Darren, so she hides it when clothing starts falling off.  Shouldn’t hijab be the reminder to not have gotten in that situation in the first place? Perhaps if she would have had some depth, or the relationship wasn’t “love at first sight” I would feel a bit more invested in her trying to sort out her beliefs while in the midst of such strong lust, but it wasn’t developed to that level.

I liked the initial idea of sorting through cultural and religious views on divorce especially considering the woman involved is being abused, but I didn’t think the book exerted a strong enough stance that divorce in Islam is absolutely ok, that abuse is not ok, and anything otherwise is backwards culture.  The book set itself up to make a strong statement, but then it abandoned it.  I’m not sure why the author didn’t get up on a soap box and preach, I mean it would have given the book something really powerful to highlight and given Aisha some growth in understanding where culture has undermined the power of women’s rights in Islam.

The book dismisses understanding one’s faith, and falls into predictable troupes despite setting itself up to be “different,” when  Aisha fears being shipped off to Pakistan when her parents find out about her and Darren.  The writing feels forced at times, and a few times He when referencing God is not capitalized.  I appreciate that some surahs, and duas, and Ramadan are included, but they don’t seem to shape Aisha, it seems like she is simply going through the motions.

The book ends on a “cliff hanger” of her either placing her scarf in the hamper or the garbage.

FLAGS:

Language, talk of sex, fairly vivid make-out scene that stops short of sex when they pause to acquire a condom and then Aisha changes her mind.  There is a lot of lying, normalizing relationships if both are Muslim, even if both are not, talk of domestic violence, slut-shaming, hickies, crude jokes.

TOOLS TO LEAD THE DISCUSSION:

There is no way I would encourage this book in an Islamic school setting.

This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi

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This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi

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At 512 pages this teen/YA fantasy book immerses you in the lives of two characters pitted against one another that are inevitably, drawn to each other.  The world building is slow, as it seems to spend more time character building and shaping the magical Jinn filled world around the characters, through their eyes, and their interactions, than simply building a world, and then dropping characters in it.  It never seems to drag, but the rising action is not concluded, it in fact ends on a cliff hanger raising the expectation for the next book in the series to take the story toward more action, emotion, and twists.  I absolutely love and applaud the author’s note that articulates and clarifies that this book is not religious in nature and that threads of Islam and Persian culture are just reference points for this completely fictionalized tale.  There is a passionate kiss, and violence, but this book is remarkably clean and an enjoyable read for ages 14 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

The story opens with Alizeh sitting by the fire sewing.  She is freezing, she is always freezing, she is a Jinn, but her veins are ice.  Completely alone, she is working as a maid, but as she is on probation, she lodges in a tiny closet away from the other service members, and is deathly afraid of the dark.  Her loving parents raised her and nourished her, she is educated and strong, but since their deaths she has been on the run, trying simply to survive in a world where Clays forbid Jinn from using their magic.  Alizeh is no ordinary Jinn though, the earth has chosen her to be the future Queen, her ever-changing eyes prove it, but for now, she has no kingdom, no family, no friends, no hope to lead.  Only cryptic riddles given to her by Iblees that she dreads and fears, but warn her of impending dangers.

Kamran is the second storyline that builds the world of Ardunia.  As the crown prince, and future king, he has returned from touring the country and has had his eyes opened to the forces threatening the empire, the inevitable war that is looming, and the shortage of resources that threaten them all.  He is irritable and brooding and acting out of character when he intervenes in an altercation in the streets between a servant girl and a young boy.  This sets off a series of events that will bring Alizeh and Kamran into direct conflict as their worlds intertwine and their passions build.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the clarification at the beginning, stating that this is not Islamic and that religious and cultural inspiration was just that, inspiration. It allowed me to get comfortable and enjoy the tale for what it is.  I wasn’t worried about checking things, or worrying about religious impressions and accuracy, it was so freeing, thank you.  I really hope that there is a map in the final physical copy, because I just really like maps.  I liked the Persian numbers and script on the chapters and the references make the book that much richer and fleshed out.

I am admittedly fairly new to fantasy, so I enjoyed the slower pace and character building.  I found it enveloping and smooth, there were small conflicts, but the subtle world building through understanding the characters, and their perspectives, was a nice framing for a story that very easily could have dragged, but in reality flew by.  The only point that I found unrefined, was how much Alizeh knew of her past and the impact it had on her current situation.  There seemed to be a bit of a disconnect in teasing that thread.  The reader knows who she is, so I’m not sure why she seems to not know, and then proves that she does, there is no subtlety in that regard.  And the only character, that seemed underdeveloped was that of Hazan, his banter with the Kamran grated on my nerves, and I didn’t understand the abruptness of his and Alizeh’s relationship, it seemed forced.  Nearly everything else in the book was very organic and gently referenced and established very deliberately, but it almost seemed like I missed a chapter or two, when all of a sudden Hazan emerges as being such a main character in Alizeh’s life.  Undoubtedly it was a surprise for the reader, but some nuance in the revelation through Alizeh’s eyes, would have assisted in the continuity of the character and tone of the book.

FLAGS:
A kiss, and attraction, talk of illegitimate children.  There is killing and violence, attempted assault: physical and sexual, not detailed, but referenced as a fear as she walks alone at night.  There is darkness and talk of the devil, deceit, lying, plotting.  Nothing an early teen could not handle.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would have to delay deciding if I could do this as a book club selection until I read the next book.  There is so much potential, that I truly hope that I can introduce the series to young readers to enjoy, get lost in, and discuss.

Sway with Me by Syed M. Masood

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Sway with Me by Syed M. Masood

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This author won me over with More Than Just a Pretty Face, and his ability to celebrate and show flaws within our desi cultures while simultaneously presenting relatable Islamic experiences in a romantic comedy.   I have been yet to determine if this YA/Teen 328 page book follows in those footsteps, or cuts a little too critically and close on the Islamic presentation.  Undoubtedly the story is hard to put down, culture and Islam are present, but I don’t know what the lingering taste of Islam would be for a non-Muslim reading the book.  Would they see the faith separate from those that practice or actively don’t practice, would Muslim readers?  Literature is quickly showing how Muslims are not a monolith, but I worry that that nuance might be lost in this particular book, and the takeaway would be far more stereotype affirming, than critically thought provoking.  The packaging of the story is memorable characters and quality writing, even if the plot and purpose is a little shaky at times.  I admit for as much as I crave discussions on representation and twists and defined characters, this book has me at a bit of a loss on how to feel about the book overall.  I think it is possibly the first time I just haven’t seen myself and my experiences mirrored at all in a book with this much Islamic content. As a reviewer it makes me feel useless, but as an American born Muslim, I kind of love the uneasiness and challenge that my head is trying to wrap itself around.  The references, the language, lust, plentiful innuendos and physical abuse make the book a solid high school and up read.

SYNOPSIS:
Arsalan lives with his 100 year old Nana in Sacremento.  His mother has passed away, and his father is out of the picture in Arizona as he attempts sobriety.  Homeschooled and isolated from other kids, technology, and the world around him, he suddenly finds himself in a public high school trying to make his way.  Afraid that when his Nana passes he is going to be all alone in the world, he reaches out to the stepdaughter, Beenish, of the community match maker to see if she can help him with an arranged marriage.  She agrees on one condition, he dances with her at an upcoming competition.  He agrees, but first a makeover is required and before you know it a romance is blooming.  Awkward and formal and ever the gentleman, Arsalan uncovers that there is no competition, the dancing is required to break up Beenish’s sister’s wedding.  The girls’ biological mother was a dancer and the shame it brought on them all as it destroyed her career, her marriage, and the family has made her daughters the black sheep of the family and community.  The stepmom wants to get them out of the house as soon as possible and thus dancing of any kind is forbidden at Qirat’s upcoming nuptials.  Beenish despises the groom and hopes her dancing will not only remind the family that the mom has been banned from attending the wedding, but also hopefully prevent the wedding from taking place.  As the story moves forward with learning to dance, relationships must be reconciled, friendships developed, and growing pains felt, with some sass from Nana at every turn, more than one character will have to learn to make hard decisions and accept the outcomes that result.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Right from the start Arsalan makes it known that he is not a practicing Muslim, that he is “nominally one.”  His Nana has raised him to be a skeptic, his abusive father would beat him when feeling religious and guilty for his alcohol consumption, and his deceased mother was more spiritual than disciplined.  So, for the next few chapters, whenever Islam was mentioned I would snap a picture.  Twenty pages later and dozens of pictures of text made me stop and realize that this coming of age book is not a story about Islam, but rather the characters are dealing with their own identities and Islam just happens to be present, for all of them.  Arsalan remarks how our roots shape us as he quotes hadith, ok paraphrases them, and discusses sahaba, eventually having to accept that knowledge and wisdom and truth must be recognized, even when it comes from a source that he doesn’t favor.  Similarly, the most presenting tough guy, music and sports and appearance obsessed character is always hanging around the mosque, at the MSA, and encouraging Arsalan to come and pray.  The love interest calls out Muslims for their fake religiosity saying that her stepmom wears it as a fancy dress, she owns it, but takes it off when she wants.  Her father came to Islam late, and is relatively strict and conservative as a result, she is Muslim, but more culturally as she doesn’t seem to have sorted it out herself.  The characters dance, which involves touching and immodest clothing, at the end they do kiss.  There is language which is noted as being course and vulgar, and there really is no “model Muslim” or any characters that want to be.  So, similarly there are no haram police commenting when the characters, as individuals seemingly step out of line.  The sister character is quote unquote religious, but I don’t know if she covers, she doesn’t seem to be representative of anyone other than herself and she has her own cultural family issues, so her Islam is just stated, but not explored.  Some only eat halal, that gets included but not really opined on.   It really is the first time I feel like I’ve read so many Muslim characters in one place that represent only themselves, which is very much real life, but also a shift in Muslim rep in literature.

The story has some foundational issues which made me laugh when reading the author’s note that says he, “writes in the dark.”  Meaning he doesn’t know where he is going until he gets there.  I think it might show in this book more than he realizes. Aiza Aunty is shamed as scandalous because of her dancing in Lollywood (Pakistan’s version of Bollywood, which is India’s version of Hollywood) films.  She apparently got her sari a bit too wet in a waterfall scene, and it was too much shame to rebound from.  So why did that ruin her life? I mean any production has rehearsals, and blocking, and post editing, and retakes, why does one scene seem to fall squarely on her shoulders, every single decision maker along the way passed it through.  I’m not buying it.  I also don’t buy the whole wedding is hanging on a single thread of dancing, it tries really hard to make it make sense, and by the end the reader really is just prepared to go along with it, but holding auditions, not planning to tell Qirat, really is expecting the reader to suspend reality just a tad more than the genre should be asking one to do.

The book is smart and it expects the reader to be smart.  The references the character’s personas and need to be seen and loved is not always spelled out, it has to be pieced together and I love it.  The Thanksgiving scene, the misfit members of each family coming together and bonding with Nana and Arasalan is sweet, but actually really sad, and I love that it doesn’t say it, it shows it.

Of all the characters I love Diamond the most, I just wish we knew more about what motivates him.  He reads too nice and too puppy doggish and I wish we got just a bit more to see why he is the way he is.  Truly all the characters are memorable, and I’m pretty sure they will stay with me for a while.

FLAGS:

There is kissing, romance, crude language, lots of sexual innuendos, physical violence, physical abuse, child abuse, death, shaming, manipulation, alcohol addiction, religious zealousness, dancing, intimate dancing, body objectification, music, singing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I could never teach this book, but please, please, please, read it and help me to understand how I feel about it.