Tag Archives: romance

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

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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

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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FLAGS:

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

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

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

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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.