Tag Archives: young adult

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

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Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

spades

I had heard about this 420 page YA thriller and how it was written by a Muslim student at University and the seven figure book deal that she earned. It is constantly described as a combination of Gossip Girl and Get Out, having never seen either of those, I relied on the back of the book and the inside flap to see if it was something I would like to read and suggest my young teenage daughter, (and followers to read). Based on the suspense teasing and plot involving racism, I figured a contemporary YA book set in high school would have some relationship, sexuality, language and drugs, so at the last minute I decided to read it first. Alhumdulillah, I’m glad I did. The book has sex and relationships and sensual encounters between gay, queer, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual characters on EVERY SINGLE PAGE. I considered stopping, it was a over the top, forced, and honestly a little hard to read at times, but I continued because the commentary on racism and suspense storyline was well done that I was genuinely curious to see the climax and resolution. I write this review as a heads-up and to opine on the lack of mention of the amount of romance and sex in the book and in its blurbs. As a reader and someone who recommends books to people a lot, knowing what the majority of the book is about is helpful. To completely not mention something that is such a huge part of the book is frustrating, and so I’m writing this up more as an FYI, than a thorough and in-depth review. There are no Muslim characters, and the only mention of religion is a side character reading the Bible. Coming from an Islamic School Librarian standpoint, without exception this book would be considered inappropriate.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is told in two alternating personalities, Devon and Chiamaka. Two senior black students at a prestigious private high school. The only two black students. Chiamaka is the top of the school hierarchy, head prefect, planning on Yale for pre-med and the girl everyone wants to be. Devon is a scholarship student who plays music and dreams of Julliard. He flies under the radar and has one friend. When the book opens both are named Senior Prefects at the opening assembly of the school year, and no one is more surprised than Devon. The glory of such an honor is short lived however, as anonymous texts start popping up exposing secrets about the two. The two characters have skeletons they would rather not have exposed, and even though they barely know each other, they eventually resolve they must work together to figure out who is out to destroy them.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the whodunit aspect really had me on my toes. I honestly, however, didn’t like either of the characters at all. The book has a lot going on, aside from the texts and secrets being exposed, that I wish would have gotten more page time. The two characters have very different, but very impactful home lives. Devon’s father is absent and it is learned he was executed on death row, his mom works three jobs, he has younger brothers and they struggle financial so that he has a chance at education. He lives in a tough neighborhood and runs drugs to help out with money. He hooks up with multiple guys in the book, and tries to keep it a secret so that he doesn’t get further harassed by the neighborhood guys, but it seems everyone knows he is gay even before the texts start coming. Chiamaka is Nigerian from her mom and Italian from her father. Her father’s family doesn’t accept her and her mom because of their skin color, so they no longer go to Italy to visit. Both parents are physicians and are never around. Chiamaka has no friends, picks boyfriends to further her power agenda, and spent her entire junior year having sex with her best friend, Jamie, with the hopes that he likes her too. She eventually realizes she likes a girl and hooks up with her. By-and-large for both main characters, only their sexual relationships are really explored, and most of them are brief. Thus it kind of limits the relatability to the characters in other facets of their lives. Not that people and characters have to be like-able, but they have a lot of layers, and it would have been nice to get to know them better as people, not just as shell minority representatives in a system built for them to fail.

Only a few side characters are developed, presumably just enough to make them suspect, but to drop information like one of them getting incarcerated and not explored, one diagnosed with diabetes and told without prompting and then dismissed, makes it feel like a lot is crammed in for no real purpose. As a debut novel by a young author, the writing is obviously amazing. I just didn’t connect to the characters, and the parts of the book I did like were overpowered by parts that I felt were overly forced. I will definitely read anything she writes in the future, although I will definitely research the books more thoroughly know what I’m getting in to.

FLAGS:

There is violence, sex (hetero, gay, and lesbian), cursing, drinking, drug use, drug selling, romance, kissing, hit-and-run, conspiracy, making out, drug dealing, physical beatings, passing out drunk, drunk driving, lying, cheating, racism, bigotry, hate speech, gaslighting, privilege, death, gun violence, destruction, murder, attempted murder, crude language, assault, blackmail, misogyny, homophobia, voyeurism, institutionalized racism, and probably more. Mature content.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is no way I would suggest, recommend, or encourage this book to Islamic School high schoolers.

The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

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The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

wild ones

At times this 352 mature YA book was really hard to read for a variety of reasons: the subject matter, the writing style, the pacing of the story, and the numerous characters and inconsistencies.  At other times, the book was descriptive, and ethereal and hard to put down.  It took me over a month to finish the book because it really is all over the place and a lot of internal force and motivation was required to get through it, yet for all its flaws, I find my thoughts drifting back to it often.  The book contains a lot of violence against women, as that is the thread that brings this feminist group together.  There are hetero, lgbtq+, trans, and nonbinary individuals and relationships in the book, but they are not explicit, the rape, assault, suicide, prostitution, child trafficking and murder are more detailed.  The book takes place all over the world, and often mentions the athan being called or a mosque being passed.  Many characters have “Islamic” names, but there is no religion specifically practiced in this hijabi authored women powered tale.

SYNOPSIS:

The premise of the book is simple and straightforward.  A girl, the daughter of a prostitute, is betrayed by her mother when she is sent to a man.  As she runs through the city to escape, she crosses paths with a young boy who tosses her a box that contains stars.  A star embeds itself in her palm and allows her to enter a place called the “Between.”  The Between is a magical corridor made of magic that contains doors that lead to locations all over the world.  Once she enters she stops aging and is now made of magic.  She has the power to scream which can destroy other middle worlders and she can go invisible when around normal humans.  She travels the world finding other girls betrayed by those who had been entrusted to protect them, and offers them a star and a place in the Wild Ones.  This has been going on for centuries.  When the boy with the star eyes is in danger, he is reunited with the girl and her gang, and they pledge to protect him.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The concept of the book is pretty good, but the plot for more than half of the book it seems focuses on the girls constantly arriving in a new location, exchanging diamonds for local currency, finding food, and getting settled in, before doing it all over again.  It is repetitive and pointless.  Sure it is nice to read about exotic locations and savor local foods, but these girls live forever essentially and we learn so little about them or what it is they do.  Toward the middle of the book you start to see them helping other girls, but this should have been made clear much earlier on, I’m sure many people stopped reading before they saw how part of each girls’ healing involved helping others.  It is not developed or shown, which I think other than the two encounters detailed would have created some connection between the characters and the reader.

The cause of most of the confusion is that there are 11 Wild Ones, and you never really get to know any of them, the point of view switches between Paheli, and unknown speaker, and it has pages of prose from other Wild Ones that are neither explanatory of their life before or in relation to what they are currently experiencing. The fourth wall is broken periodically, but inconsistently.  So often, I just had no idea what was going on.

At times the characters speak like they are the teens that they are when they entered the Between, really noticeably and painfully, but they are decades old at the youngest, and centuries old for some of them.  Also, Taraana is presented as a young small boy that needs coddling a lot, although he too is centuries old, but then as the girls start protecting him, he suddenly is this incredibly handsome man in love with Paheli.  I get that their physical ages are suspended, so a relationship really might be possible and not creepy, but Taraana seemed to change, and it wasn’t explained.

The world building overall is weak, which is a shame, because it isn’t disjointed from the real world, it is just a slight addition to what the reader already knows.  If the Between is just hallways how is there a library? Can you live in the Between? Can all middle worlders access it? If so why aren’t the corridors crowded?

The pain of the girls, their rage, their ability to deal with their traumas in their own way and time, is very empowering.  I wish the sisterhood was more mutual than blindly following Paheli, like lost little children.  These girls/women can decide what to partake it, and leave the group if they want, so they are strong and capable, they just don’t seem to get to show it as they bounce around from place to place to place eating and doing what they are told.

The book almost seems to have been written in sections and then dropped in to place.  Much of the character information comes too late to make the story resonate.  Sure part of it is intentional to clarify and create “aha” moments, but it creates really boring stagnant chapters, when these girls should be fierce and powerful, not lounging and mundane.

There were a few spelling errors and grammar gaps, but I read an advanced readers copy, so I’m hopeful they will be resolved.

FLAGS:

Prostitution, rape, assault, suicide, death, murder, child trafficking, torture, drowning, infanticide, girl/boy kissing, girl/boy and girl/girl flirting. Many of the online reviews make it seem more lgbtq+ than I felt it was.  There are two lesbian characters that flirt and imply that their relationship will move forward, but within the Wild Ones they aren’t all hooking up.  Paheli and Taraana kiss, but nothing more graphic.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think there is any way I could do this as a book club selection at an Islamic school, nor would I want to. The book has powerful commentary on the status and crimes against women the world over, and possibly older, say early 20 year olds, would benefit from reading and adding their voices to a dialogue regarding life experiences. But, the story line might be too simplistic for older readers to bond with, and the confusion and inconsistencies may not be worth the time needed to finish the book.

Enduring Freedom by Jawad Arash and Trent Reedy

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enduring freedom

This isn’t the type of book I am naturally drawn to, and had it not been offered to me as an arc, I didn’t even request it, I probably would not have read it.  So, to say that this young adult OWN voice 246 page post 9/11 war story had a lot to overcome for me personally, is putting it mildly.  I gave in and decided to read it for the simple fact that I was curious to see what the narrative is in today’s literature, as we approach the 20 year anniversary of the attacks on US soil.  The afterward is very clear that the agenda of the two authors, one an Afghan and the other a US veteran, was to show a personal view of growth and assumptions on both sides and how the future of Afghanistan needs to be rooted in education and stability.  I think the book accomplished its goals, and made very clear how the terrorists first victims were their own people, and that extreme ideologies of the Taliban were and are still not reflective of the larger population.  The pacing of the dual narratives, however, was a bit off to me, and I really felt that some of the major plot points didn’t get explored in a meaningful way, that they were simply glossed over and brushed aside to keep the book inline with the authors’ objectives.  The book is not overly political, and the Muslim characters are religious and knowledgeable, but for a book that talked about how even in war the people, the soldiers, are the story, I wanted to see more internal wresting with choices and their outcomes, then what was offered.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is told in alternating view points, one is that of Baheer an Afghan boy living with his large extended family in Kabul next to a Taliban compound.  The family is religious, Baheer’s grandfather, Baba Jan, is well read in poetry and religious text and often quotes the Quran by ayat and surah number.  The family sells carpets, and often hides the latest movies or news recordings in the rolls, so that they can be brought home, the blackout shades pulled and the tapes enjoyed.  They are fearful of being harassed for not having long enough beards, shaved heads, turbans and the like. Baheer and his brother Rahim do not enjoy school with the strict and abusive teachers.  The talibs seem to touch them inappropriately and scold them harshly.  Their older sister is not allowed to attend school and never has even though the family used to live in Pakistan where the boys enjoyed school. It doesn’t explain why they were there or why they returned.  One uncle is assaulted by the Taliban and soon after, a news clip showing the attacks on 9/11 is secretly watched by the family.  As a result they decide to move to Farah, in Western Afghanistan where Baba Jan has family and property, to be away from the impending US attacks and Taliban assaults.

Joe Killian is the other voice.  When the book starts he is sitting in class, his senior year, when news about the attacks on the World Trade Center starts to break.  He had joined the national guard that summer for the college money, and as his classmates sit glued to the televisions in Iowa, he is nervous that he is about to be called up to war.  He doesn’t get called up that day, he graduates, and is studying journalism in college when the call finally comes.  He is preparing for combat, but when he is deployed and discovers it is a reconstruction mission he is angry and annoyed.  A year of helping what he terms barbarians, is not what he signed up for.

The majority of the book reads like a ‘day in the life’ of each of these two voices, as they adapt to life in Farah, as they deal with each other’s presence and as their friendship forces their assumptions to change.  The interactions between Joe and Baheer show the power in getting to know someone to alter perceptions, and the threat of the Taliban on both the average citizen and the US forces on the ground as a unifying enemy to allow the friendship to grow.

The book concludes when Joe’s year of deployment is up, but really the authors’ notes at the end are a better conclusion to the real life friendship and growth of the two authors that resulted in the writing of the book

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the family sees the planes hitting the towers and is mortified at the brazen destruction and loss of life.  They immediately start praying for the victims even as they realize they will be the recipients of the backlash. I like that it highlights where practicing Muslims and extremists differ, by having the Quran quoted and explained as opposed to the rhetoric the Taliban is spouting.  Baba Jan’s manner for speaking the ayats is a bit awkward in that most people don’t in daily conversation source and reference their dialogues, but it does grow on you.  I think the book is very simplistic in making the Taliban to unequivocally be the ‘bad guys’ without any context of how they gained traction. It talks about the Soviets, but I think it will leave the readers wondering where this group came from and why the Afghan people allowed it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of nuances and complexities that are overlooked by such a simple narrative, and allow for an inaccurate picture to be formed.

I like that Baheer pushes back on Joe who thinks America is perfect and that Afghanistan is less than, by pointing out the flaws in American society as well as his own.  I was ok with Baheer pushing the cultural limits to talk to a girl, it was innocent and I think understandable. My biggest concern is that I really felt that there needed to be more space on the page dedicated to understanding the repercussions of him being an informant to the Americans, and his brother passing on information to the Talibs.  People were taken in to custody and injured and killed as a result of these boys’ actions and to just chalk it up to something to be forgiven, was not enough for me.  I wanted them to hash it out and wallow in their choices, not forgive and move on so quickly.  I also wanted to know more about their reconstruction efforts.  It seemed rather minimal: relocating explosives, helping a burn victim, sending supplies to a school, I think in a year, that there would be more mixing with the people than the book would suggest.  And finally, I felt like the sister not getting to go to school was handled as an obligation to address, not that any insight or understanding was really given to such a hot button issue.

The book is really slow and dragging at parts, I couldn’t tell you about any of the dozen or so soldiers that are mentioned, I don’t even recall any of their names. I think the book has a lot of potential, and perhaps it does shine in showing the effects of war and terrorism on the Afghan people.  It held my attention while actively reading it, but I just as easily could have put it down and forgotten about it if I wasn’t under obligation to offer an opinion in exchange for an early copy.

FLAGS:

There is language, stereotypes, physical abuse, sexual misconduct, death, killing, violence, acts of war, bloodshed, a crush. Upper middle school and high school can handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I’d select this book as a book club selection because I’m not sure what would be gained from the book.  The characters assumptions are challenged and evolve, but I think most minorities know that, getting to know someone is often the best way to have their image changed.  I think the book still functions to make Americans feel better about  invading Afghanistan, rather than have us question what the long term affects of our involvement have been.

Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

home is not a country

This upper middle school/high school 224 page novel told in verse touches on familiar themes of finding yourself and wondering about what could have been, but is anything but predictable.  Through magical realism, religion, culture, and phenomenal imagery, this book is haunting and powerful as it sweeps you into the possible alternate reality of a young 14 year-old-girl yearning to be someone else, consumed by a life that could have been, desperate for the other half of her mirrored existence, and for a home that she does not know, but so desperately longs for.  As a Muslim child of an immigrant, the daughter of a single mother, and nearly invisible at school, readers will feel her story, more than know it, and find themselves in her own awakening.

SYNOPSIS:

Nima feels like she exists in pieces.  No one understands her and she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin.  At school she is invisible, she is foreign and teased for it.  She has one friend, Haitham who is always there for her at home, but just a familiar wave in public.  At home Nima enjoys old Arabic songs and movies, hobbies she is teased for at weekend Arabic school, her hardworking mother is graceful and beautiful, Nima is neither.  Her world is the aunties and family in her building, but her Arabic is weak and she doesn’t fit in anywhere.  Her father passed away before she was born in a country she has never known.  Her twin sister died before birth, one for each parent in each world.  Nima imagines if she wasn’t Nima, but Yasmeen instead.  If she was bright and loud and loved and confident. The name she was nearly given, an alternate life she has become obsessed with.

When Haitham and her get in a fight, when her mother removes her headscarf and the bullying intensifies, Haitham ends up in the hospital, assaulted, barely hanging on and Yasmeen appears to help a floundering Nima escape a meal she can’t afford, a man that intends to assault her, and a world where she might find answers. The two girls travel to the homeland in the photographs to understand their parents, to understand why their mother left and Nima to the realization that only one of the girls can truly exist.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that I had no idea where the story was going and how much would be spelled out and how much would be left for the reader to interpret.  It affected me in a way that I wasn’t expecting and reminded me of the blurred lines of reality from books like Beloved (Toni Morrison) and Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger).  I love that the Arabic script is present and often not translated.  The unapologetic connection to the character and author is powerful and beautiful to see in a deeply introspective book.  I enjoyed that the “country” wasn’t named as it added to the concept of not knowing you home, it was frustrating, but for all the right reasons.

There isn’t a lot of practiced Islam mentioned, she doesn’t talk about praying, but does talk about the athan and longing for it.  Her mother wears hijab, but takes it off and wears a hat instead. The daily life of living in two worlds is taken to mean something very literal and the journey to both worlds is remarkable and memorable.

FLAGS:
There is physical assault, theft, lying.  Nima has to escape a man that intends to rape her, his intention isn’t detailed, but Yasmeen helps her escape when he brings her to a hotel.  Haitham’s dad has an affair with his mom and she is pregnant with him when the story flips back to the past and the couple are not married.  There is singing and music and dancing throughout. I think 14 and 15 year olds will be able to grasp the intensity of such situations while also not being shocked by them.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am on the fence if I could do this as a middle school book club, I might suggest it to the high school advisor.  There is so much to unwrap in the lyrical text that will draw the students in and force them to reflect on their own impressions to understand Nima’s reality.  I think there would be so many conflicting thoughts that the discussion would be amazing.  

Here is a better synopsis than mine: https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

Q and A with the Author: https://thenerddaily.com/safia-elhillo-author-interview/

 

https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

The Servant by Fatima Sharafeddine

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img_6859This 157 page young adult book is translated from Arabic and while at times the story seems intentionally choppy, at other times it seems that the translation is making it more jarring than it needs to be.  I found the book interesting and powerful, in much the way a short story can be, but the length was awkward, as it was too long for a short story, and not long enough to really read as a novel with detail and depth and connection.  I love the growth and retaking of control that the protagonist embodies and I absolutely love the ending being left intentionally unresolved.  There is no mention of religion in this story set in Lebanon, until nearly the end when it states that she is Muslim.  I wonder if the translation took out some of the ‘Salams’ and ‘inshaAllahs’ that would have clarified it a bit even if prayer, or the athan or any outward signs of being a Muslim are clearly absent.  The book is probably fine for ages 13 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Faten is essentially sold in to servitude by her family.  Her family lives in a village outside Beirut and when money gets tight she is forced to go and work as a house keeper/maid for the Zein family.  Once a month Faten’s father comes and collects her salary showing little to know affection for the eldest of his children. The small Zein family has two daughters and lives in a flat.  While the girls are in school, Faten cooks and cleans and dreams of being a nurse.  The family is not particularly cruel to Faten, they often refer to her simply as ‘girl,’ but they are not particularly kind to her either.  The highlight of Faten’s day is watching a young man across the street that drives a dark blue car, come home, study, and play piano.  On occasion she catches his eye, so he knows she exists, but the two know nothing about one another.  On Faten’s 17th birthday she decides she is going to gift her self something, and writes a letter to the blond man across the street.  She has her only friend in Beirut, Rosalynn, a much older house servant in the apartment downstairs from Sierra Leon, deliver the letter which asks the boy to meet her so that she might seek his help in a very important manner.

When Faten and Marwan meet, Faten asks him to obtain information about how she might study nursing and change her future.  The two secretly meet with Rosalynn’s help on Sunday’s, Faten’s one day off.  Faten borrows May’s books to study as she learns what exams she must take to make her dream a reality.  Marwan helps her with questions she needs assistance with and Faten and Marwan become close friends, with both feeling some attraction for one another just beneath the surface.  One day however, they are discovered by a friend of Mrs. Zein at a beach side cafe, drinking coffee and Faten is forbidden from leaving the apartment as a result.  With the oldest girl, May, married now, and nothing to look forward to on her days off, Faten dives in to her studies and is more determined than ever to pass her exams.

To even take the multiple day exam requires a few lies, a few favors, and the willingness to take a huge risk.  When the Zein’s find out she is let go, and now must face her parents back in the village.  With the help of her childhood friend, Faten clings to hope, confidence in her ability, and determination to pave her own way on her own terms.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that while Faten is the victim of cruel parents, and an unfortunate circumstance, she rises up and fights for control.  I love that she has feelings for Marwan, but that they don’t overshadow her future goals, nor does she become overly dependent on him.  I really love her strength in handling the situation with him when it is good, when it is tested, and when she has to walk away.  There are elements of it being a love story, but that is just one thread of the book, her charting her own path is much more the central story line.  I wish her religion and his religion would have come to the surface more, and sooner.  Lebanon is a diverse place and just saying they were of two different faiths could have provided a lot of insight and fleshing out of the culture and the dynamics the two would have faced.  The classism is a bit obvious, but even when that is explored it provides a better understanding to the characters and to the arc they are moving on.  I like that her childhood friend and family are so loving and that her mom is not completely written off as a passive flat character.  Overall, I like the story and the book, set in the 80’s it really could have gone a lot of ways, but it held close to the theme and provided enough side details that it felt grounded, believable and ultimately was enjoyable to read.

FLAGS:

When May is entertaining suitors there is some ogling that young kids might question.  There is a lot of lying and deception and the possible romance between Faten and Marwan that in the text is pretty clean, but there is some hand holding if memory serves and implied desire for the friendship to be more.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book offers a lot in terms of classism and forced labor to be discussed and the cliffhanger ending between Marwan and Faten would allow the readers to decide if they could be together despite their different faiths, economic status and families, or not.  I probably wouldn’t do it as a book club, but if I were a high school teacher, I might offer some sort of extra credit assignment involving the book, as the ending really lends itself to the reader projecting the characters’ futures based on their own perspectives which would be fascinating to hear.

No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard

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No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard

believers

This YA Fiction book by a Muslim author filled with many Muslim characters has a lot going for it, and while I didn’t love it, and felt that it was trying to do too much in 304 pages, I think most early high school readers will enjoy the cyber hacking plot, the islamaphobia and white supremacy themes that keep the book fast paced, relatable and timely.  The main character is a Muslim and has a Muslim boyfriend and all family members are fine with it, she also gets a tattoo with her mother’s permission and breaks the law, but usually with worthy motives.

SYNOPSIS:

Salma Bakkioui is the high school aged daughter of a North African father and convert mother.  They go to the mosque a few times a year, but don’t really practice, it is more heritage than actual intentional praying five times a day, yet somehow ayats from the Quran and hadith do float in and out of the story.  It is Ramadan, and the Muslims in the book are fasting except for Salma, who suffers from EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome) a connective tissue disorder, her best friend Mariam, who lived next door has just moved away because her father’s chiropractic business was failing due to racism and Islamaphobia.  Salma tried to use her hacker skills to send him more business, but ultimately they moved to the UAE.  Amir, the supportive boyfriend, oud player, and fellow Edward Norton fan is steady and good and constant.  As are her partying friend Vanessa, her physical therapist and her daughter, unfortunately, things are about to get really crazy, really fast.

When Salma and Amir go over to meet the new neighbors that have moved in to Mariam’s old house the blaring TV broadcasts a terrorist bombing nearby in DC.  The neighbors seem nice, but something is off about them, and Salma can’t quite figure it out.  From the dad and son’s matching number tattoos, the mom’s nervous behavior, and snippets of overheard conversations, it becomes apparent that something infact fishy is going on.  Salma and her younger siblings start getting bullied by classmates, and teachers and administrators turn a blind eye, cops interrogate Salma at school, and illegal snooping on the dark web reveal that the neighbors aren’t as innocent as they claim. As more and more is uncovered about the neighbors, Salma learns that she better have a plan to get out, as she is about to be framed for a lot of destruction as the new face of Islamic extremism.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that Salma is relevant and relatable, and while I know a lot about her family and friends, and illness, for some reason I don’t feel invested in her, and I am totally willing to conceded that that is on me, and others would really identify with her, but for some reason as much as I wanted to connect with her, I didn’t.  The supporting cast is fairly fleshed out, I’m not entirely sure why Dora and Boots are highlighted so much and I didn’t feel a tug on the emotional heartstrings of Mariam leaving, of Amir leaving, of Salma possibly saying good-bye.  I felt like even Salma and Amir being a couple and being connected through Edward Norton and Fight Club was a bit forced.  I didn’t feel it was organic or natural, it was almost like the author was trying to make a point of Muslim youth having relationships, and finding imams that were ok with tattoos. Rather than it being a plot point it seemed like it was trying to voice the author’s perspective whether it fit smoothly into the storyline or not.

I do like the tech and and the parallels between extremism whether Islamic or Christian, foreign or domestic, that drove the action of the book.  The unraveling of pieces and connections seemed a bit rushed, with unnecessary tangents affecting the pacing overall of the book, but at least there were answers to help it all make sense at the end, and make the story feel complete.

Having never written a book, I don’t know if some of the hiccups are first novel related, but I really hope the author keeps writing and keeps changing up what the mainstream Muslim protagonist lead consists of.  I love that Salma is smart and level headed and aware of her world, while still growing and owning up to her faults.  It isn’t a coming of age story, but she sets a great precedence for continued growth, loving your family and trusting yourself too. I particularly like the nuances in racism.  Some of the kids at school are jerks and bullies, some staff and teachers are bigoted and prejudice, but the right wing conspiracy groups are actively working, and their level of hatred and intelligence to mask it is great to see in a YA book.

FLAGS:

Relationships, kissing, references to marijuana brownies being consumed, violence, cursing, lying, illegal activity.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I can’t use this book as a book club selection since the two main characters are making out in the first chapter, but the book really is more than a relationship story and I would be ok with my young teen reading it.  The illegal hacking is more problematic then helpful in the end, and the language, and other deviant behaviors exhibited aren’t done for shock value alone, I think a discussion after the book would be great: privacy, hate, conspiracy, faith, religion, friendships, etc.

 

The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

light at the bottom

At the risk of sounding pretentious or like I have written a book before, sadly this really reads like a debut novel.  At 311 pages, there is a lot to love about this Muslim authored, Muslim protagonist sci-fi/dystopian adventure, but I have so many more questions about everything after reading the book, than I did before I started, that unless the next book (assuming there will be one), really steps it up- all the world building will have fallen flat with the lack of character connection I felt. At times I had to force myself to read through the lulls in the story, while at other times, I sacrificed precious sleep to read just a bit more.  The story is pretty clean and would have no problem letting my 5th grader read it, even while knowing it will have more appeal to my 8th grader.

SYNOPSIS:

It is 2099, and Earth has flooded forcing everyone to live underwater.  Set in London, 16-year-old Leyla McQueen, a submersible racer, lives alone with her dog Jojo.  Her mother has passed away and her father has recently been taken away to an unknown place for an unknown reason.  It is Christmas, and Muslim Leyla spends the day with her best friends, twins Theo and Tabby.  With futuristic technology, the wealthy twins show the reader what life under the sea entails and the world the characters now inhabit.  Pausing to recall the day the Earth flooded, New Years brings a huge race, the London Marathon, and Leyla somehow gets one of the 100 spots to enter the dangerous submersible race.  The winner gets whatever they want, and Leyla hopes to win, so that she might ask for her father to be released.

By opting to not harm someone, Leyla’s last minute reactions earn her the championship title of the race, however, her request to have her father freed is denied and instead she is gifted a submarine and the attention of the authorities who have ransacked her apartment, and stolen and destroyed her home.  Feeling like she has no reason to stay in London, she plots to escape the borders and go search for her father alone.  A family friend, she calls Grandpa, knows more than he has ever let on, and forces a friend’s son to keep an eye on Leyla, Ari.

Ari and Leyla explore the ocean, while Leyla whines and makes poor decisions, narrowly getting out of each situation, but not seeming to really learn her lesson.  As people appear and help them along the way, she finds where her father is being held, but not much else, and then poof, a few action scenes later to try and rescue her father, and Ari is captured and the book ends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

You have to respect the author who’s bio on the back flap of a Disney, Hyperion published book starts off with, “a British-born Muslim of Afghan descent,” and who dedicates the book to “my fellow Pathans.  We too are worthy of taking the helm.” I love it! Seriously, way to be so confident in who you are, and your story, that you own it and wear it with pride.  Truly, I felt empowered and can only imagine what Pathan girls everywhere would feel opening the book.

Similarly, Leyla, owns her Islam by praying, reading Quran, saying Bismillah before she races, and inshaAllah when she hopes in for things in the future.  She does get a bit close to Ari and doesn’t find that a problem.  She doesn’t cover, and there are no other Muslim characters in the book, but she is definitely religious, and it is seamlessly woven into her character without mentioning anything about what Islam is or stands for, but giving it authentic attention.

There are a few twists, one particularly large one, but not a whole lot of answers, or details.  There is no understanding as to why Leyla’s father has been taken, what happened to everyone other than those in the UK (especially Afghanistan, where Leyla presumably would have family), why so many people are willing to help Leyla find her dad, why Grandpa tells Leyla nothing at all, about Ari’s friend who died, and so much more.  So often it just feels that Leyla is whining and getting no where in her rash and stubbornness, but everyone seems to love her. Perhaps, everyone but me.  I really never felt connected to her, and her annoyingly ever-present dog.  There is more telling about how great she is or her father is, and very little showing.  I think if there is a second book, it could really elevate this one, but as it stands, so little is resolved, explained, or emotional resonance, that I don’t know that the characters or book will leave a lasting impression.

FLAGS:

Some language and a kiss.  There is death, and disease, and battles and government lies.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m tempted to do this as a middle school book club selection, despite the one-dimensional characters, simply because it is clean and might introduce students to a genre they might not otherwise read.

Author’s website: https://www.londonshah.com/

 

Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Miracle

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Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Miracle

bunchesA book about 5th grade friendships told from the perspective of four different girls in a variety of styles: instant messages, chatroom conversations, video scripts, and traditional text.  The author seems to have a checklist of diverse characters and afflictions that all must make an appearance in the 335 page story.  It is written on an AR 4.4, but with one of the main characters having two moms, details of a suicide mentioned, talk of pole dancing, male anatomy joked about, thongs, crushes, and mental illness, four girls coming together to form friendships and take down a bully, might raise more questions for young readers than they are ready to handle.  Yasaman the Muslim girl in the group, also borders on perpetuating more stereotypes than she breaks, and while I definitely don’t think this book is a good fit for 4th and 5th graders, I don’t really recommend it for readers of any age, there are just better books out there.

SYNOPSIS:

Asian American Katie-Rose doesn’t have friends, unless you count her neighbor Max, but she doesn’t.  She dreams of having blond haired Camilla as a best friend, but the Camilla she went to Pioneer camp with is not the Milla at school who hangs out with Modessa (aka Medussa) and Quin, and is popular.  Katie-Rose also dreams about being a cinematographer or director, she isn’t sure yet, but she loves to imagine scenes and scripts and how things ideally should play out, even when in reality they never quite seem to do so.

Milla, isn’t sure if she wants to stay friends with Modessa and Quin, they aren’t nice and she has a lot more fun with Katie-Rose, but somehow she always ends up going back to the popular crowd.  She also has a lot of anxiety and needs various totems with her at all time to feel secure.  When her little plastic turtle goes missing, she struggles to stay composed, and her and her turtle will end up changing a lot at Rivendell Elementary.

Violet, is the new girl at school and she is not liking her life at home or at school.  Her mom is in a mental hospital and she misses her desperately, her dad brings home fast food every night for dinner and life just isn’t the same since she moved to California.  Immediately able to tell who the popular kids are at school, she hasn’t decided which group of friends is the best fit for her, but when she stumbles on Tally the turtle, and doesn’t immediately return it to Milla, she has to understand what that says about her, and figure out if she is strong enough to make things right.

Yasaman is the quiet computer wiz, she is also Turkish-American, Muslim, and a hijabi.  She designs a platform where kids who are too young to join Facebook can chat, stream videos and send cupcakes.  The only problem is, she has no friends to get to join.  When Katie-Rose and her strike up a friendship, the first seeds of the four flower named girls are planted, but it will take all four of them to put Modessa in her place, rescue Tally, and deal with stereotypes, emotions, and family along the way.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that a Muslim, muhajaba is included in the quartet, and that her religion, her scarf, her culture, and her belief in Allah, actually are sprinkled in.  I don’t love how in the book’s efforts to include such diversity, that it also seems to fall for a lot of the stereotypes that it on the surface seems to be dispelling.  Katie-Rose asks her if she even knows what YouTube is before being made aware of how computer savvy she is.  All this is to subtly show the assumption that Muslims are not aware of technology and whatnot, and set the record straight, but also regularly thrown in are side comments from Yasaman that her father would never let her wear something, or she wouldn’t be allowed to do that because of her dad, definitely reinforcing a male dominated, authoritarian, out-of-touch patriarchal view.  Even her mother, an artist, is shown to demand a lot of Yasaman and be incredibly strict.  A lot of things aren’t spelled out, they are just dropped in and assumed that the reader get’s it.  But only Yasaman’s parents are portrayed this way.  Milla’s two mom’s are caring, Violet and her dad seem close, and Katie-Rose’s parents are rarely highlighted.  So, I felt like it was noticeable, and not in a positive way.

I’m still completely confused as why pole dancing and male anatomy made appearances in the book.  And the pole dancing reference appeared not once, but twice when Yasaman is talking to an older cousin who is talking about a friend who’s aunt is a pole dancer, and then later when Katie-Rose’s babysitter also mentions the same friend.  They also discuss people as being slutty and boy crazy and skanky.  The male anatomy isn’t spelled out it is hidden with a girl with major orthodontia reading a Wikapedia page on the greek satyrs, discussing their physical pleasures and talents.

There is also a lot of mental health issues that I’m glad are present, but I’m not sure if they are handled seriously enough.  I’m glad they are addressed, because awareness is a good thing, but discussing how someone swallowed pills to commit suicide and even though she changed her mind still died, and not giving any context seems to make the concept come across as a bit trivial to me in its presentation.  Same goes for Camilla’s anxiety and Violet’s mom being in a mental hospital.  These girls have some major stuff going on that their preoccupation with a snotty group of girls, and the obsession of mud being consumed in an ice cream shake, seems a bit off.

Overall, the girls seem incredible perceptive and articulate in their self reflection and understanding of social personas, that I found their banter completely disjointed.  I don’t think the author’s voice is consistent, and the heavy stuff is too much coming from 5th graders in my opinion.

FLAGS:

Stereotypes, and discrimination against Yasaman and her younger sister Nigar.  Possible triggers with talk of suicide.  Milla has two moms, it is never labeled or made an issue, she just refers to them as Mom Abigail and Mom Joyce. Talk of boy private parts and erections, crushes, pole dancing, words such as skanky, and slutty and dingleberry (poop hanging on) used.  There is lying and bullying and retaliation and poetic justice.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this book for a book club or even have it in the classroom.  I think it gets a bit crass unnecessarily and the cute flowery cover and inside flap, makes it all the more surprising.  You might expect some potty humor in other books, but knowing it is there allows the reader to make a decision to read it or not, I would imagine most Muslim parents would see four diverse girls on the cover, one wearing hijab, get excited and hand the book to their 3rd or 4th or 5th grade daughter and have no idea what the book also includes in passing, with no relevance to the story lines highlighted on the inside flaps and back of the book.

Allies by Alan Gratz

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Allies by Alan Gratz
allies.jpg

This is the second Alan Gratz multi-perspective historical fiction novel I’m reviewing for its inclusion of a Muslim character.  While in Refugee it seemed a natural choice to include a Muslim family, I was completely shocked that he would feature one in a WWII D-Day novel.  With numerous storylines spread over 322 pages the book is quick, fast paced, intense and emotional.  An enjoyable read for history lovers and curious kids fifth grade and up, it is an AR 5.6 and older kids will benefit from it too.

SYNOPSIS:

The characters and timeline are fictionalized to all take place on D-Day, June 6, 1944, as the Allied forces and French resistance come together to storm German occupied France on the beaches of Normandy.  Many of the details do come from history though as detailed in the Author Notes at the end of the book.

The book starts out following Dee, a German national who left for America to escape the Nazi’s and is now returning in a Higgins boat to fight them. Knowing no one will understand, including his friend Sid, a Jew from New York, he keeps this knowledge to himself and focuses on the task ahead.

Samira and her mother are the focus of the next mission and highlight the role of the French Resistance, the Maquis.  What makes their story more meaningful is that they are spies with the French Resistance, but they are French Algerians, not really a part of France at all, and they are Muslim.  In Samira’s back story we learn how she must remove her hijab and how she is treated different at school because Algeria and France are at odds.  When her mother is taken by the Nazis before she can deliver the message to the Resistance, Samira vows to do it and get her mother back as well.

19-year-old James from Winnipeg Canada is a paratrooper who volunteered for combat to feel empowered after years of bullying. His buddy in the story Sam is a Cree Indian from Quebec, who has few rights at home, and hopes to have more success in the military.

Medic Henry is scrambling along on the beach helping anyone and everyone he can.  Having left behind a segregated US, even the military has reservations about African Americans saving and serving. As he performs one heroic act after another being questioned and doubted and insulted all along the way, readers see how ridiculous and infuriating racism is on every level.

We meet Private Bill Richards who drives a Sherman tank and is following in his fathers WWI footsteps.  But who is unfortunately killed before reaching Bayeux.   And finally we meet Monique Marchand, a French 13 year old girl, who gets caught up in the invasion because she left her swim suit in the beach hut the day before and has returned to retrieve it. Determined to do something other than cower in fear, she starts helping fallen soldiers and meets up with American journalist Dorothy, a strong woman determined to not be stopped on the basis of gender.

All the story lines criss and cross as the invasion is a chaotic mess and everyone is dropped, disembarked, or arriving in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Surviving the day is an immediate challenge and not one that everyone will succeed at.  The larger success of the mission will depend on some lucky breaks and a whole lot of teamwork.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story somehow isn’t political at all in the traditional war story, war strategy sense.  But the strength at least for me, wasn’t the horrific battle at hand, which is truly violent and abhorrent, but the relationships between the people.   The realizing what is driving them, what matters and more importantly how hard our prejudices are.  The larger story of the Allies shows British, Americans, and Canadians coming together to defeat he Nazis, but yet, a girl, an African American, and a Cree are treated as “other” irregardless of how beneficial they are even in matters of life and death.

As for the story of Samira, she is a tough girl, both clever and brave.  To have a Muslim in  an American/westerm story of D-Day and a young girl at that, to me was pretty remarkable.  There isn’t mention of faith or anything other than that she is told to take off her scarf and continues to wear a small kerchief on her head anyway, but for Muslim kids all over, this character and how she behaves will spark a sense of extra pride in the Allies success over Hitler, just as the other minority characters will for their representation in such a dramatic event.

FLAGS:

There is a bit of mild profanity.  There is violence and death, and blood, not too bad, but the point is clear, the beach isn’t pretty.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this book would be a great supplement to any WWII history lesson.  There are great resources at the end, and maps at the beginning and a high energy, short chaptered book that doesn’t skimp on character building or war intensity.

Author’s website: http://www.alangratz.com

 

 

You’re Not Proper by Tariq Mehmood

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your not proper

This highly praised British young adult novel is intense.  If I was trying to sell you the book I would say that it is relevant, gritty, raw, and real, but as a reviewer, it is definitely more rough, all over the place, and random.  There is so much going on in the book that it should be well over 400 pages to resolve it all, but almost as if the publisher required that the book be less than 200 to fit the demographic, it all gets tied up way too simplistically and leaves dozens of tangents unresolved, unexplored, and hanging.  The main characters are 14 years old, but I think it is a bit too harsh for that age group and should probably not be read by them.

SYONPSIS:

Karen’s mom doesn’t believe in God but takes her to church.  Karen’s dad is a Pakistani Muslim who loves bacon and beer.  The book opens with Karen’s gang marking her forehead with a cross against her will, and her soon after deciding that she doesn’t fit in with her friends and will now be Muslim.  Part of this transformation involves her wanting her name pronounced properly, as Kiran and her wearing a hijab.  Her parents are pretty ok with the decision, but the author foreshadows that this will be the undoing of her family.  

The book gets crazy, like all over the place crazy, but because of the little hints that all this craziness is leading up to something, I kept reading thinking that the author had it under control.  But no, I don’t think he does or did. 

The most craziness comes from Kiran’s rival Shamshad who leads another gang and pretends to be really religious, but is a bit of a rebel and bully herself.  The author is told from both Kiran and Shamshad’s perspectives, and while at times the reader sympathizes with Shamshad, as her influential father is abusive, many of her actions are so jarring and awkward, that no, she isn’t really like-able at all.  She wants a computer, her parents are that strict, yet she goes out with a guy, gets drunk, hangs all over him, goes to a Halloween party/dance without seeming to have to sneak about doing it.  She is regularly beating people up, threatening to kill and maim people with scissors, not a nice 14-year-old, nor a believable one either.  

As Kiran tries to learn about Islam and figure out what is tearing her family apart, and Shamshad is trying to find her place, the two storylines come closer together before the big climax of learning what tied the two girls’ families together in Pakistan and then here in the same English neighborhood.  The climax/ point of the story is actually a good one, but the resolution of it, is so simplistic that it cheats the reader of any potential investment they may have skimmed from the crazy build up.  It seems like the author had an idea and just worked backward for his big reveal, which is probably how most books are written, but in good books, you connect with the character and join them in their journey, here there is no character connection.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like the idea of the book.  That there are good and bad Muslims and Christians, that things are diverse and complicated and that we all have our own baggage either at home, or in our heritage, or in our environment. But the book is not cohesive, the characters are really, really harsh.  And it doesn’t seem the author gets their voices right.  Plenty of males write beautiful complex female characters and vice versa, and plenty of adults get teens right, but I don’t think this author got either.  The girls are not believable and the minor characters are just as bizarre.

I think if you you live in a highly diverse area and you are acquainted with lots of minorities you can handle the way Islam is portrayed, but if you aren’t I think both Muslim and non Muslim readers alike will be shocked and offended by the portrayal of such crude characters.  This isn’t a book of accepting differences and finding a way to get along, it is more of a book showing how awful everyone is in varying degrees.  If it was an adult book perhaps you could argue it is realistic, but as a teen book, I think the lifestyle choices of all the characters will be eye-opening and not necessarily in a good way.  I do like that the book isn’t offering a moral statement or opinion on Islam, but the way Islam is presented isn’t inspiring either.

I’ll admit I’m a sucker for books that are meticulous, not boring, but deliberate.  Authors like John Irving who seem to map their stories with crime solving precision.  Where every sentence serves a purpose and every idea has a reason for being shared.  Most books leave something hanging, but this book, left everything hanging.

For two girls in gangs, the gang members by and large fade away before we even get to know them.  There is a rally being planned but resolved half heartedly.  Kiran has to fight with her parents to learn about herself in a really unrealistic way.  Kiran harasses her dad to learn about Islam, but then all of a sudden her paternal grandpa lives nearby and brings over a marriage proposal, why couldn’t she ask him about Islam, and why would a 14 year old be considering marriage?  The whole scene of Kiran getting a hijab is weird and pointless, why stress underwear and having another customer make a random comment for no reason.  What was the obsession with swimming for Shamshad and her mother, like there is a lot of space dedicated to this topic, and I don’t really get it.  Shamshad’s dad is also creepy, he seems to have a decent relationship with her, but is physically abusive to her mom, and he does a weird inappropriate thing with a pointer stick to Kiran at the masjid, that should be discussed more in my opinion.

Once the big reveal happens really there are more questions than answers.  Like I still don’t get why the families hate each other, if they had to make promises of secrecy in Pakistan, couldn’t they just ignore and be ambivalent to one another in England? Why so much hate and hostility? And what is up Jake? He seems like a good friend that makes some mistakes and Kiran is awful toward him, then all of a sudden she claims him as a brother.  And whats up with him going on and on about his brother in the military, I need closure! And last but not least why when Kiran’s mom is in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt, why does the Curry Club, that no one in the book ever liked, suddenly in the hospital room with them, when it should be a tender mother-daughter moment? Seriously, I was beyond annoyed.  There should have been a message, or a cathartic release, not annoying super side characters coming back for no reason.

FLAGS:

Lots of violence, alcohol, language. There are also romantic relationships and the celebration of Halloween.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would recommend this book to anyone.  I am willing to concede that some of it was lost in translation for me, but there is so much going on in the book that there is no way that it can excuse it all.  I would love to discuss some of my concerns with someone who has already read it though. So feel free to reach out, I’m all ears.