fiction · YA

Love From A to Z- S.K. Ali

Look what was FINALLY in at the library, you guys! I could have put it on hold, but I had plenty of other books to read in the meantime, but finally, FINALLY I went and Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali (Salaam Reads, 2019) was on the shelf! SQUEEEEEEEEE!!! I really enjoyed her Saints and Misfits this summer and was really looking forward to reading this one. The two books are quite different, but Love From A to Z didn’t disappoint one bit.

Zayneb is headed to Qatar to spend time with her aunt after being suspended from school after an incident with a racist, bigoted teacher. Adam is heading home to Qatar after leaving university, a fresh diagnosis of multiple sclerosis- the disease that killed his mother- taking up the majority of the real estate in his brain. Their brief encounter in the airport and on the airplane sets the tone for what becomes a friendship, because- surprise!- Adam’s family and Zayneb’s aunt know each other. It really is a small world.

Things are always more complicated than they seem, though. Adam’s terrified to tell his still-grieving father and adoring younger sister about his diagnosis, and his condition seems to be worsening. Zayneb is struggling to deal with the fallout of the racism and bigotry she left behind at home (and which seems to have followed her to Qatar as well). Both of them are trying to appreciate the marvels and oddities of life, while learning how to be honest with their parents and with each other, and taking life one step at a time.

(Content warnings for Islamaphobia, racism, bigotry, microaggressions, death of a parent, chronic illness, death of a grandparent, a few mentions of some grisly world events, and grief.)

This? Is a lovely, lovely book. Entirely heartfelt, with characters who seem so very real. Adam is sweet, charming, and grappling with what his diagnosis will mean for his family and for his future. He so badly wants to protect his sister and father from more pain and hates that he can’t. Zayneb is angry at the unfairness of her hideous teacher (who really is a jerk) and hates how powerless she feels, but along with her friends back home, she’s working to take back some of that power. She’s also exploring new aspects of her personality with the new friends she meets in Qatar, while still remaining entirely dedicated to her Muslim faith (her “Of course not, scarf for life” quip made me grin).

This book is representation to the max for Muslim readers, which I love, both for Muslim readers and for readers like me who get to learn and see Muslim characters as the heroes. (And sometimes cringe heavily at the racism, bigotry, and cringeworthy questions, comments, and microaggressions directed their way. There’s a scene where Zayneb wraps her childhood baby blanket around her when she’s sad over the loss of her grandmother and is answering the door with no time to ‘scarf up,’ as she puts it, and a non-Muslim character asks if that was something she had to wear when people die, ostensibly for religious reasons. *cringe* It’s better to ask than to assume, but I feel like it’s my responsibility to learn as much as I can in order to not necessarily be asking questions…like that one.) Qatar is a fascinating place to set a novel and I loved being able to see it through the eyes of two teenagers.

I got to thinking as I was reading the novel… Zayneb and Adam are both religious and very dedicated to their shared Muslim faith (Adam’s father converted when he was young, and Adam eventually followed in his father’s footsteps, which gave the novel a really interesting perspective), but this novel absolutely shines in ways that the Christian fiction I’ve read (most of it, anyway) hasn’t, and I’ve been pondering why these two types of novels, where faith is a major player, feel so different. In Ali’s novels, there’s no proselytizing; there’s no shaming for lower or different levels of observance. Faith is up to each character personally and is portrayed as their own private journey and not something that their neighbor is watching in on, ready to pounce and point them back to the right path. There’s no overall message of having to be or do or believe in a certain way; faith just is, but isn’t pushed. This is fiction where the characters are religious, but whose author has no religious agenda and that’s something I appreciated. It’s been a few years since I’ve read any Christian fiction (Always the Baker, Never the Bride by Sandra D. Bricker was pretty good and, from what I remember, is a good example of Christian fiction that isn’t at all pushy in its message), so maybe the genre has changed since then? Love From A to Z felt like a breath of fresh air in that regard, though, and it’s something I’m still considering.

S.K. Ali goes onto my list of authors I’ll automatically read, and I’m very much looking forward to whatever it is she puts out next. Her characters are vibrant, and she makes them come alive, flaws and all. She’s such an exciting voice in YA fiction and I’m absolutely hooked on her writing.

Today only- that’s December 12, 2019- this book is available FOR FREE on RivetedLit.com, so what are you waiting for? GO GET IT!!!!!!!!!

Visit S.K. Ali’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

The Silence Between Us- Alison Gervais

I’ve been interested in sign language, deafness, and Deaf culture since I was on a fourth grade field trip to some sort of ‘Just Say No!’ retreat when I noticed an interpreter signing to a student from another school across the room. I was so utterly entranced by her signing that I don’t think I heard a word of the anti-drug presentation (no worries, I’ve never done any kind of drugs, so we’re all good). Our teacher mentioned the interpreter later on and said that she was signing to a Deaf student so that he or she could understand what was being said, and I was fascinated. In the next Scholastic book flier was The Gallaudet Survival Guide to Signing by Leonard G. Lane, my mother bought it for me, and I learned the alphabet in one night. Years later, I still know a lot of the signs I picked up as a kid and in the one class I’ve been able to take as an adult (and actually used them this summer when my daughter played with a girl whose parents were Deaf). All that to say, when I learned about The Silence Between Us by Alison Gervais (Blink, 2019), I was all the way in!

Maya’s in the middle of some pretty serious transitions as the story begins. She’s just moved to Colorado with her single mother and her younger brother, who has cystic fibrosis. If that weren’t a big enough change, she’ll be attending a hearing school for the first time after years at a Deaf school (having fully lost her hearing after a bout with meningitis at age 13). She’s terrified and more than a little cranky about being yanked out of her comfortable world, but she’s determined to make the best of it for her mother’s sake. Nina, assigned to be Maya’s student liaison, becomes a fast friend, and she’s luckily able to strike up a rapport with Kathleen, her interpreter. Both of these help to make the switch a little easier.

But Maya’s not expecting Beau, the popular, good-looking, super-smart student who throws himself into learning ASL in order to be able to communicate with her. Not used to dealing with hearing guys, Maya doubts his intentions at first, until it becomes clear that Beau is all heart. But Maya’s got to learn to trust herself, and to live in the hearing world as a Deaf woman in order to pursue her dreams, and far too many people refuse to make it anywhere even close to easy for her.

While Maya can be short on patience and quick to bite people’s heads off, I enjoyed her. Her instant and complete acceptance of herself as a Deaf woman is so full and so total that it almost feels radical (which is sad to say! MORE HARDCORE SELF-ACCEPTANCE IN ALL GENRES, PLEASE!) and it’s a deep breath of fresh mountain air. I LIKE MYSELF DEAF, she signs when the subject of cochlear implants (a hot topic of debate in the Deaf community) comes up, and I swear, I nearly cheered out loud when I read that. If only we could all love ourselves that much…

Maya’s first suspicions of Beau are understandable; one of his ‘friends’ at school shows her exactly how nasty some hearing people can be towards Deaf people (although there’s a totally victorious call-out scene near the end of the novel that I loved!), and the book does an excellent job at showing all the many frustrations Deaf and hard-of-hearing people face due to lack of accommodations- simple ones!- that society could easily implement in order to make our world more accessible for everyone…but doesn’t. This is really a great book to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is Deaf and learning to live in a more independent way in the hearing world and how much they’re forced to struggle in order to achieve their goals.

Excellent representation in this book, and it’s kind of wild to me that ten months into the year, this is only the second book I’ve read this year with a Deaf character (the other being Victoria’s mother in Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler). Deafness is what’s known as a low-incidence disability, but hearing loss absolutely isn’t, especially among children, and I’m curious as to why I haven’t seen more characters with hearing loss throughout my reading life. I also really appreciated Maya’s bewilderment as to why the kids with cochlear implants hadn’t also learned ASL, as that’s something that has always troubled me as well. Obviously it’s each family’s choice, but technology can fail, equipment can break, batteries and processors are expensive, and if these things happen, the implanted child (or adult!) may be left without a language or way to communicate. Why not give them access to both worlds? I was happy to see that Ms. Gervais had raised those questions and showed how what other families choose to do affects the wider Deaf community.

I also loved the inclusion of Connor, Maya’s brother who has cystic fibrosis. Ms. Gervais shows his struggle, but she also portrays how difficult it is to have a chronically ill sibling (Maya works hard in order to not add to her mother’s troubles), along with showing how stressed out Maya’s single mother gets (but tries to hide it). I did question why on earth one would move a child with a lung condition to Colorado, famous for its high altitudes where it’s harder to breathe, but I don’t know much about the intricacies of cystic fibrosis and thus there may be plenty of reasons why this was a good idea. And sometimes, when your job says go, you go, and that may have been the case for sole breadwinner Mom. Either way, I’m sure she researched the heck out of it and spoke with doctors and other health coordinators, just like any other parent would!

The Silence Between Us is a book that will make you consider and reconsider the hearing world, the Deaf world, how the two work together, and how this cooperation could be even deeper if we’re willing to put in the work (and why not? ASL is gorgeous and fun). I hope this is the beginning of more Deaf characters in YA and beyond.

Visit Alison Gervais’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

A Crazy Kind of Love- Mary Ann Marlowe

I am a massive sucker for celebrity-falls-for-regular-gal books. MASSIVE. If extremist cults and escaping secretive religious groups is my favorite flavor of nonfiction, this is my favorite kind of fiction. Despite not really following any of Hollywood, this is a genre I’ve always loved (I’m going to go ahead and blame Just a Summer Romance by Ann M. Martin– yes, she of my beloved Babysitters Club- for this. That book was probably one of my first real YA titles as a tween and is fully responsible for my starry-eyed devotion to celebrity-dude-as-love-interest novels). So when I saw A Crazy Kind of Love by Mary Ann Marlowe on the New Fiction shelf, a quick scan of the back cover and I was hooked.

In order to pay the bills and keep her health insurance, fine arts major Jo Wilder has taken a job stalking celebrities as a member of a paparazzi crew. It’s not her style at all; she’d much rather snap pics of normal people, doing normal things, but that’s not exactly a major source of cash. Problem is, she’s not great at what she’s been hired to do. Too much heart. Too much seeing celebrities as people and not as product.

A missed photographic encounter with Maggie Gyllenhall leads her straight into the life of Micah Sinclair, the uber-gorgeous frontman of the rock band known as Theater of the Absurd. Micah’s a known flirt and major manwhore…but Jo’s definitely feeling the attraction too. Sparks burst into flames, and suddenly Jo’s in front of all those paparazzi cameras, not just behind them. With her jerk of a boss demanding seriously unethical stuff, Jo’s got to figure out what’s real, who she can trust…and who trusts her.

God, this was a fun read. Jo and Micah’s blossoming romance was both sweet and steamy, and despite his bad boy rep, Micah was an utter charmer. Building off of my last review, though, my favorite part of the novel was the fact that Jo has Type I diabetes. She tests her blood sugar often, experiences a few scary lows, and is often hunting down appropriate food or digging into her stash of snacks, but with the exception of informing Micah of the ins and outs of her condition, it’s just part of the story, something Jo lives with, takes care of, and goes about her life. It’s her normal, and although she occasionally shows her displeasure with it, it’s not treated as A Major Deal, and that’s something I really appreciated reading. My father has Type I diabetes, and everything Ms. Marlowe wrote about here, I grew up seeing and hearing about. Jo is never represented as anything other than just a normal person; her best friend and roommate, Zion (whom I absolutely adored) does a good job of caring for and about her without crossing the line into being hovery. There’s also the inclusion of a transgender character, which made my heart smile. Representation absolutely matters, and Ms. Marlowe has done a fantastic job. This was truly a fantastic escapist read on a weekend where my pain levels were ridiculous (seriously, how have we gone to the moon and figured out how to transplant hearts and do brain surgery, but the human back and SI joint are still a nebulous mystery???) and I needed that mental getaway.

Peeking around on Goodreads, I see that my library has her other book, Some Kind of Magic, so that’s exciting news. And her next novel, Dating By the Book, sounds amazing and comes out in June. I’m going to need to borrow Hermione Granger’s time turner here…

Visit Mary Ann Marlowe’s website here.

Follow Mary Ann Marlowe on Twitter here.

fiction

Switch and Bait- Ricki Schultz

In my quest to fill my life with more fiction, I decided to wander through the New Fiction section at Library #2 (my card works at four; I’m extremely lucky to live in an area where so many libraries offer reciprocal borrowing privileges) and nearly punched a hole in the shelf reaching out to grab this copy of Switch and Bait by Ricki Schultz. I couldn’t get enough of her sharp wit and snappy prose in Mr. Right-Swipe and knew a few chapters in that I’d follow her anywhere, literarily-speaking. Switch and Bait didn’t disappoint.

By day, Blanche Carter (a girl of the south, natch) manages Literature and Legislature, a DC bookstore; by night, she’s side-hustling her way to freedom from student loans by helping desperate women clean up their online dating profiles and posing as them in order to attract the right sort of guy (buzz off, douchebros). Her own dating life is a bit…emptier. There was the one-night-stand with her terminally ill best friend’s delicious (but Republican!) brother-in-law Henry a few years back, but other than that, nah. Blanche is better off alone. She’s seen what love can do to a gal and she’s sworn it off entirely.

When she signs a new client who has all the grace of a vertigo-afflicted elephant on oiled ice, Blanche figures she’s got her work cut out for her, but she’s thrown for a loop when said elephant, aka ridiculously gorgeous Ansley, matches with- who else?- Henry. Hot, best-friend’s-brother-in-law, entirely-way-too-shaggable Henry. Breaking her #1 rule of never getting involved in a relationship of someone she knows, Blanche forges ahead, meeting someone new in the process…but all roads, it seems, lead back to the same place, the very guy she swears she’s over.

Ricki Schultz has an instantly recognizable style. Her characters teem with sarcasm, acerbic wit, and up-to-date slang, all things I absolutely adore about her books. Switch and Bait had me laughing out loud several times, just as Mr. Right-Swipe did. I enjoyed reading a story set in DC that wasn’t specifically about politics (politics are, of course, mentioned, but only in a more generic sense). Blanche and Isla, the best friend who has Huntington’s disease, disagree on politics but still remain friends, and I admired how Ms. Schultz handled that. Isla’s failing health and Blanche’s grief over it also made an intriguing side plot. As someone who suffers from chronic pain, it’s gratifying to see disabilities and major health conditions represented in literature, and I hope this is something that continues, not just in Ms. Schultz’s work, but in fiction in general.

Switch and Bait is a fun read that sneaks in a message of honesty, loyalty, and being true to yourself and those around you. If you haven’t read Ricki Schultz yet, question every decision you’ve made about your life up to this point, then head to your nearest library/bookstore/electronic device with online bookstore access and grab yourself a copy of either (or both!) of her books, because she’s utterly fabulous. I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next.

Check out Ricki Schultz’s website here.

Follow Ricki Schultz on Twitter here.