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

Saints and Misfits- S.K. Ali

Another book from my TBR! (I know, I know I’ll never tackle it completely, but at least I have a GOAL, right???) I managed to grab a copy of this right after my son went back to school- I live in a really amazing area (I know I say this a lot, but I really do love it here), and Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017) was on several school summer reading lists here, so every time I looked for it at the library during the summer, it was checked out. But when the kids went back to school, BAM- there it was on the shelf and I snatched it up like a ravenous seagull who has spotted a French fry in a McDonald’s parking lot.

This isn’t the easiest book for which to write a synopsis, so this will look a little different than my usual reviews. Bear with me here, because this book is SO. WORTH. IT.

Janna, a young hijabi, is struggling. Struggling with her parents’ divorce, struggling with her brother moving back home and taking over her room (forcing her to bunk with Mom), struggling with her brother’s Little Miss Perfect possible-future-wife, struggling with a crush on a non-Muslim boy, struggling to remain true to her convictions even when it’s hard, and most of all, struggling with having been sexually assaulted by a Muslim boy that everyone thinks is the most pious member of her community. To say that her plate is full is the understatement of the century.

The story centers around Janna navigating her school year, attempting to manage all these different parts of her life, with the assault and the young man who committed it looming largest over all the others. Janna’s identity as a Muslim is strong; though she sometimes makes decisions she later regrets in regards to her hijab and her crush on Jeremy, it’s her faith in herself, her confidence that her truth will be listened to and taken seriously by her own community where her crisis lies. When everyone loves the person who harmed you, whom can you tell? I think we’ve all seen in news stories these past few years that far too many people are willing to wave away any evidence, no matter how damning, when a woman comes forward about being sexually assaulted, and Janna’s fears here are both troubling and all too real.

I love-love-LOVED Janna as a character. She’s absolutely not perfect, and I was so able to relate to her- if we’re being honest with ourselves, I think most people will be able to. We’ve all made decisions that go against what we believe; sometimes, we later realize we were wrong in those decisions, and other times, we learn that we need to redefine what we believe because it no longer fits who we are, but we’ve all been Janna. What made me want to scoop her up and hug her forever, though, was the paragraph where she stated that she would rather suffer in silence than have people blame her community because of her assault. I can’t speak from personal experience here, but I know it’s not easy being a member of a community that far too many people (people who have zero personal experience with Muslims and who have even less knowledge of Muslims or of Islam itself) mindlessly vilify, and while I understand and applaud Janna’s need to uphold and protect her community in that way, it broke my heart that she understood that pressure well enough to name it, and it furthered my commitment to help make this world more accepting and loving for anyone who has ever found themselves on the outside. A teenager who’s suffering but who understands that her community doesn’t need more bad press- the sheer reality of this is so heavy. We’ve got to do better.

I’ve got to do better.

I loved Ms. Ali’s portrayal of Janna’s Muslim community- the fun, the warmth, the activities, the varying degrees of practice and piety, it all felt so very alive and real. The way Janna’s non-Muslim best friend Tatyana fit right in in mosque activities was so sweet, and I adored Sausun (who works up to wearing niqab, the full face covering) and her brash personality- I learned SO much from her. She’s such an empowered character, and I loved how much she made Janna think. She made me think, too, and those are the kinds of books I LOVE.

This is a seriously important book- because of the Muslim author, because it features a teenage Muslim girl who wears hijab as a main character, because it centers around a Muslim community, because Janna is every teenager who has ever struggled with family, friends, and crushes, because it covers sexual assault (I wish so hard I could introduce Janna to Melinda from Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson; they would understand each other and could help each other heal), because of all these reasons and more. Nothing I say could possibly do this jewel of a book proper justice, because its truths and beauties run so very deep.

If you’ve made it this far, there are obvious content warnings for sexual assault; Janna has flashbacks throughout the story and is most likely suffering from PTSD related to the assault. There are also constant microaggressions (her gym teacher insisting on calling her hijab a hajeeb no matter how many times she was corrected drove me NUTS; it’s so disrespectful and I’m so, so sorry that anyone has to put up with crap like that); if these things are too much for you, wait for a better time to read it and be kind to yourself. If you’re able to handle these subject matters, this is an utterly amazing book that will allow you to see the world maybe a little differently than you’re used to, but so much of it will still look familiar, because we all have so much more in common than we have differences. 🙂

Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali is also on my Goodreads TBR, and after reading Saints and Misfits, I’m looking forward to reading that more than Christmas and my birthday and the first warm day of summer combined. I’m so, so glad I was finally able to get my hands on a copy, and I truly hope Ms. Ali never, ever stops writing. So many people, myself included, need stories just like this one.

Visit S.K. Ali’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

YA

The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali- Sabina Khan

I’m not sure the route by which this ended up on my TBR. Was it from a Book Riot article on Muslim authors? Due to a fellow book blogger’s review? Could go either way on this, but I knew that I wanted to read The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan (Scholastic Press, 2019) almost immediately; the premise of the story ticked so many of my ‘THIS IS FASCINATING; MUST READ’ boxes.

I love when that happens. What didn’t happen was this being at the library the first two or three times I looked for it, which is both frustrating (for me!) and wonderful, because it means other people are reading it. Hurray for you, other local people! You have awesome taste in books.

Rukhsana Ali is seventeen, Muslim, Bengali-American…and a lesbian. Having a secret girlfriend isn’t something she can share with her uber-conservative parents, so she sneaks around, sneaks out, hides who she really is, nods and smiles and grits her teeth when her mother talks about Rukhsana getting married (seriously, Mom! College first, especially now that Rukhsana has a full ride to Cal Tech!). Her stress levels aren’t helped by her friends, who don’t get how uptight her parents are and how difficult it is to hide such a huge part of herself. Even Ariana, her girlfriend, doesn’t quite get it.

But all good schemes must come to an end, and when Rukhsana’s parents learn of Ariana, they hustle her off to Bangladesh (no matter that it’s near the end of senior year. Exams, what???), supposedly to visit her ailing grandmother, but the longer they’re there, Rukhsana begins to suspect their motives weren’t quite honest. And when arranged marriage becomes very real and very immediate, Rukhsana will have to dig deep, find all the strength she’s gathered from reading her grandmother’s diary, and fight for who she loves and who she truly is.

Remember that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where the dude thrusts his fist into another man’s chest and rips out his beating heart? Reading this will make you feel like the second guy, your heart torn from your chest and paraded around by the author for everyone to see. At times, Rukhsana’s options are so limited and her parents, especially her mother, so dictatorial and insensitive, I felt claustrophic about her situation and her future. Her friends are both wonderful and frustrating, in that they don’t fully listen to her concerns and don’t try to understand the difficulties her cultural ties present in coming out; her relationship with Ariana is a typical teenage romance, in that they’re obviously in love but still learning how to communicate and navigate more mature emotional territory. Sweet, but also occasionally frustrating for both Rukhsana and the reader.

But Rukhsana’s parents. Hooooooo boy. Her father doesn’t get as much air time as her mother; Mom is…an uncomfortable-to-read character for the majority of the book. She’s the main source of homophobia and bigotry, and some of the things she says to her daughter and the ways she tries to remedy Rukhsana’s homosexuality are horrifying. Her grandmother, however, is an absolute gem; everyone should have a grandmother who loves them so unconditionally.

Content warnings: there’s a lot of homophobia and anti-gay slurs in the book; a character is murdered because he’s gay; there’s a diary entry that details marital rape and spousal abuse, and a later one that, quite chillingly and almost unexpectedly, includes child molestation (if not child rape; it’s not specified). Ms. Khan’s style is light, which helps the book stay away from Dementor-style darkness, but it’s still not a fun or safe-feeling read.

There’s a massive turnaround that I don’t want to spoil; some readers have complained that it felt a bit whiplashy and unrealistic. I totally understand that, and I also get how said turnaround could have happened, when the characters who experienced it were confronted with the consequences of the exact same attitudes that they had. It’s understandable, and personally, while I wouldn’t have been quite as forgiving as Rukhsana was, at least not so quickly, it did make for a pleasant ending.

The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali is a gut-punch of a YA novel, and was definitely worth the wait. I hope the other library patrons who checked it out before me enjoyed it as much as I did.

Visit Sabina Khan’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.