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.


All We Ever Wanted- Emily Giffin

It’s fitting that Emily Giffin’s All We Ever Wanted is set in Nashville, as that’s where I was living when I first fell in love with her books. I hadn’t even read this book’s inside flap before I began it; as soon as I saw her name on the spine, I added it to my stack of books, so the setting was actually a surprise when I began reading it while waiting for my son’s school play to begin (I managed to read 55 pages while we waited. My son was ushering and had to be there early, so hey, free reading time for Mom).

Nina Browning is living the good life. Ever since her husband Kirk sold his tech company for an obscene price, money has been no object for any of the Brownings, including their seventeen year-old son Finch. Nina knows things have changed since they joined the ranks of Nashville’s uber-elite- her marriage, especially- but things are still good. Finch has gotten into Princeton, and maybe next year she and Kirk will be able to get back on track. But when word comes to Nina that Finch has made a terrible decision, one that has consequences not just for himself, but for others at his exclusive private school, Kirk’s reaction to it will have Nina questioning everything she thought she knew.

Tom Volpe has been struggling to raise his daughter Lyla alone for years, ever since his unreliable wife left them when Lyla was young. And it hasn’t been easy, especially on a carpenter’s salary, even if her scholarship pays the majority of her tuition to Windsor Academy. When Lyla comes home drunk from a party and Tom sees the pictures on her phone, he knows he needs to make some heads roll…but that’s easier said than done in a community like Windsor’s, and with a daughter like Lyla.

Lyla Volpe didn’t mean to get quite so drunk at that party, and that picture really wasn’t a big deal, especially since she’s liked Finch Browning for, like, forever. Besides, like he said, it wasn’t him who took it. Can’t everyone just back off and stop trying to ruin her life? Lyla’s got some hard lessons to learn, lessons that may come at someone else’s expense.

This was good. Ms. Giffin absolutely nails the disdainful attitude some of Nashville’s filthy rich have towards regular people (I had the distinct displeasure of being acquainted with some of those people through another friend- who is nothing like them and is an absolutely wonderful person!- and found nothing impressive about them whatsoever). Their nose-wrinkling dismissal at anything they suspect of being even somewhat liberal, their certainty that throwing money at any problem will solve it instantly, their lack of interest in anyone’s feelings but their own are all things I’ve seen in action (and it’s horrifying; I think this kind of thing seems over-the-top and slightly unbelievable unless you’ve actually witnessed it. One Goodreads review referred to ‘caricatures rather than characters,’ and I completely understand how one might see that. It’s something I would’ve thought as well before having witnessed it myself. Unfortunately, having lived in this area and seen some of the behavior of the type of people Ms. Giffin was trying to portray, I can’t be so dismissive), and I was pleased to see exactly how well this novel covered these attitudes.

The multiple narratives worked well in this book in order for the reader to understand every side of the story. Lyla could be frustrating in her minimization of Finch’s behavior, but I felt that it was an honest portrayal of a teenager who just wanted the situation to blow over and for things to go back to normal. Overall, I think this is a well-written novel that raises a lot of questions: how far will we go to protect the ones we love? How much does money change things, and how much should we let it? Everything may wrap up a little too nicely at the end for some readers, but these days, with so much turmoil in the world, a nicely-wrapped ending is exactly what I’m looking for, and this book fit just what I needed to read at the time.

There is discussion of sexual assault and rape in this story, though neither is graphic.

In front of the Nashville Parthenon (in 2010), which appears in the book.

It’s always fun for me to read a book set somewhere I’ve lived, and Ms. Giffin did a great job with this setting. Several years ago, I read a book set in Nashville that had so many easy-to-verify errors that it was laughable. (I even paused to read a sentence out loud to my husband about one of the main characters pulling up and parking directly in front of a certain business, at which my husband blinked and said, “You can’t park there!” To which I replied, “THANK YOU!”) It’s definitely a danger of setting a story in a place you don’t live, but fortunately, I didn’t notice any of those kinds of errors in this novel.
Do you enjoy reading books set in places you’ve lived or have spent time? 

Visit Emily Giffin’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.