Written in the Stars

writteninthestarsby Aisha Saeed
First sentence: “‘Naila, I wish you didn’t have to miss the game,’ Carla tells me.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher ages and ages ago.
Content: There’s a (non-graphic) rape and some REALLY bad parenting. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) Section of the bookstore, but if a 12- or 13-year-old were interested, I’d recommend it.

This was one I’ve been meaning to read for a long, long time. I have no excuse for not getting to it, except that I have a LOT of books to read (so much so that I’m actually starting to panic about my piles. There’s just not enough time!) and many things competing for my attention.

But, recently, I picked this one up and gave it a try. And finished it nearly in one sitting. It’s just THAT compelling.

Naila is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, ones who are fairly traditional. While she can go to public school and is not required to wear a hijab, she’s not allowed over at friends’ houses, to date, to drive, and college is still up for grabs. (An interesting side-note: Saeed never spells it out, but the discrepancy in treatment between Naila and her younger brother is both unsurprising and frustrating.) She happens to have a boyfriend, though, one she keeps secret from her parents. And when her secret gets out, her parents react by whisking her away to Pakistan where they go about arranging a marriage for her. Behind her back.

It’s awful.  Seriously: I know that arranged marriages like this happen, and that they’re not always bad, but Saeed makes no bones about it: the way Naila’s parents go about this, in order to “save” her honor from the boy she picked, is just awful. And that’s being mild.

It’s an interesting thing to think about though: the balance between choice and tradition, between religious principles and progressive thought (I’ve been trying to think of a better way to say that, and I just couldn’t), between The Way Things Have Always Been and what individuals want. It was especially interesting reading it as a parent because I could see that while her parents thought they were doing right, they were so, so very wrong. And that’s a tough thing to see.

It’s excellently written, highly diverse (hardly any white people at all!), and an intriguing story. One that I hope many, many others will read.

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Scarlett Undercover

by Jennifer Latham
First sentence: “The kid was cute.”
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Content: There’s a bit of mild swearing (s**t) being the “worst” one, plus some kissing and references to (adult) smoking. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I wouldn’t mind giving it to a savvy 5th grader.

I adored Nancy Drew as a kid. Seriously. I devoured them all. I loved the mystery, I loved Nancy Drew’s pluck. It was what I wanted.

This, however, is Nancy Drew for the Modern Age: she’s sassy, smart, and street-wise. And I loved it just as much (if not more).

Fifteen-year-old Scarlett is many things: an orphan (dad was murdered, mom died because of cancer); brilliant (she graduated from high school two years early); Muslim; and, perhaps most importantly, a detective. No, it’s not really official: she mostly does inside jobs for the Las Almas police department, and sometimes she hustles and gets a case locating something missing. Nothing that prepared her for when 9-year-old Gemma walks through her door.

Gemma’s worried about her older brother: something has happen to change him; he’s become distant, angry, and mean. But, more than that: Gemma’s convinced that her brother is responsible for the “suicide” of his (former) friend. And she needs Scarlett to find out what’s going on. Little does Scarlett realize the rabbit hole that she’s just opened up.

One of the things I loved most about this book was that Scarlett came from a religious family (she wasn’t non-religious; she just wasn’t as religious as her older sister), and there was a huge support in the surrounding community. But, it wasn’t an issue: it was just who Scarlett was. She greeted people in Arabic, she said her prayers, she observed Islamic customs and traditions. And she solved cases. It was so perfect in so many ways.

I also liked that she was sassy. She had an attitude, but one that suited her and the narrative, and it came through loud and clear. If I was my 11-year-old self, I would have adored Scarlett. (Which my mother may not have appreciated it.) I also loved that Scarlett, was capable: she got into some dangerous situations, and she had the know-how (and the tools) to get herself out. It’s really fantastic.

There is a vague hint of the supernatural — talk of djinn and portals and such — but it didn’t develop in a speculative fiction way, which actually made me very happy. I love speculative fiction, but it would have been out of place here.

I’m willing to talk this one up as much as possible; I do hope it finds a ton of readers.

Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal

by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
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Content: There’s some talk of teen drinking and some violence, but I’d hand it to anyone who loves superheroes and is willing to sit through the Avengers movie. It’s in the adult graphic novel section, but I wonder if it’d get more traction in the teen?

I’m sold. Seriously. I’ve heard the buzz (thanks to Leila and others) and I caved, and THEY WERE RIGHT. It’s worth it: you should read it.

(Do I need to say more?)

Kamala Kahn is a 16-year-old daughter of Pakistani immigrants, and she’s basically chafing against her life. She doesn’t like being Muslim. She doesn’t like having overprotective parents. She doesn’t like not being “pretty” and “blonde”. And so when Captain Marvel appears to Kamala (after a party she snuck out to) and gives Kamala an opportunity to reboot her life, Kamala wishes to be like Captain Marvel. Her wish is granted: she has super-powers. (And is tall and blonde.) Eventually, she figures out that the tall and blonde and “non-politically correct” costume isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She accepts that she — Ms. Marvel, as she dubs herself — is Pakistani and goes with it, embracing (albeit reluctantly) her new superpowers.

Why did I love it? First: it’s a Pakistani girl superhero! She’s Muslim, and while she chafes against her parents’ rules, she’s faithful, which I appreciated. Which also means she’s a character of color: not all superheroes need to be white. (Or drawn with super-skimpy costumes, so yay for that as well.) But it’s more than that: Kamala is smart and funny, and the writing and art reflect that. I loved Kamala’s ordinary-ness, and her devotion to her friends (and parents), and her struggle to figure out what all this means and to accept who she is.

It’s completely worth the buzz. Fantastic.

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

by Amélie Sarn, translated from French by Y. Maudet
First sentence: “The women walk slowly, heads down.”
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Release date: Augst 5, 2014
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There is violence, some mild swearing, and some teen drinking and smoking. I’ll probably put this in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, though I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to a 7th- or 8th-grader who is interested.

Sohane Chebli is many things: 18 years old, a daughter, a sister, a scholar, French, and a Muslim. She lives in an apartment complex full of others of  Algerian heritage, and mostly she and her younger sister (by 11 months), Djelila, get along with their neighbors, schoolmates, and each other just fine.

Then, during Sohane’s senior year, a few young Muslim men take it on themselves to start harassing Djelila because she dresses in jeans and tighter shirts. Because she wears makeup. Because she smokes with her friends. And Sohane, whose path has become more conservative — she wears the hijab — doesn’t step in to defend her sister. Partially because Sohane thinks her sister is wrong for following a path away from Islam. And partially because Sohane’s been expelled from school, due to a French law banning all religious symbols, for wearing the hijab.

I’m going to spoil a bit — it’s not too bad, because from the beginning,  you know this — but Djelila is killed by the Muslim boys for her refusal to conform to their expectations. And it’s that paired with the other side of the coin: Sohane’s constant discrimination for wearing the hijab. (Not that I mean to compare murder with discrimination.) But it got me thinking: why do we feel a need to tell others how to behave? Why did these boys feel compelled to not only shame, but eventually kill a girl for not following her/their religion to the letter? Why did people refuse to see Sohane’s hijab wearing as an expression of her religion, instead interpreting it as an act of repression? It’s a thought-provoking book.

And it’s written well, in tight, short chapters. It took a bit for me to catch the rhythm of the book because it’s translated, but once I did, I was hooked. And I wasn’t disappointed, in the end.

So Long a Letter

by Mariama Ba
First sentence: “Dear Aissatou, I have received your letter.”
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Content: It’s pretty serious and deals with issues of infidelity and polygamy and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But there’s no swearing, sex, or violence. It’d be in the adult section of the bookstore.

Recently widowed, Ramatoulaye sits down to write a long letter to her best friend about all the events that led up to Ramatoulaye’s husband’s death. It was a happy story:  for 25 years, they were happily married. Ramatoulaye spent her life in devotion to her husband, bearing 12 children. Then one of his daughter’s friends caught his eye, and he woos her, and takes her as a second wife (as is permitted in Islam). That simple act wrecks Ramatoulaye, but she manages to survive as a single mother.

It’s a slim novel, and an interesting one. I didn’t particularly like the format –why, if she’s writing to her best friend, would Ramatoulaye need to recount her friends’ history (which was much like her own; her husband took a second wife. The difference is that Aissatou left her husband)? It didn’t make sense to me, logically, some of the things Ramatoulaye included in her letter. That said, if when I was able to get past that, I found the story was simultaneously enlightening and disheartening.

Enlightening, because that’s an area of the world I know very little about. And through Ramatoulaye, Ba brings to life the ordinary lives of Senegalese women. And disheartening because they have so few rights, as we have come to think of them. I read this book in the middle of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and this is a prime example why I need to read more books like this. In my privileged home in my privileged country, it’s easy for me not to think about Senegalese women and their lives. But books like these help me. It helps that Ba is a good writer (aside from the format, of course), and was able to draw me into Rmatoulaye’s life.

And that’s what makes this book worthwhile.