Book Review: Love from A to Z

love from a to zLove from A to Z
by S. K. Ali
Young Adult / Romance
342 pages
Published April 2019

I read S. K. Ali’s first book, Saints and Misfits, and quite enjoyed it, so I knew I’d be picking this one up eventually. I finally did – and this just solidifies S. K. Ali as a MUST READ author for me. Because this was excellent.

I complained in my last review that while the book was good, it was fluffy contemporary fiction, which is not where my current tastes lie. THIS is a much better book for me. While it’s still contemporary fiction, it has a heavier romance line, and it deals with issues of racism, islamophobia, chronic illness, and casualties of war.

It’s written in journal form, alternating between the journals of Adam and Zayneb. (The A to Z of the title!) Both of them were inspired to keep journals of “Marvels” and “Oddities,” individually, when they ran across The Marvels of Creation and the Oddities of Existence, an ancient manuscript in an Islamic museum. Adam sees Zayneb’s journal when they’re sitting near each other in an airport, which is what prompts their first meeting.

I really loved this book, and I adore Zayneb. She’s passionate and angry about injustice. Her ongoing feud with an islamophobic teacher drives her and her friends to take action, and I loved how her aunt encouraged her, but also encouraged her to be smart about it.

Zayneb wears a hijab, and the book actually goes into some detail on her feelings about it – who’s allowed to see her without it, what she does to make a makeshift hijab if she needs one unexpectedly, her daydreams about the special man who will get to see her hair. It was pretty special to get an inside look at hijab wearing; it’s such a personal thing.

Adam has just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the disease that killed his mother, so there’s a lot of struggling to come to terms with that and what it means for his long-term health.

Some things, like hijab-wearing, get explained to the reader, but other things, like the three bits of Arabic script, the greetings, and a passage where Zayneb “takes a deep breath and says bismallah” are not. This is where I’m glad my husband was an Arabic linguist in the military, because they taught him a lot of the culture, as well. So now I know the Arabic script, repeated a few times in the book, all basically says “God Willing,” a standard Arabic phrase. I knew the greetings, but it was the bismallah that stumped me, so I asked him about it.

“Saying bismallah” is saying the name of God. It’s used as a beginning for many things, whether those are nice things, or difficult things, so in this case Zayneb was saying it before she started a difficult conversation with her mother. The book doesn’t explain it; it doesn’t need to, to understand the narrative, but I always enjoy learning the cultural underpinnings of things like this.

The afterword of the book is worth reading, as well. Ali explains that all of the discriminatory acts in the book were taken from real experiences; even the islamophobic teacher was taken from an incident three years ago in Toronto. Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me at all.

Final verdict – this book is great. It’s going on my Best of 2019 list. It covers all kinds of important topics and holds a wealth of diversity, all wrapped around a sweet romance. I’ll be watching for more books by S. K. Ali, because she is wildly talented.

From the cover of Love from A to Z:

A Marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes – because they make french fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.

An Oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how “bad” Muslims are.

But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry.

When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break. Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, “nicer” version of herself in a place where no one knows her.

Then her path crosses with Adam’s.

Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam has stopped going to classes, intent instead on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister. 

Adam is also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father.

Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals. 

Until a marvel and an oddity occurs . . . .

Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting.

Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting. 

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Book Review: The Candle and The Flame

the candle and the flameThe Candle and The Flame
by Nafiza Azad
Young Adult / Fantasy
391 pages
Published May 2019

The setting of this book reminds me of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Fatima survived the slaughter of the entire population of her city, and since then it has been repopulated by people from many countries, walks of life, cultures, and languages. The city is a complete melting pot, and I wish more had been made of that fact, honestly.

I wish more had been made of a lot of things in this book. I liked it – but it wasn’t as spectacular as I’d hoped. It’s possible it’s because I read it right after We Hunt the Flame, which any book would have trouble standing up to; it’s possible it’s because I was coming down with a cold when I read it and my brain wasn’t throwing itself into the story as much as it normally does. There’s a lot of possible reasons – but I just didn’t love it. It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t great.

I mean, it’s djinns and humans working together – that’s usually my catnip – but I just couldn’t lose myself in this story. I was annoyed at the main character a LOT. For insisting on going by two names the entire book, which were a mouthful. For agreeing to things she should have fought. For fighting against things that were in her own best interests.

The changes that the description speaks of – that change Fatima in ways she can’t fathom – effectively turns her into a different person. Something about that sat very wrong with me. Her sister recognized she was no longer the sister she knew, but she wasn’t allowed to grieve. That bothered me quite a lot. I can’t explain exactly why without spoiling plot, but the book didn’t treat it like an issue, and it definitely was.

Honestly, I’d skip this one and go read We Hunt The Flame or Rebel of the Sands instead.

From the cover of The Candle and The Flame:

A GIRL WITH THE FIRE OF A DJINNI. A CITY SCARRED BY VIOLENCE.

Fatima lives in the city of Noor, a thriving stop along the Silk Road. There the music of myriad languages fills the air, and people of all faiths thread their lives together. However, the city bears scars of its recent past, when the chaotic tribe of Shayateen Djinn slaughtered its entire population – except for Fatima and two other humans. Now rules by a new maharajah, Noor is protected from the Shayateen by the Ifrit, Djinn of order and reason, and by their commander, Zulfikar.

But when one of the most potent of the Ifrit dies, trouble brews and Fatima is changed in ways she cannot fathom, ways that scare even those who love her. Oud in hand, Fatima is drawn into the intrigues of the maharajah and his sister, the affairs of Zulfikar and the Djinn, and the dangers of a magical battlefield.

Nafiza Azad weaves an immersive tale of extraordinary magic and the importance of names; fiercely independent women; enticing food; and, perhaps most importantly, the work for harmony within a city of a thousand religions, cultures, languages, and cadences. 

Book Review: We Hunt The Flame

we hunt the flameWe Hunt The Flame
by Hafsah Faizal
Young Adult/Fantasy
472 pages
Published May 2019

This is the first book in a planned duology, and I NEED THE SECOND ONE RIGHT NOW. Zafira is a firecracker, and Nasir is a precious gumdrop, and Altair is a mystery, while I can’t help but read Kifah as Valkyrie from Avengers. (Seriously, if this ever gets made into a movie and Tessa Thompson DOESN’T get cast as Kifah, I’ll be upset.)

These characters, and this setting, and this worldbuilding, and this plot…Faizal has blown me away with this book. There are twists I saw coming, and some I did not, so I’m not going to go into much detail about the plot, but Zafira and a few other people are searching for a magical artifact to restore magic to their kingdom, after it was locked away many years ago. I don’t remember exactly how long it’s been; Zafira can’t remember having magic, but she does mention at one point that her mother was a healer. So sometime during her mother’s lifetime? The kingdom has been cursed in the absence of magic, different curses for the different districts, and the Arz is a magical forest encroaching on the borders. Almost no one who goes into the Arz ever comes out again, so it’s incredibly dangerous for anyone who isn’t Zafira. Zafira has the unique ability to always know which direction she needs to go to reach her goal, and it’s this ability that brings her to the attention of the Silver Witch, who sets her on the path to find the artifact. The artifact is, of course, on the enchanted island that serves as a prison for all the magical objects and creatures, so Zafira and her companions face all kinds of unknown dangers.

I really enjoyed basically everything about this book. There was character development, a touch of romance, a team learning to work as a team, secrets, magic, ancient evils, trauma and emotional work…just a lot. (Also enemies-to-lovers, if you’re into that.) It is a brilliant epic fantasy, and I cannot WAIT for the second book. I need to know what happens! (It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, exactly, but things are definitely NOT. RESOLVED.)

From the cover of We Hunt The Flame:

PEOPLE LIVED BECAUSE SHE KILLED.

PEOPLE DIED BECAUSE HE LIVED.

Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the sultan. If Zafira is exposed as a girl, all of her achievements will be rejected; if Nasir displays his compassion, his father will punish him in the most brutal of ways. Both Zafira and Nasir are legends in the kingdom of Arawiya – but neither wants to be.

War is brewing, and the Arz sweeps closer with each passing day, engulfing the land in shadow. While Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the sultan on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds – and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.

Set in a richly detailed world inspired by ancient Arabia, We Hunt The Flame is a gripping debut of discovery, conquering fear, and taking identity into your own hands.

Book Review: Frankenstein in Baghdad

frankenstein in baghdadFrankenstein in Baghdad
by Ahmed Saadawi (Trans. Jonathan Wright)
Contemporary Fiction / Magical Realism
281 pages
Published in Arabic in 2013, in English 2018

This book won at least two awards; the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and France’s Grand Prize for Fantasy, and the author had previously been named one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of 39. I picked it up to read for the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, since the Middle East is all-too-often neglected in regional groupings like that. People don’t think of it as Europe or Asia. I also try to read translated books on occasion, in an effort to diversify my reading. So this hit a number of my interests – I  wish I had actually liked the book more!

It’s an interesting retelling of Frankenstein – which I haven’t actually read, and now feel like I really should. But it bounces around between several viewpoints. It’s not too many to keep straight, but it’s definitely too many to truly care about. And it suffers from an unreliable narrator – it’s written as several stories told to an author from multiple people that he’s woven together into a single narrative, and while he does that well, it suffers from contradictions between how different characters recall things, scenes that don’t play a part in furthering the plot but the characters thought they were important, and no authoritative “this is what REALLY happened” to draw it all together.

And I very much dislike unreliable narrators, so that alone is enough to make me dislike the book. If you like ambiguous narratives and vigilante stories, however, you might enjoy this, and the writing style itself was quite engrossing.

From the cover of Frankenstein in Baghdad:

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi – a scavenger and an oddball fixture at the local cafe – collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city. Hadi soon realizes he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive – first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. With white-knuckle horror and black humor, Frankenstein in Baghdad captures the surreal reality of contemporary Iraq.

Book Review: The Kingdom of Copper

kingdom of copperThe Kingdom of Copper
by S. A. Chakraborty
Fantasy
620 pages
Published January 2019

I….may have an unpopular opinion on this book. First, I LOVED the first book of this trilogy, The City of Brass. Absolutely loved it. It was one of my favorite books of that year. I like this one significantly less. I think that probably wouldn’t be the case if I had read this in quick succession, but I read City of Brass when it came out, and had to wait a year for this one, in which time I read around 200 more books.

I expected a certain amount of backstory explanation in Kingdom of Copper – and it wasn’t there. I think the book assumes you remember everything that happened in City of Brass – and I most certainly did not. I don’t remember why we have the division between the djinn and the daeva, or really which is which. I know the shafit are part human, part…djinn? Daeva? See that’s the problem. These are very politicky books and forgetting key parts of the political drama makes this book VERY hard to follow. I don’t know WHY there’s conflict between certain people, and I don’t recognize missteps when characters make them because I’ve forgotten who has which opinions.

All the worldbuilding explanations are in the first book, and they aren’t revisited in this one. Had I KNOWN that, I might have re-read City of Brass before this came out, as much as I dislike re-reading anything.

All of that aside, and despite my confusion, I mostly enjoyed this continuation of Nahri’s story. We delved a little more into murky bloodlines, the more recent past of Daevabad, and the more ancient past of Nahri’s healer ancestors, the Nahids.

I still love Nahri, I like Ali a little more, and I like Dara a little less. I am curious to see where the third book leads, especially after the cliffhanger ending of this one. I just might have to re-read both City of Brass and this one before reading the trilogy’s conclusion.

From the cover of The Kingdom of Copper:

Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked away from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad – and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there. 

Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of a devastating battle, Nahri must forge a new path for herself. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her family – and one misstep will doom her tribe.

Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins and adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he must rely on the frightening abilities the marid – the unpredictable water spirits – have gifted him. But in doing so, he risks unearthing a terrible secret his family has long kept buried.

And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad’s towering brass walls for a great celebration, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates . . . and one that seeks the aid of a warrior caught between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.

Book Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay

darius the great is not okayDarius the Great is Not Okay
by Adib Khorram
Young Adult/Contemporary Fiction
314 pages
Published August 2018

This novel got a lot of hype before and after its release – and it deserves it. It has great minority representation, from Persian (and bi-racial!) to Zoroastrian and Baha’i, to clinical depression and male friendship. You could also read gay and/or asexual into it, but that’s not explicitly mentioned. Romantic love is just never addressed; perhaps because the story just doesn’t involve it, but you could definitely read the main character as ace.

Darius is a great main character. He’s funny, self-deprecating, and complex. He has clinical depression, is medicated for it, and can sometimes tell when it’s the depression making him think a certain way, but sometimes he can’t. He’s biracial, visiting Iran and his mother’s Persian family for the first time, and adjusting to Persian social norms and traditions while trying not to lose sight of his American life. His connection with his father is tenuous and fraught with miscommunication, and lot of the book is spent wrestling with that relationship. His new friend, Sohrab, is a great foil to that, as his father is completely absent from his life, having been arrested and thrown in jail prior to the start of the story, largely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and being part of a minority religion.

There are so many small things touched on this book – suspicion at customs when flying through, bullying at school for being Persian, not speaking his family’s language because his mother didn’t teach it to him (and feeling cut off because of it) – all little things that a lot of immigrant children deal with.

Aside from the cultural things the book addresses, there’s also the mental health aspect. Both Darius and his father have clinical depression, and there’s stigma attached to having the diagnosis, and to taking pills for it. We see how their mental states affects their relationship with each other and with the rest of their family, and it’s quite powerful. The author talks about having clinical depression in an afterword, and includes some resources that helped him. This is an #ownvoices novel in more ways than one, and it really shows. Excellent book.

From the cover of Darius the Great is Not Okay:

Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s a Fractional Persian – half, his mom’s side – and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life.

Darius has never really fit in at home, and he’s sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn’t exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they’re spending their days together, playing soccer, eating faludeh, and talking for hours on a secret rooftop overlooking the city’s skyline. Sohrab calls him Darioush – the original Farsi version of his name – and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab.

By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut is for anyone who’s ever felt not good enough – then met a friend who makes them feel so much better than okay.