Book Review: Headscarves and Hymens

headscarves and hymensHeadscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs A Sexual Revolution
by Mona Eltahawy
Nonfiction – Women’s Rights/Feminism
240 pages
Published 2015

Headscarves and Hymens was the third book in Book Riot’s Persist: Feminist Book Club, which is what brought it to my attention. We’ve been reading roughly two chapters a week and talking about it via Instagram Live. It’s certainly not my favorite venue to use – for one, I can’t seem to find a setting to let me know when someone goes live on Instagram, so I have to set myself an alarm. (I missed one book club session because I just forgot.) I also can’t seem to watch the videos after they’re over, so I can’t catch up on what I missed. I much prefer the Twitter chat that YA_Pride does. I can go back through those, and still have conversations with other people that read the book (and follow them!) where I can’t do that easily with Persist.

But you’re here to hear about the book, not the club! HH is short, under 250 pages, with seven chapters and an epilogue. Each chapter is basically an essay on a topic, from driving (“Roads Through the Desert”) to veiling (“Black Veil, White Flag”) to purity and Female Genital Mutilation (“The God of Virginity”). Eltahawy is well-researched, mixing anecdotes and statistics to show us both the big picture of what is going on, as well as making it personal and hard-hitting.

I’m glad we read it in small chunks – some of the chapters are harder than others (the chapter on FGM and sexual “purity” was particularly rough). Spacing it out let the information really sink in before moving on to another topic. Additionally, we were reading it at the same time as the Kavanaugh hearings, and that was also….unsettling.

This is a really eye-opening book, but be sure you’re emotionally prepared to read it. It’s probably healthier to set it down and walk away for breaks, rather than to read it straight through.

From the cover of Headscarves and Hymens:

The journalist Mona Eltahawy is no stranger to controversy. Through her articles and actions she has fought for the autonomy, security, and dignity of Muslim women, drawing vocal supporters and detractors. Now, in her first book, Headscarves and Hymens, Eltahawy has prepared a definitive condemnation of the repressive forces – political, cultural, and religious – that reduce millions of women to second-class citizens.

Drawing on her years as a campaigner for and commentator on women’s issues in the Middle East, she explains that since the Arab Spring began in 2010, women in the Arab world have had two revolutions to undertake: one fought alongside men, against oppressive regimes, and another fought against an entire political and economic system that represses women in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and other nations.

Eltahawy has traveled across the Middle East and North Africa, meeting with women and listening to their stories. Her book is a plea for outrage and action on their behalf, confronting a “toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend.” A manifesto motivated by hope and fury in equal measure, Headscarves and Hymens is as illuminating as it is incendiary.

Book Review: Hero At The Fall

hero at the fallHero At The Fall
by Alwyn Hamilton
Fantasy
452 pages
Published March 2018

So there is one HUGE spoiler I want to talk about with this book. I will put it WAAAAYYY down at the bottom of this post, below the cover blurb. Don’t read it if you have any intention of reading this book. But I REEEAAALLLY want to talk about it.

That out of the way, this book was great! This is the concluding volume of the Rebel of the Sands trilogy, and it wrapped things up perfectly. I especially liked how she handled character deaths; each one got a short little chapter told in a legendary story kind of way, switching to a third person narrator instead of the first person viewpoint of Amani. The last chapter, telling us what came after the events of the book, was told in the same manner, and I really liked how it tied the book together.

There’s so little I can say about this book without spoiling the previous two! We learn even more about the Djinni in this book, and some of the creation myths of Amani’s people. We get a little more into the politics of other countries, and even a bit of their magic. And ohhhh there are stories to be told there, if Hamilton wants to continue in this world. I’d love to see a prequel based on Sam, and his country could do an entire sequel trilogy!

I think one of my favorite scenes was Amani using her control of sand to sail their ship across the desert. It’s just an amazing visual.

This was one of the best concluding books to a trilogy that I have read in a long time. Fantastic book.

Remember. Spoiler below the cover blurb.

From the cover of Hero At The Fall:

When gunslinging Amani Al-Hiza escaped her dead-end town, she never imagined she’d join a revolution, let alone lead one. But since the bloodthirsty Sultan of Miraji imprisoned the Rebel Prince Ahmed in the mythical city of Eremot, she doesn’t have a choice. Armed with only her revolver, her wits, and the Demdji powers she’s struggling to control, Amani must rally a skeleton crew of rebels through the unforgiving desert to a place that, according to maps, doesn’t exist. As she watches those she loves lay their lives on the line against ghouls and enemy soldiers, Amani questions whether she can be the leader they need or if she is leading them all to their deaths. Then she discovers there’s one death that could end the war for good – but it would tear her and Jin apart. Is she willing to give up the deepest love she’s ever known to save the country that has betrayed her all her life?

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SPOILER ALERT DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED

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Alright. Sure you want to read this?

I really, really appreciated how Amani made the choice she made, between Jin and Ahmed. She knew what Jin would have chosen. So she chose what he would have chosen. I don’t think he could have forgiven her if she’d chosen Ahmed. I was surprised she didn’t realize that would be her death as well; I assumed she knew that when she chose him. At first I thought the Djinni were uncommonly cruel, punishing her for something she didn’t know about, but then I realized they were punishing her for setting Zaahir free, not for bringing the ring with her. I mean, they’re still cruel to make her make that choice. And unreasonable, I think, for imprisoning Zaahir in the first place. But at least they were angry about her choices, not about her getting tricked by Zaahir.

Making her make the choice, though. “We won’t kill you, but you’ll have to pick one of these two men to die. The death of one of them will kill you, too. The death of the other won’t.” Jesus.

Book Review: Traitor to the Throne

traitor to the throneTraitor to the Throne
by Alwyn Hamilton
Fantasy
513 pages
Published March 2017

This is the sequel to Rebel of the Sands, which I read several weeks ago. The conclusion to the trilogy, Hero at the Fall, came out in March, and I’m waiting patiently for a copy from the library. (Okay, so maybe it’s impatiently, but I’m waiting!)

I love so much about this book. I always love non-western style fantasy, and this one is definitely middle-east inspired, with its djinni and deserts and fancy khalats. (A khalat is a loose, long-sleeved silk or cotton robe worn over the rest of your clothing.) The Demdji – the children of djinni and humans – are all fascinating, with interesting powers. And fantasy politics, at the highest of possible levels!

Amani is a fascinating main character, with her control over sand, her personal ethics, and her personal conflicts. She’s the daughter of a djinni, and we actually meet djinni for the first time in this book! I liked her love story better in Rebel of the Sands – it seemed very muted in this book, but they did spend most of the book apart. I am eager to see where that part of the plot goes in HatF.

There were a couple of twists that surprised me – who the titular traitor was, for one. The book was full of traitors of one kind or another. I also really liked seeing palace and harem life; the first book focused on desert backwaters and outlaws, so this was quite a change, and I liked it. I’m still half in love with Prince Ahmed, though we meet his half-brother Rahim in the palace, and he’s growing on me. The Sultan himself also surprised me; I expected a villainous, power-mad ruler, and he is not that. He seemed to surprise Amani, too.

I was excited to see the djinni actually make an appearance; I’d expected them to stay an abstract idea for the entire trilogy! They certainly never showed up in the first book. I mean, it was obvious they still came to humans, or Demdji couldn’t exist, but no one, even the mothers, ever spoke about seeing or interacting with them. Even to their half-djinni children. I’m hoping this means they’ll play a bigger role in the third book, because after the small glimpse we get here, I really want to know more about them!

Like most of the other reviews I’ve read, I agree that this wasn’t as strong as the first one, but middle books in trilogies rarely are. It is a solid volume, though, with lots of plot advancement and world-building and politicking. Can’t wait to get the concluding book!

From the cover of Traitor to the Throne:

Mere months ago, gunslinger Amani al’Hiza fled her dead-end hometown on the back of a mythical horse with the mysterious foreigner Jin, seeking only her own freedom. Now she’s fighting to liberate the entire desert nation of Miraji from a bloodthirsty sultan who slew his own father to capture the throne. 

When Amani finds herself thrust into the epicenter of the regime—the Sultan’s palace—she’s determined to bring the tyrant down. Desperate to uncover the Sultan’s secrets by spying on his court, she tries to forget that Jin disappeared just as she was getting closest to him, and that she’s a prisoner of the enemy. But the longer she remains, the more she questions whether the Sultan is really the villain she’s been told he is, and who’s the real traitor to her sun-bleached, magic-filled homeland.

Forget everything you thought you knew about Miraji, about the rebellion, about djinni and Jin and the Blue-Eyed Bandit. In Traitor to the Throne, the only certainty is that everything will change.

Book Review: Love, Hate, and Other Filters

love hate and other filtersLove, Hate, and Other Filters
by Samira Ahmed
Young Adult Contemporary Fiction
280 pages
Published January 2018

This book made a big splash when it came out in January, and rightly so, as I’ve finally discovered for myself! Written by an Indian-American, Love, Hate, and Other Filters follows Maya Aziz, a seventeen-year-old born in America to Indian immigrant parents. She’s the only Muslim girl at her school, and while she feels like she sticks out, she doesn’t feel discriminated against until a terrorist attack happens in her state. She had -just- gotten most of her issues worked out before the attack, but in the aftermath of the attack, and the community’s response to it, her parents clamp down on her freedom, and she struggles to get her life back.

I really loved Maya in this book; I can understand her parents’ fears, but also her rebellion when they take away the freedom she values. I think my favorite character, though, was the side character Kareem. I kind of hope Ahmed writes another book and tells us his story. He was just so NICE.

I loved the writing and the characters overall, but there were a few sentences that made me pause and repeat them in my head because they were just outstanding.

“The vows are simple, the same kind of pledges I’ve heard at weddings of every faith. Except at the end, there is no kiss. I close in for the money shot anyway, hoping for a moment of rebellion from Ayesha and Saleem. But no. No public kissing allowed. Full stop. The no kissing is anticlimactic, but some taboos cross oceans, packed tightly into the corners of immigrant baggage, tucked away with packets of masala and memories of home.”

And also, about arranged marriages and being a good Indian daughter:

“And the Muslim? The Indian? That girl, she doesn’t even get the dream of the football captain. She gets a lifetime of being stopped by the FAA for random bag searches every time she flies. She gets the nice boy, the sensible boy, the one her parents approve of and who she will grow to love over years and children and necessity.”

Maya is a whip-smart young girl who wants to be a film maker, and she spends most of her time behind a camera, observing. Her observations are really what make this book shine, and her snark had me laughing throughout the book.

I really loved this book, if you couldn’t tell! I love minority-driven YA, and this one reminds me quite a lot of Saints and Misfits. Given how much I loved both of these, I really need to read When Dimple Met Rishi!

From the cover of Love, Hate, and Other Filters:

American-born seventeen-year-old Maya Aziz is torn between worlds. There’s the proper one her parents expect for their good Indian daughter: attending a college close to their suburban Chicago home, and being paired off with an older Muslim boy her mom deems “suitable.” And then there is the world of her dreams: going to film school and living in New York City – and maybe (just maybe) pursuing a boy she’s known from afar since grade school, a boy who’s finally falling into her orbit at school.

There’s also the real world, beyond Maya’s control. In the aftermath of a horrific crime perpetrated hundreds of miles away, her life is turned upside down. The community she’s known since birth becomes unrecognizable; neighbors and classmates alike are consumed with fear, bigotry, and hatred. Ultimately, Maya must find the strength within to determine where she truly belongs.

It’s Ramadan!

persepolis 1So many things going on this month, I almost forgot it’s also Ramadan! You can read all about it at that link, but basically it’s a month of fasting between sunup and sunset to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad.

love hate and other filtersI’m not Muslim, but I like to link my reading to current events and holidays, so for Ramadan this year I’m reading the graphic novel Persepolis, about a young girl growing up in Iran, and Love, Hate, and Other Filters, a YA novel about a Muslim teen growing up in Chicago.

I’ve read a few novels in the past on the same topics:

City of Brass

Saints and Misfits

The Clothesline Swing

An American Family

A Hundred Veils

Happy Ramadan, if you celebrate it!

Book Review: Rebel of the Sands

rebel of the sands

Rebel of the Sands
by Alwyn Hamilton
YA Fantasy
314 pages
Published 2016

More Middle-eastern themed fantasy! And by a Canadian writer, though she was only born there, she mostly grew up in France, so I’m not really sure it counts for my Read Canadian Challenge. But it is one I’ve been wanting to read for a while, and when I was at Barnes & Noble for Book Club, I noticed it on the bargain shelf, so I snagged it, along with another YA fantasy based on Norse Mythology called Valkyrie. There’s two more books in the series now, Traitor to the Thone and Hero at the Fall, so I’ve requested those from the library because I really enjoy this world!

Amani is a girl in a country that doesn’t value women, and treats them as useless property only good for breeding sons. The country is basically occupied by another country that the Sultan is “allied” with, but lets run roughshod over his people. She has her sights set on escaping her backwoods, dead-end town, and running to the capital city, where the aunt she’s never met lives. All of that is derailed when she meets Jin at an underground shooting competition, and then later hides him from the armed forces hunting him.

The country is definitely middle-east inspired, but there’s a lot of religion-bashing, and complaining about the culture oppressing women. It’s the same problem I have with a lot of knight-and-castle era fantasy – just because historically in OUR world those time periods weren’t kind to women, doesn’t mean they have to be the same in fantasy. It’s FANTASY! It can be anything you want! Break the tropes! It’s a fine line to walk, taking the good parts of a culture without just cherry-picking and appropriating the culture, and who’s judging what the good and bad parts are, anyway? So I understand it’s difficult, but bashing the culture in a book inspired by their mythology is not quite cool, either. I feel like City of Brass hit a nice middle ground of embracing the culture of the inspiration without bashing parts of it.

That gripe aside, I really enjoyed the world-building. I’m not quite sold on the characters yet – Amani is far too quick to abandon things she should fight for – but I’m interested enough to see how they progress in the next two books.

Rebel of the Sands was also a past Goodreads Choice winner, filling that prompt of the PopSugar 2018 reading challenge.

From the cover of Rebel of the Sands:

Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mythical beasts still roam the wild and remote areas, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinn still perform their magic. For humans, it’s an unforgiving place, especially if you’re poor, orphaned, or female. Amani Al’Hiza is all three. She’s a gifted gunslinger with perfect aim, but she can’t shoot her way out of Dustwalk, the back-country town where she’s destined to wind up wed or dead.

Then she meets Jin, a rakish foreigner, in a shooting contest, and sees him as the perfect escape route. But though she’s spent years dreaming of leaving Dustwalk, she never imagined she’d gallop away on mythical horse—or that it would take a foreign fugitive to show her the heart of the desert she thought she knew.

This startlingly original Middle-East-meets-Wild-West fantasy reveals what happens when a dream deferred explodes—in the fires of rebellion, of romantic passion, and the all-consuming inferno of a girl finally embracing her power.