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: Naamah

naamahNaamah: A Novel
by Sarah Blake
Historical Fiction / LGBT
296 pages
Published April 2019

It took me until just now, staring at my screen, to realize those are supposed to be water droplets on the cover, distorting the image behind them. Fitting, with the huge part that water plays in this story. Most of the narrative takes place aboard the ark during the flood – water is ever-present and overwhelming.

Naamah is an odd novel. I can’t really explain why I chose to read it; I’d heard that Naamah was bisexual in the book, and I think maybe a queer, feminist retelling of a Bible story appealed to me? It then took me a month or so to get around to actually reading it because of the Bible story part!

The narrative, while always told from Naamah’s point of view, dips into her memories, where we learn about the widow Bethel, her lover before the flood, and into Naamah’s dreams, where we meet Sarai. Sarai, or Sarah, is Abraham’s wife in the future. Well. Naamah’s future. Our ancient past. Sarai shows Naamah the far future – our present – and claims to have ascended to near godhood. She seems to take pity on Naamah’s despair, trying to show her what her time on the ark begets later. It’s strange.

Naamah is clearly depressed, and sorting out her dreams from what is actually happening is difficult for both her and the reader, I think. The whole book is fuzzy and a little dream-like.

It’s interesting, but I can’t say I’d recommend it.

From the cover of Naamah:

With the coming of the Great Flood – the mother of all disasters – only one family is spared, left drifting on the endless waters, waiting for them to subside. We know the story of Noah, moved by divine word to build an ark and launch an escape. Now, in a work of astounding invention, Sarah Blake reclaims the story of his wife, Naamah, the matriarch who kept them alive. Here is the woman torn between faith and fury, lending her strength to her sons and their wives, caring for an unruly menagerie of restless creatures while silently mourning the lover she left behind. Here is the woman escaping into the unreceded waters, where a seductive angel tempts her to join a strange and haunted world. Here is the woman tormented by dreams and questions of her own – questions of devotion and self-determination, of history and memory, of the kindness or cruelty of fate.

In fresh and modern language, Blake revisits the story of the ark and discovers the agonizing burdens endured by the woman at the center of it all. Naamah is a parable for our time: a provocative fable of body, spirit, and resilience.

Book Review: Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit

georgia peaches and other forbidden fruitGeorgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit
by Jaye Robin Brown
Young Adult/Romance/LGBT
432 pages
Published 2016

This is a sweet, southern f/f romance. Set in Georgia, it deals with a lot of things young lesbians might have to deal with in the south – religion, bigotry, the stress of coming out or not coming out (or being forced back in the closet by a move to a small town)! It doesn’t deal with any outright violence against our lesbian protagonists, and it just barely touches on drug use, eating disorders, and abusive relationships. Joanna has a mostly supportive family, even if they do ask her to hide her sexuality for her senior year in the new town. Jo reluctantly agrees to do so, but doesn’t count on falling in love with a girl at her new school.

The book deals a LOT with religion and sexuality; Jo’s father is a radio preacher, and she attends a baptist church in town with her stepmother and new grandparents. At one point – one of my favorite scenes in the book – she snaps, and calls out her classmates for thinking homosexuality is a sin, while they eat shellfish and have premarital sex.

I liked the book, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it. I grew up Christian; I’m familiar with all the concepts in the book, but rather than progress to a kinder, more loving version of Christianity, I left it behind altogether. I’m glad that some people can reconcile religion with progressive values, but I can’t. So it might be a good book for some, but not for me.

From the cover of Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit:

It’s going to take a miracle for Joanna Gordon to get through senior year. 

Despite being the daughter of a well-known radio evangelist, Jo has never hidden the fact that she’s gay, and her dad has always supported her. But that was back in Atlanta. Now her dad the reverend has married wife number three, and they’ve all moved to small-town Rome, Georgia. When Jo’s dad asks her to lie low for the rest of the year in the hopes that it will help him and his new wife settle in, Jo reluctantly agrees. 

Although when God closes a closet door, he opens a window. Everything becomes so easy for Jo once she rebrands herself as a straight girl. No one gives her odd looks. Her new stepfamily likes her. She even gets in with the popular crowd.

And that’s how she meets Mary Carlson, the ultimate temptation. Even though Jo knows this girl is completely off-limits, she just can’t get her out of her mind. But Jo couldn’t possibly think of breaking her promise to her dad. Even if Jo’s starting to fall for Mary Carlson. Even if there’s a chance Mary Carlson might be interested in her, too. Right?

Lord, have mercy.

Jo’s in for one hell of a year.

Book Review: Vox

voxVox
by Christina Dalcher
Dystopia
326 pages
Published August 2018

I felt like I was reading a horror novel instead of a dystopia. The first third of the book, specifically, was enraging. It’s the setup – the explanation of how the world is now, and how it came to be that way – that made me have to set the book down twice and walk away to calm down.

The book is the story of Dr. Jean McClellan, cognitive linguist. The forced silence is particularly painful for her, a former scientist who was working on a cure for people who had brain injuries or strokes affecting the Wernicke area of the brain, where we process language. She was about to start restoring language to people who had lost it, only to have it stolen from her and every other woman in the country.

The book opens on Dr. McClellan being asked to return to her work, because the President’s brother suffered a brain injury while skiing and can no longer understand language. As one of the most important advisors to the president, the government needs him. In return for the removal of both her bracelet and her daughter’s, she agrees, hoping to find some way to sabotage the work.

Vox sets out a sequence of events that seems far too feasible for comfort. The religious right extends its foothold from the Bible Belt to more and more of the country, pushing a return to “traditional family values” while methodically stripping freedoms from women and LGBT people. Women’s passports are surreptitiously cancelled, schools are split and classes on Christian theology introduced to the boys’ schools. Girls’ schools consist of very basic math (so they can continue to do the grocery shopping and cooking!) and a ton of home ec. Sewing, Cooking, Housekeeping. LGBT people are sent to prisons/camps unless they marry someone of the opposite sex and produce kids. Basically, it’s the right wing’s dream world.

It’s a horrifying scenario. Even given all the dystopia I’ve read, this book rocked me. It definitely belongs in the league of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Power. My only complaint is I wish the ending had been a little more drawn out, and explained the fallout in a bit more detail. Other than that, though, amazing book.

From the cover of Vox:

Set in a United States in which half the population has been silenced, Vox is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than one hundred words per day, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial. This can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning . . . 

Soon women are not permitted to hold jobs. Girls are not taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words each day, but now women have only one hundred to make themselves heard.

. . . not the end.

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

Book Review: The Spy with the Red Balloon

spy with the red balloonThe Spy with the Red Balloon
by Katherine Locke
Young Adult/Historical Fantasy
356 pages
Published October 2018

This is the sequel to The Girl with the Red Balloon – though chronologically, it actually takes place first. Since it mostly deals with different characters in related but different events, though, it doesn’t really read like a prequel. Really the only bad thing I have to say is that it didn’t answer the question of what happened at the end of Girl with the Red Balloon, and to be honest, I don’t actually mind. Spy could be read as a completely standalone book and be just as satisfying. There’s very little overlap between the two books, even though they deal with similar themes, in the same world.

I personally think SPY is better than GIRL, but I find that a lot with second books. I think authors tend to have a little more confidence by the second book; they know a little more about their world. They’ve gotten feedback from readers about what worked and what didn’t in the first book, and can somewhat adjust course based on that if they’re good. And Locke is excellent. I really liked GIRL, don’t get me wrong, but I LOVED SPY. The characters were fantastic, and the way she addressed Wolf’s demisexuality was perfect.

The book is set in a time when being gay was straight-up illegal, and one of Wolf’s fellow spies asks him about it because it was apparently in his file. He tells her there’s no evidence of that because he doesn’t feel that way about ANYONE. (He’s lying, but we’ll get to that.) He can appreciate when people are attractive, but he doesn’t feel desire that way – except for one person. One person, who he’d known for years and been best friends with before those feelings showed themselves. They’d never acted on it, which is why there’s no evidence of it. Demisexual is on the asexual spectrum, and as such it varies wildly in terms of how sexual a person is, but Wolf’s demisexuality is the closest I’ve seen in fiction to my own, so it’s really special to me.

Veering away from representation specific to me, SPY, like GIRL, stars Jewish people at its heart. This time we have a pair of Jewish siblings from America, each fighting in WW II in their own way. Ilse with her brain, helping develop magic for the US, and Wolf more directly, sneaking around Germany and disrupting their forces. GIRL dealt more with the oppressed German Jews, while SPY shows us the other side – the Jews who are fighting back for their kin, even though they could stay in the US and be safe.

Both books are excellent reads. I’ve had the fortune to interact with Katherine Locke on Twitter quite a lot, and at this point I will pretty much read anything she publishes. I love her characters and her plotlines and the obvious care she takes with the representation. Fantastic book.

From the cover of The Spy with the Red Balloon:

In a nuclear arms race, you’d use anything for an edge. Even magic.

Ilse and Wolf Klein bear many secrets. Genius Ilse is unsure if her parents will ever accept her love of physics. Her brother, Wolf, strives for a quiet life, though he worries there’s no place in the world for people like him. But their deepest secret lies within their blood: with it, they can work magic.

Blackmailed into service during World War II, Ilse lends her magic to America’s newest weapon, the atom bomb, while Wolf goes  behind enemy lines to sabotage Germany’s nuclear program. It’s a dangerous mission, but if Hitler were to create the bomb first, the results would be catastrophic.

When Wolf’s plane is shot down, his entire mission is thrown into jeopardy. Wolf needs Ilse’s help to develop the magic that will keep him alive, but with a spy afoot in Ilse’s laboratory, the secret letters she sends to Wolf begin to look treasonous. Can Ilse prove her loyalty – and find a way to help her brother – before their time runs out?

Loyalties and identities will be tested in this sweeping fantasy and fast-paced thriller that bravely explores the tensions at the dawn of the nuclear age.

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.