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 Way You Make Me Feel

the way you make me feelThe Way You Make Me Feel
by Maurene Goo
Young Adult
323 pages
Published 2018

I liked this book but I wish I hadn’t read it.

Yeah, that’s an odd sentence, isn’t it? The Way You Make Me Feel is a funny, well-written book about a teenager’s summer. She struggles with her parents, their long-ago divorce, authority, consequences for her own actions, and starting to take things seriously. It is a great, fluffy little book with fantastic minority representation.

The fact that I wish I hadn’t spent the time to read it is entirely indicative of where MY reading tastes are and has nothing to do with the book. Which makes this a difficult review to write! My tastes generally lie in fantasy, fiction that deals with heavy topics, or nonfiction. I don’t tend to read contemporary fiction that doesn’t have a message. (Unless it’s guilty pleasure romances.) So I feel like my time could have been better spent on another book, I suppose? But this book is important in its own way.

Between the Korean-Brazilian main character, her black nemesis-turned-friend, and her Chinese-American love interest, there’s a lot of minority representation in this book, and they deserve happy, fluffy books. (There’s also a gay side character.) It’s something I’ve seen talked about a lot – minority authors sometimes feel pressured to address issues of discrimination, immigration, and the like in their books – but they also need books where their characters are just average people.

So the book sits in an odd in-between place for me. It is well-written and a fun book to read. I enjoyed the story. But I have so many books on my TBR right now that I wish I’d spent the time on something more substantial or closer to my personal tastes. For actual young adults – especially any of the identities represented by the book – it would be an excellent summer read.

From the cover of The Way You Make Me Feel:

Sixteen-year-old Clara Shin doesn’t take life too seriously, but when she pushes one joke too far, her dad sentences her to a summer working on his food truck, the KoBra. Clara was supposed to go on vacation to Tulum to visit her social media-influencer mom; she was supposed to spend lazy days at the pool with her buddies. Being stuck in a sweaty Korean-Brazilian food truck all day, every day? Worse still, working alongside her nemesis, Rose Carver? Not the carefree summer Clara had imagined.

But as time goes on, it turns out that maybe Rose isn’t so bad. Maybe the boy named Hamlet (yes, Hamlet) who’s crushing on Clara is pretty cute. Maybe Clara actually feels invested in her dad’s business. What if taking this summer seriously means that Clara has to leave her old self behind?

With her signature warmth and humor, Maurene Goo delivers a relatable story of falling in love and finding yourself in the places you’d never thought to look.

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 Bride Test

the bride testThe Bride Test
by Helen Hoang
Romance
300 pages
Published May 7, 2019

I received The Bride Test on Saturday, a few days before today’s release date, through Book of the Month. I’ve been really excited about this one, because it’s another adult romance with an autistic main character, like the first book, The Kiss Quotient. (The author is also autistic.) There’s actually a lot of #ownvoices representation here; Hoang has an author’s note at the end talking about how much of Esme’s personality and struggles are based on her own mother, who immigrated from Vietnam as a refugee at the end of the Vietnam war. I love that in writing the book, Hoang grew closer to her mother as she learned about her history. Definitely don’t miss the author’s note at the end of this book, if you read it!

I have mixed feelings about this one, but unfortunately the part I really have mixed feelings about is very spoilery, so I can’t talk about it without ruining major plot points! Overall, I did really like the book, and Khai showed a lot of the same traits my husband does. The first book’s autistic character is female, so it was nice to see a character so similar to my husband this time. The characters from The Kiss Quotient do make a token appearance in The Bride Test, and I’m hoping Hoang will finally write Quan’s story next! There is an untitled third book in the series due out in 2020, so I’m crossing fingers for Quan!

I absolutely adored Esme in this book. She is hardworking and strong-willed, and knows what she’s worth. I wish she’d been a little more honest with Khai, but I can understand being too afraid to be fully honest with someone who could have such control over your future. I did really enjoy this sequel, and I can’t wait to hear what the plot will be for the third book.

From the cover of The Bride Test:

Khai Diep has no feelings. Well, he feels irritation when people move his things or contentment when ledgers balance down to the penny, but he doesn’t experience big, important emotions like love and grief. Rather than believing he processes emotions differently due to being autistic, he concludes that he’s defective and decides to avoid romantic relationships. So his mother, driven to desperation, takes matters into her own hands and returns to Vietnam to find him the perfect mail-order bride.

As a mixed-race girl living in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, Esme Tran has always felt out of place. When the opportunity to marry an American arises, she leaps at it, thinking that it could be the break her family needs. Seducing Khai, however, doesn’t go as planned. Esme’s lessons in love seem to be working . . . but only on herself. She’s hopelessly smitten with a man who believes he can never return her affection.

Esme must convince Khai that there is more than one way to love. And Khai must figure out the inner workings of his heart before Esme goes home and is an ocean away.

Book Review: When Dimple Met Rishi

when dimple met rishiWhen Dimple Met Rishi
by Sandhya Menon
Young Adult/Romance
380 pages
Published 2017

I’ve seen this book get raved about online, but it just didn’t sound that exceptional – yet another young adult romance. Contemporary, at that. But I finally read it for the Year of the Asian Challenge, and I am SO. GLAD. I DID.

Rishi Patel stole my heart. Which, as a demisexual, is completely unexpected. But he’s just the exact right combination of sweet, romantic, totally geeky, and confident. He is absolutely my favorite character in this book. I like Dimple. But I adore Rishi.

I loved that both Dimple and Rishi tried to help each other achieve their dreams. I wish they’d both been a little more communicative about how they did so, but it was still cute to see them so invested in each other’s life goals, as a couple should be!

This is a super cute romance, and it deserves all the rave reviews it got. I definitely need to read the sequel (about Rishi’s younger brother) now.

From the cover of When Dimple Met Rishi:

DIMPLE SHAH has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family – and from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Ugh. Dimple knows they must respect her principles on some level, though. If they truly believed she needed a husband right now, they wouldn’t have paid for her to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers . . . right?

RISHI PATEL is a hopeless romantic. So when his parents tell him that he and his future wife will be attending the same summer program – wherein he’ll have to woo her – he’s totally on board. Because as silly as it sounds to most people in his life, Rishi wants to be arranged, believes in the power of tradition, stability, and being a part of something much bigger than himself.

The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this “suggested arrangement” so early in their children’s lives, but when they noticed them both gravitating toward the same summer program, they figured, Why not?

Dimple and Rishi may think they have each other figured out. But when opposites clash, love works hard to prove itself in the most unexpected ways.

Book Review: The Bird King

the bird kingThe Bird King
by G. Willow Wilson
Historical Fantasy
402 pages
Published March 2019

I have not yet read G. Willow Wilson’s first novel, Alif the Unseen, but I really want to now, because this one was beautiful. I really enjoyed this story, watching Fatima mature through her travels and change from the sheltered Sultan’s concubine/possession to become – well – what she becomes.

The Bird King is the story of Fatima, concubine, and Hassan, mapmaker, on the run from the Inquisition. They were both members of the house of the last Sultan in Iberia. When the Spanish (and the Inquisition) came to negotiate his surrender, one of their conditions was they wanted Hassan, because of the magic he used in his maps. Hassan has been Fatima’s only real friend; he’s the only man that wanted nothing from her, because he’s gay and unmoved by her beauty. His sexuality has been largely ignored by the court; his maps were too important to the war effort, so it was tolerated and just not spoken of. When Fatima discovers the Sultan intends to turn Hassan over, she runs away with him. She has some unexpected help in her journey, which, along with Hassan’s mapmaking, makes this a kind of magical realist historical fantasy novel. It’s not really alternate history, because nobody’s actions change how history plays out on a large scale.

I really enjoyed Wilson’s writing style, and while I’d already been interested in the description of Alif the Unseen, given how much I like her writing here, I really need to read that as well. I’m pretty sure it’s on my Kindle!

From the cover of The Bird King:

G. Willow Wilson delivers her long-awaited second novel set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultan in the Iberian peninsula.

The Bird King tells the story of Fatima, a concubine in the royal court of the sultan of Granada, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker. Hassan has a secret – he can make maps of places he’s never seen and bend the shape of reality with his pen and paper. His gift has proven useful to the sultan’s armies in wartime, as well as entertained a bored Fatima, who has never step foot outside the palace walls. When a party representing the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrives to negotiate the terms of the sultan’s surrender, Fatima is tasked with welcoming their women. She befriends one of the women, little realizing that she represents the Inquisition and will see Hassan’s gift as sorcery, and therefore a threat to Christian rule.

In order to escape the Inquisition, Fatima and Hassan embark on an epic voyage across Spain in search of refuge on a mysterious, possible mythic island. With everything on the line, The Bird King asks us to consider what love is, and the price of freedom at a time when the West and the Muslim world were not yet separate. A triumphant tour de force with shadings of Pullman, Gaiman, L’Engle, and C. S. Lewis, G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King is a jubilant story of love versus power, religion versus faith, and freedom versus safety.