The Bird King

It’s convenient for girls to be angry about nothing. Girls who are angry about something are dangerous. If you want to live, you must learn to use your anger for your own benefit, not the benefit of those who would turn it against you.

The Bird King, a new fantasy novel from G. Willow Wilson (of Alif the Unseen and Ms. Marvel fame), combines history and the fantastical to produce an exciting and lyrical story set in Andalus in 1491. Our hero is Fatima, the sultan’s concubine, who was born and raised in the palace at Granada, the last remaining emirate. She has never left its walls. Hassan, the mapmaker, is her best friend and has a special ability. He can draw maps of places he’s never been to, and, even more intriguing, he can draw a map that changes the shape of the physical reality around him. When representatives from the Spanish Inquisition come knocking at the door, Fatima has to make a decision about the meaning of love and freedom.

That is when the adventure begins: there are chases and boats and folklore, and our main characters are helped (or not) by a cast of characters: human, jinn, and animal.

I was excited about the premise of this novel, and I really loved parts of it. I loved the way it combined historical fiction with fantastical elements; I loved its feminist message. I loved its exploration of how we make homes for ourselves and what freedom looks like. The early part of the novel, the part that took place at court, was my favorite. My appreciation waned as the novel went on, however, because I found the middle really slow and the ending anticlimactic. Where the story was going wasn’t obvious from the beginning; the book was working up to it. But the reveal came too late, the characters took too long to get to their end point, and the ending was a little muddled for me. I realize that’s very vague, but: spoilers.

I think this is definitely worth a read for readers who like fantasy or are interested in that period of history. If you’ve read or are planning to, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐/5

Find it here: Goodreads | Grove Atlantic | Amazon.com

Thank you to Grove Atlantic and Edelweiss for an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Qur’an and Me

Qur’an and Me: A Journey to Deep Thinking and Reflection is a reflective journal that uses the what? so what? now what? framework to help readers reflect on the Quran and apply its lessons to their past, present, and future. The journal is primarily made up of lined pages that prompt readers to choose ayahs of the Quran, reflect on their meanings, and apply the lessons they learn in their lives.

There is a spread early in the journal showing readers how to fill out their journal.

The journal has a total of approximately 88 spreads. The left side of each spread is lined and includes a space for the date, a space to write the ayah, a space for tafseer and other thoughts, and a space to write a plan for how you can apply the lessons you’ve learned from the ayah. The right side of the spread is unlined and is a space for doodling or writing more notes or reflections—it’s up to you. Each spread also has an ayah and a hadith for inspiration, as well as a quote or a prompt for reflection.

Periodically, there are beautiful, full-color photographs with ayahs and hadiths. There is also a ribbon bookmark, so that you can keep track of your place easily.

This is a great product for someone who wants to start Quran journaling and enjoys pretty, decorative things but doesn’t feel artistic enough to create their own journal. I really like that there are no preprinted dates, so everyone can decide how often they want to use the journal. The book itself is a well-made hardback with gold embossing on the cover, and it would make a lovely gift.

Thank you to the publisher for sending me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Get it here: Paradise Pearls

We Are Displaced

Many people think refugees should feel only two things: gratitude toward the countries that granted them asylum and relief to be safe. I don’t think most people understand the tangle of emotions that comes with leaving behind everything you know. They are not only fleeing violence—which is why so many are forced to leave, and is what’s shown on the news—but they are escaping their countries, their beloved homes. That seems to get lost in the conversation about refugees and internally displaced people. So much focus is on where they are now—not on what they have lost as a result.

We Are Displaced is the newest nonfiction book written by Malala Yousafzai for young readers.

The first half of the book tells the story of when her own family had to evacuate Swat Valley. They were internally displaced; they stayed with family in Shangla and were able to return home in three months.

The second half of the book tells the stories of ten girls and women from different countries in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America—how they left their countries, the camps they stayed in, their perilous journeys, and the new places they went. One of the accounts in the section is from the point of view of a white woman—one of the volunteers who welcomes one of the refugees when she and her family arrived in Pennsylvania. I was a little uncomfortable with the inclusion of this account. She seems like a wonderful person, but I’m not sure this was the right place for her story.

I’d like to read this again with my almost nine-year-old. I like that it mentions conflicts all over the world, and I’m hoping it can be a way to start conversations about conflicts that are happening in places that we don’t hear about so often, like Uganda and Colombia.

Let me know if you’ve read this or if you’re interested in picking it up!

Elsewhere, Home

I absolutely loved this collection of short stories about people who straddle cultures or homes in different countries and how difficult that is. Some of the stories deal with major life events, but others are about quiet, everyday moments and how being half this and half that and living half here and half there affects even those moments. The majority of the characters are Egyptian or Sudanese women living in England or Scotland. 

This is a must-read book for expats, third-culture kids, or anyone who dreads being asked “Where are you from?” But it also speaks to the way that all of us struggle with belonging, especially when we’re between belonging to our family completely and forging out on our own. 

“Summer Maze” is my favorite story, and it is the closest words on a page have ever come to mirroring my life. It follows an English daughter and her Egyptian mother as they travel to Cairo to spend the summer. It was the little things in this story that got to me: the crazy amounts of luggage Egyptians travel with, the weird, almost surreal relationships you forge with relatives you see only once a year, and being able to order whatever you want at Pizza Hut because the meat is all halal. The story is told first from the daughter’s point of view and then from the mother’s. It’s about expectations, but it’s also about each woman being torn in half by their mixed identities and double homes. There is a poignant moment where the daughter is delighted to see an English couple and hear their accent while sightseeing because she is feeling rather homesick. But when she finally catches their eyes, they see an Egyptian girl. They are surprised by her English and compliment her on it. She belongs to many identities, but none of those identities accept her into their fold fully. Her mother, meanwhile, is as homeless as her daughter: by leaving Egypt, she has fallen behind the times and the culture, and her sister tells her, that’s not how we do it anymore. By leaving home, she lost touch with it, but she doesn’t quite belong to the new place either.

My other favorites were “The Boy from the Kebab Shop” (about a non-practicing Muslim student who meets a boy at a fundraiser and starts to rethink her life) and “Pages of Fruit” (a woman’s second-person narration to a writer she spends years admiring).

My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Thank you to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Find it here: Goodreads | Grove Atlantic | Amazon.com | Book Depository

The Weight of Our Sky

I’ve gotten used to keeping my little quirks hidden. I’m pretty smart anyway, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize that to be inflicted with djinns ranks right up there as among the worst things that can happen to you when you’re sixteen years old and studying in an all-girls’ school. Girls are vicious creatures… Every day for me is like its own special, specific challenge: find ways to appease the Djinn and his voracious appetite for numbers, without letting anyone realize I’m doing it.

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf is the newest YA release from Salaam Reads. It’s the story of sixteen-year-old Malaysian Melati who loves music and especially the Beatles. She lives with her mother and has to deal with a djinn, who whispers to her and fills her head with images of horrible things happening to the people she loves. The only way to appease him and to protect those around her is to count in threes. Her “djinn” is in fact OCD, but in 1960s Malaysia, mental health awareness doesn’t exist yet. There is a stigma around mental illness and the accepted explanation is that there is a djinn (a creation of God that Muslims actually do believe in, albeit not in this form) inhabiting her. That is how she interprets the voice in her head.

On the day the book begins, Melati goes to the movies with a friend, and the 1969 race riots have broken out by the time they leave the theater. The two friends are separated, and Melati spends the rest of the novel trying to find her mother and discover what happened to her friend. 

I love that this YA book tackles some serious topics. Melati’s first-person narration gives readers a glimpse of what life with OCD might be like. 

I concentrate on the task at hand. Biggest to smallest, pencil case in the right-hand pocket, tap each item three times before closing the bad, one two, three. Something feels off. My hands are frozen, suspended above my belongings. Did I do that right? Did I tap three times or four? I break out into a light sweat. Again, the Djinn whispers, again. Think how much better you’ll feel when you finally get it.

I really liked the Muslim representation. We see some characters practicing their faith and others choosing not to, but best of all, we see Melati grapple with her beliefs, which is so refreshing to see in YA. Of course teenagers struggle with their faith and think about God and question their decisions, just like adults. Seeing it on the page was wonderful.

Something else I enjoyed seeing on the page was Melati coming to terms with her privilege. Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s was a multicultural city of Malays, Chinese, Indians, and others. This book explores what it means to live in a such a multifaceted place and who a place belongs to. The title comes from a Malay proverb: “where you plant your feet is where you hold up the sky.” As a Chinese character explains, it means that “wherever you are, you must follow what the people there do, their customs, their ways.” She says it out of resignation, out of a sense of “what else can we do?” Melati thinks back to the jokes and slurs she has heard about immigrants: “The phrases are familiar; I feel a distinct, unsettling sting when I realize I grew up with them, heard them so often they were reduced to nothing more than background noise.”

I highly recommend this really solid YA debut for anyone who reads YA, wants to read a book with Muslim or mental health representation, or wants to read about the 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur.

Find it here: Goodreads | Simon & Schuster | Amazon.com

I received an eARC of this book through Edelweiss and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.