More to the Story

Hena Khan’s newest middle grade novel is inspired by Little Women and follows a family of four sisters—Maryam, Jameela, Bisma, and Aleeza—living in Atlanta.

Thirteen-year-old Jameela (aka Jam) wants to be a journalist and make a real change in the world. She’s frustrated with the fluffy pieces that her editor-in-chief at the school newspaper is publishing. When she meets Ali, a family friend who has moved to Atlanta from the UK, she thinks this might be her chance to write an award-winning story. But things don’t go quite as planned. On top of that, her dad has taken a job across the world for six months, and then the family receives some scary news about about Bisma.

I really love Jam’s character: she is fierce with the world and supportive and protective of her sisters. She is brave, speaking up for what she knows is right and going after what she wants. She uses her strengths to make her family’s lives better. 

This book takes its inspiration from Little Women, but Alcott doesn’t get in the way of Khan’s writing at all. Despite being familiar with the original story, I was able to tune it out and enjoy More to the Story on its own. After I finished reading the novel, it was easy to connect the dots, and I really appreciate the way that Khan imagined Little Women in contemporary times. I also liked the way that the original story inspired the family dynamics in this book: the  closeness between Jam and her dad, the support and protectiveness between the sisters, and the close relationship between the mom and dad. 

Something that I didn’t care for was the budding romantic feelings between eighth-grade Ali and seventh-grade Jam. In this age group, not every story needs to include romance, and I dislike it when the reciprocation of feelings is linked to some kind of validation.

As far as the Muslim representation goes, I’m always happy to see Muslims represented in literature, and I know that representation will take many shapes, as it should. In More to the Story, the family is a Muslim family of Pakistani descent living in Atlanta. Although the parents don’t drink alcohol and the girls don’t date, only the mom tries to pray regularly. This is definitely one way that people practice Islam in the US, and it deserves a place in literature. But every time a book is marketed as about a Muslim family or is published by an imprint focusing on Muslim stories, I feel hopeful that this book will reflect the Muslim American experience of my community. And I’m usually disappointed. Only S. K. Ali and Uzma Jalaluddin have reflected that experience, and it’s not nearly enough. So while I appreciate More to the Story and I believe that Hena Khan is playing a vital role by representing her community, it’s on publishers to make sure there’s a variety of Muslim experiences being represented. 

I recommend this book for readers who enjoy middle grade and are interested in Muslim rep, Pakistani-American rep, or stories about cancer, microaggressions, or ethics in journalism.

More to the Story is out from Simon and Schuster on 9/3 and you can find it here: Goodreads | Simon and Schuster | Amazon.com | Book Depository

I received an eARC of More to the Story from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Battle

Ahmad is used to two things: being on his own and getting into trouble. But when Ahmad’s classmate Winnie hands him a package from his sister Farah, everything is about to change.

The Battle, by Karuna Riazi, is an exciting follow-up to The Gauntlet and picks up years after the Mirzas moved to NYC. Farah is away at college, and Ahmad is muddling through life as a twelve-year-old. He loves to draw and spends a lot of class time doodling pictures of a strange city called Paheli that he remembers dreaming about as a kid.

Winnie is intrigued by the package and follows Ahmad home. But when they insert the video game cartridge into the console, strange things begin to happen. Winnie notices that the avatars look just like the two of them. They’re still examining the girl avatar with Winnie’s curly hair when the city freezes around them. A thick blackness rises up and covers everything around them, and then the city is replaced by a futuristic version of the city with tall, floating skyscrapers and flying rickshaws. Soon, Ahmad and Winnie come to understand that they’ve been transported into the game. If they want to get home again, they’ll need to play the game and win.

This action-packed adventure combining video games with a South Asian–inspired fantasy world is ultimately about the power of friendship. As the game goes on, the stakes get higher and higher, and the lines between friends and foes blur. I loved seeing the developing relationship between Ahmad and Winnie and seeing Ahmad grow in self-confidence as a result of that. 

While a fun ride, I found this novel weaker than the first. It is repetitive at times, and the world building is not as clear as it was in The Gauntlet. I often felt confused about the challenge they were facing and rules of the world around them. While this confusion was at times meant to be a part of the plot, it wasn’t the most pleasant reading experience.

Although readers will recognize elements of Paheli and know information about the Mirzas from The Gauntlet, The Battle is not a strict sequel and can be read as a stand-alone.

I can recommend this middle grade novel for 8–12 year old kids who enjoy stories about video games or adventure stories in general.

Thank you to the publisher for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Find it here: GoodreadsSimon and Schuster | Amazon.com | Book Depository

Love from A to Z

If a YA novel is about a female Muslim protagonist who falls for a guy, the chances are that he is a non-Muslim. This is annoying to me not because it doesn’t happen, but because the opposite happens, too, and is so infrequently written about. S. K. Ali’s newest contemporary YA novel, Love from A to Z, is about that sadly neglected story line—what happens when a Muslim guy and girl fall for each other. It’s well-written and complex: the characters, who are both relatable and endearing, each have their own issues to deal with, and it is so refreshing to see a YA novel that tells a romance story with practicing Muslim characters.

This is the story of Adam and Zayneb, who meet in Doha over spring break. But it’s not really spring break for Adam because he’s not going back to school. He’s just been diagnosed with MS, which his mother died of years ago. Zayneb’s spring break is also complicated: she’s taking it one week early after being suspended for a run-in with an Islamophobic teacher at her high school. After a serendipitous initial meeting in a London airport, Zayneb and Adam meet again in Doha:  Zayneb’s aunt, who she’s staying with, is an old friend of Adam’s mother.

The book has a (delightfully sage) narrator who begins and ends the book and also butts in in the middle for an interlude. But the majority of the book is told through the journal entries of Adam and Zayneb. In an (again) serendipitous turn of events, they both keep a journal called Marvels and Oddities, in which they record the marvels (wonderful things) and oddities (not-so-wonderful things) they experience. True to his character, Adam’s journals are full of marvels. If you were to ask Adam what he wants most in the world, he would say peace. Zayneb’s journals are full of oddities, and if you asked her the same question, she would say justice. Throughout the book, Zayneb’s struggle is how to harness her anger into beneficial action that will have long-lasting effects. Adam’s struggle is to go after what he wants. Their struggles are real and timely, and I found the ending really satisfying.

I highly recommend this heartwarming and powerful YA novel about falling in love, believing in yourself, and trusting in your community of friends and allies.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Find it here: Goodreads | Simon and Schuster | Amazon.com | Book Depository

Thank you to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review.

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. View Post

Yes, I’m Hot in This

Yes, I’m Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth about Life in a Hijab is a book of comics about wearing a hijab and being visibly Muslim in America by Huda Fahmy. I found it laugh-out-loud funny at times and a sharp social commentary at others. But it is so relatable, and that means a lot to me. This book pokes fun at the hilarity that can rather surprisingly ensue from a simple piece of fabric, and it speaks the truth about some of the more difficult things hijabis have had to face with honesty and empathy.  View Post