Book Review: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

25062038Title: LITTLE & LION
Author: Brandy Colbert
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 336
Publisher: Little, Brown
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

Little & Lion is a sweet but hard-hitting story about a young black, Jewish girl coming to terms with her bisexuality while also struggling to do the right thing regarding her brother’s mental illness.

Suzette is back home from boarding school for the summer, after her parents sent her away in the wake of her brother Lionel’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She wants desperately to integrate herself back into her brother’s life, for things to be the way they were before, but Lionel is struggling to – he’s still adjusting to his mental illness and being on medication. Suzette is also fresh of a messy break-up at boarding school, and the guilt of it plagues her.

While this seems like your run-of-the-mill book on the surface, I thought it was a really powerful and emotional exploration of mental health, sexuality, racism, microagressions, and sibling relationships. But the best thing is that while the book does delve into all of these heavy subjects it never feels heavy-handed, like it’s preaching or trying to teach me something. It never feels artificial. It’s just this group of teens trying to deal with some very real issues while living their lives.

Brandy Colbert’s writing is lovely – too often in contemporary YA authors will rely on the plot itself to carry the book through, but it is clear Colbert has put careful consideration into her writing. Her words fly fast, and the book is engaging, but it’s not simplistic or juvenile. The many characters are all given ample room for self-expression; Suzette in particular feels so very real, a young girl trying her best to do the right thing while fighting off the way the world sees her. I also appreciated that her love interests were so different from each other – Rafaela in particular felt very realistic and actually inspired feelings of dislike in me. Not that she was a bad person, but her personality clashed with my own, which I enjoyed! I love it when characters make me feel something, even if it’s dislike; it means they’re well-fleshed out.

Something else that greatly affected me is the setting. The book takes place in Los Angeles, and perhaps this is this is the romantic in me (I…idolize California in a weird way though I’ve never been), but I thought Colbert did a spectacular job capturing the vibe of living in LA. The weather, the mountainous setting, the strip malls with their neon signs, the lazy summer nights. This book is hella atmospheric, and it made me feel like I was right alongside the characters in LA.

Creating atmosphere like that is difficult to do in general, but it’s especially difficult to capture in a huge, thriving city like LA. The way Colbert framed this story it was almost as though it were taking place in a separate, intimate pocket of reality, and that made me feel like I was a part of the story.

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Book Review: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

28243032Title: WE ARE OKAY
Author: Nina LaCour
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 234
Publisher: Dutton Books
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

It’s Christmas Break and Marin Delaney is the only person left in her cold, New York dorm. From the very first page you can feel the threads of grief tugging her down, and they weave their way throughout the entirety of this short little book that I could not put down. I did not expect to be this affected by this book, but by the last page I was crying.

Marin is an orphan, raised by her grandfather, with no other family to speak of. When her grandfather dies, she flees her hometown in California for college in New York. As Marin narrates, however, the reader begins to see that it isn’t just her grandfather’s death she is trying to escape from, but the reality of his life and their lives together. There is more, much more, buried in the crevices of Marin’s heavy grief. The truth is revealed slowly, tugged out of Marin with difficulty because she can’t bring herself to face it.

The entire novel takes place over the three days Marin’s best friend Mabel comes to visit her at college. It is obvious that the girls were more than friends, however, and that Marin’s grief has driven a wedge between them. Their interactions are hesitant and fragile as they try to patch themselves back together again.

Though the narrative is interspersed with flashbacks, for me it is the present-day scenes that speak the loudest. LaCour does an incredible job bringing forth emotions using setting alone. Marin and Mabel are all alone on an empty college campus, snowed in, surrounded by freezing cold and snow storms and icy quiet. This barren landscape mirrors Marin’s own emotions. Not only does Marin’s grief leap off the page, so does her loneliness.

I come from a very large family. My father died when I was little, but I have a mom, a brother, grandparents, aunts, tons of cousins, and so much extended family that I can’t even remember all their names. We’re huge and sprawling and we talk to each other all the time and we’re always there for each other though we live on two different continents. I don’t often think about their existence as a balm for my loneliness, but it is; there is a comfort in knowing there are so many people I could reach out to, so many people I am effortlessly connected to.

Marin has no one. She had her grandfather, who tried his best, but it wasn’t enough, for he was too suffused in his own grief to be everything Marin needed. And then he dies, and Marin’s grief and loneliness suffocates her. I would say I can’t imagine how it feels, but I can, because LaCour writes of it so vividly and so powerfully that I felt my chest grow heavier just by reading along. The novel ends with a message of hope, but the majority of it succeeds in filling you up with the heavy, unbearable grief Marin feels.

This isn’t a typical novel that follows typical plot structure. It’s much more introspective. It’s about grief and suffering and loneliness and what they can do to a person. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about found families and forging new connections. Not too much happens in this novel, and I’m not gonna lie, it’s depressing as hell, but I loved it all the same. And as a writer, it’s inspired me to write, which to me always means a book is spectacular in some way or another.

Book Review: When Dimple Met Rishi

28458598Title: WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI
Author: Sandhya Menon
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 380
Publisher: Simon Pulse
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is one of the cutest books I’ve ever read! From the very first chapter I was captivated, drawn into Dimple’s world, sympathizing with her frustrations. I could not put the book down. It’s such a sweet little romance story, and a really awesome book for teens!

I was so drawn to Dimple, who is such a vibrant, fleshed-out character. She’s serious and studious and determined, fierce and ferocious and independent. Her ultimate goal is to become a web developer, and she most definitely does not want to get married. Despite this, her parents set her up with Rishi, who, unlike Dimple, is more traditional and appreciates the romance of arranged marriages. Both sets of parents agree that their kids will head to Insomnia Con, an app development camp/competition, to get to know each other.

One problem: Dimple has no idea she’s being set up.

This leads to an absolutely hilarious introduction between Dimple and Rishi. He jokingly calls her “future wife” and she throws her iced coffee at him. Soon enough, though, the two become friends, and soon enough, their friendship turns into something more. Dimple and Rishi are super different, but both are realistic characters. The story is told in their alternating POVs, and each character has a clear, distinct voice. Their romance was sweet and fluffy, at times bordering on cheesy, but I still liked it. Both of their parents ended up being so supportive and understanding of their ambitions, which was a nice change of pace from how Indian parents are presented. Also, Menon’s writing is excellent! With her descriptive and evocative sentences, San Francisco becomes a character in its own right; I could picture the hills, the fog, the dips in weather.

I also liked the nuanced perspectives offered on the characters’ cultural expectations, and arranged marriages in particular. I’m not Indian, but I also come from a culture of arranged marriages, which younger me always viewed quite negatively. Now that I’m older, I have a much more layered view of this tradition, and I appreciated that in this book it wasn’t simply dismissed as old world nonsense. Dimple and Rishi do, in fact, get along, just as their parents predicted! The set up begets real love, which often happens in arranged marriages. I liked that Rishi and Dimple each had their own understandings of their culture and their relationship to it; their discussions about their culture really hit home for me.

This book is so utterly happy and adorable and I just loved it so much!

Book Review: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

30653853Title: THE UPSIDE OF UNREQUITED
Author: Becky Albertalli
Release Date: April 2017
Pages: 336
Publisher: Balzer & Bray/HarperTeen
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

This was such a light, charming read! I finished it in two days because I simply could not put it down!

Molly Peskin-Suso is a seventeen-year-old girl who has had twenty-six crushes and no boyfriends. She’s funny, tenacious, artistic – and fat. She’s not looking to lose weight or get a makeover. Molly generally has no issues with her body, but she’s uncomfortable with how other people might react to it. This has made her hesitant when it comes to relationships. Considering the rampant fatphobia in our culture, this is a perfectly reasonable reaction. The Upside of Unrequited chronicles Molly’s adventures as she and her twin sister Cassie both find their first significant others.

There is so much diversity in this book. Cassie is a lesbian. Molly and Cassie’s parents are an interracial gay couple. Cassie’s girlfriend Mina is Korean and pansexual. And on and on. The variety of people encountered in this book is stunning, which renders it realistic and believable. Something the author does that I very much appreciate – and that is rarely seen in books – is describe characters as “white.” Often it is only non-white characters who are described by their ethnicity or skin color, which leads to white characters being the default in the narrative. Albertalli deliberately subverts this, which was refreshing!

I also appreciated the layers and complexity to various characters. This isn’t a Utopia and people aren’t perfect. Molly’s grandmother, despite being vocally supportive of her daughter’s bisexuality, makes off-kilter racist and fatphobic comments. Cassie and Molly can both be selfish and self-centered (which makes sense, given that they’re twins!). Their aunt Nadine, a single lady with four dogs, is homophobic. The characters felt like they could be real people. In that same vein, the dialogue was excellent! The teens sound like teens, and the adults sound like adults. The conversations are never stilted or awkward, even though at times Albertalli will emphasize the pauses and stutters that can occur in real conversations.

The main criticism I’ve seen surrounding this book is its alleged obsession with boys and boyfriends and being in a relationship, and that the main character appears to only find self-worth once she’s in a relationship. While I understand that viewpoint, I can’t agree with it. Molly’s confidence is not dependent upon a relationship. From what I saw, the issue was that she mostly felt lonely and isolated from her friends, who were already embarking on that chapter in their lives. She also wanted to love and be loved – I don’t see anything wrong with a female character wanting that, especially since it doesn’t consume her. She has other issues and concerns besides boyfriends – namely, her relationship with her twin sister Cassie, who she worries is growing distant. Also, even if Molly’s desire to have a boyfriend teeters on the obsessive (it doesn’t, in my opinion), she’s seventeen! Remember what it was like to be seventeen? The tiniest things can seem like life or death. When you’re seemingly the only one in your friend group who hasn’t dated, and you’re dealing with fatphobia that makes you think you’re undesirable, of course this is going to be on your mind!

Speaking of fatphobia. It’s important to note that Molly is fat, and she stays fat, and she gets a boyfriend anyway. Maybe if Molly were your standard thin girl this resolution would be played out, but the thing is, fat girls hardly ever get to see themselves as the love interest. As Molly herself says, fat girls in movies are the joke, not the girlfriend. So for Molly’s storyline to culminate in her falling in love with someone who also loves her and finds her desirable is pretty damn awesome. I don’t think this sends the message that fat girls are only worthy if they find someone to love them – I think it sends the message fat girls can be loved. It may not seem like a big deal, but imagine being a fat teenage girl who has never seen someone who looks like her be loved and desired. It’s affirming. Like Molly’s mother says, nobody needs a significant other, but it’s okay to want one. Of course it is.

Plus, Molly’s freaking awesome. I loved her as a protagonist; she’s creative, artsy, witty, but can also succumb to jealousy and pettiness. In other words, she’s real. She also grows more and more confident over the course of the novel; though she is initially somewhat passive, she begins to assert herself as time goes on. When some douchebag at a party tells her she’s gorgeous “for a big girl” she responds with “fuck you.” It’s an amazing moment.

This is definitely a Young Adult novel in that its characters act like teens and their problems are reminiscent of teen problems, but I say that as a good thing. The relationships in this book are fraught with misunderstandings and miscommunication that might make us adults claw at our hair, but I think for teens this book would be quite relatable! Overall, this was a super fun, cheerful read with an overwhelmingly positive message throughout. Loved it and would highly recommend!

Book Review: Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

31123249Title: SAINTS AND MISFITS
Author: S.K. Ali
Release Date: June 2017
Pages: 352
Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I loved this book. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it.

I will try to write a coherent review, though mostly I just feel like squeezing this book and hugging it tight and typing something nonsensical in all-caps, so forgive me if this isn’t especially eloquent. As a Muslim woman (and Egyptian! like the protagonist of this novel! I’ve literally never read about an Egyptian girl before!), this book meant so much to me. I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember, but I do not recall ever reading a book where I saw myself and my community represented. Especially not in such a positive light. I am so happy this book exists now. Not only that, I am so happy that it is a good book. A positively excellent, hilarious, entertaining book that I will be recommending to every single Muslim girl I know.

Janna Yusuf is a high school sophomore with plenty of wit and snark to spare. The story is told entirely in her perspective, which is fantastic, because Janna is one of the most realistic, likeable protagonists I’ve ever come across. She’s hilarious, sarcastic, intelligent, and oddly self-aware for a teenager. She’s also half-Egyptian, half-Indian, Muslim, and a hijabi. She’s a part-time photographer, part-time graphic novelist, part-time Flannery O’Connor geek.

There are no stereotypes in this book. Out of habit, I tensed when the older brother Muhammad was introduced, because I am so used to Muslim men, especially older brothers, portrayed as misogynistic oafs. But Muhammad is delightful – your typical annoying older brother, sweet, charming, caring. He wants to study philosophy and marry his “girlfriend,” whom Janna refers to as “Saint Sarah” because she seems to be perfect (though there’s more to her than meets the eye)!

Janna’s uncle, an imam at the local mosque, answers religious questions with humor and wisdom. Janna’s father is ultra-liberal and secular, now married to a white woman. When we first meet him, he loudly proclaims to anyone who will listen that he would rather his daughter wear a bikini rather than a burkini – not the best thing to say, but still, a refreshing change of pace from what we’re used to seeing of Muslim fathers.

Another great character is Sausun, a niqabi girl who also wears Doc Martens and is the Muslim equivalent of goth/emo teen. She’s tough as nails, hosts a YouTube show about niqabis, and absolutely shatters any stereotypes about women who wear niqabs. The niqab itself, the act of wearing one, is given nuance: Sausun implies she wears it because she wants to decide who is worthy of seeing her face. Janna talks about the protection the niqab offers, to someone who perhaps might wish to see but not be seen.

And then there’s Nuah! A black Muslim boy who clearly has a crush on Janna (though she doesn’t see it until the end of the book), he’s sweet, optimistic, and silly. I loved him so, so much. Please, give me a sequel to this where Janna and Nuah are dating!

Not all is rosy, however: the main conflict in the book is that Janna has been sexually assaulted by Farooq, a boy who has memorized the Qu’ran and is seen as the most pious Muslim around. For those of you non-Muslims out there who don’t know, memorizing the Qu’ran is a big freaking deal. Doing it pretty much guarantees you’re untouchable, which is why Janna has such a difficult time telling anyone what happened. She worries people won’t believe her, especially as Farooq has started talking about how Janna is “straying” from Islam. Janna is also hesitant to say anything for fear of making her community look bad.

There are two important things I want to say about all this:

1. There’s a slang term in the Muslim community called “wallah bro.” It is used to describe a Muslim man who thinks waaaay too much of his own alleged piety and takes the time out of his day to admonish Muslim girls on how they should behave. Wallah bros, a side effect of patriarchy as it manifests in Muslim communities, are pervasive and annoying as hell. Now, Farooq, attempted rapist, takes this to a whole new level, but he still displays the utter hypocrisy of a wallah bro when he posts vague statuses on Facebook about how it’s “sad” that Muslim girls are straying from their religion (in response to Janna accidentally being seen without her hijab), when he’s literally going around assaulting women. Growing up Muslim, I’ve witnessed this hypocrisy so many times that it was so validating to see it utterly destroyed here on the page.

2. When Janna talks about not wanting to make her community look bad, my heart hurt. I completely understood. No community is perfect, but non-Muslims are always so ready to talk about backwards Muslims and men who beat their wives and savage religions that it’s difficult to say anything in criticism of your own culture, for fear of it being co-opted by others. It’s not that our cultures shouldn’t be criticized – but these outsiders looking in, blinded by prejudice and ignorance, simplify an enormously complex issue to suit their racist existing narratives.

I fully expect this book to see criticism from such people who will insist that the representation of the Muslim community in this book is “too positive” or “unrealistic” or whatever. To those people, I would say two things: first, screw you for thinking that Muslim communities can’t be good and kind and supportive. Second, yes, Muslims communities have their issues. You know what? So does literally every other community. We’re not special. What is special about us is that we’re nearly always portrayed negatively, so let us catch a fucking break for once. We don’t always have to talk about our intra-community problems just because that’s the narrative that people have come to expect.

This is one of very, very, very few #ownvoices books about Muslims by a Muslim, and it’s lost in a sea of books written by non-Muslims that portray us as violent sadists at best, ignorant savages at worst. It’s nice to have some positive representation for once. We deserve it. If that bothers you, work hard to make sure that thousands of other #ownvoices books about Muslims flood the publishing industry, so we can see more variety of stories.

Anyway: you guys, this book was so, so, so good. Every time I read something in this book that I related to, I got this…jolt. Like, hey, yeah, that’s me! That’s my family! That’s my community! It was an amazing feeling. Is this what everyone feels when they read books with people they can relate to on such a personal level?

Read this book. Even if you’re not Muslim – actually, especially if you’re not Muslim. Especially if you don’t know much about Muslims or have conflicting feelings about Muslims. You’ll learn a lot. And even if you rarely read YA contemporary, I highly recommend picking this book up. It’s worth your time, I promise. It’s not juvenile or overly preachy and though it discusses many heavy topics, it’s never heavy-handed with them. And I literally could not put it down. Janna’s hilarious and deadpan narration kept me hooked, in a book where not too much happens! This is one of the few books I can see myself reading again and again, and I can’t wait for it to come out so I can buy a copy for my bookshelf.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!