Book Review: That Thing We Call a Heart

Title: That Thing We Call a Heart
Author: Sheba Karim
Genres: Contemporary Romance
Pages: 288 pages
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In bookstores now

Summary: Shabnam Qureshi is a funny, imaginative Pakistani-American teen attending a tony private school in suburban New Jersey. When her feisty best friend, Farah, starts wearing the headscarf without even consulting her, it begins to unravel their friendship. After hooking up with the most racist boy in school and telling a huge lie about a tragedy that happened to her family during the Partition of India in 1947, Shabnam is ready for high school to end. She faces a summer of boredom and regret, but she has a plan: Get through the summer. Get to college. Don’t look back. Begin anew.

Everything changes when she meets Jamie, who scores her a job at his aunt’s pie shack, and meets her there every afternoon. Shabnam begins to see Jamie and herself like the rose and the nightingale of classic Urdu poetry, which, according to her father, is the ultimate language of desire. Jamie finds Shabnam fascinating—her curls, her culture, her awkwardness. Shabnam finds herself falling in love, but Farah finds Jamie worrying.

With Farah’s help, Shabnam uncovers the truth about Jamie, about herself, and what really happened during Partition. As she rebuilds her friendship with Farah and grows closer to her parents, Shabnam learns powerful lessons about the importance of love, in all of its forms.

Featuring complex, Muslim-American characters who defy conventional stereotypes and set against a backdrop of Radiohead’s music and the evocative metaphors of Urdu poetry, THAT THING WE CALL A HEART is a honest, moving story of a young woman’s explorations of first love, sexuality, desire, self-worth, her relationship with her parents, the value of friendship, and what it means to be true.

Review: After hearing so many great things about Karim’s new novel I was really looking forward to it. It was #ownvoices and had numerous Muslim characters in a contemporary romance, which is sorely needed in the world of YA literature. Unfortunately, I came away with a “meh” kind of feeling with this book. It took me a long while to get into it and connect with the main character Shabnam Qureshi. There was something about her that I just didn’t like. Some of her comments really rubbed me the wrong way, specifically about her weight, which I felt could be triggering to folks. Additionally, she was a little too crazy over Jaime, which is what I just realized I didn’t like about her. When I was in high school, boy-crazy girls drove me batty and that is why I didn’t connect with Shabnam. She is a character of contradictions, however, because even though she is very selfish, she does work to understand her father and help him to become a more active participant in their relationship and the relationship with her mother. The father-daughter moments in the novel were truly sweet and moving.

I feel like the “romance” of the novel was less about Jaime and Shabnam and more about the relationship between Shabnam and Farah. At the beginning of the novel the two are estranged from each other with Shabnam missing her best friend terribly. And I can see why as Farah seems to be Shabnam’s total opposite. Where Shabnam is unsure of herself, Farah is confidence personified. Where Shabnam hesitates to speak her mind, Farah doesn’t hold back. Their home lives are opposites as well as Shabnam is an only child whose parents are in a somewhat happy marriage where as Farah is the oldest of four (If I remember correctly) and her parents are constantly at odds. Even though the novel begins with Shabnam and Farah apart from each other, we are given flashbacks of how their friendship developed. These were two girls who connected over not fitting in, even though they were so different, and ended up dependent upon each other. And that desire for her best friend is why Shabnam chose to re-connected with Farah; she wanted to share her happiness about Jamie. I felt Shabnam was quite selfish for only going to her friend then, but ultimately the girls have a heart to heart and get to the bottom of why their friendship fell apart. It was a moving moment and one that I loved because after Shabnam’s time at the pie shack is over, there are an number of pages left to the book and most focus on Shabnam and Farah rekindling their friendship. Shabnam’s character development is due to her coming to accept Farah for who she is now and that even though her best friend is wearing a hajib, she is still the same complex being before she decided to wear the hajib. Shabnam learns to love her friend for who she is and comes to truly appreciate her relationship with Farah.

The touching relationships Shabnam had with her father and Farah, however, were not enough to make me fall in love with this book. I felt that Jaime was extremely two dimensional, almost a stereotype of the carefree white boy who visits and works with his aunt during the summer. I truly did not see what Shabnam saw that made her fall head over heels in love with him. I didn’t feel any heat or passion that I should expect from a contemporary romance. Jaime and Shabnam’s romance was just kind of blah. There was no rooting for their HEA; in fact, I was waiting for them to break up because that meant that Jaime would be off the page. Clearly, the opposite reaction a romance novel is aiming for. Though, if the point of the romance was the friendship between Shabnam and Farah, then mission accomplished.

 

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New Releases

This is a release week I’ve been eagerly awaiting. Want and Saints and Misfits have been on my To Be Read list for ages it seems. As always, if you know of any titles we’ve missed, please let us know. Thank you!

Want by Cindy Pon
Simon Pulse

Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits, protecting them from the pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by his city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.

With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.

Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgment, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is, or destroying his own heart?

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali
Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Saints and Misfits is an unforgettable debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.

How much can you tell about a person just by looking at them?

Janna Yusuf knows a lot of people can’t figure out what to make of her…an Arab Indian-American hijabi teenager who is a Flannery O’Connor obsessed book nerd, aspiring photographer, and sometime graphic novelist is not exactly easy to put into a box.

And Janna suddenly finds herself caring what people think. Or at least what a certain boy named Jeremy thinks. Not that she would ever date him—Muslim girls don’t date. Or they shouldn’t date. Or won’t? Janna is still working all this out.

While her heart might be leading her in one direction, her mind is spinning in others. She is trying to decide what kind of person she wants to be, and what it means to be a saint, a misfit, or a monster. Except she knows a monster…one who happens to be parading around as a saint…Will she be the one to call him out on it? What will people in her tight knit Muslim community think of her then?

An Uninterrupted View of the Sky by Melanie Crowder
Philomel Books

It’s 1999 in Bolivia and Francisco’s life consists of school, soccer, and trying to find space for himself in his family’s cramped yet boisterous home. But when his father is arrested on false charges and sent to prison by a corrupt system that targets the uneducated, the poor, and the indigenous majority, Francisco’s mother abandons hope and her family. Francisco and his sister are left with no choice: They must move into the prison with their father. There, they find a world unlike anything they’ve ever known, where everything—a door, a mattress, protection from other inmates—has its price.

Prison life is dirty, dire, and dehumanizing. With their lives upended, Francisco faces an impossible decision: Break up the family and take his sister to their grandparents in the Andean highlands, fleeing the city and the future that was just within his grasp, or remain together in the increasingly dangerous prison. Pulled between two equally undesirable options, Francisco must confront everything he once believed about the world around him and his place within it.

In this heart-wrenching novel inspired by real events, Melanie Crowder sheds light on a little-known era of modern South American history—where injustice still darkens the minds and hearts of people alike—and proves that hope can be found, even in the most desperate places. — Cover images and summaries via Goodreads

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Review: The Radius of Us

Title: The Radius of Us
Author: Marie Marquardt
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Pages: 295
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
Availability: On shelves now
Review copy: Library

Summary: Ninety seconds can change a life — not just daily routine, but who you are as a person. Gretchen Asher knows this, because that’s how long a stranger held her body to the ground. When a car sped toward them and Gretchen’s attacker told her to run, she recognized a surprising terror in his eyes. And now she doesn’t even recognize herself.

Ninety seconds can change a life — not just the place you live, but the person others think you are. Phoenix Flores-Flores knows this, because months after setting off toward the U.S. / Mexico border in search of safety for his brother, he finally walked out of detention. But Phoenix didn’t just trade a perilous barrio in El Salvador for a leafy suburb in Atlanta. He became that person — the one his new neighbors crossed the street to avoid.

Ninety seconds can change a life — so how will the ninety seconds of Gretchen and Phoenix’s first encounter change theirs?

Told in alternating first person points of view, The Radius of Us is a story of love, sacrifice, and the journey from victim to survivor. It offers an intimate glimpse into the causes and devastating impact of Latino gang violence, both in the U.S. and in Central America, and explores the risks that victims take when they try to start over. Most importantly, Marie Marquardt’s The Radius of Us shows how people struggling to overcome trauma can find healing in love.

Review: The Radius of Us is a love story. It is also a story of how relationships and connection can bring healing. A painful and frightening attack has changed Gretchen and she doesn’t believe she will ever be the same again. Phoenix has been through even more trauma than Gretchen, and his life is in limbo. The two of them manage to move forward in spite of their fears and concerns though.

What I liked about the book was the way the characters were dealing with trauma in different ways. Gretchen’s family has access to a wide variety of resources. One of the most powerful moments in her healing though is when Phoenix doesn’t try to tell her to move past it, but asks her what her panic attacks are like. In that moment, he is giving her permission to be in that space. He’s not pointing out how she should be able to think her way through this or just get past it. He listens and acknowledges where she is in her journey. Phoenix also has a little brother who is dealing with his own trauma. Art is one way he is finding healing and expressing himself though he is bottling up many of his feelings. An aspect of the emotional piece that didn’t sit as well with me was how often Gretchen described herself as crazy and certifiable. It’s not really countered either.

Phoenix’s own journey, both physically and mentally, has been a rough one. There are many things about El Salvador that he loves, but he and his family were in extreme danger. Their trip through Mexico was also incredibly traumatic. Readers get a picture of how complicated and dangerous such a trip can be and how immigration is not a simple issue. On a side note, it was also interesting to hear about the vacationing volunteers who would go to El Salvador to help, but didn’t know how to do things.

This is a book that celebrates and honors human connection and the resiliency of people.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you enjoy contemporary romances. This is a beautiful story of love and hope.

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Review: North of Happy

Title: North of Happy
Author: Adi Alsaid
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 304 pages
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Review Copy: ARC received
Availability: Available now

Summary: Carlos Portillo has always led a privileged and sheltered life. A dual citizen of Mexico and the United States, he lives in Mexico City with his wealthy family, where he attends an elite international school. Always a rule follower and a parent pleaser, Carlos is more than happy to tread the well-worn path in front of him. He has always loved food and cooking, but his parents see it as just a hobby.

When his older brother, Felix—who has dropped out of college to live a life of travel—is tragically killed, Carlos begins hearing his brother’s voice, giving him advice and pushing him to rebel against his father’s plan for him. Worrying about his mental health but knowing the voice is right, Carlos runs away to the United States and manages to secure a job with his favorite celebrity chef. As he works to improve his skills in the kitchen and pursue his dream, he begins to fall for his boss’s daughter—a fact that could end his career before it begins. Finally living for himself, Carlos must decide what’s most important to him and where his true path really lies.

Review: Adi Alsaid excels at building a world. Whether Carlos is exploring his new home with Emma or at a party or in the kitchen at Provecho, it is easy to imagine the world he moves through. The kitchen itself is a highlight, filled with strong personalities and amazing food descriptions. Starting each chapter with an ingredient list for a recipe (for a dish that usually, if not always, showed up in the chapter) was a fun touch and an easy way to remind the reader just how much food and cooking mean to Carlos.

The interactions between Carlos and his hallucinations of Felix were one of the best parts of North of Happy, especially since it gave Carlos the opportunity to question what he actually wanted out of life. Deciding that his father’s plan wasn’t for him was the beginning, but that’s far from deciding on a direction that he actually wanted for his life. The pushes that Felix gave to Carlos were just as important as the times that Carlos pushed back, and it was great to see Carlos deciding for himself what would and wouldn’t make him happy.

There were two main weaknesses in my opinion: the lack of screen time for the relationship between Carlos and his father and the underdevelopment of Emma. I never really got enough of a close look at Carlos’s father to be able to fully understand why he was at such odds with both their sons. This undermined the conclusion of his arc for me since it made the ending feel at least partially unearned. Emma’s character was never allowed to flourish for me; or at least, I craved something deeper from the book on her behalf and didn’t feel like I ever quite got it. She swung very close to the Manic Pixie archetype at times and spent many of her interactions with Carlos as his unwitting therapist. That said, there were several excellent scenes between Carlos and Emma that gave Emma depth, and the culmination of her arc was a (mostly) pleasant surprise for me.

Finally, I do wish there had been some kind of overt mention of Carlos getting help for his mental health at the end. (If it was there, I missed it.) He was hallucinating his dead brother for months, struggling with depression, etc., and while Carlos does admit to not being entirely okay, it would have been nice to see him working toward getting him the assistance he still needs.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you have an interest in the culinary arts. While there are a few missteps in the book, Carlos is an engaging narrator whose story is likely to resonate with a lot of people. If you’re in the mood for a book about grieving and growing up, this will probably hit the spot.

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Review: Radio Silence

Title: Radio Silence
Author: Alice Oseman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Genre:Contemporary, LGBTQIA
Pages: 496
Review copy: Library loan
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: You probably think that Aled Last and I are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and I am a girl.

I just wanted to say—we don’t.

Frances Janvier spends most of her time studying. When she’s not studying, she’s up in her room making fan art for her favorite podcast, Universe City.

Everyone knows Aled Last as that quiet boy who gets straight As. But no one knows he’s the creator of Universe City, who goes by the name Radio Silence.

When Frances gets a message from Radio Silence asking if she’ll collaborate with him, everything changes. Frances and Aled spend an entire summer working together and becoming best friends. They get each other when no one else does.

But when Aled’s identity as Radio Silence is revealed, Frances fears that the future of Universe City—and their friendship—is at risk. Aled helped her find her voice. Without him, will she have the courage to show the world who she really is? Or will she be met with radio silence?

Review: 
They don’t fall in love. This was one of the things I appreciated about Radio Silence. Aled and Frances share a love for the podcast Universe City. They are both creative and enjoy spending time together, but not in a romantic way. Frances’ mother asks if there is something more happening, but they don’t want or need that type of relationship with each other. The book does include some couples, but romance isn’t the focus for the most part. I loved the time spent getting to know the characters and seeing their friendships develop.

From the U.S. cover, you wouldn’t know it, but Frances is mixed-race with a white mother and an Ethiopian father. Frances doesn’t know much about her Ethiopian culture and wishes that was different. That isn’t something explored very deeply, but it’s part of her story.

Another aspect of the story is the issue of expectations around university attendance. Frances, Aled, and their friend Daniel are all on a trajectory leading directly to university. This is something Frances has been highly focused on for years without questioning the plan. As a teacher, I know we encourage students to think about college even in elementary school. This story challenged that expectation in many ways. It also challenged the assumption that academics trump the arts because one will not get you money in the end.

Finally, Frances and Aled both have mothers who are active in their lives. Frances has a mother who encourages independence and experimentation and Aled has one who is quite the opposite. I’m always looking for adults in young adult books who care for teens and treat them with respect so I was happy to meet one of these moms. She also has a unicorn onesie and I have to say that made me smile.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you enjoy books about relationships and finding your path. Also, if you like a bit of quirky in your novels. There’s quite a good helping of quirky.

Extras:
Interview with Alice Oseman on Rich in Color
Trailer

Alice Oseman Reads Radio Silence

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Author Interview: Alice Oseman

Having grown up believing college was an expectation, Radio Silence was quite an interesting story line for me and I enjoyed thinking about the alternative paths one can take. Today we welcome author Alice Oseman as she answers questions about her novel and her writing.

Can you tell our readers a bit about Radio Silence
Radio Silence follows the story of Frances Janvier, a high-achiever who has worked all her life to get to Cambridge University. But she has a secret – when she’s not obsessively studying, she’s a huge fangirl of a YouTube podcast show called Universe City. Frances thinks she knows what she wants out of her life – grades, university, money, happiness – but then she meets the creator of Universe City, and everything changes.
 
What do you love most about Frances and Aled?
My favourite thing about Frances is her childishness – she isn’t afraid to make herself look silly and just have fun. My favourite thing about Aled is his creativity and how much he dedicates himself to his creative projects.
 
Tell us how you really feel about university. Can you share a little about how your opinion was shaped?
I grew up thinking I was destined for Oxbridge, but failed to get in when I applied. I’d been a high-achiever my entire life and was crushingly disappointed. When I went to Durham University instead, a university I chose purely because it was high up on the league tables, I had a terrible time, and only realized then that university study probably wasn’t for me. I felt brainwashed into believing that I was a person who I was not by school and my teachers and the entire system of education.
 
I noticed there were several conversations about strong love between friends and even a little push back against characters who seemed to place more importance on romantic love. How deliberate was this or did the characters simply bring that about?
I, as a writer, am simply tired of romantic love being presented in Young Adult fiction as a priority, or even as something common. The truth is, very few people meet the ‘love of their life’ in their teenage years, but Young Adult fiction as a whole seems to present the idea that everyone meets their soulmate in their teens. I think there are a lot more interesting and realistic things to write about teenagers.
 
Which writers have been inspirational for you?
I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without Bret Easton Ellis (despite all his faults), or without J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
 
Why is diversity in young adult fiction important to you?
It’s very important to me that all young people can see themselves in the books they read. We live in a very diverse society, and that should be reflected accurately in our literature.
 
And just for fun – do you have a Batman, unicorn, or otherwise unique onesie?
I have several – Batman, a teddy bear and a giraffe!

 You may find Alice on Twitter, Tumblr, Youtube, Instagram, Blog, and her Art Blog.
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