Book Review: Buried Heart

Title: Buried Heart (Court of Fives #3)
Author: Kate Elliott
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 465 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In Bookstores

Summary: In this third book in the epic Court of Fives series, Jessamy is the crux of a revolution forged by the Commoner class hoping to overthrow their longtime Patron overlords. But enemies from foreign lands have attacked the kingdom, and Jes must find a way to unite the Commoners and Patrons to defend their home and all the people she loves. Will her status as a prominent champion athlete be enough to bring together those who have despised one another since long before her birth? Will she be able to keep her family out of the clutches of the evil Lord Gargaron? And will her relationship with Prince Kalliarkos remain strong when they find themselves on opposite sides of a war?

Review: I enjoyed the first two installments of Kate Elliott’s Court of Five series so I was really looking forward to seeing how Elliott would end Jessamy’s story. Buried Heart picks up moments after the end of Poisoned Blade as Jessamy, Kal, and their families are running from Saryenia after Nikonos pulls a deadly coup and takes over the city. I expected most of the book would focus on Jessamy and Kal working together to unite the Commoners and Patrons and somehow overthrow Nikonos. I have to say I was surprised by what actually happened in the novel. Working with her father, Jessamy and Kal are able to takeover the throne fairly easily at that happens only a quarter of the way into the book. After that, the novel takes on an interesting turn where Jessamy is captured by Lord Gargaron and is separated from everyone she loves. While I hated that Lord Gargaron had the upper hand over Jessamy at one point, but this allowed Jessamy to find an inner strength and leadership ability that she didn’t know she had. It fully allowed her to choose a side and when it came time to fight for Efea, Jessamy was able to use her skills from the Five Court and her new found leadership skills to truly help turn the tide of the war.

One of the many aspects I liked about Poisoned Blade was that we traveled with Jessamy and saw more of the world of Efea, and in Buried Heart we experienced more of the same, but we learned more about the people of Efea (i.e. the Commoners). We also learned more about the customs and beliefs of the Efeans before the Saroese (Patrons) invaded and took over the land. Learning more the history of Efea and it’s colonization, bring a deeper meaning to the novel. At it’s core, through the story of Jessamy, Buried Heart is the story of an oppressed people rising up, and of the privileged people learning how to recognize their role in oppression and working with the oppressed to make change.

Even though Jessamy and Kal spend a lot of time apart in this novel (again) this time it was much more satisfying to me, as in their time apart they grew into the adults they were going to be, and their relationship grew as well. At the beginning of the novel, Jessamy and Kal are so sweet together, but their relationship is much more mature based on their first separation. Kai truly accepts Jessamy for who she is, the good and the ugly, though Jessamy tries to still “protect” Kal’s more innocent nature. It’s sweet at the beginning, but devastating for Jessamy when she must watch Kal make tough choices when he becomes king, a position he never wanted. However, with this second separation, both have to make tough, adult decisions and each lose their innocence in a way. They both change because of their experiences in the war and when they are able to finally come together (if only for a brief moment) they see each other as true equals. I loved that Elliott wrote a relationship that was equally balanced where each of the lovers grew not just together but on their own. Both Jessamy and Kal look out for each other and push each other to be better, which is a very healthy relationship not often seen in many books. The tension between them came from outside sources and these two had to find a way to create their happiness and find a way to be together. To me, that is what made their love story so touching.

There is so much more I could say about Buried Heart, but I would be giving away so much of the story. So I will say this, Buried Heart is a fitting end to a wonderful trilogy that had a beautiful love story, a villain you just loved to hate, complex family drama, and a world that was so complete it felt real, but at it’s heart was an amazing heroine that us readers could root for.

Recommendation: If you have been waiting for this third book to come out you need to run to your nearest book store and buy it. If you haven’t read the Court of Five series, you also need to run to your nearest book store so you can begin the adventure and read the whole series in one sitting!

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Review: The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

The Epic Crush of Genie LoTitle: The Epic Crush of Genie Lo
Author: F.C. Yee
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 336 pages
Publisher: Amulet Books
Availability: Available now!

Summary: The struggle to get into a top-tier college consumes sixteen-year-old Genie Lo’s every waking thought. But when her sleepy Bay Area town comes under siege from hell-spawn straight out of Chinese folklore, her priorities are suddenly and forcefully rearranged.

Her only guide to the demonic chaos breaking out around her is Quentin Sun, a beguiling, maddening new transfer student from overseas. Quentin assures Genie she is strong enough to fight these monsters, for she unknowingly harbors an inner power that can level the very gates of Heaven.

Genie will have to dig deep within herself to summon the otherworldly strength that Quentin keeps talking about. But as she does, she finds the secret of her true nature is entwined with his, in a way she could never have imagined… [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Way back in 2016 (feels like a millenia ago, huh?), this tweet by Zen Cho about a new book came across my dash. And because I’m easily persuadable, I was immediately on board. The bit about the heroine becoming powerful enough to “break through the gates of Heaven with her fists” was my jam.

Imagine how psyched I was when, over a year later, the book came out and I saw mentions of the monkey king. Sun Wukong in YA lit? Hell yes. Get me some toast, because this was even more my jam. I know I say this a lot, but this book did not disappoint.

The heroine Genie Lo is a super motivated elite SF prep student with her eyes on nothing but the prize – Ivy League glory and a better life. When new kid on the block Quentin Sun shows up and tell her that she’s really someone straight out of Chinese mythology, she has to step up to bat to defend the people she loves against a host of monsters. Genie’s character – cynical, motivated, yet unwaveringly protective of her friends and family – is what drives the story and kept me reading through the night. And it was awesome to see how she clashed and then worked with Quentin.

Speaking of Quentin… I’m not going to spoil anything. But, also, that reveal of who Genie was? I laughed, then had to take a reading break while I digested what had happened. That was amazing.

Basically, this is a must-read for everyone. But if you’re Chinese American (or, like me, Taiwanese American), this is a next level absolutely-no-excuses-must-read. There were so many moments that I knew all too well — like the relief of seeing your mom get to have a meaningful conversation with someone else in Chinese and be happy. Not only that, I’m from the Bay Area and attended a super competitive, majority (86%!) Asian school growing up. What Genie was going through was a hauntingly familiar creature.

Now I’m just rambling. Look, just put The Epic Crush of Genie Lo on your reading list. You’ll love it, I promise you. And if there’s going to be a sequel, someone tell me ASAP.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

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Book Review: Little & Lion

Title: Little & Lion
Author: Brandy Colbert
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 330 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In Bookstores Now!

Summary: When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.

But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself–or worse.

Review: I’m just going to say this from the start – I loved this book! I had a smile on my face the entire time I was reading it because I loved Suzette so much. I loved her messiness, her doubts, her loves, but most importantly I loved the relationship she had with her brother, and the importance it had in her life. Little & Lion is not a light-hearted story by any means but it does have wonderful touching moments between Suzette and a number of other characters that make Brandy Colbert’s second novel a deeply moving story.

As I said before the heart of the story is Suzette’s (Little) relationship with her step-brother Lionel (Lion). The two are only a year apart and have an extremely close relationship. At the beginning of the book, their relationship is a bit in the awkward stage as Suzette is returning from the boarding school she was sent to by her parents while Lionel began the initial stages of treatment. Suzette feels like she abandoned Lionel and hopes that their relationship remains the same. I like that the story begins with Suzette and Lion together and we get a chance to see their bond pick up where it left off when Suzette left for school 9 months earlier. The easiness that the two had, the love for each other, just emanated off the page. The two share intimate secrets and truly trust each other so much that Suzette was the first to spot something was wrong with her brother when his mania begins to start after he stops taking his medicine. This decision brings much personal conflict for Suzette as she believes her brother is making a mistake, but because of the guilt she feels for being away while he was going through treatment she keeps his secret. It is Little’s love for Lion that is the heart of many of the decisions she makes and what really draws me to her.

While Suzette is dealing with her brother’s issues, she is also in the process of discovering her own sexuality, specifically realizing that she is bisexual. At her boarding school, she developed a relationship with her roommate, Iris, that unfortunately had a heartbreaking end. Suzette blames herself for the break-up, but also wonders if she was just attracted to Iris because of who her roommate was or if she is actually attracted to girls. Coming home further confuses her when she begins to have feelings for her close male friend Emil. The confusion, the questioning that Suzette felt was very real and written in a such a manner that tenderly shows the internal turmoil discovering one’s sexuality can be for a teenager. Luckily, Suzette is surrounded by a supportive best friend and a loving family, and because of this is able to safely navigate her feelings and explore this realization of herself. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say I like the choice that Suzette makes and feel that it is very true to her character and her growth throughout the novel.

I greatly enjoyed Colbert’s debut novel, Pointe, but I think I love Little & Lion more. I think what made me smile was that Colbert adds spots of “wokeness” where Suzette responds to racism, sexism, ignorance to bipolar disease, and the misconceptions about bisexuality. Those moments didn’t feel preachy at all, but an example of how folks should respond when faced with prejudice. What also made me smile was the all the wonderful touches to life in Los Angeles throughout the novel. As an Angelino (yes, that is what we are called) seeing all the local places and hidden gems mentioned just added to the beauty of the novel. All of these aspects combined made for a novel that I truly loved and stayed with me long after I finished reading it. I want to know what happens next with Suzette and travel with her in the next phase of her life.

Recommendation: Buy It Now!

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Group Discussion: Want

Want by Cindy PonWant by Cindy Pon
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? [Image and summary via Goodreads]


Welcome to the Rich in Color group discussion of Want! Mild spoilers ahead:

Jessica: Let’s all take a moment to appreciate that amazing, super gorgeous cover. *gazes dreamily*

Audrey: It’s a gorgeous cover. *admires it with you* I’m especially fond of the light reflections on the helmet.

K. Imani: I like the cover as well. I think it captures the futuristic feel of the story and Jason perfectly.

Jessica: So the moment Want was on my radar, I knew I had to get it because, you know, I’m Taiwanese American so the fact that it’s a YA sci-fi thriller set in Taipei, Taiwan made it very relevant to my interests. So much of the book felt real to me and my experiences – the places named, the food, just the general vibe of Taipei. The way the story was so rooted in a real life place made the futuristic stuff, like the suits that filtered out pollution, feel very real, too. What was your take on the setting?

Crystal:  The setting is one unfamiliar to me, but that was appealing. I’m always looking for books set in other countries so I can travel vicariously. It’s a whole lot cheaper. In some ways, the pollution was the most significant thing about the setting though.

Audrey: I loved the setting. Near-future Taipei was great–I’ve never been to current-day Taipei, though I have seen pictures of it (including the famous night markets). Cindy Pon did a great job of painting a picture of the city for someone who doesn’t know much about it, particularly in describing the huge gap between the world of the rich and the world of the poor. One of the things I really like about science-fiction, especially the near-future variety, is seeing how tech and culture are extrapolated (voice- and thought-activated everything, flying cars, etc.). Pon did a great job of this, and I enjoyed learning more about the world of Want.

K. Imani: In a number of my writing workshops/classes, setting has always been stressed to almost be a character itself, and in WANT I felt like it totally was. The way Pon described the city, I could clearly see, and actually see the city dying because of the smog. I felt for not just all the people living there but all the plants and animals that were slowly dying as well. The way the buildings were described just broke my heart. The fact that the city was a character also truly emphasized how if we don’t take care of our planet, our entire society is affected, not just the humans.

Jessica: Yeah, if I were analyzing this in English class, I’d totally say something nerdy about how there’s another omnipresent character in Want – and that’s the pollution of Taipei itself. Even when Zhou is in the world of the you society, the absence of the pollution is felt as well. Considering that global warming is a very real threat right now, this made Want feel almost too current. Did you feel that the future portrayed in Want was a possible take on our own near future, or more of a distant what-if dystopian scenario? Maybe a little of both?

Crystal: I totally agree about the pollution being another character. It’s there lurking everywhere. The fact that people can’t get away from it without spending significant amounts of money is always there too. I hope this is a distant what-if, but some of the tension of reading the book is knowing that this type of situation could be a possibility for our future.

Audrey: I have the dubious pleasure of living along the Wasatch Front, and due to the geography of the area, we get thick blankets of smog in winter and summer that turn the sky yellow-brown and can make the mountains disappear on especially bad days. (I grimaced in sympathy whenever Zhou or Daiyu mentioned never being able to see the mountains from the city–it happens several times a year here.) Most of the time when the weather report is given on the radio, they include an air quality report and whether any action is recommended/required. It’s not Want level yet, but the quality of the air is a not-insignificant concern where I live. Currently waiting for masks to become a thing on bad days.

K. Imani: Oh, I definitely feel that if we aren’t careful with our air and work to end pollution, the world of Want is a possibility. As Audrey said her weather report includes air quality reports and the same is a given in many cities across the world. I feel like Want is a cautionary tale in that aspect; giving us warning as to the future that we are leaving for our children. Daiyu’s grandfather (I think it was) remembered blue sky which means that the world of Want is not too far removed from our current society. I feel Pon did a wonderful job of extrapolating what the future could be if we don’t take steps now to reverse pollution.

Jessica: Global warming was the elephant in the room in Want, but there’s definitely other issues presented that are either evergreen or relevant to what’s going on today – like the wealth gap, portrayed through the have’s and have not’s (you and mei) of Taipei. I was really struck by the added complexity added to the issue through the (SPOILER ALERT) introduction of the mass produced suits that were really meant to spur consumer spending by those who couldn’t afford it, and the way it was both a conspiracy to harm people and a transparent PR stunt. What did you all think of that? Were there any social issues portrayed in Want that jumped out at you?

Crystal: Want takes a good look at the environment, but the economic issues were also significant. The wage gap in the U.S. is on the increase and I think this too struck a little close to home. I saw it especially in the access to healthcare for Zhou’s mother and others. There are basic human rights that are violated many times over.

K. Imani: I agree with you about the access to healthcare too; that really hit home for me. I feel like that lack of basic healthcare for the meis was a great example, like the debate happening in our country right now. In addition to the corporate greed on display, this novel truly shows how if we let it get out of control, our world will have dire consequences.

Audrey: One of the things I enjoyed most about the exploration of the gap between the you and the mei was that Zhou could be appalled by the excess and frivolity of the you while also craving the comforts he had in a privileged position. He got used to breathing good air and having money to throw around–but he also got frustrated by all the ways the you just didn’t understand that there was a problem. The interview with Angela at the end–where she flat out says she cares about the pollution now because it finally affects her–was very telling. Environmental justice, affordable healthcare, government corruption, profits over people–all of those issues were important in Want, and I was happy to see them tackled head on.

K. Imani: So agree about Angela’s interview as it reflected real words I’ve heard certain followers of a certain unpopular president say as they realize that now they are affected by his policies. It just shows how comfortable people are in their privilege and don’t think about others. I’m glad that Pon pointed this belief out and hope that it makes people become more empathetic.

Jessica: Agreed. On a lighter note… Zhou! His introduction screamed ‘bad boy’ to me in the best possible way. I kept wondering how Zhou was going to turn it around and make things right with Daiyu, so I just loved the plot twist at the end regarding her.

Crystal: The whole romance portion of the book made my heart happy.

Audrey: I actually took a screenshot of the dedication–everyone loves a bad boy who plays with knives–and sent it to some of my friends, who definitely agreed. I loved that Zhou was apologetic about kidnapping Daiyu and did everything he could to not freak her out too much while he waited for a ransom. His conflict about getting close to her after the memory wipe was great–as was that plot twist. I was so happy since I spent the whole book basically waiting for Daiyu’s heart to be broken.

K. Imani: I loved the plot twist as well because it said a lot about Daiyu. I mean, I already thought she was kick ass, and when the plot twist occurred I was so happy. They were definitely equals in that relationship and I loved that they both challenged each other.

Jessica: Okay, so… books! There were a lot of bookish references in Want, ranging from A Wrinkle in Time to The Count of Monte Cristo. I particularly loved the mention of The Count of Monte Cristo, since it was so on-the-nose. Were there any book references that you liked in particular?

Crystal: I too loved the inclusion of so many book references throughout the story. Zhou really stole my heart in many ways and that was one of them for sure. And what a mix – Roald Dahl, Beverly Clearly, and Poe among others. His reading was certainly eclectic. I also liked that Dream of the Red Chamber was mentioned. I had never heard of it, but when I looked it up, I found out it’s basically the most famous Chinese novel ever. It’s twice as long as War and Peace with about 40 main characters. One of them is named Daiyu. So being a librarian and curious, I dug around and found this cool quote from the first chapter of The Red Chamber that’s been translated this way:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.

Kind of interesting when reading Want.

Audrey: I’m a sucker for a badass bookworm, and Zhou fit the bill. Jessica, I loved The Count of Monte Cristo reference, too, and had half been expecting that to be part of Zhou’s covering being blown. Crystal, I also loved how widely read Zhou was–I could recognize most of the references, even if I hadn’t read the books in question. It made me wonder what books from today would be worthy of being considered classics a hundred or so years from now.

K. Imani: I had the same thought, Audrey, of what books would be considered classics in the future. I actually loved that Zhou was a book nerd and even quoted some books. It made me love him even more. I especially like how he actually had read diversely and that we were introduced to some new authors. I actually learned about Cao Xueqin, the author of Dream of the Red Chamber, a few nights after I finished the book and now I totally want to read it as well.

Jessica: Yes! Do it! I read part of Dream of the Red Chamber in college for Chinese lit class, and it was super fun… but also very confusing. Confusing but fun.

Crystal: Aside from introducing me to a lengthy, but cool book I might attempt to read in the future, Want also introduced me to Jay Chou. Some of the characters were listening to one of his ballads so I had to chase down his music to play while I finished that chapter. Pure loveliness.

Jessica: A movie I’m really excited about right now is Crazy Rich Asians, which is absolutely not whitewashed and, well, the book was amazing. So it’s gonna be great. Reading Want and its vivid description of a glitzy and gritty future Taipei made me want a movie version of this soooo bad. I’m pretty psyched for the future when it comes to Asian representation in media. The next book I’m looking forward to, now that I have read and loved Want, is American Panda by Gloria Chao. Also, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo (!!) which is out now and I need to read ASAP. Do you all have any upcoming YA books that speak to you in particular?

Crystal: I’m interested in Calling My Name by Liara Tamani. I spent my high school and college years in the Bible Belt of Texas and attended a conservative church. Taja is a young teen from Houston in similar circumstances so I’m looking forward to that story. I’m also super excited to read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor and They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera. There are more, but the list is getting out of hand.

Audrey: I just bought Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson, which came out earlier this year. I’m super excited for Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, Love Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao, and Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore.

K.Imani: This is a tough question because I just want to read all the books, but I am looking forward to the sequel to Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper, Shadowhouse Falls, as well as Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor. I also bought a number of British YA books when I was in London so I’m really looking forward to reading those books.

Jessica: Exciting! *busily organizes to-read list*


If you haven’t read Want already, definitely go out and grab a copy – it’s amazing. And if you have, what were your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!

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Review: Rebel Seoul

Title: Rebel Seoul
Author: Axie Oh
Genres: Science fiction, romance
Pages: 400
Publisher: Tu Books
Review Copy: ARC received from publisher
Availability: September 15, 2017

Summary: After a great war, the East Pacific is in ruins. In brutal Neo Seoul, where status comes from success in combat, ex-gang member Lee Jaewon is a talented pilot rising in the ranks of the academy. Abandoned as a kid in the slums of Old Seoul by his rebel father, Jaewon desires only to escape his past and prove himself a loyal soldier of the Neo State.

When Jaewon is recruited into the most lucrative weapons development division in Neo Seoul, he is eager to claim his best shot at military glory. But the mission becomes more complicated when he meets Tera, a test subject in the government’s supersoldier project. Tera was trained for one purpose: to pilot one of the lethal God Machines, massive robots for a never-ending war.

With secret orders to report on Tera, Jaewon becomes Tera’s partner, earning her reluctant respect. But as respect turns to love, Jaewon begins to question his loyalty to an oppressive regime that creates weapons out of humans. As the project prepares to go public amidst rumors of a rebellion, Jaewon must decide where he stands—as a soldier of the Neo State, or a rebel of the people.

Pacific Rim meets Korean action dramas in this mind-blowing, New Visions Award-winning science fiction debut.

Review: I knew I needed Rebel Seoul in my life the moment I heard it compared to mix of Pacific Rim and Korean dramas, and I was not disappointed. There were giant robots, fight scenes, complicated (and angsty) family relationships and (ex-)friendships, questionable loyalties, rebellions, and a lovely romance—basically, author Axie Oh delivered everything I had hoped for.

Jaewon was an excellent narrator whose position in life gave him a unique look at his far-future society. His priorities (getting a decent military placement, using it to leverage himself out of the Old Seoul slums, and just plain surviving) gradually started to shift as he learned more about the Amaterasu Project. It isn’t that he lost his innocence so much as he began to understand that there was a broader world out there with people who were more complex than he originally thought. There were some wonderful moments throughout the book where Jaewon considered someone else’s point-of-view, which radically changed how he saw them.

The world of Rebel Seoul is fascinating. It’s not so far into the future as to be unrecognizable, and the classic divide between the haves and have-nots that’s common in dystopian-ish worlds was there. But one of the things that Oh did well was that this brutal government is frequently just as awful to its elites as to its poor, and being rich or from an important family isn’t as good a shield as its frequently portrayed to be. (Hello, first test! And mandatory military service for everyone, though privilege and excellent scores could get you less dangerous positions.) We got just enough detail to have an idea of how this militaristic superstate formed, and I liked how much it felt like this was a society that had been at war for decades. That kind of society made a good contrast for drama among more intimate relationships, like classmates, friends, neighbors, and romantic partners.

I have a weakness for “forbidden” romance, so Jaewon and Tera’s budding relationship was a delight. My favorite parts about it where how it developed out of time spent together and Jaewon’s empathy. He could have kept his distance—should have kept his distance from a girl raised and experimented on to become a weapon—but his empathy made him view her as a person first, not a tool for the exclusive use of his government. These two have become one of my favorite battle couples in YA.

There were a few plot twists that I felt were too easily predicted and a few characters I wish had been fleshed out, but overall Rebel Seoul was one of my favorite reads this year. It is a book set in a messy, complicated world without easy answers or neat resolutions, and I loved it.

Recommendation: Buy (pre-order!) it now. Axie Oh’s debut novel is a phenomenal mix of science fiction and romance set against a militaristic dystopian society. Rebel Seoul’s compelling characters and fast-paced plot means that this will almost definitely be on my year-end best-of list.

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Book Review: Saints and Misfits

Title: Saints and Misfits
Author: S. K. Ali
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 352 pages
Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In bookstores now

Summary: 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?

Review: There is so much I can say about Saints and Misfits that I almost don’t know where to begin. I guess at the beginning, which is when we meet the monster in Janna’s life. The moment we met the monster was so unexpected and a hit to the gut. I don’t think I can recall any books where the author puts a traumatic event for the character in the second chapter, but I loved it because it made me realize that Saints and Misfits was a much deeper novel than I anticipated and that it was going to take me on one hell of a journey. The novel moves at a wonderful pace from there as Janna tries to make sense of what happened, while dealing with a member of her community that everyone loves and respects, but Janna is traumatized by. At the same time, she is trying to figure out her feelings towards Jeremy, who actually might like her back. This internal conflict is at the heart of the novel and felt real. Janna is surrounded by family and friends, but holds these two secrets (well one friend knows about Jeremy), thinking she can handle them both, when in reality she can’t, because Jeremy and the monster are friends. Janna often goes from having the good butterflies in her stomach when seeing Jeremy to becoming nauseous when seeing the monster a minute later, but is unable to speak on her feelings to friends and family. Janna is surrounded by love, but at the same time, feels like she cannot express her true self, her true feelings, and feels trapped like so many young women do. I truly felt for her in those moments.

I’ve mentioned that Janna is surrounded by numerous people who love her and that is also an element I loved in the book. I often find in many YA novels that the protagonist is somewhat excluded from their community and/or doesn’t have a good support network. This was not the case in Saints & Misfits. While Janna’s parents are divorced, it’s clear her parents love her in their own way, her brother is working hard to reconnect with her after being away at school, she has a beautiful relationship with her elderly neighbor Mr. Ram, her uncle who is the imam of her mosque, and her two best friends Tats and Fizz. She eventually develops friendships with two female characters, Sarah and Sausun, who are polar opposites, but combined provide Janna the support she needs and ultimately help her find her voice. The fact that Janna is surrounded by such a loving community, while holding her secrets, creates a deeply moving conflict in the novel. It highlights how our community can be a source of strife for people, but at the same time be a place that helps us only if we let it – if we trust others and let them in. It is a beautiful lesson that Janna learns because she believes she is a misfit who doesn’t fit into her community, not realizing that her community does accept her for the way she is. This belief is a common one that many teens have has they search for their identity and Janna’s story is one that will connect with a lot of readers. It’s a beautifully written story that will make readers laugh, cry, and feel like they are part of Janna’s community. In fact, when the novel was over I wasn’t actually ready to leave Janna’s world. I wanted to see where Janna’s growth will take her.

Lastly, I gotta speak about all the kick-ass female characters in this novel. All of them represent the broad spectrum of beliefs/views that women have. They don’t all agree but are respective of each other to accept each other as who they are. With the exception of Janna and Fizz’s argument that ultimately seems to end their friendship, many of the important women in Janna’s life work to lift each other up. Tats is a true friend to Janna, and even though Janna is slow to warm up to Sarah and Sausun, she eventually comes to rely on the older girls for support and advice. Like many teenagers, Janna’s relationship with her mother is a bit strained, but again Janna comes to realize that a lot of her mother’s actions come from a place of love and she learns to be a full recipient of that love. All of these relationships are complex but very real and I loved reading a book that had so many wonderful female relationships.

Saints and Misfits is a wonderful debut novel by S.K. Ali and I can’t wait to read whatever she has coming next.

Recommendation: Buy it Now!

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