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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Book Review: A Crown of Wishes

Title: A Crown of Wishes (The Star-Touched Queen #2)
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 369 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available Now

Summary: She is the princess of Bharata—captured by her kingdom’s enemies, a prisoner of war. Now that she faces a future of exile and scorn, Gauri has nothing left to lose. But should she trust Vikram, the notoriously cunning prince of a neighboring land? He promises her freedom in exchange for her battle prowess. Together they can team up and win the Tournament of Wishes, a competition held in a mythical city where the Lord of Wealth promises a wish to the victor. It seems like a foolproof plan—until Gauri and Vikram arrive at the tournament and find that danger takes on new shapes: poisonous courtesans, mischievous story birds, a feast of fears, and twisted fairy revels. New trials will test their devotion, strength, and wits. But what Gauri and Vikram will soon discover is that there’s nothing more dangerous than what they most desire.

Review:  I really enjoyed The Star-Touched Queen so I was really looking forward to A Crown of Wishes. Initially I was hoping it would be more of Amar and Maya’s story, so I was a bit sad that it was not. However, I do love “sequels” that are not really sequels to a story, but rather the story of a peripheral character from the first book. I do like when authors do that because it gives us more of the world but from a different perspective. We get a sense of the young woman Gauri has become from her and Maya’s brief interaction in the first book. We learn she has become a fierce warrior and is willing to take risks her brother won’t. Outside of that we don’t know much about her, so A Crown of Wishes allows us to learn more about Gauri and so much more. We also learn more about Vikram, the soul whose thread Maya has to make a decision about in the first book. In Crown of Wishes, we ultimately learn what her decision was and how it has affected his life. All that being said, I totally and completely loved the book!

One critique of The Star-Touched Queen”that I had was there was so much description that it sometimes slowed down the story a bit. With A Crown of Wishes, while Chokshi’s signature lyrical descriptions of the Otherworld are there, the strength of this novel comes from the character interactions between Gauri and Vikram. In this novel, Gauri and Vikram both narrate so we get to spend time in each of their heads as they go on the journey to the Tournament of Wishes, and their time in Alaka, where the tournament is held. They begin their relationship as enemies, barely trusting each other. In fact, their first interaction was a delight to read as their chemistry practically flew off the page. Both are equals to each other and treat each other as such, which is refreshing as Vikram doesn’t see Gauri as a “female warrior” but just as a warrior. Both also have emotional walls surrounding them due to the way they were raised, and through their experiences, they eventually learn to open up and trust one another. As they do, the sarcastic barbs between them become less and less, and they become more honest with each other. Again, refreshing as there was none of the “noble idiocy” trope in this novel at all. They truly become a team who works together to solve problems and survive the tournament. Of course they fall in love too, but the development of their relationship is a healthy one full of mutual respect for the other’s skills and their flaws. And as they came to love each other, they were able to grow as individuals as well. Gauri and Vikram’s personal growth and relationship growth is what made this book so wonderful.

Chokshi also added a new character to the narrative who reflects the main theme of the story – personal choice. While the premise of the tournament is to gain wishes, through their experiences Gauri and Vikram learn that wishes cannot solve all problems, and that it’s our choices and how we use them that do. The character, Aasha, is a vishakanya who was taken from her family at the age of 4 and raised to be an assassin. She longs for a different life, however, and her attendance at the tournament allows her that opportunity as everyone, both human and non-humans, are all contestants in the tournament. For her, all she wants is to have choices in life, and through her actions, befriending Gauri and Vikram when it is dangerous to do so, is an example of how our choices matter in who we become, who we believe ourselves to be. I loved her character and I’m hoping that if there is a third book, we’ll have more of Aasha’s experiences.

Recommendation: I was planning on reading this novel slowly, but got so caught up that I did a marathon session. You know what that means, you have to get A Crown of Wishes now!

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Review: Piecing Me Together

Title: Piecing Me Together
Author: Renée Watson
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 272
Genre: Contemporary
Review copy: Library
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Jade believes she must get out of her neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother says she has to take every opportunity. She has. She accepted a scholarship to a mostly-white private school and even Saturday morning test prep opportunities. But some opportunities feel more demeaning than helpful. Like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls. Except really, it’s for black girls. From “bad” neighborhoods.

But Jade doesn’t need support. And just because her mentor is black doesn’t mean she understands Jade. And maybe there are some things Jade could show these successful women about the real world and finding ways to make a real difference.

Friendships, race, privilege, identity—this compelling and thoughtful story explores the issues young women face.

Review: Jade creates stunning collages. She’s an artist turning bits and pieces of color, texture and shapes together. Art has often been one of the ways people explore what they think about the world and sometimes it’s a way to find healing. Jade creates these amazing collages and they are a way she processes what’s going on in her life. It seems like the people who love her make her whole and the world takes her apart. “Sometimes it feels like I leave home a whole person, sent off with kisses from Mom, who is hanging her every hope on my future. By the time I get home I feel like my soul has been shattered into a million pieces.”

This is an introspective book. Jade is a thinker and I loved seeing through her eyes. She puzzles things out and though sometimes she’s hesitant to advocate for herself, Jade has clear ideas about how things should be. She’s also willing to listen to other perspectives. I really appreciated the chapter titled agradecido/thankful. Her friend and uncle have a conversation about a teacher at the local high school who doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Her uncle E.J. explains that they’re celebrating our nation being stolen from indigenous people and how “Columbus didn’t discover nothing.” Jade realizes she’s never given this a thought. She thinks it through and comes to the conclusion, “I think the US has a lot to be thankful for and a lot to apologize for.”

The chapter titles are in Spanish and English. Jade is excited about learning Spanish and tutors some of her fellow classmates because she’s doing well. Jade’s hoping to go on an International trip where she could do some volunteer work. She doesn’t just want to take advantage of opportunities for herself, Jade also wants to be able to contribute to the world. She doesn’t want to always be seen as the at-risk, needy girl. She knows she has things to offer and wants those around her to realize this too.

Aside from the titles, the chapters are also unique because they are sometimes poetic.I found the language to be lyrical and often poetic even when not in poetry form. Some chapters are only a paragraph long and manage to say a lot. Occasionally there are actual poems.

Race is a topic of thought and conversation throughout the book. Jade has several relationships that lead to some intense situations revolving around race. Her mentor, which she has been assigned because she is perceived as needy, is new to the job and sees Jade with a deficit mentality that Jade rebels against. Her new best friend is White and is either deliberately ignoring racist comments and actions or is oblivious. Jade has to decide if these relationships are worth her efforts.

Recommendation: Buy it now. This is a beautiful book that delves into so many aspects of life and is a fantastic story about finding and using your voice.

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Review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

Title: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 464
Publisher: Clarion Books
Availability: Out now!

Summary: The first day of senior year: Everything is about to change. Until this moment, Sal has always been certain of his place with his adoptive gay father and their loving Mexican-American family. But now his own history unexpectedly haunts him, and life-altering events force him and his best friend, Samantha, to confront issues of faith, loss, and grief.

Suddenly Sal is throwing punches, questioning everything, and discovering that he no longer knows who he really is—but if Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was, I think, the first YA book I’d ever read with a gay protagonist. And I will always believe myself forever lucky to have picked that as my first. So the minute I learned that a new book by the same author was coming out, I pre-ordered it, no questions asked.

I think the synopsis says it all. Salvador, called Sal by some and Sally by his best friend, has an incredible bond with his adoptive gay, Mexican-American father. But when tragedy visits him and his friends, Sal has to confront who he is and who he’s becoming.

As expected, the writing is beautiful – detailed, lyrical, heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once. There are certainly moments that could be pegged as problematic, but (and this may be me viewing the book through rose-colored lens) I think the storytelling is nuanced enough to provide different interpretations and perspectives from which to view the events of the novel. I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers.

What struck me was how singular the novel was in one particular way – the presence of family and the incredible father-son bond depicted. In a way, the book doesn’t feel like Sal’s story alone, so much as the story of Sal and his father through Sal’s eyes. I stayed up until 3:00 am reading about this pair and the people who fell into their orbit, and I didn’t regret a second of it.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is a must-read, especially if you loved Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. It’s a story about love – family, friends, and everything in between.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

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Comic Review: Niobe: She is Life

Title: Niobe: She is Life
Author: Amandla Stenberg, Sebastian A. Jones, Art by Ashley A. Woods
Genres:  Comic Book, Fantasy
Pages: 35 pages each
Publisher: Stranger Comics
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available Now

Summary: “What becomes of the child who has lost her spirit?”

NIOBE: She is Life is a coming of age tale of love, betrayal, and ultimate sacrifice. Niobe Ayutami is an orphaned wild elf teenager and also the would-be savior of the vast and volatile fantasy world of Asunda. She is running from a past where the Devil himself would see her damned… toward an epic future that patiently waits for her to bind nations against the hordes of hell. The weight of prophecy is heavy upon her shoulders and the wolf is close on her heels.

Review: Before I get into my review, I have to say that the Niobe: She is Life series is the first ever comic book I have ever purchased. I’ve read graphic novel adaptations of books, but never a comic book series and I was unsure of what to expect. That being said, I wonder if some of my feeling of “incompleteness” has to do with the storytelling structure of comics, or with the series itself. Therefore, I’m glad that I chose to buy the entire 4 book series instead of just the first issue, as I got a deeper understanding of the story with each subsequent issue.

Niobe: She is Life drops the reader in the middle of the story as Niobe is literally running for her life. We gather that she’s running away from her father, and that she wants to kill him, but we don’t know why. Intriguing way to start a story, definitely, with the hope that the rest of the series will fill in the blanks. It somewhat does, but also introduces some ideas that make the story a bit confusing. The comic takes place in a fantasy world called Asunda that is filled with all sorts of different humanoid species such as elves, dwarfs, orcs, mythological beings, and gods and goddesses. I was unsure how all the beings related to each other in the world as there was clearly tension between the young men of the monastery that Niobe finds herself in, however the series did hint at some war between the Orcs and the Elves that I wasn’t too sure was over or was still being fought, and this monastery was some sort of oasis for young people without a home. I feel like I would have love to receive a bit more world-building to the series to fully understand the mythology of the world, the different civilizations/peoples that exist in the world and how they all coexist amongst each other. Niobe is often called “She tribe” and aside from her being a young woman, I wasn’t exactly too sure why the young men called her that. Is that how all Elvish young women are called? Small details such as that, which I can understand might be hard to do in a comic series, would have helped with my enjoyment of the series. All of that said, I still did enjoy the series. The writing and storytelling got stronger with each subsequent issue and by the end I was truly rooting for Niobe.

Niobe is a quiet, but headstrong character who is discovering who she really is and what role she plays in the world. Because of her lineage, she is half-Elvish half something to be determined, she hated but at the same time feared. She is willing to stand up for what is right and is a fierce warrior. When Niobe finally accepts her destiny and gives in to her power, it is truly a great moment with a wonderful unexpected twist that I as totally here for. I loved seeing the main character, a woman of color, fully become and own being the hero to save the day. She is a character that fantasy comics so desperately needed so I’m glad that Stranger Comics decided to publish this series.

Lastly, I must mention the artwork..it is absolutely stunning. The colors are bright and rich which visually brings the world of Asunda to life. Not only is Niobe an intriguing story, the series is also a work of art. Ashley A Woods whose depictions of all the different types of people, their costumes, the animals, the deities, etc, are so detailed and beautiful that it makes the world very real. Woods artwork gives Asunda a mystical quality, almost, as there are many scenes where her brush strokes makes the reader feel as if we are looking at an old world before time.

Recommendation: Overall I enjoyed the series and am looking forward to the sequel that is to come. I will definitely by the next series. And if you want to support WofC authors and artists creating powerful heroines, then go out and buy this comic (buy all 4 issues!)

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Book Review: American Street

Title: American Street
Author: Ibi Zoboi
Genres:  Contemporary, Realistic, Magical Realism
Pages: 336
Publisher: Balzer+Bray
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available Now

Summary: On the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola Toussaint thought she would finally find une belle vie—a good life.

But after they leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration, leaving Fabiola to navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess; the grittiness of Detroit’s west side; a new school; and a surprising romance, all on her own.

Just as she finds her footing in this strange new world, a dangerous proposition presents itself, and Fabiola soon realizes that freedom comes at a cost. Trapped at the crossroads of an impossible choice, will she pay the price for the American dream?

Review: Last week I posted about awesome Black heroines and if I had read Zoboi’s debut novel before then I would have added Fabiola Toussaint to the list. Fabiola is extremely close with her mother and unfortunately, because her mother is detained at customs, she has to navigate her new life in Detroit without her mother’s support. And while Fabiola greatly misses her mother, she has to dig deep within herself to find familiarity with family she has only spoken on the phone with. Fabiola is a bit shy at the beginning of the novel, but through her experiences (and her open-mindedness) she grows and discovers how brave she actually is.

Weaved within Fabiola’s story we get vignettes about the lives of the people in Fabiola’s life, including the story of the house on American Street. These lovely insight to the characters, including antagonist Dray, add to the depth and richness to the characters that live and interact with the ladies of 8800 American Street, and gives the reader a deeper insight into what motives the characters, information that Fabiola must learn. It’s a wonderful literary device that Zoboi uses and is done in a such a way that it adds to the narrative rather than take away from the story.

I absolutely love novels with magical realism, so discovering that American Street was full of magical realism, specifically Vodou and the lwas (spirits), added to my enjoyment of the story. I’m so glad that Zoboi infused her novel with Haitian magical realism because I’ve yet to see a book do Vodou right. Vodou is so misunderstood and is often characterized as evil, when in fact it is the opposite, so I love that the lwas were presented as the religious icons they are. Fabiola’s belief in the lwas is what helps her find strength to live without her mother, adjust to Detroit, and guides many of her decisions. I specifically loved how Zoboi used Papa Legba here and the reveal of who he was was a perfect moment. At that point, just like Fabiola, I was trying to figure out his message and how exactly he was going to help out Fabiola.

Lastly, what makes American Street so truly American is that it is a tale that is told many times over. It is the tale of an immigrant who comes to our country with dreams of golden streets and then must adjust to the reality and contradiction that is America. We get to see ourselves, both the good and the bad, from Fabiola’s eyes. We get to see how wonderful America is and also where we also fail our citizens. But most of all, we are reminded of the hope, the perseverance that all immigrants have (and had) when they arrive here looking for a better life. It is a story that many in our country seemed to have forgotten and need to be reminded of.

Recommendation: This book is available now so run to your nearest book store and pick up a copy.

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