ARC Review: Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

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Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Pub. date: March 14th, 2017
Publisher: Salaam Reads
Format: E-galley
ISBN: 9781481492065 
Source: Netgalley

Thanks so much to Salaam Reads and Netgalley for providing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

Summary: Now that Amina is in middle school, it feels like everything around her is changing. Her best friend Soojin has started hanging out with another girl and is considering changing her name to something more “American”, her dad’s brother is visiting them from Pakistan for the first time so she needs to be on her best behavior 24/7, she’s forced to participate in a Quran recitation competition at her local community center, and she desperately wants to participate in the Winter Choral Concert but is too shy to sign up for it. Meanwhile, tragedy strikes as their mosque is vandalized, leaving Amina and her community utterly devastated. 

I haven’t read a lot of middle-grade fiction since well before middle grade ( I was the annoying kid that thought it was only cool to read ‘above’ her reading level and no adult told me otherwise), and it’s such a delight to pick them up and read them as an adult. Hena Khan has woven such a vibrant story with these babies at the heart of it, filled with warmth and leaving you with hope.

The first thing that struck me while reading this was how early in their lives non-white kids in the US and other white-majority countries begin to experience microaggressions and racial stigma. Their environment is made up of people that view them as “other”, including the white kids in their schools. Soojin’s story arc of wanting to change her name to one that would be easier for white Americans to pronounce particularly stayed with me. I didn’t even have to grow up in that kind of environment and three years of people in the States mispronouncing my name drove me batty, but to be a small kid whose environment moulds her into thinking the solution to the conundrum is assimilation (because of systemic white supremacy) is both rage-inducing and heart-breaking. I know a lot of people (in India) who make fun of desis in the States for shortening or changing their names, but they never ever take into consideration the extent of this name-fuckery that POC experience which lead to that decision. 

There are a lot of relationships fleshed out and explored in the story- particularly the family ties. There is a familiar ring to the conversations among members of Amina’s family. I loved that Amina and her brother are very supportive of each other. Amina is still at the cusp of adolescence and by nature quieter, but her brother is thrust into the chaos of self-discovery with basketball and peers on the one side and his parents and their expectations n0t to abandon his culture on the other side. This was extremely relatable, especially in the context of Asian families, and I don’t think that dissonance between these cultural values and what my parents called “modern thinking” ever goes away. At the same time, the parents are not portrayed unfairly- they’re loving, caring, and a little strict, but have their kids’ best interests at heart. The arrival of Amina’s uncle throws some complications in their first-gen family, and their khaatirdhari (hospitality) is so familiar. Guests are considered an equivalent to god, so even with family members hosts will go out of their way to make sure their guests are respected and always comfortable. 

Another thing that I was really glad to see was that Amina and her brother do not abhor or reject their culture. Often times second/third gen Asians are portrayed as rejecting, mocking or hating their cultures (said cultures are also portrayed as old-fashioned, whacky, or straight up weird), and this portrayal either seems like pandering to white people or just written from this white gaze. While Amina is probably a little too young and the typical rebellion we see against religion and culture is seen with older kids, it feels good to read about South Asians without the “backward” shadow. Culture and religion are complicated, and they’re a part and parcel of the Asian culture, so in reality it is almost impossible to disassociate from that without a thought. When crisis strikes with the mosque being vandalized, it is hard not experience horror at the event, especially with the story being built around Amina’s family and the extent to which their lives are tied to that community. However, it was encouraging to watch the community come together in the face of blatant Islamophobia, with the help of supportive allies, not to let the violent act tear them and whatever they’ve built down, leaving readers with hope at the end of it all.

The theme of identity and self-discovery are maintained throughout the book, and explored with the storylines of multiple characters. None of the characters were one-dimensional, and even with the multiple storylines, were written wholly human. This is a very empowering story, and exposing kids to stories like this one is very crucial if we’re to fortify them with the tools to be aware of diversity in experiences, backgrounds, and cultures and dismantle systemic bigotry. 

-J

 

Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

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Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Pub. date: January 2014
Publisher: Intisar Khanani
Format: Ebook
Author’s website: http://booksbyintisar.com/

 

 

Princess Alyrra does not see the appeal of being royalty. Deprived of the luxury of making choices, with no power to stand up against her cruel brother, calculating mother, and a contemptuous court, she has spent her life avoiding the spotlight. THen she is forced to marry someone she doesn’t even know (for political reasons), and is being shipped off to a foreign land with very little hope that things are going to get better for her. On her journey there though, her party is attacked, and a magical spell switches her identity with another woman. Once she reaches her destination, she is assigned the lowly station of a goose girl, and for the first time in her life, has the freedom to make her own choices: either fight for her rightful identity and subsequent future with this prince she’s never met, or start off fresh in this new life, as Thorn. However, she becomes increasingly aware that there are some dark forces in play in this new kingdom, and becomes acquainted with the prince, and the choice she needs to make is tied to some serious consequences. 

Here’s the first reason I loved this book, it’s a retelling of The Goose Girl by the Grimm’s Brothers. I love retellings, particularly fairy tale retellings. There’s so much beauty in playing around with them, especially since a lot of them are written by white dudes, and let’s face it, could use some color. 

The second reason I loved this book, and why I also love retellings, is that it is an opportunity to flesh the characters out and give them more dimension. Which is exactly what Intisar does. Alyrra doesn’t just carry out her duties as the goose girl, but she becomes involved in the lives of the other servants she has to live with. Intisar does a phenomenal job describing the political and social unrest, using many scenes to depict issues of classism, how people who didn’t grow up in palaces had so many other odds to contend with. There is a scene where one of her new friends is assaulted, and despite her friendship with the prince and seeking his help, Alyrra is unable to get help from them. Meanwhile, the locals dealt with the attackers by implementing their own form of justice, because they had no expectations that the law would care for those that were underprivileged. The power dynamics and imbalance between Alyrra/Thorn and the prince are also explored in multiple scenes and interactions between them.

Another relationship that gave me both joy and crushed me was Thorn’s relationship with Falada, a strong-willed talking horse (though nobody other than Thorn knows about the talking part). Another character that was just a caricature in the original, Initisar portrays Falada as a loyal companion and dispenser of sagely advice, and the bond between the two of them is strong.

As for the writing itself, the prose is beautiful, even though world building is slow and took me a little while to comprehend. It all flows together. The magical and sorcery aspect isn’t something that leaps out of the page as bizarre, because it is woven into the world and belongs there. Alyrra’s character is a beautiful example of nature vs. nurture, of a victim that ultimately saves herself, as a result of her very best qualities which are the ones that were developed and not inherited.

Here’s my third and probably most favorite thing, the relationship between Alyrra/Thorn and Prince Kestrin. You can watch it develop through their interactions. It’s pretty obvious that he knows she’s the princess, even though he hasn’t quite worked out how her identity was switched. Given all that has happened, it is only natural that Alyrra/Thorn is extremely wary of the prince and basically everyone in the court, which is why she is extremely reluctant to accept help from him, and he doesn’t push her. There’s various points in the story where we get to see Kestrin’s POV, where instead of trying to save her, he tries to guide her to save herself. This relationship between two strangers isn’t one of immediate romance, but one that is a combination of mutual understanding and slowly developing trust. Even in the end, it’s not all neatly tied up, as evidenced by these lines:

“I take a step forward, so that I am barely a handspan away from him, and rest my other hand on his chest, feeling the rise and fall of each breath. “I have no doubt of it,” I say, because I cannot yet tell him I love him, because we need more time without games and deceit between us to find such love.”

This book left my heart singing, so I’m immensely grateful to both Jenny and Memory for recommending it to me. Thank you, friends. I’m of course now an absolute fan of Intisar Khanani and will of course be devouring everything she’s ever written in the near future. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#DAReadathon TBR

I have several issues with the lack of diversity in the world of Harry Potter, especially with the kind of crap JKR has been putting us through this year. But I think you’ve known me long enough to know I can’t resist a readathon, especially one that is focused on promoting diverse books. I’ve been mulling over my reading goals for 2017, and it only seems fitting to kick it off with a readathon highlighting diverse books, organized by an awesome blogger. The details are right here, and I’m excited to be repping team Slytherin!

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Aentee has given us eight awesome prompts, and I’ve picked one book each in order to rack up some sweet house points:

expectopatronum

everyheartdoorway

 

I haven’t read a lot of books repping ace characters, and it is totally for lack of trying. I’m making more of an effort and have found quite a few titles, so I’m reading one that has been recommended to me the most from all corners of the interwebz. 

 

 

expelliarmus

undertheudalatrees

 

It’s safe to say that I’ve discovered plenty of gaps in my reading, so many that I’m not actually sure I’ll get to all of them in my life, but I’ll be damned if I don’t keep trying. So for this category, I’ve picked this highly acclaimed title which hits both titles by Non-US/European authors and features lesbian characters. 

 

protego

lolitatehran 

 

This book has been sitting on my shelf for months; I only bought it because the premise sounded interesting. A quick scroll through Goodreads indicated that this is highly acclaimed, so I’m using this readathon as an excuse to crack this beauty open. 

 

 

reducto

hidden-figures

 

You guys, my body is so ready for this movie. I can’t explain what it means to see women of colour nerds on screen. It is going to be glorious, and you bet your bottom dollar I need to read the book before I go see it on screen. 

 

impedimenta

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I keep picking this book up and I’m never in the right mood to read it, but I’m thinking having a print copy will help me this time. I know it’s a slow burn and there’s a ton of world building, but I have mad respect for the author and I’d really like to finally be hooked along with the rest of you. 

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It’s really simple, my library hold finally came through, and I need to read it because the holds list is a mile long. Also, I’ve heard so many good things and I’m having serious FOMO. THAT COVER IS EVERYTHING. *heart eyes for days*

 

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This book has been recommended to me by both Naz and Bina, which made it the perfect pick for this prompt. I’m knee deep in my need for intersectional feminist works, so this automatically made the list for that as well.

 

 

 

 

Right, those are my picks. Looking for more options? Allow me to direct you to Naz’s blog, where he gives us more than 60 awesome options for the readathon prompts. Excited to see everyone’s picks, and looking forward to start off the year reading fantastically inclusive books! 

-J