Title: Ayesha at Last
Author: Uzma Jalaluddin
Publisher: Berkley Books
Release Date: June 4th 2019
“A modern-day Muslim Pride and Prejudice for a new generation of love.
Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn’t want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century.
Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and the unsettling new gossip she hears about his family. Looking into the rumors, she finds she has to deal with not only what she discovers about Khalid, but also the truth she realizes about herself.”
“Because while it is a truth universally acknowledge that a single Muslim man must be in want of a wife, there’s an even greater truth: To his Indian mother, his own inclinations are of secondary importance.”
- Diverse P&P retelling – I am currently on the hunt for more P&P and other Austen retellings by and about PoC. Ayesha and Khalid are both Indian-Canadian and Muslim. Both of these identities are essential to who they are as characters and how they move about the world.
- Ayesha – Loved that this novel features an “older” young adult (Ayesha is 27) who hasn’t quite figured out what she wants out of life yet. She’s fallen back on teaching, but her true passion is her spoken-word poetry. Ayesha is opinionated, willing to go toe-to-toe with anyone who might disagree with her, and continuously pushes against conventional expectations.
- Khalid – Khalid is incredibly pious, conservative in his beliefs, and feels a strong sense of obligation toward his family. He comes across as extremely judgmental, but he’s also incredibly honest, shy, and socially awkward. I loved every interaction between Ayesha and him, whether they were at odds or not.
- Nana and Nani – Perhaps the best characters in the novel are Ayesha’s grandparents. These two made me laugh so much. I loved how recalcitrant Nana was, especially when it came to his health and how knowing, yet wise Nani was. Rather than interfering, they allowed the young people in their lives to make mistakes and grow from them.
- P&P quotes sprinkled throughout – Jalaluddin sprinkles P&P quotes throughout her novel. Some of them are obvious like the quote above, but others you might not catch unless you are more familiar with the classic.
- Certain aspects of the conflict – I might be a little vague here to avoid spoilers. I didn’t completely buy into the part of the conflict that required Ayesha to not only believe a rumor about Khalid’s family, but also somehow place blame on him when the alleged misdeed took place when he was barely a teen. I couldn’t reconcile what I knew of Ayesha and this sort of unfair judgement she had for what Khalid did or didn’t do when he was thirteen years old.
- Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last pays homage to Pride and Prejudice without feeling confined by certain aspects. The characters’ struggles feel more relevant in a modern setting and Jalaluddin’s infuses just enough humor and romance to make this a must for P&P fans.
Title: House of Salt and Sorrows
Author: Erin A. Craig
Release Date: August 6th 2019
*I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review*
TW: mention of suicide, stillbirth
“In a manor by the sea, twelve sisters are cursed.
Annaleigh lives a sheltered life at Highmoor, a manor by the sea, with her sisters, their father, and stepmother. Once they were twelve, but loneliness fills the grand halls now that four of the girls’ lives have been cut short. Each death was more tragic than the last—the plague, a plummeting fall, a drowning, a slippery plunge—and there are whispers throughout the surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods.
Disturbed by a series of ghostly visions, Annaleigh becomes increasingly suspicious that the deaths were no accidents. Her sisters have been sneaking out every night to attend glittering balls, dancing until dawn in silk gowns and shimmering slippers, and Annaleigh isn’t sure whether to try to stop them or to join their forbidden trysts. Because who—or what—are they really dancing with?
When Annaleigh’s involvement with a mysterious stranger who has secrets of his own intensifies, it’s a race to unravel the darkness that has fallen over her family—before it claims her next.”
- Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling – There are multiple Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White retellings, but I’ve always been partial to the Twelve Dancing Princesses. Erin A. Craig’s interpretation of the tale is familiar enough for those who enjoy the original, but takes plenty of liberties that will keep readers on their toes.
- The mystery – House of Salt and Sorrows is more plot-based than character-driven and while I usually gravitate toward the latter, I became really invested in the mystery surrounding the deaths of the Thaumas’s daughters.
- Horror elements – I did not expect this one to get so dark, but the lead character Annaleigh has strange nightmares, is troubled by the chilling things her younger sister shares with her about their dead sisters, and eventually begins to see apparitions with nefarious intentions.
- The world-building (for the most part) – While I would argue that the novel could have delved deeper when it came to world-building, there were several elements that I really enjoyed including the mythology of this world.
- Character development – I really wanted to see the characters in the novel grow more, but it never really felt like any of them necessarily changed throughout the course of the novel.
- The first half – I ended up liking the second-half of the novel a whole lot more than the first. It’s not a slow start, but nothing in the first half made it stand out for me and I kept comparing it to the masterpiece that is Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing, my personal favorite Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling.
- Annaleigh’s romance arc – I go back and forth between whether I liked where the author took this storyline or whether it just fell flat for me. On one hand, it felt very fairytale-esque with Annaleigh’s first meeting her love interest and eventually finding out there’s more to him than meets the eye, but on the other hand, I’m not sure this part of his story completely made sense to the narrative.
- Didn’t always feel consistent – I mentioned both the horror elements and the mythology of this world. The problem was these two didn’t always feel like they were part of the same world. With a few changes, I think this would have worked better as a horror novel rather than leaning into the fantastical aspects.
Erin A. Craig’s House of Salt and Sorrow is a solid retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, but it is the dark and morose elements rather than the fantastical that had me wishing it hadn’t tried so hard to straddle two genres.
Title: American Panda
Author: Gloria Chao
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: February 6th 2018
“At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.
With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth–that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.
But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?.”
“But with each burst of energy, I didn’t feel release. Something was different. My feet slipped on the tile that should have caressed my toes and allowed me to turn endlessly. My limbs didn’t feel like extensions of my body—they were burdens, weighing me down and dragging me around. The wind through my hair wasn’t refreshing—it made my head pound with bursts of pain.”
- Mei – I really enjoyed Mei’s voice, found her to be very relatable, and her overall journey to be a really rewarding story to read.
- Growing up and apart from your parents – I really liked that this one not only focused on growing up, but how this sometimes means growing apart from your parents. I think letting teens know that you might not agree with your parents’ values as you grow older isn’t a bad thing.
- Parental expectations vs individual dreams – Mei’s parents want her to become a doctor, but because of her germaphobia, she fears she will never be able to make it through med school. She also has a passion for dance, one that was only supported by her parents when they believed it could help her get into college.
- Sibling relationship – My favorite relationship in this one was Mei’s with her older brother Xing. He’s been estranged from his family and when the two reconnect with one another, it made me unexpectedly emotional. I loved that despite their different relationship with their parents, they find a way to support one another.
- Adult characters also get a chance to learn about themselves – Mei’s character arc is really important, but I loved that she isn’t the only one who learns things about themselves. Several adult characters are pushed out of their comfort zone and while most of them don’t change, it made me incredibly happy to see those who did grow.
- Stereotypes – I mention this only because I’ve seen many reviews complain of the unflattering stereotypes in this novel that involve Mei’s parents and other relatives. They come across as very rigid, unreasonable, and overbearing. I personally believe #OwnVoices books should have the freedom to explore stereotypical characters, but this might be a turn off for some readers.
- Gloria Chao’s American Panda focuses on a Taiwanese-American teen straddling the fence between two cultures and is ultimately a cathartic story about finding out who you are despite all the external voices telling you who you should be.
Title: Love From A to Z
Author: S.K. Ali
Publisher: Salaam Reads
Release Date: April 30th 2019
**Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review.**
“A marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes—because they make French fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.
An oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how ‘bad’ Muslims are.
But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry.
When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break.
Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, ‘nicer’ version of herself in a place where no one knows her.
Then her path crosses with Adam’s.
Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam’s stopped going to classes, intent, instead, on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister.
Adam’s also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father.
Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals.
Until a marvel and an oddity occurs…
Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting.
Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting.”
- Zayneb – I feel a strong kinship to Zayneb and this has largely to do with how angry she is. Often times anger is depicted as a negative characteristic, but I loved that Zayneb’s anger isn’t where she begins and ends. Her anger is often justified and says more about her incredible capacity for empathy. That being said, Zayneb also begins to realize that she is only one person and she has to find that right balance between caring and self-care.
- Adam – I’ll always have a soft spot for soft boys. Adam is such a kind character and I loved his relationship with his little sister Hanna. One of his goals is to make sure she has as many memories of their mother as possible, who passed when her MS took a fatal turn. Adam struggles with his own diagnosis and the lingering fear that his fate might be the same as his mother’s.
- Centering two Muslim characters – I loved that our two leads had very different experiences being Muslim. For Zayneb, her hijab is an immediate indicator of her religion and makes her a target more than Adam. For Adam, he hasn’t experienced this kind of prejudice, but learns to open his eyes to the things that he might not have first-hand knowledge of.
- The way the characters balance each other out – Although I’d argue that Zayneb is empathetic, she does have her blindspots and I think Adam helps her recognize these. For Adam, Zayneb pushes him out of his often complacent safe zones.
- Confronting prejudice head-on – Not only do characters challenge Islamophobia in the story, the narrative challenges readers to confront both the direct and indirect ways this kind of prejudice has all over the world.
- Idealism vs reality – If the novel had ended its story in the middle of the novel, it would have been an incredibly beautiful love story, but Ali leads her characters and story in a different direction, challenging them to see how they both have been viewing each other through idealistic lenses.
- More conflict – I kind of wish the conflict between the two leads would have happened sooner and that it lasted longer. They learn so much about themselves and each other because they are at odds and I wouldn’t have minded exploring this more.
S.K. Ali’s Love From A to Z is an uplifting, thought-provoking, and incredibly satisfying contemporary. If you haven’t had the pleasure of picking up Ali’s novels yet, I highly recommend you do so.