Book Review: All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney

All-American Muslim Girl is a 2019 YA novel by Nadine Jolie Courtney. This book was one of my random Barnes & Noble finds while perusing the shelves in the store the other day. (Don’t worry; I didn’t stay long and I had my Scholastic “I ❤ Reading!” mask on.) One fleeting glance at the blurb and a sweep through the opening page, and I knew I’d found “the one” going home with me. This book was exactly the YA #OwnVoices pre-Covid contemporary escape I needed going into the holiday season and day 14 billion of the pandemic.

Allie (short for Alia) is our 16 YO protag. She’s Circassian on her dad’s side and American on her mom’s, so she doesn’t “look” Muslim and can often “pass” as white. That, combined with the fact her dad has pretty much renounced his Muslim heritage in favor of secularism, leaves Allie feeling not quite like the basic white girl she pretends to be at school, yet also hardly fitting in with her own Muslim relatives, either. Just when Allie’s crush, Wells, starts to turn into more than just a friend, Allie feels called to start learning about her family’s faith. It doesn’t help that dating is mostly prohibited (haram) in Islam, AND that Wells’s dad is basically the Sean Hannity/Tucker Carlson/Rush Limbaugh of a conservative, Muslim-hating news outlet. Double whammy.

While the blurb and the beginning of the story might lead one to believe it will center on Wells and Allie’s forbidden Romeo-and-Juliet romance, it was a refreshing surprise to discover this book is, at heart, about faith and family. My favorite element was the friendships between the girls in Allie’s Qur’an study group and their painfully honest discussions about the complexities of Islam, patriarchy, and feminism. The reader learns alongside Allie as myths about Islam are dispelled and beautiful, uplifting aspects of the religion are showcased. Wells’s character definitely takes a backseat as more of a background supporting role while Allie tries to navigate issues of personal identity and what it means to be both a Muslim and an American at the same time. But perhaps the biggest part of the story is Allie’s parents. They’re a superclose family unit at home, constantly supporting her in the best way they know how. While Allie’s dad is miffed that she’s choosing to openly embrace the stigmatized religion he’d always tried to shield her from, we can see where he’s coming from and it makes his relationship with Allie all the more endearing.

If I have one criticism, I feel like the backstory of Wells’s parent’s could’ve stood to be more fleshed out. I would’ve liked to have seen Wells’s dad be someone other than a villain. We all know white men of a certain age who spew out racist talking points in one breath then would give you the shirt off their backs in the next. People are complicated. As much as we might disagree with someone’s politics, the real world is more nuanced than Jack Henderson’s character. I thought that maybe this would be a story about both sides coming around and seeing eye to eye, but I’m naive. America’s too polarized for that story right now. Instead, this is a story of Allie learning how to stand up for herself, speak up for her faith, and accept that not everyone is going to be accepting.

In many ways, All-American Muslim Girl is the American version of one of my favorite Aussie books, Does My Head Look Big in This? Above all, it’s a heartwarming, honest, educational, well-written and timely tale about identity, imperfection, faith, and family. And people of all faiths can, hopefully, relate to that.

Book Review: The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall by Katie Alender

Title: The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall
Author: Katie Alender
Genre: YA Horror/Suspense
Page Count: 336 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Point
Release Date: August 30, 2016

Publisher’s Summary: Delia’s new house isn’t just a house. Long ago, it was the Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females — an insane asylum nicknamed “Hysteria Hall.” However, many of the inmates were not insane, just defiant and strong willed. Kind of like Delia herself. But the house still wants to keep “troubled” girls locked away. So, in the most horrifying way, Delia becomes trapped. And that’s when she learns that the house is also haunted.

Ghost girls wander the hallways in their old-fashioned nightgowns. A handsome ghost boy named Theo roams the grounds. Delia learns that all the spirits are unsettled and full of dark secrets. The house, too, harbors shocking truths within its walls — truths that only Delia can uncover, and that may set her free. And she’ll need to act quickly — before the house’s power overtakes everything she loves. Katie Alender brings heart-pounding suspense, gorgeous writing, and a feminist twist to this tale of memories and madness.

My Thoughts: Everything about this book made me scream YES! From the feminist angle on Victorian attitudes toward “hysterical women” to the flawed MC to the dynamic, multi-layered world-building and intriguing mysteries, twists, and turns pulling me along every page, I was completely entranced by this book from sentence 1. I found The Dead Girls… by googling “YA ghost novels” when I was in the mood for a good ghost story. But what I got from this was SO much more than that. It’s a novel with heart, with emotional resonance, and protagonist who learns and changes–even after she dies.

The intricate afterlife world-building and the physics of how being a ghost works in the time/space continuum had me fascinated. Every detail the author wrote, every passage, contained some further meaning, a purpose, a clue that comes into play later on. It all culminated into a multi-climaxed, beautiful message about life, love, redemption, and our place in the mysterious plan of it all. Characters aren’t always who we expect them to be, surprises lurk around every corner, and the MC, Delia, is always driven by some goal or another that kept me hooked. Yes, the paranormal goings-on were creepy, and so were the ghosts, but they were also people. Souls, with their own personalities and backstories. I grew to care about all of them.

Despite the cover’s bloodied appearance, this is not a gross or gory book, nor is it gratuitously violent. It is, rather, a poignant interpretation of life after death and a soul’s purpose. The end moved me to tears and gave me hope. I think this novel is perfectly brilliant and I gladly add it to my hall-of-fame of all-time favorites.

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Title: Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens
Genre: Adult Fiction, Women’s Fiction
Page Count: 379 pages
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release Date: August 14, 2018

Publisher’s Summary: For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

My Thoughts: I haven’t read regular adult fiction (as opposed to YA or MG) probably since I was in high school—ironically—so I can’t say what really compelled me to download this book, other than the fact I kept seeing it everywhere, and I was in a brooding mood seeking a more serious read. Where the Crawdads Sing is the story of Kya, the “Marsh Girl” who lives alone in the marshes of North Carolina. The author’s expertise on birds and wildlife really shines through this well-written coming-of-age novel, wherein the marsh itself takes on a character of its own. We oscillate between time periods, from Kya’s childhood and coming-of-age, her lovers and losses, and a murder mystery the narrative is leading up to. The third act admittedly dropped me a little by unexpectedly turning into a court drama—I thought I was reading something like Sue Monk Kidd and then it turned into To Kill A Mockingbird—but I appreciate the versatility of the novel. That kept it from becoming one-note.

I really liked Kya and her story. And I’ll confess, the ending put a big, fat Cheshire cat-like smile on my face. I recommend this book to fans of lyrical adult contemporary fiction, environmentalism, and women’s fiction.

Book Review: Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter

I was sick throughout a lot of last winter (2019), and it was the most I could do to lie in bed and listen to audio books. I discovered Mary Anderson’s free reading Pollyanna through LibriVox, and was hooked from Chapter 1. Pollyanna Whittier is an optimistic little girl who has endured great trials in life but always manages to keep a positive attitude by playing what her father called the “Glad Game.” No matter what, she finds something to be glad about. When she is orphaned and must go to her mother’s hometown to live with a stuffy old aunt she’s never met before – who, despite her large estate, makes Pollyanna sleep in a hot attic – Pollyanna is perpetually glad.

The story is told in third-person omniscient, rotating from the maid’s point of view, to the aunt’s, and to various other characters’, as well as Pollyanna’s. One by one, sweet, young Pollyanna begins to change the lives and attitudes of every person she encounters in the town until, toward the end, when she finds herself in a bad situation, the whole town rallies behind her. This is a beautiful story about the difference one life, one child can make, and the power of innocence and positivity. I haven’t loved a classic this much since The Secret Garden, and I will treasure this story for years to come. Thanks to LibriVox for the free recording.

Book Review: Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Title: Song for a Whale
Author: Lynne Kelly
Page Count: 224 pages
Genre: MG Fiction
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 5, 2019

Publisher’s Summary: From fixing the class computer to repairing old radios, twelve-year-old Iris is a tech genius. But she’s the only deaf person in her school, so people often treat her like she’s not very smart. If you’ve ever felt like no one was listening to you, then you know how hard that can be.

When she learns about Blue 55, a real whale who is unable to speak to other whales, Iris understands how he must feel. Then she has an idea: she should invent a way to “sing” to him! But he’s three thousand miles away. How will she play her song for him?

Full of heart and poignancy, this affecting story by sign language interpreter Lynne Kelly shows how a little determination can make big waves.

My Thoughts: This is easily one of my all-time favorite MG novels. From the get-go, we immediately root for Iris, a twelve-year-old girl who is deaf and loves to repair broken radios (symbolic, in a way). Iris is the only deaf student in her school, which makes her feel unheard and like an outsider. She wants to go to the all-deaf school, but her parents fear that sending her there may disconnect her from them. When Iris learns about a whale who speaks at a frequency that no other whales can hear or understand, she feels an incredible compassion and affinity. She begins to work on a project that will show the whale, Blue 55, that he’s not alone. But everything from distance to school and her parents is determined to keep her from her goal of reaching Blue 55.

I wept…a couple of times…when I read this novel, and immediately bought copies for several of my loved ones. This story really moved me and I enthusiastically recommend it to readers of all ages.

Editor’s Review: Nocturnal Meetings of the Misplaced by R.J. Garcia

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*I was the editor of this novel for The Parliament House Press.

Nocturnal Meetings of the Mispalced (The Parliament House Press, 2018) by R.J. Garcia is my favorite book I’ve edited to date – and one of my all-time favorite novels ever. This unputdownable debut blends my favorite elements of YA, horror/mystery, small towns, a group of friends, and a creepy, but at times also humorous and romantic, Stranger Things vibe to create one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.

The story is told from the POV of Tommy Walker, a fifteen-year-old boy whose mom has a drug problem and can no longer care for him and his little sister. They’re sent to live with a kind, young uncle and aunt they’ve never met before in the small town of Summertime, Indiana. There, Tommy befriends his neighbor, Finn – a lovable, geeky, and incredibly brave Ron Weasley-esque boy, who was easily my favorite character. Finn’s stepdad is a flawed and abusive man…and he’s also the town sheriff.

Tommy begins meeting up with Finn and Finn’s friends, two girls named Silence and Annie, at late-night meetings in the woods. However, these meetings quickly turn from lighthearted to sinister, as the misfit group begins to unravel clues to a cold case local murder and kidnapping that had happened decades ago. No one believes them, but the kids are in danger. And Summertime holds darker and more personal secrets than Tommy ever could’ve imagined.

I honestly can’t praise this book enough. It’s a haunting and phenomenal story, with unforgettable characters – even the side ones – that I still think of from time to time. If you’re looking for a solid read with an empathetic, young male lead, a small-town murder mystery, deadly secrets, complex characters, and a hint of humor and touching YA romance, you need to add Nocturnal Meetings of the Misplaced to your TBR, like, yesterday.

Book Review: Alterations by Stephanie Scott

“The internship was all kids my age who were here to sharpen their talents. They wanted to create the next wave of fashion. And I’d lied to them. I was lying to all of them.” – 23%

Alterations (2016) is a YA novel by debut author Stephanie Scott, and I’m going to jump right in and gush that I LOVED EVERY PAGE OF THIS BOOK! Dare I say it was even better than Anna and the French Kiss? The NYC parts of it reminded me of New York Dolls too, but for a younger audience.

The story is about a sixteen-year-old Miami girl named Amelia Blanco (my grandmother’s maiden name! I know, not relevant; I just thought it was cool). Mila is bright, spunky, witty, and an insanely talented seamstress and fashionista. She has tons of followers on her fashion Instagram account, and one of her dearest hobbies is creating secret Pinterest boards pertaining to fashion fantasies revolving around her crush.

Mila’s crush? None other than the charming and super-popular Ethan Laurenti, of the wealthy Laurenti family, for whom Mila and her mother and Abuelita work – and also on whose estate they live. Mila, her mother, and her grandmother are essentially “the help.” When Mila realizes she got accepted to the most prestigious fashion internship in the country, she doesn’t want to leave her dreams about getting together with Ethan behind…but this is New York City, baby! In New York, Mila makes fantastic new friends, realizes the cost of her fantasies over a boy she hardly knows, and ultimately finds herself and her dreams for the future. The story could’ve easily ended there, but when she returns to Miami a woman anew, it was nowhere over – it ONLY GOT BETTER!

Cue a special new relationship with Ethan Laurenti’s a-dork-able, geeky twin brother, Liam; a reality TV show being filmed at the Laurentis’ estate; and a new project designing a fashion app with the computer-genius but fashion-challenged Liam, and the story evolves into one of the sweetest and most heartfelt, clean teen romances I’ve read in a while! Parts of this book had me laughing out loud, actually tearing up, and especially shouting, “AWWWW!” to my Kindle at the preciousness. I loved Mila’s enthusiasm, inspiration and ambition for fashion, loved her Latina heritage, and I especially loved her ability to ‘get real’ with herself and her friends. She is a protagonist worth rooting for every step of the way, as is this sparkling novel! This is a book I’ll be recommending for a long time to YA enthusiasts and readers of chick lit everywhere!

Memorable Quotes

“’If you set a goal for yourself, then you’ll push harder. It’s not about winning against somebody else. It’s about pushing yourself to do what you thought you couldn’t.’” – 19%

Beyond the deck, gridded streets with hundreds and thousands of buildings towering at different heights, each filled with people with their own dreams.” – 39%

“…maybe I’d fallen for someone who didn’t exist.” – 39%

The lies ripped like fabric, only the fabric was me. I no longer wanted to be this scared little girl, afraid to step out, afraid someone might not like me. Afraid I might fail. Hiding behind daydreams and fantasy Pinboards. The fantasy was just that and nothing else. Des was right. I needed to get real.” – 40%

‘I’m not sure I can trust someone who doesn’t know which Hogwarts House they’re sorted into.’” – 59%

“’Don’t forget yourself in helping all these other people. You have dreams, too.‘” – 86%

Book Review: Luna by Julie Anne Peters

I found this book while browsing the Barnes & Noble teen bestsellers online. I had never seen or heard of it, but was drawn by the mysterious cover and the National Book Award Finalist badge. I’ve never read a book about a transgender person before, and the minute I sampled the first page, I was sold.

Luna is the story of Liam/Luna, a high school senior and boy genius who has always known he was meant to be a girl. The story is narrated, however, by his younger sister Regan, Liam’s only confidante. At night, Liam transforms into Luna, playing dress-up in Regan’s bedroom with her make-up and clothes. Regan loves her brother and does everything to protect him from the cruelty of a world that doesn’t understand him, but it costs Regan her relationships with her parents and friends. When Liam begins to discuss “transitioning,” Regan doesn’t get what it means at first. She doesn’t know how to feel when she realizes that Liam’s dream is to become Luna full-time.

I was amazed by the pain and struggle to find acceptance that most transgender people must endure. My heart really went out Liam, and to Regan who had to keep his secrets. The only reason I give this book 4 and not 5 stars is because there were several loose ends when the story was over that I would’ve wanted to see tied up. I wanted Regan to work things out with the family she babysat for, would’ve liked to see her open up more to her love interest, Chris, and we never really did learn much about Regan’s dreams or plans for her future after high school. Although Regan is the narrator, we walk away knowing far more about her brother than about her. Overall, this is a well-written, true-to-life, and heart-wrenching story that explains and helps draw a powerful bridge of compassion for transgender people.

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

This YA book was not what I was expecting! At least not when it started. I’d seen it on shelves for years, but I think I was expecting a haunted orphanage, third-person sort of fairy tale. When I began reading, I wasn’t prepared for as lovably flawed of a narrator as Jacob Portman, a wealthy Florida teenager who’s trying to get fired from his job. The writing was excellent and the book was, to steal a word from author Aimee Easterling, unputdownable. I was addicted to the story about the strange photographs of creepy children Jake’s grandfather kept, and how Jake witnesses his grandpa’s grisly and mysterious death, and especially his therapy sessions with Dr. Golan, after which Jake and his dad agree to visit the Welsh island of Cairnholm where Jake’s grandfather had once lived as a WWII child refugee.

Riggs’s writing is some of the best I’ve read. The book is enhanced by dozens of strange photographs procured by the author, which help the story unfold and come to life. In the second act, things take a turn for the wackier when Jake discovers a time loop in a cairn and is transported back to September 3, 1940. There, he meets Miss Peregrine -a Minerva McGonagall type of headmistress – and the same peculiar children, all with superhuman powers, from his grandpa’s photographs. This includes the feisty Emma, who was once his grandpa’s sweetheart, but who now has eyes for Jake. The witty dialogue, old-fashioned figures of speech, and U.K. slang really stood out among the new cast of characters, to the point where I felt I could really hear the kids speaking in their accents, each in his or her own unique voice.

I was fairly obsessed with the majority of the novel, until I came to the third act, and it began to play out more like an average YA fantasy novel. I had been more intrigued when Jake was straddling his real, present world and the time-loop world; but once we plunged into the full-fledged peculiarverse, I was ready for a resolution. I don’t plan on finishing this series soon, but I can see why this book is so acclaimed. Ransom Riggs writes with phenomenal skill!

Memorable Quotes

“‘They may love you,’ she whispered, ‘but they’ll never understand.'” – p. 263

“Stars, too, were time travelers. How many of those ancient points of light were the last echoes of suns now dead? How many had been born but their light not yet come this far? If all the suns but ours collapsed tonight, how many lifetimes would it take us to realize that we were alone? I had always known the sky was full of mysteries – but not until now had I realized how full of them earth was.” – p. 338