Review || A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

Genre: YA Contemporary | Diverse Rep: Muslim MC (#OV)

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a beautifully-written, heartbreaking story of a closed-off Muslim teen girl, Shirin, who starts a new high school the year after 9/11 and unexpectedly falls for her lab partner, a white boy named Ocean. While the core of the plot revolves around their romance, the book does so much more than follow two teens falling in love. This book introduced me to the world of break dancing and drew me back in time to the days when AIM was the way you talked to people after school. Ultimately, this book is about what it means to decide to open up to people around you, no matter the cost, and how one person can change the course of another’s life, permanently.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is the ultimate quiet YA.

Because it’s told in first person, we’re deep inside Shirin’s perspective, feeling what she’s feeling. Yet, since it’s told in past tense, we get the sense that Shirin is telling this story at a distance of some unknown amount of time. As I read, I imagined an older Shirin, maybe in her twenties, looking back on the first time she fell in love. The subtly of this writing style really added to the depth of the story.

The stakes here are ultimately related to Shirin’s internal struggle: to open herself, or to stay closed off.

As a white person who grew up in the safety of Christianity, I have no idea what it’s like to live as an openly Muslim person, especially in the turbulent years right after 9/11. Through reading this story, though, I can understand more of Shirin’s perspective. She and her family have moved more times than she can count, which means there’s little point in becoming attached to other people. On top of that, she’s accustomed to nearly daily micro-aggressions from people who misunderstand who she is and what she represents.

Sometimes I really wanted to smack some sense into Shirin, especially the more she gets to know Ocean. His character makes such a beautiful contrast with hers: while she pulls away from feelings, from connection with other people, he opens himself up, even when it means getting hurt. Yet it’s clear that Ocean feels safe to do this because he can’t imagine how his world would react to him being with a Muslim girl. As the story progresses, as some of Shirin’s worst fears come true due to her relationship with Ocean, I began to understand even more why she tries to avoid getting caught up in relationships with other people.

That being said, Shirin really grows as a character, and I loved watching that progression.

It’s not that Ocean changes her, but being with Ocean changes her. Because of her relationship with him, she learns that yes, sometimes white people are ignorant. But sometimes, they really want to learn, they just don’t know how. Sometimes people aren’t judging you as harshly as you think they are. Sometimes, she realizes, you’re judging people even more harshly than you believe they’re judging you. This was absolutely a beautiful, yet subtle transition to read.

There truly is so much to appreciate about this story, and I think each reader may take away something slightly different.

As someone who was in middle school when 9/11 happened, I really appreciated that this book takes place in 2002. Mafi does a great job of really setting the scene of the early 2000s, from the musical references (and the iPods!) to the reliance on limited texting and AOL Instant Messenger as a form of communication between teens. I vividly remember how excited I was when my parents finally got dial-up and I could chat with my friends after school. I remember when each text message cost money, so I had to limit my communications in that way. I remember how my iPod became my best friend at a certain point—so I could completely connect with Shirin on this level.

By far the most powerful element of this book is the #OwnVoices Muslim rep.

Shirin is constantly mis-read as a terrorist, simply because she chooses to wear hijab. At multiple points, different characters suggest that maybe it would be easier for her if she just stopped wearing her scarf, which makes her a target for harassment, micro-aggressions, slurs, and more. Yet each time, Shirin continues to be herself. In her character, I was able to see how wearing hijab is itself an act of bravery, particularly in a place like America, with so much Islamophobia.

Overall, do I recommend?

Through Shirin’s character, I realized that the act of being yourself in a world that despises you is in and of itself revolutionary. Although it was incredibly heartbreaking to see Shirin mistreated constantly throughout this book, I came away with a deep emotional connection to her story. This is a book I cannot recommend highly enough to all types of readers, regardless of background, religion, race, or creed. But don’t just take my word for it: read this #OwnVoices review by the lovely Chaima and see for yourself.

Have you read A Very Large Expanse of Sea or do you plan to? what’s your favorite quiet ya with diverse rep? let me know in the comments! Until next time,

Review || The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

Genre: Fantasy | Diverse Rep: West Asian setting + Muslim (#OwnVoices)

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

34814099The City of Brass is an epic historical fantasy novel that follows Nahri, a 19-year-old con artist from Cairo, as she discovers that she’s the last descendant of a powerful djinn healer family. With the help of a protective former Daeva slave, Dara, Nahri journeys to the magical city of Daevabad and integrates herself into the ruling family. As she gets to know Ali, the second son of the Qahtani king of Daevabad, Nahri must decide where her loyalties lie and what she will do in order to survive.

I haven’t read a fantasy story in a long time, so the depth of world-building saved this book for me.

As a white American, I’m not familiar with the Islamic myths that Chakraborty draws on, but I loved the seamless weaving of myth and fantasy. We learn about the world of djinn through Nahri, a presumably human girl who gets swept up in a war she doesn’t fully understand. Through Nahri’s perspective, we learn about the different magical creatures and the basics of Daevabad’s political factions.

There were lots of surprises in the story, from Nahri’s background, to the action scenes. The combination of 18th-century Egypt with the mythical world of Daevabad was absolutely stunning.

That being said, I cannot review this book without admitting the mis-balanced pacing.

The beginning of the book is description-heavy as the reader is thrust into an unfamiliar world. We’re still getting to know who these people are and learning new terminology, which often threw me out of the story. On top of that, the entire first half of the book is a long and arduous journey from the human world to Daevabad…and I’d almost lost hope of Nahri and Dara ever arriving.

Of course, once we arrived in Daevabad, I was absolutely hooked. While the first half of the book dragged, the second half seemed to fly by as I got sucked into the political intrigue. The one thing that kept me going in the first half of the book were Ali’s chapters. I really connected with his moral struggle: he believes in equality, yet he’s trapped in a family of pureblood maniacs who care more about keeping their power than doing the right thing.

In fact, one of the best things about this story was the fact that most of the characters are morally gray to some extent. Nahri comes from a background of stealing to survive; Dara murdered countless people during his time as a warrior and as a slave; and Ali chooses his family’s political views over his moral feelings time and time again. Pretty quickly, we learn that Dara and Ali are diametrically opposed, yet it’s not clear that either of them is fully right or wrong. Dara and Ali both have different views of history that affect their current worldview, which acts as an interesting parallel to real life.

My main complaint was that I wasn’t invested in Nahri’s relationship with Dara.

I get that they went through this huge journey together, and that Dara admires her because she’s descended from the people his people have always served…but I just didn’t buy the fact that she was so loyal to him, that she defends him in spite of everythingincluding his borderline abusive treatment of her, which she writes off as just how he is. I don’t think Dara is as evil as the Qahtani family makes him out to be, but I definitely think Nahri is smart enough to see through Dara’s facade.

That being said, I loved the friendship between Nahri and Ali. It starts out with them both using each other for their own ends, but the friendship that develops is so genuine and real.

One of the strongest elements, and something I hope is explored more in the next book, is the racism within Daevabad.

The pureblood djinn are divided up into different tribes who tolerate, but also insult each other. Beyond that, most djinn are incredibly racist against shafit, or non-pureblooded djinn. The shafit live in segregated areas with fewer resources, often living in abject poverty. Meanwhile, the Daeva tribe both looks down on everyone else and convinces the Qahtani rulers to provide them with extra security—all based on the fact that, before the Qahtani family won the throne, the Daevas and the Nahid healers were in charge.

Despite being a book about Islamic myths, though, I’m not convinced that this is the best Muslim rep that’s out there. Since this isn’t my lane, I’m linking to two different #OwnVoices reviewers so you can decide for yourself. I highly suggest you read both Fadwa’s review and Chaima’s.

Overall, do I recommend:

I really enjoyed reading this book. I haven’t read a fantasy in a long time, and this one really sucked me into the world and had me rooting for the characters. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

—find this book—

Goodreads | AbeBooks | Book Depository

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Have you read The City of Brass? What are your thoughts? What is your favorite fantasy series? Let me know in the comments!

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Review || A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum

Genre: Contemporary Fiction | Diverse Rep: #OwnVoices Palestinian immigrant family

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I received an ARC of this book through my work. While I am grateful for the opportunity to review, this in no way influences my opinion of the book.

Content Warnings: misogyny, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, sexual violence, death.

IMG_0595In A Woman Is No Man, three generations of Palestinian-American women struggle to find a sense of self in a culture that treats women like wallpaper. Fareeda holds her family together in the new world of America; Isra submits to her husband and worries about a future for her daughters; and Deya yearns to go to college instead of getting married.

It should be noted from the start that this book is in no way meant to represent all Arabs/Muslims.

In fact, one of the major characters points out that other Arab families allow their women more freedom. In the author’s note to my edition, Etaf Rum remarks that by even writing this book, she’s violating the code of silence in her community; she worries that the world will take this as further reason to discriminate against Arabs. But remaining silent wasn’t an option for her, and I’m so glad she decided to write this book in spite of her fears.

I was so excited to read an #OwnVoices book about Palestinian-American immigrants.

For one thing, it seems that Americans avoid talking about Palestine whenever possible, and this book encouraged me to do more digging. For another thing, I firmly believe these kinds of stories are so important—not only to break the code of silence, but to remind us just how real these issues still are, right in our backyard so to speak.

The use of 3rd person limited to show each woman’s perspective was incredibly effective.

While it’s a character-driven story, the slight distance from the minds of downtrodden characters adds to the story, rather than detracts from it. Reading the perspective of Isra, a mother of four whose husband is physically abusive, would’ve been even harder had we been fully immersed in her mind. I also loved every single reference to reading (the author runs an amazing bookstagram that I highly recommend). Throughout the story, reading is the way that younger women are able to visualize a culture and way of life that’s different from theirs. They’re able to imagine going their own way, whether it’s having adventures or actually falling in love, rather than being forced into an unwanted marriage right out of high school.

I can’t lie: this book was hard to read.

Every time I picked it up, I got sucked back into a world where women can’t go out alone, even just to walk around the block; where reading is dangerous and motherhood is one’s only solace. What was amazing, to me, was how Etaf Rum carefully revealed why the family operates the way it does. Fareeda and Khaled grew up in refugee camps, first in tents and then in concrete shelters. They didn’t have running water and they were barely able to pay bills. They make it to America, where they have a better life, but neither of them truly leaves their old life behind. Fareeda worries that America will spoil her children and grandchildren, so of course she holds onto her culture as tightly as she can.

I loved getting to see inside the minds of three generations of women.

Each of the characters has a reason for her silence and submission to what’s expected of her, yet each of them rebel in their own ways. Isra remains silent, allowing herself to be beaten if it means protecting her children, but she rebels through reading books that her sister-in-law brings home. Deya sneaks off to visit her long lost aunt and comes to understand her own power in shaping her future. Even Fareeda, the grandmother, stands up for herself the only way she knows how, and she’s the one who holds her family together. We see how the culture is toxic for men as well, through Adam’s slow deterioration under the pressure of supporting not only his wife and children but his siblings and parents.

Still, the story ends on a bittersweet yet hopeful note. It’s clear that there is hope for the future, but the women in the story have to learn to make their own destiny—even when it comes at a high price.

I will be shouting about this book for a while. I want my friends to read it, and my family too. I want this story to be read as widely as possible, so that hopefully change will come for women like Fareeda, Isra, and Deya.

-find this book-

Goodreads | B&N | IndieBound


Have you read A Woman Is No Man? Are you participating in the 2019 Year of the Asian Reading Challenge? What are your favorite books with Arab/Muslim rep? Let me know in the comments!