Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion: A Review

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra RehmanCorona, Queens in the 1980s is changing as the area’s first wave of primarily Italian immigrants are replaced with Pakistani family’s like Razia Mirza’s. The tension between the old and new in the neighborhood is palpable; the criticism clear as carefully tended gardens turn to weeds in the hands of new tenants and change keeps coming.

That tension between old and new is familiar to Razia Mirza. As the daughter of Pakistani immigrants who herself feels increasingly more American than Pakistani, Razia sees that same tension in herself; in her own life. Being a kid in Corona felt easy. Razia could understand the dimensions of her childhood even while she chafed against the narrow boundaries of her role as a “good girl” and a respectful part of her Muslim community.

But now, like her neighborhood, Razia is changing. She buys miniskirts from thrift stores, she listens to music her mother would call wild. Then she gets accepted to Stuyvesant all the way in the East Village in Manhattan where, for the first time, Razia feels like she has the space to be who she wants to be and not who her parents expect.

When her deepest friendship at Stuyvesant blossoms into something bigger, Razia has to decide if she can reconcile her family, her heritage, and her faith with the future she is chasing in Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion (2022) by Bushra Rehman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Short, vignette-like chapters unfold Razia’s story from early childhood into adolescence. For an even more immersive reading experience, check out the audiobook read by the author. Be aware of a few incidents of animal violence (mostly off page, but described after the fact) throughout the book if that’s a point of concern for you as a reader.

Vivid descriptions bring Razia’s world to life as her sphere slowly expands from the careful influence of her conservative parents into the punk scene surrounding Stuyvesant’s East Village neighborhood. Razia’s first person narration hints at larger stories unfolding with the circle of girls and women that comprise the Pakistani-American community in Corona but the tight focus on Razia’s experiences leave many plot threads open to interpretation by readers as they unpack Razia’s experiences alongside out protagonist.

Although romance in the conventional sense doesn’t appear in the story until the final act, Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion is a love story at its core. Again and again, Razia’s world expands as she discovers learning whether it’s at school, borrowing books from her local library, or gaining a deeper understanding of what her faith means to her while reading the Quran with her mother and other female community members at regular Vazes–religious parties–in the neighborhood.

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion is a tantalizing window into one girl’s life as her world starts to expand, creating a friction between family obligations and personal growth as Razia tries to reconcile her own wants with the expectations of her family and community. Richly detailed prose bring Razia–and New York City–to life alongside provocative feminist themes of agency and freedom; this book and its author are ones to watch.

Possible Pairings: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, All the Rage by Courtney Summers, All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir, The Girls in Queens by Christine Kandic Torres, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Frankly in Love by David Yoon

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things: A Review

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya PrasadFour sisters, four seasons, four romances as Nidhi, Avani, Rani, and Sirisha Singh find love at their family home, The Songbird Inn, which just happens to be the Most Romantic Inn in America.

As the oldest, Nidhi is always the sister with a plan. That is until autumn crashes onto Orcas Island with a sudden storm that brings a tree crashing through Nidhi’s bedroom wall. Once Nidhi starts thinking about what could have happened, she can’t stop wondering if her perfect plan to study baking in France before starting college is perfectly wrong. Getting to know Grayson–one of the construction crew fixing the storm damage–brings even more doubts as Nidhi starts to imagine a future where she lets herself live in the moment and maybe even discover India for herself instead of only hearing stories about it in family stories.

Avani knows that she can seem scattered and flighty–especially to perfect Nidhi–but the truth is if she stops moving she thinks the grief over Pop’s sudden death last year might overwhelm her. Pop was more than their dad’s husband, he was part of what made the inn and their family so special. So when it’s time for the first winter without him, Avani knows she has to throw the perfect Winter Ball in his honor. Except planning a giant party requires a lot of attention to detail. And a lot of help. Which is how Avani ends up working with Fernando Gutiérrez, the boy she accidentally stood up and has been avoiding ever since.

Painfully shy, Sirisha has always been more comfortable hiding behind a camera and letting her older sisters fill in the silence. But when a cute actress named Brie shows up at the Songbird with a seasonal theater troupe in the spring, Sirisha thinks it might be a sign to make some changes and finally speak up for herself. If only everyone would give her time to find the right words.

Rani loves all things love. Which is why it has been so frustrating watching all of her sisters–even her twin Avani!–find love while she languishes alone. Helping her father plan his next wedding is the perfect preparation for Rani’s own shot at love. But what happens when summer comes to the Pacific Northwest bringing not one but three potential suitors? After acting as the official love guru to all of her sisters, Rani will have to follow her heart if she wants to find her own Bollywood-worthy ending in Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things (2022) by Maya Prasad.

Find it on Bookshop.

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things is Prasad’s debut novel. Set over the course of the year, the story is broken up by season–complete with a wealth of seasonal touches and locales–with a close third person narration following each sister on her own personal and romantic journey.

The Singh family is North Indian and cued as Hindu with love interests who are from a variety of backgrounds including Mexican American Fernando, Black Brie, and more. I especially appreciate the care Prasad takes with the girls’ father–a man who immigrated with his wife (their mother) from India, met Pop–a white man–while opening the Songbird, and has his own journey both in love with Pakistani Amir and with his family including relatives who were slow to accept his second marriage to a man.

Through the different relationships this book explores first love, second chances, missed connections, and what it means when feelings change and grow. With lots of humor and a coterie of popular tropes Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things has a romance for everyone while highlighting the empowerment the genre offers despite the ways that it is often dismissed by mainstream media as “fluffy” or “silly.” Emotional arcs including grief over Pop’s sudden death and reconciliation with estranged relatives contrast well with humorous meet-cutes and other shenanigans the Singhs encounter throughout the year.

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things is a joyful story about family, romance, and finding yourself–whoever that may be. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, We Are Inevitable by Gayle Forman, What I Like About You by Marisa Kanter, Seoulmates by Susan Lee, Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya Menon, Save the Date by Morgan Matson, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, The Perfect Escape by Suzanne Park, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi, Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Maya Prasad here on the blog.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

You Truly Assumed: A Review

You Truly Assumed by Laila SabreenIn the wake of a terrorist attack three Black Muslim teens find unlikely comfort online.

Sabriya is close enough to the attack in DC that her father picks her up from the dance studio; close enough that Bri, her younger sister, and their father all hold their breaths until Bri’s mother walks through the door. With the news cycle stuck on the attacks, on the terrorist with a name that sounds just Muslim enough for people looking for an excuse, Bri doesn’t know what to do with all of her big feelings about the attack and the aftermath and the way her perfectly planned summer of conservatory auditions is impossible now. Usually she’d write it all down in a notebook but this time she goes to a blog instead. Which changes everything.

Every Muslim in the US feels the ramifications of the attacks, worries about the Islamaphobia it will help justify. But it all feels far away for Zakat in the idyllic Muslim community she has always known in her town in Georgia. Until a childhood enemy is hired at the bookstore alongside Zakat and her best friend. While Aafreen is quick to trust and offer second chances, Zakat can’t help but wonder if this new addition to their social circle has anything to do with the vandalism at their mosque and other hateful incidents. Contributing her artwork to a new blog called You Truly Assumed should be a refuge and a distraction. But it becomes anything but as hateful commenters find the site.

Farah’s summer pushes her way out of her comfort zone. Instead of spending it with her mother, Farah is sent across the country to get to her father and meet her step-mother and half-siblings for the first time. The trip is a chance to explore college options on the east coast and test the waters of a long distance relationship. Farah doesn’t expect to also find community as a co-runner of You Truly Assumed much less as someone helping to plan a vigil after another attack.

As the blog gains momentum and attention Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah will all have to deal with the fallout as they try to make a place for themselves and other Black Muslim teens in You Truly Assumed (2022) by Laila Sabreen.

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You Truly Assumed is Sabreen’s debut novel. Chapters alternate between Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah’s first person narrations. While the three start as strangers in different areas their growing connection brings both the characters and their divergent stories together. These protagonists also help break down the idea of the Muslim or Black experience as a monolith. Zakat, a hijabi, is an aspiring artist attending a Muslim school who is very active in her local mosque. Farah and her mother are Muslim but Farah is spending the summer with her Black father and his family who are Christian while she considers STEM college options on the east coast.  Sabriya comes from a inter-faith household and is weighing the pros and cons of attending college or a conservatory ballet program after high school before the blog takes off.

While the advent and maintenance of the blog is what initially starts the story, each girl has their own arc as the novel progresses with navigating new family dynamics, micro-aggressions, friendships, and romantic relationships. Sabreen balances these multiple plots and protagonists well giving each girl adequate page time to stand out. Questions of how each girl negotiates being Black or Muslim enough in spheres that try to treat the two as mutually exclusive also lead to empowering moments as each heroine comes into her own. Unfortunately the writing doesn’t always do as much work to distinguish between the narrators with the voices sometimes blending together. (I listened to the audiobook and even having three different voice actors as narrators didn’t help.)

You Truly Assumed offers an authentic perspective on what it means to navigate online spaces showcasing both the highs–as Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah form a real friendship thanks to running the blog together–and the lows–when a conservative, alt right site lists the blog for a targeted harassment campaign. The girls’ families are also refreshingly present and, as situations escalate, involved in the resolution including some hard conversations about what happens next. Although Farah is in a relationship for the entirety of the novel, the story remains firmly focused on friendship and community rather than romance.

You Truly Assumed is an empowering story about finding your voice and your community. A must read in these disconnected times.

Possible Pairings: Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali, Girls Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake, Love Times Infinity by Lane Clarke, Does My Body Offend You? by Mayra Cuevas and Marie Marquardt, Until We Break by Matthew Dawkins, Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo, The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Seton Girls by Charlene Thomas

Accidentally Engaged: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Accidentally Engaged by Farah HeronReena Manji’s finance career bores her, her parents are constantly setting her up with eligible Muslim bachelors, her relationship with her sister still hasn’t recovered after her sister blew up Reena’s food blog (in a very bad way). But there is one thing Reena has always had under control: baking bread.

With a complement of sourdough starters, recipes galore, and a fair bit of know-how in the kitchen from her food blogger days, Reena is a whiz at baking bread which, luckily, is the one thing that still lets Reena escape the rest of her problems.

Reena is fully prepared to add new neighbor Nadim Remtulla to that list of problems when she finds out that he’s in Toronto as part of a business deal between their fathers. Except . . . he’s a lot more fun–and hot–than Reena expects a cog in her father’s real estate business to be. Best of all, Nadim seems to love eating her bread as much as Reena loves baking it. Reena has no intention of marrying anyone her parents pick for her, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be friends with bread benefits, right?

When Reena’s career hits yet another roadblock, it seems like the perfect time to enter a TV cooking competition where Reena can prove her chops and win a free ride to the artisan bread course of her dreams. There’s only one catch: the show is for couples who cook together. When a drunken quest for homemade snacks leads to a surprisingly cute audition tape, faking an engagement with Nadim seems harmless. It’s not like her parents or her sister will ever watch the show.

But faking feelings for Nadim in front of the camera, leads to a lot of feelings behind the scenes. As they grow closer, Reena knows her fake fiancé is keeping secrets of his own. She isn’t worried because a fake engagement can’t lead to anything real. Except secrets getting out is almost as inevitable as sourdough starter growing, and feelings–even half-baked ones–make for a recipe that’s hard to ignore in Accidentally Engaged (2021) by Farah Heron.

Find it on Bookshop.

This standalone romance is set in Toronto, Canada. Reena and Nadim are both Muslim. Reena and her family are Indian. Nadim grew up in Dar es Salaam and attended an English boarding school before landing in Toronto which adds layers to his character and his feelings as a twice immigrant. Readers who enjoy Reena’s support system of friends should also check out her previous novel The Chai Factor, which focuses on Reena’s best friend Amira. Accidentally Engaged is a lot of fun on audio as narrated by Soneela Nankani who nails Nadim’s British accent and immediately draws listeners into Reena’s world.

After years trying to maintain distance between herself and her family, Reena is forced to confront how many of her life choices were inspired by wanting to go against her parents and how many might have let her get off track. With Nadim’s unflagging support throughout the competition Reena is able to fully embrace her passion (and talent!) as a chef while finding her way back to her favorite activity. Their new friendship and (spoiler) romantic relationship also help Reena re-evaluate other areas in her life as she reconnects with her family and her heritage. Along the way, Reena also finding healthier coping mechanisms for life’s inevitable curveballs which would previously have her running to the nearest bar.

Heron perfectly balances weightier topics like Nadim’s fraught relationship with his father and the complicated history Reena has with her sister with humor. Accidentally Engaged is upbeat and fast-paced. When I read it last year this book was exactly what I needed to get through a very hard time as I followed Reena dealing with her own challenges (and competitions). Snappy dialog and obvious chemistry between Reena and Nadim make Accidentally Engaged delectable. Be sure to read Accidentally Engaged with a snack (or two) nearby because Heron’s descriptions of Reena’s culinary creations are guaranteed to make your mouth water.

Possible Pairings: Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur, Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake, The Dating Plan by Sara Desai, People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry, Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho, Ayesha At Last by Uzma Jalaluddin, Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim, The Trouble With Hating You by Sajni Patel, The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa

An Emotion of Great Delight: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh MafiShadi means full of joy in Persian but Shadi’s life is filled with personal sorrows. Her brother Mehdi is dead–killed in a car accident. Her father is probably dying in the hospital after his second heart attack; Shadi privately thinks he is getting exactly what he deserves while her mother and older sister Shayda do everything they can to take care of him.

Shadi used to find refuge with her best friend, Zahra. But Zahra has dropped her. The way everyone seems to now.

Shadi knows there are bigger problems in the world. It’s 2003. Neighbors look at her askance because of her hijab. The United States has officially declared war on Iraq. The Muslim community is reeling from news of undercover FBI agents infiltrating local mosques.

But Shadi’s brother is still dead. Her best friend still hates her. She still misses the life she had before.

When it seems like nothing can ever get better, Shadi wonders if she’s found the way her story ends. Until Zahra’s older brother, Ali, makes an overture to renew their friendship. And maybe start a tentative romance.

Trapped in a morass of grief and isolation, Shadi will have to reclaim her right to happiness and peace if she wants to move forward in An Emotion of Great Delight (2021) by Tahereh Mafi.

Find it on Bookshop.

Mafi’s latest novel reads like a time capsule cracked open, immediately drawing readers into Shadi’s life. This quiet story offers an introspective look at Shadi’s experiences as an Iranian American teen in 2003 where her personal dramas play out against the larger backdrop of world events impacting the Muslim community.

Flashbacks to life before Mehdi’s death cast Shadi’s present isolation in stark relief as she hits bottom and slowly begins to realize she has to let go of her anger and grief before it eats her alive.

An Emotion of Great Delight is a sparse story filled with lyrical prose, pathos, and ultimately optimism; a visceral read that cements Mafi’s place in the YA canon.

Possible Pairings: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo, Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne, Ask Me No Questions by Marina Tamar Budhos, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Yolk by Mary HK Choi, All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney, Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo, My Heart Underwater by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, The Love and Lies of Rukshana Ali by Sabina Khan, In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner

It All Comes Back to You: A Review

It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz RishiKiran Noorani has life after high school all mapped out. She’ll stay close to home in Philadelphia for college so she can be near her dad. Being a premed freshman at UPenn will be challenging, of course, but Kiran she and her sister Amira will be able to make up for lost time when they move into an apartment together near campus. It won’t be perfect because Kiran’s mother will still be dead. But it will be close.

Except Amira has been dating someone for months without telling Kiran. Someone she might want to move all the way to California with even though she barely knows him. Kiran wants the best for her sister and she’s already certain this mystery man is not it.

Deen Malik couldn’t be happier when he hears that his older brother, Faisal, has a great girlfriend. It’s no less than Faisal deserves–especially after everything he’s given up for Deen.

Deen is less enthusiastic when he realizes that Amira’s sister is Deen’s secret ex. No one knew when Deen and Kiran dated three years ago. Which is fine. It’s long over between them. But Deen is determined to make sure Faisal’s own romance doesn’t meet the same fate.

While Kiran does everything she can to sabotage this relationship, Deen is just as determined to keep the romance on course. With the two of them so busy obsessing over their siblings’ relationship, will they miss their own chance at closure and maybe something more in It All Comes Back to You (2021) by Farah Naz Rishi.

Find it on Bookshop.

It All Comes Back to You alternates between Kiran and Deen’s first person narrations in the weeks leading up to Amira and Faisal’s wedding. Chats from the MMORPG that Kiran and Deen both play and text messages help flesh out the backstory that broke up their secret relationship three years ago. Kiran and Deen (and their relatives) are Pakistani American and Muslim.

Rishi packs a lot into this story that centers around the whirlwind wedding preparations. Kiran is still grieving her mother’s death the year before while trying to reconcile her premed plans with her love for dance Deen, meanwhile, is struggling to care about his freshman coursework and determined to self-destruct before anyone can expect better of him.

Although the two couldn’t be farther apart in real life, anonymous chats in their MMORPG game Cambria are a touchstone for both protagonists as they pursue their singular goals. Kiran and Deen both mean well and want the best for their siblings. They also both make some really terrible decisions to accomplish what they think is best. Kiran, in particular, is hard to cheer on while she works so hard to sabotage the wedding, expose secrets that aren’t hers to tell, and otherwise make sure Amira stays on the path that Kiran wants her to follow.

It All Comes Back to You is a fast-paced contemporary romance that is as focused on family as it is on second chances. Recommended for readers looking for a new hate-to-love romance and two main characters who have a lot of room to grow throughout the story.

Possible Pairings: Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett, Seoulmates by Susan Lee, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Save the Date by Morgan Matson, Analee in Real Life by Janelle Milanes, Don’t Hate the Player by Alexis Nedd, Charming As a Verb by Ben Philippe, Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad, Last Chance Books by Kelsey Rodkey

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

A Place For Us: A Review

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen MirzaSiblings Hadia, Huda, and Amar could not be more different. It’s always been like this. Their father saw it with the way Amar always saw life as a game where the world was against him. Their mother saw it in Amar’s sensitivity and the questions he asked about Islam as a child.

Now, the family is gathered for Hadia’s wedding–a love match in the face of years of traditionally arranged marriage. Steadfast and dependable Huda is there, always the reliable middle sister. But if Amar will show up, and what state he will be in if he does, remains to be seen.

As the wedding progresses the entire family reflects on the moments that brought them to this moment, together, as well as the moments that quietly and irreparably tore them apart in A Place For Us (2018) by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

Find it on Bookshop.

This ambitious debut novel has shifting perspectives following Hadia, Amar, and Huda as well as their parents in close third person. The wedding serves as a starting point with the story moving both backward in flashbacks and forward after the wedding in a complex narrative.

A Place For Us skillfully balances its large, multi-generational cast and a plot spanning decades to deliver an engrossing family epic exploring themes of memory, choice, faith, and belonging.To talk about any one aspect of the story would diminish the reading experience but even a year after reading it, I feel like there’s still so much to find in this story and so much to learn from these characters.

A Place For Us is all about meeting people where they are, and where they need to be met. And sometimes not making it. Recommended for fans of family sagas and stories where there is more than meets the eye.

Possible Pairings: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Red at the Bone by Jhumpa Lahiri, A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum, Digging to America by Anne Tyler, Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin