Tuesday Reviews Day: Saints and Misfits, S.K. Ali

I’m addicted to books. I think everyone knows that by now, and I’m sure many of you can relate. The more books I can get my hands on, the better. I’m on my 3rd book box subscription (no, not all at the same time) and I think I might have landed on one I’m really going to love, but the jury’s going to stay out at least until I get Box #02, if not even Box #03.

This box is from PageHabit, a new subscription box for book lovers that donates some proceeds to global children’s literacy programs. While this review post isn’t about PageHabit’s new box, I wanted to give you a quick rundown on it so you can decide if you’d like to try it. A full review might come after I get the second box, at least. The box offers a few different options, so you aren’t limited to YA fiction if you want to branch out. It’s a monthly sub, and the YA box comes in at $29.99/month. It features one book with annotations by the author (who is also the monthly curator), a bookmark, a few assorted goodies, and an informative card about that month’s literacy focus. (June’s was Zambia.)

Anyway, I just finished the book that came in the first PageHabit YA box, and man, what a way to start.

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Saints and Misfits is told from the perspective of Janna Yusuf, a hijabi teenager finishing up the school year amid a flurry of difficult life events.

At school, exams are in full swing and a friend is trying to push her into a relationship with a white guy. He’s nice enough, and respectful of her culture, but he’s not Muslim.

At home, her brother is moving in with her and her mother, and Janna finds herself asked to give up her room for him and share a room with her mom. Her father, meanwhile, is enjoying life with his new family, maintaining contact with Janna and her brother but distancing himself from their religion. Janna gets paid to take her elderly downstairs neighbor to a weekly seniors game night, but his health is failing.

In her religious community, her brother’s perfect girlfriend dominates the scene. At a party celebrating some members of her mosque, Janna is sexually assaulted by one of the guests — an especially devout young man who happens to be not only the cousin of one of her best friends, but also good friends with her brother and her school crush.

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I loved every word of this book. It was occasionally difficult to read, but not in a way that made me want to put it down. It was difficult because I wanted to help. I wanted to tell Janna everything would be okay. I was screaming at the page, “just tell someone! Just tell your friends what’s happening!” But, then, who am I kidding? It’s not that easy, as any victim of sexual assault (myself included) will tell you.

This book sucked me in from page 1, and I tore through it, reading it at every opportunity, even if it meant I could only read one or two pages at a time. I just could not put this book down.

While the subject matter was occasionally difficult to read, nothing was ever drawn out or overly detailed. It felt real, seeing how Janna struggled to reconcile what happened to her and how to overcome it. It didn’t feel contrived or forced, and it wasn’t the only thing driving her, as this topic so often seems to become.

Janna has real life teenager problems, and she approaches them like a real life teenager. Which, yes, means she’s occasionally obnoxious and unnecessarily abrasive. But it works. It fits. It makes sense.

The novel was written by S. K. Ali, a Muslim teacher in Toronto, and I’m glad I got to read a novel about Muslim culture written by someone who lives it. I learned so much I didn’t know, and I wish I could have found this book years ago, even though it only came out last month. It’s a book that highlights why diversity in literature is so important, why movements like #ownvoices are so important; it’s a story that could not and should not have been told by someone who didn’t fundamentally get what they’re writing about. It’s a book I could never have written, and I feel like I’ve grown just by reading it.

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How I found it: PageHabit YA Fiction Box #01
Genre: Contemporary YA, elements of romance
Does it pass the Bechdel test? Yes
Is it a standalone? Yes
So what worked? The character development. The reality of just being a teenage girl, and the hardship and confusion and whirlwind of other emotions that come with being a survivor of sexual assault.
What didn’t work? I really didn’t find anything ineffective about this book. It was engaging, it was interesting, it was funny, serious, emotional. It was an excellent book. I really just want to read more about Janna, to be honest.

Overall: I really think PageHabit started out on strong footing. This book is wonderful, enriching, engaging … I just couldn’t put it down. It’s not high literature; don’t go into it expecting something you can write a thesis on, although there are some “kernels” of wisdom in there you might want to write in your bujo. (Once you read it, you’ll get why I used quotation marks there.) I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for more books by Ali. I would put a light trigger warning on this book, because, while this book does not linger overlong on unnecessary details or dramatize the assault for ‘shock’ value, it may be a bit much for someone who has experienced similar situations or someone who has not reconciled events like these.

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