Wish I would have had this book alongside all my Beverly Cleary books back in middle school. Like Cleary, Jason Reynolds clearly remembers what it wasWish I would have had this book alongside all my Beverly Cleary books back in middle school. Like Cleary, Jason Reynolds clearly remembers what it was to be a kid — the private humiliations, the silliness, the outsized misconceptions, the way the tiniest bit of support can change a day. ...more
This novel effortlessly conjured up the familiar magic of my childhood favorites — it was like reaching for a sweater and finding my old worn favoriteThis novel effortlessly conjured up the familiar magic of my childhood favorites — it was like reaching for a sweater and finding my old worn favorite pushed into my hands. I'm going to wear it gleefully for a week, no matter the weather. This concludes my garment simile. Possibly fuller comments to come closer to publication date....more
I picked up Alif the Unseen in Oblong Books. It was the last event of my U.S. book tour and I was driving home insHow I loved this problematic novel.
I picked up Alif the Unseen in Oblong Books. It was the last event of my U.S. book tour and I was driving home instead of flying and so I had the unusual liberty of not caring about whether a book purchase would force me to check my luggage.
Mostly I picked it up because it seemed impossible to summarize. My favorite sorts of books to read and write. The back of the book begins with “In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients — dissidents, Islamists, and other outlaws — from surveillance. He goes by Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him, and Alif’s computer has just been breached by the head of the state’s electronic security fo—“
Okay, whoa, whoa, whoa, just stop. Maybe that stuff technically happens in the novel, but that is not the tone of the book, at all. Alif is an impetuous, immature, passionate pig of a computer geek, coding and pimpled in a room in his mother’s house. He throws a massive, electronic tantrum after he’s jilted by Rich Mystery Babe, and the repercussions of the program he writes propel us through the rest of the novel. A couple of reviews call this a thriller, but it’s not, not unless American Gods is a thriller. A couple of reviews call this erudite social commentary, but it’s not unless A Wrinkle in Time is erudite social commentary.
Of course, American Gods is thrilling, and A Wrinkle in Time does indeed comment on society, but that is because they are good fantasy fiction, and good fantasy fiction is full of true things. But they both read like fantasies, and so does Alif the Unseen. If you open the book expecting that, you will not be dissatisfied. Now, because it’s been at least four paragraphs since I did a list, here is a list of four things about Alif the Unseen I think you ought to know.
1. There are so many characters to huggle. Alif is a brat, and I hated him for the first 80 pages, but that’s sort of the point. There are others to love, though: Vikram the yellow-eyed jinn, NewQuarter the endearingly spoiled and heroic prince, and Sheikh Bilal, a holy man with a good mind for a computer metaphor. The character interactions are what ensured my love of this novel. The plot became irrelevant. I just wanted to watch them frolic. 2. There is a car chase in the desert. I don’t know what else to say about this, but if you know anything about me at all, you know it takes very little to please me, and one of the things that will please me is car chases in deserts. 3. It was pretty fantastic to read some contemporary fantasy set in the Middle East, and Wilson did a great job soaking every page with imagery. 4. I really, really liked the way spirituality was worked through the book, touching everything, including the magic, in a very organic way. As someone who believes spirituality and religiosity are not synonyms, I appreciated how Wilson danced between the two. One of the most moving scenes is where a character prays over a meal with little fanfare.
Now it’s time for the problematic part. I have a huge problem with the way women are treated in most of the Middle East. It has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with equality and choice. I have a huge problem with the way women are portrayed in fiction, period. I knew it could be a very unsatisfying combination, however, I went into Alif with an expectation that Wilson would tread this ground with confidence and insight: after all, Wilson is an American woman who converted to Islam and chose to take up the headscarf. She must have heard everything I was thinking before.
But Alif the Unseen is problematic because it fails to deliver on a single female front. Dina, Alif’s childhood friend, chose to take the veil as well. And she is portrayed as plucky and often less fearful than Alif. Yet she is dragged into adventure and ultimately has to be saved. Another female character appears and does in fact save them . . . by getting mystically pregnant. And a third female character exists as a well of mystical spiritual knowledge. This is their power: they are hidden, they can make more of themselves with magical uterus power, and they, as hidden things, know about other hidden things.
This is an adventure about Alif. The women are accessories. It’s true that Vikram and NewQuarter are accessories, too, but they are unique, proactive, and lovable in a way the women are not (see #1, list of characters that made Maggie love this book). So what I think is problematic about this book is actually a global phenomenon: even women write female characters differently than male characters. Hundreds of years of boy adventurers have left us uncertain how to see a woman in a similar situation. Alif the Unseen is problematic to me not because it actively puts women down, but because it’s yet another novel that subtly and unconsciously reminds us that the boys are the ones who adventure, women are only guardians of home and hearth and mystical knowledge. It’s a novel I would have read as a teen and then closed with a sigh, wishing once more than I had been born lucky — had been born a boy.
But if you put that aside — and women readers have been putting this aside for generations — Alif the Unseen is a fantastic contemporary fantasy. My favorite of the year. ...more
THE definitive place to start on British fairy folklore. Is there anything else to say? I think not. An amazing read.
***wondering why all my reviews aTHE definitive place to start on British fairy folklore. Is there anything else to say? I think not. An amazing read.
***wondering why all my reviews are five stars? Because I'm only reviewing my favorite books -- not every book I read. Consider a novel's presence on my Goodreads bookshelf as a hearty endorsement. I can't believe I just said "hearty." It sounds like a stew.****...more
I debated for a long time whether I wanted to put this one in my five star section, because I didn't think the ending was as strong as I thought it coI debated for a long time whether I wanted to put this one in my five star section, because I didn't think the ending was as strong as I thought it could have been. But ultimately, the insanely true voice (by turns very funny and very touching) and nice working of common themes through the book (saying this is a realistic YA novel about cows and football is at once the truest and least true thing you could every say) makes me give this five stars.
Definitely just -- great voice.
***wondering why all my reviews are five stars? Because I'm only reviewing my favorite books -- not every book I read. Consider a novel's presence on my Goodreads bookshelf as a hearty endorsement. I can't believe I just said "hearty." It sounds like a stew.**** ...more