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BOOK REVIEW: No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard (4.5 Stars)

Cover of No True Believers showing a girl in a black hoodie on a background of jumbled words

Rating: Rating of four-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (4.5 out of 5)

Salma Bakkioui has always loved living in her suburban cul-de-sac, with her best friend Mariam next door, and her boyfriend Amir nearby. Then things start to change. Friends start to distance themselves. Mariam’s family moves when her father’s patients no longer want a Muslim chiropractor. Even trusted teachers look the other way when hostile students threaten Salma at school.

After a terrorist bombing nearby, Islamaphobia tightens its grip around Salma and her family. Shockingly, she and Amir find themselves with few allies as they come under suspicion for the bombing. As Salma starts to investigate who is framing them, she uncovers a deadly secret conspiracy with suspicious ties to her new neighbors—but no one believes her. Salma must use her coding talent, wits, and faith to expose the truth and protect the only home she’s ever known—before it’s too late.

I’ve been on a real mystery kick lately. I can’t get enough of them, but unfortunately diversity is still lacking in that corner of YA. So when I came across No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard, I knew I had to pick it up, both for the diverse cast and the intriguing premise.

Salma is a Muslim American high school senior. Her mother is a white American and Muslim convert and her father is North African Amazigh. Salma describes herself as white-passing, but she has a strong connection to and pride of her culture and religion. I think Islam is a beautiful religion and I enjoy learning about it, so I loved that the book was peppered with Salma’s descriptions of what Islam means, both in general and to her.

In a way, that’s the whole point of Islam—to empty the heart (and mind) of everything but God and love. And to know that the two are one and the same. To feel that awe and to humbly submit to it, with gratitude.

The following line resonated with me particularly strongly, and I feel like we could all learn a lot from Islam:

There’s a verse in the Quran that basically says: Each soul is as valuable as the entire universe.

Salma’s ethnicity and religion are not the only thing that set her apart though. To my shock and delight, Salma has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which just so happens to be the chronic illness I have! I could barely believe my eyes when I read this next passage.

I was first diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome when I was five. EDS is a genetic disorder that affects roughly one in five thousand people. So: Lucky me! Basically it means I have more elastic tissue and weaker ligaments than most people. It also means I can wake up feeling extra fatigued and achy. (Like today.)

Representation for chronically ill teens is incredibly scarce, and even more so for lesser known and misunderstood illnesses like EDS. The author doesn’t make Salma’s illness the focal point of her identity; she just exists with her illness. At one point, she is shoved and dislocates her knee when she falls, so she has to go to physical therapy and use crutches and a brace for a while. In a dicey situation, she dislocates her shoulder in order to fit through a small window, and I actually gasped. Dislocations aren’t fun, but it was thrilling to see someone use their disability to their advantage in this way.

Unfortunately, the amazing disability representation makes instances of casual ableism on the author’s behalf stand out even more. The word “lame” is used as a negative descriptor throughout the book and one of Salma’s friends plays a prank on a teacher, exploiting a food sensitivity to make the teacher throw up. The teacher definitely deserved repercussions for not stepping in when a fellow student was perpetuating Islamophobia, but I don’t think it’s ever okay to joke about pranking someone with a food sensitivity or allergy by making them come in contact with an allergen. Too many people with food allergies are too scared to consume anything they haven’t prepared themselves because these things happen, and they should never be portrayed as cool.

That being said, I really loved No True Believers. Although it wasn’t heavy on the mystery at first, I enjoyed reading about Salma’s life, her friendships with other girls, and her romance with Amir. Salma and Amir are so incredibly sweet together and very respectful of each other.

The mystery itself was introduced slowly, with the tension starting to simmer halfway through before coming to a boil. I was able to guess some minor details, but only due to some historical knowledge I have that it’s plausible and fair for Salma not to know. Other than that, I was at the author’s mercy, and she got me completely hooked on the conspiracy.

Salma was a total badass. Dislocating her shoulders is only one of a number of awesome things she did to uncover who was framing her. Her kind but investigative nature and her hacking prowess ultimately save the day. She’s the Muslim American heroine we need.

TRIGGER WARNINGS: Islamophobia / racism, white supremacy, ableism, spousal and child abuse.

Have you read No True Believers or will you pick it up? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: The Spy With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke (5 Stars)

Cover of The Spy With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke, depicting two red balloons on a background of the star-speckled night sky and search light beams

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

Siblings Ilse and Wolf hide a deep secret in their blood: with it, they can work magic. And the government just found out.Blackmailed into service during World War II, Ilse lends her magic to America’s newest weapon, the atom bomb, while Wolf goes behind enemy lines to sabotage Germany’s nuclear program. It’s a dangerous mission, but if Hitler were to create the bomb first, the results would be catastrophic.

When Wolf’s plane is shot down, his entire mission is thrown into jeopardy. Wolf needs Ilse’s help to develop the magic that will keep him alive, but with a spy afoot in Ilse’s laboratory, the letters she sends to Wolf begin to look treasonous. Can Ilse prove her loyalty—and find a way to help her brother—before their time runs out? — Goodreads

Please see the end of the post for content warnings.

The Spy With the Red Balloon is the second book in The Balloonmakers series and set in the same universe, though it doesn’t feature the same characters. It’s more of a prequel delving into the origins of balloon magic, and I loved it even more than The Girl With the Red Balloon. It’s one of my favourite reads so far in 2019, and Katherine Locke is now definitely on my list of favourite authors.

I loved both Ilse and Wolf so much. The book alternates between their POVs, and even though I tend to prefer to stay with a single character throughout a book, I enjoyed both of their narrative voices a lot.

16-year-old Ilse is the bolder of the two siblings, while her older brother Wolf is more reserved. Ilse is a physics genius, and she is using her scientific knowledge to study the magic that is in their blood. When Wolf is sent to Europe to complete his mission of sabotage, Ilse finds a way to stay in touch via magical means. Ilse, for her part, is enlisted to study ways to employ magic in delivering a nuclear bomb, she is more interested in sending Wolf useful magic equations all the way across the world. Their sibling relationship is so wonderful, and it’s clear that they love and admire each other, and value each other’s opinions.

“I’m going to miss you.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” I said softly. How cold I ever have wanted to leave her shadow? All she’s ever wanted to do was stand in mine. For all her genius, Ilse was still my little sister. She still looked up to me, without ever realizing how she outshone me.

Ilse and Wolf are Jewish, and they’re also both queer. Ilse is bisexual and falls in love with another girl in the course of the book. Her science group of magic-practicing girls is delightful and I loved all of them, especially Stella. Stella is black and therefore continuously underestimated even though she is brilliant, even more so than Ilse, but I loved how much respect Ilse had for Stella and her superior knowledge. It was also incredibly sweet to read about Ilse discovering her bisexuality, her blossoming feelings for Polly, and her scientific approach to determining whether she really liked girls, kissing a girl being an important step in this particular scientific experiment.

Meanwhile, Wolf is off in Europe receiving rudimentary training for spying and soldiering, and is reunited with his childhood best friend Max, whom he hasn’t seen since Max enlisted a year ago. They parted on bad terms and have to find their way back to each other, Wolf grappling with the fact that his complete disinterest in anything romantic or sexual seems to have a Max-shaped exception. I loved their relationship so much! I said on Twitter that it was giving me strong Bucky/Steve vibes except that they actually get to kiss—and they use parachutes, unlike some people who will remain nameless. Wolf and Max are far from a carbon copy of Bucky and Steve, but their relationship dynamics and circumstances reminded me strongly of them, and just got me right in the feelings.

There’s also some disability representation, although I was at first a little hesitant to tag it as such. I still really want to mention it, but it’s mildly spoiler-y, so if you’d rather avoid that, skip to the next paragraph! Max suffers some head trauma mid-book that impacts both his intellectual and physical functions. It’s not clear for the majority of the book whether or not it’s just a temporary injury, though by the end of the book it’s confirmed that the injury will have a lasting impact on Max’s health, as he continues to suffer from debilitating headaches. That’s a kind of disability rep we don’t see often, hence why I’m tagging it as rep even though the disability is acquired late in the book.

And of course, I loved the world-building. I’m a huge fan of history retellings but with magic, and Katherine Locke strikes the perfect balance between the historical and the fantastical. I was fascinated by the balloon magic in the first Balloonmakers book, and I was once again absolutely spellbound. Combine that with spies and intrigue, and you’ve got the recipe for what to me is a perfect book.

I truly cannot express how much I love The Spy With the Red Balloon and I want everyone to read it! You can read it as a standalone, although I also highly recommend  The Girl With the Red Balloon. (You can read my review of it here.) Please everyone love my queer Jewish babies! Katherine Locke is an amazing author, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store next.

CONTENT NOTES: Holocaust mention, explicit description of the murder of Jewish prisoners, character death, physical abuse of a minor during an interrogation, racism, racial segregation, homophobia.

Have you read The Balloonmakers series or any of Katherine Locke’s other books? What did you think? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: The Girl With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke (5 Stars)

Cover of The Girl With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke, depicting a painted red balloon on a grey background

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process. — Goodreads

Please see the end of the post for content warnings.

I suspected I was signing up for heartbreak when I picked up The Girl With the Red Balloon, and friends, it did indeed make me cry. The book is told from three different points of view: Ellie’s, first in present day Berlin and then in 1988 East Berlin, Kai’s in 1988 East Berlin, and Benno’s in 1941 in Łódź Ghetto. I usually find it hard to fully immerse myself in books with several POVs, but that didn’t turn out to be a problem here. The shifts weren’t too frequent, and the flashbacks narrated by Ellie’s grandfather Benno really tied the story together.

There was some great diversity, too. Benno is a German Jew who survived the Holocaust and later emigrated to the US, so Ellie is Jewish American with a German background. There are frequent allusions to her Jewishness and it is a strong part of her identity. Kai and his sister are Romani (CN for use of the g-slur, though it is primarily used as a descriptor in the flashbacks), and an important side character, Mitzi, is gay. I personally also read Kai as being on the ace spectrum. (“I’d never understood how people could get distracted so easily” — really, Kai? Sounds ace to me.)

“Magic and balloons,” I whispered, shivering from the cold and the dark. “And Walls and time.”
Kai’s voice was low and sad. “The things that get us out and the things that keep us in.”

I really loved the magical atmosphere of the book, and the idea of magic balloons that can transport people out of places that have imprisoned them. The writing was beautiful but simple, and I highlighted so many quotes that I couldn’t fit them all into one blog post even if I tried. The only thing that threw me off were the poorly translated German phrases here and there, but it wasn’t so egregious that it hampered my enjoyment.

The romance between Ellie and Kai was sweet with a tiny dash of sexy, but I also loved the friendship that developed between Ellie and Mitzi. The ragtag band of characters Ellie encounters in 1988 end up being a found family for her in a time and place she doesn’t belong, a home far away from home.

The theme of finding where you belong, of finding your home, isn’t only brought up with regards to Ellie’s time travel, but also by Ellie and Kai both belonging to peoples that have been historically persecuted and uprooted.

Fernweh, maybe. A longing for a home that didn’t exist. Too many outsiders thought of us Romani like that. Like every human needs the solidity of a place. I didn’t need a place. I wanted the solidity of my own mind, whether or not that required the solidity of a place.

But home and belonging aren’t the only themes that The Girl With the Red Balloon grapples with. It asks profound questions about faith in the face of evil, and about whether or not you could or should go back in time to change history, ultimately coming to the painful conclusion that you cannot save everyone. The book acknowledges the importance of doing what you can when you can, but it also addresses issues of white / gentile saviourism.

At the end of the story, the girl said, “Don’t you Jews have any happy stories? You’ve told me two sad stories. Tell me a happy one.”
“I’ve told you two stories that end in freedom,” I protested. “How much happier could you ask for?”
“But all of the story that comes before that tiny little bit of freedom is sad,” she said.
“If the story was happy, you’d care less about that tiny little bit of freedom.”

This was one of my favourite moments. It encapsulates something essential about this book. The Girl With the Red Balloon is a bittersweet story, and though it is heartbreaking at times, it always glows with the hope that there will be light at the end of the tunnel. This book is not only a journey through time, but an emotional journey as well, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes their heartbreak with a dash of the fantastical.

CONTENT NOTES: This book narrates events in a Jewish / Romani ghetto during the Holocaust, including starvation, child death, parental death, deportation, and mentions the terrors of Stasi imprisonment in East Germany several times.

Have you read The Girl With the Red Balloon or any of Katherine Locke’s other books? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: Brooklyn Brujas Series by Zoraida Córdova

Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1) by Zoraida Córdova

Cover of Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

I was chosen by the Deos. Even gods make mistakes.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo she can’t trust, but who may be Alex’s only chance at saving her family.

I first read Labyrinth Lost in May of last year. I finally got around to reading the sequel, but since I couldn’t remember much from the first book, it seemed like an opportune moment for a reread.

The main character Alex is a bisexual Latinx girl, and like most of the main cast she is repeatedly described as dark-skinned with unruly hair. It’s great representation, and it’s well-written, with an engaging plot and a relatable main character. Even though in the beginning Alex makes a couple of unsympathetic choices, she more than redeems herself in the course of the book.

According to my Goodreads review from last year, I docked half a star for what I then perceived as an unnecessary love triangle. I like to think that I’ve become (and still am becoming) a more nuanced reader, and I definitely had a more nuanced read on that this time around. There is an underlying possibility of a love triangle and it is clear in the text that Alex is attracted to Nova, but I feel now that more than anything it serves to establish Alex’s bisexuality rather than to create unnecessary tension. She’s very obviously in love with Rishi, her best friend, who is also a queer girl of colour. Their relationship is adorable and delightful, and it’s so gratifying when they end up together.

The most important bond in Labyrinth Lost however is between Alex and her family, her mother and her sisters Lula and Rose. Like every family, they have their conflicts, a lot of them based around their magical heritage and the absence of the girls’ father after his mysterious disappearance. There is some very realistic bickering among the three sisters. However, they are incredibly close and protective of each other, and would go to the ends of the world for each other — which Alex actually ends up doing. The prevalent themes in this first book of the series are accepting power and finding love, embedded in the context of family and Latinx magic traditions.

Bruja Born (Brooklyn Brujas #2) by Zoraida Córdova

Cover of Bruja Born by Zoraida Córdova

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

Three sisters. One spell. Countless dead.

Lula Mortiz feels like an outsider. Her sister’s newfound Encantrix powers have wounded her in ways that Lula’s bruja healing powers can’t fix, and she longs for the comfort her family once brought her. Thank the Deos for Maks, her sweet, steady boyfriend who sees the beauty within her and brings light to her life.

Then a bus crash turns Lula’s world upside down. Her classmates are all dead, including Maks. But Lula was born to heal, to fix. She can bring Maks back, even if it means seeking help from her sisters and defying Death herself. But magic that defies the laws of the deos is dangerous. Unpredictable. And when the dust settles, Maks isn’t the only one who’s been brought back…

Bruja Born was an incredible read. This second book of the series is told from the point of view of Alex’s older sister, Lula, the stereotypical “pretty one.” She has the gift of healing, and even in the first book, her warmth and unconditional love for others shines through. I love Lula’s narrative voice even more than Alex’s.

At the beginning of the book, she is still healing from the trauma of being imprisoned in Los Lagos, and struggling with depression and her father’s unexpected reappearance in her family’s life. After she and her boyfriend almost die in an accident, she tries to save Maks by healing him and by calling on treacherous powers. She causes an outbreak of casimuertos, and ends up having to race against time and her weakening body to fix her mistake.

I’m usually a slow reader, but I inhaled this book in the span of two days. In Bruja Born, the author introduces some new players, such as the Hunters and the Thorne Hill Alliance. At first I felt like they were kind of ushered in, but it ended up being a neat expansion of world-building after the first book was mostly set in a different realm. I actually preferred the stronger urban fantasy vibes of the sequel.

Watching Lula grow and heal and learn to let go was a wonderful journey. I fell more in love with all three of the bruja sisters and their unique strengths with every page. Lula, Alex, and Rose are all brave and amazing in their own ways, and I love how inseparable they are. Bruja Born was one of my absolute favourite reads this year, and I legitimately cannot wait for the third book to come out, which will be about the youngest sister Rose and the mystery surrounding their father.

MINI REVIEWS: Aru Shah and the End of Time, Scarlett Undercover

I just finished Aru Shah and the End of Time, but it’s been a while since I read Scarlett Undercover. I still wanted to share my thoughts about it though, and since both of these have shared themes of mythology and sisterhood, I figured I’d stick them in a Mini Reviews post together.

Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi

Cover of Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi

Rating: Three star rating represented by three bumblebees (3 out of 5)

Twelve-year-old Aru Shah has a tendency to stretch the truth in order to fit in at school. One day, three schoolmates show up at Aru’s doorstep to catch her in a lie. They don’t believe her claim that the museum’s Lamp of Bharata is cursed, and they dare Aru to prove it. Just a quick light, Aru thinks. Then she can get herself out of this mess and never ever fib again.

But lighting the lamp has dire consequences. She unwittingly frees the Sleeper, an ancient demon whose duty it is to awaken the God of Destruction. The only way to stop the demon is to find the reincarnations of the five legendary Pandava brothers and journey through the Kingdom of Death. But how is one girl in Spider-Man pajamas supposed to do all that?

I’m a huge fan of Rick Riordan and I love learning about mythology. I’ve been looking forward to picking up the Rick Riordan Presents books ever since they were announced, and Aru Shah and the End of Time was no exception.

Going especially by the more recent Riordan books, my expectations may have set an unfair example for Aru Shah and the End of Time to live up to. It just just skewed a bit younger than I was expecting, which dampened my enjoyment a little. The writing was on the simpler side, and everything seemed to happen too quickly for my taste. It felt like the solutions to the protagonists’ problems kept falling into their laps more often than not.

However, I still think this would be a very enjoyable book for younger kids. Aru is a spunky but vulnerable heroine, and I loved the relationship between her and her found sister, Mini. Another focal relationship is the one between Aru and her mother, which grows closer as Aru learns more about the past and her family’s secret. The bits from Hindu mythology were sometimes fun, sometimes brutal, always fascinating – as mythology tends to be.

I don’t think I will be picking up the next book in this series because it wasn’t entirely my cup of tea, but I will definitely still be giving Chokshi’s books for older readers a try!

Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham

Cover of Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

Meet Scarlett, a smart, sarcastic, kick-butt, Muslim American heroine, ready to take on crime in her hometown of Las Almas. When a new case finds the private eye caught up in a centuries-old battle of evil genies and ancient curses, Scarlett discovers that her own family secrets may have more to do with the situation than she thinks — and that cracking the case could lead to solving her father’s murder.

I was in a weird headspace while reading this book so I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but this was without a doubt one of my favourite reads of 2018. Some time had passed between this first landing on my TBR and my finally picking up and I didn’t reread the synopsis then, so I was surprised and delighted by the supernatural and mythological elements of this.

With regards to tone and subject matter, this might best be described as Veronica Mars meets Rivers of London, but it’s so much more than that. It’s unique, the main character has an engaging voice, and the action is fast-paced and character-driven. Again, I especially enjoyed the bond between Scarlett and her older sister Reem who both clearly love each other a lot. I appreciated that Reem wasn’t entirely relegated to the maternal role even though they are orphans, but is a kick-ass in her own right.

The representation is great. Aside from having a diverse cast of Muslim American characters, this book is also repping Black Jews, which is still all too rare. I’m not sure whether there will be a sequel, but if there was I would snap it up in seconds. Scarlett Undercover is definitely a candidate for a reread. I would recommend it to anyone who loves a gumshoe mystery with a supernatural twist (with content warnings for parental death and teenage suicide.)