Danika reviews Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan

Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan cover

Zara Hossain is Here surprised me. This is a short book, and it’s written in a way that feels pared down to the essentials. When the story begins, Zara is experiencing Islamophobic harassment from the star football player at school, but she has a strong network and friends and family that supports her. This harassment escalates, though, and it takes the story in a darker and more complicated direction than I was expecting.

Zara’s family has been living in Corpus Christi for 14 years after emigrating from Pakistan. They’re still waiting for their green card application to go through, though, which has put them all in stasis for many years. Zara is graduating this year, but she can’t apply to universities until she has permanent resident status, at least not without racking up insurmountable international student tuition fees. She’s also the only Muslim going to a mostly-Catholic school, which means facing bullying, especially when her friends can’t be by her side. She tries to keep her head down and avoid drawing attention to herself.

In Social Justice club, though, she can use her voice and be her authentic self: progressive, Muslim, and proudly bisexual. (And yes, she uses the word “bisexual”! She’s also out to her supportive parents.) The club is run by a queer teacher who Zara idolizes (and has a crush on), and it’s also there that she meets Chloe, a white lesbian from a strict Catholic family looking for a place she can fit in. They quickly hit it off, and between protests, they flirt and start dating. I appreciated that they discuss a little bit about navigating white privilege in interracial relationships: Chloe is supportive, but she that doesn’t mean she immediately understands what it’s like to live as a person of color in the U.S., and she does have to learn and adapt.

Do be prepared to get hungry reading this: there is much more food on the page than I was expecting–mostly Pakistani meals. Get ready to either spend some takeout cash or try some new recipes, because there are so many dishes lovingly described that made me want to put down the book and pick up a fork.

It’s difficult to discuss this story without some mild spoilers, because an event about halfway through the book is what the entire plot hinges on. It’s also something I think you should be prepared for before reading. So I’m going to give a mild spoiler warning for the rest of the review.

Zara continues to be harassed at school by Tyler, which escalates to slurs painted on her locker, his suspension, and finally, Tyler and his friends spray-painting a racist message on their home. Zara’s mild-mannered father catches him and goes to Tyler’s father’s house to confront him, while Zara and her mother beg him to wait until morning. There, Tyler’s father shoots him, claiming self-defence and charging him with trespassing.

I wanted to mention the specifics because although the book begins with racist harassment, it’s not immediately obvious that it will involve a racist hate crime or gun violence. From that point on, Zara and her family are wholly concentrated on her father’s recovery–he is in a medically-induced coma. To make matters even worse, if he is charged with trespassing, it could jeopardize their green card status.

The rest of the story focuses on immigration and the sometimes unfathomable hurdles immigrants have to face. Zara is horrified to realize that there’s a chance that her family won’t be able to stay in the U.S. because her father was charged with trespassing–despite the fact that he was the victim of a possibly fatal hate crime. She also learns that although green card applications regularly take more than 8 years to complete, there are no protections for children who age out before their applications are finished.

Meanwhile, her mother (understandably) does not feel that her family is safe in this country anymore. Even if Zara’s father has a complete recovery, what’s preventing another racist with a gun from doing this again? She requires constant check-ins from Zara and panics when she doesn’t receive a text when Zara gets to the library. She moved her for a better life, but she no longer believes that it is.

Meanwhile, Zara is completely unmoored. The idea of either being forced or choosing to move back to Pakistan, a place she hasn’t lived since she was 3, is hard to even consider. There’s also the fact that she would be forced back into the closet, and that she might not be able to marry who she loves. That’s not even taking into account leaving her home, her friends, her family, her girlfriend… She wants somewhere that she can be her whole self in safety: a queer Muslim Pakistani woman.

I appreciated the complexity that this story brought to the subject of immigration. It discusses the wait time and challenges to completing the application process, but also the luck involved. This chance encounter could erase all her family’s years of being ideal citizens, including her father’s work as a beloved pediatrician. An author’s note explains the author’s own family’s immigration process was derailed by a clerical error, making all of their work null and void. Added to that is the layer of Zara’s family wondering: is this worth it? Do I want to be in a country where so many people don’t want me here? Even if most of the people they encounter are supportive, it just takes one armed racist or one well-connected bigot to dismantle their lives.

This is a book that doesn’t provide any easy answers. It acknowledges that these are thorny, deeply flawed choices to have to make. Zara wants to stay and fight to make things better, but her mother is tired of fighting–and both of those are fair. This is a great addition to books that start conversations about immigration in the U.S., with the added layer of being an out queer immigrant from a country that is not accepting of queer people. I highly recommend it.

Sabina Khan’s Zara Hossain is Here is out April 6, 2021.

Danika reviews Color Outside the Lines edited by Sangu Mandanna

Color Outside the Lines edited by Sangu Mandanna

Color Outside the Lines is a YA romance anthology of interracial love stories. (I’m not sure if the LGBTQ+ stories are also all interracial.) Perhaps it was unfair of me to pick this one up: I’m not a huge romance reader, especially when it comes to straight romance stories. I’m definitely not the teen romance reader this is aimed at. As with all anthologies, some stories stuck with me more than others, but for the most part, I didn’t find this collection particularly memorable. Some stories stood out, but I often felt like stories dropped off suddenly without a satisfying conclusion, or that I didn’t get a good sense of the characters before it was over.

Most of these stories are M/F, but there are three sapphic stories included. (The ARC I received was missing at least 2 stories including Anna-Marie McLemore and Adam Silvera’s, so the final collection will likely include more queer stories.)

“Your Life Matters” by L.L. McKinney: I wasn’t sure how to feel about this one. It is about two teenage girls in a relationship. It begins with a fight: Candace, who is Black, wore a Black Lives Matter shirt to dinner at Ari’s house. Ari is white, and Ari’s dad is an “all lives matter” cop. Ari is angry that Candace “started a fight” by wearing the shirt to dinner. Mild spoilers: it turns out that Candace is also a superhero, and she ends up at the same Black Lives Matter protest as Ari’s dad. [Spoilers, highlight to read:] Despite Ari’s father almost shooting her unprovoked, Candace rescues him from what would have been a fatal situation, and from his hospital bed he reluctantly admits she might have a point. The story doesn’t let him off the hook by completely redeeming him, but Ari’s defense of him at the beginning of the story and this ending had me feeling on edge–which may have been the point.  [End of spoilers]

“Death and the Maiden” by Tara Sim: This was probably my favourite story in the collection. This is a Hades and Persephone f/f retelling–perfect for fans of Sarah Diemer’s The Dark Wife. This time it’s Parvani who goes into the underworld, though, making this not only a queer retelling but also a switch of cultural context. This is a rich, encompassing fantasy world that made me wish that it was a full novel. The relationship between Parvani and Hades is much more consensual than most depictions of this myth, and I liked how it built. Parvani also goes through a lot of growth and change. This was an exceptional story.

“Gilman Street” by Michelle Ruiz Keil: This story follows a Latinx girl who spontaneously decides that instead of taking the bus to school that day, she’s going to head down to Gilman Street, following in her mother’s hippie past. She is sick of her best friend’s obsession with her new (racist) boyfriend. She is instantly swept up in a stranger’s world: she bumps into a girl and gets invited to her concert, complete with a mini-makeover, where they celebrate their shared Latinx culture. Tam is immediately attracted to this girl, and they flirt and bond over the course of the night. [Spoilers] She soon loses track of the girl, though, and ends up flirting with a boy by the end of the story as well–with the recognition that her school may have more possibilities than she originally thought. [End spoilers]

Honestly, I think this collection is worth picking up just for “Death and the Maiden” if that story interests you, and I’m sure McLemore and Silvera’s contributions are great. But for all the stories averaged out, this was not a favourite of mine.

Rebecca reviews If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker

If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker

Tamsen Parker’s If I Loved You Less is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma. While I love the well-written setting, the plot and characters are underwhelming and the unconvincing romance is so slow burn that it’s practically non-existent.

Theo lives in the beautiful paradise of Hanalei Bay with her overprotective father. She spends her days running her family’s surf shop, surfing, and spending time with baker Kini who runs Queen’s Sweet Shop. Theo’s life is wonderful and she’s not interested in marrying or settling down. But, she loves playing matchmaker for others. When a new friend arrives, Theo is determined to find her a perfect match. As Theo’s scheming spirals out of control, she realizes that she’s in love with Kini and may lose her to someone else.

The setting is so vivid and beautifully written. I also love the inclusion of Kini’s bakery and the delicious Hawaiian food that is mentioned throughout. I didn’t mind having to constantly Google the names of dishes and terms because I appreciate the exposure being given to indigenous Hawaiian life. I also really appreciate the diversity. Although Theo is white, Kini is native Hawaiian and Theo’s friend Laurel is of East Asian descent.

Theo is selfish and pushy. However, I didn’t hate her because she is lively and well-meaning at times. I’m disappointed that she doesn’t grow. Although there is a turnabout at the very end, it feels unnatural because she never really attempts to change. Although I do like kind Kini, I wish she was more developed. She just seems to be there to bake and give advice to Theo. Additionally, the other characters lack personality and are completely forgettable.

The book really fails to live up to its summary. It mostly focuses on heterosexual relationships and any actual romance between Kini and Theo only happens within the last few pages. But, it is a faithful retelling of Emma. However, certain outdated plot points do not translate well. This novel also doesn’t improve on aspects of the original story that didn’t work. The plot is slow and uninteresting. There are several twists that are insufficiently resolved while the underdeveloped characters often act implausibly. Theo’s friendship with her childhood friend Austin is unrealistic. Although she hasn’t seen him in decades, she is obsessed with the old-fashioned belief that they will be best friends and get together because their fathers liked the idea of them as a couple.

The romance between Kini and Theo is unconvincing. The familial nature of their relationship is constantly reiterated as Kini often acts like a mother or an older sister to Theo. Although the age gap isn’t an issue, their supposed interest in each other is puzzling because Theo is immature while Kini is wise and reserved. They have no chemistry together. Furthermore, Theo only realizes that she is in love with Kini near the bitter end of the book. Parker rushes towards a happy ending without sufficiently building a tangible romantic connection.

Moreover, while I understand that sexuality is fluid and labels can be restrictive, readers may find certain aspects of this book problematic. The way that the book handles Theo’s sexuality and her obsession with Austin as a potential future husband can be reflective of the stereotypical belief that lesbians simply haven’t found the right man yet.

I was really disappointed with If I Loved You Less. While I love the beautiful Hawaiian setting, the plot dragged and the unconvincing romance is almost blink and you’ll miss it. The book had a lot of potential but it just misses the mark.

Rebecca is a Creative Writing student and freelance proofreader. Come say hi: https://rebeccareviews.tumblr.com/

Whitney D.R. reviews Royally Yours by Everly James

I haven’t read much, if any, “secret royalty” romance.  I happened upon Royally Yours via social media and fell in love with the cover.  And I was even more pleasantly surprised that the black woman on the cover was the princess.  I was eager to dive into this story.

Royally Yours is a good, cheesy romance filled with cute fluff between Ellie and Melody.  Though I did feel there wasn’t as much relationship development as I would’ve liked. The two young women have a meet-cute at a farmer’s market and it’s attraction at first site.  There’s flirting and longing glances, but the budding romance feels more slow than slow burn. But when the two women finally get together? Utterly adorable.

What annoyed me most about the books was Ellie’s mishandling of finding out Melody’s secret.  Yes, Melody did technically lie about who she was, but that was more for Melody’s protection and wanting a bit of anonymity than hurting Ellie.  It’s not like Melody was dating someone else or, god forbid, some kind of international assassin. She was a young girl who wanted a bit of freedom from her overbearing life, and I didn’t understand how Ellie couldn’t understand that.

Another thing that bothered me was how Melody’s issues with her parents, her mother in particular, weren’t really resolved.  At least, not to my satisfaction. In real life, you don’t always get to have closure with people who’ve hurt you, but Melody’s mother refusing to acknowledge who Melody was and chose to love kind of soured the happily ever after ending for me.

Read this if you liked movies like The Prince & Me or the Hallmark Channel movie, A Royal Christmas.  Cheesy romance with a dash of melodrama, but with queer women.

3 Stars