Book Review: Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Amal Unbound By Aisha Saeed

Amal Unbound
By Aisha Saeed
Goodreads | Amazon | Audible
Series: no
Published: May 8th 2018
Rating: solid MG read
Times read: 1
Recommended by: I first saw this on twitter

I preordered Amal Unbound months ago because of the cover and because of the Pakistani setting. A few weeks ago I read Written in the Stars by the same author, which renewed my interest. I still hadn't read the blurb when I started reading it, so I went into it having no idea what sort of story to expect. A story of drama and intrigue, a rom-com, historical? It turns out it was none of the above.

Amal is a girl living in a small village in Pakistan who wishes to become a teacher. She is pulled out of school to take care of the family when her mother suffers from postpartum depression and ends up accidentally making an enemy of the powerful man who owns her village.

Amal Unbound is the sort of book that really highlights how vital #ownvoices writing is. I don't think that that this book could or should have been written by someone who is not part of the Pakistani community. Amal Unbound tackles classism and indentured servanthood in Pakistan, and it takes someone with both an intimate knowledge and love of Pakistan, and it's people to portray both of these realities accurately.

Or maybe I would do all these things. I knew now that one person could hold many different dreams and see them all come true.

This is a very short book.  Or maybe it felt very short because it was so readable. I read half of it last night and half of it today. As far as I know, Amal's age is never given. Somewhere between 12 and 17 is all I can say for sure. There is a clarity of writing and story that will make this book accessible to younger readers.

This is definitely a "plot" book. All of the stories energy goes into fleshing out what is happening rather than "world building" or characterization.  The writing is slightly spare, and there are no lush descriptions of Pakistan. There was a forward momentum to the book that discouraged lingering over words or characters. It was very much a book of the hear and now of the story. I find that I read books like this very quickly because I am so anxious to find out what happens. But because I am reading so fast, I don't always pay enough attention to the writing.

Amal is a strong and admirable character. I love how dedicated she was to learning and how determined she was to save herself. She was also a slightly blurred character, and I wonder if that has to do with the fact that she is also written as a representative character.  Amal has a specific history and struggle, but she is also emblematic of the many girls and woman around the world who are living this reality. I love that there is a message of hope and positive outcomes through action. 

Aisha Saeed is masterful at writing complex secondary characters. None of them are all good or all evil. Even characters who could almost be cartoonish in their villainy *cough Jawad Sahib *cough are portrayed as humans with human emotions and fallacies. 

Amal Unbound is highly recommended if you are interested in diverse books, contemporary books set in non-English speaking counties, or books that look at the lives of girls and woman in the developing world.

From Goodreads:

Life is quiet and ordinary in Amal's Pakistani village, but she had no complaints, and besides, she's busy pursuing her dream of becoming a teacher one day. Her dreams are temporarily dashed when--as the eldest daughter--she must stay home from school to take care of her siblings. Amal is upset, but she doesn't lose hope and finds ways to continue learning. Then the unimaginable happens--after an accidental run-in with the son of her village's corrupt landlord, Amal must work as his family's servant to pay off her own family's debt. 

Life at the opulent Khan estate is full of heartbreak and struggle for Amal--especially when she inadvertently makes an enemy of a girl named Nabila. Most troubling, though, is Amal's growing awareness of the Khans' nefarious dealings. When it becomes clear just how far they will go to protect their interests, Amal realizes she will have to find a way to work with others if they are ever to exact change in a cruel status quo, and if Amal is ever to achieve her dreams.

Book Review: Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

Written in the Stars
by Aisha Saeed

Goodreads | Amazon
Series: no
Published: March 24th 2015
Rating: Angry tears
Times read: 1
Recommended by: Eric Smith on the Hey YA podcast

Written in the Stars is the story of seventeen-year-old Naila whose Pakistani parents decide that she is going to have an arranged marriage and ship her off to Pakistan instead of college when they find out she has a boyfriend. Who she dares to go to prom with. *cue record scratch * 

I loved this book and read in in one sitting. My only minor quibbles with this book were that the ending seemed a bit rushed and I felt as if Naila and Saif's relationship needed to be shown on the page a bit more so that the reader really ships them before Nails is sent to Pakistan.  Maybe I just wanted more scenes of them together because I desperately ship it.

This is one of those books that really illustrates the power and importance of #ownvoices books. I also looked and saw that there are several Muslim South Asian authors that I know who have given this book very high ratings which makes me reasonably confident in the representation. Written in the Stars isn't a story that an outsider would be able to tell. It would have been too tempting for them to sensationalize the story, make the characters either all good or all bad, or simply be unable to get it.  Aisha Saeed writes full characters and is entirely able to avoid stereotyping. There are several characters that I was shocked to find myself able to sympathize with or understand. 

My mother always says when you fight destiny, destiny fights back. Some things, they’re just written in the stars. You can try but you can never escape what’s meant to be.

Naila's parents are and to me remain unforgivable. I was thinking about this. If I had a student whose parents dragged her away from Prom like that and then she didn't show up for school again I would have felt obligated to call Child Protective Services. I understand that parenting is cultural. I work in an international school; It is impossible to avoid.  We had to have a meeting last week because the Middle School was getting complaints from parents about homework. A group of Chinese parents was very upset that there wasn't enough homework and omg, how are the kids going to learn anything. An also had a group of Swedish parents complaining that the kids were getting way too much homework and omg, why are you stressing them out already? 

But Naila's parent's actions do not fit within reasonable bounds (trying not to give too much away here). I have read five or so books in the last year where the main character has an immigrant parent or parents from Asia that she struggles to please. And although it is not something that I am able o relate to I can understand and empathize with the parents. But Naila parent and family are on a different level. This book also made me very aware of the need that I have for window books. Because I didn't get it. I still don't get it. How can you love your daughter but also insist on controlling absolutely everything about her existence? How can your love be so fragile that one small (well, it seemed small to me) act of rebellion breaks it?

I was very engaged and invested in the story. About halfway through I had to stop reading for about ten minutes because I was crying. Not choked up, or one measly tear. Nope, I was doing the whole puffy face, tears, and snot everywhere, ugly crying.

I see that Aisha Saeed has a couple of books in her backlist to explore before her new book Amal Unbound comes out on May 8. Excuse me while I buy every single one.

From Goodreads:

This heart-wrenching novel explores what it is like to be thrust into an unwanted marriage. Has Naila’s fate been written in the stars? Or can she still make her own destiny?
Naila’s conservative immigrant parents have always said the same thing: She may choose what to study, how to wear her hair, and what to be when she grows up—but they will choose her husband. Following their cultural tradition, they will plan an arranged marriage for her. And until then, dating—even friendship with a boy—is forbidden. When Naila breaks their rule by falling in love with Saif, her parents are livid. Convinced she has forgotten who she truly is, they travel to Pakistan to visit relatives and explore their roots. But Naila’s vacation turns into a nightmare when she learns that plans have changed—her parents have found her a husband and they want her to marry him, now! Despite her greatest efforts, Naila is aghast to find herself cut off from everything and everyone she once knew. Her only hope of escape is Saif . . . if he can find her before it’s too late.