I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

Read: 13 September, 2018

Romance isn’t my normal genre, but a book about a Christian Palestinian woman from Lebanon falling in love with a Muslim British Indian woman? I mean, how could I pass something like that up?

I was a little disappointed that, for a romance book, this had almost no romance in it. Tala and Leyla are ostensibly in love, but they spend no time together. They get into a “debate” when they first meet, which consists entirely of Tala being a prat and needling at Leyla about her beliefs. They go on a date that we barely get to see, spending more time on a summary after the fact than in the moment. Then they go on a weekend trip where they have sex for the first time and everything else that happens is off-stage. For the rest of the book, Tala and Leyla are separated (mostly in entirely different countries) and not interacting at all.

We are told that they are in love, but we don’t get to see them in love. If they aren’t fighting, Tala is stalking Leyla while Leyla tries to avoid her. They have very little chemistry, at least as far as I could tell.

Then again, it would be hard for them to have chemistry when they barely have personalities. Both seem to act, feel, and say whatever the plot needs them to, and, when we do get personal details about them, those details are frustratingly superficial. Leyla is a writer, but a writer of what? Tala loves her two published stories, but what are they about? What does she like about them? What do they tell Tala about who Leyla is as a person?

Tala, for her part, is starting a business to sell candles and things manufactured in Lebanon. She talks about how much of a difference this could make to the lives of the people making her products, but then it’s dropped and she never really seems to care about the poor after that. She never seems to have any particular interest in the things she sells, either. She never shows some of her wares off to Leyla, never tells her about the sweet old widow who can afford to care for her grandson now that she’s picked up candle-making, never brings Leyla to meet a family making her products.

The story is more about Tala and Leyla’s families. They are mostly one-dimensional, but they are interestingly so. There’s a good story to be had in how each individual family member reacts to Tala and Leyla’s relationship. Some of it has made it onto the page, but the story ends quickly after the women come out, so we don’t get to spend too much time in each family member’s head.

My last complaint is that the book really could have used an extra round of editing. There are some questionable word choices, as well as some muddled timelines (the example the pops immediately to mind is in chapter 5: Ali calls Leyla on Sunday night, then Leyla and Tala go on a date the next evening, and then Leyla goes shopping with her mom the day after that, a Monday). These are silly issues that shouldn’t have made it into final print.

All that said, the book is competently written. This was in no danger of going into my Did Not Finish pile! I was interested from start to finish, and I wanted to see where it was going. I liked most of the characters, I just felt that Leyla and Tala were short-changed. Ideally, this book would have been 100 pages longer, with a nice big section near the beginning where Leyla and Tala see each other and talk, and where we get a chance to understand why they love each other.

Cairo by G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker

Read: 10 July, 2008

This is the first actual full-length graphic novel I’ve ever read, so I don’t have all that much to compare it to. That being said, I enjoyed it immensely. It’s a short read. I went through it in about five hours while at work, so I had a whole lot of distractions.

I loved the way mythology was used in the story. The result was an urban fantasy injected with just enough realism to make it all seem possible. The use of Arabic in the story was also well done – just enough to give the story an exotic flavour while not enough to confuse a non-Arabic speaking reader.

The illustrations are beautiful, both realistic and stylized with just enough shadow to give it a gritty feel. There were a few chronological errors (in one part, for example, a character is wearing glasses, and then taking his glasses out of his pocket and putting them on), but these are few and truly unimportant in the face of the work as a whole.

The characters themselves were fairly two-dimensional (the wide-eyed blonde American who wants to change the world, the censored journalist, the Israeli special ops soldier, the American teen who wants to do a suicide bombing in the hopes that it would teach all the kids who teased him in High School a lesson, etc.), but I do understand that it’s probably unavoidable in this sort of medium where the space available in which to tell the story is so limited. Even so, strong writing made these stock characters pop and made me hold my breath hoping that they would all come out all right.

In conclusion, I think this is a great book, perfect for anyone interested in world mythology or the middle east.

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