'Everybody has a moral responsibility to actively support diverse books so they don’t get written off as a trend.' An Interview with Muhammad Khan

Muhammad Khan
Photo Credit: Sarah Blackie

Muhammad Khan is the YA author of I Am Thunder, published earlier this year. He's also a maths teacher at a secondary school and a student of MA Creative Writing. I am so happy to welcome him onto the blog today because not only do I think he's an absolute talent, but he's also one of the nicest authors I've met.

Your debut novel, I Am Thunder, has received lots of wonderful praise. How have you found readers’ reactions to the book?
Overwhelming! When I wrote the book, I honestly didn’t expect to see it selling in shops. I thought it was too controversial, highlighted too many uncomfortable truths, and allowed people who are often ignored to have a voice. I remember being told by an author not to worry if my book wasn’t reviewed in the press because unfortunately YA and children’s books are often considered inferior to adult books so when it started happening, it was the most incredible feeling in the world. I am so grateful to everyone who has supported the book!

There aren’t many other books that feature muslim teens. How do you think authors and publishers can work together to produce more UK YA books that are reflective of society?
I think the industry is generally very white and middle class. In order for it to be truly inclusive there needs to be representation at every level. But it’s definitely changing and I feel so privileged to be included in this movement. Everybody has a moral responsibility to actively support diverse books so they don’t get written off as a trend.

I find it so impressive that you balance being a maths teacher with being a YA author. How did you get started with your writing?
Thank you! I always wanted to be a writer, even pre-nursery. I loved the fact that you could create your own world and invent lives for the inhabitants. At nursery, the tough kids claimed all the best toys for themselves, so my outlet became playing make-believe through writing and drawing.

I’m sure all writers struggle and doubt themselves at some points. What motivated you to keep going?
My fantastic students! Literally the moment they found out I was a wannabe author, they championed me and encouraged me. When it was World Book Day, teachers were supposed to write their favourite book down on a poster and my students told me to write I Am Thunder even though I didn’t have an agent yet! I thought that was incredibly sweet. Sometimes I’d read them bits I’d written and they would give me unfiltered feedback. Instant feedback from your target audience is a godsend.

What parts of the story required more research and what kind of research did you do?
Virtually every aspect required lots of research. At times it was exhausting and mentally draining. The subject matter was so sensitive I couldn’t play fast and loose with it. Having been born into the faith/culture obviously really helped, as did being a teacher privy to confidential information, but anecdotes from my students and similar stories in the press informed a lot of the plot. As part of my research, I also interviewed some people in my community.

What was the hardest thing about writing I Am Thunder?
Trying to build a balanced picture of radicalisation and Islamophobia. It’s difficult to be objective when you’ve suffered both. My first reaction was to present my community as perfect, but then I realised that every Friday, the Imam of the mosque gives a sermon telling us as a community how we fall short of being perfect. That’s what I tried to do with the book: hold a mirror up to society and ask how we can make things better.

What was your favourite scene to write and why?
So many! I guess I really liked the scene when Muzna is determined to clear Mr Dunthorpe’s name because we get our first glimpse of who Muzna could be. I hate that shy people are often written off. They can be the most amazing people. I also loved writing the scene at Sarabi’s sister’s wedding. It was beautiful and colourful yet this is also the tipping point for Muzna when she begins to be led down a dark path.

This year you’ve already attended YA Shot and you’ll be at YALC too. What role do you think YA events have in helping new readers to find you?
Every time I get invited to another event, I am completely blown away by it and very, very grateful. I think YA events have the ability to raise the profile of books and authors who might otherwise be overlooked or considered ‘niche’. If we are going to be a truly tolerant and inclusive society, we need to read about each other. I can’t even begin to explain how empowering it is to see a Muslim hijabi character being embraced in this way.

What do you have planned next in your career as an author?
Kick The Moon is out next year with Macmillan. I want my stories to be entertaining but I also want them to have something important to say.

Lastly, what books have you been reading lately that you’ve enjoyed?
I’m currently doing an MA in Creative Writing at St Mary’s, Twickenham and I am lucky enough to get to read other students’ manuscripts. You learn so much that way. I really hope they all get snapped up by agents!

Somehow I have managed to squeeze in Sophie Cameron’s Out of The Blue – which is brilliant, Catherine Barter’s Troublemakers – which is amazing, and I’m currently reading Truly, Wildly, Deeply by Jenny McLachlan and really enjoying it.

Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed answering your questions.

Make sure you're following Muhammad on Twitter and if you haven't picked up I Am Thunder yet, you can read my review here.

Reading One Of My Most Anticipated Books Of 2018...

The Death of Mrs Westaway - Ruth Ware
Published by Harvill Secker on 28th June 2018.
My rating: 5/5
Book Depository purchase link.
Ruth Ware is a household name in the thriller genre these days and if you’re yet to throw yourself into one of her books, you’re missing out. She’s got that skill of being able to entertain and surprise you with her complex plots whilst maintaining a sense of realness to her stories. No one likes it when a thriller crosses the line into ridiculous but fear not, you don’t have to worry about that with Ware.

Her first three novels In A Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10 and The Lying Game were all great and she's particularly talented at creating vivid characters. Harriet Westaway is a struggling young woman working as a tarot card reader on a Brighton pier. She’s in debt to some terrifying people and trapped in a life of worrying. Then, she receives a letter in the post to say that she’s inherited some money from her grandmother. The name and address are right, but Hal doesn’t think it can be true. She has no known surviving grandparents.

This is a fantastic idea for a book. The combination of the a striking premise and the reputation of Ruth Ware made it one of my most highly anticipated books of 2018. It turned out to be a fast-paced and daring thriller which I couldn’t recommend enough.

While I found the plot confusing at times and really had to concentrate at the peak of this book, it was a rewarding read. The plot twists are shocking, the characters are gritty and the writing is fantastic. You do go back and forth a couple of times in the story and there are characters with similar names so you do have to pay attention.

The family have that wealthy kind of darkness, where everyone seems innocent on the outside and you never know who to trust. As Hal uncovers the mystery of what happened years ago, you are thrown about so much you’ll finish it with serious trust issues.

In short, this reminded me of exactly why I love reading thrillers so much.

Love, Jess

Thank you Penguin for an advance copy of The Death of Mrs Westaway.

'I never really thought someone like me could become an author' - An Interview with Karen Gregory

This is Karen.

Having recently read and reviewed Skylarks, I am so pleased to welcome Karen Gregory to the blog today. Karen is an Oxford university graduate and the author of YA novels Countless and Skylarks.

I’m so happy to have you on my blog, Karen. How have you found working with the blogging community in your profession as an author?

Thank you for having me! It’s been really lovely. The blogging community is amazing and it’s brilliant to feel part of a community where everyone is so passionate about books and reading. One thing I love is the level of care and insight from bloggers and reviewers; it’s a completely magical moment when you see people engaging with something you’ve written in such thoughtful ways.

Your first book, Countless, is about teenage pregnancy and eating disorders. You cover so many important topics on your fiction. How do you come up with your book ideas?

Buy Countless.
I think it’s a mixture of things! I often seem to have a topic I’m interested in or concerned about in some way and over time a situation might form in my head in tandem with a character. I was very lucky with Countless, that the whole idea came in a big rush complete with the character and basic structure of the book, which definitely doesn’t happen to me every time!

I absolutely loved Skylarks, particularly the focus on money and the stigmas surrounding homelessness and benefits. What inspired you to write on such an awkward topic?

I’ve always been interested in social justice. When I left university, I worked in local government and the NHS for a number of years, so often saw the impact policy decisions have at a ground level. Austerity was a huge driver in my thinking: when I first started writing Skylarks back in 2015, we’d had five years of austerity so it was very much in my consciousness, and then seeing the results of cuts on various services amplified this for me. So, it was something that had been playing on my mind over a number of years and when the characters of Joni and Annabel came along, I was able to explore how social injustice played out on a personal level for the two of them.

In response to Joni’s money problems, she becomes politically active. I loved this and I think it will show YA readers that they have such a powerful role in politics. What was it like to write about this push for change?

I loved it! I’m not a ‘marchy’ sort of person – I’m more likely to write to my MP or give money to things quietly in the background, but it felt very empowering to write about Joni’s growing political awareness and activism. It was also really interesting because it threw up questions for me about how far it’s acceptable to go in the name of activism and social change, power dynamics and how much your social background impacts on your ability to effect change. There’s so much here to explore, I could never have done it justice in one book, but I enjoyed touching on and thinking about all these issues in Joni’s story. I think all the things I write are quite hopeful and Skylarks does feel to me like a realistic, but ultimately hopeful book.

Skylarks is not only about Joni’s home life, her relationship with Annabel is a huge aspect of the story. I couldn’t believe how two characters could go from disliking each other to liking each other so much, but you wrote it really naturally. What are the challenges of writing romance?

Buy Skylarks.
I think the biggest challenge for me was pacing and how to get the balance right between moving the story along while showing an organic progression from mutual misunderstanding to Joni and Annabel falling in love. I worked on this in edits as there were a few scenes which ended up being repetitive, so these got cut from the final version. Overall though, I loved writing the romance! I’ve been saying to everyone this is my ‘happy’ book because I really did feel so happy writing it.

Becoming an author is a challenge in itself. What is your publishing story?

I never really thought someone like me could become an author. I’ve always read voraciously and did have that ‘maybe one day’ ambition in the back of my mind, but I lacked the confidence and self-belief to really try until after I’d had my first baby in 2008. I started with short stories and then attempted my first novel, which I really hope will get published in some form one day! I didn’t know anyone in the publishing world, so I used the internet and the Writers & Artists Yearbook to query agents. Claire Wilson at Rogers, Coleridge and White offered me representation in 2015 and then Countless (which was the second book we put on submission to editors) came out in 2017! So from that first tentative short story to publication was almost exactly nine years. Along the way there were two shelved manuscripts, a number of agent and publisher rejections and a lot of trying to learn the craft using books on writing and online resources.

I’ve read that you’re a project manager by day. How do you fit in writing as well as your job? It’s like having two careers!

It is! But I also work part-time which helps a lot. I’ve actually moved roles very recently (too late to update my author bio!) which has given me some flexibility. I tend to write in bursts, often doing large chunks of writing or edits every other weekend when my children are at their dad’s. It can get quite busy and intense around publication time and last year in particular my social life certainly took a massive hit. I’m very lucky I’ve got an understanding and supportive family and friends who are still there even after I disappear for weeks at a time. The other thing I’ve found is that having a day job is actually really helpful in terms of providing routine, structure and other human beings to talk to! I’m really, really lucky, if occasionally slightly ragged around the edges.

If you could do any kind of book event or attend any kind of book event in the world, what would it be?

Ooh! I think it would be some sort of event with all my bookish friends and family in a bookshop with lots of comfy sofas. I’d invite all the authors whose books I’ve loved over the years, from Judith Kerr to Margaret Atwood and basically quiz them non-stop about their books and writing process. I’d have a gigantic stack of books for them to sign and piles of cake. I’d also invite all the authors my children are mad about – a long list currently headed up by J.K. Rowling, David Walliams and Jacqueline Wilson. As this is an imaginary event, I’d probably transport the bookshop somewhere by the sea and once the children were in bed, I’d sit on the beach watching the sun going down with my new author friends and a hot chocolate… I think I may just have found my happy place!

I’m sure you’re an avid reader too. What books are you loving at the moment?

My TBR is completely out of control right now. I’ve been desperately trying to squeeze in more YA before I get too immersed in the next book as then I like to pull back, at least from contemporary and read something different. The last two contemporary YA books I completely adored were Holly Bourne’s It Only Happens in the Movies and Sara Barnard’s Goodbye Perfect. I think I’ll be switching to fantasy next: I can’t wait to read State of Sorrow and Children of Blood and Bone and I’ve also just started the second Bone Season book on audio. In terms of adult reads, I got Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time for my birthday and I am so excited to read it, but I’m saving it for a slightly quieter time so I can really savour it.  

Non-fiction wise I recently read The War on Women by Sue Lloyd-Roberts which was an incredibly difficult but important read, Mary Beard’s Women in Power and I’ve been reading Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls with my children. I’ve also got Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am waiting for me on the kindle.

Finally, can you tell us anything about what you’ve got planned for the rest of the year?

There’s various things planned around publication for Skylarks such as interviews, twitter chats and blog pieces. I’m also really looking forward to going to the Leeds Book Awards later in May and YALC in July. I loved YALC last year so I’m really looking forward to being back this year! I’m also hoping to squeeze in some school and library visits too, the latter as part of the YA Shot outreach programme. In terms of other writing, I’m currently in the middle of something new, which I’m very excited about, then after that I have several projects lined up in my head, all waiting to be written. Exciting times!

It really is! I recommend you check out Karen's books Countless and Skylarks. You can also follow her on Twitter and check out her blog.

BLOG TOUR: Dear Martin - Nic Stone

Dear Martin - Nic Stone
Published by Simon & Schuster on 3rd May 2018
My rating: 5/5
Book Depository purchase link.

Unless you’ve been on an internet ban for the last few months, you have amnesia, or you don’t normally read contemporary YA (I’m not sure which is worst) you’ll be familiar with the cover for Dear Martin. American booktubers and book bloggers have been raving about this incredible debut from Nic Stone and I’ve had my eye on it for a long time.

Dear Martin tells the story of Justyce, a smart high schooler on track for Yale. It sounds like he has a pretty good life on paper. However his white friends, participation in debate club and excellent grades don’t exempt him from facing racism and he’s painfully aware of the police brutality in his home country. To process all of his thoughts, he starts writing letters to Martin Luther King Jr and asking: what would Martin do?

At less than 300 pages, this is a direct and to the point read. Despite being short, it packs in buckets of emotion and left me feeling like it might be the most blunt novel I’ve ever read.

Justyce’s voice is so raw and real that he’s a memorable character amongst lots of the same in YA. At times the dialogue is turned into a script, with no space for setting or movement. All that matters is the conversation, both inside the book and out. I say that because this book has already got so many readers in the US talking and it’s bound to have the same effect in the UK.

One of the most prominent and important themes is how Justyce has to deal with the ignorance of the white guys in his school and the police outside of school, not to mention the media storm after the shots are fired. On top of that, he thinks he might be falling for a white girl his mum would never approve of. This level of tension is present right from the outset as the novel starts when he’s wrongfully arrested for helping his drunk girlfriend and from there, everything just keeps getting worse. So much happens in this tightly written story and most of it is heart-breaking.

This is a direct and heart-wrenching reflection of a society that is making a lot of noise about change and now needs to follow through.

Love, Jess

Thank you Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy.

I Read A Book Approved By Emma Watson...

In Search of Us - Ava Dellaria
Published by Hot Key on 6th March 2018.
My rating: 4/5
Book depository purchase link.

I first heard of Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters To The Dead when I saw Emma Watson raving about it on social media. Any book that Emma Watson has approved is one I want to look into. So, I ended up buying Love Letters To The Dead and enjoying it. A few years later and Ava Dellaria is back with another YA novel. This time I didn’t need the celebrity endorsement to trust it would be a fantastic read.

In Search Of Us is a parallel story between a mother and daughter at age seventeen. Marilyn’s story is of falling in love and breaking away from her controlling mother while Angie’s is about her determination to find her father.

It got me thinking that parenting is a really difficult line. What is overparenting? What is too much freedom? What about providing some guidance? From the perspective of the seventeen year old girl, half the time they couldn’t figure out what they needed from their mother. So where are the mothers meant to start?

Marilyn’s life as a teenager revolves around her mother’s desire to make her rich and famous, while she sets her heart on studying. She falls in love with their neighbour, James, making life even more complicated. In contrast, Angie’s life as a teenager is one of secrets. All she knows is her father allegedly died before she was born, but Marilyn won’t say anything else so Angie must embark on a road trip towards the truth. Both women are strong-willed and characters that are so easy to align with. I found myself wrapped up in Marilyn and Angie’s mindsets entirely, almost as though I’d become them.

Dellaira’s literary style makes this book rich in atmosphere. I could feel the heat (temperature wise, calm down) and picture the apartments so vividly. I read the book a little bit at a time because it was overwhelming to absorb everything at once. The sensory details are incredible.

From the romance between Marilyn and James, to the dark twist, this book crossed genres and styles. It felt literary in parts, typically contemporary YA in others, but one thing is for sure: this is a thought-provoking and heart-shattering read pumped full of emotion. It stole all of my sympathy.

Love, Jess

Thank you for Hot Key Books for providing a copy for review.

Money Is So Awkward

Skylarks - Karen Gregory
Published by Bloomsbury on 3rd May 2018.
My rating: 4/5
Book Depository purchase link.

Money is so awkward and it's a topic often left out from the fictional world where people don't have to sleep, pay for things, or even use the bathroom. That's why Skylarks stood out to me so much. Don't worry, there weren't people going for toilet breaks every few pages, but there were characters with actual money problems.

It was so refreshing to read about a teenager with a job. When I was that age and working at Homebase, it felt like none of my friends really understood why I was working. None of them had any interest or need to get a job. Admittedly, it’s kind of hard to compare me to Joni, our main character. While she is under pressure to work so she can contribute towards her family, I was earning to pay for my own driving lessons. That huge detail aside, I think this book will offer something special to the working teen-readers who need to know that they’re not any less worthy because they need to work. In fact, they're doing school AND working and probably a million other things to. They're great!

Whether you’re 16 or 61, I don’t think money ever stops being awkward. Everyone has their own perspective of it, their own expectations and their own issues surrounding it. You reach a point where you phase into paying your own way and it’s awkward. You move in with other people and have to balance finances with other people and it’s awkward. You find you have different monetary priorities to your friends or earn a different amount and it’s awkward.

It’s even more awkward in Skylarks. Joni has grown up in a household that has always struggled, dealing with everything from unemployment and the stigma surrounding benefits to the prospect of homelessness. With an older brother that will fight the system all day every day and a younger brother who is still fairly innocent, she’s stuck. No matter what her parents say, she can’t see a way out via university or otherwise.

It becomes even more complicated when Joni meets Annabel - the girl who has everything. From the posh school to the mansion she lives in, Annabel’s life could not be more different from Joni. They make unlikely friends, let alone girlfriends, so the real enjoyment of the story is watching their progression together. It’s all about understanding someone that you think you can’t relate to.

Joni’s feisty personality is something to be admired and I loved how it spread across all sorts of scenes, from the first initial encounter with Annabel, to campaigning against the company looking to take over her estate. She’s a memorable character with plenty of badass traits.

This book is something that YA readers have been asking for - now it’s time to read it!

Love, Jess

Thank you Bloomsbury for sending a copy for review.

BLOG TOUR AND GIVEAWAY: I Have Lost My Way - Gayle Forman

I Have Lost My Way - Gayle Forman
Published by Simon & Schuster on 5th April 2018.
My rating: 4/5
Book Depository purchase link.

Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for I Have Lost My Way by the wonderful Gayle Forman. Having read some Gayle Forman before, I was very excited about her latest book and it definitely lived up to my high expectations.

The novel starts by following Freya, a singer who loses her voice while recording her debut album. It then splits into a three way narrative. Harun is hiding something from his family and planning to run away and Nathaniel has just arrived in New York, feeling completely reckless. Their lives entangle one morning and it turns into a life-changing day for all three of them.

I started this novel on an outbound train journey and finished it on the inbound one. It felt right to read a book that happens over the course of one day, in one day. It was like I was experiencing the story in real time and checking in to see what the characters were up to like you’d check social media to catch up with a friend. Books that are set in the one day have the power to really get you thinking about what a day can do. One day can change everything. Perspectives change and decisions can alter dramatically. It's both exciting and inspiring.

The story itself is beautifully told. The dynamics between Freya, Harun and Nathaniel makes this book light-hearted despite its deep conversations. From parents to sexuality, loss to friendship, this book is packed full of meaning and special moments. I can imagine it making a fantastic film because it balances humour with sensitive moments wonderfully.

If you're a fan of The Sun Is Also A Star, They Both Die At The End, or other YA contemporaries that turn one day into a crazy but wonderful story, I'd highly recommend I Have Lost My Way.

Simon & Schuster have very kindly provided a giveaway copy of the book for one of you! To be in with a chance of winning, all you have to do is share this blog post on social media and tag me @JessikahHope and @HashtagReads. Or, you can retweet this tweet.

The competition closes on 19th April 2018 at 5pm. The winner will be contacted by 22nd April. If the winner does not respond within 48 hours, an alternative winner will be selected. You must be 18 to enter this competition as I will need to request your address.

Love, Jess

Thank you Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of I Have Lost My Way for review.

REVIEW: I Was Born For This - Alice Oseman

I Was Born For This - Alice Oseman
Published by Harper Collins on 3rd May 2018.
My rating: 5/5
Book Depository purchase link.

I’m so excited to be reviewing this book because I loved it so much.

Mostly because it includes so many themes that I really enjoy reading about, such as:

  • Fandom
  • Music
  • Internet friends
  • Mental Health

I don’t know how Alice Oseman managed to pack so much greatness into one novel.

In some ways, I Was Born For This reminds me of Songs About A Girl by Chris Russell because it focuses on a boy band, The Ark. Jeez, imagine an X Factor final between The Ark and Fire & Lights…In other ways, it reminds me of Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia because of the exploration of fandom and celebrity status. Not to mention the dangers of keeping such a high profile secret.

I Was Born For This is told from two protagonists - Jimmy and Angel. Jimmy’s a member of The Ark and suffers from anxiety. Angel is one of his biggest fans and can’t wait to meet Jimmy before the band’s last concert of their tour. Even better, she’s planning to meet them with her online bestie, Juliet. I liked how it wasn’t all smooth in Angel and Juliet’s friendship and I appreciated the sassy inner thoughts Angel had because it added an excellent level of drama.

Reading about the behind the scenes life of a famous band is so much fun, I can’t ever get enough of it. From the crazy lifestyle to the heightened stakes of every situation, it’s all-consuming and addictive. This story goes even deeper with it’s depiction of mental health issues. Of course, every member of the band views their fame differently. For Jimmy, life is particularly tough. The way his anxiety was presented was gentle but relatable. I’m sure it’s something so many readers of this book will be familiar with. As well as mental health, there were loads of other examples of great representation, from Angel’s faith to Jimmy’s gender.

It was a fun-filled, although dramatic, story of finding happiness. While Angel and Jimmy have contrasting lifestyles, really, they’re both looking for the same thing.

Love, Jess

Thank you Harper Collins for providing a copy for review.

REVIEW: The Fear - C L Taylor

The Fear - C L Taylor
Published by Harper Collins on 22nd March 2018
My rating: 5/5
Book Depository purchase link.

FINALLY, I’m back to reading thrillers and I couldn’t have returned to them with a better book. The Fear is C L Taylor’s latest in a record of bestselling, plot-twisting set of thrillers and I couldn’t recommend them more! They have such depth and research that gives them a realistic grounding and one that thoroughly creeps me out. Somehow I always end up reading thrillers home alone at night and I couldn’t finish this book on one of those nights (the fear was real) or fall asleep. That was a consequence I was willing to accept.

The Fear follows Lou, a woman who was once a teenager abducted by her teacher. She thought they were in love and has been plagued by the memories of their messed-up relationship for years. As an adult, she ends up moving into town and seeing him again. This time, she’s got the strength to fight back.

As the dynamics of the story kept shifting, I couldn’t tell who was going to come out on top. Especially when the crucial third and fourth characters came into play. I loved the changing perspectives and gripping cliffhangers because I was well and truly hooked from the start. The power plays were such an engaging element. From Mike being her karate teacher and holding the position of power, to being the weaker, older man. I can’t say much more about this without giving the plot away but age, role, gender, so much of the story comes from who has the power and there’s a visual element that really sums this up well.

At times, it was hard to read because the story is so graphic and disturbing, but it never went too far for me. It only scarred my mind and made me jump every time I looked in the mirror… The sacrifices you have to make for reading good thrillers! Goodbye confidence of being able to be home alone!

C L Taylor is a talented thriller writer and you’d be mad to miss out on her latest astounding novel.

Love, Jess

Thank you Harper Collins for providing a copy for review.

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