Book Blurb:For fans of Becky Albertalli and Jenny Han, a sweetly funny YA debut about falling in love, family expectations, and being a Renaissance Man.
Danyal Jilani doesn’t lack confidence. He may not be the smartest guy in the room, but he’s funny, gorgeous, and going to make a great chef one day. His father doesn’t approve of his career choice, but that hardly matters. What does matter is the opinion of Danyal’s longtime crush, the perfect-in-all-ways Kaval, and her family, who consider him a less than ideal arranged marriage prospect. When Danyal gets selected for Renaissance Man, a school-wide academic championship, it’s the perfect opportunity to show everyone he’s smarter than they think. He recruits the brilliant, totally-uninterested-in-him Bisma to help with the competition, but the more time Danyal spends with her. . . the more he learns from her…the more he cooks for her. . . the more he realizes that happiness may be staring him right in his pretty face.
Tags: Young Adult, Pakistani-American, Muslim, Romance, Genocide, Sexual Assault, Arranged marriage, Humor
(I received an e-ARC, thanks to Little Brown and Company, Hear Our Voices Book Tours and NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. This does not affect my opinions on the book.)
More Than Just A Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood reminds me of The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe(which I thoroughly enjoyed, btw). It’s got humor, is in the guy’s POV, has romance and deals with deeper topics(specifically racial or religious issues). However, I have conflicted feelings for this book.
Let’s start with the Muslim representation. After finishing the book I’m left with the impression that Masood couldn’t decide whether to make it completely halal/Islamically appropriate or cater to readers with Western ideals. I do agree that some ideologies should be more lax in the Muslim community, but there are certain Islamic rules that you just simply cannot justify being ‘liberal’ about. Take halal food, for e.g. You can’t say it’s ok to eat non-halal food just once or twice while being perfectly aware of transgressing the rule and say that God is merciful so He won’t mind. I’m not saying that every Muslim’s gonna follow that rule 100% and we’d spend eternity in damnation if we crossed it, all I’m saying is that this is not a concept that should be encouraged.
Which brings me to my next point, this is not a book that you look to if you want a Muslim role model, because the ideals and principles are of a handful of individuals. No one’s perfect and we’re all following our beliefs according to our interpretations and choices. Maybe Danyal chooses to eat non-halal food now and then, but I choose not to because I don’t really have a very good reason to break that rule, especially seeing as nothing detrimental’s going to happen to me if I go without it. So you can’t take one individual’s actions to represent the whole religion, is what I’m saying.
However, I do like the juxtaposition of the ‘super religious’ best friend and the non-practicing best friend. Some readers disapproved the depiction of the religious friend which bordered on religion-obsessed and seeming like a guy who doesn’t know modern colloquialisms or possess any sense of humor. While I do agree there should be more nuanced inclusions of these type of characters because, newsflash, you can stick to your religion while also not be boring. But I think Masood was handling a different side to that kind of religious zealot, namely how a couple of factors can come together to create the perfect maelstrom for a previously sound person to become a terrorist. Thankfully, intervention came in time before it got too out of hand, although I should stress that it was also up to the individual to heed the warning than to disregard it. There are some people, who, no matter what religion or race, will interpret things with their own filter only. What I did like was how some of the things Danyal wondered, about Islam, were also things I’ve questioned.
Islam, to me, is a religion of contradictions, but to boil down such a complex and long-standing religion to one line would be erraneous. Islam is kind of like how Lyra Belacqua uses the the golden compass(in The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman), when she asks it a question the ‘compass’ would point to various symbols. Each symbol stands for multiple meanings, so, with the help of the context and her knowledge of all the meanings, she has to use her prerogative to determine the answer. It’s also like that story of ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’, you have to see the whole.
I liked that there was quite a bit of humor in this story, Danyal’s character reminds me a lot of Ben Philippe’s Norris Kaplan, his over-confidence masking a need to be liked, cheekiness and good heart. Danyal’s playful as opposed to Norris’ cynical nature, and I love how pure Danyal’s heart is, sometimes surprising you with his maturity. He’s an adorable upstanding guy with a streak of irresistible cheekiness most girls would fawn over and serious people would find insufferable. His cluelessness added to that, though at times it was bordering on ignorant or unrealistic(who doesn’t know the term ‘break a leg’?), making it seem like it was just the author trying to squeeze in one more joke. At times, the author also seems to not heed his own advice. Like when Danyal thinks his carefree friend doesn’t know when to stop joking, yet some of his own jokes are uttered in the wrong moments, coming off as insensitive.
The various side characters in Danyal’s life were lovely and likeable in that tough-love way(if we’re not talking about the unlikeliness of so many people in your life being able to give you great advice happening in real life). The attitude towards masculinity was also healthy in this book.
I couldn’t do this without help. Was it weak to admit that? I don’t think so. A man should know his limitations.Danyal Jilani, ‘More Than Just A Pretty Face’ by Syed M. Masood
Bisma Akram’s, one of the love interests, story, wow. I want to give a round of applause to Masood for opening discussion on the topic of sexual assault and the stigma surrounding it in the Muslim(and possibly other) community. (I have to mention here that many of the flabbergasting practices and beliefs found in Muslim communities are actually culturally-derived. Islam never said it was ok to bury daughters, or kill them in the name of honor, or blame them for being victims of assault, or that they’re lesser because of it and now have to carry that ‘shame’, to name a few. These abominable practices have its roots in misogynism and corrupted individuals.) I think Masood handled it beautifully, bringing many facets of it to the surface, the belief of having ‘dishonored’ the family, the double standards, the total injustice of victims having to live with the stain longer than the perpetrators, and so on. I also appreciated when both main characters voiced that Bisma didn’t need a knight-in-shining-armor to come save her. However, I don’t know why the story ended up with Bisma still having someone come ‘save’ her, she didn’t really do anything on her own to change her situation. Now, she didn’t stand around twiddling her thumbs, but she also didn’t actively play a major role in fixing her ordeal.
Some people, even if their beliefs were outdated or imbalanced or just wrong, seemed to be unable to appreciate the validity of other experiences.Danyal Jilani, ‘More Than Just A Pretty Face’ by Syed M. Masood
For some reason, when it comes to the sexual habits of women, all of a sudden, men become very concerned with their honor.Algie Tippett, ‘More Than Just A Pretty Face’ by Syed M. Masood
And finally, one of the main topics of this novel, the man-made famine of 2-3 million Indians by celebrated figure, Winston Churchill. That’s a whole load to unpack and I won’t do that here as the book has done it better than I could have, but I’ll just say that it has taught me a new way of looking at history and seeing its importance even though it’s, for lack of a better word, history.
The problem we had to face was that the story that allowed Churchill to be monstrous—the colonial mind-set, the mind-set of supremacy based on race and nationality—was still alive.Danyal Jilani, ‘More Than Just A Pretty Face’ by Syed M. Masood
One of the most enjoyable aspects of reading stories with representation of your own country/religion/race/culture is the overwhelming and joyous feeling of being able to relate to the character’s life, and this book did not disappoint!
There is a time in every desi boy’s life, if he’s growing up in a traditional, arranged marriage type of family anyway, when his parents ask him what is absolutely, without doubt, the most awkward question in the world: “What kind of girl do you want?”Danyal Jilani, ‘More Than Just A Pretty Face’ by Syed M. Masood
So, even with all its many flaws and hiccups, More Than Just A Pretty Face brought to the table some heavy-hitting topics that managed to save it. Not just mentioned, more importantly, it was done well. And despite all my criticisms, I quite enjoyed reading this relatable South East Asian-American romcom that’s full of heart, and was glad when one of my hunches were proved wrong(that part when Danyal is talking to Sohrab in the middle of the night and Sohrab hears something. I was so sure it was going to go a certain predictable direction but it didn’t, to my utter relief!).
Parental Guidance: 12+
Violence – Some verbal abuse. One character is a victim of sexual assault.
Suggestive – A mention of someone being sexually assaulted off-page.
Religion – Majority of the characters in this book identify as Muslims(some don’t practice it).
Profanity – Medium
Recommended for: Those who like romcoms, books with character growth and flawed people, and those that deal with deeper topics like colonialism and sexual assault stigma. Also, those who’d like to see a Muslim navigating teen life in a Western country while practicing their religion. This is also an enjoyable book for Asian(especially South East Asian) or Muslim readers as they can relate to the protagonist’s life.
About The Author
I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, and currently live in Sacramento, California. There have been plenty of stops in between though. I’m a first generation immigrant, twice over. I’ve been a citizen of three different countries and lived in nine cities.
I am, as Goethe, said, “nothing but a wanderer […] on this earth.”
Living among different people, in different countries at fascinating times in their histories, has shaped both my view of the world and my writing. Ultimately, human beings are the same everywhere (despite the fact that they tell themselves, everywhere, that they are different from each other), and the theme of this fundamental human unity informs everything I write.
As to my life outside of writing, I went to the William and Mary School of Law, and before that attended the University of Toronto, where I studied English Literature. I am currently practicing as an attorney and must “measure out my life in coffee spoons” on a daily basis.
Some members of my family will tell you that I’m also a poet. This isn’t true. I wrote a few poems in Urdu when I was a teenager, and I’ve never heard the end of it…which I wouldn’t mind, honestly, if they were any good. As it is, I’m very happy living in prose, thank you very much.
Other interests include good food, video games, sitcoms, and books of all kinds. Most of my time that doesn’t go to writing or billable hours is consumed by my two children, four and two years of age.
And now, for the extra part to my tour post!
- If you like teen stories with a male POV and a side of romance, you might like:
The Field Guide to a North American Teenager
by Ben Philippe
Norris Kaplan is clever, cynical, and quite possibly too smart for his own good. A Black French Canadian, he knows from watching American sitcoms that those three things don’t bode well when you are moving to Austin, Texas.
Plunked into a new high school and sweating a ridiculous amount from the oppressive Texas heat, Norris finds himself cataloging everyone he meets: the Cheerleaders, the Jocks, the Loners, and even the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Making a ton of friends has never been a priority for him, and this way he can at least amuse himself until it’s time to go back to Canada, where he belongs.
Yet against all odds, those labels soon become actual people to Norris…like loner Liam, who makes it his mission to befriend Norris, or Madison the beta cheerleader, who is so nice that it has to be a trap. Not to mention Aarti the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who might, in fact, be a real love interest in the making.
But the night of the prom, Norris screws everything up royally. As he tries to pick up the pieces, he realizes it might be time to stop hiding behind his snarky opinions and start living his life-along with the people who have found their way into his heart.
My thoughts: Omg, the humor in this caught me by surprise so many times. The most I’ve laughed since reading Three Men in A Boat! And the first book in the male’s POV where I found myself enjoying the romance! A word of warning though, the MC is a character you’ll either love or find insufferable. I found myself in the former group.
- If you like halal romances, you might like:
Ayesha At Last
by Uzma Jalaluddin
Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn’t want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid, who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices and who dresses like he belongs in the seventh century. When a surprise engagement is announced between Khalid and Hafsa, Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and the unsettling new gossip she hears about his family. Looking into the rumors, she finds she has to deal with not only what she discovers about Khalid, but also the truth she realizes about herself.
My thoughts: This was a sweet story with realistic characters and a romance that was close to a 100% halal. Don’t mistake sweet for shallow though. Like More Than A Pretty Face, it dealt with some important topics, like navigating xenophobia in the workplace and balancing your beliefs with expectations that come with your job role. Muslims and readers interested in seeing the perspective of a Muslim would equally enjoy this book.
- If you like Asian romance novels with a male POV, where the characters navigate life with Asian and Western influences, you might like…
Frankly In Love
by David Yoon
Two friends. One fake dating scheme. What could possibly go wrong?
Frank Li has two names. There’s Frank Li, his American name. Then there’s Sung-Min Li, his Korean name. No one uses his Korean name, not even his parents. Frank barely speaks any Korean. He was born and raised in Southern California. Even so, his parents still expect him to end up with a nice Korean girl–which is a problem, since Frank is finally dating the girl of his dreams: Brit Means. Brit, who is funny and nerdy just like him. Brit, who makes him laugh like no one else. Brit. . . who is white. As Frank falls in love for the very first time, he’s forced to confront the fact that while his parents sacrificed everything to raise him in the land of opportunity, their traditional expectations don’t leave a lot of room for him to be a regular American teen.
Desperate to be with Brit without his parents finding out, Frank turns to family friend Joy Song, who is in a similar bind. Together, they come up with a plan to help each other and keep their parents off their backs. Frank thinks he’s found the solution to all his problems, but when life throws him a curve ball, he’s left wondering whether he ever really knew anything about love—or himself—at all.
- If you like stories with arranged marriages(not the same as forced marriage, mind you), you might like…
When Dimple Met Rishi
by Sandhya Menon
Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Ugh. Dimple knows they must respect her principles on some level, though. If they truly believed she needed a husband right now, they wouldn’t have paid for her to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers…right?
Rishi Patel is a hopeless romantic. So when his parents tell him that his future wife will be attending the same summer program as him—wherein he’ll have to woo her—he’s totally on board. Because as silly as it sounds to most people in his life, Rishi wants to be arranged, believes in the power of tradition, stability, and being a part of something much bigger than himself.
The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this “suggested arrangement” so early in their children’s lives, but when they noticed them both gravitate toward the same summer program, they figured, Why not? Dimple and Rishi may think they have each other figured out. But when opposites clash, love works hard to prove itself in the most unexpected ways.
- If you like stories about marriages in Muslim communities(it might differ slightly from country to country), you might like…
by Soniah Kamal
An essential guide to marriage, class and sisterhood in modern-day Pakistan.
Alys Binat has found happiness teaching English literature to schoolgirls. Although she knows that many of her students won’t finish their education before dropping out to marry, Alys still hopes to inspire them to dream of more than what’s expected. When an invitation arrives for the biggest wedding their town has seen in years, Mrs Binat excitedly prepares her five unmarried daughters to hunt for prospective husbands.
On the first night of the festivities, Alys’s eldest sister, Jena, catches the eye of Fahad Bingla. But his friend Valentine Darsee is clearly unimpressed by the Binat family. As the days of lavish wedding parties unfold, the Binats wait breathlessly to see if Jena will land a proposal – and Alys begins to realise that Darsee’s manner may hide a very different man to the one she judged at first sight.