This year, Publishers Weekly named Andrea Kleine‘s novel Calf and Michael Muhammad Knight‘s Why I Am a Salafi amongst its Best Books of 2015. Calf was selected for the fiction category and Why I Am a Salafi was selected for the religion category. Read their fantastic starred Publishers Weekly reviews below. Congratulations Andrea and Michael!
At the start of this debut novel, Kleine explains that the story was influenced by two acts of violence in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s: John Hinckley Jr.’s attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan, and the murder of a young girl by her socialite mother, Leslie deVeau (Hinckley and deVeau became lovers after both were found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the same mental institution). Kleine uses these incidents as springboards for her story, but she smartly deviates from the facts to maximize suspense. Hinckley’s stand-in here is Jeffrey Hackney, a college dropout from Texas with dreams of fame. He moves to Los Angeles before heading to D.C. in hopes of attracting the attention of a young starlet. Like his real-life counterpart, Hackney suffers from delusions, manipulates his family, and becomes more and more mentally unstable. Meanwhile, 10-year-old Tammy moves from Virginia to the nation’s capital with her mother, sister, stepbrother, and stepfather after her parents divorce. Though Tammy makes friends at her new school, she feels isolated, and when her friend Kirin is murdered in her sleep by her own mother, Tammy too becomes unstable and starts down a dark, dangerous path. Dread stalks every page, and the result is unsettling, scary, and often brilliant. For readers looking for a sharp, twisted narrative, this is a keeper. (Oct.)
Knight (The Taqwacores) invites readers into “the desert of the real Islam,” offering a deconstructionist take on Islamic texts, tradition, transmission, and theology. Known for celebrating “an Islam of rejected possibilities and subaltern voices,” Knight takes a different tack here by focusing on the fundamentalist perspective. What he discovers is a personalized Salafism that focuses on his individual quest for spiritual origins. For much of the book Knight explains his personal evolution as a converted Muslim through discussions of his early, formative reading experiences (The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Yusuf Ali’s The Meanings of the Holy Qur’an) simultaneously introducing readers to many narratives, names, and notables from Islamic history. Yet his conclusion lacks insightful commentary on the habits of this lived and communal “post-authentic Islam,” which does the practicing Muslim reader little good. For Knight, there is no authentic, orthodox, or authoritative Islam, but instead a tangle of traditions. Although the book poses many difficult questions that are never answered, Knight’s ambitious scope and captivating voice make Why I Am a Salafi a must-read for those interested in an alternative side of Islam. (Aug.)