Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Scarlett Undercover

I read this book entirely on accident.  Andrea and I planned to read the book Velvet Undercover for January's Reader vs. Reader feature on Teen Services Underground, but I messed up the name in my brain and read this one instead.  Whoops!


In any case, Scarlett Undercover is a quick read, but I can't say that I loved it.  I'm not even sure how much I liked it.  The author had some interesting ideas, but I don't think that the book succeeded in integrating them into one cohesive narrative.

The best part of this book is Scarlett herself.  She's snarky, funny, conflicted, and totally relatable.  She is the star of the show, not the mystery or the mythology that's introduced.  As odd as it sounds, Scarlett pulls off the rather out-there concept of a  Muslim-American 16 year-old private detective with sass.

Her Abbi's murder sparked Scarlett's interest in detecting.  She befriended the detective who worked on her father's case, Emmett, and he taught her the tricks of the trade.  Now she has her own office, her own business cards, and a case that is spiraling out of control into the realm of the supernatural.

A young girl named Gemma walks into Scarlett's office and wants to hire her to investigate the suicide of her brother's friend.  She claims that the friend was driven to it--by her brother, and that makes it murder.  Scarlett, naturally, is skeptical.  Gemma insists that her brother has been acting really strange lately, but all teenage boys are strange, right?  But the pain in her eyes convinces Scarlett to at least check it out.

Meanwhile, at home, she juggles doing her chores, maybe saying her prayers, going to the mosque with her sister, just plain seeing her sister, and keeping Mook, her unofficial babysitter who also claims he's Scarlett's guardian angel, satisfied that she's not in any trouble.  But yeah, getting involved with a rich and powerful family whose son has carved strange symbols into his walls and his arm ... that's trouble.  Freaking out the family friend, Delilah, who runs a diner?  Trouble.  Trying to figure out what to do when you are attracted to your friend's son Decker, who has the same strange eyes as all of the people who have been tailing and threatening you?  Major trouble.

I liked the story as a mystery, but when it made this huge leap over to Islamic ifrit who are going to come back and destroy the world, well ... I got a little lost.  Mook really is a legitimate guardian angel, and all of the people with the funky eyes are descendants of jinn.  There's even a secret society to boot!  Also Maltese Falcon-esque statues to kill for, and a gumshoe who's sixteen and can't stop calling her clients "kid."

Although Scarlett is a fun character, and I liked how she was presented as a Muslim-American teen dealing with life and what she actually believes.  However, why is she named Scarlett?  Her sister's name is Reem, so what made her parents go with "Scarlett"?  She also talks about tucking her unruly curls into a "tam."  Per a very official Twitter poll, most people identified a tam as a Scottish beret-style hat, usually with a pompom.  Tams that I've seen are quite close to the head and wouldn't have room for voluminous curls.  Unless she's talking about a Rasta tam, but that didn't seem likely either.  I mean, what sixteen year-old uses the word "tam" for "hat"?  "Beanie" or even "cap" would be more likely.5 b

Her crush/boyfriend Decker is nice enough, but at first I thought he was Jewish because he identifies the super-secret symbol of the sect as Solomon's Knot from seeing it at his synagogue.  However, I never got the impression that his mom, Delilah, was Jewish, and his long-lost-not-quite-dead-yet dad is most definitely Muslim.  Deck believes in the Shubaak, the Children of Iblis, and jinn.  I also felt uncomfortable with a shadowy, sinister figure being named Fagin, as if that name didn't have enough negative connotations for Jewish people.

And then there's Scarlett's profession: P.I. at age sixteen, having tested out of high school.  Maybe that would work back in the 1930s, when Nancy Drew came onto the scene.  But I would think that any police detective found outsourcing his work to a sixteen year old or teaching her how to spot a tail would be fired.  How does Scarlett have an office?  Who actually refers to themselves as a "gumshoe" nowadays except for in jest?

I'm also disappointed that we didn't get a Muslim-American protagonist written by a Muslim-American writer.  Latham says that she researched Islamic and Arabic culture and tried to be as culturally sensitive as possible, which is good.  But.  I didn't feel the same level of internal conflict in Scarlett as I do when I read G. Willow Wilson's Ms. Marvel.  I can't fault the author for being white, but I still think that we need more stories by people from the culture being written about.

A mixed bag.  I'm not sure who I'd recommend this to, besides mystery-lovers or tweens fascinated by jinn.


2 comments:

  1. Yes, it does sound strange. And yes, it does sound like a case of cultural appropriation. At the very least, the author should have discussed it with a Muslim friend first - and if she doesn't know any(and I bet she doesn't know too many Jews either)she shouldn't be doing this. It sounds like it might have made a perfectly good teen mystery/fantasy without the religion, though, yes, unlikely because of the teen being allowed to handle cases.
    Thing is, these days writers are always being pestered to be culturally inclusive -"we want diverse books" indeed! If you don't do it you're told off for not being diverse. If you do, you're told off for appropriating. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. And while it would be nice for Muslims, Jews, African Americans, etc to be writing about their own, it can be a bit much to expect there to be enough.

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    1. I really support the We Need Diverse Books movement as a whole, but there are some voices that come through that make it seem like we need diverse books NO MATTER WHAT, which isn't the same. I like the Twitter #ownvoices hashtag, for books about LGBTQ/Muslim/persons with disabilities BY people who consider themselves part of that group. It's a lot more authentic. The whole thing seems to be turning into a Catch-22, however.

      I should clarify that her notes state that she spoke to a Muslim person about it (just one?), but like any major religion, there are a lot of variances as to what people believe, how they practice their religion, and so forth. Talking to one person (and a man, not a teenage girl) isn't going to give the whole picture.

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