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YA Review: The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar

The Thirty Names of Night

AuthorZeyn Joukhadar

Year Published: 2020

Category: YA fiction (LGBTQ)
Pages: 304
Rating: 3 or 4?? out of 5 (I just don't know what to rate this one!)

Location (my 2021 Google Reading map)USA (NY, IL, OH, MI), Syria, Lebanon

Summary (from Amazon): Five years after a suspicious fire killed his ornithologist mother, a closeted Syrian American trans boy sheds his birth name and searches for a new one. He has been unable to paint since his mother’s ghost has begun to visit him each evening. As his grandmother’s sole caretaker, he spends his days cooped up in their apartment, avoiding his neighborhood masjid, his estranged sister, and even his best friend (who also happens to be his longtime crush). The only time he feels truly free is when he slips out at night to paint murals on buildings in the once-thriving Manhattan neighborhood known as Little Syria.

One night, he enters the abandoned community house and finds the tattered journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z, who dedicated her career to painting the birds of North America. She famously and mysteriously disappeared more than sixty years before, but her journal contains proof that both his mother and Laila Z encountered the same rare bird before their deaths. In fact, Laila Z’s past is intimately tied to his mother’s—and his grandmother’s—in ways he never could have expected. Even more surprising, Laila Z’s story reveals the histories of queer and transgender people within his own community that he never knew. Realizing that he isn’t and has never been alone, he has the courage to officially claim a new name: Nadir, an Arabic name meaning rare.

As unprecedented numbers of birds are mysteriously drawn to the New York City skies, Nadir enlists the help of his family and friends to unravel what happened to Laila Z and the rare bird his mother died trying to save. Following his mother’s ghost, he uncovers the silences kept in the name of survival by his own community, his own family, and within himself, and discovers the family that was there all along.

Review:  I didn't know much about this book when I started it. As usual, I read the summary ages ago, thought it sounded good, got a copy, then didn't reread the summary before I began it months later. I kind of like going into books not knowing what they are about. What I did know is that it has won a couple of awards:
  • Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction
  • Winner of the ALA Stonewall Book Award—Barbara Gittings Literature Award
So, as you can see above, I don't know what to rate this book. On Goodreads it has 4.01 with almost 2,000 ratings and on Amazon it has 99 ratings with an average of 4.3 so people obviously like it. I can totally see why. It's well written, has depth, covers interesting topics and issues, and more. But it just didn't do it for me. I couldn't get into it and I don't know if it's just bad timing since it was a crazy busy week and I read it in short spurts. I just can't give it a low rating even though I wasn't that into it.

Ok. Here's something I did not click with: the birds. They are everywhere in real life, in the main character's paintings, metaphorically there, etc. And ghosts. I tend not to be into ghosts in my novels (but so many people are!).

Things I thought it did well: life as a trans man. We really get to read what it's like to go through the thought process of the main character in an emotional and well done way. The novel also deals with social class really well. One of the things I thought was really thoughtful was the way community and our responsibility to others is portrayed and woven into the actions of the characters (especially now, given how many Americans are not feeling responsible to the larger community's health and welfare). The connection to others--both in one's sphere and those in the past--was very strong.

So, I recommend this book even though it wasn't the right one for me.

Challenges for which this counts: 
  • Diversity--trans character, Arab American character and author
  • Literary Escapes--Lebanon

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