Hollow Fires by Samira Ahmed
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers (The NOVL)
Release Date: May 10, 2022
Cover Illustrator: Dana Ledl
[Received an ARC through Yallwest]
Summary: Safiya Mirza dreams of becoming a journalist. And one thing she’s learned as editor of her school newspaper is that a journalist’s job is to find the facts and not let personal biases affect the story. But all that changes the day she finds the body of a murdered boy. Jawad Ali was fourteen years old when he built a cosplay jetpack that a teacher mistook for a bomb. A jetpack that got him arrested, labeled a terrorist—and eventually killed. But he’s more than a dead body, and more than “Bomb Boy.” He was a person with a life worth remembering. Driven by Jawad’s haunting voice guiding her throughout her investigation, Safiya seeks to tell the whole truth about the murdered boy and those who killed him because of their hate-based beliefs.
My Rating: ★★★★☆
My Thoughts: Hollow Fires brings forth not only a sharply crafted mystery, but in addition provides commentary on various topics surrounding race and contemporary journalism, making for a haunting read. Through mixed media and dual POV, Safiya Mirza’s personal connection to a case the media has chosen to ignore sparks her to complete the investigation! Through a compelling heroine and page-turning plot, this gripping and twisty YA Thriller weaves in deeper discussions while also delivering a murder-mystery you will not be able to put down!
Safiya Mirza, one of the main protagonists, is a high school senior and aspiring journalist who challenges herself to uncover the truth. I sincerely hope if you love YA Thrillers and Mystery novels, you pick up this book, it not only left me speechless but also very emotional with the addition of new clues to the case.
She becomes consumed with solving the case of Jawad Ali, a missing 14-year-old Iraqi-American boy who built a jetpack only to be labeled as a terrorist and received lots of media attention, who then went missing some time later. Sadly, his case was soon forgotten by the authorities. Her observations that her Chicago community (coming from many places) doesn’t put forth the priorities to find Jawad, in addition to the hate crimes and white supremacist threats around her town, propels her with a deep connection to helping Jawad and give his case the closure it needs. Using her position at her high school Du Sable Prep’s newspaper, it becomes a platform for her to uncover and face the truths about her community.
Now to what makes this book so heartbreaking…we get to read from Jawad’s perspective (who is now a ghost) and reflecting not only on his life, but the tragic event (in addition to those that followed) which forced him to become known as “Bomb Boy.” There’s glimpses the reader can imagine about Jawad’s life and all that could have been ahead, in addition to the present moments of his mother & father grieving for him, hoping he is still out there, which makes his chapters even more of a sorrowful read.
As someone who studied journalism, I deeply enjoyed how Ahmed’s novel made me question and confront traditional / digital media, especially with the harmful biases that can be perpetuated. In any field (as with anything in life) there can always be improvements and I appreciated how this story made me wonder in what ways it can be better or how it can benefit marginalized and especially voices of color, much more. Journalistically speaking, we see how the plot delves more into the investigative side, source gathering, but within the narrative it also brings forth more topics/questions that a beginner journalist like Safiya has to confront: how does one collect sources and clues with as much accuracy as possible, how opinion pieces can strike powerful conversation, and how each clue or source builds a bigger picture.
I often struggle with reading mysteries / thrillers (as you can probably tell from the lack of them on my blog), however Ahmed did such a fantastic job at just pulling the reader and delivering a compelling case! In addition, not only were the mixed media elements tied into the plot to elaborate further on how the media perpetuates the cycle of harmful conversations leading to the conversations of Islamophobia or racism, but also bringing Safiya’s personal connection to the case made it an even more emotionally moving narrative. This added, in my opinion, a deeper thread to the case which is often missing or never present with other contemporary young adult true crime / sleuth novels. If you enjoy a page-turning mystery mixed with elements of journalism, perhaps even are a fan of A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder for some of those exact pieces as well, you should read Ahmed’s novel.
From Safiya’s friends like Asma and Usman, to her parents, in addition to knowing about Jawad and his parents as well, this YA Contemporary makes the themes of family (especially community) feel so very present throughout the story from both perspectives. There’s this heightened sense of intensity and unease in solving the mystery because as Saifya learns its so close to her hometown, the more the pieces reveal the full scope of what happened to Jawad.
The book fantastically weaves together the mystery and contemporary themes while also showing how it intersects with society at large. However in making this an equally chilling thriller, Ahmed balances the more personal / typical high school experience in such a seamless way from Safi’s crush on classmate Richard to thinking about dances, etc. it had a nice balance overall. However, as an adult reader it can feel like the all these grander, intersecting themes could be overshadowed and not given enough page time because of Safi’s closely personal, immersive narrative. For teen audiences it does the job of introducing all these topics and conversations, however just from my perspective it would have been great to expand on them a bit more with how they intersect.
Thoroughly enjoyed reading from both Safi and Jawad’s perspectives, but reading from Jawad and his point-of-view was truly so heartbreaking as he’s seeing all this from the other side. On the other hand he finds himself connected to Safi, trying to push her into the right direction to solve his murder so he isn’t forgotten. I won’t spoil what happens, but seeing how their stories meet had me sobbing 😭💔
The first-person writing builds enough layers to the themes and societal messages while balancing Safiya’s life at school and presenting that importance & exploration of having that inviting community, especially with how meaningful it can be among POC / immigrant communities, from my perspective. There were moments the writing could have been more descriptive to build the scene and I’m wishing that the mixed media portions we’re spread more throughout the story, however in general how they were used to delve into the topics of race and Islamophobia, in addition to particular voices’ lack of awareness was brought well into the plot.
As a standalone novel, it achieved all it set out to do in my opinion and I believe while Ahmed left the story on quite a realistic note, the journey itself makes Safi and Jawad’s story come to life that I’m sure to remember this book for quite a while. This is a book that left me thinking with its truthful messages about the media, as well as the depth and messages it has throughout its pages. What also made this reading experience so special, is that my mom had actually been reading this with me too! It meant a lot that we could find time to talk about this book together (and though she’s not done with it yet 😅) I love that we were delving into so many of the subjects presented in the story or expand on them.
Hollow Fires is definitely a master-class in contemporary, social thriller storytelling that you will be unable to put down. Exceptionally crafted from its themes to the commentary, well-developed characters, this is a YA Thriller both thoughtful and chilling. A stand-out mystery sure to leave you turning the page!