Cover Reveal: More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed Masood
It’s the last cover reveal for the Spring and Summer 2020 season, and we have just the perfect book to close it out! More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood is perfect for fans of Becky Albertalli and Jenny Han—it’s a sweetly funny YA rom-com debut about arranged marriage, falling in love, familial expectations, and being a Renaissance Man.
Danyal Jilani has no lack of 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.
Then Danyal gets selected for the Renaissance Man, a school-wide academic championship and 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.
Because the book is more than just a pretty cover, we decided to put the first chapter of the book to give you a snippet into Danyal’s Renaissance life.
“I’m more than just a pretty face.”
“Oh really?” Kaval Sabsvari asked, her warm brown eyes sparkling with suppressed laughter. “Tell me, Danyal Jilani, how exactly are you more than just a pretty face?”
I gave her an adorable, irresistible grin. “I’m an absolutely gorgeous face.”
She rolled her eyes.
“I’m just saying, I may not be at the top of the graduating class—”
“Aren’t you actually at the bottom of the class?”
I shook my head. “They don’t keep track of things like that at my school.”
“They do. We go to the same school. We’re, like, literally here now.”
Kaval was right. We were both seniors at Aligheri Prep and were standing outside Mr. Tippett’s history class, waiting for the door to open. She was so popular that I rarely had the chance to be alone with her. Now that I had the opportunity, I was going to use it to flirt shamelessly.
You couldn’t blame me. Hotter than my grandmother’s homemade, weapons-grade, unripe mango achar, Kaval was the star of my spiciest dreams. Unfortunately, she was also Sohrab’s twin sister, and Sohrab was one of my best friends, so I usually had to pretend I didn’t have feelings for her.
“You know,” I said, “I’ve heard that women shouldn’t insist on being told the truth. It isn’t attractive.”
“Wow. Well…fuck you very much.”
I gasped dramatically. “Ms. Sabsvari, how are your parents going to find a good desi boy for you to marry if you use your mouth to say such scandalous things?”
Kaval crossed her arms at her waist. She was wearing a deep purple floral dress that came down to her ankles. It was supposed to be modest, I guess, but this girl’s body had not gotten that memo. She could’ve made a burka look sexy.
Okay, so she couldn’t really, because that’s impossible. Still, it would’ve been nice to be brave enough to say that kind of thing to her.
“Then what should I use my mouth for?” Kaval asked, tilting her head to one side. Was she flirting back? As a stupid grin spread across my face, she held up a finger in warning. “Don’t. I know it’s difficult for you, but please don’t say something gross.”
“Fine…but only because you’re cute.”
Her smile returned. “Really?”
“Not as cute as me, though.”
“Of course. Still, you think so?”
Honestly, I was completely gaga over Kaval. In fact, I liked to tell myself that I’d gotten held back in the seventh grade on purpose so I could be around her more. It wasn’t what had happened, but that wasn’t important.
What was important was that I now had a chance to say something sweet to Kaval. I tried to come up with a good compliment, but that’s hard to do when you’ve just been called out for fudging the truth about your grades a tiny bit. I decided to say something perfectly accurate.
“Sure. I mean, you aren’t the most beautiful woman in the world or anything, but—”
As her jaw dropped open, and I realized I should probably stop talking, the bell signaling the end of the lunch period went off. I sighed, glancing down the dull green hallway that would start filling up with other students soon. My alone time with Kaval was about to end, and I hadn’t come close to saying what I wanted to say.
I’d wanted to talk to her about…well, not a date, exactly, because neither one of us was allowed to date. I guess I’d wanted us to have a conversation about having a conversation.
You know, the Muslim version of first base.
Instead, she’d asked me if I’d done the assignment that was due today—I hadn’t—and that had somehow led to a discussion of how poorly I was doing in Mr. Tippett’s class. This was not how I’d imagined things would go when I’d seen Kaval leaving the cafeteria and had abandoned my shami kabab and ketchup sandwich to hurry after her.
“Nice,” she said, her tone cold and sour with irritation.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean for it to sound like that. You know that I’m an idiot, right?”
Thankfully, Kaval chuckled a bit at that. “Everyone knows, Danyal.”
That was a little harsh, but also undisputable. Anyway, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was finding a way to move this conversation from being about me to being about us.
As I opened my mouth to do just that, Kaval spotted a couple of her friends and waved them over.
My moment was gone.
It wasn’t long before the hallway was crowded with thirty or so other students, all of them buzzing about who Tippett would choose to enter into this year’s Renaissance Man. It was the kind of thing that was typical of a bougie private school like Aligheri Prep—a contest where teachers picked their best students to present a paper to an auditorium full of proud parents and bored friends.
Tippett always got a pick because history was a “core” class that was taught all year, not just for one semester. English, math, physics, bio, chem, geography, and econ were the others. The heads of those departments always rushed to nominate a senior to represent their subject, each trying to scoop up the crème de la crème before someone else did. Tippett, for some reason, usually waited until the last minute.
All around me, I heard the same tired grumbling as every year. Why did the different kinds of sciences each get their own entry, but calculus, trigonometry, and algebra had to share one? Why did they even bother with geography, when it never won? Stuff like that.
I’d never understood why everyone got so worked up over Renaissance Man. Sure, it looked great on college applications, and you got a tiny gold-painted statue that looked a lot like the Academy Award dude clutching a book to his chest, but I didn’t care about any of that.
Of course, there was also a $5,000 cash prize and a free pass on the final exam of the subject you presented your paper on. Both of those things I could use.
Students like me, however, didn’t get picked for Renaissance Man. It was only for the best and the brightest.
Ignoring talk of the contest, I spent a little time with my phone, occasionally sneaking glimpses of Kaval with her pack of friends, until Intezar found me, a frown on his face.
“You totally ditched me, yaar.”
This was true. When I’d rushed out of the cafeteria to follow Kaval, I’d not only abandoned my sandwich, but also my other best friend. “Yeah. Sorry about that.”
“You’re such a dupatta chaser,” Intezar grumbled. “I ate the rest of your lunch, by the way.”
“Fair,” I said.
He gave a pointed nod toward where Kaval was standing. “How’d it go?”
“So great. We talked about my grades.”
Intezar snorted. “Smooth. Hey, who does she think Tippett is going to enter into Renaissance Man? There’s a rumor that it might be her.”
Kaval hadn’t mentioned that. Maybe she just didn’t want to get her own hopes up. Renaissance Man would definitely appeal to her. She didn’t need the money or the help with college admissions, but she was super smart and she’d want to win.
“It didn’t come up. She probably forgot all about the contest because of how distracting she finds me.”
“Right,” Zar said, making no effort to hide how unlikely he thought that was.
Then, to change the subject more than anything else, I demanded to know when he’d get up the nerve to ask Natari Smith out.
Zar was between girlfriends, and he was always a little depressed when that happened. It didn’t help that his latest crush was someone he thought was out of his league. It also didn’t help—though he’d never admit it—that his parents had recently separated, and he was living with his father, who was always out of town on one business trip or another. Zar wasn’t very good at being alone.
Anyway, I let Zar go on about how wonderful Natari was. I’d heard it all before, more than once, but he needed to repeat himself. I got it. I was the same way when it came to Kaval, and Intezar was the only one I could talk to about her. He never interrupted me when I got started either. Good friends, after all, care enough to pretend to listen.
Algie Tippett had a small plaster bust of Winston Churchill on the podium from which he delivered his lectures. It was his habit to place a hand on the bust’s bald head before he started teaching. His voice was thin and reedy, and he spoke slowly, like a stoned turtle.
He’d been working at Aligheri Preparatory Academy for an eternity—like forty years or something—and his lectures felt like they’d gotten old with him. There were people who thought he was a great teacher, but as far as I could tell, all he did was deliver long speeches from memory in a really bored voice.
It wasn’t long before I found myself thinking about Kaval, not as she looked today, but as she had looked two days ago, when I’d dropped by to visit Sohrab, and she’d opened the door a little out of breath. She’d been wearing a tank top and leggings and had obviously been working out, because her ponytail had been messy, the hair around her ears damp, and her skin flushed. Her brown eyes had seemed even brighter than usual.
I let out a sigh. She was so beautiful. Like a perfect molten chocolate lava cake.
Then I realized that everything had gone quiet. Tippett had stopped reciting his speech. I glanced up at the clock. Class wasn’t over yet.
Had Tippett asked me a question?
He must have. Shit. What had he even been talking about?
“You seem awfully preoccupied. What has so completely captured your attention?”
I should’ve made something up. Instead, for some reason, I told him the truth.
Laughter from the class. Not from Mr. Tippett, though.
“Danyal,” he said, “on your feet, please.”
I managed not to roll my eyes as I stood up.
“Can you tell me,” Tippett asked, “what we were discussing?”
I couldn’t. He knew that. Why did he have to be a jerk about it? I heard snickering from some of the other students.
I folded my arms across my chest. Fine. I could be a dick too.
“History,” I said.
The class laughed again.
Tippett’s lips narrowed into a thin line. “Indeed.” He ran a hand that trembled a little over his heavily wrinkled face. “Your history, in fact.”
I glanced around. A couple of people mouthed the answer, but I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to tell me. “What do you mean?”
“The history of your country, Mr. Jilani. You were born in India, correct?”
“San Diego, actually.”
Tippett sighed. “Yes, but your parents were born in India, were they not?”
I shook my head. “Pakistan.”
“Those are very nearly the same thing,” Tippett said, “historically speaking, of course. Regardless, our subject was the great Sir Winston Churchill. As you are aware, Churchill was posted in India when he grew into the kind of man he was going to be.”
I was aware of no such thing, but I nodded anyway. I just wanted to sit down.
“What else can you tell me about Churchill, Mr. Jilani?”
What. Was. His. Problem?
Churchill. Churchill. What did I know about Churchill? British dude from a while back. Face like a bulldog. Body of a manatee. That probably wasn’t the kind of information Tippett was looking for.
“Uh…he was…well, you know, he was—”
A familiar and welcome trilling bell sounded. Freedom. I glanced up at the heavens—well, the ceiling anyway—and thanked God for the assist.
“We’ll pick this up next time,” Tippett promised, before finally looking away from me.
Principal Weinberg’s office was surrounded by something like a hundred and fifty kids. It was as if half the school was standing around, waiting to see if the list of Renaissance Man contestants would be updated today. This was something of a January tradition at Aligheri Prep, this feeding of the sheeple at the end of every school day, just as you were trying to get home. It would go on until the last participant was announced.
I wondered sometimes if the principal hated Tippett a little for dragging this nonsense out every year by refusing to announce his pick till the last minute.
I shouldered my way through the crowd. Zar was waiting by the heavy, bright mustard double doors that led out to the parking lot. “History was brutal,” he said. “You okay?”
“Fine.” I marched out into the cool afternoon, heading straight for my rickety tan 1997 Honda Odyssey. That’s right. I drove an ancient minivan. It didn’t look like much, but it was functional. I told myself that every day.
I’d bought it for two reasons. First, Intezar and I had been planning to start a band, because I can play the guitar and he’d said he could play the drums. I’d figured it’d be a good way to haul instruments and equipment to gigs. Second, a van would be a convenient place to sleep with all the hot girls who loved my band’s music.
A year later, I had to assume that my lack of a band was the reason I was still a virgin, and that was entirely Zar’s fault. He’d grossly overstated his musical abilities.
Well, there was the whole Muslim thing too. We’re the last Keepers of Virtue in this world, the sworn Guardians of the Hymen. I’d discussed this with Intezar in some detail—a previous girlfriend had relieved him of his virginity a while ago—and he’d argued that clinging to old-world views about sexuality was not a wise long-term plan. He said that Muslims were setting themselves up for disaster, because after the zombie apocalypse, when we reverted back to a savage society and human sacrifices resumed, how would people identify virgins? That’s right. They’d look for the hijabis.
“You’re sure?” Zar asked as I let myself into the van and leaned over to unlock the passenger side door. “You don’t seem fine. You seem pissed.”
“Well…I really am fine.” I smiled at him, as if being humiliated in front of Kaval and everyone else hadn’t bothered me at all. “But this probably hurts my chance of being Tippett’s pick for Renaissance Man.”
Intezar laughed, a little harder than necessary, and buckled in. “I heard some people talking, and they’re just going to ask him who he’s nominating.”
“Whatever. I don’t want to talk about Algie.”
Zar held up his hands in surrender. “Sure, dude. Let’s go fry some Sectoids.”
“Or, you know, we could play a game that isn’t old.”
“XCOM 2 is a classic, all right? Being old is how something gets to be a classic. Besides, it’s all about the brown experience.”
The game was actually about aliens who invade Earth, take over all governments, and have to be fought off by a small resistance force of elite soldiers the player recruits from various countries. Intezar thought the whole thing was a metaphor for colonization. I, on the other hand, seriously doubted the developer had been thinking about the plight of our ancestors when the game was made.
Anyway, I was a little bored of it. “Let’s see what Sohrab wants to do,” I said, because I knew he felt the same way about Zar’s XCOM obsession. “Maybe we can just play some 2K.”
“Fine,” Zar grumbled, folding his arms across his chest. “If you feel like being lectured about praying on time or something for the rest of the day, I guess.”
Sohrab was the last member of our trio. We’d all been close once, but recently he and Zar had seriously cut back on the time they spent together. This was mostly because Sohrab couldn’t help but talk about religion, and Zar didn’t want to hear anything about it.
Arguing about whether to call Sohrab ended up being a waste of time. He couldn’t hang out with us because he’d apparently decided to join some after-school Quran study group. I told Zar that he sounded sorry to be missing out, which was true, but Zar just rolled his eyes and made me play XCOM 2 after all.
The forces of humanity weren’t doing all that well when my phone rang half an hour later. It was my mom.
Not a lot of Pakistani guys could say this, but my mom was cool. She was the one who taught me to play the guitar, who secretly told me it was okay to go to a culinary school if that’s what I wanted, and who had passionately argued against my getting a minivan, suggesting a 1977 Pontiac Firebird instead. I think the name of that car spoke to her soul. She’d loved it since she’d seen it in a movie with Burt Reynolds. She’d said that Reynolds was the only man she’d leave my father for. Knowing my father, I’d have thought the list would be longer.
“Come home,” she said.
“I’m kind of in the middle of something, Mom.”
“The Akrams are here.”
“They have a daughter. She’s your age.”
I groaned. “Mom.”
“Just come home. I know you’re probably with those nerd friends of yours, playing games on the computer, haan?”
“Hold on.” I could hear Dad’s voice in the background. When she got back on the line, she said, “Your father says not to be a nonsense fellow and to come home right now.”
“How long do I have to listen to him call me names?”
“Probably as long as he’s alive.”
I grumbled under my breath. For someone who was usually awesome, Aisha Jilani was being a real mom right now. “How long is this thing with your friends going to take?”
“Not long. I promise.”
“Fine,” I sighed. “I’ll see you soon.”
“Excellent. And Danyal? Keep an open mind about this girl. She’s not, you know, hot, exactly, but she’s got…sex appeal.”
I made a gagging sound. Not a phrase that was okay for mothers to use.
“I’m serious,” she insisted.
“Those are the same thing,” I told her.
“No,” she said, in the manner of someone imparting an ancient wisdom. “They really aren’t.”
“Have to head out?” Intezar asked, as I hung up the phone.
I told him where I was going, and he made a face. This wasn’t my first rishta meeting, where I’d be introduced to a girl because our parents hoped that we’d hit it off and ultimately decide we liked each other enough to get married. I was “on the market,” as Zar put it.
He thought arranged marriages were really old-fashioned, but they were pretty much the only option in my opinion. Muslim men and women aren’t supposed to hang out alone with each other or go on dates, which makes finding someone to marry on your own pretty hard.
And getting married is super important because, Islamically, if you’re going to have sex with a girl, you need permission from your parents. And her parents. An imam has to sanction it. And the state has to be informed, of course, and the proper paperwork has to be filled out. And you need witnesses who can swear that all the necessary parties were advised. You also need to throw a party, so everyone you know can dress up in their best clothes and come to congratulate you about the fact that you’re going to finally get fucked.
It’s the way things are done in polite, proper society.
Once you have your official papers in order, what was once forbidden becomes legal. It’s like getting your driver’s license, except going to the DMV is a lot less frustrating than going through the arranged marriage process.
“We’re way too young, dude. Your parents are crazy. No disrespect.”
I really was pretty young for the market, but my parents were looking because, as they told me, they feared my personal charms and extraordinarily poor judgment would lead me into sin.
Anyway, getting an arranged marriage didn’t bother me. What did bother me was that even though I’d dropped a ton of hints about Kaval, my mother had completely ignored them. I was going to have to just spell it out for her soon, so we could stop with these pointless rishta meetings.
Because no matter how great the girl I was meeting now ended up being, she’d still be a distant star next to the shining moon that was Kaval Sabsvari.