Summer Bird Blue – Book Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: Akemi Dawn Bowman
Genre: Contemporary
Publication year: 2018
Audience: 12+
Content warnings: Character death, loss of a loved one, grief/loss, car accident, abandonment by a parent (temporary), depression and violence.

Synopsis

Following the loss of her sister in a tragic accident, 17-year-old Rumi is sent to Hawaii to live with her aunt. She begins to pick up the pieces of her broken heart and heal, with the help of friends, old and new.

What I liked

  • Writing style
  • Emphasis on friendship and family
  • Diverse representation
  • Deep exploration of grief
  • The questioning sexuality storyline / aromantic and asexual representation

What I disliked

  • Under-developed characters
  • Lack of plot
  • Over emphasis on emotion/grief in places

Plot and Structure

The story follows Rumi as she deals with the loss of her best friend and younger sister, Lea. It’s not a particularly plot heavy book, it’s an intense look at grief and loss, and how we can begin to rebuild ourselves when our world has been completely shattered by the loss of someone that is fundamental to who we are and to our lives. It focuses mostly on Rumi’s emotions and healing process. Despite not having a strong plot, narratively, it was strong and had a clear focus. It felt like Akemi Dawn Bowman knew exactly what she wanted to achieve with this book and that every part of it was intentional.

It opens with the tragedy that sets the scene for the rest of the book. It’s mostly set in the present where Rumi is living in Hawaii with her estranged aunt and follows Rumi as she battles against the grief of losing her sister and her mother’s absence. Alongside that, we see the development of the relationships that she forms in Hawaii and how these people help her to heal. There are also flashbacks scattered throughout of Rumi’s life growing up with her family which help to flesh out Lea and the significance of the sister relationship that is at the heart of the story.

Writing Style

I really liked the writing style. Whilst this is clearly a YA book aimed at a younger audience, it had some beautiful metaphors and prose that conveyed the intensity of emotion present throughout. There were a lot of quotes I resonated with and found to be very meaningful. However, there were some metaphors that were a bit cringe and the writing was repetitive in places. The main weakness of the writing for me was that the emotion was emphasised too much. Grief is an overwhelming and all consuming emotion but the emotions were over-written and it bogged down the narrative too much. There needed to be more space from the raw emotions to enable the characters and other aspects of the story to breathe. The character development and plot was hindered in part because the grief was inescapable and constantly brought to the forefront. Nonetheless, I appreciated how Bowman was able to get to the crux of the intense emotions that teenagers often face and how lost in their own feelings and thoughts they can become. Rumi’s grief isn’t any ordinary grief; it’s heightened by her age and the lack of self that often happens to teenagers who are figuring out who they are.

And maybe that’s like life. You live for a moment—one single moment. And then you don’t matter. Because there are years of the past and years of the future, and we’re all simply one tiny blip in time—a surge of water waiting to leave our mark on the sand, only to have it washed away by the waves that come after us.

Characters and Relationships

I adored what Bowman did in terms of centring platonic relationships and how she really took the time to delve deep into Rumi’s inner-most thoughts and feelings. Rumi’s relationships with her sister, elderly neighbour, male friend, aunt and mother are the most important relationships in this book and it was so refreshing to read a contemporary YA that wasn’t focused on romance. As a character, Rumi was perhaps one of the most relatable characters I’ve read in a long time to the point that it felt like I was reading about my teenage self at points. Unfortunately, the other characters never felt fully realised to me and were rather one-dimensional. Their purpose was to serve Rumi’s development and journey in supporting her through her grief. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but just means that the wider cast of characters were lacking in any real depth or development.

The depiction of sibling relationships was one of my favourite aspects of this book. As the eldest sister myself, I could see how shaped Rumi was by being the eldest sister and how that informed the relationship she had with Lea. Throughout the book Lea is considered to be Rumi’s soul mate and the most important person in her life. Just like Disney’s Frozen this book subverts expectations that a young girl’s “one true love” is a romantic male love interest and instead portrays it as being sisterhood. I also loved reading about Rumi’s relationship with her friend Kai and seeing her battle against the blurred lines between friendship and romance, and how this impacted her exploration of her sexuality.

Generally, I loved the exploration of sexuality throughout and how Rumi’s character and her relationships were all tied up in a wider story of her exploring aromanticism and asexuality. It’s the first time I’ve read a fiction book that explores this so succinctly. It can be difficult to write storylines that involve questioning sexuality without it feeling forced, but in this case, Rumi’s questioning of her identity and sexuality fitted well with the wider story of loss. Losing Lea is what put Rumi in a real position to truly start exploring those parts of her that had always been there but that she had brushed under the carpet. I plan to do a separate post about the depiction of aromanticism and asexuality in the book soon, so keep your eyes peeled if you’re interested in hearing more of my thoughts on this 👀

Generally, the relationships were very sweet and drove the story forward well, but the characters (except for Rumi) lacked the necessary depth to enable me to connect to them on a deeper level. So whilst I enjoyed reading the character dynamics they weren’t as satisfying as they could’ve been. I think if Bowman had invested more time in developing the characters and less on the grief part of the story, it would’ve come together much better. Since the relationships were so pivotal in helping Rumi to begin to heal, it felt like they deserved more time and attention.

Concluding thoughts

Summer Bird Blue is a heart-wrenching and heartwarming story of loss and healing. It’s an ideal read for young readers as it explores so many of the painful things teenagers face such as unexpected death, identity crisis, abandonment by a parent, anger, having complicated feelings for friends and questioning your sexuality. The focus on platonic love and relationships is a breath of fresh air and the exploration of identity and sexuality an important conversation to be had in any YA book. Undoubtedly, the depiction of an aromantic asexual character is what will continue to draw readers to this book and is what shines most about it, but this book is so much more than that and is fully deserving of the credit it receives. It tackles such a hard and heavy subject with sensitivity and grace, balancing the hopelessness of death with the hope of healing.

I’d recommend Summer Bird Blue if:

You’re looking for a YA tale on the theme of grief that centres sisterhood, friendship and family and features an aromantic asexual main character.

Have you read Summer Bird Blue or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.

My Dark Vanessa – Snapshot Book Review

Snapshot reviews are short book reviews of around 200-250 words.

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Genre: Contemporary
Publication year: 2020
Audience: 18+
Content warnings: Child sexual abuse, paedophilia, grooming, rape, sexual assault, student/teacher relationship, abusive relationship, trauma, PTSD, suicide, drug use, self-harm.

Review

My Dark Vanessa follows the relationship between 15-year-old Vanessa and her 42-year-old teacher, Strane. When accusations of abuse against Strane are published online and gather media attention, Vanessa is forced to confront the nature of her relationship with Strane and her ongoing trauma.

Kate Elizabeth Russell tackled the themes contained within My Dark Vanessa with sensitivity and care. The exploration of a student/teacher relationship and depiction of trauma was so raw. This type of abuse is widely misunderstood and I appreciated that Russell showed the complexity of grooming and the long-term impact on the victim.

The book is divided into two timelines – past and present – showing the development of the relationship between Vanessa and Strane in the past and the abuse story against Strane in the present. I felt that these alternating timelines didn’t always sync up and the chapters in the present were somewhat disjointed. Nonetheless, I appreciated that the events of the past were off-set by the ongoing consequences for Vanessa and Strane in the present.

Due to the themes the book contains and the explicit nature of the sexual abuse, it was a very difficult to read at times. I would strongly advise looking at the content warnings before reading. However, I’m glad that I read it and believe that this book has great educational value in providing insight into the complexities and realities of grooming.

I’d recommend My Dark Vanessa if:

You’re interested in a dark, heavy, emotional tale that explores the complexities of child abuse and grooming.

Have you read My Dark Vanessa? Or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.


The Death of Vivek Oji – Book Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Genre: Contemporary/Literary Fiction
Publication year: 2020
Audience: 18+
Content warnings: Major character death, death of a child, grief/loss, explicit sexual content, incest, homophobia and transphobia.

Synopsis

The Death of Vivek Oji begins with a mother discovering her son’s dead body on her front doorstep. In life Vivek was an elusive character and in death he is a mystery. Incorporating present day with flashbacks, Vivek’s loved one’s piece together the fragments of Vivek’s life in an attempt to understand who the real Vivek was and uncover the cause of his death.

What I liked

  • The writing style and use of language
  • Exploration of sexuality and gender identity
  • The cultural and historical depiction of 1990s Nigeria
  • The character dynamics
  • Narrators of the audiobook (Chukwudi Iwuji and Yetide Badaki)

What I disliked

  • How Vivek’s identity was used as a plot device
  • The predictable ending
  • Too many POV characters
  • The portrayal of incest
  • Vivek’s limited POV

Plot and Structure

I enjoyed the plot and the way in which the mystery of Vivek’s death was interwoven with an exploration of his life. Suspense was steadily built throughout, but for me, the ending did feel predictable and anti-climatic. I also found aspects of the plot distasteful in regards to the way that Vivek’s sexuality and gender identity was played with to create intrigue and mystery.

The structure followed the threads of multiple characters and wove them together into the tapestry of Vivek’s life. I liked this approach to unravelling the truth of Vivek’s death and getting to know him through the eyes of those closest to him. Unfortunately, I did find the structure jarring at times and it felt like the narrative was jumping around rather haphazardly.

Writing Style

Akwaeke Emezi’s writing style was one of my favourite aspects of the book. She has the most wonderful way of describing complex emotions; metaphors that so aptly conveyed loss and love. One of my favourites was the description of the fruit tree growing at the head of Vivek’s grave:

Did she look forward to the day when it would actually have star fruits hanging from its branches? Would she pick them and eat them as if she was absorbing him, bringing him back inside where he’d come from? It would be something like Holy Communion, I imagined, body and blood turned into yellow flesh and pale green skin, bursting with juice. Or maybe she would never touch the fruit—maybe no one would—and they would fall back to the ground to rot, to sink back into the soil, until the roots of the tree took them back and it would just continue like that, around and around. Or birds would show up and eat the fruit, then carry Vivek around, giving life to things even after he’d run out of it himself.

Characters and Relationships

The characters were flawed and their relationships nuanced and authentic. I appreciated that time was taken to provide each character with a personality and that none of them felt like cardboard cut-outs. Similarly, each relationship was nuanced whether between lovers, friends or relatives. Unfortunately, I did find the depiction of incest uncomfortable, mainly because I felt it was romanticised and wasn’t addressed within the text.

Sometimes I did feel lost amongst the characters and struggled to gauge who was who or how they were connected to each other (although I think this would’ve been less of an issue if I’d read the physical text along with the audiobook).

Of all the characters in the book, I connected with Vivek and his mother, Kavita the most. Vivek remained elusive throughout, but the vibrancy and intruige of his character paired with his tragic end drew me to him. I wish there’d been more of Vivek’s POV and the lack of his voice throughout the story is one of my biggest criticisms of the book. I deeply sympathised with Kavita. She was courageous and compassionate, and the love she had for her son knew no bounds. Her commitment to uncovering the truth and honouring Vivek touched my heart.

Finally, I have to mention how much I adored Chukwudi Iwuji and Yetide Badakithe’s narration of the audiobook. They brought the characters to life so vividly and conveyed the emotionality of the story beautifully.

Concluding thoughts

The Death of Vivek Oji has left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was a beautifully written, powerful, heart-wrenching tale which hit on important themes around identity and what it means to be LGBTQIA+ in an unaccepting society bound by tradition and conservatism. The multi-culturalism provided fantastic representation and the characters were diverse and authentic. On the other hand, the structure was disorientating, there were too many characters and the ending was anti-climatic. Whilst I appreciate that having a wider cast of characters and telling Vivek’s story primarily from their perspective was an intentional choice from the author, the book would’ve been much more impactful to me if Vivek had had more of a voice within the story.

I’d recommend The Death of Vivek Oji if:

You’re interested in an emotionally heavy literary fiction novel with complex relationship dynamics and an exploration of sexuality and gender identity, particularly in the context of multi-cultural Nigeria.

There we have it – my first book review on this blog! 😊 I took a lot of time to think about the structure and format of my reviews by reflecting on the elements of a book that are most important to me when I’m deciding to pick up a book. I hope you like it and I’m looking forward to posting more reviews in the future.

Have you read The Death of Vivek Oji? If not, are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.