Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

SpeakReading Speak has brought to my attention that I need to read more novels about trauma. Narratives are a reflection of society and its values, as well as how individuals make sense of these narratives. Even if characters within the stories have false, misogynistic or contrived perceptions, this itself tells us about how society makes sense of phenomena, and how individuals make sense of such things – real or perceived. (On that note, the fact that this book has been banned is very telling about the institutions that have banned it.) With something as traumatic and (unfortunately) socially, politically and culturally contested as sexual assault (especially in patriarchal societies where victim-blaming is a heinous reality), it is necessary to engage with the victim’s narrative especially when there have been repeated, systematic attempts to silence and censor them.

Speak is a sexual assault narrative that explores the impact of the act on the survivor’s psyche. It portrays the trauma, the struggle for normalcy, the daily horrors, the helplessness, the pain of living for another day, and the anger, guilt, shame and sadness. The trauma that the main character, Melinda, endures is understated, intricate but never glorified. The pain is raw and indisputably horrible. The beauty in Anderson’s writing is its subtlety; the flurry or dormancy of emotions, thoughts and horror that Melinda experiences are conveyed in either soft whispers or actions that translate to screams.

For a character that is defined as her condition of a victim, Melinda was surprisingly witty. I enjoyed her casual quips about her school council being ‘Overbearing Eurocentric Patriarchs’, or the debate that transpires between the ‘animal-rights activists, who say it is immoral to own fish, and the red-blooded capitalists, who know lots of better ways to make money than investing in fish and eating their young’. Melinda is smart and has a lot to say, but her trauma creates a gulf between her and her peers, as well as a disconnect from the world around her.

So, I did like Speak. The problem with Speak, however, is that it tried to be many things at once, and as a result, its lack of a cohesive, overarching purpose diminished its impact. Speak is a narrative on sexual assault from a victim’s lens, but it placed a strong emphasis on the social labyrinth of high school, her complaisant and shallow friends, and her art project with the tree. Sometimes the latter two were disjointed from her trauma, and the fickleness of the theme was confusing. There were fleeting moments where its themes wove seamlessly together to paint a detailed illustration of the different corners of Melinda’s life, but my biggest gripe was the inconclusive, vague ending, which left me feeling unsure and skeptical.

Though the book centers on her liberation and finding the ability to speak, the ending was rushed, unsatisfying and incomplete. I mean, Melinda finally speaks, and this in itself is a victory, but what about the impact the revelation has on her parents? On her friends or peers? On the school? On the perpetrator? And more importantly, what is the effect on Melinda?

The difference between silent-Melinda and speaking-Melinda is indistinguishable. There is no discernible change in Melinda after everyone finds out what happens to her. It would have been the ideal way to drive the message home – to elucidate Melinda’s uncertainties and doubts, and to show the sheer, inevitable impact of what happened to her becoming public knowledge. Does Melinda becomes stronger when others finally know? Does everyone knowing what happened to her cripple her? Does it make her anxious or terrified because of people’s misconceptions and assumptions of sexual assault? The reader has no idea at all; they can only guess. With so much riding on the ending, it was a missed opportunity. What a shame.

Regardless, for its subject matter Speak is a sensitive, honest and mature narrative, and I applaud Anderson for making this accessible and readable. The unfortunate reality is that many sexual assault victims do not get the time of the day, and their silence is not attributed to lack of strength, but it could be legitimate reasons such as fear, shame, embarrassment and/or social stigma. Bearing in mind that experiences are varied and unique, for a book to engage with makes it an important, necessary book within the young adult genre. Speak is revolutionary because it tackles a subject people refuse to talk about, but in terms with opening up an avenue where there can be constructive dialogue on what happens after every person you know what has happened to you, it could have been more.

Rating: 3/5

Book Information
Book Name: Speak
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Puffin

The Forever Song by Julie Kagawa

17883441I’ve been behind on writing book reviews lately, hence why my review for The Forever Song is three weeks late. Initially, I had great difficulty writing this review,  but now that I have had time to digest this book, one thought stands out: The Forever Song was not memorable at all.

Spoilers for The Immortal Rules and The Eternity Cure to follow.

Though enjoyable to consume, the Blood of Eden series is forgettable and unremarkable. I say this with regret and disappointment, because there were some moments in the book that I hoped would help break the series through – in some instances, the novel contained original elements that would have ventured into underdeveloped territory in the YA-postapocalyptic genre. Unfortunately, Kagawa ultimately misses the mark in the end, and the silver linings were dulled by the story’s unoriginal, cliched direction. This is particularly true in The Forever Song.

Something that struck me whilst reading this was how, for a novel that starts off trying to find its identity within a landscape of overused narratives, this book was reduced from a narrative about finding yourself, contemplating your nature, and finding a purpose despite, to a simplistic, shallow romance that lacks any depth or authenticity. Allie’s character development was forsaken for Zeke’s ‘character development’ – and, to be clear, the quotation marks are there because there wasn’t any. Zeke’s character development was as hollow as the husk he felt like and became in The Forever Song. Character-wise, this book was a mess.

As I stated in my review for The Immortal Rules, I took issue with how Kagawa depicted ‘human’ and ‘vampire’ as very distinct dichotomous categories of existence. Human is empathetic, kind, and compassionate, whereas vampire is bloodlust, savage, and heartless. My hope was that The Forever Song would resolve this moral antithesis.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Allison’s experiences do not challenge these innate assumptions of what is human or what is vampire. There was no deep, thoughtful exploration of what either meant. Frankly, Allison’s decision to ‘accept my nature and be as human as I can be’ was not satisfying for me; such a resolution is finite and undermined potential character development. There was so much potential for analysis and character introspection, but Kagawa shackled her characters by confining them to simplistic boxes and settling for a conclusion that did not challenge human/vampire nature. As Rosa Luxemburg said, ‘Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.’

After all of this, then consider that this is completely overshadowed by Zeke and Allison’s romance. I withheld my criticisms of Zeke and Allison’s romance because I hoped that the climax of the series would convince me that they were in love, and that they were meant to be together. However, their romance was anaemic and boring. I just could not care for it, couldn’t bring myself to, and was really disappointed that such a poorly-written ‘romance’ was capable of invalidating growth and development from the first two books.

There were times when Kagawa showed the reader that she was conscious of Allison’s flaws and superfluous angst – namely, when Jackal brazenly reprimands Allison for being weak and indecisive. It would then make sense to steer Allison towards a path of self-growth, but instead she continues being obtuse with poor priorities that contradict her personality. It is nonsensical (and frustrating) when moments of self-awareness are followed by a blatant disregard of that awareness.

So, for a book that focused on a romance that bolstered character regression, it attenuated the opportunity for Blood of Eden to be something more than a series about eternal, angsty love. There were moments when the novel was enjoyable – namely, a character named Jackal, also known as the one true saving grace of the series, who had more sense and wit than everyone in the entourage had combined.

All in all, a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise decent series.

Rating: 1.5/5

Book Information
Book Name: The Forever Song
Book Series: Blood of Eden #3
Author: Julie Kagawa
Publisher: Harlequin Teen

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

love lettersI have been trying to collect my thoughts on Love Letters to the Dead for some time now, but I’ve never felt so torn over a book before. On one hand, I enjoyed some of the child-like narrative, the main character’s growth, and the conclusion at the end. On the other hand, at times I found the direction of the plot predictable, cliched, and tedious.

Written in epistolary form, Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira is a collection of letters written by Laurel. Addressed to famous people, Laurel finds solace and comfort in writing to the likes of Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and Amelia Eckhart, as she grieves for her recently deceased sister, May. As she starts her year at a new school, Laurel writes about her unorthodox friendships, her broken family, falling in love, and also her grief.

Love Letters to the Dead reads like a teenager’s diary. With this, there is good and bad. The bad is that sometimes the narrative is tedious, the voice annoying and callow, and the subject may be very trying. Laurel is thirteen/fourteen years old, and whilst I think people of that age can be complex because they are caught in a strange, confusing time of transition and change, Laurel’s thoughts sometimes have no depth. In other words, Laurel sometimes feels more like an annoying caricature of young teenagers, rather than a human being enduring unimaginable grief that she does not want to come to term with.

The ‘romance’ in this book was easily the weakest aspect of Love Letters to the Dead. Though Dellaira develops the romantic interest towards the end, his portrayal in the beginning is cringe-worthy and contrived. It would have been forgivable if her infatuation led to some sort of self-growth – but that does not happen. Laurel is immediately drawn to Sky, even though she never talked to him before the infatuation kicked in, and Sky is immediately drawn to Laurel. Think of the most cliched high school romance, and you would have envisioned Sky and Laurel’s relationship. Although his fascination with Laurel is explained near the end, it still could not convince me. I am adamant that this book would have been better if there was no romance.

However, the thing I was most disappointed about in this book is that the depth of Laurel’s grief for her sister is not very deep at all. For a book that centralizes its narrative on grief and pain, Laurel does suppress some of her grief, but where were the cracks in her exterior? Where were her moments of weakness? And though there are these moments in the book, the problem is that there is a lot of telling and not showing, and it was very difficult for me to connect with Laurel emotionally. After thinking about it, I realized it was because of one problem in this book: Laurel has no substance as a character.

I liked Laurel’s struggles to navigate teenagehood, rebellion, high school, and friendships. I liked them in the sense that I liked that Dellaira wanted to explore these valid, real struggles with a critical but non-judgmental lens. I could relate when she did things her friends asked her to do (even though she did not want to) because of her desperation and need to be liked. But if you asked me to describe Laurel, I would be at a loss as to how. Laurel has no personality – she is more of an observer who carries an emotional burden, and that emotional burden is her character. Laurel does things, she acts, she speaks, but underneath it, she is just a hollow vessel for this story, and because of it, the grief too feels hollow.

Despite its faults, Love Letters to the Dead has some positive qualities. Though the first half is filled with puerile contemplation about high school and Sky, the second half of the book is significantly better – so if you can get through the tedious first half, the second half may be rewarding.

For me, the highlights of this novel were Hannah and Natalie. (Spoilers to follow.) I initially wrote them off as rebellious, shallow girls like the ones you see in Grease, but as the book progresses and Laurel’s friendship and trust with them deepens, the internal struggles and tribulations both characters face are profound and, by the end, brave and beautiful. Hannah and Natalie, as characters and as a couple, resist heteronormativity, and I enjoyed Dellaira’s exploration of the stigma, the necessity of keeping secrets, the fear, the lust, and challenges that they face because of it. Hannah and Natalie were interesting, well-written characters, and their relationship and its presence in the YA scene important, deep and brimming with strength. (Spoilers end.)

Which leads to why I ultimately liked this book: despite its many flaws, Love Letters to the Dead is also a story about growing up and navigating the strange, contrived conventions that exist when grief and deep anger clings to you wherever you go. It is about burdens and trauma, and how everyone carries their own baggage, no matter how still the water is on the surface. There were cliched elements, but there were some that were heartfelt and raw. Love Letters to the Dead is about how our lives are imperfect and how sometimes things are beyond our control and how painful that can be.

Love Letters to the Dead is far from perfect, and whether you enjoy it would largely depend on whether you are willing to seek an emotional connection with the characters and the narrative. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading it – well, for the most part; the ending redeemed it – and I recommend it those who enjoy teenage coming-of-age novels.

Rating: 3/5

Book Information
Book Name: Love Letters to the Dead
Author: Ava Dellaira
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Ruby Circle by Richelle Mead

Note: This review contains spoilers.

ruby circleI’ve been a fan of the Vampire Academy series ever since I was in high school, which was almost seven years ago. I loved the characters of this series, I loved the world that Mead had created – I loved many things about it. What I loved more than Vampire Academy was the Bloodlines spin-off. 

The Ruby Circle is the final book of the Bloodlines seriesFor the weeks leading up to this book’s release, I was sad; sad that it would end soon. I loved Bloodlines, and I grew to love all the characters deeply. My favourite books of this series were The Indigo Spell and The Fiery Heart, and I plan to re-read these books in the near future.

I have to admit, and I admit this with regret, The Ruby Circle was my least favourite book of the Bloodlines series. The book had an entirely different feel to the previous books — and not in an entirely positive way.

In the previous books, the characters grow and develop with each installment of the series. Watching how they grew with each challenge, tribulation, success and failure was one of the most beautiful elements of the Bloodlines series. Witnessing Sydney’s growth was something that moved me as a reader – from black-and-white, rule-abiding alchemist to an individual who loved someone that she wasn’t meant to love so fiercely and relentlessly and saw a perspective that was completely different to the tenets she was brought up with. And no one could possibly forget Adrian’s character arc – from who he was in the Vampire Academy series to someone who came to care, empathize, and love someone so steadfastly that he changed, sacrificed, and grew as a person. To see both of these characters change and fall in love with each other is probably one of the highlights of my reading life.

It is Sydney and Adrian’s growth as lovers that held so much meaning for me. It is indisputably the best part about the series. I laughed and cried (and blushed!) with them. The gradual change between them was written so beautifully to the extent that typically corny moments did not feel strained or contrived, because readers of the series understood the implications and consequences for them to be together and stay together. It is because we know their history that make their love meaningful and emotional.

In The Ruby Circle, the characters evidently love each other, but the depth that we saw in the previous books is lacking. The best word I have to describe it is stagnant.  Although many things happen in The Ruby Circle, the development of the characters and the plot felt suspended by Mead’s lack of direction in the narrative and character development. At times I felt that Mead had no idea what to do with the characters, so she reduced these complex, multifaceted characters to simplistic, shallow facades of who they were.

I felt that the characters lost their essence – what made them different from other characters in fiction, what made them feel alive and complex. Mead could have explored their relationship in another way, but she recycled motifs from the previous books. I know the effect Mead intended; ‘the circle will hold’ was incredible and powerful in The Fiery Heart (it made me whimper like a baby!). However, in The Ruby Circle it didn’t have the same affect on me; it was came off contrived and like cheap bait.

With all that said, there were some things to be appreciated in The Ruby Circle. Though the opinions of this subject is polarized, I really am intrigued with what happened with Olive (being intentionally vague here!). Mead didn’t develop this in The Ruby Circle – in fact, it was frustratingly vague and inconclusive – but because of the lack of depth and the room for exploration and development, I am hoping(!) that this implies the VA series is not over for good. Personally, I wouldn’t be against the idea. As much as I still love Sydney and Adrian, I think The Ruby Circle showed that there are no more adventures for them. To return to the VA universe through a new perspective and narrative voice would be an idea I could be on board with.

Despite my less-than-positive opinions of The Ruby Circle, it was still a satisfying conclusion (mostly thanks to the epilogue) to a really fantastic and fun series. Evidently I have qualms with the book, and as I am emotionally invested in this series it pains me to admit them. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it, and I am sad but at peace with the idea that I won’t read any more about Sydney and Adrian. Safe to say, this series will always have a place in my heart.

As a fan of the series, thank you Richelle Mead for writing such a wonderful, breathtaking series, and thank you for giving me something to look forward to for four years. It was a ride, and I am grateful to have been a part of it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Book Information
Book Name: The Ruby Circle
Book Series: Bloodlines #6
Author: Richelle Mead
Publisher: Penguin Books

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

ava lavenderI love this book so much that I don’t think I will ever be the same.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton is a generational saga that tells of love, loss and beauty. This story is not only about the sorrows of Ava Lavender, but it also tells the sorrows of Ava’s twin Henry, her mother, her grandmother and her great-grandmother. Ava Lavender is just a girl, but she is also just a girl with wings.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is beautiful but dark, lyrical but brutal, and at times comforting, at times haunting. The prose is emotive and fantastical, and the prose flows beautifully while challenging and pushing the boundaries of our imagination. Walton’s writing and her integration of magical realism into the narrative brings out the beauty of the mundane, and sets your mind alight with vivid, spectacular imagery.

This book isn’t only about Ava Lavender and her family, it also tells the stories of the people in the little town. At times it may seem like their narratives and their histories may be detached from each other, but as the novel progresses, their stories converge together to create a deep, meaningful conclusion. Without this context, the ending would have meant much less and would have made less of an emotional impact. It is because that we understand the layers and the intricacies of people’s lives that make it meaningful to the readers. We may not relate to these characters and their stories, but we cannot help but empathize. And because we empathize with them, it makes the story all the more tragic and sad.

At times, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is dramatic and saccharine, but the exaggerations make it lyrical. The writing of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender borders on a tall-tale, but underneath that exterior, it is surprisingly poignant and profound. At times the prose nestled around me like a warm, comforting blanket, and at times it devastated me and horrified me. Underneath it all however, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is an exploration of the many faces and masks of the human condition, the strangeness of love and loss, and the richness of life, come good or bad.

I have so many feeling about this book, and the issue is that I do not have enough words or the vocabulary to describe it. It is truly unlike any other book that I have read. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender blew me away – and it’s not often that such books do that to me – and I loved this book so much. It is truly unforgettable. Ava Lavender and her family will always occupy a small piece of my heart.

Also, I just bought the hardback.

Rating: 4/5

Book Information:
Book Name: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Author: Leslye Walton
Publisher: Candlewick Press