Robyn Reviews: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

‘The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender’ chronicles the life of the Roux family, including the titular Ava Lavender Roux. The Roux’s all have one thing in common – they’re what other people would consider strange. One turns into a bird without any explanation. Another has such an exquisitively sensitive nose she can immediately tell where you’ve been and what you’ve been eating. One struggles to remain corporeal and eventually vanishes entirely. Ava, the narrator, is arguably the strangest of them all – she was born with the wings of a bird. The story ranges from sad, to happy, to hopeful, but at its heart is a beautiful story about humanity and all its complexities.

The cover states that “Love makes us such fools.” This is a thread that runs throughout the novel, making up the underlying theme. There are many different kinds of love – romantic love, sexual love, unrequited love, familial love – and all our shown in their complexity.

Ava’s family have always hidden her away, knowing that her differences make her vulnerable. However, Ava – like the birds she resembles – longs to be free, and eventually she must venture out into the wider world. There, she experiences all its joy – but also its cruelty, especially to those who are different. Everything comes to a head the night of the Summer Solstice – a night Ava will never forget.

Ava is a great character – curious but also exceptionally sensible, a rare trait in a protagonist. For most of the book she’s a teenager, and its fascinating seeing how her differences and family’s attitude juxtapose with the normal worries of a teenage girl. She has some adorable interactions with Roux, a friend’s brother – and whilst her best friend Cardigan doesn’t always come across well, it’s nice to see a close friend and confidante in a fantasy book who’s actually true to her word. I also love Ava’s mother Viviane – she makes some terrible life choices, but she always intrinsically wants the best for people. It’s impossible not to root for the Roux’s to find happiness. The other brilliant character is Henry – a brilliant surprise who I will leave for you to discover.

In places, this can be quite a dark novel, so don’t go in looking for a light, whimsical read. It makes liberal use of metaphors – mostly beautiful, occasionally clunky – but there are awful scenes as well as lovely ones. The world is not always kind to those who are different.

“To my great misfortune, I was once mistaken for an angel”

I do have a few issues with the book. While the writing style mostly works, in some places it goes from lyrical to contrived. Certain phrases are jarring and throw you out of the story. It also suffers from being incorrectly marketed by its own prologue – Ava Lavender in the almost-present describing how the following is her life story. In truth, it’s her family’s life story; the book ends with Ava still a teenager, so it doesn’t feel like it’s actually complete. The ending would feel more final without the prologue, which isn’t really required for the rest of the novel. It should be a beautiful and poetic finale, but given the setup and expectations it doesn’t work as well as it’s meant to.

Overall, this is a recommended read for fans of magical realism, fabulism, and stories about the complexity of human nature and love – with the caveat that it does get dark at times.

Content warning: Rape and sexual assault

Published by Walker Books
Paperback: October 1st 2014

Robyn Reviews: Challenger Deep

Challenger Deep is a brilliant exploration of what it’s like to be a teenager with psychosis. Told in first person, it chronicles the insidious development of mental illness and its impact – on school, family, and the individual. Alongside this, there is a story about a ship on a quest to the Marianas Trench, with the narrative alternating between the two. The purpose of this second storyline is not immediately clear, but as more is revealed the two cleverly intersect. Each plotline provides relief when the other gets too heavy – this isn’t a book that shies away from the dark parts of mental illness.

‘The things I feel cannot be put into words, or if they can, the words are in no language anyone can understand’.

The protagonist, Caden, is fifteen and an American schoolkid. He’s always been a smart, social kid, the type to flit effortlessly between friend groups and fit in anywhere. He’s an artist, spending his free time drawing and designing video games with his friends.

In the parallel story, Caden, is a crewmember on a ship. He’s the youngest member of the crew, still trying to figure out where he fits in. He shares a cabin with the ship’s navigator, a man with a fondness for alliteration and rhyme who spends his time creating maps and star charts. At night, he dreams about the White Plastic Kitchen, a kitchen full of sparkling white appliances that regularly plays host to monsters.

The highlight of this book is the language. The way Caden’s internal monologue is narrated is gorgeous – often harrowing and disturbing, but written so well it’s hauntingly beautiful. I’ve read other books by Neil Shusterman, but this is undoubtedly where his linguistic skills are at their best.

‘What’s going on? I’m in the back of the car of a roller coaster at the top of the climb, with the front rows already giving themselves over to gravity. I can hear those front riders screaming and know my own scream is only seconds away… I’m leaping off a cliff only to discover that I can fly… and then realising there’s nowhere to land. Ever. That’s what’s going on.’

Shusterman mentions in the notes at the end that he created Caden with collaboration from a family member who suffered from psychosis. Having worked with psychosis patients myself, it seems – from an outsider’s perspective – to be an excellent depiction. His mannerisms, actions, speech, changes in emotions – all of them change with the course of the disease, subtly at first until they become overwhelmingly obvious. Later in the book, Caden also meets other patients with various mental illnesses, and – whilst we only get Caden’s perspective of them – their presentations also feel accurate. I’m always wary of fictional depictions of psychosis because of how much stigma there is against it, but Shusterman avoids all the major pitfalls here.

‘The fear of not living is a deep, abiding dread of watching your own potential decompose into irredeemable disappointment when “should be” gets crushed by what is. Sometimes I think it would be easier to die than to face that, because “what could have been” is much more highly regarded than “what should have been”. Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.’

This isn’t always an easy read, and – despite the very short chapters – isn’t designed to be a quick one. However, in many ways, I think it’s an essential one. Psychosis is hugely misunderstood and very common, affecting at least 1% of the population at some point in their lives. This is one of the best depictions I’ve ever read. If you want to understand psychosis and start breaking down the stigma, this is a good place to start.

Overall, this is a highly recommended young adult book for teenagers and adults alike with an interest in psychology and mental illness.

 

Thanks so much to NetGalley and Walker Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

 

Published by Walker Books
Paperback: 6th August 2020

Book Review: The Pigeon Needs a Bath

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The Pigeon Needs a Bath, by Mo Willems, is an adorable picture book from the ever reliable Walker Books. Beautifully put together with entertaining illustrations and simple text it tells the tale of a decidedly dirty and rather stinky pigeon who is determined that he does not need a bath.

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Pigeon’s intransigence when faced with a seemingly simple request will be familiar to parents of young children everywhere, as will his procrastination when he finally faces up to the prospect of climbing into the water. Eventually he discovers what fun can be had in a bathtub and a new challenge needs to be faced – how to get him out.

This is a very appealing book with an amusing message that can be enjoyed by children and parents alike. It is gender neutral and should help to encourage all young readers to take that much needed bath, eventually.