REVIEW: A Different Blue by Amy Harmon

I’ve read A Different Blue  not once, not twice, not even thrice… probably four times, and all in the span of the one year I’ve known about this book. Each time, I’m reminded of how much I love this story, its characters, and Harmon’s writing.  I love this story so much that I’ve never really known how to do a review on it. This time, however, I shall attempt to do it.

First, I don’t think I can do a better synopsis than the one on Goodreads, so for once I’ll do it the lazy way and just copy and paste it here:

a-different-blueBlue Echohawk doesn’t know who she is. She doesn’t know her real name or when she was born. Abandoned at two and raised by a drifter, she didn’t attend school until she was ten years old. At nineteen, when most kids her age are attending college or moving on with life, she is just a senior in high school. With no mother, no father, no faith, and no future, Blue Echohawk is a difficult student, to say the least. Tough, hard and overtly sexy, she is the complete opposite of the young British teacher (Mr Wilson) who decides he is up for the challenge, and takes the troublemaker under his wing.

This is the story of a nobody who becomes somebody. It is the story of an unlikely friendship, where hope fosters healing and redemption becomes love. But falling in love can be hard when you don’t know who you are. Falling in love with someone who knows exactly who they are and exactly why they can’t love you back might be impossible.


The synopsis however is a little misleading, because this is NOT the story of a forbidden romance between student and teacher. Blue and Wilson don’t have a romantic relationship until late into the story, and in fact 40% into the story, Blue would have already graduated from high school. More than their relationship, this is the story of Blue – her history or lack thereof, her loneliness and lack of identity and belonging, her journey of redemption, growth and revelations.

Blue is a lonely soul – since she could remember, she’s only ever had Jimmy, the man who raised her. But when Jimmy is lost to her in an accident and she’s told that Jimmy wasn’t actually her biological father, Blue’s only source of identity and belonging is taken away from her. She doesn’t have anything, or anyone else – no birth certificate, school records, immunisation records, etc. Alone in the world, she grew up strong and tough, independent if not for her need for another’s love.

I loved Blue as a character. Although I have never been in a situation anywhere similar to Blue’s, Amy Harmon’s writing was so powerful that I felt acutely how much Blue ached for love and redemption, how lost she felt and how she desperately needed help but had no one to ask it from. While it is a common trope in many books to find characters with tragedy-ridden lives like Blue’s, I found Blue uniquely compelling, very unlike many self-pitying protagonists that I’ve read enough of. Although lost in life, she’s self-aware, bright, strong and courageous. In spite of the trials she faced, she braved through them with her head held high. She was a character I could understand, admire and ultimately respect.

Wilson, the male lead, was also charismatic. Although quirky and nerdy, I understood why his students, and Blue herself, found him charming and alluring. Like Blue, I found myself captivated during his History lessons, during which Wilson turns History into introspective lessons about life and identity. Wilson asks his students to pen down their own personal history, but Blue, a stranger to her own identity and history, finds it impossible to do so. She begins to write a parable about an unwanted blackbird who was pushed out of its nest:

Once upon a time there was a little blackbird, pushed from the nest, unwanted. (…)

This obscure story and her reluctance to write her personal history compels Wilson to find out more about her. They form a slow friendship that only strengthens after her graduation, when Blue finds herself in a dire situation and has no one but Wilson to help her along the way.

The story only gets better from then on. Slowly, Blue learns to love herself and others. She finds redemption and learns to receive and give help. And while Wilson was a major contributing factor to this change in Blue, Blue’s accomplishments and growth were mostly attributed to her own strength and resilience, which made this story even more beautiful.

“I have tried to change, Wilson. Remember when we talked about redemption? That night my car wouldn’t start, that night we were rescued by Larry and Curly?
That night … something happened to me. Something I’ve never felt before. I was heartbroken and sick inside. And I prayed. I cried out for love, not even knowing that love was what I asked for. I needed to feel loved, and it was just… just poured down on me. No strings, no ultimatums, no promises required. Just freely given. All I had to do was ask. And I was… changed by it. In that moment, I felt… healed.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t perfected by it. My trials weren’t even taken away. My weaknesses weren’t suddenly made into strengths, my struggles weren’t any different. My sorrow didn’t miraculously become joy… but I felt healed all the same.
It was as if the cracks were filled, and the stones around my heart were broken up and swept away. And I felt… whole.”

Besides the characters and storyline, Harmon’s interweaving of the tales from the Paiute Indians/Native Americans, short history recounts during Wilson’s classes, and the intricate craft of wood carving, with the story brought culture and a deeper meaning into the story. I loved all these mini references and it’s clear that Harmon did her research because she displayed more than just a facile knowledge of these topics in her writing.

Harmon is a brilliant author with a knack for writing poignant stories about life, identity and love. I’ve read a couple of her other books (Running Barefoot and Making Faces) and also loved them, but A Different Blue remains my favourite. It is in no way a cliched story about a love between teacher and student, but rather an unconventional story about a girl who, against all odds, redeems herself and learns to love. A highly recommended read for… well, everyone.

“I keep wishing you had a better life… a different life. But a different life would have made you a different Blue. And that would be the biggest tragedy of all.”

 

(I’m sorry this turned out to be more of a lengthy declaration of love for the book rather than an impartial review, but if you’ve read this far, thank you.)

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Review: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

For all the great reviews that this book’s ARC has gotten, I personally don’t think When Dimple Met Rishi lives up to the hype. That said, I don’t think this was a bad book per se. In fact, this book though lighthearted, deals with several societal issues.

She wept for her hardheadedness, and for a world that couldn’t just let her be both, a woman in love and a woman with a career, without flares of guilt and self-doubt seeping in and wreaking havoc. No one she knew had balanced both. There was either work or love. Wanting both felt like a huge ask; it felt like wishing for hot ice cream or a bitter sugar cube.

You can find the goodreads synopsis of the book here. But I’ll just do a little summary for you lazy folks out there.

When Dimple Met RishiWhen Dimple Met Rishi is a contemporary Young Adult novel about two teenagers (Dimple and Rishi) from traditional Indian families living in America. Dimple and Rishi’s parents have arranged for the both of them to be married to each other in future. However, while Rishi is a hopeless romantic who is fully on board this idea, Dimple is kept in the dark (because her parents know she’d never agree). When Dimple goes to a summer program at Stanford, Rishi joins to meet her, thinking that she was going there solely for the purpose of meeting him too. And then the story unfolds…

Dimple is an ‘unconventional’ American female in many ways:

  1. She is an Indian-American.
  2. She is interested in web development, a subject usually more popular among males than females
  3. She prioritises career over starting a family, isn’t interested at all in finding love, and doesn’t really care much about her looks. (Don’t shoot me, I KNOW these are just stereotypes and especially today these stereotypes are increasingly challenged, but that’s the point, I guess)

This allows the author to very subtly input more weighty topics including: the shame or lack of belonging that many second-generation migrants feel about their heritage; prejudice and disadvantages of women in STEM jobs, and how this causes women to feel that they have to choose between career and family. She didn’t go into lengthy paragraphs and discussions about these topics, but I felt that it was well-balanced considering the book was meant to carry more of a light-hearted tone anyway.

Sandhya Menon also did a good job in developing Dimple and Rishi’s characters. Throughout the book, I had a clear idea of Dimple and Rishi’s characters, even if they didn’t have predictable personalities.

What I didn’t like about the book was Dimple and Rishi’s relationship. Problem was, this took up majority of the book.

Menon’s writing was a little childish and underdeveloped, which was what made Dimple and Rishi’s relationship cloying. I’m not sure if that’s what her actual writing style is like, or if she was just trying too hard to write in the perspective of teenagers.

Her choice of words was slightly disturbing too. Throughout the book, she repeatedly mentioned how ‘the tip of Rishi’s ears turned pink’ or how Dimple’s cheeks ‘heated up’, and I felt like I was reading about prepubescent twelve year olds in a relationship. So I cringed internally each time they kissed, made out, or… basically whenever they did something that would otherwise have been considered sweet or romantic if the writing was better. It wasn’t even that Dimple & Rishi weren’t good for each other, because I felt that personality-wise, they did have a connection and complemented each other.

Another thing I find a little misleading was that Dimple and Rishi were supposed to be in a summer programme for app development, and Dimple is supposed to be crazy passionate about coding. Yet, only minimal parts of the story really involved this so-called programme, and there were absolutely zero scenes of them doing any coding. You could read maybe 4 chapters of the book and only get one or two sentences about the ‘progress’ of the application Dimple and Rishi were supposedly designing. And then one fine day, they’ve finished their prototype and the winners are announced. There was no buildup, no excitement. It was disappointing.

Still, despite its flaws, I think this was a worthy effort for a first-time author; I think this book deserves at least of 3 out of 5 stars.

Let’s talk FANTASY – Fantasy Maps

Fantasy maps are another element of high fantasy that I simply adore.

If you’re a geek like me, you’d probably spend several good seconds (or minutes) admiring the map at the start of many high fantasy novels. I just love the illustrations on these maps.

Here are just some of them:

Edil Amarandh map
Map of Edil-Amarandh, from Alison Croggon’s Books of Pellinor
Grisha map
Map of the Grisha world, from Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone (Grisha Trilogy)
Middle Earth
Map of Middle Earth, from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy

 

They are so pleasing to the eyes!! These maps spark so much wanderlust in me and I just want to jump into these worlds physically, if only I could.

Truth is, I don’t even refer to them while reading because I’m too into the story to bother, but I think these maps just add so much more character into the world and makes it even more real.

I love how Fantasy writers put in so much effort into details like these – where the mountains and hills are, the size of each place, the distance between each place – and when they make all these details matter by linking it to the background or history of their world. It’s another reason why I respect fantasy writers so much; they dedicate so many years to create an original fantasy world!

Do you have a favourite fantasy world map? Share it with us in the comments below!

Review: Jandy Nelson – I’ll Give You the Sun & The Sky is Everywhere

There’s been a whole lot of rave over Jandy Nelson’s two YA Contemporary books, I’ll Give You the Sun  and The Sky is Everywhere. I finally read both of them, one after another, so here’s what I think about these books!

I won’t do separate reviews for them, but rather a comparison because I liked one over the other much more, and I don’t think I have much to say about them separately. But first, a brief summary of each of the books..


I'll Give you the Sun'I’ll Give You the Sun is about twins who used to be very close, despite them being very different, until a whole series of events happens that causes a falling out. The book has alternating POVs between the twins Noah and Jude, of which Noah’s POV is from when they were 13, and Jude’s when they are 16.


The sky is everywhereThe Sky is Everywhere is about Lennie as she struggles to get over the death of her older sister, and along the way she finds herself in between two boys, one of them a new kid in school, the other her sister’s boyfriend.


In both books, Nelson adopts a casual and slightly humourous way of writing, like what you’d expect if you were listening to the thoughts of a teenager, except more coherent. Basically, the writing style is like most other YA Contemporary novels out there (except with a tinge of peculiarity because her characters are rather strange). I don’t think there’s much special about her writing style; it’s more of the plot and characters that makes her stories unique. If you want to try one of Nelson’s books, I’d recommend I’ll Give You the Sun over The Sky is Everywhere. Here’s why:

What I found most distinguishing about both books was that the characters are very idiosyncratic. In I’ll Give You the Sun, Noah is the nerdy artist who is so passionate about art that he even paints in his head, and Jude is the highly superstitious girl whose only friend is her grandma’s ghost. Together, they talk about things like dividing the world (sun, moon, ocean, flowers, trees etc) among themselves. In The Sky is Everywhere, Lennie writes poems on every surface possible and hides them everywhere, and she has an obsession with Wuthering Heights. I loved that Nelson added these bits of weird-but-somewhat-cool-ness into both stories, making her characters come to life.

However, while I felt that Noah & Jude’s idiosyncrasies were an essential part of the story in I’ll Give You the Sun, Lennie’s poem and Wuthering Heights obsession thing in The Sky is Everywhere felt superfluous and wasn’t tied in as seamlessly with the rest of the story. As such, I didn’t feel as attached to Lennie as I did Noah and Jude.

Additionally, I’ll Give You the Sun had an actual plot with a lot of things happening. Whereas in The Sky is Everywhere, not much was really happening and I felt like I was just waiting for Lennie to finally screw up and learn her lesson so that the book could move on.

Considering the four-year gap between the publishing of both books, Nelson’s writing has undoubtedly improved since her debut The Sky is Everywhere. So while The Sky is Everywhere was just okay (3 stars) to me, I did enjoy I’ll Give You the Sun (4 star read) a lot more and it’s one I would recommend.

Have you read any of Jandy Nelson’s books? How did you find them? If you’ve read both of these books, do you agree with my preference? 🙂

8 – 14 May 2017: Sun Awareness Week

It’s Sun Awareness Week in Britain!

IMG_2248
A picture of the sunset I caught on the way home from school one day…
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Stunning sunset at the Docklands in Melbourne!

Okay, I’m pretty sure everyone in the world is aware that there is a star really close to the Earth that we call the Sun, and that it keeps the Earth warm and lighted up in the day. Sun Awareness Week is a rather misleading term because it isn’t just about being aware of the sun. It’s about being aware of how harmful the sun’s UV rays can be.

Sure, we often talk about how being out in the sun is good because of Vitamin D and its benefits. But prolonged exposure to UV radiation can have extremely debilitative effects, beyond just sunburn and premature skin ageing. If serious, it can also cause sunburn and cataracts.

  • According to WHO estimates, 20% of the annual 12 to 15 million people who become blind from cataracts may be caused or enhanced by sun exposure.
  • An estimated 66,000 deaths occur annually from melanoma and other skin cancers.
  • Ongoing studies also suggest that UV exposure can suppress immune system responses, making us more prone to infectious diseases and limiting the efficacy of vaccinations.

These problems are increasingly worsened due to the depletion of the ozone layer.

We often think that dark-skinned people do not need to be concerned about these risks, but while it is true that darker skin has more melanin and hence a lower chance of skin cancer, the risk is still there. In fact, not only does skin cancer also affect darker skinned people, it is also often only detected at later, more dangerous stages.

So what can we do to help ourselves? Here are some ways:

  • Protective clothing, such as caps, specially designed sun-protective clothing which prevents penetration of UV rays (Uniqlo sells a lot of these!), and sun-protective umbrellas (some umbrellas still let UV rays through!)
  • Sunscreen which absorbs both UVA and UVB and an SPF of at least 15
  • Try to reduce tanning and even the use of tanning devices like sunbeds. Even though they claim to tan safely, there is still some risk behind them.
  • Eat food high in anti-oxidants, such as Goji berries, wild blueberries, cranberries, pecans, artichokes, even dark chocolate.
  • Protect your eyes with proper sunglasses! Don’t buy cheap imitations or low quality sunglasses. While they allow you to see into the sun without squinting, they are pretty much useless in blocking UV radiation. This makes things even worse than having no sunglasses because without squinting, your eye is exposed to even more UV radiation!

Hope everyone will spread the message about the harms of UV radiation and encourage your family and friends to step up their sun protection!

Let’s talk FANTASY: my introductory into high fantasy

Hellooo! Today I want to tell you guys about my very first high fantasy read.

I was 11 or 12 (or maybe younger?) when I was first introduced to The Gift (or The Naming) by Alison Croggon.

Back then, I had an English tutor whom I often bonded with over books, and the tuition centre had a mini library which we would all visit at the end of every lesson. It was my tutor who recommended The Gift to me; without her I would probably never have endeavoured to read such a thick book back then. (Side note: this tutor was also the one who first introduced Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and James Patterson’s Maximum Ride to me… if not for her, I wouldn’t have discovered so many of my favourite books!)

Needless to say, I loved The Gift and every book in the Books of Pellinor series. But it wasn’t until 3 or 4 years later when something inexplicable compelled me to read the series again, and this time with better linguistic ability I found I appreciated the book even more. With her beautiful writing and detailed appendices, Croggon created a world so real, to the point where I actually believed that the events were true and that magic used to exist. (Sadly, that was short-lived because I did intensive research on Google and found out that it was foolish thinking on my part… haha.)

Nevertheless, I fell in love with the art of creating a fantasy world that clearly doesn’t exist, but feels so real that it could be plausible. The wit, ingenuity and planning needed to create such a world eluded me and I so admired the authors who were able to do so. And that’s how I came to love and appreciate high fantasy. Now, I have a long list of other reasons why I love high fantasy, but this was the very first reason that set everything in motion.

Although I’m aware there are many other high fantasy books with more original plotlines and more unique magic systems than Croggon’s books, the Books of Pellinor will always, always be my number one high fantasy series and will always retain its special place in my heart, much like a first love.

The Surprises You Find in Books #2

As mentioned before, I’m starting on a series of biweekly posts on my serendipitous discoveries (e.g. poems, songs, movies) I found from reading.

This week, I have a poem from Amy Harmon’s book Making Faces (more about the book at the bottom of the post):

If God Makes All Our Faces

If God makes all our faces, did he laugh when he made me?
Does he make the legs that cannot walk and the eyes that cannot see?
Does he curl the hair upon my head ’til it rebels in wild defiance?
Does he close the ears of the deaf man to make him more reliant?
Is the way I look a coincidence or just a twist of fate?
If he made me this way, is it okay, to blame him for the things I hate?
For the flaws that seem to worsen every time I see a mirror,
For the ugliness I see in me, the loathing and the fear,
Does he sculpt us for his pleasure, for a reason I can’t see?
If God makes all our faces, did he laugh when he made me?

Amy Harmon

This is an exceptionally woeful poem from a self-conscious girl who finds herself flawed and inferior to others. I love this poem not because of the meaning behind it (for it is a very sad poem), but because of its poignancy and how clearly it conveys the bitterness and distress that the writer is feeling.

We all have that part of ourselves we sometimes loathe and want gone (or at the least, hidden)… but, well, here’s a quote from the same book that I think is important to keep in mind whenever we are reminded of that “ugly” part of us:

True beauty, the kind that doesn’t fade or wash off, takes time. It takes pressure. It takes incredible endurance. It is the slow drip that makes the stalactite, the shaking of the Earth that creates mountains, the constant pounding of the waves that breaks up the rocks and smooths the rough edges.

And from the violence, the furor, the raging of the winds, the roaring of the waters, something better emerges, something that would otherwise never exist.

And so we endure. We have faith that there is purpose. We hope for the things we can’t see. We believe that there are lessons in loss, power in love, and that we have within us the potential for a beauty so magnificent that our bodies can’t contain it.

 


More about the book:

Making Faces

It’s been a while since I read Making Faces so I honestly can’t say much, except that this is a powerful and insightful book that has taught me a lot about beauty, love, loss, and self-acceptance.

Although this book was not my favourite of Harmon’s, I still highly recommend it. Harmon’s writing here is, as always, poignant and bittersweet, and I don’t think you can ever find another book similar to this.