Review: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Author: Leslye Walton 
Title: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
Published: March 2014
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Length: 301 pages
Genre: Young adult/magical realism
Why I Read: Description sounded fantastic
Read If You’re: New to magical realism or YA
Quote: “After failing every other attempt to get the ornithologist to notice her […] Pierette took the extreme step of turning herself into a canary” (14).
Rating:  ★★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReadsIndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

I finished this book near the beginning of June. It’s taken me weeks to write this review because I kept lending it to people. This is my favourite read of the year so far.

Before I discuss the story, I want to note that The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a fantastic example of young adult fiction that does not hold to the usual tropes and conventions of the genre.  I thought about not labelling this book as YA, but I think both people who only love YA or only love literary fiction should try out this book. The book doesn’t feel like YA to me, aside from the teen protagonist. I read a few interviews with Leslye Walton where she mentions that she did not intend to sell the book as young adult. She notes, “I actually didn’t write it with the intention of selling it as Young Adult because there isn’t a lot of strong literary YA out there, not that there isn’t any” (The Poetics Project interview; click for more).

I think this could be a good read for those unsure about magical realism, or for those who want to give it a try. Magical realism is “a genre where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment” (Wiki).  There are light touches (i.e., don’t have major impact on the plot/major component of the plot) of magical realism throughout the first part of the novel, until Ava’s birth.  Ava’s wings are the major instance of magical realism in the book, yet they are not treated as wholly unremarkable. Most characters find her wings fascinating and unusual but don’t seek reasoning for them.

The book’s titular character only begins to feature a third of the way through the story – first we are introduced to her grandmother and mother. I enjoyed this generational approach. It was not as sentimental or nostalgic or romanticized as it might have been. Emilienne and Viviane are as fascinating and well-developed as Ava. They take a less prominent role when Ava starts to tell her story, but they remain present and active.

Other characters will grasp your attention just as well. I found myself frightened of Nathaniel (rarely am I truly frightened of a character), who initially appears to be very grounded – perhaps this is why he is so frightening. I read Henry, Ava’s twin brother, as autistic but given the genre of the story his peculiarities seem to be part of the magic (which might raise thoughts on what’s truly real, or magical, or abnormal…).

I haven’t yet mentioned the prose, which is another area where Walton shines. I doubt my own words could do it justice so here is a random passage (I literally opened up the book and wrote down the first paragraph I saw…it’s perhaps not the most magical or stunning but it gives you a good taste of the rhythm and style of the prose):

In the end, Viviane all but raised herself – meals were yesterday’s pastries; baths and bedtimes were rarely enforced. Her childhood was spent amid the scents and sounds of the bakery. It was her sticky fingers that topped the Belgian buns with glazed cherries, her hands that warmed the pie dough. As a toddler, she could easily whip up a batch of profiteroles, standing on a chair and calmly filling each choux pastry with cream. With barely a sniff of the air, Viviane Lavender could detect the slightest variation in any recipe – a talent that she would perfect in later years. Yes, Viviane spent many hours in the bakery. Her mother barely acknowledge she was there. (53)

Please noteThe next paragraph contains spoilers. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

The only part of the novel that I thought fell short of the rest of the story was the denouement. I thought the assault scene itself was well-written: intense and painful without being graphic. However, Ava’s recovery is practically non-existent. She narrates the story from a personal perspective but suddenly the reader receives little of how she feels, how this event affects her beyond physical consequences. Perhaps we the readers are now cut off from her because of her suffering?

The Bottom Line: A lyrical, sorrowful novel straddling the boundaries of magical realism, literary fiction, and young adult. Plot, characters, and prose are all in strong form. Highly recommended.


Quick Review: Breezy Summer Reads

I read each of these books – one young adult and one middle grade – in one sitting. 

  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide
    • The second book I ever purchased solely due to hype
    • I really liked the narrative style – without it, this would have been a one or two star book.
      • Some people don’t like broken lines in their prose novels. To me it’s either annoying if done intrusively, or it creates a rhythm that suits certain characters’ personalities. I think the use of broken lines suits Candace’s dramatic, whimsical personality, and I don’t think they’re overused.
    • Not sure how I feel about the characters. I guess they felt realistic but they didn’t really compel me.
      • I was not expecting this book to be so much about racism or inter-generational family conflicts.
      • But really it’s all about rich people problems so if you’re not into that, stay away.
    • The big twist was something of a disappointment (as it pretty much was bound to be after all the hype), but especially because it was very similar to what I had just read in another book.
        • SPOILERS (highlight to see):
        • I thought there would still be more after the fire reveal, about when she hit her head…but then it just turned out to be she was so traumatized she blacked everything out. I thought maybe the big twist

        • I wonder how the twist would stand up on a re-read, i.e. how obvious the clues would be. The fact that her friends were dead was not a huge shocker, but the fire and how it came about was interesting (if I hadn’t read that ending in another book just a few weeks earlier, I might have enjoyed the twist a lot more.
  • Doll Bones by Holly Black
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide
    • This is a good story about growing up but a not-so-good creepy adventure story. The three kids read as tweens, not as teens or adults in small bodies. I was expecting something akin to Coraline and was greatly disappointed in that area. However, there were some really poignant moments (such as when Alice reveals why she’s so adverse to Poppy’s ghost hunt). I think this book would have been much stronger without the doll story line, which admittedly is the main focus and probably what draws kids to the book.

Summer Library Challenge: Library Scavenger Hunt

This week’s challenge: “We’re winding to an end, so I thought I’d come up with something fun. So here is a little scavenger hunt, you can do it virtually or in person, up to you. You don’t have to do all, but let me know in the comments or a post/tweet which one you did and if you enjoyed what you found.”

  1. Go to your favorite section of the library. Close your eyes and feel out, picking a random book. If it’s a book you haven’t read before, see if it’s one you would like and then check it out and read it.
    • I had a tricky time deciding which area I would choose as my ‘favourite’ but in the end I decided on the section of Tolkien criticism. Even if I haven’t yet read a lot of books from here, I also like to sit and read in this area.
    • I found The Spiritual World of The Hobbit by James Stuart Bell. This is a recent release and only arrived at the library in April. I’m not sure if I will read it before I leave, but I hadn’t heard of it before so I’m glad I found a new book to check out.
  2. Go to a section of the library you’ve never been to and pick out a book you normally wouldn’t.
    • The only sections of the library I don’t visit at least on occasion are westerns, romances and inspirational, and since there’s no chance I would read one of those in the week before I move, I went to the magazines instead. I have nothing against magazines; I just never read them because there’s so many books to read!
    • I took out National Geographic (Apr 2014), Shambhala Sun (Nov 2013), and National Geographic Traveler (May 2013).
  3. Talk to your reference librarian, ask them a question (or two), skip the computer and go straight to the source to help you find something.
    •  I couldn’t think of a question to ask so I skipped this one ^-^;
  4. If you normally use self checkout, go to an actual circulation clerk to check out. Or opposite.
    •  I used the self-checkout at the new exit into the park. Very convenient!
  5. Find a movie, CD, or other non-print item to check out.
    •  I took out a CD – French Violin Sonatas. I hope it will prove to be relaxing music to read by.

Review: Torture Team by Philippe Sands

Author: Philippe Sands
Title: Torture Team: Deception, Cruelty and the Compromise of Law
Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
Published: May 2008
Publisher: Allen Lane
Length: 315 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Library browsing, looked interesting
Read If You’re: Interested in the intersection of law + politics or the legality of torture
Quote: “…[all] aggressive interrogative techniques recommended by Jim Haynes and approved by Secretary Rumsfeld [were] used” (8).
Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound | Chapters | Book Depository

In Torture Team, Sands explores “the role of lawyers who are required to give legal opinions on sensitive political matters, and asks what responsibility they bear”. He does this by focusing on the ‘enhanced interrogative techniques’ approved and used on Guantanamo detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani. I did not think I would review this book. It took me a long time to read, due to the high level of detail and wide cast of characters with titles and relationships that took some effort to keep track. My understanding of the American political system and the intersecting branches of the CIA, FBI, army, navy, etc. is limited so at times I found it tiring to try to keep track of how everyone related to each other. Thankfully Sands includes a list of “principal characters and the positions they held during 2002”.

The bulk of this book consists of in-depth interviews with most major players in the decision-making process (then President Bush and Vice President Cheney excluded). I had not expected to find conversations between Sands and the villains of the book.  I expected such people would not grant interviews to be published in a book condemning their actions. The inclusions of such interviews makes this a revealing read. I also like that Sands includes his own perspective to temper the wealth of interviews. He documents the ease or difficulty of securing an interview, and the interactions that arise from his interviews, thus giving a sense of each person as just that – a person, not just a player for the ‘torture team’.

“John Yoo had declined my invitation to discuss the Alstotter case but I had a slightly more willing response from Doug Feith, although our conversation was far from easy. It had the great merit, however, of teasing out the main issues ” (228)

The chapter goes on to document the banter between Feith and Sands, with Sands concluding “Dough Feith went some way in persuading me that the Alstotter case wasn’t exactly comparable and that further inquiry would cause offence in some quarters at least” (232). Sands writes with personal investment and doesn’t just fall back on relaying “he said, she did”. This makes the book easier to swallow as I think it would have been very dry without these touches.

Sands takes an odd turn towards the end of the book in his attempt to draw parallels between the White House lawyers and Nazi lawyers.  Sands concludes, “What happened in Washington in 2002 bore no comparison with what had occurred sixty years earlier in Nuremberg” (245), but he immediately follows this with a sentences beginning “Yet it wasn’t quite that simple…”. Although I agree with Sands’ argument that the White House lawyers acted far beyond their bounds, I don’t think its appropriate to compare to them to Nazi lawyers. This side-track does not add anything to the book. I would have preferred to read more about the connections (or lack-thereof) between torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, as Sands occasionally mentions a connection but does not flesh it out. He writes in the conclusion, “At the very least, however, it is clear that the pictures of abuse that emerged from Abu Ghraib would have been less likely without the Haynes memo and the culture of ill-considered aggression it embraced” but I’m not sure how this is ‘clear’.

Also alluded to throughout the book is the process of revelation, or declassification, or investigation, of al-Qahtani’s treatment – I wasn’t too sure because Sands never explains clearly. He writes like the public knowledge of what happened was something I should already know about (I think the book was published shortly after everything came to light). Perhaps Americans know all about the case but I did not, so I would have appreciate more context regarding what was publicly known and what was investigated.

While preparing this review, I came across a cover that said ‘includes new material’. I couldn’t find specific information on an updated edition, but maybe one does exist?

The Bottom Line: An extremely in-depth exploration of the role of lawyers in how the torture of Guantanamo detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani came to be permitted, but Sands tempers the information overload by portraying the persons involved as real people rather than mere information sources.

Further Reading: 

Summer Library Challenge: Library Collage

 This week’s challenge: “I’d love if you shared a picture or several pictures of your library.”

I’d like to share some photos from the park at my favourite library branch. This is a photo of my friend standing by a large sculpture titled emptyful (click for info). The mist was very refreshing on that hot day.

This area is my favourite part of the library park. I love ponds! This one has beautiful lily pad flowers later in the summer.

This is the ‘back’ wall of the library. (Recently they installed a second entrance so you can now enter/exit the building from this side.) The library is four stories tall and the stairs follow along this wall of windows, with large desks and chairs all along the stairs. It is a beautiful spot to study!