Book Review

The Astonishing Color of Enlightenment

The Astonishing Color of AfterThe Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Thank you, Hachette Book Group, for giving me a finished copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

There’s no point in wishing. We can’t change anything about the past. We can only remember. We can only move forward.

Last December, many K-pop fans (myself included) were distraught when SHINee’s Jonghyun committed suicide. Following this tragedy, EXO’s Baekhyun was criticized for saying that he didn’t know why people get depressed. These events in the K-pop world piqued my interest and made me realize that depression isn’t something that shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially now that more and more people in Asia are falling into its dangerous clutches. Since I personally haven’t experienced depression or had suicidal thoughts, books like this provide an opportunity for vicarious learning. When I read such literature, I look for enlightenment, not entertainment. Hence, although 462 pages seems to long for a YA contemporary novel, I am glad that I pushed through.

The Astonishing Color of After is primarily a melancholic book. In fact, most of the blurbs at the back have the word “grief.” It is about a girl named Leigh, whose mother has committed suicide. Strangely, Leigh believes that her mother has turned into a bird. After Leigh finds her mother’s suicide note, she travels to Taiwan in order to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, Leigh reminisces about her past, tries to find the mysterious bird, and gradually unveils the painful secrets of her family. In totality, this book is both literally and figuratively heavy.

One reason why I enjoyed this book is that it reiterated the biological aspect of depression. As a Christian, I used to believe that depression was mostly spiritual in nature. With that in mind, reading this book made me acknowledge the fallibility of this idea. After all, if depression were only a spiritual problem, it couldn’t be cured or managed by modern medicine. In the book, Leigh’s mom underwent various kinds of therapy that made her feel better by altering the chemical composition of her brain. Research has proven that people with depression generally have lower levels of happy hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin. Thus, it would be foolish and unfair to assume that depressed people have something wrong with their faith or spiritual lives. Doing so could even be a form of ableism. Yes, my Christianity makes me experience life in a different way. But I don’t believe that it makes me immune to depression. I actually have a friend who suffers from depression, and it makes me sad that he/she was ostracized by some of the members of her own church. With all that said, I am grateful that this book taught me that we shouldn’t judge people with depression, an illness that has so many layers.

Another reason why I liked TACOA is that it exposed me to Chinese/Taiwanese culture. Aside from numerous descriptions of food, there were discussions on death, marriage, and more. Thus, this book made me hungry for food and information. I currently don’t have the means to travel to foreign countries, so I’m glad that books like this enable me to experience different cultures from the comfort of my bed. Hahaha. Chinese culture already thrives here in the Philippines, but I would love to experience it in its purest form by visiting China someday.

The last reason for my enjoyment has something to do with this thing called love. I mentioned before that TACOA is a melancholic book, but don’t worry because there are actually some light and fluffy parts. I was particularly fond of the chapters featuring Axel, Leigh’s best friend. I’ve always been a fan of the best-friends-to-lovers trope (because it prevents any case of instalove), and the author utilized it almost perfectly. Still, it would’ve been better if Axel hadn’t offended my feminist sensibilities by using a certain girl as a so-called distraction.

Looking back, the main problem that I had with this book was its color-related metaphors. In this regard, the writing reminded me of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval. Leigh and Axel were very gifted artists, and they had this thing of conveying their emotions by naming very unfamiliar colors. For example, jealousy was this special kind of green, guilt was this shade of orange, etc. You can just read the book’s title if you don’t get what I’m trying to say. It takes a lot of imagination to comprehend the color of “after” and other abstract concepts.

Despite the latter complaint, I highly recommend The Astonishing Color of After because it gave me an enlightening reading experience. It’s a book that can start discussions on topics that people usually avoid: depression and suicide. Also, it introduces readers to the beauty of Asian/Chinese culture. If anything, the sweet romance is just a bonus. Overall, kudos to another contemporary novel with very meaningful and relevant content.

P.S. Other noteworthy virtues of TACOA include:

1. Diversity (Leigh is half-Chinese and Axel is half-Filipino)
2. Heartwarming family dynamics
3. Magical plot twists

Book Review

Just a Little Sign Language

A Quiet Kind of ThunderA Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All I need is just a little sign language. Show me that you’re mine, baby. And say what you wanna say.

—Dylan Gardner

This book was my second contemporary read (in 2017) concerning mental illness, and I am happy to say that I liked it very much. The premise itself was intriguing: a selectively mute girl forming a bond with a deaf boy. One would expect the story to implode with all kinds of infamous tropes (e.g. instalove and romanticized mental illness), but I actually found it to be educational, substantial, and refreshing.

British Sign Language (BSL) played an important role in A Quiet Kind of Thunder. Given the characters communicative impairments, BSL was primarily what they used to talk to each other. With that in mind, I really enjoyed the dialogues between Steffi and Rhys. The author enriched their conversations by helpfully explaining how to sign particular words and phrases, and I applauded her for doing so. It made me think about my father back home, who is (or used to be) adept at American Sign Language. I fondly remembered the days he taught me how to finger spell each letter of the alphabet. xD In other words, I liked this aspect of the novel because it rekindled my childlike interest in silent speech.

Another strength of this novel was its meaningful content. Interestingly, it explored the dichotomy of the “Speaking World” and the “Non-speaking World.” To simply put it, I enjoyed how the author debunked the stereotypes “normal” people have against those who are deaf or mute. I was sad whenever Steffi and Rhys felt alienated from others, including their own loved ones. Still, it was inspiring how they managed to find their own voice in spite of the ignorant and insensitive people around them.

I would have given this book five stars if I wasn’t perturbed by the values of the characters, especially their attitude towards sex. I was particularly offended by Steffi’s subtle mockery of chastity. I do not condemn fictional characters who are non-conservative, but it’s a different matter when they attack my own beliefs. This criticism is clearly subjective, but my conscience would bother me endlessly if I keep it to myself.

In the end, A Quiet Kind of Thunder lived up to its title. It’s characters were indeed quiet, yet the message of their story resonated in my mind like thunder: do not look down on those who are deaf or mute, because their condition does not prevent them from achieving a happy and purposeful life.

Book Review

Best Friend, or Worst Enemy?

All That WasAll That Was by Karen Rivers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thank you, Macmillan, for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

There is maybe a fungus that has woven me to Piper. Piper is the fungus, invading my roots. It’s more parasitic than that.

Last night, my brother asked me why I looked so serious while reading this book. I was tempted to laugh, but my contemplative mood prevented me from doing so. All That Was deals with a lot of heavy topics, so don’t mistake it for a typical contemporary novel. Out of the four books I’ve already read this year, it’s actually the most enlightening.

All That Was is the melancholic story of Piper and Sloane, two girls who have been best friends since childhood. Indoctrinated by the Feminist movement, they vow to abstain from boys and any kind of romantic attachment. Surprisingly, Piper snags herself a boyfriend named Philip (a.k.a. Soup), who happens to be Sloane’s long-time crush. When Piper mysteriously dies, Sloane and Soup are stricken with guilt. After all, the last thing Piper saw before her death was the two of them kissing.

I primarily enjoyed this book because it made me reflect upon the complexity and true meaning of friendship. Piper and Sloane were indeed best friends, but they certainly weren’t good for each other. In fact, their relationship was dysfunctional to the point that it bordered on codependency. Honestly, Piper was a terrible, terrible friend. I have three reasons for my opinion.

First, she wanted Sloane to feel ashamed of her purity. Piper practically forced Sloane to give away her virginity to a stranger, claiming that it was Feminist to take charge and objectify boys. Also, Piper believed that her friendship with Sloane would be strained if they didn’t have the same “hymen condition”. Sloane constantly expressed her misgivings, but Piper didn’t listen to her. To make things worse, when Sloane felt like she was raped, Piper said, “You didn’t say no.” In other words, Piper was a fan of rape culture (i.e. blaming the victim).

Second, Piper made a move on Soup even though she knew that Sloane liked him first. With that in mind, the love triangle in this book was stressful because it was born out of betrayal. If my best friend and I happened to like the same girl, I definitely wouldn’t callously court her at the expense of my best friend’s feelings.

Third, Piper was talented at discouraging Sloane. I highlighted the passages where Piper “teasingly” called Sloane boring and criticized her passion for filmmaking. I really couldn’t imagine what possessed Piper to make her so insensitive and mean to her own best friend. It was a wonder that Sloane put up with her for so long.

Hence, I didn’t feel so bad that Piper was dead. I was so annoyed with her that “Good riddance!” popped up in my head every now and then. Piper and Sloane’s friendship wasn’t healthy, especially for Sloane. It sucked that she was willing to sacrifice her happiness in order to avoid losing Piper’s favor. Ugh. I would never want to have a friend whose purpose in life was to make me miserable.

Although I obviously hated Piper, I was glad that she encouraged me to evaluate my own relationships with people. Is there any way you can be sure that all of your friendships are genuine? If any of them is tainted by emotional abuse, it’s probably better to say good-bye. Humans are indeed made for relationships, but we must always remember to choose our friends wisely.

I also enjoyed this book because of its Feminist discourse. Before I read it, I didn’t give much thought to rape culture (I actually had to Google its definition). It’s absurd how rape victims nowadays are sometimes said to be “asking for it”. Those who want to absolve lustful men of guilt are despicable. All That Was made me realize that the world would be a better place if people stopped justifying or trivializing rape.

My sole complaint was the writing style, which was characterized by an abundance of run-on sentences. As someone who works in the ESL industry, it was difficult for me to ignore such a…sin. Hahaha. Since many sentences (independent clauses) were connected by “and,” the clarity of the writing was often compromised. I knew that the writing style was meant to reflect the freedom of human thought, but there were times that my brain couldn’t keep up with the continuous flow of ideas within a single paragraph.

Nevertheless, I genuinely liked All That Was. I highly recommend it because of its well-developed characters and very insightful content. People who aren’t Grammar Nazis will surely enjoy it more than I did. 😀

Book Review

The Song of Shadowy Disappointment

Shadowsong (Wintersong, #2)Shadowsong by S. Jae-Jones

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Thank you, Macmillan, for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

For your music was the first and only thing in this world that kept me human, the first and last thing I give back to you. —Josef

This year, it seems that I’m becoming familiar with the disappointment that comes with unmet expectations. I loved Wintersong because of its lush, musical content, so I was super excited to get my hands on Shadowsong. I am sorry to say that this is my second 2-star read of 2018.

Objectively speaking, I think that many people will cherish or resonate with this book, especially those who struggle with grief, loss, or depression. The author disclosed that like herself, Liesl suffers from bipolar disorder. S. Jae-Jones didn’t say anything about Josef, but he overtly struggles with depression and self-harm. “Shadowsong” is the perfect title for this #OwnVoices novel; it is as dark as a shadow and as lyrical as a song. I was saddened by the character arcs, but at the same time, I was amazed by the eloquent writing. It was actually my first time to read such an introspective and melancholic piece of YA literature. And for that alone, I can’t say that I completely disliked it.

Nonetheless, it must be noted that Shadowsong made me yawn so many times. It felt like I was rereading Anna-Marie McLemore’s Wild Beauty, which was my own literary lullaby. A lot of chapters were dedicated to developing the characters, but the pacing was utterly monotonous. It didn’t help that I was negatively affected by Liesl and Josef’s constant squabbles. Jealousy, guilt, and resentment were forcing them apart, and reconciliation seemed almost impossible. Combined with the hopelessness evoked by their respective internal monologues, the stress I felt tempted me to give up on the book.

Ultimately, I decided to give Shadowsong 2 stars because it overwhelmed me with a sense of alienation. I wanted to cheer for the characters as they endeavored to defeat their inner demons, yet I just couldn’t connect with them. Although I’ve read a fair number of mental health novels, it was still hard for me to comprehend the catalyst(s) behind most of their decisions and actions. Does mental illness give fictional characters the right to be jerks to their family? I would’ve liked this book more if Josef hadn’t been so mean to Liesl.

Looking at the bright side, Shadowsong nicely tied up loose ends. Also, it was great that my fondness for the mysterious Goblin King didn’t waver even though he was barely in the story. In a way, this book was less about romantic love and more about brotherly/sisterly love.

With all that said, the fact remains that Shadowsong was not my cup of tea. Unlike the first book, it was slow-paced and downright stressful. Oh well, at least I was able to find closure after the heartbreaking ending of Wintersong.

Book Review

Broken but Just Fine

The Love Letters of Abelard and LilyThe Love Letters of Abelard and Lily by Laura Creedle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thank you, HMH Teen, for giving me an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Love is about being broken beyond repair in the eyes of the world and finding someone who thinks you’re just fine.

I’m glad that I’ve found another meaningful contemporary novel that deals with mental health. I honestly didn’t have high expectations when I requested this book from the publisher, so I was delightfully surprised by its enlightening and philosophical content. If you’re looking for an Own Voices novel that is worth your time (and money), go ahead and pick this up on December.

The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily is the story of two “broken” teenagers. Abelard has Asperger syndrome, while Lily has ADHD (like the author). They’ve known each other since childhood, but they only become real friends when they are both detained for “innocently” destroying school property. Since Abelard finds it extremely difficult to talk face-to-face, he and Lily start a connection through texting. They have both love The Letters of Abélard and Héloïse, and they cleverly exchange passages to express their thoughts and emotions.

Unsurprisingly, this book had a character-driven story. Lily was the sole narrator, and her inner musings ranged from dark, to cynical, to downright hilarious. She was a very interesting character because she was caught in a quandary every day in school; even though she had ADHD, her peers and teachers seemed to be oblivious to her special needs and treated her like she was like an ordinary teenager. It was sad and ironic that Lily, one of the brightest students, was mistaken for a truant. I totally understood why Lily hated going to school since it was practically her own version of hell.

One of the lessons that I gleaned from this book is that sensitivity and consideration should never be out of fashion, especially towards people with mental conditions. We shouldn’t look down on them or treat them with condescension in the academe because they can actually have the capacity to be better or smarter than other “normal” students. For example, Abelard was indeed a social hermit because of Asperger’s, but his love for mathematics and science enabled him to participate in regional robotics competitions. Of course, this happened in a work of fiction. Nevertheless, I think that it can happen in real life.

Another great thing about this book was that unlike some of its peers in the YA market, it didn’t depict love as the cure-all for mental illness. Abelard and Lily were head over heels for each other. They made each other happy and secure, but they still had to struggle with their respective mental conditions. In the end, one of them sought the help of science in order to have a shot at “normalcy.”

I nearly forgot to mention how impressed I was by the author’s creativity. It was amazing how she managed to integrate specific, evocative quotes from The Letters of Abélard and Héloïse into Lily and Abelard’s conversations, which were always smooth and coherent. Logically, the quotes weren’t just chosen at random. Otherwise, the book would have been so disorganized and confusing. xD

This book was generally enjoyable and insightful, but there was one thing that I really disliked: Lily and Abelard acted like jerks toward their parents. It was good that family dynamics were included or explored. Lily’s mom in particular was a prominent figure in the novel as she tried her best to meet Lily’s needs. However, I was annoyed that Lily often treated her mother with disrespect. She even had the audacity to say the f word, for crying out loud! Abelard wasn’t as bad as Lily, but his behavior around his parents could be described as…cold. I had already encountered the same problem in Eliza and Her Monsters, another mental health novel I recently finished. With that in mind, I really dislike it when such books seem to use mental illness as a convenient excuse for characters to be so rude or ungrateful.

All things considered, The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily was fun to read. It didn’t please me entirely, but I would recommend it because of it’s enlightening content. Thus, I am excited to read more books by Laura Creedle. 🙂

Book Review

Dancing with Master Cuckoo

The Midnight DanceThe Midnight Dance by Nikki Katz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thank you, Macmillan, for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

She shouldn’t miss the touch of this man who had done such despicable things, a man who forced people to serve under his control.

After giving meh ratings to two Swoon Reads titles (Kissing Max Holden and Just Friends), I was a little hesitant to read this book. However, as usual, the cover was so attractive that I just had to go beyond the title and copyright pages. Thankfully, I did not regret my decision.

Before you proceed, be warned that this book isn’t a typical YA contemporary novel. It is actually a mild psychological thriller about twelve ballerinas who live in an isolated finishing school owned by a dashing man named Master. Penny, the heroine, is strangely Master’s favorite student. She feels intoxicated in his presence, but a voice in the back of her mind tells her to stay away from him. When Master’s secrets are divulged by the gradual resurfacing of Penny’s lost memories, the Grand Teatro becomes less like a finishing school and more like a creepy dollhouse.

Those of you who are familiar with my reading tastes probably know that I rarely read thrillers. I don’t necessarily dislike them; I just don’t gravitate towards them like I do to fantasy or sci-fi novels. With that in mind, reading The Midnight Dance was somehow a refreshing experience. Even though it wasn’t so scary, Master’s psychopathic behavior triggered a sour taste in my mouth. The things he did to Penny and the other ballerinas were twisted as heck. I often feared for Penny’s safety (and sanity), and I was overwhelmed by the desire to know how and why Master became so…incongruous. He was gorgeous on the outside yet malevolent on the inside. If you’ve read Shadow and Bone, you might compare Master to the ever mysterious Darkling.

Since this book was published by Swoon Reads, I was delightfully surprised that romance wasn’t the highlight of the story. There were no too cheesy scenes nor an abundance of instalove. Penny and Cricket’s relationship did add a touch of sweetness and intrigue, but I liked that the author was more focused on telling about their attempts to escape from Master’s clutches. In this regard, The Midnight Dance is a rare gem among other Swoon Reads titles.

Penny was the most significant catalyst behind my 4-star rating. She was an empowered female in light of her constant craving for the truth. In fact, her mind was so strong that Master couldn’t control it completely. If Penny were thrown into a dystopian world, she would get along with Cassia Reyes (Matched) or America Singer (The Selection), heroines who always take something with a grain of salt.

My main problem with this book was it’s rationale for Master’s mental condition. I simply couldn’t accept that he became a control freak because of his Cinderella-like childhood. Also, I didn’t fully understand Master’s supposedly scientific process of mind control. The latter ideas were very promising, but their execution was unsatisfactory. Hence, by the end of the book, my mind was still shrouded in a mist of confusion.

Nonetheless, I had fun reading The Midnight Dance. I recommend it to booknerds searching for a moderately thrilling book to read this fall. Since I still have some unanswered questions, I hope that a sequel is in the works.

P.S. I read this book with the smart and pretty Brittney (Her Bookish Things). You can check out her review here.

Book Review

There Is No Such Thing as Wrong Grammar

Love Is Both Wave and ParticleLove Is Both Wave and Particle by Paul Cody

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thank you, Macmillan, for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Light was something like human love. How could it be so smooth, so lovely and flowing and warm, the apex of human existence at times, and at other times so gritty, the cause of heartbreak and misery and misunderstanding and even murder?

Even though I was bothered by the author’s fondness for wrong grammar, I cannot deny that this book was so worth my time. It was heartwarming, raw, and so insightful. I particularly loved its unfiltered exploration and discussion of mental health. This inspiring story will stay with me for a long time.

Love Is Both Wave and Particle is basically the life story of two troubled teenagers, Sam and Levon. Both of them attend a private school for people with special needs, and they are asked by one of their teachers to write a biography, aka the story of their lives. Sam and Levon are expected to work on this project together as means of catharsis and self-discovery. Soon, everyone is suddenly intrigued by the gradual changes in Sam and Levon, and one question begs to be answered: is love somehow responsible?

It took me some time to appreciate this book. Since my current profession requires me to be a grammar Nazi, the intentional errors throughout the novel made me flinch occasionally. The dialogues were hard to detect because the author didn’t use quotation marks. Furthermore, the narrative was written in a very conversational style that was characterized by multiple comma splices and sentence fragments. I understood the intention behind such errors. Still, I couldn’t just ignore them even if I prayed. xD

I also had some trouble with the multiple POVs. People who knew Sam and Levon secretly contributed to the biography. Hence, there were many characters to analyze, as well as names to memorize. Honestly, I can’t remember all of them even now. Tee-hee. Looking at the bright side, I did appreciate that the author gave me the opportunity to get to know many of the side characters, whom I initially perceived as insignificant. Also, I genuinely loved that Sam’s and Levon’s parents were able to share their own stories since parents/adults are usually ignorant bystanders in YA.

Setting aside the technical/Formalist problems I had with this book, I am happy to tell you that it made an impact on me. Unlike other contemporary books nowadays, this one was unique and memorable. It dealt with serious topics like depression, self-harm, and sexuality in such a way that was straightforward but not overwhelming. Scientific facts about various things were also given, making the book both enlightening and credible. If you’re a nerd like me, this book will tickle your brain and make you smile.

For me, the most significant message of this book is that mental illness can be a product of nature or nurture. In other words, it can be triggered by your genes or environment (i.e. upbringing). In retrospect, Sam’s and Levon’s personal struggles depicted that mental illness can be a product of both. Of course, other factors may come into play. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the discourse of mental health is very relevant nowadays, and we should take it seriously.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed Love Is Both Wave and Particle, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a very meaningful book to read. If you want to enjoy it to the fullest, just pretend that there’s no such thing as wrong grammar. 😉