YA? Why not?!

avalavender

Title: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

Author: Leslye Walton

Publisher & Release Date: Candlewick, March 25th, 2014

The Hook: This poignant, multi-generational not-really-YA-but-marketed-as-such debut is magical realism at its best.

The Lowdown (from Goodreads): Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava—in all other ways a normal girl—is born with the wings of a bird. In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and naïve to the twisted motives of others. Others like the pious Nathaniel Sorrows, who mistakes Ava for an angel and whose obsession with her grows until the night of the Summer Solstice celebration. That night, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air, and Ava’s quest and her family’s saga build to a devastating crescendo. First-time author Leslye Walton has constructed a layered and unforgettable mythology of what it means to be born with hearts that are tragically, exquisitely human.

Overall Impressions:  I had the pleasure of experiencing this book last fall as part of a panel of booksellers who were reading middle grade and YA submissions by debut authors.  We all loved this book, but we all agreed: it’s not really YA.  With its generation-spanning storyline, multiple perspectives, and languid, magical tone, it doesn’t read like YA.  It’s debatable whether the teenaged Ava Lavender is even the “main” character.  However, all of the these arguments are moot when put up against the big question: Is it good? And it is.  Wonderful, even.  It’s the perfect crossover novel, in that it will appeal to older teens and adults alike, even those who don’t usually read YA.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender tells the stories of 4 generations of women, from Maman Roux, torn away from her French village to a filthy, turn-of-the-century Manhattan tenement, to her lovely, strange daughter Emilienne, who, after being thwarted in love and witnessing its dangerous effects on her 3 siblings, resigns herself to a loveless marriage with a baker named Connor Lavender.  Together, they travel to Seattle, where they open a bakery, and where Emilienne gives birth to her headstrong daughter Viviane.  As a teenager, Viviane gives birth to twins, silent and confusing Henry, and the astonishing, winged child, Ava.  Together, this family of misfits changes their small, insular community in unimaginable ways.

The Highs: Oh, where do I begin?  This book is beautiful.  The language, the imagery, the characters… all of it, wonderful.  But for the sake of specificity:

The language: If you hadn’t guessed from the title, Leslye Walton uses words beautifully.  Her descriptions are pefect: compelling, but never overly wordy.  Also, the multiple perspectives that she employs work perfectly: Ava’s story is written in a first-person perspective, but most of the book is written in third-person omniscient, which allows for intimate looks at the inner workings of the myriad characters.  And speaking of…

The  characters:  I love all of the Roux/Lavender women, but they make up only a small part of the beautiful cast that Walton has created.  The supporting cast of characters is remarkable, and their stories are related through wonderful vignettes.

The imagery: This book is suffused with magic, both natural and inexplicable.  Walton deals with the magic of food, of a mother’s love, of love dark and unrequited, as well as the literal magic of a girl born with wings, and of ghosts and spirits.

Buzzkills:  For me, personally, I felt like the book was too short, and I wonder if perhaps that was the fault of the rewriting that preceded it being shopped as a YA novel, rather than the adult novel it was originally written to be.  It’s only 360 pages [ETA: the finished version is only 301 pages!], and I would have happily read twice as much if it meant that I got more insights into the lives of Walton’s characters.

Also, and this is the biggie, this book has some dark and disturbing imagery.  There’s some pretty awful violence and a truly horrifying rape sequence.  It’s these, along with the generally adult tone of the novel, that would make me hesitate to put it in the hands of a younger teen.

The Source: Advance copy from the publisher

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor French pastries were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

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She can see emotions but she can’t feel them.

Cover artwork for Some Quiet Place

Title: Some Quiet Place

Author: Kelsey Sutton

Publisher & Release Date: Flux, July 2013

The Hook: Eye-catching cover art, a heroine who feels no emotion, and a stellar review from Kirkus, which listed it as one of the best teen novels of 2013.

The Lowdown (from author’s webpage): “Elizabeth Caldwell doesn’t feel emotions . . . she sees them. Longing, Shame, and Courage materialize around her classmates. Fury and Resentment appear in her dysfunctional home. They’ve all given up on Elizabeth because she doesn’t succumb to their touch. All, that is, save one—Fear. He’s intrigued by her, as desperate to understand the accident that changed Elizabeth’s life as she is herself.

“Elizabeth and Fear both sense that the key to her past is hidden in the dream paintings she hides in the family barn. But a shadowy menace has begun to stalk her, and try as she might, Elizabeth can barely avoid the brutality of her life long enough to uncover the truth about herself. When it matters most, will she be able to rely on Fear to save her?”

Overall Impressions:  An impressive debut! Sutton created a story that feels both dreamy and gritty – beautiful imagery of Emotions and Elements in human form, invisible to our eyes, an Other World twisted around being trapped in a small farming town in an abusive home. Elizabeth is a compelling character, and I became thoroughly wrapped up in the mystery of her and her quest to solve herself.

That said, I also have some qualms about the ways in which violence was used in this story. For example, in trying to make Elizabeth feel emotion, Fear puts in her scenarios that, if they took place on a TV show (and weren’t happening to the main character), it would be the teaser before the opening wherein some attractive nameless young woman dies horribly. But on the other hand, Fear is trying to make Elizabeth feel afraid and she always quickly realizes it’s him and not entirely real. It would be fascinating to have a conversation with the author about what she’s trying to say in these layers.

I remain wary of love triangles. I’m not sure if I can really say this book has one, because Elizabeth is kind of a non-participant, given her walled-off emotions, and Fear and Joshua can’t really interact. Either way, I respect the choices Elizabeth made.

The storyline about the dying friend was touching and I understood its purpose in the book, but it also felt the least … organic. I think that’s because while you see Elizabeth making the deliberate choice to interact with Joshua and in small ways with her family, Maggie and Elizabeth’s friendship dates back to when they were little girls and you don’t know why Elizabeth chose to keep interacting with Maggie.

Toward the end of the book one of the characters tells Elizabeth that people are drawn to her, yet the book shows her primarily as an outcast. She involves herself in very few people’s lives – everything is a pretend, she must always act the part of normal and her efforts to do so make many people uncomfortable, including her parents. They actually fear her.

The Highs: I really love the cover art – gorgeous and creepy. The story itself balanced dreamy and real and scary so well.

The mystery of Elizabeth and how it resolves, who she grows into in the course of the story. The gradual deepening of the Other World. That Elizabeth is the one who ultimately has to save herself.

Buzzkills: Everything’s handled really well, but this story does deal with a physically and verbally abusive father, nasty school bullying that turns vicious, and some very disturbing violence from the shadowy menace. The first real encounter with the SM happens right after the vicious bully attack and there were elements that made the power imbalance even more uncomfortable for me.

The Source: Ebook from awesome public library!

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a gorgeous ballgown that looks like leaves was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.