Books, Reviews

REVIEW | The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Lesleye Walton

REVIEW | The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Lesleye WaltonThe Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
Published by Candlewick Press on March 27th 2014
Genre: Magical Realism, Young Adult
320 pages
Goodreads page

Summary from Goodreads:

Magical realism, lyrical prose, and the pain and passion of human love haunt this hypnotic generational saga.

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.

The first half of this book had me totally enthralled… but by the end, I was struggling to make myself finish.

Compelling magical realism

Lesleye Walton deals with some tough topics in this book – sexual violence, physical brutality, murder – and she has an excellent ear for when subtle implication packs the greatest emotional punch. The story never ceased to surprise me as it moved across the continents, displaying in each generation “all the scars love’s victims carry”. Important, too, is the warning against magnifying a person’s physical difference over the person herself.

Some issues with the story’s POV

Ava’s mostly-omniscient narration gives the story a wonderfully knowing, wistful tone. Although I loved having a window into characters’ minds at just the right time… the inconsistency bothered me. If she’s doing all this narration in retrospect, how exactly does she know the intimate details of her ancestors’ secret thoughts, hopes, regrets? How did she overhear private conversations had out of her earshot?

Characters’ thoughts are presented as fact, not as conjecture pieced together from surviving evidence. There’s no in-world magical realism explanation for why she’d be extraordinarily perceptive. I kept trying to ignore this inconsistency, but it kept popping back up to annoy me.

Lost me at the halfway mark

Maybe this book is just mis-titled. The first half is a delightfully sprawling epic following the earlier three generations of Ava’s family… and then it shifts into Ava’s cloistered teenage life.

I kept expecting Ava herself to do something interesting, to make an interesting choice, anything… but she mostly just sits and pines until she gets viciously attacked. The most important event in her story feels like it happens to her. After all that multi-generational buildup, I found this terribly disappointing. Older Adult Ava, who speaks briefly in the prologue, sounds like she’s had a fascinating life, and I wished I could have heard more about the journeys she’s taken.

As another minor nitpick: I didn’t understand the purpose of Fatima Inês. She was wonderfully atmospheric, but seemed to have no purpose apart from spooky magical backdrop to later happenings. I know that some stories work best when you leave some mysteries unsolved… but I’d hoped to have a more conclusive resolution to hers.


On Romance and Individuality

About a year and a half ago, I was the maid of honor in a close friend’s wedding, which involved giving a toast. Speech-writing has never been a strength of mine, so I scrolled through quotes online for inspiration.

As it turns out, lots of much-beloved quotes about love are so… dramatic. I kept reading things like “I’ll love you until the last stars in the universe burn into the ether” and “a life without you would be a miserable, abysmal darkness.”

I mean, I get it. The first stages of infatuation are a pretty wild ride. But what about steady, long-term love? The bond of intimacy is incredibly strong, but it never really leads to two people fusing into a singular, ecstatic Borg. (Nor should it! That would be terribly creepy.)

Here’s how I see it: the real strength of romantic love lies in steady companionship, mutual support, and complimentary individuality. (And lots and lots of listening.) Here are a few relevant quotes I enjoyed:

I love you. I want you to have your own thoughts and ideas and feelings, even when I hold you in my arms. (E.M. Forster)

She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size. (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

We would be together and have our books and at night be warm in bed together with the windows open and the stars bright. (Ernest Hemingway)

A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish, where bloggers share their top ten responses to a given theme.


Historical Fiction for Foodies

I love when food is featured prominently in historical fiction! It lets me vicariously feast on pheasants, lampreys, mulberry gin, and any number of other things that are tough to fit into my daily meals.

Here are a few intriguing historical fiction books centered around food:


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John Saturnall’s Feast by Laurence Norfolk

A 17th-century orphan is taken in by a local manor, where he rises from kitchen boy to head cook. When the lord’s daughter protests her arranged marriage by goes on a hunger strike, it becomes the cook’s duty to tempt her into eating by cooking scrumptious feasts.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

A renowned English chef is kidnapped by a ruthless pirate named Mad Hannah Mabbot. She promises to spare the chef’s life, as long as he provides her with an excellent meal every week. Eventually, romance strikes! …I’m dying to try the two delicacies mentioned in the official synopsis: tea-smoked eel and pineapple-banana cider.

The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capella

Set in London at the turn of the 19th century, this book tells the story of an impoverished poet who categorizes coffee for a coffee merchant. The merchant has three daughters, and… romance strikes!



Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Nomadic chocolate-making lady and daughter move to small town, cause hubbub. I’ve only seen the 2000 movie based on this novel, but apparently there are also 2 other books in this series: The Girl with No Shadow and Peaches for Father Francis.

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

(More Joanne Harris! Clearly she loves both France and food.) Long after the miseries of WWII, a woman returns to her village home, where she explores both her mother’s recipes and memories of the tormented past.

White Truffles in Winter by N.M. Kelby

A fictionalized account of the life of influential chef Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935).



The Wedding Officer: A Novel of Culinary Seduction by Anthony Capella

It’s WWII, and the British have occupied Naples. In their concern that soldiers might fraternize too much with the local girls, they task a captain with discouraging marriages to Italian girls. The captain meets a young widow with a passion for cooking, and romance strikes! (Because of course it does.)

The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark

In Renaissance-era Venice, a chef and his apprentice get roped into plots and conspiracies beyond their control.

Tomato Rhapsody: A Story of Love, Lust, and Forbidden Fruit by Adam Schell

In 15th-century Tuscany, a Jewish tomato farmer and a Catholic girl meet… and romance strikes! Apparently the characters speak in rhyme. Also, Goodreads reviews say things like “there is a lot of donkey penis in this book,” which might or might not be a good thing.

Evidently, foodie fiction really loves romance.

Seriously, half of the relevant books I found were romance-heavy. I guess focusing on one sensory experience leads easily to focusing on others…

…Writing this post on an empty stomach was not a good plan.

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read any of these. And let me know if you’ve got recommendations for more historical fiction centered around food!


Monthly Recap: January 2016


My Life
  • I returned from a lovely holiday visiting my family. It managed not to snow for the ENTIRE TIME I was there… not even when we visited a ski resort. We ended up with a warm winter hike instead. So now it’s been about 2 full years since I’ve seen actual, knee-deep-or-higher snow. I am snow-starved.
  • I attempted the #24in48 readathon, but “only” made it to 15-ish hours. I still feel pretty accomplished, though, since I made it through 3 books that weekend.
  • I’ve joined the staff of Rambutan Literary, a new & tiny literary journal dedicated to voices from Southeast Asia and its diaspora. Hopefully, editing will also be a kick in the pants for me to actually start writing again! It’s been a long time since I submitted anything to a journal or anything, and I’d like to get back into the habit.
Book Thoughts & Discussions
Books reviewed

Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson (★ ★)
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (★ ★ ★ ★ ★) – and I even visited the real-life Cannery Row in Monterey, California. It’s a bit touristy, but still worth a visit!

Mini-Reviews: Other January reads

The Old Man and the Sea by
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
132 Pages; published 1952
★ ★ ★

It is the story of an old Cuban fisherman and his supreme ordeal: a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Using the simple, powerful language of a fable, Hemingway takes the timeless themes of courage in the face of defeat and personal triumph won from loss and transforms them into a magnificent twentieth-century classic.

A lonely old fisherman goes after a giant fish, which he respects as a nemesis and friend. Parts of it are a beautifully succinct character study, but the story itself was repetitive: another day, another struggle with giganto-fish. The ending left me feeling mostly empty.

The Divine by
The Divine by Asaf Hanuka, Tomer Hanuka, and Boaz Lavie
160 Pages; published 2015
★ ★ ★

With no career prospects and a baby on the way, Mark finds himself making the worst mistake of his life and signing on with Jason. What awaits him in Quanlom is going to change everything. What awaits him in Quanlom is weirdness of the highest order: a civil war led by ten-year-old twins wielding something that looks a lot like magic, leading an army of warriors who look a lot like gods.What awaits him in Quanlom is an actual goddamn dragon…The Divine is a fast-paced, brutal, and breathlessly beautiful portrait of a world where ancient powers vie with modern warfare and nobody escapes unscathed.

Gorgeous artwork and important postcolonial themes, but not much character development.

My Real Children by
My Real Children by Jo Walton
320 Pages; published 2014
★ ★ ★ 1/2

Two lives, two worlds, two versions of modern history. Each with their loves and losses, their sorrows and triumphs. My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan’s lives…and of how every life means the entire world.

A single choice – whether or not to marry her long-distance boyfriend in her early twenties – sends Patricia spiraling into two very different lives. These lives are told in parallel, yet both reach the same conclusion: confused convalescence in a nursing home at the end of her life.

The story moves along at a brisk pace, stopping only briefly for individual scenes. It’s like reading the truncated SparkNotes of two lives. TL;DR. Something about it reminded me in a kindly fashion of hearing about the exploits of Sims you’ve grown particularly fond of, or playing house with dolls as a child check that.

The story and language are all very straightforward, nothing terribly original or different happened… but I found myself enjoying it very much. It’s an incredibly comforting read. You see the same woman build a life for herself and find beauty in her surroundings, no matter the circumstances. Patricia begins shy yet resilient; as her life progresses, she surrounds herself with love and beauty when possible, takes chances for self-improvement no matter how late the age. There are some great portrayals of non-traditional relationships and families. Alternate timelines for world events always make me smile, and neither timeline in this book is exactly our own.

The Stranger by
The Stranger by Albert Camus
123 Pages; published 1942
★ ★ ★

Through the story of an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, Camus explored what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.”

One man’s aimless nihilism is put on trial. This is one of those books I wish I could discuss with other people, as I don’t know much about existentialism or absurdism without the help of Wikipedia, and I’m sure I’m missing references / overtones / philosophical ideas.

Around the Blogosphere
  • Josephine @ Word Revel (in a guest post for the Mile Long Bookshelf) discusses the nuances of living abroad while being of mixed ethnic descent. As a fellow person of mixed ethnic descent, I was nodding my head in agreement the whole time I read.
  • Claire and Nikki @ Bitches with Books discuss how exactly they define “reading diversely”.
  • Heather @ Bits n Books shares her recent thrifty used book find, complete with an enigmatic message written on the inside. Secondhand books come pre-loaded with their own character, and you never know what little surprises might await!
  • Alyssa @ The Devil Orders Takeout tells us about teahouses in Chinese culture, especially as portrayed in one particular play. I’ve never read any Chinese literature, so the social nuances were totally new to me.