Starfish – Akemi Dawn Bowman

I live my life in the small place between “uncomfortable” and “awkward.”

I don’t know how to even begin to explain how I feel about Starfish so I’ll start with something easy. That cover!!! Sarah Creech has created one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen! This artist must be an author’s dream come true. The colours, the layout, the design, the awesomeness of it all combined!

I need this cover image available as a print so I can frame it and admire it every day. I also need Sarah commissioned to create artwork of all of the paintings and drawings described in the book because I really, really need a special limited edition illustrated version of Starfish signed by the author and illustrator in my life. Me, me, me, me, me! Argh! I’m a starfish! Moving on …

I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced such a deep bookish connection with a main character before. I felt my name could have been transposed with Kiko’s so many times and yet there were parts of her story that I’ll never understand.

Kiko’s experience of social anxiety is the most honest and realistic portrayal I have ever come across. I would have been right with her attempting to melt into the wall at a party if I’d had the courage to go in the first place. I was impressed by her ability to push through her fear to be in the vicinity of more than one other person at a time sometimes, even though her successes in that area seemed to be fuelled mostly by her need for approval.

People terrify me. I’d probably spend the whole night wishing I had the superpower to make myself invisible. I don’t know how to be any other way.

Her constant feeling of being out of place, weird and different to everyone else hit home for me, as did her pathological need to be ‘enough’ for a person whose expectations are both unrealistic and impossible to meet. I loved her introspection and keen insights into the actions of those around her and her own feelings and behaviour.

I loved that Kiko has a Japanese father and caucasian mother. I desperately wanted her to learn more about her Japanese heritage. I wished that I had siblings but didn’t envy their relationship. I wanted to be friends with Kiko and Emery. I loved Jamie so much that even though I’m anti-romance I wanted Kiko and Jamie to become a couple.

I’ve always felt like I desperately needed to say my feelings out loud – to form the words and get them out of me, because they’ve always felt like dark clouds in my head that contaminate everything around them.

The long term effects of childhood sexual abuse were handled sensitively. The lingering self doubt, guilt and shame were realistic, as were the character’s experiences and internal dialogue as a result of way this trauma was handled by the people they should have been able to trust to protect them.

The physical abandonment by one parent and the emotional abandonment by the other had me getting pretty imaginative with the voodoo doll depiction in my head of Kiko’s mother. Kiko’s fear of abandonment, rejection and of never being enough were all logical but heartbreaking responses to really dysfunctional family dynamics.

I draw a dragon breaking free from its grave and finally seeing what its wings and fire are for.

Kiko finds her voice through her art and the more she explored her feelings through painting and drawing the more I wished I had the ability to translate images in my head to paper and canvas in that way. I’m one of those people who can sort of draw a fairly decent stick figure sometimes as long as they’re just standing there. I loved the use of art as therapy although I did think that the ending was a bit too easy.

I know there were struggles, anguish and angst along the way but Kiko must be made of stronger stuff than I am. If Kiko’s story was my story I am pretty certain there’d be an epilogue that mentioned how well my therapy was going. There was a point in the book where I had to stop reading for a while because some of the responses Kiko experienced were hitting a bit too close to home. If I had to nitpick I’d point out that while Kiko became all about being her own person and making her life her own, she’s not the one who submits the application that gets her on the life path of her dreams.

I felt for sure that Kiko would remain my favourite character but then I met Hiroshi. My candidate for both Father of the Year and Best Mentor Ever, Hiroshi is wise, sensitive, accepting, vulnerable, loving and adorable! I wanted to hug him, take art classes from him and simply sit and listen to him talk about his life and the world for the rest of my life. Hiroshi is one of those people that you meet and hope they’ll adopt you into their family. Everything about him reminded me that family is not defined by blood.

“I want you to tell me a story. Tell me anger. Tell me sorrow. Tell me happiness. Just tell me something that matters to you.”

Akemi Dawn Bowman’s writing is so beautiful and the translation of Kiko’s feelings to artwork was poetic and stunning. I felt a deep connection with so many characters and didn’t want to finish reading because I wanted to continue to hang out with Kiko and Hiroshi. I saw people in my own life in some of the characters I didn’t connect with and gained some insights into their toxicity, which became some of my favourite lightbulb moments in the book. My favourite passage was the story of the sun goddess, Amaterasu.

Content warnings include abandonment, rejection, toxic family relationships, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, racism, divorce, suicide attempt and mental health.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Ink Road, an imprint of Black & White Publishing, for the opportunity to read this incredible debut novel. I cannot wait for this author’s next book to be released.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A half-Japanese teen grapples with social anxiety and her narcissist mother in the wake of a crushing rejection from art school in this debut novel.

Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin. 

But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.

From debut author Akemi Dawn Bowman comes a luminous, heartbreaking story of identity, family, and the beauty that emerges when we embrace our true selves.

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