Summer Bird Blue – Akemi Dawn Bowman

I knew I’d have to read everything Akemi Dawn Bowman ever writes when I fell in love with Starfish. With Summer Bird Blue has confirmed her place as one of my favourite authors.


Sorry in advance for the ramble. I’m still an emotional wreck from this book so this review may not be overly coherent.


Rumi is one of the most acerbic characters I’ve loved in a long time. She’s angry, she’s confused, she’s mean, she feels guilty as hell. Lea, the good sister, daughter, friend, human being, died in an accident and Rumi is left to try to figure out how to do life without her best friend. Her mother has abandoned her, shipped her off to Hawaii for the summer to live with Aunty Ani, who’s practically a stranger, and Rumi is furious.

Rumi’s grief is so palpable that I needed to take a few breaks from reading just so I could breathe for a while without inhaling pain. The portrayal of grief in this book was brilliant – visceral, uncomfortable, painful and so real. Normally I would be annoyed if a character’s thoughts were as repetitive as Rumi’s were at times but it added to the authenticity of her character.

People were shown to be grieving differently in this book; there wasn’t a one size fits all portrayal. I hope this book makes its way into the hands of young people who need to know that they’re not alone, that their feelings are valid and that it’s okay to need help.

Sometimes I’m not sure if there is anywhere left in the world I can look where I won’t see the empty spaces she left behind.

Some of my favourite conversations in this book included Rumi’s ‘sandwich method’, where she wraps what she really feels inside two compliments, including,

“I like your eyeshadow today. I feel like I’m eating neon-colored mucus. Thanks for cooking.”

As I read I kept finding ways to use sandwiches as an analogy. For example, Aunt Ani’s house is sandwiched between the homes of Kai and Mr. Watanabe who, while they’re polar opposites in many respects, befriend Rumi and support her while she’s grieving. Then, if you want to take it even further, Rumi is sandwiched between the memories of her sister and the fear of having a future without her.

My favourite character was Aunty Ani’s lonely neighbour, Mr. Watanabe, who has a yappy dog called Poi and is hiding a beautiful heart beneath his grumpy exterior. While he’s comfortable with silence, when he speaks he’s certainly worth listening to.

“Grief is only a visitor, but it goin’ stay mo’ longer when it sees you hiding from it.”

I loved the way music is woven into this book and the lives of its characters. Rumi’s unique way of describing different songs helped me ‘hear’ and feel them in a way that I don’t remember experiencing in a book before.

The piano music is like vanilla lattes and sugar cookies. Cozy. Homely.

I cannot tell you how thrilled I was when I learned one of the characters in this book was asexual. I was overjoyed that this wasn’t just casually mentioned and then set aside. The representation was realistic and the reactions of other characters when they discussed it was everything I hoped it would be. It was never portrayed as a weakness or something to be ashamed of and I loved that kissing an attractive person didn’t magically change this person’s sexuality. I definitely want to read more books featuring asexual and aromantic characters.

I promised myself I wouldn’t cry before Rumi did and with some strategic reading breaks I made it!!! almost made it. When I finally did cry it was definitely the ugly kind; I essentially sobbed through most of the final 10%, obliterating about half a dozen tissues along the way. I’m now nursing a fairly spectacular ugly cry hangover headache but it was entirely worth it.

Before I finish I have to mention the amazing cover! It was Sarah Creech’s gorgeous cover of Starfish that drew me to Akemi’s debut and once again Sarah’s cover design and illustration complement the story perfectly.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Ink Road, an imprint of Black & White Publishing, for the opportunity to read this book. I want to recommend it to everyone!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Rumi Seto spends a lot of time worrying she doesn’t have the answers to everything. What to eat, where to go, whom to love. But there is one thing she is absolutely sure of – she wants to spend the rest of her life writing music with her younger sister, Lea.

Then Lea dies in a car accident, and her mother sends her away to live with her aunt in Hawaii while she deals with her own grief. Now thousands of miles from home, Rumi struggles to navigate the loss of her sister, being abandoned by her mother, and the absence of music in her life. With the help of the “boys next door” – a teenage surfer named Kai, who smiles too much and doesn’t take anything seriously, and an eighty-year-old named George Watanabe, who succumbed to his own grief years ago – Rumi attempts to find her way back to her music, to write the song she and Lea never had the chance to finish.

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.