Book Reviews

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman – Book Review

A cover of the book Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Warning – possible spoilers! (Tiny ones, though, and I’ll try to avoid even those; I swear I’ll give my best not to ruin it for you… :-))

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman – Book Details

TITLE – Starfish

AUTHOR – Akemi Dawn Bowman

GENREyoung adult, contemporary, mental health, #ownvoices, art



MY RATING – 4.5 of 5


What It Is About

“I wish I could see things the way she does, like it’s okay to be different. Like it’s normal to be weird or nervous or anxious or sad. I wish I could tell people when I’m uncomfortable, and just shrug afterward like it doesn’t matter.”

You can check the trigger warnings on the author’s website.

Kiko Himura has a hard time talking to people. As a half-Japanese, half-Caucasian and someone who does not fit into her mother’s standards of beauty, she just wants to blend in and “be like everyone else”.

The only thing that makes her future seem brighter is the hope that she will get accepted into Prism art school and get away from her mother’s toxic influence. But when the rejection letter arrives at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family, Kiko is forced to take things into her own hands and make a few changes.

Despite her anxieties, Kiko accepts an invitation from her childhood friend to go with him to California and tour art schools there. The trip turns out to be a life-changing one, as Kiko is about to learn more about her heritage, her strengths and weaknesses, as well as a few secrets from her family’s past…

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman – My Review

This was one of those books that, as soon as I read it, I just knew it would stay with me forever.

I think Bowman did a really great job at portraying just how complicated inter-human relationships can be. How you can love with all your heart someone who keeps letting you down. How some people are genuinely so nice, you need to remind yourself every now and then they actually did some pretty messed up things.

“It’s strange – hope can make you forget so much, so quickly. That’s why hoping is so dangerous.”

At times, it was hard for me to connect with these people. To understand their family dynamic. It was hard to grasp the way they were treating each other or reacting to some things.

For example, it was hard for me to understand how someone can go daily through so much pain and injustice without fighting back harder. And at first, when you only get a few glimpses of their daily lives, they felt a bit more like caricatures than real people to me.

However, the author did a great job and the more I read, the more connected with the story I felt. The more I understood.

Kiko’s mom, for example. In most YA contemporaries I’ve read, the trope of the mean, unsupportive parents is usually done so badly. They often feel more cardboard cutout stereotypical, not at all like real people.

And when we first met Kiko’s mom, I was afraid she’d end up on that same pile. But the more I got to know her, the more real and scarier she was to me.

I thought that narcissistic personality and its long-term effects on everyone around has been done so incredibly well. And since Kiko was most often the main target, it really explained her insecurities and social anxiety.

“The painting isn’t about the starfish. It’s about the girl who wants to venture out into the ocean, away from the starfish, so she can feel like she matters.”

This book felt incredibly authentic. It was personal and it was relatable. I believed every word and, even though I never experienced what Kiko had been going through, I could almost picture myself in her shoes.

Kiko is at that delicate age when even in ideal circumstances people can struggle to find themselves. And her position is far from ideal.

She is surrounded by people who don’t look like her, so she often feels like she doesn’t fit in. She has been told multiple times that her features are too Japanese to be considered pretty.

In the author’s words, Kiko often feels “too Asian or too white but also never enough of either”. Never seen or worth the attention. Never unique and never beautiful.

Starfish was so very emotional. It made me feel all sorts of things, from sadness and anger to hope and inspiration. It was hard to read at times, but it was also very sweet and encouraging.

This was just one of those stories that stick with you. It was not so out there that you can’t relate at all. But it was so very special, you can remember it forever.

“I lean my head against the headrest, trying to think of a way to change my future so it stops feeling like an empty hallway that stretches forever and ever.”

Kiko had a really nice arc. A huge part of this story was self-discovery, learning to love yourself, as well as finding out what beauty really is and that everyone is beautiful in their own way.

There were several side characters that I thought were done excellently. I loved how distinctive they were and the way they influenced Kiko along her way to self-acceptance.

Starfish was also really well done from a technical point of view. The pacing was great. And the chapters were nice and short. I flew through it in two sittings.

The narration was flowing. It so often got the cutest kind of quirky, artistic vibe. It added something special to the story. Since it was beautiful and descriptive, I felt like it nicely backed up Kiko’s artistic side.

I loved that at the end of most chapters Kiko was describing what she was drawing at the moment. The pictures were always so perfectly reflective of everything that was going on and how she felt about it. What a beautiful idea – to let the protagonist literally paint her inner life for us.

“I paint a girl with white hair, blending into a forest of white trees, with stars exploding in the sky above them like shattering glass. If you don’t know where to look for her, you might not see her at all.”

There were just a few things I thought could have been done a bit better. Or better say – I would prefer them done a bit differently.

For example, I’ve read several books in which it’s hinted that something terrible has happened to the protagonist in the past without actually saying what had happened for the longest time. It kind of got old.

Another thing that I a little struggled with was the character of Jamie. Though I loved how fleshed out most of the characters were, I didn’t really feel like I got to know Jamie all that well. At moments he felt more like a placeholder, like many different people could easily fit into his place.

Still, he was very sweet and supportive and (except for one instance) I liked their dynamic a lot. I think that his perspective was very important for Kiko, as it provided a completely new way of seeing things she struggled with:

“To me, ideals don’t exist in real life. I have to make them up. But Jamie sees them everywhere. Imperfection is his ideal, because it’s real and tangible, and he knows how to translate it into a frozen moment in time that will be beautiful forever.”

Starfish – My Review with Spoilers!!!

I usually don’t add spoilers to my reviews, but in this case I felt the need to mention my absolute favorite part of this book. Which was the moment when Kiko for the first time realizes that beauty doesn’t have to fit into her mother’s understanding of it and that it has nothing to do with race.

And what I loved about it was that Kiko didn’t come to this conclusion by looking in the mirror. Or by deciding that she was going to stop believing everything her mother had ever said.

It happened at the moment when Kiko for the first time in her life found herself surrounded by a large group of Asian and half-Asian people who all looked similar to her. And she realized they were all beautiful.

I just thought that that part was done so well. What a perfect way to learn such an important message.

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So, that is it. I loved this book. I absolutely recommend it to everyone. And if you’ve read it, let me know in the comments what you thought about it…

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