Thirteen Reasons Why (Jay Asher)

You can’t stop the future. You can’t rewind the past. The only way to learn the secret . . . is to press play.

Clay Jensen returns home from school one day to find a mysterious box with his name on it, outside his front door. Inside he discovers a series of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker – his classmate and crush. Only, she committed suicide two weeks earlier. On the first tape, Hannah explains that there are 13 reasons why she did what she did – and Clay is one of them.

If he listens, Clay will find out how he made the list – what he hears will change his life forever.”

 

2 stars

I had the hardest time trying to work out what to rate this book.  I’d heard a lot about this book, some of it good, some of it bad, all of it quite controversial. I wanted to read it with my own eyes, to see where my own opinions fell on the spectrum.

I had a vested interest in this book, as someone who a) had been a depressed teen and b) is someone considering specialising in child and adolescent mental health in my medical career. My general feeling is that I’m struggling to vocalise what I felt about this book. It didn’t feel like my depression at all, but I know that I can’t speak for everyone. Depression is an amorphous entity, as varied as there are people suffering from it, and everyone’s ‘black dog’ is different. I would say that I didn’t think the book delved into Hannah’s depression particularly deeply, it made the decision to focus on external motivators for her suicide, which, in my opinion, made this book more about how people treat others than suicide.

I liked the message that people should always be kind as no one knows what anyone is going through, but I also felt very uncomfortable with the idea that depression, and suicide, had a basis that could be entirely based in environmental interactions. Depression and suicide are very very complicated subjects and part of me did feel that this story oversimplified that.

I was also wary of the message that all of these ‘crimes’ towards Hannah were ‘reasons’ for her suicide. One of the characters only crime was to let a friendship drift? That’s not a crime against Hannah, that’s life. I feel uncomfortable with the idea that someone who lets a friendship drift (and herself is assaulted later in the story) is in the same league as a rapist. I’m also wary of the message that it sends teens, watching these ‘reasons’ stacking up in their own lives and wondering at what number their life starts to become unliveable. As someone who lived through a not particularly happy high school situation, that experience does not have to follow a person. Who cares who your friends and enemies were in High School? Odds are that you’re never going to see them again. Yes, the issues and problems born in teenage life can plague a person, but there’s therapy and medication and life beyond High School, and I worry that this book did not give that as an option. I wish Clay had challenged some of what Hannah had said, rather than believing it word for word. Depression can make people bitter and angry, it doesn’t necessarily make them the perfect sage counsellor for a book about how people should treat others.

That, I think is key. I don’t think this book was written for suicidal teens. I think it was written for teens who couldn’t even begin to consider that feeling. That job I think it does very well. People should be considering how their actions affect others, one person’s actions can create a domino effect. ‘Treat others as you’d want to be treated yourself’ is the lesson we try to instil in all kids, but sometimes it just doesn’t seem to get through. So, I hope that all kids reading this book take that message away, but for kids reading this who are suicidal, this is not the only path you have ahead of you. Please talk to people in your life, don’t waste your precious breaths on a cassette recorder…

Here’s a list of some resources for people who are currently struggling, or those who know someone who is struggling:

-currently suicidal or having thoughts of suicide? Here’s a list of suicide helplines around the world.

for parents or educators who want help in raising the conversation of suicide.

-for American Teens, ‘teenline’ offers phone/ text/email support from fellow teens in discussions of mental health and social problems.

-As always, if you feel in danger, whether it be from yourself or others, your local emergency room, accident and emergency department (UK) or crisis centre should be your first port of call. Mental health is health and you deserve to have your illness treated just like any other illness.

Thank you to Penguin Random House UK and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review.

October is the Coldest Month (Christoffer Carlsson)

4 Stars

“Vega Gillberg is 16 years old when the police come knocking on the door looking for her older brother, Jakob.

Vega hasn’t heard from him in days, but she has to find him before the police do. Jakob was involved in a terrible crime. What no one knows is that Vega was there, too.
In the rural Swedish community where the Gillbergs live, life is tough, the people are even tougher, and old feuds never die. As Vega sets out to find her brother, she must survive a series of threatening encounters in a deadly landscape. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s dealing with the longing she feels for a boy that she has sworn to forget, and the mixed-up feelings she has for her brother’s best friend.

During a damp, raw week in October, the door to the adult world swings open, and Vega realises that once she has crossed the threshold there is no turning back.”

I don’t read a lot of thrillers. That’s not to say I don’t like the feeling that you get from reading thrillers, there’s something about that dry-throat, adrenaline-surge as everything begins to tumble apart. Generally, I tend to get my fill of that feeling from horror books, but there was something about the blurb of this particular YA psychological thriller that drew me right in.

From the start there’s a very sinister feel to the story, all dark forests, drowning bogs and remote trailer parks. Much of the local economy runs on moonshine and the general atmosphere is one of ‘don’t ask questions that you don’t want the answer to’. Vega’s world is a hard and unfamiliar one. I’m sure that most people think of Scandinavia as some kind of utopia, they certainly don’t usually stop to consider the stories of those raised in poor rural towns and villages.

The story starts with a visit from the police. You get the feeling that the police don’t very often stick their noses into the business of this little forest community, and that their presence is unusual and unwanted. Vega, our protagonist, is asked whether she knows the location of her brother who is wanted for questioning about a crime. Vega must pretend that she knows nothing when, in fact, she knows exactly what they are talking about…she just doesn’t entirely know why it happened. We follow Vega as she tries to work out what happened that night and what it has to do with her brother.

It’s a short book, only taking me an evening to finish, but I think it’s the perfect length for the story that Carlsson wished to tell. I’d argue that it’s much more about Vega’s growth in an environment hostile to young women, than the mystery of the crime itself. Vega has to stick her nose in places where she is not welcome, learning uncomfortable truths about her brother, money and her uncle’s moonshine operation. A portion of the book is also devoted to her complicated feelings for one of the local boys and their awkward and strained relationship following some drunken fumbling. I liked that Vega’s interest in sex wasn’t shamed at any point during the book. She’s a sixteen year old girl, unapologetically finding what she likes in a world that has forced her to grow up too fast.

This book was a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but what I got was a rich little book, evoking all the cold loneliness of rural Sweden. Vega is a wonderful protagonist, who is fighting a battle against her past and the stagnancy of the world around her. Although the ending is left quite open, I found myself hoping that she ended up with a future that she deserved. I’ll definitely be picking books up by Carlsson in future.

Many thanks to Scribe UK and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review.

 

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars (Yaba Badoe)

4.5 stars

“Sante was a baby when she was washed ashore in a sea-chest laden with treasure. It seems she is the sole survivor of the tragic sinking of a ship carrying migrants and refugees. Her people.

Fourteen years on she’s a member of Mama Rose’s unique and dazzling circus. But, from their watery grave, the unquiet dead are calling Sante to avenge them:

A bamboo flute. A golden bangle. A ripening mango which must not fall… if Sante is to tell their story and her own.”


‘Strangers pitch up on our shores and we herd them into camps. They come in broken boats and we let them drown.’

I honestly don’t think there is a more important time to read this book than right now. With the political turmoil of Brexit and the resurgence of the far right, people seem to be forgetting that the desperate people trying to make their way into Europe are humans deserving of all the rights that we so take for granted. This book is about people whose only option is to attempt to cross the Mediterranean, who know it might kill them, who know they might fall into the hands of traffickers, but also know that it is the only choice that they have left. Honestly, with many peoples heads turned by the rhetoric plied by politicians, that we must strengthen borders and turn people away from our gates, I hope that people read this book and feel their opinions change.
Sante is one of the younger narrators that I’ve read recently, only fourteen, but her voice is so authentic that I feel it can be enjoyed by young and old alike. Badoe has a gorgeous way of writing, fluid and magical and, honestly, I didn’t even feel the pages passing, it was like a wonderful dream. It’s one of those books which is almost surreal, but you never feel the need to question it, it all makes sense in its own strange way. The closest category I’ve found when trying to explain it is Animist Realism, a genre of African Literature close to the Latin concept of Magical Realism, which is born from animism, a belief that everything on earth, be it rock, animals, weather or thought has its own spiritual essence. It’s the perfect genre for Sante’s story, allowing her to deal with the death of her parents, her exploration of the little she knows of them, and the ancestral echoes of the treasures that were left alongside her in the sea chest.

‘The baby gurgles, entranced by the rough play of water as a wave steadies her boat. She smiles, a jigsaw of stars and fire reflected in her eyes, and she stretches a dimpled hand to touch the moon.’

 

This book is so gorgeous. It’s rich and vibrant, filled with lush descriptions and poetic prose. Where in many books the inclusion of an animal companion can risk infantilising the story, Sante’s golden eagle felt more like a guardian spirit, a anthromorphisation of her strength and determination. It was a clever decision to balance the cold hard realities of the book against more whimsical prose. It’s the literary equivalent of casting fragrant rose petals over a rotting corpse, the scent only become more cloying, more horrific in the juxtaposition. The book is never graphic in its horror, it does not linger over the sordid details of what the traffickers do to their captives, but it does show the aftereffects of the trauma, the trembling fear and pain of survivors. It’s been a long time since I was so filled with hate for a villain, but ‘The Captain’, the head of the trafficking ring, is so powerful and vile that it honestly sent a shiver up my spine when he was first introduced.

The half star that I removed is for pacing, there was a bit of a lull at about the 60% mark that I felt was unnecessary and was the first time whilst reading the book that I felt a little bored. I was also a little confused about the use of the word ‘gypsy’ in text. Multiple times throughout the book Sante describes the word being used as a slur against other members of her circus family and yet once or twice she uses it to describe them herself. There’s also a random paragraph where Mama Rose, the head of the circus is described as dressing up in a kimono and white face powder for ‘thinking time’…whilst Mama Rose is a white woman. They’re small aberrations, but unnecessary ones that could easily be removed from the final product with no change to the plot itself.

Conclusion
‘A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars’ is a rich, vibrant young adult contemporary with a bright magical sparkle, that deals with incredibly important and relevant issues. It’s a short book, only 256 pages, which I’d genuinely love as many people to read as possible, because it’s the perfect foil to the dehumanisation of migrants that is horribly common in modern media.

‘A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars’ is out on the 7th of September, definitely one to be added to your ‘to be read’!

Many thanks to Head of Zeus Books for a copy in return for an honest review!

The Upside of Unrequited (Becky Albertalli)

5 Stars

“Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love-she’s lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful.

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness-except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny, flirtatious, and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker, Reid. He’s an awkward Tolkien superfan, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?”

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, often preferring a heady dose of magic to reality. However, there are a handful of contemporary fiction writers that are autobuy for me, and Mrs Albertalli is just one of those writers. I picked up ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ last year at YALC and read the entire book in one sitting, falling in love with just how well Albertalli writes youth, especially those who live their teenage life towards the fringes, not popular but not exactly friendless either.

Her latest protagonist, Molly, falls into a similar segment of society. She’s well liked, has a happy home life, but is plagued with clinical anxiety and shyness which keeps her dreaming rather than acting upon any of her crushes. In Molly’s mind it is safer to pine from afar than risk the bitter sting of rejection. But watching her skinny twin, Cassie, fall in love, Molly begins to feel that she is being left behind, and begins to wonder whether she is the only barrier between herself and such happiness.

‘I’ve had crushes on twenty-six people, twenty-five of whom are not Lin-Manuel Miranda’

(I feel you, Molly)

This book was ridiculously cute and ridiculously relatable. I’m twenty three and I still feel the same nervous jitters when I come across someone I like and begin to wonder whether they could like me too. I think it will mean a lot to some teenagers readers to see a fat girl in a contemporary romance, to reassure young readers of all genders that being fat doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful or deserving of love.

‘There’s this awfulness that comes when a guy thinks you like him. It’s as if he’s fully clothed and you’re naked in front of him. It’s like your heart suddenly lives outside your body, and whenever he wants, he can reach out and squeeze it. Unless he happens to like you back.’

Without spoilers, the flirtation between Molly and her love interests was adorable. Hipster Will and Nerd Reid are definitely guys that I have met and dated. I’d also like to thank Albertalli for inserting the ??? into attraction. Sometimes those we come to love have things about them that are odd or a little off-putting at first but you come to accept as you grow to know them. It’s not something that is discussed often in romance, especially not teen romance!

I’d also like to put it out there that any scene about Molly’s mothers or their impending wedding made me tear right up. The world is a cold and cruel place to the LGBTQA community right now and this book was filled with the warmth and comfort that I have been craving. It also made me so happy to see bi women in relationships with women still being referred to as bi. It’s all too easy for authors to erase a character’s bi identity in a relationship and I felt all fuzzy to see that not happening here.

So, my loves: relatable non-cookie-cutter lead, a distinct lack of instalove, diversity, accurate depictions of anxiety, nerdom, oreos and arts and craft.

Dislikes? I don’t know what you expected me to put here because I loved it all.

‘The Upside of Unrequited’ is out on both sides of the Atlantic on the 11th of April (not long now!) and I seriously recommend you all go and pick it up (and ‘Simon’ if you haven’t already read it!).

Many thanks to Penguin Random House for a copy in return for an honest review. All quotations were drawn from an advanced review copy and may be subject to change in the final novel.