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.

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Descendants (Rae Else)

3 stars

“There are lots of stories about the children of gods. But what about those cursed by the gods, and their descendants…

El, a seventeen-year-old has inherited an ancient and deadly power. She loses control of it, causing a horrific accident, and becomes the prey of a secret organisation, knows as the Order. Forced from her family and home, she hides in plain sight amidst the crowds of London, and is thrust into a world she never knew existed; one full of arete: beings with extraordinary powers like hers. 

Arete are beings that can trace their lineage and powers from ancient Greece. They do not claim their inheritance comes from the gods, rather legend says they are descended from cursed beings, such as Medusa. At the heart of their world is the kerykeion, the symbol that protects them from the humans and the humans from them. El is trapped between two factions, one that has built an empire around the kerykeion and another that is determined to bring it down.

As she is drawn deeper into the conflict, the only way to find the truth is to take matters into her own hands, and the line between friend and foe becomes dangerously blurred.”

I had mixed feelings whilst writing this review. On one hand, it was a quick paced YA thriller with interesting concepts and big ideas, but on the other, I finished reading this book and found it strangely soulless.

It has a great concept, binding mythology and technology, monsters and men. Why have your heroes be demigods when they can be the spawn of Gorgons instead? It’s obvious that Else knows her classics and there are examples of that knowledge spread throughout the entire text. She’s also got some big ideas; enormous sprawling structures hidden by kerykeion, contests of elemental magic, and enormous illuminati style corporations infiltrating the highest levels of business and politics.

So, why was I so underwhelmed?

I spent a couple of days trying to work out exactly why I felt that way, and came to an answer. There’s not enough character development, by far.

El, our heroine, has no defining features that make her ‘her’. We get some snippets of information about a childhood, a friend that doesn’t get enough page space to really be called a friend, and, yet,we  are expected to care when all of this gets torn away. I wonder whether it’s due to the book starting in on the action, maybe we needed some interactions between El and her friend, or El and her Grandmother before she has to go on the run. It’s very difficult to feel the loss of a life that you have not been shown. Likewise, what does El like to read? Is she athletic? What does she feel about the world that she lives in? I found that I was struggling to connect to El, or even to give her a face, and that made it very difficult for me to engage with the book in general.

When you can’t figure out the protagonist, it certainly makes it very difficult to care about romance, especially when it’s a love triangle. Once again, I wanted more from my love interests. Who are they? Why do they choose to do the things that they do? Dan, for example, should be our archetypal heart throb with his dark mussed hair, amber eyes and life spent travelling Europe, but we’re just not given enough information to justify his choices and his actions. Obviously, there’s a lot to be said about creating mystery, but if you don’t put in enough clues then we don’t know that we’re supposed to be looking for it. Mysterious can quickly become one-dimensional if we don’t have glimpses into what a character is feeling.

It was actually quite frustrating because there were some beautiful moments where I could see a rough gem shining through. I felt as if Else’s vision of her story and world were bigger than what she’d put down on paper. There were some wonderful dream like moments where the heart of backstreet London was revealed, only to be shattered by sudden clunking introspection only moments later. Show don’t tell. Slow down and let that heartbreaking moment of emotion spill over into three, four, even five sentences, rather than strangling it in one.

I felt that the book could have done with some injection of sensation. The world exists beyond just sight, it’s brought to life by scent and taste and sound and touch. Describe to me the soundscape of a crowded bar, the scent of earth and rosemary on a Dryad’s fingertips, the strange juxtaposition of speeding cars and tourists against a boy wending fire through his hands. There was so much possibility in this world, so much room for decadence and description, but instead I felt detachment. Distant from the characters and story.

Nevertheless, it was enjoyable in its own way. Quick paced, clever concepts and intriguing ideas; ‘Descendants’ didn’t grab me as I was hoping it would, but Else is a young author and this is a debut novel. I can already think of a handful of underwhelming debuts that grew into awesome series, so, hopefully, this one might be the same.

Many thanks to Rae Else for a copy in return for an honest review.

Sleeping Giants (Sylvain Neuvel)

3 stars

I went into this book expecting giant space robots and, rather disappointingly, barely got any giant space robots. It’s probably slightly the fault of my own expectations that I didn’t enjoy this as much as I thought I would, but, nevertheless, this is not the book that I was hoping for.

The book opens with a scientist recollecting how, as a young girl, she stumbled across an ancient hand of glowing turquoise lines in the woods of South Dakota, and how the circuitous effects of fate have lead to her becoming the lead researcher on  the project years in the future. The early parts of the book are engaging, raising questions as to what the hand is, where it came from, how old and, most interestingly, who made it? From the blurb we know it’s not human made, surpassing even our earliest attempts at civilization, and made from a substance only found in tiny quantities on Earth, hence beginning a long and tortuous process to try and find the other parts of what is thought to be an enormous humanoid machine.

Now, that sounds really cool, I’m getting images of Pacific Rim, Voltron, Evangelion..but the thing is that we just never really see any action. This entire book is politics and military wrangling, which, you know, is interesting in its own way but isn’t what I went into the story expecting. I couldn’t help but feel that this would make a much more interesting TV series or game than book. I’m not say there weren’t interesting points, I wouldn’t have given it three stars if there wasn’t something anchoring me to the plot, for example, further exposition on the origin of the giant robot is something I will definitely be picking up the next book for and the ‘cold war’ events of the novel were at times really interesting. There were just a lot of things I wasn’t particularly fond of.

Unfortunately, one of those was the format. I think that the ‘interviews and logs’ style of writing can work really well, World War Z immediately comes to mind as my favorite example of the form, I just don’t think that it worked for me in this novel. When writing a book that is almost exclusively dialogue, the most difficult thing is giving each character a voice of their own. The only character in this novel that was instinctually recognizable was the ‘Interviewer’, everyone  else had a disappointingly similar tone. I found it difficult to care about characters when they were all written in pretty much the same way and found myself skipping large chunks of text when it started to sound more like a speech than actual dialogue.

So, all in all, not one of my favorites.  I can’t quite shake the feeling of disappointment that I experienced on ending this story. Who knows, maybe book two will be a pleasant surprise.