13 Reasons Why

Image result for 13 reasons why bookI’ve just finished reading the YA novel, 13 Reasons Why. I’d heard about it before the much talked about Netflix series – in fact I’d bought a copy last summer, on recommendation from an American teenager who’d attended my summer school creative writing course.

I really liked the title. The premise seemed a bit gimmicky – I girl commits suicide, but leaves cassette tapes for the thirteen people she sees as responsible – but I was curious. There’s something about suicide as subject matter which is darkly compelling.

Overall, I really didn’t like the book. It was a page-turner, a sort of Girl on the Train for teenage girls. I read it all the way to the end, despite not liking it much, because there was something gripping about it. I suppose it was the idea of finding out who was going to be on the next tape – the cliffhangers – the unravelling ‘chain of events’ that reminded me of the death of Eva Smith in An Inspector Calls. It was a pacy read. A thriller. But no, I didn’t really like it.

The characters were flat and uninteresting, often relying on stereotypes – the fatuous popular girl, the sensitive guy, the teenage boy sexual predator. All of these concepts of characters could have been potentially interesting, but there was no depth or exploration. These stock characters were just positioned for plot purposes, like chess pieces. I was all too aware of the writer’s structuring of the plot, and rarely felt immersed.

Hannah Baker, the protagonist who commits suicide, didn’t feel real – and this was the main problem I had with this book. It felt so unlikely that anyone would kill themselves in such a measured, planned way. The narration switches between Clay, her one-time love interest, and the voice of Hannah on the tapes. While the idea of a voice speaking beyond death is appealing as an idea, this didn’t feel real. Hannah sounded too rational, too measured. Nobody on the brink of suicide could explain their feelings in such detail, surely? I’ve never had depression, and I’m not an expert on mental heath, so I’m not speaking from a point of experience of specialist knowledge here: all I know is, as a reader, I didn’t believe in this character’s breakdown. The series of events built and built, but I found myself feeling ever more distanced from them. I simply didn’t believe in the voice I was reading. Hannah Baker sounded like a literary construct.

I’ve just listened to the Woman’s Hour podcast about the Netflix series, and there were many differing opinions on whether this glossy American series is glamorising suicide, or actually getting young people talking about mental health in a useful way. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment on the TV series, but I thought Jane Garvey’s point was interesting: the way Hannah is still central to the story, and still speaking, is a worrying portrayal of suicide. The tragedy of someone taking their own life is that it is final. Their story stops. Central to the concept of 13 Reasons Why is that Hannah keeps on speaking. She dies, and yet keeps her voice. She gets to have her revenge, and that just doesn’t feel authentic.

13 Reasons Why portrays a suicidal state of mind as hopeless. Hannah essentially makes a list of all the people in her life that could have helped her, and didn’t. What sort of message is this? Don’t bother seeking help – it’s pointless. Well, that’s bleak. And dangerous, too.

All in all, I definitely won’t be recommending this book to the students I teach. I love the YA genre, the Holden Caulfield characters struggling to find their place in a strange, alienating world, but I prefer the optimism of writers like John Green. The Fault in Our Stars is about children with cancer, and while it’s sad and devastating, there’s a joy about life and an optimism that’s great for teenage readers. I expected a similar balance of emotions in 13 Reasons Why, but I was disappointed. It’s a page-turning thriller, and an unconvincing one at that.

Time For Some Serious Dreaming #3

Read Part One here and Part Two here.

We continue down the towpath. My feet are getting sore in the wellies, though, and when we reach the common, I let Aristotle run around without a lead, and I sit on the stile for a while. I’d briefly forgotten about my exam, and now I’ve remembered, my stomach starts to flip about like a fish.

Why am I so nervous? It’s only an exam. My life doesn’t depend on it (no matter how much the teachers make us feel it does). I could not show up for it, and the world wouldn’t end.

Once the idea is in my head, it’s hard to shake it.

I could miss the exam. I could disappear for the day. Yes.

I have about half an hour before Dad and Clare will get up for work. I make a plan in my head: get dressed, find some money, and get a bus into town. I’ll hide for the day. I could find a quiet spot in the central library, and read. I could sit on the common all day. The sun’s shining. Come to think of it, a few hours of Vitamin D seems like a better use of my life than sweating it in an exam hall.

Yet Dad’s voice keeps shouting down these thoughts. Even in my wildest, silly moments, his voice is always there. He’d be saying something about sixth form entrance requirements, or UCAS, or my CV. All things that sound far too grown up to actually apply to me. It’s the tone of voice that gets my attention. The tone of disappointment.

So maybe I should take the stupid exam. It’s English Lit revision in the afternoon… I could also bunk that. After all, everyone needs their Vitamin D.

Time to Read

If it’s 8pm on a week night, you’ll probably find me in the bath, reading. If we’ve got a supplement from a weekend newspaper knocking about the house, or a copy of The Week, I’ll be reading that, though perhaps a more accurate verb would be consuming, practically eating it. I read every word. Even the bits that annoy me. Even the outlandish recipes that I know I’ll never cook.

Yet I find it so much harder to read fiction with such voracity. This bothers me. I’m an aspiring fiction writer, and I know I need to read as much as possible to continue to develop my craft. I’m a teacher, and I’m always telling my students to read, read, read. I started this blog in an effort to kick-start my own fiction reading… sadly, months on, I’ve really not read very much.

I suppose I am a bit ashamed of this. I have a house full of books, and I’m just not reading them.

And I love reading. I HAD A BOOK THEMED WEDDING, FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE.

It requires a big commitment, though, doesn’t it? Not all good books are easy books to read, and I want to read the difficult ones. It requires energy. Space in your own head to live with the characters. I lack head space… mine is filled with predicted grades, spreadsheets, exam mark schemes. Oh, and Candy Crush Saga (even my hero JK Rowling admitted to playing minesweeper when she was writing Harry Potter in the 90s – and I bet she plays Candy Crush now… I bet she does).

At the moment, I’m reading Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (what a fabulous name indeed). I’m obviously not trying very hard to get over my John Green phase, as this book is very much of that ilk. It’s a very pleasant, easy read, hence why I’m moving through it pretty fast, and leaving my magazines with their silly recipes alone. It’s set in 1986, which is a cute twist on the emerging YA American high school genre. It’s all about the mix tapes (I was a teenager in the late 90s, and it was still all about the mix tapes). The politics of the school bus, and where you can and can’t sit, certainly rings true to my own secondary school experience. (I waited for years to get into the sixth form, just so I could sit on the back seat, and even then, I still wasn’t quite cool enough. Such is life.)

Am I copping out by reading another easy read? I want to write YA fiction, so it’s a legit thing – I’m not just a 28-year-old who yearns for the simplicity of teenage life before jobs, paying the rent and all that boring stuff. Ironically, I think my teenage self would be pretty disappointed. I remember thinking at school that I would, of course, read all the classics. ALL OF THEM. And the Booker Prize Long list, of course.

Am I being snobby? Probably. I’ll settle to be satisfied that I have head space for anything at all. I’m enjoying reading Eleanor and Park – and surely that’s the most important thing. Reading isn’t supposed to be all about self improvement now, is it?

The Green Effect

faultinourstarsI know I’m a little late to the party, but I am working my way through the complete works of the current king of YA fiction, John Green. I was amazed at how many of my students read The Fault In Our Stars and loved it. One Y7 could recite entire passages of it. I had to see what all the fuss was about!

From the blurb, I don’t think I would’ve chosen to read The Fault In Our Stars. I don’t like sob stories, and on a superficial level, this novel sounded too close to mis lit for me. I’m really glad I picked up a copy, though, because I could tell this was beautifully written from the very first page. The voice of Hazel Grace Lancaster in quite arresting: sardonic, cutting to the quick, sparkling with intelligence. I work with sixteen-year-olds, and I have met very few as erudite and well-read as Hazel – but the secret is the bookish kids (like the smart-arse, pretentious teenage me) want to be like her. And it’s the bookish ones that fall in love with this book. The bookish ones fall in love with Augustus Waters, too. They learn passages by heart and make beautiful memes of quotations, because this book is also eminently quotable. John Green has practically trademarked the word ‘okay’. And why not fall in love with it? I applaud any kind of literature that inspires passionate readers.

Hazel Grace Lancaster is extraordinary because she’s been cut off from normal teenage life, having not attended school because of her illness. Her only company are her parents, and the characters from books. This, in my view, is sufficient justification for her wisdom beyond her years, and the erudite register of some of her narration is nicely contrasted with more ‘normal’ teenage life – horror movies, computer games and choosing outfits. I read that John Green wanted to convey a terminal cancer patient as human, as normal – not someone to put up on a pedestal as angelic, as an almost superhuman ‘fighter’ against invisible demons. Equally, he wanted to show us that we needn’t be frightened of cancer patients. Someone doesn’t stop being human after diagnosis. The medical drama of the book was compelling reading, though at times brutal and distressing… yet Hazel and Gus didn’t become any less themselves.

This novel was a winner for me without the cancer story, because it was a success in characterisation, pacey dialogue and portraying the minutiae of contemporary teenage life: the cornerstones of the Green style, I can tell, after reading Paper Towns, and my current read, his debut novel, Looking For Alaska. Alaska is another broken teenage girl, though her fragility stems from psychological trauma. I’m enjoying Green’s portrayal of boarding school friendships, and the ingenuity of the pranks played on so-called ‘Weekday Warriors’, the wealthy elite of Culver Creek School.

I haven’t found it as gripping as Paper Towns, though, which has all the depth of characterisation of TFIOS, with a whole load of suspense thrown in. The mystery of Margo Roth Spiegelman will have you hooked. Green describes it as a book about the dangers of idolising another person, because nobody is nearly as perfect as they seem through the rose-tinted glasses of a teenage crush. The imperfect version of Margo Roth Spiegelman is far more fascinating, anyway. Gifted with the super intelligence Green seems to bless all of his characters with, she likes to disappear, leaving clues for her loved ones that are so obscure and clever that it seems she might never be found. Quentin Jacobsen, or ‘Q’, as she calls him, is the only one who never gives up. I particularly enjoyed the friendships that developed through the search for Margo – Ben is hilarious, and popular girl Lacey has hidden depths. The road trip scenes already read very cinematically, so I can’t wait to see the film (there will be one following TFIOS, surely?).

The Green Effect, which I’m deciding to call this particular literary phenomenon, has my full support. It’s easy to be cynical about crazes in YA books – I’ve heard people dub TFIOS ‘that moany teenage book’ – but this is genuinely good writing that shouldn’t be dismissed. Like the Hunger Games, Twilight, and Pottermania, you can throw in the old adage about it ‘getting kids reading’, though I suspect the kids who are reading it would want to read anyway. At least they’re reading something of genuine quality, though. I’m already reading the effect of this in my Y11 students’ creative writing. The girls who have read the books write with ambition. They wax philosophical. They’re creative with their subtle imagery. They’re proud of their bookishness, too – and this, just maybe, is because of Hazel Grace Lancaster. She’s an inspiration to them. Like Hermione Granger before her, Hazel makes being clever cool.