March 26, 2015

Secrets and Lies (Review: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher)

Thirteen Reasons Why
Jay Asher
Razorbill 2007

Slightly late on the uptake - story of my life - but I have been looking forward to this for a while now. Goodreads reviews are hugely mixed and there has been a fair bit of controversy banded around.  So is the fuss justified we rightly ask?

Clay arrives home from school to a package on his doorstep.  The package has no sender or return address and contains 7 cassette tapes explaining the 13 reasons why Hannah Baker, Clay's schoolmate and object of his affections, chose to end her life.  The tapes are being sent on a "round robin" to each of the people involved in the reasons for Hannah's decision, meaning that Clay knows almost from the opening of the book that he has, in some way, contributed to the suicide of a friend. And the vast majority of this book is simply the reader listening in real time as Clay hears these tapes for the first time.

And I loved this.  The reader is given next to no context to this story - we know very little of Clay and all we know of Hannah is really what she chooses to divulge from her own perspective.  The reader is essentially a voyeur to one night that changes Clay's life, after which we are left to draw our own conclusions as to how he has been affected by what he has learned.  So what has he learned? What could a teenage girl believably have thought of as justification to take her own life?  Well, as you may have expected from a teenage girl and to avoid any specific spoilers, a lot to do with friends, or the lack of, boys and the way she is perceived by others.  At the time of reading each "tape", I remember clearly thinking that a fair few of the 13 reasons when considered in isolation were ridiculous.  But considering, as Hannah calls it, "the snowball effect", suddenly I was completely invested and convinced of the downward spiral of this poor girl.  Factor in the helplessness of Clay who is hearing Hannah's reasoning for the first, and voice for the last, time, the effect is pretty unique and utterly entrancing.

And so to one of the more controversial discussions points, the elephant in the room.  There are bloggers, publishers, parents and others who believe, in some cases very loudly, that Thirteen Reasons Why glorifies suicide.  I disagree.  Whist I can see that Hannah being our narrator, and a very eloquent one at that, along with the odd manic-pixie-dreamgirl trait would have some people think she is exuding control from the great beyond, I don't think this is a glorification of her choice. Hannah had a story to tell that, for many reasons, she didn't have the opportunity to tell in life and so chose to tell it afterwards.  As she says herself, the tapes are not about revenge, she has forgiven almost all who are mentioned in them, they are about the chance to be heard and it is so important for us to remember that that is the one thing so many in similar circumstances do not feel they have.  To suggest that anyone, even a fictitious character, does not have the right to share their story with the world after taking a decision which was theirs and no one elses, I can't help but think would send a dangerous message, a message that would read, "You made the choice so your story doesn't matter".

For me, Thirteen Reasons Why isn't primarily a book about suicide.  It's a story of grief and acceptance and acknowledgement, the acknowledgement that our actions, however small, directly affect all of those around us and we must use them wisely.  But, mild controversy aside, a really strong read.  I enjoyed it greatly.  It's accessible without being simple and thought-provoking without being preachy (which I am aware I have more than made up for with this review).  Proof that a small leading cast of really well written characters along with some fantastic scene setting gets you far. Good work Mr A, looking forward to reading your other offerings soon.    

This review was brought to you by Polka-Dot Steph.  Who is worried that she's been a bit ranty.  But we believe it's an articulate and interesting rant. So, er, there.


March 24, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Childhood/Teen Books that I'd like to Revisit.

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme run by The Broke and The Bookish.  It involves lists of, well, top tens. We like lists.  This week's Top Ten on the Mountains of Instead is brought to you by Splendibird.

The problem with loving to read is that there are so many, many books in the world and so very little actual time in which to read them.  This means that while I most certainly am a re-reader, I don't often get the opportunity to revisit the books that I would like to, including those that I re-read repeatedly as a child and teenager.  This was by far the easiest top ten I've taken part in yet because these books lurk constantly, tempting me to turn away from the endless TBR pile and towards the past.

Gone Away Lake by Elizabeth Enwright

This was a book that I read a lot at about the age of eight. Until recently I couldn't remember what it was called but managed to track down the title with the help of the brilliant site What's That Book  When I think of this book I have images of butterflies over a swamp, a rock inlaid with garnets and a hot and dreamlike summer filled with all the very best kind of things.  I remember it so fondly that I am almost scared to return to it and ruin the memories I have of a halcyon read.

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

I've always been a sucker for time travel, for which I blame Doctor Who and also for boarding school stories for which I blame the Chalet School series.  However, perhaps I should be laying the blame elsewhere as Charlotte Sometimes, a much beloved read of my childhood, contains both. When Charlotte heads off to boarding school she inadvertently heads off to the past at the same time where she appears to be an entirely different person. If you haven't read it, this is all you need to know.  Head off and get a copy now.  Really.  Off you go.

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

This is cheating as I actually revisit this one all the time.  I have always loved the story - it is absolutely my favourite fairytale.  However, it is the specific edition that I had as a child that I particularly love, entirely due to the absolutely stunning and frighteningly magical illustration by Errol le Cain.  Google them, they're beautiful.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Because who doesn't want to have a boat and no parental supervision and an island and pirates and general shenanigans.  I mean, seriously.

Remember Me by Christopher Pike

When I was a teen, there wasn't much in the way of Young Adult literature and what there was, from my hazy memories,  revolved largely around the Point Horror stable of horror-lite, Caroline B. Cooney and Christopher Pike - all of whom I adored.  Remember Me was my very favourite Pike book (although Weekend gave it a decent run for its money) what with the dead girl and the MURDER and the twist.  I'd like to see how it stands up to the YA titles of today.

The Dark Half by Stephen King

In lieu of a large YA section in my library, I floated (like so many teens in the '90's) towards Stephen King.  While I don't think The Dark Half was the first King title that I read it was absolutely the one that captured my imagination the most and I've been meaning to re-read it for years.  The idea of a fictional character becoming an enraged reality still fascinates me and, to this day, I happily admit to getting creeped out by sparrows.  Especially if they are flying.  Again.

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico

I have only very vague recollections of this story but what I have are enchanting and also sad.  I remember feeling utterly transported as it was read to me, possibly because it was one of the very last books read aloud to me before I insisted on reading to myself.  I'd like to see how it would make me feel now.

The Chronicles of Pantouflia by Andrew Lang

I could actually revisit this right now, as I bought it recently for my daughter.  It's a wonderful selection of stories that includes seven league boots and a princess who attracts bees because she wears flowers in her hair and many other wonders.  Also, I loved that cover as a small girl - I can remember just gazing at it because I thought it was so beautiful.  I might read this tonight, actually. I have no doubt that it will be just as good as it was thirty years ago.

March 06, 2015

Cliffs of Fall (Review: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer)

Into Thin Air
Jon Krakauer 
Pan Books 1997

Edmund Mallory, one of the first and keenest adventurers on Mount Everest was once asked why he wanted to climb it.  He famously answered, “Because it’s there”.  And people have been climbing it, because it is there, ever since.  Not all with success. Mallory himself was killed before ever reaching the summit and his body languished on the frozen slopes for many years before it was recovered.  This may sound gruesome yet it is not uncommon.  Everest is veritably littered with bodies, lying frozen and forever inert their locations making recovery and burial nigh on impossible. Among these unfortunate souls lie several who met their end on the 10th of May, 1996. Of the many who attempted to summit Everest that day, Jon Krakauer was one.  A writer by trade and a keen and experienced climber, he was commissioned to write about the commercialisation of Everest and joined one of several guided expeditions heading to the summit.  Into Thin Air tells the story of several groups on Everest that season, primarily focussing on the tour Krakauer joined, Adventure Consultants and one other, Mountain Madness. 

Into Thin Air is incredibly compelling.  The story is constructed carefully, slowly even, with Krakauer expertly weaving mountaineering history, techniques and philosophy into the build towards the fateful summit attempt. His story is full of strong characters and the members of each group slowly come into focus from the leaders, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer to the hugely varied clients whose only common ground often seems to be their desire to conquer the mountain. However, those looking for a cut and dried explanation of a terrible tragedy will not find their answers here. High altitude and terrible weather don’t lead to exact recollections and while Krakauer clearly spoke at length to all the major players both on the mountain and in the aftermath he himself admits that the accounts vary sometimes  wildly.  Everyone, it seems, remembers events slightly differently.  Yet it all makes sense, in a terrible sort of way, and certainly it would be hard to reach the end of Into Thin Air without forming at least a vague opinion about why things went so terribly, terribly wrong.

Krakauer wrote Into Thin Air just six months after the events of 10th May and his account lacks any real objectivity.  His words are raw, often angry and he himself admits that (due, apart from anything, to the aforementioned effects of high altitude on actions and memory) he is a far from reliable narrator. He clearly has very strong views on certain aspects of the expedition he was part of and particularly focusses on Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian guide on the Mountain Madness expedition, whom he feels contributed in large part to the problems of May 10th.  It is worth noting that Boukreev co-wrote The Climb, his own account of the tragedy which gives readers a fascinating counterpoint to Into Thin Air. Jon Krakauer’s writing, though, is excellent.  He draws you into a stark and alien landscape planet and skilfully shows why it is so attractive to so many. He allows you to feel the biting cold, trudge through the endless ice and breath the failing air.  It’s a visceral reading experience.

Searing, brave and laden down with survivor’s guilt, Into Thin Air is a paean to the lost, a desperate plea to those left behind and the compulsive storytelling of a man for whom the tale will never end.  I came to this book a mountaineering novice but since finishing it have read many more explorations of that intangible drive that makes us lift our eyes unto the hills and particularly towards Everest. I understand now, I think, why people look to that height of all heights and dream of ascension.  They do it because they are alive; they do it because they can; they do it because they are looking for something regardless of risk; they do it because they are foolhardy; they do it because they long to dichotomously illustrate man’s dominance and insignificance.  But mainly they do it because it’s there. Read Into Thin Air and I defy you to feel otherwise.  Highly recommended.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird who is, by the way, now totally considering a trek to Everest Base Camp.  Not UP the mountain. Well, probably not.  Well, maybe... She also highly recommends The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt and Touching the Void by Joe Simpson.