“Pink Is Not Pink”! Starting From Here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

A Joint Review of Starting From Here, by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Amazon Children’s Publishing (formerly Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books), 2012

Starting From Here Lisa Jenn Bigelow

by TESSA and REBECCA, November 28, 2012 (Happy Birthday to Rebecca’s dad!)

It is our total delight to announce that Lisa Jenn Bigelow will be joining us on Friday for an interview about her debut novel, Starting From Here! Be sure to check back for a chat about Michigan, dogs, and love!

Sixteen-year-old Colby Bingham’s heart has been broken too many times. Her mother has been dead for almost two years, her truck driver father is always away, her almost girlfriend just dumped her for a guy, and now she’s failing chemistry. When a stray dog lands literally at her feet, bleeding and broken on a busy road, it seems like the Universe has it in for Colby. But the incident also knocks a chink in the walls she’s built around her heart. Against her better judgment, she decides to care for the dog. But new connections mean new opportunities for heartbreak. Terrified of another loss, Colby bolts at the first sign of trouble, managing to alienate her best friend, her father, the cute girl pursing her, and even her dog’s vet, who’s taken Colby under her wing. Colby can’t start over, but can she learn how to move on?”

After both reading Lisa Jenn Bigelow’s debut novel, which she was lovely enough to send us, we decided that we wanted to have a little Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia book club about Starting From Here, so the following joint review is brought to you via g-chat. Woo-hoo, technology.

Tessa: Hello

Rebecca: Hi!

[long period of talking about weird things, including cookies, toilets, and Scotland]

R: Anyhoo, wanna talk about Starting From Here?

T: Yes. Let’s start out by talking about the basic plot.

R: Sure. I really liked that it started with a breakup as opposed to a crush; it had romance and relationships in it, but the structure was totally not the structure of a romance, and the main relationship is with the dog!

Michigan!T: Yeah! Colby starts out being broken up with by the girl she’s obsessed with [Rachel], and she’s really bummed. So the book kind of fakes you out at the beginning, because I thought it was going to be a pining-after/getting-over book. And it is, but it’s much deeper than that. Colby works through more issues that are brought up by the breakup—family issues, self-esteem issues. But I feel like it’s a fast, almost light read nonetheless, because it has love and hopefulness. I read it in a day. Would you agree?

R: Yeah, it’s interesting that you call it light—to me, it was really quiet. Definitely fast. I, too, read it in a day and it flowed really well, so I read it quite quickly. There’s nothing out of place, no sticking point that tripped me up or made me put the book down. I think that for me, the emotional core of the book (whether I think of it as Colby’s relationship with the dog, or her dad, or her girlfriends) was about Colby’s depression, and, like depression, I felt like I just slid right down into the book and had to read until I came out the other side.

T: Oooh, good description. Yeah, Colby has a relatively good support system, except her dad isn’t around. But her friends can’t save her from herself.

R: Totally. I thought it was a really brilliant description of depression (whether or not we mean that clinically or not) because it built slowly, thing piled on thing, until Colby just couldn’t bring herself to move or change or pull herself out. But Bigelow never says, like “Oh, Colby’s depressed”; it’s just part of her psychic landscape. It felt very real to me, and very relatable.

T: Yes, and so when she hits rock bottom it’s so heartbreaking. And so frustrating that she can’t talk to her dad—I feel like a lot of teenagers (including myself) feel like this around their parents, but with Colby it’s amplified because she knows how important her dad’s job is and she feels like she can’t protest how much time he spends doing it. Plus she can’t find the words or the space to come out to him:

“Even when we spent the day under the same roof, I felt like we were sealed in a crystal bubble. It looked so easy to reach out and touch each other, but there was only so close we’d get before—crack!—knocking each other back.” (187)

This is also mirrored way earlier in a school dance scene—Colby feels so alone!

“I was aware of a girl standing solo across the room trying to catch my eye. . . . I didn’t want to dance with them, bump shoulders with them, feel them soft and vulnerable through their shirts, hoping the negative space in our hearts would somehow add up to a positive.” (84)

R: Yeah, her relationship with her dad was my favorite part (besides the puppy). My favorite part of it is when she tries to get him to buy the pink big rig.

“If dad bought his own rig, he was in this for good. Instead of getting a short-haul job, he’d keep working extralong weeks driving from one end of the country to the other. I’d come home each day with no one to talk to, no one to hug me, no one to just sit on the couch with who remembered and missed Mom the way I did. . . .

‘Tell you what, Bee,’ Dad said, looking up at me, ‘Why don’t you pick one out. What color do you think I should get?’

‘Pink,’ I spat out. . . . Get pink.’

‘I can’t get pink. I’d be laughed off the road. I don’t even know if I could find one. Even lady drivers—’

‘You said I could pick.’ I stared him down, by arms folded across my chest. ‘Promise you’ll get pink, to remember me when you’re on the road. That’s the least you can do.’

For a moment Dad looked—ashamed? Guilty? Both, I hoped. . . .

Dad shook his head, but he said, ‘All right, Colby. I promise.’” (127-8)

It’s such a perfect moment because you can imagine everything that might be going on in his head—trying to please his daughter; being willing to sacrifice for her; knowing something’s wrong but not knowing what; not knowing what to do to make her happy; dreading having to drive a pink truck, etc. And then he actually finds one, and tells her that pink is pink because he doesn’t know the exact shade, she’s like “pink is not pink” (198) and tells him to do whatever he wants since he always does. Broke my fucking heart.

T: Yes, all those things—subtle awkwardness and love between a parent and a kid. I was so happy to read adult characters who were fully fleshed out. Even the vet’s husband wasn’t a two-dimensional character. He could so easily have been “laid off angry dude,” but he had more behind him, and he wasn’t even in very many scenes!

R: Totally. I think that’s one of the things that made it a quiet book for me: each character is really fully fleshed out, but it’s done in such a beautifully economical manner that the book is really bare bones. I feel like every thing I learn about someone is one more pebble in the bowl of them, but there’s nothing that doesn’t do a lot of work. Also, I know it sounds simplistic and superficial, but I love that Colby was a total tough guy whose favorite color was baby pink.

T: Good point.

R: What did you think about Colby’s friends and girlfriends?

T: I felt like as a reader I was seeing more of how Colby saw Rachel than how Rachel actually was. So she remained on a pedestal or tucked away as a painful ideal. I liked how Van was like a brother to Colby, or even a cool aunt. And Amelia . . . I don’t see their relationship lasting after high school, but I liked seeing their appreciation for one another unfold. You?

R: Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly about Rachel—we never got to know what the big deal was about her (which seemed very realistic to me); we just knew she broke Colby’s heart. Van did seem super brother/aunt-ish, which I liked because Bigelow didn’t work too hard to portray their relationship; it just was, and it clearly had been for a long time. As for Amelia, I don’t know: I couldn’t tell if Colby’s feelings were about Amelia or about Colby being lonely. I could believe either, and both seem right. Or maybe it was a combination of both.

T: Maybe it was just about feeling good about being with someone who felt good to be with you. I can get behind that.

R: Me too!

T: Let’s talk about Mo. Were you a dog person before this book?

R: I feel about dogs the way I feel about other lives I could have lived: I don’t see one ever just existing in my life as it is now, but I think if I’d ever taken a slightly different path then maybe one could. I think dogs are beautiful and cute and I love how loyal they are, but I’ve never really been a dog person, per se. I think part of it is that I’m afraid of the commitment; partly that I think they smell bad unless you bathe them constantly (which I’m too lazy to do); and partly that I may not think I’m worthy of the kind of unconditional love they give you. What about you?

T: I feel similarly. Only recently have I become more dog-positive. I used to just like them but not want to really hang around them, but I’ve met several very cool dogs, and now I like hanging around them (and petting their soft bellies, if they are Pitbulls). But I still can’t see myself owning one, mostly because I feel like I’m too lazy. And because it’s hard to tell if you’ll get a dog that has a dog smell, or one that likes to lick your hands too much. But this book definitely made me more of a dog person. It also helps that I own a cat and could identify with that kind of quasi-maternal love and responsibility

R: Yes. I think I might like a dog if ever I find myself living with a lumberjack in a cabin in the woods and the dog can mostly live outside and like, I dunno, chase sticks and stuff, and only come inside to lie in front of the fire. Dogs seem happiest when they have a purpose, so I think that would be a nice way to have a dog. As I mentioned to you earlier, when I was reading about Mo needing surgery at the vet’s, Dorian [my lovely cat] was sitting on my lap, and I was straight-up sobbing and clutching at her fur, so I definitely felt the pet relationship hard.

INTERLUDE: Tessa’s cat, Turkey, and Rebecca’s cat, Dorian Gray, are totally adorable!
Turkey! Dorian Gray

T: I also liked that it showed all the facets of having a pet. I’m used to seeing dogs as quest-companions in YA books. They’re supernaturally loyal, already trained, and basically understand English. You don’t see the work that goes into getting a dog to adapt to a habit.

R: Absolutely! (Another reason I don’t know if I could have one.)

lumberjackT: (I can see you living the lumberjack life, btw)

R: Yeah? I think I could learn to love it. After all, freshly-cut wood is totes one of my love potion smells, à la Harry Potter!

T: ha ha!

R: I loved the end of the book—I won’t say any more because of spoilers, but I really liked it.

[chat devolves into spoilery personal discussion about our feelings about the end of the book, families, and Scotland.]

T: Anyway, I’m glad we’re in agreement about the fact that people should read this book!

R: Yes! I can’t wait for your interview with Lisa on Friday!

T: It’s going to be great—she’s so nice!

R: ta

T: bye!

R: ❤

You have just enough time to gobble down Starting From Here before you join us right here on Friday for an interview with Lisa Jenn Bigelow!

We received these books from the author (thank you!), with no compensation on either side. Starting From Here is available now.


People Creating Things!

In which we finish the week with a list of YA Creativity!

By REBECCA, May 4 2012

Will Grayson Will Grayson John Green David LevithanIn part 2 of this week’s Joint Review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson (John Green and David Levithan), Tessa wrote that a major contributor to her delight in WG2 is “people creating things,” aka, Tiny Dancer: the Tiny Cooper Story (a musical).

What better way to finish out the week, then, than with a quick list of some of my favorite Young Adult books and movies in which people create things? While nothing else quite lives up to Tiny Dancer: the Tiny Cooper Story, there are some amazingly creative YA happenings out there: art, music, writing, dance, etc.

Here are some of my favorites:

Foxfire  Foxfire

1. Foxfire (1996), based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates. ART! So, Foxfire is one of my all-time favorite teen movies. It’s about friendship, female power, and rebellion (what’s not to like?). And, in addition to home-tattooing, it features a still-healthy looking and very bad-ass Angelina Jolie, Jenny Lewis (of the awesome band Rilo Kiley), the gorgeous and f’ed-up Jenny Shimizu, and Hedy Burress, who I’ve never seen in anything else. Anyhoo, Hedy’s character, Maddy, is a photographer and her whole room is covered in her art. She is trying to put together a portfolio for art school, and is a delightful mid-90s art girl. Bonus trivia: her boyfriend, whom she photographs naked for the sake of art, is Twilight doc Peter Facinelli (with his natural hair color). And did I mention the home-tattooing?

Daughter of Smoke and Bone Laini Taylor   Daughter of Smoke and Bone Laini Taylor

2. Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor. PERFORMANCE ART! PUPPETS! Karou is an artist who has, for years, rendered her monster friends as drawings, telling stories about them that her friends assume are elaborate tales spun from her imagination. They couldn’t be more wrong. Zuzana, Karou’s best friend, is a puppeteer, and she takes her art to the streets in an awesome reversal of puppet and puppeteer:

“The story Zuzana told with her body—of a discarded marionette brought out of its trunk for one last dance—was deeply moving. She started out clumsy and disjointed, like a rusty thing awakening, collapsing several times in a heap of tulle. Karou, watching the rapt faces of the audience, saw how they wanted to step forward and help the sad little dancer to her feet.

Over her the puppeteer loomed sinister, and as Zuzana twirled, its arms and fingers jittered and jumped as if it were controlling her, and not the other way around. The engineering was cunning and didn’t draw attention to itself, so that the illusion was flawless.”

The art just adds to the awesome atmosphere of the novel. You can read our three-part Joint Review of Daughter of Smoke and Bone and discussion of the dreaded ANGEL-FICTION starting here.

Same Difference Siobhan Vivian

3. Same Difference, Siobhan Vivian. ART! In the space of a summer, Emily, a shy girl from the suburbs of New Jersey, is set on fire with her passion for art! While attending a summer art school in Philadelphia, Emily draws, makes collages, and has a revelation of personal self-expression. You can read the full review here.

If I Stay Gayle Forman   Where She Went Gayle Forman

4. If I Stay & Where She Went, Gayle Forman. MUSIC! Mia’s family is killed in a car accident, leaving her comatose, cut off from the world but still somehow connected to her boyfriend, Adam, and the music he plays her through her headphones. Mia is a classical cellist, disciplined and called by the music, while Adam is the lead singer of an up-and-coming rock band. While this difference could mean dissonance in If I Stay (especially since Mia’s parents are more in Adam’s camp, musically) it instead shows how music can literally save our lives. In the sequel, Where She Went, set three years later (which I enjoyed even more) we see things from Adam’s perspective—in this moment, music is nearly killing him and Mia could be the one to save him this time.

Fame film   Fame

5. Fame (film, 1980; tv show, 1982-1987). THEATRE! MUSIC! DANCE! “Fame costs. And right here is where you’re going to start paying. In sweat.” Hell. Yes. Both the movie and the show are so good. You’ve got your dancers, your singers, your musicians, and your actors. What does that spell? D-R-A-M-A! It also spells amazing musical numbers, monologue performances that are supposed to echo with the characters’ lives, and dancing in the streets, in the cafeteria, pretty much anywhere. And the best theme song EVER:

Step Up Channing Tatum   Step Up Channing Tatum

6. Step Up. DANCE! I love dance movies. And this one has all the components of greatness: protags from different worlds who each need something from the other; mutual enmity that turns to romance; the blending of different styles; Channing Tatum. And Nora, our dance-school darling, is legitimately hardworking and talented even while being a perfectionistic, uptight taskmaster. So, unlike many dance movies, we get to enjoy her process of choreography as well as the dancing itself.

Sister Mischief Laura Goode

7. Sister Mischief, Laura Goode. MUSIC! Esme, Marcy, Tess, and Rowie are Sister Mischief, the all-girl hip-hop that wants to take Holyhill (aka Holy Hell) Minnesota by storm! These lovely ladies use the power of music and words to challenge the right-wing politics of their small town, their school administration, and themselves. Check out the full review here.

Taming the Star Runner S.E. Hinton

8. Taming the Star Runner, S.E. Hinton. WRITING! Travis is sent from the city to live with his uncle in the country because he almost kills his mother’s boyfriend when he burns Travis’ writings in the fireplace. Um, sidebar: you know that scene in Little Women where Amy burns the manuscript of Jo’s novel in the fireplace? And then you know how Marmee is all “don’t let the sun go down upon your honor”? And Jo totally forgives her? What the hell!? I mean, sure, Amy almost dies ice skating because she’s a tagalong and a pest, but DUDE, she BURNED Jo’s manuscript! Anyway, Travis is a talented young writer, much like Hinton herself. Unbeknownst to his mother, his well-meaning uncle, or the kids at his rural high school who ignore him, Travis has sent a novel to a publisher and she wants to publish it. And then we get one of my favorite lines in all of S.E. Hinton (and I adore S.E. Hinton), from Travis’ uncle: “Sorry, kid, you haven’t given me the impression you could write a complex sentence. You wrote a book?”

With or Without You Brian Farrey

9. With Or Without You, Brian Farrey. ART! Evan escapes from his uncaring parents, bullying, and gay-bashings by studying the techniques of his favorite painters. Unlike Seurat, Haring, and Van Gogh, however, Evan paints on glass, looking at the world through the windows he paints on. When he meets Erick, a nursing student and a sculptor, Evan learns to value himself for the first time in his life. When his childhood best friend gets in over his head, though, Evan sees that art is more than just technique. A wonderful novel—read the full review here!

Hackers Angelina Jolie

10. Hackers. FREEDOM OF INFORMATION! It’s another bad-ass Angelina Jolie movie! Friends, this is one of the most galvanizing instances of teens working together to create something—in this instance, it’s hacking! Wrong has been done. Greed runs rampant. They’re trying to pin the blame on teen hackers—and the hackers aren’t going to take it anymore. They commit all of their not insignificant resources and energy to bringing down these greedy adults. AND I LOVE IT!

So, there you have it: some of my favorite YA People Creating Things. Did I miss your favorite teen maestro? Let me know in the comments!

We Love! We are uncomfortable and we respect that!: Joint Review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson Part 2

Rebecca!I was happy when you mentioned wanting to joint review Will Grayson, Will Grayson (by John Green & David Levithan), not only because we are two people and Will Grayson and Will Grayson are two people, but because I remember loving the book so much. (Read R.’s original post here.)

image from the Will Grayson tumblr


Of course, the problem is that I tend to read things far too fast, and I was worried that I wouldn’t have any points to bring up about reading the book because it would be far in my foggy past (April of 2010).  The only thing I wrote about it on GoodReads was “John Green and David Levithan are so good at making the world seem full of potential goodness, while staying true to the suckiness of life. Every time I read one of their books my heart grows 3 sizes. It’s gotten to the point where I have a medical condition.”  Ha ha! Good one, me.

Luckily I have library access. So I plucked the book from its shelf and started reading it at lunch today. I KNOW, I know.  But within 14 pages I already had so much stuff to write about. But first I must say: don’t cry into your lemonade! If anything, cry onto your pretzel, because they are both salty.  And here’s a tip: whenever I don’t want to cry, I visualize frogs sitting in my immediate vicinity. Little frogs. Big hulking giant frogs.  It’s 80% effective at distracting me from sobbing, which is good, because once I get started it’s hard to stop.

don't cry, think about this frog from the Open Clip Art Library.

I digress. And so does WG–that’s one of the things that pulled me into the narrative, and I think it’s a key part of the WG2M.  For instance, WG starts off the book by quoting his dad’s aphorism: “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose” and then on page 21 we get back to WG’s point of quoting that aphorism in the first place. To be fair, this could also just be foreshadowing.  But the way that WG narrates, it’s like clicking your way through tabs on a browser – you want to explore all the links, but it makes for a wonderfully digressive narrative.

Another thing about the WG2M, what I referred to in my Goodreads review as “staying true to the suckiness of life”, is also something that made, and makes, me uncomfortable about reading WG’s parts of the book.  He’s not that great of a friend.  On the first page he begins expounding on his two themes concerning Tiny Cooper – WG sees Tiny as primarily 1. Large and 2. Gay, and instead of just being accepting of Tiny Cooper, he brings it up all the time so he can reassure his audience that he’s accepting. He’s so accepting he can constantly joke about it!  This is my least favorite type of “friendly” behavior.  WG also mentions that he went so far as to defend Tiny’s right to be gay and play football in the school newspaper, so it’s clear that he’s not all superficially, insecurely okay with the large gayness of Tiny Cooper.  He goes on and on about how inconvenient it is to be friends with someone so tall and large and gay (are you sick of it yet? Imagine how Tiny feels) and how Tiny is not a friend he would choose.

However, if I remember correctly, Tiny calls him out on this behavior later in the book, and that’s another thing that I love about it. AAAAND, as the story progresses further, we see that Tiny is not the greatest friend sometimes, either. He’s very wrapped up in his crushes.  He’s wildly reactionary to every emotion that courses through him.  And a side effect of that is that all social interaction will revolve around Tiny Cooper, making it easier for WG to not seriously pursue any other friendships.

Whether I like their behavior or not, the fact is that within a couple pages, I’m totally involved in these people and they are real to me. It’s real behavior, it’s familiar to anyone who has had friends at any point in their lives, and it’s detailed without telling me all the details. It’s detailed in the right places.  It puts me at the lunch table with Tiny and WG and lets me figure it out, and then gives them senses of humor! WG is fond of these little asides at the end or slipped into the middle of his regular descriptions that crack me up:

“I say, ‘Mom this is a historical event. History doesn’t have a curfew,’ and she says, ‘Back by eleven,’ and I say, ‘Fine. Jesus,’ and then she has to go cut cancer out of someone.” (9).

wg has the talent of being humorously explanatorily exasperated:

“i do not say ‘good-bye.’ I believe hat’s one of the bullshitist words ever invented. it’s not like you’re given the choice to say ‘bad-bye’ or ‘awful-bye’ or ‘couldn’t-care-less-about-you-bye.’ every time you leave, it’s supposed to be a good one. well, i don’t believe in that. i believe against that.” (23).

To illustrate the flow of the book, I’ll give you a perfect Moment, convincingly written, an amalgam of digression and flow (which is why I have to quote all of it.):

photo of Chicago by flickr user anneh632

“Tiny Cooper lives in a mansion with the world’s richest parents. I don’t think either of his parents have jobs, but they are so disgustingly rich that Tiny Cooper doesn’t even live in the mansion; he lies in the mansion’s coach house, all by himself. He has three bedrooms in that motherfucker and a fridge that always has beer in it and his parents never bother him, and so we can sit there all day and play video game football and drink Miller Lite, except in point of fact Tiny hates video games and I hate drinking beer, so mostly all we ever do is play darts (he has a dartboard) and listen to music and talk and study. I’ve just started to say the T  in Tiny when he comes running out of his room, one black leather loafer on and the other in his hand, shouting, ‘Go, Grayson, go go.’

“And everything goes perfectly on the way there. Traffic’s not too bad on Sheridan, and I’m cornering the car like it’s the Indy 500, and we’re listening to my favorite NMH song, ‘Holland, 1945,’ and then onto Lake Shore Drive, the waves of Lake Michigan crashing against the boulders by the Drive, the windows cracked to get the car to defrost, the dirty, bracing, cold air rushing in, and I love the way Chicago smells–Chicago is brackish lake water and soot and sweat and grease and I love it, and I love this song, and Tiny’s saying I love this song, and he’s got the visor down so he can muss up his hair a little more expertly.  That gets me to thinking that Neutral Milk Hotel is going to see me just as surely as I’m going to see them, so I give myself a once-over in the rearview.  My face seems too square and my eyes too big, like I’m perpetually surprised, but there’s nothing wrong with me that I can fix.” (9-10)

And I feel like I’ve already written too much (and all of it about WG and not wg) but I will mention that the 3rd element that makes me love the book and make it a 5 star book for me (remember our elements are 1. digression 2. realism about the suckiness of even friends) is the addition of People Creating Things.  There’s nothing more satisfying to read about than teenagers creating things–treehouses, forts, treehouse forts, conceptual art happenings, very detailed oil paintings, novels within novels… I say teenagers because I have less joy in reading about college professors struggling with creating things. That’s a separate genre.  Creation of a project is the crux of many a teen movie, except the person is usually a rag tag sports team and the Thing they are Creating is an Underdog Victory.But here the person is Tiny Cooper, and the thing is a musical.  You could also say that the Will Graysons are creating themselves in this book, coming out from under their wallflower/caustically depressed disguises to be in the world more authentically.  But more literally, it’s about a musical called Tiny Dancer: The Tiny Cooper Story.

what can I say, I love the Open Clip Art Library.

Fake musicals are great excuses to be as silly as possible… IN RHYME, which is why Forgetting Sarah Marshall is such a great movie (although I’ve heard that the Dracula puppet musical is a real thing that Jason Segel wrote apart from the movie).  It also makes sense that, although the book is not about Tiny Cooper, Tiny Cooper is the glue of the book, and the most outsized example of someone trying to find where they fit in the world, which is a theme of the whole book anyway, so his musical is the plot device that ended up making my heart swell 3 sizes that day when I read the book.

That’s my non-critical, slapdash analysis of why I loved Will Grayson, Will Grayson.  I look forward to re-reading it this week.

We Love, We Love!: A Joint Review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Welcome to another Joint Review and Discussion! Last time, we discussed Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone and our thoughts on angel literature and overly-attractive characters.  This week we’re discussing Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan              Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan

Dutton Juvenile, 2012


I’m so excited to make you talk to me about Will Grayson, Will Grayson. John Green and David Levithan collaborated on it, each writing alternating chapters, so I feel like a joint review is the most apt mode of review.

image: michiganawesome.org

I started re-reading Will Grayson, Will Grayson in the Philadelphia train station on my way to New York. I had about 30 minutes to kill, so of course I got an Auntie Anne’s pretzel and lemonade (a combination I’ve loved ever since it was the only edible option at the mall where I once worked at a Waldenbooks in Ann Arbor). So, I’m sitting at this wobbly table, trying not to leave greasy finger prints at the top corner of every page and just laughing my face off, pitying the gormless masses streaming past who were not reading Will Grayson, Will Grayson and feeling pretty pleased with myself.

Dawson's CreekOf course, I was feeling quite sheepish about 20 minutes later when I was holding the book right in front of my face so that none of the adjacent Au Bon Pain customers could see me crying into my lemonade. Now, Tessa, as you know, I’m not much of a crier in real life (even though it seems like every book I’ve reviewed lately has involved me crying on a train), and it takes quite a book to make me both crack up and tear up! And I LOVE books that make me cry.

This is all to say: I have been trying to figure out how I would describe what makes the book so affecting for me. I mean, the writing from both authors is great, the characters rich and unique, and the story totally fun and charming. But what finally stands out for me (and makes me appear like a bipolar mess in public spaces) is Will Grayson Will Grayson’s mood.

I would think that because it’s written by two different authors and concerns two very different sets of characters, the two story lines would have different moods. But, even though Will Grayson the first (capital WG) is a go-with-the-flow, anti-drama sidekick type to Tiny, a falls-in-love-every-day, sings loudly, gay football player, and will grayson the second (lowercase wg) is a depressive malcontent who is “constantly torn between killing [him]self and killing everyone around [him],” the mood feels strikingly consistent between the two story lines (22).

Borg Cat

“We are Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.” From: fivecats.wordpress.com

It was like somehow the Will Grayson, Will Grayson mood, henceforth known as the WG2M, was so strong that it permeated the entire book, sucking everything into it (including me) like the borg. In a good way. No, a great way. Of course, the writing and the characters contribute to the mood and they are delightful.

From capital WG:

“I turn around and Tiny Cooper is crying huge tears. One of Tiny Cooper’s tears could drown a kitten. And I mouth WHAT’S WRONG? because Ashland Avenue is sucking too loudly for him to hear me, and Tiny Cooper just hands me his phone and walks away. It’s showing me Tiny’s Facebook feed, zoomed in on a status update.

Zach is like the more i think about it the more i think y ruin a gr8 frendship? i still think tiny’s awesum tho.

I push my way through a couple people to Tiny, and I pull down his shoulder and scream into his ear, ‘THAT’S PRETTY FUCKING BAD,’ and Tiny shouts back, ‘I GOT DUMPED BY A STATUS UPDATE,’ and I answer, ‘YEAH, I NOTICED.’ . . .

‘WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?’ Tiny shouts in my ear, and I want to say, ‘Hopefully, go find a guy who knows there is no u in awesome’ (15-16).


From lowercase wg:

“every morning i pray that the school bus will crash and we’ll all die in a fiery wreck. then my mom will be able to sue the school bus company for never making school buses with seat belts, and she’ll be able to get more money for my tragic death than i would’ve ever made in my tragic life. unless the lawyers from the school bus company can prove to the jury that i was guaranteed to be a fuckup. then they’d get away with buying my mom a used ford fiesta and calling it even” (23-4).

And when the two story lines come together delightfully in a porn shop, as these things always must, it feels, like, inevitable.

Frenchy’s Adult Book Store is real

So, T, what about you? Did you find Will Grayson, Will Grayson as delightful as I did?  What did you think of the mood? Who was your favorite character? Who do you think could play the characters if they ever made a movie, &c. Tell me EVERYTHING!

Too Old For Angels Part 3: Beyond Good and Evil (Where the Delicious Cheese is)

Here endeth our discussion of angels in YA lit, inspired by Daughter of Smoke and Bone (by Laini Taylor). We welcome your comments. 

Please do read the first two parts: Part 1. Part 2.


I’ll take your Many Waters golden man and raise you a Wind in the Door tangle of eyes and wings:

hey good-looking.

Thank you for taking my angel angst seriously.  When are we going to Prague?

I think your point about the angel plot in Supernatural begins to hint at where angels start to get interesting. I just read a graphic novel short story collection about angels that I dug – the art was simply gorgeous. It was conceived and illustrated by Rebecca Guay and written by a roster of YA authors (including Holly Black). As the reader you get all of these tales about angels, told by other supernatural beings who are deciding whether or not to help a fallen angel that they’ve found in the forest.

(Side note: I can’t watch Supernatural because I can’t not think of Jared Padalecki as Rory’s first, kinda-dumb boyfriend from the Gilmore Girls, and I have a Pavlovian disliking for him. NO ONE IS GOOD ENOUGH FOR RORY.)

Also: OMG, look at this

Anyway. There’s one tale that’s a re-telling of Adam and Eve, and the angel character says something to the effect that only humans judge between good and evil, and angels don’t have that choice – they’re beyond it. That’s what I want – more characters that are beyond having a black and white morality.  That clash is interesting to me, and it makes me feel like the being is otherworldly.

I’m much more interested in a figure who causes trouble because they can, because they’re bored or because they don’t see humans as people to be saved. I don’t think Akiva falls into that category – I think he’s much more of a human figure and his main influence is his past and the world and war he comes from.  That makes him interesting to me, but it also leads into the love story, and I want my angels to be more severe (see the William Blake-type of luminous severity here at the Tate’s website).

Origin stories don’t bother me because they can give me some insight into the culture that tells them – what parameters they give to good and evil. But I can see where they start to all look the same at some point.

And yes, to your statement that “the idea of a romantic hero who is stunningly attractive, possesses a body honed by the fight to vanquish evil, and who has even a whiff of spiritual righteousness is enough to make anyone over the age of 25 feel resentful, inadequate, and suspicious.” Except for all the Twilight Moms.  Oh, and we’re totally justified in our crushes on V. & M. because they have character in their faces, right?

Please tell me when Viggo and Michael get to your apartment. I’ll be right over.

Angel as Puck figure?

R. responds:

That tangle of eyes is superattractive. I’m blushing because it keeps staring at me wherever I go . . .

We are going to Prague . . . *now* (snaps fingers)!

I think what you say about wanting characters who are beyond the moral compass of right and wrong is super interesting and I want that too.The thing that I find really interesting about angels being in-the-know, godwise, is that their sense of right and wrong is based on a bigger picture—it’s, like, one of the only religious concepts I find interesting. Not the “plan” business, but the notion that when supernatural creatures like angels (or aliens, or immortals like vampires) mix with humans it’s really a clash of scale more than ethics. For a human, the loss of a town (like in that Supernatural episode) is huge, whereas to angels who can see billions of people simultaneously, or have watched trillions of people expire throughout the ages, it’s fairly meaningless. I just want some really great YA stories and characters that manage to dramatize that without making it about religion or that most loathèd of bollixers, fate.

Can you think of any? Mostly when I think of those kinds of characters they’re robots (they calculate what is “good” based on data), aliens (they weren’t taught about our quaint mortal morality), or, well, sociopaths—and, while you know I love a good sociopath, that’s not so much beyond morality as devoid of it. So, I’m trying to think of good examples.

I’ll give you a buzz as soon as Viggo and Michael get here, whatever their moral compasses may be. Let’s hope they bring delicious cheese!

T. responds to R’s response:

It’s funny you should ask me about what characters embody the idea of being beyond a moral compass without being robots or sociopaths, because I’m working on a review of a series that does that for meThe Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. The Old Ones fight for Light and Dark, but it isn’t good and evil the way it’s normally portrayed. Stay tuned for that review soon!

I agree that it’s hard to find those kinds of characters.  Maybe our readers have more suggestions? Tell us in the comments!

Too Old for Angels, part 2: It’s Fantasy Enough That They’re Angels; Don’t Make Them Super Hot, Too! — A Discussion of Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Welcome back to Part 2 of our Discussion of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Part 1 is here.


I agree that this discussion will certainly be less fraught than our first one (thank goodness).

image, we collect bones and love it @tumblr

I was mainly interested to read Daughter of Smoke and Bone for the same reasons you were:

Prague = total awesomeness (plus there aren’t that many YA books set out of the US, London, or Paris, so that’s a plus).

Smoke, bone, teeth, feathers = sinister in a way that convinced me I wouldn’t be reading another iteration of the “look, I’ve just discovered that [fill in unusual/preternatural quality or ability] I once thought made me an outsider and unlovable actually make me highly desirable in this new context” plot. Not that there aren’t really good, exciting examples of it—I just could tell this would be something different.

Monsters = always make a book better. Every single time.

And mostly I loved the book.

Okay, angels.

I actually really like this coverI am, in general, totally with you. I haven’t read Fallen (although I just put it on hold at the library because now I’m curious), but I did read Hush, Hush and Crescendo by Becca Fitzpatrick (the cover is sparkly and I was desperate). I was tricked into liking Hush, Hush because it was so dark into thinking the angel thing was ok. But then Crescendo cured me of that thinking because it was terrible.

But, BUT: I didn’t have a problem with the conceit of angels in Daughter of Smoke and Bone. And I think the difference was how poorly developed the mythology of angelism was in Hush, Hush and (I imagine) Fallen—so that rather than just “persons who can fly,” or another kind of supernatural creature (like vampires or werewolves), the only thing about them is either an issue of goodness (they’re good and attractive, or, *shocker* they’re surprisingly not-good and attractive) or an issue of fallen-ness (where “fallen” could easily be simply a metaphor).

The only other angel experiences I have are:

um, look at this golden and wingéd gentleman . . .

1. Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters, where Meg’s twin brothers Sandy and Dennys accidentally transport themselves back to biblical times and meet up with Noah, an arc, and a bunch of seraphim and nephilim, which I enjoyed (but angels weren’t the main characters; also, having no bible-learning, I could never remember which were which).

2. A little show I like to call Supernatural (now available on Netflix instant!). Do you watch it? So, in season 3 all of a sudden the plot gets way cosmic and there are angels of the lord. When this plot arc began I rolled my eyes and was like, “uggh, get your religion out of my delightful genre-show.” However, I ended up totally digging it because angelic righteousness, the show makes clear, is the ultimate moral ambiguity. SPOILER ALERT: there is one episode in which Sam and Dean are tasked with trying to stop a witch from summoning a demon that would threaten the balance of power on earth. Worried that they are running out of time, two angels tell them to leave town because they’re going to smite it—several thousand people will die, yes, but it will (they assure us) be better in the larger scheme of things. Dean, righteous in his own mission to preserve humans at any cost, will have none of it. END SPOILERS. Anyway, Supernatural is delightful and that plot arc a really interesting treatment of angels, which could have gone horribly, horribly wrong.

For me, what set the angels in Daughter of Smoke and Bone apart was that a.) angels were another species of supernatural creature, as were the “monsters” and b.) there was, therefore, a lot of backstory about what it is to be the species of supernatural creature called “angel.”

The question of age is really interesting: are we too old for angels?

Maybe. I think that the idea of a romantic hero who is stunningly attractive, possesses a body honed by the fight to vanquish evil, and who has even a whiff of spiritual righteousness is enough to make anyone over the age of 25 feel resentful, inadequate, and suspicious (or is that just me?).

So, in that way my suspicion of an angel for a romantic hero fits your two strikes: “perceived nobility/idealisticness” and “too much goodlookingness.”

1. Perceived nobility (often of a religious nature). Yeah, I think a lack of moral ambiguity stinks up most angel stories. However, I didn’t think that about Daughter of Smoke and Bone—I, like you, thought that the perspective was balanced enough (given that Karou is on the side of the monsters and Akiva has to earn his place in the story) that Akiva didn’t feel too goody-goody-for-god. Of course, it remains to be seen in the rest of the series if Akiva is tokenized and the rest of the angels are, indeed, morally unambiguous.

2. Supergoodlookingness. Do you think this tendency is just a holdover from the mainstream romance genre that makes authors/readers want characters who are immensely good looking? I feel like the trend in many of the heterosexual supernatural romances published in the last few years has been to have the human female protagonist  be average-looking, or have one great quality (beautiful eyes) but be otherwise unnotable, and have the supernatural male protagonist be supergoodlooking. This otherworldly beau, due to his supernaturalness, sees something in the soul of the human protag and loves her for her insides.

So, that’s wish-fulfillment of a type I’m sympathetic to (who wouldn’t rather avoid risking rejection and just hope that someone can see into their soul?) and is certainly better than requiring all female characters to be stunningly gorgeous, like in the movies.

Still, it seems to me that it undercuts the necessary message “you are more than your looks” by substituting a kind of ethical reward-system: if you have a good heart, are generous, etc., then someone (gorgeous) will notice that goodness and you don’t ever have to put yourself out there—just sit tight and wait for it. So, whatever ground was gained by the shift in the female protag’s superficial qualities is lost to passivity. But I digress. Because Karou is also supergoodlooking. If every young adult book that features a male angel could be made into a film and half of those angels could be played by Viggo Mortensen and the other half by Michael Wincott, I would go see every single one of them three times (are you listening, Hollywood? That’s, like . . . $2,000 just from me).

In other news, I had a totally different problem with ONE element of the book than you did (albeit for not dissimilar reasons). I agree that Karou-Akiva turned a little average-paranormal-romance for a few minutes, but I was fine with it mostly, because of the unique locations, the story of the monsters’ world, and Karou’s own social issues.

The snag for me was that I really don’t like origin myths in novels. SPOILER ALERT: For that reason, I was disinterested in the back story that builds Akiva and Madrigal’s love story. I know that when we learn of Karou’s relationship to that story it’s supposed to link in and make me care about it, but I didn’t much—I could have done without their entire love story. END SPOILERS. The thing about origin myths (and it’s borne out in Daughter of Smoke and Bone) is that they’re nearly always predicated on precisely the kind of unambiguous binary thinking that you object to in angels (good vs. evil). Since they generally grow out of one culture’s desire to understand itself in contrast with Others, there is always a naturalized good and bad. Or, even when they concern nature, it’s a nature of binaries (i.e., not nature): the moon vs. the sun; the sky vs. the sea, etc. Further, I find that most of the time when authors put origin stories in their novels those stories come (whether the author intends them to or not) to act as organizing metaphors for the novels. So, when Akiva and Madrigal swap their culture’s origin myths it’s quite difficult to avoid applying those same myths to the cultures themselves, which is overly simplistic and doesn’t construct storytelling as the complex tool we know it to be.

So, there you have it. Are we too old for angels? Probably so. We shall have to resign ourselves to the sad probability that if someone hyperbolically good-looking descended from the heavens and felt magnetically drawn to us then we would likely think they were a creep whose beauty meant they’d gotten everything in life easy. Ahem, unless Viggo Mortensen and Michael Wincott are reading this right now, in which case: I live in Philadelphia. Follow your magnetic attraction (apartment #2, side entrance).

Finally, did you see that Daughter of Smoke and Bone has been optioned for a film?

Meet us back here tomorrow for the conclusion of the discussion! Part III is here.

So, would you would want to be the object of an angel’s affection. Or maybe you already have been! If so, tell us in the comments and I’ll email you a special prize.

Too Old for Angels? – A Roundabout Discussion of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Welcome to our second Joint Review and Discussion! It will appear in three parts: today, tomorrow, and Wednesday.


I’m going to solicit your opinion for a joint review! It will be slightly less fraught than our first, I think, because the issue at stake is not such a sensitive topic. But you never know.

Everyone is talking about Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and by “everyone” I mean some of the blogs that I read.  So I read it – and I loved it.

I’d heard of Laini Taylor before because her book of stories (Lips Touch: Three Times) was a National Book Award finalist. But the cover turned me off so I’d never read it, and at that point in my life I was reading Kelly Link’s short stories and felt that more well-written short stories that dealt with things like faeries and goblins and other strange things was too much. Of course, now I can go back and read Taylor’s previous work.

charles bridge prague

I want to go here and eat goulash in Karou's favorite cafe like the tourists she hates!

 Daughter of Smoke and Bone has some seriously intriguing elements going for it: Prague–I’d always wanted to go. Teeth– Creepy.  Monsters.I’m very into monsters, because I was a child in the 80s.

So I read it and loved most of it… except the whole angel part. Rebecca, what is it about angels?  I’ve also read Fallen and Torment by Lauren Kate and had the same reaction.  Am I too old for angels?  I’ve tried to think of them just as “persons who can fly” but they still don’t seem compelling to me.

As I’m not against wings, in theory, I’m thinking it has to do with two factors:

1. perceived nobility/idealisticness and

2. too much goodlookingness.  I’ll go point by point.

1. Angels are going to be associated with Christianity and therefore with notions of good and evil.  Now, there are some really kickass art historical interpretations of angels out there, and I totally dig Michael killing the devil whenever I see a representation of it (going back to the monsters thing, I guess). But when I think of “angel” I don’t think “moral ambiguity”. I just think “good or evil”. And there’s nothing there that makes me want to know more. I don’t want to read about someone with black vs. white thinking.

hawt angel

photo by flickr user quinet

That’s obviously a problem that I have to get over because Taylor, in Daughter of Smoke and Bone has set up her book to make her angel character (and her monster characters) have good and bad sides, and good and bad secrets.  So in this case I’ll say that it’s my initial angel association that I have to get over, that is tainting my reading.

2. When authors are trying to describe a humanoid being who is otherwordly they have a tendency to lean on such a person being extremely good-looking, and that just doesn’t help me picture anyone. The more hyperbole the author piles on about how perfectly unearthly beautiful their character is, the more I can’t picture the character, and the more disappointed I’ll be when they are inevitably cast in the movie version by someone who is a bland 20 year old and not Michael Wincott or Viggo Mortensen.

These are pretty general complaints and say more about me than the book that I’m supposed to be reviewing. Daughter of Smoke & Bone deserves a real review, but it is the book that made me start wondering about the whole thing.  I felt my enjoyment of it suffered because in the middle of the book, where Karou and Akiva spend time together, turned the reading experience from a baklava of layered worlds full of secrets into Just Another Paranomal Love Story, and I chose to blame it on the fact that Akiva is an angel. I know that the plot in the book and in the books going forward hinges on the importance of that relationship, so I can’t say that it was wasted time, but it fell flat for me, and the angel thing is the only thing I could put my finger on.

What’s been your experience reading about fictional angel love?  What did you think about Daughter of Smoke and Bone? How much do you want to be Karou and wear the mask on this cover?

intense stare!

Actually, I prefer this one:

Be sure to check back TOMORROW for Rebecca’s response to Tessa’s angel-angst, and WEDNESDAY for the conclusion of the discussion. Part 2 is here.

Did you read Daughter of Smoke and Bone? Do you want to? Tell us your thoughts in the comments! 

Th1rteen R3asons Why Not: Part II, Why

Tessa Responds to Part I of the discussion about Th1rteen R3asons Why:


First of all, I’d love to read a book about drinking milkshakes.  It sounds like a Murakami book.

I agree with many of your points, but ultimately I think I read the book’s intention a little differently, and so see it fulfilling its intention a bit more. Let me start with some specific things that I agree with (these aren’t the only things).
1. It sort of seems like Hannah killed herself out of spite, and that could make a reader more inclined to be judgmental about her suicide.
2. The scene with the guidance counselor was totally frustrating.
3. As were the scenes where she didn’t speak up for herself while being harassed.
4. The characters were a little flat. They did use many clichés, and making Clay not be a culprit was a cop-out.

What I love about book discussions and hearing about your strong negative reaction to this book is being able to trade perspectives on the narrative, and re-evaluate my reading of the story.  Honestly, I’m pretty neutral on this book. I thought it was decent writing with not a lot to distract me from where the plot was going. The device of the tapes made things move along, when it wasn’t presenting absurd Walkman-stealing scenes to work around the lack of cassette tape-playing devices in the lives of the general public.  I knew going into it that at least 2 people nearly hated it, so I couldn’t help but try to pick out exactly why that would be, but I didn’t come away with an impression of a book that was so bad as to be hate-able.

But your essay is persuasive.  It brought back to mind things that bothered me that I was able to brush away during the reading.  Your points clearly state why Th1rteen R3asons Why didn’t work for you and why it irked you that people were all about it.  Here’s why those things didn’t bother me that much.

Apologies if it sounds like I’m trying to convince you of my viewpoint, because I don’t want to do that.  But for the sake of a response:

This slide is a metaphor.

Your reading of the book’s intention was to show how people’s actions affect the people around them, and that “when we treat people badly, it is something that we do, not something that we are” and so having Hannah take responsibility for her suicide negates her message in the end.  You also mourn the lack of real solutions in the narrative, because “activism is better than revenge and… education is better than shaming.”

I agree with those general concepts, but I don’t think that that is what the book set out to show.  I think this is a book about accepting awful things–the awfulness inside yourself. It’s very much a book about shaming and could be read as a book about letting go of shame, about how shame destroys.

Hannah does kill herself “seemingly without thought or care”, despite the effort it must have taken to create the tape project. What I found possibly unrealistic was not the carelessness of her suicide but the fact that a severely depressed person could harness enough energy to create what was essentially an interactive performance art project.  The seeming carelessness could be explained by a sense of depersonalization, and the feeling of every single thing being overwhelming.  The tapes require effort, which would go against the utter despondence of depression.    (This is also why, while I wanted to shake Hannah and tell her to stand up for herself at many points in the book, I could see her passivity in the face of male harassment as a depiction of someone who wasn’t able to stand up for herself because she just didn’t have the mental wherewithal). But then again, I suppose the creation of the tapes could be in line with a typical burst of energy/giving away of possessions/suicidal planning.

Speaking of talking out of my ass about suicide, I don’t think it’s bad that we feel judgmental about Hannah’s. If this was a book about taking revenge in some other way, we’d still be judging her as a character.  Moreover, it may be socially taboo to talk about judging someone for killing themselves, but I think it must be part of the grieving/dealing process for the survivors of a suicide.  In fact, Hannah anticipates this with her tapes.  She gives the people who receive the tapes something to feed a sense of shame.  Witness the destruction of the peeping tom’s window – they are judging themselves rather than getting defensive.

I don’t think the book means to show these attacks as good things. I think it’s an example of the destructive nature of shame.  Starting with her first kiss, Hannah learns to feel ashamed for things she never even did.  Even though she knew she didn’t do anything “wrong”, she desired the kiss, so she must have desired more, right?  The collective wisdom of gossip victim-blames her for wanting a guy by exploding the episode out of proportion.  And for whatever reason, Hannah can’t get past it.  She lets things pile up in her mind.

The crux of the story is where she witnesses the rape of a classmate.  This isn’t presented as the central conceit of the book – that would be Hannah’s own suicide – but I see it as the reason Hannah decided to kill herself. She doesn’t do anything to stop it. She confronts her own terrible actions, judges herself unfit, and decides she’s better off as a lesson for her peers. Thus the sacrificial Jacuzzi devirginization/date rape right before she does a token cry for help in the guidance counselor’s office.  So she does accept responsibility for her own death and giving up on herself.  But for me this doesn’t negate the message of the book, because it was a slightly different message in my reading than in yours.

It’s the reality of suicide that it’s the person’s choice, in the end, to take their own life. But that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t act better toward one another.  I think that’s the message here. I think that’s what Hannah is saying – she should have been better, and the people around her should have been better. And I think that’s why the flat characters work to the book’s advantage.  People can see themselves in these situations.  They can insert themselves into Hannah or Clay’s roles without a lot of work, which is probably why the book is garnering such empathetic reactions from its readers.

This is a book about the kids who kill themselves that don’t seem to have had a great reason to do so. I can’t say it’s the best-written book about a suicide, because there is something here that puts the conceit of the book over giving us a more realistically anguishing look into the experience of knowing someone who took their own life.  But it works as a discussion point and a starting point. In the end, is that the real intention?

Rebecca says:

T, I very much see where you’re coming from here. You really helped me think through some things that I wasn’t quite getting from the book in Part 1 of the discussion.

What do you think? Continue the discussion in the comments!

Thirteen Reasons Why Not

Part 1 of our first ever JOINT REVIEW!

by REBECCA, February 7, 2012

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Razorbill (Penguin), 2007

In today’s Part 1 of the joint review, Rebecca will begin with her, ahem, reactions to the novel that, according to its website, changed the lives of approximately 17,000 teenagers. Then, tomorrow, Tessa will respond in Part 2 of the joint review. Leave us your thoughts in the comments and stay tuned for tomorrow’s conclusion.

Let me say first, so there is no confusion, that I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with young adult books portraying suicide. They might just as soon be about drinking milkshakes for all that I care about the topic being portrayed in particular.

The book’s intention was clearly to showcase the principle that when you treat people like shit (as we all do from time to time, whether purposely or inadvertently), no matter how insignificant you think your transgression, you never know what else in that person’s life it compounds. This feels like a necessary concept to highlight, especially given the recent spotlight shined on the effects of bullying among school-age folks. Importantly, it is a reminder that when we treat people badly, it is something that we do, not something that we are, which is useful in that it looks at actions and their potential effects rather than at people to judge their merits or offenses. I fully appreciate this project.

Because this is most definitely an issue novel, my reaction to it necessarily includes how it dealt with the issues—not suicide as a whole, but this suicide, and the problems that swirl around it. This reaction, therefore, is strongly influenced by my own social politics. So, I’ll begin with an annoyance and work up to full-steam:

I’m torn because Hannah kills herself with seemingly little thought or care. And, while it thrills me to see suicide represented as a personal right and choice, I don’t think that was Asher’s goal, so instead the act just seemed capricious, as if Hannah might just as easily pierced her tongue or bashed in someone’s car window to achieve the same release and satisfaction. Further, in moments it seems like she has decided that it is inevitable; as if she has made a deal with herself: if no one explicitly reads my mind and tells me not to kill myself, then I will do it today: “And after that,” Hannah says, “there’s no turning back” (256). There is nothing I hate more than a character that throws up their hands and casts themselves on the will of the fates.

The premise of Hannah making the tapes is to show these people what major effects their behaviors had on her. Further, presumably, this forced awareness is visited upon them in the hopes that they will act differently toward people in the future. But, even if that succeeds, I couldn’t help but think how much more of a positive impact Hannah could have had if she’d done the same thing and then made it public instead of private: say, done it on a website and changed the names so that it could have reached many people. And, of course, I realized that this is precisely what Asher did by publishing the book: present these ideas to many people. (And, I should note, this is precisely what Asher is doing on the book’s website, so that is wonderful.) Still, I feel strongly that activism is always better than revenge and that education is always better than shaming. For this reason, despite Asher reaching a wide audience with this message, I find the character of Hannah a totally unsatisfactory advocate for Asher’s cause.

More to the point, I found myself mentally screaming, “stand up for yourself!” and “tell that dude to fuck himself!,” the whole book. Hannah tells us, “Here’s a tip. If you touch a girl, even as a joke, and she pushes you off . . . leave . . . her . . . alone” (52). So clearly she is educating; I just kept wishing that she would channel this energy into working to educate and help teens deal with sexual abuse. And perhaps this is simply a difference of perspective—for young adults who are more recently come to the issue of suicide or abuse, and are currently embroiled in high school, of course social or political education means different things. But since Asher himself seemed hell bent on this book educating, I can’t help but feel really cheated that he didn’t offer any productive or, frankly, interesting solutions.

More importantly, though, since we are talking about art here, for the love of god, I lay my strong negative feelings about they way the issue was treated at the feet of what I found to be the major formal problem with the novel: the perspective.

It’s not about whether there exist “good” or “bad” reasons to kill oneself; it’s that the form of Asher’s novel did not provide me with a sympathetic or round characterization of Hannah, so I found her actions unbelievable and shallowly-motivated. Her perspective—a recorded monologue—is the absolute flattest and most narrow way to write: it is necessarily all “telling” and no “showing.” Consequently, we get lines like, “Betrayal. It’s one of the worst feelings” (13). Yikes. Asher decided to privilege the realism of having Hannah’s monologue sound like a regular person talking. However, because our everyday speech is fairly uninteresting and un-crafted, the writing of Hannah’s voice (which is most of the book) was necessarily unremarkable and cliché-ridden: “Step-by-step. That’s how we’ll get through this. One foot in front of the other” (54). I don’t feel like I get to know Hannah as a character, and what I know—that she tests the school counselor by saying extremely vague things about her situation and then leaves it up to him to save her, that she doesn’t stand up to people, that she leaves her happiness in the hands of others—I don’t like. Further, the tone of threat and attempted lame humor that Asher uses for Hannah made her pretty unbearable for me.

However, even more problematic than my personal dislike of the character—and it is a fiery, fiery dislike—is what Asher’s choice of perspectives does to what could at least have been a though-provoking story. Here Be Spoilers. The only other person whose perspective we get is Clay’s, as he listens to Hannah’s tapes. Clay, we find out (and, honestly, I think we figure this out long before Hannah discloses it), is the one person of everyone on the tapes who has not done anything wrong. Because we are in Clay’s head we suffer along with him as he agonizes over thinking that he might have been a reason for Hannah’s death. This is where the tension of the whole story lies—and indeed, Asher effectively portrays the dread and shame that would surely accompany listening to the tapes, waiting for your name, and wondering whether others knew about your role already. (I thought the novel’s best moments were between Clay and Tony, when Clay tries to figure out whether Tony has listened to the tapes and knows what he’s experiencing.)

So, finding out that Clay is innocent of any wrongdoing flattens all the drama that would have come from his character being forced to confront that his bad behavior had consequences. In this way, Clay and we the readers, are never placed in the position of having to cope with the terrible truth that we contributed to someone’s suicide. Which, I thought, would have been central to the book’s intention. Instead, we feel relieved to learn of Clay’s innocence, because we can comfortably judge the others on the tapes, aligning us with Hannah instead. This, for me, totally de-fangs the entire undertaking.

These problems of perspective were, of course, an extension of the novel’s conceit of telling the story through tapes. In a Q & A printed at the back of the book, Asher commented that “the idea for the unusual format [came] before the subject matter,” and this is, I think, abundantly clear. Indeed, I didn’t find that the novel brought the conceit to life; instead, it felt gimmicky, a concept to which characters and prose alike were bent. As such, the writing is both over-explanatory and dull, and Clay and Hannah’s characters are total blanks. Indeed, none of the characters transcend the most basic of stock characters.

In a way, this, as well as the recursive, obsessive style, reminded me a bit of Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, a book that I also didn’t exactly like. In Before I Fall, a girl who begins as a fairly stock character is forced to relive the same day over and over, and with each recurrence she sees different things in other characters and grows into a much more complex character. Although I didn’t like it, though, it kept me up all night finishing it because its examination of blame, action, and the ability to change things was much more interesting, the writing more styled, and the characters, although also no one I would have wanted to be friends with in high school, more complex.

And, for all the hundreds of pages that purport to provide reasons why Hannah killed herself and deliver a message that treating people badly can have disastrous results, we are left with the complete negation of that message. For, Hannah tells us, it was she who is responsible, she who is making the decision: “And that, more than anything else, is what this all comes down to. Me . . . giving up . . . on me” (253). And this, I think, is my biggest problem. Because if her giving up on herself is what it all comes down to, then everyone whose behavior she has worked so hard to point up as contributory, is totally let off the hook. Again. Also, the incident that struck me as the most horrible—Hannah choosing not to speak up to prevent her classmate from being raped—is hardly touched on at all. It is an instance of supreme personal guilt that gets subsumed under the incidents that Hannah is narrating.

So, much as I am in agreement with Asher’s message, I just don’t like the way the book goes about spreading it. For, what can a reader really take away from this book? “Treat others with respect.” Great. But what might they have taken away from it?: Here are productive ways to combat sexual violence in your community! Here are methods of coping with feelings of intense anger and despair!

I must go on record as saying: I have completely scandalized myself by writing a screed about a book’s “message” as opposed to focusing on it as a piece of art. To explain this burst of what could look dangerously like good old-fashioned moralizing I can say only this: if Thirteen Reasons Why had told the same story but been an awesome read with great, complex characters, beautiful prose, and a different narrative style I have no doubt that my issues with its real-world implications would have been overshadowed.

But, there you have it. This book hit every single one of my uggh buttons: bad writing, the death-knell of cliché, uninteresting story, narrow characterization and viewpoint, not risking making the narrator flawed, subjugating content to concept, undoing the proclaimed goal at the end, and managing to somehow ruin a thing of beauty: the cassette tape + hand-drawn map narrative.

Do you agree? Think I’m a totally off my rocker? Be sure to check back tomorrow and see what Tessa thinks in Part 2!

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