Magpie Reviews: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

13 reasons why review

This book…

Well…

I guess I don’t know precisely how to start this? Because this book is controversial. I read it specifically because I’ve been seeing controversy pop up all over the place and I’m a sucker for a good debate like that. And I don’t really know how to approach this review, because to be honest? After reading it, I don’t really have much to say. There’s no denying that it deals with some super important things, and there’s no denying that these things are things that we as a society NEED to have open, honest conversations about. But in the end I felt kind of meh about the book itself.

13 reasons why

Now before I get into why, I suppose I should open with a few caveats. Because these things really sort of hampered my ability to really “get” what this book was selling.

1) I am no longer a teenager. While this surprises no one, I do feel like it’s an important aspect of my overall review of this book. Because here’s the thing – since I spend much of my time working with teens, I like to think that I’ve stayed pretty good at remembering what it was like to be that age. More so than your average about-to-turn-thirty adult. BUT, there’s a big difference between remembering what it was like, and actually experiencing the world that way. So I generally find myself struggling to relate to the characters in YA books, and even when I manage it, it’s certainly not quite in the same way that an actual teen can (which is one of the reasons when I read YA fiction I usually prefer fantasy, because age and worldview matter a whole lot less). As a result I feel like a good deal of this book’s emotional impact was lost on me.

and

2) While I have had my struggles with anxiety – which is often closely connected with depression – I am not, nor have I ever been seriously depressed or suicidal. So I cannot speak as to how this book would read to someone who has struggled with depression or suicide. I cannot speak as to how accurate the portrayals of Hannah’s suicidal tendencies are, and I cannot speak for whether or not it would glamorize suicide for someone who has considered it. Those two things seem to be the lightning rods for much of the controversy with this book, so although the controversy is what drew me to read it, ultimately I can’t really chime in on it, as I don’t really have a horse in that race.

So what do these things leave me with?

13 reasons why open

Well, it was an entertaining read. The plot device of the tapes was a very clever mechanism, and I must admit that I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this before – structurally speaking. Experiencing the tapes along with one of the recipients was engaging, and absolutely kept the suspense level up. I sped through this book in a single sitting, and it wasn’t because I had the time – it was because I could not bring myself to put it down. I started it intending to only read for 15 or 20 minutes before bed. Three hours later, it’s 2:30 in the morning, my alarm is set to go off in 4 hours, and I have no idea where the time has gone, but hey, the book is finished.

So it’s definitely an entertaining read. There’s no denying that. Emotionally, on the other hand, it fell a bit short for me. It packed a punch while I was knee deep in the narrative, but I can’t say that it left me raw for days, or that I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I finished. It was good, but just not that good. Not for me anyway. Honestly, I left the reading experience thinking way more about the cleverness of the premise than I did about the characters or the story, and that leaves the experience feeling a bit… sterile? Technical? I’m not sure how else to describe it.

Part of this has to do with the lack of connection I felt with the narrator, Clay. Honestly I was far more interested in the transcripts of the tapes than Clay’s thought process as he listened to them. His interjections were occasionally disorienting as we switched back and forth from Clay to the tapes, and I really kind of felt like he suffered from “Nice Guy Syndrome” a little bit. Some of the comments he makes as he listens – about Hannah, about his relationship with her – have SO MUCH POTENTIAL to expand into character development and self-reflection, to deal with the way society teaches young men to feel entitled to the affection of young women… but then they are just sort of brushed aside. Back to the tape. On to the next thing.

And that tendency to brush aside massive issues for the next thing as we race to the end seems to be pretty consistent throughout the book. Asher brings up a lot of really important points about the way boys are taught to view girls, about the way that teens interact with each other, about bullying, and rumors, and alcohol, and sexual assault, and rape, and, and, and. But many of them just get brought up and left at that. As I read, I spent a lot of time disappointed that we’re not going to get into the meat of the issue at all.

And, spoiler warning, even the big reveal we get when Clay is finally mentioned on the tapes feels like let down. To me it only served to leave Clay feeling even more one dimensional as a character. Again, if you haven’t read or watched the series yet – here’s a major spoiler alert. The revelation that Clay is the one name on the tapes which doesn’t actually belong there? Yea, that kind of feels like a cop-out, and just plays into this “nice guy syndrome” thing I mentioned before even more heavily. Like, I so totally would have preferred if there WAS an actual reason Clay was on the tapes, and he was forced to grapple with the fact that maybe he’s not the good guy he thinks he is. Grapple with the fact that his version of his relationship with Hannah was experienced entirely differently from her POV. Now that, to me, would have been powerful.

So in the end, while it was definitely a page-turner, and I certainly wouldn’t say that it was a waste of time or money, I just kind of feel “meh” about it. I’m glad I read it. I enjoyed the three hours I spent with it. But it’s certainly not the life-changing ground-breaking kind of read I was expecting based on the publicity it’s gotten recently.

Now, I have not yet watched the Netflix series that has reignited the controversy. I intend to, but to be honest I have no idea when I’m going to get around to it, since the series is a WAY bigger time commitment than the book was (13 hours), and the topic is, without a doubt, pretty heavy. Maybe when I finally get around to watching the series I’ll do a review of it and compare to see how it stacks up in comparison. It’s very possible that the series explores the topics the book brings up more deeply, and I look forward to finding out.

13 reasons why flatlay

In summary: A good read, but nothing life changing – at least for me. But again, this assessment is tempered by the caveats listed above.

Rating: 3/5 stars, if only for the page-turner nature.

Would recommend to: Honestly, I’m not sure. I suppose anyone who is looking for a quick read that deals with some pretty heavy topics, and feels like this is the kind of book that they could read safely.

Book Review: Lirael by Garth Nix

Lirael

I’ve got to be honest here – this one was a bit of a slog.

After how much I enjoyed Sabriel, how compelled I was to keep reading and finish to see what happened, Lirael was a bit of a let down.

It’s almost as if Nix sort of saw the failings of Sabriel (lack of solid character development before the plot goes racing off) and then overcorrected in the next book, because in Lirael there’s almost too much. We spend sooooo much time just kind of sitting with the characters before any serious motion begins to kick in with the plot that it gets tedious at points.

And that would be one thing if this was just a coming of age story for Lirael and the point was to just kind of follow along with her adventures in the library of the Clayr as she learns and grows. But that’s not the kind of book that it presents itself as. It’s established from the very start that there are major forces at work in the Old Kingdom. Major forces that hint not just at catastrophe, but possibly a full fledged apocalypse. With that kind of set up, all the time we then spend just kind of sitting with the characters starts to feel like it’s wasted. And as a reader, that got quite frustrating. Lirael struggles with her identity and the fact that she doesn’t fit in with the Clayr. Sam has a serious case of “I don’t want to take over the family business” and self-pity. And these characters just wrestle with these things over, and over, and over, and over again without any real evidence of significant change until about the last fifth of the book. On multiple occassions I found myself skimming whole pages and saying to myself, “Yes, yes, I know she’s still struggling now lets get to some plot movement.”

And that’s just it. Plot movement is ultimately what this book’s predecessor had (almost to excess) that was missing here, making it suffer from what I can only dub “set-up syndrome.” The entire novel seems like it’s nothing but set-up for something bigger to come in book three. Or at least as a reader, I hope that’s the case. It ends with a pretty big cliffhanger which does make you want to keep reading despite the slog that came before.

So here’s hoping Abhorsen does indeed pick up the pace, and manages to endear these characters to me a little bit more solidly so as to make the little struggles I had getting through this worth it.

In summary: This book has its moments, but ultimately ends up being not much beyond set up for the next novel – and that sometimes makes reading it feel like a chore.

Overall rating: 2.5/5

Would Recommend to: People who read Sabriel, and intend to read Abhorsen. I am really unsure about how this would stand on its own without the context of the trilogy.

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See my review of Sabriel here

Book Review: Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel

So I finally got around to starting Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy. Sure took me long enough. I’ve been pushed and prodded by so many people on these over the years, and after seeing them come up once again a few months ago after the publication of his latest book Clariel, I’ve finally gotten off my ass and started with Sabriel. Overall, I’ve enjoyed the ride thus far.

I must admit that at first it was a little slow going. It took me a little longer than usual to get the hang of the world – the Old Kingdom, the Wall, the Charter, charter symbols, charter magic vs. free magic… I felt like I couldn’t fully wrap my head around things properly until about halfway through the book. I’m not sure if it’s because the world building was actually a little slow, or if it’s because I started it immediately after I finished My Lady Jane, which was a VASTLY different kind of writing and tone. I’m inclined to blame it on the latter, since I quite literally closed My Lady Jane and opened Sabriel. I probably should have taken a day or two to get my head out of alternate Tudor England before I started.

So that might be my bad, but it also might not? I guess I won’t ever really be able to tell without going back and rereading after I get some distance from it.

But regardless, once I did get all the pieces in place world-wise, I sped through the rest of this book. Just lovely. Nix crafts a really exciting, suspenseful story that pulls you right to the end. But while the story kept me riveted from that point on, even as the action drove me forward I did find myself wishing for a little more in some parts (mild spoilers ahead). My small qualms are mostly in regards to character development… or, lack thereof (which, to be honest, would have been far less noticeable if I had actually read the book when I actually still fell in the “young adult” age demographic… but I’m a crotchety full-fledged adult now, so here we go).

Specifically, I will say that I very much wish Touchstone was developed just a little bit more as a character, and that the relationship between he and Sabriel was a little less… instantaneous? Miraculous? Basically, there’s not really much of a transition period for Sabriel to go from “Oh he’s pretty but, ugh, annoying.” to “this dude is now a fully developed individual, and I love him.” And while it was admittedly nice to read about a strong, young, female protagonist where a romance subplot doesn’t really end up becoming the focus – the lack of development there did make the overall relationship seem a little unnatural. The few romance or sex oriented scenes/asides that were there ended up feeling really quite out of place.

But, all that said, as jarring as the “romance” part of the book was, it was also such a small part that I’m not sure it really mattered too much in terms of shaping my overall review. That facet of the book took such a massive backseat to the rest of the plot that what would normally be an enjoyment-ruining character development problem for me wasn’t actually that bad.

My only other qualm – which is not so much with Sabriel itself, but rather with the trajectory of the trilogy – is that while her development is also a bit slow in the beginning (but that might also be a result of me struggling to grasp the world), I did grow very attached to Sabriel (the character) by the end. And because of that I also must admit to not being in a super big rush to start the sequel since it seems to both time jump and introduce a new main character. That said, I’ve ordered it and do intend to start it as soon as I’m finished working through the tome of a biography of HRH Elizabeth II that I’m currently reading. Because while I definitely want to read more about Sabriel, I hope I’ll like Lirael just as much.

In summary: Sabriel is a fun fantasy adventure through an interesting world that is definitely worth a read, even if it does let character building fall to the wayside in its relentless drive towards the final confrontation.

Overall rating: 3.75/5 stars

Would recommend to: Fans of fantasy.

Book Review: My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

My Lady Jane

Before we left for Disney, I went into a little bit of a book panic. I was looking to figure out what I’d bring with me for the trip and realized I had absolutely nothing that wasn’t heavy and/or (mostly and) depressing. I have a VERY large book collection that is TBR, but it’s full of topics like the Holocaust, Japanese WWII POWs, Death and the Civil War, and various other horrible, heavy, awful things. Because that’s the kind of history I’m drawn to. Take that for what you will.

Anyway, the point is – none of it is kid-friendly, nor does it seem like appropriate reading for a week at the happiest place on earth.

And so I begged, needled, and cajoled Jim into a last-minute stop at the bookstore after our weekly date night dinner (the bookstore is usually something we do separately, since I could happily spend hours in there just browsing, and he’s more of a goal-oriented book shopper).

Well my aimless content browsing brought me to this gem.

The cover originally is what attracted me to it, but when I read the inside flap I was a little confused. And also a little excited. Because, from my perspective, this book could go one of two ways: it could be confusing and strange and awful, or it could be, hands down, one of the best things I’ve ever read.

Ultimately, I decided to take a chance.

And guys? I’m so glad I did. As a historian, everything in my gut tells me that this kind of revisionist premise shouldn’t have worked. But it did. It totally did. It was entertaining, and clever, and just plain fun.

My Lady Jane reframes the turmoil of the Tudor succession and the English reformation as a conflict not between Catholic and Protestant, but between the magical and the unmagical. It also takes a young female figure who is largely portrayed in history books as a tragic, powerless pawn of the English political game and gives her a voice. Gives her strength and agency and pluck as she fights not just for her own happily ever after, but for a happy ending for everyone she cares about.

And guys, this was just SO. MUCH. FUN.

The writing is witty and clever and funny, and at no point does it take itself too seriously. It pokes fun at itself as it uses common tropes and over the top plot devices, and in doing so makes the ridiculousness of the story entertaining instead of annoying. Throughout reading I couldn’t help but draw parallels to The Princess Bride (book and movie), because it’s got that same sort of self-aware, inching towards parody feel to it.

Honestly, the only even borderline negative thing I can say, is that in retrospect (mild spoilers ahead) I kind of feel a little bad that Mary I ends up vilified again, particularly when they’re already throwing history out the window so heartily. Generally when the English Reformation is dealt with in popular culture, Mary I and the English Catholics end up vilified while the Protestants are cast as the “good guys” – when in reality the whole thing was much more nuanced and complicated and more about the dangers of radicalism than anything else… but that’s just kind of one of my “things” after having spent a lot of time on the English Reformation in grad school and personally finding Mary I to be kind of a tragic figure herself. But even with that said, this book handles it reasonably well, and by recasting the conflict in the manner that it does, actually (I think anyway) keeps the focus a little more on the dangers of radicalism and the power-hungry instead of just presenting it like “them bad, us good.”

That said, one of the overall charms of this book was that it wasn’t supposed to be heavy enough for that kind of criticism. It’s blatantly stated that the goal here was to take the real history – which is heavy and tragic, and horrible in many ways – and basically throw it out the window to tell a much more pleasant, much lighter, and much more frivolous story. And that’s exactly what it does. Even the text itself makes sure not to take itself too seriously – it breaks the 4th wall several times, effectively reminding the reader that, “hey, we’re just having fun here, hope you are too.” If we’re speaking candidly, it’s been a long time since I enjoyed a book as thoroughly as this for no other reason than I had fun reading it.

So yea.

Good book.

In summary: OMG SO MUCH FUN.

Overall Rating: 5/5

Would Recommend to: Anyone. But be sure to go into it expecting fun fiction, not real History or any serious allegories for it. You won’t find them. Special bonus recommendation points if you enjoyed The Princess Bride (book or movie – doesn’t matter which).

 

(PS – Happy Valentine’s Day!)

Book Review – Dragon Age: Last Flight by Laine Merciel

Last Flight

Dragon Age: Last Flight is yet another book set in the world of the Dragon Age video games. Using a nested narrative, it provides an engaging look into the history of Thedas without becoming too much like reading a giant codex.

I will start right off the bat by saying that this is, hands down, the best of the Dragon Age novels that I’ve read so far. I’ve read both The Calling and Asunder, and Last Flight comes in as most entertaining and engaging, by far. It is also, strangely enough, the only one that was not written by a member of the Dragon Age writing team.

Now it’s hard to really pinpoint exactly why that matters, but I can’t shake the feeling that it somehow does. Maybe because Liane Merciel seems to primarily be a novelist by trade, and is maybe a little more skilled with pacing for such a work? One of my only “bones to pick” with the other two that I’ve read so far was pacing – specifically action scenes that dragged on just far too long for the written word (but would probably be AWESOME and of perfect length if executed visually – say like a boss battle or a cut scene in a video game) – and there was no issue with that what so ever in this one. Merciel provides just enough action to keep it interesting, and writes the scenes in a way that the reader can easily visualize things without going overboard on choreography.

Last Flight is also unique in its content. This one is more about exploring the history of Thedas and the Grey Wardens than providing any sort of additional background for already existing characters, which I think was a smart move. So often I have trouble reading franchise books like this because the characters that you have come to know and love just don’t quite ring true in the hands of another writer. And that was one of the big reasons that I liked the other two Dragon Age books I’ve read. They’re written by the lead writer for the series. He knows the characters, and so the characters I’ve come to know and love never seem… off.

So I think choosing to focus on new characters instead of already established ones was a very good move considering they switched up authors. Instead, the plot spends most of its narrative actually going back in time, putting the reader in the middle of the fourth blight and exploring the really rather grey morality of the Wardens in a much more effective way than any of the games yet have. It gives opportunity to not only expand the world, but allow the author enough freedom within it so that nothing feels forced.

In summary: My favorite Dragon Age novel yet, but don’t expect to see any familiar faces in it.

Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

Would recommend to: Dragon Age and fantasy fans.

For the Last Week…

My Lady Jane

If you follow my instagram you may have noticed that my last two photos have been a little… unseasonal looking? Considering I hail from Northeastern Pennsylvania and the place has been cold and grey and snowy for the last month or so, my photos definitely may have seemed a little out of place.

Well, that’s because I spent the last week in Florida at Disney World!

Disney Castle

I’ve always had a soft spot for Disney, and had never gotten a chance to visit as a kid, as when we were saving as a family for a trip, in the end we decided that putting in a pool would be a better use of that money, since it would last oh, 20 years as opposed to one week.

No regrets there. In fact, I feel like I was able to appreciate the overall Disney experience far more as an adult than I would have as a kid (and god, did I love that pool). It’s SUCH a great vacation experience, and they have all sorts of little details covered that make the whole thing super easy and super relaxing – even at the budget resorts. We went for the first time three years ago, and decided pretty much as soon as we returned that we’d go back as soon as we could afford to.

Well it took three years, but we managed to get back. And the second trip was even better since, having already been there once, we didn’t feel pressured to cram every sight, ride, and experience into 5 days.

I’m not going to write a full post on the trip because we just did too much, but while I was there I read three books, and took a ton of pictures. If you’re interested in the visual side of my trip you can follow along on my instagram @magpiemakingdo over the next few weeks as I get photos up, and reviews of the books are forthcoming as well!

Sabriel

Book Review – Dragon Age: Asunder by David Gaider

Asunder

So I finished this book earlier last year, but never got around to posting about it.

Asunder is a book from the Dragon Age universe – a video game world which, if you’ve been around here for any length of time, you’ve probably learned that I have have an unhealthy love for. I love the setting, I love the characters, I love the stories (mostly) and I even love the flaws because of the discourse it creates.

And Asunder, like The Calling before it, is a nice little romp through a world I love. It serves as an origin story for the character of Cole from Dragon Age: Inquisition, and it does well at filling in his background a little more completely. It also introduces two characters that I wish we saw more of in the game – Rhys and Evangeline. They’re an interesting and multifaceted pair which I’d like to see more development of in the future – particularly because of their connection(s) to Wynne from the first DA game (I’m trying not to spoil anything here, but it’s REALLY HARD to talk about this without doing so!).

As with The Calling, some of the fight scenes did drag on a little too long for my tastes, crossing the line from exciting into slightly tedious – but it was really nice to get a little more background not only on Cole, but on the Mage Rebellion as a whole, and how it went down in places other than Kirkwall.

To Summarize: Like The Calling, it’s no great work of literature, but it’s a fun little read if you’re into DA. If you’re not a DA fan, you might not have ANY idea what’s going on (I can’t really speak for how well it sets the world up for people not already acquainted with the DA world), so take that for what you will.

Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

Would Recommend To: any fans of Dragon Age.