Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #46: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher


Whatever the medium, I find myself drawn to the controversial. It’s why I subject myself to movies I cannot rightly discuss in polite company, such as A Serbian Film, and why Asher’s debut novel leapt to the top of my reading list. That and the local library is astronomically low on worthwhile reading material. I almost missed out on it, though, if only temporarily. First learned, via a sign on the wall, that I had all of ten minutes before the young adult section became off limits to my grown adult self, resulting in my search being a bit of a race against time. Not that I thought any of the librarians had it in them to forcibly eject me from the room, or that they were the sort to not allow people a short grace period. They radiate hatred, though, so I wouldn’t put it past them. Then I forgot I’d already reversed Asher’s first and last name when I typed it into my phone for easy reference, causing me to look in the Js as opposed to the As. But, to be safe, and because I refused to walk back home empty handed, I searched the library catalog and quickly realized my mistake. As I was checking out, I felt an unwarranted paranoia, concerned that I would be dealt with somehow for entering the young adult section so near the cut-off. Just another day in my overly worrisome mind.

Following that bit of drama, I put in an inter-library loan request for some books, my plan being to make Thirteen Reasons Why last until the three of them came in. I should’ve known better than to think I could exert any sort of self-control, especially with so short a book. Once I exited the building, I began reading almost immediately and didn’t stop until I was finished a couple hours later. It would’ve taken less time still if it were not for the clumsiness with which Asher hopped back and forth between Clay’s narration and Hannah’s tapes. For parts of the story, there was enough of a disconnect between the two that it was as if they were telling two separate stories. By inflicting her tapes upon him, Hannah implicates Clay, leading him to believe he helped motivate her to kill herself somehow, a fact one expects would never stop weighing on his mind; yet there are stretches where his narration kind of wanders off on its own, no longer tethered to the tapes that we’re supposed to believe weigh heavily on his mind. The further into the story you get, though, the less of a problem this is. This is helped along by Hannah’s tapes becoming a greater focal point as the story moves along. Initially, Clay frequently stops the tapes, conflicted. He eventually abandons this trepidation of his, to a large extent at least, and we’re provided lengthier swatches of Hannah’s story and fewer of Clay’s jarring interjections.

It’s at this point, when Clay is sidelined, somewhat, that Asher finds his footing. How Clay, professional good guy, fit in with the others Hannah was using those tapes to blame didn’t interest me nearly as much as how the combined effects of all these people pushed her to do what she did, which is take her own life. Whether you knew the person or not, suicides can’t help but leave you asking this simple question: why? And Hannah was prepared to answer that with thirteen separate reasons that, together, amounted to one big, inevitably insurmountable reason. If only Clay would stop yammering about long enough for her to get to them. In the end, those reasons might seem insufficient to the outside observer – as many readers were left asking themselves “that’s all?” Except that is only true to life, I think. Suicide notes, even ones as comprehensive as Hannah’s, can hardly begin to tell why in such a way that others can understand. People like to think that, by reading (or listening to) their words, we’ll be granted the key to the ruined city inside their head and everything will be illuminated; however, the reality is that we can no more understand the real cause of that destruction than your average person can look at a building from the outside and determine from there how it was constructed. What might seem inconsequential to you or I could mean the world – or, rather, the end of the world – to someone else.

I myself am no stranger to feeling like Hannah, alone and alienated, nor am I unfamiliar with thoughts of suicide. Looking at my own reasons, I can see how the same people who questioned how justified Hannah was saying the same things about me. I’m aware now that I was being a tad dramatic, similar to Hannah. Except that’s because I refused to let myself give in completely, something Hannah and many others find themselves incapable of doing. To them, envisioning an end to this desperation is an impossibility, not unlike us understanding why that is. They hold steadfast in the belief that things won’t get better, further fueling their desperation, and eventually causing them to try and bring an end to it the only way they know how, by killing themselves. And nothing is too inconsequential to cause or to end this destructive line of thinking; this is the moral of the novel. Stop judging Hannah for a moment and think instead of the Hannahs in your life and what you can do to prevent them from succumbing to the same fate.


Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #5: 13 Reasons Why by, Jay Asher

When it comes to conflict, we crave simplicity, directness. We want grudge matches to come to fruition, and hope desperately for someone (or someones) to don the black hat, twirl their mustache and cackle maniacally–if only to see them get their comeuppance.

It’s a natural inclination, and its the one that drives many of my students to promise: “I’ll get you back”. I see that same glint in their eye as they read the most popular book in school right now: 13 Reasons Why.

With a rather daring and innovative style, 13 Reasons Why recaps the fall of an average teenage girl from arriving at a new school, to taking her own life. Through a set of audio tapes passed among 13 people who caused her suicide, she retells her story and the reader follows the night one recipient spends listening to her catalogue of injustices.

The dueling story lines (one in the past and one in the present) make for a complex read, but it’s the kind of daring gamble that grabs attention and insists on holding it. The characters are realistic, true-blue teenagers with emotional scars, idiosyncratic speech, and personalities that are all too believable. That in turn makes the slow-motion train wreck of a young girls death, and her even slower-motion psychological revenge on the people who made it happen, equally-frighteningly believable too.

While that plotting concept is masterful, the final execution gets a little sloppy. At a certain point we’re so invested in both of our main characters that we can’t imagine either one of them harming the other. Sure enough, when the climactic tape revealing our protagonists’ role in the unraveling of the girl’s life arrives, it elicits more of an “oh” than an “ohhhhhhhh!”From there the story repeats, contradicts, convolutes and confuses both plot lines until the emotional impact is softened (though by no means eliminated).

Suddenly shifting from a direct enumeration of all the awful vicissitudes of high school that wiped away a young life to a complex (and underdone) analysis of shared responsibilities jars even the most practiced reader. And while it’s important to appreciate the complexity of why things happen, jumping into it so suddenly often alienates rather than educates your audience.

But revenge isn’t really the point of 13 Reasons Why, no matter how much my students think it is at first. The real point is what we owe to everyone in our community, be they friend or foe or total stranger. We don’t need to give them a piece of our mind or a serious slice of ice-cold revenge, we need to give them our attention, if only to avoid such tragic consequences again.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #12: Phantom by Jo Nesbo

This latest—and likely last—of the Harry Hole series by the renowned Norwegian author Jo Nesbo is very intense, very dark, very depressing, and  an impressive thriller. Like the other Hole books, it takes place on the seamy side of Oslo, where a new highly-addictive drug called “violin” has moved heroin out of the arena and taken its place. All we know for sure is that other drug crews have been raided, arrested, or run out of the city, and that a phantom dubbed “Mr. Dubai” has taken over the trade with the synthetic “violin”—in Oslo and throughout Norway–and is moving into exports abroad.

In addition to having infiltrated the Oslo police force, Dubai has a small army of young addicts dealing his stuff across the city and raking in millions, and one of these is Oleg, the teenaged son of Harry Hole’s once and former love Rakel, who forced Harry out of their lives three years earlier because his relentless and obsessive pursuit of serial killers was dragging her and her son into the abyss. When one of the young violin dealers is found murdered and all evidence points to Oleg as the killer, word gets to Harry in Hong Kong, where he has been hanging—and drying—out. He returns to Oslo to try to prove Oleg’s innocence and free him, and is immediately targeted by Dubai’s killers for elimination.

Harry is soon in the thick of things, getting beaten up, stabbed, shot at, nearly drowned, and all the while managing, barely, to keep the deadly allure of alcohol at bay. Oleg is refusing to accept Harry’s help out of anger over his apparent abandonment of the boy, and nearly gets killed in prison before Harry is able to prove the weakness of the evidence against Oleg and gets the boy released. The plot thickens every chapter or two, with the introduction of a very creepy femme fatale, a wannabe police chief with a corrupt soul, a tattooed assassin with a mystical knife, a mysterious street priest named Cato who strolls in and out of Harry’s life, a vulnerable young woman trapped in the violin maelstrom, and a chemistry genius with a dark secret.

Nobody and nothing is as it seems, though, and Nesbo’s “bad guy/good guy” shell game kept me guessing nearly to the end. What Nesbo excels at is not only dizzying plot twists, but also his characterizations of what makes people tick. No one is ever a cartoon villain or hero—certainly not Dubai and certainly not Harry Hole—and no one is ever truly an innocent. Nesbo’s Phantom contains multiple parallel tales of father/son relationships that are as stirring as are his revelations of the horrors of addiction to drugs, alcohol, even sex.  And his use of a rat as witness to slayings at the beginning and end of the book is as creative as his use of alternative narrative voices throughout the book, including interspersed musings by the young dealer dying in the opening pages, which slowly reveal the whodunit in parallel to Harry’s own investigation.

There are serious weaknesses in the book, to be sure, such as Harry’s repeated improbable escapes from certain death, which belong more to the realm of Jason Bourne than to a middle-aged recovering drunk. Similar is Harry’s insistence on always placing himself without any backup in the cross-hairs of his enemies, the same lone-wolf scenarios which unfortunately plague all of Nesbo’s novels and render them somehow less memorable than they would otherwise be. Perhaps weakest of all, though, is Phantom’s ending, which is at once both shocking and poorly conceived. I can say no more because it would be a terrible spoiler, except to note that Harry Hole deserved better and so too did Oleg.