Books Read in 2021: Four-Star YA Fiction and Four-Star Short Stories.

When I talked to my friend Zarah (HI ZARAH) right before Christmas, she mentioned that with people staying inside more again her parents were driving each other crazy. I have noticed something similar with my parents, which is completely understandable. I try to stop by a couple of times a week and Matt and I go over for a drink or dinner periodically, but this only adds two more people and a limited number of conversation topics and anecdotes, even when you consider that between the four of us we have a good amount of memory loss (and thus a few repeats on most conversations). There are silences, sometimes lengthy. Yesterday I was sitting in a chair that faced a window. It wasn't quite dark, but my dad got up to close the shades, and I almost said "hey, I was watching that."

I mean, it's January and today it was an indoor recess at my school. Kids can go out in anything up to (down to?) -25 (-13 in fahrenheit), so feel free to do the math. What would be doing anyway? Well, my parents could be flying somewhere warm. Bleah. This sucks. Jody (HI JODY) posted on Facebook yesterday about working, then going to ride her horse in the freezing cold, then decorating cookies, and saracastically called her life glamorous. I mean, seems to me that horses and icing are not the bottom of the Glamour Scale. Yesterday there was a momentary lapse in cataloguing in the library, so I just moved books around and then got groceries and came home. At the grocery store I found a new spray that might work for when Lucy pees on the stairs when Matt goes away - not because I don't let her out enough, just because she gets pissy (pun intended) when everyone she expects to be home isn't home. You think your life isn't glamorous? I'm excited about a new purchase of something called Urine Destroyer. 

Four-Star YA

I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier: Adam Farmer is on a journey - he has to get to Rutterburg with a parcel for his father. But as he travels, he starts to remember the events leading up to this point, memories which are also being prised out in gruelling psychiatric interviews. What is the secret of Adam Farmer? And what will happen when he finds out?

Another review of this book begins by posting a photo of the author and saying that a photo of Robert Cormier shows "an old man with a kind face". I half expected the next phrase to be "DO NOT BE FOOLED, HE IS A MONSTER". Cormier writes chewy, insightful, beguiling novels that are as bleak as a blasted nuclear landscape. The relentless spinning of Adam's bicycle wheels echo the relentless pace of the story, interleaved with Adam's bewildering sessions with the enigmatic Brint. I was almost angry at the end. This was published in 1977 and some elements are a bit dated, but overall I feel like it holds up - as a stellar example of a really effective book that will wallop you over the head with a dead fish of despair at the end. 

Keep This to Yourself by Tom Ryan: It's been a year since the Catalog Killer terrorized the sleepy seaside town of Camera Cove, killing four people before disappearing without a trace. Like everyone else in town, eighteen-year-old Mac Bell is trying to put that horrible summer behind him—easier said than done since Mac's best friend Connor was the murderer's final victim. But when he finds a cryptic message from Connor, he's drawn back into the search for the killer—who might not have been a random drifter after all. Now nobody—friends, neighbors, or even the sexy stranger with his own connection to the case—is beyond suspicion. Sensing that someone is following his every move, Mac struggles to come to terms with his true feelings towards Connor while scrambling to uncover the truth.

This was amazing for plotting and the characterization of the main character. The supporting characters could have been fleshed out a little better, now that I'm thinking of it. The relationship has the merest whiff of insta-love, although there was chemistry and a common goal from the beginning, so I'm not mad about it - also, it's a two-guys romance but there's no big deal made about it, which is cool. I like when small-town stories feature the town almost as a character in its own right, which is certainly the case here. There was one point where Mac was doing exactly what he'd been thinking Connor was stupid for doing, and I did roll my eyes, but sometimes it's hard to advance a plot without stretching the bonds of credulity. Overall I very much enjoyed this. 

I Hope You're Listening by Tom Ryan: 
In her small town, seventeen year-old Delia “Dee” Skinner is known as the girl who wasn’t taken. Ten years ago, she witnessed the abduction of her best friend, Sibby. And though she told the police everything she remembered, it wasn’t enough. Sibby was never seen again.At night, Dee deals with her guilt by becoming someone else: the Seeker, the voice behind the popular true crime podcast Radio Silent, which features missing persons cases and works with online sleuths to solve them. Nobody knows Dee’s the Seeker, and she plans to keep it that way.When another little girl goes missing, and the case is linked to Sibby’s disappearance, Dee has a chance to get answers, with the help of her virtual detectives and the intriguing new girl at school. But how much is she willing to reveal about herself in order to uncover the truth? Dee’s about to find out what’s really at stake in unraveling the mystery of the little girls who vanished.

A lot of my friends are - I am suddenly possessed by the urge to say "gung-ho about" or "going like  gangbusters with" like a seventy-year-old, what is wrong with me - a lot of my friends are enthusiastically listening to and recommending podcasts, and I keep saying I'm going to start listening to podcasts, and I keep not listening to podcasts. I read, or I listen to music (not only Hamilton anymore, because I realized I was in a months-if-not-years-long pattern of only listening to Hamilton or In the Heights in the car or walking, so I started making myself listen to some of the other four thousand songs on my phone). Also, I am just very bad at starting things and I already started yoga in the past six months, so maybe I just need another six months.

ANYWAY. I have been enjoying reading books about podcasts because I do find the whole process interesting. Like the previous Tom Ryan book I mentioned, it has really good youth lgbtq representation, again just incidentally. Dee has friends and supportive parents and the podcast gig and the mystery is complex and dense and plays out rewardingly. Eve really enjoyed this also. 

The Missing Season by Gillian French: From the author of Edgar Award finalist Grit and The Lies They Tell comes a tense, atmospheric novel for fans of E. Lockhart and Marieke Nijkamp, about friendship, truth, and the creeping fears that can't be outrun. Whenever another kid goes missing in October, the kids in the old factory town of Pender know what is really behind it: a monster out in the marshes that they call the Mumbler. That's what Clara's new crew tells her when she moves to town. Bree and Sage, who take her under their wing. Spirited Trace, who has taken the lead on this year's Halloween prank war. And magnetic Kincaid, whose devil-may-care attitude and air of mystery are impossible for Clara to resist. Clara doesn't actually believe in the Mumbler--not like Kinkaid does. But as Halloween gets closer and tensions build in the town, it's hard to shake the feeling that there really is something dark and dangerous in Pender. Lurking in the shadows. Waiting to bring the stories to life. 

This was good - the mystery, and the exploration of different kinds of family dynamics and having to find a way to fit in as a young person in a new town and in a new school. Nicely creepy, with some substance to the backstory. 

The Cousins by Karen M. McManus: Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah Story are cousins, but they barely know each other, and they've never even met their grandmother. Rich and reclusive, she disinherited their parents before they were born. So when they each receive a letter inviting them to work at her island resort for the summer, they're surprised... and curious. Their parents are all clear on one point—not going is not an option. This could be the opportunity to get back into Grandmother's good graces. But when the cousins arrive on the island, it's immediately clear that she has different plans for them. And the longer they stay, the more they realize how mysterious—and dark—their family's past is. The entire Story family has secrets. Whatever pulled them apart years ago isn't over—and this summer, the cousins will learn everything. 

I guess I could say this is my least favourite of McManus's books, but by a very thin margin. I have no defense for the four-star rating because holy cow this story is absurd, but I don't need one because it means 'I really liked it', not necessarily 'it was really good'. I just like the way she writes. Her ear for contemporary teenage dialogue rings flawless to my ear (and I have teenagers, one who was on FaceTime with other teenagers 24/7 at the time of reading). People have criticized this as unrealistic with wild twists - well no shit, if you have a story where a twenty-year-old mystery gets solved BY TEENAGERS, it's probably not going to fall in the realm of Extreme Verisimilitude, know what I mean? There was a nice mix of characters, an acceptable level of personal growth and change in each, I felt like the mystery worked, and the couple areas where I was annoyed beyond being able to suspend my disbelief then proved crucial to advancing the plot and I was okay with it. I just feel like she tells a good, fun story and gets that teenagers have problems that aren't all fashion or romance related.

The Swallows by Lisa Lutz: A new teacher at a New England prep school ignites a gender war--with deadly consequences. What do you love? What do you hate? What do you want? It starts with this simple writing prompt from Alex Witt, Stonebridge Academy's new creative writing teacher. When the students' answers raise disturbing questions of their own, Ms. Witt knows there's more going on the school than the faculty wants to see. She soon learns about The Ten--the students at the top of the school's social hierarchy--as well as their connection to something called The Darkroom. Ms. Witt can't remain a passive observer. She finds the few girls who've started to question the school's "boys will be boys" attitude and incites a resistance that quickly becomes a movement. But just as it gains momentum, she also attracts the attention of an unknown enemy who knows a little too much about her--including what brought her to Stonebridge in the first place.

Meanwhile, Gemma, a defiant senior, has been plotting her attack for years, waiting for the right moment. Shy loner Norman hates his role in the Darkroom, but can't find the courage to fight back until he makes an unlikely alliance. And then there's Finn Ford, an English teacher with a shady reputation who keeps one eye on his literary ambitions and one on Ms. Witt.
As the school's secrets begin to trickle out, a boys-versus-girls skirmish turns into an all-out war, with deeply personal--and potentially fatal--consequences for everyone involved.

Well. This was a ride. Kind of dark, kind of twisted, moments of weird hilarity. Some of the criticisms that I've read about this are valid, but I think I appreciated seeing a lot of the theory I've read and absorbed lately (about rape culture and toxic masculinity) depicted believably in fiction. It was also nice to see an authority figure (a pretty messed-up one, but that's nothing new) actually be pissed-off and engaged with the issue (could her approach have been more nuanced? Undoubtedly.) I'm just basically angry all the time about this shit right now, and it's nice to read something by someone who seems like they are too. Is it melodramatic? A bit. Is it unrealistic? Not unrealistic enough. 

Four-Star Short Stories

How to Pronounce Knife: Stories by Souvankham Thammavongsa: In the title story of Souvankham Thammavongsa's debut collection, a young girl brings a book home from school and asks her father to help her pronounce a tricky word, a simple exchange with unforgettable consequences. Thammavongsa is a master at homing in on moments like this -- moments of exposure, dislocation, and messy feeling that push us right up against the limits of language. The stories that make up How to Pronounce Knife focus on characters struggling to find their bearings in unfamiliar territory, or shuttling between idioms, cultures, and values. A failed boxer discovers what it truly means to be a champion when he starts painting nails at his sister's salon. A young woman tries to discern the invisible but immutable social hierarchies at a chicken processing plant. A mother coaches her daughter in the challenging art of worm harvesting.In a taut, visceral prose style that establishes her as one of the most striking and assured voices of her generation, Thammavongsa interrogates what it means to make a living, to work, and to create meaning.

I didn't realize this was short stories until I started reading. The good here was very, very good - a vividly rendered sense of unbelonging, disorientation and yearning. The bad left me feeling like certain sentences were written trying to sound profound but they just seemed unfinished.

And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges by Amber Sparks: Exciting fans of such writers as Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and Carmen Maria Machado with prose that shimmers and stings, Amber Sparks holds a singular role in the canon of the weird. Now, she reaches new, uncanny heights with And I Do Not Forgive You. In “Mildly Happy, With Moments of Joy,” a friend is ghosted by a simple text message; in “Everyone’s a Winner at Meadow Park,” a teen precariously coming of age in a trailer park befriends an actual ghost. At once humorous and unapologetically fierce, these stories shine an interrogating light on the adage that “history likes to lie about women”— as the subjects of “A Short and Speculative History of Lavoisier’s Wife” and “You Won’t Believe What Really Happened to the Sabine Women” (it’s true, you won’t) will attest. Blending fairy tales and myths with apocalyptic technologies, all tethered intricately by shades of rage, And I Do Not Forgive You offers a mosaic of an all-too-real world that fails to listen to its silenced goddesses.

I got this out of the library after I started following Amber Sparks' brilliant tweets and then realized she had written a book. The comparison to Kelly Link (whose writing I love) is very apt, although this doesn't mean the stories read as similar, just that they are equally enchantingly weird, blurring genre lines and taking unexpected hairpin turns and frequently turning in hilarious or heart-stabbing directions. I would sometimes remember one of the stories and wonder if I was remembering a dream. 

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020 edited by Diana Gabaldon and John Joseph Adams: The best science fiction and fantasy stories from 2019, guest-edited by author of the mega-best-selling Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon. Today’s readers of science fiction and fantasy have an appetite for stories that address a wide variety of voices, perspectives, and styles. There is an openness to experiment and pushing boundaries, combined with the classic desire to read about spaceships and dragons, future technology and ancient magic, and the places where they intersect. Contemporary science fiction and fantasy looks to accomplish the same goal as ever—to illuminate what it means to be human. With a diverse selection of stories chosen by series editor John Joseph Adams and Diana Gabaldon, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020 explores the ever-expanding and changing world of SFF today.

I just now found the information on Goodreads that guest editors of this anthology are given the stories with the names and original places of publication stripped, which makes the whole things make SO MUCH MORE SENSE. I used to find it annoying when a single author had more than one story present - actually I still do, now that I think of it, why are they given more than one story by an author? Anyway. There were complaints about Diana Gabaldon guest editing, which might be justified. My ratings for short story books are always generous because if I really like even one story I will four-star the whole book. 

The Dolly Llama: Words of Wisdom from a Spiritual Animal by Stephen Morrison: Meet the Dolly Llama, the world’s first behooved spiritual leader, as he shares his words of wisdom and teachings for the first time. Llama Karma lies within you! In this gem of a book, his holiness the Dolly Llama offers spiritual guidance and shows you how to bring peace, compassion, and “cuditation” (a blend of chewing and meditation) into your everyday life. Drawing inspiration from “the four bales of wisdom,” which have helped many grazer-browsers before him on the rocky path of life, he helps you harness inner calm—and cope with everyday problems like hoof infection. This guide is perfect for anyone who loves llamas, animals, and spiritualism . . . and has a good sense of humor!

Someone gave this to us as a gag gift, and it sat on the shelf forever before I took it off and idly started flipping through it, and then took it upstairs to read properly over a few days. It is very funny, and sometimes very wise, and made me want to get in touch with my inner llama. "It is very rare or almost impossible that an event can be negative from all points of view. Though the time Gerard spat at that old lady on a mobility scooter would come close."

The Devil and the Deep edited by Ellen Datlow: It’s only water, so why should we fear large bodies of it, such as the sea or the ocean? However, when you’re all alone, you realize how scary a place it can be. In Devil and the Deep, award-winning editor Ellen Datlow shares an original anthology of horror that covers the depths of the deep blue sea. Whether its tales of murderous pirates who stalk the waters in search of treasure and blood, creatures that haunt the depths below―ones we’ve only seen in our nightmares, or storms that can swallow you whole, the open water can be a dangerous and terrifying place. With new stories from New York Times-bestsellers and award-winning authors such as Seanan McGuire, Christopher Golden, Stephen Graham Jones, and more, Devil and the Deep guarantees you’ll think twice before going back into the water.

Shipwrecks, whaling, marine creatures, drowning, and one really impactful entry that manages to set a sea story in the Flint Hills of Kansas. 

When Things Get Dark edited by Ellen Datlow: Legendary editor, Ellen Datlow, collects today’s best horror writers in tribute to the genius of Shirley Jackson. Featuring Joyce Carol Oates, Josh Malerman, Paul Tremblay, Richard Kadrey, Stephen Graham Jones, Elizabeth Hand and more. A collection of new and exclusive short stories inspired by, and in tribute to, Shirley Jackson. Shirley Jackson is a seminal writer of horror and mystery fiction, whose legacy resonates globally today. Chilling, human, poignant and strange, her stories have inspired a generation of writers and readers. This anthology, edited by legendary horror editor Ellen Datlow, will bring together today’s leading horror writers to offer their own personal tribute to the work of Shirley Jackson.

Oh hell, you guys, I don't know. What even are words? 

Body Shocks edited by Ellen Datlow: Bestselling editor Ellen Datlow (Lovecraft's Monsters) delivers world-class body horror in all its gruesome, psychological, and shocking glory. Discover—if you dare—shockingly twisted tales of the human body that make The Twilight Zone seem like a children's show. In Body Shocks, you will find twenty-nine chilling tales from storytelling masters including Carmen Maria Machado, Richard Kadrey, Seanan McGuire, CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan, Tananarive Due, Cassandra Khaw, Christopher Fowler, and many more. The most terrifying thing that you can possibly imagine is your own body in the hands of a monster. Or worse, in the hands of another human being. In these 29 tales of body horror selected by World Horror Grandmaster Ellen Datlow, you'll find the unthinkable, the shocking, and more: a couture designer preparing for an exquisitely grotesque runway show; a vengeful son seeking the parent who bred him as plasma donor; a celebrity-kink brothel that inflicts plastic surgery on sex workers; and organ-harvesting doctors who dissect a living man without anesthetic.

I said in an earlier post (you could be forgiven for not remembering, 153 books is SO many books) that I'm not always great with body horror. Why would I read an entire anthology centered around it, you might ask? I'm an Ellen Datlow completist? Also it was a library ebook so I could skim any that I didn't like. Some of these were really not for me - gross, upsetting, icky (I believe that's the technical term). But some were stunning. They took issues like fashion, societal standards of beauty, the effects of weather on the body, parenting, and took them to their extreme logical (sometimes less so) conclusions, and by that excess they highlight just how strange and awesome bodies are even when they're not undergoing horror-story modifications. Kirstyn McDermott's 'Painlessness' was amazing - I read it several times and then looked up everything else she had written. 'A Positive' by Kaaron Warren reminded me that she is a twisted, sort of frightening woman (I told her this on Twitter once and she was thrilled). And 'Spar' by Kij Johnson? Ew, no thank-you. 

Cemetery Dance Select: Terry Dowling by Terry Dowling: Synopsis from Goodreads: The Cemetery Dance Select series invites some of our favorite authors to spotlight a sampling of their own short fiction: award-winners, stories they consider their best or that had the most impact on their career—or neglected favorites they feel deserve a second look. Long-time fans will enjoy revisiting some classic tales. New readers will find this series a handy introduction to each author’s best work. Each CD Select mini-collection includes an exclusive Afterword where the author explains the reasoning behind each selection, and provides insights into the writing of each story.

Whenever I come across a horror writer new to me (Dowling had stories in Body Shocks and The Devil and the Deep), I check to see if they have a Cemetery Dance Select. They tend to be uniformly high in quality and many have stayed with me. One of these was actually too dark - I've come across it before and now when I see the opening lines I flip away quickly. It reminds me of a review I saw for one of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies - "Don't go. Bring a date." It's darkly brilliant but I kind of wish I'd never read it. 


I love short stories, so I'll put those on my list. I have read I Am The Cheese! I read it when I was just a sweet young thing, and I didn't remember one thing about it other than the title.

I felt very glamourous yesterday, I had a pedicure! I AM LIVING THE DREAM. This may be the highlight of the month, possibly year.
StephLove said…
While you're reading books about podcasts but not listening to podcasts, have you watched Only Murders in the Building (tv about a podcast). I watched it with Noah while he was home and it was excellent.

I am alone in my house today as Beth went to the office and North's at school. How's that for glamor?
I don’t usually read short stories collections because I find the bad stories in the mixes so abysmal that it ruins the rest. However I DID read How to Pronounce Knife and a visit to GoodReads reminds me that I also gave it 4 stars and really liked some of the stories enough that I forgave the ones I didn’t care for.

Also I just finished The Cousins. It’s not the best one of hers I agree. But it was ok. And that’s ok with me.

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