Review: Yellowcake

Yellowcake by Margo Lanagan. Random House Children’s Books. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: A short story collection from Margo Lanagan. Which means two things: each story is incredibly unique; each is amazingly good.

The Good: Here’s the problem: each Margo Lanagan short story is so unique that it’s impossible to easily sum up just why her short story collection is terrific. What label to even give it? Fantasy? Horror? Magical Realism? Retellings?

Each story in Yellowcake is perfect. With each story, I was pulled into a fully created world. No, more like fell — fell into a place and time and didn’t, at first, know quite where I was. Lanagan treats her readers with respect: she knows you can keep up with her. That no one’s hand needs to be held. Here, she says, in the story; let’s not waste time or words with exposition or any info dumps or any pretend casual, “as you remember, John, (explanation of what John knows but the reader never could.).” Why walk when you can run?

The stories in Yellowcake are a short window into other people’s lives, into other worlds: with each, you know that life was happening before the story began and will continue after it ends. People’s actions aren’t punished or rewarded; they just are.

These stories are rich: rich because of the language Lanagan uses. Rich because of the world-building. Rich because of the plotting. Rich because of the characters. So rich that this isn’t a “read it all at once” collection; it’s a set of stories to be read and savored over time. And because there are ten stories, see why it’s almost impossible to say anything more? Because to say more would mean to do ten reviews, one for each story. And to do that — well, part of why I enjoy diving into a Lanagan story is figuring it out for myself. Realizing, this story is being retold; realizing that something terrible was happening; discovering some quiet beauty. Why take that away from someone else?

So, instead, here are some lines I particularly liked:

“Was she smiling? He wouldn’t put it past her, to have a smile at his expense. Smug cow.”

“Her whole face had come unset form its folds and habits, from here it might age any number of different ways.”

“And her he was in the middle of it, for the moment — “

“Well, in the town where there two beautiful daughters lived there was a fascinator, named Gallintine.”

Down I go. Down and down, down and round, round and round I go, and all is black around me and the invisible stone stairs take my feet down. I sing with more passion the lower I go, and more experimenting, where no one can hear me. And then there begins to be light, and I sing quieter; then I’m right down to humming, so as not to draw attention when I get there.”

I love Margo Lanagan’s novels; but oh, these short stories! So, yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: TeenReads; Librarian of Snark; Something To Read For The Train; Strange Horizons.



Review: Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King. Scribner. 2010. Personal copy.

Part of my “holiday reads” for grown ups. What better Halloween author than Stephen King?

The Plot: Four stories.

In 1922, a man who loves his farm decides that his wife is what stands between him and a happy life farming. He involves his son, and winds up losing and he wanted to hold onto.

Big Driver is about the victim of a violent rape who decides to take justice into her own hands. The victim happens to be a writer of cozy murder mysteries and discovers that difference between real life and fiction.

In Fair Extension, a man makes a deal to have everything he ever wanted, and part of what he wants is his “best friend” to not be successful. It’s schadenfreude taken to an extreme level. What’s the price paid for such a deal?

Finally, the woman in A Good Marriage believes she has a good marriage, and the proof is the long marriage, the two successful children. What’s a good wife to do when she realizes her husband is a serial killer? 

The Good: Each of these four stories has a vaguely supernatural air about it. The story with the strongest supernatural quality, 1922, can also be read as a psychological horror story — the Tell Tale Heart. Only with rats.

I enjoy Stephen King’s books; when I compare books I read to him, it’s a very big complement. If I had to pick only one author that would still be read a hundred years from now, it would be Stephen King. For all that, for all that I love The Stand and The Shining and his other books, I think it’s his short stories that are his most powerful. Building a world in hundreds of pages? Easy, you have hundreds of pages! Building that same world in a handful of pages? Now that is talent. King writes horror, and I enjoy the horror he writes, but some of his most terrifying writing has not been about vampires and killer cars but about the loss of a child, the death of a sibling. These are the types of stories in Full Dark, No Stars. They scare the reader because they hold up a mirror to show something the reader doesn’t want to see, a window into what they fear is happening in the house next door.

What is really scary, for each of the stories, is not the ghosts or devil or other fantastical elements — it’s the everyday aspects of the stories. A man angry at his wife, who convinces his son to take sides, concerned only with “winning” his child, “winning” his farm, and is so focused on hurting his wife in order to “win” that he doesn’t realize the hurt he inflicts on his son and himself. A woman, beaten, raped, left for dead, who doesn’t want to go through life labelled a victim so takes the law into her own hands. The jealousy and resentment one feels towards one friends. And, the dilemma being between a rock and a hard place: expose a husband’s crimes and destroy the lives of your children who will forever be known as killer’s kids. All of those are about the real fears and temptations and choices people face. This is why Stephen King is a magnificent writer: because he gets into people’s heads, is fearless about showing the good, the bad, the gray, the dark wishes and dark choices.

In the Afterword, King writes that “I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. i want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal. I put that in italics, because if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion when the tale has been told and the book set aside (sometimes with relief.”

The book has been set aside, and now the thinking . . . . It is not fearing a vampire child floating outside the window; it is fearing at what point one loses ones soul because they delight in the downfall of another. It is in discovering the consequences of taking a wrong detour. What would one do to survive?

Review: Attack of the Vampire Weenies

Attack of the Vampire Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales by David Lubar. Starscape / Tor Teen. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: A short story collection that will make you laugh while you double lock your doors and check your closets for monsters.

The Good: This is the most recent of Lubar’s “weenie” series of short story collections. Whoever thinks the short story is dead, or that kids don’t like short stories, haven’t talked to any real live kids and haven’t read the latest is this popular series.

What impresses me most about this short story collection is there is not a weak story in it. And it’s his fifth volume of such short stories! That’s pretty darn amazing.

What I love most about Vampire Weenies is just how scary the stories are. I began looking over my shoulder, wondering what was behind me. These are a delicious level of creepy, and just perfect for the target audience (middle grade) as well as older readers. Lubar uses just the right mix of horror, suspense, and a touch of humor, while avoiding any gorefest. Any gore is in the imagination of the reader, which is exactly how I like my horror. The stories reminded me of Twilight Zone at its best, though it’s a little sad to think that if I used that to booktalk this to classes I would get a lot of blank looks.

These are true short stories. Sometimes, you just want a quick scare or quick laugh. Short short stories like this are also perfect for readalouds during class or camp visits. Lubar rarely gives any ages for the main characters in these stories, which makes it easier for any reader to relate to this collection without it being either too young or too old. There is also a lot of karma — bad things happen, yes, but they tend to happen to kids who are being mean or self centered or cruel. Let’s put it this way: deciding to torment your sister by inviting real vampires to her fake “vampire weenie friends” party (complete with snarky comments about sparkle) will not end well. Sneaking out of the house? Will not end well. Tormenting a locked up vampire? Will not end well. Taking someone else’s ear buds? Will not …. well, you get the picture.

I also liked that, at the end of the book, Lubar includes a few short sentences about the inspiration for each story. While some kids could care less, others, like me who just like to know more, or aspiring writers who wonder where inspiration comes from, will enjoy the little bit more about each story.

Review: What We Left Behind in Jacksonville

What We Left Behind in Jacksonville by Colleen Mondor (of Chasing Ray). Short story at Strange Horizons, October 25 2010.

The Plot: Bridget, the narrator, is on her way to the Jaycee Annual Haunted House with the rest of her friends. As the high school students giggle and flirt, as cool guy Jack has his hand on her knee, they laugh at haunted houses. Until Bridget says, “I lived in a haunted house.” Quiet descends as Bridget shares about the house her family lived in when she was three.

The Good: Do not read this story at night, alone in your house.

Bridget is telling the story, a story from when she was three, so we realize that she is telling a Family Story. A story she knows because it has been told in a way that it is also her story. But even this is a story; in the first paragraph, as Jack is described, Bridget adds “Jack was some kind of zombie version of Sinatra. It worked on him the way everything did, because he was always the coolest one in the group no matter where we were or what we were doing. I had a mad crush on him that Halloween; it still makes me smile to remember that.” Bridget is telling a story about telling a story; and telling a story about the power of story and belief.

A radio that turns itself on. An odd stain on the wall. Strange voices in the hallway. The events escalate, the tension builds. Is the house haunted? What will the family do? What does it mean?

A story, within a story. Maybe I loved this story because Colleen, who I have never met in person, is a good online friend. Maybe it’s because this is the type of horror I like: not the gorefests of Saw, but rather the type of suspense where shadows creep outside the the edge of vision. lurking on the edge of possibility, and things can be good or bad because we believe it to be so. Maybe because the timeframe of this story tells me Bridget is my age and so this is the story of my childhood, without the Florida setting, the time of possibilities and endings.

Anyway. Go, read. Come back, let me know what you think. And, after you’ve read, read Colleen’s post about the backstory at Chasing Ray.

Photo: I thought this post looked bland. So while this is not a photo of a ranch house in Florida, it is an empty, ghost-like house in South Carolina that I thought fit the story.