Kate’s Review: “Final Girls”

32994321Book: “Final Girls” by Mira Grant

Publishing Info: Subterranean Press, April 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Description: What if you could fix the worst parts of yourself by confronting your worst fears?

Dr. Jennifer Webb has invented proprietary virtual reality technology that purports to heal psychological wounds by running clients through scenarios straight out of horror movies and nightmares. In a carefully controlled environment, with a medical cocktail running through their veins, sisters might develop a bond they’ve been missing their whole lives—while running from the bogeyman through a simulated forest. But…can real change come so easily?

Esther Hoffman doubts it. Esther has spent her entire journalism career debunking pseudoscience, after phony regression therapy ruined her father’s life. She’s determined to unearth the truth about Dr. Webb’s budding company. Dr. Webb’s willing to let her, of course, for reasons of her own. What better advertisement could she get than that of a convinced skeptic? But Esther’s not the only one curious about how this technology works. Enter real-world threats just as frightening as those created in the lab. Dr. Webb and Esther are at odds, but they may also be each other’s only hope of survival.

Review: First and foremost, I want to extend a thank you to NetGalley for giving me an ARC of this in exchange for an honest review!

I quite enjoy the “Newsflesh” Trilogy by Mira Grant. For one, it has zombies, which is almost always going to be something of a plus for me when it comes to my horror novels. But it’s also a pretty unique and tech based take of life after the zombie plague. So when Serena sent me some information about a new short story of Grant’s, called “Final Girls”, I was immediately intrigued. Grant likes to take common tropes and give them a tech-y spin. While sometimes I’m a little skeptical of short stories, just because so much has to be crammed into them in a smaller amount of pages to really pull them off, I had faith that Grant could do it. And she didn’t disappoint.

Even though this is a shorter piece, Grant did a really good job of describing the place and time without any of it feeling rushed. The time frame is kind of vague, but we do know that technology allows us to fall into a holodeck-like virtual reality where we can work through various emotional hang ups or relationships. The science is kept nondescript enough not to be bogged down by the science that may or may not ever come to fruition in this world, but it is detailed enough that it seems like it could feasibly happen in the nearish future. She also did a good job of establishing the main characters and their motivations, so I was never questioning why they did the things that they did. I could understand why Dr. Webb is so invested in her invention, and why she would have her whole faith in it and never question how it could go wrong. She is both brilliant and arrogant, cold yet empathetic. Esther, too, is someone whose motivations we can understand, even if her background is presented quickly and never hammered at over and over again. I think that the weakest characterization was that of the mysterious ‘assassin’ character, who drives the conflict of the story with her dangerous meddling. I understand why she would be doing the things she’s doing, but I think that had we explored more about the people who hired her, maybe I would have been more fully invested in her. As she was, she was just kind of the cold badass character. It works well in this story, though, so I can’t really complain about it too much.

I also liked the moral and ethical implications and questions this book raised. There are so many grey areas within the scientific world, and how far we can push experiments without treading on the rights of human and animal subjects. Even if there wasn’t a psychopathic assassin messing up a program and making it super dangerous (due to the stress levels and possibility to be scared to death), how ethical is it to put people in a terribly stressful situation in the name of therapy and relationship healing?

Also…. Zombies.

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My reaction to a well done zombie story. (source)

While sure, it may seem a bit old hat to bring zombies into this story given the “Newsflesh” series and everything, Grant is just so good at it that I don’t really mind. I’m not sick of zombies yet, so when this was the simulation I just grinned and leaned back, ready to enjoy it.

It’s a bit more than the usual zombie story, and “Final Girls” was a quick and engaging story that built up the suspense and delivered on the chills. But it also goes beyond the usual fare, and brings up good points about the responsibilities of science. It was a fun little read and I recommend it to zombie fans to be certain!

Rating 8: A quick paced and creepy little horror novella that raises questions about ethics and professional responsibility.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Final Girls” is a fairly new novella and isn’t on many lists yet. But I think that it would fit in on “Awesome Technothrillers and Sci-Fi”, and “Zombies Plus: Unconventional Zombie Novels”.

Find “Final Girls” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “Flying Lessons and Other Stories”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick a Short Story Collection” challenge.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for bookclub. We’ll also post the next book coming up in bookclub. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own bookclub! 

24561496Book: “Flying Lessons and Other Stories” by Ellen Oh (Editor)

Publishing Info: Crown Books for Young Readers, January 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: the library!

Book Description: Whether it is basketball dreams, family fiascos, first crushes, or new neighborhoods, this bold anthology—written by the best children’s authors—celebrates the uniqueness and universality in all of us.

In a partnership with We Need Diverse Books, industry giants Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, and Jacqueline Woodson join newcomer Kelly J. Baptist in a story collection that is as humorous as it is heartfelt. This impressive group of authors has earned among them every major award in children’s publishing and popularity as New York Times bestsellers.

From these distinguished authors come ten distinct and vibrant stories.

Kate’s Thoughts

The “We Need Diverse Books” movement is one that I have been following for a bit now. Basically, it’s goal is to promote, publish, and highlight books by diverse authors, and tell stories of many different viewpoints and experiences, especially in children’s and young adult literature. When our dear friend and fellow librarian Alicia picked the short stories collection “Flying Lessons” for our book club, I threw it on my request list and got it almost immediately. I also happened to read it during the first attempt this administration made on implementing a travel ban into this country. So yeah, this felt like a very pertinent read, especially since the hope is that diverse books will build empathy to other experiences.

Like most short stories collection, it had some highs and lows. But luckily, it was mostly highs! I really liked the varied authors that contributed to this, and how they all offered so many different kinds of stories without feeling like a box was getting checked off. I expected no less from Ellen Oh, one of the instrumental members of We Need Diverse Books. I will focus on my two favorites.

“Sol Painting, Inc” by Meg Medina: I love the other books by Medina that I’ve read (“Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass”; “Burn, Baby, Burn”), and I was very excited to see that she had a story in this collection. She does a great job of showing one snippet of a day in the life of Merci, Roli, and Mr. Sol, who are Latinx and have a family painting business. While Mr. Sol and and younger sister Merci really love this business, so much so that Merci wants to open her own home improvement empire someday, the elder brother, Roli, is starting to feel embarrassed by it, and would prefer to focus on science things. Medina does a great job of showing the discomfort that Roli has surrounded by his very white peers in a very white space when they go to paint the high school gym, in exchange for tuition for Merci. This story also feels very real in Merci’s voice, as she is the narrator. She doesn’t understand her brother’s self loathing or her father’s self sacrificing. This is probably the saddest story in the bunch, but it was my favorite.

“The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin: Lin takes us back in time to long ago China. It follows the story of Lingsi, a servant girl who is also educated, as it was her mother’s dying wish and her mistress, fearful of being cursed with bad luck, agreed. Lingsi and her house are traveling to try and find a wife for the only son of the family, a cruel and idiotic lout. But as they are traveling, they are attacked by pirates, and Lingsi finds herself in a very surprising situation. I loved Lin’s story telling in this one, as I could totally see everything and hear everything with perfect clarity. It was also neat seeing a surprising feminist twist within this story. No spoilers here. But let’s just say that there is a history of female pirates during this time period. This story was fun and definitely satisfying.

I really liked “Flying Lessons”, and I think that it’s a great collection of short stories that all kids will love.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’m always a bit hesitant about short story collections for a few reasons. First is the same reason that Kate laid out earlier and is true to a certain extent with this one: there can be a variety in quality from one story to another which can be an off-putting reading experience. Secondly, writing a short story is a completely different beast than writing a novel, a fact that I think many authors tend to forget and that then leads to questionable short story collections. Publishers simply paste all the big author names together on one title and think it’s a clear win, with no understanding that many of the skills and traits that make an author successful as a novelist may not carry over to a short story collection.

So, with all of this in mind, I was hesitant about this book, especially as it was often marketed and sold on the fame of the authors’ works it included. But, while there were a few misses, I was happy with the collection as a hole and there were a few stories that particularly stuck out. Kate already discussed two of my favorites, but I’ll throw in a third.

“The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist: This story follows Isaiah Dunn, a young boy coping with the death of his father and with his mother’s subsequent fall into alcoholism. Just with that short description, you know going in that this was one of the heavier titles in the book. But this story was so incredibly powerful for it! Grief itself is a huge subject, but the story also touches on so many other factors that all get swirled together in a the life-changing impact that comes with the loss of a parent. The trying economic situation of the family, the mother’s coping method, and the hope that can be found amidst it all is beautifully illustrated in this tale. I particularly appreciated the rather meta use of the power of stories that is brought to being in this story after Isaiah finds a old book of his father’s stories. Isaiah’s voice is also particularly strong, effectively portraying the innocence of childhood but never short-changing his ability to deeply understand the world around him.

As Kate said, there were a few weaker stories included, but even these would likely be well-received by the middle grade target audience of this book. All in all, I greatly enjoyed this collection and its ability to tell important stories without falling under the weight of too much “agenda.”

Kate’s Rating 8: A fun, touching, and varied collection of stories from some of the best children’s and YA authors out there.

Serena’s Rating 8: What else should we have expected from this strong collection of children’s/YA authors? Its strength lies largely in the variety of stories included, both in tone and subject matter.

Book Club Questions:

1.) What was your favorite story in the collection? Why?

2.) Were there any stories that didn’t work for you as well?

3.) This book sets out to present a very diverse collection of stories. Are there any perspectives that you felt were missing?

4.) Were you familiar with any of these authors before? Did any of them have particular writing strengths that appealed to you?

5.) A lot of thought goes into the order in which stories are arrange din a short story collection. Were there any changes you would make to this line up and why?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flying Lessons and Other Stories” is included on the Goodreads lists “2017 YA/MG Books With POC Leads”, and “YA Short Stories and Collections”.

Find “Flying Lessons and Other Stories” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Scary Out There”

28954124Book: “Scary Out There” by Jonathan Maberry (Editor)

Publishing Info: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, August 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Multiple Bram Stoker Award–winning author Jonathan Maberry compiles more than twenty stories and poems—written by members of the Horror Writers Association—in this terrifying collection about worst fears.

What scares you? Things that go bump in the night? Being irreversibly different? A brutal early death? The unknown?

This collection contains stories and poetry by renowned writers such as R. L. Stine, Neal and Brendan Shusterman, and Ellen Hopkins—all members of the Horror Writers Association—about what they fear most. The stories include mermaids, ghosts, and personal demons, and are edited by Jonathan Maberry, multiple Bram Stoker award winner and author of the Rot & Ruin series.

Review: During one of our recent book club meetings, our fellow member Aimee mentioned to me a book of short stories she was reading for a book committee she was on. That book was “Scary Out There”, and as the resident (and kind of lone) horror buff she felt that this might be a good fit for me. I’ve read horror short story collections for teens before. One of the very best ones I’ve read is the FABULOUS book “Slasher Girls and Monster Boys”, and knowing that there are some great horror authors out there for young adults, I was pretty intrigued by “Scary Out There”. The problem with short stories collections is that sometimes you may have a set of stories that may have some stand outs, but are, as a whole, a dud. And unfortunately, “Scary Out There” pretty solidly fell into this unfortunate trap.

But I will talk about the stand out stories first. Because there were a few that I really liked.

“Danny” by Josh Malerman

Josh Malerman is the author of the incredibly creepy and completely ambiguous “Bird Box”, so when I saw that he had a tale of terror in here I had high hopes. The man did NOT disappoint. This story is about Kelly, a fifteen year old girl who wants to start babysitting, even though her parents aren’t sure she’s up to the task. After some convincing on their part, she answers an ad for The Donalds, who need a babysitter for their young son Danny. After her Dad drops her off for the job, the Donalds come clean. They don’t actually have a son, but really, really wish that they did, so could she just go through the motions of acting like she’s babysitting their nonexistent while they go out for the night? Kelly, wanting to seem responsible and not get an ‘I told you so’ from her folks, agrees. But is she actually alone in the house? HOW SCREWED UP, but also, how Josh Malerman. This story really hit all the right notes, as you spend the majority of this book wondering if the Donalds are totally insane (scary enough on it’s own), or if there is actually something else in this house with Kelly. I was completely unsettled and freaked out by this one, and Malerman did a great job of building suspense slowly, and being deliberate in turning the screws on the reader.

“Corazón Oscuro” by Rachel Caine

This one is definitely an old school, nightmare fuel ghost story, with horrifying imagery and revenge. When Zenobia and her doctor mother are driving in the desert at night, they come upon a car accident. While her Mom goes to help, Zenobia calls 911, but instead of connecting to help, she connects to something else. Shortly thereafter they realize that they are not alone in this desert scape, as illuminated eyes and strange noises can be seen in the darkness. Help in the form of a man in a pickup truck comes to them, and he tells them about the ghost of a girl covered in scorpions. Zenobia and her mother get caught up in the unfinished business of this girl. I loved this story. It had a taut and scary plot, really creepy moments, and hit all of my ‘NOOOOOPE’ bingo squares with the description of the girl ghost (strange movement, sounds, AND scorpions?! YIKES).

“Death and Twinkies” by Zac Brewer

This one stood out mainly because it’s more sad and melancholic than it is scary. Jeremy is a depressed teenager who is on a quest to kill himself to get away from his terrible life. But when he goes to jump off a bridge, a mysterious teenage boy is there. They start talking, and Jeremy realizes that he’s talking to Death. As they talk, Jeremy starts to wonder if he can go through with what Death should want him to do. I liked this one because, oddly, it was one of the more tender stories in this book. Definitely not scary or unsettling, but kind of sweet and hopeful. Plus, Death is a fun and snarky character, as any personification SHOULD be, in my opinion.

“Non-Player Character” by Neal and Brendan Shusterman

Neal Shusterman is just a powerhouse in the YA world, and this time his son came along for the ride! Darren is a teenager whose parents are obsessed with an online video game. Darren pretty much cares for himself they’re so far gone, and cares for them too. But then he sees a strange girl inside the game, a non-player character. Darren is compelled to pick up the controller and play too, if only to get closer to her. But as he does get close to her, his own dangerous obsession begins. This one was upsetting on a few levels. The first is that Darren’s parents are the absolute worst in how they neglect him. The second is all about the power of the game itself, and what it can make people do. The end was screwed up beyond belief, and I loved that about it.

But guys. These are just four stories out of twenty one. The rest didn’t really do it for me. They were either boring, pointless, or ended abruptly and felt haphazard. There were multiple times that I would feel like the story built up so much that it didn’t work where it ended, feeling incomplete and unfulfilling. Other times there would be such hamfisted ‘issues’ stories that could have used horror as a good metaphor, but ended up falling pretty damn flat. OR, they ended on a cliffhanger and that was it. Come on! I don’t want so many stories to end with a big ol’ question mark, or a ‘she ran away but doom was certain… but was it?’ kind of resolution.

So while four of these stories were pretty damn awesome and I shall sing their praises to hell and back…. the rest were rather disappointing. If you can find these mentioned stories on their own, definitely do. But if you want want a more well rounded book of horror short stories for teens, I would say definitely go with “Slasher Girls and Monster Boys”. “Scary Out There” just doesn’t have the balance.

Rating 5: While four of the stories stand out as strong contributions, the rest of them are rather lackluster and not as scary as they want to be.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scary Out There” isn’t on many Goodreads lists that reflect the material, but I think it would fit in on “YA Short Stories and Collections”, and “Short Horror/SciFi Collections”.

Find “Scary Out There” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Prickle Moon”

16056356Book: “Prickle Moon” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Ticonderoga, April 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it!

Book Description: Prickle Moon” is a collection of Juliet Marillier’s best short fiction. It contains eleven previously published stories and five new ones. Included are the Sevenwaters novella, “’Twixt Firelight and Water”, the epic Nordic story, “Otherling”, and “In Coed Celyddon”, a tale of the young man who would one day become King Arthur.

The title story, especially written for the collection, concerns an old Scottish wise woman facing an impossible moral dilemma.

Other new stories in the book include “By Bone-Light”, a contemporary retelling of the Russian fairy tale “Vasilissa the Wise”, and “The Angel of Death”, a dark story about a puppy mill rescue.

Review: I don’t typically read many short story compilations. I like my stories lengthy with lots of room for world-building and character development. And yet, I bought this book! Well this is simply because Juliet Marillier is one of my all-time favorite authors. I’ve read all of her books and she is on a very short list (maybe 3?) of authors whose works I will buy without reading first. I’m sure as the months go by I will feel compelled to ultimately post reviews of all of her books, just out of sheer love and a tendency towards being a completionist. But my first post will be on this more recently read book of hers.

“Prickle Moon” features sixteen total stories; the length of each story varies quite a bit with a few lasting only a handful of pages and others taking up more meaty chunks of the total page count. Many of the stories featured Marillier’s staple touch: mixing fantasy elements with, often Irish, folklore and heritage. Her writing is beautiful, lyrical, and often heart-wrenching.

One of my favorites was the title story “Prickle Moon” which features, as the cover art would imply, hedgehogs and a wise woman struggling to find her place in a small world seemingly going mad with grief where she must face the terrible choices put upon her. I’m not ashamed, I ugly cried during this story.

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Tissues? Who said I needed tissues?? (source)

I also really enjoyed “’Twixt Firelight and Water,” though this is one of the lengthier stories and also one that is directly tied to Marillier’s “Sevenwaters” series. I’m not sure how approachable it would be to casual readers who are not already familiar with the world and the characters. However, if you have read that series, it was such a joy to read this short story and get more details on some of the more sidelined characters from the original stories.

Mariller is also known for her fairy tale retellings, another reason she’s a favorite of mine. And here she tackles Rapunzel and the story of Baba Yaga, both of which were also highlights of mine.

There were a few contemporary stories, as well as one that would have to be labeled science fiction. While I still enjoyed these, they were a bit jarring to run into after zipping through the high fantasy tales that mostly make up this collection. I wasn’t completely sold on the science fiction story, especially, but once I got into the rhythm of the contemporary tales, I found myself enjoying them as well. But it is ultimately pretty clear where her strengths as a storyteller lie.

As I said, I don’t have a strong background in short story collections, so I don’t have a lot of other books to compare it to. However, as a newcomer to this type of book, I found myself really enjoying “Prickle Moon.” I did catch myself often wishing that each story could be its own book, but, alas, I imagine that is always the challenge with short stories. If you enjoy short story collections, especially if you are a fantasy/fairy tale retelling genre lover, I strongly recommend “Prickle Moon.” Just make sure to have that box of tissues ready at hand.

Rating 8: A few of the stories were weaker than the others, but the strong ones were fantastic. Marillier’s beautiful writing style and strengths with fantasy writing were well-represented.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Prickle Moon” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it obviously should be on this one: “Collections of Short Stories.”

Find “Prickle Moon” at your library using WorldCat.