Long Division, by Kiese Laymon

Long DivisionI am a big fan of weird books. Books where people used to be spaceships? Sure. Books where people can kill other people with words? Oh yeah. But this book is the kind of weird that I can’t condense into one nice phrase. “Books about people who read books sort of about themselves but sort of not and also kind of time travel” just doesn’t quite have the same ring.

But that’s what this is, and if you’re like me even that odd sentence construction has you intrigued. I mean, time travel!

Now, this is one of those books that’s sort of more about the structure and the storytelling than the plot, or at least, if you think about the plot too hard your head is going to explode. But let me see if I can sum up:

Basically, there’s a kid called City Coldson who has a spectacular moment at the state “can you use this word in a sentence” competition (which is a competition I totally want to see) that leads to his mother shipping him off to his grandmother’s house in the middle of nowhere, where he reads a book about a kid called City Coldson who is visiting that same nowhere town and who gets involved with a girl who has found a sort of time machine hole and who is trying to fix the future but also a little bit the past? Oh, and the second City is reading the same book, except in his world it’s a book about the first City.

Does that make sense? Probably not. It’s not even quite making sense to me right now. But since that’s how I felt the entire time I was reading Long Division, that seems somehow appropriate. It’s a very abstract-feeling book, with all sorts of stuff happening all over the place that connects in surprising ways and then doesn’t connect when you think it should, but, who knows, maybe it does connect and you’re just not looking at it the right way.

One strong through-line in the novel is racism, from overt to casual to well-intentioned and everything in between. I don’t want to spoil the spectacular moment mentioned above, but let’s just say it involves the word “niggardly” and some serious deck-stacking in our present-day culture, and also as book City (who is from the 80s) travels through time we get to see a lot of interesting thoughts and interactions between people with different societal norms.

This is the kind of book that I would love to re-read because I know it’s going to take two or three times through it to even contemplate comprehension, but also the kind of book that’s just so weird that I’m really only going to read it once. And I know if I tried to bring it to a book club I’d end up the only one at the meeting. Instead, I will hope that some of you guys read it and then come back here and talk to me about all the things!

Recommendation: For people who hate author hand-holding and people who like being completely baffled all the time.

Rating: 7/10

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Love is the Drug, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Love is the DrugI had picked this book up as an advance copy at last year’s ALA conference because, I mean, that cover, but it went straight into the teen giveaway box and not into my grubby little hands. But after the umpteenth time the internets told me good things about it, I was like, fine, internets, I will read this book.

And I’m glad I did! I was disappointed that the book wasn’t quite the suspenseful thriller I was promised, but when I eventually figured that out, I started liking it a lot more.

See, what happens is, a teenage girl called Bird goes to a fancy-pants networking party at a classmate’s house, talks some dangerous talk around some CIA-type dude, and then wakes up eight days later to find out that she apparently got both super drunk and super high and got herself in a car accident. CIA dude, Roosevelt, is rather pointedly wondering if perhaps she remembers anything from that night, and in fact she does — but what she remembers doesn’t quite match up with what he’s telling her.

So Bird starts asking around, trying to figure out what really happened, while meanwhile a terrorist-spread flu virus is taking down city after city around the world and her drug-dealer friend is hiding from the cops because he’s accused of giving Bird whatever made her so high and also Bird is just trying to make it through senior year in the hopes that there will be a college for her to go to next fall.

Oh, and, love triangle. Ish. It’s not a terrible one but it still made me roll my eyes quite often.

I enjoyed the story a lot, and I very much wanted to know what Bird knew and why anyone wanted to know it as well and what exactly was up with her parents and their top-secret everything. I liked the DC setting a lot, including the juxtaposition between Bird at fancy private school and Bird at “home” with her uncle in the decidedly-not-fancy part of DC and Bird with her various rich and scholarship friends at school. There’s a definite focus on class and race and especially what it means to be Black and how much presentation matters in being taken seriously.

Things I didn’t like include the ending, which is practically epilogue-ish in its efforts to tie everything up in a pretty bow, and the fact that so much of this entire story could have been avoided if only people would just freaking talk to each other. On the plus side, the lack of communication is actually well done and feels different depending on who is failing to communicate. Bird just really really needs to get new friends. And parents. And probably enemies.

So, all around, a pretty good book! I’ll definitely be checking out more from this author in the future.

Recommendation: For fans of teens solving problems and getting into fairly dangerous situations in the process.

Rating: 7/10

Girl Defective, by Simmone Howell

Girl DefectiveI came upon this book as a “readers also enjoyed” for the cute Life in Outer Space, but I think the only thing connecting these two books is that they’re both set in Australia, so… cool! I like Australia. You can cuddle koalas there (well, only in Queensland).

This book is not about cuddling koalas. Sadly. This book is about a teenager called Sky, doing teenager-y things and thinking teenager-y thoughts and trying to survive teenager-hood as best she can while things are going crazy around her. Her mother’s gone off to be a rock star in Japan, her father’s physically present with her in St. Kilda but is drunk all the time so maybe less emotionally present, and her younger brother has decided to deal with all this by donning a pig snout mask and playing detective. Yay?

Meanwhile, Sky’s BFF is acting weirder than usual and a mysterious new guy comes to town and is quickly hired into Sky’s dad’s record store. Also there’s a brick through the store window and a dead girl and a rising music god who may have slept with half of Melbourne, at least.

There’s not really a plot, exactly, outside of Sky’s brother sort of working on solving the brick-through-the-window mystery and Sky sort of working on solving the existential mystery of the dead girl. But surprisingly, I really got into this story that is essentially just a couple weeks in the life of regular, boring teenager.

I liked seeing the world through Sky’s eyes and that she saw her family and friends as fully dysfunctional human beings. I liked that she had the opportunity to make dumb decisions and smart ones and reap the consequences of both.

There was some weirdness throughout the novel, though, that just didn’t resonate with me, and I’m not sure exactly what it was. Perhaps the strange focus on the dead girl mystery that doesn’t really go anywhere, or the pains taken to make all of the plot threads come together in the end for no apparent reason, or the way questions come up and never quite get answered. None of these are bad, exactly, and probably they’re at least partly intentional, but it just didn’t work for me.

On the plus side, Australia!

Recommendation: For fans of Australia and thinky teenagers and very thin plots.

Rating: 7/10

Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, by Shirley Jackson

Let Me Tell YouI often tell people how much I love Shirley Jackson, what with having read and enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House and having read and LOVED We Have Always Lived in the Castle and, of course, The Lottery. Shirley Jackson! She’s so great! She writes the creepiest things!

If you had told me before I started this new collection of her work that the pieces I would enjoy most would be the ones about her everyday life as a parent and housewife, I would have thought you’d had the wrong Shirley Jackson, is what I’m saying.

Not that there aren’t creepy stories. The book opens with a story called “Paranoia”, in which one Mr. Halloran Beresford is just trying to get home, but he keeps running into and being followed by some weird guy in a hat. Another story, called “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons”, involves a woman who receives a weird letter, ignores it, and then reaps the consequences. Even some of Jackson’s biographical essays have a spooky sort of slant to them.

But primarily the short stories in this collection are teeny vignettes (a page or two at most) of mundane life, brief peeks into a household or a relationship that require the reader to fill in some of the meaning and importance. Many of these I just did not understand, others I could kind of figure out but wasn’t thrilled with.

The humorous essays are where Jackson shines, especially, as I said before, talking about family and home life. “In Praise of Dinner Table Silence”, “Questions I Wish I’d Never Asked”, “How to Enjoy a Family Quarrel”, “The Pleasures and Perils of Dining Out With Children”… these are all stories I could see being written today, except that they’d be gif-filled BuzzFeed lists and not nearly as hilarious.

Second place in the awesome category, behind those essays, is the title story of the collection, which is only in second place because it’s not actually finished. When I saw the editor’s note that it was only a partial story, I was like, uh, okay, but after reading it I completely understand why it was included. It is the start of a longer story, and is much longer than possibly everything else in the book, and it is kind of beautiful. It’s almost unfair to include it in this book because a) it stands out like a sore thumb as a well-developed longer story amongst a sea of super-short stories and b) all that development comes to naught when the story ends abruptly in the middle of some nice exposition. But I still managed to enjoy it immensely, so I guess it works out?

I highly recommend this collection for fans like me, who have read just a couple wonderful things and haven’t gotten the full spectrum of Jackson’s writings, and for Jackson completists. If you’re a Jackson newbie you should probably stick with her previous story collections or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is the best ever.

Rating: 8/10

As If!, by Jen Chaney

As If!Clueless is one of those movies that I watched a million times as a teenager and probably owned in multiple formats and it’s entirely possible (read: entirely true) that I owned the PC game and gave myself virtual makeovers on the regular. I hadn’t watched the movie in ages before picking up this book and then having to watch it again immediately, but the outfits and the quotes and the general snarky feel of the movie are definitely imprinted on my person.

So when I saw that this book existed, of course I read it! It’s an oral history of the making of the movie, from when it was but a wee idea in the mind of Amy Heckerling to when it came out and was a huge surprise hit to now, when current teenagers apparently still watch and love this movie as much as I did even though it is twenty years old and how does that even happen I am so old.

Ahem. Anyway. This was actually my first non-fictional oral history (unless someone’s not telling me something about the zombie apocalypse…), so it was interesting to see how the actual style works. It was jarring at first to see how the narrative was stitched together, basically a bunch of quotes from various interviews across time and space all shoved in together with very little connective narration. Some bits of the book are just lots of people saying basically the same thing six different ways, and some bits purport to be about one particular thing (fashion, technology, a specific scene) but it’s hard to tell how the quotes actually relate to said thing.

But, regardless, there’s a lot of great information about a movie I hold dear, which is always great. There are bits about casting and who might have played who if things had worked out differently, and bits about how hard it was to find the movie a home where it could thrive, and whole chapters on the awesome fashion and trendsetting of the movie. I was maybe hoping for some crazy revelations (like Cary Elwes’s medical troubles in The Princess Bride), but probably the wildest thing you find out in this book is that Alicia Silverstone as a teenager did not in fact know how to pronounce Haitians.

Even without wild reveals, though, this is a super fun book for anyone who has ever watched Clueless, and if you haven’t, you really should. (And if you haven’t watched this movie since you were a teenager, do it now. You, like I, may have had a few jokes fly straight past your nose.)

Recommendation: For fans of Clueless and people who like oral histories of things.

Rating: 7/10

Life in Outer Space, by Melissa Keil

Life in Outer SpaceI’ve been in the mood lately for a cute, quirky, romance book like Attachments, but I cannot for the life of me find anything remotely like it. Attachments is basically an adorable YA romance except starring adults, and this is somehow not a thing and I need someone to get on that, because I will give you all my dollars. Well, my library’s dollars. But dollars nonetheless!

Anyway, Goodreads offered me Life in Outer Space as a “Readers Also Enjoyed” to Attachments and I was like, nerd boy, Warcraft, Australia, you can stop there I’ve already started reading this book. It’s not the same — it’s an actual YA novel with teens and stuff and it doesn’t tug the same unrequited-love heartstrings — but it’s pretty darn good.

Our protagonist, Sam, is a teenage boy who more or less has high school figured out. He’s got his friends, he’s got his enemies, he’s got a place to eat lunch that isn’t the lunchroom where his enemies eat, and he’s pretty sure he can coast on this for the next couple years. But then, of course, new girl Camilla comes in and completely upends Sam’s life. She’s super popular right from the start, and therefore an enemy, but she plays Warcraft and likes spending time with Sam and his friends, so she’s… a friend? This is clearly way too complicated. Even worse, the rest of Sam’s life refuses to stay the course, leaving him with friends and family drama that was absolutely not part of his schedule for the year. Luckily Camilla’s there for him, all the time, whenever he needs her. She’s a great friend, but totally just a friend. Totally.

I am surprised that I hadn’t heard about this book earlier, because it is so completely in the John Green oeuvre that is super duper popular these days. Sam and his friends are nerd kids who use big words and wax moderately philosophical on a regular basis, Sam’s love interest is an enigmatic new girl prone to grand gestures and with problems of her own, and the various parents of the book are around and dramaful themselves but don’t get much in the way of the story. It is also comprised of several wildly improbable elements held together with just enough realism that you think, yeah, I totally want my bff/quasi-love interest to orchestrate for me a weird scavenger hunt from another continent. This is a thing that will happen.

It’s a ridiculous book, and I found myself so often being like, no, stop it, this is seriously ridiculous, what are you doing, but it was still super fun and decently cute, love-story-wise, though that part doesn’t happen until way late in the novel. And I loved the author’s sentences, even the crazy ones, so I will definitely be on the lookout for the US version of her second book, which seems like it should be even cuter and nerdier than this one. Score!

Recommendation: For John Green fans, nerds, people pining for Australia.

Rating: 8/10

Trillium, by Jeff Lemire

TrilliumI can’t remember where I first read about this comic mini-series, but whatever I read made me think it would be a perfect buy for my library. Now that I’ve read it, well, there are definitely a couple of people I can recommend it to, but not as many as I might have hoped. My library people are not quite as into the super weird as I am, and this is super duper weird.

So there’s a woman, Nika, who is a scientist of some sort on a space base of some sort whose job is to make headway in speaking to the planet’s native inhabitants because they have a bunch of pretty flowers that are the only cure to a terrible terrible plague. Unfortunately, her diplomatic mission is cut short when the plague arrives even closer to her base, so she goes in for a last-ditch effort. To her surprise, she is greeted by hundreds of the formerly well hidden natives, who invite her to eat one of those precious precious flowers, called trillium, and suddenly things get a heck of a lot weirder.

Nika ends up finding a portal of sorts that leads from her base in 3797 to the Amazon jungle in 1921, where she meets a soldier named William, who has been seeking a lost temple, the same one that Nika comes out of. But just as Nika’s colleagues have designs on the trillium flowers, William’s compatriots have plans for the temple that do not involve keeping it sacred. The two of them soon get separated, and as they try to protect themselves and their homes and find each other again, they are beseiged on all sides by people trying to stop them, going so far as to rewrite their histories and swap their lives.

It’s… very confusing. But also pretty cool. The artwork is striking in its sketchy, blocky-ness, with subtly distinct color palettes for each world that become more obvious in some of the crazier panel layouts, including one issue that is read across the top, flipped, and then read across the bottom. I also like that the writer gave the flower-bearing natives an incomprehensible language that is actually just a cryptogram, so that if I were a less lazy person I could indeed figure out what’s up with them. I bet the internet could tell me, though, so problem solved! I also like the way the author subtly plays with gender roles, giving each of the characters equal agency and helplessness, even when their lives are eventually swapped. And the worldbuilding! The space base is okay, but I love what Lemire does with Earth 1921, slowly building it up so that we can see that William is from a completely different Earth than the one we live on. So cool.

I think the best part of this book is that it is a limited eight-issue run, so it has a nice beginning, middle, and end to it when collected. I love my ongoing series, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes you just need a neatly packed story, and this is a good one. I will definitely be checking out more from this writer in the future.

Recommendation: For fans of weirdness and spaaaaace.

Rating: 8/10