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

Stand Your Ground, by Victoria Christopher Murray

Stand Your GroundAs soon as I saw this book in the catalog, I knew I was going to read it, because a) I need diverse books and b) I live in Florida, where standing your ground is basically the state sport.

This fictional ground-standing takes place in Pennsylvania, but it is reminiscent of the Trayvon Martin shooting that happened here in Florida a couple years ago. A black high-school boy, Marquis, is sitting in a car with his white girlfriend outside of a white dude’s house. White dude comes out to the car all, this guy troubling you, little lady?, stuff happens, and then Marquis is shot dead by white dude, who claims he was threatened and just standing his ground.

But we don’t get all of that right away. What we get first is the story of Marquis’s mother, Janice, who is getting back into the swing of family life after a huge bump in her marriage. Things look like they’re going well until the police show up, wondering if her son might possibly be in a gang and perhaps carry a baseball bat around, oh, also, btw, he’s dead. Janice wants to curl up in a ball and die, basically, but her husband and her “Brown Guardians”-member brother-in-law are ready to get some old-school revenge. Janice’s half of the story is all about finding closure after something awful has happened, and how to find closure when it seems like every person in the world has an opinion about not just that something awful but about you and your son and your family.

Then in the second half of the novel, we flip to the story of white dude’s wife, Meredith, who is having a slightly different experience. Meredith lives in comfortable wealth as the wife of a local fast-food millionaire, a millionaire who has done great philanthropic work in the black community but is still almost giddy about how easily his lawyer is going to get him acquitted of the murder of this particular black kid. Worse, Meredith has a secret that she wants to share, but doing so would ruin her marriage, which isn’t great, exactly, but is better than the alternative, and she’s not sure she can muster up the courage to destroy her own family after her husband has destroyed another.

I wasn’t sure about this book at first, as the first chapter has a sort of chick-lit feel that I tend to dislike, but as soon as the story started moving I really couldn’t put it down. It was fascinating to see how the two very similar narrators — wife, mother, background player, worrier — handled both sides of an awful situation and to have them only guessing at the reasons behind it. Even with the narrative focused on these two ladies, you still get to see the opinions and emotions of the other characters, which differ wildly just as they should. The murderer himself seemed a bit of a caricature when he first appeared, but even he turned out to have complex emotions by the end of the book.

I’m so glad I gave this book the chance it deserved, and I think it’s a great read for anyone who wants to understand a new viewpoint or two (or more!) in our current cultural climate.

Recommendation: For you.

Rating: 8/10

The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

The Philosopher KingsAfter reading The Just City, I was super excited to see what would happen next to my favorite Plato-embracing humans. If you haven’t read The Just City, let me spoil the very end for you: Plato’s thought experiment, not surprisingly, does not translate well to the real (well, “real”) world, and the city falls apart.

This book starts many years and many cities later, as the former residents of the Just City form their own, presumably better versions of the City elsewhere on the island, or, in the case of Kebes, abscond with a ship and run off to who knows where. The cities left on the island are not playing nice with each other, though, and an early art raid leaves my favorite character from the first novel, Simmea, super duper dead. Of our narrators this time, Apollo is distraught, Maia is pragmatic, and Apollo and Simmea’s daughter, Arete, is nearly an adult and eager to make sense of everything that’s going on.

Apollo is pretty sure that Kebes is the culprit in Simmea’s death and also just generally wants to kill the dude, so he and a bunch of other Remnant City (the… remnants of the original City) residents take the other ship and go out on a “diplomatic” mission to explore the area and maybe perhaps find and kill Kebes. What they find, generally, is the world as it actually was at the time without Athene’s intervention, which depresses them all rather a lot. When they do find Kebes’s contingent, things seem at first pretty darn good for them and for the people they are helping, but life in their cities is certainly not as Plato imagined.

Where the first book focused on the benefits of and problems with the Just City in terms of an actual functioning Just City, this book takes a look at how slight tweaks to the formula create completely different cities in composition and demeanor. And where the first book’s Apollo was trying to figure out the equality of women especially with regards to rape, this second volume has Apollo sort of floundering for a reason to keep existing as a mortal after the death of his favorite mortal companion. It’s not a terribly different novel, but it covers enough new ground to make things interesting.

Well, most of the novel is not terribly different, except for the ending, which is deus ex to the extreme in a story that had previously kept a slow, constant pace of developing and solving problems. I get that what happens probably eventually had to happen, and that it would, probably, happen just that quickly, but it’s jarring nonetheless and also it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But hey, gods and their whims, right?

I was sure that this must be a two-book series with the way this one ended, but apparently there is another book coming, and I am totally in for reading it if only to figure out what happened at the end of this one! At the very least, the new setting will be absolutely fascinating…

Recommendation: Read The Just City first, of course, and if you like that you’ll definitely want to continue on to this one.

Rating: 8/10

The Leveller, by Julia Durango

The LevellerFor all that I enjoyed this book, I have to admit one thing: I have no idea why it’s called The Leveller. I mean, yes, it’s called that because the main character is a “leveller”, but the connotations I have for that word are “someone who destroys” and “someone who levels up in video games” and neither of those describes what the main character actually does, which is get people to leave a video game world. This really super bothers me.

But if we’ll just take as a given that the title makes no sense, the rest of the book is pretty okay. It takes place in a world where Second Life (or OASIS, if you’re a Ready Player One fan) is neurologically based and people, like, have a little nap and go play in the video game world for four hours at a time, unless they have illicit cheat codes that let them stay longer. Our protagonist, Nixy, is a teenage girl who makes her money by going into the MEEP (because that’s totally what I would call my virtual reality) to drag other teenagers back to the real world and their really ticked off parents.

Then she is recruited by the inventor of the MEEP to go get his son back from a virtual reality world littered with traps that have terrified grown adults, and things only get worse from there. Nixy has to battle her phobias, enemy agents, and a creepy MEEP artifact called The Black — oh, and try to figure out the butterfly feelings she gets around the guy she’s trying to bring home.

There’s lots of action and adventure, is what I’m saying, and if this book is not already in production as a future summer movie I will be kind of shocked. There’s also a decent amount of worldbuilding, both literally in the MEEP and about the outside world where the MEEP has its own, possibly unintended consequences, but the story doesn’t really delve too far into any of that. Probably the sequel will, though, and yes, the ending pretty much requires a sequel to really finish up this story, which is a bit frustrating.

I thought I would hate the love story, which was prominently featured in the blurb I read about the book, but it was actually pretty okay, with a nice straight line instead of a triangle and only the requisite awkwardness of teenagers. What got me more was the part where a teenager was being asked to do this rescue mission that adults couldn’t — the reason for a rescue being needed is sufficiently explained but why they would ever send in a person without a fully formed frontal lobe is not.

But, regardless of the weirdness and plot holes, I enjoyed the heck out of the book. I read it in almost exactly two hours and was eager to get back to it any time I had to leave, because action and adventure was happening and I didn’t want to miss it! If that sequel happens I will definitely be getting my hands on it and hoping that it doesn’t go too off the rails.

Recommendation: For fans of dystopian worlds who want something with a little less death involved, I think.

Rating: 8/10

The Tusk That Did the Damage, by Tania James

The Tusk That Did the DamageI was sold on this book as soon as I found out that some of the chapters were from an elephant’s point of view. An elephant! How delightful!

Oh, did I say delightful? Let’s try fairly depressing. But in the best of ways.

This book tells three different stories, just barely intertwined. There’s the story of the elephant, whose mother is killed by poachers and who ends up in some rich guy’s rental elephant collection. We find out pretty early on that he gains the nickname “the Gravedigger”, and why, but the how is a mystery until near the end. There’s also the story of a young Indian boy named Manu, whose cousin gets killed by the Gravedigger. We get his story both before and after this terrible event, along with the story of his poacher brother. Then there’s the story of Emma, part of a two-person American film crew doing a little documentary on a veterinarian who helps reunite lost elephant calves with their mothers, which is apparently very difficult, and who also helps the Forest Department track down poachers.

There’s a lot going on here, is what I’m saying. The narratives are interestingly paced, so that you’re never quite sure where each is placed in time relative to the others. You know that some things are going to happen, but not necessarily to whom or when or why. It’s a nice changeup from my usual beloved multi-narrator stories, I have to admit, because it allows me, at least, to be more invested in the individual stories rather than the connections between them.

But taken together, the stories become an even better book. I learned a lot about poaching that I didn’t know I didn’t know, like how completely and utterly awful it is (thanks, elephant’s point of view!) but also how lucrative it is and how it can make perfect sense to become a poacher. Really, at its core, this is a book about people (and elephants) doing what they feel is the best thing to do for themselves, although it doesn’t always work out for the people (and elephants) around them.

Even though there’s a lot going on story-wise, this is still one of those books that makes you want to sit back and let the words just wash over you. James does a great job of setting the scenes and creating an atmosphere that walks the line between reality and myth. Even when one part of my brain was like, look, we don’t have time for this parable you’re telling, there’s an elephant in trouble!, another part was like, shut up, we’ll get there eventually and also this is interesting. I will definitely be seeking out more of her work in the future.

Recommendation: For fans of elephants and multi-perspective stories.

Rating: 8/10

The Fold, by Peter Clines

The FoldHoly crap, guys. If you look in the dictionary next to “compulsively readable” you will see the cover of this book. Probably. If you have this special dictionary I had printed just now. Point is, my work breaks were stretched to their limits for two days and then I just couldn’t take it anymore and spent a few hours (including some meant for sleeping!) finishing the book up at home because WHAT THE HECK.

The first chapter is amazing. Let me spoil it for you: There’s a woman getting ready for her husband to come home, and then she thinks she hears him come home but she knows something’s wrong. The front door is open, but she doesn’t see her husband, but then she hears someone wandering around upstairs, stepping on squeaky floorboards her husband would know were there and loading the emergency intruder gun. She’s like, oh shit, but then her husband comes down the stairs and she is like, oh thank the sweet baby Jesus what the heck was all of that? And then her husband is like, who are you and what have you done with my wife?

Crazy, right? What happened to his wife? Or what happened to him? What happened, is the important part, but the book pulls way back and we go meet some high school teacher with an eidetic memory who is being recruited by a government friend to look into a weird situation. The situation, it turns out, is a group working on… not teleportation, exactly, but a way to move people from one place to another very very quickly. This crazy husband problem is sort of part of it, but the big problem is that the government guy thinks something very weird is happening and he can’t put his finger on it. So he’s bringing in the guy who literally can’t not notice everything. And said guy notices, quickly, that something very weird is happening.

I don’t want to brag, but I had the main problem figured out waaaaay before eidetic memory guy did, because I know how science fiction works. But there’s more to the story than just that problem, and things start going kind of insane toward the end with weird science and a surprise enemy. This book is pretty much all plot, and I am totally fine with that because the characters were kind of boring anyway, although there’s kind of a reason for that, and that is kind of interesting in and of itself. But seriously, there’s inter-dimensional travel and a Sherlock-Holmes-y protagonist, if you don’t want to read this book based on the beginning of this sentence I cannot help you. And if you do read it, help me figure out what’s up with that jelly doughnut.

Recommendation: A perfect read for the beach or vacation or whenever you just want to spend a few straight hours reading. For fans of pseudo-science; being a science fan not necessarily required.

Rating: 8/10

Lumberjanes, Vol. 1, by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis

Lumberjanes, Vol. 1I had heard absolutely nothing but love and fangirl-ing over this comic series, so well before it was available to order I bugged my local comic shop to put the first volume on my pull list. Eventually, it was orderable, and eventually, it came in, and then I set everything aside and dove in! Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to devour it in one sitting, and after reading the first two issues I was like, what the junk, I do not understand the love for this series outside of its delightful catchphrases.

So, there’s this camp, right, for Lumberjanes, who are kind of like Girl Scouts but different, I guess, and the series follows the campers of one particular cabin who are wont to leave their counselor behind and wander off on adventuresome adventures and exclaim exclamations like, “What in the Joan Jett are you doing?” But it’s definitely not your normal camp, as we find out on the third page of the first issue when we are suddenly introduced to creepy three-eyed wolves and enigmatic phrases. The second issue is much the same, with a canoe trip cut short by a three-eyed river monster and the discovery of a creepy cave. Goody? Things may also not have been helped by the fact that the issues are bracketed by pages from the Lumberjanes manual, which is made of text and so therefore I read it and hoo boy is there some terrible writing in those pages. I kind of couldn’t even.

After a night away from the book and the campers, I came back with trepidation to at least finish out this book I paid good money for. Strangely, this time around I thought the book was pretty awesome! Possibly this is because of changed expectations and less thorough reading of manual pages, possibly it actually gets significantly better. I think it gets better, because actual explainable (well…) stuff starts happening, like the fact that the cave is booby-trapped and the girls have to work together to get out of it, and then we meet Boy Scouts Scouting Lads who are not quite what they seem and these are storylines I know what to do with. We also get to know the individual girls better over the course of four issues and so I was better able to care about them and their exploits. I’m usually a fan of in medias res, but I could really have used at least one smidgen of knowledge to start this book off right.

On the plus side, now that I’m through with this volume I can see that things are exciting and crazy and I very much want to know what happens next. I’m not sure I could take this in single issues, though, so I’ll just be waiting patiently here for the next collection and working on my Pungeon Master badge.

Recommendation: For ladies who have ever gone to camp and fans of rad girls doing rad things.

Rating: 8/10