November 19, 2017

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Short and Sweet | Adult Books 4 Teens

Eagle-eyed readers of this column and its predecessor blog may have noticed that I have a penchant for short stories. Even when I reviewed my favorite novel of the year, I found a way to connect it with short stories. So it should be no surprise that I’m returning to the well this week to present you with four wonderful collections of short stories, two of which are written by old friends of this column.

Patricia A. McKillip has carved out an excellent niche for herself as a purveyor of teen-friendly fantasy and mythic stories filled with haunting, beautiful imagery. When last we saw McKillip, we praised her previous story collection Wonders of the Invisible World  and McKillip herself as “a master of highly descriptive and detailed lyricism.” Our reviewer found it impossible not to use similar words of praise for her similarly titled new collection Dreams of Distant Shores, homing in on McKillip’s “lyrical text.” Like Wonders of the Invisible World, Dreams of Distant Shores plays with preexisting myths and legends (Medusa, ancient sea monsters) and places them in brand-new worlds with nuanced characters, especially female ones. Fantasy, gorgeous prose, mythic overtones, strong female protagonists: with these elements in place, this collection should be a can’t-miss for a huge swath of teen readers.

Our other old friend in this column is Joyce Carol Oates, who has managed to publish only (!) four novels and two story collections in the three years since we last reviewed one of her collections (we did review her fantastic novel The Sacrifice in the meantime). When I reviewed that 2013 collection, Evil Eye, I contended that Oates is at her most teen-friendly in the short format, and her new collection, The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror, only solidifies that argument for me. Once again, she combines the short story form with the trappings of the horror genre and comes away with something at once familiar and entirely new. The six pieces in this volume have all the appropriate suspenseful prose and feelings of dread horror but ground that horror entirely in the real world. Indeed, in the case of “Soldier,” Oates returns again (after the glancing blow of The Sacrifice) to the all too real world of the Black Lives Matter movement, recounting a tale that deals with a death that’s very much like Trayvon Martin’s but from the perspective of the George Zimmerman–like killer. This not necessarily new but still highly welcome emphasis on engaging in contemporary events has reinvigorated Oates’s prose of late and should help to make her work all the more relevant to teens.

Moving on to our new (to us) authors, first up we have Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. Oyeyemi has been a bit of a white whale for me in the last few years: she’s incredibly young (her first novel was published when she was 21, and she’s still only 32); has roots in genre fiction, fairy tales, and black literature; and has a compellingly literary prose style. Alas, her previous (highly praised) novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, did not have quite enough teen appeal to be reviewed here. So I’m very excited to be able to introduce her new collection. As our reviewer notes, Oyeyemi’s skills, particularly her rich prose and compelling characters, are on full display in these stories, with the added benefit (for our readers) of skewing those characters younger for maximum teen appeal. Throw in her fascinating through-line surrounding mystery boxes and keys, and you have a wonderful option for literate teens everywhere.

Finally, we have David Schow’s DJSturbia, perhaps the most unique of these four works. Like Oates’s and McKillip’s works, Schow’s collection is heavily influenced by genre fiction, in this case horror, but unlike those other writers, Schow intertwines his fictional stories with nonfiction essays about the state of the world. The essays and stories are connected by Schow’s fixation on monsters—real and fictional alike—but some of the essays may turn off teen readers because of their cranky “kids these days” tone. Nevertheless, the pieces remain powerful on their own, and, to be perfectly honest, some teens are more than happy to participate in the general cultural assault on millennials. So there should be plenty of interest in this intriguing, if uneven collection.

So there you have it—four more short story collections for teens. Publishers, keep them coming, because I’ll keep recommending them.

dreamMCKILLIP, Patricia. Dreams of Distant Shores. 288p. Tachyon. Jun. 2016. pap. $15.95. ISBN 9781616962180.

Unified by the theme of supernatural events, these short stories (three previously unpublished) exude mystery and magic in their lyrical texts. The tales range in subject from a boy who was once a horse to a grandmother who hangs out with aliens (much to her family’s disbelief) to a frustrated artist who accepts Medusa’s help in pursuing art and his model. Previously published as a novella, “Something Rich and Strange” focuses on a couple seduced by ancient sea creatures; they must decide if their relationship is worth fighting for. The selections allude to sex but do not go into great detail. The book is reminiscent of Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters, which also provides a fascinating assortment of paranormal offerings. Young adults who like fantasy tales with strong female characters willing to save themselves and others will enjoy this volume. VERDICT This collection of fascinating and haunting tales that will linger with readers is a strong addition to short story and fantasy collections; hand to fans of Holly Black, Robin McKinley, and Donna Jo Napoli.–Tamara Saarinen, Pierce County Library System, Tacoma, WA

dollOATES, Joyce Carol. The Doll-Master: And Other Tales of Terror. 317p.  Grove Atlantic/Mysterious. May 2016. Tr $24. ISBN 9780802124883.

The wonderfully old-fashioned subtitle of this collection brings to mind Edgar Allan Poe and other masters of supernatural horror, and indeed the title story was originally published in a collection by fantasy and horror editor Ellen Datlow. However, these six entries are terrifying in their utter mundanity. “The Doll-Master” contains a twist that this review won’t reveal, while other pieces include a deep dive into the psychology of a George Zimmerman–like character (recalling the similarly timely themes of Oates’s recent novel The Sacrifice); a gut-wrenching account by a young girl tasked to house-sit for her favorite teacher, only to be terrorized by her cousin; and a deadly accurate portrayal of a very lonely girl who simply befriends the wrong family. The terrors all end in death, nearly all of which take place just after the end of the story, allowing Oates to focus on the psychology of killers, victims, and bystanders in the moments when a different outcome is still possible, if not probable. Few readers will find these offerings scary in the traditional sense, but they invoke a kind of primal dread that can be even more terrifying. VERDICT Another fantastic anthology from Oates—terrifying and realistic at the same time and featuring some of her most teen-centric characters in years. Those who need encouragement to read this collection can be directed to the three selections with youthful protagonists, but all six should grip the imagination of any fan of crime and murder.–Mark Flowers, Rio Vista Library, CA

whaisOYEYEMI, Helen. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. 304p. ebook available. Riverhead. Mar. 2016. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781594634635.

Keys are central to the short stories in this collection; they can either open or lock away something of significance for the characters. All of the tales are intertwined with themes of search and possible retrieval, which will draw young adult readers into worlds that are sometimes secretive and sometimes elusive; they will be able to easily identify with that search of self that so often comes with adolescence. The characters are relatable to YA readers, from the young woman looking for her long-lost mother and heritage to the hopeful music fan wanting to find the best in a broken artist. These worlds and characters  are complex and passionate, and readers will find themselves longing for more once the stories end. Even though the settings are quite strange (a locked library, a city of stopped clocks, a marshland of the drowned), there’s a complexity here and the brilliant prose gently pulls readers in, encouraging them to identify with the characters. VERDICT A must-add to libraries, this work will appeal to fans of literary fiction.–April Sanders, Spring Hill College, Mobile, AL

DJSturbiaSCHOW, David. DJSturbia. 314p. Subterranean. Apr. 2016. Tr $40. ISBN 9781596067721.

Schow, winner of the Bram Stoker and World Fantasy Awards, pairs 13 short stories with 13 essays in his newest collection, which circles around the idea of monsters, both real and fictional. The essays range in topic from the dangers of censorship after 9/11 to the history of science fiction conventions. Fans of the cult movie The Crow will relish reading about some of the extra features from the movie that are still unavailable. However, there is considerable time devoted to what Schow sees as a dumbing down of society and even a mention of “digital natives” not being interested in erudite literary pursuits, so any teens who are insulted by this argument will be turned off by the general attitude behind some of the essays. Teens will be more drawn to the content of the short stories, which are mostly modern horror with a classic feel: a revenge-seeking entity goes on a murdering spree in “The Finger”; “Blue Amber,” a tale about killer bugs, would be a good read-alike for Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle; and “The Chili Hunters” details the dangers of losing one’s virginity under the stars.  VERDICT A quirky selection of short stories and essays that will appeal to fans of imaginative horror tales, especially those with an interest in classic films such as Godzilla and The Thing.–Carrie Shaurette, Dwight-Englewood School, Englewood, NJ

Mark Flowers About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and a supervising librarian at the Rio Vista (CA) Library.

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