Book Review: Life Is Short and Then you Die edited by Kelley Armstrong
Life Is Short and Then You Die is the Mystery Writers of America’s first teen anthology, edited by #1 New York Times bestselling author Kelley Armstrong.
Short stories aren’t easy to write. I wrote my first short story in Killer Year, an anthology edited by Lee Child, published more than a decade ago. It was one of the hardest things I ever penned, and I made a lot of mistakes—both in the size and scope of a story that was supposed to be five thousand words. I’ve gotten better over the years, but writing short is still difficult—I consider it a challenge.
A lot of people lament that the short story is dead, but I think they’re one of the best forms of fiction out there today… when done well.
They are certainly not easy. You need a complete story—a beginning, a middle, and an end. A short needs to be satisfying so the reader feels that they have a resolution, that the story is a full snapshot of a situation or event. Some shorts can get away with being open-ended if the reader can easily fill in the blanks… even if different readers have different answers. And a good short story needs at least one character you can root for. Just like a novel.
I’m one of those readers who needs a character I can like. I don’t particularly care for stories where no one is a hero, where no one is redeemable. I can have an anti-hero, or a redeemed villain, or even someone who is both good and bad. In fact, I love characters who are complex and multi-dimensional. But there has to be a redeeming quality for a story to resonate with me.
Most of the stories in Life Is Short and Then You Die, a Mystery Writers of America YA anthology edited by the fabulous Kelley Armstrong, have at least one character you can root for—so I really enjoyed this collection. My daughter Mary and I were asked to write a joint review, and we both jumped at the opportunity. Me, because I like short stories, and Mary because she loves mysteries.
Mary is the target audience—sixteen and an avid mystery reader. But we all know that adults buy a lot of books, and many adults like YA novels—yours truly included. After all, adults were once teenagers! There’s really not much difference in YA and adult mysteries other than the age of the protagonist—and YA gets to explore some different types of crimes that are not usually found in adult mysteries, though this collection all revolves about a different kind of first: the first dead body.
I started reading Life Is Short and Then You Die before Mary, but she finished before me—such is the life of a writer and mom, especially when on deadline. But I’m glad I made it through to the end because I think the last story was my favorite—definitely one of my top three.
I said to Mary when I closed the book, “I didn’t think I would like the last story.”
“Because of the title,” she said with a nod. “Six Ways to Kill Your Grandmother.”
“But it was really good.”
“It might be my favorite.”
The reason I liked Six Ways to Kill Your Grandmother by Barry Lyga was that the narrator felt authentic. The story was a snapshot into a troubled teen’s life—a kid whose father was in prison (and would be for his entire life), who was living with his somewhat cuckoo grandmother who’s in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. Jasper is worried that he will end up like his father… and that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing. Ultimately, though, this story is about loss, forgiveness, and understanding. Jasper Dent resonated with me as perhaps the most “real” character in the collection. I honestly didn’t know how the story would end.
And it had a killer opening line, arguably the best opening line in the collection.
“If there was one thing Jasper Dent had learned from his father, it was this: There were many ways to kill someone, but damn few ways to do it without being caught.”
I asked Mary what her favorite stories were. She said, “The first one, the second one, and I really liked the one with the girl who thought she killed her mother.”
Mary continued. “I liked all the stories that introduced the dead body upfront, like in the first three pages. And R.L. Stine’s story because R.L. Stine is just amazing. His story was classic R.L. Stine and so, so good.”
I can attest that Mary is a huge R.L. Stine fan, based on the collection of Goosebumps and Fear Street books that fill her shelves.
The anthology started very strong with Kelley Armstrong’s contribution, “Floater,” which both Mary and I really enjoyed. In fact, I would argue that the first and last stories were the two strongest in the collection—though there were several that stuck with me. Mary’s third favorite, mentioned above, was “Concealment” by Eileen Rendahl, which was thoughtful and while I wasn’t certain I would like it based on the opening, I found that by the end I was rooting for the main character to find justice.
In fact, there were several stories I wasn’t certain I would like based on how they began, but I was surprisingly pleased. Both Mary and I were skeptical about “Murder IRL” at the beginning, but as soon as Justin left the security of his apartment I was invested in the outcome and admired a kid who went completely out of his comfort zone because it was, ultimately, the right thing to do. Mary agreed and said that it seemed very realistic, and Justin was a believable and authentic character. “Summer Job” was a story that started a bit slow, but ended up being a terrific tale with a strong ending that we both liked.
Mary and I both really enjoyed “A Different Hero’s Day” by Anthony Franze and Barry Lancet which, though totally unrealistic, was completely fun.
I wanted to find a story that Mary liked but I didn’t, or that I liked more than Mary, but as we went through each story in the book, we realized that we have very similar tastes. I think I enjoyed “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” a bit more than Mary (she said the ending was too sad); and while I liked “The Day I Killed Coach Duffy” by R.L. Stine, Mary absolutely loved it and put it in her top three stories, while it didn’t quite make it that high in my rankings.
Still, Stine knows how to tell a story. Doug is summoned to Tyler’s house because Tyler killed his coach, and they’re trying to figure out what to do with the body.
“Maybe no one knows he was here,” I said, my mind spinning. “So we could move him.”
I nodded. “Yeah. Stuff him into the back of my car. Take him someplace. Maybe the old rock quarry in the canal basin.”
“No one has to know he was here,” Tyler repeated.
“Yeah. And look. There’s no blood. We take him away. No trace of him. No one will have a clue how he got there. How he got hit in the head.”
“Maybe you’re right, Doug,” Tyler said. He started to look a little more like himself. “Maybe you’re a genius. We take him away, and there’s no trace of him here. Yes. We can do it. I know we can do it.”
He raised a fist and we bumped knuckles. “You’re a real friend, Doug. Seriously.”
That’s when Coach Duffy sat up.
In short, Life Is Short and Then You Die is a winner. Virtually every story is worth reading, and some are knock-it-out-of-the-park fantastic.