The Southerner’s Handbook

The Southerner's HandbookThis book came out not too long after I started my new job in a more rural area of Northeast Florida, and once I saw that it existed I knew I had to read it. Jacksonville is pretty Southern (I tend to think of it as the last Southern city on I-95), but there are enough transplants that it’s not all ma’ams and grits. But in Callahan? Even grown adults are deferring to their parents and there is sweet tea at every big event. So I needed to brush up on my Southern.

This book covers all manner of Southern, from Virginia down to Florida and over even as far as Texas, and it covers it in handy bite-sized essays from various authors, so you can, if you want, pick and choose what things you want to know more about. I chose to read it straight through and learn all the things, albeit over the span of a few months, and that worked okay for me!

The most useful chapters (where chapter equals group of essays) for me were the ones about food, drink, and arts and culture, since those are the ones I certainly participate in most.

In the food chapter, I learned about the two million styles of barbecue that exist in the south, what cookbooks I need to obtain pronto, and even picked up some decent recipes for things like biscuits and grits. I’ve yet to try them out, but it’s just a matter of time. In the drinks chapter I found out that I have indeed been making proper lemonade this whole time, so props to me!, but also that my knowledge of fancy Southern cocktails and bourbon in general is severely lacking. Similarly, the arts and culture section has added about a dozen authors and even more books to my Southern TBR list.

The other chapters, on style, sporting (read: hunting and fishing, mostly), and gardening were also super interesting, if less applicable to my tiny little porch garden or my office attire. I do want to obtain a sassy trenchcoat, though, for wearing in the two months of the year that I won’t die of heat exhaustion while wearing it!

A lot of the essays are sort of straightforward, “here is a thing that exists”, but more than a few of the essays are of the humorous variety, including some from delightful Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me panelist Roy Blount, Jr., and a new-to-me essayist called Allison Glock, who is from Jacksonville and so gets plus two points from me — not that she needs them. I, unsurprisingly, liked the funny ones the best.

Although the book is called The Southerner’s Handbook, I feel like it’s only really a handbook for us non-Southern types who are trying to figure out what everyone else is on about. If you are a born-and-bred Southerner this is probably more like a Southerner’s No-duh-book, but that is not a terrible kind of book by any means.

Recommendation: For Southerner’s new and old, for different reasons. Possibly not for Northerners?

Rating: 7/10

City of Ember, by Jeanne Duprau

City of EmberAnother pick for my library book club — this one I hadn’t even heard of until I found four copies of it in my children’s section, and then I figured, hey, if we already have a lot of copies of it…

Also my coworker said it was good. I’m not that lax with my book club picks, y’all.

So this book. It is yet another post-apocalyptic kids book, but the twist to this one is that you find out at the beginning that some people called “Builders” built (naturally) the titular city after some catastrophe and left time-locked instructions to be passed down mayor-to-mayor for a couple hundred years so that the future residents could come back to wherever their ancestors started.

Except, of course, the instructions get lost, and now Ember is a couple decades past its expiration date and barely hanging on to its stores of canned food and lightbulbs, which are super important because when the lights go out they ALL go out, and there’s no sun or moon hanging around to help out.

Our hero Lina finds the instructions shortly after they’ve been baby-nommed, but with the help of our other hero Doon she sets off to solve the mystery of the instructions and of the weird way that Ember’s mayor has been acting lately.

And… that’s practically the whole book. It’s super short and super fast. It’s also the first book in a series of four, which is part of why it seems so fast — as soon as you reach what feels like the midpoint, the book is over and it’s time to go buy the next one. I was not warned of this! At least it’s not a cliffhanger; if you take the book as standalone, which I am likely to do, it ends in a place where you can kind of make up your own ending.

I enjoyed the trade-off in narration between Lina and Doon, and I liked that they were young enough that there was no dang love story mucking everything up (though I’m sure that’ll come in a few books…) and that they shared pretty equally in responsibility for solving the instruction puzzle and attempting to follow through on said instructions and generally trying to make their town a better place. And I’m intrigued by a a lot of the details that didn’t get explained in this book — the unknown area outside of Ember’s light, the reason for building Ember in the first place, why Ember wasn’t made self-sustaining in the first place — all those sorts of things that will probably get explained in later books.

But I probably won’t read those later books, because there was so little to the book as it stands that I’m just not invested. Like Divergent, if I had had all the books sitting in front of me it might have been a different story, but sadly, I did not. I will definitely be foisting the series on all my little library patrons, though, and I am positive they will tell me all about it when they’re done.

Recommendation: For kids who haven’t yet delved into post-apocalyptic/dystopian worlds and/or are slightly too young for The Giver.

Rating: 6/10

Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

Zoo CitySo a while back I read Beukes’s The Shining Girls and thought it was brain-exploding but also pretty darn good, and then the Internet was like, yeah, well, we liked Beukes before she was cool when she wrote a little thing called Zoo City. And I was like, yeah, well, Internet Hipsters, I owned Zoo City via a Humble Bundle before I knew that I was going to know that Beukes was cool, and then my brain exploded again.

I actually started reading this back in October, but fate and forgetfulness meant that I didn’t finish it until, uh, February (who’s behind on her book posts?). Luckily, the book is just bonkers enough that I didn’t have to start over.

But it is bonkers. See, it takes place in this alternate present where criminals somehow (insert hand waving here) end up with Animals who hang out with them for the rest of ever, like Mice and Mongeese and in our hero Zinzi’s case, a Sloth. Said criminals also get a magic power, which can be almost anything; Zinzi’s power is to be able to find lost things.

Aside from the cool things (well, not sure about the Animal thing), Zinzi’s life is… not great. She lives in a Johannesburg slum called Zoo City where, as you may guess, lots of other people with Animals are stuck living, having been rejected from better places. She is also in debt to her drug dealer and repays him by writing scam emails à la those nice Nigerian princes and sometimes pretending to be the people she writes about in those emails when the potential benefactors come to call.

Is this bonkers enough yet? Because it keeps going — Zinzi gets involved in a lost item case that nearly gets her arrested, and then she gets recruited to find a missing pop star and then there’s this whole thing with Animals and an Undertow and… there is a lot going on here.

But in a good way! It helps that Zinzi is a really interesting character, super flawed but generally trying to be a good person in a bad situation, and the other people she meets are equally difficult to peg as good or bad, which is part of what keeps the mystery going. And the world that Beukes created is amazing — she includes between story chapters little snippets of books and news stories and the like that talk about when Animals started showing up and what the prevailing theories are and how people are using them for fame and this sort of second storyline does come into play at the end so don’t skip these seeming extras. The ending is, as I am coming to see is “as usual” for Beukes, crazypants enough to make perfect sense, once you’ve overthought it enough.

So if, like me, you’ve had this book sitting on your ereader since that long-ago Humble Bundle, or if it crosses your path at the library or bookstore, you should definitely give it a shot.

Recommendation: For fans of alternate realities and hand-wavey magic and books that force you to think real hard about things.

Rating: 8/10

Weekend Shorts: Thrilling Adventure Hour

Thrilling Adventure HourSince we last spoke of podcasts, months ago, I finally got caught up on both Literary Disco and Welcome to Night Vale, and it turns out that when you’re not binge-listening to two shows, there’s suddenly a lot more time in your week. The solution: moar podcasts!

I had been hearing about The Thrilling Adventure Hour on a semi-regular basis, usually from other podcasters talking about things that they like, but it wasn’t until I had all this extra listening time that I was willing to give them a chance. I think I was mostly concerned about listening to yet another hour-ish-long show, but despite the name most of the episodes are less than 30 minutes, with some coming in less than 10! These 160 episodes are not going to take as long as I thought!

The show itself is fashioned after “old-time” radio, which I have basically no experience with so I cannot vouch for accuracy. But basically there are lots of different story segments, and you get one installment of one story per week, and each segment starts with a cute little theme song and some previouslies and then there’s the story and then there’s a cliffhanger ending and a “tune in next time” with a little description of what’ll happen next. Thank goodness I’ve got a while before I actually have to wait any significant amount of time to find out…

As with any set of stories, there are some I like a heck of a lot more than others. The very first episode is part of the “Beyond Belief” segment, and if I hadn’t needed to listen to another episode I might have given up there, which is a shame because I do heart Paget Brewster. Luckily, the second episode was from “Sparks Nevada”, which has turned out to be my favorite of the series, so I’ve managed to stick around.

I’m only about twenty episodes in, and some of the segments show up more than others, but here are my first impressions:

“Beyond Belief”: I want to like this segment a lot, what with it being about a married couple that can see ghosts and spirits and such, and the latest episode I listened to in which Peter Pan steals a dude’s family and he kind of only really wants some of them back was pretty entertaining. But the conceit of the segment is a play on the word “spirits”, with the main characters being absolute lushes and drinking all the drinky drinks and after the first spoken “clink!” I am like, I get it. I’m pretty sure if you took out all the alcohol references this show would be thirty seconds long. Alas.

“Jefferson Reid, Ace American”, “The Cross-Time Adventures of Colonel Tick-Tock”, and “Down in Moonshine Holler”: I’ve only gotten to one episode of each of these segments, but they’re okay so far. Jefferson Reid is played by Nathan Fillion, so that’s like plus infinity points in my book, and the first episode of “Tick-Tock” had Neil Patrick Harris, so that’s redemptive of the rest of the episode. “Moonshine” was actually kind of awful, and I chalk that up to Gillian Jacobs acting like Britta trying to act, which is a terrible horrible thing. Fingers crossed for future episodes!

“Amelia Earhart, Fearless Flyer”: I have also only listened to one episode of this segment, but in it Amelia Earhart bit zombies to turn them into humans and loaded a gun with empty shells to shoot a ghost (spoilers!) so basically SOLD SOLD SOLD.

“Tales from the Black Lagoon”: This segment is the shortest one, and is narrated instead of… acted?, but still with a full cast (if that makes any sense). It’s a noir mystery based around the “memoirs” of the dude who played the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and it is very very odd.

“The Adventures of Captain Laserbeam”: Like “Beyond Belief”, this segment (well, the first two episodes, anyway) gets kind of caught up in its own conceits, with a little too much time devoted to repetitive gimmicks. It’s about a superhero who defeats bad guys with willpower, basically, so it’s not high on my list of favorites, but the second episode was a lot better than the first so I have hope.

“Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars”: OMG I love this segment. Sparks Nevada, as you may have guessed, is the Old-West-style marshal on a colonized Mars, and he’s got a Martian sidekick, Croach, who is under “onus” to the marshal for… don’t remember, don’t care. Sparks and Croach have this great old-married-couple relationship and Sparks is delightfully snarky and there’s this science alien with an inside-out-inating gun and if the podcast were just Sparks Nevada for the rest of time I would not mind. (Amelia Earhart can come, too.) (THE END!)

The Here and Now, by Ann Brasheres

The Here and NowI don’t know where I was when the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series was super-popular, but I totally missed out on it. I’m pretty sure I watched the movie on TV at some point and thought it was pretty okay. But I really had no interest in reading the series now or really reading anything else by Brasheres because, well, apathy and other things to read.

But then I saw this book come up in the galley queue and I was like, wait, did you say time-travel? SOLD. Oh, and it’s a YA book with a little YA love story? Okay, sure. Time travel!

It’s a weakness.

Anyway, I picked this up and I read it as fast as a girl reading only on work breaks can read and spoiler, it was delightful.

The conceit of the story is that there is a group of time travellers from the future (of course) who were living in a crappy climate-changed world full of a new plague until they came back to our present day to… fix things? I don’t know, that part is kind of unclear. But the point is, they come back in time and attempt to assimilate themselves into society, and our protagonist, Prenna, is doing okay except she’s totally crushing on a present-day hottie and he’s totally crushing on her but there are rules and regulations and also common sense that say that this is a terrible idea.

As if that’s not enough, the leaders of the time travelling group are doing shady things like sending people to farms upstate (slash boarding schools Back East) and Prenna is not okay with this, and also her hottie, Ethan, has been hanging out with a weird homeless guy who seems to know more about Prenna and her people than he should.

And then there’s a road trip. Does Brasheres secretly live inside my head? It’s the only explanation.

So the story’s solid and I’m all in with that, but also the characters are really well done. Prenna and Ethan are perfectly awkward teenagers, in that space between old enough to go off and do whatever they want and young enough to have to be home by curfew, and the consequences of their actions are, well, as realistic as they can be with the whole time-travelling thing.

The big downside, as I mentioned before, is that the backstory is more than a bit lacking. We know that the future people came back but not really why — one of their big rules is about not interfering with the timeline, which, I mean, too late for that and also what exactly is the point, then? The leaders are big and bad but it’s unclear why they get to be big and bad, since we spend most of our time with Prenna and Ethan rather than Prenna and her people. But really it’s not super important to the story and so I can see how, if I were Brasheres, I’d just put in the basics and let the characters do their thing.

But a big upside is how the story ends, which is very interesting and very story-realistic and it’s weird to give a novel bonus points for making sense, but I’ve read a few novels in my day and this totally earns those bonus points.

Recommendation: A+++, would read again. For suckers for time travel and possibly suckers for Ann Brasheres?

Rating: 9/10

How to survive that book-to-movie matinee

Every time a big book becomes a big movie (see recently: Divergent, Catching Fire, and The Hobbit), my library’s holds list becomes full of people who want to read the book, and my library becomes full of people upset that we don’t have the book because they have to read it before they can go see the movie. But I have a secret that I share with them, and now with you, that helps make them happier in the short- and long-term:

You should watch the movie first.

I know, I know, it seems like blasphemy, especially coming from a librarian, but I have seen a lot of movies based on books, and 95 percent of the time? The book is better. (The other 5 percent? Movies like the amazing Stardust.) Why rush to read a book so good they made a movie out of it just to get to the theater and be disappointed? Watch the movie, be entertained, and then grab the book later, after the library’s holds list is shorter and you’ve probably forgotten most of the movie, and enjoy it at your own pace.

“But I have to read the book first because I won’t know what’s going on!” Movies are, generally speaking, made to appeal to the widest possible audience. Movie studios know that there are going to be people in the theater who have read the book seventeen times since breakfast and are dressed up in custom-made costumes, and also people who got to the theater at 7:45 and this was the only movie playing and they said, eh, okay, why not? You are probably somewhere in between these extremes, and so you should be fine. There are notable exceptions (e.g. all of the Harry Potter movies except Prisoner of Azkaban), but even those are going to at least be fun to watch, and hey, you’ll pick up the rest of the story when you read the book later!

“But I know they’re going to change a lot to make this 800-page book into a three-hour movie and I want to know the right story going in!” Do you? Do you really? The movie studio is going to cut out or change or add characters and plotlines and change people’s eye colors or skin colors and you’re going to know each and every time what they’ve done “wrong”. Would you rather come out of the movie thinking, “Man, that would have been great if only they hadn’t CUT OUT MY FAVORITE TERTIARY CHARACTER, those jerks”, or finish the book thinking, “Man, that tertiary character was really awesome, I hope she comes back in the sequel!”?

“But what about that crazy twist? You’ll ruin the crazy twist if you see the movie first!” Well, sure, but you’ll ruin it for the movie if you read the book first, so. There’s no getting away from the book-to-movie with the crazy twist. But personally, when I read a book with a crazy twist, I have a hankering to go back and read the book again later to see if the twist was really crazy, or if I should have seen it coming the whole time. If you already know that the twist is coming, you can save yourself that second set of reading hours for another book!

“But I already read the book when it came out five years ago! I can’t unread it now!” An unfortunate truth. You can’t go around not reading books because they might someday be made into movies or you’re just never going to read any books. But you also don’t want to be the girl watching Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in the theater and staring baffledly at your best friend who is loving the movie while you’re thinking, “Wait, did that even happen in the book? I don’t remember that happening. And why are we leaving this scene, we can’t be done yet, I don’t understand what’s going on!” (Not that I speak from experience.) You’re going to have to exercise judgment, here — if you think it’s going to be one of those blockbuster movies that hits the high points at the expense of explaining what’s going on, it might be best to re-read it before going (see: HBP) and just remember that the movie is not going to be as good. Otherwise, I recommend attempting to forget the story entirely so that you can watch the movie as a movie, whether by hypnosis or by waiting for the movie to show up on Netflix in a few months.

If you find yourself consistently disappointed with film adaptations after you’ve gone to all the trouble of reading the book, try the Watch It First technique for a few movies and see how quickly your movie-going life changes!

Legend, by Marie Lu

LegendRemember how I didn’t want to read Divergent because a friend of mine kind of wanted to set it on fire? Well, that happened, and also that same friend subsequently read Legend and wanted to marry it and have its babies, so it ended up on my list of things to read. And then I actually liked Divergent, so I figured this would have to be pretty good, and so when I was done with Independent Study and it was the most handy book on my desk, I picked it right up.

I may have made a couple of mistakes, there. And reading the acknowledgements may have been another. Ugggh.

Okay, so, story-wise, this book sounds pretty cool. It’s got a dual narrative, which I like a lot, split between the genius military girl June and the flunky criminal Day, the former of whom is charged with apprehending the latter. You get to view the world from the point of view of the haves and the have-nots, and because June is chasing Day you get some of that fun repeating narrative where one person sees things just a little differently than the other, which is always good.

There’s also an ingenious background to the story, which is that it is set in a future world with fighting factions blah blah, not the important part, the important part is that there is some big test that people have to take and June scored perfectly and Day scored so badly that he was sent off to the mines or whatever, and this is the story of what happens after that test. Not the story of ending the testing, like The Testing series or The Hunger Games, but the before part of that where everyone is still more or less okay with the whole thing. Awesome.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the book to be terribly well-written. The twists and turns were obvious almost from the beginning, except for the ones that came absolutely out of nowhere to push the story along (cough codebreaking cough), and many of the problems faced by our characters were really the result of poor planning unbecoming of an alleged military genius.

But of course you can probably blame that last part on the fact that this book turns into a love story between our two narrators, which barf, and also which, according to my interpretation of the acknowledgements, could have been avoided altogether if we had just stuck with the Les Mis template. Or we could have had Javert and Jean Valjean making out, which, actually, would sell really well amongst certain of my friends. A free idea to you, if it hasn’t already been done (let me know if it’s been done)!

So, in the end, it’s kind of a wash. I wanted to like the book, and I liked a lot of the parts of the book, and maybe if I hadn’t read it immediately after something that was doing all the things I wanted it to re: love stories it wouldn’t have been so grating. But I did and it was and it just wasn’t fun or interesting enough to lure me into the next book. (But if you’ve read the next book and think I would like it, I might reconsider.)

Recommendation: For those who need yet another horrible future to worry about, and those who want something just a little different from the current crop of YA dystopias.

Rating: 5/10