Weekend Shorts: Awesome Dudes For a Change (Plus One Lady)

I have been listening to a LOT of audiobooks lately, which is super awesome, except when I’m trying to catch up on a backlog of blog posts. So, please enjoy these very short takes on some pretty awesome audiobooks about pretty awesome people!

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah
As will be my caveat for, oh, all of these books I’m talking about today, I didn’t know anything about Trevor Noah going into this book except that he’s that dude what took over The Daily Show. But I got an audio copy of this book for free for some unremembered reason, and had some listening time to kill, and so… voila!

And wow, this is a seriously good audiobook. Noah is a great narrator, which makes sense with the TV show host thing, and he has some amazing stories to tell. He talks about growing up during apartheid, and goes into great details that I’ve sadly already forgotten about how his black mother and white father left him in a very weird limbo, both socially and legally speaking. He also talks about his abusive stepfather, who is not just a regular jerk but an attempted-murdering jerk, which is crazy and awful. But of course my favorite stories are the ones that are a little happier and/or weirder, including one about working as a young copyright-infringing entrepreneur in the suburbs and another one that can’t be true but also can’t not be true about a dance performance at a Jewish center starring solo dancer… Hitler.

Yeah, so, basically now you have to go listen to this. You’re welcome. (Seriously, listen to it. It’s awesome.)

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss, by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt
Here, again, my knowledge of the authors was “Anderson Cooper is that silver fox guy, right?” and also “Gloria Vanderbilt is… probably a Vanderbilt?” Yeah, I know, I’m shaking my head, too. This is a memoir that I would never have picked up except that my book club wanted to read it, and, well, it was so awesome that I did that thing where I make a second book club read the same book so I can talk about it all over again. So good, guys.

The premise of the book is that basically one day Cooper realized that his mother was old and that he didn’t know a lot about her life that wasn’t more or less public knowledge, so he started emailing her to ask her questions about her life before him, and a little bit about her life with him. Those emails became this book, and with the addition of the authors as narrators this book became an amazing audiobook. Seriously, try not to cry when Gloria Vanderbilt is crying in your ears.

If you’re like me, you will learn way more than you ever thought you even remotely needed to know about this Gloria Vanderbilt person, but you will also be totally okay with that because she’s endlessly fascinating. She was born into a branch of the Vanderbilt family but lost her Vanderbilt father almost immediately after her birth, and so she was raised by a very young socialite mother and also a nanny and her grandmother and there was a giant custody battle and the newspapers were involved and there was scandal and things were just crazy. Then, when all that was sorted out, Vanderbilt got herself into a bunch of really terrible relationships and marriages, plural, and was generally kind of a hot mess. Then she settled into being an adult, more or less, and became pretty well known for her designer jeans and made a point of working even though she could totally have lived on her inheritance and she made several babies including one Anderson Cooper. He tells some pretty good stories about himself as well, including how he came out as gay and how he basically tricked his way into a reporting career, which seems to have worked out pretty well for him.

Then it all comes together at the end with a discussion about, you know, life, the universe, and everything, including whether or not fate is a thing and if optimism is just fooling yourself, so, you know, I didn’t mention the crying earlier for nothing. If you haven’t had a good cathartic existential crisis lately, this book is probably good for one. But in a good way! If that’s a thing.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I am almost embarrassed to include this book in this post, because I remember so very little about it and I will do it absolutely no justice with my words. But I do want to include it, because even if I can’t remember the details, I can remember how good I thought it was while I was listening to it and how important it definitely is.

The book is written as a letter from Coates to his son in the aftermath of all the everything that’s been happening lately, race-wise. Coates writes about his own experiences as a black man in our world, and the uniting idea of the book is the idea that black people are seen and regarded and experienced as bodies moreso than people. This is a strange concept to think about, but Coates frames it in a way that makes a lot of sense and will leave you thinking all the thinky thoughts after you’re done with the book.

I might recommend this one in print, though, because while Coates is indeed an excellent narrator, listening to him read his book is more about the experience of hearing the way his words flow rather than the experience of receiving information. Not that that’s a bad thing. His words flow very nicely.

Weekend Shorts: Picture Books

It’s been a little while since my last Weekend Shorts post, which is weird because I have a lot of things to tell you about briefly! Let’s start the catchup process with the shortest of shorts — picture books!

The Bear Ate Your Sandwich, by Julia Sarcone-Roach
The Bear Ate Your SandwichBack in October my library participated in the Read for the Record event, in which libraries around the world read the same book on the same day and count up all the people who read or listened to it. Pretty cool, right? I ended up being the person to do my branch’s mini-storytime, which was nerve-wracking, but it turned out all right!

The book itself is super cute, with gorgeous artwork that shows us the story of a bear who leaves the wilderness, finds itself in a nearby city, happens upon your lunch, eats your sandwich, and then hitches a ride back to the forest before you even notice your sandwich is missing! Then, in a stunning plot twist (spoilers!), it turns out this story is being told to you by your little dog, who looks suspiciously like it might have just eaten a delicious sandwich. Dun dun! The little kids I read this to thought it was hilarious, so that works for me.

Edward Gets Messy, by Rita Meade and Olga Stern
Edward Gets MessyThis one I didn’t read to anyone but myself, in the workroom, while I was checking in the day’s new books. I don’t generally read the new picture books, but this one was written by a Book Riot contributor so I’d been hearing about it via my BR podcasts, including one that had an interview with her about the process of writing it.

Because of the podcast, I was looking at the book a little differently than I might a random picture book, trying to figure out which parts were original and which edited, looking at the pictures and thinking about how the author and the illustrator never spoke and wondering what that illustrating process was like.

But! The book was suitably adorable to keep me from thinking too hard about that stuff. This one is about Edward, a little pig who does not like getting messy. He avoids anything that might even remotely cause a speck on his cleanliness, and so of course he misses out on all the things. But then he accidentally gets a little messy and realizes that sometimes messy is a good thing!

My first thought after reading this was, I bet there’s a kid out there making a giant mess in their house because of this book. “Edward says it’s okay to get messy!” Probably you should only read this to your weirdly spotless toddler?

The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, by Matthew Inman
The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long DistancesThis one might be for adults, but it’s definitely a picture book! I picked this book up ages ago, back when I was still a running person (stupid injuries), largely because it’s by Matthew Inman.  If you’ve ever read his comics at The Oatmeal, you’ll know both the art and humor styles.

You find out pretty quickly that the main titular reason is that Inman doesn’t want to be a fat kid anymore, which seems a little self defeating, but then again, I’ve read The Oatmeal.  But then he goes on to say that you can’t become a runner for vanity reasons, because you’ll get giant legs, so.  Hmmm.

Inman talks about a lot of the fun and horror of running, from the obsession to keep doing it, the mental clarity you get while running, how to run your first marathon, what to eat as a runner, and how to get into the sport the “right” way.  It’s a little all over the place, but it’s got enough truth nuggets to be appreciated by any runner type you might know.

The Unquiet Dead, by Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Unquiet DeadI’d been hearing this book kicked around Book Riot for a while, including when the author guested on my favorite book-listing podcast, Get Booked, so this ended up in my giant pile of potential RIP reads when that came around back in September. I didn’t end up reading it for the event, but I was happy it was around when I found myself flailing for a new book to read in November.

When I first started the book, I was confused — the story makes lots of references to things that have happened previously in the way that you would in a second or third or fourth book, but after a couple of double-checks I was reassured that yes, this is indeed the first book in a series. We’re just picking up the characters in the middle of their stories, which is pretty cool.

Our protagonists are Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, two Canadian police officers assigned to a sort of special task force called CPS that deals with the Muslim community in the wake of a very bad (and very real) police bungling of a terrorism case. They pick up a weird case — a man fallen to his death off a neighborhood cliff — that doesn’t seem like a CPS case on the outside, but Khattak knows more than he’s telling even his partner. Over the course of the novel the tie to CPS becomes rather more clear, but our officers are still left to figure out if this death was an accident, a suicide, or a murder.

I didn’t like this book maybe as much as I hoped I would, largely because the “who killed this dude” plotline takes a backseat to lots of other bits of the story. Khattak is trying to reconcile with a friend, Getty is dealing with crazy family issues, and, spoiler, the CPS connection has to do with the Bosnian War and we get lots of side bits from the point of view of people trying to escape with their lives.

The mystery does come to a satisfying conclusion, if an easy and obvious one, and even some of the side plot comes together in the end. I liked that I could sort of see how certain things were going to go, but others were completely opaque to me until the author said, hey, here you go, here’s some resolution on that thing. But I really only finished the book to find out who killed that dude, and had to power through a lot of the rest of the story.

I think that these characters could do some interesting things, so I might give them another chance, but they’re not at the top of my list right now. If you’ve read more and they get any better, let me know!

Recommendation: For readers looking for diverse mystery stories that focus less on the mystery and more on the people.

A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab

A Darker Shade of MagicI’ve seen this book kicking around the bookternet a ton over the past year, but, like I’m Judging You before it, it took a Nerdette podcast to make me actually read it. Thanks, Nerdette, for bringing me more delightful things!

I will say that before I started this book, I had the sense that it was going to be a Different Fantasy Novel, with defied genre stereotypes littered in its wake, but it is not that. It’s not not that, but a lot of the book is very bog-standard fantasy novel, with good guys versus bad guys and magic with consequences and the slightly newer trope of damsel not-so-very-much-in-distress-thank-you.

What is excellent, as I say about all new fantasy books that I love, is the world that Schwab has built. It’s a universe with four separate dimensions all squished up against each other, each containing the city of London and a certain pub inside the city, but with very little else the same. There’s “our” world, with Grey London, which has no magic; then Red London, which is full of happy magic; White London, with scary creepy magic; and finally Black London, which has been overrun by dark magic and thus cut off from from the other Londons.

Our main protagonist, Kell, is one of two sort of magic beings who can move between the Londons (except for Black, of course). He ostensibly takes only messages between the rulers of the different nations of which London is the capital, but he also dabbles in smuggling artifacts to the few knowledgeable collectors in each London, and also maybe saving some cool things for himself. This hobby, as you might guess, gets him in huge trouble when he inadvertently smuggles a piece of Black London back to his own Red London, and more trouble still when he tries to prevent its misuse.

Our second, not-a-damsel protagonist is Lila, a resident of Grey London whose most fervent wish is to become captain of a pirate ship, as you do. In the meantime, she’s a pickpocket of some renown, which gets her into trouble when she picks the pocket of a certain smuggler carrying a certain very dangerous item.

You can probably more or less figure out the plot from there — good guys, bad guys, etc. But getting to the end is the fun part, with interesting characters popping in and out (and out forever, as Schwab seems to have taken a page out of George R.R. Martin’s playbook) and sufficient intrigue and subterfuge to keep me flipping pages. The writing is fantastic, as well, announcing its tone from the very first sentence: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat.” This seems like a pretty innocuous sentence all on its own, but I could go on for far too long about all the awesome tucked in tight in there.

My biggest gripe with the book was its big boss fight (spoiler?); based on the number of pages I had left as I got toward the end I was one hundred percent certain I’d be facing a cliffhanger ending, but instead Schwab tears through the fight almost as quickly and terribly as Stephenie Meyer once did, sacrificing the story for the sake of finishing it in however many pages she was allotted. I don’t say this much, but I would have preferred a cliffhanger.

Still, the rest of the book was so fun and delightful that I’ve already acquired the second one and am already enjoying it, so don’t take that complaint too seriously. I’m hoping my only gripe after the second book will be that the third one hasn’t come out yet!

Recommendation: For fans of fun, fast-paced fantasy and fascinating… magic. Shoot, what’s an f-word for magic?

Weekend Shorts: Post-Hurricane Comics

Hey, look, a theme! And this is really a double theme, as my pile of comics reflects the fact that we’re in RIP season with mystery and spookiness abound! I enjoyed these comics outside in the lovely post-hurricane weather that approximates fall in Florida, and I’m hoping that weather sticks around but not the hurricane stuff. I don’t think my heart can take another one this year!

Goldie Vance, #1-4, by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams
Goldie Vance #1I put this series in my pull list basically as soon as I heard about it, back when it was just a four-issue thing. I actually have #5 in my house, as this series, like all the other miniseries I’ve subscribed to, is now ongoing, but I figured let’s take this one arc at a time.

It’s not quite what I was expecting; it’s advertised as along the lines of Nancy Drew and Veronica Mars and other Girl Detectives, and it… is, but it isn’t. It lacks the depth of mystery found in those stories, proooobably because it’s a comic and it’s intended for tweens and how much space do you have in those 20-something pages, anyway, and I found myself rather baffled and a bit disappointed in the ending.

But, on the other hand, you have delightfully fun characters. There’s Goldie, who wants nothing more than to solve ALL THE MYSTERIES; her friend Cheryl, who wants to be an astronaut; Walter the beleaguered actual detective who wants nothing more than to be left alone and maybe meet a hot chick; and Goldie’s dad and mom, hotel manager and mermaid-costumed entertainer, respectively. Did I mention this book is set in 1962, in Florida? And that most of the main cast is not white, and that so far that’s not a plot point? And that Goldie Vance is apparently a race-car driver with a crush on the hot record store chick? The mystery might be the weirdest, but I’ll stick with this cast for a little while longer and see what they’re up to.

Beyond Belief, #2-3, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and Phil Hester
Beyond Belief #3I thought these would be perfect RIP reads, until I got to the end of #3, realized there was a #4 to be had, scoured my shelf to find it, couldn’t find it, and then took to the internet to discover it CANCELLED. Who cancels what I presume was already the final issue??? Gah, comics publishers are the worst.

Right, so, anyway. Frank. Sadie. Reluctant monster hunters. In issue 2 they take on the incredibly creepy imaginary friend of the moderately creepy imaginary friend of a little girl who used to have under-the-bed monsters which Sadie is very sad not to get to meet. After besting this beast, Sadie’s friend Donna from issue 1 is kidnapped, leading to…

Issue 3! In which Frank and Sadie take on a literal tree with a literal cult following that seems to be doing evil but might actually be doing good but it is VERY HARD TO SAY BECAUSE THERE IS A CLIFFHANGER ENDING THAT I WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO FINISH THANKS IMAGE. I might be be overly upset about this, but, I mean, seriously. I really enjoyed these two issues, which have a perfect blend of weird creepy story and Frank and Sadie banter and truly amazing artwork that captures the over-the-top quality of this series.

What’s that? If I put my mad librarian skillz to use I can actually find issue 4 available for purchase online? Excuse me a second…

[$3 and several minutes later…]

Beyond Belief, #4, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and Phil Hester
Aha! So. Yeah. The literal tree was being sort of a good guy, as he was trapping a big evil. Meanwhile, two detectives get in on this case and one of them becomes a ghost and the other one becomes Donna’s husband (I mean, later, not in this issue, there’s no time!), and all the good things I said about the previous issues still hold.

I do hope, whatever caused this shenanigan aside, that there can be more Thrilling Adventure Hour comics (Sparks Nevada too!) in the future, because they are sooooo good. I mean, I’m still getting sporadic radio shows in my feed long after the podcast “ended”, so anything can happen!

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

The NightingaleAt the beginning of the year when I was collecting recommendations for my in-person book club, I had several people clamoring for us to read The Nightingale. But even though the book had been out for almost a year, it was still insanely backed up at the library with almost 200 people on hold for it. I kept checking in and checking in and finally there were few enough holds that I felt comfortable making this the book club pick… for August.

Insane, right? I’m guessing that part of the reason it took so long to calm down was the same reason I needed it — it’s a perfect book club book.

The Nightingale tells the story of Vianne and Isabelle, two sisters living in France during the German occupation. Vianne watches her husband go off to war, her students dwindle as families leave the city voluntarily and at the hands of the Nazis, her home get taken over by German soldiers, and her daughter grow up in the shadow of the occupation, and she makes it her job to keep her family safe any way she can. Isabelle, the younger sister, wants nothing more than to be someone, and she makes it her goal to join the resistance and work to take down the Nazis in any way that she can.

Reasons to pick this book for your book club:

1. World War II is prime book club fodder, and you know it.
2. A better reason — The Nightingale takes place in occupied France outside of Paris, a place I, for one, haven’t heard too much about in my extensive reading of World War II book club books. It’s fascinating to see how different the attitudes of the soldiers and citizens are compared to novels that take place in England or Germany or the US.
3. It stars two ladies doing the best they can in two wildly different ways. There’s a great discussion to be had about the roles of women at the time and in the present.
4. It’s going to make some people cry, which means plenty of people will show up to your meeting to make sure they weren’t the only ones bawling.

I’m not kidding about number 4. It took me a relatively long time to get into this book, and I saw a lot of the little twists and turns coming (though not all of them, I’ll say) and there were a few parts early on that I could see were meant to make me give a sniffle, and I didn’t cry at them and I was sure this book wasn’t going to make me cry. And then it did, and I was a mess, and my husband was like, seriously, woman, why do you read books that waste our Kleenex, and I was like, shut up and hug me and let me tell you how glad I am that we don’t live in occupied France.

So even though I wasn’t all in from the beginning, this book is definitely on my list of books to recommend to people, and in fact is probably going to be on the list for my library’s book club after I talked it up at a recent meeting. (Thank goodness, that’s one more book I don’t have to read!) If you’re in the market for a moderately depressing but rather fascinating look at life during World War II, this should definitely be on your list.

Weekend Shorts: The Spire and MaddAddam

I bring to you today one comics mini-series and one audiobook, not chosen for their similarities but which are similar nonetheless. Fascinating worlds, interesting characters, and flashbacks abound in both of these stories, and there’s definitely some crossover of themes. Clearly I have a type when it comes to my stories.

The Spire, #1-8, by Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely
The Spire #1I picked up this series just about a year ago when issue #3 came out, also picking up #2 that day and then waiting a couple weeks for #1 to make its way between stores. I had intended to buy all of them and read them as they came out, but I only did the first part — I couldn’t not own all these amazing covers, but apparently also couldn’t stand waiting for more story. But once I had all eight delightful issues in hand, it was time to binge!

And seriously, wow, this series is good. I came for the artwork, but I stayed for the story. Said story follows Commander Shå of the City Watch (City Watch!), a sort of offshoot of the regular police force comprised of “skews” — a derogatory term for beings who are not quite human and who therefore generally creep polite society out. Shå gets caught up in the investigation of a pretty brutal murder, and then several pretty brutal murders, all of which point back to a strange history between the city and the people and skews who live outside its walls.

It is… I can’t stop saying that it’s really good. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the series, and it’s all intriguing. Besides the murders you have of course the prejudice against skews to work with, Shå’s secret relationship with someone she really shouldn’t be dating, flashbacks to the current ruler’s venture outside the city wall’s, a power trip by a future ruler with ulterior motives, a mysterious and powerful being that some people want to murder, fighting, magic, love… I’m not really sure how all this fits into eight issues but it does, perfectly.

Also, the artwork. I want so many of these covers and pages and panels blown up to ridiculous size and plastered on all my walls. The style and the colors are totally my jam.

I am only sad that that’s the end, but maybe if I’m lucky these guys will pair up again and make something equally fantastic. At the very least, the good thing about comics is that people make SO MANY of them that I’m sure to find either the writer or the artist somewhere else soon!

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood
MaddAddamTrue story: I was absolutely convinced I had read this book already, to the point where I had to page back through my Goodreads “read” list to discover that no, Scott and I had only listened to the first two books in this series on our various road trips. Conveniently, a road trip cropped up shortly thereafter and I downloaded this right quickly.

As a book, it’s great. It takes place right after The Year of the Flood and catches us up on what’s going on with our God’s Gardeners and our Crakers and our Jimmy/Snowman/Snowman-the-Jimmy. It’s not terribly good news, as the Painballers are loose and the pigoons are in fighting form and the Crakers continue to be the most annoying four-year-olds. But, on the plus side, while our friends are dealing with this mess we get to have some more backstory, in the form of flashbacks from Gardener Zeb about his life and that of his brother, Adam One.

Unfortunately, it was kind of a dud road trip book. It was so similar in tone and even story to the others in the series that it was very easy to zone out during the audio, and there wasn’t a lot of really new information to keep our attention. Even in the “fight scenes”, there wasn’t a lot of action going on, and those were few and far between. Scott was willing to let me listen to the book, because I was actually interested in it, but he slept through a lot of it and missed the parts I listened to on my runs and when it came time to summarize what he’d missed it was a lot of, “Well, Zeb told some more stories about Adam One and also there’s this chess piece with drugs in it”, or “Well, the Crakers were annoying and also the pigoons came and made a truce with the humans so they could all go kill some Painballers.” So, lots of nothing with some exciting punctuation.

I still liked it a lot. I love this world that Atwood’s made and I would probably read several more books set in it because there’s still more to know. But it’s definitely a book that should be read when you have lots of time and attention to pay to it.