Book Review: The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency


The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford, illustrated by Kelly Murphy

In a Nutshell

A deductive genius lacking empathy or social skills and a loyal, intuitive confidant team up to solve crimes in early 19th century London. Sound familiar? It’s a Sherlock/Watson style adventure with a historical, girl-power twist!

The Whole Enchilada

When 11 year old Ada and 14 year old Mary (historical figures Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley) are thrown together to share a tutor (Percy Bysshe Shelley) they could hardly be more different, but they soon learn that they share a curiosity about the world and a love of knowledge that binds them together as fast friends… and eventually as co-conspirators! Bored with the constraints of being female in the early 1800s, they decide to open a secret detective agency, where their curiosity and bravery get them into more than a few scrapes–which their intelligence and complimentary differences may or may not be enough to get them out of!

As a lover of history, literature, and strong female characters I was immediately drawn to the premise of The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, but once I started reading it was Jordan Stratford’s writing and characters that made me love this book. Stratford doesn’t pander to his young audience, instead he challenges them with historically relevant ideas and language–not so much that a young reader would be frustrated, but enough to make a reader stretch her mind and stray a little bit out of her comfort zone. After finishing this book I couldn’t wait to give it to my own 10 year old daughter to read.

Since she started reading it, my daughter hasn’t been able to put it down. She loves Ada and Mary because they’re adventurous and smart. She says, “Ada is my favorite because she’s not totally likable, she’s kind of rude, but she doesn’t mean to be. I like that I don’t know what’s going to happen, and that Ada and Mary talk about things I’ve never heard of and do things I don’t expect.”

There has been a lot of talk recently about the dearth of strong female characters in literature and the media, and what that may have to do with the lack of women in STEM careers. No single book is going to fix this; but young Ada and Mary, along with their friends and cohorts, are an excellent beginning. Furthermore, there are a number of excellent “extras” available on the website,, including games, educational materials, and an upcoming short story about Mary and Ada. I highly recommend this book not just for young girls, but for young readers of any gender who are adventurous and curious about the world around them.

I was lucky enough to interview the author of this fantastic series, Jordan Stratford, in my capacity as the Reading Rainbow Mom. We talked about his inspiration for the series, getting feedback from his own 9 year old daughter, and his feelings about the amazing Kickstarter campaign that made the series possible. Click here to read the interview on the Reading Rainbow Blog.


From Page to Screen: A Review of The Giver Movie

The Giver Book and Movie

I’ve found that there’s a trick to seeing film adaptations of favorite books: 1 part nostalgic love, 3 parts willful ignorance. That’s how I went into the new movie adaptation of The Giver, one of my favorite books from childhood.

Anyone who chose to take on adapting The Giver for the big screen was going to have a tough road ahead of them. First of all, this book is beloved. Second, the reason it is beloved is because it is a nearly perfect gem of a book. The language is plain but beautiful, and utterly appropriate. The story is concise, but lovingly told. There are no slow parts, no boring parts, no extraneous parts. Every detail included is necessary, and every necessary detail is included.

That being said, let me get something out there right now–the movie is not the book. In fact, it departs significantly from the book. In the movie Jonas is far more angsty than he is in the book. Romance plays a more significant role. The secondary characters in the movie do things they never would have even considered in the book. Asher has a completely different assignment. The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) is a more overtly menacing character, very “big brother”, which I never found to be the case when I read the book. And the biggest hurdle of all; let’s face it, these actors are nowhere near age 12.

The Giver Characters

If you go into the movie hoping for a direct page-to-screen translation of the book you will be disappointed. There’s no getting around it. If you’re a purist, avoid the movie altogether.

However, if you go in as I mentioned above, with 1 part nostalgic love for the story, and 3 parts willful ignorance, you will find this movie very enjoyable. By “willful ignorance” I mean let go of your attachment to the details. When you first read the book you had no expectations. You were probably somewhere between the ages of 9-15. Try to experience this movie as you first experienced the book–as a child on the cusp of abstract and moral philosophical thinking.

Do I think the movie is brilliant? No. But the story is solid, the themes are thought-provoking, the art direction and cinematography are stunning, and the acting is (with one or two exceptions, admittedly) well-done. Most importantly, the “translation” from book to screen is loving and reverent. It’s clear that (director) Phillip Noyce, and (writers) Michael Mitnick & Robert B. Weide wanted to do justice to the original story. A boring movie would not have done justice to the book that has served as a quickening of the super-ego for so many of us; but a boring movie is, I fear, exactly what we may have gotten out of a direct page-to-screen translation.

You may not agree with me. I believe a movie based on a book should be a translation, not a direct transfer. I like to see the producer or director’s fingerprints in the end result. I am, after all, the person whose least favorite of all the Harry Potter movies is the first, because it’s too much like the book, as if the story went straight from J.K. Rowling’s head onto the celluloid. If I wanted the book in its pure form I would read the book. The Giver movie gives me the translation–the fingerprints–I like so much.

If you don’t take my word for the quality of The Giver movie, maybe you’ll take the word of my 9 year old daughter, who saw the movie with me and who is a passionate fan of the book. She said, “I actually liked it! I didn’t think I would, I was afraid it would be bad. But I really liked it! I liked the story, and when Jonas started seeing color I felt like I was seeing color for the first time too. I think we should own this one.”

From the mouths of babes.

Best Books of 2013 for Parents AND Kids

Vintage old books on wooden table over grunge background

Reblogged from Reading Rainbow

If you don’t already follow me as the Reading Rainbow Mom on the Reading Rainbow Blog then you won’t have seen today’s post about my choices for the Best Books of 2013, including my 5 favorite Children’s Books of the year. I’m partial to it, so I thought I’d share. Enjoy!


There were so many great books that came out this year, especially in the children’s/picture book genre, it’s been very difficult to choose just five. But after much agonizing and reflecting, here are my choices for the five best children’s books of 2013. You may disagree with me—and all the better if you do! Please let me know in the comments below which books YOU liked best! I’m always looking for the next book to read, and I’d love to have as many recommendations from fellow book lovers as possible!

The Reading Rainbow Mom’s Top Five Children’s Books of 2013

Let’s Go for a Drive! by Mo Willems – Gerald and Piggie are back! And this time they have a new scheme— to go for a drive. But wait! First they need… I love just about anything by Mo Willems, and this is the next in a  long line of satisfying books that are a joy to read and look at.

The Dark by Lemony Snicket – My first exposure to this book was hearing Mr. Snicket himself read it aloud at the LA Times Festival of books, and it was instant love. Parents sometimes think that kids need cheerful, happy books all the time; but there is darkness in the world and even the youngest, most sheltered kids know this on some level. In this book the master of dark tales takes young readers right to where darkness lives, and shows them that it can be overcome. Every time I read it I hear his voice taking me closer and closer to the dark.

This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen – Another somewhat dark tale, this book is a follow-up to the wonderful I Want My Hat Back, and Klassen once again hits the bulls-eye with this story narrated by a thieving fish, set in the murky blackness of the ocean, and filled with lots of wonderful characters, laughs, and lessons along the way.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate – Ivan is an easygoing gorilla who rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all. Instead he thinks about art, and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color. Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo – Another beautiful book by Kate DiCamillo, where magic is the norm and anything can happen. DiCamillo’s always finds new and touching ways to show readers the importance of friendship and being true to yourself, this story is no exception. Plus, who can resist a flying, poetry-writing squirrel?

To read the rest of the post, including my 5 best book picks for parents, click here.

Happy Reading!

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

In a Nutshell

I am neither Golem nor Jinni, but reading this made me a slave to the masterful (and magical) story and prose of Helene Wecker. I’d gladly be imprisoned in a lamp if I could take this book with me.

The Whole Enchilada

Helene Wecker chose wisely when she decided to tell a story of immigration–after all, who can resist a tale of leaving everything that is known to make a new life in a strange land? It’s the quintessential American story. But to tell that story from the POV of two culturally specific mythological creatures, both adrift in an unknown world, with no knowledge of even their own beginnings, was a stroke of brilliance!

Chava is a Golem, a creature from Jewish mythology who is made of clay and lives only to serve her master; but when her master dies before she’s even 24 hours old Chava faces something no Golem has ever faced before… Freedom.

Ahmad is a Jinni, a restless fire spirit of the Syrian desert, feared by nomadic tribesman, coveted by ruthless power-seekers. When Ahmad emerges from a copper lamp (a customer’s family heirloom) in a tinsmith’s shop in 1899 Manhattan he has no knowledge of how he got there… or the past few hundred years! Trapped in human form, Ahmad must learn to master his restless nature to fit into the immigrant culture around him.

These two unique and lonely creatures don’t meet until halfway through the novel, when we as readers have already fallen in love with their individual characters, as well as the city and people who provide the backdrop and rich detail of their stories. You might think that’s a long time to wait for our two title characters to come across each other, but somehow it isn’t at all. Wecker does such a wonderful job of weaving their parallel stories–almost mirror images of each other–that the fact that they don’t meet doesn’t feel odd at all. Instead it gives them the necessary space to develop on their own, like twin siblings placed in different classrooms to prevent them from exerting too much influence on each other.

Once Chava and Ahmad do meet the story explodes, building speed like a freight train to the end. I kept wanting to tell myself to slow down and take my time with the last chapters, but I couldn’t stop myself from tripping over words and impatiently turning pages in my NEED to get to the end; to find out What. Happens. Next!

I envy Helene Wecker the fun she must have had researching this book. With two such rich cultures to delve into I’m only amazed that she was able to stop with just one book. Perhaps she hasn’t stopped though. Perhaps we will be blessed with more of Helene Wecker’s writing. I hope so. I would read a hundred such books.

Three Smart Writers Who Will Knock Your Socks Off

I love Smart Writers.

Now, when I say “Smart Writers” I don’t mean stuffy academic writers (although let’s tell it like it is, I like reading them too). When I say “Smart Writers” I mean authors who write books that express new and thought-provoking ideas with beautiful, playful, intelligent language. When I say “Smart Writers” I mean writers that I want to pluck off the page and bring home for coffee and conversation. I’m talking about writers who inspire and challenge me, and who make me laugh.

Right now I’m reading Simon Pegg’s autobiography Nerd Do Well; and I tell you, that man is a Smart Writer.
You may know Simon Pegg from such films as the new Star Trek (he plays Scotty), Shaun of the Dead (Shaun), and Mission Impossible (Benji Dunn), among others. He’s a great actor, I love his stuff, but I didn’t truly appreciate just how cool he was until I started reading Nerd Do Well. First of all, I can’t stop laughing. I laugh out loud at least once per page. The man has mad wit!

Secondly… Well, I think for this one I’m going to have to let his writing speak for itself. Here’s something I just read last night in a chapter entitled “That’s No Moon, It’s an Understatement”:

“If you didn’t already know, or haven’t guessed from my rambling, I studied film for a while. I relished being able to pick apart my favourite films as a student; it was amusing and fascinating all at the same time. Easily dismissed but powerfully persuasive when argued well, film theory seems from the outside like an awful lot of brainpower for something so inconsequential. During my studies I wrote a thesis entitled ‘Base and Supersucker: A Marxist Overview of Consent in Star Wars and Related Works’. In the most basic terms it was about how when we experience art without critical awareness we consent to the ideas being promoted, either intentionally or unintentionally, by the filmmaker.”

<Swoon!> A Marxist Overview of Consent in Star Wars?? I love it! And any person who challenges us to think critically about the art we consume is okay by me. More than okay. Also, I’m all for using a lot of brainpower for things that seem inconsequential.

I’ve used this chapter (almost halfway through the book) as an example, but the truth is that I was hooked and impressed long before I got to this. In fact, I was hooked by the time I got halfway through his North American Foreword. I think it’s because his wit is so deft that I was never quite sure if he was praising or making fun of Americans. He criticizes the shortcomings of Great Britain, but dammit, he does it with pride! So when he throws out some praise to North America, it makes the reader a little suspicious. He keeps you on your toes for sure.

Most of all, however, I love the way Simon Pegg writes with passion for his ideas, playfully about himself, and with a seeming joy in language itself.

Another Smart Writer I’ve been reading recently is Julian Barnes. I started with The Sense of An Ending, the praises of which I heard shouted from reviews and blogs everywhere. The reviews were not wrong. I loved the book so much I read the entire thing in one afternoon. Now I’m reading Talking It Over, and after that I have Arthur & George to sink my teeth into.

Barnes has the ability to get into the head of each unique character in his novels. Every word of every character’s dialogue or inner monologue is a perfect expression of that character’s own personal agony. This isn’t to imply that all of his characters are in agony. As humans we each tend to see ourselves at the center of our own universe, and as the “center of the universe” we agonize over the things we say and do; even when those things are done in joy or pleasure. Julian Barnes’ characters are a subtle expression of that exquisite agony.

And let us not forget Rainbow Rowell, author of Attachments, and the more recently published Eleanor & Park. Rowell writes about the everyman–the I.T. guy at the office, the headphone-wearing nerd on the bus, the snarky woman who works in marketing–but she gives these characters the delicious depth they deserve, the depth we all have, even if you’re a nerdy headphone wearing everyman. What’s further, she writes with a sensuality that will take your breath away. Reading a scene in Eleanor & Park in which the two main characters hold hands made me feel as if I had electricity running through my veins!

These are not the only Smart Writers, obviously; these are simply the ones I’m reading right now, who are making me fall in love with intelligent prose all over again. A few other Smart Writers I’m always pushing on people are:

  • A.S. Byatt
  • Anne Patchett
  • Dave Eggars

But I’m always looking for more! So if you have a favorite Smart Writer in your library that you’d like to recommend, please do. My TBR list is already too long to ever finish in my lifetime, but who cares. I plan to live forever.

What Should You Read Next? Six Mini-Reviews to Help You Decide

The past four weeks have brought with them flu, fever, and a heavy workload, but they’ve also brought with them some really wonderful books! So this week, instead of one long book review, I’ve written six mini-reviews: Three books released in 2012, two due for release later in 2013, and one tried-and-true classic. I hope you will enjoy these books as much as I have, and that you’ll share your thoughts with me in the comments.

Books Reviewed in this Post
Glaciers by Alexis Smith
Arcadia by Lauren Groff
The Innocents by Francesca Segal
The Third Son by Julie Wu
A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon
The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Happy Reading!

Glaciers by Alexis Smith
This was a perfect gem of a book, a story (and an author) to fall in love with! Perfectly encapsulated in one single day, this book nevertheless takes us back into the narrator Isabel’s childhood, launches us into her sweet hopes for the future, and ends in the bittersweet reality of the present. Glaciers is somewhat like Joyce’s Ulysses in its ability to make one day the embodiment of all days, but with a decidedly feminine twist. Smith’s writing is simply beautiful: It is poetic, vulnerable, dreamy and insightful—a perfect representation of the narrator herself. The story is deceptively simple; a shy girl who loves vintage clothing, the postcards of strangers, and the quiet ex-military man who works with her. But there’s so much more to Isabel, and to the novel, than seems at first glance—it’s all (as the title suggests) just underneath the surface. This book is not to be missed!

Publisher: Tin House Books
Release Date: January 17, 2012

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

In Arcadia Lauren Groff tells the story of Bit, a young boy born into a hippie commune in the 60’s. He lives a life of loving neglect as the community struggles to set down roots and survive, but still be true to their freedom-loving ideals. The book follows Bit as he grows to (and through) adulthood, chronicles the effect that the commune of Arcadia has had on him, and shows—through his eyes—the effect it has had on the other people in his life. In Arcadia Groff faithfully represents the defining philosophies of decades past and her characters’ decisions to isolate themselves (either geographically or emotionally) but her true achievement is when she convincingly prophesies a future of forced isolation, caused by our own societal selfishness. The writing in this novel is lovely, and perfectly understated. The storytelling is excellent. Bit is a sympathetic and interesting narrator, who gives us an insider’s view of a disappearing way of life, and a philosophy that sometimes seems as if it’s almost on the verge of extinction.

Publisher: Voice
Release Date: March 13, 2012

The Innocents by Francesca Segal
From the very first page to the final chapter of the book, the reader knows that Francesca Segal’s The Innocents is a deft modern retelling of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. Adam Newman and Newland Archer are two peas in a pod: both trapped within the social constraints of their communities; blindly at first, then angrily and resentfully later in the story. Both are engaged to sweet, innocent, and somewhat bland women; and both have their eyes opened to the harsh, messy, beautiful and electrifying possibilities of the world by “ruined” and unsuitable cousins. Segal does a lovely job of updating the cultural circumstances of the story. The Innocents is set in a close-knit Jewish community in London, where conservative elders are still shocked and disapproving of promiscuity and scandal. In our world divorce is so common that it’s almost expected, but the reader has no trouble believing that Adam is trapped in an engagement, with the responsibility for the happiness and well-being of an entire community resting on his shoulders. This isn’t to say that Segal’s book is an exact replica of Wharton’s. Segal’s characters are more self-aware than Wharton’s, and the reader gets the impression that these modern characters are trapped more by their own indecision than by any vulnerability to social rise or ruin. Also (not to give anything away) Segal chooses to end her story somewhat differently than Wharton did. In conclusion, fans of The Age of Innocence should enjoy the parallels, while Wharton newbies will look forward to every new plot twist Segal brings to the page.

Publisher: Voice
Release Date: June 5, 2012

The Third Son by Julie Wu
This book has all the right ingredients: Strong characters, compelling story, good writing, romance, and fascinating descriptions of foreign customs and history. In spite of all this, it always felt like there was something holding me back from losing myself in the tale of Saburo and his family. Saburo is the third son of the title, unloved and abused by his family, but with an innate intelligence and strength of character that keeps him from falling into despair. Growing up in Japanese occupied Taiwan during WWII, he is able (with the help of his compassionate uncle) to grow into a smart young man, determined to win the hand of his first love, as well as freedom from his family by earning a place at an American University. For a Western reader this book was a journey through the corrupt Taiwanese political structure of the time, the disturbing dynamics of a cruel and heartbroken family, and the persistent personality required to transcend all that.

Publisher: Algonquin Books
Release Date: April 30, 2013

A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon
This book was one of my favorites of the past four weeks. Very grand in scope, but intimate in execution, A Dual Inheritance spans two families, three continents, and five decades, but it always manages to feel immediate and personal. It tells the story of Ed Cantowitz and Hugh Shipley, two very different young men who meet in college and become unlikely friends; the story then follows Ed and Hugh (and eventually each of their daughters) through the next 50 years as they chase very different dreams, meet with great success, terrible ruin, and discover—after each trying to abandon the legacy of their family and their past—that family is, after all is said and done, the only constant, and the only relief we have. A Dual Inheritance is a love story of epic proportions. Hershon’s prose is perfectly suited to the story, and her characters are a perfect and refreshing balance of good intentions and human frailty.

Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release Date: May 7, 2013

The Inferno by Dante Alighieri
After a run of new novels it can be refreshing to throw oneself into a classic. The five books reviewed above were satisfying (in some cases more than satisfying!) but it was something of a relief to delve into something with a meaty history—and Dante’s Inferno definitely has a meaty history! The Inferno is one of those books that you can’t read without feeling that you’re part of something. It references so many works of literature, and has itself been referenced by so many later works, that just reading it makes you feel a part of something. (It also makes you somehow feel both inadequate and incredibly intelligent all at the same time.) The New American Library version that I read contains a plethora of distracting but helpful footnotes, and John Ciardi’s translation is lyrical and accessible. The book was not nearly as daunting as I thought it would be. The political references are impossible to completely wrap your head around (even with the footnotes,) but once you get past those the story itself is enlightening, disturbing, thought-provoking, and amazingly easy to understand.

Publisher: New American Library
Translator: John Ciardi
2003 Edition

Book of Questions, Book of Miracles, "The Book of Why" by Nicholas Montemarano

In A Nutshell

The Book of Why is one of those rare books that is exactly what it claims to be: It’s a book of questions… But with very few answers.

The Whole Enchilada

“This is a self-help book. Didn’t think it was, but it is. It’s also a revision, a question, a confession, an apology, a love letter.”

This is how The Book of Why by Nicholas Montemarano begins. But don’t let that beginning fool you; this is a book that asks more questions than it answers. Our narrator and main character Eric Newborn is a successful author and “your thoughts create your own reality” self-help guru who, after the death of his wife, has gone off his own philosophy. At least this is what he claims on the outside. On the inside, Eric is still afraid to think negative thoughts for fear that they might manifest, still afraid that his wife killed herself with her own lack of belief, or worse yet, that Eric himself killed her  because he wasn’t strong enough (or didn’t want enough) to will her back to health with the power of his positive thinking.

When the book begins Eric Newborn has sequestered himself—alone except for the dog—his doubts and his memories, in his house in Martha’s Vineyard. When a young fan stumbles “accidentally” upon his house in the middle of winter, Eric (reluctantly at first) begins to open up to her. The two become each other’s teachers and confidants, and embark on a journey (both real and metaphorical) that forces each of them to look at their pasts, face their futures, and ask the question Are there really any accidents?

The Book of Why tells a compelling story, but it is not always an easy book to read. The narrative is split into three separate time periods: Eric’s childhood, his time with his wife, and his present. The book jumps back and forth between these three storylines, with the effect that just when you’ve become invested in one storyline you’re yanked out of it and thrown into another. It was an interesting way of expressing that the things that happen in our past can follow us, and have a direct influence on events in our future, but the narrative technique could be very frustrating at times.

Montemarano also makes periodic use in his story of what I call “aside sections.” These are sections at the beginning of certain chapters which are supposed transcripts of motivational speeches given by Eric Newborn, or portions of his self-help books. This first “aside section” at the beginning of the book served the purpose of giving the reader an inside look into the world of self-help conferences and motivational speaking tours. It was a perfect way to set the stage to be abruptly torn down a few pages later by the present Eric’s sadness and cynicism. The contrast was delightful, and catapults the reader very effectively into the story. This is not the only “aside section” however, and this catapult-by-contrast technique isn’t something that can be utilized effectively more than once. I’m sure that all the subsequent “aside sections” were relevant to those sections of the books they preceded, but all too often I found them to be distracting, pulling me out of the story just when I was beginning to feel enraptured.

These are minor complaints, however, and in spite of these, The Book of Why is a very compelling read; not only because the reader can’t help wanting to know how Eric’s story ends, but because the questions Montemarano raises are the questions that are always lurking at the very edges of our conscious minds. Do things happen for a reason? How much control do we have over the course of our lives? Can miracles truly happen, or is the self-help-positive-thinking culture nothing but modern-day charlatanry? The Book of Why does not answer any of these questions, but the context in which it asks them is interesting, insightful, and brutally honest.

(I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Book Review: Auraria by Tim Westover

In a Nutshell
Westover’s Aurariais like having a great novel, a night of ghost stories around a campfire, and a college course in Appalachian folktales all rolled into one.
The Whole Enchilada
We all love fairy tales and legends when we’re kids, but as we get older the fairy tales–and I’m talking about truly compelling fairy tales, not the simple, syrupy plotlines so many bad romantic comedies are based on–seem to dry up. Some might argue that the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre can satisfy the grown-up desire for magic and wonder, but what you get from Sci-Fi/Fantasy isn’t quite the same as what you get from Fairy Tales. Fairy Tales and Legends tend to be local rather than off-world (or alternate world), and the skeleton of the Fairy Tale is often familiar. In fact, it’s this very familiarity which makes the Fairy Tale so alluring… The protagonist of the story could just as easily be ourselves–our house, our grandmother, our innocence, our own deep dark woods.
Tim Westover’s Aurariais truly modern day Legend, a much-needed Fairy Tale for adults. Actually, I would argue that it’s better than a Fairy Tale, because it takes storytelling to the next level. Westover takes time with his tale. This is no brief moral fable or cautionary tale peppered with obvious archetypes. His characters have depth, mystery, and motivation. His descriptions are so loving and vibrant that you can feel the moss between your toes, the icy wind on your fingers, and smell the moist, dark earth. But the most important ingredient of all is the awe and wonder. Auraria is filled with wonder.  
Auraria’s main character James Holtzclaw is a pragmatist, and certainly not someone susceptible to awe or wonder. As the book begins Holtzclaw has been sent by his mysterious employer (by the name of Shadburn) to the remote Appalachian town of Auraria. His mission is to buy up the town and all of its surrounding lands and farms. To accomplish this, Holtzclaw has been given, in addition to ordinary federal notes, “the strangest [gold coins] he had ever seen. Instead of eagles and shields, the coins were stamped with images of bumble-bees, terrapin, chestnut trees, and indistinct figures by a stream. The figures might have been bathing or even panning for gold; they were too small to tell. Shadburn had said the coins were minted in Auraria from local metal. The gold was returning to its source.” But if Holtzclaw expects the purchase of Aurarian land to be quick and easy, he is sorely (and very luckily for the reader) mistaken.
Holtzclaw must spend weeks in Auraria in his effort to find each landowner. He walks miles each day, from farmstead to mine to mountaintop, unwittingly collecting the rich soil of Auraria in his shoes and his pants cuffs, in his hair and the creases on his face. Along the way he finds a frozen farm that never thaws, a never-ending house, fish that swim through a valley of mist; he eats dinner with a ghost, has conversations with the Great and Harmless and Invincible Terrapin, and meets the beautiful and mysterious Princess Trahlyta. During this time that Holtzclaw is methodically buying up all the land of Auraria, he is slowly but surely, if not exactly falling in love with the land, becoming inextricably bound to it. What happens when the land is all bought up, his job is done, and Holtzclaw finds he is unable to leave?
Tim Westover’s writing style is a perfect complement to the story. He somehow manages to be fantastic and understated at the same time. The effect is that the prose is a joy to read, but in no way overshadows or distracts from the story or the characters. Additionally, Westover does a fantastic job of weaving what I imagine are actual old-Appalachian folktales seamlessly into the greater arc of his own unique story. The reader is left with a feeling of having read a great novel, listened to grandma telling ghost stories by the fire, and taken a college course in Appalachian folktales, all rolled into one delightful 390 page package.
I can promise that this book is like nothing else you’ve ever read. The names, the events, the characters and attitudes… All are a discovery and a delight. Westover’s Aurariareminds us of why we fell in love with fiction in the first place: For the wonder and adventure that somehow seems both absolutely impossible, but also inevitably waiting just around the next bend in the road.
Side Notes
Tim Westover is not only a talented writer, he’s also very active with the social media. He has a great blog: Baby, Book and Banjo, shares breath-taking pictures on his Auraria Facebook page, and is impressively active (for a working writer, that is) on twitter @TimWestover. And I promise you Mr. Westover isn’t paying me to say any of this, I just appreciate authors who come across as real, approachable people.
Also, I received this book from the publisher via LibraryThing.

The Passion is Back! Looking Back on December and Forward to 2013

Can the last month of 2012 be an indication of what’s to come in 2013? I hope so, because when it comes to books, December 2012 was my most satisfying–and hopeful–month in a long time. This wasn’t because I read the best books of the year during this month, but because this was the month when I found my passion for reading again. After too many months of reading ennui and halfhearted dips into chapters and verse, December found me falling once again down that literary rabbit hole; getting caught up (delightfully) once more in words and story. And I’m not ashamed to admit that it all started with Romance…

December Books Read

The Fine Art of Truth or Dare by Melissa Jensen
Unmaking Hunter Kennedy by Anne Eliot
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
The Malory Family Series by Johanna Lindsey
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells 
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

There’s no doubt about it, December is a BUSY time of year; and what with all the shopping, wrapping, traveling and socializing, it’s a month when most people find it difficult to really lose themselves in a book. December can be a difficult month to finish one book, let alone two or more! But for me, all the demands of December make it necessary to have an escape, someplace I can go to utterly lose myself when the stress gets too high, and that place, of course, is books.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, above, I had found it distressingly difficult to get excited about my reading in 2012. It’s not that I wasn’t reading good books, because I was (Gilgamesh, Dracula, Moby Dick) and it’s not that the books I was reading were too dense or metaphysical, because they weren’t (The Pilgrim Hawk, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid) it was just that somehow the passion was missing. I didn’t find myself falling into a reading worm-hole with any of my books, where the real world disappears and leaves me intimately alone with the story, the words, and the characters. Instead, most of my reading during 2012 took place with the physical world all to present in my consciousness. 

Along came December, with its many distractions and demands. I decided that December just wasn’t the time for serious reading; December was the time for easy reading, for fluff. One of the book blogs I follow had mentioned The Fine Art of Truth or Dare as a sweet but non-challenging Y/A novel and I thought “Maybe this is exactly what I need right now.” I was right. I started the book at lunchtime one day, and when I finished it 3 or 4 hours later I realized that my entire afternoon had flown by with nary a thought about the practical world. I had lost myself in the thrill, angst and crescendo of first love. Amazon’s recommendations led me from The Fine Art of Truth or Dare to The Unmaking of Hunter Kennedy; another Y/A novel, another story of thrill and angst and heart-palpitating first kisses. Again, I was lost in the story and the world around me went silent.

I had worried after those two books that maybe I was regressing in my reading needs, that I now needed that excitement and fluff and romance to feel passionate about a book. I was wrong. When I picked up The Time Machine, and then Fahrenheit 451 to read for my Rediscovering the Classics group I was again whisked out of my Southern California world and into the past, the future, and a disturbingly alternate present. Again my heart raced, my breath quickened, and my own life briefly ceased to exist… And this time it happened without a single young lover in sight.

The Mysterious Benedict Society seemed like the perfect book to read while I was baking cookies, planning parties, and Yule shopping for my two daughters–both strong-willed and independent, literary-minded young ladies. It was a great story for stopping and starting on a dime. Easy enough to put down in the middle of a paragraph when the oven timer went off, but compelling enough to tickle at the back of my mind, not letting me forget how much I wanted to know how it ended.

Johanna Lindsey and Nick Hornby came along at the same time–and two more strange literary bedfellows I really cannot imagine. Lindsey is top-notch bodice-ripping, bosom-heaving, historical fiction romance, while Nick Hornby is practically the spokesperson for the inhibited, romantically-averse, pop-culture loving modern male. How these two authors managed to complement each other I will never know, but complement each other they did. Hornby is one of my favorite contemporary authors. He has a unique ability to capture the beauty in the mundane. Every single one of Hornby’s books looks into the boring corners of our lives and makes them interesting and important. His books prove the old adage that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans.” High Fidelity‘s main character Rob Fleming brought me into his life, showed me the dark corners and ugly neuroses, and still made me love him. While Hornby was shining a light into the dark and supposedly boring corners of everyday life, Johanna Lindsey’s Malory family was making me feel a thrill and passion for it again.

Finally, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? was borrowed from an out-of-town library while my family was on vacation. I checked it out of the library 48 hours before we were to leave town to return home, giving me a definite hard deadline for finishing. Luckily, Semple’s story is so compelling that I had no trouble powering through it happily, in spite of the fact that our final days were already packed pretty full. I can see why this book is getting so much attention from book reviewers and blogs; it’s a heart wrenching yet funny story, that faithfully expresses the modern technophile’s conflicting desires for adventure and solitude, and the hilarious mess that those conflicting desires can often make of our lives.

Yes, after a year of ennui and frustration, the final month of 2012 has given me hope for 2013. The passion and voracious desire for books that was somehow returned to me this past December has stayed with me for the first few days of January, and it thankfully shows no signs of leaving. As I delve into My Life in France, a memoir of Julia Child, I find that once again the world around me falls away, and I tumble into the culinary world of post WWII France. My cheeks flush, my heart quickens, and I am once again passionately in love with story, with words, with the world.