One of the benefits of a gig as a book reviewer is the excuse to read widely–hence the variety of books in my reading pile in the photo above. (No one reviews for the pay, which is generally nonexistent.)
Another is that reading with an eye to reviewing means I read more carefully, thinking about voice, language, rhythm, narrative, plot and character (for fiction), and other aspects of writing inform my own work. Each book I review teaches me something, helping me grow as a writer.
I want to share with you two books I recently reviewed and loved. (The full reviews are published on Story Circle Book Reviews, where I have the glorious title of Science/Environment reviewer. Click the links to read more. Also, you can buy each book through the site, which benefits this non-profit dedicated to reviewing books for and by women.)
Moonshadows, by Julie Weston (A Nellie Burns and Moonshine Mystery)
My ideal mystery features a strong female character who has flaws but isn't jaded or hard; a challenging and realistic puzzle that sends our heroine on a transformative journey; a story that tackles difficult issues, and a setting so vivid it becomes a character. Julie Weston's Moonshadows delivers all that and more.
The story opens in winter with a solitary man in the snow. No idea of time or place. Just the man, the burden he carries, and the elements vividly brought alive:
Rosy sank to his knees, rolled his burden out of his arms. A crust blanketing the snow cracked and broke. The stalking wind threw solid pellets against his face, across his shoulders. No time. No shovel.
He groaned and leaned back. Slow down. Time made no difference now.
Eventually, sweating with effort, his burden buried, Rosy staggers through the blizzard toward warmth and safety:
Hillocks and humps of snow where the struggle began and ended remained. Half a dozen magpies poked and pecked like ghouls fighting over gristle. … The birds flew off, leaving scattered bloody patches, pinking and blacking the snow. With the coming of nightfall, winter would erase the fall of man, the craving, crying need of man. Rosy kicked the snow in a frenzy, hatred still simmering. Out of breath, he stopped and forced his legs to step and then step again.
A bottle of hooch and the devil called from Last Chance Ranch.
Into this tumult comes Nellie Burns, petite and a mite naive, but smart and determined. At 25, she is already an old maid in the eyes of her friends back in Chicago. Newly arrived in the wild Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho in the 1920s, Nellie is on a mission to make a name for herself as a landscape photographer. Like so many before her, she has headed west in search of fame and fortune—only instead of gold or land, Nellie seeks light and shadow.
That quest takes her to the small town of Ketchum and Rosy, the grizzled former miner whom Nellie's new landlady recommends as a driver into the wintry landscape to find the perfect place for Nellie to capture her vision of moonlight on snow. Rosy, with his face "split down the middle" and one eye blinded by a blasting cap in the mine, and his brown bottle of "hooch" on the seat next to him, seems like a risky chauffeur, but he is all there is, and Nellie is determined to capture the photos she can see in her mind. …
Moonshadows begins in a rush with that "stalking wind" and never lets up. This beautifully-told story will hook readers and keep them guessing until the end, which, in the tradition of all good writing, hints at a fascinating new chapter to come.
I can't wait to read Weston's next Nellie Burns and Moonshine mystery.
(Read the full review here.)
Almost Anywhere: Road-Trip Ruminations on Love, Nature, National Parks, and Nonsense, by Krista Schlyer
Award-winning photojournalist and wilderness advocate Krista Schlyer was 28 years old, living in Washington, DC, and stuck in a disabling fog of grief after losing her husband to cancer when her best friend Bill—also her late husband's best friend—phoned and said, "We both need to get out of here. Way out."
He thought we should go out on the road, to all those national parks and wild lands, as many as we could get to for as long as we could manage to stay away. We'd go by car, sleep in a tent, eat cheap noodles and canned beans, whatever it took.
So the two bought a used Saturn station wagon (because it got good gas mileage and they could sleep in the back in a pinch), sold their respective belongings, and hit the road. With them they took Maggie, Schlyer's Corgi-Dachshund cross, the "cutest dog on the planet," who possessed a master nose for expensive cheese and an ability to charm anyone, even Bill.
Almost Anywhere, Schlyer's memoir of that year spent searching for "a place to be both broken and whole at the same time," is a wry and lyrical contribution to the classic American literature of road-trip stories. It is a portrait of numbing grief gradually thawed by moments of heart-stopping beauty: the eerie call of a loon from a north-country lake; the passage of a herd of bison almost close enough to touch, the huge animals supremely unfazed by human presence.
What lifts this tale above other journey stories is Schlyer's combination of honesty and humor, her ability to shift seamlessly from the grandeur of the places they visit to the mundane struggles of two humans with serious emotional baggage dealing with the less glamorous aspects of exploring America's wild places, from clouds of voracious mosquitoes to the chipmunk who stows away with them.
… My favorite parts of Schlyer's soaring book are the wry asides in present tense contained in her perfectly ironic footnotes, such as these from Roosevelt-Campobello International Park on the Bay of Fundy, the place where, Schlyer notes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then a failed candidate for Vice-President, decided to pursue a career in pubic life at the urging of his wife Eleanor, despite his advancing paralysis and the discouraging counsel of FDR's powerful mother:
Note to self: This significant chapter in history underscores an important truth in life. Fate can run you over and leave you broken, and in general there is nothing you can do to avoid it. But the decisions you make while lying in a mangled heap of human hamburger upon the insidious off-ramp of destiny, those decisions are all your own. Note to reader: Please do not assume for one minute that the lessons of FDR's courage and fortitude have permeated my skull at this point in the journey.
How could any reader resist a story that pins you through the heart with its exquisite truths and also leaves you rolling on the floor laughing? Almost Anywhere is not perfect, but it is a great read.
(Read the full review here.)