Review: Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour, Morgan MatsonIt’s been three months since Amy last got behind the wheel. Her father’s death in a car accident fractured their already-fragile family — her brother’s in rehab and her mother has decided to move across the country. And now, Amy has to somehow get the family’s remaining car from California to Connecticut.

Fortunately, Roger needs to get to the East Coast, too. And if they follow the route Amy’s mother planned, it should only take four days. But what is it they say about the best-laid plans…?

Just perfect

The only thing harder to portray accurately than teenagers is grief. Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour does both perfectly.

My heart aches for Amy. She blames herself for her father’s death, and has spent months pushing away the people who care about her most. Author Morgan Matson portrays Amy’s grief accurately and without histrionics — it’s brutal and beautiful.

I also really like Roger, mainly because he’s just a good guy. Plus I think most people can understand the idea of hanging onto a relationship you know is over because you’re scared.

Matson’s book also left me jonesing for a road trip, preferably one with my husband. I’d love to see some of the places she describes, and feel my troubles blow away on the wind. Who wouldn’t want to forget the rest of the world for awhile?

But Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour isn’t about forgetting. It’s about journeys, questions, and having the courage to face your fears.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. June’s challenge was to read a book in which the characters take a trip, travel somewhere, go on a quest, or find themselves on a journey toward something.)

Quickie Reviews: Time and Space

Yesterday on the way home from work, my car said it was 102 degrees. It’s officially too hot to do anything but sit on the couch and read. Here’s what’s been keeping me from melting for the last few weeks.

Cloud Atlas

Cloud, Atlas, David MitchellSome sadist recommended David Mitchell’s novel for our book club, and we’ve all spent the last month trying to wrap our heads around it. While I wouldn’t call it a “fun” read, I really enjoyed getting out of my comfort zone. Our club’s discussion on it was awesome! It was cool to talk about what we liked and what we didn’t, and to puzzle out the mysteries together. The stories are interesting — Sonmi for the win! — but you shouldn’t tackle it if the phrase, “I really love reading” has never passed your lips.

Minding the Manor

Minding the Manor, Mollie MoranMollie Moran’s memoir of her time as a scullery maid and cook in 1930s and 1940s England. Down-to-earth tone, excellent storytelling, and tantalizing glimpses into the lives of those working “below stairs” at the end of an era. Perfect for fans of Powell’s Below Stairs.

The Spirit War

The Spirit War, Rachel AaronThe continuation of the stories begun in The Legend of Eli Monpress, and one of my two current reads. It’s been a couple of years since I first picked up Rachel Aaron’s series, and I’m playing catch-up. So far this novel is just what the doctor ordered.

What are temps like in your neck of the woods?

Review: The Secrets of Wishtide

The Secrets of Wishtide, Kate SaundersWidowhood does not agree with Mrs. Laetitia Rodd. A woman of her age and situation should be content to sit by the fire with a bit of sewing, but it’s simply not her cup of tea. She prefers moonlighting as a private investigator in the service of her brother, a popular criminal barrister.

Her most recent assignment, however, does not provide much in the way of excitement. Charles Calderstone, son of the well-connected Sir James Calderstone, has fallen in love with the wrong sort of woman. His parents are convinced that Helen Orme is not who she pretends to be — and they ask Mrs. Rodd to ferret out the truth. It’s an open-and-shut case.

But the walls of Wishtide, the Calderstone’s home, hold many secrets. As the bodies pile up, Mrs. Rodd discovers that nothing is what it seems.

Manners and murder

I’ll read almost anything, but I always end up back at murder mysteries — and books like The Secrets of Wishtide are why.

Author Kate Saunders has created a character with the manners of a queen, the brains of Hercule Poirot, and a spine of steel. I loved getting to know Mrs. Rodd. Scarcely less wonderful is her landlady, the unflappable Mrs. Benson. It’s like a Sherlock Holmes story, but with less cocaine and more actual investigation.

The mystery is good, if a trifle over-complicated. Saunders gets a bit heavy-handed throughout; she gives Mrs. Rodd plenty of opportunities to judge some “unfortunate” for their situation before magnanimously announcing to the reader that she’s being judgy and patting herself on the back for walking a mile in said unfortunate’s shoes.

Those complaints excepted, I loved The Secrets of Wishtide. It’s the first in what looks to be a great series. I’m always excited to read about strong female characters who kick ass and take names.

Review: We Bought a Zoo

We Bought a Zoo, Benjamin MeeLife takes you strange places. Benjamin Mee always loved animals, but he never thought it would lead to buying a zoo. He also never imagined embarking on such an adventure without his beloved wife, Katherine.

But that is where he finds himself: elbows deep in paperwork and big cats, working with his family to revitalize a failed zoo in the south of England.

We Bought a Zoo is Mee’s chronicle of his family’s two-year journey toward zoo ownership. What started as a lark soon became a vocation, a calling to save the animals and the people at Dartmoor Zoo.

Talk about a bold move

You know what probably doesn’t make life easier? Sinking all your money (plus your siblings’ and mother’s) into buying a zoo.

It started out as a pipe dream, a wild hare that no one imagined would take over their lives. But the more Mee learned about the zoo — its animals and its people — the more he saw his ownership as stewardship.

While it’s always better for animals to live in their natural habitats, sometimes zoos are the only thing standing between an animal and extinction. A zoo closure means stressful travel or even death for animals. Mee was determined that that wouldn’t happen.

We Bought a Zoo is a timely reminder to care about the world around me, to follow my passions, and to do what makes me happy, even if other people think I’m crazy.

Book vs. movie

We Bought a Zoo was adapted into a film starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson in 2011. The filmmakers decided to set the script in Southern California, probably so it would appeal to an American audience and so they could cast top American talent.

It also introduced the love interest angle. It made for a nice movie, but wasn’t more interesting than Mee’s original story. That said, there are some great moments that made the film a truly wonderful experience.

I can’t say whether the book or movie is better — they’re too different for direct comparisons. Suffice to say they’re both wonderful, and you should check them out.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. May’s challenge was to read a book that has a movie based off it.)

Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City, Erik LarsonOn February 24th, 1890, Chicago was chosen to host a world’s fair that celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.

Daniel H. Burnham — who later designed New York City’s famous Flatiron Building — was chosen to put together and lead the group of designers and architects responsible for building the fair’s buildings and other wonders. The Exposition Universalle in Paris, France the year before had ruffled American feathers, and Burnham was determined to build a world’s fair that put other countries to shame.

Chicago’s business owners were excited about the throngs of people who would soon be flocking to their city. Among them was a man known to his customers as Dr. H.H. Holmes. The handsome doctor could charm anyone, especially the young women who flocked to the city in search of jobs and excitement. He would use that charm to lure and murder at least nine people, most of them inside his booby-trapped hotel.

The Devil in the White City is the story of Daniel Burnham’s efforts to take Chicago to new heights, and H.H. Holmes’ efforts to drag the city into hell.

What a ride

I picked up The Devil in the White City because I’d read that it was a phenomenal look into the creep-tastic H.H. Holmes murders — the history of the Chicago World’s Fair didn’t seem nearly as interesting.

Well, I came for the murder, but stayed for the architecture. Honestly, I can’t decide which story is better.

You might not think there’s much to putting together a world’s fair — that’s where you’d be wrong. Burnham had a little over three years to choose a team, find a suitable location, design and construct dozens of buildings, landscape the square mile of fairgrounds, and bring exhibits and people in from all over the world. Plus he had to find some way to “out-Eiffel Eiffel,” the man who just a year before had astonished the world by designing and building the Eiffel Tower, the world’s tallest man-made structure.

Jammed cheek-by-jowl with that insanity is the story of H.H. Holmes, the psychopath who built a hotel with hidden rooms and a crematory and then murdered at least nine people before being arrested. Reading about how he lured women, plotted their murders, and then disposed of their bodies (after dissecting them) chilled me to the core.

Larson could have written separate books about each of the subjects; his master stroke was putting them together. What could make for a bigger juxtaposition than a group of men trying to bring Chicago into the 20th century with engineering and entertainment marvels, and a single lunatic suffocating and gassing women and children in the basement of his gloomy hotel?

Endlessly fascinating

Holmes is, of course, as interesting as he is repulsive. Much of what investigators learned about him was never presented in court, and many primary sources that discussed him are lost to time. We have only the testimony presented at his trial, as well as Holmes’ own memoir (untrustworthy in itself).

The concept of psychopathy was only just being formed in the early 20th century, and contemporary investigator and general citizenry just couldn’t comprehend the idea of a man killing people just because he could, and because he could get away with it.

We don’t know what made Holmes the monster he was. The only information we have about his childhood comes from the man himself, and may be entirely fabricated. Was there a traumatic event that sent Holmes down his evil path, or was he simply born a psychopath? We’ll never know, and that keeps me up at night.

Only slightly less interesting to me was the man who landscaped the Chicago World’s Fair: Frederick Law Olmstead. He designed New York City’s Central Park, and would go on to design the grounds of Biltmore, the North Carolina home of George Vanderbilt.

Olmstead was obsessed with landscape design. He dwelled on the subject like composers dwell on their compositions, and painters on their canvases.

Flowers were not to be used as an ordinary gardener would use them. Rather, every flower, shrub, and tree was to be deployed with an eye on how each would act upon the imagination. This was to be accomplished, Olmstead wrote, ‘through the mingling intricately together of many forms of foliage, the alternation and complicated crossing of salient leaves and stalks of varying green tints in high lights with other leaves and stalks, behind and under them, and therefore less defined and more shaded, yet partly illuminated by light reflected from the water.’

I wish I could be as passionate about anything as Olmstead was about landscape design.

More juxtapositions everywhere. As Olmstead was trying to coax life from the muddy grounds of the world’s fair, Holmes was snuffing it out mere blocks away.

The Devil in the White City reads like a novel, but is in fact a well-researched telling of the Chicago World’s Fair and one of history’s most famous killers. True crime fans will love it. Give it a read today.