Books throw the reader into a new world. A fantastical world, a world strikingly similar to our own, or reminiscent of our childhood. A world depicting the future or the past. A world that may affect our own. Here we explore the alternate worlds of stories- a parallel universe.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

How the Penny Got its Face

Abraham Lincoln.  The 16th president of the United States, emancipator of the slaves, and lanky-top-hat-wearing-American-icon.  How did he do it?  How did he go from dirt-poor boy with a knack for telling stories to one of the most revered men in the history of America?  What challenges did he face and how did he face them?  How did he endear himself to the soldiers of the Union who were fighting for him?  What mistakes did he make?  And what is the full story behind his assassination?  Did you know he wasn’t the only one targeted that fateful night? 

In her book Team of Rivals Doris Kearns Goodwin tells Lincoln’s story.  Every aspect of it from the personal to the political, the campaigns for Senator and Presidency, the beginning of his life to the end of it- everything is detailed in this incredible book. 

Intriguing as the questions surrounding Lincoln may be, even I was at first a little daunted by this massive work.  And yet as soon as I finished the first couple chapters I was so captivated by the words, the way the words went together, and the story they so descriptively depicted that I forgot it was a history book.  Kearns Goodwin is such a masterful writer that she captures the essence of Lincoln and educates readers about his life in a way that doesn’t read like many biographies- dry, and maybe a little informative.   Instead this story is just that- a story.  It may not be a rollicking adventure with dragons or pirates or princesses, but it is a story, and perhaps all the more wonderful because of its truth. 

So why Team of Rivals?  What is the meaning behind the title?  It is just one example of Lincoln’s genius in the office of the presidency.  Instead of playing favorites, rewarding friends at the expense of enemies, Abraham Lincoln composed a cabinet made up of his fiercest rivals.  His reason?  They were the best in the field.  Why should the country suffer because he didn’t agree with them?  And the more strong, educated opinions you have in a room, the better the chance of determining the right stance, the policies that are best for the nation, the strategy to prevent the United States from falling apart.  So as Lincoln held his divided cabinet together, so he saved his divided country.  And he did it all without holding grudges, without severe reprimands.  Why yell when a meaningful story will do the trick?  

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Merlin's Story (at least the beginning everyone else leaves out)

We all know the name Merlin.  Whether you’ve seen the star-cloaked, long bearded wizard in a Disney movie like the Sword in the Stone or read about him in the tales of Arthur Pendragon and the Knights of the Round Table you have almost definitely come across the powerful, mystical prophet/advisor/druid/wizard/you get the picture in some form or another.  And yet T.A. Barron points out a flaw in the vast array of lore surrounding this character- no one mentions his youth. 
Oh there are numerous mentions of how he was born of a human mother and non-human father (probably a demon).  But what happened to him to transform him from half-mortal infant to legend?  How did his powers develop? 

T.A. Barron not only poses the question, he also answers it.  The Lost Years of Merlin tells the story of the boy Merlin.  How did he get his unusual name?  What happened in his youth to prompt the growth of his beard, a thing so unique that we now associate it with any wizard?  Why did he choose a cloak of stars?  And who were his parents?  Did he have any siblings?  How did he come to be able to see what others cannot, to foretell the future? 

These books are immensely creative.  They answer questions you never thought to ask.  And because the reader knows who the boy they are reading about becomes, little things, such as the stories his mother tells him about the constellations and the comfort he finds in the sky when she is no longer there gain new meaning. 
The writing style is clever and engaging, absolutely positively capturing the hilarious dialect of Shim the honey-loving giant, the energy of the leaf-clothed Rhia, and the insecurities of the wizard-to-be.

Most wondrous of all, the imagery throughout the story paints a picture of Fincayra- an “in between place.” A place neither wholly of heaven, nor wholly of Earth, where spirits walk, trees talk, and a young boy discovers both his past and his future.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Wonderful Worlds of Fairy Tales

Every now and then, when reality becomes especially harsh, the perfect escape is to the many worlds of fairy tales.  In those wondrous places anything is possible, happy endings are a given, and when you leave them you have a lighter outlook, a brighter perspective to confront the days ahead.  In times of stress I turn to two books- The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale and East by Edith Pattou. 

Both of these books have the uplifting, imagination sparking, heart-warming qualities of fairytales, but they are also incredibly unique.  They aren’t the stories of Cinderella or Beauty in the Beast told yet again from yet another perspective.  They are fresh, and while certain elements of the fairy tale are certainly evident and predictable, that is what places them in the genre- there have to be some similarities for the truly wonderful contrasts to stand out.   

In The Goose Girl a princess is sent to a far away kingdom to marry a prince she has never met.  On the way she is sabotaged by her maid and alone and abandoned must learn to live as a common citizen.  In doing so she comes to understand the hardships of normal lives, the unfair rules, and the lack of concern from royal to citizen.  So when her happy ending finally comes she can be a better ruler, a compassionate, caring, aware ruler who understands what the people need because she was in their shoes. 

You may say that you’ve heard a story much like this before.  But in Cinderella there is no emphasis on the abused girl-turned princess using her experience in the slums of life to better herself as a ruler.  And clearly I haven’t shared the twists and turns this plot takes or the magic that adds to the fairy tale (no there isn’t a fairy godmother).  Because if you read it, I want you to be as thrilled as I was. 

Told from many perspectives East tells the story of a dirt poor farm girl with a sense of adventure and her loving family.  When Rose acts on a strange offer to aid her ailing family she travels with a polar bear (who can talk, but only with difficulty) to a castle inside a mountain.  Every night someone comes to share her enormous bed (this sounds creepy I know, but just go with it it’s a fairy tale).  No candle stays lit in the darkness that accompanies the visitor- except a candle her mother gives her.  She knows as soon as she finally decides to light this candle and sees her nighttime visitor and the despair in his face that she has screwed up big-time and broken some unwritten code.  So to right the wrong she knows she committed, Rose travels to the far North, to a place no human has gone before.  And eventually she too finds happily-ever-after, but it is a happiness made up not of jewels and palaces, but simply a lifetime of love, weaving, and playing music. 

Obviously I’ve left out the best parts in that simple plot summary too- normally I wouldn’t want to give away the ending either, but I mean seriously, it’s a fairy tale so you could have figured out how it’s going to end yourself. 

In short, if you need an escape, turn to these stories.  I have read each of them three or four times and they truly don’t get old.  Each time I am left with that sense that anything is possible and with enough work I too can find happiness.  Trust me, escaping reality provides a most wonderful cure for stress.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Investigative Whiskers

In the mood for a heart-pounding, mind-stimulating mystery?  What about a creative tale featuring a hyper-sensitive moustache and a cat that can read? 

Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who… series epitomizes the mystery genre.  While there is the predictable death and intrigue, the imagination embedded in these books makes them anything but your run-of-the mill mystery.

 When reading a mystery, one must consider every little detail as a clue.  With these mysteries, every little detail may be a clue, but just as the reader starts connecting dots, the realization dawns that the dots cannot be connected, that the clues they were piecing together were in fact red herrings, events to throw the reader off the track that in reality have absolutely no bearing on the case at hand.  So then in the next book, the clever reader ignores seemingly blatant red herrings only to discover that they weren’t red herrings after all. 


The point is, these books are unpredictable.  Trends from one may or may not apply to the next murder.  You are not going to be able to solve it half-way through, so of course you won’t be able to stop reading until you reach the end. 

But one thing all the books share is a dynamic duo: James Qwilleran (yes that’s Qw NOT Qu) and his Siamese cat K’ao Ko Kung (aka Koko).  While Qwilleran jumps from beat to beat- Art, Interior Design, Food, his own Column, etc, intrigue follows.  And where there is intrigue, the curious man with the bushy salt-and-pepper mustache and his cat detective put their heads together to solve it. 


Maybe not, but enjoyable they certainly are.   It’s not like the cat talks- Siamese are just a special breed of animal with superior minds.  And of course nobody notices a cat when they show up to murder someone, so if the cat can somehow communicate what it’s seen, say by showing its owner secret doors hidden behind tapestries for example, or tracing certain letters with its nose…  Added to that Qwilleran has a mustache that may not be as sensitive as Koko’s whiskers but certainly has a knack for giving its owner hunches.  The combination is enough to make murderers shake in their shoes.

Varying in lengths these books are perfect for anything from a week or a month of puzzling to warming up the mind on a Sunday evening for the week ahead.