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. 

Confused? 

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. 

Realistic? 

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.  

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Think History is Boring? Think Again.

Glynis Tryon is the librarian in Seneca Falls, New York.  The year is 1848 and she has just been approached by her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton to petition the women of Seneca Falls.  If we held a Women’s Rights Convention, would you come?

Shy Glynis is anything but excited with her new assignment.  Especially since curious Glynis smells something fishy in the recent death of one of the library’s benefactors. 

Wrapped up simultaneously in a murder mystery and a history-making convention, Glynis is not exactly leading the life of a typical take-care-of-the-home-and-the-kids nineteenth century woman.

Bronwyn Lear is Glynis’s niece.  She also happens to be a spy.  A female spy.  The year is now 1861.  Lincoln has been elected and is journeying to the White House for his inauguration.  When Bronwyn uncovers an assassination plot, she has to find a way out of the Deep South to warn Lincoln… which of course means not getting killed before she can pass on her information. 

Spanning historical events- the first Women’s Rights Convention, Native American relations in the north east, counterfeiting, the Underground Railroad, the role of spies in the Civil War, John Brown's raid- Mirriam Grace Monfredo’s Seneca Falls Inheritance series embodies more than just historical fiction.  While accurately depicting life in this era, from the position of women to the conditions in which soldiers were surviving and dying in the armies of the Union and the Confederacy, these books also span the genres.  I learned intriguing information about the civil war (and verified these facts later), became wrapped up in a love triangle or two, and set my brain to puzzling mysteries all within the pages of a single book.  And there is a whole series of these amazing works of art!  For works of art they truly are, written to envelope the reader in the action. 

They make you think.  What would you have done?  Would you have put yourself in incredible danger to help a slave?  To save the president?  What lengths would you have gone to to save a brother?  A friend?  Would you have obeyed orders or followed your heart?

I loved these books so much that I reread them less than two years later.  And of course I fell even more in love the second go round. 

Transport yourself back in time.  Lose yourself in the intrigue, the heart-wrenching decisions, and the world-changing history.  You won’t regret it.    

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The end doesn't always justify the means...

Many works of science fiction depict a world where science has become a curse because humans’ reliance on technology has caused them to stop thinking for themselves. A few individuals in power come to control everything because nobody cares enough to stop them.  In The Passage, a governmentally funded, top-secret experiment goes horribly wrong.  Yet despite the fact that other authors have shown us a bleak future if we forget our past in search of a more advanced future none do so quite as powerfully, as vividly, as Justin Cronin. 

A scientist loses his wife to cancer.  Retracing the tracks of several terminal cancer patients who were mysteriously cured after a trip through the jungle, this scientist embarks on a dangerous mission in the wilderness of Mexico.  The goal: tracking down a virus that, by targeting the thymus gland, restores the immune system, and youth.  Not only can this beat cancer, it can drastically extend a lifetime.  There’s a problem though.  A side affect you might say.  A very dangerous, this is why the whole project is top secret, kind of side effect. 

So what happens when the secret gets out?  What happens when the virus spreads across the country, the continent, carrying its “side affect” with it? 

The world as we know it changes.  Drastically.

This is more than a science experiment gone wrong.  It is a government screw-up of epic proportions, and a deadly one at that.  Ironic?  That a virus that can save lives results in other lives being destroyed?  I’d say so.  And Justin Cronin captures the results with incredible imagery. 

100 years after the outbreak, Cronin takes readers into the minds of the future, a future where only a few even know that starry skies exist in more than stories.  We, as readers, feel those individuals’ fears in every fiber of our beings.  And we journey with a brave few who decide to attack those fears in an effort to save humanity. 

This novel is powerful.  It’s a little creepy, certainly thought provoking, and like all good books, thoroughly addicting.  But it is also a caution:  Make sure you know the costs before you try to reap the benefits.  

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Secret of the Standing Stones

Jamie Fraser is a stubborn, red-maned Scotsman from the Highlands of the 18th century.  Claire Randall just completed duty as an army nurse during World War II.  Their worlds collide when Claire is hurtled back through time by an ancient circle of standing stones.  So the story begins.

A marvelous blend of historical fiction and fantasy, Diana Gabaldon’s tale transports the reader 200 years back in time.  Lost and confused, returning to the stones quickly becomes impossible for Claire, as a rapid series of events sweeps her into the heart of the highlands and captures her in the midst of a simmering conflict between the highland clans and England.  Once Claire pieces together when she is, she realizes that tensions won’t be simmering much longer- according to the history books the Scottish clans are on the brink of destruction by the English. 

Can the past be changed?  Is saving the Scottish clans the reason the stones sent her into the past?
Everything Jamie knows and loves is in danger, only he doesn’t know it yet.  What he does know is that Claire seems to have a knack for trouble, and he has a knack for rescuing her.  They discover a passionate love, a love that turns Claire’s world even further inside out.  Where does she belong?  With Jamie and approaching battle?  Or should she keep trying to get back to the 1900’s? 

Claire and Jamie’s story spans time and space.  An infinite love must surmount unimaginable danger as the reader is provided a history of the Scottish highlands in the wrenching Outlander series.  While the reader’s mind becomes familiar with Scottish accents and laughs at Scottish humor, the heart fills with a fear of what is to come.  On the edge of your seat through the entire adventure, it is nearly impossible to completely tear your mind away from the action to continue with everyday life.  Always in the corner of your mind is that anxiety for the characters’ futures, admiration for the strength of the love they share and fight to keep, sorrow for the world they stand to lose. 

Can you imagine knowing what the future holds, and not knowing if anything you do will be enough to change it?  Can you imagine a love so strong that you would give up 20th century life to live in a world full of uncertainty and fear? 

These books are incredible- prepare for an emotional ride.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"The Wheel of Time turns" ~Robert Jordan

I started A Crown of Swords this morning, the seventh installment in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series.

 An error in judgment? 

Probably.  Because after reading only the prologue I’m once again thoroughly trapped in a world approaching Tarmon Gai’don, the last battle between dark and light, the battle that decides all battles.  The winners in this one are the winners for eternity.
   
Not exactly an ideal setting for a story about finding oneself and growing up, especially when finding yourself may mean finding a not so pleasant destiny…

The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills and master storyteller Jordan turns the Wheel of Time to spin together the threads of three na├»ve teenage boys from a town in the middle of nowhere; boys, who long for adventure, but quickly realize the stories leave out the fear and danger, the confusion and betrayal.  What begins as an action-packed coming-of-age story in the first book morphs in the sequels into an epic tale of battle and love, conniving and subterfuge, rash decisions and powerful magic- any fantasy lover’s dream.

Yet despite the many worlds already existing in the fantasy galaxy, the plot is not one that has been beaten into the dust by every book to come before it.  New, imaginative, and containing components across genres, the Wheel of Time creates a world that no one has ever encountered before.  Aside from the typical light versus dark, the story line drastically deviates from the ordinary, at times even leaving the reader questioning where the line between light and dark, magic and reality really lies.  Writing from multiple perspectives, the web Jordan weaves often appears a tangled mess, with events happening on one side of the world that in some way affect what is happening on the other, if only you could puzzle out how.  And then gradually the separate threads of separate people come together and a completely unpredicted pattern is formed.  The reader becomes trapped, trying to puzzle out the tangle, connect the dots.  Then awe sets in, at the unbelievable design the weave creates.   And every time there is some knot left somewhere for the next novel in the series to pick up.

Additionally, unlike some epic writers, Jordan truly takes the time to paint deep pictures of his characters instead of superficial sketches a reader soon forgets.  Starting with unique names- Perrin, Rand, Egwene, Nanaeve, Lan, Thom- and spiraling inward from there, Jordan deeply personalizes those whose tale he tells.  

More than detailed personalities though, Jordan also takes time to detail settings, to fling the doors of the world wide open for the reader to step through instead of simply providing a window through which they can view events from the sideline.  Reading these books is like being a part of them; you can see every room and landscape, touch every surface, thrill in every triumph and weep with every death. 

In short, for those of you looking for an adventure, you can find it and more in The Wheel of Time.  But be warned, addiction is a serious risk.    

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"Trust me. I'm a genius." ~Artemis Fowl

In fifth grade I was introduced to the world of the fairy underground, LEPrecon (silly humans and their leprechauns), an elf named Holly Short, and a 13-year old criminal master mind.  I still love that place, the land where a teenager young enough to believe that fairies may exist but smart enough to outwit them plans to kidnap a fairy, and then ransom him/her off for fairy gold.  And that is just the beginning.  I read the newest installment of the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer in less than two days over Christmas break.  Artemis Fowl the criminal mastermind has become a more globally conscious genius, his body guard Butler still manages to tease death, with the help of his trusty Kevlar vest.  Foaly the technologically geeky centaur now has a lady friend that somehow managed to separate him from the tinfoil hat he once sported.  And Mulch Diggums, dwarf thief extraordinaire continues to stuff his face every chance he gets. 

For those of you new to the world of Artemis Fowl and the Fairies that live thousands of feet beneath our feet- I’ve introduced you to some of the eclectic cast of characters because the personalities Colfer has embedded within them enthralled me.  As those of you who are familiar with the stories would agree, these personalities appeal to humor and sincerity, love and hate, fear and deep sorrow, confusion and insecurity, wonder, and of course imagination.  Understandable by avid fifth grade readers but enjoyed by the likes of parents and teachers (especially my mom and my fifth grade teacher Mr. Nickey) the tale of Artemis Fowl’s trials and tribulations, genius acts and occasionally questionable morals epitomizes the fantasy genre.  The plots are youthfully enjoyable, yet full enough of hilarious witty remarks and Artemis and Foaly’s genius thoughts to stimulate the adult mind.  

Realistic to the point that you will find yourself looking over your shoulder for the tell-tale shimmer that reveals a shielded fairy (at least as a fifth grader), yet embedded with magic and adventure, Artemis Fowl’s world begs, and deserves, to be explored by readers everywhere.  It is a world perfect for a weekend escape, a week- long odyssey, or even a month long hiatus from life in this universe.  And please, start at the beginning of the series.  That way, when the world effectively enchants you, you will still have the rest of the story in front of you to discover.    

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Falling in Love

“Reading is like breathing.”  It’s true.  Harper Lee wrote it, Scout said it, and I believe it.  Books were my first true love, aside from my family of course.  I cherish every moment I have with them, and get noticeably grumpier when we are apart for too long.

When you are little, reading is a chance to curl up, to let the voice of your dad reading Owl Moon (Jane Yolen), the chilly, quiet walk through the forest, the flight of the great horned owl and its shadow over the milky snow, lull you into peaceful sleep. 

Unless of course your grandmother reads Eloise (Kay Thompson) and you end up rolling on the floor laughing at the sound effects, racing down the halls skimming a stick over the doors of the Plaza thumpity thump thump thwack. 

Or your mom is reading Gooseberry Park (Cynthia Rylant), and at the end of the chapter you experience the thrill of your first cliffhanger.  It’s a thrill so great that I remember coming in late one night, asleep on my feet, and while brushing my teeth managed to revive myself to hyperness because I wanted to know what happened next. 

Falling in love with books was easy because my family loved them so much too.  And then learning to read on my own, to be able to make the words come alive all by myself!  That was when the cozy comfort of my long time friends turned into an unforgettable, passionate love.   I was magically able to spread my wings fly.   I didn’t need to beg my parents or grandparents or babysitters to read to me anymore because the worlds were waiting at my fingertips.  I could soar through as many storybook lands as my heart desired.  Which, as you can probably imagine, was a lot.  My own brain, rather than someone else’s voice became the key to the magic kingdom of imagination.  Animal Ark (Ben Baglio), Little House in the Big Woods (Laura Ingles Wilder), The Black Stallion (Walter Farley), The Last of the Really Great Wangdoodles (Julie Andrews Edwards), worlds both completely fantastical and totally realistic, in the past or the future or right now, anything is possible and life is an adventure.  I fell in love with the many worlds of the literary parallel universe.  Stars in my eyes, I took it upon myself to discover every nook and corner of that fantastic place, to explore every place, meet every character, live a thousand lives and love a thousand loves.  I still have a long way to go.