Friday, February 22, 2008

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is an extremely talented writer. If you haven't read any of his books, it is definitely worth your while to pick up at least one of his. Gaiman has a quirky sense of humor and an incredible ability to make the completely mundane and ordinary fascinating and original. Stardust, although not my favorite Gaiman book, is still worth the time.
Gaiman describes Stardust as a fairy tale for adults. It would be a great book for a young adult. There is death, but it is not graphic or drawn out. The characters are young and largely innocent; overall the story is a romantic love story. But, as with many of his stories, Gaiman connects the real world to the faerie world. He uses childhood poems and fairy tales as the means for Tristran, the hero, to travel unharmed through the world of faerie in search of the falling star he saw from his home town.
The cover of my book shows images from the movie of the same name. Inside there are further images from the movie. I must say, as much as I enjoyed the simple and relatively sweet story, I have no desire or interest in watching Claire Danes, Robert DeNiro, and Michelle Pfeiffer retell the story. The appeal of Gaiman's books are the stories that he weaves which allows the reader to imagine the faerie world that he creates. Having someone else translate that world onto the screen distracts from the appeal of the book.
I would recommend this book to Gaiman fans, Garth Nix fans, or readers who like to read novel entrés into traditional fairy tales.

Friday, February 15, 2008

At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon

This remarkably popular best-selling series about Mitford is brand-new to me. It was a light diversion and a fun read. Every page that I read made me think of my grandma. This was the kind of book that I could have easily and happily passed on to her knowing that there would be nothing in there offensive or awkward for an 80 year old to read. It is currently sitting in my stack of books to pass on to my mom.
In case you aren't familiar with Jan Karon's books, the story revolves around the life of Father Tim, a middle-aged Episcopalian Minister in a small town. The trials and tribulations of small town life keep Father Tim terribly busy. But, his faith and his sense of humor keep things light and interesting.
As with many stories, At Home in Mitford has a few mysteries that have to be solved along the way to keep the reader reading. The mysteries are all innocent - in that they are written in a way that is not overtly graphic, nor are they uncovering horrific treatment of others. That is not to say that Karon's characters are all perfect and un-human. There are very real conflicts and realistic social problems that Karon grapples with throughout the story.
Much of the appeal of the story revolves around Karon's ability to interject humor into life. Her humor is not generally the laugh out loud type, it is more of the smile in recognition type. Barnabas, the dog who only responds to recitation of scripture is one of the greatest, and most humorous, characters in the book.
If you're looking for a book that could not offend anyone, that is enjoyable without being completely mindless, and that you could share with your grandmother, this is a great series to start.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Lie by Moonlight by Amanda Quick

A friend sent me this book and I could not have picked up something more different than Measuring the World had I tried. It has been a while since I have read a romance novel. This one had some of the characteristics of a classic bodice ripper, but it had a genuinely interesting story with a mystery embedded in it that kept me glued to the page.
The two main characters meet within the first twenty pages and spend a fair amount of time thinking about one another, catching glances from afar, and being convinced that the other thinks them silly or not worthy of their attention. In that way, Lie by Moonlight is the archetype of a romance novel.
But, the plot was not quite so stereotypical. The story involves four teen-aged orphans who have been kept at a remote castle and educated for what reason remains a mystery. With the help of their teacher, the indomitable Concordia Glade, they flee the villains and discover the underlying plot to control them. The reason they have been abducted is clever and not something that I have read a half a dozen times. The ire of Glade who believes in greater equality for women during the height of Victorian England leads to some humorous escapades.
As my friend said, the book is better than the cover might suggest (The cover depicts a bare-chested, well-developed man with a mysterious flower tattooed on his pec). This is not a book to read to learn anything about Victorian British history. The accuracy is tenuous. But, it is a light and enjoyable read. All in all, a good fun book to pass the time.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann

I picked up Measuring the World to read for my book group. It is definitely not a book I would have picked up on my own. But, I am glad that I read it. However, I can't imagine that everyone else will necessarily feel the same way. It is a different book, that's for sure.
Kehlmann has intertwined the story of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, two early nineteenth century German scientists who lived contemporaneously and, in Kehlmann's book, shared scientific ideas in their later life. The confluence of these two very different men makes up the body of the story as Kehlmann alternates chapters showing how these men worked and interacted with people and the world around them.
I found the book terribly funny. But, I know that not everyone agrees. Kehlmann used very dry humor to poke fun at what the world looked like at the height of the Enlightenment. So many of the figures in the book viewed themselves as the pinnacle of civilization and yet in one short understated sentence Kehlmann completely pulled the rug out from underneath them. The humor is hard to explain without actually reading the book - there are jokes that just don't translate well.
Without a doubt, this is a very academic book. Many of the underlying principles rely on the reader knowing Europe during Napoleon's reign. The emphasis on nationality and passports, the intrigue as von Humboldt travels around the world, the missionaries who see themselves as helping the natives: each of these represents an understanding of psycho-social interpretations of human destiny in the nineteenth century.
Moreover, I was intrigued by the personal stories of the two scientists. There is not a story, per se, instead there are anecdotes that combine to give the reader a better sense of the men, but more importantly of the time in which they lived. The juxtaposition of Gauss who never left home if he could help himself and von Humboldt who traveled far and wide makes for an interesting read. That at the end of their life the two men met in the middle wrapped up the book neatly.
I don't know who I would recommend this book to - aside from those rare people like me who are fascinated by weird minutiae of European history. Or scientists who have a much better understanding than I do of the scientific experiments and view of the world that Gauss and von Humboldt had. It was quirky, but I'm glad I read it.