Sunday, January 29, 2012

260 (2012 #5). Heart and Soul

by Kadir Nelson

Subtitled "The Story of America and African Americans," this illustrated book of a little over 100 pages is an informational overview of American history told from the viewpoint of a fictional African American grandmother, whose own grandfather was a slave.

In a note at the end, author/illustrator Kadir Nelson said, "I knew I could not convey the whole story in a hundred pages, so I felt the most natural and concise way to tell the tale would be through the recollections of a narrator whose family history was very closely tied to the American story."  Nelson built real ancestors into the story, such as his Seminole great-great-grandmother.

The illustrations in this book are full-page or double-page paintings, and they are gorgeous.  Nelson served as the model for many of the people in his illustrations.

Its length and amount of text, combined with its reading level (6th to 8th grade on various systems), make this book more suitable for upper elementary and middle school children.  It's not a picture book; it's divided into short chapters.  A timeline, bibliography, and index round out the book.

This book was honored with two 2012 Coretta Scott King Book Awards, the Author Award and an Illustrator Honor.  Nelson won these same two awards in 2009 for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. He won another Illustrator Honor in 2004, and was the Illustrator Award winner in 2007 and 2005.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[This book was borrowed from and returned to the local public library.]

Saturday, January 28, 2012

259 (2012 #4). Burning Bright

by Tracy Chevalier,
read by Jill Tanner

I've read a couple of Chevalier's other works, and was looking forward to this one, as the blurbs on the dust jacket indicated that poet William Blake was a character, and I was hoping to learn more about him.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the case - Blake (and his wife) are only minor characters in this book.  I only learned a little about his idiosyncrasies and quirks, and it seemed odd that he would discuss philosophy with a couple of uneducated children (the main characters) and they in turn would quote his poetry.

The novel covers the period from March 1792 to July 1793, when Blake was a printer and relief etcher (a technique he invented; something I did not know) in the Lambeth section of London.  The Kelleway family from Dorset moves in next door, lured to London by the promise of work by circus owner Philip Astley (another historical figure in the book).  Not too far away is the streetwise Butterfield family.  Their youngest teenage children, Jem and Maggie respectively, become friends and are the main characters in this book.

The strength of the book is Chevalier's rendering of life in late Georgian-era London and Dorset (I was pleased to learn Jem's hometown of Piddletrenthide was real), especially harsh realities of life in the city.  Little details like the making of Dorset buttons and Windsor chairs added to the atmosphere.

Perhaps more familiarity with Blake's work would have helped me get more out of this novel.  I recognized his famous poem "The Tiger" (the title of the book comes from the first line), but missed some of the themes about opposites (Maggie representing Blake's Songs of Experience and Jem his Songs of Innocence) and symmetry.

British actress Jill Tanner's reading kept me going through the plodding plot.  She was excellent at creating different voices and appropriate accents for the characters, and even sang some of the bawdy pub songs, adding to the period feel of the book.  The audiobook does not include the acknowledgments at the end of the print book, where Chevalier lists her sources.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  A print copy for reference was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

258 (2012 #3). The Union Quilters

by Jennifer Chiaverini

This was an engrossing piece of historical fiction set in Pennsylvania from 1861 - 1868.  It continues with many of the characters from The Runaway Quilt and shows the impact and effects of the Civil War on the men and women of the (fictional) Watersford community (which I always picture as being a little bit like Slippery Rock).

Chiaverini did quite a bit of research for this book, as evidenced by the bibliography in her acknowledgments at the front of the book.  She aptly demonstrates what life was like for the men who went to war (and those who didn't), the women at home (and in the community), and the free Blacks in Pennsylvania.  It's particularly appropriate with publication during the first year of the Civil War bicentennial.

The plot is compelling and the characters are intriguing.  Jonathan and Gerda were particularly interesting, obviously intelligent people, but not so wise in matters of the heart and tact, for continuing to carry a torch for the other despite Jonathan's marriage to another.

The book itself is beautiful, with a gorgeous cover that includes a white quilted background, lovely printed fabrics, an appliqué star, and a period photograph of women of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts sewing an oversized flag for the soldiers during the Civil War. The endpapers have pictures of some of the quilt blocks described in the text.

This was an easy but fascinating read.  It stands alone and it's not necessary to read other books in the Elm Creek Quilts series first (although one who's already read The Runaway Quilt will be able to make connections with this book).  As someone who has read some of the books in this series, I now want to read The Lost Quilter, which begins in 1859 immediately following the events chronicled in Gerda's memoir in The Runaway Quilt, and parallels The Union Quilters.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Monday, January 23, 2012

257 (2012 #2). The Lady of the Rivers

by Philippa Gregory

This is the third book in the "Cousins' War" series, but is actually a prequel to the other two books, The White Queen and The Red Queen.  It's about Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the mother of the White Queen, Elizabeth, the wife of England's King Edward IV.  While researching for that book, Philippa Gregory discovered that little information was available about Jacquetta.  Gregory compiled her findings about Jacquetta into an essay that was combined with essays on Elizabeth and on Margaret Beaufort (the Red Queen) by other historians in a nonfiction book called The Women of the Cousins' War, published earlier in 2011.  Unfortunately, Gregory only refers to this book in her author's note, rather than clarifying what is and isn't true in her novel, so I'm making some guesses in this review.

The Lady of the Rivers is historical fiction, not history, and that's pretty evident right from the start, where Gregory has her protagonist meeting Joan of Arc.  It's plausible, but there's no proof.  In an interview, Gregory said, "I discovered that the man who arrested Joan of Arc and released her to her death at the hands of the English was Jacquetta's uncle. At the time of Joan's arrest, we don't know where Jacquetta was living, but she may well have been staying at her uncle's château.  We have sound historical accounts of the women of Jacquetta's family befriending Joan; Jacquetta's aunt and great-aunt were named by Joan at her trial."

Probably the most interesting character in the book is Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI, as she evolves from young bride to determined ruler. In her research, Gregory apparently determined that Margaret and Jacquetta were friends.  I did enjoy the romance between Jacquetta and her second husband, Richard Woodville, the first Earl Rivers.  I think the fact that they had (at least) 14 children showed that was real!

This book sets the stage for the later accusations of witchcraft against Jacquetta by showing her - reluctantly - reading tarot cards with Joan and Margaret, and scrying for her first husband John, Duke of Bedford (who Gregory says practiced alchemy and did not consummate the marriage with Margaret, and died two years after this marriage).  As in The White Queen, Gregory also continues with the supposed family connection to water goddess Melusine.  I did find that and some needless repetition of characters' titles (which one would not do in a real conversation) to be rather annoying.

While not as good as some of Gregory's other works, I did enjoy this book, and learned a lot about the background of The Wars of the Roses.  Although the author's note was lacking on historical background (guess we are meant to read The Women of the Cousins' War), the book's map, family trees, and three-page bibliography helps.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Sunday, January 22, 2012

256 (2012 #1). Hurricane Story

by Jennifer Shaw

Fine-art photographer Jennifer Shaw was nine months pregnant and living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina approached.  She and her husband and pets evacuated and her son was born the next day in Alabama, the day the storm destroyed her city.  They spent two months and 6000 miles on the road before returning home.

In 46 photographs, with single-sentence captions, Shaw tells the story of their experience.  Shaw used a Holga camera, which explains the vignetting, blur, and soft focus of the square-format photos.  The Holga is considered a toy camera (a simple, inexpensive film camera), and it's fitting that the subjects of the photographs are dolls, toys, and other small models that Shaw has used to tell her story, a graphic-novel memoir.  It's very evocative, and very different from viewing "real" images of the devastation and aftermath.

The hardbound book, by Broken Levee Books, an imprint of Chin Music Press in Seattle, is absolutely gorgeous.  The cover is real cloth and has a lovely sheen to it.  The back endpapers feature a map of Shaw's journey, and the back cover has the tiny footprints of her then-newborn son.  At a list price of $18, it's a bargain for a coffee table book - yet small enough to fit on an end table.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[This book was obtained through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to a young fine-art photographer who works with film and should enjoy it.]