Friday, February 28, 2014

381 (2014 #9). Mary, Called Magdalene

by Margaret George

Very little is known about the Mary Magdalene of the Bible.  Margaret George has taken the five events involving her in the Gospels, plus research into the era, and constructed a believable biographical novel about this female apostle and disciple of Jesus.  The story provides some how-and-why background for those five Biblical events, as well as showing what life was like, especially for a woman, at that time and place.

Part One of the book (about 200 pages) covers Mary's childhood up until the time she meets Jesus.  This section of the book was the most interesting for me.  Part Two is her discipleship, through Christ's death and resurrection and the Pentecost.  This section is the longest (about 350 pages, and probably could have been cut down a bit, given that it only covers three years.  Part Three (70 pages) is her apostleship and the rest of her life, and is told mostly in the form of letters and a "testament" she writes for her followers about those years.

Mary is a sympathetic and realistic character.  I will provide one spoiler here and tell you that in this book, she is not the prostitute of so many false legends.  However, I did not find the character of Jesus to be especially compelling.  Perhaps that was intentional on George's part, to keep the book from becoming overly religious.  Instead, it concentrates on the main character, whom the author (in an interview in the back of the edition I read) describes as "a spiritual seeker who must often choose between two mutually exclusive goals and as a strong, courageous woman."

Like all of Margaret George's books, this one is long - 630 pages, including a four-page afterword that explains her assumptions and lists some of her sources.  I liked this book better than her Helen of Troy, but not as much as The Memoirs of Cleopatra or The Autobiography of Henry VIII.   I would recommend it.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

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

Sunday, February 16, 2014

380 (2014 #8). The White Princess

by Philippa Gregory,
read by Bianca Amato

This is the fifth (and hopefully last) book in Philippa Gregory's Cousins War series about the royal women of the Wars of the Roses.  This book is about about Elizabeth of York, granddaughter to Jacquetta of Luxembourg, (subject of the third book in the series, The Lady of the Rivers), daughter to Elizabeth Woodville (subject and narrator of book one, The White Queen), daughter-in-law to Margaret Beaufort (The Red Queen, the second book), and (supposedly) mistress of her uncle King Richard III, the husband of Anne Neville in the fourth book in the series, The Kingmaker's Daughter.

Unlike the mysterious Jacquetta, her wily and resourceful mother Elizabeth, or the pious and controlling Margaret, the younger Elizabeth, like her aunt Anne, is rather dull.  She is married to Margaret's son Henry Tudor - Henry VII - to unite the houses of York and Lancaster and begin the Tudor reign.

According to this book, Elizabeth is madly in love with Richard and weds Henry, who was responsible for his death, reluctantly.  Gregory has Henry rape Elizabeth before their wedding, to be assured of her fertility before he weds her.  Otherwise, despite the long-ago betrothal he feels he must honor, he might move on to one of her younger sisters.  Perhaps he (and his mother) found it strange that she hadn't become pregnant if she was Richard's mistress.  Arthur was (in fact) born strong and healthy eight months after his parents' wedding, but I think having Henry rape Elizabeth (for which there is no historical evidence) is a mistake.  Gregory could have written Elizabeth as more decisive, a willing partner to Henry or even his seducer, realizing the advantages it could have for her.  But that doesn't fall in with Gregory's theory that Richard did not murder his brother's sons, Elizabeth's brothers, the infamous Princes in the Tower.  Perhaps he did not, but I don't think it was necessary to have Elizabeth SO in love with him (even if being involved with your blood uncle was not considered incestuous in those days).

I got tired rather quickly of a number of things in this book:

  • Elizabeth's ongoing professions of love for Richard; 
  • The frequent and needless repetition of the full names and titles of characters in conversations (which would not happen in real life), as well as "She shrugs" and "He nods" and variations thereof, plus some similes repeated word-for-word (her first two children both have hands like little starfish, and fingernails like little shells, pages 136 and 260);
  • Some annoying anachronisms (picture books on page 428 did not appear until 1658, and even then were not common, and a reference to "The Princess and the Pea"  on page 432, not published until 1835 by Hans Christian Andersen) and mistakes (for example, the Tudor rose is pictured on the cover and described on page 346 as "a red marking inside a white flower" and on page 519 as "white with a red core," when it is actually the opposite); and
  • Henry's fear and worry, expressed as fury, over "the boy," an endless series of pretenders to the throne, to which Elizabeth always says "I don't know" when asked if they might be her younger brother Richard, who her mother supposedly sent away before a substitute commoner was taken away to the Tower. 
At 519 pages, this book is far longer than it needs to be.  And yet, the book ends abruptly - in late 1499, just after the executions of the last pretender (Perkin Warbeck) and Elizabeth's first cousin Edward Warwick, the last (known) male York with a claim to the throne.  While I did not expect the book to end with Elizabeth's death in February 1503, from complications after the birth of her seventh child (who also died), I would have thought the book would have addressed the death of her sixth child and third son Edmund (born near the end of this book) in June 1500, as well as the death of her oldest and favorite child, Arthur, in April 1502 - if only because these deaths might be seen as fulfilling the curse Gregory invents that Elizabeth and her mother put on whoever murdered the Princes in the Tower.

And what happened to Lady Katherine Huntly - the wife of Perkin Warbeck and (according to Gregory) Henry's mistress?

Some of these could have been addressed in an afterword, but they were not.  Yet again, Gregory's author's note at the end of the book is very sparse - less than two pages - although she does provide some suppositions for her fiction.  Gregory does include a bibliography of  five-plus pages, as well as a map and a family tree at the book's beginning, although the latter, frustratingly, does not include any death dates post-1485 when the book begins (which is ridiculous, since these are all historical figures and there's no "suspense" about their deaths).

The audiobook doesn't have these last three features, although they could have been easily added as a PDF file.  The story is told in first-person by Elizabeth, and is read by South African actress and audiobook veteran Bianca Amato, who also does an excellent job creating voices for other characters.  The audiobook has beginning-of-disc and end-of-disc messages, which I appreciate, but has pauses that are way too long between segments, making this already too-long book seems to drag out even more.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[The audiobook and print copy were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Saturday, February 15, 2014

379 (2014 #7). Locomotive


by Brian Floca

If you have a train lover in your family - adult or child - this is the book for you.

Locomotive, written and illustrated by Temple, Texas native Brian Floca, uses an imaginary train trip by a family in 1869 as the framework for an homage to steam engines and the Transcontinental Railroad.

This book won the 2014 Randolph Caldecott Medal, which "honors the illustrator of the year's most distinguished American picture book for children." The 53-page narrative is set in a very readable Scotch Roman typeface, and Floca used watercolor, ink, acrylic, and gouache in his illustrations. He uses different typefaces for the onomatopoeia and other emphasized works sprinkled throughout the book.  I learned a lot about trains from this book!

The front endpapers lay the groundwork for the story, giving the historical background to the Transcontinental Railroad and a map of its route.  It's clear even from this brief introduction how significant this railroad was to travel in the United States.

The second-person narrative and the perspective of many of the illustrations pull you into the story and make you feel as if you are there.  It starts with a little human piece of the railroad's history and then moves right into the cross-country trip.  The sounds the steam engine makes are very realistic (based on my limited experience riding the Durango & Silverton Railroad).

Floca lets the reader experience the train ride from the point of view of both passengers and crew.  As passengers, you see what it was like to eat (at stops) and sleep (in a berth if you were rich enough) and even use the toilet on the train!  I also got a feel for what life must have been like for my great-grandfather as a fireman on the railroad...
...as well as learning about the roles of the engineer, brakemen, and switchmen.  Floca also shows you the scenery both crew and visitors see, with lovely drawings of various landmarks along the way.

There's a detailed note at the end of the book about locomotives, as well as a list of all the author's sources.  The endpapers at the back of the book feature a detailed diagram of the steam locomotive and an explanation of how the engine works - that I (not at all mechanically-minded) could actually understand.

Because of its length and all the detail in this book, I think it is most appropriate for about fourth grade and up.  Younger children would enjoy the free-verse-style narrative being read aloud to them.  Links to various educational resources are available on Floca's website.

Besides the Caldecott, the American Library Association (ALA) also awards the Robert L. Sibert Informational Book Medal each year to "to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished informational book published in English during the preceding year....Information books are defined as those written and illustrated to present, organize, and interpret documentable, factual material for children. There are no limitations as to the character of the book, although poetry and traditional literature are not eligible. Honor books may be named; they shall be books that are truly distinguished."  Locomotive is a 2014 Honor book, as was Floca's Moonshot in 2010 and Lightship in 2007.

Locomotive is also an Orbis Pictus Honor Book for 2014.  The Orbis Pictus Award was established in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of English for promoting and recognizing excellence in the writing of nonfiction for children.  Floca also illustrated Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, which in 2011 won the Orbis Pictus and was a Sibert Honor book.

Floca spent about four years working on this book, and it shows.  In an interview with Publisher's Weekly just after winning the Caldecott, he said about this book that "his goals were twofold. 'Those engines themselves are such fascinating pieces of machinery. They’re really complicated on one level, but they’re also very understandable machines. I was hoping the book would visually convey how they work so that readers could go through the book and piece it together.' Second, he also aimed to provide a 'sense of moving through a landscape and the landscape changing.'”  I think he achieved both goals.

It was disappointing to find a number of one-star reviews for this book on Amazon.com.  They were all from people who read this as an e-book.  I'm of the opinion that most picture books (especially ones like this one that have many double-page spreads and lots of details) should not even be offered in the e-book format by the publishers.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.  I have also ordered it for my university library's collection.]

Friday, February 14, 2014

377 & 378 (2014 #5 & #6). Two Saint Valentine Picture Books


Both of these picture books are titled "Saint Valentine."  One is written by Ann Tompert and illustrated in watercolors by Lithuanian artist Kęstutis Kasparavičius.  The other is written and illustrated by Robert Sabuda, using "mosaics created from marbleized and hand-painted papers (adhered to gray speckletone paper)," as stated on the verso of the book.
Very little is known about the real Saint Valentine.  There may have been as many as three, but all were martyrs with a feast day of February 14.  Both of these books focus on the St. Valentine of Rome, who lived in the latter half of the third century and may have been a doctor as well as a Christian priest. Both books relay some of the legends about him.

I really love the illustrations in Sabuda's book, especially this one:
© Amanda Pape - 2014

[The book by Ann Tompert was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  I purchased the book by Robert Sabuda and will be donating it to my university library.]

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

376 (2014 #4). A King's Ransom

by Sharon Kay Penman

It probably seems like I haven't been reading a lot lately, since this is just book #4 for 2014, but most of the books have been LONG.   This one was 685 pages.  I received it through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, probably because I have read and reviewed so many books about British kings and queens, mostly historical fiction and biographical novels, by Alison Weir, Hilary Mantel, Margaret George, and Philippa Gregory.

This was the first book I've read by Sharon Kay Penman, however, although I've certainly heard of her.  A King's Ransom is the fifth (and supposedly last) book in her self-named Henry II Trilogy, but you don't have to have read any of the previous books to understand this one.

This book covers the last six-plus years of the life of Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart), from his return from the Third Crusade in the Holy Land in late 1192, to his death in April 1199 (and a bit beyond that, to finish the story of his beloved sister Joanna and indomitable mother Eleanor of Aquitane).  During his trip home, Richard was captured by Leopold, Duke of Austria, and then imprisoned for 14 months by Heinrich, the Holy Roman Emperor.  He had to pay a huge ransom and provide high-born hostages (including some of his own kin) to finally be released.  He spent the last five years of his life in almost constant warfare with Philippe, the King of France, worried about his younger brother John, who'd plotted against him while he was at the Crusades and in captivity.

Penman implies that Richard suffered from some sort of post-traumatic stress after his captivity, and hints that (and embarrassment about being captured) led to an estrangement from his wife, Berengaria of Navarre.  They spent little time together and Richard died without an heir.  Some historians think Richard might have been homosexual and that may have been the reason, but Penman discounts that theory in her author's note at the end of the book.

That note, by the way, is excellent, as are the preceding Afterword and following Acknowledgements, documenting Penman's sources.  It's obvious this novel is well-researched.  The beginning of the book has a list of all the real-people characters, which is helpful.  The only thing lacking in this advanced reader's edition was a map.  I do hope one is included when the book is published on March 4, as it would be helpful, and interesting to see where the places in the novel are in present-day political boundaries.

I haven't read any previous books about Richard the Lionheart, and I learned a lot about him from this book.  The novel also sparked a desire to learn more about him; always the mark of good historical fiction. I'd be interested in reading the rest of the books in the series, as well as Penman's The Sunne in Splendour, about Richard III of England, and her next book (currently titled The Land Beyond the Sea), a novel set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem during the time of the Crusades.  However, I next need to tackle one of my three unread Margaret George books, each 630 or more pages.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[I received this advance reader's edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]