Posts tagged ‘War’

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.jpgTitle: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Illustrator: Portia Rosenberg
ISBN: 9781582344164
Pages: 782 pages
Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Publishing, c2004.

“I have studied histories and biographies of the Aureates to discover how they began,” said Strange, “but it seems that in those days, as soon as any one found out he had some aptitude for magic, he immediately set off for the house of some other, older, more experienced magician and offered himself as a pupil.”
“Then you should apply to Mr. Norrell for assistance!” cried Mr. Honeyfoot, “Indeed you should. Oh! Yes, I know,” seeing that Mr. Segundus was about to make some objection, “Norrell is a little reserved, but what is that? Mr. Strange will know how to overcome his timidity I am sure. For all his faults of temper, Norrell is no fool and must see the very great advantages of having such an assistant!” (222)

Reclusive Mr. Norrell is intent on being the only magician in England, buying up every book on the subject, refusing to take students, even causing the society of magicians to be disbanded in a bet intended to dissuade any potential rivals. But after a more elaborate display of magic, Mr. Norrell finds himself moving to London and years later taking a self-taught pupil named Jonathan Strange. Mr. Norrell rationalizes that if he teaches Mr. Strange, his ideas will be the ones to be spread and there will be no dissenting opinions on the matter. If only it were that easy. As Mr. Strange’s involvement in military matters takes him farther and farther from Mr. Norrell’s influences, he becomes bolder in his practices and disagreements with Mr. Norrell. A feud is afoot, possibly encouraged by forces outside of either magician’s control, one that will impact the lives of others both living and dead.

Clocking in at over 700 pages, this hefty novel is unlike anything I have ever read. Spanning a decade in the lives of the two magicians, the episodic prose is dense, scientific, and old-fashioned in tone and spelling. This is the only novel in recent memory that I have read to include footnotes, especially footnotes that are sometimes so complete they require several pages to conclude. Understandably some parts are more entertaining than others, with huge sections requiring concentration in order to slog through detailed accounts of magical preparation, study, and history. It’s unquestionably one of the most exhaustive backstories of fantastical creation, and the magic invoked by the two main characters is almost incomparable, following the rules outlined in the world building. Some readers may appreciate the thoroughness of the details while others will want to (and most likely will) skip ahead and find the more narrative portions, where the plot progresses more rapidly. An ambitious debut novel certainly, which the back jacket reveals took almost a decade to write, but one that readers need to be in the mood to start and commit to reading, otherwise they may find themselves resenting their efforts to complete the endeavor.

Half a Man

Half a Man.jpgTitle: Half a Man
Author: Michael Morpurgo
Illustrator: Gemma O’Callaghan
ISBN: 9780763677473
Pages: 53 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, text copyright 2005, 2006. Illustrations copyright 2014.

I would wake up then, shaking in terror and knowing that my nightmare was not yet over. For my nightmare would always seem to happen just a day or two before Grandpa came to stay. It was a visit I always dreaded. (4)

Michael’s grandfather was in the navy in the war when his ship was torpedoed and sunk. His grandfather considers himself one of the lucky ones since he didn’t die, but the burns have permanently scarred and affected his body. Told not to stare at his grandfather, Michael has difficulty connecting with a grandfather who doesn’t smile, doesn’t laugh, and doesn’t look like anyone else he knows. Eventually, they find common ground over silently fishing and reading when Michael visits his grandfather at his Sicily island cottage, and Michael may be able to use that connection to reconnect the rest of his family.

This is a quiet book, and one that may be better suited for adults or as a graduation gift then for middle school students, in the same way that Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go” is often given as gifts to adults. The obvious message is that, regardless of how his grandfather describes himself, he is not a “monster man” or “half a man”. It could be used to encourage conversation about what makes a man, or exploring their own family history, especially with the recently passed Veteran’s Day so closely preceding Thanksgiving. Symbolically the illustrations by Gamma O’Callaghan never show the grandfather’s current face and we only see a glimpse of what was in an old photo towards the very end of the book. It’s left up to the imagination to see the grandfather. The pictures sparsely depict the settings and invoke a reflective and melancholy mood with the primarily blue and gray drawings, accented by a specific shade of brilliant yellow and orange. The variety, from small insets to full double-page spreads, force the reader to slow down and absorb the short story and aid tremendously with the pacing of the book.

The Family Romanov

Family RomanovTitle: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia
Author: Candace Fleming
ISBN: 9780375867828
Pages: 292 pages
Publisher/Date: Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2014.
Awards: Sibert Honor (2015), YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult Finalist (2015)

Now, learning from advisers that the palace guard had deserted, he finally grasped the situation. There was, he concluded, no other choice. He would have to give in and appoint a government acceptable to the people. He immediately telegraphed Rodzianko with his offer. Minutes later, Rodzianko answered: “His Majesty . . . [is] apparently . . . unable to realize what is happening in the capital. A terrible revolution has broken out. . . . The measures you propose are too late. The time for them is gone. There is no return.” (173-174)

There was no return for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. For years the Russian nobility had turned a blind eye to the crippling poverty overwhelming the populace. Instead of consulting with his advisers, he relied heavily on the advice of his wife, Empress Alexandra, a foreigner who married him under the dark mourning cloud of the former emperor’s death. She in turn was driven by “a deep belief in the miraculous and mystical” and consulted a questionable character named Rasputin, who was also looked upon with suspicion by everyone except the royal family (28). It didn’t help that the heirs were isolated, and the only son’s illness was kept a secret. Breeding suspicion and discontent among the famine, frustration, and fear of the first World War, those feelings soon followed the royal family into hiding, but the worst was yet to come.

Anyone who has seen the movie Anastasia is at least partly familiar with the story of the last Russian Tsar and his family. I had the refrain of “Rumor in St. Petersburg” stuck in my brain through most of my reading. Most people probably never realized how inaccurate the plot of the movie was to history. As always, Fleming’s research is thorough, quoting extensively from the diaries and correspondence that have been miraculously saved for all these years. The details were surprising, including first hand accounts of what happened when the murders took place and a photograph of the room where the deed took place.

It’s an intentionally disheartening read, almost like when reading about the Titanic, because history tells you that this is not going to end well for the family. I found myself shaking my head in amazement that Tsar Nicholas II could be so out of touch and purposely naive regarding his responsibilities, to the point where he stopped opening telegrams from his advisers and took the word of his wife over his generals. Probably the best decision that Fleming made was to include the final chapter regarding life after the Tsar, the rumors of survival, and the final nail on the coffin so to speak when the bodies were revealed, 25 years after their initial discovery. A fascinating read, this one will intrigue and inform.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

It Will Get There — Eventually

I don’t normally do this, but I just recently read two nonfiction picture books that struck me as similar, not because of the format or the topic but because of the actions taken in each story.

Henry and the CannonsTitle: Henry and the Cannons: An Extraordinary True Story of the American Revolution
Author/Illustrator: Don Brown
ISBN: 9781596432666
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Roaring Press Books, c2013.
Publication Date: January 22, 2013

Stourbridge LionTitle: The Stourbridge Lion: America’s First Locomotive
Author: Karl Zimmermann
Illustrator: Steven Walker
ISBN: 9781590788592
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Boyd Mills Press, c2012.
Publication Date: March 1, 2012

On the surface, these tales have nothing alike. One tells the story of Henry Knox, who convinced George Washington during the American Revolution that he could transport the desperately needed cannons from Fort Ticonderoga in New York to Boston Massachusetts. As the book relates; “300 miles of lakes and rivers, hills and glades, and mountain forests separated Boston from Fort Ticonderoga. Dragging cannons the whole, hard way in winter was impossible.” But Henry did it, rescuing them from ships that were snagged on rocks and at one point sunk, dragging them through mud, lifting them out from the frigid waters when the ice they were traveling on broke, until all 59 were safely delivered.

In contrast, delivering a steam locomotive from England to Pennsylvania seems easy. Horatio Allen traveled to England, purchased several engines, and sailed back to New York City to await their arrival by several different boats. The tracks however were ill-equipped to handle the engine, which weighed almost twice what the gravity powered locomotives held, and ended up sitting idle for most of its time until it took up a new residence in a museum.

The stories I’ll admit have very little in common. Henry and the Cannons is a well told, little-known portion of history during the American Revolution. The pictures are somewhat muted in tone, but they convey the hazards of the journey in a style that is oddly engaging although not incredibly detailed in a way that one might expect. I find myself comparing them to a cartoon that I known I have seen. Schoolhouse Rock comes to mind, but that’s not right. The faces are almost indistinguishable from one another, and yet readers see the ice and snow forming on the row-boat as waves lap and one unlucky sailor bails. We see footprints left behind as the men struggled through the knee-deep mud. When the cannon is fired for show, everyone watching in the background is prepared for the impending sound as they cover their ears with their hands.

The Stourbridge Lion has an uneven hand when it comes to details. While readers see the popped nails from the wooden tracks and I LOVE the fact that there is not one or two but THREE maps to provide context for readers, we really don’t get a sense of how historic this first steam locomotive might have been. Readers are privy to the test run, but not to the actual work, if any, that the locomotive accomplishes. I got the impression that unlike the cannons, which definitely had an impact on the outcome of the war, it seems the importation of the locomotive was ill-conceived and almost pointless, since the tracks, infrastructure, and operators had to adapt before it could serve a productive use.

What links the two of them however is the journey. They actually both used the Hudson River, with 50 years separating the two journeys, which proves the importance of the Hudson River and begs the question of who else and what else has traveled on it over the years. But I kept thinking about how cumbersome, awkward, and difficult it would be to transport each of these shipments in their respective time frames. Both were moved before cars were popular and readily available. Instead, horses and ships were used to haul the two loads. The sheer man power it must have taken to get the cannons over the hills and through the snow is mind-boggling, and the comparison of the ships used to transport the cannons to the ship used to transport the locomotive would be interesting. Reading these two books side-by-side allowed me to make comparisons that I don’t think I would have considered. While I felt the presentation and subject matter of Henry’s Cannons was handled better and made a more interesting read, The Stourbridge Lion brings to light an interesting event where early adapters of a new invention were way before their time.

Have you made an interesting connection between two books recently? What books would you pair together?

The Impossible Knife of Memory

Impossible Knife of MemoryTitle: The Impossible Knife of Memory
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Narrators: Julia Whelan and Luke Daniels
ISBN: 9781480553569 (audiobook)
Pages: 391 Pages
Discs/CDs: 8 CDs, 9 hours 13 minutes
Publisher/Date: Brilliance Audio, c2014.
Publication Date: January 7, 2014

Hayley Kincain is starting school for the first time in years in her father’s home town, after spending time on the road with him. Both Hayley and her father suffer memory issues, her father from PTSD after serving time in Afghanistan, and Hayley from the traumatic events following his return. Hayley knows that her unpredictable father is just one small step away from the breaking point, but she’s never quite sure what will set him off. One day he’s shooting hoops, the next day he’s shooting his gun at the television. She hides her situation from everyone, trying to avoid the pitying looks and their inevitable separation. But when a classmate begins showing an interest in her and her circumstances, Hayley wonders if there is a future, or if it’s just one more complication in a world causing her and her father so much hurt.

As always, Laurie Halse Anderson weaves readers into a spell of a story. On more than one occasion I found my heart in my throat as we see Hayley struggle to stitch her life together. You can see that Hayley and her father aren’t bad people, but don’t know how to handle their situation. The title is applicable, as Hayley continuously refers to memories as slicing through her system, and her father would probably describe them in the same way as they spring upon both of them unbidden, altering how they look at the world. You get the sense that they are balancing on a knife point, just waiting for their family to get sliced in half.

A slight spoiler, but Hayley’s classmate Finn has entered my top five list of perfect boyfriends. He pushes for more information, and comforts and aids Hayley as he can, but he recognizes that they are both in over their head at the climatic ending. Their sarcastic, witty back-and-forth banter is the comedy relief that such a serious topic needs, and you anticipate their relationship long before it is formalized. There’s an ongoing gag about their involvement with different covert operations and Finn’s slow driving and derelict car. Hayley’s jaded voice is offset by Finn’s down to earth disposition. His persistence pays off, and their first date is swoon worthy. With all the complications that their families bring to the table, they struggle, and the real question is if they will stay together or not. Can I bring him to life?

Julia Whelan does an excellent job bringing Hayley’s anguish and uncertainty to the narration. She does an admirable job distinguishing voices, and listeners will get caught up in the story. Luke Daniels adds some intermittent insights into Hayley’s father’s head. While I wish there were more, I can understand what the author is doing. We never get a full picture of what is going on in a wounded veteran’s head, so it’s unfair that we would get more information than Hayley has on her own father. The slow drawl and anguished distance that Daniels conveys through those short interludes is terse, tense, and timely to the plot. I’m glad they choose to have two narrators.

The Shadow Throne

Shadow ThroneTitle: The Shadow Throne
Series: The Ascendance Trilogy, book #3 (sequel to The Runaway King)
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Map by: Kayley LeFaiver
Narrator: Charlie McWade
ISBN: 9780545284172 (hardcover), 9780545640060 (audiobook)
Pages: 317 pages
CDs/Discs: 9 hours, 4 minutes, 8 CDs
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2014 (Scholastic Audiobooks, c2014)

With an unsteady voice, she added, “Jaron, do you expect to die in this war?”
My thumb brushed over hers. Not for the first time, I wondered how her skin could be so soft. Then I said, “With the kind of threat we’re facing, I will fight to the death before I surrender. And I don’t see a path to victory.”
“But you’ll find a way. You always do.”
“Maybe Carthya will come through this. But mine has never been the kind of life that leads to old age.” (20-21)

Jaron has every reason to be defeated. After returning home from the pirates camp with a broken leg, he knows war is on the horizon, and receives word of its arrival at the same time he learns of Imogen’s capture. He saved her once, he can do it again, right? With his friends scattered, his country surrounded, and a possible spy in their midst, Jaron is flung into the deadliest battle yet. While he recognizes that he might not make it out alive, he refuses to admit or believe that fate might fall on one of his friends. But will his efforts force him to choose between his companions, his country, or his own freedom?

I posted reviews to the first and second books in the series earlier this year. I still recommend the audiobook versions as an enjoyable listening experience, with Charlie McWade literally providing a voice to Jaron. But with the amount of movement going on between towns and countries, readers might prefer having the map in the print version readily available as a reference of everyone’s destinations and locations. The other thing that I noticed this time around is that the Jennifer Nielsen presents conversations quite frequently as summaries from Jaron’s perspective. I don’t know if she does this to speed the plot or to avoid writing dialogue. I also don’t know if I noticed this more because I was listening to the audiobook rather than reading it. For instance, here are two examples of times I wish I could have “heard” the conversation:

To avoid any argument, I explained only what was necessary of my plans. Mott’s mouth was pinched in a think line of disapproval and Harlowe didn’t look much happier. Tobias clearly thought I had gone insane during my time in captivity, and as that wasn’t entirely impossible, I didn’t contradict him. In the end, they agreed to all that I asked, and Harlowe made Mott and Tobias Promise to keep me safe. Mott replied that he could protect me from everyone but myself, which I thought was a fair compromise. (122-123)

The more we talked about it, the more I was certain that something was very wrong. (194)

Listening to the audiobook, descriptions like the ones just quoted feel as if Jaron is breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the reader. Readers also get first hand analysis of Jaron’s physical and mental state, such as “I was neither the biggest nor the strongest in this battle. My only hope was to be the quickest.” (205) These comments might have read more fluidly if the book had been presented in the third person or if someone else had told Jaron, but from Jaron’s perspective such self-awareness can be slightly jarring.

At other times, these asides are some of the most beautiful and heart-felt portions of the book. I can’t quote any of them without giving away way too much of the plot. Suffice it to say, you’ll know what I mean when you encounter them. Swoon! Balancing the more heart-felt moments, Jaron’s biting sarcasm is a welcome constant in the series. For instance, after encountering a friend, Jaron claims “I need to smile. Tell me something not awful.” After hearing his companions were “miserable”, Jaron arches an eyebrow and says “This is the worst good story I’ve ever heard.” The story continues with an evening rain, making it “cold and so dark we could barely see our own fingers, and the night seemed to last forever.” Jaron responds “I’m beginning to wonder if you understand what ‘not awful’ means.” (94-95) That’s the Jaron we know and love, and those times always brought a smile to my face.

While the print copy benefited from the map, the one benefit of the audiobook was the inclusion of an “exclusive scene” that was not included in the print copy. This bonus scene transports readers to a mid-point in the story and shows an event which Jaron is not present to witness. It explains the actions of another character, and I find myself comparing it to the Harry Potter epilogue at the end of book seven. Some people might like it, but I would have rather been kept in the dark about this character’s motivations than receive this somewhat loose rational behind their actions. It definitely adds more intrigue to the situation. Just like the second book, Jaron paints himself into one corner after another, with no possibly way to get out (at least to everyone else) until some miraculous foresight is revealed that propels him to the next problem. You can’t help but admire his intense planning, but it is also hard to believe a plan this complicated and hinged on so many factors is going to succeed. Still a highly recommended series, this book is Inception meets Princess Bride, and I think fans of both would appreciate the complexities.

Truce

0-545-13049-2Title: Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting
Author: Jim Murphy
ISBN: 9780545130493
Pages: 116 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc.

In a matter of days, six million soldiers would find themselves facing weapons of unimaginable destructive power. Many of them would be blasted from the face of the earth, while others would be left permanently wounded in horrible ways. None of these young men realized that their leaders had lied to get them to fight in a war that did not have to happen. Nor could they know that on December 25, 1914, they would openly defy their commanding officers and meet on the battlefield in what can only be described as a Christmas miracle. (x)

Since I’ve read Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan I know that World War I started when the Austrian Archduke was assassinated while visiting Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d also previously heard about the impromptu truce that was called between troops in order to celebrate Christmas, which when the war started was when everyone thought the war would be over. Little did they know at that point it was just starting. But Jim Murphy glosses over the causes of the war and strives to put the focus on the soldiers involved in the conflict. There are copious photos of soldiers in the trenches, close-ups of the no-mans land that they could not cross, and the aftermath of the futile charges when they did attempt an attack. Soldiers from both sides are quoted extensively, with first-hand accounts taken from journals, letters home, and official correspondence. Even if you’d previously heard about the impromptu and imperfect truce, there’s new insight to be gained.

For instance, did you know that the truce was previously coordinated? Mini-truces had been organized between the troops, as they exchanged songs and sometimes supplies over the crumbling walls. Murphy relates that one area even had a shooting competition, where a target was placed in the middle and each sides shot until it was hit. But arranging the truce depended upon the individual platoons, battalions, and soldiers.

The most surprising thing was that it was frowned upon by the superior officers!

Back at headquarters, [English] General Horace Smith-Dorrien had been disturbing reports all day about strange goings-on at the front. […] The commander of all British troops, Field Marshall John French, was just as angry. “When this [fraternization] was reported to me I issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct, and called the local commanders to strict account, which resulted in a good deal of trouble.
The German High Command took much the same view and issued a terse order: “Commander Second Army directs that informal understandings with enemy are to cease. Officers . . . allowing them are to be brought before a court-martial.” (82-83)

As a result, some of the opposing officers in the field met to warn their enemies that they’d be resuming their hostilities. Some soldiers initially refused to resume firing, and others warned their counterparts each time they were forced to give the impression that they were still fighting, such as when they were being inspected by higher ranking members. While most places continued to fight by the new year, soldiers stationed on both sides at Ploegsteert Wood kept the friendship until March. I laughed at some of the comments, as I’m sure the commanding generals did not, such as when one captain declared that the men waved at each other and made tea and acted “most gentlemanly” and that “this useless and annoying sniping can have no real effect on the progress of the campaign.” (88)

A truly intriguing idea that begs the perpetual and never solved “What if” question that is probably hanging over the heads of every soldier involved. “What if the fighting had stopped there?” How different would history and the world be? Especially how reluctantly some of the parties were to even get involved in the conflict, I wish the practice of listening to the troops and the people would have enacted some change. As the holidays approach and we hear about “Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men,” consider reading this book and learning about how this idea was practiced in the worst of circumstances.

This was posted in conjunction with Nonfiction Mondays, a drive around the internet to encourage reading and reviewing nonfiction titles.

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