One-Minute Book Reviews

January 1, 2012

‘War Horse,’ Michael Morpurgo’s Anti-War Novel for Ages 8–12

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A farm horse adapts to life as a cavalry mount and more in World War I

War Horse. By Michael Morpurgo. Scholastic, 165 pp., $6.99, paperback. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

War Horse is narrated by a horse that has mastered the use of the semicolon. If you can accept this, you will probably have no trouble believing the rest of his adventures, which begin when a Devon farmer sells him to a British officer in World War I and which take him to the Western Front, where he serves as a cavalry mount and a hauler of guns and carts full of wounded soldiers and ammunition.

Joey has a white cross on his reddish brown forehead and bears his suffering with the saintliness that the mark implies. He gallops through so many odds-defying escapes that the suspense depends less on whether he will survive than on whether he will again see Albert Narracott, the farmer’s son who misses him back in England.

Michael Morpurgo invests this plot with an anti-war message uncluttered by the ambiguities that combat involves. He gives no sense that some ideals are worth fighting for or that World War I had causes beyond “some old duke that’s been shot somewhere.” After being commandeered by Germans in France, Joey falls under the care of a soldier known as Crazy Old Friedrich, who insists that he is “the only sane man” in his regiment:

“It’s the others who are crazy, but they don’t know it. They fight a war and they don’t know what for. Isn’t that crazy? How can one man kill another and not know why he does it, except that the other man wears a different color uniform and speaks a different language. And it’s me they call crazy!”

Adults may hear a faint echo of Catch-22 and  All Quiet on the Western Front in the observations of Friedrich and others. But preteens who haven’t read those books are likely to find the ideas in War Horse fresh and expressed in terms they can understand. And the historical setting of the novel offers 8-to-12-year-olds an appealing change from the contemporary realism and paranormal fantasy more often pitched to them.

Like Black Beauty, War Horse takes the form of an interior monologue by a beloved English horse whose hardships reveal a purity of spirit. Joey has a gentle nature and treats his companions better than many characters in recent children’s fiction treat their classmates. His friends, human and equine, repay his kindness and support the ageless theme of War Horse: People and animals comfort each other amid the sorrows of war. For all of Joey’s valor in combat, the title of his story has an ironic aspect. War Horse could have been called Peace Horse.

Best line: No. 1: “Within minutes the mist began to clear away and I saw for the first time that I stood in a wide corridor of mud, a wasted, shattered landscape between two vast unending rolls of barbed wire that stretched away into the distance behind me and in front of me. … This was what the soldiers called ‘no-man’s-land.’”

Worst line: “For just a few short moments, we moved forward at the trot as we had done in training.” All moments are short.

Recommendation: The direct, conversational writing style of War Horse lends itself well to reading aloud.

About the author: Morpurgo is a former children’s laureate in England.

Published: 1982 (first UK edition), 1910 (Scholastic paperback edition).

Links for the movie version: Watch the trailer and see an interactive map of the trip Joey takes in the film.

You can follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 5, 2008

A 13-Year-Old Slave Seeks Her Freedom in 1776 in Laurie Halse Anderson’s ‘Chains,’ a National Book Award Finalist (Countdown to the Caldecott and Newbery Awards, #3)

A black teenager in New York City hopes to win her freedom by exposing a plot to kill George Washington

Chains (Seeds of America Series). By Laurie Halse Anderson, 316 pp., $16.99. Ages 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

On the eve of the American Revolution, thousands of slaves lived in New York City. In Chains Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of a fictional 13-year-old owned by a cruel Loyalist couple with a regal townhouse on Wall Street in 1776.

Isabel Finch learns of a plot to kill George Washington as she serves wine and cheese on a silver platter to the Locktons’ Tory friends, and she later sneaks away to warn Continental Army soldiers of the danger to their commander. She hopes her spying will persuade the Patriots to free her and her 5-year-old sister, Ruth, also owned by the Locktons. The soldiers have more urgent concerns after the British invade New York, and without reliable allies on either side, Isabel forms a dangerous plan to win her freedom on her own.

This well-written and beautifully designed young adult novel brims with interesting period details that serve a worthy theme: What is freedom? Why did white colonists, as they fought for independence, tolerate the enslavement of blacks?

Chains also has action so fast-paced — and at times over-the-top — that it borders on soap opera. Isabel joins the Locktons after her former owner breaks a promise to free her and her sister. She is beaten, thrown into a dungeon, hauled before a judge, put in stocks, and branded on the face with an I (for “Insolence”) after she tries to flee. She sees a hanging, the great fire of 1776, and dead bodies stacked at a prison that houses her friend Curzon, a former slave. She hears of a throat-slashing, a bayonet execution, and other atrocities.

Laurie Halse Anderson recounts all of this with an evenness of tone that robs her tale of some of its impact. Telling her story in her own voice, Isabel speaks matter-of-factly, whether she is describing her owners’ evil deeds or a rare joy such as the news that Curzon has survived a battle. Each new trauma gets the same emotional weight, a trait that places the book closer to high-quality genre fiction or a good newspaper story of long-ago events than to art. Chains describes Dickensian horrors without the Dickensian pathos. You follow Isabel’s story raptly, but you don’t feel nearly as much for her as you should.

Best line: Among the many good period details: “Madam opened an envelope and shock out two gray strips of mouse fur, each cut into an arch. Leaning toward the mirror, she glued the mouse fur onto her own eyebrows, making them bushy and think as fashion required.”

Worst line: “My bones were hollow sticks; my brainpan empty.” “My bones were hollow and my brainpan empty.” This repetition of a nearly identical line on back-to-back pages suggests a either a cutting-and-pasting oversight or that Halse Anderson couldn’t decide where to put or how to punctuate the line.

Newbery/Caldecott assessment: It will be interesting to see what the Newbery judges do with this one. Chains was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html. So it should get serious attention from the Newbery judges. But it has so much violence that, although none of it is inappropriate in context, you wonder if the judges might consider it instead for the Michael Printz Award, given to a book for older readers.

Published: October 2008. Chains is the first book in a series about Isabel that will continue with Forge.

If you like historical novels about independent girls, you might also like: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/. Schlitz won the 2008 Newbery Medal for her book of monologues and dialogues Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village. A review of and reading group guide to the book appeared separate in separate posts on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 26,2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/26/.

For more on the Revolutionary War era: Jean Fritz has written an excellent series of illustrated books about the American Revolution for 9-to-12-year-olds that includes Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George (Putnam,1996) and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (Putnam, 1997). Books by Fritz www.cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/meet/jeanfritz.html are available in many libraries and in stock at online bookstores and many others.

Furthermore: Laurie Halse Anderson wrote Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and other books www.writerlady.com. She lives in Mexico, New York.

Other posts in the “Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Awards” appeared on May 10, 2008 (Pale Male) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/ and Nov. 22 (Zen Ties) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/11/22/.

Janice Harayda is a former judge for the National Book Critics Circle Awards. She has reviewed children’s books for more than a decade.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Historical Novel ‘Chains,’ a Finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
Chains (Seeds of America)
By Laurie Halse Anderson
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

On the eve of the American Revolution, thousands of slaves lived in New York City. In Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story a fictional 13-year-old girl owned by a cruel Loyalist couple with a regal townhouse on Wall Street in 1776. Young Isabel Finch learns of a plot to kill George Washington as she serves wine and cheese on a silver platter to the Locktons’ Tory friends, and she later sneaks away to warn Continental Army soldiers of the danger to their commander. She hopes her spying will persuade the Patriots to free her and her 5-year-old sister, Ruth, also owned by the Locktons. The soldiers have more urgent concerns after the British invade New York, and without reliable allies on either side, Isabel forms a dangerous plan to win her freedom on her own.

Discussion Questions for Young Readers

1. Isabel and Ruth Finch are slaves. How are their lives similar to those of other slaves you’ve read about? How are they different from them?

2. Did you know that slavery existed in places like New York City before you read Chains? Did Laurie Halse Anderson convince you that some New Yorkers really did have slaves? How did she do it?

3. Isabel and Ruth are sold to a married couple after their former owner refuses to honor a promise to free them. Elihu and Anne Lockton are “Loyalists.” [Page 38] Who or what are they loyal to? Who or what is Isabel loyal to? What role do clashing or divided loyalties play in the novel?

4. After moving in with the Locktons, Isabel tries to run away. A judge orders that she be branded with the letter I for Insolence. [Page 145] Branding is both physically and emotionally painful. Why might slaves like Isabel have felt humiliated by it?

5. Elihu Lockton hits his wife, Anne, during an argument. [Page 108] Why do you think the author put this scene in the book?

6. Isabel answers to several names. When the Locktons buy her, she is Isabel Finch. Anne Lockton changes her name to “Sal Lockton” (and calls her “Girl”). [Page 128] Isabel’s friend Curzon calls her “Country” (and has two names of his own). Why do the different names matter? Do you think Anne Lockton just liked the sound of “Sal Lockton” better than “Isabel Finch”? If not, why might she have wanted to change the name?

7. The title of this novel refers to more than one kind of chains. What are some of different types of “chains” it involves? What does Isabel mean when she says, “I was chained between two nations”? [Page 182]

8. The mayor of New York tells Isabel’s owner: “The beast has grown too large. If it breaks free of its chains, we are all in danger. We need to cut off its head.” Who or what was the “beast”? [Page 89]

9. There’s a lot of action in this book, some of it going on in the foreground (what happens to Isabel) and some in the background (what happens in places like Trenton and Princeton). Why do you think the author told you what was taking place in, for example, Philadelphia when this book is mainly about Isabel’s life in New York?

10. Isabel notices that the Patriots are fighting for freedom, but their idea of freedom doesn’t seem to include people like her. A male slave defends the Patriots by saying: “Some Patriots own slaves, yes, but you must listen to their words: ‘all men, created equal.’ The words come first. They’ll pull the deeds and the justice behind them.” [Page 164] What did he mean?

Extras:
11. “‘Freedom and liberty’ has different meanings,” Isabel’s master, Elihu Lockton says. What are some of the different meanings it has for people in this book?

12. Chains includes colorful facts about everyday life in 1776. What are some of the most interesting?

Vital Statistics:
Chains (Seeds of America Series). By Laurie Halse Anderson, 316 pp., Simon & Schuster. $16.99. Ages 10 and up. Published: Oct. 2008
Chains was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html.

A review of Chains appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Dec. 5, 2008, in the post that directly followed this one http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/12/05/.

Laurie Halse Anderson also wrote Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and other books www.writerlady.com.

If you like historical novels about independent girls, you might also like: Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/.

For more on the Revolutionary War era: Jean Fritz has written an excellent series of illustrated books about the American Revolution for 9-to-12-year-olds that includes Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George (Putnam,1996) and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (Putnam, 1997). Books by Fritz www.cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/meet/jeanfritz.html are available in many libraries and in stock at online bookstores and many others.

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

If you found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to your blogroll so you won’t miss others. Reader’s guides appear on the site frequently but not on a regular schedule. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and has been approved by and appears on Open Directory lists. It is one of the top 10 book review site in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts/ Literature” blogs: www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 23, 2008

Why Didn’t ‘Sea of Poppies’ Win the Man Booker Prize?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:58 am
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Sea of Poppies ranks higher on Amazon than any 2008 Man Booker Prize finalist except the winner, The White Tiger. Why didn’t that award go to its author, Amitav Ghosh, an Indian-Begali resident of New York? A review in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal argues that the book has serious defects:

Sea of Poppies means to explore grand themes — colonialism, commerce and caste among them. But the novel falls short of the praise heaped on it, weighted down by the burden of Mr. Ghosh’s sermonizing.”

Reviewer Abheek Bhattacharya adds that the novel “is roped with enough storylines to rig a four-masted schooler and populated by so many characters that you need a manifest” to keep track of them:

“Mr. Ghosh has said that this novel is just the first in a trilogy on the British Opium Wars. Perhaps by the trilogy’s end the tale will assume the coherence and fullness that its first installment lacks.”

Read the full review at online.wsj.com/article/SB122429055763246745.html

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 8, 2007

Under the Neapolitan Sun — A Repressed British Soldier Has a Sensual Awakening in Anthony Capella’s World War II Novel, ‘The Wedding Officer’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 pm
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When love seasons the pasta sauce

The Wedding Officer. By Anthony Capella. Bantam, 423 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

The Wedding Officer gives unexpected life to a theme that English novelists have developed so often it borders on a cliche — that of the repressed Brit who has a sensual awakening in Italy. This love story isn’t on par with E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View and Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April. But it is popular fiction of a high order, or easy but intelligent reading that is far above novels such as Newt Gingrich’s Pearl Harbor.

Captain James Gould arrives in Naples in 1944 with the thankless assignment of discouraging marriages between British soldiers and their distracting Italian girlfriends. His emotions collide with his duties when Livia Pertini becomes the cook for the Allied officers and prepares sumptuous pasta dishes followed by deserts such as baked pears with honey and rosemary. As James’s passions awaken, Mount Vesuvius emits ominous plumes of smoke, the bloodbath at Anzio approaches, and Naples resembles an open-air brothel overrun by prostitutes who sleep with soldiers to pay for their syphilis treatments.

As he tells this briskly paced story, Anthony Capella deftly balances history, gastronomy and the dilemma of a young intelligence officer at odds with more than the Axis powers and the local gangsters. And that mix helps to make The Wedding Officer the rare popular love story that may appeal equally to men and women. Anybody who doubts it needs only to read the first line of this novel and see if she — or he — can resist reading more: “The day Livia Pertini fell in love for the first time was the day the beauty contest was won by her favorite cow, Pupetta.”

Best and worst lines: This post will be updated, possibly by the end of the day, with these lines and more information on Capella’s work. I’m still in computer purgatory.

Published: May 2007 www.theweddingofficer.com and www.bantamdell.com

Furthermore: For information on the movie versions of The Enchanted April and A Room With a View, go to the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com and search for their titles. Von Arnim was born in Australia and moved to England at a young age.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 15, 2007

Review and Reading Group Guide to ‘Water for Elephants’ — Coming Friday on One-Minute Book Reviews

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A character in Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants says of the Depression-era traveling circus that provides the setting for the novel, “The whole thing’s illusion, Jacob, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what people want from us.”

Does something similar apply to this No. 1 bestseller? Are the virtues critics and others have found in the novel real or overplayed? Find out Friday when a review of and reading group guide to the novel will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews, which dealt with the first two chapters on Sept. 14 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/14/. You can find the publishers’ guide to Water for Elephants at www.algonquin.com.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 14, 2007

Five Things I Learned About Sara Gruen’s ‘Water for Elephants’ From the First Two Chapters

Yesterday I read the first two chapters of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants www.algonquin.com, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. Here’s what I learned about the novel from them:

1. The narrator is a man in his 90s. He sometimes thinks that if he had “to choose between an ear of corn or making love to a woman,” he’d choose the corn.

2. The characters say things like “Dagnammit” and “Grady, git that jug back, will ya?”

3. Some characters “hiss,” “cackle,” “bark,” “hoot” and “cluck” their words instead of saying them. (As in: “‘Woohoo,’ cackles the old man,” page 26.)

4. These clichés appear in the first page-and-a-half: “thunderous applause,” “screeched to a halt,” “My heart skipped a beat,” “No one moved a muscle,” and “ ‘you’ve got a lot to lose.’”

5. Susan Cheever says this is a book about “what animals can teach people about love” (quote in the front matter).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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