One-Minute Book Reviews

December 15, 2008

Laurence Bergreen’s ‘Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

Filed under: Biography,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:36 pm
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The latest in an occasional series of posts on books I didn’t finish and why I didn’t finish them

Title: Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. By Laurence Bergreen. Vintage, 432 pp., $16.95, paperback.

What it is: A biography the 13th-century Venetian explorer who became the world’s first adventure traveler. Marco Polo was named one of the Top 10 Biographies of the year by the American Library Association’s Booklist magazine.

How much I read: About 75 pages (the first and last chapters and parts of others).

Why I stopped reading: Marco had too much competition from holiday parties. I liked the book a lot and would probably have finished it if I’d started it in June.

Best line in what I read: “In disgrace, Andrea Dandolo lashed himself to his flagship’s mast and beat his head against it until he died of a fractured skull, thus depriving the Genoese of the satisfaction of executing him.” Dandolo led a Venetian fleet of 96 ships defeated by the Genoese in the Battle of Curzola. Marco Polo has many lines as memorable as this one.

Worst line in what I read: “ … although he was done with his book, it was not done with him.” Bergreen means “finished.”

Comments: A strange thing happened as I was thinking about the best books I’d read in 2008: I realized that none was a new biography when, in a typical year, I read several or more. So I picked up Marco Polo, an acclaimed 2007 biography that recently came out in paperback. A blurb from Simon Winchester calls Bergreen “America’s liveliest biographer,” and to judge by what I read, he’s at least one of the liveliest.

Bergreen has a flair for storytelling that includes an ability to evoke people and places in a few lines. He can also sum up broad historical forces lucidly. Here’s the first paragraph of his brief explanation of the cause of the Crusades:

“The Crusades began with a simple goal: to permit Christians to continue to make pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulcher, the tomb in Jerusalem in which the body of the crucified Jesus was believed to be laid to rest. Christians had been visiting this holiest of Christian shrines at least since the eighth century AD. Matters changed dramatically in 1009 when Hakim, the Fatimid caliph – that is, the Muslim ruler – of Cairo, called for the Holy Sepulcher’s destruction. Afterward, unlucky Christians and Jews who found themselves in Jerusalem were likely to be persecuted, and the city’s Christian quarter was surrounded by a forbidding wall that controlled access. Within five years, thousands of churches had been burned or ransacked.”

Try to rewrite that paragraph and say as much in fewer words, and you’ll see how good Bergreen is. Would that all of our history professors had been so concise!

Recommendation? Marco Polo is much longer than Longitude but may appeal to its fans. Like Dava Sobel’s bestseller, Bergreen’s book tells well-written story that involves the history of exploration.

Read an excerpt and more at www.laurencebergreen.com.

About the author: Bergreen also wrote Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, and other books.

© 2008 All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 15, 2008

The Battle of Towton Field, Fought on Palm Sunday in 1461, Takes the Stage in Anne Easter Smith’s Historical Romance, ‘Daughter of York’

Filed under: Historical Novels,Romance Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:20 pm
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Yorkists and Lancastrians drowned in their chain mail at England’s Antietam

The bloodiest battle fought on English soil took place on the snowy Palm Sunday of 1461 and claimed more than 30,000 lives. Anne Easter Smith www.anneeastersmith.com recalls Battle of Towton Field and other War of the Roses events in her Daughter of York (Touchstone, $19.95, paperback), a historical romance about the marriage of Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III, to Charles the Bold of Burgundy. In the novel a messenger tells Margaret and her mother of the Palm Sunday rout of the Lancastrians, who fled in the pink snow, by the Yorkists: “The pity of it was, the only place to run was down the steep sides of the hill to the Cock Beck stream, full to bursting on its banks. Many drowned in their heavy mail, and I saw others using the dead bodies to form a bridge over which they attempted to flee.” Click on this link to read a review of the novel www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/19/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com


February 8, 2008

Did Laura Amy Schlitz Deserve the 2008 Newbery Medal? Quote of the Day (Meghan Cox Gurdon)

Many people were suprised when Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village won the most recent John Newbery Medal, an award that usually goes to a novel, for a collection of monologues and dialogues. Did the book deserve the honor? Meghan Cox Gurdon, the children’s book critic for the Wall Street Journal, called the collection “remarkable and poignant” and added:

“As with any prestigious award, the Newbery also brings new readers to the author’s other works, which in this case is a particularly welcome effect. Ms. Schlitz has a rich and humane style of writing, with stories that manage to be both sparkling and substantial. Better still, her storytelling is a return to the moral traditions of the greatest and most enduring tales, yet with not the slightest taste of cod liver oil nor any of the tiresome left-leaning didacticism that has characterized so much writing for children since the late 1960s.”

Meghan Cox Gurdon in “A Late-Blooming Talent in Full Flower” in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19-20, 2008.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 26, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner, Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!’

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village
By Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Robert Byrd
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

Laura Amy Schlitz calls Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! “a book of miniature plays – 19 monologues (or plays for one actor) and two dialogues (for two actors).” Strictly speaking, she’s right. The speakers in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! are young people between 10 and 15 years old who live on or near an English manor in the 13th century, the time of the religious wars known as the Crusades. They include girls like Nelly, who helps to support her family by catching eels, and boys like Hugo, who has to track down a wild boar as his punishment for playing hooky. But some characters know one another, so their stories overlap and at times read more like a collection of linked short stories than a series of plays. This unusual format may have helped the book win the 2008 Newbery Medal, given by the American Library Association to “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

Questions for Young Readers

1. The speakers in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! live in medieval times, also known as the Middle Ages. Many people first learn about that era from fairy tales about princesses and others who live in castles. What ideas did you have about the medieval life before you read this book? How did your ideas change after you had read it?

2. Most books of fiction have a main or most important character. Does this book have one? Why or why not? How did the presence or absence of a main character affect your enjoyment of the book?

3. Why do you think Laura Amy Schlitz began the book with the tale of “Hugo, the Lord’s Nephew”? What aspects of this story would grab your attention right away?

4. Schlitz made up all the stories in this book. If you didn’t know that, would you have thought that some of the tales were true? What makes them seem believable?

5. “Camelot, it’s not.” These were the first words of a review of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! that appeared in a New York newspaper. What did the writer mean? [“You Are There,” by John Schwartz, The New York Times Book Review, Dec. 16, 2007.]

6. Some of the characters in the book speak in prose (such as “Nelly, the Sniggler,” “Pask, the Runaway” and “Will, the Plow Boy”). Others speak in poetry (such as “Lowdy, the Varlet’s Child,” “Thomas, the Doctor’s Son” and “Otho, the Miller’s Son”). Why do you think they do this? Might the book have become monotonous or less interesting if everybody spoke the same way?

7. What does Otho mean by: “There’s no way to retrace our steps, / the mill wheel’s turning — ”? How does this line relate to his life? How does the line relate to the theme of the book as a whole? [Page 29]

8. Pictures can have different purposes in a book. For example, they can show you exactly what you see on page (acting as a mirror), or they can or focus on and enlarge a detail (acting as a magnifying glass). What purposes do Robert Byrd’s pictures serve in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!? Why might the sun and moon have human faces on pages x-1 and elsewhere?

9. Before you read Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, did you ever think that you might have liked to live in medieval times? How did the book affect your view?

10. The characters who speak in poetry in this book use different verse forms. Thomas speaks in iambic pentameter when he says: “A healthy man is careless with a bill — / You have to make them pay when they are ill.” (The two lines form a heroic couplet, a specific type of iambic pentameter.) [Page 18] Lowdy speaks in a different verse, dactylic, when she say: “Fleas in the pottage bowl, / Fleas the bread.” [Page 60] If you’ve studied verse forms, how many can you find in the book?

Extra Credit
Schlitz writes about the “Children’s Crusade”: “In 1212, a French shepherd boy had a vision that the Holy Land could be recovered by innocent children. Thirty to forty thousand children from France and Germany set off to Palestine, believing that God would favor their cause because of their faith, love, and poverty. They believed that when they reached the Mediterranean, it would part, like the Red Sea. They were mistaken. Most of them starved, froze to death, or were sold into slavery.” [Page 37] Some scholars aren’t sure that this “crusade” occurred in the form Schlitz describes. You may want do some research on the “Children’s Crusade” and decide what you think might have happened.

Vital Statistics
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Illustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick, 85 pp., $15.95. Ages 10 and up.

Published: August 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: The American Library Association has posted information about 2008 Newbery at www.ala.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/newberymedal/newberymedal.htm .
Schlitz is a librarian at the Park School in Baltimore. She also wrote the text for the 2007 picture book The Bearskinner (Candlewick, $16.99) www.candlewick.com, illustrated by Max Grafe, and an excellent neo-Gothic novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/.
Robert Byrd’s site is www.robertbyrdart.com.

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 that many 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 are a librarian and found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to your library blog or ready-reference links, so patrons can find other guides and reviews. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and appears on Open Directory lists. It is the sixth-ranked 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 an 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.

A Review of the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner, Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!’: Voices from a Medieval Village’

A prize-winning collection of linked monologues and dialogues in prose and poetry by characters, between 10 and 15 years old, who live on bankrupt English manor in the time of the Crusades

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Ilustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick, 85 pp., $15.95. Ages 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

This is a refreshingly subversive book. Perhaps only a school librarian like Laura Amy Schlitz could have found a way not just to publish but to win a Newbery Medal for a book that defies almost every fashion in American education.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is about children like the destitute Barbary, who knows that a lord’s daughter will someday give birth “and squat in the straw, / and scream with the pain / and pray for her life / same as me.” It’s about girls like the crippled Constance, who makes a pilgrimage to a site associated with Saint Winifred, who was decapitated after she fought a man who tried to “seize” (read: rape) her. (Her head miraculously reattached itself her body.) And it’s about boys like the miller’s son Otho, who plans to cheat his customers the way his father does because: “There’s no use in looking back, / for here’s the truth I’ve found: / It’s hunger, want, and wickedness / that makes the world go ’round.”

This book is, in other words, about everday life in the Middle Ages, as described in 19 linked monologues and two dialogues by characters between the ages of 10 and 15. All of the speakers live on or near an English manor that, in 1255, has been bankrupted by the Crusades. So it isn’t surprising that their talk often turns to God, Jesus, the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, Hell, Judgment Day and saints who died gruesome deaths. Their lives are so brutal that for some, this world has nothing on the next.

To help children make sense of all of it, Schlitz adds background in marginal notes and pages of explanatory text that can get a bit breezy. Why did people go on Crusades? Partly because the pope said that killing people was “a religious duty”: “Ordinary people could escape the tedium of their everyday lives, see the world, kill Muslims, and go to heaven in the bargain.” Schlitz almost makes it sound as though you could get frequent flyer miles for it. In a post-9/11 world, you can’t get much less fashionable than talking about killing Muslims, in a tone that borders on flip, in book intended for use in schools.

The monologues tend to work better than the interleaved explanatory pages, but it’s unclear why some characters speak in prose and others in poetry. The verse forms range from bouncy dactyls to stately heroic couplets, which helps to keep the speeches from becoming monotonous. But some of Schlitz’s poetry is hard enough to scan that it may defeat many students and even teachers. This book would have benefited from a few notes on the verse forms and on the obvious parallels with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Even so, it’s a worthy Newbery winner. Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! offers a fascinating view of the Middle Ages from which many adults may learn as much as children. Schlitz’s characters tell exciting stories of falconry, boar-hunting and other pursuits that offer more realistic view of medieval life than fairy tales about demure princesses. And although the Newbery judges aren’t supposed to consider the artwork, it can’t have hurt that this book has such appealing watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations by Robert Byrd, who found inspiration in an illuminated poem from 13th-century Germany.

Best line: A lament by Lowdy, the daughter of a varlet (a man who looked after the animals owned by the lord of the manor): “Fleas in the pottage bowl, / Fleas in the bread, / Bloodsucking fleas / In the blankets of our beds …” Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! has many good lines, but these stand out because they are written in dactylic meter, which is much less common in children’s books than iambic or anapestic.

Worst line: Schlitz writes about the Children’s Crusade as though its existence were an established fact: “In 1212, a French shepherd boy had a vision that the Holy Land could be recovered by innocent children. Thirty to forty thousand children from France and Germany set off to Palestine, believing that God would favor their cause because of their faith, love, and poverty. They believed that when they reached the Mediterranean, it would part, like the Red Sea. They were mistaken. Most of them starved, froze to death, or were sold into slavery.” Many scholars question whether this crusade occurred or, if it did, whether it attracted “thirty to forty thousand” children. Schlitz gives no source for this information beyond a general bibliography that lists only one book that deals primarily with the Crusades.

Published: August 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! won the 2008 John Newbery Medal from the American Library Association, given to the most distinguished work of American literature for children www.ala.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/newberymedal/newberymedal.htm .
Schlitz also wrote an excellent neo-Gothic novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/. Robert Byrd’s site is www.robertbyrdart.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an 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. This site posts a new review of a book for children or teenagers every Saturday.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 15, 2008

Forsooth, ‘Tis Two Brief Excerpts From Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!’ So That Thou May Know the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner

Twenty-two men and women of the 13th century talk about their lives in Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village (Candlewick, $19.99, ages 9 and up), illustrated by Robert Byrd, which won the 2008 Newbery Medal for the most distinguished work of American literature for children. Some of these fictional characters deliver their monologues or dialogues in poetry and others in prose. Here’s an example of each:

Otho, The Miller’s Son

“Father is the miller

As his father was of old,

And I shall be the miller,

When my father’s flesh is cold.

I know the family business –

It’s been drummed into my head:

How to cheat the hungry customer

And earn my daily bread …”

Nelly, The Sniggler*

“I was born lucky. Nay, not born lucky, as you shall hear — but lucky soon after and ever after. My father and mother were starving poor, and dreaded another mouth to feed. When my father saw I was a girl-child, he took me up to drown me in a bucket of water …”

* “A sniggler is a person who catches eels by dangling bait into their holes in the riverbank.”

You can read a longer excerpt and find more information about Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! on the publisher’s site www.candlewick.com.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

November 19, 2007

Hell’s Bells! It’s Anne Easter Smith’s War of the Roses-Era Historical Romance, ‘Daughter of York’

A tale of the dynastic marriage of Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III, to a ruthless Duke of Burgundy

Daughter of York. By Anne Easter Smith. Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 592 pp., $19.95 paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Here is a fact that may cheer you up if you’ve been plowing stony ground on an Internet dating site: At least your brother the king can’t marry you off to a thuggish Duke of Burgundy as part of a package deal that includes the lifting of a ban on Burgundian imports in England. This is more or less what happened to Margaret of York, a sister of Edward IV, who sent her off in 1468 to wed the expansionist Charles the Bold.

It was clearly the kind of marriage that a modern therapist would call “challenging,” at least on the evidence of the second historical romance from Anne Easter Smith. Margaret soon learns that her husband’s favorite activities include annexing large parts of the Habsburg Empire and hanging people from walnut trees. She is distressed to hear that after one conquest, he drowned all the people he hadn’t strung up: “What little respect she had for Charles was being eroded day by day.”

Amid all of this, Margaret is sustained – in a departure from history — by her love for a married courtier, Anthony Woodville. Anthony plays Lancelot to her Elaine, consoling her with, “I have wrestled with Satan over my desire for you, Marguerite. That day in your chamber, he almost won.” Even by the flexible standards of historical romances, this attraction isn’t fully plausible, given that Margaret was devout enough to have tried to reform permissive religious orders. Nor are anachronisms such as a reference to “adolescent insecurities” and a midwife who tells a woman in childbirth, “Now, one, two, three, push.”

But Daughter of York has more integrity and appeal than many books in its category, partly because Smith sticks closer to history without larding her story with undigestible chucks of research. The novel moves swiftly through signal events of the War of the Roses, has a dramatis personae that separates the real and invented Yorkists and Lancastrians, and generally shows how far such books have come from the days when people dismissed them all as “bodice-rippers.” There’s a bit of rough sex in this one, but just about the nastiest thing you’ll hear anyone say is, “Hell’s bells! or “You, you – bat-fowling, lily-livered skainsmate!”

Best line: A messenger’s report to Margaret’s mother on the Battle of Towton Field, the bloodiest ever fought on English soil, where the Yorkists defeated Henry VI’s Lancastrians on a snowy Palm Sunday. The courier says that Henry’s routed soldiers left pink snow in their wake: “The pity of it was, the only place to run was down the steep sides of the hill to the Cock Beck stream, full to bursting on its banks. Many drowned in their heavy mail, and I saw others using the dead bodies to form a bridge over which they attempted to flee.”

Worst line: Let’s just say that simultaneous orgasm seems to have been easier to achieve in the 1400s than in later centuries.

Recommendation? Genre fiction with meat on its bones. This could be a good choice for book groups that want to read a historical romance that isn’t cheesy.

Reading group guide: The back matter includes a reading group guide, an interview with the author and a four-page glossary of historical terms.

Published: To be published in February 2008 www.simonsays.com

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ (and that reference to “the Marriage at Canaan” may have been corrected).

Furthermore: A native of England, Anne Easter Smith www.anneeastersmith.com wrote A Rose for the Crown. She lives in Massachusetts. You can find information on Margaret of York at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_of_York. Besides Edward, Margaret’s brothers included the future Richard III, who has a supporting role in this novel.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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