Review: GO

GO: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd. Workman Publishing. 2013. Library copy. YALSA Nonfiction Finalist.

It’s About: A book about graphic design, designed in such a way to both show and tell what graphic design is.

The Good: To be honest, the nonfiction titles on the YALSA Nonfiction Finalist that are about history are ones that I would want to read anyway. One thing I like about my self-imposed challenge to read all the titles on the list is it pushes me to read outside my typical scope of interests.

GO is terrific. I love how Kidd both tells the reader what graphic design is, but also shows it, using pictures, fonts, and other design features.

GO isn’t a lecture: it’s a discussion, immersing the reader into graphic design and inviting them to think about the things around them that otherwise they wouldn’t notice. “Most of the decisions you make, every day, are by design” — and GO asks the reader to think about that. As Kidd later explains, “graphic design needs your willing mental participation, even if it’s subconscious.” Asking one to examine that subconscious — here in the context of graphic design — is a good exercise for anything. What choices do we make, what do we “know,” what are we deciding without realizing that indeed a judgment took place?

I also liked what GO had to say about problem solving: “but the main thing to learn about graphic design problem-solving is that the best solution can usually be found in the best definition of the problem itself.

GO ends with suggestions of projects the reader can actually do — and invites the reader to share those projects with Kidd at gothebook.com.

Other reviews: Amy Hood Arts; Graphic Design; New York Times interview with Kidd.

 

Review: Imprisoned

Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans During World War II by Martin W. Sandler. Walker Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Bloomsbury. 2013. Review copy from publisher. YALSA Nonfiction Finalist.

It’s About: The United States entered World War II after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The history of the Japanese in the US had never been easy or welcoming. There was the 1924 Immigration Act, called the Japanese Exclusion Act; there were laws forbidding property ownership by those born outside the US. Despite this, Japanese Americans created successful lives.

Then, Pearl Harbor.

The reaction against Japanese Americans was swift. In 1942, Japanese Americans were forced out of their homes and put into camps.

Why this happened, how it happened, and what happened after is the story of Imprisoned.

The Good: I was familiar with the general story of the Japanese American internment camps. Mostly, I admit, from a line or two in history class, and books and movies.

Imprisoned shares all the details, the years of prejudices and fears that led to politicians and others believing, without any proof, that Japanese American citizens, of all ages, were a significant military threat justifying their imprisonment. And, because of the nature of the imprisonment, it was also the loss of property and homes and businesses that had to be left behind or sold at a loss; it was the nature of the imprisonment; the loss of freedom, the humiliation.

It is hard to read. It is hard to see the photos, and to wonder what one’s own grandparents and great grandparents did or didn’t do. It is impossible to believe that people would be ordered out of their homes, out of their lives, to camps just because of the country where their ancestors were born.

And yet it did happen. And Imprisoned shows why and how, with the photographs to underscore that these were men, women, teens, and children this was happening to. In addition to the politicians and the military and organizations, there are also the personal stories. Stories that include the men and women who, despite how their government treated them, volunteering to serve their country in the armed forces.

Imprisoned is also the story of “after,” when people were allowed to go “home.” Of the silence, at first, of those who were interned. And of how the political activism of the 1960s and 1970s helped end that silence, leading to official apologies by the US government. And of why it matters — that it’s not “just” something in the past.

Other reviews: My Head is Full of Books; The Children’s War; Bookends, a Booklist blog.

 

Review: Courage Has No Color

Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone. Candlewick Press. 2013. Library copy. YALSA Nonfiction Finalist.

It’s About: During World War II, the US Armed Forces were segregated. This discrimination also included what roles African American men were, and weren’t, allowed.

Combat? No. Cleaning? Yes.

Courage Has No Color is the story of one group of men who challenged and helped change the status quo: the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the “Triple Nickles.”

What is courage? What is strength? Perhaps it is being ready to fight for your nation even when your nation isn’t ready to fight for you.”

The Good: Courage Has No Color is one of my favorite types of nonfiction stories: it tells a particular, specific story (that of the Triple Nickles) against a bigger story: the integration of the US Armed Forces. It’s a story of both how individuals can make a difference, as well as how organizations work to make change. And it’s about just how big a fight it was, quoting white officer in World War I as saying  “The Negro must be rated as second class material, this due primarily to his inferior intelligence and lack of mental and moral qualifications.

First Sergeant Walter Morris was in charge of the Service Company of The Parachute School at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Service Company guarded the facility. “He wanted [the soldiers] ‘to act like soldiers,  not servants.'” Morris decided to have his soldiers do what the white soldiers in training did: the physical training. Morale improved. When Morris was ordered to report to the commandant of The Parachute School, he wondered if he would be in trouble. Instead, he found out that an all-black unite of paratroopers was being formed, and that he and the men he had already begun to train would be part of it.

That is the type of history I enjoy: the “bigger picture” of the politicians and groups who were pushing to expand opportunities at the same time that individuals were doing so, also; and how that comes together to create change. That change isn’t quick; and the change isn’t what you’d expect from a fictional story. For example, the Triple Nickles never see active combat during World War II. Instead, they train and train, and then are sent to be smoke-jumpers in the west. Part of the war justification for this was the presence of Japanese balloon bombs. And so the story of the Triple Nickles becomes even more layered.

Courage Has No Color addresses the issues of segregation, and World War II, and the treatment of returning service men; the prejudices of leaders, which meant that people were excluded from medals and honors and parades. And it talks about the changes made, in the military. The Triple Nickles weren’t formed in isolation and there were people and places I wanted to learn more about, like Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the highest ranking black officer in the Army. And the Tuskegee Airman, and the 761st Tank Battalion.

Other reviews: an interview with Tanya Lee Stone; Someday My Printz Will Come; Reading Rumpus Book Reviews; Bookends, a Booklist blog.

Review: The Nazi Hunters

The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb. Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc. 2013. Library copy. YALSA Nonfiction Award Shortlist.

It’s About: In 1960, a group of Israeli spies and operatives captured the Nazi fugitive, Adolf Eichmann.

Eichmann had been in charge of “Jewish affairs,” the head of operations for the Final Solution. In the chaos of the aftermath of World War II, he had disappeared.

The Nazi Hunters traces the rumors of Eichmann being in Argentina; the steps to investigate whether the old man living in a small house is, indeed, the man responsible for the death of millions of men, women, and children. And, then, what was involved in Israel sending in a team to capture Eichmann and get him back to Israel for a trial.

The Plot: The Nazi Hunters tells two complicated stories, both with a lot of characters. (A list of characters at the front of the book helps the reader keep track.) One is the story of Eichmann, what he did, his escape to Argentina, how his family joins him. It’s the story of the Final Solution, and includes the stories of survivors.

The other is the story of discovering Eichmann and what happens then. It includes Nazi Hunters like Simon Wiesenthal, and ordinary people like the young woman in Argentina who brings a boyfriend home only to realize it’s the son of Eichmann. It’s the story of the various Israelis involved in the mission. And, it’s a story that has required some secrecy because of how dangerous it was. Eichmann was in Argentina in part because it was known to be favorable to Nazis; people were risking their lives in helping to capture them. It’s a fascinating, intense story of spies, many who survived the Holocaust and lost loved ones.

It’s also the story of civilians, people just doing the right thing. Sylvia Hermann, for example, the young woman who brought Nick Eichmann to meet her parents in 1956. Nick was born Klaus Eichmann, and was about 20 at the time. He’d been nine when the war ended; lived through his father’s disappearance, to then be reunited with him in the 1950s. To get an idea of how safe it was in Argentina: while Eichmann himself was living under an assumed name, his three oldest sons were using “Eichmann.” Nick boasted that his father had been a high ranking official; he said the Germans should have “finished the job.” Sylvia’s father was half-Jewish, something kept secret because of the continuing prejudices in Argentina. When father and daughter later realized that Nick’s father was Adolf Eichmann, they wrote to a German prosecutor. This was a crucial beginning to the search and capture of Eichmann.

Part of what The Nazi Hunters does is explain just why capturing and trying Eichmann is so important. Revenge and vengeance, even, some would argue, justice, would be served by an assassination. It would also, arguably, be safer for international relations — what Israel was doing was going into another country, kidnapping someone, and then spiriting them out of the country. Doing that was dangerous, as was the risks of what would happen later.

The government of Israel wanted something public. They wanted to remind the world what had happened. “Bringing the fugitive to justice and airing his crimes in a public trial would remind the world of the Nazi atrocities, and the need to remain vigilant against any groups that aimed to repeat them.” This also gives the reason why The Nazi Hunters is a needed book: it’s been over fifty years since Eichmann was tried and executed, but hate groups remain; people deny the Holocaust happened; and other atrocities take place. The Nazi Hunters is both a powerful tale, and a reminder, but it also serves to show: justice will not be denied.

Other reviews: Nerdy Book Club; The Children’s War; The Book Smugglers. 

 

 

Review: The President Has Been Shot

The President Has Been Shot! The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson. Scholastic. 2013. YALSA Nonfiction Award Shortlist.

It’s About: The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. 

The Good: The past November — the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK — I watched a lot of specials and documentaries about Kennedy, his life, his presidency, his death, the assassination, the aftermath.

While “where were you when Kennedy was shot” is a defining question for the generation before mine, a moment of cultural unity, a loss of innocence.

For the rest of us, it’s a story. A story known from fragments, here and there: a short home video; a handful of photographs; names and moments, recognized before they were understood or comprehended.

Swanson tells the story of Kennedy; and I’m reminded of why it is I like young adult fiction. Because it can get to the point and explain things so succinctly. There are books written just about the Bay of Pigs: Swanson explains it in a handful of pages. It’s all you need, really; and if the reader wants more, they can pursue that independently.

Swanson takes the reader through the days of Kennedy’s assassination, the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, the murder of Oswald, Kennedy’s funeral. And it shows just why, well, why this is a fascinating subject. Swanson shows the Kennedy mystique: the looks, the family, the charm, and it’s that mystique that continues to attract attention. In this one volume, a reader can find out about Kennedy’s family, see him with his young children — children so young that it made Kennedy himself seem younger than his 46 years.

And then the surprise and the horror of Oswald killing Kennedy, and the aftermath. Swanson gives enough details to satisfy a curiosity — why is this so important, still, that any show set in the past has to have a JFK episode? Why are we shown how fake people react to a real death? And, along, the way, the reader moves from curious to engaged, to caring about the young widow in her bloodstained clothes.

Also: I loved all the photographs, maps, charts, and other material to help show the people and places.

Other reviews: Bookends; Literacious; Abby the Librarian.

 

 

Review: My Friend Dahmer

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. Abrams Comic Arts. 2012. Personal copy. Graphic Novel. Alex Award Winner.

It’s About: A graphic novel memoir by Derf Backderf, a classmate of Jeffrey Dahmer. This is not the story of a serial killer; it is a look at the childhood and teen years of Jeffrey Dahmer, before his first murder. (Note: nothing graphic is shown in My Friend Dahmer.)

What was Dahmer like, then? Were there signs of the serial killer he would become? And if there were, why did no one do anything?

The Good: Of course, I had heard of My Friend Dahmer. Read the reviews. And, as some of you who follow me on my Twitter feed know, I watch TV shows about real and fictitious serial killers. And yet — despite the Alex Award — I was still hesitant.

Then I heard Backderf speak at ALA (both at the YALSA Coffee Klatch and the Alex Awards program) and I changed my mind.

My Friend Dahmer is about Jeffrey Dahmer, and Backderf didn’t rely solely on his memories in writing this. He also did extensive research, showing the reader more about Dahmer than what the teen Backderf knew or suspected. (This is part of what intrigued me: the extensive research for the book).

But, My Friend Dahmer is also about a time and a place, the late seventies, that is a different world than the world that today’s teens would know. The fathers went to work, the mothers stayed home. A combination of baby boomer teens and the seventies recession meant overcrowded schools. While I’m a good eight or so years younger than Backderf and his classmates, there was still something so familiar about the setting and time he describes, down to schools having designated smoking areas for both students and teachers. And that also made me quite interested in My Friend Dahmer.

Teenage Dahmer “was the loneliest kid I’d ever met,” Backderf explains. Backderf proceeds to be brutally honest about himself and his friends, in a way that time allows. Backderf has real friends (Neil, Kent, Mike) and together they are fascinated by the eccentricities of Dahmer. Dahmer is a loner but he also does strange things: he “threw fake epileptic fits and mimicked the slurred speech and spastic tics of someone with cerebral palsy.” Backderf and his friends are amused by this (at one point Backderf also observes they were bored in the suburbs with little to do).

Later on, Dahmer also comes to school drunk and drinks continuously at school.

Do Backderf and his friends say anything? No; they had no idea that Dahmer was already being haunted by dark sadistic fantasies. (The author is clear that for any pity he feels for Jeff, that ended with the first murder.) Because of Backderf’s research, the reader (and the adult Backderf) knows what is going on in Dahmer’s head. It’s a bit jarring, the contrast between watching Dahmer lay in wait to kill someone and then being in the classroom with his friends who think he’s just being different.

Backderf’s defense, and it’s a good one, is that they were typical teenagers and self-absorbed and had no idea. Actually, it’s more than a defense: it’s a clear eyed look at how teens thought, how he as a teen thought. I appreciated that he neither downplayed nor exaggerated the time period. (Note to people writing memoirs or stories told about their teen years: yes, sometimes time must pass to be truly honest about that time period.) But where were the adults? Why did his antics go uncommented on at school? How did he get away with being drunk for about two years of school? I wondered — what could be excused by the time period, and what by adults ignoring the obvious because it’s easier?

Other reviews: Wrapped Up In Books; The Hub Interview with Derf Backderf; Bookshelves of Doom.

Review: Pet Sounds

Pet Sounds: New and Improved Stories From the QC Report by Quinn Cummings. Quinella Media USA. 2013. Review copy from author. It’s summer, so time for another “vacation reads” book.

It’s About: Pets. Cats, dogs, rabbits, even a lizard.

The Good: Let me be honest. I am not a pet person by nature. I am, instead, the sister and aunt of pet people, and since we all live together in one house, I have had being a pet person thrust upon me. I went from no pets to three cats, a chicken (don’t ask about what happened to the others), and double digits of hermit crabs.

It is easy to write a book about pets for fellow pet people. I don’t even want to say pet lovers, because while it is clear that Cummings loves her pets, it is also clear that she is a pet-person. An animal person. Who both attracts animals, and also goes the extra mile for animals. (As Cummings explains on her blog, The QC Report, “A dollar from the sale of each book will go to Sante D’Or, a shelter on the east side of Los Angeles.” And as she explains in her book, she volunteers at a local shelter.)

Animal people are, well, like my niece who believes that any book cover is made better by the presence of an animal. (She approves of the cover for Pet Sounds.) Or people like my various friends who have pets. For example, when I read about the cat who liked to kill small creatures and bring them back as gifts, I thought, oh, Leila at Bookshelves of Doom will like this book because her cat does that. I easily thought of other pet people who will connect, identify, and laugh along with this book.

But a book for a reluctant pet person to enjoy? That is a much trickier thing because I don’t, by default, think like a pet person — well, think whatever it is that pet people think about pet stories. At first glance, it would seem that I am not the audience for this book.

And yet, Dear Reader, I LOVED this book. So,  yes, you pet lovers out there, will laugh and cry (and feel good because of the contribution). But the other ones? The ones who are more like me? Who wonder why are you spending money on pet food when it could be spent on food or cardigans? Will also love this.

Why?

Because Pet Sounds is funny. Laugh out loud funny. Mark Twain funny. I kept highlighting passage after passage. It’s funny about pets, and owning pets, and what the pets do. “That is the same cat that normally treats us like roommates arbitrarily assigned by the dorm manager until sophomore year when she can move off campus to live with the cool drama majors.” “”Sometimes I think we keep [the dog] around because it comforts us humans to know that no matter what we do, we are still not the dumbest mammals in the house.” And you don’t have to be a pet person to enjoy that humor.

And Pet Sounds is also warm, showing what people will do for the animals in their lives. Not just the obvious, in terms of food and vet bills, but, well, when someone is allergic to pets and keeps them? That is dedication. And it’s educational. I understand, a bit better, the way the cats in this house act. (Though I still don’t understand the recent cat war that has resulted in George refusing to leave the basement while Miles and Gentle Hunter are all, “third cat? There is a third cat? Are you sure?”) And both those things, like humor, are just as much for us non pet people.

And Pet Sounds is also wise. “But pets exist in my experience to remind me of life’s greatest truths: stuff happens; roll with it; everything will work out; and don’t forget the water bowl.” And this may be why I loved this book so much. Because those truths are the truths I believe in yet need to be reminded about.

Two more reasons I love Pet Sounds. First, as is discussed in the Geek Mom interview of Cummings by Melissa Wiley, Cummings got the idea to collect her blog posts about her pets and make a book. She discusses the process, including getting an editor and shaping the blog posts into a book. I geeked out about that, because I love process details like that. (Geek Mom? Geeked out? See what I did there?) Second, reading Pet Sounds was like spending time with a good friend: the conversational tone, the humor, the references all had me not just nodding along but sometimes talking to the book. (For the record, the book did not talk back.)

So final verdict: a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Review: Rapture Practice

Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler. Little, Brown & Co. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

It’s About: Aaron Hartzler’s memoir about growing up in an ultra-religious Christian family. It is funny; touching; rebellious; believing; and loving.

The Good: I have a bit of a fascination with religion, especially those that say they have the answers. In a world that is at times messy, and unclear, how reassuring to have, well, a guidebook telling you what to do. I watch shows like 19 Kids and Counting or Polygamy USA and wonder, what about the kids who aren’t satisfied with such a black and white worldview? What happens when that guidebook doesn’t work for you?

Rapture Practice is about one of those kids.

Hartzler writes with love and honesty and respect for his parents, their religion, and the way they raised him and his siblings. His parents do everything they can to have young Aaron and his siblings follow the path of his parents, including keeping such secular things as popular music, television, and movies out of their lives and having all the children attend strict Christian schools.

Young Aaron believes: “when I say we believe that Jesus is coming back, I don’t mean metaphorically . . . I mean literally, like glance out of the car window and, “Oh, hey, there’s Jesus in the sky.” Yet as time goes by, he cannot help but question; cannot help but have questions that his parent’s doctrine doesn’t answer.

Such as, what is so wrong with popular music? Or movies? Why does his father not see that the messages found there can be about love, or friendship, or forgiveness? Is watching the movie Pretty Woman really a danger?

As Aaron grows, he begins to do more and more things that he knows his parents would disapprove of; or, worse, be disappointed by, because disobeying them, and rebelling against them, is the same as rebelling against Jesus. He knows that he shouldn’t, but he does — he goes to movies. He listens to rock music. He dreams of becoming an actor. He pays attention to the clothes he wears. He watches TV at his friends’ houses. He tries a beer. He kisses girls. He drinks. He does all the things his parents don’t want him to. And yet — yet he wants to please his parents. He wonders why he has to pick; why he has to lie.

Some things I cannot emphasize enough: just how funny Rapture Practice is. And just how loving Aaron’s parents are. This is not a memoir about abusive religious parents. Aaron’s parents love him and want what is best for him; they believe and they want Aaron to believe. They have created a warm, loving, caring family. Rapture Practice is one reason I like non-fiction, because this type of complexity, that Aaron’s parents can be both loving and restrictive, warm and controlling, is something hard to find in fiction. Aaron’s moment of coming of age is not embracing independence by moving on from his family; rather, it’s the recognition that he has to accept them as they are in the same way that he desires to be accepted by them.

Part of Aaron’s high school years includes relationships with girls. It’s part of what could get him in trouble with his parents and his school, because saving oneself for marriage is something taken very seriously. Yet, it’s also part of what Aaron does to fit in, to hide from himself and his parents and his friends that he may like boys. It’s heartbreaking, reading how Aaron sits through classes about the abomination of homosexuality, and his take away is a that the two guys shown kissing are look like him; “it looked like they were nice guys who were nice to each other.” Kissing girls hides this the world, and from himself. But as I said, see the humor even here, in that the very film whose point was to show Aaron just how wrong being gay is instead ended up being one of the series of things leading him to the recognition that he likes boys; and that people who are gay weren’t so different after all. So it’s sad and it’s funny; and I want to say to Aaron, it’s going to be OK; and I’m glad that since this is a memoir, it’s a built in spoiler that it gets better for Aaron.

Yes; this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013. Because it is warm and wonderful and full of joy; while at the same time, showing just how damaging narrowness can be.

Other reviews: Forever Young Adult; The Nervous Breakdown Interview; Lambda Literary Review; Book Riot; Leila Roy (Bookshelves of Doom) at Kirkus; The Librarian Writer.

Review: Sticks and Stones

Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon. Random House 2013. Random House Audio 2013. Reviewed from borrowed copy of audiobook. Making this part of my “vacation reads” series, figuring most of my readers who work in schools are on vacation now or soon will be!

It’s About: Bullying: it’s all over the news. The terrible way children and teens are treated by their peers, both in the “real world” and online via cyber-bullying.

Bazelon looks at bullying in depth: what it is, what people think it is, the way it’s been treated in the news, the manner that anti-bullying classes are incorporated into schools. She does so by examining the stories of three students in detail, as well as taking a historical look at the study of bullying and how children interact with each other.

The Good: A must-read, nuanced examination of what “bullying” is, and isn’t, especially the difference between “drama” (conflicts between kids) and “bullying.” The definition of bullying Bazelon uses (from research by Dan Olweus): “it had to be verbal or physical abuse, it had to repeat over time, and it had to involve an imbalance of power.” “Drama,” because it doesn’t involve that power (or has shifting power dynamics), is a more common occurrence, but still should be taken seriously. Bullying is also “a behavior that peaks in middle school, continues to some degree in high school, and then declines significantly in college.

What to do about bullying and drama? Sticks and Stones looks at how the culture of a school matters, and what anti-bullying programs work and why. Most important? Creating a school culture that doesn’t reward bullying or drama. Creating such a culture is neither easy nor simple; it’s not about a one-time assembly.

Easy or simple: the biggest take-away I had from Sticks and Stones is that bullying (and drama) isn’t easy or simple. Easy or simple reactions or solutions at best, don’t work, or at worst, create a worse problem. Is a bully best served by suspension or being expelled, or is he or she best served by helping them have empathy and other skills to not bully? Add that assumes that the situation is indeed bullying, and not drama between two equals (or two kids with varying degrees of power, depending on the time and situation.) “Drama” has it’s own issues, yes, but since resolving personal conflict is a much-needed skill for adults, part of childhood drama has to be children and teens working it out without adult intervention.

The second biggest take-away? The issue of mental health and children and teens. Some of the reason for the decline in bulling seems to be about the growing maturity of those involved, both in terms of greater empathy and in greater skills to combat or ignore it. Put empathy and awareness aside, there remains the mental health of both the bully and the victim. A child may bully because of underlying mental health issues; a victim may react in ways because they are already fragile because of their mental health.

The third take-away? Bazelon talks about creating a culture of empathy within schools. As I see and observe behavior in media — in TV shows, or in comments sections, or in politics — I think a bigger culture of empathy is needed.

I would like to say more: about the programs discussed, the children Bazelon interviews, the situations examined. Sticks and Stones is so nuanced, and Bazelon’s treatment is such, that I don’t want to give bite size, simplistic confusions. Just, this: Sticks and Stones is a must-read, which offers much to the reader in terms of how best to work with children and teens and what programs to use in schools. Part of the reason I decided to post this now at the beginning of summer vacation for many schools is I think it will give readers who work in schools time to think and plan for what they will do at the start of the next school year. Also, while Sticks and Stones focuses on children and teens, I’d also say it gives a structure for analysis for adults who encounter their own situations involving bullying and/or drama.

Further reading: Defining Bullying, a The New York Times op-ed by Emily Bazelon; review at The New York Times; review at S. Krishna’s Books; Interview with Emily Bazelon at NPR; Can We Really Stop Bullying at Slate. Edited to add The Power of Empathy: Q & A with Emily Bazelon at SLJ.

Review: The Plantagenets

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones. Viking. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Vacation reads (aka, when I talk about books for grownups and post them before holidays.)

It’s About: The designated heir of England dies in a shipwreck; England is plunged into civil war as descendants of William the Conqueror fight for the right to the throne; and the winning family is the Plantagenets.

Starting with Henry II, son of Geoffrey Plantagenet and Empress Matilda, wife of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and father of Richard the Lionheart and King John, and ending over two hundred years later with his many times great grandson Richard II, The Plantagenets tells of the men, the women, the battles, the politics, the murders, the laws and even the finances that created and shaped both England and its relationship with its kings.

The Good: Didn’t you see the title? THE PLANTAGENETS! Henry and Eleanor and Richard, and, well, another Henry and some Edwards tossed in, also. And of course JOHN. We can’t forget him.

For those who aren’t captivated at The Plantagenets, I give you this: It starts with a mega disaster of epic proportions. The heir to the English throne is on his way home, along with friends and relations, and of course when you’re seventeen and the world is yours what do you do? You party like a rock star. The fatal flaw in that plan is when the crew of your ship parties with you, crashing the ship before it leaves the harbor, and the heir, his family and friends, and the ships crew, all drown.

No, really. The heir’s death results in a “who gets to rule” game; and any game for a throne is a game played out in blood, and death, and battles, and treachery, and loyalty. And that’s just the start of it.

The Plantagenets covers a lot of kings: Henry II, Richard I, John, Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, and Richard II, and their wives, children, cousins; those loyal to them, those who turned against them. It ends on a cliffhanger of a sort: the defeat of Richard II by Henry IV, resulting in the end of the Plantagenet reign and the start of the House of Lancaster.

All these people in one volume is pretty amazing; it’s almost impressive that it’s “only” 500-odd pages. And let me add: it’s an intense 500 pages. Each of these men and women would warrant a book of their own (and yes, there is a “Further Reading” section for those who want to know more). Heck, specific events within the reign of any particular king would warrant an individual book. Jones does the impossible: providing a lot of information about people with the same or similar names in a way that is both clear and concise and at the same time explains the complexity of a situation. And he does that for an incredible time span. An ally is not just an ally: it’s the grandson of someone significant.

The amount of information in The Plantagenets means a careful reading is needed. I found The Plantagenets best read in chunks: I’d read about one ruler, then put it down for a couple of days. A family tree is included, showing the important people mentioned, as well as maps to help explain the battles being fought, especially those on the Continent as the Plantagenets repeatedly clash with the kings of France. Despite the length, sometimes I did want “more” and got a quick fix going over to Wikipedia to find out more about a particular person. I don’t think this is a bad thing: there’s a limited number of pages, and Jones made me care so much about the people he mentioned that I wondered about them and wanted “more.” Wanting “more” is a good thing in a history book, because it means the book has achieved its goal of getting the reader excited about the topic and hungry for information. (Also, I cannot be the only reader who wonders, have any of these families survived to modern times? Or did battles for property and titles result in the death of these powerful families?)

An example of something that gets mentioned that I want to know more about: money. Kings needed money to wage war. Tax too much, and subjects get unhappy, especially if they feel uninvested in the war. So, what do you do when you need money? Borrow. Don’t ask me why, but the idea of the kings of England borrowing money from Italian banking families stunned me. I had no idea. And that defaulting ruined those banks, which led to the rise of the Medici family. Seriously, I did not know this!

I knew this was a violent time, and I knew that it was a time when kings still fought in battles. That is why they were kings, after all. What The Plantagenets does is make those battles and that violence real. When people were fighting for power, it was actual fighting. It wasn’t through political manipulations or game playing at court. Or, rather, it wasn’t just that. A ruler couldn’t just talk, he had to actually go out and make stuff happen.

I’m only half-kidding about the book ending on a cliffhanger. This covers just the Plantagenets; Jones plans a book about the War of the Roses and the Tudors. I cannot wait for his next book, even though the more I read about the Tudors the less I like them. Henry VIII just seems like a bit of a poser next to all the Plantagenets, even the weaker kings.

In the meanwhile, I’ll be content with this one and with calling it a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

My only disappointment with reading the electronic ARC of this book is that it doesn’t have the eight pages of pictures that are in the hardcover. I know, I know — I’m not that silly person asking for a photograph of Alexander the Great. But, there are castles or ruins of castles; stained glass and tapestries; objects that have survived the centuries. I want to see these, so will be pursuing finished copy! (Note: I made an error about the lack of illustrations, and corrected this sentence to reflect that pictures appear in the final version. Sorry about that!)

Other reviews and interviews: Author interview at Library Journal; Open Letters Monthly.

Long time readers of this blog may remember that one of my favorite books from childhood is as A Proud Taste for Scarlett and Miniver by E. L. Konigsburg; it started a lifelong love of English history, helped along by films like The Lion In Winter. In my teenage years I read a lot of Jean Plaidy, loving the historic details that brought the time periods alive as well as the attention paid to the women in history. Another book I read in my late teens was Susan Howatch’s The Wheel of Fortune. I didn’t realize it when I began reading, but it takes the story of Edward III and sets it in the early part of the twentieth century, leading up to the 1960s.

So, here’s my question to you: what are some of your favorite books set during the Plantagenet period, from 1154 to 1399?