August 06, 2020

(+++) AHOY, ME SPACEFARING HEARTIES!

Chilling Effect. By Valerie Valdes. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

     There is a tendency for first-time authors, who are bursting at the seams with ideas and notions and concepts and enthusiasm, to pack everything they possibly can into a debut novel, cramming it so full of stuff that it becomes an agglomeration of vignettes rather than a cohesive story, much less a character-driven one (despite the fact that, in theory, novel length is precisely right for building reader empathy, exploring our world or others, and so forth).

     Valerie Valdes is not the first debut author to let her enthusiasm run away with her, and will surely not be the last. The fact that Chilling Effect is often a lot of fun, if taken with sufficient grains of salt (make that cups full), shows that Valdes has the potential to create nicely plotted, amusing, character-focused, offbeat books in the future. Until then, readers get this one.

     To understand, at the same time, the potential and shortcomings of Chilling Effect, consider the show-biz maxim never to work with children or dogs, which are guaranteed to upstage their adult human counterparts. Valdes does not have kids or canines in this book, but she does have cats – and, intriguingly, they are psychic cats. And they are an important part of the setup of the novel: reformed space pirate and all-around rogue Captain Eva Innocente has been stiffed on her latest cargo-hauling job, leaving her with 20 psychic cats and no payment. And the cats are about to take over her ship. And then: nothing. Absolutely nothing, for hundreds of pages. The cats turn into lap kitties that enjoy scratches, and the plot goes in dozens and dozens of directions that have nothing to do with them. Thinking up psychic cats? An A+ idea. Introducing and then abandoning them? An F.

     Then there is the name of the book’s protagonist and narrator – an obvious blending of “Eve” (as in “Adam and”) with “innocent.” Of course it’s supposed to be ironic and amusing, since this protagonist has the usual dark past: smuggling, mercenary activities, blackmail, that sort of thing. But maybe it is not as ironic as all that, since Eva seems to have learned precious little from her supposed piratical past: she makes all sorts of amateurish mistakes and goes consistently in wrong directions until, thank goodness, matters begin to coalesce (if not become fully coherent) about three-quarters of the way through the novel.

     To give Valdes credit, though, they do eventually start to come together, and even though most of the book is quite scattered as to plot (and quite absent as to characterization of anyone but Eva), there are enough individually engaging (and sometimes amusing) scenes to make Chilling Effect fun for readers who do not expect too much coherence and who do not think for even a minute that this blob of space opera is anything but fantasy (as opposed to science fiction, whose trappings it barely pretends to assume).

     The central plot is a family one. Eva is estranged from her father, Pete, but is close to her sister, Mari, even though she and Mari are very different in many ways. Just how many becomes clear only very late in the book, with a twist that is either too clever by half or just like too many other twists in too many other books to seem very twisty. Anyway, Mari is kidnapped by a typically nefarious, super-powerful set of spacefaring gangsters known collectively as The Fridge (hence Chilling Effect, get it?). These baddies work by capturing people and then forcing the people’s family members to ransom them by doing dirty deeds of various sorts, with the proviso that if the blackmailed family members let anyone know what is going on, death or the standard fate-worse-than-death will befall the kidnapping victim. There ought to be a simpler way to run a criminal enterprise, but this happens to be the modus operandi of The Fridge.

     So, ok, Eva can only rescue Mari by doing a bunch of things that recall Eva’s own checkered past and force her to return to piratical ways that she has long since abandoned. Valdes tells readers that Eva is ill at ease, to put it mildly, about all this, but she does seem to take to her assignments with more alacrity than might be expected from someone who supposedly finds them distasteful in the extreme. And to obey the tell-no-one demand, Eva has to lie to everybody: the whole crew of her ship, which is called La Sirena Negra, and pretty much everyone else she cares about or might care about. This is a particular problem for Eva with regard to the ship’s engineer, Vakar, a quennian alien (one of many otherworldly characters) whose emotions are wafted about through smell, and for whom Eva has developed strong if perhaps inappropriate feelings that smell as if they are reciprocated.

     Vakar, like other non-Eva characters, is barely sketched, even though several crew members – like those psychic cats – have unused potential. It would be nice, for example, to know more about strong but nightmare-prone, mother-fixated, holographically tattooed Leroy; the ship’s medic and Eva’s longtime partner-in-nefarious-deeds, cybernetic-eye-equipped Rebecca Jones (known as “Pink” because of her dreadlocks); and the pilot, Min, whose body wanders around while her mind is integrated with the ship’s core. On the other hand, readers know just about everything they need to regarding a certain fish-faced, bloodthirsty emperor known as The Glorious Apotheosis, whose advances Eva turns down at a bar – resulting in a galaxy-spanning chase whose end is supposed to be Eva’s imprisonment in the emperor’s harem.

     Eva is the kind of character who believes that owning up to all her misdeeds makes everything just peachy-keen, a fact that may disappoint the very numerous dead bodies and ruined lives she has left in her wake. But she does own up to her shortcomings toward the end of the book – a portion neatly if obviously set off from the rest by having Eva herself kidnapped and subjected to a year of cryosleep, from which she awakens to a series of unpleasant revelations. The basic message Valdes communicates here, whether or not she knows Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion, is, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive!” Eva channels her inner (often outer) pirate in a better (or, well, more personally satisfying) cause toward the book’s conclusion; accepts her own limitations and errors (not to mention her family’s severe shortcomings: her father at one point ends up taking over her ship); realizes that lies are a poor foundation for relationships, romantic or otherwise; and generally more-or-less redeems herself with those around her who deserve better than she has given them (if not necessarily with readers, who may find her unapologetically self-indulgent narrative voice a bit much by this time). Chilling Effect is basically lighthearted fun, although it may not be especially funny to readers who are unversed in its multiple pop-culture references and who are not at least moderately fluent in Spanish, used without translation for some chapter titles and in many places within the narration. The book works as more or less a standalone novel, but it is actually stated to be the start of a series, with an excerpt from the next book at the end. In a way, it is good to know that Valdes will have further opportunities to explore the characters she has created, and perhaps deal with some of the many underdeveloped-but-intriguing elements in Chilling Effect. For one thing, the second book should definitely have more psychic cats in it.

(+++) THOUGHTS FOR FOUR, SOMETIMES FIVE

Jonathan Leshnoff: String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4; Four Dances for String Quartet. Carpe Diem String Quartet (Charles Wetherbee and Amy Galluzzo, violins; Korine Fujiwara, viola; Carol Ou, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Shulamit Ran: Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory—String Quartet No. 3; Jennifer Higdon: Voices; Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet. Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman, violins; Mark Holloway, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello); Otis Murphy, alto saxophone. Cedille. $16.

     Contemporary American composers – of several generations – continue to find more and more things that they want to say through the medium of the string quartet. Jonathan Leshnoff (born 1973) wrote four quartets in less than a decade, the third and fourth both in 2011, and then created a fifth, Four Dances for String Quartet, in 2014. The third work, known as the “Miller-Kahn” quartet because it was commissioned by Harris Miller and Deborah Kahn, is a piece of considerable seriousness whose first movement, Grave, is longer than its second and third put together – and a good deal more intense. There is considerable power in many of Leshnoff’s works, and it is much in evidence in this movement, particularly in unison passages that seem to strive again and again for a goal that is never quite defined. The very short second-movement Romance has a dancelike lilt that changes the mood abruptly and not entirely satisfactorily, although it has a valse triste character indicating that the first movement’s concerns have not quite dissipated. The concluding Allegro with Spirit has some of the flavor of a perpetuum mobile, with a hint of underlying tension that never quite dissolves. Quartet No. 4 is a lighter and less-portentous five-movement work, opening and closing with Largo movements – the first marked molto rubato and the last rubato. The first movement has a sense of stasis about it, with the second, simply marked Fast, displaying its own brand of seriousness and propulsive motion. The middle movement, Slow and pure, is something of a throwback harmonically, delving into considerable lyricism with only hints of disquiet. The fourth movement – another Fast – has an ostinato feeling combined with some contrasting pizzicato passages. The finale returns to a static feeling in a way that is not so much conclusive as it is indicative of a piece that ruminates for some time without ever becoming decisive – although, like the third quartet, the fourth shows considerable sensitivity to forms of expressiveness for the ensemble. Four Dances, in contrast, is a lighter work, offering movements labeled Waltz, Pavane, Chas Tanz, and Furlana. The first of these is delicate and a touch melancholy – another piece with a valse triste feeling – while the second is quiet, emotionally reserved rather than deeply expressive, and has very little dancelike feeling. The third dance, which is quite short, has considerable lilt and spirit that makes one wish it had gone on longer; and the fourth is a scurrying and rather dissonant essay in forward motion that is not especially danceable but makes an effective conclusion. All three of these quartets receive their world première recordings on a new MSR Classics CD featuring first-rate playing by the Carpe Diem String Quartet (which gave the first performance of Four Dances the year after it was written). Leshnoff’s willingness to incorporate emotionally trenchant material into a modern but not avant-garde style makes this an attractive release for listeners who enjoy string-quartet music and would like to familiarize themselves with one way in which some of today’s American composers explore it.

     There are three other ways in evidence on a new Cedille recording of music by Shulamit Ran (born 1949), Jennifer Higdon (born 1962), and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (born 1939). Ran’s third quartet (2012-13) was written for the Pacifica String Quartet, and Higdon’s Voices (1993) is dedicated to the group, so the quality of the performances here is scarcely a surprise – and the handling of Zwilich’s “quartet-plus” from 2007, in which the strings are joined by alto saxophone, is also exemplary. The Ran and Higdon quartets are illustrative music; this contrasts with Leshnoff’s pure-music approach, which is closer to that of Zwilich’s work. Ran’s Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory (receiving its world première recording here) is a tribute to artists who continued to create during the Holocaust, and especially to Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944), who died at Auschwitz. The four-word title differs from the titles of the movements themselves, which are called That Which Happened, Menace, “If I perish – do not let my paintings die,” and Shards, Memory. The first movement is suitably serious and dissonant, with the second being a kind of grotesque scherzo whose first-violin part is slightly reminiscent of the intended eeriness of the scordatura violin in the second movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. The third movement, whose title is a quotation from Nussbaum, is filled with “shuddering” effects and harmonics of dismay. The fourth is an epilogue and peroration, obviously – perhaps too obviously – intended to urge the audience to remember and respond to the horrors of the past by ensuring they are never repeated. This is a work that is far more effective if one knows its underlying story before hearing it than if one simply comes to it without understanding what it is intended to communicate. Higdon’s Voices features three movements labeled Blitz, Soft Enlacing, and Grace, each of which is supposed to evoke a specific image. The first has nothing to do with the wartime concept of blitzkrieg but is simply energetic and dynamic. The second has more of a nervous feeling than its title indicates, with a calm demeanor somewhat at odds with its dissonances. The third fits its title best, with a sense of warmth and appreciation in which the combined strings’ unison passages seem to point toward striving for a better, if imprecise, time or set of circumstances. Here the specific intent of the music is not really needed for it to have an effect, and in some ways the titles force an interpretation on the music that its sound does not fully support. As for Zwilich’s quintet, whose untitled movements are notated simply by the recommended speed at which they are to be played, it is the most interesting work on this disc, not only for its inclusion of the alto saxophone but also for the evenness with which Otis Murphy’s playing integrates with and is balanced by that of the string quartet – both as a whole and in terms of the individual instruments. The conversational element of chamber music, long seen as crucial to the medium but often abandoned by contemporary composers, is very much in evidence here. The somewhat marchlike rhythm of the first movement; the hesitating jazzlike bounciness of the second, with its focus on individualization of the instruments’ parts; and the combination of regularity and improvisational sound in the third – these add up to a very well-constructed work that integrates the alto saxophone skillfully into the strings and provides enough fluency, and enough surprising twists and turns, to keep listeners interested throughout. Both this disc and the one featuring some of Leshnoff’s quartet music show the continued variations in structure and communication of which the four-strings complement remains capable some two-and-a-half centuries after Haydn solidified the modern concept of a string quartet and himself created 68 examples of the form.

July 30, 2020

(++++) SHUDDERS FROM AFAR

A Lush and Seething Hell: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror. By John Hornor Jacobs. Harper Voyager. $19.99.

     The phrase “cosmic horror” in the subtitle of John Hornor Jacobs’ new book implies something Lovecraftian, something of indefinable dimensions and oddly, frighteningly wrong assembly, a tentacled horror whose very existence shows how miniscule humans are and of how little import are their wants, fears, plans and desires. But even though Jacobs has a character write of “lands made strange by impossible geometries and vile arcologies my mind could not comprehend,” that is not quite what the author delivers in A Lush and Seething Hell, and certainly not all that he presents. Still, what he offers here is, in its own way, quite creepy and eldritch enough. “We are but small vibrations on the face of the universe,” he writes in the second novella here – a clear declaration of adherence to some version of the Lovecraftian ethos.

     Jacobs, however, finds horror not in Red Hook or a similar setting teeming with urban humanity (or inhumanity), but in quotidian journals, a fictional South American country, and the American South. The journal in the first, shorter novella, the evocatively titled The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky, has a distinct Lovecraftian reference: a young academic named Isabel Certa, who has become involved with a famed one-eyed poet named Rafael Avendaño, discovers a journal of his that points her toward a text called Opusculus Noctis, a clear reference to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. “Horror makes siblings of us all,” says Isabel, but the context is scarcely otherworldly: she and Rafael are both exiles from the fictional South American country of Magera, which is ruled by a brutal dictatorship. They both yearn to be able to return to their homeland, but only Rafael decides to do so – under mysterious and portentous circumstances. When he goes, he leaves Isabel money, his apartment, and – supposedly for her protection – a cat. Isabel finds that he has also left behind a strange poem called “A Little Night Work” that is not only lyrical but also anguished and distinctly creepy, with its references to the “sweet aroma [of] the killing and the letting of blood.” The poem is old, and Rafael has been working on translating it from Greek and Latin into Spanish. The echoes of a dark past are, again, Lovecraftian, as is the importance and danger of literary discovery, although again Jacobs gives the material his own angles and twists. The more time Isabel spends with Rafael’s journal and the poem that obsessed him and comes to obsess her as well, the more deeply she finds herself descending into a world of profound evil and corruption dating further and further back in time – a very Lovecraftian notion, indeed. Jacobs’ atmospheric style makes the creeping horror of Isabel’s discoveries grow with diabolical inevitability. But The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky has more of an inward focus than do Lovecraft’s tales, being ultimately about the way personal trauma is reflective of things that may or may not lie beyond human ken. The novella is scary for the way it handles people’s internal secrets and unsettling discoveries, not because Jacobs reveals the workings of creatures from beyond the known universe that take an unholy interest in the vastly unimportant beings of Earth.

     Many of Jacobs’ themes in The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky reappear in My Heart Struck Sorrow, despite the second and longer novella’s very different setting and characters. This story too revolves around the dangers of obsessive literary exploration and discovery. Its protagonist is a man named Cromwell, a Library of Congress researcher who specializes in oral tradition and who stumbles upon a set of blues recordings from the 1930s, along with the diary of a man – an earlier library researcher – named Harlan Parker. It turns out that Parker was intensely focused on performances of a song called “Stagger Lee,” which happens to be a real-world folk song, published in 1911 and first recorded in 1923, about a murder that occurred in 1895. Cromwell soon discovers that Parker made acetate recordings as he traveled through the American South, listening to various performances of “Stagger Lee.” And Cromwell soon finds himself playing the recordings as he reads Parker’s diary and, through it, retraces the earlier researcher’s explorations. The Lovecraftian element here is that Parker discovers that some people seem to know new, undiscovered verses to the song, verses that imply depths and darkness and disturbances of reality. Cromwell is presented by Jacobs as somewhat unbalanced by events in his own life even before he discovers Parker’s material; as for Parker, his field journal shows his own sanity teetering on the edge, with liquor and his possibly liquor-induced visions pushing him toward madness. Cromwell, in a very Lovecraftian narrative manner, soon falls into a pattern similar to and repetitive of Parker’s, and as the mystery grows, so does the tenuousness of Cromwell’s own hold on reality. In My Heart Struck Sorrow, Jacobs is at pains to distinguish the narrative voices of Cromwell and Parker, and perhaps does too good a job of it: the Cromwell sections move rather languidly by comparison with the adventure-propelled speed of those in Parker’s telling. But if My Heart Struck Sorrow is not quite as tightly paced as The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky, and does not have the shorter novella’s sense of inevitability, it is still a deeply unsettling tale about a descent – one of so many in literary works – into a heart of darkness. Both novellas in A Lush and Seething Hell are skillfully structured, well-paced, plotted to maximize their chilling effects, and written in a style that, if scarcely as over-the-top as Lovecraft’s, is certainly evocative of occurrences both lush and seething.

(++++) VISITS TO BYWAYS

Auber: Overtures, Volume 2—Le Concert à la cour, Fiorella, Julie, Lestocq, Léocadie, Couvin, La Fiancée; Violin Concerto. Markéta Čepická, violin; Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Dario Salvi. Naxos. $11.99.

Twilight: Tribute to Women Jazz Composers. Mike Kaupa, flugelhorn and trumpet; Ric Vice, bass; Tom George, piano. MSR Jazz. $12.95.

     Daniel-François-Esprit Auber lived such a long life – 1782 to 1871 – that he had plenty of time to build a reputation and, eventually, outlive it. A prolific stage composer with some 50 operas and similar works to his credit, he is known today only for occasional performances of Fra Diavolo or La Muette de Portici and once-in-a-while concert programming of an overture here and there. This gives a conductor with an ear for the long-unheard-but-still-interesting, such as Dario Salvi, a fertile field for exploration, and a new Naxos release featuring Salvi leading the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice in music by Auber proves a very worthwhile experience. Actually, although the disc is designated as containing overtures, it is really a potpourri: of the 13 items offered, only four are overtures, the rest being often-very-short introductory and connective music for various works. The neglect of Auber’s music is strikingly shown by the fact that 11 of the 13 pieces here are world première recordings: only the overtures to Fiorella (1826) and Léocadie (1824) have been recorded before. It is quite easy, in listening to Salvi’s poised and idiomatic handling of the music, to be surprised at the neglect of so much fine material – and at the same time to understand the neglect, since the music seems largely transferable from work to work and is always pretty much of the same character, whether drawn from Auber’s very first stage work, Julie (1805), or from the latest heard here, Lestocq (1834). Even in works with more-dramatic libretti (often written by Eugène Scribe, with whom Auber had a lengthy professional relationship), there is a certain gentleness and elegance of flow to the music that makes it easy for attentive listeners to recognize Auber’s personal style – while at the same time showing that that style did not vary much over time, meaning that as tastes in staged works changed, Auber’s popularity, unsurprisingly, faded. A fascinating sidelight on this disc is a work that is not for the stage at all: Auber’s sole Violin Concerto, written at just about the time he started committing himself to the stage (1805) and featuring a solo part that is, by the standards of the time, positively anti-soloistic. The work is pastoral, somewhat meandering, unremittingly pleasant, unchallenging for the soloist, and by and large sounds more like a 19th-century update of a Baroque concerto (with the soloist often fading into the ensemble) than a concerto of the Classical or early Romantic era. Markéta Čepická plays it quite well by virtue of not overplaying it in the least: restraint is the order of the day here, and the overall effect is one of near-chamber-music congeniality throughout. Indeed, “congenial” is a good adjective for much of the Auber music on this CD: all of it is certainly worth hearing, all of it is well-made and is orchestrated with care and occasional panache, and none of it is particularly dramatic or intense. The disc offers a welcome dose of pleasantries, explored with care and enthusiasm and without a trace of any inappropriate portentousness.

     There are pleasantries as well on a new MSR Jazz recording bearing the title Twilight – a word that inadvertently also shows the limitations of this unassuming (+++) disc. The organizing principle here involves showcasing jazz works by female composers – a rather artificial approach, but one that is certainly in vogue nowadays. The disc’s title is taken from its first track, Twilight World by Marian McPartland – one of only three composers likely to be familiar to a wide swath of listeners (the others being Billie Holiday, represented by Fine and Mellow, and Carole King, creator of Go Away Little Girl and It’s Too Late). In fact, both the word “twilight” and the title of McPartland’s piece neatly encapsulate the mellow, laid-back, mostly quiet and rather static mood of all the music. This is a “mood” CD, some of it avowedly bluesy and the rest of it mighty close. Even when there is a bit of swing, as in Mike Kaupa’s handling of Close Your Eyes by Bernice Peskere, the underlying feeling is kept on the sedate side – in this specific case by Tom George’s handling of the piano part, in other cases by other means. The result is that all the works have an aura of sameness about them, including Put the Blame on Mame by Doris Fisher and Allan Roberts, What’s Your Story, Morning Glory by Mary Lou Williams, Them There Eyes by Doris Tauber (a work far better known than its composer), A Sunday Kind of Love by Barbara Belle, Fine and Dandy by Kay Swift, Learnin’ the Blues by Dolores “Vicki” Silvers, Candy by Joan Whitney, Good Morning Heartache by Irene Higginbotham, and Blessed Assurance by Phoebe P. Knapp. The CD is well-arranged both to accentuate the pieces’ mood and to provide what variety exists among the tracks: on the one hand, more-upbeat items tend to alternate with more avowedly placid ones, while on the other, some sequencing seems designed to keep the low-key feeling going – as when Go Away Little Girl is followed by It’s Too Late and Fine and Dandy comes right after Fine and Mellow. Nothing here really qualifies as a “find,” whatever the provenance of the music, although slow-jazz lovers will find plenty to enjoy both in the pieces and in the way Kaupa, George and Ric Vice handle them with relaxed smoothness and a sure sense of style. This is more-or-less what used to be called “mood music,” a disc more for background listening while doing other things or for winding down after a stressful day. Nothing on it is particularly captivating, but everything is suffused with a very pleasing crepuscular glow.

July 23, 2020

(+++) RECONSIDERATIONS RECONSIDERED

David Lang: prisoner of the state. Alan Oke, Jarrett Ott, Eric Owens, Julie Mathevet , Rafael Porto, John Matthew Myers, Matthew Pearce, Steven Eddy; Men of the Concert Chorale of New York, and New York Philharmonic conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Decca. $14.99.

     It is one of the ironies of music history that by far the best-known and most-popular French rescue opera of all time is German. It is Beethoven’s Fidelio, and while the term “rescue opera” was not formally applied to it and similar works, most of them French, until many years after Beethoven’s death, the basics of the form were already established in the composer’s time. They involve, among other things, a focus on societal issues and high ideals more than on individualized character – and this focus is clearly one that resonated with Beethoven even before he created Leonore (1805), which eventually became Fidelio (1814). This sort of focus resonates with many people today, too, including David Lang (born 1957), who had the clever if slightly sacrilegious idea of deconstructing Fidelio and turning it into a work for our times called prisoner of the state (all small letters: Lang’s dislike of capitals is an affectation). In our age, purity of ideas and beliefs seems to be considered a necessity for someone to be deemed serious about issues of importance, and in that vein, Lang eliminates from the original libretto all the matter he deems extraneous, such as the mistaken-identity elements that lighten the atmosphere somewhat but can seem ill-fitting with the grander portions of the opera (they actually work better in Leonore than in Fidelio). Then Lang grafts onto the original some material intended to make its philosophical argument more direct and intense: a kind of “Machiavelli aria,” some thoughts taken from Jeremy Bentham and Hannah Arendt, and more.

     The result is curious, overdone, over-serious, less dramatic than the original despite the multiple arias written in hyper-dramatic style, and always intriguing although ultimately unsatisfying. Some of Lang’s ideas work very well indeed: having looked into some of the reasons people would have been imprisoned in Beethoven’s time, he has the prisoners give a list of the offenses for which they have been incarcerated, in some cases stating their innocence and in others admitting their guilt. This is part of the way in which Lang changes the focus of his work from marital love to prisoner support. Other material is much less successful, with the ending of prisoner of the state particularly disappointing: there is no resolution at all – instead, the characters address the audience directly, intoning with monumental obviousness, “The difference here between prisons and outside – in here you see the chains.” Oh yes, we get it – we are all prisoners in one way or another, and prisoner of the state describes what each one of us is, and there is no triumph possible, but with solidarity, “if you can see us, we can be free” (the work’s final lines). This is all hyper-earnest and thoroughly puerile, no matter how sincere.

     Certainly the principal performers on the new Decca recording of Lang’s work give it their all: Julie Mathevet as the Assistant (the original Leonore role; but now she, like everyone else, is a symbol, denied the basic humanity of a name); Jarrett Ott as the Prisoner; Eric Owens as the Jailer; and Alan Oke as the Governor. Certainly Jaap van Zweden leads the chorus and New York Philharmonic with decisiveness, intensity and a strong sense of commitment. And to give the music its due, much of it comes through with suitable strength and dramatic (although often over-dramatic) flair. But prisoner of the state, as it progresses, forces the audience to move from glimmers of a personal story through which they can observe higher ideals (which is what Beethoven created) to what is essentially a lesson plan detailing the trials and tribulations of life in an imperfect world. Ho-hum.

     Strangely, Lang, who has in the past reimagined the works of many earlier composers, has either missed something very significant in his rethinking of Beethoven or has chosen not to share his knowledge with the audience. It is this: the original ending of the Brecht/Weill production of The Threepenny Opera (1928) is not the angry, defiant chorus with which modern productions often conclude. Instead, it is an additional verse for the Moritatensänger, a quiet conclusion to the famous song that introduces thief and murderer Mack the Knife. The last lines of that final verse are: Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln/ Und die andern sind im Licht./ Und man siehet die im Lichte./ Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht. That is, loosely, “Some live always in the darkness, while the others live in light. And you see the ones in brightness – those in dark are out of sight.” This is almost exactly the point Lang makes at the end of prisoner of the state, even to his words, “Down in this darkness, sometimes we feel your light on us. We need your light. You need to see us.”

     If Lang did not deliberately here echo The Threepenny Opera (which itself is an update and reconsideration for a new age of a work of exactly two centuries earlier, The Beggar’s Opera [1728] by John Gay and Johann Pepusch), then the coincidence of near-identical theme and verbiage is extraordinary. There are further echoes (or deliberate updates) here, too. Lang retains the Jailer’s aria about gold, rendering the words as: “In this world, without gold you can’t live, you can’t be happy. …Without gold someone else will get the power and the love.” And in the Governor’s “Machiavelli aria,” Lang soon follows the famous line, “Better to be feared than loved,” with the incongruous: “Men are cowards. Men want money.” And this is also reflected in that final portion of the Moritat, commenting on the improbable deus ex machina that rescues Macheath (the same sort of out-of-nowhere rescue provided by the arrivals of the King’s Minister in Fidelio and “the Inspectors” in prisoner of the state). Brecht’s aptly cynical and bitter words are, Ist das nötige Geld verhanden/ Ist das Ende meistens gut. That is to say, “things tend to turn out well when there’s enough cash on hand.”

     What Lang thinks he is doing in prisoner of the state is bringing “rescue opera” themes into a new era and focusing on their philosophical import rather than on the characters used to embody and present them. But this is just what Brecht and Weill did nearly 100 years ago: when the King’s Minister shows up to free Macheath, Mac’s own words – soon echoed by Polly – are, Gerettet, gerettet! …Wenn die Not am höchsten, ist die Rettung am nächsten. “Rescued, rescued! When the need is greatest, the rescue is nearest!” (In fact, rescue opera is known in German as Rettungsoper.) Ultimately, prisoner of the state strips Fidelio (and Leonore) of humanity and personal connection, proceeding with unrelenting seriousness and without the wry cynicism that pervades The Threepenny Opera, and offers music that is effective enough but does nothing to enhance, or even distract from, Lang’s opera’s didacticism. Lang does not bear compositional comparison with Weill, much less Beethoven, but that is not really at issue in prisoner of the state. What does matter is whether this refocus of Beethoven (intentionally) and Brecht/Weill (perhaps unintentionally) communicates its themes in a more pointed and meaningful manner for the 21st century than do the earlier works. Certainly it tries to do so, wants to do so. But it never quite measures up to the high standards that Lang sets for the work and for himself.

(+++) ONE ROAD TO THE MODERN

Dvořák: Four Romantic Pieces, Op. 75; Mozart: Violin Sonata No. 26, K. 378; Christian Asplund: One Eternal Round for two violins; Neil Thornock: A Crust of Azure for violin and piano. Alexander Woods and Aubrey Smith Woods, violins; Rex Woods, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     It is a constant problem for producers and musicians trying to interest audiences in contemporary music: how to get them to listen, even once, to something they have never heard before? The vast majority of contemporary classical works are fortunate to receive a single performance – additional ones are extremely unlikely. But a very few may intrigue listeners enough on first hearing to be programmed again, in concert or recital, or in recorded form. Of course, finding those very few requires getting audiences to listen to a lot of pieces that may possibly appeal enough to merit additional hearings; and that comes back to the problem of how to get people interested in works for the first time. One common method that has proved reasonably successful is to sandwich new music between well-known, more-familiar pieces: the notion is that if people come for what they have heard before, they will at least give a fair hearing to what they have not. When it comes to recordings, the “sandwich” approach is a bit different, becoming more a matter of “sprinkling” by mixing better-known and less-known works on the same CD, relying on the likelihood that someone who wants to hear any of the music on the disc will likely listen to all of it. That is the approach on a new MSR Classics recording featuring violin sonatas by Dvořák and Mozart, plus world première recordings of pieces by Christian Asplund (born 1964) and Neil Thornock (born 1977).

     The question here is not whether the Asplund and Thornock works measure up to those by Dvořák and Mozart – they do not – but whether, on their own terms, they are worth hearing and perhaps even hearing repeatedly. Asplund’s dates to 2015 and is for two violins (Alexander Woods and Aubrey Smith Woods). It opens as if it is going to be a kind of dissonant tribute to or imitation of Bach, gradually becomes more animated and equally dissonant (even screechy), and then turns into one of those instruments-chasing-each-other pieces that lie somewhere between canon and simple repetitiveness. The rather limited sonority of two identical instruments gives One Eternal Round a somewhat monotonous sonic palate, which Asplund makes little attempt to enliven. And the 10-minute work slips repeatedly into a kind of ongoing ostinato that by the end becomes simply boring, as if it has degenerated into a fingering exercise that abruptly stops. The piece may be worthwhile for violinists seeking something new and different to perform, but it is unlikely to be of much interest to most listeners.

     Thornock’s piece, from 2013, is in three movements, and at 28-and-a-half minutes is the longest work on the CD. There is considerably more to it than there is to Asplund’s work. The opening movement, “Tremulous Whirl,” has dramatic intensity that dips occasionally into lyricism and that uses consonant and dissonant elements for generally well-placed contrasts. The second movement, “Refraction of Sky,” juxtaposes Alexander Woods’ violin with Rex Woods’ piano in some interesting ways, taking the violin to its highest range and keeping much of the piano part high as well, but including dips into both instruments’ lower ranges that provide effective contrasting passages. The movement does meander and is essentially themeless, however, with the result that by the time half its 10-minute length is over, listeners may wonder if it is going anywhere. It is not: it is something of an exercise in 21st-century Impressionism, although it does end with more speed, more verve and more-emphatic dissonance than it exhibits earlier. The finale, poetically if oddly called “Lavender Shroud,” makes more use of the violin’s lower register and allows a certain wistfulness and songfulness to creep into the material. The passages with a “yearning” sound are somewhat overdone, to the point of triteness, and when the violin does climb to high notes and harmonics, it tends to do so for effect – but not very effectively in communicative terms. The very end of the work has a certain degree of dark resignation about it in the violin, but the piano part simply disappears into irrelevance. A Crust of Azure contains enough intriguing material to keep listeners attentive most of the time, although it does go on a bit longer than its content justifies and seems, as a whole, to be less than the sum of its parts.

     Neither of the contemporary pieces on this disc engages listeners with anything approaching the warmth and smoothness of the Dvořák or the poise, elegance and lyrical beauty of the Mozart. But certainly the performances of Dvořák’s Op. 75 and Mozart’s K. 378 are good enough to pull an audience into the entire CD. The first of the four short Dvořák pieces is beautifully songful and heart-tuggingly wistful; the second is rhythmically pointed, strikingly dancelike, and with excellent double-stopping on the violin; the third is sweet, slightly yearning, and highly expressive. All three of these pieces are marked with forms of Allegro: moderato, maestoso, and appassionato, respectively. Dvořák reserves the slow pacing in Four Romantic Pieces for the final Larghetto, which is the longest piece of the four. Here Alexander Woods and Rex Woods fully engage their Romantic sensibilities in a highly expressive conclusion.

     In the Mozart sonata, the give-and-take between violin and piano is balanced to far more perfection than in the works by Dvořák or Thornock. The first movement unfolds with a kind of pleasant banter that has some pastoral overtones. The second seeks beauty rather than depth – it is marked Andantino sostenuto e cantabile – and keeps the instruments so perfectly attuned to each other that they almost sound like longtime lovers who can pick up and finish each other’s sentences. The bright final Rondeau is led by the piano, echoed by the violin, and quickly becomes an essay in perfection of thematic choice, balance and development.

     It is scarcely a surprise that neither Asplund’s piece nor Thornock’s is able to come close to the pleasures of the Dvořák and Mozart works. Inevitably, the sequence of the disc makes the contrasts and limitations of the contemporary works quite clear: Dvořák is followed by Asplund, then Mozart, and finally Thornock. But the purpose of a CD such as this one is not to suggest that the performers have discovered modern composers on the level of a Dvořák or a Mozart. It is simply to use the exceptionally high quality of the older, better-known works to draw in an audience that will at least pay attention to the newer material and give it a chance to be heard – preferably more than once. Neither contemporary piece here is by any means an undiscovered masterpiece, but both are worthy of listeners’ time. The unanswerable question is how much of that time these works will be given even after listeners, drawn in by the first-rate Dvořák and Mozart performances, give a first hearing to the pieces from the 21st century.

July 16, 2020

(++++) GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY

5 Worlds, Book 4: The Amber Anthem. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Boya Sun, and Matt Rockefeller. Random House. $20.99.

     The marvels of the 5 Worlds series continue to pile up in the fourth book of the quintet, as the team of authors deepens the characters, explores their developing relationships further, and introduces some new and unexpected twists in this multi-world-spanning epic adventure. The story arc remains foundationally simple and easily graspable enough to allow the authors to toss in all sorts of outré elements without distracting readers from the progress of the primary plot. The basic idea here is that there are five interrelated worlds, settled long ago by obscure, poorly understood ancient figures called Felid Gods, about whom many mysteries remain. One of those mysteries is central to the totality of 5 Worlds: each world has on it a giant colored beacon, built for no known reason and now dark after having presumably been lit and important in some significant way in the dim past. The 5 Worlds quest is, at its simplest, the story of the re-lighting of the beacons and of the three young people who – against the feckless and often venal forces of their elders – make the re-lighting possible.

     The re-lighting is necessary because the worlds are overheating, already becoming uninhabitable by some wild creatures and soon, if the beacons are not re-lit, destined to turn into places where humans cannot survive. The relighting, done correctly, will cause some sort of massive realignment of all the planets and give all the races living on them a new lease on life – maybe. Exactly what will happen is one matter that remains a mystery and point of contention as the 5 Worlds saga continues. The parallel with worries about climate change (“global warming”) on Earth is quite clear, but is not overstated or delivered in a hectoring tone. Also clear, and also handled gingerly, is the fact that the adults in 5 Worlds have their own agendas and their own interpretations of what is going on – and many have deep-seated suspicions about the motives of three young people whose background is decidedly mixed and who seem ill-suited to any heroic endeavors. Of course, this part of the plot is straight out of innumerable “poor/uneducated/misshapen/underclass protagonist makes good” fairy tales; but as in so many other ways, 5 Worlds is told in a way that transcends and surpasses many of its models and its own underlying structure.

     This is a political universe, and the marionette strings of politics are in large part pulled by a bizarre creature known as the Mimic that is manipulating the governance and societal concerns of all five worlds: Mon Domani, Moon Yatta, Toki, Salassandra, and Grimbo (E). The Mimic is not only heartless in actions but also literally heartless because of some of the events in the books, but nevertheless appears unstoppable and, like all ultra-villains, seems to be steadily growing in strength. Yet the central characters barely manage, again and again, to outwit or out-think or outmaneuver the bad guy and his supporters and henchmen. The protagonists are Oona Lee, goodhearted but not-very-skillful student at a prominent school called the Sand Dancer Academy, who leads the quest and gains steadily in stature and self-assertiveness as she does so; An Tzu, a boy from the slums who knows how to trick and maneuver his way around his world’s oppressive society, and whose mysterious illness – in which parts of his body are constantly fading to invisibility – proves extremely important in the fourth book, providing a crucial link to the Felid Gods; and Jax Amboy, a star athlete in a highly popular game called Starball, originally an android construct but now fully human – thanks to symbiosis with a strange spiritual creature known as a Salassi Devoti.

     Among the clear but soft-pedaled elements of 5 Worlds is the extent to which the protagonists’ quest is a spiritual, moral and ethical one as well as one requiring them to make physical journeys from world to world, and around each world in turn, in order to light the ancient beacons in the correct order: white, red, blue, yellow, and green. Each color is associated with a different world and its beacon, and The Amber Anthem is all about Salassandra, which is permeated by the color yellow in its many hues. The fourth book is also, to a greater extent than the three earlier ones, about the tensions among the different races that populate the planets, and the need for members of all races to cooperate and work together in order to save all five worlds from destruction. This “we’re all in this together” theme – again, nothing unusual in fantasy quests, but handled with care and aplomb in this one – is quite explicit in The Amber Anthem, since the key to lighting the yellow beacon turns out to be, first, the rediscovery of the ancient anthem itself; and, second, its singing and proclamation by members of all five races – which requires figuring out exactly what those races are. Despite their differences in appearance (including skin color) and background, humans turn out to be a single race for this purpose. The second race is one of plant people, upon whom many humans of all types look down. The third race includes giant, usually completely silent, human-like beings known as Kyojin. The fourth, it turns out fortuitously, is the race of Salassi Devoti, native to Salassandra but long since gone – except for the one bonded to Jax. And the fifth race – well, there is something fortuitous about them, too, because the three protagonists have been sharing their adventures with a sentient creature made of oil, a shape-shifting (and often humorous and altogether delightful) character known as Ram Sam Sam. However, he, in the form in which readers and the characters themselves know him, is not sufficient to represent the fifth race. What is sufficient is one of the many mysteries solved in The Amber Anthem.

     Another important piece of the 5 Worlds puzzle incorporated into the myth-building in the fourth book has to do with the Mimic – exactly who or what he/it is, with what relationship to the Felid Gods, and specifically with what connection to An Tzu. The underlying motivation of the Mimic proves to be overly simplistic – one of the few false notes in a series remarkably devoid of them – and his last-minute decision not to destroy Oona Lee when he appears on the verge of doing so rings a bit false as a result. However, the question of the Mimic and An Tzu is clearly set up at the end of The Amber Anthem as the ultimate difficulty that the beacon lighters will face in the forthcoming final book, The Emerald Gate. It will clearly be a matter of overwhelming importance, and more than a small amount of heartache. But that is to come in the fifth book. For now, readers of The Sand Warrior, The Cobalt Prince, and The Red Maze can simply revel in The Amber Anthem, which is as skillfully told in words as the first three books, and filled with equally attractive and engaging art. There are parallels aplenty between 5 Worlds and other fantasy quest stories, and between this graphic-novel series and others. Yet 5 Worlds successfully sets itself apart from roughly comparable stories through the consistency of delineation of the characters’ personalities, their growth as individuals and as a group, and the apparent ease with which mystery after mystery is introduced and solved – only to whet the appetite for the new ones that keep coming up. 5 Worlds draws on many classic elements of fantasy quests and illustrated storytelling, but it does so in such a way as to make it virtually certain that the five-book sequence, when completed, will itself become a classic.

(+++) OLD TERROR, OLD TRIALS

Not a Gentleman’s Work: The Untold Story of a Gruesome Murder at Sea and the Long Road to Truth. By Gerard Koeppel. Hachette Books. $28.

     There is something of a cottage industry in the exhumation and exploration of long-ago murder cases. All parties have long since passed away, and in the days well before modern criminology (not to mention DNA analysis), when evidentiary standards were minimal or nonexistent, it is certain that there have been any number of miscarriages of justice waiting to be explored and made right – if not for the sake of the participants in the dramas, then for the sense of satisfaction stemming from delving deeply into the past and uncovering innumerable legal, ethical and moral mistakes. After all, there are plenty of those even today, despite all our technology and supposed analytical sophistication. How many more must there have been in olden times?

     Gerard Koeppel’s Not a Gentleman’s Work is one recent example of the “murders revisited” trend. Its subtitle, however, is misleading: far from being “untold,” this story, which begins in 1896, was very widely reported in newspapers of the day, and continued to be a topic of discussion, reporting and (eventually) presidential concern all the way to 1919. What Koeppel means by “untold,” however, is that his book claims to reveal, for the first time, who was really responsible for the crime around which the story centers. It was a particularly gruesome triple murder, committed with an axe aboard a commercial sailing ship called the Herbert Fuller. The victims were the captain, his wife, and the second mate. The murders take up only two pages of the book, although that is quite enough to show their viciousness in “a total of nearly thirty swings with the axe.” But even in describing the killings, Koeppel makes some curious statements, pointing out in one paragraph that “the murderer was not perfect in his swing,” the axe blade having hit wood and a ceiling beam as well as the human victims – then stating in the next paragraph that the killing “suggest a killer who was not in a hurry, redundantly effective in his purpose, if not perfect in his practice. His victims weren’t just killed; they were thoughtfully and thoroughly mutilated.” But the second paragraph’s statement is very much at odds with that of the first, and “thoughtfully…mutilated” is a comment not in keeping with Koeppel’s description of the scene.

     The book is full of little touches like this, not-quite-opinions that do not quite work. Koeppel makes his dislike and suspicion of the sole passenger on the ship, Harvard dropout Lester Monks, clear from the start, writing of his “brief and troubled Harvard career” and stating that “what ruined Lester at Harvard was neither physical ailment nor insufficient intelligence but alcohol” – over-consumption of which, by the way (or perhaps not “by the way” at all), would seem a better explanation of a massive number of axe blows, including misaimed ones hitting parts of the ship’s sleeping quarters, than anything “thoughtful.”

     Koeppel is at pains to present small details in ways that hint at their considerable significance; but then he tends not to confirm that they were anything of importance. Thus, regarding the nausea and vomiting of the ship’s first mate, Thomas Bram, after the killings are discovered, Koeppel theatrically asks, “What was the importance of Bram’s vomit and his wiping it up, intentionally or not, before a sample could be saved?” Bram either slipped in his vomit and sat in it, so his clothing absorbed it, or sat in it deliberately, in which case “his actions [would have] suggested an attempt to destroy evidence that might somehow point to his guilt.” But nothing more is made of all this – and nothing whatsoever is made of the far more telling fact that Monks and the crew members found the murder weapon, complete “with two hand marks on the handle,” and summarily threw it overboard.

     Indeed, Koeppel makes little or nothing out of many elements of the story that would seem crucial to it. One of the most significant involves the Monks’ family attorney, Francis Bartlett, who, Koeppel writes, read all the newspaper accounts of the murders, then listened to Lester Monks recount the events for a full two hours, and then, according to Koeppel, placed “a hand on young Monks’s shoulder, and said, ‘My boy, tell me why you did it.’” This extraordinary scene, obviously so exceptionally pertinent to the narrative and recounted in more detail as to dialogue and feelings than Koeppel could possibly have gleaned from available sources, is ended by the author with ridiculously understated blandness: “Lester’s response is not recorded.”

     Part of the difficulty with Not a Gentleman’s Work is that even though the book is short, at fewer than 240 pages, it feels padded-out with largely extraneous detail that reflects Koeppel’s skill at research but bears at most indirectly on the basic story. For instance, he reports various people’s word-for-word presentations as told separately to the prosecution and defense, as if to encourage readers to try to catch someone or other in a serious contradiction. But no one tells a story exactly the same way twice, so the minor differences are of no consequence; and in any case, if the author himself had discovered significant inconsistencies and pointed them out, without expecting readers to wade through multiple versions of individuals’ recounting of events, that would have been a different matter and in line with the “untold story” concept.

     What happened after the murders was that Bram was convicted of the killings in January 1897 despite considerable evidence that he was not guilty, and in spite of the serious misgivings of several jurors about his culpability; the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction later that year; Bram was tried again and again found guilty, being sentenced to life in prison; he was paroled in 1913; and President Woodrow Wilson granted him a pardon – largely because of a newspaper campaign on Bram’s behalf – in 1919. The way the tale wends through generations of a rapidly changing America would make for a fascinating societal story, but that is not the one Koeppel tells, except that he trots out the usual recriminations about racially biased U.S. justice: Bram, who was born on the island of St. Kitts and considered himself white, actually had parents of African descent, while the jurors who convicted him were white and native-born. And surely there was prejudice aplenty in what happened to Bram, but that is not all there was, and not even the main issue at his trials. The societal elements, though, appear to be of little interest to Koeppel, who prefers to focus on the personal by following the very different lives of Bram and Monks in the years after the murders. The approach would have worked had either of the men gone on to great acclaim or extreme notoriety, but that is not what happened, so the entire narrative comes to seem a bit pale.

     The book is also somewhat oddly edited, or perhaps just under-edited. The family name Monks is often incorrectly used as its own plural (“American Monks” and “a number of Monks,” for example), but the plural is at other times correctly given as “Monkses”; there is a reference to “a millennia” rather than “a millennium”; “accidentally” is misspelled “accidently”; there is a mention of “exerting his authority” rather than “asserting”; and so on. Individually, these are minor matters, but collectively, they call into question the care with which the story has been assembled. Also questionable is Koeppel’s inclusion not only of precise dialogue that no one could have known, but also of narrative elements that have verisimilitude but are unsupported by evidence, such as the details of the ship’s journey back to port after the murders. Koeppel is scarcely alone in filling in historical blanks this way: plenty of history-reconsidered works tread the thin line between fact and docudrama. Nevertheless, when the professed purpose of a book is to ferret out the truth of a horrific long-ago crime, close attention to what is known and what is not would seem particularly important.

     Not a Gentleman’s Work is mostly written in a breezily accessible style, but its meandering narrative and somewhat confusing presentation tend to drag at it. Additional editing work – not only for specific language but also to tighten the narration and better connect its elements – would have made the book considerably more compelling, but perhaps would have reduced the narrative to something less than a book-length one. In fact, given the paucity of information on a number of the people involved in the story – and Koeppel’s decision to try to make the tale character-driven rather than societal in scope – there may simply not be enough known about the Herbert Fuller case, despite the voluminous coverage it received for a time, for a book-length treatment to sustain.

July 09, 2020

(+++) MASHING IT UP


Solar Warden, Book One: Alien Secrets. By Ian Douglas (pseudonym of William H. Keith, Jr.). Harper Voyager. $7.99.

     An utterly ridiculous mixture of tin-foil-hat conspiracy theories with space opera and heroic-military clichés, the first book in Ian Douglas’ new Solar Warden series is impossible to take the slightest bit seriously – but insists that readers do so, since there is perilously little in it played for even the slightest of laughs. You have to admire Douglas’ sheer gall in combining multiple alien races competing on Earth with the “true” meaning of Roswell, New Mexico events with Nazis venturing into space as helpers/captives of nonhuman races with President Eisenhower signing an agreement allowing periodic, small-scale alien abductions of humans. Someone, probably Douglas, is laughing all the way to the bank as this plot builds and builds – in fact, Alien Secrets reads mostly like a scene-setter for future books in the Solar Warden series, although there are enough intergalactic battles to keep fans of military space fantasy (decidedly not science fiction, there being no science here whatsoever) occupied and happy.

     Government-conspiracy theorists will find plenty to masticate here, too. Douglas tosses about the usual alphabet soup of government agencies-within-agencies-within-agencies, all operating at cross-purposes with plausible deniability and all dipping unceasingly into the apparently endless “black budget” that conveniently funds just about everything Douglas wants funded. Whenever the plot seems about to bog down, which is infrequently, Douglas can always trot out a new super-secret, well-financed groups of something-or-others, whether human or EBE – “Extraterrestrial Biological Entities.”

     Oh, and there is also time travel, because “the Jew physicist Einstein had supposedly demonstrated that space and time were the same thing,” as the resident Nazi baddie notes. Clever, that Einstein.

     A plot this sprawlingly silly is actually something of a wonder, with so many strands and so much connective narrative needed that it is amazing to see how Douglas keeps everything neatly in place while tossing in enough action sequences to keep readers interested in the characters. In fact, it is particularly fortunate that Douglas is so skilled presenting battles and other mayhem, since character delineation and development is not and never has been his strong suit. The protagonist here – someone has to be the center around which everything else orbits – is Lieutenant Commander Mark Hunter of the Navy SEALs, the requisite tough-and-hard-as-nails-but-still-human generic military-hero-with-a-soft-side (he is sorry his wife left him and sorry that he has to leave his girlfriend to go on outer-space deployment). Hunter, who of course inspires tremendous loyalty among the men and women he supervises, is of course a reluctant leader and disciplinarian who of course knows the right thing to do is to tell the world about all those aliens and time travelers but of course does not do so because the baddies, human and EBE, of course know where his family and girlfriend can be found and won’t hesitate to do horrible things to them because they are, you know, bad.

     Solar Warden both undermines and enlarges the notion that the planet Earth is somehow special. On the one hand, humans are not special as an intelligent, spacefaring race, since there are lots and lots and lots of other, more-advanced ones out there. On the other hand, Earth is special, because it is the focal point for plots and counterplots, battles and chesslike maneuvers, in which alien and time-traveling characters constantly jockey for position because – well, the “because” part of Alien Secrets is a little on the light side, although some elements are clear enough, such as future humans’ determination to prevent present-day humans from blowing themselves up because then the future humans would, like, not exist, ok?

     Douglas’ clever authorial touches abound here, notably including his creation of wildly outré plot-supporting quotations that he then states are “attributed” to real historical figures, from Eisenhower to Neil Armstrong. The result is a tiny veneer of plausibility overlaid on the complete nonsense of the story. Although nominally set in the present – make that an “alternative present,” one of those conveniences of which Douglas takes full advantage – the book exists primarily to give the background of the launch of a new military space organization called the Interstellar Marine Force (a singularly uninspired name). It is that force’s usual bold journey to the usual places where humans have never been, to assert human moral superiority (or something) and figure out what the various EBE factions are fighting about and when and how Earth fits into whatever it is (or something), that Alien Secrets details. Damn the absurdity – full speed ahead, to misquote David Farragut’s famed order, “Damn the torpedoes – full speed ahead,” which Farragut actually did not say, except maybe in some yet-to-be-written Ian Douglas book. Damn something, in any case, and full speed to somewhere!