March 29, 2007


Mouse Shapes. By Ellen Stoll Walsh. Harcourt. $16.

Wag a Tail. By Lois Ehlert. Harcourt. $16.

      Two of the most creative writer/artists in children’s books are at the top of their form in new, animal-centered, wonderfully illustrated works. Ellen Stoll Walsh, whose Mouse Paint and Mouse Count were absolutely top-notch in every way – teaching children so entertainingly that the lessons never seemed instructional at all – has another winner in Mouse Shapes. The same adorable brown cut-paper-collage mice, Fred, Martin and Violet, are back, and as they have before, they’re trying to stay away from the cat – which in this case means they hide in a bunch of shapes. After the cat leaves, the mice build things with the shapes, describing each shape and showing how it can go with others – with everything displayed so endearingly that kids will likely want to try their hands at shapes themselves (which is, of course, part of the idea). The mice make a tree, a house, a wagon, even a book for the imaginary mouse in the house to read. The shapes get more complicated, including a fish and a parody of the cat itself, before the feline intruder returns – which gives the mice an idea of how to use their shapes to scare the cat, for a change. Their solution is clever and very funny, and since the shapes they use in solving their problem are very clearly shown (thanks to Walsh’s excellent use of color), kids can follow everything the mice do and, if they like, do the same sort of thing themselves with shapes of their own. Parents, try cutting some colored paper into circles, triangles, squares and other shapes of various colors and sizes, and having the shapes around when you read Mouse Shapes with your child. This book can quickly and easily lead to a most enjoyable game.

      There are games in Wag a Tail, too, but they are played by dogs, not mice (or humans). Lois Ehlert’s latest foray into making illustrations from handmade paper, fabric pieces and an array of buttons produces a deliciously offbeat set of canines, plus their humans, all going to a farmers’ market. (The construction of a man riding a bike and drinking from a water bottle is particularly impressive.) The story is very thin. The dogs talk to each other as their owners shop: “Wag a tail, Wag a tail – We know how,” and so on. The owners are so involved in the market that the dogs get a little restless, and one of them breaks loose – “lost my cool,” he explains. So the owners, finished with shopping, take the dogs to “Woof Park” for some off-the-leash play. That’s it. But the attraction of this book is not so much the narrative as the illustrations, which are whimsical, clever and great fun in every way. There’s a key to 16 different dogs at the end, giving their names and pedigrees (if any) and explaining a bit about their personalities – a nice humanizing (or canine-inizing) touch. But the specifics are unnecessary – all those delightfully created dogs romping all around the pages are enough, in themselves, to make Wag a Tail a thoroughgoing delight.


Brewster Rockit, Space Guy! Close Encounters of the Worst Kind. By Tim Rickard. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

Anybody remember Flash Gordon? How about Buck Rogers in the 25th Century? Maybe the marvelous Chuck Jones parody, featuring Daffy Duck and called Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century? Okay, okay, maybe at least the original mid-1960s version of Star Trek???

Brewster Rockit, Space Guy! draws on all those influences and more. Really draws on them: the characters seem to be wearing Star Fleet uniforms, minus the insignia, and the aliens they encounter are strictly of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers variety. And this stuff is funny, in a ridiculous and sometimes rather cruel way. The cruelty is part of the funniness.

The stereotypes of the “bold adventurers in space” are all here, but they’re all neatly skewed, skewered and twisted. Brewster Rockit is commander of a space station called R.U. Sirius (yes, the puns are all that bad, including the title character’s name as a pun on “booster rocket”). Brewster’s about as dim a bulb as a person can be without going out altogether for lack of discernible mental electrical impulses. He gets help (if you can call it that) from Cliff Clewless, the clichéd brilliant chief engineer – who in this case is a moron: when a device is turned on that incapacitates lower life-forms, an invading blob is not affected, but guess who is? Also aboard is the attractive token female in the form-fitting spacesuit, except that here she’s a 35-year-old single mom named Pam who can’t always get day care for her two kids (one of whom shoots down a NASA satellite, leading her to yell, “OK! That’s coming out of your allowance!”). And then there’s Dr. Mel, the obligatory scientist in the obligatory white coat and dark gloves, who demonstrates the effects of a meteor hitting Earth by smacking other crew members with cream pies. And there is good-hearted, all-American boy Winky, assistant to Dr. Mel and a sort of station mascot, to whom Brewster gives all the dirty and dangerous jobs and who keeps ending up in the hospital as a result, often after shouting, “AAHHH! MY SPLEEN!”

Every strip is in color – an approach that Andrews McMeel is taking for an increasing number of its comic-strip collections – and in this case, the old-fashioned, flat, blocky color perfectly matches the old-fashioned, flat, blocky drawing style. But Tim Rickard’s sense of humor is strictly modern, or postmodern, or post-apocalyptic, or something. It’s certainly weird. One recurring character is a purple alien with an elongated head, who calls himself Enigmo and demonstrates his supposedly unlimited power by asking the space-station crew to pick a number between one and 10. Another is Bucky the robot – nothing but a bucket with a smiley face drawn on it, inverted on top of a coat rack. There are adventures with tribbles (remember those from Star Trek?), dinosaurs and huge ants, takeoffs on Star Wars and Planet of the Apes, and all sorts of other traditional space-opera stuff. No matter what may happen, though, the square-jawed (in fact, rectangle-headed) Brewster comes out on top by dint of unrelenting stupidity.

There’s a fair amount of death and pain and similar forms of amusement here, usually inflicted on Winky – no wonder Stephan Pastis, creator of the hilarious and death-obsessed Pearls Before Swine, agreed to write this book’s introduction. And there are occasional strips that are absurd to the point of hilarity (or the other way around), such as one in which Pam gets a cell-phone call during a battle with a monster: “Honey, Mommy can’t talk right now! She’s very busy killing space squids.” Not everything works – a long simultaneous parody of The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings is just too juvenile and silly – but most of Brewster Rockit is genuinely funny. Rickard uses the three-panel-per-strip format popularized in Dilbert and also used to good effect in Pearls Before Swine, but he plays with it by sometimes making the three panels all different sizes or collapsing two of them into one large one. Brewster Rockit is a real winner of a comic strip, and promises to keep getting better as long as Rickard doesn’t go all upscale and try to make Brewster, like, you know, smart or something.


NASTYbook. By Barry Yourgrau. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $11.99.

Another NASTYbook: The Curse of the Tweeties. By Barry Yourgrau. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $11.99.

      It’s Lemony Snicket’s fault, really. The success of the pseudonymous author’s A Series of Unfortunate Events spawned imitators galore, all of them trying to create novels in which bad things happen to kids but everything works out fairly well, if rather oddly, in the end. Barry Yourgrau, though, takes the whole phenomenon in a different direction in NASTYbook. It’s not a novel: Yourgrau’s book is a series of unconnected short and short-short stories, with everything nasty (or, more often, simply weird) that’s going to happen occurring in just a few pages. It’s also laid out in a deliberately strange way, with the pages bound inside the covers backwards and upside-down, and just in case you think that’s a printing or assembly error, when you go to the back cover and turn it over, you’ll find the question, “Say, do you always read books this way?”

      The stories – 43 of them – rush by so quickly that you can read one or two, or maybe three, during a TV commercial. Yourgrau certainly understands fast pacing (he’s been on MTV and in a music video, among other things). He understands mild creepiness, too – nothing strong enough to upset kids too much, or make their parents decide not to buy the book, but just enough so there’s no doubt that this is anything but a goody-two-shoes kind of book. There’s a goof-off guardian angel who leaves a man suspended in midair; a witch who goes online to lure victims, one of whom is a man whose head ends up covered with eyeballs; a werewolf who makes a documentary about himself; a movie star who turns into a gerbil; a gangster whose body parts keep disappearing, until all that is left of him is one eyebrow; a girl who mistakenly gets on a train that stops only once every hundred years; and much more. The nice thing about NASTYbook is that if you don’t like a story, just blink twice and it’s time for the next one. The little oddities of typesetting, such as crooked or upside-down story titles, come across as just part of Yourgrau’s skewed little world.

      Having gotten the short-form nasties out of his system, Yourgrau apparently decided that he would try to be a bit Snicketish after all. Another NASTYbook is a full-fledged novel, and it’s very decidedly in the unfortunate-events mode, opening on a summer afternoon, “just the perfect setting for an early-supper family picnic… Of course it’s also the perfect setting for terror, horror, and bloodcurdling tragedy to strike. But we get ahead of ourselves.” In truth, this novel is as episodic as its 43-story predecessor, and reads more like a series of mini-adventures than a single, longer one. There are goblins that take offense and kidnap the mom of the family; there’s a horde of Assassins; there are fake teeth that Rollo, the boy hero, needs to help him find Fairyland; and there are dreams, and dreams within dreams, and manga comics that turn, later in the book, into sequences actually presented as manga comics rather than straight narrative; and there are, of course, off-kilter chapter numbers, things that look like stains on the pages, and other kinds of odd stuff. Oh, and some really bad yodeling. There’s nothing the slightest bit profound, or even meaningful, here, but there’s plenty that’s strange and offbeat and, if not necessarily nasty (and certainly not NASTY), is at least exceedingly peculiar. In a good way.


The Saddle Club: No. 1, Horse Crazy; No. 2, Horse Shy; No. 3, Horse Sense; No. 4, Horse Power. By Bonnie Bryant. Yearling. $1.99 (No. 1); $4.99 each (Nos. 2-4).

      Girls who see horses as all splendor and glamour – lots of beauty and grace, no mucking out of stalls – will have a good time with The Saddle Club paperbacks. The first is offered at a special low price to introduce girls to the series, but it is in no way inferior (or superior) to succeeding volumes. It features best friends Carole Hanson and Stevie Lake, the top riders in their class at Pine Hollow Stables. The plot revolves around the arrival of a third girl, Lisa Atwood, whom the friends may or may not accept, depending on whether she can manage herself around horses. Lisa is book-smart but not people-smart or horse-smart: “When she was trying to figure out how to tack up a horse or make sense out of her classmates, everything was a hopeless muddle.” Lisa hits it off with Carole more quickly than with Stevie – Lisa and Stevie play some mean (but not too mean) tricks on each other because of what turn out to be misunderstandings. But thanks to some cooperation in math, of all things, all three girls end up fast friends, and that’s how the Saddle Club is born.

      The second through fourth books introduce some new characters and a certain degree of horse-related drama. Horse Shy focuses on a stuck-up, pampered rich girl named Veronica and her high-quality horse, Cobalt, which she pushes too far – resulting in broken bones for both horse and rider. For a horse, that kind of break is fatal, and Carole becomes deeply depressed because of the love she developed for Cobalt when she had a chance to ride him. Cobalt’s death reminds Carole of her mother’s death in some way, so she decides to give up riding – and it falls to Stevie and Lisa to pull her back into the love of horses that they all share.

      Horse Sense has Lisa as odd girl out again: Stevie and Carole are so busy with various duties at Pine Hollow that they have little time for her. Lisa needs to convince her friends that the Saddle Club is as important as anything else they are doing. Then, in Horse Power, the club members decide they want a fourth person to join: Kate Devine, a championship rider. But then they discover that Kate doesn’t want to ride again – ever. And they have to help her through her emotional low points, until finally Carole can say to Kate, “You’ve rediscovered what’s fun about riding” – and the three friends become four.

      There’s nothing profound about these books, which even after four series entries have repeated themselves: the first and third have Lisa as outsider; the second and fourth involve someone deciding to stop riding and being persuaded to continue. The Saddle Club is ultimately about preteen friendship that just happens to revolve, in this series, around horses. The books are unpretentious, even simplistic, but they are pleasant escapism for girls who are equestriennes – or wish they could be.


The Keys to the Kingdom, Book 5: Lady Friday. By Garth Nix. Scholastic. $17.99.

The Golden Hamster Saga, Book IV: The Haunting of Freddy. By Dietlof Reiche. Illustrated by Joe Cepeda. Scholastic. $5.99.

Rainbow Magic: The Weather Fairies. No. 7: Hayley the Rain Fairy. By Daisy Meadows. Little Apple/Scholastic. $4.99.

      Three series entries: one complex and multifaceted, one simpler and more amusing, one the least prepossessing of all. Three places in their respective series: one is fifth out of seven, one is fourth out of five, and one is the seventh and last. All these books hold up their end of things well; none deviates from what has become expected; and none represents the right place to start making the acquaintance of the characters, since all depend so heavily on what has gone before.

      The Keys to the Kingdom is a much-altered retelling of Arthurian legend, with a hero named Arthur Penhaligon as the Rightful Heir to the Architect of the House, seeking a series of keys that will allow him to fulfill his destiny. In each book, Arthur must overcome another Trustee and obtain another key, and he has done so four times as Lady Friday opens. But all is not well in Arthur’s quest: his friends have been captured, and various characters are blocking Arthur in a variety of nefarious (and interesting) ways. For example, Superior Saturday has blocked the House’s front door and turned off all the elevators. A reader coming anew to this series with Lady Friday will find the book quite confusing, with its talk of Nithlings and Denizens and the treachery that Arthur finds at Binding Junction. But readers who have already finished the first four books will enjoy the way Lady Friday moves Arthur’s story along, as he eventually reaches Lady Friday’s Scriptorium and gets a golden opportunity to advance his quest – unless, of course, it is all a clever trap. Garth Nix keeps his characters strange (one is called Part Five of the Will, and at one point there is a battle against dangerous infiltrating plants). “Knowledge, like all things, is best in moderation,” Arthur is told near this novel’s end – but Arthur clearly has more to learn, and will do so in the sixth book, called by the name of this book’s door-blocker, Superior Saturday.

      The Haunting of Freddy is part of an amusingly silly series rather than an offbeat heroic-fantasy sequence. Freddy is a top-notch writer who is currently working on an adventure series set in the 16th century. Freddy is also a hamster. And when the characters in his work, “The Lord of the Ferrets,” come to life, Freddy and his friends find themselves journeying to an English castle to defend a human family from vengeful ghosts. And defend some rabbits, too – this is that kind of book and that kind of series. Dietlof Reiche’s style, as translated by John Brownjohn, moves trippingly along, and Joe Cepeda’s amusing illustrations invariably make the text even funnier. One example, involving the friendly singing guinea pigs who travel along with Freddy: “Like a pair of rockets, Enrico and Caruso shot out of the central rabbit hole so fast, they sailed through the air and landed with two dull thuds” – and are shown popping out of a hole with thoroughly startled expressions on their faces. This is a fine and funny entry in a series that is soon to conclude with Freddy’s Final Quest.

      The Weather Fairies series has concluded already, with the seventh and last adventure of Rachel and Kirsty and the magic feathers that the girls need to restore to their fairy owners. Mischief-making Jack Frost has had his goblins steal the feathers, but the human girls have recovered them, one by one, largely by outthinking the goblins, who are not terribly bright (or, for that matter, terribly evil). While a goblin holds a feather, the weather associated with that feather gets wacky, so in Hayley the Rain Fairy the big problem is a flood – which the girls defeat by tricking the goblin into trading his real rain feather for a phony sun feather (the goblins are eminently trickable). Unfortunately, the recovery of this final feather brings Jack Frost himself into the picture – but thanks to help from an unlikely source (well, not unlikely to readers of the series), he is soon sent away, and Rachel and Kirsty earn the gratitude of everyone in Fairyland, leading to a big happy ending. A pleasant diversion for young readers, The Weather Fairies contains few surprises but lots of warmth and good feelings – all the way to the end.


Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies. John Nelson conducting Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. Ambroisie. $41.99 (5 CDs).

      Whenever a new set of the Beethoven symphonies is released, someone is sure to ask, “Why?” A better question would be, “Why not?” There is no possibility that any one conductor and orchestra will ever plumb all the depths of these works, and in fact it is perfectly justifiable for a conductor to want to record them several times as his or her approaches and insights change.

      John Nelson’s set with Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, of which Nelson is music director, is attractive on many levels and for many reasons. The first is that it is French: Beethoven, unbeknownst to many listeners, was highly influenced by the French music of his time. For example, he admired Étienne Méhul (1763-1817); he wrote some pieces in French style (notably, in the symphonies, the march with tenor in the finale of the Ninth); and Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, is nothing less than a French rescue opera. Secondly, this orchestra is chamber-size, which means it is the size of orchestra with which Beethoven was familiar and for which he wrote (although it does use modern instruments and tuning). Thirdly, Nelson is admirably eclectic in his use of Beethoven editions: he primarily follows the most definitive, by Jonathan Del Mar, but occasionally harks back to the old Breitkopf edition, which has many inaccuracies but also some felicities.

      Of course, these are somewhat academic reasons for finding this set enjoyable. Here is a decidedly non-academic one: it sounds wonderful and is played marvelously. It is too much to expect a modern conductor to approach each Beethoven symphony as if it were new, but Nelson and his orchestra mostly do an excellent job of playing each work as if Beethoven would never write another – that is, playing them on a forward-looking basis rather than retrospectively. After all, when Beethoven wrote his first symphony, he had not yet written his second and did not know what the second would sound like.

      The First in fact sounds like Haydn here. It is light and fast – Beethoven’s tempos were mostly faster than modern orchestras use, and Nelson generally adheres to them (at least more than other conductors do). The symphony is precisely played and well balanced. It is easy to follow thematic lines, and in the fourth movement, brass and timpani are very clearly audible without being played too loudly. The orchestra seems to enjoy this light and lively work, especially the Scherzo – which Beethoven here divorced from earlier dance movements, although he did not originate the term (that, like much else, is from Haydn). The very reverberant sound seems a little out of place here, but otherwise the performance is excellent.

      The speed of the Second is attractive and structurally revelatory, with the brass in the first movement unusually clear and clean. The Larghetto sounds more like an Andante, but the effect – here as in the other symphonies – is of a composer eager to get on with it, not of an orchestra rushing the music.

      The horns are excellent in the “Eroica,” where the quick pace actually increases the drama – and where Nelson’s observation of all Beethoven’s repeats is especially welcome (the first movement seems truncated without a repeated exposition). Hearing the “Eroica” with small orchestra helps you understand why it was originally thought unplayable – this is genuinely difficult music, and the symphony is Beethoven’s longest, aside from the Ninth of 20 years later. Textures are very clear in Nelson’s performance, and those dramatic chords are more effective because of the smaller orchestra – they really make an impact. The funeral march is heroic and funereal in equal measure, not merely a dirge, and paced so its segments flow naturally. Quiet sections are really quiet. The second theme of the finale seems unusually fast, but Hogan makes it persuasive.

      The Fourth bubbles, but the strong chords and intense brass make it clear that this symphony came after the “Eroica” and is neither a throwback nor an afterthought. If anything, some of the winds in the first movement look ahead to the “Pastorale.” This Fourth has more drive and less simplicity than usual – hence more depth – with a natural movement-to-movement flow that shows it to be a better integrated symphony than the “Eroica.” Nelson’s speed especially benefits the scurrying opening of the finale – and the rest of the movement.

      The Fifth starts in dramatic but not overpowering fashion – this must be much the way the original audiences heard it – and its fast first movement sounds better with a small orchestra than a large one, with clearer opposition between brass and winds, on the one hand, and strings, on the other. The second movement offers respite but is not draggy or hyper-Romantic – in fact, it sounds a bit like Haydn here (a surprise). The third and fourth movements come together wonderfully, especially with all repeats observed, with the finale especially propulsive.

      The “Pastorale” drags in some performances, but not here, and the brook in the second movement really flows (some conductors play this movement so slowly that the water seems stagnant). The third movement is very bouncy, and the “village musicians” sections really sound simple, unaffected and a little silly. The quiet start of the storm is especially effective, while the thunder and lightning are impressive but not threatening – making the finale into a gentle celebration of the passing of the storm, not a great victory over nature. This is a highly unusual and very successful approach to Beethoven’s Sixth.

      The Seventh and Eighth feature first-movement tempos closer to those used in other recordings, and they work just fine. The first movement of the Seventh is joyous and light, with bright flute work a highlight. The second movement is very quiet and gentle; the third is fast and lively; and the finale is far too quick for dancing but undeniably exciting.

      The Eighth is brisk but not fast – and sounds almost like a tribute to Haydn, although certainly not an imitation (Beethoven said he never learned anything from Haydn, but perhaps, against his will, he learned quite a bit). The accentuation and use of brass are pure Beethoven, and the interesting structure, lacking a slow movement, flows particularly well in this recording. The third movement is Beethoven’s only symphonic one referring to a minuet, but it is “Tempo di menuetto” rather than the old dance itself. Nelson makes the interplay between horn and cello in the trio very clear, and the finale has chamber-music lightness but also considerable power – this is, after all, Beethoven at the time of the Seventh (1812). Incidentally, one flaw in this set is that the timings for this symphony’s third and fourth movements are significantly misstated in the booklet and on the back of the CD case.

      Beethoven produced the Ninth after more than a decade of writing no symphonies at all, so the quantum leap of style after the Eighth comes as no surprise intellectually. But in this recording, where even the Ninth uses a small orchestra, it is sonically a very big surprise indeed. The dissonances and unusual harmonies of the first movement are super-clear here, where the reverberant sound of the whole set is especially helpful. The intense brass is very prominent, the tempo is quick but not rushed, and if there is less outright grandeur here than in other recordings, there is greater complexity. In the second movement, the timpani sound very clearly without needing to be pounded into submission, the brass-vs.-strings sections are dramatic, and the quick trio makes a strong contrast with what comes before and after. The “Adagio molto e cantabile” offers less adagio and more cantabile than most performances: it is quiet, gently flowing, but without swooning, with especially effective winds and pizzicato strings. The finale, surprisingly, opens slowly, with dissonances emphasized, and the instrumental sections have the strangest sound in this whole set – rather thin and even tentative (the main theme practically sneaks in). This takes some getting used to, as do the vocal sections, primarily because bass Hao Jian Tian pronounces German oddly and rather uncomfortably – a pity, because his voice itself is high-quality. Tenor Donald Litaker is much more assured, his sections being light and expressive, while both women – soprano Guylaine Girard and contralto Marijana Mijanovic – sing with pleasant intensity. The chorus, Chœur d’Oratorio de Paris, is excellent, singing strongly and pronouncing the words of Schiller’s poem unusually clearly. Indeed, the effect of this movement is not operatic in this recording – as it often is with more high-powered singers and a larger chorus. Instead, the conclusion sounds more like an oratorio, which may be much closer to the way Beethoven saw it.

      Every performance in this set is interesting, and some are fascinating – different listeners will rate different ones more highly. As a bonus, and typically for a French production, the set’s presentation is physically gorgeous. Each CD is solid black, with black-on-black printing except for white numbers for each symphony. Each CD is in its own cardboard case that opens book-style, and each case has an art-quality photo on the front. The five CDs and accompanying booklet nestle vertically in a handsome thick-cardboard box whose top lifts completely off, and the box has a beautiful night photo of the Eiffel Tower on one side and a daytime picture of Notre Dame on the other. It’s larger than standard CD size and may not fit on some shelves designed for CDs – but it’s so attractive that you won’t mind leaving it out on display. The design enhances the enjoyment of an unusual and highly impressive set of the Beethoven Nine.

March 22, 2007


Corydon & the Fall of Atlantis. By Tobias Druitt. Knopf. $15.99.

The Five Ancestors, Book IV: Crane. By Jeff Stone. Random House. $15.99.

      These “continuing adventure” tales raise the questions of what is human and what is not, and of ways in which humans can – and, for their survival, must – learn from nonhuman animals. Neither book is the slightest bit preachy, but both have quite a few lessons to teach.

      Corydon & the Fall of Atlantis is a followup to Corydon and the Island of Monsters, in which Greek legends were turned every which way by an authorial team that knows them inside out (“Tobias Druitt” is the pseudonym for mother-and-son writers Diane Purkiss and Michael Dowling). The earlier book was if anything a touch too steeped in Greek legends to be immediately intelligible to young readers who have not studied and been fascinated by this deep and highly influential mythology. The new book is more of a straightforward adventure story, and is likely to have even more immediate appeal than its predecessor. The plot flows from the kidnapping of the Minotaur – a peace-loving inhabitant of the Island of Monsters, which is constantly under attack by self-aggrandizing, often self-proclaimed mythological heroes. Evidence suggests that the Minotaur has been taken to the city of Atlantis, so the other monsters – led by Corydon – journey over Poseidon’s waters, managing hairsbreadth escape after hairsbreadth escape, and finally arriving at Atlantis, where they are told: “Many centuries ago, the people of Atlantis lost their city thanks to the malice of a god. They decided to build a new city that would be the wonder of the world. Their cleverest man, a man named Daidalos, designed it…but the people were few. To build it, they needed strong backs. …[So Daidalos] determined to build his own race of giants…. He learned the secret of creating life, discovered that he must paint each clay figure with an animating rune in human blood.” So Daidalos murders to make it possible to create golem-like creatures to construct the wonderful city, and readers know the glories of Atlantis are thus built on the most unstable foundation imaginable. Questions about Atlantis become intertwined with a plot to make the monsters mortal “by catching [them] in mortal life. The Minotaur with drugs, Euryale with art, Gorgos with hero-power…and me with love, thought Corydon.” This is a complexly woven fable, with role reversals throughout (the monsters, the reader must constantly remember, are the good guys); and the monsters’ narrow escape from Atlantis’ destruction portends further adventures in a promised third book.

      The Five Ancestors is into its fourth book with Crane, and Jeff Stone shows no sign of reducing the intensity of this well-wrought series. It is about five young 17th-century warrior-monks-in-training who survive the destruction of their school at Cangzhen Temple, and must find their way in the world while developing, on their own, their special martial-arts styles. Then they must learn why the temple was destroyed, along with the benevolent Grandmaster who trained them. The hero of Crane is, surprisingly, a heroine: Hok, whose crane-style kung fu requires her to be constantly aware of even the smallest changes in others without requiring her to spend much time looking inward. Hok was disguised as a boy to enter Cangzhen – otherwise she would not have been allowed to train there – and in Crane she starts to wonder what she gave up when she allowed the cutting off not only of her hair but also of her name: OnYeen, which means Peaceful. For things are anything but peaceful for Hok and her comrades, Fu and Seh, as they try to free Malao, who has been captured. All four find themselves forced into the fight-club scene in the city of Jinan, where their individual martial-arts styles are intensely tested as they try to survive and continue their seekings – which are, ultimately, searches for themselves. A worthy successor to Tiger, Monkey and Snake, this fourth book ends with an intense escape scene that will make readers of the series very eager indeed to read the fifth volume, which will be called Eagle.


The Edge Chronicles VIII: The Winter Knights. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $12.99.

Arthur and the Invisibles. By Luc Beeson. HarperEntertainment. $7.99.

      There is genuine regret in stating that the eighth volume in the wonderful Edge Chronicles is by far the weakest of these novels to date. This is true even though Paul Stewart continues to write with style and Chris Riddell’s astonishing illustrations seem to spring from an inexhaustible store of characterization through detail. The Edge Chronicles is one of the truly great adventure series for preteens and young teenagers, but in The Winter Knights it comes up short. The problems are manifold. The seventh book, Freeglader, ended with the escape of refugees from the ruins of Undertown and the long-since-crashed, one-time-floating city of Sanctaphrax. Challenges would no doubt remain, but a great journey had been completed, the balance of power in the world of The Edge had been altered forever, and it was clear that a happier future would lie ahead. Where to go next in this 10-volume series? The answer in this eighth volume is: backwards. Back to a time when Sanctaphrax floated, when the wounds of the battles between Sky Scholars and Earth Scholars were fresh.

This might work as a way to fill in some of the narrative holes left by the end of the seventh book, but that is not how Stewart and Riddell handle The Winter Knights. Instead, they use it to pick up the story originally told in the fourth book, The Curse of the Gloamglozer – a novel that was already weaker than the others, with a less interesting cast of characters. Those characters are not much more intriguing with the additional focus on them here. The major protagonist is Quint, son of a sky pirate and aspiring Knight Academic. Unfortunately, he is naïve to the point of stupidity, determinedly seeing only good even when evil stares him in the face; he quickly becomes merely tiresome. Quint is separated at the start from his friend, Maris, daughter of the Most High Academe, and that is too bad, because Maris is a more interesting character – when she eventually shows up again, she makes the whole book brighter, although her own situation is grim. Part of the problem is that the bad guys here are bad simply because – well, because they’re evil. There is none of the depth of characterization here found in other parts of this series. Instead, there is simply Vilnix Pompolnius, a fellow student who passionately hates Quint for no very good reason and undermines him constantly without Quint having the faintest idea of what is going on. In fact, the leaders of Sanctaphrax never quite figure Vilnix out, either – they’re a pretty dim bunch – and when Vilnix is eventually exposed, they do not even banish him from the city, but merely demote him, leaving him a venue from which to continue doing mischief. That will surely be a subject of the ninth book – which will undoubtedly retain the charming Riddell illustrations, but seems unlikely to rise much above the admittedly exciting but less-than-enthralling tale told here.

      There are beauties in the world of the Minimoys, too, but Luc Beeson’s two books about them – Arthur and the Minimoys and Arthur and the Forbidden City – are just a bit too formulaic to belong in the top tier of fantasy writing. Arthur and the Invisibles collects the two novels in a single volume, its design tied into Beeson’s not-terribly-well-received film based on his Minimoy stories. It is certainly not necessary to see the movie to enjoy this book, which starts with Arthur’s discovery of the one-inch-tall Minimoys and continues as he shrinks to Minimoy height himself and has two adventures: searching for his missing grandfather and a stolen treasure, and visiting the forbidden city of Necropolis to confront the evil wizard, Maltazard. The names themselves reveal elements of Beeson’s plot formula: Minimoy for miniature or miniscule people, Necropolis for a kind of city of the dead, Maltazard as a combination of mal (= bad) and wizard. Intended for readers ages 8-11, the books are likely to appeal more to the younger end of that age range, to readers who find words such as Koolomassai and Balong-Botos exotic in and of themselves. This is not to deny Beeson’s considerable cleverness in pacing the books and keeping the unidimensional characters within (modest) expectations. The good guys stay good, the bad guys stay bad, and everything comes out all right – but it has to be said that Arthur is not the most interesting hero. “Arthur sighed. He didn’t know what to do,” is a typical remark, and a lot of the events consist of Arthur not knowing what to do but still being brave about doing whatever it turns out to be. That approach to adventure is intermittently appealing, but it does wear rather thin when Beeson presents more than 400 pages of it.


A Lovely Love Story. By Edward Monkton. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

Life 101: An Illustrated Guide. By Geoffrey Day-Lewis. Andrews McMeel. $14.95.

      Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about love – or about life itself – in just a few pages, and for less than $25 total (plus tax). How can you go wrong?

      Actually, you can’t – if you are looking for a cute gift item or something you yourself can read in just a few minutes, then be satisfied to own even though you will probably never pick it up again. Both these books are more in the nature of extended greeting cards than books of the keep-them-around-and-reread-them-occasionally type. As long as you set your expectations at the right level, you will enjoy these short works.

      A Lovely Love Story sounds as if it is going to be an animal fable, starting as it does with a “fierce dinosaur…trapped inside his cage of ice.” But then the not-very-fierce-looking dinosaur finds his ice thawed when a Lovely Other Dinosaur appears, and from then on, Edward Monkton (pseudonym of British poet Giles Andreae) might as well be writing about squirrels, bunny rabbits or people. Well, of course he’s writing about people. And very stereotypically, too: the first dinosaur can be distant and peculiar, and is fond of Things. The Other one has a mind that skips about and is fond of Shopping. But each decides that the other’s flaws (if they are flaws) are what make him or her endearing, so they stay together and grow old together and feel the warmth of the sun together, “and the world is a beautiful place.” And that’s it. These are greeting-card sentiments from first to last, and expressed largely in greeting-card language, too, but there’s still something charming about the book: the naïve, slightly silly illustrations, which include one dinosaur playing with a remote control and the other carrying a cute little purse. Even the hearts and flowers (yes, hearts and flowers) are pleasantly drawn. It’s a lovely little book that you’ll read in fewer than 10 minutes, although – with luck – the sentiments will stay with you longer.

      Life 101: An Illustrated Guide doesn’t even have 10 minutes of text in it, but it’s a thicker book than A Lovely Love Story – as it should be, since it purports to include all of life, not “merely” love (although love’s in it; a touch of lust, too). Geoffrey Day-Lewis has taken offbeat stock photos from Getty Images and and strung them together with minimal text designed to showcase 101 things about life. Actually, the number 101 is cheating, since #36 is “Respect your elders” and that page then includes numbers 37 through 69, with the next page picking up at #70. If you find that funny, you’re in the book’s target audience. If it falls a bit flat, see how you feel about #27, “Don’t be afraid to speak up” (a seated man about to be wallpapered over); #77, “Get plenty of fresh air” (a skier in a bunny suit leaping off a ski jump); and #83, “Expect the unexpected” (an elderly couple in bed, looking at something – whatever could it be? – under the covers). Some pages here are rather snide, while others are simply clever, such as #18, “Beauty is all around you” (a graphic rather than photographic page, with the word “YOU” in the middle and the word “beauty” repeated many times in concentric circles around it). The advice consists entirely of clichés (“Try to be positive,” “Eat your greens,” “Be a good listener”), so when the book works, it works because of the contrast between the humdrum words and the interesting photos. Not all the photos are particularly interesting, though; most readers will surely find some hilarious and wonder what point Day-Lewis thinks he is making with others. But that’s life, and that’s Life 101.


Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars. By Douglas Florian. Harcourt. $16.

Bing Bang Boing. By Douglas Florian. Harcourt. $8.

      There’s Florian here, there’s Florian there, there’s Florian (so it seems) ev-er-y-where. He rhymes of astronomy, rhymes of gastronomy, rhymes things you like and of things you don’t wannabe.

      And that’s the way Douglas Florian is. He’s fun in small doses, but many of his books, including these two, offer him in somewhat larger portions than may go down easily. Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars is, of course, about space, and even has a helpful “galactic glossary” at the end explaining the scientific background of the poems. Parents may read that glossary, but it’s a safe bet that kids are going to want the verse – which ranges from better to, well, verse. When he wants to, Florian can versify pointedly: “Mars is red,/ And Mars is rusty,/ Sandy, rocky/ Very dusty./ Mars has ice caps./ Once had streams./ Mars has Martians…/ In your dreams!” That’s clever, descriptive and neatly tied up at the end. But then there’s something like this: “A telescope or binoculars are/ Great aids to observe a star./ To find your way it’s good to sight/ Upon a star that’s very bright,/ Like Sirius or Canopus,/ Alpha Centauri or Arcturus…” The limping rhythm and partial rhymes are as likely to befuddle young readers as educate them. Florian does do his best to stay up to date on astronomical matters: “Pluto was a planet./ But now it doesn’t pass./ Pluto was a planet./ They say it’s lacking mass./ Pluto was a planet./ Pluto was admired./ Pluto was a planet./ Till one day it got fired.” That’s repetitious but accurate, yet young readers are likely to wonder who did what, exactly, to Pluto – which they can find out only if they choose to read the glossary. One thing that is consistently charming here is the art: Florian illustrates his own books, and this time he offers paintings that are whimsical and informative at once, and consistently enjoyable to look at – the one comparing a comet to a snowball, while also showing the celestial object’s structure, is particularly fine.

      There is no central theme to Bing Bang Boing, a Florian collection that was originally published in 1994 and is now available in paperback. This is a nonsense-verse collection, and here too the meter does not always trip lightly along: “If you should see/ The Spotted Spee,/ You’d better run and hide./ For though the Spee/ Is two feet tall/ It’s fifteen miles wide.” That final line would have scanned perfectly, and included an additional rhyme, if the number had been “fifty-three.” It’s hard to see why Florian picked “fifteen.” Florian also tortures the language a bit too often when he’s looking for a rhyme, as in a poem called “Little-Naughty-Nasty Ned,” where a couplet reads, “In Ned’s tiny bedroom closet/ Did his uncle he deposit.” Cute, yes, up to a point, but Florian tends to push the point a bit too far. He does manage a neat two-line poem on an astronomical theme here: “Jeff says the largest planet is Jupiter./ Simon says Saturn, but Simon is stupider.” And there are some silly limericks, some atrocious puns (“Auntlers”), and some poems with names made up just because they fit funny rhymes (“Hiram Zabriskie was fretful and frisky”). Bing Bang Boing is a hodgepodge through and through – a feast for Florian fans, but perhaps a bit much to take for anyone discovering Florian’s way with poetry for the first time. However, once again, the poet’s illustrations – black-and-white drawings, in this case – are uniformly amusing, frequently funnier than the poems whose subjects they portray.


The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures. By Louis Theroux. Da Capo. $24.

Career Match: Connecting Who You Are with What You Love to Do. By Shoya Zichy, with Ann Bidou. AMACOM. $15.

      Louis Theroux has made a career out of creating offbeat documentaries about people who are, shall we say, a touch off the beaten track. Or perhaps just touched. Louis, son of noted travel writer Paul Theroux, does a great deal of traveling of his own, but his purpose is to chronicle people rather than places. And not just any people: he looks for the avowedly strange ones. It may be that there are more of these in America than elsewhere, or it may just be that Americans are more up-front about their oddities and more willing to explore them in a documentary, but it is the United States rather than the United Kingdom, where he was brought up, that has given Theroux most of the fodder for his works. (Theroux is actually a dual U.S. and British citizen.) The Call of the Weird, Theroux’s first book, is a chronicle of his revisits to the subjects of his documentaries, in which he becomes involved (however peripherally) in their lives and describes (often in considerable detail) their day-to-day existence. It’s an odd book, not because the subjects are odd (although most people would say many of them are), but because Theroux is not quite sure what tone to take. Is Theroux smirking at Thor Templar, Lord Commander of the Earth Protectorate and killer, so he claims, of 10 aliens? Or is he exploring Templar as a study in pathology? Or is he taking him almost-seriously? Similarly, how does he really feel about the Wild Horse brothel in Nevada? “The relationships between the working girls and their customers could be surprisingly human and well-rounded. They liked many of the men who visited them. Occasionally they would get crushes. As I stayed longer, it was the naturalness that existed between the women and the customers that struck me.” Has Theroux hit on something socially significant here, or is he putting the reader on, or has he been watching too many “whore with a heart of gold” movies? It’s hard to say – and by the time a reader starts getting really interested in figuring out what angle to take on Theroux’s observations, he has moved on to another element of American fringe culture. If you simply take the portraits of Theroux’s subjects at face value, you can certainly enjoy his bright writing about the porn-king wannabe, the former pimp who manages a hip-hop group, even the neo-Nazi and her twin daughters. But pinning down the authorial voice is difficult; and without knowing what Theroux really thinks of his subjects, it is hard to say whether he is laughing with or at them, and – by extension – with or at his readers.

      Theroux does seem to have found a career that matches his peripatetic personality, but most people are not lucky enough to find an ideal job – which would be something you would do for nothing, but are paid for, and paid well. Career coach Shoya Zichy believes it’s possible to match your career to your personality, and has devised a test along the lines of Myers-Briggs personality typing that she says will help you connect with what you love. It’s best to take Career Match with a grain of salt, though, since the test – assuming you accept its accuracy – may show only that what you are currently doing, and perhaps doing very well, is not what you most deeply want to do. This is scarcely news: many people know they are not working in an ideal situation, but they understand that the necessities of life require them to perform certain work nevertheless. Zichy does offer four pages at the end of Career Match in which she tells people how to search for careers with which they would be highly compatible. But that’s an afterthought, and not a very realistic one at that. The test itself is the point of this book.

      Here’s how it works: you answer a series of questions based on what you tend to do or prefer 51% of the time. From that you develop a “Color Q Personality Style Self-Assessment” that designates you as Green, Red, Blue or Gold, with appropriate modifications based on your answer pattern (“Green/Gold Extrovert,” “Red/Blue Introvert,” etc.). Zichy (assisted by Ann Bidou) presents the information in a quick, breezily attractive style: “Red/Green Introvert: …You recharge your batteries by being alone, rather than being with others. It’s likely you have little patience for this book and are just reading this to please someone.” The tests are fun to take and really can provide some useful insights. But the more Zichy gets into the concept of a “prism company” (well, of course you need different types of people for a company to work well, no matter how you define those types), the more she presents point-by-point behavioral checklists (“How to Recognize a Green,” “How to Communicate with a Green”), the more her book seems gimmicky rather than genuinely useful. Still, there is value here, as in any system that attempts to explain the differences among people so everyone can work together more effectively. But don’t count on using Career Match to dump your unfulfilling job and talk your way into an ideal one. Life is neither that simple nor that neatly packaged.


Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto, op. 35; Sérénade mélancolique, op. 26; Souvenir d’un lieu cher, op. 42 (orch. Glazunov); Valse-Scherzo, op. 34. Ilya Kaler, violin; Dmitry Yablonsky conducting the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4, “Romantic.” Günter Wand conducting the Münchner Philharmoniker. Profil. $16.99.

      It is so easy to overdo the performance of deeply Romantic music. Some works just seem to invite great, sprawling, over-emotional interpretations. But interestingly, performers who subdue the impulse to over-romanticize the Romantic tend to produce more interesting readings than ones who give in to it.

      Certainly there are few works as emblematic of the Romantic period as Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, which has been subject to all sorts of excesses in performance. That makes Ilya Kaler’s approach all the more fascinating: he is precise and not overly emotional. There is no wallowing in Kaler’s reading, or in the excellent support of Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, who offer exemplary attention to detail throughout. Kaler has a thin but robust tone and the ability to accentuate every single note even in highly complex passages – at times he sounds like no less a virtuoso than Jascha Heifetz. But Heifetz rarely had orchestras and conductors this good – he had no interest in being overshadowed by “mere” accompanists. Kaler and Yablonsky are a partnership of equals, and the music is better for it. Kaler’s playing is perhaps a trifle cool, but it brings great rewards, as in the first movement’s cadenza, which turns out to sound remarkably fresh when you hear all the notes. The second movement comes across as a pleasant interlude and is not at all weepy. There is nothing prissy in the finale, which sounds almost effortless as Kaler plays it – with precision even in the fastest runs. Yablonsky makes sure the flute, oboe and clarinet solos complement the solo violin neatly. The result is an unusual, and unusually successful, performance.

      The other works here are less often played but no less Romantic in temperament. Kaler makes Sérénade mélancolique sound quiet and contemplative rather than melancholy, with precision playing that is just a touch showy. Souvenir d’un lieu cher – the “dear place” was the estate of Tchaikovsky’s patron, Madame von Meck, where he stayed while she was away – has a lovely sound in Glazunov’s orchestration (it was written for violin and piano). Some of the more attractive touches are not particularly Tchaikovskian, such as the harp in the first movement, but they sound beautiful nonetheless. Kaler is warm here, swirling in and out of the orchestra rather than dominating it. But he does dominate the second movement, a very fast Scherzo, and then makes the Trio unusually sweet. The final movement, simply called “Mélodie,” sounds wistful and a touch doleful. As for Valse-Scherzo, it is a showpiece, and Kaler plays it with humor and true Viennese rubato – taking a bit away from one measure and restoring it to another, not merely slowing down and speeding up indiscriminately. There’s no question that this is Romantic music, but the fact that Kaler does not wear his heart on his sleeve keeps the focus on the works rather than the performer – a pleasant change from the norm.

      The word Romantic applies to all Bruckner’s symphonies, but it is No. 4, in E-flat Major, that bears the appellation “Romantic” – and was so called by Bruckner himself. This opens the door to performances that sprawl every which way, by conductors with little sense of the unusual and striking architecture of Bruckner’s vast symphonic canvases. Günter Wand, though, is the antithesis of such performers, especially in the outstanding version of the Bruckner Fourth that he did in his final appearance with the Munich Philharmonic. Listening to this marvelous reading, you will be amazed to consider that Wand was 89½ when he led it, in September 2001 – and was to die five months later. The palpable vitality of the performance belies the conductor’s age as surely as the deep understanding of the music affirms it.

      Wand builds the first movement with careful attention to tempi, thematic groups and segmentation, and brings unusual breadth to the coda. The second movement is slow and expressive, drawing attention to pizzicati, solo flute and horn, and other Schubertian touches. This movement is highly effective as instrumental voices are added toward the end and the sound grows louder. Wand’s attention to detail is so careful that it becomes clear that a series of timpani beats strongly resembles the opening of the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, written less than a decade later. There is foreshadowing of Mahler’s First in the third movement as well: a passage where horns toss the theme to flutes almost belongs in Mahler’s first movement. But this justly famous “hunting” Scherzo is quintessential Bruckner – with the Munich strings here offering the sort of warmth usually associated with the Vienna Philharmonic, and with a slow Trio providing needed respite from the hectic hunting motifs.

      The first three minutes of the finale here are among the most exciting Bruckner sections ever recorded, as the solemnity of the opening march leads to spectacular full-orchestra sound and then a drop back into mysterious strings. The remainder of the movement is nearly at the same quality level, with emphasis on the delicacy of lightly scored sections but with plenty of power when needed. Wand continues his uncanny balancing of strings and brass right through to the inexorable buildup to the symphony’s overwhelming conclusion. There is silence – apparently stunned silence – from the audience when the music ends, lasting for long seconds until deafening and much-deserved applause breaks out. This is a great Bruckner Fourth – and it is great in large part because Wand acknowledges the symphony as “Romantic” without demanding that his forces plunge too deeply into the excesses of the Romantic temperament.

March 15, 2007


Far-Flung Adventures No. 3: Hugo Pepper. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $14.99.

The Secret History of Tom Trueheart. By Ian Beck. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Tales of the bold, brave and venturesome just don’t get any better than these two. Neither of these books is “high fantasy,” with world-spanning themes and antique-sounding language. Both are far more down-to-Earth than that, although both heroes actually spend a good deal of time above the Earth (Hugo in a flying craft, Tom in the land beyond the clouds that is reached by climbing that famous fairy-tale beanstalk). The heroes here are above all likable, their adventures thrilling for readers ages 8-12 or so, the authors’ style gripping enough to keep those pages turning from start to finish.

      Hugo Pepper has something more: the superb, amazingly detailed illustrations of Chris Riddell. Riddell and Paul Stewart are co-creators of The Edge Chronicles, which is for somewhat older readers and built on a grander scale than the Far-Flung Adventures series. But Riddell’s illustrations have never been better than they are in Hugo Pepper, whose adventures follow those chronicled in Fergus Crane and Corby Flood. In fact, one of the great charms of this series is the way each book recalls elements of the earlier ones: parts of the first two books fit very neatly into this third one, although you can read Hugo Pepper on its own and enjoy it very much indeed. The structure of this book is quite interesting: forward-moving narrative is interspersed with what appear to be fairy tales or folk tales, which all turn out to be true within the book’s world – and important to what eventually happens. Hugo, raised by reindeer herders Harvi and Sarvi Runter-Tun-Tun, actually comes from a town far away from the frozen north. Hugo’s journey to find out about his birth family brings him to Firefly Square, where a cast of delightful eccentrics (excellently delineated by Riddell) is facing the nefarious doings of the publisher of a corrupt muckraking magazine. Among the characters Hugo meets are two helpful mermaids, who spend most of their time running a shop on dry land; tea sellers whose brews create, emphasize or counteract emotional states and also help predict the future, if a bit enigmatically; a rug restorer whose special slippers let her float in the air; and more. The characters all have pasts of their own, including a connection with a famed female pirate and a one-eyed ship’s cat. Stewart knits the tale so well together, and Riddell illustrates it so beautifully (including a wraparound cover that, unfolded, is a fine map of Firefly Square, with character portraits along the top and bottom), that even the disappointing ending – the bad guys do not get what they most certainly have coming to them – doesn’t seem too awful. Hugo Pepper is wonderful to read and absolutely delightful to see.

      The Secret History of Tom Trueheart relies more on words than on pictures – although Ian Beck’s silhouette illustrations are not bad at all. It makes sense that this is a word-oriented book, because the bad guy here is none other than a renegade storyteller. The world is one in which there exists a Land of Stories, to which the six older Trueheart brothers – all named Jack or some variation thereof – venture upon the order of story creators, to be transformed or rescue damsels in distress or otherwise live out fairy tales such as “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Rapunzel” and “The Frog Prince.” Everyone in the Land of Stories is acting a role, and each character really has character – Cinderella proves particularly feisty. Unfortunately, on the brothers’ latest assignments, something goes very wrong, and the Master of the Story Bureau himself orders young Tom, who is just 12, to find out what has gone wrong and to set it right. This is not simple, as “The Rules of the Land of Stories” (neatly laid out in four pages) make clear. But Tom, accompanied by a sprite transformed to a helpful crow, doggedly (or crow-edly) makes his way along the roads his brothers had taken, following up on their disappearances and – at the end – setting things almost right. Tom’s many adventures are funny in themselves and funny as takeoffs on well-known fairy tales. But there is a darker (well, not much darker) undercurrent here, involving the long-ago disappearance of Tom’s and his brothers’ father. And that particular thread is very deliberately left unraveled by Beck as the book ends, setting the stage for what should be a wonderful sequel. And the sooner, the better.


Silly Sally. By Audrey Wood. Red Wagon/Harcourt. $10.95.

To Market, To Market. By Anne Miranda. Illustrated by Janet Stevens. Red Wagon/Harcourt. $10.95.

      It’s a neat idea to re-release amusing books for young children in oversize board-book form. These lap-size books are easy to handle – although too big for the very youngest children, for whom traditional small board books would be better. The big board books are great to share, with a parent reading as a child points to the large, clear pictures and enjoys the amusing rhyming stories. And as kids get interested in having books of their very own, these are sturdy enough to be read again and again – and dropped, bounced on, thumbed through and generally handled less than gently. They’re super-sturdy and stand up well.

      The stories stand up well, too. Silly Sally, originally published in 1992, is Audrey Wood’s deliciously ridiculous story of a young lady who “went to town, walking backwards, upside down.” She meets various silly animals along the way: a pig (which dances a jig), a dog (which plays leapfrog), a loon (which sings a tune), and a sheep (which falls asleep – as does Sally). The joy of the first half of this book lies in the bouncily ridiculous positions of Sally and the animals as they cavort. The mid-book picture of Sally and all the animals sleeping upside down is priceless. Then along comes Neddy Buttercup – a young man dressed as a flower – who awakens the animals, one by one, and then gets Sally to wake up by tickling her, and then gets tickled himself, and then joins the whole group in an upside-down romp the rest of the way to town. The whole book is nonsensical, including the final page – which shows the townspeople and town animals joining the upside-down procession.

      To Market, To Market is delicious nonsense, too. In this book, originally published in 1997, Anne Miranda starts with the Mother Goose rhyme about going to market to buy a fat pig – which the grandmotherly protagonist struggles to bring into her kitchen. Things go rapidly downhill from there, as each return to the market – for a red hen, a plump goose, a live trout, a spring lamb, a milking cow, a white duck and a stubborn goat – leads to greater chaos at home. Each time an animal arrives, the other animals are loose or running around or eating what they shouldn’t or generally making pests of themselves. They’re adorable pests, though, thanks to Janet Stevens’ endearing illustrations. “THIS IS THE LAST STRAW!” the shopping grandma finally shouts, as she finds the animals all over the place (the duck is on her head). “This place is a zoo!” she exclaims. “I’m hungry, I’m cranky – now what will I do?” But this grandmother is nothing if not resilient, and she takes all the animals back to the market (in fact, they take her, pushing the shopping cart in which she rides)…not to return them but to buy some delicious items that do not walk around or eat shoes. The eventual result is a lunch that everyone enjoys, followed on the final page by a much-needed nap, with everyone in a big pile. The oversize board-book display works especially well here, allowing the cluttered and chaotic scenes to be displayed in all their glorious messiness. It’s all silly, it’s all fun, and it’s all in a very apt format.


Scholastic Question & Answer Series: Do Stars Have Points?; Do Tornadoes Really Twist?; How Do Bats See in the Dark?; How Do Flies Walk Upside Down?; Why Don’t Haircuts Hurt? By Melvin & Gilda Berger. Illustrated by Vincent Di Fate (Stars); Higgins Bond (Tornadoes); Jim Effler (Bats; Flies); Karen Barnes (Haircuts). Scholastic. $6.99 each.

      This is a series that continues to hew closely to the roots of the name Scholastic. Every 48-page book is chock-full of solid information, clearly presented in Q&A format, with illustrations that enhance the words without taking the focus away from them.

      Do Stars Have Points? is about stars, planets and other objects in space, and has been updated to include, among other things, the latest information on Pluto: “Is Pluto really a planet? No. In 2006, astronomers redefined Pluto as a dwarf planet, which is different from a planet.” There are intriguing facts about every planet: on Mercury, you would roast in daytime and freeze at night; Jupiter’s diameter is more than 10 times the diameter of Earth; Uranus rotates like other planets but is tilted so far that it “looks like a top spinning on its side.” There is similar brief and interesting information on stars, Earth’s moon, asteroids, comets and more.

      Do Tornadoes Really Twist? comes back to Earth for a look at Nature’s strongest storms: tornadoes and hurricanes. In addition to basic information, there are interesting questions such as: “What happens when a tornado passes over water? You get a waterspout. …The funnel winds spin more slowly over water than over land.” There is also information on where the word “hurricane” comes from, what direction hurricane winds spin in, and how much rain the storms bring: “A big hurricane can dump as much as 20 inches (51 cm) over a given area. That’s about half as much rain and snow as New York City gets in a whole year!”

      How Do Bats See in the Dark? and How Do Flies Walk Upside Down? focus respectively on night creatures and insects. The first book explains that bats “see” with their ears, by making super-high-pitched squeaks that bats hear echoing off objects. It also tells about one type of moth that can hear a bat’s squeaks and fly confusingly to avoid capture. And there is information on owls, whippoorwills, fireflies, flying squirrels, opossums, and many other night creatures – including cats. The Flies book explains that some insects have 4,000 separate muscles – compared with 600 in human beings. There is information on how insects hear (crickets hear through their legs!), how they smell (with antennae), and how they defend themselves against enemies (“usually by escaping”). There is also information on larvae and pupae, the differences between moths and butterflies, and the hunger of dragonflies (which can eat their own weight in one hour). And you will learn that, unfortunately, the most widely scattered insect in the world is the mosquito.

      Why Don’t Haircuts Hurt? turns to the subject of people and explains about the human body. Where skin color comes from, what freckles and goose bumps are, and what is the hardest thing in the human body (not bones but tooth enamel) – all are explained here. The body’s most useless bone is the coccyx, which may be the remains of a tail. A human eats about half a ton of food per year. Burps are gas bubbles. Sneezes propel air at more than 100 miles per hour. In this book as in all the others, Melvin and Gilda Berger prove themselves excellent guides to the world and all that is in, around or outside it. They talk to young readers, not down to them – a crucial distinction. The various illustrators have different styles, but all do a fine job of making the Bergers’ clear written explanations visually interesting. Parents as well as children will likely learn a great deal from each of these short, fact-packed Scholastic titles.


Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids, & Rock ‘n’ Roll. By Evelyn McDonnell. Da Capo. $22.

The Guy’s Guide to Dating, Getting Hitched, and Surviving the First Year of Marriage. By Michael Crider. Da Capo. $12.95.

      Pick your perspective, female or male. The point of both these books is that it is so cool, so with-it to get engaged and married and even have children, and no, we are NOT our parents and do NOT share any of their values even though that little piece of paper is really important to us even though it doesn’t matter at all, thank you very much.

      Absorb that message and you can save yourself the $34.95 you would spend on these two books. But then you would miss all the fun you, as a reader, can have watching the authors twist and squirm in their utter coolness as they manfully or womanfully attempt to make it clear that THEY ARE STILL THE SAME SUPER-COOL PEOPLE THEY ALWAYS WERE even though they are doing or have done some of the most conventional, age-old forms of bonding together and raising small people.

      Evelyn McDonnell, her tattoos prominently displayed in her author photo (and nicely setting off her very traditional eyeglasses and hairstyle), is a hoot and a half. She spends the first 50% of the book making clear her bona fides as a punk-rocking child of the 70s and a staunch feminist. (Inadvertently, she also exposes her ignorance of music other than punk. At one point, she writes of famed opera composer Richard Wagner, “outside of its heavy wedding rotation, his music has gotten most play as the accompaniment to Nazi spectacles.”) McDonnell drifts in and out of relationships and then eventually into a marriage-without-license that ends badly (she calls that chapter “Love Will Tear Us Apart”). On the rebound, she writes, “I spent fabulous nights out drinking, dancing, and drugging, drowning myself in discos where men danced with men and rock dives where women slammed with women. My flings included Lewis, a Michael Jordan look-alike carpenter I picked up at the bar across the street, and Paul, a DJ/artist/writer who was the hottest thing going in the downtown art and music scene. I also decided to finally pursue a longtime desire: women.” Just when all this becomes insufferably self-centered – or maybe a bit after it becomes insufferably self-centered – McDonnell shifts gears so rapidly that she practically strips the clutch: “There are life paths we seek, and there are surprise detours.” And lo and behold, she becomes a wife, mother to two stepdaughters in whom she “saw my tomboy self, three decades ago,” and has to figure out who she is and whether the is contains the was or is separate from it. Good luck with that. If McDonnell didn’t write so well, this would all be disastrously self-indulgent, but she does write well, so Mamarama comes across as wry, funny, witty, fast-paced and often delightful. Still darned self-indulgent, though.

      Switch over to the male side of things and you get Michael Crider’s The Guy’s Guide to Dating, Getting Hitched, and Surviving the First Year of Marriage, which for some reason he wrote after a book called The Guy’s Guide to Surviving Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the First Year of Fatherhood. Oh well. Crider lacks the solipsistic worldview of McDonnell – a lot of the jokes he makes are at his own expense – and he seems extraordinarily lucky to have found a wife, Julie, who is his equal in intellect and conversational weirdness: “Today Julie and I are both blessed with in-laws who would do anything for us, as long as we both manage to keep our mouths shut.” Crider opens each chapter with a “he says/she says” section, juxtaposing reminiscences of typical (okay, fairly typical) courtships from opposite directions. The men and women quoted are not from the same couples – they are just people of opposite genders with interestingly odd stories to tell. The female engagement story, for instance, includes this: “We had just gotten back from dinner with my parents, where we broke the news to them that I was pregnant. As you can imagine, that was an interesting conversation to say the least. … I came in [to my house], I ran to the bathroom and puked up everything that I just consumed…and, by the way, Mexican really does not taste much different in reverse.” This sort of thing reflects the tone of Crider’s whole book. There’s no way he will write a serious sentence without turning it inside-out at the end: “In the long run, it’s the quality of life you spend together and not the extraordinary proposal that she will remember long into your golden years, or at least until she’s had you murdered for the life insurance money.” Despite being juvenile and overdone, though, Crider’s book works more often than not, thanks to the he-and-she perspectives throughout – not only at chapter starts but also within the chapters, where Julie’s views are as forcefully expressed as Crider’s. Beneath all the jokes, Crider leaves the impression that he and his wife like each other in addition to loving each other – and that, although Crider never says it in so many words, is about the strongest foundation for a marriage you can have. And it’s very with-it, too.