June 28, 2007

(++++) BABY TALK

How to Be a Baby, by Me, the Big Sister. By Sally Lloyd-Jones. Illustrations by Sue Heap. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

One Naked Baby: Counting to Ten and Back Again. By Maggie Smith. Knopf. $15.99.

      “When you’re a baby, you don’t read books. You eat them,” explains Big Sister. And: “You can’t eat normal food. You can only eat yucky baby food.” And: “When you’re a baby, you’re called Muffin or Pumpkin or Peanut or Dumpling, and people say, ‘I could EAT you ALL UP!’” And eating (or not eating) is just a small part of being a baby in Sally Lloyd-Jones’ warmhearted look at babyhood from the perspective of an older sibling. “When you’re a baby, you don’t know how old you are or where you live or even if you’re a boy or a girl. Here’s what else you don’t know: …Any secrets. Any jokes. How to make a snowman. Anything!” These are wonderful observations, and are just the type that a real-life big sister might make. They become more wonderful yet through the charming illustrations of Sue Heap, who previously collaborated with Lloyd-Jones on Handbag Friends. It’s not just that the pictures of the baby and her sister are so delightful. There are also the lists, which look as if they were printed by hand on multicolored notebook paper – not only “what else you don’t know” but also “what else you can’t do” and “what else you are scared of” and more. And there is, above all, the loving sentiment underlying both words and illustrations. Big Sister describes the “teeny weeny eensy weensy teeny tiny baby” as the baby sits happily nearby; she draws amusing pictures to explain that as baby grows, “you don’t look so fat like a big balloon with a weird belly button sticking out”; and even when she complains about baby waking her up in the middle of the night and giving her a headache, Big Sister adds, “And that’s when I come in and whisper to you and kiss you and tell you, ‘Don’t worry, Baby Dumpling, it’s just a scary dream,’ and then you feel better.” The love comes through especially strongly at the end of this delightful book, when Big Sister imagines “when you get big” and all the things the siblings will do together, including “laugh[ing] and point[ing] at pictures of you in the olden days when you were a baby.” It’s hard to imagine a better Big Sister than this – or a better book for growing families than this one.

      A baby is enlisted for a very different purpose – teaching counting – in One Naked Baby. The book follows the adventures of a baby exploring his world, starting clean and fresh out of the tub and continuing until he is so dirty that he ends up back in the tub all over again (parents will immediately recognize the reality of the sequence!). Some things that are counted are in the environment (two fat cats, three laundry baskets); others are part of baby (“five toes for tickling”); some are on clothing (nine tiny chicks on baby’s hat); some are outdoors (the four perfect puddles and three wet pups that get baby all dirty again). Maggie Smith tells the home-and-yard adventure in easy-to-read rhymes, and every two-page spread highlights the number or numbers involved in that part of the story. Smith’s baby and baby’s-eye-view pictures are charming, with a fairy-tale gloss over real-world scenes (she gives worms eyes, for instance). And the inside front and back covers show the entire number adventure in a dotted-line sequence reminiscent of one of the wanderings depicted in the cartoon The Family Circus – except that this sequence starts with the naked baby at upper left and ends with the naked baby again, at lower right!


The Book of Lies. By James Moloney. HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Magician Trilogy, Book Three: The Chestnut Soldier. By Jenny Nimmo. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $9.99.

      James Moloney’s The Book of Lies is twice-aptly titled. First, there is within it, as a central character (so to speak), a volume called The Book of Lies, and this book-within-the-book is the prime mover of the highly convoluted plot. Second, Moloney’s The Book of Lies is indeed a book filled with lies, in which characters are not what they seem to be, treachery lurks everywhere, and the traitors who betray the most are those who lie even to themselves. This is a heady brew indeed, worthy of a fantasy novel for adults, but Moloney’s straightforward style and very fast pace keep his work appropriate for its target age range of 8-12. The book begins with the first of many lies: delivery of a boy to an orphanage in a mysterious way, after which an attempt is made – using The Book of Lies – to turn him into someone else by erasing his memories and substituting others. The attempt fails because of a girl at the orphanage named Bea, who hides unseen as the attempt to make the boy’s life a lie proceeds; and Bea is not who she seems, either, nor even what she seems. Later adventures of the boy – whose true name is Marcel, but to whom everyone lies about who he is and where he comes from – involve another boy at the orphanage, who first seems an enemy, then a very close friend, then (by the end of the book) perhaps an enemy again. And there is a horse that is not at all what it seems; and a wizard, creator of The Book of Lies, who may be good or evil, or both or neither, or sometimes one and sometimes the other; and a rescue from the orphanage that may be a great boon or something more sinister; and on and on spins the web of lies, entrapping every character in the book in one way or another, at one time or another. Moloney cheats at the novel’s end, being so determined to set up a sequel that he lets the web tear in a way that makes no sense within the book’s context. But there is more than enough skilled storytelling and inventive plotting here to forgive the final slipping of some strands.

      And speaking of webs: those of Arianwen, the Snow Spider in Jenny Nimmo’s Magician Trilogy, are not enough to resolve the problem of The Chestnut Soldier, the final book of the series. Arianwen has been guarding the last of the five gifts that were given to Gwyn by his grandmother in the trilogy’s first book, The Snow Spider – four years before The Chestnut Soldier begins. This gift is the one Gwyn’s grandmother told him never to use: a broken toy horse. Now the horse’s time has come – or, rather, the time of the evil spirit inhabiting it: “Efnisien, prince of madness and the dark,” as the character is described at one point. Breaking free of its imprisonment, the soul of the cold and brutal Efnisien wreaks havoc in a search for revenge against long-dead enemies – or their modern descendants. This is not an especially inventive plot in a tale for ages 8-12, but Nimmo handles it so skillfully that its rough edges rarely show. Efnisien’s escape coincides with a visit by a soldier named Evan Llŷr, who claims to be a distant cousin of Nia, the shy girl who helped Gwyn so much in the trilogy’s second book, Emlyn’s Moon. The relationship among Evan, Gwyn, Emlyn and Nia proves crucial to the plot complications and their eventual resolution – which not only involves Gwyn coming to terms with magic, but also allows him to start growing physically again, after not doing so since he received his grandmother’s gifts. Part of Nimmo’s point, of course, is that Gwyn has grown – quite a bit, in mostly unseen ways – and at last his physical stature can start to match his emotional, psychological and magical growth. Excitingly written and filled with vivid characters and scenes, The Chestnut Soldier concludes this trilogy strongly by reaching both into the past – Gwyn calls on the strength of an ancestor to fight Efnisien – and into a future in which Gwyn will have even more of his own strength on which to rely.


Stupid History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions Through the Ages. By Leland Gregory. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid. By Lemony Snicket. HarperCollins. $12.99.

      Sometimes books deliver exactly what they promise – and they don’t promise much. That’s actually fine, if you don’t expect much as a reader – a laugh or two here, a shrug or exclamation of surprise there, a knowing “aha” now and then, maybe even a sigh or two of resignation from time to time. If this sort of thing is what’s you’re looking for in a book, and no more, you’ll enjoy both of these little volumes.

      Stupid History is a bit of a misnomer for Leland Gregory’s book. Most of it isn’t about history at all. For example, Gregory points out that things traditionally associated with Sherlock Holmes – deerstalker hat, calabash pipe and the phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson” – were never included in the stories and novels by Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but were added to the character by actors portraying him. Interesting, but not historical. Gregory mentions that the Bible does not say that angels have wings – these too were added later, in this case by painters. Also interesting; also not history. He points out that the “bald” in “bald eagle” comes from the old word “balded,” meaning “white,” which is why the symbol of the United States has a white head, not a hairless one. Not really history – and Gregory makes an error (one of a few in the book) when he adds that “pibald [sic] (‘part white’) is used to refer to dogs with white spots.” Actually, the word is “piebald,” and it is not used only of dogs (and has nothing to do with apple or lemon meringue desserts). You have to stretch things a bit to say that Gregory’s book really is about history: he does quote Napoleon’s and Custer’s famously inaccurate lines about coming victory at Waterloo and the Little Big Horn, respectively, and Napoleon and Custer are, after all, historical figures. But Stupid History is mostly just a compendium of oddments. Examples: Patent leather is the only product or process named after the U.S. Patent Office; Oscar Hammerstein II is the only person named Oscar ever to win an Oscar – two, in fact; the saying about a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is an Irish recasting of the much more realistic saying, “One would be as likely to find a pot of gold as to find the end of a rainbow”; ten-gallon hats hold only about three quarts of liquid; humans and armadillos are the only two animals that can contract leprosy; and on and on. Arranged in no order whatsoever, without chapters or index, Stupid History is strictly a browser’s book, for those fond of trivia of all sorts.

      Ah, but one should not be too fond of trivia. Or of anything. Not even of life itself. It is best to be despondent, since those who anticipate the worst will rarely be surprised. And if that sounds like something Lemony Snicket might say – well, he didn’t actually say it, but he said a lot of things like it, and Horseradish collects some of them. Snicket, the persona assumed by Daniel Handler in creating the tremendously successful 13 parts of A Series of Unfortunate Events, is represented in Horseradish by some excerpts from that series and some remarks made elsewhere. Many of the comments are determinedly dour, but a lot of these supposedly “bitter truths” don’t come across as much of anything: “A good thing to do when one is sitting, eating, and resting is to have a conversation.” “It is not very polite to interrupt a person, of course, but sometimes if the person is very unpleasant you can hardly stop yourself.” Horseradish is, of course, a shameless attempt to cash in on the popularity of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and it’s certainly no worse than many of the other semi-useful self-help and advice books out there. In some ways, it’s better, because some of the perSnickety remarks contain more than a grain of truth: “Oftentimes, when people are miserable, they will want to make other people miserable, too. But it never helps.” “Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course. Piracy, for example, is a tradition that has been carried on for hundreds of years, but that doesn’t mean we should all attack ships and steal their gold.” The book is arranged, somewhat arbitrarily, into chapters with such titles as “Home,” “School,” “Literature” and “Travel.” It is hard not to think that this was done to take up extra space – most pages have only a few lines of type, and a number are blank altogether. As Snicket might say, one should not expect any book to provide a major boost to one’s life, because, of course, it is only a combination of the thin remnants of dead trees with a smattering of ink and some smears of glue.


Crazy Love: Dealing with Your Partner’s Problem Personality. By W. Brad Johnson, Ph.D., and Kelly Murray, Ph.D. Impact Publishers. $17.95.

      We’ve all been there – many of us, anyway. We’ve met an ideal partner who turns out, after some time and some length of relationship, to be less than ideal. Far less. In fact, he or she has deep personality flaws that it’s almost impossible to realize we didn’t notice in the first place. How did we get into this? How do we keep getting involved with people like this? How do we get out of this rut? What if we’re married to someone whose personality drives us nuts? What can we do?

      Clinical psychologists W. Brad Johnson and Kelly Murray don’t quite answer all these questions, but they answer some of them, and in a readable, accessible way that makes it easy to spot your particular “personality-disordered partner” (PDP) – assuming he or she fits one of the authors’ categories neatly. In real life, no one fits perfectly into a pigeonhole: a flaw in the book is its lack of discussion of the personality blending that almost everyone possesses. But by choosing specific personality extremes and discussing them at some length, Johnson and Murray can help you decide where your PDP belongs on the personality-disorder scale – and whether he or she has enough compensating positive traits to make the relationship salvageable.

      The authors’ introductory material deals usefully with why people are attracted to PDPs. Johnson and Murray say there are nine basic reasons for the attraction: being fooled by first impressions, seeing only the good while ignoring red flags, repeatedly pursuing the same dysfunctional type, needing to be needed, feeling unworthy of more, trying to fill an emptiness in yourself, feeling too guilty to leave, having your own problems that result in attraction to PDPs, and simply making an occasional mistake. Eight of these nine reasons would seem to indicate you should read no further – get yourself into therapy. In the ninth, “occasional mistake” instance, Johnson and Murray do state, “Personality impairment exists on a continuum of severity. Sometimes more subtle forms of these disorders are hard to detect early on.” This is certainly true – and it is also true, as you will find by reading the rest of the book, that just about everyone has some elements of some of the characteristics that the authors say define people as PDPs. None of this is simple – certainly not as simple as Johnson and Murray make it.

      But take the book for what it is. It breaks PDPs down into three “clusters”: Odd, Eccentric, and Weird, including Doubting (paranoid), Detached (schizoid) and Odd (schizotypal); Dramatic, Erratic, and Dangerous, including Dangerous (antisocial), Stormy (borderline), Theatrical (histrionic), Self-Absorbed (narcissistic) and Undermining (passive-aggressive); and Anxious, Withdrawn, and Needy, including Scared (avoidant), Sticky (dependent), Rigid (obsessive-compulsive) and Glum (depressive). There is overlap aplenty among these categories in everyday life, sometimes obviously (dependent plus depressive or paranoid plus antisocial, for instance). But Johnson and Murray, to keep things as simple as possible, treat the categories as pure, and provide specific checklists for each of them: seven characteristics for the paranoid personality, eight for the borderline personality, seven for schizoids, nine for narcissists, etc. The characteristics are well thought out and well presented: a Theatrical (histrionic) person, for example, likes to be the center of attention, is often seductive or sexually provocative with others, uses physical appearance to get attention, tends to have shallow behavior and be highly suggestible, etc. The difficulty in using the book is that most people have at least a few characteristics of some of the PDPs – which does not mean that most people are PDPs (a fact that the authors might have made clearer). In real life, people’s personalities tend to develop along a spectrum rather than fit a series of specific characteristics.

However – and it is an important “however” – there are plenty of real-life situations in which people do deserve definition as PDPs. Johnson and Murray cite case studies throughout the book, giving an idea of what it can be like to be attracted to a particular PDP and attempt to have a relationship with him or her. Whether these are genuine cases or composites scarcely matters – the stories have the feeling of real-world occurrences, and may be as helpful as the lists of characteristics in identifying any PDPs in your life. Some of the writing, however, is irritatingly sloppy: “head over heals” rather than “heels,” “alright” instead of “all right,” “could care less” rather than “couldn’t care less.”

As for what to do if you find yourself in Crazy Love – the authors make specific suggestions for each type of PDP, and even point out when a PDP may be a good match (this depends on your personality oddities). In the long run, though, as the brief final chapter on being married to a PDP points out, you have to take care of yourself – whether by finding ways to deal with the PDP in your life, finding ways to spend time away from him or her, going into personal or couples therapy, or planning a way out of the relationship. Crazy Love will not tell you which of these things to do, or help you unravel the PDP elements that exist in virtually every relationship. But it can hold up a mirror to the defects that may enter into your choice of partners, particularly if you seem to keep making the same sort of mistake over and over again.


Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

      Mahler performances during the 1960s and 1970s tended to align themselves with one of two camps: Leonard Bernstein’s or Bernard Haitink’s. Bernstein was the great popularizer of Mahler, whose music had been advocated for decades by Bruno Walter in performances that seemed somewhat fussy and that never quite ignited widespread public enthusiasm. Then along came Bernstein, his heart flamboyantly on his sleeve, extracting every ounce of Romantic emotionalism from Mahler’s huge scores and imprinting every one of them with his, Bernstein’s, own personal stamp. Through concert performances and the first-ever recording of Mahler’s complete symphonies (excluding the 10th, which had not yet been put into performing condition), Bernstein made Mahler a hit and a canon of modern concertgoing.

      Haitink was always quieter, more old-school musicianly, more concerned with Mahler’s structural elements and less with personalizing the music, which has quite enough emotionalism in it already. Blessed with the Concertgebouw Orchestra at the absolute height of its prowess – only the Vienna Philharmonic was in its league, while Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic was never better than reasonably good – Haitink extracted what Mahler put into his symphonies without adding anything extraneous, genuinely interpreting the works without adding his, Haitink’s, own touches. Bernstein’s dynamic and hyper-dramatic approach had the impact of fireworks, but Haitink’s more thoughtful and carefully structured interpretations have, by and large, worn better through the decades.

      Now PentaTone has released, in four-channel sound on a superb SACD, a revelatory Haitink Mahler Fifth from December 1970. It is a must-have for Mahler collectors – so assured, so carefully paced, so aware of what is going on in this symphony and of how to bring it to listeners’ comprehension that it stands head and shoulders above practically anyone’s later recording. (And never mind Bernstein’s: through no fault of the conductor, the Fifth from his complete set has by far the worst sound in the cycle.) There are counterthemes in Mahler’s Fifth that listeners may never have heard before – but Haitink finds them, pulls them out (often from inner voices), balances them beautifully, and shows just where they fit in. There is chamber-music care in the softer sections of the generally dramatic Part I of this work (first two movements), and Haitink finds it all, with low brass as impressive as the trumpets (the Concertgebouw brass was simply the best in the world in this era) and timpani whose delicacy is as exceptional as their dynamism. The horn work in the perfectly paced Part II (third movement) is outstandingly high-spirited, and the rhythmic variations are glorious. And Part III (fourth and fifth movements) fits together exceptionally well in this performance: the famed fourth movement, in which Bernstein (practically alone among conductors) discovered substantial angst, here emerges filled with uplifting beauty; and the bouncy, even slightly vulgar finale comes across as a summation of what has gone before, not a trivialized add-on. The remarkable power of this performance comes through all the more clearly thanks to the absolutely top-notch multichannel reproduction (based on a technically impressive four-channel approach that never succeeded in the marketplace of its time). Analog-to-digital transfer is flawless, and the recording sounds exceptional on standard CD players and truly amazing in full SACD splendor. If Bernstein’s was Mahler you felt deeply, Haitink’s was Mahler that made you both feel and think – and, for that matter, still is: Haitink remains vital and exceptionally engaged in music, including Mahler’s, at the age of 78.

June 21, 2007


King Puck. By Michael Garland. HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Shark God. By Rafe Martin. Pictures by David Shannon. Scholastic. $5.99.

      Little-known old legends, skillfully retold, can be a great source of fun and adventure for young readers. Not that the legend behind King Puck is little known in its country of origin, Ireland. The book is based on Puck Fair – which, as Michael Garland explains in an Author’s Note, traces its roots to the 17th century or earlier and is still celebrated every August in the town of Killorglin. At this festival, a “best goat” is crowned King for a day, and Garland’s entirely fictional tale is of the very unusual way that one goat earned the title. This is a goat that learns to talk, thanks to the fairies that live at the farm where the goat, Finny, and his human friend, Seamus, live. Garland’s marvelously evocative illustrations make the goats, the townspeople, the self-important contest judges, and the gorgeous Irish countryside come alive, as Seamus and Finny head for town and eventually win the contest and its marvelous prize: a single wish. But ‘tis not gold or silver or hay they be wantin’ – ‘tis somethin’ a sight more worthy: books, which goat and man spend many happy hours reading together, watched by the fairies that are visible all around them on almost every page, if you but look close enough and wear a bit ‘o the green in your soul. King Puck is a joy from first page to last.

      There is little joy in The Shark God, a darker legend from the Hawaiian island of Molokai that Rafe Martin turned into a book in 2001 – a work now available in paperback. Martin changes the story in important ways, rendering it less bloody: in the original myth, the events are precipitated by an unjust execution, but in Martin’s telling, they arise from an innocent mistake made by two young children, whose family lives in a land ruled by a hard-hearted king. The structure of the story as Martin presents it is a familiar one in modern children’s books: the children save a shark and later, having unintentionally incurred the king’s wrath and been condemned to death, are themselves saved after their parents make a desperate appeal to the Shark God. David Shannon’s pictures meld well with the story and sometimes surpass the words – for example, when the parents come to the Shark God’s cave and witness the transformation of a huge shark into the terrifying Shark God himself, and when a cloud at sea grows larger and larger until it assumes the shape of a shark in the sky. There are plenty of thrills and a few chills here, plus a happy ending that may teach even some modern children that sharks are not inevitably fearsome creatures – and certainly not evil ones.


Dadditude. By Philip Lerman. Da Capo. $19.95.

Baby on Board: Becoming a Mother without Losing Yourself – A Guide for Moms-to-Be. By Joelle Jay and Amy Kovarick. AMACOM. $17.95.

      Here’s something rare: a real-life story about fatherhood told from the perspective of an older father. Philip Lerman, former co-executive producer of the hyper-macho TV show America’s Most Wanted, found out that he had to stop trying to be in control of everything all the time when he became a first-time father near age 50. “Well, duh,” say the hordes of parents out there, but the point of Dadditude is that Lerman didn’t know any of that and managed to make a complete mess of things until he started figuring stuff out. Just like the rest of us “well, duh,” parents, if we’re being honest about it. Lerman, however, kept his sense of humor – maybe not while learning the painful everyday lessons of who’s really in control in a parent-child relationship, but certainly after he learned them and sat down to write this book. A sense of humor and its close relative, a sense of perspective, are lifesavers and mind-savers for all parents, and Lerman’s amusing take on this well-known fact of life will give many other parents, of any age, a whole series of been-there moments: “Max was a wonderful audience, and loved it when I would play with him, or sing to him (dads are a little like Doctor Frankenstein: ‘Oh, so no one wants to hear me sing, eh? Well, I’ll CREATE A LIFE that will LOVE my singing! Ha ha ha!’).” But for older parents – dads especially – Lerman will be even more fun. A self-described “fifty-year-old overweight balding white guy,” he is given to such musings about his career as, “How strange is it, for an ex-hippie who spent half his life running from the FBI to spend the second half meeting them for lunch?” Because of his age, the sheer physical difficulty of keeping up with Max is a dimension unto itself, and has something to do with Lerman’s eventual realization that he’d better loosen up and let go of his in-control, Type A personality where his son is concerned – if he wants to be around long enough to watch Max grow up. Despite its many strengths, though, Dadditude does have some irritating flaws: Lerman assumes that all men are sports nuts (granted, many are, but scarcely all), and will therefore use sports in parenting as he does; and he further assumes that all men of his age are rock-‘n’-roll fanatics who argue incessantly about specific bands and songs and can use this characteristic to bond with their sons. Apparently fans of jazz, classical and folk music need not apply. Lerman’s great sense of humor makes up for a lot of flaws, but not for the flaw of excluding so many men who aren’t exactly like him from his paean to the joys of fatherhood.

      There’s nothing exclusionary about Baby on Board, which is overtly aimed at every soon-to-be-mother – or first-time mother, anyway. There’s also nothing particularly new in what the book is trying to do: show women ways to remain true to themselves as adults even after having a baby. Joelle Jay and Amy Kovarick, co-founders of a group called Empowered Motherhood, use a chatty style and a series of real-world examples to encourage women to identify and clarify their personal values, delve into their characteristic approach to life, prioritize their desires both for family and for work, then think of ways in which their personality and their life preferences can combine to help them overcome the inevitable (and, for first-time mothers, entirely unpredictable) challenges ahead. The rah-rah-you-can-do-it attitude of the authors is infectious, although the many quotations they offer from other moms tend to be more silly or obvious than inspirational: “I am one passionate and bulldog mama!” “Taking the time to clearly define my values was critical for me.” “I want to be stable financially.” The best elements of Baby on Board are the ones that urge moms-to-be to focus on something other than the coming child – to remember who they were before becoming pregnant and try to figure out whom they want to be afterwards. It has to be said that pre-birth goals are by no means easy to accomplish after a new human being enters a woman’s life – even if she has a supportive partner. So some of the specific techniques in this book are likely to result only in disappointment. For instance, a “My Ideal Year” worksheet (with “month” and “milestones” sections) seems like a good planning tool, but may well provoke frustration after the baby is born, when the new mom realizes how few of her goals she has time or strength to reach. Nevertheless, Jay and Kovarick do moms-to-be a service by urging them to pay close attention to something beyond their upcoming role as mothers, and by providing some useful tools and suggestions that can make that focus easier – at least until the reality of a baby’s constant need for attention hits home in all its frustrating and wonderful ways.


Skate. By Michael Harmon. Knopf. $15.95.

Life as It Comes. By Anne-Laure Bondoux. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

Cures for Heartbreak. By Margo Rabb. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

Grief Girl: My True Story. By Erin Vincent. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

      Readers ages 14 and up who are looking for summertime emotional catharsis will find it in any one of these four books – although reading two or more in quick succession risks drying out the tear ducts. Individually, each book is heartfelt, well written and freighted with meaning and intensity. But despite the fact that the characters and situations are, on the surface, quite different, the books have so many commonalities of theme and approach that they end up seeming like variations on a formula.

      Skate, for example, is Michael Harmon’s gritty story of Ian McDermott, a high-schooler with a drug-addicted mom and absent father. He angers easily, is sure the school administration is out to get him, and eventually slugs a teacher – breaking his jaw. Now Ian has to get away, taking with him his young brother, Sammy, to whom he is as devoted as only a pseudo-parent can be. Their odyssey takes them across the state of Washington, as Ian searches for some sort of help – eventually confronting his father, then his mother, and finally himself. There’s a let’s-unravel-every-strand-of-the-plot mediation scene at the end, in which it turns out that the high school was after Ian after all, and his father may not be so bad after all, and his mother may have a chance at rehabilitation after all, and Ian himself may have the makings of a good person after all. It is, after all, quite uplifting, although the pieces do fit together just a little too neatly.

      The same is true of Life as It Comes, a European-flavored story (Anne-Laure Bondoux is French) in which the troubled young people are female rather than male. Those young people are studious and serious 15-year-old Mado and her flighty party-girl big sister, 21-year-old Patty. This family too is sundered, not by divorce but by death: the girls’ parents die in an accident, Patty becomes Mado’s guardian, and Mado (predictably) soon shows herself to be the adult one in the relationship. Then the slutty Patty reveals that she is pregnant – without all the anguish you would find in a U.S. writer’s book, but with enough of it – and Mado finds herself falling in love with a Dutch boy, and Patty thinks she is falling for another Dutch boy (who isn’t the one responsible for her pregnancy). And then the baby comes early, Mado has to help deliver it, Patty abandons it to Mado’s care, Mado tracks down the father, he turns out to be a very decent guy, and the complications continue through to a rapprochement of sorts at the end.

      There’s death and a sense of new beginnings in Cures for Heartbreak, too. In Margo Rabb’s novel, things proceed at a headlong pace from the start: 15-year-old Mia Pearlman’s mother is diagnosed with cancer and dies 12 days later. Mia still has her father – and an older sister, Alex – and everyone tries to make some sort of life after the family is ripped apart. This time it is the older sister who is the studious one; the father gets on with life by dating and eventually asking someone to marry him; and book sections such as “The Healthy Heart” and “How to Find Love” are introduced with quotations from Toni Morrison and Sex Tips for Girls. No happy ending here, though: Mia is involved with a boy who has cancer, and is well aware of what that can mean; and her father’s remarriage ends quickly and disastrously. There is a feeling of reality to this book – it is based on Rabb’s own experiences – but even if it ends with only a glimmer of hope, it does so with the neatly tied-up flair of a novel.

      Grief Girl, however, is not a novel: it is Erin Vincent’s story of herself. Yet it is so close to these other books for teens that it is hard to separate the fact from the fiction. The book starts with the death of Erin’s parents in a car crash – leaving Erin at loose ends, along with her sister, Tracy, and little brother, Trent. There’s a flashback to what seems to have been a happy family life, after which the rest of the book traces Erin’s attempts to cope with her grief and move forward with life – the chapters have dates instead of numbers or titles. There are real-world complications here, such as a dishonest trustee squandering the kids’ inheritance, Erin’s serious (and unsurprising) problems at school, and more. The book moves along toward “maybe there’s hope for us yet” (Vincent actually writes that), and eventually “the future is here” (she writes that, too). In Vincent’s real life, which she details in an Afterword, the future did indeed arrive, as futures do, and she made what seems to be a good marriage and found what seems to be a good career. Her tale is heartfelt and clearly intended as a tribute to her parents, and it is impossible not to respect Vincent for what she has done and tried to do. But there is little originality in her style or the way she tells her story – as if she has absorbed many books of teenage emotional catharsis, then written her own biography as if it too is one of those novels.


The Kip Brothers. By Jules Verne. Translated by Stanford L. Luce. Wesleyan University Press. $29.95.

      Many of today’s readers – English speakers outside of France, anyway – are unaware that Jules Verne’s 54 Voyages Extraordinaires were not all works of fiction. The umbrella title was used both for novels and for factual works, all of them dealing with the then-latest trends in the sciences of oceanography, biology, geology and other fields. To the few really well-known Verne novels – Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea – interested readers will typically add slightly less-well-known ones, such as Five Weeks in a Balloon, The Mysterious Island and From the Earth to the Moon. Interestingly, the latest of these six, The Mysterious Island, dates only to 1875 – it was 12th in the series – but Verne continued writing these Voyages until 1905, the year of his death.

      The Kip Brothers is one of Verne’s late works, dating to 1902, and has never before been translated into English. Students of Verne and of turn-of-the-20th-century literature will welcome Stanford L. Luce’s elegant, easy-to-read version, although many of the complexities of this book (which runs, with notes, more than 500 pages) will not likely be of widespread interest. The Kip Brothers is no mere adventure tale: it is a detective story as well, and a commentary upon politics and judicial error in its time. The Kip brothers, Karl and Pieter, are never fully realized as characters; nor are the sailors with whom they find their lives entangled, who bear such names as Flig Balt and Vin Mod. The story starts as one of ocean exploration and rescue – subjects treated by Verne with his usual aplomb and sure knowledge – as the marooned brothers are saved by the crew of a ship called the James Cook. But all is not well onboard: the crew stages a mutiny, the captain is killed, and the brothers are accused of murder. From this point on, the book is largely about their attempt to prove their innocence. It tends to read like a police procedural and often now sounds clichéd (though it surely was not when Verne first wrote it): “The reader will remember that the dagger had been placed in the cabin by Vin Mod a few moments before Flig Balt had sent the cabin boy there, just so it would be see by Jim; then Vin Mod had taken it back and hid it in his own sack.”

      The investigation of the Kips is pursued with a vengeance – literally a vengeance – by Nat Gibson, the captain’s son. “It would come as no surprise if, in his state of mind, the unfortunate young man had forgotten everything that could have been called upon to defend the Kip brothers: their attitude since the day when the James Cook had picked them up on Norfolk Island, their conduct during the attack of the Papuans from New Guinea, the pain they showed upon learning of the death of Captain Gibson; then during the crossing on the way back, Karl Kip’s intervention during the height of the storm, which saved the brig from imminent destruction, or even his energetic suppressing of the mutiny led by the bosun!” Eventually, the evidence needed to exculpate the Kips is found, leading to “the son of Captain Gibson begging them…imploring their pardon” (ellipsis in the original). So justice is served at the very end; and the illustrations in this edition – the same ones that appeared in the first printing – add a great deal to its charm. Yet The Kip Brothers is mostly a curiosity today, with adventure sections as exciting as anything in Verne, but with an extended dwelling on legalisms and trial processes that will be of less interest to the general reader.

June 14, 2007


Yet Another NASTYbook: MiniNasties. By Barry Yourgrau. HarperCollins. $12.99.

A Series of Unfortunate Events: No. 1, The Bad Beginning; No. 2, The Reptile Room. By Lemony Snicket. Illustrations by Brett Helquist. HarperTrophy. $6.99 each.

      Barry Yourgrau has gone back to his twisted little roots with his second book of twisted little stories – and third NASTYbook in all. Clearly using Lemony Snicket as a model (Snicket is even quoted in a promotional blurb on the cover of Yet Another NASTYbook), Yourgrau fashions tales of genial rottenness in which fairly bad things happen in moderately shuddery ways to completely interchangeable people. What Yourgrau does well is create short-short stories on this model (his second NASTYbook, a novel, wasn’t quite up to the level of his first book or this new one). Yourgrau likes to make readers work a bit to get through some of his tales: one is in teeny-tiny type (it’s about keeping a mosquito as a pet), one needs to be read by holding it up to a mirror, and a couple are written in the form of bad poetry. Yourgrau is also a shameless padder: the two longest stories here are lengthy merely because he uses only a couple of sentences per page. Still, Yourgrau has his moments – plenty of them. There’s the tale of the super-bubble gum that lets a boy float away – but he’ll need more of it to get down safely – but the gum seller has substituted ordinary gum for some of the super-bubble. There’s the tale of the kidnapping squirrels and the revenge of the granny and the witch. There’s a vampire’s confrontation with a psychiatrist. There’s the sad tale of pickled peppermint pineapple soda. And there’s a lot more – even a tale told in small type along the bottom of the book’s first few pages. There are 56 stories in all, every one a mini, and enough of them nasties to provide plenty of sort-of-gruesome fun.

      Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler) does do the nasty bit better, though. You can see how well he does it in the new paperback editions of the first two tales from A Series of Unfortunate Events. This paperback series actually gives readers more (Snicket) for less (money): each book contains a supplement called The Cornucopian Cavalcade, in which there is a bad-advice column by Snicket, a comic-book-style adventure series featuring really irritating young detectives called “The Spoily Brats,” plus serialized stories, make-believe ads and more. This supplementary material itself is almost worth the price of the paperbacks – but of course, the real reason for buying the books is to replace the much-thumbed, tear-besmirched, too-often-read hardcover originals. The tale of the Baudelaire orphans is all here, book by book, in all its (in)glory. The Bad Beginning explains how Violet, Klaus and Sunny become orphans, introduces bumbling Mr. Poe (the banker who must find them a new home until they come into their sizable inheritance), and provides the first glimpse of the evil, money-hungry, unibrowed Count Olaf. The Reptile Room features the Baudelaires’ stay with uncle Montgomery Montgomery and his unsavory unibrowed assistant (guess who?). The paperbacks’ new illustrations, by Brett Helquist (who also illustrated the hardcover series), fit the stories wonderfully well. And if you have ever wondered just where Lemony Snicket got some of his ideas for his offbeat books – well, just check out the work (part of the cornucopian supplement) by Stephen Leacock, which was originally published in a volume called Nonsense Novels in 1911. Aha! It’s all Leacock’s fault! (Quick – send Snicket’s royalties to Leacock’s estate!)


Good Sports: Rhymes about Running, Jumping, Throwing, and More. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrations by Chris Raschka. Knopf. $16.99.

Scholastic Question & Answer Series: Can Snakes Crawl Backward? By Melvin and Gilda Berger. Illustrated by Alan Male. Scholastic. $5.95.

      There’s an exuberant real-world connection to Jack Prelutsky’s latest book of poetry – but it is the watercolor illustrations by Chris Raschka that really make the book special. Good Sports celebrates team and individual activities, and pays more attention to having fun than to winning – an excellent approach that many sports-oriented books miss. There’s the batter who promises to smack the pitch so hard that “I’ll send that ball sailing/ Clean out of the yard,” but who strikes out instead – and then vows, “I’ll get him next inning,/ You just wait and see.” There’s the gymnast who explains everything she can do – and notes, “Someday soon/ I’ll make the team.” There’s the football player who loves the game when he makes a touchdown and doesn’t like it (“Not a bit, not at all”) when he fumbles. There are the Frisbee tossers who enjoy playing “though we aren’t good at all.” The message to have fun without becoming stressfully overcompetitive comes through pleasantly and clearly. And the illustrations, which sweep wildly across pages and double-page spreads in great splashes of color and motion, beautifully convey how much fun there is to be had in organized, semi-organized or out-and-out-disorganized sports – whether you win, lose, or don’t keep score at all.

      There’s motion of a different sort in Can Snakes Crawl Backward? – one of the fine, factual Scholastic Question & Answer Series books by Melvin and Gilda Berger. As in all these 48-page paperbacks, the Bergers present a series of interesting questions, then answer each one very briefly. The whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts: young readers will have a solid grounding in facts about reptiles after absorbing everything in this book. The Bergers’ answers are not, however, comprehensive, and for that reason they can sometimes be a little misleading. For example, in explaining what the phrase “crocodile tears” means, they write, “People used to think that crocodiles shed tears while eating prey.” True, but incomplete: salt-water crocodiles do squeeze out tears – as a way to remove excess salt from their bodies. Despite lacks of this sort, the Bergers’ reptile book is both informative and entertaining. For example, they explain that newborn crocodilians triple their size in two years, adding, “If you grew that fast you would have been 5 feet (1.5 m) tall at age two!” Can Snakes Crawl Backward? (the answer to the title question, by the way, is “no”) covers snakes, lizards, turtles, alligators and crocodiles – putting a lot of solid information in a small, attractively illustrated package.


Jango: Book Two of the Noble Warriors. By William Nicholson. Harcourt. $17.

Warriors: Power of Three – Book One: The Sight. By Erin Hunter. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Judging by the number of well-written fantasies for preteens and teenagers, this age group’s ever-present drive to escape from reality, if only for a while, must be getting stronger. Neither Jango nor The Sight will disappoint readers hoping to enter a world of intrigue and magic for a while, although neither is likely to have much staying power – beyond the desire to read the upcoming sequels.

      Jango follows William Nicholson’s Seeker as the story of three young people who, in the earlier book, have overcome difficulties and hardships to join the elite warriors known as Nomana. The three are going their own ways, pulled apart by events and their own personalities, in Jango. Seeker himself is isolated by the great power he has gained through Nomana training. He is puzzled by ominous warnings about “the old enemy who has stalked us through the years and has sworn to destroy us,” and by meeting someone who calls himself Jango – a word that Seeker thought he had made up. This Jango mysteriously warns Seeker to destroy seven so-called “savanters,” because “The experiment has failed. All seven must be killed. Leave even one alive, and it will all begin again.” As Seeker tries to unravel this and other riddles, Morning Star is wrestling with a different problem: the balance between falling in love and using her powers – whose strength she is beginning to doubt. And the third protagonist, the Wildman, is dealing with issues of power and emotion as well, as when the beautiful bandit chief, Caressa, tells him, “I want to slit your guts and stuff you with pig dung and bury you alive,” and then, just a few sentences later, exclaims, “It’s you I want! I want you because you’ll never take my orders! I order you to want me, and you don’t want me, and the more you don’t obey, the more I want you!” The personal issues are entangled with a quest to rid the land of invaders, and the focus remains mostly on Seeker, who is told at the end, “Your life is an experiment in the search of the truth.” Portentous pronouncements aside, Jango is a well-paced and well-written book whose conclusion promises a sequel of still greater adventures.

      The adventures are of a different sort in the many Warriors series, in which epic fantasy is wrenched in a feline direction: all the main characters are cats. Erin Hunter has made a franchise of her tales of cat clans, their concerns and battles, and the individual personalities of their members. The first Warriors series contained six books and was followed by six more in Warriors: The New Prophecy. Now Hunter (whose own name might well belong to one of her cat heroes) is starting a new series called Warriors: Power of Three, centering on three kits of the ThunderClan: Hollypaw, Jaypaw and Lionpaw. The three are grandchildren of Firestar, the great ThunderClan leader, and are powerful and able in their own right. But in The Sight, readers learn that the three are also enmeshed in a mysterious prophecy, and that problems are spreading within the Clans that may threaten the very Clan structure itself. There are many, many characters in Hunter’s novels – The Sight helpfully opens with lists of important members of the Thunder, Shadow, Wind and River groupings – and many of the cats have no more individuality than their names. But the pacing of Hunter’s books is always quick, the use of enemies (such as dogs and competing cat clans) is clever, and fans of Warriors will not be disappointed in the action and drama of this start of a new series with three new central cat-racters.


A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium. By Robert Friedel. MIT Press. $39.95.

Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto. By Niccolò Capponi. Da Capo. $27.50.

      Robert Friedel has a fascinating idea: that the Western world’s belief system can be in large part defined as a “culture of improvement.” That is, the constant pursuit of better ways to do things accounts for the ever-increasing technological prowess of the West – and for its negative side, its ever-rising ability to destroy things (including its own culture). Friedel, a history professor at the University of Maryland, musters a fascinating series of narratives, dating back to the 11th century, to support his point. In chapters such as “Light and Time,” “Types of Change,” “Raising Fire” and “Airs and Lightning,” he argues that the urge to do things better helps explain the shift of the center of European life from southern to northern states just before the year 1000 – coinciding with development of a much-improved horse-drawn plow. The magnificence of Gothic cathedrals, Friedel says, derives from use of the Gothic arch, an improvement on the Romanesque form that allowed greater height and more building flexibility. And so on through the ages: canal digging, steam-engine development, the firing of ceramics, and inventions continuing on to the airplane and well beyond are all attributable, Friedel argues, to the desire to do things better. Indeed, even weapons improvements, however horrific their effects, are intended to win wars more efficiently – which means killing more people from a greater distance. Friedel argues elegantly, and many of his points are quite well taken. But there are omissions and lacks of clarity as well. At the height of Gothic cathedral building, for example, the dominant concept of knowledge was of “received wisdom,” meaning that “authority” – usually from the Church, but sometimes from pre-Christian antiquity – provided all that people needed (and indeed were allowed) to know. The relationship between the longstanding insistence on obeisance to this handed-down version of knowledge, which scientific thinkers violated at their peril (Galileo being the most famous example), and the very real technological breakthroughs that occurred during the years of Church dominance, is never explained or even explored. Nor are many negative effects of “improvement,” such as eugenics, given much space. Yet the pleasures of this book far exceed its failings. Interestingly, it is often when humanizing technological progress that Friedel is at his best – for instance, when discussing the engineer who suggested a grand tower to Gustav Eiffel, or the Italian preacher who first thought up eyeglasses.

      It can be argued (and has been) that modern Western technological superiority over the Islamic world rests precisely on the Western “culture of improvement” (even if those words are not used), compared with Islam’s continued reliance on received wisdom. Indeed, the rise of Islam in the 7th century was a major reason for the strengthening of counter-Islamic rulers, such as Charles Martel (of Poitiers fame) and Charlemagne. But history is not as neat as historians would make it, and “superiority” not as easy to pin down as authors and politicians would wish. This becomes quite clear in Niccolò Capponi’s exhaustively researched Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto. This is the battle that gave Cervantes the nickname “el manco de Lepanto” – the cripple of Lepanto – because he lost the use of his left hand there. Capponi, a fellow at the Medici Archive Project and a noted military and Renaissance historian, points out that Cervantes called the Lepanto battle “most noble and memorable,” while Voltaire minimized it as inconsequential, since no land or other tangible symbol of dominance changed hands in its aftermath. In our own time of Western-Islamic conflict, the differing interpretations are worth exploring, and Capponi does so at some length. What happened in October 1571 in the Gulf of Lepanto was the unexpected and total defeat of the Ottoman Empire by Christian forces. The Christians won by better use of technology – there’s that “culture of improvement” again, although not so labeled here. They deployed gunpowder more effectively and used heavy artillery to counter the Ottomans’ greater skill in boarding their enemies’ vessels. No single Western nation won the battle – it was staged by the Holy League, a rather ragtag alliance – and this fact made the outcome even more humiliating and troubling to the long-preeminent Muslim world, which was forced to face increasing dominance of the West in military and scientific fields. From these long-ago results, Capponi argues, come many resentments carried all the way to the present day. That argument is a stretch, and Capponi seems to know it, stating that his book’s title was “chosen with provocation in mind.” And the book itself, fascinated with its own minutiae, will be hard going for the casual reader. Yet Capponi is onto something here – not only the centuries-old ill will that is increasingly being tapped by fringe Muslim groups, but also the short and dismissive memory of the Christian West regarding events that loom large in the minds of so many Muslims.


Rachmaninoff: Preludes (complete). Eldar Nebolsin, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Joplin: Piano Rags, Volume 2. Benjamin Loeb, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

      The turn of the 20th century took pianists and composers for the piano in tremendously varied directions. Rachmaninoff, one of the great classical piano virtuosi of his time, looked back to Bach – in a sense – in writing a set of 24 Preludes in all the major and minor keys. But Rachmaninoff made the endeavor very much his own, in a multiplicity of ways. Instead of writing a new version of The Well-Tempered Clavier, Rachmaninoff created a series of brief tone poems; instead of alternating major and minor keys throughout, he used that approach sometimes, but at others juxtaposed pieces that he thought would sound well in sequence; instead of focusing on the instrument (Bach’s work was intended to show that a particular tuning system allowed composers to write good-sounding works in all keys), Rachmaninoff focused on the performer. The first and most famous of the Preludes, in C-sharp minor, was not even written to be part of a group of 24: it is the second of five Morceaux de fantaisie, op. 3, and the only Prelude in that set. There followed 10 Preludes, op. 23, and then 13 more, Op. 32.

      Eldar Nebolsin’s prodigious technique gives these miniature tone poems their full due. All Rachmaninoff’s Preludes are dramatically conceived, and Nebolsin lets their full theatricality flourish. From the very strong opening chords of the famous C-sharp minor, to the quiet melancholy of the F-sharp minor, to the grand gestures of the B-flat major, and on throughout the works, Nebolsin shows that he has technique and understanding to spare. Among the highlights are the almost Bach-like simplicity of the start of the D major, the oddly inflected little G minor march (with a lyrical middle section reminiscent of the Second Piano Concerto), the ominous-sounding E-flat minor, the quiet and gentle G-flat major, the ebullient C major (shortest of all), the fairy-tale-like atmosphere of the G-sharp minor, and the complexity of the concluding D-flat major – whose solemn introduction leads to a complex rhapsody-like Allegro that ends with resounding chords. The apparent ease with which Nebolsin plays this difficult music allows the structure and emotional punch of the individual works – and of the Preludes as a whole – to come through with impressive clarity.

      Clarity was the whole point of the very different pianism of Scott Joplin, whose famed ragtime tunes date to the same era as Rachmaninoff’s Preludes. But where Rachmaninoff featured prodigiously difficult pieces with highly varied rhythmic structures, Joplin focused on – and perfected – a simple melodic structure through which he managed to convey a surprising amount of emotion. Benjamin Loeb, pianist for the second volume of Naxos’ Joplin series (the first volume was played by Alexander Peskanov), takes to heart Joplin’s admonition that ragtime should never be played fast. As a result, the more heartfelt among the 16 works here – such as Eugenia, Gladiolus, Weeping Willow, Magnetic Rag and Joplin’s last piano work, Reflection Rag: Syncopated Musings – come through with great tenderness and expressiveness. In the livelier works, such as Swipesey and Peacherine, it would have been nice if Loeb had cut loose a bit more. But he does do a fine job with Rag-Time Dance, which opens the CD, and Stoptime Rag, which closes it – both of which require him to stamp his feet while playing. The CD is a bit of a hodgepodge, arranged neither chronologically nor by the moods of the pieces. But that will not matter to most listeners, who will simply enjoy the clever melodies and attractive accompaniments with which Joplin created such easy-to-listen-to music. Joplin, after all, wrote within a rigid framework – almost always a two-step, although the delightful Rosebud March is in 6/8 time – and in making it so fresh and fancy, made it thoroughly his own.

June 07, 2007


Jack Plank Tells Tales. By Natalie Babbitt. Michael di Capua/Scholastic. $15.95.

The Midnight Library: Liar. By Damien Graves. Scholastic. $5.99.

      Stories about stories can be self-referential as anything, but when well done, they can be thoroughly delightful. Jack Plank Tells Tales is very well done indeed. Natalie Babbitt, best known for Tuck Everlasting, here constructs a story whose motto might be, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, tell stories.” For Jack Plank can’t do much of anything. At the start of the book, he’s an out-of-work pirate in Jamaica, circa 1720. He’s out of work because he’s just not very good at plundering – all that yelling and making faces and such. Jack’s a nice guy, and his shipmates like him, but he’s just not a big contributor to profits. So he goes ashore at a town called Saltwash, determined to find something landlubberly to do. Unfortunately, he’s not good at any of the things he attempts, a state of affairs that leads to such chapter titles as “Not a Farmer,” “Not a Baker,” “Not a Barber,” “Not a Goldsmith,” and so on. Every night, at the boardinghouse where he is staying, Jack Plank tells tales of his failures to the other guests – a good way to get things off his chest and to keep the conversation going. The stories are mighty amusing – the music-loving crocodile and the man who turns into an octopus are highlights – but after a while, Jack runs out of professions to attempt, and decides he has no choice but to go back to sea. But then his fellow boarders come up with a very clever idea…which readers may guess before Babbitt reveals it, but which is nevertheless a delightful solution to a very lighthearted and amusing puzzle.

      There’s nothing lighthearted or amusing about the stories from The Midnight Library, which in a sense is too bad: some black humor might make the tales seem less formulaic. Liar, the fifth volume of these stories – this time, the pseudonym “Damien Graves” is assumed by Tina Barrett – continues to chug along at the same (+++) rating as the rest, presenting three slightly shivery stories in which bad things happen to basically good kids. In the title tale, a girl named Lauren creates an alter ego who is all the things she wants to be but isn’t – popular, well-liked, and so on…and who then turns out to be just a little too real. In “Tickets, Please,” Brian tells about his Great-Uncle Ray, who once boarded a train and was never seen again; and then Brian and his friends Craig and Emily board a train without buying tickets; and then…it’s easy to see where this is going, and that’s just where it goes. In the third story, “Killing Time,” Alexis goes to an acting class where people play at death – until the playing becomes all too serious. There is no attempt at characterization anywhere, with all the stories fast-paced so they can be read quickly, provide a shudder or two, and then be forgotten – effective enough for readers who are satisfied with this sort of thing.


A Dog Called Grk. By Joshua Doder. Delacorte Press. $14.99.

The Friskative Dog. By Susan Straight. Knopf. $14.99.

Marley: A Dog Like No Other. By John Grogan. Collins. $16.99.

Bad Dog, Marley! By John Grogan. Illustrated by Richard Cowdrey. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      There’s nothing quite like a central canine character to bring some warmth and fuzziness to a story – but not all tales involving dogs go the warm-and-fuzzy route. A Dog Called Grk veers, sometimes uneasily, among cuteness, tongue-in-cheek adventure and serious mystery, as a friendly stray dog that follows a boy home turns out to have connections with a kidnapping and coup in a mythical Eastern European country. “Grk,” Joshua Doder helpfully explains, is one of those untranslatable words, requiring at least three English words to convey its meaning – which is some combination of “brave, generous and foolish, all at the same time.” And when Timothy Malt decides to return Grk to his owners, Tim is pretty grk himself. It’s a little hard to get a handle on the book’s tone, which keeps changing. Sometimes it feels the need to be explanatory: “An APC led the way. (An APC is an Armored Personnel Carrier; it is halfway between a car and a tank.)” Or “Stanislavia is a landlocked country. This means it has no borders touching the sea.” At other times, the book is amusing; at others, semi-serious; at others, it seems quite serious indeed: “He spoke slowly, enjoying his power over them. ‘They attacked a guard. Their behavior left me no choice. I killed them both. …I shall kill your sister, just like I killed your mother and your father.’” The book does have a happy-enough ending and the promise of a sequel, and its combination of frenetic pacing with occasional humor can be appealing, but readers may be made uneasy by its frequent changes of approach.

      The tone of The Friskative Dog doesn’t change: it’s always serious. Here too is a dog with a special name, but this one is a stuffed dog. When Sharron was little, she used to make up words, such as “ambulamp” and “streetcreeper,” and when her dad gave her a stuffed puppy, she bounced it around and pronounced it “friskative.” But now Sharron is nine, and her father drove his delivery truck away and has not come home for almost a year, and she is being bullied at school, and only the Friskative Dog makes her feel centered and comfortable. So she takes it to school in her backpack – even though she is not supposed to – and that only makes things worse. Susan Straight’s story is a fairly conventional one of a troubled family and the meanness of preteens, but using the dog as a touchstone gives it more warmth than many other books of a similar type possess.

      There’s almost nothing but warmth in John Grogan’s stories of his yellow Labrador retriever, Marley. Grogan’s Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog was a bestseller last year, and now Grogan has parleyed that success into two new books directed at kids. Although children play at best a minor role in Marley: A Dog Like No Other, dog-loving families will enjoy this adaptation for middle-schoolers, which comes complete with plenty of amusing anecdotes, the inevitable heart-tugging at the end of Marley’s life, and the optimistic conclusion in which a new puppy seems to contain Marley’s reborn spirit. Marley: A Dog Like No Other is strictly for kids and parents who enjoy tales of canine misbehavior in what appears to be an endlessly supportive, heartwarming environment. Bad Dog, Marley, a fictional story for ages 3-8, is lighter fare. Thanks to Richard Cowdrey’s illustrations – based on the real-life Marley’s appearance – this picture book about a Lab whose constant misbehavior is forgiven when he does a big good deed for a family is a winner. Some illustrations are really funny, such as the one of Marley covered with feathers. The text is age-appropriate, and the story is simple enough to convince young children that they want a dog just like Marley. Hmm. Maybe parents should think twice before buying this book.


Millions of Women Are Waiting to Meet You. By Sean Thomas. Da Capo. $24.

      Self-important, self-centered, sexist, oversexed, and so full of himself that there’s unlikely ever to be room for anyone else in that semi-mind of his – if that’s your type of guy, you’re going to love Sean Thomas. Of course, he can’t be entirely the empty-headed, always-fornicating twit that he seems to be the vast majority of the time, because the first and last chapters of his book – the framing tale, as it were – show that he appears capable of forming a real relationship with a woman, to the point of asking her to marry him. Or maybe she just has colossal bad judgment. Or plans to sell the rights to her story next time.

      Millions of Women Are Waiting to Meet You proves that everything you thought about Internet dating is true, and then some – if you happen to be Sean Thomas, who picks up genital crabs from an Australian girl, is convinced (by his doctor, no less) that all Aussie females are total sluts, offers a long pseudo-intellectual discussion of sodomy when one of his Web dates requests it, and, lest we forget the story of his first sexual experience, exposes himself to his parents’ cleaning lady. Nice guy. And not entirely without self-awareness: “I didn‘t get where I am today – in dire need of Internet dating – without being incredibly shallow.”

      Actually, that’s not quite how he got there. Thomas is a British freelance journalist, and the basis of this book is a request that his happily married 37-year-old editor made to the single and promiscuous Thomas when Thomas was also 37: try Internet dating for a year and write about it. And oh boy, does Thomas write about it, and about the women in his life in general. “In Provence we fell for each other. Helplessly. I’d like to say this happened in a very romantic way; I’d like to say it happened as we talked about Cézanne over the tapenade or watched shooting stars from the lavender fields. But it didn’t. For me, the clinching moment was when Eleanor became the first girl to give me head successfully.” Or: “It turned out that Ellie liked to be spanked. Vigorously. And to be handcuffed. She wasn’t afraid of a belt, either. Or a gag. She also liked to have sex in broom cupboards where we might be discovered. And in royal parks right across London. And on the verge of a motorway with juggernauts racing past and honking.”

      That is one woman. There are lots of them; Thomas, who has “had some periods of quite profound promiscuity,” is a (self-professed) expert at this. “Casual sex should be wordless, sudden, unvoiced, spontaneous. Casual ‘loveless’ sex should be a sudden and wonderful recognition of each other’s pressing and identical needs. I’m talking clothes thrown over the stairs. Panties lassoed over wine bottles. Broken zippers. Remember?”

      Thomas remembers very well, thank you, and is a skilled enough journalist to have chronicled many, many details of the many, many encounters (most of them too short to be called “affairs”) that he has with the many, many women he meets online. Or maybe he makes some of the stuff up – there’s no way to tell, just as there’s no way to tell how much truth there is in an online-dating post. Thomas happens to write very well, as you can tell even when reading about his umpteenth sexual encounter (actually, there are more than umpteen). The problem is that he’s never a likable human being, especially when he’s trying for introspection: “I don’t want to go back to my utterly ruthless womanizing ways, at least probably not. Well not for long. OK, I do. It would be fantastic.” Presumably the women Thomas meets and quickly discards – and who discard him – are equally interested in throwaway lust and non-relationships. They do not appear to be exploited by Thomas, or he by them. But the superficiality of Web-based dating is scarcely news. You will learn almost nothing new about the online-dating scene from this book, but it has to be said that you will learn that almost-nothing very entertainingly, so long as the many sexist asides and the constant self-inflation don’t bother you. What was Thomas’ wife – whom he met, yes, through his online dating – thinking when she said “yes” to him? (To marrying him, that is?) Thomas gives good hilarity, true. But for any genuine insight into the latest twists of the mating game, turn somewhere else. Almost anywhere else.


The Margarets. By Sheri S. Tepper. Eos. $26.95.

Mistress of Winter. By Giles Carwyn & Todd Fahnestock. Eos. $25.95.

      These are big books in every way: heavy, long (in the 500-page range), complex, character-packed and sweeping in their themes. Neither rises above genre literature (although The Margarets tries), and neither is likely to appeal to people who are not already accustomed to immersing themselves in words and worlds like the ones of these authors. But both will be highly satisfying to existing fans.

      Fans of Sheri S. Tepper will be particularly pleased, since she has not written a novel since The Companions in 2003. Tepper is one of the most elegant stylists in the fantasy/SF field – indeed, she often (as in this new book) straddles the border between heroic fantasy and science fiction. The Margarets has elements of an end-of-humanity story, large doses of traditional fantasy, and a touch of social commentary masquerading as tale-telling. The end-of-humanity aspect has to do with all the scattered worlds that hate Earth and plot the end of its race; the traditional fantasy revolves around the heroine, Margaret, who lives on Mars, is the only child of a failed Earth settlement, and has created imaginary playmates that are becoming more than imaginary; and the social commentary flows from the fact that Earth’s only viable export to far-flung worlds has turned out to be slaves. The Margarets is a vast canvas. At one point, a little girl is speaking to her sleepy grandmother, “‘It’s part of a story,’ said Falija loudly enough that my eyes snapped open. ‘It starts at the beginning, and it goes on to the end. Shall I tell it to you?’ ‘You can’t just pick out the important parts?’ I suggested sleepily. ‘No. One tells it all, or one doesn’t tell it.’” And that is a microcosmic approach to Tepper’s macrocosm here: read it all or not at all. The Margarets eventually becomes a quest tale, in which the Margaret of Mars grows up and must gather other Margarets, who will determine the ultimate fate of the human race. Told at a rather desultory pace, with plenty of time for description and character development, Tepper’s book has an old-fashioned feeling about it, as this huge tale of wonder meanders toward a near-mystical conclusion. It spans the galaxy, but is ultimately an introspective novel – surely not to all readers’ tastes, but very surely appealing to fanciers of Tepper’s style and pacing.

      Mistress of Winter, sequel to Heir of Autumn, is more conventional in style and structure. Its setting is the city-state of Ohndarien, and it is a book of royalty, magic, sex, betrayal, and the battle between good and evil – a description that, for better or worse, fits many hundreds of heroic-fantasy tales. Giles Carwyn and Todd Fahnestock have a talent for creating complex stories that contain lots of plots and counterplots. Heir of Autumn focused on Brophy, who ultimately sacrificed himself to save Ohndarien and now sleeps uneasily in terrifying dreams that keep the force known as Black Emmeria at bay. In Mistress of Winter, Brophy’s concubine, the sorceress Shara, has tried for years to free him, without success. When another sorceress – the mysterious and ambitious Arefaine Morgeon – does pull Brophy from his dreaming, he returns to the world as a vicious monster, deeply corrupted by all those years in a horrifying dreamworld. Shara, demoralized and heartbroken, seeks forgetfulness in a life of pleasure – only to be drawn inexorably into a battle for the survival of Ohndarien. Of course, with more of this series to come, good cannot fully triumph over evil here, but Carwin and Fahnestock create a satisfying conclusion nevertheless – while also pointing clearly toward their next book. Perhaps in that one they will have fewer of the occasional stylistic lapses that make some passages unintentionally funny, as when a scene of intensity and strong dialogue is follows by someone saying, “We got trouble.”