August 27, 2009


The Marshmallow Incident. By Judi Barrett. Drawn by Ron Barrett. Scholastic. $16.99.

Sheep in a Jeep. By Nancy Shaw. Illustrated by Margot Apple. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $11.99.

     It is the juxtaposition of Ron Barrett’s serious-appearing drawings with the absurdist text by his wife, Judi, that lends The Marshmallow Incident immediate appeal. The creators of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs have again taken a slice of almost-ordinary life and twisted it through a Möbius strip of thoroughly engaging ridiculousness. The story is about the towns of Left and Right, where everyone is, respectively, left-handed and right-handed, and where buildings sport such slogans as “we proudly serve leftovers” and “the right stuff.” The blocky illustrations, with an old-fashioned realism to them, showcase the side-by-side towns perfectly. One town has a flag bearing an upraised left hand; the other, a flag with an upraised right hand. One town has a clock tower with the left side of a round clock (6 through 12), the other town’s clock tower shows the clock’s right side (12 through 6). In the middle of all this is a yellow line that some unforgotten person painted in the dim past. And guarding the line is the Order of the Ambidextrous Knights, whose members live in a castle through the middle of which the yellow line passes. And in the castle are 50,000 boxes of marshmallows (well, why not?). The pages showing what the knights usually do with the marshmallows are hilarious: they serve them on pizza, for example, and roast them by placing them on sword tips while a dragon breathes fire in their direction. Naturally, the unnatural separation of Left and Right has to end. When a well-meaning Right resident trips while trying to prevent some children from crossing the yellow line, he falls into Left and the knights immediately take action with “the nearest ammunition, which, oddly enough, turned out to be their marshmallows.” Chaos ensues (the marshmallow rain is a delight to behold), after which everyone realizes “how silly the whole thing was” and the two towns vote to eradicate the line and henceforth use the marshmallows for practical purposes, such as marshmallow mattresses and the game of tic-tac-marshmallow. Written in a gently amusing style and illustrated with page after page of well-formed hilarity, The Marshmallow Incident is a book to which children will return again and again, spotting some silly new detail time after time.

     Kids have been returning to Sheep in a Jeep for many years already – Nancy Shaw’s book was originally published in 1986 – and now it is available as an oversize board book for a new generation of children to enjoy. This is another book whose illustrations wonderfully complement its text. Margot Apple gets the animals’ expressions just right when “sheep leap to push the jeep,” when “sheep shrug” after the jeep gets stuck in mud, and so on. The text’s simplicity somehow fits the story perfectly, as when two pigs taking a mud bath come to the rescue: “Sheep yelp. Sheep get help. Jeep comes out. Sheep shout.” The sheep, careless, end up carless, but it all happens so delightfully (and with no injury to anyone) that today’s young children will be as charmed as were those of 20-plus years ago. And the lap edition of Sheep in a Jeep is so sturdy that kids will be able to play with it themselves, looking at the pictures and starting to puzzle out the words, without damaging it. And then they will undoubtedly want to know more about the sheep’s adventures, which will give parents the chance to introduce Sheep on a Ship, Sheep in a Shop and the other delightful Shaw-Apple collaborations in this simple, simply wonderful series.


Night Huntress: Book One—Halfway to the Grave; Book Two—One Foot in the Grave; Book Three—At Grave’s End; Book Four—Destined for an Early Grave. By Jeaniene Frost. Avon. $7.99 each.

     Think of the antithesis of the innocence of the vampiric Twilight series and you will have some idea of what Jeaniene Frost has created in Night Huntress. Think of Kim Harrison’s novels of the Hollows and you will have more of an idea. But Frost’s voice is her own. Night Huntress lacks the sweetness and youth orientation of Twilight, but has an equally strong focus on romance – although it is a much earthier and more physical sort of romance than anything in Stephenie Meyer’s books. And Frost’s books have many of the intense action-adventure elements of Harrison’s, albeit without the finely honed characterizations and well-crafted view of an alternative (but not too alternative) universe. Avon calls Night Huntress “paranormal romance,” which is a pretty good description; “urban fantasy romance” is another. The books are fast-paced, often sexy, frequently violent and always page-turners, from Halfway to the Grave (originally published in 2007) to the brand-new Destined for an Early Grave.

     The underlying story here is absurd even by genre conventions. Catherine Kathleen “Cat” Crawfield is a half-vampire, product of a human mother impregnated by a bloodsucker. Somehow the interbreeding resulted in an offspring, even though that is “almost unheard of,” as we learn early on. Cat’s life is focused on revenge: because of what one vampire did to her mother, Cat hunts all vampires, unhesitatingly using her physical charms (“my battle armor was a push-up bra, curled hair, and a short dress”) to lure them to places where she can destroy them. That’s all there is to it, but that’s not all there is to these books, by a long shot. Having established Cat’s provenance and giving her some motivation for vampire involvement, Frost then twists and turns Cat’s stories in a wide variety of dangerous and romantic directions. In Halfway to the Grave, Cat meets Bones, a master vampire with his own reasons for hunting down members of his own kind; learns one theory about the origin of vampires (it has to do with Cain’s actions after he killed Abel); re-encounters her first boyfriend, who barely survives the meeting; and becomes a professional rather than amateur hunter of the undead. She does this in part because Bones agrees to help her find her father – but really because she is so intensely attracted to him. They make quite a pair as the adventure plays out.

     In One Foot in the Grave, Cat gets a government job. Nothing to do with paper pushing, of course – she is a special agent hunting down the undead. She has broken up with Bones (for reasons explained, not terribly convincingly, at the end of the first book), but needs to re-connect with him four years later because of an assassination plot. It’s a plot against Cat herself, and even with all she has learned from Bones, she can’t handle it alone. Nor does she really want to, it turns out. Frost shows a sly sense of humor at times in this volume, as when Bones tells Cat she has to go to a spa before they can handle part of a dangerous assignment. This is also the book in which Cat does find her father – which leads to a major decision on her part. And it is here that Frost explains the difference between vampires and ghouls, and shows how one of the latter can be created.

     At Grave’s End finds Cat in still more danger (of course). And this time Bones (interchangeably called Crispin) is under threat, too. You get a hint of these characters’ relationship from something Bones says to Cat early in this third book: “Because of me, you dangled yourself out as bait to a group of murdering white slavers years ago. You had to drive a car through a house to rescue your mum – while covered in your grandparents’ blood.” Well, yes, and that’s only part of it. We also learn more of Bones’ past here, back to the 18th century, and of course it has resonance right into the present day. Also here is dialogue like this: “I don’t want to spend the rest of my night being dead dead” – but hey, profundity is far from the point in these novels. This book turns a great deal on not forgetting one’s debts or the kindnesses that other people do – a strange notion in books like these, perhaps, but the nature of the debts and kindnesses stays well in context. A particularly interesting character named Mencheres – more fully developed than most of the other vampires – is important in this book, in which Cat for a time believes Bones truly dead. Vampire rivalries, petty and intense, take a larger role here, sometimes in a deadly way and sometimes rather amusingly, as when one master vampire tells Cat that Bones is “an uppity street peasant who’s been gifted far and away over what he deserves.” Toward the end, through betrayals and tales of ruined centuries-long relationships, Cat comments that “our situation had upgraded from awful to doomed,” but eventually the prime mover of evil here is dispatched, although Cat is left thinking, “Some things shouldn’t be possible, and it was scary to know they were.”

     And that leads to Destined for an Early Grave, where what should be possible is a nice Parisian vacation for Cat and Bones. This, it of course turns out, is not possible, as a dream-invading vampire named Gregor appears to terrorize Cat as she sleeps, claiming that she belongs to him rather than to Bones. At Grave’s End pulled in a large number of vampires and various other supernaturals, and Destined for an Early Grave does so, too, but this is more of a mano-a-mano book, pitting Gregor against Bones. Because these books remain focused on Cat, though, it turns out that the only way Gregor’s hold over Cat can be broken is by Cat herself. But does she want to break it? That becomes a real question. There is a strong emotional confrontation between her and Bones midway through this book – stronger than anything in the earlier novels – in which Bones reveals the depth of his feeling for Cat by enumerating all the ways in which she has always withheld her deepest, innermost being from him. It is some of Frost’s best writing, because while she is no stylist, she here taps into a level of anguish that fleshes out both Bones and, through what he says, Cat herself. Eventually, after all sorts of miscommunication and anger, Cat remarks, “I wanted so badly to believe that love could conquer all. That Bones and I could make things work based on sheer feelings alone, but life wasn’t that easy.” No, it isn’t, as it turns out that Cat is the pawn in a vampire power play that stretches over 220 years. And she is also more than the half-human-half-vampire that she has thought herself to be – and is capable, when she must, of defeating Gregor herself.

     The Night Huntress series is by no means great literature, but it has a great deal to recommend it: fast pacing, some interesting characters (set against some cardboard ones), and a created world whose possibilities keep expanding as Frost pulls in new elements. Clearly, Cat’s newfound powers and status will be important in future books; and Night Huntress is about to spawn (if that’s the right word) a spinoff series featuring one of the characters from Cat’s world. Frost has the right mixture of elements for her books’ commercial success, and she pulls them together in well-crafted if scarcely elegant prose that captures readers quickly and is likely to keep them coming back for more. There’s nothing profound here, but there is much that is very effective.


The Treasure Map of Boys. By E. Lockhart. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

Matisse on the Loose. By Georgia Bragg. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Ruby Oliver, slut by reputation, misunderstood innocent who has kissed only six boys in 16 years and never done anything but kiss them, or not much else, is back again in The Treasure Map of Boys, as endearingly neurotic as in The Boyfriend List and The Boy Book. Ruby is quite a character, self-aware enough to understand the interpersonal mistakes she makes and even why she makes them (well, some of them), and perceptive enough to write entertainingly about her errors, but unable to keep from messing things up. E. Lockhart’s books, for ages 12 and up, make the perils of dating – and nondating, also known as being in the state of Noboyfriend – a lot more interesting and pleasurable than they are in real life. Ruby’s exaggerated problems with friends, ex-friends, possible future friends, possible future ex-friends, and her therapist. add up to far more fun than similar situations ever would in the real world. And that’s just the point of Lockhart’s book: it can give readers a little perspective, as in, “Thank goodness my life isn’t as messed up as that! Consider, for example, Dr. Z, the aforementioned therapist, whom Ruby has been seeing because of her panic attacks. At one point in The Treasure Map of Boys, Ruby, working in a store called Granola Brothers, has to fit sandals on a man with “the strangest, hairiest, smelliest feet I’d ever seen.” Nearly gagging, she manages to get him a pair that works; he then asks if he can keep wearing them until his girlfriend comes in; Ruby says that’s fine; and when the girlfriend shows up, she turns out to be – Dr. Z. Ruby nearly has a panic attack right then. “It was so weird to see her out in the real world, holding a mesh bag full of winter squash and something wrapped in brown paper that was probably fish. …[N]ow I knew what she was having for dinner, and that she was going to cook, and that she must really like winter squash because there were several big gourdlike items in that bag of hers Who on earth likes winter squash that much?” Ruby clearly has something of the obsessive-compulsive about her, on top of everything else. But there’s so much everything else, and it’s all handled so entertainingly, that readers will feel simultaneously sorry for Ruby and charmed by her. She writes the narratives – and provides her own footnotes. She self-analyzes: “Over the next two days, my life was like a movie entitled Return of the Roly-poly Slut. She gets a cheer-up picture of a frog from her ex-boyfriend and asks herself, “Was it an innocuous frog? …Or was it a Frog Laden with Meaning?” She then thinks up five possible meanings, none of them satisfactory, before concluding, “I knew I should throw it in the trash and never think about it again, but I couldn’t.” Ruby is clearly her own worst enemy – although she has quite a few others, or thinks she does – but even when she feels sorry for herself, she does so in such an amusingly presented way that the heartache, despite being as real as what any high-school junior ever feels, is mitigated by her presentation of it. Ruby’s incessant list-making has gotten her in trouble many times, and her adventures in miscommunication do so again and again in The Treasure Map of Boys, but Ruby is clearly a survivor, who will make it through high school – and life – bruised and battered but better for it. Which, indeed, is how she eventually makes it through this book.

     The problems are simpler, or at least more straightforward, in Matisse on the Loose, because Georgia Bragg’s book is intended for preteens, on the cusp of all those pesky hormones but not yet immersed in them. This is a book about mischief gone awry, and although it tries too hard to be a carefree romp, it is an entertaining bit of fluff that merits a (+++) rating. Matisse is the 11-year-old son of strange parents: “My dad is just one big advertisement for someone whose brains are all gone,” because he has invented a barbecue that roasts a whole pig and insists on wheeling it all over town to whatever event wants it. Matisse’s parents have a thing for art: his older sister is named Frida and his baby brother is Man Ray. This dovetails nicely with his mother’s job as head of security at the local art museum. But before the main plot gets started, Bragg tosses in some slapstick in the form of Frida’s obsession with the color purple and the escape of Dad’s barbecue into the middle of a five-year-old’s birthday party. This is the first example of the book trying too hard, but not the last. The primary story turns on the fact that Matisse really does have a talent for art – for copying it, that is. He is especially good at copying paintings by his namesake, Henri Matisse, one of which, “Portrait of Pierre Matisse,” features the painter’s son – a boy who looks a bit like Matisse, the book’s hero. So young Matisse copies the painting repeatedly, getting better and better at it. And then he finds himself alone with the real painting, with the security protections shut off. And on a whim, or in the grip of what Edgar Allan Poe called “the imp of the perverse,” he takes the real Matisse off the wall, frame and all, takes it out of the frame, and replaces it with his own copy. And no one notices. And when he tries to switch the paintings back, the alarm goes off and he’s stuck with the real one, rolled up – which ends up at his house. So Matisse tries to confess, but no one believes him. His mother goes off on a story about the time she took a friend’s Girl Scout pin. The police chief shows up at the museum and tries to catch Matisse, but it’s only to get some pointers on painting – Matisse actually says “you can book me, or send me to the torture chamber, whatever you want,” but of course the chief has no idea what he is talking about. Matisse is not entirely dumb – he realizes that his mother could easily be blamed for the theft of the painting, and he tells the chief that she had nothing to do with it. But again, the policeman thinks this is all part of a kids’ game of cops-and-robbers. It takes a meeting with the real Pierre Matisse – a deus ex machina if there ever was one – to straighten things out. Pierre Matisse actually died in 1989, but Bragg explains in an Author’s Note that she needed him in the present-day novel to interact with modern museum security. This is just one way in which Matisse on the Loose is a trifle more contrived than perhaps it had to be. It has its amusing moments, to be sure, but everything in it feels a bit too convenient and manipulated – almost like the novelistic version of a paint-by-numbers picture.


Confessions of a Swinging Single Sea Turtle: The Fourteenth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

What the Duck: A W.T. Duck Collection. By Aaron Johnson. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Peekaboo Planet: A Collection of “Rose Is Rose” Comics. By Don Wimmer. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     A longstanding genre of comic strips is “funny animal comics” – Mickey Mouse and many other characters come from that line. But the field isn’t at all what it used to be – now the animals are almost always thinly veiled human beings, their shapes and forms of communication used to say things about the human condition rather than to produce laughter through simple antics, pratfalls and the like. The sea creatures in Jim Toomey’s Sherman’s Lagoon are a perfect case in point. Aside from breathing water, having fins, living in shells, and other such superficialities, they are entirely human. They use speed dating when seeking romance; go fishing for “hairless beach apes”; set up their own underwater radio stations; become computer hackers; hope to go to rock ‘n’ roll fantasy camp; try on spirituality for size; get into arguments with mythological figures – you know, just a bunch of everyday sort-of-human activities. Toomey’s latest collection even includes a touch of comic-strip self-reference – something that’s all the rage these days – as characters from various comics show up for a convention on Kapupu Island. This gives Toomey’s turtle character, the perpetually mateless Fillmore, a chance to meet the Over the Hedge turtle, Verne; Toomey’s shark, Sherman, an opportunity to ask Rex Morgan, M.D., a medical question; and Sherman’s wife, Megan, a meal (she eats Lola). Add in an adventure in text messaging, a wine class, and a visit to Walden Pond, and you have the makings of another of Toomey’s typically skewed worldviews. Or fishviews. Whatever.

     What the Duck is skewed, too, but W.T. Duck stays on land. And takes pictures of its denizens – he’s a photographer. Drawn as a white lump with tiny eyes – looking almost like one of Al Capp’s famous Shmoos – W.T. spends his time interacting with ever-complaining clients (he asks one, “Is Poo Poo Head hyphenated?”), photoshopping real-life problems when possible, and dealing with photo editors and other impossibly demanding near-nitwits (Aaron Johnson draws the human body convincingly, but you never see people’s expressions – he always has speech balloons or objects covering people’s faces). The strip throws in the occasional motto-like remark: “Photoshop – helping the ugly since 1988.” It shows the button used when a client demands that everyone in a photo be made to look 20% happier – it’s an eject button for the client’s chair. It explains “the magic hour” as “the hour between my kids’ bedtime and my own.” And it offers a photographer’s viewpoint on work: “Today I chased wild animals, endured hostile environments, and warded off restless natives. I’m shooting another wedding tomorrow.” Johnson is given to a few too many in jokes – non-photographers will miss some points and find some elements of the strip repetitious – but the off-kilter worldview here means there are many more hits than misses.

     Peekaboo Planet is the only one of these three books in which a cartoon animal behaves almost like a real-world one (albeit exaggeratedly). That animal would be Peekaboo, the perpetually playful (and frequently thoughtful) kitten sharing the Gumbo household with Rose, husband Jimbo and son Pasquale. This is one of the better books that Don Wimmer has produced since taking over production of Rose Is Rose from its creator, Pat Brady, in 2004. Wimmer’s plotting remains mediocre – he never comes up with anything new for the characters to do, instead recycling Brady’s innovations again and again (Pasquale’s dreamship and guardian angel, for instance). But in Peekaboo Planet, Wimmer frequently focuses on squirrels, birds and puppies as well as the title kitten, and in a strip founded to be endearing, it’s hard to go wrong with cute animals. Pasquale’s cousin, Clem, a one-note character (he likes to hog all the attention, brownies, etc.), gets too much focus here, and Wimmer really isn’t sure what to do with some of Brady’s best concepts: Rose’s wonderful alter ego, Vicky the biker, who symbolizes everyone’s occasional desire to dump a solid life and take off for parts unknown, is here reduced to returning overdue library books and anticipating a Christmas present. And neighbor baby Mimi, who talks in near-nonsense syllables originally invented by Brady for baby Pasquale, is too intelligible here – and the strips featuring her spend too much time just repeating what she says in ordinary English, even though Wimmer makes her words perfectly comprehensible (as Brady did not). Still, Peekaboo’s adventure with a little lost puppy, his day with his mom (which includes both of them having toe snags), his stretchability to cover multiple laps at different places in the room, and his octopus-like (or octo-puss-like) spreading over the entire big sofa, are sweet and amusing enough – and sufficiently reminiscent of real-world cats’ behavior – to earn Peekaboo Planet a (+++) rating, even though Wimmer remains nowhere near Brady’s level for thoughtful artistry and warm-hearted family fun.


Tchaikovsky: 18 Pieces, Op. 72. Igor Kamenz, piano. Oehms. $16.99.

Nietzsche: Complete Solo Piano Works. Michael Krücker, piano. NCA. $24.99 (SACD).

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; A Night on Bald Mountain; Rachmaninoff: 6 Etudes Tableaux. Sa Chen, piano. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 10: Piano Sonatas Nos. 9, 10, 13 and 14 (“Moonlight”). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

     It is easy to assume that the 19th century has been fully explored in terms of piano music – it is the mainstay of many a recital and recording. Yet there remain some astonishingly good, little-known works for solo piano from the Romantic era, and Tchaikovsky’s 18 Pieces is one of the most surprisingly neglected. Written late in his life, after he had completed the sketches for the “Pathétique” symphony, the 18 Pieces are as lovely and generally upbeat as the symphony, for all its lyricism, is dour. The cycle’s opus number, 72, places it immediately after The Nutcracker, which is Op. 71, and some of the 18 Pieces reflect the stage work: No. 1 takes after the ballet’s overture, No. 4 is reminiscent of “Mother Ginger,” and No. 11 sounds a bit like the “Waltz of the Flowers” combined with “Chocolate.” Other pieces sound a bit like Eugene Onegin, the second movement of the “Pathétique” and the work that would eventually become Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Yet none of these 18 Pieces is slavishly imitative of anything else in the composer’s oeuvre – they are charming, virtuosic and imaginative by turns, and succeed very much on their own terms. Igor Kamenz plays the cycle with intelligence, care and fine musicianship – so well, in fact, that it makes the neglect of these pieces even harder to understand. Perhaps the 80-minute length of the cycle explains why it is not often heard as a whole in concert – but surely individual pieces ought to be performed more often.

     It is harder to argue for frequent performances of the solo-piano music of Friedrich Nietzsche, even though much of it is intriguing and all of it is well crafted. Although known today only as a philosopher, Nietzsche was a fine self-taught musician and, for a time, a devotee of Richard Wagner, although the relationship between the men was forever broken when Wagner turned to Christianity for the setting of his last opera, Parsifal. Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote most of the works that Michael Krücker plays between 1861 and 1865, so they qualify as juvenilia – and their echoes of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt are scarcely surprising. But the longest work here, Hymnus an die Freundschaft, was written in 1872 and revised in 1875, and shows more signs of originality, although it scarcely rises to the level of great music. Krücker includes with the completed works a variety of fragments, from a half-minute Marcia to a two-minute Albumblatt to a three-minute portion of a fugue. These provide interesting insight into Nietzsche’s compositional process, even if they are not in themselves particularly compelling. The Krücker recording is more of a curiosity than anything else – Nietzsche contributed a great deal to philosophy but not much to music, despite his obvious talent for it. Yet Nietzsche himself acutely felt the interrelationship between these two fields, writing, “I know no difference between tears and music” and speaking of “the strings of my soul, invisibly moved.” Krücker’s recording of Nietzsche’s piano music make a fascinating companion to the philosopher’s writings.

     Sa Chen takes listeners to much more familiar territory with her new recording of Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff. Fourth-place winner in the 2000 International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition and third-place finisher in the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the 30-year-old performer is one of a number of impressive young pianists to emerge from China in recent years. She has the strengths and weaknesses that seem to typify this group of rising young stars: superb control, technique to spare, but a tendency to miss out on interpretative niceties and to play very different pieces of music in much the same way. As it happens, this potential defect is of little importance in her new recording, which emphasizes sweep and technique in music that generally does not call for considerable subtlety. Chen’s Pictures at an Exhibition is the colorful tour de force that Mussorgsky intended it to be, with the contrasts among its movements particularly well displayed and with plenty of power when needed, as in the final portrait of the heroes’ gate at Kiev. A Night on Bald Mountain is a bit of an oddity, being a piano transcription by Konstantin N. Chernov of Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s original. Chen plays it well and rather flashily, although it is hard not to miss the familiar delicacy of orchestration that Rimsky-Korsakov brought to his version of Mussorgsky’s work. Chen tends toward the flashy in the six Rachmaninoff Etudes as well: Op. 33, Nos. 2, 3 and 5, and Op. 39, Nos. 4, 5 and 6. Five of these six are in minor keys, inviting thoughtfulness as well as virtuosity, but Chen’s focus is mostly on the works’ intensity and their potential for sheer display – not the most sensitive possible approach to the music, but one that generally works well in pieces with more than their share of the showy.

     “Showy” is scarcely a word to apply to Idil Biret’s handling of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, the fifth volume of which is now available as the 10th release in Biret’s 19-volume Beethoven Edition. Biret brings a light touch and classically poised elegance to the two Op. 14 sonatas (No. 9 in E and No. 10 in G). For the two from Op. 27 (No. 13 in E-flat and the famous “Moonlight” in C-sharp minor), Biret seems particularly focused on Beethoven’s designation “Sonata quasi una fantasia” – which he applied to both works. There is rhythmic freedom in these performances, and an expressivity that gives them feelings of tenderness and near-improvisatory flexibility, with Biret’s tone in No. 13’s Adagio con espressione and No. 14’s opening Adagio sostenuto especially lovely. These are among Biret’s most recent recordings in her Beethoven sonata series, having been made in May 2008 (Nos. 9 and 10 were recorded in 2004). The Op. 27 performances are also among her most thoughtful, showing just how effective even familiar piano works can be when presented by a performer both technically skilled and closely attuned to the music.


Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 60 (“Il Distratto”), 88 and 96 (“Miracle”). Mozarteumorchester Salzburg conducted by Ivor Bolton. Oehms. $16.99.

Haydn: Eight Concertos for Harpsichord, Fortepiano and Organ. Christine Schornsheim, harpsichord, fortepiano and organ; Neue Düsseldorfer Hofmusik. Capriccio. $16.99 (2 CDs).

Haydn: Five Sonatas for Violin and Fortepiano. Alberto Bologni, violin; Giuseppe F. Modugno, fortepiano. Concerto. $16.99.

     Haydn was, in retrospect, more of a symphonic composer than anything else – although his contribution to the string quartet, which he essentially created, should not be minimized. Surprisingly, until recent years, only a relatively few of his 106 symphonies (including the early ones designated “A” and “B”) were frequently performed, and those were mostly the ones with jovial titles that Haydn did not necessarily assign to them (“Clock,” “London,” “Drum Roll,” and so on). Recent re-exploration of Haydn has led to a greater willingness to perform his less-known symphonic works, and that in turn has led to some outstanding releases, including Ivor Bolton’s version of Nos. 60, 88 and 96. These are bright, bouncy, thoroughly idiomatic performances that do an especially good job of capturing Haydn’s wit and elegance. No. 60, “Il Distratto,” is a six-movement gem assembled by Haydn from incidental music he wrote for the play that gives the symphony its title. It is full of theatricality, including unexpected pianissimo passages, a required retuning by the strings during one movement, and an accelerando written before that term had found its way into music and which may be the first of its kind. No. 88, despite its lack of a title, is well known and is one of Haydn’s most typical mature creations, full of lovely melodies, with a peasant rhythm in its Menuetto and a genuinely creative contrapuntal finale. No. 96 is called the “Miracle” because it was thought to have been played at a concert where a falling chandelier miraculously caused no injuries – and the title has stuck even since the discovery that the symphony actually played at that event was No. 102 (which remains without a title). In any case, No. 96 is a wonderful example of Haydn’s “London” writing, more elaborate and on a larger scale than much of what he had composed before.

     The latter part of the Andante of No. 96 sounds a great deal like a solo concerto, but in fact Haydn composed far less in concerto format than in other musical forms, perhaps because he was not himself a virtuoso on any particular instrument. A few examples of his comparatively modest output have become deservedly popular, and now there is a recording that effectively argues that more of them deserve to be heard with greater frequency. It is Christine Schornsheim’s remarkable performance of eight keyboard concertos (Nos. 1-5, 8, 10 and 11) on three different instruments: harpsichord (Nos. 2, 3 and 5), organ (Nos. 1, 8 and 10), and fortepiano (Nos. 4 and 11). Schornsheim is not only amazingly adaptable to the very different demands of these three solo instruments, but also very skilled in Haydn’s style with all of them. The correct instrument to use in a particular concerto is not always clear and must often be inferred based on the work’s technical demands (a piece unplayable on the organs of Haydn’s time was clearly not written for them). Haydn himself seems to have had different thoughts on the works at different times: No. 1, for example, is noted as being for organ on the autograph copy, but when Haydn made his own catalogue of works some years later, he designated it for “clavicembalo” (harpsichord). The lack of certainty gives performers quite a few choices about handling these works; the quality of Schornsheim’s playing argues strongly for the selections she has made. And the accompaniment by the players of Neue Düsseldorfer Hofmusik is exemplary.

     Even less known than Haydn’s concertos are his violin-and-piano sonatas – in fact, in the standard catalogue of Haydn’s works (known as the Hoboken catalogue), not a single one appears. But there are in fact five authentic Haydn violin-and-piano sonatas, two of which (Hob.XV: 31 and 32) have been catalogued as Trios (because in Haydn’s time, a cello would sometimes be used as an added instrument) and three of which (Hob. XVa: 1, 2 and 3) are in Baroque style but with a clear Haydn flavor. Historical issues aside, all five works are minor but interesting Haydn, showing him moving past Baroque forms harmonically and rhythmically while still adhering to an older structure for the works as a whole. This is a particularly intriguing recording for Haydn fanciers seeking something off the beaten path, since the works are quite unfamiliar. And they are beautifully played on instruments dating to or close to Haydn’s time: Alberto Bologni uses a 1734 Santo Serafino violin, while Giuseppe F. Modugno performs on an 1815 fortepiano by Johann Schantz.

August 20, 2009


Bone: Rose. By Jeff Smith. Illustrated by Charles Vess. Graphix/Scholastic. $21.99.

Ragtag. By Karl Wolf-Morgenländer. Clarion. $16.

     Jeff Smith’s wonderful Bone graphic-novel series has been reissued in nine volumes by the Graphix division of Scholastic; but like all great adventures, it will leave readers wondering both what happened afterwards and what happened before – that is, how things got to the point where they were when the three Bone cousins accidentally ended up in the Valley at the beginning of the first volume, Out from Boneville. Some “before” questions are answered by Smith in Rose, the story of the princess much later known as Gran’ma Ben. Here Smith explains the importance of balance in the Dreaming; the original betrayal of the world by the evil Locust; the different paths taken by Rose and her sister, Briar; and the terrible choice that Rose makes, which allows evil to gain a near-fatal foothold in the world. That is quite a lot to pack into a 138-page graphic novel, and Rose lacks some of the subtlety and all of the humor of the Bone series itself. It is an action-adventure book above all, with the excellent illustrations by Charles Vess helping carry the story along at a headlong pace quite different from the more relaxed speed shown in the basic Bone saga. Except for the Great Red Dragon, who looks much the same here as in Smith’s own illustrations, the characters Vess draws are more fine-boned and sinewy than in the main sequence, thinner and more strongly articulated in their movements. The result is a book that stylistically diverges quite a bit from the primary Bone saga while clearly inhabiting the same fantasy universe. The cross-currents of this story are many, including Rose’s close relationship with her two dogs, Euclid and Cleo, who call Briar (who cannot hear them as Rose can) the “Ice Queen”; Rose’s attraction to the young Lucius, and the way Briar steals his affection; the first attack of the Rat Creatures on humans in what will be a long war; and Rose’s unwitting and nearly fatal empowerment of the river dragon Balsaad, whose fate is inextricably intertwined with that of Rose and all the people of the Valley. Rose is a standalone book, but its resonance requires familiarity with the greater Bone series. It actually reveals little that careful readers of that saga will not already know, but it fills in some missing elements of the back story effectively and offers outstanding art that, although different from Smith’s own, is every bit as valid. The result is a prequel that, although not necessary for the understanding and enjoyment of Bone, is exciting from start to finish and a welcome return to the saga’s world.

     Ragtag, the first novel by Karl Wolf-Morgenländer, is an altogether more conventional adventure, but it is exciting and well-written enough for a (+++) rating. It is the classic tale of an underestimated youngster who becomes a hero, saving the very society that originally spurned him. In Ragtag, that is a society of birds – the title character is a swallow. The story is set in Boston and is precipitated by human errors upsetting the balance of avian power: “‘Before I came to this city,’ Hoogol [a great horned owl and city-bird leader] offered when the silence had grown uncomfortable, ‘I had heard stories of the Talon Empire. I had always assumed that they were just legends and myths. Now I realize they were true.” The Talon Empire consists of deadly raptors with a simple motivation: “They want to conquer us, to force us to do their bidding.” Why? “The humans and their machines have been cutting down the great woods to the west that were home to the empire. That is why they are now advancing.” This is, in truth, a very conventional setup for a fantasy-adventure (“Stupid humans!” one bird opines); but what is of real interest in Ragtag is the character of the hero and the way in which he becomes the key to the survival of the Boston birds’ group, known as the Feathered Alliance. There is some politics at work here: for one thing, the crows, outcasts among the city birds, have no problem joining the invaders. But what spurs Ragtag to eventual heroism is not politics but bravery that he had not known he possessed. The raptors are painted as vaguely Germanic invaders: their leader is called Bergelmir, and others of their number are Hugin, Gunlad, Surt and Mugin. Feathered Alliance members have altogether gentler names: Blue Feather, Bobtail, Tattler, Gini. There is never any doubt who the good guys are. Ragtag finds some bravery in himself early on, then discovers that “his anger gave him strength” as he accomplishes one great deed – after which he needs to leaven his power by listening to Hoogol’s wisdom: “I believe all of us can be redeemed.” Again, this is wholly conventional in heroic-fantasy stories, but Wolf-Morgenländer makes the tale seem more original than it is through effective characterization of some (if not all) of the birds and excellent scene-setting (the author certainly knows Boston well). Ragtag eventually has leadership of the city birds thrust upon him even though he protests, “I’m nothing more than a symbol.” The answer to that is swift in coming, from Ragtag’s mother, Blue Feather: “They want you, Ragtag, exactly because you’re a symbol.” Ragtag becomes more than that, of course, and the treacherous crows see the error of their ways and become helpful, and humans get involved in the whole mess without (of course) knowing just where they fit into things. Eagles play an important role in the book’s climax, as they do in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with both of which Wolf-Morgenländer is surely familiar (one eagle bears the distinctly Tolkienian name of the Norse god Baldur). But in the end, it is the small swallow rather than the grand eagles whose heroism is triumphant – a satisfying ending to a novel that transcends its own conventional elements.


Lunch Lady: No. 1—Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute; No. 2—Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Knopf. $5.99 each.

Nighttime: Too Dark to See; Too Scared to Sleep. By Todd Strasser. Little Apple/Scholastic. $4.99 each.

     In retrospect, it seems inevitable that Jarrett J. Krosoczka would create graphic novels someday. His illustrations for the Punk Farm books, Baghead and other titles have the angularity and flow of pictures in graphic novels even though the books themselves are not in that format. Krosoczka’s offbeat sense of humor fits the graphic-novel format for preteens well, too. So it makes perfect sense that he has created a crimefighter called Lunch Lady: “Serving Justice! And Serving Lunch!” Abetted by her companion Betty, who acts as Q to Lunch Lady’s James Bond with such inventions as a Spatu-copter (a spatula that provides vertical lift) and Taco-vision Night Goggles (which work well, but everything looks taco-shaped), Lunch Lady takes on nefarious school-based villains such as a mad scientist (well, science teacher) and some librarians who take their dislike of videogame consoles to extremes. A superhero needs human assistants, of course, and Lunch Lady gets them in the form of three students named Dee, Terrence and Hector. And there needs to be a school bully (Milmoe), who is especially nasty to Hector and is always followed by a today who says, “Good one, Milmoe” after the bully says something insulting. Everything is introduced in Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, including the boiler room (located behind a moving refrigerator) where Betty invents things, and Lunch Lady’s particular brand of dialogue (“I’m on him like cheese on macaroni”). Some of Krosoczka’s ideas are funnier than others (“cannoli-oculars” are a winner), but the point of these little books is really just to let kids have a good time. At that, they succeed from start to finish.

     The Nighttime series is less successful and gets a (++) rating. Each short book contains a series of unrelated, very short stories – eight in Too Dark to See, seven in Too Scared to Sleep – that offer at most a mild chill. In Too Dark to See, one involves a phantom train, another a boy getting trapped inside his handheld game player, another a “dead end” street where dead things turn up, another a family’s stay at an old motel that turns out to have burned down years ago – all standard horror scenarios. Todd Strasser does very little scene-setting and no characterization at all, simply taking these familiar ideas – likely familiar already to many potential young readers – and presenting them at face value. In Too Scared to Sleep, the stories feature a ghost giving out Halloween candy, wallpaper on which the pictured characters seem to move, a sleepover that goes badly wrong, a too-nice babysitter and more. Strasser’s stripped-down approach to tale-telling makes each of these short tales a very quick read indeed, but also means that none of them will stay with readers for very long – there aren’t many genuine chills here except for momentary ones. Still, that may be the whole point: this is, after all, a series, and kids who enjoy the quick takes and small shudders of the first two books will presumably be good candidates for future volumes.


Planet Earth: Incredible Reptiles. By Tracey West. Scholastic. $5.99.

Lessons of a Turtle (The Little Book of Life). By Sandy Gingras. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     One of the most photographically striking of the ongoing Planet Earth collaborations between the British Broadcasting Corporation and Scholastic, Incredible Reptiles is a thin book (46 pages) whose amazing close-ups will make readers wish it went on a lot longer. Tracey West offers a basic, one-page introduction to the seven environments in which reptiles live – fresh water, shallow seas, ocean depths, rainforests, deserts, plains and mountains – and then provides bare-bones text to accompany the truly remarkable photos of (among others) a green anaconda with wide-open mouth, a Nile crocodile, a snapping turtle, a Gila monster, a carpet python, a leaf-tailed gecko, and an Aldabra giant tortoise. The mixture of familiar reptiles (green iguana) with unfamiliar ones (panther chameleon) is one thing that makes the book attractive. Another is the brief facts about each animal: the venom of the banded sea krait is 10 times as powerful as rattlesnake venom; the European legless lizard has a small stump where its back legs would be; the sidewinding adder has eyes on top of its head, which let it see when its body is buried in sand; the green tree monitor has a prehensile tail. It is the photos rather than the text that will bring young readers to this book again and again, but there is enough information here to capture potential herpetologists’ imagination and send them looking for other books about reptiles. There are a few flaws in the book – for instance, the author calls reptiles “cold-blooded,” which is incorrect, although the author then explains that “their body temperature is controlled by the environment around them,” which is right (this would have been a good place to introduce the accurate word ectothermic). But most of what appears in Incredible Reptiles is fascinating, and some of it really is incredible – such as the extreme, head-on close-ups of a brown tree snake and a Tokay gecko, the view of an open-mouthed king cobra with its hood flared, and the gorgeous full-body view of a bright green, yellow-and-brown-striped veiled chameleon.

     There are no particular lessons in Incredible Reptiles, except indirectly about the amazing diversity of life on our planet and the importance of understanding how it is all interconnected. But Sandy Gingras looks at one reptile and finds plenty of life lessons from observing it. Her little gift book, Lessons of a Turtle, is a little bit too soupily sentimental and New Age-y, as such books tend to be, but it still deserves a (+++) rating for the ways in which Gingras manages to relate elements of human life to turtles’ characteristics. For example, “Protective shells are all well and good, but they make it hard to dance close” (with a charming drawing of two turtles standing on their back legs and awkwardly trying to dance); “You can’t move forward until you stick your neck out”; “Everyone is soft inside”; and “The slower you go, the more you see.” These are lovely chelonian (that is, turtle-related) thoughts, and much more interesting than some less-clever comments that have nothing to do with turtles, including “Lost is just another word for exploring,” “Ick happens” and “Hug your mother” (a lovely sentiment, but something turtles never do). Of course, Lessons of a Turtle is not meant to be taken too seriously or to be lessons about a turtle. It’s just another of those cute small-size hardcover books that you can give to someone special – in this case, perhaps someone who is a little too insistent on living life in the fast lane. Still, to the extent that the book connects human sentiments with elements of turtle life, it is a touch more offbeat and charming than the many others of its type.


Seagate BlackArmor PS110. Windows Vista or XP/SP2. 500GB. $160.

     Road warriors will love this one – and so will anyone, in an office, home office or home setting, looking for easy-to-carry portable storage in a drive that works quickly and has a built-in backup function with software preinstalled. The BlackArmor PS110 is a small, matte-black 500-gigabyte hard drive that is almost exactly the size of a 3x5 index card except for its thickness – which is only half an inch. It’s a beautiful piece of engineering, packing a lot of capacity into a space so small that you can slip it into a pocket. It looks good, too – and, even more important, it works very well at a wide variety of tasks.

     Like other drives made by Seagate Technology, the BlackArmor PS110 is sturdy, reliable and quiet in operation. It is also fast at both read and write speeds – helpful not only for individual files but also for backup purposes. Backup is managed by Seagate’s BlackArmor Backup software, which lets you copy anything from your full system to individual files. There are built-in calendars and event logs to automate the backup process, and the recovery options range from standard restoration to creation of a bootable rescue CD (you supply your own blank CD-RW disc) or full disc image. This is not a set-and-forget backup system like the one Seagate offers as the Seagate Replica single-function drive – you do have to decide what you want to back up and when, and you have to be willing to spend some time with the BlackArmor Backup dashboard to configure backups the way you want them. But the interface is easy to use, even elegant, and users who want a small-form-factor drive that does more than make backups will welcome the flexibility of the BlackArmor PS110.

     Actually, the backup software here lets you get really creative, if you wish, thanks to its SecureZone feature, which creates a hidden partition. This is where a disc image goes – and you can also use it for private backups and specified types of backups (address books, E-mail accounts, etc.). For a really high level of protection, you can enable 256-bit encryption.

     But even though the BlackArmor Backup software works well and comes preinstalled, it is not the sole reason to consider this drive. The BlackArmor PS110 is first and foremost a portable data storage device (a desktop dock is available separately but is not really necessary). Because of its capacity, it is in effect a laptop computer without interface device: just take it from location to location, attach it with the included USB cable to a computer at any destination, and you can perform all the tasks you would normally do at your base of operations – and then quickly load all the new data onto the computer at your primary location when you get back there. You could speed things up even more with a FireWire interface, but the BlackArmor PS110 does not have one – a small disappointment unless you are wedded to FireWire.

     In fact, all the disappointments here are small. The most significant involves a well-intentioned feature (again, preinstalled software) that is not as useful as it seems on the surface. It is called Try and Decide, which Seagate created with Acronis Software to let you download and install new programs or open E-mail attachments on the BlackArmor PS110 in a protected environment – then roll back the changes if you dislike them or they are corrupted or unstable. Great idea, and it works well in its basic function: you click on a Start button and, if you find a virus or run into other problems, click on a Stop button – at which point the system prompts you for a restart that applies or discards any changes the new program has made. Discard what you have loaded and the system reverts to its prior image. Good theory – but it works with a maximum of one restart. If you begin installing software that requires multiple restarts and realize after two or three of them that you have a problem, Try and Decide cannot get you back where you want to be. Furthermore, running this program in background degrades the overall performance of the BlackArmor PS110. Try and Decide may be useful if you already suspect system-security issues, but otherwise it falls a bit flat.

     However, Try and Decide is no more of a reason to consider the BlackArmor PS110 than is BlackArmor Backup. The question is whether you need to move large amounts of data from place to place regularly. If so, look at this drive as a hardware purchase; think of it as one with some top-notch software thrown in (along with some not-quite-as-useful software). Even without any software, the drive’s small size, excellent portability and very fast data transfer speeds would make it a worthwhile purchase for anyone who wants to transport and use data without carrying a laptop everywhere. Then add in the BlackArmor PS110’s ability to make full-system, data-only and incremental backups – in an environment as protected as you want it to be – and you have a very impressive, well-priced package that offers plenty of ways to keep you running while you are running hither and thither getting your work done.


Bernstein: Mass. Jubilant Sykes, baritone; Asher Edward Wulfman, boy soprano; Morgan State University Choir, Peabody Children’s Chorus and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Michael Daugherty: Fire and Blood; MotorCity Triptych; Raise the Roof. Ida Kavafian, violin; Ramón Parcells, trumpet; Kenneth Thompkins, Michael Becker and Randall Hawes, trombones; Brian Jones, timpani; Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Naxos. $8.99.

     Leonard Bernstein’s Mass has long since transcended its original strong identification with Washington, D.C., and in so doing has also grown beyond its subtitle: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. Bernstein was certainly seeking universality when he wrote this piece on commission from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971. That is why he used the Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass – sung in traditional Latin – as the basis for an emotional exploration of faith, and the challenges to it, in the modern world. In 32 sections that stretch through nearly two hours, Bernstein’s Mass starts in harmony, passes into doubt and uncertainty, climaxes in denial and sacrilege, then slowly rebuilds itself into an affirmation that allows the work to conclude with the traditional, “The Mass is ended; go in peace.” It is a remarkable emotional journey, and baritone Jubilant Sykes, as the Celebrant, goes through it – and takes listeners along – with both emotional fervor and a beautiful, wide-ranging vocal sound. Marin Alsop, a self-professed Bernstein protégé, clearly shares in the emotionalism and strong personal involvement to which this work invites all participants – performers and audience alike. She conducts with fervor and intensity, and the Baltimore Symphony and mostly young choral singers follow her with strength and flexibility, the orchestra’s brass being especially impressive. If there is one thing missing in Alsop’s performance, it is a genuine arc of experience from start to end – she tends to handle some individual sections as if they are largely independent of others, occasionally robbing the work of what can be an inexorable flow from belief to doubt and back again. However, the fervor with which Alsop approaches many sections, such as the Street Chorus’ questioning of the tenets of the Mass, brings heady excitement to the work, and makes this performance as a whole a highly effective one. It is the second excellent recording of Bernstein’s Mass to be released this year – Kristjan Järvi’s more thoughtful but somewhat less dramatic reading is available on Chandos – and that fact alone, the appearance in so short a time of two recordings so distinguished, confirms that this work has moved well beyond its original standing as an occasional piece.

     Michael Daugherty’s Detroit-focused works, however, still have a way to go before they attain anything approaching universality. Daugherty (born 1954) has a Jacqueline Onassis connection of sorts himself – his chamber opera, Jackie O, first heard in 1997 – but he is more closely tied to the state of Michigan, being Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance in Ann Arbor. Neeme Järvi, father of the conductor of the Chandos release of Bernstein’s Mass, brings considerable spirit and enthusiasm to three recent Daugherty works for soloists and orchestra. All these pieces give the Detroit Symphony Orchestra – with which Daugherty spent four years as composer-in-residence – quite a workout. Fire and Blood (2003) was inspired by the Depression-era murals of Diego Rivera and the emotional and physical suffering of Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo. This is effective and often flashy music, especially in the finale (“Assembly Line”), which moves with considerable speed and surrounds the solo violin with noises that resemble the sounds of Edgard Varèse. Ida Kavafian plows through all this as well as bringing heartfelt involvement to the work’s second movement, “River Rouge,” which follows an opening called “Volcano” that is intended as fiery but is a touch overdone. MotorCity Triptych (2000) is a showcase of Detroit music and of brass solos. “Motown Mondays” reflects, a bit wanly, the funk of mid-1960s Motown artists; “Pedal-to-the-Metal” and “Rosa Parks Boulevard,” which feature, respectively, trumpet and three trombones, pay tribute to Detroit as an automotive center and to the civil rights pioneer. The work as a whole is slick and effective, but the emotions it proffers are strictly surface-level. In some ways the most interesting piece on this CD is Raise the Roof (2003), composed for the opening of Detroit’s Max M. Fisher Music Center. Featuring some amazing timpani techniques, including glissandi and a cadenza, with Brian Jones playing at times with bare hands, maraca sticks or wire brushes, the work has a more-or-less variation structure featuring two themes, one introduced by tuba and the other by flutes. There is something superficial in all the Daugherty works here: they are serious music, to be sure, but there is little question that they are designed to be crowd-pleasers – especially in Detroit, to which all are tied. Still, crowd-pleasing music by contemporary composers remains something of a rarity, and Daugherty certainly does a bang-up job (literally so in Raise the Roof) in showing a few ways to make modern concert works appealing.

August 13, 2009


ACT or SAT? Choosing the Right Exam for You. By Josh Bornstein with Rebecca Lessem and the Staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Random House. $15.99.

Junie B.’s Essential Survival Guide to School. By Barbara Park. Random House. $12.99.

     No doubt about it: college testing is serious business, even though more and more colleges are saying it is not necessary for applicants to take the SAT or ACT. Not necessary, perhaps – but still highly desirable for most colleges and most high-school students. Even when the tests are not make-or-break elements of an application, they have extraordinary value for students themselves, showing their strengths and weaknesses in the sort of thinking that will be expected of them in college. They can help point students toward appropriate schools and even toward appropriate majors. The tests themselves may be standardized, but the ways students can use them are not. And different students will do better with different tests – which is where ACT or SAT? comes in. There are plenty of books and many tutoring facilities (including The Princeton Review, a prominent test-preparation service) that purport to tell students how to do better on these standardized tests, but this book’s focus is on which one to take. There are considerable similarities between the SAT (the older test, given since 1926) and the ACT (given since 1959), but there are also some significant and not-so-significant differences between them. The ACT has more questions but takes less time to do; the SAT deducts points for wrong answers, but the ACT does not, so it makes more sense to guess when taking the ACT; the ACT is often thought to be an easier test, but in fact some students find it harder than the SAT. To help students decide which test to take, ACT or SAT? gives mostly short true-or-false answers to common questions about each test, then presents sample questions from each test and analyzes what the questions are asking and how to think about answering them. Boxes called “Advice from a Princeton Review Instructor” are sprinkled throughout the book, sometimes giving valuable advice but often in effect simply saying of which test to choose, “It depends.” A section of the book called “What Is Your Test-Taking Personality?” is particularly interesting and potentially useful. It includes 15 questions with “A” or “B” answers; the scoring indicates which test you are likely to favor. For example, “You’d rather write an essay about: A) a book I’ve read or a historical event; B) my opinion on a controversial issue.” This is a clever way to help students decide how their preferences will steer them to the ACT or the SAT, although it is of course not foolproof. An even better guide takes up the second half of the book – more than half of it, in fact. This is the PRA, Princeton Review’s own assessment test, which includes material culled from both the SAT and the ACT – and has full explanations of answers afterwards. Because the PRA is essentially a “combination assessment,” it will be a tremendous help to students trying to figure out how their own learning and test-taking styles will likely lead them to do better on one of the standardized tests or the other. Gluttons for punishment will also want to read the book’s final section, “Paying for College 101,” which may be scarier than anything on either the ACT or the SAT.

     The scare factor is very different for much younger schoolchildren – say, first graders such as Barbara Park’s ever-popular Junie B. Jones. Junie B.’s Essential Survival Guide to School, Park’s first new Junie B. book in two years, is an informational work rather than a school adventure, but it bubbles over with typical Junie B. enthusiasm: “I have learned a jillion helpful hints that will help you SURVIVE at school. …I am going to pass this information on to Y-O-U!!! (Right in this EXACT BOOK, I mean!) I am a GEM for doing this.” Imagine the quotation in multiple colors, with capitals and small letters all mixed up, and with appropriate illustrations (“GEM” appears within a shining diamond), and you will get the full Junie B. flavor. But you won’t really get it without seeing the book itself. It is a spiral-bound, lie-flat book with nifty plastic front and back covers and plenty of appropriate chapter titles. Section 3, for example, is “Getting Bossed Around (Some of the bossy bosses who will boss you.)” Included are not only the principal but also the janitor (“boss of keys”), the nurse (“boss of sick kids”), teachers, and even “the boss of cookies.” Section 4 is “Getting in Trouble,” a subject in which Junie B. is an expert; but she is also pretty good at this section’s subtitle: “Plus how to stay out of it!” Here you will find “Names you should not call people – probably” and “Dumb school rules” and “More rules I didn’t know about until I actually got notes sent home,” one of which is, “Do NOT grit your teeth and make a GRR sound at your neighbor.” Junie B.’s personality comes through clearly on every page of this offbeat book, and Park manages to use her character’s unending enthusiasm to communicate some important school-related advice (“Do NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT peek at your neighbor’s test paper”) in part by juxtaposing it with silliness (“Do NOT eat a ham sandwich during science. [This one seems unreasonable to me.]”). Junie B.’s Essential Survival Guide to School may not be absolutely essential, but for all Junie B. fans, it will be a must-have – and it is so much fun both to read and to look at that it just might bring Park’s character a batch of new fans, too.


The Argyle Sweater. By Scott Hilburn. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Dogs Don’t Brush Their Teeth! By Diane deGroat and Shelley Rotner. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $14.99.

     Was Peter Pan the boy who wouldn’t grow up, or was it Scott Hilburn? Hilburn’s single-panel comic, The Argyle Sweater, often comes across as humor in an arrested-development vein. The cover of the first collection, for example, shows two frontiersmen wearing animal-tail hats sitting at a bar – and, on the next bar stool, a bear wearing a hat made of human buttocks. Juvenile, but funny. Hilburn has a thing about bears and buttocks, actually. Another of his panels has two bears about to break into a beehive, warning a third bear not to touch the next tree’s “hiney bees” – whose “hive” is a roll of toilet paper. A little of this sort of thing goes a long way, but thankfully, there is more to The Argyle Sweater than buttocks humor. One super-crowded panel shows two cowboys drawn so large that they barely fit into the square – and one of them is saying, “All right, Hutchins – this ’toon aint big enough for the both of us!” Another panel has the Loch Ness monster showing off his photo album, but being unsure whether the pictures are of him or of floating logs. Then there are the two snake construction workers checking out a female snake slithering by and commenting, “Nice asp.” And the man who takes his dog to the vet because it has three tails, only to be told “that’s just the international cartoon symbol for movement.” And the elevator full of porcupines inviting one more passenger to come in – but the hapless invitee is a balloon animal. And Captain Kirk discovering that Spock’s famous hand sign actually translates as “die soon and suffer.” And plenty of panels reinterpreting children’s stories and fairy tales, everything from “The Three Little Pigs” (a recurring theme) to Disney’s version of “Snow White” (Hilburn has Doc under arrest for prescribing medications for the other dwarfs without a license). Hilburn’s cartoon got its start on the Internet and has some of the edginess of the electronic medium along with some of its tastelessness. On balance, The Argyle Sweater is more than funny enough on its good days to make up for its occasional misfires. And it takes a certain kind of delightfully twisted mind to change the old patient-on-a-psychiatrist’s-couch setup to one featuring “Puff, the manic dragon,” complaining that “I’m up, I’m down…I just can’t seem to get control of my emotions.”

     Dogs Don’t Brush Their Teeth! is intended for kids rather than (ostensible) grownups, but one wonders whether Diane deGroat and Shelley Rotner are themselves, at heart, women who never quite outgrew being mischievous little girls. That would explain the many foldouts in this book, whose text consists entirely of “Dogs do” contrasted with “Dogs don’t.” For example, “do” shows a dog with a stick in its mouth; lift the flap, and “don’t” shows one with a different kind of stick – a baseball bat – grasped in its paws. “Do” shows a dog mouthing a tennis ball; open the flap and “don’t” shows the same pup playing the game. “Do” shows a dog carrying a puppy in its mouth; “don’t” shows the puppy being pushed in a baby carriage. “Do” shows howling at the moon; “don’t” shows enthusiastic keyboard playing in a band. The entire book uses photo illustrations, not drawings or cartoons, and that is a big part of the fun: the “do” pictures show real dogs doing things that dogs actually do, while the “don’t” ones show the same dogs doing impossible things in impossible poses. There are a few non-foldout pages, too, such as one in which “do” shows a dog riding with head out the car window and “don’t” shows the dog driving the car. And there is even one bit of mild bathroom humor, with “do” showing a dog squatting in the street and “don’t” showing the same dog in the same position on a toilet in the house. Diane and Shelley, meet Scott. Maybe you can all avoid growing up together.


Rapacia: The Second Circle of Heck. By Dale E. Basye. Random House. $16.99.

Magic Can Be Murder. By Vivian Vande Velde. Graphia. $6.99.

     Dale E. Basye still can’t quite get his hands around what is basically a wonderful concept: Heck, a place not quite as dismal as “h-e-double-hockey-sticks,” as Satan’s darker realm is referred to, but certainly not at all heavenly – except that there is some commerce, it turns out, between Heck and Heaven. In fact, in Rapacia, there is literally commerce between the realms, as the Galactic Order Department (GOD) supplies goods for Mallvana, an eternal-shopping-spree-come-true for both good souls (who sprout tiny wings that eventually grow) and bad ones. If this sounds confusing, it is only one off-balance element of Basye’s second novel, which follows Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go as a further exploration of the not-quite-ultimately-awful afterlife. Basye can’t seem to make up his mind whether he is writing a romp or a story with serious undertones. In the first book, 11-year-old Milton Fauster – who doesn’t really belong in Heck – ends up there anyway because of a hinted-at plot involving the forces of goodness. Will he escape? No one ever has. But he does. However, in Rapacia, the movement between Heck and earthly life has become a lot more frequent: Milton ends up returning to Heck and another character – the evil bully Damian Ruffino – ends up back on Earth. So much for consistency. Rapacia also features a weird “vice principal” – supposed assistant to Bea “Elsa” Bubb – called the Grabbit, a metal creature that speaks in rhymes and has powers of which even Lucifer isn’t quite sure. The Grabbit is somehow connected with a virtual performer named Yojuanna B. Covetta who at one point seems central to the plot but then eventually just disappears (and Basye seems to forget about Milton by the end of the book, too). Oh yes, the plot: much of it revolves around Milton’s kleptomaniac sister, 13-year-old Marlo, who does belong in Heck but who morphs from bad girl to sort-of-heroic bad girl in the course of the novel. Basye tosses around some amusing puns (one store is called “Halo/Good Buy,” and Milton – while on Earth – visits the Paranor Mall); and some of the scenes, such as one in which Milton is disguised as a stick of butter, are hilarious. Basye also includes grotesquely distorted historical characters as “teachers” in Heck. Alice Ivers Tubbs, perhaps the best known woman poker player in the Old West, is known as “Poker Alice” in legend and in the book, and Basye makes her a great deal more unpleasant than she was in real life. Fredericka "Marm" Mandelbaum was no angel – she was a famed criminal fence in 19th-century New York, who eventually escaped to Canada with a million dollars – but Basye makes her simply unpleasant. He is gentler in his treatment of Grace O’Malley (real name: Gráinne Ní Mháille), a famed Irish noble who once met Queen Elizabeth I (they spoke to each other in Latin) – but he still portrays her as a pirate whose speech is rather illiterate. Of course, Basye does not tell readers that some of his characters are distortions of real people, and few grown-ups will have any knowledge of the historical figures on whom those three teachers are based; but adults will at least realize that Heck’s competing poets, Byron and Keats, have real-world counterparts. In any case, Rapacia – intended for ages 9-12 – is something of a mishmash, as if Basye throws lots of little bits of plot at the page and follows this bit through while abandoning that bit and halfheartedly handling that other one. Maybe he intends to resolve some of what is left hanging in Rapacia in his planned next book about Heck, Blimpo. It would be nice if he brought more focus and organization to that book to balance the madcap elements that he already does so well.

     There is nothing amusing in Magic Can Be Murder, one of prolific author Vivian Vande Velde’s many explorations of the outré. Originally published in 2000 and now available in paperback, it is the story of mother and teenage-daughter witches who spend all their time moving from town to town, doing odd jobs, because they fear being exposed as magic practitioners and burned at the stake if they spend too much time in one place. The problem is that the mother, Mary, draws constant attention to herself through her apparent insanity, which involves (among other things) talking constantly to her daughter’s dead father and grandma, and an abbot, and a Mother Superior, and someone called King Fenuku, all of whom live in her head – and also talking to a baby that lives in her finger. This is more than an embarrassment to 17-year-old daughter Nola: it is an immensely heightened risk. Besides, neither Nola nor her mother really does much magic – the one spell they perform (repeatedly) is a sort of “far-seeing,” dropping someone’s hair in water and thus being able to see what that person is doing, no matter how far away he or she is. It is in one such far-seeing episode that Nola witnesses a murder, which she fears will be blamed on her and her mother – not a very rational fear in terms of the plot, but then, very few of Nola’s actions are entirely rational. And that is the problem with the book: readers are supposed to like Nola and will want to like her, but in many ways this teenager seems no more mature than she was at age five – her age when we first meet her. Nola makes mistake after mistake, repeatedly choosing the wrong course of action, and pulling apparently innocent people into trouble as a result. Vande Velde eventually shows that some of those people are only apparently innocent, and makes sure to give the bad characters their just deserts. But the way she does this – and arranges a very happy ending indeed for Nola and Mary – is just too contrived. And Vande Velde is less careful with plot here than she usually is. For example, she makes it clear that Mary’s outbursts are nearly constant and that the woman can barely take care of herself without Nola’s aid – but when Nola is forced apart from her mother for many days by the circumstances of the story, Mary gets along just fine and actually helps produce the happy ending. Magic Can Be Murder is an enjoyable bit of light reading, and Vande Velde’s pacing is as expert as ever, but this is scarcely one of the author’s more magically satisfying offerings.


Bruckner: Symphony No. 3. Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).

Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 15. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

     The 19th century was a time of tremendous expansion of symphonic form – and also a time in which elements of that form were applied to small-scale works. Certainly symphonies never grew more monumental than those of Bruckner, whose No. 3 in D minor contains a variety of quotations from Richard Wagner’s operas and is often called the “Wagner Symphony” (Bruckner dedicated it, almost fawningly, to Wagner, whom he idolized). Running more than an hour, this symphony significantly exceeded in length and complexity any of Bruckner’s four previous ones (the first two are numbered “00” and “0”). Because of the work’s length and difficulty, it was subjected to a number of cuts and revisions over time; its original 1873 version was not performed in the composer’s lifetime. But that version – the one played by the Bamberg Symphony under Jonathan Nott in a wonderful new SACD of a 2003 recording – is far superior to the truncated later ones through which listeners first got to know this grandly impressive work. Bruckner was an organist, and organists must deal with certain physical necessities of their instrument, such as pauses while changing registers. Bruckner carried this limitation into his symphonies and made it a characteristic: themes build to resounding climaxes but then stop just short of them, or just afterwards, and the music resumes in a very different mode – which Bruckner eventually connects to what has gone before. Trimmed versions of Symphony No. 3 dropped or glossed over these pauses, and also eliminated some of its quotations from Wagner, resulting in a shorter, more conventional work. Nott shows how much more effective the original 1873 version can be – it is tempting to say that he “pulls out all the stops” (a term from organ playing), but that is not quite it: Nott does build the music to gigantic climaxes, abetted by Tudor’s outstanding sound reproduction, but he also pays close attention to details of the scoring, bringing out a trumpet flourish here, a woodwind detail there, a passage in middle strings elsewhere, showing with gorgeous clarity just how Bruckner builds this towering orchestral edifice. It is only in the symphony’s shortest movement, the scherzo, that Nott’s interpretation falls a bit short: Bruckner clearly marks this movement Ziemlich schnell (“quite fast”), but Nott has it meandering rather than rushing. This does allow inner voices and other details to come through clearly, but at the expense of forward momentum – which, however, returns with a very brisk opening of the complex finale. Overall, this is a knowing, attentive, very well-played Bruckner Third that clearly shows the superiority of the composer’s original version over all the later revisions.

     While Bruckner expanded the form of the symphony, Johann Strauss Jr. and his brother Josef incorporated symphonic structure and harmonies into the pleasantries of dance music, turning many of their waltzes into miniature tone poems. In this approach, they expanded on the work of their father, Johann Sr., eight of whose works from the early 1840s are offered on the 15th CD in Marco Polo’s collection of Strauss Sr.’s music. There are five waltzes here, two quadrilles and a march, all of them redolent of Biedermeier Vienna and all of them tied to specific people or events – an approach that cemented Strauss Sr.’s popularity but from which Johann Jr. and Josef increasingly diverged. The two quadrilles – their names translate as High Society and Season-Quadrille – are particularly pleasant divertissements, the former written in 1842 in honor of Emperor Ferdinand I and the latter presented in 1843 and incorporating excerpts from works by three famous virtuosi of the time: violinist Henri Vieuxtemps and pianists Karl Evers and Theodor Kullak. Parade March, also from 1843, is a brief and bright work. As for the waltzes, all are of high quality and filled with Straussian lilt. Minnesinger includes borrowings from the works of then-popular cello virtuoso Adrien-François Servais; Latonen is named for the Roman goddess of night and secrets and was written for a nighttime ball; Strains of Minos, dedicated to law students, has lovely flow, as does The Strollers, which was written for a benefit concert; and Valhalla-Toasts, written for a building named for the Germanic kingdom of the dead, is both stately and very melodious. This music is one of the specialties of the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina, and Christian Pollack is an expert at plumbing what depths there are while letting the melodies flow freely and the rhythms entrance the listener – something they still do more than 160 years after these works were first heard.