September 24, 2009


Applesauce Season. By Eden Ross Lipson. Illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein. Roaring Brook Press. $17.99.

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story adapted by Wren Maysen. Illustrations by Gail de Marcken. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $18.99.

     In early fall, when kids are just adjusting to the rhythm of a new school year but the weather has not yet turned nippy, when the days seem to get shorter with increasing rapidity (although, in fact, they have been getting shorter since the first day of summer), when thoughts are just starting to turn from swimming and beaches and shorts and flip-flops to pumpkins and Halloween – this is Applesauce Season. Eden Ross Lipson, children’s book editor of The New York Times from 1984 to 2005, has left behind a wonderful story of apples, applesauce and family traditions – “left behind” because Lipson died of pancreatic cancer in May. This lovely book is all about the different types of apples available to city dwellers: “There are no apple trees, but there are farmers’ markets where there are lots of apples,” says the boy narrator. And then kids ages 4-8 learn all about making applesauce, watching as Mom cuts apples into quarters while Grandma cuts them into sixths (“I don’t know why”); discover the many different types of apples, and how using them changes the flavor of the applesauce; and find out about cinnamon sugar and other additives – a bit of butter, a touch of salt. And when the homemade treat is done, “We eat applesauce plain, or with ice cream, or cottage cheese, or gingerbread, or cookies, or sliced bananas.” And as autumn moves toward winter and the apple varieties change, “the color and the thickness and the taste of the sauce changes every single week,” all the way to Thanksgiving and afterwards – and all the way to an applesauce recipe at the end of the book. Applesauce Season is a simply delightful (and delicious) story – but Lipson’s words are not enough to make it so good. Mordicai Gerstein’s homey, charming illustrations add a great deal to what is already a wonderful book – especially on the inside front and back covers, which show 24 illustrations of different kinds of apples and, drawn the same size and in similar style, the boy narrator’s face and those of his family members. Yum.

     Autumnal stories point toward winter, and few tales are more associated with the season of cold and Christmas than The Nutcracker. But very few readers today know the real story of The Nutcracker, as it was written by E.T.A. Hoffmann nearly 200 years ago. Hoffmann wrote scary, fairy-tale-like stories, and they were intended for adults, not children, so it is no surprise that his Nutcracker tale was Bowdlerized in the 19th century and became best known in the utterly delightful but (by comparison) very juvenile version used by Tchaikovsky as the basis of his Nutcracker ballet. Really, there are two Nutcracker stories – the one practically everyone knows, which has its own place in seasonal celebrations, and the one Hoffmann wrote, which uses the Christmas season simply as a device to tell a tale of love, loss, cruelty and hope. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is a real rarity: a children’s version of the original Hoffmann story. Wren Maysen has toned it down and rearranged the events, and Gail de Marcken’s excellent illustrations are far too opulent to communicate the frightening aspects of the tale in more than a gauzy, distant way. But still, this book restores some of the power of what Hoffmann wrote – and some of the mystery – and the happy ending (a fairy-tale wedding, not a little girl awakening from a lovely dream). As Maysen and de Marcken re-create the story, it starts with the familiar Christmas scenes, the gifts, the wonders of Godfather Drosselmeier’s mechanical creations, and the affection Marie holds for her Nutcracker even after her brother, Fritz, breaks it. And so it goes, through the battle between the Nutcracker and his toy troops and the mice, led by the Mouse King – shown with seven heads, as Hoffmann intended, although the heads are more cute than scary here. But after the battle, things get really interesting, as Drosselmeier recounts the story of how the Nutcracker came to be a nutcracker, which is the tale of a gorgeous princess named Pirlipat, the demanding Dame Mouserink, and a hard nut called Crackatook. Kids and adults alike will marvel at the depths of this story, which has far more to it than the simplified version of The Nutcracker. Yes, there is a journey to Sweetmeatburgh in the land that the Nutcracker rules, but this is no mere diversion, for it is part of a growing-up story that eventually brings the real-world prince – a relative of none other than Drosselmeier – before a more-mature Marie, who becomes his bride. It is a marvelous story that need not displace the more-familiar The Nutcracker but that surely deserves to be known just as well. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King does Hoffmann proud – and makes Christmas, or any season, a little more wonderful and wonder-filled.

(++++) GET GOING!

Watch Me Go! Text by Rebecca Young. Illustrations by Von Glitschka. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $12.99.

Move! By Steve Jenkins & Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Star Wars: Spaceships. Lucas Books/Scholastic. $7.99.

     Von Glitschka’s amazing lenticular animation – a process that makes still pictures appear to move realistically – gets better all the time. His previous collaboration with Rebecca Young – Watch Me Hop! – showed animals in motion. Now he has moved on to machines in Watch Me Go! And the results are fascinating. There are just eight illustrations in the new book – the lenticular-animation process is expensive and requires double-thick pages – but each is amazing to see again and again. A dump truck pours its load at a construction site; a race car speeds around the track, appearing to get closer to the reader as the page is moved; a diesel-engine train also moves closer, its headlight seeming to shine right into the reader’s eyes; a fire engine raises its ladder to help put out a blaze. Young’s text is very simple, suitable for the youngest readers or for parents reading to toddlers: “I’m a digger. My treads go around. Watch me GO move the ground!” But the illustrations are the big attraction here – parents should expect kids to ask how they can possibly move like that, and will probably have the same question themselves.

     A similar but less sophisticated movement effect adorns the cover of Move! A rabbit seems to leap from left to right, pushing the “M” of the title off toward the left as a result. This is cute, but it is not the main point of this book, which focuses more on text than pictures and has more to do with education than with the sheer wonder of illustrations. In fact, except for the cover, Move! is illustrated simply with collages of cut and torn paper. The pictures show animals that move in different ways – and the text connects each animal to the next. A gibbon swings, for example – and also walks on its back legs. Next, a bird called a lily trotter walks on floating lily pads – and then dives to catch a fish. After this, a blue whale makes a deep dive – and swims in the ocean depths. Through the illustrations and the brief interconnected comments, Steve Jenkins and Robin Page give behavioral information on animals from the roadrunner to the jumping spider to the penguin – and suggest, at the end, that human children can move in all the ways that these animals do. That is an interesting observation and a fine conclusion to a book that is thoughtful as well as clever.

     Star Wars: Spaceships is not quite at the level of the other books – it gets a (+++) rating – but it certainly has plenty of (implied) movement. There is actually a spaceship in Watch Me Go! – a real-world design – but Star Wars: Spaceships is a board book devoted entirely to fantasy. Every page has lovingly rendered versions of ships from the Star Wars universe, including the Millennium Falcon, TIE fighter, X-Wing and more. And every page contains a comic-book-style action word: “Zoom!” “Zip!” “Zap!” “Boom!” The motion here is implied, as is the action; clearly, the book is aimed at young fans of George Lucas’ Star Wars films. For them, it will be fun for a while. But they are more likely to tire of it quickly than to become bored with books that present motion in more interesting ways or use it as a basis for some gentle education.


Babymouse #11: Dragonslayer. By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. Random House. $5.99.

Piper Reed Gets a Job. By Kimberly Willis Holt. Illustrated by Christine Davenier. Christy Ottaviano Books. $14.99.

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Practicing the Piano (but she does love being in recitals). By Peggy Gifford. Photographs by Valorie Fisher. Schwartz & Wade. $12.99.

     Girls ages 7-11 have plenty of literary role models to emulate – or choose not to emulate – these days, whether a reader’s tastes run more to comics and graphic novels or to old-fashioned tales told primarily in prose. The Babymouse series is now at its 11th volume, if these small books can be called “volumes,” and Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm (who are sister and brother) have settled into a pleasant familiarity with the title character and her world. It is a world in which fantasy and reality repeatedly intersect, usually in amusingly unsettling ways. And it is a world in which the narrative voice, typical in comics and graphic novels, takes part in the story, as when Babymouse proclaims that her latest adventure is destined “for glory! For everlasting greatness!” – and a line beneath the panel says, “Yeah, good luck with that, Babymouse.” The story in Dragonslayer is a little weaker than most in this series: Babymouse is doing so badly in math that her teacher assigns her to join the “Mathletes,” math whizzes who are about to compete in a tournament. In the real world, that just doesn’t happen – math teams and math competitors are always drawn from top students in the subject, not ones who get an F-. Even in Babymouse’s “real” world, this is a stretch. Of course, fans know Babymouse will eventually come out on top, and that is exactly what happens, with the usual forays into fantasy – here, skewed versions of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Lord of the Rings. The eventual Math Olympics – where the prize is, of all things, the “Golden Slide Rule,” or “regula calculanda aurea,” as its pedestal says (which is poor Latin but suitably impressive to Babymouse) – is only moderately amusing, but Babymouse lovers will no doubt be delighted as she once again saves the day (and her math team).

     Piper Reed’s “team,” so to speak, is the Gypsy Club, and in the third Piper Reed novel, the sweet-but-saucy fifth-grader starts a party-planning business to raise money so the Gypsy Club can get its own clubhouse. This sounds like a plot out of 1950s television, which it pretty much is. Kimberly Willis Holt’s stories are nothing if not wholesome, with the biggest issues for Piper and her two sisters involving whether a neighbor should pay double or triple if Tori babysits her triplets, and whether Samantha (Sam) can call herself an author if she is writing but has not had anything published. In addition to trying to raise money for her club, Piper has to do a research paper on Cyrus McCormick, who invented the reaper to cut grain: “Maybe Cyrus McCormick was like spinach. Maybe knowing about him was good for you.” Piper, as usual, soon finds herself overwhelmed, between doing illustrations for Sam’s book and the need to do her own homework – plus babysitting, party planning and more. Everything becomes a big mess, and Piper learns the inevitable lesson, “It’s better to do one job well than three jobs poorly.” Piper will bounce back, of course, and she and the other Gypsy Club members are already looking forward to more adventures at the book’s end. Piper seems a bit like an updated Eleanor Estes character – although Christine Davenier’s illustrations, old-fashioned though they are, don’t look much like those of the Moffats. Piper has a certain not-quite-up-to-date charm that comes through even when she uses Post-It notes and does research on the Internet.

     Moxy Maxwell has charm, too, and also has a little more inherent mischievousness than does Piper. Moxy does not love writing thank-you notes and does not love Stuart Little, as we know from titles of Peggy Gifford’s previous Moxy books. The neat thing about the Moxy books is that you can figure out almost everything that happens by just reading the chapter titles: “What Mrs. Maxwell Really Said Next or The Amazing Mind of a Tired Mother Who Is Not Too Tired to Focus.” “In Which Moxy Tries to Remember Where She Put the Note.” “In Which the Word ‘Intermission’ Is Explained.” “In Which ‘Heart and Soul’ Begins and Ends.” And so on – and on and on. It’s a good thing the chapter titles are so useful, because they are often nearly as long as the chapters themselves (86 chapters in 175 pages – wow!). The plot here focuses on Moxy’s upcoming piano recital, during which she plans to wear a crown and for which she is making fake ermine trim for her cape (one of many matters shown in Valorie Fisher’s photo illustrations). Moxy has also practiced her bow – a lot. What she hasn’t practiced is the piece she is supposed to play. The typesetting can be as much fun here as the narrative. Chapter 49, “The Part of the Story in Which Mrs. Maxwell Begins to Climb Slooooowly Up the Stairs to Find Out Why Moxy Hasn’t Started the Big Dress Rehearsal,” for example, offers the word “slowly” with a nearly uncountable number of “o’s” (all right, there are 129 of them) and then has the words “by step” repeated, stepwise, up the next page. Eventually, after a bout of stage fright and the timely intercession of Aunt Susan Standish, a self-proclaimed Mistake Expert, everything works out just fine – of course. Moxy’s adventures are a little too frantic and a touch too contrived for all tastes, but she is certainly spunky enough – and amusingly self-involved enough – to build an ever-growing fan base.


The Ames Piano Quartet, 1989-2009: Piano Quartets by Dvořák, Fauré, Richard Strauss, Charles-Marie Widor, Schumann, Brahms, Paul Juon, Sergei Taneyev, Borodin, Joseph Suk, Vitězslav Novák, Martinů, Chausson and Saint-Saëns. Mahlon Darlington, violin; Lawrence Bulkhalter and Jonathan Sturm, viola; George Work, cello; William David, piano. Dorian Sono Luminus. $49.99 (8 CDs).

     It would be unfair to characterize string quartets as a dime a dozen, especially in light of the cost of the instruments they play. But they are certainly common – in contrast to piano quartets, which are not common at all. Playing the great piano-quartet literature usually means adding a pianist to an existing trio or removing a violinist from an existing string quartet and inserting a piano player. The results can be quite wonderful, but they are not to be compared with what happens when a piano quartet is formed specifically as a piano quartet and plays together, time after time, year after year. When that happens – which, again, it rarely does – the music-making can be truly special, as it is in this wonderful 20-year retrospective of recordings by the Ames Piano Quartet.

     The Ames is the resident chamber-music ensemble at Iowa State University – located in Ames, Iowa; hence the quartet’s name. The players have been together for many years: Jonathan Sturm recently assumed the viola role previously held by Lawrence Bulkhalter, but violinist Mahlon Darlington, cellist George Work and pianist William David have been together through the entire 20-year time span covered by this new release. Unfortunately, Dorian Sono Luminus does not give dates for the recordings, but in fact they are more or less chronological through the first seven CDs, the disc of Dvořák’s two piano quartets being the oldest and that of quartets by Suk, Novák and Martinů the most recent. The eighth CD belongs somewhere in the middle of the pack: it was originally released by Musical Heritage Society and here appears on the Dorian Sono Luminus label for the first time.

     In fact, it was already true in 1989 that the Ames Piano Quartet offered wonderfully well integrated sound and thoughtful, perceptive interpretations: its Dvořák CD is a highlight of the set and one of the best recordings these quartets have ever received. The rather sunny Dvořák works (from 1875 and 1889, respectively) contrast interestingly with the two minor-key piano quartets by Fauré on the next CD. Fauré was fond of modal music, using the Aeolian mode in his first piano quartet (1876-9) and the Phrygian in his second (1885-6). Fauré’s unusual technique of recombining themes in different contexts (in terms of harmony and texture) is especially well brought out by the Ames players. In their hands, these quartets sing beautifully.

     Less well known are the piano quartets of Richard Strauss and Charles-Marie Widor, on the third CD in this set. Strauss wrote his at age 20. It is a well-made work but not highly distinctive except insofar as it looks ahead to other Strauss works, notably in the dramatic Scherzo and in a violin passage that anticipates Till Eulenspiegel. Widor, best known for his organ music, wrote a rather Liszt-influenced quartet with a prominent piano part and a modal element akin to Fauré’s: Widor’s quartet’s finale features a theme in Lydian mode. The Ames Piano Quartet handles these two lesser works with the same attention to style and detail that it gives to more-accomplished pieces, making as good a case for the music as is likely to be made by anyone.

     The fourth and fifth CDs in this release return to music of stellar quality: Schumann’s sole piano quartet and the three by Brahms. Here the Ames players are simply wonderful. Schumann’s Piano Quartet strongly contrasts staccato with legato passages and, in the Scherzo, sounds a bit like Mendelssohn, who was a friend and mentor to Schumann. There is also songlike beauty here, in the slow movement, and the Ames players truly make it sing. In Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 (in G minor), the performers give as much care and attention to the first three movements as to the famous concluding Gypsy rondo, making the work sound more intense and unified than it sometimes does. In Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 2 (in A), the passion and songfulness flow freely, and the finale emerges with some of the same intensity as the Gypsy rondo of the earlier quartet. The composer’s third quartet (in C minor) can be problematic: it was started before either of the other two (and was originally in C-sharp minor); but it was finished later, and there is some confusion about how Brahms worked it into final form. That sort of thing is academic, though, when the Ames players offer such a finely honed reading of the work, whose first two movements are intense and stormy but whose third offers placidity and peace before a finale of pervasive melancholy, if not quite tragedy. The shifting moods of the music require just the sort of careful attention to detail that the Ames Piano Quartet provides.

     Less-familiar music returns in the sixth CD of this set. Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) was the teacher of Paul Juon (1872-1940). Taneyev’s work clearly reflects the language of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, and Juon carries a similar approach into the following compositional generation. But as it happens, both these composers’ piano quartets date to the same year, 1906. Taneyev’s offers soaring melodies and some very effective contrapuntal passages; Juon’s gives the cello special prominence and is filled with passion expressed in a rather free style – in fact, Juon called his work Rhapsody rather than a piano quartet, and the term is apt. This CD is filled out what a piano-quartet arrangement by Geoffrey Wilcken of Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances from Prince Igor. These wonderful dances – intended for full orchestra and chorus – have survived all sorts of arrangements and survive this one, too. The players do their usual fine job here, but the arrangement adds nothing to the music.

     The seventh CD here includes three Czech piano quartets, none of them particularly well known (although Josef Suk’s remains popular among Czech players). Suk’s piece (in A minor) is his Op. 1, and it has the passion and confidence of a youthful composer who wrote it on assignment from his teacher, who was none other than Dvořák. It actually became Suk’s graduation piece from the Prague Conservatory – on Dvořák’s recommendation. This quartet retains freshness and songfulness and has an especially lovely central Adagio. As for Vitězslav Novák, he was one of Suk’s classmates. His sole Piano Quartet (in C minor) was written in 1894, three years after Suk’s quartet, and thoroughly revised in 1899. Its highlight is a bright, charming central movement with the unusual but apt designation of Scherzino. The Suk and Novák quartets are in considerable contrast to the one written by Bohuslav Martinů in 1942. It opens with a nervous, energetic, piano-centered movement that stands in strong contrast to the lyricism of the following Adagio, in the first half of which the piano is silent. The finale flows with determined cheerfulness that the Ames performers bring out with verve.

     The last CD in this set returns to the Romantic era. Chausson’s Piano Quartet is a somewhat derivative work – themes and harmonies clearly reflect the influence of Wagner – but it has warmth and songlike charm aplenty (and yet another use of modes, with Phrygian and Mixolydian variants appearing in several of the work’s four movements). This is a pleasant work but not an altogether convincing one, even when played as well as it is here. The quartet by Saint-Saëns, though, is a joy. A well-unified four-movement work whose first movement’s themes return in the finale, it includes impressive contrapuntal writing in an Andante maestoso ma con moto and has a strange, rhythmically jerky sort-of-scherzo that leaves an impression not unlike that of the composer’s Danse macabre – which was written in 1874, just a year before this quartet.

     There are nine-and-a-half hours of piano-quartet music in this marvelous set – far too much for a single hearing, or several. This release is a delectation, an immersion in the extensive literature of a musical combination that has sonorities and emotional impact all its own. The playing is exemplary, the music ranges from the interesting to the great, and the set as a whole is a grand and lasting tribute to the skill and intelligence of the members of the Ames Piano Quartet.


Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 11: Piano Concerto No. 5; Choral Fantasia. Idil Biret, piano. Turkish State Polyphonic Chorus and Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. IBA. $8.99.

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volumes 14-15: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 9 (Liszt Piano Transcriptions). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Idil Biret Concerto Edition, Volume 3: Saint-Saëns—Piano Concerto No. 5; Ravel: Piano Concerto in G; Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand. Idil Biret, piano. Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jean Fournet. IBA. $8.99.

     It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with the multitude of Idil Biret Archives releases of the Turkish pianist’s diverse and impressive recordings, both old and new. The Beethoven Edition CDs are really three series in one: the concertos, the sonatas and the Liszt transcriptions of the symphonies. And the Beethoven concerto sub-series is not to be confused with the Concerto Edition, which includes works by composers other than Beethoven. The Beethoven Edition itself is due to have 19 volumes, but Volume 12 has not yet been released – although 13 through 15 have. And the various recordings showcase Biret, who was born in 1941, at very different times in her career. The three latest IBA releases include works recorded just last year (Volume 11); ones recorded in 1986 (Volumes 14-15); and, in Volume 3 of the Concerto Edition, a Saint-Saëns performance from 1999, a Ravel G Major from 1998 and a Ravel Left-Hand Concerto from 1996.

     What makes this confusion worth wading through are the artist at its center and the intellectual as well as emotional stimulation of hearing her highly organized, carefully structured approach to all this music – an approach that has remained remarkably consistent through the decades. Biret’s formidable technical skill is always placed at the service of carefully analyzed, fully thought-through interpretations that frequently show familiar works in a new light. This is not to say that her readings will be to all tastes. Quite the contrary: her latest CD of Liszt transcriptions, for example, can actually be difficult to endure, played at what is often so grindingly slow a pace that the Ninth – the transcription over which Liszt labored longest and with the most misgivings – lasts almost an hour and a half, putting it at or beyond nearly all the symphonies by Mahler. In fact, the finale – which runs 32 minutes here – lasts nearly as long as Mahler’s longest single symphonic movement (the first movement of his Third Symphony). This is not Beethoven for every listener and probably not even for most – it is Beethoven for committed musicians who really want to understand the underlying skeletal framework of the composer’s final symphony, hear in great detail how the harmonies are built, how the themes relate to each other, how the careful choice of key structure seems to make the use of a chorus in the finale inevitable – a fascinating realization since, of course, there is no chorus in Liszt’s transcription. This is not at all an accessible performance, but it is one of great depth and intellectual rigor.

     Similarly, Biret keeps things slow and stately for the “Pastoral” symphony: she certainly has the power needed to bring forth the fourth-movement thunderstorm, but she seems more comfortable dissecting the second movement, “Scene by the Brook,” with such care that the usually flowing water seems positively stagnant. Biret pulls apart this music with tremendous care and understanding, but in so doing loses the forward momentum of the symphony as a whole. It is easier to appreciate this performance than to love it – but it is hard not to consider it revelatory.

     Things are more straightforward in the “Emperor” concerto and Choral Fantasia. Biret prefers deliberate tempos here, too, but not to an inordinate extent. This “Emperor” has genuine majesty, with an especially expansive first movement that marches from start to finish with firmness and dignity. The magisterial approach continues through the second and third movements as well, with Antoni Wit and the Bilkent Symphony providing workmanlike support that keeps the focus on Biret while placing her dominance in a suitable context. In the Choral Fantasia, Biret is a touch too cool and controlled in the opening, extended piano solo, which works better if it sounds more improvisatory than it does here: her phrasing and rhythm are excellent, but what is missing is a sense of abandon (the whole piece was written as an extended encore to a famous and very lengthy 1808 concert). Still, Biret’s control and ever-present understanding of the music are apparent and attractive, and the choral and orchestral sections complement her solo work very nicely indeed – leading to a rousing conclusion.

     Biret offers fine if somewhat undistinguished readings of the three French concertos on the latest Concerto Edition CD. Saint-Saëns’ final piano concerto, known as the “Egyptian” because the composer wrote it in Luxor and it reflects his impressions of Egypt and other areas to which he traveled, has stateliness and sweep in this performance, although the second movement, marked Andante, is a very slow-paced walk indeed. Biret does some particularly nice work with the jazzy finale – a rather forward-looking movement for 1896, especially considering the composer’s reputation as a conservative musical thinker. In Ravel’s G Major concerto, which dates to 1931, Biret pays close attention to the expressivity and nuances of the score but becomes a trifle too enmeshed in detail to present an effective overarching concept. However, her top-notch technique stands her in good stead in the Presto finale. In the Concerto for the Left Hand, written in the same year, Biret’s intelligent and slightly cool approach brings out the score’s intricacies to fine effect, and the Bilkent Orchestra under Jean Fournet plays with understanding and a good sense of style – as it does in all three of these works.

September 17, 2009


Once Upon a Twice. By Denise Doyen. Illustrated by Barry Moser. Random House. $16.99.

The 39 Clues, Book 5: The Black Circle. By Patrick Carman. Scholastic. $12.99.

     It is rare for a children’s book to succeed based almost solely on its style, without regard to its underlying story – and Once Upon a Twice is a rare book indeed. The plot of this book for ages 4-7 is nothing much: an age-appropriate warning given by older mice to young ones to be careful what they do so they can avoid danger. But the telling of the tale is simply marvelous. Denise Doyen turns and twists language every which way to create a book that almost has to be read aloud – and that is even better when spoken than when read silently. “They runtunnel through the riddle— Secret ruts hid inbetwiddle— But one mousling jams the middle! Whilst he goofiddles, others howl.” The troublemaker, “a riskarascal in repose,” has “dropped preycautions” and incurred a safety lecture that “the elder mouncelors whispercroon” to him: “Open moonlight is a menace. Trust in shadows – disappear.” But little Jam, unafraid, goes off on his own, “sneaks un –aware, -afraid, -asham’d” into the open – where his carelessness attracts a deadly enemy of mice everywhere. What happens then to Jam – and what the incident means to young mice from then on – is the heart of the book’s lesson, but not of its beauty. That comes from a combination of Doyen’s language with the intricate, lovingly realized illustrations by Barry Moser, which sparkle with reality while heightening it, bringing extraordinary loveliness to a firefly’s spark, a flash of moonlight, a flower petal, the slender shape of a reed. The mice here are treated anthropomorphically, but they are drawn with accentuated realism – to which Moser adds humanizing touches, such as the small stick that one old mouse uses as a cane. Doyen’s gentle manipulation of language melds beautifully with Moser’s accentuation of the natural world that at the same time pushes beyond its boundaries. The result is a work that goes beyond the boundaries of most children’s books into a land of rare delight and considerable elegance.

     The stylistic contrast between Once Upon a Twice and 10-book sequence The 39 Steps, a fairy tale series in its own way, could scarcely be greater. Aimed at preteens, the series is succeeding through its consistent lack of style: although the 10 novels are being written by seven different authors, there is very little to distinguish them from each other. The Black Circle, the fifth book, gets a (+++) rating: it is written colorlessly but with the series’ trademark excitement and multiple double-crosses by Patrick Corman, who is better known (and should be) for his Land of Elyon books. Readers approaching the midway point of The 39 Steps will already know all the intricacies of the central Cahill family, which splits into multiple lines that, among them, include pretty much all the famous and notorious people of history – which gives every author a chance to inject a short history lesson into his or her novel. The Black Circle, set primarily in Russia, offers a bit of information on the czars and rather more on Rasputin, who (of course) turns out to have been a Cahill. Corman does occasionally throw in a good line – “Ian Kabra had been in the back of a limousine hundreds of times but never when covered in meat pies” is one of the funniest asides in the series so far – but for the most part, Corman sticks to the formulaic skullduggery with which this series is rife. Attentive readers will be a bit surprised at the way this book progresses, since the previous one, Beyond the Grave, indicated that the mysterious Madrigals would play an important role here, but there is barely any reference to them. Still, there are enough turncoats and almost-turncoats and mysteries and piles of bones and cryptic (or encrypted) bits of writing to keep things moving at a predictably hectic pace. There is also what appears to be an outright error – actually unusual for this series – in having notes written by 19th-century Europeans use the American date sequence: 2-1-1826 is presented (as the context makes clear) as February 1, but it ought to be January 2; and 10-07 turns out to be October 7, although in Europe it would be July 10. Fans of The 39 Clues are unlikely to care about such niceties, though – they will be more interested in the game cards (of which six are packaged with each volume of the series, including The Black Circle), the Web site and the other elements of this series’ universe, which may not have stylish presentation going for it but has plenty of plot twists and excitement to keep its fans interested.


Night’s Cold Kiss: A Dark Brethren Novel. By Tracey O’Hara. Eos. $7.99.

Model, Incorporated. By Carol Alt. Avon. $13.99.

     There are dark fantasies, and then there are dark fantasies. Vampire fantasies are all the rage now, from the prissy and rather sweet Twilight series to much more adult fare – such as Night’s Cold Kiss, the first novel by Tracey O’Hara and the first book of what is sure to be an ongoing series. O’Hara writes a fast-paced, formulaic vampire romance with plenty of familiar elements (vampire and human vampire killer who are destined to become lovers as well as partners) and some cleverly offbeat ones (a school for vampire hunters that enrolls children as young as age six). The characters are just what you would expect them to be. When Antoinette, the star-crossed human whose mother was killed by a vampire (a typical back-story element), sees the vampire Christian, “His lean frame rested casually against the wall, hands in the pockets of his stylish dark Armani suit. Midnight hair brushed the collar of his red silk shirt, which lay open at the throat[,] and his pale skin shone beneath in shocking contrast. It suited him. Her gaze ran over the rest of him, sensing the power coiled beneath his casual demeanor. Like a cobra ready to strike. She raised her eyes to his and they stared back with a twinkle of amusement.” Antoinette is no slouch in the looks department herself, as Christian discovers soon enough: “A red and black dragon tattoo sat in the small of her perfect back, the tip of the tail disappearing into the crevice between her buttocks just beneath her panties. …He’d seen literally hundreds, maybe even thousands, of women in varying stages of dress and undress in his life time. But he’d rarely seen anything of such beauty. Antoinette was put together perfectly. Her muscles danced beneath her skin enlivening the tattoo dragon – he swore the beast watched him.” This slightly purple prose is the stuff of romance novels, which in many ways is what Night’s Cold Kiss is. But it draws equally on current takes on the supernatural, including both good vampires and evil ones (and of course good and evil humans as well); silver-nitrate-filled bullets as the anti-vampire weapon of choice; and a peace treaty between humans and vampires that is endangered unless the human vampire-hunters known as Venators can work successfully with the upstanding Aeternus vampires, such as Christian, against the evil rogue Necrodreniacs. The names and basic plot description make Night’s Cold Kiss sound sillier than it is: in fact, O’Hara does a good job of uniting her mostly conventional elements into a well-paced story that delivers considerable punch, even if nothing in it is exactly a knockout. But this is, after all, a first novel, and it will be interesting to see whether O’Hara progresses stylistically as well as in terms of plot and character development in future ones.

     Model, Incorporated is a second novel – a followup to real-life model Carol Alt’s debut, This Year’s Model. This is a fantasy of a different kind, in which a basically good girl (Melody Ann Croft, known as Mac) gets swept up into the high-stakes modeling world and finds herself tempted by all the evils of fame. Having decided that modeling is just a step on her way to college, Mac discovers in Model, Incorporated just how big a step it is and how difficult it can be to avoid taking one step more…and one more…and one more…all in stilettos, of course. Despite her penchant for four-letter words, Mac is just too well grounded to be fully believable, with her small-town background, loving family and a head that is screwed on straight as well as being surpassingly lovely. It’s impossible to sympathize with her concerns about all the hard work involved in photo shoots, first-class world travel, a life in five-star hotels and oodles and oodles of money and fabulous clothes. Yes, she encounters some nasty people and has some disturbing run-ins with men who want only one thing – or maybe more than one, none of them being particularly upstanding – but it is clear from the start (as it was from the start of the previous novel) that Mac has the intestinal fortitude to make it through whatever life throws at her (which includes, among other things, being the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover girl). Even when accused of being no more than a high-priced hooker (“a cheap floozy,” as Mac puts it), Mac gets just the right advice at just the right time, from someone who has been there – or at least whose sister has: “‘My sister – sweetest girl in the world. Truly. The nicest. But these reporters, they have a knack for twisting up words and facts. They love to tear you down. If you’re prettier or richer or more successful or more talented – wham! That’s when it happens. …[But] it’s when they stop talking about you that you have to worry.’” Still, Mac worries about her clients and, worse, her parents seeing such terrible stuff, until she learns to ignore the bad things and just focus on all the good ones, of which there are plenty. Although there are surely elements of truth in Mac’s world – Alt has, after all, been there – it tends to come across as no more believable than one populated by vampires and vampire hunters, being just as over-the-top as a supernatural romance. That’s part of the charm of Model, Incorporated, of course: pure escapism. “Who says I can’t have a little fun?” Mac asks herself at one point. She is talking about relationships, but her question could just as easily be posed by readers of this book. Why not have a little fun here before returning to your real reality?


Overcoming ADHD: Helping Your Child Become Calm, Engaged, and Focused—Without a Pill. By Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., with Jacob Greenspan. Da Capo. $25.

Making Friends: What You Need to Know about Your Child’s Friendships. By Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer. Da Capo. $13.

     If you have experienced the heartbreak of a child with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder – or experience the condition, or the closely related attention-deficit disorder, yourself – you knows that the primary current treatment is pharmacological: Ritalin and other drugs are the first-line approach of medical professionals from pediatricians to psychiatrists. Ritalin is in fact the most commonly prescribed of all psychostimulant drugs; others that are often used are Adderall and Concerta. These medicines can sometimes be remarkably effective – but not all the time. They can have side effects, especially in long-term use, that can include psychosis, drug addiction, withdrawal symptoms and more. And many parents are understandably wary of using a psychoactive drug on their children unless there is no alternative. Stanley Greenspan says there is one: a form of behavior modification that gets at the root causes of a particular child’s ADD or ADHD and works to eliminate the problems that cause the condition to express itself. Overcoming ADHD is a bold book, willing to look past the apparent simplicity of using a pill to counter a life-altering condition toward a more difficult and time-consuming approach that has the potential to improve patients’ long-term living conditions. Greenspan thinks of attention as “a dynamic, active process involving many parts of the nervous system at the same time,” which means that if any part (or several parts) of that system malfunction, ADD or ADHD can result. If this analysis is correct, it follows that finding the malfunctioning area of the nervous system and correcting whatever is making it misfire can lead to mitigation, if not outright cure, of ADD or ADHD. Greenspan breaks his “comprehensive intervention approach” down into seven areas: strengthening motor function (balance, coordination, etc.); helping plan and sequence action thoughts (verbal sequencing, response to visual cues and more); modulating response to sensations; reflective thinking (helping a child know his or her own strengths and weaknesses and adapt to them); building self-confidence; improving family dynamics; and creating a healthful physical environment. Even this brief overview should indicate just how difficult Greenspan’s program is to implement in real-world (as opposed to clinical or inpatient) circumstances. The single element of modifying sensation response, for example, first requires figuring out whether a child is “sensory craving” or “sensory overreactive,” then determining in what ways the out-of-kilter sensory response manifests itself, then modifying the child’s environment to help the child adapt. Try doing that while raising other children, holding down a job (or two in a two-career household), and taking care of one’s own health. And this is but a small part of the time-intensive complexity required to implement Greenspan’s ideas. Thus, if Overcoming ADHD has a significant flaw, it is in minimizing the importance of having Ritalin and similar medicines available not only for the benefit of a child with ADD or ADHD but also for the benefit of siblings and parents. For parents determined not to give psychoactive medicines to children with attention-related disorders, Greenspan points the way toward a potentially excellent alternative approach to treatment, and provides the basics of how to go about implementing it. But there is an underlying naïveté to some of what Greenspan says – for example, on top of all the other things going on in their lives and their ADD/ADHD child’s, parents should have “regular time with each other in the evening not just to discuss the child but also to nurture one another.” Greenspan’s ideas are excellent, but they are also very time-consuming and very, very difficult for already stressed families to put into practice – a fact of life to which Greenspan pays far too little attention in formulating what is otherwise a thoughtful approach to a serious health problem.

     Any family dealing with ADD/ADHD would agree that the problem is a serious one, worthy of at least a book-length discussion. But what is the justification for a book about kids making friends with other kids – something that seems to come naturally to almost all children? Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer believes parents must direct and monitor their children’s friendships when the kids are young, with an eye toward helping them be socially successful as teenagers and in adulthood. This is at best an arguable proposition, although Hartley-Brewer seems to consider it almost self-evident. It seems more reasonable to suggest that parents be aware of difficulties their children have in forming and sustaining friendships – and in fact, Making Friends is in large part about how to handle friendship-related troubles, such as shyness, bullying (both real-world and online), cliques, imaginary friends and more. Hartley-Brewer deserves credit for including so many “tips” (set aside in the book in boxes, with the tips themselves separated by bullet points) that can help parents who choose to follow her lead as regards various aspects of friendship. For example, tips “to help a child become less clingy” include keeping important family relationships regular and secure; frequently telling him or her how lovable he/she is and how important he/she is to you; showing in small ways that you think about him/her even when you are apart; and more. Tips “if your child becomes the butt of gossip and rumor” include taking his/her feelings seriously, boosting his/her self-esteem, listening and empathizing without trying to fix the problem, monitoring any offensive text messages, and so on. Making Friends starts before elementary school and runs until middle school – a friendship minefield of a different sort – with Hartley-Brewer suggesting stages of friendship that mesh with a child’s age and grade level. This is a bit too facile, as is her underlying belief in parental direction of friendship in general. But given the fact that many children have friendship-related problems at various times, Hartley-Brewer’s book can be a useful resource for parents who encounter bumps along the social-relationship road and want to help their children find ways to get past those obstacles safely and with their ability to make and maintain friendships intact – or, even better, improved.


Edward German: Tom Jones. Marianne Hellgren Staykov, Richard Morrison, Heather Shipp, Donald Maxwell, Simon Butteriss, Richard Suart, Gaynor Keeble, Giles Davies, Paul Carey Jones, Ashley Bremner; National Festival Orchestra and Chorus conducted by David Russell Hulme. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Lehár: Friederike. Kristiane Kaiser, Sylvia Schwartz, Klaus Florian Vogt, Daniel Behle; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     The middle and late 19th century were operetta’s golden age. Gilbert and Sullivan regaled British audiences with topsy-turvy plots and sly parodies of grand opera. Jacques Offenbach ruled in France and was perhaps the greatest practitioner of the operetta form anywhere. Franz von Suppé brought the Offenbach style to Vienna, where the homegrown approach of Johann Strauss, Jr., flourished as well. But by century’s end, operetta had become rather tired – and was decades away from its later transformation into the modern musical. It was primarily the works of Franz Lehár and a handful of other composers (such as Emmerich Kálmán and Karl Michael Ziehrer) that kept the form going in the 20th century. But different composers took it in very different directions, as these new recordings of two less-known works show.

     Edward German (1862-1936) provides a direct link to the Gilbert and Sullivan lineage: Sullivan himself once said that only German could succeed him at the height of success in operetta. In fact, German completed Sullivan’s final operetta, The Emerald Isle, with libretto by Basil Hood, after Sullivan died in 1900; and a few years later, Gilbert approached German to write an operetta based on Gilbert’s The Wicked World – which eventually became the unsuccessful Fallen Fairies (1909), the last stage work by either Gilbert (who died in 1911) or German himself. In his more successful productions, German often attempted to take British operetta into a more avowedly nationalistic realm, not only through his best-known work, Merrie England (1902), but also through A Princess of Kensington and other pieces. Yet his most accomplished work, even if not his most famous, may well be Tom Jones (1907), which has a quintessentially British source (Henry Fielding’s picaresque novel) but a “love eventually conquers all” theme that transcends both time and place. The workmanlike libretto by Alexander Thompson and Robert Courtneidge follows a simplified version of Fielding’s plot (although not its eroticism) rather closely, as the foundling Tom and squire’s daughter Sophia fall in love, are separated by issues of class and circumstance, and are eventually united. David Russell Hulme conducts the National Festival Orchestra and Chorus with a strong hand and considerable attention to the nuances of German’s music – which is better than the libretto. The Morris Dance, Jig and Gavotte, all imitative of old musical styles, are particularly attractive. And the soloists handle their parts with charm and a certain level of appropriate coyness. Marianne Hellgren Staykov does a lovely job with Sophia’s For to-night; Heather Shipp as her maid, Honour, sounds delightful in The Green Ribbon; Simon Butteriss, as the servant Gregory, handles the West Country accents of Gurt-Uncle Jan Tappit well; and Richard Morrison as Tom sounds especially good in If Love’s Content, with emotion-laden cadences straight out of Lehár, and A Soldier’s Scarlet Coat, a number (with words by Harry Bestwick) that was added after the operetta’s first London run. It is perhaps inevitable to look for influences of Sullivan in the music, and there are some to be found: a couple of patter songs and an Act I number, Here’s a Paradox for Lovers, that resembles a madrigal of Sullivan’s type. But by and large, German’s music sounds little like Sullivan’s, and many elements of this operetta’s structure – including the very operatic finales to Acts I and II and a finely wrought chorus that opens the whole production – clearly point British operetta in new directions, although in point of fact neither German nor anyone else really took it beyond this. It is a pleasure to be able to hear this first-ever complete recording of the music of Tom Jones. Indeed, the music is more than complete: the recording contains, as a bonus, three numbers that were dropped after the original production. However, it is a shame that the dialogue – which remains under copyright until 2019 – could not be included.

     Unlike German, Lehár continued looking for new directions for operetta for decades after his greatest success, The Merry Widow (1905) – eventually creating, in 1934, a work that was neither quite operetta nor quite grand opera, Giuditta, and considering it his legacy (although audiences have never agreed). Between the early years of the century and that final work, Lehár constantly sought to expand the reach of operetta both musically and dramatically. His sad endings became as legendary as his long professional relationship with tenor Richard Tauber, for whom Lehár wrote so many of his later starring roles. In the 1920s, Lehár created three works focused on real historical figures: Paganini (first performed in 1925), about the great violinist; Der Zarewitsch (1926), loosely based on the self-imposed exile of Alexei, son of Peter the Great; and Friederike (1928), whose protagonist is none other than Goethe. The first two of these are operettas, but Lehár vigorously opposed that designation for Friederike, calling it a Singspiel – a term that harks back to such works as Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. The Singspiel is in fact the ancestor of operetta, and the word clearly connoted to Lehár something deeper and more serious than the word “operetta.” Lehár described Friederike as his most deeply felt work, and indeed it has an inward-looking quality that his previous stage creations do not. The libretto is by Fritz Löhner-Beda and Ludwig Herzer (who later wrote Das Land des Lächelns, while Löhner-Beda became coauthor of Giuditta). It uses Goethe’s own words liberally and integrates Goethe’s tale Die Neue Melusine into the story, which is essentially one in which the young Goethe finds love with Friederike but must abandon her to journey to Weimar and pursue his higher calling. Goethe’s wonderful aria, O Mädchen, mein Mädchen – written for Tauber – is a highlight of Friederike, but Friederike’s lovely and heartfelt Warum hast du mich wachgeküßt? (after which she nobly gives Goethe the freedom to leave her) is equally affecting. Ulf Schirmer and the cast in the new CPO recording of Friederike give this work the seriousness it deserves, with Klaus Florian Vogt as Goethe and Kristiane Kaiser as Friederike playing particularly well against each other. The Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester handle their roles smoothly and with excellence. So do members of the Bayerische Theaterakademie August Everding, who speak the dialogue that is so crucial in a Singspiel. Unfortunately, as in all recent CPO operetta recordings, no libretto is provided or offered online, so non-German speakers are left floundering – a particularly unfortunate circumstance when it comes to Friederike, whose dialogue is crucial. Listeners who can overlook this significant omission will find this recording an excellent one, fully in tune with Lehár’s stage of musical development and the increasingly dramatic – and sad – content of his stage productions.


Einojuhani Rautavaara: 12 Concertos. Elmar Oliveira, violin; Marko Ylönen, cello; Esko Laine, double bass; Reija Bister, harp; Marielle Nordmann, harp; Patrick Gallois, flute; Richard Stoltzman, clarinet; Kari Jussila, organ, Ralf Gothóni, piano; Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; Tapiola Sinfonietta; Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra; Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Leif Segerstam, Max Pommer, Jean-Jacques Kantorow, Juha Kangas, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductors. Ondine. $29.99 (4 CDs).

     What a wealth of music, and what a wealth of expression, is here! Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928) is not exactly a household name, yet he is considered one of his nation’s greatest composers since Jean Sibelius. This wonderful four-CD set – a compilation of performances recorded between 1989 and 2004 – includes all concertos and concerto-like works that Rautavaara has composed to date. A number of them are quite wonderful, and practically all showcase different elements of this composer’s creativity.

     The works date to a variety of times in Rautavaara’s compositional life. The three piano concertos, for example, are from 1969, 1989 and 1998. All are in the traditional three movements, but all are quite different. Rautavaara wrote the first for himself, and it is fairly simple, since he is a good pianist but not a world-class one. The second was written for Ralf Gothóni, who performs it here, and the third (called “Gift of Dreams”) for Vladimir Ashkenazy, who plays and conducts it. In fact, Ashkenazy requested a work that he could both play and conduct, and that affected Rautavaara’s handling of the solo part. But what is interesting in listening to all three concertos is to hear how little the external elements – Ashkenazy’s request and Rautavaara’s own limited technique – affect the sound of the works. All three of the concertos blend cluster writing and other modernist techniques with a more classical approach, with some highlights being the concluding samba of No. 1 and the well-managed stylistic integration of No. 3.

     Rautavaara’s first string concerto was written in 1968 for cello; it is, in fact, his first concerto for any instrument. In the traditional three movements, it comes clearly from the Romantic tradition in its grand melodies and virtuoso writing for the solo performer. In 1977, Rautavaara wrote his Violin Concerto and was clearly at a different point in his thinking both stylistically and structurally. This is a two-movement work that ranges in style from the Romanticism of the Cello Concerto to a much more modern-sounding, texturally fragmented approach. Then, in 1980, Rautavaara wrote a concerto for double bass; it is called “Angel of Dusk” and has three movements subtitled (so to speak) beneath its overall title: “His First Appearance,” “His Monologue” and “His Last Appearance.” The second movement is the heart of the work, and its title is apt, since it is a very extended (almost nine-minute) cadenza for the soloist. Although in no way directly descended from the music of Giovanni Bottesini, the great 19th-century double-bass player who composed extensively for his instrument, Rautavaara’s concerto is a worthy successor, challenging both the virtuoso capabilities and the expressive capacity of the largest instrument in the string family.

     The harp is a string instrument as well, at least in a sense, and Rautavaara has written both a concerto-like one-movement Ballad for Harp and Strings (1973/1981) and a full-scale three-movement Harp Concerto (2000). The earlier, 10-minute work is pleasant and nicely constructed, but the later one is more unusual: Rautavaara decided to find a way to overcome the reality that the harp is easily drowned out by a full orchestra, so he scored the concerto to include two “assisting harps” that broaden the solo sound and give the harp’s delicacy a considerable boost. Both the harp concertos are interesting works with something of the experimental about them – not Rautavaara’s strongest concertos, but testimony to his skill in creating pieces for many types of solo instruments.

     There are wind concertos in this set, too. The four-movement Flute Concerto, titled “Dancing with the Winds,” dates to 1975 and actually requires the soloist to handle four instruments: concert flute, bass flute, alto flute and piccolo. Patrick Gallois is especially distinguished here, sounding equally at home with all four instruments and delivering lovely tone throughout – with the more piercing piccolo fitting the work’s scherzo beautifully. The Clarinet Concerto (2001) was written for and with the assistance of Richard Stoltzman, who plays it here with a fine combination of virtuoso dexterity and middle-movement songfulness.

     At the most basic level of sound production, the organ is a wind instrument, and Rautavaara has written a sort-of concerto for this grandest of instruments. It is called “Annunciations,” dates to 1977, and is for organ, brass quintet and symphonic winds. There is a certain mysticism to this concerto that may put some listeners in mind of Olivier Messiaen, for all the difference in sound and compositional technique. Strictly from a sonic standpoint, it is the second-most-unusual of Rautavaara’s concertos.

     The most unusual of all is the Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, “Cantus Arcticus” (1972). The birdsong comes from tapes made by Rautavaara himself in northern Finland – and the taped birds contrast strangely and surprisingly effectively with the rather Romantic scoring of the orchestral part. Rautavaara is far from the first composer to use recorded birdsong – Respighi included a taped nightingale in Pines of Rome in 1924, causing controversy that still sometimes reemerges today – but Rautavaara handles the integration of the birds with the orchestra over a long period (almost 20 minutes) very effectively, creating a highly unusual work that has become one of his most popular.

     All the solo playing in this four-CD set is exemplary, and the orchestras – especially the Helsinki Philharmonic, which plays eight of these 12 works – handle their roles with a cogent understanding of and empathy for Rautavaara’s style. Now in his 80s, Rautavaara has not written a concerto since 2001 – but if he does write more, he could scarcely hope for them to be more effectively presented than are the dozen heard in this CD set.

September 10, 2009


Encore, Opera Cat! By Tess Weaver. Illustrated by Andréa Wesson. Clarion. $16.

Duck & Goose Find a Pumpkin. By Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade. $6.99.

     Encore, Opera Cat! really is an encore: Tess Weaver and Andréa Wesson’s first book about the musical feline was simply called Opera Cat. In this sequel, the talented Alma tires of singing only within the confines of Madame SoSo’s apartment – a complete layout of which opens the book. Alma “dreamed of singing onstage…thrilling people with her voice.” But this is not so simple for a cat, and even when Madame SoSo decides that she really must tell Maestro about Alma and arrange for a human-feline duet, things do not go well: Maestro is preoccupied, “checking to see if she had a fever” when Madame SoSo becomes insistent. So cat and diva hatch a plan to disguise Alma and bring her on stage in Switzerland; but things get derailed, so to speak, when they try to board the train and Madame SoSo is told that pets are not allowed with people and Alma must travel in the baggage car. “It was a long, cold ride” for Alma, and then there is a problem with her disguise, which cannot conceal her whiskers, feline paws or tail – or the fact that she is, after all, the size of a cat. It is only when the dejected Alma makes a wrong turn and finds herself accidentally on stage – to the astonishment of Maestro, the orchestra and the audience – that this cat’s impossible dream comes true. Alma sings as wonderfully as Madame SoSo always knew she would: “I’ve never heard anyone sing about love with such passion,” says Maestro after the performance. In both narration and illustration, this is an utterly delightful fairy tale – and the two-page spread showing how “opera has never been the same since” Alma’s triumph, complete with dogs and cats galore enjoying the ambience of the opera house, is simply marvelous. Now what will Weaver and Wesson do for another encore?

     Tad Hills creates sequel after sequel in his ongoing stories of the small-bodied, huge-beaked Duck and Goose, with Duck & Goose Find a Pumpkin being a board book with an autumnal twist. Filled with orange and other fall colors, it is a typically simple Hills story: the two friends search for a pumpkin after they find another friend, Thistle, carrying one. But Duck and Goose aren’t quite sure where pumpkins come from – a leaf pile, an apple tree, under water? So they search and search without success until Thistle suggests they try…a pumpkin patch, where they manage to discover one so big that it takes both of them to lift and carry it. Easy to read, charmingly written with minimal text, and illustrated with Hills’ usual expressiveness (he does great things with eyes and the tilt of an avian head), Duck & Goose Find a Pumpkin is more than a seasonal treat – it’s another delicious helping of friendship on the cute side.


The Poisons of Caux, Book One: The Hollow Bettle. By Susannah Applebaum. Illustrations by Jennifer Taylor. Knopf. $16.99.

The Clockwork Dark, Book 1: The Nine Pound Hammer. By John Claude Bemis. Random House. $16.99.

Malice. By Chris Wooding. Illustrated by Dan Chernett. Scholastic. $14.99.

     First-time novelists Susannah Applebaum and John Claude Bemis both have the same basic idea: a sprawling, wide-ranging, multifaceted fantasy-adventure for preteens and young teenagers, packed with friendships and mysteries and the inevitable confrontation between good and evil. But Applebaum’s The Poisons of Caux and Bemis’ The Clockwork Dark approach their underlying quest tales in tremendously different ways. Applebaum uses the trappings of fairy tales to frame her story. There is an 11-year-old heroine, Ivy Manx, niece of an “apotheopath healer” who has disappeared from a kingdom now ruled by an evil king and queen. Ivy’s search for her uncle is the basis of the quest story, which takes place amid familiar character types: “In the ancient walled city of Templar, Arsenious Nightshade was suffering badly from a cramp in his royal foot. …It had been over a year since he’d drawn the country’s attention to his embarrassing disfigurement. …He’d endured smelly ointments and mustard poultices, bitter teas and mud baths. Still, he suffered so, enduring shooting pains and muscle spasms. …The King of Caux, the notorious King Nightshade, was a small man and painfully thin to look at. The dull light of the gray morning added nothing to his dreary complexion from the front and almost gave up entirely as he turned away.” Yet his queen is even more unpleasant – a regular Lady Macbeth for the preteen set. The king has a deaf, “gluttonous lump” of a brother, and servants bearing such names as Lowly Boskoop – no question who the bad guys are here. The king and queen have poisoned all that is good about Caux, and indeed, poisoning is common in the kingdom, which means food tasters are crucial members of the citizenry – while they live, anyway – and that fact helps Ivy get together with one taster, Rowan, who joins her on her quest after accidentally poisoning 20 of the king’s men. Among the other offbeat characters is a white boar named Poppy (“Rowan was easily endeared to pigs of any variety”). And of course there is a prophecy – “The Prophecy of the Noble Child,” which “was written long ago, but the ancient pages have gone missing from their binding.” The prophecy says “that a child of noble birth – a child of extraordinary circumstance – will banish the darkness from the forests, evil from where it dwells, and restore Caux to truth and light.” You can easily see where this is going – and young readers familiar with fairy tales and other fantasies will quickly see, too. Nevertheless, Applebaum’s clever, often humorous writing, and her willingness to twist genre conventions, make The Hollow Bettle a fast, amusing and enjoyable read. Oh – and the “bettle” of the title is a gemstone, not a misspelling of “beetle,” the insect.

     The Clockwork Dark is much more intense and serious stuff, featuring characters out of American legends rather than ones patterned on fairy-tale types. Here the hero is a 12-year-old orphan named Ray, and his adventure calls on the romance of train travel, the attraction of the circus and the discovery (or rediscovery) of a world in which machines are used for evil and human strength is needed to fight them. The prototypical American tale of this type is of railwayman John Henry’s battle with a steam engine – a fight that the human wins, only to die afterwards with his hammer in his hand. This story has a direct parallel in The Nine Pound Hammer, one of whose characters is John Henry’s son – and the climax of which occurs atop a steam-powered locomotive. But Bemis pulls together a variety of other characters as well, notably a noble but loose-knit group called the Ramblers: sideshow performers and sworn enemies of an evil being known as the Gog. At one point, a peg-legged character named Nel provides some of Ray’s background and his own, saying that he himself was a Rambler “long ago. Until a Hoarhound took my leg off. …The Machine was destroyed, but not the Gog. I was a part of a band of Ramblers – along with your father, Ray – who hunted him down. There was a battle against the Gog’s army: men and beasts of clockwork and frost. Many Ramblers were killed. I was attacked by a Hoarhound. I was fortunate to only lose part of my leg. In the end, the Gog’s army was defeated. But the Gog escaped.” But not forever – and the eventual climactic confrontation involving the Gog, a Hoarhound and the Ramblers is a dramatic and effective one. Some of the characters, notably the sideshow’s crocodile-riding pirate queen, are effective as well, although neither the good guys nor the evil characters seem to have much motivation beyond being, respectively, good and evil: “‘There was a time when I would have considered [the Hoarhound] my greatest construction,’” the Gog reveals at one point. “‘But I have been working on another, one that will soon reshape this sad world into something truly great and useful.’” All that is missing is the nasty laugh of the melodramatic villain. The Nine Pound Hammer is indeed melodramatic, but its intriguing settings and folktale-echoing characters keep it interesting.

     Malice is far from a first novel – Chris Wooding has more than a dozen to his credit – but it is the first volume of a series in which stories are presented through a combination of traditional narrative and comics. It’s a sort of partial graphic novel, told also through E-mails, instant messages, a newspaper story and other multimedia elements. There is a deadly comic book called Malice about which only a few people, some of them doomed, know; those who find the comic but are not ready to enter its world will find that “every – single – panel – was – blank” (with one word per page in Wooding’s book); to enter that world, there are rituals to be observed, including the repeated chanting of the phrase, “Tall Jake, take me away”; and within that world, for those lucky or unlucky enough to get there, are a variety of evil clockwork creations, including creatures that feed on time itself. And there is Tall Jake himself – first seen in 3-D, menacingly glaring from the book’s cover, then shown by Dan Chernett with skeletal thinness and an evil stare within the comic-book sections. Malice, the novel, veers between excitement and self-parody, with characters placed in real danger but also behaving – in the comic-book sections -- with comic-style aplomb. In the narrative, for example, a boy who has not yet found the Malice comic encounters a strange comic-book-store shopkeeper: “His heart was racing. He didn’t want to be caught back here. He wasn’t the kind of boy who was afraid of getting into trouble – ordinarily, the idea of getting shouted at by some fat guy was no big deal – but the shopkeeper was a different matter. Seth had looked into his eyes, and he’d seen emptiness. No passion, no pity. The dead eyes of a predator. That man could be very, very dangerous if he chose to be.” However, within a comic-book section, as characters are being chased by a mechanical monstrosity that throws things at them, one says, “Not a very good shot, is he?” And another replies, “You ever try throwing a MOOSE? They’re not built to be aerodynamic.” As a whole, Malice does not quite hang together, but its clever presentation and undeniable energy make it the thrill ride that Wooding intends it to be, and will undoubtedly and will have readers looking forward to the upcoming sequel, Havoc.


The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum. By Rebecca Loncraine. Gotham Books. $28.

     The great European creator of fairy tales in the 19th century, Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), had a counterpart in the United States not much later: Lyman Frank Baum (1856-1919). Andersen’s stories were mostly short, building on centuries-old models of Grimm and Perrault fairy tales so effectively that even today, many people believe “The Little Mermaid,” “The Little Match Girl,” “The Ugly Duckling” and others must be part of an old oral tradition rather than the products of one man’s literary mind. Baum’s tales, perhaps influenced by the expansiveness of the nation in which he was writing, are on a grander scale, delivered in particular in 14 Oz novels suffused with geography, a sprinkling of politics, and attempts to lend some depth to characters beyond what was customary in children’s literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

     There is no shortage of biography of Baum, and Rebecca Loncraine’s strictly chronological book is a worthy addition to the field. Loncraine is a British journalist and creative-writing teacher, viewing Baum from a literary angle and in the context of fairy-tale creation in general. Thus, in writing about the illustrated Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz – a Sunday newspaper feature intended to promote Baum’s second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) – Loncraine says not only that “the motivation for the series was primarily marketing” but also that “the disoriented, mischievous Ozites would…tell fairy tales (here were stories within stories within stories).” Loncraine’s across-the-pond perspective sometimes leads her to over-interpretation, as when she discusses the two infamous December 1890 editorials in which Baum railed against Native Americans – writing for which two of Baum’s descendants apologized to the Sioux in 2006: “His thoughtless comments were incoherent, full of the pain and frustration of his own life out on the prairie, which surfaced in his writing as irrational emotions fueled by fear and guilt, twisted into terrible anger.” Here, Loncraine doth protest too much, especially when she goes on to lump these long-discredited writings with other elements of Baum’s life as the basis for his move into fantasy: “Baum’s rage against the established church, his badly expressed fury at the terrible history of U.S.-Native American relations, his frustration with the drought, and the failures of his political projects, forced him to look outside his immediate reality, to escape it by plunging into the unseen world of the spirits and imaginary futures.”

     Loncraine is on firmer ground when discussing the Oz books themselves – although her chronological approach means she is two-thirds of the way through her biography before she gets beyond the first and most famous, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). Loncraine is quite insistent on the relationship between Baum’s exterior life and the interior one from which he brought forth his Oz novels and a very large number of other works: “From 1903 to 1910, Baum lived between landscapes. …[H]e conjured tales in luxury hotel suites and first-class carriages, dressed in tailor-made suits, chewing on the best cigars… [But] if Baum’s life now looked on the surface like a graceful swan gliding on the clear waters of wealth and success, he was in reality working frantically to make it appear so, like the swan’s rough, scaly legs that pedal beneath its gleaming body to keep it afloat.” (One would expect a creative-writing teacher to have more literary style than Loncraine does in that last sentence.)

     Loncraine makes some intriguing points about Baum as a writer: “Girl children were always Baum’s favorite rulers, allowing him to make a carnivalesque world in reverse, where little girls are in power.” But, surprisingly for someone focused on her subject’s real-world life, she does not always connect these insights immediately to Baum’s personal beliefs and activities: he was an ardent proponent of women’s suffrage. Still, she does a fine job making other connections, including one with Andersen: “Baum thought of himself as an expert in fairy tales, old and new. …Hans Christian Andersen, ‘the glorious Dane,’ as Baum called him, had been the first author, as far as he knew, to originate new folktales. Andersen’s tales were an intimate melding of oldest Danish folk stories and new inventions of his own, and this was the model of the modern writer of fairy stories for Baum. …Baum took himself seriously even if some parts of the press didn’t.”

     Loncraine certainly takes Baum seriously – perhaps a little too much so. There is not much sense of joy that comes through in this biography – neither Baum’s own happiness nor the enjoyment he has brought to so many readers. And there are some curious missteps. John R. Neill, who illustrated all of Baum’s Oz books except the first, is mentioned only four times, although it was Neill’s illustrations that helped show the Oz books to go beyond the narrow confines of “children’s literature” (not always to Baum’s approbation). W.W. Denslow, who illustrated the first Oz book (1900) but had a complete falling-out with Baum by 1904, is treated at considerably more length.

     It turns out that The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum is a very accurate title for Loncraine’s book, which focuses to a far greater extent on the author than on his works. There is a perpetual argument about the extent to which creative artists’ productions reflect their everyday lives; this book will appeal most strongly to readers who believe in a close relationship between the real and imaginary worlds: “Closing off the land of Oz in order to protect it from the outside world mirrored what Baum was trying to do in his own life,” Loncraine writes at one point. Yet even if reality and fantasy entwine closely in Baum’s life and work – a proposition that Loncraine does not really prove – it is certain that Baum’s books, especially those set in Oz, offer readers more joy and temporary escapism than this biographer fully acknowledges.