March 25, 2010


Your Baby’s First Year Week by Week, 3rd Edition. By Glade B. Curtis, M.D., M.P.H., and Judith Schuler, M.S. Da Capo. $16.95.

Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen: Recipes from the East for Health, Healing, and Long Life. By Yuan Wang, Warren Sheir and Mika Ono. Da Capo. $19.95.

     Babies may be pretty much the same, year in and year out, but their developmental patterns do change, and so do pediatric guidelines and recommendations for taking care of them. That makes the original edition of Your Baby’s First Year Week by Week seem positively ancient: it appeared all the way back in 2000. It was an outstanding (if dense) book then, and in the new third edition it remains outstanding (if dense). Glade Curtis and Judith Schuler provide 658 pages of clear, carefully written information – much of it highlighted in easy-to-read boxes – about what happens before a baby is born, in his or her first 48 hours, and then week by week in the first year. Obviously, babies in 2010 stubbornly refuse to adhere to any scientific developmental timetable – just as they did in 2000 and presumably for millennia before. But Your Baby’s First Year Week by Week is filled with so much material that, even if your child does not follow the exact order in which the data are presented (and he or she probably won’t), the book is excellent at putting early developmental milestones and difficulties in perspective. In fact, “perspective” is what this book – including its updated sections – is all about. Consider a brief comment on what to do about a child seat if you drive a pickup truck (yes, there is that level of specificity here). “One company, XSCI, has developed a rear-facing child seat that can withstand contact with a dashboard or front air bag in a collision. …The car seat is kind of pricey (about $250), but it may be worth it if it allows you to keep using a vehicle.” This same attentiveness pervades the book. In Week 16, you will find the recommendation, “To encourage finger dexterity, let baby play with some strips of yarn. Braid together several strands so each strand isn’t too thin.” You will find out that in Week 36, a baby usually “can stand up if he’s holding onto something” and generally “sits well in a chair.” In Week 42, a baby usually weighs about 20½ pounds and is 29 inches long – and is ready for his or her first pair of real (as opposed to decorative) shoes, which “should be light and flexible” and “should bend at the ball of the foot, not just [at] the arch.” The tremendous attention to detail and the easy-to-follow presentation of information are what make this book so valuable – especially for first-time parents, but also for anyone wanting a reminder of what to look for as a newborn grows toward toddlerhood. However, the voluminous amount of information is also the book’s weakness: there is so much here that the book will likely seem overwhelming, and certainly no harried, sleep-deprived parent will have time to read it cover to cover. But the truth is that that is not necessary. For most parents, skimming the first few chapters for early developmental signposts, then consulting later chapters as desired or when a problem arises, will be more than enough to make Your Baby’s First Year Week by Week, 3rd Edition a useful, trusted resource. This is a reference book, after all, not a novel, and parents who refer to it often during their baby’s first year will find it packed with solid information, intelligently presented.

     The basic information in Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen dates back quite a bit earlier than the year 2000 – by hundreds if not thousands of years. Just as Your Baby’s First Year Week by Week is a book about health as well as developmental milestones, Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen is about health as well as delicious food. The book is packed with recipes from China, Japan and Korea, modified somewhat for the typical Western palate (no jellyfish or chicken feet here). The recipes themselves would earn the book a high rating, but it is the context in which the authors place the food that really makes this book outstanding. Each recipe is followed by information on health issues that the recipe may be useful in addressing – according to the way Oriental medicine is practiced. The authors do not claim curative powers for anything and do not suggest that these recipes can take the place of traditional medical attention; but the comments or concerns that the recipes may help address are thought-provoking and in line with the increasingly common fusion of Western and Eastern ideas of medicine and health. Those who consider the idea of “medicinal food” bunk can simply skip those sections, which are separated from the recipes themselves. But they may still enjoy the personal memories that the authors also provide. For example, there is a recipe for simple winter melon soup here, with a note that the soup is considered good for “anyone who wants to reduce swelling and puffiness, for example, from premenstrual syndrome or menopause.” In a separate note, Yuan Wang writes, “Winter melon soup helped impress on me that food can be medicine” because of the effect that she personally saw it have on an ill old man who was only able to get a good night’s sleep when he could afford to make himself the dish. Cooks – and readers in general – can decide how much credence to give the ancillary historical and health information; people familiar with traditional Chinese medicine will find this material especially useful (that same winter melon soup, for example, “clears Heat, expels Dampness, and promotes urination”). But however you feel about the health tie-ins, you will find the recipes themselves delectable. Lotus root salad, ginkgo chicken in foil, lamb skewers, ginger-honey pear, smooth black sesame cereal, sticky sesame and walnut balls, roasted cassia seed tea – there are soups, main and side dishes, snacks, desserts, drinks, sauces and more. There are also legends, shopping hints, and excellent color photos of some ingredients with which Occidental cooks may not be familiar. All in all, Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen is a feast for the mind as well as the palate; and perhaps some readers will find that it can represent a few steps on the path toward wellness, too.


We Planted a Tree. By Diane Muldrow. Illustrated by Bob Staake. Golden Books. $17.99.

Sunday Is for God. By Michael McGowan. Pictures by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

     Spirituality is all about connectedness – an experience that can be found through organized religion, through individualized seeking, or through any sense of belonging to and being a part of something greater than oneself. We Planted a Tree is a small, elegant story of connection between people who do not know each other and do not see their lives or their world the same way, but who are nevertheless part of something larger: the entire planet. Diane Muldrow’s simple text offers parallel stories of tree planting, one involving a light-skinned urban family in the developed world and the other a dark-skinned rural family in a developing country. The families’ paths never cross, and their ideas about a tree’s importance are quite different. On the one hand, “The tree’s leaves helped clean the air,/ And we breathed better.” On the other, “The tree kept the soil from blowing away—/ Now rainwater could stay in the earth.” On the one hand, “The tree fed us—/ Apples and oranges/ And lemons/ And sap for our syrup.” On the other, “The soil became healthier/ Because the tree was there,/ So we planted…/ We could grow our own food,/ And we ate better.” The book’s message, though, applies equally to both families: “We planted a tree,/ And that one tree/ Helped heal the earth.” Bob Staake’s illustrations, more sensitive and less whimsical than his usual ones, make the contrasts of the text clear while emphasizing the underlying one-world thinking. The result is a non-dogmatic but nevertheless quite clearly stated book about environmental impact and the ways in which all people are connected to each other and to the world on which all of us live. It provides an effective spiritual journey for children ages 4-8.

     Sunday Is for God is for the same age group, but its perspective is more limited, its narrative more straightforward and its underlying message inclusive for those it addresses but exclusionary for others. Michael McGowan writes specifically about Christian spirituality in a Southern town – only within the context of an organized church, and only for African-Americans, whose families are lovingly and sensitively shown in the illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. “Sunday is the Lord’s day. Sunday is for God.” And “church has a special smell – kind of like up in the attic at home, but with flowers in it.” And “there’s prayers and readings from the Bible. …Brother fusses with his hair some more and Daddy tells him, ‘Stop that. The Lord don’t mind how your hair looks.’ I want to ask Daddy why the Lord wants us to get dressed up, then. But I know better.” This is a book about meeting expectations, about doing what is right because it is traditional and many earlier generations have done the same thing. It is a book about post-church celebration with “fried chicken and gravy and mashed potatoes and greens and corn bread.” It is a book about setting aside a day that is different from all the rest – specifically Sunday, although of course that is not the one all religions choose. Families who want to instill respect for this book’s specific religion and its expression will find the book gentle, moving, well observed and well written. Families whose beliefs or practices deviate in any significant way from the specific ones shown here will feel left out – and probably will have no interest in the book, in any case. This gives the book a (+++) rating, which will be higher for those who feel included in its message and lower for those who feel excluded.


Northward to the Moon. By Polly Horvath. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

To Come and Go Like Magic. By Katie Pickard Fawcett. Knopf. $16.99.

     All trips that young teenagers take in books are voyages of self-discovery; these two novels for ages 10-13 are variations on that all-too-common theme. Polly Horvath’s Northward to the Moon is a companion to My One Hundred Adventures, which first introduced 13-year-old Jane’s free-roaming, free-spirited family. The new book starts after Jane and her family leave Massachusetts for stepfather Ned’s new job as a French teacher in Saskatchewan – a job he quickly loses when it turns out he knows no French. The irresponsibility of the whole trip is no issue at all, even though it displaces Jane; her younger sister, Maya; and little brothers Max and Herschel. The reason is the take-life-as-it-comes attitude of both Ned and Jane’s poet mother. Teens who dream of just taking off for somewhere (in a supportive environment) will enjoy the family’s trek to a Native American reservation, through Las Vegas, and then to Ned’s mother’s horse ranch – which has its own set of eccentric-but-endearing characters. Teens who are grounded in the real world may find the endless parade of off-kilter people and attitudes a bit much to take. But there is plenty of homespun delight here, for those who do not find Horvath’s prose cloying: “‘OH LORDY!’ says Dorothy, and leaves the skillet where she has been turning bacon. Her apron is already scatter-shot with grease but she throws her arms around my mother anyway.” Or: “‘Now, wait one cotton-pickin’ minute,’ says Ned, and it degenerates into a lot of boring talk about who can and can’t do what and they look to be going at it all night so I sneak off the porch.” There are plenty of plots and subplots here to keep things interesting: three aunts with very different personalities; a mysterious money-filled bag; an attractive boy who cares for horses and on whom Jane develops a crush; Jane’s continuing curiosity about who her father is; and more. Ned eventually comments, “‘I’m telling you, I don’t know why anyone does anything. People do strange things.’” And that is about as good a summation of Northward to the Moon as there can be. It is an ensemble piece, multiply focused and rather scattered in plot, but for those who wanted more of Jane after Horvath’s previous book, it will be a heaping helping of enjoyment.

     To Come and Go Like Magic is also a series of connected vignettes involving quirky people. This first novel by Katie Pickard Fawcett centers on 12-year-old Chili Sue Mahoney and the small town of Mercy Hill, Kentucky, where her family lives in 1975 and has lived for generations. The town is beautiful, and Fawcett paints its simple pleasures with obvious affection, but it is also stifling, locked into old ways that place it out of touch with the rest of the world. Some people in Mercy Hill like that arrangement just fine, but Chili longs for more than the town has to offer – so she immediately becomes interested in the stories of seventh-grade substitute teacher Miss Matlock, who has traveled widely but now returned to the town. The book’s title comes from one of Miss Matlock’s stories, about monarch butterflies that migrate thousands of miles even though no one understands how they know when to go and when to return. The butterflies’ appearance seems like magic, and Chili wants to come and go like magic, too. But of course it turns out that butterfly magic is not so easy to emulate: there are secrets in Mercy Hill, and events going on beneath the surface that belie the town's placid exterior. The real pleasures of To Come and Go Like Magic are in the way its story is told – really, stories are told. Each short chapter starts with a few words and an ellipsis, such as In Line at the Piggly Wiggly…. and May Day Parade… and Friendship, Past Tense… The stories follow and relate to those few words. For instance, Chili Supper… is followed by: “The uproar at the fried-chicken supper is still hot in their heads. Everybody was talking about some story this Penelope Winter had put in a Pennsylvania newspaper about how she’d brought her homemade chili to a potluck supper in Mercy Hill and the hill people were amazed. It was the first time we’d ever tasted chili, she said, making it sound like we were as dumb as rocks.” The core of this episodic novel is eventually spoken by Miss Matlock, who tells Chili, “‘Home is always home. Some people leave, some stay, some come back. That’s how it works.’” And so Chili eventually realizes that even if she leaves, Mercy Hill will stay with her as her true home – a conclusion intended to be warm and reassuring, although some readers may find it a recipe for Chili’s mental, if not emotional, suffocation.


Microsoft Wireless Mouse 2000. Windows 7, Vista or XP (excluding XP 64 bits), or Mac OS X v10.4x-10.6x. Microsoft. $29.95.

Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 3500. Windows 7, Vista or XP (excluding XP 64 bits), or Mac OS X v10.4x-10.6x. Microsoft. $29.95.

     The personalization of the personal computer is proceeding apace. No longer are consumers required to buy beige or black machines that differ from each other primarily in branding: the multicolor case for PCs and high-tech designs from Apple and some niche manufacturers, such as Alienware (now part of Dell), allow today’s users to express their personalities through their color and form choices (while also providing some nice additional profits to OEMs that charge extra for nonstandard color overlays). The same is true of peripherals: the days of one-size-and-one-design-fits-all keyboards and mice are long gone. Now you can not only proclaim your style preferences through your hardware but also – at least equally importantly – you can tailor essential computer equipment to the way you choose to work.

     Microsoft’s hardware division – called (what else?) Microsoft Hardware – has been in the shadow of what is, after all, a software company for more than two decades. During all that time, it has turned out well-engineered, tasteful, reliable and highly functional equipment that makes the use of computers easier and can even make it more fun. Two new Microsoft mice continue the division’s tradition while fine-tuning users’ ability to pick equipment that will make their lives easier and more pleasant. Both the Microsoft Wireless Mouse 2000 and the Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 3500 are solid, ambidextrous, reliable and smooth-functioning units that track well on just about any surface except mirrors or clear glass. Remember mouse pads? They have been obsolete for years (except as decorations), but if they weren’t, the tracking ability of these mice – using a system that Microsoft calls “BlueTrack Technology” – would oust them soon enough. You can track with these mice on a chair arm, a sofa cushion, the table in a restaurant, the floor, even a pants leg or a skirt. And yes, they work just fine on desks, too.

     And these are tailored mice (all right, that phrase sounds weird, but it is accurate). The Microsoft Wireless Mouse 2000 is a standard size, designed in a handsome combination of gray and black that is stylish but will not be out of place in even the most conservative office. The 2.4 GHz wireless connection is solid and reliable, and the USB minitransceiver snaps into the bottom of the mouse for easy portability. The mouse’s rubber side grips are pleasant to hold even if you have sweaty palms while on deadline for a major project. And the mouse has an overall feeling of solidity that will give a user confidence in its continued reliability and long-term performance.

     The Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 3500 is made in a smaller size that makes it a “mobile” rather than standard mouse in Microsoft’s terminology. It shares many design elements with the Microsoft Wireless Mouse 2000, but there are some significant differences that show just how much personalization is available in computer equipment today. One obvious (if nonfunctional) difference between these products is that the Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 3500 is available in two colors: gray (here called Loch Ness Gray) with black or pink (here called Dragon Fruit Pink) with black. The “pink” is a bit of a misnomer if you are thinking of Barbies: the color is more subdued than “hot,” being a sort of pleasant rose. The point, though, is that you can get the Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 3500 either in the same striking but fairly traditional color combination in which the Microsoft Wireless Mouse 2000 comes, or in something a little splashier.

     Functionally, the Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 3500 also has Microsoft’s BlueTrack Technology, rubber side grips and a shape that works equally well for right-handed and left-handed users. The two mice share button and tilt-wheel designs. And both are USB-powered. But their transceivers are different. The one that comes with the Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 3500 is called a “nano transceiver” and is designed to remain plugged into a laptop while the user is moving around. It fits solidly into a USB port and protrudes so little that it does not dislodge even under toss-it-in-the-bin airport security conditions. To accommodate this design and prevent fast battery drainage, the mouse has its own on/off switch. And speaking of batteries, the Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 3500 uses one AA battery, while the larger Microsoft Wireless Mouse 2000 uses two. Microsoft claims battery life of up to eight months, which may be a tad exaggerated (based on experience with earlier models of its mice) but is in the right range. You certainly won’t need to carry packages of AA cells with you all the time while using these mice.

     So here are two mice, equally well engineered, likely to be equally durable, equally attractive in design, equally easy to use, and equal in price. Clearly, the choice of one or the other is a matter of – what else? – personal taste. Some people will find that their hands are more comfortable with the larger mouse, some with the smaller. Some will want a color choice; some will not care. Some will want a lighter mouse to carry around; some will not find weight a factor (in truth, neither mouse is heavy at all). Some will like the convenience of a transceiver that stays plugged in; some will worry that that arrangement may prove a problem over time and will prefer a transceiver that comes out and snaps into the mouse itself for transport. From a strictly functional viewpoint, as well as from a price standpoint, either of these new Microsoft Hardware products is a top-notch choice. But there is more than strict functionality to consider in hardware and peripheral purchases today – thanks, in part, to products like these. So feel free to make a selection based purely on your personal taste. That is what computing, especially on-the-go-computing, is coming to these days.


George Rochberg: Circles of Fire. Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo (Evan Hirsch and Sally Pinkas). Naxos. $8.99.

Zenobia Powell Perry: Spirituals, Art Songs and Chamber Music. Janis-Rozena Peri, soprano; Darryl Taylor, tenor; Joyce Catafalno, flute; Berkeley Price, clarinet; John Crotty, piano; Deon Nielsen Price, piano. Cambria. $16.99.

     There is no more ambitious work in the two-piano literature than Circles of Fire by George Rochberg (1918-2005). Written in 1996-7 for the Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo, it is a 15-movement, 70-minute tour de force of musical language, particularly in the 20th century but also, to some extent, dating back to Bach and before. Opening and closing with a “Solemn Refrain” that also appears three other times and knits the sprawling work into a somewhat more unified whole, Rochberg’s piece explores his own musical journey – from the modernism and serial composition at which he was highly skilled (as in his Symphony No. 2 from the mid-1950s), through his decision to turn against what he saw as academic and unemotional compositional techniques and use the approaches of Romanticism to convey feelings that he felt were neglected in serialism. Never really a neo-Romantic, Rochberg made post-Romantic emotionalism his own through his accretive technique, and in Circles of Fire he shows just how thoroughly he assimilated both older-style and newer-style pianistic writing as well as elements of the compositional process. The work is an arch, its eighth (middle) movement being the third appearance of “Solemn Refrain” and its second and 14th movements designated “Chiaroscuro (I)” and “Chiaroscuro (II).” In between are elements tied formally to the Baroque (“Canonic Variations,” “The Infinite Ricercar,” “Fuga a sei voci”) but expressed in Rochberg’s own musical vocabulary, which ranges from the carefully ordered to the near-chaotic (thus paralleling musical history itself). Evan Hirsch and Sally Pinkas play this monumental work sure-handedly and with tremendous understanding, and this recording – a re-release of a performance from 1998 – deserves to be described as definitive. But this is not immediately accessible music, and Circles of Fire does have a somewhat narrow range of sounds, because of the inherent limitations of the piano’s percussive timbre. Although there is certainly emotion packed into the piece, it comes across more as an intellectually impressive structural exercise than as a work that speaks clearly and immediately to listeners. It is unquestionably a triumph on its own terms, but those terms are not ones that audiences will necessarily find appealing.

     On the other hand, there is immediate appeal to many of the works by Rochberg’s contemporary American composer, Zenobia Powell Perry (1908-2004). Although better known as a civil-rights pioneer and educator – primarily at traditionally black colleges – Perry wrote more than 150 works in a wide variety of styles and formats. But few have been recorded – the new Cambria CD is the first devoted solely to Perry’s music. The most accessible pieces here are her settings of spirituals: Hallelujah to the Lamb, O de Angels Done Bowed Down and Sinner Man So Hard, Believe! These works have interesting parallels – and contrasts – with The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, based on Arabic and Persian texts by the founder of the Baháí faith and set rather ethereally by Perry for soprano, flute and piano. Other song groups here are more straightforward and less stylistically notable: Cycle of Songs on Poems by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Threnody Song Cycle (poetry by Donald Jeffrey Hayes), and three excerpts from the six-song Heritage and Life (poetry by Frank Horne), followed here by the short How Charming Is the Place (words by Samuel Stennett). Taken as a whole, the songs are more expressive and seem more heartfelt than Perry’s instrumental works in traditional forms, which on this disc include her Sonata for Clarinet and Piano and Sonatine for Piano, both from 1963. But three of the 15 little solo-piano works collected in 1990 as Piano Potpourri are miniature delights: Homage to William Levi Dawson on His 90th Birthday, Promenade (which Perry wrote as a more-joyful alternative to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1), and Flight. The performers are first-rate on a CD that meanders a bit aimlessly while seeking to encompass the various forms in which Perry worked; and if not all the pieces are equally impressive, some of them are certainly worth hearing – and re-hearing from time to time.

March 18, 2010


Black Magic Sanction. By Kim Harrison. Eos. $25.99.

     Since the 1987 Nancy Price novel Sleeping with the Enemy and the 1991 Julia Roberts film made from it, the notion of intimacy with someone who intends to do you harm has had an easy-to-remember catchphrase. Rachel Morgan, the wonderful central character of Kim Harrison’s novels of the Hollows – the supernatural part of Cincinnati – has this sleeping-with-the-enemy problem to a more devastating degree in Black Magic Sanction, the series’ eighth book, than in earlier ones. Not that the first seven were all unicorns and rainbows.

     Harrison’s books are so much better than others in her genre – a genre that is actually rather hard to pin down in her case – that picking one up is a breath of mental fresh air, despite the fetid nature of much of what occurs. Harrison, unlike many other authors of paranormal/supernatural thrillers, knows that people are what ultimately matter in extended stories, the events themselves becoming more important to the extent that they broaden our understanding of and empathy with the characters. This is how Harrison pushes boundaries: her books have romance elements, horror elements and otherworldly elements galore, but they are ultimately about character – what determines it, what undermines it, what suffuses it, what twists it. And there is a sly “adventure for its own sake” thread running through the Hollows novels as well, subtly shown through their titles’ tie-ins to Clint Eastwood movies; the latest book’s was presumably inspired by The Eiger Sanction.

     But no matter what adventures Rachel has, and no matter how horribly she is abused, misused and mishandled, what ultimately matters most to her is who has her back – who her true friends are. And that is what gives Black Magic Sanction its particular strength, for in this book, it is very hard to tell where the line between friendship and opportunism lies – and especially difficult for Rachel to consider the possibility that people she knows are evil…may not be.

     Rachel is a white witch who keeps getting pulled perilously close to the black side of things by circumstances that are almost (but not quite) beyond her control. You would think that other witches would help her, but not in Harrison’s world: Rachel is shunned, captured and tortured by fellow witches precisely because of the sort of magic she has done and the sort of characters – notably the demon Algaliarept – with whom she has done it. In fact, Rachel escapes being lobotomized by her own kind only because of a quirk of convenience.

     Do her ex-boyfriends help? Far from it: her great love, the vampire Kisten, is twice dead, the equivalent of a single death for others (Rachel learned the ugly, mundane reasons for his murder in the last Hollows book, White Witch, Black Curse). A previous boyfriend, the human Nick – whom she disposed of, and good riddance to him, after his thievery of a potent magical object nearly led to war among the various supernatural beings in these novels – is directly responsible for entrapping Rachel in Black Magic Sanction, and comes across as an even more venal and slimy character than before. Unless there is the hint of something slightly redeeming about him…

     And this is where things – emotional things – get complex. Harrison’s special talent lies in making multiple characters, not just her primary protagonist, seem real, deep and complicated, with believable (if often scarcely admirable) motivations. Rachel is in fact now apprenticed to that demon, whom she calls Al, for good and sufficient reason that others in her world cannot possibly understand. In fact, she may need Al to bail her out of her latest predicament – but would that make Al a friend, or at least someone on whom she can count? Not an easy question, and there is no easy answer here. Nor are there easy answers about Trent Kalamack, one of the most fascinating and complicated characters in the Hollows novels. First introduced as the embodiment of evil, a conscienceless and unscrupulous murderer and master of an empire built on addictive drugs, Trent has been emerging with greater and greater nuance as the reasons behind his activities become clearer and his importance in Rachel’s early and imperfectly remembered childhood looms larger. In Black Magic Sanction, Trent too may be a necessary ingredient in keeping Rachel alive and free – but what is his motivation to do so, and again, is there some sort of twisted friendship developing between him and Rachel, despite her horror at the notion?

     To be sure, Rachel does have steadfast friends, and they too are pushed to the limit in this book. Her business partners in her bounty-hunting work, who are also her roommates, can always be counted on. The vampire Ivy is as sleek and slick as ever here, but she has her own demons to fight (although not literally, as Rachel does); and the pixy Jenks is as steadfast, strong, surprising and sly as always – but facing his own realization of mortality (pixy-tality?) and looking toward the future of his family. “Damn, I had good friends,” Rachel comments at one point, and she repeats the sentiment in similar words many times. And that is really what all the plot complexities of this book – and there are many – revolve around. The greatest complexity of all, it turns out, is figuring out just who those friends are…and, beyond that, how to define friendship in a world as dark and convoluted as Rachel’s. Black Magic Sanction can be read as just another supernatural thrill ride, but that would be a mistake – and a disservice to Rachel and her creator. This is a book that raises – or, in the context of its series, continues to raise – some genuinely important issues in a genuinely thoughtful way. And it’s a smashing tour de force of intrigue, betrayal and the paranormal as well.


Erroll. By Hannah Shaw. Knopf. $15.99.

Porky and Bess. By Ellen Weiss and Mel Friedman. Illustrated by Marsha Winborn. Random House. $12.99.

Calvin Coconut #3: Dog Heaven. By Graham Salisbury. Illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.

     What messes the animals in these books get into! Erroll, of the book Erroll, is a squirrel who not only gets into messes but also gets a boy, Bob, into them as well. Bob finds Erroll in a snack package, and the two soon strike up a conversation – yes, Erroll is a snack-packed talking squirrel. And a messy one. He loves peanut butter, but eats the sandwiches that Bob makes for him so sloppily that Bob needs to give him a bath. Try to give him one, anyway. Erroll runs, jumps and climbs all over, “all the way to the top of Mom’s favorite curtains,” and leaves dirty paw prints everywhere. Mom is not amused – and is taken aback when Erroll introduces himself. She insists that she and Bob take Erroll home to the woods, and they do, and everything ends happily (if messily), until the next morning, in the box of cereal he opens for his breakfast, Bob finds something else that immediately starts making a mess. Kids ages 5-8 will find this silly, absurd and absurdly silly book delightful. Parents may be less than overjoyed at the prospect of their kids searching diligently through packaging for who-knows-what sort of mess maker – but Hannah Shaw’s unfailing good humor in storytelling, and her amusing way with illustrations, should win over everyone in the family.

     Older kids will be won over by Porky and Bess even if they don’t get the pun on the title of Gershwin’s famous opera. This is a Step 4 “Step into Reading” book for grades two and three – roughly ages 7-9 – and its messiness is more a matter of lifestyle than mischief. The unlikely pairing of the title is between best friends Porky (a pig) and Bess (a cat). Porky is the messy one (no big surprise there): he lives alone and tosses stuff every which way in his house, although he does clean up eventually. Bess, who has three kittens, is a neatnik who wants everything to be perfect all the time – she even practices hard so she can do perfect moves on ice skates. But for all their differences of style and approach, the two share a special friendship, which comes to the fore in two things that Porky is doing: baking a cake and writing a poem. No-mess Bess (that isn’t her name, but it could be) helps Porky with his moon cake after the pig discovers that his can of moonlight has nothing in it. Bess helpfully supplies a box of nighttime, and the two friends – working in the dark – make a delicacy that Porky declares is “maybe even better” than moon cake. And Bess’ help with the cake also helps Porky complete the four-line poem that he has been trying to write for Poem-Reading Day: he makes it a poem about how much he likes Bess. The unlikely pairing of these two characters is nicely handled both by authors Ellen Weiss and Mel Friedman and by illustrator Marsha Winborn, who do not harshly judge Porky’s messiness (or Bess’ neatness, for that matter), but who clearly show that very different people (or animals, anyway) can get along just fine.

     But what about dog messes? Real and imagined ones are front and center in Calvin Coconut: Dog Heaven, Graham Salisbury’s third book for ages 7-10 about a boy growing up on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Calvin really, really wants a dog, and most of the book is about the contortions he goes through to try to convince his mother and his 16-year-old babysitter, Stella, to let him have one. A lot of convincing is needed, because there is so much messiness along the way. Mom’s boyfriend, Ledward, tells about a really dirty dog that Calvin’s teacher, Mr. Purdy, once had – it was white and loved mud, so it had to be hosed off all the time. Ledward himself not only has dogs but also has a rather well-trained (but very messy) pig, which rides in the front seat of his jeep (Jacqueline Rogers’ pictures of this and of the dirty dog being hosed off are just two of her perfectly apt illustrations). The book is full of messes: the garbage that Calvin takes out to show how responsible he can be, the “dogs stink” comment that Calvin’s mom makes in explaining why Calvin cannot have one, the messy room that Calvin fears will prove he cannot take care of a dog, and the huge mess at the Humane Society made by the dog that Calvin sees there and immediately decides to adopt…somehow. The “somehow” eventually works out, and even Stella comes around to accepting the dog, Streak – despite the mess the pup makes when Ledward gives her a fish head. So Calvin’s life becomes increasingly complex, which is sometimes a synonym for “messy” but in this case is more like a synonym for “grown up.” Or at least growing up, which Calvin is doing nicely.


Norton 360 version 4.0. Windows 7, Vista or XP/SP2. Symantec. $79.99.

     Symantec’s top-of-the-line protective product for home computers and small businesses, Norton 360, has been getting steadily better and steadily easier to use through the years. Last year’s software, version 3.0, had so many features and performed so well that it was hard to see what Symantec could add to a new iteration. The answer turns out to be: not much, but what is added is all good.

     Norton 360 provides more forms of protection than the venerable Norton AntiVirus alone, and also more than Norton Internet Security offers. Specifically, Norton 360 takes the features of Norton Internet Security and adds backup capability plus PC tuneup that works so effectively that Symantec has stopped making new versions of its comprehensive tuneup utility, Norton SystemWorks. Users won’t buy Norton 360 for backup and tuneup purposes, though. They will buy it for its multiplicity of protections against viruses, spyware, rootkits, hackers and all sorts of malware, plus its effective blocking of phishing sites and its protective layer that woks automatically when your computer is connected to a wireless network. The backup and tuneup features make Norton 360 cost $10 more than Norton Internet Security – a bargain if you will use those added features, an unnecessary expense if you will not.

     The best thing about the latest version of Norton 360 was also the best thing about the previous version: it does a lot of very complex tasks, but it does them silently and unobtrusively, in the background, without consuming much computer power and without taking up an unreasonable amount of disc space (the reduction of bloat in Symantec’s Norton line has been a significant accomplishment in recent years). Most users will never see more of the product’s working than its clean, easy-to-understand main screen, which tells you at a glance whether all is in order in four areas: PC Security, Identity Protection, Backup and PC Tuneup. The screen will remind you constantly that you are “at risk” if you do not, for example, set up the product’s backup feature; this is another reason to be sure you really want the backup and tuneup elements of Norton 360 and will use them – otherwise, Norton Internet Security is a better choice. But if you do plan to use all its features, Norton 360 is very cooperative in letting you know immediately whether everything is all right or needs attention.

     Much of what is new in version 4.0 comes from Symantec’s commendable effort in recent years to develop high-security techniques for its enterprise customers – that is, for big business and government – and then make essentially those same features available in small-business and consumer products. Thus, Norton 360 version 4.0 offers better real-time malware detection and anti-phishing features and better warning of the possible dangers and performance impacts of Web downloads. The new version also scans somewhat more quickly than earlier ones and has a somewhat better-performing Startup Manager to reduce boot and cold reboot times. It also makes it easy to retrieve Web backups whenever and wherever you wish.

     Are these enhancements enough to make an upgrade from version 3.0 to version 4.0 worthwhile? In a word, no. They are enhancements rather than substantial new features, and most of the improvements in version 4.0 are incremental rather than quantum leaps. Users satisfied with version 3.0 may prefer to buy an extra year of its protection – Norton 360 provides only a single year of use on one to three PCs when first purchased – and wait to see whether a later version of the software represents a more significant advance than does version 4.0. Users who have not yet tried Norton 360, though, will be more than happy with the new version – if the price is acceptable. And that has become the standard question to ask about Symantec’s excellent utility products. Virtually all the features of Norton 360 are available piecemeal from other sources for free or at much lower cost. There are excellent free antivirus programs, fine free Web storage offerings, and browser build-ins that accomplish many of the protective functions of Norton 360. But they are piecemeal, and do not always work well together – indeed, they can sometimes slow down your computer or even operate at cross-purposes. Norton 360 is a peace-of-mind purchase: it works well and efficiently, all the parts interact capably, and once you install it and do some minimal setup (primarily in its backup utility), you need never look at it again unless you want to check on something specific or change some settings. Like an insurance policy against online disaster, Norton 360 is a comforting product to have – and that will be worth its $80 cost to a great many people and small businesses. People who prefer to tailor their Internet security to their own needs, or who are willing to put up with multiple downloads and regular checks for newer versions of free or inexpensive products, can duplicate most of what Norton 360 offers for less money. And some free or inexpensive products really do work well together, such as CCleaner (which removes duplicative and unneeded files) and Defraggler (which improves system performance), both from Piriform. Furthermore, FileHippo’s UpdateChecker makes it easy to look for newer versions of downloaded software. But how much time do you want to spend running these and similar programs, looking for newer versions, and doing installations? If the answer is “none,” you will find Norton 360 version 4.0 to be a one-stop, elegant protective solution that will be well worth the cost – and will impress you with its smooth operation and overall excellence of functionality.

(++++) VIVA VIOLA!

Schubert: Arpeggione Sonata; Liebesbotschaft (Schwanengesang); An den Mond; Dass Sie Hier Gewesen; Wehmut; Nacht und Träume; Die Taubenpost (Schwanengesang); Ich Schleiche Bang und Still Herum (Romanze der Helene); Der Hirt auf dem Felsen. Antoine Tamestit, viola; Sandrine Piau, soprano; Markus Hadulla, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

The Virtuoso Viola. Roger Chase, viola; Michiko Otaki, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Soviet Russian Viola Music. Igor Fedotov, viola; Gary Hammond, piano; Leonid Vechkhayzer, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

     The viola is the basis, linguistically as well as musically, of the string-instrument family. The word “violin” (“little viola”) derives from it, as do “violoncello,” “bass viol” and the names of such old instruments as the violone (“large viola”), viola da gamba and viola da braccio. But the viola has played second fiddle, so to speak, to the violin – and to most of its other cousins – for hundreds of years, coming more fully into its own only in the 20th century. Even today, recordings focused on the viola remain a bit exotic, so it is interesting to find three of them released at nearly the same time.

     Everything on Antoine Tamestit’s Schubert CD sings, including the songs with words and the ones he has transformed into songs without them. Tamestit offers warm tone and heartfelt playing throughout a program that is pervaded by melancholy. The 1824 Arpeggione Sonata – written for an obsolete instrument, invented in 1823, that has six strings, is fretted and tuned like a guitar, but is bowed like a cello – is played on cello or viola nowadays, the larger instrument providing more richness but the smaller one more effectively emphasizing this work’s wonderful dancelike rhythms and overall tunefulness. Tamestit – with excellent accompaniment from Markus Hadulla – offers an altogether beautiful reading, warm and lively and winning in every way. And then he does something highly unusual, and not for purists: in six Schubert songs, he plays the melody on viola and eliminates the voice altogether. The viola, like the clarinet, does have much of the range and richness of the human voice, and the songs – all of them sad, to varying degrees – have an emotional and lovely sound here, a songs-without-words beauty to rival Mendelssohn’s. But of course Mendelssohn deliberately wrote his Songs without Words, and these Schubert works were intended to be sung (Naïve even provides the original texts – a nice touch). So Tamestit’s transcription seems a little odd and perhaps even a bit self-indulgent – which does not, however, detract from the beauty of his performance’s sound. Furthermore, this CD does offer some Schubert songs with words, and Sandrine Piau sings them with elegance and emotional conviction. There is also a viola transcription in these songs – Romanze der Helene and Der Hirt auf dem Felsen – since they originally called for clarinet and Tamestit here uses his viola instead. But the range and sound of clarinet and viola are close enough so the substitution sounds quite natural here (as it does, for example, in Brahms’ two Op. 120 sonatas for clarinet or viola and piano). This is a beautiful-sounding CD, experimental in some ways, that effectively showcases the range of the viola and the lovely tones of which, in the right hands, it is capable.

     If Schubert’s music makes it possible to showcase the viola’s rich and beautiful sound, works by other composers have shown it to be an instrument capable of considerable virtuosity. Unsurprisingly, the CD called The Virtuoso Viola celebrates the “display” side of viola playing in nine works, all performed with panache by Roger Chase and Michiko Otaki. Georges Enescu’s Pièce de Concert is a standout in combining beauty with performance prowess. Henry Vieuxtemps’ Elégie focuses on the viola’s burnished tone, to fine effect, while the same composer’s Capriccio for Solo Viola shows off the instrument’s more intense and playful side. Zoltán Kodály’s solo-viola transcription of Bach’s Fantasia Cromatica is technically very impressive and displays the viola in a serious mode. For sheer virtuosity, there is Paganini’s Sonata per la Gran Viola, which is not a sonata but a theme and variations – building to considerable fireworks by the end – and in which “Gran” refers not to the music but to the fact that Paganini wrote the piece for the oversize viola that he preferred to play. Paganini’s work is the longest on this CD, at nearly 15 minutes, but Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro delivers an equally impressive virtuoso workout in one-third the time. Le Tombeau de Ravel by Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960), which is almost the length of Paganini’s “sonata,” takes the viola through many different technical and emotional levels – to fine effect. Introduction et Danse by Joseph Jongen (1873-1953) is more unidimensional, but is quite impressive on its own level. And the concluding, shortest work here, Scherzo by Chase’s teacher, Bernard Shore (1896-1985), ends the CD with enough intensity to make the viola’s capabilities abundantly clear. It would be stretching to say that there is any great music here, but a great deal of it is very pleasant indeed, and the quality of the music – as well as of the playing – repays repeated listening.

     Soviet Russian Viola Music is a less successful display of what the viola can do – and was called on to do in the 20th century. All five works here have at least moderately grand pretentions, but they are, by and large, pretentious – and there is a sameness in the approach of several pieces that makes them come across as rather “grey” in sound. In particular, the sonatas for viola and piano by Vladimir Kryukov (1920-1/1933) and Sergey Vasilenko (1923) sound like warmed-over Debussy with a dab of Scriabin. They are intermittently effective but do not sustain interest from start to finish. The sonata by Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky was written a generation later (1956) and has considerably more to it, especially in its central theme-and-variations and brief concluding Postludia. Later still are the sonatas by Grigory Frid (1971) and Yulian Krein (1973). Frid’s work is emotionally the deepest on this CD and the most thoroughly interconnected structurally, with all three of its movements based on the same material; the finale, given over almost entirely to solo viola, shows considerable creativity. Krein’s sonata, though, harks back to early-century Impressionism, being colorful but not especially distinctive. This CD gets a (+++) rating: the music is, by and large, simply not very interesting, although Igor Fedotov plays all the pieces with dedication and intensity and is ably backed up by Gary Hammond in the Krein and Bogdanov-Berezovsky works and by Leonid Vechkhayzer in the rest of the program.


Dvořák: Requiem. Lisa Milne, soprano; Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano; Peter Auty, tenor; Peter Rose, bass; London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir conducted by Neeme Järvi. LPO. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Gerald Finley, Baritone: Great Operatic Arias. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Chandos. $14.99.

Magnus Lindberg: GRAFFITI (2009); Seht die Sonne (2007). Helsinki Chamber Choir and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. Ondine. $16.99.

     Vocal expressiveness is not synonymous with vocal beauty. Composers may use the voice for communications ranging from the ethereal (much of Bach) to the guttural (Berg’s Wozzeck, to cite one example). In these new recordings, the voices are called upon to play a variety of different roles.

     The greatest sustained beauty is to be found in Dvořák’s infrequently performed Requiem, which is a more personal expression of sentiments than is usual in a mass for the dead. The 19th century saw Requiems from the ultra-grandiose (Berlioz) to the ultra-operatic (Verdi), and Dvořák’s makes no attempt to scale those heights. What he does is subtler and was surely more meaningful to the composer himself, given his unwavering religious faith. Using the traditional Requiem text as a jumping-off point rather than a given, he creates an unusually structured work in two parts. The first runs from “Requiem aeternam” through the “Lacrimosa,” and is permeated by a sorrowful three-note motif first heard at the work’s opening. The second part includes the “Offertorium,” “Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei” – but before the final part, Dvořák interpolates a “Pie Jesu” section with words from the final text of the “Dies Irae” portion. The result is a work that is intimate and strongly heartfelt and that comes across, when well performed, as a personal plea – not just an institutional one – for mercy and peace after death. It is the emotionalism of the appeal that comes through most strongly in the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance, with soloists and chorus leaning into the music with fervor and bringing forth not only the beauty of the composer’s scoring but also the intensity with which he clearly felt the words as he chose to present them. This live recording from February 2009 was the LPO’s first performance of this Requiem, and conductor Neeme Järvi clearly wanted there to be a series of emotional high points throughout its hour and a half. The LPO’s sound is, in truth, not ideally suited to music of such warmth and fluidity – the orchestra boasts clarity, even astringency, rather than the broader tone of some Central European ensembles. But in this recording, everyone seems determined to rise to the heights that the subject matter demands, and the result is a very moving experience that makes one wonder why this work is not performed more frequently.

     The pieces sung by baritone Gerald Finley for a new “Opera in English” CD from Chandos are performed all the time, and very well, too. And that is a problem for this well-sung, well-recorded disc. The reason is that English translation of opera is perhaps justifiable in the context of making it possible for an audience to follow the story, and the interplay of characters, without knowing a work’s original language. But on a 13-track CD of some of opera’s greatest hits – with only three pieces originally written in English – the translations are much harder to accept. It takes the pleasure out of Mozart’s Là ci darem la mano to render it as “There will my arms enfold you” (librettist Lorenzo da Ponte was writing about hands, not arms, in any case). Bizet’s Toreador, en garde – which uses a phrase that never needs translation – is just plain silly as “Toreador, be ready.” And it is hard to keep from giggling inappropriately when an aria from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg comes out as “Do not disdain our Masters thus.” Finley has a pleasant voice – not especially brilliant, not exceptionally strong, but well modulated, sensitive to the nuances of different composers’ styles, and powerful enough to handle Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Verdi as well as Mark-Anthony Turnage, John Adams and the (unfortunately inevitable) “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific. So this CD will be a treat for Finley fans, and on that basis gets a (+++) rating. But hearing arias from Euryanthe and Linda di Chamounix in English is, at best, an acquired taste.

     Magnus Lindberg’s music is an acquired taste, too, one that many listeners will be less than eager to acquire. The Finnish composer (born 1958) has an eclectic but always very modern style, often turning to electronic and computer-based manipulation of sound to achieve the effects he wants. In GRAFFITI – the title is all in capitals – Lindberg wanted to create his first work for chorus and orchestra, and came up with a clever way to do so. He chose as text some bits of graffiti found on the walls of houses of ancient Pompeii, which was destroyed in 79 A.D. by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. And he set the words – in rather scattershot fashion and in largely modal choral writing – against chromatic instrumental parts. The result is complex and is interesting rather than gripping, and will not by any means be to all tastes – even though it is in fact somewhat simpler and more accessible than much other Lindberg music. GRAFFITI is paired with a performance of Seht die Sonne, whose title harks back to the first words of the final section of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (even though Lindberg’s work is purely instrumental). This is earlier but more difficult Lindberg, dense and filled with sounds that can be difficult to grasp in a single hearing. There is something symphonic in scale about the work – Lindberg himself has said that Aura, written in 1994 in memory of Witold Lutosławski, could be seen as his first symphony and Seht die Sonne as his second. But Seht die Sonne has none of the traditional sequences or building blocks of a symphony, and is best heard as a complex orchestral tone poem of indeterminate subject. This Lindberg CD, which is very well performed by the Helsinki Chamber Choir and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo, gets a (+++) rating for its effectiveness in putting across the composer’s strongly delineated musical approach. But many listeners will not find the music itself particularly approachable.

March 11, 2010

(++++) ECO-LOGIC

The Smash! Smash! Truck. By Aidan Potts. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

Here Comes the Garbage Barge! By Jonah Winter. Illustrated by Red Nose Studio. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

     Here are two great ways to show kids ages 4-8 about the pluses of recycling and the minuses of failing to reuse as much as possible. Yes, the books are overly simplified, avoiding the tough questions that have adults constantly debating what to do about all the trash the world creates; but as introductions to some of the basics, both books are well written and visually very effective. The Smash! Smash! Truck is told largely from the perspective of glass jars and bottles that are being recycled – some of them fearing being smashed to bits, others enjoying the experience because they know it will bring them back in a new, equally useful form. Aidan Potts (who calls himself Professor Potts in his science books) makes the accurate but infrequently articulated point that since the Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago, “very little has been added and almost nothing taken away.” That is, the entire planet exists in a state of recycling at the atomic level: the surface crust recycles very slowly, the sun causes water to change form and move, “plants grow by using atoms from the air and ground,” and as for living creatures, all “are made by recycling the Earth’s atoms.” And that leads to a comment by one bottle that is being broken up for reuse: “Be nice to glass – you don’t know who it has been.” This is a very clever way to show kids that they are part of the recycling process even when they do not actively do anything about it. And that is just one aspect of this book – because Potts makes the point that “we can make atoms useless for a very long time” by putting trash in plastic bags and having it end up in dumps, where glass “will take hundreds of thousands of years to smash up.” So smashing it deliberately, then reusing it, makes perfect sense. And it does make sense – the recycling of glass, which has been going on for a long, long time, is one of the easiest and most economically justifiable forms of reuse of materials, and is widely embraced by companies that use glass for packaging and communities everywhere that do any form of recycling at all. Potts’ clever illustrations, which often include the word “smash,” are a visual feast, clearly underlining his message, which he eventually states outright: “Old glass is all you need to make new glass. Recycling means we don’t need to dig up any new materials.” That may be a slight overstatement, but no matter – the point is made effectively as well as entertainingly. The difficulty, of course, is what Potts does not say in the book: other forms of recycling are far less efficient and far more expensive than the recycling of glass, which is why they are not embraced as universally as glass recycling is. But as an introduction to what recycling can do and why it is important, The Smash! Smash! Truck is smashingly convincing.

     At the other end of the spectrum of disposal is the true story that forms the basis of Here Comes the Garbage Barge! Back in 1987, a barge laden with 3,168 tons of trash from the town of Islip, near New York City, was towed for dumping to North Carolina – which refused to accept it. And thus began an odyssey that eventually took the barge – and the tugboat Break of Dawn, which was pulling it – 6,000 miles around the United States and beyond, to New Orleans and Mexico and Belize and Texas and Florida, before it eventually returned to New York, where a judge ordered the trash burned in a Brooklyn incinerator and the residue given back to Islip for landfill burial. There are all sorts of social and political complications of this story, none of which Jonah Winter mentions. Instead, his whole focus – appropriately for the age group for which he is writing – is on the barge itself, the tugboat pulling it, and tugboat captain “Cap’m Duffy St. Pierre, a crusty old sailor.” The story becomes Cap’m Duffy’s above all, as he seeks a place to discharge his ever-smellier cargo, periodically reporting back to his boss about the latest location that refuses to allow him and the barge to dock. What makes this book exceptional is only in part the story itself. Red Nose Studio has created amazing illustrations for it, made largely out of – yes – trash. In fact, if you remove the book jacket, there is a whole story inside the jacket itself about just how the models and pictures were created. But don’t read that until you have finished the story if you want to preserve the sheer wonder of the book’s appearance. The heaped-high garbage barge itself changes its look as the tale goes on and the stuff starts to stink more and more. Cap’m Duffy looks sometimes determined, sometimes angry, sometimes downright fed up (as when he is shown with a clothespin on his nose to block out the garbage’s smell). The other characters are wonderfully modeled, too, from the soldiers in Belize (one with a toucan atop his helmet), to the crown-wearing mayor of New Orleans, to the angry senior citizens floating in the water off Florida’s beaches, to the Statue of Liberty that is holding its nose as the garbage barge moves by. The moral of the story, given on the inside back cover, is obvious: “Don’t make so much garbage!” But, of course, how to do that is the difficult issue that the book dodges. Here Comes the Garbage Barge! could well serve as the basis for having the first of a series of complicated reuse-and-recycling talks with a child who has just been fascinated by this tale and captivated by its marvelous illustrations.


Bone Handbook. By Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.

Are You My Mother? By P.D. Eastman. Random House. $8.99.

Have You Seen My Dinosaur? By Jon Surgal. Illustrated by Joe Mathieu. Random House. $8.99.

     One of the greatest journeys ever told in comic-book (or graphic-novel) style is that of the Bone cousins – Fone Bone, Smiley Bone and Phoney Bone – through The Valley and into a huge war between the forces of good and evil. The nine-volume Bone series in Scholastic editions is outstanding – it looks even better with Steve Hamaker’s coloring than in Jeff Smith’s original, black-and-white, comic-book version – and Scholastic recently added a prequel focusing on young Rose, who was known in the main sequence as Gran’ma Ben. And now there is a handbook giving the back story of the entire Bone tale, with brief profiles of the major (and many minor) characters, short synopses of the primary nine-book story, interviews with both Smith and Hamaker, and background material at which the Bone saga itself only hints. There is also a bonus story set within the Bone universe – a slight tale, but an amusing one. This is not a book for newcomers to Bone, since it will spoil the reading of the main story by revealing a great deal of what happens and why. But it is an excellent companion volume for those who have read Bone, who love it, and who have wondered what influenced Smith in writing it and what happened before the main story began – how the stage was set for the earthshaking events that Bone chronicles. It is certainly interesting to know that Smith started drawing characters similar to the Bone cousins when he was 10 years old; that the appearance of Thorn, who will eventually inherit the throne at the end of the saga, is based on that of Smith’s wife and was the hardest character for Smith to draw; and that Smith’s fascination with Herman Melville not only determined Fone Bone’s love of Moby-Dick but also led to the name Bartleby for the baby Rat Creature who plays an important role in the story. These tidbits of information may be trivia, but to those fascinated by Bone and wanting to know as much as possible about the epic’s creator and the events and characters within the story, Bone Handbook will be a delight. And it even includes some Bone-related recipes, such as the “blank sandwich” (two pieces of bread, crusts cut off, within nothing between the slices).

     The journeys in two new Random House Beginner Books – the ones with the familiar logo of Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat – are not as wide-ranging as that of Bone, but kids ages 5-8 will nevertheless find plenty to enjoy here. Are You My Mother? is a classic – the new edition marks its 50th year – and is as charming as ever. It is simply the story of a baby bird whose mother leaves the nest to find food just before the baby hatches – so the baby, after breaking out of the egg, does not know what its mother looks like. The result is a story of amusing mistakes, as the baby bird asks a kitten, a hen, a dog and other animals whether they are his mother, and of course finds out that none of them fills the bill. The bird eventually meets a “snort” – a huge steam shovel – which picks him up and puts him back in the nest, where of course his mother finds him, safe and sound. P.D. Eastman’s easy-to-read prose and simple but expressive drawings are as enjoyable for the kids of 2010 as they were for the children of 1960, when the book first appeared.

     Have You Seen My Dinosaur? is brand new, but is cut from much the same cloth as Eastman’s book. Jon Surgal’s rhyming story about a little boy looking for his missing pet dinosaur is very well complemented by Joe Mathieu’s suitably silly illustrations. The visual joke here is that the dinosaur keeps appearing where readers see him, but just out of view of the boy and all the people he asks for help: his mother, a fisherman, the police, a zookeeper, and others. The story is sheer fun, as when the zookeeper tries to think of animals that the boy can find at the zoo: “Now let me see. What have we got?/ A lynx. Some minks. An ocelot./ Plus two gnu. A kinkajou./ Camels with one hump or two./ A big black bear from Baden-Baden./ A Scottish beastie from Culloden.” And all the animals are dancing in a chorus line – along with the dinosaur, bigger than any of them, but not seen by boy or zookeeper: “But no, we have no dinosaur./ There aren’t any, anymore.” But the boy knows that he has a dinosaur, and eventually comes up with someone to ask who, he is sure, has seen the missing dino. He’s right, too – and kids will enjoy being pulled into this story of a quest that never quite ends the way the boy would like it to, but remains an enjoyable exploration from start to finish.


The Solar Car Book. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $21.95.

The Only Coloring, Puzzle, Game, Dot-to-Dot Activity Book You’ll Ever Need. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $14.95.

     “Satan finds some mischief still/ For idle hands to do,” wrote Isaac Watts in the 18th century. “We’ve got a better idea,” Klutz editors might reply in the 21st. Kids with time on their hands can easily spend it in crafts projects or “directed doodling” (not that Klutz actually calls it that) – or in many other activities designed to prevent those idle hands and the minds controlling them from slipping into boredom or, worse, television. For kids ages eight and above, The Solar Car Book provides a wonderful and surprisingly simple project that parents can turn into a discussion of ecologically responsible ways to get around in the world (if they can find a way to do that without taking all the fun out of things). There are only a few parts needed to build this little light-powered vehicle, and as usual in Klutz books, all those parts are included. The car’s body is cardboard, bound right into the book – just take it out, attach the wheels, axles, wires and solar cell, and you’ve got a working model. In fact, Klutz challenges kids who “hate step-by-step instructions” just to look at a front-of-book photo and put the car together from it. But then, of course (and as usual for Klutz), the book gives step-by-step instructions, which make the assembly very clear and easy (there are even holes punched in all the places in the car body through which items need to be inserted). In fact, the instructions are so simple that this would be a mighty thin book if that were all it included. But that is not the Klutz way. There are also pages about solar power, how solar cars work vs. how regular ones with internal-combustion engines work, ways in which solar power is used in real-world vehicles (including airplanes), and how to make the solar car operate indoors (answer: attach a battery; instructions included, of course). Kids who build the car and read the book will not only have a neat little plaything (which doesn’t move terribly quickly, though – be forewarned) but also have a better understanding of energy in general, “green” energy, and the positive elements and natural limitations of using the sun to make things move.

     What kids will understand after going through The Only Coloring, Puzzle, Game, Dot-to-Dot Activity Book You’ll Ever Need is – well, to be honest, not much. This is a book for younger children (ages four and up), and it is designed purely for fun, not for any instructional purpose. But that won’t limit its value to families on rainy days, during car trips or at other “what do I do now?” times. Spiral bound so it easily opens flat or can be folded back on itself, the book features fold-in pages, connect-the-dots puzzles, construction projects such as cootie catchers, punch-through pages that create goosebumps and mosquito bites, an age-guessing puzzle, cutouts that turn buttons into “button noses,” and lots of other silly and simple (and simply silly) activities. The whole book is in black-and-white, which means there are opportunities to color absolutely everything with the five included twist-up crayons – including the page that says, “Don’t color this page” (you’re supposed to do something else first, then color it). There is nothing profound here at all, but there is lots of fun to be had. And if the fun in this book and The Solar Car Book seems vaguely familiar – well, you must be an adult with a good memory, or with kids who are widely spaced in age. Both these books are new editions of ones with the same titles that were issued by Klutz early in this decade. The new versions are redesigned and repackaged but are essentially the same as the earlier ones. That means that if you already had a child who enjoyed either of these books and now have another child in the right age range, you can be almost sure that he or she will have a great time with these reissues. And there’s nothing devilish, or idle, about that.


The Envy Chronicles, Book 2: Embrace the Night Eternal. By Joss Ware. Avon. $7.99.

The Envy Chronicles, Book 3: Abandon the Night. By Joss Ware. Avon. $7.99.

     Joss Ware gets big points for consistency. Beyond the Night, the first book in a series now being called The Envy Chronicles, was a post-apocalyptic zombie romance (that’s a romance including zombies, not involving zombies) featuring a man who developed strange paranormal powers during a 50-year suspension of time (and of belief) in a cave while the world collapsed. Much of the book focused on how he and a woman with her own horrible past would overcome their memories and the destruction of the world around them to find sensual and emotional relief with each other – which they eventually did.

     The second book in the series, Embrace the Night Eternal, is about another man who was in that cave, who developed different paranormal powers and who – in the new, post-apocalyptic world – encounters a different woman; and the two seek to overcome their memories and the destruction of the world around them to find sensual and emotional relief with each other. Which they eventually do.

     The third book, Abandon the Night, is about a third man who was in the cave, and about a third woman, and – by now, you get the idea. But you may wonder what “Envy” is all about. Given the usual meaning of the word, it is an unfortunate choice for a romance-series title; but the usual meaning is not what matters here. “Envy” is “NV” and used to be “LV.” That is, it is what people of the post-apocalypse call New Vegas, which used to be Las Vegas. The remains of this city – now conveniently close to the Pacific Ocean, California having disappeared beneath the waves – are the centerpiece of civilization in Ware’s world. This is one of several elements in these books that indicate the author may not intend them to be taken entirely seriously.

     The overt plotting, though, is serious (if formulaic) enough. The first book was filled with mysteries, not only about the individual characters’ survival and the world in which they must now live, but also about the gangas (as zombies are called here), the Strangers (apparent immortals who may or may not be aliens), and the partly known, partly unknown powers of the men who were trapped in that cave. The first book’s primary male “romantic lead” was Dr. Elliott Drake, who has the power to heal with his hands – but only if he takes the disease or injury into himself and suffers any consequences (including death), or passes the condition along to someone (or something) else. Jade (who chooses her name to try to obliterate memories of her previous one, Diana Kapiza) is the woman in this couple. She is a strong character and important provider of services to Envy, but is fighting horrid memories of captivity with a bounty hunter and the Immortals, who are in essence the fount of all evil (they appear to have been responsible for destroying the world). The couples of books two and three were actually introduced in the first book, but they were not front and center; so Ware makes them the core of the followup novels. Thus, Embrace the Night Eternal focuses on Simon Japp, whose violent past eventually comes back to haunt him even post-apocalyptically (and despite his determination to use his newfound paranormal powers for good); and on Sage Corrigan, a computer expert (a few computers have survived) whose knowledge is key to fighting back against the Strangers. Thrown together in a situation that requires them to pose as man and wife (the Apocalypse somehow not having significantly changed the importance of institutional marriage, at least for the good guys), Simon and Sage eventually and not surprisingly find themselves inevitably attracted to each other, and Simon’s paranormal power turns out to come in handy for highly personal matters as well as for battle.

     In Abandon the Night, the two primary people in focus are Quent (full name: Quentin Brummell Fielding III), who learned in the first book that his hated father was likely the driving force behind whatever the Immortals did to the world, and who is now determined to kill him; and Zoë Kapoor, who coupled avidly with Quent in the first book but develops a relationship with him only when it turns out they are both strongly driven in their post-apocalyptic lives by the desire for revenge (gangas killed Zoë’s family). Ware does a good job of making both her male and female characters independent and reasonably intelligent: Quent’s driven, intense determination plays nicely with Zoë’s expertise in archery and near fearlessness in destroying as many gangas as she can. These books being romances, though, the characters’ self-reliance goes only so far – to the point where they find they desperately need each other in order to “complete” themselves.

     At one point in their pretend-married adventure, when Simon and Sage need to be in bed together, Sage is more interested in him than he seems to be in her, and an amusingly awkward scene results, during which Sage “wasn’t sure whether to giggle or to roll her eyes.” Readers may end up with somewhat similar reactions. Ware keeps making it clear that this is serious stuff, end-of-the-world and near-end-of-humanity stuff, that she is writing. But amusing elements keep creeping in, unostentatiously enough so it is not quite certain whether Ware intends these books to be taken wholly seriously or not – or, to put it another way, whether she is being clever or is just style-challenged. One example from the first book: Elliott contemplating paranormal powers by thinking of the Pixar film, The Incredibles. And one from the second: “Her upper lip had a small freckle right on it, right at the fullest part, and every time he noticed it, the bottom dropped out of his stomach.” Ware’s books are easy reading, in any case, and the characters, while scarcely deep, are interesting enough to make readers care about what happens to them. The books’ plots are rather overstuffed, and some plot points are just plain silly (for example, Sage is a virgin until she and Simon get serious, and her virginity is not detected even when she is medically examined in a community focused on repopulating the planet as quickly as possible). But the destroyed-world background is effectively presented, and the mixture of adventure and romance is generally pretty well balanced. There is little to envy in Ware’s writing style, but The Envy Chronicles has the elements needed to become an enviable popular success.