July 29, 2010


Once Dead, Twice Shy. By Kim Harrison. Harper. $8.99.

Early to Death, Early to Rise. By Kim Harrison. Harper. $16.99.

     When academic studies are written about Kim Harrison’s novels – and they will be at some point – they will surely highlight certain similarities between her Rachel Morgan “Hollows” series for adults and her new Madison Avery series for teenagers. In both, Harrison creates a strong female central character who is inevitably caught between two worlds and does not quite fit into either, but is determined to change both. She is attractive, but not as attractive as one of the supernaturally powered friends with whom she interacts. The protagonist also has a small flying companion and helper with a snarky attitude, who does things that others of his or her kind have not done before. And the central character impresses others – even enemies, or apparent enemies – through the sheer force of her desire to do the right thing even when everyone thinks it is wrong. In addition, the whole question of enemies is a complicated one: Harrison’s books are full of betrayals and, of equal if not greater interest, of alliances with characters who appear to be unalterably opposed to the protagonist but somehow find themselves, at least to an extent, on her side.

     Harrison brings a sense of reality to stories that are inherently unbelievable by creating characters whose motivations are understandable, if not always admirable. In Early to Death, Early to Rise, for example, another character tells Madison, “‘The mistakes don’t matter. It’s what you do when you mess up that does.’” This is the sort of comment that makes a reader think – and Harrison is good at that. Elsewhere in the same book, a different character tells Madison, “‘You’re not what I thought you’d be.’” Harrison’s central characters never are. And Madison herself says – to someone who is supposed to be on the opposite side, but who gives her grudging respect as he gets to know her (another trait of Harrison’s heroines) – “‘I’m trying to find a way to do my job in a way that doesn’t go against all I believe in. …It’s hard to wake up and see the sun if the blinds are pulled. I’m a blind puller, Paul. Stop trying to yank me from the window.’” Later, Madison comments to yet another character, “‘I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, either. I just do what feels right.’”

     And just what is Madison trying to do? Well, that is a complicated story – or rather, so far, two complicated stories. The universe of the Madison Avery novels is one in which divine intervention in earthly affairs is constant, with unending jockeying for heavenly position involving “light reapers” (who are not necessarily good) and “dark reapers” (who are not necessarily bad), plus guardian angels (who are not at all what a reader will expect), seraphs and other celestial types. The reapers, who are angels of a sort, are controlled – or at least managed – by humans called “timekeepers.” The “light timekeeper” is Chronos, or as Madison calls him, Ron. The “dark timekeeper” is Madison herself – but instead of being a living human (with age artificially preserved through eons), she is, not to put too fine a point on it, dead. She only looks alive. The reasons for all this are laid out piecemeal in Once Dead, Twice Shy, wherein it turns out that the previous “dark timekeeper” tried what seemed like a good political move by eliminating Madison as his replacement…but it didn’t work out as he wished. But “light timekeeper” Ron turns out not to be the trustworthy friend and guide that Madison thought he was – and again, this is typical in Harrison’s books, where at least one of the protagonist’s supposed teachers and helpers turns out to have a hostile agenda, so the heroine must instead learn things on her own or with the aid of characters that neither she nor readers would expect, at least initially, to be helpful.

     Once Dead, Twice Shy, which is now available in paperback, is a substantially better book than its brand-new sequel, but both are worth (++++) ratings because they function so well at creating the world – call it the mythos – that Harrison is developing in this series. It is a thinner, less complex and, in truth, less interesting world than is the world of her “Hollows” novels, which are peopled (if that’s the right word) with a bewildering assortment of supernatural beings, all of them relentlessly pursuing their own completely understandable agendas and intersecting with Rachel Morgan in surprising if not entirely unpredictable ways. The Madison Avery books are tremendously simplified and toned down by comparison – maybe a bit too much. For example, it may make sense in books for teen readers to reduce the steamy sexuality of the “Hollows” novels, but really, asking today’s teens to believe that a chaste kiss between 17-year-olds is a big deal is more than a touch silly. The reality is that, although the quality of Harrison’s plotting and character creation still stands out in the Madison Avery books, Harrison seems less comfortable writing for younger readers than for adults. This is especially true in Early to Death, Early to Rise, in which Madison embarks on her first full-fledged attempt to do things her own way – working with both a “light” and a “dark” reaper. The problem with the book is not the concept, but the fact that the working out of “fate” vs. “choice” (which is, at the core, what the whole dark-and-light theme is about) involves dealing with two teenage boys whose computer hacking may cause several deaths – but the boys themselves are completely uninteresting types, not the sort of fully formed characters in whom Harrison specializes. It’s hard for readers to care about what one or the other of these boys may do when it’s hard to care about either boy himself.

     Nevertheless, the Madison Avery books are several cuts above most supernatural teen literature, and that fact is entirely due to Harrison’s skill in world creation and development of a fascinating protagonist and excellent core of central characters surrounding her. Toward the end of Early to Death, Early to Rise, a subsidiary character neatly sums up the appeal of Madison in one of those comments that Harrison seems to toss off easily but that are inevitably highly thought-provoking: “‘I like you. …You use your love to see the world. It makes everything harder for you, but if it were easy, then everyone could do it.’” But everyone can’t do it – not what Madison does and not what Harrison does. And therein lies what makes Madison’s activities, and Harrison’s books about them, so interesting to read – and so worthy, at some time, of academic analyses.


Bite Me: A Love Story. By Christopher Moore. Morrow. $23.99.

     Every one of Christopher Moore’s dozen novels has earned a (++++) rating, from Practical Demonkeeping (1992) onward. But some are more (++++) than others, and Bite Me – like its predecessor, You Suck – is a “low” (++++), while the first book of Moore’s vampire trilogy, Bloodsucking Fiends, is such a high (++++) that it would deserve an extra half (+) if the character existed.

     You have to suspect that Moore himself knows this, at least to some extent. His E-mail address is BSFiends@aol.com. Jody, the 26-year-old cute-but-not-beautiful vampire created at the start of Bloodsucking Fiends, has got to be Moore’s favorite character. True, he once placed her second, after Biff (Christ’s childhood pal) from Lamb, but that was at a time when Lamb was just about to be released, so Moore could well have been pumping up the new book. Of all Moore’s many, many characters, Jody remains the one with the greatest depth, the most sense of a developed and developing person, or thing, as the case may be. What made Bloodsucking Fiends so good was the way Jody gradually came to accept herself as a vampire, even while refusing to give in to baser vampire instincts – she would feed only on people who were about to die anyway, and provide a touch of sex if that would help make things easier for her victims (she was far from sexually innocent herself).

     It even made sense for Jody to hook up in Bloodsucking Fiends with the much younger, duller and less experienced Tommy (age 19); and the unlikely pairing of these two – with Tommy remaining human while Jody grew into greater vampiric powers – was a major strength of the book.

     The second volume subtitled A Love Story was a lesser work, but You Suck did have its moments even though it turned into a somewhat more conventional vampire tale (to the extent that anything by Moore is ever conventional), with Tommy too becoming a vampire and not being particularly happy about it. You Suck did introduce one really delightful new character, Abby Normal (yes, “Ab Normal”), 90-pound tattooed and pierced just-a-bit-older-than-Lolita type, vampire wannabe, and drama queen with a voice uniquely her own. Abby (real “daylight” name: Allison Green) is so good that the first chapter of Bite Me, in which Abby recounts the entire plot of You Suck in her own inimitable style, is in many ways the best part of the new book. And that is a problem, because while Bite Me is partly a story about Abby, it does not really focus on her; and while it is partly a story about Jody, it focuses even less on her – and that is a real disappointment. The book comes alive (so to speak) when Jody comes alive (so to speak), and that just doesn’t happen often enough.

     Bite Me is an ensemble piece, a sort of Marx Brothers creatures-of-the-night comedy with even more good guys (Abby and two friends, a ninja, the Emperor of San Francisco, a couple of detectives, seven Safeway workers), uncountable numbers of bad guys (cats, mostly, plus four very old vampires), plus Jody and Tommy kind of out there on the fringes of the story. But the Marx Brothers generally stayed pretty much together in their films, separating only long enough for some “business” of their own (Harpo playing the harp, for instance) before coming together for ensemble hilarity. Bite Me keeps everyone scattered throughout most of the book, and as a result its structure creaks – the four old vampires, who are key to resolving the whole situation, don’t even appear until two-thirds of the way through. Furthermore, although the setting of Bite Me and its two predecessors is San Francisco, the city is strangely anonymous here (as it was not in Bloodsucking Fiends): pretty much any city with a wharf, some rundown areas and some gentrified ones, and some hiding places for cats and vampires would work equally well. Moore does mention the names of various San Francisco landmarks, but a real sense of place is nearly absent.

     None of this is to say that Bite Me is a bad book, or even an unsuccessful one; it does still deserve a (++++) rating, thanks largely to Moore’s unequalled style and ability to mesh absurdities. One Abby-narrated chapter includes this: “An inky-colored despair of rejection enveloped me like the black tortilla of depression around a pain burrito.” That chapter is titled, “Being the Chronicles of Abby Normal, Who, Befouled by the Wicked Taint of Rat Suck, Must Find Her Own Murderer.” Elsewhere, in a tender moment, Moore writes of Abby’s boyfriend, Foo, “He flipped the switch, then looked over at Abby, lying on the bed. She looked so peaceful, undead and drugged and not talking. Almost happy, despite having a tail. But the police wouldn’t understand.” There are, in fact, a lot of these laugh-out-loud moments in Bite Me, which proceeds at so frantic a pace that readers can easily forget that it is running around in circles, trying to catch its own metaphorical tail, most of the time.

     If this were an early book by a less-experienced author, it would rightly be labeled a work with tremendous potential and an enviable penchant for hilarity. But Bite Me is by someone who has churned out excellent novels for nearly 20 years, and it is unfortunate that this conclusion to the Jody-and-Tommy story is so much less satisfying than the tale’s beginning. In fact, the conclusion of this “love story,” in which Abby ends up (reasonably) normal and Tommy returns to more or less where and what he was when we first met him, is kind of dismal – even though Jody gets to sail off into the sunset (and the darkness) in the full glory of her powers. A very good book by the standards of almost any other contemporary author, Bite Me, by the standards that Moore has set for himself, sort of…bites.


Little Rabbit and the Meanest Mother on Earth. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. Harcourt. $17.

The Gecko & Sticky 4: The Power Potion. By Wendelin Van Draanen. Illustrated by Stephen Gilpin. Knopf. $12.99.

Melonhead 2: Melonhead and the Big Stink. By Katy Kelly. Illustrated by Gillian Johnson. Delacorte Press. $14.99.

50% Wool, 50% Asinine: An “Argyle Sweater” Collection. By Scott Hilburn. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     “Little things amuse little minds,” the old saying goes. But little things also amuse bigger, or at least older, minds, and the little things in all these far-from-profound books are designed to amuse minds of many different ages. The best of the books is for the youngest readers: the Klise sisters, who have a fine sense of the absurd in everything they create together, make Little Rabbit and the Meanest Mother on Earth a wonderful encapsulation of young children’s feelings about their “awful” parents, who insist on torturing children by making them do such terrible tasks as cleaning up their rooms. That is the point of contention here: Little Rabbit cannot go to the circus unless he cleans up his super-messy playroom, but he just can’t bring himself to do it, and his mother insists, so she is clearly the meanest mother on the planet. And if she is, Little Rabbit realizes, then she is worthy of being a circus attraction itself. So Little Rabbit goes to the circus and offers to bring his mother later in the day as an attraction, successfully selling tickets in advance as he tells the other animals, “She has two heads. And green teeth! …Why, if you just look at her the wrong way, she’ll chop off your tail and eat it – in one bite.” The exaggerations certainly sell tickets, but what happens when Little Rabbit blindfolds his mother and leads her to the circus, past posters of a two-headed apron-wearing bunny and a mean, green-toothed monster mother rabbit? Well, of course all the animals realize that Little Rabbit’s mother is not at all what he has told them – but before the crowd gets too unruly, it is Mother Rabbit herself who figures out something really scary to show the audience. She not only saves the day but also ends up with a clean playroom, thanks to some wonderful sleight of hand that will have parents and children alike wishing for a little of Mother Rabbit’s magic in their lives.

     The absurdity is on a different level, but not necessarily a loftier one, in the two series entries for ages 8-12, The Gecko & Sticky 4: The Power Potion and Melonhead and the Big Stink. Both these books, which get (+++) ratings, have a thing (or several things) about smells. Wendelin Van Draanen revisits Dave Sanchez and his lizard sidekick, Sticky, as Dave is delivering a package to the evil Damien Black, his nemesis from previous books. Dave just can’t resist opening the package to find out what terrible thing it contains, and that leads to a series of misadventures that closely parallel the earlier ones in this series (although the hyper-powered six-horned goat is new). A high point, perhaps, is the Stephen Gilpin picture showing the evil Damien perched on a toilet, after more than a page of verbal description of what is happening to him. Damien uses a potion that is not what he thinks it is, and “it acts, by and large, as a laxative. It loosens your stools. Gurgles your guts. And (let’s just be frank, shall we?) makes you go poo-poos. And so it was that Damien Black wound up trading his gargoyle throne in the great room for a porcelain one in the bathroom.” Okay, okay, got it, and undoubtedly this will be hilarious to some young readers; but it is disappointing to find Van Draanen (who in that past has been better than this) wallowing in this sort of thing – which she does not confine to Damien, either. Oh no, she also includes a scene in which the Bandito Brothers, “smaller and rattier” Pablo and “hairy-armed Angelo,” are running around a forest screaming “I NEED A POTTY!” and “I’ve got dibs on the potty!” and “I’ve really got to GO!” There’s a plot, too, but it tends to get a bit buried under…well, under everything that Van Draanen is flinging.

     The new Melonhead book puts the words “the big stink” right in the title, but it’s not that kind of stink – it’s worse. The title refers to the infamous odor of the titan arum plant, which blooms once every seven years with a blossom that smells like rotting dead animals. Melonhead (real name: Adam Melon) is determined to get to New York City to see the plant in bloom, but he keeps detouring himself – starting when he ruins one of neighbor Mrs. Wilkins’ favorite garden plants and his mother insists he do chores for her to make up for the accident. Katy Kelly’s book is action-packed and includes a genuinely touching moment or two when Melonhead realizes that there is more to Mrs. Wilkins than he ever thought. But a lot of what goes on is odor-focused. Notably, Melonhead decides that a good-deed list should be called “the Boys’ Improvement Guide for Acting Responsible Till Stink Sunday” – that is, BIG FARTSS, and “the second s is silent,” Melonhead adds. Between this name and the ongoing focus on awful smells, Kelly’s book stinks – that is, it intends to stink, and there is even a vomiting episode thrown in for good measure. Gillian Johnson’s illustrations are a little too sweet-natured for all the smelliness, which in this case is a good thing.

     The kids who fail to outgrow smell-oriented preteen books may be a natural audience for the Argyle Sweater single-panel comic, which includes “Lifethstyleths of the Thspitting Cobra Thithsterths” as they hurl spit-filled insults into each other’s face, and two observers finding out that a leprechaun’s “Pot o’ Gold” is a golden toilet in an outhouse. Scott Hilburn’s humor ranges from the extremely silly to the overly abstruse. A covered wagon is pulled by two horses with pine-scented deodorizers hanging from their rears. An exhausted stork from the Vlasic plant leaves an unhappy surprise for a young couple – readers must know that Vlasic uses a cartoon stork in its pickle ads to get the joke. A butterfly is arrested during a date with an under-age girl – that is, a caterpillar. Mobsters demanding answers are going to “rearrange his face” – “he” being Mr. Potato Head. An irritated traveler at airport screening is stuck behind Iron Man. A hunter is stopped for shooting Care Bears (you have to know who they are to get it), but is not arrested, because his license is in order and they are in season. A new model of Cinderella’s pumpkin coach comes with “front- and side-impact air gourds.” A pirate boss tells a complaining female employee, “I checked with Accounting and there’s no missin’ treasure, so I’m not sure what ye mean when ye say the scoundrel touched yar booty.” Two “insurance giants do battle, ironically costing their own companies billions of dollars in claims” – for which you have to recognize the GEICO gecko and Aflac duck. The Argyle Sweater can be hilarious, but Hilburn often overreaches in his search for a laugh and overdoes the references to fairy tales, ad campaigns and popular culture. His new collection gets a (+++) rating – it is often very funny, but equally often comes across as if he is simply trying too hard for absurdity and cleverness.


Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write—from Baby to Age 7. By J. Richard Gentry, Ph.D. Da Capo. $14.95.

The Preemie Primer: A Complete Guide for Parents of Premature Babies—from Birth through the Toddler Years and Beyond. By Jennifer Gunter, M.D. Da Capo. $16.95.

     All children are special, each in his or her own way. And all deserve special treatment, from coddling and love and demonstrations of affection to guidance in their earliest years in the directions in which parents most want them to grow. Becoming an adept reader is surely one such direction: reading is even more important in today’s information flood than it was when all material flowed through print media. Today’s kids will need to cope as they grow with an ever-increasing amount of information disseminated through an ever-larger number of methods. Web sites and eBook readers are, it is fair to guess, only the beginning of tomorrow’s methods of connecting content producers with content consumers. The basics of how children read, though, are unlikely to change, although absorption may accelerate as the human brain adjusts to the need to pull in more material from a larger number of sources. J. Richard Gentry, who has spent more than 30 years working with beginning readers, suggests in Raising Confident Readers that parents guide children in a variety of ways through four “phases” of reading – or five if you count “Phase 0,” which starts right at birth as parents read aloud to their infants. Perception of reading material actually starts in utero, Gentry says: “Even before birth, if you are reading a children’s storybook aloud, baby’s brain responds to the musical quality of the sound, which she can already hear from inside the womb.” Phase 0, says Gentry, is E-A-S-Y – a perhaps overly cute acronym for “Early start, Activities, Stimulation and You.” Creativity that goes beyond recitation of words is crucial at this stage: “One parent I know stimulated large motor skills by walking around with her toddler like a penguin because they were reading about penguins.” Parents need to be careful not to get into competitive mode as Gentry gives examples of all the wonderful things other families have done to inspire kids to read. Parents also should take the author’s book suggestions as guidance, not as “musts.” Phase 0, for instance, gets such books as Goodnight Moon and Sandra Boynton’s The Going to Bed Book; Phase 1, which focuses on letter learning, includes (among others) The Napping House and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom; Phase 2, in which kids learn to map letters to sounds, has such suggestions as Green Eggs and Ham, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are. In addition to making specific suggestions for parents, Gentry gets into some of the more technical aspects of teaching reading – perhaps a little oddly from a parental perspective, since his discussions of (for example) “comprehension, fluency, sound awareness, phonics, and vocabulary” can make reading with your kids seem like less of a pleasure and more of a job: “Remember to include modeling, telling, explaining, and thinking aloud in your conversations during read-alouds and retellings.” To complicate matters further, Gentry includes drawing and/or writing exercises in every phase he discusses – yes, even Phase 0 (because “art begins at birth”). Like his reading ideas, his ones about writing are well thought out and can be very helpful, but they can also be a touch on the complex side for already-busy parents. The biggest flaw in Raising Confident Readers is that it may undermine parents’ confidence by showing just how complex and multifaceted the teaching of reading and writing can be. By the time parents are told that (in Phase 4) a child “shows evidence of chunking knowledge [and] stabilizes the concept of how words work and integrates the use of letter-sound cues and grammar cues,” the whole read-with-your-child idea may start to sound like a chore rather than a pleasure. Parents need to lighten up when reading Gentry’s book, not worry themselves unduly about hitting all the suggested guideposts and making it through all the many recommended exercises.

     Recommendations for premature babies are an entirely different issue, and Jennifer Gunter is especially competent to discuss them: in addition to being an OB/GYN, she is herself the parent of two preemies – and was pregnant, after fertility treatments, with three babies, the first of whom died within minutes of birth. Gunter is very, very parent-focused in The Preemie Primer, giving many examples of her own feelings and worries (her harrowing story about breastfeeding concerns, for example) as well as providing sound practical advice on everything from preemie car seats to insurance and billing issues. This mixture of medical advice and personal experience works exceptionally well. For instance, Gunter discusses hospital-acquired infections statistically, explaining that “the risk of a baby catching an infection while in the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] ranges from 6-33 percent.” On the same page, she details her own experiences with an E. coli infection that she passed to her babies – and quotes her OB/GYN colleague telling her, “‘You know this is not your fault.’” So when Gunter adds, in her own voice, “I just needed to hear someone say it out loud,” readers know this is one doctor and mother who has really “been there” from both a medical and a maternal perspective. It is hard to say whether the personal stories or the medical analysis is more valuable here; they tend to intermingle closely. In the section on hearing loss in the NICU, for example, Gunter explains that babies who spend more than two days in NICU have “10 times the risk of hearing impairment compared with a baby born at term,” and then presents tables showing types of hearing loss and decibel levels of common sounds. She also explains that “I was careful to observe quiet time while [my boys’] incubators were covered with a quilt, but I could hardly wait for their day to begin.” And she talks about what she said to them while caring for them. This is really quite wonderful, and provides a nice counterbalance to the potentially disturbing data about what can happen to preemies shortly after their birth. And Gunter by no means stops the book after her boys and other preemies go home – she continues the story into the toddler years, just as her title promises, although it is true that as the book goes on, there is much less in it that applies specifically to premature births and much more that relates to children in general. And for some, Gunter’s reliance on medical statistics may start to pall after a while: “Pertussis is a serious infection for children: 10 percent get pneumonia, 2 percent will have seizures, and more than 50 percent of babies under the age of one will need to be hospitalized.” “The 3rd percentile in height translates to a predicted adult height of 5 feet 4 inches for a boy and 4 feet 11 inches for a girl.” “Approximately 1 percent of children have a disorder in the autism spectrum.” Like many medically oriented books for nonmedical readers, The Preemie Primer is too jam-packed with technical information for most parents to be able to absorb it all. And of course the book is not for everyone – its focus on parents of preemies is quite intentional. What sets it above many other books in the “medical aspects of parenting” genre is the effective interweaving of Gunter’s personal and emotional experiences with her no-nonsense medical knowledge about premature babies and the families that raise them.


Microsoft Office 2010. Windows 7/Vista SP1/XP SP3 (32-bit only). Microsoft. Web-based version hosted by Microsoft, free; Professional Academic, $99; Home and Student, $149 boxed or $119 as download with Product Key Card; Home and Business, $279 or $199 as download with Product Key Card; Professional, $499 or $349 as download with Product Key Card.

     Microsoft makes much better products than it tends to get credit for. It did not become the world’s largest software company by producing programs of poor quality or low utility – a fact often forgotten by a journalistic community that contains a disproportionate percentage of Macintosh users and Apple advocates. And when it comes to its bread-and-butter products – Windows operating systems and the Microsoft Office suite – Microsoft simply has to stay at the top of its game in order to maintain its huge and enviable profitability and very high free cash flow. This is doubly true because when the company stumbles, as it did to some extent with Windows Vista, there are hordes of people out there ready to make something that is not as good as it could be seem like evil incarnate. Very few commentators focused on the substantial and genuine innovations of Windows Vista – improvements and new approaches that are now simply taken for granted in Windows 7, which is essentially a refined, smoother, faster-operating Vista.

     Microsoft Office 2007 did not produce the chorus of negative publicity that Windows Vista did – it generally garnered mild to moderate praise, along with speculation that it might be overpriced, over-featured, over-complicated and the beginning of the end of standalone-computer-based office tasks, with individuals and businesses steadily moving their work online rather than buying productivity suites for use on individual computers. But there is a reason that free and online suites, even very good ones such as Oracle’s OpenOffice.org, heavily promote themselves as compatible with Microsoft Office: Microsoft’s product remains the standard against which all others are measured.

     Microsoft Office 2010 raises the bar for the competition. Much as Windows 7 refined the innovations of Windows Vista, Office 2010 refines and improves upon the design and operating innovations of Office 2007. Exactly what you get depends on exactly what you pay – and at prices ranging from zero to $500, the feature array is dizzying and can be confusing. But the essentials of this new Microsoft Office are clear. The top-of-screen “Ribbon,” introduced in Office 2007, is much better: you can more easily find and use a wide variety of options that were difficult to discover in the earlier version. The Ribbon not only shows all the tools you may need at any given moment, but also – in Office 2010 but not previously – works with OneNote and Publisher, which were not previously designed for it. It is also easier now than before to customize the Ribbon, and you can even create your own Ribbon tabs (with your own choices of tool groupings) if Microsoft’s are not enough for your needs. And by the way (or perhaps not “by the way” for some users), you can hide the Ribbon easily by simply clicking on an arrow at the upper right of the display, next to the question mark for Help. You could hide it in Office 2007, too (by clicking on it or pressing Ctrl-F1), but many users never discovered that. This is just one of the many enhancements that make Office 2010 easier to use and more intuitive than earlier versions.

     Microsoft Office 2010 cleverly adopts the coauthoring feature made popular by Google Docs – its major Web-based competitor, with which Microsoft now goes head-to-head in its free version of Office 2010. If you need to have several people working on the same document from different locations, you will find this Office 2010 feature both powerful and easy to use. It is not better than Google’s, but having it in paid versions of Office 2010 removes a potential reason for multi-location users to switch to Google’s online applications.

     Microsoft also took another page from Google by allowing grouping of messages into conversations in Outlook 2010 (and also, by the way, in the new version of Hotmail). This sort of grouping is a major benefit of Google’s Gmail, since it makes it easy to track complex, ongoing discussions. Again, Microsoft’s adoption of the approach is not better than Google’s, but having it integrated with the rest of Office 2010 makes the suite a better one-stop shop for all purposes.

     Office 2010 also has a new Navigation Pane that shows, in outline, the structure of any document on which a user is working – say, a business plan, term paper or thesis. This feature replaces an earlier, rarely used (and not especially well designed) one called Document Map. The Navigation Pane lets you search within any document instantly, and move sections of it around to try them out in different sequences. Unimportant for short documents, it can be highly useful for lengthy and complex ones.

     There are some nifty photo-editing and other graphics tools in Office 2010, too. For example, a background-removal tool guesses what parts of an image you want to keep, displays the rest of the image in purple, and lets you save the foreground object while removing everything else. You do not have to accept the software’s guesses, either – just click on portions of the image to add or remove blocks of color. In fact, cropping and image adjustment are as easy in Office 2010 as on a Mac – another instance of Microsoft’s new suite adapting approaches from a strong competitor. To find out how easy some of the suite’s new features are, you can use the video-editing tool in PowerPoint to drag a timeline that will let you trim a video to the exact display length you want. This is hyper-sophisticated editing.

     Ah, but not everyone wants or needs that level of sophistication. In fact, not everyone wants or needs all the programs within Microsoft Office. And therein lies the explanation of the bewildering variety of flavors and prices of Office 2010. Microsoft is trying to be all (or most) things to all (or most) users. This may be a mistake – certainly the pricing and feature sets are a lot more confusing than is the program itself once you start using it. But this is, after all, one of Microsoft’s core products, and to the extent that the company can make it appealing to the largest possible number of users, it can preserve and potentially even extend its dominance at a time when competitors such as Apple and Google are looking stronger than ever.

     So here is how things work. There is no upgrade pricing for any version of Office 2010 – a disincentive for users of Office 2007 to switch, although users of Office 2003 really should take the plunge already. Microsoft is trying to encourage people to download the software and activate it with a Product Key Card, so downloaded versions are significantly discounted from boxed ones. In content terms, Office Professional includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, Access, and Office Web Apps, and comes with premium technical support; it can be installed on two PCs. Office Home and Business includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, and Office Web Apps; it can also be installed on two PCs. Office Home and Student includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Office Web Apps; its Family Pack version can be installed on up to three PCs in a single residence. Office Professional Academic, intended for students and teachers and available only through campus bookstores and academic retailers, has all the programs included within the corporate version of Office Professional – that is, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, Access, and Office Web Apps; it can be installed on two PCs.

     This complex arrangement actually much all buyers some programs they did not get in prior versions of Microsoft Office. Specifically, OneNote and Office Web Apps appear in all versions, and Publisher is now in both Office Professional versions.

     And what do you get for free? The answer is: some really good things and some frustration. In the Web version of Office 2010, you can create and edit Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote docs in a browser window. No software downloads or plugins are needed – the Web version works in all major browsers. However, it has some significant and rather odd limitations. For example, it will not let you edit documents that have the Track Changes feature enabled (you can read them but not change them). In Word, documents can be saved only in Microsoft’s newest file format – which cannot be opened by versions of Microsoft Office prior to Office 2007. Perhaps oddest of all, the Web version of Office 2010 does not allow coauthoring – which would seem to be a primary use of this type of online software. Having coauthoring in a desktop version but not an interconnected online one just seems, well, weird.

     So, what to do? There is no question that Microsoft Office 2010 is the best version of this suite yet made. It is as full-featured as ever – yes, overly complex to some, but astonishingly powerful to others. And its multiple versions make it possible to target more or less whatever elements are most important to you. Everything works smoothly, everything works together, and everything is more intuitively designed and easier to use than ever. There is very little you could possibly want to do on a computer at home, school or work that you cannot do with Microsoft Office 2010. It shows Microsoft at its very best: powerful, adaptable (willing to include and modify others’ good ideas), and so smooth functionally that you quickly forget that you are using super-capable software and simply focus on creativity and design. You can’t ask for more than that.

     But is Office 2010 an unqualified “buy”? Well, not quite. For users of Office 2003, it certainly is – that version now seems hopelessly dated and, more importantly, just cannot do everything that office workers, students and others want to do with their computers nowadays. For users of Office 2007, though, the upgrade decision is not so straightforward. It could have been if Microsoft had continued to offer upgrade pricing, but since the only way to get Office 2010 (other than the online version) is to pay for an entire new product, cost is definitely an issue – especially for families and small businesses (larger businesses, particularly ones relying on collaborative tools, should upgrade to Office 2010 in any case). So here’s what to do: download the free trial version of Office 2010 from Microsoft. You can use it at no cost for 60 days – and it does not make any changes in any earlier installed version of Microsoft Office. If, after two months, you find that Microsoft Office provides enough enhancements and improved ease of use to be worth the investment, buy it – you will already be familiar with how it works and how it differs from Office 2007. If you decide not to buy, simply stop using Office 2010 after the free-trial period and return to the earlier version. By offering this free trial, Microsoft is clearly betting (in another bit of corporate cleverness) that users will decide after 60 days of use that the many new and better elements of Microsoft Office 2010 make it a worthwhile purchase even without upgrade pricing. That’s actually pretty likely – and yet another reason not to bet against Microsoft, or to underestimate the company’s creativity and marketing savvy.


Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Complete Incidental Music. Jenny Wollerman and Pepe Becker, sopranos; Varsity Voices, Nota Bene and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Judd. Naxos. $8.99.

Bach: Cantatas, Volume 11—For the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity; For the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity. Magdalena Kožená and Joanne Lunn, sopranos; Sara Mingardo and William Towers, altos; Christoph Genz and Paul Agnew, tenors; Peter Harvey and Gotthold Schwarz, basses; Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $34.99 (2 CDs).

Schumann: Complete Works for Piano and Violin. Jenny Abel, violin; Roberto Szidon, piano. Ars Musici. $24.99 (2 CDs).

     Whether dealing with a single work or a group of them, presenting classical music in complete form is not always simple or straightforward. How exactly does one make something coherent of Mendelssohn’s wonderful music for Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream? The Overture and Scherzo are mainstays on concert programs, and the Wedding March (which does not end the play or the incidental music) is a mainstay everywhere, but put all three together and you still have less than half of what Mendelssohn wrote. What about the songs, the choruses, the melodramas (spoken words over music)? And if you do try to present everything, what language should you use? Mendelssohn wrote to a German translation of Shakespeare, so a truly “authentic” performance would be in German – but would give short shrift to the words of the greatest writer in the English language (although, in truth, some of the German is delightful, if not elegant). James Judd’s solution in his fine new Naxos recording is to do a little of this, a little of that, and turn the Mendelssohn music into elements of a much-shortened version of the entire play – in Shakespeare’s original English. Thus, in addition to two sopranos, chorus and orchestra, this recording features seven “players” in the Shakespearean sense – that is, actors and actresses – who deliver lines from several scenes of the play. This is scarcely Shakespeare’s complete five-act comedy (which was actually compressed into three acts when first staged with Mendelssohn’s music): the CD runs just an hour and a quarter. But this is a great deal more of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream than is usually heard, and cast director David Timson gets as much enthusiasm from his players (Tom Mison, Adrian Grove, Emily Raymond, Anne-Marie Piazza, Gunnar Cauthery, Peter Kenny and Timson himself) as Judd gets from his. The less-often-heard music that runs through the melodramas frequently repeats elements already heard in the well-known orchestral sections, but it also has some lovely moments of its own, as when Oberon applies dew to Titania’s eyes. There is no perfect way to perform a “complete” Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Judd has given us a well-thought-out, thoroughly lovely and highly engaging one.

     The difficulty of performing the complete Bach cantatas is a matter of sheer scale: there are a lot of them, in many moods and with many instrumentations. John Eliot Gardner has been engaged in the monumental task of recording all the Bach cantatas for a decade now, and is scheduled to complete the set later this year. The latest volume, 11th in the series for SDG (“Soli Deo Gloria,” an appropriate name for the company releasing these discs), includes seven cantatas recorded in 2000 at two different venues, with the same choir and orchestra but different soloists. The three for the 20th Sunday after Trinity, BWV 49, 162 and 180, are all based on the Gospel reading about a royal wedding feast and are all filled with images of the soul as bride and Jesus as the “bread of life.” All are solemn. BWV 162, Ach! Ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe (“Ah! I see, now, that I go to the wedding”) compares life with a journey to a marriage feast. BWV 49, Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen (“I go and seek with longing”) features dialogue showing the soul’s beauty in terms that are almost sensual. BWV 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (“Soul, adorn yourself with gladness”) is tenderly written and focused on getting ready for the wedding. The four cantatas for the 21st Sunday after Trinity, BWV 38, 98, 109 and 188 – which run a total of just over 80 minutes, pushing the limits of single-CD capacity – deal with the story of the healing of the nobleman’s son. These display a wider variety of moods than those for the 20th Sunday after Trinity. BWV 109, Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben! (“I have faith, dear Lord, help my disbelief”) portrays the conflict between faith and doubt, with faith eventually granted. BWV 38, Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (“From deep distress I cry to you”), is a setting based on Martin Luther’s famous hymn, which is in its turn based on Psalm 130. BWV 98, Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (“What God does is surely right”), is a lighter and more genial work. And BWV 188, Ich habe meine Zuversicht auf den getreuen Gott gericht (“I have placed my confidence in the true God”), features a fine tenor aria and includes a Sinfonia derived from Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor. Gardiner leads his forces with skill and fine attention to period detail, and brings out the many contrasts among these cantatas as well as their similarities. Recording the complete Bach cantatas is a monumental task that is producing CDs of very high quality and lasting value.

     Sometimes, to be sure, completeness is somewhat easier to come by. Unless some previously unknown works surface in the future, Robert Schumann’s complete output for piano and violin fits comfortably on two CDs – and is very nicely performed by Jenny Abel and Roberto Szidon for Ars Musici. There are three sonatas, which fill the first CD, plus a variety of shorter works – some of them better known in other forms. The Adagio and Allegro for Piano and Horn appears here in an optional version using violin; Three Romances, usually heard on oboe, are here in a violin version as well; and also here are the Fantasy Pieces for Piano and Clarinet, the Five Pieces in the Popular Tone (usually played on cello) and the four Märchenbilder (generally heard on viola). There is also a Fantasie that was written for violin and orchestra – here heard in its alternative piano version. It could be argued that none of the six works on the second CD is a “native” piece for violin and piano, but Schumann certainly saw that instrumental combination as an option, and the works generally lie well on these instruments – although some pieces do tend to lose their darker and more contemplative aspects, notably those written for clarinet and cello and the Märchenbilder. What is especially interesting about this two-CD set is that it gives the lie to the canard that Schumann did not really know how to write for the violin. Certainly he wrote for it in many unconventional ways – for example, in the works heard here, the two instruments often play the same material or exchange identical passages. But this is not so much a flaw as it is an unconventional way of creating mood and coloristic effects – and Abel and Szidon clearly understand this. When their material is linked, they affirm it very effectively, and when it is contrasted, they bring out the differences to equal effect. The result is a completely engrossing account of Schuman’s complete oeuvre for violin and piano – and an affirmation of the composer’s skill in bringing these two instruments together.

July 22, 2010


Ugly Pie. By Lisa Wheeler. Illustrated by Heather Solomon. Harcourt. $16.

Barry, the Fish with Fingers. By Sue Hendra. Knopf. $15.99.

Happiness. By Edward Monkton. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     There is nothing profound in any of these books – their only purpose is joyfulness, which they communicate with enthusiasm in very different ways. Ugly Pie is a story of the B’rer Rabbit type, featurin’ a big ol’ bear named Ol’ Bear who has a hankerin’ for a tasty but really ugly pie. And that’s the only sort of pie he wants – not pleasin’ pumpkin, not righteous rhubarb, not heavenly honey pie, but ugly pie. So Ol’ Bear wanders here ’n’ there, meetin’ up with Ma Hickory and Sweet Cicely and the other bears in the neighborhood, lookin’ at and sniffin’ the delicious and beautiful pies they have made – but still feelin’ dissatisfied because he only wants ugly pie. And at each stop, Ol’ Bear picks up something’ ugly, like wrinkled red raisins and sour green apples and bumpy brown walnuts. So he decides that if he can’t find ugly pie, he’ll make ugly pie – which is just what he does. And everybody enjoys it. Readers can, too – the recipe is included. And Lisa Wheeler’s whole rollicking tale is just so silly (and so appropriately illustrated in homespun style by Heather Solomon) that when Ol’ Bear’s “heart sang” and “doorbell rang” at the end of the story, you just know all those bakers of good-lookin’ pies are going to be there waitin’ for a taste of ugly pie, and you just know it’s going to be dee-licious. And it is – “the most delicious, most beautiful Ugly Pie you ever saw.”

     For another heaping helping of absurdity, try Barry, the Fish with Fingers, an under-the-sea romp about a little blue fish with huge googly eyes and 10 – yep, 10 – fingers that can do wonderful things. All the fish in the deep, it seems, are bored, so Barry says, “Well, prepared [sic] to be un-bored” and pulls out...“finger puppets!” And that’s not all: Barry shows how he can use fingers to count to 10, finger-paint, play the piano and tickle everybody! And then Barry’s fingers do something even more amazing: one of them points when a huge box falls into the water, and that warning means that not a single fish gets squashed by the box. And what’s more, the box contains the explanation of how Barry got his fingers, and a way for all the fish to get some fingers of their own! This is one of those books whose inside front and back covers are part of the story and part of the fun: the front covers show all the amusing-looking and brightly colored fish, and the back ones show the same fish with big grins, all sporting their new fingers. It’s a delightful little piece of utter frivolity.

     Happiness by Edward Monkton (pen name of poet Giles Andreae) is intended only as semi-frivolity, being a small hardcover “gift book” filled with homilies and cute observations about life and the importance of happiness and, indeed, the inevitability of happiness if you only allow it to come through to you. Simple and sometimes really funny drawings of characters such as the Sheep of Destiny and the Happy Potato are interspersed with little bits of text, such as: “The HOPPY HOPPY SPARROW plants beautiful thoughts that grow like FLOWERS in the BLACKNESS of SPACE. Note: Oh that the World were full of Hoppy Hoppy Sparrows.” Also to be found here are the Cloud of Joy, which provides a gentle “RAIN of HAPPINESS,” and “ZEN DOG” enjoying being adrift in the ocean, and even “the PIG of HAPPINESS” (who has appeared in a previous Monkton book) with his “JOYFUL SMILE.” Readers will themselves smile joyfully at just how silly Monkton’s whole premise is here, and just how amusingly he puts the whole book together. And that, of course, is the point: smiling joyfully, for whatever reason, is what being happy is all about. Not that Monkton is completely naïve about this: after asserting that “there are only 2 things worth living for – LOVE and HAPPINESS,” he includes a footnote: “Oh OK, and maybe CHOCOLATE.” Now if that combination of ideas doesn’t make you smile, what will?


Signature Wound: Rocking TBI – A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Dear Dumb Diary, Totally Not Boring School Planner. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $9.99.

     Contrasts in the use of cartoons don’t come any starker than between these two books. Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, long a reliable source of left-wing perspectives on political affairs, has in recent years grown and matured – some of the time, anyway – into an extremely sensitive comic strip about the military experience. It is an ongoing novel that just happens to be told in words and pictures, using long-familiar characters and some new ones. Twice before, in The Long Road Home and The War Within, Trudeau has produced collections of combat-focused strips that are not about battles but about the impact of war on the men and women on the front lines. That impact is not pretty, in real life or in Trudeau’s characters’ almost-real life, and it is certainly not pretty in Signature Wound, which focuses on a character nicknamed Toggle who comes home with traumatic brain injury (TBI) after his insistence on listening to heavy-metal music at insanely loud levels prevents him from hearing a command to “pull up” and results in his vehicle’s being blown up in Iraq. The book is, like Trudeau’s previous “war” books, not about the fighting and the injuries but about attempting to recover and reintegrate into society. This is not something you would expect a comic strip to tackle, but Trudeau does so, and often brilliantly. At this point, 40 years after Doonesbury was first syndicated, Trudeau seems to think naturally in four-panel pacing, so he is able to advance a difficult and complex story while still giving each strip a punch line, or at least a wry twist, at the end. Furthermore, Trudeau – who has made it clear that he picks characters for sequences based on how he wants the narrative to go, not through any sense of the characters’ “real” personalities or consistency of their development – is not above twisting the medium any way he wishes. Thus, to connect Toggle with the rest of the Doonesbury world, he gives the one-eyed, aphasic soldier a girlfriend who finds him really hot. And that girlfriend is Alex, daughter of the strip’s title character, Mike Doonesbury. Trudeau is well aware that this is pushing things. B.D., the vet who lost a leg in Iraq and whose struggle has already been chronicled, sees Alex on Toggle’s computer and says, “She’s my college roommate’s kid! That’s crazy! What are the odds?” And in the next panel, the narrative voice that Trudeau occasionally uses chimes in, “Pretty good, actually. It’s a comic strip.” Well, it looks like a comic strip, and is paced like a comic strip (more or less), but Doonesbury rises above itself in this book, as in the previous Trudeau “war” collections. The truly amazing thing about Signature Wound is that it takes such a serious subject, handles it in a manner that really seems plausible (Toggle works his way toward working in the recording industry), and finds considerable leavening (if not laugh-out-loud humor) along the way. This book, like its predecessors, takes cartooning about as far in a particular direction as it can go.

     And then there’s the opposite direction. That’s Jim Benton’s territory, peopled mostly by middle-school girls, extremely smelly dogs, and relatives to whom diary keeper Jamie Kelly would just as soon not be related. The ongoing Dear Dumb Diary series chronicles Jamie’s heartaches, heartbreaks and heartstopping adventures and is filled with hearty laughs. But Dear Dumb Diary, Totally Not Boring School Planner goes beyond the books. A trifold package with a magnetic closure, it contains two spiral-bound books and one pad for “glamorously important notes,” allowing readers to pen their own thoughts under (for example) this headline: “Rightness and wrongness seem about the same when performed by people you can’t stand. Wrongness performed against me today” – with, at the bottom of the page, a picture of a foot labeled “the whole world” squashing flat a blob with eyes that is labeled “me.” The elaborate nature of these non-sequential cartoons, and the way they come together to create a portrait of Jamie that readers can enjoy and to which they can relate (but that is also just too extreme for believability), add up to comic drawings that push their envelope pretty far (and probably get it stuck to their metaphorical noses). It’s not just a matter of enjoying a notepad page that says, “Ugly is so beautiful when it happens to someone who deserves it.” It’s also a matter of those two spiral-bound books, one called “All About Me” and the other entitled “Addresses of People I Don’t Hate (Mostly).” These certainly take “personal notes” and address books to a level that is…well, different. A pink plastic pen is included for writing in or on everything. “All About Me” comes with a couple of pages of stickers and some “handy reference charts and graphs” that answer questions such as “How Dumb Are You?” These supplement the usual fill-in-the-blanks sections, and even those are not predictable (“best color of glitter,” “worst grade I’ve ever gotten on a test,” “worst dull and non-sparkly accessory,” and so on. The address book has places for, well, addresses and phone numbers and IM names and all that – plus such enhancements as “My Arsenal of Dirty Looks” and a page called “Adultness: Could it happen to somebody close to YOU?” Well designed, fun to read, easy to use and offbeat enough to attract even people who are not avid followers of the Dear Dumb Diary books (but of special interest to those who are), this school planner is about as far away in its use of cartooning from Garry Trudeau’s “war” books as it is possible to get. And that’s just the way both Benton and Trudeau undoubtedly want it.


Love and Pollywogs from Camp Calamity. By Mary Hershey. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

The Dancing Pancake. By Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff. Knopf. $12.99.

Seaglass Summer. By Anjali Banerjee. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

     Summertime adventures for preteens – the kind in books, not the kind in the real world – tend to be filled with friendship, self-discovery, and maybe a few tears here and there to show that not everything about summer is warmth and relaxation. Take, for example, Love and Pollywogs from Camp Calamity, Mary Hershey’s third book about 10-year-old Effie Maloney. Hershey likes lengthy and distinctive titles – the first two books were called My Big Sister Is So Bossy She Says You Can’t Read This Book and 10 Lucky Things That Have Happened to Me Since I Nearly Got Hit by Lightning. Her protagonist, though, is more of a plucky and amusing fourth-grade type than a highly individualized character. It’s not that Hershey doesn’t want her to be special; it’s just that Effie is special in ways that many other heroines of books for this age group are special (“you are an outstanding friend,” she is told). And even though the specifics of Effie’s camp adventures are unique to this book, they are the same kinds of adventures found in many similar books. Effie is the only camper who can’t swim. She has been looking forward to going to this camp for years – but this is her first time away from home, and she gets homesick; and her big sister, Maxey, is working at the camp, which only makes things worse. Effie has to stand up to someone, and she makes a new and very good friend, and she desperately wants to be named Outstanding Camper of the Week but learns at the end that that’s not what really matters. There is really nothing wrong with this book, with Effie or with the story, and the very familiarity of protagonist and plot elements may even make Love and Pollywogs from Camp Calamity more fun for many preteen readers. But there remains an aura of been-there-done-that about the whole novel.

     Bindi, the protagonist of The Dancing Pancake, is a year older than Effie, but being 11 doesn’t mean life is any easier. In fact, it seems harder – or at least more real-worldish – than Effie’s. Eileen Spinelli’s story includes parents who have separated and a mom and aunt who are trying to make a go of a diner (whose name is the book’s title) while living with Bindi above it. This makes for some expected remarks about being flipped around like a pancake, but much of the book is unexpected in presentation if not in plot: it is told in free verse rather than straight narrative, and is amply illustrated with charming black-and-white drawings by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff. The plot is essentially about all the things with which Bindi tries to cope (including a crush on a cute boy), and about her summer of successes and failures. At a low point, Bindi rhythmically muses, “I hoped for my dad to come back./ Nope!/ I hoped for Noah Adams to like me./ Nope!/ …Anne of Green Gables said it best:/ ‘My Life is a perfect graveyard/ of buried hopes.’/ Anne of Green Gables,/ meet/ Bindi of The Dancing Pancake,/ a hoping dope.” Titles of individual poetic snippets can be quite amusing: “Will Work for Castle Money,” “Weevil-wich,” “More on the Jingle Lady.” And there is an upbeat, if not exactly happily-ever-after, ending. “‘Funny, isn’t it, how things/ have just figured themselves out?’” (Which turns out to be not quite the case.) The Dancing Pancake is frothy fun that tries hard to be more meaningful than it is – and its unusual presentation makes it something of a work of form over substance. But it is quick, easy and pleasant to read, and many preteens will enjoy it.

     In Seaglass Summer, whose protagonist is also 11, there is also some humor, but this is a more serious book with more of a coming-of-age tone to it. Anjali Banerjee’s heroine, Poppy Bhatta, has a set goal in life: to become a veterinarian. But she has never had a pet (this setup does strain credulity, but readers need to accept it for the book to work at all). Poppy gets a chance to see what a veterinarian really does by spending a summer month at the veterinary clinic run by her uncle. It is easy to see where this experience will go long before it does in fact go there. Poppy will learn of the pain and suffering of ill, injured or neglected animals; of the emotional distress of caring owners; of the importance of staying calm, cool and collected even when animals and/or owners are tremendously upset; and of the difficulty of being a real veterinarian rather than just pretending to be one. These are exactly the experiences that Poppy has. She is initially naïve in the extreme: “I feel woozy even thinking about blood.” But she learns about blood and many other things – including about people who “mistake this beach for a garbage dump.” It is on the garbage-strewn beach (which Poppy helps clean up) that she finds the seaglass of the title, which she has been told to use “to search for my inner self.” In fact, the entire book is about that search, as Poppy learns about healing, life (there is a birthing-puppies scene) and death, about good people and bad, and about the reality of existence, as explained by Uncle Sanjay: “‘We can’t prevent every bad thing from happening in the world.’” By the end, Poppy still wants to be a vet – an expected outcome – but now truly understands what the professions is all about, and what its difficulties and rewards can be. That too is an expected outcome, but animal-loving preteens will enjoy experiencing Poppy’s ups and downs along with her.


The Body Finder. By Kimberly Derting. Harper. $16.99.

Before I Fall. By Lauren Oliver. Harper. $17.99.

As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth. By Lynne Rae Perkins. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     There is something about death and the hereafter – not the religious hereafter, but the still-on-Earth hereafter – that seems to exercise a particular fascination for first-time novelists writing books for teenage readers. Both Kimberly Derting’s and Lauren Oliver’s first novels are focused on what it means to know, really know, that someone is going to die, or has been killed, or has “crossed over,” or soon will. But they approach their subject matter from very different angles. Derting’s The Body Finder is about 16-year-old Violet Ambrose, who knows when someone or something has been killed – not died a natural death, but been killed. Violet has “inherited Grandma Louise’s special skill,” her father explains, and has always – even when a little girl – been able to sense “echoes” from dead things. As a child, Violet would find – for example – birds killed by cats, and would bury them in a cemetery that she made. But once, when Violet was eight years old, she sensed the body of a girl who had been abducted and murdered. And now, as a teenager, she has again felt an echo from a human murder victim – but this time the girl she senses is only the first in a series: “Two girls abducted, and then subsequently murdered and discarded so close to each other, in such a short period of time, hardly seemed like a coincidence.” Well, of course it isn’t. In fact, some of Derting’s chapters are narrated by the serial killer who is behind the murders – a fairly creaky device that undermines some of the book’s suspense. The plot is fairly straightforward: Violet knows before anyone else does that the missing girls have been murdered, and she is going to hunt for the serial killer, and she herself is going to become a target, and there will be some super-scary moments, and she will be caught by the killer and come very close to being murdered herself before everything will work out all right. This is exactly what happens. And there is the expected “relationship” plot as well, involving Violet’s childhood friend, Jay, for whom she has developed a whole new set of feelings; and they will turn out to be mutual; and Jay will also come very close to being killed by the murderer; but he too will be fine at the end. And this too is just what happens. It is a trifle unfair to reduce The Body Finder to its bones (so to speak) in this way, since it is how the story is told that will attract teen readers – rather than what the story is about, which really is pretty obvious. In reality, teens looking for a nicely paced, if predictable, summer “beach book” thriller will enjoy this one.

     Ditto Before I Fall, where the life-and-death elements are really, really old. The book’s basic question: what if you died, then came back and had a chance to do your last day all over? How about seven chances? How about 43? Well, 43 wouldn’t fit at novel length, so Samantha Kingston gets seven (and the book still runs more than 450 pages). Samantha dies in a car accident: “The moment of death is full of heat and sound and pain bigger than anything, a funnel of burning heat splitting me in two, something searing and scorching and tearing, and if screaming were a feeling it would be this. Then nothing.” And then, somehow, Samantha comes back, and relives things and resents things: “Anger is seething through me like liquid. She’s a fraud: the whole world is a fraud, one bright, shiny scam. And somehow I’m the one paying for it. I’m the one who died. I’m the one who’s trapped. …I should have died on a day with a beautiful sunset. I should have died on summer vacation or winter break. I should have died any other day. …I think about what I’ll do to survive all of the millions and millions of days that will be exactly like this one, two face-to-face mirrors multiplying a reflection into infinity.” But Samantha does not have an “infinity” of repeated days ahead of her – what she has is something closer to the plot of the movie Groundhog Day, in which she must relive the same (final) day multiple times because…well, just because. Death is indeed final in Before I Fall, but its meaning changes as Samantha does this thing and that differently, interacts differently with the people around her, and finally (this is scarcely a surprise) becomes a better and more selfless person at the book’s end than she was at the book’s beginning (even though both start and finish are her end). Before I Fall is filled with typical high-school types, including Sam herself, and typical high-school problems involving drinking, driving and sex. It is the way the story is told rather than the events that occur that readers will find most interesting – although the overall morbidity of the subject matter and the relentless progress to the same conclusion every time may turn off some of the hoped-for readership.

     The telling is unusual in As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth, too, and this book is neither a super-serious novel nor a first one (Lynne Rae Perkins won a Newbery Medal for Criss Cross). Nor is Perkins’ book about death, although it is filled with potential near-death experiences that remain in the “potential” stage. Many books for teens involve internal journeys paralleling external ones, and this book certainly has quite an external journey: the hero, Ry (sounds exactly like “wry” or the “catcher in the,” and this is surely intentional) travels by train, car, plane, boat and on foot, with the book starting off when he leaves a stopped train in the middle of Montana and takes a short walk in search of cell-phone reception, only to see the train unexpectedly start up again and leave him in the middle of nowhere. Of course, he has none of his possessions (his backpack is on the train), his cell phone has almost run down (and shortly runs down completely, after he tries twice to reach relatives and fails both times), and he ends up on his own through a series of improbable adventures. The chapter titles, which omit capital letters, range from “next” to “when the rug is pulled out – the earth, too – you have to move your feet to keep from falling,” to “the longest breakfast.” Clearly, something atypical is going on here. Or trying to go on, since, in terms of action, not much happens for long stretches. However, Perkins writes very well, and some of the characters she creates are just odd enough to seem real, while some of the narration is uncommonly clever. For example, when Ry needs to get shoes at a Salvation Army store, the only ones he can find that fit him are shiny white loafers: “The shoes were a metaphor for the decline of western civilization: crappy and glitzy and barely useful, but pretty comfortable. This is the narrator’s opinion. Ry didn’t think that thought specifically, but he felt as dispirited as if he had.” This sort of style – drawing attention to the fact that this is a third-person narrative even while narrating it – can be a little confusing and off-putting, although it will be enjoyable for teens who like their books offbeat and more than a little odd. The book is also good for teens who enjoy vivid descriptive passages: “Their host was Carl. Wooly coils of silvery-white hair forested the back and sides of his head, thinning to a zone of barren scrub at the tree line of the shiny dome of his head. His mustache was waxed into handlebars. He was comfortably rounded, like a small planet, with an atmosphere made up of warmth and good humor.” In fact, the book – a picaresque novel, for any teen readers who may want to look up the term – is more enjoyable when Perkins is describing people and scenes than when anything is actually happening. When the action flags, she tosses in a description, or maybe an illustration, or a cartoon of dogs talking, or perhaps a footnote about pancakes. For teens looking for something decidedly out of the ordinary, As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth makes a highly enjoyable summer read. It’s as fluffy as other beach novels, but it’s fluffy in a more peculiar and unusually imaginative way.


Zeller: Der Obersteiger. Santiago Bürgi, Cornelia Zink, Wolfgang-Müller Lorenz, Donna Ellen, Bernhard Berchtold, Anna Siminska, Timo Verse, Alfred Berger, Rolf Haunstein; Chor und Orchester des Musik Theater Schönbrunn conducted by Herbert Mogg. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     CPO here lavishes its best packaging in years and some top-notch production values on a nearly forgotten operetta by a no-longer-well-known 19th-century Viennese competitor of the Strauss family – and the result is an utterly delightful recording that shows, even if inadvertently, why operetta charmed so many for so long despite its manifest absurdities.

     Der Obersteiger has more than its share of those. The title translates as “the overseer” or “the foreman,” but in the case of this operetta, the meaning is closer to “the mine workers’ leader.” The plot is so jam-packed with coincidence and so incoherent that the title almost does not matter; and the title character, whose name is Martin (sung here by tenor Bernhard Berchtold) is so unsympathetic and uninteresting a character that it scarcely matters when he goes from rabble rouser to anti-management and anti-royalty schemer to impoverished band director to a hurdy-gurdy man who has lost everything and sings a song about Aladdin’s lamp and a future time when a man will trade in his wife each year for a new one.

     Yes, Der Obersteiger is that incoherent. It also has three mismatched but eventually properly joined couples rather than operetta’s usual two: Martin and the wholesome lacemaker Nelly (soprano Anna Siminska); mine director Zwack (tenor Wolfgang-Müller Lorenz) and his wife, Elfriede (soprano Donna Ellen), who ends up divorcing and then remarrying him; and Prince Roderich (tenor Santiago Bürgi), who works as a volunteer in the silver mine and pays everyone’s wages so they can drink and flirt all day, and Comtesse Fichtenau (soprano Cornelia Zink), who flees an arranged marriage and assumes the name of Nelly’s cousin, who happens to be Zwack’s daughter (whom he has never seen) from a premarital relationship.

     To repeat: yes, it is that incoherent. But thanks to excellent singing by all the principals and the chorus, and tremendously upbeat conducting by Herbert Mogg (who seems to specialize in making obscure operettas sound just wonderful), and especially thanks to Carl Zeller’s unending flow of gorgeous melodies, the whole production is a smashing success. And it is worth pointing out one big reason: the recording includes only the music, but the enclosed booklet contains a complete and very accurate account of all the action, plus all the lyrics in both German and English – a huge plus for anyone who is coming to this work for the first time, as almost all listeners will be.

     Der Obersteiger (1894) was written by Zeller (1842-1898) in an attempt to capitalize on the huge success of his one really big hit, Der Vogelhändler (“The Bird Seller,” 1891). It was written by the same librettists (Moritz West and Ludwig Held) and contains many similar plot points, although less convincingly arrayed. And it was to be Zeller’s final completed operetta – his last, Der Kellermeister, was unfinished at his death. Furthermore, Der Obersteiger was a success despite its vastly overcomplicated plot, and the CPO recording makes the reason abundantly clear. There are almost no tunes here that are not memorable, and the music flows from scene to scene and character to character so smoothly and easily that a listener is simply carried along on the tide and can safely ignore (or at least pay little heed to) the silliness of the story. The operetta contains one “big hit” that is still heard in recitals occasionally: “Wo sie war die Müllerin,” a strophic ditty that completely stops the action in the middle of the finale of Act II (much as the “prince and princess” song would do more than a decade later in Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe). But other music here is equally good: “Die Forstrat fährt auf Commission,” in which Zwack explains that the bureaucrat does his duty “from nine to one but not afterwards” (again, think of Die lustige Witwe, where Count Danilo says much the same thing); the duet “Ich wollte, dass mein Gatte wär,” in which the prince and comtesse (who by now have learned each other’s true identities) trade marital expectations; and the delicious little terzettino, “Ein Ball ist sozusagen,” in which the comtesse, Elfriede and Nelly perfectly encapsulate the way women in operettas hunt for and trap their men.

     Following the plot of Der Obersteiger is not particularly easy even with the libretto and annotations, but following – and being pulled along by – its perky and playful music is not difficult at all. Zeller wrote only six operettas (or seven, counting Der Kellermeister, which was completed by Johannes Brandt), and it may be pushing things to suggest that some are hidden musical treasures. But surely, if Der Obersteiger has so much delightful music, Der Vogelhändler ought to be worth an occasional hearing. And maybe, just maybe, there are other delicious Zeller confections awaiting rediscovery as well. If CPO brings them out with as much quality as it has lavished on Der Obersteiger, they will definitely be worthy of operetta lovers’ attention and affection.