August 26, 2010


The Storyteller’s Secrets. By Tony Mitton. Illustrated by Peter Bailey. David Fickling Books. $15.99.

The Complete Adventures of Curious George. By Margret and H.A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $29.99.

     Tony Mitton’s The Storyteller’s Secrets is a rarity: a book of old tales, some of which young readers may have heard before, that transcends the familiarity of the stories – and some obvious elements of the meta-story within which the old tales are re-told – to become a highly involving and genuinely moving book. This happens largely because Mitton is so good at distinguishing his “framing tale,” in which a typically mysterious wandering tale-teller named, well, Teller, meets two children named Toby and Tess, and provides them with stories, initially in return for the food they generously offer to share with him. The “framing tale” is told in prose, the stories themselves in verse, and this approach – which could easily seem artificial – comes across as wholly fitting, emphasizing the old tales’ poetic qualities and making it clear that they are stylized, nearly mythic, while the “framing tale” of the children and storyteller is more prosaic. Or seems to be – for as The Storyteller’s Secrets goes on, it turns out that what is happening with the mysterious Teller and the two modern children is itself an old story, one of passing the torch of knowledge from the past to the future, exemplified here by the little souvenirs of the stories that Teller gives to the children at the conclusion of each narrative. The narratives themselves, even when not completely familiar, will have familiar elements for many young readers. One is a modified version of an old fairy tale about a bullying stepmother who makes impossible demands of her stepdaughter – which the girl fulfills through the help of a dozen elves representing the months of the year (this is a variant of the Cinderella motif). Another tale here is of Tam Lin, the human captive of the Fairy Queen, and the young girl who rescues and later weds him (this is in its origin a strongly sexual tale, but has been thoroughly scrubbed in Mitton’s version). Before stories start and after they end, Teller explains their importance, saying that a story “can take you places you might never get to in your body. And it can teach you things by telling tales that seem unbelievable.” The mystery of Teller himself increases as the book goes on, and if the final revelation of who he is turns out to be a bit prosaic, it nevertheless fits well with the notion that stories have a magic all their own, one preserved and passed along from age to age. Peter Bailey’s atmospheric illustrations add an extra dimension to these tales of selkies, pedlars and many kinds of magic.

     The magic of Curious George is of more recent vintage but no less charm. The wonderful 70th anniversary edition of all seven books by Margret and H.A. Rey, The Complete Adventures of Curious George, is both old-fashioned and up to date. It is old-fashioned in its reproduction of the original stories with illustrations in their original colors, and in including at the back of the book an eight-page section of black-and-white photos of the authors from the late 1930s to as recently as 1996 (when Margret Rey turned 90 and, later in the year, died). It is up to date in containing a delightful bonus: two CDs featuring readings of all seven Curious George books: Curious George by Don Wescott, Curious George Takes a Job by Valerie Stephens, Curious George Rides a Bike by Wes Sanders, Curious George Gets a Medal by George Capaccio, Curious George Flies a Kite by Cheryl McMahon, Curious George Learns the Alphabet by Wendie Sakakeeny, and Curious George Goes to the Hospital by Jane Staab. But in fact all seven books are best read by involved parents and the young children for whom the books were intended. This is not to take anything away from the readings on the CDs, all of which are quite well done and may make a dreary afternoon or a long car trip more enjoyable. But much of the fun of the Reys’ books, which were originally published between 1941 and 1966, lies in reading the simple words and looking joyfully at the wonderfully colored, stylized and ever-amusing illustrations. Not all the pictures are politically correct by today’s standards: a sailor smokes a pipe in the very first Curious George book, for example, and shortly thereafter, so does George himself – very enjoyably. But thank goodness no busybody editor made any attempt to “update” or “correct” the pictures! These are works that are from a different age, it is true, but they are also works that have stood the test of time precisely because their underlying messages about curiosity and enjoyment of life wear so well. The Reys did not whitewash George’s misadventures – who can forget a sad George in the first book, thrown in jail for turning in a false fire alarm, or George crying when he is hospitalized and needs an operation in the seventh book because his curiosity led him to swallow something he should have left alone? But George’s essential goodness and resilience carry him through every time. The Reys handled his personality with consistency and unending delight, perhaps most clearly in the alphabet book, which is a very nontraditional one indeed, as the parade of letters is repeatedly interrupted by George being George – making a mess of visual aids on one page, creating such words as “glidj” and “blimlimlim” on another. The very last page of The Complete Adventures of Curious George is a photo of H.A. (Hans Augusto) Rey with a telescope – Rey was an astronomer and astronomy teacher and wrote several books on the subject for young readers. The photo is a lovely final image of Rey (1898-1977), but it also draws attention to the fact that, for all his stargazing, his most enduring and endearing creation was a very down-to-earth little monkey who was “always very curious.” And still is.

(++++) DEM BONES

Bones: Skeletons and How They Work. By Steve Jenkins. Scholastic. $16.99.

Dogs 101: Your Ultimate Guide to Man’s Best Friend. By Rebecca Paley. Scholastic. $7.99.

Bone: Tall Tales. By Jeff Smith with Tom Sniegoski. Color by Steve Hamaker. Graphix/Scholastic. $22.99.

     With straightforward, information-packed text and outstanding illustrations, Steve Jenkins gives young readers a fascinating lesson in anatomy – human and animal, modern-day and extinct – in Bones. Some illustrations show bones in their actual sizes: the skull of a giant anteater runs from the left side of one page to the right side of the next, while the smallest human bone (the stapes or stirrup, found in the ear) is barely visible next to a dime. Other illustrations show bones at one-fourth or one-twelfth actual size, so Jenkins can fit them into available space. Every picture is tremendously detailed and highly accurate anatomically. Comparisons are fascinating: an actual-size human skull next to that of a mouse lemur (a tiny relative of monkeys) – plus, in a foldout, actual-size skulls of a parrot, tree shrew, vampire bat, armadillo and more. The shapes as well as sizes of the skulls are amazing to see, and the information here is no less intriguing. There is a closeup of an elbow joint, showing what happens when bones meet. There is a picture showing that giraffes and humans have the same number of neck bones: seven. There is a turtle skeleton, showing how the ribs grow through the skin of the back and fuse to form the shell. There is an absolutely marvelous picture of the skeleton of a six-foot python with nearly 200 pairs of rib, covering two foldouts (four pages) – snakes have more ribs than any other animal. There are dinosaur skeletons and elephant skeletons and fruit-bat and blue-whale skeletons. There is a human finger bone – one of the 27 in a human hand. There are two pages that together show all 206 bones in an adult human skeleton, plus information on how that number comes about even though babies are born with about 300 bones. And there are such fascinating facts as notes that 97% of animals on Earth do not have bones – and that the Eiffel Tower’s shape was inspired by the internal structure of the human thigh bone. Jenkins’ book is wonderful science, a wonderful anatomy lesson and a wonderful work to read, study and simply look at and marvel.

     Among the bones Jenkins shows are those of a dog, and everyone knows how much dogs love bones – maybe not their own, but the kind they can chew on. There are more than 400 different breeds of dogs, all of which can interbreed (some more practically than others). This means there are uncountable thousands of types of dogs, although the American Kennel Club officially recognizes only 163 purebred lines. Twenty-five of those are shown in Dogs 101, an elementary but very interesting introduction to the canine world. The dogs here fall into seven groups: sporting, hound, working, terrier, toy, nonsporting and herding. Rebecca Paley’s book tries to focus on easily recognizable and popular purebreds: dachshund, beagle, cocker spaniel, Chihuahua, poodle, pug, Yorkshire terrier, etc. Each breed is shown in multiple pictures, and there is basic information on size, coat, color, origin, health, grooming and more. There are also interesting facts, such as the note that three U.S. presidents owned Airedale terriers: Warren G. Harding, Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge. Each breed has specific characteristics that Paley points out clearly: bloodhounds have the best sense of smell of any dog; French bulldogs snore exceptionally loudly; Labrador retrievers can swim twice as fast as ducks; the Maltese is the world’s oldest lapdog. One fact that may surprise young readers is the lifespan of dogs: it is not very long by human standards. Very few dogs normally live to be 15 or older, and many breeds live only until about age 10. Dogs 101 will bring joy to any family that loves dogs or is considering getting one. It is scarcely comprehensive – calling it an “Ultimate Guide,” as its subtitle does, is an exaggeration – but it is a delightful basic introduction to the canine world, and may inspire families to find even more information elsewhere.

     The information keeps flowing from bones of another sort – the characters in Bone, the wide-ranging epic series of graphic novels by Jeff Smith. The nine books in the main sequence of Bone told a complete story from start to finish, but Smith and several collaborators continue to fill in aspects of the Bone world through a prequel (Rose), a guide (BONE Handbook), and now a series of stories that flesh out some of the background of the world in which the main tale takes place. Like Rose, this book is a bit of prehistory – or at least the stories in it are, although they are told by Smiley Bone after the main adventure has ended and the Bone cousins have returned to Boneville. There is an introductory tale of Smiley and three “Bone Scouts,” clearly drawn in homage to Carl Barks’ nephews of Donald Duck. That story and a tale called “Powers That Be” are written and illustrated by Smith himself. The three remaining stories, which focus on long-ago frontier explorer Big Johnson Bone, are written by Tom Sniegoski and illustrated by Smith. Everything in the book is wonderfully colored by Steve Hamaker, whose work on the main Bone sequence significantly enhanced Smith’s original black-and-white illustrations, which were excellent already. The stories themselves are rather thin – they do indeed have the flavor of tall tales, but none of the drama and personality interplay that made the main Bone sequence endlessly fascinating. However, Bone: Tall Tales is not really intended as a standalone book – it is a supplemental volume for readers who just couldn’t get enough of Smith’s creation and wanted something more. Sniegoski and Smith are soon going to release a different sort of Bone story called Quest for the Spark, and an excerpt is included at the end of Bone: Tall Tales. The new story is clearly intended to be on the epic scale again, but as an illustrated book rather than a graphic novel. Whatever its merits may turn out to be, there is nothing wrong with staying on the small side for the time being. For these tall tales and the other snippets created after the primary Bone story are charming in their own way, and Bone fans will not be disappointed to revisit some familiar characters, meet some new ones, and return – however briefly – to Smith’s delightfully conceptualized world.


Hot X: Algebra Exposed! By Danica McKellar. Hudson Street Press. $26.95.

Parenting Apart: How Separated and Divorced Parents Can Raise Happy and Secure Kids. By Christina McGhee. Berkley. $15.

     Sometimes a new angle, trigonometrically speaking, can help you solve, mathematically speaking, a whole lot of problems, life-in-the-world speaking. Danica McKellar, a mathematician and advocate for math education as well as an actress (The West Wing, The Wonder Years), has now written three books with the same basic orientation. All are designed to get girls from middle school to high school interested in and adept in math. The first two, Math Doesn’t Suck and Kiss My Math, were previews of Hot X. That is, they dealt with math concepts simpler than those in algebra – the topic of McKellar’s latest book – but used the same cutesy style and “with-it” orientation to try to make math seem cool and even fun. Hey, whatever works. Math matters, and McKellar knows this, and that knowledge alone almost excuses the excesses that she packs into her books. And she does pack them in, quite intentionally; and if they are cringe-inducing sometimes, then the person with the induced cringe is probably not a member of the group at whom the books are aimed. So McKellar sprinkles her math instruction – which, not incidentally, is highly accurate even though highly nontraditional – with sections called “Mood Zapper: Take Control of Your Feelings” and “Confessional: Dumbing Ourselves Down – the Sequel.” There are quizzes (bold or shy? perfectionist or not?) and lots of comments in a style that used to be called “sassy.” For instance, right at the start, “The x you’re solving for is your future, and it, too, can be anything. Or take Chapter 4: “Meow Mix—Rational Expressions: Fractions with Variables in Them.” There are little pictures of teens singing or displaying their fashion sense or texting, next to quick notes and little warnings, such as, “Especially when subtracting, pay close attention to the negative signs that already exist; it can get tricky!” Very usefully, there are “Reality Math” sections – is “take an additional 20% off this 50% off sale” as good as a 70% off sale? (No; and McKellar clearly shows why not.) There are also comments in the book from the girls at whom it is aimed, such as 13-year-old Emily: “My new role model is my math teacher.” The idea of all this apparently disorganized and sometimes flippant presentation is to make the serious stuff – and the book is packed with it – more accessible. Does a picture of a fashionable teen whose cell phone is ringing make it easier to understand the product property of square roots? Is a two-page “confessional” on avoiding distractions, which includes comments by a dozen teens, useful? How about a cute headline, such as “Takeaway Tips,” above such decidedly non-cute comments as, “To add/subtract two radical expressions with identical radical parts, just add/subtract heir coefficients exactly as you would if the radical parts were variables”? Where do the “Danica’s Diary” entries fit into this? “Here’s my advice on the jewelry: Classic, tasteful stuff always works best.” The answer is that none of this really fits with anything else – but there runs through Hot X a current of understanding, since the book really does start with simple elements of algebra and move along through progressively more difficult and complex ones. It is certainly a salutary alternative to all those incredibly dry algebra books, which make an already difficult subject seem so tedious that it is hard to understand why anyone would want to master it. On the other hand, there are enough overdone or irrelevant elements in Hot X so that it can be difficult to focus on the underlying math without getting distracted by the many sideshows. For some people in the target audience of teenage girls, Hot X is likely to mark the spot; and for them, it may vastly enrich math education and maybe even show why more-difficult mathematics has genuine real-world value. For other teen girls, though, the mixture of subjects and styles (including type styles) and the constant upbeat narrative may become as wearing, in their own way, as traditional algebra texts can be. It is very, very good to have a book like Hot X available for students who have trouble with more straightforward ways of learning algebra. But girls need to know that they are not uncool if this book isn’t to their taste – it certainly won’t be to everyone’s.

     A few years after high school, many people encounter bigger problems than algebraic ones. Parenting Apart attempts to tackle one of the biggest, and it too does so in a very nontraditional way (although the writing itself is straightforward). Christina McGhee, a social worker, divorce coach and parent educator, is fond of tables, diagrams, bullet points and numbered lists, using all of them profusely in trying to show ways in which parents who no longer live together can nevertheless provide their children with happiness and security. This is a very tall order, since parents are security for children, and the sundering of a parental relationship – even for good reason – can seriously undermine kids’ ability to cope with the inevitable stresses of their world. This is a very, very packed book: four parts, 31 chapters, two to four sections per chapter, and lots of subsections. It can be daunting to read Parenting Apart, despite McGhee’s plainspoken style. It is best to pick and choose where to start, using the table of contents as a guide. For example, Part II of the book, “How Children Are Affected by Divorce,” includes chapters on age ranges from newborn-to-18-months to teenagers. It can be helpful to read this part’s introductory chapter (“Factors That Affect How Children Handle Divorce”) and then skip directly to the section or sections dealing with kids of specific ages. Each of those chapters contains a “developmental issues” section – containing, for ages six to nine, “self-esteem” and “greater sense of sadness,” and for teenagers, “role confusion” and “risk taking,” among other things. It also helps to look at brief comments that McGhee sets apart from the rest of her text in boxes – for instance, “Parenting through divorce is a lot like playing poker. Being a good poker player isn’t about being dealt a good hand; it’s about playing your best with the cards you’ve been dealt.” McGhee offers advice on what to tell children who want to know whose fault the breakup is: “Initially, it’s best to offer children a short explanation that does not place blame exclusively on either parent. …[But] best to be prepared for a series of conversations and to answer this question repeatedly.” She offers diagrams – some of them rather on the complex side – about how post-divorce parenting can work; one, for instance, shows the “ideal postseparation parenting arrangement” as a double flow chart in which children obtain values, love and a sense of belonging from both parents even when the parents’ everyday lives no longer intersect. It is hard to overstate how densely packed this book is. A section on “Common Alienating Behaviors,” for example, runs just over two pages and “is not a diagnostic tool,” but contains no fewer than 29 examples of ways in which one parent may create an ongoing campaign to pressure children to reject the other. Parents already feeling overwhelmed by child-rearing issues after a separation or divorce – or while contemplating one – will understandably feel even more pressured and “at sea” if they try to absorb the contents of McGhee’s book while also dealing with everything else in their lives. McGhee deserves much credit for not attempting to simplify post-separation or post-divorce parenting, but the issue with her book is whether its understandable complexity is such that its actual, real-world value to parents in the throes of emotionally difficult times is lessened. Some sections are certainly valuable and fairly easy to grasp, such as “Not-So-Obvious Ways Parents Can Devalue Each Other.” But other parts of the book require not only tremendous cooperation between adults who have decided that they cannot live together and raise their children together any longer, but also a willingness to think through many, many elements of children’s needs within the context of a traumatic adult split – and to do so wholly rationally and on an ongoing basis. This is a lot to ask of parents at any time, and maybe too much to ask of them when they are in the throes of ending a highly significant adult relationship. There is great value in McGhee’s book, but extracting it at the time when it is most needed may simply be too much for many soon-to-be-ex-couples to manage.


Simple Comforts: 50 Heartwarming Recipes. By Sur La Table. Andrews McMeel. $15.

The Longevity Diet: The Only Proven Way to Slow the Aging Process and Maintain Peak Vitality—Through Calorie Restriction. By Brian M. Delaney and Lisa Walford. Da Capo. $14.95.

     It is in large part the different ways of dealing with food that separate mammals from reptiles. For reptiles, food is purely fuel: because they do not need to use it to maintain their body temperature, it exists purely to keep existence going and need not be consumed very frequently. For mammals, though, obtaining and consuming food is a, so to speak, all-consuming endeavor, because we must constantly replenish our energy supply – the calories (literally a unit of heat) on which we draw to keep our internal temperature essentially the same, whether the external world’s reading is 10 degrees Fahrenheit or 110. For humans and other mammals, the pursuit and consumption of food takes up a great deal of time, and food provides significant psychological benefits as well as satisfying purely physical needs. Thus, altering one’s eating habits is no small thing: whether those habits are good or bad, they provide some sort of psychological gratification that is as important as the satisfaction of a physical necessity – if not more so. Hence the immediate understandability of a title such as Simple Comforts: 50 Heartwarming Recipes. This book is definitely not for reptiles. The foods here are ones whose consumption goes directly to the heart and soul, and perhaps only incidentally to the stomach. Sur La Table, an upscale Seattle-based chain with more than 80 stores, has been involved in producing half a dozen books about the pleasures of preparing and eating food – presumably using Sur La Table’s products whenever possible, although Simple Comforts is not so crassly commercial as to suggest that outright. What this small hardcover book offers is six types of comfort food: sweet breads (not to be confused with sweetbreads); savory breads, such as herb corn bread; soups, stews and sandwiches; main dishes; side dishes; and desserts. That pretty well covers everything from, err, soup to nuts – even breakfast if you focus on breads for that meal (one recipe here is for “Easy Morning Muffins with Raspberries”). The recipes, which are homespun but with upscale touches (like those raspberries in the muffins), are only part of this book’s attraction. The other part is the verbiage, which is itself designed to be as soothing as the foods – the muffins are “soft-crumbed and as comforting as a hug when warm from the oven,” for example. The adorableness here can get a little cloying, as in the recipe for a grilled cheese sandwich: “Rarely do so few ingredients create such a wonderfully satisfying thing to eat.” But you can, of course, skip the descriptive passages and go right to the recipes, which are well thought out and allow cooks to make old-fashioned comfort foods (such as sweet potatoes) or similar foods with some contemporary touches (“a splash of apple juice and a bit of finely grated ginger add a fresh spark to this old favorite”). This is more a gift book, showing the recipient how warmly you feel toward him or her, than a serious recipe book, since the recipes are just fine but are obviously not the whole point of the work: do you really need to buy Simple Comforts to find out how to make vanilla cupcakes or ice cream sundaes? Of course, if you yourself take comfort in food, there is nothing wrong with making Simple Comforts a gift from you to you….

     But don’t overdo it. Americans, in particular, tend to go a bit hog wild (so to speak) over comfort foods and many other types of food as well; hence the American obesity epidemic. But given the psychological satisfaction that food provides, there is little to no value in having health professionals or (worse) government officials warn people about the dangers of overeating and exhort Americans to eat less and eat more healthfully. There needs to be a countervailing psychological balance to offset the satisfaction of food for there to be any chance of making significant changes in eating habits. Well, how about life itself? That is the theory that underlies The Longevity Diet, originally published in 2005 and now offered in an updated second edition. Neither author is a physician or scientist: Brian M. Delaney is president of the Calorie Restriction Society, and Lisa Walford is a yoga instructor and author. This does not invalidate their ideas or arguments, but it does mean that The Longevity Diet may not appeal to scientifically oriented readers, despite the authors’ introduction of various scientists’ comments backing up their assertions. Still, since the love of eating – and overeating – has major psychological components, strict scientific arguments may not be the most effective way to change people’s habits. The authors make their pitch for their ideas very directly: “The Longevity Diet is a way of eating that will radically lessen your chances of suffering from the vast majority of diseases and other ailments that may afflict us as we age.” This is the basis of their approach – and it contains both power and problems. The power lies in the idea that changing certain habits can give people longer, healthier lives. The problems lie in the necessarily careful words: “will radically lessen your chances of suffering from the vast majority of diseases and other ailments that may afflict us as we age.” There are no guarantees here – there really cannot be any – but what that means is that the authors recommend possibly major changes in eating and living habits without being able to provide any solid, unquestioned reason to alter one’s life. This is certainly not their fault: no one has found an effective way to get people to opt for potential long-term benefit over guaranteed short-term enjoyment. But the whole book must, by its very nature, fall a little flat to the extent that it asks people to make significant changes in their lives without being able to promise anything more than a hope (not a guarantee) of better health sometime in the distant future. So readers’ willingness to follow the approach of Delaney and Walford may well depend on how far that approach deviates from readers’ current behaviors: people asked to make huge changes for unknown, nonguaranteed benefits in the far future are less likely to alter their lives than people asked to make small, incremental changes. The Longevity Diet says that people should simply reduce the number of calories they consume while eating more foods that are good for them and fewer ones that are not. This is, of course, simple only in theory, especially for those who get significant psychological benefit (comfort, if you will) from less-healthful foods. Admitting that “there is at least as much art as science” in implementing their recommendations, Delaney and Walford suggest three ways to eat for better health: weight watching, counting calories and frequently checking certain health markers. They explain how each method works, then get into a series of thoroughly unsurprising food recommendations to be followed in whatever method you may choose: eat lots of fruits and vegetables, choose whole grains over enriched ones, use monounsaturated fats and avoid trans fats, get enough fiber, avoid sugars, and so on. There is little that is new or unusual here, little that is a bad idea, and little in the daily food diaries and meal planning to encourage a new approach by people not already committed to careful tracking of what they eat and careful planning of future meals. The problem with The Longevity Diet is not the diet itself – it is the divergence of the system for implementing the diet from the system (or, if you prefer, non-system) under which the people most likely to benefit from a change of food habits now operate. The Longevity Diet is simply another book with very good nutritional and other lifestyle ideas (yes, it urges exercise), but very little in its approach that will likely attract people to stop getting their current psychological benefits from food and switch instead to an eating regimen that may, in the future, if their genes do not predispose them otherwise, bring them better health as they age.


The Poison Diaries. By Maryrose Wood with The Duchess of Northumberland. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising. By Jason Henderson. HarperTeen. $16.99.

The Zombie Chasers. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by Steve Wolfhard. Harper. $15.99.

      We are a bit past the formulaic madman or madwoman in the attic or cellar, rattling chains, setting fires and instilling the fear of supposedly inheritable madness in the darkly brooding protagonist while mysterious strangers roam the aristocratic grounds and mysteries abound. But we are not much past all those 19th-century Gothic trappings, and sometimes have not even gotten to the 19th century yet in modern Gothics – such as The Poison Garden, which is set in the 18th century. This first book of a planned trilogy is inspired in part by the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland; hence the coauthor (or at least “with”) credit for the mistress of the castle, wife of the 12th Duke of Northumberland. Taken at face value rather than in connection with a real-world garden of poisonous plants, The Poison Diaries is a fairly standard Gothic tale, focusing on 16-year-old Jessamine Luxton, daughter of a respected apothecary named Thomas – who is an expert on poisons and maintains a Poison Garden that Jessamine is forbidden to enter. Also in the novel is a prototypical mysterious stranger, who becomes known as Weed, who falls in love with Jessamine – and she with him. But the course of true love cannot run smoothly, of course, and there are all sorts of complications involving what Thomas is really doing and why – and, more interestingly, involving a sort of spirit from the Poison Garden called Oleander, the Prince of Poisons. The book’s title refers to diaries that Jessamine keeps until she becomes too ill to do so, after which Weed continues them (“I would give my life to save Jessamine. I may have to”). There is much scene-setting and character development in this book, which proceeds at a more leisurely pace than do many recent novels for teenagers – but a pace quite in line with those of the old Gothics. Maryrose Wood does a good job of entangling the characters and producing an effective (and faster-paced) climax that leaves the book at a point from which it absolutely must move on. Teens interested in an atmospheric tale with Georgian rather than Victorian trappings will enjoy the book, especially if they are unfamiliar with the many Gothics on which it draws.

      Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising draws on Gothics, too – on one particular Gothic, that is. The predecessor book is, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and 14-year-old Alex in Jason Henderson’s novel is descended (unknowingly, of course) from Stoker’s famous vampire hunter. Alex needs to learn about his lineage quickly, though: he shows up at the typically ominously named Glenarvon Academy and runs into two vampires within three days. Why? Well, it seems that beneath Lake Geneva – on whose shores Glenarvon rests – is a vampire academy called the Scholomance. The plot gets sillier from there: an evil vampire called Icemaker (what sort of vampire name is that?) is hatching evil plans, which include kidnaping two of Alex’s friends, so Alex must somehow infiltrate the Scholomance and get them back, while avoiding not only vampires but also zombies (zombies?) and thwarting evil Icemaker’s evil designs. There is good material here for a comedy, especially when you throw in a vampire-hunting group called the Polidorium, but Henderson asks young teens (the book’s intended audience) to take this whole story seriously and wait with bated breath for the planned sequel. Yes, even the scene in which Alex loses one of the special contact lenses he needs to move through the Scholomance is played straight. Yes, it is supposed to be serious when Icemaker says, “Now you will witness destiny.” And yes, there are references to Lord Byron, John Polidori and Mary Shelley (whose Frankenstein may contain an important clue to what Icemaker is doing), and there is an Egyptian god in there somewhere, too. There are, in truth, glimmers of humor here and there, but Henderson’s insistence on trying to have readers take Vampire Rising seriously (on the whole) does the book no favors, because it is really not very effectively plotted as an adventure story, much less a horror tale – not even for 12-year-olds.

     For readers a little younger – ages 8-12 – there can be overt humor in novels that contain remnants of the Gothics, such as The Zombie Chasers. A quick look at the overdone cover and frequently silly interior illustrations by Steve Wolfhard should be enough to show readers that John Kloepfer’s debut novel – which is also, yes, the start of a series – is not to be taken wholly at ripped-off-face value. The preteen protagonists here are Zack (whose sister is one of the zombies), Rice (a supposed zombie-fighting expert, having studied The Zombie Survival Guide), and Madison (a self-involved sort-of-bubblehead who doesn’t think much of either Zack or Rice). The book features a zombie rabbit, zombie twin, and this warning from Rice to Zack: “If you get bitten, you die and, like, your body is reanimated, but your skin starts to rot and your eyeballs fall out and sometimes you have to pick them up and put them back in your face.” There is also conflict among the heroic protagonists, much of it traceable to the fact that Madison is a vegan. There are the usual “lurching half-stumbles” of zombies, and at one point “the zombie hit the floor and crunched its face into the rug, which sounded a lot like squashing a beetle with the bottom of your shoe.” This and similar descriptive passages make up what passes for “style” here, which is to say there isn’t any. And Kloepfer isn’t looking for any. What he likes is oddball discoveries (ginkgo biloba as possible zombie repellent), little bits of disgustingness (Rice “scratching around a swollen chicken pock bubbling up on his cheek”), a commercial for BurgerDog (“the burger that tastes like a dog”), and similar intellectual pursuits. The good guys eventually do discover a zombie antidote, but whether it will do them much good won’t be known until the next book, Undead Ahead. This is good unclean (in fact, rather filthy) fun of a certain type, just overdone enough so that it may appeal to some preteens who wouldn’t know a Gothic if it, well, bit them.


American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman. By Joseph W. Polisi. Amadeus Press. $32.95.

Schuman: Symphonies Nos. 3-10; Orchestra Song; Circus Overture; Judith—Choreographic Poem for Orchestra; Prayer in a Time of War; New England Triptych—Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings; Night Journey; Charles Ives, arr. Schuman—Variations on “America.” Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $39.99 (5 CDs).

     It is practically impossible to overestimate the importance of William Schuman to the performing arts in the United States in the mid-20th century. President of the Juilliard School and later the first president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Schuman (1910-1992) also won the very first Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1943 for his cantata, A Free Song, on poems by Walt Whitman. And he founded the Juilliard String Quartet.

     Add to his tremendous accomplishments as a musical administrator the fact that he was one of the most important American composers of the century, and you have the basis for a fascinating biography – which is what Joseph W. Polisi, sixth president of the Juilliard School, offers in American Muse. The Schuman who emerges from this exhaustive 600-page book is savvy, highly intelligent, often prickly, not afraid to stand up for his rights and those of other composers, and accustomed to butting heads with those in the music business who do not seem to take him, his music or his concerns seriously enough. Schuman’s wit and intellect come through in the many letters and other documents from which Polisi quotes. One small example of the Schuman style, among many, from a letter to Juilliard Dean Mark Schubart, regarding Van Cliburn’s 1958 triumph in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow: “The great advantage that you now enjoy over me is that my letters are dictated and typed by an expert, while yours are written in a semi-conspiratorial manner underneath your trenchcoat on bumpy planes.”

     Schuman would do whatever was necessary to gain support for the arts. For instance, believing that the federal government had a proper role in artistic endeavors, he accepted a unique commission to create a work called Credendum in 1955, to honor the Fifth National Conference of the United States National Commission for UNESCO. “I was so naïve,” he later wrote. “I thought UNESCO was going to be one of the saviors of the world.” Interestingly, it was not Schuman’s classical-style music that was first published, but a series of popular songs; and his first “serious” published work was also a song, which came out in 1932. Over time, as his reputation as a composer grew, so did his prominence in other areas: he never earned a doctoral degree but received 27 honorary ones.

     Schuman’s stances on artistic matters did not always endear him to others in the field – Polisi’s clever title for one chapter is “Schuman versus Everybody Else” – but he retained a sense of propriety at almost all times, and resented it when others did not: “It was very unpleasant,” he writes of one major confrontation. “However inept I may have been in the procedures, I should never have been attacked. I should have been protected by all the people that I was protecting.” Schuman could be intensely self-critical, but being criticized by others was quite another matter.

     Because Polisi includes so many Schuman writings and other primary sources in American Muse, the book happily does not become hagiographic – as it might be expected to become when one head of Juilliard writes about another. Still, Polisi very clearly admires his subject, whom he describes as “prone to impetuous decisions, highly talented, a brilliant public speaker, and a bit vain.” Polisi’s biography is about as close to a definitive one as is likely to be written, and the fact that the author spends considerable time analyzing Schuman’s music as well as tracing his career is a major plus. For, as Leonard Bernstein commented in a passage that Polisi quotes, “I have rarely met a composer who is so faithfully mirrored in his music; the man is the music.…I treasure most the human qualities that flow directly from the man into the works – compassion, fidelity, insight, and total honesty.”

     Schuman’s particular focus was orchestral music, and his 10 symphonies, written between 1935 and 1975, neatly encapsulate his entire compositional career. Unfortunately, the self-critical Schuman withdrew the first two symphonies (despite the fact that No. 2 had been not only performed but also recorded), leaving eight available for performance and study – bearing the numbers 3 through 10. All eight are offered in fine performances in a five-CD Naxos box, along with several other works that are of varying importance in Schuman’s oeuvre and that showcase his talents from a variety of angles.

     The Naxos set is a repackaging of five separate CDs released at various times in the last several years, and the recordings by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony were made over nearly two decades, between 1990 and 2008 The arrangement of music on the CDs is therefore puzzling and rather disappointing: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 9 on one CD, Nos. 7 and 10 on another, Nos. 3 and 5 on the third, No. 6 on the fourth and No. 8 on the fifth. Given Schuman’s decision to withdraw Nos. 1 and 2, and his clear concern with putting forward only his best compositional style, a more chronological sequence would have been far better and more logical – and would not have been difficult to arrange, since all these CDs run just over an hour and a disc can hold 80 minutes.

     Still, the performances themselves are very fine – Schwarz, who has his weaknesses in more-traditional repertoire, is at his best in conducting modern music, and American music in particular. And he has clearly studied the individual characteristics of each Schuman symphony and decided what to emphasize and deemphasize accordingly. The underlying intellectual current of these symphonies is what ties them together, although as Schuman’s intellect and compositional skill developed, so did the symphonies – Nos. 6-10 are stronger on many levels than Nos. 3-5, even though it is No. 5 (which Schuman himself simply called “Symphony for Strings”) that is most often played. The first three of these symphonies are all wartime works: No. 3 from 1941, No. 4 from 1942 and No. 5 from 1943. No. 6 dates to 1948, No. 7 to 1960, No. 8 to 1962, and No. 9 – whose title, “Le fosse ardeatine,” recalls a World War II Nazi atrocity – is a wartime symphony written from the much later perspective of 1968. Symphony No.10 (1975), “American Muse,” gave Polisi his book title and was created in anticipation of the United States Bicentennial.

     For all their differences, the symphonies have certain things in common. One is Schuman’s expertise in and comfort with older musical forms, handled especially interestingly in No. 3, whose two movements are “Passacaglia and Fugue” and “Chorale and Toccata.” Another is a distinct Schuman touch in the form of rapid sixteenth notes interrupted at irregular intervals by sixteenth rests. A third is a harmonic language that varies from tonal to dissonant but eschews serialism and is free of such fads as aleatoric sections – with the result that the symphonies wear quite well. The dense and difficult No. 6 and the heartfelt No. 9 are especially effective works, but the airiness of No. 5 offers its own pleasures, as does the sophistication of No. 3. In fact, all the symphonies are sophisticated in structure and manner – and this may explain why they are not more often programmed by orchestras. They are not especially “difficult” by modern standards (in terms of listening, that is; playing them is another matter). But they are generally not immediately appealing, either, tending to rely more on elegant construction and finely honed instrumentation than on direct emotional connection to make their points. That is a generalization, and certain movements certainly do connect with immediate effectiveness, but the overall impression of the symphonies is of a fairly academic (if not pedantic) set of works, interesting to hear and analyze but not necessarily compelling for concertgoers.

     Interestingly, the emotional connection of the other works in the Naxos boxed set is more apparent and more direct – showing that Schuman certainly knew how to get through to an audience with considerable immediacy if he so chose; this is, after all, a composer who wrote the music for 40 Frank Loesser songs. The scattershot nature of the Naxos box makes it hard to evaluate Schuman’s non-symphonic output from these CDs alone – the popular and very well-constructed George Washington Bridge for concert band is not included, for example. But there are enough works here in addition to the symphonies to give a fair, if not comprehensive, view of the composer’s way with other forms, and most of these non-symphonies are quite impressive. One, Judith, based on the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, lasts longer than several of the symphonies and is an impressively structured tone poem that sounds nothing like the Lisztian model. Prayer in a Time of War, originally called Prayer, 1943 for its year of composition, is heartfelt and offers some surprising harmonies. The ballet Night Journey – the Oedipus tale told from Jocasta’s perspective – is another highly effective work in longer form (again, exceeding many of the symphonies’ lengths). And then there is New England Triptych, one of Schuman’s most-played works, which is inevitably reminiscent of Ives’ Three Places in New England but handles its old tunes by William Billings in a style that is clearly Schuman’s own. The shorter and lighter works here – Orchestra Song, Circus Overture and the orchestration of Ives’ Variations on “America” – show Schuman in full “popular” mode, with flash and dash and plenty of bubbling good humor, although often (especially in the Ives) with less subtlety than might be expected.

     William Schuman is difficult to sum up as both arts administrator and composer. In the former role, he accomplished a great deal and left a highly impressive legacy for those who followed – but made some unnecessary enemies along the way and certainly did not accomplish all he set out to do. Nor did his naïveté in such areas as the relationship between government and the arts ever fully leave him – for better or worse. As a composer, Schuman developed his own style and voice, but at the same time tended to echo earlier composers, including Aaron Copland and Roy Harris (with whom he studied in the 1930s). A complex and highly interesting man, he is worth both reading about and listening to – and “listening,” in this case, encompasses both the letters and other documents included in Polisi’s book and the music presented in the five-CD Naxos set.

August 19, 2010


Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors. Poetry by Joyce Sidman. Illustrations by Beckie Prange. Houghton Mifflin. $17.

Here There Be Monsters: The Legendary Kraken and the Giant Squid. By H.P. Newquist. Houghton Mifflin. $18.

     Animals are celebrated in very different ways in these two books. Ubiquitous is specifically labeled a celebration, and Joyce Sidman’s poetry might lead readers to expect something fluffy and evanescent discussing the beauties of this or that creature. Not so. Yes, each animal or plant – plants are also survivors – gets a poem about it, such as “The Mollusk That Made You,” which starts, “Shell of the sunrise,/ sunrise shell,/ yours is the pink lip/ of a pearled world.” But each also gets a carefully drawn picture by Beckie Prange and a good deal of factual material: mollusks are “500 million years old” and “have existed longer than almost any other animal group,” and thrive because “their hard outer shell protects them from the various dangers of sea life: predators, injury, and extreme temperatures.” There is poetry and fact here about lichens, too, and diatoms, about ants and grasses, and about crows: “What grand, colossal, crow-filled schemes/ take shape in your collective dreams?” And: “Crows and their cousins (ravens and jays, for example) belong to the most intelligent family of birds, the corvids. Curious and adaptable, they have excellent memories and have been observed making tools, such as hooked twigs, to secure food – something only great apes and humans are otherwise known to do.” Humans are in this book, too, but at the very end – not because we are less important than the other entries but because we have not been around very long: just 100,000 years or so in our current form, compared with 3.8 billion years for the bacteria with which the book opens. Indeed, the inside front and back covers of the book are a graphic timeline of life, “a string 46 meters long,” according to Prange, who drew it – with one centimeter equal to 1,000,000 years and with geologic periods marked by color changes. Add this graphic representation about life on Earth to the facts and pictures about specific forms of life within the book, and the result is something very poetic indeed, to which Sidman’s own poetry adds additional lilt and loveliness.

     “Loveliness” would scarcely be a word that comes to most minds when contemplating the giant squid, yet this is quite a remarkable animal in almost every way. H.P. Newquist tells the squid’s story by starting long before anyone knew the squid existed – the book’s title, Here There Be Monsters, uses the words employed by old cartographers when labeling what lay beyond the known areas of a map. Newquist connects stories of seagoing monsters with the ancient Greek tales of Scylla, then presses ahead through the years to the 18th century, when Carl Linnaeus developed his classification system for living organisms and a priest named Erik Ludwig Pontoppidan wrote a book in which he named the horrific sea creature of legend the kraken. And so Newquist takes readers onward toward the modern era, through the stories of Pierre Denys de Montfort about a giant octopus attacking warships, to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1830 poem “The Kraken,” to Danish professor Japetus Steenstrup’s investigation of the giant squid, to the odd beachings of dozens of the colossal creatures during the 1870s. Herman Melville is here – one chapter of Moby-Dick is about sailors sighting a huge squid – and so is Jules Verne, represented by a famous passage from Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. Eventually – after only some three dozen pages, but having covered a great deal of lore and science – Newquist begins discussing what modern scientists know of the giant squid. And the facts are scarcely less amazing than the legends: the creature has toothlike blades on its tongue, eyes that can be as big as 13 inches across, and knifelike hooks sticking out of its suckers. Closeup photos of the squid’s anatomy look like science-fiction illustrations, and indeed the reality and the legend now coexist: one picture in the book shows a scene of the kraken attacking a ship in the recent film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Photos of fishermen hauling a colossal squid aboard their boat, and of scientists later studying it, are as fascinating as movie scenes, and indeed Here There Be Monsters treads the line between science and myth carefully right to the present day. At just 74 pages, and sized like a children’s book, Newquist’s work may seem at first like a once-over-lightly look at a matter of scientific interest. But it is more than that: it is carefully researched, well assembled and well written, and its subject matter is handled with so much excitement – and so much accuracy – that parents will enjoy the book as much as their children will, and will likely learn just as much by reading it.


Chemistry: Getting a Big Reaction! Created by Simon Basher. Written by Dan Green. Kingfisher. $8.99.

Math: A Book You Can Count On! Created by Simon Basher. Written by Dan Green. Kingfisher. $7.99.

Punctuation: The Write Stuff! Created by Simon Basher. Written by Mary Budzik. Kingfisher. $7.99.

100 Facts about Pandas. By David O’Doherty, Claudia O’ Doherty, and Mike Ahearn. Penguin. $13.

     The exceptionally clever Basher Books series is designed to teach abstract concepts in a highly unusual way: by personalizing them, making them concrete, yet communicating accurately what they are all about. Thus, the book about “the wonderful, wild, and sometimes wacky world of chemistry” includes information on ions, polymers, molecules, hydrocarbons and much more, all within a 128-page softcover package. But what a package! Take, for example, the chapter called “Nasty Boys.” This is where kids ages 10 and up will find information on acids, bases, pH and more. Each concept is drawn to look like a Japanese anime character, and talks directly to readers. “Acid,” for example, says, “I’m mad, bad, and thoroughly dangerous to know. Given the chance, I’ll eat away at Metal and burn through your skin!” And then comes the factual backup: “What gives me my acidic nature is my ability to lose hydrogen atoms. I’m a sinister splitter: in the presence of Water, I disassociate, breaking into a negative ion and a positive hydrogen ion.” In contrast, there is “Base,” who says, “I’m a lowdown, cheatin’ gunslinger. Base by nature, base by name.” And the facts: “Acids play fast and loose with their positive H+ ions, but I hoard them. I love them so much that when mixed with Water, I steal them from the H20 molecules!” The drawings of these “characters” are quite wonderful – “Thermometer” is wearing a party hat and “Hydrocarbons” a cowboy hat, for example – but their aim is clearly to draw students into the subject matter, not distract them from it (the “thermometer” page even explains the Greek terms from which the English word is derived). And Chemistry does not shy away from some fairly complex concepts, such as “Reactivity Series,” “Esters,” “Precipitate” and “Avogadro’s Number.” This is an exceptionally clever way to introduce topics that can easily be overwhelming or boring: the book makes them comprehensible, interesting and even fun. Then it is up to chemistry teachers to pique students’ interest further.

     There are Basher Books for younger kids, too – including half-length ones (64 pages each) about math and punctuation, intended for ages eight and up. The basic approach is the same, as is the packaging: each book (including Chemistry) has a poster bound into the inside back cover that displays the concepts in a single place and shows how they relate to each other. Math deals with zero and infinity at the beginning and then delves into “special sum-things” such as Add (“this little fella joins numbers together”), Subtract (“this unhappy character breaks numbers apart”), and the letter X: “I am the faceless one. …I am what’s called a variable – a symbol put in place of an unknown, mystery quantity.” Also here are concepts ranging from pi (“the number never ends and never repeats – spooky!”) to polygon (“I’m the queen of diamonds…and many more”) to percent (“I keep track of things, like your score on a quiz”). As for Punctuation, this book not only includes the period, question mark and exclamation point, but also explains the difference between Contraction Apostrophe and Possessive Apostrophe and between the List-Making Comma and Joining Comma. Punctuation has a format that includes “do” and “don’t” after each item – for example, “DO use an ellipsis to how that you’ve left some words out of a direct quotation,” but “DON’T use an ellipsis just because you’ve run out of ideas on a subject.” As with Chemistry and Math, there is quite a lot packed into Punctuation – even the Chatroom Comma and the Semicolon (“this character’s motto is ‘Fair’s fair’”). Accurate, inventive, clear and clever, the Basher Books are an unusual and unusually attractive way to help kids get easily involved in some subjects that can be far from simple – and that are rarely taught in such a user-friendly way.

     The problem with small-format softcover fact books is that they can be confused with small-format softcover humor books, especially when the humor books go out of their way to spur the confusion. That is just what 100 Facts about Pandas does. There is not a single fact in this book, except presumably for the names of the authors. Using the word “facts” in the title and placing a silly but not obviously we’re-only-kidding picture of a panda on the cover can lead to momentary confusion about the book, and some of the “facts” have just enough plausibility to make a reader wonder what is going on: “The prehistoric ancestor of the panda is the Megalopandor, a six metre, two-ton dinosaur that lived for a short time in the temperate grasslands of Central America during the Miocene era (approx. 20 million years ago).” Certainly a closer reading of the “facts” shows quite clearly that this book is intended to be funny. No. 43 states, “Pandas are not permitted in libraries. This rule applies globally.” And No. 34 says, “Owing to a bureaucratic mix up in registration by naturalist Dr. Joseph Banks in 1831, the panda bear is officially classified not as a mammal, but as a nut.” If this sort of humor is your cup of tea, you will find several cups here. From No. 20: “If forced to move backwards, the panda can run faster than almost any other land animal.” No. 51: “Until 1982 it was legal for infertile couples in Great Britain to formally adopt pandas.” Of course, the illustrations make it clear that the book is a sendup – the “adopt” item shows a panda sitting in a child’s wading pool; a diagram shows that the eyeballs of a panda with chicken pox fall out after 10 days; a panda appears as a chimney sweep, and a miniature one is shown as a good-luck charm being used by chess champion Gary Kasparov. Certainly some elements of 100 Facts about Pandas are funny, or at least wry. But the book still gets only a (++) rating for most people: the authors are not nearly as clever as they seem to think they are, and the reason for using the word Facts in the title – without quotation marks – is difficult to fathom.


Sports Camp. By Rich Wallace. Knopf. $15.99.

Kickers, Book 1: The Ball Hogs. By Rich Wallace. Illustrated by Jimmy Holder. Knopf. $12.99.

Lunch Lady No. 4: Lunch Lady and the Summer Camp Shakedown. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Knopf. $6.99.

The Amazing World of Stuart. By Sara Pennypacker. Illustrations by Martin Matje. Scholastic. $5.99.

My Weird School Daze #10: Miss Mary Is Scary! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $3.99.

     Late summer is transition time for school-age children. Some are still in camp; some are already starting school; the ones not yet starting are looking forward to the new school year, not necessarily happily. At this time of year, parents have plenty of camp-oriented and school-oriented books to choose from for kids, and can pick ones that speak to their children’s interests or help them overcome worries or fears. Two new Rich Wallace books, for example, are strictly sports-oriented and have a strong camp orientation. The idea behind Sports Camp is obvious from the title. Intended for ages 9-13, the book focuses on someone right in the middle of that age range: 11-year-old Riley Liston, the smallest kid at Camp Olympia. Riley has to find his own focus by honing his athletic abilities, which do not lie in games requiring strength or accuracy (such as softball and basketball) but in ones requiring speed and endurance (such as running and swimming). The book tracks the competition for the Camp Olympia Trophy, and includes the legend of Big Joe, a huge snapping turtle that may have eaten the victims of a canoe accident many decades in the past – or may not exist at all. Everything comes together in a final swimming race in which, predictably, Riley spots (or thinks he spots) Big Joe, and Riley’s efforts help his cabin eke out a victory in the trophy competition – a standard feel-good sports-book ending.

     Wallace’s Kickers series, for ages 7-10, is standard stuff, too. Each of the four planned novels is about the fourth-grade Bobcats soccer team, with The Ball Hogs focusing on nine-year-old Ben, a good player whose problems have to do with teammate Mark, a ball hog. Mark isn’t a team player – but, it turns out, neither is Ben, and he has to learn something from his teammates and Coach Patty before he can reach his own potential. He also has to admit that “Mark was a pretty good athlete [who] could be a big plus, if he’d show some teamwork.” In time Ben is able to develop his abilities, do a better job of team play, and move ahead to the series’ later books, Fake Out, Benched and Game-Day Jitters. There is nothing at all surprising in the book, but young soccer players will likely enjoy it.

     Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady series sits on the border between camp and school in its fourth entry. Although Lunch Lady and her faithful and inventive assistant, Betty (think James Bond and “Q”), are a school-based duo, they are out of their usual element in Summer Camp Shakedown. And they don’t mind at all – they are looking forward to relaxation and to doing their usual thing (food preparation) in a new environment and with different kids. But not all the kids are different: Dee, Hector and Terrence, the same three young people who help Lunch Lady solve crimes at school when they are not getting in her way and misinterpreting things, turn up at the camp where Lunch Lady and Betty are working. And sure enough, there’s dirty work afoot. Or wet work, anyway. There are stories at camp of an evil swamp monster with “fangs as sharp as knives” – a wholly unbelievable creature that seems not to know it is imaginary, because it keeps showing up and causing trouble. At the same time, there is counselor rivalry going on, involving the female counselors’ attraction to the new guy, Ben, rather than the returning lifeguard, Scott. That’s a hint of what the whole monster thing will turn out to involve – there is really very little mystery in this Lunch Lady entry – but the fun remains in watching Lunch Lady and Betty on the hunt with such gadgets as the Hot Sauce Laser and the S’more Star (throwing star, that is). Light and not very nutritious, the book is nevertheless fun – sort of like mental fast food.

     Sara Pennypacker’s The Amazing World of Stuart is all about school and is a cut above the other books mentioned here, gaining a (++++) rating. This paperback contains two Stuart adventures: Stuart’s Cape (originally published in 2002) and Stuart Goes to School (2003). The delightful lightness of Pennypacker’s writing and the wonderfully offbeat illustrations by Martin Matje combine to help kids overcome real-world school-starting jitters. Stuart’s Cape is about the magical device that Stuart makes out of 100 old neckties to help him adjust after his family moves to a new town. Armed (or rather covered) with the cape, Stuart (who has been playing a game about animals) at one point meets a dinosaur, a gorilla and a horse, who get together to “play Stuart.” Stuart also wakes up on the ceiling one morning, grows toast from secret seeds he finds in his cape on another day, and deals with a trashman who turns into a cat – all of which happens as Stuart nervously anticipates the first day of school. Stuart Goes to School carries the story ahead, as that first day dawns and Stuart fails to make the ugly outfit his parents have laid out for him disappear, then heads to school with a huge black cloud labeled “Big Worry” above him. Stuart is a Grade A worrier: “If worrying were a sport, he would have a neck full of gold medals by now.” And that is exactly why The Amazing World of Stuart is such a great book for families whose own kids approach the school year with trepidation. Everything goes wrong with Stuart for a while – in hilarious ways that involve hole-digging by giant earthworms and the discovery of a room where teachers watch cartoons and stuff multiple doughnuts into their mouths – and Stuart’s cape seems to have failed him completely, until a series of twists (all of them delightful) makes Stuart a very happy student after all. His adventures will make lots of kids happy.

     Dan Gutman’s My Weird School Daze series is more forced and isn’t as amusing as Stuart’s adventures. The latest entry, which gets a (+++) rating, is all about a student teacher who just may live in a cave, sleep upside down hanging from the ceiling, and perhaps be a vampire. Gutman does try to put some actual information into Miss Mary Is Scary! For example, the kids are spooked by new bathroom appliances that flush and turn on automatically, thinking there must be ghosts in the bathroom. So their teacher, math-loving Mr. Granite, tells them about water-saving toilets: “Every time you flush a toilet…you use up to 5 gallons of water. So five flushes in a day would be…25 gallons of water a day [which] adds up to 175 gallons a week…and 9,100 gallons a year.” But the facts are soon finished, and the kids meet Miss Mary, their principal’s daughter, who lives in England, sports a bat tattoo, dresses all in black and wants to tour with her boyfriend’s band rather than teach. All kinds of rather forced hilarity ensue, from a song about dirt to a viral video to a failure to understand what “blood pudding” and other British terms mean. Everything ends amusingly and happily, and Mary and her boyfriend get married after the guy earns two million dollars for a song he spontaneously wrote. Yeah, right. My Weird School Daze doesn’t get any weirder than that.


Freak Magnet. By Andrew Auseon. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Stranded. By J.T. Dutton. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Lincoln’s Sword. By Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald. Eos. $7.99.

     Oddities happen all the time in real life, but they happen in novels, especially ones for teenagers, with distressing regularity. Authors may do a good job of following what happens after this oddity or that, but the artificiality of the odd occurrence and/or odd person remains. So it is in Freak Magnet, which is told in alternating chapters headed “Freak” (the boy) and ”Magnet” (the girl). The whole thing starts with what is called, in movies, a “meet cute” moment, when Charlie notices Gloria in a coffee shop and, after she walks out, just has to walk after her to tell her she is the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. She, of course, gets away from this maybe-stalker as quickly as she can – and it turns out that she is smart to do so, because freaks are attracted to Gloria the way bees are attracted to flower nectar (in fact, after Gloria walks away, Charlie comments, “I could still smell her – floral, powdered…she was a flower that refused to wilt in the weather”). And so, from this inauspicious and predictable beginning, Andrew Auseon proceeds with a story of gradually increasing attraction, Gloria’s “freak journal” in which she makes notes of all the oddballs she encounters, and repeated references to poetry, nerdiness and astrology. The watchword here is spoken by a minor character: “Problems will still be there, even if you turn your back,” and of course there are problems in this budding relationship, notably involving both young people’s families. “Life was not good, but it had the potential to be better,” Gloria writes in one of her point-of-view chapters, and ultimately that is the message that readers are supposed to take away from this typically bittersweet book about growing up.

     Stranded is even more bitter and considerably less sweet, and the oddity around which it centers is a horrible one: the discovery of a dead baby in a cornfield in the super-ironically named town of Heaven, Iowa. J.T. Dutton’s whole book is a morality play, 21st-century style, in which high-school junior Kelly Louise is forced to move with her mom back to Heaven to live with the family’s Nana and Kelly Louise’s too-good-to-be-true cousin, Natalie, who dresses perfectly and has taken a virginity pledge. But the story of abandoned Baby Grace shadows everyone and everything in Heaven, where – not surprisingly at all – it turns out that Natalie is nothing like what she seems to be, and the whole town is filled with those dark secrets that seem to pervade every nook and cranny of every out-of-the-way fictional small town since (and before) Faulkner. As Kelly Louie contemplates ways to lose her virginity (“I had been trying to rid myself of mine for months without luck”) and adjusts the socks in her bra, she struggles to keep Natalie’s secret even though, “little by little, my mental health and clear skin were being affected.” The town’s narrow-mindedness and church obsession wear on Kelly Louise, as does Nana’s “obsessive-compulsive drinking” and “litany of what made Natalie perfect and untouchable in everyone else’s eyes.” Eventually, Natalie’s secret comes out, many things go awry in Kelly Louise’s life, and a many wholly anticipatable complications ensue, leaving the principal characters emotionally wrung out and changed for (in most cases) the better. There is not a single element of the plot that has not been used elsewhere, and the emotional roller-coaster ride is one on which many authors have taken teen readers before. Dutton handles the very familiar material well enough, but it is very familiar material.

     So is the underlying premise of Lincoln’s Sword, one of the innumerable alternative-history (wrongly called “alternate-history”) books in which the outcome of the Civil War is seen as so pivotal that a small change here or there could produce an unending cascade of consequences through the following decades. This is not an entirely unreasonable idea – certainly a Confederate victory in the War between the States would have led to many differences after the conflict’s conclusion. Nevertheless, the “what if” approach to this war has been done many times before. The way it is done by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald involves the foresight of their book’s rather creepy Mary Lincoln and of her best friend, Mercy Conkling, who is also a seer. Lincoln’s Sword also involves one of those mysterious strangers who seem to dot the alternative-history landscape – this one is named Thomas – and an impossibly noble President Lincoln (himself given foresight in this book, through his dreams). The title of the book refers to a magical sword that Mary Lincoln sees in visions and that may hold the key to Lincoln’s and the Union’s future. It falls to Lincoln to accept the sword and his own assassination, which he does when he tells Thomas, “I dreamed I was on a phantom ship, racing toward an unknown shore. I’ve had that same dream three times before: before Gettysburg, before Antietam, and before Fort Fisher on Cape Fear. All great Union victories, but all accompanied by great rivers of blood.” The story seesaws back and forth between dates during the Civil War and ones after it, and some of its subsidiary characters prove more interesting than its central ones: Cole Younger of the James-Younger gang and General Albert Pike, to name two. There is nothing believable in Lincoln’s Sword and no attempt at believability in it. It is purely a piece of alternative, magic-infused history designed to take advantage of the continuing fascination with Lincoln and the Civil War – a touch of strangeness largely for its own sake.


Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6; Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052; Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor, BWV 1056; Violin Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052 (reconstruction). Jeannette Sorrell, harpsichord and conducting Apollo’s Fire/The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra; Elizabeth Wallfisch, violin. AVIE. $27.95 (2 CDs).

Mozart: Symphony No. 40; “In un istante” and “Parto, m’affretto” from “Lucio Silla”; Ballet Music from “Idomeneo”; Kontretänze K. 123, K. 462/5, K. 462/6; Menuetto cantabile, K. 463. Apollo’s Fire/The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra conducted by Jeannette Sorrell; Amanda Forsythe, soprano. AVIE. $16.50.

     The main things that these CDs have going for them are absolutely wonderful playing on period instruments and sure-handed, idiomatic conducting. The main things they have going against them are the competitiveness of the repertoire and some quirks in the presentations.

     Many orchestras are coming up with cutesy names for themselves nowadays, presumably trying to make themselves more memorable. Jeannette Sorrell’s ensemble, though, seems unsure whether to go the traditional or cute route, using the names Apollo’s Fire and Cleveland Baroque Orchestra at the same time. This is unnecessarily confusing – which the chamber group’s performances of Baroque and Classical-era music are definitely not. Both these new releases offer very high-quality readings of fairly standard repertoire, played with such skill on period instruments that there is more of a natural flow to the readings than some period-instrument groups provide. There is nothing awkward here at all. There are, however, places where listeners may quibble a bit with the interpretations. In Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, things are almost too smooth. Those intentionally intrusive hunting horns in Concerto No. 2, for example, sound thoroughly tamed for the aristocracy here, blending beautifully with the more upper-crust instruments – but whether that is the sound Bach wanted is arguable. Still, the last movement of this concerto is a highlight of this two-CD set: poised, balanced and beautiful. Other individual movements of the concertos are outstanding as well, including the opening movements of Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 – the first of these with truly wonderful flute playing, the second of them with Sorrell showing just how fine a harpsichord player she can be in all modes, from basso continuo to virtuoso display. As a conductor of the Brandenburgs, Sorrell takes a middle-of-the-road approach to tempos (the finale of No. 3 is quite fast, but that is now a middle-of-the-road approach); some movements tend to drag a bit as a result, but others glow. What is generally lacking in the performances is a sense of exuberant dance rhythms – in the finale of No. 6, for example. This whole Brandenburg set sounds excellent but is rather staid and reserved, breaking no new interpretative ground but standing firmly on a fine period-instrument foundation.

     The three additional Bach concertos in this two-disc set, although they will not be the reason that listeners purchase the CDs, are quite worthwhile. Sorrell again shines as soloist in the harpsichord concertos BWV 1052 and BWV 1056 – she has excellent technique and a fine sense of how to vary her instrument’s registers, resulting in a combination of high style and very attractive sound. Elizabeth Wallfisch does a fine job, too, as soloist in a reconstruction of the violin concerto on which the harpsichord work BWV 1052 was presumably based – the violin version being long lost. Connoisseurs will enjoy comparing the two readings of BWV 1052; all listeners can simply enjoy the very fine music-making in both renditions.

     The musicality is equally fine in the Mozart CD by Sorrell’s ensemble – in fact, this version of Symphony No. 40 is one of the best available. The work’s G Minor darkness is accentuated by the period instruments; but, thanks to the small size of the orchestra, the work does not sound overwrought or overly Romantic. Tempos are very well chosen, balance among instruments is top-notch, and the symphony’s emotional underpinnings come through very clearly and dramatically without seeming in any way overdone. There is lilt and real style here – and excellent playing. But this CD has its oddities, too, because of the remaining works on it. Individually, these pieces are very well performed indeed: Amanda Forsythe is simply outstanding in the accompanied recitative and aria from Lucio Silla, and the ballet music from Idomeneo sounds not only triumphant but also genuinely danceable. But it is a little difficult to decide who the ideal buyer of this CD would be. Half the hour-long disc is devoted to the symphony, which is actually worth the price of the release – but buyers may not see things that way. The Lucio Silla and Idomeneo excerpts are certainly not throwaways, but neither are they reasons to rush to make a purchase. The dances that fill out the CD as encores are pleasant trifles and most likely were encores – they were recorded live in 2003 (with K. 123 actually played twice on the disc), while the rest of the performances date to 2008. This CD seems more like a “concert souvenir” than anything else – the sort of disc that people like to take home as a memento after hearing a fine ensemble perform. Whether its undoubted high quality is enough to make it appealing to an audience that has not heard this period orchestra in live performances is a question that only sales of the CD can really answer. But one thing is already certain: whether it calls itself Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra or some uneasy mixture of the two names, Sorrell’s ensemble is a distinguished one whose future endeavors bear watching – and hearing.