October 27, 2011

(++++) WELCOME, 2012!

2012 Calendars: 366-Day—Pearls Before Swine; Murphy’s Law; The Office; Australia; Wall—Dilbert; Get Fuzzy; Brevity; Masha D’yans; The Metropolitan Opera. Andrews McMeel and Universe/Andrews McMeel (D’yans; Opera). $13.99 each (Pearls; Murphy’s; Office); $8.99 (Australia); $13.99 each (wall).

     Oh, you say it’s not 2012 yet? Well, it will be soon enough, and you had best be prepared: these new years sneak up on you before you know it! But have no fear: Andrews McMeel is ready to make the coming new year better than the current one (much better, one fervently hopes). All it takes is a daily dash of humor from one of the company’s page-a-day calendars. In fact, you get a dash plus 1/365th of a dash for 2012, since it is a leap year. Hence the title of the 2012 Pearls Before Swine calendar: “Leap (for your life) Year.” The box picture explains this perfectly, showing Zebra gritting his teeth as he leaps over four crocodile members of the ZZE fraternity (Zeeba Zeeba Eata). The ongoing Zebra-Crocodile disputes are only part of the everyday amusements here. Stephan Pastis’ crooked sense of humor is in evidence on every page, whether in the sequence about Guard Duck’s pursuit of Drama Cow, the Sunday strip in which Pig imagines himself as a silhouette on mudflaps, Rat’s attempt to get free beer by mentioning a specific brand repeatedly, Pig’s “sheep stalker,” or the panels in which Pastis deliberately breaks through comic conventions (for instance, by having his copyright line from between the panels fall into a panel and onto Pig’s head). Pearls Before Swine is not for everyone, but if it is for you, you have 366 days of enjoyment to look forward to.

     On some of those days, though, things will go wrong. Murphy’s Law is the answer – not to the things that go wrong, but to the need for laughter when they do. This calendar goes far beyond the original idea that “if anything can go wrong, it will.” Some of the observations here, assembled by Arthur Bloch, are well-known, such as Kierkegaard’s: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.” Others are more thoughtful than wry, such as “The Siddhartha Principle: You cannot cross a river in two strides.” But plenty are out-and-out amusing, at least until you think about them a bit and realize just how true they seem to be. “Law of Selective Gravity: An object will fall so as to do the most damage.” “First Rule of Applied Mathematics: 98 percent of all statistics are made up.” “Stewart’s First Corollary: Murphy’s Law may be delayed or suspended for an indefinite period of time, provided that such delay or suspension will result in a greater catastrophe at a later date.” These daily reminders of the futility of just about everything may not always produce chuckles, but at least when things do get messed up, they will ensure that you have been warned. Repeatedly.

     Of course, nothing gets as messed up as life in the office. Or rather life in The Office. Fans of the TV show that is nothing, absolutely nothing like workplace reality – except to the extent that it is – will find plenty to enjoy in the 2012 version of this calendar, which reminds viewers of many of the plot points while extracting daily comments typical of the characters who give the show its punch. Yes, there are chances here to follow along with Jim and Pam and little Cece to see how everyone is adjusting to married life with child. And yes, sometimes the good guys get what is coming to them: Darryl gets promoted. But much of the attraction of the show comes from what the frustrated, unhappy or not-so-good guys do, including all sorts of jockeying for position – Andy trying to win ex-flame Erin back from Gabe, for example, and super-schemer Dwight bribing, begging and even disguising himself to try to sneak his way into the position of regional manager. Non-fans of the The Office won’t get any of this, but regular viewers will relish the well-selected quotations that peer out from every page, as when Dwight remarks, “I’m just a normal guy who enjoys revenge.” Well, yes.

     But perhaps you have had enough of snarkiness, and would like something more restful, even beautiful, to contemplate each day. And perhaps you would prefer not to take up too much space with a day-to-day calendar. Australia neatly takes care of both issues. It is significantly smaller than most day-to-day calendars: each page is only three inches wide and a little more than two inches high, so the calendar needs little room on a desk, table or counter. And it comes with magnetic backing, so you can hang it up and have it take no desk, table or counter space at all. As for beauty, Australia is filled with it; indeed, the only problem with this calendar is that the vastness of this island continent can be only imperfectly captured on small pages. In addition to the best-known aspects of Australia, from the Sydney Opera House to the country’s world-famous beaches, the calendar includes views of the major cities, stunning desert photos (Australia is, in fact, mostly desert), national parks, eucalyptus forests, islands, vineyards, mountains and more. These are pictures by Lonely Planet Images, which offers work by many outstanding photographers, and each day’s photo is a visual delight – this is a calendar that should help you think of far-off and beautiful places even if you spend every day toiling in a cubicle.

     Of course, if you do spend your days cubicle-bound, you may want some reminders that life is more than cubeville. Or, well, maybe. The new Dilbert wall calendar comes with a bonus “Cubert” calendar, a small assemblage that arrives folded flat and opens along pre-scored lines to a small cube-shaped calendar featuring typical poses of Dilbert, Wally and Alice. The main wall calendar shows them doing typical things, too. Or not doing them, in Wally’s case. Each month contains two of Scott Adams’ three-panel Dilbert strips in black and white, with a single panel from one of the strips blown up and shown in color as that month’s main illustration. Pointy-Haired Bosses dislike these calendars – real-world people have gotten into real-world trouble for posting Dilbert cartoons in or near their cubicles – so be sure your company is willing to let you express yourself with this wall calendar before putting it up. But here’s a hint for those whose firms’ managers are humorless: the “Cubert” calendar is small enough to be hidden behind a book, computer monitor or stack of papers.

     The denizens of Dilbert are not alone in bringing sarcasm to the wall for 2012. Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy wall calendar offers much of the same – in a different context – and is laid out similarly. Conley’s strips are four-panel ones, and each month offers a single black-and-white strip with a color blowup of one panel. You would think that Bucky, the cat with something nasty to say about everyone and everything, would get all the blowup panels, and he does indeed appear in all 12 – but Satchel Pooch and even hapless human Rob Wilco sometimes get the better of him. At one point, Bucky objects to having Rob pet him, and Rob says that he is not petting but “feeling your head to see if thinking overheats your processor.” In another panel, Bucky claims that his fur “smooths out my physique,” which leads the plump and wrinkly Satchel to comment, “Ohhh, I must be really buff!” Bucky does tend to get the last word most of the time, though, as when Rob says that Bucky lives “in a dark little world” and Bucky replies, “I prefer to think of it as mood-lit and cozy.” If you live with dogs, cats or both, or ever have, or have thought about it but decided not to, this Get Fuzzy calendar will spend all of 2012 reminding you of why you made a good decision. Or a bad one.

     Single-panel cartoons can be snide, too, such as, for example, Brevity. Actually, Guy Endore-Kaiser and Rodd Perry (whose byline appears as “guy&rOdd”) sometimes subdivide a panel into two, three or even four parts, but most of their work makes its point in a single panel: a massive sea battle during which one sailor is ignoring the explosions to admire the dolphins swimming nearby, a snowglobe-dwelling woman looking longingly at an unreachable nearby globe labeled “Florida,” a knight of Nerdonia confronting a monstrous “Theorem.” The subdivided panels are equally quirky. In one, passersby look on admiringly at a stork carrying an infant along the sidewalk, until a frantic woman runs by exclaiming that “a giant bird stole my baby!” In another, a man bathes his dog in a tub of paint; the dog gets out and shakes itself while the man hides behind a canvas; then the paint-splattered canvas is hung in a museum. The humor of Guy and Rodd is always a little out-of-kilter – this calendar can help you balance any off-center elements of your world in the coming year.

     The whimsicality is subtler and gentler in the 2012 Masha D’yans calendar, which is definitely not made by having a paint-covered dog shake itself in front of a canvas. D’yans’ delicate, colorful, nature-oriented illustrations are tied beautifully and subtly to each month of the year: bare trees on a snow-covered hill for February, two birds nestled together in a tree for May, butterflies hovering around similarly colored flowers for July, a beautifully tinted schematic Christmas tree for December. D’yans claims inspiration from Japanese art and calligraphy, and her work certainly shows those influences in its structure, design and balance, and its use of white space. But there are other influences here, too, and some elements of D’yans’ art are hard to pin down: each of the 12 works shown in this calendar is recognizably by the same person, but many are so different from each other that they seem only moderately closely related. What comes through in all of them is a level of playfulness that will communicate itself as joy in the natural world each month, through all the seasons of the year that will be coming in the not-too-distant future.

     The seasons of opera are not quite like those of the normal year: high drama, complex production values and astonishing vocalizations are always in season. And anyone interested in opera knows that the Metropolitan Opera is at the pinnacle of the field. In fact, even those not interested in opera may find themselves drawn into the fascination of this grandest of musical mixed media through The Metropolitan Opera wall calendar for 2012. The dozen scenes here are big on spectacle – some of them very big. Philip Glass’s Satyagraha has colorfully dressed men in hats of many styles and shapes sitting in the front as huge papier-mâché figures loom over them from behind; a scene from Das Rheingold, the first opera in Wagner’s Ring tetralogy, features three dazzling, mermaid-like Rhinemaidens apparently sliding down a huge wall of stylized water; and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is shown in a scene that looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland, with gigantic cooks uncovering mountainous dishes as the two children cling to each other in front of the table. There are also some of the dramatic closeups in which opera excels: Anna Netrebko gorgeously costumed for the title role in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, for instance, and an elegant Jonas Kaufmann posing in the title role of an updated staging of Gounod’s Faust. Non-operagoers who are inspired by the calendar to consider seeing a production need but consult the full 2012 Met calendar included here, and musical-history buffs can enjoy finding out, for example, the dates on which the Met performed Aida for the 1000th time (June 25, 1996) and on which Maria Callas made her Met debut (October 29, 1956). There’s everything operatic here for the coming year except the music.


Sugar, Sugar: Every Recipe Has a Story. By Kimberly “Momma” Reiner and Jenna Sanz-Agero. Andrews McMeel. $29.99.

OMG Pancakes! 75 Cool Creations Your Kids Will Love to Eat. By Jim Belosic. Avery. $20.

Gluten-Free Makeovers: Over 175 Recipes—from Family Favorites to Gourmet Goodies—Made Deliciously Wheat-Free. By Beth Hillson. Da Capo. $19.

     One of the most delightful cookbooks to come along in quite some time, Sugar, Sugar by Kimberly “Momma” Reiner and Jenna Sanz-Agero not only includes a batch of delicious recipes but also offers something equally tasty: the stories behind the food. There are wonderful cakes, tarts, pies, cookies, candy and more here from around the United States and from many generations, each submitted by a person for whose family the goodies have a special meaning. The connection between food and family is what makes this book so outstandingly tasty – and the food itself is mighty good, too. Reiner and Sanz-Agero explain their personal differences and similarities in the introduction: the former prefers fruit flavors to chocolate, while the latter does not like berries; the former likes French or Belgian chocolate, but the latter uses Baker’s; the former says her husband rarely tries her sweets, while the latter says her husband always does. The two “sugar mommas” also offer comments and suggestions on the various recipes, including ways to modernize some of the old ones – for example, using muffin pans instead of cake pans to make “Everything but the Hummingbird Cake,” a concoction of pineapple, bananas, pecans or walnuts, vanilla and cinnamon, with cream cheese frosting. The difficulty of the recipes varies quite a bit: the “Hummingbird” recipe is on the complex side, for example, while “Strawberry Celebration Cake” is made from boxed white cake mix and packaged strawberry gelatin such as Jell-O. The stories behind the recipes vary quite a bit, too. “Bev’s Fraîche Fruit Pies” trace their heritage to pies made for a New Orleans restaurant in the 1970s, while “Boobie Cookies” (which have pointy tips) were named by two grandchildren, and “Kossuth Cakes” have a lineage dating to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Reading about the recipes, either before choosing ones to try or while the goodies are baking, makes this book far more interesting than typical cookbooks. And a number of the foods here, coming as they do from family recipes handed down over many years, will be genuinely new to home bakers. “We think every ancestral study should include the family sweets!” say the authors – and on the basis of Sugar, Sugar, home bakers are likely to agree.

     The sweets in OMG Pancakes! are for breakfast only, and are intended primarily for children, but Jim Belosic’s recipes will be plenty of fun for adults, too – both when making the pancakes and pancake creations and when eating them. Belosic started creating pancakes in unusual shapes and colors for his daughter, who was then three years old, and then he started chronicling his creations on a Web site, and now, more than four million “hits” later, there is this book. Kids generally do love to eat pancakes, so this is scarcely a book for tempting picky eaters – it has more to do with bonding with a child by making him or her something special and unusual-looking. There is nothing surprising in the basic pancake batter here (Belosic also suggests such variations as whole-wheat pancakes, pumpkin pancakes, banana pancakes and blueberry pancakes, but those too are scarcely out of the ordinary). What is offbeat is how Belosic cuts, colors and arranges the pancakes: this is as much a book about art (or artistry) as it is one about food. An alligator pancake, for instance, starts with natural green food coloring added to pancake batter; uncolored batter is used for teeth and eyes; the eyeballs are chocolate chips. “Mr. Pigsley” also gets chocolate-chip eyes, plus a body made from batter colored with natural red food coloring. Belosic shows what the parts of each animal look like when they come off the griddle, then indicates how to assemble them into the finale shape. Some of those shapes are three-dimensional, and they are more difficult to make. A grasshopper, for instance, requires only natural green food coloring plus those ubiquitous chocolate chips for eyes, but “the tricky part is not the pieces themselves, but attaching them patiently, properly, and precisely to make it stand as a 3-D pancake.” Expect to spend some time experimenting with these creations, especially the three-dimensional ones, but rest assured that even failed experiments taste just as good as successful ones. To adults, anyway.

     Sweet foods, whether cakes, pies, cookies or pancakes, almost always include flour, and that can be a serious issue for people who want to or must eat a gluten-free diet. For them, Beth Hillson offers Gluten-Free Makeovers of biscotti, brownies, cookies, cupcakes, pies and such non-sweet foods as rolls, scones, biscuits, pizza, soups, pasta, stuffing and main courses. This is a limited-audience book that gets a (+++) rating, but that does not mean it lacks value – in fact, for those who need to avoid gluten, it will be most welcome (although it is scarcely the only book offering a gluten-free guide to many of these recipes). Many of the basics here involve creating your own flours – from amaranth flour and cornstarch, for instance, or from chickpea flour and brown rice flour. Xanthan gum, tapioca starch, sorghum flour and similar ingredients are also must-haves. From the homemade flours, made individually or as a blend, Hillson shows how to make popovers, dairy-free pumpkin apricot muffins, and a “Nearly Puff Pastry Crust” that becomes part of such recipes as “Baked Brie with Fig Spread en Croûte.” There are even pancakes here, although scarcely Belosic-style ones: these are made from homemade self-rising flour, buckwheat flour and other ingredients, with or without fresh blueberries. Gluten-free cooking and baking has come a long way in the last few years: the foods prepared according to these recipes need no longer be dry, tasteless or grainy. And a careful analysis of foods that do or not contain gluten has made many preparations easier – for instance, Hillson says a simple dipping sauce for chicken can be made using ordinary ketchup, mustard and garlic powder, plus one or two teaspoons of gluten-free soy sauce. Hillson, president of the American Celiac Disease Alliance, does a great favor for home cooks and bakers seeking good gluten-free foods with this book; and if the preparations are unlikely to have general appeal, at least the foods will taste fine if prepared by someone who cannot consume gluten and served to someone who can.


In Search of Sasquatch. By Kelly Milner Halls. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

The Dragon’s Child: A Story of Angel Island. By Laurence Yep with Dr. Kathleen S. Yep. Harper. $5.99.

Dragons of Silk. By Laurence Yep. Harper. $16.99.

     Some creatures have real-world resonance even when they are entirely fictional – or their provenance is uncertain. One such is Sasquatch, also known as Bigfoot, the Yeti or the Abominable Snowman, a huge ape-like something that has been repeatedly sighted (or not) and repeatedly documented (or not). Kelly Milner Halls’ In Search of Sasquatch must therefore be a book seeking the truth or untruth of this creature’s existence before it can become a book chronicling the search for the elusive being. But of course Halls does not know whether there is any such thing – no one does. So the book’s two quests go on simultaneously: for the truth or falsity of reports of Sasquatch’s existence and for Sasquatch itself. Certainly there are plenty of people (called Squatchers) who are actively seeking evidence of Sasquatch; but there are others searching just as enthusiastically for evidence of alien presence on Earth, or for proof that vampires are real. So the existence of Squatchers proves nothing. Nor does any of the “evidence” that Halls offers, none of which is definitive (if it were, there would be no dispute as to the existence of Sasquatch). Studies of footprints whose origin cannot be explained, sounds that may or may not indicate a language, films that may or may not actually show Sasquatch – these and more are fodder for Halls’ book. Along the way, the author shows photos of ancient artifacts that may show a Sasquatch-like creature (or may not); of a hand that Tibetan monks claim belonged to a Yeti; and of a young Jimmy Stewart, who smuggled a supposed Yeti finger out of Europe while he was in U.S. military service. Tepee-like structures and broken branches called upbreaks may show Sasquatch trails – or may not. Halls eventually turns to a discussion of Bigfoot hoaxes, explaining what some of them have been and why they have cast a pall of doubt on the whole Sasquatch search. But in fact, it is not only the hoaxes that have done this – there simply is no scientific evidence that this being exists. Halls leans in the direction of saying that it does, using the coelacanth and giant squid as examples of creatures once believed extinct or mythic that turned out to be real and living in the present day. But the cases of those animals prove no more about Sasquatch than does, say, the question of whether there is really a Loch Ness monster. In Search of Sasquatch is finally not a very satisfying book, because it comes to no conclusions – and really cannot come to any. It is best for young readers who are willing to accept ambiguity and uncertainty as inherent elements of scientific inquiry; but that sort of acceptance can be difficult even for many adults.

     Few people believe nowadays that dragons are real, but the dragon remains a very important mythic symbol, especially in China and among Chinese who have emigrated. Many of Laurence Yep’s books for young people – he has written more than 60 – include dragons in the title or give them an important symbolic role in the narrative. The Dragon’s Child, first published in 2008 and now available in paperback, is one of them. Intended for ages 8-12, it is the story of Yep’s father’s trip to America in 1922, at the age of 10. The story is told in Gim Lew Yep’s voice, with each chapter opening with a question that the chapter then discusses, such as, “Were you nervous about America?” Indeed, Gim was very nervous indeed, since at this time, upon arrival at a place called Angel Island, he would have to go through an intensive examination about his family and his life in China. Gim is left-handed, which is considered a handicap, and he stutters when he is nervous, spending much of the book trying to convince himself not to do so during the crucial interview. The book also deals continually with Gim’s deep feelings of loss over leaving his home, family and village. The Dragon’s Child raises some significant issues, such as why people treat other people badly and how Gim himself is supposed to fit in when moving from one kind of life to an entirely different one. However, this is not an especially gripping book for the age group it targets: it is written at the right level, but it is talky and its eventual outcome is a foregone conclusion, so it may not hold the interest of some young readers. Structured as a blend of fact and fiction and co-written by Yep with his niece, The Dragon’s Child comes across as having considerable meaning for the author and his relatives, but not likely as much for readers whose life experience differs significantly from that of Yep’s family.

     Dragons of Silk, the final volume in Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1835-2011, is a more effective book and aimed at slightly older readers, ages 10 and up. Its foundation is a Chinese myth about the Weaving Maid, a beautiful woman who created silk robes for Heaven but gave up her work when she met and fell in love with the Cowboy and sought to be with him. Heaven would not allow this, and created the Milky Way to separate the lovers – so the story goes. But this myth is not Yep’s story, only its background. In Yep’s novel, interwoven tales of love and passion are connected through the Weaving Maid tale: each of the girls, living in a different time and different place, learns lessons about tradition and sacrifice, all connected to the myth. The first part of the book, set in 1835, is told in chapters labeled “Lily” or “Swallow”; the second, from 1881, focuses on Little Swallow; the third, from 1932, is a single chapter, set in San Francisco’s Chinatown and labeled “Lillian”; the fourth part, dated 1962, includes both “Rosie” and “Lillian” chapters; and the final part, bearing the date 2011, is a very short “Rosie” chapter set in New York City. Yep’s novel weaves the stories together much as the characters weave silk or otherwise work with it, or are involved in incidents that tie back to the Weaving Maid’s silk robes. Indeed, silk is the thread that interconnects all these stories and Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles as a whole, with the word “silk” appearing, like a benediction, in six of the book’s last seven sentences. Dragons of Silk is a well-wrought end to Yep’s long-spanning series, which began with The Serpent’s Children in 1984. It is not a book with which to encounter the series for the first time – there is in it too much resonance of earlier volumes. But for those who have followed the Golden Mountain Chronicles for years, it is a fitting conclusion to a multiplicity of deeply felt tales.


The Inquisitor’s Apprentice. By Chris Moriarty. Illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer. Harcourt. $16.99.

The Secret Zoo #2: Riddles and Danger. By Bryan Chick. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Familiars #2: Secrets of the Crown. By Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson. Art by Peter Chan & Kei Acedera. Harper. $16.99.

The Six Crowns, Book 2: Fair Wind to Widdershins. By Allan Jones. Illustrated by Gary Chalk. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $15.99.

     The magic that pervades so many adventures and fantasies aimed at preteens and young teenagers comes in a wide variety of guises. The adventures themselves do, too – urban and rural, in modern or long-ago settings, featuring humans or animals or both as protagonists. The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, a slice of alternative history set in a magic-pervaded early-20th-century New York City, is packed with types (Jewish, Italian, Chinese and Irish immigrants), real people (Thomas Edison, Harry Houdini), and people whose names and personalities are altered to make it clear that this is a world where magic and science coexist, often uneasily (James Pierpont Morgaunt, the Astral [rather than Astor] family). This is a world where magic is policed to prevent its misuse, and the chief pursuer of magical evildoers is Inquisitor Maximillian Wolf – to whom the book’s protagonist, Sacha Kessler, finds himself apprenticed after Sacha discovers that he can actually see magic being performed. Sacha is poor and Jewish; fellow apprentice Lily Astral is wealthy and patrician, but turns out to be more than just a “poor little rich girl.” The interplay between Sacha and Lily is well done in Chris Moriarty’s book and will surely be developed in sequels (which are a sure thing). But The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is otherwise riddled with unsatisfactory plot elements. Wolf is never really fleshed out as a character, becoming interesting only at the book’s climax; Sacha’s motivations make little sense (refusing to admit that he reads Yiddish, for example, and not telling Wolf that he recognizes a key piece of evidence); Morgaunt, the prime mover of evil here, is such a caricature that his machinations seem more silly than scary; Wolf’s decision to send Sacha and Lily out for coffee, to a dangerous neighborhood where it is certain they will be attacked, is an over-obvious move-the-plot ahead maneuver – of course the attack does happen, and does lead to a revelation; and the reason for the use of a shadowy figure called a dybbuk is never satisfactorily explained. Mark Edward Geyer’s illustrations, although well done, compound the book’s problems through irritating inaccuracies: Geyer labels a café “Metrapole” while the text calls it “Metropole,” and in a crucial picture showing the dybbuk, the creature is drawn with bird’s feet even though the text clearly says it does not have them (it has regular-looking feet that leave birdlike prints). Moriarty paces the book well, but its seams are constantly showing. Perhaps she will sew them more tightly in future episodes.

     The second book in The Secret Zoo series pleasantly continues the adventure begun in the first, Secrets and Shadows. The same four friends who discovered the zoo in the earlier book are now charged with protecting it in their role as Crossers, who can move back and forth between the ordinary human world and the secret, magical one in which penguins fly and dangerous creatures called sasquatches are a constant threat. Noah, Megan, Richie and Ella are exposed here not only to the zoo’s history but also to the story of the Secret Society, Secret Arctic Town, Forest of Flight, City of Species, Secret Creepy Critters and more – there are all sorts of secrets and other oddities here. But the basic story is very simple: the four friends help Mr. Darby, who is in charge of the Secret Zoo, keep the place safe and, well, secret. The chief evildoer here, DeGraff, “wants an army of monsters to storm the earth,” because that is what evildoers are all about. There are some passes at real-world family issues here, as is common in books for this age range – Ella’s preoccupation with her parents’ divorce, for example. But everyday matters take a back seat in a story that is certain to climax in the lair of the Secret Creepy Critters, and does. There’s quite an escape from alligators here, and there is rather corny dialogue, as when Mr. Darby explains about the four friends, “Their strength has its source in their love. And we’ll need that strength in our battles, I assure you. …If victory is ours to be had, it will be their love that helps deliver it.” Well, sure. There is nothing particularly special or unusual about the way the good characters conquer the bad ones here, and Bryan Chick’s writing, while serviceable, is not especially stylish. But the notion of a place where humans and animals interact as equals and genuinely help each other confront and overcome threats is an attractive one, and the generally mild (but occasionally scary) adventures can certainly go on for quite some time as this series continues.

     The Familiars is also about cooperation between humans and animals in a world of magic, but here the focus is on the animals – who are not mere servants or helpers of wizards but the keys to restoring the humans’ magical powers. For in the second book of the series by Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson, human magic has disappeared from Vastia, and Aldwyn, Skylar and Gilbert must go on a quest to restore it. The telekinetic cat, intelligent blue jay and frequently clueless tree frog need to find the ancient Crown of the Snow Leopard if they are to reverse the curse that has deprived humans of their ability to work magic. Their evil opponent is – well, a bunny. All right, a hare: Paksahara, who is motivated by the usual lust-for-conquest thing: “Not since Wyvern and Skull has magic been used in such a corrupt manner, solely for the pursuit of power,” as one character explains it. Good and bad guys keep turning up in animal guise here – for instance, at one point Skylar summons the great architect Agorus from the Tomorrowlife, and Agorus turns out to be a beaver. This becomes an occasion for some humor, of which there is a fair helping in The Familiars, although it often appears in rather silly ways that require some decidedly un-heroic dialogue: “‘Thanks,’ squealed Gilbert. ‘I nearly got turned into a shish-kafrog.’” The Prophesized Three (an unfortunate title for the protagonists – it really should be “prophesied”) encounter, among other things, a cave shaman, albino dwarf, and “tiny hound of darkness” that licks Gilbert’s face with “smoky slobber” and wants only to play. They have to solve the usual riddles-in-rhyme, journey on a whale’s back, follow a path once trod by Aldwyn’s father, encounter a vitrecore, and eventually battle Paksahara herself – and a traitor. These are familiar heroic-quest events, and young readers who know the Star Wars films will recognize another one with the sudden revelation that Aldwyn has a living relative of whom he previously knew nothing. Secrets of the Crown ends inconclusively, setting up the next book in the sequence – this is going to be one of those series that readers will need to follow book after book in order to get some complete and satisfactory answers to what is going on and how the good guys triumph.

     Speaking of animal heroes seeking crowns, The Six Crowns is another heroic quest, this one involving animals alone – specifically, hedgehogs Trundle and Esmeralda and, in the second book of the series, Jack Nimble the bard (a squirrel). Fair Wind to Widdershins picks up exactly where the previous book, Trundle’s Quest, ended, with the protagonists pursued through the air by dastardly pirates led by Captain Grizzletusk. So of course the first few pages are spent showing how the good guys escape; and then begins the second part of their search – the first part having ended successfully in the earlier book. The objective of what the brave hedgehogs are doing is the discovery of six ancient crowns that, legend has it, can, when reunited, be used to restore the Sundered Lands to the single round world, ruled over by six wise badgers, that supposedly existed long, long ago. To get help, the adventurers go to visit Esmeralda’s sweet, caring aunt, Millie Rose – who, likely to the surprise of almost no one, turns out to have a decidedly sour agenda of her own. She cannot damage Trundle or Esmeralda too much because of another of those convenient but irritating prophecies – they and they alone must find the crowns, if the crowns are to be found at all. But she can maneuver and manipulate things for her own good. “‘Horrible treachery!’ said Esmeralda. ‘Unbelievably horrible treachery!’” And that about sums it up. So onward Trundle, Esmeralda and Jack go, forced to rely on their own devices and their own wits – which, not at all surprisingly, prove quite equal to the task before them (prophecies have a way of working out in these fantasies). Allan Jones’ quick-paced writing, frequently laced with amusement, is a big attraction of The Six Crowns, whose overall plot may be formulaic but whose good-humored working-out is not. Gary Chalk’s illustrations are a big plus, too, providing an extra fillip of adventure, whether showing black threads of magical smoke emanating from Aunt Millie’s fingertips or a decidedly worried-looking Trundle in disguise at the College of the Worshipful Guild of Observators. The occasional forays into out-and-out satire are fun, too, although just what they are satirizing may not be entirely clear to young readers: “‘It’s our privilege and our bounden duty to create a scientific basis for everything that has ever happened in this world, and everything that is happening right now, and everything that will ever happen. …For instance, the Directorate of Spatial Interluditudes has the task of measuring the distances between every single island in the whole of the Sundered Lands. …The problem is that the islands are constantly moving about by tiny amounts, so no sooner is the chart complete than they have to start all over again.’” This may not be a satire of academia worthy of Jonathan Swift, but it is effective enough at its own level. And by the end of the book, a second crown has been recovered, along with an enigmatic clue to a third, and The Six Crowns is ready for its next installment.


Mahler: Symphony No. 6. SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg conducted by Kirill Kondrashin. Hänssler Classic. $16.99.

Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. London Symphony Orchestra (Nos. 1, 3, 4) and Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (No. 2) conducted by Antal Dorati. Newton Classics. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies; Egmont Overture; Leonore Overture No. 3. Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Newton Classics. $34.99 (6 CDs).

     Not all so-called “classic” recordings wear well, but some do. In fact, some are as good as the most modern recordings of the same music, if not better. Hänssler Classics has released one of the most exciting Mahler Sixths available, recorded shortly before his death in 1981 by Kirill Kondrashin, who conducted the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg with tremendous intensity. Kondrashin starts the symphony very strongly with a gripping, fast march rhythm reminiscent of Shostakovich. The timpani are strongly played but sound rather hollow, and the cowbells are not very prominent – in these ways the recording shows its age. But the strength of the performance and clarity with which Kondrashin brings out Mahler’s instrumentation more than make up for the sonic deficiencies. One example: the fine horn playing of the slowed march theme above the more usually heard warm string theme. Throughout this first movement, fast sections are speedier than usual but still retain the feeling of a march. The second movement is also fast – and the brass clearly snarls, even if not as effectively as in some later recordings. This movement’s Trio, taken slowly, sounds like a meandering walk through the countryside. One interesting aspect of the performance here is the percussion, whose sounds are brought out prominently and brightly: Kondrashin emphasizes dissonance and clashes of sound throughout the work. The third movement flows gently, at a real Andante moderato pace, providing a clear contrast to what has come before; indeed, this is the only respite in the entire symphony. Then the finale pulls right back into high drama from its beginning. The well-paced opening leads into a quick main section in which Kondrashin emphasizes the contrasting sound of instrumental groups. The passion here is at times almost frenetic, resulting in a tremendously dramatic concluding movement and an overall performance that can stand up to any recording made in the last 30 years.

     This is not to say that all “classic” recordings are at this level; by no means. Newton Classics specializes in re-releases of fine recordings from the analog and early digital ages, but although Antal Dorati was a first-class conductor, his Newton Classics Brahms cycle is not among his best legacies. It really shows its age, not only in the general lack of repeats (an unfortunate but common practice when these recordings were made) but also in sound that is frequently thin and compressed-sounding. The whole compendium here is rather odd, including three performances with the London Symphony and one with the Minneapolis Symphony. Unfortunately, Newton Classics’ booklet includes only information on the music, not on the conductor or these specific performances. This is a very curious arrangement, since it is scarcely believable that anyone would buy this set for purely musical reasons – potential buyers would surely like to know about the conductor and the circumstances surrounding these particular recordings. In any case, the performances date back quite some time, to 1957 (No. 2), 1959 (No. 1) and 1963 (Nos. 3 and 4). The two newest readings turn out to be the best, and not just sonically. In Symphony No. 1, Dorati paces the first movement well and builds it effectively; the second is also well paced, although not deeply emotional. The third starts gently, but the middle section is somewhat too intense and dramatic to provide any sense of relaxation. The finale opens well, with good pizzicato strings, but the horns sound rather tinny; and while the pacing of the main section is good, the overall impression is simply of a straightforward interpretation with so-so sound. Symphony No. 2 does not fare even this well. It lacks warmth, the winds sound shrill and thin, the third movement is overly speedy, and the finale sounds rather harsh despite its attractive ebullience. Symphony No. 3, another middle-of-the-road interpretation, improves after a nicely paced but rather ordinary-sounding first movement whose overall effect is tepid (although here Dorati does take the repeat). The later movements feature good use of brass and an increasing sense of drama, with the finale especially well-proportioned and well played. Even better is Symphony No. 4, which starts at a leisurely pace that Dorati uses to show its power. The second movement is sensitive, the third bright and bouncily effective, and the finale well- structured and well-paced. There is enough that is good in this recording to earn it a (+++) rating, but it will scarcely be anyone’s first choice of a Brahms cycle.

     The Beethoven set from Sir Colin Davis and Staatskapelle Dresden, however, gets a (++++) rating and could well be a listener’s first choice. Again, Newton Classics includes no information on the conductor or recording, but this set is much more recent than the Dorati Brahms release: the Davis recordings were made between 1991 and 1993. Thus, these are original digital recordings, and not especially early ones; the sound is just fine throughout, its main defect being a slight hollowness that is more obvious in some performances than others. This Beethoven cycle can be summed up in a single word: well-proportioned. Davis carefully and correctly takes the indicated repeats, so the symphonies’ layouts are as Beethoven intended, and there are lovely details in every piece. No. 1 features a light touch in a nicely balanced reading that is never overly weighty. No. 2 is well-paced, although some may find the finale a little plodding (others may consider it stately). No. 3 is grand in style and pacing, but not overdone, with particularly good horns and a very impressive second-movement funeral march. No. 4 is kept fairly light and ebullient, especially in the finale, and the orchestra’s sections are particularly well balanced. The first movement of No. 5 is slightly slower than usual and very dramatic, making for a strong contrast with the relaxed second. The third builds well and has some nice bassoon touches, and the finale is more dignified than triumphant – a very well-done approach. No 6 contrasts a pleasantly paced first movement with a relaxed second; the parody elements of the third are well done, the fourth-movement storm is quite dramatic, and there is fine lilt to the finale.

     The last three symphonies are all high points of this set. In No. 7, the first movement’s introduction builds expressively to a craggy and impressive main section; the second starts very softly, flows very gently and is quite beautiful; the third is paced well and played with verve; and the finale, with its strong rhythmic emphasis, crowns the work very aptly indeed. No. 8 features an emphatic opening movement, a second one that percolates along nicely and a finale whose small-scale and large-scale elements are neatly played against each other – although a little more rough humor would have been welcome throughout. No. 9 is excellent from start to finish, with a very grand and broad first movement that makes it clear there is nothing subsidiary about this opening (some conductors downplay it). The second movement is also handled on a large scale, and the third is gently meandering and quite well played. The finale features soprano Sharon Sweet, contralto Jadwiga Rappé, tenor Paul Frey, baritone Franz Grundheber and the excellent Chor der Staatsoper Dresden. Here the initial voice entry is unusually declamatory, and all the vocal sections are handled with strength and nobility – and there are also many attractive instrumental touches, notably amid the choral sections. This is a highly satisfying performance on all levels. The two overtures in the set are fine, too: Egmont is sturdy, a touch lacking in dramatic intensity, but very triumphant at the end, and Leonore No. 3 is treated as a tone poem and, again, has a celebratory and particularly effective conclusion. There have been many Beethoven cycles released since this one was recorded, but this Davis compilation is entirely worthy to stand with the best of them from the past 20 years.


Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Live: Arrangements for Symphonic Brass of Music by Walton, Gabrieli, Bach, Grainger, Revueltas and Prokofiev. Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass conducted by Dale Clevenger, Jay Friedman, Michael Mulcahy and Mark Ridenour. CSO Resound. $19.99.

Wieniawski: Violin Concerto No. 1; Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1; Bull: Cantabile doloroso e Rondo giocoso. Charlie Siem, violin; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Gourlay. Warner. $18.99.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio espagnol; Overtures to “May Night,” “The Tsar’s Bride” and “The Maid of Pskov"; Overture on Russian Themes; Dubinushka; Russian Easter Overture. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Gian Francesco Malipiero: Impressioni dal vero I, II and III; Pause del silenzio I and II. Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.

     Some CDs are worth owning just for their sonic splendor – not necessarily because the music on them is particularly outstanding. Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Live is a perfect example. The Chicago Symphony’s brass section is one of the orchestra’s major strengths, being among the finest brass sections to be found in any American orchestra. The new CD from the orchestra’s own label is nothing more or less than a showcase for the brass players, who perform arrangements ranging from the well-considered to the rather odd – always playing them beautifully. Walton’s Crown Imperial coronation march sounds particularly good here: it is, after all, martial music, and well-suited to interpretation by a brass ensemble. And Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy is a somewhat unexpected joy: Grainger’s suite, originally written for winds, would not seem to lend itself especially well to brass arrangement, but the Chicago players offer enough sensitivity and ebullience to make this piece highly effective. The Baroque works on the CD are more of a mixed bag. Baroque music does lend itself well to brass interpretation – some Baroque music, anyway. The three Giovanni Gabrieli works, which were originally composed for brass but are here rearranged for the Chicago players, are, not surprisingly, interesting and effective. The famous Sonata Pian e forte from Sacrae Symphoniae No. 6 gets especially sensitive treatment, and the Canzon duodecimi toni à 10 and Canzon septimi toni à 8 also sound splendid. But the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, does not really sound as if it belongs in the brass, with the fugal lines being somewhat buried in the overlapping instrumental voices. Among more-modern works on this CD, Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemayà sounds very good indeed, but three scenes form Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet fare less well: tenderness is difficult to communicate solely through brass, and Prokofiev’s careful orchestration seems rather pale when transferred to brass alone. However, despite the fact that some elements of this CD work better than others, the overall impression it leaves is of superb playing, gorgeous sound and musicians performing at the highest level of skill – a winning combination even though not all the arrangements are equally impressive.

     The new Charlie Siem CD is a sonic treat of a different order. One of the works that Siem plays is quite well known: the first violin concerto by Max Bruch. Another, the first concerto by Henryk Wieniawski, is less often played but still heard from time to time. Simply listening to Siem’s handling of these pieces is a pleasure. He seems to have a natural affinity for both of these very different concertos, making the Wieniawski the tour de force that it is supposed to be through a strong emphasis on exemplary virtuosity, while turning the yearning lines of the Bruch into what they ought to be but often are not: the romantic expressions of a young composer creating a concerto in a form different from the norm and imbuing it with considerable passion throughout. That Siem is a substantial virtuoso goes without saying – but his sound says something more here, indicating that he is also a musician of very considerable sensitivity, with a well-honed awareness of the varieties of emotional communication asked by composers of differing sensibilities. Interestingly, Siem is particularly effective in the least-known work on this disc, Ole Bull’s Cantabile doloroso e Rondo giocoso. This is not a large or imposing piece, but its two contrasting sections require, first, a melancholy involvement in music that is sad but not tragic; and second, a feeling of relief and joy – nothing over-the-top, certainly nothing profound, but a lightness of expression that produces an altogether pleasant effect. Well supported by the London Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Gourlay, Siem provides just what the music asks for, making this entire CD a very pleasant listening experience indeed.

     Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony are not ideal interpreters of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music – there is little that is idiomatic in their playing of works so imbued with the Russian spirit – but their CD of Rimsky-Korsakov overtures is nevertheless a nearly complete success and a real pleasure to hear. The reason is the repertoire: much of this music is heard at best on rare occasions, and some pieces (notably the brief Dubinushka, an orchestration of a song associated with the 1905 student uprising in Russia) are virtually unknown. The familiar works that appear first and last on the CD, Capriccio espagnol and Russian Easter Overture, are the least satisfying pieces on the disc, not because they are poorly played (which they are not) but because they are so often heard that Schwarz’ comparative lack of intuitive understanding of the music is clear. However, even these works sound very good here, and it is perhaps mere nitpicking to note, in this context, that other conductors have a stronger feeling for Russian warmth, tenderness and occasional emotional overstatement. The four overtures, three to operas and the Overture on Russian Themes, generally fare better, with Schwarz offering a good command of the drama and pathos inherent in the music and the Seattle Symphony playing with strength and fine sectional balance. This is a CD worth having for the combination of interesting repertoire and very fine presentation.

     The latest Gian Francesco Malipiero CD – second-to-last in Naxos’ series devoted to all the composer’s orchestral music – is more of an acquired taste. A prolific composer, Malipiero (1882-1973) was also a musicologist of note, well-known for preparing comprehensive editions of the works of Monteverdi and Vivaldi. His own music is sometimes inspired, sometimes rather dull, and usually somewhere in between. Four of the five works on the new Naxos CD are world première recordings, and the entire disc is certainly worth hearing, but it will not be to all tastes and gets a (+++) rating. The three three-movement pieces called Impressioni dal vero (“Impressions from Life”), written between 1910 and 1922, are simply intended to evoke the sounds and sights of nature and the Italian countryside, with individual elements expressing everything from birdsong to the wind to the tarantella danced on the island of Capri. The tone painting tends to the obvious, but some of the coloristic effects are well done, and the works’ overall impression is pleasant, if not highly memorable. The first oddly titled Pause del silenzio (“Breaks in Silence”) is the only piece here that is not a world première recording, and in fact is often regarded as Malipiero’s best orchestral work. Certainly this single-movement work from 1917 (in seven contrasting sections) ebbs and flows effectively and is orchestrated with considerable skill. Its compression (it runs less than 13 minutes in all) is part of what makes it seem tightly knit and carefully constructed. The second Pause del silenzio (1925-26) is also well made, but suffers by comparison with the earlier piece, being nearly twice as long and in only five segments (which are arranged as separate movements rather than one continuously flowing one). This later work is more in the nature of a suite, and while it has some effective moments, as a whole it comes across as less interesting than its earlier cousin. It would be stretching things to call this Malipiero disc a sonic spectacular, but it is certainly well played by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia, and the music offers a number of interesting elements even though, taken as a whole, the 80-minute disc offers perhaps more of Malipiero than most listeners will feel they need to experience.

October 20, 2011


The Pet Shop Revolution. By Ana Juan. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.

Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/Marisol McDonald no combina. By Monica Brown. Illustrations by Sara Palacios. Children’s Book Press. $17.95.

A Beautiful Dark. By Jocelyn Davies. HarperTeen. $17.99.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns. By Rae Carson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     The strength of female protagonists means different things to the different age groups for which books are intended – but whether young girls or teenagers, the central characters in all these new books show pluck, determination and a willingness to confront whatever obstacles stand in their path. It’s just that the obstacles become more complex as the young girls become young women.

     The Pet Shop Revolution is all about the largest pet shop in town – a very unhappy place indeed, even though the animals there range from the common to the highly exotic. The problem is the owner, Mr. Walnut, a sour and sour-faced man obsessed with the wig he always wears and with selling animals at high prices to out-of-towners who are unaware of how badly he treats the creatures. Enter Mina, a very determined little girl whose pet rabbit disappears one day and who is convinced the rabbit has somehow ended up in Mr. Walnut’s shop. Abetted by Bobo, “a local boy who delivered ice for the penguins,” Mina sneaks into the pet shop, finds her bunny, waits until Mr. Walnut falls asleep, and then sets all the animals free. Ana Juan’s marvelous illustrations are at their best in the two-page spread of Mina, riding an ostrich and carrying her bunny, leading a stampede that includes a penguin, a hippo, a monkey, a toucan, a kangaroo, a giraffe, a zebra and other former captives of Mr. Walnut. Mina is smiling in this picture – with a smile wiser than her years – and it soon turns out that her kind heart even reaches out to crabby Mr. Walnut (who will not leave the house without his wig, which exited with the animals). While the animals, Mina and Bobo play and party, Mr. Walnut fumes – until he eventually comes up with an idea that brings all the animals back, along with Mina, Bobo and the rich clients…who now have something other than poorly treated animals to buy. Juan does a wonderful job of preventing the story from becoming preachy or overly sentimental, while at the same time keeping it heartwarming.

     The dual-language Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/Marisol McDonald no combina is heartwarming in a different way. Marisol’s story, like Mina’s, is for ages 4-8, but the only animals in Monica Brown’s book are ones that Marisol draws – such as the pink elephant wearing eyeglasses – and a happy puppy whose features don’t match. Marisol is a nonconformist, with brown skin and red hair, who loves outfits that combine green polka dots and purple stripes, and who likes to eat peanut-butter-and-jelly burritos. But Marisol is also sensitive to criticism, and she is told again and again, especially by her friends, that she couldn’t match if she wanted to. Determined to show that she could match if she so chose, Marisol finds a single-color outfit to wear to school one day, and agrees to play pirates with her friend at recess – even though she really wants a game of “soccer-playing pirates.” When her drawings lack their usual punch, her art teacher asks what is going on – and slips Marisol a note saying that she, the teacher, likes Marisol just as she is. Delighted, Marisol returns to her preferred non-matching ways, opening the door to finding a pet dog that is perfect because “he’s mismatched and simply marvelous, just like me.” Sara Palacios’ charming illustrations help move the story along effectively, and the bilingual text provides a perfect opportunity for young readers whose first language is English to learn some Spanish – and vice versa. As for Marisol’s celebration of being unique, that is a joy in any language.

     The teen heroines of two new books that are the beginnings of trilogies have grander worries and ambitions, and far more to overcome, in order to take their rightful places in the authors’ worlds. Jocelyn Davies’ A Beautiful Dark is another entry in the increasing number of romantic fantasies about angels – featuring a protagonist with the rather obvious name of Skye. Actually, Skye is human, but her parents weren’t: they were (not unusually for this genre) a Romeo-and-Juliet pair, one a Guardian and one a Rebel, who fell in love and were turned mortal as punishment. But because of her genetic heritage, or angelic heritage, Skye holds both dark and light power within her, and now that she is 17, her angelic abilities will start to manifest. How they will show up, and what she will do with them, is the subject of the book. There are, of course, competing forces representing the two angelic sides, in the persons of two mysterious and attractive boys named Asher (friendly, dark and wild) and Devin (laid-back, even reserved, and golden). Naturally, Skye is attracted – in different ways – to both boys, and naturally, that attraction is supposed to mirror her conflict about which side to join when her powers emerge fully. Oh, by the way, the fate of the universe hangs on her decision. There is not a shred of believability about any of this, but there is not supposed to be. Davies, here offering her first novel, has picked up just about every cliché of the supernatural-romance genre and played them back in entirely expected ways. Readers who like this sort of thing will find this a (+++) book despite its many glaring points of obviousness, both in plotting and in what passes for characterization.

     Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns is also a first novel, also in the fantasy genre (although not the same part of it), and also deserving of a (+++) rating for teens looking for a new entry in a familiar field. This book is in the vaguely medieval fantasy arena, the central character being a 16-year-old princess named Elisa. There is no question about what is special about her: she has been chosen for greatness, an event that occurs every century. But she has never done anything particularly interesting and has always lived in the shadow of her older sister, who has now been married to the king of a country that is in the throes of a rebellion. It should go without saying that there will be a daring, dashing revolutionary who will awaken new feelings in Elisa; and there is. There is magic here, too, with dark forces hunting Elisa to destroy her before she can fulfill her destiny. As for what that destiny is – well, it may simply be to die young, as most of those chosen for greatness have in the past. Carson writes 21st-century-romance dialogue that does not fit particularly well with her faux-medieval settings: “You can’t possibly walk.” “We’ll try it.” “Your eyes. They do something to me.” “You are braver than you know, Princess.” “I don’t feel lucky.” “I’m so sorry.” She makes it a point to toughen Elisa up by sending her into frightening scenes: “I hurry through smoldering streets and curving alleys, blinking to keep my eyes moist, desperate to find life. I nearly stumble over the charred body of an animal – I can’t tell if it’s a sheep or a dog – and I almost vomit over the smell of burned meat, the reddish ooze leaking through cracks in its charred skin.” But there is nothing particularly unusual in Elisa’s journey of self-discovery. Both Carson’s book and Davies’ feature increasingly strong young women at their center, but neither gives much indication that it is the first book in a trilogy that will contain anything more than the minimum that genre readers will expect.


Gifts from the Gods: Ancient Words & Wisdom from Greek & Roman Mythology. By Lise Lunge-Larsen. Illustrated by Gareth Hinds. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.

Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion. By Janet Mullany. Morrow. $13.99.

     Here are two different ways to rethink the past – or remake it. Gifts from the Gods, intended for young readers, is a vocabulary book with a difference and also a myths-retold book with a difference. That is, it is a book of both types, intermingling two formats that would not seem to fit naturally together. Lise Lunge-Larsen joins them neatly, taking words and phrases well-known today and connecting them with their Greek and Latin origins by first giving a modern instance of their use and then telling the stories on which the modern uses are based. For example, Lunge-Larsen first defines “fate,” then offers a snippet from Lemony Snicket’s The Slippery Slope: “Fate is like a strange, unpopular restaurant, filled with odd waiters who bring you things you never asked for and don’t always like.” Then the author explains about the three sisters – Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos – believed by the Greeks to spin each person’s thread of life, measure it and cut it when a person was to die. And then she explains that the thread of life was called the stamen, which helps explain the modern word “stamina” and also the name given to the pollen-producing part of a plant; and she adds that the Romans called Atropos – who cut the thread of life – Morta, from which name come such words as mortal and immortal. This is a lot to pack into the four pages devoted to “fate,” but Lunge-Larsen does a good job of packing her book with information without overloading it or coming across as too didactic. Gareth Hinds’ illustrations help: they bring a touch of reality to mythic figures such as Achilles, Athena and the frightening Furies, and visually explain such concepts as that of the personal spirit known as a Genius by the Romans and a Daemon by the Greeks. Along the way, Gifts from the Gods explains some ancient behaviors that seem curious to us today, such as the Greeks’ spitting on their own chests to prevent Nemesis, the goddess of justice, from deeming them braggarts in need of a severe lesson. Coupling well-known stories (such as Pandora’s box) with less-known ones (such as the reason the god Pan’s name has given us the word “panic” – a section in which a full-page Hinds illustration is especially good), Gifts from the Gods presents modern vocabulary and old stories alike in a particularly vivid way.

     The times are not as long ago and the remaking of the past is very different in Janet Mullany’s sequel to Jane and the Damned, a frothy little vampire novel called Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion. Although not quite as clever or outré as the earlier book, this (+++) work – which is decidedly for adults – will be great fun for those who enjoyed Mullany’s original portrait of Jane as a vampire. From the first, “Oh, stop talking nonsense and make tea for us, Jane,” to the eventual “Jane was very good at keeping secrets,” the book is steeped in knowledge of the real-world Jane Austen that Mullany uses to spin a story of flirtation, intrigue, murder, dark lurkers and some thoroughly Victorian elements (including a significant and naughty role for Jane’s silk stockings). Mullany does a good job of weaving references to Austen’s novels into this book, offering speculations about ways in which vampires might just have figured in the plots, or in original drafts of the plots. Austen fans will find these asides delightful. Other elements of the book are less interesting, though, such as a looming civil war among the Damned and the inevitable return of Jane’s vampire characteristics after she had managed to avoid permanent vampirism at the end of the previous book. In these aspects, Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion becomes almost formulaic, although not quite: “The anger and despair burned within her.” “There were protocols that should have been observed. They were not.” “You may offer me eternity, but in this case it is not yours to grant.” Much of the story here revolves around Jane’s niece, Anna, whose interest in vampires seems a 19th-century reflection of modern teenage and young-adult fascination with the creatures of the night; readers’ response to her, positive or negative, will have a significant impact on their enjoyment of the book. Mullany writes, most of the time, with wit and skill, and certainly those who wondered what happened to Jane after the inconclusive conclusion of Jane and the Damned will enjoy and appreciate this followup. But there cannot, it seems, be another book in this series; Mullany closes the door rather definitively here. Perhaps it is just as well to allow vampire Jane, along with real-world Jane, her well-deserved rest.


100 Scariest Things on the Planet. By Anna Claybourne. Scholastic. $7.99.

The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers—Book One: The Medusa Plot. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $12.99.

     “Scary Places and Dreadful Destinations.” “Scary Stunts and Frightening Feats.” Oh, there are all sorts of chilling things in Anna Claybourne’s 100 Scariest Things on the Planet, each of them given a ranking of one to five “fear faces” (think unhappy “happy face” icons). This begs the question of why anything less than a five-face fear has been included – aren’t there enough five-face items to add up to 100? How about four-face plus five-face? Do one-face items really qualify as among the scariest things? Well, a meteorite gets one face because “it could squash you flat! But don’t worry too much – they’re very rare.” And free running (“running, jumping, swinging, and backflipping around city structures and obstacles”) also gets one face: “Some free running moves look superhuman.” Black holes get a single face, too: “Being sucked into a black hole would be horrifying. Luckily, it’s unlikely!” These are tops-in-the-world scares? There aren’t even any black holes “in the world” – or anywhere near it. On the other hand, El Camino del Rey (“a narrow, rickety pathway clinging to the side of a cliff” in Spain) gets five faces as “one of the scariest walks anywhere in the world.” That seems to make sense. But five faces also go to snakes – not venomous snakes, not dangerous snakes, but snakes in general – with the ridiculous comment, “Ssssnakes [sic] are scaly and slithery…and scary!” Really? In contrast, sharks get three faces and spiders get four. A lot of the ratings seem to reflect Claybourne’s personal feelings and fears rather than anything objective. But of course the purpose of this ”eek!” book is not really objective science – it’s thrills, seen and read about in perfect safety. This also helps explain the book’s odd mixture of real-world frights with entirely fictional ones: vampires are here (getting three faces), as are poltergeists (four faces), not many pages away from nanotechnology (three faces) and artificial intelligence (two faces). It is very hard to take 100 Scariest Things on the Planet seriously, even though each entry gets a fact or two as well as the hype. The book is even lighter than once-over-lightly – but should be fun for young readers who want to decide whether things that frighten them have made Claybourne’s list.

     Snakes may not really deserve to be called five-face frightening, but the snakes-for-hair appearance of Medusa is a longtime, if thoroughly fictional, scary thing, and The Medusa Plot trades on that image as it begins a new series of books in The 39 Clues series. This new set of books was promised at the end of the original 10-book sequence and prepared for in the transitional 11th book, Vespers Rising. Now that we know that Amy and Dan Cahill and some (if not all) of their fellow Cahills are the good guys, it is time for an entire cotingent packed with baddies: the Vespers. It turns out that just because Amy and Dan thought they had won the hunt for the clues, and just because readers following the books, collecting the cards and visiting the Web site thought everything had come to a conclusion, that doesn’t mean things are really over. Not, apparently, by a long shot. The Vespers are running around kidnapping Cahills (including Jonah Wizard’s cousin, a new character named Phoenix), then demanding that Amy and Dan ransom their family members by stealing various things. Since the Vespers are clever and powerful enough to kidnap so many Cahills in so many different places with such apparent ease, you would think they would just go steal the desired items themselves; but logic has never been a high point of The 39 Clues. So the Vespers first demand that Dan and Amy steal a painting, which they do, but it turns out to be a fake, so the Vespers, now becoming impatient, give the siblings a deadline to find and steal the real painting, which turns out to be in the possession of “A. Sudem” (“Medusa” spelled backwards). It turns out that the teen protagonists (Dan is now 13, Amy 16) have a real talent for thievery, and stealing from bad guys isn’t really stealing anyway (or something like that), so everything works out fine – setting up the next book, in which Amy and Dan will have to steal something else. And don’t ask why the protagonists accept without question the notion that the nefarious Vespers will actually release hostages in return for the stolen objects they want. Not even 39 clues would be enough to solve the mystery of how and why these characters do what they do. But fans looking for more of what they found in the original sequence – more cards, more online games, more “participation” through Internet-based missions – will have fun with this continuation.