November 23, 2011


The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics: A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World. By James Kakalios. Gotham Books. $17.

The Physics of Superheroes, 2nd Edition. By James Kakalios. Gotham Books. $16.

V Is for Vengeance. By Sue Grafton. Marian Wood Books/Putnam. $27.95.

Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them. By Joe Graedon, M.S., and Teresa Graedon, Ph.D. Crown Archetype. $26.

The Great Global Puzzle Challenge with Google Earth. By Clive Gifford. Illustrated by William Ings. Kingfisher. $15.99.

     Now that we are in the throes of gift-giving season, it is time to consider what sort of presents we may wish to bestow – keeping in mind that they reflect upon the giver in addition to (hopefully) being much appreciated by the receiver. What sort of message do you want to send to people both about yourself and about your perception of them and their interests? If, for example, you send either of James Kakalios’ two excellent books using pop culture to interpret modern physics, you are asserting that you have a keen interest in science and, like Kakalios himself, are not above discussing and learning about it through some very unlikely sources of information, such as comic books. But you had better read Kakalios before you send either or both of his books to anyone, because despite their frequently breezy tone, numerous comic-book illustrations and pop-culture covers, they are not quite as innocuous as you might think. In particular, the “math-free” subtitle of The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics is more than a little misleading, since there is plenty of math in the book – just not math that the reader is required to solve. Furthermore, the pop-culture examples used by Kakalios (director of undergraduate studies at the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota) must be familiar to the reader for Kakalios’ lessons from them to make sense. Thus, anyone who has not read Theodore Sturgeon’s The Cosmic Rape (1958) cannot fully appreciate Kakalios’ explanation of what happens to the alien spore that invades Earth in the novel: “The spore sets upon a plan to…force all humans to think and work together in unison. …The ‘hive mind’ of humanity quickly devices an effective counterattack, destroying the alien spore. In this way Sturgeon has described the cooperative behavior of a Bose-Einstein condensate.” Illustrations from publications ranging from Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom to the famous old Buck Rogers comic strip offer excellent introductory material, and some of Kakalios’ narrative drawn from these items is fascinating, as when he explains how Frederick Soddy, who worked with Ernest Rutherford on radioactivity, wrote popular-science books that inspired H.G. Wells to develop the notion of atomic weapons in The World Set Free.

     But Kakalios’ primary purpose in both The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics and The Physics of Superheroes is to teach. In Quantum, for example, readers ensnared by the popular elements must be prepared for the educational ones, of which the following is one of the simpler examples: “Suppose the temperature of liquid helium is lowered all the way to absolute zero. We would expect that the helium would eventually become a solid, but it in fact remains a liquid, thanks to the uncertainty principle. At low temperatures, when the wave functions overlap, the uncertainty in the position of each atom is low. There is thus a large uncertainty in the momentum of each atom, which contributes to the ground-state energy of the helium atoms (called the ‘zero-point energy’). The lower the mass of the atom, the larger this zero-point energy, and for helium this contribution turns out to be just big enough to prevent the atoms from forming a crystalline solid, even at absolute zero.” In Superheroes, after showing the controversial death of Peter Parker’s then-girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, from Amazing Spider-Man #121, Kakalios explains what must have happened when Gwen fell from a bridge and Spider-Man tied to rescue her by stopping her fall: “For a given change in momentum, the shorter the time, the greater the necessary force. For Gwen, her change in speed is 95 mph – 0 mph = 95 mph, and assuming she weighs 110 pounds, her mass in the metric system is 50 kilograms. If the webbing brings her to rest in about one half of a second, then the force applied by the webbing to break her fall is 970 pounds. Hence, the webbing applies a force nearly nine times larger than Gwen’s weight of 110 pounds. Recalling that an object’s weight is simply W = mg, where g is the acceleration due to gravity, we can say that the webbing applies a force equivalent to 9 g’s in a time span of 0.5 seconds. …[And] when the webbing brings Gwen to a halt, a simple sound effect drawn near her neck (the ‘SNAP!’ heard round the comic-book world) indicates the probable outcome of such a large force applied in such a short period of time.” Neither of Kakalios’ books is anything close to easy reading – consider that when thinking about giving them as gifts. But they are extremely inventive approaches to discussions of modern physics, are very well written within the necessary structures of explaining physical and quantum phenomena, and are probably the only place you will find physics education presented through a consideration of the abilities of, among others, Aquaman, Ant-Man, Bizarro and the X-Men.

     Much easier reading, but with complexities of its own, Sue Grafton’s 22nd novel about private investigator Kinsey Millhone, V Is for Vengeance, will be a great treat for mystery fans, Grafton fans and fans of well-plotted and well-paced novels of any sort. Grafton’s books have been getting better over time, the last few having more intricacy of plot and greater depth of characterization than those that came before. Indeed, Grafton has largely moved beyond the traditional manipulativeness of mystery novels – in which the author carefully structures events as the plot requires them and in such a way as to lead readers down the wrong path, preferably repeatedly, until everything is eventually tied together neatly. Grafton’s plotting is also getting more complicated, not that she was ever a slouch in that department. She is an expert at a cascade-of-events approach, where something apparently simple leads to something more complicated, which leads to even greater complexity, and so on, as if each plot point is a domino that, as it falls, knocks down the next (and larger) one. The simple start of V Is for Vengeance, the smallest domino, is department-store shoplifting, which Kinsey steps in to stop. Since, in this series, no good deed goes unpunished, Kinsey is soon entangled in a vast web of crime and interwoven relationships. The shoplifter commits suicide – or is murdered, as her fiancé believes (he actually asks Kinsey to investigate). Shoplifting, a minor crime, turns out to be a gateway to much bigger things, and as Kinsey’s investigation proceeds, she soon finds out that she is being blocked at every turn by a corrupt cop who is too powerful to be stopped. So Kinsey is in the unenviable position of withholding information from the police. She has another police issue, too, in the person of former lover Cheney Phillips. The typical “types” of murder mysteries are all here, from the bad guy trying to make a better life to the sneaky, over-aggressive reporter. But Grafton breathes new life into these stereotypical people; she is rarely satisfied with cardboard characters – which makes the ones who are one-dimensional, such as a vicious and not-too-bright gangster given to throwing people from great heights, stick out like sore and unattractive thumbs. Grafton sets her books in the 1980s – this one takes place, except for a “Before” chapter, in April and May 1988, climaxing on Kinsey’s 38th birthday, May 5. Once in a while, Grafton seems to forget the dates: here, one character comments that another has “put over three hundred thousand miles on her 1987 Honda,” which scarcely seems possible. In general, though, the time frame provides just enough distancing so readers can consider the importance of the human element both in committing crimes and in solving them. The same element exists today, of course, but in mysteries set in our more technological society, it can be harder to ferret out. Kinsey relies primarily on herself, and shows in V Is for Vengeance that she remains a mighty good person to have in anyone’s corner, including her own.

     If gifting a supercharged fictional thriller isn’t your style, how about something really scary? That would be Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them, Joe and Teresa Graedon’s overly lurid but nevertheless scathing indictment of doctors, pharmacists and the healthcare field in general, which they claim kills half a million people in the U.S. every year – more than any other cause except heart disease and cancer. The Graedons are at their best when discussing the pharmaceutical business – this is their primary area of expertise – and their Drug Safety Questionnaire for doctors and pharmacists is a genuine service to patients. Their horror stories are many – but, being drawn largely from readers of their books and newspaper columns, are somewhat suspect in terms of the motivation of those presenting them. The Graedons are a little too eager to believe the worst of everyone involved in modern medicine – and who benefits from a climate of fear of doctors, exactly? It is not easy, and may be impossible, for someone who is ill to balance (as the Graedons try to do) the importance of radiation-based diagnostic testing against the potential overexposure to radiation that may result if the tests turn up nothing or prove to have been unnecessary. Still, their argumentativeness aside, the Graedons are on to something here, and since everyone is going to be someone’s patient at some point, their book is very much worth reading. They point out, for example, that among the errors doctors make is not telling patients about complications of treatment, not addressing side effects, and overtreating – and they emphasize that patients make significant errors, too, the most serious of which is passivity. The same error applies to patients’ relationships with pharmacists. To their credit, the Graedons offer patients advice on what, specifically, they can do to improve their chances of receiving the best possible medical care. Their suggestions on how to make one’s limited time with a doctor more useful and on how to create your own medical records and make use of them are genuinely helpful. And some of their arguments are sufficiently surprising to make any reader sit up and take notice – the problems inherent in generic drugs, for example, even though generics dominate the medication market and are pushed at every possible level of the healthcare system except that of the manufacturers of the original brand-name medicines. The Graedons overstate their case some of the time and rely overmuch on anecdote and possibly biased reports – theirs is a “cause” book, with all the pluses and minuses such books usually have. But this particular cause is one that affects everybody, and even if Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them sometimes goes overboard, it is an important book because of its focus not only on medical and pharmaceutical errors (which everyone acknowledges and wants to reduce) but also on what healthcare providers and patients themselves can do to make those errors less frequent and less potentially deadly.

     And now, how about a great gift choice for one of the younger people on your list? There are plenty of delightful books out there, but in an age when children have an increasingly technological rather than print-media orientation, it can be hard to find ones that will appeal to young readers without seeming too slow-paced and, rightly or wrongly, boring. One solution: a book that is integrated with technology and that, in fact, requires kids to use it. That is The Great Global Puzzle Challenge with Google Earth, a sort of Google-dependent Where’s Waldo? Intended for kids as young as age eight, Clive Gifford’s book is highly inventive and attractive, with illustrations by William Ings that nicely complement the text. It starts with the basics about Google Earth – which kids who already know the program can skip, although few will likely know all the features discussed here – and then presents a series of puzzles to be solved using the Google Earth program. The idea is to become a virtual visitor to a variety of parts of the world, picking up a souvenir at each place and finding a specific flag or emblem at every location. Kids are also supposed to find geographical misfits (things that don’t belong where they are shown) and historical misfits (things that don’t belong when they are shown). This is a lot of fun, not only for young readers but also for adults. The book includes travel to Tanzania and Tokyo, Australia and ancient Rome, New York and New Delhi, and more. And one of the best things about The Great Global Puzzle Challenge with Google Earth is that the end is not the end: the book shows how to explore off Earth with Google Earth features, sending readers on an out-of-this-world journey that can take them, if not quite to infinity and beyond, at least to some of the farther reaches of the solar system and beyond. Even kids who use Web search all the time may not have used it this way, and The Great Global Puzzle Challenge with Google Earth opens up both guided exploration and a chance to take unguided tours of anything that strikes a child’s (or parent’s) fancy. Curiosity and a way to satisfy it: that’s a wonderful gift in this or any season.


Killer Koalas from Outer Space and Lots of Other Very Bad Stuff that Will Make Your Brain Explode! By Andy Griffiths. Illustrations by Terry Denton. Feiwel and Friends. $12.99.

Wonkenstein: The Creature from My Closet. By Obert Skye. Christy Ottaviano Books. $12.99.

My Life as a Stuntboy. By Janet Tashjian. Cartoons by Jake Tashjian. Christy Ottaviano Books. $13.99.

The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant. By Michelle Cuevas. Pictures by Ed Young. Frances Foster Books. $15.99.

     Middle-school readers with a taste for the weird have plenty of choices of reading material this season – parents, be forewarned! Killer Koalas from Outer Space, from the mind that brought you The Big Fat Cow That Goes Kapow, is an amply illustrated and ridiculously written foray into absurdity, liberally laced with rottenness. For example, one of Andy Griffiths’ offerings is “The Very Bad Road,” which includes not only dangerous curves and falling rocks but also falling bombs, zombies crossing and falling zombies. And just as the boy zipping along the road gets past the awful parts (his expressions very aptly rendered by Terry Denton, whose mind is clearly as twisted as Griffiths’), something even worse happens to end the story. Also here are parallel-universe versions of fairy tales, including “Mud Brown and the Seven Slobs,” which features Prince Poopy-pants, begins “once upon a slime,” and ends when “nobody lived ever after”; and “Little Bad Riding Hood,” who is supposed to take lifesaving medicine to her grandmother but refuses to do so. Throw in bad riddles, bad jokes, “The Adventures of the Dog Poo Family,” and several episodes about the killer koalas of the title, and you have a really yucky book that some kids and their families will find yuckily delightful. You know who you are.

     You are candidates for Wonkenstein as well. This is more of an amply illustrated novel than a collection of stories in comic-strip form like Killer Koalas, but Obert Skye’s sensibilities are quite odd enough, thank you very much. Rob, the 12-year-old protagonist, is a non-reader (thus presumably making his story appealing to other non-readers, who have to, err, read it); Rob gets lots of books but just tosses them in the closet. And then one day something emerges from the closet: a small being that appears to be a cross between Willy Wonka and Frankenstein’s monster – hence Wonkenstein, which is what Rob calls him. Wonkenstein and Rob get into trouble quickly enough, and Rob’s dad “wanted to know who was responsible for almost burning down our kitchen and knocking a huge hole in the wall.” Upon seeing Wonkenstein, Rob’s dad thought he “was just a really small kid dressed oddly and with some green skin condition.” Whew! Taking Wonkenstein to Softrock Middle School complicates things further, and eventually Robert – who is afraid of public speaking – manages, with Wonkenstein’s help, to appear on stage and apologize for everything so eloquently that the scene is neatly set for the next book in this series, which will feature “Potterwookiee,” who looks like “a Chewbacca and Harry Potter hybrid.” Skye’s text is easy to read, and his illustrations go perfectly with it, and Wonkenstein is silly/funny throughout. Even Rob probably would read this book.

     My Life as a Stuntboy is somewhat more conventional, as books go, but it too is enlivened by plentiful helpings of cartoons. Janet Tashjian’s story and Jake Tashjian’s drawings combine neatly in this followup to My Life as a Book, in which readers met Derek Fallon, not-so-easy reader and erstwhile illustrator of vocabulary words (plenty of which get illustrated this time around, too). The plot here has Derek getting the chance to be a stuntboy in a major movie, provided his parents will agree. Umm…not so easy. They will have to sign a contract, so they insist Derek sign one, too, with his including such provisions as agreeing to change Frank’s diaper daily (Frank being the capuchin monkey that Derek wanted so badly and promised to care for, but has neglected ever since). “I suddenly realize my parents’ bodies have been taken over by aliens from another galaxy,” Derek comments during the contract discussion. “If I don’t escape soon, they will suck out my brains through my nostrils while I sleep. …I wonder how long before these aliens decide to conquer the rest of the planet and will finally leave me alone.” Well, not for a while: there is movie-making to be done. While pictures illustrating “sluggish,” “android,” “supportive” and “enlarge” march by in the margins, Derek keeps trying to impress the movie’s star, Tanya Billings, despite enduring the humiliation of a video posting showing him having trouble reading. Everything eventually works out well for everyone, even Frank (thanks in part to the fact that Derek’s mom is a veterinarian), and the stage is set for another book in a series with a great deal of slightly off-kilter charm.

     Even more charming, and written with considerable delicacy as well as much gentler humor than is offered in the other books considered here, The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant is a touching little story in which Michelle Cuevas’ unusual ideas are beautifully complemented by Jules Feiffer-style drawings by Ed Young. The absurdity of the book’s premise is used less for amusement than for emotional connection. The story is about 10-year-old Pigeon Jones, who has lived since infancy on the back of a white elephant named Birch. Each member of this unlikely pair has dreams: Pigeon’s about the parents who abandoned him, Birch (who paints) about becoming a well-known artist. Cuevas’ story takes Pigeon and Birch around the world in a search for love and fame, and into adventures with zoo animals, singing hoboes and an evil former circus ringmaster called the Ringleader. Some of the writing here is on the esoteric side and will require parental explanation for young readers. For example, when Pigeon and Birch meet an old woman whose late husband was a painter, the woman tells them, “When he painted a picture of me, critics said you could see so much. That you could see every woman any great artist ever painted: Velázquez’s sleeper seen in a mirror, Tiepolo’s nymph in dewy skies, Boucher’s beautiful shepherdess, Fragonard’s woman of nobility, Delacroix’s golden sultana, Cézanne’s bather, Renoir’s young woman blissful beneath an endless sun.” And the emotionalism of the writing is beyond that of many children’s books: “I lifted the body of a dead bee from above a light fixture near the ceiling, and it was almost weightless, this thorax and the crystal wings. How long had it been there? Forever? Sunsets, ukuleles, insects, people, love. The workings of the world were still a mystery to me – a tiny flea circus, wonderful to watch, but with the nuts and bolts still hidden.” On the other hand, the underlying themes here of friendship, the search for love, and the eventual need to go one’s own way and allow others to go theirs, will be quite meaningful to sensitive children and adults alike. The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant is in many ways an odd little fable – and a book that requires rereading to have its full heartwarming and at times almost heartbreaking effect.


2012 Calendars: Desk—The New Yorker; Peanuts. Andrews McMeel. $32.95 (New Yorker); $13.99 (Peanuts).

     Yes, yes, everyone uses electronic calendars and appointment apps these days, so there is no place anymore for the old-fashioned desktop calendar on which one writes appointments, plans, lunches, meetings, important phone calls and the like. Right?

     No, no. It is true that electronic tracking methods have the virtue of easy portability, but by the same token, well-made desk calendars have the virtue of solidity – of helping keep you anchored to a place where lots of (presumably and hopefully) important things happen. Despite the stampede to make everything virtual and electronic, there remains something satisfying about planners you can hold in your hand, modify physically rather than with a keypad or touchscreen, and rely on to stay in the same place instead of possibly ending up left behind somewhere, thereby also leaving behind all your plans and many of your expectations until you can find where the iWhatever is hiding.

     And it is not just curmudgeons who continue to enjoy booklike desktop weekly planners (although curmudgeons are as entitled to their viewpoint as others are). The fact is that desktop planning books come in so many different varieties that you can find one to fit whatever your mood and working style may be. The New Yorker 2012 Desk Diary, for example, exudes solidity and thoughtfulness along with wry whimsicality, courtesy of the cartoons adorning its pages. Some of those cartoons are well aware of changes in taste, such as the one showing an entire airplane full of people using E-readers, with the caption, “In preparation for landing, please turn off your books.” And then there is the one showing “The Ungooglable Man” who has “no Facebook page, no MySpace page, no NOTHING,” but nevertheless “HE WALKS AMONGST US.” Scary, isn’t it? (The “amongst” really makes that one.) Other cartoons hit time-honored themes, as with the desert scene where a man barely pulls himself up to a table – a table? – and there is a waiter standing by asking, “Just water?” Or the Trojan Horse scene with a warrior standing at the gates of the doomed city, saying, “I can’t just leave it – somebody has to sign for it.” But of course the cartoons are not the primary reason for getting this planner: it is a handsome, open-flat, spiral-bound book that displays a full seven-day week across every two-page spread and provides space to write in meetings, appointments or what-have-you from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and then in the evening. There is also space for notes, and small full-month calendars on every two pages showing current month, next month plus previous month – a particularly nice and useful touch.

     Desk-planner lovers who prefer something lighter, even on the frothy side – and nostalgic, to boot – should consider the Peanuts 2012 Calendar, which is smaller than the one from The New Yorker and provides much less room for writing – all the days of the week appear on a single page. And the only full-month calendar given on each two-page spread is for the current month (except for weeks where the month changes midweek). Peanuts is also spiral-bound, though, and what it lacks in spaciousness for writing down appointments it makes up for with left-hand pages featuring full-color Charles Schulz Sunday strips, every one of them a gentle delight. Schroeder gets a chance to play dinner music – but it turns out to be for Snoopy; Charlie Brown strikes out without even swinging, realizes his team will not let him forget, and finds when he tries to sleep that a certain dog wearing a baseball cap is staring at him from the far end of his bed; Charlie Brown, trapped in a tree after a kite-flying incident, is used by Lucy as a prop to explain Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”; Linus pats birds on the head and is loudly reprimanded by Lucy, who tells him it is fine to pat dogs but not birds, so Linus ends up saying, “There are many things I don’t understand.” But Peanuts fans will understand throughout the year just how wonderful the strip was – well, they know that already, but they will realize it anew by planning the year with this desk calendar…whose illustrations, by the way, would not look nearly as good or nearly as appropriate in digital display.

(+++) ICY HOT

Cold Kiss. By Amy Garvey. HarperTeen. $17.99.

Frost. By Marianna Baer. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

The Vampire Diaries: The Hunters, Volume 1—Phantom. By L.J. Smith. HarperTeen. $17.99.

     Here are three more of the seemingly endless crop of paranormal romances that are cool to read and hot, or at least warm, for teenage readers to experience vicariously. Cold Kiss, the first young-adult novel by Amy Garvey, starts with a death – the death of Wren Darby’s boyfriend, Danny Greer, in a car accident. In a real-world book, that would be the end of the relationship and the start of rebuilding a life. But Wren has a supernatural talent – the power to bring Danny back from the dead. And that is just what Wren does, only to discover that the Danny who returns is not the Danny she knew before the fatal car crash. And before a reader can think, “Well, duh,” Wren is starting to question, well, everything. “He’s so cold now. Always so cold, skin icy smooth. And his body is so quiet – the distant thump of a heartbeat, the thrum of blood flowing through veins, never seemed noticeable until it was gone. I wriggle around to tilt my head up and kiss him, hoping it will be enough. It never is anymore. For a little while he’ll relax, kiss me slowly, lingering and tasting, but it doesn’t last. It’s hard to go backward, after all.” Well, no – it’s impossible to go backward, and that is the lesson that Wren must learn, until finally she knows she must let Danny go forever, no matter how much it will break her heart (or break it again). Garvey’s theme here – essentially, necrophilia – is an unusual and rather creepy one, even for teen paranormal romances. But it is not handled with any special sensitivity or any elegance of plot. The complications are predictable – for instance, Wren has to keep Danny hidden (well, duh, again – he’s dead, you know?). And there isn’t much to Wren’s musings, either: “I don’t deserve a happy ending. I don’t even deserve a semi-happy ending, because Danny isn’t going to get one. He might have [but] I took that away from him. So I could have him back, so I wouldn’t be alone.” Danny makes a pretty benign zombie, but for that very reason, there is not all that much drama in Cold Kiss, whose eventual outcome – including, yes, a chance for both Danny and Wren to have happy endings of different types – is scarcely a surprise.

     There are a few more surprises in Frost, the first novel by Marianna Baer. The setting, though, is not one of them: it is the usual isolated and possibly haunted Victorian dorm at the boarding school where Leena Thomas is in her senior year. Plenty of things go bump in the night at Frost House, with doors locking by themselves, furniture falling over, frames falling off walls, and all the usual ho-hum occurrences expected in a ghost story. If it is a ghost story. Ah – that is where things get interesting. Certainly there is mystery here, and uncertainty, and an odd triangle involving Leena; her unpleasantly confrontational roommate, Celeste, for whom Leena must intercede with classmates in order to maintain a semblance of camaraderie; and Celeste’s brother, charming and attractive David. Baer tries to build suspense bit by bit, but is usually hampered by the conventionality of her imagination: “I quickly scanned the room and spotted the photo lying awkwardly on the floor across from Celeste’s bed. With growing apprehension, I walked over and picked it up. The photo itself was fine. But one corner of the black frame had chipped badly, revealing the lighter wood underneath the paint. …The frame hadn’t been placed on the floor. It had been thrown.” On the other hand, a few mysteries here are a little unusual: after a night with David, Leena looks at her tattoo and realizes, “It had changed. The colors didn’t glow with that depth of pigment that had made it look like stained glass. Now they were washed out. And the black lines had thickened and bled. As if David’s kiss had reacted with the ink.” The eventual outcome of the events in Frost House is on the inconclusive side, with Leena at the end “trying again to piece together the truth of it.” The implication, though, is that even if absolute knowledge remains elusive, life will go on and things will be all right.

     The dead do not stay put in L.J. Smith’s latest book, either, but that’s another “well, duh” moment, since hey, they’re vampires. The Vampire Diaries keeps spawning (and yes, that’s the right word) book sequences, with The Hunters being the latest trilogy-in-the-making. This one picks up after sexy vampire Damon Salvatore’s death, which happened as Elena Gilbert and others – including Damon’s sexy vampire brother, Stefan – saved the town of Fell’s Church from demons in the trilogy called The Return. At the end of the final book of that sequence, Midnight, it turned out that Damon was not quite dead (no surprise there), and this helps explain why Elena keeps dreaming of him even though she and Stefan can now be together and, presumably, happy ever after. But no! “Damon, what were you thinking? We all thought you were dead! Permanently dead, not show-up-in-my-bedroom-a-few-days-later-looking-perfectly-healthy dead! What’s going on? Well, explains Damon, “It’s not that easy to get rid of really strong magic. As the atmosphere cooled, the magic turned from vapor back into liquid and fell down on me, with the rain of ash. I was soaking in pure Power for hours, gradually being reborn.” OK, that makes as much sense as anything here, which is to say not much. But it’s not just Damon’s return complicating things: demons may have been vanquished in earlier books, but there are always more where they came from – an inexhaustible supply. Well, all right, the threat in this book isn’t exactly a demon – it’s a phantom (hence the book’s title), and that does not mean a ghost but a deeply evil creature that feeds on emotions the way vampires feed on blood. Phantoms “create almost a feedback loop, encouraging and nurturing thoughts that will make the emotion stronger so that they can continue to feed.” So this phantom must be hunted, and of course must have a chance, when confronted, to speak its (actually her) piece: “I’ve found you and your friends so refreshing, all your little jealousies. Each of you with your own special flavor of envy. You’ve got an awful lot of problems, don’t you?” And that perhaps unintentionally hilarious line sums up not only this book but also the whole approach of The Vampire Diaries. Fans of the TV show will, err, devour this book and find it quite tasty. Anyone else is likely to gag.


The Hugo Movie Companion: A Behind the Scenes Look at How a Beloved Book Became a Major Motion Picture. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic. $19.99.

Scholastic Book of World Records 2012. By Jenifer Corr Morse. Scholastic. $10.99.

Circus Galacticus. By Deva Fagan. Harcourt. $16.99.

     It is a truism (although not always true) that a movie is never as good as the book on which it is based. (It actually depends on the book…well, and the movie.) The question raised by The Hugo Movie Companion is whether a book about a movie about a book can be as good as the book on which the whole sequence rests. The answer, at least in this case, is no – but for fans of the film, this companion volume will certainly be likable enough…although for fans of the book, not so much. There are some very interesting relationships explored, often somewhat offhandedly, in this book – for instance, the first movie that director Martin Scorsese saw when he was a child was produced by David O. Selznick, who is a distant cousin of Brian Selznick, author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, on which is based the movie that is the subject of this book – oh, it is all very self-referential, and often very enjoyable. In the main, though, The Hugo Movie Companion is a pretty straightforward book combining text about the movie (and sometimes about the book on which it is based) with stills from the film and profiles of the actors, director and others involved in the production. In addition to the parts written by Selznick, there are contributions from Scorsese and – especially interesting – from David Serlin, who fills in such crucial background as what Paris was really like in 1931 (when the book and film take place) and what early filmmaker Georges Méliès, an important influence on and element of the book and movie, was really like. Costume sketches, behind-the-scenes views of sets, photos of some of the equipment needed to create the movie, and lots of other movie-related material add up to a moderately interesting look at a film made from an extraordinarily interesting book – a book whose very concept bridges traditional novels and film by being told partly in words but in large measure in pictures. The Invention of Hugo Cabret remains an extraordinary achievement; The Hugo Movie Companion is, in contrast, a little bit pale – although surely of interest to anyone interested in the book, the film, and the transformation of one into the other.

     Movies are one significant part of Scholastic Book of World Records 2012 as well. Here you will find that the best-selling movie soundtrack is from The Bodyguard (17 million copies sold since release in 1992), the biggest-budget movie is Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End ($300 million), and the actress with the most Oscar nominations is Meryl Streep (16, with two wins). As it does every year, this Scholastic compendium of pop culture gets into areas other than films: the most-downloaded song is Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” (4.39 million downloads in 2010); Roger Federer is both the top-earning male tennis player and the man with the most Grand Slam singles titles; the best-selling cell-phone brand worldwide is Nokia; the fastest production motorcycle is the Ducati Desmosedici RR (which can go almost 200 miles per hour); and so on. Many of these records change year after year, but some elements of Scholastic Book of World Records 2012 are inevitably the same as in earlier versions: the world’s longest river is the Nile (4,145 miles); the bird with the largest wingspan (13 feet) is the marabou stork; the longest snake is the reticulated python (27 feet); the largest reptile is the saltwater crocodile (22 feet); the largest flower belongs to the giant rafflesia (blooms can be 36 inches in diameter). This book of once-over-lightly facts always has some elements that readers are likely to find surprising (probably not the fact that Google is the most-visited search engine, but perhaps the fact that the country with the most Web sites per person is Germany). It is always fun to see what record each state in the U.S holds – Arizona has the largest collection of telescopes, Colorado the tallest sand dunes, Connecticut the oldest theme park – but Scholastic Book of World Records 2012 remains one of those volumes that is moderately interesting for a little while and then is likely to languish: it is not meaty enough to be a real reference book and cannot, simply because it is a book, be sufficiently up-to-date to stay in touch with the latest trends in popular culture.

     Movie-like scenes abound in Circus Galacticus, a fast-paced if rather silly intergalactic story that it is easy to imagine being adapted for film. Deva Fagan’s coming-of-age-in-space tale is all about Beatrix Ling (inevitably nicknamed Trix), a champion gymnast at Bleeker Academy, the bleak boarding school where she lives as an orphan and charity case – and where her most valuable possession is a meteorite that her parents gave her to keep and protect, without telling her why. This is a fairly ordinary setup for an adventure tale: it is obvious that Trix has to get out, find herself, battle enemies and make friends, and eventually learn the truth about her parents and the object she has guarded so carefully at their behest. That is exactly the arc of Fagan’s plot, so what will attract readers is not so much what happens in Circus Galacticus as how it happens. The bad guys, earthbound or space-traveling, are utterly one-dimensional. Miss Primwell, headmistress at Bleeker Academy, tells Trix, “You dream too large,” leading Trix to think, “Maybe I am a deluded freak.” Much later, after Circus Galacticus comes to town and whisks Trix out of this world, Nyl, evil representative of “the Mandate,” also tells Trix of “the folly of such dreams” while offering “a world without jealousy or war. All peoples working together to create a bright future for all” – a collectivist vision that Trix realizes is rotten at the core. It is the Ringmaster of Circus Galacticus who knows all about Trix’s parents and, eventually, gets around to telling her: “‘Once upon a time,’ he begins, ‘there was [a] young woman, the daughter of an ancient household of great power. This young woman saw much of the ways of her kinfolk, and did not like them. She wished to walk another path.’” And that path eventually produced Trix, who of course turns out to be very special indeed, endowed with unique powers that go far beyond her gymnastics skill (which, however, proves crucial when needed). There are some clever elements in Circus Galacticus, the principal one being the whole intergalactic-circus idea itself, but there is also a great deal here that is obvious and thoroughly unsurprising. The dialogue, for instance, is pure space opera and often unintentionally funny: “I’ll get her back from a black hole if I have to.” There are some attempts to make the book serious: “‘Collateral damage is part of war.’ ‘That wasn’t war. That was terrorism.’” But it is the more exotic elements, not the intense ones – and certainly not the old-fashioned science-fictional words, such as Hasoo-Pashtung, Vargalo-5 and “graphimephric m-field” – that are ultimately the most enjoyable. And the most cinematic.


Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 12 (“The Year 1917”). Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $9.99.

Hanson: Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”); Lux Aeterna; Mosaics. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Busoni: Piano Concerto. Roberto Cappello, piano; Corale Luca Marenzio and Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.

     Gigantism in symphonies became a characteristic of late Romanticism, but after Bruckner and Mahler, something of a reaction set in, and as musical language became more acerbic, musical structure became more compressed to accommodate it. The seesaw of bigger and smaller scale is apparent in the symphonies of Shostakovich, some of which are quite large (Nos. 7 and 8 come immediately to mind) while others may express big ideas, but do so in a more modest time period – although scarcely with reduced orchestral forces. Vasily Petrenko is an outstanding Shostakovich conductor, and his continued march through the symphonies remains a joy to hear – even when he conducts, as he must in doing a cycle, works in which Shostakovich was not at his best. One such is Symphony No. 12, “The Year 1917,” of which even the composer did not think all that much. A celebration of events of the Bolshevik Revolution, in four movements played continuously, it is a work of somewhat surprising classical balance (which Petrenko brings out nicely), but one that ultimately seems not to have much to say – climaxing as it does in bombast that one would wish to see as ironic or deliberately overstated but that the composer, who had previously been quite chastened by run-ins with Soviet authorities, may well have meant sincerely. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is becoming more comfortable with Shostakovich’s style as this cycle progresses, and if it lacks the sumptuous string tone of the best Russian orchestras, it makes up for it with precision of attacks and excellent sectional balance. This is particularly clear in Symphony No. 6, a better and more interesting work than No. 12, and one with a very unusual structure: 20 of its 33 minutes belong to the opening Largo, a movement of very grand scale indeed, and one that pulsates with intensity in Petrenko’s heartfelt reading. Warm, emotional, thoughtful and tense, the movement pulls listeners into one of Shostakovich’s most interesting sound worlds – which then switches quite abruptly into the contrasting second movement and a finale that the composer particularly liked but that barely seems related to what has gone before. This is an odd and gripping symphony that Petrenko and the Liverpudlians handle with consummate skill.

     The somewhat skewed romanticism of the first movement of Shostakovich’s Sixth, which dates to 1939, contrasts interestingly with the avowed romanticism of Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, composed in 1930. Also in three movements, also with the first movement carrying most of the work’s length (although not as disproportionately as in the Shostakovich), Hanson’s Second further develops the influence of Sibelius that was already apparent in the American composer’s Symphony No. 1, “Nordic.” The horn fanfares and lyrical strings recall the Sibelian model, but Hanson, although himself of Scandinavian heritage, also brings an American sensibility to his themes and their development. The work is yearning in old-fashioned Romantic terms, especially in the second movement, but also expansive and sonorous in ways that reflect Sibelius without ever really imitating him. Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony do a fine job with this, the best-known of Hanson’s seven symphonies – and provide a highly interesting contrast through the performance of the little-known Mosaics (1957), a set of variations that also offer some Nordic intensity but that are, in the main, clear, dramatic and quite well orchestrated. The third work on this CD – a Naxos reissue of a disc that originally appeared on the Delos label – has the smallest helping of northern sensibility, being more attuned to the warmth of Italy. Lux Aeterna is a 1923 symphonic poem with viola obbligato, composed at the end of Hanson’s three-year stint in Rome. A rather freely conceived work, less controlled and more fantasia-like than is usual in Hanson, the piece clearly shows the instrumental influence of Respighi (with whom Hanson studied orchestration) and Palestrina (whose flowing musical lines Hanson himself cited as a significant influence). Susan Gulkis Assadi, the violist in this performance, has a warm and lovely tone that melds well with the orchestral sound without ever dominating or attempting to dominate it; and the work itself offers a pleasant mixture of emotional and contrapuntal complexity.

     But for real grandeur, or perhaps grandiosity, in a melding of the Italian and more-northern musical styles, and for a work that takes Romantic gigantism to extremes in a form that uses a solo instrument sometimes to lead the orchestra and sometimes as part of it, there is nothing to compare with Ferruccio Busoni’s 1904 Piano Concerto, which is so gigantic that a performance barely fits within the 80-minute recording limit of a CD. The phrase sui generis tends to be thrown about rather loosely in music, but it truly does apply to this longest of all piano concertos ever heard in public – a work of such scale that, beside it, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, which some attacked in its time as being a symphony with piano obbligato, seems positively delicate. Busoni actually called this concerto his Italian Symphony, although it is certainly not symphonic in structure any more than it is a traditional piano concerto. With a central movement as long as many complete Mozart piano concertos, and a finale built around an offstage male chorus singing a hymn to Allah from Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger’s play Aladdin, this concerto/cantata/symphony/fantasy grows and sprawls and spreads amoebalike through multiple musical forms, held together by an opening hymn-like theme that almost (but not quite) knits the whole fabric together, and requiring tremendous virtuosity and dexterity from pianist and orchestra alike. It is, in fact, an exhausting work to listen to, never mind to perform, and it is perhaps impossible to create a thoroughly satisfactory rendition of it. The one by Roberto Cappello and Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia is, however, very fine by any criteria, from the intensity of its opening (in which the piano is not introduced) to the affirmative conviction of its triumphant conclusion. The best thing about this performance is the interplay between soloist and orchestra: Cappello and La Vecchia have excellent rapport and a fine sense of the times when the piano should be front-and-center, those when it should be relegated to the background, and those in which it and the orchestra should be as much in balance as possible. The Corale Luca Marenzio sings well in the finale, and if the performance as a whole sometimes flags and sometimes seems a bit flabby and disconnected, that is a state of affairs attributable as much to Busoni as to the performers. For the fact is that Busoni’s Piano Concerto is not sufficiently packed with ideas or sufficiently clear in structure to sustain well for it entire 75-to-80 minutes. It is a gigantic work and an impressive one, with themes that go through every emotion of which the Romantic and post-Romantic eras were capable: humor and intensity, delicacy and overwhelming force, uncertainty and victory, quietude and pummeling strength. But it is a work that tends to overmaster not only those who play it but also those who hear it. Listeners will find much to enjoy in this impressive recording, but should not be surprised – or ashamed – to find themselves exhausted rather than uplifted by the time it is over.

November 17, 2011


Never Bite Anything That Bites Back: The Sixteenth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Our Little Kat King: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

Miss Lina’s Ballerinas and the Prince. By Grace Maccarone. Illustrated by Christine Davenier. Feiwel and Friends. $16.99.

     Consistency and predictability. That is what comic-strip readers expect from their favorite cartoonists and strips. And that is just what they get, in very different ways, from Jim Toomey and Patrick McDonnell. Toomey is always funny, usually weirdly so, indulging in a kind of character comedy in which his creations – undersea denizens all (well, almost all) – behave in ways that make sense only for each of them. Their personalities may be shallower than the water in which they live, but they are clear and present indicators of how each of them will behave in particular situations. Therefore, in the 16th Sherman’s Lagoon collection, it could only be Hawthorne the hermit crab who would go on a doughnut run and end up in a Red Lobster by mistake. It would have to be Fillmore, the nerdy sea turtle, who would make sure everyone participates in “Wear Blue for the Oceans Day” – thus making dimwitted Sherman the shark realize that, in fact, he never wears anything at all. It makes perfect sense, in this weird world, that Hawthorne and Sherman would engage in “cola wars,” with Hawthorne’s “Crab Cola” competing with Sherman’s “Sherman Dew.” It makes equally perfect sense that Hawthorne decides to get Captain Quigley – a sort of Ahab figure – to leave Sherman alone by finding the captain a girlfriend online. Only Fillmore could get captured by a trawler and then rescued by the Red Crustacean Liberation Army. Only Megan, Sherman’s better half, could lead a humanitarian mission to the Gulf of Mexico to help with an oil spill. Only Thornton, the strip’s non-ocean-dweller (a super-lazy polar bear who floated to the South Seas and decided to stay) would quickly dismiss an offer of insurance to protect his loved ones by pointing out that he has no loved ones. Throw in some exploitation of Galapagos Islands naïveté (courtesy of Hawthorne, of course) and a visit by Yoga Man (Fillmore, naturally), and you have a collection filled with reliably amusing, and often hilarious, everyday doings.

     McDonnell’s reliability is of a different sort, as is his strip, Mutts, which is as gentle as Sherman’s Lagoon is frenetic. McDonnell is a top-notch comic-strip artist and a highly knowledgeable student of comic history. The very title and cover illustration of Our Little Kat King pay gentle tribute to The Little King, Otto Soglow’s mostly pantomime strip that started in 1931 and ran until Soglow’s death in 1975. Gentleness and mild amusement were hallmarks of that strip and are even more so in McDonnell’s Mutts – which also shows a real understanding of animal behavior, as when Earl the dog finds a stick in one panel, happily chews it in the next (with a little “love heart” above his head), then looks at the reader in the third and last panel and says, “Comfort food.” Mutts is a strip in which McDonnell pays tribute to the famous Peanuts “Great Pumpkin” strips by having Mooch the cat waiting patiently – in what turns out to be a watermelon patch. McDonnell also enjoys occasional parodies of contemporary culture – one Sunday strip is a takeoff on The Jersey Shore – and likes to do extended series on a single subject, such as “Shelter Stories” about pet adoption and a Valentine’s Day-themed sequence in which the word “Mutts” appears in a heart in each single-panel strip, each of which includes a quotation about love and an illustration featuring a different Mutts character. The one area in which McDonnell sometimes becomes a touch too preachy is that of conservation: he frequently has characters directly promoting ecological causes and similar concerns. These strips, taken individually, can be quite valuable, and the causes themselves are always good ones; but after a while, they can sometimes undermine the gentle humor that has long made Mutts so special. In Our Little Kat King, though, there is just enough of this sort of “championing” to balance the more simply amusing strips. For example, there is a full week of comics for “the 50th anniversary of Dr. Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research,” including an impressively drawn Sunday strip in which domestic and African animals all say “Thanks, Jane.” But there is also a week of “Prof. Earl’s Class,” with the adorable pup teaching human children such concepts as “speak” (English class), “heel” (biology class) and “roll over” (finance class). There is no other comic strip quite like Mutts, whose special blend of humor and advocacy – and excellent art – sets it well above the commonplace.

     The blend that sets the comically illustrated Miss Lina’s Ballerinas and the Prince above other recent “performance” books for young readers is one of Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline pictures with some delightful rhyming that is also reminiscent of that 1939 classic. Grace Maccarone’s opening lines make the parallels as clear as can be: “In a cozy white house, in the town of Messina,/ nine little girls studied dance with Miss Lina.” The girls’ names are part of the fun – and the rhyming: “Christina, Edwina, Sabrina, Justina,/ Katrina, Bettina, Marina, Regina,/ and Nina…” Maccarone tells the story utterly charmingly (albeit with an occasional rhythmic lapse in the poetry); Christine Davenier’s illustrations bring the whole tale to life flawlessly from start to finish. The plot has the nine girls becoming super-excited at learning that a boy dancer will be joining them: “To dance with a prince in her first pas de deux/ would be very special, each one of them knew.” But the boy – whose name, Tony Farina, fits right into the class members’ nomenclature – proves to be a solo showoff. However, after some misunderstandings are cleared up, “The girls soon found they could really enjoy/ dancing in class with a non-princely boy,” and everything turns out happily for all. A thoroughly delightful book that celebrates ballet, performance in general, and exuberance, Miss Lina’s Ballerinas and the Prince uses cartoonlike illustrations differently from the way they are used in comic strips – but to no less effect and with even more flamboyance.


The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. By H.P. Lovecraft. Penguin. $17.

The White People and Other Weird Stories. By Arthur Machen. Penguin. $16.

Abarat, Book Three: Absolute Midnight. By Clive Barker. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $24.99.

     Most of today’s frights come in the form of film or other video, such as computer games, and certainly the creators of modern horror have found many ways to ratchet up the scariness – often by piling on ever-larger amounts of gore. But many of those same modern creators of horror get their inspiration from sources that used only the written word to evoke chills and nervous looks over one’s shoulder. For those specializing in internally focused horror, the notion of a mind turning against itself, one of the most-cited sources is Edgar Alan Poe. But for those who look to external sources of horror, as is far more common, one of the most influential figures has long been Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937), whose genuinely bizarre ideas of old gods, races before humankind, colors that could not exist, impossible geometries and unseen things shambling or crawling just out of sight were presented in elegant, deliberately old-fashioned language whose cadences and beauties invariably made the terrors being described even more horrific. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories features 18 Lovecraft stories, from the dream-based “Nyarlathotep” (1920) to the frightening “The Rats in the Walls” (1923), with echoes of both Poe and Ambrose Bierce. Several stories here are among Lovecraft’s very best: “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), for example, and the title story (1926). Lovecraft’s signature style is everywhere; for example, in “Herbert West – Reanimator” of 1921-22: “I saw outlined against some phosphorescence of the nether world a horde of silent toiling things which only insanity – or worse – could create. Their outlines were human, semi-human, fractionally human, and not human at all – the horde was grotesquely heterogeneous They were removing the stones quietly, one by one, from the centuried wall. And then, as the breach became large enough, they came out into the laboratory in single file; led by a stalking thing with a beautiful head made of wax. A sort of mad-eyed monstrosity behind the leader seized on Herbert West. West did not resist or utter a sound. Then they all sprang at him and tore him to pieces before my eyes, bearing the fragments away into that subterranean vault of fabulous abominations.” Or, from an even more eerily effective Lovecraft story, “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930): “I was glad to be out of that downstairs study with the queer odour and vague suggestions of vibration, yet could not of course escape a hideous sense of dread and peril and cosmic abnormality as I thought of the place I was in and the forces I was meeting. The wild, lonely region, the black, mysteriously forested slope towering so close behind the house, the footprints in the road, the sick, motionless whisperer in the dark, the hellish cylinders and machines, and above all the invitations to strange surgeries and stranger voyagings…” Lovecraft is hellishly effective when read slowly, savoring his language and his many references to chthonic (hence Cthulhu) myths and terrifying ancient secrets. S.T. Joshi’s excellent notes and fine introduction to the Penguin collection help put Lovecraft in perspective. Lovecraft’s own perspective comes through quite clearly indeed from what he wrote. And quite chillingly.

     And to whom does Lovecraft owe his style? For all the echoes of other American writers that occasionally show up in the Lovecraft stories, the style of Lovecraft has distinctly British elements – and not only in Lovecraft’s preferred spellings (“colour,” “odour”). Some elements of Lovecraft’s writings reflect those of Arthur Machen (pen name of Arthur Llewelyn Jones, 1863-1947), a Welsh author of stories that draw deeply on ancient legends and on disorientation, not only of the characters but also of the reader. Joshi is also the editor of The White People and Other Weird Stories, again providing helpful notes and a fine introduction, and in this book there is also a Foreword – by film director Guillermo del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth shares more than a few of Machen’s sensibilities. Among the 11 stories here is the decidedly Lovecraftian (or proto-Lovecraftian) title tale, in which a young girl recounts her experiences with witchcraft: “And though it was all dark and indistinct in my room, a pale glimmering kind of light shone in through the white blind, and once I got up and looked out, and there was a great black shadow of the house covering the garden, looking like a prison where men are hanged; and then beyond it was all white; and the wood shone white with black gulfs between the trees.” And there is “The Inmost Light,” which may be thought of as a proto-Horcrux story by those familiar with the Harry Potter novels and films: a doctor convinces his wife to extract her soul and deposit it in a gem, turning her physical being into a horrific shell. Machen is harder to read than Lovecraft – his style is not so nuanced and elegant, and his paragraphs can go on for pages in 19th-century mode. But his concepts are quite frightening enough to make some time with his stories well worthwhile, if perhaps better not spent in the darkest hours of night.

     And what of modern masters, influenced by Poe and Lovecraft, Bierce and Machen and Lord Dunsany and the other great horror writers of the past? One of the best is Clive Barker, whose gigantic novels mix outré concepts with genuinely shivery scenes. Barker’s Abarat series has been slowing emerging since the first book, simply called Abarat, in 2002. It was followed by Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War in 2004. And now the third book – of what Barker plans as a five-book sequence – advances the story still further. Abarat: Absolute Midnight is a big book, at nearly 600 pages, and a beautifully illustrated one whose pictures not only show parts of the story but also become part of it and help advance it. The Abarat series is about 16-year-old Candy Quackenbush, who travels through the world of the title – where islands are hours, multiple people share single bodies, and the would-be Empress of the Islands has decided to turn off all suns, moons and stars. Candy fits into Abarat and its denizens (and they into her) all too well, as she finds out when, at one point, she no longer shares her mind with any of them: “Never in her sixteen years had Candy felt as alone as she felt now. …Only now, alone in the vastness of her thoughts did she sense the horror of such solitude. …She was utterly, unconditionally alone. How did people, ordinary people like those on Followell Street – even her own mother, even her father – deal with the loneliness?” The horrors in Abarat emerge without preamble; they are usually just there, and then gone. “She’d done her best to warn her grandson about the vicious power of his affections. She’d forced the lesson upon him by sewing up his lips with needle and thread when she’d first heard him use the word love; the scars that her handiwork had left were still upon his face the last time she’d seen him, which had been on the deck of her death-ship, Wormwood. The scars, however, had failed to inspire contrition in him.” Or: “There were creatures in this rising multitude that were as ancient as the elements. The Crawfeit, for instance, whose bodies were bone cages filled with flocks of burning birds; their heads black iron pots brimming with a vile stew of venom, angel’s grief, and human meat; their limbs lengths of burned muscles held together with hair and hooks, and arrayed with dagger fingers. They were not demons. The Abarat had no known hell.” Is the Abarat itself a hell? Certainly there is much here that is hellish, but there are odd bits of dark beauty as well, and the whole island world seems like a vast dreamscape – and indeed is sometimes visited by Candy in dreams (although not always). Combining elements of horror stories with ones drawn from picaresque novels and filtering everything through some genuinely weird sensibilities, Ararat: Absolute Midnight makes it a point to advance Candy’s story some distance, but not too far: “In a happier world all would have been put right. The evil-doers delivered into an all-consuming fire, and those who had been saved from execution free to return to their homes, lives and loved ones unharmed. But this was not that happier world.” No indeed; but it is, in exchange, a more fascinating world than a simplistic one of good triumphing over evil – and a world in which horror, fright and love are sure to continue commingling, however uneasily.


Children of the Lamp, Book 7: The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan. By P.B. Kerr. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $18.99.

Alex Van Helsing, Book 2: Voice of the Undead. By Jason Henderson. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Supernaturally. By Kiersten White. HarperTeen. $17.99.

Possess. By Gretchen McNeil. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Conclusions, however inevitable, are difficult, but the Children of the Lamp series ends with a bang – well, really with the prevention of a bang – in its seventh book, The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan. P.B. Kerr has produced these books at a reliable one-a-year pace since 2004’s The Akhenaten Adventure, taking djinn twins John and Philippa Gaunt and their uncle Nimrod all over the world and into all sorts of realms of fairly scary and moderately dark fantasy. These have always been adventure stories, not chillers, and The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan continues in the same mode, albeit with some scary (and historically accurate) stuff in the background: “How and where to bury Genghis Khan with honor but without drawing attention to his burial place? …A huge underground mausoleum was excavated by slaves who were then slaughtered to a man; the soldiers who had killed these slaves were themselves executed in their turn. A large part of the mausoleum was taken up with their corpses. Finally, when the grave was ready, the funeral cortege set off and, leaving nothing to chance, everyone it met on the way was also murdered. It’s said that about twenty thousand people died in order that the whereabouts of the grave of Genghis Khan could be kept a secret.” This background turns into a search for a camel that died some 800 years earlier. Why? Because volcanoes all around the world are erupting, putting out a strange golden lava. Kerr pulls all these odd elements together as neatly as usual. Indeed, magic plus environmental catastrophe equals a most exciting brew here, complete with appropriate foreshadowings, such as Nimrod’s remark, “I have the distinct feeling that by the time this is over, none of us will ever be the same again.” This proves to be the case – in a way that neatly wraps up the series – and the volcanic eruptions end up producing lovely mountain lakes and reservoirs. What is lost at the end – the ability to make successful wishes – turns out to be something willingly surrendered: “I really think the only things worth having are the things you work for,” decides Philippa, and even if preteen and young teenage readers (the book’s target audience) do not agree, it will at least be clear why, at the end, Philippa and John feel this way. This is one series that many readers will miss: Kerr’s consistency of tone and plotting made it a great deal of fun to read. But perhaps, in a few years, readers of Children of the Lamp will be ready for Kerr’s far more adult and hard-boiled novels, such as the Bernie Gunther series, which he writes under the name of Philip Kerr.

     The second Alex Van Helsing novel goes beyond the first one, Vampire Rising, in plot points if not in plot consistency. In Voice of the Undead, Alex is in training with the Polidorium (as in John Polidori, early writer of vampire tales) and is working toward becoming a vampire hunter (like his ancestor from Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Alex, who is 14, is attending a boarding school called Glenarvon Academy; and beneath Lake Geneva – on whose shores Glenarvon rests – is a vampire academy called the Scholomance. The vampire school has a long history: “The Scholomance had been around for hundreds – possibly thousands -- of years. Dracula himself attended the school, when he first became a vampire, or so said the Polidorium, and so had reported Abraham Van Helsing, Alex’s great-great-great- (that was three greats) grandfather.” Glenarvon is burned as the vampires of the Scholomance try to get Alex, who has to be on constant lookout for his archenemy, Elle, although where she fits into the various plots is not clear: “Elle had talked as though she were in some kind of disagreement with the Scholomance – whether to kill him or to torture him, apparently.” The whole story takes place in the modern world, so that fight scenes read like this: “Elle…grabbed him by the collar, dragging him back. Alex smashed against the table that held the iPod and it toppled over with the speakers, still playing. The voice went on as he grunted in pain, crunching his ribs against the table.” And so on. All this derring-do has comic-book intensity to it (no surprise: Jason Henderson writes comic books and computer games). It is scarcely surprising that a particularly evil force here has the distinctly comic-book-like name of Ultravox. Readers looking for a very light take on various things vampiric will enjoy this not-quite-a-romp book, which gets a (+++) rating for its pacing and a few interesting plot twists. The whole series would be better if Henderson let the humor flow more frequently and more naturally, but as it is, readers are generally supposed to take the events seriously – which is nearly impossible.

     This is not to say that things are any more realistic in Supernaturally or Possess, which are also (+++) books and are primarily aimed at teen girls in the same way that Voice of the Undead mainly targets boys. Kiersten White’s new book is a followup to Paranormalcy; Gretchen McNeil’s is the start of a series. This is White’s second book; it is McNeil’s first. White’s protagonist, Evie Green, is 16; McNeil’s, Bridget Liu, is 15. Evie has a better-developed personality, complete with a sense of humor, some irony, dissatisfaction with “normal” life, believable fear when she is pulled back into contact with paranormals, and some quick-thinking ability: “I might be an Empty One, able to suck the souls straight out of paranormals, but I’d only done it once before. And that was different; the souls had been trapped and they wanted to come to me. This thing probably didn’t want to give me its life energy.” Evie also has a habit of saying “oh, bleep” that is amusing the first hundred or so times, then merely annoying. Bridget lives in a darker world – McNeil’s focus is exorcism – and a mental landscape filled with secrets: “So her father had given her an exorcist’s good-luck charm when she was seven… Could it have been a weird twist of fate that this charm just happened to catch her dad’s eye in a store window? No. That was too ridiculous for even Bridget to buy. But the alternative was even more disturbing: Her dad had known exactly what that medal meant when he gave it to her. …Nothing but questions that had no answers. That was her life now: one giant question mark.” These two books’ plots are different, their protagonists are different, the ins and outs of the stories are different, but in many ways those differences are all superficial. Both the books are stories of young women coming into their own, finding (or re-finding) love, learning their own powers and abilities, using them to combat dark forces and – not incidentally – discovering more about themselves. That is, these are both coming-of-age novels with supernatural elements. Neither breaks any new ground in this well-worn genre (actually two well-worn genres, the supernatural novel and the coming-of-age tale), but both have a fast enough pace and enough excitement to keep some teenage girls interested. Which readers will prefer which book will depend on reactions to the central characters: those who enjoy Evie’s wry sense of humor and occasional self-deprecation will not likely be equally interested in Bridget’s intensity and strong determination. But certainly White and McNeil have both created characters whose adventures can build a fan base – or two fan bases.