January 26, 2012


Splat Art: Blops & Dribbles in Need of Your Scribbles. By Andrew Pinder. Klutz. $12.99.

Star Wars Folded Flyers. By Benjamin Harper and the Scientists of Klutz Labs. Klutz. $19.99.

Buzz Lightyear Foam Gliders. By the Editors of Klutz. Klutz. $16.99.

Make Your Own Disney Princess Tiaras. By the Editors of Klutz. Klutz. $16.99.

     In our increasingly virtual age, where objects that once had physical reality – books, music storage mechanisms such as CDs and vinyl records – have been more and more often replaced by their digital equivalents, it is good to know that there remains a place for kids to have actual physical interaction with matter. That would be the Klutz “books-plus” line, in which guided crafts projects are presented with the materials needed to complete them. Or so it is most of the time. Splat Art is, on the one hand, very much in line with typical Klutz approaches for ages eight and up; and on the other, differs in one important respect. Its amusing, irreverent tone, featuring multicolored blots and blobs, old photos taken deliberately out of context, collages, and pictures of common objects (ribbon, leaves, rotten tomatoes), is pure Klutz. What it tells children to do with those objects is pure Klutz as well: use them as the basis of creative drawings, whether of colorful ants, companions for “a lonely splodgeosaurus,” fingerprint flowers, dolphins with banana bodies, or “spooky tissue ghosts.” Each set of objects or splotches or blots comes with one example of how kids might create something, and it is up to each child to decide whether to follow the suggestion or come up with an approach of his or her own. Either way is just fine – this book is all about artistic creativity, whether guided or free-flowing. It does differ from typical Klutz offerings in one significant way: it does not include anything with which to make the drawings. But since a few simple pencil lines can make considerable transformations here, pencils or crayons or pens are not really necessary; kids can supply their own, in line with their own imagination.

     More typically Klutzian is another project book for ages eight and up, Star Wars Folded Flyers. Here the “guided” element is much stronger and in fact must be followed for the 30 (yes, 30) paper starfighters to emerge from the included foldable pages to fly and loop around the room or outdoors. Some ships from the Star Wars films will be immediately recognizable, such as the Millennium Falcon; others may need some introduction, such as the BTL-B Y-wing. No problem: each ship gets an intro that includes information labeled “About My Ship,” “Weapons and Defense,” and “In Battle,” along with ID cards for the pilots. There are “tips from a master” (Yoda) about assembly, and decidedly Klutzian comments inserted here and there: “Created for the Rebel Alliance by the Incom Corporation, the X-wing was kept secret from the Empire. Fortunately for you, Klutz Labs was able to obtain copies of the top-secret plans.” This is not a book for the impatient: folds have to be done carefully, and small adjustments are required (and inevitable) once the paper craft are put together and given a chance to fly. Klutz anticipates this: there are only six designs of starfighters, with plenty of extra pages provided so additional ones of the same design can be made. There are also pages to fold into display stands – a nice touch. All that is needed to make the flyers is in the book, including tape (provided as a sheet). Of course, Star Wars Folded Flyers is only for devotees of the film franchise, but it seems safe to say that there are plenty of them around (adults as well as kids).

     A different franchise – the Pixar/Disney Toy Story sequence – is the basis for flying of a different kind, for younger kids (ages four and up). Buzz Lightyear Foam Gliders includes a Buzz rocket plus gliders associated with Woody, the aliens, Hamm and Emperor Zurg. The pieces punch out of cardboard and are very easy to assemble, and plastic nose caps weight them toward the front so they fly quite well. There is also a sheet of Toy Story stickers for decorating the gliders with lights, characters, glider names and more. Boys too young for Star Wars Folded Flyers (or ones who are not fans of the Star Wars films) will enjoy assembling these planes, which take much less time to make than do those in the Star Wars book. And what about girls? Klutz has a Disney tie-in for them, too – Make Your Own Princess Tiaras, which, like the Toy Story project, is for ages four and up (but not up too far). There is more to do in this book than in the Toy Story one, even though there are only three tiaras (a yellow one for Belle, a blue Cinderella model and one called Ariel Pink). The reasons for the extra activities are, first, that there are lots of decorations included (stickers, jewels, “princess cameos,” pom-poms and sequins, plus glue to attach things); and, second, that Make Your Own Princess Tiaras also contains other projects – mini tiaras for dolls, “wand toppers” to attach to drinking straws, and a tiara stencil that can be used to cut out additional tiaras comparable to the ones supplied by Klutz. There are also jewelry bases: cardboard cutouts that can be used to make rings and bracelets. As with the projects tied to the Star Wars and Toy Story films, Make Your Own Princess Tiaras is only for kids who are fans of the films featuring the characters highlighted by Klutz. But parents who are not enamored of any of the tie-in books can always turn to, say, Splat Art, which is not tied into anything except a child’s imagination.


What Happens to Our Trash? By D.J. Ward. Illustrated by Paul Meisel. Collins. $5.99.

The Zombie Chasers #3: Sludgment Day. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by Steve Wolfhard. Harper. $15.99.

     Five pounds of trash per person per day – that is the garbage output of the United States. And that is just one of the pieces of information in the Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science book called What Happens to Our Trash? A “Stage 2” paperback for ages 5-9, short and easy to read, D.J. Ward’s book is nevertheless packed with important information for children wondering what they can do to help clean up the environment and make a cleaner world for themselves to enjoy when they grow up. Ward, a high-school science teacher, is careful to balance the pluses and minuses of various approaches to trash control. For example, he points out that “some cities burn their trash. …That puts the trash to good use. But burning trash causes problems, too. It can pollute the air. And it’s expensive.” Paul Meisel’s colorful illustrations help mitigate what could be a relentlessly depressing message about drowning ourselves in our own waste. For instance, he shows a boy looking glum, despite the amusing image behind him, which goes with the words, “The amount of trash produced in America annually can fill up enough garbage trucks, lined up end to end, to reach the moon.” Other illustrations show the clay and plastic liners used in landfills; how methane is turned into electricity (this picture is in the form of a child’s class project); and how everyone can help reduce garbage accumulation. This “what to do” element is the heart of the book, and it is somewhat oversimplified. “Bring our own bags to the store and use them instead of throwaway bags” is a good idea, for example, but Ward does not mention that there are health risks to reusable bags that have led some stores to stop selling them. “Buy a big bag of snacks instead of lots of little bags” makes sense unless it leads to overeating of the snacks (contributing to obesity, itself a significant problem) or results in the snacks going stale before they are used and ending up as trash themselves (as well as a waste of money). Still, this short book does not claim to be comprehensive, and it is certainly an effective starting point for family and class discussions of environmental and ecological issues – and what individuals, including kids, can do about them.

     Trash is played for laughs in Sludgment Day, the conclusion of John Kloepfer’s Zombie Chasers trilogy. But then, so is brain-eating; and for that matter, so is fashion: “The zombie man wore a tight white jumpsuit with a bald eagle bedazzled on the front. Thick curly chest hair spilled out of the V-neck, all matted with sludge.” OK, we get it; and OK, yuck. Kids ages 8-12 who like gross-out scenes of messy monsters (and heroic preteens fighting them) are the target audience for Kloepfer’s writing and Steve Wolfhard’s aptly unpleasant illustrations, which the publisher resisted the temptation to call “ILL-ustrations.” The thing about zombies is, you see, they are, like, dead and reanimated, so this would seem to be a problem for the kids after a “zombie virus” attacks their parents, acquaintances, neighbors and most of the country. But not to worry: this being a virus rather than a kill-and-reanimate thingie, it can be fought and eventually reversed, which is just what Zack Clarke and his friends Rice, Madison, Ozzie and Zoe are doing now that they have found the antidote. The first Zombie Chasers book was Kloepfer’s debut novel, and his style has not exactly matured in the sequels. “As he entered the men’s room he could hear the distant din of the zombie plague droning outside the rest stop.” “The sun blazed brightly in the clear blue sky as they sped along the northbound highway up the east bank of the Mississippi River. An infinity of zombies stumbled over the rolling hillsides, casting long shadows in the morning light.” “Red viral streaks climbed up his neck, and his skin turned a deep shade of green. The zombifying bully dropped to his knees, frothing at the mouth, then fell limp on the pavement.” You get the idea. This book gets a (+++) rating for bringing the trilogy to a suitably messy but triumphant end, and for the fact that the illustrations are so ridiculously overdone that they manage to be simultaneously gross and silly – which, of course, is the point of this whole endeavor.


The Girl with the Crooked Nose: A Tale of Murder, Obsession, and Forensic Analysis. By Ted Botha. Berkley. $15.

     Television and movies wrap up crimes neatly. Real life is messy. Just how messy becomes clear in Ted Botha’s novelistically written The Girl with the Crooked Nose, a biography of forensic artist Frank Bender (1941-2011) and a look at some of the gruesome cases on which he worked – successfully or not.

     Botha’s structure is almost too neat. By jumping forward and back in time, focusing sometimes on Bender’s own past and sometimes on the cases on which he worked, and moving around geographically, Botha creates an expectation akin to those in films and TV shows: that he will knit everything together in the end and there will be a suitably upbeat (or at least ironic and noir) conclusion to the story. But, again, real life is messy, and this is not what readers get – which will likely lead to some sense of disappointment. A 16-page “Postmortem” does explain what happened, or failed to happen, in a number of Bender’s cases and to a number of the people mentioned in the book; then an Afterword explains what may or may not have happened to the book’s title character; and then the back-of-book Acknowledgments pages briefly conclude the story of Bender himself and his wife, Jan, both of whom died after the original publication of this book in 2008. The result of all these postscripts is ambiguity and a sense that things should have worked out more fairly and more neatly. And so they would have in entertainment media; not so in real life.

     Readers not looking for clarity or apotheosis will find a great deal that is interesting and quite a bit that is upsetting in this book. Botha returns again and again – as Bender did – to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, site of the notorious feminicidios (“femicides”) that have claimed the lives of hundreds of women, and perhaps thousands, since 1993. Bender spent considerable time, and took considerable personal risks, trying to help local Mexican police, and later the federales, identify some of the victims and hopefully move toward finding the killers. The depth of corruption of the Mexican police and legal system comes through very clearly here, as does the uncertainty with which Bender dealt all the time – one apparent ally, for example, proves to be a possibly dangerous enemy or even perhaps a man involved in the coverup of some of the killings, if not himself a killer (although, as often in the book, readers never find out just what role this person played; he simply fades away from the narrative).

     What also comes through clearly is that forensic sculpture was no way to make a living, at least not for Bender. He was particularly skilled at giving lifelike expressions to his reconstructions of victims, having an intuitive grasp of how they might have looked at things when alive (although, again, this is real life: his intuition was often right but often wrong). But to make money, he did everything from photography to tugboat maintenance – his sculptures of victims paid little, and sometimes the agencies for which he worked did not pay him at all. Yet Bender had more than talent: he had a drive to bring the dead back to life in some way, and maybe bring closure to their loved ones (although, again, he failed at this as often as he succeeded). Bender’s wife, Jan, is a subsidiary character here, but a fascinating one herself: very much a wild teenager (she stole five dollars and used it to run away from home before she turned 18, leaving her one-year-old daughter with her parents), she tolerated her husband’s affairs, generally supported his forensic endeavors, and helped find ways to keep their marriage together for almost 40 years until her death from cancer in 2010.

     The Girl with the Crooked Nose is a fascinatingly frustrating book to read. Bender was a multifaceted human being, highly talented but deeply flawed. His conflicts with bureaucrats and corruption will be easy for readers to relate to: at one point he walks out on a forensics meeting and goes to the beach, telling the man who invited him, “It’s just a bunch of fuddy-duddies at the conference.” The skill of his reconstructions is clear not only from Botha’s narrative but also from the book’s eight pages of photos. Bender’s impatience with red tape contrasts with the extreme care he brought to his reconstructions. But for all Bender’s hard work, and that of the honest law-enforcement personnel who appear in this book, the fact remains that the killers of many of the people whom Bender reconstructed got away with murder. And they still do: the feminicidios cases were abandoned by the Mexican federales in 2006, and most remain unsolved.


Princess Recovery: A How-To Guide to Raising Strong, Empowered Girls Who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Afters. By Jennifer L. Hartstein, Psy.D. Adams Media. $21.95.

     Psychologist Jennifer Hartstein seems to think she has discovered that it is a bad thing for young girls to focus on how others perceive them and to expect a fairy-tale life in everything from clothing to romance. Memo to Hartstein: where have you been for the last, say, 40 years? The notion that girls and women should be more than adorable playthings awaiting Prince Charming has been around for so long that everyone from 1970s feminists to the Walt Disney Company (whose films long perpetuated the “princess” myth, although they did not create it) has taken notice and made substantial adjustments in child-rearing, education and even movies (just compare more-recent Disney animated characters, such as the book-loving Belle from Beauty and the Beast and hard-working Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, with Snow White and Cinderella from earlier films).

     Hartstein’s heart is in the right place, but she seems not to have wrapped her head around several decades of progress in feminine self-awareness – and child-rearing. So Princess Recovery tells parents of young girls (ages 2-8, broken down by Hartstein into 2-3, 4-5 and 6-8) to make sure their daughters appreciate both inner and outer beauty instead of prioritizing superficial appearance; help themselves and others instead of waiting for others to help them; do things “for the right reasons” rather than “for the appearance of perfection”; and define themselves by their own standards, not by the way others perceive them. This is quite unexceptionable advice – and quite unexceptional, even though Hartstein tries to pretty it up (a rather princess-y approach) by contrasting “the heroine” with “the princess.”

     There are glimmers of amusement and insight in Princess Recovery. The book’s dedication, for example, suggests that heroines “enjoy wearing your crown as you play in the mud,” and at one point Hartstein says parents can apply a corrective to romantic notions about being a princess by showing their daughters some real-world princesses and explaining how they live and all the things they have to do. On the other hand, Hartstein is enamored of the obvious: do not overschedule your daughter because “she needs some time to herself”; “set your daughter up for success”; “show her how to set boundaries”; “support her interests to the best of your ability”; “expose your daughter to all kinds of career options”; and so on – and on and on. All this is certainly well-meaning, but Hartstein writes as if she is the first person to come up with these very common and commonplace notions, and that becomes irritating after a while (a short while). Even the book’s title is a trifle “off,” implying that the book is for parents whose daughters are already in “princess mode” – when in fact Hartstein is offering an alternative to it (presumably The Princess Alternative would not have been considered as salable a title in the self-help field, but how about Better Than a Princess?).

     There is plenty of good advice in Hartstein’s book: “experiences age better than things,” “identify wants versus needs,” “make thoughtful choices,” and so forth. And Hartstein makes good, forthright recommendations on implementing the suggested approaches – in the “thoughtful choices” area, for instance, she says to create wish lists for yourself and your daughter, consider the desired items for an agreed-upon waiting period, decide what you need if you still want an item after that time has passed (“bonus or allowance money,” for example), and then make the purchase after budgeting for it both financially and psychologically. This is a good approach not only for children but also for adults; and indeed, Hartstein says, again and again, that parents need to model the behaviors they want to see in their daughters. “Combat materialism as a family,” she recommends at one point; “teach assertiveness rather than aggression,” at another; “evaluate your own moral values,” at yet another. Introspection, self-awareness and guidance – these are all excellent ideas, although none of them is even slightly new or unique to this book. Princess Recovery makes many good points, even though it is frequently over-earnest (a little fantasizing never hurt anyone) and has a greater-than-warranted sense of its own originality. Parents can get some useful thoughts from Hartstein, but they will have to leaven them with a sense of humor and a modicum of innovative thinking on their own.


François Rebel and François Francœur: Zélindor, roi des Sylphes; Suite from “Le Trophée.” Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Heidi Grant Murphy, William Sharp, Ah Young Hong; Opera Lafayette Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Ryan Brown. Naxos. $9.99.

Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny: Le Déserteur. William Sharp, Dominique Labelle, Ann Monoyios, David Newman, Eugene Galvin, Tony Boutté, Darren Perry; Opera Lafayette conducted by Ryan Brown. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).

François-André Danican Philidor: Sancho Pança, gouverneur dans l’île de Barataria. Darren Perry, Elizabeth Calleo, Karim Sulayman, Meghan McCall, Tony Boutté, Eric Christopher Black, Andrew Sauvageau; Opera Lafayette conducted by Ryan Brown. Naxos. $9.99.

     Opera, music’s original multimedia spectacle, is very much an acquired taste – one that even many who enjoy other forms of classical music never acquire. Nearly all opera companies therefore face an ongoing struggle to bring in enough funds to allow quality productions to continue. The smaller the company, the tougher the battle; cutting corners in staging, singing, orchestral size and chosen repertoire tends to be the norm. Let us therefore celebrate Opera Lafayette, a small, period-instrument company in Washington, D.C., that not only avoids many of the compromises typical in the field but also eschews the temptation to bring in audiences by offering only well-known operas – instead producing consistently high-quality productions of unfamiliar works of the Baroque and Classical eras, with a focus on 18th-century French operas but a willingness to explore other areas as well.

     Naxos has issued a string of very fine Opera Lafayette recordings, including Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice in 2005, Antonio Sacchini’s Oedipe à Colone in 2006, a disc of Rameau arias in 2007, and Lully’s The Tragedy of Armide in 2008. The three most-recent releases are at the same high level as the earlier ones, with artistic director and conductor Ryan Brown bringing consistency to performances that often feature different soloists because – as is typical in smaller opera companies, and even in some larger ones – the singers may be brought aboard only for one work, or may stay with the company for a while and then move on.

     The CD of the complete Zélindor, roi des Sylphes and excerpts from Le Trophée shows just how willing Opera Lafayette is to explore little-known repertoire. Zélindor was a royal entertainment for the court of Louis XV, first performed in 1745 – at a time when opera (or a combination of opera and ballet, like this work) was intended as none-too-serious entertainment, giving members of the court a chance to listen to pleasant music, watch some interesting dances, and chat and flirt and gossip and indulge in political infighting all the while. The music here is not always riveting, and was not intended to be: it was, to an extent, the 18th-century equivalent of background music. Yet there is verve and considerable pleasure to be had in this sequence of dances built around a thin and typical plot of the love between a god and a mortal. The Le Trophée excerpts – dances plus two arias – are of the same sort, being pleasant and aurally attractive but not overly challenging to the sophisticated ears and minds of the courtiers for whom the music was created. Tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is particularly good in both the works, singing parts written for very high tenor – and without use of falsetto – with clarity and considerable style.

     Le Déserteur and Sancho Pança are more traditionally operatic, even though both are almost completely unknown today. Monsigny (1729-1817) and Philidor (1726-1795) were both highly regarded in their day; each here produced an opera-comique suited perfectly to the taste of the time. Le Déserteur is the more substantial work, as is clear not only from the recording (which presents only the music) but also from the plot (explained in the accompanying booklet). Sentimental and filled with pathos, although not tragedy, this is an early version of the French rescue opera, a form now best known through Beethoven’s adaptation of it in Fidelio. Highly melodic and musically quite varied, Le Déserteur swings from comedy to drama and back again time after time, following a story in which Louise (Dominique Labelle) eventually succeeds, after many difficulties, in saving her fiancé, Alexis (William Sharp), from prison and a sentence of death. Well sung and well paced by Opera Lafayette, the work is not especially memorable musically and remains something of a historical curiosity, its libretto’s humanitarian ideas being somewhat more forward-looking than its music. But it is pleasant, entertaining and even manages to tug at the heartstrings from time to time.

     Sancho Pança, gouverneur dans l’île de Barataria, on the other hand, aims not for the heart but for the funnybone: based loosely on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, it is a bit like an 18th-century musical comedy, with the self-important Sancho Pança (Darren Perry) being repeatedly undermined in his delusions of grandeur by the residents of the fictitious island where he is governor. Cervantes himself generated considerable amusement at the expense of Don Quixote’s “squire,” thus making it possible to turn the self-deluded Quixote into a tragicomic and at times even tragic figure. Philidor’s work seeks no depth, offering a series of short scenes in which the “governor” is at the center of one amusing occurrence or another. As in Le Déserteur, the music is not particularly memorable in itself, but it bubbles along pleasantly and has just the effect of lighthearted entertainment that the composer intended; soprano Meghan McCall, who sings three roles, is particularly well-suited to the comic banter. Opera Lafayette’s exceptionally idiomatic approach to this and the other works recorded by Naxos shows that the opera world has far more to it than most operagoers realize – and that smaller companies, when well run and dedicated to creativity, can offer experiences that, although they are outside the opera mainstream, can be every bit as enjoyable as the umpteenth rendition of the best-known works in the operatic universe.


Evencio Castellanos: Santa Cruz de Pacairigua; El Río de las Siete Estrellas; Suite Avileña. Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela conducted by Jan Wagner. Naxos. $9.99.

Francisco Mignone: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2; Three Spanish Songs; Two Essays for String Quartet; Seresta No. 2 for Double String Quartet; Barcarola; Minueto from the Opera “O Contratador de Diamantes.” Cuarteto Latinoamericano (Saul Bitran and Aron Bitran, violins; Javier Montiel, viola; Alvaro Bitran, cello). Sono Luminus. $16.99.

Dowland in Dublin. Michael Slattery, tenor; ensemble La Nef. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

     These are CDs focused on particular regions or countries, featuring interpretations by musicians steeped in the background and culture that produced the music they perform. The music itself tends to be quite worthy and frequently interesting, although not necessarily gripping for listeners without some sort of connection to the places where it originates. The discs do, though, give interested listeners a chance to sample some well-thought-out pieces that are outside the standard classical repertoire. The works of Evencio Castellanos (1915-1984), for example, are redolent of Venezuela: Castellanos was one of that nation’s first composers to stake out overtly nationalistic territory in his music. Santa Cruz de Pacairigua (1954) is a musical tribute to the construction of a church near Caracas, attractively combining a medieval Venezuelan carol with elements drawn from popular dances – it is easy to see why this is one of the composer’s most-performed works. El Río de las Siete Estrellas (1946: “The River of Seven Stars”) refers to the Orinoco and was inspired by a poem. Castellanos intended it as a recapitulation of events in Venezuelan history, leading up to the country’s independence in 1821. The references will be obscure to listeners not already familiar with the nation’s background, but this work too is carefully constructed and well orchestrated. Suite Avileña (1947) is even more interesting: its five movements relate to the coastal mountain El Ávila, but listeners need not know that to enjoy the well-developed contrasts among the movements and the unusual use of Venezuelan folk instruments, including maracas and the cuatro (a four-stringed guitar). The themes of Suite Avileña are drawn from sources as disparate as popular songs and Christmas carols, giving the work a pleasantly varied set of sounds. The Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela under Jan Wagner plays all the music idiomatically and with understanding and enthusiasm.

     Cuarteto Latinoamericano’s enthusiasm in a new CD is for chamber music of Brazil, specifically that of Francisco Mignone (1897-1986); indeed, the CD bears the title Brasileiro, with the composer’s name comparatively downplayed. Mignone is not as well known internationally as Heitor Villa-Lobos, but he is often mentioned as being nearly at Villa-Lobos’ level of skill and prominence. His works show considerable ability in multiple forms: opera, ballet, orchestral and choral works, solo songs and piano pieces – and chamber music. His String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2, both of which date to 1957, are tightly knit works in the classical three-movement form, but both use some themes that are noticeably Brazilian – especially so in the second quartet. The Two Essays (1958) also showcase fine writing for the chamber ensemble, and interestingly subtle contrasts between movements whose tempos are not especially different (the first is Andante cantabile, the second Moderato). The other pieces on this CD are lighter and shorter. Seresta No. 2 (1956), in which Cuarteto Latinoamericano is joined by La Cantina String Quartet, is an interesting foray into double-quartet writing, with rich sound that retains the chamber-music qualities of Mignone’s single-quartet works. The remaining works here are earlier: Three Spanish Songs (1932) pleasantly evokes tunes that Brazilian audiences would know well, while Barcarola (1932) and Minueto (1924) are small, pleasant, self-contained pieces. Cuarteto Latinoamericano plays with exemplary tone and a strong feeling for the rhythms and structure of all this music – many listeners will enjoy discovering Mignone’s chamber works through this recording if they do not know his music already.

     The enjoyment will be more intellectual, and perhaps a bit forced, in Dowland in Dublin, a CD that considers the possibility that John Dowland (1563-1626), the great English Renaissance composer, might really have been Irish. It will be difficult for those not of English or Irish extraction to generate a great deal of concern about this possibility, but the performance ensemble La Nef uses it as the basis for this whole 17-track CD. With Michael Slattery contributing a light and pleasant tenor, the musicians of La Nef simplify Dowland’s frequently complex contrapuntal works to give them more of an Irish flavor; they also avoid the darker and more expressive pieces for which Dowland is best known and much admired, choosing instead to focus on his lighter pieces. This is a decidedly one-sided view of Dowland and a wholly inaccurate one, with a carefully chosen selection of his music put at the service of an attempt to stir the embers of an “origins” dispute that is not particularly significant except to anyone who may be directly involved in it. But if the rationale of Dowland in Dublin is shaky, the performance is not: everything is beautifully played and sung, and the delights of Dowland come through quite clearly even in the form in which they are given here. There is something faintly odd, if not wholly misguided, about Dowland in Dublin, but listeners who simply focus on the music will enjoy it – while hopefully understanding that there is a great deal more to this composer than is heard on this very pleasant but somewhat superficial CD.

January 19, 2012


All Souls Trilogy, Book One: A Discovery of Witches. By Deborah Harkness. Penguin. $16.

     Now available in paperback, Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches remains as fascinating and intriguing as it was at its hardcover publication last year. A novel that rises above not one but several formulaic genres, it is a tale of supernatural wonders for adults – adults who have experienced love, loss, longing and considerable intellectual excitement. It is something highly unusual: a fantasy for thinkers.

     It is not simply the book’s excitement, not its confrontations among disparate characters, not its finely tuned attention to the various powers of witches, vampires and daemons that sets it apart from pedestrian books featuring similar characters. It is the integration of the story of Diana Bishop, a descendant of witches who, for good reason, wants nothing to do with her heritage, with a considerable amount of genuine history and an equally large portion of invented but highly plausible historical events, that gives the book a solidity, a feeling of real-world existence even though so many of its characters are the stuff of adolescent fantasy.

     But this is emphatically not adolescent fantasy, as is clear from the casual way in which Harkness writes (and expects readers to understand) a line such as, “She missed nothing and had a longer memory than Mnemosyne.” A University of Southern California history professor, Harkness creates non-human characters with complex inner lives permeated by the same emotions that human readers feel: curiosity and wonder, love and desire, jealousy and hatred, anger and fear. There is a sense here that the characters have really lived in the real world, a sense heightened by the accurate depiction of such settings as Oxford’s Bodleian Library, where Anna’s discovery of an enchanted alchemical manuscript called Ashmole 782 starts the plot moving and becomes the linchpin of the exciting and often traumatic events that affect her and all those around her.

     On the simplest level, Anna is a type: the protagonist with enormous but untapped and untrained power, gradually coming into her own as she learns more about herself and her background. But Harkness resolutely refuses to let Anna be a cardboard character. Anna discovers her potential powers through genetic analysis of her DNA, for example; and rather than being a typically coy female protagonist, she is sexually experienced and is matter-of-fact when she bluntly says to the character with whom she has fallen in love, “Come to bed with me.”

     That character is as fascinating as Anna herself. He is Matthew Clairmont (or de Clermont), a brilliant geneticist with considerable interest in history – not surprising, since he has lived through 1,500 years of it. Matthew is a vampire, and he too seems on the surface to be a type: deadly, driven, handsome, intense and brooding. But here too, Harkness refuses to descend into cliché, giving Matthew depth, solidity and an emotional and sexual life transcending the norm for the vampiric. Yes, Matthew has an ancestral castle (in France, not Transylvania), and yes, his increasing involvement with Anna puts him dangerously at odds with other vampires and with the Congregation, a powerful and frightening nine-member panel that includes three members of each supernatural race and is pledged to prevent mixing and potential interbreeding of witches, vampires and daemons. But Matthew also spends time with Anna at candlelit dinners featuring a multiplicity of fine wines (Harkness is a dedicated and knowledgeable oenophile) and at supernatural yoga classes – and the two quarrel most intensely when his attempts to manage and control her for her own safety run directly into her strong-willed (and often headstrong) determination to handle her own future as her powers begin, slowly and then more rapidly, to emerge. The powers of Anna and others are themselves out of the ordinary: the first scene involving “witchwater” is amazing, and a house with personality, which slams its own doors in anger and adds rooms as they are needed, provides a touch of simultaneous levity and weirdness.

     Harkness is not the only current novelist rethinking the supernatural and creating fantasy books with depth, for adult readers. For example, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and The Magician King are notable for their determination to show that even if magic exists, it will be practiced by highly fallible human beings who will make as many errors as correct decisions – to their own sorrow and that of those for whom they care. But Grossman’s essentially pessimistic vision is quite different from that of Harkness, who includes plenty of darkness and some genuinely scary scenes in A Discovery of Witches but who nevertheless asserts that love has the potential, if not to conquer all, at least to mitigate a great deal of harm – physical, mental and emotional. Although Harkness had done considerable scholarly writing, this erudite and stylistically assured book was, amazingly, her debut novel. The second part of the trilogy, Shadow of Night, is due out this summer. Harkness has set herself a very high standard for that book. This one provides considerable evidence that she will live up to it.


Showoff. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $16.99.

B Magical #6: The Superstar Sister. By Lexi Connor. Scholastic. $5.99.

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Clover! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

     Gordon Korman’s fourth book about Griffin Bing, “The Man With The Plan,” and his friends – human and canine – will not disappoint fans of the first three, Swindle, Zoobreak and Framed. Nor will it surprise them. Once again, former attack dog Luthor is at the center of a series of misbehaviors and misunderstandings; once again, Griffin comes up with an over-elaborate plan to set things right; once again, things do not go as they should, or as Griffin plans for them to go; and once again, everything works out just fine anyway. The plot involves dog shows: Luthor goes wild at one and is accused of ruining the national champion’s career; Griffin and his friends decide Luthor should become the new national champion; this requires tracking down “mad Russian” dog trainer Dmitri Trebezhov, who has retired and is evading everyone; Griffin and friends manage to find him, even though no one else (including the press) has been able to; Dmitri is attacked with hair remover in what appears to be a misfiring of an attempt to remove Luthor from competition; and at one point, Korman writes that even ”The Man With The Plan had no answer” to the various questions and problems swirling about. Dmitri decides that Griffin will handle Luthor, under Dmitri’s direct supervision, at the Global Kennel Society competition, “the Super Bowl of dog shows,” where the Doberman will be designated “Lex Luthor Savannah Spritz-o-matic.” The last part of that name refers to an invention made by Griffin’s father that, surprisingly, works, and is crucial to finding out who is behind the various threats and attacks on people and animals alike. “‘We may take issue with your methods, but none could argue about what you did for Luthor,’” Griffin’s mom eventually says, in a summation that could stand just as well for the other books in this series, including ones not yet written but sure to come.

     Less elaborate and considerably shorter, the B Magical books by Lexi Connor are equally reliable in delivering expected stories in easy-to-read prose. The sixth in the series, The Superstar Sister, involves a visit to B’s school by the TV talent show, You’ve Got It! B (short for Beatrix) is sure her older sister, Dawn, will be “discovered” by the show, since Dawn does a great dance routine. But someone is out to sabotage Dawn – the unscrupulous “nasty freckle-face boy,” Jason Jameson – so B has to find a way to protect her big sister and stop Jason’s nefarious plot. This is a straightforward idea, except for the magic. For B and Dawn are from a magical family (hence the title of the series), with most family members casting spells through rhyme creation but with B doing so by spelling words. So B’s mom rhymes up a recipe for taco salad by saying, in part, “Mash garlic with avocado,/ Onion, and a ripe to-mah-to.” But when B wants to think up a certain type of story, she spells out “R-O-M-A-N-C-E,” and when she wants Mozart, the hamster, to talk for a while, she spells out “S-P-E-A-K.” B herself is not competing for the talent show, but she is taking part in the Magical Rhyming Society’s Young Witch Competition. The two events take place the same night, and there are complications because Dawn is angry at B at the time, and Jason does come up with a way to spoil Dawn’s dance routine, but B saves the day even though it means missing out on success in her own competition, but that’s all right because family values are what matter most, and – well, there is nothing surprising here, but there are lots of warm, fuzzy feelings, and that should be plenty of magic for most readers.

     The Old Lady who swallows just about everything in Lucille Colandro’s book series clearly has something magical about her, too: she never chokes on anything and manages to transform all that swallowed stuff into something pleasant and amusing at the end of each book. But even devoted readers of the series may think Colandro and illustrator Jared Lee go a little too far in There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Clover! This is a book with a St. Patrick’s Day theme, as is clear from the clover itself and the leprechaun seen at the beginning as well as toward the end. But the point of the various swallowed objects is not clear here. The original rhyme on which all these books are built has an old lady swallow a fly, then a spider to catch the fly, then a bird to get the spider, then a cat to catch the bird, and so on. Here the Old Lady first swallows the clover, then a daisy (“to brighten the clover”), then a butterfly (“to rest on the daisy”), and so forth – but the connections are at best very strained ones. What eventually emerges from the Old Lady’s mouth as everything she swallows comes back up is something clever, but again, it is strained, and may not even be entirely clear to some readers. These short books are modestly enjoyable, with Lee’s amusing illustrations (especially of the Old Lady) a highlight; but this one has even less substance to it than others in the series. Still, families looking for a touch of St. Patrick’s Day fun will find some here.


Warriors: Omen of the Stars #3—Night Whispers. By Erin Hunter. Harper. $6.99.

Warriors: Omen of the Stars #5—The Forgotten Warrior. By Erin Hunter. Harper. $16.99.

Warriors: SkyClan & the Stranger (Manga Book 2)—Beyond the Code. By Dan Jolley. Art by James L. Barry. Harper. $6.99.

     The four-person team collectively known as “Erin Hunter” (authors Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry and Tui Sutherland, plus editor Victoria Holmes) continues to turn out, or churn out, reliably interesting and reliably complex stories of cat clans, under the umbrella title Warriors. The many threads of these multi-generational stories do tend to bog down a bit in middle volumes, though. In the Omen of the Stars sequence, Night Whispers, which is now available in paperback, is the third book of six, and The Forgotten Warrior is the fifth. Night Whispers is about the aftermath of a battle between two of the four major cat groups, ThunderClan and ShadowClan. ThunderClan’s medicine cat, Jayfeather, and the warrior Lionblaze are determined to find out why the battle occurred, so they can prevent further evil from marring the clans’ lives. The Warriors books always use lots of characters, carefully providing each with a brief introduction before the book starts – and also showing maps of the cats’ camps and the geography of the area where they live. These guideposts help readers keep straight what is going on and where things are happening. The books are full of fairy-tale elements that must be taken at face value – not only the entire foundation of Warriors, about cats’ intelligence and forging of civilizations, but also the cryptic warnings scattered throughout the series. One example from Night Whispers: “‘When the Dark Forest rises, ThunderClan must face its greatest enemy alone.’” The cats’ enemies are ones that, in the real world, might indeed be threats to felines – foxes and badgers, for example – but here their malevolence is planned and orchestrated, making them more deadly than in the real natural world. On the fringes of the cats’ realm are humans (“twolegs”), but they have little to do with the story. Instead, human perceptions are given to the cats: “Ivypaw chewed on her mouse, a little surprised to see that the ShadowClan camp worked just like ThunderClan’s. What did you expect? Mice and squirrels doing the work for them? Night Whispers is part of a buildup to the coming “final battle” (although there is never really a final battle in Warriors); thus, the novel is less significant in itself than as a way station. It is followed by Sign of the Moon and then by the newest book in this particular sequence, The Forgotten Warrior – which is itself part of a continuing buildup to the not-yet-released The Last Hope. In The Forgotten Warrior, the movement toward that last-in-the-series volume continues as Dark Forest spirits gain strength even as tensions among the clans mount and approach a breaking point that could shatter the whole cat civilization. The plot is typically convoluted, involving a wandering cat called Sol, a former “kittypet” who claims to have saved Molepaw and Cherrypaw from a fox and is therefore welcomed to ThunderClan by some cats – but not by others, who are suspicious of him and his story. Sol turns out to be a deceiver and sower of discord, but it takes the other cats quite a while to sort things out. Sol eventually reveals his motives and proves to have poor fighting skills, but is not killed and is allowed to run away as the climactic battle with the Dark Forest cats looms. Readers who enjoy following the intricacies of these stories and their many dozens of cat characters (the partial ThunderClan list in The Forgotten Warrior includes 36 cats, and that is only one clan) will not be disappointed in the latest book, which carries this particular story thread ahead effectively enough.

     An easier entry point for readers who are not sure whether they want to wade all the way into the Warriors world are the several manga series based on the novels, which are written by Dan Jolley, with James L. Barry providing the art. Although they are illustrated simplifications of Warriors tales, the manga books are themselves not always easy to follow, since the art is in black-and-white and the cats are differentiated in the novels largely by color. Furthermore, there are multiple manga series, just as there are multiple Warriors novel sequences. Still, the short manga books are action-packed and interesting enough to help potential readers of the bulkier novels decide whether they want to sink their teeth and claws more deeply into the Erin Hunter sequences. Beyond the Code is the second part of the Skyclan & the Stranger trilogy, which will conclude with After the Flood. Sol is a key to this book as much as to The Forgotten Warrior. In the manga work, he desperately wants to become a warrior and has just joined SkyClan, approved by Leafstar. But it soon turns out that Sol’s desire to be a warrior is not enough: he may not fully understand or respect the rules of the warrior code, and that could spell disaster. In fact, it does spell disaster for the clan, leaving Leafstar with an important decision to make as to whether Sol is trustworthy and is really capable of becoming a clan warrior. Faster-paced and simpler than the all-text novels, the manga book ends with a question rather than a decision, so even here, readers will need to wait for the next entry in the series to find out what happens. But all the Warriors books are continuing sagas, and those who decide to follow them need to be prepared for many cliff-hangers and a great number of inconclusive ends to parts of the intertwined stories.


The Odds: A Love Story. By Stewart O’Nan. Viking. $25.95.

The Mighty Miss Malone. By Christopher Paul Curtis. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

     Young and adult readers alike would like to believe that love, in some form, conquers all forms of adversity – in fact, that is why so many authors deliver feel-good novels in which difficult people and difficult circumstances turn out, in the end, pretty much all right, through the conquering power of love. Cynics (and, some would say, realists) will deem books of this sort simpleminded and quite unrealistic; but their target audiences will find their very lack of reality to be a big part of their charm. And so it is in Stewart O’Nan’s The Odds, a bittersweet (but mostly sweet) story of a couple with serious financial and marital troubles blowing everything on roulette bets during a second honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Marion and Art Fowler have been married for 30 years and are a low point in life, jobless and about to lose their home to foreclosure. Their marriage isn’t in great shape, either, which is scarcely a surprise. Because this is not the real world, the Fowlers take all their savings, book the bridal suite at a ritzy Niagara Falls casino, and sightsee by day while gambling at night. Each chapter is headed by odds of some sort: “Odds of being killed in a bus accident: 1 in 436,212,” or “Odds of vomiting on vacation: 1 in 6,” or “Odds of a married couple making love on a given night: 1 in 5.” The story takes place around and on Valentine’s Day – one of many obvious plot manipulations that make the fairy-tale atmosphere clear – and follows Marion and Art as they think about where their finances went off track and where their marriage derailed. The writing is colorless: “He knew better than to try to live on credit, especially at his age, but money was cheap. The interest rate was nothing compared to the penalty they’d pay for breaking into their IRAs early.” The ups and downs of the Fowlers’ life parallel the ups and downs of their desperate attempt to restore themselves financially and emotionally at Niagara Falls (“Odds of surviving going over the Falls without a barrel: 1 in 1,500,000”). Despite the uplifting ending, it will be hard for thoughtful readers to ignore a comment made in passing on the book’s final page: “‘It doesn’t change anything.’” But thoughtfulness is scarcely the point here – the idea is to ignore one’s head and follow one’s heart.

     For younger readers, ages 9-12, matters of love frequently involve whole families rather than just two people. In the case of Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Mighty Miss Malone, the Malone family of Gary, Indiana, actually has a motto, and of course a highly optimistic one, about being “on a journey to a place called Wonderful.” But things are scarcely wonderful during the Great Depression, a harder time than the modern one in which O’Nan’s book is set. Curtis introduced 12-year-old Deza, the protagonist, in Bud, Not Buddy, and fans of Bud Caldwell will enjoy this tale of the “mighty” girl as well. Deza is the smartest girl in her class, and dreams of going to college to become a teacher. But her father cannot find work in Gary, and the family must pick up and move to Michigan – the father first, then the rest of the family (Deza, her mother and her older brother, Jimmie) afterwards. Jimmie actually finds a job: he has a beautiful voice and is able to get work as a singer in the Chicago area. That leaves Deza and her mother in a Hooverville near Flint, determined to find Mr. Malone and reunite the family. This is a story that has “heartwarming” written all over it, with its period detail and saga of unending determination to keep a family together carrying a strong if straightforward message. The times portrayed here will be remote for the readers at whom the book is targeted, and the personalities of characters other than Deza herself are not very well fleshed out. But Deza’s caring and intelligence come through effectively, and her attempts to cope with economic pain and the anxiety of separation, to learn from what happens to her and stay anchored through her love of family, are well expressed, with the result that the final scene of reconciliation and hope will leave at least some readers with a lump in the throat.


Rimsky-Korsakov: Suites from “The Snow Maiden,” “Mlada” and “Le Coq d’or”; “Sadko”—Musical Picture. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronya. Mikhail Kazakov, Vitaly Panfilov, Tatiana Monogarova, Mikhail Gubsky, Gevorg Hakobyan; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari conducted by Alexander Vedernikov. Naxos DVD. $39.99.

Lawrence Ball: Method Music. Navona. $16.99 (2 CDs).

     Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the great musical colorists, sensitive to the nuances of all orchestral instruments and highly adept at combining them into evocative pieces (Scheherazade is a prime example), using them in unfamiliar ways (his trombone concerto), or adapting them to the works of other composers (his version of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is almost always the one performed, and while it undeniably smooths some of Mussorgsky’s rough edges too much and undermines some of the original’s bizarrerie, it also produces a more-effective tone poem with a very satisfying conclusion). Rimsky-Korsakov’s coloristic skill was especially evident in his operas, which are enticingly scored and make up in musical attractiveness what they tend to lack in drama. But because they are not particularly action-oriented, they have never caught on in world opera houses in the same way that some of the composer’s orchestral works have become staples in concert halls. However, the musical (if not vocal) qualities of the operas come through quite well in the suites that the composer extracted from them – several of which are played very well indeed by the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz. Individual movements of these suites are actually quite well known, such as “Dance of the Clowns” (or “Tumblers”) from The Snow Maiden and “Procession of the Nobles” (or “Cortège”) from Mlada. But the suites add other elements to these and provide a fuller picture of the operas’ subjects and the sensitivity with which Rimsky-Korsakov treats them. The Snow Maiden (1880-81) is a folkloric work, while Mlada (1889-90) is a dark fairy tale. Le Coq d’or (usually known by its French title) was the composer’s final opera, finished in 1907 but not staged until 1909, a year after Rimsky-Korsakov’s death: based on a Pushkin poem, it has elements of both legend and fairy tale, and was rightly thought by Czarist censors to be a thinly disguised sarcastic, even subversive work. As for Sadko (1869; revised 1892), it is taken from traditional heroic ballads. Thus, all the works heard here have ties to olden times in Russia, and Rimsky-Korsakov takes full advantage of the settings to produce music that mixes tone painting (the sea in Sadko, for example) with characteristic dances (Mlada) and outright exoticism (the music of the queen in Le Coq d’or). Even though the Seattle Symphony does not have a recognizably Russian sound – the strings lack the depth and lushness associated with top Russian orchestras – the musicians play with verve and beauty, and Schwarz brings considerable understanding to suites that are essentially sequences of miniature scenes. The result is a CD that shows Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral effects burnished to a fine sheen.

     It is nevertheless somewhat unfair to Rimsky-Korsakov to hear his operatic music in concert form, and a fine new DVD release of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh shows why. This 2008 performance, featuring a Russian cast and conductor performing with Italian musicians in Sardinia, gives context to the composer’s skill in orchestration while also showing why his operas are not particularly popular outside Russia. It is only Le Coq d’or that has some ongoing international presence; but that work is not, musically, a very typical opera for Rimsky-Korsakov – Kitzeh, his penultimate one, is much more in line with his other operatic works. Indeed, the composer expected Kitezh (completed in 1905 and first staged in 1907) to be his final opera, returning to the form more for sociopolitical reasons than for strictly musical ones. Kitezh stands as an excellent summation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s approach to the stage and to orchestration as well. Its full, rather unwieldy title results from the combination in Vladimir Belsky’s libretto of two separate legends, that of the city of Kitezh (said to become invisible when attacked by the Tatars) and that of St. Fevronya of Murom. This is the composer’s only opera with any sort of religious theme – Rimsky-Korsakov was an atheist – and its plot eventually leads to the triumph of love and justice in a rather secular heaven. This is not an especially stirring conclusion; nor is the story of invasion and mystical triumph told with any particular fervor (there is only one battle scene). The most interesting character here is a typical Russian fairy-tale type: the town drunkard, Grishka Kuterma (Mikhail Gubsky), who mocks Princess Fevronya (Tatiana Monogarova), turns traitor, repents of the betrayal, and is eventually pardoned by Fevronya (but is last seen when he runs off screaming, tormented by nightmares). The princess herself is perfectly good; her betrothed, Prince Vsevolod (Vitaly Panfilov), is perfectly noble and gives his life in battle (the two are united at the opera’s end, after death). But if these characters are not especially noteworthy, their music is, with strong vocal writing and beautifully supportive orchestration in a through-composed work that uses Wagnerian techniques without sounding one bit like Wagner. Kitezh is not an opera that people outside Russia often have a chance to see, so this Naxos DVD is particularly welcome for making its brilliant musical colors and oddly fascinating thematic mixture of legend and religion available to a wider audience.

     Color is also a significant element in the multimedia work of Lawrence Ball (born 1951); but Ball deals not so much with color evoked by instruments as with actual color images created with what he calls "harmonic maths” – Ball’s computer-based compositional system for generating electronic music, and specifically for individualizing pieces so that listeners (or users, if you prefer) create their own input and thus produce pieces attuned (yes, that’s a pun) to their personal characteristics. Ball actually creates much of this music nowadays without using computers, despite the computerized basis of the system; and he also generates interestingly shaped and colored images through the system. None of this is a recipe for widespread acceptance of Ball’s work, but the two-CD compilation of pieces created under his system is sufficiently interesting to deserve a (+++) rating – even though many listeners will find that the pieces wear thin well before they hear all of this two-hour set. The first CD contains 11 works under the umbrella title “Imaginary Sitters,” with every work lasting within a few seconds of every other one (just over five minutes) but with audio components of the works differing. Whether they differ enough to make the works interesting listening, or whether the whole fractal-like mathematical creativity underlying Method Music is simply a gimmick, is a matter for individual listeners to decide. Ball is actually a wide-ranging creator in multiple fields, working with artists ranging from the international painting group Collective Phenomena to choreographers, pianists and the female vocal quartet Rosy Voices. But the shapes and colors evoked on this CD are not, sonically, all that different from ones created by other composers of electronic music – ones who do not have, or need, the degree in Computer Science with Mathematics that Ball possesses. The second CD here, which includes three much longer works called Galaxy (numbered 01, 02 and 03 and dedicated to the memories of singer-songwriter Syd Barrett, bass guitarist Hugh Hopper and composer György Ligeti), is more interesting than the first, at least intellectually, because it expands the concept of five-minute individualized electronic portraits (as heard on the first disc) into much more elaborate forms (all lasting virtually the same amount of time: a few seconds over 20 minutes). Listening to the entire second CD at one time can be something of a chore: it is packed with aural material that can be somewhat overwhelming in a 20-minute dose, much less three of them. But those who find the permutations and combinations of Ball’s Method Music intriguing will be enthralled by the way they are used here, although neither Ball’s work nor this particular sampling of it will by any means be to all tastes.

January 12, 2012


882½ Amazing Answers to Your Questions about the Titanic. By Hugh Brewster and Laurie Coulter. Paintings by Ken Marschall. Scholastic/Madison Press. $9.99.

Dear Dumb Diary, Year Two: School. Hasn’t This Gone On Long Enough? By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.

How Do Dinosaurs Eat Cookies? By Jane Yolen & Mark Teague. Recipes by Heidi E.Y. Stemple. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $7.99.

     The questions posed in book titles may be there to elicit genuine answers, as in one of these works; they may be purely rhetorical, as in another; or they may be part of a longstanding title pattern, connecting something new in a series with what has gone before – as in the third. 882½ Amazing Answers to Your Questions about the Titanic is so named because the doomed liner was 882½ feet long (and that is the answer to the first question). Some of the answers really are pretty amazing, because they go well beyond the basic facts already known to many young readers – that the supposedly unsinkable ship struck an iceberg during its maiden voyage and sank, with considerable loss of life. For example, readers will find out here that although the Titanic was the world’s largest ship in 1912, a larger liner was built the next year, and some of today’s huge cruise ships are twice the size of the Titanic. Some question-and-answer entries debunk myths about the ship – for example, no one was sealed inside the hull by mistake, and no one painted “we defy God to sink her” on the stern. There are explanations of why the ship was considered unsinkable (because of a design using multiple watertight compartments), how long it took to launch it (62 seconds), why it carried dragon’s blood (which turns out to be the sap from a certain palm tree), how many crew members it carried (892 – although elsewhere in the book, in one of the work’s few flaws, the number is given as 899), and what animals other than dogs were brought aboard (two roosters and two hens). There is plenty of fascinating information as well about how the fatal collision occurred and what happened to those on board: 23 women worked on the Titanic and 20 were rescued; the first-class passengers had combined wealth equal to $9.8 billion in today’s money; one boy was almost denied entry to a lifeboat because he was wearing a hat that made him look older than he was; the ship’s lights stayed on until two minutes before it sank. Other questions deal with passenger rescues and recovery of bodies (with watches stopped between 2:00 and 2:20 a.m.), and then there is this: “Have any lives been lost due to ice in the North Atlantic since the Titanic disaster? No.” Hugh Brewster and Laurie Coulter carry the story of the Titanic into modern times, up to and past the discovery of the wreckage in 1985; and the book’s illustrations, which range from period photos to well-designed paintings by Ken Marschall, are highly evocative. The final “half question” of the book is whether people will always be fascinated by the story of the Titanic – an unanswerable but perfectly reasonable query.

     Middle-schooler Jamie Kelly’s question about whether school has gone on long enough is equally unanswerable, but there is nothing serious about this book – any more than there was about the first 12 in Jim Benton’s ongoing “Tales of Mackerel Middle School.” This may be “Year Two” of the school for Jamie, but she is still, well, Jamie, which means she starts out by warning readers not to read her “dumb diary,” then packs all the pages with a mixture of self-indulgent writing and highly amusing drawings (example: three “hideous math faces” followed by three “gorgeous language arts faces,” just to be sure you know which subject she likes and which she doesn’t). Jamie may have grown a bit older, but she has not grown a bit up; not a bit. She is still jealous of too-beautiful-to-be-real and too-good-to-be-true Angeline, to whom Jamie is now sort of related because Jamie’s Aunt Carol has married Angeline’s Uncle Dan. True, Jamie is now sufficiently self-aware to say of Angeline, “I think I would like her more if she was less likable to others.” But no fear: she is not so mature as to stop being unreasonable. Jamie also still has Isabella as a best friend, and Isabella is as cantankerous and generally difficult as ever – Jamie says her friend’s parents have received “all the Five Known Types of Letters Home” from school, the fifth of which is, “Your child is trouble.” Missing this year is Emmily, who was “not the sharpest knife in the drawer” or even “the sharpest spoon in the drawer. Most of the time, Emmily wasn’t even in the drawer at all. She was lost somewhere in the bottom of the dishwasher.” But Jamie does hear from her – and learns that Emmily is doing better in math than Jamie is. Now there’s a scary thought. So Jamie realizes she must do battle with math, and that is the main theme of the book – which also provides plenty of chances for Jamie to imagine (and draw) things that she would like to see, such as popped produce, on the basis that if there can be both corn and popcorn, there can also be popbroccoli, popcarrots and popwatermelon. Jamie, a year older, is no wiser, or not much wiser, and that bodes well for her continuing saga.

     The How Do Dinosaurs books by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague are a saga of their own, coming in multiple formats and designs. And now there is something new in the latest of them, How Do Dinosaurs Eat Cookies? The usual approach of the books has Yolen writing, in the first part of each one, the various things that dinosaurs (stand-ins for the young readers at whom the books are aimed) shouldn’t do…and then, in the second part, the things that they should do. Not this time: the yes and no elements are given on the same page, and for a very good reason. This is a short book, with only 14 pages, including the front and back inside covers – and it is packed not only with things to do and not do but also with scratch-and-sniff illustrations and two full pages of cookie recipes. That’s a lot of material in a little bit of space. On a single right-hand page, for example, Yolen writes, “Does a dinosaur baking just make a big mess, and splatter the batter on Mother’s clean dress? No – a dinosaur stirs with the greatest of care. She adds in some cinnamon just for the flair.” On the same page, below the text, is a dinosaur-shaped scratch-and-sniff panel that smells like cinnamon. And on the facing, left-hand page is one of Mark Teague’s usual, wonderful portrayals of a realistic-looking dinosaur (in this case a nothosaurus) acting like a not-very-well-behaved human child. Short the book may be, but seeing a caudipteryx carrying chocolate chips (the bag is sniffable) or a silvasaurus rushing to get a lemon cookie (which smells lemony) leaves no doubt that this book fits right into the delightful Yolen/Teague series very well indeed. The two recipes at the back of the book, for “Cinnama-Saurus Rex” and “Fossilized Lemon Tracks,” are easy to follow (with adult supervision) and make delicious, simple cookies that will make the book even more fun to re-read, as modern dinosaurs are sure to want to do.