September 27, 2012
The Giant and How He Humbugged America. By Jim Murphy. Scholastic. $19.99.
Jangles: A BIG Fish Story. By David Shannon. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $17.99.
Tales of Famous Animals. By Peter and Connie Roop. Illustrated by Zachary Pullen. Scholastic. $17.99.
Almost forgotten today but one of the most revealing stories about the mid-19th-century United States, the tale of the Cardiff Giant is wonderfully retold by Jim Murphy in a book that is part history and part slice-of-a-very-different-life. It is a story of the days after the Civil War, a time when people were hungry for diversion and trying to digest such upheavals as the theory of evolution and the possibility of suffrage being extended to African Americans. The year was 1869, the date October 16, when a mysterious 10-foot-tall likeness of a man was dug up on a farm in the small town of Cardiff, New York. Was it a petrified human, firm evidence of the truth of Biblical stories such as the one about David and the giant Goliath? Could it be an ancient member of the Onondaga tribe? Was it a statue? Did it relate somehow to other discoveries of the century, such as the Great Zeuglodon, a supposed sea monster whose bones were put on display in 1845? What did it mean? It turns out that, for a few years, it meant considerable attention to a small farming community and a not-inconsiderable amount of money for various people involved in the discovery, excavation and display of the Cardiff Giant. And it turns out that it was, in the terminology of the time, a humbug – a statue, yes, but not an ancient one. It was manufactured purely to fool people and make money, and it was such a big attraction for a time that none other than P.T. Barnum tried to buy it for display – and, when he failed, made a duplicate statue and put that one on display, actually pulling in more visitors than did the original Cardiff Giant when the two statues were in competition in New York City. This is fascinating stuff, sometimes funny and sometimes sad, always enthralling and always indicative of how different 19th-century America was from the nation today – and how similar it was, too, with people hungry for the marvelous, the outré, for celebrities and wonders and any possible distraction from humdrum and difficult everyday life. Excellent pictures of the Cardiff Giant, of advertisements and handbills of the time, of other “wonders” (such as Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid” and General Tom Thumb), enliven a story that is plenty lively already, while pictures of the perpetrators of the fraud and of others caught up in it humanize a tale that could otherwise become a dry recitation of long-ago historical events. The characters are fascinating, particularly George Hull, the man at the center of the fraud, who “was in many ways a common criminal, but he was also clever and reasonably well-read,” having studied Darwin’s theory of evolution and read about fossils and geology. And Hull perpetrated the fraud around the time that Barnum, seeking to publicize his “mermaid” and draw in the crowds, “wrote a series of bogus letters to New York City newspapers” – which the papers printed – and then hired a friend to pretend to be a learned scientist with knowledge of mermaids (the papers ate that up, too). The United States was in a time of painful transition, with people unsure what to believe in and hungering for the latest scientific information in terms they could understand – as willing to believe in marvels then as in the importance of the thoughts of reality-show contestants today. In some ways, the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same. But in others, the tale of the Cardiff Giant could only have happened when it did and where it did. Young readers and adults alike will be captivated by Murphy’s expert time travel to an earlier era that may have been more innocent in some ways but in others was just as confused as our own.
Speaking of big things and hoaxes, anglers are famous for their tales of “the big one that got away,” and that is the basis of Jangles, a story of a big one – a really big one – that didn’t quite get away. A pleasantly written and nicely illustrated fairy tale about a boy, a fishing rod and a gigantic fish whose name comes from the huge number of “shiny metal lures and rusty old fishhooks of all shapes and sizes” in his jaw that “clinked and clattered as he swam,” David Shannon’s book starts as a mere “fish tale”: Jangles eats eagles that perch on trees near the lake, but once saved a baby that fell into the lake from a canoe – typical farfetched folk-tale elements. But then the narrator, an adult telling his son the story of what happened to him when he was a boy, talks about his personal connection with Jangles, which he says involved actually hooking the fish and being pulled to the bottom of the lake for a conversation: “His voice was so low and soothing that it seemed perfectly natural that this fish was talking, so I wasn’t afraid at all.” Jangles tells the boy “amazing, wonderful stories” before letting him go. But then the boy turns on Jangles and captures him – and then the boy realizes that it would be wrong not to let Jangles go back to his own way of life. So the boy lets him go and even does Jangles a favor – which results in the boy having “proof” that he shows his son at the end of the book. But it is exactly the sort of “proof” that proves nothing and returns the whole tale to the realm of fantastic “fish story,” where it began. And a most delightful fish story it is.
Tales of Famous Animals is neither pure fact nor pure fiction – it has elements of both, although the facts dominate. In these 17 stories, the animals themselves are real: Alexander the Great’s horse, Bucephalus; Seaman, the Newfoundland that accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition; Old Abe, a bald eagle mascot during the Civil War; Pelorus Jack, a dolphin that guided a number of ships to safety near New Zealand; Mrs. Chippy, a cat the accompanied the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic and turned out to be a male; and others. The animals’ exploits, though, are sometimes clouded by myth, particularly in the case of the long-ago stories. Nevertheless, Peter and Connie Roop tell the tales with relish and with as much attention to known facts as possible. The grand events through which the animals lived are often less interesting here than the small details – such as the fact that Old Abe the eagle had his picture taken (a rare event at the time) and then autographed his photos by piercing them with his beak, and the time that Theodore Roosevelt’s son Quentin brought three snakes into the Oval Office during a presidential meeting. Young readers may already know some of these stories, such as the ones about Balto the sled dog and Seabiscuit the racehorse, which have been made into movies. Other tales have been eclipsed by events, such as that of Lonesome George, the giant Galápagos tortoise, who recently died. But there is plenty to learn and plenty to enjoy here – although Zachary Pullen’s oil-on-linen illustrations are not as successful as the Roops’ text, giving an air of inappropriate unreality to some scenes. Pullen’s style makes sense in the case of the fictional Smokey Bear, shown with a photo backdrop of a forest (although the Roops make an error here in the words of the “Smokey the Bear” song). But the illustrations-in-front-of-photos for Andre the harbor seal and the pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing are much less successful, lending an unfortunate appearance of fiction to real events and animals. Nevertheless, there is so much interesting material here about so many fascinating animals – and the humans with whom they interacted – that readers will find themselves captivated by the stories of some of the many amazing creatures with whom people share the planet.
Where’s Ellie? By Salina Yoon. Robin Corey Books. $6.99.
Mine! By Shutta Crum. Pictures by Patrice Barton. Knopf. $6.99.
Dinosaurs! By Matthew Reinhart. Robin Corey Books. $6.99.
A Princess Like Me. By Matthew Reinhart. Robin Corey Books. $6.99.
Monkey Play. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Illustrated by Ariel Pang. Random House. $3.99.
Fox and Crow Are NOT Friends. By Melissa Wiley. Illustrated by Sebastien Braun. Random House. $3.99.
Wedgieman: A Hero Is Born. By Charise Mericle Harper. Illustrated by Bob Shea. Random House. $3.99.
The cleverness that goes into creating attractive books for the youngest children changes form as books are developed for kids learning to read for themselves. But pictures continue to play a big part in all the best early-reading books. Board books such as Where’s Ellie? and Mine! are essentially all pictorial, but they are also very clever in design – Salina Yoon’s book particularly so. Ellie is an elephant, and the book’s cover shows her body, with her trunk appearing on the last page – visible because of a semicircular cutout in all the pages. The fun here comes from seeing things that look as if they have Ellie’s trunk but really do not. Is Ellie hiding behind a plant? No, that is a teapot whose spout looks like her trunk. Is she behind the flowers? No, that is a garden hose the same color and shape as her trunk. Could she be behind a cactus? No, that is a hat whose turned-up gray brim looks a bit like Ellie’s trunk. Eventually Ellie is found, and kids will likely go along with the final-page suggestion, “Let’s play again!”
Mine! is a longer and more straightforwardly designed board book, with more of a story and fewer words – in fact, only one: “Mine!” This is a toddler-playdate book in which one friend says “Mine, mine, mine,” picking up everything, then dropping everything, and then getting into a delightful splashing contest that involves the dog’s water bowl, the dog itself, and the fun of getting toys and socks and pretty much everything that is movable really wet. There is no harm done, though, and the dog has a great time, too, wandering around on a route shown by a dotted line like the one from The Family Circus newspaper comic. Eventually the toddlers’ moms, seen only from the legs down, show up to disentangle their little ones from all the wet toys, while the toddlers themselves smile happily at the mess in a show of camaraderie that will likely have kids insisting on reading the book again – and again.
Two books by Matthew Reinhart go somewhat beyond the board-book stage, but design is important for them, too: there is “a pop-up on every page!” – as both covers proclaim. The pop-ups, pull tabs and lift-the-flaps here are too delicate for the youngest readers, and some are slightly complex: in the dinosaur book, an arrow shows where to pull on the picture of a tree to reveal an Apatosaurus walking and eating, while a cloud must be pulled down to show a flying Pteranodon. Reinhart does quite a fine job of creating 3D sculptures: pulling the tail of a Tyrannosaurs rex causes its tooth-filled mouth to open and shut, while pulling the head of an Ankylosaurus on the next page causes its tail to strike out at the would-be predator. The princess book is considerably milder but just as much fun in its own way. The princess wakes up in a huge 3D bed, with a big stretch, and kids get to open a jewel box to reveal her crown, pull a stable door to discover her pet unicorn, pull down the hem of her party dress to show how fancy it really is and how elegantly her hair is made up, and finally open a page to show the whole front of the castle and 10 other princesses, all lined up for a royal tea party. Both of Reinhart’s books also include pages to color – they are a very clever combination of design elements with simple, entertaining and well-presented stories.
For kids a bit older than the very youngest, the “Step into Reading” series offers books that are more traditional in appearance and structure, driven by story and intended to help children actually learn to read on their own. Monkey Play is a Step 1 (“Ready to Read”) book for preschoolers and kindergartners, while Fox and Crow Are NOT Friends and Wedgieman: A Hero Is Born are Step 3 (“Reading on Your Own”) books for grades 1-3. Well-told stories and attractive illustrations are a must for success in books of this kind, and all three of these have them. Monkey Play features three mischief-making monkeys at an outdoor bazaar, playing and hiding and dressing up “in shiny hats and sparkly shoes,” then eating a banana pie and coconut shake, then visiting a tent filled with other animals such as cows, goats and parrots. Slightly exotic-looking drawings, a simple rhyming story and sentences in large print make the book fun to look at as well as to read. The Step 3 books are, of course, more complex. Fox and Crow Are NOT Friends, which is tied very loosely to Aesop’s fables, has the two title characters playing tricks on each other until Mama Bear, from whom both have been taking food, catches the two of them and puts them to work making cheese. Wedgieman: A Hero Is Born starts with Veggiebaby making “broccoli bears, tomato tigers, spinach spiders, and even giant green-bean gorillas,” then growing into Veggieboy and having difficulty mastering his superpowers (among other things, he finds out that he can’t shape-shift, no matter how hard he tries, except to turn into vegetables). Eventually he grows up and gets named Wedgieman because of a misunderstanding that turns out to provide a very amusing twist ending. Light-years past the “see spot run” early readers of the past, books such as Monkey Play, Fox and Crow Are NOT Friends, and Wedgieman: A Hero Is Born entice young readers into the enjoyment of books through bright and funny storytelling and amusing illustrations, deftly preparing them to read more-complex works as they continue further into, one hopes, a lifelong love of reading.
Junie B., First Grader: Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten (and Other Thankful Stuff). By Barbara Park. Illustrated by Denise Brunkus. Random House. $11.99.
Capital Mysteries 14: Turkey Trouble on the National Mall. By Ron Roy. Illustrated by Timothy Bush. Random House. $4.99.
Zigzag Kids No. 6: Super Surprise. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Illustrated by Alasdair Bright. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.
The Ring of Five No. 3: The Ghost Roads. By Eoin McNamee. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.99.
Emily and Jackson Hiding Out. By Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Delacorte Press. $14.99.
The Mourning Emporium. By Michelle Lovric. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
Ongoing sequences of books for young readers that feature the same characters tend to be reliable for publishers and families alike: everyone knows pretty much what to expect and everyone gets pretty much that, neither more nor less. This almost invariably leads to formulaic writing and formulaic plots – fine for readers who want even more of what they are already familiar with, but not particularly interesting for anyone looking for something new. There are exceptions, though, and one of them is the long-running Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park, with illustrations by Denise Brunkus. Junie B. is such an endearing character, her foibles so nicely expressed in a wide variety of settings (and, now that she has made it from kindergarten to first grade, in a somewhat more advanced academic environment), that each new book about her offers new enjoyment. And readers can pick up and enjoy each of them individually – yes, it helps to have some background on Junie B. and her family and friends, but no, it is not absolutely necessary. So Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten (and Other Thankful Stuff) is yet another delight in a long line of them. This first new Junie B. book in five years has all the hallmarks that continue to make the series so much fun. The plot involves a Thankful Contest at Junie B.’s school, where the class decides it is thankful for such items as exploding biscuits and toilet paper – and where Junie B. discovers that a pilgrim costume is uncomfortable and pumpkin pie is yucky. Among other things, Junie B. names foods, but when she encounters some she does not like, she remarks that “deep breathing does not work that good when you are smelling stink” – a typical Junie B. comment that shows how Park and Brunkus keep the series consistent but fresh. Eventually and inevitably, everything works out fine and everyone is happy and celebratory; and of course it is clear from the start that this will happen; and of course it does not matter, because the way Park and Brunkus make it happen is the joy of the Junie B. books.
Other series books, such as Turkey Trouble on the National Mall and Super Surprise, get (+++) ratings for existing series fans. There is not much to these books, which are short and easy to read, featuring recurring characters without very distinctive personalities and events that are mildly amusing and slightly interesting – enough to encourage early readers to stay with the series, and not much more. In Turkey Trouble on the National Mall, friends KC and Marshall gather 117 turkeys before Thanksgiving to get them all pardoned by the President, who traditionally pardons only one. But the turkeys disappear the night before the pardoning is scheduled, leaving the fourth-grade friends to solve the mystery, with a little help from two FBI agents and, at the end, some personal time with the President. In Super Surprise, the perfectly ethnically and physically balanced Zigzag Kids (who are all grouped in the Zigzag Afternoon Center) engage in a plan to save Destiny Washington’s favorite teacher, Ms. Katz, after they hear that she may have to leave the school. Destiny – this book’s leader; the various kids all get turns in this series – turns out to be mistaken, but when she finds out what is really going on, she comes to the rescue again and, of course, everything ends happily. There is not much to the Capital Mysteries and Zigzag Kids series, but the new ones are easy-to-follow, easy-to-read, pleasant diversions for kids who already enjoy the sequences.
For slightly older readers, series tend not to be open-ended but to come in specific groups, the most common being trilogies – such as The Ring of Five, which began with the eponymous novel, continued with The Unknown Spy and now concludes with The Ghost Roads. Eoin McNamee has wound things up to fever pitch with a large number of uncertainties and worries for protagonist Danny Caulfield, and now he needs to unwind them, reveal true identities, make sure that Danny not only succeeds but also grows, reconcile the Upper and Lower Worlds, and finally dispose of the Ring of Five and its evil leader, Ambrose Longford. McNamee, who has written thrillers for adults, knows how to handle suspense for younger readers as well. Longford convinces authorities that Danny is a threat to both Upper and Lower Worlds; Danny has to travel the roads of the book’s title to get back to Wilson’s Academy of the Devious Arts, the spy school; he finds a resistance group founded by his parents; and he sails on a strange river that passes through both worlds. McNamee brings in new characters while also having old ones reappear, some of them surprisingly; and there are, not surprisingly at all, betrayals and double-crosses galore, through all of which Danny remains steadfast and as pure a “good guy” as readers of the series would wish. The ending effectively knits all the threads together and will certainly please readers who have stayed with the books from the start. As a standalone novel, the book gets a (+++) rating: it is hard to follow without having read the previous parts of the trilogy, although McNamee does make some effort to explain elements of what is going on. And the plot twists, while surprising in themselves, are simply what anyone would expect in a story about spies, counterspies, plots, counterplots, and the usual youth-grows-up underpinning of the adventure.
Some authors of books for preteens, instead of creating multi-book series, produce “companion” books, second volumes that go with and expand on earlier ones without actually growing into full-fledged sequels or inviting extended sequences of novels. Emily and Jackson Hiding Out and The Mourning Emporium, both of them focused on orphans in peril, are books of this type. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Emily’s Fortune was about Emily, Jackson, and the nefarious Catchum Child Catchers, who did not catch the two protagonists but came mighty close. Eventually Emily and Jackson made it to safety at Redbud, and Emily got her inheritance, and everything seemed just fine, except that tiger-tattooed Uncle Victor was still out there somewhere, as determined as ever to steal Emily’s fortune. In the new book, Aunt Hilda becomes Emily’s legal guardian and offers to become Jackson’s, too, and the child catchers reappear (of course), and so does Uncle Victor (of course), and the perils-of-Pauline language continues to make the book enjoyable to read and impossible to take completely seriously: how seriously can one take a bad guy who calls the children “musty maggots”? Emily and Jackson Hiding Out really is fun, especially its end-of-chapter cliffhangers: “What in the dabble dooby did Jackson have in mind?” “And what in a duck’s dimple do you think happened next?” “But how in flyin’ fishes could anybody know for sure?” All ends happily, of course, and apparently conclusively this time; and the book, which gets (++++) for readers of the first volume and (+++) for anyone coming to it without knowing what occurred before, is certainly a cut above traditional sequels, whether they are called “companions” or something else.
The Mourning Emporium is a more-straightforward example of a companion novel, in this case to Michelle Lovric’s debut book for young readers, The Undrowned Child. But the development of the story is anything but straightforward. The new novel is, like its predecessor, an alternative-history book, set in 1900, as Queen Victoria is dying and a pretender to the throne is threatening the entire British monarchy. Characters from the earlier book reappear – it is really necessary to know the earlier novel to get the full flavor of this one – with the traitorous Bajamonte Tiepolo now spreading his evil magic beyond Venice, which he tried to destroy in the earlier book. Set two years later than the previous novel, The Mourning Emporium requires Teo and Renzo to save not one city but two this time – Venice and London – and to contend with ruthless predators both human (Miss Uish, who runs a floating orphanage for boys, as well as Tiepolo) and animal (a giant squid). The atmospherics are a big part of Lovric’s writing: “deep, liquid-seeming misery,” a prison that is “brooding, malignant and windowless,” created words such as “rhapsodomancy,” concepts such as “between-the-Linings,” characters such as Ghost-Convicts and Incogniti, the Half-Dead disease, exclamations such as “starve the lizards” and “pigs’ ribs” – all these descriptions and bits of dialogue successfully, if in a somewhat overdone way, create the alternative world of magic and history laid atop a typical good-vs.-evil plot. It is hard not to enjoy lines such as, “She pulled a fishskin out of her pinafore and launched it into the thick of the thrashing heap of Ghost-Convicts, who were still struggling to rise to their feet but were perpetually tripped up by the fat animals.” Still, the setting will seem over-elaborate to anyone not already enamored of Lovric’s world-creation in The Undrowned Child, and the (+++) companion book on its own is a touch too complex and clever for its own good – although undeniably out of the ordinary. A concluding section called “What is true, and what’s made up?” is more than an appendix: it is genuinely fascinating to find out how Lovric picked and chose bits of history and patched them together with entirely fictional elements to create the world of The Mourning Emporium and its predecessor. How many authors would find a way to use a recipe for Antispasmodic Tea from a cookbook published in 1852? Lovric is very clever, perhaps even overly so. Her two books about Teo and Renzo will appeal to preteen readers looking for something with offbeat settings and language that is built on a reasonably straightforward good-guys-against-bad-guys foundation.
Bloodstar, Book One: Star Corpsman. By Ian Douglas. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
The Crown of Embers. By Rae Carson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
The distinctions among science fiction, science fantasy, high fantasy, heroic fantasy and other genres-within-genres have become increasingly blurry, as writers feel freer than in the past to pick and choose among forms and formats in order to create books that they think readers will find appealing. Book covers and descriptions tend to push readers in one particular direction or another, but actually reading the books can lead to some confusion about what sort of novel a reader actually has in hand. Star Corpsman, for example, seems on the face of it to be military-style science fiction in the Robert Heinlein mode, and it reads that way, too, stylistically speaking. It is blunter than Heinlein’s work and has more references to sexuality – allowable now, but not in Heinlein’s heyday – but the basic story is Heinleinesque throughout: powerful, loyal space marines head for a hellish, nearly uninhabitable world where religious fanatics from Earth have settled, to head off an invasion by evil, impossible-to-understand warrior aliens called Qesh. In fact, the basic plot is almost laughably old-fashioned, as are some of the specifics of this supposed 23rd-century story, such as the use of the “Encyclopedia Galactica” for information, as if the term “encyclopedia” is likely to have any currency hundreds of years from now. The military slang is decidedly 20th- and 21st-century, too, from SNAFU to “you’re on report.” And the basics of narrator/protagonist Elliot Carlyle are old-fashioned as well: young medic who loses the woman he loves to a medical condition is determined to prove himself – to himself and his father – through Fleet Marine Force training and extraterrestrial heroics. Oh – and his decisions may affect the future of Earth itself, of course. Ian Douglas (pseudonym of William H. Keith, Jr.) writes space-opera potboilers like this rather well – certainly the action rarely flags and there is no time for characterization, descriptive passages or any particular insights by or about the characters. And Douglas throws around military-style terminology with aplomb while trying to convince readers that, yes, this really is the future, as when Carlyle mentions that he is not very religious: “So far as I was concerned, I’d live the usual three or four hundred years, then die, and then I’d find out what happened next.” But it is precisely comments like this that show Star Corpsman, the first book of a planned trilogy, to be fantasy rather than science fiction. Comments about a starship that “accelerated under Plottel Drive…seeking the flat metric required by the astrogation department…[that] allowed us to switch on the Alcubierre Drive” are less grounded in scientific reality than the concepts of, say, J.R.R. Tolkien. In fact, the whole notion of invasions by evil aliens (formerly called BEMs for “bug-eyed monsters) across uncountable light years is the stuff of fantasy – for decades, science-fiction writers have been aware that the resource needs would make interstellar war impossible. What Douglas wants to do, though, is to throw some excitement around in a somewhat exotic setting, presenting plenty of chances for derring-do and a touch of surface-level self-discovery here and there. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this – the original Star Wars movie did the same thing quite brilliantly, although Star Corpsman is no “Star Warsman.” In any case, for those seeking science fiction, this is not it. If it matters.
The exotic nature of events and characters in The Crown of Embers, in contrast, does place the book in the realm of fantasy. But where in the fantasy genre does it fit? Rae Carson’s novel is the sequel to her debut book, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which opened a trilogy centered on now-17-year-old Elisa, who has become queen through the power of the Godstone but, in the second book, must find out where that power comes from so she can defeat the many enemies that remain despite her first-book triumph over an evil sorcerous army. In the first book, Elisa overcame the feeling of being always in the shadow of her older sister, found out that she was chosen to rule by prophecy (an overdone cliché in fantasy nowadays), and came under the sway of a dashing revolutionary who awakened new feelings in Elisa’s heart – turning that first book into something of a romance novel as well something of heroic fantasy. The Crown of Embers continues along the same lines, and still uses dialogue that sounds as if it belongs in a 21st-century romance book rather than in the quasi-medieval setting of this trilogy: “I have everything set to rights.” “I hate myself right now.” “Perhaps it is the price of ruling.” “I’ll think about it.” The ordinariness of the verbiage jars against a story that is intended to have elements of both the exotic and the romantic, as Elisa unwillingly learns self-defense, comes heroically to the rescue during an attack by mercenaries, and learns from a banned manuscript that the information she seeks in order to rule and defend her people may be available across the ocean – after, of course, a perilous journey. A little bit of humor, of awareness on the author’s part that she is treading well-trod pathways in this story, would have gone a long way toward giving The Crown of Embers a more-distinctive touch. But Carson takes the whole adventure entirely seriously, even when putting together the completely obvious companions that Elisa will take on her ocean journey (they include a one-eyed warrior, a defector and the man she has been falling in love with). Carson does allow Elisa to get an occasional clever idea, as when she entices a ship’s captain to help by promising to appoint a particular Royal Vintner. By and large, though, Elisa is just as heroic and just as fully engaged in a journey of maturation and self-discovery as many other protagonists of fantasies, romances and fantasy-romances – no less involved, certainly, but no more. “I have channeled this power before,” Elisa tells herself near the book’s climax. “I can do this.” And so she can, ending up with “power beyond imagining” but still feeling “like a hollow shell of a girl” – since sacrifice, responsibility and fear have all been elements of the price of that power, and since there is still one more book of the trilogy to go, with additional troubles, betrayals and romantic entanglements promised by this novel’s particularly inconclusive conclusion.
Johann Friedrich Fasch: Orchestral Works, Volume 3—Ouvertures in D and F; Recorder Concerto in F; Concerto in D; Lute Concerto in D minor; Konzertsatz in F. Tempesta di Mare—Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra. Chaconne/Chandos. $18.99.
Haydn: Piano Sonatas, Volume 4—Nos. 30, 38 and 40; Variations in F minor. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano. Chandos. $18.99.
Handel: Opera Arias. Karina Gauvin, soprano; Arion Orchestre Baroque conducted by Alexander Weimann. ATMA Classique. $16.99.
Kaj-Erik Gustafsson: Missa Brevis for accordion; Ahti Sonninen: Hymns of Zion for cello and accordion; Tapio Nevanlinna: Hug; Petri Makkonen: Chorale prelude; Haydn: Sonata No. VII from “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross”; Mozart: Adagio in B minor, KV 540. Matti Rantanen, accordion; Marko Ylönen, cello. SibaRecords. $18.99 (SACD).
There are many ways of looking in a rearview mirror in terms of classical compositions. One involves exploring centuries-old music that has fallen out of favor or is otherwise unfamiliar today. That is what the excellent-sounding but rather awkwardly named Tempesta di Mare—Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra is doing in its series of recordings of orchestral works by Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758). On the latest disc, the piece called a concerto and the two labeled “ouverture” more closely resemble Classical-era symphonies (early ones) than they do Vivaldi-style virtuoso concertos. The Vivaldian approach is clearer in the concertos for recorder and lute, with the latter being especially interesting for its effective use of a minor key. Fasch was highly respected in his time – notably by Bach, who owned copies of six Fasch orchestral suites and arranged a Fasch piano trio for organ. But Fasch’s music is quite unlike that of Bach or Vivaldi. Those Baroque composers favored a certain austerity in style and a general coolness in themes and organization, exemplified above all by the fugue. Not so Fasch, whose music starts to move away from the Baroque model toward the Classical, with greater thematic development and frequently more interesting orchestral color than is generally found in the Baroque. All the works here, including a brief Konzertsatz that ends the disc, are solid and well-constructed, elegantly and carefully crafted, and all flow very well. Except for the recorder and lute concertos, all these works are world première recordings: for all its popularity in its time, Fasch’s music is almost unknown today.
Not so the music of Haydn, through whom views of the past are much more common. Yet Haydn is known primarily as a symphonist and for his late, great oratorios – not for his piano sonatas, which pale beside those of Mozart but whose poise, balance and elegance make them well worth rediscovering. The fourth volume of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s very well-played survey of Haydn’s sonatas continues to show the many beauties of these works, despite their relatively modest technical requirements (Haydn, unlike Mozart, was not a piano virtuoso). Haydn tends to adhere more rigidly to formal sonata structure than Mozart did, but Bavouzet nevertheless manages to give each sonata as much individual character as possible. All three here are in major keys: No. 30 in D, No. 38 in F and No. 40 in E-flat. The Variations in F minor are interesting not only for their use of the minor key but also for their somewhat more virtuosic treatment of the instrument. In fact, the variations exist in two versions, both offered here: the second, which was never published, includes a short cadenza, and listeners interested in Haydn’s original conception of this work can simply program their CD players to have the unpublished track appear at the appropriate place in the music. As in his earlier Haydn volumes, Bavouzet seems to enjoy playing these sonatas, especially their energetic finales, and the CD conveys a satisfying impression of music-making for the sake of pleasure, without the need or intention of plumbing any particular emotional depths.
This is not to say that music of Haydn’s time lacked emotion – far from it. It is there in plenty in Karina Gauvin’s CD of 10 Handel arias (plus one by Vivaldi and one by Leonardo Vinci [1696-1730]). The disc is entitled “Prima Donna,” but the implications of a high-strung and demanding lead singer are nowhere in evidence here: Gauvin has an unusually even voice, with little sense of strain in any register, even the highest. And she seems quite as comfortable singing forte as in a delicate pianissimo. It is interesting that she is increasingly focusing on Baroque music, since her vocal abilities would seem to fit bel canto very well indeed – but she also has a sure sense of Baroque style, and seems very comfortable with the generally rigid structure of these arias and the opportunities afforded during repeats to decorate and vary the music. Four selections here are from Alcina, two from Orlando, and one each from Lotario, Sosarme, Flavio and Atalanta. There are also three Handel instrumental works to break up the vocal offerings: the Lotario overture and two Adagio movements from concerti grossi (Op. 3, No. 1 and Op. 6, No. 8). Like any collection of this type, the CD will be of most interest to listeners who want to hear the singer rather than to those primarily interested in the operas – of which it is not possible to get any significant sense from these brief excerpts. Of course, in Handel’s time, opera action was carried forward in recitatives, with arias reserved for expressing emotion and commenting on events, so in a sense, little is lost by hearing these pieces out of context. In any case, Gauvin’s voice is lovely, she uses it well, and this CD makes a visit to the past very enjoyable indeed.
Sometimes, though, the way one looks at the past is by reinterpreting it for today, and that is what is happening on a very unusual SibaRecords SACD featuring the accordion. Classical music and the accordion would seem ill-suited to each other, but in fact the instrument is significant for modern composers in some countries, notably in Scandinavia. Most pieces on this disc come from Finland, and the works are mostly reconsiderations of some very old religious themes often used by composers in the past. The focus on religion is quite deliberate here: the 2005 Missa Brevis by Gustafsson (born 1942) is the first Mass ever written for accordion. It was only in the 1970s that parishes in Finland started allowing accordion players to perform in churches – the instruments were considered sinful, even devilish, in the 19th century and beyond. Their modern use in churches is interesting, since church acoustics lend the accordion more depth and fullness than it otherwise has. The religious theme of Gustaffson’s work carries through as well in Hymns of Zion (1979) by Sonninen (1914-1984), while the old-fashioned Chorale prelude (2005) by Makkonen (born 1967) looks back toward the past in a somewhat different way. Hug (2002) by Nevanlinna (born 1954) is a more overtly modern and secular work, but then, Mozart’s Adagio in B minor is secular as well – although the feelings it evokes can certainly be considered spiritual. This piece – and Haydn’s very strongly religious Sonata No. VII from “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross” – are in some ways the oddest works here, because they were never intended for accordion. Yet Matti Rantanen makes a strong case for the accordion even here: these genuinely old pieces do sound strange at first, but within a few notes, Rantanen’s fine playing and his ability to express emotion with his instrument become engaging, then enthralling. The result is a disc throughout which the past speaks quite eloquently, if in a somewhat unusual way, to and with the present.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Sibelius: Symphony No. 5. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.
Britten: Nocturne; Mozart: Symphony No. 40; Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3—Adagio and Scherzo. Peter Pears, tenor; English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.
Classical Music and Cold War: Musicians in the GDR—A Film by Thomas Zintl. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.
Giants in their fields and in their time, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) were both composer-conductors, with Bernstein far better known on the podium and Britten far more so in composition. Two new ICA Classics videos give 21st-century music lovers a chance to see as well as hear these major musical figures, and each video has fascinating elements for those interested in exploring two central figures in 20th-century classical music. Videos of classical concerts are rarely revelatory and rarely of more interest than audio recordings of the same music, but the Bernstein DVD is an exception, since Bernstein was known as much for his podium performances – some called them antics – as for the music that resulted. These November 1966 performances were the British public’s first significant introduction to Bernstein, and it is interesting to see the reactions to him by some audience members, who clearly find his over-the-top podium activity surprising. Bernstein literally threw himself into music, moving around constantly and perspiring so much that he seemed to lose several pounds of water weight by the end of a concert. In some works, his approach paid enormous dividends: The Rite of Spring is absolutely splendid, with tremendous rhythmic bite and intensity and remarkable balance between the overall flow of the ballet music and the close attention to the details of the individual sections. In other pieces, Bernstein overdid things: his fondness for emotion-driven, unwritten tempo changes was well known, and his emotive approach could blur the structure of carefully assembled music – Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 being a case in point. Bernstein keeps the music restless, and his many tempo alterations make it seem far more disjointed than it usually does (or should). There is little majesty in the “flight of cranes” theme of the finale, with Bernstein seeking the propulsive and exciting rather than the expansive. The very end of the symphony is certainly impressive, the difficult off-beat chords counted just right and given enormous strength by the London Symphony Orchestra’s spot-on playing. But as a whole, the symphony is too much Bernstein and not enough Sibelius – a more-frequent issue in Bernstein performances than in those of most conductors. The bonus material here, in which Bernstein talks with a rather too-intrusive Humphrey Burton, sheds little light on the Sibelius but a great deal on the Stravinsky, bits of which Bernstein – an excellent pianist – illustrates at the keyboard. Although certainly not a recording for everyone, this Bernstein DVD has revelatory elements that fans of the conductor-composer will greatly enjoy discovering.
The Britten DVD comes with revelations, too. It is scarcely a surprise that Britten and his longtime companion, Peter Pears, do a wonderful job together with the Nocturne Op. 60 for tenor, seven obbligato instruments and strings, in a December 1964 performance filled with style and sensitivity. But it is somewhat unexpected to hear just how well Britten puts across one of his favorite symphonies, Mozart’s No. 40, in the same concert: the reading has sweep, intensity and a strong sense of involvement throughout, if perhaps somewhat more emotionalism than the music calls for – and more than most later conductors put into it. Britten often conducted the English Chamber Orchestra, and the ensemble’s responsiveness to him is a big part of the enjoyment here, although certainly Britten is not an exciting conductor in the way that Bernstein is. It is the Nocturne performance, which can reasonably be deemed definitive, that most Britten fans will cherish here. The bonus material on the DVD is harder to enjoy: excerpts from Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (a work that should never be excerpted), filmed in color in June 1970, when Britten was gravely ill and by no means as firmly in control of the orchestra as he had been six years earlier. This material is more of a curiosity than a genuinely valuable musical experience.
A curiosity in its own way, Thomas Zintl’s 52-minute film about the musicians of East Germany (the “German Democratic Republic” or GDR) is one of many looks at the relationship between art and dictatorship – the Soviet Union is the usual nation studied in this regard – and provides an interesting reminder of how many excellent musicians were fostered by East Germany in its bid to prove the superiority of its political system. Kurt Masur, Helmut Schmidt, Peter Schreier and other artists are featured in this exploration, which unfortunately contains relatively little music and relatively much discussion – a state of affairs that is probably inevitable, given the subject matter, but that ends by relegating the film to a matter of only historical interest. There were no towering East German composers, certainly no one like Shostakovich or Prokofiev in the Soviet Union, and so Zintl’s focus is on artistic expression more than artistic creation – which is fine to a point, but which makes it impossible to study any genuinely interesting cases of artists who made their peace with a brutally repressive system (as, for example, Kabalevsky did under the Soviet regime). Zintl offers an interesting exploration of the ways in which the GDR co-opted artistic endeavor for political purposes and managed nevertheless to produce and nurture some outstanding musicians; but there is really not very much unusual or surprising in this subject matter or the way Zintl presents it. The short film will be of more interest to students of modern European history than to music lovers.
September 20, 2012
Duck & Goose Find a Pumpkin. By Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade. $10.99.
Everything Goes: Henry Goes Skating. By B.B. Bourne. Illustrations by Simon Abbott. Harper. $16.99.
Mr. Noah and His Family. By Jane Werner. Illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. Golden Books. $3.99.
The Cow Went Over the Mountain. By Jeanette Krinsley. Illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky. Golden Books. $3.99.
Seed by Seed: The Legend and Legacy of John “Appleseed” Chapman. By Esmé Raji Codell. Illustrations by Lynne Rae Perkins. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Those charmers, Duck and Goose, have another of their adorable adventures – a seasonal one – in the lap-size board book, Duck & Goose Find a Pumpkin. Originally published in 2009, Tad Hills’ easy-to-read, delightfully illustrated book has all the usual characteristics of Hills’ simple stories about these two friends: super-cute illustrations, a plot based on a misunderstanding, and an eventual happy solution. It starts when Duck and Goose see their friend Thistle carrying a pumpkin and decide to get one themselves. But they do not know where to look, so of course they go, amusingly, to all the wrong places: a log, a leaf pile, an apple tree and so forth. Their expressions are priceless, and their bewilderment invites young children to exclaim “no, not there!” as Duck and Goose search in yet another incorrect spot. Eventually, Thistle returns and suggests they look in the pumpkin patch, where of course they find what they want – and praise themselves for knowing just where to search. Simple, silly and heartwarming, Duck & Goose Find a Pumpkin is a delightful tale for autumn, or anytime.
Henry Goes Skating is a winter story based on the Everything Goes books by Brian Biggs, but without Biggs himself involved. This (+++) book is in the “I Can Read!” series, at the beginning “My First” level for kids just starting to learn to read – around ages 4-6. Large print, simple sentences, and illustrations in Biggs’ style are combined into a story of a snowy day in which Henry and his family decide to go skating, with their trip somewhat delayed when a bus gets stuck on ice and has to be towed. They make it to the park, where they see police officers on horses – which, Henry notices, can go on ice and snow better than buses and other vehicles can. Henry watches a Zamboni smooth the ice, then he and his parents skate together, and then everyone goes home to make a snowman. This is a fine book for kindergartners and pre-kindergartners on a cold day, whether or not there is snow and ice.
Two (+++) reprints of Little Golden Books are timeless rather than seasonal: families that like these short, nostalgic works will enjoy them anytime. Mr. Noah and His Family, which dates to 1948, is about a little girl playing with a Noah’s Ark toy, which contains pairs of animals that look similar but differ in significant ways: one camel is blue and one is brown; one pig is pink and one is red-and-white-checked; one giraffe has real giraffe colors and one is green, black and red; one skunk is larger and one is smaller; and so on. There is no story – just pleasantly drawn pages of pictures of the toy animals being unpacked from the ark, played with and put back aboard. There is a story in The Cow Went Over the Mountain, originally published in 1963. Little Cow gets her mother’s permission to go to a nearby mountain where “the grass is munchier,” and along the way picks up other animals looking for something better: a frog seeking crunchier bugs, a duck looking for sploshier water, a pig hoping for slushier mud, and a bear wanting gooier honey. Of course, when they arrive, they find that things are not really munchier, crunchier, splashier, slushier or gooier after all, until cow notices another mountain and says things are better there. So they all head in that direction – which turns out to take them back to their original mountain, where everything is just fine. “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” would be an obvious moral, but there is no moralizing here – the story is told straightforwardly and amusingly, with no attempt to make it into more than a pleasant tale.
Seed by Seed, though, is built around a moral; and it is much more than a simple story. Esmé Raji Codell skillfully tells of the life of Johnny Appleseed – the true tale, although much embellished by legend, of John Chapman, who spent decades planting apple seeds throughout the West as the United States grew in the early 19th century. Sensitively rendered watercolor-and-gouache illustrations by Lynne Rae Perkins expertly transport children back in time, page by page, from a current urban environment to an age when “you could not hear the engines of airplanes in the sky, or the sounds of phones ringing. Maybe you could catch the creaking of a wagon wheel, straining against the ruts in the road, or the fall of an axe against wood.” The beautifully rendered time travel then leads seamlessly into the Johnny Appleseed story, which Codell and Perkins tell with attention not only to fact but also to elements that may or may not be true. Chapman (1774-1845) is known for what he planted, but Codell’s tale says the apple seeds are only part of it: “He lived by example.” Seed by Seed portrays Chapman as a very early environmentalist and a pacifist, living by a belief that we should use and share what we have, respect nature, make peace, and take small steps toward a destination. This is a romanticized view of Chapman and one that fits 21st-century sensibilities well, but it is not, after all, particularly off-base: Chapman did lead a life outdoors, in harmony with nature, and was sensitive to animals and equally at home with European settlers and Native Americans. What is downplayed here is the religious basis of Chapman’s life, although Codell does write that “he claimed that spirits and angels told him to be a messenger of peace,” and that he was a follower of philosopher and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Codell portrays Chapman both as larger than life and as a man of his time, and Perkins’ illustrations reinforce that approach not only in the way they show people and animals but also through lovely pseudo-maps and pictures of flowers and herbs associated with the Johnny Appleseed story. The moralizing does become a touch heavy, as in the “what seed will you plant?” conclusion after the tale returns to the present day; but the apple-pie recipe at the end lends a delicious touch that everyone will enjoy. Seed by Seed is a (++++) book for its beautifully matched combination of words and pictures and for the timelessness of its story – one that is heartfelt and uplifting in any season, in any year.
The Folk Tale Classics Heirloom Library. By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $19.99.
The Folk Tale Classics Keepsake Library. By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $19.99.
Prolific children’s author and artist Paul Galdone (1907-1986) is perhaps best known for his work with Eve Titus on the Basil of Baker Street series and the Caldecott Honor books Anatole and Anatole and the Cat. The first tale of Basil and the two of Anatole all date to the 1950s, but Galdone continued working to the end of his life, illustrating more than 300 books in all and producing quite a few retellings of classic folk tales. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has periodically reissued the Galdone storybooks, and now offers two four-book collections that, separately or together, can easily become the cornerstone of a young child’s very own library.
Despite the collections’ slightly different names, there is no real difference between them – any book in one could just as well have gone in the other. The Heirloom set includes The Gingerbread Boy (originally published in 1975), Little Red Riding Hood (1974), The Three Billy Goats Gruff (1973) and The Three Little Pigs (1970). In the Keepsake set are The Little Red Hen (1973), The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (1971), Three Little Kittens (1986) and The Three Bears (1972). Families that want to buy just one set will not go wrong with either; picking one or the other is a matter of personal taste – it will depend on which stories parents or children like best, or the ones with which they are most (or least!) familiar.
One thing Galdone does particularly well in his illustrations is to provide them with humor or emphasize the amusement that is already there in the narrative. In The Gingerbread Boy, for example, high points are the horse’s wide-eyed expression as it chases the gingerbread boy, and the enormous nose and flyaway hair of the bridge troll who threatens the goats. The stories themselves are told pretty much in traditional form. The pileup of people and animals chasing the gingerbread boy is well narrated and well pictured, and the troll’s threats and eventual comeuppance (he is head-butted into the river) are both effective and funny. And there is a little “snip, snap” to the book: “Snip, Snap, Snip, at last and at last he went the way of every single gingerbread boy that ever came out of an oven.” In fact, Galdone likes the phrase “snip, snap,” also including it in The Three Billy Goats Gruff, where he ends the story with, “So snip, snap, snout,/ This tale’s told out.”
Galdone also does an excellent job of showing the characters’ personalities. For example, in The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, based on one of Aesop’s fables, the elegantly dressed town mouse refers to the country mouse’s home as a “dismal place” and the food as “rustic fare,” luring his old friend to court with tales of “dancing and feasting and all kinds of merriment.” So the humble country mouse – dressed like a friar, in a plain brown robe tied with rope – heads to town with his friend, and indeed encounters a table where “there were creams and jellies and sweetmeats,” plus fine cheese and delicious champagne. But there are also threats, with which the town mouse is quite familiar but the country mouse is not: Galdone’s drawings of the open-mouthed, large-fanged cat and the scowling servants (seen from mouse height) clearly communicate the country mouse’s terror. Galdone is careful to give the stories’ morals when they have them – here, “‘What good is elegance without ease, or plenty with an aching heart?’” But with such morals or without them, these are stories that 21st-century families can enjoy time and time again, and the Heirloom and Keepsake collections of Galdone’s versions of the tales are an excellent way to do so.
The Kill Order. By James Dashner. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
Rain & Fire: A Companion to the Last Dragon Chronicles. By Chris & Jay D’Lacey. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. By J.R.R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin. $17.99.
No matter how deep or how long a series goes, no matter how many books it takes to tell the story, there seems always to be room for at least one thing more – something strictly for existing fans of the sequence, not necessarily of significant interest in itself, but adding a bit of new material here and there to what readers already know. One time-honored way of extending a series is through a prequel, detailing events before the main sequence begins, and that is what James Dashner has provided in The Kill Order. This is a what-happened-before story for fans of The Maze Runner and its sequels, The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure. Those three books are fairly standard teenage-dystopian stuff, complete with invented slang (which grows tiresome fairly quickly), portentous acronyms (notably WICKED, “World in Catastrophe Killzone Experiment Department”), and the usual sequence of events: protagonist gradually learns who he is and what is going on, befriends someone who of course dies, has a love interest who may be a traitor or may not be and who also eventually dies, has to make difficult decisions about who is truly a friend and who is an enemy, and so forth. The main series protagonist, Thomas, appears in The Kill Order only as a toddler, in a two-page epilogue that will imply much to existing series fans but that falls flat as a conclusion in the context of The Kill Order itself. But the point is really that there is no context for this book on its own – the whole thing makes sense only as part of everything that happened (or, to use the time frame of the prequel, will happen) in The Maze Runner trilogy. The prequel is 13 years before the events of The Maze Runner, a time when solar flares destroy civilization and a mysterious, deadly disease called the Flare virus strikes the survivors. The protagonists, Mark and Trina, go on a dangerous quest – another standard genre feature – to learn the origin of the disease and find a way to save what is left of humanity. Their search takes them through thoroughly predictable dangers, from the aftereffects of natural disasters to the predatory nature of some who lived through the catastrophe. There are the usual impossibly noble helpers for the central pair (“I’m really, really sick. I need to die. I need to die and I don’t wanna die for nothing”), and the usual terrifying weapon (the Transvice – another of those portentous names – which dissolves people), and the inevitable success of the quest at a terribly high cost. Because Dashner writes well, if not very inventively, and has a knack for pacing The Kill Zone just as quickly as the trilogy to which it connects, most fans of The Maze Runner and its two sequels will find this a satisfying return to the dystopian world with which they have become familiar. But even though the events here take place before those of the trilogy, this book makes a poor introduction to the main sequence, which is more interesting and complex than this novel would lead new-to-the-series readers to expect.
Rain and Fire attaches to its series, the seven-book Last Dragon Chronicles, in a different way. It is a companion book, a sort of concordance to the main sequence, useful for keeping the many characters and events straight but not intended in any way as a standalone work. It is “no dry academic textbook to be pored over in some dark and dusty tower,” asserts Jay D’Lacey in the introduction, where she describes herself as Chris D’Lacey’s “wife and business partner.” True, a dark and dusty tower is not required, but it wouldn’t hurt: the book is filled with definitions, descriptions and drawings that will require some poring and pondering among readers who lived with the Last Dragon Chronicles from its start in 2001 through its 2012 final book, The Fire Ascending. Interestingly, Rain & Fire originally came out in 2010, when the series was just five books long; at that time, it included a look ahead at Fire World, the sixth book. In its new, updated edition, Rain & Fire ends with the same question-and-answer pages that Chris D’Lacey includes in The Fire Ascending. Details of the editions aside, Rain & Fire is useful mainly for helping keep things straight in a series that spans not just one world but many. It explains that David Merriman is David Rain “in one of his other guises” among the humans of Co:pern:ica. It offers information about and a picture of Bonnington, the cat that “is transformed from a lazy, slightly stupid tabby into a creature of wonder when he ‘commingles’ with a Fain entity in Fire Star.” It explains that the Arctic settings are “not often tied to any specific real-life places,” but the guest house where Lucy and Tam stay in Dark Fire “was based on a bed-and-breakfast that Chris and I stayed at in Glastonbury, England.” A very helpful chapter called “The Light and the Dark” summarizes and highlights the entire seven-book sequence while also commenting on it, as in the note that the first novel, The Fire Within, “gives absolutely no clue to the power and profundity yet to come in the rest of the books.” As a whole, Rain & Fire certainly has considerable usefulness for readers trying to keep things straight in the main sequence of novels or considering rereading the earlier ones in light of those that came later.
Of course, it is possible to create a (++++) companion book or prequel for a multi-book series, but the circumstances and author’s ability figure mightily into the effort. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a simpler book than The Lord of the Rings and, in a sense, “hangs off” the larger and far-more-complex work, but it was written for a different audience and published (in 1937) before The Lord of the Rings itself came out. Tolkien intended The Hobbit for young readers and The Lord of the Rings for older ones, and in fact he originally wanted The Lord of the Rings to be a single-volume work that would be a companion to The Silmarillion, which, as it turned out, Tolkien never completed. The Silmarillion takes place at a time earlier than that of The Hobbit, which occurs prior to The Lord of the Rings, so the whole question of which book or books may be deemed a prequel or prequels to which other or others gets complicated. Happily, though, The Hobbit itself does not. It is a straightforward yet very resonant adventure story, featuring a prototypical “unlikely hero” in the person of the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and it is simply packed with forms of amazement and wonder and a sense – very, very rare in heroic fantasy, including books heavily influenced by Tolkien – that there are tremendous events that predate the quest told in The Hobbit itself and equally important ones that are still to come. The new Houghton Mifflin edition of The Hobbit is not really new – it is the firm’s 2001 edition with a new cover that mentions the forthcoming “major motion picture” (which will actually be three movies). In any case, this edition remains a very handsome one, running 330 pages for the story itself and then including the start of the Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of The Lord of the Rings, to give young readers a taste of what comes after Bilbo’s adventure has ended. The book is easy to read, the type and paper well-chosen to have a slightly archaic look and feel, the original illustrations all included, and the story as wondrous and wonder-filled as ever. Young readers not yet familiar with The Hobbit have a real treat in store here, while anyone who read the book some time ago, or knows Tolkien only through the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, also has much to which to look forward. This is a very lovely edition of an exceptional book that deserves a top ranking in any rating system yet devised.
John Quincy Adams. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $27.50.
The People Pick a President. By Tamara Henneman and Carolyn Jackson. Scholastic. $5.99.
Every presidential election year in the United States inevitably brings comparisons of current chief executives, and would-be chief executives, with their predecessors – and the comparisons rarely favor modern officeholders. Harlow Giles Unger’s John Quincy Adams is not specifically intended to evoke nostalgia for better presidents in better times; indeed, whether times were better in an agricultural, slaveholding nation beset by wars and severe economic problems is certainly arguable. But readers of this fact-packed, dense biography will certainly come away feeling that politicians like John Quincy Adams do not exist anymore. What is interesting is that, with rare exceptions, they did not exist in Adams’ own time, either. He was the first president elected with a minority of votes; a one-term president humiliatingly defeated by a man he thought thoroughly incompetent to lead the nation (Andrew Jackson); and the first anti-slavery president (first to support abolition publicly and first to propose emancipation). But Adams today is better known for nonpresidential things that he did than for his four years in office: he won freedom for the African prisoners aboard the Amistad and returned to politics, as a member of the House of Representatives, after his humiliating defeat by Jackson. It is simply unthinkable today that a former president would return to serve the country in this way. In addition, Adams was the first son of a president to become president himself (and the only one until George W. Bush); and he was an obsessive diarist, keeping a record of events from the 1770s to the 1840s – at 14,000 pages in all, it is the most complete record in existence of the early days of the United States. Often overlooked by chroniclers because his presidency itself was widely labeled a failure, Adams has long had champions among careful students of American history – including John Kennedy, who singled him out as the first among nine great Americans in Profiles in Courage. Adams was exceptionally independent in his thinking and behavior, voting against his own Federalist Party in favor of Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, then voting against Jefferson’s Republicans when they planned to raise taxes. The result, from a historical perspective, is that Adams comes across as a man of tremendous honesty and integrity. From the perspective of his own time, though, he was an unreliable politician with few friends and few backers, hated by the “slaveocracy” (as he termed it) in Congress and bereft of any sufficiently strong political connections to sustain his presidency or the respect of the voters and most other politicians of the nation’s early years. Unger, who has written about many of the Founding Fathers, has little to say about the manifold differences between Adams and today’s politicians, nor has he much to say about the ways in which Adams’ independent thinking on some issues stood in contrast with other attitudes of his (he strongly opposed Jackson because he truly believed in the Platonic ideal of rule by the most highly educated and accomplished men in society). Instead, relying heavily on Adams’ own writings, Unger traces Adams’ life from its earliest days – the family forebears had been among those who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 – through the influence of Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson, and most particularly the way in which the younger Adams was groomed for statesmanship by his father. John Quincy Adams was, on paper, superbly qualified to serve as president, but it is amazing how often on-paper qualifications have proved to be of little value in that office: James Buchanan, a few years after Adams’ death, was also superbly qualified but feckless, while Buchanan’s successor was the apparently much-less-capable Abraham Lincoln. The strong detail orientation of Unger’s book makes reading it slowly a necessity, and the book will be something of a chore for those not already fascinated by or steeped in American history – that is, those not intrigued by a sentence like this: “By spring, when the time came to return to Quincy, he had reread Childe Harold, Don Juan, and other works of Lord Byron – and written his own epic, 2,000-line poem titled Dermot MacMorrogh, on Henry II’s conquest of Ireland.” Literary allusions aside, it seems unlikely that politics in the United States will produce the intellectual strength, commitment to public service and unflinching across-party-lines honesty of John Quincy Adams again.
For what the American political process will produce, Scholastic’s The People Pick a President offers young readers a quick and easy guide. The complete table of presidential elections, given at the book’s end, of course includes the dubious triumph of John Quincy Adams over Jackson in 1824, even though Jackson had more popular and electoral votes. The table is a fascinating look at the name changes of political parties over the generations, and of such short-lived parties as the Anti-Masonic (1832), Free Soil (1848 and 1852), Constitutional Union (1860) and Greenback (1880 and 1884). The main part of the book, though, is about the election process itself, which is explained clearly enough for children and wouldn’t be a bad thing for adults to read as well. For example, the answer to the question of “Who Really Elects the President?” explains, “When the Constitution was written, the founders worried that would-be tyrants would appeal to uneducated voters. To guard against this, they decided that the people would not directly elect the president and senators. …It still says that a group of electors from each state, not the voters, select the president. Originally, these electors were educated men who were expected to use their independent judgment. Today, electors are expected to cast their ballots for the candidate who receives the most votes in their state on Election Day. Usually, that’s what they do, but they are not legally bound in every state.” The book explains what the president does, how campaigns are put together, how vice presidents are chosen, what happens at polls, how winners and losers typically behave after the votes are counted, and what sorts of controversies can occur. It is not an in-depth guide to presidential elections and is not intended to be, but The People Pick a President is a clearly written election primer that should help young readers, and their parents, understand more about what is going on besides the usual round of accusations, counter-accusations, claims, counterclaims, and generalized mudslinging and nastiness that collectively represent the face of U.S. presidential elections to voters – and to observers around the world.