December 31, 2014
Nnewts, Book One: Escape from the Lizzarks. By Doug TenNapel. Color by Katherine Garner. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.
Here we have yet another derivative fantasy-adventure in which a youngster comes to awareness of his true role and begins to assume the mantle of hero, all within a world where good and evil are clearly defined and the bad guys are bad simply because they are, well, bad. But what makes this particular foray into fantasy so enjoyable is not the derivative plot but the considerable graphic-novel skill of Doug TenNapel, whose books are consistently fascinating to look at even when they tell stories of significantly less interest than the art used to move the tales along.
This is not to say that this opening book of the Nnewts sequence is uninteresting – just that many readers will recognize the scenes as very similar to ones they have read or observed many times before. This story takes place in a world populated by amphibians (the good guys) and reptiles (the treacherous, sneaky, mean and evil guys). It is also a world filled with magic, which of course can be used for good by the good guys and for evil by the evil guys. The central character is a newt, or rather Nnewt, named Herk (the resemblance of his name to that of Hercules is definitely not coincidental). Herk still has gills and is therefore stuck spending most of his time in the water until his small, weak legs grow longer and stronger. But they seem not to be doing anything of the sort. Herk’s parents are helpful, supportive and suitably concerned about him; and his father, a magician, is also worried about signs that the evil lizards, or rather Lizzarks, may be planning an attack on the village.
The book’s events are pretty much straightforward for a story like this. Herk’s father, Gullimar, goes out with hunters Odetto and Urch to figure out what the threat to the village is. The three are set upon by a weretoad, a multi-eyed monster that seems to be mostly teeth, and Gullimar and Odetto are killed. Back home, Herk’s mother, Gayla, becomes the victim of marauding Lizzarks that invade the village, and Herk’s sister, Sissy, disappears. TenNapel’s handling of the weretoad attack is particularly adept – partly because Katherine Garner’s first-rate coloring fits the panels’ action so well – and Herk’s underwater escape from the destruction is also handled with considerable skill. Best of all, though, is a scene in which the shades of Gullimar and Gayla meet in the land after death and journey together to the arms of the Hunter, a giant sky dweller strongly resembling the constellation Orion (and in fact referred to as Orion, albeit not quite the Orion we humans know). This after-death journey is the most unusual element of the book’s plot and the most interestingly handled in both words and drawings.
Back in the land of the living, things proceed much as they usually do in heroic fantasy. Herk finds out that he is far more important than he ever dreamed. He meets the magic-wielding king of a long-dead kingdom, who sends Herk to the place where his real legs – not the spindly ones he has been using – can be found. Herk recovers them from the monstrous Snake Lord, who stole them from him, and so begins to come into his destiny. Meanwhile, Urch is captured by the bad guys, transformed into Lizzurch, and set on the trail of Herk. And Herk finds his way to a city of Nnewts that he never knew existed – it seems the Nnewts quarreled and split into two non-communicating groups in the distant past – and is soon adopted by a warm, loving family that grants him shelter without knowing quite who or what he is. There is a battle between the Snake Lord and Orion, too, before readers find out that Sissy is alive and a captive – and just another pawn in the Lizzarks’ evil plans.
There is little originality in this story, for all that TenNapel dresses it up attractively and creates many exotic creatures to move the plot along. Indeed, even some of the dressing-up will be familiar to some readers: the behavior of and banter among certain characters are right out of Jeff Smith’s Bone, for example. But this first book of Nnewts is nevertheless captivating, because if TenNapel’s weakness is in story originality, his strength is in artistic originality, and his graphic novels are instantly recognizable and always highly stylish. Even his scenes of violence – the blowup of the weretoad, for example – have a certain beauty and impressiveness to them, and no gratuitous gore. TenNapel’s multiple panel shapes and sizes are used to fine effect, and the angles from which he draws the scenes make them particularly effective – with Garner’s fine color work giving them an extra boost. Fans of TenNapel’s earlier books will not find this one to be at the level of Ghostopolis or Cardboard, but it already matches or surpasses Bad Island and Tommysaurus Rex – and there is still more of Nnewts to come.
100 Most Destructive Natural Disasters. By Anna Claybourne. Scholastic. $7.99.
Fly Guy Presents: Insects. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.
Scholastic, as its name implies but its books do not always show, has a strong interest in education – and although most of its releases nowadays are outside the instructional realm, Scholastic has found ways to make information presentation interesting and attractive for young readers when it does release nonfiction books. Given the intensely visual focus of most young readers today, and indeed of society as a whole, the approach of these two books – one targeting third to sixth graders and one intended for kindergarten to second grade – makes a great deal of sense. 100 Most Destructive Natural Disasters, aimed at the older group, includes certain categories of havoc that readers will likely have heard of, such as earthquakes, tornadoes, floods and tsunamis. But it also discusses some less-familiar types of disasters: limnic eruptions (in which dissolved carbon dioxide suddenly emerges from deep lake water), lahars (fast-flowing rivers of mud), and sinkholes – such as one in Turkmenistan that has been burning for more than 40 years. Each event gets a very brief description laid atop photos of the event itself (if available) or the area where the event took place – enough for a basic understanding, and plenty to whet readers’ appetites for more information to be found elsewhere. Each event also gets a rating of one to five bombs (which, however, look a little too cartoony to be scary: a bit like oranges with stems). You might expect from the book’s title that the ratings would be unneeded, since every disaster would get a “five,” but in fact many get much lower ratings. The Chicago seiche of 1954, for example, gets only a two (a seiche is a storm surge that occurs in a lake or harbor). On the other hand, the volcanic eruptions of both Taupo and Laki get ratings of five: Taupo, a supervolcano in New Zealand, had the biggest eruption in the last 5,000 years (about 1,800 years ago), while Laki, in Iceland, had a slow, eight-month-long eruption in 1783 that was the deadliest on record, claiming (directly or indirectly) 6,000,000 lives. Author Anna Claybourne, who wrote the text in a book that is anything but text-heavy, does a good job of providing general information as well as specifics about individual disasters. For instance, on the page devoted to the Natchez, Mississippi, tornado of 1840, which killed 317 people, she explains the Fujita Scale that is now used to rank tornado strength, and on the page about the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, she explains the MM (Moment Magnitude) scale, which seismologists now use in place of the better-known Richter scale. 100 Most Destructive Natural Disasters is, by its nature, a series of tidbits rather than an in-depth look at anything, but what it does offer is well-chosen and well-presented, and its illustrations have sufficient impact to show why specific events are included. There is even a bit of reassurance here, with Claybourne explaining that “over time, most types of natural disasters have become a little less dangerous” thanks to better scientific predictions and improved communications to get warnings out to people who could be affected.
For younger readers, Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy and his boy, Buzz, make surprisingly adept guides to creatures such as dinosaurs and sharks – and, now, insects. You would expect Fly Guy to do a good job with this topic, and he does. Although this book is written even more simply than 100 Most Destructive Natural Disasters, it is structured similarly, with an emphasis on photographs, minimal text, and commentary delivered by Buzz while Fly Guy flits about the pages. There are plenty of interesting facts here: a queen ant may live 30 years, while an adult mayfly dies after only one or two nights; cockroaches and ants eat almost anything (mentioned on a page where Buzz is sticking out his tongue and grimacing as Fly Guy – who is, after all, a fly – is gorging himself out of sight in a garbage can); grasshoppers and caterpillars chew their food; a person who collects flies is called a dipterist; and so on. Readers get information on prehistoric insects, such as dragonflies with wings stretching more than two feet and a kind of centipede almost as long as a lion; an explanation of insect life cycles; and reasons that insects are beneficial. Flies – or as Fly Guy puts it, “Flyzzz!” – get two whole pages, a lot in a 32-page book, with information on how long a fly needs to plan an escape route (less than a second) and how fast it can fly (45 miles per hour). Fans of Fly Guy are the obvious target audience for Fly Guy Presents: Insects, but even kids who are not familiar with the fictional adventures of Fly Guy and Buzz will enjoy this easy-to-read, easy-to-understand introduction to the more-than-a-million different kinds of insects on Earth.
Writer to Writer: From Think to Ink. By Gail Carson Levine. Harper. $16.99.
Here is a book that reads like a series of blog entries lifted from the Web and assembled in print form – because that is exactly what it is. Levine, best known as the author of Ella Enchanted and other fairy-tale rethinkings and spinoffs, uses her presence at www.gailcarsonlevine.blogspot.com to give writing tips and advice to aspiring authors. She has also written a book about her craft called Writing Magic, and Writer to Writer is a companion volume of sorts – although it stands perfectly well on its own.
Levine’s strength is not really in the information she imparts, which is straightforward, unexceptional and readily available elsewhere: accept rejection and make use of its value, read constantly and learn from what other authors have done, use your real life to conceptualize and map fiction, and so on. What is helpful in Writer to Writer is the sense of chatting with a successful, established author, the sense of humor with which Levine presents her material, and the constant references to various books – her own and many others – with which Levine makes and enlarges on her points. She is particularly fond of James Barrie’s Peter Pan, a work that few young readers likely know (the novel dates to 1911, the preceding play to 1904). She uses Barrie’s novel both to show stylistic points and to explain ways in which writers can use particular techniques: “Contemporary stories don’t usually use foreshadowing as directly as this [passage in Peter Pan], unless the writer is being funny.” She uses her own books in similar ways: “Ella’s character doesn’t change very much in the course of Ella Enchanted. …[S]he has much the same personality at the end as she did when her mother got sick. On the other hand, Addie, the heroine of my book The Two Princesses of Bamarre, is fundamentally altered as a result of her exploits…” This latter example is part of a discussion of character change in general: “Sometimes the reader absolutely does not want a character to change. As a child, I gobbled up books in the Cherry Ames series. I did not want Cherry to switch even the color of her lipstick!” Again, as with Peter Pan, this series is not likely to be one that many contemporary readers know: the 27 student-nurse novels (by two different authors) were published from 1943 to 1968. Aspiring young writers will find that they need to look into books with which they are not familiar in order to understand everything Levine says and get the most benefit from it.
Levine discusses her own uncertainties and weaknesses in Writer to Writer, although usually just in passing. “I’ve had trouble, more than once, making my MC [main character] sympathetic,” for example, leads into a discussion of creating main characters that readers will like. Among her suggestions are to “think of real people and what you like about them,” to have a character rescue someone or something, and to use “thoughts, feelings, speech, [and] appearance.” On the opposite side, she has a chapter called “Villainy” in which she cites the Sherlock Holmes passage about Holmes’ nemesis, Moriarty, explaining that “Arthur Conan Doyle relies…on the reader’s imagination to make Moriarty threatening.” Explaining that comic-book villains do not have to be believable, she admits her own predilection for villains who are “interesting” and cites one who is “awful, but he has a personality, and the reader hates him even more for it.”
Levine is careful to explain her own viewpoint about various elements of writing as she presents the alternatives. For example: “As a reader I’m not fond of stories in which the moral dominates. I don’t read fiction to be lectured to. …When I write, I don’t think about a moral or a theme. I start with an idea or a question.” Another instance of this: “I’m prejudiced in favor of past tense, which I think is more flexible [than present tense] even when we’re writing a gritty, contemporary tale. …For a writer, present tense seems like more of a decision. Past tense seems more like, for good or ill, choosing the common path.” Yet Levine is well aware of the power of present tense, offering readers yet another Barrie passage to show how past and present can be skillfully interwoven: “All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this…”
It is, of course, up to readers of Writer to Writer to decide whether or not to follow Levine’s guidelines – one of which, repeated at the end of every chapter, is “Have fun, and save what you write!” That, in the slightly expanded form of “save everything you write, whether you like it or not,” is one of seven rules that Levine sets down at the start of the book – the first three of which are the same: “The best way to write better is to write more.” Nothing exceptional there; nothing aspiring writers have not been told again and again for many, many years. Those who enjoy Levine’s books and wonder what she, in particular, advises would-be writers to do, may nevertheless find Writer to Writer revelatory. As for getting one’s writing published – well, that would be a subject for another book altogether.
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings; Arensky: Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky; Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a. New Moskow Chamber Orchestra conducted by Igor Shukow (Zhukov). Telos Music. $16.99.
Tchaikovsky: Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello; Arensky: Trio No. 1 for Piano, Violin and Cello; Shostakovich: Trio No. 2 for Piano, Violin and Cello; Mendelssohn: Trio No. 2 for Piano, Violin and Cello. Cho Piano Trio (Young-Bang Cho, piano; Young-Mi Cho, violin; Young-Chang Cho, cello). Telos Music. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Tchaikovsky to Arensky to Shostakovich: both these Telos Music releases of chamber-music recordings from the 1990s showcase the progression of Russian music from one of these composers to the next and the next, in the process highlighting the similarities as well as the differences in Russian (and, later, Soviet) thinking about music for small ensembles. The interconnectedness of the works is sometimes surprising and always fascinating. The best-known piece on either release is Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, a work that is quite atypical for its composer in its sunniness (all four movements are in major keys) and its generally optimistic temper. Igor Shukow (his name so spelled here, although it is usually transliterated as “Zhukov”) seems to want the piece to be weightier than it needs to be: the first movement is played quite slowly and expansively by the New Moskow (again, spelled that way here rather than “Moscow”) Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble that Shukow founded in 1983 and led until he disbanded it and retired from conducting in 1994. There is considerable beauty in this approach, but also some dragginess; likewise, the lovely second-movement waltz goes beyond wistfulness to near-stasis here. The pacing of the third and fourth movements is better managed, and the finale concludes with a burst of speed that really shows the orchestra’s considerable capabilities. Nevertheless, this work’s themes are less typical of Tchaikovsky than is the theme on which Anton Arensky (1861-1906), who greatly admired Tchaikovsky and was for a time deemed his spiritual heir, based his Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky. This theme is from the fifth of Tchaikovsky’s Sixteen Songs for Children, and Tchaikovsky himself reused it twice in other forms. Arensky handles it skillfully: his Variations are an 1894 expansion of the second movement of his String Quartet No. 1, written in 1893 in Tchaikovsky’s memory. The theme is handled reverently and intelligently, the variations’ songlike and melancholy sections predominating until the work eventually fades away in resignation – scarcely an upbeat piece, but one handled here with considerable sensitivity and understanding. Those characteristics also pervade the performance of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a, which gets the best reading on this CD. The work is Rudolf Barshai’s transcription of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 – a modification so well done that Shostakovich not only accepted it but also gave it its title and opus number. Filled with Shostakovich’s trademarks, from the D-S-C-H motif at the beginning to the sardonic humor in the middle movements to the eventual resignation (not unlike that in the Arensky Variations) with which the piece concludes, the Chamber Symphony is notable for the quotations within it from multiple earlier Shostakovich works, including his second piano trio, his first and fifth symphonies, and others. Shukow does not overdo the quotations – that would impede the work’s flow, which was obviously important to the composer, since the five movements follow each other without breaks. But Shukow is clearly aware that the self-quoting is there, and he manages to make the Chamber Symphony both impressive in itself and a summing-up of sorts of Shostakovich’s oeuvre up to 1960, when String Quartet No. 8 was written. These are live recordings by Zhukow and his ensemble, and while their dates are not given, they were clearly made before the orchestra disbanded and Zhukow re-embarked on a career as a pianist.
The recording dates are given for the performances by the Cho Piano Trio’s two-CD set: the Mendelssohn and Shostakovich trios were recorded in 1993, the Arensky and Tchaikovsky in 1996. The Chos are family, and their close relationship is reflected in their near-intuitive cooperation in the music here, where competitiveness among instruments is completely laid aside in favor of warm sound and beautifully integrated performances. Among the Russian pieces here, the Tchaikovsky is again pre-eminent. Written as a memorial to pianist/conductor Nicolai Rubinstein and first performed in 1888, it is a far grander, more expansive and more unusually structured work than Arensky’s Variations in memory of Tchaikovsky. The Tchaikovsky trio is in two movements, the first expansive and overtly elegiac, the second a set of variations whose conclusion is in effect a 12th variation and almost a movement in itself. The heartfelt handling of this sumptuous, deeply felt music is first-rate in this recording, and the Cho Piano Trio also does a fine job with the first of Arensky’s two piano trios – this one a memorial not to Tchaikovsky (although the trio dates to 1894, as do the Variations) but to cellist Karl Davidov. Arensky uses traditional four-movement form here, but gives the greatest weight to the first movement, which is twice as long as any of the others. There is a certain level of salon-like superficiality to the music, notably in some parts of the Scherzo, but the work’s melodies flow beautifully and help show why Arensky was deemed by many to be Tchaikovsky’s successor. As for the Shostakovich Trio No. 2, this too is a memorial work, written in 1944 in memory of Ivan Sollertinsky, longtime artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic and a close friend of Shostakovich, who died suddenly at age 42. Like the Arensky trio heard in this recording, Shostakovich’s is in traditional four-movement form, using in its final movement a them from Jewish folk music that Shostakovich later recalled in String Quartet No. 8 and the Chamber Symphony. The Shostakovich trio is, like so much of the composer’s music, steeped in contrasts, here ranging from the overt sorrow permeating the first movement, to a typically grotesque Scherzo, to a Largo of lamentation that clearly includes Chassidic elements, to the Jewish-themed final danse macabre that is the longest movement of the work. The Cho Piano Trio is particularly adept here at distinguishing the movements from each other while giving the work as a whole a sense of integration and completeness. The players also do a very fine job with the one non-Russian work offered in this recording, Mendelssohn’s Trio No. 2 – a work from 1845, nearly 100 years before the Shostakovich heard here, but one showing that in some senses the piano trio changed little during the ensuing century in terms of the balance among the instruments and the expressive roles assigned to each of them. Mendelssohn was a supreme melodist, and this trio moves through many moods as effectively as does Shostakovich’s, although those moods are quite different ones and Mendelssohn’s tunes are far more melodious. Especially noteworthy here, and very well handled by the performers, is the contrast between the lovely, songlike second movement and the quicksilver Scherzo, whose energy will remind many listeners of that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The releases of the Cho Piano Trio and the New Moskow Chamber Orchestra under Igor Shukow both have more than enough variety to keep listeners entranced, plus enough parallels to make for very intriguing thoughts about the roles that composers, especially the three Russians heard in both recordings, conceptualized for specific musical forms.
December 24, 2014
Clark the Shark Takes Heart. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Guy Francis. Harper. $17.99.
Did You Know That I Love You? By Christa Pierce. Harper. $17.99.
Amelia Bedelia’s First Valentine. By Herman Parish. Pictures by Lynne Avril. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $6.99.
The Berenstain Bears’ Valentine Love Bug. By Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $6.99.
One of the warmest holidays of the year – or at least one of the most heartwarming –is actually a winter holiday: Valentine’s Day. So kids ages 4-8 and their families, if seeking a touch of warmth during cold days, will especially enjoy books with a Valentine theme, even when the day itself is not especially nearby. The latest Clark the Shark book, about the over-enthusiastic and rather clumsy shark who is always well-meaning despite his exceptionally toothy appearance, is a suitably simple Valentine story even though it is not tied directly to Valentine’s Day. This is actually a birthday story, in which Clark tries to figure out what to give to a girl fish he likes, Anna Angelfish. Clark is the boisterous type who goes out of his way to impress the girl, even though that is not quite what his best friend, Joey Mackerel, is getting at when he tells Clark that “you’ve got to show her how you feel.” Clark tries to prove his athletic prowess and plows into a reef; then he tries to be a hero by rescuing Anna and the other students when their school bus (a submarine) gets stuck, but overdoes things with his strength and makes a mess of everything; and so on. Despondent, Clark listens at last when Joey tells him the best things can sometimes come in small packages. So when Clark finds a heart-shaped shell – a tiny pink one – he thinks that this might be ideal for Anna’s birthday, and sure enough, when he gives it to her, the two end up holding hands. Well, fins, actually, but the basic idea is there. Clark the Shark Takes Heart fits Valentine’s Day just as well as it fits birthdays, because in this case the message is the same: show affection in appropriate ways and, with any luck, it will be reciprocated.
Christa Pierce has affection shown primarily verbally in Did You Know That I Love You? And that, as it turns out, is more than enough. This too is a general book about love and affection that just happens to fit Valentine’s Day particularly well. The two characters are a little bird and a fox – natural enemies in the real world, but devoted friends here, as the bird expresses love for the fox again and again, through a series of questions: “Did I tell you quite enough?” “Did I show it in my kisses?” “Could you feel it in my hugs?” “Could you taste it in your tea?” And so forth – with every query accompanied by endearing digital illustrations that range from the semi-realistic (a hug) to the purest fantasy (the fox relaxing in a giant mug of tea). The most charming of the many charming illustrations is a two-page nighttime scene showing the fox sleeping curled up beneath a warm-looking blanket, framed by raindrops that that form an arch above him without touching down, and with the moon visible behind the drops – all with the accompanying text, “Was my voice your nighttime chorus, with the rain and chirping bugs?” This is Pierce’s first children’s book, and it is likely to appeal to very young children indeed – even younger than age four – because of the simplicity of both the art and the message.
Two paperbacks featuring well-known series characters are specifically tied to Valentine’s Day and are pleasant in their own way – although the stories are a little thin and a bit forced, resulting in (+++) ratings for both books. Amelia Bedelia’s First Valentine has the childhood version of the endearingly mixed-up adult Amelia learning about Valentine’s Day and having minor misunderstandings that are supposed to reflect the literalism-based mistakes she makes as an adult. For instance, her mother says, “Your snack is in the kitchen, cupcake,” but Amelia has a brownie because she cannot find any cupcakes. Amelia has cards to finish before the next day’s Valentine party at school, so she puts peanuts into the envelope of a card featuring a squirrel saying “I’m nuts 4 you,” heats a card that says “You’re 2 cool,” and so on. Then she has a dream – the funniest part of the book – featuring Cupid, “a giant chocolate squirrel” and “fuzzy sugar bees.” On Valentine’s Day, though, she leaves all the cards on the school bus by mistake, and is very sad momentarily – until she figures out how to come up with a whole set of new cards by writing on a deck of playing cards that her mother just gave her. Of course everything ends happily, as Amelia dances along holding aloft a heart-shaped box she made in school, and the box gets hit by a non-pointy arrow shot by a boy who had to stay home from school that day and for whom Amelia feels sorry, so she gives him all the special cards she had left on the bus. Herman Parish’s story is all right, as are Lynne Avril’s illustrations, but the unbridled enthusiasm and unsuppressed tendency to overdo things – characteristics of the original Amelia Bedelia books by Peggy Parish, who is Herman Parish’s aunt – are largely missing. The young Amelia is nothing particularly special here, although she is certainly pleasant enough. Kids who already enjoy books about Amelia as a child will find much to like in Amelia Bedelia’s First Valentine.
Similarly, fans of the Berenstain Bears will enjoy Mike Berenstain’s The Berenstain Bears’ Valentine Love Bug, not only for the story – which is rather slight – but also for the fold-out poster, stickers and Valentine’s Day cards bound into the book. The very mild conflict here involves Sister having to prepare for a class Valentine’s Day party while also getting ready to be flower girl at Cousin Cora’s wedding, which is on the same day. Sister “felt she had hit the love bug jackpot.” She overdoes things by studying wedding books and magazines constantly for days on end, gossiping with a friend about Cousin Cora, and talking incessantly about flowers, makeup, wedding gifts, and so on. Mama thinks this is all a bit much and decides to say something to Sister, but because this is, after all, a Berenstain Bears book – in which kids need only the slightest nudge to do exactly the right thing – the minute Mama starts to explain to Sister that she may be acting a bit inappropriately, Sister herself instantly straightens out, decides that “this wedding thing has been taking up an awful lot of time,” returns to a focus on the school party, and generally becomes a perfect child. And she is a perfect flower girl, too, when Valentine’s Day actually arrives. So everything ends as happily as usual for the Berenstain Bears, and if the story is rather saccharine rather than naturally sweet, kids and families who enjoy these particular characters will not mind the sugary aftertaste a bit.
Psy-Q: Test Yourself with More Than 80 Quizzes, Puzzles and Experiments for Everyday Life. By Ben Ambridge. Penguin. $16.
One intriguing way to define humans is as our planet’s only perpetual pattern recognizers. Yes, other animals come to figure out patterns in some circumstances: dogs, for instance, quickly learn that the sound of a can or container being opened means they are about to be fed – or even that a person putting on a particular pair of shoes is about to take them out for a walk. But humans seek patterns constantly and just about everywhere, even making them up when they do not exist: pictures in the clouds, numerological investment secrets in the Bible, haruspicy (predicting the future through patterns in animal entrails), and so forth. Patterns are crucial for human survival and, arguably, one major reason that our species has established dominance over others. But they also lead us astray, far more frequently and in far more ways than most of us realize – and that is what Ben Ambridge delves into in a thoroughly fascinating book called Psy-Q.
From Rorschach tests, with which the book begins, through statistical and epidemiological patterns that can save lives and produce great benefits – or make matters considerably worse – to explorations of predisposition, bias and prejudice, and the many things that we only think we know, Ambridge explores psychological studies that highlight the predilections, perspicacities and peculiarities of human thinking and the ways in which our apparently innate pattern-making habits very often lead us badly astray.
Much of the research detailed by Ambridge, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Liverpool, is quite serious, but some seems worthy of the Ig Nobel Prize. In the latter category is a study finding that 68% of people hang toilet-paper rolls with the loose end far from the wall (the “over” position), while 32% prefer the end close to the wall (“under”) – but among respondents making $20,000 a year or less, 73% prefer “under.” This observation comes with an analytical explanation, apparently not tongue in cheek, from someone who calls himself a “relationship expert,” stating that those who prefer “over” like taking charge and favor organization, while those preferring “under” are laid-back and dependable – and those who do not care “aim to minimize conflict [and] value flexibility.”
Well, all right; so be it for matters of the commode. Other studies presented in Ambridge’s always-breezy style are indeed for everyday life, per his book’s subtitle (the toilet-paper-one is better described as from everyday life). For example, there is a problem involving four cards with a letter on one side and a number on the other; someone says that “every card that has a D on one side has a 3 on the other”; the question is how many cards you need to turn over to determine if this is true – and which cards you must pick. Ambridge shows why this is a difficult thing to understand and figure out when the cards’ upward sides show D, K, 3 and 7 – but much easier when the cards represent four people in a bar, the question involves whether everyone drinking is over 18, and the cards show beer, cola, “24 years” and “15 years.” The whole discussion becomes one about confirmation bias, a crucial component of our pattern making that frequently leads us astray and can become distinctly harmful: “Why, for example, do many people believe in homeopathic remedies, which countless studies have shown to be ineffective? At least part of the answer is confirmation bias. People who believe that homeopathy works actively seek out opportunities to confirm that belief…and ignore evidence that might disconfirm it…”
Ambridge’s book is participatory throughout – the card-choice problem is one of many – and this is a major strength. He warns readers about this, always good-humoredly: “Now, I’m afraid this one is going to require a little bit of homework,” for example. The self-tests are worth taking. One replicates a study in which people did slightly better on a general-knowledge quiz if they first spent five minutes imagining the traits of a typical university professor than if they spent the same amount of time imagining the traits of a football (soccer) hooligan. This gets into a discussion of the perception-behavior link, in which we tend unconsciously to imitate behaviors or mannerisms that we observe in others – becoming, in effect, part of a self-created pattern. Also in Psy-Q is a defense of IQ testing and a way to test your own that is, to the extent possible, unbiased and free of culturally determined factors. And a discussion of conspiracy theories (yet another form of pattern recognition, whether or not a pattern is actually there). And one about sound-shape correspondence, based on looking at two irregular shapes and deciding which should be called a bouba and which a kiki. And what those same shapes might taste like. And many, many other fascinating explorations of varying utility in everyday life, but unending fascination. There are plenty of really serious issues raised in Psy-Q, involving morality, male-female interactions, linguistic determinism (one basis of George Orwell’s terrifying 1984), various sociopolitical issues, even a method used by forensic psychologists to search for a person who has committed a series of violent attacks. There is also much of lesser importance but equal interest, interspersed with brief comments and jokes designed to force readers to confront their own biased everyday patterns: “What do you call a female psychologist?” “A psychologist, you sexist.” (Answer printed upside-down at the bottom of the page.)
Not everything in Psy-Q is accurate. Some mistakes are minor, although they are ones that a trained psychologist should not make: for example, he calls the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders “DSM-V,” with a Roman numeral, when it is actually DSM-5, with an Arabic number. But other errors are more serious. A particularly embarrassing one lies in Ambridge’s reference to the only known recording of Sigmund Freud’s voice: the author even gives a location on the Web where readers can hear it (one of his many “Web Links and Further Reading” entries). Ambridge comments, “I don’t speak German and so didn’t understand a word…but found him surprisingly soft-spoken, even timid sounding.” But Freud is speaking in English, not German, and the voice quality is directly related to his incurable jaw cancer – he died less than a year after the recording was made – and to the dozens of jaw-rebuilding surgeries he had undergone.
Despite lapses like these – thankfully, there are not too many of them – Ambridge’s interests are wide-ranging and his style is amusingly accommodating. The titles of the book’s sections show this clearly; among them are: “Quoth the Raven’s ‘What’s My Score?’” “Reading and Righting.” “Hitler’s Sweater.” “Getting All EmotIQnal.” “Cake Addicts?” “Can Psychology Save the World?” The answer to that last one is pretty definitely no, even though the optimistic Ambridge thinks that, “with a little help from an early-evening game show,” it could happen. But even without being Earth-saving, psychology, considered as it is in Psy-Q, can prove rather earthshaking as it shakes up readers’ many underlying assumptions, conscious or unconscious, about the patterns that they only think rule the world and their lives – and shows some of the patterns that actually do.
Swindle #7: Unleashed. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $16.99.
There is plenty of fun in the latest Gordon Korman book about Luthor, a Doberman and former attack dog, and the many preteens surrounding and interacting with him, notably Griffin Bing, “the man with the plan.” Griffin’s plans inevitably are over-complex and inevitably go just wrong enough to propel Korman’s narratives – Unleashed is the seventh book in the series – but then turn out to be just right enough to bring about a satisfying, if formulaic, conclusion. And so it is here. Luthor lives with Savannah Drysdale, and “in the Drysdale house, animals were treated as full family members. The menagerie included two cats, an ever-changing number of rabbits, hamsters, and guinea pigs, a pack rat, and an albino chameleon.” Plus Cleopatra, Savannah’s pet monkey. Animals are, as usual, one part of the plot of Unleashed, with the angle here involving Savannah trying to figure out why Luthor has taken to chasing cars – or rather one specific vehicle, an exterminator’s truck. As usual, the other plot elements revolve around the fractious relationships of the preteen humans, who in this case are all worked up about the “Invent-a-Palooza” competition at school, where Griffin is expected to excel, because his father really is an inventor. However, Griffin’s dad points out, “I know it seems like I’m tinkering around in the garage, but creating something that doesn’t already exist is really hard.” Sure is, especially when trying to defeat one’s arch-enemy at the same time: Griffin’s, Daren Vader, is also in the invention contest, and Griffin simply has to beat him (personality clashes aside, the two have a bet on who will win).
The Swindle series (which does not officially have that or any other “series” name, but whose first book was called Swindle) combines entirely expectable and expected events with less-predictable ones in a way that is pleasant, not very challenging to read or figure out, and inevitably packed with feel-good emotions at the end. In Unleashed, for example, it eventually turns out that Luthor’s behavior is a matter of generosity rather than anything nefarious – no surprise there, but exactly why the dog does what he does is one of those minor mysteries holding the narrative together. And the invention contest provides plenty of chances for oddball imaginings, such as Darren’s “self-feeding egg cooker” and Griffin’s “Hover Handler,” which is designed to stop Luthor’s truck-chasing but which mysteriously goes missing. And then there are the solar-powered salad spinner, toothbrush with built-in cell phone, self-propelled ice skates, and other things that are too silly to have been invented by preteens and in fact (it turns out) come from other places. The moral of the story turns out to be, “An invention is just a thing. Friends are way more important.” And that could be more or less the moral of all the books in this series. All this is certainly predictable – of course Griffin wins the contest, of course doing so in an unexpected way. But the whole book, and the series of which it is a part, are enjoyable enough to have fans looking forward to the next plan with its inevitable Code Z, which means “that the plan had to be abandoned, and pronto.”
Bach: Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord, BWV 1030, 1031, 1032, 1034 and 1035. Jean-Michel Tanguy, flute; Kristian Nyquist, harpsichord. Telos Music. $16.99.
Franz Ignaz Beck: Symphonies, Op. 4, Nos. 4-6 and Op. 3, No. 5. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $9.99.
Jack Gallagher: Symphony No. 2, “Ascendant”; Quiet Reflections. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.
The liberation of wind instruments was a long process, one toward which stirrings began as far back as Bach’s time. The five Bach flute-and-harpsichord sonatas played by Jean-Michel Tanguy and Kristian Nyquist, on a Telos Music recording of performances from 1997, show Bach undertaking attractive flute writing akin to what appears in some of his cantatas and the Orchestral Suite No. 2 – which, like the three-movement sonata BWV 1030, is in B minor. This sonata, the longest of the five on this CD, requires considerable virtuosity from both flute and harpsichord – the latter assuming far more than a traditional continuo role, at times playing both melody and accompaniment, so that the work sounds in part like a trio sonata. Figurations and counterpoint also appear in the harpsichord, while all the while Bach uses the flute in a very forward-looking manner, treating it with virtuosity befitting sonatas written years in the future. Of the sonatas on this disc, it is this one that most clearly anticipates the increasing role of wind instruments in ensembles. The E minor sonata, BWV 1034, and E major one, BWV 1035, are four-movement works that are somewhat more conventional in terms of harpsichord use, although both still require considerable flute virtuosity. However, this requirement derives more from the transposition of material originally written for violin than it does from passages that appear, like those in BWV 1030, to have been created with the flute in mind from the beginning. The authenticity of the sonata in E-flat, BWV 1031, has long been in doubt, but it certainly sounds more like Bach than like the work of other flute-focused composers of his time, such as Quantz. As for the sonata in A, BWV 1032, part of it is missing – about 45 measures from the first movement – and it is heard here in a completion by Barthold Kuijken, which works quite well and allows the music to flow in an apparently natural sequence. All the sonatas are played elegantly and with some sensitivity to period style, although Tanguy unfortunately uses a modern flute – apparently on the basis that the sonatas were composed at different times, as the flute evolved, and would therefore require use of several period instruments to bring out Bach’s intentions. Playing them that way would have resulted in a more-attractive CD as well as one showing more clearly how the flute, like other wind instruments, gained in prominence over time. But the performances here are quite good enough to stand firmly on their own.
In larger ensembles, winds began to be seen as being on equal footing with strings only in some of Mozart’s works, but Mozart did not compose in a vacuum, and there were others paying increasing attention to winds’ capabilities in the mid-to-late 18th century. Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809) is a good example. Beck wrote symphonies only until the mid-1760s, but within his four sets of them, he produced many that combined the influence of the Mannheim school (the Mannheim court orchestra was led by Beck’s teacher, Johann Stamitz) with his own notions of new ways to incorporate winds into symphonies and expand their role. Beck’s symphonies, which he identified by the older term “Sinfonia,” helped lay the groundwork for much that came later. The new Naxos CD of Beck’s works – the label’s second recent release of his symphonies – includes the last three of the Op. 4 set (No. 4 in three movements, Nos. 5 and 6 each in four) and the fifth of the six symphonies from Op. 3 (a three-movement work). Beck here shows himself willing to start exploring emotion and drama within individual movements and in the symphonies as a whole. And when it comes to winds, he does something genuinely unusual in Op. 4, No. 6: he includes them in the slow movement – something that audiences came to accept only very gradually, and generally not until years after Beck stopped writing symphonies. There is nothing profound in Beck’s slow movements, which he uses to provide moments of relative rest within works that are otherwise propulsive and forward-looking; but the slower parts of the symphonies help establish the symphonic form as one in which contrast, within an overarching structure, is the driving force. The Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Marek Štilec plays these pieces with fine style, good balance between strings and winds, and enough dramatic flair to show Beck’s largely unknown but nevertheless significant contribution to symphonic development in the 18th century.
By the 20th and 21st centuries, of course, the use of winds as full partners in orchestral scoring is a foregone conclusion. But there are still some composers who handle them better than others do. The wind writing of Jack Gallagher (born 1947) is particularly felicitous, as a new Naxos CD of his Second Symphony and meditative Quiet Reflections shows. The winds in Quiet Reflections (1996) are handled with particular skill and attentiveness, in a piece whose unashamed lyricism and adherence to tonality produce a feeling of reflection and thoughtfulness – in a way that modern minimalist music, which oftentimes is merely boring, does not. Gallagher’s fusion of today’s compositional techniques and harmonic structures with the older preoccupation of communicating with the audience is highly attractive. JoAnn Falletta and the London Symphony Orchestra handle Quiet Reflections with emotional surety and particularly fine attention to nuance – of which this work has a considerable amount. Interestingly, elements that are momentarily reminiscent of other composers’ music – the opening bell perhaps as the calm inverse of the bell in the finale of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, and a section toward the end that almost sounds like a reflection of Ives’ The Unanswered Question – are subsumed within a style recognizable as Gallagher’s own, one that reflects some earlier works without slavishly imitating them. Gallagher’s “Ascendant” symphony (2010-2013) also bears his personal stamp, although its rather prodigious length (63 minutes, including a 21-minute first movement) is a bit much for its thematic material to bear. The symphony is clearly constructed and well-crafted, and very well-played, but some sections drag and others seem to lead the ear in one direction before giving way, seemingly rather arbitrarily, to sections going elsewhere. The sprawling first movement contains so many elements that it has four codas; the effect is that just as it seems to be concluding a musical argument, it moves to the next one instead. The second, shortest movement, a scherzo marked “Playfully,” has an arch-like structure that includes a minimalist element that proves Gallagher’s ability to compose in this style and also proves that he knows its limitations: he repeats all other sections of the movement, except for the central one, but does not repeat the minimalist portion. The tripartite slow movement and strongly contrasted finale, in which elements of discord and concord alternate, with agitation and gentleness in conflict until a triumphant conclusion, are both well-planned and effective, with the symphony ending with a sense of upward striving that it also possesses at the start of the first movement but that is largely absent elsewhere. Gallagher’s music is characterized by warmth and an unapologetic appeal to audience emotions, created with clear intellectual understanding but connecting with listeners on a visceral level that does not require profound audience understanding of its techniques or aims. His Second Symphony strives mightily and is, as a whole, a bit overlong and overblown, but it is certainly effective enough in many parts; and Quiet Reflections is a calming and genuinely reflective work that invites listeners to a place of peace and harmony – in both the musical sense and the philosophical one.
December 18, 2014
Where’s My Fnurgle? By Jim Benton. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.
Five Stinky Socks. By Jim Benton. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.
Piggy Paints. By Jim Benton. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.
Robot Kitties. By Jim Benton. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.
Leave it to Jim Benton, creator of Happy Bunny and other suitably weird and thoroughly amusing characters, to come up with thoroughly delightful animal-character board books, including one featuring something that has never been seen in a book before. The “something” is a Fnurgle. And if you have to ask what one is, well, you are just like everybody else, because this green, polka-dotted, big-eyed, huge-nosed, ever-smiling whatever-it-is is entirely fnurglian and not much of anything else. The fnurgle does not do much of anything and in fact spends most of its (his?) time not being where the book’s narrator expects it (her?) to be. Hence the title, Where’s My Fnurgle? Readers will see all or most of the fnurgle on all the pages of this board book, but the narrator has a problem. For example, “My fnurgle’s on the chair” is what a left-hand page says, but the chair is clearly empty and the fnurgle is outside the window, smiling. “My fnurgle’s in the sink!” Um, well, no – actually, the fnurgle is hiding in the, well, toilet. Whether sitting calmly amid six kittens or eating the narrator’s lunch, the fnurgle is inevitably up to some sort of mischief or mystery, for no other reason than the apparent fact that that is apparently what fnurgles do. Filled with the usual silliness at which Benton is adept, but presented in board-book format – simple language and a minimal number of pages – this introduction to fnurgling will be a lot more fun than are many board books. It is admittedly a lot less educational, too, but being informative is not what Benton does best. Nor, apparently, what fnurgles do. The first three letters in “fnurgle” are, however, an acronym for “fun.”
The monster thingie that narrates Five Stinky Socks isn’t a fnurgle – it’s hard to tell just what it is – but it does have considerable fondness for super-smelly footwear. The huge-eyed, huge-nosed, five-footed character explains that it used one sock to wash dishes, has a second one that smells like a skunk, found the third in a trash can, and so on – you get the idea, and so will kids, who will enjoy the narrator’s poses while he makes comments such as, “They’re smelling up my feet” and “I have to hold my nose.” Eventually the socks have all been suitably described – and drawn, with each looking equally colorful and smelly in its own way – and what now? Well, it’s time to play outside, and that means putting the stinky feet, encased in stinky socks, in – you guessed it – stinky shoes. The only real problem here will be persuading kids that no matter what monster thingies may do, children do not go out of their way to wear the stinkiest possible socks. Or shouldn’t, anyway.
At least Benton makes the central character of Piggy Paints a familiar animal: a pig, of course. But not just any pig. This is a Benton pig, which means he wakes up with “big painting plans” one morning, grabs a brush as big as he is, and paints on the wall – then puts on magnifying glasses so he can see well enough to paint something really, really small. He paints some recognizable things (“pigs with a kitty in the middle,” frogs, sheep), but mostly abstract ones – including a purple splotch so large that he has to paint it by piloting a helicopter beneath which a gigantic paintbrush is tied. Pig’s painting turns into an all-day project, at the end of which Piggy is right back where we saw him first: in bed, but this time paint-spattered and with brushes and cans on the floor and newly painted art on the wall of his room. As with Five Stinky Socks, there is an issue for parents with Piggy Paints, which is to explain that no matter what Benton-drawn pigs do, children do not paint on walls, or by flying helicopters, or by making huge messes everywhere (not intentionally, anyway).
The characters in Robot Kitties are familiar animals, too – well, more or less. This board book has subtle tie-ins to Piggy Paints (one robot kitten is seen painting a picture of a pig) and to Five Stinky Socks (another is shown trying on socks and shoes that, if not necessarily stinky, are certainly as ill-matched as those in the stinky-socks book). On its own, though, Robot Kitties is simply about – well, the title says it all. There is no explanation of where the robot kitties come from or what relationship they have to humans or other creatures – in fact, the only characters in the book are the robot kitties themselves. Not that there is anything threatening about them – not at all. They are simply amusing as they walk on four legs, or upright on two; fly with a propeller tail, with airplane wings or by hanging onto a balloon; scoot along with their bottom parts having car-like wheels or a single unicycle-like one; or explore underwater within a submersible or simply by using their own robot fins. The fun here lies in looking at all the things the robot kitties do: “You’ll see them here. You’ll see them there. Robot kitties everywhere.” There you have it: short, simple and enjoyable. Indeed, the point of all these Benton board books is plain and simple fun – with which the books are neatly and completely packed.
Paying for College without Going Broke, 2015 Edition. By Kalman A. Chany, with Geoff Martz. Princeton Review/Random House. $20.
Anyone heaving a sigh of relief at being admitted to the college of his or her choice hasn’t looked at the bills yet. In fact, getting into one’s preferred college may be a lot less challenging than paying for it. Kalman Chany and Geoff Martz cite a highly interesting statistic in the 2015 edition of Paying for College without Going Broke: “According to a survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 77.8% applicants to colleges in the United States were accepted by their first-choice school.” This probably indicates considerable care in selecting a first-choice school – considerable credit is due to students and families for that – but what it does not say is how many applicants actually get to attend their first-choice school. The percentage is undoubtedly lower, simply because higher education has become so enormously expensive. And that is the issue that Chany and Martz set out to handle in their book – demystifying the financial-aid process as they go.
They do not really demystify it, though. As a matter of fact, after 300-plus oversized pages about financing one’s education, readers may be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and ready to throw up their hands in despair. There are so many tricks of the trade to getting financial help for school – and they are not necessarily tricky but are often highly time-consuming and elaborate – that even Chany and Martz admit they cannot explain all of them, much less show how each individual reader can apply the various approaches to his or her personal situation. Still, the authors’ guidelines are as clear and helpful in the latest edition of this book as in prior ones, and there is a lot – make that a lot – of information packed in here. One problem for families is that so much of the terminology itself is confusing and one-time-use-only, important for considering the financial realities of colleges but not for anything else in life. Chany and Martz do what they can to familiarize readers with FAFSA, FAOs, preferential packaging, “the automatic zero-EFC,” federal vs. institutional methodologies, the four “need” categories (extremely high, high, moderate and low), and much more, and their explanations are clear and as straightforward as it is possible to be; but the fact is that college financing is enormously complex and has a jargon all its own, making the study of the subject worthy of, well, a college course in itself. This is not something for which many students or parents will likely have much appetite.
Chany and Martz cannot provide the necessary stick-to-it-iveness to get through their book, but readers who do have the motivation will find almost the entire volume enormously useful in a highly practical and pragmatic way. Skip the self-serving and politically disingenuous Foreword by former President Bill Clinton and start with the honest question in the Introduction, “If this is so good for me, why does it feel so bad?” Typically, the authors give a plainspoken reason: the cost of four years in college is more than $150,000 at many schools, which “is enough to cause even the most affluent parent to want to sit down and cry.” After the tears – and really, there is no reason to hold them back; this is a huge expense, one of the biggest families will ever face – Chany and Martz show their usual acumen in talking readers through ways to apply for grants, scholarships, loans, what-have-you, while maximizing an incoming student’s attractiveness to schools in ways both subtle and overt. They warn that financial-aid packages last only one year, so families must be prepared to go through the whole process four times at a four-year school, and they offer suggestions for minimizing taxes, increasing aid eligibility, understanding financial-aid formulas well enough so you can use them to save money, and – in an especially useful section – choosing colleges that will give the best aid packages. Some of their ideas are particularly helpful, such as their recommendation that every student apply to a “financial safety school” that he or she is pretty much sure to get into, that the family can afford even with no aid at all, and that the student is willing to attend: “We’ve met some students who freely admit they wouldn’t be caught dead going to their safety school. As far as we are concerned, those students either haven’t looked hard enough to find a safety school they would enjoy, or they have unreasonable expectations about what the experience of college is supposed to be.”
In a book as thick and complex as this one, there are bound to be some misfirings, and there are. Sometimes a statement is puzzling, and sometimes one is unintentionally hilarious: “The federal government has a great break for parent(s) in the household who…can file the 1040A or the 1040EZ tax form (or are not required to file a tax form at all because they are not required to do so).” Skimming over points of unplanned confusion like this one is fine, though, since so much of the book explains points of what appears to be planned confusion in the design and implementation of federal and institutional college-funding assistance. There is simply no way to make this subject easy, and it would be naïve of parents and students to think that the most important aspect of college planning is academic and/or geographical and/or career-oriented. All those factors are crucial, but unless a student can afford to attend a college that provides the academic and/or career focus that he/she wants, in a geographic region where he or she will be comfortable, the whole college experience may be ruined even before it begins. The practical, clear, results-oriented writing contained in Paying for College without Going Broke will scarcely make students or families happy with the realities of handling a college education financially: schools’ expectations of what families will pay in order to get any financial aid whatsoever are “designed to include money that you have earned in the past (assets) and money that you will obtain in the future (loans) as well as the income you are currently earning.” This is profoundly uncomfortable, and it is to the credit of Chaney and Martz that they do not sugarcoat the reality’s unpleasantness. If they cannot make it pleasing, though, they can at least make it palatable by helping families take as much control of college financing as possible. That is the bottom-line value of the 2015 edition of Paying for College without Going Broke.
Bogle Trilogy #2: A Plague of Bogles. By Catherine Jinks. Illustrated by Sarah Watts. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Little White Lies. By Katie Dale. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
The doubts, uncertainties and feelings of not fitting in that collectively come across as angst in many books for preteens and teenagers are in full bloom – if that is the right word – in both of these novels. A Plague of Bogles, the sequel to Catherine Jinks’ How to Catch a Bogle, returns readers to an alternative version of Victorian England, in which monstrous, child-eating bogles roam London and professional boglers are called upon to dispatch them. Birdie McAdam, bogler’s assistant and the central character of the first book, plays a subsidiary role here, having moved up in the world (at least by traditional standards) and finding herself doubting who she really is and where she fits in. She was a more interesting character in the first book, and her lack of assurance and altogether lower level of intensity here are unfortunate. “Last time I saw her,” says the new book’s protagonist, Jem Barbary, “she were living with a fine lady near Great Russell Street, eating plum cakes every day and wearing lace on her petticoats.” This is not the Birdie readers of the first book will want to see – and, thank goodness, some elements of the original Birdie do reappear in the course of A Plague of Bogles. But Jem is, in the main, the central character, and neither he nor his adventures are as interesting as were Birdie’s in the series opener. Jem, an orphan, was apprenticed, so to speak, to an old thief named Sarah Pickles, who would be pretty much straight out of Oliver Twist except for the fact that she operates in an environment saturated with magic. Jem worked for her as a pickpocket until she betrayed him, and then he ended up on the streets, hoping to become a bogler’s apprentice. Indeed, Jem has already helped dispose of a bogle, and he does eventually get together with Alfred Bunce, to whom Birdie was apprenticed, and become Alfred’s new assistant. And so there ensue a series of new adventures, in which bogles seem to cluster in ways they did not in the first book – hence the title of this sequel. Eventually everything ties back to Sarah Pickles, who turns out to be even more unpleasant than Jem originally thought her to be; and after a series of close calls, and Jem’s capture and near destruction by bogles, it is clear that he and Birdie will be involved with Alfred in the next entry in the series. Second books of trilogies are always in a difficult position: they need to make sense on their own while advancing the overall story line, starting in the middle of things and ending up somewhere else in the middle of other things. A Plague of Bogles feels a bit too much like a placeholder to be fully effective, and Jem is not as interesting or fully delineated a character as Birdie. But Jinks paces the story well and skillfully delivers more of the thrills and chills she provided in the first book – although here as in How to Catch a Bogle, the illustrations by Sarah Watts add little to the story and are significantly less grim than the tale itself. Birdie will presumably overcome her uncertainty and self-doubt in the next installment, and with her experience added to Jem’s – and the likely reappearance of villains who managed to escape in the first two books – the scene is set for a bang-up conclusion.
London is different – modern and more realistic – and the angst is dialed up multiple notches in Katie Dale’s Little White Lies. This is in part simply a matter of the reader age targeted by the book: Dale’s is for 14 and up, Jinks’ for 8-12. But it is also a matter of the story’s focus. Little White Lies is intended as gritty realism (or pseudo-realism), with nary a whisper of magic or anything particularly outré. There is, however, plenty of room here for overplotting, over-coincidence and a general sense that things are overdone. The first-person narrator, Lucinda (Lou), meets an attractive young man named Christian Webb, who has a mysterious past about which he will not talk. Christian keeps his blond hair dyed black and has no family photos anywhere. He is clearly not what he seems to be – but then, it turns out, neither is Lou. Christian’s house is burned one night and his motorbike is destroyed, leaving Lou to rescue him from who-knows-what and take him to the only place he says he can go, to a friend named Joe. Then it just happens to turn out that Joe leaves and locks the apartment from outside. And just then the TV comes on to announce that a criminal named Leo Niles is on the run. And Leo is Christian! And Lou knew it all along! And she has been on a crusade against Leo because Leo’s crime involved a break-in at Lou’s house, leading in turn to two deaths and Lou’s uncle being imprisoned, leading to headlines such as “Convicted Criminal Released as Hero Dad Rots in Jail,” leading to Lou telling readers how she ended up putting Leo’s/Christian’s “phone number on fake taxi cards, jogging past his house every day to discover his routine, bumping into him in the café and ‘accidentally’ spilling coffee on him so I could nick his wallet, giving me an excuse to see him again and a reason to trust me.” And pretending to twist her ankle, and stealing Christian’s keys to frame him for a crime he did not commit, and – well, suffice it to say that Leo may be no angel, but neither is Lou. Leo and Lou – isn’t that cute? Too cute, actually, and so is what happens next, because all these revelations happen mid-book, after which, well, Lou and Leo kiss. Oh my. Now Lou may be falling for the evil criminal who destroyed her family! But Leo soon reveals what really happened, and in a way that Lou believes. But who else will believe it? What can Lou do? What should she do? Follow her heart, her feelings, her concern for family, her instincts, her intellect? Oh my, oh my! Suffice it to say that the book’s second half is no more believable than the first; maybe less. Revelation piles on revelation, with one such eventually showing that Lou’s beloved uncle was not so innocent after all, not so deserving of the “hero” designation he got in the press, and that Lou’s also-beloved aunt had an unwitting hand in the whole mess, and – well, my gracious and my goodness, there is so much to work out here. To give Dale credit, she keeps twisting the plot until it practically shrieks “enough already,” thereby pulling readers along from point to point, event to event, surprise disclosure to surprise disclosure, with a sure hand and sufficient speed to prevent many of those readers from laughing at the plot’s absurdities and holes. Intended as a book for “mature” teens, with its panoply of love, death, crime, infidelity (sort of), and other “adult” themes, Little White Lies is as much a fantasy as any fairy tale rewritten for six-year-olds. But its language and headlong pace make it feel like a book for older readers, and teens trying to convince themselves that this is a foretaste of literature for adults will enjoy what Dale offers. And, to be completely honest, adults should admit that many genre-bound, angst-soaked page turners written for adult readers are no more believable or realistic than Little White Lies. Not that that is much of a compliment to the readers – or the books.
Zdeněk Fibich: Orchestral Works, Volume 4—A Night at Karlštejn Castle; Comenius—Festival Overture; The Jew of Prague—Overture; Hedy—Ballet Music; Hippodamia’s Death—March; Tableaux Vivants—Prologue to the Opening of the New Czech Theatre, The Great Musical Monograph of the Building of the National Theatre, Music for the Reopening of the National Theatre, Music for the Celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the Birth of Jan Amos Comenius. Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $9.99.
Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri. Duke Vespers Ensemble and Cappella Baroque conducted by Brian Schmidt. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Sax Spectrum 2: New Music for Alto and Soprano Saxophone. Glen Gillis, alto and soprano saxophone; Bonnie Nicholson, piano; Richard Gillis, trumpet; James Cunningham, didgeridoo. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Ástor Piazzolla: Five Tango Sensations; Oblivion; Robert Di Marino: Concerto for Bandoneon and String Orchestra. Cesare Chiacchiaretta, bandoneon; Croatian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Naxos. $9.99.
Here are some CDs that derive much of their pleasure from the sounds that the composers create and the performers elicit – that is, the appeal here is not so much one of form or mental appreciation as it is one of simple enjoyment of the skill with which composers create aural beauty and performers bring it out. Of course, this is not to say that the music is intended, like (say) much New Age and minimalist music, simply as sound in which one’s consciousness floats. Every work here has its point – but after listening to the recordings, a listener is as likely to be carried away by the sheer sonic experience as by the more intellectual elements underlying the musical works. The fourth volume of Naxos’ fine survey of the orchestral works of Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900) includes some of his shorter works and ones for theatrical projects, all of them very well played by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra under Marek Štilec. None of the pieces has significant depth; none seems designed to have any. Instead, what each does is encapsulate a particular mood and explore it effectively and in brief, with some very well-done orchestration. Inspired by a play, the concert overture A Night at Karlštejn Castle contrasts horn calls and wistful woodwinds with expressive string themes. A more celebratory piece, Comenius—Festival Overture was written in honor of the important 17th-century Czech writer and teacher, Jan Amos Comenius; but it is not the history but the sound of its ominous opening, Fibich’s use of lower brass, and the eventual triumphant conclusion that will most engage listeners. The overture to the tragedy The Jew of Prague has memorable episodes of menace and drama. The ballet music from Fibich’s fourth opera, Hedy, features picturesque and effective use of percussion, a solo cello, and considerable grace in the strings. The march from Hippodamia’s Death, third in a trilogy of musical melodramas, has strong pacing and a memorable use of harp. And then there are four works for the now-obsolete form of tableaux vivants: “staged pictures” presented a single time for a specific occasion and not intended to be seen, nor their music to be heard, again. The four examples by Fibich are short and to the point, with an appropriately celebratory sound, showing the composer’s skill with (again) the harp, as well as his particular ability to weave pleasant combinations of strings and woodwinds. Interestingly, Music for the Celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the Birth of Jan Amos Comenius was written at the same time as Comenius—Festival Overture and uses the same theme, but is as brief and simply triumphal as the overture is extended and multifaceted.
The sound world is very different but equally enthralling in the performance by the Duke Vespers Ensemble of Dietrich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri. The work’s full title, Membra Jesu Nostri Patientis Sanctissima, means "The most holy limbs of our suffering Jesus" and consists of seven cantatas addressing seven parts of Christ’s body – with stanzas of a Medieval hymn interwoven with Biblical words (mostly from the Old Testament) that are taken to be about Jesus’ feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and head. Considered the first Lutheran oratorio, Membra Jesu Nostri contains no fewer than 43 movements and is scored for two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass, plus two violins, basso continuo, and (in the sixth cantata, Ad cor or “To the heart”) a viola da gamba consort). The work is an extended one, lasting nearly an hour, and highly expressive within the Baroque framework in which Buxtehude composed. This MSR Classics recording features somewhat expanded forces – the Duke Vespers Ensemble has about 20 members – and some subtle, engaged and highly reverent phrasing of the musical material. A live recording, made at the Duke University Chapel in 2013, the performance is particularly notable for the warmth of the singers’ voices and the resonant beauty of the sound quality of the university’s neo-Gothic chapel. Cappella Baroque, founded by Brian Schmidt – who is Assistant Conductor of Chapel Music at Duke – uses period instruments, which add an underpinning of richness and solidity to the vocal material here. It is not necessary to follow the Latin or share Buxtehude’s (and Bach’s) Lutheran faith to be transported by this work, written in 1680, to a region of very considerable aural beauty.
The sound is also the big attraction in an MSR Classics release featuring saxophonist Glen Gillis, but here the music is somewhat too slight to be as involving as the works of Fibich and Buxtehude, with the result that this CD gets a (+++) rating. It is nevertheless a feast for the ears of saxophone lovers. Gillis (born 1956) includes four works of his own and two co-written with others, all of them as new as can be, dating to this year: Fantasia, Aurora Australis, Celtic Air, Doppler Wah Wah Air Jig, Canis Lupus (with James Cunningham, born 1954), and Spectrum Mashup (with Wayne Giesbrecht, born 1964). The works’ titles are reasonably descriptive of their sound, but they are not quite as distinctive as those titles would seem to indicate: all showcase the saxophone’s sonic qualities in somewhat different styles and somewhat different ways, but all come across as being written more as display pieces than for the purpose of communicating any particular non-superficial emotion or viewpoint. Sonically, the most interesting of these is Canis Lupus, because the blend and contrast of saxophone and didgeridoo is unusual and sufficiently exotic to capture the ear effectively. Also on the CD are two works by Richard Gillis: Shades (2014) and Blues & Remembrance (2009, on which the composer hauntingly plays the trumpet). There is a 2014 sonata called Making Changes by Barbara York (born 1949) and a brief but effective two-movement work from 2012 called Narrative by David Kaplan (born 1923). Also here is a 2014 piece by Paul Suchan (born 1983) called Danse Exotique des Gros Papillons, whose intended exoticism would have been brought forth somewhat more effectively if it had been directly followed on the CD by the Glen Gillis/Bonnie Nicholson arrangement of part of The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by He Zhanhao (born 1933) and Chen Gang (born 1935). This concerto is unusually effective in its original instrumentation in the way it combines solo violin playing using Chinese techniques with tonal music written for a Western orchestra. The Gillis/Nicholson arrangement shows that the piece can be interesting to hear when arranged for saxophone and piano, although the aural experience does not match that of the original work. There are a few fairly substantial pieces on this CD, but by and large, the disc comes across as a saxophone-encore showcase of sorts – and there is nothing wrong with that, although nothing particularly profound about it either.
The sound of the bandoneon, which is popular in several countries but seems to be a quintessentially Argentinian instrument because of the way Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992) not only played it but also used it to transform the entire experience of the tango, pervades a new Naxos CD with a strongly international flavor. Hearing an extended bandoneon concerto by an Italian composer – Roberto Di Martino (born 1956) – is itself enough to make a listener’s ears perk up. And hearing the concerto played by an Italian virtuoso, Cesare Chiacchiaretta (who started as an accordion player and then moved to the bandoneon), with a Croatian orchestra and conductor, certainly gives a worldly flavor to the whole listening experience. Di Martino’s concerto, which here receives its world première recording, is in the traditional three movements and does a good if not outstandingly distinctive job of exploring the emotional compass of the bandoneon, from its virtuoso capabilities to a rather surprising amount of sensual expressiveness. This 22-minute work nevertheless pales before the four-minute Oblivion by Piazzolla, whose intensity is quite striking and shows a sonic character that even listeners familiar with the bandoneon may not realize that the instrument possesses. More familiar in sound and expression are Piazzolla’s Five Tango Sensations, which explore the dance form with which the composer is most strongly associated. They perhaps try a bit too hard for the sort of emotional involvement that comes across more meaningfully in Oblivion, but they have notable elements of their own – and a particularly intriguing contrast between the third movement, “Anxiety,” and the fifth, “Fear” (the others being called “Asleep,” “Loving” and “Despertar”). Taken as a whole, this is a (+++) CD that, like the Glen Gillis saxophone offering, will be of greatest interest to listeners who simply want to immerse themselves in a particular instrument’s unique sound and discover ways in which composers make that instrument expressive in a variety of ways.