March 14, 2019
Arrr, Mustache Baby! By Bridget Heos. Illustrations by Joy Ang. Clarion. $17.99.
The third meandering of the mischievous, mustachioed Baby Billy – after Mustache Baby and Mustache Baby Meets His Match – takes this clever Bridget Heos/Joy Ang series into ever-more-complex territory. The first book introduced Baby Billy, who was born with a mustache that has the ability to be a good-guy type or a bad-guy type – neatly reflecting Billy’s moods. The second book brought Baby Billy face-to-face and facial-hair-to-facial-hair with Baby Javier, who was born with an impressive beard that, like Billy’s mustache, changes shape and appearance depending on whether Javier is a baby of sweetness and light or has gone over to the dark side. And now there is a piece of piratical tale-telling called Arrr, Mustache Baby! This gives both Billy and Javier plenty of chances to display their adorable facial hair in both positive and negative ways.
The two are now fast friends, first seen setting out to “sail across the seven seas” – that is, they are aboard a blow-up boat in a community swimming pool. Heos and Ang quickly set in motion the reality/unreality balance of the book by showing Billy and Javier rescuing “shipwrecked passengers” (a Barbie-ish doll that has fallen into the pool) and saving “stranded whales” (an older pool user who was quite happy being out of the water until the boys unceremoniously pushed him into it to “save” him). Proud of themselves, Billy and Javier continue playing in a variety of watery ways, delightfully shown by Ang in Polaroid-like photos depicting the two babies as submarine scientists, polar explorers and more. But there’s dirty work afoot! Javier and Billy soon learn of Captain Kid and Short John Silver, evil pirates (actually, of course, two other babies) who “had stolen a treasure and buried it” (that is, they have put miscellaneous pool toys in the sand of the sandbox).
Being good guys, Javier and Billy, dressed in cute white sailor suits, rush to the sandbox, dig up the buried toys, and return them to their owners – only to be threatened by “a strange ship” (a blow-up pink flamingo sporting a pirate eye patch) aboard which are none other than Captain Kid and Short John Silver. Several water balloons later, Billy and Javier find their ship boarded by the pirates, who demand the treasure – leading to a duel with pool noodles, plastic shovels and such. Uh-oh – fighting! Where will this lead? Well, given the premise of these books, it has to lead to a bigger, curlier mustache for Billy and a longer, pointier beard for Javier – that is, to the two being transformed into their bad-guy alter egos.
And so the heroic baby sailors become dastardly baby “pillaging pirates” who not only keep the sandbox treasure for themselves but also, Heos writes, “sacked every sailor at sea” and “dropped anchor and looted the landlubbers!” But back in the real world, that means Billy and Javier are taking other kids’ pool toys, grabbing people’s snacks and so on – not acceptable, as the facial-hair babies discover when their parents loom over them at poolside and the two boys, crying like the babies they, after all, really are, are carted away by the distinctly unamused adults. This must mean it is time for overexcited little ones to take a nap – but in piratical terms, Heos writes, “Guilty they were and send to the dungeon!” Yet they sleep peacefully in their respective cribs, wake up regretting “their raiding and ransacking,” decide they would rather be heroes than bad guys, make friends with Captain Kid and Short John Silver, and end up being happy, healthy, playful babies who are sweet and well-behaved – that is, as the final page of the book shows, most of the time. Readers already familiar with the Mustache Baby books will delight in this more-action-packed-than-ever story. And since Heos presents but never explains the facial hair that distinguishes Billy and Javier from other babies, it is not necessary to know the earlier books to have a lot of fun with Arrr, Mustache Baby! It does help to know them, though, simply because three Mustache Baby books are three times as much fun as any single one.
Breaking Cat News: Cats Reporting on the News That Matters to Cats. By Georgia Dunn. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Lupin Leaps In: A “Breaking Cat News” Adventure. By Georgia Dunn. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Imagine the unimaginable: think about giving cats microphones, an anchor desk and their very own news broadcasts. Then imagine what they would report on, and how. In Georgia Dunn’s words and art, the whole notion becomes, well, unimaginably funny. And when you think about it, it actually makes a weird kind of sense. After all, we humans report on news that matters to humans, don’t we? You will rarely see a story about, say, a wildebeest’s view of the predator-prey relationship. Our stories relate to us, so of course cat news stories would relate to cats – involving humans only incidentally (which is essentially how everything about cats relates to people: only incidentally).
Anyone who lives with cats, and most people who don’t live with them and are pretty sure they know why they don’t, will find Breaking Cat News delightful. Dunn simply takes everyday occurrences in a straightforward human-family setting and has three cats – Lupin, Elvis and Puck – narrate them from a feline viewpoint. In the first book, for example, it is obvious that the cooking of bacon is a major event, bringing all three cats to the kitchen to climb all over everything and question “the Woman” about what she is doing and whether she needs “someone to eat all the bacon.” Actually, having all three cats at the site of a story is unusual, because Lupin usually serves as Breaking Cat News anchor, with Puck and Elvis handling field reporting. But this is, after all, bacon, so all bets are off. Continuing the coverage of what is really important, the cats report that when the couch is moved one day, “amid a pile of worthless people junk, many priceless cat toys – thought lost forever – are being unearthed.” And speaking of the couch, when “the Man” naps on it, “under the fuzzy blanket,” the cats promise that they will “be covering this story closely all afternoon,” which they mean literally: the three climb onto the blanket as the man remains asleep, and they take peaceful, extended cat naps on top of the blanket covering him, while wearing their news-reporter clothing (jackets and ties), their cat-sized microphones cast carelessly aside in the name of relaxation.
The point of all this is that, whatever else they may be – reporters, news anchors, explorers of the house and its environs – they are first and foremost cats. And what Dunn does so well is to have them retain catlike ideas and personalities even while assuming the very human jobs of broadcast journalists. This probably works as well as it does because Breaking Cat News is so closely based on Dunn’s own human-and-feline family – even the cartoon cats’ names are identical to those of Dunn’s real-life cat companions. It is obvious that Dunn has really lived through scenes such as the one in which the cats panic because “the vacuum is out,” with Lupin hiding behind the anchor desk, Elvis pressing tightly against “the Woman,” and Puck announcing, “I’m live under the bed and I’m not coming out.” Yes, the cats’ outfits are exaggerations, but the whole setup seems just like what cats would do in the way of news if they could.
The second book, Lupin Leaps In, offers more of the same with even better art. For example, Lupin offers to “gently high five” the man’s face to encourage him as he is “practicing [his] pouncing” (which is what push-ups look like to cats). And in an extended series – the stories are usually short, so this one is an exception – Elvis decides to investigate the outdoors while it is snowing, gets lost, and is rescued by Tommy, a stray cat who initially appeared in the first book (wanting to get into the house) and who turns out to be lost and to have people of his own. The way Elvis eventually comes home and then helps Tommy reunite with his people is just the sort of heartwarming story that fits the Christmastime setting of this tale perfectly. This is also a book in which babies become a bigger part of the cats’ lives (well, and the people’s lives, too). The birth of a child near the end of the first book provokes the expected feline response: “It’s going to eat all our food and no one will ever love us again.” But things are going somewhat better than that in the second book, at least until “the baby is mobile!” Then the cats have trouble figuring things out: “How is he so fast? He’s like a tiny cheetah!” They also have difficulty understanding every “people holiday” they encounter – and no wonder, since their people keep dressing them up in costumes that look hilarious but are distinctly un-catlike. For instance, Elvis wears a shirt for St. Patrick’s Day that says “Kiss Me, I’m Irish,” but his comment to “the Woman,” who put the shirt on him, is “Don’t touch me. I’m Siamese.” By the end of the second book, major things have happened. The cats have had a laundry-room encounter with “the ceiling cats,” who live upstairs and speak Spanish – this is another extended sequence, and one in which the misunderstandings are distinctly feline and entirely appropriate. And there is a second human baby in the family by this book’s end – this time, a girl, with whom Elvis (who did not think much of the first baby) falls immediately and completely in love, declaring, “This baby is perfect and I’ll never let anything happen to her.” Human-protecting instincts in cats? Well, yes – they may not be strongly in evidence most of the time, but they are certainly there under some circumstances. Clearly Dunn is well aware of this, and makes sure that readers of Breaking Cat News are aware of it, too. It is all good, clean fun – except when things get messy, of course, as they often do when cats are around. The cleverness of Dunn’s plotting and drawing will have readers hoping for much more of Lupin, Puck and Elvis in the future. And that’s the way it is.
Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 39-41. Ensemble Appassionato conducted by Mathieu Herzog. Naïve. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Perpetual Twilight. The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin conducted by Desmond Earley. Signum Classics. $17.99.
Mark Dal Porto: Song of Eternity; I Seek Rest for My Lonely Heart; When Your Song Rang Out to Me; Romance for Oboe and Piano; Spring, the Sweet Spring; Exotic Animals Suite; Mystic Mountain. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský; Vox Futura conducted by Andrew Shenton; Tracy Carr, oboe; Mark Dal Porto, piano; Arcadian Winds (Vanessa Holroyd, flute; Jane Harrison, oboe; Rane Moore, clarinet; Fred Aldrich, horn; Janet Underhill, bassoon). Navona. $14.99.
Frederic D’Haene: Music with Silent Aitake’s. Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble and Ensemble Modern conducted by Kasper De Roo. Ravello. $14.99.
David Rosenboom: Deviant Resonances—Live Electronic Music with Instruments, Voices & Brains. Ravello. $14.99 (2 CDs).
The emotional intensity brought to their music by certain composers – think Mahler for an obvious example – is only one aspect of the passionate way in which music and music-makers connect with audiences. Performers, after all, are as much a part of the musical experience as the works they perform, which is ultimately what interpretation is all about. This is scarcely a new observation, but every once in a while, a recording comes along that so clearly exemplifies the music-as-passion model that it demonstrates with unusual force just how important performers are in connecting composers and their intentions with audiences. The extraordinary and sure-to-be-controversial interpretations of Mozart’s last three symphonies by Mathieu Herzog and Ensemble Appassionato on a new Naïve recording fit this model well. This chamber-sized group presents Mozart in a way that is as far as possible from what listeners will likely expect from a small ensemble. This is in-your-face Mozart, intense and, yes, passionate to such a degree that the composer seems to have been nearly as much a Romantic as, say, Schubert. It is a fair bet that few listeners will ever have heard these symphonies sound this way. For one thing, the performances are fast, often very fast – but that in itself has no more meaning than saying, for example, that Toscanini’s performances were fast. The statement is true, but what matters is why the speed, not that the speed exists. There is nothing capricious in the way Herzog drives this music – and he does drive it, to such an extent that only an extraordinary group of musicians like this one could possibly keep up with the pacing while articulating the works with such clarity and style. It is not Mozart’s style – these should not be confused with period performances, and they are certainly not stately or courtly readings. But because the music is already so well-known, the drive and speed of these performances prove revelatory of elements of Mozart’s thinking that rarely, if ever, come to the fore. The handling of each symphony’s first and third movements is particularly telling. The first movements dash headlong into the audience’s consciousness, insisting through their propulsiveness that these symphonies have something important to say and are going to drive their points home. The third movements are, in effect, split in two, with the main Menuetto settings as driven as anything by Bruckner and then coming to a screeching halt for the Trio portions – which are taken much more slowly, almost like additional slow movements within each symphony’s structure. The slow second movements of all three symphonies are less emotive than in other performances: this is a set that shows its Romantic inclinations through extensive rubato and considerable freedom of pacing, not through inappropriate slow-movement swooning. As for the finales, each gets its own approach: very fleet and light in No. 39, exceptionally intense and dark in No. 40, and played at such breakneck speed in No. 41 that if Jupiter is listening, his ears will be ringing. Yet there is such precision in all the playing that the music’s lines are clear throughout, the interplay of themes (including inner voices) comes through to excellent effect, and the chamber-ensemble-like sound serves as anodyne for the highly unconventional pacing and overall interpretative excesses. These should not be the first-choice recordings of these symphonies for anybody – but they are, in their own way, so revelatory and so flat-out unusual that the more familiar listeners are with the music, the more their ears will be opened by hearing the way Herzog and Ensemble Appassionato perform it.
The passion is somewhat more controlled, and used for different purposes, by The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin under Desmond Earley on a new Signum Classics release. There are 14 tracks here, mixing new choral music with arrangements of traditional Scottish and Irish folk material, everything written or arranged to allow the crystal-clear sound and intonation of the chorus to come through consistently. Instrumental touches – strings here, woodwind there, percussion elsewhere – set off the vocal material exceptionally well, and the voices sound committed and strongly involved with the material throughout, although never through over-emoting. Some of the tracks are quite extended: Earley’s Body of the Moon runs nearly eight minutes, and Bill Whelan’s Elegy lasts six-and-a-half. But there is no sense of musical or artistic padding anywhere here: each song grows and flows naturally and lasts just as long as it should. The massed-voice beauties of Timothy Stephens’ At That Hour When All Things Have Repose, the bounce of Earley’s arrangement of the traditional Dúlamán, the sweetness of the inevitable Danny Boy (in another Earley arrangement), are but some of the manifest pleasures here. The songs are actually quite wide-ranging, but they do have a connecting theme, which is that of nature and the human relationship to it. This is especially apparent in the traditional Wild Mountain Thyme (arranged by Eoin Conway), but also in Natasa Paulberg’s A Star, Colin Mawby’s Bright Cap and Streamers, and elsewhere. There is an elegance to the singing in this release that stands in pleasant contrast to the generally homespun content of the music and that helps listeners drift away into a twilit land where human nature and the natural world coexist somewhat less uneasily than they do in everyday life.
Nature also arouses the passionate devotion and concern of composer Mark Dal Porto, as is shown on a new Navona CD that mixes vocal and purely instrumental material with similar focuses. The three choral works here are I Seek Rest for My Lonely Heart; When Your Song Rang Out to Me; and Spring, the Sweet Spring. The first, inspired by an ancient Chinese poem, is for a cappella choir, the second (based on a work by Clemens Brentano) and third (with words by Thomas Nashe) for mixed chorus with piano. The China-inspired material is quiet and thoughtful, the works based on German and Elizabethan sources much more upbeat, and all pay due respect to the place of humans in nature and their reactions to the surrounding world. There is something a bit distancing in the settings, though, for all their careful beauty: the music seems a bit formulaic, as indeed do some of the words. Some of the purely instrumental material on this CD actually evokes the people-and-nature theme more effectively. Song of Eternity does so especially well. This is another work inspired by ancient Chinese poetry, but its inward-looking, lyrical and rather nostalgic sound produces a more contemplative mood than does the a cappella setting from a similar source. Even more heartfelt is Romance for Oboe and Piano, a real husband-and-wife production: Dal Porto wrote it for Tracy Carr, to whom he is married, and it is performed by the two of them. The feelings here are clearly evoked and permeate the entire 12-minute work, although it must be said that, musically, there are a number of times when the emotional expressions of the two instruments clash and go off in different directions instead of blending. This is an entirely human-focused piece; Exotic Animals, a suite for woodwind quintet, is entirely nature-focused. It is also quite delightful: it is the piece offered here that is least concerned with being intense, serious and meaningful, and perhaps as a result is the most appealing work on the CD. The first, bird-focused movement has performers giving out with some deliberately discordant sounds through some playing techniques that are well beyond the ordinary – used here for a real purpose, not just to show the composer’s cleverness (as is often the case in works that stretch the boundaries of traditional instruments). The second movement, on snakes and lizards, is no less than a five-voice fugue whose subject slithers and slides impressively. The finale, on cats such as lions, tigers and leopards, reintroduces themes (and thus animals) from the first two movements, then has them scattered by horn proclamations that sound distinctly like big-cat roars. These three three-minute movements add up to a miniature suite both expressive and amusing, and one that connects with the natural world to very fine effect. The CD is bracketed by orchestral works: Song of Eternity is heard first, and the disc concludes with Mystic Mountain. The latter has something in common scenically and musically with Honegger’s Mysterious Mountain, but Dal Porto’s eight-minute montane scene is in some ways a far more compressed version of Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony: both Dal Porto and Strauss take listeners on a journey from the base of the mountain to its top. However, true to its title, Mystic Mountain ends not with stormy weather or a fast descent, but with a sense of expansiveness and the glory of nature as perceived and appreciated by humans. Dal Porto’s expressions of near-prayerful response to the mountain’s summit are somewhat straightforward, as are his choral settings of poems: the music on this (+++) CD is better when it does less-than-literal tone painting. Still, the emotional connections that Dal Porto seeks often come through with clarity and strength.
The passion of Belgian composer Frederic D’Haene is for juxtaposition that results in something entirely new – not so much a blending of opposites as a merger of them to create something that does not superimpose one on the other but creates a style that, taking from both, sounds like neither. D’Haene calls this “paradoxophony,” and as the awkwardness of the word indicates, this is very much an intellectual rather than emotional exercise. D’Haene is one of those composers for whom the technical elements involved in constructing music are a passionate focus, while the communication of the music with an audience – to the extent that there is any specific communication at all – is decidedly a subsidiary matter. The new Ravello CD of D’Haene’s Music with Silent Aitake’s demonstrates just what D’Haene is after and just what listeners can and cannot expect from the approach. The oddest thing about this creation is that the music comes out sounding electronic even though it uses no electronics. That sound is the result of combining traditional Japanese court music, called gagaku, with music made by a Western instrumental ensemble. This is rarefied material indeed. There is some structural form to it, more or less along the lines of a suite: there fairly short netori, sort-of-preludes, are interwoven with two far more extensive gagaku sections in a whole lasting 40-plus minutes that never sounds as if it is going anywhere and that can be stopped at pretty much any point without diminishing or enhancing its overall effect. D’Haene offers a great deal of intellectual gloss for the intricate processes and procedures underlying Music with Silent Aitake’s, and some of his notions are interesting for the way in which they highlight the immense cultural differences between Western and gagaku traditions. Those differences largely flow from deeply differing underlying societal paradigms: the individualistic Western tradition of looking to leadership has much to do with the use of a conductor to lead and shape musicians’ performances, while the longstanding collectivist nature of Japanese and other Asian societies, in which individualism is downplayed to the point, sometimes, of disappearance, explains the way in which gagaku performance expects players to use their inherent time sense and their consciousness of other players to determine what to do, how to do it, and at what speed to proceed. Intellectual framework aside, the question for listeners – especially ones listening to the music on CD and thus without seeing the performers – is how the material comes across, what effects it produces. The answers will range from “none at all” to “utter boredom” to “fascination with an intriguing cross-cultural experiment.” For an ultra-avant-garde-favoring audience, this is a (+++) CD; for other listeners, there is really nothing of value in it, and not much of music.
The entirety of Music with Silent Aitake’s is not much longer than a single work by David Rosenboom from another new Ravello release – this one a two-CD offering. The first piece on the first CD, Portable Gold and Philosophers’ Stones (Deviant Resonances) runs more than 35 minutes all by itself, and it is a fair bet that listeners who find it intriguing will want to hear other works on this recording, while those who deem it meaningless, pretentious or both will have no further interest in Rosenboom’s very extensively planned and executed material. Calling this “music” is something of a stretch, as even Rosenboom might acknowledge. Where D’Haene has “paradoxophony,” Rosenboom has “propositional music,” which means creating nonmusical propositions of all sorts (up to and including creating forms of consciousness and alternative universes) and then embodying those creations in musical forms of some sort. This is heady material, to be sure, and Rosenboom has been working with his ideas for half a century, so this is clearly a matter of passionate devotion for him. It is likely to be much, much less so for listeners, even those who would consider this a (+++) release for its sheer daring and the unusual nature of Rosenboom’s creations – which involve such techniques as analyzing the electrical signals from people’s brains and then using complex computer programs to turn the brainwave activity into the basis of a musical, or pseudo-musical, performance. Rosenboom certainly does not lack for audacity: one piece recorded here, The Experiment, is taken from a “mobile opera for 24 cars” that was actually staged in Los Angeles in 2015 in 24 limousines, each of them driving audience members somewhere in the city as they heard spoken and sung material. This sort of staged happening obviously owes a good deal to John Cage’s notion of the interchangeability of performers and audience, and also to Cage’s belief that everything is music whether or not traditionally deemed “musical.” Rosenboom, however, takes matters quite a bit beyond where Cage took them. Like much avant-garde material created under the general category of “music,” Rosenboom’s works lose something in the translation to audio-only format: they are inherently participatory and do not adapt particularly well to being heard on CD. Listeners who already known Rosenboom from his decades of creations are the natural and perhaps only significant audience for this release. But there is also something to be said for regarding these pieces as “found objects” of a sort: however carefully and meticulously constructed, they convey the impression of a quirky assemblage of random sounds, sometimes surprisingly quiet, sometimes bewildering in their range and complexity, and always passionate in their own way.
Schoenberg: Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11; Fünf Klavierstücke, Op. 23; Klavierstück, Op. 33; 17 Fragments. Yoko Hirota, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Garth Baxter: Chamber Music. Navona. $14.99.
Paul Green: A Bissel Rhythm; Zoey’s Chosidl; My Own Freilach; Doina and Ramble; Prelude to the Blues; Joe’s Hurra; The Jewish March; Lisa’s Song. Paul Green, clarinet; Charles Tokarz, tenor saxophone; Jason Ennis, guitar; Ben Kohn, piano; Daniel Broad, bass; Peter Sweeney, drum set. Big Round Records. $14.99.
Listeners interested in a less-familiar side of Arnold Schoenberg’s music, and in some additional insight into what he hoped to do as he moved farther from tonality, will find much to think about in Yoko Hirota’s performances of three of Schoenberg’s five completed piano works – plus 17 fragments that he did not bring to fruition and that are, in some ways, more interesting than the piano pieces that he did finish. Hirota’s new Navona CD includes the completed Op. 11, Op. 23 and Op. 33, omitting Op. 19 (which has some resemblances to Op. 11) and Op. 25 (written about the same time as Op. 23). Most of the individual pieces within these sets are quite short, around one to three minutes apiece, although the second piece within Op. 11 is much more extensive, at six-and-a-half minutes. Op. 11 sounds comparatively mild by 21st-century standards but quite forward-looking by the standards of its own time (1909). The pounding elements of the third piece, in particular, look well beyond an era when piano music was still largely Brahmsian, and the lapses into pseudo-lyricism provide little respite. Op. 23 (1920-23) incorporates a twelvetone row, albeit only in the final Waltz movement, which accordingly is the movement that sounds more as listeners will expect Schoenberg to sound than do the others. Op. 33 (1928-31), Schoenberg’s final piano piece (or pieces: he may not have intended them to be two parts of a single work), is both thoroughly twelvetone in conception and execution. Hirota has no difficulty with any of the rhythmic and thematic complexities of these works, even seeking and periodically finding a degree of emotional conveyance that frequently seems to be absent from the usual rather dry interpretations of Schoenberg’s music. The most-interesting material here, however, if also the most abstruse, lies in the fragments, which range in length from 16 seconds to the size of a complete Schoenberg piano piece – more than three minutes. The fragments are given chronologically, to the extent that their dates are known. The earlier, longer ones, much like the completed Op. 11, pay homage, to some degree, to Brahms, but the middle fragments take pianistic matters in a different direction: close attention to soft dynamics in the ninth and tenth, for example, and preoccupation with forms of accentuation in Nos. 13-16. Hirota makes no attempt to over-perform this material or make it seem any more complete (or incomplete) than it is; as a result, she offers pianists and listeners who have special interest in Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School an unusual opportunity to explore Schoenberg’s compositional process for the keyboard, including its uncertainties and limitations. The result is a CD that, although of rather limited audience appeal, will be fascinating to those with a particularly strong interest in this composer.
Solo-piano material also appears on a new Navona CD featuring works by Garth Baxter: Resistance, Romance without Words, and Ballade for a Princess, are all piano pieces (played by Andrew Stewart). But these contemporary piano works seek out and find considerably more lyricism and are far more comfortable with tonality than anything Schoenberg wrote for piano. Ballade for a Princess, in particular, reaches back for inspiration to Chopin and has some distinctly Romantic-era musical touches. Many of Baxter’s other works on this disc, for two or more instruments, also feature the piano prominently. The Silver Run, for flute (Melissa Wertheimer) and piano (Stewart), intended as a portrayal of a specific geographical area, comes across simply as a rather pleasant two-instrument idyll. Could You Dream What I Dream, for violin (Nicholas Currie) and piano (Diana Greene), is exceptionally neo-Romantic, enough so that the “neo” seems nearly unnecessary: it is a throwback, yes, but quite a lovely and engaging one. Des Larmes Encadrées, for saxophone (Kenny Baik) and piano (Bonghee Lee), is also sentimental, although it is more pretty than profound. Il Y a Longtemps for violin (Currie) and piano (Greene) is another warm, romantic (and Romantic) work, giving some extra prominence to the piano in the mood-setting. And then there is a three-instrument work that includes piano, From the Headwaters, for violin (Heather Haughn), cello (Diana Flesner), and piano (Jay DeWire). This is a piece that walks the tonal/atonal tightrope rather adeptly, waxing sentimental at certain times while becoming more acerbic at others. The CD also includes two pieces without any piano at all. Macpherson’s Lament is for string quartet (played here by the Azimuth String Quartet: Currie and James Tung, violins; Alice Tung, viola; Adam Gonzalez, cello). Based on the tune and song written by Scottish outlaw James Macpherson just before he was hanged in 1700, this is a dark and meandering work, not deep but affecting. Also here is Edgefield, a piece for two guitars (Kathrin Murray and Troy King), whose sound differs significantly from that of the other music on the disc but whose rather gentle emotional expression fits the rest of the material well. The (+++) CD is something of a hodgepodge of pieces and performances, although the musicians in the 10 works are uniformly skilled and all sound involved in the proceedings. Baxter’s chamber works, at their best, sound modern enough to engage the ear but also old-fashioned enough to engage the heart – a winning combination, if not one offered consistently.
Baxter’s works tend to combine some contemporary sensibilities with some Romantic-era ones. Paul Green’s, heard on a new Big Round Records recording, offer a different combination, of jazz and Jewish music. The piano is a force to be reckoned with here as in Baxter’s pieces, but Green generally uses it as a foundational support of the ensemble, along with the drum set, rather than as the front-and-center instrument. That role more frequently goes to the clarinet, which Green himself plays on this CD. This recording will appeal mainly to listeners interested in Jewish music with some contemporary flair: strictly as jazz, it is on the mild side, with its creativity coming in the way Green adapts Jewish tunes into the jazz medium. This is particularly clever in A Bissel Rhythm, which is loosely based on nothing less than Gershwin’s famous I Got Rhythm. The sinuous Zoey’s Chosidl uses a Jewish dance form to produce a tribute to a dog that Green especially loved and that died of cancer. Much bouncier, My Own Freilach is based on a dance often played at Jewish weddings and other celebrations, here heard with a variety of jazz embellishments and performed with considerable enthusiasm. Doina and Ramble contrasts sadness with liveliness in a work intended to re-create the form of music used at New Orleans funerals a century ago. Prelude to the Blues lets performers create their own melodies from within a specified set of notes – a semi-aleatoric approach intended to keep the material sounding jazzy while placing it firmly within the realm of Jewish music. Joe’s Hurra sounds a bit like a slow waltz with improvisational elements. The Jewish March stands in strong contrast: another look back, this work tries to approximate the way Jewish immigrants to the United States might have celebrated musically a century in the past by mixing tunes from the “old country” with rhythms prominent in the New World. And Lisa’s Song, dedicated to Green’s wife, opens and closes with cadenzas that sandwich a sweet if rather obvious Jewish melody. The playing on the disc is quite good in traditional jazz style, with Green making sure his clarinet is prominent a great deal of the time. Jazz fanciers looking for something a bit different in the underlying material on which improvisations are built will enjoy this foray into music that is not usually associated with the jazz medium.
March 07, 2019
Klawde: Evil Alien Warlord Cat No. 1. By Johnny Marciano and Emily Chenoweth. Illustrated by Robb Mommaerts. Penguin Workshop. $14.99.
Klawde: Evil Alien Warlord Cat No. 2—Enemies. By Johnny Marciano and Emily Chenoweth. Illustrated by Robb Mommaerts. Penguin Workshop. $14.99.
One of the cleverest and silliest series of novels for middle-school readers in quite some time, Klawde: Evil Alien Warlord Cat evokes laughter even from its title. “Klawde” as in “clawed,” OK, but “evil alien warlord cat”? What can that be about? Turns out that it’s about Lord High Emperor Wyss-Kuzz (not pronounced “whiskers”), the Magnificent, from the planet Lyttyrboks (not pronounced “litter box”), a reigning feline so implacable, so cruel, so thoroughly evil that the cat court in charge of such things revives a long-abandoned practice of exile to a planet of “carnivorous ogres” far away across the universe. Wyss-Kuzz is to be sent to – Earth. Well, of course! And of course he is going to have some, err, adaptation to do.
Enter Raj Banerjee, young human being. Raj and his parents have just moved from Brooklyn, New York, to the small town of Elba, Oregon, where his mom has gotten a new and better job. Now Raj has adaptation to do, and he is not liking it in the least: all the outdoors out in Oregon, the lack of nearby pizza places and comic-book stores, and the lack of nearby friends or, in fact, any friends at all. Obviously Wyss-Kuzz and Raj are made for each other. They just don’t know it yet.
This would be a fairly ordinary fish-out-of-water story (well, characters-out-of-water, anyway) if Wyss-Kuzz – who soon gets the Earth name Klawde from Raj’s father – were not such a hilarious blend of traditional villainy and inescapable felinity. Of course, the cat comes from a highly advanced, spacefaring race with technology far beyond what mere humans possess, and is cast away on our poor benighted planet, where he has to figure out how to survive while staying focused on his primary driving force: revenge against the underling who has taken over his position as ruler, General FFangg (not pronounced “fang” – part of the amusement here comes from the distinctly Earthlike names the alien cats possess). The first book in the series is all about Klawde’s attempts to make himself appear harmless and Earth-cat-like so he can plot his return to his home planet and take over again. The book is also about Raj’s attempts to fit into his new community: his parents agree to let him keep Klawde only if Raj consents to going to an outdoor camp, which turns out to be run by the ultimate counselor-from-hell, who calls himself Turkey Vulture and is pretty clearly unhinged.
Along the way, Klawde reveals who he really is to Raj, needing Raj’s help with various things on Earth, and Raj gladly keeps Klawde’s secret, and the two soon become best friends. But Klawde is still a cat, and an evil-ruler one, at that. At one point Klawde is about to enter the teleporter he has constructed for his return to Lyttyrboks when he is interrupted by “the long-furred ogre,” otherwise known as “the mother-Human.” He is about to scratch her when Klawde (who narrates alternating chapters, with Raj doing the others) says “she turned to me. ‘If you try it, I’ll skin you alive and turn you into a fur hat.’ Finally, a Human I could respect. I stood down.” That is Klawde all over – and the illustrations that Robb Mommaerts adds to the text by Johnny Marciano and Emily Chenoweth show this scene and many others (definitely including those involving Turkey Vulture) to perfection.
Well, Klawde does not quite get back to his home planet at the end of the first book, and that sets things up for the second, in which travel between Lyttyrboks and Earth starts to become a lot more common. It turns out that General FFangg himself has now been betrayed and ousted – these are cats, remember, and loyalty is not their strong suit – by none other than Klawde’s “loyal minion, Flooffee-Fyr” (not pronounced however the heck it would be pronounced on Earth). Now General Ffangg has himself been exiled to Earth – just what Klawde did not need. And on the Raj side of things, a onetime friend, or really frenemy, has suddenly turned up in Elba, Oregon – just what Raj did not need. So in the second book as in the first, we have parallel and intersecting stories that are funny in themselves and downright hilarious in combination (Klawde is a cat, which means that when he gets really busy and involved in a project one day, he can only manage to take 17 naps). The second book is further complicated by Klawde’s determination to train new minions, or some sort of army, to help him retake Lyttyrboks; but of course the only available cats are Earth cats, who are thoroughly unsatisfactory for the purpose – except maybe for one female kitten who does have potential. The battle between Klawde and General Ffangg for control of the Earth cats leads to a series of very funny scenes, several of which involve distinctly feline traumas, including getting thoroughly soaked with water and losing tail fur. The constant reminders of just how catlike Klawde is, coupled with his always-scowling appearance and his obvious, if feckless, ruthlessness, make Klawde: Evil Alien Warlord Cat a truly wonderful series; and although Raj has far less personality than does Klawde, he makes a fine foil for the real star (or starcat) of the show. The books are fun because they are so adeptly written and paced, because they are so amusingly illustrated, and – well, just be-klaws.
Sheep in a Jeep 5-Minute Stories. By Nancy Shaw. Illustrated by Margot Apple. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.
I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More! By Karen Beaumont. Illustrated by David Catrow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Few things are worse
In prose or verse
Than a once-neat story
Now past its glory:
Tales once well told
Can soon seem old
With thoughts once cute
That now are moot.
But hark! Not all
Old books will fall!
There are a few
That charm anew:
When they’re redone
They’re loads of fun.
And so we come, prosaically enough, to eight of the marvelous Nancy Shaw/Margot Apple “Sheep” stories packed into a brand-new oversize board book and designated part of the 5-Minute Stories series. The original, somewhat longer versions of the tales have been around for a while: Sheep in a Jeep dates to 1986, Sheep on a Ship to 1989, Sheep in a Shop to 1991, Sheep Out to Eat to 1992, Sheep Take a Hike to 1993, Sheep Trick or Treat to 1997, Sheep Blast Off! to 2008, and Sheep Go to Sleep to as recently as 2015. But the age of the originals matters not at all, because Shaw and Apple have created a series of genuine early-childhood classics whose fun-to-follow rhyme schemes and always-amusing adventures are as captivating now as when they were first published. The stories in the new collection are not given in chronological order, but that scarcely matters. The initial misadventure that ends with “Jeep in a heap. Sheep weep” is as timeless as the Halloween tale in which the treats offered to the sheep are not all equally appetizing: “Spiders give a dried-up fly. Sheep decide to pass it by.” The especially clever solution to a need for birthday-gift money in the shop is as smart as ever: “Sheep clip wool, three bags full.” The words in the outdoor hiking adventure are as much fun to read as always, and the accompanying pictures fit them beautifully: “Yuck! Muck! Soggy backs! Blub! Blub! Sloppy packs!” The spaceship adventure blasts off enjoyably anytime, with the sort-of-sheeplike aliens (green wool, six limbs, two extra eyes on stalks that protrude from the top of their heads) a real joy. The wordplay is always wonderful when the sheep go out to eat: “Sheep get soup. Sheep scoop. Sheep slurp. Sheep burp.” The misadventures of the pirate sheep get just the right words, too, with suitably fishy illustrations: “Waves wash across the ship. Waves slosh. Sheep slip.” No wonder the very last story is, has to be, the one about going to sleep, or trying to: “Nighttime noises scare the sheep. Really, who could go to sleep?” Well, one answer to that question is that young children to whom these stories are read – in, yes, five minutes or so apiece – will sleep soundly and happily if they do not decide to leap up and dash happily about because of all the sheeplike (sheepish?) excitement. In truth, the eight stories here are good for a lot more than 40 minutes of reading time, because they can and will charm again and again. Shaw and Apple have spent more than three decades creating rhymes and pictures that go beautifully and always amusingly together, and that show no sign of seeming old-fashioned, much less outright old, anytime in the foreseeable future.
A single-story, more-standard-size board book with Karen Beaumont’s picture-perfect text and David Catrow’s text-perfect pictures is also a longtime favorite, originally dating to 2005. The absolutely marvelous juxtaposition of black-and-white art with pictures in multiple hues – sometimes in different parts of the same picture – is a big part of the ongoing delightfulness of I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More! The little boy seen practically bathing in paint on the book’s cover never falls short of hyper-enthusiasm despite his mother’s loudly expressed disapproval of him “paintin’ pictures on the floor/ and the ceiling/ and the walls/ and the curtains/ and the door.” Perfectly sour-faced and downcast-looking when ensconced in a gigantic bathtub in which he is clean but the tub and everything around it are absolutely covered in multiple paint hues, the boy initially accepts his mom’s demand and agrees, in the rhythm of the old “it ain’t gonna rain no more” rhyme: “I ain’t gonna paint no more, no more,/ I ain’t gonna paint no more.” But when he makes that promise, the boy is sitting at the top of a staircase, wearing pajamas, watching his mother put all the paints way up on a high closet shelf – which, on the very next page, he finds he can reach by simply putting a hat box on a trunk on a chair on a cardboard box atop which a bowling ball is resting because, well, why not? All right, maybe the re-acquisition of the paints isn’t exactly simple, but then, neither are the boy’s plans for them (his shock of red hair is a particularly neat artistic touch). Now he agrees that “I ain’t gonna paint no more” just as soon as he does a little more painting, using colors that rhyme with body parts (red for his head) or rhymes that encourage him to continue being artistic (“Aw, what the heck!/ Gonna paint my neck!”). Chest (a super-swirly purple snake), arm (a line of charmingly rendered black ants walking toward the shoulder), hand (a mostly green face with a big smile, with the ants starting their journey by coming out of the smiling mouth) – see, there is only a bit more painting to be done here and there. And there and here and over there and out there and up there and down there and eventually, “I’m such a nut, gonna paint my – WHAT?!” Yes, that last word is courtesy of the boy’s mother, who is illustrated entirely in black-and-white and is entirely fed up and entirely ready to dunk the boy right back in that huge bathtub, where he (and the family dog, which has been, largely inadvertently, part of the whole adventure) are finally seen looking more-or-less clean, while the tub and the bathroom in which it sits are so remarkably messy that Catrow must have been laughing while putting every last finishing bit of combined, congealed and contrasted colors all over the place. Beaumont’s words set exactly the right tone for Catrow’s renditions of the little boy’s joyous, mischievous, devil-may-care expressions – and while adults might justifiably worry that the book is so much fun that it may encourage real-world misbehavior, the whole story is so over-the-top that it is very hard to imagine any child, no matter how enthusiastic, deciding to make an instruction manual out of I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More! Of course, “very hard” is not the same as “impossible.” Parents, you have been warned!
Maker Genius: Creative Science Projects for Budding Geniuses. Scholastic. $19.99.
It starts with a book cover that is really a box, within which are circuits that are activated by pressing buttons on the book’s cover (after flipping a switch inside to produce the necessary battery power). The buttons are drawn to look as if they connect to four bananas – that is, it looks as if pressing them somehow activates a banana circuit. What actually happens is that pressing each button produces musical tones, so the front of Maker Genius can be used to play a tune. But it is not quite that straightforward, since each button produces multiple tones: each time a button is pressed, the tone changes. Figuring out just what tones each button delivers, and in what order, is necessary in order to take full advantage of the banana-music maker, which is definitely not as simple as it looks.
In much the same way, Maker Genius only seems to be a fairly undemanding romp through 70 or so science projects suitable for doing in the kitchen and other rooms at home, or in areas just outside it. The book has four sections: “Actions and Reactions,” “Garden Science,” “Science Rules,” and “Super-Charged Science.” The idea here is that “you’ll be surprised how many science experiments you can do with some really basic stuff that you probably already have at home.” The “stuff” includes eggs, water, diet cola, food coloring, lemons, salt, baking soda, marbles, dish soap, scissors, rubber bands, pencils, nails, and yes, even bananas. And much more. Each experiment starts with a “what you need” section describing the required materials and explaining how long it will take to go through the steps – from minutes to days.
The especially neat thing in Maker Genius is the balance between instruction and fun. The book assumes young readers will want to watch things blow up (under suitably safe circumstances), will enjoy getting slimed, and will even like to use science to play jokes on friends. For example, “The Amazing Bottle Trick” involves partially filling a plastic bottle with water, then poking holes near the bottom with a thumbtack. “Now all you have to do is get someone to either pick up the bottle or unscrew the lid. Shower time!” That is a pretty mild practical joke (assuming the victim is not wearing good clothing). But what is important is “the Science Stuff” (a regular feature of the book) underlying the effect: “When you lift the bottle to pour, air rushes in[,] letting the water fall out. …Squeezing the bottle forces the water out. [Or] when you release the cap, the air rushes in, pushing the water out of the holes.”
All the experiments here can be done without paying much attention to “the Science Stuff,” but the way most of the projects work is intriguing enough so that young readers will likely become curious about why and how things happen. That is the whole point of the book: doing science while finding out not only what can be done but also how and why experiments work. “The Amazing Bottle Trick” takes only 15 minutes, but other projects take much longer. “Germination Jar,” for example, requires two to three days. It requires a sheet of paper towel, a clean jar, a bean seed (“runner beans or broad beans work well”) and water – nothing else. The excellent photographic illustrations (another feature of the whole book) show how to cause a bean to germinate without getting moldy, what you will see when the first part grows (it “is called a radicle and it always grows downward”), and what stages will occur until it is time to give the growing plant a chance to live outdoors. This experiment and many others offer a section called “Now HACK IT!!” That involves expanding the basic experiment – for instance, by planting avocado or apple seeds instead of beans. Or, in a 30-minute “Invisible Ink” experiment showing how to use lemon juice to write secret messages, there are suggestions to try milk or vinegar instead, or to write with a paste made of baking soda and water, then rub the message with grape juice to produce a color change in the paper.
There are only 128 pages in Maker Genius, but there are weeks, even months of experiments here for kids intrigued or motivated enough to try them all. There is, however, no reason whatsoever to go through the book sequentially or to do everything in it. There are, for instance, multiple pages on “how cabbage juice can magically turn liquids into rainbows of color” (well, this is science, not magic, but you get the idea); but it is just fine if some readers want to skip the creation of indicator paper that tests pH levels and go on to soak a white T-shirt in a red-cabbage preparation and then use an eye dropper to make patterns on the shirt. And if the elaborate five-hour “Fizzy Wiggly Volcano” project just seems too drawn-out, kids can just turn the page and find out how to use white vinegar and salt to cause dull-looking pennies to shine almost immediately.
There is a great deal of emphasis being placed in schools today on the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and most of the material is handled with great seriousness, even portentousness. From an adult perspective, a societal perspective, that is understandable. But from the viewpoint of the young people who will grow up to be tomorrow’s scientists, it would help if these super-important subjects could be a little more, well, fun. Experimental laboratory work in real-life settings involves a lot of drudgery, a lot of failures, a lot of time-consuming note-taking, and a lot of intense attention to detail. But science for young people need not be like that: it can be, and ideally should be, enjoyable as well as informative, providing a frisson of pleasure that hopefully will grow into full-fledged dedication in the future. Maker Genius provides just enough thrills to engage and delight readers as young as age eight – and just enough scientific knowledge to encourage at least some young people to explore scientific experimentation in greater depth over time.
Vivaldi: Concerti per Archi III; Concerti per Viola d’amore. Alessandro Tampieri, violin and viola d’amore; Accademia Bizantina conducted by Ottavio Dantone. Naïve. $20.99 (2 CDs).
Vivaldi: Concerti per Violino VI, “La boemia.” Fabio Biondi, violin and conducting Europa Galante. Naïve. $16.99.
Vivaldi: Concerti for Mandolin in D, RV 93, and in C, RV 425; Trio Sonata in C, RV 82; Raffaele Calace: Concerto No. 2 for Mandolin; Domenico Caudioso: Concerto for Mandolin. Julien Martineau, mandolin; Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $16.99.
For nearly 20 years now, Naïve has been proving that even the most knowledgeable classical-music lovers only thought they knew Vivaldi. Since 2000, the label has been releasing dozens upon dozens of once-lost Vivaldi works found at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin. There are nearly 60 releases so far, with three more planned for release annually until the projected completion of the series in 2027 – a year shy of the 350th anniversary of Vivaldi’s birth. The sheer scope of the project is staggering, but even more so is the sheer quality of the music. Who knew that Vivaldi did so much, in so many fields, so well? His reputation has long rested on a mere handful of his works, and even though The Four Seasons violin concertos are among the most popular classical pieces of all time, they are scarcely representative of his entire oeuvre. Vivaldi churned out concerto after concerto, opera after opera, year after year, and pretty much everything he produced was of enormously high quality and was exceptionally creative by the standards of his time.
There’s the rub, as Hamlet would say. The ways in which Vivaldi advanced music are extremely subtle and indeed often almost inaudible to all but the best-trained ears in modern times. As wonderful as his music is, much of it sounds the same: it is very difficult to pinpoint a specific concerto and say that it significantly increased the range, tone or character of instrumental playing. With Bach – who, let us remember, was an admirer of Vivaldi, and who adapted various Vivaldi works – the assertion of advancement comes easily. With Vivaldi, the sheer scale of his production and the perfection with which he utilized a concerto form that he himself largely cemented (if not invented) combine in such a way that few of his individual works stand out. And this is scarcely the case only for his violin works, of which there is a plethora because Vivaldi himself was a master violinist (although one whose technique seems to have been somewhat unconventional and therefore controversial). For instance, Vivaldi wrote some three dozen bassoon concertos, all of them marvelous and none of them particularly distinctive compared with any of the others.
All this makes the flood of material from the Naïve series somewhat difficult to absorb. Except for fanatical Vivaldi devotees, few listeners will want the complete series (which is scarcely inexpensive). But deciding which recordings to purchase is by no means easy, at least where the concertos are concerned. And this means that at least some decisions may be based on the individuals and ensembles performing the material – or on a desire to hear the specific instruments for which Vivaldi created some of his outpouring of concerto material.
Naïve has been scrupulous in engaging excellent period-instrument and historical-performance groups for this series, and the two latest releases show that. The third Concerti per Archi offering features Alessandro Tampieri and the Accademia Bizantina conducted by Ottavio Dantone, while the sixth Concerti per Violino offers Fabio Biondi both as soloist and as conductor of Europa Galante. Fans of Tampieri and/or Dantone and/or Biondi will be drawn to one or the other of these releases, if not both; but there are other ways to make a selection. There are only five surviving Vivaldi concerti for viola d’amore – RV 393-397 – and anyone interested in them will certainly want the Tampieri/Dantone release so as to hear just how this solo instrument, whose additional strings vibrate sympathetically when its primary ones are played, is used by Vivaldi to produce especially telling effects. Yet the two-CD set is actually dominated by 13 violin concertos: RV 109, 117, 118, 126, 138, 142, 145, 152, 155, 161, 163, 165, and 167. But if there is little that is highly distinctive among this baker’s dozen, there is a great deal that is delightful and, indeed, everything is beautifully formed and well balanced, as Vivaldi’s music invariably is.
Listeners specifically seeking an unusual set of Vivaldi’s violin concertos may, however, turn instead (if not in addition) to the grouping known as La boemia, composed while Vivaldi was being idolized in Prague in 1730-31. These works – offered by Biondi and his ensemble in the sequence RV 282, 278, 380, 186, 288, and 330 – get particularly interesting performances, because Biondi creates cadenzas to link movements that are in different keys. There is some historical justification for this, but it is scarcely normal practice. Thus, listeners looking for a more-traditional (and equally historically accurate) approach will gravitate to Tampieri/Dantone, while those interested in some creative interpretation and reinterpretation of the Vivaldi legacy will be attracted to Biondi. It is through differences like these – in the context of performances of equal excellence – that the Naïve series continues to thrive and delight.
A different Naïve release, featuring Julien Martineau on mandolin, approaches Vivaldi more typically by being highly selective in what music by him it offers. Martineau and Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini (who conducts from the harpsichord) select two Vivaldi mandolin concertos and one trio sonata to display the Venetian master’s prowess and creativity in music for Martineau’s instrument. All three pieces stand up as well as anything in the Vivaldi series itself, showcasing the skill of construction, beauty of form and virtuoso expectations (born of thorough knowledge of every instrument for which he wrote) that make Vivaldi’s music both distinguished and instantly distinguishable from other works of the same time period. However, the main attractions on this CD, for fanciers of the mandolin, will likely be the two works that are not by Vivaldi. The concerto in G by Vivaldi’s contemporary Domenico Caudioso, of whom virtually nothing is known with any certainty (not even his birth and death years), is a warm, beautifully balanced work that explores the mandolin’s expressive potential in even more ways than Vivaldi does in the pieces heard here. The broad first movement, charming second and vivacious third add up to a very lovely work indeed. And then there is the second mandolin concerto by Raffaele Calace (1863-1934), a modern mandolin master (and luthier) who created this very extended and passionate piece in the unlikely key of A minor. But the concerto exists without its orchestral part – so Martineau commissioned an orchestration by Yann Ollivo for this recording. Whatever the pluses and minuses of the accompaniment in terms of how idiomatic and true to Calace’s period and style it is, the fact is that the concerto is a genuine masterpiece. It takes the mandolin to depths and heights far beyond anything envisioned by Vivaldi, Caudioso or any other composer of an earlier era. It requires enormous skill in fingering and phrasing, and very considerable virtuosity simply to play the material at the speed at which Calace calls for it to be performed. This is truly a tour de force for mandolin and without a doubt the highlight of the Martineau/Alessandrini CD. The extended first-movement cadenza, for example, brings forth sounds of which the mandolin scarcely seems capable; indeed, it sounds at times as if two mandolins are playing simultaneously, to very Paganini-esque effect. And the second movement’s warmth leads to a finale in which the sheer expressive range of the mandolin proves to be well beyond anything that listeners will likely expect. Martineau is a highly skilled, very sensitive performer who is beautifully supported by Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano, and this CD as a whole is an absolute joy to hear – both for those especially interested in Vivaldi and for those looking for some little-known and thoroughly delightful music by other composers.
February 28, 2019
Trapped in a Video Game 5: The Final Boss. By Dustin Brady. Illustrated by Jesse Brady. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Birthday Cake! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
There is an entire subgenre of books designed for so-called “reluctant readers,” the idea being that kids who just don’t care for the traditional book experience in our video-saturated age can be lured into old-fashioned reading by books that are written and packaged specifically to appeal to them. That often means the books are graphic novels or are a hybrid form between standard novels and graphic ones – amply illustrated, but not divided into individual comic-book-like panels through which the sequencing of events occurs. There is, however, another approach to “reluctant reader” books, and that is to embrace the likelihood that the reluctance stems from preoccupation with video games and thus to embrace books that are themselves a lot like video games. The value and limitations of this approach are quite clear in Dustin Brady’s Trapped in a Video Game series, whose conclusion, The Final Boss (that’s “boss” as in super-powerful video game villain, not as in someone for whom you work) proceeds with all the silliness and absurdity and mild camaraderie that have characterized the entire series. In fact, there is little sense of “series” to these books, which are essentially self-contained adventures despite the occasional cliffhanger: Brady could easily have ended the series before The Final Boss or just as easily have extended it for multiple additional volumes. What he actually does is have the nominal protagonist, Jesse Rigsby, and his friend, Eric Conrad, go into a video game universe created by the usual evil corporate bigwig who has used his company, Bionosoft, to devise a virtual universe named after himself (“Reubenverse,” because his name is Max Reuben). As The Final Boss starts, it is only 10 minutes before the time when all of reality will be sucked into the Reubenverse and ruled forever by the evil billionaire because YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO SEEK ANSWERS TO THE “WHY” QUESTION! JUST FOLLOW THE PATH AND BEAT THE BAD GUYS! Oh. Right. Anyway, those 10 minutes in the real world equal 10 days in the video game world because DON’T ASK! So the intrepid kids, who are so undifferentiated that a reader can swap their names at random and find the story progressing exactly the same way, have to go through hundreds and hundreds of levels and earn thousands upon thousands of XP (experience points) and periodically dodge the occasional Hindenburg (the improbably named robotic remover of game glitches, which has an annoying habit of identifying Jesse and Eric as glitches that must be excised). The vast, vast majority of the action is described in only a few words, and generally without illustrations (this is not a visually driven series, although Jesse Brady, Dustin’s brother, does periodically offer some art); and the whole story proceeds with all the super-sped-up pacing of, well, a video game – only, actually, faster. Eventually, of course, the good guys win, friendship triumphs, the real world is not destroyed, the Reubenverse does not come into full-fledged existence, and reluctant readers somehow learn that it is important to spend their time with thoroughly unchallenging books about video games instead of with the video games themselves because YOU WERE TOLD NOT TO SEEK ANSWERS TO “WHY” QUESTIONS AND HAVE REPEATEDLY DISOBEYED. DISCUSSION TERMINATED.
While some book series have a definitive end, others sequences go on and on – but feature individual definitive endings. The “Old Lady” books by Lucille Colandro and Jared Lee are designed this way: each builds, through a series of strange ingestions by the Old Lady, to a twist ending that pulls together the mild mystery of why the Old Lady swallows those specific items. The books are based on the nursery-rhyme song, “I know [sometimes “There was”] an old lady who swallowed a fly” – which, in “house that Jack built” fashion, builds and builds as more and more items are swallowed, ending when she swallows a horse and “she’s dead, of course.” Colandro and Lee keep things much lighter than that, though. They also sometimes create sequences that are too obvious to be fully entertaining, which is what happens in There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Birthday Cake! The title gives away the whole plot – and the poem’s meter is wrong, too, while it would have been right (and the book would have had at least a little bit of mystery) if the title had simply been, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Cake.” Given the fact that kids will know from the cover of this board book exactly what is going on – and that there will be no surprises in the swallowing sequence itself, which involves items including candles, balloons and confetti – this is one of the weaker books in the series. It will be fun primarily for pre-readers and perhaps very early readers, who will enjoy the amusing pictures of the lady’s tremendous mouth and may have additional fun watching the reactions of the little black dog who is a fixture in Lee’s series illustrations even though it has no specific role in the stories. The other use of this book could be as a bright and happy-looking birthday gift: the final page says “Happy Birthday” and shows a party table loaded with presents, decorations and (of course) a cake, and the book’s cover features glitter that makes the whole thing look very festive. The amusement level here is mild, but for some very young children, it will be enough.
Wildlands No. 3: Phoenix Falling. By Laura Bickle. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
To conclude her Wildlands trilogy while incorporating and summing up material from the two prequel novels, Dark Alchemy and Mercury Retrograde, Laura Bickle has to juggle an impressive number of plot points and people. She manages not to drop too many of either in Phoenix Falling, which will certainly satisfy most readers who have stayed with this story of the fictional Temperance, Wyoming, through Nine of Stars and Witch Creek. The books are firmly planted in the “Weird West” subgenre of adult fantasy novels and make no attempt to stretch any boundaries, but they stay true to their venue and take readers on a suitable thrill ride without ever quite making the characters seem fully fleshed-out and empathetic.
Indeed, when it comes to empathy in particular, Phoenix Falling disappoints, since geologist Petra Dee was very human indeed in the earlier books as she struggled with encroaching cancer – a real-world fear for so many people – while also trying to understand and cope with the various supernatural entities and events surrounding her. But Petra gained a replacement body in Witch Creek, and her only fear in Phoenix Falling is that she may no longer be fully human – a decidedly non-real-world worry that seems petty and largely irrelevant by comparison with her earlier ones.
Petra does have plenty of other things to worry about, though, and Bickle has to find a way to conclude all the various stories by knitting the strands of the tale together. Petra’s father, a once-powerful alchemist who now has Alzheimer’s disease but can still journey into the spirit world, is one thread. Petra’s husband-of-convenience, Gabriel Manget, a former immortal tuned fully human when the tree that sustained his life burned – now turned immortal again when it turns out that the tree has regenerated – is another element. The tree itself, the Lunaria, is yet another, because this incarnation is different from the original in ways that are dangerous – sometimes subtly so, sometimes not subtly at all. Then there is the issue of Owen Rutherford, a brutal sheriff (now somewhat tamed through loss of a hand in the previous book) whose family owns (or at least controls, or at least seems to control) the ranchland where the Lunaria grows – and the ghost girl, Anna, who haunts him and who just may be able to go to Heaven if Owen can do the right thing once he figures out what it is. Another issue involves Nine of Stars, around whom the first book of the trilogy revolved: once a wolf, she is now a human who remains deeply connected to her former pack and uncertain of whether she can ever return to it and, if she can, whether she should.
All the ins and outs revolve around Aldus Lascaris, the hyper-potent 19th-century alchemist who made Temperance what it was and still is, who was destroyed (no, not really) in an uprising of townsfolk and who is condemned forever (no, not really) to the spirit world. Phoenix Falling makes a lame attempt to show Aldus’ horrific family life as a way to explain his turn to evil and depravity, but this part of the book feels tacked-on and does not really ring true. And the phoenix of the title is a deeply uninteresting element of the book, being simply a fire-bringer evoked near the apparent end of his earthly life by Lascaris – and now having re-emerged from the spirit world, at an unexplained but inconvenient time, to start fires in and around Yellowstone National Park, near which Temperance is located.
Far more intriguing than the human and sort-of-human characters are a couple of distinctly non-human presences. One is Sig, a coyote who steals pretty much every scene in which he appears throughout the Wildlands books and who will clearly resonate with the essence of the trickster god Coyote in the mind of anyone familiar with the lore of the Old West. Sig very clearly has coyote instincts and behaviors, yet shares perceptions and abilities that go beyond them and hint at a reservoir of knowledge that proves crucial to the human characters. The other genuinely intriguing character here is Pigin, a really wonderfully conceived supernatural being: a gigantic, festering black toad self-described as representing rot and putrefaction, yet the possessor of subtlety of thought and a sense of irony and rough humor thoroughly lacking in the humans. Pigin is cast as the antithesis of the phoenix and is far more interesting – and, in truth, less destructive, despite a taste for human flesh, since Pigin entices people to bring him nourishment while the phoenix simply burns everything in and around Temperance indiscriminately. It is Pigin who holds the key both to Anna’s fate and to the future of Nine of Stars. In the latter case, Nine of Stars encounters the gigantic toad, reaches a bargain with him, and realizes that “he had given her the truth, and a choice. ‘Thank you. You are both kind and powerful.’” To which Pigin replies, with a snort, “‘I am neither of those things. I am darkness and rot, tricksy and enjoying of suffering.’” Yet Pigin has more personality than most of the other characters in Phoenix Falling combined. The way Bickle eventually deals with all those characters does present a satisfactory conclusion to Wildlands, but it would be wonderful if she were somehow to reread the books with an objective eye and, realizing where her strength really lies, decide in the future to create novels built around characters along the lines of Sig and Pigin rather than ones resembling Petra and Gabe.