May 19, 2022

(++++) ADORABILITY

Mellybean 1: Mellybean and the Giant Monster. By Mike White. Razorbill. $20.99.

Mellybean 2: Mellybean and the Wicked Wizard. By Mike White. Razorbill. $12.99.

Mellybean 3: Mellybean and the Villains’ Revenge. By Mike White. Razorbill. $12.99.

     Oh, they just don’t come any cuter than this. Imagine a fluffy, huge-headed, bright-eyed little dog with the improbable-but-apt name of Mellybean, full of unending energy and enthusiasm, encountering fantastic adventures that require all the dedication and pluck inherent in being fluffy, huge-headed, bright-eyed, energetic and enthusiastic – and you still will not have the full flavor of the cuteness that is Mike White’s Mellybean trilogy. The reason you still will not have it is that Mellybean, the aforementioned fluffy, huge-headed, bright-eyed, etc., is but one of the impossibly appealing characters. He also has three henchcats named Butternut, Tugs and Charlie (or Chuck), each with a distinct personality and individual preoccupations within the overall felinity that they share (they all love canned cat food, long naps, and boxes). And this fabulous foursome encounters much ado about something in the land of, well, Ado, which is reachable through a hole in the back yard, where an interdimensional portal emerges from the nostril of a giant monster. Yes, a giant monster (hence the first book’s title); and yes, a nostril (hence a very funny “ewwwww” moment or two).

     Apparently White’s graphic-novel characters come by their endearing natures naturally: he bases the fantastic foursome on his own canine and feline companions. Presumably his household does not also include characters such as enormous monster Narra (in all the books), Hetty the hippocorn (introduced in the second book), Lemmy the griffinbear (third book), and Retta the dragonseal (also third book). White’s mind does include them, though, and that is just fine. White associates each fantasy creature with one of Ado’s four elements: air (Hetty), earth (Lemmy), water (Retta), and life (Narra). Okay, there is no “fire,” but these are books for very young readers, after all, and the “life” association creates all sorts of possibilities for reversing aging, making plants and people flourish, and gaining power if one happens to be evil. Oh – and Narra’s “eye boogers” also turn out to be genuine gold, allowing for other “ewwwww” moments as well as additional opportunities for baddies to do bad things.

     The baddies are certainly never going to win in this series – that is apparent throughout – but the way they lose, and what happens after they do, are two things that make the Mellybean books so enjoyable. The key to all this is that Mellybean has no special powers or abilities beyond puppy-ness; and that turns out to be more than enough. Mellybean’s effervescent personality helps her make friends with the understandably suspicious Narra, whose tail has been stolen by the evil wizard Wilma; and Mellybean’s penchant for running at top speed pretty much all the time helps her win the crown of Ado from an evil, self-centered king who agrees to race Mellybean because he knows a dastardly shortcut – which turns out to be his own undoing.

     There are some good human characters in the books to help balance the nasty ones: orphans Liam, Leah and Lou, and orphanage director Ms. Cooper. But there is never a doubt of where the focus and the heroism of these stories lie: in the animals. Mellybean and the Giant Monster has the pup alone in Ado, unraveling the king’s plots and power and upholding all that is good and right and happy and all that. The Mellybean-vs.-king race is the climax of the book. Mellybean and the Wicked Wizard brings the pup and all three cats to the kingdom – now ruled by Narra – and features an extended and hilarious battle between the four animal heroes and Wilma, who turns out to be pretty inept and eventually is stripped of her powers and appointed Royal Can Opener, in charge of making sure the cats always have plenty of their favorite food. The point of Mellybean and the Villains’ Revenge is that you can’t keep a good character down – or a bad one, either. The deposed king and the de-powered wizard join forces to take back the kingdom and the power, with Wilma inventing a hypnosis machine that initially puts Lemmy under her control and eventually wreaks havoc of various sorts until, inevitably, it is turned against her and the king and helps stop their scheming once and for all.

     Or is it once and for all? The trilogy is highly pleasurable both as individual books and as a totality, and certainly it seems to come to a satisfying conclusion by the end of Mellybean and the Villains’ Revenge. But these villains have returned to their menacing ways once already, and Mellybean actually says to Narra, near the third book’s end, “Hey, maybe you can visit us next time!” And Narra replies, “Now that sounds like an adventure!” So there are plenty of possibilities for even more marvelous magical hijinks if White chooses to chronicle further Mellybeaning, whether here or there. For now, as the sun sets gently over the earthly home of Mellybean, Butternut, Tugs and Chuck, young readers can be delightfully certain that the only remaining conflict will involve who, during a “good ol’ game of nap time,” gets dibs on the sunbeam.

(++++) BLUES

Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Chen Reiss, soprano; Czech Philharmonic conducted by Semyon Bychkov. PentaTone. $19.99.

Camden Reeves: Tangle-Beat Blues; Blue Sounds for Piano; Nine Preludes. Tom Hicks, piano. Métier. $18.99.

Edward Cowie: 24 Preludes for Piano. Philip Mead, piano. Métier. $18.99.

     More than any other Mahler symphony, the Fourth has an identifiable color – and that color is blue, almost to the point of synesthesia. Mahler himself invited thoughts of this color in association with this music, saying that “the undifferentiated blue of the sky…is the basic tone of the whole work,” and that even when the scene becomes overcast, “it is not the sky itself which grows dark, for it shines eternally blue.” It is the mixture of eternity and blueness that pervades this symphony, a (comparative) simplicity and (comparative) straightforwardness of communication that is found nowhere else in Mahler’s symphonic output. There is also a great deal of the folkloric in this music, and that is scarcely a surprise: this is the last of Mahler’s “Wunderhorn” symphonies, concluding with the purity of the lyrics to Das himmlische Leben, a poem that originally bore the very intriguing title Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen, which translates as “The Sky Is Full of Violins,” an altogether wonderful image. What is interesting is the type of folklore echoed here: it has a strong Czech component, Mahler having been born and raised in villages that are now in the Czech Republic. It could be argued that that gives the Czech Philharmonic an inherent affinity for elements of this music – and in fact, this orchestra gave the world première of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. Semyon Bychkov is beginning a Mahler cycle with this ensemble not with No. 7 but with the PentaTone release of No. 4, and the performance certainly bodes well for the sequence as a whole. Bychkov’s pacing is well-considered; his attentiveness to detail is impressive (the sleighbells are quiet, not jangly, in the first movement, but come through with complete clarity); the orchestra’s balance is very fine, with the sound of its brass particularly impressive; and Chen Reiss’ singing in the finale does something crucial by sounding childlike, unforced and naïve – akin, verbally, to having the strings use less vibrato than is common in performances today. The second movement here is scarcely eerie – Mahler rarely misspoke about his music, but thought this movement would come across as spookier than it does – but it sounds just “off” enough through the scordatura tuning of the solo violin so that it communicates a sense of unease, which is laid to rest as soon as the third (and longest) movement begins. Well-paced, well-played, and well-considered throughout, with a just-right fade into the ineffable at its conclusion, this Mahler Fourth shines with the manifest beauties of bright sunlight – it is the sunniest of all Mahler’s symphonies – against the bluest of blue skies.

     “Blue” is not always a positive color, though. Certainly in jazz, in the years after Mahler, “the blues” had a very different connotation from that given by Mahler in his Symphony No. 4. Indeed, “blue” can have multiple meanings in music, and Camden Reeves (born 1974) explores several of them in the works on a (+++) Métier release featuring pianist Tom Hicks. This is a short CD, running just 43 minutes, but it explores both sounds and colors in a wide variety of ways – all within an overall approach that will be familiar to listeners who enjoy 21st-century sounds and techniques. Tangle-Beat Blues (2013) and Blue Sounds for Piano (2019) are rather lengthy, improvisational-sounding meditations/fantasias. The former starts with quieter, more-extended passages interrupted by exclamatory chordal material, then moves into some “tickling the ivories” passages (also subject to exclamations), and repeatedly sounds as if it will break into jazzlike riffs that never quite coalesce. Quieter, if not lyrical, material near the end leads eventually to an uncertain conclusion in which the music simply stops. Blue Sounds for Piano is not dissimilar in structure or in its propensity for strong contrasts between softer material and abruptly introduced chordal exclamations. It is somewhat more meandering in its earlier portions, before becoming animated for a bit and then reverting to a slower and quieter mode – but not an emotional one, never really seeming to try to explore or project feelings beyond the superficial. The Nine Preludes (2015-2016) are more interesting in their brief communicativeness. The eighth of them runs four-and-a-half minutes, but all the others are quite short, mostly lasting less than two minutes – and effectively displaying a specific feeling, attitude or technique within each one’s time frame. The emphatic intensity of No. 2, the watery runs of No. 4, the perpetuum mobile of No. 6 that leads to the dissonant bell-tolling of No. 7 – these are some of the well-executed effects of the music, all of which Hicks brings out very clearly indeed. The color connections of the pieces on this disc, all of them receiving their world première recordings, are less than apparent, but listeners intrigued by contemporary keyboard works performed with genuine flair will find much here to enjoy.

     The “blueness” is present in a different way on another (+++) Métier CD, this one focusing on piano music by Edward Cowie (born 1943) as played by Philip Mead. Unlike Reeves’ atonality, Cowie’s music in 24 Preludes for Piano is expressly tonal – following Bach’s key cycle in his Well-Tempered Clavier, but at the same time using a second organizational principle by grouping the preludes into four groups of six each. Those groups, designated Book 1 through Book 4, represent the old notion of “four elements,” the first being water – which is one place where the “blueness” comes in. But Cowie goes beyond color sensitivity: he has a strong Impressionist streak in this music, so while following Bach’s keys faithfully, he also attempts in each of these 24 works to convey his impressions of specific places around the world. Thus, the “water” book includes, among other things, an Australian blowhole (C minor) and the Tennessee River in the U.S. (D minor), the former containing exclamatory eruptions and the latter with a sense of flow. Book 2 is devoted to air, including the blue sky at 35,000 feet above the Straits of Java (E major) and night breezes above the blue waters of Lake Eacham in Australia (B major). The “blue” elements in these works are implied obliquely rather than presented directly – these preludes are more about scene-setting than color specificity – but the coloristic elements of the music are everywhere present. Book 3, focusing on earth, thus starts with another Australian scene, Uluru (long known as Ayers Rock), which stands out against the sky and is portrayed in a stately F-sharp major. This book also includes Glencoe (Scotland) in C-sharp minor and the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia in A-flat minor – again and again, Cowie presents strongly contrasting piano pieces that likely will be fully meaningful only to listeners as familiar with the specific locations as he is, but works whose differing moods are apparent even without knowing just what those moods indicate. The final book, with its focus on fire, actually opens with a passing reference to blue water by portraying sunrise over Loch Carron in Scotland (E-flat major). Perhaps inevitably, the penultimate prelude features fireworks (over Kassel, Germany, in F major), and the very last one is sunset over Dartmoor, Devon, England (F minor), the colors here unclear but certainly crepuscular. Cowie bites off a bit more than he can chew, or than most listeners can chew, in this set of preludes, because of the combination of a specific key sequence with its nod to Bach plus the ongoing Impressionism inherent in all two dozen pieces. But Mead certainly plays everything quite adeptly, bringing out contrasts among the works to good effect; and the music is well-made, well-thought-out, and colorful – in a variety of tones, both visual and auditory – from start to finish.

(++++) STRING THINKING

Telemann: Fantasias 1-12 for Solo Violin. Tomás Cotik, violin. Centaur. $18.99.

Music from Armenia. Aznavoorian Duo (Ani Aznavoorian, cello; Marta Aznavoorian, piano). Cedille. $16.

Alex Mincek: Way; Lou Bunk: Field; Catherine Lamb: in (tone). String Noise (Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris, violins). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Samuel Adams: Lyra. The Living Earth Show (Andy Meyerson, percussion; Travis Andrews, guitar). Earthy Records. $12.

     The variety of stringed instruments and the forms in which they can be combined, both with other strings and with instruments of different types, have made possible a nearly infinite-seeming set of pieces taking music in as many directions as it seems possible for it to go. Yet contemporary composers continue to push stringed instruments into new places, often by using unusual combinations or by modifying string sounds in a variety of acoustic and electronic ways. Of course, string explorations are certainly nothing new, with sets of pieces for solo players familiar to many listeners through works by Bach and other Baroque composers. Among such sets, Telemann’s Fantasias, a set of a dozen works dating to 1735, have recently gone through something of a rediscovery and are increasingly being performed by first-rate violinists. One such is Tomás Cotik, whose new Centaur recording of these short works nicely balances heft with levity. Telemann was an instrumental explorer who, not irrelevantly, was self-taught on the violin. In addition to this set of a dozen pieces, he created a dozen for solo viola da gamba and a dozen for solo flute – plus three dozen for solo harpsichord. In each set, Telemann’s interest was not in careful exploration of multiple musical forms along the lines of Bach, but in creating interestingly listenable music that offered a variety of expressive experiences to performers and audience alike. Thus, the solo-violin fantasias do not follow a specific key sequence and are not organized in any obvious way, although the reference in No. 7 to the start of No. 1 could mean that Telemann saw these works as two half-dozens. He did say that six of the pieces include fugues and six are “galanterian” (with dances such as minuets and gavottes), but really, the arrangement of the fantasias does not follow any apparent order in terms of content. The most-effective way to approach the set is therefore simply to consider each piece as an individual work and perform it with attention to its unique qualities – rather than trying to make it sound like an element of something larger. And this individuation is just what Cotik offers. This is, by and large, “light” music of its time, with most of the fantasias lasting about five minutes and only one stretching to eight. Unlike the Italianate works of Vivaldi, Telemann’s fantasias do not follow a specific pattern of movements or even contain a specific number of them, that number ranging from three to six. Telemann does provide some hints of special treatment for certain movements by designating them dolce, soave and in one case piacevolamente (“pleasantly”). But in most cases, it is left to the performer to decide how much pleasantry (a good deal) and how much intensity (not much) will fit individual movements and each fantasia as a whole. Certainly there is feeling in these works from time to time, notably in movements labeled Siciliana or grave, but by and large, as Cotik makes clear, Telemann’s interest here is more in fleeting pleasantries than in extended emoting. Cotik plays the works on a modern violin, but using a Baroque bow, creating an interesting melding of time periods that he carries through by being sensitive to elements of Baroque style without coming across as pedantic. The overall feeling that comes through here is of a performer who genuinely enjoys presenting this music – a nice complement to the strong suspicion that Telemann, far from seeking to impose artificial order or structure on these fantasias, himself genuinely enjoyed creating and then playing them.

     The wider range and greater warmth of the cello, compared with the violin, are highlighted in a number of pieces offered on a (+++) Cedille recording featuring sisters Ani Aznavoorian and, on piano, Marta Aznavoorian. This is a very well-played disc of music that does not entirely repay the gravitas with which it is presented. It is also a disc of limited appeal: listeners with a specific interest in Armenian music, and those with Armenian heritage, will find considerably more to relate to here than will audiences at large. The one composer here who will likely be fairly widely familiar is Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978); but he is accorded just two short works (one an arrangement) that total five minutes of the disc’s 76, so he is clearly not the performers’ main interest. The concerns here are more wide-ranging, including music by seven Armenian composers and one piece about Armenia by an American. The disc opens with five simple, evocatively presented folk songs arranged by Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935). Then come the two Khachaturian works (Ivan Sings and the very expressive Yerevan). Next are Elegy (for piano solo) and Aria & Dance (for cello and piano) by Arno Babajanian (1921-1983), followed on the disc by the longest work in this recital, Sonata for Cello and Piano by Avet Terterian (1929-1994). This is a suitably large-scale three-movement piece with distinctly 20th-century harmonies and some challenging interrelationships between the instruments. After it, the Aznavoorians present more-recent works. These include a love-song arrangement called Sari Siroun Yar by Serouj Kradjian (born 1973); Impromptu by Alexander Arutiunian (1920-2012); and Petrified Dance by Vache Sharafyan (born 1966). The final work on the disc, a world première recording, is by American composer Peter Boyer (born 1970) and was commissioned by the performers. Called Mount Ararat, it is intended as both expressive and Impressionistic in its focus on the twin Armenian peaks well-known from the Bible. All the cello-and-piano pieces on the disc effectively use the string instrument’s considerable warmth of sound to good effect, and the rhythms of Armenian culture and history pervade the CD in both the cello and piano parts. The totality is somewhat scattershot, however: except for Terterian’s sonata and Boyer’s Mount Ararat, nothing on the disc is particularly substantial fare – the feeling is of a once-over-lightly view of Armenian music (and, through it, some Armenian history), but not an exploration that seeks to plumb any particular historical or musical depth.

     For two-performer works, it is common to combine a string instrument with piano, but less so to combine one violin with another. Contemporary composers, when seeking sounds beyond the traditional, therefore may gravitate to this less-common sound mixture. There are three examples on a (+++) New Focus Recordings release featuring the violin duo known as String Noise. That may be an unfortunate name for drawing in listeners not already enamored of contemporary music – who may regard much of it as noise already. And indeed, that opinion may be reinforced by some of the material in the three works on this CD. All the composers here have elaborate compositional schemata that are designed to structure their works along specific lines that are intended to enhance a certain form and level of communication. None of the pieces, however, is immediately intelligible as having accomplished what its composer planned – except for audience members who have looked into the intent and compositional processes of the creators before hearing the music. Thus, Alex Mincek’s very extended Way, which runs nearly half an hour, moves from non-pitch to pitched sounds and then explores a very wide variety of pitch relationships, frequently using microtonal discrepancies that listeners unfamiliar with microtones may find difficult or even unpleasant to hear. The piece is full of signature sounds in contemporary composition, from frequent use of the violins’ highest register to deliberate imperfections in the rhythm – all of this designed in some way to reflect the various life paths that an individual can take, each different from all the others. The question here is whether listeners can pick up that theme from this almost wholly athematic piece without having to do advance study of the composer, the music, and the work’s inspiration (a poem by Anthony Machado). That is a lot to ask of an audience; only a limited group will likely find the effort needed for comprehension to be worthwhile. Lou Bunk’s Field is a five-movement work that generally sounds like an étude exploring modern composers’ interest in instrumental technique rather than audience communication. Like Mincek, Field pulls contemporary-standard sounds from the two violins, focusing on harmonics, glissandi, non-pitched material, and varying emphases that include contrasts between silence and overt stridency. The work is gestural and tends to paint its sound world in broad-brush fashion – contrasting in this way with Catherine Lamb’s lower-case-titled in (tone), which is all about minute differentiation within soundscapes and between sound and silence. This work is, in effect, a minimalist approach to minimalism, with a number of unusual-sounding sections whose meaning is less than obvious (and is clearly intended not to be obvious). The performers handle the complexities of all three pieces quite well, but it is asking a lot to expect listeners beyond a core committed-to-the-avant-garde audience to invest the time and effort needed to appreciate these works.

     The same situation applies to Samuel Adams’ Lyra on a new (+++) CD from Earthy Records. In fact, this work is even more rarefied than the pieces played by String Noise. The reason is that the CD is only one portion of a larger production – a presentation filled with theatrical elements, film, dance, spatial engagement and more. And the audience needs to study, understand and respond to the immersive entirety of Lyra when listening to the disc – a distinctly difficult matter for anyone who has not seen/heard/experienced the totality of the elements of which the material on the CD is but one part. It is thus very difficult indeed to know for whom this CD is intended – except perhaps as a souvenir item for those who have attended Lyra, the disc is bound to be of little meaning or effect. What is offered here is essentially the soundtrack for a very specific experience – and if one has not had the experience, the soundtrack is virtually meaningless. One small element of this is that the music for Lyra is designed to be projected through 75 speakers surrounding the audience – a clear impossibility for any CD. The strings-plus element here, in performance, skews heavily toward the “plus,” with the primary instrument using strings being the guitar and the primary acoustic instruments mixed with it being percussion of all sorts. Inevitably, there is plenty of electronic enhancement/alteration, lots of computer-generated sound/noise, and all sorts of referents that the audience absolutely has to understand for the entire concoction to have any meaning whatsoever (the story is a version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, using Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo as a by-no-means-clear referent and touchstone). What will the uninitiated listener discover by simply placing the Lyra disc in a CD player? There are eight tracks labeled Wedding and 11 further tracks, three of them called Interlude, and in the absence of visuals, there is no way whatsoever to know what the acoustic/electronic, string/percussion sonic mixtures are intended to elucidate or illustrate. Certainly there are audible differences between, for example, Hades and Persephone (which is filled with bell-like tones) and River (featuring an unendingly repetitious use of a drum set). But what exactly is being shown, or commented upon, or expanded, through the use of a particular musical element, is entirely unclear to anyone who has not experienced Lyra as the avant-garde theatre/film/dance production that it is meant to be. Indeed, the work’s title itself needs elucidation: Adams wants the guitar-and-percussion combination (as enhanced/altered/expanded) to be perceived as a 21st-century lyre, thus tying the whole production back to the instrument of Orpheus in Greek mythology. This is the level of understanding that an audience must have in order to appreciate, not to mention enjoy, the material on this CD. It is a fair bet that only a very, very few listeners will have the requisite knowledge, interest and experience to get from this music even a small fraction of what the composer and performers have endeavored to put into it.

May 12, 2022

(++++) SHERLOCK’S HOMES

Enola Holmes: The Graphic Novels, Book One. By Serena Blasco. Translated by Tanya Gold. Based on the novels by Nancy Springer. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     As amazingly enduring as Sherlock Holmes proved to be during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifetime, appearing in four novels and 56 short stories in the 40 years from 1887 to 1927 – and being brought back from the dead when he proved too popular for readers to tolerate The Final Problem – Holmes’ post-Conan Doyle life has been even more extensive. Holmes resides in stories, spinoffs, serious analyses, discussions, novels, short stories, TV series, films, games, and pretty much everything else communicable in literature and allied fields – his appearances number in the thousands. There are followups on Holmes himself, tales focusing on Dr. Watson, looks at Holmes’ “smarter brother” Mycroft, focuses on Holmes’ use of a 7% solution of cocaine, considerations of Holmes as violinist, stories about the Baker Street Irregulars, even discussions of the iconic pipe (a Calabash gourd with meerschaum bowl) and deer-hunter hat – which, as it happens, never appear in Conan Doyle’s stories (both were introduced by English actor William Gillette in an 1899 stage portrayal of Holmes).

     Nancy Springer added her “take” on the Holmes saga in a series of six mysteries from 2006 through 2010 (plus a seventh, independent one published in 2021). She created a younger sister for Sherlock and Mycroft and christened her Enola – the word “alone” spelled in reverse, a fact of some importance in the Enola Holmes books. These books have themselves been turned into a Netflix film (2020), but well before that (2015-2016), they were adapted in France as graphic novels by Serena Blasco. The first three Enola Holmes graphic novels are now available in a Tanya Gold translation – and they work exceptionally well in graphic-novel form. The Case of the Missing Marquess, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, and The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets are all cleverly managed portions of an overall setup that is quite familiar in books aimed at preteens: family drama. In this case, Enola discovers on her 14th birthday that her mother has mysteriously disappeared, and soon calls on her older brothers for help – only to find that they, for all their money and connections (Mycroft) and perfectly ratiocinative intellectual brilliance (Sherlock), do not discover or pick up on the significance of some clues that Enola herself discovers. Springer does a particularly good job of explaining why this might be so: the clues are left in ways that are particularly noticeable to women, and in straitlaced Victorian society, men simply would not “go there” to locate or interpret the information. This allows Springer to combine some once-over-lightly background on England in 1889 with an understandable modern orientation (needed to connect the protagonist with 21st-century readers) by giving Enola distinctly modern but not overly anachronistic attitudes (in favor of suffragists, against corsets, interested in Marx’s Das Kapital and its implications, and so on).

     There have been plenty of Sherlock Holmes pastiches and sendups, but this is neither. Sherlock approaches the mystery of the family’s missing matriarch in his usual logical way, but in this case the logic is misapplied because he has no reason, as a respectable Victorian man, to investigate female-centric matters such as “the language of flowers.” Mycroft, the oldest of the siblings and the financial support of their mother and of Enola, discovers soon enough that the money he has supposedly been sending for house-and-grounds upkeep and similar needs has not been used for those purposes at all. His attempt to set things right involves a determination to realign Enola’s life with late-19th-century expectations, get her fitted for proper clothing, and send her off to boarding school. Resisting all of this, Enola finds her own way to London and has a series of adventures – initially tied strongly to her search for her mum, then less tightly related to that overarching plot point.

     Tall, thin, rather gangly, red-haired Enola is a likable character and a relatable one as well. Blasco keeps the graphic novels well-focused on her, her brothers, and the various hangers-on and evil characters encountered by Enola as she sets herself up – using clever disguises reminiscent of those used by Sherlock – as a finder of missing persons. There are the usual sorts of derring-do and near-disaster that one would expect, from kidnap by nefarious dockside baddies in league with a phony spiritualist to a visit to an asylum where Dr. Watson has been taken because of a somewhat over-contrived but very interesting plot (thus giving Enola the chance to lead Sherlock to the rescue of his colleague and amanuensis). Enola’s gradual discovery of her own investigative prowess – a form of the “finding oneself” so typical in stories about and for preteens and young teenagers – is well-handled by Springer and believably rendered by Blasco.

     The plotting occasionally leaves something to be desired, with too-quick denouements and, between the first and second books, some significant changes in Enola’s life that are never fully explained but must simply be accepted as necessary to the stories. But there is underlying believability to Enola and her place in the Holmes family, and enough of a veneer of comprehension of Victorian society to make her adventures at once exotic and relatable. Blasco uses the graphic-novel format quite well, varying panel sizes frequently and sometimes dispensing with panels altogether, as when showing pages of Enola’s secret notebook – which is presented as if written on cream-colored rather than white paper. Perspective shifts, clever use of angles, and very well-thought-through color combine to make these graphic novels engaging to see as well as involving to read. Since this release is designated Book One, there should be a Book Two along in due course, containing the other three books in the main Enola Holmes series: The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan, The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline, and The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye. Readers of this volume will look forward to the next, if not with bated breath, at least with keen anticipation.