April 27, 2006


The Night Pirates. By Peter Harris. Illustrated by Deborah Allwright. Scholastic. $16.99.

Princess Penelope Takes Charge! By Todd Mack. Illustrated by Julia Gran. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Kids ages 3-7 are big dreamers – but, alas for those dreams, young children are physically confined to home and nearby areas most of the time.  Where’s the adventure in that?

     The answer can lie in books – when they are as delightful as these two.  The Night Pirates is a great example of an adventure book for the child at home, because that’s exactly what the story is: it’s about a young boy named Tom, who is in his bed at home one night when PIRATES come stealthily down the street.  But not just any pirates!  These are “rough, tough little girl pirates with their own pirate ship,” which they plan to disguise by stealing the front of Tom’s house and using it for camouflage.  This is a wonderfully absurd setup for a marvelous adventure tale: Tom asks if he can go along, the girl captain welcomes him, and the pirate band sets sail in search of a treasure chest held by Captain Patch and “his rough, tough, grown-up pirates.”  Of course, Patch has never seen anything like the girls’ ship before: he thinks a house is sailing toward him.  By the time he and his low-down crew realize what’s happening, the girls and Tom have the treasure and have set sail for Tom’s town to return the front of the house – which, however, they re-set in a rather unusual way.  This is a great book to read as a bedtime story or anytime, thanks partly to the inspired silliness of Peter Harris’ storytelling and partly to the wonderful Deborah Allwright illustrations.  There’s one requiring you to turn the book sideways, and there are plenty that enhance the absurdities of the story, showing the house/boat sailing or Captain Patch breathing fire or his pirates running away in fright and climbing trees as the girl pirates attack.  What a romp!

     Princess Penelope Takes Charge! takes a commonplace story – the arrival of a new baby – and turns it into an adventure that kids experience right at home.  Penelope has absolutely everything, but what she wants most of all is to be a big sister.  When her mom gets pregnant, Penelope is ecstatic – she can’t wait, and keeps asking when her new baby sister will arrive.  But the baby turns out to be a boy, and horrified Penelope starts comparing baby Dexter unfavorably with Penelope’s favorite doll, Marigold.  After all, Dexter doesn’t have hair and can’t play dress-up or dance or sing or do ANYTHING that’s fun.  But, largely unnoticed by Penelope, Dexter starts to grow, and he gets hair “the same color as hers,” and Penelope begins to help out – and to play with Dexter, too, “even if Dexter didn’t always ENJOY playing with Penelope.”  Although Todd Mack’s story has a veneer of fantasy, its underlying realistic theme keeps coming through, as when Penelope watches Dexter so their mom can take a shower, and Penelope insists on dressing Dexter up and putting bows in his hair even though he clearly (and loudly) disapproves.  Julia Gran’s illustrations capture Penelope’s and Dexter’s moods very well, and the book’s message – that Penelope loves being a big sister despite her initial uncertainty – is one that may help many families through the difficult period of adjustment that is inevitable when a family gets bigger.

(++++) A HOT TALE (TAIL?)

“Fire! Fire!” Said Mrs. McGuire. By Bill Martin Jr. Illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky. Harcourt. $16.

     Here’s an old book made new again – and made better than ever for kids ages 2-5.  Bill Martin Jr. (1916-2004) wrote hundreds of kids’ books, including the words to this one – back in 1971.  The story is a simple one, in which mice worry about flames they see, and the mice’s names rhyme with their expressions of concern: “’Where? Where?’ said Mrs. Bear. ‘Downtown!’ said Mrs. Brown.”

     Of course, the fire turns out not to be anything dangerous after all, and we somehow know from the start that there is not really anything to be afraid of here.  But just in case there were any doubts, they would be dispelled by the marvelous illustrations of Vladimir Radunsky.  Radunsky previously illustrated Martin’s The Maestro Plays, which he turned into a surrealistic riff on music of all kinds.  Here he sticks more closely to Martin’s tale, showing the whole thing taking place inside a storage room where all the mice live.  How do the mice know there’s a fire somewhere?  They see flames through the keyhole – which, in an inspired bit of design, is a punch-through from the book’s cover all the way to its final page.  This means Radunsky has to create illustrations showing the mice inside a dark room, with the keyhole always in the same place and the various mice in different areas.  This is not a small artistic challenge, but Radunsky handles it and makes it look easy.  Mrs. McGuire starts the book looking very small amid the room’s clutter, pointing from the far bottom right toward the keyhole in the upper middle of the page.  Later illustrations switch perspectives, showing two mice inside a pair of rollerblades, three climbing boxes, one standing on a toy car, another inside a pitcher of water, and so on.

     Eventually, we get to Martin’s line, “’Break down the door!’ said Mrs. Orr,” and shortly afterwards, all the mice come out of the room to discover – spoiler alert! – a kitten’s birthday party.  The fire is coming from the candles on the birthday cake, and it just so happens that the view from the floor of the storage room through the keyhole made it look as if there is fire everywhere outside the room.  You can go back and check this for yourself – as young children will undoubtedly want to do (when they’re not poking their fingers through the keyhole cutouts).

     This book is an especially good example of the power of high-quality children’s-book illustration to take a slight story and turn it into something special.  Martin’s writing is cute, but it is Radunsky’s illustrations that really make this book a success.  Radunsky has a highly unusual style and sense of perspective, as he showed in The Mighty Asparagus, which he both wrote and illustrated.  This book does not have the same sense of surreality as that one, but Radunsky nevertheless does a fine job of spicing up a simple story and turning it into something that parents will enjoy reading to young children again and again.  Good thing, too, since kids will probably demand many repetitions.


When They Were 22: 100 Famous People at the Turning Point in Their Lives. By Brad Dunn. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

     Quick – pick a turning point in your life.  Marriage?  First child born? Graduated from college?  From high school?  Lost virginity?  Got first real job?  The answer will obviously be different for everyone.

     Well, then pick an age that was a turning point in your life.  16 (driving)…18 (voting)…21 (drinking and other signs of “official” adulthood)…30 (realization that you’re in the real world for good)?  Again, the answer will be highly personal.

     Brad Dunn, a speechwriter and journalist, has picked what he considers the age that marks a turning point for everyone – or a least for greater and lesser celebrities.  The age is 22, and When They Were 22 tells what happened at that age to 100 people whose names Dunn thinks you will recognize.

     Dunn has to stretch a bit to make 22 – which, after all, is an arbitrarily selected age – into a “turning point” for everyone.  For instance, when Malcolm Little turned 22 (in 1947), he “took the first step toward becoming Malcolm X.”  This sounds better than “he remained in prison.”  In contrast, Cassius Clay definitely had a major event at 22 (in 1964): he defeated Sonny Liston and, while still 22, adopted the name Muhammad Ali.

     The interest level of Dunn’s book depends on how much you care about the specific people he includes.  A few literary notables are here (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger), but Dunn’s list leans heavily toward flash-in-the-pan modern celebrities or near-celebrities (Tracy Chapman, David Hasselhoff, Andy Kaufman, Zadie Smith).  It seems fair to say that many people who want to know what Mr. T did at 22 in 1974 (became a bouncer) may also want to know about Linda Boreman at 22 in 1971 (she became Linda Lovelace and starred in Deep Throat).  But will the same people want to know about Eliot Ness at 22 in 1925 (he started taking night classes in criminology), or Franz Kafka at 22 in 1905 (he took a philosophy course on Schopenhauer)?

     To say that this book is a mixed bag is greatly understating the case.  Here you will find Ronald Reagan, Condoleezza Rice, Karl Rove, and Monica Lewinsky, but neither Bill Clinton nor Hillary Rodham Clinton.  You’ll find Alice Walker and Andy Warhol, Howard Stern and Sharon Stone.  Diane Sawyer is here, but not Dan Rather.  Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Sissy Spacek are all in, but Bette Davis and Judy Garland are out.  Ralph Nader is here, but Ross Perot isn’t.  There is, in other words, little apparent rhyme or reason to the selection process for this book, and little cohesiveness to its presentation (the stories are simply told in alphabetical order, with occasional cross-references to similar elements in the life of someone else profiled here).  The result is part voyeurism, part celebrity gossip, part simply a lot of thrown-together anecdotes.  Be sure to read the table of contents before buying the book: you need to be interested in at least two-thirds of the people included to enjoy it.  Oh – and you need to buy into the underlying premise about the importance to one’s life of what happens at age 22.


The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips. By Michael Morpurgo. Scholastic. $15.99.

Geronimo. By Joseph Bruchac. Scholastic. $16.99.

     War is the backdrop for both these books – war, and its effects on the individuals caught up in its currents.  The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, for ages 7-10, is set in England in 1943, right in the midst of World War II.  But that war has barely touched the novel’s protagonist, Lily Tregenza, who lives on a  farm in a lovely seaside village.  That is, she lives there until she and 3,000 other villagers are ordered to leave their homes so the army can use the village and its surroundings as a practice and staging area for what will become the D Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944.

     Michael Morpurgo is realistic in writing a book in which the heroine cares little for the grand events of the day – only for how they affect her.  She cares even more how they affect her cat, Adolphus Tips.  For the cat, of course, is not concerned about or stopped by barbed wire and warning signs, and continues its wandering ways into areas now deemed off limits.  After the cat disappears into the forbidden area, Lily makes friends with two stereotypical (and rather stereotyped) American soldiers, Adie and Harry, who promise to help her find Tips.  The result is a mostly predictable but generally sensitive portrayal of a young, naïve girl coming face to face with people unlike any she has ever known, and a world beyond anything she has ever experienced.  Yes, this is a coming-of-age novel, one among innumerable others, but it has some surprising twists, especially an unusually heartwarming one at the end.  Tips is the thread that knits everything together, partly because – it spoils nothing to reveal this – the cat is a female despite its name.  The novel is affecting, even moving, although it suffers from plot clichés and a style that is nothing special.  Despite the war setting, it is not a war novel, and is likely to appeal less to boys than to girls.

     Geronimo is not a war novel, either; it is more of a post-war novel.  It is aimed at older readers – ages 12 and up – and is a piece of historical fiction, in which an aged Geronimo looks back at his life and ahead to his people’s future.  Joseph Bruchac’s technique has some parallels with Michael Morpurgo’s, but Bruchac is a more facile writer: fewer seams show.  Unfortunately, Bruchac’s narrative style, though it nicely emulates the reminiscences of an aged warrior long past his final battles, may be a bit much for readers in the target age range: “When the train pulled up to the station, I spotted two familiar faces looking out at us through the windows.  It was Daklugie and the son of Mangus, who later became known as Frank Mangus.  Frank was the grandson of Mangas [sic] Coloridas.  His father, whose name was Mangus, was the leader of the last band of free Chiricahuas.”  And so on.  Bruchac obviously feels considerable empathy for Geronimo, but the feeling all too often comes through in a typecasting of the nobility of Geronimo’s people and the unpleasantness, if not out-and-out evil, of the white man.  The story is set in 1908, a year before Geronimo’s real-world death (he was born in 1829).  The novel offers a sweeping history of America’s westward expansion in the 19th century.  But it has more a feeling of memoir than of adventure, with a quiet sensitivity at the core that may reflect Geronimo accurately but may make the book rather plodding for its intended audience.


The Power of Charm: How to Win Anyone Over in Any Situation. By Brian Tracy and Ron Arden. AMACOM. $15.

     A pretty good self-summary of this book comes at the end of Chapter 8: “Don’t worry so much about changing the way you think and feel inside, because it may take a long time to show any improvement or results.  Instead, concentrate on behaving exactly as if you were already a charming person.”

     Your reaction to this book will depend in large measure on whether you find this statement helpful or appalling.

     Brian Tracy is a speaker and consultant on personal and professional development – a “success coach,” though he doesn’t call himself that.  Ron Arden is a coach of professional speakers and a former movie actor and director.  Both men are Californians, and The Power of Charm is very much steeped in the California culture of remaking your surface (through training, surgery, Botox, what-have-you) so other people will find you fabulous.

     There is nothing particularly profound here, but the book is a good collection of ideas for being a better politician.  Oh, it doesn’t come right out and say that that’s what it’s for, but in fact it offers techniques that top politicians seem to have known from birth and others do their best to acquire.  Wherever you are looking for political success – that is, success in, to one degree or another, manipulating people – The Power of Charm has ideas for you.  The concepts can apply anywhere from boardroom to bedroom; but if you find the whole idea of this sort of manipulativeness rather smarmy, this book is not for you.

     The authors’ basic idea is that charm consists of making other people feel special.  To do this, you smile with happiness when seeing someone (and if you don’t feel happy at the moment, remember a time when you did, and have your face light up accordingly).  You thank people copiously for what they do, both so they will like you and so you will like yourself more – because you are the sort of person who hands out lots of warm praise.  Praise itself is invaluable as an element of charm: look for opportunities to praise people, and do so often.  Compliment them, too, on their appearance, their willingness to take risks, their punctuality, etc.  And always give people your full attention: learn how to listen effectively, so your eye contact and body language communicate your fascination with whatever another person is saying.

     This would not be a self-help book if the authors simply said what you should do.  They offer numerous hints about developing characteristics of charm, plus testimonials from people who have tried these techniques and found that they work.  And – this will be the bottom line for many readers – the techniques do work.  They are methods of appearing sincere – ones designed to make others believe you to be sincere, and over time to make you feel that way about yourself.  They are, at bottom, acting techniques.  And you know what George Burns famously said about that: "The secret of acting is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made."


Haydn: The Seasons. Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Andreas Karasiak, tenor; Stephan MacLeod, bass; Morten Schuldt-Jensen conducting GewandhausKammerchor and Leipziger Kammerorchester. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Mozart: Requiem; Inter Natos Mulierum, K. 72; Misericordias Domini, K. 222. Miriam Allan, soprano; Anne Butler, mezzo-soprano; Marcus Ullmann, tenor; Martin Snell, bass. Morten Schuldt-Jensen conducting GewandhausKammerchor and Leipziger Kammerorchester. Naxos. $8.99.

     Morten Schuldt-Jensen offers what would seem to be an uneasy mixture of modernized and authentic performances on these CDs.  The orchestra uses modern instruments, but it plays – and the singers sing – in accordance with performance practices of the time at which the music was written.  Schuldt-Jensen makes no apologies for this approach, whose intellectual underpinnings are not particularly strong.  But he makes a superb case for it in the implementation: these are, by any measures, wonderful and wholly convincing performances of masterworks.

     In truth, Haydn’s The Seasons is a neglected masterwork, and a performance as good as this one shows why.  It was written in 1801, the same year as the first performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony, and it harks back to earlier times more clearly than does Haydn’s other great oratorio, The Creation – which he finished two years earlier.  The earlier work’s timeless story and inherent drama helped carry it forth despite the passing of the age of grand-scale oratorio.  But The Seasons has text that is at best mediocre (by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, after James Thomson and others), and its subject matter simply does not enthrall: rural simplicity through the seasons of the year.  Unlike The Creation, this later oratorio creaks.

     This does not mean it lacks wonderful music.  Some sections are marvelous: much of Summer is an effective portrayal of heat and stillness, while the final two movements, representing a thunderstorm and the happiness after it is over, look forward to Beethoven’s Pastorale symphony of later in the decade; the Fall chorus, Hört des laute Getön, has hunting-horn raucousness exceeding that of Haydn’s “Hornsignal” symphony (No. 31); the final Fall chorus, Juhhe, juhhe! Der Wein ist da has all the drama and bounce of the “Military” symphony (No. 100), and equal sweep; the overture to Winter excels as a mysterious tone painting of fog, while that of Spring seems to make the entire year bloom.  But the work as a whole is less effective than its component parts: two-and-a-quarter hours of planting, shady groves, harvests and frozen lakes is more than enough, however well the music is played and sung.

     Mozart’s Requiem is less than enough: the composer’s final work, far from finished at his death, is in large part reflective of the reconstructive efforts of Franz Xaver Süssmayr.  Kudos are due to Naxos for indicating in its booklet for this release just which parts are by Mozart, which are by Süssmayr, and which are a blend.  The performance is quite well sung: almost operatic in parts, heartfelt in others, gentle in still others.  Soprano Miriam Allan, whose bell-like voice makes her sound almost like a boy soprano, is especially effective.  Schuldt-Jensen shapes the music respectfully and without undue heaviness – despite the subject matter, this is music more thoughtful than depressing.  The inclusion of two Offertories set by Mozart earlier in his life is an unexpected joy: both are well-worked, brightly conceived, yet entirely reverential.  Schuldt-Jensen’s argument for authentic performance practice using modern instruments is far more convincing when you hear how it works than it is when he presents his viewpoint in words.

April 20, 2006


The Baby-Sitters Club #1: Kristy’s Great Idea. By Ann M. Martin. Adapted and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. Graphix/Scholastic. $16.99 hardcover; $8.99 paperback.

     Scholastic’s Graphix imprint has done something really interesting with this transformation of the first book in Ann Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club series for girls ages 9-12: it has taken the implied visual quality of the ever-popular series and used it to create a surprisingly effective graphic novel.  Raina Telgemeier gets the basic look of the four girls – Kristy, Stacey, Mary Anne and Claudia – just right.  She nicely balances talk-heavy panels with wordless ones (a sequence in which a baby-sitting job turns out to be for two dogs instead of two kids is a particularly good example of the latter).  And she includes enough about each girl to individualize her – family issues, health concerns and so on – while keeping the focus on the girls’ friendship and the club that stands as its symbol.

     Martin’s series runs to well over 100 volumes, with more than 175 million books in print.  The series works because it is, at heart, a simple story of friendship, on which virtually unending variations can be rung.  Telgemeier’s visualization of the first book of the series makes the strengths clear from the outset.  We meet Kristy first as she daydreams through the end of a seventh-grade class and gets extra homework for being a bit too enthusiastic about the end of the school day.  The baby-sitting connection shows up early, as Kristy rushes home to take care of her little brother, David Michael.  We meet Mary Anne, Kristy’s best friend, as well as Kristy’s divorced mom, who is dating a man of whom Kristy does not approve.

     The family and interpersonal dynamics play out nicely.  Mary Anne is an only child, and her father is a widower.  Claudia has a super-smart older sister; the girls are being raised by their grandmother.  Stacey is new in town – her family has moved from New York, but they keep returning to the big city for mysterious reasons that eventually cause (well, almost cause) a rift among the four girls.

     None of this will be news to fans of Martin’s books: Telgemeier follows the setup of the series closely. Her black-and-white illustrations are unsubtle but quite appropriate.  She mostly uses standard comic-book boxes to move the story along – very few of the more creative illustrative techniques that graphic novels have pioneered or brought to new heights.  Most panels have plenty of white in the background, though some are drawn against black – an effective contrast.  The wordless panels, which set scenes and enhance characters, are among the best.  Some of the baby-sitting scenes are actually better in the compressed visual format than in print, such as Claudia’s successful “taming” of the raucous Feldman kids.

     There is old-fashioned charm to Martin’s books, though some of the language and clothing styles have been updated over the years.  Telgemeier manages to retain the charm while giving the girls a great deal of visual punch and overall liveliness.  Current fans of Martin’s books should enjoy seeing them in this new way – and kids who do not yet know the books will find Telgemeier’s visualization a very pleasant introduction.


Odds Are Good. By Bruce Coville. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $6.95.

     This is a paperback compilation of Bruce Coville’s short-story collections Oddly Enough (1994) and Odder Than Ever (1999).  It gives readers ages 12 and up a great chance to reacquaint themselves with Coville as a short-story writer – and, if they do not yet know him that way, a great chance to discover just how good he can be in short form.

     Coville is deceptively deep.  His stories frequently seem like witty but surface-level reconsiderations of long-familiar fantasy themes: travel to other worlds, vampirism, elves and brownies and ghosts and werewolves.  But on a second reading – or a careful first one – it turns out that Coville is modifying, even twisting these themes into new shapes, in the service of an overview of life that is humane and captivating.

     Coville tends to be rather coy about the nature of that overview.  In his notes to the original edition of Oddly Enough – the author’s notes to both books are unfortunately omitted from this reprint – Coville makes a passing reference to “my favorite theme of reconciliation.”  Catch those passing references if you can: therein wisdom lies.  For while Coville has written at some length about how different his stories are – some written quickly, some over a period of years, some with intense focus, some after flitting from thought to thought – the reconciliation theme appears again and again, knitting his tales together into a more cohesive whole than he himself seems fully to realize.

     Thus, “The Box,” which Coville wrote in his 20s and described as his personal favorite story at the time Oddly Enough was published, is a strange fantasy about a little boy who believes an angel gave him a box that he must carry everywhere forever – and his reconciliation not only to that burden (if it is a burden) but also to the fact that he will never know what the box contains.  “The Passing of the Pack” is a highly unusual werewolf story at whose heart lies the reconciliation of a child with his long-absent father – a theme developed in equally heartfelt fashion in “The Golden Sail.”  “The Language of Blood” is a very strange vampire tale indeed, about the importance of vampirism as a gateway to prophecy for a vaguely Mesoamerican civilization – and the reconciliation of a boy to his fate as a prophet.

     These are Coville’s more serious tales, but there are lighter ones as well, and in them Coville often seems simply to delight in spinning a yarn.  “Clean as a Whistle,” about a family brownie (not the edible kind – the fairy-tale kind) who is assigned to a particularly messy child, is delightful, and the theme of reconciliation with one’s basic nature is well in the background.  And “Biscuits of Glory” is as lighthearted a ghost story as you’ll likely read anywhere.

     Some Coville tales can pull you into deeply emotional states even before you realize it: “The Giant’s Tooth,” for instance, which will make you question what home really means to you; and “A Blaze of Glory,” an exceptionally touching tale of the approach of real-world death in the context of fairy tale (actually elf tale).  Coville has a habit of making readers think, even when he is playing.  It’s quite an accomplishment.  Odds Are Good is quite a book.


The Ratvolution Will Not Be Televised: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Red Carpet Rose: A “Rose Is Rose” Collection. By Pat Brady and Don Wimmer. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

     Comic strips, even the really good ones, have life cycles.  Not even the greatest strips of all time – George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, Walt Kelly’s Pogo – retained their highest-of-high quality until the end.  It can be exhilarating to read a strip that is already good and still improving – and it can be genuinely upsetting to read a once-loved one that has clearly started on a downward course.

     Pearls Before Swine is good and getting better all the time.  Stephan Pastis’ dark, death-obsessed, surrealistic, pun-filled strip constantly rings changes on its existing themes while bringing in all sorts of new ones – and even making fun of itself in the process.  The Ratvolution Will Not Be Televised takes the dumb-but-happy nature of Pig to extremes as he attends a “Dumb Guys Convention,” accidentally falls into space after drilling through the Earth to “Kukistan,” and has a series of hilarious and humiliating dates with a “Ms. Bootyworth” syrup bottle.  (“Hilarious” and “humiliating” often go together in this strip.)  Good-hearted Zebra continues to try to persuade lions and crocodiles to stop being carnivorous, with predictable results.  Rat locks Pastis out of the strip until the cartoonist agrees to change the title to “Worship the Rat” and “depict me as a Roman emperor surrounded by hot chicks who are feeding me grapes.”  In this sequence and others (including a near-illegible panel filled with tiny type), Pastis skewers numerous strips that have been around for generations and long since lost whatever punch they once had.  There is much, much more of this sort of anarchic behavior and strangely skewed humor here.  This is clearly a strip that is not for everyone (Pastis makes fun of that fact, too); but it is just as clearly a strip that is several cuts above the vast majority of today’s daily comics – if your own funnybone is as twisted as Pastis’ clearly is.

     Alas, Rose Is Rose shows the other side of a comic strip’s life.  The new collection, Red Carpet Rose – the first to include both creator Pat Brady and Don Wimmer, with whom Brady now shares the drawing and writing – is so disappointing that a (+++) rating is largely a gift in memory of what this once-marvelous strip used to be.  If this book is your first exposure to the strip, you’ll more likely rate it a (++).  All the creativity has been squeezed out of the adventures of the blue-collar Gumbo family (father Jimbo, mother Rose, son Pasquale, cat Peekaboo).  Brady’s inventiveness has gone stale.  For instance, Rose’s alter ego, the hot biker chick Vicki, makes a few appearances here – but, among other things, she reads a map to find her way to a farm, which is a totally un-Vicki-ish thing to do.  Pasquale’s guardian angel, who used to grow to huge and terrifying size to protect the boy from danger, now does so simply to help the family’s car go faster or help Pasquale fly a kite.  Rose and Jimbo still sometimes shrink to child size to enjoy things in a childlike way – but in one strip, Rose as a child gives Rose as an adult permission to add chocolate to milk, which gets the process exactly backward.  And Brady’s occasional use of odd angles and skewed panels, which in previous collections added piquancy to specific strips, is here an ongoing feature for no apparent reason – the reader may actually get tired of turning his or her head to the side to read panels that are angled simply because they can be.  It is impossible to know whether Brady’s own creativity has flagged or whether he has turned too much of the strip over to a less-talented collaborator.  But either way, those who have loved Rose Is Rose will have to face the fact that this collection shows the strip going downhill fast.  It was a wonderful comic; now it is, at best, an ordinary one.


The Road of the Dead. By Kevin Brooks. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.

Candy. By Kevin Brooks. PUSH/Scholastic. $7.99.

     Kevin Brooks specializes in the ugly.  Yes, you can call his works “gritty,” or “streetwise,” or “unashamed to look at the seamy side of life,” but whatever else they may be, the simple fact is that they are forthright looks at ugliness.  Emotions always run high and raw, characters inevitably descend to the lowest possible level before (sometimes) finding themselves and emerging (somewhat) better as a result, and Brooks clearly relishes descriptions of degradation and violence, which he crafts as often as possible.  He writes well – his pacing is fast, with events tumbling over themselves so quickly that his characters never have a chance to get their bearings.  But his subject matter is so genuinely unpleasant that his books are an acquired taste that many readers in the 12-and-up target age range will not care to acquire.

     The Road of the Dead, Brooks’ latest novel, is about three siblings, of whom the eldest, 19-year-old Rachel, is brutally murdered – after being kidnapped and raped.  It is left to 17-year-old Cole and 14-year-old Ruben to search for their sister’s body and the true story of her death.  The boys are driven in different ways and by different things.  Cole is a surly, sullen type, unafraid of violence and not caring much whether he or those involved with him live or die.  Ruben is more interesting: he experiences strange sensations from those around him, feeling what they feel or connecting in some never-explained way with their souls, spirits, personalities, what-have-you.  Cole and Ruben start their trip along The Road of the Dead at their home in a junkyard in London – the emptiness of their lives telegraphed by the setting as the storminess of their tale is reflected in the weather on the night Rachel is killed.  The story takes Cole and Ruben from one depressing scene to another, climaxing as Ruben’s visions and Cole’s violent streak help the boys confront their sister’s vicious killers.  It is an undeniably effective ending, for all its sordidness.

     “Sordid” describes the life of a girl named Candy as well.  Brooks’ novel about her is now available in paperback.  Unlike The Road of the Dead, in which every character is damaged by life from the outset, Candy starts out as the story of a young boy named Joe whose life is pretty much on the right track.  True, he doesn’t care about much except his music, but Joe is basically a good (if rather vapid) guy seeking direction.  The direction he finds with Candy is, not surprisingly, downward.  Joe’s crush on Candy pulls him ever deeper into her world of drugs and desperation, and leads to a hyper-violent confrontation with a man named Iggy who represents all that is frightening in Candy’s life – and is directly responsible for much of it.  After a terrifying scene among Iggy, Candy and Joe leaves Iggy (who clearly deserves to die) very much alive and back in control, Joe’s sister, Gina, also gets pulled into the mess of Candy’s life, and it takes further violence to extricate both Gina and Joe.  But there is no happy ending here, and no sense that Joe has learned much from the whole experience – except that the world is a darker and more dangerous place than he ever thought it was.  That seems to be the primary lesson of all Brooks’ novels.


Norton SystemWorks 2006 Basic Edition. Windows 2000 SP4 or higher, or Windows XP. Symantec. $49.99.

     Symantec makes the best available performance-enhancement suites for Windows PCs, basing those products on its excellent Norton AntiVirus and growing them from there.

     So what is one to make of a Symantec utility suite without Norton AntiVirus?  That’s what this stripped-down version of Norton SystemWorks 2006 is.  It is essentially four products in one: Norton Utilities, Symantec’s excellent performance tune-up product; Norton GoBack, which lets you reset your computer easily to a working configuration if it develops problems after you make changes; and CheckIt Diagnostics and System Optimizer, which together help you find and eliminate performance problems so your computer works as well as possible.  Users monitor all the programs through an easy-to-use central reference point called Norton Protection Center.

     The four products here are, in fact, four-fifths of Norton SystemWorks 2006, the other fifth being Norton AntiVirus.  The question is whether these utilities are worth $50 in the absence of antivirus protection.  The answer is: it depends.

     Let’s say you already have Norton AntiVirus, purchased as a standalone product, but have now decided you want additional protection and the opportunity to fine-tune your computer’s performance.  Then Norton SystemWorks 2006 Basic Edition makes sense.  Or let’s say you have decided to use a non-Symantec antivirus product, such as Grisoft’s excellent AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, but still want a way to maximize your computer’s operating efficiency.  Then, too, this Symantec suite will be attractive.  In fact, one suspects that the target market is people who have chosen not to use Norton AntiVirus – but can perhaps be lured into the Symantec fold when they find out how well this suite works.

     Make no mistake: it works very well indeed.  Symantec specializes in creating products that interact seamlessly: they work together, are updated together, can be scheduled together, and fulfill different but related functions in ways that enhance overall computer performance.  Norton SystemWorks 2006 Basic Edition does exactly what it is supposed to do, and does it well.  Norton Protection Center gives a clear overview of the status of your PC’s protection, relating both to your data and to your online activities.  Components of the suite can be started manually or be scheduled to run at regular intervals.  You can repair computer problems, recover lost or accidentally deleted files, keep your hard disk (or disks) defragmented for smoother operation, and more.  The underlying tasks are complex, but Symantec has steadily improved the ease of use of its Norton product line in recent years, and the 2006 products have the best-looking and most user-friendly interfaces yet.

     So the real question is why you would want a Norton SystemWorks product without its antivirus component.  If you find Symantec’s products congenial, an extra $20 gets you Norton SystemWorks 2006 with Norton AntiVirus included.  If you have decided against that antivirus product – which is excellent, though certainly not the only good virus fighter available – then what would drive you to buy a suite of tune-up products from a company whose antivirus offering you do not want?  This seems like a marketing dilemma – whose outcome will likely determine whether Norton SystemWorks Basic Edition will continue to be offered in future years.


Wagner: Das Rheingold. Wolfgang Probst, bass-baritone; Bernhard Schneider, tenor; Motti Kastón, baritone; Robert Künzli, tenor; Michaela Schuster, mezzo-soprano; Helga Rós Indridadóttir, soprano; Mette Ejsing, contralto; Esa Ruuttunen, bass-baritone; Eberhard Franceso Lorenz, tenor; Roland Bracht, bass; Phillips Ens, bass; Lothar Zagrosek conducting Staatsoper Stuttgart and Staatsorchester Stuttgart. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Das Rheingold is the shortest of Wagner’s four Ring operas, but its multiple settings make it almost as difficult to stage as the longest, Götterdämmerung. And it labors under a serious difficulty in terms of drawing the audience in: it contains no human beings. Everything here involves gods, giants, dwarves and Rhinemaidens – humans are not even an afterthought.

A truly involving performance, like this one from Staatsoper Stuttgart, overcomes that inherent difficulty through extraordinary voice acting that gives the characters genuine human emotions while drawing the audience into Wagner’s mythological world. The best example here comes from Esa Ruuttunen in a truly remarkable performance as Alberich. This character, whose theft of the Rhinegold sets in motion all the tragic events that will follow, is often played as buffoonish, unintelligent and a mindlessly evil schemer. Not so here. From his first appearance, when the Rhinemaidens (soprano Catriona Smith and mezzos Maria Theresa Ullrich and Margarete Joswig) tease and taunt him, this Alberich is more tormented than tormenting. Ruuttunen takes him through so many human emotions – pride, anger, wistfulness, uncertainty and, eventually, despair – that his eventual curse on the ring he has forged carries even more weight than usual. Alberich becomes the center of this drama. This may not be exactly what Wagner intended, but it works wonderfully to build empathy for an essentially unsympathetic character. In this performance, what is clear above all is that no one is flawless; no one is fully in the right. The gods’ duplicity (Wotan never really intends to give Freia to the giants) is matched by that of the giants themselves (they will take Freia and so arrange for the gods to wither, separated from the fruit that keeps them forever young). The gods’ pride (why did Wotan need Valhalla?) is the flip side of Alberich’s. And the Rhinemaidens are cruel. There are no “good guys” here.

The mostly very strong vocal cast emotes even while singing effectively. Especially good are Helga Rós Indridadóttir as Freia, whose anguish and fear sound genuine; Michaela Schuster as a sharp-tongued Fricka; and Robert Künzli as an especially slimy Loge, playing with everyone’s future without seeing that he is dooming himself as well.

The orchestral playing is excellent, and Lothar Zagrosek is as well: he moves the action smartly along, while allowing Wagner’s clear instrumental writing to highlight the many leitmotifs here being played for the first time in the tetralogy.

A couple of voices are not quite up to the rest. Wolfgang Probst is a disappointment as Wotan: his voice is too shaky to be regal, and his vocal acting is more wooden than that of other cast members. Motti Kastón sings and emotes well enough, but his voice does not have all the power that Donner needs. Mette Ejsing wobbles a bit as Erda, too, but her powerful characterization of this crucial character almost makes up for some vocal instability. Indeed, “characterization” is in the forefront throughout this performance, which was recorded live in 2002. The successful introduction of strong human emotions into the opera’s nonhuman characters makes this a Das Rheingold worth hearing again and again.

April 13, 2006


First Flight: A Mother Hummingbird’s Story. By Noriko and Don Carroll. Andrews McMeel. $14.95.

Crack of Noon: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

     It is a wondrous thing to watch the young of any species, including our own, getting ready to leave the nest.  It is an everyday small miracle – and it is a story that has rarely been told as well as Noriko and Don Carroll tell it in First Flight.  The Carrolls, husband-and-wife photo illustrators based in Las Vegas, had the luck to move into a house whose prior owner had set it up to attract hummingbirds – and had the enormous skill to take advantage of that fact to produce a truly remarkable nature study.  The Carrolls set up a sophisticated digital camera and flash unit around the nest of the bird they named Honey, and took fabulous photos: of a nest so small it is dwarfed by the clothespins nearby; of eggs the size of pearls; of two teeny hummingbirds hatching; of Honey feeding them; of their growth, their attempts at flight, and – yes – their eventual departure from the nest.  The photos here are simply amazing: extreme close-ups of scenes that are almost impossible for people to see.  The detail is marvelous throughout, and the Carrolls’ ongoing narration is perfectly balanced between matter-of-fact description and a sense of the wonder of it all.  For instance, when the babies, called Ray and Zen, got larger, “the nest was quite elastic and continued to stretch as they grew.  Still, two became a crowd.  Sometimes one baby climbed on the other’s back, slipping and sliding while enthusiastically flapping its wings.  At times they practiced simultaneously with one losing its balance and almost falling off the edge, but recovering equilibrium just in time.”  The well-modulated words and outstanding pictures combine into a book that is remarkable in every way.

     We humans take a lot longer to leave the nest, and the best way to deal with the trauma of doing so – or not doing so – seems to be humor.  That’s what the consistently excellent Zits comic strip is all about.  Just how good is it?  The back cover of the latest Treasury volume cleverly offers only a single comment – “You must have a camera in our house” – followed by a long list (no doubt a partial one) of the readers who have made that remark.  It does sometimes seem that Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman have done just as good a job of setting up cameras in human nests as the Carrolls did to watch hummingbirds.  Certainly 15-year-old Jeremy Duncan’s life is humming right along, whether he is trying to cope with having “abnormally normal” parents (Walt and Connie); trying unsuccessfully to understand his girlfriend, Sara; or trying to manage the ins and outs of school (boys wearing “empathy bellies” to understand what pregnancy feels like; Jeremy and Sara attempting to share a locker; Jeremy seeing other guys in the locker room as Vikings, cavemen and apes; and much more).  As always in Treasury collections, the strips are reprints – these were originally published in Thrashed and Pimp My Lunch – but the Sunday strips are shown in color, and that always makes Borgman’s already outstanding art work even better.  Look at Jeremy and Walt as sumo wrestlers, the Duncan parents being nearly buried by the bad news they see on TV news and rushing to Jeremy’s room to try to be close to him, the expressions on Connie’s face when Jeremy watches cable television, and Connie seeing Jeremy and his friends as Easter Island statues, and you will get a hint of what makes Zits consistently one of the very best comic strips around.  And those are just Sunday strips: the dailies, where Scott’s pithy writing comes to the fore, are every bit as good.  Watching humans nest may not be as spectacularly interesting as watching hummingbirds in closeup, but it has to be said that – at least in the almost-real or all-too-real world of Zits – we Homo sapiens are one heck of a lot more amusing.


Chicken and Cat. By Sara Varon. Scholastic. $16.99.

My Bossy Dolly. By Steve Metzger. Illustrated by Chris Demarest. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $3.50.

     Creating a story with no words is much harder than you might think – even when the tale targets children as young as ages 4-8.  The story has to have a simple enough theme to be told silently, but must be interesting enough to keep children involved even without words.  When well done, as in Chicken and Cat, the wordless story can be an especially pleasant experience for kids who have not yet started to read: it gives them a book they can enjoy on their own, without parental involvement, and may give them an extra push toward reading.  Sara Varon’s story features two simply drawn animal pals, seen on the cover walking on two legs with their hands in their pockets (they don’t wear clothes; never mind where they would have pockets).  Cat comes by bus to the city, where Chicken lives, and sees typical city sights: apartment buildings, noisy cars, overflowing trash cans.  The characters do not speak, but there are city sounds (“honk honk honk” for car horns) and city signs (“Dry Cleaners and Expert Tailors”).  Varon’s drawings show Cat becoming unhappy with all the grayness and noise, so the two friends take a bike ride to the park, and later a subway ride to the beach – places where Cat is happier.  But there is still something missing – until Chicken finds a way for Cat to plant a little country garden in the big city.  This is a small, charming story with a pleasantly happy ending.

     My Bossy Dolly, also for ages 4-8, is told the traditional way – with words plus pictures – but it has an offbeat underlying idea.  It is the story of a good little girl named Sally and her not-so-well-behaved doll, Betsy.  Sally uses Betsy to express all the demanding, unreasonable desires that Sally says she herself would never, never state.  For example, Sally tiptoes nicely into her sleeping parents’ room, telling Betsy to be quiet, but Betsy insists on demanding that the adults get up immediately to feed and dress Sally.  Of course, when Sally’s parents startle awake and ask if it was Sally making those demands, Sally answers, “’Oh, no!’ I said. ‘That wasn’t me.’/ I’d never be a brat./ It was my little dolly./ Sometimes she talks like that.’”  And so it goes throughout the book, with Steve Metzger’s amusing rhymes and Chris Demarest’s well-planned illustrations (always showing Sally and Betsy with the same hair style and dressed the same way) being equal parts of the story.  Sally, of course, knows exactly what she is doing, and young readers will, too.  Betsy is, after all, simply a rag doll, and when “Betsy” has to have a time-out because of a temper tantrum and Sally laments, “Poor Betsy looked so sad,” we see Betsy’s ever-smiling face and know who the sad one really is.  The only caution for parents is that kids may get their own ideas about turning their toys into the bossy ones (and themselves into perfect little angels) after seeing how well the Betsy-Sally relationship works.


Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. By Justin Marozzi. Da Capo. $26.95.

     He was a conqueror on the scale of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, and of equal rapacity.  He sacked, burned and rebuilt cities throughout Central Asia, eventually imposing his rule from Syria to India, as far south as the Mediterranean and as far north as Siberia.  But his vast empire crumbled like a house of cards within a few decades of his death, and while he became the symbol of newly independent Uzbekistan in 1993, he remains virtually unknown in much of the rest of the world.

     If Europeans and Americans know this ferocious military genius at all, it is through Christopher Marlowe’s sprawling and intermittently brilliant play, Tamburlaine the Great, whose title gets the conqueror’s name wrong.  For that matter, “Tamerlane” is itself wrong: his name was Temur (or Timur), but a childhood accident left him lame, from which fact he was known as Temur the Lame, which eventually was corrupted to Tamerlane.  Justin Marozzi uses the standard, though incorrect, name in his book’s title, but calls the conqueror Temur throughout the text – a text made up partly of studies of Temur’s life and many campaigns, partly of Marozzi’s own explorations of the remnants of Temur’s empire in Uzbekistan (formerly Samarkand) and elsewhere.

     Marozzi is a scholar-traveler – a breed never very common and today virtually extinct.  His work combines the fascination of historical rediscovery with the sorts of insights attainable only by someone who has actually been to the areas about which he writes.  The travelogue portions of this book take readers from a brick kern in the roadside Uzbek village of Khoja Ilgar to the splendid Gur Amir mausoleum and the dark, hidden stairway beneath it that leads to the crypt where Temur’s remains – exhumed and examined by a Soviet archeologist in 1941 – actually lie.

     The scholarly parts of the book range more widely, both in geography and in time.  Temur lived from 1336 to 1405.  Much of Marozzi’s analysis is taken from 15th-century Syrian chronicler Ibn Arabshah – and much more of it attempts to debunk Arabshah’s writings, which were fanatically anti-Temur.  It is largely through Arabshah that Marlowe learned of Temur, largely through Arabshah’s portrait that the playwright had the warrior bombastically declare himself “the Scourge and Wrath of God,/ The only fear and terror of the world.”

     Yet although Marozzi argues effectively that Marlowe and Arabshah were wrong in many particulars, it seems that they did successfully capture the glory and vainglory of a man who, at the height of his powers, destroyed the army of the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid I, self-styled Sword Arm of Islam, and captured Baghdad – where Temur had his soldiers build a pyramid of 90,000 enemy heads.  Marozzi shows the culture and architectural wonders that Temur brought after scorching the earth with vicious battles, and he chronicles both the remarkable rise of a lame sheep stealer to world-striding tyrant and the abrupt evaporation of Temur’s empire through internecine warfare and generational weakness.  This is an amazing story, told by Marozzi at a breathless pace in prose that, though it certainly does not match “Marlowe’s mighty line,” contains far more authority and accuracy than the great Elizabethan was able to offer.


The Boy Who Loved Words. By Roni Schotter. Pictures by Giselle Potter. Schwartz & Wade. $16.95.

     A gentle, gently Jewish fable of a boy named Selig and the words he adores, The Boy Who Loved Words is a delightfully offbeat book that really stars the words from which it is made.  Throughout the simple story, unusual words are highlighted – and, if not clear from their context (which they usually are), they can be looked up by turning to the back endpapers, where they are defined.

     These words float through the pages, looking like cutouts from a newspaper, everywhere Selig goes.  We meet him first as a young boy collecting words the way others collect shells, stones or feathers.  We see him on the periphery (the word is italicized in the book and defined at the end) of typical children’s games, collecting words while other kids play ball or jump rope.  We meet his father, a shoemaker concerned about his son’s unusual predilection, and his mother, “a windmill of worry” as she waves her arms in the air.  His schoolmates offer him the word oddball to collect; Selig finds it useful, but it also makes him feel lonely.

     Then one night, Selig dreams of a most unusual genie, who tells him “Oddball?  Feh!  You are Voidsvoith, a lover of words.”  The dream sets Selig off to find his purpose – carrying a full load of words and collecting more along the way (scattered in Giselle Potter’s picture of this scene are such words as “determined,” “jovial,” “resilient” and “enchantment”).  The words Selig carries get heavier and heavier as he collects more and more of them, until finally he can bear the burden no longer.  But what to do?  “Throw words away?  Waste them?  Impossible!  They were far too precious!”

     Selig’s solution marks the midpoint of Roni Schotter’s charming story and the beginning of Selig’s distribution of his words and his spreading of the joy they have brought him.  Selig, now calling himself Wordsworth – just as the genie suggested – grows to manhood, uses his words to help others, and is himself helped by words to find a compatible and companionable young woman.  The two of them thereafter join forces to spread words and music – her name is Melody – and continue doing so to this very day.

     It’s a lovely little tale and an unusual one, with the words themselves of primary importance throughout.  Although officially intended for ages 4-8, The Boy Who Loved Words contains vocabulary usually found only in books for much older readers: clambered, rhapsody, swagger, mellifluous, tremulously, emporium, etc.  The basic story hits the target age range well, but the preponderance of more-advanced, less-familiar vocabulary means that young readers of this book may well find themselves with a happy swagger as they broadcast vocabulary beyond what others in their age range are likely to have encountered.


The Pirate Princess and Other Fairy Tales. By Neil Philip. Illustrated by Mark Weber. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $19.99.

Dear Dumb Diary #4: Never Do Anything, Ever. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $4.99.

     Some of the deepest, most complex and strangest fairy tales ever written were created early in the 19th century by Rabbi Nahman Ben Simha of Bratislava (1772-1810).  Believing himself the fifth and last great Jewish religious leader before the coming of the Messiah, Rabbi Nahman faced tragedy and loss of his messianic hopes when his son died – after which Nahman announced, in 1806, that is was time for him to tell stories.  He told 13 of them in all, each one deeply tied to Hasidic and Kabbalistic traditions and filled with allegory.  Originally told in idiomatic colloquial Yiddish, the stories – as Neil Philip acknowledges in retelling seven of them – are almost impossible to translate without losing much of their multileveled meanings.  Philip tries to restore some of what is lost in translation through a series of notes at the end of The Pirate Princess; but in fact, the book is highly enjoyable with a pure surface-level reading of the tales.  For Nahman adopted traditional fairy-tale elements and forms on which to hang his allegories – this, at a time when the brothers Grimm were just starting to collect folk tales and Hans Christian Andersen was only one year old.  The result is stories that for the most part feel like fairy tales, but often of greater length and always with more complexity – even if the reasons for the complexity are obscure.  Philip modifies the stories somewhat, for example by eliminating a bloody central element of the title tale and replacing it with a different folktale motif.  But he lets the tales stand mostly on their own, even when – as in “The Lost Princess,” Nahman’s first story and the final one in this book – that is not to the stories’ benefit (the abrupt ending of “The Lost Princess,” a tale otherwise spun out at some length, is unsatisfying from a pure storytelling viewpoint).  The funniest story here, “The Turkey Prince,” is one of the shortest.  The best, “The Merchant and the Poor Man,” is the longest, piling impossibility upon impossibility and complication upon complication until its final happy ending.  Fraught with implication and frequently meandering, these stories will not be to all parents’ or children’s taste.  But their exotic elements and unusual handling of folktale traditions will please families that have tired of more traditional fairy-tale fare.

     Jim Benton’s stories of Mackerel Middle School are, in their own way, fairy tales of modern times.  His fourth volume of Jamie Kelly’s diary, Never Do Anything, Ever, is in many ways the cleverest one so far.  The first three were mostly about Jamie’s problems with arch-rival Angeline, who is too sweet and pretty and exemplary to be true – but is all too real for Jamie’s taste.  That’s part of the theme this time, too, but here Jamie discovers that there is more to Angeline than good looks and outward sweetness.  Jamie discovers that Angeline has inner goodness as well.  Could anything be more frustrating?  So Jamie, abetted by her best friend, Isabella, decides that she can be a better do-gooder than Angeline.  The results are predictably hilarious – a scene that has Jamie picking up “old-lady underwear” that has been scattered around a yard is especially funny.  But there are some less-expected developments here as well, such as Angeline helping Jamie out of a tight spot, which leads to Jamie helping Angeline, which eventually leads to a battle of who can help whom more.  Okay, so the rivalry isn’t over, and it is getting a little old at this point.  But it does take on a new dimension in this book, and Benton’s amusing writing and hysterically funny illustrations will make you wonder if he was a middle-school girl with a great sense of the comic in some other life.


Microsoft Works Suite 2006. Windows 2000 SP4 or Windows XP for full functionality. Microsoft. $99.95.

     Microsoft’s Works Suite line has always been something of an afterthought for the company – a mishmash of products that work reasonably well individually and reasonably well together, but do not have the functionality or usefulness of the company’s standalone products.  But with the 2005 edition and this 2006 update, Works Suite has cemented a niche: it’s for families that have fairly modest computer needs and want an inexpensive, all-in-one way to deal with them.

     Microsoft has the “inexpensive” part down pat.  Works Suite 2006 offers a $20 rebate that reduces its already low price, and if you shop around a bit, you can find discounts that will get you the program for only $60 or so after the rebate.  However, this is still not exactly an “all-in-one” program – it’s really six-in-one, and the six components do not always work flawlessly together.

     Works Suite 2006 includes Microsoft Word 2002 (yes, 2002) for word processing, Works 8 for organizational tasks, Money 2006 Standard for financial tracking and budget work, Digital Image Standard 2006 to organize and enhance digital photos, Encarta Encyclopedia Standard 2006, and Streets & Trips Essentials 2006 for planning customized road trips.

     Each product individually has pluses and minuses, but what counts for Works Suite buyers (and potential buyers) will be the usefulness of the entire package.  It’s better in some ways than others.  For one thing, the default word processor is Word 2002, but Works 8 has its own, separate word processor, which you can use within the Works 8 component – except that templates and wizards operate under Word 2002 even when you use Works 8.  Got that?  This is needlessly complex – a result of taking standalone products and packaging them together with minimal modifications.

     It helps to remember that Works Suite is not intended to replace the far more expensive Microsoft Office, or even to replicate many of its functions.  Microsoft would never undercut itself that way.  As a result – to cite just one example – you cannot look at or modify Microsoft Excel files when using Works Suite.  It simply won’t display them.  This is no problem if all your financial needs can be handled through Money 2006 Standard, but if you use Excel at work, don’t expect to bring spreadsheets home and be able to do anything with them.

     Also, Works Suite 2006 can run on computers using operating systems as far back as Windows 98SE – but if you want to use the Encarta component, you must have Windows 2000 SP4 or later.

     It’s probably best to look at Works Suite 2006 as a starter program – on which basis, it is very good indeed.  Word 2002 is a fine, solid word processor.  Digital Image Standard is simple to use and surprisingly feature-packed: you can crop, edit, color, filter, and introduce special effects easily, and the results look excellent.  Money 2006 Standard is all right – it handles basic family budgeting tasks with aplomb, and as long as you do not require anything too complex, it’s all you need for everyday money management.

     The value of the remaining three programs will vary from family to family.  Streets & Trips Essentials 2006 is easy to use, and its maps are good, but families with GPS systems in their cars, or who are familiar with Google Maps, will not use it often.  Encarta Encyclopedia Standard 2006 has solid information and some attractive multimedia elements, but if you already use Wikipedia, you may not find Encarta much of an improvement, if any.  And Works 8 is a bit of a mishmash within a mishmash: its calendar (which works much like those in Outlook and Outlook Express) is okay, but it is hard to imagine a time-pressed family using this software to make grocery lists, greeting cards and the like.

     Microsoft Works Suite gets incrementally better every year, and the 2006 version does improve on the 2005 one, which was already a very good buy.  But “a very good buy” remains the main reason to recommend this suite – it does many things competently, but nothing that will make you sit up and take notice.  Still, for families that do not need to do much more than write letters, store digital photos and plan an occasional trip, Microsoft Works Suite 2006 is a worthwhile investment and, in many of its elements, a pleasure to use.

April 06, 2006


Do Not Open This Book! By Michaela Muntean. Illustrated by Pascal Lemaitre. Scholastic. $16.99.

Penelope Says Good Night. By Anne Gutman and Georg Hallensleben. Scholastic. $9.99.

     There is clever, and there is super-clever, and then there is Do Not Open This Book!  The funniest self-referential book for ages 4-8 in recent years – heck, the only such book in recent memory – Michaela Muntean’s story of how Pig wants to write but can’t because the reader keeps getting in the way is absurd, hilarious, and absurdly hilarious.  Pig warns on the inside front flap that the reader is being rude by having opened even this much of the book, and his warnings get more and more strident as you move farther into the book to see him standing, frustrated, in his workshop (filled with boxes marked “sweet words,” “salty words,” “nouns,” “Garamond” [the type face], and more).  Pig is trying to assemble a book by putting words together, and he can’t do it while readers are watching him, and besides, there isn’t anything to read until he assembles the book, which he can’t while readers are watching him, and so it goes, around and around and around, with Pascal Lemaitre’s highly amusing illustrations (clearly drawn against bright white backgrounds) perfectly complementing Muntean’s oddball story.  At one point, Pig tries putting words together, but the reader turns the page (after being told not to) and the words get all mixed up, creating a weird creature instead of a straightforward narrative.  At another point, an irritated Pig decides to create a story about the reader to get him or her to go away.  Everything continues in this vein, until finally – but find out the “finally” for yourself.  This book is too wonderful to give its ending away.

     For slightly younger kids, ages 3-5, a book that is almost (if not quite) as creative, in its own way, is the latest Penelope adventure by Anne Gutman and Georg Hallensleben.  Penelope Says Good Night is a pull-the-tabs book with exceptionally clever design.  The first tab, for instance, has the reader try to help Penelope make chocolate pancakes – and succeed only in spilling batter on Penelope’s dress.  It is clear from the start that this is no ordinary participatory book.  As the story continues, some tabs make more trouble for Penelope: another pancake-related one has her flip a pancake onto her head.  Some get her out of trouble: she is literally red from hot water in her bath – turning a knob (yes, a knob!) cools her off and returns her to her usual blue color.  Some tabs help her with everyday activities: pulling one helps her use a towel to dry herself, while pulling another helps her reach the toilet paper after using the potty.  One page has a tiny picture book built in, so kids can make up a bedtime story for Penelope.  Another has both a flap (so kids can see Penelope snuggled in bed) and a rotating wheel (for turning out her room lights).  Penelope Says Good Night takes story participation for young children to a whole new level – which, combined with its simple-to-follow narrative and typically pleasant Penelope illustrations, makes the book a real winner.


Women Who Dare: Amelia Earhart; Helen Keller; Eleanor Roosevelt; Women of the Civil War; Women of the Suffrage Movement; Women of the Civil Rights Movement. By Susan Reyburn (Earhart), Aimee Hess (Keller), Anjelina Michelle Keating (Roosevelt), Michelle A. Krowl (Civil War), Janice E. Ruth & Evelyn Sinclair (Suffrage), Linda Barrett Osborne (Civil Rights). Pomegranate. $12.95 each.

     Small books showing history writ large, the six initial volumes in the Women Who Dare series from Pomegranate and the Library of Congress are on disparate topics but are uniformly fascinating.  The series is really two series in one, the first focusing on individual women and the second on female participants in major social movements.

     The authors, all from the Library of Congress Publishing Office, share one crucial trait: a willingness to eschew personal style in order to let the words and photos of their topics tell as much of the story as possible.  As a result, this series is as close to a primary-source look at these famed women and these important times in U.S. history as readers are likely to get.  The hardbound books are brief (64 pages apiece) and small in size (just about six inches square).  But they convey an impression of being packed with information and first-hand accounts of history, not of being once-over-lightly surveys.

     Each book contains more than 40 color and black-and-white images, which tell much of each story all by themselves.  The close-up photos of Keller and Roosevelt, the poised and posed ones of Earhart, the Civil War battle pictures, the crowd shots of suffragettes, the marches and quiet intensity of the civil-rights movement, all come through clearly and dramatically in the excellent photos.  Add the equally excellent choices of words and you have books with real impact.  Amelia Earhart is quoted: “Conclusions [about gender equality] should not be drawn until women are given equal chances with men in training, experience, and equipment.”  Helen Keller says: “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”  Eleanor Roosevelt remarks: “One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.”  Some less-known women associated with war, suffrage and civil rights are quoted as well; but in those books, the photos speak especially loudly: Frances Clayton, who posed as a man to fight in the Civil War; Harriet Tubman; suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; NAACP attorney Constance Baker Motley; Rosa Parks – simply seeing these women is inspirational in a way that cannot be conveyed through words alone.  Because both the photos and the words chosen for these books are of such high quality, because the books’ organization and presentation are so well done, they can actually form the nexus of a basic library of U.S. history in the past 140-plus years.  In a 21st century preoccupied with visuals, the Women Who Dare series is an exceptionally useful way to help make history come alive for children and adults alike – a showcase of much that was good and much that was bad in the U.S., seen through the eyes of some of the people most responsible for helping the good things eventually triumph over the bad.


The Possum Always Rings Twice: A Chet Gecko Mystery. By Bruce Hale.  Harcourt. $14.

     Eleven volumes.  That most incorrigible punster in children’s books has now done it in 11 volumes.  Eleven punderful mysteries.  Twelve books in all, if you count a detective handbook-and-cookbook.  Bruce Hale doesn’t know how to quit when he (and Chet Gecko and Chet’s sidekick, the mockingbird Natalie Attired) are ahead.  Maybe that’s because the dim-but-dynamic duo is rarely ahead in any of these books, all of which feature come-from-behind sleuthing.

     The Possum Always Rings Twice is a title that continues to feed, or feed on, Hale’s predilection for parodies of famous films: Chet has also handled The Hamster of the Baskervilles, searched for The Malted Falcon, delved into a case of Murder, My Tweet, and so on.  This time he’s in a business that’s just about as dirty as anything he has ever tackled: mud.  That’s figurative mud – the kind that gets slung during political campaigns, one of which is going on at Emerson Hicky Elementary School.  The promises, claims and counterclaims fly fast and furious, through chapters with such titles as “Every Frog Has His Day,” “Throw Your Brat into the Ring,” and “The Squirrelly Bird Gets the Squirm” (ouch).  Chet writes the case in his usual hard-boiled style: “The next day dawned hot and sunny as a supermodel’s smile.”  “Though my name is Chet, let me be frank.”  “My hand stung like a bucketful of jellyfish.”  “Recess disappeared like a snow cone dropped on a summer sidewalk.”  “Detention didn’t last any longer than the Roman Empire, the Jurassic period, or the World’s Most Boring Movies marathon.  It just seemed that way.”

     Yes, there’s a case to be solved amid all the verbal byplay.  Someone is threatening the candidates.  There’s a mysterious explosion in the boys’ bathroom.  There’s an unseen character named Glog who may be up to something.  Or maybe it’s the usual suspects – school bullies, such as Rocky Rhode and Ben Dova – who are up to something more than the somethings they are usually up to.  Also, there’s something suspicious about a candidate named Perry Winkel, a kit fox whose “sentences sound like they’ve been through a blender” and who resembles a caricature of George W. Bush – as parents will quickly realize, even if the target audience of kids ages 8-12 does not.  And yes, there’s a possum in the midst of things (have to justify the book’s title, after all).

     Eventually, the clues lead Chet and Natalie to believe that something ominous will happen after school lets out.  So they wait.  “School was deserted.  It was as quiet as a monster movie graveyard just before the zombies come to life.”  Chet has to “Gopher Broke” (that’s another chapter title) to break up a ballot-stuffing ring that has been established to turn the school over to – but that would be telling.  The funny thing about Bruce Hale (well, one of the funny things) is that he mostly plays fair with readers.  The clues do add up, the misdirections make sense in retrospect, and Chet and Natalie really do deserve credit for unraveling whatever nefarious deed they are investigating.  Hmm…can you unravel a nefarious deed?  No matter: it’s always fun finding out what Chet and Natalie do, and how Hale has them do it – whatever it is.

(++++) WHAT IF....

Fly on the Wall. By E. Lockhart. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

     Just about everyone has the fantasy: wouldn’t it be great to be a fly on the wall of the boardroom, the Oval Office, the Supreme Court, the boss’s private office, the neighbors’ bedroom – anyplace where interesting and/or important stuff undoubtedly goes on that you’ll never really know about until it gets filtered through conventions of language and expression?

     This is the adult version of the teenage boy’s fantasy: wouldn’t it be great to be a fly on the wall of the girls’ locker room?  Or, in the case of E. Lockhart’s funny and highly creative new book, the teenage girl’s fantasy about the boys’ locker room.

     The book’s protagonist, Gretchen Yee, thinks she is the only ordinary girl at the Manhattan School for the Arts, where everyone is supposedly special.  There is so much she doesn’t know, so much she wants to know, and so much of it revolves around boys: What are they really like?  What do they talk about among themselves?  Are they as immature and irritating with other boys as they are when interacting with girls – or with Gretchen, anyway?

     One morning, Gretchen wakes up and stretches her legs…and then her other legs.  She’s a fly – never mind how or why.  This is no Kafkaesque metamorphosis, though: it’s something Gretchen has wanted, has wished for, and at last she has the chance to learn all those things about boys that she can’t imagine learning without being a fly on the wall.

     Of course, some of those things are purely physical, and those are intriguing, but only in the short run: “I lose interest in the whole voyeur thing.  I’ve seen it all before.  Me!  Who yesterday morning had never before seen a naked man unrelated to me…has now seen the private equipment of an estimated 110 boys, if you figure I get a decent look at ten guys per class, and eight class periods every day, plus after-school sports and two classes this morning.  I’ve seen them pee, I’ve seen them waggle, I’ve even seen them hanging out with – shall I say – a certain degree of enthusiasm.”  But this isn’t Gretchen’s real interest – or Lockhart’s.  As in her previous book, The Boyfriend List – also a very stylish exploration of teenage worries and uncertainties – Lockhart uses an outlandish situation to help her readers get past the obvious advantages (and disadvantages) of the fly-on-the-wall situation to the meaningfulness underneath.  Gretchen learns through her experience that she is special after all, and by book’s end, re-transformed to her human self, she is comfortable taking the initiative with a boy she likes.  But these rather mundane elements of the book matter less than the highly stylish way Lockhart brings Gretchen to them.  The book is, above all, very well written, bright and bouncy and with a distinctive voice that lies somewhere between titillation and fairy tale.  It’s fun to read and fun to think about after the reading is over – and worth reading a second time, which is a rarity in books of the 12-and-over “young teen” type.  Gretchen is interesting, but you never lose sight of Lockhart pulling the strings that make her interesting.  And that’s a big part of what makes Fly on the Wall an unusually attractive book.