September 28, 2006


Bone, Book Four: The Dragonslayer. By Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $18.99.

     The remarkable Bone saga continues to get deeper and darker in this fourth volume of Jeff Smith’s outstanding graphic-novel series – originally published in comic-book form in 1991.  There is less and less that is comic about this tale as it moves along, and more and more than is intense.  Even the colors, which are done by Steve Hamaker, reflect the deepening dark of unavoidable war, moving more into deep blues and deep purples and out-and-out black as the story continues and the complex plot unwinds further.

     It is fair for anyone who does not know Bone to wonder what all the fuss is about.  This is, after all, a graphic novel (in the form in which Scholastic’s Graphix line is re-releasing it), and the central characters – three cousins named Bone – are little more than bulbous-nosed white outlines.  But Smith does not have to draw characters this way – everyone and everything except the Bones is created with enormous attention to detail, including hair and sweat and the threads on characters’ clothing.  So the Bones’ adventures in a world that is not their own – but that, in this book, is increasingly becoming their own – are clearly designed in the strangers-in-a-strange-land mode.

     But now it turns out that the denizens of this land are themselves strangers – to their history, to the danger that surrounds them, to the potential salvation in their midst, and to the war that is about to break out and threaten everything they hold dear.  The keys to the reality (former reality? alternative reality?) that may save the valley’s good people from destruction lie with Gran’ma Ben and her gorgeous but deeply troubled granddaughter, Thorn.  Neither is what she seems – we learned in Book Three that both are from an overthrown royal line that some people continue to support in secret.  In Book Four, Thorn begins to come into her inheritance, which turns out to include everything from some exceedingly fancy swordplay to an ability to move between the everyday world and a dream world that holds great potential and extraordinary danger.  The confrontation between Thorn and a huge monster called Kingdok is genuinely scary and highly revelatory.  Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that Kingdok and his hordes of Rat People are only pawns of the far more dangerous Lord of the Locusts, who was imprisoned in the distant past and is now working to return to rule the valley.  To do that, he needs to harness either the power of Thorn or that of Phoney Bone.

     Yes, Phoney.  Phoncible P. Bone, to give him his full name, perpetrates the latest and greatest of his endless moneymaking schemes in this book, convincing the townspeople that dragons are dangerous and that he is a Dragonslayer who can save them from the menace.  His plot succeeds brilliantly until very near the end of the book, when its very last piece – an actual dragon – falls into place unexpectedly, and Phoney commits what appears to be his first-ever act of bravery and unselfishness.  This development, which barely registers in Book Four, is sure to become increasingly important in later books.  And what of Smiley Bone?  In Book Four, he becomes more than the endlessly grinning simpleton he has seemed to be (although, in truth, there have already been hints that he is more than that).  Smiley helps Phoney with his plans, but “I never know whose side you’re on,” Phoney complains, and that statement proves important within this book and is sure to become more so in later ones.  Bone has by now become a kind of fantasy epic, filled with weird creatures and surprisingly believable characters, even if some of them are shaped like bugs or puffy white plush toys.  Fone Bone, the ever-less-naïve hero of the whole saga, actually bleeds in Book Four, and comes to seem altogether more real, true and good.  Smith’s series deserves all the accolades it received in its original comic-book form, and deserves to find a larger audience and still more praise through these excellent graphic-novel editions.


Instead of Three Wishes: Magical Short Stories. By Megan Whalen Turner. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $5.99.

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen. By P.L. Travers. With drawings by Mary Shepard. Harcourt. $14.

     There’s magic, and then there’s magic.  That is, there is the old magic of fairy tales, the happily-ever-after sort of magic, and then there is the sort of magic that doesn’t quite do what you’d expect, or doesn’t quite happen where magic “ought” to happen.

     Instead of Three Wishes offers magic of the unexpected kind.  Originally published in 1995 and now available in paperback, Megan Whalen Turner’s book includes seven short stories that turn magic and the people who have traditional expectations of it neatly on their heads.  Each story has its charms, and each has its own style, from the serious to the humorous (Turner is especially good with a kind of wry humor).  Among the standouts is the title story, in which an elf prince keeps trying to give a gift of thanks to a human girl who isn’t interested in receiving one.  The tale is enlivened by the elf prince’s mother, who is so bored with the magical kingdom that she spends a lot of time studying human beings – by watching TV shows.  Turner brings in complication after complication, then neatly knits all the strands together at the end.  Equally good, and decidedly not amusing, is the touching “Factory,” which brings the worlds of humans and ghosts together very closely indeed – and suggests that, in some circumstances, the ghosts’ world is the better one.  Not all the stories are at such a high level: “The Nightmare,” in which a young bully gets his comeuppance, is plodding.  But most of the tales are clever and unusual enough to make reading them a magical experience.

     There was always something magical about P.L. Travers’ stories of Mary Poppins.  Harcourt’s excellent reissue of all six Poppins books has now been completed with Mary Poppins in the Kitchen.  Like Mary Poppins from A to Z, this is an instructive book rather than an amusing slice-of-Edwardian-family-life novel.  In fact, Mary Poppins in the Kitchen is subtitled, “A Cookery Book with a Story.”  The story has plenty of the usual Poppins charm, running from one Sunday to the next and focusing on the practically perfect nanny teaching all five of the Banks children (Jane, Michael, John, Barbara and Annabel) how to cook and bake.  After the brief tale, which takes up only 30 pages, Travers offers an A-to-Z “cookery book” of favorite Poppins recipes – beginning, not surprisingly, with a warning that children should “always let an adult switch on the stove, keep away from steaming kettles, and never use knives unless an adult is standing by.”  The recipes start with Apple Charlotte and end with Zodiac Cake, and have stood up well since this book was first published in 1975.  The cherry pie and date bread are standouts, and a few recipes, such as honey and bananas, can be prepared by even young children with minimal supervision.  Note, however, that some recipes are much more for British tastes than for American ones – such as Lancashire Hot Pot, which combines lamb neck or shoulder chops with lamb kidneys, potatoes and onions.  Mary Shepard’s illustrations are entirely charming, although purists will not be pleased that the black-and-white originals have been colored for this edition.  Still, a taste or two of the lemon soufflé or nut loaf should calm them down.


Bras & Broomsticks; Frogs & French Kisses. By Sarah Mlynowski. Delacorte Press. $8.95 (Bras); $15.95 (Frogs).

     If you’re going to capture the next generation of chick-lit readers, it makes sense to get ‘em while they’re young.  Sarah Mlynowski has some particularly charming ways to do so in Bras & Broomsticks, which is now available in paperback, and its newly issued sequel, Frogs & French Kisses.

     The stories take a typical teenage mixture of broken families with dating or remarried parents, school angst, boyfriend worries, clumsiness and assorted other mortifications, and add a dose of magic.  Mlynowski’s gimmick – a particularly clever one – is that the magic does not belong to the narrator, 14-year-old Rachel, but to her younger sister, 12-year-old Miri.  The inherited supernatural powers that have made Miri an honest-to-goodness witch have apparently bypassed Rachel entirely, giving the typical sibling rivalry of books like these a new dimension.  In Bras & Broomsticks, Rachel tries to come to terms with her totally unfair set of circumstances (added to all the usual completely unfair sets of teenage troubles), and then tries to turn Miri’s budding abilities to Rachel’s own advantage.  Her wants are few and typical: learn to dance better, get her best friend back, get together with a cute guy, and – oh yes – stop her father from remarrying.  Rachel really wants her parents together again, and is irritated that her mother, who can do magic, won’t “unless it’s absolutely necessary.”  Rachel rhetorically asks, “You’d think saving her marriage to my dad would have been absolutely necessary, wouldn’t you?”  But of course, neither of Rachel’s parents sees things that way – and Miri is more worried about stuff like saving animals than helping Rachel.  None of Rachel’s schemes really works out, including her attempt to prevent her father from marrying STB (short for STBSM, “Soon To Be Step-Monster”).  In fact, magic causes more problems than it solves, and Rachel’s mom ends up having to use some to undo the messes.  And yet everything works out very well in the end…

     …setting up the scene for Frogs & French Kisses, in which STB – whose real name is Jennifer – turns out not to be so bad after all, but Rachel’s mom (now the Crazy Dating Mom) has forgotten her admonitions about magic and is overusing it, and Miri is determined to use her powers to save the entire world (one piece or animal at a time), and Rachel has gotten the love spell she wanted but has had it all go wrong, and so on and so forth.  Here we learn the fine points of “one-broomer” spells and up, and of such concepts as “selfsummie.”  Miri tells Rachel, “Selfsummie is when you’re trying to trick yourself with an emotion spell.  And it won’t work unless the spell is at least a four-broomer.”  Rachel has to decide whether she wants an out-of-love spell to counter the in-love spell that misfired, and Rachel and friends have to hold an auction to raise prom money because they had to spend the previously raised funds to repair things after some cows messed up the school (another magical misfire), and everything is a total disaster until Rachel finally figures out what to do to save the day – and her friends’ good time.  And then Rachel makes a surprising discovery….

     …setting up the scene for Spells & Sleeping Bags, which is due out next year.  There’s not the slightest hint of anything deep or meaningful in any of this, but if you’re looking for far more fun than typical teen-troubles novels offer, conjure up this pair of books.


Ghosthunters, No. 1: Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost!  No.2: Ghosthunters and the Gruesome Invincible Lightning Ghost! By Cornelia Funke. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99 each.

The Black Belt Club: No. 1, Seven Wheels of Power; No. 2, Night on the Mountain of Fear. By Dawn Barnes. Illustrated by Bernard Chang. Scholastic. $4.99 each.

     Kids fight evil!  Kids prove themselves as good as adults!  Kids win with their learned skills and their inborn talents!  Not even super-powerful bad guys can stand against kids!

     There, in a nutshell, you have the plots of all four of these books.  The fun is in the way the authors work through circumstances that are, when you come right down to it, nothing special in fantasy works.

     Cornelia Funke, top-notch author that she is, does seem to be creating something a cut above the usual in her Ghosthunters series.  In the first book, we meet Tom, who is soon to become a ghosthunter; his big sister, Lola, who does not believe in ghosts – but will by the end of the book; Hetty Hyssop, who not only believes in ghosts but also knows many ways of getting rid of them; and Hugo, who is a ghost.  But it’s okay – he’s merely an ASG (Averagely Spooky Ghost), and he even agrees to help the ghosthunters get rid of an IRG (Incredibly Revolting Ghost).  Much of the fun here comes from Funke’s inclusion of informational material, such as a side-by-side list of “characteristics of ASGs and IRGs.”  This explains, for example, that an ASG “makes goosebump-inducing noises,” while an IRG “makes teeth-shattering, heartbeat-stopping noises.”  The scenes with the IRG are not quite perfectly balanced between scariness and hilarity, but the post-story “Precautionary Measures against Ghosts in General,” “Indispensable Alphabetical Appendix of Assorted Ghosts,” and other end-of-book items are highly amusing (“COHAG: COmpletely HArmless Ghost”; “TIBIG: TIny BIting Ghost”; “GES: Ghostly Energy Sensor”; and so on).

     The second book in Funke’s series finds Tom, Hetty and Hugo set up as a ghosthunting agency, and able to handle any challenge they face – until they encounter a Gruesomely Invincible Lightning Ghost that is turning the guests at a beachfront hotel into ghosts themselves.  Fighting this ghost starts with requiring that all electrical sockets on the hotel’s ground floor be plugged with icing, continues with the use of champagne as a weapon, and eventually turns into a silly-not-chilling ghost-vs.-ghost showdown.  Next up in the series will be a “Totally Moldy Baroness” – it should slime its way toward your funnybone.

     The Black Belt Club series is not played for laughs at all – which is too bad.  This part-story, part-graphic-novel presentation is determined to take itself seriously, but the plots are so absurd and the four club members so unidimensional, politically correct and undistinguished that the tales simply beg for a touch of humor.  Seven Wheels of Power starts the series as Max Greene finds himself unexpectedly invited to join the Black Belt Club, whose purpose he does not understand, even though he doesn’t think he is especially good at karate.  Max lives with his uncle, who doesn’t much care for karate, because Max’s father is working in China; that’s it for the family stuff.  Other than Max, who is white, the Club members are Antonio, who is black and whose moves “are as graceful as a dance”; Maia, who is Oriental and “really smart”; and Jamie, part Navajo and part Hopi, who “talks like a sensei sometimes.”  The Club must help the Sage, “one of the protectors of the Tree of Life.”  The bad guy, when we meet him, talks like this: “Let me formally introduce myself.  I am Master Mundi, which means ‘Master of the World,’ of course. …Just because you like the Day and I like the Night, it doesn’t mean we can’t be friends, does it?”  But of course it means exactly that, and the Black Belt Club members must get in touch with their inner animal spirits – Max’s is a bear – to defeat Master Mundi.  Dawn Barnes, a third-degree black belt who has taught martial arts to kids for almost 20 years, knows her karate and shows how some moves work at the end of the book.  And Bernard Chang, an experienced comic-book artist, draws in fine comic-book style.  But the whole book is more than a little silly.

     So is Night on the Mountain of Fear, second book in the series.  This time the Black Belt Club needs magical pouches to give them an extra defense against the spirit world: “Your pouch is your personal totem of protection.”  Here the Club encounters Heyoka, the Hate Master (aptly described as “drool face”), and needs to think happy thoughts (no kidding) in order to conquer him.  So Club members think of basketball, skateboards, dogs, parrots, roller coasters, roasting marshmallows, and friendship, and thus are able to beat the Hate Master by bringing light where there is darkness.  This would be laughable if Barnes and Chang treated it humorously, but their persistent attempts to be serious make the story just plain ridiculous.  The members of the Black Belt Club are ages 9-11, so that is presumably the target age range for these books, but plenty of preteens will be far too sophisticated to accept this nonsense at face value.  Still, kids ages 7-8 may enjoy the fast pace and comic-book-like pictures.


Raising Drug-Free Kids: 100 Tips for Parents. By Aletha Solter, Ph.D. Da Capo. $13.95.

The Travel Mom’s Ultimate Book of Family Travel. By Emily Kaufman. Broadway Books. $14.95.

     If only all family issues could be solved as neatly as these two books indicate!  If only you could simply follow a step-by-step guide to keep your kids safe from dangerous substances and your whole family happy while traveling!  The idea is nonsense, of course, but both these books deserve credit for helpfulness and for pointing the way toward solutions that – when appropriately modified for individual family circumstances – can help address some very real everyday concerns.

     Developmental psychologist Aletha Solter sets out to help parents do all the right things that anti-drug forces always recommend: teach kids to feel good about themselves without using artificial substances, maintain close family relationships so children don’t feel they have to belong to a possibly dangerous group, help kids develop coping strategies that do not rely on drugs, get them to respect their bodies, etc.  To Solter’s credit, she does not simply throw out catchphrases and tell parents to use them with their children.  Instead, she reduces each of her 100 tips to two pages of recommendations, written in simple, direct language.  The two-page limit is a rather artificial approach that underplays some ideas while overplaying others, but Solter’s ideas are good ones.  Under “Live Your Values,” for example, she not only talks about altruism and honesty but also suggests “modeling nonconformity – [this] teaches your children that it’s okay to be different.”  Under “Don’t Use Rewards or Bribes,” she suggests getting children to cooperate by giving them reasons for what you are asking or by finding ways (even silly ones) to make activities enjoyable: “Let’s take turns brushing each other’s teeth.”  The “Values” tip comes from a section called “The Basics,” the “Bribes” one from a section for ages 3-6.  There are also sections for birth to age three, ages 6-12, ages 12-18 and even ages 18-25.  The sections for younger children are the best.  Recommendations for older kids tend to drift toward preachiness: one for ages 12-18 is, “Encourage Your Teen to Do Something to Improve the World,” and another is, “Teach Your Teen Stress-Management Skills.”  Parents would need to be near-saints to implement all of Solter’s ideas – think of how many parents themselves turn to alcohol to cope with stress – but it can be helpful to read the book, decide which of its ideas are practical for your family (and in what way), and then try to use Solter’s suggestions within your own family dynamic.

     Family dynamics are stressed quite differently during travel than they are by substance abuse, but travel stressors are significant in their own way – if not potentially life-threatening.  Good Morning America travel contributor Emily Kaufman offers perkily upbeat suggestions to make family trips more pleasant in The Travel Mom’s Ultimate Book of Family Travel.  She divides the book into two parts: “Creating the Family Vacation of Your Dreams” and “Destinations.”  The first part of the book emphasizes planning; discusses the pros and cons of cars, planes and trains (“boredom bags” filled with things to do are a great idea); and talks about multigenerational and educational trips.  The second part is generally more interesting, because it suggests specific destinations for various types of family trips and gives Web addresses to use for further information.  Kaufman has ideas for beach and winter vacations, resort trips and cruises, camping, city visits and more.  Her ideas are scarcely comprehensive – her sole suggestion for a “once-in-a-lifetime” overseas trip is a visit to London – but her understanding of details of specific forms of travel is impressive.  For example, she says that on cruises, you should “buy the drink plan for the kids.  When you first board the ship, you may think it is pricey to prepay for unlimited soft drinks, but after ten drinks that never get finished, you will be glad that you did.”  Not all of Kaufman’s ideas will be appropriate for all families, but one of her comments applies universally: “Be realistic in managing what your kids can handle.”

September 21, 2006


Everybody’s Revolution: A New Look at the People Who Won America’s Freedom. By Thomas Fleming. Scholastic. $19.99.

The United States of America: A State-by-State Guide. By Millie Miller & Cyndi Nelson. Scholastic. $7.99.

     Everybody’s Revolution is a history book with a difference – a big difference.  Although it tells some of the same stories of the American Revolution that other books tell, it does so from the perspective of the participants and their families, taking into account their ethnicity, age, gender and more.  This gives the well-known tales an entirely new and very fascinating slant.  For example, everyone knows about the mercenary Hessians who helped the British against the American colonists.  But how many people know that 20% of the fighters in the Continental Army were German-Americans?  And everyone knows about the waves of Irish immigration following the Potato Famine in the 19th century – but how many know that one-third of those fighting for American independence in the 18th century were of Irish ancestry?  There were Dutch fighters against the British, and Huguenots – the French Protestants oppressed and murdered by French Catholics in Europe – and even several thousand Jews, although few Jewish people lived in the colonies at that time.  Thomas Fleming does much more than list ethnicities and religions: he shows how they influenced the war’s outcome.  Patrick Henry and John Paul Jones were Scottish, for example, but many important contributors to the Revolution are less well known: Irish-Americans Maurice O’Brien and Charles Carroll, German-Americans Peter Muhlenberg and Nicholas Herkimer, and many more.  Fleming tells these people’s tales in brief, to-the-point verbal sketches, as well as the stories of Casimir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciuszko (Polish), Henry Wisner (Swiss), and many others.  A few people get longer, more detailed biographical sketches, such as Bernardo de Galvez of Spain, who was governor of Louisiana and later became a general who harried the British in Louisiana and Mississippi.  There are chapters here on black fighters, women fighters and child fighters, too, in a book that shows how the desire for freedom overcame many people’s deep-seated differences.

     And where are we today?  The United States of America: A State-by-State Guide gives a brief and clear overview.  Millie Miller and Cyndi Nelson devote one page to each state, plus pages to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, giving a map in the center of each page and highlights about each location in the margins around the map.  Alaska, for example, has both the nation’s northernmost point (Point Barrow) and its westernmost one (Cape Wrangle).  The waters of Florida have more kinds of fish than anywhere else in the entire world.  The Red Delicious apple originated in Iowa, from the shoots of a tree struck by lightning.  Basketball started in 1891 in Massachusetts.  Michigan is called the Wolverine State, but the wolverine is extinct there.  The nation’s driest state is Nevada.  And on and on the facts go, presented simply and in easy-to-read format, none taking up much space in the book or much time to read, but the collection of them showing just how variegated and wide-ranging a land the United States has become since the people of many other lands joined to help give it birth.


Pure Dead Batty. By Debi Gliori. Knopf. $15.95.

     This fifth book in Debi Gliori’s “Pure Dead” series (the Scottish phrase more or less means “really and truly”) is the least successful, but it squeaks into a (++++) rating with Gliori’s bravura performance in the final 100 pages, knitting together all the far-flung plot strands while leaving enough threads hanging to help set up the inevitable sequel.  But there are 200 pages of meandering adventure before that final burst of triumph.  Gliori can do better, and has: in Pure Dead Magic, Pure Dead Wicked, Pure Dead Brilliant and Pure Dead Trouble.  All the books chronicle the story of the decidedly odd Strega-Borgia family, which lives in a huge and crumbling house with 95 rooms and 56 chimneys, on the edge of an unpronounceable Scottish lake inhabited by The Sleeper (Loch Ness Monster to you, although the lake is not Loch Ness).

     The nominal hero and heroine here are Titus, age 13, and Pandora, age 11, but the new book’s title refers to their two-year-old sister, Damp, who is a born witch and acquires an irritatingly talky bat familiar in this novel.  The kids’ parents are feckless as usual, only more so, with Luciano hauled off to prison on a trumped-up charge of mass murder (mostly because people do have a tendency to turn up dead around his home), and Baci pregnant yet again – with an already-conscious unborn baby lovingly referred to as Someone Else Entirely.

     Pure Dead Batty sounds better in a brief description than it is when read.  This book is all over the place, which is one of its problems: at the Strega-Borgia house, in prison with Luciano, and on a mysterious island located somewhere outside time and space (except not really).  Much of the book revolves around the children’s missing nanny, Flora McLachlan, who is revealed in this book to be an immortal on speaking terms with Death (a chapter called “Death at Sea” has nothing to with anyone dying in an ocean).  The various mythical beasts that live with the family make numerous cameo appearances, often vomiting – an activity others here engage in frequently as well (Gliori does overdo this bit this time).  And there are incompetent cops, an incompetent and grossly fat Satan – sorry, S’tan – who wants his own TV show, and Luciano’s evil and deformed half-brother, Don Lucifer, showing up as well.

     Gliori doesn’t seem to take the first 200 pages of this book anywhere – or, rather, she takes them too many places.  At one point, she says of the household’s teenage dragon, “Ffup Lost the Plot completely,” which actually means “lost her grip on reality” but seems to describe the book as well.  Gliori is smart enough to dispose of the weakest character at last: Marie Bain, a truly horrible cook who exits in a wholly suitable way, but whose main sin (from a reader’s point of view) is simply that she is boring.  A soon-to-be-declared replacement cook is introduced and seems much better.  But Gliori cannot replace Baci, who has also become boring – a mere baby factory.  Gliori seems to know there’s something wrong with the character.  In this book, Titus says, “Not only was his mum utterly gullible, but in all probability she was totally nuts as well.”  And the narrative comments on “Signora Strega-Borgia’s amazing lack of powers of observation” and notes elsewhere that one scene proves, “were proof required, that she has the observational skills of an oyster.”  This is past endearing and nearly past enduring.  Nor is Luciano much better – once a chapter arrives called “Luciano Wises Up,” readers are likely to mutter, “It’s about time.”

     Gliori has an unusual and highly amusing franchise going here, and has – until this book – kept it moving along smartly, balancing humor and tension quite well.  Pure Dead Batty loses its balance, but the final third of the book indicates that Gliori has a good sense of how to get it back.  Just wait for next time.


Planet of the Hairless Beach Apes: The Eleventh “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Frazz: 99% Perspiration. By Jef Mallett. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

     Whether you prefer slapstick or clever humor with a touch of heart, you can find something to your taste in the many comic-strip collections from Andrews McMeel.  These two books are cases in point: each is delightful in its own way, but their ways are very, very different.

     Jim Toomey’s Sherman’s Lagoon just keeps chugging along through its own alternative universe of absurdity, featuring Sherman the lazy but constantly predatory shark; his better (and fiercer) half, wife Megan; their shark baby, Herman; and a supporting cast consisting of various forms of food for Sherman and family (hairless beach apes – humans, that is – as well as fish and crustaceans and pizza and the occasional anchor), plus Hawthorne the hermit crab, Ernest the fish nerd and hacker, Fillmore the poetry-writing sea turtle, Thornton the perpetually hibernating beach bum of a polar bear, and…well, you get the idea.  An appreciation of the finer points of humor is not necessary here, since there aren’t any finer points to consider in Sherman’s Lagoon.  One series of strips is about a cloned alien who constantly insults everyone, whose genetic material arrives on a meteorite that crashes into the lagoon one day – he ends up as puree.  Sherman has E-mail problems with his service, which is not AOL but EOL (Ethiopia On-Line).  Megan cooks and bakes according to post-prison Martha Stewart recipes – Fillmore ends up getting a file in his piece of cake.  Hawthorne creates business cards for Sherman to make the shark seem like the head of a major corporation, then issues a fake press release, sells fake stock in the fake company and finds the real FBI (fish division) investigating – the agent eventually telling Sherman, “If you weren’t so lazy, you’d be dangerous.”  That’s not a bad motto for the whole strip, actually.

     There’s nothing lazy at all about Frazz, the well-to-do songwriter who stays in touch with everyday life by working as a janitor at Bryson Elementary School.  The strip’s premise doesn’t make much sense, but it does explain why everyone holds the frizzy-haired Frazz in much higher esteem than most schoolkids and administrators hold most members of the janitorial staff.  Jef Mallett goes in for highbrow jokes whenever possible, as when Frazz says that Apple doesn’t make the Palm Pilot – it makes the Pomme Pilot.  When the kids don’t understand, he says, “Well, French speakers would get it.”  To which one of the children replies: “French speakers get Jerry Lewis.”  There are at least three levels of humor in that single four-panel strip.  This second Frazz collection shows Mallett stretching himself as an artist: a Sunday strip in which one part of the narrative occurs along one line, a second part along a separate line, and the two lines intersect at the end, is especially impressive (and everyone stays in character through the whole thing, too).  Not all the humor is cerebral, by any means: one student finds just the right color to turn a snow-frog that Frazz is building green – it turns out to be the cafeteria’s pea soup (three bowls).  And some strips are purely visual, like one in which Frazz and a student are shown in swapped outfits in the third panel so Frazz can say, in the fourth, “You’d be amazed by what you can slip past people.”  Yet Mallett’s strip is, on balance, more intellectually interesting than most – a very different experience from Sherman’s Lagoon, and equally funny in a very different way.


Storm Thief. By Chris Wooding. Scholastic. $16.99.

Annals of the Western Shore II: Voices. By Ursula K. Le Guin. Harcourt. $17.

     Nominally fitting into the science-fiction genre, these books for preteens and young teenagers really would fit into the “self-discovery” genre if such were recognized.  Their settings and occurrences may be otherworldly, but the issues their young protagonists face are very familiar indeed.  It is thanks to the high skill of both the authors that neither book feels like a mere genre entry, and both transcend the facile “who am I and what will I become?” question.

     Storm Thief is another frightening and intense tour de force by the author of the chilling The Haunting of Alaizabel Gray.  Chris Wooding sets this novel in a place called Orokos, which is periodically and unpredictably lashed by “probability storms” that literally change everything – landscapes, streets, buildings and people.  The hero, Rail, was struck by a storm once, and now needs a respirator to breathe.  The heroine, Moa, is an outcast and criminal, the daughter of dead rebels against Orokos’ corrupt rulers.  This bare description makes the book and its characters seem formulaic, but Wooding will not allow them to be so.  The story revolves around something called a Fade-Science artifact that Rail and Moa find and that the city’s most powerful people want – and are willing to do just about anything to acquire.  Although Rail and Moa pick up allies, such as a golem, spies and betrayal dog their steps everywhere: “Right at the moment, a boy was watching them from behind a pile of crates, a boy who had heard a rumour.  A rumour that someone was paying good money for information about a dreadlocked, dark-skinned boy with a respirator and a pale girl wearing green pants.”  Moa, it turns out, is needed to make the artifact function, so she and Rail have some value to Orokos’ rulers – and as a result, the two eventually learn why the probability storms occur, and how the storms fit into the history of Orokos, and about the “empty, hollow things, mindlessly following rules that we had laid down for ourselves,” that were the people who made Orokos what it eventually became.  “You broke the world and nothing is different!” yells a horrified Moa.  But the book ends, if not with a better world, at least with the possibility of one.

     The world of Voices could use a great deal of improvement, too.  Ursula Le Guin’s followup to Gifts takes place, like the earlier book, in an area called the Western Shore – specifically in a city called Ansul, a onetime center of trade and learning that was conquered 17 years earlier by desert-dwellers, the Alds, who deem reading and writing evil acts, punishable by death.  Only one place in Ansul still has a few books: Oracle House, which the conquerors have left untouched because they believe demons live there.  Actually, Oracle House is a sanctuary for 17-year-old Memer, who finds himself sent by his Waylord to live among the Alds and learn more about them.  The Alds call Memer’s people heathens, which “meant people who don’t know what’s sacred.  Are there any such people?  ‘Heathen’ is merely a word for somebody who knows a different sacredness than you know.”  This is a world that sounds disturbingly familiar, although Le Guin creates no direct parallels to our own, making it clear that this is a story of people who “have peace in [their] bones” and want only to live free from tyranny.  But of what does tyranny consist?  Le Guin asks this question often, and here as elsewhere, provides a thoughtful story that offers no definitive answer.


Queen B. By Laura Peyton Roberts. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads. By Rosalind Wiseman, with Elizabeth Rapoport. Crown. $25.

     In fiction, there are ways to work with, or work around, the Queen Bees of middle and high school: those super-popular, top-of-the-heap girls who are always surrounded by a court of admirers of both sexes, who become prom queens and homecoming queens and queens of just about anything else that interests them (usually not including academics).  In real life, though, the Queen Bee phenomenon is rather more complicated than in novels, and its implications are a good deal more difficult to handle.

     Laura Peyton Reynolds created an endearing heroine named Cassie in The Queen of Second Place.  Now she brings her back in Queen B, which is filled with much typical high-school angst and social uncertainty.  But Cassie is a good deal more interesting than most protagonists of books of this type, and Reynolds has a much more interesting way of telling Cassie’s story.  Cassie, the Snow Queen runner-up, is determined to progress from “B” to “Bee” – Queen Bee, that is – while holding onto her new boyfriend, Kevin, and somehow managing to get through the school’s talent show, which she doesn’t really want to direct.  Cassie doesn’t realize it at first – although readers quickly will – but her insecurities and basic good-hearted nature are not the ingredients of a Queen Bee.  When Cassie misinterprets Kevin’s attentions to a new girl, and as a result ends up kissing old friend Quentin, the worry is so thick you can cut it with a knife.  This is not Queen Bee territory.  Yet on and on Cassie soldiers, through chapters called “Bonfire of the Minivanities” and “Cupidity” and “Anger Mismanagement,” trying to negotiate all the happenings in her own life while paying some attention to her family as well (her brother is lovesick and her father wants to become a househusband).  In the short final chapter, Cassie decides to “Let It B,” or maybe B+, which is just fine for her – and very entertaining for readers.

     Far less entertaining are the real-life Queen Bees and their male counterparts, Kingpins.  Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees & Wannabes explored the Queen Bee phenomenon and the world of those who, like the fictional Cassie, never quite make the “A” list.  Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads is a sobering followup look at the kind of peer pressure and emotional insecurity that return adults to the days of seventh through 10th grade and create tension-filled conflicts.  Wiseman and Elizabeth Rapoport (who edited Queen Bees & Wannabes) fill the new book with real-world examples of bad parenting from the same sorts of ego-stoked (and ego-stroked) people who never really grew up during or after high school.  Unfortunately, these people are often in power positions in the real world (example: the coach who, when the team is losing, singles out your child to yell at); and their egos tend to get unhealthily wrapped up in what their own children are doing (example: the mother who composes nasty E-mails to your child because she thinks she can write them more cuttingly than her own child can).

     Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads starts by exploring the way school-age groups persist into adulthood (“Mom Cliques” and “Dad Totem Poles”), gives a number of examples of egregiously bad behavior by self-absorbed parents, and then – most valuably – shows how to handle a variety of situations that are likely to arise.  The simplest suggestions here are the best.  For example, if you don’t want to volunteer for an activity, don’t say you can’t do it because you work – everyone works, either inside the house or outside it.  There are also ideas on handling parties (including what to do when your child insists on inviting someone you can’t stand), discussing drinking and drugs and sex with kids, going out of town and leaving them alone, and many other issues.  In these scenarios, the “Queen Bee” elements tend to disappear behind solid but unremarkable advice – but reemerge when you have to consider what, if anything, to say to another child’s parents about drinking, drugs or sexual activity that you have discovered.  Not all the solutions here will work for every family, and none of them is as neat or trouble-free as solutions in fictional Queen Bee stories.  But Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads can be helpful for parents trying to negotiate the minefield of an adulthood that sometimes seems not different enough from middle or high school.


Lehár: Der Graf von Luxemburg. Revised text edition by Michael Schottenberg. Alfred Eschwé conducting Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien and Festival-Chor KlangBogen Wien. CPO. $33.99 (DVD).

     It can certainly be argued that Der Graf von Luxemburg, one of Franz Lehár’s most charming scores, can use an updating.  After all, the Ruritanian world of the operetta, in which an arranged marriage-and-divorce is needed so that a woman can obtain a noble title and therefore be an appropriate match for the titled older man who desires her as his wife, is long, long gone.

     Unfortunately, this 2005 production of a botched revision of the original book by Alfred Maria Willner and Robert Bodanzky isn’t the sort of update this marvelous work deserves.  Set as a quasi-La Bohème in the mid-20th century, the work is so silly and so lacking in coherence that only the gorgeous music makes the DVD worth having at all.

     In Michael Schottenberg’s reductio ad absurdum, the Count (Bo Skovhus) isn’t a count at all, but the author of a still-unfinished book called Der Graf von Luxemburg – who is therefore called by that title by everyone.  The original Russian noble, Basil Basilowitsch, here called Basil Basilowitsch-Kokosov (Andreas Conrad), becomes a consul who wants Angèle, here called Angelika (Juliane Banse), as his mistress, not his wife, but for some never-clear reason wants her to be married and divorced first – married not for a three-month period, as in the original work, but for 48 hours.  Basil, whose betrothed becomes a dea ex machina in the original, is in this version already married to Anastasia Iwanova Kokosowa (Eva Maria Marold).

     The operetta’s second couple gets recast, too: here the man is not painter Armand Brissart, but student artist Manfred Prskawetz (Rainer Trost); he is paired with dancer Julie (not Juliette) Vermont (Gabriela Bone), and the two have known each other for only two days when the work opens.  The hectic pace and compressed time scheme are perhaps supposed to make things seem to move along smartly, but all they really do is create confusion – to which the uneven microphone placement adds its own problems (for instance, Skovhus is almost inaudible through much of the first act).

     The rearrangements of Lehár’s set pieces don’t help, either.  For example, there is a charming scene in the original in which Basil, doubting Angèle’s love, asks Juliette to intercede for him by explaining to Angèle what a skilled dancer and playboy he was in his youth.  In the Schottenberg version, this becomes a Basil-Julie duet whose purpose is to poke fun at Basil’s inflated view of himself while subjecting him to physical comedy.  Charm has turned to cheap laughs.

     Speaking of cheap laughs, that’s all there is to the third act here: it is played as a bedroom farce, with lots of people running in and out of rooms while, in the hotel lobby, Kokosowa strips to her underwear – even as she seeks out her errant husband because she loves him so much.

     How incoherent.  What a mess.

     Much (though not all) of the music, thankfully, has been left intact, and this production is successful exactly to the extent that the music is untouched.  (This leads to some odd moments, as when the lead female is called Angèle in arias but Angelika in dialogue.)  Alfred Eschwé conducts briskly and precisely, and the orchestra and chorus are top-notch.  All the primary singers are enthusiastic, with Skovhus and Banse especially good in their heartfelt duets – some of Lehár’s loveliest.  Even in the love scenes, though, Schottenberg cannot resist ham-handed tampering: the beautiful songs in which the Count recognizes his temporary wife through her Trèfle incarnat (pink clover) perfume are undermined when it turns out that this is really the scent of Basil’s aftershave, through which Kokosowa realizes Basil is in the hotel.  (Kokosowa’s introductory aria, unfortunately, is dropped and replaced, because the original deals with her determination to marry Basil after a years-long engagement – a state of affairs at variance with Schottenberg’s inferior reworking of the book.)

     Der Graf von Luxemburg – the Willner-Bodanzky version, that is – is emphatically worthy of more frequent performances than it receives.  It could still work either as a fairy tale of an earlier time, or in an updated form.  But not in Schottenberg’s, which neither preserves all the music (which should be the No. 1 requirement for any revision of such a wonderful work) nor creates a story more believable to a modern audience than the original was.  This DVD is little more than a hint of what a modernized version of Der Graf von Luxemburg could be.

September 14, 2006


The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History. By Jennifer Armstrong. Illustrated by Roger Roth. Knopf. $34.95.

Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters. By Patricia C. McKissack. Illustrated by André Carrilho. Schwartz & Wade. $18.95.

     The stories that a nation tells about itself provide one of the surest insights into its national character.  Many countries have stories that run far, far back, that tell of old triumphs in war, of great civilizations built, of conquest and heroism and grand deeds of the dim past.  The United States in its current form has a much shorter history, and while we have our own sets of tales of heroism and national struggle, our country seems to place unusual emphasis on smaller stories – tales of individuals who made a difference, of small groups of people overcoming great odds.  Our large-scale policies may go awry – they often have! – but the underlying national character, of individualism and an often-naïve optimism, seems to remain.  Certainly it is reflected in both these outstanding books.

     The American Story picks up small tales, and some larger ones, from 1565 (“First City”) to 2000 (“The Election”).  The tales are tremendously varied, told in only a few pages apiece, written in an appealingly straightforward style, and absolutely wonderful.  Many readers will already know at least some part of at least some of the stories here, such as those from 1775 (“The Midnight Ride” – Paul Revere’s) and 1871 (“The Great Chicago Fire”).  Other tales have become part of national lore, although not always accurately: 1892 (“Lizzie Borden”) and 1929 (“St. Valentine’s Day” – the infamous Chicago gangster massacre).  But as well as Jennifer Armstrong tells these stories, she is even better with tales that are less than common knowledge.  “New Friends” (1895) is a wonderful story about Helen Keller meeting Mark Twain.  “Going Bananas” (1804) explains the first, disastrous attempt to import a fruit that Americans had never seen and had no idea how, or whether, to eat.  “The Flying Cloud” (1851) is about what was at that time the fastest-ever sailing journey from New York to San Francisco – 89 days.  “Murder by Moonlight” (1858) shows how Abraham Lincoln behaved as a lawyer.  “The Fall of Man” (1743) is about the collapse of a church balcony, and the way it increased attendance.  “The Woeful Plight of Mary Mallon” (1907) tells the story of the woman who would become known as Typhoid Mary.  Some of these are tales of triumph; others tell of distress, difficulty and failure (how many nations’ stories highlight those outcomes?).  Taken together, they offer a remarkable portrait of a country that, for all its many shortcomings, remains unique in the world.

     One element of that uniqueness comes from the slaves brought to the United States from Africa – and their descendants.  Patricia C. McKissack does a superb job of retelling tales of those unwilling Americans, or creating new stories that sound as authentic as the originals.  Porch Lies is a romp filled with underlying seriousness.  The 10 stories here are about con men, wastrels and ne’er-do-wells – most of whom are more than they seem to be.  “The Earth Bone and the King of Ghosts” is about a man who successfully fools the most frightening specters imaginable.  “The Devil’s Guitar” is about a case of musical mistaken identity, through which a would-be superstar learns it is better to go back to being himself.  “The Best Lie Ever Told” shows how one short sentence can overcome stories spun out at great length.  “By the Weight of a Feather” is a version of the Biblical pronouncement of being weighed in the balance and found wanting – but told without preachiness and with a strong affirmation of life.  “Aunt Gran and the Outlaws” is a marvelous story of an old woman who welcomes two notorious criminals into her home and gets them to do good deeds, at least for a time.  McKissack’s introduction neatly sets the scene by describing her own youth and the settings in which she heard stories like these.  These are not factual tales like those in The American Story, but they are an equal part of what has given the United States its distinctive character.


The Swing. By Joe Cepeda. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $15.99.

Ella Sets the Stage. By Carmela & Steven D’Amico. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

     It’s the sweetness that stands out in these picture books.  There’s not too much of it – over-sweetness is as bad for a recipe as under-sweetness – but there’s plenty for enjoyable consumption.

     The Swing is about a girl whose parents embarrass her – not for the usual reason of their mere existence, but because of their propensity for losing things.  They lose everything, whether it’s their own stuff or items they borrow from neighbors.  Josey Flores is especially upset because her parents lose track of time, so they don’t give her any attention – not even when her dad has promised to push her on her new swing, which hangs from the oak tree in the yard.  But that’s okay, thinks Josey – she’ll just swing on her own.  And she does, higher and higher and higher, until she disappears into the oak tree and, wonder of wonders, finds a lantern stuck in its branches.  Yes, it’s one of the things that Josey’s parents lost, and if there’s one thing up there, maybe there are others…  At this point, the book gets downright silly, as Josey keeps going up into the tree and finding pretty much everything imaginable, from her mom’s wedding dress to a set of guitar strings to the family dog.  There’s never an explanation of how anything got into the tree, or why the stuff stayed there until Josey and her swing went way, way up – but explanations are not the point of this mild and pleasant fantasy.  What matters is that Josey’s family gets everything back, and so do the neighbors from whom Josey has borrowed things, and everyone has a party to celebrate.  There’s no special meaning here, no deep implication, no lesson about being neat or being careful – The Swing is just for fun.

     There is a lesson in Ella Sets the Stage, the latest charming book about Ella the Elegant Elephant, with drawings very much in the style of the Babar books of old.  But the lesson is soft-pedaled and pleasantly delivered.  In this book, Ella learns about talent, when the school plans a talent show and she realizes that she does not have any particular special ability.  Ella tries singing, juggling and other activities, to no avail, then makes the best of a bad situation by joining the Talent Show Committee to help get everything set up for the other students.  Soon she is the committee, making signs and ribbons and programs – and, at showtime, doing last-minute repairs and even helping rescue an act that goes awry.  All the students get their prizes at the end – and then insist that Ella get one, too: a special prize for all the talent she showed in making the show a success.  This is a nice be-true-to-yourself message, Ella is as charming as ever, and the book’s gentle humor should bring young readers back to it again and again.


Far-Flung Adventures: No. 1, Fergus Crane; No. 2, Corby Flood. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $14.95 each.

The Van Gogh Café. By Cynthia Rylant. Harcourt. $5.95.

     In their 10-volume set, The Edge Chronicles – the first seven volumes of which are currently available in the United States – Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell created a grandly sweeping, intense adventure story for preteens and young teenagers (although Riddell’s outstanding illustrations can be appreciated by older teens and adults, too).  Far-Flung Adventures bring the same skill, but a great deal more lightheartedness, to adventure stories for younger readers – around ages 8-12.

     In Fergus Crane, wonder follows oddity follows surprise in the story of a young boy whose father has gone missing while on a dangerous ocean voyage. Fergus is now being peculiarly schooled aboard a ship – by some very strange and decidedly unacademic instructors.  The boy’s well-meaning but rather dim mother works in a bakery, where she expertly makes delicacies that sometimes include icing in the shape of penguins (a fact that becomes important as the book progresses).  Also included here are a map of the Scorpion Archipelago, which appears within the book and, in a larger version, when you remove the book jacket and fold it out; a set of ingenious but mysterious mechanical contrivances, including several that fly; a long-lost uncle; some hastily described schoolmates who make good foils for the young hero; and a lot of other offbeat stuff of the sort one would expect from this authorial team.  The style of the copious illustrations will be instantly familiar to anyone whose knows The Edge Chronicles, and some characters – notably Fergus’ mother – have faces that could have been lifted from that longer series.  But there is an underlying gentleness here that is absent in the stories of The Edge.  Someone who has lost the use of his legs simply invents marvelous mechanisms so he can cope – and make his life better than ever.  The bad guys who must eventually be destroyed are removed quickly and bloodlessly, and in a way that is 100% their own fault.  And Fergus remains throughout a nicely heroic character, polite and cheerful and just the right person to restore happiness to his family in the end.

     Corby Flood is very much of the same type, even to the design in which the cover becomes a fold-out map – here, of the coast of Dalcretia, to which Corby’s far-flung adventure flings her.  Among the oddball characters here – in addition to Corby’s family, which includes her parents, “four energetic brothers,” and Corby’s older sister, Serena – are Mr. and Mrs. Hattenswiller (whose matching hats appear to be about three feet tall); the mysterious Man from Cabin 21, who sits on deck in the same place every day; and “the five sinister gentlemen in their smart suits and bottle-green hats,” who are especially concerned with how their luggage is handled.  All these people are supposedly on an innocent voyage aboard the S.S. Euphonia, a ship that has seen better days.  Of course, the trip proves anything but innocent, and eight-year-old Corby chronicles everything within the pages of Hoffendinck’s Guide, a book that describes the Dalcretian coast and leaves ample room for notes – room that Corby fills with comments on fellow passengers and onboard occurrences.  It takes more pluck than magic to figure out who is doing what here, and why, but although there are no wands waved or spells cast in Corby Flood, the book’s good humor casts a gently magical spell of its own.

     The magic is exceedingly gentle in The Van Gogh Café as well.  This short book, originally published in 1995 and now available in paperback, is simply a set of vignettes involving out-of-the-ordinary occurrences at an apparently super-ordinary café in the town of Flowers, Kansas.  The café is run by Marc and his daughter, Clara – Clara’s mom lives far away, apparently after a divorce, although the book is too sweet to dwell on the circumstances – and small magics keep happening from time to time.  There’s the possum that appears in a tree outside and seems to make it easier for townspeople to be nice to each other; the lightning strike that turns Marc into a poet and results temporarily in the food cooking itself; the mini-muffins left behind by a customer, which magically increase in number until they are really needed; and so on.  Somehow, Cynthia Rylant gives everything that happens in this café a veneer of calm, even when there is an accident – and even when, in a different vignette, someone dies.  This is, above all, a peaceful book, a pleasant fantasy of the sort that readers ages 8-12 may wish could be true, if they just find the right restaurant in the right small town off the right interstate highway, somewhere in the middle of the country…


Star Begotten: A Biological Fantasia. By H.G. Wells. Wesleyan University Press. $22.95.

     A fascinating short novel in which nothing actually happens – but lots of people sit around discussing what might have happened, or might be happening, or might soon happen – Star Begotten is a late work in which H.G. Wells rethinks the Martian invasion of The War of the Worlds in light of later developments in the biological sciences.  Written in 1937 – 39 years after the earlier, far more famous book – Star Begotten is the second in a series of four short Wells novels dating to the period just before Word War II: 1936-1938.  Star Begotten was preceded by The Croquet Player and followed by The Camford Visitation and The Brothers.  The four novels are entirely independent of each other, but the psychological instability of the central character in The Croquet Player may, just may, be reflected in Star Begotten as well.

     There is a lot of “may, just may” in this book, which posits the use by putative Martians (or maybe aliens from somewhere else) of cosmic rays (or something similar) to create a sort of directed evolution that will eventually accomplish a successful “invasion” of Earth not through physical means but by turning humans into beings that are, in effect, Martians.

     There is a very “modern” feel to this premise – despite the underlying scientific absurdity, of which Wells himself seems to have been aware (characters in the book discuss the fact that the vast majority of mutations are unfavorable).  Wells’ communication of the concept seems quite modern, too: the central character of the story is a man named Joseph Davis, who has a successful career as an author of popular histories, a charming young wife, and the suspicion that he, his wife and their unborn child are being mutated by Martians for the aliens’ own heinous purposes.

     This could be a story of Davis coming unhinged, and Wells hints that this is one possible interpretation.  It could also be a story played for humor, and Wells hints at that, too, even bringing his own earlier work in for a bit of ridicule: One character says, “Some of you may have read a book called The War of the Worlds – I forget who wrote it – Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, one of those fellows.”

     But all Wells ever does in Star Begotten is hint – which makes the book fascinating in some ways and irritating in others.  What exactly is going on?  Wells does not say.  Are Martians or other aliens actually invading?  No answer.  Are Davis’ suspicions about himself and his family correct?  Maybe.  Is Davis simply losing his grip on reality?  Could be.  Readers seeking pretty much anything definitive – including any sort of standardized plot – will find Star Begotten frustrating.

     Yet the book has manifest charms as an intellectual puzzle; an exploration of an outlandish but not quite impossible idea about a way in which alien beings might conquer humans without having to mount a frontal assault; and a prototype of the sort of darkly comic SF writing later to be found in the works of Robert Sheckley and Philip K. Dick.  “The jokes of today may become the facts of tomorrow,” opines one character in Star Begotten.  The book, if indeed it is a joke, certainly seems to have inspired a variety of dark biological fantasies by later authors.  Its tendency to keep the reader off-balance about what, if anything, is really happening, is perhaps its most modern characteristic of all.


Bruckner: Symphony No. 5. Günter Wand conducting the Münchner Philharmoniker. Profil. $16.99.

Elgar: Orchestral Miniatures. James Judd conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

     Listeners know pretty much what they are going to get when hearing works by Bruckner and Elgar.  Bruckner will be massive, dense, complex, intense and transcendent.  Elgar will also offer large-scale works, as strongly Germanic in orchestration and development as they are English in subject matter and themes.  So what is especially attractive about these CDs, in addition to the very high quality of the performances on them, is the way they present different angles on these composers from the ones audiences usually experience – a chance to hear a known work in a new way, or less-known works that show a less-known side of their creator.

     There is no escaping the massiveness of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5, but there is more to this 75-minute work in Günter Wand’s performance with the Munich Philharmonic than other conductors bring to the piece.  Bruckner’s Fifth, like Beethoven’s, marked the end of a certain type of symphonic creativity, after which both composers sought new directions (how successfully Bruckner did so is open to debate).  Wand conducted the work often and with various orchestras, including – as a guest conductor – the Munich Philharmonic, which he leads in this live recording from 1995.  The performance fairly crackles with intensity, from the opening slow introduction – the only one in a Bruckner symphony – to the intense culmination of the sonata-fugue finale.  Wand uses the original (1875-8) version of the symphony, which is larger and altogether more closely interwoven than chopped-up, emended later versions.  What is remarkable is how much clarity of line, how much elegant counterpoint, Wand extracts from the work.  Far from being heavy and massive, as so many Bruckner performances are, this one finds lightness here and there, even fleet-footedness in the Scherzo.  And Wand’s judicious tempo choices help the symphony build naturally and logically to a conclusion that sounds more musically inevitable here than it often does.  This is not so much a rethinking of the symphony as it is a thought-through version of it: powerful, yes, but also delicate and very carefully constructed.

     There is no grandeur sought, and none attained, in the 13 little Elgar pieces conducted by James Judd.  Many are Elgar’s arrangements of his piano, violin or choral works, and several have the light-music sound that Eric Coates was later to perfect.  Having Elgar sound like Coates, though, is a bit of a shock.  Probably the best-known piece here, and the longest on the CD, is the Froissart Overture, which the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra plays with real panache.  The other works are the slight and lovely miniatures, May Song and Carissima; the Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, nicely handled by bassoonist Preman Tilson; Three Characteristic Pieces, of which the third – a gavotte in the contrasting styles of 1700 and 1900 – is a standout; a little Minuet that for some reason is here interpolated between the first and second Characteristic Pieces; the pleasant Chansons de Matin et de Nuit, played in reverse order for no apparent reason; and Three Bavarian Dances, which are brief recollections (originally written as songs) of scenes Elgar saw on a visit to Bavaria.  None of this music, except the Froissart Overture, comes close to the large scale for which Elgar is known, and none of it is complex or difficult in any way.  The CD could almost be called “Elgar Easy Listening,” except that few who know the composer would believe the title.

September 07, 2006


Oh No, Not Ghosts! By Richard Michelson. Illustrated by Adam McCauley. Harcourt. $16.

All Hallows’ Eve: 13 Stories. By Vivian Vande Velde. Harcourt. $17.

     It’s a bit early in the year to start thinking about the ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night around the end of October, but not too early to start looking for some anticipatory shakes and shivers.  Here are two books that offer them – for two different age groups.

     Oh No, Not Ghosts! takes a humorous approach to the subject of haunts – appropriate in a book for ages 3-7.  It also gets in a bit of sibling rivalry and some interesting family dynamics.  A boy and his younger sister are trying to get to sleep quietly, letting their father get his own rest.  The boy keeps telling the girl all the things not to be afraid of – which, of course, makes her all the more afraid.  This would be mean if Richard Michelson did not tell the story so humorously, and if Adam McCauley did not make the illustrations so overdone that they provoke more snickers than gasps.  This is a story in which every element ties to the next: the sister gets scared at the idea of ghosts, so the brother promises to dress up like a werewolf if any ghosts come around, and scare them away.  Then the sister gets scared of werewolves – and the brother says he could get rid of them by turning into a giant.  Giants scare the sister, so the brother explains how the girl could turn herself into a demon and scare any giant off – which gets the girl scared of demons, and so on.  The frights continue, the kids get noisier and noisier, and at last they are interrupted by – well, you can figure it out, and most kids will, too.  But the ending is a refreshing reminder to pay more attention to the real world and less to make-believe frights.

     Vivian Vande Velde’s frights are make-believe, too, but she makes them seem very realistic indeed in All Hallows’ Eve, whose 13 stories include some really scary ones.  Even readers ages 12 and up – the target age range for the book – may be spooked by some of the terrors Vande Velde dreams up.  She is at her best when the stories have a wry edge to them rather than raw terror, as in “MARIAN”; when they add some warmth to the fright, as in “Holding On”; when they reserve the real shudders for a twist ending, as in “My Real Mother”; or when they are just plain weird, as in “When My Parents Come to Visit.”  Revenge stories (“Best Friends”) and offbeat ghost tales (“Cemetery Field Trip”) also work well.  But there are a few stories here in which Vande Velde crosses the invisible line between chilling and out-and-out terrifying, and these tales may be too strong for sensitive readers.  “Morgan Roehmar’s Boys” and “When and How,” in both of which Vande Velde deliberately and gruesomely destroys well-meaning protagonists, will be too intense for many tastes.  Still, Vande Velde is a fine and facile writer, and some of the goosebumps she raises will stay with you right through All Hallows’ Eve itself, even if you read the stories well before that date of dread.


Scholastic Question & Answer Series: Did Dinosaurs Live in Your Backyard?; Do All Spiders Spin Webs?; Do Whales Have Belly Buttons?; What Do Sharks Eat for Dinner?  By Melvin & Gilda Berger. Illustrated by Alan Male (Dinosaurs); Roberto Osti (Spiders); Higgins Bond (Whales); John Rice (Sharks). Scholastic. $5.99 each.

     Any kid with free-floating curiosity about this and that should love these thin paperbacks, each of which packs plenty of information, in easy-to-digest form, into 48 pages.  The “free-floating” characteristic is important, because there is no guarantee that Melvin and Gilda Berger’s books will answer the specific questions that a particular child may ask.  But the Bergers answer so many questions, so interestingly and accurately, that they should pique a child’s interest in looking up additional answers elsewhere, if they are not included in these books.

     Each book is laid out in four main sections.  The Dinosaurs book, for example, includes “The World of Dinosaurs,” “The Rise of Dinosaurs,” “The Triumph of Dinosaurs,” and “The End of Dinosaurs.”  Each section contains multiple questions, each with its own brief, to-the-point answer.  For example, in Spiders, “How do tarantulas defend themselves?” has an answer that begins, “By shooting out hairs.  A tarantula uses its legs to brush hairs off its body and into the eyes and mouth of an attacker.  The sharp, hooked hairs sting and hurt the enemy, giving the tarantula time to scamper away.”

     Each book’s illustrator conveys realistic images of the topic, including good close-up views of small creatures (such as spiders) and a good sense of scale for large ones (such as a human diver swimming next to a blue whale).

     The questions themselves are all over the place – the sectional system is more an organizational tool than a good guide to what the Bergers discuss from page to page.  Among the questions in Dinosaurs are whether dinosaurs lived alone or in groups; who created the name “dinosaur”; why some plant eaters had very long necks, and which had the longest; whether some dinosaurs had two brains; and which dinosaur had the biggest head.  Among the Spiders questions are whether spiders make sounds; how many eggs a female spider lays; how long spiders live; and which spider becomes part of its own web.  (By the way, the answer to the book’s title question is that not all spiders spin webs – though all do produce silk threads.)

     In the Whales book, which also discusses dolphins, are such questions as how long whales can stay underwater; whether they can drown; where their ears are; how whales sleep; and what the difference is between dolphins and porpoises.  And the answer to this book’s title question is yes: whales, like other mammals, do have belly buttons.  As for Sharks, this book asks how strong a shark’s jaws are (twice as powerful as a lion’s!); why sharks must keep swimming all the time; which sharks make sounds; and which shark is called a swimming garbage can (the tiger shark, which will eat anything).

     Making facts fun to learn without “dumbing down” the underlying information is quite an accomplishment.  These books in the Scholastic Question & Answer Series do just that.  Give them all extra credit.


Girl, Going on 17: Pants on Fire. By Sue Limb. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

Eager’s Nephew. By Helen Fox. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.95.

Books of Ember III: The Prophet of Yonwood. By Jeanne DuPrau. Random House. $15.95.

     When you have a good idea, or even a fairly good one, it is tempting to milk it for all it is worth.  Hollywood filmmakers are the modern grandmasters of this game, but they certainly did not originate it: think, for example, of Charles Dickens’ chapter-by-chapter spinning out of his stories to ever-greater lengths, and then his re-creation in future books (also spun out chapter-by-chapter) of parallel tales.  Or think of Shakespeare, who followed Henry the Sixth, Part I with a second part and then a third.

     No matter who started the sequel (or multiple-works-on-the-same-topic) concept, it is certainly an important part of writing today.  Generally, followup books are not quite as good as an author’s first – for the obvious reason that they lack the piquancy of an original and the attendant charm of discovering characters and settings for the first time.  Still, readers who finish a book and want to know what happened next, or even what happened before the story started, will generally enjoy follow-ups that stay true to the tone and characterizations of the originals.

     So Jess Jordan fans will welcome Girl, Going on 17: Pants on Fire, the third year-by-year tale of Jess’s slow march toward adulthood and constant need to cope with school, relationships and a broken family.  This is familiar territory in books for ages 10 and up, but Sue Limb’s works stand out for a certain freshness of style and unusual scene-setting.  This one has some typical teenage problems, including a nasty new English teacher and a major rift between Jess and her boyfriend, Fred.  But it also has some neat touches, such as chapter titles cast as thoroughly modern commandments: “Bite Not Thy Nails; Neither Grow Long Ones Like Talons,” and “Whoso Walketh Uprightly Shall Be Saved, but Couch Potatoes Shall Be Cast into the Burning Fiery Furnace (And Emerge as Oven Chips).”  And Limb is as good at amusing and unexpected plot twists as ever – for instance, when a distraught Jess rushes home to Granny for the “fuss and attention” she so desperately needs, she finds in Granny’s house a Japanese gentleman who speaks no English.

     The humor is even more pronounced in Eager’s Nephew, which Helen Fox calls a “companion” to her previous book, Eager.  Eager was, and his nephew is, a robot with the ability to think for itself (himself?) and feel emotion.  These robots look a bit like thinned-out and stretched Michelin tire men.  And in Eager’s Nephew, for ages 8-12, they are illegal: scientists may build no more of them.  This book takes place 20 years after the original, with Eager having spent most of that time in hiding.  Now he revisits the Bell family – and his nephew, Jonquil, tags along without Eager’s knowledge.  Jonquil has never seen humans before, so there is a Candide-like element to this story – in addition to some moderately serious questions about extraterrestrials, the nature of intelligence, and other science-fictional concerns.

     The Prophet of Yonwood is SF, too, but this is an entirely serious book – a prequel to The City of Ember, which was the first book in a series whose second book was The People of Sparks.  Now Jeanne DuPrau takes readers back to a time before the worldwide disaster that resulted in the world of Ember in the first place.  Fans of the series know what will happen, but DuPrau here answers the question of how it happened – something the characters in the other books understood barely, if at all.  Yonwood is a town in North Carolina to which 11-year-old Nickie goes to live – in a mansion that her family has just inherited.  Yonwood seems like a safe place in a world going increasingly mad, but of course Nickie learns that no place is really safe when society spins out of control.  Yet she also learns to find hope and comfort even in a time of the most serious troubles – the same message taught in the first two Ember books, and as good a reason as any to read a new one along the same lines.