July 26, 2007


Every Which Way but Dead. By Kim Harrison. HarperTorch. $7.99.

A Fistful of Charms. By Kim Harrison. HarperTorch. $7.99.

For a Few Demons More. By Kim Harrison. Eos. $21.95.

      She’s smart and clever, savvy and sassy, quick to turn a phrase and unravel a plot strand, able to juggle multiple lives with surprising aplomb, and possessed of a wicked sense of humor. That’s the author, Kim Harrison – although the description fits her central character, Rachel Mariana Morgan, just as well.

      Harrison is creator of one of the most interesting, offbeat and well-put-together fantasy series around, in which male macho is transformed into what might be called female “macha” in both good and bad ways. Lest that seem far-fetched, note the books’ titles: except for the first, Dead Witch Walking, every one is a takeoff on the title of a Clint Eastwood movie – The Good, the Bad, and the Undead, plus the three newer titles here considered. These are sexy books as well as violent ones – and Harrison does the buildup to sex, as well as the buildup to violence, as well as she handles the performance. That is the sign of a classy writer.

      “Classy” seems an odd adjective for someone creating a series of novels about witches, werewolves, vampires, elves, demons and other otherworldly creatures, but Harrison simply refuses to play by the rules of any stereotypes of the characters she portrays. Her vampires, for example, like line dancing and shop at Home Depot. And her tales are not set in an exotic European locale but in, of all places, Cincinnati.

      Nor are these simple stories of good and evil. The best thing Harrison does is give her characters – even the minor ones – a level of complexity rarely seen in fantasy. There is genuine, often terrifying evil in Harrison’s world, but there is real human connection as well; and if Rachel, her heroine, is smart and bold and able to hold her own in a fight as well as a bedroom tussle, she is also significantly flawed and very, very vulnerable. Rachel is an “earth witch” who gains significant new power – and puts herself and those around her in significant peril – when she learns additional ways of tapping magical forces. She cares deeply about the dangers she creates for others. Yet again and again, Rachel – whose primary issue is trust – does something that has unforeseen negative consequences (usually from the best of motives; occasionally for self-preservation); and again and again, when she must tell someone she is close to about the mess she has made, she wonders not how to tell but what to tell. She is truthful, ultimately, to everyone except herself. The result is an endlessly fascinating series of adventures that are worth far more of a reader’s time than the typical detective or horror-fantasy novel (this series crosses those boundaries, and others).

      It is best to enter the series at the beginning, but Harrison is a good enough writer to provide background and recap in each book – so a new reader can understand most of what is going on, if not all the nuances. The distinction between living and undead vampires is important, for example, and Harrison repeatedly shows why and finds ways to make the explanation part of the story. She also gives Rachel enough self-awareness to pull some of the books’ more extreme complexities back from soap opera – usually with a touch of wry humor. In Every Which Way but Dead, for example, a woman nicknamed Skimmer, the former roommate and lover of Rachel’s current roommate – a powerful living vampire who is not Rachel’s lover – unexpectedly turns up. A scene of high tension and high comedy ensues, leading Rachel to remark: “Skimmer forced a smile. Her crisp mien was wearing thin, but she was holding up well considering she had left her home and master to rekindle a relationship with her high school girlfriend who was rooming with the woman who had put her new boss behind bars. Join us next time for Days of the Undead when Rachel learns her long lost brother is really a crown prince from outer space. My life was so screwed up.”

      In EWWBD, the screwups revolve around the departure of Rachel’s human boyfriend, Nick, whom she genuinely loves but whom she has unintentionally turned into her familiar – a painful, potentially deadly process. And Rachel is trying to avoid “Big Al,” as she calls the demon Algaliarept (a truly terrifying presence), to whom she has ended up owing herself but not her soul. In A Fistful of Charms, Nick returns, and some mysteries involving him are cleared up even as new ones emerge, and Rachel must try to protect Nick from those who are determined to destroy him and possess his knowledge – but she must also keep a low profile to stay out of the demon’s clutches. And speaking of demons, Harrison’s new hardcover in this series, For a Few Demons More, gives Algaliarept powers that even the demon never had before – and brings back from prison a monstrous master vampire whose viciousness had made Rachel so determined to get him off the streets that she had bound herself to the demon in the first place. All this occurs while a serial killer is running loose – and while Rachel holds what may be the key to stopping the murderer or may be an item that unleashes even worse violence.

      Every one of these stories of the Hollows – the area of Cincinnati where Rachel and her cohorts live – is well paced, well written and exciting in the extreme. Rachel is a marvelous character, but so are many others: Harrison even makes four-inch-tall winged pixies seem solid, believable and very far from frail. It is remarkable how much Harrison makes readers care about these characters – their fears, foibles, insecurities, power trips, struggles and genuinely human emotions (even when the characters themselves are not, or not quite, human). These characters are far more than types; these books are far more than standard adventure tales. If Harrison keeps writing at the level she has attained in her first five novels about the Hollows, she will have created a classic series. Indeed, maybe she already has.


Astronauts and Other Space Heroes. By Sarah L. Thomson. Smithsonian/Collins. $16.99.

Our Solar System. By Seymour Simon. Smithsonian/Collins. $19.99.

      Striking design, excellent visuals and interesting information combine in these two books to create winning collaborations between the publisher and the Smithsonian Institution. Astronauts and Other Space Heroes, for ages 8-12, opens with a photo of Buzz Aldrin on the moon, then sweeps back in time to the imaginary space journeys of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, then forward to rocket scientists, animal astronauts and human space travelers. There’s a real sense of history throughout the book, thanks not only to the accuracy of dates involving space exploration (each person and event has a “Time Line” attached) but also to brief “at the same time” notes that help explain the context of space-related events. There is some blandness to the narrative – for example, in the late 1950s, “the United States and the Soviet Union were enemies, and Americans didn’t like to think that the Soviets had gotten ahead of them when it came to space.” Or, in discussing Wernher von Braun, creator of the V-2 rocket used by the Nazis, Sarah L. Thomson writes, “The V-2s were built by prisoners from concentration camps, who were starved and abused. Many of them died.” Still, Astronauts and Other Space Heroes is not a political tract or a general history lesson, and is designed – quite handsomely, by Jacob Packaged Goods LLC – to focus on heroism and scientific accomplishment, not the seamier sides of space-related events. So the brief stories of moon walkers, of entertainment figures interested in space (Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas), of tremendous triumph (the first landing on the moon) and tragedy (the Challenger and Columbia disasters), come together very effectively, giving a glossy once-over look at all that has been accomplished and all the frontiers that remain to be explored. Web links for further Smithsonian Institution information are a helpful added touch in a book that effectively conveys the drama and hopefulness inherent in voyages beyond our planet.

      For a view of some places that humans may someday explore, Our Solar System by the redoubtable Seymour Simon offers simplicity and scientific accuracy for readers ages 5-9. Tables on the inside front and back covers give at-a-glance comparisons of the eight planets of the solar system (yes, eight – Pluto is excluded, in line with the latest scientific thinking, which Simon elucidates in his usual easy-to-understand style). Within the book, gorgeous Smithsonian Institution photos and illustrations are coupled with straightforward explanations about the nature of the sun and planets. Simon is sometimes careful to explain big numbers in terms that young readers can understand: “If Earth were the size of a basketball, the sun would be as big as a basketball court.” But in other cases, sometimes even on the same page, he simply throws out huge numbers that neither children nor adults can truly comprehend: “The sun uses about four million tons of hydrogen every second. Still, the sun has enough hydrogen to continue shining for another five to six billion years.” On balance, though, Simon explains complex subjects very well indeed: the greenhouse effect on Venus; the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, which “has not changed position and has kept the same oval shape for centuries”; the rings of Uranus, “made of chunks of an unknown black material”; the storms of Neptune, the largest of which “is big enough to swallow the entire earth.” From the sun at the solar system’s center to the asteroids, comets and meteoroids throughout it, the phenomena of which we earthlings are a small part all get brief, informative treatment – just enough, perhaps, to send interested young readers to the Web sites mentioned at the back so they can learn more.


Uneversaurus. By Professor Potts. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

Harry and the Dinosaurs Go to School. By Ian Whybrow. Illustrations by Adrian Reynolds. Random House. $15.99.

      The title of Uneversaurus takes some getting used to (‘you never saw us,” see?), and it takes a while for Aidan Potts (writing as “Professor Potts”) to get to the subject on which he wants to focus. But once Potts gets there, he serves up an utterly entrancing look at a major dinosaur puzzle that few books for young people ever discuss: what color were dinosaurs? To scientists, this is a far-from-trivial question; it is also an unanswerable one. The fossilization process preserves many things, as Potts explains in this book’s first pages. Scientists can use clues from their findings to show what dinosaurs must have looked like – for example, “bumps and grooves on the bones are clues to show where the muscles were, and the joints reveal how they moved.” But there is simply no way to know what colors dinosaurs sported. Skin color does not survive fossilization, and nothing that does survive gives even a hint of it. So scientists are reduced to guesswork – educated guesswork, perhaps, but the young readers of this book can probably make guesses just as good as some of those made by scientists. Potts shows how: look at living animals that seem similar to dinosaurs (which, as he says, include modern reptiles – but also, as he does not say, could include birds, which would open up a host of colorful possibilities); understand what survival benefits different colorations provide (various forms of camouflage, for example); consider the world as it was when dinosaurs lived, to think about what colors would have fit in; and so on. Potts manages to communicate some fairly complex scientific concepts without ever becoming didactic: he tosses in cartoonish dinos here and there to lighten things up, and shows by example why certain colors would not have worked (for instance, there was much less snow when dinosaurs lived, so a white dino, one of which Potts draws, would stand out too brightly to survive). Potts includes fascinating speculation on whether male and female dinosaurs were differently colored, whether some might have been chameleonlike, whether their colors faded as they aged, and more. One of the best things about this book is that there are no right or wrong answers to its puzzles – Potts specifically encourages young readers to guess, which means to think about the question, which means to use their minds, not merely absorb information.

      For a more traditional young people’s book about dinosaurs, try the latest from Ian Whybrow and Adrian Reynolds, Harry and the Dinosaurs Go to School. This series entry gets a solid (+++) rating for tackling some basic issues about the first day of school entertainingly, while keeping Harry and his beloved bucket of make-believe-but-real-to-him dinosaurs in the center of the tale. The story is simple enough: Harry is a little scared about the first day of school, so his dinos are scared, too, and Harry takes them along – but leaves them outside his classroom. Then Harry notices another little boy who is even more scared – he will not talk at all. Thanks to the dinosaurs (whose real, scientific names Harry always uses – that is one of the charms of this series), Harry makes friends with the silent boy, who eventually does indeed have something to say. It’s something dinosaur-like, of course. The gentle humor of this series, and the attractively low-key presentation of its messages, make Harry and his dinosaurs a real treat for young children – even if the dinos’ accurate names are in no way reflected in their highly fanciful (and decidedly non-threatening) appearance.


So Inn Love. By Catherine Clark. HarperTeen. $5.99.

Summerhouse Time. By Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff. Knopf. $12.99.

Babymouse #6: Camp Babymouse. By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. Random House. $5.99.

      These three books could be a case study in changing expectations where summer-reading-for-fun is concerned. Teens, especially teenage girls looking for an uncomplicated, un-deep approach to summer romance, should enjoy So Inn Love, which takes place at the Tides Inn in Rhode Island. Catherine Clark, author of a number of “beach reads” for ages 14 and up, here serves up a typical teen tale of a first job, first love and first heartbreak…with none of it too serious. Elizabeth (Liza) McKenzie is in her first year working at the prestigious Tides Inn, but just about everyone else has worked there before, and so there is cliquishness to cope with, and a girl Liza knows who is “snobbing” her, and some problems with Liza’s own self-transformation from the more conventional girl she has been in the past (she now has a tattoo – temporary – and a pierced belly button, and in general does not conform to the strict rules and appearance code of the Tides Inn). There are the expected flirtations and misunderstandings, some interesting encounters with a writer’s-blocked writer, a big blowup involving a wedding, and a satisfactory conclusion involving another wedding. It’s all fluff, all forgettable and all summertime fun.

      For ages 8-12, summer books are less fraught with overflowing emotion and more filled with small joys and worries involving family and friends. At least that is the case in books such as Summerhouse Time. Written in verse by Eileen Spinelli, with charming and often slightly silly illustrations by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, this is a story in which 11-year-old Sophie and her extended family spend August in a pink beach cottage, with everything that “beach” implies – swimming and taffy and sand and sharing secrets. The mild drama here – and it is very mild – comes from Sophie’s discovery that things seem different this summer: Colleen, her teenage cousin, doesn’t want to share a room with her and is grumpy and withdrawn; her aunt and uncle are arguing a lot; and although Sophie has a crush on a boy, she has no one to share it with – which takes some of the fun out of it. Much of the charm of the book comes from its depictions of ordinary scenes: “It rains after dinner./ The aunts turn the kitchen/ into a beauty shop./ They do each other’s hair./ Mom paints Tammy’s toenails/ Strawberry Pink./ Dad and Uncle Joe play Scrabble with Cooper./ Cooper wins!” Or: “Grandpop says/ he’s not one/ for churches./ Grandmom says/ they used to fight/ about that/ when they were younger./ Now/ Grandmom/ goes to church/ by herself.” The easy flow of the free verse is lulling, and although Sophie learns that “life is never perfect,/ even at the summerhouse,” the book’s ending is upbeat, with a hopeful look ahead toward next year’s beach-cottage trip.

      Still-younger readers, ages 7-10, can get some summertime fun from the latest Babymouse installment, Camp Babymouse. It is full of the expected Babymouse things: fantasizing, talking with (and back to) the book’s narrator, and making all sorts of mistakes – which in this case lead Babymouse to keep getting demerits for her cabin at Camp Wild Whiskers. Babymouse is as endearing and messy-whiskered as ever, and her daydreams (she turns into Babykong in one and scares Bigfoot in another) have, as usual, better outcomes than her real life – in which she fails to make her bed, sets part of the forest on fire, and more. Optimistic and plucky as ever, Babymouse does show her mettle by rescuing herself and another camper when they get lost one night. But she remains pretty hapless, if not hopeless, most of the rest of the time. Camp Babymouse doesn’t have quite as much zing as the best books in this series – Jennifer L. Holm and her brother, Matthew Holm, make this one a little too formulaic – but it’s an enjoyable summertime adventure for young readers who like the central character and just want a pleasant way to pass a little bit of time.

July 19, 2007


M Is for Magic. By Neil Gaiman. HarperCollins. $16.99.

InterWorld. By Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Neil Gaiman is something of a marvel. Whether writing in short form or long, alone or in partnership, he puts an indelible stamp of mystery, intrigue and the most unexpected sort of heart-tugging emotion into his work. For example, his Good Omens, written with Terry Pratchett, is a classic of sorts, with two top-notch stylists and plotters complementing each other rather than (as could easily have happened) rubbing each other the wrong way. Gaiman has a way of getting the most from words, from collaborators, and from concepts – and that includes in his stories for children.

      But beware: what Gaiman considers appropriate for kids may not be quite what parents want them reading. His novel Coraline had enough genuine chills to be a dark adult fantasy, but was recommended for ages eight and up. These two new books target ages 10 and up, but there are plenty of 10-year-olds who will not be psychologically ready for them. Some 12-year-olds, too – and maybe even some older readers.

      The more “adult” of the books is the short-story collection, M Is for Magic, which pays tribute to the dark fantasies of Ray Bradbury in a number of ways. The title mirrors those of such Bradbury books as R Is for Rocket and S Is for Space (although the content does not – there’s virtually no SF here); and one story, the spookily atmospheric “October in the Chair,” is dedicated to Bradbury. Other tales here are worthy of the same dedication: “Troll Bridge,” about life and loss from a perspective far too adult for most young readers; “Don’t Ask Jack,” a short chiller left deliberately open-ended; and “The Price,” a truly scary cat story. Other standouts among these 11 stories are the picaresque “Sunbird,” the sort-of-science-fictional “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” and the tremendously involving and genuinely strange “The Witch’s Headstone” (about a boy raised by the dead). Gaiman does humor, too, in the tall tale of “How to Sell the Ponti Bridge,” the gently offbeat “Chivalry,” and the wonderful telescoping of detective stories and nursery rhymes, “The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds.” The free-verse “Instructions,” which ends the book, is also a fairy tale – or, rather, a guide to any reader who might find himself or herself caught in one. All these stories have been published before, and some have been collected before, but that in no way diminishes their power – or the expressive range that Gaiman shows in every one of them.

      The range is somewhat more limited in the novel InterWorld, and that is not necessarily a bad thing – certainly not for those who enjoy Gaiman’s forays into SF, for that is what this book is. It’s the story of a boy who has a habit of getting lost, and who at one point gets so lost that he finds himself in a parallel world, where there is another one of him; and it turns out that there are lots of other versions of him, and they must all band together to fight unspeakably evil forces whose triumph could meant the end of all the worlds. This is not a particularly unusual SF plot, but Gaiman’s trademark creation of amused sympathy for characters gives it more depth than many similarly plotted books possess. And Michael Reaves, who is not only an SF writer himself but also an experienced writer for TV and films, contributes fast pacing and cinematic cuts from scene to scene that keep InterWorld moving at a fast pace – even as the character sketches by Gaiman (who has done his own share of TV and movie work) provide an expansive view of young Joey Harker and all the other Joey Harker approximations with whom he interacts. (In truth, it is pure guesswork as to who contributed what to the book; but this scenario makes sense based on the style of Gaiman’s and Reaves’ other work. And if it’s wrong, that just means that their cross-pollination has been even more effective.) The underlying plot of InterWorld has to do with science, magic, and the balance between them, within our world and across an infinitude of worlds. It’s a big subject, which Gaiman and Reaves make manageable by keeping the focus on Joey, a non-hero who, of course, turns out to be quite a hero indeed. There is high adventure here, and there is also some thoughtfulness – all of it mixed with skill and authorial panache. And because of the story’s design, it would be easy for Gaiman and Reaves to craft a sequel, or several, if InterWorld proves popular.

(+++) TV OR NOT TV?

Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television. By Lee Siegel. Basic Books. $15.95.

      Does television matter anymore? Yes, it is pervasive, but younger TV viewers have taken the fine art of using it as background to new heights, often doing homework and sending text messages (and maybe doing other things as well) while the TV is on. In the days when Marshall McLuhan designated TV a “cool medium” (in contrast to radio, a “hot medium”), the method of interaction (or lack thereof) between the tube and the audience seemed highly significant, tied into the type of shared experience that millions had at any given time and thus to the direction in which society (American society, anyway) seemed to be going.

      But the “shared experience” value of TV has diminished to the point of vanishing. There are no longer only three networks; there are few programs that huge numbers of people watch at the same time, as opposed to on a recorded basis with commercials (and often portions of the shows) skipped – the Super Bowl and the finales of “Friends” and “The Sopranos” are very much exceptions, not the rule. And yet there are some critics, such as Lee Siegel, who persist in taking the medium very seriously indeed. Siegel has done so in Harper’s, Time, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Republic – from the last of which the essays in this book come. Not Remotely Controlled collects some of Siegel’s work written between 2003 and 2006, on such subjects as cop shows, sitcoms, drama, cartoons, documentaries, news and so-called reality shows.

      The essays are most interesting when they raise major societal concerns from an underlying assumption that TV doesn’t just matter – it continues to have huge importance in society. “The funny thing about television is that it distracts you as you watch it,” writes Siegel in an essay that is purportedly about SpongeBob SquarePants but that barely mentions the anarchic cartoon character. “It doesn’t hold your attention, it eases it. …Television stills your mind and lets it roam, as if the mind were a crying infant that the television took in its glowing arms and soothed so that it could sleep and dream.” This is excellent writing – and profoundly wrong in terms of how many people, especially younger people, use TV today. But accept Siegel’s worldview for a while and he gets into interesting territory, such as “the extent to which television cultivates distraction into a new kind of discipline.”

      Siegel’s well-turned phrases and somewhat academic overview of TV are the best part of this book. “CSI” and “Law & Order,” he writes, are “a kind of medical porn” on one level, but also “offer the illusion of control after great painful upheaval.” Morning news shows “are often studies in orchestrated humility and rigged self-effacement.” As for reality shows, “Only in America could reality become a trend.” But the book bogs down when it focuses on the minutiae of individual programs at specific points in time – and since Siegel is, after all, a columnist, that is what the book does for most of its length. One essay opens, “Brokaw is leaving. Rather is leaving. Jennings is obviously about to leave.” How dated can you get? (Well, it made sense in December 2004.) Another opens, “After weeks of the media pandering to the Christian right in re Ashley, Terri, and John Paul, there suddenly comes Revelations. (This was clear in April 2005.) And then there are the serious analyses of such shows as “The New Kojak,” “Weeds” and “Stump the Schwab,” and such documentaries as “The Children of Leningradsky” and “The Staircase.” If you don’t remember the programs Siegel discusses – and care about them and their possible (or possibly overstated) societal implications – then very little in this book will have meaning for you. Whether it should matter is a different issue. Siegel’s determination to take television seriously, even when wrongheaded, is a worthwhile attempt to come to terms with what TV does and means in our society today. And his writing is stylish and often pointed, even if readers who don’t recall details of trivial TV programming from the last five years will often be unable to get the points.


Dear Dumb Diary #6: The Problem with Here Is That It’s Where I’m From. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $4.99.

Princess Power #5: The Stubbornly Secretive Servant. By Suzanne Williams. Illustrated by Chuck Gonzales. HarperCollins. $4.99.

      There’s some sort of cuteness-to-funniness ratio out there in books for preteens. Get the ratio right and you have a series that works, book after book. Get it wrong and you have a dud. One of these series has a closer-to-ideal ratio than the other, but both have their appealing moments.

      Jim Benton’s “Tales of Mackerel Middle School” tend to start on the funny side of things, stay funny pretty much throughout, then pull into Cuteville near the end. Benton is really good at this formula, of which The Problem with Here Is That It’s Where I’m From is the sixth example. The characters are familiar to readers by now: Jamie Kelly, who confides her innermost thoughts, wishes and schemes to her diary and draws hilarious pictures in it (Benton’s art is often even better than his prose); Isabella, Jamie’s best friend, as clever and devious as they come; and Angeline, Jamie’s nemesis, who is incredibly pretty and gets loads of attention and is just nerve-wrackingly sweet. As this book starts, Jamie confides, “I’m trying to grow an accent,” because she wants to be from anywhere except where she’s from. Soon, she meets a “foreigner,” who is actually just a super-pretty girl from another school, temporarily taking classes at Mackerel. This girl, Colette, may be a challenge to Angeline in the “prettiest” category in an upcoming school election. The election includes such categories as “funniest,” “most artistic” and “best friends,” and the way these categories eventually get sorted out at the end is Benton’s punchline. But there are plenty of lesser punches along the way, mostly in the form of captions for drawings: “Overly dainty feet must be tattooed to look hairy,” for example. Or side-by-side pictures: “Crazy killer clown hiding under your bed” and, just to the right, the same picture “with parsley sprig.” Benton’s plotting and counterplotting is as clever as ever, marred only by the sameness of the gibes and the absolute knowledge that everything will be just fine at the end: Angeline will turn out not to be so bad after all, and good will triumph and evil be punished and all like that there. Okay, this is a predictable series, but it still rates high on both the fun and cuteness scales.

      Princess Power, although it is also for preteens, seems to be for younger ones. It’s the story of four princesses – Lysandra, Fatima, Elena and Tansy – who are best friends and have a series of magic-laced adventures. They met in The Perfectly Proper Prince, came to the rescue of one of Fatima’s relatives in The Charmingly Clever Cousin, helped Tansy deal with The Awfully Angry Ogre, solved the mystery of a comb that Elena found in The Mysterious, Mournful Maiden, and in the latest book are visiting Lysandra’s sister and brother-in-law while awaiting the arrival of a handsome prince. The prince doesn’t show up, but his servant does – and is quite close-mouthed about what has happened. So the princesses torture him until…no, this isn’t that kind of book at all. They do lock up the servant, Thomas, but not very unpleasantly, and they then do their own search for the missing prince, who turns out to have been changed into…but that would be telling. This is not much of a mystery and really not much of a story, but it’s mildly amusing – made more so by illustrations that definitely lean toward the cute side of the scale. Younger preteens, especially ones who still dream of old-fashioned castles, crowns, elegant dresses and simple-to-do magic, will have a good time with this easy-to-read series that is more cute than funny.


A Swift Pure Cry. By Siobhan Dowd. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

The Whole Sky Full of Stars. By René Saldaña, Jr. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

      The level of teenage angst is typical, but the settings are on the exotic side in these two books – which make good summer reading only if you find tears and worry cathartic. The death of a parent looms large in both novels – of a mother in A Swift Pure Cry, a father in The Whole Sky Full of Stars. But the books are really about teens’ attempts to make something of themselves and their lives after the losses occur.

      A Swift Pure Cry is set in a small town in Ireland, where Shell Talent’s mother dies when Shell is 15. Shell’s father is religious to the point of obsession, but his belief does not keep him from the bottle, and he soon descends into alcoholism and depression. This leaves Shell to care for her younger brother and sister – and to try to handle, on her own, her intense and growing feelings for her childhood friend, Declan. The burgeoning romance comes to an abrupt end when Declan leaves Ireland to try for a better life across the sea, in the United States – after which Shell, her heart already broken, finds out that she is pregnant, with all the fear and ostracism that implies in the southern Irish countryside in the 1980s. First-time novelist Siobhan Dowd lays things on very thickly, indeed: “The thin needle of fear threaded its way deep into the back of her thoughts again, like an earthworm disappearing into the soil.” Dowd twists and turns everything in Shell’s life – the town’s intolerance, her own fears, her need to care for others while being unable to care properly for herself – and does not even leave Shell with the satisfaction of a child to raise. By piling so much heartache upon Shell, Dowd turns realism into melodrama, and the final mildly optimistic portion of the book seems tacked-on and false. The novel does tug at the heartstrings, again and again – Dowd is a good enough writer to do that – but it is all so overdone that it may leave readers, by the end, with a sense of relief that it is finally over.

      The Whole Sky Full of Stars is gritty, too, but it speaks of a different time, different class issues and a different worldview. It starts with a fight – Barry punches his longtime best friend, Alby, after Alby makes a disrespectful comment about Barry’s mother – and fighting, especially its seamier side, is what the book is all about. Barry has the unpolished boxing skills of a natural fighter, and Alby, who has gambling debts and is in deep trouble with some minor-league thugs, sees Barry as a way out of his problems. Barry sees something in his fighting ability, too: he has been drifting since his father’s death, and he needs something on which to focus, and he wants to help both his mother and Alby – although he doesn’t approve of the trouble Alby has gotten himself into. René Saldaña, Jr.’s structure for the book is a little jarring, ratcheting back and forth between Barry and Alby as if their lives are a ping-pong match – until Barry starts fighting, when the focus is strongly on him and his opponents. Non-fans of boxing will not appreciate the realism of the fights, especially the final one of the series, in which Barry and his opponent maul each other. The end of the book returns to the issue of friendship – what it means, what can boost or damage it, and how important it is – and if the life lessons are scarcely new or uniquely presented, they are at least told with enough real-world connection to provide a satisfactory conclusion.


Overexposed: Perverting Perversions. By Sylvère Lotringer. Semiotext(e). $14.95.

      One of the great numbers in the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill Threepenny Opera is “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which sardonically details the many ways men are inevitably overcome by women. Sylvère Lotringer’s Overexposed takes sexual dependency a number of steps farther – so far that it is sometimes hard to tell, when reading the book, how much is real and how much surreal. Originally published in 1988, Overexposed is about a controversial behavior-modification technique in which sexual deviants – such as rapists and child molesters – are saturated with scenes that stimulate them to the point (it is hoped) at which they will no longer stimulate them at all.

      Lotringer, professor of French Literature and Philosophy at Columbia University – and the founder of the publisher of his book – approaches the technique with bitter humor and a willingness to plunge himself into a number of aspects of the approach, from listening to the tapes made by participants to himself donning the penile device that measures a man’s sexual response and is supposed to help him learn to control it.

      All this is both intellectually stimulating (and perhaps, in some scenes, physically stimulating as well)…and simply strange. The reason is Lotringer’s tone, which maintains a distance from the subject matter that he himself, in his physical body, does not. Thus, he writes, “Sexual deviations, like everything else, have grown democratic. Freud’s French master, the celebrated alienist Charcot, used to present his hysterical cases on the stage of the Salpêtrière, ready to perform, in a seductive négligé, for a select audience their most erotic ‘crises.’ Today’s hysteria affects women and men alike, but no one pays much attention anymore, unless it leads to collective suicide or mass murder. Like Charcot’s ‘great hysterics,’ the age of the great debauchees and libertines – cynical, satanical, dissolute – is definitely over.” This is powerful writing, historically astute and apparently putting the “saturation” approach into context. But it is part of Lotringer’s introductory material, belied by many later chapters – which bears such one-word titles as “Arouse,” “Tease,” “Enjoy,” “Date,” “Bore,” “Reject” and “Deter.” In those chapters, there is frequently nothing at all but brief questions by Lotringer and extended responses by the clinicians – or point-of-view essays by the subjects going through treatment. Context becomes conspicuous by its absence.

      Near the end of the book, as Lotringer questions a lab technician, he is told how the satiation treatment becomes effective with child molesters. Lotringer asks, “You mean that each time they see a little girl, they’re going to repeat their lines?” The “lines” are simple statements that, in a lab context, the subjects have said again and again and again, to the point of boredom and beyond – far past the point of any arousal. “You don’t have to repeat them,” the technician replies. “You can learn very quickly how to inhibit arousal through some mental gymnastics, if you want.”

      If you want. The prepositional phrase is a throwaway; Lotringer does not pick up on it. But the question of wanting is central to the treatment of sex offenders – and in some ways to the definition of sexual deviance in the first place. The treatment that Lotringer details, and in which he himself participates to a limited extent, is designed to remove that want, replacing it with aversion to behaviors that are not societally sanctioned. And what then is left, in the realm of sexuality and arousal, for those trained to feel aversion to their previous stimulations? “Who cares?” is not a satisfactory answer, for therapies like this one are designed to remove subjects’ deviancy while retaining the functioning of their personalities. Is that even possible – or may the deviancy be too central to functionality to be removable without being replaced by something equally unacceptable? These are therapeutic questions that Lotringer does not even ask, much less try to answer, in a book that is more experiential than exploratory (despite its author’s obvious intellectual weight). Readers of Overexposed will certainly know by the end that they have co-experienced something with the author, even if they may be unsure exactly what it is. Left unanswered is whether Overexposed, and the therapy at its core, have rewritten “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” or merely added a new verse to it.

July 12, 2007


How Do Dinosaurs Go to School? By Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.

Phooey! By Marc Rosenthal. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      There’s something about creating books for kids ages 4-8 that seems to bring out adults’ desire to romp. Jane Yolen, Mark Teague and Marc Rosenthal all seem to have had a rollicking good time making these wonderful books – and their pleasure translates wonderfully to the young readers for whom the books are intended.

      The How Do Dinosaurs series has a fascinating premise, and Yolen and Teague keep finding hilarious new ways to implement it. Yolen provides simple rhyming stories about the day-to-day lives of young children. Teague provides astonishing illustrations: dinosaurs, drawn with exactitude and apparent anatomical correctness, but dressed in kids’ clothing and behaving (or misbehaving) as young children themselves typically do. The inside front and back covers of these books are, in some ways, as much fun as the stories, since the covers show the various dinosaurs portrayed within and give their real, difficult-to-pronounce names – while still displaying them in clothing and poses like those in the book. Thus, we get a speckled Herrerasaurus tossing a ball, a striped Ceratosaurus watering small plants, and a winged and bizarre-headed Dsungaripterus descending toward a slide in How Do Dinosaurs Go to School? There is nothing the slightest bit threatening about any of the dinos, because the story shows them in such delightfully ordinary activities – despite their enormous size (which is nevertheless reduced from their real-world size). There’s the Silvisaurus rushing toward the door in the morning, about to grab thermos and lunch bag from a human mom; the horned and crested Centrosaurus riding atop a minivan; the multi-horned Stygimoloch running up the stairs; and many more. Yolen’s story follows the familiar, delightful pattern of these books. The first pages ask whether a dinosaur does certain things – which of course should not be done: “Does he drag his long tail?/ Is he late for the bus?/ Does he stomp all four feet?/ Does he make a big fuss?” Then the latter part of the book teaches correct behavior: “A dinosaur carefully raises his hand./ He helps out his classmates with projects they’ve planned.” Kids won’t even realize how much they are learning about manners and social interaction. They’ll be too busy laughing at Teague’s wonderful illustrations – which are just as much fun when the dinos are being good as when they’re misbehaving.

      The illustrations are also the thing in Marc Rosenthal’s Phooey! This is an old-fashioned-looking, absolutely hilarious version of Rube Goldberg’s cartoons, in which incredibly complex schemes were devised to do simple, everyday activities. More precisely, it’s Goldberg crossed with “The House That Jack Built”: this is the can that hit the cat that was chased by the dog that frightened the zookeeper who…and so on and so on, all because a bored little boy has been walking along, lamenting, “Nothing ever happens around here!” Of course, a tremendous amount happens, all of it after the boy casually kicks that can – but the boy walks along, oblivious to the craziness all around him, lost in his world of boredom. A little girl who joins him on his walk notices the madness everywhere, but says nothing as the boy continues lamenting the absence of anything interesting going on. Rosenthal’s drawings, which resemble those of H.A. Rey in the “Curious George” books, are a delight, whether he is showing a terrified elephant racing along the street; a bin of “navel oranges, extra bouncy,” boinging along (the sound effects are great); or a peglegged pirate getting hit by a pie and exclaiming, “Aaar!” Phooey! is a journey through the wilder side of cause and effect – and the book itself will be the cause of a great deal of the always-welcome effect of laughter.


The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas. By Robert H. Frank. Basic Books. $26.

The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & the Fate of Humanity. By James Lovelock. Basic Books. $15.95.

      Ever since Thomas Carlyle first called economics “the dismal science” in the mid-19th century, there have been economists finding ways to prove the epithet wrong. Robert H. Frank, a professor of management and economics at Cornell University’s Graduate School of Management, is particularly clever at enlivening his subject in The Economic Naturalist. Many people realize that economic decisions affect us at times – for instance, should we drive a couple of extra miles to save a few pennies on a gallon of gas? But most people do not realize that there are underlying economic principles informing many of the decisions of everyday life. What Frank does, with clarity and wit, is to explain some of those principles and then show how they are part of activities that we experience all the time – by answering questions that have been raised by his students. For example, Frank looks at the economic realities that lead products to take particular forms – soda cans being cylindrical, and usually on the tall side, while milk cartons are rectangular solids. He shows how economics results in drive-up ATMs having Braille lettering, even though blind people cannot drive (Braille is needed for walk-up ATMs, and it is more economical for manufacturers to make all ATMs with Braille than to keep different types in stock and ship the right type to the right place). He discusses standardization of product and price, using it to show why movie tickets cost less at matinees than at night. If you have wondered why it costs more to transfer funds between banks electronically – a simple procedure for the banks – than to move money in a more complex way, by check, Frank has an answer (customers who choose electronic transfer show by their choice that speed matters to them, so they can be charged more). And on and on the explanations go: why there are video-rental stores but no book-rental stores; why most states enforce mandatory ages for children to start kindergarten; why cars must have seat belts but school buses do not have to. This is fascinating stuff, even when it occasionally seems wrong-headed. Example: Frank says that cars’ fuel-filler doors are not all on the same side, because that would lead to long lines on only one side of fuel pumps, with the pumps’ other side empty. But this assertion is true, at most, only for gas stations with a single entrance – two-entrance stations (which is what most of them are) have traffic flow to the pumps from two directions, so a one-side-only fuel-door design would work. It’s fun to learn economics the way Frank teaches it here, and fun to use your brain cells to come up with alternatives to some of his explanations.

      The Revenge of Gaia, originally published last year and now available in paperback, has none of the lightness or lightheartedness of Frank’s book. James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia theory – which says that Earth behaves as a single, self-regulating organism – is intensely serious in arguing that our planet is critically ill, because of human activity. Yes, this is the same greenhouse-gas argument that many others have made and continue to make, but Lovelock’s passion and scientific reasoning make his book clearer and more disturbing than anything coming out of self-interested politicians. “The concept of Gaia, a living planet, is for me the essential basis of a coherent and practical environmentalism,” writes Lovelock. “It counters the persistent belief that Earth is a property, an estate, there to be exploited for the benefit of humankind.” He adds that few people, “even among climate scientists and ecologists, seem yet to realize fully the potential severity, or the imminence, of catastrophic global disaster.” Lovelock’s aim is to increase the level of realization – which he does through effective and often-frightening marshalling and juxtaposition of facts about environmental change and degradation. Unfortunately for him, and perhaps for all of us, the parade of problems has become commonplace, and “imminent global disaster” is simply too big a concern to allow most people to take action. Lovelock does not believe in the “think globally, act locally” concept, since Earth’s problems are so huge that they require concerted global effort. But he acknowledges that we face a future of increasing tribalism – so how will we get together as one world to solve Gaia’s troubles? Even in a single country, the United States, concerted effort has so far proved impossible – and there exists no mechanism to convince, browbeat or compel people throughout the world to make the huge changes in their lives and expectations that Lovelock believes are necessary to restore Gaia to health. The Revenge of Gaia deserves a (+++) rating for its intense jeremiad against what humans have done: “We have made this appalling mess of the planet and mostly with rampant liberal good intentions.” But there are no genuine solutions here, nor any signposts to anything practical. Saying that “economists and politicians have to square the utter necessity of a rapid and controlled shutdown of emissions from fossil fuel burning with the human needs of civilization” is to say exactly nothing. Lovelock has a strong grasp of where we are, how we got here, and in what ways our future looks extremely bleak. But The Revenge of Gaia, with its hectoring tone throughout, is ultimately useless for pointing us anywhere but toward doom.


Walking on Glass. By Alma Fullerton. HarperTempest. $15.99.

The Year of My Miraculous Reappearance. By Catherine Ryan Hyde. Knopf. $15.99.

      Be forewarned: these are not books for the faint of heart. With emotion cranked up to the maximum from start to finish, they appear to be intended for teenage readers who either have insufficient angst in their own lives, or who have so much trouble of their own that they desperately want to read stories of young people who have as much, or even more.

      The HarperTempest imprint seems ideally matched to Walking on Glass, which is tempestuous indeed. Told in free verse – a gentle form at odds with the highly upsetting story – Alma Fullerton’s novel is about life-or-death choices. The narrator’s mother chose death, but did not quite get there: after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, which her son interrupted, the mother is comatose and not expected ever to regain consciousness. The unnamed narrator and his unnamed father visit the hospital periodically, with the man expressing hope and the boy feeling none. What he does feel is a need to escape, even briefly, from the twilight world in which his mother is not quite gone – and there is someone with a name who helps him do that: Jack, his best friend, who “knows how to have a good time” but is far from a positive influence. Indeed, there is precious little positive in Walking on Glass, a depressing work from open to close. What uplift there is at the end comes only from final acceptance of death. And it takes much torment to get there – for most of the book, when the narrator sees his mother, “Wires force life into a body/ left hanging/ like a marionette/ with no one to pull/ the strings.” A few people besides Jack have names – Dr. Mac, who has urged the narrator to keep a journal (which is what Walking on Glass is), and Alissa, a girl who could perhaps help if only the narrator would allow her to (which he doesn’t). Downbeat from start to finish, Walking on Glass will be an exercise in self-torment for many readers; but some may, for reasons of their own, need a book like this.

      The reasons someone might need The Year of My Miraculous Reappearance are clearer. Catherine Ryan Hyde’s book is about alcoholism – alcoholic parents and alcoholic kids. Thirteen-year-old Cynthia, known as Cynnie, is the narrator, who has a mother who is drunk all the time. So Cynnie takes care of her little brother, Bill, whom she adores, while her mother goes through a series of failed relationships and a series of bottles. Cynnie doesn’t do so well with relationships herself – she obviously has no satisfactory adult role model. Then her grandparents come and take Bill to live with them, and Cynnie’s awful life goes from bad to worse, to the point that “it was like I didn’t have one single thing left.” Cynnie drives a boy’s car illegally, is caught, and is ordered by a judge to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Her “miraculous reappearance” begins when, after much soul-searching, she stands up at an AA meeting and announces, “My name is Cynthia. I’m an alcoholic.” The change from self-identification as Cynnie (sounds like “sin-ny”) to Cynthia is an overly obvious plot device, and the last part of the book, in which Cynthia discovers previously unrecognized depth in herself and does her best to make amends with her grandparents, is clichéd throughout. But the book certainly has power, especially for teens whose lives have been affected by alcohol abuse. They will welcome its ultimate uplifting message.


Pushed: The Painful Truth about Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care. By Jennifer Block. Da Capo. $26.

      Beware the committed do-gooder. He – or, in this case, she – believes so totally in her point of view that she argues with as much emotion as reason, and conveniently ignores matters that may undercut an argument that she just knows is correct. In the case of Pushed, that argument is that U.S. doctors do too many C-sections and give pregnant women too many drugs at labor, while midwives and birthing centers are scarce and in some areas illegal.

      Block, a former editor of Ms. Magazine and an editor of the revised version of Our Bodies, Ourselves, is a feminist of a rather quaint kind. Giving birth – specifically, giving birth the correct way, as Block defines it – is a woman’s absolute right, and anything that interferes with it is to be swept away.

      Unfortunately for this belief, some things don’t sweep so neatly. Block writes of the “casual resignation in the air” at one hospital where C-sections are routine and vaginal births unusual. That is, of course, Block’s interpretation of the atmosphere. Why is this hospital doing all those C-sections? Largely, it turns out, because the pregnant women are insisting on them; Block herself cites one poll in which 88% of respondents feared rectal damage from vaginal birth, and 58% feared sexual dysfunction. These fears, it is true, are vastly overblown. But what is a doctor to do when someone with these fears, or others, insists that she needs a C-section – perhaps after consulting a perinatologist, who may have administered sophisticated ultrasounds to determine a baby’s size and may then have told the mother that the size may be an issue? Notice all the “may” elements: this or that may happen, which of course means it may not. But if women control their bodies, themselves, and they want C-sections, should it be up to their doctors – or to Block – to discourage them?

      What’s in it for a doctor to argue strenuously in favor of vaginal birth? If the woman’s fears themselves lead her to have – or to believe she has – complications after giving birth vaginally, what happens to the doctor? A malpractice lawsuit – a possibility than hangs over doctors’ heads today like the sword of Damocles, but to which Block gives short shrift. As it happens, doctors’ fears of losing malpractice suits are overblown – they usually win – but the suits take time, effort and emotional strength to fight, and doctors are understandably more interested in practicing medicine than in practicing law.

      And what about insurers? Insurance coverage for some of the approaches that Block advocates, such as birthing centers and use of midwives, is spotty at best. But Block barely touches on insurance issues in her rush to advocate what she deems more-natural approaches to birth. She also has little patience with drugs to induce or speed up labor – but, again, are doctors to withhold drugs that patients want, or to let labor proceed at a drawn-out pace that may lead new mothers (correctly or incorrectly) to believe that the doctor caused whatever postpartum problems they have, and (again) to resort to legal action?

      The most irritating thing about Pushed is that it makes so many good points, but in such an annoying way. There are too many C-sections done in the United States – many doctors themselves say so. There are too many doctors willing to give in when women’s fears of the pain of childbirth (partly justified, partly irrational) lead them to demand more drugs than are necessary. There are too many doctors whose fear of malpractice suits leads them to overly cautious approaches in women for whom vaginal birth would be just fine. And there are too many areas where alternative birthing methods – for those who want them – are difficult or impossible to find. Block’s problem is not that she is wrong, but that she is dismissive. For example, “One could argue that the ‘liability crisis’ is to blame for the unique attitude [against vaginal birth after a woman has had a C-section] in the United States, but it seems to me that suspended in the chasm between evidence and practice is a profound cultural denial that goes beyond malpractice anxiety or convenience.” It seems to her, so it must be correct – and “liability crisis” is placed in quotation marks, indicating skepticism that there is one, and “profound cultural denial” is firmly asserted without backup. This is Block’s style: strong assertion of her positions coupled with skimming over of anything that does not fit them. This may be good advocacy – demean or ignore anything that might counter your argument – but it is not good science or good medicine. Block is right in much of what she says, but wrong, far too much of the time, in the way she says it.


Norton Ghost 12.0. Windows Vista or XP. Symantec. $69.99.

      Sometimes Symantec returns to its roots in Peter Norton’s elegant but extremely complex and advanced world of somewhat finicky utility software. Norton Ghost 12.0 is one example. It does what it is supposed to, quickly and efficiently, but it is only marginally user-friendly for the average computer owner and really should be considered only by the advanced PC users at whom it is targeted.

      Norton Ghost is a backup and recovery program – and there are quite a few of these, including Symantec’s own Norton Save & Restore – but it has significant differences that will be important to “power users.” Most importantly, earlier versions (the latest of them was 10.0; there was no 11.0 sold separately) were not Vista-compatible, and 12.0 is. In other ways, 12.0 continues to do what users of Norton Ghost like: it makes all sorts of backups, whether of a full hard drive or a partition (and if you don’t know what a partition is, this is not a product for you); it can recover data even in case of operating-system failure; and its encryption and error-checking features prevent unauthorized access to backups.

      The new features of 12.0 make it easily the most advanced – and complex – Norton Ghost yet. It allows system restoration from a remote location; allows creation of one-time backups whose specifications need not be saved for later use; is integrated with Google Desktop for faster data recovery through searchable backup indexes; and lets users who are part of a network back up the data of other, presumably less expert users on the same network. And 12.0 performs all these tasks – plus others carried over from prior versions – more quickly than those earlier versions did.

      The main concession to simplicity in 12.0 is a single-view interface similar to that in the latest version of Norton Utilities. This gives a quick status report, with a big green check mark front and center if everything is fine – and a brown exclamation point of warning if something needs attention. This is a small but nice touch, since it provides conformity of appearance to users running multiple Symantec utilities.

      Not everything in 12.0 will necessarily please users of earlier versions of Norton Ghost. The new program will restore data from backups made with prior versions, but its file format is new – it does not support the prior .gho format. And while its backup and restoration features are impressive, they do not include a way to create images from a boot CD or floppy disk – perhaps a matter of little importance now that floppies are essentially obsolete, but perhaps significant for the sort of advanced user who will be able to take full advantage of the functionality of this software.

      Norton Ghost 12.0 is certainly not for everyone – there are easier-to-use, less expensive and less complex backup utilities out there. But for advanced users, including administrators of small-business or home networks, this software offers a level of flexibility that neatly matches its level of complexity.


Grieg: Symphony in C Minor; Old Norwegian Romance with Variations; Three Orchestral Pieces from “Sigurd Jorsalfar.” Bjarte Engeset conducting the Malmö Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

Gottschalk: Symphonie Romantique (No. 1), “A Night in the Tropics”; Symphony No. 2, “À Montevideo”; Célèbre Tarantelle pour piano et orchestre; Escenas Campestres Cubanas—Opéra en 1 acte; Variations de concert sur l’hymne portugais du Roi Louis I; Ave Maria; La Casa del Joven Enrique por Méhul—Gran overture. Richard Rosenberg conducting the Hot Springs Festival Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

      It’s a safe bet that few listeners will have heard any of the three symphonies on these two CDs before playing the recordings – and it’s nearly a sure bet that virtually no listeners will have heard all three of them. These are minor symphonies by composers who did not excel in or even much practice the symphonic form; indeed, the two so-called symphonies by Louis Moreau Gottschalk are really tone poems, lacking symphonic structure, length and gravitas. As a whole, what these CDs offer is well-played curiosities – not first-tier or even second-tier music, perhaps, but the sorts of works worth discovering by listeners who are tired of the standard repertoire and looking for something to tickle their ear buds.

      Edvard Grieg was generally at his best in small things. His great success with such works as Peer Gynt and Sigurd Jorsalfar came precisely because the incidental music he composed was a series of snippets. The symphonic form did not come easily to Grieg; but when he was a young composer, he was an admirer of Niels Gade. Grieg’s sole symphony follows the model of Gade’s Symphony No. 1 very closely indeed – it is even in the same key. Indeed, the opening of Grieg’s first movement is practically a tribute to the older composer’s Sturm und Drang. Grieg declared in 1867, after several partial performances of his symphony, that it “must never be performed,” and indeed it disappeared from concert halls for 113 years. But since 1980, it has garnered some attention and a few recordings – and the one by Bjarte Engeset and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, which does not try to make the work more than it is, is particularly fine. There is very little of the later Grieg audible here, but the work is structurally sound, reasonably well constructed and certainly worth an occasional hearing.

      The Old Norwegian Romance with Variations is less worthwhile. It is rather stolid music, with nothing wrong but nothing exciting in it, and the variations are brief even by Grieg’s miniaturist standards, many running less than a minute and none lasting more than two. The excerpts from Sigurd Jorsalfar are more interesting: the scene-setting Prelude, which has some of the sound of the nature scenes from Peer Gynt; the Intermezzo, which represents a dream and which effectively portrays both sleep and the martial worries that intrude on it; and the unusual Homage March, in which the triumphal sections make up only a small part of the overall pastoral mood. In all, this is primarily a CD for Grieg fanciers.

      It’s harder to say for whom the Gottschalk disk is. It is a very strange CD, including all the extant orchestral music by Gottschalk – but much of it is not really Gottschalk’s, having been resurrected, arranged, filled in and bulked up by conductor Richard Rosenberg and others. The music is strange, too, sounding mostly like tuneful “pop” works even though Gottschalk wanted very much to be taken seriously as a composer – not just a piano virtuoso. Gottschalk’s death at age 39, and his extremely sloppy habits during extensive international travel as a performer, left his manuscripts scattered and in a huge mess; many were lost altogether. The reconstruction of these Gottschalk pieces is admirable, but the resulting CD roams all over the place, just as much in its way as Gottschalk did during his life.

      The first “symphony” is bright and forthright, ending with an extended treatment of “Yankee Doodle,” while the second starts with a sultry, gently swaying section and then moves into a bouncy, happy one with lots of swing (Gottschalk here anticipates jazz by half a century). These are the bookends of the CD. In between is music of varying interest and quality. The Célèbre Tarantelle is a fine Lisztian showpiece, and pianist Michael Gurt plays it with real style. It is hard to see Escenas Campestres Cubanas as an opera – it lasts just 13 minutes – or even as a song cycle (only two of the four movements are vocal). But it is colorful, with attractive dance rhythms, and the sections in which the three voices intertwine (soprano Anna Noggle, tenor Darryl Taylor and bass-baritone Richard Ziebarth) are neatly scored and nicely sung.

      The Variations de concert are pleasant but foursquare; Gurt handles them well enough, but there is little of substance in them. Ave Maria, though, is a surprise: a pretty and sentimental setting of the familiar verses, with soprano Melisa Barrick offering a childlike voice, almost devoid of vibrato – it puts one in mind of the naïve wonder of the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. La Casa del Joven Enrique por Méhul, on the other hand, is all pomposity, using five pianists (John Contiguglia, Richard Contiguglia, Angela Draghicescu, Chin-Ming Lin and Joshua Pepper) – fewer than Gottschalk wanted – at the service of a great deal of sound and fury, signifying very little. The large scale of most of these works is seen only in their orchestrations, not the thoughtfulness or depth of their ideas. Lost Gottschalk works, such as his operas, may have had more substance; but this CD, despite the care taken in the reconstructions and the mostly excellent playing, will do nothing to change the reputation of Gottschalk as an outstanding performer and clever composer whose strength was primarily in the piano, not in the handling of larger forces.

July 05, 2007


The New Space Opera. Edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. Eos. $15.95.

DarkGlass Mountain, Book One: The Serpent Bride. By Sara Douglass. Eos. $26.95.

      A not-so-long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, all science fiction was space opera – a description used derogatorily of the churned-out tales of heroes and half-dressed women (human or alien) in the pulp magazines, and applied even to the extremely good writing that found its way into the pulps and helped produce science fiction’s “Golden Age.” So what age are we in now – silver, bronze, plastic, nanotech? However we might describe it, it’s an age as much in need of heroes (and, now, heroines) and vast canvases and a certain degree of naïve optimism as any earlier time. And that is what you will find in The New Space Opera, in which 18 of today’s top SF writers take on the action-adventure approach that used to be just about all there was to science fiction – and twist it in some new and interesting ways. In fact, editors Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan had to stretch the traditional notion of “space opera” a bit to accommodate everything here. Although some of these stories pack all the short-form punch of Golden Age tales (for example, Peter F. Hamilton’s “Blessed by an Angel” and Ken Macleod’s “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?”), others are too complex in style and plot to fit even an expanded space-opera definition (notably Ian McDonald’s “Verthandi’s Ring”). Still others, including Robert Reed’s “Hatch” and Tony Daniel’s “The Valley of the Gardens,” feel as if they really want to be novels. And many of these tales contain far more humor than Golden Age space opera tended to include, although such a work as “Send Them Flowers” by Walter Jon Williams recalls some of the tales of Northwest Smith and some Asimov heroes. A few stories seem a little too thinly disguised as political statements, such as “Art of War” by Nancy Kress, in which the question is whether the military will ignore intelligence that it does not want to hear. To be fair, this was a Golden Age theme as well; but some tales here tackle subjects that would never have made it into the pulps: “Dividing the Sustain” by James Patrick Kelly starts with a character deciding to become gay. What all these very different stories have in common is how well-written they are – Dozois and Strahan have selected some really fine authors for this book. Among the most interesting tales are ones using old adventures to make space-age points. Robert Silverberg’s “The Emperor and the Maula” retells the tale of Scheherazade; Kage Baker’s “Maelstrom” is about an attempt to perform an adaptation of Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom” on Mars; and Dan Simmons’ superb “Muse of Fire” focuses on space-wandering actors’ personal concerns as they travel about the galaxy performing Shakespeare. Not all these stories are space opera in the old sense – but all of them indicate that in a new sense, the pulps such as Thrilling Wonder Tales still survive, transmogrified.

      The old days of the works of Sara Douglass still survive, too – in The Serpent’s Bride, the first book in her new series, DarkGlass Mountain. This is a book for existing Douglass fans, preferably ones familiar with her prior works, The Wayfarer Redemption, Threshold and Beyond the Hanging Wall. Characters from these books reappear in The Serpent’s Bride, which takes place in some of the same places as the earlier books but after all the other stories have ended. This is a big novel – 627 pages of unusually small type – and a well if conventionally paced one, earning a (+++) rating for its style and plotting even though it may be confusing to readers not familiar with other work by Douglass. The plot is fairly typical by heroic-fantasy standards: Ishbel Brunelle is Archpriestess of a Serpent cult, foretelling the future by examining the entrails of human sacrifices (and yes, she is the heroine). Alliances, a possible royal marriage, the return of former god Axis Sunsoar from the Otherworld, and the escape of the Dark God Kanubai from prison, are some of the currents and countercurrents here. There is exoticism aplenty in the descriptions of competing kingdoms and characters, and writing of the sort that heroic-fantasy lovers crave: “Can you imagine what would happen to the Star Dance as it filtered through DarkGlass Mountain? Stars, it is a nightmare! …I think that whatever is wrong with DarkGlass Mountain is far older than the pyramid itself, although that damned pile of glass is cursed enough. There’s…something beneath the pyramid, a part of the very soil on which the Magi built. It is very ancient and very powerful.” And so it goes, and goes and goes, as Douglass spins a large and finely wrought web of intrigue that her fans will surely enjoy, although non-fans will likely be thoroughly exhausted long before the end.