February 28, 2008


30 Days to Getting Over the Dork You Used to Call Your Boyfriend. By Clea Hantman. Random House. $7.99.

I Want Candy. By Kim Wong Keltner. Avon. $13.95.

      Humor is such a relief. Teen angst books seem to spring up everywhere, like mushrooms after a heavy rain, and even though some of them (like some mushrooms) are really good, many others are (also like mushrooms) poisonously bad. Once in a while, though, some delicious varieties come along, and are so good because they don’t seem to be grown in quite the same fertilizer as everything else. These two books are examples: they confront genuinely heart-wrenching situations, but manage to do so with enough humor and high spirits so that their ultimate message will be uplifting to readers – even ones going through their own distressing times.

      30 Days to Getting Over the Dork You Used to Call Your Boyfriend is aptly subtitled “A Heartbreak Handbook”; is interestingly dedicated by Clea Hantman “to all the dorks I’ve loved before” (which certainly shows a degree of comfort with failed relationships); and is designed to help girls through the first four stages of a breakup (denial, anger, bargaining and depression) and get them to the fifth (acceptance). Readers familiar with self-help books will immediately recognize these as akin to the stages of grief or mourning, and indeed they are; but Hantman defines the stages in teen-centered and surprisingly amusing ways. “Depression,” for example, is “the classic ‘I’m going to die alone, never having had another boyfriend, and can you pass me that pint of triple mocha fudge’ phase.” Hantman minces no words in telling readers exactly what to do, day by day, to get over a painful breakup. Day Four of “Denial,” for example, is headlined “Spew You!” and opens, “Toss that pain away. Heave it, belch it, blow it out. You feel better now?” Then, here as everywhere, Hantman gets into specific activities – in fact, staying active and involved in your life is the underlying prescription for everything she says. Hantman is no psychologist – she’s a Web columnist and blogger who has worked in advertising and written 10 previous books. But she’s got the basics of post-breakup psychology exactly right: keep doing things that make you stronger and you will, in your own time, get over that dork – any dork. Some of her activities are just wonderful, such as the Pity Party on Day Thirteen (“Bargaining” phase), where you have to write down a feel-sorry-for-myself half-truth and then, right next to it, write the whole truth. Her example: “I’m not good enough for him” goes next to “I’m too good for him – I’m putting real effort into bettering myself and I’ll be ready when someone better comes along.” Real-world advice couched in real-world language with specific real-world actions you can take to feel better – how cool is that?

      I Want Candy is really cool, too, but in a very different way. This is a novel for ages 14 and up, not a guidebook, and features an atypical heroine: an overweight 14-year-old Chinese girl named Candace Wong. A typical teen in many ways, she is culturally outside the mainstream – except in her own neighborhood, which she loathes and where she works in the deliciously inaptly named Eggroll Wonderland. The restaurant is owned by the family of Candy’s best friend, Ruby, whose entire life (and breasts) Candy envies, even though a great deal of Ruby’s life involves having sex with W.P.O.D. (“white punks on dope,” from a Tubes song). Candy sometimes finds herself inadvertently (or not so inadvertently) watching Ruby in action: “He pulled up her skirt, and stuck his hand inside her underwear that, I noticed, were actually the bottoms to that striped bikini she bought last summer at Piccadilly. Figured. Ruby never had clean laundry.” Ruby’s sluttiness turns out, not surprisingly, to conceal deep hurts, which also lead to a love-hate relationship between the two girls that often seems closer to the latter than the former. But Candy learns more about Ruby only after her friend quite suddenly isn’t there anymore – and this is where I Want Candy really turns strange, and strangely wonderful. For Candy, one of whose relatives supposedly went crazy before committing suicide, starts seeing ghosts – not just a ghost, but ghosts all around, in unusual places and postures, doing unusual things. Is she really seeing them, or going out of her mind, or is something else happening? Balancing the everyday worries of teens with some quite extraordinary occurrences, telling the story with consistent punch and humor, all while creating such chapter titles as “Closed Casket for the Living Impaired” and “They Forced China to Open Her Legs Even More,” is quite a high-wire act; but Kim Wong Keltner maintains her balance with considerable skill, keeping the book in Candy’s voice while holding readers off-balance as the events get more and more peculiar. The ending is a hopeful one, but does not solve all of Candy’s problems – and that, in the context of I Want Candy, is just as it should be.


Jazzmatazz! By Stephanie Calmenson. Illustrated by Bruce Degen. HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Dog Princess Fairy Tails. By The Dog Artist Collection. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Thin narratives with adorable pictures mark both of these more-or-less musical stories for ages 3-8. Jazzmatazz! starts with the simple notion of a mouse coming into a house in search of warmth – but this is no ordinary mouse. It’s a piano-playing mouse that starts jazzing things up and invites everyone in the household to join in. Dog uses his bones to drum on his bowl; Cat plays the fiddle; Bird sings; Fish uses bubbles to “make a blub-blub sound”; and Baby tap dances. Soon the parents join in, and along come neighbors and visitors and outdoor animals, too, and everyone is jumpin’ and jivin’ by the end. What makes Stephanie Calmenson’s story fun is the way she has each character pull the next one into the music. And Bruce Degen really jazzes things up with illustrations that, like jazz itself, become more complicated as they progress, until the final two-page spread is a riot of color and shape and dance and music and a really good time. This isn’t a “message” or teaching book – it’s purely for fun. And that’s fine.

      The fun is more commercial in The Dog Princess Fairy Tails, whose cuteness seems more self-conscious and whose eventual moral is a touch heavy-handed. But the book gets a (+++) rating for generalized adorableness and the fact that young children will love the puppy photos of which it is composed. The pictures were taken by various people at unusual angles, and have been seen in Japan for some time on postcards, calendars and other commercial products. In The Dog Princess Fairy Tails, the photos illustrate an initially straightforward Cinderella story that has an amusing twist: the beautiful dog princess (a pug puppy photographed so her head looks as big as the rest of her body) asks her “fairy dogmother” to send a prince to the ball, and so a prince duly arrives for the big dance – one prince, at a ball filled with princesses. So, after initially arguing over who gets the prince, the princess pups decide they don’t need him to have fun and it’s better to be best girlfriends (and there’s the message, such as it is). Everything is done in the most lighthearted way possible, so no one’s feelings are ever hurt. The pictures are created by taking the dog photos and superimposing various items on them: a tiara, a hat, jewelry, pillows, even a soccer ball. The whole production is well done in an intentionally silly way that should be especially appealing to very young dog lovers – and, of course, their indulgent parents.


Ma! There’s Nothing to Do Here! A Word from Your Baby-in-Waiting. By Barbara Park. Illustrated by Viviana Carofoli. Random House. $15.99.

I Lost My Kisses. By Trudie Trewin. Illustrated by Nick Bland. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $14.99.

      As if parents didn’t have enough to worry about when their kids get upset about things in their everyday life, now Barbara Parks has an unborn baby complaining about things! But don’t be too concerned – this isn’t an expansion-of-worries book but a very amusingly written and illustrated sendup showing all the things an unborn child might worry about if the child happened to be fully self-aware and highly familiar with activities in the world “out there.” Park, best known for her Junie B. Jones books, here envisions a baby in “a womb with no view” complaining about the absence of trees, puppies, toys, swings, parks and much more. The adorably huge-headed baby drawn by Viviana Carofoli imagines swinging on monkey bars, canoeing, even driving a truck. But instead, as we are told in a page whose type curls in on itself in a spiral, “I’m all in a heap here. My feet are asleep here. I’m flat out of space. I’ve got knees in my face.” And so on. Oh, the baby does try to keep busy: the mother-to-be holds her belly as the baby explains, “I slosh till I’m dizzy. I practice my kicking. And hiccup-cup-hicking.” Moms will certainly remember all that! Eventually, the baby – looking forward to a life of “Snooze, eat…repeat,” even if “nights might get bumpy. I’ll wake, full of grumpy” – sends love to mom and dad and decides to settle down and wait, getting bigger and stronger…for the time being. The unusual perspective and amusing story, coupled with delightful illustrations, add up to a heartwarmingly unconventional baby book.

      I Lost My Kisses is cute, too, but also rather ordinary in plot; it gets a (+++) rating, mostly on the strength of its illustrations. It’s the story of Matilda Rose, a little cowgirl – that is, a little cow drawn by Nick Bland to look like a little girl – who loves kissing hello and good-bye, kissing morning and night and especially kissing Daddy when he comes home. But one morning she discovers that she has lost her kisses – and even though her mother assures her that “they’ll be there when you need them,” Matilda Rose spends the whole day searching for them. From the breakfast table to beneath her bed to the well to the grocery store, Matilda Rose searches without success. She asks her friend, Lambkins, and her dog, Cuddles, for help, but they don’t know what kisses look like – and Matilda Rose realizes that neither does she. In fact, no one can tell her what kisses look like or where to find them; but of course, when Daddy does come home, Matilda Rose is right there, ready with a “big smoocheroo” for him. Trudie Trewin’s story is a little thin, although very young children will enjoy it. Bland’s illustrations are more special: they are mainly black-and-white (which works well for cows), but they have splashes of color to lend extra interest (a yellow chick, a red dog collar, etc.). The most amusing part of the book is an airport scene in which different anthropomorphic animals are kissing in a variety of ways – including giraffes, ostriches and others. Bland also has fun with labels, from a cereal box of “Moosli” to an “I (heart) Moo York” bumper sticker. Trewin’s story, though, is blander than Bland’s peppy pictures.


[Editors' note: Our original posting about this book, Version 1.0, has been removed. Concerned readers thought it had been written by someone who had not read the book. This proved untrue -- he had taken notes on the work -- but in writing the review, he had unacceptably relied too heavily on material supplied by the publisher. We are educators by background and decided to turn this into a learning experience by requiring him to go through the article and rewrite it. The rewrite appears here as Version 1.1. In addition, we have had a more-senior writer read the book independently and review it separately. That article appears below this one and is designated Version 2.0. We appreciate the time that some readers took to provide the intelligent and thoughtful input that alerted us to this situation and will make it easier to prevent any recurrence. Our thanks.]

Damned to Eternity: The Story of the Man Who They Said Caused the Flood. By Adam Pitluk. Da Capo. $24.95.

      Quick: what is “the flood” of the title? No, it’s not Noah’s, and it’s not the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. If you don’t immediately know that “the flood” occurred in 1993, in and around West Quincy, Missouri, then you will have no idea what this book’s title means.

      Furthermore, unless you know there is a significant controversy about the flood's cause – revolving around Inmate #1001364 in the Jefferson City Correctional Center – you may not be drawn to the story of James Scott, unless perhaps you are a lawyer or other interested party seeking to have his life sentence commuted or find a way to make him eligible for parole sooner than is now the case.

      Thus, Damned to Eternity is a book with a highly dramatic title but very little general interest, although those who remember or were affected by the 1993 flooding of 14,000 acres of farmland may want to read it if they have not tried to put the event behind them.

      The tale does have interest, though – primarily as a study of some of the more bizarre elements of the U.S. legal system. Scott is the only man ever convicted, under a Missouri law, of Intentionally Causing a Catastrophe, a Class A felony. It is "an obscure 1979 criminal statute," Pitluk says, and under it, the flood was defined as a catastrophe even though not a single person was killed; in fact, not a single one was injured. But the law, even if it is a bad law, is on the books, and Scott was convicted of violating it. And yes, that conviction carries a life sentence.

      But did Scott do it? That is the crux of this study by Adam Pitluk, a journalist who lived in Missouri through most of the 1990s and who has studied this case in detail and here reports on it exhaustively. The case is a very minor one in American jurisprudence – although not to Scott, of course – but here gets the sort of in-depth exploration usually reserved for matters of deeper moment and wider implications. Pitluk has not only studied the records but also interviewed a number of the people involved in the case, and his research, both primary and secondary, is impressive. He certainly brings the characters in the case vividly to life – and in doing so casts doubt on whether Scott was guilty, even if that is not what Pitluk specifically intended to do.

      Scott, a 24-year-old fast-food worker in 1993, was, by all accounts, a troubled young man who had had run-ins with the law before. Nevertheless, he was helping with relief efforts during the nine days of rain that drenched West Quincy and nearby areas. On July 16, Scott either tried to shore up a dam with sandbags and went to get help…or made sure that the dam would fail, which it subsequently did.

      Scott was convicted of sabotaging the dam both in 1994 and in 1998 – Pitluk takes readers through both trials – even though no one ever thought he had much of a motive: he supposedly wanted to go drinking with friends on one side of the flood while leaving his wife stranded on the other side. Pitluk's recounting of the trials makes it clear that the prosecutors simply did a better job, as when cross-examining an indisputably impartial witness giving scientific testimony:

"So you weren't in West Quincy?"


"And you weren't even within 100 miles of the Mississippi River?"

"That's correct."

"So you're speaking about a theory [that would exonerate Scott], is that right?"


"A theory based on pictures?"

"A theory based on my professional opinion of the pictures."

"But a theory nonetheless?"


      When the trials were done and Scott imprisoned, at least the residents of the flooded areas could move on, whether or not they believed Scott guilty. Scott, though, has no chance to move on until at least 2023, when he will first be eligible for a parole hearing. Yet for all the anguish caused by the flood and the likely miscarriage of justice in Scott’s case, it remains very difficult for those uninvolved in what happened in 1993 to feel more than abstract sympathy for a man who may well have been caught in a web of bad law, bad weather and bad judgment among townspeople looking for someone to blame.


Damned to Eternity: The Story of the Man Who They Said Caused the Flood. By Adam Pitluk. Da Capo. $24.95.

      It’s hard to pick a “worst disaster” of 1993, but there are plenty of candidates. That was the year the World Trade Center was bombed by terrorists – a fatal attack that proved to be a preliminary to the destruction of the Twin Towers eight years later. It was also the year of the Blizzard of 1993: a gigantic March storm, stretching at one point from Canada to Central America, that spawned 10 tornadoes, produced nearly unbelievable amounts of snow in the South (more than two feet in Chattanooga and 17 inches in Birmingham, Alabama – which normally gets one inch in a year), caused well over $6 billion in damage, and killed at least 26 people in Florida alone.

      In the Midwest, though, many people’s pick for the worst disaster of the year was an event that killed no one and did not cause a single injury. It was a flood in and around West Quincy, Missouri. It was a flood that occurred after a levee gave way and that submerged thousands of acres of farmland, causing perhaps twice the monetary damages of the Blizzard of 1993. And it was, perhaps, a flood that need not have happened. It may – may – have been caused by the malfeasance of Inmate #1001364 at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. Damned to Eternity is the story of that inmate, James Scott, and of how he came to be imprisoned for life under a 1979 Missouri Law.

      Actually, Damned to Eternity is two intertwined stories: one about Scott, the flood and the town that may – may – have been out to find someone to blame, and one about the legal system whose workings put Scott in prison, with no chance of parole until the year 2023. Each story is interesting in its own way, and both have been carefully researched by Adam Pitluk, a journalist who lived in the area affected by the flood during much of the 1990s. Pitluk’s attempt at journalistic balance is impressive – he says he wants the reader to make up his or her own mind about what happened – but the preponderance of the reporting does make it seem that Scott, although certainly no innocent in his earlier life, was made a scapegoat in this particular case. The even-handedness of the book can actually be a bit wearing, as can Pitluk’s somewhat contradictory docudrama approach of presenting the minutiae of thoughts and actions that he cannot possibly know. For example, one significant event that marked Scott as a bad apple in town was a 1982 prank that got out of hand, in which he and two other boys set fire to Webster Elementary School. Pitluk paints the scene vividly: “They watched their fire for a few seconds as it began to eat up more fabric and spread toward the ceiling. …[G]lowing embers dashed from the velvet edges [of the curtain] and flew back at them. …A second flame flared up in the middle of the cloth.” This is fine novelistic writing – one instance among many – but it is hard to see, even with Pitluk’s mining of primary sources, how he could get this level of detail objectively right.

      This is not a mere quibble, since so much of this story turns on exactly who said what to whom, exactly when, and who did exactly what as a result. When Scott was 18, Pitluk writes, he “momentarily longed for his childhood” at Halloween. Then he smoked, “feeling the nicotine pierce the back of his tongue as he drew the hot smoke into his frosty lungs.” These elements of Scott’s story in the first half of the book set up the 1993 storm and the central question that would later be raised at Scott’s two trials (in 1994 and 1998): did Scott make sure that a dam would fail after more than a week of rain, or didn’t he? Why would he do such a thing? “Jimmy, [witness Joe Flachs] said, intentionally broke the levee to strand his wife in Missouri so he could party in Illinois without her. [Officer Dennis] Boden’s jaw literally dropped. His chin tilted to the floor and his eyes fixed on the teen. ‘Are you kidding me?’ he asked in sheer disbelief. …[T]his was the most ridiculous motive in the history of detective work.”

      It does indeed seem petty to the point of ridiculousness, but the fact is that this is the basis on which Scott was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the Class A felony of Intentionally Causing a Catastrophe – the only man ever convicted under that Missouri law (his penalty would have been a maximum of seven years if he had been found guilty under an analogous statute across the river in Illinois). The breaking of the levee, which ruined a great deal of cropland, was certainly a hard economic blow for the people in the region. But not even all of them found the jury’s verdict believable: one man, Pitluk says, “read with sheer amazement” how the jurors “ignored all signs of stress along the levee and placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Webster Elementary School fire starter.” Yet other people, as Pitluk makes equally clear, believed Scott caused the catastrophe and fully deserved his lifetime punishment.

      Will readers outside the areas affected by this flood care about all this? Maybe, but maybe not: the book deals with a local law and a regional occurrence that was arguably not even the worst weather event of 15 years ago. Because Pitluk tries to be even-handed, there is no crusading miscarriage-of-justice angle here. And Scott himself, innocent or guilty, is not a very deep, much less appealing, central character. Pitluk has written a thorough book that will surely be of interest to people who endured the huge trauma of the 1993 flood – at least those who want to re-live it. But for others, unless they have an interest in some of the unusual aspects of state law, Damned to Eternity is likely to come across as a story that, while interesting enough, does not deal with events as monumentally significant as Pitluk considers them to be.


Carter: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 5. Pacifica Quartet. Naxos. $8.99.

Nielsen: Chamber Music, Volume 2—Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Violin and Piano; Prelude, Theme and Variations for Solo Violin; Preludio e Presto for Solo Violin. Jon Gjesme, violin; Jens Elvekjær, piano (Sonatas); Tue Lautrup, violin (solo works). Dacapo. $16.99.

      Every decade or so since 1951, Elliott Carter – who turned 99 on December 11, 2007 – decides to express himself through the string quartet, and in so doing creates a work of intensity, ingenuity and often-surprising lyricism. He is so good in this medium that two of his five quartets won the Pulitzer Prize for music: the second in 1960 and the third in 1973. Naxos is releasing the five quartets on two CDs, starting with a pairing of the earliest and most recent. The Pacifica Quartet plays this extremely difficult music astonishingly well. The young performers – violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad, and cellist Brandon Vamos – play as if they are blissfully unaware of the music’s tonal and rhythmic complexities. As a result, listeners will be less aware of these structural elements, too, and able to focus on the many emotions of the music. The first and longest quartet, which runs nearly 40 minutes, never seems to make up its mind between rushing forward and slowing down into halting rhythms. Simply keeping up with the changes – Carter calls the technique “metric modulation” – is impressive enough. But the Pacifica players do so while bringing forth the many rhythmic strands of the music, allowing listeners to follow as few as they like or as many as they can. It is all simply dazzling.

      But it is no more impressive than the Pacifica’s handling of the fifth quartet (1995). Carter has said that the first four quartets took him in one direction and so he decided in the fifth that he needed to go another way. What he did was to bring new transparency to the musical lines without in any way making them more obvious or easier to play. There is a playfulness in this quartet that is largely absent in the first. Its 12 sections rush or amble by in one to three minutes each, as brief character sketches alternate with peculiar interludes that toss bits of themes here and there in a manner that sounds aleatoric even though Carter wrote out all the notes. The interplay of order and disorder is infectious, and there is a sort of good humor to the whole enterprise that distracts listeners from noticing that this quartet is every bit as difficult as the earlier ones. Nor need it be Carter’s last: more than a decade has gone by since he wrote the fifth quartet – perhaps, as his centenary nears, he will address the form once more.

      Carl Nielsen is known far less for his chamber works than for his six symphonies and his opera Maskarade. But Nielsen did some interesting and unusual things in chamber music, and pieces other than his popular Wind Quintet deserve to be heard more frequently. Hence Dacapo’s survey of this music, which in its second volume focuses on the two sonatas for violin and piano (1895 and 1912) and two later solo-violin pieces that sound very modern indeed. Like the members of the Pacifica Quartet, the players on this Nielsen CD are young and seemingly unaffected by the daunting technical complexities of the music – thereby making it easy for the audience to hear Nielsen’s expressiveness as well as his difficulty. The first sonata, in A major, is filled with abrupt modulations and fast-changing themes that confused the audience at its premiere and enraged or baffled the critics. Today it sounds experimental, but scarcely dramatically so, with lines that flow well and clever instrumental interplay. The second sonata does not even have a key signature – it jumps all over the place, although it remains firmly tonal. It flows well but carries the short-theme approach even farther than did the first sonata. This second sonata remains an unconventional and even odd work – one that repays multiple hearings better than a single one.

      The pieces for solo violin are in some ways even stranger. Prelude, Theme and Variations (1923) is based loosely on Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas, but with many distinct Nielsen touches and a penultimate Presto variation that is one of the toughest two minutes a violinist is likely to encounter. The work mixes beauty with passages requiring a high degree of virtuosity, fully exploring the violin’s resources in a most satisfying way – especially when played as well as Tue Lautrup performs it. Lautrup does an excellent job with the Preludio e Presto, too. Written in 1928, three years before Nielsen’s death, this work is technically complex and makes no attempt to be bound by the conventions of tonality – yet it never sounds academic, but conveys emotion quite as skillfully as do Nielsen’s earlier and better-known pieces. It is a real pleasure to find so much of interest in this composer’s less-known creations.


Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Artek. $19.99 (2 CDs).

      There is an argument to be made for conducting Mahler with tremendous attention to detail, allowing the larger shape of his symphonies to coalesce around their smaller elements. In a sense, Mahler wrote chamber music for large orchestra, and the detail-oriented approach would treat his symphonies essentially as chamber pieces for 100-plus players.

      Gerard Schwarz, unfortunately, makes this musical argument with only intermittent success in his versions of Symphonies Nos. 1 (recorded in 2003) and 9 (from 2006). Schwarz’s attention to detail is often impressive, but Mahler’s world-spanning canvases never quite emerge from the mass of pointillist dots out of which Schwarz sees them as being created.

      The fact that Schwarz generally favors speedy tempos does not help his approach. In the first symphony, the first movement features impressive trumpet calls – an important detail – but moves at an impatient pace, with some uncalled-for rubato. A sense of grandeur is missing. The second movement proceeds well until a rushed conclusion. The third is just a little too fast for a funeral march, even an ironic or sarcastic one, although individual instruments play well and are nicely brought to the fore. The finale starts very dramatically, and the slow sections are – somewhat surprisingly – not rushed, with the quiet playing being especially impressive (the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic can play clearly when it is almost inaudible – quite an achievement). The movement as a whole, though, feels speedy and, as a result, superficial, concluding with little subtlety or sense of grand scale.

      Brisk tempos mark the start of the ninth symphony as well: there is no mystery in the opening of the first movement, but a sense of “let’s get on with it.” The fact that the orchestra’s strings sound clear but not lush increases the impression of a perfunctory performance. But as the movement progresses, it improves, with the dramatic outbursts genuinely striking and the instrumental details impressively focused. The movement emerges sounding episodic, with little sense of ebb and swell, but the careful attention to individual components makes it easy to hear interesting details of Mahler’s careful orchestration. The second movement is even better – the most impressive single movement in this two-CD set. Here not only the details but also the rhythms are just right, with the fast sections especially well played and an overall intensity that truly involves a listener. The third movement is not quite at this level: the outbursts and dissonances are well handled, but the rhythms are rather flabby, and the very fast ending comes across as chaotic. The gorgeous finale has more high spots than low. The opening is sad rather than anguished, and the underlying tempo is a touch fast – Adagio con moto rather than just Adagio. The movement drifts rather than builds, but the solos and spare harmonies are made very clear, although the loud climaxes seem to come out of nowhere. The final two minutes, during which the music evaporates, are exceptionally well played, with the orchestra becoming so impossibly quiet that it is hard to be absolutely sure when the music stops. Surely this conclusion is as Mahler intended it.

      Schwarz’s performances are far from definitive, and it would be a strain to call him a great or even top-notch Mahler conductor. But in seeking out the small details in Mahler’s large scores, he draws attention to beauties that even those familiar with these symphonies may not have heard before – even if his overall readings prove less convincing than their individual elements.

February 24, 2008


Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin. Virginia Opera production conducted by Peter Mark. Stage Director: Julia Pevzner. Presented at George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax, Virginia, February 24, 2008.

      The best performances of Eugene Onegin skillfully conceal the fact that its central character is a thoroughly unsympathetic emotional cipher whose supposed discovery of love near the end – too late for it to bring him happiness – rings entirely false. Virginia Opera’s new production makes sure that there is so much happening on stage that this huge hole in the plot becomes almost incidental.

      Eugene Onegin is intimate opera on a grand scale, but because of the title character’s emotional vapidity, it never rises to the level of tragedy. It is a domestic opera, mostly lacking in dramatic action, that turns on a phrase sung early in Act I about being forced to settle in life for “habit in place of happiness.” It is also, of all things, an epistolary opera, with a crucial letter in Act I provoking a confrontation that is reflected in the finale of Act III.

      Virginia Opera divides Eugene Onegin into two parts rather than three acts, which keeps things flowing. And there is so much to see and marvel at onstage that the wonderful music sweeps the audience along even when the plot, after Alexander Pushkin’s novel, creaks. The staging is strikingly atmospheric, featuring the blades of a windmill turning at stage left – initially setting a rustic atmosphere but then clearly becoming symbolic of the turning of fortune’s wheel, since they reappear repeatedly, even when the opera concludes at the Gremin Palace in St. Petersburg. Mirrored panels at stage left enlarge the space and reflect the characters’ actions, also allowing activities occurring within the enclosed space at the right – a revolving area representing a house exterior and various interiors, as needed – to be visible to the audience in reflected form. The visual effect is extremely striking, and is used wonderfully by stage director Julia Pevzner, scenic designer Alexander Lisiyansky and lighting designer Mark McCullough.

      But no one goes to Eugene Onegin to marvel at a set, even a marvelous one. Virginia Opera Music Director Peter Mark presents the music with intensity and a heightening of the drama within the libretto. The result is an extraordinarily vivid production.

      This is the first Russian-language production in Virginia Opera’s 33-year history, and there has clearly been tremendous attention paid to period detail and correct pronunciation. Several singers are Russian speakers, but even those who are not handle the language with apparent ease. Veronica Mitina is wonderful as Tatiana, who falls in love with Onegin when she is young and rejects him years later after she has married someone else and he belatedly (if unconvincingly) falls in love with her. Mitina’s soprano is high, clear, and girlish at first, with excellent durability evident in her famous letter-writing scene; then her voice is enhanced with warmth when she reappears as a married woman; and then it reverts to its previous sound as she contemplates recapturing what she and Onegin once had, or could have had. This is remarkable vocal acting – and excellent singing, too.

      Jason Detwiler is a striking presence visually and a dramatic one vocally as Onegin, standing straight and unbending throughout the opera until he collapses at Tatiana’s feet in the final scene. His baritone, strongest in the middle register, always makes him sound as if he is uttering pronouncements rather than speaking – quite right for this character. If his motivation for the things he does is nil, if his eventual declaration of love is unbelievable, this is the fault of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, not Detwiler, who does the best he can with what he is given.

      As Lensky, the friend whom Onegin ends up killing in a duel inspired (apparently) mainly by the boredom that seems to be Onegin’s primary motivation, Patrick Miller is Onegin’s opposite: passionate, hot-headed, impulsive and – in his aria just before the duel – intensely emotional. His intended and Tatiana’s sister, Olga, is sung by Oksana Sitnitska with real flair, in an appealing mixture of naïveté and coquettishness that turns out to have fatal consequences.

      Other standout singers are Todd Robinson as Prince Gremin – his emotional declaration of love for his wife, Tatiana, is everything that Onegin’s is not – and Barbara Dever as the nurse, Filippievna, who provides Tatiana and Olga with somewhat more grounding in reality than either can handle.

      As fine as the singers are, it is the production touches that time and again steal the show. Making the French poet Triquet (Omar Salam) a fey and foppish posturer as he read the verses for Tatiana’s Name Day after positioning her on a chair with her arm and head placed just so is one neat touch among many. Some others are the choreography of the Name Day dance, at which Onegin provokes Lensky by flirting with Olga; the way Tatiana tears her letter to Onegin (which he has handed back to her) into little pieces as he rejects her; the appearance of Olga in her house, lighting a candle and praying in the background as Onegin and Lensky prepare to duel in the foreground; and the instant transformation of the rustic set to a palace court by the wheeling in of tall columns.

      And there is, permeating all, Tchaikovsky’s music, which invests the opera with a greater depth of emotion than it inherently contains. Conductor Mark keeps the emotional temperature high throughout – an approach that works particularly well for Tchaikovsky – and deserves much of the credit for giving this Eugene Onegin such impact. Onegin the character is one of those “careless people” of whom F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote so memorably in The Great Gatsby. Like Tom and Daisy, Onegin is a catalyst of fatal or emotionally devastating actions, but remains himself unaffected by the evil he has done – for all that he ends the opera bemoaning his fate. Far from being a Byronic hero (something he accuses Lensky of looking like on Tatiana’s Name Day), Onegin is merely self-involved. It is Virginia Opera’s production that involves us so thoroughly in his life and the lives of those around him.

February 21, 2008


Zen Ties. By Jon J. Muth. Scholastic. $17.99.

Ibby’s Magic Weekend. By Heather Dyer. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.

      There is magic in both these books, but magic of very different kinds – the one quiet and gentle, the other surprising and rambunctious.

      Zen Ties, as you can guess from the title, is the quiet book, as were Jon J. Muth’s previous Zen Shorts and The Three Questions, the latter based on a Tolstoy short story. This time the story is Muth’s own, based in part – as he explains at the end – on his family experiences, and on a camping retreat by the end of which the students had learned a valuable lesson. The story here is simple: a panda named Stillwater greets his visiting nephew, Koo, at the train station, and interacts with him in quiet, zen-like ways: “It is a short walk to the house, but there is a nice park on the way. Let’s stop there and have some tea.” The illustrations are charmingly naïve: at the park, for example, the balloons join the pandas in sitting quietly, each balloon ties to its own rock. Koo, for his part, speaks in haiku-like verse much of the time – another charming element here. What action there is in the story comes after three children named Addy, Michael and Karl get together with the pandas, and the whole group goes to visit old Miss Whitaker, who is always nasty to the kids but who is a friend to Stillwater. Predictably, the children learn to appreciate Miss Whitaker, and her hardheartedness is softened when she has the chance to tutor Michael, who is preparing for a spelling bee. Stillwater and Koo are clearly emblematic of quiet acceptance and enjoyment of life – that is, of a zen attitude. Seeing the pandas acting quite at home on an ordinary suburban street will be a treat for young readers; so will Muth’s illustrations, every one of which is quietly celebratory of the everyday. This is a story set in summertime, but its loveliness knows no season – or all of them.

      Ibby’s Magic Weekend has its charms, too, but they are more of the madcap variety. Heather Dyer, whose specialty is gentle absurdity (as in The Girl with the Broken Wing and The Fish in Room 11), here concocts a story of a girl (that would be Ibby) who does not believe in magic at all – she knows everything is just tricks, done with smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand. Then Ibby spends the weekend with Francis and Alex, her troublemaking cousins, and things suddenly get rather more magical than Ibby ever thought possible. There’s the time she walks into Francis’ room and finds Alex floating near the ceiling. And the time Alex turns up on the church steeple and has to be rescued by a helicopter. The time Francis becomes invisible. And much more. What causes all these happenings is a box called “Magic for Beginners” that lists seven tricks but warns that they “are undertaken at the magician’s own risk.” The box belonged to Uncle Godfrey, who simply disappeared – Ibby’s mother never told her how, and it takes a while for Ibby to get up the courage to ask Aunt Carole. This leads to – well, that would be telling. Suffice it to say that Uncle Godfrey’s disappearance is solved, Ibby becomes not only a believer in magic but also a practitioner of it, and by the end there is a hint of even more marvels to come (not necessarily in a sequel – but readers will be hoping for one).


Fancy Nancy: Bonjour, Butterfly. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. HarperCollins. $16.99.

Fancy Nancy and the Boy from Paris; Fancy Nancy at the Museum. By Jane O’Connor. Cover illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser. Interior illustrations by Ted Enik. HarperCollins, $16.99 (Paris); HarperTrophy, $3.99 (Museum).

      Let us elucidate: Nancy Clancy, known as Fancy Nancy, first debuted with her love of all things French and her adoration of larger-than-usual words in the eponymous Fancy Nancy, then proved herself equally enthralling in Fancy Nancy and the Posh Puppy. And now, behold! She reappears not only butterfly-bedecked but also enshrined in two I Can Read books designed for enterprising new readers. And she is trés charmant at all times.

      Fancy Nancy is a delightful character, wearing an unending succession of overdone outfits supplied by her indulgent parents, and having homespun adventures that she inevitably describes in bigger words than you will find in most books for ages 4-8. Bonjour, Butterfly continues the series at its consistently high level in a story about Nancy’s plans to attend her friend Bree’s butterfly-themed birthday party – plans that are disrupted because the family must instead go to Nancy’s grandparents’ party for their 50th wedding anniversary. The fact that everything works out perfectly well for Nancy is to be expected and isn’t really the point. What is so much fun is watching Nancy overdo everything: she wants to attend Bree’s party dressed as an azure butterfly with iridescent wings (not merely a blue one with shiny wings). She pouts about missing the party by scowling, sulking and storming in a succession of outfits, including an all-black dress that clearly reflects her mood. But after traveling to where her grandparents live, she finds the perfectly ordinary motel “quite elegant” and turns the bathroom into a beauty spa by using the little bottles of bath gel, shampoo and cream (bedecking both herself and her doll, Marabelle). Nancy eventually admits she is “ecstatic to be here” and has “an extraordinary night,” after which she even gets a chance to see butterflies – at the local zoo. Nancy is so much fun because she is not only fancy but also resilient: bad moods just don’t stick to her. Jane O’Connor tells Nancy’s stories wonderfully, and Robin Preiss Glasser’s illustrations are absolute gems, getting Nancy’s personality (and her outfits) exactly right every time.

      It is a wonderful idea to use Fancy Nancy in the I Can Read series at Level 1, which is aimed at new readers. She is such a charming character that early readers will be eager to learn more about her adventures – and because she does use bigger-than-usual words, the Fancy Nancy books in this series help teach vocabulary as well as reading itself (each book lists “the fancy words” at the back, with their meanings). In the hardcover story of the boy from Paris, Nancy gets a new classmate who, she assumes, will be as sophisticated and generally wonderful as all things French must inevitably be. And the two do become friends – but because Nancy happened to be late (sorry, “tardy”) on the day the new boy arrived, she did not realize that he was not from that Paris after all (they stay friends anyway). In the paperback about the museum trip, a bumpy bus ride and a little too much lunch combine to make Nancy sick, so she has to get out of the bus – and ends up dirtying her fancy clothes. But her teacher comes up with a clever (and suitably fancy) solution, and Nancy joins everyone else in having a wonderful time. The Fancy Nancy stories are real winners – in whatever format this young mademoiselle deigns to grace.


One Year to an Organized Life: From Your Closets to Your Finances, the Week-by-Week Guide to Getting Completely Organized for Good. By Regina Leeds. Da Capo. $16.95.

      If reading the lengthy title hasn’t worn you out, the sheer energy that permeates Rebecca Leeds’ get-organized book may. Leeds is so organized that she even organizes organization: she has broken down tasks into a full year of do-its, and takes readers week by week through highly targeted specifics. One gets the feeling that she could have broken things down to a day-by-day regimen if she had wanted to write a longer book.

      For people who have difficulty getting started at organizing, Leeds’ high level of enthusiasm may be off-putting. But if you’re really looking for a step-by-step guide to getting yourself, your house, your finances and other aspects of your life in order, Leeds can be a great tutor – if you have the patience to follow what she says, week after week and month after month. That’s a very big “if,” because people who are that willing to approach the task of organizing themselves systematically may not be tremendously disorganized in the first place. You have to be comfortable with the concept of being organized, and you have to be sufficiently organized to follow through on everything Leeds suggests, in order to get the full benefit of this book. For many chronically disorganized people, this will not be easy; it may be impossible.

      If you do decide to try things the Leeds way, you’ll find here a well-laid-out set of prescriptions on handling what must seem like the overwhelming task of putting things (and your life) in order. The book opens, sensibly enough, with January, subtitled “Understanding Time Management; Working on the Kitchen.” Here is where Leeds introduces her “habit of the month,” explaining that it takes 21 consecutive days for a new behavior to become ingrained, and offering readers choices of new (good) habits to pick up. Then she gets into week-by-week activities. Week Four of January, for example, is “Whip Your Kitchen into Shape,” which means sorting tools and gadgets, dividing the kitchen into activity zones, figuring out how to use counter space, and more. Leeds estimates that this will take five to seven hours – not a lot of time to spend in a full week, but (and this is a flaw in Leeds’ approach) an apparently long time that may well make people throw up their hands and say they just don’t have that much time to spare or to spend. In fact, the “time required” element of the book is one of its least useful features, since Leeds often says the time varies or will depend on exactly what a person wants or needs to do.

      Leeds gets considerable credit, on the other hand, for coming up with such headings as “Kitchen Black Holes” and showing what to do with the junk drawer, under-the-sink space and more. And her end-of-each-month summaries, showing what you have accomplished if you have followed her approach each week, then adding an affirmation and sometimes a “Bonus Tip,” will be real pick-me-ups for people with the dedication to stick with this program. The real difficulty with One Year to an Organized Life, though, is in what happens if you “fall off the wagon.” What if you are sick for several days, take a week’s vacation, need to care for an ill child or parent, or have some other reason for being unable to follow the program? Then the careful layout of Leeds’ book becomes a disadvantage, making you feel you have “fallen behind” in your organizing – which may lead to giving up the whole process as beyond you. Leeds’ entry in the get-organized book field is attractive for its specificity and guidance, but will only be appropriate for people who remain physically disorganized but are already mentally organized enough to follow the plan – and make adjustments as needed when life’s inevitable unexpected events occur.


How Not to Be Popular. By Jennifer Ziegler. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

The Opposite of Invisible. By Liz Gallagher. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

      Take a staple of chick lit for teenagers – popularity and all its pluses and minuses – and play a few games with it, and you have How Not to Be Popular. Jennifer Ziegler's book is all about Maggie Dempsey, whose parents never lost the wanderlust of their hippie days and insist on uprooting themselves (and Maggie) every year or so to go to a new part of the country. Enough, thinks Maggie. She lost good friends when they moved after her freshman year in high school. She lost girlfriends and a boyfriend, Trevor, by moving after sophomore year. And now there’s another move, to Austin, Texas, and Maggie is not going to get involved, not going to make friends or be friends, not going to get tied down to anyone in a community where she is merely a transient. And of course, things don’t go at all the way Maggie plans. She tries to say and do the wrong things at the wrong times, but one of the local misfits becomes her friend anyway. And as for that left-behind boyfriend over whom Maggie still pines – well, she finds herself with feelings for someone in Austin, too…someone quite unexpected. “When did my life get so odd?” wonders Maggie. But of course it gets odd only in (ultimately) good ways. “I’m not supposed to be having fun,” says Maggie as she looks for “cringeworthy” subjects to discuss on a date with her unlikely crush. Each chapter in the book begins with a “Tip” in which Maggie suggests ways to avoid getting involved with anyone, such as, “If you find yourself accidentally out on a date, sabotage it with all your might.” The tips don’t work, but it’s enjoyable watching them fail. What is less enjoyable is the portrayal of Maggie’s thoroughly one-dimensional parents, who call her “Sugar,” “Shug,” “Butterfly,” “Doodle” and “Honeybee,” watch for the color of her aura, and suggest she have a colonic when she is emotionally distraught. Of course, the parents decide they will actually stay in Austin, but by that time Maggie has messed everything up. The book moves to a hopeful if thoroughly predictable ending, but Dempsey deserves credit for getting it there via some interesting byways.

      The Opposite of Invisible, Liz Gallagher’s first novel, is more conventional in its straightforward consideration of popularity and coming-of-age issues. It’s set in Seattle and is all about Alice, an aspiring artist who hangs out with her also-an-aspiring-artist best friend, a boy named Jewel. The two of them are a unit, happily invisible to all the individuals and groups around them. But then Alice finds a really great dress for the Halloween dance, and her secret crush, Simon, suddenly takes a real interest in her – while Jewel starts seeing her in a new and different light. After this development (clothes make the girl? Well, maybe), the rest of the book is about Alice’s attempts to differentiate love from a crush, and to figure out where she fits in socially now that she is no longer “invisible” to other people or to herself. Being aimed at ages 14 and up, The Opposite of Invisible contains a bit of sexual exploration, as when Alice walks home with Simon and says, “I let him feel me up under the tree,” and the two later go farther but not too far. The book’s focus, though, is emotional rather than physical connection – and that, unfortunately, makes the outcome obvious from the start. Although well enough written, The Opposite of Invisible is ultimately too pat to stand out from the many other books exploring similar-time-of-life themes.


Now You See Him. By Eli Gottlieb. Morrow. $22.95.

Baby Jack. By Frank Schaeffer. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $15.

      An old TV series called Naked City always began with an announcer intoning, portentously, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This is one of them.” The idea was that the show stripped away the veneer of civilized behavior that usually conceals the inner workings of individuals and families, revealing the raw truth beneath – a modern update of what novelists have done for centuries and, on the basis of these two books and many others, still do.

      Now You See Him is about two failed relationships and their interconnection. The more dramatic of the two is between writer Rob Castor and his girlfriend, Kate, also a writer. The story of these two is familiar in many ways – early success for Rob followed by obscurity, while Kate’s reputation grows until Rob finds it intolerable. What is dramatic is the action Rob takes: cold-bloodedly killing Kate and then returning to his home town to commit suicide. This is not an entirely believable scenario, even within the bounds of fiction: an execution-style killing followed by fleeing home to kill oneself there rather than on the scene? Eli Gottlieb is a good enough stylist to pull readers along despite this and other plot holes, but not good enough to conceal the fact that the emotional intensity of the Rob-Kate relationship seems plastered on rather than integral to the characters. The marriage of the book’s narrator, Nick Framingham, and his wife, Lucy, is better crafted. Theirs is a fairly traditional 10-year-long arrangement, held together as much by their children as by a continuing adult connection. The marriage, Nick writes, “has been a steady falling away from a dream of undivided light.” In childhood, Rob was Nick’s best friend, and Nick drifts farther from his adult self and from Lucy as he tries to fathom what went wrong in the Rob-Kate relationship. He resumes a prior relationship with Rob’s sister, Belinda, as he pieces together details of Rob’s life that will eventually lead to a surprise revelation (perhaps not much of a surprise to readers, though). Although Now You See Him is well written, it has only a minimal amount to offer beyond style: Nick is never really an engaging character, and although the ending (in which his marriage is irretrievably broken – a revelation that is not a spoiler, since it is obvious where things are going from about page 6) tries for pathos, it is hard to escape the notion that Nick had it coming; that he brought it all on himself.

      In a sense, Jack Ogden brought it all on himself, too. In Baby Jack, he is the youngest child of an acclaimed painter, Todd Ogden, and the two have always been very close. Or so Todd thought until Jack decided to join the Marines instead of going to college. Todd, not understanding why Jack is doing this, is furious, and rejects both Jack and Jack’s girlfriend, Jessica. Then, two weeks after deployment, Jack is killed in action – leaving behind a grieving family that still cannot figure out the reasons behind his sacrifice, and a girlfriend carrying his unborn child. That child is the Baby Jack of the title, through whom Frank Schaeffer weaves an effective narrative while also straining credulity almost to the breaking point, if not beyond. Schaeffer has dead Jack inhabiting his baby son’s body: “Baby Jack is on his changing table. Jessica is talking to us. My son is so beautiful. I wish I could hold him. …I wish I could just once see him catch sight of me.” This supernatural twist to a story of the families left behind when someone in the military dies gives the all-too-real tale of sacrifice and wrenched lives a surreal glaze. The back-and-forth pace of the narration adds to it, as we flash back to Jack’s basic training, read his letters and those of the grief-stricken Todd, then encounter Jessica trying to deal with being a single mother living with her parents. Schaeffer makes the book fuller rather than choppier with this technique, also expanding Jack’s story to take in the 30-year marriage of Todd and Sarah, which only seems successful. There is, in truth, a little too much to take in here, as Baby Jack constantly pushes the reader to refocus, to empathize deeply with one character, then the next, then the next. The result is a powerful but emotionally draining book whose final affirmation of family love – whatever that means to different family members – ties things up satisfactorily, if a little too neatly.


Lehár: Wiener Frauen—Highlights; Overtures to “Der Göttergatte” and “Wo die Lerche singt.” Soloists, NDR Rundfunkchor and NDR Rundfunkorchester conducted by Helmuth Froschauer (Wiener Frauen); NDR Rundfunkorchester conducted by Curt Cremer (Overtures). CPO. $16.99.

      This CD of early, little-known music by Franz Lehár ought to be cause for celebration among operetta lovers. But the recording is so inelegantly presented and, in part, so ineptly sung that it is a major disappointment – the least satisfactory of CPO’s many Lehár releases to date. Wiener Frauen (1902) was Lehár’s first operetta and the last gasp of a Vienna-centered style that was already moribund by the time Johann Strauss Jr. died in 1899. Lehár’s Der Rastelbinder, on which he worked at the same time as Wiener Frauen, was to usher in a new form of operetta and allow Lehár a long and successful career.

      The composer’s first effort already shows some characteristics familiar to Lehár lovers, including meltingly beautiful tunes and a yearning solo violin. And the overture to Wiener Frauen is fascinating, being interrupted midway through a cantilena passage by piano chords, after which the pianist (Elsbieta Kalvelage in this recording) offers a cadenza and then the title waltz, before the orchestra returns to round out the overture. Lehár’s creativity is already in flower here – more than in most of the vocal numbers.

      But there are some vocal gems, according to contemporary critics and those who studied the score after it was rediscovered in 2001 (the work had gone unplayed since a 1930 performance for Lehár’s 60th birthday). And here is one way this CPO recording fails badly: it doesn’t include much of the best music. The title song was well regarded; it is not on this CD. There was a much-praised terzett for three female characters – you won’t hear it here. The female lead’s most effective piece was a “Marriage Education” duet with her mother – not offered on this CD. What we do get is thin gruel indeed. One famous piece – called the “Nechledil March” after one character even though it is (confusingly) sung by a different one – does appear, but most of the other vocal excerpts are forgettable. This is partly because of Lehár but also partly because of the singers: sopranos Anke Hoffmann and Anneli Pfeffer do creditable jobs, but among the three tenors, only Boris Leisenheimer (as Brandl) and Peter Minich (who gets a single solo in the Nechledil role) handle their parts respectably. Thomas Dewald, who sings Philippe in two solos and two duets, is often actually unpleasant to listen to, especially in his lower register, where his voice is always on the verge of getting away from him and his vibrato is perpetually strained. It is hard to understand why Helmuth Froschauer, a fine conductor, accepted this.

      Adding insult to injury is the lack of any explanation (in German or English) of just what the excerpts are about and where they fall in the plot (and the words are not provided, so listeners cannot figure things out for themselves). In fact, the booklet notes do not even present an easy-to-follow plot summary – an unconscionable omission. (For the record: Claire once loved her piano teacher, Brandl, because of a waltz song he sang. But he left for America and she is now to marry Philippe – until, on her wedding night, she hears the song again and Brandl reappears. After much confusion, Claire and Philippe are indeed united, and Brandl ends up with Jeanette, Claire’s chambermaid. How hard was that?)

      The Wiener Frauen excerpts run only 45 minutes – there was plenty of space on the CD to include more of the work’s well-thought-of pieces – and are followed by overtures to two other little-known Lehár works. These are analog recordings (although not identified as such) of respectable performances of the overtures to Der Göttergatte (1904) and Wo die Lerche singt (1918). The former is brief, the latter more lengthy, and while each contains some charming tunes, neither is outstanding in its own right. CPO can do much better with Lehár than it has here – hopefully it will be back on track with its next release of his music.

February 14, 2008


Lulu Atlantis and the Quest for True Blue Love. By Patricia Martin. Illustrated by Marc Boutavant. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

Charlie Small #1: Gorilla City. By Charlie Small. David Fickling Books. $5.99.

      Here are a couple of delightful fantasy adventures for preteens, one oriented more toward girls and the other more toward boys, and both thoroughly charming. Lulu Atlantis and the Quest for True Blue Love has all the potential for sappiness, but Patricia Martin manages to avoid it almost all the way to the end. Even better: she turns a typical family-upset story into a wonderful tale of eccentricity, peculiar human and nonhuman (and real and imaginary) characters, and adventures that only seem scary until one real-world one that provides a climax and teaches an important lesson. The book starts when Lulu’s mother brings home a new baby, Sam, and starts giving 100% of her attention to him, leaving 0% for Lulu. Lulu can’t turn to her father, who is off on his latest quest to save some endangered species or other. Lulu has no one to care about her but Harry, the imaginary top-hatted spider who is her best friend. So the two of them run off, as Martin creates an ever-slightly-skewed world in which the phrase “please understand” appears again and again: “Please understand, the Umbrella Tree was not a tree as most people would imagine a tree to be.” “Please understand, Farmer Wallenhaupt’s Frog Pond was not a pond as most people would imagine a pond to be.” “Please understand, the balloons of the Extraordinary All-American Hot-Air Balloon Festival were not your ordinary run-of-the-mill red and yellow and green and orange and purple party balloons…” And so on – many things in Lulu’s world are not quite as other, less-imaginative people would expect them to be. And what a world Lulu inhabits: gangster bakers, an under-the-bed monster, a friendly clematis vine, a skunk that Lulu befriends after helping him get a yogurt container off his head, and more. Lulu’s running-away adventure is only the first of four parts of Lulu Atlantis and the Quest for True Blue Love, by the end of which Lulu is very happy indeed with her baby brother and has found the true blue love that was there all along. Okay, that part of the book does have a high sappiness quotient, from an adult standpoint; but by the time kids get to it, they will be so enchanted by Lulu’s world – which also features wonderful chapter-opening illustrations by Marc Boutavant – that they probably won’t even notice any treacle.

      The new Charlie Small series is adventure of a different kind. It is ostensibly a series of doodle-and-stain-filled journals “found washed up on the banks of the river Wyre, at Skippool in Lancashire, England,” detailing the “amazing, astonishing, incredible and true adventures” of an eight-year-old boy who has a 400-year-long adventure. Suspend disbelief quickly here – the silliness of the whole idea helps – and you can take a dangerous (but not too dangerous) journey with Charlie to Gorilla City, encountering along the way An Enormous Crocodile! A Patented Steam Powered Rhinoceros! An Electric-Blue Spider! A Huge Poisonous Snake! A Trufflegrumper that “smells like a pile of rotting cabbage leaves, only worse!” And more (much more). Charlie has his hands full everywhere he goes, including in Gorilla City, where he has to overcome Thrak (“a big, bone-headed silverback gorilla with huge muscles and a brain the size of a pea”) in order to be crowned king of the gorillas and eventually find his way out of the jungle (hopefully in time for tea)…except that he ends up in “a den of terrible bloodthirsty renegade pirates” who are not quite what you might expect. But all that will be part of the second journal, to be called The Perfumed Pirates of Perfidy. Plenty of time for that later. Gorilla City is quite enough of a roller-coaster ride for now.


Miki Falls 4: Winter. By Mark Crilley. HarperTeen. $7.99.

Warriors: Power of Three—Book Two: Dark River. By Erin Hunter. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      One series end and one series continuation – both sequences are somewhat uneven, but both have many points of drama and excitement that should appeal to preteen and young teenage readers. Miki Falls: Winter concludes Mark Crilley’s manga-influenced four-seasonal-book love story whose underlying absurd premise (there exist quasi-celestial beings who manage and nurture the finite amount of human love in the world) has steadily become less important as the tale has seemed more and more a Romeo-and-Juliet story of the love between Miki and Hiro. The supernatural elements return strongly in Winter, after being largely absent in Autumn, and indeed they are necessary to bring the work to a satisfactory conclusion – and a happy one (this is no Romeo-and-Juliet tragedy). What is really interesting in considering all four books is how much Crilley, who has never before done a love story and whose work (such as the Akiko books) is usually aimed at younger readers than is Miki Falls, has himself grown as a storyteller and artist while creating the series. Crilley himself is aware of at least some of this – he explains in an appendix to Winter about the many things that changed as he worked on the books. Readers are likely to notice a burgeoning attention to detail in the art as the series progresses, and an increasing sense that Miki and Hiro are real people with real problems (despite the supernatural overlay of the story). In fact, Miki and Hiro have developed so much solidity that when some characters from early in the story are reintroduced in Winter, they seem rather flat and one-dimensional. Not so the art here, which practically bursts off the page as Crilley shows himself impatient with anything approximating the panel-by-panel progress of comic books and many graphic novels. Nearly the only rectangular panels are the full-page ones – everything else is cut and chopped and angled so as to emphasize aspects of the story and close in cinematically, when appropriate, on characters’ actions and expressions. The overall Miki Falls series deserves a (+++) rating, being a bit choppy early on and somewhat inconsistent – but Winter is a (++++) book…and of course makes sense only in the context of the three parts that have come before.

      Speaking of parts: Erin Hunter’s Warriors saga seems to have an unlimited number of them. Indeed, there are now multiple Warriors sagas, which explore different aspects of the lives of the cat clans that Hunter uses as stand-ins for noble human warriors in fantasy epics. The cats’ interlocking stories can be confusing and difficult to follow, and their grandiosity sometimes gets out of hand now that Hunter has so well established her franchise; but even if Dark River, the second book in the new Warriors: Power of Three series, is a (+++) novel, it will be devoured eagerly by established fans of the cats’ tales. It will not, however, mean much to anyone who might come for the first time to the Warriors world, since the backstory here is complex – and Hunter gives little time to it as she rushes ahead with the new tale. Power of Three refers to three young cats who, according to a prophecy, hold the future fate of the clans in their hands…err, paws. Dark River follows the maturation and development of powers of the three: Hollypaw, who learns about the warrior code as she tries to prevent a battle among ThunderClan, RiverClan and WindClan; Jaypaw, who – as the medicine-cat apprentice – has strange powers that are just coming out, and who learns a secret that could raise ThunderClan at the expense of the other clans; and Lionpaw, a warrior-in-training with outstanding strength and energy, but perhaps not wisdom, at least when it comes to romance. Hunter’s usual themes of friendship, power and betrayal are present throughout, and existing fans of the Warriors stories will certainly enjoy this latest variation on the theme – although the book is unlikely to pull new readers into these tales.