September 25, 2008


Jack the Tripper. By Gene Barretta. Harcourt. $16.

Mystery Ride. By Scott Magoon. Harcourt. $16.

     It’s fun to find the mysterious in everyday life, as these two books do. Jack the Tripper is about the seemingly ordinary students at seemingly ordinary Dizzie Day Elementary School – and the rash of trippings that seemingly strikes them. Oh, there is something nefarious going on! Polly gets tripped and loses her book report…Winston gets tripped and loses the band candy…the twins get tripped…and soon there are multiple sightings of a black-booted fiend dubbed Jack the Tripper. Or are there? Well, this is a school headed by the wise and noble Dr. Dizzie, who “combed his hair with a fork and [whose] best friend was a monkey.” And fast approaching is the Dizzie Day Parade, where “anything goes” – anything can happen and usually does. Gene Barretta shakes and stirs this mixture of oddball characters and events into a delicious concoction – with especially delightful illustrations – that effectively warns students about the dangers of lying and peer pressure, but does so in such a lighthearted way that the eventual appearance of Jack the Tripper himself (his black-caped figure taking up almost two full pages) is sure to provoke shrieks of recognition and laughter. A sendup of mystery books with a real mystery at its heart – and a big heart it is – Jack the Tripper will trip lightly off the page and gently tap kids’ funnybones.

     Scott Magoon’s Mystery Ride is more teachy and preachy, but still highly enjoyable. It starts with a warning: no matter how much you like going places in the car with your parents, beware when they tell you it’s time for a mystery ride! That means, says the narrator – the second of the three bear children – that “they’re taking us someplace we would never, EVER want to go.” Supermarket…hardware store…dump and recycling center…clothing store – UGH! And it gets worse: parents sometimes realize the “mystery ride” trick isn’t working, so they say the family is taking a “mystery FUN ride,” which is definitely not fun. More things to do – ARRGGHH! Ahh, but then, after all the errands are finished, Mom and Dad know how to make the very end of the mystery ride enjoyable after all, with a final stop for a special treat for all the kids. Magoon does lay his message on a little thickly: “Mom and Dad say that sometimes it’s good not to know where you’re going and that getting there is half the adventure. The other half, Dad says, is getting your errands done.” But thanks to pleasantly cartoonish drawings and an overall lighthearted tone, Mystery Ride manages to take kids on a very pleasant journey indeed.


Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. By Mem Fox. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. Harcourt. $16.

Magic Trixie. By Jill Thompson. HarperTrophy. $7.99.

Mo’s Mischief: Super Cool Uncle. By Hongying Yang. HarperTrophy. $3.99.

     The magic of babies seems to emanate from all parts of their bodies. But their tiny fingers and toes are extra-special, and those digits are what Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury celebrate in the thoroughly charming Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. Fox’s simple poetry features the recurring refrain, “both of those babies,/ as everyone knows/ had ten little fingers/ and ten little toes.” Babies born far away or nearby, in the city or country, healthy or not feeling too well, living in a land of ice or one of heat, all have those adorable fingers and toes. That’s the whole book – and it is enough, thanks to Oxenbury’s endearing illustrations, which eventually produce a group of babies from all over the world, all of them having far more in common than their superficial differences – a subtle and worthwhile message. Although it is written at the level of young children, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes actually seems in many ways to be more of a book for adults, allowing them to appreciate the wonderfulness of small people’s hands and feet. Parents may want to read it with a child when a new brother or sister is soon to arrive.

     Maybe Magic Trixie’s parents should have read it to her. Magic Trixie really is magical – in fact, Trixie’s whole witchy family is. But in Jill Thompson’s graphic novel, Trixie’s problems are quite nonmagical enough: there’s a new baby named Abby Cadabra in the house, and she gets all the attention, and gets to sleep late and ride with daddy on his broom and even teethe on the magic wand that Trixie isn’t allowed to use. Trixie isn’t old enough yet to use the big spellbook or cauldron, either, and in any case there’s no magic that will make people focus on her rather than the baby. Or is there? As she goes through her hilariously skewed day with her monster, werewolf and vampire buddies and her ghost of a teacher, Trixie comes up with a show-and-tell idea that should top everything – and bring her the attention she wants. If she can’t make the baby disappear, which is what she really wants to do, she can take it to school! And Trixie’s plan works – but not as she thought it would. Her friends love the baby and admit that Abby is the best thing ever at show-and-tell – but they tell Trixie how lucky she is to have a baby sister, and that makes Trixie see her family situation in a whole different way. That is, until her parents – who knew nothing of Trixie’s plans for Abby – show up at school… In any case, the weird drawings and amusing relationships of the otherworldly characters are a bigger attraction in Magic Trixie than the plot itself. The vampire boys who dig everywhere so they can visit places in daytime, the monster boy whose hand keeps falling off, the witchy grandma who wants to be called “Mimi” so she doesn’t feel like a grandma – these are wonderfully drawn characters whose antics will have kids looking forward to Magic Trixie’s next adventure, Magic Trixie Sleeps Over!

     The mischief goes beyond the baby stage in the latest installment of the Mo’s Mischief series, in which Mo Shen Ma continues getting into trouble largely because it’s more fun than doing nothing and being bored. Each Mo’s Mischief book follows a similar pattern: Mo comes up with a mischievous plot that misfires in some way, but everything still ends good-humoredly. In Super Cool Uncle, which gets a (+++) rating, the plot has to do with Uncle Dink, a software engineer who lives alone and who, Mo decides, needs a wife. So Mo sets out to find him one – such as Ms. Lin, one of the teachers at Mo’s school. Things go pretty well after an initial not-so-special meeting, because “Mo discovered that Uncle Dink and Ms. Lin had something in common – they both liked Mo, and for the same reason: he was mischievous, but he was honest, and kind too.” But Mo’s plans don’t quite work out – although he soon comes up with new ones. And since the book includes hiking, mountain climbing, bungee jumping and a visit to a “ceramic café,” there should be plenty in it to maintain the interest of kids who have their own good-hearted but slightly mischievous personalities.


Tycoon’s War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America’s Most Famous Military Adventurer. By Stephen Dando-Collins. Da Capo. $26.

Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt. By Joyce Tyldesley. Basic Books. $27.50.

     The name of Vanderbilt resounds even today in the United States as a symbol of great wealth, great ruthlessness – and higher education, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. But in Central America, the American name that continues to resound – and in a resoundingly negative way – is that of William Walker, an opportunistic empire-builder who became president of Nicaragua and whose eventual defeat is celebrated in that country, in Costa Rica and indeed throughout the region. Walker, killed by firing squad in Honduras in 1860 at the age of 36, had grandiose dreams of establishing a Central American empire with himself at its head, and successfully fomented a series of revolutions by becoming the man considered by the people of the region to be the king of the filibusteros. That term – “filibuster” in English – did not have the purely political connotation in the 1850s that it has today. It referred to would-be foreign colonizers who brought their weapons and their ideals to Mexico and Cuba. Walker hated the term, but it fit him very well indeed. And Walker was above all a man of expediency, most notably in his avowed support for returning slavery to Nicaragua (which had previously abolished it) so he could gain the backing of moneyed Southern interests from the U.S. Walker appears not actually to have supported slavery – he did not seem to care much one way or the other – but if backing it got him the money and power he wanted, so be it. The same was true of his maneuvering to take control of the Accessory Transit Authority in Nicaragua – a feat he accomplished at the expense of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the most ruthless of all American plutocrats and perhaps the most averse to losing anything. Ever. Vanderbilt took Walker’s actions personally, even though Walker surely did not intend them that way, and set in motion a series of events that eventually led to Walker’s overthrow and defeat. This complex and fascinating story is told by Australian historian Stephen Dando-Collins in Tycoon’s War with all the verve of a novelist writing a book that will one day become a screenplay – which, come to think of it, is an excellent idea. The dramatically different personalities of the central characters, the ways they deputized numerous characters from the noble to the venal to fulfill their opposed missions, and the tremendously detailed accounts of battles and missives and narrow escapes and amazing (and sometimes amazingly flawed) decision-making, add up to a genuinely thrilling book whose spotlight on the pre-Civil War United States also shines indirectly on later U.S. colonial and neocolonial adventures, from the Spanish-American War to the war in Iraq. Dando-Collins makes many marvelous connections, one of the most delicious having to do with Vanderbilt University: it was built in Nashville, Walker’s home town, after Walker’s death, and it eventually helped destroy the University of Nashville, from which Walker had graduated. Coincidence or posthumous revenge? Tycoon’s War asks many questions like this, leaving readers with many possible fascinating answers.

     Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, by British Egyptologist and professor Joyce Tyldesley, aims for a similar balance of history, personality and excitement, but does not quite attain it. The style is a reason: “Egypt was a land trembling on the brink. Perhaps Caesar calculated [after arriving in pursuit of Pompey] that increased stability would bring increased wealth, and that increased wealth would allow increased taxation. Perhaps he understood that a grateful Egyptian king and/or queen might be of some use to him in the future. Perhaps he was simply bored.” This mixture of cliché (“trembling on the brink”) and speculation (“simply bored”) continues throughout the book and belies its solid scholarship. There are also some irritating misspellings, such as “grizzly” when what is meant is “grisly.” Still, Tyldesley’s book gets a (+++) rating for its effective portrayal of Cleopatra as anything but the hyperemotional femme fatale she later became on stage and screen. That image comes from writings about Cleopatra by the Romans, to whom she was an enemy. Tyldesley instead gives us a calculating and rather cold Cleopatra, aware that her body and her liaisons could be powerful weapons to keep Rome at bay and arrest the decline of Egypt as a major power. At this she failed, but Tyldesley is less concerned with that incontrovertible historical fact than with redeeming Cleopatra as an intelligent, politically skilled and rather duplicitous woman (duplicity being, then as now, often a useful skill in politicians). Cleopatra’s capture and death ushered in the glory of Imperial Rome, Tyldesley argues, as Octavian (who became Augustus Caesar) “claimed Egypt as his own personal estate” and ended the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty. This well-sourced book remains highly readable despite some infelicities of style, and provides a portrait of Cleopatra quite different from those with which most people are today familiar – and likely quite closer to historical truth.


Dream Girl. By Lauren Mechling. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

Mason. By Thomas Pendleton. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Gone. By Michael Grant. HarperTeen. $17.99.

     You would expect a young woman with the name of Claire Voyante to have the power to contact supernatural forces, but part of the enjoyment of Lauren Mechling’s Dream Girl is that Claire cannot initially do so – at least not in any organized fashion. Yes, she has visions, but they do not lead anywhere useful – until, on her 15th birthday, Claire gets a very special cameo from her ex-socialite grandmother, Kiki Merriman. Kiki knows a thing or two about mystical powers, and also about holding court (which she does at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel). And sure enough, the black-and-white cameo seems to make Claire’s visions clearer, and she soon finds herself on the trail of a mystery. Unfortunately, it isn’t a particularly interesting mystery, and Claire herself is mighty slow to connect the dots that her powers reveal. In fact, some of the subsidiary characters turn out to be more interesting than Claire: Kiki, for one; and Sheila, the Queen Bee of Claire’s high school, who is in fact a nerd underneath all her flash; and Eleanor, another high-school classmate, who seems to rise effortlessly above the sorts of experiences that trouble so many high-school students (including Claire). Dream Girl is nicely written and often amusing, and its ending certainly opens the door to one or more sequels – so perhaps Claire will be a more fully formed central character in the future. For now, it takes no clairvoyance to foresee some level of reader disappointment in the initial exploits of this girl detective.

     The powers that emerge in Thomas Pendleton’s Mason are far less benign. The title character is a severely abused, mentally and emotionally stunted high-school boy who is being raised by his Aunt Molly and is subjected to constant taunting and sadism by his brother, Gene, who repeatedly calls Mason “doorknob,” as in “dumb as a doorknob.” This is family dysfunction taken even beyond the norm for teen-oriented novels – no surprise, really, since Pendleton specializes in horror writing. Into Mason’s life, and therefore into Gene’s path, comes Rene Denton, who first thinks little of Mason, then becomes close to him after seeing how badly Gene treats him. This puts Rene squarely in Gene’s sights, and she becomes a victim herself – but it turns out that Mason does have powers he can bring to bear to protect his only friend, even if they are of little use to the troubled boy himself. Actually, Pendleton introduces these powers very early in the book, spoiling the sense of mystery; but he does not explain them fully until later, and by the novel’s end those powers, and Mason himself, are directly linked to the death of Mason’s mother. This is a tangled web that can only be sorted out through death – several deaths, it turns out. Written with far more concern for pacing than for characterization, Mason moves quickly down its dark road to a strong conclusion that horror-genre fans will find inevitable from the beginning.

     The genre of Gone is a combination of horror, science fiction and fantasy. The story is one of those end-of-the-world yarns that really wants to be taken seriously (parallels to Lord of the Flies are obvious) and really wants to be considered weighty (it runs 558 pages, and there will surely be a sequel, or several). The book is set in Perdido Beach, California, where all adults have suddenly and mysteriously vanished – some years after a nuclear-power-plant incident gave a number of children supernatural powers that are only being acknowledged and developed now that the grownups are gone. The good guys in the book are led, reluctantly, by a boy named Sam Temple, while the bad guys are led by Caine Soren, who turns out to be Sam’s brother. Also important are a beautiful girl genius named Astrid, on whom Sam has a crush (a juvenile one; definitely no sex here); Little Pete, Astrid’s autistic younger brother, who – it turns out – was with their father in the local nuclear plant’s control room when the adults went poof, and who is clearly some sort of key to something important; and a girl named Lana, who is in a car wreck miles from Perdido Beach and who turns out to have her own supernatural power, which may tip the balance between good and evil in the FAYZ (Fallout Alley Youth Zone), where all the action takes place. Michael Grant, co-creator of the Animorphs and Everworld series, juggles all these absurdities rather well, although not particularly stylishly; but that does not make the plot points any less absurd. The spherical force field that jams all signals around Perdido Beach (that is, “Lost Beach,” as heavy-handed a name as “Caine” for the bad guy and “Temple” for the good one), leaving the kids without cell phones or Web access, is one of several isolating mechanisms that Grant uses to establish a microcosm and have good and evil war with each other within it. Grant’s chapters have countdown titles, starting with “299 hours, 54 minutes” and ending with “01 minutes” and then “Final,” to create a sense of urgency, although the specific times are arbitrarily chosen. Gone is escapist dark fantasy that may appeal to young teens wondering what they would do in a world without adults, but it is a book of far less profundity than Grant apparently wants it to be.


Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 5 (K. 175), 6 (K. 238) and 8 (K. 246, “Lützow”). David Greilsammer, piano and conducting the Suedama Ensemble. Naïve. $13.99.

Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No. 1; Chausson: Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings. Bella Davidovich, piano; Dmitry Sitkovetsky, violin; Moscow Chamber Orchestra conducted by Constantine Orbelian (Mendelssohn) and Dmitry Sitkovetsky (Chausson). Delos. $16.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 9. Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ATMA Classique. $16.99 (SACD).

     In some cases, but only in some, we tend to think it presumptuous for musicians of a certain age to perform music written by composers of a certain different age. Either the musician needs more “seasoning” if deemed too young to handle a work of considerable maturity, or a musician is thought to lack “fire and passion” if trying to perform, late in life, a work of a composer’s youth. Happily, this sort of ageism is less prevalent than it used to be, but it still exists – often unspoken. And of course there are composers whose age is always deemed virtually irrelevant to the quality of their work, the foremost among them being Mozart. Yet Mozart’s earliest piano concertos – including arrangements of sonatas by others (K. 37, 39, 40 and 41) and by J.C. Bach (K. 107/1-3) – are rarely performed and not always included in the numbering of his concertos. And his first three original concertos get far less attention than his fourth, the wonderful "Jeunehomme" (No. 9, K. 271). Yet as David Greilsammer shows, those first three concertos have a great deal to recommend them – especially when played as lightly and elegantly as Greilsammer performs them. The most interesting is No. 5 in D, whose finale is wonderfully energetic and original – too original for some audiences, Mozart thought, so for a time he played a newly written Rondo, K. 382, instead of the finale he had first written (it would have been nice to have had that Rondo on Greilsammer’s CD – the disc runs just 62 minutes, so there would have been plenty of room for it). Concertos Nos. 6 in B flat and 8 in C (wrongly listed as being in B flat in this CD’s booklet, although the correct key appears on the CD cover) are more firmly in galant style, but in both these works there is more prominence for winds and greater independence of the orchestra than is found in other concertos of the time. (The reason the numbers skip is that Concerto No. 7 is the three-piano concerto, K. 242.) Greilsammer is as adept at conducting these works as he is at playing them; the result is a thoroughly spirited set of performances that shows the concertos to their best advantage. Purists may be concerned about Greilsammer’s use of his own cadenzas – Mozart’s have survived for Nos. 5 and 8. But Greilsammer’s cadenzas are true to the youthful spirit of the music and do not overwhelm it; they work quite well.

     The issue of relative age of performer and composer is more in the forefront in the CD featuring Bella Davidovich, who recently turned 80, and her son, Dmitry Sitkovetsky. Their handling of Sitkovetsky’s arrangement for string orchestra of Chausson’s Concerto for Violin and Piano is excellent, with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra playing almost as lucidly as would a string quartet – for which this piece was originally written. But this is a work of its composer’s maturity, although Chausson was only in his mid-40s when he wrote it. The Mendelssohn is a different matter. An exuberant piece written when Mendelssohn was just 22, it should fly lightly off the keyboard throughout; but Davidovich makes her part a bit stodgy and fussy, with little ritards and occasional overemphases within phrases that interfere with the headlong rush of the music. She has clearly thought the performance through carefully, but her pianism is oddly mismatched with the playing of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra here: Constantine Orbelian leads the group with an exuberance that exceeds Davidovich’s own. This is certainly a creditable Mendelssohn performance, and the Chausson is a gem; but the young Mendelssohn was more fleet-footed than Davidovich allows him to be in this recording.

     The matter of age is reversed in the Bruckner Ninth as conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was 32 when the recording was made last year. It seems in some ways the height of folly for a young conductor to attempt to scale the heights of Bruckner’s final symphony, which he did not live to complete. But in fact, Nézet-Séguin offers a very fine if not terribly original approach to the music; his SACD, which has exceptionally fine sound, gets a (+++) rating. Nézet-Séguin is at his best in the first movement, allowing its thematic groups to build naturally as climax after climax flows through the orchestra (whose one slightly weak section is, unfortunately, the brass). The ghostly flickering quality of the Scherzo is missing, however, and Nézet-Séguin speeds up a couple of pizzicato sections for no discernible reason. And the Adagio never quite gels: individual elements are impressive, but a sense of start-to-finish flow is missing, and the movement bogs down several times. Ongoing momentum is absolutely necessary to carry this half-hour movement all the way through movingly and with strong musical effect. This performance falls a bit short – but only a bit. It seems a safe bet that, a few years from now, Nézet-Séguin will see Bruckner’s Ninth somewhat differently and find a way to put his own stamp on it more effectively than he does here.


Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Kindertotenlieder; Lieder aus “Des Knaben Wunderhorn.” Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone (Gesellen, Kindertotenlieder); Håkan Hagegård, baritone (Wunderhorn). Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Gary Bertini. Phoenix Edition. $16.99.

Rachmaninoff: Vespers, op. 37. Academy of Choral Art, Moscow, conducted by Victor Popov. Delos. $16.99.

Pearls of Traditional Music. Academy of Choral Art, Moscow, conducted by Victor Popov. Delos. $16.99.

To Russia with Love: St. Petersburg, September 25, 2006. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone; Moscow Chamber Orchestra conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos. $19.99 (DVD).

     Here are four distinct ways to enjoy listening to vocal music, each with different things to recommend it. The Mahler CD, featuring recordings from 1992 and 1993, includes some wonderful singing by Thomas Quasthoff, some fine orchestral playing, and well-modulated conducting by the late Gary Bertini (who died in 2005). But it is a somewhat curious mixture of material: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is a studio recording, Kindertotenlieder was recorded live, and the four songs offered from Des Knaben Wunderhorn are studio recordings that do not showcase Håkan Hagegård at his best – his voice sounds pinched, and the orchestra quite overpowers him in effectiveness in Revelge. The complete lack of texts is also an irritation: the fact that the words to Mahler’s songs are available elsewhere does not justify omitting them from this recording. Still, Quasthoff’s voice has such sonorous depths and projects so much emotion that the CD has a great deal going for it, even if it is not quite of the first water.

     Listeners who prefer choral music – pure choral music, without orchestra – will enjoy both the new releases by Victor Popov and the Academy of Choral Art, Moscow, which Popov founded in 1991 as the successor to the Moscow Choral College, which he had previously led for 21 years. The CD of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers offers a chance to hear one of the two works that the composer himself considered his best (the other being The Bells); in fact, Rachmaninoff asked that the fifth movement of the Vespers be sung at his funeral. Dating to 1915 and often referred to as All-Night Vigil, this work is really a sort of “Vespers plus,” since only the first six of its movements use texts from the Russian Orthodox hour of Vespers. But no quibbling over the work’s name or provenance detracts from the grandeur and beauty of Rachmaninoff’s setting, which includes three different styles of chant and is famously demanding of the basses. Popov and his chorus present the work both stylishly and with suitable liturgical seriousness, although this CD may not be a highly moving experience for those outside the Russian Orthodox tradition.

     Pearls of Traditional Music showcases the same conductor and ensemble in very different music, performing 18 folk and folklike songs from Russia, Georgia and Ukraine. The well-known “Boatman’s Song” is here, and so are such gems as “Dark Eyes” and “Twelve Robbers” – two songs of very different mood. It is interesting to hear the works whose composers are known (including “The Ural Rowan,” “Red Sarafan” and “Nightingale,” the first three songs on the CD) and listen to the similarities between them and the traditional folk tunes. The chorus handles the many different moods of the music with just the right amount of gravity or levity, as the case may be. The CD will be of most interest to fans of choral music who are looking for something focusing on works that are comparatively unfamiliar, at least to most people in North America.

     The Dmitri Hvorostovsky DVD offers a fair helping of similar music, here for solo singer and instrumental ensemble; and there are some orchestral interludes as well, such as the waltz from Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite and the Spanish dance from Shostakovich’s music for the film Gadfly. In addition to the attraction of seeing Hvorostovsky as well as listening to him, the DVD offers some presentations of the folk tunes by a St. Petersburg group called Style of Five Folk Ensemble, which joins the Moscow Chamber Orchestra for a number of the songs. This is a thoroughly good-natured performance, recorded live and making it clear just how much the audience was enjoying itself. Even the encores are part of the fun: one is, of all things, “O Sole Mio.” Hvorostovsky has a solid, resonant voice that works well in this music, which he delivers straightforwardly; nothing is overdone here. The repertoire may not be to all listeners’ or viewers’ tastes, but fans of this fine singer will certainly enjoy both seeing and hearing him.

September 18, 2008


Frankenstein Takes the Cake. By Adam Rex. Harcourt. $16.

Baron von Baddie and the Ice Ray Incident. By George McClements. Harcourt. $16.

Monsters on Machines. By Deb Lund. Illustrated by Robert Neubecker. Harcourt. $16.

     If you buy your family only one monster-themed, wedding-oriented book featuring bad parodies of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” it should definitely be Frankenstein Takes the Cake. And that’s selling Adam Rex’s sequel to Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich short. In reality, if you buy only one monster-themed, wedding-oriented book with or without a Poe parody in it for your family, you should buy Frankenstein Takes the Cake. How’s that? Rex’s sense of humor is so warped that it practically turns in on itself, like an M.C. Escher drawing. From the inside front cover, in which various monsters confuse you, the reader, with Frankenstein’s creation, to the back cover, on which Poe’s famed raven says there’s nothing to see but the bar code, this is a book so far out there that it’s practically back here. Wherever “here” is. It’s the story of the wedding plans of Frankenstein’s monster and his bride, the complaints of the bride’s mother (“do you know how much it cost to get you boxed, embalmed, and buried?”), an announcement from the caterer, the flower girl’s scene (and she does make a scene), the vows written by the bride, and much more. “Much more” includes some of the Headless Horseman’s blog entries, little Medusa’s new glasses, a wonderful “Peanuts” parody featuring Dracula Jr., and…well, even more. The writing rolls in marvelous cadences: “Don’t say ‘steak’ to the vampires – they won’t understand./ They’ll just look for a sharp piece of wood in your hand.” The drawings are superb: funny and scary (but not too scary) and exaggerated and hilarious – oh, there are barely enough superlatives to cover all the delights of this entirely bizarre and completely wonderful bit of weirdness. Buy it and make up your own.

     Baron von Baddie and the Ice Ray Incident is not at the same level – very few books are – but it is funny and well-wrought and even comes with a highly interesting message of a type that philosophers and comic-book lovers alike have debated for many years. George McClements’ story is about an evil genius whose clever plans are invariably foiled by his nemesis – until one day, quite by accident, Baron von Baddie catches Captain Kapow in an ice ray and the bad guy actually wins. Now triumphant, he builds a robot, changes the order of the days of the week, and eats lots of doughnuts. And does those same things again and again, until he concludes, “This is boring.” He realizes – here’s where the philosophy comes in – “What was the point of creating chaos if no one was trying to stop you?” So he frees his old enemy, who promptly captures him, and the two continue their well-oiled machinations, presumably happily ever after. The book is a romp, but there is enough underlying seriousness – how does one know good in the total absence of evil, or evil in the total absence of good? – to raise Baron von Baddie and the Ice Ray Incident to considerable heights.

     Monsters on Machines is an altogether less rarefied work – pleasant enough for a strong (+++) rating, but not at the highest levels of creativity. Still, very young children will enjoy watching a major construction job performed by monstrous-looking (but not too monstrous-looking) workers, who turn out to be very young monsters who need a midday break to eat lunch prepared by their monster mom and to take a nap. Deb Lund’s story is just monstrous enough: “The site’s almost ready. The blueprints are drawn./ It’s a Custom Prehaunted with thistles for lawn.” And Dirty Dugg, foreman (forething?) Gorbert, Stinky Stubb and three-eyed Melvina look cute enough. But the greatest fun in the book comes in Robert Neubecker’s illustrations of the foursome at work with their crushermusher, monster-vator and ghostergrader, as well as more mundane vehicles such as a crane, bulldozer and front loader. Kids who love toy construction vehicles are the natural target audience for this book – and the sight of the four little monsters eating their lunch of “monsteroni and cheese” with their hands and feet is a bonus for everyone (except perhaps for parents, who will have to prevent their own little monsters from eating their lunch the same way).


Dog eat Doug: It’s a Good Thing They’re Cute. By Brian Anderson. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Cul de Sac: This Exit. By Richard Thompson. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

The Elderberries. By Phil Frank and Joe Troise. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     From the nearly newborn to those near the end of life, there are places for people of many ages in comic strips today – a welcome diversity. Dog eat Doug, despite its odd title (which includes a small “e” in “eat”), is not about a voracious canine. It’s the tale of a thoroughly lovable one named Sophie whose world is upended when the man and woman of the house (whose faces are never seen) bring home a baby. That’s Doug, who is of indeterminate age – but is definitely still in diapers and pre-verbal. Initially put-upon and jealous, Sophie soon comes to see Doug as a partner in crime (stealing socks, grabbing cheese) and a convenient fall guy. Doug finds Sophie someone to share the floor and furniture with, someone to hug, and someone to blame when necessary. This is a simple setup, but one allowing endless variations, and Brian Anderson certainly comes up with plenty of them. Sophie tries, nonverbally of course, to say “no” when Doug grabs her bone, eats from her food dish and pulls her tail – only to remark in the final panel, “I sound like my parents.” Sophie and Doug find many uses for the toilet bowl, from watering hole to bathtub. Neither of them knows what a squirrel looks like, and there are several strips in which they try to catch something they cannot identify – in one, for instance, a “helpful” squirrel points them toward a skunk, leaving the reader to imagine what happens next. Doug’s parents spell words around Sophie – who, however, knows what they are doing (“it’s so cute the way they spell stuff in front of me”). Doug’s cousin Emily and Sophie’s cousin Tiger make a few appearances, as do Doug’s grandparents, but most of the strip is about the interplay of baby and dog, and most of it is endearing in a very offbeat way – for example, Doug smiles broadly as Sophie licks him all over while thinking, “I just love fried chicken night!”

     Slightly up the age scale is Cul de Sac, which revolves around four-year-old Alice Otterloop, her older brother Petey, their put-upon parents, and assorted friends and hangers-on – including Mr. Danders, a scene-stealing guinea pig who at one point tells Alice, “The two things I do not discuss are celebrities and politics.” Richard Thompson’s art is a big attraction here: there is something not quite of this world about all the characters, and that fits the strip’s theme of suburban angst just perfectly. The dialogue can be out-and-out hilarious, too, as when the Otterloops play miniature golf while Alice, examining the course, asks such questions as, “Why is Dracula fighting a monkey?” This is a strip in which kids try to deal with adults who tousle their hair, flashbacks to being a cow the previous Halloween, and grandparents who smell like crabapple-lye shampoo. A Sunday strip in which Petey tries unsuccessfully to explain comic strips to Alice is hilariously self-referential, and one in which Alice and Petey dress cicadas in paper outfits – leading to a news story about “a possible species of super-intelligent cicadas” – is just surrealistic enough to come true. Hopefully Cul de Sac is nowhere near the end of the line, but is just getting started.

     The Elderberries, unfortunately, is at – and past – the end of the line. This is not because it focuses on 60-to-90-year-olds living in Elderpark (“a good place to park your elder”), but because artist Phil Frank died last year, after writer Joe Troise had already retired from the strip. So the first The Elderberries collection is probably the last one, too, which is a shame, because this is a strip filled with fun, dealing with a demographic that is all too often invisible in comic strips even though older people are more likely to read newspapers than are younger ones. The strip itself tends to some repetition and does not seem fully developed, so the book gets a (+++) rating. But when The Elderberries is on target, it is very funny indeed. The central character, a cowboy named Dusty whose daughter stopped him from driving by taking the wheels off his Cadillac (which is upholstered with the hide of a steer he once hit and has the steer’s horns as a hood ornament), is a curmudgeon with sensitivity; his forays away from Elderpark lead to his being fitted with an ankle bracelet, which in turn leads him to E-mail Martha Stewart to ask how to get rid of it. Other characters, though, are more stereotyped, such as the General (a retired general with a military attitude toward life) and the Professor (who is merely 60 but is at Elderpark because he has significant memory problems; yes, he is an absent-minded professor). Elderpark adventures sometimes deal with real-world issues (going to Canada to buy less-expensive prescription drugs), but usually are just for fun (regular meetings of the Elderpark Gossip Club). Elderpark’s director, Miss Overdunne, really is overdone, and her assistant, Ludmilla, is a throwback to Soviet Union days (which is funny, but only up to a point). The Elderberries is a bracing tonic in some ways but as heavy as castor oil in others. It is a shame that it will not have the chance to develop further.


The Land of Elyon, Book 4: Stargazer. By Patrick Carman. Scholastic. $11.99.

Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls #2: The New Girl. By Meg Cabot. Scholastic. $15.99.

     The official Book 4 in Patrick Carman’s The Land of Elyon series is actually fifth in the sequence – the last book released, Into the Mist, was designated a prequel – but Carman’s tales of Alexa Daley remain as earnest as ever. It is hard to see where Carman will go with these continuing stories: The Land of Elyon was conceived as a trilogy but just keeps growing. He is now placing his basic characters (and some new ones) in unusual, challenging and somewhat threatening situations, then showing how they think and work their way out of their difficulties. This is a rather formulaic approach, and the newer books, including Stargazer, lack the strong characterization and genuine inventiveness of The Dark Hills Divide, the series’ first book and Carman’s first novel. Still, middle-school readers looking for an easy-to-read adventure tale with some unusual settings will enjoy Stargazer. This book finds Alexa and her friend Yipes stranded in an odd community called The Five Stone Pillars, which literally consists of five different pillars of rock. Each pillar is different and each harbors secrets, and Alexa and Yipes need to learn about the pillars and their people in order to find their way back to Elyon. To get back, they plan to use a most unusual means of conveyance: a flying contraption – a balloon called Stargazer. Thanks to an encounter with the eccentric Sir Alexander Wakefield, “the oldest man in the world,” whom everyone has believed to be dead, Alexa and Yipes have a chance not only to escape but also to help the people of The Five Stone Pillars if, or rather when, their world comes crashing down around them. The destructive sea monster Abaddon, responsible for much of the woe of The Five Stone Pillars, is eventually conquered, and Yipes makes a proposal that leads to a concluding celebration in which everyone takes part – but the possibility of yet another sequel is there, even though Stargazer comes to a satisfying finish.

     Meg Cabot, continuing her post-Princess Diaries series about nine-year-old Allie Finkle’s trials and tribulations, keeps things on the light side even as she tries to teach a lesson here and there. In The New Girl, Allie – who suffered through a move in the first book, Moving Day – is both excited and nervous about starting the term at Pine Heights Elementary School (well, duh). And she is entirely excited about getting a new kitten – literally the pick of the litter of a show cat. Unfortunately, Allie has attracted the attention of a nasty bully named Rosemary Dawkins, who gets caught making fun of an essay Allie has written and therefore wastes no time telling Allie that she is going to beat her up. Allie tries using her various rules – the chapter titles – to handle everything that is happening to her: “You aren’t supposed to lie to adults – unless lying to them will make them feel better.” Or: “Ask old people what to do because they know everything.” Trying to balance her new kitten, her new enemy and her new friends proves a lot for Allie to handle, and a spelling bee and family visit to school don’t make matters any easier. Still, Cabot keeps things light and slightly silly through most of the book, although the specter of Rosemary keeps intruding into Allie’s thoughts – until one of her rules comes to everybody’s rescue, and everything works out just fine, except for a surprise involving the new kitten, but that’s really fine too, and…well, it’s all fine, OK? Overdone, oversimplified, too neatly buttoned up, but just fine.


Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-You Notes. By Peggy Gifford. Illustrated by Valorie Fisher. Schwartz & Wade. $12.99.

The Navigator Trilogy, Book Two: City of Time. By Eoin McNamee. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.99.

The Hall Family Chronicles, Book 8: The Dragon Tree. By Jane Langton. HarperCollins. $15.99.

The Return of Skeleton Man. By Joseph Bruchac. HarperTrophy. $5.99.

     Authors and publishers like to hold onto a good thing until it no longer is a good thing. The problem is that it can be hard to tell when sweet storytelling turns sour: author and publisher alike get caught up in a sequence, not always realizing they may be leaving readers less satisfied with later installments than they were with earlier ones. That is an issue for all these books: each is admirable in its way, but none quite delivers the punch of its predecessors. Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-You Notes, for example, is not a sequel per se but a chance to revisit the girl who charmed many readers in Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love “Stuart Little.” The new book is of the heartwarming-tale-of-a-split-family type, with Moxy being required to write a dozen thank-you notes before she can fly to Hollywood to visit her father, who has promised to take her to a star-studded New Year’s Eve party. Moxy, being both creative and a procrastinator, finds thank-you notes boringly repetitive and a task to be put off as long as possible; so she spends her time looking for ways to make the writing go faster (how about using her stepfather’s fancy new copier?). Nothing works as Moxy intends, of course, and then her father cancels the planned trip anyway, giving Peggy Gifford the chance for a truly syrupy plot twist in which Moxy enthusiastically does write a thank-you note – to her mother, for always being there for her. The book, written in very short chapters and punchy sentences, is easy to read and often funny; but the plot, unfortunately, never stops creaking.

     The plot is far more complex in The Navigator Trilogy, whose second book is adventure-packed as it brings Owen closer to finding out about the great power and responsibility he has as Navigator of Time. City of Time is fantasy in science-fictional guise, filled with forces of evil (the Harsh), forces of good (the Registers), and forces of ambiguity (Cati, the Watcher – and her father). Natural disasters are starting to occur in this book, as Earth’s Moon moves closer to the planet and distorts weather patterns, while time itself slows down. Eoin McNamee paces City of Time well, but the underlying plot retains a high level of unbelievability: “There used to be a constant supply of time. People bought and sold, and lived happily. Then buyers started coming in from elsewhere. Nobody knew who they were. The price of time multiplied a hundredfold.” Capitalism and a sort of “time bank”? Best to take City of Time, and the trilogy of which it is the midpoint, as simply a forthright fantasy, and regard its many odd elements (the tempod, the terfuge) simply as flights of fancy.

     The Hall Family Chronicles is 100% fantasy from the start – a start that has led from The Diamond in the Window to the eighth book in the series, The Dragon Tree. Here, Jane Langton visits 40 Walden Street in Concord, Massachusetts, to focus on a mysterious tree in the Halls’ back yard (or perhaps just over their property line). The tree is threatened by tree-cutting Mortimer Moon, so Eddy and Georgie Hall set out to save it, which leads to creation of the Fellowship of the Noble Tree on the one hand – and to Moon’s counterplans on the other. The whole story becomes one of good vs. evil, with the tree itself having some plans of its own, and the characters begin as one-dimensional types and shrink even further as Langton moves the story more and more into the realm of myth (Adam and Eve, the idea that the snake in the Garden of Eden was good rather than evil, the tree of Paradise, and so on). A fast read, and a pleasant one for fans of the tales of the Hall family, The Dragon Tree is thin in both plot and characterization for readers who are not already enamored of this series.

     The Return of Skeleton Man is also thinner than its predecessor, Joseph Bruchac’s original Skeleton Man, in which an Indian legend persists into the present and commits horrifying crimes whose background only a Mohawk girl, Molly, and her parents fully understand. Originally published in 2006 and now available in paperback, this sequel actually has Molly acknowledge that sequels almost never measure up to originals. Bruchac may have realized even when writing this book that it was not at the level of his earlier tale. More than half of the novel is taken up with scene-setting that quickly becomes tiresome. The story takes place at a sprawling mountain lodge whose resemblance to the creepy setting of the film The Shining is noted by Molly herself. In fact, a few of Bruchac’s scenes, in which Molly walks along deserted corridors, feeling someone or something watching her, closely resemble parts of the film and the Stephen King novel on which it was based. Eventually, Molly must re-confront Skeleton Man and outwit him a second time, thanks to help from an unexpected source. The book’s climax is effective enough, but the story is even less substantial than its brief length – 136 pages – would indicate. At the end, Molly says she hopes Skeleton Man is gone for good. In truth, it would be best if that were true – many sequels, this one included, quickly reach a point of diminishing returns.


Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande; Erwartung. Anja Silja, soprano; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.

Mozart: Der Schauspieldirektor. Noëmi Nadelmann and Ofelia Sala, sopranos; Lothar Odinius, tenor; Carsten Sabrowski, bass; Otto Schenk, speaker (theater director). Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. Phoenix Edition. $16.99.

     The voice is the primary attraction but scarcely the only one in both these recordings, which use it in very, very different ways. Schoenberg’s Erwartung (“Expectation”), which dates to 1909, is one of his stranger vocal works, described by the composer as a “monodrama” and consisting of three short scenes followed by one very long one. It is essentially a psychological study of a murderess, described only as the Woman, who has killed her lover in a fit of jealousy but only slowly comes to know what she has done as she wanders through a forest – perhaps one that exists only in her mind – and eventually discovers his body. The work is complex and almost entirely atonal, although Schoenberg does very effectively introduce tonality – taken from one of his own early songs – at the point where the Woman realizes that she is “all alone in my darkness.” Anja Silja sings and emotes throughout with a level of insight and intensity that may not be fully obvious to English speakers – unfortunately, the sung text is not provided. Robert Craft conducts with his usual skill and understanding, whether evoking Schoenberg’s version of nature sounds or focusing the orchestra on the menacing characteristics of themes and intervals associated with the Woman and her self-discovery. This CD, originally released by Koch in 2000 and now part of the Naxos “Robert Craft Collection,” retains its power and intensity throughout. That includes in Pelleas und Melisande, Schoenberg’s 1902 version of a story also told, at the same time, in Debussy’s only opera. Here Schoenberg reaches for the general while Debussy focuses on the particular: the French composer highlights the personal tale of the lovers, which Schoenberg creates a more generalized mood of tragedy. There is no vocal part in the Schoenberg work, but there is a great deal of instrumental coloration and a heightened sense of the funereal. This is a highly polyphonic work, filled with musical layers that imply layers of human suffering. Craft and the Philharmonia fully convey its dark depths.

     There is serious philosophy underpinning Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (“The Impresario”) as well, but this has long been one of Mozart’s most-neglected completed works, because it does not fit easily into either a theatrical mode or a musical one. It is a one-act play with several musical elements, but it is emphatically not an opera. The overture is quite marvelous and fairly often heard, but little else of this 1786 work is well known. The new Phoenix Edition version rates (++++) for German speakers but (+++) for those who only know English, because this is a very text-heavy work – and the absence of a libretto is quite unjustifiable (only the lyrics for the arias are included). This omission is particularly irritating because the text has been substantially altered and updated by Eberhard Streul from the original used by Mozart, which dealt in some detail with issues of art, casting, and the mounting of a theatrical performance. Because those issues were handled in very topical terms, later stagings – starting with one by Goethe in 1797 – changed and updated the spoken sections. This is arguably sensible, at least when the audience understands what is going on. Clearly the audience in this live recording is having a great time with the talk of sponsorship, Kraft Foods, references to Wagner, byplay (partly in English) between actors and conductor, and other elements. But almost none of this will make sense to non-German speakers. The music – whose sequence has been rearranged, with the stage names of the singers changed (two decisions of dubious value) – will, on the other hand, please any listener, from its dueling sopranos arguing over who is the prima donna to the individual arias in which each woman shows off her voice. Sir Neville Marriner conducts the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin with gusto, making the half of the CD that contains music a delight throughout. Enjoyment of the other half depends entirely on one’s language skills.


Spohr: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 8; Concert Overture “Im ernsten Stil.” NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99 (SACD).

Vaughan Williams: Complete Symphonies; “The Wasps” Overture; Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1; Flos Campi. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul Daniel (Nos. 1 and 4; Norfolk; Flos) and Kees Bakels (Nos. 2-3 and 5-9; Wasps). Naxos. $34.99 (6 CDs).

     There is considerable value to having integrated cycles of all a composer’s symphonic works: ideally, listeners get a sense of the composer’s style and development, plus music seen through a single conductor’s lens and thus reflecting a particular viewpoint on the composer’s importance and accomplishments. This is what Howard Griffiths and the NDR Radiophilharmonie are in the process of offering in their cycle of the symphonies of Louis Spohr, who is now considered a second-tier composer but who was deemed a towering symphonic figure through much of the 19th century. Like their first SACD of Spohr symphonies (which included the generally well-regarded No. 3 and the less-well-thought-of No. 10), this second volume pairs a work of substantial interest (No. 2) with a later and lesser one (No. 8). No. 2, which is in D minor (the key of Beethoven’s Ninth) and which dates to 1820 (five years before Beethoven’s last symphony), is a dramatic and tightly packed work whose themes flow with considerable intensity. The tension continues through three often innovative movements (the scherzo, for example, contrasts a theme in minor and pianissimo with the same theme in major and fortissimo); then the finale sweeps all away into good humor and considerable bounce. This is a work well worth more-frequent programming by today’s orchestras. Not so Spohr’s Symphony No.8 in G major, which has something stodgy and a bit academic about it. Its best movement is its scherzo, which is actually in 2/4 rather than 3/4 time and is in the minor – a striking movement whose quality is unmatched by the other three, which are comparatively pedestrian. The overture “In Serious Style” is also rather foursquare, sounding a bit like the Schumann of the Manfred Overture but without that work’s drive. Although well constructed, the overture is ultimately not especially effective. Still, Griffiths conducts all these pieces with seriousness and fine attention to detail, giving listeners ample opportunity to judge Spohr’s strengths and weaknesses for themselves.

     The Vaughan Williams cycle featuring the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra does not, unfortunately, present quite so much of an opportunity to evaluate the composer and his music. There have been a number of very interesting and effective Vaughan Williams cycles, notably including both a mono and a later stereo cycle by Sir Adrian Boult (who worked with the composer) and a more recent set of the symphonies by Bryden Thomsen. But the unifying force in the new set from Naxos is not a conductor but the orchestra – and the Bournemouth Symphony, although it is a fine ensemble, is not really in the absolute top rung of orchestras worldwide (nor does it compare, within England, with the Philharmonia, the London Philharmonic or the London Symphony). It is hard to tell whether either conductor in this set – Paul Daniel or Kees Bakels – has a unifying approach to the cycle, since neither gets to do the whole thing. And the cycle itself stretches over 11 years: rather than an integrated boxed set, this is simply six individually released CDs repackaged in a new cardboard cover. Symphony No. 1 was recorded in 2002; No. 2 in 1993; No. 3 in 1992; No. 4 in 2003; No. 5 in 1996; No. 6 in 1993; and Nos. 7-9 in 1996. This is by no means a disappointing set of the symphonies; it is simply an uneven one. Bakels, for example, does a fine job with No. 2, “A London Symphony,” the intense No. 6, and No. 7, “Sinfonia Antartica,” the last of these on a CD that also includes David Timson reading the movement superscriptions that Vaughan Williams included in the score. But Bakels is less effective with the greater placidity and emotional evenness of No. 3 (“Pastoral”) and No. 5. Daniel does well with the dramatic and highly dissonant No. 4, and gives an excellent reading of the first three movements of No. 1, “A Sea Symphony” – but the lengthy finale seems meandering and ends with more of a fadeout than a mystical assertion. Each symphony’s performance has elements to admire and ones that can be nitpicked. As a whole, the cycle is quite worthy, but in the absence of a unifying and unified approach to the music, it falls short of other boxed sets that more fully represent a single conductor’s vision, at a particular point in time, of these highly varied (and highly variable) works that one of Great Britain’s greatest 20th-century composers produced over the span of half a century.

September 11, 2008


Darkside, Book 2: Lifeblood. By Tom Becker. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go. By Dale E. Basye. Random House. $16.99.

     The second book in Tom Becker’s Darkside saga, about an alternative London existing side-by-side with the standard “Lightside” city but visible only to those with evil in their veins, continues and expands on the promise of the first in what is emerging as one of the best recent adventure series for preteens and young teenagers. Darkside is a sort of Mr. Hyde London, part of and yet not part of the “Dr. Jekyll” London in which everyday humans live. In Lifeblood, though, there is more interaction between the two sides than in the first book, for the young hero, Jonathan Starling, is not the only one who finds his way between these…call them aspects of the city. Jonathan remains on a quest to find out what happened to his mother 12 years ago; he is now firmly allied with private detective Elias Carnegie, whose ability to change into a wolf terrifies even the majority of Darkside’s inhabitants; and he is retracing the steps of a particularly ghastly murder case that his mother may have been investigating when she disappeared. The case involves a member of the Rippers – descended from none other than Jack the Ripper, ruler of Darkside – and in Lifeblood, the question of who is and is not a Ripper, and how the members of this family handle each other, becomes crucial to Jonathan’s own family questions and his continuing search. Jonathan’s father lives in Lightside, and Jonathan does spend time with him, but it is clear that his growing bond with Carnegie is also of a father-son nature: “They had spent almost all of the last two months together. Jonathan had nearly been killed several times (more than once at Carnegie’s own hands), but every day he had woken up and felt alive, felt the blood pumping through his veins in anticipation of what was to follow. Not only had the wereman saved his life, he had helped create an entirely new and vibrant existence for him.” The increasingly tangled family relationships are at the heart of Lifeblood, but there is a great deal more here – from the investigative to the grisly – that will keep young readers waiting for the next surprising development. There are many of them in this book, and more will surely follow as the series continues.

     Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go, the first novel by Dale E. Basye, aspires to some of the same darkness (and dark humor) as the Darkside series, but lacks the punch and consistency of Becker’s books. Still, it gets a solid (+++) rating for its genuinely weird setting: a place where dead kids go to be sorted out until it is determined where they will spend eternity. Hovering on the edge of amusement and misery, Heck features some of the same silliness and bad puns found in Bruce Hale’s Chet Gecko books, but Basye is clearly trying for something broader, weirder and ultimately more meaningful. The names he uses make the parallels and differences clear: the head of Heck, a sort of evil reform-boarding school with demon attendants who prod kids with “pitchsporks,” is designated the Principal and named Bea “Elsa” Bubb, and she is equipped with a three-headed Cerberus who is small, annoying and capable of shapeshifting (but nowhere near as terrifying as the Cerberus that guards Hell – a region referred to in Heck as “h-e-double-hockey-sticks”). The central characters here are named Fauster (not exactly Faust, but close enough), and the timid 11-year-old who does not really belong in Heck is named Milton – and befriends another boy named Virgil. Milton’s sister, a 13-year-old goth girl and petty thief named Marlo, is the reason he ends up in Heck after the two die in a marshmallow-bear explosion – one of many touches in which the silly and the weird come together to odd effect. Heck itself is arranged in nine circles, just as Hell is in Dante’s Inferno, but each of these circles is child-oriented. This entire first book is set in Limbo, where newly arrived kids undergo a series of humiliations as they wait to find out which circle they will be assigned to. Readers know early on that some game bigger than that of Heck is afoot, since Milton does not really belong there and sees and hears things on his journey to Heck that he should neither see nor hear. By the end of the book, Milton himself has an idea that something big is going on and that he is very much involved. But before that, he and Virgil and Marlo have to endure bullying (male and female varieties), a number of physical discomforts (being dead and in Heck has a strong physicality to it), classroom instruction from the likes of Blackbeard (as a sort of gym teacher) and Richard Nixon (who teaches ethics), and a spy in the form of Cerberus disguised as Milton’s pet ferret, Lucky (who has somehow made the transition to Heck while hiding in Milton’s backpack). None of this makes an iota of sense, but that does not matter in the chapters that seem like a decidedly dark romp: the lighter parts of the book, including illustrations of various demons and imps by Bob Dob, work well. It is only when Basye seems to be trying to hint at something serious that Heck bogs down. For example, it makes grotesque sense to have Lizzy Borden teach cooking – she is especially adept at chopping. But the use of Nixon, a clear political statement, does not have the same level of incongruous humor for the nine-to-12 age group at which Heck is aimed. As the series continues, perhaps Basye will be more precisely on target.


500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide. By Gene Kannenberg, Jr. Collins|Design. $24.95.

The Penguin of Death. By Edward Monkton. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

I’m Sorry…My Bad! By Bradley Trevor Greive. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Fans of graphic novels now have a great gift to give each other – or themselves. It is a gift that does double duty, because you can give the actual book or keep the book and use it as a guide to other books to give as presents (or add to your own collection). This double-edged, or double-jointed, gift is Gene Kannenberg, Jr.’s comprehensive, exhaustive, thoroughly researched, intelligently opinionated 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide. It may not be quite the ultimate guide, since of course it is merely a snapshot in time and there could be further amazing graphic novels still to come (in which case there will no doubt be a revised version of this book). But it is certainly a guide that every fan of graphic novels will want to have, so if you would like to give it as a gift, make sure the recipient has not yet bought it for himself or herself. Kannenberg, who has a Ph.D. degree in comics (really) from the University of Connecticut, manages to discuss graphic novels with a wonderful mixture of pithiness, understanding and erudition. More power to him if he has read all 500 here – and all the follow-ups and cross-referenced works to which he alludes in his short write-ups. Here you will find Tales from the Crypt (“a classic portmanteau horror anthology [and] a distinctly enjoyable – and maybe just a little nostalgic – peek at 1950s B-horror”). You will find Watchmen (“the daddy of all superhero graphic novels [and] an exceptional case of what can be achieved in the comics medium”). You will find Bone (“exciting, moving and very, very funny, this is one ‘all ages’ title that both adults and children will be fighting over for years to come”). And how about one of the many versions of Little Nemo in Slumberland, or the Asterix books, or a strange bit of European sadomasochistic erotica called Marie Gabrielle? Kannenberg, it is clear, defines the term “graphic novel” very broadly. His book is divided into 10 sections that often overlap (one is “Adventure,” another “Superheroes,” another “War,” for example). This requires readers to make frequent reference to the four indexes (by age, artist, writer and title), which unfortunately are printed in minuscule type and seem rather lightly inked – you may need a magnifying glass. 500 Essential Graphic Novels shows some other elements of overdesign – for instance, when you look up a title, the number next to it is the page number, but only right-hand pages are numbered (and not all of them), and the numbers are printed sideways on page edges rather than at top or bottom. Still, even when the book makes it less than simple to find a specific work, it is a joy to page through, because while looking for one thing, you will surely encounter others you would never have thought to seek. This book is a pleasure to read in and of itself (non-sequentially!), as well as a gateway to uncountable hours you (or a lucky gift recipient) can spend reading the graphic novels about which Kannenberg writes so knowledgeably.

     But perhaps all this is too rarefied, and all you really want is a little, not-too-expensive gift book for that special someone. Well, how special is he or she? Special enough to merit The Penguin of Death, the weirdest small hardcover yet from the increasingly strange mind of Edward Monkton (pen name of poet Giles Andreae)? This little volume, which gets a (+++) rating, tells about the 412th and final method by which the title character can escort you to your everlasting reward – a method involving words, song, poetry, truth and an eventual explosion “into a million specks of dust.” And all while sipping tea and eating biscuits. Parable? Fairy tale? Merely an oddity, through its juxtaposition of death with pictures of an enigmatically smiling penguin? You decide – and then decide whether you know anyone who would receive this book as a compliment rather than…well, rather than anything else it might be.

     Still a little on the weird side? Well, what is the reason you are looking for a gift book? If it’s to say you are sorry to someone, you can certainly get an amusingly apologetic if somewhat overdone little hardcover in the form of Bradley Trevor Greive’s I’m Sorry…My Bad! Like all Greive’s books, this one uses cleverly chosen animal photographs, plus text written to make it seem as if the animals’ expressions are related to the message that Greive wants to send (that is, the message that you want to send). Thus, two fish facing each other in separate fishbowls go with the words, “The longer I waited, the harder it was to talk to you.” And a photo showing a baby kangaroo on one side of a gate, with a dog on the other, gets the words, “It’s all my fault there is a weird barrier between us now. I blew it.” This particular book gets heavily into self-flagellation and may go farther than you wish to go in apologizing – so it gets a (+++) rating. But if you do want photos that allow you to describe yourself as stubborn, whiny, a pious twit and a lazy, smelly slob – and you think such self-description will repair a damaged relationship with someone you have offended – then by all means consider this book. But read it yourself first, since it promises, among other things, that if the offended party gives you one more chance, “I shall zip my lip and never ever ask for anything else for the rest of my life.” My goodness – what did you do if this book reflects your feelings, even in an amusing way?


Darkest Powers, Book One: The Summoning. By Kelley Armstrong. HarperTeen. $17.99.

The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney. By Suzanne Harper. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Wicked Dead #4: Crush. By Stefan Petrucha and Thomas Pendleton. HarperTeen. $7.99.

Ghost of Spirit Bear. By Ben Mikaelsen. HarperCollins. $16.99.

Spirit. By J.P. Hightman. HarperTeen. $16.99.

     Ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night…well, there are ghosties aplenty in books for preteens and teenagers, that’s for sure, and there are things that go bump in the night as well, although at least some of them are indulging in fleshly rather than unearthly delights. Many teen-oriented supernatural books place a veneer of the otherworldly over recognizable real-world situations, then see where that takes the characters. It takes them to some scary places, some silly ones, and some all-too-recognizable everyday ones, albeit decked out in some outré furnishings.

     Ghosts are currently a big thing in books of this type. The Summoning opens a planned trilogy called Darkest Powers, in which Chloe Saunders’ desire for a normal life is usurped by her ability to see and hear unexplainable things that no one else’s senses pick up. As a result, Chloe is eventually sent to a group home for troubled kids called Lyle House, where she gets the help she needs and becomes a normal teenager. Just kidding! No, of course she meets other young people with perception problems and powers of their own, and of course Lyle House itself turns out to be a place of dangerous secrets that Chloe begins to find out, and of course there are dark powers that insist on keeping those secrets, well, secret, so Chloe – using strength and intelligence she did not fully realize she had, plus friends she had never expected to make – needs to find a way to fight back. Supernaturals gotta stick together, after all.

     And if you don’t want to deal with the supernatural, sometimes that’s just too bad, as Sparrow Delaney discovers. She so does not want to be a medium (like her six older sisters, her mom and her grandmother); she so does not want to talk to ghosts (much less see, hear and smell them); and she is so determined not to let anyone know she can do these things. But The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney doesn’t stay secret, or there would be no book – and there certainly is one, in which Sparrow thinks she’s doing just fine in 10th grade at her new high school, even to the point of meeting a guy she finds kind of interesting. Uh, two guys. And one is as charming and persistent as can be – and is also dead. He’s a ghost who won’t leave her alone until she helps him, you know, Move On. The blend of humor and seriousness here sets the book part from others in this genre and makes it especially attractive.

     But there’s nothing humorous at all in the Wicked Dead series, in which ghost girls in a crumbling orphanage take turns telling stories in the hope that one tale or another may be the key to…well, somewhere better. The fourth book in the series, Crush, follows the formula closely and, within its self-imposed limits, effectively. This tale is about a boy named Jonathan Barnes, who has a terrible time with teachers and fellow pupils at his school, until everyone who has ever tormented him starts turning up…well, dead. It turns out there are Reapers that are, um, reaping the bodies of Jonathan’s enemies, but is he somehow calling them, or is one of his friends doing it, or is there some dark power manipulating everyone and everything? And in the framing tale, what is happening among the ghost girls, and how does the evil Headmistress figure into their fate? Answers are not forthcoming here – only a modicum of chills.

     There are chills in Ghost of Spirit Bear as well – physical ones as well as the spiritual kind. This is a sequel to Touching Spirit Bear (2001), in which Cole Matthews was sentenced to a year of exile and aloneness on a remote Alaskan island for beating another boy. Cole has survived and made peace with his victim, Peter Driscal, but in the new book, he must also make peace with a deeply troubled high school, filled with tensions that are coming closer and closer to bringing out the raging beast within Cole. Gangs and violence are part of everyday life at the school, and Peter is a natural victim, because of his limp and speech impediment. Cole does his best to cope: “Nothing was the same here, but he did feel he was starting to find a calm place deep inside himself where he could go when school and the city piled up on him.” Eventually, a campaign to make the school’s mascot a Spirit Bear – akin to the one that taught Cole so much in Alaska – unites the everyday world and the Alaskan wilderness. In truth, Ghost of Spirit Bear is only the ghost of its predecessor in effectiveness, being just too mundane to make an effective sequel. It will be of interest mainly to readers of the earlier book who wonder what happened next to the characters.

     Spirit handles ghostliness in a different way, with a touch of witchcraft thrown in and a Romeo-and-Juliet plot that eventually leads to the question of who is the haunter and who the haunted. Set in Victorian times and looking back even farther, to the 17th century and the Salem witch hysteria, the book focuses on ghost hunters Tess and Tobias Goodraven and a strange, silent, deadly witch of the woods called Old Mother Malgore. A train wreck puts the Goodravens mysteriously in touch with the spirits of a young couple of long ago – a circumstance that dovetails perfectly with their reasons for hunting ghosts: “Tess and I seemed to have a knack for it. We started to seek out hauntings, and then it just got so wickedly interesting.” Perhaps too interesting this time, though, as the past passes into and through the present, and Old Mother Malgore wields power over space and time alike. The final confrontations – there are several – build in power and strangeness to a genuine surprise ending that raises questions of good and evil, spirit and flesh, and who – if anyone – has the right to live out a life. Intended for ages 12 and up, Spirit will be too peculiar and intense for younger and more impressionable teens. But spirited it certainly is.