July 30, 2009


Dr. Seuss Lacing Cards: How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Scholastic. $14.99.

Dr. Seuss Puzzle Story: One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. Scholastic. $14.99.

Ugly Boards: ABC U Later; 123 4 U. By David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim. Random House. $6.99 each.

     The good Dr. Seuss continues to inspire endlessly inventive repackagings more than 17 years after his death. And it is a tribute to the guardians of his memory that the various entertainments based on Theodor Seuss Geisel’s books have by and large been respectful of the unique nature of his themes, characters and even his rhymes. (Thank goodness, no one has created The Cat in the Hat Comes Back Yet Again or any similar monstrosity.) Kids too young to read the Dr. Seuss books themselves – as young as age three – can get a delightful introduction to the works with such activity offerings as the Dr. Seuss Lacing Cards and Dr. Seuss Puzzle Story. The card set includes five scenes taken more or less from How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – a closeup of the Grinch’s green face; a picture of him carrying a bag of toys; a view of his dog, Max, dressed in a Santa Claus hat rather than the antlers he is made to wear in the book; a stylized Cindy-Lou Who; and Cindy-Lou peeking through a Christmas wreath. Parents will notice that none of these pictures quite matches anything in the book – in the case of the Grinch’s face, for example, his scowl has been toned down. This is typical of Seuss repackagings for young children, and will not really interfere with kids’ enjoyment of the scenes or of the full-length story (when they later encounter the book itself). The lacings here – five colors of laces are included – do not help create the pictures, but simply outline them. These cards will be most enjoyable for young children just developing motor skills. The enclosed booklet not only helps parents teach their kids lacing but also includes additional Seussian activities, such as a maze and a counting game. It’s fun all around (all around the lacing cards, that is).

     The approach of the Dr. Seuss Puzzle Story will intrigue slightly older kids. This package includes four separate jigsaw puzzles, already partially assembled but easy to take completely apart if you wish, and all based on characters from One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (although, as in the Lacing Cards, not necessarily showing exact scenes from the book). Very cleverly, the puzzles have four different backing colors (red, blue, green and yellow), so the pieces are easy to sort and difficult to mix up. The booklet here gives solutions to all the puzzles and also includes counting and find-the-picture games. The sturdy, magnetic-strip-closure packaging of both new Dr. Seuss items should keep them in good shape for plenty of uses and reuses – until kids become curious enough about the books themselves to want to hear, and then read, the stories.

     Dr. Seuss characters have their own undeniable form of cuteness, but so do some characters described by their creators as ugly: the Uglydolls and the cartoon characters drawn (so to speak) from them. Uglydolls are misshapen blobs in moderately blah colors, sometimes with one eye or three (or one that works and one that doesn’t), occasionally with snaggle teeth or a pronounced overbite, with lumpy bodies and tongues perpetually sticking out and all sorts of unappealing characteristics…but, gosh darn it, the whole is cuter than the sum of its parts. David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim never quite take ugliness seriously, and the dolls and drawings maintain a kind of innocently appealing outlook on life that makes them the diametric opposites of Jim Benton’s Happy Bunny character, who looks adorable but is deeply steeped in cynicism and sarcasm. Young kids (ages up to four) who like Uglydolls (the playthings) will also like Ugly Boards (board books featuring the playthings) – and the books make a nice introduction to the alphabet and to counting. ABC U Later, for example, starts traditionally with “A is for Apple,” but then has “B is for Bargain,” with two of the Uglydolls taking low-priced apples to eat so they can “keep the doctor away” – but then comes “C is for Checkup,” with the same Uglydolls getting sick from eating too many apples. That sort of story continuity continues through the book: “M is for More Sugar, N is for Nonstop Candy, O is for Open Up!” And the last of these shows the Uglydoll in the dentist’s chair. For P and Q, we get “Mind Your P’s and Q’s,” with nine interpretations of what that might mean. And so on, very amusingly. 123 4 U is funny, too: “4” offers four bones given to four one-eyed Uglydogs; “5” has a five-armed character complaining that mittens only come in packages of four or six; “8” has an Uglydoll eating a cookie shaped like the number while saying, “I ate 8.” No one would really call the Uglydolls pretty, but they do manage to transcend their misshapen bodies to come across as…well, pretty adorable. And they definitely have a cute way of explaining letters and numbers.


Why Does E=mc2? (And Why Should We Care?) By Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw. Da Capo. $24.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Demystified: An Essential Guide for Understanding and Living with OCD. By Cheryl Carmin, Ph.D. Da Capo. $15.95.

     There is a reason the equation E=mc2 is the best-known physics formulation in the world – for many people, the only known one. It is simple, easy to remember and elegant, even for people to whom its actual meaning is obscure. People who understand what the equation means – the energy that binds an object equals the object’s mass times the square of the speed of light – are likely to be even more impressed with its elegance and simplicity. But go just the tiniest bit beyond the equation itself, to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, and things quickly get murky for almost all non-physicists. To the rescue come particle physicist Brian Cox and University of Manchester theoretical-physics professor Jeff Forshaw, who despite their formidable accomplishments and obviously outstanding intellects are willing – and able – to unravel some Einsteinian thinking for the benefit of mere mortals. Why Does E=mc2? is a joy to read in part because of its juxtaposition of breeziness with complexity. On one page, Cox and Forshaw write, “Einstein was still working at the patent office in 1906, where his reward for changing our view of the universe forever was to be promoted to technical expert, second class.” On another, they analyze the time-stretching effect of a real-world train ride: “If the train is moving at 300 kilometers per hour, then you can check that v2 / c2 is a very tiny number: 0.000000000000077. To get the ‘time stretching’ factor γ we need 1 /[square root of] 0.000000000000077 = 1.000000000000039. As expected, it is a tiny effect: Traveling for 100 years on the train would only extend your lifetime by a matter of 0.000000000000039 years according to your friend on the platform, which is slightly above one-tenth of a millisecond.” After four chapters of their complex but lively presentation, they arrive at the question posed in the title of their book: “All of this talk of objects in spacetime may sound rather abstract but there is a point to it.” Using a billiard-ball example, they explain what Einstein’s equation really means, and in particular the importance of its “energy” component: “Ask someone on the street to explain what energy is and you’ll get either a sensible answer or a pile of steaming New Age nonsense.” And then they move to a chapter called, “And Why Should We Care? Of Atoms, Mousetraps, and the Power of the Stars,” in which they discuss real-world and out-of-this-world applications of Einstein’s formulation, eventually getting into some detail regarding the remarkable experiments planned using Europe’s highly ambitious Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Cox in fact heads a project at the LHC; he and Forshaw clearly know whereof they speak – although at this point they must speak speculatively, since the LHC encountered problems at startup last year and is not expected to be operational until sometime this fall. Nevertheless, the excitement associated with this project – and the excitement felt by physicists as they delve into the secrets of the universe by any means – are everywhere apparent in Why Does E=mc2? Reading it is an intellectually exhilarating experience.

     Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Demystified is a more ordinary book about a more everyday matter – and is more likely to have real-world applicability to many people’s day-to-day lives. Cheryl Carmin directs both the Stress and Anxiety Disorders Clinic and the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and has considerable first-hand experience both in treating OCD and in researching its causes. She tends to write using clinical language that may be off-putting, or at least distancing, for some readers: “OCD involves experiencing repetitive thoughts that range from annoying to extremely distressing and responding to those thoughts with similarly repetitive behaviors or thoughts – also called rituals. This approach does have the advantage of sounding objective in the discussion of a condition that is experienced subjectively and, partly for that reason, can be difficult to diagnose and treat. The difficulty has to do with OCD existing on a spectrum of order and disorder: “While most of us want clean clothes and a home where things are arranged so that we can find them easily, people with OCD take their symmetry and ordering compulsions to the extreme, becoming distressed whenever they are prevented from achieving their notion of what constitutes ideal symmetry or order.” Despite her penchant for long sentences, Carmin is capable at times of refreshing directness, as when she opens a section on trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder) with the simple statement, “Our hair adorns us.” And she does include some case histories, which are easier going than many of her analyses. The most useful parts of the book are ones that can actually be used diagnostically or in treatment – by people with OCD themselves or by ones with OCD family members. There is, for example, an “exposure hierarchy” form that is filled out to indicate anxiety-generating triggers that result in ritual behavior. Carmin also discusses varieties of OCD (comparing the pediatric form with the adult type, for instance), talks about the pluses and minuses of medication, and offers a list of resources to which families can turn for further help. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Demystified gets a (+++) rating: although highly useful for people dealing with OCD (their own or someone else’s), it can be somewhat difficult to wade through, and Carmin’s attempt to be comprehensive means that readers will have to seek out sections relevant to their particular circumstances. The good news is that readers who do find the elements that are applicable to their own situations can count on finding ideas and advice that are both intelligent and useful.


Alyzon Whitestar. By Isobelle Carmody. Random House. $17.99.

Fairy Tale. By Cyn Balog. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Will teens ever tire of supernaturally tinted coming-of-age novels? Apparently not anytime soon, if the ongoing production of these books is any indication. Both experienced writers, such as Isobelle Carmody, and newcomers, such as Cyn Balog, clearly feel there is still plenty of life in this fantasy subgenre – and certainly these authors’ new books are lively enough, even if neither really offers anything new or unusual.

     Carmody’s Alyzon Whitestar – the title character has a perfect name for this subgenre – features an ordinary girl with an out-of-the-ordinary family, who then has an accident that makes her something beyond the ordinary, too. Accidents in novels like this, as in superhero comics, rarely destroy or disfigure – they add powers. The nature of Alyzon’s new ability is the cleverest thing in the book: she develops an extraordinarily heightened sense of smell. Yes, all her senses become more fine-tuned, but smell – which tends to get short shrift in both mainstream and romance writing – develops the most strongly. She does not simply smell body odor or perfume – she smells people’s essential natures, their moods, their intentions. Some of what Alyzon discovers is not exactly surprising: readers will figure out quickly why the cutest boy in school smells so bad to Alyzon. And some of Alyzon’s reactions to her newly developed powers are straight out of superhero comics – she “cursed her carelessness” after almost revealing her smell-related abilities to a friend, because “I didn’t want her to change the way she acted toward me. Wasn’t that the whole reason I had decided to keep my extended senses secret?” Alyzon soon finds her heightened abilities putting her in touch with the depths of other people’s imaginations – and dredging up thoughts and emotions that shake her to the core. Furthermore, it turns out that Alyzon’s own family (musical father and artistic mother) may be in danger. Alyzon does end up confiding in close friends, who believe her about her powers (perhaps a shade too easily), and she finds herself getting even more deeply into people’s essences (“I had the utterly strange and dreadful impression that something dark and ancient was looking at me out of [his] eyes”). A grand confrontation and a major sacrifice by Alyzon lead to a well-paced conclusion that neatly ties up the book’s many threads – but these are threads with which many other self-discovery books involving the supernatural have been sewn.

     The bland title of Fairy Tale leads into a story that, if not dull, is thoroughly familiar. It’s one of those torn-between-two-worlds tales, about what happens to two almost-16-year-old lifelong friends when it turns out that one of them is not human after all – and is destined to become king of the fairies. That would be Cam Browne, who lives next door to Morgan Sparks and has been her best friend forever…and now, with hormones doing their predictable teenage thing, is bound up with Morgan in all sorts of mutual attractions. Morgan, although thoroughly human, is a much more interesting character than Cam, the changeling who starts changing into what he needs to become in order to be Fairy King. Morgan realizes that something is wrong even before Cam explains his heritage and destiny; Morgan comes up with a plan to fool the fairies and keep Cam with her; and Morgan is the one who starts to have doubts about any future with Cam as it becomes increasingly evident that he is indeed one of the fairy race. Morgan is the book’s narrator, and she’s good at it: “My parents are the world’s youngest senior citizens.” “I’m sitting in the front office with a bald Goth girl in a Kill Your Mother T-shirt and a dude who appears to have forgotten to wear his pants today, since he’s just wearing white boxers.” “She looks like hair gel to me.” “Relaxing, not completely but just enough so that my heart isn’t pounding out of my chest, I go back to my Fluffernutters. Morgan comes across as a real-world, grounded person – but instead of that making her situation somehow more believable, it makes it less so. Complicating the book is the character of Pip, the healthy human boy taken by the fairies when Cam, who was sickly and not expected to survive, was left among humans. The fairies return now-teenage Pip so Cam can come back to them, and Pip is key to the plan to outwit the fairies so Cam can stay with Morgan, but it turns out that fairies cannot truly love, and everything involving Pip and Cam gets (predictably) tangled, and of course there is a fairy enemy for Morgan to drive everything to a climax, and – well, pretty much everyone except Morgan is pretty much predictable pretty much all the time, and pretty much everything that happens is pretty much to be expected. Balog has managed to create an attractive and interesting protagonist – but even Morgan’s spirited narration cannot make Fairy Tale come across as much more than formulaic.


Mendelssohn: Complete Organ Sonatas. William Whitehead, organ. Chandos. $18.99.

Rosetti: Concerto for Two Horns and Orchestra, Murray C61; Concertos for Horn and Orchestra, Murray C50 and C48; Andante from Concerto for Two Horns and Orchestra, Murray C55Q. Klaus Wallendorf and Sarah Willis, horns; Kurpfälzisches Kammerorchester conducted by Johannes Moesus. CPO. $16.99.

Brahms: Clarinet Quintet; Piano Quintet; Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Clarinet and Piano. Ralph Manno, clarinet; Alfredo Perl, piano; Michaela Paetsch Neftel and Rahel Cunz, violins; Hartmut Rohde, viola; Guido Schiefen, cello. Oehms. $16.99 (2 CDs).

     The largest wind instrument of all is the largest instrument, period: the organ, which is so intertwined with its setting that it is in a sense the size of a building – often a very large church or cathedral. Mendelssohn’s adroit use of wind instruments is well known, but the organ is not one with which he is usually associated. And that is too bad, as the excellent new recording of his organ sonatas by William Whitehead shows. These six works are the most substantial for the organ written between Bach’s time and Liszt’s – and that is a fair statement even though Mozart, among others, wrote for this instrument. Mendelssohn was himself a fine organist, and an English publisher therefore commissioned him to write six organ “voluntaries” – which grew in the composition into full-fledged sonatas. Mendelssohn played Bach’s organ works and also liked to improvise, and these sonatas clearly show a mixture of styles, from the contrapuntal to that of sacred songs and choral pieces. Despite the organ’s longtime identification with the church, the sonatas are mostly secular, although the first movements of No. 1 (in F minor), No. 3 (in A) and No. 6 (in D minor) incorporate church melodies. Bach’s influence is strong in No. 1 as well as No. 2 (in C minor) and No. 4 (in B-flat), but No. 2 also shows a strong Handelian orientation. And No. 5 (in D), as well as some of the other sonatas, also includes self-borrowing, notably from Elijah. These are not works in a single style but ones in which Mendelssohn adopted and adapted varying approaches to create sonatas that looked to the past while also incorporating the composer’s own techniques and preferences. They are not often heard, certainly not in a complete cycle, but they should be: individually and as a group, they are fascinating, and quite unlike other organ music of the Romantic era.

     Antonio Rosetti predates Mendelssohn: he was a contemporary of Mozart and was in his time ranked both with Mozart and with Haydn. Like Mendelssohn some years later, Rosetti extended the reach of wind instruments and gave them prominence even beyond what Mozart had brought to them. Rosetti wrote 16 concertos for single horn and seven for two horns, and they are difficult pieces to play on today’s valve horns – which means they required supreme virtuosity on the natural horn of Rosetti’s time. The three complete concertos on CPO’s new CD are fine samples of Rosetti’s sensitivity to the instrument, with C61 in F offering deeper emotion than is usually found in 18th-century wind concertos. C50 in E is distinguished by an especially unusual twist for the horn at the end, and C48 in E-flat by the particularly high writing. Also on the CD is an E-flat movement of questionable authorship (hence the “Q” in C55Q), possibly by Rosetti but also possibly by Michael Haydn. This is a pleasant romance that emphasizes cooperation rather than competition between the soloists. Both the players, Klaus Wallendorf and Sarah Willis, bring warmth as well as virtuosity to these charming, neglected works.

     Brahms’ wind pieces – in particular those for clarinet that he wrote late in life – are anything but neglected, but there is always room for another well-played version of them, and the two-CD Oehms set featuring Ralph Manno and Alfredo Perl is not only beautifully played but also a bargain. Manno and Perl are especially happily paired in the two Clarinet Sonatas, with Manno’s expressiveness making a strong case for playing these works on clarinet rather than in their alternative instrumentation for piano and viola. Manno’s expressiveness in much of the first sonata is quite wonderful, standing in strong contrast to the liveliness of the work’s finale. In the second sonata, in which clarinet and piano function more as equal partners, Manno and Perl throw the themes and accompaniments back and forth with ease and grace, producing a glowing interpretation. The Clarinet Quintet is also very fine, its ebb and flow sometimes gentle, sometimes impassioned, and its overall impression being one of warmth and tenderness. In contrast to these three late works, the earlier Piano Quintet fits somewhat uneasily into this set, not because of any deficiency in the playing – it sounds quite wonderful – but simply because it is so different in tone. Originally conceived as a string quintet, the work has in its finished version more brightness than is often found in Brahms, and a well-thought-out balance between the piano and the strings. The performers meld with apparently effortless grace, with the impressive ensemble playing contrasting pleasantly with the highlights that Brahms offers from time to time to individual instruments, notably the piano. These CDs are reissues – the quintets date to 1995, the sonatas to 1992 – but that takes nothing away from their quality. Overall, this is a lovely recording of lovely music, both with winds and without.

July 23, 2009


Egg Drop. By Mini Grey. Knopf. $16.99.

The Grumpy Dump Truck. By Brie Spangler. Knopf. $15.99.

I Don’t Want to Go to School! By Stephanie Blake. Random House. $12.99.

     Among the good ways to keep kids occupied with books during the summer is: silliness. It’s fine if books have a message, but it helps if they communicate it in a soft-pedaled, amusing way. For example, Egg Drop could be described as a warning about becoming overly ambitious. That’s true – and completely misses the point of Mini Grey’s very funny story of an egg that is determined to fly. No, not the chick inside: the egg itself is going to fly, even though “it didn’t know anything about aerodynamics or Bernoulli’s principle” – which Grey illustrates so clearly that even a four-to-eight-year-old will be able to understand it. Grey’s delightful illustrations show the egg (which has eyes peeking out near the top of its shell) dreaming up all sorts of ways to fly, from rocket fins and engines to helicopter blades to a parasail. Then the egg realizes that what matters most is height, so it climbs all 583 steps of a nearby tower and leaps joyfully off – and its expression (yes, this egg has expressions) is pure joy until it realizes it is not flying but…falling. The inevitable happens, but we don’t see it – we just see the many attempts to put the egg back together, using string, chewing gum, even tomato soup. Nothing works, of course, but there is nevertheless a happy ending – of sorts. Oh, and the whole story is narrated by a chicken. This is silliness at a truly inspired level.

     The Grumpy Dump Truck is a more overt “lesson” book, but it too has enough silly elements to keep young children (ages 3-6) interested. The truck of the title is named Bertrand, and even though he does his job well, he complains about it constantly: “Everything is the PITS!” Kids will find it funny when Bertrand is mean to the other construction equipment – but a little sad, too: the crane even sheds a tear. Bertrand isn’t very nice to the animal construction workers, either, shouting at the rabbit foreman and honking at the bricklayers. But Brie Spangler makes sure that Bertrand gets what is coming to him: he scares one bricklayer, Tilly the porcupine, so much that one of her quills shoots right into Bertrand’s tire (porcupines don’t really shoot their quills, but dump trucks don’t talk, either). Tilly is very apologetic, no matter how grumpily Bertrand responds to her saying she is sorry. In fact, Tilly offers to help get the quill out of Bertrand’s tire. And when she does, she discovers lots of other stuff in the tire – stuff that is making Bertrand’s feet (well, tires) hurt and making him (you guessed it) grumpy. Bertrand ends up smiling and helping everyone out, his grumpiness becoming a thing of the past – but his appearance (and the look of the other characters) remaining silly enough to keep the story amusing right to the end.

     You might think there is nothing funny about a young child’s fear of going to school for the first time, but kids of the same age to enjoy Bertrand’s adventures will also be amused by “Simon the Super Rabbit” in Stephanie Blake’s I Don’t Want to Go to School! This is a book perhaps best suited for late summer, when young children are about to start preschool or kindergarten. It features Simon repeatedly telling his parents “no way!” when they explain about school and all the things he will do, learn and (they promise) enjoy there. A nine-panel illustration in which Simon, trying to sleep the night before school starts, alternately tells himself he is or is not scared, is a high point of the book – and can give parents a fine teachable moment. But it is also amusingly silly enough to keep the whole experience of preschool jitters light. Blake does not pretend that Simon gets over his fears immediately: his voice gets tiny when his father leaves him at school, and the first thing he does there is cry. But then Simon gradually gets into the spirit of school, enjoying himself so much that by the time his mother comes to get him, he doesn’t want to leave. Not quite as silly as the other two books considered here, Blake’s can be a good transition out of the effervescence of summer and into the school days ahead.


The Polar Express. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin. $18.95.

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan. By Jonah Winter. Illustrated by Richard Egielski. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Reading or rereading The Polar Express in summer can be a wonderful family experience. Although this is avowedly a Christmas tale, it is more than that: it is a story of faith, not religious-dogma faith but belief in qualities that children affirm but that adults too often forget – warmth, generosity, and a sense of wonder. Chris Van Allsburg’s highly detailed but strangely surreal paintings for this book won him a Caldecott Medal in 1986, and the illustrations have lost none of their power in the more than two decades since then. Children today may know The Polar Express from the rather disappointing 2004 movie, which retained some of the look of Van Allsburg’s book but missed out on its skewed perspective and oddity. If so, the book itself may be revelatory. The story is simple, with the cadence of fairy tales: a young boy whose friend has challenged his faith in Christmas sees a train, pulled by an old-fashioned steam engine, in front of his house on Christmas Eve. He boards the train, which is filled with children, and journeys all the way to the North Pole and back – in the process receiving the first gift of that Christmas season, a modest token that remains meaningful to him all the way into his adult life. What Van Allsburg does so well is to pull readers into this fantasy through pictures that do far more than illustrate the words. In the dining car, a mustached waiter serves some of the young passengers in the foreground while steam curls enticingly from a container, perhaps of warm milk, on a wheeled cart pushed by another server; three wolves are in the foreground as the train, in softer focus, passes through their forest; the text has a child exclaiming with wonder at the elves at the North Pole, but the illustration is packed with dark red, elaborate buildings, the elves seen only as brighter red blobs at street level far below, clustered around the steam engine that, like the elves themselves, is almost obscured by falling snow. The children on the train appear both lifelike and odd, and are as likely to be looking wide-eyed away from the central focus of a picture as they are to be looking at that focus. The blend of the homey and the strange pervades this thoroughly charming and slightly unsettling book, which can be a delightful reading experience at any time of year.

     The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan are fine anytime as well – in fact, amateur companies often perform them enthusiastically (if not particularly well) during the summer, when most professional ensembles take time off. The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan is a more-or-less factual account of the genesis of one of the pair’s best and most popular operettas, The Mikado. In this book as in The Polar Express, it is the pictures that lend depth and enjoyment to the text. In truth, the work by Richard Egielski (who won a Caldecott Medal for Hey, Al the year after Van Allsburg won his) is more interesting than the sometimes careless writing of Jonah Winter – who, for example, calls the Gilbert and Sullivan works operas rather than operettas. Although this book is for younger readers, Egielski is effective in showing why “jolly old England was not so jolly” in the Victorian age, portraying a dark daytime street with dripping rain and, within one building, a sweatshop using child labor. Winter overstates by saying that “everything was dark” except in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “make-believe kingdom of Topsy-Turvydom,” but he does a good job of explaining how the famed operettas brought lightness to an often-dismal time. Winter says that lyricist Gilbert presented Sullivan with “always the same story,” which is not quite right – Gilbert did love the idea of a “magic lozenge” and propose variations on it several times, but it was used only in The Sorcerer. And Winter bolsters his “sameness” argument, which he posits as the reason for the “feud” of the book’s title, by citing the plots of operettas written both before and after the team created The Mikado – an idea as full of tortured logic as many in the operettas themselves. Kids and most parents probably will not notice these inaccuracies, but it is a shame to find them in a book for which Winter clearly did his research – he even correctly mentions in his “Author’s Note” that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote 14 operettas, including the now-lost Thespis. In any case, The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan improves after Gilbert and Sullivan have an argument in the office of impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte and go their separate ways. The book talks about the Japanese exhibits that were all the rage at this time in Victorian London, and how they inspired Gilbert to write the libretto for The Mikado – which then inspired Sullivan to work with his old partner again. Egielski’s two-page spread showing what The Mikado could initially have looked like on stage is a highlight of the book, and Winter’s note at the end that the pair wrote five further operas but still fought from time to time offers a good lesson for children who sometimes argue with friends and siblings. If The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan gets kids interested in actually seeing The Mikado sometime, so much the better – this is one Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that, when well staged and sung, is as fresh today as when it was first performed in 1885.


Funny Farm. By Mark Teague. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Billy Bully: A School-Yard Counting Tale. By Alvaro & Ana Galan. Illustrated by Steve Simpson. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $3.99.

News for Dogs. By Lois Duncan. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Each of these books is fun in its own way for its intended readership – but each has at least one element that is a little off-kilter, so parents should consider carefully how their children will react and whether the books will have their intended effect. Funny Farm, for instance, is a city-kid-in-the-country story, featuring the dog family that runs Hawthorne Farm. City cousin Edward shows up for his very first farm visit ever, and he is dressed quite inappropriately, in a dark suit, white shirt and bowtie rather than outdoor or farm clothes. All sorts of embarrassing things happen to Edward: he falls into the mud of the pigpen, gets chased by the chickens when he gathers eggs, gets his foot (or paw) stuck in a bucket while trying to help make maple syrup, and so on. The farm animals, especially the pigs, find Edward’s attempts to fit in amusing. He has some very interesting experiences – the book’s best illustration shows Edward’s face, huge in closeup, as he looks at two insects plowing an insect-sized field while Uncle Earl drives a tractor in the background. And certainly the farm family is kind to him, teaching him to knit and tend sheep and so forth. Edward and Cousin Judy eventually have a great time at a barn dance, after which the exhausted city dog falls asleep. Nice story – but no one suggests that Edward change his clothing to something more appropriate (even when he is painting the barn), and no one helps him clean up (his clothes are spotted and stained even at the barn dance). There is not in fact very much that is funny going on at the farm, unless the idea is that Edward’s experiences and inappropriate dress are themselves funny – but Mark Teague never makes that clear. A child may even feel sorry for Edward as his shepherd’s crook gets caught in the tail of an angry ram and his suit gets splattered with yellow paint (although Teague never actually suggests that there is any reason to feel sorry for Edward). The tone of Funny Farm is just a little off – and some children may find it a little off-putting.

     Billy Bully is supposed to teach two things: counting to 10 and not being a bully. That’s a lot to do in a 32-page paperback (and one page is devoted to a note directly to parents and teachers about “consciously addressing the causes and effects of bullying”). The young children at whom the rest of the book is aimed may respond in any of a number of ways to the display of Billy Bully’s line cutting, pushing, ball hogging and more. Or they may focus on the “counting” elements of the book – although that could be a bit difficult, since Billy Bully has kids count down rather than up at first, and never says that the starting number is 10 (only that “his friends are down to 9” after he grabs a toy that isn’t his). The idea of the story is that each thing Billy does costs him one friend, until he has no one to play with and is sad until he figures out that he can get his friends back by being nice and cooperative. So the count of friends starts upward, going from one to 10. This part of the book works well – assuming kids accept the notion that Billy, all on his own, would decide to become a nicer bull (he is actually called “Billy Bull” rather than “Billy Bully” by the end of the book). But in the real world, where many kids do encounter bullies, the chance of a nasty, domineering child having a sudden change of heart is very small, and parents really should not encourage kids to believe that this will happen – although this book could be a first step toward discussing real-life problems with bullies. Still, Billy Bully does not quite work as either a counting book or a story about bullying and its consequences. It tries hard, but parents will need to add a lot of input to its simple rhymes to help children get both the counting and the anti-bullying messages.

     There is no particular message in News for Dogs, a companion to Lois Duncan’s Hotel for Dogs, except that dogs are cute and fun and should not be stolen. Andi – Duncan’s alter ego – is back in this book with her brother, Bruce, trying to decide what to do now that their dog hotel is closed. They come up with the idea of creating a dog-focused newspaper called The Bow-Wow News, complete with gossip column and poetry. Andi’s first poem causes problems for the kids – it shows the nasty Tinkles being, well, nasty – but it also makes them money, because the Tinkles buy all the copies they can, at inflated prices, so their neighbors won’t see the poem. Soon there are stories about what dog owners are doing in their everyday human lives, whether people are using pooper-scoopers or not, and assorted other canine trivia and near-trivia. Then things get more serious: the newspaper is posted online, and pets start disappearing. There is a dognapper out there – and despite what the kids initially suspect, it is not Mr. Tinkle doing the dognapping. Dogs become hostages; the kids want to find the culprit using fingerprints, until they realize that “we don’t know how to life fingerprints”; a banker is eliminated as a suspect because “he wouldn’t want dog hair on his suit”; and eventually the kids and Aunt Alice figure out who must be behind the crimes – which leads to a freeway chase, a cell phone that goes dead at precisely the wrong time, and a burst of violence that comes with an intensity that is lacking elsewhere in the book. News for Dogs doesn’t quite hang together, and the ending is not particularly satisfactory even though all the dognapped animals get to go home. Fans of Hotel for Dogs, either the book or the movie made from it, may enjoy this further adventure, but News for Dogs is even thinner in plot and less satisfactory in outcome than Duncan’s previous book.


Zemlinsky: The Mermaid—Symphonic Fantasy; Sinfonietta. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Judd. Naxos. $8.99.

Webern: Vocal and Instrumental Music. Tony Arnold and Claire Booth, sopranos; David Wilson-Johnson, bass; Simon Joly Chorale, Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble and Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.

     Alexander von Zemlinsky lived from 1871 to 1942, Anton Webern from 1883 to 1945, but they might as well have been born in different centuries, if not on different planets. Each pursued musical ideals with considerable intensity, but the nature of those ideals differs so much that it is exceedingly difficult to see how two Austrian composers, both natives of late-19th-century Vienna, could have developed such diametrically different aesthetics. Zemlinsky’s is the more conventional and accessible of the two. He was Alma Schindler’s lover when she was his composition student, before she met and married Gustav Mahler, and Zemlinsky’s earlier music has much that is Mahlerian about it. The scale of the 1903 fantasy Die Seejungfrau (“The Mermaid”), based on Hans Christian Andersen’s gentled but rather dour fairy tale, is not quite Mahlerian, but the 40-minute work is certainly symphonic in scope, developmentally complex and written for large (although, again, not quite Mahler-size) orchestra. The New Zealand Symphony plays the piece expansively, James Judd highlights the niceties of the scoring to good effect, and the fantasy’s pervasive melancholy comes through effectively. But the work as a whole is less telling than the much shorter Sinfonietta, which dates to 1934 – by which time Zemlinsky had come to favor more-compressed forms. There is nothing programmatic about this three-movement work, in which Zemlinsky balances post-Romantic yearning and expressiveness against thematic fragmentation and poignancy. The piece is perhaps more interesting than emotionally compelling, but it is well structured – Zemlinsky was a fine musical craftsman – and uses the orchestra effectively.

     And yet, in the same year Zemlinsky composed his Sinfonietta, Webern began his transcription of the Ricercata from Bach’s Musical Offering (completed in 1935), and had long since written his Two Songs, Op. 8 for voice and eight instruments, to texts by Rilke (1910); Four Songs, Op. 13 for voice and orchestra (1914-1918); Six Songs, Op. 14 (1917-1921); Five Sacred Songs, Op. 15 (1917-1922); and Two Songs, Op. 19, to texts by Goethe (1926). Webern’s music, aphoristic in the extreme, comes from a sonic world barely recognizable as related in any way to Zemlinsky’s. Tightly knit, delicately scored and with excruciating attention to detail, Webern’s works remain difficult to perform even today – and often difficult to hear, too, since so much happens in so short a time span. There is a purity to Webern’s music that nicely complements Bach’s – which, by the way, Webern called “abstract” and “unapproachable,” adjectives far more applicable to his own work for many listeners. Webern uses voices as instruments: the Op. 8 songs, for example, were inspired by love but contain none of it in any obvious way, instead interweaving the soprano with clarinet/bass clarinet, horn, trumpet, celesta, harp, violin, viola and cello. Similarly, the Op. 19 songs – each just over a minute long – make the voices part of the ensemble of celesta, guitar, violin, clarinet and bass clarinet. For all its careful construction, Webern’s music is often most notable for its sound rather than any underlying emotive content. And Robert Craft, who is the expert in Webern, brings out that sound beautifully throughout this new CD, whose generous 80-minute length makes it difficult to hear straight through (Webern wrote in small bits and is best heard that way). The purely orchestral works here are particularly distinctive and effective: Five Movements for String Orchestra, Op. 5 (1909-1929); Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10 (1911-1913); and Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30 (1940), whose tone row Webern worked on with very considerable care. It is Op. 30 and two works to texts by Hildegard Jone (1891-1963) that show Webern at his most intense. Das Augenlicht, ‘Through Our Open Eyes Light Flows into the Heart,’ Op. 26, is for mixed chorus and orchestra and dates to 1935; and the Second Cantata, Op. 31, a six-movement piece for soprano and bass solos, mixed chorus and orchestra, which dates to 1941-1943. This is one of Webern’s greatest works as well as his last, pushing even his harmonic and rhythmic extremes beyond their previous bounds, and including at one point a chord of all 12 pitches played by 11 different instruments. Webern’s music is far less easily “listenable” than Zemlinsky’s – or even than that of Webern’s mentor, Arnold Schoenberg – but it remains a uniquely intense experience, especially in small doses, and Craft turns it into both an aural and intellectual fascination.

July 16, 2009


The New Space Opera 2: All-New Stories of Science Fiction Adventure. Edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. Eos. $15.99.

Days of Little Texas. By R.A. Nelson. Knopf. $16.99.

     It is only by encountering the “other” that we can truly know ourselves – this is one of the major precepts underlying science fiction. Stories of the far future, of alternative histories, of wonders previously unknown, and of alien contact are all ultimately stories about us puny earthlings and the ways in which we rise to difficult occasions or are overwhelmed by them. “Otherness” may be found in unexplored parts of our own planet, within the depths of our own minds, or – of course – in the form of alien creatures from somewhere “out there.” One particular form of SF, disparagingly called “space opera” until some of its creators appropriated the term and turned it positive, has long had a strong “out there” focus: space operas are essentially adventure stories, and many of them were extraordinarily crude and xenophobic during SF’s so-called Golden Age (hence the poor longtime reputation of the subgenre as a whole). Nowadays, though, many high-quality SF authors have developed adventures filled with subtlety and genuine wonder, in which the huge events and gigantic time spans long favored in space opera are merely background for the smaller, more intimate and more affecting stories of human beings – individually or as a species – discovering what they really are. The second New Space Opera collection from Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan contains 19 stories that span…well, just about everything. Realities collide in Cory Doctorow’s “To Go Boldly.” Con artists risk their lives at every step and with every word in John Barnes’ chilling “The Lost Princess Man.” Motherhood and human-machine competition are but two of the elements facing a galactic construction crew building transport portals in Peter Watts’ “The Island.” Failure is the start of something very interesting indeed in John Meaney’s “From the Heart.” The concept of hiding in plain sight gets some twists in Elizabeth Moon’s “Chameleons.” The entire future – and past – of our universe and other universes is the macrocosmic backdrop against which Robert Charles Wilson’s “Utriusque Cosmi” plays out the microcosmic story of a frightened 16-year-old girl. Each of these stories – and each of the others here – handles world-spanning and time-spanning themes differently. Not all work equally well: Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Defect” is predictable, Bruce Sterling’s “Join the Navy and See the Worlds” is unnecessarily obscure, and Bill Willingham’s “Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Rings” thinks it’s funnier than it is. Academics may even want to argue whether all the tales in this book fit the “space opera” subgenre. Yet despite their differences in both style and substance, nearly every story in The New Space Opera 2 is well written and well paced, and all are ultimately focused less on the sheer adventurousness of their characters than on what happens within and between them – that is, what in their outré experiences makes them more or less human. As a result, this is a book that is every bit as thoughtful as it is thrilling.

     One expects fiction with a scientific orientation to push boundaries and think about the world creatively, but this is not what one expects of stories about faith. Faith is revealed truth, capable of being tested by circumstance and thus strengthened or diminished (or lost altogether), but not capable of being developed or molded into something new, except in subtle or marginal ways. Wholesale changes in the meaning of faith undermine its foundation, which consists largely of unquestioning belief. This makes what R.A. Nelson does in Days of Little Texas quite remarkable, for this is a novel that starts and ends with faith, but what emerges at the end is not what was there in the beginning. This is also a mystery and a ghost story, and although nominally for readers ages 12 and up, it is filled with themes that are likely to make plenty of adults as well as teenagers uncomfortable. “Little Texas” is a faith healer, a 15-year-old boy who has been preaching since he was 10, when he survived a lightning strike and revived a man thought to be dead. This happened in Texas – hence the name adopted by young Ronald Earl King. Nelson takes Little Texas and the others on the revival circuit at face value: their professions of faith are by and large sincere, their wish to do good is genuine, and their human flaws are seen within the context of a close-knit group held together by worship. Besides, Little Texas really can heal people, but not all people – and that is where the book gets interesting. For it is Little Texas’ stirring but ultimately failed attempt to heal a young girl named Lucy that leads to a series of increasingly bizarre occurrences in which the healer – whose faith forbids him to believe in ghosts, much less benign ones – is tested again and again, both as a vessel of the Holy Spirit and as a teenager approaching manhood. The connection between Little Texas and post-death Lucy (whatever she or it may be) grows both physically and psychologically; and Lucy’s certainty that she remains near Little Texas so the two of them can accomplish a specific thing together deepens the mystery of what she is and what Little Texas himself is capable of becoming. The book’s events become increasingly strange as Little Texas and Lucy move toward their shared destiny, but there is an underlying sense of solidity to the story that helps anchor its more fantastic elements. The climactic confrontation with a thing that is scared and vulnerable, for all its evil, is highly unsettling, and the way in which Little Texas responds to the event – both within himself and in his relationship with the adults who have been the only family he has known – strikes a chord of reality. It is only the last three of the book’s 84 short chapters that button things up a bit too neatly and betray Days of Little Texas as designed for younger readers. Taken as a whole, this exploration of faith and of some of the people who make a living at it is a powerful foray into an area where fiction has not often gone since the days of Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, published in 1927. But Little Texas, unlike Gantry, is no fraud: he is a true evangelist with genuine power – who, like a character in good science fiction, comes face to face with his own innermost being only after being forced to confront things beyond his understanding.


The 39 Clues, Book 4: Beyond the Grave. By Jude Watson. Scholastic. $12.99.

Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, Casebook No. 2: The Mystery of the Conjured Man. By Tracy Mack & Michael Citrin. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

     It was bound to happen: there was no way The 39 Clues could sustain its cleverness and headlong pace through all 10 planned volumes, the last of which will not be published until September 2010. The fourth book in the series, Beyond the Grave, falters and chokes a bit, getting a little too caught up in its own twists and turns to be as satisfying as the first three volumes. Its tie-ins – a Web site and set of six cards bound into the front cover, with the promise that young readers will eventually share $100,000 in prizes – remain as intriguing as ever, but simply as a story, Jude Watson’s book falls a little flat. Each of the books has a different geographical focus, this one’s being Egypt. Each book involves two siblings, 14-year-old Amy Cahill and 11-year-old Dan, struggling against other members of the far-flung and enormously powerful Cahill clan to discover clues that will eventually lead someone to some source of ultimate power. In each book, Amy’s claustrophobia and Dan’s asthma are used as personal difficulties that the searchers must overcome. And each book is full of betrayals and backstabbings galore, as the various branches of the Cahills – Ekats, Lucians and others – compete for the glory of their families as well as personal power. But this has all become more than a bit formulaic in Beyond the Grave. We know that one crucial character who helped Amy and Dan before and was later thought dead will reappear – and he does. We know that one particularly deadly character will literally threaten their lives, but will not take them – and that is what happens. We know that some of the many important historical figures to whom the Cahill branches are related will come into the story, and so they do – Napoleon is especially significant here. And because the book is set in Egypt, we know there will be at least one semi-spooky tomb scene, and there is. Amy’s and Dan’s tendency to wander into danger without letting anyone know what they are doing or where they are going has gotten a little old by now, though – you would expect them to have learned something from all the times they did that in the earlier books and got into serious trouble, but no. This book’s title refers to the one element that sets it apart from the first three: Amy’s and Dan’s doubts about whether their dead grandmother, Grace, really loved them as deeply as they always believed – and their discovery of information that indicates that yes, she did. But this one distinctive item is not enough to make Beyond the Grave more than a moderately interesting entry into the young searchers’ saga.

     Young searchers are crucial to Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars as well. The books postulate that the street urchins who got some passing mentions in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories were actually far more important to Holmes than Dr. Watson revealed in recounting the legendary detective’s exploits. The first “casebook” in this series, The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas, suffered from a tendency to make Holmes less observant and less acute than Doyle made him, with an eye toward elevating the role of the street kids. The Mystery of the Conjured Man handles the relationship better: except for one important scene in which Holmes is caught entirely off guard in a way that Doyle would never have allowed, this entry allows Holmes his analytical skills while also giving his young helpers plenty of chances to be brave. Unfortunately, the mystery this time is not particularly mysterious: readers find out fairly quickly that the “medium” and his helpers who can supposedly contact the dead are charlatans and thieves, and from then on it is just a matter of unmasking them and ending their nefarious schemes. Still, wife-and-husband authors Tracy Mack and Michael Citrin pace the book well and keep the writing at a level that preteens will enjoy. And they manage to give some character to two of the Irregulars and a girl who assists them – sort of an irregular Irregular – even though the rest of the kids have little personality. This is the sort of book that makes enjoyable summer reading: light, quick, satisfyingly concluded (in terms of the mystery), and with the promise of future volumes (in terms of the personal quest of one of the main young characters). Older kids who find The Mystery of the Conjured Man intriguing may even be ready for some real Sherlock Holmes tales.


The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel III: The Sorceress. By Michael Scott. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

Oracles of Delphi Keep. By Victoria Laurie. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     These are big books, each running more than 500 pages, in the modern-fantasy vein for preteens and young teenagers. That is, they are filled with brave young people coming to terms with ancient powers that threaten not only the protagonists but also the entire world. Structurally, the books are quite similar, even to their protagonists: Michael Scott’s novel, the third in his Nicholas Flamel series, continues to focus on fraternal twins Sophie and Josh Newman, while Victoria Laurie’s book, first in a new sequence, features orphan twins Ian and Theodosia Wigby. The pairing of a boy and girl of roughly the age of the target readership is of course intended to pull in both boy and girl readers; and both these authors, in line with modern expectations, are careful to make their two central characters equally intelligent, plucky, brave and central to the narrative. The result is that readers who enjoy either of these books will likely enjoy the other as well, even though the two works have slightly different age targets: Scott’s for ages 12 and up, Laurie’s for ages 10 and up.

     The Sorceress takes us to the middle of a projected six-book series that started with The Alchemyst and progressed to The Magician. Readers really need to know the earlier books to appreciate this one, since it picks up pretty much where The Magician left off. Nicholas Flamel – made immortal by discovering the Philosopher’s Stone – is aging rapidly since the theft of the book of Abraham the Mage (in which the Stone was kept) by the evil Dr. John Dee. Dee, once a spy for Queen Elizabeth I, is trying to complete the Final Summoning that will bring him and his ilk ultimate power and disprove the prophecy that indicates that Sophie and Josh will have the power to help Flamel protect the book, and the world, from the evil Dark Elders. Unfortunately for Dee, two pages of the book are missing – the very two he needs to complete the Summoning. Unfortunately for Flamel, he is the not only one aging one year every 24 hours (a side effect of each day without the book): so is his wife, Perenelle, who is imprisoned at, of all places, Alcatraz. Also unfortunately for Flamel, there is a significant obstacle in the way of his doing what he must do, which is to teach Sophie and Josh the third “elemental magic.” The problem is that the one Elder with that magical ability is not to be trusted. And neither, of course, is Dee – at one point, Josh almost gets the better of him, so of course the bad guy throws out a typical bad-guy temptation: “Kill the Archon and you will experience millennia, hundreds of millennia, of knowledge. You will know the history of the world from the very beginning. And not just this world either. A myriad of worlds.” This is, of course, all nonsense, and nonsense of a particular “Harry Potter wannabe” kind. Scott’s rather overwrought prose does not stand up particularly well when compared with J.K. Rowling’s spare, straightforward writing, and his characters are far less fully formed than hers. “With every magic I learn, I feel more and more complete,” says Sophie at one point. “It’s as if parts of me have been missing all my life and now I’m becoming whole again, piece by piece.” Well, yes – and for young readers interested in magic for its own sake, The Sorceress is as well-paced and thrilling as Scott’s two prior Nicholas Flamel books. But the characters themselves remain rather thin, defined more by what they do than by who they are, and even the strutting villainy of Dee is one-dimensional. Scott is a good genre writer, but genre writing is ultimately all that this series has to offer.

     Nor does Oracles of Delphi Keep rise above the same formula. Here the ancient prophecy underlying the story is discovered among the White Cliffs of Dover, and it tells of a quest on which the fate of the world depends. Who must go on the quest? Why, two named Ian and Theodosia – the very discoverers of the prophetic writing. There is a great deal of bustling about in this first book of Laurie’s series: a hunt for a mysterious beast, a fair amount of standard orphanage trouble (cruel adults, young bullies, and so forth), and some scene-setting to establish the book as taking place between World Wars I and II. At one point, for example, during a history class about the Great War, Theo suddenly insists on telling the teacher, “You’re a fool to believe that there won’t be another Great War. …Only the next one will be far worse than you could ever imagine!” The teacher, not surprisingly, insists that “this is a lesson in history, and not a lesson in fortune-telling,” but Theo’s comments get wilder and wilder: “The great wolf will rise up from the east and sweep down upon us, bearing his crooked black cross on a sea of blood! He’ll call himself the Fury and he’ll hang his banner from every hill and building, and where it hangs, all will know that a tyrant of death rules the land!” Readers, of course, will know that Theo is predicting World War II, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, and in fact the history teacher realizes that Theo’s apparent ravings have real-world parallels. But in the context of Oracles of Delphi Keep, Theo’s ravings – if they are ravings – are merely one part of a mystery that traces back to ancient Greece and ahead to…what? “As Darkness Looms and Shadows Cast,” as one chapter is called, the future seems as murky as the past is indecipherable. There is certainly excitement in Oracles of Delphi Keep, and danger, and magic – much from the evil sorcerer called Magus the Black. Indeed, Laurie’s book is rather over-complicated, as if she is determined to get all the threads of her story into place within the first volume so she can spin them out at her leisure in later ones. The realistic scene-setting – Laurie is familiar with Dover, and her orphaned grandfather told her stories of a poorly run English orphanage – is sometimes jarringly juxtaposed with the fantasy themes. And neither Ian nor Theo really develops much character in the book – both are too busy having things happen to them. Still, Oracles of Delphi Keep has enough intensity and wonderment in it to satisfy its intended young audience and likely bring readers back for the next installment of Laurie’s series.

July 09, 2009


Have You Ever Tickled a Tiger? By Betsy Snyder. Random House. $9.99.

Sylvie. By Jennifer Sattler. Random House. $15.99.

The Gecko & Sticky 2: The Greatest Power. By Wendelin Van Draanen. Illustrated by Stephen Gilpin. Knopf. $12.99.

     No matter what a child’s age may be, books about animals can be a treat. The youngest children, up to age three, will enjoy Have You Ever Tickled a Tiger? – which many parents will immediately recognize as being in the delightful and venerable tradition of Pat the Bunny. Betsy Snyder’s book offers kids a chance to poke, pet and feel various animals (or drawings of them, anyway), with simple text explaining different animals’ outer coverings. For a penguin, for example, “daddy’s tum is soft and stout – a cozy spot for hiding out!” If you nudge a hedgehog, “she’s cute and sharp and kind of prickly. Touch her – is your finger tickly?” The ostrich’s wing is “a fluffy, puffy, feathery thing,” and kissing a walrus brings kids in contact with some rough (but not too rough) whiskers. The animals’ characteristics are not all equally successful – the armadillo scales and octopus suckers don’t really feel like much of anything – but the book as a whole is charming, with the drawings of happily smiling animals being almost as much fun as the chance to more-or-less feel their more-or-less coverings.

     The drawings are a big part of the fun in Jennifer Sattler’s Sylvie, too. The title character is a flamingo with a healthy streak of curiosity: she looks around her at all the world’s colors one day and asks her mother why everyone in the flamingo family is pink. Her mother explains that it’s a matter of diet – the tiny pink shrimp they eat give flamingos their characteristic pinkness – and curious little Sylvie finds herself intrigued. So she embarks on a hilarious color-changing quest, turning herself green by eating palm leaves, purple by eating grapes, and brown by nibbling chocolate ice cream. And then Sattler makes things sillier: nibbling a bit of a baby’s striped blanket gives Sylvie orange-and-white stripes; a tiny bit of a woman’s swimsuit produces a paisley flamingo; and – well, after a while, Sylvie’s stomach doesn’t feel so good, and her body, as it digests all the various colors, turns into a motley bird indeed, with two differently colored legs, which are different from her belly, which is different from her head, and…let’s just say that Sylvie has had her fun and learned a lesson, too. By the end of the book, she has returned to a normal flamingo diet – but with one last twist that young readers (the target age range is 3-6) will really enjoy.

     Another step up the range in age is Wendelin Van Draanen’s The Gecko & Sticky series, which is for preteens (ages 8-12) and is filled with this author’s trademark wisecracks, fast pace and unabashed silliness. The Gecko is 13-year-old Dave Sanchez, whose possession of a mysterious Aztec wristband lets him turn invisible and assume the wall-climbing powers of…well, a gecko. But the Gecko has a sidekick who is a real gecko, and that’s Sticky, who can talk as well as do lizardly things and who, in the grand tradition of sidekicks everywhere, often figures stuff out before his nominal boss does. In The Greatest Power, the second adventure of this daring duo, the bad guy is once again the dastardly Damien Black, who used to have that Aztec wristband and also used to own (or at least control) Sticky. Also here are the ineptly evil Bandito Brothers, Pablo, Angelo and Tito, who revere Damien Black’s badness but of whom the top bad guy doesn’t think much. In this book, Van Draanen is particularly fond of writing with lots of parentheses: “These three men were already in an extremely jumpy state because Damien Black was (understandably) furious with them. …During his recent incarceration (or, if you will, stint as jailbird), the Bandito Brothers had holed up in his mansion, making themselves quite at home, eating everything in sight (regardless of its questionable state or expiration date).” Add to this mix an apparently flying monkey who is really a barista, a diving board above a swimming pool that seems to be filled with blood but is actually full of red balls, and a glossary that not only includes the book’s Spanish words but also provides information on Stickynese (“loco-berry burritos = extra-specially crazy”), and you have a really silly romp. Helping it along are some very funny Stephen Gilpin illustrations (check out the one of Damien Black with his multi-muzzled gun) and a mysterious key in a coffee cup that provides the absolute guarantee of another offbeat adventure to come.


Planet Earth: Guide to the Planet. By Matthew Murrie and Steve Murrie. Scholastic. $7.99.

Planet Earth: Amazing Animals of the Rainforest. By Tracey West. Scholastic. $5.99.

Planet Earth: Lion Cubs. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Three new entries in the collaboration between the BBC and Scholastic confirm the Planet Earth series as one that is not only exceptionally intelligent but also truly gorgeous to look at. Guide to the Planet is the broadest-ranging of these three books, all of which are printed on recycled paper containing at least 30% post-consumer fiber. It is filled with wonderful information and fascinating photos of impalas, Adélie penguins, pine martens, wildebeests, pink river dolphins and other animals – but it is not just an animal book. It is structured by habitat: polar areas, forests, plains, deserts, mountains, caves, rainforests, fresh water, shallow seas and open ocean. Each short section – the whole book is just 80 oversize pages long – tells about one part of our planet as well as explaining about some of the animals that call that area home. For example, “the world’s oldest tree, Methusaleh, is 4,700 years old. …The biggest living organism on Earth is the giant sequoia tree called ‘General Sherman.’ It is 272 feet (82 m) tall and has a diameter of 36 feet (11 m) at its base.” Or, in the section on caves, “Sarawak Chamber in Borneo is large enough to hold 40 Boeing 747s.” As for animals, even people familiar with some of the ones discussed here may learn some surprising facts about them: “The emperor penguin is the only animal that permanently resides in Antarctica.” “Golomyanka, or oil fish…lives at the depth of 4590 feet (1399 m) [in Lake Baikal]. This fish’s body is kept in solid form by the tremendous pressure of where it lives. However, when it is brought to the surface there is less pressure and the solid fish begins to melt.” Guide to the Planet is, inevitably, a once-over-lightly about our world and some of its inhabitants, but it is fascinating enough – and well enough presented – to leave the young readers for whom it is intended eager to learn more.

     Amazing Animals of the Rainforest provides some of that “more” by focusing on a single habitat of the many discussed in Guide to the Planet. This is an even shorter book – 48 pages – and its attention is entirely on animals after a brief introduction to what rainforests are and how the types of these habitats differ. Among the creatures profiled here are the tucuxi, known as the “river dolphin” for its appearance but growing to only about four feet; the dorado, a carnivorous fish that can weigh 75 pounds and that fights back when caught on a hook; the agouti, a rodent that can grow to two feet long and may weigh nine pounds; the tree anteater, which has a barbed 16-inch-long tongue; the harpy eagle, whose wingspan can reach six-and-a-half feet; and such more-familiar animals as the Bengal and Sumatran tigers, jaguar, chimpanzee and brown howler monkey. The close-up photos of the animals are well complemented by the simple, straightforward text that explains their anatomy, where they live, and whether or not they are endangered – as many of these creatures are. The sheer variety of the animals makes this rainforest book fascinating; the pictures tell a story effectively even without the words.

     Lion Cubs is essentially all pictures: it is a board book for the youngest children, with very simple text designed to go with the photos rather than go beyond them. For example, beneath a picture of two cubs at play, the text says, “The cubs in the pride run together, play together…” And on the facing page, showing a whole line of cubs, the text continues, “And no matter what, they stay together.” The photos here are really quite delightful – one of a mother lion carrying a sleepy cub in her mouth is a standout, as is one showing three side-by-side cubs facing the camera with nearly identical expressions. The point of the book is simply to show young children what lion cubs look like and how they spend a typical day in the pride: playing, walking, tussling with each other, drinking and sleeping. There are no great lessons here, but the book can help create an early appreciation of the beauty of these big cats and perhaps an appetite to find out more about them in more-complex books as a child grows. For this age group, that is lesson enough.


The Frog Scientist. By Pamela S. Turner. Photographs by Andy Comins. Houghton Mifflin. $18.

Moon: Science, History, and Mystery. By Stewart Ross. Scholastic. $18.99.

     Whether they study small things or huge ones, scientists explore with similar techniques: observation, careful notation of findings, development of theories, and testing of those theories with an eye toward disproving them and coming up with better ones. Both Pamela Turner’s The Frog Scientist and Stewart Ross’ Moon show this type of science in action, and both are fascinating in showing how everyday science is practiced. The Frog Scientist is actually a slight misnomer, because there are quite a few people in Turner’s book who study frogs. The chief one, though, is Dr. Tyrone Hayes, whom we first meet in the hills of Wyoming and about whose background we learn later. He can be amusingly plainspoken – the Sonoran desert toad “looks like a cow turd,” he remarks at one point – and he clearly takes real joy in his profession: one photo shows him with an old book about frogs that his mother gave him, reading the book to his own children. Young readers will learn about the importance of frogs and other amphibians in the ecosystem, and about scientists who have taken unique approaches to preserving species whenever possible. For example, the amphibian conservation curator of the Atlanta Botanical Garden travels with “a specially modified carry-on suitcase full of frogs.” Hayes’ studies are interspersed with stories about other frog scientists and about the graduate students who work with Hayes both in the lab and in the field. There are intriguing tidbits of information on every page – for example, Hayes’ tadpole specimens are fed rabbit chow – and there is also plenty of information on how science is done, involving experiments’ design and their often unexpected results. But the book is scarcely all narrative. Andy Comins’ photos are just wonderful – readers may want to go through the entire book just to see the pictures before going back to the start and reading the text. There are gorgeous close-ups of numerous frogs, plenty of photos of scientists at work in the lab and outdoors, and delightful bits of personalization – such as the photo of Hayes and his students doing a simultaneous “frog jump” at a backyard party. The Frog Scientist shows that science, however carefully practiced, need by no means be dull – and it also introduces young readers to some gorgeous, fascinating and increasingly threatened animals.

     The words “gorgeous” and “fascinating” apply to the moon as well, and Ross’ book is careful to devote plenty of time to the moon’s romantic aspects: “Nothing has fired the human imagination quite like the mysteries Moon.” But this is primarily a book of science, and the dreamy qualities of Earth’s satellite are mostly seen in the context of attempted scientific understanding. The book focuses on subjects from the many discoveries that eventually made the 1969 moon landing by humans possible, to ancient theories about the moon and modern scientific views of it. There are surprises and little-known facts galore here: 18th-century scientist Sir William Congreve’s discovery of a way to make iron-tube missiles fly more accurately helped contribute to the eventual moon landing; Greek philosophers 2,500 years ago rejected thought patterns that considered the moon in terms of myth and religion, insisting on approaching it through reason; Sir Isaac Newton once threatened to burn down his parents’ house; “Moonraker” is not only the title of a James Bond novel and film, but also the name for smugglers “who raked ponds by moonlight to retrieve hidden loot”; and on and on. Ross spreads the story of the 1969 moon landing throughout the book, returning to it periodically in order to provide a narrative structure for what could otherwise be just a mass of history and scientific facts. Readers who want to get right to the point may find this approach a bit frustrating, but it has the advantage of putting the events of 1969 firmly into the context of millennia of fascination and speculation about Earth’s satellite. Ross manages to explain why madness is called lunacy, talk about werewolves, and explain astrological charts in addition to providing information on the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, a discussion of the moon’s gravity, and the fact that astronaut Neil Armstrong got his pilot’s license on his 16th birthday – a wonderful combination of fiction and truth that will likely leave readers even more interested in the moon than they were at the start of the book.

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Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”) and 5. Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR conducted by Michael Schønwandt. Naxos. $8.99.

Steven R. Gerber: Chamber Music. Kurt Nikkanen, violin and viola; Cho-Liang Lin and Cyrus Beroukhim, violins; Brinton Smith, cello; Sara Davis Buechner, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

     Composers’ relationships with tonality were a source of considerable angst and a great deal of experimentation in the early 20th century – and the pull toward a tonal style (or push away from it) continues to affect composers today. Carl Nielsen had a particularly complicated relationship with tonal structures, and that is one thing that makes his six symphonies so fascinating. The ear hears them as tonal but usually cannot quite pin them down – in what key, exactly, are these works, or the movements of which they are made? Nielsen’s tonal fluidity is especially clear in his fourth and fifth symphonies, presented together in the final volume of Michael Schønwandt’s performances with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR. These re-releases of 1999 performances stand up remarkably well a decade later, with Nielsen’s unusual and intense use of drums (including two timpanists in No. 4) being brought forth especially well. Schønwandt sees these as unified works with strong parallels. Certainly both are rooted in World War I: No. 4 was composed during it and No. 5 not long afterwards. Schønwandt emphasizes the flow of No. 4, whose four movements are played without pause, and he follows Nielsen’s tempo indications carefully. This produces a closely argued work whose famous fourth-movement timpani duel still comes as a surprise when first heard, but turns out by the end to fit closely into the work’s overarching theme – that there exists an inextinguishable life-force through which all beings are connected. Schønwandt also effectively integrates the snare-drum tattoos of No. 5 (Nielsen’s only mature symphony without a title) into the larger canvas of the work. These dramatic entries, which prefigure Shostakovich’s implacable Nazi march in the first movement of his Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”), present a distinct and sinister challenge to the rest of the orchestra; indeed, at one point Nielsen says the drummer must play in his own tempo, as if determined to send the music off track. This is a work in which tonality, form and expression are all fluid, containing in its two movements half a dozen distinct sections, a fugue, contrasts between the unsettling and the tranquil, and more. Interestingly, the symphony resolves clearly into a key that is not only positive but also, since Beethoven’s Third Symphony, positively heroic: E-flat major. Schønwandt’s knowing handling of the work’s complexities, and the excellent and idiomatic playing of the orchestra in both symphonies, make this CD a triumphant completion of these performers’ Nielsen cycle.

     Contemporary American composer Steven R. Gerber (born 1948) also has an interesting relationship with tonality, being more willing to embrace it structurally in his more-recent works than he was earlier in his career. The new, very well-played CD of his chamber music spans most of Gerber’s compositional life, including works written over a period of more than 30 years. The earliest pieces here are the least tonal and most derivative: Fantasy for Solo Violin (1967), a virtuoso display piece; Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano (1968), which harks back to Bartók and requires both technical virtuosity and the performers’ willingness to wear their hearts on their sleeves; and Duo for Violin and Cello (1969), in which Gerber consciously adapts Elliott Carter’s technique of making each instrument a separate personality and having them argue or ignore each other before eventually reconciling. All these works are interesting to hear and challenging (sometimes very challenging) to play, but they are less indicative of Gerber’s personal style than the later, shorter and generally more tonal works on this CD. Elegy on the Name ‘Dmitry Shostakovich’ for Solo Viola (1991) is a fascinating exploration that eventually incorporates the earlier composer’s signature “DSCH” motif to fine effect. Notturno for Violin, Cello and Piano (1996) is dark, strong and (as Gerber himself observes) rather Brahmsian – and conveys a real sense of depth. The four remaining pieces offered here are all collections of miniatures: each contains three brief movements, some barely longer than one minute. But Gerber does a great deal in these short forms. Three Songs without Words (1986), a solo-violin arrangement of some Gerber songs with words, is simple and emotionally straightforward. Three Pieces for Two Violins (1997) nicely mixes dissonance with lyricism, eventually subsiding into the latter. Gershwiniana (1999), for three violins, and Three Folksong Transformations for Violin, Cello and Piano (2001) both take skeletal elements of tunes and re-harmonize them while thoroughly changing their moods. The final movement of the Gershwin-based piece, called “Blues-Etude,” is especially compelling. Gerber does not adopt tonality on a wholesale basis in any of these works, but he flirts with it often enough – and uses it frequently enough as a jumping-off or concluding point – to show that he has thought its implications through carefully and found some personal and very effective ways to adapt it to the late 20th and early 21st centuries.