November 24, 2010


Children of the Lamp, Book 6: The Five Fakirs of Faizabad. By P.B. Kerr. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

Poison Apple Book: Now You See Me… By Jane B. Mason & Sarah Hines Stephens. Scholastic. $5.99.

Scholastic Book of World Records 2011. Scholastic. $10.99.

     P.B. Kerr hit his stride with the Children of the Lamp series almost from the beginning, and he hasn’t tripped yet. In The Five Fakirs of Faizabad, the sixth book in the sequence about John and Philippa Gaunt and their Uncle Nimrod, “A group of religious scoundrels, mendicant fakirs most probably, but certainly part of a fraternity that is governed by laws of an uncommon or secret nature, seems to be bent on bringing about some change in the amount of luck that exists in our world. The question is, why? What do they hope to achieve?” The words are Uncle Nimrod’s, and they sum up the plot perfectly, including its inherent absurdity and its ever-present tinges of humor. Kerr likes to mix the magical with the mundane – on the very page on which Nimrod explains the plot (to someone whose help he is seeking), he tells his nephew, who is upset at not answering a riddle, “We can’t all be Stephen Hawking.” Kerr is a well-known writer of thrillers for adults (under the name Philip Kerr), and he maintains his sense of pacing in his books for children – the very first of which was the first Children of the Lamp volume, The Akhenaten Adventure. So, what is going on with those fakirs? It turns out they were buried alive while possessing answers to the greatest secrets of the universe – secrets that an evil djinn wants for his (its?) own nefarious purposes. So the twins and Nimrod must protect the dead fakirs to prevent bad luck from permeating the world, as if the world didn’t have enough of it already. Kerr’s tongue seems even more firmly in cheek in this book than in earlier ones, and there is an increase in the humor quotient even as the action (as usual) spans the world (from the Himalayas to Yellowstone National Park, and including a search for Shangri-la). The magical characters that appear throughout the book are especially well handled here. Just one example: Liskeard Karswell du Crowleigh, a librarian bottle imp who “most resembled a monitor lizard” and who explains that he was transformed when, as “a poor excuse for a sorcerer,” he tried “to steal the synopados, the soul mirror of a wicked djinn.” Now Liskeard also hassss to ssspeak with lots of added “s” sssoundsss. And when Liskeard’s dead former master appears in response to Nimrod’s wish, that ghostly character – Mr. Rakshasas – says that if Nimrod doesn’t want to go to Shangri-la, he should “smack the bottle imp five times on the head and this message will self-destruct.” It is even in minor matters like this one – passing scenes, as it were – that Kerr’s attention to detail keeps the book fast-paced, funny and exciting all at once. Also here are a flying carpet, “a typical Nazi,” a medium who has no understanding of the message, and much more. Eventually, even Philippa has to say to Nimrod, “Do try to be serious for a moment.” But that would spoil the fun – and Kerr never does spoil it. Perhaps the best adult line in the book is a throwaway, not at all germane to the plot, spoken by a character called Mr. Burton: “Irony can be hard to detect when English is not your first language. I expect that’s why Americans can’t understand it.” Kerr is a wonderful writer who keeps the adventure of John and Philippa light enough, but fast-paced enough, to enthrall young readers; but he maintains enough grown-up sensibility so the books are mind-stretching for their intended audience. The climax of The Five Fakirs of Faizabad, for example, mixes mystic revelation with “the gravitational lensing effect as predicted by Albert Einstein.” It is a thrill ride – and if it ends, sort of, where it began, readers are quite unlikely to complain.

     Other books produced in a series may be equally reliable, but they are scarcely at Kerr’s novels’ level. The Poison Apple books, mild paperback thrillers that are quick and easy to read, are a good example. The most recent of these, fourth in the group, is Now You See Me… (the ellipsis is part of the title). It fits the series just fine: the face of a boy appears mysteriously in photos taken with an old Polaroid camera that two friends, Abby and Lena, find in a thrift shop. The face gets clearer and clearer with every picture, and its expression is deeply troubled. There’s a ghost in that machine somewhere, somehow, and the question is why it’s there and what it wants. Searching for the answer brings Abby and Lena into discoveries about the past, about who the boy was, about his relationship to the thrift shop, and about a certain butterfly ring that turns out to hold the key to much of the mystery. The book is not particularly spooky, and even though authors Jane B. Mason and Sarah Hines Stephens repeatedly say that Abby and Lena are scared or feel unsafe, there isn’t really much reason for them to be unsettled. Like the other Poison Apple books, Now You See Me… gets a (+++) rating as a fast, not-too-challenging read, with supernatural elements that preteen girls (the books’ target audience) will likely find modestly involving but not too frightening.

     There are some real frights in Scholastic Book of World Records 2011, the latest annual compendium of more-or-less random bests, worsts, mosts and leasts in a variety of fields. This (+++) book is all about the real world – or at least certain parts of it. A look at the open-mouthed gaboon viper (“snake with the longest fangs”) is certainly chilling; so is a glance at the death cap, the world’s most poisonous mushroom – not that the fungus looks scary, but the brief text describing its effects is certainly frightening (“the poison shuts down the kidneys, liver, and central nervous system, causing coma and – in more than 50 percent of cases – death”). Scary in their own ways are the photos of Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999, after the “most destructive tornado since 1900,” and of the open-mouthed “most dangerous shark,” the great white. But there is uplift in the book, too, and a lot of information that is just plain interesting: the most-visited U.S. museum is the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.; the top-earning actor and actress in 2009 were Harry Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson; the woman with the most World Figure Skating championship wins was Sonja Henie, while the man with the most wins was Ulrich Salchow (for whom a competitive jump is named). Scholastic Book of World Records 2011 covers pop culture, sports, science, nature, money and various human-made artifacts. It is, as in other years, a once-over-lightly, designed not for reference but for quick “isn’t that interesting” looks at this and that. It does contain some real surprises, but readers have to search for them. For example, the actor with the highest average box-office gross is Stan Lee, whose films – based on Marvel Comics characters he helped create – had an average gross of $184.1 million, edging out the films of Orlando Bloom. Scholastic Book of World Records 2011 continues this series’ tradition of fine photographs, a strongly visual presentation and a hit-or-miss approach to events, people, animals, places and things that might (or might not) continue to seem important by the time the 2012 edition rolls around.


Because of Mr. Terupt. By Rob Buyea. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

How Tía Lola Learned to Teach. By Julia Alvarez. Knopf. $15.99.

Penny Dreadful. By Laurel Snyder. Drawings by Abigail Halpin. Random House. $16.99.

Rascal: A Dog and His Boy. By Ken Wells. Illustrations by Christian Slade. Knopf. $16.99.

     Although set in recognizable places, these novels for readers ages 8-12 all have a whiff of fantasy and fairy tale about them, with interactions and lessons planned as neatly as they are in stories of wonder and magic. Because of Mr. Terupt not only features the oddly named teacher of the title but also is told in the voices of seven different fifth graders: Jessica, Alexia, Peter, Luke, Danielle, Anna and Jeffrey. There is a different type style used for each name at the start of chapters told by that student. And as in a fairy tale, each fifth-grader stands for something rather than having a fully fleshed-out personality. Luke, for example, is the smart kid who uses big words; Jeffrey hates being in school; Peter is the troublemaker, whose pranks lead to a serious accident in the middle of the book – toward which the first half builds and around which the second half is constructed. This is Rob Buyea’s first novel, and if the author’s inexperience is responsible for some awkwardness and some obviousness, it is also the source of a refreshing willingness to go beyond the standard elements of what could easily have been just another of the oft-told tales of a good teacher who inspires students by making the classroom fun while still enforcing appropriate discipline. Told on a month-by-month basis that tracks the school year, with the climactic mid-book event happening in the middle of the year and influencing everything that comes afterwards, Because of Mr. Terupt becomes a more thoughtful and involving book in its second half than in its first, even as its chapters get shorter. There is some mawkishness as the story winds down, but the uplifting ending will certainly please preteen readers – and it has the satisfying ring of many fairy-tale conclusions.

     How Tía Lola Learned to Teach is a school story as well – a followup to Julia Alvarez’ How Tía Lola Came to Stay. The book is set in Vermont, where Tía Lola now lives with her nephew, Miguel, and niece, Juanita, and their Mami. Miguel is in fifth grade, but Tía Lola never finished fourth grade, so when the school’s principal asks her if she would like to teach Spanish, she is understandably nervous (and is sort of tricked into the whole thing). Nevertheless, she agrees, and throws herself into the task with her usual ebullience, good humor and nontraditional approaches (which include a Carnaval fiesta and Spanish treasure hunt). The book is laid out in 10 “lessons” rather than chapters, each introduced by a Spanish phrase that is also translated into English – for example, “Camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente – The sleeping shrimp is carried away by the current.” These “lessons” tie into the events of the book, which include a variety of family matters – in particular, Miguel’s gradual adjustment to his unhappiness at living so far away from Papi, who has a new girlfriend. The prospect of Papi marrying this woman, Carmen, brings in one of the overt fairy-tale elements here: “Now, Miguel’s not a big reader like Juanita. But anyone who has read even a handful of fairy tales knows stepmothers can be pretty evil.” Still, the family issues are initially soft-pedaled here, taking a back seat to the school events – until an immigration matter becomes a very serious real-life situation indeed. The tone of the book makes it obvious that everything will be resolved happily, which is indeed what happens. And the pleasant nature of the characters, and warmth of their interactions, will have readers looking forward to the next Tía Lola story.

     Penny Dreadful is also family-focused, but the family situation is quite different. As in many fairy tales, this is the story of people who are rich, become poor, and discover new values. Penelope Grey’s father is president of a family firm where he hates his work – so he abruptly quits his job. The Greys live in an inherited house (a mansion, actually) in the city, with servants, but can no longer afford the upkeep of home and staff after Dirk quits so he can write a novel. They do not know what to do – but then the mother, Delia, gets a telegram (of all things) saying she has inherited a home in a rural area. Penelope considers herself responsible for all this – she has been terribly bored with her pampered life in the city and has made a wish for things to change – so she takes it upon herself to tell her parents what a wonderful change it would be to live out in the country. Of course, it is inevitable that the house in Thrush Junction will be run-down, but that people will make “homemade cinnamon applesauce” and otherwise be good, solid, non-city types, with kids who have worm battles. And the money troubles will not end (the rural house has some odd encumbrances attached to it), but Penny (having renamed herself from Penelope) will find the strength to face some grown-up issues – and will discover some real magic out in the boondocks. And, let’s see, Delia will get a job, and Dirk will discover he has a previously unrecognized talent, and everything will get a sprinkling of fairy dust (figuratively if not quite literally) so the family ends up realizing that what matters isn’t money and city life, but the good, honest, homespun warmth of the rural countryside. The book concludes with Penny thinking that things would have worked out better financially if she had been a character in a book, and with her friend, Luella, telling her that “things never happen the way they would in a book.” But if the way things happen in this book is not really surprising, Laurel Snyder’s character sketches and Abigail Halpin’s just-right drawings do guarantee that this almost-fairy-tale of the wonders of rural life goes down easily.

     Ken Wells’ Rascal partakes of different magical-story traditions – those of Aesop and the Br’er Rabbit tales. “A dog’s about runnin’ and chasin’ and eatin’ and barkin’. And love, love, love!” Rascal tells us early in the story – yes, the dog is the narrator. This is a Louisiana story, Cajun Louisiana, filled with dogs and cats and other wildlife, all the animals talking to each other while finding their own ways to communicate with humans. The humans and animals have similar names: Miss Henrietta and Big Maw and Nonc Noon Voclain and Tubby and Tante Lo-Lo and, best of all for Rascal, Meely, his boy. Rascal is all dog thought and all dog talk, if dogs could talk: “The scent is so warm and strong that I see it with my nose ‘bout the same way a person sees a white line painted down the middle of a blacktop road.” The big problem for Rascal is snakes. One of them, a cottonmouth (water moccasin) named Ole Swamp, tells Rascal, “Us snakes ran the place till them Two-Footers took over. …This is the thang about snakes – we’ve got long, long memories.” Ole Swamp, who turns out to be a pretty good guy, is a really great character who takes over most of the scenes in which he appears. Rascal asks him if maybe bobcats used to be in charge of things, and Ole Swamp says, “How could cats run anything? You get three cats together and you get seven opinions on everything.” Turns out Ole Swamp has a special interest in Rascal, because he has a special interest – for reasons we eventually learn – in Meely. And turns out there’s another cottonmouth, a one-fanged monster called Pick (“it’s short for Ice Pick”), that is the real enemy and real danger to dogs, cats, humans and just about everyone and everything else. So Rascal is a story of what it’s like to be a dog in Cajun country, and what it’s like living around all the other wildlife in the swamps, and what happens with a dog and his boy and the other dogs and cats and snakes and all the other personality-packed critters out there. Written largely in dialect and telling a story from an unusual place and several unusual angles, Rascal will be a very appealing book for young readers seeking something outside the ordinary. With apt illustrations by Christian Slade and a consistent tone that includes Cajun words and a Louisiana cadence throughout, the book moves inevitably to a thrilling climax that follows naturally from all that has gone before – and leads to an understanding, which even a beagle puppy such as Rascal can make clear, about all animals, including humans, having their proper place, even though every species has some good members and some bad ones. Rascal is not a romp but a ramble, filled with real threats and worries and even deaths. But it is, in the end, a celebration of life and the joy it brings to all species, each in its own way. It is certainly not for everyone, but it will be a very special treat for young readers looking for an offbeat story told from a series of surprising angles.


The Familiars. By Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson. Art by Peter Chan & Kei Acedera. Harper. $16.99.

The Healing Wars, Book I: The Shifter. By Janice Hardy. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $7.99.

Firelight. By Sophie Jordan. Harper. $16.99.

The Frenzy. By Francesca Lia Block. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books. By Francesca Lia Block. HarperTeen. $9.99.

     The treatment of magical animals – and people who can magically change themselves into animals – itself changes, sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly, as books target older readers. The Familiars, for ages 8-12, never loses sight of humor as it takes its central animal characters through a series of escapades. Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson construct a series of scenes along the lines of a movie (the book is in fact due to be made into one) – starting at the very beginning, when the alley cat Aldwyn ducks into a pet shop to escape a pursuer and soon finds himself selected as familiar to a wizard-in-training named Jack. The problem is that Aldwyn, clever though he is, is not magical, and that creates immediate friction with Skylark the blue jay and Gilbert the tree frog, the familiars of the other two wizards-in-training apprenticed to wizard master Kalstaff. It is pretty easy to see where The Familiars is going: Aldwyn will be challenged in some major way and will prove himself worthy after all. That is exactly what happens, but the fun here is in the journey as much as in the destination. Kalstaff is defeated in a magical attack, and the three young wizards are captured by the evil queen of Vastia and wrapped in dispeller chains (to prevent them from doing magic). So the three familiars set out to save them, and the rest is the typical quest journey so common in fantasy literature. Kalstaff’s last words set the tone for what will happen: “Heroism appears in many forms. …Not always man or woman but also fur, feather, and tongue.” As the quest progresses, the familiars learn that animals, not humans, were once the great wizards of the land (they see this in paintings created during the “Enchantaissance”). Through adventures with a cave troll, Mountain Alchemist, Gilbert’s relatives and a seven-headed hydra, the familiars show their pluck and courage, even when confronted by a deadly…bunny. And their success at the end is engineered so a sequel, or several, can easily be created.

     The first book of The Healing Wars trilogy, now available in paperback, was Janice Hardy’s first novel. The Shifter is an exploration of the price that might have to be paid by someone with the power to heal others. What if a healer can take pain away only by taking it into herself – and must then shift it to someone else? Being for older readers than The Familiars – Hardy’s novel is for ages 10 and up – The Shifter is a darker book. Its central character, Nya, comes from an aristocratic background that no longer matters, because of a war that has gone against her land, Geveg. Nya is a Taker – one who takes away pain – as was her mother; her father was an enchanter. Now there are only 15-year-old Nya and her sister, Tali, and it soon turns out that Nya must find a way to rescue Tali, which requires Nya to make a deal with the evil Baseeri who lord it over Nya and all the Gevegians. The complex sociopolitical situation makes the tasks of Healers all the more difficult, and the importance of an enchanted metal called pynvium – in which pain can be stored – complicates things further. For Nya, although she is a Taker, cannot push pain into pynvium – only into another person. She therefore cannot become a full-fledged Healer, but soon finds that she can be turned into something else: a weapon. And, not surprisingly, Nya is more than she seems, as she learns from what she does with pynvium: “How did I make pynvium flash? Only enchanters could trigger the metal to do that, like Papa had done during the war. I’d inherited his eyes – had I gotten more than that? What exactly was I?” Nya’s quest for survival, for saving Tali, for figuring out why Takers have been mysteriously disappearing, and for discovering her own nature is a familiar one in fantasies for this age range. But the underlying premise of The Shifter makes the novel more interesting than many others. “Doing what’s right is seldom easy,” Nya remember her Grannyma telling her. And indeed, none of what she does is easy, nor is any of what she learns; but by the end of The Shifter, Nya knows a great deal more about who and what she is, and what she needs to do next as The Healing Wars trilogy continues.

     There is shifting of a more typical sort – typical in fantasy novels, anyway – in Firelight. Sophie Jordan (pen name of Sharie Kohler) is a romance and werewolf-romance writer who here tries something ever so slightly different: dragon romance. Firelight, for ages 12 and up, focuses on the draki, who can shift between dragon and human form, and in particular on Jacinda, a rare fire breather and a free spirit among her kind, who refuses to be bound by the rules and makes a flight in daylight – only to be caught by dragon hunters who just happen to be nearby. One hunter in particular, the handsome Will, becomes very important to her: he lets her go free. Not so the draki elders, whose planned punishment for Jacinda is so extreme that Jacinda’s mother takes her and her sister into the human world, to live permanently in human form in a desert city. But of course that is only the start of an adventure/romance whose supernatural elements are secondary to its entirely traditional Romeo-and-Juliet-style plot – which does not have a happy ending, but certainly invites a sequel.

     Francesca Lia Block’s The Frenzy and Dangerous Angels, both for ages 14 and up, are cut from similar cloth but woven somewhat more intensely. In The Frenzy, Liv transforms at 13 (not 11, like Jacinda), and she is a werewolf, not one of the draki. Liv too has a boyfriend, Corey, although their relationship is not as fraught with difficulty as that of Jacinda and Will. Liv’s problems are ones of trying to discover exactly who or what she is, trying to understand what has happened to her and why, and trying to cope with an alcoholic and abusive father while dealing with the murders in the nearby woods and the role that she, or others like her, may have in them. There is something very modern about a werewolf with a cell phone, who takes the antidepressant Lexapro, who sees a psychiatrist, and who has a good guy friend who is struggling with his homosexuality. But ultimately The Frenzy is yet another example of finding one’s true inner being, figuring out where the wolf and human personas overlap, and understanding how to integrate the two. This is an old plot and an oft-told story, but Block certainly paces it effectively and writes it well.

     She writes Dangerous Angels even better, and it is a more unusual book in many ways. Five books, actually: Weetzie Bat (1989), Witch Baby (1991), Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys (1992), Missing Angel Juan (1993), and Baby Be-Bop (1995), all collected in a single new paperback edition (Dangerous Angels was originally published in hardcover in 1998). The shapeshifting here is subtle and seems to affect the entire environment rather than individual characters. Weetzie Bat was Block’s first novel, written when she was just 18 although published some years later. It was and is an odd and affecting combination of lyrical fairy tale and gritty realism. It is still impressive, as are its successors. The original book’s acceptance of gay and common-law marriage, abortion, deliberately conceiving a child in such a way that any one of three men could be the father, and the AIDS epidemic, made it controversial and still make it feel timely. Yet it is not a sensationalistic book; nor are the others included in Dangerous Angels. What is ultimately shifting shape here is nothing more or less than love, which is almost palpable as a character even though it remains tantalizingly elusive. Witch Baby, for example, is about the title character seeking her birth mother, finding her, then realizing that love is really with Weetzie Bat and Weetzie’s odd collection of friends – not with someone to whom she is related by blood but who does not really want her. And so on, in many shapes and forms, through all five short books. It is Block’s style, itself subtle and shifting in shape, that is the greatest attraction here, as when Witch Baby, narrating Missing Angel Juan, says, “I think about Charlie like the black cat and Cake like the white monkey and how they are both parts of me and about butterflies shedding the withery cocoons, the prisons they spun out of themselves, and opening up like flowers.” Butterflies are the ultimate shapeshifters, and there is something of that sort of transformation permeating the Weetzie Bat books, less overt than the change from, say, human to dragon or wolf, but more poetic and, in a curious way, more real.


Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $26.

Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story—The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company. By Patrick K. O’Donnell. Da Capo. $26.

     Wars produce heroes, but the wars themselves do not necessarily seem heroic. For every necessary (and hence, in some sense, “good” war), such as World War II, there are many skirmishes about whose value history is less certain. Sometimes the participants are unsure of those wars’ value, too. Patrick Henry, for example, never doubted the value of the war that established the United States of America. But he was less sure about the value of the nation as it was shaped after the war ended, and it turns out that some of his greatest fears have proved correct in the two centuries since he expressed them. He expressed them very well indeed: Henry was a powerful orator and excellent speechwriter (no professional word spinners in his time). Passionately devoted to the cause of liberty in terms of individual rights – a stance that explains his fiery oratory, his skill at fomenting revolution and his eventual disillusionment with some of what that revolution led to – Henry served four terms as governor of Virginia. But he refused a fifth term, just as he turned down offers to become a U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, even Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Scarcely a man of overweening ambition – rather the opposite, in fact – Henry was throughout his life concerned about protecting people from government. This was his thinking in terms of the British rule over the American colonies, and was also his thinking about the role that the federal government, under George Washington’s leadership, was to play in the newly formed post-revolutionary nation. Thus, Henry was an advocate of limited government – but the limited-government forces eventually lost out to proponents of a strong central government that Henry feared (rightly, as it turned out) would constantly push beyond the carefully constrained powers accorded to it in the Constitution, and in so doing would degrade the inherent individual rights of all American citizens. It can be argued – and has been, time and time again – that the increase of federal power had the effect of expanding individual rights, especially for the disenfranchised (notably including slaves and women). Henry, who obtained slaves when he bought properties but opposed slavery and spent considerable time trying to figure out how to end it, would have been clear-headed enough to see this – Harlow Giles Unger’s biography makes the clarity of Henry’s thought abundantly plain. But it is unlikely that Henry would have approved of the overreaching (in Constitutional terms) through which these expansions of liberty were accomplished. Henry is not an especially well-known figure in American history, beyond his famous speech urging, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Unger does a fine job of putting him in historical context in terms of his background (he was a failed tobacco farmer), his family life (18 children), and his political stands (among them a bill to subsidize mixed marriages with Indians and a proposal to establish Christianity as the religion of Virginia – two failed attempts that, as Unger shows, make sense in context). Filled with excerpts from Henry’s speeches and letters, Lion of Liberty provides a fine, multifaceted portrait of a stirring orator and accomplished politician, although it occasionally gives short shrift to interesting tidbits (Henry’s proposal in 1776 to create a dictator of Virginia) and provides more detail about battles and commercial transactions than some readers will want to know. On balance, though, this is a noteworthy biography that shows both Henry’s importance to the establishment of the United States and the distance between the sort of nation he hoped to create and the one that exists two centuries later.

     A war very different from the American Revolution, with a far more ambiguous outcome (under which there is still no peace treaty more than 50 years after the cease-fire), is the subject of Give Me Tomorrow, the latest in a long series of military histories claiming to tell the “greatest untold story” of this war or that. Patrick K. O’Donnell here focuses on the 200 men of the Marines’ George Company during the Korean War, and specifically on the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in 1950. This was a fight by the vastly outnumbered Marines against both North Korean and Chinese troops – and against temperatures that reached 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The purpose of the battle was to prevent the loss of the First Marine Division’s headquarters and supply base – a crucial action in wartime, but one that will inevitably seem minor to many civilians 50 years later. O’Donnell has nothing but admiration and sympathy for the Marines who fought at Chosin. A new memorial to the men who fell there is now on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, Virginia, but Give Me Tomorrow is a memorial as well. O’Donnell goes out of his way to turn the men into characters in a story, emphasizing their youth and their many different backgrounds (Southerner, Northerner, Native American, and so on), and selecting details of their deployment that make the book more than an unremitting slog through inhospitable terrain. There is, for instance, the game of Hearts played in a building illuminated by a C-Ration can filled with sand and gasoline; the accident in refilling the can that left one man with horrible burns; and the dual footnotes: that Harrell Roberts, one of the card players, never played Hearts again, and that the burned man, Clayton Sepulveda, eventually recovered, returned to active duty, and was killed by a sniper. It is impossible not to respect the men of George Company, which clearly earned its nickname, “Bloody George.” And it is impossible not to admire the painstaking research and very extensive interviews from which O’Donnell built Give Me Tomorrow. But it is hard to see to whom the book will appeal, other than Korean War veterans and military historians such as O’Donnell. The horrors that George Company endured were the horrors of many a war; and the lack (until recently) of recognition of what they did is, unfortunately, just what many veterans of many wars return home to discover. George Company clearly is deserving of respect and acknowledgment, both at Quantico and in this book. But it is not uniquely deserving, and unfortunately there are many other “greatest untold stories” out there, of many other fighters in many other wars.


E.T.A. Hoffmann: Liebe und Eifersucht. Gary Martin, Robert Sellier, Florian Simson, Jörg Simon, Christina Gerstberger, Thérèse Wincent, Sybille Specht, Sybilla Duffe, Stefan Sevenich; Orchester der Ludwigsburger Schlossfestspiele conducted by Michael Hofstetter. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3; Vocalise. National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Newton Classics. $12.99.

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; Dvořák: Serenade for Strings; Purcell: Dido’s Lament. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Newton Classics. $12.99.

Byrd: Masses for Three, Four and Five Voices; Magnificat and Nunc dimittis; Ave verum corpus; Taverner: Leroy Kyrie; Western Wind Mass; Dum transisset Sabbatum; Christe Jesu pastor bone; Mater Christi. Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Sir David Willcocks. Newton Classics. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Some performances that deliberately look backward are delightful to hear for that very reason. The new recording of a live performance of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s rarely heard Liebe und Eifersucht (“Love and Jealousy”) is played on original instruments of its time (1807) or modern reproductions, with the result that this frantically paced (and rather forced) comedy has a fresh, clear sound that keeps it light throughout. It is pure entertainment, silly and inconsequential, and sounds it. This Singspiel by a composer who today is far better known for his authorship of strange and often spooky tales (including those that inspired Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann and, in watered-down form, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker) shows solid compositional workmanship and very fine vocal writing. It moves at a headlong pace from start to finish, as if Hoffmann knew that letting the audience pause to think about the plot would lead to disappointment. There is no characterization here, but there are plenty of characters rushing about and declaring themselves in music that looks back harmonically to Mozart but has much of the tunefulness (although not the sheer verve) of Rossini. The story revolves around Enrico (Robert Sellier), who has been paying court to Cloris (Thérèse Wincent) even though he really loves her sister, Lisida (Christina Gerstberger), while the Duke of Florence (Gary Martin) is the one who loves Cloris, who does not return his affection. The sisters’ aunt, Nisa (Sybille Specht), is loved by Ottavio (Robert Sellier); and Lisida’s maid, Celia (Sybilla Duffe) is loved by Enrico’s servant, Ponlevi (Stefan Sevenich). The plot maneuvers Enrico into paying court to all four women (Lisida, Cloris, Nisa and Celia), thereby angering all the men and ending up challenged to two simultaneous duels and being nearly run through by the Duke – until a happy ending gets pulled out of the proverbial hat (or, in this case, a wardrobe closet) at the very end. None of this makes an iota of sense, and none of it is supposed to – the comedy lies in the contrivances and complications, which Hoffmann manages very well. Liebe und Eifersucht is a sort of bedroom farce, but without bedrooms. There are a few especially notable arias – Cloris’ Verloren die Ruhe, which is as Mozartean as anything in the work, is especially fine – but it is the numerous skillfully composed ensembles that are most impressive. Hoffmann really piles them on: duet, trio, quartet, quintet, sextet, as well as finales in which practically everyone takes part. Frothy and frequently frantic, Liebe und Eifersucht is scarcely great music or a great stage work, but it is enormously entertaining in its unremitting silliness. And praise upon praise to CPO for including a complete libretto, without which the action, already difficult to follow, would be even more incoherent.

     There is a different sort of delving into the past in three new Newton Classics releases. This CD company is re-releasing recordings, most of them originally made in analog form, from the middle and latter part of the 20th century. And some of them are very special indeed. Leopold Stokowski’s broadly Romantic conducting style was not to everyone’s taste during his lifetime and will not be so today, but it has to be said that two new recordings made when Stokowski was 93 years old (two years before his death) are fascinating and in many ways quite remarkable. Stokowski conducted the première of Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony in 1936 but then never again led it in public – so his return to the work in 1975 was quite an event. And he makes a strong case for this symphony, emphasizing its very broadly melodic lines and lush, even cloying orchestration. The pacing is deliberate, but not slow, and the National Philharmonic plays willingly and with feeling, if not perhaps with the burnished quality of brass that shows Rachmaninoff at his best. The composer’s orchestration of the well-known Vocalise completes the CD, with Stokowski making the work as expansive and emotional as anyone could wish.

     With the Royal Philharmonic, Stokowski in the same year made his first-ever recording of Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings, giving the work a lush and expansive performance that feels rather old-fashioned and a touch heavy-handed, but is certainly quite beautiful in its own way. Vaughan Williams, whose work Stokowski advocated for many decades, is here represented in a beautifully modulated and highly emotive version of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis that shows Stokowski’s conducting style at its most effective. On the other hand, Stokowski’s overblown orchestration of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas shows why musical purists have long been uncomfortable with Stokowski’s handling of early music. Whatever else this version may be, and it is certainly lush and broad, it is not Purcell except in the most general sense. It is, however, very well played, and indicative, for those interested in such things, of the way music of pre-Classical times was brought to the concert hall at a time when such works were rarely heard and Stokowski was seeking ways to make them sonically appealing to audiences of the day.

     Moving even further back in time, and in a much more authentic way (although not fully in accordance with historical performance practices, which had yet to become the norm), the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, offers some beautifully sung versions of masses and motets by William Byrd (1540-1623) and John Taverner (c. 1490-1545). The Taverner works were recorded in 1961; the Byrd, in 1959 and 1963. The sound of these a cappella pieces is actually quite fine – the recordings were all made in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge – and the singing is warm, mellifluous and beautifully controlled. The sound is more massive than would be heard in more-authentic performances today, and there is more overt emotionalism expressed in the singing, but the purity of tone of the performers is winning, and their commitment to expressing the underlying sentiments of the texts comes through with clarity and feeling. The music of Byrd and Taverner is not often heard even today, but it is of considerable musical – not merely historical – interest, and this well-priced two-CD set provides a fine opportunity to hear some very beautiful and effective performances by a choir that was, at the time of these recordings, one of the very best. What the performances lack in terms of adhering to historical principles that were unknown at the time, they make up for in sheer quality of sound and expressiveness. That makes these and the other Newton Classics CDs recordings to which listeners can look forward, even as the reissues themselves look back at performances from 30 to 50 years ago.

November 18, 2010


The Kingfisher Illustrated Horse & Pony Encyclopedia. By Sandy Ransford. Kingfisher. $24.99.

A Good Horse. By Jane Smiley. Illustrations by Elaine Clayton. Knopf. $16.99.

Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow—A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix. By Gary Golio. Illustrated by Javaka Steptoe. Clarion. $16.99.

Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney. By Howard Sounes. Da Capo. $29.95.

Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book. Edited by Sean Manning. Da Capo. $15.95.

13 Words. By Lemony Snicket. Illustrated by Maira Kalman. Harper. $16.99.

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus. By Chris Plehal. Pictures by James Bernardin. Harper. $16.99.

The Greatest Snowman in the World! By Peter Hannan. Harper. $16.99.

Bon Appétit Desserts. By Barbara Fairchild. Photography by Con Poulos. Andrews McMeel. $40.

     Some books absolutely cry out to be given as gifts – maybe not for just anybody, but for people with specific likes and preferences. And what a great time of year this is to try matching up just the right special book with just the right special person. Know a young horse lover? Get him or her The Kingfisher Illustrated Horse & Pony Encyclopedia, which contains beautiful photographs and excellent information on all things equine: types of horses and ponies, feeding and grooming, health care, training, riding and more. Here is a place to find out about the Akhal-Teke of Turkmenistan, learn how to remove mud and stains from a horse’s or pony’s coat, see how to pick up and clean out a hoof (the pictorial illustrations are very well done), get step-by-step information on putting on a halter, and much more. Everything from proper position when mounted to the basics of arena riding is here, all very clearly explained and shown with appropriate and well-chosen photographs. It would be hard to find a better introductory book for someone thinking of learning to ride and considering owning a horse or pony. But of course The Kingfisher Illustrated Horse & Pony Encyclopedia is nonfiction, so it lacks the drama of a horse-focused novel such as A Good Horse, Jane Smiley’s sequel to The Georges and the Jewels. Horse lovers who are not seriously expecting to become horse owners (and even some who are) will enjoy this equine mystery, which includes many characters from the previous book but can be read on its own. Smiley, herself a horse owner, brings back eighth-grader Abby Lovitt and the horse Black George, who here shows himself such a natural jumper that Abby expects her father to sell him soon. The mystery element of the book involves the young foal Jack, whose mare may have been stolen – and if so, Abby may lose him, too. Set in California in the 1960s, A Good Horse includes coming-of-age elements similar to those in The Georges and the Jewels, such as Abby’s difficulties with her parents’ (especially her mother’s) religious narrow-mindedness – which includes, among other issues, worries about Abby participating in a Shakespeare play. But it is the horses that are the central plot elements here, and Elaine Clayton’s fine chapter-opening illustrations do an excellent job of setting scenes and keeping the equine focus, showing (among many other things) a water jump, rope halter, hay net, saddle bag, stall door, whip, bit, bridle and set of farrier’s tools. Abby’s horse-oriented instincts eventually bring her a happy ending here, and young teenage horse lovers will have a good time being swept up in all the excitement and emotional turmoil.

     No horse interests? How about something in music? For young readers, Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow—A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix is a celebration of a talented child, with splashy mixed-media illustrations reminiscent of graffiti and of some of the art of the 1960s. Gary Golio’s text runs all over the place on pages that are sometimes laid out horizontally, sometimes vertically, providing a visual focus on Javaka Steptoe’s art. Golio writes of young Jimmy (not yet Jimi) strumming a broom to Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” of watching a guitar player and “feel[ing] the music tingling in his fingertips,” of developing his own style until “his playing became bold as lightning.” The book is sprinkled with Hendrix quotes – and concludes, quite deliberately for its young audience, on an uplifting and positive note. End pages for adults talk about Hendrix’s death from drugs at age 27, somewhat minimizing the reality of what killed him (“an unfortunate combination of prescription drugs and alcohol”) but noting that “addiction is a curable disease” and even offering as resources some Web links and suggested books. The final five pages of Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow—A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix are as downbeat as the rest of the book is upbeat – parents will need to decide how to balance the elements of Hendrix’s life and music for their children.

     For parents themselves, a really thick musical gift (600-plus pages) is Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney, Howard Sounes’ exhaustively researched and sometimes exhausting-to-read biography of a musician whose relaxed public image is the opposite of Jimi Hendrix’s – and, Sounes argues, far from the whole story of who and what McCartney is. Sounes shows the singer to be both moodier and more manipulative than most people realize, tracing his roots back to his Liverpudlian birth in 1942, through the Beatles years, and all the way to the present, when Sir James Paul McCartney appears pretty much to have it all. The words “intimate life” in the subtitle are a clue that the focus here will be as much on McCartney’s personal life (romances, family issues, two marriages, relationships within the Beatles and among band members after the breakup, and all that tabloid fodder) as on his music. Interestingly, more than half the book takes place after the end of the Beatles, so the book is packed with post-Beatles tales, like this typical example from 1979: “There was a Beatles reunion that spring in the neighbouring county of Surrey, where Eric Clapton was celebrating his marriage to George’s Harrison’s ex-wife. After being married to George for eight years, Pattie had left the former Beatle in1974 for his close friend, three years after which George married his secretary Olivia Arias. …The guests included the cuckold Harrison, whose friendship with Eric and Pattie had survived the changing of the guard, a testimony to the freewheeling spirit of the decade in which they’d all come to maturity.” This is typical of Sounes’ style: name-packed, gossipy, interpretative but not judgmental, and very detail-oriented. Sounes does not hesitate to say what McCartney and others think about this or that, even though the author could scarcely know their thoughts for sure; but this is not a work of journalism. It is a somewhat analytical, somewhat celebratory celebrity biography – which fans of McCartney will surely find intriguing if they receive it as a gift, even though the book as a whole is a bit much of a muchness.

     A much, much shorter and less ambitious book could make a wonderful gift for a more literary friend. This is Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book, which is in fact bound so plainly that it almost looks like a work in progress. But what joy this little book (not much over 200 pages) includes for those who love today’s authors! In tiny little essays, literally just a few pages long apiece, these writers discuss some favorite books that are scarcely surprises and some that are absolutely fascinating picks. In the former category are Joyce Maynard’s choice of the Bible, Sean Manning’s of Ulysses, Philipp Meyer’s of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Karen Joy Fowler’s of The Once and Future King, among others. In the latter are Rabih Alameddine’s selection of The Carpetbaggers, Terrence Holt’s of The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, Eighth Edition, Ed Park’s of Dungeon Masters Guide, and Sarah Manguso’s of Believe It or Not! – and others. Quirky and even odd, some of the picks, but the authors seem quite sincere in naming them and explaining why, with the result that Bound to Last not only provides insight into 30 of today’s writers but also can make the recipient of this gift look at the books the writers choose as their favorites in a new light.

     If Bound to Last were child-oriented, it would likely include an essay by Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler), whose A Series of Unfortunate Events remains popular and has inspired all sorts of imitators, commentators and denigrators. A fascinatingly different sort of Snicket book, 13 Words, could make a great gift for this author’s young fans. Not surprisingly, many of these are scarcely ordinary words: while “bird” and “dog” are two of them, others are “despondent,” “haberdashery,” “panache” and “mezzo-soprano.” The story bounces from absurdity to absurdity, starting with a sad bird whose dog friend leaves him in a room with 11 ladders that are to be painted in 10 colors, continuing with a convertible-driving goat in a spiffy jacket, and ending with a song (sung by the mezzo-soprano, of course) that pulls all 13 apparently unrelated words together. A rather strange book, forthrightly illustrated by Maira Kalman in a way that nicely complements Snicket’s text, 13 Words will be great seasonal (and after-seasonal) fun for the right sort of young recipient.

     And let us not forget specifically seasonal giftable books. Some would be winners at any time of year, such as Chris Plehal’s Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus, based on one of the most famous American newspaper editorials of all time. With that editorial as the narrative’s foundation, and illustrations in which James Bernardin makes all the big-headed, huge-eyed kids look like adorable dolls or lifelike puppets, the book tells a fictionalized story of little Virginia and the doubts raised in her mind by “Charlotte, the meanest, bossiest, snootiest girl in town.” The distraught Virginia decides to write to the newspaper after getting no satisfaction from library research or from talking to a street-corner Santa who is collecting for the poor and has given up his coat to someone who needed it more. Virginia’s father tells her, “‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so,’” so Virginia writes the paper to ask whether Santa Claus is real – and after some behind-the-scenes newspaper drama involving a hard-nosed editor and “Scraggly Santa” (the kind-hearted one who gave away his coat), the famous editorial appears. Its words, plus a surprising and magical gift, make Virginia very happy indeed – and will make readers of this book joyous as well. Plehal takes plenty of liberties with the tale (for one thing, the editorial appeared on September 21, 1897, so the weather was not cold and snowy, as it is in the book), but they are all in a good cause and help make Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus a wonderful winter gift.

     Yet it is not necessary to believe in Santa Claus, or celebrate Christmas, to find delightful winter presents – such as The Greatest Snowman in the World! Peter Hanna’s book is a lark from start to finish, featuring Charles Chinchilla (whose mouth makes up most of his body) and his best friends, Elvis Wormly and Babs McBoid, all of them determined to create the snowman of the book’s title. Everything that Hanna writes – and draws – goes deliciously wrong, starting with a huge snow mound that Babs pronounces “the WORST snowman in the world” and continuing as Charles (who absolutely refuses to give in to negative thinking) assembles materials for a nose, hair, a beard, X-ray eyes, antennae, and lots of additional feet and other appendages. What results is a hilarious-looking snow monstrosity with parts and pieces sticking out every which way – and which then starts to melt, so the three friends disassemble their work to put it in the freezer. Using Elvis. Who assumes the shape of a slingshot. And everything becomes a complete mess – except for the surprise happy ending, in which it turns out that the real greatest snowman in the world is one the friends make not out of ice but out of ice cream.

     And if that puts the gift-giver in you in mind of desserts, by all means consider – for a very, very special person – making a gift of the aptly subtitled “cookbook for all things sweet and wonderful,” Bon Appétit Desserts. This is an absolute delight from start to finish – you can gain five pounds just by thumbing through it and gazing at the pictures. “Mouth-watering” barely begins to describe these luscious-looking, beautifully photographed sweet treats, which are rated from one whisk (“very easy to make…perfect for the novice”) to four (“showstopping…for the expert baker”). Clear, easy-to-understand definitions of dessert ingredients (explaining, for instance, just what cornstarch is and why white chocolate “is technically not chocolate”) are complemented by a list of useful dessert-making equipment, from ramekins to cake pans to spice grinders and much more. Then comes a well-illustrated section on techniques for making the perfect dessert – and then the recipes. Oh, the recipes! Cakes and pies, custards and cookies, brownies and candy, frozen desserts and fruit desserts – they all look absolutely splendid and are very clearly described, from ingredient lists to detailed instructions on what to do and what to watch out for. Page after page is filled with helpful hints and information: the benefits of using room-temperature eggs, a good place to buy pliable plastic decorating sheets called transfers, good wines to go with cake (“make sure that what’s in the glass is as sweet if not sweeter than what’s on the plate”), and much, much, much more. This is an amazingly interesting cookbook, including many very unusual desserts as well as excellent recipes for many common ones, and the end-of-book source list for baking and decorating supplies, ingredients, gadgets and more (including both phone numbers and Web sites) is, in and of itself, a simply superb offering. You won’t find a more delicious gift for the holidays than this one, and you can be sure that any food-loving recipient will thank you for Bon Appétit Desserts throughout the holiday season and for a long time to come. A really long time: the book runs nearly 700 oversize pages and weighs six pounds – heavy enough to use in exercises to help take off some of the weight that overindulgence in the wonderful recipes is quite capable of putting on.


The Memory Bank. By Carolyn Coman & Rob Shepperson. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

The Danger Box. By Blue Balliett. Scholastic. $16.99.

Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls #6: Blast from the Past. By Meg Cabot. Scholastic. $15.99.

     Sometimes the way a story is told adds a great deal to its effectiveness. It can be a matter of verbal style, of course – but increasingly, especially in books for younger readers, what sets some works above others is their creativity in using illustrations. Thus, The Memory Bank starts with a wonderful premise: what if a memory bank were like a physical bank, complete with vaults and storage areas and security and people enforcing the banking rules? Then Carolyn Coman and Rob Shepperson work that idea through in an exceptionally well-done combination of words and art. Coman is the wordsmith and Shepperson the artist, but this is a true collaboration of equals, because some chapters of the book have no words at all and some have minimal illustrations. And the changing pattern of what is verbal and what is pictorial is an integral part of the story. The tale itself is an elaborate fantasy that focuses on Hope Scroggins and her adored little sister, Honey, who at the book’s start is abandoned on the roadside by the kids’ truly horrible parents – who then command Hope to forget Honey. The aptly named Hope refuses, but withdraws into herself until she is doing nothing but sleeping and dreaming of Honey (and we see the dreams very vividly – and soon realize that Honey is quite all right, with a group of other children in some strange land). Hope’s constant dreaming creates an imbalance between her “deposits” of dreams and waking memories in the Memory Bank, and that results in her being brought to the bank itself – at which point she goes through a remarkable series of adventures. The bank, officially called WWMB (World Wide Memory Bank), is under siege by an anarchistic group called the Clean Slate Gang (CSG), which opposes memory preservation. And it soon turns out that, while the WWMB is entirely peopled by adults, the CSG contains only children – including Hope’s sister. The way the various arcs of the story intersect is quite wonderful: initially, the CSG pages are all visual and the WWMB ones are verbal, but eventually, pictures become more important in WWMB scenes and words creep in to describe CSG activities. This could have been a science-fiction story, and a scary one at that (in the hands of, say, Philip K. Dick), but most characters’ expressions here are so jovial and the threats and arguments have such a dreamlike quality that there is never anything in the book to frighten young readers – except Hope’s and Honey’s real-world parents, who are unremittingly awful. It is eventually through a stored memory belonging to Honey that the sisters re-connect, and the feel-good climax in which CSG and WWMB realize they can and must get along (just as children and adults need to coexist) is handled with joy and subtlety. The Memory Bank is worth reading – and remembering.

     The Danger Box, the fourth more-esoteric-than-comparable-books novel by Blue Balliett, wraps its mystery in Balliett’s typically effective and unusual stylistic presentation, which here includes use of multiple typefaces, plenty of lists (one of which gives all 22 trees after which the streets of the town of Three Oaks are named), multiple perspectives (with some chapters presented in italics to set them off from others), excerpts from newspaper articles and journal entries, and chapter titles (for the very short chapters) that become part of the progress of the story (“A Teapot and a Pail,” “Featherbone,” “I Spy,” “A Palindrome with a Stutter,” “Old Sauerkraut,” and on and on). The story involves antiques, the mysterious box that gives the book its title, Charles Darwin, a burning building whose destruction feels like a death in the family, and – at the center – 12-year-old narrator Zoomy Chamberlain, who calls himself “the Secret from a Secret from a Secret” because of his family circumstances…and who sees things in ways that other people don’t. Commenting on the actions of his friend, Lorrol, Zoomy says, “she’d just started something helpful that was sprouting dangerous leaves. That sure sounded familiar.” Indeed, that is what Zoomy does as a matter of course: try to help, then follow the consequences of his helpfulness in unanticipated directions. Balliett knits together the threads of the mystery – and of her characters’ personality quirks – with her usual skill, and the fact that there is a very definite real-world element to this story (which Balliett hints at before the tale starts and explains in more detail after it ends) makes the novel all the more effective. It is certainly a worthy successor to Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, and The Calder Game.

     Meg Cabot’s stories of Allie Finkle do not inhabit quite as rarefied a plane as the books by Coman & Shepperson and Balliett, but they too use unusual visual elements to set them apart from other amusing novels about preteen girls. Cabot does give the impression of trying a little too hard to be different, and much of what happens to Allie really is not that distinctive, so the sixth book in the series, Blast from the Past, gets a (+++) rating. But fans will surely not be disappointed. As usual, the book’s wraparound jacket, when removed and turned sideways, offers some of Allie’s rules and invites readers to write their own. Also as usual, the book itself contains rules to open each chapter, although calling some of them “rules” is a bit of a stretch: “Living History Museums Are Just Awful,” “Cheyenne O’Malley Is the Most Popular Girl in Room 209, and Probably in the Whole World…at Least in Her Own Mind.” Other rules fit the fairly frothy plot better and are more reflective of Allie’s usually bubbly personality: “It’s Very Rude to Call Someone a Troglodyte,” “Tattling on People Is Kind of Mean Unless It’s for a Good Reason.” As for the story, it involves Allie being paired for a field trip with her former best friend, Mary Kay, and how the two do (or don’t) get along when forced to be together again. Also here are some rules written by George Washington – so Allie’s book of rules isn’t as weird as some people think – and some bad blood between Pine Height and Walnut Knolls schools, and a bee sting that reveals something about friendship and interpersonal problems to Allie (who is not the one who gets stung). Allie eventually picks up some maturity and is repeatedly praised for being “such a good influence on others,” and is a better person at the end of the book than at its beginning – as in all the books in this series. Allie is basically a nice kid, but her stories are nothing special, except for the “rules” gimmick and other unusual ways in which Cabot presents the tales.


The Coming of the Dragon. By Rebecca Barnhouse. Random House. $16.99.

Moon Over Manifest. By Clare Vanderpool. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Nancy and Plum. By Betty MacDonald. Illustrated by Mary GrandPré. Knopf. $15.99.

The Baby-Sitters Club #4: Mary Anne Saves the Day. By Ann M. Martin. Scholastic. $5.99.

     Reaching back into the past, whether for old stories, atmosphere or simply to reissue an older work reflective of the time in which it was written, can produce some very interesting new books. The best of this particular group of novels for preteens looks back the farthest, all the way to Beowulf, the first English-language epic poem – although its Old English is scarcely recognizable to any modern readers except specialists. Rebecca Barnhouse, as it happens, is one such specialist, having read the original Beowulf when studying Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in college. And she has absorbed a great deal of the feeling and intensity of the thousand-year-old poem, using the work’s grand conclusion – which is far less known than the famous scenes in which Beowulf kills the monster Grendel and Grendel’s unnamed mother – as the basis for a story of blood and battle, feuds and heroism. Does she update and change the tale for modern tastes? Yes, often very substantially. But the flavor is right, and the last third of her book takes place entirely after Beowulf’s death and his naming of Wiglaf – who has always been called Rune in this book – as his heir. Barnhouse focuses the book on Rune, making him a foundling of whom other characters are suspicious, then an awkward 16-year-old whose skill with weapons never quite measures up to that of other fighters. But when Beowulf fights to defend his kingdom from the dragon that awakes when a slave steals a single cup from its hoard, Rune alone stands with the king after all the other men flee in terror – an act of cowardice that was far more terrible at the time of Beowulf than in much later years. The dying Beowulf reveals that Rune is his last surviving relative (in a scene embellished from the original); at Beowulf’s funeral pyre, Rune speaks a modern English version of the words that actually end the original poem; and all in all, Barnhouse does a remarkable job of weaving the ancient story into and through the modern novel. She re-emphasizes quite a bit, especially by including female characters (notably the seeress Amma, whose name means “grandmother”). But in her expansion and rewriting – and orientation of the story for modern teenage readers – Barnhouse makes the story live in all the ways that count. The rough justice of the time, the terrors inspired by the dragon, the betrayals and feuds, all ring true; and although Rune’s attempt, as Beowulf’s successor, to create peace is not in keeping with the culture of the age or the contents of the original poem, it helps make the story much more effective for modern readers. Barnhouse has done an excellent job of showing how and why Beowulf remains a great work – and how effectively many elements of it can still be communicated today.

     The Coming of the Dragon is historical fiction only in the loosest sense, but Moon Over Manifest fits the genre perfectly, and is in its own way just as effective. Set in 1936, but with many chapters occurring in 1918 as long-buried town secrets are slowly revealed, the story is built around on 12-year-old Abilene Tucker and her attempt to learn of her family history by visiting the town where her father spent his childhood. The result of Abilene’s innocent search through the now-faded town is the uncovering, bit by bit, of a series of secrets that residents have long kept buried, through design or thoughtlessness or both. With the chapters from 1936 set in one type face and those from 1918 in another, with newspaper excerpts and visits to the mysterious Miss Sadie (a recluse who knows more of the past than it may be wise for her to reveal), Abilene and several friends blithely ignore repeated warnings to let things be, and find themselves dredging up stories of a World War I spy, deaths both in the town and in the war, Spanish influenza, the mystery of a boot with a foot still in it, the decision by Kansas to ban alcoholic beverages before Prohibition began, and much more. Clare Vanderpool clearly knows her history – she says in a note after the story that many elements of it come from her own family background – and has a way of making both the characters and the setting come alive, despite how different things were in 1936 and 1918 from what today’s young readers know and experience. What is not different is Abilene’s personality: her spunky stick-to-itiveness is what holds the book together, keeping readers rooting for her success and worried about the dangerous paths she is taking (including one that is actually called the Path to Perdition). By the end, when Abilene learns why her father was always called Jinx in his younger days, Abilene has not only grown and discovered much about herself – typical elements of a book for preteens – but also found out more about the past of the town of Manifest than she ever expected to learn. It has been a journey quite a bit longer than the railroad trip that brought Abilene to town in the first place – and one that 21st-century readers will find exciting to take along with her.

     Some books that reflect times gone by were actually written in what was the present at the time they were created – as in the cases of Nancy and Plum (originally published in 1952) and the new paperback edition of the Mary Anne Saves the Day (original published in 1987). Both these (+++) books are pleasant, nicely written and focused on young girls who find their own ways to handle the problems of their everyday lives. Nancy and Plum – by Betty MacDonald, who is best known for her books about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle – tells of two orphan sisters, devoted to each other, who live at a boarding school run by the cruel Mrs. Monday, and are determined to escape. This story of a Christmas that seems as if it will be dour indeed (the girls’ parents have died in an accident and their guardian, Uncle John, is never around), the book soon turns into one of unexpected kindnesses and some positive pronouncements that come across as rather simplistic. At school, for example, Miss Waverly tells Plum that it is all right that the girl has no new shoes, since she goes barefoot in summer anyway, and even though she and her sister miss the teachers then, “‘in summer you have the birds and the flowers and the trees and the crickets and the fireflies and Buttercup’s calf. You don’t need people.’” This and similar naïve sentiments may be hard for today’s young readers to accept at face value, as MacDonald surely intended them to be taken. But the happy ending is certainly welcoming, and Mary GrandPré’s new illustrations, done with her usual sensitivity, add to the warmth. As for Mary Anne Saves the Day, it too has elements that seem a trifle naïve more than 20 years later, but the basic story of strained friendship among the four girls in the Baby-Sitters Club – and of how Mary Anne, never a leader, rises to the occasion when she must take care of a sick child, then rises to it again to bring the girls back into accord – still resonates. The search for parental prom pictures and the reference to The Odd Couple (as if everyone will immediately know what that is) tend to date the book, but its underlying message of solidarity among good friends, and of getting past fights that seem important when they occur but are trivial in the greater scheme of things, gives it continued relevance and interest.


Tell the Truth, B.B. Wolf. By Judy Sierra. Illustrated by J. Otto Seibold. Knopf. $16.99.

Thumb Love. By Elise Primavera. Robin Corey Books. $16.99.

She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story. By Audrey Vernick. Illustrated by Don Tate. Collins. $16.99.

     A book that simply told children, “Don’t lie about what you did – tell the truth and apologize,” wouldn’t be much fun to read. But when the message is dressed up in revised-fairy-tale form, told amusingly and illustrated with bright and bouncy computer-generated pictures, it goes down much more easily and enjoyably. So Tell the Truth, B.B. Wolf – in which Judy Sierra and J. Otto Seibold follow up their revisionist-fairy-tale handling of Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf – is both fun and instructive. The wolf, now residing with other retired baddies at Villain Villa, is invited to the local library to tell about the Three Little Pigs. He decides that he doesn’t like being the bad guy in that story, so he tells it a different way, making himself out to be an innocent victim. This “it wasn’t the wolf’s fault” approach actually has a long history of its own, both in books and in animation, but Sierra and Seibold use it to make a specific point. After the pigs, who are in the audience at the library, repeatedly insist that B.B. Wolf tell the truth, he breaks down and does so, admitting he did bad things and then apologizing – in a song, no less. And then B.B. Wolf realizes that just saying he is sorry isn’t enough – he needs to make amends. So the wolf, helped by a witch, crocodile, troll and other Villain Villa residents, designs and constructs a brand-new (and gingerbread-trimmed) house for the pigs – who forgive B.B. for his earlier behavior and are happy to have him adopt a new middle name that is quite different from “Bad.” The lesson here is sufficiently clear so kids will understand it without difficulty, but presented sufficiently entertainingly so they won’t mind hearing it.

     Not so in Thumb Love, which also has a lesson to teach and some valuable advice, but which is too preachy to go down easily. Elise Primavera’s book about thumb sucking gets a (+++) rating for its helpfulness and charming illustrations (without which it would rate only ++), but it is simply too heavy-handed. Primavera takes the concept of a 12-Step Program (best known from Alcoholics Anonymous) and applies it to a little girl’s thumb sucking. The inside front cover shows the girl, Lulu, embarrassed and upset because of comments made by a variety of people; the inside back cover shows those same people praising her for stopping the thumb-sucking habit. In between, though, the book lurches from traditional 12-Step questions and proclamations to Lulu’s retelling of her own story, including the humiliation she feels when teased by other children, the warnings about tooth damage from friends and parents, and a series of comments by her thumb itself – some of them good-natured, some tearful and some almost threatening. The specific approaches that Lulu suggests to help thumb suckers are perfectly fine, and some of them directly parallel what Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups urge (put a sock over the thumb; wedge arm under body while sleeping; pick a date by which to stop and, if you fail, pick another date). An occasional humorous suggestion, though, fits uneasily with the predominantly serious tone (“Suggest to your parents that they reward you with money, toys, pets, and lavish vacations if you quit”). Parents whose children are still sucking their thumbs as they approach kindergarten age may want to try Thumb Love if other approaches have failed, since kids who identify with Lulu may well take advice and suggestions from her. But the book, while certainly well intentioned, will be too heavy-handed for many families.

     The lessons of She Loved Baseball are societal as much as they are personal. This is the story of Effa Manley, owner (with her husband, Abe) of the Newark Eagles baseball team in the old Negro National League. Audrey Vernick’s writing, complemented by illustrations in which Don Tate reproduces something of the period style of the 1940s, traces Manley’s life from her girlhood in Philadelphia to her induction in 2006 as the first woman in the National Baseball Hall of Fame – 25 years after her death. The book is well written, highly celebratory of Manley, and intended for a limited audience; it gets a (+++) rating. A tale of uplift aimed not so much at baseball fans in general as at current fans who want to know the history of Negro League Baseball, the book makes Jackie Robinson’s signing by the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first black major-league player into a passing reference, focusing equally on Larry Doby – one of Manley’s players – who became the first black American League player. There are many names and drawings of Negro League players here, and some exciting scenes, especially the story of the 1946 Negro League World Series, which the Newark Eagles won. The main lesson of Manley’s life, as Vernick tells the story, is that the phrase, “That’s just the way things are,” is an unacceptable excuse – for discrimination, for exclusion of women from baseball, from limits on the number of Negro League players in the Hall of Fame, for just about anything. It is a good lesson for children of all colors to learn, and certainly not one limited to organized sports, even though She Loved Baseball presents it only within a narrow context.


Mozart: Bassoon Concerto; Rossini: Bassoon Concerto; Conradin Kreutzer: Fantasie for Bassoon and Orchestra; Bernhard Henrik Crusell: Bassoon Concertino. Karen Geoghegan, bassoon; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $18.99.

Franz Xaver (Wolfgang) Mozart: Piano Quartet, Op. 1; Violin Sonatas, Opp. 7 and 15; Cello Sonata, Op. 19. Ravinia Trio (Rainer Schmidt, violin; Peter Hörr, cello; Saiko Sasaki, piano) with Hartmut Rohde, viola. Divox. $16.99.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Shakespeare Overtures, Volume 2—As You Like It; The Merchant of Venice; Much Ado about Nothing; King John; The Winter’s Tale. West Australian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny. Naxos. $8.99.

Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 8. Royal Artillery Band conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $8.99.

     Hearing both familiar and unfamiliar music – on the same disc or on a succession of CDs – is a recipe for keeping one’s ears active and one’s musical curiosity alive. At its best, as in Chandos’ new Karen Geoghegan recording of music for bassoon and orchestra, the combination can shed light both on the performers and on the composers. It is common knowledge that the bassoon has a relative paucity of solo concertos (although Vivaldi did write several dozen that deserve to be heard more often). Mozart’s only surviving bassoon concerto (there may have been as many as three others) is at the pinnacle of the field, and Geoghegan plays it stylishly. But just as interesting is a concerto that is probably (but not certainly) by Rossini, which almost (but not quite) features a “Rossini crescendo” and contains operatic elements that certainly fit with the composer’s style. If this is indeed a Rossini work, it was written at a time when he was not believed to have composed anything – between William Tell and the Sins of My Old Age. In any case, its delightful blend of whimsy and pensive (but not deep) lyricism is very well communicated by Geoghegan, who, here as throughout the disc, gets fine support from the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda. Geoghegan has outstanding breath control: it is so good that the few times a listener does hear her draw breath come as surprises. And she certainly gets a workout in the other pieces here, which are as little known as the probably-Rossini concerto and whose composers are scarcely household names. The Fantasie by Conradin Kreutzer (1780-1849) is mostly an attractive set of variations, filled with complex passages and requiring great sensitivity in the bassoon’s upper register. The Concertino by Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1775-1838) – who was a famous clarinetist, but wrote this work for his son-in-law, a noted bassoonist – is lively and filled with good humor, all on the surface and gleaming in its displays. Hearing this combination of works will make a listener wonder just how much other unknown bassoon music is out there – and hope that Geoghegan will continue to explore it.

     The Wolfgang Mozart whose complete chamber music with piano is presented on a new Divox CD is not Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart but his second son, Franz Xaver (1791-1844), whose compositions are almost totally unknown – partly because they pale when compared to his father’s and partly because he, like such composers as Hummel and Ries, worked in a style that was not quite of the Classical period but not quite Romantic either. Transitional music this may be, but it is very well constructed and certainly worth at least an occasional hearing. The Piano Quartet was written when F.X. Mozart was 11 years old – not quite as young as his father was when he wrote his early works, but certainly precocious to an amazing degree. The piano part requires considerable virtuosity, and the work as a whole is well balanced and nicely structured. The piano has a less-complex role in the Op. 15 violin sonata, which was apparently written for teaching purposes, and a somewhat broader one in the sonata Op. 7. Both show fine command of the violin, although neither requires tremendous virtuosity on the part of the string player. The most complex work here, which the composer labeled “Grand Sonata,” is for cello and piano. Written in 1819 or 1820, it requires considerable skill from both players and has distinct Beethovenian elements. All the works are very well played on this CD, and if they are scarcely major music, they are interesting both in themselves and in showing where the next generation took the Mozart legacy.

     There is fascinating discovery available in 20th-century music as well. The second release in Naxos’ two-volume set of overtures to Shakespeare plays by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco is at the same very high level as the first. Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote these overtures starting in the 1930s (The Merchant of Venice, the earliest on this CD, dates to 1933) and into the 1950s (the final ones, Much Ado about Nothing and As You Like It, date to 1953 and are also on this disc). Shakespeare was a major influence on Castelnuovo-Tedesco: in addition to his 11 overtures, he set 35 sonnets and 33 songs from the plays to music. In the overtures, he does not try to encapsulate the plays but to interpret elements of them in music. Thus, a section called The Forest of Arden is a major part of the As You Like It overture, while the entire overture for The Merchant of Venice is tied to Shylock’s exclamation about his daughter fleeing with a Christian – the famous comment in which he shows himself equally distraught over his daughter and his ducats. The King John overture also relies on something very famous from this less-known play: the patriotic statement about England with which the drama ends, and which clearly inspired Castelnuovo-Tedesco when he created this work in the darkest days of World War II (1941). Occasionally, Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s musical choices are obvious, such as the final Love Duet in the Much Ado about Nothing overture. But more often, they are surprising and musically innovative: Castelnuovo-Tedesco uses quite a big orchestra and creates a wide range of coloristic effects with a large brass section, two harps, and percussion that often includes tubular bells, side drum, glockenspiel and even castanets. The music of Castelnuovo-Tedesco is not especially well known, and these overtures even less so: four of the five on the new CD (all except Much Ado about Nothing) have never been recorded before. Andrew Penny and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra do full justice to the composer’s skillful handling of musical forces, making the discovery of this music a complete pleasure.

     The pleasures of John Philip Sousa are much better known and, in popular opinion, much more monochromatic. But the eighth volume in the Naxos Sousa series shows aspects of the composer that most listeners will not have heard before. Only one of the dozen items on this CD is thoroughly familiar: The Washington Post, the 1889 march that made both Sousa and the now-iconic newspaper famous. Several more of these marches get occasional hearings: The High School Cadets (1890), Boy Scouts of America (1916), Jack Tar (1893) and Comrades of the Legion (1920). But other marches here are quite obscure: the very interesting and tightly knit Crusader (1888), The Northern Pines (1931), On the Campus (1920, including words written by Sousa’s daughter), and Pride of Pittsburgh (a grand and complex march incorporating popular tunes of 1901). Nor are these the biggest surprises offered by Keith Brion and the members of the Royal Artillery Band – who, as in all these Sousa CDs, play with great authority and flair. The disc also includes O Warrior Grim, which uses a solo cornet to interpret a popular soprano aria from Sousa’s 1895 operetta, El Capitan, and some extended excerpts from the operetta itself – but not the well-known El Capitan March, which was played on Volume 7. Finally, this CD offers a three-movement suite from 1904 called At the King’s Court, and it will be a revelation to anyone who thinks of Sousa strictly as the March King. Yes, the final movement is a powerful march, but the first is an elegant tribute to British royalty and the second is a remarkably lovely and well-constructed waltz – as danceable and hummable as many Viennese examples. This CD offers a delightful chance to learn more about a composer and his music than most listeners will expect to find out – and to have great listening pleasure while doing so.