December 27, 2012


America the Beautiful: Together We Stand. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

Hideout. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $16.99.

The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers—Book Five: Trust No One. By Linda Sue Park. Scholastic. $12.99.

      A simple book communicating the basic values of the United States of America through the well-known poem by Katharine Lee Bates and illustrations by 10 different artists, America the Beautiful: Together We Stand is an easy book to critique as simplistic – and one that it would be a serious mistake to demean on that basis. With all the mundane disagreements and arguments that pervade the political sphere and many people’s everyday lives, there are fundamental precepts underlying the United States as a nation that this book offers as a focus. There are things that unite the country’s citizens more fundamentally than the others – and there are many of them – that divide them. Without in any way downplaying the legitimate concerns of any particular group, political or otherwise, the book gives young readers, and hopefully their parents as well, a chance to pause for a moment in the clamor of everyday life and consider the context in which all our arguments and disagreements occur. This is a book that speaks to the fundamentals of why the United States is special – not necessarily unique, but certainly among a very few countries with a rich, diverse population that has far more freedoms than people in most of the world can even dream about. Not a perfect nation, not a nation without challenges, not a nation that has fully faced up to its responsibilities or managed to avoid fault lines that threaten each day to produce new fissures among people and groups – but a nation that fundamentally wants to do the right thing, not in obedience to a religious edict or a particular tribal requirement but in a secular environment in which all citizens (and those who aspire to become citizens) share individual hopes, wishes and dreams that they believe can be fulfilled within the United States.  The book simply gives the words of the famous first verse of America the Beautiful, illustrating each line and attaching to each a quotation from a president. The quotes are carefully chosen to span political abysses, inevitably including Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln while also offering words from Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, both Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and George H.W. Bush. Illustrators Bryan Collier, Raúl Colón, Diane Goode, Mary Grandpré, John Hendrix, Yuyi Morales, Jon J. Muth, LeUyen Pham, Sonia Lynn Sadler and Chris Soentpiet themselves reflect the racial, ethnic and gender diversity to which the United States is perceived as being dedicated – not perfectly, not all the time, not by everyone, but to a far greater extent than our everyday divisions sometimes seem to indicate. The book also includes the three other verses of Bates’ 1893 poem, plus a brief description of 10 national symbols and landmarks. It is a primer on American patriotism – and also a poster: the book jacket, when removed, reveals itself as suitable for framing, portraying all the presidents from Washington to Obama.

      Of course, the grand American adventure tends to be buried in everyday life by smaller ones, with everybody running around busily trying to pursue his or her particular brand of happiness. The Declaration of Independence, after all, talks about the pursuit of happiness, not the attainment of it, and plenty of people, real and fictional, spend plenty of time running hither and thither in search of a way to be or stay happy. A much more typical book for young readers than America the Beautiful is Gordon Korman’s Hideout, in which the happiness pursuit occurs at a frenzied pace and for the fifth time – the four previous books being Swindle, Zoobreak, Framed and Showoff. All the books revolve around a very large dog and a boy named Griffin Bing, known as The Man With The Plan – actually multiple plans, all of them over-complicated and most of them of somewhat less than sterling character. The dog is a character: Luthor, an oversize (150-pound) Doberman originally trained as an attack dog and now living happily (and sloppily) with Savannah Drysdale. Hideout takes Luthor, Griffin and the gang back to the series’ roots with the return of Luthor’s original owner, the slimy S. Wendell Palomino, known as Swindle. Palomino (an animal abuser and “a mean, sleazy con man”) is determined to get Luthor back, and has the law on his side, since he convinces a court that he remains Luthor’s rightful owner and that Savannah’s adoption of the dog should not stand. So the latest plan is to hide Luthor somewhere – or rather in a series of somewheres – until Palomino can somehow be defeated once and for all.  Palomino eventually grabs and tranquilizes Luthor, getting help from a hired man named Dominic Hiller, who insists that Palomino “promise me we’re the good guys.”  Eventually, of course, Hiller finds out that that is not true, and the kids – with timely help from their parents – get rid of Palomino once and for all (well, maybe). So Luthor is reunited with Savannah, and The Man With The Plan gets to chalk up another improbable victory in a highly improbable saga – in which improbability, if nothing else, the story of the United States as a nation is (somewhat faintly) reflected.

      And speaking of improbability as reflected in fifth adventures, the latest part of the ongoing The 39 Clues series, Cahills vs. Vespers, has now reached its fifth volume. This one is written by Linda Sue Park, who previously (in 2010) produced Storm Warning, the ninth book in the original series of The 39 Clues. And if that seems confusing – well, this whole multimedia series (with its online and trading-card components) is supposed to be confusing, at least for the characters involved in the wholly implausible plots.  Park’s take in Trust No One (a pretty good umbrella title for the series, if it didn’t already have one) involves the identity of Vesper 3; finding it out turns out to involve lizards and photos and other rather silly plot devices. But the whole underpinning of Cahills vs. Vespers, in which the diabolically clever Vespers are able to kidnap a slew of Cahills in order to get Dan and Amy Cahill to steal things – but are not able to steal the things themselves – is silly.  Even the reasonable questions in this book partake of silliness: “The Vespers had to know already that Folio 74 was no longer part of the manuscript. Then why do they still want us to steal it? Unanswerable, at least for the moment.”  Actually, there’s a pretty good answer late in the book, or at least about as good an answer as readers will get at this point, with one further book in this sequence still to come: “Unbalanced – not exactly the word Dan would have used to describe the Vespers. More like loony to the nth degree.” But of course the whole point of this series is that the Vespers are not loony but diabolically clever, especially Vesper 1, who is clearly up to some grand scheme whose full deviltry will not be revealed until the next book.  And Vesper 2, also unknown, is up to some traitorous-to-the-Vespers deviltry as well. And there is a traitor within Dan and Amy’s inner circle, too. And – well, the world keeps spinning, The 39 Clues keeps its characters spinning around from place to place, and fans of the series will find the latest entry in the series an enjoyable element of their own pursuit of happiness, if not necessarily Dan’s and Amy’s.


Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green. By Helen Phillips. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

True Colors. By Natalie Kinsey-Warnock. Knopf. $15.99.

Lemonade Mouth Puckers Up. By Mark Peter Hughes. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

      Even standardized adventures can be enjoyable for preteens, if the characters having them are created with enough personality and the settings are sufficiently exotic. Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green, the first novel by Helen Phillips, is at bottom a very familiar story of plucky young girls setting out on a quest to reunite their family. What makes it interesting is not so much that bare-bones description of the plot as the characters of 12-year-old Madeline (Mad) Wade and her younger sister, Ruby (Roo), and the place where they go to try to track down their errant father: the jungles of Central America. The basic plot setup is a familiar one: father is an adventurer (in this case an ecologically aware one, a birdwatcher concerned with vanishing species, specifically the Lava-Throated Volcano trogon); he has typical-for-books-like-this quirks, such as the way he signs his letters to his daughters; then the daughters get an odder-than-usual missive (the Very Strange and Incredibly Creepy Letter) that may indicate their dad is in trouble, so they head into the jungle to find him. And there are the usual subsidiary characters, notably one oddly called Ken/Neth who turns out to be a bad guy “even though [he] never meant to be.”  There are some forays into ecological issues: “Dad said the idea that an extinct bird might not be extinct helps him get out of bed in the morning.”  And there are a witch and an actress and a mother who is “yogafied” and not much of a thinker compared to her daughters (typical in books such as this; Mad calls her mom “Lady Yoga Brain”).  The green of the setting and of eco-awareness is scarcely the only color here: “Once my eyes adjust to the jungle, there’s a sort of grayness to the blackness,” says Mad, who narrates the book.  And there are “poisonous-looking flashes of bright red and yellow as bugs and frogs, and probably snakes too, move amid the trees.”  The setting is often more lively than the rather one-dimensional characters – although Mad and Roo do make a nicely contrasted pair. The happy ending, for humans and birds, is scarcely a surprise, but there is enough interesting adventure (with a touch of magical realism) to make the book attractive.

      The realism is scarcely magical in True Colors, where the focus is on blue – or rather Blue, a baby left on Hannah Spooner’s doorstep on December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  The baby is named by Hannah for her blue skin and blue eyes – and Hannah, old enough to be the girl’s grandmother, takes it upon herself to raise Blue as a daughter on the family farm in Vermont.  So Natalie Kinsey-Warnock’s book is also a family story, but a very different one from Phillips’, following a very different (although still largely predictable) path.  By the time she is 10, Blue is determinedly seeking information on her mother, who abandoned her without leaving a note: “Listening to all the stories about family, and ancestors, and recipes handed down got me to wishing again that I knew something about my ancestors.” Blue also finds herself juggling the usual elements of growing up on a farm in the 1950s, from chores to lake swimming to a standoffish barn cat to the small and tightly knit community where the farm is located. Kinsey-Warnock includes a number of small elements designed to set the book in time and place. For instance, Blue and her friend Natalie invent a game called Crossing the Iron Curtain. “We didn’t know what the Iron Curtain was – we’d heard it mentioned in movies – but it sounded mysterious and dangerous.”  And one character refers to the Korean conflict by saying, “We all thought World War I was going to be the war to end all wars. …Then we had World War II, and now here we are, in another war.”  It is the negative side of a small community – the keeping of secrets that many people share – that eventually upsets Blue so much that she concludes that all her supposed friends, and even Hannah, have been lying to her. “Every family has secrets,” one character comments, which leads Blue to think that secrets “have a way of coming out.”  And they do – revealing Blue’s provenance at last, while also giving her insight into what it really means to have a family, beyond the question of who your biological parents may be.

      Yellow, the color of lemonade, is brighter than blue, and Lemonade Mouth Puckers Up is a brighter-hued book than True Colors, but it is much less founded in reality. It is a sequel to Mark Peter Hughes’ Lemonade Mouth, in which five “misunderstood revolutionaries” named Wen, Olivia, Charlie, Stella and Mo start a high-school band that becomes an improbable major attraction in Rhode Island and on the Web. The sequel – do not bother reading it unless you read and liked the original – is again an assemblage of material from each band member by Naomi Fishmeier, Lemonade Mouth’s “official biographer” and senior music editor for the school newspaper, the Barking Clam. It is obvious from the names that this unlikely musical success story is intended to be amusing, and is based on a long line of similar stories dating back at least to Rob Reiner’s 1984 “mockumentary” film, This Is Spinal Tap. In fact, parts of Lemonade Mouth Puckers Up are written as film scenes, those being Charlie’s contribution to the book.  Then there are letters from Olivia, Naomi’s interviews with Wen, and so forth, just as in the previous novel – the idea being to keep the book lively in more ways than the band’s name (and the names of other bands, such as Mudslide Crush).  So the members of Lemonade Mouth go through a series of experiences, from a TV show called American Pop Sensation to the sort of family angst that leads Olivia to write, “My entire life is exploding and the only thing I understand is that I don’t understand anything.”  The band members keep taking chances, doing things in offbeat and unusual ways, managing (or mismanaging) their private lives, and having their story presented in a series of chapters united primarily by the fact that each starts with a quotation, from John Lennon’s “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” to Theodore Roosevelt’s inspirational comment, “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take up ranks with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”  The quotes are more portentous (sometimes pretentious) than the book itself, and the triumphal portions of the band’s saga mesh somewhat uneasily with the mundane ones, but those who enjoyed the first book of Lemonade Mouth’s adventures will likely find this one attractive as well – and will look forward to the next, the appearance of which, based on the ending of Lemonade Mouth Puckers Up, seems inevitable.


Quinoa Revolution: Over 150 Healthy, Great-Tasting Recipes Under 500 Calories. By Patricia Green & Carolyn Hemming. Pintail. $29.95.

      Back in 1957, in an initial thaw of East-West relations after the death of Joseph Stalin, 67 countries participated in what was called the International Geophysical Year, a scientific effort distinguished in part by the fact that the “year” lasted 18 months. The IGY was taken seriously in some circles and not so seriously in others: cartoonist Walt Kelly, for example, created a book called G.O. Fizzicle Pogo to celebrate and gently mock the whole thing. Since then there have been “years” of all sorts, some more notable (and more believable) than others. And now, for 2013, we have a dietary one dedicated to a trendy grain: the International Year of Quinoa. To mark this momentous occasion, there are sure to be many books about the wonders of quinoa and its important-to-its-advocates dietary role – books such as Quinoa Revolution.

      Like the 18-month International Geophysical Year, the International Year of Quinoa has a few oddities and misconceptions, one notable one being that quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wa or sometimes kee-NO-wah) is not a grain at all – it is a seed, in much the same way that wild rice is not rice but a type of grass. This sort of distinction is not particularly meaningful to many cooks and everyday users – after all, most people still treat tomatoes, which are fruits, as vegetables. But the people most likely to enjoy Quinoa Revolution, a handsome oversize paperback running to more than 200 pages, will likely consider points like this important.  Certainly authors Patricia Green and Carolyn Hemming, who previously produced Quinoa 365: The Everyday Superfood, care about all things quinoa, including its history, provenance, dietary value, adaptability and more. There is considerable introductory material here, including a discussion of fitting quinoa into a more-healthful overall lifestyle; and then there is a chapter featuring the basics of quinoa, in which Green and Hemming talk about making quinoa flour, cooking quinoa in liquids, and more.  The meat of the book – well, not meat, but its heart – is in five chapters with “Revolutionize” titles, for breakfast; salads, sides and snacks; soups and stews; meals; and desserts (yes, desserts). These are the places where trendiness creeps in, and that will be fine for cooks who want to be “in” with a particular fad (or a particular celebratory year).  In the breakfast section alone, for example, are “Apricot Matcha Breakfast Porridge” (“matcha” being a specific type of Japanese green tea) and “Peanut Butter & Tomato Sprout Toast” (with quinoa sprouts, vine-ripened tomatoes and sprouted whole-grain or gluten-free bread).  However, there are also some recipes that do not yell “trendy,” such as Maple Pecan Granola and Creamy Chocolate Breakfast Cereal.

      In general, Quinoa Revolution does a good job of balancing the exotic or outré with the more-ordinary (within the quinoa universe, that is).  There are plenty of meatless recipes, but also plenty containing meat, from Traditional Breakfast Sausage Rounds to Simple Chicken Pot Pie Stew and Barbecue Beef Lettuce Wraps.  And some of the meatless choices are particularly clever, such as “The Better Burger,” which includes toasted pecans, mushrooms, an egg and other ingredients in addition to quinoa.  In fact, the most impressive thing about Quinoa Revolution is that it shows just how versatile quinoa is – which should not really be a surprise (after all, rice, pasta, wild rice and other ingredients are highly versatile), but comes across as one because there is still a sense of the exotic about quinoa.  The chapter on desserts has some particularly intriguing entries, from the unusual (“Black Forest Goat Cheese Brownies”) to the straightforward (“Almond Cinnamon Cookies”).  Muffins, included with desserts for some reason, are also interesting, whether “Chai Chocolate Chip” or “Sweet Potato Date.”  There is even a good recipe for pie crust based on quinoa flour.  Quinoa is not really a miracle food, for all the intensity its advocates bring to it, and whether it deserves an “International Year” is certainly debatable. But cooks who already like quinoa will find a great deal to enjoy in Quinoa Revolution, and ones who have not yet tried this grain…err, seed…will find plenty of interesting alternatives to traditional recipe approaches in the recommendations of Green and Hemming.


Norton Internet Security, 2013 edition. Windows XP/SP2 or later. Symantec. $79.99.

Norton 360, 2013 edition. Windows XP/SP2 or later. Symantec. $89.99.

      Rejoice! Symantec has pulled its two premier protection products so closely together that it is finally possible to compare them directly to one another, and has changed their release schedule to be the same – instead of bringing them out on schedules differing by six months – so users can pick whichever one fits their needs better…without worrying that an even better match may turn up half a year later. And Symantec, despite its official list prices for these security suites, has been offering them as downloads for 50% off: $39.99 for Norton Internet Security and $49.99 for Norton 360, for a one-year subscription to each – usable on up to three computers, with 24/7 technical support. This price reduction eliminates the biggest issue that Symantec has faced in recent years: its security suites cost so much that home users and small-business owners have had to think whether they might do better with the many freeware and shareware products out there, even though those products lack the easy interoperability of the Symantec suites and require separate updates and often considerably more tweaking.

      Ah yes, the tweaking. For some years now, Symantec’s Norton product line has been moving away from the legacy of Peter Norton, whose photo no longer adorns the boxed versions of the products. Norton created excellent, well-thought-out utilities (in fact including, among others, Norton Utilities) that frequently required more understanding and expertise to set up and use than the average computer user cared to lavish on them. And this was in the days when “average computer users” were often more knowledgeable about hardware and software than average ones are (or need to be) today. Early Norton products were fun to play with – they had enormous capabilities for those who knew how to evoke and manage them – but they were scarcely hands-off, set-and-forget protective suites along the lines of what computer users expect today.  Symantec has engineered Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 to levels far beyond anything Peter Norton himself accomplished, or could accomplish, in the past, and in so doing has rendered the suites much more powerful and much, much easier to use – fast, efficient, minimally detrimental to system performance, and good-looking, too.

      It is in their looks that the 2013 versions of Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 most noticeably differ.  Symantec is no longer including a date or version label with the suites, and this may cause some confusion when the 2014 editions come out, but for now, it is no big deal.  What is a big deal is the way Symantec has brought the suites together – for which users can thank Microsoft, whose Windows 8 release essentially forced Symantec to produce new versions of both the suites at the same time.  Just to be clear about what both suites contain: Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 both include Norton AntiVirus, which lists for $49.99 on its own and is an excellent product that is distinctly overpriced when the suites including it sell for the same cost or less. Both suites detect and get rid of spyware, monitoring software and other forms of malware; block worms and hackers; include a Startup Manager utility to help PCs boot more quickly; improve spam filtering; protect against phishing sites; and have excellent firewalls. For the extra cost, Norton 360 adds features that users may or may not find useful: a backup utility that includes automatic file backup (but users may already have one, and many are available free in the cloud); monthly reports on threats, backups and other data; and two gigabytes of online storage (a rather paltry amount, with more than that available free from other sources).  All these extras work well, but they are not all that much “extra” in the current computing environment, and Symantec may have to rethink ways of making Norton 360 distinctive and worth its additional cost if it is to entice people to pay more for it than for Norton Internet Security.

      What is different about the two suites – and this may or may not be a deciding factor for users – is the interface each presents. As befits products redesigned in connection with the launch of Windows 8, both suites have the Win8 look, with large buttons that have a rather flat look to them – the opposite of the wonderful-looking but resource-hogging Aero interface in Windows 7, which Microsoft dropped in order to make its new operating system more compatible with less-powerful mobile devices. Norton Internet Security has a look that ties to its appearance in previous years, largely black and gray and green – a kind of technical slickness that befits the suite’s history. There are a few icons at the far right, but this is basically a clean and uncluttered interface with buttons that zip out of the way when you make choices – an obvious and pleasing nod to tablet and smartphone use. Norton 360 has similar buttons, but its interface is more colorful (the buttons are primarily yellowish-gold), and they work differently. Clicking (or touching, on a touch screen) a button in Norton Internet Security causes all the buttons to slide out of the way, revealing a new panel. Clicking (or touching) in Norton 360 expands the button itself into a menu of related tasks – which ties this year’s interface to that of previous editions of this suite.

      There are also differences in the two suites’ Setup pages. In Norton Internet Security, users pick a main “settings” category using tabs across the top – then select a subcategory using tabs along the side. You can get to any settings page in two clicks, but the arrangement may not be intuitive for all users, particularly ones less experienced with computers or less comfortable with software utilities in general.  Norton 360 stays true to its heritage as a suite for the less technically knowledgeable or adept with a settings page that presents a set of controls that quickly turn specific components of the suite on or off. For users who do want to accomplish more, there are nine links to pages of more-detailed settings.

      Interface design differences are not usually worth discussing in much detail, but they are notable here because the underlying functionality of Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 is identical – except for the extras in the latter suite. In this particular case, users may actually make a decision on which suite to buy based on the interface: even if you do not think the extras in Norton 360 to be worth the additional cost, you may prefer the look and functionality of that suite, and that may be worth a slightly higher initial expense.

      As for the operation of both suites: it is as seamless, efficient and well-integrated as ever. Malware protection is top-notch, and antispam and antiphishing are both well-designed and accurate. There is a scam-insight feature that catches potentially dangerous Web sites, and it works well; and the behavioral-detection feature works even better in the 2013 versions of these suites than it did before. Those considering Norton 360 should know that the tune-up feature does a good job of improving system performance and is arguably the most useful additional element. The backup works quite well but is scarcely unique, and the two-gig limit is low. The diagnostic reports are good, but are actually more detailed than many users are likely to want – the whole point of security software nowadays is to set it up without significant difficulty and let it run quietly in the background, without compromising system performance (both Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 do so only minimally – impressive for such powerful suites). The argument about getting most of the same functionality for free vs. paying for it remains a valid one. For example, Windows Defender in Win8, like Microsoft Security Essentials in earlier Windows versions, is a fine protective program; and Defender comes bundled with the operating system. But the convenience of having multiple protective programs running under the same umbrella, whether in Norton Internet Security or Norton 360, remains a major plus for these suites, and the ability to buy them for significantly less than their official list prices tilts the playing field decisively in their direction.  You can assemble the functions for free or at low cost if you want to return to the earlier days of Peter Norton himself, putting bits from here together with pieces from there and figuring out interoperability issues and update necessities on your own.  But if you simply want to work and play on your Windows-based system, and leave the protection of the system up to powerful software running in the background and alerting you only when necessary, then you cannot go wrong with either Norton Internet Security or Norton 360. In fact, you can only go right with either one of them.


Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 11. Royal Swedish Navy Band conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $9.99.

Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Giovanni Sgambati: Symphony No. 1; Cola di Rienzo—Overture. Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.

      The direction in which a composer’s mature works will progress is often, but not always, clear from listening to the early pieces through which he or she is developing a personal style. The latest volume in Naxos’ excellent John Philip Sousa series shows this particularly clearly, with five of the 14 tracks offering works that Sousa (1854-1932) wrote before he was 30: In Parlor and Street Fantasy (1880), Wolverine March (1881), Globe and Eagle March (1879), Guide Right March (1881) and Bonnie Annie Laurie (1883). These pieces collectively show most of the directions in which Sousa would later take his music and his world-famous band. Marches are, of course, the works for which he is best known: he wrote some 135 of them. And these early ones already show the verve and bright character of his later ones. But Sousa wrote more than 200 compositions in all, and the In Parlor and Street Fantasy shows one area that he was later to revisit a number of times: a mixture of then-popular tunes, operetta excerpts (Die Fledermaus) and even bits from grand opera (Il Trovatore, no less), rising above pastiche through cleverness of instrumentation and free-flowing form. And Bonnie Annie Laurie shows yet another side of Sousa’s productivity: he had a lifelong fascination with folk songs, considered this one the most beautiful of them all, and was fond of arranging them and incorporating them into other works – often quite creatively, as here, where he writes an original tune and sets it in counterpoint to the folk song itself. Slightly later pieces on this excellently played CD continue to show Sousa’s mastery of form and color: Mother Hubbard March (1885, including no fewer than seven nursery rhymes), On Parade March (1892), Tally Ho Overture (1886, for a play by his friend Joaquin Miller), and the particularly attractive National Fencibles March (1888). The five other offerings here were written in the 20th century, when Sousa was at the height of his fame and creative powers, and they display a sureness beyond that of the early works – although not much beyond it, with Sousa refining his already considerable talent rather than discovering entirely new ways to display it. Of the two late fantasies on this CD, one is religious in orientation (In Pulpit and Pew, 1917, opening with Onward Christian Soldiers and concluding with Adeste Fidelis); and one is entirely secular, with the mixture of popular and operatic tunes of which Sousa was fond (You’re the Flower of My Heart—Sweet Adeline Fantasy, 1930, in which Sousa manages to bring off a close juxtaposition of a trumpet-dominated version of the lovely Merry Widow Waltz with the amusingly inelegant song For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow). The three remaining later works, all marches, show Sousa at the pinnacle of his creativity in the form with which he is most closely identified: Keeping Step with the Union (1921), We Are Coming (1918, a march version of a war song), and Liberty Loan (1917) – all infused with patriotism and uplift and a very strong element of American sensibility, for all that the performances here are by Sweden’s only professional military band, which is a very fine ensemble by any standards..

      The sensibility is clearly Russian in Tchaikovsky’s first two symphonies, neither of which shows his fully developed late style but both of which display a combination of overtly nationalistic elements with ones from the Germanic symphonic tradition – a mixture that was part of Tchaikovsky’s work throughout his life. Like Sousa in band music, Tchaikovsky was a highly skilled orchestrator in works for the concert hall, and his coloristic abilities are already on full display in his first two symphonies. So are the depressive elements of his personality and music: the finale of Symphony No. 1 begins Andante lugubre, a designation that seems to stand for much of what Tchaikovsky wrote. But the first symphony, sometimes called “Dreams of a Winter Journey” or, as in the Naxos recording featuring the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz, “Winter Daydreams,” is scarcely depressive in its overall feeling – wistful, yes, even melancholic in parts, but highly skilled in scene-painting (especially in the second movement) and eventually propelled at the end of the finale by an ebullience that makes the concluding G major tonality over-abundantly clear and looks ahead structurally to the also-somewhat-too-emphatic conclusion of Symphony No. 5.  As for Symphony No. 2, the “Little Russian,” it contains multiple folk songs (most famously “The Crane” in the finale) and has a brightness and poise that look ahead to the much later Nutcracker ballet. Neither of these symphonies shows the fully mature Tchaikovsky style, but both show it well along in development – and both give strong indications of where the composer’s tremendous strengths and sometimes-apparent shortcomings will appear in his later music. These performances date to 1992-93 and are among the Seattle Symphony ones that originally appeared on Delos and are being re-released by Naxos. Schwarz is not a completely idiomatic Tchaikovsky conductor, but his somewhat superficial leadership actually comes across better in these first two symphonies than a similar approach would in Tchaikovsky’s later, more-personal, more-intense symphonic creations. Symphony No. 2 is very fine indeed, well-paced and with nice instrumental details. And the middle movements of Symphony No. 1 are quite effective as well. But Schwarz is out of his depth in that work’s outer movements, altering tempos for no discernible reason in the finale and doing so even more frequently and egregiously in the opening movement – as if that movement is a precursor of the tone-poem-like first movement of Symphony No. 4, which, however, it is not. Schwarz nevertheless makes a good, solid case for Tchaikovsky’s first two symphonies, both in themselves and, to an extent, in the ways in which they look ahead to the composer’s later works.

      Like Tchaikovsky, Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914) offered a blend of influences in his music – in Sgambati’s case, the same Germanic elements that Tchaikovsky absorbed, but mixed with Italianate melodies and textures. Wagner admired Sgambati’s music, and the two even created very different works on the same theme: Wagner’s Rienzi, a vast and vastly underrated opera that dates to 1837-40, is based on the same story as Sgambati’s Cola di Rienzo—Overture. This overture is from 1866 and was written as part of incidental music for a dramatic poem by Pietro Cossa. This was Sgambati’s first orchestral work, and it shows clearly where his influences came from: Liszt and Schumann as well as Wagner. Suitably solemn and dramatic, the overture is well structured and fits its subject matter well, but it does not yet display any very considerable sense of personal style. The first of Sgambati’s two symphonies, though, does show originality. Sgambati was one of several Italian Romantic composers trying to reassert the power of purely instrumental music in a country where opera had become the primary musical form – an endeavor later continued, somewhat more successfully, by Ottorino Respighi.  In Sgambati’s first symphony, which dates to 1880-81, it is clear that the composer has progressed significantly since his youthful Rienzi overture. There are similarities, notably the resemblance of the motivic structure of the first movement to the design of the earlier overture, but the symphony as a whole shows a surer sense of thematic presentation and transformation and does not seem so directly influenced by the works of other composers. The theme of the second movement, for example, has Germanic orchestral treatment but is itself Italianate – a good encapsulation of what Sgambati was trying to accomplish throughout this work (and to some extent in all his music).  The orchestration of the scherzo of the five-movement symphony is particularly impressive, showing Wagnerian influence but transcending it through Sgambati’s own emotional imprint. The finale, which sums up the work both structurally (using techniques of elaboration and variation) and emotionally (with intensity plus warmth), is an effective capstone to a piece that fits firmly into the Romantic era but clearly takes its own approach to the music of its time. Francesco La Vecchia, who has been exploring a number of less-known composers and pieces with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, once again shows himself here to be a committed and sensitive interpreter of music that has more to say than its comparative obscurity would indicate.


Johann Strauss Jr.: The Complete Orchestral Edition. Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra, Košice conducted by Alfred Walter, Richard Edlinger, Oliver Dohnányi, Johannes Wildner and Christian Pollack; Polish State Philharmonic Orchestra, Katowice conducted by Oliver Dohnányi and Johannes Wildner; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Johannes Wildner, Alfred Eschwé, Michael Dittrich, Franz Bauer-Theussl, Jerome D. Cohen and Gerhard Track; Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Guth; with Bratislava City Choir; Marilyn Hill Smith, soprano; Slovak Philharmonic Choir; Vienna Männergesang-Verein. Naxos. $149.99 (52 CDs).

      There are plenty of good and sufficient reasons for associating Johann Strauss Jr. with the new year, for performing Die Fledermaus consistently as one year ends and another begins (even though the operetta has nothing to do with the changing of the year), for making Strauss the centerpiece of Vienna’s famous New Year’s Concerts and their many imitators all around the world.  More than any other composer, Strauss repeatedly and consistently suggests hope for the future, a celebratory attitude toward life in general, a perpetuum mobile of dances and fireworks. Strauss’ own life was by no means as trouble-free as his music, but so brilliantly did he separate the personal from the professional that it is unimaginable, listening to his music, to think that it might have been composed in anything other than high spirits. Yet Strauss’ brother Eduard ordered the entire Strauss Orchestra archive burned in 1907, and some works by Johann Jr. are therefore irretrievably lost.  What prompted Eduard to such excess is a matter for biographers and historians, not musicians, but the fact is that Johann Jr.’s music creates and affirms a world where, by and large, only good things are in the future.  A new year’s present indeed.

      Naxos’ amazing 52-CD compilation of all of the Strauss non-stage music was a labor of love when begun in 1987, and the boxed set of discs originally released on the Marco Polo label is a collection that any listener can live with for the rest of his or her life. There is just so much here, not only in familiar music but also in equally delightful works that are almost completely unknown. There are multiple versions of famed pieces: On the Beautiful Blue Danube, the most famous of all, appears three times on different CDs, including in its original version with male chorus; likewise, the well-known Bei uns z’Haus is offered both with chorus and without. But there are so many ways to search and enjoy this collection! For instance, why not leave the Danube for a while and visit the Elbe, Moldau and Volga? Strauss wrote music for all those rivers.  Why not get a sense of how the Strauss style evolved over time, by listening to works in sequences of opus numbers? One of the multiple indexes provided with this set makes that possible – although it does require a lot of CD changing, since that is not how the discs were arranged.

      Ah, the arrangement of CDs. That is an enduring puzzle of this wonderful set, since there is no particular order to the pieces on any CD, to the use of conductors or orchestras, or indeed to any element of the production.  This is, on the one hand, frustrating for anyone wishing to listen to Strauss in an organized fashion; but it is, on the other hand, a great invitation to serendipity, to listening to the intermingling of the familiar and unfamiliar on a given CD or among various ones, to choosing a disc entirely at random and coming up with something expected, unexpected or both.  Listeners who do want to analyze the performances will find some differences among the conductors. Alfred Walter, who began the project, tends to be matter-of-fact and even at times a touch on the stodgy side, for example, while Christian Pollack is thoroughly immersed in the spirit of the music and offers readings filled with upbeat zest.  Yet the distinctions are minor ones: it is not that Strauss’ music “plays itself” or does not require a conductor’s presence, but that the notes flow so inexorably one to the next, and communicate their infectious enthusiasm so readily, that all the orchestra leaders here are able to extract the essence of Strauss’ wonderfulness.

      And this music is wonderful. Strauss is still sometimes referred to dismissively as a great composer of light music, likely by people who do not realize that Brahms, when asked for his autograph, once wrote down a few bars of the Blue Danube Waltz with the wry comment that they were unfortunately not by him.  Strauss was a master tunesmith, a superb craftsman, a fine orchestra leader and the undisputed king of a certain type of music that has brought tremendous joy and joie de vivre to millions of people – and shows no sign of losing popularity in the more-than-a-century since the composer’s death.  Whenever a year ends and a new one begins, it makes sense to do our best to look ahead with hope that the future will be better than the past, that the uncertain events still to come will surpass our expectations and deliver pleasures yet unknown and yet unexperienced. That is precisely what Johann Strauss Jr.: The Complete Orchestral Edition delivers: voluminous pleasures of all types, beautifully constructed and presented in solid and often top-notch performances, a cornucopia – horn of plenty – of musical pleasure not to be found anywhere else. This is one CD set whose pleasures neither cloy nor diminish with time. It is truly a gift not for the new year but for all new years.

December 20, 2012


Dear Dumb Diary, Year Two, #2: The Super-Nice Are Super-Annoying. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.

Dear Dumb Diary, Year Two, #3: Nobody’s Perfect. I’m as Close as It Gets. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.

Dr. Frankenstein’s Daughters. By Suzanne Weyn. Scholastic. $17.99.

      The epistolary novel is just about dead – it never even existed for many of today’s readers – because who writes letters anymore? It must come as a shock to modern young readers to pick up a classic such as Dracula or Frankenstein and discover that it is in some odd form in which people seem to send things to each other in long word sequences. But the diary novel, in which characters write to themselves and readers sort of eavesdrop on characters’ thoughts, is alive and well, and Jim Benton has elevated it (if that’s the right expression) to a uniquely enjoyable level in his Dear Dumb Diary series – the story of Jamie Kelly’s life at and around Mackerel Middle School. Jamie’s second year at the school is well under way in The Super-Nice Are Super-Annoying and Nobody’s Perfect. I’m as Close as It Gets. And Jamie is as smart-mouthed and emotionally unaware and utterly amusing as ever – and “her” illustrations continue to pre-empt the words time and time again. Take the one in The Super-Nice Are Super-Annoying in which she tries to come up with “attractive individuals [who] are bald,” and ends up drawing pictures of Homer Simpson (portrayed with the other Simpsons), Lord Voldemort (shown with some of his followers), and “my big toe.”  Or the one showing cafeteria monitor Miss Bruntford shaped exactly like a five-pound bag of flour. Now, this is not to say that the book’s words are shy, retiring or unamusing. For example, when Jamie’s best frenemy, Isabella, “asked me to do something with her hair,” Jamie worries that this may be a trap: “You do something to her hair, and then she offers to do something to yours, and what she does begins with spray paint and ends with the emergency room.”  On top of all these amusements, there is a plot of sorts – never the strong point of these books, and in many ways not the point at all.  This time it has to do with the many uses or abuses of niceness, and how even Isabella (who is the ultimate anti-nice) can use it if she wants to.

Turning to the third book in Year Two, it is hard not to laugh out loud at a picture of huge-eyed Jamie (think traditional Disney-style eyes, expanded) with hands clasped prayerfully and displaying “the NOD of Innocence, the EYES of Virtue, the TINY MOUTH of the Righteous, and the CLASPED HANDS of the Blameless.” This is after an incident involving a tennis ball and a substitute teacher’s rear end – an incident in which, surprisingly, Jamie was actually not guilty. The main focus of this one of Jamie’s adventures is extracurricular activities – and Jamie’s determination to prove she is not “the dumb one” in her group. To demonstrate this, she intends, for example, to stand in “science pose” (another delightful drawing) and “look carefully at the [museum] exhibits and remain mostly awake for most of the field trip.”  She tries something athletic, too – soccer, which she decides not to pursue after “a very, very long and exhausting two full minutes of play” during which she resembles “an orangutan hungrily chasing a melon while trying to free up a wedgie.” Jamie mentions this in connection with one of her ongoing rants about too-sweet, too-nice, too-beautiful Angeline, whose future lies – Jamie is sure of this – in a job such as that of “Miss Weatherlady,” who is a big success even if some of her forecasts mistakenly call for comets, bananas and ghosts.  The book is all over the place, as usual, and that is because Jamie is all over the place, as usual, and the result is a romp whose direction keeps changing but remains always amusing, as usual.  Benton has this series down pat, even (or maybe especially) when he has Jamie throw in something entirely irrelevant to everything that is going on, such as her asking a teacher “if she thought that wild dogs would have bailed on evolution if they had known they were going to end up as French Poodles” (with, again, a picture-perfect picture).  Eventually Jamie and Isabella sign up for eight extracurricular clubs, form one of their own as well, and get pulled into the office to explain – and everything works out just fine, thanks largely to Angeline; and if that seems to make no sense and have nothing to do with what has been going on, well, that’s just the way Benton has Jamie pull the whole story together and tell her diary all about it. Hilariously.

      But back to some of those classic epistolary novels. Dr. Frankenstein’s Daughters is, of course, based loosely (very loosely) on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s famous 1818 tale of human overreaching and the danger of trying to go where only God can go – to the creation of life.  And it is told, in a modern-day update of the style of the original book, in diary form – two-diary form, actually. The premise of this (+++) book is a very straightforward one for modern preteen and young teenage readers: there are two sisters with opposite sets of attitudes and opposite goals, and the way they interact and get into conflict with each other is the basis of the plot.  In this case, Giselle and Ingrid are Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s twin daughters, and therefore jointly inherit his castle in the Orkney Islands. Giselle is the worldly and flighty one, determined to make an impression on “society” and hold lots of sparkling parties (“our introduction to high society and the exciting world of the most fashionable and interesting friends”). Ingrid is the studious, serious and intense one, fascinated by and attracted to her father’s experiments. Suzanne Weyn makes some rather clumsy attempts to set the story in the 19th century, as when Giselle writes, “What could he have been thinking by pressing himself on me like that? Did he believe that once he had robbed my virtue I would have no recourse but to marry him?” These modern-language attempts to establish an earlier date for the story (which takes place mostly in 1815) are often silly – the phrase was “robbed me of my virtue,” for example – but they are scarcely the point of the book.  Unfortunately, the novel is full of outright anachronisms, such as the use of “hysteria” in its modern, post-Freudian sense rather than in the way the word was used in Mary Shelley’s time, when it was thought to relate to a “wandering uterus.”  The story follows the sisters’ different but interconnected lives, with increasingly suspicious activities leading the reader to wonder just what is wrong in the Orkneys and whether Dr. Frankenstein’s monstrous creation has anything to do with what is happening, in different ways, to the two young women.  Little references to the original Frankenstein pop up here and there: “A body may be assembled as easily as it is disassembled. But what is the animating force?” But the book is not really about Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments or about the effects of his work on the next generation – it is at bottom a tale of two very different sisters affected very differently by a series of traumatic events in their shared past. As such, it is not particularly innovative, and the eventual twist in its resolution is not really a big surprise. But it has moments of considerable interest in the differing personalities of its two protagonists, and young readers who do know Frankenstein may find it a reasonably attractive sidelight on the original novel, albeit a rather thin followup.


The Boy in the Snow. By M.J. McGrath. Viking. $25.95.

On the Run. By Clara Bourreau. Translated by Y. Maudet. Delacorte Press. $14.99.

      Edie Kiglatuk, half Inuit and half Outsider, former polar bear hunter, struggling recovering alcoholic (“She’d fallen off the wagon once too often, wasn’t eager to repeat the process”), tour guide in the far north – where the unforgiving landscape and frigid temperatures are an integral part of the story – is back in The Boy in the Snow, having been introduced effectively in White Heat, in which the mystery was slow to build and a little far-fetched, but the atmosphere was very well presented and integrated with traditional Inuit beliefs involving appreciation of nature and the environment and the place of all creatures, living and dead, in the circle of life.  The Boy in the Snow is more of the same in a somewhat more complicated plot – two plots, actually. In one, Edie, who is helping her ex-husband in the Iditarod dogsled race, gets lost in the forest while following a Spirit Bear and finds a frozen baby in what looks like a doghouse but is really, the police say, a spirit house. And then a second baby is found in a similar house. In this part of the plot, police want to blame the deaths on Old Believers, a Russian orthodox sect that follows ancient practices – and specifically on Dark Believers, an offshoot of the offshoot, said to worship Satan but not certain even to exist. Edie has other ideas. In the second plot strand, an Alaskan gubernatorial election gets messy, with Anchorage Mayor Chuck Hillingberg running against a popular incumbent. Edie figures out how Hillingberg’s ties to a lodge relate to the murders; this is what connects the two plots.  (There is a third storyline, too, involving the Old Believers and a property developer, but it is ancillary and thin.)  The problem here is that neither of the two different (but related) criminal enterprises in the story is particularly believable, and Edie herself has not warmed up (so to speak) since the previous book: her personality is brittle and generally unlikable.  And the other characters are all types – you know Hillingberg is smarmy the minute he shows up, for example.  This puts the whole weight of the book on Edie, who is not strongly delineated enough to carry it.  Yes, she gets into peril, and yes, she figures things out before anyone else does, but it is hard to care a great deal about her even though readers will know they are supposed to do so.  McGrath generally writes well, especially in descriptive passages – the Alaskan wilderness is more alive than many of her characters, and the book’s best scene has Edie and two other characters stranded in a snowstorm.  But The Boy in the Snow has some stylistic missteps, including plot summaries in which characters tell each other things that an attentive reader will already know – and an ending that knits things up too neatly through a series of overly convenient revelations.  There is an underlying message of religious tolerance in the book, and an awareness that every religion harbors fanatics; these elements give The Boy in the Snow a little more depth than it would otherwise have.  And the exploration of the seamy side of Alaskan politics is well-done, although political wrongdoing and manipulation are scarcely surprising in warm regions or cold.  Despite its strengths, though, the book falls short of a top rating, because its central character is not one of its strong points.  Edie needs to grow some more, and maybe pick up an interesting foil or two among the others in McGrath’s world, to become as captivating as McGrath would no doubt like her to be. And McGrath could use better editing, with the book filled with errors such as “right of passage” instead of “rite,” “had been left” instead of “had left,” and “anymore” for “any more,” “phased” for “fazed,” “who’d had sat” for “who had sat,” “griping” for “gripping,” “baled” for “bailed,” and so on – to the point where a company is called Tryggve on one page and Trygvve on the next.

      A crime novel for preteens rather than adults, On the Run has no premeditated murders or seamy political machinations, but it does have a very intriguing premise that may even pull in some grown-up readers.  Early in this short (120-page), fast-paced book, fourth-grader Anthony Cantes learns that his father is not a world-traveling photographer, as his mother has always told him, but in fact has been in jail for two years, awaiting trial for bank robbery. Anthony’s dad took after his own father – they were thieves together. In fact, Anthony’s grandfather turns out to be “one of the most famous bank robbers of his time. Books have been written about him. …My dad…thought robbing banks was a good profession. He decided to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps.”  There is a certain noir element to On the Run that does not usually appear in crime-related books for young readers; possibly this is because Clara Bourreau lives in France, where she writes TV and film screenplays (it is easy to imagine the book transformed into that form).  Anthony’s world crumbles around him quickly – it even turns out that his grandfather once killed someone – but this is just setup for the main plot of the book, which involves Anthony’s father’s escape from prison. Anthony is kept constantly in the dark about what is going on – his repeated plaintive questions (“Why won’t anyone tell me anything, ever?”) are perfectly reasonable.  Then his father, quite improbably, comes to see Anthony and ends up taking him along while fleeing the police.  Boy and man slowly develop a closer relationship that is obviously not going to work out well – even ignoring the fact that a policeman’s daughter is part of the picture and becomes friends with Anthony.  The book races to its rather improbable conclusion, which in no way pulls everything together as neatly as a U.S. author would likely have felt obligated to do.  On the Run is an odd book, its focus on father-son bonding under difficult circumstances made strange by the nature of those circumstances.  There is an amoral undertone to the whole thing – Anthony does think his father should return the money he stole, but that is because he wants the family to have a normal life, not really because of any ethical or moral imperative.  The characters have little personality – the grandfather is the most interesting – and are defined by what they do rather than who they are; even Anthony’s father’s explanation for his criminal behavior is facile (he says he is not as smart as his brother, a research scientist).  A fast read that leaves a somewhat unsatisfied taste behind, On the Run ultimately does not fulfill its intriguing premise, but its notion of a boy wanting to be with his father, no matter who or what that father is, is one that families interested in the book will find worth exploring.


I Haiku You. By Betsy Snyder. Random House. $9.99.

Zigzag Kids No. 7: Sky High. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Illustrated by Alasdair Bright. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.

Behind the Bookcase. By Mark Steensland. Illustrated by Kelly Murphy. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

A Thunderous Whisper. By Christina Diaz Gonzalez. Knopf. $16.99.

      Young readers have their choice this season of books from the light, poetic and pleasant to the heavy and ominous. I Haiku You is a sweet little book celebrating innocent love of the puppy-love type, more like adorable friendship.  Betsy Snyder mixes lovely poetry with adorable multimedia illustrations, such as a picture of a boy and girl flying a butterfly-shaped kite (or maybe a real, large butterfly) with the words, “love is in the air—/ every time our hearts meet up,/ i get butterflies.”  And love is not only for people in this book: one poem goes with a picture of a sad dog whose boy is leaving on a school bus, and a few pages later, another poem and haiku show their joyous reunion after the school day is over. Even plants come in for loving, as in this paean to sunflowers from a little girl who is watering them: “little by little/ i love watching you grow up,/ each and every inch.”  There is enough love for a delicious drink, too: “taste buds are cheering/ for a squeeze of your sunshine—/ HOORAY, lemonade!”  That picture comes complete with a cheerleader, just as an ode (well, a haiku) to alphabet soup shows a child with face covered in spots eating the soup in bed: “noodles so yummy,/ love letters for your tummy—/ warm alphabet soup.”  The whole book is rather soupily sentimental, but that just makes it all the more pleasant for a cold winter day – or maybe for Valentine’s Day.  Yes, it is intended mainly for children, but even adults will enjoy many of Snyder’s thoughts: “what are the chances?/ maybe one in a million?/ what luck i found you!”

      A little luck is always in store for the perfectly ethnically balanced kids of Zelda A. Zigzag School. Each book in this series – Sky High is the seventh – focuses on a different child, this time on Charlie the inventor, who creates cleverly named devices (zinger-winger, popper-upper) that either don’t do what they ought to or tend to do more than they should. Charlie’s problem is that the Afternoon Center Inventing Fair is coming up, and he needs to make something extra special; also something that actually works properly.  But thanks to his invention-gone-awry in the lunchroom, Charlie has been temporarily banned from inventing and assigned to help the lunch lady.  Help is in the offing, though, in the form of Mr. Redfern, himself an inventor – and with problems of his own.  Eventually Mr. Redfern and the other Zigzag Kids all get together in a way that helps Charlie feel very good about himself – feeling good about yourself is a big, big part of Patricia Reilly Giff’s series – and everything ends happily, as usual.  Also as usual, Alasdair Bright’s illustrations help make the whole Zigzag School setup come to unrealistic but altogether pleasant life.

      Things are also unrealistic – and generally a lot less pleasant – in Behind the Bookcase, a forthright fantasy derivative of Narnia and its derivatives. Sarah Steiner and her family – parents and little brother Billy – have moved into Sarah’s deceased grandmother’s house for the summer to fix it up and get it ready to sell.  And Sarah discovers an unfinished letter from Grandma Winnie with a comment about the strange things “happening behind the bookcase,” which of course makes no sense and is quickly dismissed by Sarah’s mother. But Sarah actually looks behind the bookcase and discovers, to the likely surprise of absolutely no one, that there is something strange there: a doorway to the land where shadows come from, Scotopia.  Soon Sarah is on a journey amid wonders and dangers and fears, in a place where time runs differently (just as in Narnia); and she is being helped by the talking cat Balthazat (or is she being helped?) and hindered by a series of strange doings and secrets both in Scotopia and in the world of Grandma Winnie’s house.  This is a book whose plotting is not much of a surprise at all, although Mark Steensland moves the story along at a good pace; it is also a book in which the illustrations, by Kelly Murphy, are particularly evocative, from the many hands and eyes in a chapter called “Meet Mr. Ink” to Sarah lifting a rock slab in order to free Anonimo the “blemmye,” an odd-looking, horned, mind-reading character who looks as if he escaped from Where the Wild Things Are.  The whole book is a quest, of course, with Sarah ultimately looking for the Undoer to try to right the wrongs she has discovered.  Many books begin in medias res, in the middle of things, but Behind the Bookcase is one that ends there, rather disappointingly for anyone hoping for a neat solution to the various mysteries – but happily for readers who will look forward to a sequel.  The plotting and writing are largely derivative – not surprisingly in a first novel, which is what this is – but the fine illustrations are not, and the adventure that Sarah and Billy have makes for enjoyable and not-too-scary reading for preteens.

      A Thunderous Whisper, though, is scary stuff, and designed to be more realistic as well.  A historical novel for ages 10 and up, Christina Diaz Gonzalez’ book is set during the Spanish Civil War, in the weeks leading up the bombing of Guernica by the Nazis in April 1937 – an event immortalized by Picasso but seen here through the eyes of young people who lived during it.  They are Ani, a 12-year-old Basque girl, and Mathias, a 14-year-old German Jew, and they first become friends – and then spies. Then it turns out there is a double agent in their spy group. And that means Mathias and his family may need to move – but things are not so simple for Ani, whose mother “doesn’t believe in getting involved,” as Ani explains to Mathias.  Eventually, the two young people are witnesses to the destruction of Guernica: “The bombers came and came again. …There was nothing to do, nowhere to go. We waited while an eerie silence crept over the land. My heart pounded with the hope that it was over and the growing fear that it would never end. …I wanted it all to be over. Speed up the hands of time and have this be a distant memory.”  Guernica is in fact a distant memory for many – the book’s epilogue brings Ani back to the city almost 40 years later – but it became a vivid memory for Gonzalez as she explored her Basque heritage and the fate of children who were in Guernica when the bombs fell.  The book feels like a slice of history and also like a remembrance – but it also feels like many, many other books about children in wartime, certainly meaningful to those sharing the horrifying experience but not so easy for others to connect with in a time that, for all its challenges, has nothing comparable to these events (at least for the young readers likely to be interested in this book).  A Thunderous Whisper is well enough done and well enough written to interest preteens and young teens seeking an emotional connection with World War II, perhaps ones whose parents or grandparents have told them stories of those times; and certainly readers of Basque heritage will find elements of the book memorable.  But it is not particularly distinctive in its portrayal of its primary characters: both Ani and Mathias are types rather than fully formed young people, and the events through which they live, however truthfully depicted, feel as if they have an air of fictional inevitability about them.


Elgar: Cello Concerto; Sospiri; Salut d’amour; La capricieuse; Dvořák: Waldesruh’; Rondo for cello and orchestra; Respighi: Adagio con variazoni. Sol Gabetta, cello; Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mario Venzago. RCA. $14.98.

Mahler: Symphony No. 8. Jennifer Check, Rebecca Nash and Jennifer Welch-Babidge, sopranos; Ann McMahon Quintero and Robynne Redman, mezzo-sopranos; Gregory Carroll, tenor; Lester Lynch, baritone; Jason Grant, bass-baritone; Christopher Newport University Chamber Choir, Old Dominion University Concert Choir, Richmond Symphony Chorus, Virginia Children’s Chorus, and Virginia Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Hampton Roads Classics. $17.

      There is dynamism in live performances that more than makes up for sonic imperfections (based on where one sits in a concert hall), disturbances (other audience members moving or coughing), and inconvenience (frequently high ticket cost, plus the cost of getting to and from the performance, sometimes in inclement weather and/or in severe traffic or aboard crowded mass transit).  And the dynamism is captured in the best recordings of these performances, which have the added advantage that the CDs can be assembled from works performed over several days – or pieced together from several renditions of the same work.  At their best, live recordings (a contradiction in terms, like “dark brightness”) can be as good as Sol Gabetta’s of the Elgar Cello Concerto from 2009 (November 9-12, to be specific).  Gabetta is an absolutely marvelous cellist, seeming to be so joined to her instrument that there is little sense she is playing it at all – the cello seems to be making the music, which flows to the audience through Gabetta’s fingers and body.  The fact that she plays a Guadagnini cello from 1759 is certainly a part of the gorgeousness of her music-making, but there is more to it than that: her bowing, her phrasing, her musical understanding, her involvement in what she plays are quite extraordinary, and the realization that she made this recording at the age of 28 is truly astonishing – although it is worth remembering that Jacqueline du Pré, with whom the Elgar concerto has been strongly identified for nearly 50 years, made her classic recording when she was only 20.  Gabetta’s reading of the concerto is extremely lyrical and intimate, although with plenty of power where it is called for. There is an almost loving conjunction between the cello lines and the orchestral part – Mario Venzago does an outstanding job leading the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in a supple, unobtrusive and highly supportive accompaniment. Gabetta’s flowing warmth and intensity give this work an emotive lyricism even beyond what other fine performers have found in it, yet her attacks have plenty of bite when necessary and she produces a big, warm, glowing sound almost continuously and apparently effortlessly. It is an altogether winning performance on every level. But there is a disappointing side to this very fine RCA disc: nearly everything else on it is of much lighter weight, like a long series of encores.  The three additional Elgar works here are essentially salon music, although Gabetta plays them very beautifully. The two by Dvořák are slightly more substantial, with the melancholy elements of the Rondo for cello and orchestra particularly well handled; but, again, these are scarcely “big” works. Only the Respighi, a very interesting set of variations with some highly skillful orchestration, has enough heft to complement the Elgar concerto effectively. The original 2010 issue of this performance was a two-CD set that also included Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’ 1978 Grāmata čellam for solo cello; the present single-disc release stays more firmly in the Romantic and post-Romantic sound world, but at the expense of providing any additional depth approximating that of Gabetta’s lovely Elgar concerto.

      There is depth aplenty in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony as performed by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta in a recording made on May 27, 2012, at the Virginia Arts Festival. This is in many respects quite an amazing performance, in which Falletta finds the recurrent thematic lines from the symphony’s first part whenever they reappear in the second, producing greater unity than many other conductors do in this work; and in which the Virginia Children’s Chorus stands out as an exceptionally fine group amid the many other professional and amateur choruses enlisted for this huge symphony.  The very opening of performances of Mahler’s Eighth tends to set the tone for all that comes later: Veni, creator spiritus can be sung either plaintively, asking the creator spirit to descend and inspire all that comes later, or demandingly, insisting that this creative force appear. Falletta, interestingly, takes a middle ground: the chorus is clearly asking rather than demanding, but it is a request that is expected to be honored.  This leads into a Part I whose sections follow each other clearly and with even flow, with solo instruments’ lines peeking out from the overall texture intermittently to fine effect. The orchestral introduction to Part II is less portentous than in some other performances, less fraught with the Mahler angst that appears only in this section of this particular work. Falletta’s approach is far from lightweight, but it does not suggest high drama, much less tragedy. The vocal sections of Part II continue in the same involved but not overdone vein: the singing is generally excellent (although bass-baritone Jason Grant is a bit strained in his lowest register), the choral parts are particularly well handled, and the three sopranos’ distinctive voices lend their characters some differentiation. It would have been nice if the CD’s booklet said which singer filled what role, but in fact the booklet is the weakest part of Hampton Roads Classics’ offering: 4½ of the 10 inside pages simply list all the orchestral and choral performers, with another 2½ pages devoted to solo singers’ biographies. There is nothing about Mahler, nothing about the symphony, and the sung words are neither given nor offered via a Web site. Since this is by far Mahler’s most text-heavy numbered symphony and one whose words are absolutely crucial to the composer’s communication, this omission is a very poor decision indeed, and the booklet as a whole gives the production an amateurish feel that is less than the performance deserves.  Falletta is scarcely a Mahler specialist, but she shows in this recording that she can scale the heights to which this composer invites performers and audiences alike, and can take listeners along with her – both in the concert hall and at home.


Ravel: Orchestral Works, Volume 1—Alborada del gracioso; Pavane pour une infante défunte; Rapsodie espagnole; Pièce en forme de habanera; Shéhérazade—Ouverture de féerie; Menuet antique; Boléro. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.

Casella: Introduzione, aria e toccata; Partita for piano and small orchestra; La donna serpente—orchestral fragments. Sun Hee You, piano; Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.

Ries: Piano Concertos in E-flat, Op. 42, and G minor, Op. 177; Introduction et Rondeau brillant, Op. 144. Christopher Hinterhuber, piano; New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Uwe Grodd. Naxos. $9.99.

      Naxos is the most remarkable producer of series in the CD business. Some other companies present highly impressive series from time to time – Naïve’s Vivaldi Edition and PentaTone’s current survey of Wagner’s 10 major operas conducted by Marek Janowksi, for example. But Naxos has produced engaging, often fascinating series for decades and is constantly creating new ones or adding to existing ones.  The sheer amount of music that springs from the company in series form is astonishing.  And the quality of the performances, which is almost always very high, makes the series consistently worthwhile.  Take the new Ravel series featuring Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The first volume is a kind of “greatest hits” compilation, containing Alborada del gracioso, Pavane pour une infante défunte, Rapsodie espagnole, and the inevitable Boléro, as well as other works. But because of the way Naxos pulls the CD together, what listeners get is mostly an intriguing compilation of pieces that Ravel originally wrote for piano and then orchestrated. Four of the seven works here (not including Boléro, Shéhérazade or Pièce en forme de habanera) originated as compositions for piano, dual pianos or piano duet, a fact that makes the composer’s inventive and evocative orchestrations all the more impressive.  These are all colorful works, redolent of exotic times or places, looking to the past or to Europe outside the borders of France or to the Arabia of legend.  The orchestra plays all of them with sensitivity and skill, and Slatkin does a particularly fine job with the seemingly ubiquitous Boléro by emphasizing Ravel’s subtle and gradual additions of orchestral instruments to the ever-growing crescendo that is the distinguishing feature of the piece.  This is an outstanding start to what is sure to be another top-notch Naxos series.

      The Naxos series of the music of Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) is an ongoing one, with Franceso La Vecchia and Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma offering idiomatic interpretations of music that is very little known and often presented as world première recordings – on the latest disc, only Partita for piano and small orchestra has been recorded before.  It is the earliest work here, dating to 1924-25 and cast in a mode, typical for Casella, that pays close attention to the past (the movements are labeled “Sinfonia,” “Passacaglia” and “Burlesca”) while interpreting the forms in Casella’s own style.  Sun Hee You plays the piece with sure-handed skill and without trying to expand it into a full-fledged concerto, which it is not – it is long enough for one, running half an hour, but its neoclassical aspirations are more modest, and they are nicely fulfilled here.  The “orchestral fragments” from Casella’s first opera, La donna serpente (“The Snake-Woman,” 1928-1931, not composed until Casella was in his 40s) point to a work with both tragic and comic elements, including a march and battle scene but also an attractive “Tempo di berceuse” and a slow and deeply felt Prelude to Act III.  The third work on the CD is another one paying its respects to the Baroque: Introduzione, aria e toccata, which dates to 1933 and, like the Partita, adapts old forms into a more-modern harmonic and tonal language, through which the formal structure nevertheless shows quite clearly.  La Vecchia continues to display great understanding of and sensitivity to Casella’s style, and this continuing series shows the composer to have wider range and greater compositional ability than his comparative obscurity would indicate.

      Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) is obscure nowadays, too, except for his relationship with Beethoven, but he was a significant composer and pianist in his day, and the fifth and final volume in Naxos’ survey of Ries’ 14 works for piano and orchestra (eight concertos and six independent, large-scale concert rondos) shows just how strong Ries was in both roles – as well as what limitations he had on the composing side.  Ries’ piano concertos have opus numbers but no sequential numbers, because the way they were published was, frankly, a mess: the first of them was designated No. 2, because Ries gave No. 1 to his very first concerto, which was for violin; and because Ries (unlike Beethoven) was a performer for his whole career, he delayed publishing his concertos to prevent others from performing them.  Thus, the opus numbers generally have nothing to do with the dates of composition.  The very last concerto, though, is known to be Op. 177 of 1833, and it has particularly felicitous wind and brass scoring, along with a well-turned piano part that is filled with virtuosic and elegant touches – although it is not really more advanced than the solo parts in the earlier concertos.  Op. 42 dates to 1812 and has noticeably Romantic elements in its use of multiple tempos within movements – and cadenzas in the middle of movements rather than just before the end.  Ries’ concertos are a sometimes uneasy blend of Classical-era orchestration with Romantic-era pianism, but Christopher Hinterhuber and Uwe Grodd make them sound about as cohesive as they can, and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra plays them with spirit and enthusiasm.  As for the Introduction et Rondeau brillant, Op. 144, which dates to 1825, it is a display piece with equal parts virtuosity and balance, thematically strong and structurally carefully constructed – a large-scale work that is not quite a fantasia but has elements of free-flowing melody.  This fifth volume of Ries’ piano-and-orchestra compositions closes this particular Naxos sequence at the same high level it has had since it started – and will whet listeners’ appetites for future series rediscovering works by other now-neglected composers.