August 31, 2017
Superbat. By Matt Carr. Scholastic. $16.99.
Tea with Oliver. By Mika Song. Harper. $17.99.
Bats look a lot like flying mice, but that is not the mouse connection in Matt Carr’s Superbat. The mice appear fairly late in the book – as Pat the bat tries to live up to the book’s title. Pat has trouble sleeping one day and decides to make himself a costume so he can be like his favorite comic-book superheroes. He manages to produce the costume on his mom’s sewing machine even though his wings keep getting in the way and the noise bothers bats who are trying to sleep – after all, it is the middle of the day. Anyway, Pat dons the costume and announces himself as Superbat when everyone wakes up that night. But his friends challenge him: what super powers does he have? Well, Pat says confidently, he has super hearing! But his friends point out that they do, too. Pat admits he cannot lift a car or shoot laser beams from his eyes, but he can fly! But of course all the other bats can fly as well. Aha! says Pat. He can find things in the dark by using echolocation! But the other bats laugh at him: “That’s nothing special. We can all do THAT!” Poor Pat – he decides he is not special after all, “just a normal bat in a silly outfit.” But wait! Someone is calling for help, and Pat hears the cry because of his super-sensitive hearing! It is a family of mice, trapped all the way on the other side of town by “a BIG bad cat.” To the rescue! Pat flies all the way to the scene of danger, flaps back and forth despite the cat’s attempts to catch or swat him, and finally scares the cat away. The mice are saved, and are tremendously grateful – and Pat’s friends, who have followed him across town and seen the rescue, declare that he does have a super power after all: courage. This is a funny and nicely paced story that incorporates a variety of facts about bats – several more of which Carr offers on the final page. And the broadly conceived and simply rendered cartoon illustrations do a great job of making Pat simultaneously silly and endearing. Even the cat, who looks on in puzzlement after running away from the strangely caped crusader, is fun to see and really not very threatening at all. Except, of course, to the mice.
A mouse named Philbert has little fear of cats in Mika Song’s Tea with Oliver, because Oliver is a cat whose tastes seem to be the same as Philbert’s. Oliver, like Philbert, enjoys drinking tea and eating cookies, but he has no one to join him and is lonely. What an opportunity for Philbert – if only he weren’t “too shy to come out from under the couch.” Philbert tries to call out to Oliver from beneath the furniture, but Oliver does not hear him. So Philbert writes Oliver a letter asking if they can have tea together – but it is on a very small piece of paper that Oliver sweeps under the couch while cleaning up and singing about having “the lonesome apartment bluuues.” Undaunted, Philbert writes a second letter and launches it toward Oliver, using a slingshot made from a rubber band. But Oliver thinks the letter is a bug and starts scratching himself, and he misses this missive, too. Then a bunch of Oliver’s relatives show up to throw a party, and Philbert decides that if it is going to be a tea party, he will attend, too. No such luck! Philbert gets up his courage and carries a letter toward Oliver to ask if he can join the party, but as Oliver offers the other cats tea, things get chaotic: these cats just want to bounce and dance and make noise until – oh no! – one of them bangs into Oliver, whose teacups fly off the tray on which he is carrying them and break on the floor. “The party ends as quickly as it began,” but now Oliver does not even have teacups anymore, and as he cleans up the mess, he sheds a tear and says, “I’ll never have tea with anyone now.” But Philbert finally comes over and hands Oliver the letter, and after one more misunderstanding (Oliver first thinks the letter is a tissue, and blows his nose in it), Philbert reveals that he was able to save two teacups by putting a sofa pillow under them as they fell. “And the new friends sit down for a nice cup of tea.” And cookies. And the start of what is sure to be a beau-tea-ful friendship. The fact that Philbert is a mouse and Oliver is a cat is barely relevant to the story – all that matters here is that the two have tastes (specifically for tea and cookies) in common. That is a nice, subtle message for Tea with Oliver to deliver, and the pleasant tones of the ink-and-watercolor drawings make the book a sweetly relaxing one. Adults reading it to children may want to sip a cup of tea while doing so – and even offer a bit to the kids.
Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True. By Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Brigette Barrager. Random House. $17.99.
Clark the Shark and the Big Book Report. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Guy Francis. Harper. $16.99.
Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur: School Days. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by John Nez. Harper. $16.99.
My Weird School: Class Pet Mess! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $16.99.
Very simple stories told in very simple language can be just right for very young readers, their simplicity paving the way for much greater depth and complexity in later years of reading. Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True, for ages 3-7, is as simple as can be. This is Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s second story of the only unicorn who believes that little girls are real – and, of course, a little girl who believes in unicorns. Illustrated by Brigette Barrager in the same warm, fanciful style she used in the first book, in which pretty much everything is rounded and sweet and smiley, the second book actually brings girl and unicorn into the same place at the same time (after they apparently met only in dreams in the first story). The reason for the get-together is that it is raining and raining and raining in the land of unicorns, and since unicorns get their magic from the sun, from rainbows and from “the sparkle of believing,” the magic has just about faded away. Keeping it alive is Uni, thanks to his belief that little girls really do exist. In the little girl’s world, it is also raining – and at one point, girl and unicorn see lightning and hear thunder at exactly the same moment, and right then both have the same wish, and in the book’s best illustration, “Then everything went white and quiet.” The picture looks like a white-out, with girl and unicorn seen more or less in silhouette and tinges of color bleeding through – it is an exceptional scene. And right afterwards, girl and unicorn are together at last! And soon they are running and jumping and playing and helping all sorts of animals and, eventually, finding their way to a huge tree under which all the other unicorns are huddled unhappily. Realizing that Uni was right about little girls, all the unicorns erupt with joy and become, “once again, sparkly, strong, and magical.” And they wish the rain away, and the sun comes back, and everything is super-delightful and utterly happy. And there are two rainbows in the sky, not just one, which means the little girl can use one to go home and Uni can use the other to visit her world – a scene-setter for another book if there ever was one. Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True is super-easy to read and super-straightforward in plot, and its pervasive happiness is just the thing to encourage the youngest readers (and even pre-readers) to start discovering all the wonders that books can bring.
Some books bring along their delights as part of a sequence specifically designed for early readers of all types, such as the “I Can Read!” series. Here too there are recognizable characters – usually ones whose longer adventures can be found in picture books for slightly older readers. Within the guided sequence, though, the tales are designed for ease of comprehension and simplicity of involvement. Big, bumbling, toothy-but-harmless Clark the Shark, for example, appears in a Level 1 book (“simple sentences for eager new readers”) suffering both from his typical overconfidence and from a case of stage fright. In Clark the Shark and the Big Book Report, Bruce Hale and Guy Francis have Clark hyper-eager to give his report on “The Frog Prince,” sure that he will do wonderfully well because “I know my book like the back of my flipper!” The other fish students are nervous about standing up in front of the class to give their reports, but not Clark, who successfully tries out a joke on his classmates at lunch and then gives his report to his family in the evening – with everything going beautifully. But as usual, things do not go well for Clark when the big moment of the actual report arrives: he has “a brain freeze” and forgets what he wants to say: “His mind was as empty as a seashell.” No big deal! His friends and teacher encourage him and tell him they know he can do it, and Clark finds that he can give the report after all, and everything ends happily. Clark’s misadventures are fun for very young readers specifically because Clark is the biggest and most fearsome-looking fish in his school but is really sweet and befuddled much of the time, and good-natured all the time.
Even bigger than a shark, but portrayed as equally sweet, is the dinosaur introduced by Syd Hoff nearly 60 years ago in Danny and the Dinosaur (1958). Hoff (1912-2004) created the thoroughly unrealistic, ever-smiling dinosaur – who walks on his back legs but is shaped like the huge, long-necked plant eaters that walked on all fours – as a simple, charming companion for Danny, who meets the dinosaur in the museum. In Hoff’s book, the two have a day filled with small adventures, such as going to a baseball game and the zoo and playing hide-and-seek – and the well-meaning dinosaur takes Danny across a river and lets Danny and other children use him as a slide. Most of what Hoff created translates well to a new Level 1 book in which the dinosaur decides to follow Danny to school. Thanks to apt and sensitive writing by Bruce Hale and pictures in Hoff’s style by John Nez, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur: School Days will be enjoyable for young readers whose grandparents are likely the only people around them who might remember Hoff’s original. In the new story, the dinosaur behaves as expected, mixing easily with the children and teacher, cooperating in lessons, letting the kids learn math by measuring parts of his body, and joining Danny for an outdoor lunch at which the dinosaur munches leaves from a tree while Danny eats what he has brought from home in an old-fashioned lunchbox. The style of writing, the type of adventure and the form of illustration all have a pleasantly nostalgic feeling about them here. Everything is warm-hearted and thoroughly non-threatening. And this simple story is one to which very young readers will be able to relate – although the classroom does not really look like the type usually used for kindergarten, which is about the right grade for Level 1 books, but more like one for kids in first or second grade.
Of course, by the time they move beyond kindergarten, most kids will be reading more-complex books than those in Level 1 of the “I Can Read!” series, which actually contains five levels from “My First” to Level 4. A step beyond Level 1 are books such as My Weird School: Class Pet Mess! This is a Level 2 book (“high-interest stories for developing readers”), and again, what Dan Gutman and Jim Paillot offer here is right in line with what they provide in their longer, more-elaborate books for somewhat older readers. The story here actually fits nicely into what might be called the ethos of My Weird School, because instead of getting a typical class pet such as a hamster or turtle, Mr. Cooper’s class votes to get a snake. It is a small, harmless hognose snake named Bob, and the reactions in class, as usual in other My Weird School books, are divided. Alexia, who narrates the book, considers Bob really cool, but Andrea finds the snake gross. Gutman includes some factual material on hognose snakes and weaves it nicely into the story: the snake “mostly eats live toads,” the teacher explains, and Alexia cannot wait to feed Bob – who takes his meal in “one big gulp,” so Alexia comments, “It wasn’t as disgusting as I hoped.” Several other kids bring their own, sometimes rather weird pets to school over the next few days, including a ferret, a skunk, and finally Andrea’s poodle. But the dog leaps at Bob’s cage and barks loudly, and Bob collapses on his back and the whole class freaks out, thinking Bob has died of a heart attack. It is left to Mr. Cooper to remind the class that hognose snakes play dead when they are frightened – something he told them before, but a fact the class completely ignored. So all ends happily, especially for Alexia, who says Bob is “the best, coolest class pet in the world” because “Andrea HATES HIS GUTS.” My Weird School: Class Pet Mess! offers a more-elaborate story than kids would get in a Level 1 book, but not much more elaborate, so this and other Level 2 books are effective stepping stones toward the more-complex books that kids will increasingly be reading as they move through school. And of course, the Clark the Shark and My Weird School books are designed by their authors and illustrators to encourage young readers to familiarize themselves with the central characters and look for more of their adventures in longer, more-invoved books as kids’ reading abilities grow.
Fly Guy Presents: Why, Fly Guy? A BIG Question & Answer Book. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $14.99.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Out of This World Edition 2018. Scholastic. $16.99.
Although the Internet has made more information available to more people than ever before, there are a lot of inconveniences in using it – not the least of which is that the sheer volume of material can be overwhelming, and the results of searches for facts do not always produce understandable or age-appropriate responses. Go to Google and search “why do balloons float,” for instance, and you will get 557,000 results in a fraction of a second – or enter “why do feet smell” and you will get 4,790,000 results. The material will be accurate, comprehensive, scientifically literate, and potentially very confusing, especially to younger Internet users. Besides, it will be presented as words, and in our hyper-visual age, many people find it easier to absorb information with a visual component. A touch of entertainment helps, too. The result is that a known and amusing character such as Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy can be a very effective spokesperson, or spokesfly, for a cross-section of material in which many young readers are likely to be interested. The Fly Guy Presents series has been using the big-eyed fly this way for some time, with focuses on topics such as weather, sharks, castles, dinosaurs and, unsurprisingly, insects. Now Fly Guy and Buzz, the boy who keeps Fly Guy as a pet, explore a wider variety of concepts in an oversize hardcover book that is more visually striking and will likely be much more durable than the small-size paperbacks previously released. Fly Guy Presents: Why, Fly Guy? A BIG Question & Answer Book actually covers some of the same material that the smaller books do, but there is plenty new here as well, and each of the book’s four sections includes a science project and an end-of-section activity for kids to do. The why-balloons-float question, for example, gets an explanation both of why helium-filled ones rise in the air and why ones that you blow into do not. And the why-feet-smell question is explained by discussing bacteria that feed on human sweat and the way closed shoes trap the resulting odor. Actually, the bacteria issue is a weakness in the book, since the word “bacteria” is used properly as a plural (the singular is bacterium) some of the time – but not all the time, as in a comment that “bacteria in your stomach breaks [sic] down food to make gas.” Still, this is a fairly minor matter in a book whose bright and amusing illustrations and simple but accurate explanations of everyday phenomena make it fun to dip into to learn a variety of things. The book’s sections deal with the human body, “bees and other animals,” plants and nature, and miscellany – ranging from why wheels are round to why stop signs have eight sides. This last section has a particularly intriguing science project: make glue from milk. But the whole book contains interesting information, including some that even parents may find surprising: “No one knows for sure exactly why people sleep.” Buzz makes comments throughout the book, and “If Fly Guy Could Talk” panels let Fly Guy take part in the narration, too. Fly Guy Presents: Why, Fly Guy? A BIG Question & Answer Book is scarcely comprehensive, but for the topics it does cover, it is a very enjoyable way to learn a variety of basic scientific facts. And kids who want to go beyond the book’s material can, of course, always turn to the Internet.
One thing the Internet does not do particularly well is allow random searches for items of interest: focused searches for specific material are its strength. So kids (and adults) who are simply interested in learning some strange things, without any particular organization or purpose, can still enjoy the Believe It or Not books that continue the oddity-gathering traditions of Robert Ripley (1890-1949). A great deal of the material that Ripley himself collected and showed in newspaper panels would no longer be allowable today – it would be considered culturally insensitive and politically incorrect. So the nature of Believe It or Not has changed quite a bit, and books such as Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Out of This World Edition 2018 now include many entries focusing on people and organizations that want to be considered outré and bizarre. The 2018 book is divided into sections called “Peculiar Planet,” “Unreal Animals,” “Larger Than Life,” and “Trending Stories.” The first includes items such as a house decorated with over a million shells and an Australian tourist attraction that lets visitors get close to dangerous saltwater crocodiles. The second contains photos of a pet emu and a pet alpaca, a pink grasshopper, and a cat that likes to ride a surfboard. The third section has lots of pay-attention-to-me elements, such as a two-page spread on singer Taylor Swift and a look at a Russian barber who gives haircuts in extreme locations. The fourth part of the book is also full of attention-seeking, including an artist who makes portraits from hair and one who makes them from food, a collector of The Simpsons memorabilia, and an ice-cream shop that makes black ice cream that includes activated charcoal. Because of the preponderance of attention-seekers in the new Believe It or Not collections, including the 2018 book, these are (+++) volumes that contain much less of the genuinely unusual and unexpected material than older Believe It or Not books included. The books have largely become showcases for people with products to sell (such as California plant breeders who have created grapes that taste like cotton candy) or ones seeking to advance a cause (such as a Paralympic athlete who was born without legs). Therefore, these volumes are no longer collections of real oddities (although the Believe It or Not building in Niagara Falls, Ontario, is still called the “Odditorium”) but are largely means for commercial establishments and nonprofit causes to get their messages out in a venue that goes beyond traditional advertising. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but it does make the Believe It or Not books less intriguing – especially at a time when there is such a surfeit of advertising, clickbait and look-at-me pictures and videos competing for people’s time online.
The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution. By Robert P. Watson. Da Capo. $28.
There will never be a shortage of small historical matters that have not yet been fully explored, and thus there will always be a way for a dedicated historian to delve into the past in new ways and for a devoted history-focused author to find topics for more books. The reality that these are strictly limited-interest volumes for a very small subset of potential readers is not a significant concern for writers such as Robert P. Watson, who seem as intrigued by finding out details of little-known past events as by communicating those details to a receptive (even if miniscule) audience. And so we have The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn, a book that is partly about the ship referenced in the title and partly about the horribly inhumane way the British treated rebellious Colonials (as they considered them) during the Revolutionary War. The fact that treatment of this type was entirely typical of warfare in this age, or at least of the treatment of criminals (which the British considered many of their prisoners to be), is beside the point – Watson plays strictly to modern sensibilities in unearthing first-person accounts and excerpts from meticulous British record-keeping to show just how horrendous conditions were aboard the prison ships where the British kept many of the people they captured.
Thus, “one winter, a prisoner named Isaac Gibbs asked permission to go ashore to bury his father, who had died on the old hulk. The guards let him join two other prisoners on the burial detail that day, but would not provide them with coats. All three men returned to the ship shivering and with frostbite, and died soon afterward.” Conditions aboard the “Ghost Ship” – actually a derelict called the HMS Jersey – were so terrible that when one prisoner begged guards to let members of a burial detail “wash themselves in the bay and remain a few minutes to breathe the fresh air” after they had interred someone, the guards granted the men 30 minutes, but “not on account of compassion,” the prisoner thought, “but rather that the guards did not want to return to the polluted, malodorous ship either.”
The depredations of war are many, and the inhumane treatment of prisoners is scarcely a new story. What Watson does to make The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn interesting is to extract information from primary sources in such a way as to humanize the narrative and, not coincidentally, demonize the British who kept prisoners in such awful conditions. Among the uplifting stories here are one about a prisoner who escaped and swam three miles without being found by the British army, and a woman who delivered food to the prisoners and eventually helped almost 200 of them get away. Most held on the Jersey, however, did not escape. Watson calls the Jersey a “floating dungeon” and discusses the filth, overcrowding, lack of food, rarely emptied waste tub, and morning shouts from the guards of “Rebels, send up your dead!” The conditions on the Jersey were a form of psychological warfare – although that term did not yet exist – as the British publicized the situation aboard the Jersey in Loyalist newspapers and through public announcements, intending the descriptions to frighten potential rebels into supporting continued British rule of the American colonies. George Washington actually turned the tables on the British command’s approach at the end of the war, warning that unless the British treated the prisoners on the Jersey – and elsewhere – in appropriate ways, he would treat captured British supporters as those on the Jersey had been treated. Whether he would have followed through on the threat is unknown, but it was certainly effective at the time – albeit much too late for the thousands who died on the derelict ship-turned-prison.
Despite some repetitiveness in the writing and occasional veering off-track from the principal story, Watson tells the tale of The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn with all the fervor of a true believer in historical minutiae who has found yet another little-known facet of the past to explore. Interestingly enough, though, the story of the Jersey was far from unknown at the time of the Revolutionary War itself: there were many references to it not only in British propaganda but also in diaries, letters and other forms of communication within the ranks both of overtly rebellious colonists and of the civilian population. The manifest horrors of the prison ship, and of the war itself, were such that once there was peace and a new nation had been established, the newly christened citizens of the United States of America wanted to forget all the awful things involved in establishing their country and go on with their everyday lives under a new government. Indeed, those who live through horrible historical events generally want to move beyond them. It takes the hindsight voyeurism of much later historians, and of readers who are genuinely interested in the past or simply fleeing there through books so as to avoid the difficult issues of their everyday lives, to dredge up and examine material that people in the past certainly considered much better forgotten.
Mozart: Requiem; Miserere; Ave verum corpus; Handel: “The Ways of Zion Do Mourn.” Genia Kühmeier, soprano; Elisabeth Kulman, alto; Julien Behr, tenor; Charles Dekeyser, bass; Salzburger Bachchor and Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski; Académie équestre de Versailles with stage direction and horse dressage by Bartabas (Clément Marty). C Major DVD. $24.99.
Elegia: Music for Clarinet and Piano by John Cage, Aurelio Magnani, Camille Saint-Saëns, Henri Ribaud, Kevin J. Cope, Giuseppe Verdi, and Ernesto Cavallini. Christopher Nichols, clarinet; Julie Nishimura, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Kodály: Duo for Violin and Cello; Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Cello; Paul Desenne: “Envoyage.” Soh-Hyun Park Altino, violin; Leonardo Altino, cello. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Portraits: Works for Flute, Clarinet and Piano by Chris Rogerson, Valerie Coleman, Guillaume Connesson, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Paul Schoenfield, and Philip Hammond. McGill/McHale Trio (Demarre McGill, flute; Anthony McGill, clarinet; Michael McHale, piano). Cedille. $12.
Sometimes the music itself does not seem to be enough. Even with a transcendent (although unfinished) work such as Mozart’s Requiem, some performers have an urge to dress things up, adding elements that were never part of the composer’s concept or intention, in a bid either to attract a new audience to the music or simply to show off what sort of multimedia presentation can be done when highly skilled people get together. The latter reason seems to be the rationale underlying what was done at Mozartwoche Salzburg in January 2017, when fine musicians and singers under a fine conductor collaborated with a fine equestrian ensemble to produce a performance that, in its totality, is something less than fine. The primary focus of this rendition of the Requiem and the other, complementary works that are now available on a C Major DVD is an equestrian one. The whole display takes place in a summer-opera venue called the Felsenreitschule, which dates to 1693 and whose name, “Stone Riding School,” points both to the way it is carved into a cliff and to its original purpose. Given the venue’s origin, the equestrian displays organized by Bartabas (the performing name of horse trainer and impresario Clément Marty) make sense. But only in that regard. Mozart’s Requiem, Miserere and Ave verum corpus, and Handel’s excerpt from Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, have nothing to do with horses – they might as well be staged as miniature ballets. In fact, the prancing and trotting of the horses is somewhat balletic here, but none of it fits with the music in any meaningful way – just as was the case when these same forces got together to offer the cantata Davide Penitente in 2015. It is true that horses as guiding spirits of the departed exist in some cultures, and in that sense there is a tenuous connection of the equestrian displays with Mozart’s Requiem. But it is a tenuous one. In this performance, the attempt is to make the horses and the music a singular, unified and unifying force. This simply does not work. The production is based on the brilliance of the riders and their horses rather than on the music, and although it is easy to see why the visual splendor of the horses and riders can and did please the attending crowd, it is easy to hear that the music was given short shrift by the visual attention lavished on the equestrianism. Minkowski sees Mozart’s unfinished masterpiece as focusing more on belief in a future life than on a farewell to the earthly one, but this intriguing (if arguable) approach never gels here: the musicians simply do not get the attention (auditory or visual) lavished on the horses and riders, and the result is an interesting curiosity of a performance without the emotional depth that the Requiem conveys entirely on its own, unencumbered by the sort of display seen here.
The music is offered in straightforward, well-played fashion on a new Navona CD featuring clarinetist Christopher Nichols and pianist Julie Nishimura, but here too there is a twist of sorts. It comes in the selection of the repertoire, which covers two centuries and three nationalities (Italian, French and American), and also in the rather odd sequence of pieces on the disc – the reasons for presenting this material in this order are scarcely apparent. A short early work by John Cage, Sonata for Clarinet of 1933, appears first, sounding quite tame compared with his later music, which it foreshadows in a few ways. Next is Aurelio Magnani’s Elegia, which is well-known to clarinetists but will not be particularly familiar to most listeners. Saint-Saëns’ Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, on the other hand, is familiar music, and the give-and-take in this recording makes for a particularly effective performance of it. Then comes Henri Rabaud’s 1901 Solo de concours, an effective display piece for clarinet that is another reasonably well-known one, especially among clarinetists. Next is a solo-clarinet piece from as recently as 2012, Sirocco by Kevin J. Cope (born 1981) – and the contrast between its multiple musical styles and Rabaud’s melodious, tonal and very French piece is a pronounced one. Yet this is not the end of the CD. The final two pieces here reach back to the 19th century and to the time of clarinetist/composer Ernesto Cavallini (1807-1874). First of the two is Verdi’s Andante from La forza del destino, composed specifically for Cavallini after Verdi heard the clarinetist’s technique and was impressed by its beautiful lyricism as well as the performer’s virtuosity. And then, at the end of the disc, is a work by Cavallini himself, Adagio and Tarantella. This amply displays both warmth and intensity, and if it is music of little emotional consequence, it offers considerable opportunities for the clarinetist to engage with and impress the audience. Nichols certainly does that, and Nishimura handles her almost entirely subsidiary role effectively throughout the disc. But there is no sense here of continuity from piece to piece, no progress chronologically, no comparison and contrast of composers or styles of making music or national heritages or, really, anything else. The CD comes across as an anthology of better-known and lesser-known clarinet works arranged in helter-skelter style – well-played, to be sure, but ultimately communicating little beyond the technical abilities of the performers.
The twist to a new MSR Classics disc featuring Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Leonardo Altino is somewhat clearer, lying in the inclusion of two works by very-well-known composers followed by one that is highly unlikely to be familiar to most listeners. Actually, despite the frequency with which the works of Kodály and Ravel are performed, the particular pieces heard here are not at all well-known, because they use the rather unusual combination of violin and cello – no piano here, and only half of a string quartet. The resulting sound is rather unusual and somewhat unexpected, with both instruments often sounding as if they are being handled by solo performers – the conversational camaraderie of so many string quartets is largely absent here. Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello, which dates to 1914, has a generally dark tone and a considerable degree of acerbity, with tempo markings in which Kodály is particularly concerned with underlining the emotional elements of the music that he wants brought forth: Allegro serioso in the first movement and Maestoso e largamente at the start of the third. The first movement has an overall rhapsodic tone and folklike melodies played by the instruments in alternating form. The second movement is passionate, the opening solo cello soon joined by the violin. And the finale, after that Maestoso e largamente beginning, becomes a sparkling Presto that gives both players plenty of chances to show off their technique. This Kodály work was not actually heard until a decade after its composition, in 1924, which means that although Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello was written somewhat later (1920-22), it was performed first – in the year of its completion. Ravel dedicated the piece to Debussy (who had died in 1918); it is comparatively straightforward and fairly typical of Ravel’s music of this period, with considerable if nonspecific Impressionist elements. The violin-and-cello literature is sparse, and it is easy to see why the performers here would reach for something like “Envoyage” (the quotation marks are part of the title) to expand their repertoire. Paul Desenne (born 1959) is a Venezuelan cellist/composer whose works mix European and Latin American elements, somewhat in the manner of Villa-Lobos. Subtitled Trois Mouvements pour Violin et Violoncello and written in 2012, “Envoyage” has three movements of distinctly folklike character and a structure that somewhat favors the cello but still allows the violin plenty of opportunities to shine. It is a pleasant piece with a smattering of Latin American character and enough tunefulness to be worth hearing, but does not have very much to say to nonperformers – it is more of an étude for the two players. It does, however, provide a pleasant complement to the earlier and better-known pieces on this well-recorded CD.
There is a musical twist of some interest – just one – on a new Cedille disc containing modern chamber music, mostly in world première recordings. The twist is in a contemporary reimagining of Rachmaninoff’s famous Vocalise. Pianist Michael McHale has arranged it quite unusually, retaining the composer’s original piano line while splitting the vocal sections between flute (whose register is not much like that of the human voice) and clarinet (which does have a distinctly human-vocal character). This offering takes up only five minutes of a 66-minute recording, but it is the most intriguing musical approach on the CD. Among the remaining works, the longest and most interesting is Portraits of Langston (2007) by Valerie Coleman. This is a six-movement suite reflecting poet Langston Hughes’ works focusing on the Harlem Renaissance and jazz-age Paris, lengthened to 12 sections by readings of Hughes poems by Mahershala Ali. The work’s well-individualized movements build nicely toward a finale called “Harlem’s Summer Night,” in which flute, clarinet and piano go off in apparently different directions that turn out to be well-unified. The other pieces here are less substantial, although the 1994 Sonatina by Paul Schoenfield has a good deal to recommend it: each of its three movements seems to be a straightforward dance (“Charleston,” “Hunter Rag” and “Jig”), but unusual harmonies and some technical flights of fancy extend the basic forms in some pleasantly unexpected ways. Also here is A Fish Will Rise, re-scored for the McGill/McHale Trio by the composer from his piano-trio version of 2014; this is a pleasing but rather predictable work that includes both calm and energetic passages. Techno — Parade (2002) by Guillaume Connesson is also fairly forthright in its replication of the sound of electronic pop music. The CD concludes with two pleasant and rather straightforward arrangements of old Irish tunes: Philip Hammond’s The Lamentation of Owen O’Neil (2011/2016) and McHale’s The Lark in the Clear Air (2016). These bring the CD to an attractively soft-pedaled close, although they are not in themselves especially notable musically – certainly not when compared to McHale’s approach to the Rachmaninoff. The McGill/McHale Trio is an effervescent group whose members sound as if they take joy as well as pride in the rather unconventional instrumentation of their ensemble. The music here is not all of equally high quality, but the performances are, and even listeners who may not be moved by every track on the CD can still enjoy the high level of skill that the performers bring to each piece.
August 24, 2017
Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of the Wizard of Oz. By Michael Morpurgo. Illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark. HarperCollins. $17.99.
L. Frank Baum never made much of Toto – the creator of the land of Oz simply described him as “a little black dog with long silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily on either side of his funny, wee nose." That has left the field open to Baum’s many successors, writing books of their own about Oz, to decide what to do with Toto and what sorts of abilities he may have. There have even been two books with Toto in the title, Toto in Oz (1986) by Chris Dulabone and Toto of Oz (2006) by Gina Wickwar – although neither is part of the main Oz sequence, which includes the original 14 books by L. Frank Baum, 19 by Ruth Plumly Thompson, three by the primary illustrator of the books, John R. Neill, and a smattering of others.
Now, for a whole new generation of soon-to-be-enchanted children, along come Michael Morpurgo and Emma Chichester Clark, teaming up for a new-but-familiar journey along the yellow brick road. This is not an independent Oz story featuring or focused on a central character other than Dorothy – that is, it is not like Ozma of Oz, Tik-Tok of Oz, Rinkitink in Oz, Glinda of Oz or the other Baum (and many non-Baum) books. It is simply a retelling of the very first Oz book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, from the viewpoint of Dorothy’s little dog. But this proves to be quite a wonderful angle on the tale. The story is told in flashback form, as Toto, happily settled back in Kansas and now with his own family, tells his seven puppies about the journey to Oz, with the littlest pup (“Mama hardly noticed me, I was so small”) being especially attentive. The tale itself will be familiar to adults, with Morpurgo including many elements from Baum’s original book plus some from the familiar 1939 movie (such as Dorothy’s shoes in Oz being red rather than silver, as they were in the novel). But Toto’s perspective on the story, which includes unremitting loyalty to Dorothy and, often, concerns about food, gives the narrative a lilt all its own: “Lion and I padded along together ahead of the others, the best of friends, on the lookout for trouble, and behind us came the rest, arm in arm, sometimes singing as they went, Tin Woodman’s great feet clanking on the yellow brick road. There never was a happier band, except for two things – I was getting mighty fed up by this time with eating nothing but nuts, and Dorothy’s singing wasn’t getting any better either.” That sort of comment – a sly, amusing reference to Judy Garland’s beautiful singing voice in the 1939 film – will be enjoyable for grownups, even as the story itself captivates children reading it for the first time (or reading this book to see the tale in a new light).
Clark’s illustrations are quite different from those of W.W. Denslow in the original novel, and differ as well from Neill’s in the many later Oz books. Clark’s have a character all their own – for example, showing the Scarecrow as tall, jaunty, and considerably more elegantly dressed than one might expect. Dorothy wears a blue-and-white gingham dress and yellow sun bonnet, and Toto himself is simply a big-eyed version of a terrier of some sort (Baum never specified). And Clark comes up with some intriguing ways to handle other characters. The Wizard is a small, professorial man wearing waistcoat and monocle and leaning on a cane, and eventually reveals his name to be Ozzy Mandias, another sly reference that adults (some of them, anyway) will get but children will not. And the Wicked Witch of the West has one huge cyclopean eye and, Toto explains, did not bleed when he bit her, because “all her blood had dried up long ago. She bled red dust. Not nice.”
The repeated catchphrase throughout Morpurgo’s book is, “Home is home, and home is best,” not “there’s no place like home,” as some readers may expect. And Dorothy and Toto return to Kansas in the Wizard’s balloon – no heel-clicking magic here. So Morpurgo’s novel has its own take on Baum’s story. In some ways it is a trifle disappointing, with some of the magic of the original wrung out – for instance, the Wizard does not actually give the travelers amusing versions of the things for which they have journeyed to the Emerald City, but instead teaches them self-esteem and self-actualization, which under the circumstances amount to a rather poor substitute. But Morpurgo has fun with Toto’s personality, occasionally having him interact with his favorite puppy during the story: “Just you left awake, Tiny Toto. You’re my best listener, you always are.” And in Oz, Toto’s delight in getting fed comes through again and again, as when he mentions “the most sumptuous breakfast” at which “Lion had twenty green sausages, and I had six, which was quite enough for me.” This Morpurgo/Clark collaboration is no substitute for Baum’s original novel or, for that matter, for the most famous of the many films made from it. But it has pleasantries of its own, and the notion of telling this first and most famous Oz story from Toto’s viewpoint is a delicious one. Maybe not quite as delicious as the Emerald City’s green sausages, but then, what is?
Big Sister, Little Monster. By Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum. Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Scholastic. $17.99.
Mary McScary. By R.L. Stine. Illustrated by Marc Brown. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.
What big sister hasn’t sometimes thought her little sister was a monster? Lucy certainly does in Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum’s Big Sister, Little Monster. And Lucy has plenty of justification for her feelings, as Edwin Fotheringham shows in illustrations that manage to capture the girls’ cutely freckled faces and significantly contrasting personalities equally well. Mia is on all the time, bouncing and running and getting in Lucy’s way when Lucy wants some quiet bike-riding or reading time. Things would be so much better if Mia would only take her monstrous self somewhere else! And that is just what Mia does after Lucy, sloppily kissed by a frog that Mia has found somewhere, demands that her little sister “GO AWAY!!!” But where has Mia gone? At first, Lucy does not care, but after a while, she realizes that being alone all the time is no better than being tailed and trailed all the time. She decides that she has to find Mia – but Mia really seems to have disappeared. Then Lucy finds “a strange door drawn on Mia’s wall,” and the door opens to reveal – monsters!!!! Yes, they are all there, drooling warty multi-eyed big-toothed monsters, and right in the middle of them is Mia, playing and having a great time. And the monsters want nothing to do with Lucy, who timidly enters their realm and finds out that Mia is in fact the monsters’ queen. Mia is “rule-free and ready to romp,” the monsters say, and Lucy is nothing like that, so the monsters intend to keep Mia with them forever and ever! After all, the monsters tell Lucy – echoing her own words and thoughts – Mia is “messy” and “pesky” and a “pint-sized pest,” and Lucy is none of those things and doesn’t belong with the monsters or with Mia. Well, that is more than Lucy can stand, and she searches for and quickly finds “her INNER monster” – in one of Fotheringham’s best capture-the-mood drawings. Lucy roars her demand to get Mia back so loudly that she scares all the monsters away, and soon Lucy and Mia are bouncing around, enjoying each other, acting like “little monsters” sometimes and like loving sisters at other times. There is nothing really scary in Big Sister, Little Monster – the cartoony monsters are clearly just drawings that Mia has made with the crayons we see her carrying, and the door to their “lair” is just a crayons-on-wall drawing as well. But the realistic love/hate (or love/frustration) relationship between an older and younger sister is so well explored here, and so nicely shown, that the book is both touching and monstrously entertaining.
The girls in Big Sister, Little Monster may not really intend anything frightening, but R.L. Stine’s Mary McScary does want to scare people. And not just people: she even scares dogs, goldfish and balloons! As Stine repeatedly reminds readers, “Beware of Mary McScary!” But Mary, whose chilly expressions even have cats and mice cringing, has a problem: there is one person she cannot scare. That is her cousin, Harry. And Harry is coming to visit Mary’s family. What to do? Surely there is some way Mary can scare Harry! Stine certainly has plenty of ideas – which are very entertainingly illustrated by Marc Brown. First Mary dresses up in a costume right out of Where the Wild Things Are, but Harry, perched on his scooter, only comments that she has a nice hairdo. Then Mary sends a batch of big-eyed giant spiders toward Harry – who finds them “so cute and cuddly” that Mary gets frustrated. So she engages the services of a “wild and ferocious gorilla” (which also looks a bit like one of the Wild Things) – but Harry lets the gorilla ride his scooter as Harry clings to the smiling ape’s back. Clearly Mary has to do more. And she tries; she really does try. But Harry is not in the last scared by snakes (which Stine wrongly describes as “slippery, slimy” – he of all authors should know that snakes are not slimy at all) or by a giant, hungry, purple hippopotamus. Nothing scares Harry! So finally Mary McScary gives up – but then she has some sort of awful, terrible idea, and it is a big one, as is made clear by Brown’s illustration, an extreme close-up of Mary’s face spread across two pages. So Mary tells Harry he wins – and she puckers up to kiss him. And that terrifies Harry so much that he runs screaming all the way through the house and out the front door! OK, OK, the whole thing is silly and, in our current everyone-is-offended-by-everything society, is sure to make some people accuse Stine of sexism or something. Those people should not read Mary McScary or look at (much less enjoy) Mary’s self-satisfied expression after Harry runs outdoors. But readers whose sensitivity has not been eternally preheated to the boiling point will laugh at Mary’s “solution” to the how-to-scare-Harry “problem” and her so-happy face on the last page – where even the cat and mouse that have appeared throughout the book show they think Mary’s manipulations are monstrously marvelous.
Hooray for Books! By Brian Won. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
The Tiny Hero of Ferny Creek Library. By Linda Bailey. Pictures by Victoria Jamieson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Beep Beep Robot! Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $9.99.
My First Learning Library. Scholastic. $12.99.
There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
Books about books, or ones that draw attention to their “bookness,” have a special place in fun and early learning for young children, because in addition to telling stories (and hopefully telling them well), they draw attention to books as a medium – a way of getting information and enjoyment. That, in fact, is the whole point of Brian Won’s Hooray for Books! This is Won’s third “Hooray” book, after ones cheering for “Hat” and “Today,” and it includes some of the same pleasantly pictured animal characters as the earlier books. This time the focus is on Turtle, who is looking for his favorite book, which he has apparently misplaced. He goes through his house searching for it – that is, he takes off his shell and looks inside – but it is not there (although a lot of other things are, a mound far too large to fit inside the shell!). Turtle remembers sharing his favorite book with someone – thus introducing the idea that books are meant to be shared – and he sets off to find out who has it, calling as he goes, “HOORAY for books!” (The exclamation is in huge type, with every letter of the first word in a different color.) Turtle first visits Zebra, who did have Turtle’s book but no longer does – Zebra offers Turtle two of his favorite books instead, but Turtle wants his own favorite. So the two friends give another multicolored shout of “HOORAY for books!” and go to find Owl – who, again, did have Turtle’s book but no longer has it, and who offers Turtle a book about eagles instead. No – Turtle wants his book. So the quest continues, to Giraffe and Elephant and Lion, the various friends’ piles of books mounting higher and higher as they all join the search, until finally Turtle sees his book at the very bottom of a huge stack that Lion is holding. He takes it, and all Lion’s books promptly scatter everywhere. But Turtle is focused only on his absolute favorite book, finding “a quiet place all to himself” and reading the book “once, then twice, then three times.” And it turns out the book is about – friends. So Turtle goes back to the other animals to share his book with everyone and share theirs, and all the animals give out a rousing “HOORAY for story time!” at the end – surrounded by books of all sorts, on topics of all sorts, all of them enjoyable and delightful and excellent both for solo reading and for sharing. The special nature of books could not be clearer.
Nor could it be clearer in a library-focused story such as Linda Bailey’s cute and rather coy adventure, The Tiny Hero of Ferny Creek Library. This is a middle-grade novel, which means it is for older kids than picture books such as Hooray for Books! But the “hooray” sentiment is every bit as clear here – clearer, in some ways. This is truly a celebration of books in our Internet age, a paean to the written and printed word as a kind of connective tissue that spans not only generations but also species. And ghosts. Well, not exactly ghosts; but species, yes. The “tiny hero” of the title is a little green beetle named Eddie. And what he does that is heroic involves writing, and books, and an endangered library, and his endangered Aunt Min – and a lot of references to actual books that kids who read Bailey’s novel may want to discover for themselves after they finish enjoying Eddie’s adventure. Eddie and his family, including his 53 siblings, live in a school’s fourth-grade classroom, and have a sufficiently satisfactory buggy life until Aunt Min, who knows how to read and who loves books, disappears after going to the school library. The family assumes the worst, but Eddie decides he just has to go after his aunt and rescue her if she can be rescued. He has to go alone – even though his loud and annoying little brother, Alfie, wants to join him – because the Squishers (humans) are dangerous, and there are plenty of other risks in the halls as well. Eddie gets to the library, finds Aunt Min – who has two injured legs, which is why she cannot make it home – and soon encounters another, even bigger problem: “the most grisly Squisher I have ever seen,” a nasty woman named Ms. Grisch (the name’s resemblance to “Grinch” surely intentional) who has been assigned to the library temporarily but actually intends to shut it down and turn it into a bookless, windowless test-taking facility. Eddie dubs her the Grischer and tries to think how he, a bug, can derail her plans – and comes up with an enormously clever way of writing words, one at a time, on “stickies” (Post-It notes; what else?). He wants to ask the Grischer to save the library – but it turns out that in leaving the mysterious stickies around, he not only terrifies Ms. Grisch but also taps into a legend about a former library volunteer who died during story time 20 years earlier and perhaps has never left the place she loved. And that gets the schoolkids enthusiastically involved, and then their parents, and even the feckless principal, and – well, this is a big adventure with a very small protagonist, and it includes multiple references to real (and really wonderful) books written for the same age group that Bailey writes for here. Some adult readers may recognize the insect-as-writer plot as being a century old, dating to the “archy and mehitabel” newspaper stories created by Don Marquis in 1916 – although Bailey never acknowledges this source, which is a bit of a shame unless this really is a case of convergent literary evolution. The Tiny Hero of Ferny Creek Library is a wonderful story in any case, and Victoria Jamieson’s illustrations make the insects adorable and the Grischer suitably awful. As a book focused on books and the people (and others) who love them, Bailey’s celebration of reading and writing is just the sort of book-about-books needed to engage, excite and enchant preteen readers.
For younger kids, a very clever oversize board book that has a different sort of “book” focus is Beep Beep Robot! Subtitled “A Spinning Gears Book,” this is a construct showing, on the cover, a picture of a robot containing many gears in different colors – and in two cut-throughs, a smaller purple gear that kids can turn (it is captioned “Turn me!”) and, at a different place on the cover, a larger, light-green gear. The fun here is that turning the small gear makes the large one turn, even though it is in a different place and apparently unconnected to the small one. The reason this works will be obvious to adults and older kids, but very young children will enjoy finding out for themselves just what gears are and how they work. The gear arrangement pictured on the robot turns out to be identical to the one within the book: turning each page reveals a different gear, varying in size and/or color from the others. The robot “narrates” a very simple story, starting with the basic question, “Turn my gear to start the show. How does purple make green GO?” There is a very brief bit of information on gears on each page, such as, “Each gear spins its neighbor ’round. Do you hear the spinning sound?” The robot invites kids not only to turn and watch the gears but also to “jump up and twist” and otherwise get involved in the book. Only at the very end is the entire structure of Beep Beep Robot! made clear, when all seven three-dimensional gears are on display in exactly the arrangement and colors that have been visible on the robot from the start. Participatory and amusingly instructional, this is a book that does an excellent job of explaining what gears are and how they work – while involving young children quite directly in how a book (at least this book) is made, and how to interact with it.
For even smaller children, as young as age one, the eight really tiny board books that make up My First Learning Library provide a different sort of interactivity. These are strictly educational at a very, very basic level, using clear, colorful photographs to show kids basic concepts in an age-appropriate and enjoyable way. The eight titles are Animals, Colors, Shapes, ABC, 123, Things That Go, Opposites, and On the Farm. The material is very well suited not only to the youngest children but also to the miniaturization of the books. ABC, for example, actually contains all 26 letters of the alphabet, compressed into 10 thick board pages by having as many as three letters on a single page: O (owl), P (penguin) and Q (quilt), for example. Things That Go, in contrast, has only one item per page, with each photo filling the entire space: car, bus, truck, tractor, and so forth. The books are meant to be separated and kept apart: they are shrink-wrapped three by three onto cardboard (the ninth, central space being a brightly colored My First Learning Library placeholder) – there is no snap-in storage unit in which to place them after they are first taken out. That is part of the “books-ness” of this charming little learning set: although all the books are clearly related in design, structure and topics, each is meant to stand on its own, just as books do for older children and adults. An infant enchanted by, say, the three rubber ducks on the cover of 123, can keep that one book separate from all the others are read and re-read it (more accurately, look at and re-look at it). True the books and their cardboard backing come in a foldover paper pouch into which parents can, if they wish, place the books for safekeeping and easy future access. But this is scarcely necessary: the whole point here is to draw attention both to the information in the books and to the fact that the information is in books, whose wonders are just starting to be discovered by children as young as the ones for whom My First Learning Library is intended.
As they become more and more accustomed to learning and being entertained by books, young children often move on to series that give them a level of familiarity from book to book (by repeating characters and basic plot points) but that also offer something new each time (by varying settings and specific events). This explains the attraction of sequences such as the “old lady” books by Lucille Colandro, with illustrations by Jared Lee. Although not originally published as board books, these can certainly work well in that format, and now there is a new one: There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow! Originally dating to 2003, the book is just as enjoyable a decade and a half later in board-book form – but also has the same lacks as in the past. The “old lady” books (“cold” lady here, an amusing twist) vary considerably in writing quality and enjoyable “explanations” of why the old lady swallows whatever group of things she takes in. The “explanation” part is fine here, but the book gets a (+++) rating – and that only for existing fans of the series – because the text is among Colandro’s least successful. Imperfect rhymes often occur in these books – Colandro clearly has difficulty making the poetry work – so “She swallowed the pipe to warm her ten toes/ that tickled and tingled from layers of snow” is neither better nor worse than many other examples, here and in other “old lady” books. But the one absolute requirement of these and other “house that Jack built” books is that each event must build on all the others – the exact sequence must be carefully observed, or the whole pile-on of absurdity falls apart. Unfortunately, Colandro either refuses to do that here or cannot figure out how to make the format work. The “cold lady” swallows snow, then a pipe (“she wasn’t the type/ to gulp down a pipe,” the text says, although that is clearly untrue), then some coal, then a hat – and then she has to swallow something that will interact with the hat. Any child, even a very young one, will understand that if he or she knows other “old lady” books or ones structured similarly. But now Colandro has the “cold lady” swallow a stick – which does nothing to or with the hat, but is swallowed “to push down the snow,” the very first thing the lady swallowed. This really does not work. And then she swallows a scarf – not to do anything involving the stick, but “’cause it was so cold,” which throws the whole “house that Jack built” approach into disarray. These piling-on-of-events books can be a lot of fun when they follow the formula carefully, but when they do not, they risk really disappointing kids, who get some of their pleasure from books of this sort by knowing (sort of) what will come next. Here, the eventual combination of all the swallowed items into a snowman is fine, but the route to the snowman is not really the right one. Children who are still at board-book age but have already learned to love and appreciate books may find this one just a bit “off.” If they do, parents can encourage them to explain what they think is wrong – maybe a lesson in early book critiquing will be the greatest value of There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow!
The God Wave #2: The God Peak. By Patrick Hemstreet. Harper Voyager. $26.99.
Second books of trilogies are in a difficult spot. They have to pick up where the first book left off, advance the story a lot but not too much, and set things up for the (presumably bang-up) concluding volume – all while providing a satisfying reading experience in and of themselves. It is difficult to pull off this balancing act, and Patrick Hemstreet does not quite manage it. His trilogy’s first book, The God Wave, was fascinating, suggesting the discovery of a brain wave that operates above the measurable frequencies of alpha, beta and gamma waves and that can lead to manifestation of superhuman abilities (which Hemstreet says are really human abilities) in the 90% of the brain that generally goes unused. Some willing suspension of disbelief was certainly needed, partly because the “90% unused” notion is a fallacy – but one of such long standing that Hemstreet could certainly employ it to good effect. And he did. He conceived of a partnership between two very different scientists. One, a neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins named Chuck Brenton, was looking for real-world applications of brain waves beyond their known ability to move the needle on an electroencephalogram. But Brenton lacked the mathematical expertise needed to pursue his studies, which is where MIT professor Matt Streegman came in. Motivated by the possibility of helping his hospitalized, comatose wife, the misanthropic Streegman decided to put his expertise in both higher mathematics and robotics to work pursuing Brenton’s goals.
The God Wave explored the inevitable consequences of meshing two very different personalities at the frontier of scientific endeavors. Brenton’s goal, to aid the handicapped and make sea and space exploration easier and safer, soon came into conflict with Streegman’s far less altruistic and more financially focused one, which led to military involvement in backing the scientists’ Advanced Kinetics lab. Some tropes appeared in the book: a one-dimensional character named General Howard, who soon had the lab working on complex research, for military purposes, with the super-secret Deep Shield; the usual notion that naïve Brenton did not realize what was happening until there was no turning back; and the emergence of the power of the scientists’ test subjects themselves. Soon enough, Lanfen, Mike, Mini, Sara and Tim discovered that military control of their growing abilities could lead to disaster, and also learned that their newly developed capabilities had given them powers of which even Brenton and Streegman were unaware.
So, far, so good. But The God Peak swerves from science-grounded speculation to standard action-thriller plotting, seeking excitement (and, admittedly, finding some) at the expense of the thoughtfulness that was the most unusual and attractive element of the first book, at the end of which half of the good-guy characters had fled from military control while the others locked themselves inside a mountain. The God Peak has the mentally superpowered renegades demand that all wars worldwide cease or else – raising the not-very-original question of whether there will be true peace if wars stop only because of the compulsion imposed on warring parties by even stronger parties. While that aspect of the story plays out, Hemstreet has Brenton and his followers make contact with a conveniently available secret society called the Benefactors – whose members have their own way of tapping into high-powered mental abilities. So we have Brenton and benefactors vs. Brenton’s former test subjects vs. much of the world, along with attempts to make the increasingly complex and increasingly absurd elements of the plot seem realistic by including references to the Daesh murder cult (often referred to as ISIS) and even to universal healthcare. The left-behind team members demanding world peace are not above using a significant amount of violence to get rid of Deep Shield and its minions; presumably this is supposed to deepen the story into one about using bad means for good ends. And the Benefactors are not entirely altruistic, by any means: they, for reasons of their own, want Brenton to do further research on extending and expanding psychic abilities. The God Peak fulfills its second-position-in-a-trilogy role competently enough, since it certainly does move the story ahead, does introduce new characters and new elements, and does provide plenty of plot complications that will have to be resolved in the third book. But The God Peak is much more conventional and much less interesting in its premises than The God Wave, which admittedly took some time to get going and never moved at the fast pace that thriller readers expect and want. That was the point, though: The God Wave was not merely a thriller – there was genuine thoughtfulness in it and some intriguing thinking about science, research, ethics and morality. The God Peak is far more conventional: here Hemstreet gives up any real attempt at profundity in favor of easier and much more formulaic approaches to pacing and characterization. The book works well enough for what it is, but what it is could have been a good deal more. Whether the trilogy’s conclusion will fulfill the promise of the first book, or continue along the easier route mapped out in the second, remains, of course, to be seen.
The Christmas Album: Holiday Favorites for Nine French Horns. American Horn Quartet and Queensland Symphony Horns conducted by Peter Luff and Kerry Turner. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Masters of the Guitar, Volume 3: Cuba, 1955-1965. José Rey de la Torre, Elias Barreiro, Héctor García, Juan Mercadal and Leo Brouwer, guitar. IDIS. $14.99.
Antti Samuli Hernesniemi: Piano Music. Antti Samuli Hernesniemi, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Carl Vollrath: Dragon Land; The Land of Lanterns; And Bugles Sang. Moravian Philharmonic Wind & Percussion Ensemble conducted by Petr Vronský and Stanislav Vavřínek. Navona. $14.99.
Ken Walicki: Light; Black Water; Sabah; Cyberistan; nada Brahma. Ravello. $14.99.
Some CDs seem to exist mostly as sonic celebrations, their focus being the instrument or instruments profiled more than the specific music being played. A pre-seasonal MSR Classics CD called The Christmas Album fits this description neatly. There is nothing particularly unusual about the music here, from Mendelssohn’s Weihnachten to Handel’s For Unto Us a Child Is Born to Leroy Anderson’s ubiquitous Sleigh Ride. The time span of the material is a wide one, ranging from the 16th-century carol Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming to the decidedly contemporary and only modestly snarky You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch. But the real enjoyment here comes simply from listening to the warm and often clever arrangements for nine French horns, with the occasional inclusion of didgeridoo (played by Harry Wilson). The whole project springs from the mind of Kerry Turner of the American Horn Quartet, who not only performs on horn but also acts as percussionist and is composer of two offerings here: the three-movement Symphony of Carols and concluding Hymnus. The performances are as smooth as butter, taking full advantage of the horn’s inherent warmth of sound and expanding it so it, well, oozes through multiple instruments. The players are clearly virtuosos, but there is no grandstanding here (except in Wilson’s 16-second Solo Didgeridoo). Everything is in the service of camaraderie and warmth of feeling, an appropriate mixture for the Christmas season even when the calendar says Christmas is not yet on the horizon. Horn players will especially enjoy getting an earful of what their instruments, in combination, can sound like.
The sound of one single instrument, the guitar, permeates the third album in the Masters of the Guitar series on the IDIS label. Actually, sometimes the virtuoso performers heard here sound as if they are playing two instruments at once, or as if they have 20 fingers. These are famous Cuban and Cuban-American guitarists in performances recorded 50 to 60 years ago, and if the sound is not really up to modern standards, it is certainly acceptable, and the finger work of the guitarists comes through clearly and cleanly. Non-guitarists will be hard-pressed to decide whether the different sounds of the performers result from differing techniques, different instruments, or the different characteristics of the music they perform; but really, this matters little, since the point of the CD is to put on display the music-making of five masters of this instrument. José Rey de la Torre (1917-1994), Elias Barreiro (born 1930), Héctor García (also born 1930), Juan Mercadal (1925-1998), and Leo Brouwer (born 1939) all show the vitality of guitar playing and the considerable virtuosity guitar masters bring to bear on music ranging from works by Bach, Carulli, Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti to ones by Villa-Lobos, Albéniz, and Brouwer himself (his Elogio de la danza is a highlight here). Many of the specific pieces on the CD are rather inconsequential in and of themselves, but as showpieces for the wide emotional range of the guitar and its master players, they serve very well indeed. The disc will be especially intriguing to guitarists, just as the one featuring excellent horn playing will be particularly attractive to performers on that instrument.
Recordings with a piano focus are far more common than ones featuring guitar or horn, but the new MSR Classics release of music and performances by contemporary Finnish composer Antti Samuli Hernesniemi (born 1950) is unusual in that it is largely about the sound of three different pianos. Hernesniemi’s music shows the usual influences on modern composers’ work, including jazz and folk music as well as traditional classical forms. What is interesting here are the ways in which the music comes across in different sonic environments, depending on which instrument Hernesniemi is using to produce it. Poem (2004), Shore (2004) and City (2004) are all heard on a Yamaha Clavinova, a digital instrument with aspirations to grand-piano status. Hernesniemi seems particularly comfortable with this instrument, and that may be why it dominates the recording. But the music itself has more heft and aural staying power when Hernesniemi takes to a full-sounding Bechstein for Three Waltzes (2004, 2016, 2003) and Bridge (2016). The most-common of all modern concert pianos, a Steinway Model B, also makes an appearance here in the final work on the disc, Ballade (2013). The disc is really aimed only at people already familiar with Hernesniemi’s music: it is the third devoted to his compositions, and at 45 minutes is so short that only an enthusiast will likely be highly enthusiastic about it. Much of the music here is on the abrasive side, although the three waltzes (one of them a piano arrangement of a song) are nicely done. However, what is most interesting is the way Bridge, written as a connecting piece between Shore and City and using a theme from the latter, really does bridge the other two works – while sounding different because of its performance on a Bechstein rather than the Clavinova. Pianists will find the sonic possibilities of this music more intriguing, on the whole, than the pieces in and of themselves.
The primary sonic focus on a new Navona CD of music by Carl Vollrath is actually three focuses: China, a wind-and-percussion mixture, and the solo clarinet. Dragon Land and The Land of Lanterns are both clarinet concertos (in which Aleš Janeček is a fine soloist). Layered melodies predominate in these works, especially The Land of Lanterns, and the result is a rather unusual treatment of what amounts to polyphony in a contemporary context. The solo clarinet weaves in and out of expressiveness in the two-movement The Land of Lanterns, its rich lower register getting fairly short shrift most of the time but being used often enough to create some mellow sounds among the more-acerbic ones that dominate other sections. The opening leaps of the second movement and the following contrast between clarinet and percussion are especially attractive to hear. Dragon Land is more descriptive in intent, with each of its three movements given a title: “The Last Emperor’s Palace,” “Summer Palace,” and “The Warrior Monk.” Here there is greater drama and intensity, especially in the final movement, and the sound blends folk-music influences with some distinctive percussion passages and frequent dynamic contrasts. The sound tapestry is different in the third work on the CD, And Bugles Sang, since this is a trumpet concerto – but oddly enough, “Part I” of this work bears the title “The Birth of a Warrior Monk,” while “Parts II & III” are labeled “Forgotten Graves & Tales of an Aged Warrior Monk.” And Bugles Sang takes its title from a poem in Britten’s War Requiem, and Vollrath tries in his concerto to explore some of the same themes that Britten handled in that work. But the main aural effect of Vollrath’s concerto is not unease or thoughtfulness, nor is it martial (despite the use of bugle-like trumpet calls at some points). Vollrath’s work gives a primary impression of uncertainty, of not knowing what is coming next, where any part of the concerto ties to what has come before or where any specific section is going to lead. The trumpet soloist (Ondřej Jurčeka) is not called on for the same extensive repertoire of sounds as is the clarinet soloist in the other concertos, but this is a solidly virtuosic work whose effects often lie as much in the very fine playing of the Moravian Philharmonic Wind & Percussion Ensemble as in the soloist’s contribution. The snare-drum opening of the second part of the concerto, followed by the solo trumpet’s intoning of what sounds like the first phrase of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, captures the somewhat puzzling sonic canvas on which Vollrath paints these musical portraits.
It is electronic sounds, plain and simple, that dominate a new Ravello CD of the music of Ken Walicki. Well, actually not so simple. Walicki likes to use traditional instruments in nontraditional ways – or rather in ways that are common in contemporary composers’ work but are outside the classical-music tradition. Light, for example, uses a double bass (played by Tom Peters) as a springboard for extended electronic sounds and effects, letting the instrument’s underlying acoustic sound emerge just long enough to be subsumed under the usual feedback loops and squeals of electronics. Black Water is for clarinet (Virginia Costa Figueiredo) and piano (Füreya Ünal), and while the music has little direction, it allows the instruments’ basic natures to emerge long enough to produce some nicely paced, rhythmic sections with interesting combinatorial elements. Sabah is for flute (Rachel Mellis), using the airy breathiness associated with the instrument to expand into a kind of cloudlike milieu that is interestingly atmospheric for a while but wears thin long before the conclusion of its 13-minute length. Cyberistan is a piano work (Ünal again) whose intriguing title is its best element: the music itself is a rather uninspired set of contrasts between the piano, mostly at its percussive best, with electronic sighs and such, all within a kind of ostinato envelope that may be intended as expansive but that comes across as overextended. Finally there is nada Brahma, the first word non-capitalized, which is a string quartet in which the strings are decidedly subservient to the electronics and seem to spend most of their time struggling against each other rather than in complementary mode. The Eclipse Quartet (Sara Parkins and Sarah Thornblade, violins; Alma Lisa Fernandez, viola; Maggie Parkins, cello) approaches the work with gusto, and the interweaving of the instruments with electronics is managed with considerable skill. But the piece seems more concerned with displaying techniques – martellato here, pizzicato there, spiccato there – than with using the players’ technical capabilities for any expressive purposes. Indeed, it seems here and in the other works by Walicki on this CD that the composer is more interested in showing himself and the performers all the things that can be done by combining traditional musical instruments with electronic enhancements – in a kind of compositional étude – than in using the various techniques to create a meaningful (as opposed to merely interesting) soundscape.