August 27, 2020


Doing the Right Thing: Twelve Portraits in Moral Courage. By Tom Cooper, Ph.D. Abramis. $24.

     In Tom Cooper’s Doing the Right Thing, the descriptive proves again and again to be the enemy of the prescriptive. And if that seems like a dry, academic formulation of a response to a book – well, yes, it is. And appropriately so. Cooper is an academic, a communications professor at Emerson College in Boston, and his claim to fame is that he was founding director of the Association for Responsible Communication, which was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988. That is a significant accomplishment, although one may wonder, a bit churlishly, what group or individual could possibly profess to be in favor of irresponsible communication (although many are the groups and individuals that practice it). Cooper has formulated a set of 10 ethical factors that he believes were considered, in whole or at least in large part, by a dozen decision-makers whom he chooses to profile in Doing the Right Thing.

     Leaving aside Cooper’s reasons for choosing these particular exemplars of “moral courage,” the central argument of the book is to take into consideration the following factors when making decisions: notions of fairness and justice; impact or consequences; ends and means; tone and atmosphere; motivation and higher law; allegiance and loyalty; values and principles; cultural context; implications; and proportion and balance. Each of these 10 areas could spawn a book in itself, but in this book, each is defined and explored at modest length as a general matter and then used for more-specific discussion after each of Cooper’s “portraits.”

     The dozen people singled out for ethical praise in the book are all very well-known in academic circles, and most are at least somewhat well-known outside of them. They are U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy, John Adams and Harry Truman; the Biblical Queen Esther; Socrates; British slave-trade abolitionist politician William Wilberforce; Marie Curie; Mohandas Gandhi; Rachel Carson of Silent Spring fame; broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow; Nelson Mandela; and young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. In some cases, the ethical slant that Cooper gives to their stories involves focusing on elements of their lives that are not necessarily familiar: Adams’ decision on whether to take the young United States to war with France; Curie’s controversial personal relationship with Paul Langevin; Carson’s lesbianism. In others, such as Socrates’ trial and death and Nelson Mandela’s long imprisonment, Cooper focuses on matters that are quite well known. Throughout the book, he argues that the specific decisions on which these profiles focus were made largely, if not entirely, on an ethical basis that required careful and difficult balancing among many, if not all, of the 10 factors that Cooper deems essential.

     Cooper’s arguments are sometimes straightforward, sometimes rather convoluted, but thanks to his choice of these particular people to profile – and of the specific events in their lives on which to focus – his look at ethical factors in important decisions proves sound, all the more so because he carefully avoids hagiography in his portraits of his dozen chosen subjects whose “decisions wrote history.”

     But there’s the rub, as Hamlet said. Unlike these specific individuals making these specific decisions, the vast majority of individuals, emphatically including Cooper’s students, will never face grand ethical dilemmas on which rest the fate of an entire religious and ethnic group (Queen Esther and the ancient Jews) or the grand and glorious values of “fairness, civility, freedom, justice, and human dignity” (Edward R. Murrow and the TV broadcast that destroyed the rabid anti-Communist crusade of Senator Joseph McCarthy). Describing what these dozen individuals did, and how ethics fit into their decisions, is one thing; garnering kernels of value on the basis of which far-more-mundane life decisions can be made is something very different.

     Take any number of simple contemporary examples. The head of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian, resigned from his position with the specific admonition to the Board of Directors to replace him with a black person. That is, focus above all on skin color. Imagine if he had said to replace himself with a white person and you can see the ethical dilemma here: was his action an ethical one, designed to make a small attempt to correct the perceived unfairness of a relative paucity of people with a specific skin color in certain corporate environments, or was it deliberate, unethical discrimination against competence, knowledge and ability as primary leadership factors? Or take the multiple recommendations by employed scientists collecting full salaries, employed politicians collecting full salaries, employed academics collecting full salaries, and employed pundits collecting full salaries, regarding the need to shut down large segments of the U.S. economy to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since their urgings would have no financial impact on these people themselves, but would seriously damage and potentially impoverish millions of others, should those urgings – and the actual shutdowns – be seen as ethical acts involving the greatest good for the greatest number, or unethical ones asking others to bear overwhelming financial burdens in circumstances that would have minimal effect on the scientists, politicians, academics and pundits themselves?

     To bring the questions home more clearly to students, consider Cooper’s comment on the importance of an education in which “one learns to see the world from multiple perspectives and disciplines.” Then consider the numerous recent cases in which students’ private – that is, non-public – social-media postings that included derogatory or simply insensitive remarks about specific people or ethnic groups have led colleges to rescind the students’ acceptances. Xavier University, Marquette University and the University of Florida, among others, have done this, deciding that private comments made by young teenagers who are smart and accomplished enough to deserve admission to their schools are too divergent from the schools’ acceptable “perspectives and disciplines” for the students to be allowed to attend (and perhaps learn additional and different perspectives). Are the schools thus defending crucial ethical principles of not allowing demeaning or denigrating remarks to pass without consequence, or are they ensuring uniformity of thought and narrowness of approach, and assembling a student body required to march in lockstep with one specific set of values?

     These are the sorts of questions that can be raised regarding everyday life through the profiles Cooper offers in Doing the Right Thing. And although he attempts, in his final chapter, to suggest ways that readers can use his 10 ethical factors in making their own decisions, that prescriptivist chapter falls far short of the earlier, descriptivist ones. It is not that the ideas are wrong but that they are scarcely practical to use in the very numerous quotidian situations in which virtually all readers of the book will find themselves – situations far removed in import from those Cooper discusses, and far more relevant to his readers’ everyday lives. Doing the Right Thing essentially argues that the 12 people Cooper profiles did the right things, by Cooper’s standards, in important and difficult circumstances. That does not, however, connect directly with doing the right things, by one’s own standards, in matters of far less import for the world but far greater consequence for one’s own day-to-day life.


Offenbach: Pomme d’Api; Sur un volcan. Magali Léger, soprano; Florian Laconi, tenor; Marc Barrard, baritone; Kölner Akademie conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. CPO. $16.99.

Auber: Overtures—Le Maçon, Le Timide, Leicester, Le Séjour militaire, Emma, La Neige, Le Testament et les Billets doux, Le Bergère châtelaine. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Dario Salvi. Naxos. $11.99.

     For years, Jacques Offenbach had a business problem that he solved with remarkable musical skill. His theater, the Bouffes-Parisiens, was licensed to bring audiences "harlequinades, pantomimes, comic scenes, conjuring tricks, dances, shadow shows, puppet plays and songs" – but was limited by the licensing authorities to a maximum of three singers or actors. Furthermore, Offenbach initially had available only an orchestra of 16 players, because of the small size of his theater’s orchestra pit. So he composed for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, cornet, trombone, timpani and percussion, plus a mere seven strings. In fact, even when Offenbach moved to a larger venue, the orchestra numbered only 30. Thus, many of Offenbach’s works, the ones that established his reputation and helped it grow, are chamber pieces, quite different from the larger-scale spectacles parodying Greek myths and 19th-century court and military foibles for which he is mostly remembered today. So when Offenbach began rebuilding his reputation and his business after the Franco-Prussian war turned him into persona non grata in Paris because of his German background, one thing he did was to return to his roots of nearly two decades earlier by creating the one-act trifle, Pomme d’Api. Although it dates to 1873 and shows more stylistic maturity than similar small-scale Offenbach works of the 1850s, it is essentially a throwback with a simple love-triangle plot and modest (although excellently rendered) orchestration. The new CPO recording of the work is an absolute delight, with the 28-member Kölner Akademie presenting the music with all the verve and transparency it deserves, and singers Magali Léger, Florian Laconi and Marc Barrard handling their formulaic roles with aplomb and with first-rate attention to the delicacy, if not exactly intricacy, of the musical numbers. It would have been good to have a French-English libretto – CPO again makes the very unfortunate decision not to provide one (or even a link to one) for either work on the disc, and the words to these little-known pieces are simply not available elsewhere. It is, however, true that the plot of Pomme d’Api is almost irrelevant: young lovers are about to be separated by the young man’s older, philandering uncle, until everything is untwisted and youth and love win out. And the music, whether or not listeners are skilled French speakers, is a delight, from the rollicking overture through eight numbers that showcase, again and again, the melodiousness that won (in this case, re-won) the hearts of Parisians and, for that matter, their francs. Pomme d’Api (the title, “little apple,” is the young man’s nickname for his beloved) is paired on this recording with a work that is even more obscure – indeed, one that had just a single performance in Offenbach’s lifetime and was only rediscovered and reassembled in the 21st century. This is Sur un volcan, an assemblage and reworking by Offenbach of a score by the now-forgotten Ernest L’Épine (1826-1893). Offenbach massaged this very slight work into usable form in the first year of the Bouffe-Parisiens, 1855. There is only half an hour of material in Sur un volcan, whose plot (which really could have used a libretto to help follow it) is a strange one: two French naval officers from Napoleon’s defeated forces threaten to detonate a powder keg and thus cause a volcanic eruption under Dublin (!), until an actress who specializes in Hamlet (!!) shows up and eventually pairs off with one officer, while the other is relegated to a paternal role. The love-triangle foundation underlying this oddity is visible and audible enough to show how Offenbach worked with the concept in the 1850s much as he did in the 1870s – and the music, which certainly has the Offenbach sheen despite originally being created by someone else, makes the entire brief production well worth hearing. Michael Alexander Willens leads both these small works in spirited and thoroughly engaging fashion, and the two pieces together provide a most welcome opportunity to hear some completely unfamiliar Offenbach and to marvel at the ways the composer found to use very modest forces with a high degree of creativity and his usual large component of delightfulness.

     When Offenbach was born in 1819, Daniel-François-Esprit Auber was already 37 years old and well into his compositional career. Auber spans the entire time from the Classical period to the latter part of the Romantic one – but the music of the long-lived composer has a certain style and familiarity that remained largely unchanged over many decades. This explains both his high popularity for a considerable period of time and his eventual fading from performance: as well-made as his operas are and as pleasant as his music always was, there is a sameness about Auber’s compositions that makes them distinct as a group but not so much as individual items. If this is a disadvantage in terms of continuing attention to Auber’s stage works, though, it is an advantage, and indeed a distinct opportunity, for musicians such as Dario Salvi to rediscover some very worthy material that today’s audiences have never had a chance to hear. In fact, of the 16 Auber pieces on a Naxos recording featuring Salvi conducting the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice, a remarkable 14 are world première recordings. Only the overture to La Neige (1823) and that work’s entr’acte to Act III have been recorded in the past – none of the material from the seven other stage works represented on this CD has been recorded before. And there is a plethora of pleasantry to be explored here: in addition to the eight overtures on the disc, Salvi conducts seven entr’actes and the musical portion of one melodrama (a form using spoken words over music). These specific operas were written between 1813 (Le Séjour militaire) and 1826 (Le Timide, which was performed only 14 times – the composer’s least-successful run). One work, Le Maçon from 1825, is a “French rescue opera,” a genre known today primarily from Beethoven’s Fidelio. One, Leicester (1823), is a milestone because it was the first collaboration between Auber and librettist Eugène Scribe – a partnership that was to span decades and result in a total of 38 works. Two, Le Séjour militaire and Le Testament et les Billets doux (1819), are chamber operas; the rest call for larger orchestras. One, Le Bergère châtelaine (1820), has an overture that sets the mood without actually quoting material from the work; the others incorporate bits of forthcoming music. So there are many ways in which these works are distinctive and represent different elements of Auber’s career and approach. Yet there is a sameness to them all: Auber writes in characteristic ways for the orchestra, for example using horn calls similarly in multiple works and relying only occasionally on special-sounding instruments such as the harp (heard to good effect in the material from Leicester). Much of the music could apply to many of the differing plots of these stage works, which is to say that it is characteristic but not highly distinctive. Nevertheless, all the pieces here show considerable skill in construction: Auber was a fine musical craftsman and had, in his way, as clear a sense of Parisian sensibilities as did Offenbach in his very different manner. Nothing on this CD is likely to elevate Auber’s reputation as a composer to a major degree for listeners in the 21st century, but everything serves as a fine showcase for his pleasant urbanity and the smooth, careful and well-thought-out approach that he had to entertaining the audiences of his time.


Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Fair Melusine. Duo Keira Piano Duo (Michela Chiara Borghese and Sabrina De Carlo). Brilliant Classics. $9.99.

Schumann: Symphony No. 2; Ferdinand Hiller: Symphony in E Minor. Pui Yan Ronald Lau, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Franz Liszt’s famous determination to use the piano as “an orchestra in miniature” speaks to the numerous design and technical improvements made in the instrument in the 19th century, which together did indeed make it possible for a piano – whose span eventually grew to 11 octaves from the five of Beethoven’s time – to reproduce orchestral music effectively, although of course without orchestral coloration. As pianos improved and, not coincidentally, became more affordable through a degree of standardization, they turned into the central musical experience of a great many music lovers, making it possible to hear works that would otherwise be available only through their infrequent orchestral performances. Add to this situation the reality that composers had long produced music at the piano and then orchestrated it – or reduced orchestral pieces to piano works for reasons of their own – and the 19th century emerges as a time filled with now-little-heard keyboard versions of all sorts of well-known music. These pieces are little more than curiosities now that orchestral recordings are widely available, but they are interesting in their own right for showing how composers and skilled arrangers chose to get to the heart of works that are now almost always experienced in full-fledged instrumental guise. Mendelssohn, for example, made his own piano-four-hands arrangements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the fantasy overture The Fair Melusine, and these receive virtuosic, strongly committed and emotional sensitive readings from the Duo Keira Piano Duo on a new Brilliant Classics CD. The music itself sounds, not to put too fine a point on it, rather weird, since the orchestral versions of these pieces are now so often heard. But there is no doubting the skill with which Mendelssohn adapted the music for piano: the rippling arpeggios that sound like waves, setting the scene for The Fair Melusine, have all the delicacy of tone-painting that one could wish, and the four chords that quietly open and close A Midsummer Night’s Dream are just as magical a curtain-raising and -lowering event on keyboard as on woodwinds. On the other hand, much of the musical argument throughout comes across as rather pale, since it is Mendelssohn’s expertise at orchestration that brings drama to The Fair Melusine and evokes the contrast between Shakespeare’s fairy band and “rude mechanicals” with such consummate skill. Even though the Nocturne is played delicately and sweetly here, and even though Borghese and De Carlo enthusiastically proclaim the “braying” sounds in the Bergamask Dance, these and the other elements of the music simply lack the finesse of the orchestral versions. And the famous Wedding March has considerably less of its usual splendor than usual. However, none of these matters really relates to the performers or, for that matter, to Mendelssohn’s well-made piano versions of the scores. Rather, they have to do with the inherent limitations of a percussion instrument, even a highly versatile one, in comparison with the flexibility and nuance available to a composer who utilizes a full orchestra.

     The same circumstances are evident on a new MSR Classics disc featuring pianist Pui Yan Ronald Lau performing two substantial symphonies, one of which he himself has transcribed for piano. Like the Mendelssohn disc, this one is fascinating for showing both the capabilities and the limitations of piano reductions of orchestral scores – even though, in both cases, listeners are far more likely to revert to the orchestral versions than to listen repeatedly to the piano ones. This CD has a strong Schumann orientation in ways both obvious and less-obvious. The clear one is the inclusion of Theodore Kirchner’s early-1880s piano transcription of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, the least-often-heard of the composer’s four symphonies. This is a work that echoes both Beethoven and Bach in some explicit and less-than-explicit ways, and it has always been a tough nut for conductors to crack, mostly because the main theme of the first movement – which appears after a very extended introduction – has a quality both indecisive and lurching, making it difficult to pace well and present effectively. This seems not to trouble Ronald Lau at all: he moves enthusiastically from the opening Sostenuto assai section into the main portion of the movement, propelling it a bit more quickly than its Allegro ma non troppo indication would suggest and thereby giving it greater forward momentum than it usually has. This works quite well, as does the emphatic handling of the second-movement Scherzo – which is interesting for containing two entirely different Trio sections. The third movement here sounds a trifle cooler than it should for best effect – it is marked Adagio espressivo – but is sensitively presented, and the finale is a bit more stately than speedy (it is marked Allegro molto vivace). Still, the performance as a whole is convincing, its single greatest flaw being a certain level of de-emphasis of the four-note motto that Schumann uses in all movements except the third and that becomes a unifying force for the work as a whole. This world première recording of Kirchner’s transcription will not likely bring the symphony new fans, but it showcases the work effectively and makes for an interesting listening experience for those who already know the work. Also a world première, in this case of a transcription of a symphony far less familiar than any of those by Schumann, is Ronald Lau’s own version of Ferdinand Hiller’s Symphony in E minor. The Schumann connection here comes from the fact that Hiller (1811-1885) is remembered today primarily because he was the dedicatee of Schumann’s Piano Concerto (and also of Chopin’s Op. 15 Nocturnes). Hiller is also known for his relationship with Wagner, who once asked Hiller for a 2,000-thaler loan. But Hiller was a not-inconsiderable composer on his own, with about four symphonies to his credit (the exact number is not entirely clear), along with three piano concertos, a violin concerto, six operas, and a good deal of chamber music. The E minor symphony, Hiller’s Op. 67, dates to 1848 and bears the title Es muß doch Frühling werden, “But Spring Must Come.” Since there is nothing particularly springlike or pastoral about the work, the title could refer to the revolutionary uprisings of 1848, but that is speculative. In any case, the symphony is a substantial one that is well-crafted and makes fine use of the orchestra – a fact that of course is less than evident in Ronald Lau’s transcription. Here the more superficial elements of the symphony come through best, including the stormlike portion of the first movement and the forthrightly jubilant finale. The work is certainly less evocative than the “Spring” symphony by none other than Schumann (his No. 1), but the piano version shows Hiller to be a skilled composer if not a particularly felicitous tunesmith. Both this recording and the one of Mendelssohn’s self-transcriptions are highly interesting for the very skillful and committed playing by the pianists and the surprising musical insights made available through hearing works for orchestra in what is essentially stripped-down and “percussionized” form. The music does not really benefit from these transcriptions, but listeners do – through the chance to hear works they may already know well (or, in the case of the Hiller symphony, may not know at all) in a form that provides a kind of foundational skeleton for the music, atop which the composers’ orchestration skills provide considerably greater coloration.

August 20, 2020


Ballistic Kiss: A Sandman Slim Novel. By Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager. $28.99.

     There is some really awful news regarding Richard Kadrey’s latest Sandman Slim book. No, it is not the continuing war between rival factions of angels with highly discordant views of Heaven. No, it is not the sudden infestation of particularly violent ghosts. No, it is not even the unsolved murder of a small-caliber actor and the possible involvement in some way of a rogue angel who was last seen at an old-time porn palace.

     What is awful is that the Sandman Slim series is nearing its end. This is a pending event every bit as apocalyptic as the notion that God (Mr. Muninn in these books) may soon decide to surrender Heaven to those favoring the “priggish wonderland” notion of an afterlife, complete with exactly zero human souls. A world, our world, without Sandman Slim novels is no better than – well, a priggish wonderland.

     There have so far been 11½ of these vastly over-the-top books, for which the term “urban noir” might have been invented except for the fact that it is wholly inadequate to describe what Kadrey has wrought: Sandman Slim, Kill the Dead, Aloha from Hell, Devil in the Dollhouse (that’s the half book, a novelette that is too short to be called a full-fledged novel), Devil Said Bang, Kill City Blues, The Getaway God, Killing Pretty, The Perdition Score, The Kill Society, Hollywood Dead, and now Ballistic Kiss. There is scheduled to be just one more, unless the forces of evil and darkness (those are the good guys) conspire to extend the series or loop it back onto itself in some sort of Möbius strip of causality. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good idea.

     At this late point in the sequence, it would take far too long to explain what everything is about. Kadrey can only make passing references to what has already happened, so those already familiar with the lives and deaths and depredations of Sandman Slim can remember at least some of the background needed for the latest entry. Certainly Ballistic Kiss is not the place to encounter Kadrey’s outré but oddly explicable Los Angeles for the first time. One typical passing reference, relating to a giant and literally Hell-spawned motorcycle, reads, “I picked it up when I was playing Lucifer and running Hell. One hundred days of weirdness I never want to repeat in this life or any other.” The background packed into those two sentences is enough to fill a couple of books – which, in fact, it did. But Kadrey has neither time nor inclination to delve into the past, since James Stark (aka Sandman Slim) has no such desire himself, and he, after all, is the narrator of Ballistic Kiss and its predecessors.

     What Kadrey does have an appetite for, aside from the usual mayhem and destruction and paranormal messes that Stark needs to clean up, frequently after he creates them (“I will beat a lion to death with a shark if it tries to take a bite out of me”), are passing references and descriptive passages that are not germane to the narrative but that give it a character quite unmatched in whatever genre this is. For example, early in Ballistic Kiss, Stark freaks out when he has to do everyday-for-most-of-us, routine things, such as going to a supermarket. He is so shaken by the experience that he just has to get out-and-about to somewhere and do something more in keeping with his usual predilections. However, there are (for the moment) no hellbeasts or other forms of ultra-viciousness around for him to handle, and this creates what passes for introspection in Stark: “I’m too restless to go home and face the tarragon.” That is the sort of typical throwaway line that Kadrey wields expertly to get readers more deeply involved in the Sandman Slim ethos than they would be if the books merely contained a mixture of diabolical and angelic viciousness and explosive revelations plus, from time to time, explosive explosions.

     Not that those are lacking. For example: “There are a lot of different kinds of ghosts. Some are hard to tell from regular people until they pull their heads off or vomit maggots all over you. If those things happen you know you’re dealing with a ghost – or possibly a parole officer.”

     In fact, Ballistic Kiss lacks for none of the usual Sandman Slim drama: Kadrey’s expertise at pacing is virtuosic, and his trademark mixture of worlds-weary (yes, worlds-weary, not merely world-weary) cynicism with rather endearing absurdist humor slanted toward films and the Hollywood life is everywhere in evidence. So is some pretty neat character development, much of it involving Stark’s former lover, Candy, who moved on during the year in which Stark was most recently dead (see previous books), and his new romance with Janet, a member of a cult that deliberately seeks out near-death adventures (which Janet does when not working in the donut shop where Stark once rescued her – see, yes, previous books). With the possible destruction of Heaven or, worse, Los Angeles hanging in the balance, with warring angels and murderous ghosts and misfiring magic, and with Stark having no trouble accepting Janet as non-binary but having considerable difficulty figuring out which pronouns to use, Ballistic Kiss moves the Sandman Slim sequence another big step along a road that fans will surely wish would go on and on and on – but one that, unfortunately, is supposed to dead-end (hopefully not forever-dead-end) a mere single book in the not-too-distant future.


The Little Vegan Dessert Cookbook. By Laura Crotty. Lincoln Square Books. $19.99.

     Packaged as something between a must-have kitchen tome for vegans and an offbeat gift book for a vegan friend, Laura Crotty’s The Little Vegan Dessert Cookbook is a clever concept for a self-limited audience. Packed with old-fashioned, mostly 1950s illustrations reflective of the original recipes on which Crotty’s vegan variations are based, the book is designed to give vegans a way to conform to their dietary choices and beliefs while still enjoying well-known, old-fashioned desserts such as Toll House cookies, Linzer tortes, s’mores, coffee cake, cranberry loaf, and more.

     Crotty, a collector of old cookbooks, uses recipes from a selection of them as the foundation of the items here, essentially looking for standard vegan substitutions for the absolute necessities of baking, such as eggs and butter. No dedicated vegan will actually know whether these desserts approximate the taste of the originals – that would require trying the non-vegan versions and comparing the two types. So the question for anyone interested in Crotty’s approach is not “do these taste like the originals?” but “do these approximate the originals in appearance and also taste good?”

     On the appearance issue, Crotty is generally successful: the unbaked batters often look different from those using traditional ingredients, but the finished products appear more or less the same – especially in light of the fact that different people’s versions of the same recipe, vegan or not, tend to look different. The doughnuts and some of the cookies have perhaps more variation from those made with traditional ingredients than the bars and cakes, but everything looks fine and nothing proclaims “vegan!” through appearance alone.

     As for taste – well, it is a matter of taste. Dedicated vegans will have nothing with which to compare these recipes, and vegan bakers will find nothing particularly unusual in employing ingredients such as coconut sugar (which is dark-colored and not very sweet) and aquafaba (the cooking liquid that remains when beans and other legumes are prepared). Non-dairy butter tastes virtually identical to traditional butter, and when recipes call for chocolate, Crotty simply uses Baker’s brand semi-sweet chocolate bars – whose appeal transcends the vegan lifestyle. On the other hand, although oat milk is often a good substitute for cow’s milk, it does change the consistency and taste of some foods; and the egg substitutions here can have a significant impact on the mouth feel and consistency of the finished products – for example, Crotty says it is possible to use mashed banana or a mixture of vegetable oil with water and baking powder, but these two alternatives produce very different results from each other and from using real eggs.

     Generally, the recipes here with the fewest ingredients tend to be the most satisfying, and for non-vegans who want to try some vegan treats, are likely to taste most familiar. Shortbread cookies, for example, simply include all-purpose flour, semi-sweet baking chocolate, non-dairy butter, and coconut sugar – the first three ingredients being nearly identical to ones non-vegans would use. Pineapple cake, on the other hand, requires a dozen elements, including aquafaba, whole-wheat pastry flour, coconut oil and coconut sugar. And soda bread requires coconut sugar, ground flaxseed and cashew milk. The soda-bread recipe also contains an error, asking for “2 tablespoons butter, melted,” not specifying “non-dairy,” but vegans will undoubtedly correct for this – and all readers will presumably be unfazed by the other occasional mistakes in the book, such as “course” grain rather than “coarse.” It is also worth noting that this is not strictly a dessert cookbook: Crotty herself suggests using the doughnuts for breakfast, and that is a good idea for the breads, too.

     Ultimately, the test of any cookbook is not the cleverness of its premise but the quality of the food resulting from following its recipes. Vegans will be quite satisfied with Crotty’s ideas and will not generally find the recipes difficult to follow or the ingredients particularly exotic (by vegan standards). For non-vegans, especially ones who may already know and enjoy the original baked goods that Crotty modifies for the vegan palate, The Little Vegan Dessert Cookbook will be less satisfactory, because they will have something with which to compare these recipes and may not enjoy the result of that comparison. Or perhaps they will – certainly anyone wanting to experiment with vegan preparations can manage to do baking at this level without much difficulty. It is likeliest, though, that Crotty’s book, which at 84 pages is indeed little, will be useful strictly for those already committed to vegan eating; non-vegans will more likely want it as a gift for a vegan friend than for their own kitchens.


French Music for Piano—Works by Debussy, Fauré, Rameau, Chabrier and Ravel. Jorge Federico Osorio, piano. Cedille. $16.

Elgar: Violin Concerto; Wilhelm Stenhammar: Two Sentimental Romances. Triin Ruubel, violin; Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Sorel Classics. $14.99.

     There are highly personal elements in all recordings – personalization is, after all, what interpretation is all about. But some releases partake of the personal to an especially great extent – indeed, to so high a degree that enjoyment of the music considerably depends on how well listeners are tuned into, or attuned to, the very individualistic nature of what is offered to them. Jorge Federico Osorio’s new recording for Cedille is a case in point. It contains nothing unusual, nothing that classical-music lovers with a penchant for French piano works will find unfamiliar or particularly aurally challenging. And there is nothing in Osorio’s playing that anyone will find less than admirable: he is thoroughly at home with this repertoire and brings it forth with limpidity, understanding, appropriate rhythmic flexibility, and a fine sense of the picturesque. But the specific pieces that Osorio chooses, and the order in which he plays them, are highly personal matters that may or may not resonate with listeners. Most of the music is by Debussy: there are eight of his Preludes plus individual pieces from Estampes (La soirée dans Grenade) and Suite Bergamasque (the ubiquitous Clair de lune). But the 10 Debussy pieces are not gathered as a group; instead, Osorio plays them in two separate groupings. The first, using eight pieces, contains seven Preludes (from both books) and Clair de lune. The second consists of two works: La Puerta del Vino and La soirée dans Grenade. What is going on here is a structural approach within which Osorio chooses recital material for the CD. The whole disc opens with Fauré’s Pavane, after which the first eight pieces by Debussy are presented – with Clair de lune preceded, somewhat obviously, by La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune. Then Osorio presents a kind of “palate cleanser” in the form of three excerpts from Rameau’s G major/G minor Suite No. 6 for Harpsichord, a delightfully expressive eight-movement work that relies heavily on the harpsichord’s tonal capabilities and never sounds quite right on the piano, no matter how accurately it is played on the later instrument. This CD bears the title “The French Album,” but the Rameau pieces divide it into “French/French” and “French/Spanish” segments: Rameau’s vignettes are followed by Chabrier’s Habanera, the two remaining Debussy works, and then two hyper-familiar ones by Ravel, Alborada del gracioso and Pavane pour une infante défunte. The two Ravel pieces receive some of the best performances on the disc: Osorio contrasts them beautifully, and the high level of virtuosity in the Alborada gives way to a gentler but every bit as impressive level of impressionistic delicacy in the concluding Pavane – which, not coincidentally, becomes a “bookend” for the disc to complement the opening Fauré Pavane. The recital is all clearly thought through in considerable detail and quite obviously reflective of a specific set of emotions and responses that Osorio seeks to display through his playing and to evoke in the audience. Indeed, the disc is almost over-clever in its careful design. Osorio does an excellent job in this repertoire, and his playing is almost always highly engaging and convincing (the Rameau miniatures are less so). This is a CD that will be thoroughly enjoyed by listeners who internalize Osorio’s arrangement of the music and find themselves in accord with it. Others will likely find it on the quirky side in the selection and arrangement of the material and may therefore deem it less engaging, despite the high quality of Osorio’s pianism.

     The playing is also of high quality on a new Sorel Classics CD that has a certain number of quirks of its own. It features Estonian violinist Triin Ruubel, who was 29 years old when the recording was made in 2017, and Estonia’s grandmaster of a conductor, Neeme Järvi, who was 80. And together they tackle one of the most difficult violin concertos in the repertoire – Elgar’s, from 1910 – and then offer two very little known pieces by Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) as encores. The result is a rather curious disc. Certainly Ruubel has the technique necessary to surmount the manifest difficulties of the concerto, for which Elgar – himself a violinist – sought and received assistance both from Fritz Kreisler (to whom the work is dedicated and who gave its first performance) and from London Symphony Orchestra leader W.H. “Billy” Reed. The solo part is in some respects barely violinistic: although playable by someone of sufficient skill, it demands near-constant double and triple stops and many string crossings that can seem capricious and are in any case enormously difficult to accomplish. Yet the concerto is not merely a display piece – in effect, it is as much a symphony with violin obbligato as a Romantic (or post-Romantic) concerto, being in this way somewhat analogous to Berlioz’ Harold in Italy with its obbligato viola part. It tends to be Järvi, more than Ruubel, who is the dominant force in this recording, whose symphonic grandeur and very “Elgarian” instrumentation (including ad lib parts for contrabassoon and tuba) are emphasized throughout, for all that the conductor certainly knows when to step back and allow the soloist to take a front-and-center role. There are two longstanding traditions of playing this concerto, dating back to its earliest performances and first recordings: one is on the brisk side, the other more expansive and emotionally expressive. Ruubel and Järvi opt for something of a middle ground, seeking a pace that is slightly on the quick side but that brings forth the work’s emotional strength. Ruubel is particularly good at her very first entry in the first movement, a beautiful and haunting moment, and fully displays her virtuosity in the very complex opening of the finale. The second movement is, on the whole, somewhat less successful, its quiet and songful nature sounding a trifle too static before its effectively delivered climax. The performance’s focus on the orchestra and the perhaps slightly uneasy (or imperfectly balanced) relationship between soloist and conductor are among the unusual elements here; in all, though, they detract only slightly from a very nicely played and recorded interpretation. As for Stenhammar’s Two Sentimental Romances, they work surprisingly well with the Elgar concerto: they date from the same year, 1910, and share much of the same emotional content. However, they are more unidimensional than the concerto and, of course, constructed on a much smaller scale. So they sound rather monochromatic after the grandiosity of the Elgar. Perhaps for that very reason, though, they evince no feeling of competitiveness between soloist and ensemble: here everything flows pleasantly and evenly, with Ruubel and Järvi showing an easier collaboration than is always evident in the concerto. These romances are minor pieces, but they nicely set off the major work here and provide a level of comfort and relaxation that Elgar’s grand concerto never delivers or, for that matter, aspires to deliver.

August 13, 2020


Relentless. By R.A. Salvatore. Harper Voyager. $28.99.

     Like its predecessors in R.A. Salvatore’s latest mashup of Tolkien and video games, Timeless and Boundless, the conclusion of the trilogy, Relentless, is subtitled “A Drizzt Novel,” marking it as focused on one of Salvatore’s most-popular characters, the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden. But Relentless has an important point of distinction from the two prior novels in this grouping: Drizzt is not in it. Well, he sort of is, in spirit and in the effects of his nobility and in the way other characters think about him and respond to his non-presence, but Drizzt himself – umm, nope. The reason for his absence was made clear at the climactic conclusion of Boundless, but it is understandable, in a world where it is possible to be reincarnated even after being dissolved in acid, that readers will expect the hyper-potent drow warrior Drizzt to re-emerge, if not in the first 10 pages of Relentless, then in the first 100 or so of its totality of 450.

     This is not to be, though. And yet it may well not matter to longtime fans of Drizzt and of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms books, within which Drizzt has drifted for, lo, these 30 years. In Relentless, Drizzt is as much an idea, and an ideal, as a character, and much of what happens in the novel occurs in response to things that he did in the past, or that other characters believe he would have done if he were present, or that he would be expected to do in the future if he should miraculously reappear.

     That makes Relentless very much a “fan” novel, a book for initiates rather than readers who may come to it without any existing deep immersion in the Forgotten Realms. Yet even the apparent intended audience of longtime fans may find some elements of Relentless disappointing, notably the unusually dialogue-heavy first half of the book and the rather formulaic nature of Salvatore’s trademark massive battles – which here, unlike in other Forgotten Realms books, lack any particularly novel tactics or interesting strategies, becoming gigantic exercises in attack-and-repel that fans will surely recognize as having happened many times before.

     But it is always a mistake to be dismissive of the sheer narrative skill of Salvatore, who, even when not at his best, crafts books that are strongly paced and contain fascinating elements – even when some of those elements do not quite fit. Thus, in the case of Relentless (whose title is apt in its reflection of a character’s comment on “the same darkness, over and over, relentless and destructive”), much time is spent recapping and explaining earlier events, but the explanations themselves are well-done and involving; and in the chapters dealing with Menzoberranzan, the “City of Spiders” where the main currency is intrigue and plotting, the machinations are spelled out with far too much detail and clarity of purpose – but the explication is handled with considerable skill, for all that it leaves nothing of note for readers to figure out on their own.

     As matters are with scene-setting, so they are with character delineation. The most-interesting character in Relentless (and, it could be argued, in the two prior books) is Zaknafein, Drizzt’s father, revived from the deep past into a new and very different world and trying to cope with, among other things, a level of cooperation and mutual respect among different races that is at odds with everything in his upbringing and experience. Zaknafein is attractively flawed: deeply racist and suspicious of all those who are not like him (and most of those who are), but striving mightily to overcome his instinctive and learned-early-in-life feelings and responses. Few other characters have intriguing flaws (Drizzt had them in earlier Forgotten Realms books, but both he and his imprint are essentially flawless in this trilogy). The mercenary Jarlaxle remains an engaging blend of selfishness and emotion-driven willingness to help others, and Kimmuriel Oblodra, the co-leader of Jarlaxle’s group, is also interesting for the ways in which he responds when his intellectual detachment from events is repeatedly challenged. But there is little other subtlety in the characterizations here – for instance, the self-protective stance of powerful mage Gromph Baenre is shown in an entirely negative light.

     If there is an overriding flaw in Relentless, it is a certain level of obviousness. It is unthinkable that Salvatore would kill off Drizzt permanently just when his wife, Cattie-Brie, is about to have a child. It is unimaginable that the vast, powerful forces of darkness will be able to muster sufficient strength to overcome Zaknafein and the forces of positivity (not exactly “good”) that he represents. It would be unbelievable for Salvatore to convey any message in the conclusion of this trilogy other than one that says love and compassion can and will defeat all evils, no matter how strong. So the way Relentless and the elements of the trilogy it concludes come together is, really, scarcely surprising. But Salvatore’s strength is in the way he gets to the foregone conclusion, the way he moves between and interrelates past events and those set in the “present” of the characters, the way he constructs scenes ranging from those of grand battles to those of individual characters sniping at each other with words rather than weapons of steel. Salvatore is a past master of the Forbidden Realms universe, and if Relentless is neither a satisfactory entry point to those realms nor one of the best explorations of them, it is nevertheless a highly satisfying, well-paced, internally consistent and often very exciting foray into them – whatever the merits may or may not be of describing it as “A Drizzt Novel.”


Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $49.99 (4 CDs).

     Conductors face a problem when approaching the most-canonical works in the classical canon: there may well seem to be nothing to say about them, musically, that has not been said before. In fact, even the decision to release a new recording of thrice-familiar music can be a difficult one, since potential purchasers will almost surely own favored recordings of the music already and will not necessarily be disposed to acquire a new version that perhaps differs from others only in a few minor details. Happily, these risks did not dissuade the producers of the new release of Brahms’ symphonies on the Wiener Symphoniker’s own label, featuring live recordings of the orchestra conducted by Philippe Jordan – because it turns out that Jordan does have a number of ideas about these works that, if not exactly new, are unusual, and result in a set of readings that are worth considering even by listeners who already own one or several versions of the Brahms cycle.

     One noteworthy feature here is that the recording was made in Vienna’s Musikverein building, where two of the symphonies, Nos. 2 and 3, received their world première performances; Nos. 1 and 4 were also played in the venue shortly after their debuts elsewhere. Acoustically speaking, the music “fits” the hall beautifully; and while, of course, no current member of the orchestra was born when these works were first heard, the ensemble does have a characteristic sound dating back to Brahms’ time – a sound that the Wiener Symphoniker has been at pains to preserve through all the years and all the turmoil since the Romantic era.

     Jordan himself, the orchestra’s music director from 2014 to 2020, honed what was already a remarkably rich and precise orchestral sound even further, and these recordings from 2019 showcase the beauty, elegance, and superb sectional balance of the orchestra, along with the soloist-quality playing of section principals.

     The sonic environment and exceptional playing are not, however, all that distinguish this Brahms cycle from others, and indeed would not be enough in themselves to make this release as successful as it is. What is so outstanding here is the way Jordan finds that the Brahms symphonies, in spite of their status as works that are heard nearly ad infinitum (some would cynically say ad nauseam), have meanings that have not been fully plumbed: they still have things to communicate, sources of pleasure and trenchant emotional connection, that can be brought out in unexpected ways.

     That is just what Jordan does. He does so most clearly by avoiding the now-traditional massed and massive “Brahms sound” that so many conductors actively seek, a sound that can be enormously impressive but that can all too easily become clotted and turgid. Jordan insists on a level of clarity that Brahms’ symphonies rarely receive: not only the principal themes but also the subsidiary ones, and the middle voices, come through clearly in these readings, sharpening the works’ focus and allowing use of the wonderful sectional balance of the Wiener Symphoniker to the best possible effect. In addition, Jordan looks in all these symphonies for the songful elements as a balance for the dramatic ones: Brahms is not often thought of as having a “singing” quality in his orchestral music, but he does here.

     Thus, the gorgeous second-movement violin solo in Symphony No. 1 becomes an especially intense expression and extension of emotions first put forth in the opening movement: instead of coming across as a surprising touch (a beautiful one, to be sure), it seems a logical heightening of what has come before, stirring the symphony’s emotive power to new heights by rising above what Brahms has already presented. This helps make more sense and a more thorough integration of the intermezzo-like, non-scherzo third movement, whose lovely, lyrical flow here fits neatly into the symphony’s overall concept. And even the high drama of the finale, in which the Wiener Symphoniker’s brass really excels, has a genuinely small-r romantic feeling in addition to the capital-R Romantic one that comes through in just about every performance of the work.

     The songfulness of the first movement of Symphony No. 2 is scarcely a surprise: Brahms actually quotes one of his songs in it. But Jordan carries this lullaby-like feeling through much of the symphony: not only the whole first movement but also the second, despite taking that movement a bit faster than usual. And even in the brighter second half of the symphony – where, in this case, the intermezzo-like third movement represents a change of mood – Jordan never loses sight of the essential songfulness of the material. That third movement is, after all, marked Allegretto grazioso, in this way tying to the partial designation of the second as ma grazioso. It is the third movement’s gracefulness that Jordan highlights to very fine effect. And while the finale is certainly played with verve and all the vigor that its Allegro con spirito marking suggests, Jordan nevertheless finds warmth amid the sparkle – in the brief solos by individual woodwinds, for example, and in the delicately scored central section – turning this celebratory conclusion into a capstone that nevertheless stays in touch with the symphony’s earlier lyrical beauties.

     For Jordan, Symphony No. 3, Brahms’ shortest and most tight-knit, becomes quiet, gentle and rather sweet almost immediately after its forceful opening chords. Jordan sees this as a very inward-looking symphony, with gentle rocking motion a continual feature. The transparency of the first movement here is quite different from what is usually associated with Brahms, giving the music an almost pastoral feeling. The warmth of the strings in the first movement’s development section is especially telling, and this warm feeling carries beautifully into and through the second movement. Jordan is certainly not blind to the symphony’s drama, which comes through in portions of the first movement and with particular intensity in the finale. But what he emphasizes is its lyricism, as in the lovely, waltzlike cantilena of the third movement – an intermezzo that continues and intensifies the mood established previously instead of contrasting with it. That mood is heightened further through the darkness pervading most of the finale – this is a major-key symphony (in F) that often flirts with the minor and has distinct and unusual minor-key sensibilities throughout. But in keeping with Jordan’s focus on the symphonies’ lyricism, he emphasizes the poetic nature of the finale’s themes, and the remarkable quiet, chorale-like conclusion therefore comes across as a sigh of relief, gentle and accepting after all the turmoil (however beautifully expressed) that has come before.

     Jordan starts Brahms’ Bach-infused Symphony No. 4 at a fairly slow pace and with great warmth: if the Third is a major-key symphony with minor-key feeling, the Fourth is the opposite, being in E minor but having a generally upbeat nature – not quite as sunny as that of the Second, but certainly positive. The first movement in this performance is quite special: the expansive lyricism of the themes makes the movement seem even broader and more wide-ranging than in most performances. Jordan lets the beauty of the material flow freely, keeping to tempo but bringing forth the subtlety of Brahms’ scoring to very fine effect. Indeed, this symphony gets the most-nuanced performance of the four in this set, befitting the high level of refinement of the music. The transparency of orchestral sound is particularly pronounced here, and Jordan is especially attentive to the work’s rhythmic flow. He is also quite careful about tempo indications, and takes the second movement at a true Andante moderato, not over-extending it but not rushing it, either. This makes the movement contemplative but scarcely dour, giving it a feeling of delicacy that is, however, never dilettantish. Then the third movement, Brahms’ only out-and-out symphonic scherzo, bubbles along most appealingly, starting ebulliently and with strong contrast to the second movement. Even here, Jordan finds opportunities to focus on lyrical, songlike elements, but as a whole, this is a movement that sweeps away most of the symphony’s earlier seriousness and paves the way for a stately and elegant finale. Jordan handles the concluding passacaglia with aplomb, shaping each of the 30 variations with care while ensuring a significant role for the trombones, which Brahms uses to highlight the underlying religiosity of a movement directly based on the ostinato from a Bach cantata.

     Jordan’s careful focus on every element of Brahms’ symphonies, the discovery and bringing-forth of lyrical beauties throughout the cycle, and the attentiveness to producing a sound that displays Brahms with considerably more clarity than his symphonies often receive, add up to a Brahms symphonic release that is not only excellently played but also thoughtful and emotionally convincing. It could certainly serve someone who does not own a Brahms complete-symphony box as an excellent choice. However, most classical-music listeners surely have one or more Brahms symphony compilations already. Yet even for them, there is enough that is distinctive and distinctly pleasurable in Jordan’s interpretations with the Wiener Symphoniker to make this a worthy addition to an existing collection.

August 06, 2020


Chilling Effect. By Valerie Valdes. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

     There is a tendency for first-time authors, who are bursting at the seams with ideas and notions and concepts and enthusiasm, to pack everything they possibly can into a debut novel, cramming it so full of stuff that it becomes an agglomeration of vignettes rather than a cohesive story, much less a character-driven one (despite the fact that, in theory, novel length is precisely right for building reader empathy, exploring our world or others, and so forth).

     Valerie Valdes is not the first debut author to let her enthusiasm run away with her, and will surely not be the last. The fact that Chilling Effect is often a lot of fun, if taken with sufficient grains of salt (make that cups full), shows that Valdes has the potential to create nicely plotted, amusing, character-focused, offbeat books in the future. Until then, readers get this one.

     To understand, at the same time, the potential and shortcomings of Chilling Effect, consider the show-biz maxim never to work with children or dogs, which are guaranteed to upstage their adult human counterparts. Valdes does not have kids or canines in this book, but she does have cats – and, intriguingly, they are psychic cats. And they are an important part of the setup of the novel: reformed space pirate and all-around rogue Captain Eva Innocente has been stiffed on her latest cargo-hauling job, leaving her with 20 psychic cats and no payment. And the cats are about to take over her ship. And then: nothing. Absolutely nothing, for hundreds of pages. The cats turn into lap kitties that enjoy scratches, and the plot goes in dozens and dozens of directions that have nothing to do with them. Thinking up psychic cats? An A+ idea. Introducing and then abandoning them? An F.

     Then there is the name of the book’s protagonist and narrator – an obvious blending of “Eve” (as in “Adam and”) with “innocent.” Of course it’s supposed to be ironic and amusing, since this protagonist has the usual dark past: smuggling, mercenary activities, blackmail, that sort of thing. But maybe it is not as ironic as all that, since Eva seems to have learned precious little from her supposed piratical past: she makes all sorts of amateurish mistakes and goes consistently in wrong directions until, thank goodness, matters begin to coalesce (if not become fully coherent) about three-quarters of the way through the novel.

     To give Valdes credit, though, they do eventually start to come together, and even though most of the book is quite scattered as to plot (and quite absent as to characterization of anyone but Eva), there are enough individually engaging (and sometimes amusing) scenes to make Chilling Effect fun for readers who do not expect too much coherence and who do not think for even a minute that this blob of space opera is anything but fantasy (as opposed to science fiction, whose trappings it barely pretends to assume).

     The central plot is a family one. Eva is estranged from her father, Pete, but is close to her sister, Mari, even though she and Mari are very different in many ways. Just how many becomes clear only very late in the book, with a twist that is either too clever by half or just like too many other twists in too many other books to seem very twisty. Anyway, Mari is kidnapped by a typically nefarious, super-powerful set of spacefaring gangsters known collectively as The Fridge (hence Chilling Effect, get it?). These baddies work by capturing people and then forcing the people’s family members to ransom them by doing dirty deeds of various sorts, with the proviso that if the blackmailed family members let anyone know what is going on, death or the standard fate-worse-than-death will befall the kidnapping victim. There ought to be a simpler way to run a criminal enterprise, but this happens to be the modus operandi of The Fridge.

     So, ok, Eva can only rescue Mari by doing a bunch of things that recall Eva’s own checkered past and force her to return to piratical ways that she has long since abandoned. Valdes tells readers that Eva is ill at ease, to put it mildly, about all this, but she does seem to take to her assignments with more alacrity than might be expected from someone who supposedly finds them distasteful in the extreme. And to obey the tell-no-one demand, Eva has to lie to everybody: the whole crew of her ship, which is called La Sirena Negra, and pretty much everyone else she cares about or might care about. This is a particular problem for Eva with regard to the ship’s engineer, Vakar, a quennian alien (one of many otherworldly characters) whose emotions are wafted about through smell, and for whom Eva has developed strong if perhaps inappropriate feelings that smell as if they are reciprocated.

     Vakar, like other non-Eva characters, is barely sketched, even though several crew members – like those psychic cats – have unused potential. It would be nice, for example, to know more about strong but nightmare-prone, mother-fixated, holographically tattooed Leroy; the ship’s medic and Eva’s longtime partner-in-nefarious-deeds, cybernetic-eye-equipped Rebecca Jones (known as “Pink” because of her dreadlocks); and the pilot, Min, whose body wanders around while her mind is integrated with the ship’s core. On the other hand, readers know just about everything they need to regarding a certain fish-faced, bloodthirsty emperor known as The Glorious Apotheosis, whose advances Eva turns down at a bar – resulting in a galaxy-spanning chase whose end is supposed to be Eva’s imprisonment in the emperor’s harem.

     Eva is the kind of character who believes that owning up to all her misdeeds makes everything just peachy-keen, a fact that may disappoint the very numerous dead bodies and ruined lives she has left in her wake. But she does own up to her shortcomings toward the end of the book – a portion neatly if obviously set off from the rest by having Eva herself kidnapped and subjected to a year of cryosleep, from which she awakens to a series of unpleasant revelations. The basic message Valdes communicates here, whether or not she knows Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion, is, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive!” Eva channels her inner (often outer) pirate in a better (or, well, more personally satisfying) cause toward the book’s conclusion; accepts her own limitations and errors (not to mention her family’s severe shortcomings: her father at one point ends up taking over her ship); realizes that lies are a poor foundation for relationships, romantic or otherwise; and generally more-or-less redeems herself with those around her who deserve better than she has given them (if not necessarily with readers, who may find her unapologetically self-indulgent narrative voice a bit much by this time). Chilling Effect is basically lighthearted fun, although it may not be especially funny to readers who are unversed in its multiple pop-culture references and who are not at least moderately fluent in Spanish, used without translation for some chapter titles and in many places within the narration. The book works as more or less a standalone novel, but it is actually stated to be the start of a series, with an excerpt from the next book at the end. In a way, it is good to know that Valdes will have further opportunities to explore the characters she has created, and perhaps deal with some of the many underdeveloped-but-intriguing elements in Chilling Effect. For one thing, the second book should definitely have more psychic cats in it.