May 24, 2018


The Cardboard Kingdom. By Chad Sell. Knopf. $20.99.

My Magic Breath: Finding Calm Through Mindful Breathing. By Nick Ortner and Alison Taylor. Pictures by Michelle Polizzi. Harper. $17.99.

     An exceptionally inventive and intelligent graphic novel that integrates significant themes of friendship and identity into its flow without ever becoming overbearing or preachy, The Cardboard Kingdom nearly represents a new form of communication. Graphic novels themselves blend comic-book elements with traditional narrative, but Chad Sell – with the additional involvement of 10 other artists, that being part of what makes the book special – expands the graphic-novel approach itself and uses it to tackle some real-life conundrums in a highly sensitive yet age-appropriate way. The book’s very first chapter, “The Sorceress,” created by Sell and Jay Fuller, sets an offbeat and highly intriguing tone: the entire chapter is wordless, and it takes a moment of study of the first two full-page drawings even to figure out what is going on. The left-hand page is a cartoonish rendition of a sorceress in the mode of Disney’s Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. The right-hand page shows the same character in a much more “cartoon-realistic” style, the sort that actually could be included as a still in an animated film. Turn the page, and the story’s third page shows the sorceress and a minion doing their evil – until they are interrupted by seeing a girl drawn to look like a real-world human being. And that forms the visual transition to the story’s fourth page, where it turns out that both sorceress and minion are kids playing in a house’s back yard, their “victim” a doll. This is how the story – and, eventually, the entire book – proceeds, by intermingling and interweaving the fantasies of middle-school children with the everyday circumstances in which they bring those fantasies to life. The Cardboard Kingdom gets its name from the abundant use of cardboard boxes to make costumes and props for the ongoing role-playing. And the book gets its unique style from the fact that the controlling hand of Sell is evident throughout, keeping character portrayals and scenes consistent from chapter to chapter, while other cartoonists – David DeMeo, Katie Schenkel, Kris Moore, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, Cloud Jacobs, and Barbara Perez Marquez, in addition to Fuller – contribute specific kids and specific characters to the neighborhood and fantasy-kingdom mix.

     All this is clever and enchanting enough, but there is considerably more here. The kids are multiethnic and multicultural, and that has become a tired trope of books for preteens (and other age ranges as well). But here the kids’ families and characteristics are not merely sops to political correctness. These children have real-world issues. One girl is taunted as “Loud-Mouth Sophie” by the neighborhood bully, then criticized by her own grandmother for sounding like “a hellion” or “a banshee.” So she backs down from her plan for an exuberant costume and tries to be demure, but feels worse and worse – until her mother eventually realizes what is happening and helps Sophie regain her enthusiasm. The bully has his own story, one of not fitting in and feeling he is too old for dress-up games even though he really wants to participate – and here too there is eventually a satisfactory resolution, brought about largely by the kids themselves. Then there is the very intelligent boy who insists the fantasy characters are impossible because “physics won’t allow” what they do – who eventually finds his own role, as “Professor Everything.” And the boy whose parents are in the middle of breaking up, who becomes “The Gargoyle” to “stand guard over this house” when his enraged father turns up one night – and whose determination to “defend the whole block” shows in several pages of wordless, unusually shaped panels that clearly communicate his attentiveness and nervousness. And Amanda, the Hispanic girl who proclaims herself “The Mad Scientist” – complete with mustache – and whose straitlaced father means well in telling her that “changing your friends around…isn’t helping them,” but who eventually softens when he realizes that her mustache duplicates his own. The kids here are fully formed individuals, and even their parents have more realism than parents usually do in any books (traditional or graphic-novel-style) for this age group. Young readers who want to find characters who “look like me” should have no difficulty doing so here – but that superficial “look like me” approach is really an adult construct of limited value, because what kids care about is characters with whose experiences and feelings they can identify, even if the physical resemblance is not exact. So the multicultural neighborhood where The Cardboard Kingdom takes place is all well and good, and handled far better than such elements usually are. But what really matters is that all children in this age group, of any race or ethnicity, should be able to find elements to which they can relate in this summertime story – which ends in exactly the right, consistent way, in a bang-up fantasy finale that eventually leads to a scene in which all the creators of the “kingdom” are heading into the first day of a new school year, their shadows showing the shapes of some of the marvels that they, thanks to Sell and his collaborators, have made so memorable.

     The way that even the best of intentions can go awry through heavy-handed implementation is clear from the equally well-meaning but altogether less persuasive My Magic Breath, a book for younger kids – ages 4-8 – that is intended to teach the basic benefits of mindfulness without actually using any such big word. Nick Ortner and Alison Taylor explain, in suitably simple language, the importance of focusing on breathing when trying to calm down and refocus. And Michelle Polizzi’s illustrations are nicely suited to the text, showing all sorts of multicolored swirls and shapes curling out of a little girl’s mouth as she breathes in a way that “helps when you have too many thoughts running through your head,” and showing somewhat similar but darker-colored shapes to go with a comment about “when you are worried, or nervous, or sad.” The book’s approach is participatory: Ortner and Taylor address their readers, tell them to think of something that “happened today that made you smile,” then instruct them to “blow out all those happy thoughts onto the page,” and so on. But what if nothing happened to make a child smile during the day, and what if the page saying “now, that looks like happiness” does not reflect how the child reading the book feels at that exact moment? Well, then, too bad – there will be a disconnect between the reader and the book’s words and pictures. That is the weakness of this (+++) book: it expects young children to accept what it says about their feelings and their thoughts at any given moment, then instructs them how to handle themselves at a time when they may simply not be in sync with what the book has to say. To be sure, this matter can be mitigated by having an adult read the book to and with a child, choosing a reading time when the grown-up believes the child will be receptive to the book’s lesson. An adult who chooses the right time will be helping the child use breathing to cope with everyday stress. But even then, the specificity of the book may interfere with the clarity of its message: after several pages of positive breathing, Ortner and Taylor write, “I bet you have a big smile on your face.” But what if the child does not have that smile? He or she is likely to think, “What am I doing wrong?” And that is the opposite of the way the authors want kids to feel when trying the techniques they recommend. The suggestions themselves are quite good, including the one to keep a negative thought “stuck in your mind” and then “blow out your breath” and “use it to push out your sad thought.” Again, Polizzi here provides guiding illustrations that go from dark to multicolored. But again, what if a child does not find that this works? “What am I doing wrong?” This is not a small issue: even adults learning meditation and controlled breathing sometimes find that the requirements associated with the instructions increase their stress. Indeed, mindfulness meditation is not for everyone, although when it does help, it can be a good coping strategy. The issue where My Magic Breath is concerned is that the authors unequivocally state, as they take young readers through breathing exercises, “Whew! You did it! Good-by, sad thoughts!” But, since this will not work all the time for all children, the book creates the possibility – by its insistence on being didactic and on pretending to know exactly how its readers feel and respond – of making kids who already feel bad feel even worse. Parents need to use this book carefully: at the right time, with the right child, it can certainly be helpful, but its direct and unsubtle approach carries with it the risk of having an effect that is the opposite of the one its creators intend.


Tom’s Midnight Garden: A Graphic Adaptation of the Philippa Pearce Classic. By EDITH. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $22.99.

Mr. Wolf’s Class. By Aron Nels Steinke. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.

     The very best graphic novel adaptations use the form itself as an element in telling their stories. They do not simply show the exact scenes described in their sources – they go beyond the words to use illustrations to highlight the emotions of characters and to make descriptive passages come alive for readers in ways beyond those called up by the original material. There are very few graphic novels with this kind of power – P. Craig Russell’s two-volume adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2014) is perhaps the finest recent example. The adaptation of Tom’s Midnight Garden by EDITH (who uses only one name) is very nearly on the same level. Philippa Pearce’s book is less-known in North America than in England, but it is one of those rare novels that treat children like fully formed human beings who are capable of encountering strange, even unnerving aspects of life and learning from them – along the lines of, say, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. A Carnegie Medal winner after its 1958 publication, the book is the story of a boy named Tom Long, who is sent to live temporarily with his pleasant aunt and stern, straitlaced uncle while his brother, Peter, is quarantined with measles. Tom himself is kept in his aunt’s and uncle’s home because of the possibility that he might have the same disease and be infectious – the measles vaccine was not available until the 1960s. Resentful of the situation and his isolation, Tom broods – until one night he hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike 13. When he goes down to check on the clock and opens the back door, Tom finds himself in a huge, expansive garden rather than the drab, citified back yard of his aunt’s and uncle’s home. This could easily become a kind of Narnia tale at this point, but Pearce takes the story in a very different direction. Night after night, Tom visits the garden, soon making the acquaintance of a girl named Hatty – apparently the only person who can see him. The two become fast friends, sharing their worries, concerns and troubles and having a variety of small adventures. But there are hints that something deeper is going on, as when Tom sees a tree fall in a storm and the next night sees it standing straight, unharmed. The story soon becomes one about ghosts and time – is Hatty a ghost in Tom’s time period, which is clearly later than hers, or is Tom a ghost in Hatty’s, or is something even stranger happening? Eventually Tom discovers that Hatty is growing up even though he remains the same – and at the book’s climax, Tom discovers who Hatty really is (not just “was”), and the two of them try to untangle the strange threads that have bound them together. Tom’s Midnight Garden is a very atmospheric book, and what EDITH does so well with it is to emphasize its settings and the way they reflect the events. The panels are all rectangular – there is no attempt here to use unusual panel shapes for their own sake or for effect, as in many graphic novels. And many of the best panels are wordless: Tom’s first sight of the garden, the look of his bare feet in the grass, the contrast between the outdoors and the prison-like conditions of the dull home of Tom’s aunt and uncle (where Tom’s room actually has bars on the window, left over from its onetime use as a nursery), the first time Tom realizes that Hatty can see him (he sticks his tongue out and then so does she), and so forth. Carefully conceived poses help EDITH bring the emotional impact of the book to the fore, as when orphan Hatty’s dreadful aunt calls her “liar” (a medium-close picture of the aunt grabbing Hatty’s arm), “criminal” (Tom’s shocked, wide-eyed reaction to what is happening), and “monster” (the aunt dragging Hatty away) – followed by a full page of wordless reaction panels. The emotional heft of the story comes through with exceptional clarity in this highly sensitive graphic adaptation, and even though much is, of necessity, left out, everything that matters the most is included and given heightened impact. Young readers who do not know Tom’s Magic Garden may be inspired by this graphic novel to read the book itself. But even if they are not, the adaptation itself so beautifully captures the mood of the book and the thoughtful questions it poses that children who know the novel only as EDITH interprets it will retain much of the effect of wonder that Pearce’s original produces.

     At the opposite extreme from the involvement, delight and thoughtfulness of the Tom’s Midnight Garden adaptation is the first book in a new series that is as straightforward and humdrum as possible. Aron Nels Steinke’s Mr. Wolf’s Class is about a fourth-grade class doing entirely ordinary things – everyday, frequently boring things. The characters are all cartoon animals, drawn in a flat style with little attention paid to anatomical correctness (Mr. Wolf’s bent elbows look especially unrealistic, even by cartoon standards: whatever arm has the elbow bent is significantly longer than the other). It is hard to see what sort of message this book tries to convey, because all it does is take readers through a completely typical day at a completely typical school in which completely typical things happen to completely typical people – well, animals, but none of them has any animal characteristics whatsoever. Samples of dialogue: “What is your name?” “I need to go to the bathroom.” “I’m so sleepy.” “Line up for lunch.” “Five more minutes of recess.” “Can I play?” “Don’t forget your homework.” More than 150 pages of this becomes very, very wearing and very, very tiresome. The purpose of this graphic novel is very hard to discern. Fourth-graders need not read it – they are living it. Third-graders probably should not read it – it gives them little to look forward to in fourth grade. Fifth-graders will not want to read it – it will be old news to them. The largely expressionless faces and flat drawing style make Mr. Wolf’s Class seem like a book that would appeal to the earliest readers, perhaps kindergartners or first-graders, but it is hard to know whether that is the intended audience. Graphic novels need not be over-the-top – or based on classic novels – to be interesting and to communicate effectively. But they have to have something to communicate. Mr. Wolf’s Class simply puts across the idea that in fourth grade, kids do math, read, go to lunch, have recess, and go home. All that is true, but it is hard to see the point of putting such extremely basic information in graphic-novel form. Mr. Wolf’s Class is a (++) book that does little to whet the appetite for the planned followup, Mystery Club – although hopefully the title of the next book indicates that a bit more excitement lies ahead.


Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort. By Will Taylor. Harper. $16.99.

Elementals No. 1: Ice Wolves. By Amie Kaufman. Harper. $16.99.

     As scene-setters for new fantasy series, these books do a good, if formulaic, job of setting up their story lines and the worlds in which the events take place. Preteen readers will quickly be able to decide whether either book introduces characters and events worth following into the future, whether both do, or whether to look elsewhere. Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort has an intriguing premise and an interesting take on middle-grade friendships, in which one best friend seems to be growing up more quickly than the other until an unanticipated adventure brings them even closer together. Maggie has been missing Abby for six weeks of the summer, while Abby has been at Camp Cantaloupe – but the two friends do not quite connect when Abby comes home, because Abby now has a bigger circle of friends and is interested in more aspects of the real world than Maggie is. Despite the somewhat jarring rejoining, the two friends put up a couple of pillow forts – Maggie with enthusiasm, Abby initially more reluctantly – and then discover that they can magically travel directly from one to the other. As if that is not enough, they find that the pillow forts can be portals to places a great distance away, specifically to Alaska, where Maggie’s uncle is studying whales in a remote location. Soon the girls are visiting him regularly. But they are also running afoul of an organization they had no way to know about: NAFAFA, the suitable acronym of the oddly named North American Founding and Allied Forts Alliance. It turns out that there is a network of pillow forts all around the continent, but there are regulations and requirements for building and using them, and Maggie and Abby have been breaking all the rules. NAFAFA demands that the girls toe the line or their forts will be destroyed. And then it is Maggie who seems the more-mature of the two, refusing to accept NAFAFA’s demands at face value while Abby wants simply to go along with them. Then, to bring in the real world in ways neither girl ever expected, they find out on one visit to Alaska that Uncle Joe has been seriously injured. Now they have to reveal the secrets of their fort to others in order to save him – all the while trying to fend off NAFAFA, especially one megalomaniacal character. Will Taylor’s blend of fantasy and real-world events is a bit creaky here, and his efforts to be politically correct by having Abby’s father dating another man seem forced and unnecessary. So does the use of silver sunglasses by NAFAFA members. But the relationship between Maggie and Abby is well developed, and the girls themselves have sufficiently contrasting personalities to make them appealing to a variety of readers. The book’s ending is disappointing in being an overt cliffhanger: readers will have to wait for the next book to find out what will happen, and may be frustrated as a result. On balance, though, the strengths of Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort outweigh its weaknesses.

     Alaska is not the setting for Ice Wolves, the first book in a series called Elementals, but it certainly could be if the sequence were set on Earth rather than in the land called Vallen where it actually takes place. The story here is even more formulaic than is usual in middle-grade novels, and that is saying something. There is a land where there is magic. There are opposing forces known as Ice Wolves and Scorch Dragons – fire and ice, see? There are 12-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, who are very close. There is a ceremony at which it turns out that one twin can shapeshift to an Ice Wolf, the other to a Scorch Dragon. So the twins – are they even really related? – are supposed to be lifelong enemies. But they will not have it that way. And in this first book, Rayna, who has dragon blood, flees the Wolf Guard and is captured by the dragons – while Anders, who has wolf blood, must train at the Guard’s Ulfar Academy in order to learn about wolves and dragons and find a way to save his twin sister. Like Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort, this first Elementals book cares about political correctness – actually to an even greater degree, since the village of Holbard, where the story takes place, is known worldwide for being diverse, multicultural, and all that good stuff. Also like Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort, the first Elementals book ends with a cliffhanger that will have readers either eagerly awaiting the next installment or being frustrated at being told, after more than 330 pages, “This could be a beginning.” Perhaps, but the ending is rather predictable and, in truth, something of an anticlimax rather than a climax. In fact, the whole story is on the dull side, and Amie Kaufman cheats readers in several ways – for instance, the central notion of how close Anders and Rayna are must be accepted because Kaufman says so, not because readers ever see anything happening to show their bond. In truth, Kaufman seems more enamored of the diversity elements than of the story: she uses the whole “multicultural” thing to explain her created world and its mythology, in passages that are more interesting than, for example, the long sections about Anders’ schooling. Kaufman has written a number of books for teenagers, so-called Young Adult fiction, but this is her first book for younger readers. Unfortunately, it feels as if she oversimplified quite a few things in her effort to reach the target 8-12 age range.


Bach: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014-1019. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord. Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).

Beethoven: Triple Concerto; Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano. Anne Gastinel, cello; Nicholas Angelich, piano; Gil Shaham, violin; Andreas Ottensamer, clarinet; Frankfurt Radio Symphony conducted by Paavo Järvi. Naïve. $16.99.

     The Cedille label is in essence a narrowly focused one: it is a nonprofit focused on music created by and/or performed by artists in the Chicago area. But its new release of Bach’s violin-and-harpsichord sonatas provides powerful evidence that even a regionally focused organization can produce something truly world-class. This is a recording for which it is hard to muster enough superlatives: it is the equal of any version of these works currently available, and is indeed at the very top of the available performances – in fact, its bargain price (two CDs priced as one) could readily make it the first choice for anyone interested in this repertoire who does not own the music already. Historically aware performances are often so larded with explanatory material, so bogged down in explaining why things were done this way even though nowadays they are done that way, that the music itself gets buried under the scholarship. Not so here: Rachel Barton Pine, whose 2015 Cedille recording of Vivaldi’s concertos for viola d’amore showed that she has a marvelously firm understanding of Baroque style and its expressive possibilities, offers playing that is even more poised and involving here. She and Jory Vinikour are first and foremost communicative musicians, with a remarkable sense of give-and-take and such joy in what they produce together that it is hard to imagine any listener being unaffected by the emotional impact of these readings. Yes, emotional impact: this is as far from dry, academic Bach as it is possible to go, yet the performances are so in tune (sorry about that) with Bach’s time and Bach’s era’s performance practices that they could be described as “learned” (two syllables) if that word did not have negative connotations such as “dry” and “boring.” These performances are neither.

     Pine and Vinikour do not make a big deal about the historical authenticity they bring to this music. Interested listeners can turn to the enclosed booklet to find out that Pine plays a 1770 Nicola Gagliano violin with Gamut strings, and uses a replica bow made by Louis Bégin, while Vinikour here uses a harpsichord built in 2012 after a model from 1769. This is worth knowing, but wholly irrelevant to the effect of the music. These are marvelously varied works, colorful and packed with emotions ranging from the nearly lugubrious to the bright and forthright. Each individual movement of each sonata is a gem in its own way, not least because the pervasive use of fugue here seems far less studied and scholarly – in these performances – than it generally does when Bach is played. The sonatas are in six different keys, three major and three minor, and their movements are in far more keys than those, with middle movements frequently ending on the dominant to pull performers and listeners directly into those that follow. The richness of the sonatas is quite extraordinary. Consider just the opening movements. The first sonata (in B minor) is distinguished by its somber opening Adagio; the second (in A) starts with a movement marked Dolce that is indeed sweet, not in Romantic terms but in a manner more courtly; the third (in E) begins with an extended Adagio featuring highly ornamented violin passages; the fourth (in C minor) opens with a lovely Largo in the form of a siciliano; the fifth (in F minor) starts with the longest movement in any of the sonatas, a deeply introspective and solemn Largo; and the sixth (in G) opens, surprisingly, with an Allegro, a bright and upbeat start to the only one of the sonatas in five rather than four movements – and the only sonata featuring a movement for harpsichord alone. Bach may have originally intended this sixth sonata, BWV 1019, to start with a slow movement, as all the others do: there is a Cantabile in G, BWV 1019a, that is one of his most wonderful inspirations, and Pine and Vinikour offer it at the end of the set as an appendix. Had Bach used it in the sonata, it would have been the longest movement in any of these works and would likely have overbalanced the whole piece; this may well be the reason he omitted it. Pine and Vinikour give the movement a kind of celestial ethereality that makes it in some ways the capstone of the whole sonata sequence. But every work here has its many pleasures. These are basically trio sonatas, although for two instruments, because Bach treats the two hands at the harpsichord as independent much of the time – a technique that, by the way, absolutely requires use of a harpsichord, not a piano. It is simply amazing to hear Pine and Vinikour bringing out Bach’s individual melodic lines, keeping the sparkling canons and fugues crystal-clear while blending the instruments’ sounds when called for. This is, by any measure, a top-notch performance of some marvelous music – a worthy addition to the collection of anyone who loves Bach’s music as it should sound, and can sound only in the hands of the very best interpreters.

     The Bach sonatas date to the early part of the 18th century, about 1720. By the late part of the same century, the “trio” concept no longer involved Bach’s contrapuntal sleight of hand and was attached, in the Classical era, strictly to works using three instruments. An early Beethoven contribution to the form, dating to 1797, is the charming and unusually scored Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 11. The performance by Andreas Ottensamer, Anne Gastinel and Nicholas Angelich on the Naïve label is a particularly pleasing one: it sounds as if the performers genuinely enjoyed themselves when making the recording. This trio is sometimes played with violin rather than clarinet, but it sounds much more interesting – and is unique in its scoring among Beethoven’s works – when the woodwind is used. This is unassuming music, meant to appeal to popular tastes of the time: the finale is a set of variations on a then-very-popular tune that was later used by Hummel and Paganini as well. Ottensamer, Gastinel and Angelich make no attempt to give the trio a grander scale or greater sense of importance than Beethoven intended: their playing is precise, light, and beautifully blended. The Op. 11 trio predates by six years a “trio” of another sort, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, which also gets a first-rate reading on this CD. Interestingly, given Beethoven’s prowess as a pianist, it is really the cello that strides forth most strongly in the Triple Concerto, introducing the themes of all three movements and essentially shaping the direction in which the music goes. The cello writing is not very idiomatic, spending a lot of time in the instrument’s higher register, but it is that very characteristic that makes a well-played version of the Triple Concerto so interesting: like the Op. 11 trio, this concerto has scoring that is unique among Beethoven’s works. The overall structure of the Triple Concerto is unusual, too: there is a very long first movement, which is normal for concertos, but then there is a very short second movement – little more than an interlude – followed by quite an expansive finale that actually sounds as if it could have gone on even longer had Beethoven not been busy with Fidelio at the time (the conclusion of the finale is somewhat perfunctory). Gastinel and Angelich interact with Gil Shaham at least as seamlessly as they do with Ottensamer: the three solo instruments weave in and out of the material with strength, elegance and suitable deference to each other – which is to say that none of these virtuoso performers feels the need to upstage the others, and all are willing to handle the music as a sort of updated concerto grosso. In addition, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under Paavo Järvi provides just the right sort of accompaniment for this unusual work, neither swamping the soloists nor underplaying the importance of the orchestral forces by staying too far in the background. All in all, this “double triple” Beethoven CD offers highly satisfying readings of two works that are somewhat off the beaten path where this composer is concerned, and very much worth hearing when they are performed as sensitively as they are here.

May 17, 2018


Take a Ride by My Side. By Jonathan Ying. Illustrated by Victoria Ying. Harper. $14.99.

Toad on the Road: Mama and Me. By Stephan Shaskan. Harper. $17.99.

     “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!” So wrote Dr. Seuss in One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. The words could be the motto for both these books for kids ages 4-8 – both are all about going from place to place and finding enjoyable (if not laugh-out-loud funny) things at every location. In Jonathan Ying’s Take a Ride by My Side, two friends, a cat and a dog, start out on “a trip from here to there” with minimal luggage but big plans. This is a book where the journey definitely matters more than the various destinations (except for the final one). The whole book is about ways of getting from place to place, starting with a bicycle with a sidecar (hence the book’s title) and then traveling in a canoe, a submarine, an airplane and even a rocket ship. Apparently the dog – who is the one who keeps proposing going onward to somewhere new – has both a pilot’s license and an astronaut’s rocket-flying ability, since dog and cat eventually travel all the way to the moon. Victoria Ying draws both characters simply, with an emphasis on their big eyes and almost perfectly round heads. Eventually, though, the two make it to the very best place of all: their home, where the whole adventure started. “But even though it’s fun to roam,/ there’s nowhere quite as great as home,” writes Jonathan Ying, as the friends sit in their living room in front of a wall on which there are pictures of all their adventures. Hmm…Victoria Ying never shows either of them carrying a camera or cell phone, so who took those photos, including the one on the moon’s surface and the one shot deep underwater from outside the submarine? Young readers may well wonder just what happened. Parents can come up with whatever answer they like, or just suggest that kids think something up on their own.

     The second Toad on the Road book keeps its characters earthbound and in pretty much the same area, but it expands on Stephen Shaskan’s previous Toad book, in which characters who worried about Toad sitting in the road eventually got help for their vehicles from Toad’s mother, who turned out to be a tow-truck driver. In Toad on the Road: Mama and Me, both Toad and Mama Toad are in the truck (labeled “Mama Toad’s Towing”) and are being helpful to everybody, with the repeated refrain, “Mama and Toad will save the day!/ Everyone shout: Hip hip hooray!” First Mama and Toad come upon Goat, whose delivery truck (“Bob’s Bounce Houses”) has run out of gas. So they supply some. Then they encounter Fox’s van (“Bob’s Balloons”) with a flat tire – which they promptly change. And then they find Moose’s car (“Bob’s Pizza”) stuck in some mud at the side of the road – and use the hook on the back of their tow truck to get the car out. Goat, Fox and Moose all show their appreciation for the help with thanks and a statement that their deliveries “will surely get through” because of the toads’ tow truck’s assistance. And where do you suppose all the deliveries might be going? To a thank-you party for Toad and Mama Toad for all they help they give everyone! Shaskan’s cartoon illustrations are broadly conceived, with little attempt to make the animals at all realistic – clearly these characters are stand-ins for humans showing their appreciation for friends and helpers. The final page’s “hooray to our friends for all that they do” message makes the book’s focus abundantly clear. Gently amusing and written with plenty of easy-to-remember repetition, Toad on the Road: Mama and Me will be fun not only for early readers but also for pre-readers, who will enjoy the easy-to-follow rhythm of Shaskan’s rhyming.


Noir. By Christopher Moore. William Morrow. $27.99.

Secondhand Souls. By Christopher Moore. William Morrow. $15.99.

     Christopher Moore writes picaresque novels that are really more like picaresque scenes strung together so they kind of fit but never fully cohere, and it does not really matter. Moore’s wonderfully pithy description of one character in his latest novel, Noir, actually fits the entire Moore oeuvre: this character, a foul-mouthed kid of a type much favored by the author for scene-setting and other nefarious purposes, is described as being “well stocked with enthusiasm and bad intentions.” That is Moore himself to a T.

     One does not approach a Moore novel seeking coherence or carefully arranged plots dependent more on comic-but-realistic life flow than on comic-and-ridiculous coincidences. One approaches Moore in the knowledge that everything he does is a sendup of something or other, of a genre or a character type or of other people’s storytelling or of his own style. One example from Noir of the last of these has the narrator, a distinctly non-poetic protagonist named Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin, saying, “the fog off the bay was streaming between the buildings like a scarf through a stripper’s legs, leaving everything damp and smelling of sailors’ broken dreams.” That is a remarkably good parody of the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett genre, a doggone good description of how the fog in San Francisco really does behave (and presumably did in 1947, when Noir takes place), and a passage so dramatically over-the-top that Moore must have known he was using it to go over the top of his own over-the-topness. Moore’s descriptive passages about San Francisco, like Richard Kadrey’s about Los Angeles in Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels, are not at all the point of the books but are a major reason they are so compulsively readable. It is hard to imagine anyone but Moore writing that, when it comes to driving in San Francisco, “it was like trying to find your way in a bruised martini full of lightning bugs.”

     Sammy, the guy talking about the scarf and martini, is at the epicenter of a series of bizarrely Moore-ish characters and bizarrely Moore-ish events. Among the former are a blonde named Stilton, aka “the Cheese”; the already-referred-to kid, who is a semi-professional nuisance and misuser of just-learned vocabulary words; Eddie Moo Shoes of Chinatown notoriety; the smarmy General Remy, who is in charge of a dump of a military establishment out in New Mexico in a town that goes by the name of Roswell; a bunch of guys in black suits and ever-present sunglasses who belong “to an agency that was so new, and so secret, that it had failed its basic mission the day the second guy joined”; and the usual mixture of girlfriends, boyfriends, girlboyfriends, corrupt cops, maybe-Satan-worshiping bigwigs – you know, just your normal Moore cast of characters. It is almost a disappointment when, toward the back of the book, everything starts to make a weird kind of sense, including the previously confusing presence of two narrators (Sammy plus someone using the authorial third person and promising to explain later). Moore loves low comedy: the scene of Sammy trying literally to ice his ex-boss, “ex” because said boss unwisely pried open a crate containing a deadly snake that Sammy ordered for a Chinatown-related scheme, is a bit of hilarious slapstick that definitely fits the definition of “black humor” if that phrase is even allowed nowadays. Moore also loves formulaic heartstring-tugging, as when Sammy hears a street musician playing the blues, gets the blues himself, and gives the guy almost all his money. And Moore loves pushing a plot in so many directions that readers can barely keep up and it is obvious that things cannot possibly fit together – then fitting them together. Most of all, Moore loves writing, the sheer cadence of words (including more than a few four-letter ones), the unfolding of a story set in a world distinguished from the real one only by the occasional intrusion of supernatural elements – although, come to think of it, maybe it is the real world, only slightly unmoored (or Moored). Noir is part tribute to its genre, part spoof of it; part satire, part fond replication; part clever sendup, part trying-to-be-clever parody. What matters is that it is all Moore, which means it is compulsively readable – not because of cliffhangers (although it has plenty of them), not because of any desire to know what happens how to whom (although Sammy and Stilton are characters about whom readers can actually care), but because of the sheer power of Moore’s writing, the certainty that however weird and bizarre and peculiar a description or observation may be, there is going to be another one, equally weird and bizarre and peculiar, on the next page. And there almost always is.

     The pattern is recognizably the same even though the story is completely different in Moore’s previous novel, Secondhand Souls, originally published in 2015 and now available in paperback. However, this is not a standalone book, although it makes some half-hearted efforts to be one. It is a sequel to A Dirty Job (2006), set a year later and bringing back just about all the characters who survived the earlier book and a few who didn’t. Be advised that trying to read Secondhand Souls on its own will indeed produce all the typical reactions to Moore, from groaning at groaners to puzzling at puzzles to laughing out loud at laugh-out-loud scenes, but the reactions will be far more muted than if you read A Dirty Job first. That is, it is one thing to know that a former nun has implanted the soul of “beta male” Charlie Asher in a 14-inch-high meat puppet with a crocodile head, duck feet and 10-inch penis, but it is another thing to know why she did this. The “why” is told, in excruciating and excruciatingly funny detail, in A Dirty Job. In Secondhand Souls, you just kind of have to accept it as background. Likewise, the role of Charlie’s now-seven-year-old daughter, Sophie, as the Luminatus, a kind of death-beyond-death figure, is central to Secondhand Souls but makes more sense (at least a little more) if you know the earlier book. Also likewise, the reason the disappearance of Sophie’s “goggies” (a couple of gigantic hellhounds that protect her) in Secondhand Souls is so important has to do with their appearance in A Dirty Job. And so on. In Secondhand Souls, Sophie fills the profane-mouthed-kid role, Archer is the somewhat feckless but basically good guy in Sammy “Two Toes” mode, Audrey the ex-nun is the Cheese, and the various hangers-on are the various hangers-on. But the characters are different enough so that the good-vs.-evil story of Secondhand Souls reads nothing like the what-the-heck-is-going-on story of Noir. In fact, what is at stake in Secondhand Souls is pretty much everything, as readers will realize when the harbinger-of-doom banshee and the three murderous raven-women show up in (where else?) San Francisco. Secondhand Souls, like Noir, has a stylistic oddity, in this case not in the narrators of the main narrative but in several of the stories-within-the-story in which unsettled ghosts tell the sad tales of their lives, resulting in deviations from rather than deepening of the book’s plot. The save-the-world-again idea of Secondhand Souls is, to be sure, secondhand, but the reason it works as well as it does is that it is secondhand Moore, which is well above firsthand almost-anybody-else. On its own, Secondhand Souls is less successful than Noir. But when paired, A Dirty Job and Secondhand Souls are, together, just as strange and delightful and out-and-out peculiar as all the books that Moore has been producing, with remarkable consistency, ever since Practical Demonkeeping (1992). Moore has never written anything that is not worth reading: his is a uniquely skewed worldview, wrapped in a style both playful and pointed, inside plots that are almost incidental to the hijinks and low humor with which his novels abound.


Monday’s Not Coming. By Tiffany D. Jackson. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     There is something exceptionally annoying about books that insist they are capital-I Important and capital-M Meaningful and lots-of-capitals Not To Be Ignored Because They Deal With Major Issues. A really good writer can get away with this sort of pompous self-puffery by treating issues of the day with style, sensitivity and an awareness that the audience reading the book is likely to be a diverse one that will not necessarily share the author’s viewpoint or sense of societal outrage. And then there are authors such as Tiffany D. Jackson, who basically come forward and try to “guilt” readers into finding a story such as Monday’s Not Coming significant even though the plot creaks, the style is dull, the structure is difficult to follow, and the characters are portrayed in a way that prevents the book from striking a chord with people who are not willing to be “guilted” into empathy.

     There is something significant underlying this novel: the plight of the multiply marginalized, of girls who are virtually invisible by reason of their skin color and/or behavior and/or activities and/or family situations and who can therefore disappear without making so much as a ripple in society. In fact, Monday’s Not Coming is loosely based on real-life incidents in Washington, D.C. But what matters is not the realism or lack of realism of the foundational story – what matters is how cogently the author communicates it. And that is where Monday’s Not Coming falls short.

     The story is about eighth-grader Claudia Coleman and her best and only friend, Monday Charles – who mysteriously disappears one day. Monday is not there when Claudia returns to school after the summer, and Claudia gets more and more worried as the days pass and Claudia never shows up – and no one seems to have any idea of where she is, or even to care very much. The school removes Monday from its system, her phone does not work anymore, and even Monday’s family seems, if not indifferent, then strangely quiet about Monday’s disappearance, giving different and incomplete explanations at different times. So far, so good from a storytelling standpoint. But Jackson wants to tell the tale in a capital-I Important (or capital-I Intriguing) way, and it does not work. Claudia is part of the problem: she is in her midteens (the book is intended for readers ages 13 and up), but she sounds much of the time like a preteen, and a young one at that. Jackson herself  is another part of the problem, because she structures the book in multiple timelines that are very difficult to follow and overly complex. “Before” deals with Claudia finding out that Monday is missing, “After” has to do with the time when Claudia has learned what happened, and then there are chapters such as “One Year Before the Before” and “Two Years Before the Before,” which confuse matters considerably and make it difficult to figure out just what occurred or was learned when. And Jackson is prone to melodrama, as when she reveals that Claudia suffers from PTSD because of Monday’s disappearance and presents other plot twists, including the “reveal” that marks the book’s climax but that is somewhat anticlimactic. The result is a story that often seems overdone and overemphatic.

     There is sex and talk of sex in Monday’s Not Coming, and bullying, and drug and alcohol use, and there are issues of abuse and privilege (in the form of gentrification of “culturally rich” but impoverished neighborhoods) and mental health and being downtrodden and so forth. Make no mistake: these are legitimate issues. But loading them onto a book that is also loaded with a creaky, self-consciously “literary” style rather than being told in straightforward fashion with, perhaps, a few flashbacks, simply makes the story less compelling than it could be. This could easily have been a family story – one that would connect with families of all types and colors and income levels – because at its heart, Monday’s Not Coming is about what secret-keeping does to people and how dangerous it is to be silent when you see things that are not supposed to be seen. But by making the book overcomplicated in design and making the protagonist sound much of the time like someone far younger, Jackson vitiates a potentially powerful story.

     It has become fashionable in some circles to assert that if you haven’t “been there” yourself, you cannot possibly react “properly” to a story about people who are different from you – because of gender, sexual preference, skin color, ethnicity, religion, or some other characteristic. That is nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that. Certainly an author who wants to reach only people like herself can write stories about people like herself in language that she believes only similar people will understand. And there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that: some books are self-limited by design. But when an author seeks to reach out beyond those who have “been there,” to show people who have not “been there” what it feels like to “be there,” she has an obligation to present relatable material and relatable characters in such a way as to connect with people who have not personally experienced the living conditions of those characters. Retreating behind a wall of “you’re not like me so you can’t possibly get it and besides you’re a racist/sexist/some-other-epithet” accomplishes exactly nothing if the purpose of a book is to reach out. If its only purpose is to reaffirm what others who have “been there” already believe, that is a different matter. Walling oneself up with one’s imagined “tribe” is a protective maneuver, and sometimes an effective one. But it comes at the expense of genuine connection with members of other “tribes” who may genuinely want to understand matters that go beyond their personal experiences. Monday’s Not Coming is too disjointed, too ill-structured, and ultimately too unconvincing in its narrative to offer more than a “guilt trip” reason for people who are not like these characters to care about what happens to them.


Tchaikovsky: Pique Dame. Oleg Kulko, tenor; Sergei Leiferkus, baritone; Albert Schagidullin, baritone; Viacheslav Voynarovskiy, tenor; Maxim Mikhailov, bass; Felix Livshitz, tenor; Alexey Kanunikov, bass-baritone; Nina Romanova, mezzo-soprano; Karina A. Flores, soprano; Ekaterina Semenchuk, alto; Olga Schalaewa, mezzo-soprano; Lilia Gretsova, soprano; Gary Bertini Israeli Choir, Ankor Choir, and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Helicon. $34.99 (3 CDs).

     Audio recordings of operas start with the obvious disadvantage that opera is inherently a multimedia experience. Even in operas where characters stand silently for long periods of time while other characters sing at length – as in much opera seria and much Wagner – the stage setting, the costumes and the overall ambience of the scenes are important for audience impact. And in most operas, there is quite a lot happening on stage: opera is, at its foundation, staged drama with music. In an opera such as Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, which quite deliberately sets up visual distinctions from scene to scene and uses appearances to underline characters’ personalities and the way they fit or fail to fit into life, the lack of visuals in a CD recording is felt quite acutely. On the other hand, Tchaikovsky’s music at this time – the opera dates to 1890, between his Fifth and Sixth symphonies – is so evocative of multiple emotions that a listener can sit back and simply imagine stage scenery in his or her own mind, allowing the music to carry the story along as it mostly does so well.

     For an audio recording of Pique Dame to be truly successful, the performance must be exemplary, and Vladimir Jurowski’s in Tel Aviv in November 2012, now available on the Helicon label, comes close to that level. This was a concert performance, not a fully staged one, so in fact there is not much lost when hearing the recording at home. And Jurowski has an excellent handle on the music, playing up the pathos (if not quite tragedy) of the story, its peculiar supernatural elements, and the skillful way that librettist Modest Tchaikovsky arranged scenes to give the audience some respite from the darker material through snippets of the everyday. Jurowski is particularly adept at bringing out this contrast – between the very first scene, of children and governesses in the park, for example, and the introduction soon thereafter of doomed and hyper-Romantic protagonist Herman (Oleg Kulko), telling his friends of his intense love for a woman he has never met and whose name he does not know. Similarly, the bright, naïve pastoral interlude in Act II (which, it must be said, goes on rather too long – Tchaikovsky seems to be enjoying writing in Mozart’s style too much to let it go) contrasts highly effectively with the following climactic scene in the bedroom of the Countess (Nina Romanova), which brings on the inevitable ending that has loomed from the work’s opening.

     Kulko handles the overdone and not particularly sympathetic role of Herman very well, pulling what emotional connection he can from the role of a protagonist who dooms not only himself but also those around him. And Romanova makes a fine Countess, being if anything a touch too forceful and self-possessed to make it convincing that she would die of fright when threatened by Herman. As Herman’s love interest, Liza, Karina A. Flores is rather bland – but then, so is her character. She is best in her final confrontation with Herman, when her cry that she will yet save him shows that she does have a touch of assertiveness, albeit too late to do any good. A special treat here is Albert Schagidullin as Prince Yeletsky: the way he proffers his love for Liza, who has secretly chosen Herman already, is so sincere that it leaves little doubt about how wrong her decision will turn out to be. The remaining roles are all filled skillfully by the mostly Russian cast, although Sergei Leiferkus’ voice is a touch too thin and at times slightly shaky, making him less than fully effective as Count Tomsky. The choruses and orchestra all sing well and appear to enunciate clearly – but this is where the recording somewhat falls short.

     Pique Dame is sung, as it must be, in Russian. It is only reasonable to expect a recording to offer the libretto in Russian, in transliteration, and in English translation. If this cannot be done in the packaging of the recording itself, for cost reasons, then arranging for the material to be available online is a matter of simple respect for one’s intended audience – in this case, clearly English speakers, since the enclosed booklet is in English only. But Helicon provides nothing at all, and indeed, only 3½ pages of the 44-page booklet are devoted to giving a synopsis and scene summary of the opera. There are 13 pages of photos of the performance – and since this was not a staged production, that just means photos of people wearing suits or dresses. And there are 11 pages of biographies of the performers – part of a recent trend toward “celebritizing” singers and conductors at the expense of giving listeners more information on the music itself. It is possible to get away with this sort of approach with impunity when presenting music that is extremely well-known, such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. But listeners interested in opera – and, if they also go see it staged, accustomed to the now-omnipresent surtitles translating what is being sung – are surely entitled to expect some way of following along with what they are hearing. Helicon is certainly not alone in neglecting the music this way, but this release is part of an unfortunate trend that is likely, in the long run, to make opera even more of a niche interest than it already is. That would be a real shame, because works such as Pique Dame have enough dramatic elements, enough sad and moving ones, and enough sweeping and beautiful music (including some passages that Tchaikovsky would later use in The Nutcracker and other late works), to appeal to people who would not normally think about hearing opera – if the purveyors of recordings like this one would take the time to present the material a little more thoughtfully.

May 10, 2018


What if You Had an Animal Tail!? By Sandra Markle. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.

     One of the cleverest and most informative books in the long-running What if You Had… series by Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam, What if You Had an Animal Tail!? will have young readers marveling at all the things that animals’ tails can do – and perhaps wishing for one of their own, even though the book, like all its predecessors, emphasizes at the end that people are just fine as they already are, without any additions or enhancements. That is certainly a reasonable position, but my goodness, how impressive the tails chosen for this book are! They range from the obvious (peacock’s tail, rattlesnake’s tail) to the far-from-obvious (thresher shark’s tail, whose top portion can be 20 feet long – as long as the rest of the shark’s body).

     The What if You Had… books follow their own formula, from the titles ending with both an exclamation point and a question mark to the drawings in which McWilliam imagines how kids with various animal attachments would look when doing everyday activities. For her part, Markle digs up fascinating facts even about well-known matters. For example, the peacock’s plumage will be very familiar to many readers of this book, but how many will know that “this bird sheds and regrows its tail feathers each year” and that each tail “has its own special pattern of eyespots and shimmering colors”? The fact that a rattlesnake’s tail sounds a warning to frighten intruders away may be common knowledge, but how about the fact that the snake “shakes its tail back and forth about sixty times a second”?

     A lot of the fun of these books shows the absurd situations that would become possible if kids had the animal characteristics on which each book focuses. A rattlesnake’s tail would provide “the perfect instrument to play in a band,” for example. A giraffe’s tail – the longest possessed by any land animal – would mean “you wouldn’t need a brush to paint a masterpiece,” and the illustration shows a girl using her giraffe’s tail to create Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” Thanks to a scorpion’s stinging tail, “you’d never have to wait in line,” writes Markle, and McWilliam shows a typical summertime ice-cream-truck scene with a very long line of people standing way back to let the girl with the scorpion’s tail place her order first. A beaver’s broad, flat tail would let you “make the biggest splash in the pool,” and a tokay gecko’s tail – which, like those of many lizards, breaks off if the animal is caught by a predator – would guarantee that “no one could stop you from scoring a touchdown” (at least not if you were tail-tackled from behind).

     As in all these books, the all-factual conclusion here is less interesting than the amusing imaginings earlier; but the ending does serve to bring young readers back into the real world. Here, Markle explains about the human tailbone (coccyx) and why it is “exactly what you need to sit down or stand up straight.” A simple McWilliam illustration shows where the human tailbone is located, at the bottom of the spine, and a final page of the book – which, again, is a standard feature of these volumes – explains how to take care of your tailbone. The advice includes “don’t sit sideways on just one hip,” “sit straight and tall with your shoulders back,” and “try to get up and move about every twenty minutes.” All these recommendations are good ones, but they are scarcely the reason kids will pick up this book and enjoy it. The exact potential tail uses discussed and shown here may not be the ones kids themselves would find for these animal appendages, or others. But just thinking about what it might be possible to do with a particular tail makes the underlying facts about these specific tails much easier to absorb – which, of course, is the whole purpose of the What if You Had… series in general and What if You Had an Animal Tail!? in particular.


Riders of the Realm #1: Across the Dark Water. By Jennifer Lynn Alvarez. Harper. $16.99.

     The four-book Guardian Herd series has spawned a new planned trilogy set in the same world – and involving species beyond the pegasi, whose trials and tribulations were chronicled at length by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez in the Guardian Herd books. The new Riders of the Realm sequence is strictly for fans of the earlier books who have hungered for more of the same, maybe with some human beings thrown in to interact with the flying horses. That is exactly what readers get, no more and no less, in Across the Dark Water. Here the 140 pegasi of the Storm Herd journey across the Dark Ocean to seek freedom from Nightwing the Destroyer and a new home where they can graze and fly freely. Their leader is Echofrost, who is brave and determined but who succeeds only in bringing the Storm Herd to places peopled by barbaric giants and two-legged Landwalkers – that is, human beings.

     The human society already knows about pegasi, using tame ones in war and for protection against the threatening giants. The Storm Herd is astonished to see humans riding on pegasi – and dismayed when herd member Shysong is captured by the Landwalkers. Soon Echofrost is caught as well, and the two pegasi need to figure out how to escape before they become Landwalker slaves. Unsurprisingly in this formula-packed book, the pegasi end up with an unlikely Landwalker ally: 12-year-old Rahkki Stormrunner, who feels a not-surprising-at-all (in view of his name) connection to the Storm Herd and to pegasi in general. Unfortunately, Rahkki and Echofrost cannot understand each other – will they come to common ground before Shysong and Echofrost are doomed to servitude?

     Readers need little grounding in standard fantasy-adventure lore to see what will happen here and why: for example, Rahkki is an orphan, of course, and therefore develops a “family” kinship with the pegasi. But Rahkki is supposed to prepare Echofrost for auction, and is therefore conflicted between duty and deep feelings (or ones that readers are told are deep; this is not really clear in the narrative itself).

     Even for Guardian Herd readers of around Rahkki’s age (the book’s target audience is ages 8-12), Across the Dark Water will be on the creaky side. It starts with a rather poorly done summary of the huge battle that makes the Storm Herd’s flight across the Dark Ocean possible. The writing is less than crystal clear – anyone not already familiar with the four Guardian Herd books will likely be confused about who is who and what is what here. The new book’s pacing is on the decidedly slow side, and its focus changes midway from the pegasi, who are more interesting than the Landwalkers, to the political ins, outs and foibles of the humans – who are not especially well-differentiated and whose politics is the usual mess of slyness, power-seeking and backstabbing. The more time Alvarez spends on the Landwalkers, the duller they seem in comparison to the pegasi. And the overarching story conception here – slaves flee, seeking freedom, and find a new world that brings them only more bondage – is scarcely a new one. Rahkki is suitably heroic-but-conflicted but is not an interesting enough character to provide strong identification for readers – who are more likely to feel kinship for the pegasi. Across the Dark Water reads like an afterthought to the Guardian Herd sequence rather than the fully formed beginning of a new, related book series set in the same world and featuring some of the same characters. Alvarez seems to be trying too hard to get extra mileage out of her original concept, but instead of the Landwalker elements expanding the scope of the Guardian Herd books, they seem mostly to narrow it and make it more mundane and earthbound.


Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano; Auf dem Kirchhofe, Op. 105, No. 4; Wie Melodien zieht es mir, Op. 105, No. 1; Regenlied, Op. 59, No. 3. Sirkka-Liisa Kaakinen-Pilch, violin; Tuija Hakkila, piano. Ondine. $16.99.

Nielsen: Clarinet Concerto; Six Humorous Bagatelles; Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano; Fantasy Pieces for Oboe and Piano; Serenata in Vano. David Shifrin, clarinet; Ryan Reynolds, bassoon; William Purvis, horn; Jon Greeney, snare drum; Benjamin Hoffman and Theodore Arm, violins; Jennifer Frautschi, viola; Mihai Marica, cello; Curtis Daily, double bass; Yevgeny Yontov, piano. Delos. $16.99.

     Unusual presentations of well-known or moderately-well-known pieces always run the risk of seeming like gimmicks – but when well done, atypical ways of handling music can bring new insight into the works, along with pleasures of their own. Certainly that is the case with the excellent presentation of Brahms’ violin-and-piano (in this case often called piano-and-violin) sonatas by Sirkka-Liisa Kaakinen-Pilch and Tuija Hakkila. This Ondine CD is special in two ways and odd in a third. One unusual element is the inclusion of three songs whose material Brahms incorporated, in altered form, into the sonatas. The CD opens with Auf dem Kirchhofe and uses the other two songs as interludes between the sonatas. This makes for a very attractive package that can be heard straight through, for listeners so inclined, without any sense that the sonatas, which are quite different from each other, are “bumping up” against one another. The second unusual aspect of the CD is that Kaakinen-Pilch and Hakkila play instruments of Brahms’ own time – it is worth remembering that period-instrument performance is not confined to Baroque music but can be equally effective in works of the Romantic era, a time of gut strings, less use of vibrato, and pianos with less key travel and keys often set closer together (making some hand spans easier and affecting the sound of chords). Kaakinen-Pilch plays an anonymous violin of Brahms’ time; Hakkila uses an 1864 Streicher piano – a type much favored by Brahms himself – for Sonata No. 1 and Regenlied, an 1892 Bösendorfer for the rest of the music. The instruments are very well-balanced against each other, and the performances, which are presented at pacing that fits the music just about perfectly, offer exactly the sort of give-and-take between the musicians that Brahms surely intended. There are many fine recordings of these sonatas available, and this is one of the finest, getting an extra edge from the period-instrument approach and the inclusion of the song material. As for the disc’s oddity, that lies in the sequence in which the sonatas are presented: No. 2, then No. 3, and finally No. 1. There is no demonstrable reason for this, and its effect is, if anything, to undercut, to an extent, the cleverness of sprinkling the songs amid the longer works. Still, this is a relatively minor quibble, and of course listeners need not listen to the CD straight through and can arrange to hear the tracks in any order at all. Still, this particular disc invites a straight-through hearing, and it would have been better to arrange it so listeners could readily absorb not only the songs’ influence on the sonatas but also the changes in Brahms’ handling of violin-and-piano interplay from No. 1 (1878) to No. 2 (1886) to No. 3 (1888).

     Unusual elements abound on a new Delos CD featuring elegant clarinet playing by David Shifrin, who takes on a series of works by Carl Nielsen in unexpected and uniformly successful ways. The big piece here is the Clarinet Concerto, but it appears in a never-before-recorded chamber-music arrangement made by Rene Orth. This sets Shifrin against eight musicians rather than a full orchestra – although “against” really applies only to the snare drum, which here (as in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5) seems determined to interrupt the musical flow and distract from it. The opposition between clarinet and snare drum is even clearer in this chamber arrangement than in Nielsen’s original scoring, and the rapprochement with which the work concludes is equally satisfying. This concerto can easily sound episodic – indeed, it is episodic in its design – but Shifrin manages to find coherence throughout and maintain musical flow even though the short episodes of which the work consists make it difficult to sustain a sense of organization. There is a delightful contrast between the chamber version of the concerto, which opens the CD, and the Serenata in Vano, which closes it and was recorded at the same live performance. Nielsen scored Serenata in Vano for a very unusual instrumental complement: clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and double bass. The result is a work whose sound is unique, with the music itself being wry and witty. This is a three-section piece whose “story” involves serenaders seeking unsuccessfully to appeal to a woman with two different musical offerings, then giving up (hence the piece’s title) and heading home while playing a jaunty march for their own enjoyment. The players certainly share the pleasure here, not only with the audience for which they performed but also for listeners to the CD. In between the chamber works are three clarinet-and-piano pieces, two of which have their own unexpected presentation elements. One of those two is Six Humorous Bagatelles, a piano work arranged by Steven Cohen (himself a clarinetist) for clarinet and piano. This set of six small pieces, Nielsen’s own Children’s Corner Suite, dates to 1894-97 and therefore predates Debussy’s of 1908, which is also in six movements, by more than a decade. Nielsen’s work is far less often heard, which is a shame, since the straightforward miniatures are all nicely conceived and written at just the right length to avoid overstaying their welcome. Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov handle them with just the right amount of delicacy and charm. The two are also well-matched in Shifrin’s own transcription for clarinet and piano of Nielsen’s Fantasy Pieces for Oboe and Piano – in fact, the first of these two early works (1889) takes on additional depth as arranged here, and the second is suitably playful. The CD also includes the short Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano, an even earlier work (dating to 1881, when Nielsen was just 16). Here too Shifrin and Yontov blend and contrast very well indeed, and the music benefits from their camaraderie. The arrangements of most of the pieces on this disc may be unusual, but it is the very high quality of the music-making, not the unexpected elements, that makes the recording a pleasure from start to finish.


Franz Krommer: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 7. Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99.

Richard Heuberger: Der Opernball. Gerhard Ernst, Lotte Marquardt, Alexander Kaimbacher, Ivan Oreščanin, Nadja Mchantaf, Martin Fournier, Margareta Klobučar, Sieglinde Feldhofer, János Mischuretz; Chor der Oper Graf and Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester conducted by Marius Burkert. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     Composers who significantly influenced other composers deservedly get a great deal of credit for doing so. Haydn’s enormous influence on Mozart and Beethoven, Beethoven’s on Schubert and Brahms and a plethora of Romantics, Offenbach’s on Suppé and Sullivan, Wagner’s on Verdi and Puccini and on through-composition of opera in general, Schoenberg’s on nearly all composers from the Second Viennese School down to our own time – these are just a few examples. Many of those who absorbed and extended the innovations of earlier composers became influential in their own right. But some did not: they took in enough techniques to produce interesting, sometimes even compelling music, but their works were dead ends, and whatever popularity they enjoyed for a time faded, often quickly, after the composers’ deaths. But it is a testament to the high quality of some of this music that, when it is rediscovered, it proves more than worthy of performance and of repeated hearings. Such is the case with the symphonies of Franz Krommer (1759-1831), a Viennese composer who lived and worked almost literally in Beethoven’s shadow and who, as a result, faded quickly into obscurity despite the initial enthusiasm with which his works were met. Krommer wrote nine symphonies, eight of which have survived, and Howard Griffiths, a dedicated explorer of some of the byways of musical history, offers three of them in exceptionally forceful and well-played versions on a new CPO disc featuring the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana. It is easy to hear influences of Haydn in these works (especially in Symphony No. 7); and, like the symphonies of Louis Spohr, these are redolent of Beethoven as well. But it is Beethoven of around the time of his Symphony No. 2 (1801-1802), not later Beethoven – even though these three Krommer works date from 1820, 1821 and 1824, respectively. There is dynamism and a strong sense of sturm und drang in these pieces, and their sound may remind some listeners of that of Niels Gade’s symphonies (although those also have Mendelssohnian elements that Krommer’s symphonies lack). Krommer was writing some of his later symphonies, including No. 7, when Beethoven had advanced far beyond the Krommer sound: Beethoven’s Ninth was written from 1822 to 1824, and Krommer’s Seventh, which (like all three symphonies heard here) features a third movement labeled Menuetto, seems like something of a throwback. These are works of strength and solidity, but their style is a derivative one despite some clever twists that Krommer brings to the material. Symphony No. 4 in C minor is strong and dramatic, with a complex Adagio second movement. Symphony No. 5 in E-flat is filled with trumpets and timpani and offers intriguing contrasts between the martial and the pastoral within the first movement and between that whole movement and the following Andante sostenuto. And Symphony No. 7 in G minor is especially interesting for concluding with, of all things, a fugue – but one created in the harmonic language of Krommer’s time rather than that of Bach. Griffiths leads the orchestra with a sure hand in all the symphonies, giving Krommer his full due for the works’ structural integrity and thematic cogency. None of these symphonies is especially distinctive in breaking new ground for later composers: they are very much of their own time, and it is scarcely surprising that they were eclipsed by other material not long after Krommer’s death. Yet these well-made works are worthy of revival today, both for the innate pleasures they offer and for the insight they provide into the music being created in Vienna in Beethoven’s time.

     The influences that culminated in Der Opernball by Richard Heuberger (1850-1914) are apparent not only in the music but also in the story. This operetta, by far the best-known work by Heuberger and a piece whose overture continues to appear frequently on concert programs, has nearly the same plot as Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and a structure almost identical to that of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus. It is a straightforward and often amusing “bedroom comedy,” although here the room involved is a chamber séparée to which various men seek to bring various women who are not their wives – or maybe are. That is, the women decide to test their husbands’ faithfulness by creating a specific Carnival costume to be worn at the opera ball of the title – and matters get more complicated when the chambermaid of one couple decides that she too will wear the costume and use it to lure the man in whom she is interested. The opera ball occurs in the second act, as does the party in Die Fledermaus, and Heuberger’s third act is used to unravel matters, blame the confusion on the chambermaid, and assert, rather unconvincingly, the fidelity of both the married men: there is nothing here quite akin to Strauss’ conclusion that nur der Champagner war an allem schuld! However, Der Opernball of 1898 quite clearly echoes Die Fledermaus of 1874 (although the play on which Heuberger’s operetta was based did not appear until 1876). The music bubbles along in a similar vein as well – and it really is bubbly in the new two-CD recording from CPO. As for the overall Opera Graz production – well, sprechen Sie Deutsch? Dann ist die neue CPO-CD von "Der Opernball" ein echtes Vergnügen. If you do speak German – and are unfamiliar with Der Opernball or not particularly concerned about authenticity in performing it – then Marius Burkert and the Graz soloists, chorus and orchestra offer plenty of ebullience and charm in their rather broad interpretation. If you speak only English and/or would like to hear the operetta as Heuberger composed it, this release will be a disappointment despite the good playing and enjoyable singing. The language issue lies simply in the fact that the dialogue – which has been rewritten from the original libretto by Viktor Léon and Heinrich von Waldberg – is crucial to understanding the action and is neither printed in the booklet nor offered online, much less translated from German to English. The sung pieces are given in the booklet, and CPO deserves some credit for that, but they appear in German only. As for the sequences of the music, that issue belongs entirely to Opera Graz, which decided not only to alter the dialogue (a common if unfortunate occurrence in contemporary operetta presentations) but also to rearrange the order in which the set pieces are presented. It is very hard to understand why this was done: Der Opernball is confusing enough by intention so that it makes no sense to complicate matters further by moving its music around willy-nilly. Presumably the rewritten dialogue was designed to clarify the rearranged music, but it would have been a great deal simpler and a great deal more pleasant if Opera Graz had simply presented the operetta as the composer intended. Certainly the quality of the music, with whose orchestration Heuberger had the assistance of Alexander von Zemlinsky, comes through here, and certainly it is easy to hear why Geh'n wir in's Chambre séparée took Vienna by storm in 1898. The sheer quality of the musical material is enough to give this release a (+++) rating. But it could easily have been an even more welcome recording if the fine singing, playing and conducting had been put at the service of Der Openball as it was intended to be performed.