December 07, 2017
If My Dogs Were a Pair of Middle-Aged Men. By The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman). Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
How to Be Perfectly Unhappy. By The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman). Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Foods with Moods: A First Book of Feelings. By Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Deep significance is unnecessary when looking for small, pleasant gifts to give at this time of year. And there are books, for adults and children alike, that can be a real joy to give and receive without striving for all-encompassing importance: they are short, enjoyable, easy to read, mildly amusing (sometimes more than mildly), and unusual enough to be the sort of thing that most people would be unlikely to buy for themselves. That is certainly the case with two little gift books from cartoonist Matthew Inman, who goes by the monicker of The Oatmeal. Pretty much anyone with dogs will recognize the behaviors in If My Dogs Were a Pair of Middle-Aged Men, but it takes a twisted sort of humor to imagine those behaviors being performed by very rotund, bug-eyed men, one completely bald and the other with hair and a full-face beard. The full flavor of Inman’s oddball humor is here. The dog owner walks out the door, one dogman wonders if he will ever return, the other says he will not, and the two dogmen know exactly what they must do – one barks incessantly while the other digs frantically into the sofa cushions. The dog owner sneezes, and the dogmen panic, rushing about yelling “emergency” in loud voices and then leaping onto the couch where the owner is sitting to lick and “slorp” his face as messily as possible. One dogman asks to play fetch and promises that “it won’t be like last time,” then runs after the ball without ever bringing it back – leading to a poster that states, “Lost: Middle-Aged Man. Very friendly. Incredibly dumb.” And there is the sequence in which the owner is trying desperately to work while the two dogmen run around with squeaky toys, demanding playtime. The things that happen here will be familiar to dog lovers – and the sheer weirdness of the characters doing them will dislocate a funny bone or two.
Inman is in a more-verbal mood in How to Be Perfectly Unhappy, in which he explains that he is not a happy person because happiness “implies you completed all the prerequisites. And now you get to sit atop your giant pile of happy forever.” And he shows that giant pile of smiling and laughing beach balls (or something like beach balls), with a person wearing a crown standing joyfully way, way up on top. He then discusses the demotion of Pluto from its previous designation as a planet, explaining (with illustrations, of course) why “our definition of planet wasn’t very good,” and then he notes that he is not “happy” because our definition of “happy” is not very good, either. And then he gets into a disquisition about an alien trying to figure out whether he is “glorkappy” after all the “SlargNacking” he does. And then he explains that “I do things that are meaningful to me, even if they don’t make me ‘happy,’” such as reading “long, complicated books about very smart things” and also “short, silly books about very stupid things.” Apparently How to Be Perfectly Unhappy lies somewhere in the middle. It takes a certain kind of person to give it as a gift – and a certain kind to receive it, if not happily, then with equanimity.
Maybe happiness, even temporary happiness, requires the sort of amusement found in a new board book, intended for kids but really just as delightful for adults: Foods with Moods, based on a marvelously zany book by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers that dates back to 1999 and was published as How Are You Peeling? Using the inherent shapes of fruits and vegetables and a nice selection of googly eyes and a few other props to modify and accentuate the produce, Freymann and Elffers created a whole series of scenes expressing moods – yes, including happiness – through the power of growing things. Here you will find a turtle whose shell is half a cantaloupe; a kiwi fruit with a goofy expression; a large tomato glancing askance and down at a small one that looks sweetly upward; another kiwi with a big yawn; a distinctly angry-looking orange; and more. The text here fits perfectly with the expressions of the fruits and vegetables: “Too excited? Really wired? / That can make you very tired!” “Angry? Had your feelings bruised? / Or do you feel a bit confused?” The youngest children to whom this book is read will find plenty of amusement in the expressions on the fruits and vegetables in Foods with Moods, and parents who do the reading will find the book a great way to explore little ones’ feelings and show kids that they, as adults, have feelings of their own and understand the ones their children express. And the whole book will make adults and kids alike feel, if not permanently happy, at least temporarily joyful – a great way to feel in any season.
Be Brave, Little Penguin. By Giles Andreae. Illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.
Victor Shmud, Total Expert #2: Night of the Living Things. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.
My Weirdest School #9: Miss Tracy Is Spacey! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $4.99.
There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Chick! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
The Selection Coloring Book. By Kiera Cass. Illustrations by Sandra Suy. Lettering by Martina Flor. HarperTeen. $15.99.
Young readers of all types appreciate things that are a little bit silly now and then – so do older readers, for that matter – but silliness works best when it is present on purpose and used as an integral part of a book’s plot. That is how Giles Andreae uses it in Be Brave, Little Penguin, the story of a tiny penguin named Pip-Pip (think “pipsqueak”) who is, of all things, afraid of water. That is silly enough, but Andreae adds to it by making sure that Pip-Pip is the most adorable penguin possible – aided by Guy Parker-Rees illustrations that show enormously different penguins, quite unlike the uniform ones in most books and in real life. There are tall and short penguins here, fat and thin ones, blue and green ones as well the usual tuxedo type. And there are a lot of penguins in the illustrations – some of the fun of the book comes from looking all around at the many things the penguins are doing in the background, even while Andreae and Parker-Rees keep the foreground story focused on Pip-Pip. The tiny penguin’s mommy urges him closer to the water when it is “calm and still now” and tells him to take the approach “nice and slow.’ But Pip-Pip is full of fears too big for his tiny body: fear that the water may be freezing, fear that monsters may be lurking and ready to eat him, and above all the fear that maybe he cannot swim. This is very silly indeed, except that it is not silly to Pip-Pip and therefore not to his mommy, either. Eventually mommy gets Pip-Pip to approach the water, by which time the little penguin’s eyes are so wide that they are just about the size of the rest of his body. Then he does jump in – and mommy soon gets worried because he stays under the water, invisible to her. But it turns out that this is just because Pip-Pip is having so much fun swimming, which he does very well indeed, and in fact he is sporting “the BIGGEST smile/ The world has ever seen!” And then Pip-Pip bursts to the surface so quickly that he zips through the air and proclaims to everyone that he is flying! Um, well, maybe not, says mommy, but you certainly are swimming. And soon other penguins gather around Pip-Pip in a multicolored (hence silly) group, and everyone celebrates penguin-ness (which, in context, is scarcely silly at all).
Some authors try a little too hard to don the mantle of silliness. Jim Benton often wears it quite well, but his (+++) Victor Shmud, Total Expert series is not quite high enough on the silliness scale. The title character thinks he is an expert on everything, but really isn’t, and for some reason he persists in identifying his faithful, note-taking duck companion Dumpylumps as a chicken, even though he apparently otherwise knows what chickens are. This is supposed to be funny and silly but just comes across as weird. The second book in this series, Night of the Living Things, is kind of a zombie caper, and the word “things” is in the title because “things” in these books are what Victor likes to do; but again, that notion is not very funny (the first book was called Let’s Do a Thing!). There are funny/silly elements in Night of the Living Things, including the way Victor creates playable cello and violin costumes to be worn by his friend, Patti, and by Dumpylumps, and the way the sounds generated by the costumes are so awful that they wake the dead (hence the book’s zombie theme). The best idea here has to do with how to stop the zombie invasion: Victor figures it out when he realizes that zombies’ expressions are the same as those of parents first thing in the morning, before coffee. If the whole book had that level of clever silliness, or silly cleverness, the fact that Victor has no real personality would be much less important. But the book is never quite silly enough, and Victor is never quite interesting enough, for Night of the Living Things to reach the top silliness level.
As an easy-to-read, easy-to-forget-after-reading book, Benton’s is on the same level as pretty much any of the Dan Gutman/Jim Paillot My Weirdest School volumes. Taken all together – and there are a lot of these books to take together – the Gutman/Paillot works are harmless fun and, yes, sometimes quite silly. Individually, though, none rises above the (+++) level, and many struggle even to attain that rating. The latest formulaic entry is Miss Tracy Is Spacey! The title character is a retired scientist who comes to school to teach about astronomy. But the book starts with the students’ fathers thinking they are going to meet Miss Universe, as in the beauty-contest type of character, and falling all over themselves to get to school – then falling all over themselves on their way out when they meet the elderly, grey-haired Miss Tracy. The eventual appearance of the real beauty-contest Miss Universe is a foregone conclusion, and so it does indeed go. In the main story, there is the usual mild mixture of facts with character comedy and very obvious wordplay: of course A.J., the narrator, is going to be chosen to be Uranus in the Space Week play and will have to suffer all the obvious (but not really very silly or even very funny) jokes about the planet’s name. The writing is typical for these books: “Everybody was buzzing. But not really, because we’re people and not bees.” And there is nothing unexpected in the events or the characters or, my goodness, the dialogue, as when the principal, Mr. Klutz, says, “Blah blah blah blah. Space week has been amazing. Blah blah blah blah. We learned a lot about astronomy. Blah blah blah blah.” And so on. Dabs of facts and dribbles of silliness mix uneasily here, but readers who already enjoy the My Weirdest School books (and the My Weird School and My Weirder School ones that preceded them) will find this much like all the others.
The “old lady” books by Lucille Colandro and Jared Lee are all much alike, too. One that originally appeared in 2010 is now available in a new board-book edition: There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Chick! The title will immediately hint (to adults, anyway) that this is an Easter-related book, and while it may not be seasonal, it is amusing enough so the youngest readers – and pre-readers – will have some fun with it. The issue with all these (+++) books is that the word rhythms and rhymes are not as clear and amusing – and not really as silly – as those in the original nonsense verse from which they all originated, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. (“I don’t know why she swallowed the fly; perhaps she’ll die” – perhaps the language is too strong for ultra-cautious contemporary kids’ material). In the swallowed-a-chick book, the old lady does indeed gulp down a chick: “I don’t know why she swallowed that chick, but she didn’t get sick” – not the most intriguing wording to have to revisit throughout the story. Anyway, the old lady – always watched by her rather bemused black dog – then swallows some straw, some candy, a basket, and a bow, although the reasons given for each consumption are not always tied very well to the reasons for the others. Eventually the old lady hops along, sort of like a rabbit, and then trips and disgorges the assembled Easter basket right into the arms of (who else?) the Easter Bunny (who in the illustration is taller than the old lady). The book ends with a pleasant “Happy Easter” wish, and kids who like the old lady’s misadventures will enjoy it in any season, even though its silliness is of a rather forced variety.
There is nothing intentionally silly in The Selection Coloring Book, but the whole concept comes across as very silly indeed, given the target audience of Kiera Cass’ five-book series (six if you count Happily Ever After, which collects various by-blows of the main sequence). The idea that the teenage girls at whom The Selection is aimed will want to color a few imagined scenes from the books, along with various elaborately lettered quotations from the sequence, does seem exceptionally silly, even when some of the art is cleverly done – such as the page with the words “Sometimes I feel like we’re a knot, too tangled to be taken apart,” with the words “we’re a knot” done in a style that looks like rope all knotted together. The Selection, The Elite, The One, The Heir and The Crown all get a few pages in this (+++) coloring book for absolutely-must-have-it fans of the once-upon-a-time series about the world of Illéa and the wholly unexceptional one-dimensional characters who inhabit it. To be fair to this series, which strikes some of the same female-empowerment chords as The Hunger Games but without that sequence’s pervasive violence, the central character does get a reasonably well-developed personality despite the truly silly name with which Cass saddles her: America Singer. Now that is silliness of the first order – or would be if silliness was Cass’ intent. But it is not – she is looking for seriousness and romance and self-discovery and barrier-breaking and all sorts of growing up and finding oneself: “I’m not choosing him or you, I’m choosing me,” as one coloring-book page emphasizes. The various black-and-white scenes in the coloring book are nothing special, surprising or exceptional, but they are clearly taken from the novels in a carefully methodical way. They will make no sense at all except to readers who have gone through the entire series already – so the question is whether those readers will want to revisit Illéa by producing colored versions of the particular scenes that happen to be shown here. Some may, but it would certainly be understandable if many found the whole enterprise of The Selection Coloring Book to be a touch off-putting, silly in a way that the books themselves were never intended to be.
Power UP: How Smart Women Win in the New Economy. By Magdalena Yeşil with Sara Grace. Seal Press. $27.
The Sh!t No One Tells You about Pregnancy. By Dawn Dais. Seal Press. $15.99.
Whether in business or in home life, or in their inevitable combination; whether with seriousness and intensity bordering on fanaticism or with humor bordering on hysteria, these are guidebooks to make you think – whether you accept them at face value or use them as jumping-off points for your own take on aspects of everyday life. Magdalena Yeşil offers a very anecdote-heavy look at business success from the viewpoint both of a woman in a male-dominated field (technology) and from that of an immigrant (she grew up Christian in Muslim-dominated Turkey before coming to the United States). Yeşil combines her own story – stories, really – with ones from other women in business, and uses the material to assemble a series of well-thought-out, if sometimes rather glib, guidelines suggesting what women in general can do to succeed in a technology-dominated and still frequently sexist economy. The most refreshing thing about Power UP is that it acknowledges the necessity of making some compromises and adjustments to succeed at work – and comments that men as well as women face such issues all the time. For example, Yeşil discusses ways women should and should not dress, and this flies in the face of the current fad thinking that women should wear whatever the heck they please and if men have a problem with it, that is their problem. Wrong: men have to dress for business in ways they may not prefer, and there is nothing untoward in suggesting that people of both genders conform to some reasonable level of dress code. But isn’t that “blaming the victim” when women are subjected to harassment? Wrong again: there are plenty of jerks in business, as Yeşil points out, and women are going to encounter some of them – as she did. But not all men are jerks, even in male-dominated industries, and there is a point of diminishing returns in treating all men as incipient enemies and abusers. At this point, what successful, high-level man would want to risk mentoring an up-and-coming woman by having one-on-one meetings and discussions with her, which are the entire basis of mentoring? Only a very, very self-confident man or a very, very foolish one – but women need male advocates in male-dominated businesses, and stacking the deck against men by convincing them that they are one complaint away from being fired and blacklisted is not going to bring advancement. Essentially, Yeşil says that it is true that company cultures are often stacked against women and need to change – but that takes time, maybe a lot of time, and ambitious women (including Yeşil herself) should not have to wait around until the changes happen. Yeşil even goes so far as to suggest that women find themselves a “work husband” who will advocate for them and tout their successes and abilities. Women who say they shouldn’t need any such thing are not the target readers of Power UP. Women with a strong practical streak are the ones who need this book and will find it an exhilarating read. Yeşil is even forthright enough to suggest that women use their gender and their comparative rarity in male-dominated companies to draw attention to themselves – in a strictly professional way – and thus open up opportunities that may not be available to their male colleagues. Yeşil may be a little too clear-headed, a little too outspoken for the current chorus of “men are the enemy and making them feel uncomfortable and awful about their gender is the goal.” Certainly Yeşil does not think men – or women –should have to look constantly over their shoulders, literally or figuratively, on the assumption that their every word and action is being parsed for political correctness and adherence to the workplace fad-of-the-moment. Power UP strongly advocates that women analyze, understand and accept the way the workplace is structured today – and, even while working to try to change it, operate within its current strictures to move themselves into positions of genuine power commensurate with their abilities. This is a book for hard-charging, self-aware women who want to get their due based on merit and are not interested in token promotions that turn women into window-dressing for companies that would rather pretend to be PC than make genuine structural and organizational changes.
Yeşil is so earnest and intense that some readers may wish for a leavening of humor. There is little of that in Power UP, but there is plenty of it, much in over-the-top form, in Dawn Dais’ The Sh!t No One Tells You about Pregnancy. This is a hilarious and often profane look at the pregnancy experience – the title is about the most Bowdlerized thing in the whole book – and, like Yeşil’s very different book, offers a combination of personal experience and commentary by others who have been there and done that. Those others come from a variety of backgrounds, orientations, families and experiences – Dais herself is a lesbian who has gone through two pregnancies – and the comments by MOFLs (“Moms on the Front Lines”) vary accordingly. But pretty much everyone agrees that sugar-coating pregnancy, for all the wonders of the experience, is a baaaaaad idea. For that matter, sugar-coating how one gets pregnant in the first place is also outside the realm of Dais’ book: “Men are less fond of [ovulation tracking] because all the ‘making a baby’ sex they were promised mostly just consists of their partner running at them with an ovulation stick, demanding use of a penis.” There are 14 main characters (that is, moms) in this book, including Dais herself, and they are given to comments such as: “The changes in the body are amazing and disgusting all at once!” “My blood was poisoning my daughter in the womb and every week she could get worse.” “The worst? Where do I begin? I will have to say it was the last few months in general and being too miserable to enjoy the anticipation of the babies.” So there is seriousness and concern in The Sh!t No One Tells You about Pregnancy, even though much of Dais’ style is light and pointedly funny. Most of the book is on the level of Dais’ “50 Things to Do Before Getting Pregnant” list, which includes “eat whatever the hell you want because your body isn’t responsible for growing/feeding another body,” “take a poop alone,” “stay in bed all day if you are sick,” and “decide to leave the house, then do so 45 seconds later.” As pregnancy progresses, Dais shares “Dear Bean” letters to her fetus, which typically include comments along the lines of this one about the wands used in ultrasound: “Calling it a wand makes it sound magical, Harry Potter-ish. But imagine if Harry put a condom and lube on his wand and stuck it up your ladybits. At that point you might develop a different connotation for the instrument.” Dais takes readers through pregnancy week by week, with her “how big is your baby?” sections being particularly amusing. For instance, at week 11 she declares the baby “about the size of an Oreo cookie. My pregnancy app said my baby was the size of a fig in week 11. I don’t know what a fig is, other than when it’s teamed up with a Newton in the cookie aisle.” And in week 15, the baby is the size of a Twinkie: “You won’t find Twinkies on most pregnancy apps, but you will find them deep-fried at fairs throughout the land, because this is the best country in the world.” Oh – about those apps. Dais’ book is decidedly for modern, social-media-aware parents, and even though she makes fun of the excesses of online baby postings, she pays a lot of attention to the topic. Her chapter on pregnancy announcements, complete with a scoring table, is a good – and hilarious – example, even with the grammatical error (one of quite a few) of referring to a “handing [sic] scoring guide.” But perhaps the very best parts of the book are Dais’ “Pregnancy WOD” sections, the letters standing for “workout of the day.” No, these are not exercises – not traditional ones, anyway. They are genuinely baby-focused things to do to “get your parenthood muscles in shape.” Dais warns readers not to “lose focus on your ultimate goal: surviving your newborn baby.” Thus, for example, in Month 5 she tells readers to “throw a pen, a carrot, a hand towel, a bottle nipple, and [a] bag of M&M’s on the floor. Pick each item up with your toes.” Also in the same month, “Locate a cat. Strap that cat into a car seat in the back of your car. Go for an hour-long drive on the freeway.” All this is long after the Month 1 WOD, which includes “pee while holding a bag of flour,” and before Month 6, which includes “have an hour-long conversation with a potato (pick a cute one)” and “throw 375 various items on the floor of your living room. Turn off the light. Grab your flour. Cross the living room without dropping the flour or spraining your ankle.” Dais clearly has a, um, nontraditional take on pregnancy and parenting – one that probably will not discourage readers from becoming pregnant (which is, after all, a biological imperative) but may not exactly encourage them, either. The only readers who will be disappointed in The Sh!t No One Tells You about Pregnancy will be those who laugh out loud at it repeatedly, convinced that things cannot possibly be as ridiculous as Dais indicates – and who later find out that, oh yes, they most certainly are.
The Doldrums, Book 2: The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse. By Nicholas Gannon. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Gone #7: Monster. By Michael Grant. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $18.99.
Going Wild #2: Predator vs. Prey. By Lisa McMann. Harper. $16.99.
Hero #3: Rescue Mission. By Jennifer Li Shotz. Harper. $17.99.
Ryan Quinn #2: Ryan Quinn and the Lion’s Claw. Harper. $16.99.
The approach of winter is a great time to stock up on books that preteens and young teenagers can read while sitting inside, avoiding cold-weather precipitation, with a cup of cocoa (or something else suitable) close at hand. And it sometimes seems as if wintertime is ready-made for books that are sequels or parts of ongoing series – the idea being that if young readers already know and like a particular sequence, then they can settle cozily into a new entry with a sense of comfortable familiarity that is especially inviting when the weather outside is, if not frightful, at least less than attractive. Fans of Nicholas Gannon’s 2015 The Doldrums, for example, will enjoy the sequel, The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse, which – like the first book – is particularly nicely illustrated by the author with both color plates and black-and-white spot illustrations. The charm here is of the “further adventures” sort: the book could be a standalone volume, but readers unfamiliar with the prior one will not enjoy it nearly as much as will readers who liked the first book. The focus here is again on the grandparents of Archer Helmsley, but this time, instead of a quest by Archer and friends to locate the grandparents in Antarctica (that was the first book), what is happening is the grandparents’ return home. And this is proving to be a mixed blessing. They are famous explorers whom Archer has waited all his life to meet, and have been stuck on an iceberg for two years – or have they? Not everyone in the town of Rosewood believes that story. And not everyone is happy about the grandparents’ return, since it has been an unusually harsh and unpleasant winter in Rosewood and some people are blaming Archer’s grandparents and the Helmsley Curse – which, however, may or may not exist. As in the previous book, Gannon mixes offbeat adventure with often-sly humor and a style in which even throwaway lines are handled with aplomb: “Cornelius fished in his pockets and revealed a letter that would have been very pretty were it not spotted with grease.” “There’s a crazed iceberg lunatic out there and you’d not thought of telling us sooner?” There are also some names that are sufficiently unusual to carry along parts of the story on their own: Mr. DuttonLick, Mr. Harptree, Mr. Suplard, Mrs. Thimbleton, and others. Not quite a romp, not quite an adventure – although it partakes of both – The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse offers plenty of amusement and involvement for many sorts of need-to-stay-indoors circumstances.
Much darker and more straightforwardly adventurous, Monster is the latest entry in the Gone series, which Michael Grant began in 2008. The series’ underlying premise, too absurd for science fiction but perhaps not quite scary enough for full-fledged horror, involves a meteor hitting the town of Perdido Beach and causing everyone over age 15 to vanish (apparently the meteor checks birth certificates). The under-15s – the target age range for the series, of course – exist in the Fallout Alley Youth Zone (FAYZ) within a dome that keeps them inside as an alien virus causes all sorts of mutations. Those give young people powers such as teleportation, telekinesis, the ability to heal, and others, and also create creatures such as talking coyotes. And in standard Lord of the Flies fashion, there is a breakdown of the thin veneer of civilization as various individuals and factions fight for primacy within the FAYZ. This goes on in various guises for six books, and it is on that background that Monster builds. This entry starts four years after the original meteor strike: the dome has disappeared, but now even more meteors are striking Earth, and these too bear alien viruses, and these viruses are even worse than the original one. It is 100% obvious here that Grant is simply ratcheting up the same Gone plot to a higher level, a kind of video-game-cum-TV-series trick that helps conceal the two-dimensional nature of the characters and keeps readers focused on the good-vs.-evil plot machinations. Those creak badly from an adult perspective but will keep fans of the series well entertained as they watch the emergence of various new characters in Monster and get to find out which turn into heroes and which become, well, monsters.
Lisa McMann’s Going Wild series is only in the second book of a planned trilogy, but here too the debt to other sources is evident – this sequence leans heavily on Animorphs. Slightly less intense than Gone and aimed at slightly younger readers, Going Wild has more coming-of-age elements. Instead of mutated animals, McMann has young people obtain animals’ powers, not through mysterious alien viruses but through mysterious, umm, bracelets. The original Going Wild was primarily a scene-setter with a focus on central character Charlie Wilde (not an inspired name in this context). Charlie gets elephantine strength, cheetah-like speed and gecko-like clinging ability from her bracelet, and in Predator vs. Prey her friends – Maria, Mac and “frenemy” Kelly – get bracelets of their own, a circumstance that causes predictable angst among the group members and challenges Charlie to find ways to turn everyone into parts of a well-functioning team that can rescue Charlie’s father, who is mixed up in all this somehow. The dialogue here is particularly lame: “I really want you to trust me.” “Worried, scared, all of that. She’s feeling pretty bad.” “You don’t seem to understand my vision at all, and I’m disappointed by that.” “That’s not a bad idea.” “She totally just lied. I can’t believe this.” Neither careful plotting nor any sort of strong attempt at characterization will be found in Predator vs. Prey, but neither is the point here. The idea is simply to continue and expand the adventure that started in Going Wild, and actually this book is faster-paced and more involving, on a surface level, than its predecessor. It is not a good entry point – Charlie’s background from the first book is important to everything that happens in the second – but for those already interested in the world that McMann calls up here, this sequel is a pleasant enough way to pass some time.
A real animal rather than humans with animal characteristics is at the center of the Hero series by Jennifer Li Shotz. Hero is both the series name and the name of the search-and-rescue dog at its center – who, along with human protagonist Ben, gets to save the day repeatedly. These books really can stand on their own, their plots being so simple and straightforward that the original setup in Hero and Hero: Hurricane Rescue is unnecessary to enjoy Hero: Rescue Mission. It is true that there are references here to the earlier novels, such as the comment that Ben had flown in a helicopter “once before, when he and Hero were rescued from the woods after the hurricane.” Yet it is quite possible to skip those back-references and still enjoy this story. What makes it apparent that this third series entry is intended for readers who already enjoy the sequence is the fact that the book contains so very little in the way of scene-setting or characterization. It is not so much that the characters are one-dimensional as that the whole series setup requires them to be one-dimensional, somewhat along the lines of the old Lassie and Timmy TV shows, in which the heroic dog repeatedly had to rescue a young boy and look out for him. Hero does not have to save Ben in Rescue Mission, however; not exactly, anyway. Instead, Hero has to help Ben save Ben’s father, a police officer who disappears while searching for two escapees from a prison near the town. Of course, Ben and Hero go searching for Ben’s missing dad, and of course, things do not go smoothly – there is, for example, a part of the narrative in which Ben is bitten by a venomous snake, hospitalized, and then has to escape from the hospital so he and Hero can resume the search. And then the two of them meet a boy named Tucker who insists on joining them. And that turns out to be a very good thing, because Tucker knows a lot about the woods where Ben and Hero need to search, and Tucker is more observant than Ben and has some very good ideas about tracking the convicts: “The kid was some kind of cross between a mind reader and a woodsman – a kind of nature superhero,” Ben thinks. But then it turns out that Tucker needs Ben’s help, and then everyone, including Ben’s dad, needs Hero’s help, and all ends well – as readers will know from the start that it will. This is a feel-good book, simply written and simply plotted, in which the heroic dog has more personality than any of the humans.
Unlike the latest Hero book, which is understandable even for readers who do not know the earlier ones, the second volume in the Ryan Quinn trilogy by Ron McGee makes no sense unless you know the first, Ryan Quinn and the Rebel’s Escape. That book introduced the eighth-grader of the title and gave him the usual surroundings of a new school, new friends, a bad-guy bully, and a preteen-style possible romance. But just as Ben’s dad goes missing in Hero: Rescue Mission, Ryan’s father goes missing in the first book, and his mom is kidnapped – and suddenly it turns out that Ryan has a mission, or rather has been trained for missions all his life by his parents, without knowing anything about what they have been doing or why. This does not make a lick of sense, but given the proliferation of stock characters who might as well be labeled “hero,” “villain,” “techie,” “football hero” and so forth rather than given actual names, it is clear that the Ryan Quinn series is designed for action and nothing else. After the first book, in which Ryan rescues everybody good and evades everybody bad in the mythical Far East dictatorship of Andakar, Ryan Quinn and the Lion’s Claw starts with Ryan’s parents trying to put the genie of Ryan’s training and abilities back in the bottle – a laughable endeavor, of course. Ryan now knows he has a role in the Emergency Rescue Committee (in which he is a small-h hero, not to be confused with Hero the dog and those rescues). Furthermore, in typical genre style, Ryan learns in the second book that there is a traitor in the committee who is out to ruin Ryan’s parents and, if possible, the entire committee itself. This soon sends Ryan – along with the friends he had with him in the first book, Danny (token non-American, being half Filipino) and Kasey (token girl and Ryan’s crush) – off on another far-flung adventure. This one flings them to a place in Africa called Lovanda, where two justice-seeking musicians have started a revolution, a place where Danny (the obligatory tech genius) gets to help the revolution by “using message apps and social media.” And at the very end, after the expected happy ending, there is a hyper-clunky setup for the third book, in which it apparently will turn out that Ryan Quinn isn’t an all-American boy after all, but comes from a far more sinister background. Readers who do not care about clarity of organization, plot or characterization, but who crave action, action and more action, will enjoy Ryan’s second Jason Bourne-ish forays hither and thither – which are much more fun to imagine while sipping hot cocoa than they would be to deal with in any sort of reality, even one as unrealistic as that in Ryan Quinn and the Lion’s Claw.
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 1. Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Signum Classics. $16.99.
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 7; The Love for Three Oranges—March and Scherzo; Lieutenant Kijé—Suite. São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $12.99.
The works of the great Russian symphonists have so much to say, and say it with such elegance, that new interpretations are always welcome – as are these two, with one significant caveat. Vladimir Ashkenazy, himself Russian-born, has a deep affinity for Rachmaninoff’s music, and the live 2016 recording of Symphony No. 1 on Signum Classics is a real winner for those who do not yet own a performance of the symphony. Although the first performance of this symphony was famously awful, conducted by Glazunov (a fine composer but never a very adept conductor) when he was apparently drunk, the symphony itself is a towering achievement, better-organized and more tightly knit in many ways than Rachmaninoff’s two later ones. Ashkenazy gets excellent playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra, which does not have the ideal sound for such deeply Russian music – the strings are very clear, but not as warm as those of the best Russian orchestras, and some additional growling in the brass would have been welcome – but if the performance lacks a certain inherent Russian-ness, it possesses instead a very well-thought-through progress that shows the deep unity of the symphony and the intricacy with which the young composer sustained its emotional arc. Ashkenazy’s conducting is heavily shaped by and responsive to his many years as a piano virtuoso, with a strong sense of structure and the ability to balance lines, including the orchestra’s middle voices, so as to heighten the emotional communication of the music. The performance is a solid and highly admirable one, but for all its quality, the release has a flaw in that it includes only the symphony, which means the CD runs a mere 43 minutes. That means buying a full-priced CD with only as much music as used to fit on a single vinyl record – a justifiable expense for Ashkenazy fans and perhaps for people just starting to collect Rachmaninoff’s symphonic works, but otherwise a bit too much of an indulgence. High-quality CDs can now contain more than 80 minutes of music, and the decision to release one with barely more than half that amount of material makes the purchase decision for listeners more difficult to justify. That is too bad, since Ashkenazy’s handling of the symphony is so idiomatic and packs such a solid emotional punch.
There is a similar less-for-your-money caveat with the new recording of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7 on Naxos, featuring the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. This orchestra is even less Russian-sounding than the Philharmonia, and Alsop does not have a particularly strong feeling, either intuitive or learned, for Prokofiev’s music, or indeed for much of the standard repertoire. But she is frequently excellent when conducting modern works, and the 20th century is something of a specialty for her; and the result in this case is one of the best discs in her Prokofiev cycle – which this release completes. Alsop is a little light on the bitter and sarcastic elements of the symphony, but she gives full rein to its warmth, nostalgia and frequently crepuscular sound. The musicians play very well indeed for her, and if their sectional balance is not quite as good as that of the Philharmonia Orchestra, it is certainly fine; furthermore, when Alsop calls for genuine full-orchestra sound at the symphony’s climaxes, she invariably gets it – with the result being highly dramatic and heartfelt. However, the production decisions regarding this disc are even harder to fathom than those relating to Ashkenazy’s Rachmaninoff First. The Alsop CD runs less than 56 minutes, which means there was plenty of room for additional material. But the chance to explore Prokofiev further is thrown recklessly away. This is most notable in the intelligent idea of including both the endings of the symphony’s finale – the original quiet and enigmatic one, which sounds a bit like something by Shostakovich, and the louder and brasher one that Prokofiev created to satisfy the Soviet authorities. But instead of presenting the final movement in its entirety with both endings, or even offering, say, the last three minutes or so, during which Prokofiev recalls earlier material, all Alsop provides is the final 20 seconds of the revised ending – completely out of context. Furthermore, while there is plenty of room on the CD for the entire six-movement suite from The Love for Three Oranges, since the suite lasts less than 20 minutes, Alsop presents only four minutes of the music – the third and fourth movements. The reasoning for this is difficult to comprehend. She does, however, include the entire five-movement Lieutenant Kijé—Suite, and presents it with lilt, charm, and just the right degree of snide humor. In fact, the presentation makes the omission of the balance of the suite from The Love for Three Oranges even more puzzling – clearly Alsop has a way with Prokofiev’s film and stage music. Listeners who have collected the five earlier CDs in Alsop’s Prokofiev cycle will surely want to have this one as well, despite the reality that the disc could easily have offered even more pleasures than it in fact does.
Resonant Streams: Choral Music. University of Washington Chorale conducted by Giselle Wyers. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Szymanowksi: Songs. Krzysztof Biernacki, baritone; Michael Baron, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Dan Trueman: Olagón—A Cantata in Doublespeak. Iarla Ó Lionáird, vocalist; Eighth Blackbird. Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).
Vocal music comes in so many varieties that it is hard to imagine any listener simply saying, “I like singing,” in the way someone might say, “I like opera” or “I like Romantic music.” Luckily, there are plenty of vocal offerings available, with all sorts of different works being performed by all sorts of different ensembles in all sorts of different languages for all sorts of different purposes. The warmly attractive blended sounds of the members of the University of Washington Chorale, for example, are the primary attraction on a new MSR Classics release – more so than the specific pieces the ensemble performs. Indeed, the 16 offerings here are so much of a mixed bag as to be essentially a hodgepodge if you like them, a mishmash if you are less enthusiastic. The CD is really a showcase for the chorus’ sound, which is smooth and well-blended throughout, with conductor Giselle Wyers keeping everything nicely together and being sure the different choral sections are well-balanced. There is no particular order to the arrangement of material here. Three classical works from different eras are heard at the start: Hymn to the Waters by Gustav Holst, Surge, Amica Mea by Guillaume Bouzignac (c. 1587-1643), and Tunc Respexit by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Then there is a Chinese folk song called Gao Shan Qing, and then another classical piece, Gabriel Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine. Next is a work by Wyers herself, And Love Be Written on Running Water, followed by the hymn Idumea, Joshua Rist’s Invictus, and Barlow Bradford’s Give Me the Splendid, Silent Sun. Next the CD returns to folk music, a song from China (Mo Li Hua) being followed by one from Sweden (Kristallen den Fina). The next piece is also from Scandinavia, being contemporary Finnish composer Lars Jansson’s Salve Regina for the Mothers of Brazil. Next are two works from contemporary American composers, Daniel Pinkham’s Awake O North Wind and Libby Larsen’s Comin’ to Town. Anyone not somewhat befuddled by the sequence by this point will probably be ready for the next item, which is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! And although this could have been a rousing finale for the disc, it is not the last piece on it: for that, we return to Finland for Nouse Lauluni by Soila Sariola. The singers are comfortable enough in the various languages to put forth good performances throughout, and they evince particular affinity for the hymn tunes. The specific sequence of the music does not seem to have any particular meaning, however; and the CD will appeal mainly to people whose particular love of vocal performances focuses on finely honed choral work.
There is skill in multiple languages on another new MSR Classics CD as well – this one devoted to songs by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). Baritone Krzysztof Biernacki, himself born in Poland, might be expected to handle the Polish-language offerings here with more than usual skill. But Szymanowski wrote songs in other languages as well, including several sets heard here. Five Songs, op. 13, to Texts by Richard Dehmel, Friedrich Bodenstedt & Otto Bierbaum is a work in German, and Three Songs, Op. 32, to Texts by Dmitri Davydov is in Russian. Biernacki sings all the songs, in all the languages here, feelingly and with verbal nuance, and he pronounces the words clearly – a matter of some importance to Szymanowski, as is shown by the settings themselves and by the balance within them between the singer and the pianist (Michael Baron in a subsidiary but still quite significant role). The Polish-language offerings here include Six Songs, Op. 2, to Texts by Kazimierz Tetmajer; The Swan, Op. 7, to Text by Wacław Berent; and Four Songs, Op. 11, to Texts by Tadeusz Miciński. All the early songs fit fairly comfortably into the Romantic model that Szymanowski followed for many years. Later ones, however, such as the three here in Russian, have somewhat more searching harmonies and, frequently, a touch of exotic coloring in the music. This is particularly evident, interestingly enough, in the latest song cycle on the disc, Seven Songs, Op. 54, to Texts by James Joyce. Szymanowski chose to set these songs in Polish rather than English, and their full flavor may therefore not come through as well to English speakers as would have been the case if he had used the original language. It does help to know Joyce’s original versions of, among others, My dove, my beautiful one and Rain has fallen all the day to get the strongest possible sense of Szymanowski’s carefully toned settings. Even without that knowledge, though, listeners whose taste in vocal offerings runs to single-voice recitals with piano will find this CD a pleasantly involving one.
The pleasures of the new Cedille two-CD set featuring the contemporary chamber group Eighth Blackbird are considerably more rarefied and appear to be directed at a significantly narrower audience than those who fancy choral or single-voice recitals. Dan Trueman’s hour-and-a-half-long Olagón is intended as an immersive experience, and it is one that requires considerable pre-reading and study for the audience to be able to follow and become enmeshed in what Trueman and the sextet of Eighth Blackbird players are doing. Vocalist Iarla Ó Lionáird sings in a way that is not traditional singing, nor is it Sprechstimme, nor is it reciting – it is a specifically Irish declamation style called sean nós. This fits with the fact that a certain amount of the text is in Gaelic – the work’s title is a word for a cry of mixed triumph and anguish – and the entire production is a modernized retelling of an old Irish epic. But the major narrative portions of Paul Muldoon’s texts are in English, and hearing words such as “co-signatory,” “machination” and “salmagundi” in some of the sections is intriguing and often unintentionally humorous. There is intentional humor here as well, in what is presented as the story of a decadent and amoral “power couple” whose world is intertwined with that of Ireland in the early 21st century. Actually, the entirety of Olagón is itself a salmagundi (a hodgepodge or mishmash, although it is very different way from the mixture heard on the University of Washington Chorale’s CD). Trueman tosses in a little of this, a little of that, and a little of the other thing in a work that is sometimes satirical, sometimes filled with social commentary, sometimes rather like a cabaret parody in an updated version of a Kurt Weill production. The music and sounds – Olagón contains both – are not of the eviscerate-the-ear type so common in contemporary music, and in fact some of the tunes are nearly hummable. But there is no single musical style here, and the entire extended production lacks both dramatic and musical cohesiveness – perhaps, in part, because bits and pieces of it were recorded over a year and a half in different locations and then assembled into the final product. There is everything here from down-home fiddlin’ to Satie-like piano dribblings to enthusiastic jazz – but even though four sections bear the title “Stirrings,” there is ultimately nothing particularly stirring about the music or the story. The presentation of the material is absolutely first-rate: in addition to extensive notes about the work, a full text is given in a separate booklet – which is more than many recordings of operas and other vocal works offer nowadays. Understanding where Olagón comes from and just what is included in it will go a great distance toward helping listeners enjoy the production; and much of it is indeed enjoyable musically. The story itself, though, is thin and formulaic, and even though the music is intermittently effective, 90-minutes-plus of it, in the absence of any particular cohesion, is quite a lot. To go back to the Weill comparison, Olagón is less likely to be of interest to those who know and love The Threepenny Opera than to those familiar with and enamored of Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and Der Silbersee. In other words, it is an interesting experience, but an uneven one: despite the frequent jazziness and bounce of much of the music, Olagón is ultimately far more likely to have esoteric than popular appeal.