March 31, 2016
How to Put Your Parents to Bed. By Mylisa Larsen. Illustrated by Babette Cole. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
No Sleep for the Sheep! By Karen Beaumont. Illustrated by Jackie Urbanovic. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
An amusing turnaround-is-fair-play bedtime book, Mylisa Larsen’s How to Put Your Parents to Bed starts in an entirely typical way, with an active little girl with too much to do to get ready for bed, then quickly flip the scene around. “Have you looked at your parents?” Larsen asks. And Babette Cole’s illustration of two completely worn-out adults, their eyes barely staying open and exhaustion written all over their faces, is more eloquent than mere words would be. So now it becomes the girl’s job to get her parents to go to sleep, even though “it’s one excuse after another with them,” with mom insisting that she has to get laundry done and dad working feverishly away on his computer (whose logo is not an apple with a bite taken out of it but a pear with a bite taken out of it). Helping with tooth brushing is a chore, as is getting parents into pajamas, because there are so many distractions in the form of phones, magazines, TV, even the family cat. To make matters worse, “some parents become unruly when faced with actually getting in bed,” and Cole’s scene of parents running wild as they “work themselves into a state” is among the funniest in the book. Eventually, after bedtime stories, last-minute issues involving favorite pillows and itchy socks, and a delightfully pictured pillow fight, the little girl confiscates her parents’ cell phones and leaves the quiet room after giving the adults good-night kisses. Now she can really make use of all that energy that she had at the book’s beginning – except that now she is exhausted and has to go to bed. Kids in the 4-8 age range will love the reverse role-playing here and will revel in the very funny pictures, while adults may (if they are not too tired) be able to use the book to show kids, in an easy-to-understand way, just how exhausting it is to put someone to bed who needs to sleep but does not want to. Lesson learned? Maybe. Don’t count on it, but count on having bedtime fun trying to teach it.
The sheep’s problem is pretty much the opposite of I-don’t-want-to-go-to-bed in Karen Beaumont’s No Sleep for the Sheep! The sheep does want to rest, but the other animals make it impossible. Originally published in 2011 and now available in paperback, the book cleverly starts with the sort of bedtime-book cadence that invites children to relax and settle down: “In the big red barn on the farm, on the farm,/ in the bed red barn on the farm…” But matters soon become much less peaceful, as the sleeping sheep is awakened by a loud “quack,” coming from a duck at the door. What to do? Bring the duck inside so you both can rest, of course. And that works just fine, until there is a loud “baaa” from a goat at the door. The sheep – whose repeated awakenings are reflected in funnier and funnier expressions rendered by Jackie Urbanovic – goes through the litany of quieting the intruder down and bringing him inside, and soon sheep, duck and goat are all resting peacefully. But then comes a loud “oink” and, once again, “the sheep couldn’t sleep any more.” All right, all right – the pig joins everyone else in a pile of tiredness. But soon there is a loud “moo,” and the sheep, pulling his ears in frustration, is awake again. The cow eventually beds down, too, but in a little while, a loud “neigh” disturbs the poor sheep’s slumber yet another time – although, thank goodness, this time things stay quiet after the horse joins all the other animals “in the big red barn on the farm.” Happy ending? Not quite, because now it is almost dawn and, this being a farm, what happens at dawn? The rooster’s super-loud cock-a-doodle-doo, that’s what! And that wakes everyone up except the sheep, who is so exhausted that he sleeps right through the wake-up call and does not even notice when all the other animals leave the barn to greet the morning. A funny story whose repetitive writing makes it delightful to read out loud, No Sleep for the Sheep! is the sort of bedtime tale that will help kids rest because of its winning combination of absurdity and gently rhythmic prose. And with any luck, once the children are nestled all snug in their beds, parents will have a chance of getting some sleep of their own.
Swatch: The Girl Who Loved Color. By Julia Denos. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Joyous Blooms to Color. By Eleri Fowler. Harper. $15.99.
My Mother, My Heart. By Eleri Fowler. Harper. $15.99.
The sheer joie de vivre of Julia Denos’ Swatch permeates every page – every messy-looking, riot-of-color page. An exceptionally clever fantasy with a standard-issue moral given an unusual twist, Swatch is the story of a paint-bedecked, color-splattered girl who lives in a land where colors grow and shrink and zip and zoom and expand and contract and assume any shape colors can, which is any shape at all. Swatch is a “color tamer,” dancing with colors, riding them as if they were waves, wielding paintbrushes like magic wands, searching high and low for new colors, bright colors, unusual colors. Denos gives the colors names such as “In-Between Gray” and “Rumble-Tumble Pink,” and the interactions of Swatch with the colors – each color shown in multiple hues and wonderfully inventive shapes – are a delight. As for the story: Swatch one day captures a color and puts it in a jar, where she enjoys looking at it so much that she decides to catch some others as well, and she does, until her “room was full to bursting” (and it is an ordinary girl’s room behind all those amazing color blobs). But are the colors happy in captivity? Swatch has never asked “if a color wanted taming,” but she eventually does, asking “Yellowest Yellow” to climb into a jar – and the color refuses. Swatch, who is polite if a touch befuddled by all this, says that is fine, and she does not capture the color even though she is capable of doing so. Swatch realizes that she “had forgotten colors were wild,” and she is sure the bright yellow, now growing huger and huger and wilder and wilder, is going to become a monster and eat her – but no. Instead she experiences “something sweet and warbling” and “something warm and buttery,” and suddenly she is riding on Yellowest Yellow and having the time of her life. And she frees all the other colors so they too can run wild, and Denos concludes, “Together they made a masterpiece,” which may look like a two-page mass of swirls, splatters, splots and splotches to adults but which kids will know is nothing less than a gigantic outburst of joy. The “if you love it, set it free” message underlies but does not quite fit this unusual fantasy – parents may need to remind children that in everyday life, one does not toss and throw colors all over the walls and doors and ceilings and one’s clothes and skin – but it makes a wonderful conclusion of a book that is both cleverly conceived and infectiously enjoyable to look at.
Kids – and adults – who want to channel their inner Swatch in ways more appropriate in the real world have plenty of opportunities to do just that in Welsh illustrator Eleri Fowler’s Joyous Blooms to Color. The title barely hints at the opulence of Fowler’s creativity, which not only includes a profusion of remarkably detailed floral arrangements but also draws on influences that range from single words (“wonder,” “dream”) to literary quotations, primarily from Emerson (“Earth laughs in flowers,” for example) and Shakespeare (“To unpathed waters, undreamed shores” and more). A French proverb on one page offers a lovely, thoughtful lesson: “Wherever life plants you, bloom with grace.” Children old enough to appreciate the intricacy of Fowler’s designs will enjoy the book, but their parents will likely find it even more enthralling. One page, for instance, features a flower-bedecked bicycle atop which a bird is holding a bloom in its beak – and the bike’s wheel spokes are all curlicues and hearts. A truly lovely two-page picture of a tree shows it with beautifully detailed leaves on the left side (and with a swing hanging from one branch), while the right side shows the leaves transforming in near-Escher manner into butterflies that then fly off, leaving the branches at the far right almost bare. That is an encapsulation of a story without any words or any formal plot. One page here bears the words “beautiful world,” and it is indeed beautiful, with flowers, butterflies, a bridge over a gentle waterfall at whose bottom a pool metamorphoses into two of its fish inhabitants. But “beautiful world” in fact describes many of the illustrations in Joyous Blooms to Color and, indeed, the book as a whole. A few of the pages are actually too complex for any but the most meticulous and detail-oriented artist to try to color, but they look so fascinating in black-and-white that leaving them that way is scarcely a problem. There are many stories asking to be told in Fowler’s book, some through colors and some through words – even words that reflect the lesson that Swatch learns in Denos’ book: on one page, Fowler quotes Thoreau, “All good things are wild and free.”
Fowler’s My Mother, My Heart is every bit as joyous as her book of flowers, although here she uses a slightly different descriptive adjective, calling this work “A Joyful Book to Color.” Joyful or joyous, this book too offers wonderfully precise, beautifully detailed black-and-white pages to color (or just to enjoy as they are), with some loving and apt quotations. “She rejoiced as only mothers can in the good fortunes of their children. – Louisa May Alcott.” “The mother’s heart is the child’s schoolroom. – Henry Ward Beecher.” “All that I am, my mother made me. – John Quincy Adams.” The pictures here include flowers, to be sure, but go well beyond them. There is a two-page spread of wonderfully intricate shells, and another of a dizzying variety of bows. There are homey, baking-related items, from flour and sugar containers to decorated rolling pins and beautiful cupcakes under glass. There are two pages of perfume bottles, shown in an amazing variety of sizes and shapes. There is a wonderful two-page spread displaying an astonishing number of types of stars, with just a few tree leaves here and there (as if the heavens are appearing in extreme close-up through a tree’s limbs) and a charming mother and baby owl perched on a crescent moon. And there are pages bearing single words that, in the context of the book’s title, take on special meaning: Happiness. Brave. Family. Forever. This is a more sentimental book than Joyous Blooms to Color, and indeed may be overly treacly for some tastes. But for those who find its sentiment and sentimentality not to be overdone, My Mother, My Heart, whether offered as an uncolored gift or first colored and then given, is sure to come across as being just as heartfelt as Fowler intends it to be.
The Thickety, Book 3: Well of Witches. By J.A. White. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
A Dragon’s Guide #2: A Dragon’s Guide to Making Your Human Smarter. By Laurence Yep & Joanne Ryder. Illustrations by Mary GrandPré. Crown. $16.99.
Darker than most heroic-quest adventure fantasies for preteens, J.A. White’s The Thickety series further develops, in the third of four planned novels, the themes presented in A Path Begins and The Whispering Trees. These involve moral certainty and the impossibility of attaining it; the difficulty of knowing for sure whether people are good or evil, and the extent to which circumstances rather than predilections determine what “good” and “evil” really mean; the pluses and minuses of obsessive dedication to a cause; and the existence of real horror – and how one copes with it. This last is worth emphasizing: there are some genuine scares in White’s series, which means it will not be for everyone. Furthermore, the third book, despite providing some backstory, does not really stand on its own as an entry point to the series – readers need the first two to make sense of what takes place here. That said, what happens in Well of Witches is that White uses timeworn, even clichéd themes, such as the juxtaposition of outward and inner journeys, to enlarge and deepen what is essentially a coming-of-age tale set in a world of witches (and witch hunters). There is more emotional and ethical/moral depth to White’s books than is usually found in heroic fantasy for younger readers (or older readers, for that matter). Yet the characters, even to some extent central protagonist Kara Westfall, remain “types” in many ways. Kara is 13 in Well of Witches and is traveling with Taff to find Grace, whose spell on their father the two want reversed. To accomplish that, they must rescue Grace herself (a hateful character when introduced in the first book) from the well of this book’s title – and find it in their hearts to forgive her. They also must encounter and deal with (and try to understand) ancient mysteries and some of the new creatures that White introduces here, notably the Faceless. And they must do all this against a backdrop in which a war on magic is about to break out in the World. Other characters from the first two books reappear here, from Kara’s friend and potential love interest Lucas to the evil (but rather enthralling) Rygoth; a number of new characters are introduced, too. In nearly 500 pages, White has plenty of space to showcase new creations and bring existing characters along on the road to understanding and maturity. Well of Witches is a “journey” book, while A Path Begins was a “homeland” one and The Whispering Trees dealt largely with death, regret and redemption. Kara has already been through a great deal, including losing and regaining her own powers, by the time Well of Witches comes to its cliffhanger close. A significant issue with this series is that the thematic differences from book to book virtually mandate reading the entire grouping of novels from start to finish to understand what is going on and what it all means – but the fourth and last piece of the tetralogy has yet to be written. This means that the frustration level for readers who finish Well of Witches will be even higher than usual when one is left at a deliberately provocative and inconclusive point in the midst of an extended adventure. The Thickety is certainly a thought-provoking series, and it goes in some unusual directions for a sequence intended for ages 10 and up. There is little value to reading Well of Witches on its own, but readers who met Kara in White’s first series entry and stayed with her through the second will find this third one, in which her assumptions about herself begin to crumble along with her assumptions about the worlds she lives in, to be an exciting if somewhat mystifying addition to the world of the World.
A far lighter series for a slightly younger readership, ages 8-12, features the husband-and-wife writing team of Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder amusingly exploring the notion of magical creatures living in a city that coexists invisibly with San Francisco – a city in which, among other things, dragons (such as narrator Miss Drake) keep humans (such as Winnie) as pets. Miss Drake has had a lot of pets – after all, she is 3,000 years old – but Winnie is (of course) something special and unusual. There is some intermingling of magical and non-magical creatures (here called “naturals”) – for instance, at the Spriggs Academy, where Miss Drake sends Winnie for school in A Dragon’s Guide to Making Your Human Smarter. But the “smarts” that one presumably gets in class are not enough for Winnie here, even though the school has some mighty unusual ways of teaching: Isaac Newton is the science instructor, for example, and Winnie crosses paths with Nessie of Loch Ness fame. The school episodes in this dual-narrator book (Miss Drake and Winnie present different chapters and sections of chapters) are primarily humorous; even some of the less-pleasant students whom Winnie encounters are not really very threatening. But there is a threat here, as in the previous book, A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans. It comes in the form of Winnie’s grandfather, Jarvis, who is determined to take her away from Miss Drake and gain custody of her, even if that means resorting to kidnapping. This somewhat more serious plot element – although it is not too serious, since readers will know that Jarvis cannot possibly succeed in the long run – is mostly the province of Miss Drake, while the school adventures are mostly in Winnie’s purview and told in her voice. But the whole point of these books is that friendship, including interspecies friendship, overrules all notions of “pets” and “owners” and is an absolute necessity for making one’s way in the world and, oh yes, fighting off evildoers. So it is only when Miss Drake and Winnie join forces that their combined cleverness, flexibility, pluck and, lest we forget, magic, can be brought fully to bear on the nefarious Jarvis and his plots. There is nothing particularly original in the “friendship above all” theme or in the notion of an ordinary (but special) protagonist pairing up with an extraordinary (and magical) character. But the overall lighthearted tone of both books in this series is pleasant, and the illustrations by Mary GrandPré – best known for her work on the U.S. versions of the Harry Potter books, of which readers will find some echoes here – enliven the chapter openings and the novel as a whole. The message of the series, presented plainly when Winnie at last confronts her grandfather, is an absolutely conventional one for books designed for preteens: “‘Money is happiness,’ Granddad snapped. …‘No,’ I argued. ‘You can’t be happy without friendship and love.’” And of course what Winnie finds with Miss Drake, and for that matter at the Spriggs Academy, are the precious things that money cannot buy. Even Jarvis, it turns out, has a soft spot – a small one – for certain non-monetary compensation; and it is eventually Winnie who ties everything up neatly by being just devious enough, and just enough of a hard bargainer, to convince Jarvis that “she’s the granddaughter I always wanted and everything I could wish for in an heir.” The book’s sentimental ending is a trifle on the treacly side, but readers already enamored of Winnie and Miss Drake will enjoy what is sure to be only a respite before they return for another round of draconic, if not iconic, adventures.
Fool Me Once. By Harlan Coben. Dutton. $28.
The Stranger. By Harlan Coben. Dutton. $9.99.
There is a certain twisty reliability to Harlan Coben’s mysteries, and it permeates both his newest, Fool Me Once, and last year’s The Stranger, now available in paperback. A master of plot twists and turns, Coben consistently places ordinary people in extraordinary but barely plausible circumstances and watches their belief systems unravel as they try to cope with a reality that, it turns out, is very different from the one in which they have previously lived their entire adult lives. Investigations of bizarre or at least significantly misunderstood circumstances eventually lead to surprising findings that, in the end, tie matters up very neatly (sometimes too neatly) and leave the survivors – and readers – drained and breathless.
The central victim of this treatment – that is, the protagonist – in Fool Me Once is Maya Burkett. A former Army special-ops helicopter pilot in Iraq, she has returned home in disgrace after a whistleblower revealed that she targeted a car full of civilians while on a rescue mission. Now, understandably, she has nightmares and is coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. But the stresses are scarcely less at home than they were during her deployment. Her sister, Claire, has been murdered in a home invasion four months before the book starts; and soon after Maya returns to her two-year-old daughter, Lily, and her husband, Joe, there is another killing – of Joe. It happens in a park, right in front of Maya, and in fact Coben starts the book with Maya at Joe’s funeral (filling in the background later). The pileup of terrible things is overdone but not unusual for a thriller, and it certainly establishes that Maya is unstable in some ways and is capable of making horrible judgment errors. That is crucial to the plot, because what really sets things in motion is that Maya reviews the video on a “nanny cam” that a friend gives her so she can keep up with her daughter’s activities during the work day – and there in the video is her dead husband playing with their child. Is she seeing things? Is he really dead? If not, what is going on? And away we go. Maya, like other Coben protagonists, goes into full-on investigative mode after seeing the impossible living-room scene. The pacing in the first part of the book is slower than in some others by Coben: Maya spends a lot of time thinking things through and trying to figure them out rather than actually doing much. But that does make it easier to empathize with her and have a feeling of knowing some of what makes her tick – although Coben is too clever to provide strong clues as to what is reality and what may be in Maya’s PTSD-affected mind. Typically for a Coben thriller, Fool Me Once requires its protagonist not only to look into what sort of person someone else (in this case Maya’s husband) really is, but also to look into what sort of person she herself really is. It is obvious from the start that Maya will need this journey into her own personal hell (or set of hells) to come to terms with what happened in Iraq and what happened (if it did happen) to Joe. And, for that matter, to Claire. Maya’s past is packed with deceit and secrets – the past is usually like that for Coben’s central characters – and just as Maya is not all she at first seems to be, so those around her are not all they seem to be. Maya’s investigation goes through a variety of convolutions, most of them tossed at readers in Coben’s trademark “gotcha” style, and if the book is rather slow to gather a full head of steam, it is highly effective once it has one. Few readers will see where all this is going – Coben is good at sending people down blind alleys – and virtually none will likely figure out where it is going to end up. The ending is exceptionally effective, just about impossible to see coming, and exactly the sort of “wow” moment that keeps readers coming back to thrillers in general and Coben’s books in particular. The book’s title comes, of course, from the cliché, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” But there is no shame at being fooled again and again by Coben – it is what he does, and in general he does it mighty well.
He does it pretty well in The Stranger, too; the book even contains the line, “Put simply, people fool you.” Here the protagonist is a lawyer named Adam Price, living comfortably in the suburbs with his wife, Corinne, and their two sons. Then one day, at a school sporting event, he is approached by the title character and told something about his wife that Corinne has been keeping a secret for years and that, predictably (if you know Coben’s plotting), shatters the family’s carefully arranged and well-balanced life. Adam confronts Corinne with the secret, and she tells him there is more to it than that and she needs time alone. Then she packs her bags and goes off to who-knows-where; Adam certainly does not know. Meanwhile – this is a “meanwhile” sort of thriller – a small-town police chief, Johanna Griffin, is looking into the death of one of her close friends. And somehow the stranger has something to do with what happened. So there is some way in which Adam and Johanna are connected, and the murder may be directly connected with Corinne, and so forth. The characters here are weaker than in Fool Me Once – Adam, in particular, is awfully dense for a successful lawyer, difficult to empathize with, and consistent in failing to use available resources and instead doing pretty much everything the wrong way. This goes beyond befuddlement into authorial over-manipulation. The real-world connections of the book, however, are strong: it deals with detective work (both good and nefarious) that involves computers and smartphones, and includes a ripped-from-the-headlines element involving a white police officer’s shooting of a black man. But The Stranger tries a little too hard to be convincing. The title character turns out to be involved in a sort of whistleblower group (“revealing what people do not want revealed” is a recurrent Coben theme); the organization’s functioning is not very believable. The deep, dark secret that Corinne has – it has to do with faking a pregnancy – is never satisfactorily explained in a way that would show why it was so devastating and had to be buried so thoroughly. On the other hand, the arrangement of the novel as a sort of cat-and-cat-and-mouse-and-mouse game – lots of people looking for lots of other people – makes it a fast and often enjoyable read. The complications are eventually resolved in an ending that is a little too perfect. Longtime thriller readers may almost find it funny, although if they do, it will be about the only amusing thing here: neither this book nor Fool Me Once offers much in the way of leavening humor (although some other Coben books do). The underlying notion of The Stranger is that there are people out there tracking everyone’s every move, digging out bad things from people’s pasts, selling the information to the highest bidder, then using the money they make to perpetuate their search-and-destroy attack on people’s lives. Well, it could be. Certainly there are plenty of technology-adept bad actors out there, and certainly most people, including thriller readers, have a few things in their past that they would prefer not to have revealed to the world at large, or to their families and intimate friends. It is primarily the veneer of plausibility of the foundation of The Stranger that makes the book chilling, even though the specifics of the story and characters are not Coben’s best. Both this book and Fool Me Once are standalone novels; Coben is also known for his Myron Bolitar and Mickey Bolitar series. His preoccupation with the unresolved past means that the standalone books are satisfyingly packed with turmoil and trouble that Coben resolves skillfully at the end. Neither The Stranger nor Fool Me Once is at quite the highest level that Coben has achieved, but both are page-turners of the type that thriller readers want and expect, and neither will disappoint anyone looking for hard-to-figure-out stories in which the things that were come back to haunt the things that are. Coben’s books are the contemporary, super-fast-paced versions of ones that, in the past, built more slowly in showing the truth of Faulkner’s famous statement in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” And Coben’s protagonists are encapsulations of a much-less-known Faulkner quotation, which appeared in a 1942 magazine article: “Be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid.” That advice applies just as much to Coben’s fans as to his characters.
Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Hlíf Sigurjónsdóttir, violin. MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).
The Bach Project: Organ Works, Volume 2. Todd Fickley, Marcussen & Son Organ (1973), Laurenskerk, Rotterdam, The Netherlands/Hauptwerk. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Scarlatti: Sonatas K417, 208, 159, 56, 213, 125, 373, 119, 69, 425, 29, 99, 12, 479, 9, 318, 141 and 32. Yevgeny Sudbin, piano. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).
The re-release of the MSR Classics recording of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin featuring Hlíf Sigurjónsdóttir – originally made available in 2008 – provides a welcome opportunity to reconsider some fine-sounding and interestingly interpreted versions of these oft-played pieces. Indeed, “fine-sounding” is a particularly good description: originally recorded in 2000-2002 (the partitas) and in 2007 (the sonatas), all the works remain sonically distinguished. Recorded in a church in Iceland, the pieces all offer a sense of resonance, of spaciousness, that is less clean and clear than studio recordings tend to be but far more involving acoustically. The location of the recordings becomes, in effect, part of what they are all about – a circumstance normal for organ music but much less common when it comes to works for solo violin. The listening experience is a more-involving one than is often the case for these works, which have had many, many fine performances but which tend at times to sound a touch academic and emotionally reserved. The recording venue here provides warmth and presence that gives Sigurjónsdóttir’s interpretations an immediacy and emotional connection beyond what her technique itself provides. Indeed, the quality of the recording helps make up for some deficiencies in the interpretations – not in the basic nature of Sigurjónsdóttir’s playing, which is of very high quality, but in the approach she takes to the musical material. It is an eclectic approach, distinguished by very clear phrasing and by stylistic variation that sounds historically informed at times, modern in phrasing at others, virtuosic in some cases, carefully pieced-together in others. The basic violin tone – Sigurjónsdóttir uses a modern violin and bow – is fairly thin, and the intensity of performance is generally set at “medium” and kept there. That is, the coloristic elements of these works are downplayed by Sigurjónsdóttir, who opts for bringing out the water-clear nature of the music at the expense of its underlying emotional content. Her fine and flexible bowing technique is a positive, but her tendency to break all chords upwards instead of following the melody is at best arguable. Sigurjónsdóttir varies tempos and keeps them flexible without introducing too much unwarranted rubato, but her treatment of these six works as an integral unit – and of the movements within each one as integral to that specific one – results in a kind of flatness, a comparative lack of variety both within the sonatas and partitas and among the six members of the set as a whole. The sonatas and partitas are in fact quite diverse, and the differences among their movements lead to a sense of diversity-within-diversity. It is this element that is, if not missing, then downplayed in Sigurjónsdóttir’s performance; yet the sheer quality of the playing, and the sound with which it is recorded, make this a very worthwhile two-CD set even though from time to time it lacks both warmth and a certain degree of contrapuntal clarity.
The second Todd Fickley recording of Bach’s organ music for MSR Classics possesses the same basic fascinations and oddities as the first. Most of the works here are familiar ones. They are the Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 545; Chorales “Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott,” BWV 720, “Nun Danket Alle Gott,” BWV 657, and “Von Gott Will Ich Nicht Lassen,” BWV 658; Trio Sonata No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 526; Bach’s version of Vivaldi’s two-violin concerto in A minor, Op. 3, No. 8, BWV 593; Sechs Choräle von Verschiedener Art (“Schübler” Chorales), BWV 645-650; and Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540. What is highly unusual here, though, is the way in which these performances represent a collaboration between contemporary technology and the use of a traditional organ. The CD is a showcase for “virtual pipe organ” software called Hauptwerk. As with the earlier volume in this series, a visit to www.hauptwerk.com is worthwhile for anyone considering purchase of this disc, because the software itself is fascinating and its concept unusual enough to merit some serious thought about the differences between real pipe organs and digital keyboards that reproduce organ sounds. That reproduction is generally poor. Yes, the ease of use of a readily portable digital keyboard is inarguable, and for many people, the difference in sound between what such a keyboard generates and what pipe organs produce is meaningless when it comes to typical hymns and other church music – the primary pieces for which organs are nowadays used. Great organ music, however – definitely including that by Bach – inevitably sounds constricted and compromised when performed on a typical digital organ. Hauptwerk intends to change that by a complex and well-thought-out sampling technique designed to mimic, in great detail, the exact sound of specific great organs of the world. Whether the one that Fickley plays here is great is a matter of opinion. It was built as recently as 1973, but it is historically inspired and has a fine, clear sound that goes well with the Bach works on this disc. Fickley is not actually playing the Marcussen & Son instrument, though: he is performing on the Hauptwerk version of that organ, created digitally and reproduced through modern electronic means. On a strictly musical basis, Fickley’s performances are again fine, historically aware although not imbued with all elements of historic performance practices. The actual sound of the music is fine as well, and largely indistinguishable from the sound of a pipe organ. This second volume of The Bach Project raises the same intriguing questions as the first. Old organs, no matter how often updated and how well maintained, have inevitable quirks, reflected in clicks, balky responses, extraneous noises, and other odd little operating sounds. The Hauptwerk approach eliminates these: it samples, very accurately, the exact sound made by an organ’s pipes, but not the organist’s technique in eliciting those sounds. Indeed, the whole notion is to let modern organists, wherever located, employ their technique on virtual copies of great organs located somewhere else. But is the absence of old instruments’ age-related elements a good thing? Do the difficulties of playing the old pipe organs make them sound better or worse? Do those difficulties produce a more-authentic listening experience, or one with which extraneous elements constantly interfere? A listener’s response to these philosophical questions will have a great deal to do with his or her enjoyment of, or disappointment in, Fickley’s second Hauptwerk recording, just as was the case with his first one.
Authenticity is not a question when it comes to Yevgeny Sudbin’s performance of 18 Scarlatti sonatas on a new recording from BIS. These readings are emphatically and rather proudly inauthentic, using the full resources of a modern piano in ways unthinkable and unmatchable on the harpsichords for which Scarlatti wrote and whose workings he understood so well (as the numerous hand-crossings in his middle-period sonatas show with exceptional clarity). Sudbin’s SACD sounds wonderful in a way quite different from the CD of Sigurjónsdóttir’s violin performances: here the church where the recording was done, St. George’s in Bristol, United Kingdom, has a very different sonic palette, and one that serves the contrapuntal nature of the sonatas particularly well. Indeed, Sudbin’s readings gain considerably from the care with which they are recorded – the piano is not a contrapuntal instrument, but counterpoint is crucial to these sonatas, and the recording itself is as responsible as the performer is for bringing it out when using an instrument other than the one for which the works were created. It has been a decade since Sudbin last recorded Scarlatti for BIS, but the passage of time has not led to significant changes in his interpretations, which are poised, very adeptly fingered, and paced with a sure sense of musical comprehension and a feeling for the sonatas’ varied colors. The sequence of the sonatas here is clearly a matter of Sudbin’s personal taste: there is nothing chronological about it and therefore no sense of the ways in which Scarlatti developed techniques and approaches as his set of 555 sonatas progressed. Instead, Sudbin looks for works in contrasting or complementary keys and moods, most often alternating major-key and minor-key pieces but in three cases offering minor-key sonatas back to back (K 56 in C minor/K 213 in D minor; K99 in C minor/K12 in G minor; K141 in D minor/K32 also in D minor, the final pairing on the disc). There are two back-to-back major-key pairs – K208 in A/K159 in C and K425 in G/K29 in D), but it is the minor-key sonatas that lend a certain degree of weight and depth to the overall recital even though in fact the major/minor split is nearly an even one (eight in major keys, 10 in minor). The harmony-friendly elements of the piano do not make a particularly good overlay for these counterpoint-focused sonatas: even when the works are played with considerable technical skill, it is technical pianistic skill, not the skill for which Scarlatti called. That makes this a (+++) recording for listeners primarily interested in hearing Scarlatti’s music as the composer himself intended it to be heard – but those who are fond of Sudbin’s pianism, and in particular those who own his decade-old Scarlatti disc, will deem this a (++++) recording and find it a real pleasure to hear.
March 24, 2016
Desmond Pucket #3: Desmond Pucket and the Cloverfield Junior High Carnival of Horrors. By Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.
Clark in the Deep Sea. By A.W. Alley. Clarion. $14.99
Gretchen over the Beach. By A.W. Alley. Clarion. $14.99.
When books celebrate imagination even as they entertain, they become a potent mixture of fun and thoughtfulness. That might seem an odd combination for a series of amply illustrated books (not quite graphic novels) about a young master of monstrous mayhem, but Mark Tatulli is really onto something with his Desmond Pucket series. The third book, in which Desmond is a seventh-grader, is even better than the first two – and to see the difference between what Tatulli does here and what graphic novels do, readers have only to read the graphic novel included in Desmond Pucket and the Cloverfield Junior High Carnival of Horrors. Tatulli cleverly sums up “the story so far” by having a teacher give the usual what-I-did-during-the-summer assignment and having Desmond create a graphic novel to tell his story, which is the story Tatulli previously told at greater length in the series. But this does not come across as annoyingly self-referential – instead, it is scene-setting for everything that happens in this third book. And although this one is just as much fun as the first two, if not more so, it also has a veneer of realism – and not just because Tatulli at the end gives kids step-by-step instructions on how to re-create some of Desmond’s monster effects. Here Desmond confronts a typical middle-school dilemma of “first crush” and, in his case, ends up torn between two girls he likes but cannot quite figure out. Also here, and crucial to the plot, is the return of Desmond’s nemesis, Mr. Needles, who is now principal of the school and whom Desmond has to transform in order to preserve the school tradition of the carnival of horrors of the book’s title. How the transformation occurs is very clever, even when it turns out, in a neat twist ending, that everything Desmond and readers thought about the event is wrong. The scary carnival turns out to be important for trying to preserve the job of the beloved school librarian, who is going to have to leave because budget cuts are reducing the number of days she can work, and she has kids for whose day care she has to pay. This is a pretty serious part of the plot, but handled so deftly by Tatulli that everything Desmond and his friends do on behalf of the librarian – as well as for their own reasons – comes across with light-but-real-world-like sensitivity. Desmond Pucket and the Cloverfield Junior High Carnival of Horrors is great fun to read simply as another story of Desmond thinking up scary exhibits and fending off a competing scare creator – who backs Desmond into a bet that means Desmond will have to stop creating scares altogether if he loses. Readers will know that Desmond cannot possibly lose, but how he wins is as important, and as amusing, as the fact that he does. And everything really does end happily for everybody here, a tie-up handled by Tatulli with considerable deftness. Of course, at the end the scene is set for another book in the series, and that is as it should be, but Desmond Pucket and the Cloverfield Junior High Carnival of Horrors is thoroughly satisfactory both on its own and as a conclusion (for the time being) of the saga that began with Desmond Pucket Makes Monster Magic and continued with Desmond Pucket and the Mountain Full of Monsters.
There is nothing monstrous in the first two R.W. Alley books about the imaginative adventures of four young children named Clark, Gretchen, Mitchell and Annabelle. But it is kids of these children’s ages who turn out to save the day for Desmond Pucket and his creations, and in Alley’s books the imagination shown in everyday playtime is thoroughly winning on its own. Clark in the Deep Sea is a springtime book, and Gretchen over the Beach a summertime one. The children’s personalities shine through in the simple-to-read, well-plotted stories, and it is easy to see how each tale reflects one specific child’s point of view. Clark’s story occurs on a rainy spring day, when a stuffed toy, Bear, falls off the porch – and Clark immediately dashes for what Alley transforms into the edge of the deck of an ocean liner. Donning deep-sea gear, Clark dives into the deep sea to rescue Bear, who is now alive and has a quizzical look on his face as he is grasped by “a rare, hungry Fur-Shark” that looks just like a Dr. Seuss creation. One “tickle-tussle” later and Bear is free, but more adventures lie ahead as Bear is swept into a smelly cave and then, with Bear held tightly by Clark, “the Million-Mile Eel trapped Clark by the fins!” This creature – a reimagined garden hose – uses its water spray to tumble Clark and Bear into a “seaweed bog,” from which they are rescued by Mitchell and Annabelle in a submarine. And eventually all three return safely to the deck of the ocean liner, now transformed again into the home’s back porch, where Clark gives Bear to Gretchen and everyone dries off while waiting for an end to the rain.
Equally charming is Gretchen’s beach-day story. She is the youngest of the four children and tends to be ignored by the others, who leap into the water as Gretchen and her toys, “the roly-polys,” are left on the sand. Then Gretchen’s new, ribbon-bedecked hat blows off – and when she chases it, her adventure begins, as she and the now-alive roly-polys are pulled up into the clouds, one of which makes a fine resting place for Gretchen to tell a passing gull about “the roly-polys and their amazing adventures.” But a thundercloud approaches, and Gretchen, now atop the gull’s back, must fly over the dark cloud. She finds the roly-polys and her hat “high, high, high above the clouds,” does an amazing mid-air rescue, and uses the hat as a parachute to return to the beach. Her older siblings are puzzled: Gretchen is all wet even though she did not go in big waves, and the ribbon from her hat is missing – although the gull soon returns it and the whole family (including parents, whose faces are never seen) settles in for a surfside picnic and ignores the mystery of just what happened with Gretchen. Both the Clark and Gretchen stories are lovely little tales for kids ages 4-8 – the age range of the children featured in the books – and Alley’s warm illustrations perfectly complement the gently told stories and their hints of imaginative magic. Forthcoming are the other two kids’ tales, Mitchell in the Moon and Annabelle at the South Pole, completing what promises to be a cuddleable quartet.
A Tree Is a Plant. By Clyde Robert Bulla. Illustrated by Stacey Schuett. Harper. $6.99.
Sunshine Makes the Seasons. By Franklyn M. Branley. Illustrated by Michael Rex. Harper. $6.99.
Earthquakes. By Franklyn M. Branley. Illustrated by Megan Lloyd. Harper. $6.99.
Down, Down, Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
A well-designed informational sequence that can easily serve as a classroom teaching tool as well as one to use at home, the “Let’s Read and Find Out” science series offers well-presented, clearly illustrated looks at specific science topics for preschool and kindergarten (Level 1) and for the primary grades (Level 2). New editions of three books in the series show just how well the material and its presentation have held up over the years. Clyde Robert Bulla’s Level 1 A Tree Is a Plant dates back to 1960; Stacey Schuett’s illustrations date to 2001. The book focuses on apple trees after introducing the basic concept of a tree by showing and labeling several types. Bulla explains, and Schuett shows, how a seed sprouts and eventually becomes a tiny plant that, over years, grows into a tree – one that, in the case of apple trees, produces attractive, short-lived blossoms and, later in the year, the familiar fruit. A storm scene is used to illustrate the functions of roots: “Roots hold the tree in the ground. Roots keep the tree from falling when the wind blows. Roots keep the rain from washing the tree out of the ground.” And of course roots transport water from the ground into the tree, part of a life cycle in which “leaves make food from water and air. They make food when the sun shines.” A fully grown apple tree is seen in all four seasons, with Schuett’s pleasant illustrations complementing Bulla’s question to young readers about when they like an apple tree best. Further information, and a simple experiment that kids can do to find out what happens to water in a tree, end the book on an overtly educational note that goes nicely with the earlier descriptive material.
Sunshine Makes the Seasons and Earthquakes are Level 2 books written by Franklyn M. Branley, the first dating to 1974 and the second to 1990. Both books’ illustrations originally appeared in 2005. The title of Sunshine Makes the Seasons is a bit misleading, since it is Earth’s axial tilt that creates seasons – although without the sun, there would be no seasons to create. The book itself actually makes it clear why there are seasons and what both the sun and Earth have to do with them. Not a narrative but an extended science experiment, Sunshine Makes the Seasons explains how to use an orange with a pencil stuck through it, together with a flashlight, to simulate how Earth is lit by the sun and travels around it, and how seasons occur based on where people live on our world. The text is quite straightforward, and there is little amusing or narratively involving here, although the boy and girl who conduct the experiment are pleasant-looking enough and the boy comments several times about getting dizzy as he keeps the flashlight shining on the orange while the girl walks around him to simulate the Earth going around the sun. Michael Rex’s illustrations are nothing special, but they are clear, and they show just how to do the “seasons” experiment and what results to expect to obtain. Earthquakes, in contrast, is a narrative and descriptive book, explaining how quakes occur, where they happen most often, and what damage they can do – using several examples, including updates since the book was originally written (the 2004 Indian Ocean quake and tsunami is mentioned, for example). There is one simple experiment here, explaining seismic waves by showing how waves in general work, and there are some specific warnings, too, because “it is important to know what to do in case of an earthquake.” However, Megan Lloyd’s mostly forthright illustrations fall short when it comes to the advice section, since the three children pictured are smiling and do not seem the slightest bit scared or worried. Of course, the objective here is more to inform than to frighten, but after learning of all the destruction for which earthquakes are responsible, young readers may wonder why the children pictured are not more fearful. The reality is that all the “Let’s Read and Find Out” science books are intended as basic introductions to their topics, giving guides to further information or suggested additional learning at the end – they are scarcely planned as in-depth presentations of their topics. Written and illustrated simply, they well serve their purpose of helping kids understand some scientific basics about which they can learn considerably more elsewhere.
Also aimed at young readers, but presented in a more strongly visual format and with highly intriguing facts, Steve Jenkins’ Down, Down, Down was originally published in 2009 and is now available in paperback. Jenkins starts with a view of Earth from space, then drops to a level just above the Pacific Ocean, and then – after showing what sorts of sea creatures live near the surface (and even move into the air occasionally), he begins the long journey to the deepest spot in the ocean, almost 36,000 feet down. Near the surface, where “the water is warm and brightly lit by the sun,” we encounter familiar-looking sea creatures, accurately portrayed in Jenkins’ drawings. By a depth of 33 feet, sunlight is fading and water pressure increasing, but still the dwellers are familiar: tuna, sailfish, sea turtles and more. At 10 times that depth, though, light is far less and water pressure is 10 times what it is at the surface; here, soft, fluid-filled animals such as jellyfish thrive. Go down twice again as far, to 660 feet, and “there is not enough light for plants to survive – only animals live below this depth,” a surprising revelation for anyone who thinks of plant and animal life as inextricably intertwined. And now the denizens get stranger – this is where the goblin shark and snipe eel are found. And down, down, down readers go, encountering ever-weirder creatures as the waters become darker and the pressure vastly more intense. “Nine out of ten animals that live below the sunlit layer of the ocean are bioluminescent,” Jenkins explains – a fascinating statistic, and just one of many here. The deeper we explore, the more peculiar sea life is: the huge-mouthed pelican eel, the deep-sea jellyfish that resembles a flying saucer, the female hairy angler with a glowing lure at the end of a stalk that sticks out from her head, the small but huge-toothed loosejaw stoplight fish, and many others. Then we reach the weird layer of ooze 13,000 feet below the surface, called the abyssal plain – as strange a place as any imagined planet in science fiction, yet it is right here on Earth. And there is still more, for even in the deepest part of the ocean, an area still virtually unexplored, there is known to be life. This is a truly extraordinary tale, scientifically accurate yet as fascinating as a work of fiction, and with five pages of additional details on the animals portrayed in the book at the end – for young readers captivated by this amazing visit to the world far beneath our feet.
Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls. By Raymond Arroyo. Crown. $16.99.
The Secrets of Solace. By Jaleigh Johnson. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The Elementia Chronicles, Book Three: Herobrine’s Message. By Sean Fay Wolfe. Harper. $9.99.
Predictability of plot and characters is not a reason to avoid preteen adventure/fantasy novels, but it does make it difficult to choose among them. Whichever one – whichever ones – a reader selects, he or she can be sure that there will be evil elements, dire dangers, fantastic family secrets, scenes of fear and worry and (almost) doom, plus the usual mentors and companions and nemeses required to make the stories exciting. Indeed, excitement is the primary reason-for-being of these adventure/fantasy books; characterization inevitably takes a back seat, when it is present at all. To the extent that an author can manage a consistent thrill ride, a book will attract at least some coterie of readers. And if it falls short or is not engaging enough, there are many, many more where it came from. So Raymond Arroyo’s Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls, a series opener, will be a lot of fun for some readers and can readily be abandoned by anyone who is not immediately gripped by it. Actually, the book is immediately gripping, starting in high-flown fashion with a quotation from King Lear about “monsters of the deep” and proceeding to an opening background scene, set during World War II, that is as chilling as a reader could wish. After that, though, things follow a common and predictable path. Headstrong 12-year-old protagonist Will Wilder has an apparently straightforward family: younger brother and sister, nice mom and dad. His Aunt Lucille looks like a sweet little old lady but is a bit on the unusual side, and readers will instantly realize that she will turn out to be very important; but before Will himself figures that out (he is a touch slow on the uptake), he will jeopardize the entire family and the town where they live. Will causes an accident that seriously injures his brother, and realizes that he can make things right by borrowing a healing relic from the museum that Aunt Lucille runs. So he takes it – and promptly unleashes the sort of unimaginable evil that is all too easy to imagine when it comes to books like this one. The emergence of deadly creatures from the waters around Perilous Falls (a town whose name alone tells readers what to expect from the book) is coupled with Will’s discovery that his family is (of course) not as plain and forthright as he had thought, and that he himself is involved in an ancient prophecy (yes, one of those) and has powers that he has been coming into only gradually (yup) – powers that let him see the encroaching evil that is invisible to others. Not a smidgen of this is new; in fact, the blend of sometimes-effective humor with action appears deliberately to recall the Indiana Jones movies, although nothing in the book justifies that opening Shakespeare quotation except on the most superficial level. Will and his inevitable friends and companions, especially Andrew and Simon, are interesting although not especially distinctive, and Aunt Lucille is a lot of fun because of the contrast between her appearance and her abilities (although, again, that sort of thing is nothing new). Arroyo seems to revel in the detailed descriptions of the demons and assorted baddies, and readers may enjoy that aspect of the writing – plus the overall pacing, which is handled skillfully. But those who start the book and decide it is not for them can readily switch to something else.
Such as, for example, The Secrets of Solace. Arroyo’s book is aimed primarily at boys; this one by Jaleigh Johnson targets girls. It is actually the second book in a not-quite-series that opened with The Mark of the Dragonfly, an engagingly unwieldy novel that somewhat uneasily combined elements of steampunk with more-traditional fairy tales. The earlier book featured the standard faux medieval model of kingdoms and fiefdoms populated by high-living royalty and by commoners left to scavenge for their livelihood, was all about the (usual) importance of friendship and camaraderie, included shapeshifters (“chamelins”) and other unusual-but-typical characters, and was most distinguished by having the inevitable quest journey occur via an uncommon method: on a fascinatingly described train called the 401. The Secrets of Solace does not continue the earlier book, though: it stands pretty much on its own, although readers who did read Johnson’s previous novel will find this one considerably richer and deeper. That would be a good thing, since The Secrets of Solace, although perfectly adequate in plot and characterization, lacks some of the intriguing complexity and steampunk sensibility of The Mark of the Dragonfly. What happens in The Secrets of Solace is that a typical central character – a disheveled orphan who is a loner and keeps getting in trouble (and is thus a blend of several tropes of adventure/fantasy for preteens) – lives in a land called Solace, where she is training as a cataloguer. In the course of her work, Lina Winterbock discovers a wrecked airship in a cave that no one with adult proportions can enter. She decides to restore it to prove her worth and (naturally) find her destiny. Also seeking destiny is Ozben, secondary heir of one of two dynasties that are at war elsewhere in the world. Ozben too is lonely and trying to figure out where he belongs, and he and Lina – who discovers his true identity – are soon bonding, and the story is told in alternating chapters from their perspectives. The growing closeness of Lina and Ozben makes both of them targets of assassins, and matters are complicated because the archivists of Solace are determined not to take sides in the war going on outside their land’s borders. The pacing of The Secrets of Solace is a little odd, even if the events themselves are generally unsurprising. For example, Lina’s parents’ death has been followed by the emotional withdrawal from her of her guardian, Zara – a state of affairs not explained until it is resolved rather abruptly late in the book. Similarly, Lina has an antagonist, a fellow apprentice named Simon, whose one-dimensional determination to put Lina in her place turns out – again, late in the book and rather too abruptly – to be understandable and based on Simon’s own inner life. The Secrets of Solace is all about the typical themes of love, betrayal and sacrifice, and the less-typical one of putting scholarship at the center of one’s life: the concept of Solace as a nation is one of the novel’s most interesting elements. However, if that theme and the comparative lack of background information on the world that Johnson has created make the book less than gripping, a reader can quite easily move on.
For instance, to Herobrine’s Message, the conclusion of Sean Fay Wolfe’s Minecraft-based trilogy, The Elementia Chronicles. The first two books of this fandom fantasy, Quest for Justice and The New Order, were comparatively standard-length novels, but this conclusion is anything but: it sprawls through nearly 800 pages. Intended from the start only for Minecraft fans and fanciers, the trilogy is self-limiting in its reach and its expectation that readers will know and recognize the characters and the situations in which they find themselves (although Herobrine, interestingly, is not a character in Minecraft, despite many players’ speculations about him). Some of Wolfe’s writing echoes that in much better fantasies, as in dialogue that recalls attitudes toward Voldemort in the Harry Potter books: “‘You know, Stan, that’s something that’s really bothered me,’ Sally spat out in annoyance. ‘You know who Lord Tenebris really is. And you know what he’s doing to Elementia, and thousands of other Minecraft servers, as we speak. He’s the most evil and destructive force that Minecraft has ever faced, so the least you can do is call him by his real name.’ Stan shuddered. It was true. He, along with the rest of his friends, had avoided calling Lord Tenebris by his true name. It just seemed that if they didn’t say it, they wouldn’t have to face it.” But of course the good guys have no choice but to face Lord Tenebris – whose true name is Herobrine – which also means confronting their own worries, uncertainties and all the rest. The whole of The Elementia Chronicles is resolutely serious in tone, which is too bad, because the series is badly in need of occasional lightening-up. Some elements of it are unintentionally funny, such as calling one land Nocturia, which is the medical condition in which people awake at night because they need to urinate. But the writing in general is intended to be intense and even dark, despite that fact that Wolfe and/or his editors do not always seem to know the meanings of some of the words Wolfe uses: “‘Yeah, someone threw a brick through our door,’ replied Ben forebodingly [sic], gesturing to the wooden door and brick lying in the empty doorframe, through which the boisterous [sic] anger of the crowd was still raging.” Good does triumph over evil by the end of Herobrine’s Message, as if there was ever any doubt, and Minecraft fans who enjoyed the first two books of The Elementia Chronicles will find that the third one wraps things up neatly, if scarcely in any surprising way. Those who are not Minecraft devotees or who, for one reason or another, find themselves less than enthralled by this extended conclusion of Wolfe’s saga, will have no trouble at all finding explorations of the good-vs.-evil theme, presented in various more-or-less entertaining ways, in other books. Lots of other books.
Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. By Bob Mehr. Da Capo. $27.95.
There are lessons to be learned from the persistent belief that pop music has deep meaning and that, as a result, there is something special about angst-ridden, drugged or alcohol-saturated groups of young people who come together, fight, make up, fight again, become fast friends, become bitter enemies, make money, blow it all, and so on and on – and on and on. Anyone interested in such lessons will not find them in Trouble Boys. Bob Mehr, a music critic and columnist, is not concerned with the Replacements as an entirely typical, genre-bound group whose foibles mirror those of dozens, if not hundreds, of other would-be rock stars. His interest is in showing that the band was important, that it was significant, that its story has meaning. Yawn. Well, not “yawn” for those who buy into pop-life hagiography and standard rise-and-fall storytelling, but given the fact that the Replacements were scarcely an “A list” group, it is hard to escape the notion that the audience for Trouble Boys is very severely limited, no matter how well the book is written.
It is written well, and researched well, too. But it all leads to such a boringly predictable conclusion, which – for potential readers who cannot stand all the suspense – goes as follows: “In the end, the pain and desperation, the chaos and the noise, it had meant something. ‘However finite and small,’ observed Tommy Stinson, ‘we left a mark.’ ‘We did leave a mark,’ said Paul Westerberg. ‘And no one can take that away. We were a great little band.’” Well, “little” is the operative word here, and the formulaic banality of Mehr’s lines about “the pain and desperation, the chaos and the noise” is reflected through all of the book’s nearly 500 pages. That includes the obligatory photo spread, with captions such as “Bob, age 7, at the start of his troubles”; “Paul Westerberg’s 1975 yearbook photo from the Academy of Holy Angels”; and “Paul’s high school friend and mentor John Zika, who would commit suicide in 1977.”
Trouble Boys is factual, but its story arc is as predictable as that of a Tolkien-inspired heroic fantasy. There are the “touring” tales: “Between their first national outing in the spring of ’83 and the end of the Let It Be tour two years later, the Replacements would play some 200-plus shows in forty states, crisscrossing the country half a dozen times.” These come with cute little revelatory snippets: the band’s name for its “beat-up Ford Econoline” was “Otis, after the drunk on The Andy Griffith Show.” Then there are the “verge of success” elements, as when “the Replacements were included in Rolling Stone’s first annual ‘Hot Issue.’ Alongside 1986’s other rising talents (actress Laura Dern, director James Cameron, boxer Mike Tyson), the ’Mats were named the year’s ‘Hot Band’…” And there are the life-is-tough observations: “The Replacements might have been recording at a $10,000-a-week studio, but after seven years, they were still scraping by.” Also, there are the usual problems associated with replacing a departed band member, handled in the usual quirky manner: “No, a full-fledged band member needed to be able to get the Replacements’ sense of humor and tolerate their drinking. And he had to be from Minneapolis. Naturally, they began looking in their local tavern.”
So Trouble Boys progresses through its suitable-for-parody story, which Mehr insists be taken extremely seriously. Actually, potential readers might consider watching This Is Spinal Tap and deciding whether they would like to peruse an exhaustive rock-band story that is as serious as the 1984 movie is comical. Things here are very serious indeed – one book chapter even begins, “With most of the Replacements’ new material having been written during the physical and spiritual hangover following the Pleased to Meet Me tour, the songs were downbeat, if not downright defeated. ‘Anger is not on the top of my list anymore,’ Westerberg admitted at the time. ‘It’s been replaced by despair.’”
Most of the troubles enumerated and explored at length in Trouble Boys are ones of the Replacements’ own making; the rest are endemic to the industry in which they operated. And it is an industry, not some deeply meaningful and emotionally significant artistic expression of the intensity of human connection. As they are presented in this book, the band’s small successes and larger failures, however significant they may be to Mehr, to whatever fans still remember this particular band, and to the band members themselves, have nothing existential to tell anyone. Mehr’s insistence on the uniqueness of a group that, objectively speaking, was not the slightest bit out of the ordinary in its particular field, prevents the author from seeking grand lessons from the Replacements’ modest ascension and precipitous descent – much less finding any. Paradoxically, the more specific detail Mehr provides about the ins and outs of the band’s existence – and there is a plethora of detail here – the more Trouble Boys seems like an oft-told tale rather than a one-of-a-kind story. This is a (++) book in terms of its content, raised to (+++) level only because of the quality of its research and, in the main, of its writing. One chapter ends with a reference to the band finding “solace with a kindred spirit, a fellow traveler down the road of life.” That cliché scarcely shows Mehr’s best style, but it is indicative of how the author apparently sees himself. This book is for others who also deem themselves “fellow traveler[s] down the road of life,” and who think their journey more meaningful to the extent that it includes the trials and tribulations of the Replacements.