Thursday, January 31, 2008

Karen Cushman

Matilda Bone
by Karen Cushman
Recommended Age: 12+

This meticulously-researched historical novel by the author of The Midwife’s Apprentice tells the story of Matilda, a fiercely religious girl who, against her will, becomes the attendant of a bone-setter named Red Peg.

The setting is a small city in fourteenth-century England. And beneath all the details about the state of medicine in the Middle Ages lies a story about a girl learning to think for herself, learning that life is to be enjoyed and that love and friendship are more healthful than fear and superstition.

You may enjoy the cast of characters, from the vulgar female physician named Doctor Margery to the witless wonderworker named Theobald...the dear old apothecary whose sight is failing, and his cheerful apprentice...the fiery kitchenmaid Tildy, a motherly patient named Effie, and a bloodletter who knows all his leeches by name.

But the most enjoyable thing is seeing Matilda’s transformation from self-pitying, self-righteous superstition to thinking, accepting, and opening her heart to people.

The Midwife's Apprentice
by Karen Cushman
Recommended Age: 12+

The 1996 Newbery Medal book is another well-researched, warm-hearted historical novel about a girl in Medieval England. This girl, like the title character in Matilda Bone, needs to find out who she is and where she belongs in the world. Only more so.

To begin with, she has no name and no memory of a family. She comes to the village knowing no name but Brat, and soon becomes Beetle because she is found sleeping in a dung heap for warmth. But the sharp-faced, cold-hearted midwife named Jane takes her in, feeds her, and gives her a place to sleep in return for a life of drudgery. Slowly the girl learns to stand up for herself against the bullying children of the village, to care for women and other creatures in the throes of childbirth, and to love at least one creature—the orange cat who follows her everywhere. Slowly, as well, she learns the rudiments of being a midwife—though certainly not because her mistress wants her to learn!

Soon, Beetle takes the name Alyce. But just as Alyce is beginning to “show up” her midwifing mistress, she suffers a cruel failure...she runs away and finds herself at “square one” again...and she learns a few more things, including the one thing she needs to find her place in the world.

Alyce is a heroine with spirit in a time of superstition, bad sanitation, widespread poverty, and unexpected delights. I hope you enjoy her colorful adventures, as I did, and finish the book wanting more.

Catherine, Called Birdy
by Karen Cushman
Recommended Age: 12+

This Newbery Honor Book by the author of The Midwife’s Apprentice and Matilda Bone is, like those other books, a historical novel set in Medieval England. The year 1290 to be more precise. It is told in the form of the diary of a strong-willed knight’s daughter who, at the age of 14, is starting to notice boys, worrying about whose bride she will be (not that she has any choice), and learning to use herbs to treat the sick and injured. She loves birds, she paints murals on her chamber wall, she thinks highly of the goat boy Perkin who wants to be a scholar, and she goes through all the guilt, temper-tantrums, hopeless crushes, dreadful fear, joy and sorrow and every other thing that would be experienced by any other 13th-century girl you might happen to know.

It’s an enjoyable story, not in the sense of a great adventure or a mystery that keeps you guessing, but in the sense of a beautiful depiction of life in a bygone age, with a spirited narrator and a bit of drama and suspense. Also, most of the entries in the diary, which covers more than a year’s time, include a description of who the saint of the day is—justifying Catherine’s own comment that religion is often very mysterious.

Let me give you three more reasons to pick this book. First, like other books by this author, it ends with an informative historical note. Second, unlike those books, the historical note in turn ends with a list of other books you might like to try. And finally, there are ample examples of passages like this one...
I watched the early morning light pass over and through the windows of colored glass, leaving streaks of red and green and yellow on the stone floor. When I was little, I used to try to capture the colored light. I thought I could hold it in my hand and carry it home. Now I know it is like happiness—it is there or it is not, and you cannot hold it or keep it.
...Perhaps you will be lured by the cover art and jacket note that suggests that this book is about the pranks a girl pulls to scare away unsuitable suitors. But in truth, that is only the smallest part of the pleasure of reading this book. Still, even if you opened this book for the wrong reason, I’ll bet you finished it with pleasure.

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple
by Karen Cushman
Recommended Age: 12+

Thanks again to my good friend Heather for sending me three of the four Karen Cushman books I recently read, including this one.

Unlike the other three, which take place in Medieval England, this historical novel zooms in on the place of women and children in the California Gold Rush of 1849 and the years that followed. Among those seeking a new life on the new frontier is Arvella Whipple, a young widow accompanied by her surviving children, Sierra, Prairie, Butte, and California Morning. The oldest, California, hates her name and soon decides she wants to be called Lucy instead, and so our story begins.

Lucy resents being dragged away from her Massachusetts home, where she has wonderful memories, and beloved grandparents, and the grave of her father and two younger siblings to remember. She immediately begins planning to get back to Massachusetts, while her mother and brother Butte and the two younger sisters simply settle into their new life in a tiny, ramshackle, but growing mining town.

The years that follow are marked by tragedy. You may, in fact, be surprised by the seriousness of this book. Like the other books of this author, it is narrated with a wry sense of humor...but it is not the lighthearted, goofy romp through the Old West you might expect. You can learn a lot about the hardships of living on the edge of civilization in an age when cholera, itinerant preachers, outlaws, Indians, mules, and mail that took a month to deliver were only a few of the hazards of every-day life. And you get a glimpse into the early stages of an American institution...I won’t tell you which...but I’ll give you a hint: you might be able to find this book there.

Enjoy this story for its collection of colorful characters, its bittersweet chronicle of a girl growing up, and the perilous adventures that include a murder trial, a major fire, a near drowning, and a horrible moment.

Kevin Crossley-Holland

So far I have only seen the first two books of Kevin Crossley-Holland's "Arthur Trilogy," reviewed below. The third book, The King of the Middle-March, has been on my bookshelf for some time, alongside the next books in 100 other series; I expect I will read it if God gives me time.

Crossley-Holland lives and writes in Minnesota, though he is of English parentage. His trilogy is about a little boy named Arthur de Caldicot living in medieval England, at the time of the crusades, but who is connected by means of a "seeing stone" to a rather similar Arthur of an earlier age. If you've re-read all the Harry Potter books enough times for now, perhaps you will find this trilogy worth your while.

The Seeing Stone
by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Recommended Age: 12+

This first book of the Arthur Trilogy finds young Arthur de Caldicot living on a manor near a deep, dark forest in medieval England. Arthur is pushed around by his older brother who is favored over him, befriended by a philosopher named Merlin, and wants nothing more than to become a squire and then a knight. If you think I'm talking about another version of The Once and Future King, you're in for a surprise. For this "Arthur" is not the "King Arthur" Arthur, but a little boy by the same name living centuries later, between the reign of Richard Lionheart of Crusades fame and King John of Magna Carta fame. And it's possible that the "Merlin" in this story is not the same Merlin who counseled King Arthur of the round table. Whether he is or no, I cannot tell just yet.

But though they are different persons, the two Arthurs in question are connected somehow, and I think it has to do with more than their name and general circumstances. For Merlin has given young Arthur de Caldicot a stone of obsidian in which he begins to "see" the parallel career of his royal namesake.

As 13-year-old Arthur de Caldicot begins to write down his thoughts, experiences, and dreams at the turn of the 13th century, he lives on the manor of Calicot, where he has been raised as the son of Sir John and Lady Helen, a wonderful couple who also have an older son (Serle), a younger daughter (Sian), and three sons who died in infancy (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Right in the middle of the family is Arthur, a left-handed boy with a blob nose and ears that stick out, who (because no one will let him do anything left-handed) can never seem to do well-enough at jousting or swordplay, though he's a fair wrestler and an excellent archer. He is also, most unusually, learning to read and write, under the tutelage of the village priest Oliver, and he practices on his own by writing these memoirs.

Meanwhile, he is learning a different sort of lesson from a mysterious philosopher named Merlin, who gives him a magic stone in which he is able to see the parallel history of King Arthur from infancy on up. Parallel, I say, because very often what he sees in the stone matches or contrasts directly with something going on in this young Arthur's life.

It's a warm story, full of historical detail and character color, as well as such exciting plot developments as a trial in which justice is miscarried, an illegitimate birth, sibling rivalry, bull-fighting, rescuing someone fallen through the ice on a frozen pond, puppy love, and being wounded by a sore loser in a fencing contest. But the plot is basically about how Arthur comes to realize that Sir John is not his real father, and that his past is clouded by adultery and murder, and how this knowledge begins to change Arthur's future as well...

These books come with neat little maps and lists of characters and, don't you know, they pretend to be written by young Arthur de Caldicot himself, in a charming and colorful way though not in a straightforward, one-thing-after-another narrative. Reading it is, in fact, somewhat like putting together an enjoyable little puzzle. You have to love young Arthur, though, who worries about his tailbone (he thinks he's growing a tail) and becoming a knight (being left-handed doesn't help) and marrying his pretty cousin and who gets in trouble, right off the bat, for helping one of the farm-hands round up a runaway bull, which is a very brave thing to do but "below his station." It's also fun listening to Merlin and the priest, Oliver, arguing in the language of medieval scholastic theology.

I just like the way this book is written. The first paragraph is perfectly crafted to make you fall in love with the narrator in ten seconds flat. And he really seems to think like a child, going off on little digressions and sometimes, but not always, coming back to the previous point. The world he lives in seems at the same time like a wonderful and a terrible place to grow up in. Sadness, joy, mystery, and adventure are already gathering on the horizon, and the saga has only just begun!

At the Crossing Places
by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Recommended Age: 12+

This second book of the Arthur Trilogy recounts the next year in Arthur's life, as the 14-year-old boy becomes the squire to Lord Stephen de Holt, chooses his warhorse, has his first suit of armor made, courts his master's niece, and prepares to follow Lord Stephen on the Fourth Crusade. The story also involves a murder mystery, a case of blackmail and clergy sex abuse, more complications in young Arthur's romantic and family life (particularly as he tries to search for his birth-mother), as well as wonderful stories, medieval traditions, developing character tensions, and other adventures.

Meanwhile, in the seeing stone, Arthur continues to watch the story of the King by the same name, as he marries and gathers the Knights of the Round Table around him, and they go out on quests and have their share of triumphs and failures. As Arthur's Knights are on the cusp of the Quest for the Holy Grail, Arthur de Caldicot finds himself finally on his way to the crusades...and knighthood!

Once again, the second book has some nice maps, poems and songs, cleverly retold Arthurian legends, and the sort of observations about life that a very intelligent, 13th-century adolescent boy of Arthur's upbringing might make. He's a character to love and cheer for, in a world more richly colored than most children's novels can offer (particularly in the area of deftly concealed sexuality). Arthur, innocent that he is, is always the last person to figure out what's going on when hanky panky is afoot, and he is really getting a hard time from the girl he wants to marry--particularly because the girl he previously wanted to marry hasn't forgiven him for turning out to be her half-brother!

Sharon Creech

Love That Dog
by Sharon Creech
Recommended Age: 10+

Award-winning author Sharon Creech comes through with what may be the shortest “novel” in history (in terms of word count, at least). And it’s printed entirely in the format of poetry.

It’s partly about poetry; and how, as he learns to appreciate and express himself in poetry, a boy named Jack also comes to terms with the loss of his beloved pet.

It’s one of those stories that gradually pays out information until you go from understanding zero, to knowing the whole picture...without ever once stepping out of the voice of a grade-school poet and doing anything as obvious as narrating what’s going on.

This was my first taste of Sharon Creech. A tiny sip, by all means. But it has whetted my appetite for some of the author’s larger-scaled works, including Walk Two Moons and The Wanderer.

Walk Two Moons
by Sharon Creech
Recommended Age: 12+

The 1995 Newbery Medal winner is part mystery, part family drama, with a gentle philosophical heart and a conclusion in which an ample supply of Kleenex is advised.

Salamanca Tree Hiddle is a 13-year-old girl, distantly related (on her mother’s side) to Native Americans. She doesn’t understand why her mother has gone away and doesn’t believe that she isn’t going to come back. But her father, an awfully good man, is pretty sure. So they move from their idyllic Kentucky farm to a colorless town in northern Ohio, where Dad seems to have hooked up with a girlfriend who, creepily enough, is named Mrs. Cadaver.

Sal doesn’t want to face any of this right now, so the woes of her school friend Phoebe become a welcome distraction, especially when Phoebe’s perfect, upright family is thrown into confusion by her mother’s mysterious disappearance. Plus, someone is leaving cryptic messages on Phoebe’s porch, a potential lunatic keeps approaching her on the street, and Mrs. Cadaver (who lives next door to Phoebe) seems to be conspiring with her weird English teacher, Mr. Birkway--possibly burying murder victims in the backyard.

How this mystery develops forms the material of a story Sal narrates to her grandparents, as they drive to Idaho so Sal can visit her mother and see once and for all if they can bring her home again. And as she tells the story of Phoebe and her missing mother, Sal realizes that her own story--hers and her mother’s--lies behind it; and in an equally moving way, so does the story of her grandparents’ 51-year love affair.

I won’t disguise from you that I thought I saw “whodunit” coming from a long way away. Yet even when I turned out to be right, the effect when the mystery was unveiled was like a punch in the gut. This novel has a complexity and elegance far above what one finds in most children’s literature. But its sweetness, its touch of romance, its air of spookiness, its heartache and its hope make such a strong, rich brew, that I think it will hold your attention riveted right to the last page.

The Wanderer
by Sharon Creech
Recommended Age: 12+

This Newbery Honor Book shares a lot of the themes of the same author’s Walk Two Moons: a journey in which tales are told, in which different generations of a family are bound together, and in which a strong-minded girl learns to face up to the grief she has been hiding from herself.

In this case, the journey takes place on a forty-two-foot sailboat bound from Connecticut to England. The girl is named Sophie, and the family she is traveling with includes three Uncles (Dock, Stew, and Mo) and two cousins (Cody and Brian). Undaunted by the prospect of spending weeks in close quarters with a bunch of guys, Sophie takes to the sea like, well, a fish to water. But in this story, told through the log entries of both Cody and Sophie, you gradually learn that Sophie’s enthusiasm for the sea is partly a cover for a deep dread of it.

Sophie herself is a mystery, particularly to her never-serious cousin Cody and their always-serious cousin Brian. No one can explain why she is so eager to see her grandfather, Bompie, in England. She talks as though she knows him well, but to the best of anyone’s knowledge she has never met him. And no one will explain to the boys what happened to Sophie’s real parents...

Well, I’d better not give away too much. The relationships between these clashing personalities make for enough excitement on a forty-two-foot boat, even as they learn about themselves and each other along the way. And a great storm at sea provides a lot more excitement. And the resolution of many family and personal conflicts hangs in balance during this difficult voyage. But the real crisis of the story has to do with: what’s up with Sophie?

Bruce Coville

Goblins in the Castle
by Bruce Coville
Recommended Age: 10+

This story, by the author of Aliens Ate My Homework and I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X, started its life in an elementary school classroom, where the author’s half-mad, hunchbacked brother Igor made an appearance every Halloween. The classroom tradition evolved into a storybook which finally got published, so the rest of the world can fall in love with Igor and gasp with amazement, horror, and laughter at the antics of the goblins.

The narrator is an orphan named William who was raised in Toad-in-a-Cage castle, where the Baron found him in a basket on the drawbridge one snowy night. As William grows up, he never leaves the castle or meets anyone except the Baron and a couple of servants. So he has little to do except read in the library, explore secret passageways and hidden rooms, and wonder about the moans and noises that he hears at night.

As Halloween approaches, the moans grow louder and more insistent. Even the discovery of a certain Igor, who lives in the deepest dungeons under the castle and bops goblins on the head with his toy bear, does not explain why the North Tower is never to be opened, or what is causing those noises. Finally, on Halloween night – the “most dangerous night” – a power beyond William’s control forces him to open that forbidden tower...and to unleash an angry power that has been bottled up for over a century, waiting for its revenge.

Soon afterward, William leaves the castle for the first time in his life, seeking the advice of the only one who can tell him what to do – the old witch named Granny Pinchbottom whose very name strikes fear into children all around the neighborhood. Then, aided by some magical objects, a girl of the forest, and a tiny but incorrigible goblin named Herky, William plunges into the strange and dangerous world of the goblins. He needs to save his friend Igor, who has been taken by the goblins; and he also needs to stop the enraged goblins’ plans to bring war to the human world.

Will he know the right thing to do when the time comes to do it? That’s what you’ll want to know when you read this funny, exciting tale, charmingly illustrated by the author’s wife, Katherine Coville.

The Monster’s Ring
by Bruce Coville
Recommended Age: 10+

Here is a funny, scary, magical story told by an author who had a deep insight into the feelings and problems of middle-school-aged children – perhaps because he is a school teacher, a parent, and a child at heart himself. It’s also the beginning of a series of four books about children very much like yourself, who enter a world of fantasy and excitement when they stumble into the Magic Supply Shop owned by Mr. Elives (say that name aloud!).

In The Monster’s Ring, the child is Russel Crannaker, who has been pushed around by the schoolyard bully one too many times. A basically good boy, Russell is beginning to develop an anger problem. Perhaps as an exercise in anger management, Mr. Elives sells him a ring that can turn Russell into a horrible, horned monster. Just in time for Halloween, too! But what begins as a harmless little joke, with perhaps a touch of “getting even,” gets out of control.

This book is both the first and the last in the series of “Magic Shop Books” by Bruce Coville. It is the first because it was originally published in 1982, but it is also the last because the author revised and expanded the story in 2002 after he had written the other three books. As it now reads, the story sets up a delightful pattern that is repeated, with charming variations, in Jennifer Murdley’s Toad; Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher; and The Skull of Truth. Between them, these books have won the state Children’s Book Award in no fewer than nine states, plus an IRA Children’s Choice and a School Library Journal “Best Book of the Year.” So, if you or your child would like to make a magical discovery, be sure to visit the Magic Shop.

Jennifer Murdley’s Toad
by Bruce Coville
Recommended Age: 10+

We should all be so lucky as to have a teacher or a father like Bruce Coville – if for no other reason than to hear the stories he tells, and to meet the characters he creates (some of them actually came to visit his classroom from time to time). But perhaps the best reason to wish for a Bruce Coville in your life is that he seems to understand the awkward problems children live with.

Jennifer Murdley’s problem is that she’s, well, ugly. Plump, beady-eyed, unpretty, she is well described as “the kid in the plain brown wrapper.” It isn’t easy to be plain in an age that reveres beauty to an unnatural degree. What does it take for Jennifer to begin her journey from being a beauty victim to learning to be happy with the beauty inside? In many other authors’ hands, it would take a magic spell turning her into a walking, talking Barbie doll. In Coville’s hands, it does involve magic, but of quite a different kind: a visit to Mr. Elives’ Magic Shop, a talking toad, a series of adventures involving kisses that turn people into toads, and a wicked witch become the ingredients in a magic spell that brings Jennifer’s special kind of beauty out for all to see. No, she doesn’t end up becoming fabulous in the end; but she won’t be so lonely or picked-on, either.

This book is somewhere in the middle of the series of “Magic Shop Books” by Bruce Coville. The other books in the series are The Monster’s Ring; Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher; and The Skull of Truth. Between them, these books have won the state Children’s Book Award in no fewer than nine states, plus an IRA Children’s Choice and a School Library Journal “Best Book of the Year.” So if you or your child would like to make a magical discovery, be sure to visit the Magic Shop.

Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher
by Bruce Coville
Recommended Age: 10+

The four "Magic Shop Books" by Bruce Coville are united by certain patterns, almost rituals, such as the hero child’s discovery of the mysterious shop where Mr. Elives sells powerful magic objects for pocket change. Another thread that runs through the books is that each child finds just the kind of magic that will help him deal with his own special problem – a problem that many of us faced at that age.

In Jennifer Murdley’s Toad, Jennifer’s problem is that she isn’t pretty. In The Monster’s Ring, Russell has a problem with anger. And in The Skull of Truth, Charlie is always getting in trouble for telling lies. So at first, Jeremy Thatcher may seem to break from the pattern. What’s his problem? What common ailment ails him? The worst of his problems, at first, is that he doesn’t want to be kissed by a very nice girl who has a crush on him. He is small for his age but not badly bullied. He is a talented artist and he has a great family. And, after a while, he doesn’t mind being chased by Mary Lou Hutton so much. So why does Jeremy Thatcher need magical help?

Well, perhaps it has something to do with the hateful art teacher who makes Jeremy’s best subject a nightmare. Perhaps it has to do with the feelings of sadness and loneliness that weigh on Jeremy. Could the scary-wonderful job of helping a baby dragon grow up be a way for Jeremy to deal with childhood depression? It hardly seems so, since the sadness and loneliness is really a result of his adventure. Perhaps in Jeremy’s case, he was needed to help the magic happen – to hatch the baby dragon, to keep it safe, to give it love (and lots of food), and finally, to let it go.

Each of the "Magic Shop Books" has its charms, but this is the one that I personally found most touching. The “letting go” bit is very hard, you know. It is a sorrow we all have to live with, a wound that never seems to heal. And though Coville’s answer to this common childhood problem (and that goes for children of all ages!) is not an “easy fix.” But it does show that having someone you love in your heart, in your memory, and in your imagination can make the loss more bearable.

The Skull of Truth
by Bruce Coville
Recommended Age: 10+

In the other three "Magic Shop Books," the adventure begins when a child, running from some bullies (or at least, from a girl who wants to kiss him) finds himself on a strange street, in front of a strange shop owned by Mr. Elives. And then the child spends a handful of pocket change to buy a magical item that can help him or her deal with his own special problem. Charlie Eggleston’s adventure begins a bit differently. Charlie has a problem with the truth, and perhaps it is the streak of dishonesty in him that leads him to shoplift a skull from Mr. Elives’ shop.

By and by, Charlie finds out that Mr. Elives knows he has the skull, knows where he lives, and could make him pay for it if he wants to...but doesn’t. Mr. Elives is actually quite relieved to get rid of the talking skull, which belongs to a medieval Danish court-jester named Yorick. As Yorick chatters straight into Charlie’s brain, something remarkable happens. Wise-acre he may be, but Yorick can only tell the truth. That’s how he ended up as a skull. And now everyone in Charlie’s house has to tell the truth, while Yorick is under the same roof. You would think a dose of truth would be helpful – and sometimes, it is – but it can also be disastrous!

Amid the humor and horror of family members and dinner guests uttering uncomfortable truths they did not mean to say aloud, this story also teaches some lessons about accepting other people as they are, not worrying about what other people think of you, and protecting the environment. It might be a bit preachier than it needs to be, and the vague sense of menace that Coville carefully builds may seem to simply evaporate without the expected, climactic resolution. Nevertheless, it is a funny, lighthearted adventure with a touch of suspense, a dash of fairy-tale, and a pinch of Shakespeare.

Juliet Dove, Queen of Love
by Bruce Coville
Recommended Age: 10+

I was mistaken when I said that the Magic Shop Books were complete in four books. As recently as 2003, this fifth book came out, once more featuring Mr. Elives and his Magic Supplies shop, as well as Ms. Priest and their “immortal vermin” friends, Jerome and Roxanne, the talking rats.

This time, the child who stumbles upon the Magic Shop is a painfully shy sixth-grader called Juliet Dove, whose defense mechanism of striking out with devastating sarcasm has earned her a reputation as a stuck-up jerk and the nickname “Killer.” While trying to avoid a confrontation with a girl whose feelings she recently hurt, Juliet blunders into Mr. Elives’ shop and meets...not Mr. Elives but...

Well, whoever the lady is behind the counter, she seems desperately eager to give Juliet a certain amulet and to shove her out the side door of the shop. As soon as Juliet puts the amulet around her neck, she finds out that she is in serious trouble. Now she can’t take the amulet off until she brings an ancient story to its conclusion, confronts her worst fear, solves a strange riddle, and dares to defy one of the ancient gods (albeit with the help of several others).

Even the fact that Athena, Hera, and Cupid are running around doesn’t seem strange compared to two talking (and later flying) rats and the crowd of lovesick boys who suddenly start following Juliet everywhere she goes. Throw in a little sister’s imaginary friend who suddenly takes on an eerie sort of old painting that comes to life...and a dangerous plot to destroy Juliet’s family, if not the whole world...and you have a recipe for one of Bruce Coville’s most exciting and magical school-kids’ adventures.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Last night I drove way out to UMSL to hear the St. Louis Symphony perform at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center (left). I had never been there before and was little prepared for the impressive, modern concert hall, situated on a grassy hillside with its main entry at the end of a long, curving, brightly-lit path from the parking lot.

By "little prepared" I mostly mean "underdressed." Within a couple hours after yesterday's cold front roared into town, temperatures plummeted from around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (think: people running around Forest Park shirtless) to the wee digits above zero, and while I'm speaking of roaring, let's talk about the wind on that long, curving path along the top of that bare hillside. I haven't felt air so cold since my college days in Minnesota!

So I braved gale-force, Arctic winds and unfamiliar terrain to visit the Touhill and hear David Robertson conducting Olivier Messaien's Turangalila Symphony. I lived, however, through both trips between my car and the hall. And I enjoyed the concert tremendously.

Robertson made use of the first "half" of the program to give a half-hour presentation explaining the symphony, with live musical examples and visual aids (i.e., pieces of modern art projected on a screen above the stage, suggesting ways for the audience to think about the music). Perhaps because Robertson made such an excellent apology for the work, or perhaps because the live spectacle of a 10-movement symphony being played by a huge orchestra, with a bravura pianist and a bizarre electronic instrument called the ondes Martenot (left) right out front, what might have been considered inscrutably dense and eccentric music ended up absolutely captivating. The audience's unanimous, standing ovation testifies to how thrilling the performance was, given that it was a work of over-the-top originality driven by exotic modes, eastern rhythms, 1950s sci-fi movie sound effects, birdcalls, and repetitions of the same material in numerologically significant patterns.

I like to tell people that Messiaen saved my life. One of his organ pieces, which I played every day in a practice room during a particularly stressful time in college, became for me a kind of musical bio-feedback, or full-body massage. I would run into the practice room nearly sick with stress, turn on the organ, play the piece, counting every beat (it was essentially one long ritard), and be completely relaxed and calm by the end. Messiaen was a magical composer, writing music of monumental weirdness in a style I would never have sought out, and yet I have never failed to like a piece by him when I have heard it.

I heard Messiaen the organist last night, sometimes combining the instruments in the orchestra like stops on an organ, to create not so much harmony or an ensemble sound as the sense of a single instrument with a unique timbre. I heard things that were painful, touching, exciting, and mysterious - things that I understood but could never explain in words. I heard the kind of music that comes to me in dreams. Messiaen is one of those composers (another is Hindemith) who seemed capable of recording the experience of the subconscious mind in musical notation. I have often wished I could do that, but I can't hold onto the dreams long enough to work them out on paper. I guess I will just have to keep listening to these guys, then. Maybe someday, someway, they will explain me to myself.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Fun with Forces of Nature

Today I happened to be at home during the day, and during a nap scheduled from 1:30 to 2:30, I was awakened at exactly 2:00 by a phenomenon I have often witnessed with awe. Even with the blinds drawn and my eyes shut, I was able to observe the arrival of a strong cold front, complete with violent winds. Trees creaked; dry leaves scuttled along the ground; the windows shook in their frames; the air itself took on a tone color, the pitch rising and falling as the air velocity fluctuated. It was very impressive, and at this writing (5:30 St. Louis time) it is still blowing like that, on and off.

Predictably, the cold front brought more than just high winds. At lunchtime I walked across the street to a restaurant in balmy, spring-like weather, though the sky did threaten rain. By 3:30, when I walked into the clinic for a doctor's appointment (don't ask), the air was stinging my face with sleet. And moments ago, as I came away from the pharmacy where I picked up my meds, it was officially snowing and the temperature had crossed into "bitterly cold" territory, taking the wind chill factor into account.

All in all, it has been an interesting day to be sick at home. When weather occurrences like this happen while I'm at work, I sometimes don't notice - except to be startled by the change at the end of the day.

Seeing a front coming from a distance can be just as awesome as hearing it hit while huddled under the covers with two concerned cats. It can look like the sky has been divided in two along a straight edge, with daylight on one side and a stormy night on the other - like this picture.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Winter Pass 3

Last night at Powell Symphony Hall, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra opened its program with three pieces that create a timeless mood. First was Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, arguably the single piece that launched the modern period in fine-art music. Inspired by a poem by symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the Prelude uses exotic tone colors and lush, indefinite harmony to create a haze of sensual vagueness.

Next on the programme was Clocks and Clouds, a 1972-73 piece by Hungarian composer György Ligeti, whose early experiments in weird sound combinations were immortalized in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The sounds in Clocks and Clouds were also quite weird, and the piece did little more than create an atmosphere even more vague and "timeless" (in the sense of "no sense of sequence at all") than the Debussy. The most intriguing thing about it was the use of twelve solo, female voices - members of the Symphony Chorus who, I know, have worked very hard to prepare for this performance. They sang neutral syllables in a dense, polyphonic texture, sometimes seeming to be part of the overall color-mix of the orchestra, and sometimes popping out of it like a chorus of ribbiting frogs. Can I use the word "weird" three times in one paragraph?

Closing out the top half of the program was Henri Dutilleux's piece Shadows of Time, a big-orchestra number with bizarrely titled "episodes," of which the central one is dedicated to Anne Frank and other children who have suffered oppression. The piece was evidently inspired by the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, which led Dutilleux to realize that some memories are always immediately present even after decades have passed. This probably explains the brief passage in which three children (members of the St. Louis Children's Choir) sang the French words "Porquois nous? Porquois l'etoiles?" ("Why us? Why the stars?"), referring to the gold stars the Nazis made Jews wear on their clothing.

Knowing this beforehand, thanks to David Robertson's informative pre-concert talk, I was perhaps predisposed to hear the menacing passages of this piece as a depiction of wartime memories of fear and brutality. As harsh as these passages were, and as unique as Dutilleux's mode of musical expression is, I found myself enjoying Shadows of Time, and realizing that it was beautiful. The preceding piece may have been nothing but sound effects, but (I thought) this was music.

And how did conductor and music director Robertson manage to get all this daring and risky music into the first half of one program? By wrapping it all up, after the intermission, with Mitsuko Uchida (!!!) playing the 4th Piano Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven. I have her Schubert CDs and they are marvelous. And now I have seen her in person - from a second-row seat in the dress circle boxes, no less - an angle that is as much like being right on stage as any seat in Powell can afford - and heard her powerful, brilliant, and above all sensitive playing at first-hand. Ye stars, what she can do with a phrase! Ye oceans, what she can do at pianissimo! And when she hauls off and slams the keyboard with all her strength, you can see her arms shaking as if she is determined to milk a vibrato out of that instrument!

The concerto itself is a remarkable piece. I read in the programme that Beethoven never played it again after its disastrous premiere, in which a hatchet-faced mob of unruly and unprepared musicians took a dump on it as well as his fifth and sixth symphonies (which also premiered at that concert). They could not have understood how much the piece meant to Beethoven, and how every idiosyncratic bit of it - from its counterintuitively lowkey opening, to the middle movement's dialogue in which the softspoken piano gradually calms the hysterical orchestra, to the exquisite jubilation of the finale - was a harbinger of things to come. At the beginning I overheard myself thinking: "Beethoven is making use of Mozart here." By the end it was: "Brahms used this."

And when the audience stood as one body and clapped Mitsuko Uchida on and off the stage three or four times, she blessed us with a beautiful encore which I must guiltily admit I couldn't identify, though it sounded familiar and (here I risk making a fool of myself) Beethovenish. Believe it or not, you don't get encores every week - in three years going to the SLSO I think this was only the second or third encore that I have heard - but the audience wanted it, and got it, Hallelujah. And so with great relish I add Mitsuko Uchida to my growing list of art-music idols I have heard in concert. I hope you get to hear her sometime.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Diction is Platinum

Ever had trouble understanding the words while listening to a congregation sing a hymn? Well, you could open up the hymnal, silly, and at least read along. The subtitles in the following video are evidently somebody's stab at interpreting the mushy diction in an otherwise powerful rendition of an English hymn. It's a screamingly funny illustration of a new principle I have just invented: Silence is golden...but diction is platinum!

EDIT: Check out the "menu" after playing this video. As I write this, one of the videos on the menu, titled "Not the Nine O'Clock News: Songs of Praise," is a hilarious sketch starring Rowan Atkinson.

Sweeney Todd

Last night I gave in to a gathering sense of film history in progress, and saw the Tim Burton film, based on Stephen Sondheim's musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

It's a violent, bitter, twisted, macabre, gruesome, angry, and coldly evil film with terrific music and brilliant performances, reuniting Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket's mother, and the director of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The above actors play, respectively, an embittered barber turned homicidal maniac and his enabling landlady, who serves his victims to the public as meat pies. The bloodbath is triggered by Professor Snape and Wormtail, or rather a crooked judge and brutal beadle played by the same actors.

What keeps the demon barber's revenge from becoming nothing more than a diabolical justification for mass murder is the bittersweet tragedy furnished by a handful of peripheral characters who complicate the business, most notably Borat in the character of a cockney blackmailer disguised as an Italian barber.

There is also a couple of beautiful young lovers whose chances of true happiness are blighted in an interesting reversal of romantic convention; a mad beggar-woman who somehow seems to be the only person who perceives what is going on; and a sweet-faced, good-hearted waif whose likely future may provide a disturbing topic for your thoughts during the long, wakeful night after you see this movie.

All these characters, trailing individual plot threads behind them, come together in a climax of farce-like complexity, resulting in a grisly tangle from which few of them will walk away. It is truly disturbing to behold, but the most disturbing part is how you sympathize with nearly all of them on a certain level. I guess that's how tragedy is supposed to be done: when truly tragic characters are about to perish, you suddenly pity them as you realize that their fate was inevitable.

And how about the look of the movie? It does a great deal to convince you of Sweeney Todd's thesis that 19th-century London is a "hole in the world like a deep, dark pit." Besides the barber shop / abbatoir, the film takes you to a sinister bakehouse, a filthy sewer, an insane asylum, and a pie shop crawling with cockroaches. To look at the costumes, I believe the target the filmmakers aimed for (and hit) was "Charles Dickens on a bad acid trip." Which reminds me of one more thing - the spiky-haired waif I previously mentioned would have done well in the role of Jerry Cruncher's chip-a-block son.

Monday, January 21, 2008

D. M. Cornish

by D. M. Cornish
Recommended Age: Age: 12+

Book One of Monster Blood Tattoo introduces a fantasy world imagined in such detail that it compares to The Lord of the Rings and Dune. Check it out: besides the story itself, the book contains pages of maps, diagrams and tables, and a voluminous vocabulary list with detailed definitions. All this may come in handy as you plunge right into an entirely new world, set in a vast and detailed landscape populated with strange types of people and monsters galore.

At the center of this adventure is a foundling (surprise!) named Rossamünd Bookchild, a child so gentle and sensitive and honest that he does not seem likely to survive long in the harsh, dangerous world in which he finds himself. If your heart immediately goes out to him, don't be surprised. Your hero of heroes, Harry Potter, gave a similar impression when you first met him.

Rossamünd has spent all his life in Madam Opera's Foundlingery, an academy for orphans and abandoned children where kids undergo training to prepare them for careers, mostly as sailors, or "vinegaroons." In this world, they're called "wine-dark seas" for a really good reason: the waters contain a caustic concentration of vinegar, and they are full of strange and mighty beasts. But then, the land is full of strange things too: nickers and bogles, things that go bump in the night, and sometimes more than just "bump." In fact, the "half-continent" where Rossamünd's people live is an age-old battleground between normal people and the monsters who dwell in the less populated areas of the map. And in this war, there is no diplomacy. Anyone who tries to understand the monsters' point of view is ostracized for being a sedorner, a monster-lover.

What would you bet that this doesn't become another burden Rossamünd must carry? And he has enough for an undersized, overaged foundling. Finally offered a career in the lamplighters' corps, Rossamünd sets out on a journey to take up his new life, equipped with all that a handful of sympathetic school staff members can afford to give him. But things start to go wrong right away. Kidnapped by pirates (or maybe worse than pirates), fired upon by a river garrison, the boy flees into a countryside haunted by violent things - not the last of which are a beautiful noblewoman who can shoot lightning out of her fingertips, and her sinister assistant. Soon Rossamünd's fate is entangled with that of a tormented and dangerous monster-slayer named Europe, a resourceful postman named Fouracres, and a small bogle named Freckle.

But this is only the start of Rossamünd's journey. The story has only begun when this book ends, as the erstwhile foundling settles into his new life as a lamplighter end looks forward to an entirely new adventure. I will be looking out for Book Two, titled Lamplighter, where Rossamünd will hopefully learn more about the mystery of his own past, while going through even scarier and weirder adventures. If it's at all like this book, it will be a feast for the senses, with rich illustrations and a tendency to describe scenes and costumes in near-photographic detail. Bring patience and an open mind when you enter the world of Monster Blood Tattoo, for there is a lot of special vocabulary to take in while you try to make sense of this strange new world. But take care not to get lost; for at times it seems like such a real place that you could turn a corner and lose sight of the world you came from!

Robert Cormier

I Am the Cheese
by Robert Cormier
Recommended Age: 14+

The title comes from the last verse of the children's musical game, "The Farmer in the Dell." Nevertheless, Cormier is more of a suspense novelist for young adults than a children's writer. This is a profoundly disturbing story, in which a lonely and vulnerable boy is led to question his memories, his identity, and even his sanity, beginning when he starts to realize that his parents haven't been telling the truth to him all along.

It alternates between the story of a long, interstate bicycle journey the boy takes in search of his father, told in the first person, and a third-person account (partly in the form of tape transcripts) of the boy dredging up partially buried memories for a person who is never clearly identified as a shrink, but who claims to want to help him to remember everything. The closer the boy gets to figuring things out, the more the suspense builds, until the truly awful, heartbreaking climax.

Be warned: This book does not have a happy ending. In fact, it's somewhere between depressing and sinister. So if you're expecting something more redeeming, look elsewhere.

Zizou Corder

by Zizou Corder
Recommended Age: 12+

Charlie Ashanti is an interesting boy, and he lives in an interesting world. Half-English, half-Ghanaian, he also has a bit of cat blood (long story) and so, since a very early age, he speaks cat. Cats love Charlie because he speaks to them in their own language and understands what they have to say. They also love Charlie’s parents because they are important scientists on the verge of a breakthrough that could change the world for cats.

Which brings us back to the subject of Charlie’s world. His story takes place in a future when most petrolium-fueled vehicles have been banned. Transportation depends on solar and wind power, and cats aren’t welcome in most dwellings. Why? Because of a global epidemic of severe asthma, made worse by allergies and engine emissions. Charlie is lucky to be one of the few people in the world immune to cat allergies, though he does have asthma.

But Charlie’s luck is about to be put to the test. Powerful people have stolen his parents, and Charlie himself barely escapes from being kidnapped. Running for his life with little going for him but his ability to talk to cats, Charlie joins a floating circus and becomes the assistant to a frightening lion trainer named Maccomo. Charlie realizes that, in addition to searching for his parents, he must also help six beautiful, yet dangerously wild, lions escape from the circus and go back to their home in Africa.

This is an eventful, provocative, richly colored tale that moves swiftly from London to Paris and beyond, by boat and by train, crowded with extravagantly unusual people and some remarkable animal characters. It has mystery, suspense, and even horror, particularly on the eerie night when boy and lions flee from the circus. It has villains who are pathetic, ridiculous, magnetic, repellent, terrifying, and various unlooked-for mixtures of the above. It has a hero who is tortured by loneliness, guilt, anxiety, and inner conflict about what he must do. It has, indeed, a bright thread of political preachiness woven right through it. And most unusual of all, it has an author who is two people. “Zizou Corder” turns out to be Louisa Young and her daughter Isabel Adomakoh Young, whose family must be the basis for Charlie’s.

OK, it isn’t really all that unusual. Ellery Queen was a couple of guys, remember? (Surely someone remembers Ellery Queen.) It’s interesting just to think about how two people could write a book together, even two people who are as similar in their thinking as a mother and daughter might be. But these two people didn’t write just one book together; they wrote a whole trilogy, which continues in Lionboy: The Chase.

Lionboy: The Chase
by Zizou Corder
Recommended Age: 12+

If you have read Lionboy, the first book in the aptly named “Lionboy Trilogy,” you already know that Charlie Ashanti lives in a post-combustion-engine future and speaks the language of cats. You know that his parents are scientists on the verge of discovering a cure for asthma, and that they have been kidnapped by a sinister corporation that plans to brainwash them into working for itself. You also know that Charlie is running from not only a would-be kidnapper, and the powerful people backing him, but also from a floating circus and the creepy lion trainer, whose six beautiful lions are also running away...with Charlie.

Together Charlie and the lions are trying to find Charlie’s parents and the lions’ home in the forests of Morocco. Their trail—a false trail, as it happens—leads them to Venice, under the protection of an endearingly silly Bulgarian king and his neither endearing nor silly intelligence expert, Edward. Edward has taken charge of Charlie and the lions, turning the king’s Venetian Palazzo into a damp prison in the midst of a beautiful but sadly decaying city. Edward has some kind of plan which may make it even harder for Charlie and the lions to continue on their way. But he hasn’t reckoned on Charlie and his friends, nor on the restless citizens of Venice, any more than the Corporacy has counted on the ability of a mangy cat named Sergei to single-pawedly liberate two of its most valued captives: Charlie’s parents.

This middle installment of the trilogy keeps the tension ratcheted up. In the midst of major events (political upheaval, environmental disaster, etc.) Charlie and his lion friends seem at times to be hopelessly tiny figures, but in their loyalty and courage they turn out to be extraordinary heroes. Just wait until you get your paws on the final book in the trilogy, Lionboy: The Truth.

Lionboy: The Truth
by Zizou Corder
Recommended Age: 12+

After escape upon escape, Charlie Ashanti has finally been reunited with his parents, the lions have returned to their native forest, and the bad guys have gotten theirs. (See Lionboy and its sequel, Lionboy: The Chase for more on what I mean.) However, Charlie and his parents aren’t entirely out of danger. The evil Corporacy is more determined than ever to control Charlie’s parents and their scientific knowledge. An embittered teen hoodlum and a diabolical lion trainer are both willing and able to capture Charlie in order to lure his parents into the Corporacy’s trap.

But Charlie still has lots of friends – lots of strange and wonderful friends. And so ensues a zany chase across an entire ocean, involving an embarrassment of boats carrying concerned parents, a Venetian gondolier, a Bulgarian king, two Moroccan lions, and an entire circus. Charlie also has more family than he knew, including an aunt he has barely met, and a cousin he knows way too well.

As Charlie and his family, friends, and enemies get closer to the heart of the Corporacy’s dastardly plans, forget about expecting what is going to happen next. To the discredit of the author, or rather authors (Zizou Corder is a pen name for the mother-daughter writing team of Louisa and Isabel Adomakoh Young), not all of these characters end up contributing much except the book equivalent of an operatic “grand finale” ensemble number. To their credit, however, they blend a high degree of “social consciousness” with such an enjoyable adventure that you don’t necessarily feel as if you’ve been preached at. Though, really, you have.

This is a trilogy that preaches about environmental responsibility, animal rights, the ethics of scientific research, racial relations, freedom, and above all, the courage to put the needs of others ahead of your own. But it is also a trilogy that features a multilingual lizard, some highly verbal cats, a humane monarch, an invisible boat (owned by a suspiciously familiar Cuban gentleman), an amorous whale, and a hilarious depiction of a whole islandful of people suffering withdrawal from a brainwashing drug. There is creepiness (this book won’t help the tourism industry in Haiti much), high adventure, comedy, family drama, surprises, and plenty of love between a boy and his parents and friends, both human and animal.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Winter Pass 2

Last night I used my St. Louis Symphony Orchestra "Winter Pass" a second time, for another "Bach and Friends" performance featuring guest conductor Nic McGegan. This time the Brandenburg Concertos were Nos. 3 and 6, and the other composers on the programme - whose concertos for double string orchestra were modeled on Bach - were Czech emigre Bohuslav Martinů and longlived Brit Sir Michael Tippett.

At the top of the concert, Brandenburg 3 held the stage in an unusual (for a symphony orchestra) performance of a work that straddles the line between orchestral and chamber music. Only eleven musicians were in play: three violins, three violas, three cellos, a double-bass, and McGegan conducting from the harpsichord. He brilliantly improvised the brief slow movement for which Bach notated only two chords. In spite of the thin forces, the piece was a feast for the eyes and ears, with an intricate texture that is best appreciated by a live audience.

Martinů's Double Concerto for Strings, Piano, and Timpani (written in 1938) was a revelation: a little-known masterpiece of the 20th century, written during dark days for the composer's homeland, it was well described in McGegan's pre-concert lecture as "angry city music" that could effectively accompany a documentary on the desolation caused by war. The concerto's movingly elegiac slow movement is framed by two energetic, serious movements full of angular rhythms and thick, forceful harmonies. Peter Henderson acquitted himself magnificently in a challenging piano part often buried in the texture, rather like a source of orchestral color than a solo part, except for two tremendous solo passages in the central movement.

Brandeburg 6 led off the second half of the concert with the smallest ensemble yet: two violas, three cellos, and a double-bass, with McGegan again conducting from the keyboard. Seven musicians on stage! And two of the cellists sat out the slow movement. These last couple of weeks, the spotlight has really been on finely-controlled balance, and on the large number of capable soloists within the SLSO.

The concert finally achieved what it had been threatening all along, and ended with a demonstration of pure string sound. Michael Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938-39) shows the strings in every conceivable texture and combination, from two full-sized string sections playing back and forth in stereo, to ten rhythmically active sections conversing in scintillating counterpoint. The piece is a feast for the ears and mind, both radiantly beautiful and exquisitely complex; its central movement is particularly lyrical. I shall have to look into Tippett's work a bit more.

Supplemental Tones for ELH Psalmody

Here are some additional Psalm tones for use with the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, which only provides four tones. If you use ELH or a hymnal with a similar form of chant tones, these supplemental melodies may add a bit of freshness and variety to your worship music. I co-wrote these over the holidays with a friend of mine, who uses ELH in his parish. You'll notice they all start on an A, which is required by the liturgy in ELH. Feel free to transpose them as needed.

Susan Cooper

The Boggart
by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 10+

The author intrigued me because her book The Grey King is on the Newbery Medal shelf at Barnes and Noble. The title intrigued me because there are boggarts in the Harry Potter universe, and I wondered if they were the same. Not quite. In the Harry Potter books, a boggart is a shape-changing, mind-reading creature that feeds off fear, so it always assumes the form of whatever you fear the most; and it lives in wardrobes and cupboards and things like that. But in Susan Cooper's vision, a boggart is sort of the national spirit of Scotland, an "Old Thing" in capital letters, a wild magical creature that is like a tiny, invisible man who can sometimes assume some visible form or other (like a hockey puck or a black cat). It lives to tease people and play lighthearted pranks on them, its very reason for existence is to become part of a family and amuse them with its annoying little tricks.

This particular boggart comes from a castle in the Western Scottish Highlands, where he has merrily pulled the noses of countless generations of a particular clan--and fallen tragically in love with two clan chiefs whose eventual, inevitable death caused him intense grief. The latest one leaves the castle to his only living relatives, who happen to be a Canadian family living in Toronto. They decide to sell the castle after visiting it once, but they bring home some furniture including a roll-top desk in which the Boggart is inadvertently trapped and transported to Toronto.

Naturally, all haggis breaks loose, as a creature from old world magic mixes explosively with new-world technology. And though he takes a liking to his new family and certain modern conveniences (like peanut butter and electricity), the Boggart desperately wants to go home to Scotland. But how can he communicate this desire to his human family, and what can they do about it?

That's what the story is about, and a pretty good story it is. I like it a lot, and not just because the song quoted from Shakespeare's Cymbeline is one that I sang in college. In fact, I have to admit, I love this story, as I am obliged to love anything that makes me laugh and cry, and I was particularly impressed with the fact that the story made me cry in the first chapter. That's an achievement!

The boggart is a character you can really love, and I mean the word "love" in a profound way. I hope I can find a copy of the sequel, The Boggart and the Monster. [UPDATE: Obviously I did; read on.]

The Boggart and the Monster
by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 10+

From the author of the award-winning The Dark Is Rising sequence, not to mention wife of the great actor Hume Cronyn, comes this delightful sequel to The Boggart.

Once again, Canadian siblings Emily and Jessup are in Argyllshire visiting the boggart-haunted Castle Keep which their father inherited then sold to his Scottish lawyer, Mr. Maconochie, who is just now figuring out that he has a real, live boggart for a housemate.

Together with Tommy, the boy from the local store who befriended them on their previous trip, the children go camping on the shores of Loch Ness while a team of researchers uses high-tech equipment to search for the fabled monster. The head of the project believes Nessie to be a plesiosaur; but when the Boggart comes along on the trip, he discovers a long-lost cousin slumbering at the bottom of the loch, stuck in the form of an enormous sea monster, for the Loch Ness monster is not a plesiosaur (or a kelpie, either), but a boggart!

And now, what with researchers on one hand and a media circus on the other, the Boggart of Castle Keep and the children have their hands full. They have to get Nessie out of Loch Ness and out of the shape of the Loch Ness monster, so that he can go back to being a respectable, mischievous boggart. With Tommy’s journalist father running around with a load of cameras, and car accidents and other misadventures strewn in their way, it will take the combined concentration of two boggarts and five people to help Nessie make the journey to Loch Linnhe and freedom. And indeed, it may take more magic still.

Backed by the awe-inspiring scenery of the Scottish highlands, perfumed by the heady scents of the Old Magic, touched by romance and mischief and deep sorrowful longing, this is another terrific and spirited adventure to delight anyone interested in magical beasts! (Besides boggarts, you may also learn a bit about selkies in this story.)

Green Boy
by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 10+

Trey is very protective of his sensitive, mute little brother, Lou. They live with their grandparents on an outer island of the Bahamas, from which they often cross to an uninhabited isle to look at shells, birds, and fish. But now Long Pond Cay is threatened by powerful developers who want to build a hotel and casino on the spot and spoil all the beauty and life that is there.

Grand and Gramma fight a losing battle against the developers while Trey and Lou fight a different kind of battle: in another world called Pangaia, where they are magically transported. Pangaia is like a nightmare of earth’s future, where mankind has destroyed the environment and clothed the planet in endless, noxious cities. The boys join a group of underground rebels who believe that an ancient prophecy says that Lou will be their savior. But at what cost?

The relationship between the boys is very effective, and the story itself is gripping. I’m afraid I don’t endorse the ridiculous Gaia hypothesis which underlies much of this book, however. You’ll have to take it as you find it. You may (as I did) enjoy this book in spite of its strange spirituality. Most of us would do well to think about our relationship to the environment, though (again) I disagree with the idea evident in this book: that we need to develop a “global consciousness.” I think that’s asking a bit much of the average person. It would mean a lot more - and, I hope, accomplish a lot more - if we all looked out for our own little corner of the globe and felt ourselves to be stewards of the life and systems that dwell there.

Over Sea, Under Stone
by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 12+

The first book in the award-winning The Dark Is Rising quintet happens all upon a summer holiday in the south Cornish seaside village of Trewissick, where the Drew family have rented the imposing old Grey House, along with their mysterious and scholarly Great Uncle Merry. The three Drew children, Simon, Jane, and Barney, find that Merry is the only person they can trust as they get swept into an adventure full of mystery and peril.

It begins when they discover a secret door up to an attic, and an ancient manuscript lying as if carelessly dropped in a corner. The manuscript leads them on a latter-day quest for the Holy Grail, connected with the rising and falling battle between Good and Evil--or the Dark. The possibility of proving the King Arthur legend isn't their only motivation. They also have to make sure the manuscript, and the grail, don't fall into the hands of a group of enemies who are determined to use it for some dreadful purpose.

The ages have come round again, it seems, to another time of grave danger and an epochal battle against the rising Dark. And the children must do what they can, while the servants of the Dark run closer and closer at their heels. Some people are not as they seem; there are betrayals and surprises, good and bad, in store for our heroes. In a climactic race against the tide and a heart-pounding confrontation with the horrible Mr. Hastings, the Drew children win a mixed victory - at least, the other side doesn't win, so that the battle can go on - but even then, tantalizing mysteries remain.

The Dark Is Rising
by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 12+

This 1973 Newbery Honor Book is the second book in the sequence of the same name, which began with 1965's Over Sea, Under Stone.

On Midwinter's day, Buckinghamshire lad Will Stanton turns eleven years old. The youngest child in a large family, he has little idea that he is also the last-born of the immortal Old Ones, who lead the forces of the Light in their age-long fight against the Dark. Weird things begin happening on the eve of his birthday, but just as Will is learning of his true destiny, the Dark begins to rise in earnest during the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Helped by a handful of other Old Ones, and hindered by betrayal and outright attack from the powers of darkness, Will must find six magical signs and unite them together before Twelfth Night, when the Dark will wage its last and greatest attack on the world.

"Uncle Merry" from the first book returns as an Old One named Merriman Lyon, who (among others) helps Will find the signs of iron, bronze, wood, stone, fire, and water that he needs to hold back the Dark. Meanwhile a red-haired, blue-eyed Rider in Black menaces Will and his family at every turn...a strange, tormented Walker is abroad...the powerful Book of Gramarye waits...and Will discovers the ability to travel through time, plus other exciting powers.

Though Cooper distinguishes these powers from magic or witchcraft - which, when it's actually genuine, is a tool of the Dark - she does not go as far as to explain where the magic of the Light comes from. We only know that it is as old as the world, or older; that it is eternally at war with the Dark (otherwise known as Evil); and that one of its great heroes was King Arthur.

And again, although Cooper presents us with a tale that resonates with biblical imagery (especially the moving betrayal and fate of Hawkin) in a way that constantly reminded me of C. S. Lewis' tales of Narnia and Space, her outlook is not distinctly Christian; she seems to lump all religions, gods, and what they stand for together in one category, and to set the powers of the Light beside them as something else altogether.

English folk-mythology, Arthurian legend, British family drama, and classic "Good guys ride a white horse, bad guys ride a black" metaphysics join here in a tale of suspense and terror, beauty and wonder, holiday cheer and meteorological nightmare. Plus it has scenes that will remind Alfred Hitchcock fans of "The Birds" and Diana Wynne Jones fans of Dogsbody, not to mention a family so large (including twin boys) that it makes the Burrow seem sparsely populated.

So from the standpoint of "concerned Christian parents," it is an ambivalent story. You're just going to have to read it yourself and make up your own mind. But from the standpoint of an mind-engaging, thrilling fantasy-mystery-adventure with a terrific battle between good and evil, there can be no question. Cooper has it nailed. [UPDATE: The recent film The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising was based on this book.]

by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 12+

This is the third and shortest book of five in The Dark Is Rising sequence. It brings the Drew children and their Great Uncle Merry from the first book (Over Sea, Under Stone) together with Will Stanton from the second book (The Dark Is Rising), with an encore of their quest for the Cornish Grail in the fishing village of Trewissick.

Almost a year has passed since Simon, Jane, and Barney discovered the grail, but as their Easter holidays begin, the grail is stolen from its museum showcase. Gummery (a.k.a. Merriman Lyon) gathers them together with Will and fellow Old One, Captain Toms (who owns the Grey House of the first book), in an attempt to retrieve the Grail and/or the lost manuscript that unlocks the secret of the Grail's inscription, before both parts of this Thing of Power fall into the hands of the Dark.

This time the Dark is represented by a dark, long-haired, gypsy artist who exercises ghastly powers over the Drew boys. Also involved is a thing of Wild Magic called the Greenwitch - an effigy woven of hawthorn branches, weighted with stones, and thrown into the sea every year for good luck. A girl's wish, a boy's sketch, and the fears and shame of generations of villagers come to a hair-raising head the night the spirit of the Greenwitch rises from the sea.

The concept of "Wild Magic," which is almost impersonal and neither of the Light nor of the Dark, deepens the texture of this series of magical adventures. And the fact that the Drew children and Will Stanton don't immediately hit it off, also shows the author taking us to unexpected places. Again the story is essentially a showdown between classic Good and Evil, but with the reservation (for concerned Christian parents) that a form of "nature magic" is involved.

It's a moving and exciting story, and interesting new facets of the familiar characters continue to be revealed. Ultimately, another prophecy - if that's what it is - comes to light, pointing perhaps to a return of King Arthur and a final battle between the Dark and the Light. As such, the series continues with The Grey King.

The Grey King
by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 12+

This fourth book in The Dark Is Rising quintet won the 1976 Newbery Medal.

Will Stanton, the youngest of the Old Ones, is still at the same time a small boy. And so he is vulnerable to illnesses, such as an attack of hepatitis that nearly killed him and left him weak and missing important memories - such as the quest he is supposed to be on.

Sent to convalesce in Wales, on the farm of an aunt and her family, things start coming back to Will when he meets a strange, albino boy named Bran Davies, who plays the harp and owns a dog named Cafall with silver eyes that can see the wind. Together they overcome the malice of the Grey King - a Lord of the Dark whose spirit haunts the surrounding hills - and recover a golden harp that is one of the ancient objects the Light needs to defeat the rising Dark.

This done, however, their quest is only half done. And because of the malice of a man named Caradog Prichard, and the evil pranks of the silver-gray foxes that ordinary mortals cannot see, Cafall is killed and Bran's friendship with Will, and with the Light, seems irretrievably shattered. And while Will tries to find a way to awaken the Sleepers who must help defeat the Dark, the powers of the enemy are gathering to stop his quest cold.

The upshot is a dreadful confrontation between Bran, his adopted father Owen Davies, the maddened Prichard, a strangely wise farmer named John Rowlands, and almost helplessly caught between them, our own Will.

The interesting and ambiguous relationship between Cooper's conception of the Light and the Dark, in distinction from any religious (say, specifically Christian) concept of good and evil, is illustrated by this speech by John Rowlands:
Those men who know anything at all about the Light also know that there is a fierceness to its power, like the bare sword of the law, or the white burning of the sun.... At the very heart, that is. Other things, like humanity, and mercy, and charity, that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light. Oh, sometimes they are there; often, indeed. But in the very long run the concern of you people is with the absolute good, ahead of all else. You are like fanatics. Your masters, at any rate. Like the old Crusaders - oh, like certain groups in every belief, though this is not a matter of religion, of course. At the centre of the Light there is a cold white flame, just as at the centre of the Dark there is a great black pit bottomless as the Universe.
An interesting fantasy concept, that, whose full shape is not yet seen at this point in the series. It is basically pointing out that the aims and choices of Absolute Good sometimes go very hard on ordinary people, and that innocent individuals often pay dearly when the interests of universal good are being served. The climax of this story hinges on the question, who will pay this time and how? And what exactly is the destiny and nature of the mysterious Bran Davies?

Silver on the Tree
by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 12+

The fifth and last book of the Dark Is Rising series brings back together "the six": Great Uncle Merry and young Will Stanton, the first and last-born of the Old Ones; Bran Davies, the Welsh albino boy who is destined for great power; and the three Drew children, Simon, Jane, and Barney. With other characters old and new, the battle between the Dark and the Light rises to its final climax.

One way or another, the five children have been brought together to the Welsh seaside down of Aberdyfi, so that they can play their part in the final battle. With help from Merriman Lyon and "the Lady," among others, and hindrance from the Black and White Riders of the Dark, the children go on a quest full of perils and tests, for the Crystal Sword which can cut the silver blossom off the Midsummer Tree. But the Dark wants to get there first, because which ever side does so claims the right to drive its enemy out of Time, forever and ever.

Complete with more magical riddles and poems, a gripping journey through a Lost Land, an encounter with something like the Loch Ness Monster, and another heartbreaking episode featuring the good man John Rowlands and his wife Blodwen, the story culminates in another spectacularly tear-jerking scene of partings as a ship sails to the "quiet silver-circled castle at the back of the North Wind, among the apple trees." Oh yes, the ending also includes a rather preachy, secular sermon on the theme that mankind holds his destiny in his own hands.

All in all, it's an exciting book, full of suspense and terror, charm and humor, and a view of the world that does justice to both the good and the bad side of human nature. You may wonder, at the end, what (if anything) the Light and the Dark are really about. In a way, Merriman's sermon at the end of the story cancels out the whole concept of the series. But you could also look at it from the Lord of the Rings/Prydain Chronicles point of view, as the endings of these three sagas have a lot in common. And their essential message is that the magic of fairy tales, legends, and myths is limited by the bounds of their own world, bounds that the story creates. Sadly, perhaps, we have to carry on without that magic in our lives. But perhaps the memory of the world we have left behind--in the story, when everyone sails off into the sunset; in real life, when you close the book with a sigh--may help us to do what is given to us, and to be what we are called to be, in the here and now.