Author: Polina Dashkova
Translator: Marian Schwartz
My rating: 4 of 5
When Mitya Sinitsyn is found hanged in his apartment, nearly everyone seems to arrive at the obvious conclusion that he committed suicide. But considering how strongly his wife denies the possibility of such a thing happening, family friend and journalist Lena Polyanskaya begins to pick at the threads of his death . . . and finds the obvious begin to unravel before her. The clues she discovers begin leading her on a dangerous trail going back fourteen years to a trip she, Mitya, and his sister Olga took as young professionals together. Because somehow, something that happened on that trip was significant in a way she never realized–if she can only figure it out before she ends up dead because of it.
Madness Treads Lightly is the first Russian psychological thriller/crime novel I’ve ever read. Actually, it’s one of only a few Russian novels I’ve read, period. I should probably remedy that. In any case, this was a worthwhile read, one that would likely be enjoyed by most people who enjoy crime novels in general. Plotwise, you’ve got an interesting story–not really a mystery, since it becomes pretty clear what happened and who committed the crimes. But it’s intriguing to watch Lena go all amateur detective while still being at heart a mom and a journalist–an ordinary woman, not some insanely skilled crime fighter or anything. There’s a lot going on, and a number of interlocking plot threads to follow, but it all comes together quite well. I honestly found the native look at everyday Russian culture and society in the 1990’s to be nearly as interesting as the actual plot, though. Things like the way capitalism and crime were interconnected, foods that were common, polite social customs, etc. are fascinating to see displayed in such a way that they’re clearly just a normal, unremarkable part of the characters lives. But Russian naming conventions, though; I still don’t understand. . . . One more thing of note is that, although I would certainly consider this a thriller of sorts, it has a pacing that wouldn’t fit with the typical Western conception of that genre. It’s more of a slow, steady unfolding of one plot element after another, which sounds kind of dull when I say it, but it actually fits the story and works. Recommended.
Author/Illustrator: Svetlana Chmakova
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Peppi Torres manages to thoroughly mess up her first day in her new middle school by 1) tripping in the hall and dumping all her books, 2) getting helped by Jaime, a quiet kid with a reputation as a huge nerd, and then 3) pushing him and running away. Following this fiasco, Peppi does manage to find a place for herself in the school’s art club where she makes some good friends . . . even if she’s pretty much on her own during the rest of the school day. She still feels awfully guilty over pushing Jaime, especially when he begins tutoring her in math. And life becomes even more complicated when Peppi’s art club and the science club–of which Jaime is a member–become locked in a fierce competition for a table at the school’s cultural festival. Totally awkward, especially since Peppi finds that Jaime might actually be a great friend.
I absolutely loved Awkward! I can’t believe I haven’t seen it getting more love. This is a fantastic realistic slice-of-life school story for everyone–in graphic novel style. The setting is middle-school, so obviously that’s the primary intended audience, but the story is great and the messages it holds are valid for everyone (I’d say upper elementary and older). The writing tone is great–it captures that, well, awkwardness of being in middle school and figuring life out and all extremely well. The things Peppi goes through are credible, the sorts of issues that real people actually deal with. But the story is also funny and immensely positive in its message. It’s a great encouragement to work hard, work together, make all sorts of friends, and believe in possibilities. The characters are rich and fun to read, full of personality and individuality. And the art does a great job of reflecting this, with expressive character designs, attractive coloring, and a layout that’s easy to follow and focuses strongly on the people. I would definitely recommend Awkward to all sorts of people, and especially to those who enjoy graphic novels or are at that, well, awkward stage of life themselves.
By Hans Christian Andersen/Retold by Allison Grace MacDonald
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
My rating: 2.5 of 5
Kai and Gerda have always been best friends growing up just next door to each other. Or at least they were until Kai got a piece of an evil mirror stuck in his heart and became enthralled by the Snow Queen, completely disappearing from his home without a hint of where he’d gone. But Gerda knows him and loves him better than to accept that, and she’ll do whatever it takes to bring him home.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not particularly familiar with Andersen’s writing, so I can’t honestly say how well this particular retelling compares to the original story. I do have to say though that I wasn’t largely impressed. To start with, the focus seems to be entirely on the illustrations–I actually had to find the re-teller’s name on Goodreads as she wasn’t listed anywhere I could find in the actual book. I feel sorry for her putting all that work in and not getting proper recognition! I grant that the illustrations are very nice–elegant compositions, pleasant colors, lots of fine details, and well-designed characters. But I felt like story lost out to composition time and again. Like, at the end they’re supposed to be grown up, but in the picture they don’t appear to have aged at all! Furthermore (and this might be in the interest of simplifying for younger readers, but I still don’t like it), the story itself seems disjointed and jumpy; too much happens with too little connection between events. I guess it depends on the reader: if you want a simple retelling and pretty pictures, this version of The Snow Queen might work well for you. As for myself, I’ll probably try to find another retelling at some point to compare.
Music by: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky/Choreography by: Melissa French, Michael French, & Adrienne Keville/Originally Choreographed by: Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov/Performed by: NewArt School of Ballet/Featuring: Kontras Quartet
As I’m getting older, it seems that holiday traditions become just a bit more special, and what could be more traditional than The Nutcracker? In this delightful ballet, a large family gets together for Christmas, and the daughter of the house is given a nutcracker–the odd soldierly type–as a gift. During the night, she awakes–or seems to–and is waltzed through a journey in which her nutcracker turns into a charming prince, mice attack in droves, and a very sweet court performs for her enjoyment. Altogether, a very credible dream for a little girl to have during the holidays following an overly exciting day.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to see The Nutcracker performed by our local ballet–the first time I’ve gotten to see it live. I really enjoyed it! The music and snippets of the ballet itself have always permeated the Christmas season, but it wasn’t until I saw the story in its whole that I realized how very seasonally appropriate it actually is. The story is simple, festive, and cute–I enjoyed how much of the story is devoted to what appears to be the girl’s dream. I think the manner in which it was performed when I saw it brought across that atmosphere quite effectively. The choreography was both lovely and fun–lots of big group scenes and intricately interwoven dances, which were neat. And of course, Tchaikovsky’s compositions are always grand and gorgeous, expressive, imaginative, and beautiful. I thought it was interesting that the NewArt School chose to combine recorded tracks with the live performance of the Kontras Quartet; it was surprisingly effective, and the live music was a very nice touch. I would definitely recommend going to see The Nutcracker performed live if you get a chance; it really does add a special touch to the holidays.
Author: Mark Helprin
Illustrator: Chris Van Allsburg
In an isolated alpine cottage, an old man sits telling a story to an innocent, eager little girl. Unlike her present life or the stories she’s heard before, this is a story of tragedy and human cruelty. But it’s also a story of love and beauty. And in a sense, it’s her own story, one she desperately needs to hear.
Swan Lake is one of those stories that is much more, in every sense, than initial first impressions would make it appear. Initially, it seems simplistic, childish, old-fashioned, bucolic, and overly descriptive. Within half a dozen pages, it proves itself to be anything but–rather it is wondrous, tragic, beautiful, poetic, aching, and insightful. This book takes the basic story of the original Tchaikovsky ballet and expands the story of Odette and the prince into a deep, moving fairy tale of a story. I particularly enjoyed the part of the old storyteller–he is a character of great depth and interest whom I could see appearing readily in a Lloyd Alexander novel. Swan Lake is definitely a recommended read–preferably in a quiet location over a cup of hot tea. . . . It’s the sort of book that bears quiet contemplation.
Music by: Sergei Prokofiev/Choreography by: Melissa & Michael French/Performed by: NewArt School of Ballet
I recently had the privilege of seeing our local ballet perform Prokofiev’s Cinderella. It was absolutely stunning! The storyline is very much the traditional: Cinderella is kept busy doing chores while her stepmother and stepsisters, Anastasia and Drusilla, are obnoxious. The invitation goes out to the prince’s ball where he is rumored to be choosing his bride, and everyone is all in a fluster to get ready. Of course, poor Cinderella is left alone in her rags at home while everyone goes to the ball . . . until her Fairy Godmother slips in to change her fate and help her meet Prince Charming. Cue fairy-tale ending.
Cinderella is such a classic story–because it works. (Personally, I’m not a fan of the Disney version, but retellings like Bound and Ella Enchanted are some of my favorites). Prokofiev’s version works really well, expressing in a poetic combination of dance, acting, and music a story that is poignant, beautiful, dreamy, and hilarious. The serious characters like Cinderella, the Fairy Godmother, and Prince Charming are lovely and elegant–absolutely gorgeous to watch. But let’s face it, it’s the stepsisters that make the story; they are lazy, ill-bred, slovenly, stuck up, and utterly selfish in a most comical way–utterly abhorrent, yet utterly amusing onstage. I think the NewArt School’s portrayal of all the characters and the story was remarkably well done, with just the right combination of the beautiful poetry of dance and the poignancy and humor of the story. And of course, the music is absolutely gorgeous: haunting, eerie, uplifting, sweeping. Basically, if you ever get a chance to see Cinderella performed, I would say “go.”