Friday, December 15, 2017

Name That Composer

Back when I lived in an area served by a classical music radio station, I became a power-player in the game of Name That Composer. To help you achieve a similar level of success, here are some of the cheats, I mean rules, I played by. These are only some of the mental shortcuts that helped me maintain a high score. For many composers, however, there is no substitute for simply listening to a lot of their music.

Rule 1. When you tune in and you find what sounds like a symphony in progress, if it sounds like Haydn...
  • 1a. ...but its slow movement drags, it's by Mozart.
  • 1b. ...but it takes unexpectedly daring harmonic risks that totally pay off, it's early Beethoven.
  • 1c. ...but it takes unexpectedly daring harmonic risks that don't entirely pay off, it's early Schubert.
  • 1d. ...but it's scored entirely for strings, it's early Mendelssohn.
  • 1e. ...but nothing, it's Haydn.
Rule 2. If it sounds like Schumann, it's Schumann. Nobody else wrote music that sounded like Schumann's.
Exception: Max Bruch.

Rule 3. If it sounds like Berlioz, it's Berlioz. Nobody else wrote music that sounded like Berlioz's.

Rule 4. If it sounds like Bruckner, it's Bruckner. Nobody else wrote music that sounded like Bruckner's.

Rule 5. If it sounds like Sibelius, it's Sibelius. Nobody else wrote music that sounded like Sibelius.
Exceptions: Early Lars-Erik Larsson and Luís de Freitas Branco.

Rule 6. If it drips with Central Asian exoticism, it is probably by one of a handful of Russian romantic composers. But no matter who is credited with writing it, Rimsky-Korsakov most likely meddled with it.

Rule 7. If it turns out to be an early symphony or orchestral suite by Bizet, Gounod, Massenet, or Holst, your classical radio station sucks. Someone should tell its programming director to play significant music.

Rule 8. If it fills you with an urge to dance,
  • 8a. ...with satyrs and unicorns, it's Beethoven's Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony.
  • 8b. ...with hobnailed boots on, it's Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.
  • 8c. ...while wearing lederhosen, it's the scherzo of Schubert's Great C Major Symphony.
  • 8d. ...with tutu-clad hippos, elephants, crocodiles, and ostriches, it's a ballet by Ponchielli.
  • 8e. ...with anthropomorphic flowers, sugarplum fairies, nutcrackers, or fairy-tale characters, it's a ballet by Tchaikovsky.
  • 8f. ...with a fur coat on, because at the same time the music chills you like a wind off the Siberian steppe, it's a ballet by Stravinsky.
  • 8g. ...because the moment you stop dancing, a Red Army firing squad will open fire on you, it's either Prokofiev (if you feel like you learned your steps at the dacha of your wealthy, upper-class family) or Shostakovich (if you feel like your vodka-merchant father sent you to a dancing school).
Rule 9. If it bores the daylights out of you,
  • 9a. a stuffy, British way, it's Elgar.
  • 9b. a blue-collar, British way, it's Vaughan Williams.
  • 9c. an bourgeois, German way, it's Richard Straus.
  • 9d. a proletarian, German way, it's Hindemith.
  • 9e. a lush, French way, it's Saint-Saëns.
  • 9f. an austere, French way, it's Milhaud or possibly Honegger.
  • 9g. a next-to-banal, French way, it's Poulenc.
  • 9h. the manner of a prosperous Russian émigré, it's Rachmaninoff.
  • 9i. the manner of a starving Russian nobleman, it's Medtner.*
  • 9j. the manner of an obedient member of the Soviet Composers' Union, it's Kabalevsky.
Rule 10. If it sounds like the aural equivalent of an impressionist painting,
  • 10a. ...but with a touch of English folk melody, it's Delius.
  • 10b. ...but with a certain Slavic twinge, it's Scriabin.
  • 10c. ...but with a French or Spanish warmth, it's Debussy.
  • 10d. ...but with French or Spanish coldness, it's Ravel.
I might add more rules in a later post, to deal with genres other than "what sounds like a symphony."

*...although, I suppose, he didn't write much that sounds like a symphony - unless you count Piano Concertos.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Shadow Throne

The Shadow Throne
by Jennifer Nielsen
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this concluding installment of the Ascendance trilogy, Jaron, the boy king of Carthya, has scarcely recovered from securing the additional job of pirate king when he finds his country at war with three surrounding enemies. The main foe is King Vargan of Avenia, who is tired of Jaron standing in the way of his plots to make Carthya the first conquest of his hoped-for empire. Vargan proves he will stop at nothing, including taking hostage the girl Jaron loves, capturing and torturing his most trusted adviser, and treating the young king himself - once he falls into Vargan's trap - like the common thief he once pretended to be. But each time Jaron and his kingdom seem past saving, the young scamp pulls off another amazing trick.

Can he keep it up, though, when hundreds, even thousands of his citizens are falling in battle against an enemy that knows no mercy? Can he keep fighting when each wall he is backed against looms higher, and a leg injury has taken away his ability to climb? Can he defend the people he loves when Vargan seems to have a genius for using that love against him? Read and see - and weep, and laugh, and be amazed.

In contrast to what I did, I recommend reading this book in swift succession with the rest of the trilogy, to make it easier to keep track of past developments that prove significant in the finale. They are memorable enough stories, however, that I think a little prompting will bring back Jaron's earlier feats, such as turning enemies into devoted followers, surviving assassination attempts, convincing a traitorous nobleman to set him up as a pretender to the throne that is actually his, etc. Jaron's exploits have the gosh-wow appeal of tall tales featuring a ne'er-do-well-who-makes-good type of hero, along with a touching survey of the heart of a really noble young man. His character is complicated in just the right way, and to just the right degree, to engage young readers who may need nothing more than a fun hero to root for. Whatever "ascendance" means, here's a young man who goes through hell, and puts us through suspense that seems close to the same, without losing hope, or goodness, or the sense of adventure. It is a great relief for me, to know such heroes are still being written into being.

The first two books of the Ascendance trilogy were The False Prince and The Runaway King. Other titles by Jennifer Nielsen include the Underworld Chronicles (Elliot and the Goblin War and two more), the Mark of the Thief trilogy, A Night Divided, and The Scourge.


by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 13+

In the first book of The Reckoners, a young man named David seizes a risky opportunity to join a group of terrorists known as, like, the Reckoners, so he can help them kill superheroes. Maybe I should have phrased that differently. The Epics, who started taking over the world 10 years ago, aren't exactly superheroes. They're just people with superhero-ish powers who seem to think they're gods, and spend a lot of time squishing ordinary people like bugs. Ten years ago, when he was 8, David witnessed his father being squished by an Epic named Steelheart, who is rumored to be invincible. But just before Steelheart killed David's dad, who foolishly believed the Epics had come to save mankind, David saw Steelheart bleed. Against all odds, the boy survived the Epic's attempt to destroy all memory of the incident that left a scar on his cheek - including murdering the rescue workers who arrived at the scene after the deed was done.

Since that day, the only thing that has kept David going is the knowledge that Steelheart has a weakness, though he doesn't know exactly what it is, and a thirst for revenge. Now he uses that knowledge to persuade the Reckoners to stay put in Newcago - known as Chicago, before Steelheart turned it into a maze of steel catacombs cloaked in everlasting night. He convinces their leader, a brooding scientist named Prof, to draw Steelheart out into what he believes is a duel against a nonexistent Epic named Limelight, meanwhile disrupting his stranglehold on Newcago. He basically hijacks a whole unit of anti-Epic insurgents to use them for his personal revenge, even if it means creating a power vacuum that will, at least in the short term, cause more human suffering.

Prof thinks taking Steelheart down will convince more ordinary folks to rise up against Epic rule. His teammates have different views. There's a French-Canadian guy named Abraham, who like David's father, has faith that Epics will eventually turn toward good and save mankind, though for now he's happy to blow stuff up. There's Tia, an operations expert who relishes the challenge of analyzing David's memory of the day Steelheart took over Chicago, trying to spot his crucial weakness. There's Cody, a sniper with a Tennessee accent who likes to pretend he's Scottish. And lastly, there's Megan, a beautiful but unapproachable girl David would like to figure out. Although his knowledge of what makes Epics tick rivals anybody's, something about Megan eludes him.

As their plan to challenge Steelheart races forward with reckless speed, David encounters dangers to body, soul, heart, and mind, each of which keep the reader engaged at a gut level, even while mindblowing concepts scream past and incredible surprises pop up at every turn. It's another astonishing feat of world-building, engineered to thrill, by the author of Elantris, The Rithmatist, the Mistborn series, and the conclusion of the late Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time cycle. A discerning reader might pick up some common threads between the quests of these books' heroes, but the differences between the worlds they inhabit make each one an exciting realm to explore. This time, Sanderson blows the door off Superman's quick-change phone booth with the question, "What if super powers turned people into monsters?" My synopsis, above, does not begin to do justice to how deeply or how rewardingly this book delves into that question. Set in a world that, until 10 years ago, apparently looked just like ours, it makes that question count for us as though it affected us personally - and, with only a minor tweak in one's definition of "power," it actually might. I definitely plan to read the next book in this series, Firefight. There is also a third novel, Calamity, as well as a short story titled Mitosis.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Musical Analogy to Math?

For some reason, I woke up this morning wondering whether music could provide an analogy to help people understand higher-dimensional math.

I'm not very advanced in my mathematical studies. I enjoy watching the "Numberphile" channel Youtube, but I often find the concepts don't stick. One of the concepts that doesn't even seem to make contact is the idea of imagining the topology of objects in space that has more than three dimensions.

But now - bear with my ignorance - I'm thinking I might have the corner of something between my very confused fingertips. And it's basically an analogy from music to spatial dimensions.

Click to enlarge the illustration, if you like. I'm putting all the figures into one image, to save myself time and effort, but I'm going to talk about each image separately.

Consider Fig. 1. Suppose that this note, the D just one step above Middle C, represents a dimensionless dot on a one-dimensional line extending forever in both directions.

To keep it company, add the notes F-sharp and A (Figs. 1a and 1b), but only as separate dots on the same conceptual line - the line, say, of musical pitches extending upward and downward from the origin (say, Middle C), clear out of the range of human hearing. You could say the integer units on that line represent the tones of the equally-tempered 12-tone scale, repeating through a succession of octaves, like a Base-12 grid that has a heavier line at every 12th unit.

Moving on to a two-dimensional plane, suppose you plotted points D, F-sharp, and A on a graph with any arbitrary origin point (Middle C would do). In this instance, the points needn't be integer units or lie on a single line. When you transpose those notes up a half-step, as in Figures 2, 2a, and 2b, the new notes E-flat, G, and B-flat are interrelated in a way similar to the relationship between D, F-sharp, and A. The process of transposing the three notes, as a group, would be analogous to using three-dimensional math (with complex numbers, involving the "imaginary unit") to rotate a group of three points on a plane while preserving the angles between them.

But there is more you can do on a two-dimensional plane than plot a bunch of dimensionless dots and rotate them. I'm not yet up to delving into all the possibilities, but a blatantly obvious one is to draw line segments of various lengths, connecting pairs of dots on the plane. Likewise, when two notes sound together, consecutively or simultaneously, they form an interval. For example, D and F-sharp (Fig. 3) form the interval of a major third; D and A (Fig. 3a) form a perfect fifth; and F-sharp and A (Fig. 3b) form a minor third.

As with the single points, complex-number math can rotate line segments, individually or as a group, on the plane while preserving their lengths and the angles between them. Likewise, a set of musical intervals can be transposed, or as it were rotated, into similar intervals in a different key, like transposing the D/F-sharp/A intervals in Figs. 3, 3a, and 3b to the E-flat/G/B-flat intervals in Figs. 4, 4a, and 4b.

Another operation those Numberphile videos taught me you can do with a two-dimensional figure on a plane is to draw a plane inversion of the figure - and inversion, like rotation, can be done in higher-dimensional spaces too. I'm really straying into dangerous waters here, way over my head, but as I understand it, one can discover the reciprocal of a number (like turning a fraction upside down) by plotting a point and/or a circle around it in relation to the origin and radius of an arbitrary reference circle, then graphing an inversion of that point and/or circle's position and/or size, via a bunch of conditions that don't seem too far-fetched when someone who knows what he's talking about explains them.

After that no doubt compelling description, I am sure you'll agree this procedure bears some analogy to the process of transforming the musical intervals in Figs. 3, 3a, and 3b to their inversions in Fig. 5, 5a, and 5b. In the latter series of intervals, we find the D on top of the F-sharp instead of under it, changing a major third into a minor sixth; the D above rather than below the A, changing a perfect fifth into a perfect fourth; and the F-sharp above rather than below the A, changing the minor third into a major sixth. It is as if, in my imaginary universe governed by very shaky analogies, the reciprocal forms of the previous intervals were plotted in reference to an invisible, or rather inaudible, circle of musical inversion. Gads, that's terrible. Or maybe, if you catch what I'm throwing, it's brilliant.

Nah, it's probably just terrible.

But wait, I'm not done yet! There's still Fig. 6 to consider. When I first started cooking up this series of analogies, I was thinking of relating three-dimensional figures to the musical triad - a three-tone chord that, by a little note-shuffling, sort of like reducing fractions to their simplest form, can be distilled down to an interval of a third (like D to F-sharp) on top of another third (F-sharp to A), or a third (F-sharp) and a fifth (A) above the root tone (D). But now, it occurs to me the triad could also, and perhaps more aptly, illustrate the idea of a closed shape in the two-dimensional plane. Then again, when I moved from one dimension to two, I re-positioned the three notes as points on a plane, not on a straight line. So, perhaps I can be excused for using the same musical example two different ways.

So, yeah, in the 2-D plane, you can do the same operations with a closed figure as you could do with one or more line segments. I didn't bother to illustrate the rotation principle by transposing the D-major triad (Fig. 6) into an E-flat-major triad, but based on what I did with Figs. 3 and 4, I trust your imagination can get you there. You could do the same thing with Figs. 6a and 6b, the first and second inversions of the D-major triad - and inversion really is the musical term that applies here; I'm not just letting the planar-inversion analogy get away from me here. Each of these triad inversions could also be "rotated" into E-flat-major, or whatever key you want, sort of like using quaternion numbers (like complex numbers, only more so) to rotate a 3-D figure in space. 6a and 6b are still D major, even though a different tone in the original triad has been stuck at the bottom of the pile; but they have been transformed enough to give them a distinct sound.

Nevertheless, I think the triad could also be useful in an analogy to 3-D space, with a three-dimensional figure (sphere or otherwise) being transformed in some way, perhaps quite a dramatic way, when subjected to spherical inversion. But where I really wanted to go with this comes in Fig. 7, where I attempt to extend the analogy into a higher-dimensional space (in this case, 4-D space). If you accept a triad as comparable to a 3-D figure, where do you go from there? To start with the simplest possible answer, you could go to Fig. 7, which combines sequentially or, Fig. 7a, simultaneously, three similar triads - in this case, three major triads, D major, F-sharp major, and A major. It's as if you took the D-major triad from Fig. 6, rotated it to reveal a similar major triad rooted on each tone of the D-major chord, then brought all three major triads together into one figure - analogous to a tesseract or a 4-D supersphere.

Attempts to visualize 4-D figures using geometric imagery can never be quite precise, somewhat like the limitations of a 2-D picture representing a 3-D figure. But with music, it is possible to hear three different triads, each rooted on a different tone of the first triad, all at once. If you play them all together, but in such a way that you can hear each triad as a distinct identity within the superchord - say, by playing each triad in a separate register - you can actually hear it as a chord of chords. You can, to drive the analogy home, make the 4-D figure pop out of 3-D space - just as certain optical illusions can make a 3-D figure seem to pop out of a 2-D illustration.

Fig. 7b suggests one further level of sophistication. By musical analogy, we have already generated an optical illusion of a tesseract or supersphere, as it were, a very basic 3-D figure that seems to pop out into 4-D. But why stop at a supersphere? Why not go for another order of strangeness, and have each rotated sphere that pops out of the surface of the original sphere, be not only a rotation but also an inversion? Why not, indeed, include two different inversions - ah, but here the analogy is stretched past the breaking point, since I don't think math allows for more than one reciprocal of a given number. Music does, which is why I guess music beats math. It actually makes it possible, just conceivable, to "visualize" (in your mind's ear) a superfigure that has 3-D figures rotated three different ways, each a distinct inversion of the other two, and that pop out of each other.

In higher dimensions still, I guess you could be building musical tesseracts on each of the tones of all three chords in Figure 7b, rotated into the additional triads rooted on A-sharp (B-flat) and E, not to mention the other notes in those triads. And since your chord has more than three tones in it, you can also invert it in more distinct ways - sort of like how a four-note chord (like a dominant seventh chord, D/F-sharp/A/C) has three inversions, including the one with the 7th at the bottom; and a 9th chord has four inversions; etc. You could get super-crazy in your exploration of higher dimensions in harmony, though to our 3-D ears the resulting tone clusters may soon stop sound as if anything new had been added.

But in case I haven't sufficiently beaten up on math at the expense of music, I should point out that I've only touched on one aspect of musical complexity in the above analogies. Nowhere have I mentioned rhythm, melodic shape, tonal design, formal/dramatic structure, contrapuntal texture, number and type of movements, tone color, dynamics, lyrics, etc, etc. Counterpoint itself forks into such layers of complexity as number of voices, free imitation vs. canon vs. fugue, inversion and retrograde, augmentation and diminution, etc. One of those Numberphile videos shows evidence that origami (the traditional Japanese art of paper folding) is capable of doing harder math than Euclidean geometry (that stuff with a compass and a straight-edge). Perhaps it shouldn't be amazing that a soft subject like music rivals higher-dimensional topology for sheer complexity. Maybe this makes it good news that the Voyager Golden Record, now traveling through interstellar space, includes music by Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and Stravinsky, among others in addition to greetings in 55 languages and a bunch of mathematical and scientific diagrams. If mankind's bright future ever depends on one thing on the Voyager spacecraft making an impression on E.T., my money is on the Brandenburg Concerto.

At least, saying so helps me feel good about being way better at music than at math. Fish out.

Monday, December 4, 2017

232. Prayer About Late-Stage Dementia

I couldn't go to sleep last night without completing this hymn, written in love for a couple that belongs to the church I attend. The husband showed up solo at Bible class yesterday morning, and when asked how he was doing, he said, "I think this is the worst I've ever been hurt." He went on to announce that his wife, who is in late stage dementia, has been put in hospice care. He expressed feelings that were almost too painful to live with, about looking in the eyes of the woman he has loved his entire life and seeing the life in them end, even while the body went on living. I wish I could say words that would bring comfort in his situation. Whether or not it will come true, I don't know, but that wish now takes the form of the following hymn. The original tune, titled LORETTA, has already been harmonized (I really couldn't sleep until it was finished!).
1. When those we love forget our name,
Remember us, Lord Jesus.
When serving them exhausts our frame,
Remember us, Lord Jesus.
Their agitation, mental strain,
Confusion, helplessness, and pain
Surpass our power to explain;
But You will make them whole again.
Remember us, Lord Jesus!

2. When no one gazes through their eyes,
Remember us, Lord Jesus.
When body lives, but spirit flies,
Remember us, Lord Jesus.
You, who descended into hell,
Forsake us not, who sink as well.
To hearts in bondage, tidings tell
Of peace that will all sorrow quell.
Remember us, Lord Jesus!

3. When all our taxing care is past,
Remember us, Lord Jesus.
When we have time to grieve at last,
Remember us, Lord Jesus.
Assure us that, restored by grace,
Our loved one has a dwelling place
Where, after we have run our race,
We’ll recognize each other’s face.
Remember us, Lord Jesus!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Four Goofy Children's Hymns

I didn't sleep much last night, perhaps for reasons relating to the 10 newspaper assignments I was working on this weekend. So, I had plenty of time to brainstorm about my projected series of "reverently goofy children's hymns," and how to go about extending them. During a break between assignments 9 and 10 this afternoon, I wrote four more of the little ditties, which I hereby recommend for testing in the home-school, Sunday School, and family altar setting. If you find these tacky, please observe that every effort has been made to combine a light (even humorous) tone with good teaching, and to avoid the pointless tackiness of which I think many children's hymns are guilty. Also, just think: my original plan for #231 was to be a "Knock, Knock Hymn." Orange you glad I reconsidered?

228. Peekaboo Hymn for Little Eyes
Tune: STUTTGART, Gotha, 1715.
1. Oh, that Jesus’ eyes would see us!
Oh, that we might see Him too!
Must we, like that wee Zacchaeus,
Climb a tree, our Lord to view?

2. So much from our sight is hidden:
Short and weak of eye are we.
Help us wait, till we are bidden
Come, O Christ, Your gifts to see.

3. Now our loving God is playing
Peekaboo with little eyes;
All His promises are saying,
“Wait and see this good surprise!”

4. Give us eyes of faith, Lord Jesus,
In our lifelong hide-and-seek,
Counting on the word that frees us,
Till at last You bid us peek.

229. Ephphatha Hymn for Little Ears
1. Word of God, whose light caress
Saves the babes You christen,
Speak Your “Ephphatha,” and bless
Little ears to listen.

2. Christ, Your spit and finger’s touch
Left the deaf man hearing;
Let Your word now do as much,
Faithful children rearing.

3. Call us each by name, to walk
By Your side, believing.
Loose our tongues to pray and talk,
Faithful witness leaving.

4. When the truth is hard to hear
Or to utter clearly,
Savior, touch our tongue and ear
To respond sincerely.

5. Even when our final rest
Stills our voice and hearing,
Bid us, Lord, with all the blest,
Rise at Your appearing.

230. Hymn for Little Running Feet
Tune: HER KOMMER DINE ARME SMAA by J. A. P. Schultz, d. 1800
1. Lord, let the tramp of little feet
Rise to Your ears as music sweet.
Direct the legs that skip and run
To follow Your beloved Son.

2. Christ, gather up Your straying Lambs.
Our wriggling toes, our knees and hams
You bade our parents steer toward You,
Since Your way is for small feet, too.

3. Come, Holy Spirit, give us grace
To run our course, to win the race,
Till seeing Christ, we leap with joy
And claim the prize none can destroy.

231. Ask, Seek, Knock Hymn
Tune: HJEM JEG LÆNGES by Ludvig M. Lindeman, 1812-87
1. Father, hear the asking voices
Of each child who pleads today.
Answer us with loving choices,
Leading us again to pray.

2. Jesus, lead Your children’s seeking,
Till we find in You our prize.
Threat and promise plainly speaking,
Comfort us and make us wise.

3. Spirit, open to the knocking
Of each child the Kingdom’s door.
Treasures old and new unlocking,
Pour on us salvation’s store.

For more of my "reverently goofy children's hymns," see also:

Saturday, December 2, 2017

227. A Grabby, Grubby Children's Hymn

Taking a break from my series of "litany hymns for times in the Christian life," here is a third entry in a series of "reverently silly children's hymns." Perhaps, if you put it together with this hymn and this hymn, you can see a theme developing. It's an attempt to address promises of Christ with common conditions in the life of a small child. The tune is KOCHER, by Justin H.
Knecht, 1799, which I found in Common Service Book (1917) with a version of "A Great and Mighty Wonder" that, wonder of wonders,
didn't end with a three-line refrain beginning, "Repeat the hymn again." That refrain was actually a fragment of a four-line stanza in the original poem, before the hymn was adapted to fit the tune ES IST EIN ROS. I think the CSB version is best, so in its honor, I am stealing its tune for this hymn.
Lord, grasp our grabbing fingers,
Embrace each clinging arm.
Give us a grip that lingers
On Your love, safe and warm.

Direct each restless digit
To point by faith at You.
Push into palms that fidget
Your promise, strong and true.

So, when our hands grow muddy
With guilt and deeds that hurt,
Your hands, once pierced and bloody,
Will wipe away our dirt.

Accept by grace our playing
And often straying hands.
Teach us, Your mercy weighing,
To bear its light demands.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Apothecary

The Apothecary
by Maile Meloy
Recommended Ages: 12+

It's 1952, and ninth-grader Janie Scott is enjoying the life of a Los Angeles teenager. So, she doesn't take it very well when her parents inform her they have to move to London, immediately, before the U.S. Marshals Service can confiscate their passports. The Red Scare is on, and the House Un-American Activities Committee is in session, and her television writer folks have been asked to name names of Communists working in Hollywood. They know they won't be able to give the answers the committee wants, because they believe in the First Amendment. So, to London they go, hired to write a BBC series about Robin Hood under assumed names, and dragging a resentful Janie with them.

Things soon start happening to take Janie's mind off being homesick. First, the local apothecary (sort of like a druggist) gives her a potion to cure homesickness. Then, the apothecary's son attracts her notice when he stages a protest at the school where she is suddenly expected to know Latin grammar and medieval English history. Benjamin notices her, too, and invites her on a chess date in Hyde Park. But chess turns out to be a cover for his self-directed training as a spy, and things start to get weird when the Soviet attaché they are spying on passes a message to Benjamin's father. In quick succession, the apothecary disappears, the kids find themselves in possession of a book of alchemy, they witness a murder, escape from police custody, befriend an East End boy named Pip, and be-enemy a traitor in their midst, who is conspiring with the Soviets. Plus, they find out that, with the right recipes, the impossible is possible - like, changing a person into a handful of salt crystals and back again, becoming invisible, and transforming into a bird.

Their adventure quickly escalates from "fun and magical" to "deadly serious," with a chase at sea, an arctic survival ordeal, a nuclear detonation, and a hostage dilemma. The combination of alchemy and espionage, tender young love and ruthless political intrigue, a teen-friendly depiction of school and family situations with a slice of post-World War II/early Cold War history, adds up to a uniquely textured story. Incredible feats of alchemy take place, defying the line between science and magic, all involving totally believable, flawed but appealing characters. A complicated yet satisfying, kid-friendly storyline combines with vocabulary-stretching, thought-provoking language, such as Mr. Burrows' comment about Hungarians being strong in "extralinguistic" communication. Who would casually drop "extralinguistic" into a young adult novel? Maile Meloy does. I think it's extraordinary.

I imagine teen bookworms will decide for themselves whether this book runs too deep for them, or is just right. If they make the decision based on whether or not the word "Apothecary" on the cover turns them off, they might be on the right track. But if they do open it, I think the book will draw them into its heady mixture of surprises, mystery, romance, peril, laughs, and strange, rich imagery that strikes upon seldom-traveled paths in the reader's imagination.

This first installment in the "Apothecary" series was Maile Meloy's first novel for young adults. It currently has two sequels, The Apprenctices and The After-room. Meloy's other works include the grown-up novels Liars and Saints, A Family Daughter, and Do Not Become Alarmed, the novella Devotion, and the short-story collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. Meloy is the sister of Colin Meloy (lead singer of The Decembrists and author of the "Wildwood" trilogy) and the niece of award-winning nature writer Ellen Meloy.