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Rampaging Conquerers, Apple Sauce and a Creeping Thriller

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

BARBARIANS!

By Steven Kroll

Illustrated by Robert Byrd

Dutton. $18.99. Ages 9-12

Barbarism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, or is it the beheader? This tribute to Europe and Asia's most famous roving marauders -- the Goths, the Huns, the Vikings and the Mongols -- explains how, where and whom they fought as well as each group's religious beliefs, legal system (when they had one) and way of life on the march and off. Each section starts with an important leader at a key historical moment. First up is Alaric, chief of the Goths, dressed to kill on the eve of the sack of Rome. Subsequent pages show a typical Goth village, the Goths' pagan pantheon (from which, Kroll says, sprang both Santa Claus and Easter eggs), and the progress, division and inevitable decline of the tribe. The text doesn't go into great depth, but Robert Byrd's pen-and-ink illustrations feature wonderful details, ranging from the Huns' saddles and weapons to the nine worlds of the Vikings' mythology to the Mongols' endeavors in falconry and astronomy. By the end of the book, which comes complete with helpful maps and a timeline, readers will understand that, except for those rather horrible Huns, the "barbarian" legacy isn't neatly separated from "civilized" society.

APPLESAUCE SEASON

By Eden Ross Lipson

Illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein

Roaring Brook. $17.99. Ages 4-7

-- Abby Nolan

What do Mutsu's Mother, Ginger Gold, King David and Black Twig all have in common? Give up? How about Granny Smith, MacIntosh, Winesap and Red Delicious? Apples, of course. And when applesauce season arrives in the city, it's time to head for the farmer's market and pack up a sackful. In this urban ode to fall and flavor, a bespectacled young boy does exactly that, dashing from one basket to the next, family in tow and puppy on leash, to assemble his own personal harvest. ("We buy six pounds of apples for sauce, because that's just how much our saucepot holds.") Young readers will savor the process from beginning to end: choosing ("There have to be at least three kinds in each pot of sauce for real flavor"), washing, chopping, cooking, grinding, seasoning (cinnamon sugar, a little slice of butter and a tiny bit of salt) and, of course, tasting. Then there's applesauce with potato pancakes, with roasts, and "with ice cream, or cottage cheese, or gingerbread, or cookies, or sliced bananas." At week's end, the leftovers turn into applesauce cake, and it's time to start again. As early apples give way to late, the finished product changes from pink and sweet to pale brown to yellow, and apple pie (for breakfast!) makes an appearance. Lipson blends a lyrical text with a practical approach (adults do the chopping and handle the hot stuff), and Gerstein's exuberant illustrations washed in yellows and reds evoke the smell of sweet steam in a sunny kitchen.

WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS

By Fran Cannon Slayton

Philomel. $16.99. Age 10 and up

-- Kristi Jemtegaard

A dead-of-night meeting. A coffin. A secret society. By page 14, readers will be gasping along with 12-year-old Jimmy Cannon when he suddenly realizes that one of the people he's spying on is his father. What is this Society? And why is his dad involved? Fran Cannon Slayton expertly blends suspense with emotional complexity in the seven interconnected stories of "When the Whistle Blows." Each takes place on All Hallows' Eve, from 1943 to 1949 in a small railroad town rife with boyish pranks, football games and "pain in the you-know-what" brothers. Through the prism of shifting years and circumstances, we get to know the local men of the Society, especially Jimmy's father, a taciturn B&O foreman who balks at his son becoming a railroad man like the Cannons before him. "A man's gotta learn how to read the times or else be crushed by them," cautions the ailing dad in a line as resonant today as during that era of the declining train. The final story echoes the first -- a coffin, a meeting -- though this time Jimmy joins the Society, finally privy to its long, surprising history. This first novel has many strengths -- vivid period details, an engaging voice, finely tuned sentences -- but its greatest is the ability to articulate the ways of fathers and sons, of love and loss, expectation and hurt, of words unsaid and those that pierce like a "single, steaming whistle."

-- Mary Quattlebaum

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