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Books in Brief: ‘Ketzel, the Cat who Composed,’ ‘Mister Max: The Book of Kings’

picture books

Ketzel, the Cat who Composed by Leslea Newman illustrated by Amy June Bates; Candlewick Press ($16.99).

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A gifted writer and illustrator join forces to craft a charming picture book based on the true story of composer Moshe Cotel and the cat who became famous for her piano composition, “Piece for Piano: Four Paws,” a 21-second piece Ketzel “composed” by walking across the piano keys when Cotel was having trouble coming up with his own composition for a Paris New Music Review contest. Ketzel’s composition won a special mention in the contest – and Ketzel years later got an obituary in the New York Times. Newman paints a winning portrait of the friendship between cat and human, and Bates’ lovely illustrations, in watercolor, gouache and pencil, offer interesting perspectives (the view from above as Cotel discovers the cat abandoned in the street, the view from above of Ketzel on the piano while Cotel composes at the keyboard, a city streetscape with a tiny Cotel in the apartment window). An author’s note at the end explains some of the creative license taken with the story (the cat did not attend the world premiere of her piece at the Peabody Conservatory, but did attend a later one “and mewed loudly at the sound of her name when her piece was introduced, much to the audience’s delight”).

– Jean Westmoore

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Mister Max: The Book of Kings by Cynthia Voigt illustrated by Iacopo Bruno; Alfred A. Knopf Books, 352 pages $16.99 Ages 8 to 12.

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Cynthia Voigt, winner of the Newbery Medal for “Dicey’s Song” and recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Outstanding Literature for Young Adults, performs a kind of sleight of hand in bringing to a satisfactory conclusion her trilogy about a 12-year-old boy who becomes a detective – “Mister Max, Solutioneer” – after his actor-parents go missing. Although with an interesting cast of characters, Voigt offers a colorful setting (including the kingdom of Andesia in South America, where part of the action takes place) and unpredictable plot twists as Max uses a friend’s friendly dog as a way to meet the royal family in what seems like a far-fetched scheme to rescue his parents. The undercurrent of menace throughout turns into life-threatening danger from corrupt villains involved in silver mining and child slavery. Through it all, Voigt writes beautifully: “To arrive in a great city by sea is like stumbling out of a cave into bright sunlight.”

– Jean Westmoore

SUSPENSE

What You See by Hank Phillippi Ryan; Forge (348 pages, $25.99)

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The plethora of cellphones used to photograph almost every move and the abundance of outdoor security cameras still do not capture the complete picture of what goes on around us, as Hank Phillippi Ryan shows in her superb fourth Jane Ryland novel. Those moments in time often show only half the story.

To this glimpse of how faulty a seemingly constant surveillance can be, Ryan also adds in how power and politics can affect an individual to the highly entertaining “What You See.”

Ryan explores several distinct plots that seemingly have nothing in common and deftly moves these stories together for a brisk, suspenseful story full of realistic twists.

Jane, who quit her newspaper job because of ethical reasons, has found one good thing about being unemployed _ she and Boston Det. Jake Brogan have been able to pursue their relationship. They felt a romance between a detective and a police reporter would harm both their careers.

But Jane, who began her career as a broadcast journalist, is intrigued when Channel 2’s news director contacts her. During the job interview, Jane is sent on a freelance assignment to cover a stabbing in a public square across from Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall in broad daylight. Jake and his partner are investigating the crime, and trying to round up witnesses who may have photographed the crime on their cellphones.

Tenley Siskel, who works in Boston’s traffic surveillance office at City Hall, is preparing to record the chaos at Faneuil Hall when she is stopped by her boss.

But the assignment takes a turn when Jane gets a frantic call from her sister, Melissa, who claims the 9-year-old daughter of her fiancee may have been kidnapped by the child’s stepfather. Does Jane put her family crisis above a potential job?

Ryan shrewdly builds her intricate plot into tightly wound story, pulling in each aspect and connecting them with aplomb. While Ryan continues to show new sides to Jane and Jake, she also takes special care with each character, including such minor characters as a young wannabe photographer and a thoughtful paramedic. Ryan’s perspective on the ethics of journalism and politics adds another compelling layer to “What You See.”

The high standards that Ryan has set in her award-winning Jane Ryland series accelerate in “What You See.”

– Oline H. Cogdill, Sun Sentinel