Thursday, August 10, 2017

Goblin Secrets

Goblin Secrets
by William Alexander
Recommended Ages: 10+

Rownie is an orphan living in the bizarre, magical city of Zombay, where it is forbidden to wear masks or act in a play, and where coal is made by stealing people's hearts. After their mother drowned in the river that divides the city in half, Rownie and his older brother Rowan stayed with Graba, a "grandmother" to many of the city's most desperate urchins, who also happens to be a witchworker on giant, clockwork bird's legs. But now Rowan has disappeared, and Rownie runs away to join a troupe of goblin actors who have invited them to play a role in their strange, magical drama.

While traveling with the goblins, who call themselves Tamlin, Rownie learns that masks have power, a different kind of power from that practiced by Graba. While the witchworker uses spells and curses, wearing children as masks and sending pigeons as her spies, the goblins are enacting make-believe stories that alter reality. They hope Rownie will lead them to Rowan, who they believe was destined to wear the mask of the city, acting out a scene that must be acted out to prevent the river from flooding and washing away half of the city. But just when so much depends on Rownie, the jealousy of Graba and a heartbreaking betrayal may spell doom for all of Zombay.

Goblin Secrets is a refreshingly original book, with an innocence, oddness, and transparently direct style sure to appeal to young readers, combined with an emotional depth and perfectly-measured lyricism that may take a jaded adult's breath away. This debut novel by a Minneapolis-based educator and author won the 2012 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Since then, Alexander has written a sequel, Ghoulish Song, and three more novels, Ambassador, Nomad, and A Properly Unhaunted Place.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Frederica

Frederica
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 13+

This book dates from 1965, considerably later than the previous two Regency-period romantic comedies by Heyer that I have read. She evidently hadn't lost her feel for the genre, though. The twist in this book is that my lord the Marquis of Alverstoke, 37, has reached the point where his title will almost certainly pass to his dim-witted but handsome male cousin Endymion Gauntry, because he isn't likely to make a successful marriage. After flirting with an entire generation's most beautiful heiresses, he has developed a tendency to become quickly bored with them. Also, he doesn't promise to be much use to his three matronly sisters and the brood of nephews and nieces with which they plague him. He doesn't seem capable of caring about anyone but himself. Enter a very distant cousin named Frederica Merriville, the de facto head of her household of fatherless siblings, appealing to his lordship to help her launch her blindingly beautiful younger sister Charis into the ton.

At first, Alverstoke only seems interested in gratifying Frederica's wish so he can aggravate his pushy sister Louisa and Endymion's histrionic mother Lucretia, who both have launch-ready daughters, and who both have begged his lordship to launch them with a ball at his house in London. The two matrons' smiles turn to scowls when they realize how far Charis outshines their daughters, which mightily tickles Alverstoke. But to the amazement even of himself, he continues to act as a protector of the Merriville family, and it gradually dawns on him that he really cares about youngest sibling Felix, too-serious-for-his-years brother Jessamy, and most of all, the no-nonsense older sister Frederica. As he comes to their rescue in a series of crises, each more serious than the last, the Marquis must admit to himself that he loves Frederica - but how to declare his love to her, he doesn't know.

Between a chocolaty under-layer of emotionally satisfying romantic drama and an effervescent surface of zest and humor, this book is held together by a cast of engaging characters and a wealth of rare linguistic marvels, such as the words "thatchgallows" and "snatchpastry." It is the type of romantic comedy that gives full strength to both ingredients listed on the label. It has the intoxicating flavor of a historical period that impresses all the mind's senses with a conviction of its authenticity. It is laced with dialogue that includes some of the most crushing "set-downs" in the annals of high-class snobbery, along with a lot of pure fun.

A partial list of Georgette Heyer's works, different from but almost as long as the one I gave in my last review, would include Devil's Cub, The Talisman Ring, The Corinthian, Cotillion, Sprig Muslin, April Lady, Arabella, Venetia, Charity Girl, The Great Roxhythe, Barren Corn, Death in the Stocks, A Blunt Instrument, Detection Unlimited, and They Found Him Dead. I am beginning to think that if I read them all, they wouldn't find me dead of boredom.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Friday's Child

Friday's Child
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 13+

If you like your novel-length romantic comedies to have a Regency-period setting, but you've already pretty thoroughly surveyed everything by Jane Austen - which doesn't take long, actually - Georgette Heyer is the right shop to come to. She was the reigning queen of Regency restoration throughout the middle 50 years of the 20th century; she was a credible authority on all things authentic to that period; and more than half of her 50-odd books fit the bill - the remainder being mostly mysteries and historical novels set in other periods. My first exposure to Heyer's work was The Grand Sophy, which cleaves pretty closely to the pattern set by Austen, with an unconventional female arriving at her cousins' London residence and giving the place a full shake-down, including arranging the love-affairs of everyone in sight, before finally finding the love of her life practically under her nose.

Surprisingly, but not disappointingly, this 1944 book, one of Heyer's earlier works of Regency romance, departs from that relatively predictable story-shape right from the beginning. The lucky couple have already found each other and gotten married, practically at the starting gun. The trouble is, they don't realize they truly love each other until almost the end. Meantime, they endure misunderstandings, social blunders, jealousies, affairs of honor, moral and financial misgivings, and close scrapes with a cast of wacky friends, including a ridiculously romantic young buck, an adventurer who ruins decent people for a living, and an heiress who takes a bit too much enjoyment out of having a few too many ardent suitors.

Young Anthony "Sherry" Verelst, a.k.a. Viscount Sheringham, is set on course for romantic hijinks when the Incomparable Isabella refuses point-blank to marry him. Further exasperated by an interview with his passive-aggressive dowager mother, Sherry swears to marry the first young lady he sees. It so happens that turns out to be Hero Wantage, a girl of scarcely 17, who has adored Sherry all her life. Hero, soon nicknamed Kitten, has been living a Cinderella-like life on the grudging charity of her cousin and that lady's three ugly daughters. Terrified of being sent to Bath to serve as a governess, she willingly joins Sherry's crazy enterprise, and the two of them are swiftly hitched. But at once it becomes clear they should have given this more thought, since Hero really isn't ready to mix in the most fashionable circles of London society, and Sherry isn't grown-up enough to be the husband she needs. With each new adventure, they skate closer to disaster, with always entertaining but not always helpful contributions from their friends, frenemies, and one certifiably Bad Man.

Readers who don't like to see a husband give his wife a slap across the face may not find this novel to their taste. It isn't a feminist novel; it is, rather, a novel set in a scrupulously faithful reconstruction of a historical period. I think it succeeds pretty well in making that period come credibly to life. Where it needs strong female characters to capture the sympathy of today's readers, it gets them by giving Hero a good excuse for not understanding what is and isn't proper for a woman of her class, period, and marital status, and by letting the shark tank of 19th-century London's "Marriage Mart" shove Isabella to her wits' end. It has imperfect but endearing characters, scintillating wit, richly transporting language, and at bottom, a heart-touching drama of a marriage on the razor-edge of failing, all worked into a dramatic shape that achieves a spectacular climax. It's the kind of book that one can imagine being a terrific movie, even though one knows better than to trust the movie industry to make it. So, I guess that's a long way of saying it's a terrific book.

The titles of some of Heyer's other Regency romances are An Infamous Army, The Spanish Bride, The Reluctant Widow, The Quiet Gentleman, Bath Tangle, The Unknown Ajax, False Colours, Black Sheep, and Lady of Quality. In other genres, her interesting-sounding titles include The Convenient Marriage, Simon the Coldheart, Royal Escape, Instead of the Thorn, Why Shoot a Butler?, Duplicate Death, and the short story collection Pistols for Two.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Grand Sophy

The Grand Sophy
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 13+

The Rivenhall family of Berkeley Square has fallen on hard times. Lord Ombersley, the father of the household, is a man of weak character, whose debts have all but bankrupted them. Lady Ombersley is a nervous wreck. Their oldest son Charles has inherited a fortune from his uncle, putting him in position to save the family's fortune, if he really works at it; but as a side effect, he has become so tyrannical, the whole family is afraid of him. Also, he is engaged to a moralizing bore named Miss Wraxton, who disapproves of everything. Add to these characters a younger brother at Oxford, who is also struggling with debts; a sister named Cecilia, who has fallen in love with a completely useless fellow, breaking the heart of a man far more worthy of her hand; and several younger siblings, who haven't enjoyed themselves in ever so long; and you have a household just crying out for a visit from a fearless, forceful, frequently interfering female named Sophy.

Sophy is the daughter of Lady Ombersley's brother, Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy. An important diplomat, Sir Horace has raised his daughter abroad, during a most dangerous and exciting time for English folks to be abroad. Now it is up to Lady Ombersley to look out for a prospective husband for this strong-willed, rough-around-the-edges young woman - if Charles can refrain from strangling her first. The two cousins butt heads frequently, as Sophy tries the boundaries of what is considered proper for young ladies to do, and interferes in everyone else's affairs. Luckily for her, she is also highly intelligent, nervelessly brave, and driven by the purest motives - otherwise, someone would certainly strangle her, sooner or later.

At first, it seems Sophy is going to get into the same kind of romantic-comedy scrapes as Jane Austen's Emma. But then, her escapades begin to top anything in Austen, and each successive one tops the last, until you find her in the middle of a scheme of un-looked-for quirkiness and daring. There is no chance of getting bored with this heroine or her hijinks; they build to a climax more exciting and hilarious than one generally expects from a Regency romance, or at least one unadulterated by zombies or Steampunk paraphernalia. Some readers, I imagine, pick up a book like this as though digging in for a night-long struggle to wring the least drop of enjoyment out of a book full of old-fashioned manners. But Georgette Heyer brings the fun right to the reader, and then draws him or her into it.

Published in the 1950, this book is only as old as my parents. Nevertheless, it fizzes with energy, as if in the prime of its life, while at the same time guiding you through a captivating mental time-warp to London, circa 1815. It's a perfectly charming piece of light entertainment that, on the one hand, rollicks along in a romantic-comedy rumble full of perils, surprises, and laughs; it is also, on the other hand, a finely crafted work of literary art, written in a style that conjures an immersive, if not addictive, imaginary world around you, then otherwise stays out of the way of its striking characters or their convoluted concerns.

Georgette Heyer, who wrote approximately 50 novels in a more than 50-year career (1920s to 1970s), more or less invented the Regency romance sub-genre of period fiction, which is still bowling along almost a century later. Her passion for scenic and fashion details, her study of the way people talked and behaved at that period in English history, lend her writing a convincing realism and sensuous vividness that transcend the predictable formulas of romantic fiction. But what gives her writing zip is, most of all, her understanding of character, her knack for inventing marvelous people like the Grand Sophy, her cousin Charles, and others, and playing them off each other to sparkling effect. Also, perhaps, the fact that she is looking back on the Regency period allows her to pull stunts Jane Austen never would have dared, and that's all right with me. I look forward to reading at least a few more of Heyer's books, which I picked up with this one at a Half-Price Books store in the Twin Cities during a recent, long-overdue vacation. Their titles include Friday's Child and Frederica.

Monday, July 31, 2017

216. Thanksgiving for Health Restored

I haven't given any thought to what tune should go with this hymn, but I've been thinking about the text itself for several weeks - particularly since my brother spent a week in the hospital, and my father and stepmother both underwent successful surgery, and my mother was diagnosed with a serious illness, etc. It simply occurred to me that there could be a use for a hymn like this. I couldn't think of any existing hymns that met that need, however. So, here is my attempt to do so.
We thank You, Christ, our healing Lord,
For strength renewed and health restored,
That yet a while Your child may bide
To serve and be served by our side.

To heal is Yours; for at Your word
Fell fiends have fled, dead limbs have stirred.
The weak, the lame, and the unclean
Your healing grace and might have seen.

You straighten what has gone askew:
The limb, the tongue, the senses too.
If from the dead we will arise,
Our frail flesh You cannot despise.

A yet more wondrous balm we have,
As weary consciences You salve.
Our bodies You do not malign;
You pardon them through bread and wine.

Our very life is in Your hand,
The hour of our departure planned
As suits Your always loving will;
If then we grieve, You love us still.

Though, in affliction, we may cringe
To touch Your garment's lowest fringe,
Your healing kindness, strong and swift,
Has proved You keen our hearts to lift.

And so we lift them, healing Lord,
In gratitude for health restored;
Now help us use these lengthened days
In fitting service, prayer, and praise.

EDIT: I've settled (for now) on the 1857 hymn-tune ST. OSWALD by John B. Dykes for this hymn, pictured here.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
by Seth Grahame-Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

Some books require no synopsis. The title says it all. But that doesn't make it any less fun to read. Yes, this book really is a biography of Abraham Lincoln, a literally and metaphorically over-sized figure in U.S. history. It hits all the highlights of his often-told, well-documented life from beginning to end, with the addition of his never-before-revealed career as one of the greatest vampire slayers of his time. That someone would start a book like this doesn't seem strange, these days. The fact that he made it all the way through the book, and successfully published it, merits a lift of the eyebrows, if not a tip of the hat. Nevertheless, I bought this book without any expectation that it would be at all good. It surprised me with hours of enjoyment that, in retrospect, demand thinking about.

The audio-CD version of this book beguiled my recent drive from mid-Missouri to the Twin Cities and part of the way back. It is one of two books by this author that have been on my "haven't gotten around to reading it yet" shelf for several years, so I enjoyed the opportunity to listen to Scott Holst read it aloud. Taking nothing from Holst's considerable skill as a spoken-word recording artist and a thrilling story about slaying vampires, I am especially impressed that Seth Grahame-Smith, a past master of genre mash-ups, actually manages to deliver a fairly respectable biography of America's 16th president. The fact that the slave-holding south wasn't, in reality, driven to secede by the motives of literal bloodsucking fiends, doesn't at all detract from the greatness of Lincoln's achievement in rising from an unschooled frontier farm boy to successful lawyer, state legislator, congressman, and first Republican President of the U.S., to say nothing of abolishing slavery and preserving the union through a devastating civil war. The book does fair justice to his great speeches, his important accomplishments as president, and his often heartbreaking family life. It would be pretty good without all the stuff about vampires.

The second major achievement in this book is that, having added all the stuff about vampires without which it would have been a good book, it is still a good book - and not, as one might expect, merely a good joke. Surprisingly, it isn't particularly funny; but the paranormal fiction part of the book is very entertaining in exactly the way it should be - scary, thrilling, and dramatically well-structured.

The book's third achievement is nothing short of a miracle: fitting these two seemingly disparate, individually complete elements together into a single, seamless whole that, with apologies to the historians and biographers of Lincoln, improves on both. Of course, the improvement on the biography and history takes the form of pure fantasy, so calling it an improvement is merely to register a taste judgment on my part. Going the other way, however, the history/biography piece improves the fantasy piece in a way that can be objectively measured and asserted beyond any doubt. It does this by lending the vampire-slaying plot a depth of character, an emotional truth, and (at the end) a movingly tragic-yet-triumphant beauty that I would like to think surprised the author as much as me.

Grahame-Smith is also the author of the paranormal Jane Austen spoof Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; the paranormal Bible spoof Unholy Night (depicting the three wise men as some kind of monster-slaying ronin); the non-fiction books The Big Book of Porn, The Spiderman Handbook, How to Survive a Horror Movie, and Pardon My President: Ready-to-Mail Apologies for 8 Years of George W. Bush; and most recently, a sequel to this book titled The Last American Vampire.

Tyrannosaurus Lex

Tyrannosaurus Lex: The Marvelous Book of Palindromes, Anagrams, and Other Delightful and Outrageous Wordplay
by Rod L. Evans, Ph.D.
Recommended Ages: 13+

The title pretty much tells you what you will find between the covers of this book: plentiful examples of palindromes, anagrams, and other forms of wordplay in the English language, broken up into categories that include heteronyms (words that look the same but have different pronunciations and meanings), homophones and homonyms (which sound and/or are spelled the same, but have different meanings), tautonyms (terms that repeat the same meaning twice), oxymora (terms that seemingly contradict themselves), parasprodokians (sentences that veer in an unexpected direction), names that (intentionally or not) sound like puns, and a lot more.

I bought this book during the same shopping spree, and read it during the same week of vacation, as June Casagrande's Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies. The inevitable comparison between the two books tends, perhaps unfairly, against this book, which doesn't have that book's through-written narrative, effervescent humor, or personable tone. While parts of both books were fun to read aloud to members of my family with whom I was enjoying drinks, munchies, and sunshine on an outdoor deck, a number of chapters were composed of lists of examples so long that I actually skimmed them, because reading them in full, even to myself, would have been unbearable. Another unfortunate comparison arose when I happened to open a book by Richard Lederer (Anguished English, Crazy English, The Play of Words, etc.), to whom this book repeatedly acknowledges its indebtedness. Lederer presents a lot of the same material, with approximately equal exhaustiveness, but does so in a consistently more entertaining way.

So, this book has some fun bits, and could come in handy as a quick-reference handbook to different types of wordplay, with useful examples of each; but as something to read on that outdoor deck, cover to cover, it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Well, je sais réellement quoi, but it's awkward to say, "I wished I had bought a book by Richard Lederer instead, or perhaps another book by June Casagrande," so excuse me for feigning ignorance. I'm trying to be nice here. And this is a nice enough little book; though perhaps it shouldn't have been packaged as if it were meant to be a "marvelous ... delightful and outrageous" piece of entertainment. That just sets the reader up for a disappointment.

Evans, a philosopher and lecturer who specializes in everything (politics, religion, ethics, language, etc.), is also the author of The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language; Thingamajigs and Whatchamacallits; and several other books.