Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Key of Lost Things

The Key of Lost Things
by Sean Easley
Recommended Ages: 11+

Cameron Kuhn and his friend Nico helped save the magical Hotel, whose doorways connect places all over the world, from the fiendish Mr. Stripe. Cam's reward is to be appointed Concierge in Training – an apprentice to the Old Man who runs the place. But Nico's reward, or rather his choice, is to abandon the hotel and now, it seems he has become its enemy – unleashing cats, putrid slime and other mishaps just as Cam is trying to prepare for an important gala. Actually, Cam isn't doing a great job as a leader; he doesn't trust his co-workers to do their part, micromanaging everything himself. But then again, old Agapios isn't around much to guide him, and the enchanted book he left to answer Cam's questions is getting less helpful by the day. It's apparent that something is wrong with the Hotel and it's getting worse, and by the time Cam finally accepts that Nico may really have turned on him, the news that Nico actually isn't the enemy he seems to be only leads to discoveries even more grim.

I've probably spoiled enough with that synposis, right there. There's lots more to this book, including Cam's growing pains as a brother to the fiercely independent, though physically challenged, Cass; as a son who's just starting to get to know his long-absent father, and whose faith in him has taken a serious beating; and as the wielder of a very peculiar magic in an especially strange world in which magics are practically people unto themselves. By the time he figures out what's really afoot, the threat to the Hotel – and to far more than the Hotel – has become so serious that it's hard to see how this series will move forward.

The magic is wild and strange, the character development and relationships full of emotionally affecting touches. The setting of the hotel and all the far-flung places it connects makes for some fantastic scenery and one insane chase scene. And the final push to defend everything that matters against Mr. Stripe is full of suspense and (if I may say so) tragic nobility.

This is the sequel to The Hotel Between by a Texas-based author about whom I know nothing more. Folks who enjoyed this book, including me, will be waiting on the edge of our seats for a third installment.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Winter Prey

Winter Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

If you're catching up on the Lucas Davenport/Prey series as I am – in random order – you might have come upon this book, like me, in a recently re-issued paperback with a new introduction by its author, recalling it as one of his best installments in the series. And you'll also be interested to discover that this is the one where he meets Weather Karkinnen, who will (farther along in the series) become his wife. It's the one where he gets a certain scar whose origins are discussed in several later books, and where he apparently decides to go back to being an actively serving law enforcement officer instead of just a writer of computer games and training programs. All this is very intriguing; I didn't even realize there were Davenport novels where he was completely out of police work. But of course, in this novel, he gets pulled back in.

It happens in the dead of a bitterly cold Wisconsin winter, while Davenport is working out some dissatisfaction with the way his life has turned out by holing up in a cabin and avoiding work. Then the sheriff of a neighboring county asks him to take over an investigation nobody in his department has the experience to handle – a multiple murder in the sleepy town of Grant. A whole family has been wiped out and their house burned down around their bodies, apparently by a killer who lives in the community. The local Catholic priest emerges as an early suspect because he claims to have visited the victims that night, and his car was seen making the short trip home only moments before the fire was called in. From the cops' point of view, the puzzle is really, basically, about how the priest can be telling the truth when there seems to be no possible way he could have been seen leaving the slain family's home when he was.

Looked at that way, it's a classic whodunit. Looked at another way, however, it's a haunting, nerve-jangling thriller set against a backdrop of dangerously cold winter conditions, the savagery of starving animals, and the ickiness of a ring of child sexual abusers hidden within a small town. Then, to top off the chill factor, there's a terrifying killer who thinks of himself as the Iceman, who eludes capture with the aid of snowshoes and a snowmobile while somehow sticking close enough to the investigation to have an inside track on how close the authorities are on his trail. Until they figure out who he is, the good guys have a hard time even figuring out why he's choosing to attack the people he does – including an innocent priest whose reputation is ruined, a middle schooler whose only crime was seeing something he shouldn't have, and the town surgeon who is shaping up to be the love of Davenport's life.

Like a lot of the Prey novels, this investigation turns into quite a bloodbath. Its violence and the sickness of the villains may be hard to take; it definitely calls for an Adult Content Advisory. However, it also depicts some nifty crime-fighting procedures, has exciting chases, and presents a convincing counterfeit of reality in which nothing ever goes as planned. I'll be honest: I correctly guessed whodunit long before his identity was confirmed, though I immediately doubted my guess because how he could have done it was more than I could figure out. Seeing that come into focus was one of the things that compensated for the grimness, the brutal harshness, the downright tragedy that laced this plot together with a thematic tightness unusual even for such a skilled hand as Sandford's.

This 1993 book is the fifth Lucas Davenport/Prey novel by the former newspaper journalist whose real name is John Camp. It's also, to-date, the 18th book in the series that I've read and first in canon order, all at the same time. Click here for a mansplanation of why I'm reading this series in such a mixed-up manner; sorry, I'm just tired of repeating it. A 31st installment in the series, Ocean Prey, is due to be released in April 2021. Sandford is also the author of four Kidd novels, 12 Virgil Flowers thrillers, the "Singular Menace" trilogy co-authored with Michele Cook, the science fiction novel Saturn Run with co-author Ctein, and several other titles.

Monday, February 22, 2021

293. Psalm 119 Hymn

Here is the hymn that I was meditating on when I did that "little concordance of Psalm 119." My aim, as in the Seven Words on the Cross hymn, is to break all records for brevity in the treatment of a vast subject. This is not a Psalm paraphrase; it's a distillation of what I think are the Psalmist's key thoughts about each of his synonyms for God's verbal revelation. The meter is close to but not quite the largest I've written hymns in; in fact, I've written at least nine hymns and seven hymn-tunes with more syllables per stanza than this hymn. For the tune, I'm recycling the melody I wrote for this hymn, titled FOUR ANGELS.

By any name, O Highest,
Your revelation lives;
Your doctrine shatters darkness
And life to dead hearts gives.
Your voice rebukes the hardened,
Unmans man-centered pride;
Your gospel bids the stricken
To trust the Crucified.
Breathe into us, and stir to flame
Your word of truth, by any name!

How blest are they who journey,
Unblemished in Your Law!
For there is peace and safety
In loving Your Torah.
The wicked may pursue me,
But it I won't forget;
With it as consolation,
I'll weather any threat.
My life is ever in my hand,
Yet on Your Law my faith shall stand.

O Lord, Your Testimonies
Are wealth to me and joy.
In them my feet are guided;
Them will my tongue employ.
A heritage forever,
A comfort in my shame,
They'll stand when all the wicked
Are swept away in flame.
May I, in rulers' quizzing hour,
Your Testimonies speak with power!

Your Precepts, Lord, are truthful,
But I hate all false ways;
Your teachings give me wisdom,
Reviving me by grace.
The proud have forged a falsehood,
Have nearly brought me low;
I count it all a trifle,
Your Precepts but to know.
Though I am small, remember me:
So shall I walk at liberty.

Lord, I will keep Your Statutes;
They are my pilgrim songs.
Hear as my heart implores you:
Defend me from all wrongs!
The earth brims with Your mercy,
The good You are and do;
Let princes speak against me,
I'll hold Your Statutes true.
That I might take them to my heart,
'Twas well I bore affliction's smart.

O Lord, all Your Commandments
Embody righteousness.
In them my heart is strengthened,
My hands are raised to bless.
I pant for them as water;
I dig for them as gold.
I run in them, Your finished
Perfection to behold.
That Your Commandments I might learn,
Lord, bid Your straying lamb return!

Lord, for Your righteous Judgments
My soul with longing breaks;
My lips to them bear witness;
My flesh with terror shakes.
When, Lord, will those be chastened
Who trouble me today?
How long until Your Judgments
Turn my reproach away?
Till then I'll joy to hear retold
Your Ordinances from of old.

Except I heed Your Word, Lord,
How can I cleanse my way?
A lamp, my footsteps lighting,
It shines as bright as day.
In heaven it is settled;
On earth, it gives me hope;
All gladness and salvation
Abide within its scope.
My Hiding Place and Shield, O Lord,
Revive and nerve me by Your Word!

Your Utterances, Father,
Are honey to my mouth;
More precious, since I've suffered,
Than in my misspent youth.
Uphold me by Your Speaking,
That by it I might live!
So plead my cause; redeem me;
My footsteps therein drive!
Now be Your gracious power stirred
Through living, active, mighty Word!

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Tacky Hymns 83

We continue with Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELHy, 1996). I repeat:
I'm pointing up three types of hymns in this series of critiques: (1) Hymns that I think the editors should have known better than to put in the pew hymnal of a liturgical, confessional Lutheran church – the kind that, doctrinally and artistically, qualify as "tacky" in the sense I've been using it on this thread; (2) noteworthy text-tune pairings; and (3) hymns of such high quality that I feel they deserve to be better known and more widely sung. I'll try, but not too hard, to avoid vain repetition from previous threads. That's a lot of material to try to keep in mind, you know.
(166) Arise and shine in splendor is a fine enough hymn to open the Epiphany season section of the book. On a Type 2 note, ELHy sets it to a different tune (J.A.P. Schultz's DER MOND IST AUFGEGANGEN) than the one I'm used to (Heinrich Isaac's INNSBRUCK). It's an interesting alternative. There are a couple of phrases in it that remind me oddly of EWING.

(167) How lovely shines the Morning Star (Type 3) is Philip Nicolai's "Queen of Chorales." Enough said.

(169) Brightest and best of the stars of the morning (Type 1) I have previously discussed.

(170) O God of God, O Light of Light (Types 1 and 2) is the majestic John Julian hymn that I know better to the tune O GROSSER GOTT. ELHy, however, sets it to a bowdlerized-for-hymnody-purposes version of a chorus from Haydn's Creation, titled (ahem) CREATION. If you've been tuning in to previous episodes, you probably already know that I don't hold with this kind of thing – dumbing down pieces of fine art music to supply a tune for a hymn that already has a perfectly serviceable tune, and messing with musical associations surrounding a well-known hymn. I think it does a disservice both to Haydn's oratorio and to the singing of hymns, and I'll say the same thing whether it's Beethoven's 9th Symphony (HYMN TO JOY), Handel's JUDAS MACCABAEUS, Sibelius's FINLANDIA or Holst's Jupiter theme (THAXTED).

(172) Songs of thankfulness and praise (Type 2) is another instance where ELHy veers from the tradition I'm more familiar with, pairing this hymn with SALZBURG by J. Hintze instead of ST. GEORGE'S, WINDSOR. I happen to like the tune SALZBURG, but it's also worth noting that it's basically the same tune as ALLE MENSCHEN MÜSSEN STERBEN.

(176) How shall the young secure their hearts (Type 2) again offers an alternate text-tune pairing (with Carl Gläser's AZMON) to those who may be familiar with the tradition that runs through Missouri Synod circles of singing this bit of an Isaac Watts psalm-paraphrase to Alexander Reinagle's ST. PETER (cf. TLH 286 and LW 474). I'm not coming out for or against it; AZMON should, after all, be a familiar tune as well to followers of the TLH-LW-LSB line of hymnals and this particular hymn isn't what I'd call a hill worth dying on.

(179) Jesus loves me! This I know (Type 1 or 3) is an interesting case because the editors saw fit to replace the lyrics after stanza 1 with three original stanzas for what I can only assume were serious doctrinal reasons. Maybe if there were serious doctrinal reasons not to publish the hymn in its native form, it shouldn't be in the book at all. But I say this after rewriting "Amazing grace" the way I thought it should go. I understand the thinking behind this; I'm just not sure it holds up.

(181) Of the Father's love begotton (Type 2) comes up for discussion because ELHy's setting of its tune, DIVINUM MYSTERIUM, does even more violence to the original plainchant than TLH 98 did. I have heard the flowing, chantlike version in LW and LSB sung with good spirit in enough churches in my time to think that if anyone is so worried that people won't be able to swing it that they need to tamper with the tune, they're making themselves a nervous wreck about nothing. What really throws people, these days, is trying to sing the now-familiar hymn to TLH's version with its squared off rhythm or, I would imagine, ELHy's triangled-off one.

(183) Master of eager youth (Type 2), translated from the third-century Greek church father Clement of Alexandria and therefore one of the oldest hymns still in wide use, is paired here with the English tune MONK'S GATE. We Missouri Sinners might recall this hymn as "Shepherd of tender youth" and, depending on where or when we learned it, have other tunes in mind, such as Lowell Mason's OLIVET (TLH 628) or Felice de Giardini's ITALIAN HYMN (LW 471, LSB 864). Apparently, this hymn's tune is so changeable that there's no point arguing about it.

(186) Ye parents, hear what Jesus taught (Type 2) is a hymn that TLH 630 set to the way-overused HERR JESU CHRIST, DICH – used six times in just TLH! However, I think ELHy's choice, TENDER THOUGHT from Kentucky Harmony, while an interesting tune, might be a little harder to teach to an congregation that doesn't know it. I like challenges like this; it's the kind of tune I'd maybe put with an original hymn. But be alert to alternatives.

(188) Hear us now, our God and Father (Type 3), set to HYFRYDOL, is a wedding hymn that I think may need attention drawn to it, buried as it is in the "Second Sunday after Epiphany" section where, I suppose, it landed because of the gospel lesson about the wedding at Cana. Also interestingly, the hymn's text is stitched together from stanzas by two different authors. Still, it works.

(189) In house and home where man and wife (Type 3) is another wedding hymn, which may be more familiar among Missouri Lutherans in its "alt." guise as "O blessed home where man and wife." I'm just mentioning it because of the difference in translation.

(192) How beauteous are their feet (Type 2), another Isaac Watts ditty, is paired here with C. Lockhart's tune CARLISLE, which is really nice and perhaps more memorable than the alternative, ST. MICHAEL, used in TLH 487.

(194) Lift high the cross (Type 1) I've covered before.

(196) Thy hand, O God, has guided (Type 3) is a "bottom of page text block" with the suggested tune AURELIA. It's also quite a good missions hymn by Edward Plumptre, maybe better than the Henry Letterman number on the facing page ("On Galilee's high mountain"), which comes complete with music. (Actually, Letterman's hymn would be quite adequate if it were understood as to be sung by missionaries, or men training to be missionaries. It stretches credibility a bit to put his words in the mouths of the wider congregation, who do not have that particular vocation.)

(200) There many shall come from the east and the west (Type 3) is a good, Norwegian hymn that I learned to love out of that old German-American book, TLH. However, I want to draw attention to it because of the small change in the translation, where the first line as I learned it begins with "Lo."

(201) Spread, O spread, thou mighty word is a fine little missions hymn, here set to Justin Knecht's tune VIENNA. On a Type 2 note, I'll mention that TLH 507 has a very charming alternate tune for it titled HÖCHSTER PRIESTER, which I liked so much I stuck it with one of my original hymns.

(203) All my hope on God is founded (Type 2) is a hymn by Joachim Neander (original German: "Meine Hoffnung stehet feste") for which I seem to have found the beautiful, original tune, also by Neander, also called MEINE HOFFNUNG. However, ELHy sets it to the Herbert Howells tune MICHAEL, which is as lovely as 20th century hymn tunes come but, I think, on the difficult side for Grandma Smurf to play on your parish's Wurlizter draw-bar organ and, maybe too, for some folks to sing. I would like to keep MICHAEL on reserve for a choir performance and see if Neander's original tune couldn't make a comeback.

(204) God, my Lord, my strength, my place of hiding (Type 3) is a 17th century Czech hymn set to its own tune, titled (give or take accent marks) PAN BUH. It's also found in LBW and CW (the 1990s one) and I think it's quite interesting, in a strong, rugged, central European way. It might be a little on the challenging side so, if you really want it to go over big, you might want to start teaching it to your church's younger members first.

(208) Thy way and all Thy sorrows (Types 2-3) is Paul Gerhardt's hymn, translated in TLH 520 as "Commit whatever grieves thee," and comparing the first line of the text in the original German ("Befiehl du deine Wege") with the title of the tune ELHy gives it (Bartolomaeus Gesius' BEFIEHL DU DEINE WEGE) I would conjecture that this words-and-music pairing is more original than TLH's choice of HERZLICH TUT MICH VERLANGEN by Hans Leo Hassler. I welcome the opportunity to learn a new and beautiful piece of early Lutheran melody with the congregation.

(214) Glorious things of thee are spoken (Types 1-2) is an all right hymn, and I've seen it set to lots of different tunes, but for reasons I've already covered, I don't agree with ELHy's pairing of it with Beethoven's HYMN TO JOY theme – even though this particular arrangement preserves the syncopation of the original tune (in its final line) that most hymnals square off. No more do I think we should pair it with Haydn's AUSTRIA as in LW 294 and LSB 648 (as long as there are still people living who shudder at the memory of "Deutschland über alles"). Acceptable alternatives include Joseph Barnby's GALILEAN (TLH 469), or maybe Cyril V. Taylor's ABBOT'S LEIGH.

(215) O Father, may Thy Word prevail (Type 1) is a Hans Brorson hymn, set to its own tune by Ludvig M. Lindeman (AK, FADER, LAD DIT ORD) which, musically, is quite all right. However, I object strenuously to the text of this hymn, which I feel takes a lament about the lack of evidence of true faith too far. Stanza 1 concludes, "How slight the power in evidence / Of Word and Sacraments!" – an expression that, at least in translation, seems open to an interpretation that denies the efficacy of the means of grace. If that's an idea people are going to take away from the hymn, they may end up searching within themselves for a power that God's Word and Sacraments lack. Stanza 2 seems to underscore this point by observing, "Baptized are millions in Thy name, / But where is faith's pure flame? / Of what avail that we / Know of Thine agony / So long as we do not o'erthrow / In faith the wicked foe?" This could be the most virulently archpietistic thing ever sung out of an orthodox Lutheran hymnal. At least, it has that ring to me, seeming to score points off the stats that (sadly) show that most of the baptized lapse from the faith to question the power of baptism itself, and to require the individual Christian to make up what the sacrament lacks by a heroic effort of faith. In all charity, I can sympathize with the disappointment that no doubt lies beneath Brorson's complaint; but I would never, ever put words in a congregation's mouth that put their spiritual exercises ahead of the Means God has bound Himself to. Just as a personal note, I can never hear Lindeman's tune to this hymn without thinking of the last phrase of Stanza 3, "With purple fruits aglow."

(216) Of Zion's honor angels sing (Type 3) is a hymn by a Pennsylvania Lutheran pastor named Emanuel Cronenwett, set to Charles Burney's classically inflected tune TRURO, that contrasts wonderfully with the previous number. It's an excellent confession of the sufficiency of the Word (Stanza 2: "To her suffices: Jesus saith!"), the power of the Keys and the ministry of the Word, all in very simple, direct and concise language.

(218) There is a safe and secret place (Type 3) is by Henry Francis Lyte and set, in ELHy, to the same NEW BRITAIN to which most of us know "Amazing grace." While not entirely to my taste as sacred poems go, I have to admit that has a nice, warm, comforting softness that could be therapeutic to Christians struggling through hard emotional valleys.

The book goes on to the Gesima Sundays in hymns 226ff, so I'll give over here for now. Already what I can mostly observe from this survey is that ELHy is rich in Lutheran content, some familiar to us of the Missouri Synod persuasion, some not so much, and that it definitely represents a distinctive culture within American Lutheranism (if by "culture" you at least partly understand "preferences for certain hymns to be sung to certain tunes"). I think it would be fruitful to integrate much of what we find in this book into our local repertoire – but critically, of course. No hymnal is perfect and some of this book's blemishes are on display above.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Breath of the Dragon

Breath of the Dragon
by A.L. Tait
Recommended Ages: 11+

Since he received a bump on the head during an encounter with pirates, young mapmaker Quinn Freeman has been struggling with his memory. Meanwhile, the crew of the the Libertas and their captain, a slave who aspires to be free, continue their race to be the first ship to travel around the world and come back with treasure and an accurate map. In this installment, the Libertases encounter a land that trembles and burns with something like the dragon fire that legend says lurks off the edge of the world. They also face an angry mob, betrayal, slander, robbery, capture by Captain Zain's own countrymen who hold a dim view of his role in their war with Quinn's people. And finally, they must face a king back home whose decision about who won the race may be influenced more by a couple of phony maps than by the real one.

Quinn is a remarkable kid. Besides his mental gifts, he possesses a kind and loyal heart, true courage and the ability to make quick decisions in a pinch. He's the heart the holds the crew of the Libertas together, but he spends a lot of this book worried about his head. His adventure schools him in accepting painful disappointment, but don't count him out of the running for a terrific triumph.

As for Quinn's world, it maps out differently from the world we live in (even in its age of discovery) but it has a lot in common, too. I've known books set on sailing ships to show a more convincing mastery of sailing terms and to paint more vivid imagery of the sea, but give Quinn his due; he's not a sailor, just a farm boy who draws beautiful maps. And he has a lot more to pay attention to the difference between a stairway and a companionway – like secrets, some of them guilty; like a complex weave of conflicting agendas between characters on the Libertas and other ships, as well as on land; like differences in culture and background with his friends and others less friendly; and like the line between life and death, which at least two beloved characters approach with powerful emotional effect.

This is the third book of the "Mapmaker Chronicles," and brings what seems to be a trilogy to a satisfying end. It blends strange surprises with the pleasurably expected and ties up many story threads quite neatly. However, there is now a fourth books in the set, Beyond the Edge of the Map. Australian author Allison Tait has also published two "Ateban Cipher" books and a mystery titled The Fire Star. She is also the co-author with Valerie Khoo of an upcoming nonfiction work, So You Want to Be a Writer.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Case of the Left-Handed Lady

The Case of the Left-Handed Lady
by Nancy Springer
Recommended Ages: 12+

Enola Holmes is a woman ahead of her time in Victorian London, the winter of 1889. In fact, she's an unsupervised minor – a 14-year-old girl masquerading as an adult so she doesn't have to attend the ladies' finishing school her brothers, Mycroft and Sherlock, want to send her to. Being forced into corsets and fattened up for the marriage market seems, to her, a fate worse than death. So, instead, she lives under a trio of assumed identities and looks out for herself. Between alternately pretending to be the secretary and the wife of a non-existent "scientific perditorian" (finder of lost persons and things), she sometimes dons a nun's habit and a veil and prowls the streets, doing good to the poor.

But lately, eluding the improving attentions of her too-clever-by-half brothers has become the least of her worries. For starters, someone tries to strangle her one night with a garotte made from a corset strap. For another, she's investigating the disappearance of a young lady that looks, at first blush, like the girl eloped with her young man. Only, the further Enola looks into it, the more it looks like something entirely different happened. What that might be continues to puzzle her until the clues finally lead her to discover a monster of literally mesmerizing power.

Sherlock Holmes' kid sister proves to be the cleverer of the two in this adventure. She cuts a lonely figure, alienated from her family, determined to escape the confines of the role society expects of her, determined to be independent yet at the same time longing for companionship. Her emotional turmoil makes a powerful addition to the progressive politics in which author Springer steeps her distinctive brew of Holmesian mystery – dramatizing not only women's rights but even some of the socialist workers' movement of that era. Psychological and spiritualistic mumbo-jumbo comes in for a drubbing, but the real kicker is the wickedness of a kidnapper and would-be killer whose stock-in-trade is robbing his victim of her very self. It's a chilling gloss on the Holmes canon, maybe on the mature side for young kids but definitely something for them to think about and discuss.

This is the second of six, going on seven, Enola Holmes books; the latest, Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche, is supposed to be released Aug. 31, 2021. Nancy Springer's writing career stretches back to the 1970s and includes five "Book of the Isle" novels, the "Sea King" trilogy, a couple of Camelot tales, five "Rowan Hood" books, somewhere around 33 other novels and three short story collections, divided by genre into fantasy, mystery and "literature." Some of her standalone titles include The Hex Witch of Seldom, Red Wizard, Damnbanna, The Blind God Is Watching, Metal Angel, Sky Rider, Drawn Into Darkness and The Oddling Prince, besides the award-winning books Larque on the Wing, Toughing It and Looking for Jamie Bridger.

Monday, February 8, 2021

City Spies

City Spies
by James Ponti
Recommended Ages: 12+

The group of spy kids introduced in this book takes the name "City Spies" not because they're affiliated with any particular city, but because their codenames are all based on the cities they came from – Paris, Sydney, Rio and Kat, as in Kathmandu – and because they don't care for the official name of the MI6 project that is training them to do intelligence work. They live together at a facility called FARM – the Foundation for Atmospheric Research and Monitoring – a place on the shore of the North Sea, in Scotland that allows them to do real weather-related science while also, secretly, messing around with secret codes. Their chaperones are a woman called Monty and a man called Mother, who was burned in a very personal (and literal) way and who is now a secret agent even among other secret agents. And their mission is to make the final round – but not win – a youth science contest devoted to finding solutions for climate change, so they can protect a tech tycoon from becoming the next victim of an underworld organization called the Purple Thumb.

A problem arises: Their computer expert, who is needed on the team not just for her hacking expertise but to make up the required five members, has defected. Not to a foreign power, of course – I mean, we're talking about, like, a 14-year-old girl here – but to the local school, that has its own team going to the contest. She's in it to win it, but if she does win, her secret identity will fall under public scrutiny and that threatens the whole team. But a more immediate problem is: the team needs a new hacker. So, we meet this team as Brooklyn does (real name: Sara Martinez), when Mother swoops in on her plea hearing for a cyber-crime she committed to expose her foster parents for abusing the child welfare system. Using spycraft, misdirection and a couple of brilliant Roald Dahl references, he not only wins Sara's release into his custody but also his way into our hearts.

Brooklyn (that's what we're calling Sara, now) gets off to a rocky start with the other FARM kids, when as a welcoming gesture they try to play a trick on her and she turns the tables on them. But there isn't time to dwell on that, because very soon, they have to go to Paris and do very well, but not too well, in a contest where Charlotte (the defector) will be doing her best to thwart them. While Mother pursues his own, separate mission, he comes to suspect a sinister connection between the CEO of Sinclair Scientifica and Le Fant̫me Рthe art-collecting villain who burned him. At the same time, the kids uncover a spooky link between Sinclair and the other companies targeted by previous Purple Thumb attacks.

While each member of the City Spies contributes a unique expertise to the case, Brooklyn is especially put to the test. Her hacking ability, among other things, puts her right at the center of a nerve-jangling break-in at Sinclair Scientifica's tech headquarters. But it is finally up to her to outclimb, outrun, and outwit a deadly assassin whose mission threatens dozens – possibly millions – of lives.

It's a good, solid spy adventure will thrills, chills, and young characters who grow individually and as a team. The grown-ups are fun, too – particularly Mother, who manages to be a terrific comic relief character and a roguishly clever secret agent at the same time, while also touching hearts with his sincerity and vulnerability. Fans of children's literature will dig references to Peter Pan, Harry Potter and many other cultural phenomena; though you may have to be British to appreciate the "football" references. (At least you can sympathize with Brooklyn, who's as clueless about them as you may be.) Finally, as a mystery, it builds just as it should, with the information needed to solve it coming together in the right order and at the right time. All in all, it's quite well done.

This is the first book in a series that continues with Golden Gate, which is due for release on March 9, 2021. Italian-born James Ponti, a sometime television writer, is also the author of the Dead City trilogy, the T.O.A.S.T. Mystery trilogy, junior novelizations and storybooks based on several movies, the Framed! Crime-Fighting Collection and contributions to several multi-author franchises.