Thursday, July 28, 2016

Ready Player One

Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline
Recommended Ages: 14+

This dystopian-future, cyberpunk novel is a pop-culture-referencing, galactic geek-out for anyone who grew up in the 1980s. It takes place mostly inside an immersive, online virtual-reality called the OASIS whose inventor, James Halliday, is exactly the same age as the author and myself. The date is approximately 2044, when the world has become a wasteland of war, plague, and famine, right on time for a large segment of the population to become a bunch of agoraphobic loners who live in one-room apartments with blacked-out windows, hooked up to a world where they can be anything they want to be. They live as digitally created avatars in a virtual universe filled with space-ships, magic, computer-generated non-player characters (NPCs), treasures, quests, and level-up opportunities.

In the real world, Wade Watts is a chubby orphan who lives with his drugged-up aunt and about two dozen other people in a double-wide, part of a high-rise stack of trailer homes on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. In OASIS, he attends a virtual high school where there is no bullying, no fighting, no cussing in class. Like thousands of other gunters - slang for "Easter egg hunters" - his dream is to solve the riddle left in Halliday's will, become the first to find the three keys hidden somewhere in the OASIS and the gates they unlock, and inherit the eccentric game designer's vast fortune - as well as full control of the OASIS and its parent company, Gregarious Simulation Systems.

But five years after the challenge was posed, no one has even found the first key; the scoreboard for Halliday's egg hunt remains blank. Meantime, an evil corporation called IOI has set its sights on taking over GSS and turning the OASIS from a free-access cyber-utopia to an elite playground and/or a fascist world empire. They have all but unlimited resources - money to buy in-game extras, an army of "Sixers" committed to finding the egg on behalf of IOI, even indentured slaves - while Wade, who has memorized reams of material about 1980s pop culture, known to be Halliday's obsession and the real key to finding the egg, cannot even afford the transport fees to leave his high school planet and look for egg clues, or at least for adventures to help his avatar, named Parzival, advance to higher levels. His only way out of a hellish existence is to find Halliday's egg, but apart from school he can't seem to get anywhere except the virtual basement rec-room where he plays vintage video games, watches old movies, and listens to 1980s pop music with his best friend Aech.

Then one day, he has an epiphany, and by the end of the day, Parzival becomes the first name to appear on the egg hunt scoreboard - quickly followed by four other gunters, including Aech and a blogger named Art3mis, on whom Wade has a secret crush - then followed, in turn, by a bunch of Sixers, whose avatar names are all six-digit IOI employee numbers. The Sixers try to recruit Wade; then they try to kill him. He has to change his identity and go into hiding to continue his search for the egg, while each step forward puts him and his four best friends (who, by the way, have never met in real life) in worse danger than ever. IOI will not hesitate to cheat, steal, or even murder to gain control of the OASIS, while gunters like Wade and friends would do anything to stop them. Just when IOI seems to have maneuvered itself into an unbeatable position, Wade plays an insanely risky gambit and puts his heart, his life, and the future of the world as he knows it into play.

This book is a gift to people of my generation who have warm memories of the popular music, teen movies, TV shows, comics, coin-operated arcade games, clunky computers and video games, role-play adventures, science fiction and fantasy books, and other sacred relics of geekdom from the 1980s and the neighboring decades. It is a treasure-trove of nostalgic references that will probably make it impenetrable to the linguists who discover it thousands of years from now among the ruins of our civilization. It is also a fast-paced thriller that creates its own bubble of immersive reality around the reader.

Ernest Cline is also the author of the novel Armada, in which Earth is invaded by video-game aliens; the screenwriter of the film Fanboys, in which a group of friends goes on a quest to ask George Lucas to let them pre-screen Star Wars Episode I before one of them dies; a spoken-word artist whose output includes an album titled Ultraman Is Airwolf; and a memoirist whose autobiography, The Importance of Being Ernest, reinforces the impression that he is actually James Halliday, except not quite as rich. Yet.

Anniversary Recital

This coming Sunday, July 31, I get to be the guest organist at my church's 65th anniversary service (Grace Lutheran, Versailles, Mo.) and, following a noon luncheon, a special musical program. It's pretty exciting. And a lot of hard work has gone into it, even though many of the pieces are ones I have played in public before. So I don't think I am tempting God when I pray that it all goes well.

Here are the pieces of special music that have been planned for the anniversary service:

  • Preludes: D. Buxtehude's chorale preludes on "A Mighty Fortress" and "Salvation Unto Us Has Come."
  • One of A. Dvorak's "Biblical Songs," performed by vocal soloist Carl Beach, who was a member of the congregation's first confirmation class, and who currently leads a choir in Jefferson City.
  • A contemporary recitative and vocal duet setting of the Nunc dimittis ("Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace"), performed by Mr. Beach and Jennifer Rauscher, who is a current member of the congregation, a music teacher, and a frequent cast member in local theater productions.
  • My own vocal-solo setting of Psalm 133, "Behold, how good and pleasant it is," sung by Miss Rauscher.
  • Communion voluntary: H. Walcha's chorale prelude on "A Mighty Fortress."
  • Postlude: M. Reger's Little Organ Book prelude on "A Mighty Fortress."
And here is the playlist for the recital after dinner:
  • J.S. Bach's prelude on "Wake, Awake" (the "king of chorales").
  • J. Pachelbel's prelude on "How Lovely Shines the Morning Star" (the "queen of chorales").
  • One of J.P. Sweelinck's chorale variations on "Lord, hear the voice of my complaint."
  • Another Dvorak "Biblical Song" and C. Franck's "Panis Angelicus," both sung by Miss Rauscher.
  • Luther's hymn "May God Bestow on Us His Grace," sung by Miss Rauscher with young Aidan Rottmann accompanying her on the guitar.
  • F. Peeters' chorale prelude on "Gracious Savior, Gentle Shepherd."
  • My own chorale preludes on "I Come, O Savior, to Thy Table" and "Salvation Unto Us Has Come."
  • A ricercar by G. Frescobaldi.
None of it is awfully virtuosic. It's just music that I think brings out the best qualities of the instrument without being flashy or showy - music that I consider fun to play, and that I think people will enjoy hearing. Plus, the words that go with the tunes fit the message of the congregation's faith and doctrine. It will be, to the extent I can help it, a completely non-tacky musical event, with the meaning of solid, historic Lutheran hymns at the center and not the performers nor the instruments, which in themselves are nothing special. It's the kind of program I would be proud to be a part of. And guess what... I am!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Great Zoo of China

The Great Zoo of China
by Matthew Reilly
Recommended Ages: 14+

This "action thriller," from an Australian author who specializes in them, features a gutsy female hero who often says, after surviving a perilous escapade, "That was character building." CJ Cameron is a National Geographic writer who gave up studying reptiles when a crocodile bit half her face off - long story, no time for details right now. So, she lived, and now with her photographer brother Hamish she has come to China to get a sneak peek at a secret project the communist government is about to open to the public: a fabulous zoo, cradled in a mostly man-made valley, featuring creatures out of ancient legend that have hatched from eggs found deep underground. The advance-publicity logos describing the site as "The Great Zoo of China" are actually deceptive. Its real name will be "The Great Dragon Zoo of China."

Apparently, the Chinese haven't seen Jurassic Park. Unlike CJ, who spots the possibility right off, they don't even seem to think something like this could happen - though, secretly, they've already had to execute a bunch of people who witnessed mishaps that could be embarrassing to the regime. When, right on schedule, the dragons decide to go ahead with their fiendishly clever plan to break out of the zoo, CJ and the other visiting dignitaries find themselves in the middle of a war zone, with scaly killing machines on one side and well-armed Chinese soldiers on the other. Both sides are determined to wipe out CJ & Co. to the last man or woman - to say nothing of a swampful of big, hungry crocodiles. The chances of survival, even for a few of the good guys, are slim. For CJ, keeping herself and her friends alive will definitely be a character-building experience.

There's a lot more to this book than explosions, gruesome deaths, and battles with beasts that would put the special-effects budget for a movie adaptation in the neighborhood of a small country's gross domestic product. It has terrific suspense, gut-gripping horror, pulse-ramping action, all the usual thriller furniture. But it also has CJ and Hamish, who are really fun characters to be around. It has a good dragon who becomes a truly individual character. It has a very light touch of romance, though somehow, the attraction between the girl and the dragon seems to throw more sparks than the girl-boy thing. It has occasional diagrams and charts to help the reader visualize the complex progress of the action. It has an interesting perspective on the connection between history and legend. And it has, at last, a terrible threat to the future of mankind that can only be stopped, if at all, by a whole series of actions requiring practically ridiculous levels of heroism. Character building, indeed!

Matthew Reilly, of whom I had frankly never heard until I grabbed this paperback off a supermarket book stand, has so far written the five-book "Scarecrow" series, starting with Ice Station; the "Hover Car Racer" trilogy, starting with the graphic novel Crash Course; the continuing "Jack West, Jr." series, of which a fourth installment is rumored to be coming soon; a historical thriller The Tournament about Queen Elizabeth I and her tutor, which now has a prequel; and the novels Temple, Conquest, and Troll Mountain. In some circles, probably lines of southern latitude, he seems to be very popular; the troll book was published in serial form, and several characters in this book were named after the winners of a charity auction, including no less than Hamish Cameron himself. Maybe we'll see Hamish and his sister again. Until then, these other titles will have to supply our addiction to "character-building" adventures.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Re-reading HBP and DH

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth Harry Potter book by J.K. Rowling, came out in 2005; the movie based on it, in 2009. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the concluding installment in the seven-book series, came out in 2007; its movie adaptation was split into two parts, released in 2010 and 2011.

At the time those books and movies came out, I was in the full flush of Harry Potter fandom. My first exposure to the series came in 2001, when the first HP movie (US title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), directed by blockbuster filmmaker Chris Columbus, was coming out in theaters. I was then a parish pastor, only a little more than a year out of the seminary, serving my first congregation in the Kansas City area. I had never read the books and really didn't know anything about them. One of my parishioners, a father of two small children (I baptized his third), with whom I shared a love of movies, asked me to have a look at the new Harry Potter movie and let him know whether I thought it would be OK for his kids to see it. I remember him enthusiastically trying to explain what the series was about; he had evidently read the books (there were four of them at that point; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire had only recently come out) and thought they were pretty cool. So on his recommendation, I saw Sorcerer's Stone and was able to report that there was nothing in it that I would consider a spiritual danger to his kids; it was harmless fantasy, a little plot-heavy and episodic, with cheap-looking special effects but an impressive cast and a bit of spookiness, but mostly just kid-friendly entertainment.

I didn't actually notice at the time that I had just had my first encounter with a wizard who would capture my imagination in a big way. The penny didn't drop until sometime the following year, before the sequel film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, opened in theaters. During the summer of 2002, a pastoral call led me to Yuma, Ariz., where I spotted a half-price set of paperbacks of the first four Harry Potter books at an Albertson's supermarket. It seemed like a good deal, and with the media already buzzing with anticipation of the second HP movie, I decided it was time for me to get better acquainted with the boy wizard. I read the first book, and was struck by what a perfect little specimen it was, successful on every level - even if, like the movie I only vaguely remembered, a bit loose and episodic in its plotting. I had recently read a bunch of Dickens novels, and it seemed to appeal to me on a similar level, with its teeming crowd of whimsical characters and a sense of something serious underlying its veneer of pure fun. I plowed rapidly through the second and third books, noticing the quality of their author's work seemed to mature noticeably with each volume, along with her youthful characters and the seriousness of the situation they were in. Book three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was a little less economical than the first two. And then there was Goblet, and I was just blown away.

As soon as I read it, I started reading the series over again. I made sure I got to the Chamber movie as soon as it came out. The HP movies, together with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, became the seed of my first DVD collection. And I began to do the fan thing, joining other fans in various online forums to discuss and analyze what we had read and seen, and to gossip and prognosticate about what was yet to come. I ended up becoming "Robbie Fischer," a regular contributor to MuggleNet, with a book review column, a fan-fiction column, and a bunch of HP-related editorials to my credit.

At the height of my enthusiasm for HP, I did some weird things. For one thing, I read one of the books in Spanish, and inductively learned a lot of Spanish that way. I alternated between watching the HP and LOTR DVDs, turn and turn about, in doses of arbitrary length (basically, a little each night before I was too tired to keep my eyes open), and to make things interesting, I watched them with English subtitles and Spanish or French dubbing, or in English with Spanish or French subtitles, and then with both dubbing and subtitles in Spanish or French, etc. Also, I bought a bunch of blank tapes and recorded myself reading all four books aloud (eventually adding the fifth, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when it was released), and listening to the tapes during my daily commute and on long car trips. If I may be forgiven for saying so, I did a pretty good job reading them, acting out the characters' lines with distinctive voices and all. I put a lot of mileage on those tapes, and in the process, got to know the first four or five books almost by heart.

By the advent of Prince, I was living in the St. Louis area, no longer in the ministry, but I had connected with a couple other local fans. One of them actually dragged me with her to a "MuggleCast" live podcast at the main branch of the St. Louis County Library. When the last two HP books came out, I lined up with literally thousands of other people at the Borders Bookstore in Brentwood, Mo. to buy my copy right at their midnight release. In at least the case of Hallows, I went immediately from the bookstore to the home of my fan friends to take part in a "read-in," though we weren't able to stay awake long enough to finish the books in one sitting. And of course, I didn't miss a local midnight premiere of any of the HP movies from Chamber on, seeing each one multiple times on the big screen and, if I could afford it, splurging on the deluxe-edition DVD, with extra-extra features. Each time a new book or movie came out, I made a point of re-reading the entire series up to that point.

The insanity has cooled a bit since then. Someone on the MuggleNet staff still sends me the minutes of their monthly staff web-meeting, though I haven't attended one in ages. I stopped writing new editorials and fan-fic-column episodes, partly because a lot of what drove them was speculation about what was yet to come - which, as far as the main sequence of HP novels is concerned, is all over now. I kept contributing book reviews, because I thought that was the most important thing I could contribute to the fandom - to this day, I blog a review of every book I read and, in many cases, apply the question "Why would a fan of Harry Potter like this?" as I do. I've gradually lost touch with the mechanism of getting those reviews posted on MuggleNet, partly because the website changed platforms several times and I haven't been able to keep up with the posting protocols, and partly because the management's decision to open its book review forum to multiple reviewers devalued my contribution to it. Currently the staff at MuggleNet is about a year and a half behind on posting the last several reviews I emailed to them, so I sense we're drifting apart. And that's all right with me, since my "fort made of books" lives on in this blog.

Harry Potter books still occupy a place of honor in my collection of favorite books that I don't plan to sell or give away. But it has been quite some time since I re-read any of the Harry Potter books. Indeed, I don't often re-read any book, once I have gotten through it and written a review. There are exceptions; for example, I've been through John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost several times, and I've made it through Patrick O'Brian's 20-book "Aubreyiad" a couple times. But generally, even the books on that "all-time favorites" shelf just sit there, warming my heart with good memories whenever I see them, and mellowing in my recollection until I can see a film adaptation of one of them (like the recent BBC miniseries based on Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) and not be particularly disturbed by differences between the book and the film. I remember the struggle of schooling myself to like the Harry Potter movies when I was vividly aware of their infidelity to the source material; it makes me think 15 years (like in the case of the Clarke book) might be the right interval between reading the book and seeing the movie. But how about doing it the other way around?

Well, all seven Harry Potter books have all been out for a few years, and so have all eight of the movies based on them. Until this week, I had seen all the movies since I read any of the books; some of them I had seen, at least in part, many times, thanks to the mixed blessing of cable TV, which always seems to be playing a Harry Potter movie on some channel or at some time of day, and sometimes offers holiday-weekend Harry Potter marathons. The series has reached that tipping-point between vintage and popularity when you start to notice interesting things like which movie always seems to be accidentally-on-purpose left out of the marathon, which movie you always seem to catch only the last half of or less as opposed to the whole thing, and which scenes previously seen only in the "deleted scenes" bonus features of the DVD are now fully integrated with the version repeated endlessly on cable. Meanwhile, not having read any of the books since the run-up to the last movie, when you zipped through the whole series once more just to be prepared, you gradually stop noticing things like which characters were merged together or omitted altogether, which plot developments were radically simplified or moved around, which things the filmmakers did to try to open up the cinematic potential of the story (or perhaps just to compress it for time) actually did violence to the original work - in short, you increasingly, and perhaps mercifully, forget all the ways and reasons the movie isn't as good as the book. Because, also increasingly, but I won't say mercifully, your knowledge of the movie has replaced your memory of the book.

For reasons I think I have made clear, this phenomenon has affected me mostly in connection with the last two books. As I explained above, I never immersed myself in Prince or Hallows as much as in the first five books. I didn't listen to a recording of my own voice reading them aloud until I had them all but memorized. If I re-read them at all, after the first time or two through them immediately after their release, it was only to refresh my memory before one of the last three HP movies came out. And once the last movie was out, there was no more call for such a review. What it all boils down to is the fact that, before I re-read these last two HP books this week, I had pretty much forgotten why and to what extent the last three HP movies fell short of them. So, approaching them from the (for me) unusual position of knowing the movies better than the books, it was a pleasant surprise. I found not only that the movies are not as good as the books (which is so nearly universally true of movies based on books that it verges on meaninglessness), but more interestingly, that the books are way better than the movies.

You probably don't think that last statement was more interesting than the one I contrasted it with. But if you tried the same experiment, under the same conditions, you might have the same surprise. Without being boring and pedantic and listing in detail all the ways the books are better, I just want to register the observation and suggest that you test it for yourself.

I get why the filmmakers did what they did with the movies. Like I said, they simultaneously had to do that "opening up" I spoke of, as well as shrinking down. Books and movies are different things, and anyone who criticizes a movie for not being exactly like the book that inspired it is mostly confessing to a failure to understand this. But some attempts both to "open up" and to "shrink down" are disastrous. In fact, after the danger of altering the story out of recognition to suit a box-office star without whom the production might not have been funded, the "opening" and "shrinking" aspects of book-to-film adaptation are probably the highest-risk factors leading to a bad movie being based on a good book.

You do have to shrink the material (i.e., cut out a lot of dialogue, characters, scenes, plot threads, etc.), otherwise the film will last 12 hours and nobody will sit through it. I have seen this kind of movie; it was word-for-word adaptation of the Gospel According to St. John, narrated by Brian Cox without omitting a single word of the biblical text; with the best will I could not keep my eyes open through the whole thing, in spite of the narration being decoratively dramatized by costumed actors filmed on location. On the other hand, you can compress the source material so much that the film is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't recently read the book; a good example is the concluding segment of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I believe was originally meant to be accompanied by an explanatory voice-over. Watching some of the Harry Potter movies with a friend who has never read the books shows that this failing sometimes afflicts this series too; you have to fill them in on so many things that the video seems to spend more time paused than actually playing. The rushed endings of the fifth and sixth HP movies were especially bad in this respect; the characters seemed to speak in an impenetrable oral shorthand made of lines that had no apparent context.

And you do have to "open" the story somewhat, by which I mean figuring out a way to tell the story in a way that best exploits the language of cinematic communication; otherwise you might as well just release a video featuring full-cast audio recording of the book with sets and costumes, which would be deadly on so many levels. I have also seen examples of this, movies that had the look of stage plays acted out in full compliance with all the Aristotelian unities, but that ended up leaving an impression more of the written word than of film. Other than preserving a historic stage performance, one wonders what was the point of making them. On the other hand, I have also seen attempts to open up the written source for the screen that were more detrimental than helpful, like the 2002 version of The Importance of Being Earnest that featured Rupert Everett and Colin Firth who, instead of playing out entire scenes in one setting, were always pausing to chase each other pointlessly into another sumptuously-decorated setting before resuming Wilde's witty dialogue. The HP series' biggest count of this crime is, unfortunately, its depiction of the climactic fight between Harry and Voldemort at the end of Movie 8, which replaces the dialogue (some of the most crucial in the entire series) and the setting (in front of a big crowd) that makes Voldemort's end meaningful with a bunch of special-effects-driven zooming about the Hogwarts grounds and fighting, hand-to-hand and with wands, just between the two characters with nobody else around. It's very scenic and visually exciting, but as a solution to the jeopardy that has been building up to this point for eight long films, it's completely, mystifyingly unclear.

That bit I remembered, even after years of seeing Movie 8 from somewhere in the Battle of Hogwarts on every time it came on cable TV (but practically never seeing any other part of Deathly Hallows Part 1 or 2). What I didn't remember, until I re-read Books 6 and 7 this week, is how much deeper, clearer, and more powerful the book version is. I also didn't remember that there was some striking foreshadowing of things revealed late in Book 7 as early as Book 6, connections I may have missed simply because I seldom or never read Book 6 again after Book 7 came out; or perhaps I've just forgotten about them since the movies of 2010 and '11. I remember certain character (and pet) deaths being emotionally stunning when I first read the books and saw the movies - and of course, who now, after years of seeing Snape's memory in the Pensieve with Harry in Movie 8, isn't moved by what it revealed. But subtler things struck me on this recent re-reading, and different scenes got me choked up. Percy Weasley showing up just before the last battle and making up with his estranged family... Dumbledore's frailties exposed in a way the movies gloss over... And then this:

Looking back over the whole Harry Potter series, there are a lot of moments one could point to and say, "That's the moment Voldemort was doomed," or, "Right there, that person just killed Voldemort." Obviously, this has something to do with the fact that he split his soul up into a bunch of nasty Horcruxes that had to be destroyed, one by one, before he could truly die. But it isn't only because of it. For Horcrux-related examples, Lily Potter (Harry's mum) killed Voldemort when she chose to die for her son; with then one-year-old Harry protected by her love, Voldemort's next curse rebounded on him and destroyed his body. Lily's protection continued in Harry's skin, as Dumbledore put it, causing Voldemort's first serious attempt to come back to fail when Quirrell (whom Voldemort was possessing) tried to strangle Harry, and perished. Harry killed the first Horcrux (the diary) with a basilisk fang in Book 2. Dumbledore killed part of Voldemort's soul between Book 5 and 6 by stabbing the second Horcrux (a ring) with Gryffindor's sword, also used by Ron to destroy the locket Horcrux in Book 7/Movie 7, and by Neville to kill Voldemort's snake familiar/Horcrux in Book 7/Movie 8. Hermione also destroyed a Horcrux (the goblet) with a basilisk fang (7/8); but, contrary to Movie 8, Book 7 depicts the tiara Horcrux as being unintentionally destroyed by the magefire (or Fiendfyre) conjured by Crabbe, who also perished in it. Voldemort unwittingly destroys a bit of himself in Book 7/Movie 8 by attempting to curse Harry, not knowing the boy was also a Horcrux. And of course, it was again Voldemort's own death-curse rebounding on him as he tried to kill Harry that finally finished him off; at least the fifth time in the series when the Dark Lord's "Avada Kedavra" failed to connect with the Boy Who Lived.

But the whole complex story of "Who got Voldemort" doesn't end with a list of who stabbed his Horcruxes with what. It struck me, this evening, that the reason Voldemort's final attempt on Harry's life blew back on him so disastrously can be traced to Draco Malfoy - a nasty little boy who miraculously survives the greatest danger that threatens him, which is the danger of harming his own soul by killing another person. It is Voldemort who, in Book/Movie 6, sets Draco the choice of either murdering Dumbledore, dying in the attempt, or just dying period; but Dumbledore, despite having the wand snatched out of his hand by Draco's disarming curse, rescues Draco from all three alternatives by arranging ahead of time to have Snape kill him (Dumbledore) in such a way that Voldemort can't blame the boy for faltering. But what you might not have noticed is that, at the moment when the wand flies out of Dumbledore's grasp and clatters to the floor of the Astronomy Tower, Voldemort's ultimate doom has been sealed. As Harry explains before Voldemort's final, fatal attempt to curse him down, Draco's disarming charm makes him - not Dumbledore, or Snape, or afterward Voldemort - the master of the Elder Wand, with which Voldemort proposes to kill Harry. And since Harry subsequently beat Draco, making Harry the master of the Elder Wand, Voldemort's attempt to curse Harry with it proves suicidal. So, in a sense, the fact that Draco (not Snape) disarmed Dumbledore, and was in turn disarmed by Harry, is what finally seals Voldemort's fate. In a "Hallows" (as opposed to "Horcruxes") sense, Draco unwittingly joins the list of people who slew the Dark Lord. And it's worth noting that he spends the rest of the series trying desperately (but successfully) not to kill anyone, though somehow making it look hard. That moment alone with Dumbledore seems to have shaped his destiny too.

A few other Death Eaters also, intentionally or not, took part in serving justice upon Voldemort. Lucius Malfoy's attempt to undermine Arthur Weasley's position at the Ministry of Magic by implicating his daughter in something dark leads to the fanging of the diary in Book 2. Regulus Black's decision to save the house-elf Kreacher from Voldemort, and to make it Kreacher's mission in life to destroy the locket Horcrux, becomes the catalyst that brings Kreacher onto Harry's side and ultimately leads to the locket being destroyed. Bellatrix Lestrange's meltdown on seeing the Sword of Gryffindor (not realizing the one in her bank vault is only a copy) gives Harry the idea of breaking into Gringotts to see what else might be in her vault. Horace Slughorn, a Slytherin even if not a Death Eater, tries for a bit of remorse in Book 6, to the extent of giving Harry the crucial memory that ultimately leads him on his Horcrux quest. Even Dolores Umbridge, the character Harry Potter fans most love to hate, has some of Voldemort's blood on her hands, thanks to the combination of personal shortcomings that puts the locket Horcrux within Harry's grasp. And finally, in a bit of "Dumbledore explains all" in the train station to the afterlife - an explanation omitted from the movies, by the way, and which I had forgotten until I re-read Book 7 - it seems even Peter "Wormtail" Pettigrew drove a knife into Voldemort's heart (albeit on the Dark Lord's orders), when he let Harry's blood drip off his knife blade into the potion that restored Voldemort's body. That "blood of an enemy, forcibly taken" bit seemed awfully dark in Book 4, but at the end of Book 7 it proves to have an even weirder effect: by tying Harry's life-force to Voldemort's new body, it ensures Harry cannot be killed while Voldemort lives, even if his status as a Horcrux is revoked. Once Harry's blood, carrying the protection of Lily Potter's love, enters Voldemort's veins, it works more to Harry's advantage than to Voldemort's - for reasons I had to re-read the book to remember, after five years of forgetfulness brought on by the movie.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Bump in the Road

So, here's the news about Useful Hymns, which has the unfortunate acronym UH. You were expecting by now to get the news that it was publicly available, right? Well, if you cared one way or another, that is.

It was darn close. I had the permission from the copyright owners of two previously published hymn texts to reprint the hymns with my original tunes. I had the proof copy in my hands, and was ready to make the final corrections before uploading the final document to Lulu and changing its status from "private" to "public." It would only have been a matter of a couple hours of work, and I actually sat down to do it... only to discover that my laptop would not start up. Its cooling fan had decided to join the choir eternal, and the machine would only start for about long enough to tell me this, before shutting itself down again.

I'm not concerned about the file. All that is backed up, multiple times, on a couple of flash drives. What I *am* concerned about is the software I need to complete the final edits. Two problems: First, I have a licensed copy of Finale (music publishing software) on my laptop, but not on any other computer at my disposal. I need this software to correct some voice-leading errors in a couple of the hymn-tune harmonizations in the appendix of UH - such as a case of parallel perfect fifths that I noticed only after having a proof copy printed, and a couple of mistyped notes that had slipped by me until ditto, and a change in another composer's arrangement of his own original tune, which he messaged to me. Second, due to either the version of Microsoft Word on my computer, or the "Cute PDF Writer" free-download alternative to Adobe Acrobat that I use to turn Word docs into PDFs, my laptop is also the only computer in creation (to my knowledge) that will turn my book into a PDF without butchering the fonts, including a rare melody font that I used to type the hymn tunes into the main part of the book. When I try to go through Adobe Acrobat or Photoshop, even after firmly instructing the print preferences to embed the specific fonts I'm concerned about, it still insists on replacing the melody fonts with something that looks like 26-point Hindi characters, arranged to spell gibberish. Obviously this would not be a good change. I really need my laptop back before I can publish this.

It gave me a nasty feeling of satisfaction to realize that my long-term project had gone from the "just a few last-minute corrections and it's ready for the public" stage to "indefinitely postponed" in the time it took for my laptop to scream "Ow! My cooling fan!" I mean, this is exactly the sort of stuff that naturally happens to me all the time. It's like the old Hee-Haw song said, "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all." Or to quote another lyric, "God's in His heaven, all's right with the world."

More recently, "indefinitely" has been downgraded to "about a month." That's because the guy who runs the local computer repair shop advised me he could order a replacement exhaust fan for my laptop, but it would take about that long for it to come in. It's amazing how poky things like this can still be in this age in which you can order most anything on Amazon and start looking for a small, unmanned aircraft to drop it off on your doorstep practically as soon as your credit card number is approved. If I ordered an out-of-print book from an online bookseller, even without special shipping, I could probably expect to see it sooner than a vital part of the Hewlett Packard laptop that, until recently, I would have used to order it. But there it is again. "God's in His heaven..."

Saturday, July 16, 2016


Yeah, I saw it. And against all the buzz, I thought it was great.

It's a total reboot of the 1984 movie (let's try to forget about the unfortunate Ghostbusters II). The cameo appearances by five key members of the original movie's cast (not playing their previous characters, however) not only bless the reboot with an aura (ha, ha) of legitimacy, but also score some good laughs of the kind at which people a few years from now will scratch their heads, perplexed. In short, it was the perfect time to revive a peace of pop-culture - while it is still popular, but old enough to come across as something entirely new to many moviegoers today.

The main cast - the four Ghostbusters, played by Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon - has a similar type of comedic chemistry as the original quartet of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson. Considering the toughness of these broads, swapping the sex of the foursome doesn't change the overall dynamic that much. They're all very funny. The ghosts are reasonably scary, and the special effects are impressive, and the final "cataclysm" in the streets of New York is pretty exciting.

I have only one complaint: Chris Hemsworth. The aroma that this movie was planned by women, to appeal to women, comes across with all but suffocating potency whenever he is on screen. As the Ghostbusters' gorgeous but thick-headed receptionist Kevin, he savagely avenges all the actresses who ever had to play a ditzy, gum-snapping receptionist sterotype - including, I suppose, Annie Potts, who was one of the '84 veterans who cameoed in this movie. As easy on he eyes as he is, I got heartily sick of seeing him and wished he was the character who, early in the film, got pushed out of an upstairs window by a ghost. Actually, something like that does happen to him, but two of his employers rush to break his fall. I would be lying if I claimed not to get what they see in him; the closing credits, depicting Hemsworth leading New York's finest in a paranormal group stripper-dance, makes full use of the assets he brings to the movie. But also, it was stupid.

So, if they make a Ghostbusters II, let's just hope they edit Kevin's part down and give us more ghosts, more jokes, and more "New York is sitting right on top of Grand Apocalypse Central" jeopardy, instead.

The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man

The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man
by W. Bruce Cameron
Recommended Ages: 13+

Ruddy McCann is an out-of-shape ex-football player who almost won a Heisman trophy, before a deadly accident sent him to prison and ended his sports career. Now he steals cars for a living (repossesses them, actually), and moonlights at a bouncer at his sister Becky's struggling bar. Not much of a people person, his best friends are a lazy mutt named Jake, a movie-star-handsome loser named Jimmy, and (in distant third) a word-mangling screw-up named Kermit, who happens to be his boss's nephew. But then he starts falling in love with a girl named Katie. At about the same time, he also starts hearing a voice in his head who claims to be a dead man named Alan - and, conicidentally, Katie's dad.

Ruddy thinks he must be going crazy. Maybe it's like his boss Milt says, and he's developing Repo Madness. But the theory that Alan is a personality invented by his fractured psyche doesn't explain why a vivid dream depicting Alan's death leads Ruddy to a real-world place he has never been before - and the discovery of a body positively identified as the real Alan Lottner.

Lottner was last seen eight years ago, just before someone firebombed a local nursing home and killed 32 elderly people. His own family, including Katie, couldn't be sure he didn't do it, didn't simply disappear under his own power. But Ruddy seems to know too much about the case for a guy who was in prison when the murders happened. The local sheriff is suspicious, especially given his witness's criminal history. And soon the real killers have good reason to be concerned that Ruddy may know too much about what they did. If only Ruddy wasn't a little more concerned about them. But you know repo men (or you will, if you read this book). Pretty confrontational guys.

This is a very entertaining and unusual novel. It has all the best ingredients of a superb mystery-thriller, including a sleuth who comes in an unexpected form. The voice of Alan in his head gives him an unusual insight into the crime, while his status with the law forces him to go about crime-solving in an equally unusual way. Ruddy is a very distinctive character, a man of action who has a surprisingly keen mind, a mean S.O.B. with a tender side, an honorable man haunted by a dark past, a man who loves and hates with unfiltered zest, a man with a mouth for laugh-aloud lines and sarcastic comebacks. And in the crescendo of action and violence toward the end of this book, he takes several serious beatings and, practically beyond the ordinary rules of life, keeps coming back for more. His adventure in this book is all at once exciting, touching, funny, and scary. So it's welcome news to know he has another adventure on the way.

W. Bruce Cameron is the author of several humorous non-fiction books, including 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, which I think was the basis of the sitcom John Ritter was starring in at the time of his death, and of a series of books about reincarnated dogs, starting with A Dog's Purpose. This 2014 book was his first thriller in a series called either Repo Man or Ruddy McCann; its sequel, Repo Madness, is slated for release in August 2016.