Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Cold Blooded

Cold Blooded
by Lisa Jackson
Recommended Ages: 15+

Rick Bentz is a New Orleans homicide detective with a younger partner, introduced in a previous book titled Hot Blooded. He has a college-age daughter who isn't really his, a hang-up about the fact that his ex-wife cheated on him with his half-brother (who happens to be a Catholic priest), and since he busted a killer priest in his previous case, a bit of a hang-up about the church. Plus, you know, trust issues. So imagine how he takes it when a beautiful woman barges into his office, claiming to have had a psychic dream about a priest horribly murdering a woman, and almost immediately a murder scene turns up mirroring every detail of her dream. Bentz doesn't know whether to gather Olivia Benchet into his protecting arms or to push her away.

Long story short, he ends up having to make up his mind really quick when the killer, who knows that Olivia sees everything he does, steps up his gruesome timetable and crafts a gruesome "martyrdom of the saints" scenario around her. And her best friend. And Bentz's daughter, just to be complete. Family secrets, eerie visions, psychosis with religious features, sex, murder, and struggles of conscience flock around Olivia, Bentz, his estranged brother, and even his partner, whose girlfriend's disappearance goes unsolved in spite of this mystery's highly wrought climax.

It was wrought so highly, in fact, that I thought it may have been a bit overdone. A red herring character, skillfully dragged across the killer's trail, is disposed of rather too glibly, while Father James' torment comes to a resolution that somehow, to me, seemed both too easy and over-indulgently drawn out at the same time. Also, I don't really get the romance between Bentz and Olivia. While I sympathize with the detective's past relationship troubles, I just don't buy the way such a strong, independent woman melts into his arms, and then keeps going back to him in spite of his repeated cruelty. Maybe the problem is I'm just not made to enjoy romance novels. But while the focus is on the killer's diabolical doings, the story is pretty gripping. The "whodunit" reveal is actually satisfying, which isn't a given in today's crime fiction. The horror scenes are horrific, the suspense scenes tingle, and the climax pulls all the story threads together in a tight grip. The only thing missing, in my opinion, is a stronger sense of local color, which should maybe be expected of a novel set in New Orleans.

This review is based on listening to the audiobook narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan. Following Hot Blooded (which I haven't read), this book is the second in the New Orleans-based Bentz/Montoya series of mystery thrillers, which is currently up to eight books. Jackson is also the author of two "Abandoned" novels, of which the second, titled Million Dollar Baby, bears no relation to the Clint Eastwood film by the same name; four "Maverick" western romance novels, a "historic trilogy" penned as Susan Lynn Crose, at least four "Love Letters" books (A Is for Always, etc.), three "Dark Jewels" novels, the "Forever Family" romance trilogy, five "McCaffertys" novels, three "San Francisco" thrillers, the "Medieval Trilogy," the "Savannah" trilogy, eight "Montana/To Die" thrillers, two "Wyoming" novels coauthored with Nancy Bush and Rosalind Noonan, and some 40 other novels. This was my first time reading anything by her, as far as I can recall. I'm personally more interested in the crime thriller side of her work than in the romance, but this book hits both angles.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Dog Days

I saw this movie because I wanted to see a movie, and I thought my other two choices were unacceptable. Then I saw a trailer for The Meg, one of those other two choices then playing in town, and I decided it might have been acceptable after all. Nevertheless, I stayed and watched this movie. A year from now, this review will be a valuable record of the experience, because by then I will probably have forgotten that I ever saw it. It was a nice movie with an attractive, middle-market ensemble cast, set in a sunny west-coast (U.S.) city, eking romantic comedy out of the relationships between several thinly-interconnected families or individuals and their respective dogs. The overall message was that dogs make people's lives better, and the movie gets that across without resorting to a single anthropomorphic canine, talking mutt, or fancy animal trick. For this it is to be valued, at least during the 15 minutes remaining before all memory of it disappears.

The only thought related to it that lingered in my mind while I was walking home from the theater was how close the movie hewed to the line between laugh-aloud funny comedy and that other type of comedy that is taking the silver screen by storm these days - the kind that makes you want to smack yourself in the head, or hide your face in your hands, groaning and squirming in discomfort. The gags in this movie scattered about equally on both sides of this line. Both kinds of jokes worked in their own way, but I have to admit that I prefer the belly-laugh type.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Slacker dude, who is dog-sitting for his sister while she and her hubby cope with newborn twins, gives his guest the full benefit of a stoned-out experience when the mutt goes on an unscheduled pot brownie trip. His sweet revenge includes waking the dog up for a walk the next morning when it clearly wants to stay asleep. (2) ... Um ... (3) ... Nope. I can't think of any other scenes that made it for me. Sorry. Maybe I shouldn't have waited until Wednesday to write about something I saw last Saturday. Or maybe I should have seen The Meg. Based on the trailer I saw, I'm pretty sure I would be able to come up with two more scenes that made it for me. Nevertheless, I didn't dislike this movie. I would just recommend waiting to see it until it starts playing on cable TV.

Friday, August 10, 2018

True Detective, Seasons 1-2

My latest TV-on-DVD binge was a six-disc set of the first two seasons of HBO's series True Detective. Each season is eight episodes. Season One was actually all written by one writer (Nic Pizzolatto) and directed by one guy (Cary Joji Fukunaga), so in a lot of ways it was like an eight-hour movie serialized in one-hour installments. Season Two manages a similar sense of creative unity in spite of having multiple writers and directors working on it.

Other than that, and expansive dialogue, and rich characterization, and beautiful landscape photography that establishes a powerful sense of place, and a certain dark, gritty sensibility running through and under everything, the two seasons don't have much in common. They have different settings, different characters, different themes, and ultimately a different story structure - although each season is split down the middle by a stupendous action sequence that sends the mystery the detectives are investigating off on a completely new trajectory. In fact, apart from both being detective stories, I'm not even sure both seasons represent the same genre. So if one of these two miniseries, or mega-movies, seems to suffer in comparison to the other, that may have something to do with it. I think Season 2 is a superb present-day example of the hardboiled genre, a neo-noir masterpiece that would have made Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett proud. I love me a good potboiler, and the L.A.-area story arc hits all of the marks perfectly. It isn't fair, in my opinion, to judge it in comparison with Season 1, which is something else - something that I don't think I have ever seen before, for which I can think of no pigeonhole to stick it in. A genre unto itself.

Season 1 features Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as a partnered pair of Louisiana State CID detectives who don't particularly like each other, solving a young woman's murder that has deviant religious features - solving it together, in spite of their personal differences, in a story that hops between three time periods (1995, 2002 and 2012) - solving it, also, in spite of powerful forces that seem to be dead set against the truth coming out. Harrelson is a by-the-book cop who cheats on his wife, played by Michelle Monaghan. McConaughey is a nihilist with a dark past, both professionally and personally - but he is also an unconventional thinker in a way that makes him a brilliant sleuth. In spite of a relationship meltdown that nukes the one's marriage and the other's career, to say nothing of a pair of present-day detectives (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles, filling out the opening-titles cast) who suspect McConaughey of being the actual killer, the two guys patch things up enough to finish what they started.

On a certain level, the mystery is just window-dressing, while the view through the window focuses on this antagonistic relationship between two men who finally prove to be each other's best friend - two guys who at one point are ready to kill each other, and who end up saving each other's lives. The fight between them, in the 2002 segment, is (pun intended) a knockout, as is the way McConaughey convinces Harrelson, 10 years later, to help him solve the case that everybody else considers already solved. What comes between them is heartbreaking. What brings them back together is amazing. Parts of this eight-hour film are painful to watch, but taken as a whole, it is astoundingly good.

Three Scenes That Made Season 1 For Me: This is really hard, because there are so many scenes that work like gangbusters, but here goes: (1) That insane drug heist/urban riot, shot in one incredible take, when 1995 McConaughey follows a white supremacist biker/drug dealer into a gnarly situation and then drags him out of it, all in the hope of catching up to a known associate of the suspected murderer. (2) McConaughey calmly telling a woman who has just confessed to smothering her three babies that prison and the press are going to be really hard on her, so she should probably kill herself while she has the opportunity. (3) The whole sequence inside the abandoned fort, which is decorated as if the detectives are walking through the killer's diseased brain - a truly hair-raising passage.

Season 2 moves the setting to L.A., where a small industrialized suburb called Vinci proves to be a hotbed of deadly secrets. Headlining the cast are Vince Vaughn as a gangster whose efforts to become a legitimate businessman are derailed by the murder of his sleazy business partner; Taylor Kitsch as a deeply tormented California Highway Patrol officer who is moments away from killing himself when he stumbles on the victim's body; Rachel McAdams as an L.A. County Sheriff's detective, scarred by childhood trauma, whose assignment is as much about investigating corruption in Vinci as about solving the murder; and Colin Farrell as a Vinci cop with anger and substance abuse issues, who is halfway in Vaughn's pocket while the other half is under orders from the crooks who run the town to keep an eye on Kitsch and McAdams. The fifth member of the opening-titles cast is Kelly Reilly as Vaughn's wife, although his character isn't the only one with a romantic partner.

Your first clue that things may not work out as well for these protagonists as for the Season 1 guys comes at the end of Episode 2, when Farrell - who, mind you, leads the billing in the opening credits - gets blasted with a shotgun at point-blank range. You go into the closing credits in disbelief: "You what?! Did you just kill your leading man one quarter of the way in?" Spoiler: He recovers. I say "he recovers," not "he lives," because I wouldn't want to give away what happens to any of these main characters, but consider yourself warned: only two of the five survive to the end of the season. What they survive, and what they don't survive, bear disturbing testimony toward the theme "You get the world that you deserve." Some of them - perhaps all of them, one would think after seeing their characters struggle and grow during these eight episodes - deserve better. But even more than the detectives in Season 1, these characters have been dealt into a game that has been rigged against them. The people who don't want them to solve the case have plenty of power to make sure that they don't, and the more determined they are to find the truth, the less their chances of living to tell it.

Three Scenes That Made Season 2 For Me: (1) Obviously, the "Vinci Massacre" scene, which (according to DVD extras) took five days to shoot, and every minute worth it. It's a devastating turning point at the center of the story that brings three of the main characters (Kitsch, McAdams and Farrell) closer together, unlocks their best selves and, at the same time, makes the doom of their enterprise utterly inevitable. (2) Everything that happens to Kitsch's character after he realizes that the old army buddy with whom he had a gay fling (a big part of why he's so tormented) has betrayed him to the enemy. Your heart breaks for him, especially because his heart will never get a chance to heal. (3) Everything to do with the season's denouement, which subverts murder mystery convention by leaving at least some of the bad guys unpunished while the good guys struggle, all but hopelessly, to get away. If I've ever seen an hour of television that left me with a bitter, disillusioned view of the world, this is it. And yet it's not without a hint of justice at the end.

I wouldn't recommend this series to everybody. It's extremely dark, graphically violent and sexual, full of R-rated language and characters (like McConaughey's, for instance) spouting a vile worldview. But the story earns these things; they aren't just thrown out there gratuitously. And though one of these super-films is a tragedy and the other isn't, they are powerful works blurring the boundary between art and entertainment, displaying lives that feel lived in and problems into which the viewer enters personally. Season 1 leaves you satisfied that the story is complete, even if it might be fun to imagine what Woody and Matthew (or rather, Marty and Rust) get up to next. Season 2 leaves little or nothing standing that a subsequent story could build on, yet somehow it seems worthwhile. At a certain point in each season, I wavered as to whether I really wanted to keep watching them, but I did and at the end, I doubted no longer. This is TV the likes of which have hardly ever been made before. If it influences the way TV will be made in the future, I believe that would be a change I could get behind.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Mothers Hymn

I cannot remember the last time it took me so long to write a single hymn. Weeks, months even, have passed since someone dropped a suggestion (well before Mothers' Day, I believe) about how "useful" a Mothers' Day hymn would be, if it was really Scriptural and edifying to the faithful. Oy gewalt, though, was it ever difficult! Naturally, being a hymn-tune nerd first and a hymn-writer second, I never entertained a single thought about what tune this hymn will be sung to up to this moment - or even including this moment. I'll have to look into that later. For the meantime, please don't be too hard on the poem below simply because it's too long to expect the Mothers' Day crowd at your church to sing. I planned this hymn to bring Scripture to bear on issues touching the hearts of today's Christian mothers. I didn't really think the world needs any more three- or four-stanza settings of Hallmark greeting-card sentiments. When I imagined the sort of hymn about motherhood that might really be useful to Lutheranism, it went something like this.

1. Christ, Lord of all things everywhere,
True God and Mary's Son,
Take up our cause; sustain the prayer
Of all blessed by a mother's care,
Here in Your name begun.

2. Seed of the woman, pledged to Eve,
Her travail's fear to hush:
Teach us, though serpent's voice deceive,
Your oldest promise to believe;
Our tempter's power crush.

3. Free woman's offspring, Sarah's Son:
Though breast and womb be dry,
Convict us that Your word is done,
And we as heirs are rightwise born,
Our home secure on high.

4. Recall Rebekah's fav'rite, who
Lagged both in pow'r and age;
Do not repay to us our due,
But freely bless and cleanse us, too,
Of envy, greed and rage.

5. For Leah's and for Rachel's sake,
Give ev'ry child a name
That stamps on us our mothers' ache
In Your rich favor to partake,
Your faithful love to claim.

6. Mindful of Tamar's, Rahab's ways,
Relieve our mothers' shame.
Forgive their sins of former days;
That they may frame Your mercy's praise,
Garb them in spotless fame.

7. For mothers who, like Jochebed,
Must let their precious go:
Uphold their heart, till they be led
Across the stream that lies ahead,
And there Your purpose know.

8. Like Zipporah, whose wounding blade
Saved child and father both:
When souls are sifted, hearts are weighed,
Our mothers' tender hand persuade
To prune our vice's growth.

9. As trusting Hannah gave the Lord
The child her heart had craved,
Grant each whose prayers are nightly poured
The toll of motherhood restored:
To know her child is saved.

10. As Eunice, even Lois brought
Their little one to You,
So let our Timothies be taught
Your word, with saving power fraught,
That they may teach it, too.

11. The baptist's mother heard the voice
Of her who bore the Lamb;
He leapt within her, to rejoice
That You made Mary's womb Your choice,
Desired of Abraham!

12. With him and with Elizabeth
Your mother's faith we praise;
Dear Christ, till we pass over death,
Let us as well, with ev'ry breath,
Pray "Be it so" always.

13. E'en so, though sword may pierce between
A mother's heart and soul,
Let her, with son or daughter, lean
On You alone: by faith made clean,
And after death made whole.

EDIT: Here is a video by a very fine pianist of his performance of PAX CELESTE, a hymn tune that would fit this hymn. It was used in The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) with the hymn "There is an hour of peaceful rest." The only alternate tune that I know of, which I have found paired with the same hymn, is considerably inferior in my opinion.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Magic Delivery

Magic Delivery
by Clete Barrett Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

Nick and his best friend Burger are coasting their bicycles down a dangerous hill when a delivery truck suddenly pops out of a wormhole in front of them and swerves off the road, missing them by inches. Almost as weird as the wormhole bit is the fact that the truck seems to be driven by a bear. The boys go to investigate the wreck and find a surprisingly intact truck in the woods, guarded in fact by a bear, which chases them away - but not before they borrow a couple of items out of its cargo area. Their booty turns out to be a couple of high-end Halloween costumes - a full-body gorilla suit and a robot get-up. When the boys put them on, the costumes come vividly to life and the boys almost forget who they really are. Luckily, they're able to unzip before their backyard Movie Fight gets too far out of control.

Neat as these magic costumes are, problems soon develop. The driver of the truck is desperate to complete his first delivery, after inheriting the job from his father and a long line of ancestors. If he screws it up, the witch who employs him will ruin his whole family. But while the boys are willing to help him, the same can't be said for a wheelchair-bound high school bully and his football-player cronies. Dressed as a variety of monsters, they terrorize the Halloween party of the popular girl Nick likes. To stop them, two boys not otherwise known for their heroism must step into the role, costume and all, and face down a terrifying assortment of creatures who (unlike Nick and Burger) aren't held in check by compassion for others.

The book I kept finding myself comparing this to, for some reason, was Brandon Mull's The Candy Shop War. I guess there was something similar in their appeal, as stories about kids discovering magic of terrifying power hidden in a seemingly harmless item, like candy or a party costume, and then having to risk great danger to bring the magic back under control. It also made interesting use of the idea of a disabled bully who becomes most dangerous when he regains his lost ability. Fun use is also made of the theme of labor rights. Overall it was a very funny, magical, and exciting adventure with a gentle heart.

Clete Barrett Smith is also the author of the "Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast" series and the stand-alone teen novel Mr. 60%.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

All Creatures Great and Small

All Creatures Great and Small
by James Herriot
Recommended Ages: 12+

This semi-fictional memoir recounts the early years of a young veterinarian's career in the Yorkshire Dales during the last 1930s. Almost from the moment Scottish city boy James Herriot, fresh out of veterinary school, arrives in the village of Darrowby, he feels blessed to be there, even while being called out at all hours of the night to treat afflicted cows, pigs and horses. He falls in with a colorful pair of veterinary brothers, notices a pretty farmer's daughter, and gets up to his shoulder in the body cavities of various animals, all (so far) before the introduction of medicines and techniques that really made a world of difference, and yet somehow without losing his pride and passion for the work.

Herriot experiences terrifying moments, hours of paralyzing suspense, incidents ranging from wistfully sad to breathtakingly tragic, and hilarious high jinks. He makes mistakes, gets into scrapes, witnesses the lives of people both admirable and pitiable, and earns the respect of almost everyone around him. He also bears witness to backward superstitions and the all but magical methods of treatment from a discredited, bygone age. And for the enjoyment of readers since a bit before I was born, he tells all of this with an ear for the way people talk, an eye for the scenery (not to mention a nose for the fell-top air), and a sensibility about people that is unsparing of their foibles, least of all his own, while at the same time understanding them with compassion and respect.

I enjoyed this book in the audio-CD format, read by Christopher Timothy, about whom I have only one critical comment: To my American ear, his voice sounded perfectly English, though I gather that the narrator may have had a certain Scottish lilt to his voice. At one point he even uses the word "bonny." Timothy deftly portrayed various other regional accents, including Yorkshire and Irish, so I'm sure it wasn't from a lack of ability that he overlooked the opportunity to entertain me with a touch of Scots. I should probably spare more of my grouchiness, though, for the library-borrowed CD set that unfailingly went all skippy and scratchy just during the most interesting parts.

The real James Herriot, unlike the Herriot depicted in this book, was in fact quite English, and his real name was J. Alfred Wight (1916-95). He wrote loads of books, mainly about animals and many of them in a form of autobiographical fiction about his career as a veterinarian. His most famous books are published in America as a trilogy beginning with this book and continuing with All Things Bright and Beautiful and All Things Wise and Wonderful, though this trilogy was originally six books, published in the U.K. as (deep breath) If Only They Could Talk, It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, Let Sleeping Vets Lie, Vet in Harness, Vets Might Fly and Vet in a Spin . Later, two more books were added to the series, published in both the U.S. and the U.K. as The Lord God Made Them All and Every Living Thing. His animal stories for children include, among other titles, Only One Woof and Oscar, Cat-About-Town.

Aliens in Disguise

Aliens in Disguise
by Clete Barrett Smith
Recommended Ages: 10+

In this third installment in the series that began with Aliens on Vacation, young David and Amy, the girl he would like to kiss, get the opportunity to prove that they are ready to run the Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast without adult supervision. It happens when David's grandma (who runs the hostel for alien tourists) wins an award and gets swept off on an all-expenses-paid trip to a pleasure planet in another galaxy, and Amy's dad (the b&b's security chief) runs off to protect her and gets trapped on a all-species-welcome singles cruise. The kids would have everything under control, if it weren't for a class full of misbehaving alien brats, a group of artists who can't keep their rainbows contained, and a couple of earthlings who are determined to crack the secrets of the b&b.

Fans of the series will probably best remember this book as the one in which the kids and their extraterrestrial guests mount a daring rescue of one of their own by parading through town, pretending to be science-fiction fans disguised as aliens. But the disguise theme cuts the other way, as a loopy couple of UFO hunters tries to pass as Mr. and Mrs. E.T. and later, many of the characters attempt another costume act that you have to read to believe. The weirdness is funny and the humor is weird, and a bit of youthful romance makes a nice garnish to a very light but charming adventure in the often overlooked hospitality side of science fiction.

Besides this trilogy, which also includes Alien on the Rampage, Clete Barrett Smith is also the author of Magic Delivery (about a load of magical Halloween costumes that turn the wearers into whatever they are pretending to be) and Mr. 60% (about a high school drug dealer with a heart of gold). I'm reading the former right now. But I wouldn't mind seeing more books in this series, populated with goofy aliens, goofier humans and two very resourceful kids.