Thursday, April 19, 2018

Unsub

Unsub
by Meg Gardiner
Recommended Ages: 14+

Caitlin Hendrix is a young Bay Area narcotics cop when she gets a chance to join the homicide squad. The reason for her sudden career advancement is objectively gruesome and personally disturbing at the same time. A serial killer, nicknamed the Prophet by the press but calling himself Mercury, has returned after an unexplained 20-year hiatus after driving Caitlin's homicide detective father insane. Mack Hendrix actually attempted suicide after watching a couple being burned to death and his partner shot dead without being able to save them. To catch the resumed killer, or perhaps his copycat, the cops are relying on Caitlin to get through to her still disturbed dad and get him to open up about clues that may not be in the case files. Soon enough, however, she finds the chase threatening her own mental stability as the killer zeroes in on her, taunting her publicly and personally as his crimes swell in a crescendo of terror.

I would be hard put to provide any further synopsis without spoiling some of the chilling surprises in this book. It sketches a dark, scary, often suspenseful descent into psychological torment and evil, with fiendish roots probing deep into western culture. It's a smart, visceral thriller that puts its protagonist on a tight spot between professional duty and concern for the people she cares about most. It builds inevitably to a climactic struggle that doesn't stop being scary even after the peril is past.

Meg Gardiner is the Edgar Award-winning author of Ransom River, The Shadow Tracer, Phantom Instinct, five "Evan Delaney" thrillers (China Lake etc.), four "Jo Beckett" thrillers (The Dirty Secrets Club etc.), and a sequel to this novel, Into the Black Nowhere, in which Caitlin returns as an FBI profiler.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Stronger

Stronger
by Jeff Bauman with Bret Witter
Recommended Ages: 13+

In case you weren't following the news five years ago, and if you also missed the movie Patriots Day, Jeff Bauman was this guy who was standing near the finish line at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 when a couple of pressure cookers loaded with explosives, nails and ball bearings detonated in the crowd, killing three people and wounding more than 200 others.

A minute before the blast, Bauman looked into the eyes (or at least, the sunglasses) of one of the Tsarnaev brothers, who set the backpack bombs. A minute after the blast, he was the central figure in an iconic photo, depicting three people rushing a man on a wheelchair to an ambulance for lifesaving treatment. Bauman was the man on the wheelchair, both his legs blown off above the knee. This book is the story of the first few weeks of his recovery, when Bauman unwittingly became an inspiration to millions of people. His survival and rapid recovery from grievous injuries, his adaptation to the lifestyle of a four-joint amputee, his instant fame as an example of "Boston Strong" and an eyewitness whose sharp memory of the bombing helped police catch the bad guys faster, the impact of his injury on his family and friends, and some of the not-so-glorious moments in his recovery are the raw material of an emotionally gripping, true-to-life story.

It's a fast read that makes sense of a complex story. I was frequently moved by it, and I mean, choked up and sniffly, and occasionally a little indignant at some of the crap a guy has to put up with even with as good a reason for getting a break as Jeff. And though the story is Jeff's, I take it the effectiveness of the writing is partly down to co-author "with Bret Witter." If I may be permitted the liberty to call him by his first name, With is frequently listed as an author on the cover of such books as Pure Heart: A Spirited Tale of Grace, Grit, and Whiskey by Troy Ball, Santa Is Real by Charles Edward Hall, A Golden Voice by Ted Williams, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron, The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel, Until I Say Goodbye: My Year of Living with Joy by Susan Spencer-Wendel, Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him by Luis Carlos Montalván, a couple of "Tom Locke novels" with Sean McFate (Shadow War, Deep Black) on which With doesn't even get front-cover billing, and various sequels and children's-book spinoffs of the above. I guess helping other people get their stories out is what he does.

I'm usually not keen on books co-authored by somebody named With, but I made a rare exception here because I already knew some of the story (from the fictionalized movie account), and I correctly guessed that it would "get me right here." I wish I had any idea how much credit should go to each of this book's authors for its overall effectiveness. When With drops that first name of his and starts publishing books "by Bret Witter," I'll be interested in seeing what he can do.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Latest New Hymns

Here are the fruits of my latest efforts in hymn writing - including the last of the hymns I had pre-planned before a marathon brainstorming session last night, during which I completely reorganized the manuscript of my projected book with working title Edifying Hymns. It's a relief to have a lot more ambitious hymns planned - and experience has taught me that preparation is the secret to being a productive writer. For these hymns I recycled a tune that I wrote last year for a "Seven Deadly Sins Hymn," the alternate tunes that I chose for a couple other hymns, and a rhythmically altered version of a historic Easter hymn that I thought would be just right for a song about perceiving beauty beneath the surface. (The rhythmic version of HERZLICH...ERFREUEN is in the Lutheran Book of Worship and Lutheran Worship; a much boringer isometric version is in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book; my version kind of splits the difference, hopefully making the tune more approachable without sapping its energy.) Constructive feedback is welcome.
257. For Unbelieving Loved Ones
Tune: COUILLARD by R. D. Fish, 2017
Zeal for Your house consumed You;
Love of the sinner doomed You,
O Christ, who died to save us:
No strife or hatred fearing,
God’s wrath, man’s judgment bearing,
Peace passing ken You gave us.

With just such zeal, though tender
And frail, we pray: engender
The faith to grasp Your promise
In our dear ones who grumble
Against Your word, who stumble,
Or scoff like doubting Thomas.

Indeed, Lord, You did warn us
Our flesh and blood would scorn us,
A sword our house dividing.
And yet, behold, we love them:
While time remains, then, move them,
Your Spirit’s gift providing.

If, Lord, despite our closeness,
Our arguments’ verboseness
And loudness fail to win them,
Then send a voice more distant,
Yet with life’s way consistent,
From hell’s broad road to spin them.

Remind us, in our anguish
O’er friends whose spirits languish
In chains of death while living:
It lies not in our power,
But in the word You, Sower,
As living seed are giving.

Your word, though out of season,
Yet puts to shame man’s reason,
Breaks through his heart’s resistance,
Recalls to life the buried,
Protects the demon-harried,
Gives what-is-not existence.

Therefore we leave them, trusting
In Your rich mercy, lusting,
Like us, for their salvation.
Hasten Your will unfailing;
The night grows pallid, hailing
Your dawning revelation.

258. Hymn for Joy
Tune: SONG 22 by Orlando Gibbons, 1583
In childhood, Jesus, give Your children joy,
For even You were once a little boy;
So we may join in ev’ry wholesome game,
Cheered by the thought You might have done the same.

In daily toil, give grown-up Christians joy,
Lest burdens chafe and poverty annoy;
For even You once plied the lathe and plane,
Took pleasure in the panel’s burl and grain.

When work is done, give aging Christians joy
That neither pain nor weakness can destroy;
For even You went feebly to Your death,
And for our life gave up Your final breath.

And when at last we sleep, as once You slept,
Let our clay rest, like Yours, for that day kept
When we awake, and perfectly employ
Pure hearts and tongues to worship You with joy.

259. Hymn for Beauty
Tune: HERZLICH TUT MICH ERFREUEN from J. Walther’s Geistlicher Berckreyen, Wittenberg, 1552, alt.
Lord, give us eyes for beauty,
Wherever it may be,
And hearts that feel a duty
From sordid filth to flee.
Let cheap and empty glitter
Crowd no good thing aside;
Nor let our hearts grow bitter
At private taste denied.

Lord, give us minds to measure
The beauties you design;
Give gentle hands to treasure
The delicate and fine;
Ears with apprecation
Of skillful, lovely lays;
Tongues tuned to the vibration
That best becomes Your praise.

Give makers and performers
Awe of Your holy throne,
Though they be heaven-stormers
Or trained on earth alone.
Lord, bless our arts with fitness,
Through Your ascended Son,
To bear the Spirit’s witness
That God with Man is one.

With beauty You surround us
To draw us nigh to You;
Its strong proportions ground us
In what is sure and true.
Thereby our hope has sounded
Heights, depths no eye has seen,
Led on to joy unbounded,
To beauties evergreen.

260. For Persecuted Christians
Tune: UNDE ET MEMORES by William H. Monk, 1823-89
Embrace, O Christ, with Your protecting arm
The saints who suffer shame or pain or need
For Your name’s sake: which neither flame can harm
Nor blade can vanquish. Though our bodies bleed,
Though devils all the world like locusts swarm,
Our harvest is secure through Mary’s Seed.

Receive our prayer, O Christ, for them who face
The inquisition of this troublous age:
Convict them, while they answer for Your grace,
Of liberty untouched by tyrant’s rage.
Let them, if called upon, complete their race
Cheered by the promise of the martyr’s wage.

Deliver them from doubt, O Christ, from fear,
Whom You have counted worthy to partake
With You of cross and death. Their groaning hear;
Hear, too, the good confession that they make.
Then hasten in Your glory to appear,
Your witnesses at rest, at last, to wake.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Gravedigger's Cottage

The Gravedigger's Cottage
by Chris Lynch
Recommended Ages: 12+

Sylvia, her little brother Walter, and their twice-widowed dad have already moved into a quaint cottage by the sea before they realize that a local tradition holds that the owner of the so-called Gravedigger's Cottage has a deep connection with death. Sylvia won't stand for that nonsense, though she does have a history of burying beloved pets in the yard, not to mention losing two moms. She and Walter only really get worried when their dad takes a leave of absence from work and starts obsessing about the house - saying he needs to seal up all the leaks. Sylvia likes the cottage the way it is. She likes her dad the way he was. She depends on her family's rituals to get along. She doesn't know quite how to deal with a dad who seems to be getting lost.

This is a charming, heartwarming little tale with some funny bits, some appealing characters, and a light touch of spooky mystery. The chapters alternate between the family's present-day experiences and Sylvia's memories of all the pets (not to mention moms) the family has lost. My one criticism of this book would be that it seems to make a sharp turn, partway through, from being one kind of story to being another. Okay, I'll add a second criticism, which is that it passes rather lightly over what I took to be a mental-health-related issue, which maybe could have been handled more honestly and thoroughly. I sensed that the author let himself out of this book by a side door when it started to get too hard. Judging by the type of material he is known for writing, I find that a little surprising.

This is my first encounter with the work of Chris Lynch. Nevertheless he is a very prolific author for young adults, with almost 50 books so far in a career going back to 1993. They include series about warfare (Vietnam and World War II), date rape, misogyny, growing up overweight, growing up gay in a tough neighborhood, growing up in a future world where animals can talk to people (I haven't Cyberia, etc., so I'm not sure how accurate that description is). A lot of his stand-alone novels seem to involve sports and other school activities, or issues relating to troubled youth. Their titles include Johnny Chesthair, Inexcusable, Shadowboxer, Who the Man, The Big Game of Everything, Angry Young Man, and Little Blue Lies.

Friday, April 6, 2018

256. Prayer For Help Against a Besetting Sin

This hymn is chiefly inspired by Chapter 7 of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, with a bit of Chapter 6 tacked on at the end. The tune, for which I don't have artwork at the moment (stand by for an update), is titled REMNANT and was written by yours truly in 2014 for one of the "scratched and dented" hymns of my college years. It occurred to me, while I was studying Romans 7 prior to writing this hymn, that it's a wonderful treatment of the theology of the cross as distinguished from the theology of glory. I made an effort to express that in this verse-prayer. It will also, I hope, become another much-needed burr under the saddle of the deniers of objective justification at large within Lutheranism today.
Behold a wretched creature, Lord:
So oft astray, so oft restored!
While to Your word I give assent,
Believe in Christ, of sin repent,
My flesh with covetousness burns,
To its old god returns.

Though in Your will I now rejoice,
I find in me another voice:
Beside the new man, freed and saved,
The old yet lives, to sin enslaved.
The law that once to me seemed life
Now cuts – a killing knife.

Though in the inner man I will
Good things, my members render ill.
That which my spirit knows is good
I do not do, although I would;
The sin from which I would refrain,
That sin I do again.

How long, O Lord, will You endure
My faithless faith, my heart impure?
And though Your mercies never cease,
How oft, while my misdeeds increase,
Will I return to seek Your face
Ere I despair of grace?

Behold a wretch! Lord, who shall set
Me free from such a husk of death?
Thanks be to God, through Christ my Lord:
Oft as I stray, I am restored!
No work of mine secures release;
Christ is alone my peace.

I thank You, Christ, that by Your bath
I die with You to sin and wrath
And with You rise, reborn and clean,
My new life not yet fully seen;
Free me anew from day to day
To bear Your yoke, I pray.

Now when the old man surges back
To smear my festal garb with black,
Let him remind the saint who brags:
My righteous deeds are filthy rags.
You robe me, Christ, in perfect white
Before the throne of Light.

The Accident Season

The Accident Season
by Moïra Fowley-Doyle
Recommended Ages: 13+

October is upon them, and for Cara's family that means all the sharp corners in the house have to be padded, and everybody has to wear extra layers of padding. The family has a tradition of getting cuts and scrapes during the tenth month - their "accident season" - such as older sister Alice's concussion after falling down the stairs, ex-stepbrother Sam's bloody nose from being hit with a soccer ball, and that time a wooden pedestrian bridge collapses under Cara and leaves her wading across a stream.

In this mash-up of teen romance, family drama, mystery and magical realism set in County Cork, Ireland, the latest accident season challenges Cara to confront family secrets she has been willfully keeping from herself. It starts with her realization that a girl from school, who used to be her friend, has disappeared and nobody seems to have a clear memory of her. Elsie, who operates an art installation involving secrets that students type up and stuff into a box in the school library, stops showing up for school around the time Cara notices that Elsie is in every one of her photographs - at least part of her, cut off on the edge of the frame. As Cara digs deeper, trying to find out what happened to Elsie and why she seems to be following her family around, other secrets float to the surface that challenge everything she believes about herself and her loved ones.

This is a spooky book, a richly atmospheric book, a sometimes funny and often touching book, and a book with some material that obliges me to stick an Occult Content Advisory on it, as well as an Adult Content ditto. But I'm not trying to discourage anyone of a teenage persuasion or older from reading it; in fact, some of the adult stuff in it is the kind of adult stuff that kids should be aware of and know how to talk about. Maybe what I want to say is that this book could do a lot of good for kids whose family lives include secrets they have a hard time admitting to others, or even to themselves. The kids in this book are, morally and spiritually, very much teens of today, and Christian parents may not like them much as role models for their children. But Christian parents, by now, are pretty used to holding their nose and plunging into risky material, since the alternative may be to have nothing to talk with their kids about. And I think when they talk about this book, they will have an entertaining discussion painlessly, repeat painlessly laced with an important message.

Since this debut novel, Fowley-Doyle has also published Spellbook of the Lost and Found.

Smoke

Smoke
by Dan Vyleta
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this book, whose German-Canadian author seems to specialize in fiction set in a society going through or recovering from a totalitarian nightmare (such as post-World War II Germany and Austria), an alternate-history version of Victorian England is in the grip of an isolationist ideology combined with an ultra-Puritan religious doctrine. In this parallel universe, people give off smoke to show when they are having sinful thoughts. This fact has hardened the lines between the upper class, who are educated to repress their animal instincts, and the common folk, who are taught to expect to go to hell based on the amount of smoke issuing from their bodies. One effect of this is that the ruling class seems to have a mandate from God. Another is that, with a little illicit aid from secret, smoke-suppressing sweets, the art of hypocrisy has been carried to a level rarely seen in our reality. Besides that, some of the smokeless elite find themselves tempted by an opportunity to sneak a puff, often in the form of going to London (which is one big cloud of smoke) to do good works for their thankless inferiors.

In this strange world, two schoolboys - one naturally good, the other naturally naughty, but best friends just the same - and a prim, almost nunnish girl get caught in a deadly swirl of conspiracies. On one side is a plot to blow up the moral high ground, no matter how many people get hurt. On another side is a man whose fanatical commitment to breeding the sin out of mankind makes him capable of torturing children. Circling behind the scenes is a secret police force led by a sometime witchfinder. And stalking right through the middle of it are a coldblooded angel and a demon in human form. All Charlie, Tom and Livia can do is ride out the storm and, if possible, try to save one innocent child.

I enjoyed the interplay between the characters in this book, and I found the conflicts and sympathies that developed among them emotionally compelling and thought-provoking. Though the book seemed to be trying to take some kind of ideological position, it was never quite clear what it was - except perhaps something preposterous like "down with morality." It got close enough to that, at times, to take some of the pleasure out of reading it. Nonetheless, I felt sympathy, disgust, horror, and suspense regarding all the characters and scenes the author intended, so I think on balance it was a successful book. It was also very clearly the work of an original prose stylist and a reasonably capable world-building fantasist. So I was inclined to swallow an objection that occasionally rose in my throat, regarding how easy it is to destroy a straw man when you build him just so.

Vyleta is also the author of Pavel & I, The Quiet Twin and Crooked Maid. It is rumored that he plans to publish a sequel to this book.