Sunday, February 19, 2017

Curtsies & Conspiracies

Curtsies & Conspiracies
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 14+

In her second year at Mlle. Geraldine's Finishing Academy, Sophronia Temminick gets unprecedentedly high marks in an examination of the combination of high-society feminine accomplishments and covert intelligence that sets the school apart from other female seminaries in Queen Victoria's Britain - well, that and the fact that the school is housed in an enormous airship floating above Dartmoor. But the teachers reward her progress by deliberately turning all her classmates against her, in what is either a nasty setup or an extra-credit challenge. Either way, being ostracized by her classmates slows Sophronia down enough that she almost, but not quite, misses her chance to meddle in a mystery that places the school at the crux of the confict between the forces of shadow - the vampires and werewolves who are a significant part of the country's ruling class - and the Picklemen, evil geniuses who believe the future lies in the direction of human science and technology.

In Gail Carriger's steampunk rendition of reality, technology lies, in turn, in the direction of a gizmo that can aid airships in navigating the aetherosphere, an upper layer of the atmosphere that until now has been too dangerous to enter. This innocent little gadget could change the pace of mankind, boost the economy, and tilt the balance between the undead and humans. So, when a teacher and 12 students from the leading Picklemen-sponsored boys' school come aboard Mlle. Geraldine's airship, intrigue and sabotage naturally result. And just as naturally, Sophronia is close to the center of it, even undertaking a masterful (and stomach-turningly successful) bit of character assassination while she's poking around.

Meantime, Sophronia also finds her heart increasingly confused by the competing pull of two disturbingly attractive boys: one, a viscount who finds her irresistible mostly because she plays hard to get; the other, a "sootie" from the coal-powered engine room, whose protective instincts ensure he'll be part of the rescue attempt when London's most fashionable vampire hive kidnaps her best friend Dimity and her annoying, not-very-evil genius brother. The romp can hardly be complete without a ride on a werewolf's back, an exploding sausage dog, a faustian bargain with a cross-dressing 12-year-old mad inventor, and an impossibly steady flow of laugh-bombs that hit the target dead-center. Some of the gags flow out of daffy characters, such as the teacher who specializes in poisons, dresses as a nun, and says lines like "Remember, a lily doesn't change its spots." Others, by far the best and most numerous, are examples of situational humor that ensure the smarter a reader is, the more she (or he) will enjoy this book. It's simply - if I may use that word loosely - a hilarious comedy of Victorian manners and fashions, combined with a retro-futuristic sci-fi/horror/romance/espionage thriller that strains the genre boundaries of steampunk.

This is the second book in the young-adult "Finishing School" quartet by the author of the rather racier "Parasol Protectorate" series, to which it is a preqel. It begins with Etiquette & Espionage and continues in Waistcoats & Weaponry and Manners & Mutiny. One of the characters in this series stars in a spinoff novella titled Poison or Protect, while there is also a Parasol Protectorate sequel series called "Custard Protocol," with two books so far. Carriger's work also includes a handful of LGBT romances set in the same steampunk/paranormal universe.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

211. A Noisy Children's Hymn

This is part of the same logical sequence of children's hymns as #210. One of my ongoing objectives as a hymn-writer is to try to steer a different course in children's hymnody, giving little Christians songs they can enjoy singing without being patronized, and that might really help form them as disciples of the gospel. To be sure, my only qualifications in this line, if I don't flatter myself, are that I know a few things about verse, church music, and the gospel, and my sense that I can hardly be the only child who grew up loathing most of the kiddies' ditties I was taught to sing in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. My general impression as a lifelong student of church music is that the repertoire hasn't improved much since then. So, here goes. A tune selection is pending.

God, who gave us lips and tongue,
Loves our praises, yelled or sung.
Otherwise, would girls and boys
Be designed for making noise?
So our Father proudly
Hears us thank Him loudly!

Hark! The prophets have gone out,
Some to whisper, some to shout:
To the planet's farthest ends,
News of Christ the Spirit sends.
Father, add our voices
To these joyful noises!

Pardon us, dear Lord, we pray,
When our tongues to gossip stray,
Speak to hurt, or falsely swear;
Let Your truth be all our care!
Help us bend our chatter
Toward the things that matter!

Finally, dear Lord and Friend,
To our needs and troubles bend
Both a Father's loving ear
And the Spirit's witness clear!
Hear our faithful crying,
All good gifts supplying!

Friday, February 17, 2017

210. A Silly, Smelly Children's Hymn

Forgive me if this comes across to you as irreverent, but I think this attempt at an amusing but theologically sound children's hymn might be a good alternative to the kind of moralizing, sentimental dreck too many Christian parents enjoy forcing their children to sing (and which, in my personal experience, the children don't enjoy so much). If I may say so, I think it's better than "The World Is Full of Smelly Feet." But who am I to say? The tune is called ST. CECILIA, and it's by Leighton G. Hayne, 1863, best known as the tune to "Thy kingdom come, O God." I cast it against type in Useful Hymns, pairing it with a hymn of grief.

Lord, lead me by the nose.
Point it away from wrong.
Keep me from poking it
Where it does not belong.

And when my actions stink,
Teach me, Lord, to repent.
Do not turn up Your nose,
But cloak me in Your scent.

Perfume me with the smoke
Of your pure life and death,
Till I make Satan sneeze,
And Hades holds its breath.

Yes, cover me, dear Christ,
With Your God-pleasing smell,
So when I sniff my last,
In heaven I will dwell.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Too Tacky To Be Published

Book titles so tacky, they were never published:

Just Desserts: How One Man Catered the Last Meals of 33 Death Row Inmates

Mind Your Beeswax: The Bitter Feud Between Two Votive Candle Suppliers

Food for Thought: Could a Seafood-Rich Diet Improve Your IQ?

Thought for Food: The Restaurant Chain that Made Brain Sandwiches a National Sensation

Grate Scott! - One Librarian's Campaign to Shred Copies of "Ivanhoe" and "Rob Roy"

Wait Loss: Find Out Why Today's Children Are Less Patient Than Their Parents Were

Fish or Cut Bait: The Jobs Market Off the Coast of Nova Scotia

Nut Job: The Entrepreneur Who Revitalized the Cashew Industry

Fortune Cookies: How a Novelty Baker Smuggled Blood Diamonds Out of Africa

Bacon Up a Storm: The Tornado Outbreak that Devastated the Iowa Pork Industry

Fight and Flight: The Airline that Turned Seating Assignments Into a Blood Sport

and, last but not least...

Pho Queue: The Vietnamese Soup Chain So Good, Its Customers Formed a Waiting List!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Penderwicks in Spring

The Penderwicks in Spring
by Jeanne Birdsall
Recommended Ages: 10+

In the course of four books, Batty Penderwick has grown up a lot, from being the baby of four motherless sisters, running around wearing fairy wings and needing to be kept out of trouble by elder sisters Rosalind, Skye, and Jane, to being a fifth-grader and the oldest of the three "Younger Penderwick Siblings," including second-grader Ben and toddler-princess Lydia. Batty owes her shot at being an older sister to their father's marriage to Ben's widowed mom Iantha. But to her birth-mother, whom she never knew, she owes many things: her real first name (Elizabeth), her love of music (though Batty has more talent at it), and a surprise heartache that sneaks up on her the night she overhears Skye explaining why she has always blamed Batty for their mother's death.

Still grieving for a beloved dog who passed away six months ago, Batty suddenly loses the inner sprite that has lately awakened inside her, threatening to burst into song. Now, suddenly, the beautiful singing voice she has been secretly cultivating as a surprise for her family on her upcoming eleventh birthday, becomes a pitiful croak. All the joy goes out of her reunions with Nick, the athletic war hero from across the street, and Jeffery, her musical mentor who happens to be hopelessly in love with Skye. She even loses interest in her fledgling dog-walking business, featuring a morbidly fat dachshund and a shar-pei who is terrified of trash cans.

Watching the life go out of her, as this sweet girl sinks into depression, is one of the most painful things I have ever witnessed in the pages of children's fiction. And for once - well, no, "for once" isn't the right phrase; I should say "more than ever" - the Penderwick siblings' tradition of swearing each other to secrecy creates an impenetrable bubble of mystery around Batty's problem, preventing the people who love her from being able to get through to her. As one sibling in particular feels weighed down by too many secrets, the possibility of true tragedy becomes an agonizing alternative to this series' accustomed blend of mild family drama, touching relationships, and good-natured humor.

Amazingly, given what I have just said, the book retains enough entertaining charm to propel the reader along, with a couple of young-adult romances, an annoying house guest, some small-fry tomfoolery, some comical misunderstandings, and the wit and warmth of a family that owes much of its skill at engaging repartee to a dad who is literally the absent-minded professor. In fact, the blending of these contrasting moods with Batty's central crisis is one of the things that makes the latter so moving. Hats off to an author with both the courage and the skill to explore this challenging territory. Whether the ending represents a pat solution may be up for debate, but I think it leaves open the possibility that things will never be quite right between Skye and Batty after this. Will there be an after this, though? That's what I'd like to know.

This is the fourth book of the Penderwicks series, starting with the National Book Award winner The Penderwicks and continuing with The Penderwicks on Gardam Street and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. Their Massachusetts-based author is also an art photographer and has written a few children's picture-books.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Four-Story Mistake

The Four-Story Mistake
by Elizabeth Enright
Recommended Ages: 10+

The Melendy siblings Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver are sad to leave their old house in New York City, but they soon fall in love with their new home, an eccentric-looking three-story house in the country with mansard roofs and a cupola on top. Whimsically known as the Four-Story Mistake, the house and its grounds are loaded with secrets for each of the children to discover, from the trove of forgotten treasures in the basement to the hidden room in the attic. Then there's the stream flowing nearby, available for swimming in the summer, skating in the winter, and other brotherly and sisterly activities.

Meantime, the kids are up to their usual blend of just-imperfect-enough-to-be-believed achievements, such as Mona getting a starring role on a radio program, and too-nice-to-be-blamed mistakes, such as Randy crashing her bicycle into the back of a bus, and Rush getting stranded in his tree-house during a winter storm. They put on a theatrical performance, Mona finds a lost jewel, Rush punches his piano student on the nose, and the kids survive a few potentially serious mishaps, and mostly triumph over their troubles by dint of good sense and hearts of gold.

Their personalities are just quirky enough, their interplay is just entertaining enough, and the author's style is just graceful enough to excuse the story for its rather thin plot, raising it a step or two above the usual nostalgic tale about what slightly-more-privileged-than-average children did for fun, or sometimes for a better cause, outside of school in a time now past. It's a story that gently touches the heart and leaves an afterglow of pleasure.

This is the second book in the "Melendy Family" quartet, which began with The Saturdays and continues with Then There Were Five and Spiderweb for Two. Enright (1909-1968) was the Newbery Medal-winning author of Thimble Summer and Gone-Away Lake.


by Sage Blackwood
Recommended Ages: 11+

At six years old, Jinx is about to be abandoned in the Urwald, far off the paths where travelers are more or less safe from werewolves, trolls, and other hazards of the deep, people-hating forest. Then along comes a wizard named Simon, who saves the boy and makes him his servant. But even though Simon never hits Jinx like other adults in his life, and though he has a wife named Sophie who is the closest thing to a mother Jinx has ever known, he still isn't sure Simon is to be trusted. His confidence in the wizard drops even further when Simon does a terrifying spell that takes away the part of Jinx that allows hit to see the colors of other people's feelings. Still armed with a unique connection to the trees of the Urwald that allows him to listen to their thoughts, when he digs his bare feet into their soil, and some ability to do spells and sense the source of other wizards' power, Jinx nevertheless thinks Simon has taken his magic away. So he decides to leave the wizard's house and seek his own fortune.

Along the way, Jinx gets mixed up with a witch named Dame Glammer, who travels by hopping butter-churn; a girl named Elfwyn, who is cursed to give only true answers to direct questions; and a boy named Reven, who also has a curse on him that prevents him from telling anyone who he really is or the nature of his curse. Somehow, though, Reven carries with him a terror that has the entire Urwald on the defensive. Dame Glammer, who likes getting people in trouble, manipulates the three kids into seeking the aid of an evil wizard named the Bonemaster, who soon captures them and threatens to make them part of his grisly collection, unless Simon comes to their rescue. The Bonemaster and Simon have some serious issues to work out between them, issues that involve some scarily dark magic and a danger of death that becomes more real for Jinx than for the hero of any children's fantasy series since, I suppose, Harry Potter.

I enjoyed this book's clever take on magic, the Urwald's atmosphere of dark secret concealing even darker secrets, the sharply contrasting setting of Samara with its different shade of spookiness, its crisp dialogue, and its well-focused characters. Readers will share the emotional connections between the main characters, experiencing affection, tension, frustration, grief, admiration, and many an appreciative chuckle at their wry sense of humor. With a variety of incident propelled along at a brisk pace, the book leaves you delighted by the promise of more to come.

This is the first book in the "Wizard's Apprentice" trilogy, continuing in Jinx's Magic and Jinx's Fire. Scheduled to be released March 21, 2017 is its New York-based author's next book, Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded.