Friday, November 28, 2008

Four Christmases

This week's movie selection came down to a choice between the animated John Travolta/Miley Cyrus vehicle Bolt and the Reese Witherspoon/Vince Vaughn romantic comedy Four Christmases.

I don't know why I bothered. I sensed suckitron emissions coming from both movies. But I figured anything had to be good enough to rid my mouth of the taste of the $9.99 video I recently bought at Target - a film of incomprehensible horridness titled Immortal (ad vitam) - so I decided to go anyway. What finally swayed me in favor of the romantic comedy was the showtime, which gave me over an hour to visit a nearby pub and have a stiff drink and set my mind in order for the ordeal.

I haven't liked most of the recent movies headlined by the two stars of Four Christmases. I also haven't loved most recent movies portraying the American family during the holidays. I don't know whether it reflects what Hollywood wants us to think, or the way audiences' experiences and beliefs have changed - perhaps both - but the annual crop of family Christmas flicks seem determined to take a huge, smelly dump on both institutions - Christmas and the family.

Seeing a Christmas movie that doesn't make Mom, Dad, and the family seem like a mob of dysfunctional people, and that doesn't portray the holidays as depressing and godless, is now as likely as hearing someone say George W. Bush has been an OK president. Christmas comedies are of the "laughing through pain" variety, and the pain comes from a combination of unhappily married (or, more likely, divorced) parents, incompatible siblings, rocky romantic relationships, disappointment, embarrassment, and restlessness. They show us today's American family in its vast emptiness: a group of people with nothing in common, living spread out across the country and barely able to tolerate each other for a few hours each year. And Christmas is resented because it forces these people to endure those hours whether they would or no.

There have been some exceptions, of course. Most of the upbeat Christmas movies, however, have been about promoting commercialism and the cult of secular legends, such as Rudolph the Reindeer, Jack Frost, and Santa. The classic Peanuts Christmas film stands out because it presents the story of Jesus' birth without irony or melodrama. Surprisingly, Four Christmases includes a depiction of the nativity story - albeit a bizarre one, in which the main characters are forced to play Mary and Joseph in a happy-clappy church service, with humorous results.

But it also depicts the ups and downs of an unmarried couple as they grudgingly visit their parents and families for the holidays - four visits, since the parents on both sides are divorced. That's today's family for you! It's enough to make me want to stay single forever. Because this would be my life, more or less, if I married a girl with divorced parents. Forget it.

The four parents, by the way, are played by Jon Voight, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, and Robert Duvall. Talk about cast overkill! Four Oscar-winning veteran stars to play the unrewarding bit-parts of the parents who formed these two self-absorbed, shallow people. Also appearing in the film are character-actor and sometime director Jon Favreau (whose roles have ranged from the fat, mild-mannered nerd in Rudy to his current butch body-builder type), country-western singers Dwight Yoakam and Tim McGraw, and Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth. It would have been interesting to see Yoakam in a larger role; I still shudder to think about the scariness of his role in Panic Room.

In spite of the interesting cast, the movie wasn't so interesting. It seemed to shed its commitment to embarrassing its stars as it moved along, gradually entering serious relationship territory, which frankly isn't funny. And the lead actors simply didn't convince me that they, or their relationship, was anything to take seriously. Vaughn, in particular, seems to have phoned it in. If I had known he wasn't going to try any harder than his last relationship-based comedy or two, I would have bolted for Bolt and had that stiff drink afterward. No worries. I'll know better the next time a Vince Vaughn vehicle plays in town.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stupid Surveys

Every now and then I am offered an opportunity to participate in an "eRewards" survey, in exchange for some quantity of a theoretical currency I haven't yet figured out how to spend. The surveys have to do with consumer preferences and buying habits, ranging from food to electronics to cars and so on. You're supposed to think that by participating in the survey you are helping stores and advertisers better understand what products appeal to different age groups, economic brackets, and so on. But in reality, what you're probably telling them is what kind of marketers to sell your personal information to.

Increasingly often, I ignore these invitations. Now and then, on a whim, I decide to participate in a survey to see what happens. God knows, maybe I'll earn enough eRewards bucks to buy something... if I could only figure out how. But time after time, after I have answered a few introductory questions about my height, weight, favorite color, and the like, I get a message saying I do not fulfill the criteria to continue with the survey or to earn full credit for my participation.

Naturally, I'm miffed. It only takes 3 or 4 questions for these marketing people to decide that they don't care about my opinion. Clearly, they already know what they want the survey to tell them, or they wouldn't be able to spot me so quickly as someone who won't tell it to them. But I wonder: if the survey's results are so carefully predetermined, why do they even bother asking the questions?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Alexander-Black-Kerr-Lupica-Meyer

The Iron Ring
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 12+

The award-winning author of the Prydain Chronicles shows his versatility in interpreting world folklore in this novel inspired by the mythology of India. If you're a fan of folk tales, legends, and whopping great yarns, you'll enjoy this story. It reminded me of the Arthurian legend about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The hero is Tamar, the young king of a small country in a fantasy world based on ancient India. Tamar is proud, brave, and devoted to the dharma, or code of conduct, of the warrior caste - somewhat like the chivalric code Sir Gawain followed. One day a mysterious stranger appears in his court and ruthlessly turns the rules of dharma and hospitality to his advantage. In one night of gaming, Tamar wagers his life and loses. His guest puts an iron ring on Tamar's finger as a symbol of the young king's pledge to travel to the palace of Mahapura and surrender his life. Even when Tamar awakens from what seems to be only a dream, the ring remains ominously real.

So Tamar goes out on a journey to find out if his apparent dream was true, and to give up his life if dharma requires it. In his travels he is joined by a pretty gopi (cow-girl), some talking animals, a neighboring king fighting to regain his rightful throne, and other fascinating characters. He experiences romantic love, friendship, hilarious adventures, dangerous intrigues, the terror of battle, and a series of crushing losses that brings our hero so low that his heart breaks - as will yours. But even when he reaches rock bottom, even when the death awaiting him in Mahapura begins to look like an unreachable boon, big things remain in store for Tamar.

If you know who Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper is, you are already acquainted with Lloyd Alexander's gift for sharing great heroes with us. Heroes who grow and transform before our eyes in ways that surprise us and move us. Even though I don't believe in karma, I will say this: If you join Tamar on his errand of growth and transformation, you will be richly rewarded.

Tithe
by Holly Black
Recommended Ages: 14+

Younger readers may know Holly Black for her work on the Spiderwick Chronicles with illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi. Mature teens may also enjoy her solo ventures, such as this "Modern Faerie Tale." Brace yourself, though: it's a dark, gritty brand of faerie tale, with the type of mature themes and off-color language that call for a parental guidance advisory. Its world is like that of Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely, only without all the body art and piercings.

Kaye is a tough cookie. It comes of growing up in the entourage of a rock band, taking care of her not-so-motherly mother, and working full-time at a Chinese restaurant instead of going to school. It's a life many of us fantasize about (or did when we were younger), until another member of the band attempts to murder Kaye's mom. They end up moving back to her grandmother's house in a decaying city on the New Jersey shore, and trying to start over.

Kaye's grandmother wants the girl to go to school and prepare for a better life than her mother has. Her mother wants Kaye to do whatever she wants to do. Kaye, meanwhile, just wants to fit in with her old friend Janet's crowd. It isn't easy, when everyone remembers her as the little girl who told stories about her imaginary friends - faeries she really remembers playing with, though no one else could see them. It isn't easy to fit in, especially when the faeries start appearing to Kaye again. And this time, they have something other than fun and games planned.

Her old faerie playmates want Kaye to help them break free of the rule of the dark, cruel Unseelie Court: faeries of the night who control all the solitary (non-court) faeries in their territory, provided that a blood sacrifice is offered every seventh year. The time has come to seal the deal anew. Guess who the intended sacrifice is going to be this time? Only, the surprise will be on the Unseelie Court when they find out what Kaye has just learned herself: namely, that she isn't a mortal, but a faerie changeling magically disguised as a normal human.

Unfortunately for Kaye, her fey friends' plan is more dangerous to her than she realizes. Things grow more complicated when one of her mortal friends becomes the love-slave of a cruel faerie knight. And then there's the deeply conflicted fey warrior named Rath Roiben Rye, whose fate becomes intertwined with that of our green-skinned pixie heroine. Whatever is going to happen, it's going to be scary, violent, and complicated, with a pinch of romance and a dash of tragedy for added flavor. It may not be to everyone's taste; but if you like your urban nightmare garnished with a spritz of faerie dust, you'll be glad to know there are more books like this. So far this book has at least two companion novels: Valiant and Ironside.

The Day of the Djinn Warriors
by P. B. Kerr
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book Four of the Children of the Lamp series finds twin djinn John and Philippa Gaunt in a bit of a pickle. Their mother has gone off to become the cold, logical, morally neutral Blue Djinn of Babylon. Their father has turned ancient overnight, due to an aging curse meant to keep the children close to him. Disturbances in the spirit world, a worldwide rash of museum robberies, and a chance to restore a pretty young djinn to her wax-figurelike body (and save their mother in the process) mean that John and Philippa have to travel. And that means John must leave his body at home, and both must leave their djinn powers.

It's an adventure in the world of ghosts, unusual for a bunch of people who are still living. This is no trouble for John, who spends much of the time sharing a body with the twins' friend Finlay. But other problems naturally arise. Kindly Mrs. Trump gets a knock on the head. Wise old Mr. Rakshasas sacrifices himself to save John and a disembodied djinn girl named Faustina. While sharing possession of Finlay's body, Faustina and John are unable to hide their mutual puppy love from each other.

An angel challenges Uncle Nimrod's faithful butler Groanin to a wrestling match. Venetian explorer Marco Polo returns from the dead to help solve a mystery stretching from medieval China to present-day Scotland. By granting three wishes to a kind passerby, Philippa unknowingly touches off a series of lifechanging events. And an evil djinn uses Faustina's foolish brother Dybbuk to advance a heinous plan that involves an army of terra cotta warriors, the souls of millions of children, and the balance of good and bad luck throughout the world.

All this, and much more besides, happens in this one action- and adventure-packed book. It has all the humor, youthful romance, puzzles, thrills, chills, and magical weirdness you could wish for. Plus, it comes with the assurance that the series will continue, since Book 5 - titled Eye of the Forest - has already been released.

Summer Ball
by Mike Lupica
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to Travel Team, Danny Walker and two of his friends follow up their victory in the national 7th grade basketball championship by going to - you guessed it! - a summer basketball camp. If being cut from his town's travel team because he was too short tested a basketball wizard's faith in himself, imagine what happens when he is thrown together with top-talent players up to a year older, and a foot taller, than he is!

Again, Danny suffers a crisis of confidence. It can't help to have an irredeemably nasty coach - the type who would advise his most gifted player to consider playing soccer instead. Coach Powers browbeats Danny's morale to a new low. A jealous (and obnoxious) rival adds to the challenge. But with the support of his friends and teammates - to say nothing of his main girl Tess - he rises to these new challenges and leads yet another team to an awe-inspiring victory.

I'm not much of an athlete. But I'm no snob either. Sports stories always get me choked up. The world of athletics often forms the background for great stories of adversity and triumph, quests for self-knowledge, and a display of skills that can be as exciting as the duels of wands and weaponry that fantasy fans thrive on. Sports journalist and youth basketball coach Mike Lupica makes use of these strengths to score a slam-dunk for young readers' entertainment, especially of interest to kids who like sports.

Heat
by Mike Lupica
Recommended Ages: 12+

The author of the youth basketball novels Travel Team and Summer Ball turns to the world of baseball for this tale in which family love, friendship, and a talent for throwing fastballs come to the rescue of a Cuban orphan in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.

Michael Arroyo lives alone with his brother Carlos, who struggles to keep their little family together by working two jobs and pretending their father is in Florida, taking care of a sick uncle. Actually, their father has been dead since the spring. If the Official Persons learn of this before Carlos turns 18, the boys may be forced into foster care and perhaps separated.

Meanwhile, Michael is pitching for a baseball team that may make it all the way to the Little League World Series, particularly with the heat Michael has been hurling. But these plans, together with the Arroyo boys' secret, are suddenly in danger of crumbling when a rascally rival challenges Michael's claim to be twelve years old. How can they prove his age when his birth certificate is back in Havana, and when the very people they need helping them could also tear their family apart?

This book has its share of suspense, not only of the usual sports-story variety where the hero's team snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, but also as Michael's whole world threatens to collapse around him. But it isn't all unpleasant. Besides the crisis of a fatherless baseball prodigy who almost misses his one chance to make it to the big time, the story also has a bit of youthful romance, a strong dose of humor, charming surprises, and some novel uses of a good pitching arm outside of regulation baseball - such as catching purse snatchers!

Twilight
by Stephenie Meyer
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the first book of "The Twilight Saga," which continues in New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn. In my short time as a bookseller I have sold more copies of these books than just about anything else. Owing in part to the hit movie based on this book, everything vampire-related is absolutely flying off the shelves, including Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Series, which I haven't read yet. Vampires are the hottest thing in the YA fantasy world right now; and with a Harry Potter movie around the corner, that's saying a lot.

To be honest, Twilight has been on my "haven't read yet" list for quite some time. In spite of the urgent advice of many readers, I simply never got around to it until the movie was about to come out. But at last I finally read it and saw the film, in that order; and now you can rest assured that I will soon devour the rest of the series.

At the beginning, it seems to be little more than a clever teen romance novel, featuring a couple of unusually interesting high-school-age characters. Soon after moving from sunny Arizona to her father's perpetually rainy town of Forks, Washington, Bella Swan becomes fascinated with a drop-dead gorgeous classmate named Edward. Meanwhile his fascination with her is tinged with hostility.

Soon, however, the fiercely independent, physically clumsy girl and the pale, clammy boy whose eyes change color begin to grow more comfortable with each other. This is to say, they learn to feel increasingly uncomfortable when they're not together. But they are slow to recognize true love growing up between them. Perhaps this is because, as a vampire, Edward thirsts for human blood... especially Bella's. Or maybe it's because, as a mind-reader, Edward is confused and frustrated by his inability to read Bella's thoughts.

Somehow, figuring out Edward's chilling secrets doesn't scare Bella. In fact, the only thing that scares her is losing him. And even though his whole family is a coven of vampires (the nice kind, who only prey on animals if they can help it), they recognize that Bella is Edward's only chance for true happiness. But how long can they be happy together when she is mortal and he isn't; when he constantly needs to guard against harming her fragile frame; when a vampire-hating tribe of werewolves is committed to guarding Bella from Edward; and when a truly unstoppable predator - one with no qualms against taking human life - marks Bella as his prey?

As you read this book, be prepared to fall in love with a surprising heroine who little knows how beautiful she is to others. Be prepared for the inevitable shift from a pleasantly chilling love story to a taut chase thriller. Be prepared for swiftly climbing tension levels as Bella's hunter closes in by instinct and deception, and as the stakes for her survival - as a human or as a vampire - take in the future happiness of families in more than one world.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Twilight

This week, I studied for today's big movie premiere by reading Stephenie Meyer's novel of teen romance-cum-vampire suspense, Twilight. Bazillions of MuggleNet readers had demanded that I read it, but I only recently bought the book and then left it lying unread until the movie was on top of me. Then, out of fear that I would inadvertently see the movie before reading the book (always a terrible idea - it could destroy my ability to imagine the story and characters for myself) I finally crammed it.

Well, I enjoyed the book well enough, but I was a little reluctant to see the movie. As the story unfolded I became increasingly convinced that it was the kind of movie where a single guy, without a girl on his arm, would get funny looks when he went to see it. I toyed with the idea of catching the midnight premiere, but I decided that would just compound the awkwardness. So I went to the earliest matinee that wasn't sold out, and enjoyed the flick.

Twilight, the movie, is very well done. Having only read the book a few days ago, I thought the film captured it very effectively, didn't leave anything important out, and took no unforgivable liberties. The cast was very effective too. Not to mention, very attractive. But I saw that one coming, since there was hardly a page of the book that didn't mention how gorgeous Edward Cullen and his vampire clan were. And even though Bella, as narratrix, doesn't toot her own horn, she gets told often enough that she's a looker too.

Plus, I would have to have been in a coma all year not to have spotted magazine covers depicting at least the lead actor, Robert Pattinson, who first came to teen-crush attention when he played the martyred Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He certainly hit the jackpot in the bone-structure lottery. The surprise, in seeing the film, was that he has also come along as an actor, capable of the tortured smolder that his role demands. On the other hand, I thought he looked kind of goofy with his Las Vegas Elvis hairdo - some of the other vampires were actually prettier.

The soul of the movie, though, is the mortal girl Bella Swan, who falls for Edward. Bella is here played by Kristen Stewart, whom I last saw playing the snotty older sister in Zathura. For all his air of reluctant-monster mystery, Edward isn't half as complex and surprising a character as Bella is. For the more she realizes the boy she likes is tempted to drink her, the more determined she is to be with him forever. In spite of all the scary stuff that happens to her - such as going over for dinner to a houseful of vampires - such as getting a "we're watching you" message from a tribe of werewolves - such as being hunted by some really evil vampires - the only thing that really frightens her is the possibility of losing Edward. How does Stewart make this preposterous person seem real and believable? I can't explain it. I simply enjoyed it. I found her portrayal even more believable than the first-person narrative in Meyer's original book.

It's a smart story, and possibly the beginning of a series. In bookland, there are certainly a number of companion novels following Twilight. If the appreciation of this curmudgeonly, confirmed bachelor is any indication of how wildly a whole generation (or more) of American females should enjoy this film, it ought to be successful enough to generate a sequel at least. It has a cast full of unknown actors (except for a few, familiar, character-actor faces in the adult roles). But they look like movie stars, and if they keep this up they will be.

IMAGES from top: Pattinson and Stewart; the actors playing Bella, Edward, and his siblings; the bad guy holding Edward by the throat.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Two Movies

About a week ago, I saw the police-corruption drama Pride and Glory, starring Edward Norton, Colin Farrell, Jon Voight, and Noah Emmerich. They play a family of New York police officers whose professional and family ties are shaken up when a bunch of cops get killed in an apparent drug-bust-gone-bad. Voight is the family patriarch; Emmerich the older son, a captain who had the dead cops under his command; Farrell the son-in-law whose team crossed to the wrong side of the law; and Norton the younger son who starts out investigating the incident and ends up being framed for a cold-blooded murder.

The story is supposed to be heartbreaking and brutal, but I only felt the brutal end of it. I sympathized with the brothers, somewhat, but I found it hard to be drawn to them as main characters. I'm sure they're all good actors, but their characters were so fraught with weaknesses that you couldn't call any of them a hero. I suppose that's the way we're all supposed to look at the world these days.

Emmerich plays an ambivalent character - an honest cop who tolerates the dishonesty of the cops under him, up to a point; only it's hard to tell where that point is. Voight plays a warm, endearingly tipsy father whose pep talks to Norton gradually veer from telling him to do the right thing to ditto the wrong thing. Farrell overacts as a sociopathic creep for whom it is impossible to feel any sympathy - wasn't he supposed to be a good actor? And Norton, though excellent at looking totally crushed so that your heart goes out to him, has such a flat voice and such a lack of charisma that his presence in a lead role could make any movie seem anemic.

The story follows a fairly compelling arc, right up to the one-on-one fight between Norton and Farrell. What happens after that is a colossal let-down. I'm tempted even to use the word cop-out.

Yesterday's matinee was the new Double-Oh-Seven flick, Quantum of Solace, starring Daniel Craig in his second outing as Bond, James Bond. I've always liked the Bond fantasies. Each film follows a familiar formula, but it serves up a delicious cocktail of chases, fights, hairsbreadth escapes, high-tech sneaking, high-fashion slumming, and all our very favorite sins. You know: gambling, smoking, drinking, fornicating. Bond still does them all - though perhaps less smoking now. He remains, or rather becomes more than ever, such an ambivalent hero that you're not sure whether he's serving his country or his own agenda, whether he's a good guy or a stone cold killer, whether he's going to save the girl or put her down like a lame horse.

He still has M (played by Judi Dench) looking after him, though as part of the general ambivalence she sometimes seems to be chasing after him. He still has Felix (played by Jeffrey Wright) passing him CIA tips under the table. No Q in this movie, though; though I thought the bluetooth earpiece he put in before eavesdropping on the bad guys during a performance of Tosca in Vienna might have looked a bit like the letter Q. It's a leaner, meaner, seriouser Bond series now: less lightened by comic relief and sexually suggestive patter, more darkened by new Bond's tendency to kill first and interrogate second. But it has what really matters to us 007 fans: footage of a beautiful hotel blowing up, fast cars and airplanes shooting at each other, some terrific crashes, lovely women (one of whom ends up wearing nothing but oil), a funny-looking villain (here played by Matthieu Amalric), a hotel room most of us will never see in real life, and a Martini recipe to try at home and see if you can survive drinking six of them in a row, as Bond does.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cleverer Spam

Spam seems to be getting cleverer these days. No, silly, I'm not talking about mystery-meat-in-a-can. I'm talking about the unsolicited junk emails that appear daily in one's mailbox. Luckily I have a Spam mailbox, so I can easily dispose of it without having to sift real emails out. But lately, the purveyors of Spam, whoever they may be - and may a flatulent yak raise the temperature of their jacuzzi - have gotten sharper at the game.

One isn't likely to be fooled, nowadays, by messages offering atrociously misspelled remedies for erectile disfunction. Or asking one to take deposit of a large sum of Nigerian money. But one may well look twice at an email that appears to be a "bounce message" from someone's internet service provider, indicating that a message you don't recall sending to someone you've never heard of could not be delivered.

Even that's gotten old, though. The newest twist: invitations from someone you don't know, to join a Yahoo! Group whose name is mostly random characters. Even if you're not fooled into opening the message (because, by golly, you've gotten six of them this week), you wish you could just decline the invitation rather than have to put up with persistent reminders that the group is waiting for your answer.

Yesterday I got a fake email from something calling itself the United Postal Service, with a subject line containing two tracking numbers. I didn't open it because I spotted the fact that the Postal Service is USPS, not UPS; UPS is the United Parcel Service. There is, in short, no such thing as the United Postal Service; and there isn't a reason in the world USPS or UPS should be emailing me about a tracking number. How many people stopped to apply cool reason when they got this probably spyware-infected piece of spam?

Today's new gimmick is an email from Continental Airlines, whose subject line had to do with my ticket reservation. Which is funny, because I don't recall having a reservation with Continental Airlines. I could not possibly be fooled by this, yet it's also spooky because it's exactly the type of email I would expect if I had reserved an airline ticket. And there's also the "Hold up! What's this about an airline ticket?" factor that could trigger a thoughtless click of the mouse.

Bottom line, Spam is getting trickier. I wish Continental and Yahoo! Groups would do more to police their brand name and prevent, for example, invitations to join chat groups from being used as a cover for spam. It wouldn't be awfully hard. My blog's comments frequently got spammed until I slapped Word Verification on it. Wouldn't hurt if Yahoo! did the same.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Busy Day

I had two job interviews today. Both went quickly and (I thought) fairly well. Neither was for a job that would pay enough for me to live on long-term, though there is a chance (in both cases) of getting more hours & maybe a better-paying position as things move along. Here's the dilemma:

Job #1 is in an industry that holds no thrill for me. It would simply be drudge work, without a sense of being part of something that makes a difference. It's only part-time, the pay is crap, but once the work gets well underway I may score better hours and maybe move even move up to a better-paying position. Maybe.Job #2, on the other hand, looks like it would really be fun. It pays about the same, maybe slightly better than #1, but it's only a seasonal job that would be over soon after New Year. Again, however, there is a chance that if I do really well, and they have an opening for a long-term position, they may think of hiring me for it.

Neither job is on the exact career trajectory I visualize for myself. Neither job is really going to pay the bills. But I'm running out of severance pay, and I haven't had any other offers; and a little something is better than nothing at all. Whatever I do, I'm going to have to keep looking for a job!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Six Book Reviews

Travel Team
by Mike Lupica
Recommended Age: 12+

Danny Walker's dreams of basketball glory are dashed when he doesn't make the seventh-grade travel team in his small New York town, simply because he doesn't have the all-important height advantage this year's basketball dads are looking for. It doesn't matter that he is one of the best basketball players in town. It doesn't matter that he played on the fifth- and sixth-grade travel teams. It doesn't even matter that his father is the Richie Walker, who led his own seventh-grade travel team to a national championship, only to have his pro career cut short by a disabling car accident. Or maybe that last one does matter, because this year's seventh-grade team is coached by a bitter rival of Richie Walker.

To Danny Walker, basketball is life. So when he starts talking about giving it up, his Mom and his friends get very concerned. Concerned enough to bring Danny's deadbeat Dad back into his life. Concerned enough to risk money, friendship, public embarrassment, and total failure by starting a new travel team, just so Danny can play.

Slowly, painfully, a group of misfits, rejects, and average players who didn't even try out for the "real team" shape up to become a real team themselves. Aided by his "supernatural basketball powers" (as Danny's mom calls them), he makes the kind of basketball magic that can turn even a little guy like him into a giant. Gradually Danny emerges as a leader, kids used to losing learn how to win, and the Middletown Warriors prove that the game is at its best when it's about kids having fun.

New York-based sportswriter and kids' basketball coach Mike Lupica seems ideally qualified to write this book, which will appeal to all athletics-minded kids; though his hip, grammatically loose, IM-savvy writing style may cause some Moms and teachers to frown. Because it is such a book of this moment in American culture, and loaded with basketball lingo to boot, I will not predict that it will become a classic. Rather, I will predict that, for right now, it holds a lot of appeal: enough to keep up a kid's habit of reading even when he tires of magical fantasies, teen melodramas, and serious literature.

Wicked Lovely
by Melissa Marr
Recommended Age: 15+

Welcome to Huntsdale, an American industrial city in decline. Factories are decaying. The streets are getting meaner. Even the Catholic prep students are deep into the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll scene. And the town is infested with faeries.

Yes, faeries: magical beings, most of them unseen by mortals, some wearing glamours that make them look human. They range from impossibly beautiful court faeries - members of either the Summer, Winter, Dark, or High Court - to bizarre and grotesque creatures combining features of man and beast. They treat each other savagely, and they play tricks on unsuspecting mortals, who can't see them. Mostly.

Aislinn can see them, though. So can her strict and protective Gram, who has taught her the rules of dealing with these fair folk, so long of life and so short of pity. The rules are: Don't look at faeries. Don't answer when they speak to you. Don't run from them (for they love the chase above all things). Do nothing to attract their attention. Besides these, and the fact that they are allergic to iron, Aislinn has nothing to protect her when, in spite of all her precautions, a couple of court faeries start paying particular attention to her.

The gorgeous Keenan is, in fact, the King of the Summer Court. Because of a magical binding placed on him by his evil mother, the Winter Queen, Keenan has spent most of the past millennium searching for Miss Right, the girl who can set him free. When he chooses Aislinn as his next candidate, he pursues her relentlessly. And there is so little she can do to resist, as her very mortality is slipping away.

Soon Aislinn must face a terrible choice between being one of Keenan's immortal bimbos and the endless, bitter cold of becoming the Winter Girl. Unless she is, after all, the true Summer Queen. Yet she doesn't want that, either. Irresistable as Keenan is, the boy Aislinn wants is the very mortal, down-to-earth Seth, who lives in a train and collects tattoos and piercings.

The choice couldn't come at a worse time, just as Seth and Aislinn are ready to accept their tender feelings toward each other. Yet choose she must, or the Winter Queen will suck all the life out of the world, beginning with Huntsdale. Throw in the little detail that the Winter Queen is prepared to take lives to prevent Aislinn from becoming Summer Queen, and you're set for the long buildup to a huge climax.

The author of this dark, gritty, romantic fantasy laces it with quotes from scholary authorities on faerie lore. In the Harper Teen edition's "Extras," Marr also provides a hard-rock play list to go with her tale. Teen girls should especially enjoy the way Marr depicts the conflicting emotions swirling inside Aislinn. Parents and delicate readers should beware of the book's mature themes and sexually-charged situations, playing out in a teen scene and a faerie world that has little by way of moral scruples. For this is a faerie tale that inhabits the shadowy side of our age; and it is the first book in a series that continues with Ink Exchange.

The Hound of Rowan
by Henry H. Neff
Recommended Age: 10+

A MuggleNet reader named Tracy recently asked me to point her toward the series of books most nearly just-like-Harry-Potter. At the time I could think of a baker's dozen of series, including Diane Duane's Young Wizards, Emily Drake's Magickers, Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci books, and so on. If I had read this book by then, I would have put it near the top of the list. The Book Trolley's main idea is "If You Like Harry Potter, You May Also Like..." And this book is exactly what it's all about.

How would this book appeal to Harry Potter fans? Let me count the ways. First, we meet a brave, magically talented boy named Max McDaniels who has tragically lost his mother. Second, Max gets a letter inviting him to a magical school after a strange incident at a museum. Third, the school (at a secret location) surrounds Max with quirky teachers and colorful students - some friend, some foe - in buildings and grounds that have a mind of their own.

Fourth, Max meets amazing magical creatures and beings on a daily basis, from the ogre and hag who work in the kitchen to the Sanctuary full of rare animals, one for each student to bond with. Fifth, there are magical sports (none, alas, involving broomsticks), school dances (complete with a touch of adolescent romance), and a battle against a powerful force for evil that is trying to infiltrate the school. Actually, that's more than one thing, so I'm kind of losing count. Count on this, though: Max will be at the center of the battle. His destiny is linked to a dark power that needs Max's blood to reawaken... and, as he learns along the way, Max may need to make the ultimate sacrifice to defeat it.

All right, so I lost count of the ways. Let's take it as read (no pun intended) that Max McDaniels has a lot in common with Harry Potter. But he also has some cool things Harry didn't have. Like an amazing dorm room that tailored itself to him and his roommate. And his roommate, David Menlo, is pretty amazing himself. If you want another Ron Weasley, you'll have to look elsewhere - perhaps to a stocky, smartmouthed kid named Connor Lynch - but David is so freakishly powerful and brilliant that it's sometimes scary. It's good to have him on our side.

Not everyone is. Max has his own equivalent of Draco Malfoy, a second-year student who gets pulled with him into the dark, menacing climax of this adventure. And it soon becomes clear that Max's six-year program at the Rowan Academy will develop at a faster pace than Harry's adventures at Hogwarts. For it seems as if five or six years' worth of trouble squeeze themselves into Max's first year.

The trouble has something to do with a series of art thefts around the world, plus the disappearances of several prospective students - Potentials, as the faculty at Rowan call them. There is reason to suspect that a traitor is in the school. And in spite of the heavy security around and within the gates, a mysterious and dangerous figure named Ronin dogs Max's steps; huge, horrible, werewolf-like things called Vyes keep popping up; and a climactic confrontation in a graveyard proves only the beginning of a new magical war.

The Hound of Rowan is the first book of a new series titled The Tapestry, written and illustrated by a Chicago-born high school teacher. The next installment, titled The Second Siege, is already available. For more information on this author and his work, visit his website.

Blue at the Mizzen
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+

War is hell, but peace can be mighty inconvenient, too. Jack Aubrey feels this strongly as a Royal Navy post-captain near the top of the seniority list. Very soon he will reach the point where he may either hoist the blue flag of an admiral or be passed over for promotion: a terrible and irreversible disgrace, popularly described as being "yellowed." And now that Waterloo has come and gone, and Napoleon is out of the picture, and the world's oceans aren't full of enemy ships ripe to be plucked as lucrative prizes, there isn't much chance of an officer like Jack distinguishing himself.

But a slight chance there is. Aubrey's friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, has proposed a way of combining a hydrographical expedition with a bit of off-the-record intelligence work, supporting Chile's drive for independence from Spain. Under the pretext of surveying a chain of Pacific islands, Aubrey will help the fledgling Chilean republic develop a strong enough navy to ensure their independence, while the doctor does secret agent stuff among the conflicting juntas on land. Meanwhile, as Stephen woos a woman he wants to marry, Jack locks sabres with real historical figures - some of them tragic - and nurses the career of a promising young protegé.

This is (deep sigh) the last completed book in Patrick O'Brian's twenty-volume novel of British naval life in the early 1800s, which began with Master and Commander. And though it does leave some loose ends that were apparently to be tied up in the unfinished and untitled Book 21, Blue at the Mizzen is a very satisfying book. In some ways - or at least one way - it really does give fans of this series a sense of closure. Jack Aubrey's naval career passes through a significant crisis. Stephen's perception of maritime reality reaches a higher degree of maturity. And, let's face it, nothing beats the battle in which the frigate Surprise (28 guns) attempts to cut out the 55-gun Esmeralda while under fire from a Peruvian shore-battery.

There are other thrilling incidents in the book, to be sure: another battle, storm and shipwreck, a risky dalliance with a superior officer's wife, and urgent intelligent work galore. But not all of its pleasures are of the pulse-quickening variety. The developing relationships between truly remarkable personalities, the beauty of the language they speak to each other and that O'Brian uses to describe them, the seemingly limitless variation in the faces of sea and sky, the close observation of unusual flora and fauna (especially birds), the awesome delicacy of 19th-century manners, and the effortless flow of wit (in which, for example, one character says, "So you have come back," and another replies, "I could not agree more") sparkle about this book like facets of a fascinating jewel.

If you enjoy books that immerse you in another world with its own language, customs, and ordering of reality, do plunge into this series. You may find that it is painful to have to come up out of it again, as one must do after this book ends. But in twenty novels there is a lot to enjoy. And O'Brian has left us several other novels that I mean to read, including Testimonies, The Golden Ocean, and The Unknown Shore.

The Glitch in Sleep
by John Hulme & Michael Wexler
Recommended Ages: 10+

Becker Drane is the young hero of this book, the first in a series titled The Seems. The Seems is the world behind our world, a place that manufactures all the bits and pieces of our reality, from gravity to the weather, from time to your sense of smell. Most of these industries operate smoothly, but now and then something goes wrong in the Seems - and when that happens, it becomes a disaster in our world. That's when a Fixer is called in.

Unlike other careers in the Seems, Fixers come from our world. It has something to do with the "7th Sense," an instinct for when something happening in our world is the result of a glitch in the Seems. Without this 7th Sense, Fixers would be unable to find the cause of the problem and figure out how to fix it. So, from time to time, candidates are invited to cross the In-Between and train to become Fixers.

The youngest Fixer is 12-year-old Becker Drane, who has been working his way up from a mere Briefer since he was 9 years old. The story of how he got his job is charmingly loopy, but that is all background to this book, his first adventure as a full-fledged Fixer. It's a big one, too. For a nasty glitch has somehow gotten into the Department of Sleep. If the glitch isn't found and captured by dawn, the entire world will lose a night's sleep. And while that may not sound like much of a disaster to you, there is a lot riding on a good night's sleep. Planned chains of cause-and-effect. Moments of serendipity that could change lives, even the world. The structural integrity of the universe, etc.

Becker doesn't trouble himself (much) with questions about why things happen the way they do, whether or not there really is a Plan behind everything that happens, or whether that Plan is any good considering, for example, how Becker tragically lost his two best friends within a year or so. But then one of them turns up again, lurking in the shadows, whispering of plans by a dissident group that will probably cause lots of trouble for Becker in future installments.

For now, however, he has to concentrate on completing his first mission. It's a tough one, and though no one has a better chance than Becker of succeeding, he has soon made enough mistakes to put his job in jeopardy. And since it really is the best job in the world, failure is literally his worst nightmare.

Young fantasy readers will enjoy this quirky adventure, which builds a lot of suspense from a sense of time ticking down to the catastrophic unraveling of reality. Like some other current series, such as D. J. MacHale's Pendragon cycle, this book communicates on the level of the hip, street-smart, techno-savvy kid of today - which makes it fun to read right at this moment, though it will probably seem lame and dated in a few years. So hurry up and enjoy this charming entertainment piece before it becomes a museum piece; and if you like its off-kilter sense of humor and reality, look out for Book 2, The Split Second.

Flora Segunda
by Ysabeau S. Wilce
Recommended Ages: 12+

The full title of this book is: Flora Segunda: Being the Magical Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Remember that for the quiz. And while I may not be quite serious about that quiz, this book could be seriously studied. Why? For one thing, because it contains a lot of vocab-building words that I had to look up (such as aiguillettes, barouche, and gorget); but also because it introduces a truly original fantasy world, complete with its own native patterns of speech. At least, introduces it as far as a novel goes, though I believe author Wilce previously published short stories based on this world in various sci-fi/fantasy magazines. But until an anthology of those stories is published, this is the first book you are likely to notice in what I suppose could be called the "Crackpot Hall series."

I want to describe the world of Crackpot Hall to you, but I'm not sure where to begin. It's not a period in past or future history. It's not another planet. I'm pretty sure it's not an alternate historical timeline of our world. Yet it is somewhat like the American Southwest, where Spanish lingo has made inroads into English. And it is somewhat like a past era of history, in which a wood fire was a central feature of every household, and in which most forms of transportation had something to do with the horse. At the same time, however, there are elements that students of the pre-20th-century American Southwest will not recognize; and I'm not just talking about place names. I'm talking about magic.

I'm talking about terrible beings with the bodies of people and the heads of birds. I'm talking about butlers who draw strength from the Will of the family they serve. I'm talking about guerilla-like rangers who use magic and deceit to outfox their enemies. I'm talking about powerful spells using a language called Gramatica whose alphabet (perhaps fortunately) you can't read, so there need be no fear that you will accidentally speak it aloud and turn your sister into a turnip; a language in which certain verbs are so powerful that they take on a physical form.

Flora Fyrdraaca belongs to one of the major houses of the city of Califa. Her mother is the Warlord's military commander. Her father, having been captured and tortured by the enemy during the last war, is a crazy drunk. Her older sister has followed family tradition by going into the Army. And another sister, also named Flora (on whose account our Flora is "Flora Segunda"), died in the war. So everyone assumes Flora is going to enlist as soon as she comes of age, i.e. 14. Her catorcena (14th birthday) is coming up, an important affair. But Flora isn't ready for it. Not only is she woefully behind on making her dress, sending out invitations, and so forth; but she also doesn't want to become a soldier.

Instead, Flora wants to be one of the magic-wielding rangers. Only, the rangers have been outlawed since Califa made peace with its enemy, the Huitzil empire. So Flora and her best friend Udo are taking a big risk when they try to help the last known ranger, the legendary Boy Hansgen, escape on the eve of his execution. What Flora doesn't realize is that she has already taken an even bigger risk by offering to revive her butler, the banished Valefor, so he can help her with her chores around the increasingly run-down Crackpot Hall. Once Valefor starts siphoning off Flora's will, both of them begin to fade. Unless something can be done either to restore Valefor completely or to break the link between them, both he and Flora will sink into oblivion.

Few can advise Flora and Udo on what to do. Unfortunately those few include Flora's mad father, the lingering denizen of an extinct house (rumored to keep himself going by eating trespassers), and worst of all, the Huitzil ambassador himself: Lord Axacaya, whose defection to Califa caused the late war that devastated the country, and whose betrayal of Califa nearly destroyed it. Flora can scarcely imagine a more evil person, or a greater enemy of her own family... yet her survival will ultimately depend on what Lord Axacaya knows.

As you can perhaps guess from my lengthy synopsis, it may take a while for you to find your footing in the strange world of Califa and the Fyrdraaca family's Crackpot Hall. Nevertheless I trust that you will be charmed by the heroine's spirit, amused by her glass-gazing sidekick, intrigued (if not totally creeped out) by the two ominous butlers (one blue), and moved with affection for a certain highly-excitable red dog. Whether or not you actually want to move into their 11,000-room house with the Fyrdraacas, you will probably come to the end of this book dying to start its sequel, titled Flora's Dare.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Handel Weekend

It's a bit late to take notice of this, but last weekend the Symphony Chorus did its thing and, as usual, I'm here to tell about it.

The first half of the program was a freebie for the singers. Guest conductor Nicholas McGegan conducted Mendelssohn's Fair Melusine Overture and Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante. The first uses pure music to dramatize, in rich Romantic fashion, the story of a woman who is cursed to become a water sprite at night. The second called upon four soloists - Alison Harney, violin; Melissa Brooks, cello; Andrew Gott, bassoon; and Barbara Orland, oboe - for a merry conversation with the orchestra and, particularly in the middle movement, amongst themselves. All of these soloists are attractive, young members of the orchestra, none of them first-chairs; so it was a nice opportunity for some of the less conspicuous talent in the Symphony to shine.

After the intermission, the chorus trooped onstage and joined in with Handel's Ode for Saint Cecilia's Day. This was a piece celebrating music itself, based on a poem by John Dryden that depicts music as the force that knits the whole creation together, and that has many other powers besides. It was wonderful to do this piece with Nic McGegan, who has conducted us before, and who is a world-class specialist in Handel's operas and oratorios. He achieves a remarkable degree of musical sensitivity and detail without seeming to push for it, and his batonless conducting style is full of infectious joy.

The chorus only sang in three numbers out of over a dozen. So we had plenty of time to sit and enjoy Handel's overture, minuets, and march for orchestra, plus a succession of spectacular arias sung by soprano Laura Claycomb and tenor Thomas Cooley. Both singers had a clear, beautiful tone, astounding agility, and the ability to combine note-perfect accuracy with deeply expressive musicality. I understand at secondhand that our local music reviewer, a.k.a. hatchet-job-specialist, said otherwise. But I was there. I know whereof I speak. And, not to put too fine a point on it, the Post-Dispatch's Sarah Bryan Miller is full of crap.

St. Cecilia is a forerunner of Messiah, an oratorio in miniature with all the same kinds of pleasure in it. It had slow arias, furnishing the orchestra's own with opportunities to shine in obbligato solos, such as principal cellist Daniel Lee (whose poetry earned him a roar at curtain-call time), flautist Mark Sparks (who took away the laurel for the best cadenza of the night), and trumpeter Susan Slaughter (always able to achieve seemingly supernatural effects with her horn). The orchestra also came equipped with several continuo instruments, including a two-rank portative organ (which had its own solo at one point), a harpsichord, and an enormous lute-like instrument known as the theorbo which, I found, makes an effective fill-in for the old "Is that a ___ in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?" joke.

So with all this spectacular musicianship and musical novelty onstage, the chorus had to work hard to be noticed at all. We were noticed, though. At least, it was said of us that you could understand the text, which doesn't sound like much but it really takes a lot of work. And in the parking lot after Sunday's matinee performance, an older lady from the audience told me it was the most spectacular thing she had heard us sing since...what was that piece we did last year? I suggested Haydn's Creation, but she said no; I suggested Fidelio, but she said no; I grudgingly suggested Carmina Burana, and she said: "That's it! That was just wonderful!"

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ready?

Well, the big day is tomorrow: a wide-open presidential election. Our country is about to make a choice between two big, scary unknowns. To be sure, we know a little more about McCain than Obama, if we care to study their record. We probably think we know a lot of stuff about them, where they will take the country, where the country is, good and bad, and which bits are due to Democratic policies and which to Republican ones.

My recommendation about what to do is very non-partisan. I don't care who said what about whom or why they said it. I am simply disgusted with the options we have to choose from.

We have, on the Blue side, a candidate whose nomination went over the heads of most voters in his own party's primaries, a candidate foisted on us by party bosses in defiance of the wishes of the rank-and-file; a candidate whose record is a big blank - oops, strike the word "big" - and whose unguarded comments, along with those of his running mate, raise spooky questions about what they plan to do if they get into power.

On the Red side of the race, we have an erratic, unpredictable character: the party maverick, whose record of disloyalty to his own party's central tenets raises even more questions. Does he have bipartisan appeal? Sure. But can he govern when neither party in Congress will owe him a debt of loyalty? God knows. And even though Sarah Palin has drawn a lot of positive notice to his campaign, it is a little scary to think that, if elected, she would be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Her airheaded, unguarded moments have added as much spookiness to this campaign season as Joe Biden's.

So my sage advice is: BOYCOTT THE ELECTION. I'm not saying that's what I'm going to do. But it does bear considering. We have such a crummy choice here that it just begs to be sent back to the kitchen with a snarky note to the chef: Eat it yourself, or shove it; just send us something else!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

All the Pretty Dum-Dums

Well, no trick-or-treaters came by my door last night. Bummer. I guess I'll have all those nice Dum-Dums to myself, then. I wonder, do kids go candy-gathering when the sun is still up these days? I seem to recall having all kinds of spooky fun after dark on Halloween, knocking on doors up and down the block (all within sight of home) while the adults inside did their best to scare me.

But I haven't been of trick-or-treating age in so long that I may forget. Or perhaps the world is more dangerous than it used to be. Or maybe parents are more sensitive about the danger than they used to be.

EDIT: Today was also the one-year anniversary of the day I adopted Sinead. She celebrated by crawling into my lap while I was sitting at my computer and snuggling to the full extent of her soft, fluffy, turbo-purring powers. Now that her 12-month probationary period is over, my decision is clear... I guess I'll keep her.