Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling
by Robert Galbraith
Recommended Ages: 14+

Here is a most satisfying recent example of the classic type of private-eye novel. The detective is the whimsically named Cormoran Strike, an ex-military policeman whose career in the army ended when a roadside bomb took away half a leg. His name has nothing to do with his father, a philandering superstar rock musician with whom he has no relationship whatever, and a lot to do with his "supergroupie" mother, who was flaky and impractical and died with a heroin needle stuck in her arm. He is thirty-five years old, up to his ears in debt, picking up the pieces after the end of a stormy 15-year relationship with a beautiful woman called Charlotte, and struggling to keep his business afloat while sleeping on a camp-bed in his office. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, he is a very determined, methodical investigator. He has a special gift for drawing answers out of people who don't want to be questioned. And when he looks at the evidence of a celebrity death that the police declared to be suicide, he sees a different picture emerge.

It all started when Strike was a boy of nine or so. His best mate went away on a school holiday and never came back, dying in a tragic cycling accident. Now the older brother of this never-forgotten friend shows up in Strike's office, asking him to look into the death of his sister, supermodel Lula Landry. Lula's last days and hours were full of encounters with possible suspects, but at first it is hard to see how her death could have been anything but a suicide. When she plunged off the balcony of her third-floor flat, everyone who had a motive to kill her had a solid alibi, and no one who could have done it was found in the security guard's immediate search of the building. The only witness who claims to have heard Lula arguing with her killer, and to have seen her body fall, was high on cocaine and could not have seen or heard what she claims from the bathroom of her soundproof apartment. Nobody resembling the men seen fleeing the scene on CCTV has been identified.

At first, all Strike has to go on are the fact that her brother doesn't think Lula would have killed herself, and a few suspicious questions like: Who tipped the paparazzi off, luring them away from the scene of Lula's death at just the right time? Could someone have gotten into the building while the security guard was in the bathroom? Could the downstairs neighbor really have witnessed what she claims? And why did the victim change clothes before jumping? The more Strike finds out about Lula's movements toward the end of her life, the more questions arise. And though the police are sticking to their story that Lula's death could be nothing but suicide, Cormoran Strike becomes convinced that her death is the work of a psychopath who has killed before and will kill again.

Aiding him in this investigation is a secretary named Robin, who comes to Strike's office from a temping agency although he had meant to terminate their services. Impressed by her initiative, Strike keeps Robin on for the week. Then, cutting out the temping agency, she stays on for a few more weeks while interviewing for a better-paying career. They develop a surprising companionship, in part because of her tact and efficiency, and in part because she has always cherished a secret fantasy of being a detective. Robin takes on an increasingly active and even, in her fiance Matthew's opinion, foolhardy role in her boss's investigation. If Matthew's concern isn't at least partly motivated by jealousy, it probably should be. And so alongside the progress of Strike's case develops this charming partnership, which promises to grow even more intriguing in the future.

Strike is a convincing and well-drawn character, somewhat out of the traditional line of hard-boiled dicks. Like them, he comes to us at a precarious moment when every aspect of his life is grinding him down. But instead of sinking into a slough of despond, or a bottle of self-destruction, he fights back. Except for a couple of especially dark moments, he keeps fighting with a certain can-do, damn-the-torpedoes, better-to-live-one-day-as-a-lion blend of natural courage and indestructible good humor that does credit to British servicemen, past and present. His pain is complex and deeply felt, yet the causes of it include some of the reasons he is good at what he does. And in this book he is presented with a case that he seems uniquely formed to solve. It also presents the avid mystery reader with a marvelous exercise of her/his armchair sleuthing skills. We get all the information we need to solve the mystery at the same time as the detective who actually solves it. If by the end you haven't guessed who done it, and even spotted the key puzzle-pieces that prove it, it's your own fault. On the other hand, even having made this guess, the cleverness of the trap Strike sets for the killer is such that his reveal-all explanation may still bring surprises.

Ex-military policeman Robert Galbraith was on his way to having a distinguished career in mystery writing when, three months after the release of this debut novel, he was outed as a pseudonym of Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling. Undeterred, he continues to write Cormoran Strike novels, with a second title, The Silkworm, coming out in June 2014.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Monster

The Monster
by Garth Nix & Sean Williams
Recommended Ages: 10+

The second book in the Troubletwisters series finds the small seaside town of Portland threatened by a fragment of The Evil that menaced it in Book 1. At least, so the Shield twins suspect. Jack and Jaide are still a bit jumpy after their narrow victory in their first adventure. The wards are all intact, protecting Portland, and the world, from the all-consuming hunger that lurks outside our universe. But Jack can never forget how it felt to have The Evil invading his mind, tempting him to join it. And neither Jack nor Jaide finds it easy to take Grandma X at her word, since she hardly ever gives their questions a straight answer. "Mind your own business" simply doesn't cut it with these curious kids, even though they know they have a lot to learn about controlling their gifts as future Wardens—and that it is these still unruly gifts that give them the name "troubletwisters."

Jack's gift has to do with shadows and darkness. He can see in the dark. He can cloak himself in darkness, becoming all but invisible. And he can travel instantly along the length of any shadow. Jaide's gift, meanwhile, focuses on breezes and draws power from the sun. So she can move things with miniature tornadoes, and can float on the breeze. Controlling these gifts, however, demands precise control that the twins still do not have. Until they do, they will keep getting into accidents and mixing up each other's powers. For example, at times they swap gifts. At other times, one twin or the other will possess both gifts. Since they don't know what will happen when they use their gifts, they can end up doing serious damage even with the best intentions—and their judgment isn't always the best, either.

Such are the handicaps of two growing young heroes as they try to investigate the remnant, or "excision," that The Evil left behind. Who could The Evil be controlling this time? Maybe it's the sleazy real estate developer, whose daughter is their best friend at school. Maybe it's the rival of their feline friend Kleo, whose challenge to her leadership portends a sort of gang rumble, only with fur and claws. Or perhaps it's the Monster of Portland, a creature that nobody has personally seen, though everybody knows somebody who has seen it. Could the Monster be the cause of the horrible groaning sounds in the night, the drag marks in the dirt, the giant snakeskin left on a construction site? Is one of these sinister creatures hoping to take down one of the wards again, so that The Evil can reunite its separated essence?

As in their first outing, Jack and Jaide make a lot of wrong guesses. They blunder into bad situations, making them worse through everything from bad timing to simple tactlessness. And, of course, they are eventually on the spot when the bad thing comes down, so that all depends on them putting it up again. It's a lot of responsibility for two kids. But they're learning a lot fast—and among the things they are learning is to know themselves better. Facing their doubts and fears, protecting their friends, giving their enemies a second chance, they continue to grow towards an awesome (and perhaps terrible) potential.

With some reluctance, I'm sticking a mild "occult content advisory" on this book, and the series as a whole. Parents who guide their children's reading selections according to strict criteria of what types of magic are and are not acceptable, may find the troubletwisters' gifts wobbling on the not-very-fine line between the two. The theory of Warden gifts, as Grandma X and her colleagues explain it, might have a touch of New Age mysticism about it. It's all in how you interpret it. On the other hand, the story portrays a very definite distinction between good and evil, and the ongoing secret battle between the two whose outcome is meant to have cosmic significance—all of which runs crosswise to some notions of New Age thought. Judging it gently, I prefer to think that its philosophy of magic is simply the storytelling engine that allows a kid-friendly, magical adventure to move along its own unique course.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Troubletwisters

Troubletwisters
by Garth Nix & Sean Williams
Recommended Ages: 10+

The cover art of this book gives a misleading impression of what kind of trouble the "troubletwisters" specialize in. The fact that the book actually does feature several tornadoes and a hurricane may add to that impression. So you may be surprised to learn that the term "troubletwisters" in this book does not have anything to do with cyclones, as such. Troubletwisters are kids who have started to manifest powers—powers which, if brought under control and properly harnessed, will enable them to serve as Wardens: specially gifted people who dedicate their lives to keeping the Evil (with a capital E) out of this world. More on that later. While they are still coming into their powers, troubletwisters have a tendency to cause unintended chaos, and to twist a little trouble into a big problem. Hence the name.

The two troubletwisters we meet in this book are twins: Jaide Shield and her four-minutes-younger brother Jack. They start twisting trouble when their father comes back a day late from a long business trip. As they are carrying his suitcase upstairs for him, a mysterious object falls out of it that, when touched, unleashes a terrible energy. In fact, it blows their house up. But not before the Evil finds them and tries to seize control of them.

Their father saves them just in time, and packs them off to stay with his mother—the mysterious Grandma X, whom the twins have never met. With Dad off on another business trip and Mom pulling a three-day shift as a paramedic, Jack and Jaide are suddenly at the mercy of a strange old woman they don't trust. A woman who talks to her cats and seems to hear them talking back. A woman who drugs them with hot chocolate, plays mind-fuddling games with them, refuses to answer all their questions, and tampers with their short-term memory. The kids are starting to think Grandma X is a witch, and are thinking about trying to escape from her clutches when the Evil finds them again, and wages a full-on attack.

The Evil, for your information, is a force from outside our world that wants to get in and take everything over. It starts by possessing small things, such as insects, then mice and rats, then dogs. Cats are immune, of course. As the Evil grows stronger, it merges ever larger swarms of its minions into a single, monstrous form—like a human figure made of rats, and things even nastier than that. Eventually it seeks to control a human puppet. And if it can get a troubletwister or two under its power, it can use their gifts to bring down the Wardens along with the wards that protect our world.

This is why, one stormy day when Grandma X has been hurt and can do nothing to help, everything depends on Jaide and Jack doing a lot of learning fast. They need to learn how to listen to the cats, for one thing. They must then persuade the cats to give them information that only full-fledged Wardens are supposed to know. Then perhaps they can learn to control their own powers enough to hold the Evil back until they can find and fix the Ward that has broken. Until they do all this, Grandma X's coastal town of Portland (not the one you're thinking of), and the twins' souls, and the whole world are at risk.

The danger that threatens the troubletwisters is not the stuff of cute, whimsical, kiddie literature. It's dark, dangerous, and downright disturbing, pardon the alliteration. Jack and Jaide have nightmares about it, and some young readers may as well. Each kid's unique gift, their distinct personalities, and their tendency to be strongest when working together, all hint at a great potential for unusual and exciting adventures in the future, full of creative solutions to far-out problems. The books of which this most often reminds me are the "Fablehaven" books by Brandon Mull. But the troubletwisters seem to be well on their way to staking out their own corner of YA fantasy-land, with three further books in their series to-date: The Monster, The Mystery, and coming at the end of April 2014, The Missing.

Garth Nix and Sean Williams are both prolific authors from Australia. Nix is well-known for his young adult fantasy titles in the "Old Kingdom," "Keys to the Kingdom," and "Seventh Tower" series, plus such standout titles as Shade's Children. Williams, who often collaborates with another fellow-Aussie named Shane Dix, has authored or co-authored numerous sci-fi novels, including the "Evergence" series and some "Star Wars" titles. Apparently this means that, whether you like your thrilling conflict between good and evil to be loaded with magic or to have something to do with a life-form from another universe, the "Troubletwisters" series will have something for you.

Darksolstice

Darksolstice
by Sam Llewellyn
Recommended Ages: 12+

The second book of Lyonesse concludes this most unusual variant of the Arthurian legend, based on the folklore of the author's native Isles of Scilly, off the southwest tip of Britain. It follows up on The Well Between the Worlds, which seemed such an engaging and original work of fantasy that I had read half of it before I realized that the resemblance between its characters' names and figures associated with King Arthur was more than a coincidence. Now on board with the secret, I read the second half of the saga and met even more familiar characters under a different guise. Amazingly, knowing what I already know from having read several tellings of the deeds of King Arthur and his knights, I didn't know enough to spoil the plot of this book. I guess you'd have to grow up in the Isles of Scilly to know what to expect. Maybe even then the creative touches added by the author of the Little Darlings series, and of many other novels for adults and children, would be enough to make the story seem new, richly inventive, and full of surprises.

As the story resumes, Idris (better known to us as Arthur) has been forced to flee the land of Lyonesse, where he is rightfully king, only to be attacked by corsairs and fished out of the sea by citizens of the neighboring land of Ar Mor. Idris begins this new chapter in despair. He has lost the sword Cutwater, which he had pulled out of a stone. He believes that his sister and best friend Morgan has been killed or taken into slavery. The future of his kingdom, ruled by an evil regent named Fisheagle and her horrible son Murther, lies heavy on his heart. And now one of his loyal followers, a survivor of the corsair attack, is found clinging to a piece of wreckage, and even with the healing magic of the scabbard Holdwater Idris is helpless to save the man's life.

But the rescued man's dying thoughts, and the amazing return of Cutwater, set Idris on a new path. His quest is to travel to Aegypt and rescue Morgan from slavery. If he brings her back safely, he can count on the kings of the neighboring countries to support him in his fight to take back the throne of Lyonesse. Setting off alone, Idris steadily attracts allies until he has half a dozen young knights following him. Through one dangerous adventure after another, he leads them to the very walls of Aegypt: a country where slavery is a grim fact of life, and where vast ancient beings dwelling in pits hold an even more terrible mastery over everyone.

Skipping over a lot of what happens, let's just say that Idris comes back to Lyonesse more ready than ever to fight Fisheagle and the otherworldly monsters with whom she is conspiring to poison the land. He grows a lot, learns to bear himself as a king, and shows a knack for commanding the loyalty of man, woman, and beast. But the way things are situated back at home, it seems increasingly likely that the fate of Lyonesse will be tragic in one way or another. The only choice seems to be whether its end will be evil or ennobling. And that decision is ultimately up to Idris, a boy on the cusp of manhood, who would have been a good king if only he might have had a country to rule.

So, one thing this branch of Arthurian legend has in common with the main channel is the bittersweet ending, tinged by an indefinite hope for some brighter future. That much you can expect just from the fact that it has characters in it named Tristan, Gawaine, Galahd, Bors, and Lanz. It gets so that there is no point in trying to avoid spoilers, because you're dealing with a story everybody has heard many times, told in many ways. The difference is what happens along the way to Idris' (Arthur's) bittersweet-hopeful destiny. It has to do with hideous alien monsters that hunger for blood, living in a universe full of darkness and poison. It involves a massive conflict between good and evil, defined as those who care about how their choices affect other people and those who do not. It includes narrow escapes, clever capers, a variety of vivid imagination-firing scenery, and a wise wizard who tells a young hero the hard and painful truth.

Many of Sam Llewellyn's other works involve ships, boats, and settings along the west coast of Great Britain. His titles for younger readers include The Magic Boathouse and The Polecat Cafe. His books for grownups include sailing thrillers and nautical fiction, such as Blood Orange and Hell Bay. He has also written some nonfiction works, including a set of biographical sketches called Small Parts in History, and a phrasebook to different regions of Britain, titled Yacky dar moy Bewty!. Since tales of sails are among my special interests, I expect to read more of Llewellyn's work in the future—though I have a misgiving that these Lyonesse books may be his most outstanding work.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Blood Oranges

Blood Oranges
by Kathleen Tierney
Recommended Ages: 16+

Siobhan Quinn is a runaway, a junkie, and a tough chick, living by her wits in the streets of Providence, R.I. Things start to get really dark for her when she sees her girlfriend being eaten by a ghoul. She kills it, of course. Under the patronage of a flamboyant character whom she calls "Mean Mr. B," she soon sets out on a career as a slayer of nasties. Then one inadvertent slaying lands her in the middle of... well, I don't want to spoil it. Before Quinn figures out what's going on, she gets turned into a werewolf and a vampire—doubly cursed, doubly damned, an abomination to abominations, etc., etc. Worse, someone (or something) is pulling her magical strings, controlling her transformations, and using her to track down and kill everyone who crossed him or her. Or it.

So, basically, it's a twist on a murder mystery in which the killer, or perhaps the weapon, is the one trying to solve the crimes. It's a riff on the horror and fantasy genres too, with a vampire who can go out in sunlight without incinerating or sparkling. Who also happens to be a werewolf who can turn hairy even when the moon isn't full. And all the other suspects are just as spooky and weird, if not more so.

Quinn narrates her own story in a style that I suppose may appeal to a certain set of readers, such as those who like their urban fantasy set to a heavy metal soundtrack (or whatever sub-style of metal may apply). It might not sit so comfortably with readers who are still comfortably locked in the groove of pop-culture fandoms such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which she puts down gently), Twilight (which she puts down hard), or Harry Potter (of which she opines that its action sequences flow like a pile of bricks).

I'm OK with authors using references within the genre to triangulate the coordinates of their unique fantasy world. What doesn't thrill me so much is a book that is so aggressively badly written that it keeps making excuses for its bad writing. Sometimes this may be excused, or even made into a virtue, by verisimilitude to a tale being told by a character who is emphatically not a writer. Sometimes this may even provoke interesting thoughts about the ambiguity of dealing with an unreliable narrator—for example, one who repeatedly admits to being a liar. But I would also caution that, in a world abundantly supplied with well-written books, writing badly on purpose may not serve the author's interests. And it may try a reader's patience to the point where he or she says, "Is this almost over yet?"

A super-strength "adult content advisory" applies to this book, which swarms with depictions of extreme violence, IV drug use, lesbian snogging, and strong language. It drops enough F-bombs to wipe out a small country, and other equally incendiary words ensure that if there is ever a movie based on this book, it will be rated R. As to occult content, I'm not sure there is any more harm in it than your common or garden tale of the undead, but Christian readers and their parents may find the author's anti-God attitude a bit abrasive.

It's not an altogether unenjoyable novel. I laughed at some bits that were meant to be laughed at. I felt sympathy toward some of the characters, at times. And I totally got the horror part. There were a couple of points in the audio-book version, narrated by Amber Benson, when I found myself saying, "No, no, no..." and would have put my fingers in my ears, if I hadn't needed to keep at least one hand on the steering wheel. In a starred review, I would give this book at least two stars, which admittedly is a pretty low score on the scale that I use; but I wouldn't review it at all if I could think of no reason to recommend it. I imagine it would go over well with people who follow the modern faerie tales of Holly Black and Melissa Marr, or who like their vampires tattooed, pierced, and generally messed up.

Kathleen Tierney is a pseudonym of Caitlín R. Kiernan, an Irish-born paleontologist and award-winning author living in Rhode Island, USA. Specializing in creepy, dark fantasy and science fiction, her work includes the novels Murder of Angels, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, and the sequel to this book, Red Delicious; as well as such short-story collections as Wrong Things and A is for Alien. While I'm not particularly eager to continue reading this series, I have not ruled out reading one or two of the titles published under her own name.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Alien on a Rampage

Alien on a Rampage
by Clete Barrett Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

In his second summer at the Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast, David (formerly "Scrub") Elliott expects to enjoy his time with Grandma, his sweetheart Amy, and a houseful of extraterrestrial tourists. But things get off to a disappointing start, and get worse from there. First, he suspects that the new alien handyman is up to no good. But far from being able to convince anyone to listen to his concerns, David soon learns that Grandma, Amy, and her security-chief Dad trust skull-faced Scratchull more than they trust him. The more he tries to prove his suspicions, the more Scratchull makes him look like a fool—or worse.

Then David realizes that nothing less than the survival of Earth is at stake, but for his efforts to save the planet he gets into even worse trouble. Just when he is about to be sent home in disgrace, he recognizes Scratchull's final, villainous plan to escape from his exile on Earth, a plan to turn the town's Pioneer Day celebration into a cosmic scene of terror.

Yes, David has a rough summer. His good-humored character is put to another severe test, as he faces discouragement, desperation, and the disappointment of the people he cares about. Plus, he has to deal with a missing Sasquatch, a forest meadow that suddenly turns into quicksand, a river that suddenly turns into a glacier, and a gooey alien who keeps losing bits of himself. Meanwhile, he is put in charge of a dog-like alien who needs constant exercise and who, if not fed hugely and often, may eat them out of house and home. Literally. And, after all, saving the world is a lot of responsibility for a thirteen-year-old boy.

I enjoyed the first book in the "Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast" series, but I think this second book is even better. It deftly combines the weirdness of visitors from other planets with comedy, wit, thrilling sci-fi danger, and a warm glow of puppy love (in more than one sense). The sinister genius of Scratchull's gadgets, the aftereffects of Grandma's scones, the furniture-chewing antics of the creature known as Snarffle, and the sarcastic retorts of the toothpick-chewing ex-sheriff Tate, fill what might otherwise be a predictable, formulaic story with creative touches. I am eager to beam up to Book 3, Aliens in Disguise.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Rise of a Hero

Rise of a Hero
by Hilari Bell
Recommended Ages: 13+

The legend says that the great hero Sorahb will return when his country has need of him. If ever Farsala needed a hero, it is now. The Hrum Empire has destroyed its army and taken possession of most of its major cities. They still have most of a year to meet their deadline, when they must either subdue all resistance or abandon their plan to conquer Farsala, accepting it as an ally instead. The nation's slender chances of holding out that long depend on one walled city withstanding a siege, a band of lawless "swamp rats" evading capture, and the tiny remnant of her army being ready to make a last stand before the end.

Though oral history in the future will say that Sorahb indeed returned, the hero Farsala needs is really not one person, but three young people whose interests and approaches to fighting the Hrum couldn't be more different. One of them is Soraya, the daughter of the army's late High Commander, who was the shrewdest representative of Farsala's ruling "deghan" class. Soraya just wants to rescue her mother and little brother, who have been captured and deported as slaves. Though proud and haughty, and sometimes not a very sympathetic character, she learns a lot and grows greatly while accepting immense risks and hardships for her family's sake. Then there is Jiaan, Soraya's bastard half-brother, who takes command of the surviving army in spite of his half-blood pedigree. He too has picked up unusual leadership skills from his broad-minded father. The question is whether he will have vision enough to reorganize his country's defense around the strengths and values of the peasant class.

The final third of the newly-arisen Sorahb is a lowly peddler named Kavi, whose resentment of the deghans stems from an act of brutality that destroyed his career as a smith. As a spy to the Hrum, albeit against his will, Kavi's betrayal of his country has been so effective that it played a role in destroying the deghan way of life. No one could seem less likely to be part-savior of Farsala at this stage, but after seeing the results of his betrayal Kavi has a change of heart. Now he uses the trust he enjoys on both sides of the conflict to play a double game, cuing the Farsalan resistance into opportunities to frustrate the Hrum governor's plans. By spreading rumors, organizing supplies for the besieged city of Mazad, and planning even more daring escapades in the name of Sorahb, Kavi becomes a sharp thorn in the enemy's side.

Working independently, these three leaders will need a lot of courage, charisma, and luck to keep the Hrum off-balance for the months to come. The real test of whether they can win, however, will come when they finally meet in one place. Will they be able to overcome their bitter differences, and unite to realize the legend of Sorahb? This question smolders throughout the second book in the Farsala Trilogy, providing tension and cohesion to a complex tale. Originally titled Wheel, this book is the sequel to Fall of a Kingdom (a.k.a. Flame). As to how it all works out, that will be revealed in the third book, Forging the Sword.

Author Hilari Bell, a sometime librarian in the Denver area, says on her website that she specializes in "ethically ambiguous" fantasy. This claim is certainly borne out in this book, in which three patriots—none of whom has a spotless character—resist an empire that, in some ways, would be a better place to live in than the country they defend. Each of these three young heroes must consider the other side's point of view, and each other's reasons for the choices they make. Everywhere one sees good and evil mixed in subtle and thought-provoking proportions. And they always seem to find that wisdom consists in dealing honestly, reconsidering accepted ways of doing things, and knowing what risks to take and not to take.

Among Bell's other titles are the "Goblin Wood" trilogy, the "Shield, Sword, and Crown" trilogy, the "Knight and Rogue" quartet, and the "Raven" duet. These and several standalone books look like attractive picks for teens and younger who enjoy adventures with swords, magic, and the occasional unicorn.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Aliens on Vacation

Aliens on Vacation
by Clete Barrett Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

"Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast" is the name of the series, as well as the place young David "Scrub" Elliott finds himself visiting over the summer between sixth and seventh grade. It isn't that Scrub is into science fiction, so much. His main interest is basketball. He would rather be back in Florida, trading insane dares with his best friend and training for the all-star team. Instead, when his parents take off on separate business trips, he gets packed off to his grandma's crazy, retro-futuristic themed hotel in the woods of Washington. Equal parts throw-back to the hippie era and throw-up of sci-fi film cliches, the B&B seems to promise the lamest summer vacation ever. But that's before Scrub finds out that his grandma's clients are really visitors from other planets.

Grandma prefers not to call them aliens. Her term for them is tourists. For forty years, she has catered to honeymooners, hikers, and holiday-makers from across the Interplanetary Collective. The space-ships on her lawn are just for show. These tourists arrive via a system of intergalactic transporters, cleverly disguised as closets. Why do they choose Earth, of all places, as their vacation destination? Because it's a quiet, out-of-the-way spot where they aren't likely to meet other people they know. The only trouble with visiting such a primitive planet is that they have to keep their identity as space visitors secret from the natives, i.e. us. That's where Scrub comes in. His grandma puts him right to work, touching up the human disguises of the arriving tourists, and helping them orient themselves in this strange world.

At first, Scrub thinks being put to work in the B&B will be a drag on his plans for a fun summer of shooting hoops and goofing off with the local kids. But then he realizes that he's quite good at the job, and he enjoys it too. In fact, the local kids are more of a problem—they and Sheriff Tate, who is just looking for a reason to shut down Grandma's business.

It is fun to go along with Scrub as he tries to keep the aliens secret in full view of a small town, in spite of snarky teenagers, nosy neighbors, and one particularly cute girl with a freckled nose and a passion for UFO stories. Covering up extraterrestrial slips seems to get harder and harder as Scrub dances around the truth with Amy, has an intergalactic basketball shootout with the neighbor boys, and tries to keep a group of rambunctious alien boys separate from a boy scout troop during a camping trip in the woods. Through his own mistakes, he triggers an interplanetary incident that may ruin his grandma's business. Then it is up to Scrub, a boy of remarkable resourcefulness at times, to save the day.

Here is a deliciously loopy, funny story that will appeal especially to readers in the middle-school and junior-high range of ages. Scrub's voice is bright, down-to-earth, and engagingly honest even when he doesn't always say what is on his mind. His charm as a lead character, the colorful adventures he goes through, the whimsical people he runs into, and the underlying message of respect for people who are different from yourself, promise to make this a delightful series. There are two sequels so far: Alien on a Rampage and Aliens in Disguise. Clete Smith is also the author of Magic Delivery.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Untold

Untold
by Sarah Rees Brennan
Recommended Ages: 13+

In Book 2 of "The Lynburn Legacy," a dark ultimatum looms over the outwardly charming town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. The evil sorcerer Rob Lynburn means to return the town to its old ways, in which the sorcerous few held power over the non-magical many—an arrangement whereby good weather and prosperous fortunes were given in exchange for blood sacrifice. Rob and his sorcerers demand a victim—a human victim, mind you—on the winter solstice, not only to show that the town submits to them, but to ramp up their magical mojo. Standing in the way are Rob's estranged wife Lillian, the lady of Aurimere manor; his half-sibling sons Jared and Ash, who epitomize every teen girl's dilemma between the sexy bad boy and the really nice guy; and, epitomizing every teen girl, high school newspaper editor Kami Glass and her brave but very mortal friends.

When we met Kami in Unspoken, she was linked with Jared in a most intimate way. The pair had been hearing each other's thoughts since childhood, each discovering only lately that the other wasn't an imaginary friend. The link that bound them was a powerful spell that made Kami a source of power to Jared, like a magical battery. But now that link is severed—sorry if that spoils Unspoken for you! For the first time ever, they can't read each other's mind. To say this puts a strain on their relationship would be like saying Sorry-in-the-Vale is about to become a very interesting place to live. Their feelings are as mixed as the signals they send each other, a confused jumble of love and hate, desire and mistrust. Kami doesn't know who kissed her one night in a dark corridor—was it Jared or Ash? Neither boy knows whether she wants it to be him. And the decision she will be forced to make towards the end of this book, so that the town can live to fight another day, will only increase the jealousy issues between the two boys.

In case there can be too much teen romance, there is plenty of other stuff jazzing up this book's catalog of attractions. It has the characters who make charming and funny patter together. It has the family drama of a marriage coming unstuck, and the horror of a child being stolen. It has the suspense of an impending catastrophe, the thrill of a blood-drenched magical battle, the chill of an eerie magic ritual, and a hair-raising attempt to rescue prisoners from the bad guys' lair. It has the loneliness of a kid who has lost the respect of everyone he cares about, and the nobility of self-sacrifice, and the tantalizing promise of a third book in the trilogy—Unmade, coming in September 2014.

But supposing, for the sake of argument, that there cannot be too much teen romance, what then? Well, there's plenty more of that too. There is a subplot about girls accepting that one of their girlfriends likes girls... and maybe another girl struggling to accept the truth about herself. There is a goodly amount of teen snogging and petting, which very nearly leads to a great deal more; so, mature judgment will be the habit of a successful reader. The question "Who will end up with whom" seems to take up enough brainspace to ensure that all the other dilemmas will rush upon everyone with even greater urgency. In short, when the book isn't making your heart stammer with excitement and dread, it is making you giggle and go awww. And again it proves that its author, who also wrote the Demon's Lexicon trilogy and co-wrote Team Human with Justine Larbalestier, knows how to create a climax of frenzied intensity.

The Well-Beloved

The Well-Beloved
by Thomas Hardy
Recommended Ages: 13+

This comparatively short novel was first published as a serial in 1892. It is known now in the revised version of five years later, which in a way makes it later than Jude the Obscure and thus Hardy's "last" novel. Typically as to Hardy's body of work, it portrays a tragic romance that challenges traditional sexual morals such as, in this case, monogamy. Added to this is a poetic sense of fate, giving the storyline a touch of magical symmetry, like that of a fairy-tale or a folk legend. At the center of the tragedy is a sculptor named Jocelyn Pierston, whose eye for beauty is both a gift and a curse. For, whether you read it as a literal truth or merely as the self-justifying whimsy of a faithless man, he considers himself the faithful lover of an ideal of womanhood—he calls her the Well-Beloved—who possesses one woman after another, never staying long in the same fleshly tabernacle.

And so we look in on Jocelyn's career at three stages in his life: as a young man of twenty, a young man of forty, and a young man of sixty. You know he doesn't deserve it, but the years are kind to him. He really keeps most of his youthful good looks, so that even at sixty women find him reasonably attractive, and would be surprised to learn his true age. But he pays dearly for this, and for his artistic eye. It begin when he jilts a girl from his native Isle of Slingers (based on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, U.K.), a lovely being named Avice, with whom he has been a sweetheart off and on since childhood. Breaking their engagement to be married proves to be the great mistake of his life, but he is carried away by an appearance of the Well-Beloved in the statuesque figure of Marcia. Their marriage plans don't come off either, so Jocelyn throws himself into his art.

Twenty years later, and another twenty years again, we drop in to find Jocelyn being captivated by successive generations of Avices. Both the daughter and the granddaughter of the original captivate him as much as the original. A sad sense that the first Avice was really the love of his life, and regret for things that should have been but can never be, smolders beneath the tragedy of a man whose true love passes between three generations of the same family. The wrong that he did to the first Avice is repaid with interest—and with a beautiful symmetry that an artist must appreciate—as Pierston's desire to possess their great beauty is denied again and again. And when the vision finally deserts him, it is such a strange mixture of blessing and injury that it will stir both thought and feeling.

I read this book by way of Robert Powell's audiobook narration. In a medium I have known to reach fifty CDs, this book fit comfortably on six disks. Within these very modest dimensions, however, Hardy brings to life a memorable and distinct corner of his fictional county of Wessex: a wind-tousled, surf-spattered spit of stone, haunted by history, inhabited by gritty folks who have intermarried every-which-way and who all know each other's business. It is a striking setting for a tale that touches on the brevity of youth's bloom of freshness and beauty, the sportive pranks of a genius that endures through one fleeting represtative after another, and the length (for some) of a life full of regret.

Monday, April 14, 2014

51. Daniel Hymn

The faithful in a faithless age
Rejoice in Daniel's holy page,
Wherein our troubled eyes may see
How we God's witnesses may be.

Of Daniel and three lads we sing
Who would not eat an unclean thing,
Yet far from waxing poor and weak,
By faith were found robust and sleek.

By faith that prophet told the dream
That ruin to the wise did seem:
As earthly realms returned to earth,
The heav'nly kingdom would come forth.

By faith were three young men too bold
To bow before a god of gold.
Cast into flame with hymns of joy,
These three the fire could not destroy.

The high king's reason God withdrew
Till shaggy like a beast he grew:
The dew his bed, his food the grass,
He glorified God's name at last.

When Belshazzar's vain pride was great,
God's finger wrote his sordid fate:
Then Daniel rose by faith to say
His empire soon would pass away.

Then some who loved not Daniel's wit
Conspired to cast him to the pit.
So faith seemed trapped by faithless laws;
But You, Lord, shut the lions' jaws.

Proud kings who knew not Daniel's God
Beheld His pow'r, were shamed and awed:
Meanwhile his visions showed as well
The hope of captive Israel:

"Believe, endure, and God will come
To bear His suff'ring people home:
Blest he who, faithful in his ways,
Awaits the promised end of days."

Dear Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
With Michael captain of Your host,
Make us, like Daniel and his friends,
Your faithful witness to the end.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Book Trolley Rolls Again!

Alas, the Book Trolley is no longer a feature on the Harry Potter fan website MuggleNet. As of the latest version of the site, my review column is out, though most of my reviews—going back to the year 2003—have been archived on MuggleNet's WordPress blog. I also had the foresight, starting way back in 2008, of republishing all my reviews on this blog. Since then all new reviews were posted both here and on MuggleNet (in a whole succession of formats), as well as Shelfari, GoodReads, FaceBook, etc., etc., etc. I'm not worried about my reviews not getting "out there," though I would be gratified to see them getting more page-views. And I'm still involved with MuggleNet, to the extent of posting my reviews on their blog. But in a sense, a decade-long labor of love has come to an end. And so I sigh.

I've been living with this changeover to the WordPress format for some time now. Lately it's been getting frustrating. Searching for related book reviews on a blog (whether mine or theirs) is a pain in the diodes. Also, there was no longer an index anyone (say, teachers or parents) could consult for a quick-read list of book recommendations. The loss of the Book Trolley's web-page format, with its handy "Index of Authors by Last Name" right up front (as opposed to a bottomless pit of blog posts), has brought on feelings of uselessness and failure about the whole project.

The remedy for this has long been obvious. But I've been daunted by the hugeness of the task of rebuilding the Book Trolley's long-gone (and even longer out of date) index. But now I've finally done it. I've built a whole new Book Trolley page RIGHT HERE on my blog. I blew a whole Friday night and Saturday morning on it. Please show me your appreciation by bookmarking the new page. Consider it your gateway to TONS of books you never considered reading before. Check out what I had to say about them, and consider giving them a try!

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Recommended Ages: 14+

Mountaineers have their seven summits. Mariners have their seven seas. Of course there is disagreement about what geographic spots these challenges comprise. In the same way, bookworms like you and I may disagree as to which books pose the most difficult peak to climb, the most daunting deep to explore. There may actually be more than seven of them. Few will conquer them all. Even some brave adventurers, in the best of training, may balk at some of these monsters, which promise more hardship and danger than pleasure. For example, I am enjoying not reading Gravity's Rainbow so much that I would hate to spoil the fun by ever attempting to read it. But there are still some books without reading which my life in A Fort Made of Books would seem incomplete. Enemies that I must face if I want to believe myself to be a man. Deserts I must cross in order to bring back the wisdom concealed therein. Thrill rides, perhaps, that I will only recognize as fun after I have made the toilsome, nerve-wracking ascent of that first awful hill.

But I'm not crazy. I'm not ascending K2 without bottled oxygen. How did I get over Moby-Dick, War and Peace, and more of their kind? I did it by dint of a supplemental air supply! Or rather, of a talented reader's voice, performing each book out loud while I racked up hundreds of business miles. It turns out that, with a little help from audio-book technology, these summits aren't so terribly cold and treacherous after all. In the case of The Brothers Karamazov, my sherpa was the late David Case, a.k.a. Frederick Davidson, a gifted voice actor who lent his breath to some 700 books before tragically losing his larynx, then his life, to cancer. Luckily for me, he lived to record Dostoevsky's last and longest novel. This 800-page masterpiece was intended to be only the first installment in a much larger epic. Instead, the author died only months after it was published in 1880. It didn't kill him, though; and it won't kill you. Just look at me. I'm alive and writing after listening to the whole thing. And I actually found it enjoyable. Imagine what sights you too might see, with the aid of a bit of canned air!

The brothers of the title are the sons of a rascally moneylender named Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, who drove both of his wives into an early grave and neglected their children. Now, each for his own reason, the three young men have returned to the town of their birth. Dmitri (Mitya), Ivan, and Alexei (Alyosha) have had vastly different experiences in life until now, and developed contrasting characters and beliefs. Mitya is a reckless ex-soldier, cashiered out of the service due to discipline problems, whose troubles with money, women, and his own temper will be his downfall. Ivan is the intellectual one, educated, self-made, with a promising future as a writer, suited to the rapidly modernizing Russia in its era of religious doubt and political upheaval. And young Alyosha is the religious mystic, devoted to the saintly elder at a local monastery, and troubled about what will become of his family. There is also an epileptic, illegitimate brother named Smerdyakov, kept by their father as his valet and cook. This sly creature, though not strictly one of the Brothers Karamazov, has somehow obtained more of their father's trust and attention than the three legitimate sons.

We know from the very beginning that Fyodor Pavlovich is going to die, most likely at the hands of one of these young men. Dostoevsky skillfully toys with our expectation, stringing us along and keeping us in dread of the murder long before it happens. Then, just as skillfully, he keeps us uncertain of exactly who done it and what consequences will befall the victim's sons. Even at the end, the answers to these questions are more suggestive than certain. The story, as such, involves one man torn between two women, and more than one woman torn between two men; a dispute over money, and a man struggling with a debt of honor; the uplifting death of a pious old man, and the shattering death of a tough little boy; a police investigation, a murder trial, a surprise confession that nobody believes when it matters, and a miscarriage of justice. Mixed in with all these juicy plot-lines are portraits of the folly, selfishness, and nervous disorders of people of all classes; an in-depth comparison between religious belief and unbelief in late 19th-century Russia, and their effects on the people's morals; and, comfortably embedded within the novel's vast framework, several lengthy speeches or essays representing the points of view that struggle there.

After reading a few of Dostoevsky's masterpieces, I have started to notice some recurring themes. There always seems to be a fallen woman, and a man who tries to raise her up (though with varying degrees of success). There is often an epileptic in the story. Brain fever, a distinctively 1880s-ish thing somewhere between meningitis and a nervous breakdown, often figures in the plot—a device Arthur Conan Doyle also relied on more than perhaps necessary. And in the end, someone always seems to be sent away, or put away, either for his own good or for society's. Characters with chronic money problems always seem to be debating ethics, religion, and social philosophy, sometimes to the point of shedding blood. And the struggle between faith and reason always seems to lead someone to commit a murder. These tendencies aren't very surprising, once you acquaint yourself with Dostoevsky's biography. He was, after all, a sickly epileptic, whose health problems rode astride the line between mind and body. He got in trouble as a member of a radical group, was sentenced to face a firing squad, and after being mercifully sent instead to a Siberian labor-camp, experienced a religious conversion. He had gambling and debt problems, sometimes lived as a beggar, had dalliances with loose women, and finally died at age 59 from a series of strokes.

On the other hand, there are always plenty of surprises and original touches to enliven these familiar themes. Dostoevsky was brilliant at sketching original and distinct characters, ranging from the gentle and simple-hearted Alyosha to his two complex, ambivalent, but totally different brothers. Sometimes with a touch of irony and satire, but more often with genuine sympathy, he portrays a large cast of characters, including peasants, servants, lawyers, priests, a crazy ascetic, a flighty girl and her flibbertigibbet mother, a cheating innkeeper, a mentally unfit mother, a trouble-making kid, a cynical nihilist, and a dashing young official. He shows insight into legal procedures, monastic life, and the complexities of Polish forms of address. He also shows an amazing knack for developing believable female characters, each with her own individual blend of attractions and flaws. I'm not saying Fyodor Mikhailovich was a feminist or what not, but the girls in the "opening credits" roles exercise enormous power over the fates of the men in their lives, especially one particular member of the Karamazov family whose tragedy forms the backbone of this book. And above all, Dostoevsky keeps proving his flair for dramatics, pulling you along with cues and clues that keep the tension thrumming, straight through the agonizing and cleansing crisis of the tale.

And then he leaves you guessing, not only what happened, but what happens next. Must he spell everything out? I mean, the book was already 800 pages long! And yet, when it closes with Alyosha's speech to a group of schoolboys mourning the death of one of their mates, the end seems surprising and premature. You're still interested in what comes of the brothers' plans, hopes, and anxieties. You're uncertain whether to be hopeful or suspicious. And you're conscious that, although the narrator (who seems to be an invisible, all-knowing person living in the brothers' small town) spares very few details, down to the minutest account of some very long discourses, he is most clever in the information he withholds. It's a fascinating work of art. And besides that, it is truly entertaining. The most interesting moments are the ones where you catch yourself laughing aloud, and then feel guilty about not showing proper concern—like Ivan's hallucinatory conversation with a very impish devil. Or maybe the times when a character makes you want to reach out and strangle him or her. Or the bits that make you throb with emotion. Or the shock that you feel even though you saw it coming, because the narrator warned you ahead of time. Dostoevsky was a writer at the top of his powers when he wrote this—his powers, and practically anyone else's.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Railsea

Railsea
by China Miéville
Recommended Ages: 12+

I'm just going to come out and say this. It's Moby-Dick, only without the boring bits. Well, no. What I just described would be an 80-page novelette. This is a full-size book, filled wall-to-wall with thrilling action, squirm-worthy tension, weird discoveries, and warm, appealing characters. Also, instead of water, the ocean in this version of Moby-Dick is a seemingly endless landmass filled with merging, splitting, tangling, and criss-crossing lines of rail. Where the soil is loose enough for creatures to burrow in it, the railsea takes care of itself (or is maintained by some supernatural agency; but let's leave the theological questions to one side). It isn't safe for people to set foot on this ground, because it is infested with mutant meat-eating oversized worms, insects, and furry things. The rockier bits, islands if you will, are populated by human settlements. The higher elevations, where the atmosphere is poisonous to earthly life, belong to creatures brought here and left behind by visitors from alien worlds.

Thousands of years of toxic waste have created a world that doesn't remember being anything like the world we know. A world where, instead of ships, people travel the sea in trains. A world where, instead of whales, they chase giant burrowing stoats, badgers, and moles. A world where wind power, solar power, steam, diesel, and electrical engines operate side by side, at least in harbor. It is considered a grand thing to belong to a moletrain, and a disgrace to live life as a salvor, trading in objects salvaged from wrecked trains or buried deep in the ground. But in this world, there are even lower ways to live off the railsea. Pirates. Wreckers. And there are higher callings as well, such as chasing a philosophy—a particular, giant animal whose elusive danger represents some idea, such as speed, or meaninglessness, or what have you.

Young Sham ap Soorap doesn't know what way of life he wants for himself. The cousins who brought him up are worried about his lack of aim. They would like to see him become a moletrain captain, and perhaps chase his own philosophy. So they wrangle a berth on the moletrain Medes for him, as a doctor's apprentice. He's not very good at it, and his heart isn't in it, and he doesn't fit in with his trainmates very well, and through it all he is dogged by a disgraceful desire to do salvage instead. But he tries to make it work, even if his captain is obsessed with a giant, custard-colored moldywarpe called Mocker-Jack.

But then Sham sees something that becomes an obsession of his own. On a memory card retrieved from a wrecked train, he sees a photo of a single track stretching straight across a vast emptiness, all the way to the horizon. This image represents something so inconceivable that it's practically heresy: the End of the Line. A way out of the railsea. As if!

Sham maneuvers his train's captain into helping him get to the bottom of this mystery. In so doing, he begins to show leadership skills that will eventually turn the entire crew of the Medes into his devoted followers. He meets a fascinating girl and her spunky kid brother, who will risk their lives in quest of something of which their parents perished in the seeking. Separately and together, Sham, the Shroakes, and the crew of the Medes will encounter privateers, wartrains, legendary monsters, deadly traps, and even heavenly beings (albeit in a cosmos where the way to heaven is horizontal). Echoes of Homer's Odyssey, riffs on Robinson Crusoe, and amazing feats of intelligence by a tame bat, will accompany a steadily accelerating clackety-clack of battles, terrifying perils, and soul-shaking wonders.

This page is probably more helpful than the author's website for identifying further titles by this brilliant writer. He has read vastly, as is apparent from his ability to draw effortlessly from the world of literature. He has thought boldly, arranging his materials in an alternate world of striking originality. And he expresses himself vividly, taking a creative approach to every level of storytelling from overall structure down to the details of language, yet always with a compelling sense of purpose. Even his hesitations, backtrackings, and veerings from one narrative track to another seem fitting for a world in which life without railroads is inconceivable. He is basically a colossal genius with a cold-fusion brain who, as his crowning achievement, has mastered the knack of communicating with audiences at a teen level. You'll enjoy reading this book so much that you won't realize it's making you smarter.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
by Arthur Conan Doyle
Recommended Ages: 12+

Already in the Table of Contents of this book, we encounter a mystery. The Kindle edition that I read includes eleven Sherlock Holmes Adventures in this book, as do most American editions and some British editions of this book. The very first edition, however, contained twelve stories. Fear not; "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" will eventually turn up, most likely in His Last Bow, where it has been added to most American editions. The reason for this has something to do with censorship and public morals, but I won't go into that here. What you want to know about this book is that it is the second set of short stories featuring Holmes, collected from the monthly installments that Conan Doyle published in The Strand Magazine between 1892 and -93.

In these eleven stories, we first meet Holmes' brother Mycroft. We hear Holmes mention "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." We learn about some of Holmes' earliest cases, before he met Watson. And we encounter Holmes' great nemesis, Professor Moriarty, in a final adventure that seems to end in the death of both men. It looks as if Conan Doyle wanted to move on with his writing career and thought the thing to do was kill Holmes off. Since several more books of Holmes adventures followed this, including one titled The Return of Sherlock Holmes, it evidently didn't stick. While it is sometimes apparent that Conan Doyle was growing tired of Holmes, the public was captivated. Just imagine the outcry when it seemed Holmes had died! I fancy it must have been the 1894 equivalent of "Bring back Firefly!" The main difference is that in the earlier event, it worked.

In "Silver Blaze," Holmes solves the puzzle of a racehorse's disappearance on the eve of an important race, together with the strange murder of its trainer. In "The Yellow Face," a young husband's jealousy is aroused by his wife's conduct toward a strange family that has moved in next door—and the appearance of a ghastly face at an upper window does nothing to soothe his feelings. Most unusually, Holmes' deduction in this case proves to be incorrect! "The Stockbroker's Clerk" may bring to mind an earlier story ("The Red-Headed League") as it depicts a robbery caper made possible by an innocent dupe.

In "The Gloria Scott," Holmes reminisces about one of his first cases, concerning a seemingly harmless letter that somehow frightened a man to death. Another early Holmes case is "The Musgrave Ritual," in which two trusted servants in an aristocratic household suddenly begin acting erratically, then disappear altogether. In "The Reigate Squire," Holmes tries to take the country air to settle his overworked nerves, only to get mixed up in a case of burglary and murder. "The Crooked Man" is a riff on the good old Locked Room Murder, featuring a wife suspected of bashing in her husband's skull. The real question, which the lady is too feverish to answer, is how their happy marriage came to blow up so suddenly and spectacularly.

"The Resident Patient" is the tale of a physician whose business partner begins acting paranoid, then hangs himself, apparently for reasons connected to another patient who has also been behaving strangely. Both Watson and Holmes are called in to consult, but it is the sleuth rather than the doctor who hits on the right diagnosis. "The Greek Interpreter," in which Mycroft Holmes is first revealed to exist, has to do with a man being held hostage by an adventurer who wants him to sign over his sister's fortune. "The Naval Treaty" is a document whose disappearance threatens the career prospects and mental health of an old schoolfellow of Watson's. And in "The Final Problem," Holmes meets his match—the genius pulling the puppet-strings of Europe's greatest criminal organization. Checkmate at Reichenbach Falls.

In retrospect, it isn't hard to detect signs that Conan Doyle was running out of ideas for his Holmes stories. It was probably the demand for a new adventure every month that bled him dry. At all events, one has to notice the repetition of things that have happened before, mainly in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The stockbroker's clerk caper has too much in common with the affair of the Red-Headed League: the theme of a dupe being kept busy while robbers case the joint has been played before. And so has "The Gloria Scott"'s theme of a scoundrel making a fortune in Australia, returning to England under a false identity, and seeming respectable enough until he is discovered and blackmailed by a former victim (cf. "The Boscombe Valley Mystery"). "The Crooked Man" resorts to two previously aired themes: disgraceful things done during the Sepoy mutiny coming back to haunt the survivors (cf. "The Sign of the Four"), and a wife finding out that the true love she believed to have died is still living (cf. "The Noble Bachelor"). "The Resident Patient" reprises the theme of villains avenging themselves on a comrade who betrayed them (cf. "The Five Orange Pips"). "The Greek Interpreter" repeats many of the same moves as "The Engineer's Thumb," such as an expert consultant being kept in confusion as to where his employers are taking him, etc. "The Naval Treaty" has echoes of "The Beryl Coronet," with respect to a man's professional reputation being ruined when something priceless is stolen from under his nose.

And as for "The Final Problem," apart from a dramatic chase and a gruesome plot twist, there isn't really much to it except the idea of Holmes being willing to accept his own destruction in order to ensure his adversary's ditto. After the shock of Holmes' apparent death settles down (and it's had over a century to do so, by now), we are at liberty to observe that neither Conan Doyle nor Holmes ever goes into specifics about what Moriarty has done. There are no earthy, fleshy, interesting examples. It's all generalizations without details, with little effort until almost the end to fill the canvas with descriptive color. It is almost possible to think of it as one of those dreams from which, on TV, one would awake to see Bobby Ewing stepping calmly out of the shower. I suppose we could put this vagueness down to Conan Doyle's lack of total commitment to killing off Holmes. Be comforted. He will return. And besides that, Watson still has his notes on their earlier adventures to go through. Next up: The Hound of the Baskervilles.

A Purpose for Everything

Fathers fath. Mothers moth.
Sisters sist. Brothers broth.
Scissors scis. Hammers ham.
Winters wint. Grammars gram.

Summers sum. Nutters nut.
Gofers gofe. Butters but.
Fodders fod. Liters lit,
As do litters. Miters mit.

Rashers rash. Bangers bang.
Daughters daught. Hangars hang.
Washers wash. Colors col.
Flavors flav. Molars mol.

Pillars pill. Collars coll.
Valors val. Hollers holl.
Fellers fell. Wickers wick.
Plovers plove. Knickers knick.

Spiders spide. Tankers tank.
Pincers pince. Hankers hank.
Misers mise. Geezers geeze.
Duffers duff. Tweezers tweeze.

Louvers louve. Ewers ewe.
Neuters neut. Sewers sewe.
Horrors hor. Platters plat.
Fritters frit. Matters mat.

Censors cens. Honors hon.
Liquors lique. Goners gon.
Hoppers hop. Jiggers jig.
Masters mast. Triggers trig.

Happy are they whose very name
Conveys the purpose of the same.
They that a final "er" should need,
Thus have a happy end indeed!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Empire of Bones

Empire of Bones
by N. D. Wilson
Recommended Ages: 12+

The third and final book of "The Ashtown Burials" features so many characters, doing so many things at once, in so many places, that even quite close to the end I couldn't believe it was going to conclude the trilogy. I fully expected another cliffhanger, hooking us for a surprise fourth book, à la Brisingr. The good news—if you'll pardon my relief—it really does end here. More or less. In fact, it ends so abruptly that I was taken aback, and felt I must have missed something. The battle to save the world from rampaging transmortals on one hand (led by Dracula's were-dragon brother Radu Bey), and from a creep named Phoenix who intends to repopulate the world with supernaturally engineered super-people on the other, is indeed fought to the bitter end, and the fate of the world is determined. I won't be a total pig and tell you which way it goes. But I can't help noticing that there are several loose ends dangling at the end. There really could be a fourth book. It might even be a good idea. [EDIT: Nate Wilson's wife Heather writes: "There will be a fourth book... Probably 2015."]

In case you're joining the program late, "The Ashtown Burials" are a deep, dark prison, somewhere off the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan, where the world's worst transmortals—to call them by a more accurate name than "immortals"—lie chained for all eternity, for the protection of mankind. The treaty that keeps the not-so-dangerous transmortals at bay has broken down. The Order of Brendan, tasked with guarding the burials and policing the transmortals, has been compromised. Their current Brendan is in league with Phoenix, who wields the Dragon's Tooth. Using this ancient key to life and death, Phoenix (formerly known as Edwin Laughlin) has, in his opinion, perfected mankind. He has created a race of faster, stronger, hardier humans who can breathe underwater, see and hear and smell more sharply, and even absorb nutrients from sunlight.

The Ordo Draconis, meanwhile, has risen again beneath the scaly wings of Radu Bey, whose body-and-spirit union with a dragon gin named Azazel allows him to draw power from other people's pain. Once at large in New York City, Radu begins to build a temple for himself out of the living (and slowly dying) bodies of suffering people. It's one of the most gruesome things your mind's eye may ever witness. If either Phoenix or Radu Bey gets the upper hand, the world will become a hellish place, one way or the other. And these seem like the only likely options, given that the O of B has stopped doing its job, and the only people left to fight against all this evil is the little group of outcasts and runaways surrounding Cyrus and Antigone Smith.

Yes, reader. That's right. We're doomed.

Cyrus, you know, is a brash young fellow, all brawn and insane courage and unmedicated ADHD. Antigone is the brainy one, but vulnerable with it. Their allies include a handful of other kids—some bigger and tougher than they are, others not so much—and some of their parents, and Rupert the Avengel (not a typo), and some of the more trustworthy transmortals. They are ridiculously outnumbered. The very people they fight to protect are against them, some of them violently so. The bad guys are closing in even faster than they expected. Their only chance of holding out, even for a little while, requires them to find and awaken something so terrible that it will probably destroy them first. It looks like one of those last stands where everybody knows they're going to die, but they fight anyway because it's the right thing to do. And whether it turns out to be exactly that or not—my lips are sealed—their fierce courage will move you.

Christian parents may especially appreciate this series, not only because it has biblical tropes hidden in it, but because the characters explicitly express Christian ideas. At several points, we see rituals that at least vaguely resemble liturgy, and we hear speeches and songs that sound like paraphrases of the Psalms. The downside of this is a sense that at times the author gets carried away with self-indulgence. One pictures him being moved to tears by his own characters' noble poses and grand speeches, while outside his head they just seem overdone. I make this comment reluctantly, but from experience as an unsuccessful novelist who struggles with a similar weakness. Still, it is encouraging to see this evidence that thrilling fantasy novels continue to be written from a Christian perspective, with clear moral distinctions, courage, sacrifice, justice and compassion; with a recognition of mystery, and an insight into the realties of guilt, grief, pain, and death.

A variety of legends and myths feed into this tale, like tributaries to a great river. As a consequence—and here's my other main quibble—there really are more things going on, and more people in play, than room for them all to become distinctive and real to the reader's mind. Nevertheless, all these characters and forces serve the overall design by coming together in a climax of such crushing density that one really feels just the right mixture of panicky dread and pulse-quickening excitement. It's like the other side of the coin from Moby Dick, in which a hundred pages of dull information about whaling conveys the effect of sailing uneventfully halfway around the globe. The difference is that every chapter, every page, is all but unbearably intense.

I thank the Wilsons for sending me a review copy of this book. I apologize for taking so long to finish reading it. It's been living in the bag of music that I take to choral practices twice a week. As a result, I read it a chapter or two at a time, during down-time at rehearsals, meanwhile blazing through a half-dozen other books at home. Something to be said for it, however, is that I never had any trouble coming back to this book, whether I was reading Conan Doyle or Dostoevsky or some other YA novel on the side. The author of 100 Cupboards and its sequels has such a distinctive touch that I find it easy to pick up one of his books again after putting it down to read three others. I promise not to put his next book, Boys of Blur, to the same test.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Journal of Curious Letters

The Journal of Curious Letters
by James Dashner
Recommended Ages: 11+

Atticus Higginbottom, Tick to his friends, is a 13-year-old science geek who gets bullied at school, trips over his own feet, and plays champion-level chess. Few people would guess that such a boy would have the makings of a hero who might one day save the world. Somebody seems to have guessed, however. Somebody calling himself M. G. (short for Master George) begins sending Tick a series of clues, leading to an opportunity to save thousands of lives—but only if he has the courage to face danger and suffering, the cleverness to solve a series of puzzles, and the will to go through with an adventure fraught with spooky weirdness.

It turns out Tick is being recruited by an organization known as the Realitants. These folks are in on the secret that quantum physicists have only guessed: that there are several parallel realities where the world is very different from ours. One is very wet. Another is full of tall, lanky people. Still another world is way more technological than ours. And besides the twelve realities branching off the main trunk of "Reality Prime" (our version of the world), there are countless splinter realities that are fragmenting and fading. Only lately have Master George and his strange companions discovered Reality Thirteen, where the Chi'karda—the force that creates different realities and enables certain people to move among them—exists in a dark and twisted, but very powerful form. An evil ex-Realitant named Mistress Jane has set up her base of operations there, and has launched an insane plan to destroy, recreate, and rule over all the realities.

And so a fresh class of Realitants is needed to stop her. Master George recruits hundreds of children from around the world. Only four end up answering his call, working their way through all twelve clues and gathering for their initiation mission. All they have to do is steal Mistress Jane's most dangerous weapon from beneath the walls of her Lemon Fortress. But this will mean adjusting to the fact that the enemy is expecting them; surviving swarms of vicious, flying monsters; overcoming rivalries and suspicions to come together as a team; and, in Tick's case, discovering an amazing and unheard-of new power.

This adventure in the fantasy side of quantum physics is generously stocked with humor, clever puzzles, quirky characters, and thrilling action. It has moments of touching humanity, wholesome family values, and a touch of offbeat mysticism. There are gadgets in it that may blow your mind, from the Gnat Rat to the flying motorcycle. And while your mind is blown, you won't have any trouble accepting a gizmo whose moving parts actually include the Doohickey, Whatchamacallit, Thingamajig, etc. While Tick and his friends make it home from their first mission safe and sound, the ominous rumble of continuing trouble means we can expect more adventures in their fun, kid-pleasing world (or rather, worlds).

This is only the first of four books in "The Thirteenth Reality" series. The subsequent books are titled The Hunt for Dark Infinity, The Blade of Shattered Hope, and The Void of Mist and Thunder. If, like me, you're wondering why the name James Dashner sounds familiar, it's because this isn't the only popular series of books he has written. Before this came the four-book "Jimmy Fincher Saga," starting with A Door in the Woods. More recent is the "Maze Runner" quartet, or rather trilogy plus prequel, soon to be a big movie. And then there are the "Mortality Doctrine" books, beginning with The Eye of Minds. Some teens I know are crazy about The Maze Runner, at a time when kids their age are seeing through Twilight and The Hunger Games. This may mean nothing more than "Here's the latest fad." But based on the charm of this book (the first I have read by Dashner), and the variety of his other titles, I suspect he mas a magic touch for creating fantasy heroes who appeal to young readers.