Saturday, May 31, 2014

Conspiracies

Conspiracies
by F. Paul Wilson
Recommended Ages: 14+

In The Tomb, Repairman Jack saved New York from a cargo ship full of monsters out of mankind's darkest, oldest nightmare. In the sequel, Legacies, he helped his client figure out why a bunch of Saudi-oil-backed mercenaries were willing to kill for a secret hidden in her late father's brownstone. By the time I came to Book 3 in this sixteen-book series, I didn't know whether to expect a straight mystery-thriller or a novel of fantasy and horror. The answer turned out to be Yes.

Jack is still trying to live life his way—which means being nonexistent in the eyes of the System. No criminal record. No tax filings. No social security number. Fake identities only. The rapid pace of technology both helps and hinders him in this quest. Email and voicemail are easier to deal with than having to check the answering machine in a dummy office. Credit cards, paid off promptly though in the name of dead children, make it easier to go unnoticed as he buys supplies for his problem-fixing business. On the other hand, government databases make it harder to get away with all this victimless identity theft. It's hard for a hands-on kind of guy to keep up with the fast-changing world, especially when (going by the books' publication dates) last summer was sixteen years ago. It's hard to stay committed to a risky, often violent line of work when there's a beautiful woman worrying about you and a sweet little girl counting on you. And that's not even bringing up Jack's Dad, who wants him to move down to Florida and get a real job.

Meanwhile, he has things to do. Jack works two cases simultaneously in this installment. One of his clients wants help stopping his sister being beaten up by her husband. That's simple enough. Jack only needs to confirm for himself that the abuse is really happening, then send the jerk a message. But even though Jack has no intention of killing his client's brother-in-law, this simple, straightforward case turns into sheer, bloody murder.

But surely, his other case will be a harmless piece of cake. Right? The client's wife has been missing for a few days. She's supposed to deliver the keynote address at a conference of conspiracy theorists. She claims to have discovered a common thread that unifies all the different theories, ranging from apocalyptic religious leanings to UFOs, black helicopters, and mind-control experiments. And now she has contacted her husband through the television set, claiming that Repairman Jack is the only one who can find her. What's up with that?

What's up is another encounter with beings from another reality. An evil mastermind who plans to use the energy of a hotel full of "sensitives" (namely, the conspiracy theorists) to open up a portal to the Otherness. A shape-changing capuchin monkey who speaks fluent English. A pair of identical, inhumanly strong "men in black" who definitely aren't good guys, even though they're working against the bad guy. An outbreak of mutant babies, an epidemic of epic nightmares, a gruesome murder, and a machine that materializes out of thin air, needing only to be assembled in order to accomplish the will of a nameless force that does not mean well toward mankind.

In case you had any doubt (and I, for one, did), the Repairman Jack series really is about a regular guy who collects antiques, hides from officialdom, and earns a living fixing problems that call for such tools as a hollow-tipped bullets and a sockful of buckshot. But his real job, whether he realizes it or not, is saving the world from eldritch horrors that serve forgotten gods, and from machines that shoot beams of pure evil. He does it in an atmosphere that goes from zero to creepy in six pages, and that sustains a crescendo of agonizing tension until almost the last page.

Needed comic relief comes in the form of Jack's friend Abe, whose Yiddish-inflected wisdom is at odds with his slovenly ways and his hilarious inability to remember the acronym SESOUP. Nevertheless, it is a conversation between Jack and Abe that triggered the only twinge of disappointment I found in this book. Although this series comes recommended by Dean Koontz (among others), there is no confusing the worldview of Jack and Abe with that of Odd Thomas. When these characters, with (I suspect) the author's concurrence, lumps all religions together with conspiracy theories and reduces them to a self-therapeutic instinct to create order out of a meaningless world, their smugly simplistic sermonizing lowers them in my esteem. It sounds more like the mentality of servants of chaos whom Jack battles in this book.

I wonder how much his outlook will grow and mature after this. He has plenty of time to work on it, with another thirteen novels coming after this, plus a collection of short stories and several prequels. The next book in canon order is All the Rage, and in spite of my reservation about Repairman Jack's worldview, I have it on request at the library. Stay tuned!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Legacies

Legacies
by F. Paul Wilson
Recommended Ages: 14+

Jack, last name withheld, lives off the grid in New York City. He has no Social Security Number. He pays no income taxes. All his IDs are fake. As far as officialdom is concerned, he doesn't exist. And that's the way he likes it. "Repairman Jack," as he is professionally known, fixes problems for a living. When people come to his website looking for someone to fix their broken appliances, he ignores them. When they need help with a trickier problem, he chooses whether to get back to them or not. He can afford to be picky. His fee is very high. But he's a tough, resourceful guy who knows how to stay unnoticed, how to follow and not be spotted, how to move and not be followed, how to find out what's really going on, and then how to deal with it. He's not a bad guy. But he's no stranger to deadly force either. If you mess with him... look out.

In this second of (so far) sixteen Repairman Jack novels, Jack works three cases for two clients. The easy job is catching the junkie who stole a truckload of donated Christmas toys from a clinic for HIV-positive children. The middling job is helping an Ecuadorian immigrant recover money a client cheated out of his office-cleaning business. Then there's the hard job. The first two wrap up simply enough. Weighted gloves, a Santa suit, and a couple other risky tricks do for the toy thief. A real estate scam turns the tables on the other bad guy. But what about Case No. 3? What is Jack to do about a client who has just inherited her father's house, and who would rather burn it down than sell it to her half-brother? Why has everyone else this lady hired to help her been murdered? Who is providing her brother the financial backing to offer millions for the house, and why do they want it badly enough to kill for it? And most mysterious of all, why haven't they tried to kill the woman herself?

Dr. Alicia Clayton is a troubled woman. The thought of having anything to do with her father's house disgusts her. The idea of setting foot in it positively terrifies her. Her half-brother Thomas has some kind of hold over her, something she has never discussed with anyone. Thomas's associates—including a Saudi diplomat and his team of American mercenaries—seem desperate to find something hidden in the house. And a mysterious Japanese agent is shadowing everybody involved, including Jack, with an agenda of his own.

In The Tomb, author Wilson launched his series with a terrifying novel about a family curse and a monster out of the darkest, most sensibly forbidden sect in Hinduism. The impression that this would continue to be a series about a hitman-with-a-heart-of-gold who specializes in slaying monsters is not entirely accurate. While there are monsters in this novel, they are technically of the human kind. Monsters who victimize children in the cruelest way. Monsters who feel justified in murdering countless innocent people to achieve their aims. Monsters so dangerous that good people hardly have a chance against them—unless they start to become monsters themselves.

This isn't so much a fantasy-horror novel as a mystery-thriller with a technological MacGuffin. The thing everybody is after turns out, in the end, to have some thought-provoking implications, especially in light of Dr. Clayton's inner struggles. But the wonders Jack works are feats not of wizardry but of survival skill and tactical expertise. The powers of evil arrayed against him are not based on magic or mad science or arcane religion, but simple old-fashioned guns, dollars, and personal frailty. And though Jack can be as scary and ruthless as any of them, it is his sense of honor, courage, quick thinking, and basic decency that make the most difference.

Based on these first two books, the picture of what we can expect in further Repairman Jack novels comes into clearer focus. Besides confounding mysteries, nerve-wracking tension, violent action (not for the squeamish), we can also expect variety. Anything could come next, from a tale of industrial espionage to a bloodcurdling encounter with eldritch demons. The one thing you can expect is that unique something that comes in the package with a sleuth who operates outside the law: invisible and loving it. Book 3 in the series is titled Conspiracies.

Besides the sixteen Repairman Jack novels, F. Paul Wilson has also published two "Repairman Jack: The Early Years" prequels, three "Young Repairman Jack" books, a volume of Repairman Jack short stories, a six-book "Adversary Cycle" (which, mysteriously, includes two of the Repairman Jack novels), a science fiction trilogy, and lots of other novels, novellas, and short story collections. He has authored or co-authored at least a couple vampire novels, including one called Midnight Mass; a whimsical children's story titled The Christmas Thingy; and the new Nocturna series for young adults, beginning with Definitely Not Kansas.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ascension Hymn

Disciples, why gaze up in awe?
He who was taken from your sight
Will us and others heavenward draw
Till He returns in clouds of light.

God's Son from heaven came to mend
The schism twixt His heart and ours;
The Son of Man must now ascend
To be enthroned above all powers.

In Him humanity is raised
To fill all things eternally;
The Godhead who alone is praised
Thus graces man with dignity.

He took a Servant's form and work,
Of sin and death to make an end.
Since cross and death He did not shirk,
Now every knee to Him shall bend.

A little while, and we will see
The Lamb once slain who lives again,
Returning whence He gloriously
Was taken from the sight of men.

O for that awful, wondrous day
When every heart will be revealed!
Till then, dear Christians, know the way
To find your Savior and be healed.

Our Christ dwells in no distant sphere,
Confined in some celestial space;
For God's right hand is ever near,
Unseen yet present with our race.

Behold the marks whereby He now
Is pleased to visit us with grace:
Through word and sacrament, His vow
Assures us He is in this place.

Amen, we cry: come quickly, Lord!
Come where we gather in Your name;
Come where Your life is given, poured;
Come live within us through the same.

Amen, we cry, and thrice Amen!
Like leavened dough, like branches spliced,
We live with Him who comes again,
The never gone, returning Christ.

To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
One God from whom all goods descend,
We raise, with all the heavenly host,
A fume of worship without end.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Side Jobs

Side Jobs: Stories from the Dresden Files
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

Here is a collection of eleven stories, ranging from very short up to novelette length, supplementing the novels of the Dresden Files. One was written before Storm Front, the very first Dresden novel, when Harry was still an apprentice detective and Jim Butcher was still learning to write. Another was suggested by his publisher as a promotional gimmick for one of his earlier books. One was written for this collection. And the rest were originally published in anthologies with stories by other authors, organized around themes like weddings and honeymoons, mead and beer, birthday mayhem, comedy, and romance. Also included is the novella Backup, originally published as a standalone title.

Here's what you want to know about these stories in general: Their writing was spread out over most of the years Butcher has been working on the Dresden Files. They fill cracks in the canon between the Dresden novels, and blanks in the background of Harry and his friends. They spotlight a rich variety of themes, tones, and secondary characters. They cover a range of moods between deep cold terror and urgent panicky thrills, between laughter and tragedy, between light detective jobs with a side of magic and crises that shake the fabric of creation. Two of them are told from the point of view of characters other than Harry, while he himself remains in the background. And yet all of them are charged with the unmistakable energy of fun that we have come to associate with a certain wisecracking, tough-as-nails wizard.

And now for the stories themselves! "A Restoration of Faith" is the first Dresden adventure ever written. It features a vanilla missing-persons case that quickly swirls into nuttiness. First the runaway kid doesn't want to come home. Then her parents try to get out of paying the detectives they hired by accusing Dresden and his partner of kidnapping. The involvement of a bridge troll is just the magical cherry on top. Though the story oversells its emotional impact, it has the added value of introducing Dresden to police officer Karrin Murphy, who goes on to be his most reliable colleague in the long run. Skip ahead to the end of the book, where "Aftermath" presents a case where Murphy takes the lead, after Dresden's apparent death and her own suspension from the police force in Changes. By that point, it is clear to everyone that she's the first person to call if you can't get Harry. But her hair-raising case, involving members of the nefarious Fomor—amphibious people who shoot acid-tipped spines at their victims—proves in frenzied, violent action that an ordinary mortal on her own has very little chance against magical nasties. Carrying on without Dresden means arming for bear, taking the bad guys by surprise, and hitting them fast, hard, and with exceptional cleverness and skill. But even that wouldn't be enough without some backup from a young werewolf named Will, whose pregnant wife is one of many "specials" the Fomor have abducted for some sinister purpose.

Will and Georgia are also involved in the story "Something Borrowed," in which an evil faerie named Jenny Greenteeth tries to turn their wedding day into a marriage of horror and death. The honeymoon-themed story "Heorot" also confronts Dresden with a client whose newlywed wife is missing. This time, Dresden partners with Ms. Gard, the literal Valkyrie who works for "Gentleman" John Marcone, to solve a case that also involves a stolen keg of mead—the very thing to help a mythological monster get in the mood for love. Yuck! Harry's bartender friend Mac, who brings him on board for this case, needs his help again in "Last Call." This time a batch of Mac's craft beer has been magically tampered with. The resulting mayhem puts several people in the hospital, including Mac; and more of it is about to turn a Chicago Bulls game into a deadly riot.

Humor predominates in "Vignette," a slender story featuring Harry and his lab assistant, Bob the Skull. We get a more substantial look at the lighter side of the Dresden Files in "Day Off," in which Harry just wants to spend a bit of rare free time getting ready for a hot date. Instead, he has to deal with terrorist threats from a lame, would-be dark lord whom he calls Darth Wannabe, plus a love spell that brings out the animal in a couple of his werewolf friends, plus an apprentice whose potions practice has reached the stage of blowing up Harry's lab.

In "It's My Birthday Too," Harry wants to give a present to his half-brother, the White Court vampire Thomas Raith. Delivering the package on time means crashing a vampire-themed cosplay party at a big suburban mall. Luckily, he's there when a group of Black Court vampires decide to turn the game into something terrifyingly real. Thomas returns the favor in "Backup," when he saves Harry from a case that could destroy the world. His brotherly assistance goes unappreciated, because neither Harry nor the rest of the world can ever know about the secret war in which Thomas is engaged—an ages-long war to guard the mortal world against evil beings who need only be remembered, or believed in, to get in.

"Love Hurts" is a Dresden-and-Murphy adventure that climaxes at the Tunnel of Terror at the Illinois State Fair. Strangely this, rather than the Tunnel of Love, proves to be Ground Zero of an outbreak of mind-altering magic that causes each pair of its victims to fall passionately in love. Almost as bad as the fact that some of these victims have been driven to insanity, and even suicide, is the heartache that Harry and Karrin will experience when they realize that they must destroy their one chance to be happy together. And finally there's "The Warrior," in which Harry's friend Michael Carpenter, Fist of God emeritus, is dragged out of retirement by the abduction of one of his kids. The culprit is a rogue priest who knows about the two angelic swords that Harry holds for safekeeping. He believes Harry is a force for evil, deliberately preventing these weapons of goodness from being used. But the steps Father Douglas is prepared to take to right this wrong shows that he has gotten some of his notions of good and evil turned around. This case hits Harry with a moral dilemma—and I don't just mean the choice between safeguarding the swords and saving Michael's child. It culminates with an interesting chat between Harry and an archangel about the age-old question: Why does a good God let bad things happen?

I haven't described these stories in the order in which they appear. And I'm afraid this still isn't an exhaustive collection of short stories based on the Dresden Files. I know of at least a few more stories that are out there, perhaps waiting to be collected in another volume. Each of these stories gives instant satisfaction to friends of Harry Dresden who have read the series at least up to Changes. They bring Harry and all your favorite secondary characters up against a variety of threats; and while each helping is only snack-sized, you'll recognize all the flavors of the full meal deal.

If this metaphor suggests that I'm thinking of sinking my teeth into something, you might also like to know that the audiobook edition is ably narrated by James Marsters, who played the vampire Spike on TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As one might expect of an actor whose range also includes Superman villains and bisexual Time Lords, he knows how to put the chill into villains' voices, innocence into the voice of a child, sensuality into that of a seductive female, grim endurance into characters like Thomas, grit and charm into ones like Harry and Murphy. Jim Butcher is lucky to have a talent like that reading his stuff. But he's probably too busy launching the latest book of the Dresden Files to think about it. Skin Game was officially released today. I doubt it will be long before I sink my claws into it.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Seeds of Rebellion

Seeds of Rebellion
by Brandon Mull
Recommended Ages: 12+

After reading the first book in the Beyonders trilogy, I decided to drop everything and go to the library to fetch Book 2. This turned into a whirlwind tour of five (5) library branches, after which I came home with two armloads of books to read. Happily, I was able to get my hands on this, the middle book of the trilogy, and read it with an exquisitely tuned balance between relish and haste. And since I already have Book 3 in hand, my only regret will shortly be that it's over too soon.

But first things first. In A World Without Heroes, we met Jason and Rachel, two thirteenish American kids who get swept into a magical world where they are the only thing standing between an evil wizard emperor and absolute power. Their attempt to unmake Maldor with a certain word of power proved a complete failure. The whole quest was a setup, designed by Maldor to waste his enemies' time while he moved forward with his plans for conquest. Plus, a spy named Ferrin, having betrayed both sides, sent Jason back to Earth before he could even warn the resistance about this.

Just imagine Jason's difficulty readjusting to normal life. Suddenly playing baseball, working at the zoo, and having fun with his friends don't seem to matter so much. All he can think about is how Rachel is still back in Lyrian, possibly in great danger. Their friends don't know whether he's dead or being tortured in Maldor's dungeon. As along as they keep trying to kill Maldor with that Word, they're wasting time that their world can ill afford. Desperate to find a way back, Jason finally tries his previous route: down the throat of a hippo. And what do you know? It works!

After that, however, things get tricky. While Rachel becomes an adept at using Edomic, the language of creation, to work feats of magic, Jason merely becomes the world's most wanted fugitive. Things come after him that he never guessed existed, even after his first visit to Lyrian. It's a big land, full of many wonders, including wizard-born races—both friendly and deadly. There are these shadowy creatures called torivors, or lurkers, who can move with incredible speed, give people horrible nightmares, and put a hurt on them if they try to fight back. There are these people who become dwarves at dawn, and giants at sunset. There is a race with a lifespan of about two years, giving new meaning to the phrase "live fast." As for the "die hard" bit, that describes the forsaken kingdom, whose entire population has become the walking dead, thanks to an infestation of blood-craving worms. These "worm zombies" are further divided into the mindless dead, the hungry dead, and the reasoning dead—just let that shudder roll around inside you for a while. And that's all besides people who live life after life and grow back from a seed when they die; spies who can pluck parts off their bodies and stick them on again, sometimes sneaking an eye or an ear onto someone else; a giant mutated creature who lives in the ruins of a sunken city; and a mountain pass where the wind shrieks with a deafening voice, hurling travelers to their death.

So whatever Jason and Rachel have to do this time, it isn't going to be easy. They will have to run from their enemies night and day, taxing themselves to the edge of oblivion. They and their friends will fight both big battles and solitary duels. They will face the music at a political gathering whose decision may decide the fate of the world. They have to travel across an entire continent full of enemy armies, to take counsel from an oracle who may well declare their cause hopeless. They have to convince the remaining free peoples of Lyrian to join forces in an active rebellion, when even defending their own lands already seems hopeless enough. Joined by a smuggler, a musician, a princess, a spy, a blind hero, and other strange but valiant characters, Rachel and Jason are not even sure they have anything to offer in this fight. Their best chance may be to weather the storm and try to find a way home. Or maybe the world of Lyrian's only shot at defeating Maldor depends on them.

This is unmistakably the second book of a trilogy. As such, it should come as no surprise when it mainly serves as a bridge between the beginning and the end of the story. But it's a very eventful bridge, fraught with terrible and wonderful scenery, fascinating new races, exciting feats of magic and battle (sometimes both at the same time), passages of gut-clenching tension, charming patter, and ever deepening insight into the hearts of already established characters. The end of the book foreshadows a fateful double quest in Book 3, Chasing the Prophecy.

Commemoration Hymn

In Your name, Christ, we honor
Those servants, brave and true,
Who bore their nation's banner,
A righteous cause in view.
Protect what they defended
By faithful sacrifice,
And let them be commended
To peace and Paradise.

As You, from heaven mustered,
Were geared in manly birth,
By hardship never flustered
While garrisoned on earth,
They answered when their nation
Called them from town and field,
Trained hard, and stood their station,
Their people's pride and shield.

Your death in this world founded
A kingdom not of this;
Your rising shout resounded
In realms of blood-bought bliss.
Though lesser foes contested
These men of honor pure,
By grace let them be rested
Behind your bulwark sure.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Hymn in the Hour of Temptation

Christ, who was tempted as are we,
Yet who remains unstained by sin,
Our weakness view with sympathy;
Redeem us from the foe within!

Our self-approving pride enmesh
In cords of mercy; by Your rod
Subdue our willful, craven flesh;
Cast down our soul's devouring god!

Of sin and righteousness convict,
Yes, crush our stubborn hearts of stone;
From lusts and pleasures that addict
Free us, who hope in You alone.

Take out each day that stony heart,
And give us living flesh instead;
As for our blood's pale, poisoned part,
Infuse that which for us You shed.

Now sin and righteousness are sure:
The one because of unbelief;
The other since, to make us pure,
You bore our cross and came to grief.

Of judgment too the Spirit cries,
For fully judged is this world's lord;
With You sin's title o'er us dies,
With You we rise, revived, restored.

Lord, since You bore and gave so much
To save us from the tempter's power,
Brace us to bear the scourge's touch,
The cultured sneer, the trying hour.

Brace us indeed, nor ever leave
Us helpless, hopeless, or alone.
Be near us; help us to believe,
Till Your bright vision greets our own.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Holiday Weekend Library Run

I finished reading the first book of Brandon Mull's Beyonders series in the wee hours of this morning. I decided I didn't want to read any of the other books I have checked out of various libraries until after I had read the remaining books in this trilogy. I also decided that I would return A World Without Heroes to the Maplewood Library, along with another book I had decided not to read. I was optimistic that I would find the second book of the trilogy there. It would also be a convenient stop en route to Wal-Mart, where a few necessary purchases had occurred to me. So, off to Maplewood I went.

Well, I found a couple of books I wanted to check out, and I browsed a book sale (but didn't end up buying anything), but Mull's Seeds of Rebellion wasn't there. The library's copy had been checked out. So I drove to the next town over and looked at the Richmond Heights library, where I did buy two books at their book sale, and checked out several more. But though both Maplewood and and Richmond Heights had copies of the third book in the Beyonders trilogy, neither had Book 2.

After a brief stop at Wal-Mart, where I ended up not making any purchases, I decided to stop at the Machacek Branch of the City Library on my way home. This is that gloomy little subterranean branch that looks like a concrete bomb shelter. I couldn't find Seeds of Rebellion there either, so I asked at the desk whether any copies could be found at another branch. They directed me to the Kingshighway Branch, which I had never visited before, and phoned ahead to have the book held for me. I managed not to buy or borrow anything at Machacek.

A few minutes later I found myself at the Kingshighway Branch of the City Library. It turns out to be a surprisingly attractive and interesting structure, with opening lines of favorite books painted on the walls below a recessed ceiling in the central reading area. Before picking up the copy of Seeds of Rebellion they were holding for me at the front desk, I browsed the stacks and found a few more books to borrow. I also noticed Books 2 and 3 of a trilogy that looked interesting, and asked whether they had Book 1. This book, naturally, had been checked out; but their online catalog said it was available at the Buder Branch, which is about as far south of my home as Machacek is to the west.

In fact, Buder is the first library I had thought of visiting today in my search for the Brandon Mull book, only my plans to drop off two books in Maplewood had diverted me elsewhere. It's the library I am most likely to visit on foot, and indeed I did so only a few days ago. I might have saved myself a lot of trouble had I stopped there first. But then, would I have found all the treasures that presented themselves to me along the way?

So, I had the staff at the Kingshighway branch request by phone that the book be held at the front desk of the Buder branch. Looking back over my morning's work as I approached Buder, I realized that it was the fifth library I had visited today. Just to cap off my roundabout route to borrowing one book, and coming home with two armloads full of books, I had a little trouble getting hold of this last book. First the front desk sent me up to the third floor, where that particular book is held, since they didn't see any evidence that it had been dropped of from upstairs. Then the staff on the third floor sent me back down to where the book had indeed been delivered, and even phoned the first floor to verify that it was there. Then the staff on the first floor told me they didn't have it, and I was about to start looking for hidden cameras and a team of giggling pranksters when one of the other ground-floor staffers handed the book down the desk. Evidently it was a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing, library style.

So, all's well that ends well. Here is my library haul for the weekend.

RETURNED to the Maplewood Library:
A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull (which I finished reading at 1:15 a.m.)
Overbite by Meg Cabot (which I decided I wouldn't read for the time being)

TEMPTED TO BUY at the Maplewood Library's book sale:
The Yellow Room Conspiracy by Peter Dickinson (I'm just not craving mystery novels much these days)

BORROWED at Maplewood:
13 Secrets by Michelle Harrison
The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

BOUGHT at the Richmond Heights Library's book sale:
Squashed by Joan Bauer
What's So Funny? by Donald E. Westlake

BORROWED at Richmond heights:
Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz
Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Dormia by Jake Halpern & Peter Kujawinski
The Shadow of Malabron by Thomas Wharton

BORROWED at the Kingshighway Branch of the city library:
Scumble by Ingrid Law
Seeds of Rebellion and Chasing the Prophecy by Brandon Mull (Books 2 and 3 of the Beyonders)

BORROWED at the Buder Branch:
Wildwood by Colin Meloy

Besides these, I currently have several books out, in hard copy and audiobook format, from Buder, Maplewood, and the County Library. So, I had better not waste any more of this weekend's precious reading time gabbing about them. I've got to get reading!

A World Without Heroes

A World Without Heroes
by Brandon Mull
Recommended Ages: 12+

Thirteen-year-old Jason is an ordinary, baseball-playing, zoo-volunteering kid from Colorado, until the day he hears music coming out of a hippopotamus. Leaning closer, he falls into the hippo's mouth, slides down a long chute, and comes out at the bottom of a hollow tree in a completely different world. It's not how most visitors from our reality find their way to the magical land of Lyrian. Later, Jason meets a girl his age named Rachel, who followed the more usual route by walking under a stone arch and suddenly finding herself elsewhere. From the moment they arrive, they are in danger. Things are going on in Lyrian that they don't understand. Weird races, created long ago by a group of wizards, are doing weird things, following an agenda that either serves or seeks to overthrow an evil wizard emperor named Maldor. And just when Jason thinks he's on the scent of a way home, he reads something in a forbidden book that makes him Public Enemy Number One.

The book, and the loremaster of the Repository of Learning where he finds it, send Jason on a quest to collect the separately hidden syllables of a word of power. Once all six syllables are assembled, Jason can only speak it once. If he speaks it in the presence of Maldor, the emperor will be destroyed. Many heroes have perished on this quest. One who nearly succeeded, and lived to tell the tale, now lives in a ruined castle, a blind king without a kingdom, mentally and physically broken. Nevertheless this Blind King ennobles Jason, introduces him to Rachel, and sends them on the quest. They may be Lyrian's last hope. And though Jason doesn't feel like much of a hero, the Blind King inspires him with these words:
"A hero sacrifices for the greater good. A hero is true to his or her conscience. In short, heroism means doing the right thing regardless of the consequences. Although any person could fit that description, very few do. Choose this day to become one of them."

Galloran (a.k.a. the Blind King) seems to believe the kids' best shot at survival is to become Maldor's greatest enemy. This may sound like an insane way to evade capture by wizard who uses spies, assassins, executioners, torturers, and devious magic to subdue his empire. But apparently, Maldor's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness: he takes an interest in his most dangerous enemies, studies them, tests them, respects them, and tries to persuade them either to join his side, or to leave the battlefield in favor of a life of luxury and indulgence at an Eternal Feast from which no invited guest has ever returned. And even though Lyrian's fight really isn't their fight, Jason and Rachel must find ways to resist both of these temptations, in spite of the near certainty that they will be captured or killed before they pose a real threat.

With ever greater displays of courage, cleverness, and luck, Jason and Rachel pass through a series of dangers and trials in their search for the Word. A frail thread of hope leads them onward through encounters with terrifying monsters, bloodthirsty animals, betrayals, assassination attempts, a duel of honor, and a battle of wits. They must leap off a cliff into a foaming surf, paddle through a fever-ridden swamp, traverse a volcanic lake without a boat, break out of a jail, and navigate the political minefield of a corrupt city. They meet people who can reattach severed limbs, men who can grow back from a seed after being killed, men who can brainwash people or even animals to do their evil bidding, and creatures called Manglers whose sole purpose is to kill and destroy. And when the climactic phase of their adventure forces them apart, Jason realizes that what matters to him most of all is getting back to Rachel.

This first book in the Beyonders trilogy establishes a strange and complex world, full of truly inventive perils. Some of the young heroes' ordeals really had me biting my knuckles with worry. And the cliffhanger ending is so devastating that I'm going to have to drop everything (such as a half dozen other books that I wanted to read over a four-day holiday weekend) and run down to the library to fetch Book 2, Seeds of Rebellion. I have greatly enjoyed every book by Brandon Mull that I have read so far, but if possible this series may be his most engrossing tale yet—Fablehaven notwithstanding. I still have to read The Arcade Catastrophe; and I haven't even started on his new Five Kingdoms series, of which Book 1, Sky Raiders, was published in March 2014. But first I plan to see my way through this trilogy. If you haven't been there before me, I invite you to join me in the land of Lyrian.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Hot Lead, Cold Iron

Hot Lead, Cold Iron
by Ari Marmell
Recommended Ages: 14+

Give a Chicago private eye a magic wand and what do you get? Well, Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, mostly. But Harry Dresden is a wizard of our time—a little rusty with high-tech gadgetry, to be sure, but also a VW Beetle-driving, pop-culture-riffing, very human wizard. One reviewer frequently quoted in jacket blurbs of the Dresden novels likens him to a mash-up of Philip Marlowe and Merlin. But actually, he's a lot more like Richard Castle combined with Harry Potter. If you really want your wand-wielding detective hardboiled, you should try Mick Oberon. He has the period for it: the 1930s, the age of bootleggers and Chicago gangsters like Bugs Moran and Al Capone. He also has a shoulder holster in which he packs a high-caliber wand, best used for giving and taking luck, and maybe spinning the occasional glamour. He talks in a clipped voice loaded with period slang, like "flivver" for "automobile" and "gink" for "man." He could almost have stepped out of a pulp novel by James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler. Only, he isn't human.

Mick Oberon is, in fact, a member of the aes sidhe (pronounced like "ace she"), a breed of Fae who look mostly human. He comes from the world of Faerie, where he was a high-ranking prince in the Seelie Court until something happened that he is too bitter to tell us about. Ever since then, he has hung his fedora in the human city of Chicago, where the only food or drink he can keep down is warm milk, where machines make his head ache and cold iron burns him. He does the tough, dangerous work of a P.I., like foiling blackmailers, serving subpoenas, and finding missing persons—and aside from expenses, the only fee he asks is an item full of symbolic power, like the switch from a dismantled electric chair, or the razor that belonged to a notorious serial killer. He only needs money once in a while, such as when his landlord (who lets him stay in his office for free) needs help catching up on his mortgage. He enjoys a good relationship with the police, especially a certain detective who has a hairy problem every month at the full moon. And he only goes back to Elphame, to the Faerie version of Chicago, when it's a matter of life or death.

If another private dick hadn't said it first, Mick Oberon would probably tell you, "Trouble is my business." Only his trouble comes in extra flavors, because some of it comes from Elphame. When Unseelie monsters, or a bit of off-color Seelie business, gets mixed up with gangsters, molls, and palookas, the amount of trouble could be measured in megatons. Take this case, for instance. Bianca Ottati, the wife of a Sicilian-American crime boss high up in the Outfit, suspects that her daughter is a changeling. This is to say, sweet Adalina was swiped at birth and replaced with a Fae ringer. Now the disguise is slipping, and Bianca fears what will happen when her husband Fino finds out. To find the real Adalina, or whatever her name is now, Mick has to go back to Elphame and stir up trouble with both the Seelie and the Unseelie. Then he has to come back to 1930s Chicago and tangle with tommy-gun wielding goons, a desperate shape-changing villain, and a crazy witch who plans to use one of the Ottati girls in an evil working of biblical magnitude. All the hot lead flying around is bad enough. But when a whirlwind full of iron shavings is involved, a dick like Mick could really get hurt.

The first "Mick Oberon Job" gives the hardboiled genre a truly magical revamp. It has the tough-guy patter and the period lingo down cold. It moves at a brisk pace, collecting clues and surprises and violent encounters that increase in frequency and intensity as the climax approaches. It is populated by vividly eccentric characters, both from the world of crime and from the world of magic. It achieves an Adult Content Advisory because of its unhesitating use of profanity. Yet it also offers a glimpse of what family is all about, a picture that is heart-warming and beautiful while at the same time touched by disturbing weirdness.

This is the first book of what will officially be a series when its sequel, Hallow Point, is released in May 2015. Other titles by Ari Marmell seem to follow a pattern in which a former hero or villain has to come out of retirement to make things right. These titles include three Corvis Redbaine novels (The Conqueror's Shadow, etc.), four Widdershins Adventures (Thief's Covenant, etc.), plus The Goblin Corps and many gaming-related books.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Trinity Hymn

God who is Father, God the Son—
The God who sends, God who is sent—
Leaves not his throne, yet also went—
Abided whole, was wholly spent—
Lends out His Spirit and is lent—
He is both Three and One.

One God we worship, never three:
Who for His creatures' sake, in love,
Came down while yet enthroned above;
Our form and flesh partaking of,
Received His own baptismal dove,
In whom baptized are we.

Impassible, He yet in pain
Received, and was, and also gave
The sacrifice our race to save.
Raised and arisen from the grave,
His Triune Name is fit to lave
His lambs from every stain.

Now He whose living Word has been
Since heaven's footings first were laid—
Indeed, by whom all things were made—
Who has such mighty works displayed,
And pledged Himself for us in trade—
Declares us clean from sin.

Dare we, then, doubt the Three in One?
He gave Himself a holy Name
And in it bore our guilt and shame;
Pledged life and pardon in the same;
Returned in triumph whence He came,
God's well beloved Son!

To Him and to the Father we
Raise hymn and prayer and liturgy,
While He feeds us abundantly,
His Spirit flowing constantly.
Thus Trinity and Unity
Resound eternally.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Last Werewolf

The Last Werewolf
by Glen Duncan
Recommended Ages: 16+

Jake Marlowe gets the news in the first sentence of this book that he is the last of his kind. At age 200, he is only middle-aged for a werewolf. But his days are numbered. Solitary hunters by nature, werewolves have been unable to... er, reproduce... ever since a sort of sterility virus ensured that no one would survive being turned into one of the lycanthropic undead. And though the vampires envy their ability to have sex—indeed, they hardly stop shagging between full moons—it has been ages since there was a female werewolf to mate with. So long, in fact, that Jake has never met one. The last time he experienced true love was with his mortal wife, who unfortunately was one of his first victims, along with their unborn child, 167 years ago.

So when Jake's friend Harley, an inside man with the WOCOP organization that hunts and polices the undead, tells him that he is the last, Jake isn't particularly sorry that the end is at hand. He knows that Grainer, the head of the Hunt, has a personal vendetta against him. He knows the Hunt will find him eventually and either shoot him with a silver bullet or cut off his head. He doesn't intend to fight it. He's ready to go.

And then, just as he is nerving himself for his final rendezvous with Grainer, the vampires join the hunt. Their agenda is not to put an end to Jake, but to keep him alive. This is ironic, since vampires and werewolves can't stand each other. But the vampires have only recently worked out that a werewolf's bite can give them at least partial, temporary resistance to sunlight. It's not as if they're proposing a mutually beneficial alliance. They only want Jake as a guinea pig. Being their guest could reasonably be expected to be worse than what Grainer has in store for him.

So now Jake is being pursued by two organizations with vast resources and a penchant for violence. The difference is that he only wants to be caught by the group that actually plans to kill him. Imagine his feelings, when, as he walks through Heathrow with WOCOP agents tailing him on one side and vampire minions watching from the other, he recognizes before him a FEMALE WEREWOLF. Not the last of his kind after all! Something he never imagined he would ever meet! And now, after one look into each other's eyes, he has a reason to live. Damn it.

Anglo-Indian author Glen Duncan's novel, the first by him that I have read, conjures a race of magnificent monsters on the tipping edge of extinction. Duncan writes in a high literary style, loaded with originality and intelligence and expressive power, with allusions to other literature and a serious engagement with the philosophy of our time. I have two notes of caution to play for you; take them for what you will. First, please observe the silver-plated Adult Content Advisory. I have ratcheted my "recommended ages" dial as high as it will go, because the sexuality depicted in this book is definitely meant for mature readers. It isn't just that it's explicit or that it uses R-rated language; it's inventive, even to the point some might call deviant. I don't want to be blamed when concerned parents see the innocence dying in their kids' eyes after finding this book in their Halloween stocking. I say this to shield myself from any responsibility on this account.

Second, I don't know whether this is the author's general philosophy or whether it comes out of his main character's experience of living with murder on his conscience, to the tune of around one victim a month for 167 years, starting with the love of his life. How does Jake Marlowe make peace with himself? He does so by embracing the nihilist view that "There is no God and that is his only commandment." In other words, moral distinctions like "good" and "evil" have become meaningless; there is only survival and appetite in this life, and nonexistence hereafter. I frankly believe this worldview is what makes the worst monsters possible; and I'm talking about real-life monsters here. At times of great distress Jake appeals, perhaps blasphemously, to whatever god may be up there, or if none, to the spirit of Story. I'm not sure even the latter appeal isn't blasphemy.

If this story does a reader any good, it will most likely be by stimulating his disgust with the worldview it represents. Perhaps that's the authors intent. I don't know. But I would prefer to spend time with a book that exercises the reader's belief in noble conduct and heroic sacrifice. Why? Simply because we need more people in this world who can imagine themselves in that role, and who as a result might act accordingly. The supreme irony of this book is that, at the peak of a crescendo of suspense and horror, we actually see some of this type of heroism in action—albeit in the dark, morally complex context of a creature that kills and devours people.

Again, the last analysis is up to you. I want you to be prepared to face it, that's all. And then you and I can each decide for ourselves whether to continue reading the trilogy that begins with this book. Book 2 is titled Talulla Rising. The third book, By Blood We Live, was released in February of this year. Duncan's other books include a variety of adult stories focusing on love, death, and the macabre. Their titles include I, Lucifer and The Death of an Ordinary Man.

Brother Odd

Brother Odd
by Dean Koontz
Recommended Ages: 14+

In Book 3 of the Odd Thomas series, the young fry-cook who sees dead people has retreated to a monastery in the mountains for a needed break from the stress of his quiet hometown. He only wants a little time to heal from two harrowing encounters with monsters in human form. But his respite is cut short by the appearance of bodachs at the abbey—or more precisely, in the school for mentally and physically disabled children run by nuns, next door to the monastery. These silent, shadowy creatures always seem drawn to places where there will soon be violence on a big scale. For reasons Odd cannot begin to guess, the gloating bodachs have started to crowd around these defenseless and unwanted children. He has only a day or two to figure out how to protect them, and from whom. Or what.

Within the hour of the first bodach sighting, one of the monks disappears. The local sheriff's officers prove useless in searching for him, and Odd has been warned not to trust them anyway. As a winter storm sets in, the likes of which a young ghost-whisperer from the Mojave desert has never seen, and with another guest at the monastery who isn't what he seems, it's up to Odd to sniff out what's happening. He is aided by the respect and trust the monks and nuns have for him, his warm relationship with a dog named Boo and a ghost named Elvis, and his talent for "psychic magnetism," which basically means that somehow or other, he usually finds what he's looking for.

Resourceful and good at thinking on his feet, nonetheless Odd is little prepared for the full bone-rattling horror of what is coming. A voice from beyond the grave points him in the right direction. He is also helped by the strange recollections of a retarded boy with a savant's gift for art, and by the reluctant confidences of a glowering Russian with his own grim secrets. Finally, while a handful of monks fight to defend the children against a murderous assault by indescribable creatures of pure evil, it is up to Odd and an assassin's son to stop the man who, perhaps without knowing it, has unleashed them on the world.

It is hard not to be charmed by Odd's soft-spoken wit, serenity, and humble courage. I'm not saying you can't dislike him if you put your mind to it. One reader, commenting on my review of Forever Odd, noted that as this series progresses, author Koontz increasingly airs what some regard as an obnoxious, right-wing agenda. On the other hand, as I read this book in tandem with Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf, what struck me about the comparison is how strongly Koontz honors faith, and specifically belief in a transcendent God and the consequent clear distinction between good and evil. He, or at least the narrating voice of his main character, is not shy about identifying as "good" some of the values that today's society, by and large, has abandoned—nor does he hesitate to call evil "evil," even when it is attractive, pragmatic, and popular.

Notably, in one monk's backstory as a reformed gangster, he cites the wholesome influence of stories like Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Desperaux and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane: stories of "thoughtful china rabbits and courageous big-eared mice," for example, that may help readers find their way to "a life of goodness and hope." It goes right to the question, What are stories for? Clearly, in a literary world that also has room for the "God is dead and there is no good and evil" nihilism of The Last Werewolf, Koontz's answer isn't the only view on offer. But it is the answer that I would give, and if I could win over a few readers to that view, I would not feel that my labors were wasted.

Whether or not Koontz's tone becomes preachy later in this series, it hasn't stopped the complaining reader from enjoying the books, even though she disagrees with his ideology and claims that she will not read anything else by him. I take that is a left-handed compliment to the quality of this series, an encouraging sign that it is worth reading all the way through. Taken together with the quiet heroism of its protagonist, and with the sense that both Odd and his creator value the things that truly matter, the sum of it all is that I want to continue reading this series. There are seven novels in it so far; coming up next is Odd Hours.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Genius Wars

The Genius Wars
by Catherine Jinks
Recommended Ages: 14+

After being groomed from childhood to become a supervillain bent on world domination, Cadel Greeniaus, formerly Cadel Piggott, is just trying to blend in and live a normal life. He goes to computer programming classes at the University of New South Wales, as if he hasn't already achieved fiendish levels of hacking skills. He lives in a little weatherboard house with the foster parents who are trying to adopt him. And he refuses even to think about having anything to do with the global manhunt for Prosper English, the criminal mastermind who raised him. He figures that if he keeps his nose clean, Prosper won't have any reason to try to kill him. Again.

But then Prosper turns up on a bunch of CCTV cameras in Sydney. What is he up to? Cadel can't stay out of it now, because the tweed-jacketed creep might be targeting him. This impression grows into a certainty when Cadel survives several attempts on his life, each of which ends up injuring someone he cares about. What makes these attacks especially fiendish is that they are all being triggered by remote control, using internet connections and bluetooth devices in diabolically clever ways. With CCTV cameras everywhere, and many of them connected to the internet, Cadel can hardly stir outside his house without being recognized by a biometric program. Home appliances, the controls on his friend Sonja's wheelchair, traffic control devices, and even the trajectory of a city bus can all become weapons in the hands of a brilliant programmer. Somehow, somewhere, Prosper must be behind it.

Cadel soon realizes that there can be no escaping the death warrant Prosper has issued for him. The police can't protect him, even with his adoptive father on the force. His former associates from the Genius Squad can no longer be counted on, as he learns in a terrifying incident of a basement slowly filling with cement. His only chance is to disappear off the grid and take control of the hunt for Prosper English himself. He struggles with his conscience as he does this, knowing that as he uses the skills he learned at the Axis Institute for World Domination, each step he gains on Prosper also brings him a step closer to becoming like him. And just when he seems to be on the point of getting his guy, the trap springs and the guy gets him instead.

When Prosper turns the tables on Cadel, it should come as no surprise to those who have followed the Genius trilogy so far. Always with him it's plans within plans, secrets within secrets, tricks within tricks, traps within traps. If I say any more, I risk spoiling the surprises that remain—such as, how Prosper does it, and exactly how deep his evil plan goes. And in the final crisis, we remember once again that Cadel is just a small, gentle, vulnerable boy, a boy whose fear and danger bring out the protective instincts of all the good people who know him. Including you.

Catherine Jinks' other series of books for children and teens include the "Pagan" quartet (named after its main character, medieval hero Pagan Kidrouk), beginning with Pagan's Crusade; a quartet called "Allie's Ghost Hunters," beginning with Eglantine; the ongoing "City of Orphans" trilogy, whose first book is either A Very Unusual Pursuit or How to Catch a Bogle, depending on where you live; and the "Reformed Vampires/Abused Werewolves" series, which I think will grow into at least a trilogy. Some of her many magical, spooky, or speculative stand-alone titles are Witch Bank, Eye to Eye, The Paradise Trap, and most recently, Saving Thanehaven.

Forever Odd

Forever Odd
by Dean Koontz
Recommended Ages: 14+

When I first reviewed Odd Thomas for MuggleNet, I spotted it as a promising start to a new series. When I re-posted my original review on my own blog in 2008, I observed that there were already four books in the series. Now that I finally get around to reading further in the series, I look again and behold, it is up to seven novels. PLUS three graphic novels. PLUS a three-volume e-book series titled Odd Interlude. And somehow I also missed the 2013 movie based on the original book, starring Anton Yelchin (lately Chekov in Star Trek) as the young man who (paraphrasing the movie poster) not only sees dead people but then, by God, does something about it.

Yes, Odd Thomas is odd. But Odd is also his first name. And yes, Odd Thomas is a little stressed out by the fact that he sees dead people, and the trouble that sometimes accompanies their apparition. In fact, he's worried about his mental health, and his experiences have aged him way beyond his 21 years, at least in his mind. So when his second volume of memoirs kicks in, we find him on a leave of absence from the fry cook job that he does so well, but which he doesn't think his nerves can take. He is starting to think about getting into the tire business (installation, not sales), since it seems even less demanding than slinging hash. He is still pulling himself together after the death of his fiancee Stormy. He is enjoying the quiet of the small Mojave Desert town of Pico Mundo, California. And he is still rooming with Elvis, the rock 'n' roll legend turned silent ghost.

Odd is just starting to look like he might be ready to go back to work when another journey into horror and violence beckons him on board. It begins with a ghostly visitor in the middle of the night. It leads to a scene of gruesome murder, from which his best friend since childhood has been abducted. Danny is in grave danger, not just because he's in the hand of killers, but because he has a rare bone condition that makes him very vulnerable to injury. Odd's Spidey Sense tells him that if he includes the police in his search for Danny, his friend will certainly die. But as he follows the tug of paranormal magnetism—just another part of what makes Odd so very odd—he finds himself plunging into a dark world of supernatural danger.

This time, his standoff with evil takes place in the abandoned shell of an Indian casino in which hundreds of people died in an earthquake and fire. Facing him across the frame of his frail and endangered friend are some of the creepiest people you can imagine. Two of them serve mainly as muscle—brutal, bloodthirsty muscle, completely devoid of humane feelings. And one of them is a disturbed and disturbing presence: a black-magic woman who has preyed on Danny's innocence, and used him as bait to lure Odd into her web. She wants to see wonders and miracles. She wants to see Odd manifest a ghost, and demonstrate still other powers, some of which he doesn't have. She wants to add him to her collection of enslaved spirits, a process that may require him to endure an agonizing death. And if he doesn't make her happy, she can make him witness Danny's horrible death.

In this tale of horror and the macabre, there are indeed ghosts and other unsettling glimpses of magic. Oddly enough (no pun intended), the most scary spirits in this book are not the disembodied dead people that only Odd can see. They never say anything, and they can't harm anyone for the most part; though one of the casino ghosts does have a bit of the Poltergeist scene going on. Nevertheless, Odd's weird powers put him in danger in a variety of ways. The scariest wights, however, are the living, human ones&mash;saving an after-the-fact twist that allows you to look back on earlier events with a shudder and a gasp of "Oh, goodness, I didn't realize THAT was going on!"

It's a serious tale of horror narrated by a steady, modest, low-key guy—a really nice, scratch that, a profoundly good young man—a thoughtful young man who doesn't talk dirty, and who sincerely tries to help people (alive or dead). And yet it's also a tale about human beings at their nastiest and worst: selfishness and meanness and filthiness and, let's not mince words here, sheer evil, deepened by madness and dark religious practices. It's a tale about a wholesome guy grappling with the brokenness of the world, brought to bear on his life by three monsters in human form. After what he goes through in this installment, it's no wonder he retreats to a monastery at the end. Which, if you'll forgive the spoiler, explains why the third book in the series is titled Brother Odd.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Secret War

The Secret War
by Matt Myklusch
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the sequel to The Accidental Hero, young Jack Blank has five days to save the world. And yet he wastes most of that time trying to keep a terrifying secret that could instantly transform him from the hero who saved the Imagine Nation to an enemy who cannot be trusted. Kids and their priorities!

If you've followed the Jack Blank trilogy thus far, you already know that the Imagine Nation is a secret floating island populated by the world's superheroes, androids, ninjas, medieval warriors, futuristic types, and aliens from outer space. Basically, they're all the folks about whom comic books are meant to educate the world. They live together on a hovering island of green crystal peaks, fringed by waterfalls, in a diverse and fantastic city, and all of it shielded from normal people's sight until the world is ready to accept them.

A year ago Jack found his way there from an orphanage in New Jersey, and discovered his own superpower—controlling machines with his mind. Although he defeated the evil cyborg Revile and embarrassed the power-grabbing supergenius Jonas Smart, he still has worries. Revile is only the forerunner of the Borg-like Rüstov: a race that spreads by infecting organic life-forms with a nano-chip virus that converts them into robot-zombie warriors. Revile has done worse than predict that Earth will fall to the Rüstov. Before Jack defeated him, he revealed that he is Jack—a future, super-Rüstov version of Jack who came back in time to kill himself before he could destroy countless other worlds. It would be bad if everybody in Empire City found out about this. They would never believe that Jack is determined to fight the possible future represented by Revile, to pilot his fate in a different direction, to be a hero to humanity rather than the worst villain ever. They would insist on the same thing Revile wanted: killing Jack, just to be on the safe side.

Obviously, Jack doesn't want this to happen. So you can understand his need to keep this a secret. His self-interest happens to coincide with a more important reason to protect his secret. With his special aptitude for technology, Jack may be the only hope of curing another Rüstov virus, a spyware program that turns infected Mechas (technological life-forms) into unwitting spies for the enemy, and that could, in the worst-case scenario, turn every electronic device in the world into a Rüstov fighting machine. Jack doesn't want this secret to come out either—for the more noble reason that the resulting panic could lead to violence between factions of the Imagine Nation. He needs time to work on a cure for the spyware virus, and he needs to protect his secrets in order to buy that time.

But lo and behold, a rogue member of the Clandestine Order of Secreteers—mysterious people with memory-altering powers, who protect the island's most delicate secrets—has announced to all of Empire City that the Rüstov will conquer Earth in five days, and resistance is futile, every entity for him/her/itself, and he is ready to sell everyone's secrets to whoever will contribute to his going-on-the-run fund. Suddenly Jack's top priority is getting to Obscuro, partly to protect his precious secrets, and partly to extract from him the knowledge he needs to perfect his cure code for the spyware virus. But while Jack and his super-friends are running around the city trying to catch Obscuro, or possibly his supervillain accomplices, he emphatically isn't in the lab cracking the cure code. The countdown to Earth's defeat is ticking away, and Jack's personal agenda more and more gets in the way of doing what he really needs to do to save the world.

As secrets beget lies, and lies beget betrayals, and betrayals beget humiliating disasters, Jack finds himself losing the trust of the people who really deserve to know the truth. Jack's mistakes, and the consequences he bears for them, are an instructive lesson on the trouble with using villainous means to pursue a heroic agenda—or using plans to "make the world a better place" to justify sneaking, deceiving, double-crossing behavior.

While Jack takes this lesson to heart in a painful way, his bitterest opponent—rich, ambitious inventor, media magnate, and politician Jonas Smart—illustrates another very timely lesson for our society today. Smart represents the type of leaders, or would-be leaders, who divide people against each other in order to weaken any possible opposition to themselves; who promote themselves through a special relationship with the media that blurs the line between journalism and propaganda; and who exploit the people's fear to bully them into accepting "security" measures like spying on everybody, burying inconvenient people in secret prisons, and using a private police force that operates outside the law. In brief, Jonas Smart is a poster-boy for all that is wrong with totalitarianism. It's perhaps the most amazing commentary on political issues in youth fiction since the Ministry of Magic storyline in Harry Potter.

This is especially remarkable coming from an author whose most significant prior experience was producing a series of Spring Break specials for MTV. Clearly his talents have only just started to be put to their proper use. Now that he is writing full-time (a career change that went into effect with this book), I am excited to see what directions his talent will grow in. So far the only indication of this is the third book of the Jack Blank trilogy, titled The End of Infinity—which, moving ahead from this book's cliffhanger ending, will establish once and for all whether Jack is Earth's best hope or worst nightmare. Ambiguous as his destiny may be, one thing is not ambiguous to anyone reading this series. We care what becomes of Jack. And after this wild, weird, thrill-packed installment, we will be on the edge of our seats until we find out.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Bite Me: A Love Story

Bite Me: A Love Story
by Christopher Moore
Recommended Ages: 14+

The opening chapter of this book was so insanely fast-paced that I thought, "There's no way the author can keep this up; and even if he does, I'm not going to like it." Fortunately, this turned out to be because this is the third book of a trilogy, and there was a lot of background from the previous two books to catch up on. Leave it to me to start a trilogy with the third book! Now I'm going to have to go back and read Bloodsucking Fiends and You Suck, both subtitled "A Love Story." One could seriously apply the title "Love Story" to this entire trilogy (as one website actually does). But that wouldn't do justice to a series of hilarious, raunchy, and sometimes touching books that give a refreshing shakedown to an all-too-earnest genre: the vampire novel.

Boldly satirizing the darkness that certain rebellious teens and aimless twenty-somethings choose to fill their inward emptiness, it risks a third of its narration on the first-person voice of the Most. Annoying. Teenager. Ever... the underage vampire-minion who calls herself Abby Normal. Abby talks in a pidgin of internet-chat abbreviations, heavily paraphrased literary allusions, pop-culture references, and hipster slang, with some made-up expressions of her own thrown in. The sum of all this is a lingo that at times is nearly incomprehensible—to the other characters as well as to us. Abby is both simple and complex—simple in a way that will make you feel a protective glow of affection for her, and complex in a way that does justice to her dread of being considered perky. She is perky, but also dark in a goth sort of way. She enthusiastically serves the hot young vampires Jody and Tommy, but she has also betrayed them (to the point of having them bronzed during their daytime slumber), and at the same time she wants to be like them: nosferatu! (Also, she loves that word.)

Unfortunately, the vampire menace has not sailed as far away from San Francisco as Abby and her boyfriend Steve "Foo Dog" Foo thought, after the events of the previous books. For one thing, it only takes one slip with a sharp object, one nick in the bronze shell that imprisons Abby's former master and mistress, to set them free. Jody is ready to bounce right back into vampire badness. But Tommy, who had wanted to go back to being a mortal, has spent his five months in bronze going slowly insane. Worse yet, the city's street people are being stalked by a growing... er... pounce of vampire cats. Whether that's the right word for it or not, these kitties grow bolder every day. Soon they are attacking people out in the open, draining their blood until they turn to dust, leaving behind only empty clothes and a pile of gray powder. Their leader is a gigantic shaved cat named Chet, who has somehow grown into something bigger, smarter, and meaner than should be possible for a domestic cat.

While Jody and Tommy, Abby and her friends, the cops, and the Animals (a gang that works the night shift stocking shelves at Safe-Way—long story) are all working separate angles to solve this problem, the Old Vampire who turned Jody has returned to town with a coven of ancient, undead badasses. They have their own ideas on how to clean up this mess. And that's the worst news of all.

An Adult Content Advisory definitely applies to this book, in which sex, drug use, profanity, and really gruesome violence are depicted. So, mature and responsible readers are wanted. On the other hand, a certain youthful outlook is also a trait of this book's satisfied reader. Approached with the right frame of mind, this book may make you laugh until your breath goes and the tears come. It also has the thrills and chills required of a good vampire story, with intense battles against deadly deadies, dark spaces full of horror and suspense, and a poignant thread of lonely sadness that may in a sense be the most grown-up thing in the book. It also offers yet another smart and intriguing approach to what makes vampires function, and malfunction. It examines the advantages and disadvantages of having your city infested with predators that can climb walls upside-down, turn into vapor, and recover from any injury if given enough blood, and whose only major weaknesses are sunlight and a certain blend of Chinese herbs. Crazy, right?

I'm definitely going to read Bloodsucking Fiends and You Suck, and not just because I already have them out of the library. I would like to see the Animals, the Jody-Tommy relationship, and the buddy-cops Rivera and Cavuto given more room to develop outside the distorting lenses of Abby's off-and-on narration. It's interesting to see a story partly told via a blog while the events are in progress; but most days, I would gladly trade the unreliable testimony of a narcissistic teenager for a nice, objective, third-person account, even when I gather, from the two books by him that I have read so far, that Moore specializes in alternating between different characters' points of view. It's even fun, once in a while, to experience a few paragraphs' worth of action through the mind of a dog. And while I would prefer to have Abby narrate at me than, say, the undead girl Quinn in Kathleen Tierney's Blood Oranges, that's mainly because Abby is funnier and, deep down, nicer to be around. That doesn't stop me from sympathizing with a character who finds her so irritating that he wants to smack her. Give Moore credit, though, for nicely judging how much of Abby the average reader can take, and then switching to another point of view.

Other titles by Christopher Moore include Coyote Blue, Island of the Sequined Love Nun, A Dirty Job, Fool, and Sacre Bleu. There is also a "Pine Cove" trilogy, of which I have only read the second book (D'oh!).

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Mystery

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

The third book of the Troubletwisters series pits young Wardens-in-waiting Jaide Shield and her twin brother Jack against yet another threat to the wards that protect the town of Portland from The Evil. You know, that force of emptiness that comes from another dimension and wants to take over everything. They have thwarted The Evil twice before. But if there's one lesson The Evil seems to learn faster than Grandma X and the other good guys, it's that keeping secrets from the twins makes them vulnerable. And if they're vulnerable, so is Portland... and the world.

In this installment, Grandma X couldn't let her troubletwisters in on the crucial secrets if she wanted to. A suspicious car accident has landed her in the hospital, where she is being held for observation and drugged into a stupor. While Grandma's cats and another Warden patrol the wards, the twins' father shows up and sends them on a secret mission to retrieve an item from a local castle, something important that is at risk of falling into the hands of The Evil, now that the castle's owner has died and his estate needs to be disposed of.

Jack and Jaide tag along with a local book dealer, who is evaluating the castle's library. But as they search through the castle, all they turn up is more mysteries. What exactly is this Card of Translocation that their father wants them to find? Where could it be hidden? Why is it so important? And when a traumatized parrot points its feathery finger at their father's photo and declares him a killer, who should they believe?

Alert readers who have followed the series this far may find themselves a step ahead of the Shield twins as they search for answers to these and other questions. The clues have been there since the first book. What seems suspicious from our perspective may look different from close up, in the middle of all the confusing situations these kids have to juggle. They are trying to keep Warden business out of sight of their mother and their friends at school, especially a girl named Tara who has already had her memories adjusted once. They have their concerns about Rodeo Dave, the book guy. They have to protect a bird, who is also a valuable witness, from a hungry cat, who is also a member of Grandma X's team. They have to hide the bird, the cell phone their father gave them, and the talking death mask they brought home from the castle, from their innocent mother. And since they can't expect anybody to tell them what they need to know, they have to figure everything out for themselves—often in sneaky ways. And so it comes about, almost without their noticing, that they are keeping secrets from the very people they need to trust. Naturally, that is a foothold from which The Evil will take advantage.

The title of this book is not very distinctive. But the tale that unfolds beneath it is full of fun, magic, and spooky danger. It features a castle crammed with interesting and sinister objects, like a collection of whaling memorabilia, suits of armor that come to life, and a menagerie full of possessed animals. It also conceals a powerful object so well hidden that the person who hid it could search for it very urgently and never find it. Why it was hidden, why The Evil wants it, and how the twins can keep it out of The Evil's clutches one dreadful night when the wards collapse, are mystery enough to keep young readers, and the young at heart, happily focused on each turn of the page. And they will be just as happy to learn that there is more to come in this series. A fourth book, titled The Missing, has already been released.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove

The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove
by Christopher Moore
Recommended Ages: 14+

The off-season is usually a sleepy time in the scenic coastal town of Pine Cove, California. This fall, however, events conspire to make it a madcap emergency, combining crime, craziness, a man-eating monster from the depths of the ocean, and an epic wave of horniness. Fasten your Adult Content Advisory: it's going to be a raunchy comedy from the author of Practical Demonkeeping, which shares this book's setting and some of its characters.

It all starts with the apparent suicide of a devoted housewife, mother of two girls, and mildly obsessive neat freak, found hanging in her dining room. The first law officer on the scene is Theophilus Crowe, the perpetually stoned town constable, who owes his career to the endorsement of the county's terrifying sheriff. The woman's surprise suicide prompts a crisis of conscience in the town's only practicing psychiatrist, Dr. Val Riordan. Reconsidering her lazy, profit-motivated practice of keeping one-third of the townfolk on antidepressants, Val cajoles the local pharmacist into replacing everybody's pills with a lookalike placebo. The resulting outbreak of withdrawal, together with the music of a Delta bluesman named Catfish Jefferson, draws decompensating denizens in droves to the neighborhood watering hole, where they self-medicate on alcohol. But this high concentration of the blues (emotional and musical) also draws a giant, shape-changing sea serpent out of the sea. And that's when all oh là là breaks out.

Steve, as the sea serpent comes to be called, has lived by instinct for thousands of years. He has also lived, until recently, as a female. But when you're a prehistoric, aquatic lizard with a talent for genetic improv, things can change. Coming to Pine Grove changes Steve in a big way. He finds lust and (in a disturbingly funny way) erotic fulfillment. But he also begins to develop consciousness, the ability to remember his history and to consider the future. For example, he remembers the history he (formerly she) had with a certain traveling musician, an encounter that gave both of them a lingering case of the blues. And he strikes up an intimate relationship with a washed-up B-movie starlet named Molly Michon—one that needn't necessarily end with one partner chewing the other's head off.

But Steve is wounded and hungry. Nothing makes his maw slaver like the scent, or perhaps the electromagnetic vibe, of the truly depressed. And nothing attracts his prey like the vibe of ecstasy he gives off. Some feel it as a spiritual calling. Others simply feel their sexual appetites going into overdrive, from the receptionist who can't help helping herself to the druggist who lusts after marine mammals. Business at the town bar drops off as people suddenly lose the blues and start pairing up, often in neck-sprainingly surprising ways. And then, of course, citizens start to disappear as, one by one, they succumb to the lure of the single-wide reptile that has parked itself next door to Molly's place in the trailer park.

To be sure, Theo is on the case. On the other hand, he hardly needs to be reminded that he isn't a real cop. He only has the job because he was blackmailed into it by a sheriff who has even dirtier secrets than Theo's "victory garden." The poor guy just isn't trained to investigate missing-persons' cases, to solve a murder case that his boss has warned him to drop, or to save the town from a ravening beast, and the ravening beast from the town. But once all the other cops in the county cross the line and become the bad guys, there's no one else to do the job. Well, there's him, and Molly in her warrior-bimbo getup, and a nerdy biologist who enthuses over rats' brain chemistry, and a slightly corrupt shrink, and a blues musician whose rendition of "Green Onions" can reel in the ultimate lounge lizard, and a few misfits like them.

Obviously, in case you didn't pick up the hint by now, this is not a book for readers who like their entertainment rated "E" (for Everybody) or "G" (for General Audiences). The point I'm trying to get at is sex sex sex sex sex sex sex. It isn't so much that it describes the friction between body parts in clinical detail. Rather, it's what it suggests by the clever omission of details, and by the hilariously tacky and wacky images it allows the reader to imagine for himself. Nor is it that the book is straightforwardly, earnestly erotic. Rather, it is so candidly open about the shortcomings of some lovers, and the bizarre proclivities of others, that its love scenes play more for belly laughs than arousal. Those who will be persistently aroused by the book will probably be like those who are most persistently aroused within the book—in a word, wrong. But the syllable "wrong" might slip out as you laugh at the cosmically comic possibilities this book reveals, not only in its kissy bits, but also in its very adult depictions of violence and gruesome death. Whatever is so wrong with us that we can laugh at such things, Christopher Moore finds and brings it out with tireless cleverness and occasional spurts of downright poetic absurdity.

Moore is also the author of such titles as Bloodsucking Fiends and You Suck, both vampire novels with the subtitle "A Love Story," which I plan to read soon. Then there are Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal; Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings; The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror; and most recently, The Serpent of Venice. It is evident that a black humor, satire, and goofy aquatic eroticism are recurring themes in his work. I can't wait to see what strange thing he turns up next. I especially want to recommend the audiobook edition of this novel narrated by Oliver Wyman, a voice actor who can successively channel Keanu Reeves, Mykelti Williamson, and Droopy the Dog. If he enjoyed reading the book as much as I enjoyed hearing him do so, I want his job.

The Letter for the King

The Letter for the King
by Tonke Dragt
Recommended Ages: 10+

It was first published in 1962. It was recognized as the children's book of the year in 1963, and the best children's book in 50 years as of 2004. It was translated into fifteen different languages between 1977 and 2011. It has sold over a million copies. It was made into a feature film in 2008. Its author received a knighthood and a lifetime award for youth literature, and is considered the greatest children's author in her country. And when, I ask you, was this children's classic published in English? Answer: November 2013! Translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson, it serves as the inaugural title of the new Pushkin Children's Books label. Thanks to these unusual circumstances, I was able to read a special reviewers' copy of a book ten years older than myself. You too still have time to become one of the first English-speaking fans of this delightful book. You might be able to say you discovered it before the sequel, The Secrets of the Wild Wood, makes its English-language debut in 2015. Should you? You should.

The story takes place in a medieval fantasy-land where there are kings and knights, spies and assassins. In a chapel outside the royal city of Dagonaut, a sixteen-year-old boy named Tiuri is supposed to spend the night in prayer before being made a knight. Instead, he listens to a whispered plea for help and finds himself on an adventure. Soon he is being hunted by deadly enemies, pursued through lonely forests and over treacherous mountains, waylaid by robbers and corrupt officials, approached by mysterious strangers—and all for the sake of a letter that must be delivered to the King of neighboring Unauwen. Tiuri doesn't even know what the letter says! Whatever it is, the fate of a kingdom depends on it, and his promise to a dying knight constrains him to do his utmost.

As he travels across his wild and vividly colored world, Tiuri sees many wonderful things, makes great friends, faces terrifying dangers, falls a little bit in love, and grows in more directions than up. Though he must be ready to face the consequences of running away from knighthood, this adventure teaches him exactly what it means to be a knight. He learns a lot about courage and honor and resourcefulness, about keeping promises and helping the weak. He finds refuge in a hermit's hut, a monastery, a castle, and even a jail. He plays a role in a city's political upheaval and in the relations between three countries.

It doesn't all go smoothly. He gets into some close scrapes. He endures nights of skin-puckering tension and moments of almost certain death. He also deals with doubt, grief, and situations where all his choices seem to be bad. He wrestles, for example, with the dilemma between truth-telling and secret-keeping, between trust and suspicion, between mercy and justice. In one particularly moving passage, he saves the life of the man sent to kill him! Overcoming obstacles, passing through horrors, making quick decisions, and learning to be an effective commander, he proves himself worthy of being knighted—and he keeps us leaning close to catch every surprise, every thrill of suspense, every uplifting discovery and crushing disappointment, that propels this book along at a captivating pace, all the way to its most satisfying finish.

Tonke Dragt has written a variety of books and short stories for children, including science-fiction and fantasy stories set in the past, present, and future. If many of her stories have this book's international appeal, it is strange that her work has not become as well-known to English-speaking children as those of Astrid Lindgren or Tove Jansson. It's time to change that. Start by taking delivery of The Letter for the King; then tell others what you thought about it. Who knows? Maybe, by the time the sequel comes out, we'll see a long line of people waiting to buy it.

UPDATE: For readers in the U.K., this book becomes available in paperback on June 5, 2014. You can pre-order it here!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Churchspeak Explained

It is often embarrassing to realize, when you respond to a statement you have heard or read, that the speaker or writer was using a special linguistic register and that you didn't really understand their intended meaning. This can be most uncomfortable when it comes to communication within the church, where we're all meant to be united by a bond of brotherly or sisterly love. So here, for your future convenience, is a translation of some expressions commonly used in a church-related context. In each example, the words you hear or read are followed by the literal meaning.

The pastor's doctrine is all right, it's his personality that's the problem.
Translation: We've had it up to here with faithful Law and Gospel preaching.

Our kids would come back to the church if it would only make its services more seeker-friendly.
Translation: The church doesn't feel comfortable enough to unbelievers.

You shouldn't be so afraid of a change of style if the substance stays the same.
Translation: Please ignore the fact that we are replacing one religion with another.

You should have followed proper procedures of 8th Commandment/Matthew 18 admonition.
Translation: How dare you take a faithful stand against apostasy!

Let's lodge a complaint about this guy without following 8th/18 procedures.
Translation: We have to deal with this faithful twerp. There's no time to lose.

We've got to change how we (teach/worship) or our numbers will never grow.
Translation: The Word of God is not effective enough without added help.

Pastor, we're all going to withhold our offerings from the general fund.
Translation: If we can't sack you in an ungodly way, we will afflict you and your family until you quit.

Of course So-and-So (seldom seen in worship) is eligible to chair the Finance Committee. He's a lifelong member and highly capable!
Translation: Mammon is our God. Get out of the way.

Of course So-and-So (who resigned in protest under the previous pastor) should be reinstated as head elder, now that he's transferred back into membership.
Translation: He helped us get rid of the previous guy, maybe he can do it again.

We chose this congregation over three churches closer to home because we love it. But this, this, and this need to change.
Translation: We have chosen this church as our mission field to convert you all to the one true faith.

We just want what's best for you, pastor.
Translation: We think you should try another line of work.

Pastor has been faithful in every way, but we think it's time for him to move on.
Translation: He didn't do what we wanted him to do, so he must go.

The problem with you, pastor is (insert personal opinion about his character or that of his family).
Translation: I'm about to say the kind of thing to you that, if you said it to me, would end with me breaking my fist against your teeth. Now shut up and take it.