Sunday, June 29, 2014

Hosts

Hosts
by F. Paul Wilson
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the fifth of sixteen Repairman Jack novels, a strange Russian lady with a large white dog appears at Jack's sickbed and tells him that he, and he alone, must stop a virus that the Adversary of all mankind has unleashed to create war, hate, death, fear, pain, and destruction. Here is a snippet of their conversation:
"Stop virus before it spreads, or all you love will perish." She turned and headed for the bedroom door. "I leave you now."

Jack felt the temperature drop. No...more chills. He pulled the covers back over him.

"Lady, who are you?"

She and her big white dog stopped at the door and looked at him. "I am your mother."

Nonplussed, Jack struggled for a reply. She was nothing like his mother. Finally he resorted to a simple statement of fact.

"My mother's dead."

"She was your birth mother," she said. "I am your other mother."
If that doesn't qualify as creepy, the statute should be repealed. And this is only one-third of the way through a series of thrillers that get weirder and scarier with each installment. The Adversary bit suggests that this book also features a crossover with the same author's six-book Adversary Cycle. Whether you call it the Adversary or the Otherness, or whatever you choose to call it, it's a force from outside our reality whose intentions toward mankind are not good. Already in less than a year (Jack's time), it has tried to break into the world four different ways: vicious demons, diabolical machines, rips in the fabric of the universe, and most recently a drug that heightens aggression. Now it's found another way: turning an experimental cancer cure into a mutation that could end human life as we know it.

It isn't unusual for Jack's most serious cases to endanger the people he cares about the most. He's gotten pretty well mauled himself, a few times. But his work gets harder than ever when a young journalist witnesses him saving a subway carful of passengers from a mass murderer. Not only does the publicity threaten to blow his cover—no disaster could be worse for a man whose lifestyle is based on flying below the government's radar—but it also attracts the attention of a pair of professional bombers who have a grudge against Jack. And it's just when his invisibility cloak is slipping that he gets a new fix-it job that hits closer to home than most. For his new client, referred to him by the mysterious lady with dog, is none other than Jack's estranged sister Kate.

Kate has her own closet complete with skeletons. One of them is a lesbian lover whose personality suddenly changed after a life-saving cancer treatment. Kate worries that Jeanette has become involved in a cult. But it's actually much worse than that. All the members of this supposed cult were subjects in the same clinical trial. Somehow their miracle cure has mutated into a virus that has replaced their individual identities with a single, shared mind. Driven by the survival instincts of a sentient virus, they are only a few mutations away from being ready to spread their Unity to an unsuspecting world. From a virus's point of view, the result will be a paradise on earth. Other than that, it looks like the end of human civilization.

While Jack dodges the enquiring mind of his own personal Jimmy Olsen and the deathtraps set by a couple of pyrotechnic goons, he and Kate find themselves fighting an enemy that—thanks to Jeanette and her buddies—is now in their blood too. Kate feels herself gradually losing control over her own thoughts and actions. Jack becomes deathly ill, helpless and weak. And though the Russian lady assures him that he is the one who can stop the virus, it's hard to figure how he can do this. People who can act in concert, sharing the same mind, can be amazingly dangerous enemies. They know Jack is a threat to them. They have proven willing and able to kill whoever stands in their way. And he knows that if he doesn't stop them before the virus goes airborne, all will be lost.

Truly, fixing this is going to be a big job. It's going to hurt Jack more than any case he has worked so far. But more importantly, it poses the big "Why me?" question in a way that he can no longer ignore. For the first time, Jack begins to realize that his repeated brushes with the Otherness are more than a case of serendipity. He learns that he has been recruited as a warrior to fight an Adversary he does not understand, and he has no choice in this. It's not going to sit easy with a guy who values his own freedom (including the right to bear arms) as much as his own life. But he has eleven more novel-length adventures to learn to accept it. The next Repairman Jack book is The Haunted Air.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Resistance

Resistance
by Samit Basu
Recommended Ages: 14+

Thanks to the publicity department at Titan Books, I had the opportunity to read this book in advance of its publication in July 2014. In fact, they were even kind enough to send me a free copy of Turbulence, to which this is the sequel. In that book, India-born author Samit Basu introduced a new wrinkle on the superhero cape and spandex, with ordinary people on a present-day flight from London to Delhi becoming extraordinary in what would come to be called the First Wave. Each person on that flight, and on several other flights around the world, suddenly developed super powers based on what they wanted most in life. Some became villains, others heroes, and quite a few of them perished in the struggle for world domination that followed.

Now the story moves into the near future, somewhere around the year 2020. The world has been profoundly changed. There has been a Second Wave of powers as people figure out what flight-paths will make them super. The balance is tipping so that normal humans no longer have any achievements to look forward to, except to serve the super-powered ruling class. Some of the heroes from Turbulence are still trying to use their powers to make the world better for everyone, but they have their hands full with constant monster attacks, doomsday prophecies, hero-villain slug-fests, and super-powered rampages of destruction. The Unit, answerable to the United Nations, does its best, but it needs to be twelve places at one time, and mistakes are made that cost the world dearly. An evil corporation has arisen, seeking to control all the world's super-powered leagues and squads. And a young Japanese billionaire with a grudge against supers wants to level the playing field, no matter how many lives it costs.

The upshot is an action-packed book in which heroes and villains swap loyalties in surprising ways, giant creatures wreak huge amounts of property damage, and flying people, invincible people, shape-changing people, people who can teleport, and many other strange characters, pile onto each other in an escalating series of battles around the world. Brace yourself for a plague of insectoid zombies. Duck and cover as tanks, aircraft, and rocket-launchers square off against mad-scientist inventions and ninja robots. Hang on tight while the Justice League and the Power Rangers, or their nearest equivalents, employ their abilities with rare tactical brilliance in the super-power smackdown of the century. And try not to squirm as the action pushes closer to the date on which the end of the world has been reliably predicted.

Precisely what goes on in this story is too complicated to summarize briefly. Let it be enough to say that it's exciting, often suspenseful, and at the same time full of thought-provoking ambiguities. Sometimes even the good guys and the bad guys aren't certain which they are—whether what they are doing is right or wrong, helpful or destructive. Often their actions and their motives are mixed, and the lulls in the action leave plenty of room for emotion-fraught soul-searching. It makes the texture of the adventure that much more interesting. As for who does the good and bad stuff, I suppose there is room in this review for a taster. Among the leading heroes and villains in this story, you will find—
  • Aman, the ultimate hacker: a bloke from India whose mind can control the internet
  • Uzma, the siren: a British-Pakistani beauty who can get people to do whatever she tells them to do
  • Tia, the one-woman army: a woman from India who can split off copies of herself and merge them back in again
  • Vir, the lone ranger: a solitary Superman who goes around righting wrongs, and wants nothing to do with global politics
  • Jai, the ultimate soldier: a once and future supervillain who cannot be killed
  • Sher, the tiger man: enough said
  • Anima, the anime girl: a warrior princess with cartoon eyes and an endless arsenal of glowing bladed weapons
  • Jason, the telegenic telekinetic: a teen heartthrob who moves junk with his mind while starring in a TV series about himself
  • That Guy, the photobomber: a nobody whose superpower is to always be wherever something important or interesting is going down
  • Kalki, the boy god: an insane, blue-skinned, four-armed, horse-headed child whose wish-granting ability can actually alter reality
—not to mention somebody who can conjure up a different Godzilla to stomp on Tokyo every month, and a girl whose blood can cure diseases, the guy who can pass through solid objects, the detective who doesn't need to rely on deduction to find her man, and many, many, many more. It's a superpocalypse, and you're invited, along with the whole rest of the world. If you have the guts to poke your head out of the comfortable and familiar and try a new, somewhat foreign flavor ("international" would be a better description), you will be richly rewarded. Only look out for falling buildings, animated statues, monsters with poisonous flatulence, and the possibility of at least a third book to come!

Samit Basu's other titles include the Devi novels, also featuring Indian superheroes; the GameWorld Trilogy, which appears to be a mash-up/spoof of world folklore and sci fi-fantasy classics; and Terror on the Titanic, the first in what looks like a series of historical fiction-fantasy-mysteries featuring the Morningstar Agency. He is also the author or co-author of several India-themed graphic novels.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Rot & Ruin

Rot & Ruin
by Jonathan Maberry
Recommended Ages: 13+

Though I have never read a book by Jonathan Maberry before, this one came home with me in the middle of a pile of library books. And there it stayed until I had renewed it so many times that I had to take it back to the library and check it out again. I have never really taken much interest in Zombie Apocalypse literature. But something about this book appealed to me to that extent. Maybe it was the fly-leaves' depiction of several collectible Zombie Cards, depicting not only notable zoms but also a few slayers and other legendary figures haunting the Rot and Ruin—which is to say, just about everywhere outside the fence surrounding the town of Mountainside, California, and the struggling band of survivors that calls it home.

It all started on First Night, when the dead rose and began to shamble, bite, and multiply. Civilization fell pretty quickly after that. Now only a few towns remain in trading range of Mountainside. Everything mechanical and electronic has been fried by an electromagnetic pulse. The horse-drawn era has returned. Most folks don't go far outside the fences, certainly without an escort of armed zombie hunters. Food is rationed, and everybody over the age of fifteen must work or starve. When people die, their corpses must be quieted with, for example, a sharp blade to the brain-stem. Outside the fence line is a place of terrifying danger and lawlessness. And that's exactly where Benny Imura, a lazy kid barely old enough to remember First Night, has to go if he wants his rations.

After trying a bunch of other jobs, Benny grudgingly apprentices himself to his half-brother Tom, who is widely respected for his effectiveness as a quieter of the restless dead. A lot of folks in Mountainside think of Tom as a hero. Two of the town's toughest and coolest hunters, Charlie Pink-eye and the Motor City Hammer, think of Tom as a threat. Benny, whose earliest memory is being carried in his arms while Tom fled from the home where their parents were becoming zoms, thinks of his brother as a coward and a traitor. Tom thinks of himself not so much as a zombie hunter or slayer, but as a "closure specialist." In a few intense days in the zombie-haunted wilds, Ben begins to think differently about a lot of things, including Tom.

Dangerous as zombies undeniably are, Benny learns that warm-blooded, live human beings are even more monstrous and deadly. He learns that some people he thought of as cool are really evil. He learns to mingle his fear and hatred of zoms with respect and even compassion. And he locates the hero he never expected to find—not only in Tom, but also in himself. But before he can complete this last step, he must be stirred up by tragedy and injustice at home, and by a desperate and heartbreaking ordeal in the Rot and Ruin. Soon Benny will be hunting not zombies, but men—men who are capable of murder, kidnapping, child exploitation, blood sport, and other forms of shocking violence. Men who think they can take away people Benny cares about and get away with it. Men who are out to get a Lost Girl whose fate Benny can't stop thinking about since he saw her on a rare Zombie Card. Men who already have the girl Benny loves. Stronger men, with skills and experience Tom hasn't had time to teach him.

To go after them alone, whether for justice or for vengeance or simply to save the girl (or girls), is probably more dangerous to Benny than to the bad guys. And yet he goes, learning along the way exactly who the monsters are, and what heroes are made of. The adventures of Benny in the zombified wilderness of post-apocalyptic California begin with dark-tinted coming-of-age comedy, a warm glow of puppy love, and a serious helping of family drama. It grows from there into a rich story of courage, survival, and humanity, livened up with a peppery snort of action and horror. It's one of those books that can make you laugh and cry, as well as cringe, squirm, and bite your lip in suspense.

Jonathan Maberry's list of titles suggests that he specializes in tales of the Walking Dead. He has also written some novels featuring demons, vampires and werewolves, such as the recent Bad Blood and the Bram Stoker Award-winning Ghost Road Blues. This book kicks off a quartet of Benny Imura novels that continues in Dust & Decay.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Right Ho, Jeeves

Right Ho, Jeeves
by P. G. Wodehouse
Recommended Ages: 13+

The Jeeves novels are one of the few series of books I have chosen to enjoy without any regard to canon order or the order of publication. Wikipedia has a nice list of the books it comprises, if you're interested. I'm interested, but only so far as making sure that I don't miss any of them. Nothing brightens my outlook on the world after a nutritious diet of serious books on CD, quite like listening to an audio-book of a Jeeves novel read by the likes of Jonathan Cecil or David Ian Davies. The latter gave voice to the characters in this book during a long, tedious road trip this week. It really made the trip for me. The actor gave just the right vocal touch to dimwitted playboy narrator Bertie Wooster, his brilliant but tight-lipped servant Jeeves, his pushy Aunt Dahlia, his thick-necked (not to say thick-headed) clubmate Tuppy Glossop, his weedy old school chum Gussie Fink-Nottle, and many other daffy characters.

While some of the Jeeves books are collections of short stories, this one is a solid (though not very long) novel. Its plot, similar to many other adventures of Bertie and his man Jeeves, has to do with mending two broken betrothals, saving an endangered marriage, distributing prizes at a boys' school, and staving off the resignation of a supremely gifted French chef, all upon a summer holiday in the Worcestershire countryside. In its dimensions it appears to be a trifling piece of entertainment. In its style of narration, it partakes of the stylish slang of a British upper-class dandy riding the crest of fashion a la 1934. By all rights, it out to be as tediously, or even perhaps offensively, outdated as the desiccated corpse of an 80-year-old mayfly. But in fact it comes right to life with humor that still draws chuckles, snorts, and belly-laughs galore.

Harry Potter audio-book reader Stephen Fry, who played Jeeves on British TV, recommends one scene in this book as "the single funniest piece of sustained writing in the language," according to Wiki. According to myself, who enjoyed that very passage with my own ears, the whole book is a treasure. It's a romantic farce that holds together not only by its skillfully constructed plot, but also by its author's unerring genius for drawing forth character details, and by his evident delight in the nuances of the English language. Even tortured as it is on the lips of Bertie Wooster, the power of the word yields enough glittering facets of wit, irony, sarcasm, irritation, insult, foolery, and embarrassment to keep you laughing at, and at the same time squirming on behalf of, Bertie and his friends. It miraculously enables you to smirk satirically at the follies of the idle rich, wallow in an envious fantasy of being among them, and feel a warm but tolerant affection for them, all at the same time. And for all its lightweight and ephemeral qualities, it is so excellently written that it may continue to entertain for at least another eighty years.

This book has also been published in the U.S. under the title Brinkley Manor. It stands little short of midway through a list of Jeeves titles spanning 18 books published over a 57-year period. To-date I have only read six of them. I have a lot of droll, Jeevesy, romantic-comedy fun to look forward to. It's how I plan to reward myself for being a good, hard-working boy who will never be able to live as high as Bertie Wooster does, let alone employ a valet with the brainpower Jeeves has. To which I can almost Jeeves replying, "Very good, sir."

Odd Apocalypse

Odd Apocalypse
by Dean Koontz
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the sixth Odd Thomas novel, a young fry cook who sees dead people continues his sabbatical from the spatula and grill. As in his previous two adventures, he finds trouble brewing in a misnamed California coastal town. In Odd Hours it was Magic Beach, where practically everything in town is named contrary to its nature, where premonitions of nuclear disaster forced him into the role of avenging angel, and where he was joined in his travels by a mysterious pregnant girl named Annamaria. In Odd Interlude, the town was Harmony Corners, where Annamaria memorably pointed out that there was no harmony, and where an entire clan lived as slaves of a psychic puppet-master with E.T. D.N.A. Now Odd finds himself in the guest tower of a country estate called Roseland, where there are no roses, and something (by any other name) smelleth rotten. He senses that it may be the most evil place he has ever visited. He wants to leave immediately. But Annamaria tells him that someone at Roseland needs to be saved, and only Odd can do it.

As Odd finds things out by his usual, paranormal method of "making it up as he goes along," there really is something weird going on at Roseland. What at first seems to be prophetic visions, or tricks of the light, seem more and more to be side-effects of the strange architecture of the estate, and of the machinery that runs silently within the walls. Built in the 1920s by a movie-industry mogul, the place is full of secrets, suspicious staff members, disturbing noises in the night, and ghostly apparitions that are strange even by Odd's standards. One of them belongs to a woman on horseback who indicates, by frantic signs, that her young son is in danger—though there haven't been horses at Roseland for decades. Another apparition, whom Odd eventually identifies as scientific genius Nikola Tesla, actually speaks out loud—something that, in Odd's experience, ghosts never do.

But even these oddities are nothing compared to those moments when the sky goes yellow, and morning suddenly turns into evening, and gangs of bipedal swine prowl the grounds in search of prey, and giant vampire bats darken the sky. Moments in time from the far future, perhaps the end of the world, push their way into the present. And behind every door on the Roseland grounds is something ghastly, strange, or downright impossible. By the time Odd puzzles together what is happening at Roseland, nearly everyone else there is hunting for him with deadly intent. What he fears above all is that he must become a scourge of cosmic justice—a role that must end with him, in turn, being scourged. Odd senses that his calling, to save the innocent from great evil, puts him in supreme danger—not merely of dying, for he does not fear death; but of becoming a sort of holy hit-man, to kill and kill and kill until his soul is consumed. And that would mean not enjoying his fondly awaited eternity together with his dearly missed Stormy.

Odd must be a remarkable hero, if in spite of the grisly horrors and reality-twisting oddities he encounters in this book, and the all but certain death that threatens him around every corner, the danger that concerns him most—and that will concern you, too—is a danger to his soul. But he is exactly that sort of hero, regardless. A gentle, softspoken, humble hero who comes across to many people as a halfwit, yet who is amazingly resourceful, insightful, and philosophical. A guy who hates guns and loves life, yet who regularly demonstrates the ability to apply just the right amount of deadly force at just the right time. As his strange pilgrimage continues, his entourage of companions—including dogs, ghosts, and living people—grows in both number and unusualness. His wanderings continually lead him into darker and more bizarre encounters with the evil within the heart of man, with a different supernatural twist each time. Yet he never loses faith in the existence of a "sacred vertical order," and the hope of good things to come. It's a unique thread in the tapestry of horror-fantasy. And it continues for at least four more books after this. The next title in the sequence is In Odd We Trust.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Turbulence

Turbulence
by Samit Basu
Recommended Ages: 14+

What if, instead of all-American journalist Clark Kent, Superman turns out to be an Indian Air Force pilot named Vir Singh? What if his archnemesis also happens to be his commanding officer? What's in store for the world when passengers on a flight from London to Delhi suddenly start to present super powers? One of those passengers, a nerdy guy named Aman, has thoroughly studied the prophetic texts on this subject—namely, comic books—but he isn't sure they give the right answers. It may not be as simple as powered people coming together and using their talents to serve mankind. As he struggles to understand the purpose for his newfound abilities, he begins to wonder whether that thinking will make him a superhero or a supervillain. Pointless as a city-wrecking knock-down-drag-out between indestructible heroes and villains may be, the survivors of British Airways flight 142 seem to be choosing sides for just such a fight. Such is the frailty of human nature.

This energetic novel bowls past the tedious details of the superhero origins stories. It begins when things are already starting to go wrong, after many of the 403 passengers on that flight have already been either recruited, captured, or killed by a super-soldier named Jai. Some of them are still pretty confused about what their powers are, or how to make good use of them. A few of the more dangerous ones have signed on to help Jai achieve world domination. And then there are Aman's group, who want to try to do good with their powers, but recognize the evil of what Jai & Co. are doing. The trouble isn't just that power corrupts, or that great power brings great responsibility. It's that, given the complexity of the world, hardly any good deed is unmixed with evil consequences. It isn't just that wherever there are superheroes, there must also be supervillains; but even the good guys themselves have to wrestle with choices that may lead them to become bad guys.

This moral grayness doesn't make this super-powered thriller any less thrilling. The line between good and evil is there, and the good guys and bad guys are clearly on one side of it or the other—most of the time. But in between sequences of mind-boggling danger, between chases and battles and dramatically fraught confrontations, the good guys must battle the ever-present temptation to seize power and rule the world with an arrogant fist. So in addition to gruesome violence, spectacular displays of indifference to property values, and passages that splash blockbuster production values all over your mental movie screen, this book also offers thought-provoking debates, sensitive character touches, and a wealth of ironic humor.

Newbies may want to keep a world atlas handy—or better yet, a smart phone with Wikipedia bookmarked—so that references to such cities as Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, and Goa can be put in context. Some cultural references specific to the subcontinent may likewise require a little self-motivated research. Surprise! The world, even the English-speaking part of it, is bigger than the U.S. and the U.K. There is really surprisingly little in this book that will go over the heads of readers unfamiliar with modern Indian history. In a lot of ways, western readers will find Indian life as depicted in this book amazingly familiar, even while tinged with foreignness. India, we find, is full of the same character types, walks of life, social pastimes, and technological wonders that we have here—and more.

There has perhaps never been a better time for a book centered on India to reach American readers, given the growing influence of Bollywood and India's rise as a global superpower. Reading this book may help make American young adults aware of a larger world around them. But it's the larger perspective on superherodom that will draw them in. Sometime screen writer and graphic novelist Samit Basu explores not only superhero origins, but where they will go from there, with a spot-on mix of excitement, thoughtfulness, and emotional depth. Unlike some recent variations on these themes, such as a TV series that must not be named, Basu never misses the mark. And so this book is as highly satisfying as its sequel is eagerly anticipated. Resistance goes into worldwide release in July 2014.

Cosmic

Cosmic
by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Recommended Ages: 12+

Two twelve-year-olds from Waterloo, U.K. (near Liverpool) tell their parents they are going to the Lake District for a school camp, when in fact they are going to the moon. Kids these days! It's only the latest prank pulled by young Liam, who has made a study of ways to get in trouble by being tall for his age and stubbly-chinned. When adults mistake him for one of them because of his height and mature looks, it's as if he can't help himself. It starts at an amusement park, with a thrill ride other kids his age are too short to try. Then there's his first day in high school, when the headmistress mistakes him for the new teacher. By the time his father catches him trying to test-drive a Porsche, you would think Liam's fever for mischief has run its course. But you would be wrong. This thrill ride goes all the way to the moon.

How does a twelve-year-old, even a tall and whiskery twelve-year-old, get into the space program? First, by persuading a girl named Florida Digby to pretend that he's her father. Then it's just a matter of winning a space-age version of Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket, becoming one of four father-child pairs to be selected for the first passengers on the end-all of thrill rides. Dr. Drax, a Chinese cell-phone and video-game tycoon, flies the lucky families to a secret site in the Gobi Desert, where a rocket is about to take children into space for the first time in earth's history. Astronauts (or taikonauts, as the Chinese call them) need to start young, Dr. Drax says, if they are going to reach the stars.

Imagine Liam's disappointment when he realizes the he will have to stay on the ground while Florida and three other kids blast off into outer space. But then comes the idea of including adult supervision in the flight plans. Now all he has to do is prove that he's the best Dad for the job. Even though, you know, he's really a kid.

Skipping over a whole series of outrageous and hilarious adventures, we finally find Liam chaperoning four other kids his age in the adventure of a lifetime. It would be great if everything went right. But of course, it all goes wrong. Cosmically wrong. "Completely Doomed" wrong. And that's when a big little boy who just wants his daddy must man up and become the world's greatest Dad. For as somebody at NASA famously said, "Failure is not an option."

After reading Millions and Framed, one may rely on Carnegie Medal winner Frank Cottrell Boyce to tell an exciting story, rich in thought-provoking ideas, tinged with heartwarming feelings, and sparkling with fun. In this third novel, "a book about the magic of parents," he does not disappoint. Although primarily a TV and film script writer, he has carved a niche for himself in juvenile fiction. His subsequent YA titles include Desirable, The Unforgotten Coat, and three recent sequels to the Ian Fleming classic Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Book of the Sword

The Book of the Sword
by A. J. Lake
Recommended Ages: 12+

Edmund is a prince with the power to see through the eyes of other people and animals, to communicate mind-to-mind. Elspeth is a sailor's daughter who has formed an intimate bond with a magic sword. Together, they are either mankind's only hope to defeat the evil god Loki, or Loki's only hope to defeat mankind. Welcome to Book 2 of the Darkest Age trilogy!

This middle book begins where the first left off, with Edmund and Elspeth dangling from the talons of a dragon named Torment. Wherever he is taking them, it will certainly be death to arrive in his claws. Luckily, the two children escape. But they continue working their way northward to the glacier-covered mountain where Loki is chained in the middle of a lake of fire. His bonds are weakening. He has been sending out his mind, and his minions, to do mischief that may lead to the breaking of his chains. If that happens, Loki will bring a swift and fiery vengeance on the world of men.

Though the danger of moving forward seems overwhelming, Elspeth's sword has a mind of its own. Come bandits or barbarians, come restless spirits or water-dwelling creatures, there is no resisting the pull of the sword's destiny. The sword has a chilling history, related in short snippets between chapters of the children's adventure. Its destiny is to destroy Loki, unless he gains control and uses it to set himself free. Even if Elspeth realizes that approaching Loki with such a sword is more dangerous to her, and to all the world, than to him, she can't help pressing on. The sword's will is strong. And deceptions, dangers, and dragons spur the children on, together with a growing group of companions.

If all went according to plan, there would be no need for a third book. As this is only the middle part of the trilogy, however, it's hardly spoiling things to hint that things take a rather dark turn at the end. So dark, in fact, that it almost feels like the first step down a steep slope into tragedy. In a series titled The Darkest Age, you have to be prepared for such a possibility. But if the world can still be saved—and after this book, there is just the slenderest chance of that—it will have to be a spectacular saving, full of heart-hammering thrills. Imagine the possibilities, involving dragons, ghosts, gods, and magic; not to mention elves, trolls, wizards, and armies! The kids get a setback in Book 2, but don't count them out either. Whatever happens next, it will all depend on them. And the name of the book it will happen in is The Circle of Stone.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Scumble

Scumble
by Ingrid Law
Recommended Ages: 12+

In her debut novel Savvy, Ingrid Law introduced us to the big, unconventional Beaumont family, in which each child manifests a unique super-power (called a "savvy") on his or her thirteenth birthday. The challenge is to recognize what that savvy is and scumble it, or figure out how to control it, before something big happens. Otherwise people could get hurt; or, even worse, outsiders might find out about the family's secret. In this sequel, we meet some of the Beaumonts again, as well as their cousins the O'Connells and the Kales. The birthday kid this time is Ledger "Ledge" Kale, whose special ability to "Bust! Things! Up!" literally brings down the house at a family wedding reception.

Suddenly Ledge's hopes of gaining super-speed, so he can win a father-son half-marathon with his Dad, must now make way for a summer sentenced to the Flying Cattleheart Ranch near Sundance, Wyoming. There he joins other "defective misfits" in his family as they work out how to scumble their savvy. There's cousin Rocket, whose ability to shoot lightning out of his fingertips has caused a lot of brownouts, fried circuitry, and even some bodily harm. There's Rocket's brother Samson, who was last seen blowing out the candles on his thirteenth-birthday cake, and now spends most of his time invisible. Like these guys, Ledge needs to master the fears, the anger, and other upsetting emotions that make it hard to control his gift. If only his power were good for something besides smashing things and making people mad at him...

But Ledge may have even bigger problems. On his first day in Sundance, he bumped into a local girl named Sarah Jane Cabot, who publishes her own weekly newspaper of the bizarre. From the moment they meet, SJ picks up the scent of a big scoop. Soon Ledge is torn between frustration at not being able to shake the girl off his trail, and the disturbing sense that he may not want to. Uncle Autry, the insect whisperer, certainly doesn't want Ledge hanging around with the girl; and her father, the meanest, foreclosingest mortgage lender in town, wants Ledger around even less. The harder Ledge tries to make things right, the more trouble he causes—even after he starts to get a handle on how to use his savvy for good. By the time he realizes the truth about the junior journalist and her own special gift, it may be too late to save the ranch from an angry man with a wrecking ball.

Scumble is a funny, fast-paced, family-friendly adventure, filled with quirky characters and their unique magic. Besides a grip of suspense and a glow of emotional uplift, it also offers some youthful romance, and gently touches on themes relevant to these economically tough times. The combination of fantasy elements with Ledge's athletic leanings could make this book equally attractive to jocks and nerds. And hey, if they can agree on anything, it must be good! A third book in this series, titled Switch, is promised for 2015.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Timeless

Timeless
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 14+

The fifth and final book of "The Parasol Protectorate" confronts Lady Alexia Maccon, née Tarabotti, and her team of supernatural sleuths, with a mystery that reaches back into ancient Egypt. Intertwined with this mystery are a present-day murder case, a dark secret that threatens to break up the pack of werewolves led by Alexia's Alpha husband, and the lingering puzzle of the father she never knew. And so a racy, funny series of romantic whodunits, blending vampires, werewolves, 1870s steampunk, and complex but convincing world-building, comes to an exciting and richly satisfying conclusion.

The victim is Dubh, the Beta werewolf of Scotland's Kingair pack. He drops dead at Alexia's feet, pierced by an assassin's bullet just before he can reveal a secret that has something to do with Egypt and the God-Breaker Plague. For those of you who missed Changeless, this is an area in which vampires and werewolves turn into mortals, and ghosts are simply exorcised. Earlier in the series it was established that the GBP is connected with the rare type of person Alexia is: a preternatural, or soulless, whose touch has the same effect.

Now, for reasons that can't be unconnected to whatever Dubh has found out, the Queen of the Alexandria Hive has commanded Alexia to attend her, and bring her metanatural daughter (don't ask). This is serious. The Egyptian vampire queen is only the oldest vampire in existence. And though little Prudence is under the protection of Lord Akeldama, the flamboyant vampire who presides over London fashion, Queen Matakara's interest in her is unlikely to be a good thing. Prudence's abilities are even more of a threat to supernatural types than her mother's—and only Alexia's touch can control them.

One noisy, colorful voyage by train and steamship later, Alexia arrives in Egypt with her husband, child, and a whole troupe of actors led by her flighty friend Ivy Tunstell. Ivy and her husband have infant twins of their own, and when one of them is kidnapped from their hotel, Alexia and Conall set out in pursuit. Or so they think. Actually their strange journey into the heart of Egypt will lead them to an even stranger and more dangerous discovery than who kidnapped baby Primrose. While pack politics back at home is turned upside-down by an untimely revelation, an autumn-spring romance (Adult Content Advisory!), a bit of keen detective work, and the emergence of an unexpected talent for lycanthrope leadership, Alexia must walk alone—ever so alone—into the lair of a hive of vampires poised on the edge of madness.

Could there by a more nasty place to end my synopsis? Hear me chuckle with evil glee! But although the whole series comes to a well-shaped climax in this book, be not dismayed. Gail Carriger is not yet done with Alexia's fascinating world. Besides a series of graphic novels based on this series, there is also a spinoff series titled "Finishing School," of which it is rumored there will be at least four books; the two already published are Etiquette and Espionage and Curtsies and Conspiracies. A second spinoff series, titled "The Custard Protocol," looks like it will feature the grown-up Prudence.

Monday, June 16, 2014

All the Rage

All the Rage
by F. Paul Wilson
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the fourth Repairman Jack novel, the rakoshi are back. Those were the blue-skinned, yellow-eyed, man-eating demons from Indian prehistory, who terrorized Jack and his loved ones in The Tomb. Now the last rakosh—the one who left his claw-marks on Jack's chest—has turned up in a freak show at the same quaint Long Island town where Jack battled the otherness in Conspiracies. Jack is torn between killing it, to make sure it can never hurt Gia and Vicky again, and leaving it alone to die in captivity. But his decision is complicated by an outbreak of extreme violence, the result of a designer drug that has become all the rage (ha, ha) in the streets of Manhattan.

This drug is the reason Jack's client, a lovely lady molecular biologist, fears that a Serbian gangster is terrorizing her boss. The drug is the reason the directors of a small pharmaceuticals company are willing to contract for murder. The drug is the reason their top sales rep, who also moonlights as a computer hacker, gets kidnapped. And there are even stranger things about this drug. Every month, at the precise moment of the new moon, all unused doses of the drug instantly break down into an inert substance. Not only does the active ingredient's color, efficacy, and molecular structure change, but all records of its structure change with it—including handwritten notes, computer printouts, photos, models, and even people's memories. How can science explain this? It can't. But if the conspirators at GEM Pharmaceuticals don't deliver fresh monthly supplies to their Serbian partner, he will kill them.

The problem is, the only source of this unstable molecule is the rakosh's blood. And the last rakosh is, as I may have mentioned, dying in captivity. A crisis is approaching that can only end in blood. One research chemist has already been silenced. Another has grown desperate enough to bring in one of his most brilliant former students. She doesn't know that the substance she is trying to stabilize comes from a creature from the deepest hell, nor that it is the drug that is causing so much mayhem in the streets. She only finds out about this after she hires Jack to find out what hold Milos Dragovic has over her former mentor. And Jack only agrees to do the job after another client, who wants revenge against Dragovic for the murder of his nephew, agrees to chip in.

The revenge Jack plans is harmless fun (unless you happen to be Milos Dragovic). But non-lethal pranks escalate into deadly trouble when Jack himself gets dosed with the drug known alternately as Loki and Berzerk. Once again Gia and Vicky are in danger, only this time Jack himself may be the means of hurting them. And that's one thing he won't take sitting down. Jack's final revenge against Dragovic and his accomplices is chilling. His race to save his client and her fiance from a horrifying death is intense. And his final hunt for an escaped rakosh in the mysterious Pine Barrens of New Jersey brings the kind of scariness that may make a reader want to cover his eyes with both hands. And this can be very inconvenient if, like me, you happen to be listening to the audiobook while driving on a winding scenic highway. With apologies to everyone who passed me on US-50 during Father's Day weekend, I recommend this thrilling segment of a sixteen-novel sequence, which continues in Hosts.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Geek Fantasy Novel

Geek Fantasy Novel
by E. Archer
Recommended Ages: 13+

Ralph is a geek, but not the type who would ordinarily dream of becoming the hero in a fantasy novel. In fact, Ralph's boring parents have done their best to instill in him a flat, unheroic, unimaginative character. Their reason is that it is dangerous for members of their family to make wishes. The closest thing to a wish that has ever crossed Ralph's mind is his dream of being a computer game designer. I know, right? What a geek! But then the fantasy novel happens to him.

It starts when the disreputable British side of Ralph's family invites him over to their castle. Even without his parents' permission, Ralph flies from New Jersey to England and almost immediately gets pulled into a perilous adventure involving wish-granting and storybook quests come to life. Each of Ralph's three cousins gets a forbidden wish from their dodgy Aunt Chessie, a notorious duchess with a flair for hawking exercise equipment. As each of the children goes on a fairy-tale-like quest, Ralph tags along in his geeky, buzzkill manner and tries to help them not get killed by the fulfillment of their wishes. But his efforts are adorably lame, and Chessie really throws herself into the role of villain in each story within the story, and even the narrator begins to lose his objectivity. Between Ralph's meddling and the narrator's increasing disregard of the Fourth Wall, a simple matter of three wishes, leading to three elegantly connected modern fairy tales, gets so messed up that it distorts the very nature of storytelling.

This book's title, and especially its cover art, hint at what a strong force a dork like Ralph may exert on a bedtime story's narrative flow. What they don't even begin to suggest is the loopiness that can come in when an invisible, third-person-omniscient narrator gets pulled into his own story. At one point there are two narrators vying with each other. As Ralph increasingly stymies the narrator's plans for his story, the stakes get higher and higher. Exploding bunnies, rampaging fairies, and angelic interventions escalate to a world-destroying disaster, gruesome death, a nasty afterlife, and even something beyond that. What could be weirder than the underworld? Don't ask me. Ask this book, whose narrator gives up and becomes a character before the end.

When magic, the rules of storytelling, and death itself collide with a cellphone-toting geek's determination to do heroism his own way, the outcome can only be more or less bizarre. This debut novel by a New York-based writer pokes daringly at the limits of bizarreness that a casual reader will tolerate. He seasons his experiment with lots of humor, often of the geek-deprecating (and thus, self-deprecating) persuasion. He lets his unlikely hero grow in a way that proves touching by the end. And he puts in plenty of snappy dialogue, such as this exchange between Ralph and the Grim Reaper:
"Are you aware that you are the last being alive in all the land?"

Ralph shook his head.

"You are. Are you willing to perform the duties required of you as said last being alive?"

Ralph shook his head.

"Are you willing to perform the duties required of you as said last being alive?"

Ralph shook his head.

"Are you willing to perform the duties required of you as said last being alive?"

Ralph nodded.

"Brilliant."

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Heartless

Heartless
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 14+

It's the fourth book of The Parasol Protectorate, and only the first time that phrase is mentioned in the series. Also known as Alexia Tarabotti novels (though she's been Lady Maccon since her marriage), they relate the racy, dangerous adventures of a soulless, or preternatural, lady in a steampunk version of Victorian England. Being preternatural means she can turn vampires and werewolves mortal with a touch; she can even exorcise ghosts. Being the wife of Conal Maccon, Alpha werewolf of the Woolsey Pack, means that she has influence over one segment of the Greater London supernatural set. Her seat on the Queen's secret Shadow Council, as muhjah (representing the preternatural interest), gives her unusual (for a woman) influence over government policy. And her unprecedented pregnancy, the fruit of a cross-species mating with a werewolf, makes her a threat to the undead status quo.

The vampires—particularly those of the Westminster Hive, who are bonded to a certain Countess Nadasdy like insects to their queen—have been trying to kill Alexia since she became pregnant. Their latest attempt, using porcupines engineered to shoot poisoned quills, came too close for comfort. The only way to pacify the Hive, it seems, is to let Lord Akeldama, the flamboyant rove vampire who now sits on the Shadow Council, adopt her child. The only arrangements by which Alexia will accept this are sure to put werewolf-vampire relations to the test. The wolf pack has just moved into the town house next door to Akeldama's when a ghost appears, warning of an impending, supernatural attempt on the Queen's life. And so Alexia is on the case again.

The BUR (Bureau of Unnatural Registry) can only help so much. The full moon is a week away. The werewolf agents are starting to get furry—especially young Biffy, who isn't handling well the shock of changing from Lord Akeldama's favorite drone to the newest pup in the Woolsey Pack. Alexia herself is hampered by her advanced pregnancy, and by the strange behavior of her awful half-sister Felicity, who has forced herself on the household once again. Alexia suspects that the plot is somehow connected to the betrayal that split Conal from his previous pack and led to him challenging for leadership of the Woolsey Pack, thirty years ago. But whether that means the would-be assassins are werewolves, vampires, or boffins, she can't tell. She becomes desperate enough to send her flighty friend Ivy to do some snooping for her. She becomes concerned about the well-being of her unconventional friend Madame Lefoux, the mannish French inventor.

It is finally the dying declaration of a fading ghost that gives her the clue that makes all the pieces snap together. But by that time, it may already be too late to stop a rampaging engine of destruction from upsetting the balance of supernatural power. The lifestyles of the undead about town, whether fanged or furry, will never be the same after one night of frenzied maneuvers, battles, birth-pangs, and other surprises.

Witty, sexy, thrilling, and full of innovative ideas about vampires, werewolves, and whatnot, this series reaches its conclusion in the next book, Timeless. A spinoff series titled Finishing School, featuring the infant inconvenience featured in this novel, begins with Etiquette and Espionage. Gail Carriger is the pen-name of American-born and British-educated archaeologist Tofa Borregaard.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Odd Interlude

Odd Interlude
by Dean Koontz
Recommended Ages: 14+

This book bills itself as "A Special Odd Thomas Adventure." Its main character describes it as a "detour from the main arc of my journey." In this list of the works of Dean Koontz, extremely prolific horror maven that he is, it is listed separately from the canonical series of (so far) seven Odd Thomas novels. And before being published in a single paperback volume, it was originally rolled out as a three-part series of novellas. Its publication date puts it between Odd Apocalypse and Deeply Odd. But both in canon order and on the author's website, it fits between Odd Hours and Odd Apocalypse. To make it simple for myself, I'm going to think of it as the fifth Odd Thomas novel, taking place within about 24 hours after the events of Odd Hours. Feel free to disagree.

This book is an exception to the rule as Odd Thomas adventures go, even apart from its origin as an e-book serial. Until now, Odd has used his paranormal abilities—seeing dead people, psychic magnetism, the occasional prophetic dream, etc.—mainly to stave off merely mortal monsters. His powers have helped him to stay alive while killing evil people before they can carry out their plans to cause death on an even more massive scale. He cut short an attempt to shoot up and bomb a shopping mall. He saved a hostage from a witchy woman and her wacko minions. He protected a schoolful of monks, nuns, and disabled children from a mad scientist's killer experiment. And he defused a conspiracy to nuke several American cities and use the chaos to take over the country. Though the mysterious power that keeps pulling him from one crisis to another has been picking up speed and magnitude like an avalanche—though Odd very reasonably suspects that he can't survive much more of this—he can at least take comfort in the fact that, apart from his psychic powers, he has only had to cope with normal human wickedness. More or less.

Well, there was that hint about reanimated corpses in Forever Odd. And those quantum bone beasties in Brother Odd did defy rational explanation. And he hasn't really had time to sort out that business about passing dreams to other people by touch, which started happening in Odd Hours. And there is definitely something off-bubble about his new companion, the mysterious Annamaria. But still, nothing on his resume so far would seem to qualify him to go up against extraterrestrials with mind-control powers, or a self-aware computer program that presides over a mothballed secret government project in a vacuum-sealed bunker strewn with desiccated corpses. Luckily, Odd's winning strategy has always been to roll with it.

Odd and Annamaria have just left Magic Beach, California, in a borrowed Mercedes, hoping to make it to Santa Barbara before anyone spots the hero who stopped World War III. Instead, just an hour or two down the Pacific Coast Highway, the pull of death leads them to stop at a wide spot on the road called Harmony Corners. Almost immediately, Odd picks up on something weird going on. "There's no real harmony in Harmony Corner," he says. Annamaria warns him, "But there's a corner in it. Make sure you're not trapped there, young man."

The people of Harmony Corner—really, just one big extended family—have been prisoners in their own home for the past five years. The presence that terrorizes them is a man, and then again he isn't. He can listen to their thoughts, sift through their memories, plant false memories in their place. He can take control of their bodies, jumping from one person to another. He can kill them with a thought, or force them to kill each other by direct mind-control; but mostly, he just terrorizes them into doing whatever he wants, by threatening to punish them (or to make them punish themselves) if they step out of line. No one can help these people. Police and rescue, if called for help, could be sent away with false memories. Until Odd and Annamaria came along, no one has ever been able to resist the bad guy's mind control. Anyone who even showed the slightest ability to do so has been killed. And one of those people—a twelve-year-old girl named Jolie Ann Harmony—will certainly be killed by the end of the day, simply for helping Odd Thomas.

So, as little as he likes killing, it's up to Odd to kill this guy. He's got to do it today. And while doing it, he's got to avoid members of the Harmony family, who will either kill him or be killed by him the moment the villain sees him through their eyes. Somehow, he has to get into the mansion, where he will face scenes of stomach-turning horror and freaky alien menace. And the only people who have his back are a wise-ass tomboy and an AI with an IQ just short of HAL 9000. You don't want these pod bay doors to open. Clever and resourceful though he always is, Odd won't get through this adventure without troubling his conscience. The things he has to do to save Jolie, himself, and Harmony Corner will seem extreme even for him.

Dean Koontz's career as an author of horror stories rivals that of Stephen King, both in longevity and in productivity. From 1968 till the present day, he has dreamed up many nightmares for readers to share. I don't think I would have the stomach to read most of them. But this particular series of horrors is moderated by the presence of a paladin-like character in Odd Thomas, who is gradually and reluctantly learning to accept his mission to terminate fiends with extreme prejudice. Like all the Odd stories until now, this one is decidedly odd—creepy, weird, violent, fast-paced, yet at the same time contemplative, touched by warm humanity and a reverence for sacred mystery. Odd, who in this outing for the first time shares narrating duties with another character, is not an egotistical tough-guy hero, but a soft-spoken, humble one who often reveals charming character details and lends the benefit of compassion and understanding even to the less sympathetic characters. In Odd Hours, for example, he holds the hand of one villain he has shot while she dies; another thanks him for not making fun of his bad teeth, shortly before Odd kills him. He's not just a holy killing machine, as his suffering conscience bears witness. But in his well-calibrated blend of strength and weakness, Odd is a beautiful being.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Serpent's Shadow

The Serpent's Shadow
by Rick Riordan
Recommended Ages: 12+

The third and (for now) final book in The Kane Chronicles begins with an apology "for any inconvenience the end of the world may have caused you." As the story unfolds, narrated alternately by siblings Carter and Sadie Kane, you'll become increasingly inclined to accept their apology. Some catastrophes are really hard to prevent. And though the young Kanes often feel responsible even for things that are out of their control, they are finally ready to save the world, once and for all, from the ancient Egyptian serpent-god Apophis and the chaos he represents.

Naturally, they have only a few short days to get ready. Another equinox is coming up, an auspicious time for Apophis to make another attempt to tip the balance between Ma'at (order, harmony) and Isfet (chaos). The only idea that could possibly save the world sounds crazy. They need to learn a lot more about it before they can even try it. But Apophis has destroyed every copy of the magical scroll that explains it—copies of the Book of Thoth that were annotated by an evil magician named Setne in the time of Ramses the Great. Thoth himself can only help them so much, being pinned down by enemy forces in an abandoned sports arena that happens to be shaped like a pyramid. Finally they have no choice but to visit the Underworld and intercede before their Dad, who is also the god Osiris, in the trial of Setne's ghost. Once they have Setne in their custody, it's simply a matter of tracking down the original Book of Thoth (also containing Setne's notes), finding and capturing Apophis's shadow, and saying the spell to banish Apophis from the mortal world right into his face.

Like that isn't going to complicated at all.

The first wrinkle in this smooth plan is the fact that Setne is not to be trusted. More slippery than ectoplasm, he has a record of turning the tables on everyone who captures him and killing them. Then there are the dangerous places their quest leads them, including a tomb loaded with curses and traps, a riverboat whose otherworldly crew is just looking for an excuse to turn on their masters, and a land of demons whose shore is rapidly crumbling into the sea of chaos. They face a hunting goddess who has marked them as her prey, a faction within the House of Life that would rather let Apophis win than follow the Kanes, and all kinds of giant monsters that want to eat them for lunch. All this while Carter is distracted by his girlfriend's struggle to bring back the senile sun-god Ra, and Sadie has to watch time run out for her dying boyfriend Walt, and their chances to save the world depend on whether the magic they have learned can bring their ugly dwarf-god friend Bes back from oblivion, and many more emotionally confusing issues. When the fate of the world depends on two teens getting their heads around all this and more, you may well tremble, duck and cover, and wonder whether their opening apology will really cover it.

With this book, the author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series does more than successfully tie up a trilogy about present-day kids taking on ancient Egyptian mythology. He also ties it in with his other series, in which he does the same thing for Greek and Roman myths. He does it with an entertaining blend of smart-mouthed attitude, comic relief, kid-friendly romance, and enough action and special effects to fill a summer blockbuster. Along the way he sneakily teaches us a lot that we didn't know about the gods and magic of ancient Egypt. And he paves the way for a new series of crossover novels featuring characters from both the Percy Jackson series and the Kane Chronicles. Their titles, to date, include The Son of Sobek and The Staff of Serapis.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

56. Pentecost Hymn

The challenge came from my friend Rev. Alan Kornacki Jr.: "You know what would be ironic for the Feast of Pentecost? Singing hymns about Jesus, like the Holy Spirit would want us to do, instead of singing hymns about the Holy Spirit." And suddenly the following hymn landed on my head like a tongue of flame. I am also indebted, I think, to Rev. Dr. Arthur Just. Possible tunes: ABERYSTWYTH (J. Parry, d. 1903); CHRISTE, WARHES SEELENLICHT (Halle, 1704); WACHET DOCH, ERWACHT (J. Crüger, d. 1662).
Sing, you worthy Christian host,
Sing the joy of Pentecost!
Israel, freed by God's strong hand
Out of bonds in Pharaoh's land,
Walked a week of weeks entire,
Led by signs of smoke and fire,
Since the lamb's preserving blood
And the killing, saving flood.

Though you ne'er the Jordan crossed,
Moses, sing of Pentecost!
On Mount Sinai then you saw
God's own finger write the Law;
Spoke Him, face to glowing face,
Spared from death by purest grace.
On a later mount make clear:
Christ, your Better, now is here.

Christ, our Lamb, our only boast,
Be our song of Pentecost!
Round You Jordan's water spins
As You, bearing all our sins,
Charge the water with God's love
And the Holy Spirit's dove.
Then for us You face the fire
Of the Father's righteous ire.

Having thus absorbed our cost,
Be our song of Pentecost!
Bring the nations to Your fold,
Just as John himself foretold:
Cleansing them from death and blame
By Your bath in breath and flame.
Raised on high, Your work complete,
Now You send Your Paraclete.

Thus the gift we need the most
Came with signs on Pentecost:
As the faithful gathered round
Came the wind with rushing sound,
On their heads the fiery tongues,
Mighty speech into their lungs;
Hearers from all foreign parts
Understood, cut to their hearts.

So may every land and coast
Join the song of Pentecost!
For You, Christ, to Israel sent,
Out of Israel's vision went,
That all tribes and tongues on earth
Might, through baptism's second birth,
Find in You their every need
And be Israel's sons indeed.

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
You we sing at Pentecost!
Voice that thunders from above,
Comforter whose sign is dove,
And the Son, elected Christ,
Once for all man sacrificed:
Give us, Lord, our heart's desire—
Cleanse us by Your breath and fire!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Odd Hours

Odd Hours
by Dean Koontz
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the fourth Odd Thomas novel, a twenty-one-year-old ghost-whisperer continues his sabbatical from his career as a fry-cook. Every time he tries to get away from the stress of dealing with the dead, trouble finds him—bigger and nastier than ever. His small hometown in the Mojave desert wasn't peaceful enough. His retreat to a mountaintop monastery was spoiled by a terrifying ordeal. And now it seems he can't even lie low on a sunny California beach without tripping over a terrorist plot. Perhaps it's serendipity. Perhaps it's just that his gift always leads him where he is needed. But somehow, it almost seems as if Odd's moves are guided by a master plan. It's tough on him; but luckily for most folks, it's even tougher on the bad guys.

In the harbor town of Magic Beach, Odd has spent the last month cooking for a retired film star, accompanied by a ghost dog named Boo and the silent spirit of Frank Sinatra. He spends a lot of his spare time studying biographies of Sinatra, in the hope of using what he learns to convince Old Blue-Eyes to move on. But before he manages this, he will need to make the Chairman so mad that that he pops a poltergeist. Odd's life depends on it, when he finds himself backed into a corner by a conspiracy to blow up several American cities with nuclear bombs. Sticking to his well-tested strategy of "making it up as he goes along," Odd gropes his way through one thick, foggy night, eluding armed henchmen, surviving sickening betrayals, infiltrating a diesel-powered tugboat, and protecting the life of a mysterious pregnant girl whose fate may be even more important than the targets the bad guys have in sight.

Along the way, Odd meets some memorable people. There's the horribly scarred lady who has forgiven the man who once tried to burn her to death. There's the widow who, since her husband died, regularly obeys "twinges" in her gut that often lead her to save the lives of good people. There's the corrupt police chief, whose personality is a battleground between good and evil. There's the local minister, whose church has something indefinably wrong about it. And above all there's Annamaria, whom he initially thinks of as "the Lady of the Bell." Almost from the moment they meet, he finds himself risking his life to protect her, even though he knows hardly anything about her. The sense of a destiny tying the two of them together arrives at an inconvenient moment, just as a storm of evil blows ashore.

Dead bodies are soon dropping like rain, with chances of a nuclear holocaust, political assassinations, and the overthrow of the U.S. government increasing until after midnight. Many of the deaths will lie heavily on Odd Thomas's fragile conscience. But a shared nightmare of mass murder also hangs in the scales. And a fresh start for the young "Paladin of the Dead" seems to be in order.

Odd Thomas narrates with modesty, humor, and that elusive quality that is most nearly captured by the phrase "emotional intelligence." Which is not to say that he doesn't have lots of the ordinary type of intelligence. He's been brushing up his Shakespeare. His actions, while improvised, are not reckless but informed by a wisdom beyond his years. His conscience, while troubled, is still a good one. His emotions are warm, but tempered by philosophy. And though his philosophy sometimes includes cutting observations about human nature, popular religion, dirty politics, and the general way society and culture are going, it is over all a positive outlook, founded on a strong but not excessive love of life.

Four books in, I look forward to even more thrilling, amusing, touching, and often thought-provoking hours with Odd. His series goes on for another seven novels, as of this writing. The fifth and next in order is Odd Interlude.