Thursday, August 10, 2017

Goblin Secrets

Goblin Secrets
by William Alexander
Recommended Ages: 10+

Rownie is an orphan living in the bizarre, magical city of Zombay, where it is forbidden to wear masks or act in a play, and where coal is made by stealing people's hearts. After their mother drowned in the river that divides the city in half, Rownie and his older brother Rowan stayed with Graba, a "grandmother" to many of the city's most desperate urchins, who also happens to be a witchworker on giant, clockwork bird's legs. But now Rowan has disappeared, and Rownie runs away to join a troupe of goblin actors who have invited them to play a role in their strange, magical drama.

While traveling with the goblins, who call themselves Tamlin, Rownie learns that masks have power, a different kind of power from that practiced by Graba. While the witchworker uses spells and curses, wearing children as masks and sending pigeons as her spies, the goblins are enacting make-believe stories that alter reality. They hope Rownie will lead them to Rowan, who they believe was destined to wear the mask of the city, acting out a scene that must be acted out to prevent the river from flooding and washing away half of the city. But just when so much depends on Rownie, the jealousy of Graba and a heartbreaking betrayal may spell doom for all of Zombay.

Goblin Secrets is a refreshingly original book, with an innocence, oddness, and transparently direct style sure to appeal to young readers, combined with an emotional depth and perfectly-measured lyricism that may take a jaded adult's breath away. This debut novel by a Minneapolis-based educator and author won the 2012 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Since then, Alexander has written a sequel, Ghoulish Song, and three more novels, Ambassador, Nomad, and A Properly Unhaunted Place.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Frederica

Frederica
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 13+

This book dates from 1965, considerably later than the previous two Regency-period romantic comedies by Heyer that I have read. She evidently hadn't lost her feel for the genre, though. The twist in this book is that my lord the Marquis of Alverstoke, 37, has reached the point where his title will almost certainly pass to his dim-witted but handsome male cousin Endymion Gauntry, because he isn't likely to make a successful marriage. After flirting with an entire generation's most beautiful heiresses, he has developed a tendency to become quickly bored with them. Also, he doesn't promise to be much use to his three matronly sisters and the brood of nephews and nieces with which they plague him. He doesn't seem capable of caring about anyone but himself. Enter a very distant cousin named Frederica Merriville, the de facto head of her household of fatherless siblings, appealing to his lordship to help her launch her blindingly beautiful younger sister Charis into the ton.

At first, Alverstoke only seems interested in gratifying Frederica's wish so he can aggravate his pushy sister Louisa and Endymion's histrionic mother Lucretia, who both have launch-ready daughters, and who both have begged his lordship to launch them with a ball at his house in London. The two matrons' smiles turn to scowls when they realize how far Charis outshines their daughters, which mightily tickles Alverstoke. But to the amazement even of himself, he continues to act as a protector of the Merriville family, and it gradually dawns on him that he really cares about youngest sibling Felix, too-serious-for-his-years brother Jessamy, and most of all, the no-nonsense older sister Frederica. As he comes to their rescue in a series of crises, each more serious than the last, the Marquis must admit to himself that he loves Frederica - but how to declare his love to her, he doesn't know.

Between a chocolaty under-layer of emotionally satisfying romantic drama and an effervescent surface of zest and humor, this book is held together by a cast of engaging characters and a wealth of rare linguistic marvels, such as the words "thatchgallows" and "snatchpastry." It is the type of romantic comedy that gives full strength to both ingredients listed on the label. It has the intoxicating flavor of a historical period that impresses all the mind's senses with a conviction of its authenticity. It is laced with dialogue that includes some of the most crushing "set-downs" in the annals of high-class snobbery, along with a lot of pure fun.

A partial list of Georgette Heyer's works, different from but almost as long as the one I gave in my last review, would include Devil's Cub, The Talisman Ring, The Corinthian, Cotillion, Sprig Muslin, April Lady, Arabella, Venetia, Charity Girl, The Great Roxhythe, Barren Corn, Death in the Stocks, A Blunt Instrument, Detection Unlimited, and They Found Him Dead. I am beginning to think that if I read them all, they wouldn't find me dead of boredom.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Friday's Child

Friday's Child
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 13+

If you like your novel-length romantic comedies to have a Regency-period setting, but you've already pretty thoroughly surveyed everything by Jane Austen - which doesn't take long, actually - Georgette Heyer is the right shop to come to. She was the reigning queen of Regency restoration throughout the middle 50 years of the 20th century; she was a credible authority on all things authentic to that period; and more than half of her 50-odd books fit the bill - the remainder being mostly mysteries and historical novels set in other periods. My first exposure to Heyer's work was The Grand Sophy, which cleaves pretty closely to the pattern set by Austen, with an unconventional female arriving at her cousins' London residence and giving the place a full shake-down, including arranging the love-affairs of everyone in sight, before finally finding the love of her life practically under her nose.

Surprisingly, but not disappointingly, this 1944 book, one of Heyer's earlier works of Regency romance, departs from that relatively predictable story-shape right from the beginning. The lucky couple have already found each other and gotten married, practically at the starting gun. The trouble is, they don't realize they truly love each other until almost the end. Meantime, they endure misunderstandings, social blunders, jealousies, affairs of honor, moral and financial misgivings, and close scrapes with a cast of wacky friends, including a ridiculously romantic young buck, an adventurer who ruins decent people for a living, and an heiress who takes a bit too much enjoyment out of having a few too many ardent suitors.

Young Anthony "Sherry" Verelst, a.k.a. Viscount Sheringham, is set on course for romantic hijinks when the Incomparable Isabella refuses point-blank to marry him. Further exasperated by an interview with his passive-aggressive dowager mother, Sherry swears to marry the first young lady he sees. It so happens that turns out to be Hero Wantage, a girl of scarcely 17, who has adored Sherry all her life. Hero, soon nicknamed Kitten, has been living a Cinderella-like life on the grudging charity of her cousin and that lady's three ugly daughters. Terrified of being sent to Bath to serve as a governess, she willingly joins Sherry's crazy enterprise, and the two of them are swiftly hitched. But at once it becomes clear they should have given this more thought, since Hero really isn't ready to mix in the most fashionable circles of London society, and Sherry isn't grown-up enough to be the husband she needs. With each new adventure, they skate closer to disaster, with always entertaining but not always helpful contributions from their friends, frenemies, and one certifiably Bad Man.

Readers who don't like to see a husband give his wife a slap across the face may not find this novel to their taste. It isn't a feminist novel; it is, rather, a novel set in a scrupulously faithful reconstruction of a historical period. I think it succeeds pretty well in making that period come credibly to life. Where it needs strong female characters to capture the sympathy of today's readers, it gets them by giving Hero a good excuse for not understanding what is and isn't proper for a woman of her class, period, and marital status, and by letting the shark tank of 19th-century London's "Marriage Mart" shove Isabella to her wits' end. It has imperfect but endearing characters, scintillating wit, richly transporting language, and at bottom, a heart-touching drama of a marriage on the razor-edge of failing, all worked into a dramatic shape that achieves a spectacular climax. It's the kind of book that one can imagine being a terrific movie, even though one knows better than to trust the movie industry to make it. So, I guess that's a long way of saying it's a terrific book.

The titles of some of Heyer's other Regency romances are An Infamous Army, The Spanish Bride, The Reluctant Widow, The Quiet Gentleman, Bath Tangle, The Unknown Ajax, False Colours, Black Sheep, and Lady of Quality. In other genres, her interesting-sounding titles include The Convenient Marriage, Simon the Coldheart, Royal Escape, Instead of the Thorn, Why Shoot a Butler?, Duplicate Death, and the short story collection Pistols for Two.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Grand Sophy

The Grand Sophy
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 13+

The Rivenhall family of Berkeley Square has fallen on hard times. Lord Ombersley, the father of the household, is a man of weak character, whose debts have all but bankrupted them. Lady Ombersley is a nervous wreck. Their oldest son Charles has inherited a fortune from his uncle, putting him in position to save the family's fortune, if he really works at it; but as a side effect, he has become so tyrannical, the whole family is afraid of him. Also, he is engaged to a moralizing bore named Miss Wraxton, who disapproves of everything. Add to these characters a younger brother at Oxford, who is also struggling with debts; a sister named Cecilia, who has fallen in love with a completely useless fellow, breaking the heart of a man far more worthy of her hand; and several younger siblings, who haven't enjoyed themselves in ever so long; and you have a household just crying out for a visit from a fearless, forceful, frequently interfering female named Sophy.

Sophy is the daughter of Lady Ombersley's brother, Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy. An important diplomat, Sir Horace has raised his daughter abroad, during a most dangerous and exciting time for English folks to be abroad. Now it is up to Lady Ombersley to look out for a prospective husband for this strong-willed, rough-around-the-edges young woman - if Charles can refrain from strangling her first. The two cousins butt heads frequently, as Sophy tries the boundaries of what is considered proper for young ladies to do, and interferes in everyone else's affairs. Luckily for her, she is also highly intelligent, nervelessly brave, and driven by the purest motives - otherwise, someone would certainly strangle her, sooner or later.

At first, it seems Sophy is going to get into the same kind of romantic-comedy scrapes as Jane Austen's Emma. But then, her escapades begin to top anything in Austen, and each successive one tops the last, until you find her in the middle of a scheme of un-looked-for quirkiness and daring. There is no chance of getting bored with this heroine or her hijinks; they build to a climax more exciting and hilarious than one generally expects from a Regency romance, or at least one unadulterated by zombies or Steampunk paraphernalia. Some readers, I imagine, pick up a book like this as though digging in for a night-long struggle to wring the least drop of enjoyment out of a book full of old-fashioned manners. But Georgette Heyer brings the fun right to the reader, and then draws him or her into it.

Published in the 1950, this book is only as old as my parents. Nevertheless, it fizzes with energy, as if in the prime of its life, while at the same time guiding you through a captivating mental time-warp to London, circa 1815. It's a perfectly charming piece of light entertainment that, on the one hand, rollicks along in a romantic-comedy rumble full of perils, surprises, and laughs; it is also, on the other hand, a finely crafted work of literary art, written in a style that conjures an immersive, if not addictive, imaginary world around you, then otherwise stays out of the way of its striking characters or their convoluted concerns.

Georgette Heyer, who wrote approximately 50 novels in a more than 50-year career (1920s to 1970s), more or less invented the Regency romance sub-genre of period fiction, which is still bowling along almost a century later. Her passion for scenic and fashion details, her study of the way people talked and behaved at that period in English history, lend her writing a convincing realism and sensuous vividness that transcend the predictable formulas of romantic fiction. But what gives her writing zip is, most of all, her understanding of character, her knack for inventing marvelous people like the Grand Sophy, her cousin Charles, and others, and playing them off each other to sparkling effect. Also, perhaps, the fact that she is looking back on the Regency period allows her to pull stunts Jane Austen never would have dared, and that's all right with me. I look forward to reading at least a few more of Heyer's books, which I picked up with this one at a Half-Price Books store in the Twin Cities during a recent, long-overdue vacation. Their titles include Friday's Child and Frederica.

Monday, July 31, 2017

216. Thanksgiving for Health Restored

I haven't given any thought to what tune should go with this hymn, but I've been thinking about the text itself for several weeks - particularly since my brother spent a week in the hospital, and my father and stepmother both underwent successful surgery, and my mother was diagnosed with a serious illness, etc. It simply occurred to me that there could be a use for a hymn like this. I couldn't think of any existing hymns that met that need, however. So, here is my attempt to do so.
We thank You, Christ, our healing Lord,
For strength renewed and health restored,
That yet a while Your child may bide
To serve and be served by our side.

To heal is Yours; for at Your word
Fell fiends have fled, dead limbs have stirred.
The weak, the lame, and the unclean
Your healing grace and might have seen.

You straighten what has gone askew:
The limb, the tongue, the senses too.
If from the dead we will arise,
Our frail flesh You cannot despise.

A yet more wondrous balm we have,
As weary consciences You salve.
Our bodies You do not malign;
You pardon them through bread and wine.

Our very life is in Your hand,
The hour of our departure planned
As suits Your always loving will;
If then we grieve, You love us still.

Though, in affliction, we may cringe
To touch Your garment's lowest fringe,
Your healing kindness, strong and swift,
Has proved You keen our hearts to lift.

And so we lift them, healing Lord,
In gratitude for health restored;
Now help us use these lengthened days
In fitting service, prayer, and praise.

EDIT: I've settled (for now) on the 1857 hymn-tune ST. OSWALD by John B. Dykes for this hymn, pictured here.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
by Seth Grahame-Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

Some books require no synopsis. The title says it all. But that doesn't make it any less fun to read. Yes, this book really is a biography of Abraham Lincoln, a literally and metaphorically over-sized figure in U.S. history. It hits all the highlights of his often-told, well-documented life from beginning to end, with the addition of his never-before-revealed career as one of the greatest vampire slayers of his time. That someone would start a book like this doesn't seem strange, these days. The fact that he made it all the way through the book, and successfully published it, merits a lift of the eyebrows, if not a tip of the hat. Nevertheless, I bought this book without any expectation that it would be at all good. It surprised me with hours of enjoyment that, in retrospect, demand thinking about.

The audio-CD version of this book beguiled my recent drive from mid-Missouri to the Twin Cities and part of the way back. It is one of two books by this author that have been on my "haven't gotten around to reading it yet" shelf for several years, so I enjoyed the opportunity to listen to Scott Holst read it aloud. Taking nothing from Holst's considerable skill as a spoken-word recording artist and a thrilling story about slaying vampires, I am especially impressed that Seth Grahame-Smith, a past master of genre mash-ups, actually manages to deliver a fairly respectable biography of America's 16th president. The fact that the slave-holding south wasn't, in reality, driven to secede by the motives of literal bloodsucking fiends, doesn't at all detract from the greatness of Lincoln's achievement in rising from an unschooled frontier farm boy to successful lawyer, state legislator, congressman, and first Republican President of the U.S., to say nothing of abolishing slavery and preserving the union through a devastating civil war. The book does fair justice to his great speeches, his important accomplishments as president, and his often heartbreaking family life. It would be pretty good without all the stuff about vampires.

The second major achievement in this book is that, having added all the stuff about vampires without which it would have been a good book, it is still a good book - and not, as one might expect, merely a good joke. Surprisingly, it isn't particularly funny; but the paranormal fiction part of the book is very entertaining in exactly the way it should be - scary, thrilling, and dramatically well-structured.

The book's third achievement is nothing short of a miracle: fitting these two seemingly disparate, individually complete elements together into a single, seamless whole that, with apologies to the historians and biographers of Lincoln, improves on both. Of course, the improvement on the biography and history takes the form of pure fantasy, so calling it an improvement is merely to register a taste judgment on my part. Going the other way, however, the history/biography piece improves the fantasy piece in a way that can be objectively measured and asserted beyond any doubt. It does this by lending the vampire-slaying plot a depth of character, an emotional truth, and (at the end) a movingly tragic-yet-triumphant beauty that I would like to think surprised the author as much as me.

Grahame-Smith is also the author of the paranormal Jane Austen spoof Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; the paranormal Bible spoof Unholy Night (depicting the three wise men as some kind of monster-slaying ronin); the non-fiction books The Big Book of Porn, The Spiderman Handbook, How to Survive a Horror Movie, and Pardon My President: Ready-to-Mail Apologies for 8 Years of George W. Bush; and most recently, a sequel to this book titled The Last American Vampire.

Tyrannosaurus Lex

Tyrannosaurus Lex: The Marvelous Book of Palindromes, Anagrams, and Other Delightful and Outrageous Wordplay
by Rod L. Evans, Ph.D.
Recommended Ages: 13+

The title pretty much tells you what you will find between the covers of this book: plentiful examples of palindromes, anagrams, and other forms of wordplay in the English language, broken up into categories that include heteronyms (words that look the same but have different pronunciations and meanings), homophones and homonyms (which sound and/or are spelled the same, but have different meanings), tautonyms (terms that repeat the same meaning twice), oxymora (terms that seemingly contradict themselves), parasprodokians (sentences that veer in an unexpected direction), names that (intentionally or not) sound like puns, and a lot more.

I bought this book during the same shopping spree, and read it during the same week of vacation, as June Casagrande's Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies. The inevitable comparison between the two books tends, perhaps unfairly, against this book, which doesn't have that book's through-written narrative, effervescent humor, or personable tone. While parts of both books were fun to read aloud to members of my family with whom I was enjoying drinks, munchies, and sunshine on an outdoor deck, a number of chapters were composed of lists of examples so long that I actually skimmed them, because reading them in full, even to myself, would have been unbearable. Another unfortunate comparison arose when I happened to open a book by Richard Lederer (Anguished English, Crazy English, The Play of Words, etc.), to whom this book repeatedly acknowledges its indebtedness. Lederer presents a lot of the same material, with approximately equal exhaustiveness, but does so in a consistently more entertaining way.

So, this book has some fun bits, and could come in handy as a quick-reference handbook to different types of wordplay, with useful examples of each; but as something to read on that outdoor deck, cover to cover, it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Well, je sais réellement quoi, but it's awkward to say, "I wished I had bought a book by Richard Lederer instead, or perhaps another book by June Casagrande," so excuse me for feigning ignorance. I'm trying to be nice here. And this is a nice enough little book; though perhaps it shouldn't have been packaged as if it were meant to be a "marvelous ... delightful and outrageous" piece of entertainment. That just sets the reader up for a disappointment.

Evans, a philosopher and lecturer who specializes in everything (politics, religion, ethics, language, etc.), is also the author of The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language; Thingamajigs and Whatchamacallits; and several other books.

Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies

Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite
by June Casagrande
Recommended Ages: 12+

Have you ever enjoyed the delightful experience of having your grammar, punctuation, or usage corrected when you thought you were right? No, of course you haven't. Half of the time, it happens because you learned a rule, somehow, that turned out to be wrong. The other half, or perhaps a bit more (these categories can overlap), the person correcting you is just as clueless, if not more so. In some cases, you find yourself at the business end of the poison pen, or blue pencil, of an intolerant, pedantic bore whose quasi-erotic obsession with periods and colons is sometimes a bit scary. And at the furthest extreme of the spectrum are those truly obnoxious incidents when that intolerant, pedantic bore is wrong, or at least, is weighing in about a question on which there is no widespread consensus, even among grammar snobs. This book applies the best medicine, i.e. laughter, to the sting of situations like these, and follows it up with solid information that you can throw back in those snobs' faces.

There are chapters in this book about the dos, don'ts, and who-careses (?) of such grammatical bêtes noires as split infinitives, danglers, and prepositions at the end of sentences; the uses and abuses of apostrophes, commas, and other punctuation marks; "lie" and "lay," "affect" and "effect," "may" and "might," and other pairs of easily confused or dubious words; possessive and subjunctive forms; the minefields of subject-verb agreement; and a great deal more that is both entertaining and useful. It's a fix-your-own-grammar book for dummies that doesn't judge. It arms the grammatically insecure with linguistic ammo to shoot back at the grammar snobs who, perhaps, don't really know as much as they would like you to think while they crush you with their intellectual superiority. It points out gray areas, open questions, points on which different snobbish treatises disagree, and the maddeningly arbitrary and byzantine rules that glaringly differ from one style guide to another (for example, between the leading standards for editing newspapers and those for editing books). And it makes the actual rules clear, simple, and memorable, with a down-to-earth, personal touch by a naturally witty writer who has really been through the @#$%.

The chapter titles of this book alone opened the door, during my recent vacation among family members who live two states away, for reading several passages aloud, to the enjoyment of all. Some of these chapters include "Is That a Dangler in Your Memo or Are You Just Glad to See Me?"; "Semicolonoscopy"; and "Hyphens: Life-Sucking, Mom-and-Apple-Pie-Hating, Mime-Loving, Nerd-Fight-Inciting Daggers of the Damned." The book ends with "Satan's Vocabulary," a handy guide to pairs and clusters of frequently confused words that proves the English language is a demonic strategy to drive us all crazy, as well as a serious bibliography that belies the book's pretensions to not taking the subject seriously. So, on top of being fun enough to read that it doesn't feel like research, it contains a lot of research. What a deal!

Boy, do I look forward to dropping copies of this book on some grammar snobs I know, and some of their frequently frustrated victims, who will enjoy it as much as I did. It especially appeals to me because of its application to a career in the newspaper business, something I have in common with its author. Casagrade is a newspaper humorist/columnist specializing in grammar, whose other books include The Best Punctuation, Period; Moral Syntax; and It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.

The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan

The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan
by P.B. Kerr
Recommended Ages: 12+

P.B. Kerr, also known to readers of his adult fiction as Philip Kerr, wraps up his seven-book "Children of the Lamp" series with this book, in which 14-year-old twin djinn Philippa and John Gaunt face the possibility that they must make the ultimate sacrifice to save the world. Someone has found, and worse still, plundered the tomb of 13th-century Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, and used something buried with him to start a worldwide plague of volcanic eruptions that could spell doom for life as we know it. To find him and stop him, they must solve the 800-year-old mystery of where the tyrant was buried, an adventure spanning several continents, reviving the all-but-lost art of using flying carpets, and costing the life of more than one beloved friend. And it all seems to lead to the fulfillment of a grim prophecy about twin djinn.

Meantime, the twins' Uncle Nimrod's aptly-named butler Groanin gives his notice, only to have a series of misadventures that teach him the lesson, "You don't know what you have till it's gone." Between the twins and their hapless human friend, the characters in this book experience a timeless Moroccan bazaar, a walkabout in the Australian outback, a kidnap by ice-cream-truck-driving gangsters in Italy, a stay with a gang of glamorous Romanian teens, a cruise with Somali pirates, a road trip with fanatical Yemeni hoodlums, and a way-too-close encounter with a gigantic creepy-crawly in the streets of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Most of the experiences on that list fall to poor, homebody Groanin, but the twins have their share of thrills and chills too, such as when their attempt to possess a herd of wild camels leads to a brush with a terrifying spirit, and when the lightning bug of your nightmares stalks them in the mist on a Mongolian steppe.

I think it's a pity Kerr decided to end the twins' adventures here. Unlike him, I didn't see the inevitability of their exit from the world of djinn power, and I think the series could be plausibly revived. After all, there are still 19 letters of the alphabet from which he can cull the initials of the titles of their further adventures. And with each adventure touching on pages of history and patches of the globe that aren't often covered in teen fiction, there is also plenty of potential for more culturally enriching, educational fun, with emphasis on the fun. This series is full of beauty spots that readers of different skill levels can appreciate, such as the hilarious sentence (from The Five Fakirs of Faizabad) "John could see Dracula's point," and the late Mr. Rakshasas' wise aphorism, "The future is certain. It's the past you can't predict." If this really is the end for the Gaunts, it will be interesting to see what new marvel Kerr invents next.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Five Fakirs of Faizabad

The Five Fakirs of Faizabad
by P.B. Kerr
Recommended Ages: 12+

When siblings John and Phillipa Gaunt, age 14, learn they have to complete a Djinn rite of passage by choosing a deserving person to grant three wishes, each twin separately stumbles on a plot to tamper with the luck of the whole world. The goal of whoever is causing an outbreak of bad luck seems to have something to do with a group of mystical Muslim hermits from northern India who, centuries ago, buried themselves alive to protect the five holiest secrets known to their order. Unluckily enough, a group of "fake fakirs," who practice just enough Sufist self-denial to be dangerous, have joined forces with one of the twins' Uncle Nimrod's deadliest enemies. To save the world's luck, not to mention Nimrod's faithful butler Groanin, they must visit the worst hotel in the world, travel long distances by flying carpet, and find the lost shrine of Shangri-La.

Like other books in this series about adolescent Djinn finding their powers in the modern world, this one is filled with thrills, laughs, and a surprising amount of educational value. It satirizes the xenophobic manners of some Englishmen, the unsuitability of some hoteliers for the hospitality industry, and the reasoning behind British spies being expert gamblers. It depicts a chilling (literally and figuratively) encounter with pre-World War II Nazis who have become stuck in time, a man-made monster out of Jewish folklore, a man who has fallen out of an airplane (without a parachute) and lived, an elusive monster of the American west, and a couple interesting cases of reincarnation. It's a globe-trotting, religiously syncretistic adventure for spirits of fire and luck who are, nevertheless, touchingly (and sometimes hilariously) human at heart.

My only quibble, besides advising readers who like their religions straight and unblended about that syncretism, is the book's solution to its final dilemma, which effectively resets the characters (with a few exceptions) to their status at the beginning of the book. If I didn't know they would be haunted by déjà vu during their next installment, I would say the ending made the book pointless. But I just happened to have the next book about the Gaunt twins, The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan, on deck to read right after this one, so that worry has been mooted.

This is the sixth of, so far, seven "Children of the Lamp" novels by Edinburgh-born young adult author P.B. Kerr, also the author of the standalone book One Small Step. As Philip Kerr, he is also the author of 13 Bernie Gunther/Berlin Noir mysteries, counting Greeks Bearing Gifts, due for release in 2018; three Scott Manson mysteries, featuring a London football coach who solves crimes; about a dozen standalone novels for adults; and the children's book The Most Frightening Story Ever Told, for some reason published under his adult fiction name.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Wandering Fire

The Wandering Fire
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Recommended Ages: 14+

Five 20th-century Canadian university students have gotten swept up in a magical adventure in the first of all worlds, of which our world is only one of many cheap knock-offs. Their acts, their loves, and their fates are now woven into the tapestry that shapes history throughout the multiverse. Tall, athletic Dave has become an axe-wielding berserker on the battlefield. Kim has been burdened with the inner sight of a seer. Paul has come back whole, and more than whole, after offering himself as a sacrifice on the Summer Tree. Jennifer has endured a violation that will strain her ability to love, just when her heart proves to be one point of an eternal story on which everything depends. And Kevin has reached the sorrowful conclusion that his only usefulness lies in the deep abandon that characterizes his sexuality. On these five visitors from modern-day Toronto hang the fortunes of kings, princes, princesses, priestesses, clan chiefs, warriors, and more. In this middle installment of "The Fionavar Tapestry," they awaken dangerous forces, summon terrifying beings, fight monstrous creatures, race against evil armies, and take journeys from which no one has ever returned before - and sometimes, they don't return. And after imbibing this heady mixture of a variety of strong spirits old and new, we the reader surface with wonder, realizing the epic is only two-thirds done.

I took my sweet time moving from the first volume of the trilogy, titled The Summer Tree, which I enthusiastically loved, to this second installment. Perhaps that explains why I found my enthusiasm had cooled somewhat. I'm of two minds about this book. After reading it, I still admire Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped edit Tolkien's posthumous masterpiece The Silmarillion, as a unique prose stylist whose every sentence is an original work of art. In my other mind, however, I was a little disappointed to have to slot him in with Peter S. Beagle in a class of authors who write with breathtaking lyricism, at the expense of choosing words sometimes (or, as Beagle would put it, "betimes") more for their musical effect than for their actual meaning; in this book, for example, Kay uses the word "evanescent" that way. Also, there were occasional moments in this book when I didn't altogether catch the drift of what Kay was saying in his oh, so clever way. My education, or rather the sad neglect thereof, is no doubt at fault.

Going back to my first mind, I also recognize in Kay a master adapter and synthesizer of folklore material into a compelling, moving new fantasy epic that puts him in the same class as Ursula K. Le Guin, Peter Dickinson, Robin McKinley, etc. He frequently writes passages of intense emotion that reach deep inside me and grab something that often go months, if not years, without being touched. I literally wept tears while at a couple points in this book, and had to go back and re-read one passage, aloud, so my cat would understand why I was so upset. I don't think the cat felt it, but I sure did. In the other mind, however, I saw through what sometimes seemed a precious conceit that every emotion every character felt at every point in this adventure, including (at times) terrible numbness, was the most powerful manifestation of its kind since the beginning of time, or at least since the age of legends. Perhaps, again, the fault is mine, in having a capacity for "drama fatigue" that makes me see melodrama where there is nothing but true drama, or bathos where there is really pathos. I am, after all, the guy who lapsed into acute "lyricism fatigue" while reading a certain book I won't name here.

Returning for a third time to my first mind, Kay's talent, his work experience, the scope of his material, and the overall richness, depth, complexity, and power of the weaving he has woven here, put him within striking distance of standing alongside Tolkien as a creator of great fantasy. But the other me hastens to point out that, where Tolkien's fantasy is essentially of a Christian character, Kay's is loaded with pagan tropes. So it behooves me to paste an Occult Content Advisory on this book, as well as an Adult Ditto, since this particular book seems on some level to be all about the various ways you can screw, and be screwed by, deities of classical and Celtic tradition. It depicts, for example, the ultimate sexrifice. Yes, I just said that. Versions of a lot of neo-pagan myths, beliefs, and rites get woven together in this tapestry, including mother goddess stuff, the legends of King Arthur, a cyclic view of history, the wild hunt, the horned god, etc., etc., etc. I'm not saying it isn't entertaining. I'm saying Tolkien might have been a bit miffed to find himself classed with this kind of thing. It is because the comparison is apt that I think Christian families who read together - and I know some - will appreciate the heads-up before they plunge into this epic.

Book 3 of "The Fionavar Tapestry" is The Darkest Road. For what all I have said above is worth, I am interested in seeing where it leads. Kay is still active as a writer, bringing forth new fantasy epics every few years based, in part, on the lore of various cultures. His other novels include Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, Sailing to Sarantium, Ysabel, and most recently Children of Earth and Sky.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt
by Jack Gantos
Recommended Ages: 10+

In a fictionalized version of a summer in his childhood, award-winning children's author Jack Gantos brings to life the model community of Norvelt, Pa., in the twilight of its life cycle. Norvelt, named after former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, began during the Great Depression as an experiment in giving laid-off coal miners an opportunity to live with dignity, owning their own homes, operating businesses, growing gardens, bartering goods and services, and being self-sufficient with just a little, initial boost from Uncle Sam. It was, frankly, kind of a Communist idea, and was ultimately doomed by the market forces of a country with a cash economy. By 1962, Jack is torn between his mother, who still believes in the Norvelt dream, and his father, who has grown disillusioned with the dying community and wants to move to Florida, where there is plenty of work building houses for rich people. Young Jack's dilemma comes to a head when his father orders him to mow down his mother's garden, so he can build either a bomb shelter or a runway. Caught between direct orders from each of his parents, Jack finds himself grounded for the summer. It's enough to make the boy's nose bleed, though to be sure, that doesn't take much.

From nosebleed to nosebleed, and from one misadventure to another - including a cautionary tale about gun safety - Jack experiences a summer that transforms his character. He helps the spinster across the street write a series of obituaries for the last remaining founding residents of Norvelt, who are suddenly dying off in quick succession. He spends a lot of time digging a hole in his yard that may or may not become a bomb shelter. He gets pushed around by the local undertaker's bossy, tomboyish daughter, and witnesses scenes of gruesome death. He gets drawn into a feud with Norvelt's adult-sized tricycle-riding volunteer policeman/firefighter/rat catcher, who has a love-hate relationship with Miss Volker (the obituary lady), and between the whole town and the motorcycle gang that has aimed an evil curse at Norvelt. He witnesses acts of arson, poaching, and practicing medicine without a license, and finally, helps solve a series of murders. And he faces the consequences of lying, sneaking off while grounded, and (possibly) dive-bombing a drive-in movie theater.

In a way, this book reminded me of the Spike Jonze movie Adaptation, with its low-key, down-to-earth, introspective exploration of characters' private lives and matters of the heart, increasingly mixed with over-the-top fantasy and silly high jinks. It takes off like the small plane Jack's father learns to fly, but doesn't go very high; high enough for that down-to-earth stuff to appear smaller and more distant, in perspective, but not so high that it goes out of sight. It has humor, heart, a throbbing vein of sadness, the twitching muscle of a conscience for social justice, and a jangling nerve of creepiness. It shows a fading, failing, but still attractive experiment in a community's way of life; a wistful moment in the life cycle of fragile friendships and family relationships; and a perspective on small-time life that only an unusually observant kid might pick up. It provokes thoughts about community journalism, political ideals, animal rights, economics, courage, history, responsibility, and the essential give-and-take of relationships. Even if the details aren't altogether believable, the heart and the humor are right on target.

Jack Gantos is the author of some 20 "Rotten Ralph" books, five "Jack Henry" books, five "Joey Pigza" books, and several stand-alone novels, picture-books, and memoirs, mostly written for young readers. This book, which won both the Newbery Medal and the Scott O'Dell Award for 2012, has a sequel titled From Norvelt to Nowhere.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Dragons vs. Drones

Dragons vs. Drones
by Wesley King
Recommended Ages: 11+

Marcus, 12, has been searching for his missing father since he was 4 years old, refusing to believe George Brimley was a traitor to his country. During that time, he has noticed a freaky pattern in the dates of each year's biggest storm to hit Alexandria, Virginia - the day of the month has been counting down. Somehow, Marcus knows this is connected with his father's disappearance. This year, when a big storm blows up on the first of the month, Marcus pedals his bicycle right into the heart of it, heedless of swirling black clouds, flickering lightning, and the suspicious fact that a bunch of drones are chasing him. At the heart of the storm, he guts sucked into a parallel dimension, to a city called Dracone, where the drones immediately begin blowing stuff up, killing people, and attacking the dragons that, incidentally, exist there.

The dragons of Dracone come in four flavors: Nightwings, Sages, Outliers, and Flames. Some of them have been allies of mankind for a long time, but that time is now over. Francis Xidorne, the country's new prime minister, has decided to modernize his country, and that means doing away with the dragons and people who sympathize with them. The first person Marcus meets in Dracone is a member of the new underclass, a 12-year-old girl named Dree, whose father was a dragon rider before the regime changed. Stripped of their wealth, her family now lives in a waterfront shack, and Dree and her mother work hard to support her crippled father and the younger kids. Both Dree and Marcus have the same mysterious gift, or maybe it's a curse - their skin doesn't burn, but sometimes fire comes out of their fingertips. Dree also has a secret: the Nightwing dragon Lourdvang, whom she raised from a hatchling.

Between them, boy, girl, and dragon resolve to fight the drones that are destroying the poorer parts of Dracone, and that are also beginning to exterminate the dragons. Using Dree's genius as a welder and an inventor, Marcus' gifts as a computer whiz, and Lourdvang's ability to fly, they start a small rebellion that, through sheer spunk, spreads to include at least three dragon clans. Saving Dracone from the deadly drones will involve solving the mystery of Marcus' father's disappearance, seeking an object of great magical power that they believe is hidden in the world's most impenetrable fortress, and surviving action scenes packed with unbelievable excitement. Also, it will require a sequel, picking up on the other side of the portal between Dree's world and ours.

This is a fun, screwy adventure, full of magical thrills, high-tech gadgetry, and danger. The dialogue is snappy; the characters have a lot of emotionally grueling issues to work through; and it proves themes of black-helicopter paranoia, coexistence with sentient alien creatures, the impact of space-age technology on the environment, and family melodrama can be mixed with good results. It also shows how quickly a nervous nerd like Marcus can develop into a swashbuckling hero, once he's in his proper element; the image of him free-falling from the back of a drone that he has just disabled in mid-flight, screaming, "Anyone?" while dragons and drones battle each other around him, seems likely to be my most durable memory of this book. On the other hand, I felt a little let-down by the way Dree's family dropped out of the storyline. After setting up her devotion to her sister Abi, the book proceeds to make awkward excuses for keeping the sisters apart after a relatively early point in the plot. The family drama aspect of the story would be more interesting if the family were more present.

Wesley King is the Canadian author of The Vindico, The Feros, The Incredible Space Raiders (From Space!), OCDaniel, and Laura Monster Crusher, besides the sequel to this book, titled Enemy of the Realm, and the upcoming book The World Below, set for release in March 2018. His works have won several awards, including a 2017 Edgar Award for "best juvenile" (for OCDaniel).

Monday, July 10, 2017

Shadow Scale

Shadow Scale
by Rachel Hartman
Recommended Ages: 13+

This sequel gratifies the burning desire in the heart of practically everyone who read Seraphina - namely, to explore further the world of Goredd and its neighboring realms, where dragons (called saarantrai) walk in human shape, and where many humans worship a pantheon of "saints" who, half-dragon/half-human heroine Seraphina now learns, were actually people like her. As the civil war between the saarantrai heats up, she travels to the ends of the world as she knows it, seeking to collect her fellow halfbreeds and bring them home, so they can combine their mental powers to defend her city from the anti-human faction of dragonkind. Meanwhile, she has to solve a number of interconnected mysteries - such as how the saints came into being, and why the anti-human dragon ideology suddenly arose, and above all, how to stop one especially bitter half-dragon from destroying everything.

The name of Seraphina's true nemesis turns out to be Jannoula. They are well-matched adversaries, the one traveling the world in search of her kind, and the other arriving either just ahead of her or a few steps behind, to sink her psychic hooks into the minds of those like them. The few half-dragons (a.k.a. ityasaari) who have the ability to unhook Jannoula from each other's minds, are helpless when she takes control of them. And though Seraphina is the only one who seems impervious to being controlled by Jannoula, she finds herself no less helpless when the self-appointed saint finally has everyone where she wants them. The seeming inevitability of disaster, for a nation and for a whole civilization, is stomach-twisting. Equally painful is the personal revenge Jannoula wreaks on Seraphina, whom she blames for abandoning her to years of hideous torment. But the real concern is whether Seraphina will ever learn to open her mind, which she has been at pains to keep closed most of her life, when the survival of her whole world depends on it.

I was mostly delighted with this sequel, though I did not think it struck quite as pure a note as the first book. I noticed, for example, Seraphina's first-person narration dropping phrases of 20th century psychobabble, like "cognitive dissonance," which struck me as something like an anachronism - though I am fully aware Seraphina's world is not on the same historical timeline as ours. I suppose a little anachronism might be excused, in a world in which the quigutl - human-sized, but not anthropomorphic, cousins of the saarantrai - appear able to operate electrical generators and devices similar to today's computers, and in which an earlier age's dragon-fighting martial arts, now lost to human memory, included flying machines and missiles. The relationship between technology and human history is mysterious in Seraphina's world; there are even hints that more advanced human cultures live across the sea, or on the other side of the land barrier occupied by the dragons, so inaccessible to Goredd and its neighboring countries that they have faded almost to the status of legend.

This is only one example of the thought-provoking themes that peek out of the polyphonic texture of this fantasy epic, but not all of the themes are equally satisfying. For example, the neighboring culture of Porphyry has a fluid concept of gender, with the result that good manners dictates the greeting "How may I pronoun you?" when being introduced to someone. In my opinion, there is a (cough) cognitive dissonance between the essentially medievalist setting of the book and this piece of post-modern sophistry; and also, it persuades me to drop an Adult Content Advisory on this book, to encourage traditional-family-oriented parents to be alert to this theme when sharing the series with their children.

Rachel Hartman's third book, also set in the world of Seraphina, is expected in February 2018, and will be titled Tess of the Road. I don't know what her plans are for it, but I hope she explores the quigutl in more depth. I really liked those guys.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Seraphina

Seraphina
by Rachel Hartman
Recommended Ages: 12+

I can't wait to say it: This is the best book I have read so far this year. It isn't just good; it's beautiful.

Seraphina is a lawyer's daughter; yawn, right? Ah! But that particular lawyer, Claude Dombegh, is the foremost legal expert on dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Have I got your attention now? Why did Dombegh become the leading authority on the treaty between Goredd and the fierce reptiles of the north, with whom they were at war until 40 years ago? He has eaten, drunk, breathed, and slept the treaty for 16 years, since the day Seraphina was born and her mother, dying in childbirth, was revealed to be a dragon in human form. He honestly didn't know until then. And now he has an awful secret to protect - a daughter whom many dragons and humans alike would consider an abomination - and so, while learning every line and loophole in the law, he has become its greatest interpreter, and even a noted legal defender of dragons. As for Seraphina, she has led a life of loneliness, forced to hide scaly patches on her arm and around her waist, afraid to become too close to anyone, afraid to share her musical gifts, hollow with loneliness. In an act of rebellion, she runs away to the royal palace and auditions successfully to be the crusty old court composer's assistant.

The book compresses all this into background information that you learn while the story is in progress. It actually begins sometime later, while Seraphina is directing the funeral music for the queen's son, whose body was found headless in the forest after he became separated from his huntsmen. As the 40th anniversary of the treaty approaches, along with an anticipated visit by the dragon general Comonot, who co-signed the treaty with the now-elderly Queen Lavonda, anti-dragon sentiment runs high in the streets of the capital. Many, including the queen's bastard grandson Prince Lucian Kiggs, suspect a dragon of having killed the older prince. But unlike the hate-filled mob in the streets, Kiggs wants to learn the truth - he wants to save the peace - and he knows that means protecting Comonot from a danger only he and a certain secretive young music mistress seem to see.

Seraphina becomes increasingly tangled up in Kiggs' inquiry into the slaying of his uncle. But both of them also develop an emotional conflict, as they fall in love with each other, although they both care about his fiancee, the young Princess Glisselda, granddaughter of the queen. And for her part, Seraphina becomes hopelessly tangled in the lies and secrets she must keep to protect herself and her family from the backlash they expect, should anyone find out she is a half-dragon. Adding to her trouble is a series of visions that seize her with dangerous suddenness, and her growing realization that the garden of grotesques she must daily tend in her mind is actually a connection to the minds of other half-dragons - some of whom will become her friends, and some who may be her enemies. Then there is a series of maternal memories, passed to her by her dying mother at the moment of her birth, bursting upon her consciousness at the most inopportune moments. As ties of family loyalty, romantic love, friendship, and the preservation of peace between her two peoples press on her with growing urgency, it becomes more evident every moment that she cannot save everything and keep her secret as well.

And so I come back to this point: This is a phenomenally beautiful book. I'm apparently not the first person who noticed it; it won the 2013 William C. Morris YA Debut Award, a medal given annually since 2009 by the Young Adult Library Services Association division of the American Library Association; in other words, it's a Newbery Medal for the best "first-time author writing for teens."1 It builds an engrossing fantasy world, with an intriguing concept of dragons I would be willing to explore at much greater length; it depicts a varied gallery of breathing, speaking, fully original yet believable characters; it develops a culture with a complex pantheon of saints and a rich culture of beautiful music, dreamed up by a writer who knows how to write about music - and with my background, similar to the author's in multiple ways, I'm not easily fooled in that area. Besides all that, or rather above all, her scenic invention and deft hand for dialogue are but instruments in a symphony of storytelling that throbs with danger and sings with emotion, from the anguish of loneliness to the exhilaration of love. I do not exaggerate, even a tiny bit, when I say there were several prose passages in this book during which I paused and said to myself, "Someone should set this to music." And I wouldn't be surprised if the author herself has written tunes to go with some of the lyric poems sprinkled throughout the book. It's a fantasy so perfectly conceived, I would have enjoyed it even were it indifferently well-written. But it is, rather, differently well written; and that difference puts it on a level apart.

As the Morris award suggests, this is a first novel by a U.S.-born author, now living in Canada. It has a sequel, which I am already reading, titled Shadow Scale. A new book set in the same world, titled Tess of the Road, is due to be released Feb. 27, 2018. This book, also nominated for a 2013 Andre Norton Award2, comes (at least in some editions) with a bonus prequel short story titled "The Audition," revealing how Seraphina got her job as (among other things) Princess Glisselda's harpischord teacher.


1Among the award's past winners and nominees that I have read are Graceling by Kristin Cashore, A Curse Dark As Gold by Elizabeth Bunce (a winner), and Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride; the full list contains a bunch of titles I suddenly want to read.
2That was the year China Miéville's Railsea won; a tough book to beat.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Ghostgirl

Ghostgirl
by Tonya Hurley
Recommended Ages: 14+

As a new school year starts at Hawthorne High, Charlotte is determined to cross over from being the invisible girl to fitting in with the popular crowd, and even having a chance to kiss Damen Dylan at the big dance. But just after scoring Damen as her lab partner in first-period physics class, she crosses over in a way she didn't intend, thanks to an imperfectly chewed gummy bear. Now she's stuck in the afterlife, attending Introduction to Dead Ed class with such gruesome classmates as Piccolo Pam, a marching band member who tripped and swallowed her instrument; Rotting Rita, who always has maggots crawling out of her nose; Call Me Kim, whose death proves the link between cell phone use and brain cancer is no myth; and an angry girl named Prue, who is ready to blame Charlotte if the house they all haunt together gets condemned and torn down.

Unfortunately, Charlotte is too caught up in her own, selfish issues to worry about her dead friends and the fate of their home. She hasn't given up on Damen, even if it means stirring up trouble for everyone. She makes a pact with the alpha cheerleader's goth sister, possessing Scarlet's body while Scarlet, in spirit, delightedly explores the other side. But what she hasn't told Scarlet is that she plans to use her body to get Damen to fall in love with her, and (if possible) to enjoy being just a little popular, for a little while. Naturally, mayhem breaks out, including a flood in the gym and a fun haunted house that turns just a little too real. In the end, everything depends on Charlotte getting her ghostly head on straight, and thinking about someone else before herself.

Tim Burtonesque cover art drew me into this book with a promise of satirical, black-comedic ghoulishness. While I wasn't fully satisfied with the book after reading it, that promise went not entirely unkept. I enjoyed some guilty giggles, particularly at some classic film references it would probably take a grown-up well-read in popular culture to appreciate fully. The songs mentioned in the book would make an interesting soundtrack, with plenty of teen goth appeal. On the other hand, each chapter is prefaced by an explanatory blurb that lays out, in general terms, the issue Charlotte has to work through in the next few pages; reading like cards from a deck of pop psychobabble, these blurbs add little the book wouldn't be better off without. There is some legit mystery, suspense, and romance in it, though, and some of the characters show emotional growth. But even in a book that openly acknowledges the shortcomings of its self-absorbed teenaged characters, one that confronts some of them with their need to change, it was hard to sympathize with the brats depicted in this book. They became irritating in large doses, even with tongue in cheek; and in spite of suspense winding up to a tight climax, I was a little let down by how easily their issues were resolved. Perhaps I'm being premature, though; this book has two sequels, Homecoming and Lovesick. So their problems, somehow, must not be altogether over.

Their author, a sometime music publicist, TV writer/producer, and video game creator, has also written a trilogy about modern day urban martyrs, comprising The Blessed, Passionaries, and Hallowed.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Silken Prey

Silken Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

It's election time in Minnesota, and the incumbent Republican U.S. Senator has been caught with child porn on his campaign office computer. The governor, although a Democrat, believes Porter Smalls when he says he's being framed. But with two weeks to go before the election, this vicious attempt to hijack the election may not be fixable. Nevertheless, the governor asks his friend, state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent and all-purpose fixer Lucas Davenport, to prove whether Smalls is guilty or innocent before election day.

Davenport's job gets tougher when he realizes the planting of the porn is probably connected with the disappearance of a Democratic Party "political" - which here means "master of dirty tricks," among other things - named Tubbs. Tubbs apparently scored a stash of kiddie porn from someone at the Minneapolis Police Department, where the pictures were part of an evidence file from a three-year-old vice case; then he worked through a spy inside the Smalls campaign to set up a smutty booby trap on the senator's computer. The person most likely to benefit from this is Smalls' Democratic challenger, a silken beauty (hence the book's title) named Taryn Grant. Grant has brains; she has money; and she has a couple of ex-military guys on her security detail with experience as stone-cold killers. They could totally get away with killing Tubbs, and later, his campaign-staffer spy, without leaving any evidence pointing back at themselves. But can Davenport prove they did?

His chance comes on election night, when the Grant campaign is moving back and forth between her heavily-guarded house and the hotel where she plans to accept her victory in the election, if she wins. Sometime during that night, Davenport learns, one of Grant's goons is going to kill the other and bury his body near that of Tubbs. Best-case scenario: they stop the murder while it's in progress. Next-best: A hair-raising chase into a November night, trying to follow a killer without letting him realize he's being followed. Meantime, Lucas' long-time friend Kidd, an artist with a sideline in computer hacking, and his cat-burglar wife get mixed up in the deadly scenario, drawn into a hotbed of murder and betrayal by the tempting gleam of jewels in Grant's bedroom safe.

I had read several books beyond this in the series before I came back around to this book, so I had a weird experience while reading it. For one thing, I happen to know Taryn Grant is at least mentioned later in this series, and one of her bodyguards (not implicated in any criminal business) shows up on Governor Henderson's security detail in Extreme Prey. For another thing, this is at least the second case Davenport has worked with BCA colleague Bob Shaffer, whose entirely different approach to crime-solving proves to be his undoing in the book after this. These continuities, along with the ongoing development of several other interesting, recurring characters, are among the reasons this series still works after so many books. Besides the fact that each crime presents a unique problem, the series benefits greatly from a group of well-developed characters and relationships that are a welcome addition to the ruthlessly driven Lucas - himself a fascinatingly imperfect figure, and certainly one you wouldn't want to see when you glance over your shoulder while fleeing a crime.

This is the 23rd of currently 27 "Lucas Davenport" mysteries by John Sandford, a pen-name of Pulitzer-winning journalist John Camp. Click here for a mansplanation of why I'm reading this series so atrociously out of canon order; sorry, I'm just tired of repeating it. Next on deck is Book 24, Field of Prey, which was the first book in the series that I read. So, it's come full circle now -- except for the first 14 books, which I haven't read yet, and Book 19, which I unavoidably skipped. Stay tuned...

Stolen Prey

Stolen Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

When a suburban family of four is viciously tortured and killed in the style of a Mexican drug gang, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Agent Lucas Davenport is all over it. He brings in some computer experts from past phases of his career - a programming expert nicknamed ICE and a database maven, not to say hacker, named Kidd. Together with team of DEA agents and another BCA team led by the more by-the-book Agent Bob Shaffer, Davenport's investigation is soon hunting for three targets: (1) the hitmen from south of the border who carried out the killings, and who aren't done yet; (2) a drug money laundering pipeline that leads back to a gang with the improbable name "Los Criminales del Norte"; and (3) the Twin Cities-based embezzlement ring whose scheme to hijack the cartel's bank transfers has triggered an ongoing bloodbath.

Each group of investigators has his own priority. And though solving murders is usually Lucas' forte, in this case, his target of choice is the thieves who inadvertently unleashed a string of grisly murders, in which most of the victims are completely innocent. The danger of being captured and killed gives the felonious foursome an incentive to stay hidden, in addition to escaping justice. But if Lucas can't catch them, he can't protect them either - as one of them finds, to his cost. His prey in this hunt includes a depressed, almost humorously lazy guy who nevertheless shows enough initiative to be the only victim to escape from the assassins; a schizophrenic hippie chick; and a Lithuanian Jew who frequently wears a veil to impersonate a Syrian Muslim. The killers, on the other hand, include three guys named Juan who distinguish between themselves using the numbers Uno, Dos, and Tres - and at least one of them is legitimately insane - plus, an extra ace in the whole, a spy that the cartel has placed inside the investigation.

So, naturally, things get a little out of control. While killers and the cops run parallel investigations into who stole the cartel's money, it takes Davenport a while to realize the killers aren't just a step ahead or behind the cops, but that they're racing neck-and-neck. Everywhere they go, they arrive just a moment after a body drops. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity to catch the thieves is closing, as the increasingly desperate accomplices begin to turn on each other. Turning the case around requires a classic Davenport move, using a bit of manipulation and deception to force the killers into a no-win situation, so he can stop the bloodshed before the thieves have time to get away clean. Albeit with a sprinkling of humor, the storyline's twists and turns torque the tension to a climax of exquisite menace, right up to a closing line of dialogue that is so perfect, you won't know whether to laugh or cringe.

This is the 22nd of currently 27 "Lucas Davenport" mysteries by John Sandford, a pen-name of Pulitzer-winning journalist John Camp. Click here for a mansplanation of why I'm reading this series so atrociously out of canon order; sorry, I'm just tired of repeating it. Besides this series, Camp/Sandford is also the author of going-on-10 Virgil Flowers mysteries (featuring a character who figures in this book), four Kidd novels (ditto), and the recent sci-fi thriller Saturn Run. Next on deck for this series is Book 23, Silken Prey.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Buried Prey

Buried Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

This book shows how a long-running series can become new again, ironically, by looking backward at where it all started, if not farther back. When the bodies of twin girls turn up under a foundation during a large-scale demolition project, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Agent Lucas Davenport flashes back to his first case as a plainclothes detective, when the girls first went missing 30 years ago. It's a case that brings back guilty memories of a failure that perhaps led to more deaths during the years between; a case that first saw Lucas paired with his longtime Minneapolis Police partner Sloan, and with his current BCA buddy Del Capslock; a case that haunts him even more after the female detective on the case, with whom he had an affair years ago, becomes one of the killer's latter-day victims; a case in which the police investigation, then and now, was jerked around by a killer with an intimate connection with one of the detectives; a case in which mayhem and death abound, and in which Lucas is in more danger than ever of becoming a murderer himself.

I can keep this review very brief by confirming that it is, I think, the most spiritually disturbing and viscerally moving installment in this series, as far as I have read it; and by noting that, in spite of the mindblowing way the killer eludes capture, and the equally mindblowing way Davenport closes in on him, what really grabs me about it is the interplay of the characters - climaxing in a sort of intervention, with his BCA buddies gathering around Lucas and refusing to let him destroy himself. It is a case whose scars Lucas will carry on him, and in him, for many books to come. And if, like me, you've already read most of those books, you'll recognize it as the case that explains some of the je ne sais quoi that raises those books above the unchallenging tripe Books 22ff. of a long-running crime thriller series can become.

This is the 21st of currently 27 "Lucas Davenport" mysteries by John Sandford, a pen-name of Pulitzer-winning journalist John Camp. Click here for a mansplanation of why I'm reading this series so atrociously out of canon order; sorry, I'm just tired of repeating it. Next on deck is Book 22, Stolen Prey.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

215. Incarnation Hymn

Two months isn't much of a dry spell as a hymn-writer, unless you factor in the fact that I once wrote approximately 100 hymns in a bit over one year;
but here's a hymn that I couldn't stop writing in my head during a desperately needed naptime this afternoon - and it wasn't one of the hymns I've been brainstorming during the past two months. It just started coming out of my brain, as if writing itself; but that was a mean trick, because after I gave up on the nap and sat up to write it,
the rest came out only with much effort and many crossings-out. I have no particular hymn-tune in mind at this time. If that changes, I'll update you.

Incarnation Hymn

Come, praise with songs of priestly joy
God's holy Son and Mary's boy:
Begotten ere the world's first morn,
Now at the end of ages born.
If from our flesh God does not shrink,
What cup for us will He not drink?

Now He who shaped the fiery spheres
In puny, infant flesh appears;
A virgin's breast, a workman's hands
Embrace Him who the cosmos spans.
So far committed for our sake,
What will our God not undertake?

Befuddled shepherd, heathen sage,
Your worship warms the holy page;
While He whom seer and angel sing
Is marked for death by priest and king.
If they so treat the tender shoot,
What will befall the ripened fruit?

So Christ, our All in all, was born
For all, and daring pain and scorn,
Did all that must for man be done,
And in man's place became as none.
Can God be bound in such degree
And fail to set the captive free?

Your love, O Lord, Your gracious plan
Compelled You to unite with man;
Your Word is given, sealed in blood,
Applied by washing, shared as food.
Since You have so restored the earth,
Can we but sing with heav'nly mirth?

Monday, June 26, 2017

Storm Prey

Storm Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

Sometimes, you have to read most of a book to figure out why it came to be titled so-and-so. In this installment, deep within a long series of crime thrillers that all have "Prey" in their title, the only question in a franchise fan's mind, besides "You don't mean Storm Front, do you?" (Answer: No; that's one of Sandford's "Virgil Flowers" novels) is, "What is stormy about it?" The storm might be a play on the name of Davenport's wife Weather, a surgeon at a major Twin Cities hospital, who finds herself targeted by killers while participating in a complex series of surgeries to separate a pair of conjoined twins. It might, after all, be a literal reference to the blizzard that blankets the ultra-violent ending of this book. Or it might simply be a subtle nod to the old saying, "It never rains, but it pours." The proverb seems to apply in this case, when a little crime - three small-time crooks and a drug-addicted emergency room doctor knocking over a hospital pharmacy early one winter morning - sets loose a whirlwind of betrayal, torture, kidnapping, and murder that doesn't let up until nearly all of the crooks are dead, along with several innocent people.

If you've read this whole series, and can't remember which book is which, maybe this will help. This is the book in which a hired killer rides a motorcycle up alongside Weather's car on the freeway, planning to shoot her through the side window... and she swerves into his lane, nearly running him over, then chases him. When the key witness to a crime is that tough to rub out, it's no wonder the gang starts turning against each other. In spite of the bloodbath, there always remains someone who wants to shut Weather up, even if that means dropping a grenade inside the very hospital where she is helping save the lives of two baby girls.

The whole crowd is back in this ensemble crime novel, including chick-magnet Virgil Flowers (who had his own series by the time this book broke), the hilariously thuggish Jenkins and Shrake (Who knew Shrake could play the piano?), typographically named Del Capslock (who is about due to become a father, around the time-frame of this book), and more. But as always, the one who scares the bad guys, driving them to increasingly desperate and reckless acts, is Davenport himself. He's a scary guy, and I can't guarantee that, given a chance to meet him in real life, I would like him or trust him, but there's no denying, you don't want to be the crook he's trying to catch. It just wouldn't be good for you.

This is the 20th of currently 27 "Lucas Davenport" mysteries by John Sandford, a pen-name of Pulitzer-winning journalist John Camp. Click here for a mansplanation of why I'm reading this series so atrociously out of canon order; sorry, I'm just tired of repeating it. Regrettably, I had to skip Book 19, Wicked Prey, because my local public library no longer has a copy of it; but I'm already enthusiastically into Book 21, Buried Prey - in which Davenport revisits one of his earliest cases, one that he mentions in this book. Like the whole series, this book keeps the pages turning, even to the point of causing a problem - like, by the time I get a chance to write a review of one book, I'm so deep into the next book that I get them a little mixed up. I'm not mixed up, however, when I say this is fine entertainment, albeit with a sharp edge and an adult content advisory.

Phantom Prey

Phantom Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

When Lucas Davenport, a highly successful agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is on the case, the bad guys - be they living or be they dead - had better look out. This fact is put to the test in this crime thriller, in which the sleuth takes time off surveillance of an escaped gangster's gorgeous, exhibitionist wife, to help one of his wife's friends figure out who killed her daughter.

The crime is very mysterious: no body has been found, only a splash of blood on the wallpaper, and a few fragments of bloody paper towel stuck between the tiles on the kitchen floor. At first, it isn't even a sure thing a murder has taken place; but Alyssa Austin is both a tough businesswoman, good at getting her way, and a somewhat goofy new-ager who claims to have received reliable advice from the spirit world. Bottom line, Weather (that's Davenport's wife) wants him on the case. So, on the case he goes.

Naturally, bodies immediately start dropping. Someone in the Twin Cities' goth scene (you know, those folks who dress all in black and wear black-on-white makeup) is killing other goths, and in a crazy way, it's connected with the Austin girl's disappearance. If I told you how crazy, or what this has to do with villains from beyond the veil of death, I would be spoiling the whole creepy, edgy, death-and-gore-drenched plot for you. And you wouldn't want to miss all the psychological and paranormal twistedness. The shivers and goosebumps alone are worth the ride, but added to them are the thrills of a vanilla shoot-'em-up with hardened criminals.

This is the 18th of currently 27 "Lucas Davenport" mysteries by John Sandford, a pen-name of Pulitzer-winning journalist John Camp. Click here for a mansplanation of why I'm reading this series so atrociously out of canon order; sorry, I'm just tired of repeating it.

This is the type of mystery in which the reader finds out whodunit long before the detectives do; then you writhe in agonizing suspense while they pick up the trail of clues and bumble after it, trying (but never quite succeeding) in catching the bad guy before more dastardly deeds are done. And of course, while Davenport slowly but steadily closes in on his quarry, he/she/it (whatever) looks back, sees the danger, and inevitably, thinks about striking at him. If you're the type of mystery reader who, observing this is only book 18 of 27, reasons the danger the hero is in may be taken lightly, consider: he gets shot and seriously injured while working this case. But it doesn't stop him; which is good, because that means there will be more tough, smart, funny, sexy, and unusually scary (even for this series) crime-solving fun.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Broken Prey

Broken Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this 16th of (so far) 27 "Lucas Davenport" thrillers, award-winning journalist John Camp (who writes novels under the Sandford pseudonym) introduces the recurring character of Star Tribune writer Ruffe Ignace - about whom I have read many times, but only now learned how to pronounce his name correctly, as a consequence of starting near the end of the series, then skipping back to about the midpoint and moving forward again. (Sorry, I've already explained this off-color procedure for reading a book series in several reviews, but for the sake of future readers who will probably read my reviews in the order the books were published, I feel I must mention it again, to be clear. These explanations will get really tedious around the time I catch up to where I first joined the series, then skip back all the way to the beginning and go forward from there. Maybe I'll just bookmark this parenthetical blurb and drop links to it into future reviews, to save time. Whew!) Even more confusingly, I skipped from Book 15 to Book 17 of this series, then had to go back to catch this one. So it's been hard (or is going to be hard, depending on your point of view) to keep my reviews from spoiling books not yet read. Sorry in advance!

So, anyway, as I meant to say before I so rudely interrupted myself, Ruffe Ignace (Roo-fay Ig-nas; now you know) is this weaselly, ambitious reporter who wants like nobody's business to work for The New York Times. In spite of his shortcomings, he begins to develop into an ally of Davenport and soon-to-spin-off Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Virgil Flowers; they amiably use each other to further their own agendas, and in the main, those agendas eventually prove to coincide with the public good. Ignace isn't a complete reptile; I know, I know, but that just goes to show the subtlety and depth of Sandford's characterization - not to mention the fact he was a newspaper writer himself, when he was still John Camp; so his portrait of Ignace probably has some affectionately satirical resemblance to a type of character he might have drawn from life. Ignace is perhaps more important in this book than any of his subsequent appearances, because this is the one in which the serial killer calls him up to tell his story to the press - information Ignace dutifully passes on to Davenport, who eventually discovers most of it is designed to mislead the cops.

Whoever the real killer is, he doesn't seem to care whether the people he tortures, rapes, and murders are male or female. He (or she, or even possibly they) also proves terrifyingly adept at dragging red herrings across the trail the BCA and local law enforcement are following. Slowed down by deceptions, including steering the investigation after the wrong suspect, the cops realize they are two steps behind the killer and falling farther behind, even while the race to save the life of the next victim is roaring down the roads of rural southern Minnesota at breakneck speed. Somehow, the killer is tied to the "big three" inmates at a secure mental hospital near Mankato - yet even with the suspects narrowed down that much, the killer remains elusive. Somehow, again, the killer is connected to - Sandford uses the phrase "hovering near" - an orgasmic college girl and her randy, Serbian-American surgeon lover; but in what way, I didn't guess until the explosive revelation. As Lucas & Co. get closer to identifying the real bad guy, as the killer gets closer to what he and his "Gods Down the Hall" speak of as Armageddon, the number of lives and limbs at stake, including (of course) Lucas' own, increases on a steep curve - a graph drawn in blood. Ick.

I gather this is also the last book to feature Davenport's recurring crime-solving partner Sloan as a Minneapolis police detective. Sloan reaches the burnout point while investigating the case in this book; I happen to know, again due to my non-linear reading of the series, he is featured in Book 17 as a former cop who runs a bar. I don't remember him figuring in any subsequent books in the series. So, again, I have the awkward sense that I'm going to see more of Sloan in the part of this series I should have read before this, but that is too old to be held by my local public library; awkward, because I won't see most of his character arc until long after I have seen where it ends.

Other than little continuity snarls like this, however, I find this to be a series that can be read in any order, or simply enjoyed as freestanding novels. Each one presents its own world of literary and criminal problems and solutions, and a convincingly unique twist on the crime-thriller cliche, "It started like any other homicide case, but by the time Lucas Davenport (or whoever) realizes something really sick is going on, it may already be too late to stop a disaster in which many lives, including our hero's, will be at stake." Okay, if not unique, at least distinctive enough to remember amid all the other variations on it played by this and similar authors. And part of what sells this particular variation of it, is the believable humanity of Lucas Davenport and the characters around him, taking his toughness and frailty together, his crime-detecting brilliance that makes him so dangerous to bad guy after bad guy, along with his human limitations and even moral failings that make this duel of wits a frighteningly even match.

EDIT: For future reference... This is the book in which Davenport makes a list of the 100 best songs of the rock era - an amusing fount of non sequitur banter between the characters throughout the book, as well as an actual list at the end. It's notable for including (1) no Beatles songs and (2) a waltz from Shostakovich's Jazz Suite No. 2.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Invisible Prey

Invisible Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

It is this 17th novel in the currently 27-book "Lucas Davenport" mystery-thriller series in which Virgil Flowers, a Davenport protégé whose going-on-10-book spinoff series hadn't yet spun off at the time, shoots a woman in the foot while aiming for center mass, only to see her finished off by another woman more inclined to shoot to kill. It's an incident I've already seen mentioned, in spare outline, in many other Davenport/Flowers books written after this, due to the order in which I have been reading the books being stupendously at odds with their publication order; but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

The case that brings together the pistol-marksmanship-challenged Flowers and the victim of his first shooting-related fatality is, after all, a Lucas Davenport mystery. It starts with a rich, politically connected old lady and her maid being beaten to death with a pipe. At first, to Davenport and the St. Paul homicide detective working the case with him, it seems like a robbery gone wrong. But there are pieces missing - pieces from the old lady's collection of antiques and paintings, that is - suggesting that the robbers/killers weren't just junkies trying to raise drug money by selling stolen stuff. The perpetrators could apparently tell the difference between really valuable stuff, items of middling value, and worthless junk - choosing what to steal, what to leave intact, and what to smash to cover their tracks, accordingly. Then the sleuths spot connections between the murders at the Bucher mansion and the unsolved killing of another rich, antique-collecting old lady in Wisconsin; and then a connection to a supposedly solved murder in Iowa, for which a suspect has already been tried and convicted. Then a young woman comes forward and claims her grandmother's seemingly accidental death must also be connected; though Davenport isn't sure, until the young woman herself disappears in ominous circumstances.

The case really gets interesting when a witness in the prosecution of a state senator who had sex with a teenage girl is targeted for kidnapping in a way that bizarrely connects the two seemingly unrelated cases. Unlike that granddaughter of one of the murder victims, the girl in question gets away from the kidnappers, thanks to the doggy heroism of a pit bull/rat terrier mix named Screw. Once bitten, the killer - who turns out to be frighteningly close to the murder investigation - goes increasingly out of control. Even stealing the really valuable objets d'art isn't his whole motive; nor is he only trying to cover up a colossal fraud. In fact, the dude is a flat-out psychopath, and he isn't acting alone. And so, as Davenport's cases so often do, what begins as a straightforward whodunit turns into a bedlam of betrayal, blackmail, frame-ups, fire-bombs, grisly (and never entirely explained) discoveries in a southern Minnesota farmyard, and a downtown St. Paul sting operation that goes completely sideways and ends with shots fired. And at the turning point of it all, a sniper has Davenport himself in his crosshairs.

I promise you, there are good reasons why I'm reading this series so ridiculously out of order - starting toward the end, jumping back to about the halfway point, and working forward from there with the occasional hop, skip, or jump in one direction or other. The fact that I skipped from Book 15 to this is apparently due to a mistake on my part, when I was trying to check out the earliest handful of books in this series held by my local public library. I'm going on (back?) to Book 16 next; it's titled Broken Prey. I've got five more Lucas Davenport novels to read after that; and then I'll be in the awkward position of having to skip back again and try to find copies of earlier installments that my library doesn't have.

I'm not saying these are the best books I've read in this decade, but I'll tell you this much: I'm not getting much else read while I stumble and weave through the John Sandford oeuvre (or John Camp, if you want his real name). A hard-core critic would probably describe it rather as an hors d'oeuvre, but I'm just a humble book booster, so I'll bear witness that this series of books has sufficed to keep me reading during every spare moment so far this summer. It's as good as a season of a TV crime show on DVD; it's so good, if someone turned it into a crime show, I would get that DVD. But when you're all about keeping the TV unplugged and stashed in the front closet, I have to give this series credit for keeping my couch time devoted to the joy of books.