Saturday, April 22, 2017

Going In Style

+++ FILM REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++
This is the poster for the 2017 movie starring Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin.

This is a still from the 1979 movie starring George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg.

Magician's Gambit

Magician's Gambit
by David Eddings
Recommended Ages: 12+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

Please be patient. I'm going through some stuff at the moment, that has been requiring all the time I normally spend blogging.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

214. A Silly Hymn About Pets

I'm a little ashamed even to be going here, but one of the ideas I had for another round of "useful hymns" was a hymn dealing with the problem I've seen several Christians struggle with - how to move on after the death of a pet. I decided the approach to take would be something like the following, though I'm only about 40-percent satisfied with how it turned out. There's an irreducible silliness about the whole subject, in my opinion. And I say this as someone who has seriously mourned the death of several pets. The last stanza has me especially worried, because it's the one that confronts the matter head-on, and it must somehow strike the right balance between a not-too-pedantic, but somewhat polemical admonishment and a tone of compassion and comfort - while, at the same time, not offering any comfort God's Word does not authorize in this case. Also, I didn't want it in any way to encourage the whole "blessing of the pets" craze, or the placing of "rainbow bridge" tracts in churches, both of which I consider abominable in more ways than I want to go into at this time. So, with apologies in advance for its shortcomings, here is:

A Hymn of Thanksgiving for Animal Friends
Tune: GOTT DER VATER, WOHN UNS BEI
("God the Father, be our Stay")

Thank you, Lord, for furry friends,
And fanged, and finned, and feathered!
Though they live in tanks or pens,
Are harnessed, yoked, or tethered,
We but borrow from the wild
These gifts of Your creation;
With care and moderation,
We place them in their station.
Help us, then, with them be mild
And husband their well-being,
To all their comforts seeing,
From pain and terror freeing.
Should we as their god be styled,
Of this, Lord, make us worthy!

Thank you, Lord, for beasts that serve
On leash, or under saddle:
Guides that out of danger swerve,
Or guards no threat can rattle;
Friends that hunt, or search and save,
Some evil thing detecting
And innocents protecting,
But scant reward expecting.
Oh, that we were half as brave
And faithful in our labor,
Devoted to our neighbor,
Dependent on Your favor!
Of how rich a gift you gave
Through them, Lord, keep us mindful!

Thank You, Lord, for pets that cheer
Our hearts with sweet devotion,
Soothing sadness, calming fear,
And cooling hot emotion!
In their trusting, pleading eyes,
You try our hearts, to render
Unto the weaker member
Both faithful love and tender.
Who that feels their due, denies
Your mercy’s greatness, serving
Mankind, though undeserving,
Poor, weak, and inward-curving?
Through their fleeting, little lives,
Lord, lasting lessons teach us!

Thank you, Lord, at last, for grief
Felt at our darlings’ dying;
May it strengthen our belief,
On Your pure word relying!
Let no answers to unknowns
Use heartache to mislead us;
Nor let our sorrow cheat us
Of what You died to deed us.
Though we have no certain stones
On which to stay our weeping,
We leave, Lord, in Your keeping
Our creature-friends, now sleeping.
Let Your vow to raise our bones
Suffice to give us comfort!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Thrift Store Book Buys

Yesterday, I took advantage of some comp time the old salt mines owed me and punched out of work early. Then I walked across the town square to pay a utility bill at City Hall. On my way back, I ducked into a thrift shop to get out of the driving rain and cold, stiff wind. I found my way back to the book shelves, where there were paperbacks on sale for 35 cents each. I made quite a haul for less than $2.50, plus tax. Here are the seven books I took home:
  • Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
  • The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
  • The American by Henry James
  • So Big by Edna Ferber
  • A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt
  • Ice Station by Matt Reilly
All of these are books I have never read, but have reckoned I probably should someday. (Well, except the last one; that's just for entertainment.) Here's my chance!

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Boss Baby

Sorry to have been so slow finishing this review (and those of two books I read around the same time), but we had a busy week at the newspaper for which I write, including a local election, and any given day during the last week I've had either no energy or no time to spare. It's been about a week since I saw the 20th Century Fox animated film The Boss Baby. But I think can still fulfill my current movie-reviewing objective of recalling the three moments that made this movie for me.

It's a cute, funny, warm-and-cuddly adventure featuring an imaginative seven-year-old boy whose jealousy of the love his parents are giving his newborn baby brother turns into suspicion when he catches the new baby chairing a meeting of local babies, planning some kind of corporate espionage against the company hero boy's parents work for - Puppy Co. Eventually, the siblings call a truce and agree to work together to halt a fiendish plot to use high-tech puppies to squeeze babies out of grown-ups' hearts, so the undercover executive baby can get back to his office at Baby Corp and little Tim can have his parents back. The upper management baby is voiced by Alec Baldwin. The boys' parents are played by Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow. The villainous Francis Francis, CEO of Puppy Co., is played by Steve Buscemi, and Tobey Maguire narrates as grown-up Tim.

So, Moment #1: A madcap chase scene in the backyard, as Tim tries to deliver to his parents an audio cassette(?!) proving what the babies are up to, and the babies give chase. The stunts, explosions, and hairsbreadth escapes are hilariously over-the-top, but the five-second bit that makes it is when the parents look out the window and see Tim hanging onto the rear bumper of the boss baby's car-shaped walker as it rolls slowly across the lawn. This glimpse of the reality behind the kids' flights of imagination is simultaneously the weirdest and the funniest thing about an altogether weird and funny movie.

Moment #2: Tim accuses the boss baby of stealing the song his parents wrote for him - actually "Blackbird" by the Beatles - but completely misses the reference when the baby sarcastically retorts, "So, your parents are John Lennon and Paul McCartney?" Later, however, Tim sings the same song to the baby, who at the time is lapsing into pure babyishness, to coax him off a rocket that's about to blast off (long story). Kinda puts a lump in your throat.

Moment #3: There are some gags in the movie that only adults will get. Probably the one with the best payoff is the baby, who I repeat has Alec Baldwin's voice, saying, "Cookies are for closers."

It take a lot, these days, to get me to travel the distance to the nearest, or second-nearest, movie theater and to lay out the amount of money a movie ticket and a small popcorn costs. Moments like these are essential to making me feel it was worth the trip. There were other movies I could have seen, including a King Kong reboot, a live-action Beauty and the Beast. I guess the question this review raises is: What does the fact that I chose an animated movie about a suit-wearing baby voiced by Alec "coffee is for closers" Baldwin say about me?

Hades

Hades
by Candice Fox
Recommended Ages: 15+

In this opening novel of what has become (so far) the "Archer and Bennett" trilogy, Sydney homicide detective Frank Bennett immediately notices something about his new partner, the beautiful Eden Archer, that makes him want to dig deeper and find out more. By the time they solve their first mystery together, the impulse has led him into a bond of blood with a woman whose brilliance at detecting sociopathic killers stems from being one herself.

Not only is she one, but so is her detective brother Eric, who if anything is even more dangerous - to bad guys, to anyone who gets too close to the secret he and Eden share, and most of all to Frank. As he gets closer to being able to prove the siblings are moonlighting as murderers, hunting bad guys the justice system can't stop and making them disappear forever, Frank finds himself closer to becoming another of their not-quite-innocent victims. Meantime, he also gets too close to a victim who escaped the serial killer he and Eden are after. This sicko, by the way, has developed a gruesome procedure for sparing transplant patients a long time on the waiting list, provided they aren't picky about how the organs were procured.

A successful reader of this book will have a strong stomach, buffered against the grisly discoveries in store for the cops, as they chase a mad medico whose devotion to Darwin provides a rationale for many of his crimes. They must also have a strong heart, able to take being broken by the pain in store for the imperfect yet sympathetic main character. And they should also have a nimble mind, as the point of view shifts occasionally to that of the killer (the guy doing the organ transplants, that is), and also regularly flashes back to Eric and Eden's upbringing by the organized crime fixer whose nickname gives the book its title. No stranger to killing himself, it is ultimately Hades' heartbreak one feels, as he raises two orphans left on his doorstep by one of their parents' killers, and loves them even though he knows what they will someday become. It is a book that provokes thought about the line between justice and vengeance. It even tries - not entirely without success - for a little sympathy with at least one of the Archer siblings, as she struggles to master her own demons while fighting demons at large.

This is the debut novel of an Australian writer whose name has lately been appearing, in smaller and less-bold type, below that of crime writer James Patterson - one of those authors who, like Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, etc., have such successful brand-names that they can afford to shelter less-successful talents under them. Why Candice Fox would need to do this is a question that mystifies me. She won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award for best first novel with this book - an honor bestowed annually by the Crime Writers Association of Australia, approximately the down-under equivalent of the Edgar Awards in the U.S. Its sequel Eden won a Ned Kelly for best novel the next year, and the third book in the series, Fall, was short-listed for the same award in 2016. Even in translation into U.S. English (ha, ha), I see nothing lacking in Fox's talent writing crime thrillers, certainly not such that she should be relegated to a footnote on the cover under marquee-sized bold capitals spelling out "James Patterson." I say this with no malice toward the American author, of whose work I have yet to read one page. I just think the author who actually did most of the work should get most of the credit, and if they truly co-wrote it, they should get equal credit. Also, I think this author - I mean Candice Fox - is good enough to have her own best-selling brand.

The Song of Glory and Ghost

The Song of Glory and Ghost
by N.D. Wilson
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the second book of the "Outlaws of Time" series, Sam Miracle - a boy destined to kill a time-walking villain named the Vulture, or El Buitre, before he destroys the whole world - finds himself playing second fiddle to his former sidekick, a girl named Glory. They've been caught in a blighted branch of time, following a disaster that turned the Seattle area into a post-apocalyptic nightmare, since their only ticket out - the time-traveling priest Father Tiempo, or the boy Peter who is meant to grow up to be him - is being targeted for John Connor-style termination by being erased from history, practically at the moment of his birth. Armed, at first, with only an hourglass that can create bubbles of faster or slower time, Glory must learn how to move forward and backward in time so Sam can end this, before the Vulture ends him.

Meantime, Glory, Sam, his sister Millie, and their group of "Lost Boys" have gotten crosswise with a gang whose leader, nicknamed Leviathan, and his daughter Samra have been brought up on a series of comic books depicting Sam as a traitor and a villain who must be stopped at all costs. It isn't hard to believe, when you see the kid with snakes for arms draw and shoot pistols with both hands, with deadly speed and accuracy, aided by Glory, whose growing ability to manipulate time actually enables them to ride a motorcycle, sidecar and all, across the surface of Puget Sound. But even bigger obstacles lie before them than Levi's gang, thanks to the Vulture's pact with a pair of ancient Mesoamerican demons and an army of skin-walkers - basically, undead people who have gained the ability to transform into werebeasts by murdering their own families.

So, this is a really out-there, strange, original, action-packed piece of young-adult science fiction/fantasy/adventure, populated by cosmic beings and paranormal mosnters, exploring previously uncharted hazards of time travel, and occasionally drop into speeches that hint at a triune deity moving mysteriously in the background. I think I have compared N.D. Wilson's youth fiction with that of C.S. Lewis in a previous review. The comparison this book brought to mind was to Madeleine L'Engle in such books as A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door. Maybe this is a consequence of the point-of-view character more often being Glory in this book, and the hero-girl type being more open to listening to characters like the Ghost (whom I'm afraid to try describing) rhapsodize about the spiritual side of things. With Sam at the center, the focus was more on the immediate dilemma of what to do and, at times, trying to pull together his confused memories of what he had already done. Perhaps unfortunately, Glory's step forward means the narrative cake is more thickly frosted with metaphysical talkiness. But without taking away any of the hard-hitting action and danger that livened up the first book in the series, it gives more thoughtful readers, especially Christian families, material to consider and discuss.

My review of this sequel to The Legend of Sam Miracle is based on a pre-publication proof copy. The book is scheduled to be released April 18, 2017. Wilson is also the author of several children's picture books, including some fictions based on Bible stories; the "100 Cupboards" trilogy and its upcoming prequel The Door Before (coming out June 27, 2017); the "Ashtown Burials" trilogy; Leepike Ridge; and Boys of Blur.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Legend of Sam Miracle

The Legend of Sam Miracle
by N.D. Wilson
Recommended Ages: 12+

Sam Miracle is a frequently spaced-out foster kid who lives with eleven "Ranch Brothers" at the St. Anthony of the Desert Destitute Youth Ranch, somewhere in Arizona. He has arms that don't bend at the elbow, due to an accident that shattered the bones, and a tendency to wander off while daydreaming, turning up hours later sunburned and dehydrated. One day a gunslinging visitor tries to kill him in front of his foster parents, shooting him right through the body of their strong-willed daughter Glory. Luckily, the two kids are snatched from the brink of death by a time-traveling priest named Father Tiempo, who has been guiding Sam through a long series of do-overs in a life-or-death mission to stop the villainous Vulture, a.k.a. El Buitre, from conquering the future.

Sam has been plucked off the cusp of oblivion so many times, he has a hard time keeping his memories straight. But apparently, his real life started during the era of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. And it would have continued then, too, if his existence hadn't threatened the Vulture's project of grinding all history beneath his boot-heel. Now El Buitre is afraid to move forward past the week he has foreseen Sam Miracle will kill him. But he has Sam in a stalemate, holding his sister Millie hostage in a chamber of torture, death, and rebirth outside time. And now, thanks to Father Tiempo's most desparate gambit ever, Sam is on his last life. No more resets. He either gets the Vulture - and Millie, per preference - or he falls, and the world falls with him.

I've given away more than enough of this strange, original, exciting adventure through time. If you squint at the cover art, you'll pick up a couple more things - like the fact Sam takes Glory along with him, and she has a magical hourglass thingy that somehow defends them against the Vulture's time-meddling powers, and he ends up with a couple of snakes grafted into his arms. I mean, seriously: the kid, destined to live out the destiny of his favorite character from a dog-eared old western novel called The Legend of the Poncho, gets snake arms. How cool is that? The story has it all: monstrous villains, timey-wimey sci-fi weirdness, a touch of southwestern U.S. mystique (and I like the southwestern U.S.), a sneaky thread of religious allegory, humbling emotional dilemmas, self-sacrificing friendship, a motorcycle with a sidecar, some serious gunfights, and more, more, more.

I am a longtime appreciator of the work of N.D. Wilson. If you've ever tuned into either the "100 Cupboards" or the "Ashtown Burials" series, you know what I mean. This inaugural book in the new "Outlaws of Time" series is as different from them as it can be, without lacking any of the good stuff. A follow-up book, The Song of Glory and Ghost, is scheduled for release April 18, 2017. Fair disclosure: Both books are in my hands thanks to Wilson's wife, who had the publicity department at Harper Collins Children's mail them to me. Another fair disclosure: I have a mediocre record of reading books sent me for free in time to write a pre-publication review. That my proof copy of Glory and Ghost is at the top of my reading list is not because it's a freebie, but because it's the book I am most excited to read right now.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Some bizarre dreams

During two of the last three nights, I had dreams that embedded themselves in my memory. I'm not sure what to make of them, other than to say, "Stick these in your pipe and smoke them, Dr. Freud!"

Three nights ago, I dreamed that I had changed careers so that it was now my job to capture escaped animals, and my current assignment was to retrieve an elephant that had gotten loose. I caught the elephant, all right, but I could not coax it onto a trailer so it could be hauled back to wherever it belonged. Though not very large as elephants go, it was very independent-minded. Instead, I had to cling to the wiry hairs on its back and hang off its side while it ran down the road. I can't remember feeling particularly afraid, only annoyed. It was the kind of dream that made it feel good to go back to my real job in the waking world.

Two nights ago, as I hovered between waking and sleeping, my semi-coherent mind coined two new words, apropos of God knows what. The first word, I recall, was "relect" - a noun, or perhaps substantive adjective, which, according to my dream etymology, literally meant "written out loud," but in general usage meant "a mode of speech or writing imprinting what it describes indelibly on one's memory." Related to it was the term "prelect," describing "a mode of speech or writing that erases whatever it describes from one's memory." Upon realizing what I had stumbled upon, I woke up and repeated the words and their definitions to myself, saving them for later. At the time, I thought they might come in handy for a science-fiction story. Looking back, I'm not sure they would hold even that much water.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Best Mistake Mystery

The Best Mistake Mystery
by Sylvia McNicoll
Recommended Ages: 10+

Stephen Noble is a Canadian middle-schooler with a wee worrying problem. For example, he worries a lot about his flight attendant mother being in an airplane crash. He worries that he may not be ready to help his stay-at-home dad run his dog-walking and dog-treat-baking business. But his worries come packaged with an active inner life, and that also makes him the ideal kid to solve a mystery in his neighborhood. A mystery is what he gets, starting one day when school is canceled due to a bomb threat. This escalates to somebody crashing a classic VW Beetle into the school.

Then Stephen starts getting threatening texts on his cellphone, warning him to "M.Y.O.B." (mind your own business). Finally, one of the dogs he has been watching while its owners are out of town is dog-napped and held for ransom. He is afraid to tell his dad, who would certainly involve the police, lest the dognapper carry out his threat to hurt Ping the greyhound (loyal companion to Pong the Jack Russell terrier). So he takes sleuthing into his own hands, aided by a brainy girl named Renee, whose brother Attila (I kid you not) has already been charged with the crimes.

Stephen isn't sure Attila is innocent, but he has other suspects as well - ranging from the school's ex-custodian, who had a romantic breakup with the principal, to a mason whose very distinctive style of brick was found at the scene of one of the crimes. Meantime, he investigates these strange happenings in his own goofy, worry-wart way: one mistake at a time, adding up to dozens of mistakes by the end of the story (and, being the type of kid he is, he keeps a running count of his mistakes).

As narrators go, Stephen is a funny, down-to-earth, convincingly real kid. I particularly loved his reply when the dognapper demanded payment of a ransom - something like, "Do you take debit?" He cares about people and dogs in a way that draws the reader's sympathy to him. In his weakness, he is believable; in his honesty, he is lovable; and in his triumph, he lends encouragement to children of all ages.

This is the first book of the "Great Mistake" series; it already has a sequel, titled The Artsy Mistake Mystery. The author's website lists both books as being published in 2016, though according to Amazon (U.S.) and NetGalley (which sent me the pre-publication Kindle proof on which this review is based), this book is scheduled for release March 28, 2017. Sylvia McNicoll is one-third of a group of Canadian authors who, in the late 1990s, wrote the 12-book "Stage School" series under the collective pseudonym Geena Dare. Her other titles include Project Disaster, The Tiger Catcher's Kid, Blueberries and Whipped Cream, A Different Kind of Beauty, Dying to Go Viral, Dog on Trial, and Revenge on the Fly, among others.

The Door Before

The Door Before
by N.D. Wilson
Recommended Ages: 12+

Hyacinth, the fourth of five Smith children, has looked forward all her life to the day the family finally settles down in a home of its own. After years of moving from place to place on assignments her parents do for a mysterious Order, it finally seems this will happen. But waiting for them in their house on the California seashore is a shady old lady who is trying to achieve something very wrong with a grove full of lightning-struck trees. While the three older siblings head off to a special camp, and their parents are called on the carpet to report their capture of a man-shaped mushroom monster with (count 'em) two mouths, Hy and little brother Lawrence are left alone with Granlea Smith and whatever mischief she is up to.

It turns out she is trying to open doorways to other worlds. She has already let in four mushroom hunters (and not the kind who look for morels in the woods), and the two boys they are hunting. Hyacinth has barely started getting to know the brothers - Caleb, who is an excellent shot with a bow and arrow, and Mordecai Westmore, who can shoot vines out of his hands - before her own little-understood power becomes the key to their survival. For Granlea has foolishly opened a way for Nimiane, the immortal witch-queen of Endor, to enter our world and drain all its life to fuel her evil magic. And though Hyacinth's parents work for people who deem her worthy of death because of a power she hardly understands, the fate of many worlds depends on her - one girl with a knack for communicating with dogs, with trees, and with the invisible force of life.

A reasonable number of authors have tried to achieve something like what C.S. Lewis did with his "Chronicles of Narnia." As far as I can tell, N.D. Wilson is the guy who's doing it. He is writing young-adult fiction full of breathtaking fantasy imagery, big world-building gestures, colossal conflicts between ineffable good and terrifying evil, and characters who hail from multiple dimensions yet all seem to know the same Bible stories (not to mention other literary traditions, such as Arthurian legend). He isn't thrusting religion down anybody's throat, but adding a new layer to a rich background of stories, drawing on their story-shapes, and portraying heroes whose values seem to be formed by the assumption they are true stories. He also writes rich, vivid, economical prose that hooks right into the mind's senses, and never says the expected thing in the expected way. From the overall shape of his stories to the quirky details, he knows his business and does it well.

This review is based on a pre-production proof I received from the publisher's publicity department through the kindness of the author's wife. Nate and Heather have five kids and, according to his about-the-author blurb, an unreasonable number of pets. N.D. Wilson is also the author of the wilderness-survival classic Leepike Ridge, the Beowulf update Boys of Blur, the (so far) two "Outlaws of Time" novels The Legend of Sam Miracle and The Song of Glory and Ghost (which they also sent me; thanks folks!), and several children's picture-books, such as Ninja Boy Goes to School. But he is best known for his mythic "100 Cupboards" and "Ashtown Burials" trilogies. The Door Before is officially a prequel to the former, but in a funky crossover-type way, it is kind of a prequel to both, revealing (in case you never guessed before) that the worlds built around these two series of magical, Christianity-tinged adventures are somehow connected at the ground floor. This new book goes into circulation June 27, 2017.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Conspiracy of Alchemists

A Conspiracy of Alchemists
by Liesel Schwarz
Recommended Ages: 14+

Elle Chance is a woman ahead of her time in a steampunk Edwardian era, operating her own airship freight service. She isn't ready to accept that she also has a destiny on the "shadow" side of reality, where fairies, warlocks, alchemists, and nightwalkers (i.e. vampires) roam. But actually, everything magical hinges on her, as she gradually learns after her mad-inventor father is kidnapped by a cabal of alchemists and nightwalkers. Reluctantly, she must turn for help to the Viscount Greychester, a.k.a. the warlock Hugh Marsh, an infuriating individual who has already maneuvered her far outside her comfort zone.

Together, the two travel by eye-poppingly improbable modes from Oxford to Constantinople, on the trail of Professor Chance. Along the way, they fall in love, have a falling out, and become separated by a plot that endangers the entire world. Elle must quickly learn to use the powers that flow through her, making her the turning point of the alchemists' conspiracy; meanwhile, Marsh risks his neck in a city where magic is outlawed to find the woman he loves.

It all comes together in a very satisfying example of everything that makes steampunk fiction fun. It has nefarious villains, romantic tension, supernatural jeopardy, betrayals, conflicting agendas, and unbelievably cheesy technology based on an amalgam of steam power and a kind of magic called Spark (related, I suppose, to the concept of "aether" that so often plays a role in this branch of literature). According to the author's note at the end of the book, some of these unbelievable gadgets actually existed, at least on paper, in approximately the period of history that comes in for the trademarked combination of paranormal paranoia, abusive social satire, retro-futuristic re-imagining, and shamelessly sentimental nostalgia that is, in a word, steampunk.

This is the first book in the "Chronicles of Light and Shadow" trilogy that also includes the titles A Clockwork Heart and Sky Pirates, all by a U.K.-based author who says she especially likes Gothic romances. My review is based on the audio-book read by Amy McFadden.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Fundraising Idea

I've been giggling to myself, during the last few days, about a cute idea I'm working on, about how a community could raise funds for a local project that isn't in any one organization's budget. It's a karaoke-based pledge drive, and it goes like this:

Step 1. The organizers get a commitment from a number of local leaders to participate in a night of self-hazing karaoke craziness, and to sing specific numbers if, and only if, a given number of dollars is pledged for the purpose.

Step 2. A corps of pledge-gatherers visit residents and business owners in the community with a list of the participating leaders and the songs they will sing, if at least $X,000 is pledged, and ask them: (a) How much will you pledge for This Person to sing This Song, going down the list, and/or (b) What is the maximum total amount you will donate for the opportunity to hear all these people sing these songs.

Step 3. Publicize the event, making sure to secure a venue, a karaoke DJ, and maybe a chorus of backup singers to provide a little encouragement to the less vocally robust victims of the gag.

Step 4. Enjoy the night, and make sure all the pledged funds are collected accordingly, and are applied to whatever project it was all done for.

So, here's the part I've been giggling over: a list of musical selections to pair with (i.e., force upon, by benevolent blackmail) particular kinds of local leaders. It's coming together, in my mind, as sort of a game of musical forfeits:

  • Chairman of the school board: "We Don't Need No Education" by Pink Floyd
  • A local dentist: "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd
  • Publisher of the local newspaper: "Dirty Laundry" by Don Henley
  • Director of the health department: "Bad Medicine" by Bon Jovi
  • President or manager of a local bank: "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits, or "Money" by Pink Floyd
  • Mayor or member of the city council: "We Built This City" by Jefferson Starship
  • Chief of the city police: "I Shot the Sheriff" by Eric Clapton
  • Sheriff or a high-ranking deputy: "No More Mr. Nice Guy" by Alice Cooper
  • Highway Patrol trooper: "I Can't Drive 55" by Sammy Hagar
  • County commissioner, assessor, or collector: "Taxman" by the Beatles
  • A local funeral director: "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen, or "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult
  • A local minister or pillar of the church: "Knocking on Heaven's Door" by Guns N' Roses, or "Jumping Jack Flash" by the Stones
  • Manager of the local grocery store: "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones
  • A licensed massage therapist: "Invisible Touch" by Genesis
  • A beautician: "Dude Looks Like a Lady" by Aerosmith
  • A high school teacher or guidance counselor: "Baba O'Riley" by the Who (you know, that "teenage wasteland" song)
  • Motel manager or B&B owner: "Hotel California" by the Eagles
  • A pest control guy: "Killer Queen" by Queen
  • A gun shop or shooting course owner: "Janie Got a Gun" by Aerosmith
  • Director of the nursing home: "Who Are You" by the Who
  • Prosecuting attorney or local judge: "Tell Me Lies" by Fleetwood Mac
  • Psychiatrist or clinical social worker: "You May Be Right" by Billy Joel, or "Crazy Train" by Ozzy Osbourne
  • Restaurant Owner: "Eat the Rich" by Aerosmith
  • Fire chief: "I'm on Fire" by Bruce Springsteen, or "Fire" by Jimi Hendrix
  • Code enforcement officer: "Welcome to the Jungle" by GNR
  • Animal shelter director: "Cat Scratch Fever" by Ted Nugent
  • Parks director or city maintenance supervisor: "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" by AC/DC, or "Paradise City" by GNR
  • Librarian or library director: "Paperback Writer" by the Beatles
  • A foreign-exchange student: "Born in the USA" by Springsteen
  • A well-known classical music buff (church organist? school choir director?): "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

Sunday, March 12, 2017

So Smart, She's Dumb

Further to "cats marching to different drummers..." My foster cat Pris (I guess it's one ess; who knew?) totally does this. She doesn't look at all like the cat pictured, but she does this all right. Sometimes she uses her beautifully designed cat's tongue to scoop water out of the dish. Often, however, she dips her paw in the water and licks it off.

Some people would probably reckon this is a sign that Pris is smarter than the average cat. I'd say this falls rather under the heading of "sharp enough to cut herself."

Shall we talk about the results of this super-smart feline drinking behavior? Yes, let's.

1. The water dish becomes filthy every day. When I refill it every morning, I have to rinse out a layer of dirt, fuzz, and who knows what other crud off the bottom of the dish. This is totally new in all my experience with three previous cats (including one still with us, Sinead - who, by the way, still doesn't get along with Pris, after almost a month and a half together). I used to get away with only giving the cats' water dish a scrubbing once or twice a week, as the build up of cat spit started to make the water yucky. But that oily, yellowish, slow-building yuckiness was far preferable to this continually refreshing layer of filth.

2. Pris drinks a lot - if I fill the water dish twice a day, she will empty it twice a day; and this is a dish that ever used to run out of water when I had Tyrone and Sinead drinking out of it, and I never refilled it more than once a day. Because of this vast intake of water, combined with her tendency to drink with her paws, Pris tracks wet footprints everywhere she goes - including, apparently, the litter box. As a consequence, clay from the litter box sticks to her paws and also gets tracked everywhere. And that means clayey smears on things that didn't used to get clayey smears on them. I may have mentioned in my previous "cats" post that one of Pris's favorite places to walk and lie down is on my pillows; I mean the ones I lay my head on. Do you see where I'm going with this? I am forever noticing clayey smears on the pillowcases where I lay my head. This is, in a word, gross.

3. And then there's the peeing. Oy vay, the peeing! Since Pris moved in, the daily size, heft, and number of the clumps in the litter box have broken all in-house records. As I mentioned in a previous post, they're positioned where they're hard to scoop out of the box - down at the bottom and against a side, or even in a corner of the box, where it sticks to the inner surface of the tray. Worse, almost every day during the last week or more, there has been an accident in which a cat - I can't be certain which - hits the edge of the box with a urine stream, which then either forms a puddle that runs across the stupidly non-level floor of the kitty litter room, or (again, something that never used to happen) somehow gets under the litter box and forms a loathesome mud puddle there, with the aid of kicked-out-of-the-box fragments of clay. YUCK. In mile-high letters of spew!

3.5. It might also bear noting that I'm going through kitty litter faster than I ever did before.

4. I don't know if there's a connection, but I have a theory that Pris is suffering from some kind of medical condition, either as a result of her over-drinking, or causing her to do so. As my theory develops, it begins to connect this feline water intoxication with the cat's skin problems, which also beat anything I have seen in 15 years of living with other cats. She sheds more dandruff than I've ever noticed coming off one of my cats; and mind, Tyrone was a dark-colored cat, so I would have noticed if he was flaking. At times, she also shows patches of dry, white, scaly looking skin. I mean to say, do cats get leprosy? Or maybe this is kitty eczema or psoriasis? Could dipsomania be a co-occurring condition? I'm open to advice. Besides the obvious - "Take this cat to a vet!" - which I will be doing anyway.

But apart from the cat being a dipso, let's get back to that scooping-water-with-the-paws thing. Yes, it's adorable and shows, once again, a smart cat who marches to her own drummer. On the other hand, its results are so altogether unsatisfactory that I reckon she would be smarter if she cut it out.

The Lost Train of Thought

The Lost Train of Thought
by John Hulme & Michael Wexler
Recommended Ages: 12+

This is the third installment of "The Seems," about a kid named Becker Drane who gets a job as a Fixer in the world that made the World, troubleshooting problems with the supply of sleep, time, and (this time) thought itself. A train full of the precious ore, mined in an obscure part of the Seems, has disappeared en route to the transshipment hub from where it was to travel to Earth. Unless the train and its contents are recovered pronto, the Unthinkable will happen - possibly costing millions of lives - and the only other way to stop it would be to take the World offline and risk being unable to get it started again.

Meantime, Becker is facing disciplinary action for mixing work with personal business. He could end up being suspended from his job, having his brother and his girlfriend "unremembered" (so they have no memory of what he let slip to them about the seems), and even seeing the girl of his dreams forget they ever met. But before his sentence kicks in, he gets called in as part of a second team of four fixers, sent out to the Middle of Nowhere to find out what became of the train of thought, after the first team loses contact. Then, while Becker, the Octogenarian, and two other fixers are out of the way, there's a prison break in Seemsberia. The Tide, a rebel group within the Seems, chooses that moment to strike, taking over everything and threatening the stability of the World.

I'd like to keep spoilers to a minimum, even though this book has been out since 2009, but that's an awful long time after the third book for a series that, up to then, brought out a new installment every year, not to have a fourth book yet. That throws a certain light of finality upon the ambiguous, possibly cliffhanger ending - though, to be exact, it isn't quite the ending of the book. It's followed by a glossary and several helpful appendices. But there also seems (no pun intended) to be good reason to expect another story, at least, to resolve some of the issues left up in the air at the end of this story. So, I hope I'm not quite finished with it, though I seem to be caught up for the moment.

The Seems is a fun universe, full of action, surprises, and goofball humor, combining puns on everyday phrases with a magical concept of how the world works and the wild ways it could go wrong. Becker is an imperfect hero who, nevertheless, steps up and delivers the stuff. Perhaps the authors will think of a way to bring him back. Hope springs, well, in a place in the Seems that we visit in this book. So the authors should know all about that.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

213. Lament Hymn

This hymn came about in an unusual order. First, I had an idea for a "Lament Hymn," but as I fleshed it out, it spontaneously developed into a "Consolation Hymn" instead. Nothing daunted, I gave some more thought to what kind of "Lament Hymn" I meant to write. And for some odd reason, the first thing I knew for certain about it was that it was going to be in the meter 7.6.8.8.7.6. The second thing was that its stanzas were going to start with a succession of question-words, like the famous Five Dubyas of inverted-pyramid ledes in textbook journalism. The third thing that arrived, before I got any farther into writing the text, was the original tune below, titled LAMENTATION. And finally, I was able to write the hymn, complete with a bunch of biblical allusions that seem to have been waiting for me to get out of their way. Many, many examples bear witness that I most often write an entire hymn text before spending a moment thinking about its tune. There have been times, though, when I had a tune picked out beforehand; there have been times when a tune sprang to mind in the middle of the text's composition; and I can even recall one instance when I had writer's block on a hymn text until I changed my mind about the tune. I guess there is no one right way to go about this!

Why, Lord, am I afflicted?
Why must my burden grow?
Since for my sake a Victim died,
No sin can damn but faithless pride.
Of Christ I stand convicted;
Lord, let the captive go!

How long must I be tested?
Lord, help my unbelief!
Unless You cut time's raveled cord,
Will You find faith on earth, O Lord?
Before my strength is bested,
Make haste to grant relief!

Who am I, that You fasten
On me such scrutiny?
My days are full of feeble fright,
And groaning lengthens every night;
Forbear, this once, to chasten
So foul a worm as me!

What idol have I cherished
That has not fallen down?
To me the world is truly slain;
I gladly count it lost, to gain
The grace of Him who perished
To win the Victor's crown.

Where can my soul be hidden
In ocean, land, or sky?
Lord, though I made my bed in hell,
You stoop to visit where I dwell;
Oh, that I might be bidden
To rest with You on high!

When will Your trumpet's warning,
Lord, put all foes to flight?
While here in feebleness I grope,
Your resurrection is my hope.
Bring soon that youthful morning,
With You its only Light!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

212. Consolation Hymn

A reader's comment led me to read back over an installment in my series of posts about "Tacky Hymns," and I came across a passage where I was attacking one hymnal's selections under the topic "hymns of lament." At one point, I rattled off a list of things I wished more hymns of lament would do, in terms of where they locate the solution to the believer's complaint. As I was thinking about how to write a lament hymn that does those things, I found myself writing this consolation hymn, which responds to a Christian's (spoken or unspoken) lament. I guess I'll have to save the idea of writing the lament bit for later. For the moment, I have no particular tune in mind for this text.

My heart, when you are overthrown
And, save for sorrow, seem alone,
Be certain this is so:
The wounded Christ stands ever by,
And knows how long, how deep, and why;
He understands Your woe.

When, in the secret of your pain,
You dare not shudder or complain,
Be certain this is true:
The Spirit makes Your groaning heard,
Whereby your Father's heart is stirred;
Yes, Jesus weeps with you.

When trouble turns your spirit old,
And God seems silent, far, and cold,
Then be not unaware:
He who perspired like drops of blood
Is not indiff'rent to your good;
He watches you with care.

When you see foes against you massed,
When sorely is your soul harassed,
And faithless seem all friends,
Take cheer! Your Lord forsakes you not,
Who once for all the devil fought,
And still with him contends.

When, tempted greatly and at length,
You fear the cause exceeds your strength,
Beloved, be advised:
God disciplines the child He loves;
This brief, light test like metal proves
The faith thus exercised.

When by His rod your soul is vexed,
When brooding doubts leave you perplexed,
Let this be understood:
Your Lord, who promises to bless
And crowns your faith with righteousness,
Works all things for your good.

When toils and trials but produce
More of the same, of little use,
Accept this solace, too:
In ways you little comprehend,
Some other saint's faint heart to mend,
Your Savior uses you.

And if, despite your calm belief,
This life allots you no relief
'Til all its fires grow dim,
Rejoice! The last things will be best,
When, calling you at last to rest,
Christ gathers you to Him!

EDIT: I found an existing tune that I think will serve this hymn nicely. It is ALLG√úTIGER, MEIN PREISGEGANG, by Georg Peter Weimar, 1803:

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Spiderweb for Two

Spiderweb for Two: A Melendy Maze
by Elizabeth Enright
Recommended Ages: 10+

The "Melendy Family" quartet concludes with this book, in which the two youngest and most misadventure-prone of the Melendy children are left behind at the Four Story Mistake, while elder siblings Mona, Rush, and Mark are going to school in the big city. It seems a shame to break up such a fun group of playmates for an entire school year. Randy and Oliver are having a tough time accepting it, at first. But then, the first of a series of rhyming puzzles arrives in the mail, each clue challenging them to solve a riddle and find the next clue.

Their attempts to decipher the clues lead the brother and sister on such whimsical adventures as bearding the town's meanest butcher in his den, getting stuck up a chimney, getting lost in a poisonous pokeweed patch, trying to chop down a frozen waterfall, and blundering blindly into a pile of crockery and glassware while trying to sneak around the house at night. Along the way, they also make a new friend, see a new side of some old ones, and hear some fascinating stories told - the type of story-within-a-story that is often the making of a sweet, nostalgic, humorous book like this.

But those stories aren't the only thing that makes this book. Characters we have grown to love during the previous three books, continue to grow before our eyes. A landscape that has been described to us so well that it takes on an aspect of memory, becomes even better-remembered as more details are filled in. The passing seasons are marked by a minutely observed procession of events in weather, trees and flowers, birds and insect life, and the activities of country folk that too many of us today hardly notice going on around us. And the touch of mystery involved in the rhyming clues occupies not only the left-behind Melendy children, but also their readers of any age, who are willing to become young again and share their discoveries.

This is the sixth book by Elizabeth Enright that I have read, and I have yet to read her Newbery Medal-winning book Thimble Summer. Besides being blessed with a winsome style, she either knew how to explain children to children, or she remembered what it felt like to be one - maybe both. She proved, in book after book, that writing an enduring and entertaining piece of children's literature could be done without resorting to wildly improbable devices, like murders, monsters, magical powers, flying saucers, or superhero costumes. Those can be fun, and no mistake; but the essential things are right here in the Melendy family's well-crafted characters, setting, dialogue, and story.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Then There Were Five

Then There Were Five
by Elizabeth Enright
Recommended Ages: 10+

The third book of the "Melendy Family" quartet tells how the exuberant foursome of Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver Melendy came by a fifth sibling without anyone having a baby. They're enjoying their first summer at the Four Story Mistake, the country house that became their home in the previous installment, but not all their adventures are lighthearted. Some of them involve a boy named Mark Herron, an orphan who is mistreated and overworked by the mean, stingy farmer who has custody of him. Old Oren Meeker is his name, and he only puts up with Mark because of his late wife, who was a relative of the boy and had a soft heart.

Becoming friends with Mark exposes the Melendy kids, especially Rush, to some real danger, such as when the two boys spy on the hideout where Meeker and his well-armed accomplices brew illegal moonshine and gossip about their dastardly plans for Mark's future. But the friendship also has its perks, as Mark has a lot to teach his new neighbors about country life - such as where to find a cave hideout, or how to identify many insects and plants in the woods, or even how to walk on one's hands. Then tragedy strikes, while both the Melendys' father and their faithful housekeeper Cuffy are out of the way, and the four siblings take it on themselves to make houseroom for their interesting friend. Before Mark can finally, officially, become a Melendy, there are more adventures to be had - including a carnival crossed with a cattle auction, where a last little bit of drama plays out for a perfect finish.

The Melendy family has always been full of fun, but their goodness, happiness, and openness to adventure - in spite of imperfections - becomes downright poignant in this book by the Newbery Medal-winning author of Thimble Summer and Gone-Away Lake. It's a book laced with intelligence and humor, characters who seem to have been observed from life in crisp detail, stories-within-stories that captivate the imagination, and light, ordinary, every-day adventures that nevertheless seem worthwhile even to a reader with ordinary, every-day adventures of his own.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Fearless Travelers' Guide to Wicked Places

The Fearless Travelers' Guide to Wicked Places
by Pete Begler
Recommended Ages:

My, what a weird book this is! It plunges you straight into the weirdness with no warm-ups, not even a warning to take a deep breath. Immediately, you are introduced to a girl named Nell Perkins, who is continually introducing herself as a girl named Nell Perkins, because only by saying, "I am Nell Perkins," can she make the bizarre hallucinations go away. Everyone thinks she's weird, except for one best friend, who happens to be in a coma, and two younger brothers - a mouthy 9-year-old brat named George and a lovable 11-year-old bear named Speedy - and, of course, their always-fearless mother Rose. Several times a day, Nell sees the people around her not as they appear to each other, but as the "animal inside" - like the policeman who, to her, seems to have the head of a frog, or her child psychologist, who appears to her as a friendly walrus.

Things get really freaky, however, when people in Nell's town start disappearing. Not just any people: mothers. No one believes Nell when she says they are being kidnapped by an evil purple cloud that has been hovering over the town. And then her own mother is snatched right in front of her. That's when things get really strange. We're talking, wolf-headed-octopuses-attacking-people-on-the-street strange. We're talking diner-full-of-bird-headed-women-plotting-the-end-of-the-world strange. And it's the kind of strange that comes, at times, with an atmosphere of suffocating dread - like that scene in the diner again, as three terrified children look on from under a cloak of invisibility, while trying to rescue their mother, who has been transformed into a songbird, from a tribe of chillingly evil, living nightmares.

Nell, Speedy, and George come to realize they must enter the realm of dreams and nightmares to have any chance to change that songbird back into their mother - even though the transformation may cause her to forget her own children. To do this, they must trust a mysterious shopkeeper who is really a member of a group called the Fearless Travelers: a man named Duke Badger, whose weapon of choice is an umbrella that shoots lightning bolts, and whose cat (once the three very awake children enter the dream world) proves to be a talking panther. Then they just have to figure out how to be Fearless Travelers themselves, learning to channel the power of Night as they meet awesome and gruesome creatures, experience bizarre modes of transportation, travel through swiftly changing landscapes, battle vicious clowns, confront sickening evil, suffer betrayal and separation and setback after setback, and... well, there's just no way my description can do justice to the imagery and originality of this book. You would have to read it to understand what I am trying to tell you.

So, going back to what I said at the beginning, this is a weird book. It is disturbing, gripping, atmospheric, surprising at every turn. It is crammed with the perils and wonders that might impress anyone finding him- or herself awake in a reality that works the way dreams do, with sleepers sharing in one big dream, taking different shapes, playing different roles, and mixing with elemental spirits both good and evil in a landscape made of miracles, mysteries, and monsters. It is a place whose conflicts and perils can sometimes creep across into the concrete world, and though a part of everyone goes there every night, they often awake remembering none of it. It is a story that so powerfully conjures its own coherent world out of the stuff of dreams that, at times, I had to pause and look around, to see whether the author wasn't refashioning reality around me.

I don't know if I could deal with a sequel to this book. It is simply too overwhelming, too perfect in its creation of an original world, too unrepeatable. A "Return to the Wicked Places" couldn't possibly be as fantastic as one's first visit. An attempt to top it would fail at the outset, because of this book's irreducible one-of-a-kind-ness. I'm thankful I don't have to carry Nell's responsibility on my shoulders every time I visit dreamland. But tonight, after sharing Nell's adventure, I expect to have interesting dreams of my own.

This review is based on a pre-publication proof made available through NetGalley dot com. The book is scheduled to be released March 1, 2017. I don't know anything about the author or his previous work, except that he is a Los Angeles-based film and TV writer.

Manners & Mutiny

Manners & Mutiny
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 14+

At least twice during this fourth book in the "Finishing School" quartet, I had to close the book to have my laugh out. One time, I remember, was for a line about a mousy girl, forced to impersonate one of her chattier friends for a fancy-dress ball with an identity-switching theme, revealing she had "unexpected depths of shallowness." The witticisms fly thick and fast in this young-adult novel of paranormal-steampunk-espionage-romantic comedy. You really have to be on your toes to catch some of them, and a mild Adult Content Advisory is in order for some of the naughtier bits, not to mention how useful it would be for a reader to be able to appreciate black comedy. That reminds me of another laugh-aloud incident, in which the death of a minor villain is described by a stylish lady airily mentioning how a certain insane vampire "became peckish during our peregrinations."

In this installment of Sophronia Temminick's adventures at a finishing school for lady intelligencers, the heroine finally finishes school, in every possible sense of the word "finish." She has, if you will, the graduation to end all graduations, as far as Mlle. Geraldine's Finishing Academy is concerned. For before she can convince her teachers about an evil plot involving crystalline valves and the mechanical servants that lurk in every British household of at least middling quality, the Picklemen (evil masterminds who believe in world domination through gadgetry) strike, bringing down the huge airship that houses the girls' school. As chance would have it, Sophronia is the only student left on board when the bad guys take off, setting a course for London, high treason, and mechanized mayhem.

So, naturally, she does the Bruce Willis, Die Hard thing, while looking stunning in a low-cut dinner gown. She risks capture, death, and mass destruction in the corridors of a floating academy prowled by armed flywaymen, dastardly Picklemen, an unhinged vampire, an engine room full of innocent sooties, and three other women whose loyalties are uncertain. In her corner, she has a steam-powered sausage dog, an exploding wicker chicken, a fan with razor-sharp blades, a few other gadgets, and deadliest of all, her feminine wiles. To save the kingdom from a Pickleman takeover, she will have to be tough enough, resourceful enough, and complete enough in all the arts of a Mlle. Geraldine's girl to bring down the house, hard.

Space does not permit me to tell you how all this fits in with Sophronia's romantic dilemma between a beautiful Pickeman's son and a lower-class, black-skinned werewolf; how the vampire and werewolf interests are concerned in all the ruckus; who turns out to be secretly working for whom; and from what quarter help unexpectedly arrives at a crucial moment. Let's just say everything that happens is totally in keeping with Carriger's Parasolverse, a marvelous fantasy world in which men are men and women are women, except when they happen to be vampires, werewolves, or ghosts; and what they are, in that case, is more than enough to float my airship.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Waistcoats & Weaponry

Waistcoats & Weaponry
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the third book of the "Finishing School" quartet, Sophronia Temminick is intrigued by an offer of patronage from a certain Lord Akeldama, an elegant rove vampire based in the heart of London society, pending her completion of a course in espionage at a floating seminary for young ladies in a paranormal steampunk version of Victorian England. But while she plans to make good use of Lord Akeldama's gift of a steel-bladed fan - as useful for keeping cool and stylish as for dirty fighting - she is still undecided about where her loyalties lie in the games of intrigue between Her Majesty, the vampires and werewolves who enjoy legal status in the realm, and the Picklemen, a party of anti-undead evil masterminds who specialize in diabolical gadgetry.

Meantime, Sophronia is equally undecided between two suitors who come from entirely different worlds: Lord Felix Mersey, a pampered young viscount who belongs to the most Pickleman-friendly clique at the boys' school for evil geniuses at which Mlle. Geraldine's Finishing Academy frequently stops; and Soap, the dark-skinned "sootie" who rules the airship's engine room. The one young man has political connections that might be useful in Sophronia's career as an intelligencer, but will most likely mean a loss of freedom to choose her own loyalties. The other belongs to the wrong race, the wrong social class, and the wrong income bracket - all adding up to a scandal from which her career might never recover.

Torn between these two impossible choices, Sophronia struggles to master her heart while also trying to figure out who are the good guys and the bad guys in a showdown between the Westminster vampire hive and the Picklemen, starting with an impromptu operatic performance by all the household mechanical servants during a ball at her parents' house in Wiltshire. Sophronia, Felix, Soap, and three of her girlfriends from school slip out of the ball during the ensuing chaos and stow away on board a train that, funnily enough, ends up being where all the action happens when hive drones, flywaymen (think "airship-borne pirates"), Picklemen, and werewolves collide with all the force of conflicting agendas and dangerous conspiracies.

This book is a good representative of a young-adult series that combines a laugh-aloud comedy of manners, exciting steampunk action, well-conceived paranormal fantasy, complex political intrigue, and romance kept on a simmer with the lid just held on. I can scarcely recall ever reading a page by Gail Carriger (a.k.a. Tofa Borregaard) that wan't funny, steamy, thrilling, or otherwise thoroughly enjoyable, often all at one time. She's a tremendously clever author, with a head for history, an eye for fashion, an ear for witty dialogue, and a pronounced naughty streak. I say this after having read all five of her "Parasol Protectorate" novels, the previous two in this prequel series (beginning with Etiquette & Espionage), and about a third of the concluding installment, Manners & Mutiny. After spending eight-and-a-third books in the Parasolverse, I have actually entertained regrets that I don't actually live in it. It seems like such fun!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Ten Years and Blogging!

I almost forgot to note it, but as of this month - Feb. 13, to be exact - I've been writing this blog for 10 whole years. Here's my first post! I started this sucker one day when I was snowed out of work. And just think, I've moved three times since then (will soon move a fourth time), said farewell to two feline friends and hello to two more, changed jobs (gulp) six times - maybe seven or eight, if you count being reassigned within the same company - switched church bodies a couple times, published a book of more than 200 original hymns, and experienced a lot of music, movies, and especially books (like, at least a thousand of them, probably).

I hope there will be great things to report during my next 10 years of creative endeavor and cat-hair-coatd bookishness!

Cats Marching to a Different Drummer

My senior cat Sinead, 10 this year, and I are fostering another cat named Priss, 6 or so, who belongs to the lady whose house I plan to move into next month. (The lady herself is in an assisted-living facility.) And boy, am I noticing some things about Priss, a.k.a. Prissy, a.k.a. Priscilla, that are unlike my experiences with Sinead and the late, lamented Tyrone and Lionel, my original duo of cats. This cat definitely marches to a different drummer.

For example, I've noticed a more marked tendency of the clumps in the litter box to adhere to the sides of the tub, especially at the short ends, and to be buried down at the bottom of the tub as well. I'm pretty sure this is the new cat's doing. It drives me crazy, for two reasons. For one, this tendency to stick to the sides, and down into the bottom corner, makes the daily cleaning of the litter boxes extra difficult. For another, the stream of cat pee occasionally hits the rim of the tub, or misses it entirely, resulting in a smelly puddle that I have to clean up. Yuck!

On a more touchy-feely, cuddly level, Priss shows affection differently than all my cats until now. Lionel did occasionally climb up on the back of a chair I was sitting in, or even the back of my seat in the U-haul van in which we moved together from Arizona to Missouri in 2005, but his goal was to cuddle against my shoulders or the back of my neck. All of my cats, including Lionel, mostly approached me for cuddling by climbing onto my torso while I was reclining in bed or reading on the couch. Apparently there was a pecking-order for doing this, too, because Tyrone rarely cuddled this way until after Lionel died in 2007; and while Sinead has always been an in-your-face cuddler, she mostly did so when Tyrone was out of the room, until he started to decline last year and she became the dominant cat. Since Tyrone has been gone, she's been extremely adorable, often lying on her side on my chest with her face inches from mine.

Priss, meantime, prefers to climb atop the pillow behind my head and lie purring against the crown of my head. Or, noticing a feline vacancy on my chest, she will sometimes step down over my shoulder and lie against my cheek, facing the foot of the couch or bed, rather than face-to-face with me. Only a couple times in the just-under-a-month we've lived together has she taken the face-to-face cuddling position.

She also purrs and vocalizes in a different way from any of my own cats. I'm still trying to figure out what she means by "Meow," whereas that always seemed fairly obvious with Lionel, Sinead, and especially Tyrone. Priss also has an extremely loud, somewhat abrasive purr - the kind I have read described as a "demanding" purr, or a "manipulative" one, and whose absence from my household has always seemed a blessing. Luckily, she mostly uses the purr to signal, "Pet me, dammit." It just gets confusing when I start to do so, and she meows in a way that I can't help thinking means something like, "Not like that, idiot," or maybe, "I'm not in the mood right now." And then continues purring. For the life of me, I can't make out what signal she's trying to send me.

Sadly, the signal the cats are sending each other comes through loud and clear. After just a bit short of a month, they are still hissing, spitting, yowling, growling, and (when they come with in reach of each other) swinging at one another. It makes those moments when Sinead is hiked up on my chest, close enough for her whiskers to tickle my face, and Priss is pressed against the crown of my head, purring like a boat motor, rather tense. I keep making calming, shushing noises and trying to pet whichever cat seems a little uneasy, and hoping I don't get disemboweled when they go into fight-or-flight mode. All this feline brinkmanship makes it hard for me to enjoy doing what I generally settle on the couch to do - read a book. Which hand do I hold the book in while I'm trying to soothe two neurotic cats who are ticking like emotional time-bombs?

I'm not sure which cat is really to blame for this ongoing hostility. They're both old enough to be set in their ways. I wonder, though, which way the balance will tip once we move into the house where Priss reigned unchallenged until I took her in at the beginning of the month. I hope the house will be big enough for the three of us!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Beyond the Kingdoms

Beyond the Kingdoms
by Chris Colfer
Recommended Ages: 12+

Twins Alex and Conner Bailey have permanently moved to the Land of Stories, where Alex is still growing into her powers as the new fairy godmother. But when nobody believes her claim that the twins' dead father is alive, well, and threatening all the fairy-tale kingdoms in the guise of a masked villain, her control seems to be slipping away from her. Next thing she knows, Alex is on the run, "ungodmothered" by the fairies, and with a bounty on her head. Meantime, an old flame, in the harshest sense of the word, flares up at the long-awaited wedding of King Charlie (a.k.a. "Froggy") and ex-queen Red Riding Hood. At the same moment - suspiciously perfect timing, don't you think? - the Masked Man raids a library full of books from the Otherworld - our world, where Alex and Conner were born - and begins using a potion that can open a portal into the world described in any book to recruit an army of literary villains.

Also, the witches are worried they will be blamed for the disappearance of a dozen children, though they aren't too concerned when Dead Man's Creek starts flowing backwards and depositing coffins full of unknown corpses on its bank. But they're the least of our worries, for now. Conner and Alex are mostly worried about catching up with the Masked Man, who has actually been unmasked (but don't look for a spoiler here), as he hares his way through Oz, Neverland, Wonderland, and who knows what other fictional worlds, in search of accomplices for his next attempt to destroy all the happily-ever-afters, ever. The twins make friends of their own within the masterworks of children's literature, including the tales of Robin Hood and King Arthur - but when they finally make it back to the Land of Stories, it may already be too late to stop the Masked Man, to say nothing of a fiendish plot among the witches. Their only hope may be to recruit a fictional army of their own - opening the door to another adventure across the boundaries of many "lands of stories."

This is the fourth book of the "Land of Stories" series written by the sometime star of TV's Glee. As always, Colfer shows a range of talent far beyond singing, dancing, and acting. He really has a grasp of the craft of writing, with a comic touch that keeps the laughs coming, a knack for pulling multiple storylines together into a thrilling adventure, and an overall style that perfectly captures the tone of voice of a smart, high-spirited middle-school kid. The series started with The Wishing Spell and continues, after this book, with An Author's Odyssey. It doesn't end there; a sixth book, Worlds Collide, is due to be released in July 2017. Colfer has also published the companion volumes The Mother Goose Diaries, Queen Red Riding Hoods's Guide to Royalty, A Treasury of Classic Fairy Tales, the upcoming children's picture-book Trollbella Throws a Party, and the stand-alone novels Struck By Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal and Stranger Than Fanfiction.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Curtsies & Conspiracies

Curtsies & Conspiracies
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 14+

In her second year at Mlle. Geraldine's Finishing Academy, Sophronia Temminick gets unprecedentedly high marks in an examination of the combination of high-society feminine accomplishments and covert intelligence that sets the school apart from other female seminaries in Queen Victoria's Britain - well, that and the fact that the school is housed in an enormous airship floating above Dartmoor. But the teachers reward her progress by deliberately turning all her classmates against her, in what is either a nasty setup or an extra-credit challenge. Either way, being ostracized by her classmates slows Sophronia down enough that she almost, but not quite, misses her chance to meddle in a mystery that places the school at the crux of the confict between the forces of shadow - the vampires and werewolves who are a significant part of the country's ruling class - and the Picklemen, evil geniuses who believe the future lies in the direction of human science and technology.

In Gail Carriger's steampunk rendition of reality, technology lies, in turn, in the direction of a gizmo that can aid airships in navigating the aetherosphere, an upper layer of the atmosphere that until now has been too dangerous to enter. This innocent little gadget could change the pace of mankind, boost the economy, and tilt the balance between the undead and humans. So, when a teacher and 12 students from the leading Picklemen-sponsored boys' school come aboard Mlle. Geraldine's airship, intrigue and sabotage naturally result. And just as naturally, Sophronia is close to the center of it, even undertaking a masterful (and stomach-turningly successful) bit of character assassination while she's poking around.

Meantime, Sophronia also finds her heart increasingly confused by the competing pull of two disturbingly attractive boys: one, a viscount who finds her irresistible mostly because she plays hard to get; the other, a "sootie" from the coal-powered engine room, whose protective instincts ensure he'll be part of the rescue attempt when London's most fashionable vampire hive kidnaps her best friend Dimity and her annoying, not-very-evil genius brother. The romp can hardly be complete without a ride on a werewolf's back, an exploding sausage dog, a faustian bargain with a cross-dressing 12-year-old mad inventor, and an impossibly steady flow of laugh-bombs that hit the target dead-center. Some of the gags flow out of daffy characters, such as the teacher who specializes in poisons, dresses as a nun, and says lines like "Remember, a lily doesn't change its spots." Others, by far the best and most numerous, are examples of situational humor that ensure the smarter a reader is, the more she (or he) will enjoy this book. It's simply - if I may use that word loosely - a hilarious comedy of Victorian manners and fashions, combined with a retro-futuristic sci-fi/horror/romance/espionage thriller that strains the genre boundaries of steampunk.

This is the second book in the young-adult "Finishing School" quartet by the author of the rather racier "Parasol Protectorate" series, to which it is a preqel. It begins with Etiquette & Espionage and continues in Waistcoats & Weaponry and Manners & Mutiny. One of the characters in this series stars in a spinoff novella titled Poison or Protect, while there is also a Parasol Protectorate sequel series called "Custard Protocol," with two books so far. Carriger's work also includes a handful of LGBT romances set in the same steampunk/paranormal universe.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

211. A Noisy Children's Hymn

This is part of the same logical sequence of children's hymns as #210. One of my ongoing objectives as a hymn-writer is to try to steer a different course in children's hymnody, giving little Christians songs they can enjoy singing without being patronized, and that might really help form them as disciples of the gospel. To be sure, my only qualifications in this line, if I don't flatter myself, are that I know a few things about verse, church music, and the gospel, and my sense that I can hardly be the only child who grew up loathing most of the kiddies' ditties I was taught to sing in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. My general impression as a lifelong student of church music is that the repertoire hasn't improved much since then. So, here goes. A tune selection is pending.

God, who gave us lips and tongue,
Loves our praises, yelled or sung.
Otherwise, would girls and boys
Be designed for making noise?
So our Father proudly
Hears us thank Him loudly!

Hark! The prophets have gone out,
Some to whisper, some to shout:
To the planet's farthest ends,
News of Christ the Spirit sends.
Father, add our voices
To these joyful noises!

Pardon us, dear Lord, we pray,
When our tongues to gossip stray,
Speak to hurt, or falsely swear;
Let Your truth be all our care!
Help us bend our chatter
Toward the things that matter!

Finally, dear Lord and Friend,
To our needs and troubles bend
Both a Father's loving ear
And the Spirit's witness clear!
Hear our faithful crying,
All good gifts supplying!

EDIT (March 7, 2017): Here's an original(ish) tune I wrote today for this hymn. We'll see how it turns out. Its title is JOYFUL NOISE.

Friday, February 17, 2017

210. A Silly, Smelly Children's Hymn

Forgive me if this comes across to you as irreverent, but I think this attempt at an amusing but theologically sound children's hymn might be a good alternative to the kind of moralizing, sentimental dreck too many Christian parents enjoy forcing their children to sing (and which, in my personal experience, the children don't enjoy so much). If I may say so, I think it's better than "The World Is Full of Smelly Feet." But who am I to say? The tune is called ST. CECILIA, and it's by Leighton G. Hayne, 1863, best known as the tune to "Thy kingdom come, O God." I cast it against type in Useful Hymns, pairing it with a hymn of grief.

Lord, lead me by the nose.
Point it away from wrong.
Keep me from poking it
Where it does not belong.

And when my actions stink,
Teach me, Lord, to repent.
Do not turn up Your nose,
But cloak me in Your scent.

Perfume me with the smoke
Of your pure life and death,
Till I make Satan sneeze,
And Hades holds its breath.

Yes, cover me, dear Christ,
With Your God-pleasing smell,
So when I sniff my last,
In heaven I will dwell.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Too Tacky To Be Published

Book titles so tacky, they were never published:

Just Desserts: How One Man Catered the Last Meals of 33 Death Row Inmates

Mind Your Beeswax: The Bitter Feud Between Two Votive Candle Suppliers

Food for Thought: Could a Seafood-Rich Diet Improve Your IQ?

Thought for Food: The Restaurant Chain that Made Brain Sandwiches a National Sensation

Grate Scott! - One Librarian's Campaign to Shred Copies of "Ivanhoe" and "Rob Roy"

Wait Loss: Find Out Why Today's Children Are Less Patient Than Their Parents Were

Fish or Cut Bait: The Jobs Market Off the Coast of Nova Scotia

Nut Job: The Entrepreneur Who Revitalized the Cashew Industry

Fortune Cookies: How a Novelty Baker Smuggled Blood Diamonds Out of Africa

Bacon Up a Storm: The Tornado Outbreak that Devastated the Iowa Pork Industry

Fight and Flight: The Airline that Turned Seating Assignments Into a Blood Sport


and, last but not least...

Pho Queue: The Vietnamese Soup Chain So Good, Its Customers Formed a Waiting List!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Penderwicks in Spring

The Penderwicks in Spring
by Jeanne Birdsall
Recommended Ages: 10+

In the course of four books, Batty Penderwick has grown up a lot, from being the baby of four motherless sisters, running around wearing fairy wings and needing to be kept out of trouble by elder sisters Rosalind, Skye, and Jane, to being a fifth-grader and the oldest of the three "Younger Penderwick Siblings," including second-grader Ben and toddler-princess Lydia. Batty owes her shot at being an older sister to their father's marriage to Ben's widowed mom Iantha. But to her birth-mother, whom she never knew, she owes many things: her real first name (Elizabeth), her love of music (though Batty has more talent at it), and a surprise heartache that sneaks up on her the night she overhears Skye explaining why she has always blamed Batty for their mother's death.

Still grieving for a beloved dog who passed away six months ago, Batty suddenly loses the inner sprite that has lately awakened inside her, threatening to burst into song. Now, suddenly, the beautiful singing voice she has been secretly cultivating as a surprise for her family on her upcoming eleventh birthday, becomes a pitiful croak. All the joy goes out of her reunions with Nick, the athletic war hero from across the street, and Jeffery, her musical mentor who happens to be hopelessly in love with Skye. She even loses interest in her fledgling dog-walking business, featuring a morbidly fat dachshund and a shar-pei who is terrified of trash cans.

Watching the life go out of her, as this sweet girl sinks into depression, is one of the most painful things I have ever witnessed in the pages of children's fiction. And for once - well, no, "for once" isn't the right phrase; I should say "more than ever" - the Penderwick siblings' tradition of swearing each other to secrecy creates an impenetrable bubble of mystery around Batty's problem, preventing the people who love her from being able to get through to her. As one sibling in particular feels weighed down by too many secrets, the possibility of true tragedy becomes an agonizing alternative to this series' accustomed blend of mild family drama, touching relationships, and good-natured humor.

Amazingly, given what I have just said, the book retains enough entertaining charm to propel the reader along, with a couple of young-adult romances, an annoying house guest, some small-fry tomfoolery, some comical misunderstandings, and the wit and warmth of a family that owes much of its skill at engaging repartee to a dad who is literally the absent-minded professor. In fact, the blending of these contrasting moods with Batty's central crisis is one of the things that makes the latter so moving. Hats off to an author with both the courage and the skill to explore this challenging territory. Whether the ending represents a pat solution may be up for debate, but I think it leaves open the possibility that things will never be quite right between Skye and Batty after this. Will there be an after this, though? That's what I'd like to know.

This is the fourth book of the Penderwicks series, starting with the National Book Award winner The Penderwicks and continuing with The Penderwicks on Gardam Street and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. Their Massachusetts-based author is also an art photographer and has written a few children's picture-books.