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.