Monday, July 31, 2017

216. Thanksgiving for Health Restored

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyrannosaurus Lex

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

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

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

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

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

Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies

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

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

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

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

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

The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Five Fakirs of Faizabad

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Wandering Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dead End in Norvelt

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Dragons vs. Drones

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

Shadow Scale

Shadow Scale
by Rachel Hartman
Recommended Ages: 13+

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Seraphina

Seraphina
by Rachel Hartman
Recommended Ages: 12+

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Ghostgirl

Ghostgirl
by Tonya Hurley
Recommended Ages: 14+

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 3, 2017

Silken Prey

Silken Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

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

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

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

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

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

Stolen Prey

Stolen Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

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

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

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

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