Thursday, September 28, 2017

217. Theology of the Cross Hymn

As I wrote this, I had no particular hymn-tune in mind. After the fact, I found the most apt tune to go with it is one of two hymn-tunes I know of titled RUNG, by Henrik Rung (1807-71), which has been paired with N.F.S. Grundtvig's fine baptismal hymn "O let Thy Spirit with us tarry."
Grant us, dear Lord, to know You truly
And praise You as becomes Your love!
To that end, help us reckon duly
What You hide and reveal thereof.

Away, then, with the lie of glory,
Which names a thing but what it seems!
Tell us, instead, the cross's story
That calls it what Your wisdom deems.

Away, Lord, with the sin of judging
According to man's mind and heart!
Help us accept, without begrudging,
Your word, and never thence depart.

Away with righteousness by doing,
Lest what we merit we receive!
Keep us in Christ for mercy suing;
He justifies those who believe.

No more let us see curse and blessing
In present fortunes' ebb and flow!
But lead us onward, ever pressing
T'ward glories man has yet to know.

And though we now feel disappointment,
Hard discipline, disgust and pain,
Soothe us with promises like ointment;
Let hope refresh our souls again.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Great Hunt

The Great Hunt
by Robert Jordan
Recommended Ages: 14+

One long, eventful book into his adventures, tall red-haired hero Rand al'Thor remains almost the last person to accept who he is. He insists he is only a young shepherd from the village of Emond's Field in the backwater district of the Two Rivers, the son of a local farmer named Tam and his late wife. But he finds himself increasingly helpless to stop people calling him "Lord Rand." He proudly refuses to be maneuvered by the Aes Sedai, an order of women with the ability to channel the feminine side of the One Power woven into creation. He tries to resist the temptation to channel the male side of that power, which (since the Breaking of the World, ages ago) tends to drive its adepts insane and subjects them to a lingering, wasting death. (He also has to be careful to hide his ability to channel, because many Aes Sedai would summarily "gentle" him if they found out about it.) He violently denies it whenever anyone observes, from his resemblance to their race, that he must be one of the fanatical desert-dwellers known as the Aiel, possibly even the prophesied hero they have been expecting. And when either the Aes Sedai or the Father of Lies himself - who alternately taunts and tempts him in a series of disturbing visions - accuses him of being the Dragon Reborn, the latest incarnation of his world's cyclic hero Lews Therin, destined either to battle the Dark One to the end or perish trying - well, he can't accept that, can he? But it's no use. Everyone who looks at him seems to know more about him than Rand will admit to himself. And thanks to some deft switching of luggage, when he sets out on a quest to recover the Horn of Valere, which has the power to summon the heroes of the Age of Legends from beyond the grave, he rides forth with the clothing of a lord, the sword of a blademaster, and the banner of the Dragon.

Rand, who hates above all things to be used like a pawn, rides forth in spite of all his denials, because his boyhood friend Mat will die unless they recover a certain cursed dagger that was stolen with the horn. The two talismans were stolen by a villain named Fain, a servant of the Shadow who has been driven insane, or worse, by contact with an almost equally evil force opposed to the Shadow. This is a guy so evil, he makes Darkfriends (human servants of the Dark One) tremble with fear. He travels with a retinue including one type of monster that like to cook and eat people, and another kind whose kiss destroys a person's soul. And among his other advantages are traitors in the White Tower of the Aes Sedai and even in the party of soldiers traveling with Rand. Rand has some advantages on his side, though. He has a friend named Perrin who can communicate telepathically with wolves. He has an increasingly devoted follower who can sniff evil and violence from a long way off. And he has also attracted the interest of an Ogier, a member of a race one might described as "big-boned elves" or, perhaps, "Vegan, pacifist trolls," who was among the first to recognize that Mat, Perrin, and especially Rand are ta'veren - people with a strong enough destiny to alter the weave of history around them.

Because of these connections, the support of some powerful women, and some other weird fantasy-world stuff, Rand is able to travel vast distances really quickly. He experiences a strange, alternate universe. He finds the horn and the dagger, then loses them again. He gets caught up in a dangerous political game. As he and his party continue their quest, and as his lady-friends Egwene, Nynaeve, Elayne, and Nin are drawn into the game by an equally dangerous route, Rand grows to take a leading role and to accept, against his will, his place in the fate of his world. But first, he and his friends must be caught between the armies of a band of religious fanatics - the Whitecloaks, who make the Spanish Inquisition look tame - and a race of invaders from across the ocean - the Seanchan, who put Aes Sedai on leashes and use them as weapons in a devastating war of conquest. Only by getting themselves into this tight spot can Rand & Co. rescue those dear to them, recover ancient relics that must not be allowed to fall into the hands of the Shadow, and remove all doubt about Rand's place in the weave.

It takes a while to sketch out even a spare summary of this book, because it is so big and, well, tightly woven with story threads and fantasy concepts. Its action spreads across a huge stage, geographically and culturally. It twangs with lines of tension between numerous groups and individuals with conflicting agendas. But it also brims with the personal passions, hopes, fears, and cares of a handful - a large handful, to be sure - of attractive yet believably flawed characters. It has epic scope and world-shaking seriousness, but the humanity (not to mention, sex appeal) of its characters is what engages the reader through the long haul of nearly 700 pages. It is a story that blends cosmic terror with endearing mischief, light romance, alien weirdness, and sword-and-sorcery action in one big, richly colored tapestry.

This is the sequel to The Eye of the World, and the second book in the 15-novel "Wheel of Time" sequence. Because these first two books are quite lengthy, both have also been published in two-volume format, with Eye split into From the Two Rivers and To the Blight, and Hunt split into The Hunt Begins and New Threads in the Pattern.

Robert Jordan actually lived to write only the first 11 books of the series, plus a prequel titled New Spring. Brandon Sanderson, an important fantasy author in his own right, wrapped it up after Jordan's 2007 death with four additional novels based on Jordan's notes. Jordan was also the author of the "Fallon" trilogy, using the pen-name Reagan O'Neal; about a dozen novels featuring Conan the Barbarian; and a western novel titled Cheyenne Raiders, using the pen-name Jackson O'Reilly. The next book in this sequence is titled The Dragon Reborn.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Another "Is THAT How You Say...?"

During a recent road-trip spent joyfully listening to Ulli Birvé read Georgette Heyer's 1939 mystery No Wind of Blame, I encountered several more intriguing examples of the difference between how I have been brought up pronouncing English words and the way the English themselves pronounce them.

I'm more than ever on the lookout for such examples since I read portions of H.W. Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926), in which that high-ranking authority on how English out to be used refers to a certain law, already at that time not being vigorously enforced and nowadays all but forgotten, called the Recessive Accent. This rule, which apparently means the accent should land on the syllable as far to the left as possible, no doubt accounts for the fact one may still occasionally hear a highly educated, upper-class Brit putting the accent on the first syllable of such words as "despicable," "hospitable," or "exquisite."

But this rule doesn't quite explain why Ulli Birvé says "exigencies" with the emphasis on the second "e" - ex-i-GEN-cies. I was so struck by this, I had to grab the little commonplace book I keep in the center-island of my car (yeah, I know) and make a note of it.

The next note below that reminds me that in at least two places, Birvé pronounced the verb "demur" or its past-tense form "demurred" (to voice disagreement) exactly as I would expect to hear the adjective "demure" (modest, bashful), with a "y" sound before a long "u." This is one of those words I have probably never heard anyone use in casual speech, but have read silently in many books. I always guessed the "u" in the second syllable was pronounced with a more neutral vowel sound, like the accented vowel in "preferred."

Below that, I scribbled the word "raiment," which again, is a term I may have only encountered in literature, and seldom if ever heard spoken aloud. I would never have quibbled to hear it pronounced exactly the way anyone would expect to hear an English word thus spelled: "RAY-mənt," with a schwa in the second syllable, followed by a garden-variety "n" and some notion of a final "t," even if the latter exists more in the realm of imagination than in actual sonic reality. I can't tell whether Heyer italicized the word, but apparently Birvé took it as a French loan-word and pronounced it as such, with no particular accent on the first syllable, and a second syllable essentially ending with a nasalized ẽ vowel. I don't know about this. I have little doubt the English word "raiment" can be traced back to some similar French word; but since it occurs more than 50 times in the King James Bible (1611), flaunting that debt is probably overdoing the francophilia just a bit. The question now is whether that fetish should be attributed to Heyer (by dint of italics) or to Birvé.

Finally, or rather first of all, I remember being surprised at the beginning of the audiobook by Birvé's pronunciation of the author's last name. This probably goes down to germanophilia, or whatever the right word for it is, owing to the influence of the German language on the speech of the American midwest, but ever since I first saw the name Georgette Heyer in print, I have assumed her second name was pronounced like the English word "higher." Now I owe it to Birvé's qualifications as an audiobook reader to assume she is correct when she pronounces it more like "hayer," as in a person who makes hay, or "heyer," as in a person who says "Hey!" Maybe you knew this before, but I didn't.

I don't know much about Birvé, but a search for her turns up some credits in Australian film and TV productions, so her authority on English pronunciation may by confined to the land down under. Her accent sounds cultured and neutral enough to be from anywhere, and she does put on a variety of regional English accents with seemingly no effort whatever; so I just don't know. But if there are multiple ways to skin a cat, there are surely even more ways to pronounce some English words.

The King's Buccaneer

The King's Buccaneer
by Raymond E. Feist
Recommended Ages: 14+

Nicholas conDoin is the youngest son of Arutha, Prince of Krondor and brother of Lyam, King of the Isles. Overshadowed by his older twin brothers, one of whom will be king after Lyam, he has also been allowed to lead a relatively soft life by dint of his deformed left foot. As he approaches the age when his father started to do heroic deeds, Arutha decides to do something to make a man of him - like, sending him to the remote duchy of Crydee, to serve as a squire to his Uncle Martin and maybe rack up some leadership experience. Nicholas gets more than his father bargained for, starting when a horde of the darkest villains in all the world of Midkemia sneak into Crydee, taking captive everyone young and healthy, and killing pretty much everyone else. By chance among those who survive the raid, Nicholas leads an expedition across a seemingly endless ocean to rescue those captives, including his cousin Margaret and her lovely lady-in-waiting, Abigail.

If you've guessed Nicholas is impelled partly by his attachment to Abigail, you're not as dumb as you look. But before he finds her and the other captives, things happen that draw his heart in another direction. Meantime, he becomes the captain of an increasingly diverse group of sailors, soldiers, mercenaries, and more - including two notable wizards, and possibly the only half-elf/half-human ever to exist in their world. They endure heartbreaking disaster, struggle against deadly conditions, battle enemies as powerful as they are ruthless, and sustain terrible losses. They visit an alien continent, witness a conflict between legendary forces, and end up racing against a terrible plot to destroy the world.

I'll confine my review to these sweeping generalities, but believe me: the fun in this book is in the specifics. Characters like Nakor, the cheerful wizard who swears "there is no magic," and Anthony, whose love for a woman above his station shines bright enough to steer a ship by; villains like Lady Clovis, whose seductive power can drain a man's life force in minutes; romantic interests ranging from a girl who haunts the streets of a pirate hide-out to a bossy-pants princess who has been marked for death; and above all, Nicholas himself, who faces his own deepest fear and grows as a man beyond anyone's expectations - all these and incidents galore fill this book with excitement, surprises, and satisfying emotional arcs.

Depending on how you slice up Feist's Midkemia-related output, involving 30-some books written over 30-some years, either this book is the second of two stand-alone companion novels to the Riftwar trilogy (or quartet), which begins with Magician (or at least Magician: Apprentice); or it is the second book of the Krondor's Sons duad, following Prince of the Blood; or both books are a continuation of the Riftwar saga. Each of these options has its pros and cons, and the author's views on the matter don't seem to feature much in the debate. But I reckon the next book to read, in following the multi-layered Midkemia canon, seems to be Daughter of the Empire, book 1 of the "Riftwar: The World On the Other Side" trilogy with co-author Janny Wurts; though that book was published before Prince of the Blood and this book. Just be quiet and nod your head. Good.

No Wind of Blame

No Wind of Blame
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 12+

Nearly everyone at the Palings, an English country house owned by the retired actress Ermentrude Carter, has a motive for murdering Ermentrude's good-for-nothing husband Wally. But when someone shoots him dead in the middle of a footbridge on his way to tea at the neighbor's house, the police are puzzled. None of those apparent motives seem to match up with the ability to have smuggled the victim's own rifle out of his gun safe, or an opportunity to have pulled the trigger from the cover of nearby shrubbery. And of those people with a shred of opportunity, everyone seems to have an airtight alibi - or, at least, no one can explain how they could have gotten the gun out of the house, or how they would have known where and when to lie in ambush for poor, worthless Wally.

This murder mystery has first the local police, then Scotland Yard scratching their heads, while members of Ermentrude's circle of family, friends, and neighbors act out a complex weave of romantic melodramas in a style that I would like to describe as "Agatha Christie meets P.G. Wodehouse." One particular couple had me often chuckling, and occasionally laughing out loud, especially at the girl's spirited meddling and stage-struck eccentricity. Incidentally, who done it and how they (almost) pulled it off account for a really nifty surprise. Spread over everything is a layer of between-the-world-wars English charm, enhanced by a possibly fraudulent Georgian prince, a couple of Bolshevik sympathizers, and masterful scenes of drawing-room histrionics.

One of Regency romance maven Heyer's 12 detective novels, this is the first of four "Country House Mysteries" featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Hemingway. The other three are Envious Casca (a.k.a. A Christmas Party), Duplicate Death, and Detection Unlimited. I enjoyed the audiobook version read by Ulli Birvé during a recent interstate road trip.

The Pillars of The Earth

The Pillars of the Earth
by Ken Follett
Recommended Ages: 14+

A dear friend of mine, from whom changes in the circumcstances of life have separated me, once gave me a copy of this book, along with one or two others, and strongly urged me to read it. I can still recall her enthusiastic description of it, doing a pantomime of the eager turning of pages, with breathless comments like, "Oh my God! Did she really! No way! He didn't! They wouldn't! Tell me more!" It testifies to my trust in that friend's judgment that I kept that book on my (admittedly enormous) to-read shelf for years and years, though I gave priority to other books in the meantime. I finally found an opportunity to heed my friend's advice when the availability of an audiobook edition, just when I was about to go on a long road-trip. So now I can say, "Thanks, Amanda, for pointing me in the direction of some terrific entertainment!"

The Pillars of the Earth has achieved bestseller status without any help from me; in fact, it is probably the best-known book by its fairly prolific author. It was adapted as a TV miniseries in 2010, which is useful to know, because I wouldn't have known how to spell the characters' names correctly were it not for a webpage listing the cast of that film. It focuses on a large handful of characters whose status as protagonists or antagonists is in reference to the building of a great cathedral in the village of Kingsbridge in 12th-century England, during a period known to historians as the Anarchy, due to the effects of a civil war between three rival claimants to the throne (for the record, Stephen, Maud, and eventual winner Henry I). It was also the period during which Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury, became in rapid succession a martyr and a saint, due to his conflict with King Henry; and when the trend in cathedral-building tipped from Romanesque (rounded) arches to Gothic (pointed) ones.

Embedded in that historical context, high drama spins out of the rivalries between a Benedictine monk named Philip and a ruthlessly ambitious bishop named Waleran Bigod, and between a headstrong girl named Aliena, who has sworn to restore her brother Richard to the earldom that was taken from their father, and the monstrous Percy Hamleigh, who... well, if I listed his crimes here, you wouldn't believe me. You'll just have to read the book. Caught in the middle are a stonemason named Tom Builder and his gifted stepson Jack, who has a rivalry of his own both with Percy and with Tom's rather disappointing son Alfred. Jack also happens to be in love with Aliena, but both Percy and Alfred are in lust with her, and... well, you know where this is going, whether you read the book or not; but along the way are the kinds of surprises that will have you eagerly turning pages and making breathless comments like, "Oh my God! Did she really! No way! He didn't! They wouldn't! Tell me more!" I was warned about this, so now I warn you. Amanda was right.

I didn't realize until my road-trip was underway that the audiobook I had purchased of this novel, read by Richard E. Grant, was an abridged edition. If someone finds out who made the decision to produce an abridged audiobook of this novel - part of a series of abridged installments that I have seen on store shelves, but will now know better than to buy - I wish they would do me a personal favor and leave a flaming brown-paper lunch bag full of dog poo on that person's doorstep. Those of us who frequently drive great distances with only audiobooks to keep us sane, will not feel we have been done a favor by having a long-anticipated bestseller reduced to eight measly CDs. So, not only didn't it last even half of my road trip, it didn't provide me with the full Pillars of the Earth experience that I could have gotten by listening to the version recorded by John Lee. And since I have spoken of a series, let it be known that, whosoever may have recorded them in abridged or unabridged audio, the sequels to this book are World Without End and A Column of Fire.

Ken Follett is also the author of the Apples Carstairs trilogy (The Big Needle, etc.), the Piers Roper books (The Shakeout, etc.), the Century Trilogy (Fall of Giants, etc.), and a variety of other novels, some of them written under the pen-names Symon Myles, Martin Martinsen, Zachary Stone, and Bernard L. Ross. Their titles include The Power Twins, The Modigliani Scandal, Capricorn One, The Key to Rebecca, Lie Down with Lions, Night Over Water, A Dangerous Fortune, The Hammer of Eden, Hornet Flight, and Whiteout.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Prince of the Blood

Prince of the Blood
by Raymond E. Feist
Recommended Ages: 14+

Twenty years after the Riftwar (see Magician, Silverthorn, and A Darkness at Sethanon), the 19-year-old twin sons of Prince Arutha are a couple of trouble-making scamps. They certainly don't have the maturity to rule over the Kingdom of the Isles in the world of Midkemia. And now that Arutha has declared his intention to renounce his claim to the throne, should he outlive his brother King Lyam, Borric and Erland are first and second in the line of royal succession. It's a pretty pickle. So, Arutha sends the boys to Kesh, the vast and dangerous empire to the south, to serve as the kingdom's delegates to the Empress Lakeisha's 75th birthday jubilee. Attending them are Barons Locklear and James, who were boys themselves when we last saw them, and (after a stop to visit Pug the Magician) James' new wife Gamina, who can communicate telepathically.

Arutha only hopes the trip will teach the twins some responsibility. But their schooling takes a nasty turn soon after they cross the Keshian border, when their party is attacked by bandits. Believed by all except Erland to be dead, Borric is taken prisoner and cruelly driven to the slave market of Durbin, where is to be sold. He escapes with the aid of a fast-talking beggar boy named Suli, and later joins up with a mercenary named Ghuda and a fun-loving wizard named Nakor. They make their perilous way to the capital city of Kesh, while trying to elude capture by forces who are determined to kill Borric for mysterious, political reasons. Meantime, Erland finds himself unexpectedly representing the Kingdom as its heir presumptive in the middle of a vast, culturally alien court swirling with sex, intrigue, and danger. A high-ranking member of the royal family is murdered, and two nations are brought to the brink of war, before the true nature of the plot is revealed. By then, it's open season on the twin princes and their entourage.

Every book by Feist that I have read, including the massive Magician, I have found easy to enjoy: written in a transparent style, with fast-paced action, romance, humor, and mighty feats of world-building filling every page with fun. Though at times this book felt like a lighter-weight piece of entertainment than the three (or four) I had read before, I came to the end thinking it might have been my favorite so far. I'm not sure that isn't something that's going to happen every time I read another Feist novel. The twins, Jimmy, Locky, Gamina, Ghuda, Suli, and Nakor are compelling characters, and as the two groups pursue vastly different types of adventures, a rich variety of culture and scenery is revealed. The tale abounds in suspense, excitement, Adult Content Advisory-worthy titillation, and intrigue, with differing views about the place of women and attitudes about sex coming in for some comment. And most importantly, the twins' characters are transformed by their adventure.

I have learned to tremble a little when I get to the part of a review of one of Feist's books where I have to describe where it fits into his body of work. Feist himself apparently counts the Riftwar books, listed above, as a trilogy; most everyone else divides Magician into two books (Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master), and therefore counts the same series as four books. The situation only becomes more complex with this book, which I have seen described as the first of two stand-alone companion novels to the Riftwar saga (the second being The King's Buccaneer) - rather as Belgarath the Sorcerer is viewed as a stand-alone companion or prequel to David Eddings' Belgariad quintet. On the cover of my copy of The King's Buccanneer, however, that book is described as the second book of the "Krondor's Sons" series, apparently taking Prince of the Blood as the first. And on one of my favorite websites for settling arguments about the canon order of various series of books, both books are listed as part of the Riftwar series. I don't want to get into the middle of this, but for the sake of simplicity, I'm going with this last option in my index to these reviews.

Now that that's settled, I can go on to note this five- or six-book series, or trilogy or quartet with two outlying books, or whatever it is, is only the beginning of a literary canon of some 30 books set in the world of Midkemia, which (if I am correctly interpreting the author's acknowledgements to both books) took shape in the collaborative setting of a fantasy role-playing game. Other titles include the "Riftwar: The World on the Other Side" trilogy (co-authored with Janny Wurts), the "Riftwar: Serpentwar" quartet, the "Riftwar Legacy" quartet, the "Legends of Riftwar" trilogy (with various co-authors), the "Conclave of Shadows" trilogy, the "Darkwar" trilogy, the "Demonwar" duad, and the "Chaoswar" trilogy. Most recently, Feist started an entirely new fantasy series with the book King of Ashes.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Silver Dream

The Silver Dream
story by Neil Gaiman & Michael Reaves
written by Michael Reaves & Mallory Reaves
Recommended Ages: 12+

Joey Harker used to be just this kid, but now he's one of several hundred "paraincarnations" of pretty much the same exact kid, gathered from around the altiverse - which means the earthlike, inhabited part of the multiverse - which means... never mind. They all live, study, train, and travel between parallel dimensions on a ship/city/school called InterWorld, whose mission is to fight the evils encroaching from both ends of the spectrum of possible worlds - the HEX pirates trying to conquer everything from the magical end of the continuum, and the Binary clones encroaching from the technological end. And though some are boys and some are girls, and some have feathers and others have cybernetic implants, and some come from planets with super-high gravity, and so on, they all look and sound more or less exactly like Joey Harker. They all have names beginning with a J, too, so be sure to keep your list of characters handy.

A couple years into his tour of duty with InterWorld, Joey has started to feel like he belongs. He more or less leads a team (though he isn't the senior officer on it). He doesn't spend quite as many meals at his own table in the mess hall, writhing in social awkwardness, as he did when he first arrived and everyone was suspicious because he had accidentally gotten his recruiter killed. And though the Old Man (kind of a far-future version of Joey) never seems to approve of anything he does, he hasn't been suspected of selling out his team to the enemy, lately.

But now things start to go downhill. First, his team botches a mission to retrieve Binary data from a world called Earth FΔ986, and brings back an uninvited guest whose name doesn't begin with a J - a mysterious girl named Acacia Jones, widely and embarrassingly rumored to be Joey's girlfriend. Then they have to go back to FΔ986 to complete their original mission, plus rescue a Walker - someone like Joey and all his InterWorld friends, who can Walk (with a capital "w") between worlds - who turns out to be way cooler and more popular than Joey. Then a training exercise leads to an accident that injures Joey and kills one of his best friends in a way that leads many, Joey included, to suspect that he, Joey, is to blame. Every time Joey tries to make things better, things get worse, and before anything happens that you won't hate me for spoiling, the multiverse is on the verge of an almighty disaster called Frost Night, and Joey is marooned, hurt, and helpless to do anything to stop it. Or is he? (Cue scary music.)

As the second installment in a series of at least three books, it is perhaps understandable that the mood in this book hits a low note, and it has an unresolved ending. That just gives you more to look forward to in books to come, right? Meantime, there are loads of far-out fantasy ideas, weird images, exciting conflicts, and scary moments in this book, along with some tenderer emotions. While I would prefer to see a book take a story all the way to the end, there is good precedent for leaving us in suspense - so long as the pay-off is worth it.

This sequel to Neil Gaiman & Michael Reaves's InterWorld is one of the few books I have reviewed whose author credits read like the writing credits of a screenplay. Gaiman is the Hugo, Nebula, Newbery Medal, and Carnegie Medal winning author of The Graveyard Book, Coraline, American Gods, Anansi Boys, Neverwhere, Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, etc., etc. Michael Reaves is an Emmy-winning TV writer who has contributed to Batman: The Animated Series and Disney's Gargoyles, as well as Star Wars novels and more; increasingly, he has been working with co-authors while struggling with Parkinson's disease. Mallory Reaves is his daughter, who specializes in adapting manga series such as Afterschool Nightmare and Her Majesty's Dog. Their writing credits grow even more complicated in the third installment of this series, Eternity's Wheel, with the younger Reaves probably doing most of the writing but still getting last (if not least) billing. I hate getting in the middle of messes like this, but I still plan to enjoy this series while it lasts.

Monday, September 4, 2017

God Save the Queen

God Save the Queen
by Kate Locke
Recommended Ages: 14+

Alexandra Vardan is a half-blood, or halvie, in an alternate version of present-day London descended via divergent history from the Madness of George III, when in Xandra's universe the Plague mutated into something called the Prometheus Protein and turned the aristocracy into either vampires (mainly English), werewolves (mainly Scottish), or goblins (um, you'd rather not know). Most commoners, without the mutated gene allowing them to become fully plagued, have continued living life as they otherwise would have, with some weird differences. Instead of CDs and DVDs, they have audio and video cylinders. Instead of push-button cellphones, they carry portable rotaries. They still have Sid Vicious, but he's singing covers of Frank Sinatra now. And Adolf Hitler, instead of causing World War II, made his mark on history as a mediocre landscape painter. Humans have only risen up against the aristos once - during the Great Insurrection of 1932, when Her Ensanguinated Majesty Queen Victoria's beloved Prince Albert was among the slain - but pressure has been building lately in British society, with anti-plague hate groups running amok, and with a carefully-bred buffer class of halvies training to defend the aristos against another attack.

Xandra, for example, is a member of the Royal Guard, a terrific fighter, a star pupil of the academy, and a pet of her teacher, the vampire Churchill. Of her three half-siblings on the side of her aristocratic vampire father, one is an inspector with Scotland Yard, and two are private security consultants - including the youngest, Dede, of whom Xandra is especially protective. When Dede disappears, Xandra makes her perilous way to the city's main goblin plague den, seeking information about where to find her sister. The answer seems terrible enough: Bedlam, the lunatic asylum where Xandra's mother, a breeding courtesan who bore halvie children to more than one aristo, was committed before she died. Even worse news comes on the heels of that bulletin: Dede has committed suicide. So Xandra must face an even more paralyzing fear - the fear of insanity - going to the very place into which her mother disappeared when she was a girl, to identify the charred remains of her sister. But lest you think things can't get even darker and weirder, she can tell right away the burned body is not Dede. So what's going on?

What's going on, she learns, is far deeper and weirder than the matter of what happened to Dede. As she gradually finds out, there is something about Xandra herself that has been hidden from her. On the way to accepting it, however, she stops an assassin from shooting Queen Victoria at her 175th Jubilee Ball; she survives, just barely, an attempt to assassinate herself; she falls in love with the alpha werewolf of all Great Britain; she discovers a heartbreaking betrayal; and she finds herself at the center of a personal scandal and a political crisis that could shake the Empire.

This book has an energetic pace, an Adult Content Advisory-worthy romance, and a fascinating, not-undead take on what vampires and werewolves are (not to mention goblins), and what makes them that way. It also has one of the most valuable assets a fantasy novel can have, in its immersively convincing close-parallel-world setting, sort of like what you get when you take Regency Steampunk and fast forward 200 years. Best of all, it has a heroine with a vibrant personality, a tough attitude, and, well, a lot of other unique stuff about her that I don't want to spoil for you. It fills a niche I didn't know existed, between the period Steampunk of Gail Carriger's "Parasol Protectorate" series and the darker, more dystopian vision of Clay and Susan Griffiths' "Vampire Empire" series. I'm eager to see where Xandra's adventures lead next.

This is the first book in the "Immortal Empire" trilogy, which also includes The Queen Is Dead and Long Live the Queen. The Canadian-born author has also published books under the names Kathryn Smith, Kady Cross, and Kate Cross, including the "Brotherhood of the Blood" quintet, the "Steampunk Chronicles" quartet, and the "Clockwork Agents" trilogy.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

When Friendship Followed Me Home

When Friendship Followed Me Home
by Paul Griffin
Recommended Ages: 11+

One day, while trying to evade bullies on his walk home from school, Ben Coffin befriends an adorable little dog that he comes to call Flip. The two of them make friends with Halley, the librarian's fascinating daughter, who wears snazzy colors, makes up fantastic stories, and plans to beat cancer. They've even started training Flip as a service dog, to assist in a reading program for kids who are not reading at grade level, when Ben arrives home from school and finds his adopted mom dead.

Most of us would readily understand Ben's grief. But only kids who have made it out of the foster-care program can probably understand the fear that plagues him, as he lands with his mom's up-tight sister and her slob boyfriend. Ben even experiences guilt, as he sees tension and conflict growing in Leo and Aunt Jeanie's relationship; he blames himself for messing things up. But his next safest place to crash is with his best friend Chucky, whose parents have way too many kids already, and whose cats set off Ben's allergies. After that, all he seems to have is the street, where he can only last so long before someone will take him into state custody, and separate him from his beloved Flip.

Surprisingly to Ben, he finds a safe haven with the parents of Halley - even though her father is a stage magician, and Ben has a fear of magicians going back to a horrible incident during his foster-care years. But becoming a family with Halley and her folks means facing another heartbreaking loss, and more of that worry that he is messing things up for the family. Only by co-writing Halley's masterpiece story can Ben seem to learn what he has that the people around him need so much.

I was coming down with a cold when I read this book during a three-day holiday weekend, which I spent coughing and sniffling and feeling generally miserable indoors, while the weather outside was beautiful. So I can't blame all the blues or the Kleenex I went through on this book. Nevertheless, I think it deserves enough credit to score well into the "heart through a wringer" band of the emotional effect gauge. It is a really moving study of a young man struggling to find a family to belong to, learning to forgive and accept friendship, opening his heart and mind to trust and a kind of faith, and coping with different kinds of loss. Flu or no flu, something to blow your nose on is a definite prerequisite for reading this book.

Paul Griffin is a New York-based author who specializes in urban fiction for young adults. His other books include Ten Mile River, The Orange Houses, Stay With Me, Burning Blue, Adrift, and Saving Marty, which is scheduled to be released Sept. 19, 2017.

Chosen Prey

Chosen Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this 12th of 27 (and counting) Lucas Davenport/Prey crime thrillers, Davenport gets the news that his job as a politically appointed deputy chief of the Minneapolis police will soon end, setting the stage for his later adventures as an agent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. But lest you feel any apprehension about this, he has officially made up with his ex-ex-fiance Weather Karkinnen, and the two are trying to get pregnant together. But the plot line that will make longtime readers of this series (can there be any other kind?) perk up and say, "Oh, that one!" is the one where an art history prof at a local Catholic college goes on a crime rampage.

James Qatar's crimes are many. He steals from the women he sleeps with, especially the ones he strangles and buries on a hilltop in Goodhue County, and uses the proceeds to buy himself nice clothes. Did I mention he likes strangling women? Busty blondes, especially. He really gets a sexual kick out of it, so he does it a lot. Also, when he's not in the mood to murder, he uses a combination of Photoshop and art skills to create hand-drawn pieces of revenge porn, featuring the heads of women who have displeased him, grafted onto the bodies of online porn actresses; he then anonymously mails these masterpieces to their real-life subjects.

Qatar could get away with all these crimes for a long time, especially given his utter selfishness, his insane lack of conscience, and his ability to cry convincingly on cue. But then one of his victims comes unburied, and a drawing in her possession (which, incidentally, she stole from her killer) connects the crime to all those harassing drawings targeting a similar artsy, blonde body-type in the Twin Cities area, Davenport jumps on the case. He and his ally, outgoing Police Chief Rose Marie Roux, both see it as an opportunity to enjoy the twilight of their career on the M.P.D. Also, there's a sheriff's deputy from Wisconsin hanging around, who sees a connection between the murdered girl and several other missing women, including his own niece. More digging - literal and otherwise - turns up a whole graveyard of murder victims.

With the media dubbing him the "gravedigger," Qatar feels the noose tightening around his neck, and this pushes him to take desperate steps that cost more lives. Meantime, Davenport and his team of investigators have their own obstacles to overcome - such as the involvement of a crack-smoking pimp who has his own reasons to hate Lucas and everyone else wearing a badge, and a potential witness's hyper-sexual approach to setting a trap for the killer, and that Wisconsin guy's increasingly fragile emotional state endangering the whole case.

It's a legal, police-procedural, and psychological thriller, wrapped in an Adult Content Advisory-worthy depiction of deviant sex, violent action, down-to-earth humor, tragedy, and romance. It features many of the recurring characters who are, individually and as a group, among the reasons this series remains satisfying after ever-so-many installments, and whose changing circumstances provide an illusion of the passage of time in a series that could otherwise easily play like the Simpsons, with Bart eternally in fourth grade. You know this is "that" book because Marcy "Titsy" Sherrill is recovering from being shot in the previous book, and Sloan's hair has turned a paler shade of silver, showing his age; it's the book in which the governor first seems to take notice of Lucas as a potential political asset, and which ends with... oh, that was close. I almost spoiled it!

John Sandford, a.k.a. John Camp, has written another 15 Prey books since this one, plus 10 or so books in the spinoff series featuring Virgil Flowers, plus several books featuring a character named Kidd who has a cameo in this book (possibly his first crossover to this series), and even more. Unless I stumble across some of his books that I haven't spotted locally, my opportunities to read his stuff are played out for the time being, but I'll be watching the library's holdings and used book sales for more of this author's sure-fire formula for making a dull evening zip by.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Fronday Morning Dream

Today is Fronday at the newspaper where I work. That is to say, our regular Monday deadline for next week's paper has been pushed up to Friday, because of the Labor Day holiday. Friday + Monday = Fronday. The phenomenon is also known as "the dread week of two Mondays." Get it? Good.

So, early this morning, with the prospect of Fronday looming in my subconscious, I had an interesting journalism-related stress dream.

In my dream, I was sent on a photography assignment to a high school dance, where I was somehow dragooned into shooting a picture of each couple attending the dance. First in line was a quadriplegic boy in a wheelchair, who was accompanied by a male caregiver. I pulled out my pen and reporter's notebook and asked for their names, but the caregiver insisted his name was "88 Colt" and launched into a long-winded, melodramatic story about how he came by it - probably something to do with a Dodge subcompact car, I suppose - but I interrupted him and politely asked him to save it for later. Then I tried lining up the shot, but one of the bulbs on this sort of track-light fixture above the dais was pointed in my direction and it was causing a lens flare. So, I started looking for a chair or something to stand on, so I could adjust the angle of the light, and started to get flustered by the evident impatience of the long line of dance-goers waiting to be photographed...

Yeah, it was a pretty miserable dream. It made me glad to wake up and realize that I only have to deal with Fronday.

Macatouille?

I tried to make a ratatouille for a church potluck this past Sunday. Not the movie "Ratatouille" version with alternating thin slices of eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, and Roma tomato fanned out in a spiral formation in a baking dish and broiled in a piperade, but the Emeril version with the ingredients cooked al dente in a pot on the stove. Also in the recipe are sweet peppers, onions, garlic, rosemary, thyme, basil, salt and pepper, a dab of olive oil to start, and a goodly squirt of lemon juice to finish. It's one of those recipes that makes you feel like you're really cooking, because of the amount of time you spend slicing things before anything goes into the pot, and because there's a precise order of battle as to what goes into the pot and when.

I've been making it long enough to do it without looking at a recipe, and it turned out rather well, except that I got a little overenthusiastic with the fresh thyme and rosemary. That, and the fact that some people apparently expected there to be some kind of meat in the dish, perhaps explains why only a couple people at the potluck tried it. I ended up with a potluck-sized potful of leftover ratatouille, which I am still eating at home.

Last night, to shake things up, I decided to combine one of the few dishes I make from all-fresh ingredients with an old bachelor-chow standby, boxed shells-and-cheese macaroni - the kind with the packet of ready-mixed cheese sauce that you can heat up in the same boiling water as the noodles. I've combined a lot of different things with boxed shell or elbow mac and cheese; things everybody has tried, like tuna, peas, and cream-of-mushroom soup, or canned chili without beans; things most people would know better than to stir in, like leftover spaghetti sauce and meatballs; and things few people have even thought of adding, like Italian clam sauce or a spicy Indian entree. Most of these mixers are pretty much on the order of adding junk to more junk. But it turns out that adding homemade, leftover ratatouille to the shells-and-cheese both elevated the mac and broke the monotony of a week of eating a stew of perfectly cooked but over-seasoned summer vegetables.

While I'm confiding my culinary transgressions, here's another bachelor chow tip I just discovered this week: You can make instant oatmeal with the Keurig machine in your office's break room. First, empty two serving-size packets into a soup mug (because, face it, one is never enough); put the mug under the nozzle of the K-cup machine. Then, whatever your Keurig model requires to get it to run 4 ounces of hot water into the mug, do that twice (once for each packet of oatmeal). Stir and let stand for a couple minutes. It's actually faster, less messy, and tastier than the microwave way that you, I, and the wall have been practicing lo, these many years.

Based on this picture, I am apparently not the first person to realize this. But if you're behind me on the Keurig learning curve, you're welcome.

Easy Prey

Easy Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the 11th of currently 27 crime thrillers featuring Lucas Davenport, a guy whose crime-solving genius is founded partly on his ability to organize a team of detectives and partly on his keen predatory instincts - bad guys being his prey of choice - rises to what I reckon to be the peak of his career as a deputy chief of the Minneapolis police force. So that makes the murder of a bisexual, heroin-chic supermodel named Alie'e Maison the crowning case of that phase of his career.

Alie'e is found strangled in a bedroom at a socialite's house during a party attended by more than a hundred people. Even more disturbing, a second corpse falls out of a closet while the cops are clearing the scene - a hostess from a swanky hotel, whose head appears to have been smashed against a doorjamb. Assuming Alie'e was the primary target and the other girl was killed to cover up the crime, Davenport's team gets nowhere fast. Interesting things start to drop, however, when they turn it around and start investigating the possibility the hotel hostess was killed first, and Alie'e died because she was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Among the things that start to drop are more dead bodies. The case is further clouded by the fact some of the new murders seem to be motivated by revenge for the fate of Alie'e, while others look like the work of the original killer. Davenport likes Alie'e's brother, an ecstatic saint-type charismatic preacher, for the former and a drug-dealing real estate kingpin for the latter; but when more murders happen right under the noses of a police protection detail, the possibility that he may be wrong about both suspects becomes a dead certainty.

It's a keep-you-guessing mystery, a fascinating police procedural, and an entertaining cop romance all rolled into one. The surrender of one of the killers is one of the goofiest surprises I have come across in crime fiction. How he becomes a suspect is one of the most out-of-the-blue surprises since I don't remember when. The romance bit also places this installment at an interesting point in Davenport's character arc, with one ex-girlfriend languishing in a hospital bed, another having a midlife crisis and trying to drag him into it, a third (probably the love of his life) warming up to him again after their relationship cooled a book or two back, and topping it all, a sexually ravenous young beauty throwing herself at him. Yes, a murder mystery involving a supermodel would be wasted if... well, let's put it this way: Adult Content Advisory!

John Sandford, a pen name of the Pulitzer-winning newspaper writer John Camp, is a long-running, prolific crime fiction franchise that, so far, hasn't missed a trick - and I say this after having read a couple dozen of his titles. The older titles in this series show their age a bit, but mainly in their references to then-current technology, such as Palm Pilots, and Davenport's attitude about it, such as constantly having to be lectured about keeping his cell phone turned on. But their dialogue, action, intrigue, and character interplay remain just as crisp and full of twanging tension, laugh-out-loud humor, and action sequences that choreograph themselves perfectly in the theater of the mind.