Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Fearless Travelers' Guide to Wicked Places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manners & Mutiny

Manners & Mutiny
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 14+

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Waistcoats & Weaponry

Waistcoats & Weaponry
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 14+

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 24, 2017

Ten Years and Blogging!

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

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

Cats Marching to a Different Drummer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Beyond the Kingdoms

Beyond the Kingdoms
by Chris Colfer
Recommended Ages: 12+

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

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

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

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Curtsies & Conspiracies

Curtsies & Conspiracies
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 14+

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 18, 2017

211. A Noisy Children's Hymn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 17, 2017

210. A Silly, Smelly Children's Hymn

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Too Tacky To Be Published

Book titles so tacky, they were never published:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nut Job: The Entrepreneur Who Revitalized the Cashew Industry

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

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

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


and, last but not least...

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Penderwicks in Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Four-Story Mistake

The Four-Story Mistake
by Elizabeth Enright
Recommended Ages: 10+

The Melendy siblings Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver are sad to leave their old house in New York City, but they soon fall in love with their new home, an eccentric-looking three-story house in the country with mansard roofs and a cupola on top. Whimsically known as the Four-Story Mistake, the house and its grounds are loaded with secrets for each of the children to discover, from the trove of forgotten treasures in the basement to the hidden room in the attic. Then there's the stream flowing nearby, available for swimming in the summer, skating in the winter, and other brotherly and sisterly activities.

Meantime, the kids are up to their usual blend of just-imperfect-enough-to-be-believed achievements, such as Mona getting a starring role on a radio program, and too-nice-to-be-blamed mistakes, such as Randy crashing her bicycle into the back of a bus, and Rush getting stranded in his tree-house during a winter storm. They put on a theatrical performance, Mona finds a lost jewel, Rush punches his piano student on the nose, and the kids survive a few potentially serious mishaps, and mostly triumph over their troubles by dint of good sense and hearts of gold.

Their personalities are just quirky enough, their interplay is just entertaining enough, and the author's style is just graceful enough to excuse the story for its rather thin plot, raising it a step or two above the usual nostalgic tale about what slightly-more-privileged-than-average children did for fun, or sometimes for a better cause, outside of school in a time now past. It's a story that gently touches the heart and leaves an afterglow of pleasure.

This is the second book in the "Melendy Family" quartet, which began with The Saturdays and continues with Then There Were Five and Spiderweb for Two. Enright (1909-1968) was the Newbery Medal-winning author of Thimble Summer and Gone-Away Lake.

Jinx

Jinx
by Sage Blackwood
Recommended Ages: 11+

At six years old, Jinx is about to be abandoned in the Urwald, far off the paths where travelers are more or less safe from werewolves, trolls, and other hazards of the deep, people-hating forest. Then along comes a wizard named Simon, who saves the boy and makes him his servant. But even though Simon never hits Jinx like other adults in his life, and though he has a wife named Sophie who is the closest thing to a mother Jinx has ever known, he still isn't sure Simon is to be trusted. His confidence in the wizard drops even further when Simon does a terrifying spell that takes away the part of Jinx that allows hit to see the colors of other people's feelings. Still armed with a unique connection to the trees of the Urwald that allows him to listen to their thoughts, when he digs his bare feet into their soil, and some ability to do spells and sense the source of other wizards' power, Jinx nevertheless thinks Simon has taken his magic away. So he decides to leave the wizard's house and seek his own fortune.

Along the way, Jinx gets mixed up with a witch named Dame Glammer, who travels by hopping butter-churn; a girl named Elfwyn, who is cursed to give only true answers to direct questions; and a boy named Reven, who also has a curse on him that prevents him from telling anyone who he really is or the nature of his curse. Somehow, though, Reven carries with him a terror that has the entire Urwald on the defensive. Dame Glammer, who likes getting people in trouble, manipulates the three kids into seeking the aid of an evil wizard named the Bonemaster, who soon captures them and threatens to make them part of his grisly collection, unless Simon comes to their rescue. The Bonemaster and Simon have some serious issues to work out between them, issues that involve some scarily dark magic and a danger of death that becomes more real for Jinx than for the hero of any children's fantasy series since, I suppose, Harry Potter.

I enjoyed this book's clever take on magic, the Urwald's atmosphere of dark secret concealing even darker secrets, the sharply contrasting setting of Samara with its different shade of spookiness, its crisp dialogue, and its well-focused characters. Readers will share the emotional connections between the main characters, experiencing affection, tension, frustration, grief, admiration, and many an appreciative chuckle at their wry sense of humor. With a variety of incident propelled along at a brisk pace, the book leaves you delighted by the promise of more to come.

This is the first book in the "Wizard's Apprentice" trilogy, continuing in Jinx's Magic and Jinx's Fire. Scheduled to be released March 21, 2017 is its New York-based author's next book, Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Uplight, Downlight

I've been fostering, and may possibly end up adopting, an adult cat that belonged to a neighbor who had to enter an assisted-care facility. Her name, for what it's worth, is either Priss or Prissy, short for Priscilla (not my choice, but oh well), and she is extremely black.

I'll tell you later how she's getting along with my senior cat Sinead, and what I think about having two cats in the house again, after finally realizing after 14 solid years of two-cattedness that one is the ideal number of cats to live with. But that's not what this post is about.

The late Tyrone was often mistaken for a black cat, though I always hastened to make it clear he was really dark gray - in fact, he was a couple different shades of dark gray, with tabby markings that only showed up under certain lighting conditions. Priss, however, is truly, madly, deeply black - so black, with kind of a matte finish, that even with a light shining directly on her at close range (for example, from the lamp on my bedside table while I'm combing her coat on the bed), it is sometimes difficult to see her in any detail beyond a cat-shaped shadow.

This bizarre phenomenon made me realize that our language has a crying need for two words that, to my knowledge, I am about to coin for the first time right now: "uplight" and "downlight." The conditions in which I can look at Priss and have trouble seeing anything but a black blob, even when I'm right beside her and there's a bright light aimed at us from a few feet away, are what I would describe as "uplight" - i.e., the cat is between me in the light; I'm looking at her uplight, with the angle of light casting hear near side at least partly in shadow.

The problem goes away when I'm viewing the cat downlight, when the angle of light is such that the cat isn't mostly between me and the light source. Then, particularly after being combed and petted and perhaps treated with a little kitty conditioner, her fur gleams and the light brings out her features.

On a related topic of perhaps paradoxical sensory discoveries, I tried an experiment for lunch yesterday: on one sandwich, I put a little ham, a little bologna, two generously proportioned strips of extra-sharp cheddar, and a couple of those individually-wrapped squares of floppy orange "American cheese," all between two pieces of Italian-style bread with not-quite-mayo salad dressing. And what do you suppose was the flavor that cut through everything and dominated the taste of that sandwich? It wasn't the salty, smoked ham. It wasn't the tangy salad dressing. It wasn't even the sharp, aged cheddar. It was, believe it or not, that bland, pedestrian, "imitation American flavor pasteurized process cheese food" that drowned out everything else.

It reminded me of that time, years ago, when I put a drop or two of sesame oil in a bowl of hot chili-flavored ramen-noodle soup - the kind of soup base that makes sweat pour down your face and that leaves the membranes from your lips downward on fire with a stinging sensation. Guess what? The soup totally left my membranes on fire and my face covered in sweat, but the only thing I could taste was the nice, mild, nutty flavor of sesame oil. It drove home the fact that a flavor can be perceived as mild, or even bland, yet at the same time be an incredibly strong flavor, while one that comes across as sharp, pungent, or even painfully spicy, might actually be very weak in terms of pure taste.

Another thing to learn from two slices of American cheese is that something can be all but disgustingly smooth, while at the same time not being slippery at all. There is something about the unnaturally smooth consistency of American cheese singles that gives me a slight shiver, yet at the same time, you can't rub two slices of them together without the pieces immediately sticking to each other. You can't run a slice of this stuff across a clean plate without the friction grabbing it and practically welding it to the plate's surface. It's like one of those transparent plastic decals that looks like it should be smooth, but that will cling to a glass window until you scrape it off with a razor-blade. The smoothness is all in the consistency of the thing, its internal order; the friction exists, apparently, on a microscopic order on the object's surface.

All these little paradoxes of everyday science leave a body as curious as a cat. Hopefully the curiosity won't, like, kill me.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

I Have a Review!

Many thanks to blogger Mary at Meet, Write, and Salutary for her glowing review of Useful Hymns! To my knowledge, it's the first time I've ever been on the receiving end of a book review. She also publicized the book when I first published it. The link on her review led me to the listing of my book at Amazon, which was also something I had never seen before; that's so cool!

Of course, I've never stopped finding mistakes that need to be corrected in this book, even after revising it four or five times. And I'm a little concerned to note that Amazon booksellers are offering three used copies of the book, which seems like an unhealthy proportion of the total number of copies it has sold... Another interesting discovery is the fact that you can look at practically the whole book in digitized form on Amazon. Hmph. Really, authors should never look at stuff like this!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Magic of Recluce

The Magic of Recluce
by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Recommended Ages: 14+

Lerris has grown up in the island nation of Recluce, where he finds the perfect order enforced at every level of society to be boring, and where he is constantly frustrated in his attempts to get answers about why things have to be that way. So, after his disinterest in pursuing perfection brings his woodworking apprenticeship to a premature end, he is offered a choice by the ruling Brotherhood: exile for life, or a quest across a foreign country, called a dangergeld, from which he may return only if he decides to embrace Recluce's order - and, of course, only if he survives.

After training with a group of hard-case dangergelders, Lerris ships off to the Candar, where he immediately finds himself on the run from forces that consider Recluce and its order-masters a threat to the public good. In place of the black-robed brotherhood, Candar is dominated by white wizards wielding the power of chaos, which is usually allied with evil. In spite of some help from a "gray wizard" who has learned to balance the forces of order and chaos, Lerris traces an increasingly lonely path across the continent, trying to find his own answers to the questions nobody else would ever answer for him. Meantime, he learns by painful experience that even trying to do good and increase order often results in more chaos, keeping the young man on the run with little more to aid him than a black oak staff and a tough pony named Gairloch.

Lerris has an adventure full of tension, action, magic, and a little romance. Frequently funny, now and then deeply sad, marbled with mysteries, and populated with living characters who move against a fascinating background of land and culture, it is especially notable for the rich storytelling possibilities of its unique conception of magic. The pacing is good, the dialogue is clever, and the narrative style has some stylish quirks that tend to grow on one - for example, a heavy reliance on onomatopoeic sound effects, such as "Wheeeee eeeee" for Gairloch's neighing. I would only ding the writing for a couple of glaring redundancies, like a paragraph that says the same thing twice, or a sentence that uses the same adjective twice. These are possibly the kind of goofs that happen when a writer produces a tremendous amount of material in a short time; even editors can only work so fast without missing things.

Apropos, this book's Utah-based author has published more than 70 novels by my count. He is best known for the "Saga of Recluce" series, of which this 1991 book was the first. Among the other books in the series are prequels and stories featuring other characters. The second book in the series is The Towers of Sunset, but it isn't until Book 5, The Death of Chaos, that the adventures of Lerris resume. The saga's 19th installment is due for release in October 2017. Some of his other books are the "Ecolitan" quartet, the "Forever Hero" trilogy, the five-book "Spellsong Cycle," the "Johann Eschbach" trilogy, the eight-book "Correan Chronicles," the 11-book "Imager Portfolio," and such stand-alone titles as Hammer of Darkness, Gravity Dreams, The Elysium Commission, and Solar Express.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

209. Miserere Hymn

This hymn is designed to accompany a Lenten midweek sermon series planned by the pastor at my home church, based on sections from Psalm 51 and other scriptures that he selected to accompany each evening's meditation. Let me emphasize: this is not a full paraphrase of Psalm 51. The structure of this hymn assumes the first and last stanza will be sung each week starting the Wednesday after the First Sunday in Lent, and each intervening stanza will be sung between them in turn at the corresponding midweek service, finishing the Wednesday before Palm Sunday. Noted in the headings below are the scriptures each of the five middle stanzas is meant to suggest. Because my pastor has asked me nicely to pair this hymn with a very familiar hymn-tune, I have chosen HERZLICH TUT MICH VERLANGEN (a.k.a. PASSION CHORALE) by Hans Leo Hassler, 1601.

Opening Stanza
Have mercy on me, Savior!
By reason of Your grace,
Blot out my misbehavior;
Show me a loving face!
Bathe me in cleansing water;
Wash me, oh, make me pure,
O Lamb, whose blameless slaughter
Now makes Your judgment sure!

Week 1: Psalm 51:1-4, especially 3-4a; 2 Samuel 11; Isaiah 53:9
For I know my transgressions;
My sins before me throng.
In all my indiscretions,
'Tis You I have done wrong.
You came my sins to carry;
You bore them to the grave.
My guilt with You I bury;
Have mercy, Lord, and save!

Week 2: Psalm 51:5-8, especially 8b; Job 1:6-2:10; Isaiah 53:10a
Though I may be afflicted
With wounds and losses sore,
You, Jesus, are depicted
As crushed and bruised yet more.
Your cross, Your bitter scourging
Surpass my woes in this:
By them my conscience purging,
They gain me life and bliss.

Week 3: Psalm 51:9-12, especially 11; 1 Timothy 1:12-20; Isaiah 53:8
Take not Your Spirit from me,
Nor cast me from Your face;
Though exile would become me,
Restore me to Your grace!
For my sake You were stricken,
Cut off from living flesh;
A new heart, therefore, quicken
Within me, pure and fresh!

Week 4: Psalm 51:13-15, especially 15; Mark 7:31-37; Isaiah 53:7
Unclose my lips to render
The honor due Your love,
While witness yet more tender
You bear of me above!
For, like a lamb led dumbly
Before the slayer's knife,
You held Your peace, and humbly
Resigned for me Your life.

Week 5: Psalm 51:16-19, especially 17 and 19a; Luke 19:1-9; Isaiah 53:10b
Your grieving soul was proffered
As all-sufficient price,
When on the cross You offered
Yourself as sacrifice.
So I, by grace repenting
My wrongs and rites not kept,
Enjoy, while yet lamenting,
A gift You will accept.

Closing Stanza
The pardoned now will praise You
With deep, heart-searing joy;
Unburdened souls will raise You
Hymns death cannot destroy.
Despite our own unfitness,
Weak hands and heavy tongue,
We'll bear Your mercy witness
In anthems lived and sung.