Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Bands of Mourning

The Bands of Mourning
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 14+

Six books in, the world of Mistborn is already vast to start with. With this book, a huge new dimension is added to it. Already there are the almost forgotten ages before the ascension of the Lord Ruler; then his thousand-year Final Empire; then the brief era between his downfall and the world-ending-and-recreating event that the current sequence of books calls the Catacendre; and now, some 340 years later, a new crisis is upon the planet that is actually described for the first time in this book as Scadrial (not counting extra features in the back of the previous couple of books, The Alloy of Law and Shadows of Self). A revolution is brewing, or perhaps a civil war between the outlying cities of the Elendel Basin and the ruling metropolis at its heart. An entirely different side of the world is about to reveal itself. And we get our clearest glimpse yet at a new evil that threatens the whole globe. It's exciting, intoxicating stuff - heady in the proper sense, and not just the popular misconception of the word to mean "it'll blow your mind." Though it will do that, too.

In this installment of a series of mystery adventures in an early-20th-century-ish world still haunted by the memory of super-powered heroes and villains and of mortals who became divine, a sometime frontier lawman-turned-gentleman and urban troubleshooter follows a rumor of an ancient, powerful relic into a train robbery, a hotbed of political discontent, an assassination, a top-secret facility, and finally a lost temple whose secrets may determine the fate of civilization. Meanwhile, he finds love in the most unexpected place - the woman he has already promised to marry. Count on every page to reveal a new wonder, a surprise, something exciting, funny or emotionally moving.

You wouldn't think your brain had room for all the fantastic concepts that are in play in this book, all at one time. By now, if you've been following this series, you've probably grown used to the "metalborn" magics of Allomancy, Feruchemy, and (ugh) Hemalurgy. They continue to combine in increasingly complex ways, while new forces come into the picture. Also woven into the fabric are several competing religions, most notably Pathism and Survivorism, with something wicked called Trellism lurking in the shadows and now, apparently, a fourth faith flying in over the rim of the world. God himself, as main character Waxillium "Wax" Ladrian knows him, makes an appearance that - from Wax's perspective - it would be an understatement to describe as "life-changing." The god of another religion also shows up, but not the one you're expecting to see. The Faceless Immortals, also known as kandra, need Wax's help. Wax himself, though only briefly, achieves a sort of divine status. Harmony reveals a cosmic threat that even he doesn't understand - which is scary, if like Wax you think of him as God - but after all, on Scadrial at least, the gods are only human. Finally, the snappy dialogue, the gripping action, the taut conflict laden with treachery and moral dilemmas, and the evolving relationships between Wax and his circle of characters, combine to furnish a hell of a good time. I don't care whether you understand the word broadly or narrowly: this adventure is EPIC.

In little more than a year or so, I have gone from saying I've only read one or two of Brandon Sanderson's novels to having practically read them all. There isn't one that I've read but that I would recommend it without reservation. I still look forward to getting my hands on more of his "Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians" series. But the most exciting prospect on the horizon is the fourth book in the "Mistborn Second Era" sequence, which (according to an author's note at the end of this book) will be titled The Lost Metal. It can't come soon enough!

Monday, March 19, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time

I thought highly of this book when I was in my early teens. I re-read the series it kicked off as an adult and was less impressed. I went and saw the Disney movie more-or-less based on it this past Friday night, and was seriously underwhelmed. Since then, I've received a secondhand report about an interview in which the screenwriter admitted to feeling free to hijack the message of Madeleine L'Engle's teen fantasy/romance classic, removing most of the Christianity-based material and replacing with New Agey, Oprah-ish stuff. Perhaps not coincidentally, Oprah Winfrey gets top billing in the cast, playing a character that was much less substantial in the book. Much of what made me impatient with this movie had to do with the amount of screen time devoted to Oprah's Miss Which character offering nuggets of daytime-talk-show life-coaching psychobabble to troubled main character Meg Murry. Another chunk of what made me impatient was its plodding pace and its tendency to wallow too much in touchy-feeliness. The ending of the movie in particular had that "when is this damn movie going to end" vibe, thanks to the number of individual hugs and kisses between various combinations of characters that the writing and directing team felt it required. They could have gotten the same payoff for less - and when you already can't wait for a movie to end, less is definitely more - by simply having everybody rush into a group hug and rolling credits. Even the credits were over-indulgent, though, with not just one lingering still of each main cast member, but a whole series of them. Oy vay!

The film had exactly this going for it: a cute cast (notwithstanding the unnecessary emphasis on Oprah); gorgeous photography; spectacular costumes, makeup and hairstyles; gosh-wow special effects; and the handful of scenes that it relatively faithfully duplicated from the book - like the suburb from hell, with all the kids bouncing red rubber balls in perfect unison, in a rhythm that made Charles Wallace's head hurt. But its pacing was slack and it kept pulling back from being a cosmically significant story, which was in my opinion the better part of what sold the L'Engle book. In spite of my overall dissatisfaction with the movie, I can even list three scenes that "made" it for me, to the extent that the movie was "made" for me at all: (1) Calvin, the cute boy who takes a shine to Meg for reasons she cannot fathom, tells her early in the movie that he likes her hair and she replies, "Don't. Just don't." Later, after they've been through hell together and they they pause to wash in a stream and do up her hair, he repeats his compliment and she goes all shy and demure and says, "Thank you." I loved that change in her character. (2) Charles Wallace, the genius little brother, introduces Meg and Calvin to Miss Who, the cosmic warrior who (up to a certain point in the movie, when the screenwriter seemingly quit caring) always speaks in literary quotations. Everything in that scene, from Calvin showing up and saying he had this feeling he needed to be there at that exact time and place, reminded me warmly of the book - one of the few scenes that did. (3) Michael Peña's bit as "Red," a character who increasingly appears to be a puppet guided by strings, is really eerie and menacing. And of course, I've already given up that one about the red bouncing balls.

Unfortunately, the book didn't explore the world of "Camazotz" all that much. It didn't end up having the oppressive, scary, gigantic scale I thought I remembered being conjured by the book. Too much of it was dialed down to a bit of family drama between Meg, her brother, and her dad. The climax of the movie just didn't seem all that climactic to me. And if they're going to pursue this series as a franchise, they're going to regret writing the other Murry siblings out of the script. At the end of the day, this is just another example of the principle that if you really love a book, you should pray that nobody ever makes a film out of it.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Crop of New Hymns

I described my recent "Prayer for Addiction" as the first in a new crop of hymns that I have planned as part of my projected book Edifying Hymns, the sequel to Useful Hymns. A lot has been going on lately with that book; it's coming together fast, though there is still a lot of room for it to grow. Over the past few days, I've knuckled down and developed a bunch of new texts, mostly set to existing tunes either by myself or someone else, for purposes I identified as being due for a fresh hymn treatment. So, here's more of this "crop," but don't worry; there are at least as many again to go before I have to pause and plan again. Note: The tunes for Hymns 249 and 250 are interchangeable. Also, the tune to 247 should not be confused with the better-known ST. COLUMBA. While I'm mentioning it, I acknowledge not all these hymns are of the highest quality to which my work has ever attained; 247 in particular suffered, I think, from a too-cramped meter and rhyme scheme. But as my beloved brother very helpfully says about 32 times a day, "It is what it is."
244. Prayer for the Imprisoned
Tune: DEBENHAM (Richard Redhead, 1820-88)
Lord of life, whose dying freed us
From the chains of sin and hell:
To the prisoner now lead us,
Stinting not, good news to tell.

Grant that, visiting and caring
For the least of these and worst,
We may follow You in sharing
Bread with those despised and cursed.

Open wide their inward prison,
Dark, curved in on self, enslaved;
House in them the broad horizon
Held in trust for all the saved.

Let them know the peace of living
Freed from guilt and holy wrath
By Your verdict, all forgiving,
And Your purifying bath.

Help them breathe Your Spirit daily,
Walk in light, and freely love
Till, acquitted at Your bailey,
Into boundless life they move.

245. Prayer About Poverty
Tune: HOLY DESIRE (R. D. Fish, 2014)
Jesus, Lover of the poor,
Who the widow’s penny reckoned
Not the least of gifts, but more
Than another’s castoff second,
Give them faith that firm will stand
Though to famine they be beckoned;
Feed them from Your goodly hand
Till they come to pastures fecund.

You required the rich young man
To disperse his cherished treasure,
Lest his own works-righteous plan
Bar him from eternal pleasure.
Oh, that he had to Your word
Given thought again at leisure,
On the poor his wealth conferred,
And been blessed in equal measure!

Oh, that we as well might give
As You, Lord, to us have given!
Unaware by whom we live
Or with what need we have striven,
Shall we pass the beggar by,
Striding eyes-ahead to heaven,
While an angel from on high
From our heels, unknown, be driven?

May it never be, dear Lord!
Rather, pardon us and lead us
All to live in one accord,
Feed the hungry as You feed us,
Shelther, clothe, and give to drink
E’en where mocking words precede us;
Nor of their deserts to think,
But that fellow sinners need us.

Christ, made poor that we might be
Heirs with You of God the Father,
Pour Your gifts abundantly
Where like hungry chicks we gather.
Let our powers here be bent
Toward the needs of sister, brother.
Soon throw down the heavens’ tent!
Be our wealth; we own no other!

246. Prayer for Political Leaders
Tune: EXSURGAT DEUS (R. D. Fish, 2014)
God bless the leaders of our land,
Who have their lawful office from His hand.
May they the sword with justice wield,
With equity promote the nation’s yield.

Let those who rule aspire to serve,
Nor from the course of upright duty swerve.
With honor let them hold the reins;
Let our esteem and trust reward their pains.

Let evildoers be afraid,
While prospers ev’ry good and useful trade;
So far as may be in their brief,
Let those who govern foster pure belief.

May God restrain the tyrant’s will,
Nor let the anarchist contrive our ill;
Turn back our land’s aggressive foes,
And show us means to heal our inward woes.

To God the Father, to His Son,
And to the Holy Spirit, Three in One,
We give but what from Him descend:
Pow’r, riches, wisdom, glory without end.

247. For Peace and Public Safety Officers
Tune: ST. COLUMBIA (Herbert S. Irons, 1861)
On officers of peace
Have mercy, Lord.
Their angel guard increase;
Help them till troubles cease.

As they patrol their beats,
Have mercy, Lord.
Make soft their shoes or seats
While they keep safe our streets.

With each call or alarm,
Have mercy, Lord.
In any threat of harm,
Protect them with Your arm.

On ev’ry neighborhood
Have mercy, Lord;
Restrain whoever would
Therein shed guiltless blood.

Because they are but dust,
Have mercy, Lord.
Draw weapons though they must,
Restore the people’s trust.

On their integrity
Have mercy, Lord;
As nearly as may be,
Let them be blemish free.

While they enforce the law,
Have mercy, Lord.
Upon Your gospel draw;
Forgive the sinner’s flaw.

248. For Service Personnel and Veterans
Tune: MELITA (John B. Dykes, 1861)
Commander of the heav’nly host,
Dear Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
Thrice-holy Lord, whom angels laud:
Be also earthly forces’ God!
Help them their needful task to do
With courage, strength and honor true.

Grant those who serve in every branch –
Land, sea and air – a spirit staunch,
In peace to serve, in war to fight,
To stand in darkness for the light.
In barrack as on battlefield,
Be our defenders’ hope and shield!

When they return, help those who find
Fresh battles in their flesh and mind.
The wounded limb and spirit lift;
Pour on them ev’ry holy gift.
At any peril let us prove
The strength of our respect and love.

249. Prayer to Open Church Meetings
Tune: PETERBOROUGH (John Goss, 1864)
Lord of the church, to You belongs
All that we have; not only songs
And sentiments, but all the reign.
Our counsels, therefore, now constrain
To trust Your word and hew thereto;
To learn Your will and so to do;
In blameless doctrine to concur;
To wiser voices to defer.

Keep our deliberations free
From worship of prosperity,
From pride or lust for worldly fame,
From shrinking courage or from shame,
From love of rule or fear of cost,
From small concern about the lost,
From jealous spite or party lines,
Or misplaced faith in our designs.

Let peaceful love and patience guide
The small decisions we decide,
Nor let our conduct here besmirch
The good name of Your bride, the church.
In God the Father’s mighty name,
And in the Son’s, who from Him came,
And in the Spirit’s, Three in One,
We pray: Amen, Your will be done!

250. Prayer to Close Church Meetings
Tune: O GROSSER GOTT (Stuttgart, 1744)
Lord, as from business we adjourn,
Bless our departure and return.
Our useful works by grace accept;
Make small the harm where we misstepped.
Teach, by the fruits of what we do,
That good things only come from You;
Help us to learn, all else above,
To walk and work as one in love.

Now bless and keep us by Your grace;
Now shine on us Your kindly face;
Clothed in Your Lamb’s unblemished fleece,
With favor send us on in peace.
In God the Father’s mighty name,
And in the Son’s, who from Him came,
And in the Spirit’s, One in Three,
We pray: Amen, so let it be!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Parable of the Car Cake

I recently saw a video in which an executive at a major supplier of Imitation Pasteurized Process Cheese Food (coughkraftcough) was quoted saying something to the effect that it might as well be considered cheese because it contains all the components of cheese. This rather reminded me of the claim that used to be kicked in my eyes like so much sand that certain books (coughleftbehindcough) should be considered Christian because they contain biblical themes. To what shall I compare these amazing claims? He (or she) who has ears to hear, let him (or her) hear...

Suppose I set out a huge mixing bowl and blended some eggs, milk, vanilla extract, flour, baking soda, baking powder, sugar, and a pinch of salt. Then suppose I continued to add the following ingredients: 1 cup ground aluminum steel, 1/2-cup ground cast iron, 1/2-cup shredded plastic, 1/4-cup crushed glass, 1 cup diced rubber, 2 tbsp. motor oil, 2 tbsp. gasoline, 1 tsp. antifreeze/coolant, 1/2 tsp. brake fluid, 1/2 tsp. transmission fluid, a splash of windshield washer fluid, a spritz of mercury vapor, ceramic dust to taste. Stir together and pour into a cake pan. Bake in a really hot oven for, like, ages. Test done with a toothpick. Allow to cool on a wire rack. Frost with automotive paint and sprinkle with bits of copper wire, leather zest, and a few other trace materials.

Hey, that cake contains pretty much all the components of an automobile. So, voila! I've just baked you a car!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

243. Prayer for the Addicted

This hymn is the first in a fresh crop of devotional prayer-songs on topics I have prepared beforehand to study, brainstorm, and attempt to address in an edifying way. To give you an insight into the way I work, my impetus in this instance for turning the intention into an action was an evening when I had too much of a headache to concentrate on the book I wanted to read. I made good use of the evening anyway, the same way I have employed some recent restless nights or a long weekend sick at home. Verily, tentatio is a fine seasoning for oratio and meditatio. The original tune I wrote for this hymn is titled EMANCIPATION.
You, Christ, laid hands on the afflicted,
Made paralytics walk,
Gave vigor to the lame.
Now turn Your heart to the addicted:
Their helplessness unlock;
Their broken lives reframe.

You, Christ, set free the demon-fettered,
Restored the tortured mind,
Made frenzied members calm.
Let gall and wormwood now be bettered:
The captive will unbind;
Soothe it with holy balm.

You healed the deaf, the dumb, the sightless,
And made the leper clean -
So, Christ, the Scriptures tell.
To those bound, blemished, gagged and lightless
Let this at last be seen:
Your word can make them well.

You said, "Your faith has healed, yes, saved you"
To many who in prayer
From You sought, asked and knocked.
Would that Your Spirit now revealed You
To some who hardly dare
Suppose that door unlocked!

You bade the dead arise; obeying,
They quit the bed of grief
And joined in joyful speech.
Send forth Your living voice, now saying,
"Wake from your unbelief;
Behold, your prison's breach!"

You, Christ, went bound, betrayed and beaten,
Derided and denied,
To bear our sin and curse.
The medicine here drunk and eaten,
Drawn from the death You died,
Heals all our woe and worse.

You, Christ, poured out as a libation
To pay in full our debt,
Have made salvation sure.
Now let men's cry for liberation
With cleansing grace be met;
Wash them and make them pure.

You, Son of God, Word uncreated,
Were born the woman's seed,
Our flesh and blood to raise
To God's right hand, where You are seated.
Hear now, as those You freed
Cry out in prayer and praise.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Screaming Staircase

The Screaming Staircase
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Ages: 12+

If you like your ghost stories shaken, chilled, and brewed extra-dark, this book is the first installment in a series you have to read. It features a small firm of ghost-busters in a present-day, alternate London where a plague of paranormal visitors - known as the Problem - has been a national concern for several decades. Neighborhoods are protected by rills of running water, iron plates across thresholds, super-bright "ghost lights" that go off at intervals all night, and warning bells to summon people home before nightfall. For icier, ickier manifestations that can't be staved off by standard precautions, there is also a highly competitive market for Visitor-vanquishing agencies that employ mostly children - because kids are more sensitive to ectoplasmic emanations than adults. Lockwood & Co. is like these, except that it has no adult supervision. Its founder is a mysteriously parentless, charismatic teen named Anthony J. Lockwood, and his assistants are a chubby nerd named George Cubbins and a 13-year-old runaway named Lucy Carlyle.

Together, they face down ghouls and specters, armed with a range of more or less effective anti-ghost weapons: salt, iron, silver, a bit of lavender water, and when the need is great, Greek fire, also known as magnesium flares. Unfortunately, they haven't had very good luck lately. An encounter with the ghost of a vanished socialite, whose remains have been walled up for 50 years, has left them in debt, at risk of losing their license, and in possession of a clue to a murder whose culprit is now after them. The only way they can save their struggling agency is to accept an all but suicidal job from an iron tycoon who happens to own the most haunted house in Great Britain. Combe Carey Hall, in Berkshire, not only has ghosts out the wazoo, but it continues making more with all the fury of a long-pent-up evil. And now Lockwood, George and Lucy are expected to face the dreadful Screaming Staircase and the deadly Red Room without, repeat without, their most powerful weapon - Greek fire.

I've had issues with ghost stories in the past. When I was Lucy's age, I read Stephen King's The Shining and came within two hairs of never sleeping again. At about that same time, I chucked a copy of Haunted Heartland the length of a rather long room, not out of dissatisfaction with the scares therein, but as an involuntary reflex. I remember warning my friends not to read Christopher Priest's The Prestige in bed - and that's not even really a ghost story. And I believe it was the movie Jeepers Creepers that convinced me, sometime around age 30, to make a pledge to myself never to watch another horror movie as long as I live. But I had to make an exception for a book by Jonathan Stroud, whose fiction I have so far found to be richly rewarding. I'll admit, though, I had to pace myself reading this book. When I saw the spooky part coming with bedtime only an hour or so away, I closed the book for the night and resolved to come back to it during the daytime. I wisely made sure I had time to read a couple chapters of something else between finishing this book and going to bed last night. It's not that I'm chicken, but oy gevalt! There are some dark images in this book, including the answer to why they call the Red Room the Red Room, and likewise with the Screaming Staircase.

When you get to the end, though, it's really the living who are scarier than anything. The thrills and chills are all very well, but this book also works quite well as a mystery, and it promises more of the whole package in installments to come. Meanwhile, one can also look forward to more fun repartee between the main characters, conflict with the branch of Scotland Yard that oversees paranormal investigations, and perhaps - heck, knowing Stroud, it's practically guaranteed - a build-up of drama about what is causing the Problem and where that's all headed. I anticipate shivering over every book in the set.

This is the first book of the haunted "Lockwood & Co." series, which so far continues with The Whispering Skull, The Hollow Boy, The Creeping Shadow, and The Empty Grave. There is also a novella that fits into the series somewhere, titled The Dagger in the Desk. Jonathan Stroud is the author of many exciting, scary, and magical books for young adults, all of which - this series excepted - I have already enjoyed. They include the four-book "Bartimaeus" series (The Amulet of Samarkand, etc.), Buried Fire, The Leap, The Last Siege, and Heroes of the Valley. His work also includes four children's picture books, the novella The Ghost of Shadow Vale, and some nonfiction.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 10+

Readers who love goofy, fourth-wall-breaking narration and meta-fiction gags about how mean authors are to readers will enjoy suffering through Alcatraz Smedry's meanness as he tells about his first adventure as an Oculator, in an inside-out reality in which the world we know is a deception foisted on us by a conspiracy of evil librarians. If you think guns are more advanced than swords, or that elevators are more convenient than stairs, you might have fallen victim to their disinformation campaign. Leading the fight to keep Inner Libraria from spreading to the Free Kingdoms (on continents that you won't find on any map) are members of the Smedry clan, whom Alcatraz has just met after spending most of his life bouncing from one foster home to another.

One of the things that has kept him bouncing is his secret power - all Smedrys of the true line have one. Grandpa Leavenworth (you might notice a pattern with their names) has the power of always arriving late. Cousin Sing Sing (just Sing to his friends), a collector of vintage weaponry, has the power of tripping and falling. Cousin Quentin (I'm guessing he dropped a "San" somewhere) has the power of saying things that make no sense. Bastille, a 13-year-old warrior, is like, a warrior. And then there's Alcatraz, whose secret power - breaking stuff - has only caused trouble so far. Yet on the very day he learns about the true nature of reality, he is expected to help this crack team infiltrate the downtown library and steal back his inheritance - a precious (cough) bag of sand.

It's a funny, weird, magical, world-within-a-world-building or maybe world-demolishing-and-totally-rebuilding type of fantasy, with some good action and a number of gimmicks that will make your jaw drop. And did I mention the meta? Yeah, you're going to notice that. Brandon Sanderson, I mean Alcatraz Smedry, doesn't just like to play with the reader, like an ordinary author. He likes to banter about what he's doing, sort of like how comic-book arch-villains like to make boastful speeches revealing what they plan to do just in time for their hero nemesis to stop them. But there seems to be no stopping Alcatraz (or is it Brandon) from messing with us. For more of his silly, cliché-tweaking adventures, see the sequels Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones, Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia, Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens, and The Dark Talent.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre
by Gail Carson Levine
Recommended Ages: 12+

Perry has been raised to be the perfect Lakti warrior. Her father is third in line for the throne of a kingdom that, many years ago, sought asylum from a plague of monsters in the peaceful neighboring kingdom of Bamarre - then turned on the Bamarre, conquered and enslaved them. Perry's beloved father Lord Tove despises the subjected Bamarre people for their cowardice. Little does Perry know, until a fairy sets the record straight, she is actually a Bamarre, forcibly adopted by her childless Lady Mother, after her real father was caught stealing food. Her sour-faced Bamarre nurse Annet is actually her older sister. And the perfect Lakti daughter is now, in one fairy godmother's opinion, the best hope to free the people she never guessed were her own.

Perry has her people-freeing work cut out for her. When Tove realizes what his adopted daughter is, his fury is terrifying. Perry learns that she has misjudged both of her parents - not only the always (until now) loving Tove, but also the seemingly cold and distant Lady Mother. Plus, getting the Bamarre to accept her isn't easy, and leading them to freedom is even trickier. Their peaceful, passive-aggressive manners are a difficult adjustment for her. For one thing, she is used to telling people what to do - a dead giveaway that she isn't a typical Bamarre. Her pride, her independent streak, and her habit of speaking out of turn or even contradicting those who have spoken first, put her at odds with the family she lost and found again. Only with luck, a fairy-made disguise as an elderly aunt, and some handy magical items (such as seven-league boots) will she have any chance of uniting her people in a rebellion against the treacherous Lakti. Then, she just has to face her once worshiped father (Tove, I mean) in a duel on which the fate of two kingdoms depends.

The synopsis I have just given doesn't do full justice to this magical romance, weaving together threads of multiple princess-centered fairy tales into one compelling novel. Besides the issues of racial prejudice and cultural differences, it also touches on the horror of war and the often overlooked type of courage that refuses to kill. It has dragons, gryphons, ogres, and specters in it, besides fairies and at least a hint of elves and dwarves. It also has a wonderful world in which men and women are different, but no one entertains a doubt as to their equality. Fans of Howl's Moving Castle and the animated film Tangled may get a special charge out of this story, which is obviously a companion to Levine's 2000 book The Two Princesses of Bamarre and, in a less obvious way, of her books Ella Enchanted, Fairest, and Ever.

Gail Carson Levine is also the author of Dave at Night, the six "Princess Tales" books (The Fairy's Mistake, etc.), A Tale of Two Castles and its sequel Stolen Magic, The Wish, and Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems, among other books. As I have noted before, her work is an important recent development in the reinterpretation of classic fairy tales. But don't let that word "important" scare you. It's also beautiful, heart-touching, and full of fun.

Tumble and Blue

Tumble and Blue
by Cassie Beasley
Recommended Ages: 12+

Blue Montgomery is a kid who always loses, no matter what the competition is. His dad Alan, a car racer who always wins, may not have the right perspective where it comes to raising Blue. For example, his advice to stand up to a bully results in the boy having a cast on his arm. But what really hurts Blue is when his dad drops him off at Grandma Eve's house in the off-the-map town of Murky Branch, Georgia, and drives away in the middle of the night. Blue doesn't want to accept that he's going to be living there for the foreseeable future. He argues with the kudzu-strangled population sign when it magically updates to include him. He starts training to see how fast he can run the two miles of dirt road from the town to the highway. And he tries not to get too comfortable in Grandma Eve's house - though that's not likely to be a problem, with a sudden flood of houseguests pushing Blue up to an attic filled with boxes of trophies won by the luckier half of the Montgomery clan.

You see, the Montgomerys have a thing about fate. According to family lore, a Montgomery appealed to a golden alligator named Munch 200 years ago in the heart of Okefenokee Swamp. As a result, half of the family has gifts, like the toddler who sings country music and Cousin Howard, who can eat all he wants without putting on weight. Then there are the ones like Blue, who have to live with a bad fate - such as Cousin Ida, who lives in fear of her twin sister's pet gerbils because she knows all animals hate her; another relative who is always starting fires; one who is constantly getting into car accidents; and, well, Blue. Every Montgomery knows that one person in the family has a chance, once every 100 years, on the night of an impossible red moon, to visit Munch and ask for a different fate. And now, with a red moon apparently coming up, every Montgomery wants Ma Myrtle (Eve's mother) to choose which of them will get that chance.

Blue has been trying every way he knows to change his luck, but everything he tries just gets him hurt. His friend Lily Wilson, who lives next door, calls herself Tumble and wants to be a hero, like her role model, Maximal Star; but every time she tries to save somebody, she ends up needing to be saved. One night, the two of them seize an opportunity to steal a march on the Montgomerys and follow the path of the red moon, where their friendship and their worthiness for a better fate will be tested.

This is a truly weird and wonderful book. I'm not really much into the idea of fate ruling over people's lives - but neither are the main characters, to tell the truth. Still, with that concept lying under it, this book stands up as a work of great originality, full of emotionally powerful moments and surprising imagery. It faces family relationships, friendship, grief, guilt, fear, greed, hopeless romance, self-sacrifice, and acceptance of the not-so-lucky things in one's life with courage and compassion. And crawling right through it is a chilling reptile whose cold-blooded comments add just the right tingle of creepiness, keeping the sentimental side of the story under control. I'm interested in what else author Cassie Beasley has to offer. For now, there's just her debut novel, titled Circus Mirandus.

The Countdown Conspiracy

The Countdown Conspiracy
by Katie Slivensky
Recommended Ages: 12+

Miranda Regent is 13, and she's going to Mars. I know! That's crazy, right? It's as preposterous as spy kids, a school for wizards, and a family of sparkly vampires, right? Where could this happen except in a world invented by a Young Adult author? Well, once you visit the world invented by this Young Adult author, the possibility starts to seem more like an inevitability. For one thing, peace has finally returned after a decade-long world war over who owns the swag brought home from an international asteroid-mining operation. The U.S. has come out of it smelling pretty bad. So a lot of eyebrows are raised when this girl from Ohio wins one of six spots in a program to train kids for a Mars mission specifically limited to those born after the conflict began.

Does she really deserve to be there, or did the U.S. pull strings to get her in? Even Miranda herself doesn't know, which makes it harder for her when she has to struggle to keep up with her fellow cadets at an international base in Antarctica. At least one of her classmates is pretty open about not wanting her to be there. And someone involved in the program apparently feels pretty strongly about it, too, considering the series of attempts on Miranda's life, starting from Day One of her training. Miranda feels increasingly isolated, especially after an attempt on her life kills two innocent people and causes the cadets' first leave to visit home to be canceled. Then her best friend Sasha, who almost made it into the program, falls off the planet and stops answering Miranda's texts. Pretty soon, she has no one to talk to except her pet robot Ruby, with whom she spends countless hours working on the spaceplane that the kids are supposed to take to Mars someday.

Then comes the day of the practical exam, a launch simulation, when everything goes totally pear-shaped. Thanks to a brilliant saboteur working within the program, the astro-kids face an ordeal of survival in which Miranda's engineering skills will play a crucial role.

Katie Slivensky, whose previous book The Seismic Seven depicted a group of kids racing to stop a super-volcano from erupting in Yellowstone National Park, evidently did a lot of research for this book, and it paid off. This is a terrific adventure that I think could get a lot of kids excited about the space program - any space program, not just the U.S. one. Perhaps even more importantly, it explores the feelings of a brilliant young person who finds herself struggling to meet expectations and being tested by adversity, with seemingly everyone against her and no one for her when it really counts. How she overcomes this, without becoming bitter or giving up, is an inspiring thing to behold.

Good Ogre

Good Ogre
by Platte F. Clark
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the magical realm that lies between our everyday world and the shadow realm, a middle-school aged ogre named Dwaine worries that his low score on an evil aptitude test may doom him to a career as a weapons tester. Imagine his surprise when the dark lord, the Maelshadow himself, offers him a job. Apparently, there's something only a relatively good person can do, but that Maelshadow needs done in order to complete his conquest of the Techrus. So, he transforms Dwaine the ogre into Wayne the ninth-grade football player and sends him to the same middle school in the Techrus town of Madison, where young wizard Max Spencer is struggling to readjust to being, once again, the most laughed-at, picked-on loser in town. Dwaine/Wayne shows up just on time to tempt Max to make a mistake that may doom the entire world to be transformed forever into part of the Maelshadow's realm.

Luckily, Max still has his father's book of spells, the Codex of Infinite Knowability, which gives Max some weapons to fight back with. To start, he saves a group of friends from being swept up in the Cataclysm that has turned plain old Madison into a haunt of howlers, heavily armed squirrels, and other threats. Well, they've been transformed a little bit. Max's gamer buddy Dirk has become a bard, with a talking lute that used to be (and still kind of is) Glenn the Motivational Dagger. Judo expert Sarah is, appropriately, a fighter. Several other kids from school, who happen to be into cosplaying, show up as real-life versions of their fantasy characters. But this may not be enough to get them through a middle school that has been transformed into a high-rise dungeon of doom, with a different challenge on each level (such as the Theater of Unfathomable Horror, which only plays Jaden Smith movies). At the top level is a school custodian who has been pushed just a little farther into psychosis, armed with "Mopdusa" and the ability to raise an army from urinal cakes.

You're probably thinking you see where this is going, but you're wrong. This conclusion to the "Bad Unicorn" trilogy (following Bad Unicorn and Fluff Dragon) continues there series' unbroken record of never doing the expected thing. There is a laugh on nearly every page, often from fantasy and gaming cliches turned topsy-turvy. There is pretty strong element of good versus evil, with the eyebrow-raising twist that it sometimes takes a good person to do an evil thing, and vice versa. There is a troubled hero who has to lose most of the stuff that makes him a hero before he can find the bit that really matters. There is a spellbook with a mind of its own, a formerly bad unicorn that went good and has now gone bad again, a wizard who can't stop thinking about bananas, and a door that hears people talking about breaking it down and says, "Wait a minute." The whole party of characters makes it fun. And it may just be me, but I think there's potential here for another sequel, in spite of the "third book of a trilogy" designation. If not, we can only hope Platte F. Clark will come up with another fun series soon.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Fluff Dragon

Fluff Dragon
by Platte F. Clark
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to Bad Dragon, eighth-grade wizard Max and his friends Dirk and Sarah have been sent back in time from the future - a mechanized future in which human beings have been driven to extinction - to a magical realm where the arch-mage Rezormoor Dreadbringer (nice name, eh?) wants to hunt all the dragons to extinction. Max is intent on keeping his promise to the king of the dragons, the last of his kind, to stop Rezormoor before he turns the Magrus (the magical layer of reality) into a frozen wasteland. Unfortunately, defeating him will mean taking the Codex of Infinite Knowability (a family heirloom spellbook full of awesome power) back to the place where it was written - which happens to be right where Rezormoor lives.

Could Max's quest be tougher? Yes, it could. He also has to face a dwarf king who believes it is his sacred duty to lock the Codex away in a virtually uncrackable vault. Max is also being pursued by the undead necromancers of a dark lord from the shadow realm. He gets betrayed by a friend. One of the fire kittens (don't ask) who has joined the quest is a spy for the enemy. The spirit of a dead wizard keeps appearing to offer mentoring notes, but always just too late to do any good. Before his second magical quest is through, Max will have to gain the trust of one of his deadliest enemies.

This is an adorably funny, magic- and action-filled adventure that stands a lot of sci-fi and fantasy clichés on end. It features an online role-play character brought magically to life, a middle-school bully who has taken being a monster to the next level, a zombie duck, a claustrophobic dwarf, and a dragon who has been rendered harmless in a most embarrassing way. More magic from the codex revealed. More world-building details of the Magrus are filled in. And Max achieves a new level of maturity in his journey from chubby loser to powerful wizard. In spite of some grammatical goofs the editor missed, I loved it. I think kids will like it, too.