Saturday, July 6, 2019

The Coffin Dancer

The Coffin Dancer
by Jeffery Deaver
Recommended Ages: 14+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

This is the second of 14 Lincoln Rhyme novels by the author of three Rune novels (starting with Manhattan Is My Beat), three John Pellam novels (under the pseudonym William Jefferies), four Kathryn Dance novels (most recently Solitude Creek), and other titles such as The Devil's Teardrop and The Bodies Left Behind. The next book in this series, which I plan to request from my regional public library system, is The Empty Chair.

Friday, July 5, 2019

The Golem of Hollywood

The Golem of Hollywood
by Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

This is the first of (at present) two Jacob Lev novels by the father-son writing team that has also produced (so far) two Clay Edison novels and a third on its way. The sequel is titled The Golem of Paris.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Fabricated Folk Lyric

My moments of inspiration as a pop-song lyricist always seem to come when I'm at the wheel of my car. Back in 2009, I wrote the lyrics to a Tango in my head while driving from St. Louis to Arkansas. I can't remember whether a similar case applies to my 2011 masterpiece, "The Temporal Anomaly Blues," but I was definitely trippin' when I wrote that. And last night, driving home from my parents' house at the opposite end of a tall, narrow Minnesota county, I mentally composed two-thirds of this. Mainly, what I wanted to achieve was a heart-squeezing effect when the key phrase comes back at the end with a different shade of meaning than before. If somebody wants to set this to a fabricated folk tune, I wouldn't object.

In Clover

Now golden-head, won't you come down
And leave these fragrant grasses?
We'll drink the health of London town
In leaded crystal glasses.
– Nay, blue-eyed one, thanks all the same;
For when all's said and over,
You'll have the fortune and the fame,
But I – I'll be in clover.

Now golden-head, come down to me
And leave these fragrant grasses!
We'll drink the coffee of Paree
In china demitasses.
– Nay, blue-eyed one, don't take it wrong;
For when all's said and over,
You'll have the dances and the song,
But I – I'll be in clover.

Now golden-head, for sea I'm bound
To leave these fragrant grasses.
When next I drink on solid ground,
'Twill be with New York lasses.
– Go, blue-eyed one, but mind the wave
Till you're the ocean over;
For that would be a lonesome grave,
But I – I'll be in clover.

Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows

Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows
by Ryan Calejo
Recommended Ages: 10+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

This is Ryan Calejo's debut novel. A sequel, titled Charlie Hernandez & the Castle of Bones, is set for release Oct. 22, 2019.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Dragon Reborn

The Dragon Reborn
by Robert Jordan
Recommended Ages: 13+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

This review of the third book in the "Wheel of Time" cycle is based on listening to the audiobook read by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer.

Tripwire

Tripwire
by Lee Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

Friday, June 21, 2019

Cruel Limerick

Our tongue's spelling rules beget laughter,
But weeping will follow soon aughter.
Correctly to draught
Is a treacherous craught,
To which children are led as to slaughter.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Dogs, Cats, Aliens & Robots

The Secret Life of Pets 2 – REVIEW IN PROGRESS













Men In Black International – REVIEW IN PROGRESS













Lost in Space, Season 1 – REVIEW IN PROGRESS (This review will be about a DVD of the Netflix original series, not the 1960s TV show.)

Broken Ice

Broken Ice
by Matt Goldman
Recommended Ages: 14+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Even

Even
by Andrew Grant
Recommended Ages: 14+

David Trevellyan is minding his own business, to the extent that can ever be said about a Royal Navy intelligence agent on assignment in New York City. He has just finished a job, dined alone and started walking back to his hotel when he spots a dead hobo lying in a pile of garbage. No sooner does he observe that the hobo has been executed by a professional than the police show up and arrest Trevellyan for the crime. They have an anonymous tipster's voice describing him as the guy who done it. Their case is so solid, the English consulate sends a colleague to tell him he's been disavowed. Then FBI agents show up, accusing him of killing five real hobos, besides the fake hobo he found, who is actually an FBI agent. Awkward.

If it seems a bit like the opening act of a Jack Reacher novel, you'll have spotted a family resemblence about which more will be said later. But although Trevellyan is a big, hard, highly capable guy somewhat lacking in teamwork skills (to say nothing of empathy for other people), he is also part of a bigger organization and he spends the better part of this book working alongside the FBI to solve an increasingly alarming series of crimes. At first, it seems like it's just a matter of gangsters hanging fake IDs on dead bums as part of a Social Security scam. Then a link emerges between the victims and a private security company that guards a hospital in post-war Iraq. But finally it proves ever so much bigger than a cover-up for some medical jiggery-pokery.

A team player he is not. In this fast-breaking case, however, it pays to be the guy who charges recklessly forward, rather than dotting all the Is and crossing all the Ts FBI-fashion while the evidence disappears and the bad guys get away. On the other hand, hewing to the naval tradition of "Never mind the maneuvers, just go straight at them" (plausibly if fictionally attributed to Horatio Nelson) has its risky side. Like dealing with a female psychopath who literally castrates any man who disappoints her. Like questioning a suspect whose goons are ordered to kill you if you refuse to be bribed. Like having to choose between stopping a weapon of mass destruction and saving someone you care about, because you can't do both at the same time. At least, if you're a man like Trevellyan, there's always the consolation of getting even.

Part spy thriller, part mystery procedural in which the protagonist blows up all the procedures, part case study of the making of an international action hero – especially during the thematic vignettes that head each chapter – this is a gripping, keep-you-guessing piece of entertainment with a hard-to-forget character at the center. Some of his memories of naval intelligence training and prior assignments would be entertaining enough without the main event, for which they are meant to serve as instructive examples. I especially got a kick out of the bit about an office in France where everybody was obsessed with milk. But there's a kick of another kind at the end of the book – a weapon's recoil – which leaves us free to imagine exactly what Trevellyan will do next. It's one of the tightest, toughest, most disturbing and most daring book endings in my recollection.

This is the first of three David Trevellyan spy thrillers by a British author who happens to be the younger brother of Lee Child. Not to be confused with a New Zealand-based author who goes by the same name, this particular Grant is also the author of three Cooper Devereaux novels (False Positive, False Friend and False Witness), the standalone novel Run, and the Paul McGrath novels Invisible and Too Close to Home. The sequels to this book are titled Die Twice and More Harm Than Good.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Third Gate

The Third Gate
by Lincoln Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this third novel featuring history prof and "enigmalogist" Dr. Jeremy Logan, the sometime co-author with Douglas Preston of the Agent Pendergast series takes us to one of the most haunting, and possibly haunted, places on earth: an inhospitable swamp called the Sudd at the headwaters of the Nile, where – a certain adventurer named Peter Stone believes – the greatest archaeological treasure in history lies beneath 35 feet of sucking mud and rotting vegetation. If Stone is right, it's the authentic burial site of the first pharaoh to unite the two Egypts, Narmer (3100-3050 B.C.). His tomb may even contain the original double crown, which has been depicted in lots of tomb paintings but never actually recovered.

On the downside – and this is where Jeremy comes in – Narmer's tomb sports one of the nastiest curses ever recorded. They haven't even found it yet, and weird things are already happening. It's a job made for the guy who specializes in getting to know the unknown. But this time, a rational, scientific explanation may not be possible. Logan, who apart from everything else is a sensitive empath, is picking up on an evil presence. A woman whose near death experience broke all previous records is starting to channel an angry spirit. And the little accidents that happen whenever a few people are packed into an isolated facility are getting bigger. And less accidental.

Paranormal creepiness seems to be the order of the day, any day you're reading a book authored (or co-authored) by Lincoln Child. When I first started reading his books, in alternation with Lee Child's Jack Reacher series, I worried about confusing them. I now laugh at that concern. Once you get to know them, you'll laugh, too. But quietly, lest whatever hobgoblin dwells in the nearest eldritch pit should hear and turn its evil thoughts your way. Did I just make you shiver? No? Well, I don't pretend to be a Lincoln Child, who can make you wonder whether a hero in his third adventure will survive, even when you've already read his fourth and fifth. (I'm also, as I've admitted before, bad at reading series of books in order.) Read this book all through the night, if you want to. Just keep the lights on.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Aladdin and The 15:17 to Paris

Aladdin – REVIEW IN PROGRESS!






















The 15:17 to Paris – REVIEW IN PROGRESS!!

Walking Shadows

Walking Shadows
by Faye Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

I might as well face it. I'm terrible at reading series of books in order. I skipped straight from The Ritual Bath, the first Decker/Lazarus novel, to this 25th and latest installment – mainly because the paperback was available. Meanwhile, I put in a request at the library for Book 2, Sacred and Profane, so I can get back to canon order again.

When I previously looked in on Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, he was an LAPD detective, and divorced father of a teenage girl, investigating serial rapes and the occasional murder; she was a fetching young mother of two small boys, a widow who ran a mikvah (ritual bath) at a yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish community). At the end of that book, it wasn't certain that he, a lapsed Baptist, had any chance of winning over her, a very religious Jew. But there was a gleam of hope.

Obviously, that hope was realized, because Book 25 finds them married, sorta-halfway retired in the upstate college town of Greenbury, N.Y. Their nest is empty, unless you count a junior detective with the Greenbury P.D. named Tyler McAdams, who has kind of adopted them and takes every opportunity to invite himself over for dinner. Apparently, this arrangement has been going on for a couple of books, because the Deckers have a bit of history in Greenbury by now. In the grand tradition of "trouble finds him," the veteran homicide cop finds himself dealing with one homicide after another in a town that never had that kind of trouble before.

This year's crop of murder starts with a young man from the neighboring, mostly blue-collar town of Hamilton turning up with his skull bashed in just over the Greenbury side of the town line. It hardly seems possible that Brady Neil's death could be unconnected to his father's conviction for the murder of a wealthy Hamilton couple – though the dad, Brandon Gratz, is still safely locked up. Twenty years ago, the Hamilton PD seemingly did a good job catching him and his accomplice. Now, the very fact that Decker is looking into the case puts a lot of backs up – and, quite possibly, puts another killer on the warpath.

The result is a convulted mystery in which the integrity of an entire police department comes under scrutiny. Multiple people suffer gruesome deaths. A young cop has her grit tested. A bombing, a hostage situation and some close-quarters combat ensue. I don't mean to spoil anything, but the reader should be prepared for the rather unusual possibility that this time, Peter Decker may not get his man. He'll solve the mystery, sure, but like reality, it won't be neat.

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Bone Collector

The Bone Collector
by Jeffery Deaver
Recommended Ages: 14+

Lincoln Rhyme’s career heading the NYPD’s forensic science unit ended three years ago when an accident at a crime scene rendered him paralyzed from the shoulders down, except for his left ring finger. He’s pretty much decided to kill himself, if he can find a doctor to help him do it, when a series of kidnappings and murders perks him up. Being needed by the New York Police Department can do that, I guess.

Amelia Sachs is a 30-something uniform cop who discovers a dead body on her last day of patrol duty before transferring to the department’s public affairs office. Supermodel gorgeous, afflicted with arthritis and a few self-destructive habits like fingernail chewing, and still emotionally hollow after losing her undercover vice cop lover in a worse way than being killed in the line of duty, Sachs resents being pulled into Rhymes’ investigation. But he needs someone to be his eyes, ears, hands and feet at the crime scenes – someone unburdened by the preconceptions of an experienced criminalist.

Besides putting a fresh twist on the “race to catch a serial killer” storyline, this book really shines in the scenes set in the ad hoc evidence lab set up in Rhymes’ bedroom, where he watches what the tech is doing on a computer screen and yells out orders, observations and deductions. It’s a high-pressure, fast-paced case that can only be solved by the rapid interpretation of clues left, mostly on purpose, by a monstrous nutcase with a fixation on the history of crime in New York City. And even though anyone familiar with the genre will mentally add the word “of course” when I say that the battle of wits builds to a climax in which Rhyme faces terrifying personal danger, exactly where that danger comes from is guaranteed to surprise.

Amped up with a range of vividly described horrors, tinged with character conflict between a crime solving duo here matched for the first of many mysteries, torqued by psychological perversion, and sporting at least one spectacular red herring, it’s an unputdownable first outing for a serial sleuth who, all by himself, is sufficiently brilliant and original to make readers want more. So, you’ll be happy to know, this is the first of 14 Lincoln Rhyme mysteries and the basis of a 1999 movie starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. I have previously read the only 12th, The Steel Kiss. The latest installment is titled The Cutting Edge.

Deaver also co-wrote with John Sandford the cleverly titled crossover novella Rhymes with Prey, as well as three Rune thrillers, three John Pelham novels (under the pseudonym William Jefferies), four Katherine Dance novels, several short story collections and novellas, and the standalone novels Voodoo, Always a Thief, Mistress of Justice, The Lesson of Her Death, Praying for Sleep, A Maiden's Grave, Speaking in Tongues, The Devil's Teardrop, The Blue Nowhere, Garden of Beasts, The Bodies Left Behind, Edge, The October List and The Never Game.

Friday, May 31, 2019

When the Bough Breaks

When the Bough Breaks
by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

I recently tried the waters of the Alex Delaware series of crime thrillers by plunging in at the deep end with Night Moves, the 33rd of soon to be 35 novels. I then sensibly paddled back to where I should have entered with this first book, alternately titled Shrunken Heads. Not that I would recommend taking it in this order, I learned one thing by doing so: that the crime-solving partnership between child psychologist Alex and Los Angeles police detective Milo Sturgis is going to last and last, as will Alex's relationship with (in this book) girlfriend Robin. They're going to solve a lot of crimes together. And though this book is only indirectly about the crime that brought them together, the repercussions of that case echo throughout their maiden voyage as unlikely co-sleuths.

How many ways are they an unlikely pair? To start with, one is gay and the other isn't. One of them dresses to kill and drives a Cadillac Seville, which was quite the thing back in 1985; the other always looks like he woke up in what he's wearing, and is lucky if he has a car at all. One is on the LAPD payroll, and the other is only an unpaid consultant. One of them has a master's degree in literature, while the other took early retirement from a career in clinical psychology after treating the victims of a child molester who chose Alex's office for the scene of his suicide. Their current case brings them together because a small girl seems to be the only witness to the vicious murder of a couple in the apartment across the way.

But then the trail of clues – including a third dead body – leads them to ask impertinent questions of a judge, a leading psychiatrist and a highly respected religious charity. Unsurprisingly, the Powers That Be take them off the case. Does that stop them? Of course not. In fact, Alex pursues his side of the investigation with an independence that I doubt Milo will allow in future installments. It puts him in terrible danger. It leads him to discover a network of monsters preying on children almost in plain sight, with a dark history dating back to an elite college and an even more elite island. They're the kind of places that seem to breed icky secrets, and this kind won't be exposed without the shedding of blood.

As an opening move in a long game, this is a pretty strong book. The psychological mystery is dark and disturbing. The crime thriller part is shockingly violent. Early Alex Delaware is a character full of potential for development, not just as a crime-solving partner but also as a complex individual with refined taste, keen intellect and interesting relationships. I'd like to say that if I had read this book in 1985, I would have foreseen what a strong series would grow out of it. But I was just 13 at the time, and I was more interested in Stephen King kind of stuff. The long wait gave me the pleasure of experiencing the world of 1985 again as a nostalgic tourist.

Also, the fact that I read it within weeks of a Clay Edison novel, co-authored by Jonathan Kellerman and his son Jesse, allowed me to detect a story shape that the two books (written decades apart) have in common – carnage in California leads to unsettling discoveries at an off-kilter school farther north. Maybe I'm weird to perceive a family resemblance there; I wonder what Alex Delaware would say about the sense of familiarity that led me to make that connection. Where those discoveries led, however, differed from one book to another. I'm intrigued, anyway, by the limitless possibilities of what Alex and Milo may find out in further installments of this series.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Ritual Bath

The Ritual Bath
by Faye Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the first of (currently) 25 Decker/Lazarus thrillers by the wife and mother (respectively) of fellow authors Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman. For a change, I decided to start reading this series at the beginning, and so I was plunged straight into the world of 1986, which I last saw when I was 14 years old. It's pretty much exactly like the world today, except nobody had cell phones and the Internet wasn't a thing. Headlining the mystery are a divorced Los Angeles homicide detective named Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, a devoutly religious, widowed mother of two boys who runs a mikvah (the ritual bath you've been waiting to hear about) in a yeshiva (sort of a Jewish Bible college/seminary campus) in a neighborhood widely known, in vintage 1986 political incorrectness, as Jewtown.

Fated eventually to get married and become sort of a crime-solving duo, Decker and Lazarus first meet when a woman is raped coming out of the mikvah at closing time. If she had been running on schedule, Rina might have been the victim. In spite of the immediate chemistry between them, their different backgrounds and values keep them from becoming a couple (for now) – but only by the exertion of considerable willpower. Meanwhile, Decker struggles to solve the rape case before Rina gets hurt. He has plenty of suspects: a gang of anti-Semitic punks, a former Torah learner who lost his mind and was kept on as a charity case, another learner who once dated Rina but didn't round as many bases as he wanted to, and the unknown perpetrator of a series of rapes in a neighboring community – but there are holes in all of these theories. Meanwhile, a rape case turns into a murder mystery, and as the apparent danger grows, Peter becomes convinced that Rina is the intended target.

In addition to being a police detective thriller, this novel provides an (in my experience) unusual immersion into the culture of strictly observant, orthodox Judaism. The narrative invites the reader to sympathize with Peter Decker's frustration, partly as an investigator, partly as a sexual animal but mainly as a guy who genuinely cares about a lady, while at the same time presenting Rina in a noble light as she walks the difficult path between the modern world (by 1986 standards) and an ancient religion. For religious Jews, I suppose, this book and the series it begins are an opportunity to imagine themselves as characters in a crime thriller. For most everyone else, it's a solid mystery with a curiously tantalizing romance and an immersive introduction to a seldom-visited culture and system of values. It's edutainment, with a degree of respect for a historic faith rarely seen in mass market fiction these days.

Other titles in the Decker/Lazarus series are listed here – among them, Sacred and Profane, Milk and Honey, Prayers for the Dead, Serpent's Tooth, Murder 101, and The Theory of Death.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

As You Wish

As You Wish
by Chelsea Sedoti
Recommended Ages: 14+

The Mojave desert town of Madison, Nevada, has a secret that explains everything weird about it. When we first meet good-looking athlete Eldon Wilkes, he is a month shy of his 18th birthday and his job, pumping gas at one of the few surviving full-service filling stations in the U.S., is really all about drawing visitors' attention away from that weirdness, and directing it toward the next town up the Extraterrestrial Highway, where they have Area 51 and whatnot. Personally, Eldon isn't all that excited about his upcoming birthday, which is to say his wish day. You see, every Madison native gets to make a wish on his or her 18th birthday, and provided they observe a few easily remembered rules, their wish always comes true.

Then they just have to live with the consequences. That's what Eldon is afraid of. He is all too aware that his dad wished to be the best football player in town, only to suffer a career-ending knee injury a month later. He has observed the unhappiness that resulted from his mom's wish – that her adolescent crush, Eldon's dad, would love her and her only for the rest of his life. As for the kid who ran over Eldon's little sister in the rush to make his wish – and then, by failing to wish to heal her, left her brain dead to this day – well, that kid's name is mud. Eldon knows his mom wants him to wish for money because it's her last hope to save Ebba, and he fears she'll never forgive him for not doing so.

Desperate to figure out what he wants to wish for, or even whether he wishes to wish at all, Eldon sets out on a quest to study how other people's wishes turned out. What he learns ends up reflecting mostly on how disappointing he is, not only to his parents but to his best friend, a couple of girls at his school, and pretty much everybody around him. Even as a narrator (except for a few third-person chapters reporting what he learned from other Madison residents about what they wished for), he doesn't sell himself as an altogether admirable or sympathetic guy. It makes the decision whether to root for him a complex one. But that doesn't stop his experience, and his final decision, from being exciting and emotionally powerful on multiple levels.

I spent a good part of this book silently predicting what Eldon's wish was going to be, but my guess wasn't quite on the mark. I can't say for certain whether I agree with his actual choice. By leaving that debate open, this book proves even more interesting in the end. Meantime, it touches on a variety of ethical issues, such as loyalty, gratitude, sexuality, suicide, and the pros and cons having what you want given to you versus earning it for yourself. I think readers on both the left and the right, politically, will find pages in this book that affirm their views and pages that challenge them. I think that's rather interesting, too.

This is Chelsea Sedoti's second novel for teens, following The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett. She hails from my native city, Las Vegas, Nev., which puts her in a good position to write fiction set in one of the strangest and loneliest landscapes in the country. That loneliness (alongside the strangeness) is another theme that leaves its mark on this book. I'm interested in seeing what else she's got.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Simon Bloom: The Octopus Effect

Simon Bloom: The Octopus Effect
by Michael Reisman
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the first book of the Simon Bloom trilogy, The Gravity Keeper, a boy from a New Jersey middle school becomes the keeper of the Teachers Guide to Physics, a book that controls the laws of space and time. It's a heavy responsibility for a kid, but he earns it by putting a stop to the villainous Sirabetta, who plans to seize all power in the universe by having key formulas inked on her skin. Sounds like cheating on an exam, right? Well, cheating is the least of her vices, but Simon dealt with her by turning her into a teenager (a horrible fate). Only, now she's back, and she has a team of traitors within the Order of Biology helping her out.

Together with his friends Owen and Alysha, plus some other allies (including the book's Narrator, who takes a whimsically personal interest in what's going on), Simon sets off in pursuit. Each time the two sides meet, a battle breaks out in which people fling powers derived from nature at each other – like the trio's mastery of gravity, friction and velocity, or the Octopus Powers they gain along the way. The result is some weird combat, with the outcome in doubt until the end.

Book 2 of the trilogy, this book is followed by Simon Bloom: The Order of Chaos. Since all three books came out over a three-year period about a decade ago, I guess they're all there is to the series. It's an interesting brew, bringing some of the off-the-wall goofiness of Lemony Snicket to a more mature audience, with lots of educational details sneaking in under the cover of fantasy action and cosmic danger. The large cast of characters seems unwieldy at times, and the book might perhaps suffer from just an eensy-weensy case of middle-of-a-trilogy-itis. However, it probably helps to read the books closer together than I have. Meantime, the author's bio claims that he gets paid for writing book reports. I would totally go for a job like that.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Pokémon Detective Pikachu – Yes, I actually saw this last night. I've never seen, read, or played anything to do with Pokémon before, unless you count reading Brandon Sanderson's Codex Alera which, fan lore has it, he created as a stunt to show that he could combine the two stupidest fantasy memes of all time (Pokémon and Lost Roman Legion) into a thrilling epic. I can definitely see the resemblance between the furies of Sanderson's conception and the Pokémon (which I believe is derived from an Engrish expression meaning "pocket monsters") that live alongside humans in the city depicted in this movie. Outside that city, Pokémon are hunted, captured, and trained to fight each other in cockfight-like combats in which each breed's unique abilities are exploited. In Ryme City, humans bond with their Pokémon partners to live as equals – although no one can understand the gibberish Pokémon speak.

Along comes Tim (played by Justice Smith of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), a young man from another city who was obsessed with Pokémon as a child, but who has a mysteriously tragic track record when it comes to partnering with them. His dad, a detective with the city police, has supposedly been killed in a car wreck, but his body is missing and Tim isn't sure he's really dead. Adding a blend of tension, laughs and cuteness to the picture is his dad's Pokémon partner, a Pikachu (you know, one of those adorable, fuzzy Pokémon that have a crooked tail and a talent for hurling lightning bolts), who has no memory of anything from the accident forward and whom Tim, for some reason, can understand even though nobody else can. Adding more tension, comedy and a touch of romance is an ambitious cub reporter (played by Kathryn Newton of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) who is after the truth. The picture also features Bill Nighy, Ryan Reynolds and Ken Watanabe.

Overall, I found this flick refreshingly lightweight and full of uncomplicated fun. It has good special effects, gorgeous scenery – the effects in the scenes depicting life in the streets of Ryme City must have cost an emperor's ransom – and the humor, action, and mystery hit all the right marks. As an introduction to the world of Pokémon, it gives me an idea of why so many people find the anime/video game/trading card creatures so engaging. But even understood as a free-standing fantasy film, it came across really well, I think.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Pikachu gets injured in an accident, and Tim's concern for him becomes quite tender. (2) Tim enters Pikachu in a fight against another creature in the hope of squeezing some information out of its trainer – but the little guy can't remember how to use his powers. (3) The hero group's visit to the creepy lab where Mewtwo (a clone of the Ur-Pokémon) escaped the night Tim's dad disappeared. Lots of weird creatures! Fantasy ideas stretching quirkiness to the edge of the bizarre! People blithely accepting the patently ludicrous going on all around them! What fun, eh?

Night Moves

Night Moves
by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis are an unusual crime-solving team. Delaware is a child psychologist who doesn't really have to work, if he doesn't want to, and at best an unpaid consultant with the Los Angeles Police Department. Sturgis is a full lieutenant who, partly due to homophobia and partly due to getting crosswise with LAPD politics, has his own airless closet of an office and the freedom from administrative responsibilities to actually work homicide cases. Anyway, the odd arrangement works; together, they have an awesome record of closing cases. And it's weird how often their specialties intersect. In this case, for instance, a dysfunctional family in an affluent neighborhood comes home from dining out to find a strange man dead in their den. As a family, and as individuals, they're a psychological case study. As witnesses, and potentially victims, they may have a connection to the killer – something to explain what brought the dead guy to their neighborhood and why the killer chose to leave him where he did.

While Alex tries to get the family at the crime scene to open up to him, Milo's gaze lingers on the creepy dude next door – an independently wealthy recluse with a history of creating disturbing comics, and who seems to have some kind of hold over a mentally challenged girl. A two-timing husband, a missing wife, a mysterious teenager, an altruistic risk-taker, and multiple people living multiple lives become pieces of a puzzle splashed, by the end, with the blood of multiple victims. And the key will turn out to have been right in front of Milo and Alex from the start. Funny how that happens, eh?

For the warm climate it's set in, this psychological murder mystery has some chilling moments. It showcases some solid police work, but even more interesting, it conjures believable characters whose personalities come so vividly to life that their faces and voices register in the reader's mind. For example, the retired musician who keeps making passes at Alex's instrument-maker wife Robin, right in front of him and while helping with his case, is an entertaining presence that lingers throughout the book in spite of the brevity of his part in it. Whatever else he was when he started out, Kellerman has become a novelist of character, who can make an entire street become a real place and the people in it our neighbors. This makes the monster altogether more threatening, and the work of people like Sturgis and Delaware that much more urgent. It's a class act.

This is the 33rd Alex Delaware novel out of, as of this writing, 34 and another on its way. It also happens to be the first book that I have read in this series of psychological thrillers. It's usually unlike me to start toward the end of a long series and work my way back, but sometimes needs must, etc. The series starts with When the Bough Breaks, a.k.a. Shrunken Heads (which I just put on request at the library), and includes such provocative titles as Devil's Waltz, Doctor Death and The Murder Book. Kellerman is also the author of the Petra Connor novels, one of which I have read, and the co-author with his son Jesse Kellerman of the Clay Edison novels, two of which ditto. I'm now planning to work my way through the lot of them.

Deep Storm

Deep Storm
by Lincoln Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

Lately, I've been doing a lot of that thing I've always tried to avoid – starting long series of books in the middle or toward the end. So, this first book in the Dr. Jeremy Logan series is actually the third installment that I've read. It was therefore interesting to discover that, while this is Book 1 of 5 featuring him, he only appears briefly and in a supporting role. Apparently, the idea of Jeremy, a Yale history prof who is so open-minded about unexplained phenomena that he's been stuck with the epithet "enigmalogist," caught fire in his creator's mind, and he got promoted to central protagonist of a whole series of books. So, for those like me who joined the storyline late and went backwards, it's a bit of a surprise to find out that the hero is a guy named Peter Crane, a medical doctor with experience dealing with the maladies of U.S. Navy personnel on highly classified submarine missions. You have to admit, though, that other than the bit where Jeremy's skill set comes in handy, this creepy, paranoid, otherworldly thriller set deep beneath the ocean is rather in Peter's wheelhouse.

No one will tell him what the job is really about when he arrives at the oil drilling platform off the coast of Iceland. After signing wads of paper swearing him to secrecy, Crane descends thousands of feet to a super-secret research facility where even the highly skilled scientific experts are only 50 percent trusted to know what's going on. Actually, that's probably a high figure. At first, even Peter isn't given much information about the medical mystery he has been hired to solve. Whatever is going on past the checkpoint where anyone without the proper clearance will be shot, it has some military guys seriously hot and bothered. Nevertheless, things seem to be falling apart, medically and psychologically, for a lot of people at once. Eventually, Peter learns that what the facility is excavating out of the sea floor isn't the lost city of Atlantis, as he was originally allowed to think, but something far deeper, far stranger – and, ironically, far less ancient. In fact, there is a written record of an eyewitness to its arrival (hence Jeremy's involvement). What could this technology from above the heavens, until now lying silently below the earth's crust, possibly do? Why has it awakened now? And what, the military guys wonder, could the U.S. of A. do with it?

Peter and the people he trusts grow increasingly certain that whatever it is must be left alone. But they're up against some dangerously loony folks, at least one of whom isn't above a little murder. What bubbles out is an intense chiller-thriller, haunted by an interesting combination of our oldest, darkest fears. If the thought of what came from above doesn't make you shudder, just think about what lies below in the crushing darkness, and what it might be used for, and what it would do if it were ever unleashed. And then consider this: because there is no Dr. Peter Crane series, how do you know the hero is going to make it? You don't, do you? Am I going to tell you? Nuh-uh. Enjoy your all-night cringe-fest, with a healthy-sized portion of heartbeat-quickening action and an ending that will leave you wondering whether you should call the President for a heart-to-heart, just on the off-chance it's all true. Ha, ha! I'm laughing at you. But also, I'm adding "deep sea exploration" to my list of experiences I hope never to check off. Because it pays to be mentally prepared.

In case you haven't read my other Lincoln Child reviews, he's the co-author with Douglas Preston of almost 20 "Agent Pendergast" novels. I believe I read the first book, The Relic, back when it was the only one (like, 1995), and found it super-creepy; I also remember seeing a movie based on it. Child's other Jeremy Logan books include Terminal Freeze, The Third Gate, The Forgotten Room and Full Wolf Moon, while his other solo titles are Utopia and Death Match. Books by the pair of them also include Gideon's Sword, Old Bones and The Ice Limit, among many others.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Killing Floor

Killing Floor
by Lee Child
Recommended Ages: 15+

Lee Child is the author of something like 24 Jack Reacher novels, of which this was the first, way back in 1997. The latest, Past Tense, is currently on the paperback rack at retail stores everywhere; another, Blue Moon, is scheduled for release Oct. 29, 2019. Because I didn't start reading this series at the beginning, I already had an idea of what Child was talking about in the preface to a recent re-release of this book, describing how he came to write it, and to create the character of Jack Reacher.

Before plugging this book, I'd like to plug that Author's Note as one of the clearest, most informative and most interesting statements of the intentions behind a well-established literary creation. The elevator summary of it goes something like this: Upon being fired from the BBC, the previously successful British TV writer moved to New York and decided to give novel writing a try. But he wasn't interested in the vulnerable, wounded hero type of protagonist that was then in vogue – the guy with a tortured conscience, an inadequacy complex and a piece of shrapnel lodged a quarter-inch from his heart. Rather, he wanted to read, and therefore he decided to write, about a man of superior strength and ability, with no emotional ties, beholden to no higher authority than his own sense of rightness, who sees the big man sticking it to the little guy and puts him down without remorse. He wanted a hero who always wins. And against all probability, against the advice virtually anyone would have given him had he asked, it worked. It works.

It all started with a first-person narrator walking 14 miles in the rain, after midnight, down a stretch of lonely Georgia highway. He arrives at a spruce little diner on the edge of a town called Margrave, orders coffee and a plate of eggs, and has only just been served when almost the whole local police force shows up waving guns and screaming at him. Jack Reacher is arrested for murder – funnily enough, he must have walked right by the victim's body in the rain.

Because it's the weekend, and because the local jail doesn't have overnight cells, he and another dubious suspect get bused to the nearby state penitentiary, supposedly to be stashed in the nice guest rooms reserved for guys who haven't been charged with anything. Somehow, for some reason, they get put in the same cell block as the really bad, bad guys. Attempts to rape and murder them follow as promptly as you please. The other guy has a theory about why this is happening to them, but he's so scared about it that he won't tell Reacher much. Only because Reacher is a tougher SOB than the really bad, bad guys do they live to catch the bus back to Margrave. It turns out their alibis stood up.

But then more bodies start to drop, including the corrupt local police chief. Also, the first victim's identity comes back and it's such a shock that I don't want to spoil it, although that's going to make writing the rest of this synopsis rather hard. Reacher decides to stay and help the chief of detectives (who isn't from around those parts) and an attractive lady cop, who are among the very few people in Margrave that he trusts. His motives differ from theirs a little bit. He has a personal stake, now, in busting the heads of the people who have been trying to either kill him or frame him for murder since he arrived in town. There is a criminal conspiracy afoot, involving too many people who should know better, and a few people who take a sick pleasure in torture and killing. There are innocent people who need protecting. And there is a certain person Reacher feels honor bound to back up, to the bitter end and beyond.

If you know what the phrase "killing floor" means, you will recognize the scene this book's title refers to when you come to it. Suffice it to say, this is an ultra-violent piece of entertainment in which the hero, when asked how he feels about all the people he just killed, says something like, "How do you feel when you put down cockroach powder?" He doesn't linger over their deaths, so if you're looking for those kinds of sick jollies, shop elsewhere. But he dispenses a kind of justice that strikes swiftly and efficiently, seldom leaving time for second thoughts. He protects the girl, even though the news that it doesn't work out between them comes as no surprise.

He passes over Marburg like an avenging angel, and passes on, leaving the town altered out of all recognition but – this is a spoiler only if you don't recall there are 23 more Jack Reacher books to go – he most assuredly leaves. Sure, there are close calls. There's plenty of conflict. There are scenes of gripping suspense and genuine horror. But in this thriller, a unique part of the thrill is knowing that the outcome is all but assured, and watching it come out just so. The directness, the toughness, the uncomplicatedness of Jack Reacher is, in a word, refreshing.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman – I saw this movie on DVD with my brother and sister-in-law, while visiting their house for the weekend. I had already seen some of Gal Gadot's portrayal of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in Justice League, and wouldn't have expected the movie to be so good after seeing the CGI battle extravaganza that is Aquaman. But in spite of some action sequences that I didn't find altogether visually convincing, I liked the heart of this movie – at bottom, the story of a young woman who leaves a very sheltered environment to seek adventure in a world full of dangers beyond her imagination, and who meets every challenge because she also has powers she never suspected. The reason she never suspected them may seem implausible to folks who are unacquainted with the inherent stupidity of comic book characters, who chronically keep secrets from each other, leading to conflict and alienation, because life apparently wouldn't be interesting enough if they learned from past mistakes. The reason she has the powers is another story, which I decline to tell you right now because it would spoil too many fun surprises.

Diana's adventure unfolds during World War II, which she only finds out is going on when an American pilot, working for British intelligence, crashes a German fighter off the coast of her hermetically sealed island. I forget the name of the island, except that when you hear it, you're tempted to say "Gesundheit." Everybody on it is female and, apparently, Greek, although they look and sound like they come from all kinds of places. Seeing a dude for the first time is quite an eye-opener for Diana, especially one who looks like Chris Pine, but then a bunch of German bad guys follow him through the dome of invisibility that protects Themiscyra (there it is, and thanks for the blessing), and suddenly Diana feels called to do battle against the ancient god of war, who she feels is behind everything that's going on in the outside world. If only she can get that guy, she reasons, the world will become a peaceful place. Meanwhile, Steve Trevor needs to get back to Whitehall to tell the war cabinet what he has discovered about the plans of a fiendish German general and the chemical warfare maven he keeps by him, a scary lady who covers her disfigured face with a partial mask.

Next thing you know, Steve and Diana are joined by a group of misfits on a mission that, from his point of view, is all about preventing the release of a weapon that could kill millions, while from her point of view, it's all about killing Ares. As they get closer to their goal, Diana kicks rapidly mounting quantities of ass, and the regard between the two grows into love. But they reach the limit of the amount of ass that can be productively kicked on an airfield where the god of war finally reveals himself, and the only way to move forward is – well, pretty sad, in an admirable and uplifting way.

So, it's altogether a pretty good superhero movie, maybe better in some ways than most of the ones I've seen in the last year or two. Besides the very attractive hero couple, the movie also features Robin Wright (The Princess Bride, Unbreakable), David Thewlis (Harry Potter 3, Timeline), Danny Huston (who has also played Poseidon and Viktor Frankstein), and Connie Nielsen (Gladiator, One Hour Photo). Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Diana, openly staring at a very naked Steve, asks, "What is that?" He looks down for a split second, then realizes what she means and says, "Oh, that's a watch!" It's an adorably awkward moment, with a giggle-worthy shot of innuendo. (2) The hero couple's parting conversation being drowned out by background noise – then replayed, as a memory, with the dialogue audible. (3) A group of people running across no-man's land, protected from a hail of machine-gun fire by a couple of bulletproof bracelets. I think it was just before this scene when my brother turned toward me and said something like, "It's about to turn into a great movie."

Monday, April 29, 2019

Possession

Possession
by Kat Richardson
Recommended Ages: 15+

Seattle private eye Harper Blaine doesn't like spirit mediums, which is kind of funny, considering that she sees dead people. Nevertheless, she learns to respect one in this adventure, when they are brought together by a client whose sister has been exhibiting weird symptoms while lying in a persistent vegetative state. For example, the sister sits up in bed, grabs paints and a brush, and creates photo-realistic paintings of a place that nobody in the house can remember seeing before – yet that strikes Harper as familiar, somehow. It's like watching a marionette being controlled by a puppeteer.

Harper's investigation leads her to two more strange cases of local people who fell into persistent vegetative states around the same time, and who also seem to be calling out for help. Being a greywalker, in touch with the denizens of the Other Side and the In Between, Harper notices that there is a lot of abnormal ghost activity surrounding these people. This only adds to the weirdness of the behavior of three people whose condition, all by itself, is so rare that it shouldn't be statistically possible to find three such patients in a city the size of Seattle. Apparently, somebody, by which I mean something, is getting ready to make a big move in the gray (or rather, Grey) area between life and death, and it's probably going to mess things up for the people living (or not living) on both sides.

Meanwhile, Harper's main squeeze is having daddy issues. Quinton's dad is a super spy who has gone off the reservation, and is now trying to develop a project involving supernatural beings. While Quinton tries to sabotage whatever nefarious plot his father has in hand, Harper also receives a summons from one of her past clients, now the alpha vampire of the SeaTac metropolitan area, who is concerned about the disappearance of a, how do you say, pre-chrysalis vampire. Someone, somehow, has subverted the up-and-coming vamp's loyalty, creating a dangerous situation for the urban undead. As Harper's two lines of investigation become increasingly intertwined, she finds herself partnering not just with a genuine medium but also with a creature of the night, whom anyone would rather have as an ally than an enemy.

So, the dead and the undead of Seattle are definitely showing signs of great disturbance; and when they're disturbed, you're disturbed. Try it, and you'll agree. While Harper juggles romance, friendship, and the maintenance of a frisky pet ferret with her responsibilities as the guardian on the living side of the Grey, she must also race against the rapidly closing window of survival on three desperately imperiled victims, the swift approach of a soul-devouring evil, and whatever despicable thing her sort-of-father-in-law has planned. Plus, she has it on the authority of an immortal necromancer that simply killing the jerk won't solve anything. She's dealing with deep magic, and as the manifestations in the old part of town grow grimmer, she realizes that the world as she knows it is in deep trouble. It's the kind of challenge Harper Blaine has often risen to, and rise to it she does again, with a passion and urgency lightened by just the right amount of dry wit. Monsters take note: don't mess with this girl.

This is the eighth of nine Greywalker novels, combining private detective fiction with the paranormal. The next (and to date latest) installment is Revenant.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame – This sequel to that Avengers movie that killed off half of the known universe - but, coincidentally, not one member of the Avengers - brings to an end the storylines of some of the current Marvel film franchise's storied heroes, but otherwise sets everything to right. I mean, how could it not? Other, that is, than not happening at all and just leaving the observable universe, and Marvel superherodom, in the very depressing place where it was at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. Which was almost depressing enough to make me decide I didn't care to watch another Marvel Cinematic Universe flick, ever. But I went to this, partly because my parents went to it after taking me out to dinner and we were traveling in their car, so I could only have avoided going it at the expense of Making a Scene. Which, at the time, just didn't seem worth the effort.

I went and saw it, but was surprised by very little that I saw. I could have predicted – and in an internal way, I kind of did predict – pretty much exactly what happens in this movie. Like I said, "How could it not?" How could time travel not be involved? How could it not be fraught with unintended consequences? How could there not be a climactic battle, starring everybody in the Screen Actors Guild who isn't under contract to DC? How could the recovery of most (but not quite all) of the heroes lost in Infinity War take place without the sacrifice of a few of those who had survived? And how could the boss battle not be depicted on a scale rivaling the Battle of Five Armies in The Hobbit Part 3, with all the requisite artifact of too many too-tiny CGI animated figures duking it out across a too-large canvas? How, indeed?

Sigh. I'm going to skip now to the Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Ant Man: "Somebody peed in my suit." Belly-laugh funny. (2) Capt. America, after knocking himself out in a time-travel assisted scene: "That *is* America's ass." (3) Tony Stark's moment (also via time travel) with the guy who was about to become his dad.

And now the Three Scenes That Un-Made It For Me, because I'm just too sick of this by-the-numbers crap to play nice right now: (1) The endless series of fake-out endings, stealing another unfortunate bit from the third number of a Peter Jackson/Tolkien trilogy. (2) Fat Thor. (3) Chris Pratt's character being treated as such a useless, like, prat. I haven't even seen any of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and I felt vicariously slapped in the face. I could actually go on, because there are more, but I said there were going to be three, but actually, Thing 1 and the aforementioned predictability of it all pretty much reduced my entire evening's enjoyment to a couple of belly laughs and one moment of misty-eyed emotion. If this is the current state of myth making, I want to go back to the Greek.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Die Trying

Die Trying
by Lee Child
Recommended Ages: 15+

The security cam footage will show, in one-every-10-second stills, a tall, muscular guy grabbing FBI Agent Holly Johnson as she hobbles out of her dry cleaner's with a crutch supporting her bum knee and a week's worth of laundry slung over her shoulder.

The tall guy, identified later as a recently discharged major in the Military Police with a spotless 13-year record in the U.S. Army, is obviously the ringleader of the group of thugs that kidnaps Holly and whisks her out of Chicago, leaving only a burned-out car, stolen, with its owner burned along with it in the trunk, as a clue. That and, a few days later, a dead bad guy left in a ditch several states away.
No demands have been made. For the team of Feds desperately seeking clues to Holly's fate, the list of unanswered questions is blowing up. For example, what could this G.I. Joe type – Jack Reacher is his name – possibly want? Why would a guy whose longtime commanding officer swears he would not do such a thing, do such a thing?

It's all very mysterious. I mean, it's not like they're supposed to believe that Jack Reacher just randomly happened to cross paths with Holly Johnson at the very moment she was kidnapped – that he was brought along for the ride by a bunch of not-too-bright crooks out of sheer, spur-of-the-moment desperation – and that no one could have chosen a better good guy to have Holly's back when she's surrounded by bad guys. Right?

And then it turns out that Holly is very important to someone very important. And then it turns out that Holly is very, very important to someone very, very important. And then it turns out that someone on the off-the-books, multi-agency mission to save Holly is working on the other side. And then it turns out that ... just forget about it. The surprises keep coming, hard and fast. And Jack Reacher keeps coming at their captors, even harder and faster, with a lethal efficiency that would absolutely make you cringe if you didn't think they deserved it, and that will possibly make you cringe anyway.

As I continue to learn, Lee Child writes his Reacher novels with a brutal directness that has a certain appeal. It's wish-fulfillment fantasy that works, apparently, because it's the kind of writing that fulfills its author's wishes – and he's not all that different from many of us. It's fiction that tantalizes you with the danger threatening admirable people, then rewards you with the demise of despicable people. It's fiction revolving around a hero whose inner life is not particularly logjammed with emotional conflicts.

He's a man of simple needs, wandering his country (where he has spent little time until his discharge a few months ago) with little more than the clothing on his back, staying nowhere more than a few days, troubled by few pangs of conscience (even after ending a man with his bare hands), preoccupied by a few simple desires (like the touch of a beautiful woman), and willing to, as the title suggests, "die trying" to save her, even if he can't have her.

Also, he's a man who can look at a gun and tell you everything about it in a few crisp sentences. I'm not exactly a gun nut; I can just about tell the difference between a rifle and a shotgun, if the lighting is good. But I found the edifying currents in Reacher's stream of consciousness quite enjoyable, and the highlight of the book for me – a passage that I used, successfully, to secure my dad's interest in the series – is a shooting contest between Reacher and the boss bad guy, whose agenda is so over-the-top villainous that I'm too embarrassed to describe it. Let's just say that, predictably, he dies trying something, to the great enjoyment of many, including me.

For some reason, when I read Persuader, I was persuaded that it was the first novel in the Jack Reacher series. So, when I asked the person at the library circulation desk to put the second book on request for me, I got this – which is correct. I didn't know then, nor did I know while reading this book – in fact, I only found out just now, while doing my own little bit of online research for this review – that while this really is the second book, I haven't read the first book, which is Killing Floor, and that Persuader is all the way down the list at No. 7. But as the 24th book in the series is coming out later this year, I guess I have plenty of time to catch up.

Monday, April 22, 2019

How to Catch a Bogle

How to Catch a Bogle
by Catherine Jinks
Recommended Ages: 11+

Welcome to a Dickensian underbelly of London where missing children often turn out to have been eaten by monsters known as bogles, which haunt chimneys and sewers. Here young Birdie McAdam scratches out a living as an apprentice to a veteran bogler named Alfred Bunce. Combining Birdie's tireless, tuneful voice with a quick thrust from Alfred's demon-slaying spear, the pair makes short work of these nasties.

In another era (say, that of Jonathan Stroud's "Lockwood & Co." thrillers), it would be a prestigious line of work. In Birdie's time, it's regarded as the kind of pest-removal service whose purveyors are let in by the kitchen door, sometimes known only to the servants. They are the saviors of chimney sweeps, scullery maids, and the muckers who pick through whatever washes ashore along the Thames. Who is going to listen to them when they discover that behind the latest plague of ghouls stands a respectable doctor, bent on summoning evil spirits to do his bidding? Things that crawl out of uncovered wells and sooty flues are scarcely more chilling than a human monster who sacrifices children to his own desire for power. And now, Birdie stands in his way.

Besides being a thrilling, funny and mildly romantic story – with a pickpocket on one hand and a mudlark on the other vying for Birdie's affections – it's also a nifty primer on lower-class London slang (there's even a glossary at the back) and a vivid picture of 19th century English urban life, only with scaly critters added. It plumbs such dark spaces of the imagination as being locked up in a lunatic asylum, being dangled as bait in front of a child-eating horror, and being squeezed into a starchy dress by a prim lady who wants you to grow up nice and proper. Imagine being given the choice between them. Also, the lyrics of the songs that Birdie sings are hysterical.

This book, a.k.a. A Very Unusual Pursuit, is the first book of the City of Orphans series. It continues in A Plague of Bogles (a.k.a. A Very Peculiar Plague) and The Last Bogler (a.k.a A Very Singular Guild). Catherine Jinks is the Australian-Canadian author of the four-book Pagan Chronicles, the Allie's Ghost Hunters quartet, the Cadel Piggott/Evil Genius trilogy, The Reformed Vampire Support Group, The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group and loads of other titles for teens and younger.

Full Wolf Moon

Full Wolf Moon
by Lincoln Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

When Yale medieval history prof Jeremy Logan tries to take a break from his second career as an “enigmalogist” – explainer of the unexplained – he finds himself at an artists’ retreat in the Adirondacks, working on a scholarly monograph about heresy. Nevertheless, the pursuit of things that go bump in the night – or, in this case, things that howl at the full moon – comes to him, in the form of an old college chum who now works as a park ranger.

Randall Jessup suspects that the mauled victims found in the woods after the last couple of full moons are the doing of something with the intelligence of a man and the savagery of a wild animal. Logan isn’t quite so ready to sign onto the werewolf theory, but when his friend becomes the next victim, it gets harder to look away.

Risking getting kicked out of the quiet sanctuary of Cloudwater, Logan finds himself circling the edges of a police manhunt that may have something more than man out in front of it. Could the killer be a psychopathic killer who was recently discharged from a criminally insane ward into the very area of the murders? Could he have something to do with an inbred clan that lives behind a woven wall in the backwoods, and whom the locals suspect of having a hairy secret? Could it be related to a research station conducting secret animal experiments on the fringes of science? Or maybe all of the above?

Whatever the truth is, it will (naturally) put Logan and others in terrifying danger on a series of full-moon nights – because monographs aren’t written in a day, you know – amid the gorgeous scenery and, in the dark at least, unnerving quietness of upstate New York’s parkland. Secrets within secrets, moon sickness, paranoia, isolation and anger all do their part to make a stretch of forest road a deadly place to be while one guy, no stranger to being dismissed as a fringe maven, strives to reconcile the unbelievable with the undeniable, the fantastic with the real. It all cooks up into a rich stew of eeriness, weirdness, suspense, freakish terror, outlandish outlines and (more or less) believable details.

This is Book 5 of the Dr. Jeremy Logan series, coming after Deep Storm, Terminal Freeze, The Third Gate and The Forgotten Room. The author, not to be confused with Lee Child, is half of the "Preston & Child" writing duo, along with Douglas Preston. Together, they have written the 18-book Pendergast series and the five-book Gideon's Crew series, besides a handful of stand-alone books. By himself, Lincoln Child is also the author of Utopia (a.k.a. Lethal Velocity) and Death Match.

The Forgotten Room

The Forgotten Room
by Lincoln Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

Dr. Jeremy Logan is a professor of medieval history at Yale, but most people know him from his highly publicized sideline, in which he styles himself an “enigmalogist.” That’s where he travels the world, separating truth from superstition and getting to the truth behind legends and lore. The Loch Ness monster? Check. Bigfoot? Vampires? Werewolves? Abominable snowmen? If they’re really out there, he knows about it first-hand.

But now, he has been asked back to Lux, an elite policy institute tucked away on the Rhode Island seashore, where he was briefly a research fellow years ago, until another faculty member had him kicked out for lacking scientific rigor. In spite of their reservations about his field of interest, the fellows at Lux need Logan now. They need someone they can trust to be discreet, someone with an open mind, someone with the skills to explain the unexplainable.

Why? Because one of their most sensible, even-tempered fellows recently lost his mind, attacked another staff member, then committed suicide in a very gruesome way. Several other faculty members have experienced strange and ominous phenomena. It all seems to date back to the re-opening of the long closed west wing of the Lux building, originally the home of an eccentric millionaire whose family had a history of tragic happenings. Could the place be haunted? Could it have something to do with a room that Logan discovers on the second floor of the west wing, a room not on the official blueprints?

Logan digs deeper, because that’s what he does. Inside that room – which has no apparent way in or out – is a mysterious device built during a project that was abandoned decades ago. Files relating to the project are missing from Lux’s archives. Anyone who learns what it was about seems to fall victim to a tragic accident. The more Logan closes in on the secret, the more dark, diabolical and deadly things happen in and around Lux until a literal and figurative hurricane of violence comes ashore.

Paranormal or not, this book is unmistakably a thriller. Part of its edginess, though, comes from how long it takes to spot whether it's paranormal or not. The truth is so chilling that the initial hypothesis – killer ghosts – might actually be tame by comparison. And while Logan isn't exactly a take-no-prisoners action hero – he is, after all, a history prof who talks to his dead wife when no one else is around – his persistence in getting to the bottom of things is bound to get him into the kind of trouble that kept this reader, for one, hanging on with a white-knuckled grip, straight through the night.

This is Book 4 of the Dr. Jeremy Logan series, which also includes Deep Storm, Terminal Freeze, The Third Gate and Full Wolf Moon. The author, not to be confused with Lee Child, is half of the "Preston & Child" writing duo, along with Douglas Preston. Together, they have written the 18-book Pendergast series and the five-book Gideon's Crew series, besides a handful of stand-alone books. By himself, Lincoln Child is also the author of Utopia (a.k.a. Lethal Velocity) and Death Match.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Boy Who Knew Everything

The Boy Who Knew Everything
by Victoria Forester
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to The Girl Who Could Fly, buoyant Piper McCloud has led her little band of misfits back to the farm where she started life, after their escape from an awful institution devoted to squashing the super-powers out of very special kids. Serving as co-leader of the group is Conrad Harrington III, a super-brilliant boy who feels the life go out of him when he realizes that his father, who rejects his very existence, is about to become President of the U.S. But he doesn't have long to mope, with a series of disasters threatening thousands of lives and the government doing less than nothing about it.

Before they get to the bottom of what is happening, Piper and Conrad must escape from a military that blames them for everything that is going wrong. They must find their way into a hidden world full of people like them and then, in defiance of even greater odds, out again. They must make peace with terrifying enemies who have become allies; and more difficult still, they must survive the betrayal of a seeming friend who is really their ultimate enemy.

That synopsis comes dangerously close to revealing too much. But really, all I want to add to this review is that it's a pretty good book, with some emotionally powerful moments, amazing feats and high adventure; but it doesn't move me quite as much as the first book did. I suppose this could partly be put down to middle-book-of-a-trilogy-itis. Part of it, however, is directly related to the ending being (I feel) rushed, with the pace of the story surging ahead more than I thought was really good for it. Nevertheless, I am very interested in seeing the third installment, The Boy Who Lived Forever (scheduled for release in January 2020). I expect a great deal, even after a not-quite-as-good second book, of the conclusion of a trilogy that started as strongly as this one did.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Shazam

Shazam! – I'm told Captain Marvel, released around the same time as this movie, was pretty good. But between the two movies, both based on characters originally named Captain Marvel, this was the one I wanted to see, and I enjoyed it very much. It features teen newcomer Asher Angel as a frequent-runaway foster child named Billy Batson who has been looking for his mother since, when he was very small, they were separated in a crowd. A desperate wizard played by Djimon Hounsou lays the mantle of the powers of SHAZAM on him - wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus, courage of Achilles, speed of Mercury - and tells him that he must defend the world from the demons who embody the seven deadly sins.

Unfortunately, those demons have already been unleashed on the world, thanks to the revenge of the previous boy who didn't prove to be as pure of heart as the job description required. That failed candidate, now grown up and played by Mark Strong (remember the villain in 2009's Sherlock Holmes?) goes on an evil rampage, while Billy and his mildly disabled foster-brother mess around with his new superpowers, which (among other things) turn him into an adult, played by Zachary Levi. Other cast members include John Glover as the villain's father, Michelle Borth (of the current Hawaii Five-O), Adam Brody (of TV's The O.C.), and Cooper Andrews (of TV's The Walking Dead).

The upshot is an engaging blend of boyish goofiness and superhero-fantasy action, climaxing in a carnival battle between the demons and Billy's SHAZAM-ified family of foster siblings. Troubled kid learns lesson about loyalty to the found family he didn't actually set out to find. Unlikely candidate for being "pure of heart" enough to carry the mantle of SHAZAM, proves to have more going on under the cape than anyone would have guessed. Schoolyard bullies get the "suitcase wedgie" they've been dishing out, as a fringe benefit of having their lives saved from a freak carnival accident. With special effects that relied a little less on boring billows of smoke, it would be a just-about-perfect piece of family entertainment.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The boys use Billy's adult-hero look to buy beer at a convenience store - then try it, spit it out in disgust and go back for snacks. (2) The kid finally finds his birth mother, only to realize she isn't his real family. (3) Forced to discover his powers one at a time, young Shazam figures out how to fly only inches from going splat on a freeway overpass... then discovers his invulnerability when a truck slams into him. Bonus: The little "ha!" Billy's best bud/foster brother gives in the very last scene when he's introduced to a very Special lunch room guest. That capital S is a hint.

Guardians of the West

Guardians of the West
by David Eddings
Recommended Ages: 13+

The first book of five in The Malloreon begins more or less where the five-book series The Belgariad left off. Belgarion, formerly just plain Garion, has grown from a farm boy tied to the apron strings of his Aunt Pol to a young man, powerful in sorcery, experienced in battle, wearing the crown of a kingdom and bearing a sword of destiny, with a powerful stone in its pommel. He knows a 7,000-year-old sorcerer as his Grandfather, has the voice of a prophecy living inside his head, and is married to a half-dryad imperial princess. And lest we forget, he has recently returned from a quest that culminated in his slaying of an evil god. So, a wee bit of happily ever after would seem to be in order. Naturally, it proves wee indeed.

Only a few years later, the courtiers of the kingdom of Riva are nervous about the fact that Garion and Ce’Nedra haven’t produced an heir yet. Their relationship is strained by the petty misunderstandings that can turn love from sweet to bitter. Their alliance with the neighboring Alorn kingdoms is strained by an assassination attempt against the queen. A cult is rising, devoted to an interpretation of ancient prophecy that emphasizes the racial purity of the Alorn royalty and their authority to crush and dominate all other kingdoms in the world. At least equally terrible is a leader of one of the Angarak nations, who is waging a war of extermination on one of his people’s historic allies, and who aims personally to fill the void left in his empire’s ancient religion by the slaying of their god. And then there’s the rumor of a prophecy opposing the one in Garion’s head – the prophecy that supports the ambitions of the Child of Darkness. Garion thought he had sent that one packing already, but it seems to come back with even nastier plans than before, and a new source of power equal to the stone in the pommel of Garion’s sword.

This book charts the beginning of Garion’s second major quest, in which he revisits the cultures, characters, battlefields and courts brimming with intrigue that he previously passed through in The Belgariad. This time, the stakes are somehow even higher than before, both on a cosmic level – I mean, we could be talking the end of all things, here – as well as personally. No longer a mere boy, Garion suffers the agony of returning from the battlefield too late to prevent his own child’s abduction. The search for that child, with many delays, becomes tied up in his quest to save the world. And in that quest, once again, he is accompanied by a diverse group of companions selected by destiny (or by whomever) for reasons beyond his knowing – including a spy, a mute, a sometime blacksmith who has stumbled upon sorcery, and a strange boy who seems just as likely as Garion to become the champion of the Light in adventures to come.

At the risk of some repetition, fantasy pioneer David Eddings takes opportunity in this series to re-explore the already richly developed world he created in The Belgariad, full of endearing characters, complex geopolitics, delicious dialogue and thrilling action. The magic, when it happens, wows. The emotions, when they stir, run warm. The adventure, in both its horizontal geography and its penetration into multiple vertical layers of reality, can be called epic without fear of challenge. The opportunity to enjoy another quest with the same world at stake provides a rare opportunity to experience a sense of comfortable familiarity at the same time as gripping tension and excitement. Seeing the same old characters and places again, but in a different light, provides an intriguing blend of old and new. And remembering what Garion was, when we first met him – a child bursting with raw promise – makes us care all the more about what he has become, is still becoming, and will go through in this new series.

The books following this are King of the Murgos, Demon Lord of Karanda, Sorceress of Darshiva and The Seeress of Kell. Eddings is also the author or co-author of the Elenium and Tamuli trilogies, several other companion books and stand-alone novels.