Monday, May 13, 2019

Monday, April 29, 2019

Possession

Possession
by Kat Richardson
Recommended Ages: 15+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

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

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Die Trying

Die Trying
by Lee Child
Recommended Ages: 15+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

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+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

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+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

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+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

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.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Glass Magician

The Glass Magician
by Charlie N. Holmberg
Recommended Ages: 13+

Ceony Twill, an apprentice to the paper magician (commonly known as a Folder) Emery Thane, has fallen in love with her master. She can hardly help it, after actually traveling through his heart in an adventure to save him from a blood magician who used to be his wife. But in a magical U.K. on a similar technological level to our world’s early 20th century, an intimate relationship between a master and apprentice would be highly scandalous. And anyway, he doesn’t act like he reciprocates her feelings.

And anyway anyway, they may not live to exchange passionate endearments, because evil magicians are after them again. Rather, they’re after Ceony, because they think she might be able to reverse what she did to freeze the female bad guy in the previous book. One of the new bad guys is another blood magician (Excisioner), who only needs to touch you once to gain the power to kill you with a flick of his wrist. About as bad is the other bad guy, a glass magician (Gaffer) like Ceony’s best friend Delilah, who can do amazing things (for example) with mirrors.

But don’t count a mere Folder out of the fight. Ceony manages to use folding paper to fly, build a bomb, shield objects from magical detection, and even create a moving, two-dimensional copy of herself. All these skills may not be enough, however, against fiends who are willing to blow up a factory, murder people indiscriminately, and do things that would make most people shudder. Worse still, one of them has discovered a secret that could alter the relationship between magicians and the materials they are bound to.

This novel has a powerful charge of danger, action, horror and magic in it, and romance is never far behind. Ceony sends many other emotions across just as powerfully – including, I’m afraid, guilt and grief. I find the combination irresistible, and the shape of magic in Ceony's world is fascinating and unique. This series, which started with The Paper Magician, continues after this book with two more, so far – The Master Magician and The Plastic Magician. I look forward to reading them both.

Persuader

Persuader
by Lee Child
Recommended Ages: 15+

Some book reviews should come with a Spoiler Warning. For this review, I feel like issuing a Non-Spoiler Warning. I mean, I’m actually going to tell you less about what happens in this book than the back-cover blurb does. I’m also going to advise you not to read the back-cover or book-jacket blurb before you’ve made it a significant way through the book. I made the mistake of sneaking a peak at the back-cover blurb, and I found that it destroyed a surprise and discharged an electrical potential of tension that accumulated during the first chapter.

So, first chapter synopsis only: Jack Reacher is this guy who was in the military for a long time, and has been out of the military for a short time. He was much better at being in the military than he is at being out. But the skills he picked up during that earlier time prove really handy now, when – apparently by sheer chance – a rich college boy is snatched off a Boston street right in front of him in a barrage of weapons fire that puts said college boy’s body guards out of commission. Jack checks his “are you sure you want to do this” meter, then interferes with the kidnap with brutal efficiency. Unfortunately, one of the bodies that goes down belongs to a cop who just happened to be there.

Jack and college boy hit the road. Jack tells the boy he’ll take him anywhere he likes, as long as it’s out of town and doesn’t involve the police. Cop killers don’t get a warm welcome with the police, he reasons. College boy is all right with that; he’s so freaked out, having been kidnapped once before and having a mutilated ear to show for it. He begs and pleads and finally convinces Jack to drive him all the way to Maine, to the suspiciously well-armed oceanside fortress where his family lives. The kid's father is supposedly a rug importer, but there is clearly something else going on. More ominous still are the signs that someone else, someone unseen, is really in charge and that the kid’s parents, crooked dad and all, are just as trapped there as Jack soon will be. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Let’s not, for example, mention that there is more to why Jack is there than mere chance. Pay no attention to the insinuation that either a rescue mission or a piece of stone-cold revenge is in play, let alone both. Cover the next couple of sentences so you don’t find out, sooner than you should, that the book is a slow-burning fuse branching off to an exquisitely timed series of explosions. Jack Reacher frequently risks, and just as frequently inflicts, coldblooded death. He proves relentless, resourceful and ridiculously competent – and boy, does he know his way around a gun.

I am not a Tom Cruise fan, and I have not seen the film or films (I don’t even know whether there are more than one) featuring him as Jack Reacher. Basing my mental image of Jack Reacher on this book, I can’t begin to conceive of how Tom Cruise could play him. Please, don’t tell me. I would rather not know. Just as you would rather not know more than you strictly must to get hooked on this savagely violent, torturously suspenseful, unputdownable book.

Though this is the first book by Lee Child that I have read, it turns out to be the seventh in soon-to-be 24 novels in his Jack Reacher series, starting all the way back in 1997 with Killing Floor and due to continue in October 2019 with Blue Moon. In between, their titles include Die Trying, Tripwire, The Visitor, Echo Burning, Without Fail, The Enemy, One Shot, The Hard Way, Bad Luck and Trouble, Nothing to Lose, Gone Tomorrow, 61 Hours, Worth Dying For, The Affair, A Wanted Man, Never Go Back, Personal, Make Me, Night School, The Midnight Line and Past Tense, plus several novellas. Lee Child is a British transplant to New York, USA.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Gone to Dust

Gone to Dust
by Matt Goldman
Recommended Ages: 14+

Matt Goldman is originally from Minnesota, and did stand-up comedy before he became an Emmy-winning writer for such TV sitcoms as Seinfeld and Ellen. In his debut novel, he introduces Nils Shapiro, a wisecracking, unhappily divorced, police trained private eye who lives in a one-bedroom “shitbox” just over the Minneapolis side of Edina city limits.

Edina, which rhymes with China, is here depicted as a peaceful, low-crime suburb where wealthy people live. So, when a socialite is found dead under what appears to be the contents of a hundred vacuum cleaner bags, a sleuth of Shap’s skill is indicated. The dust and whatnot seem to be a forensic countermeasure, as TV crime shows these days like to call a tactic for obscuring hair, fiber, fingerprint and DNA evidence. But not all crimes are solved by CSI. So, the Edina police calls in Shapiro, and he begins to dig for a motive to kill a woman everyone seemed to love.

The late Maggie Somerville had an ex-husband, for example – but that guy wouldn’t hurt a fly. Shap thinks her boyfriend might look good for it – but he has personal history going back to boyhood with Andrew Fine, and that may be coloring his judgment. Maggie had a mysterious relationship with a young woman with Somalian features, who is being stalked by another private eye. At one point, it even seems possible that Islamic terrorism may be a factor. These and other red herrings are dragged across the real killer’s trail, but the big reveal turns out to be so sad it’s almost funny, with a punchline of terrifying danger and healing tragedy.

I’m really interested in this Nils Shapiro character. He’s mouthy. He has attitude. His witticisms make me laugh. His relationship troubles make my heart go out to him. And his brilliance as a detective makes me believe it when, in spite of his mouthiness and attitude, he gets un-fired from the case and closes it. Also, as a former resident of the Twin Cities who actually went to school in Edina for a short time, I appreciate the local color in this book, reviving many fond memories of decades ago. I look forward to reading the sequels – Broken Ice and, due to be released in June 2019, The Shallows.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Runemarks

Runemarks
by Joanne M. Harris
Recommended Ages: 14+

Gods, seers, sorcerers and the serpent that gnaws at the roots of the world tree all appear in this story about a back-country village girl named Maddy who was born with a rune on her hand and an otherworldly power – both of which mark her as an object of suspicion, if not hatred, in the shadow of Red Horse Hill.

Then two men come to town – a grandfatherly, one-eyed, wandering storyteller, and an inquisitor for the monotheistic religion that has dominated the known world since the fall of the old Norse Gods 500 years ago. Between them, the town is soon divided, the hill torn open, and the boundaries between worlds pushed aside for a conflict that could destroy everything.

Maddy meets such mythic characters as Loki, Freyja, Heimdall and the huntress Skadi – beings that can change shape, hurl bolts of blazing death, raise the dead (in a way), and affect the balance between order and chaos that keeps all the worlds intact. She also meets a manipulative piece of rock called the Whisperer, a cowardly goblin named Sugar-and-Sack who has heroism thrust upon him, and many other remarkable creatures. But her biggest discovery is who or what she really is, and the importance of the power she wields.

I found this a pretty exciting story, enlivened by multiple lines of character conflict, a complex weave of agendas and loyalties, adventures on a literally epic scale, humor, love, horror, tragedy, courage, fate and spine-tingling suspense. It has characters who show unexpected dimensions or who grow to a new level of maturity. It has villains and cowards who are fun to despise. It has complex, gray areas in between. And apparently, it has a sequel titled Runelight.

Other titles by this author include The Gospel of Loki and The Testament of Loki, The Blue Salt Road and a short story collection, A Pocketful of Crows. Joanne M. Harris is a rather thin pseudonym for the Anglo-French author Joanne Harris, who wrote the novels Chocolat, The Strawberry Thief, Five Quarters of the Orange, Holy Fools, Blueeyedboy and several more.

This review is based on hearing the audiobook narrated by Sile Bermingham (first name sounds like "Sheila").

I'll Be Gone in the Dark

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
by Michelle McNamara
Recommended Ages: 14+

Michelle McNamara, the wife of comedian Patton Oswalt, was a screenwriter, blogger and true crime enthusiast who, it is said, had a way of getting people involved to open up to her about cold cases. One of her obsessions was a connected series of rapes and murders, spanning 1976 to 1986 from the Sacramento area to Southern California. She coined the nickname “Golden State Killer” for the guy (previously described as the “Original Night Stalker”), and she died in 2016, only 46 years old, not knowing his real name.

The investigators who, in 2018, pinned the crimes on former cop Joseph DeAngelo, deny that McNamara’s research turned up any evidence that led to his capture, but she does seem to have brought an investigation that had been getting nowhere into the public eye, and perhaps played a role in re-focusing the efforts to catch the creep. The fact bears noting that by the end, law enforcement was using the “Golden State Killer” moniker that Michelle helped coin. And it’s remarkable how little attention the unsolved case got during the three decades after his last known attack, until she started sending stories about it to the Los Angeles Magazine. That’s amazing, considering that he committed some 50 rapes, murdered 10 people and terrorized an entire region for parts of a 10-year period.

The parts of this book that McNamara lived to write are a lyrically personal, compassionate and deeply disturbing examination of police records and witness testimony about the case. They look back on the beginnings of her fascination with true crime – an unsolved murder in the Chicago neighborhood where she grew up. They also poignantly document the toll the case took on the author’s personal life. The autobiographical parts reveal, for example, the emotional peaks and valleys of discovering something buried in the evidence that seems to point to a plausible suspect, and then finding out he couldn’t have been the guy.

Completed by friends and co-workers after McNamara’s death, the book takes the refreshingly non-exploitative approach of not devoting space (even in its afterparts) to the revolting character revealed in Joseph DeAngelo. Rather, it is with the victims and their loved ones that this book sympathizes – as evidenced by the fact that the first time I cried while reading this book was during a passage about the brother-in-law of one of the victims and his fiancee cleaning the scene of her murder. Emotionally, the real ending of the book is a letter McNamara wrote to the killer, imagining the day of his capture, which she would never see, and predicting that the psychopath himself would prove the most boring part of the story.

A Measure of Darkness

A Measure of Darkness
by Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the second Clay Edison thriller, the Bay Area coroner’s deputy hears himself likened to a barnacle that just won’t let go. He displays that quality in his pursuit of the identity of a woman whose strangled body turns up at the periphery of a shootout in which several other people were killed. In fact, there turn out to have been four different killers in the incident that started, apparently, as a confrontation about a noisy party that went terribly wrong. But one of the victims – a Jane Doe found hidden in a garden shed – apparently died in circumstances that had nothing to do with the front-yard fracas. Somehow, Clay and a cooperative police detective grow increasingly certain that her fate is tied up with an experimental school up the coast.

I am so leery of giving away the secrets that Clay discovers that I'll confine most of my remaining remarks to singing the praises of this book, co-written by a father-son team who, separately, are responsible for the Alex Delaware thrillers (Jonathan) and such titles as The Golem of Hollywood, Sunstroke, Trouble and Potboiler (Jesse). Edison's character has a dogged tenacity that makes him both a flawed human being and a terrific sleuth, whose talents are wasted on a service devoted to securing the bodies and personal effects of the dead. All he is really supposed to do is find out Jane Doe's name, issue a manner of death (homicide, in her case), and try to connect with her next of kin so they can make burial arrangements. But as he finds in multiple aspects of the shootout case, closure can be elusive. One family doesn't want to acknowledge that their son identifies as a daughter, while the trans community she belonged to is resistant to outsiders. A teen is conflicted about turning in his best friend, who was one of the shooters, even though a third buddy was a victim. A witness whose panicked attempt to flee resulted in another bystander's death also turns out to have a connection with Jane Doe. And the suicide of a teen in another jurisdiction may continue to have deadly consequences today.

Clay pursues these tenuous threads at the risk of his own career, his safety, and his knee (which hasn't been great). Meantime, he has family issues to deal with, including his ex-con brother's announcement that he is engaged, just when Clay and his girlfriend are about to announce their engagement. His family and work relationships prove an opportunity for the Kellermans to demonstrate an ability to portray a wide variety of people with vividly clashing but lifelike personalities. Meantime, they lay out a vibrant landscape of California scenery, law enforcement procedures, office politics, the grim reality of death and the compassion of dedicated people like Clay Edison, who serve and protect people at their most vulnerable (i.e., dead). It does this all with sexy charisma, dry humor and a bottomless supply of sentences that I want to stop and read out loud.

Rumor has it there's a third novel about Clay Edison due for release sometime in 2020. I won't be caught dead missing it.

The Selling of the President 1968

The Selling of the President 1968
by Joe McGinniss
Recommended Ages: 14+

The title of this book is a bit of a joke, referencing a series of books by Theodore H. White titled The Making of the President, 1960 and ditto 1964, 1968 and 1972. White’s original book won big awards and was credited with revolutionizing the way journalists wrote about politics – which is the kind of buzz this book got. But instead of covering the presidential election of 1968 in general, this book focuses on the way the Richard Nixon campaign used an innovative approach to television advertising as part of its winning strategy. It’s the kind of wryly funny story that a historically ignorant reader might possibly mistake for a novel of satire, or perhaps speculative horror.

An early chapter of this book is a word-for-word transcript of a shooting session for a Nixon TV ad that I thought did a bang-up job of establishing the characters in the drama, including Nixon himself. Fair disclosure: I read this book while visiting my folks, and my father picked up the book when I set it down to deal myself a hand of solitaire, and he found that chapter very dull and concluded that the book would not be entertaining to read. I had to advise him to skip ahead a chapter or two to disabuse him of that opinion.

All this, of course, happened before I was born, and I’m no spring chicken. But if, as McGinniss contends, the people who designed Nixon’s televised campaign ads really were the first to sell us a president based on a profound understanding of how TV can be used to render people suggestible, then the way things are now in presidential politics and have been all my life started here. If what it reveals about Nixon and his supporters is less than creditable, it is just as discreditable to the critical thinking abilities of U.S. voters, and to the likelihood of a really worthy candidate getting elected in this politically fractured country.

Exactly how McGinniss pulled of this feat of journalism, I can scarcely imagine. The way he tells the story, it’s almost as if he was inside the campaign. At the very least, he had intimate access to the men who ran the TV side of it. He includes internal memos and position papers about the theory of what they were doing and how they meant to go about it. He brings it right down to the nerve-wracking final moments of election night, where McGinniss apparently spent time in the same hotel as many campaign staffers. The book is funny and chilling at the same time, revealing a cynical side of modern (or postmodern) American politics that one recognizes as alive, well, and if anything, even more deceptive and mind-controlling today.

Since my extant book reviews do not go back to the previous time I read a book by Joe McGinniss, I just want to take this opportunity to put in a plug for The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, a similar work of journalism-in-the-form-of-a-novel that I read a couple decades ago and found captivating. It’s about a small-town Italian soccer team that made the big time in a system where the top couple of teams at each level of competition go up a league at the end of the season, and the bottom couple go down. Previously ignorant of and indifferent to soccer, McGinniss suddenly became an enthusiast the year Castel di Sangro made it to Italy’s premier league, and he spent the entire next year following them around the boot of Europe, documenting their struggle to keep up with clubs backed by bigger and richer organizations. He got to know them, experienced their ups and downs, sympathized with their (at times tragic) losses and rejoiced with their victories.

Considering that I never before or since cared much about soccer, I think it’s really meaningful when I say that when I read this book, I felt completely invested in the outcome of the club’s campaign for “la salvezza.” It was a really fine book, and based on how much I enjoyed it and this earlier piece of his writing, I really should look into some of the books he wrote in between – including several notable true-crime books.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

272. 'Set Apart' Hymn for Youth

I woke up early this morning and couldn't get back to sleep. So, as I often do when that happens, I flipped my laptop open and wrote a hymn, which I had been planning for some time. I selected Jesus' childhood, death and end-time return as the texts to apply to the issue that I remember as a bugbear for faithful youth. In case you think I've missed something important, I know that I could have selected 12 more examples - but another issue I wanted to respect is kids' attention span. I decided to err on the side of knowing my target audience, and so kept it down to three stanzas. You're welcome.

Tune: DU, O SCHÖNES WELTGEBÄUDE by Johann Crüger, 1598-1662.
Jesus, who from childhood carried
Our salvation on Your heart,
Help Your young disciples, harried
With temptation from the start.
See our lives, with pressures thronging!
See our hunger for belonging!
Help us know and feel it true,
Christ, that we belong to You.

Living set apart is lonely,
As You more than all must know!
At Your cross, John was Your only
Student, standing dumb below.
Give us strength; fill us with fitness
That, with John, we may bear witness
To the cup You drank alone,
For Your mockers to atone.

Living set apart is joyous;
Set that truth before our eyes.
Thus, when fickle friends annoy us,
Over wrath and hurt we’ll rise.
For You soon will come with glory
To review Your children’s story,
And will set apart on high
Those who loved Your drawing nigh.

Monday, February 18, 2019

271. Hymn for Students of Theology

I planned this hymn as part of a trilogy with "Hymn for Good Preaching" and "Hymn for the Liturgy." Like those two, it is set to its own original tune, titled SEMINARY and written during the 3 a.m. hour today. While I'm mentioning the time of day when I finished writing this hymn, I hope it will partially excuse the fact that I changed rhyme schemes between stanzas 2 and 3. I honestly didn't notice I had done this until I went back over the whole hymn after penning the last line. At that point, I felt that correcting the versification gaffe would do more harm than good, so I let it be. Perhaps it's for the best. I'll bet a lot of students of theology know all about losing the thread of a written assignment and faking their way through it anyway. Wink, nudge.
Call, Lord, from humble fisher’s net;
Call from the tax collector’s booth—
From ev’ry walk of life—and set
Men’s hearts upon Your word of truth
That, answering our cry of need,
They may Your flock protect and feed.

Teach, Lord, though heads be hard as oak;
Teach into hearts stone-cold and dead
The mind-renewing word You spoke,
The way of life You blazed ahead
That, counting all they know as loss,
They may with joy take up their cross.

Fit them, through study, prayer and pain,
Your holy scripture to explain,
And with pure doctrine form their mind
As one, that they may loose and bind,
According to Your perfect will,
Both hot and cold, both good and ill.

Show them, and give them heart and nerve,
How they must suffer while they serve;
For none who follows You, O Christ,
Can be unused to sacrifice.
Embrace them, lest they come to harm,
With Spirit’s grace, with brother’s arm.

Devote their hearts, without a qualm,
To hymn, prayer, canticle and psalm
So, in the hour when men’s words fail,
The words You give us may prevail.
Teach them to handle holy fare
With all due reverence and care.

At last, in robes of grace arrayed,
On them let holy hands be laid;
Then, Lord, let no one doubt the call
That set apart a few from all
To guard and feed Your hungry flock
And lead the thirsty to their Rock.

We praise You, God, who made it rush
Forth in a sweet, refreshing gush;
We praise You, Son of God, as well,
Who with Your people ever dwell,
With God and with the Spirit one:
Amen, Lord; let Your will be done.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

270. Hymn for Good Preaching

I would like to dedicate the following hymn to my former pastor and friend in Christ, the Rev. Randall Bell, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Augusta, Mo. who always impressed me as an exceptional preacher. I planned it as a "pulpit" companion to this "altar" hymn. The original tune, written last night (and not even harmonized yet) is titled KERYGMA.
Lord, grace our pulpit with a preacher
Adept to teach, that we may hear
Your living voice; and to that teacher
Bend humble heart and open ear.

Though he be full of clever phrases
Or speak as plain as Farmer Brown,
Lead us through him to fix our gazes
On You who from on high came down.

Though he be draped in silken splendor
Or sewn into an onion sack,
If witness to Your cross he render,
No scrap of comfort will we lack.

Away with men who scratch our itches
And pull the Law’s accusing tooth;
Who promise happiness and riches
But set aside the Gospel’s truth!

Give us, instead, one who will spatter
Us head to toe with cleansing blood;
Who points us to the gifts that matter,
By which You, Christ, will do us good.

Give us a man who will correct us
As shepherd would an erring flock;
Who will, through fire and flood, direct us
To You, our never failing Rock.

Bless us, in short, with fruitful preaching,
And let its seed be cast afield
Till, earth’s remotest limits reaching,
A gladsome harvest it will yield.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Acrostic Psalm, Parts V-VI

Before introducing these next two hymns, which are segments of the Psalm 119-ish super-hymn that I've been working on since before the New Year, I would like to give a shout-out to the Rev. Dr. David Scaer. Over the weekend I watched a three-hour video of him defending the doctrine of the atonement against today's "radical Lutherans" and others of their stripe. His lecture both spurred me to finish this hymn at a rapid pace, and inspired me to splash a lot of Christ's blood on it. If the tunes may not seem completely appropriate to the tone of the text, it might be worth pointing out that I had already written them before I wrote these hymns. Or, you could just put it down to the depth of expression that is possible when the melody and poetry combine in a paradoxical way. Whatever. I confess, it was my intention almost until the end to write stanzas for X, Y and Z, but I just couldn't come up with enough appropriate words beginning with those letters to start off the lines. So, the hymn says "A to Z," but it's actually A to W.

268. Acrostic Psalm, Part V
Tune: SELAH, by Yours Truly, sometime last week.
Quake, blood-daubed earth! Be darkened, sun!
Queer was the hour God quit His Son!
Quizzed by the questioner’s barb’d tail,
Quiescent ’neath the hangman’s nail,
Quenched by the quack’s narcotic quaff,
Quelled by the mob queued up to laugh:
Quoth He, “My God!”—but hearts must here
Quite overflow with love and fear!

Reel, mind!—that God should, for your gain,
Renounce His Son in blood and pain!
Roar, heart, in horror at the cost
Revealed when Christ redeemed the lost!
Repent, O soul, before the rod
Raised onto which incarnate God
Reigns age to age, and thus enthroned,
Robs hell of them for whom He groaned!

Speak, lips touched by the Sacrament!
Sing, tongue, cleansed by the blood He spent,
Shed as the sacrificial coin
So we salvation’s choir might join!
Sound string and bell! Blow pipe and reed!
Say from what bondage you are freed!
Selah—rise, music! Israèl
Shall not be swallowed into hell!

Turn, then, barbarian or Greek,
To this, the unknown God you seek;
Turn, offspring of His favored race,
To Him who gazes on God’s face!
Throw off the chains that bind and choke;
Take up His light and easy yoke.
Then, by His promise, You will be
True heirs of life, from sin set free.

269. Acrostic Psalm, Part VI
Tune: MASKIL, also by me, last week
Use, brethren, use the present hour,
Until Christ comes again with pow’r:
Unbind those bound by sin and grief;
Urge them to share in pure belief.
Unsettle those who settle scores;
Unseat the judge; unstop the doors;
Unsteel the foe of love and peace;
Unite as one, and so increase.

Vaunt not vulgarity and vice;
Vie, little flock bought with a price,
Vie one another’s faults to veil;
Vouch for their virtue, kind and hale.
Vex not each other, lest you make
Vain what the Lord did for your sake.
View Christ in them, till all as one
Voice psalms of vict’ry to God’s Son.

Wake, faith and hope; the hour makes haste!
Why do you drowse? Arise, and taste
What is prepared for whom the Lord
Would summon to His wedding board!
White are the fields, the night far spent;
Wan grows the eastern firmament
Where, all at once, we soon shall see,
With living eyes, the A to Z.

Friday, February 1, 2019

267. Acrostic Psalm, Part IV

Continuing this monster hymn, or super-hymn if you will, continues to get trickier, with the letters N and O providing very limited options. Just wait until Q, V, and X-Y-Z! The original tune for this fourth segment of six is titled MYSTERIOUS MIGHT and, I might add, has already been harmonized, along with the tunes for the other five segments - even though I haven't written the lyrics for Parts V and VI yet. I think the effect I was aiming for, in this tune, was something antique and chant-like. Please bear with the (almost) ridiculous amount of alliteration; but, I must say, if you're going to put your back out writing an acrostic psalm, you might as well go all in!
Mysterious Lord and mighty God,
Make known Your majesty abroad!
Mock though they may the maiden’s child,
Move men to mark the martyr mild
Made manifest upon the cross,
Much more to mend man’s mournful loss.
Mute now be reason’s mad misrule;
My Savior’s mouth shall be my school.

Now, risen Christ of wondrous fame,
Nail to our hands, lips, hearts Your name;
Nor leave us hungry in the night—
Nay, nourish us with life and light!
Nerve us to tell our neighbor, too,
News of God’s grace drawn nigh in You.
Noise forth Your word! Give ears to hear:
No gift more needful, none more dear.

O Off’ring, poured out once for all,
Oblation sweet, to You we call:
O’er our offenses waft Your fume;
Obscure the odor of our doom.
Old Adam would, through daily toil,
Oppose Your healing wine and oil;
On each occasion, Savior pure,
Outface his fury; be our cure.

Pure Prophet, Priest and Prince of Peace,
Pierced through with pain for our release:
Plunge us within the scarlet flood
Poured from Your heart, the pledge made good.
Perfect in us Your work of love:
Present us purified above;
Place in our hands the glorious prize
Prepared for them who please God’s eyes.

Monday, January 28, 2019

On the Bondage of the Will

On The Bondage of the Will
by Martin Luther
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the book Martin Luther (not King Jr.) considered his own best work: a rebuttal to a diatribe by Erasmus of Rotterdam about "The Freedom of the Will." Luther basically takes the position that if any part of our salvation depends on what is in us (such as our free will), the sacrificial work of Christ is all for nothing. First Luther responds to Erasmus' attacks on his own (Luther's) position; then he systematically replies to what Eramsus has to say about the subject; then he lays out a positive argument for the bound will in a tour-de-force of biblical theology. I'm the last person who should sit in judgment of Luther's writing, his theology or his interpretation of scripture – apart from noting that at one or two points, he seems to make an argument favoring double predestination, though he elsewhere (even in this book) condemns that false doctrine. Instead, all I want to say about this book is to make a few suggestions that may be helpful to people who start trying to read it and who then find it difficult.

First: This book, which I read in the Wildside Press imprint, is based on Henry Atherton's 1931 edition, which in turn is based primarily on Henry Cole's 1823 translation with some unspecified emendations based on a slightly later translation by somebody or other named Vaughan. I don't know how reliable these Anglican scholars' witness is to the theology of Luther or whether the occasional phrase or sentence that smacks of Calvinism isn't an artifact of their editorial bias. But I will observe this: Part of the difficulty for readers of c.2019 making an attempt on this book is that most of us aren't used to reading English in the style of Jane Austen's period. An updated translation by someone who knows his way around Lutheran theology might be a step toward making this book more accessible to Grandma Smurf and Uncle Smedley of today's Shepherd of the Cornfield Lutheran Church.

Second: Apart from the prose style, which would not have fazed one of the Brontës, there is the small matter of the typesetting – which is so badly out of order, at least in this imprint, that I think it actually impedes the correct interpretation of the text. Placement and non-placement of commas seems to be out of whack. Perhaps this is another matter of the year So Much in the U.K. as opposed to today in the U.S., but I think it actually goes farther than that: There are sentences that seem to make more sense when you experiment with reading them otherwise than the way they are punctuated. Of course, starting over with a fresh translation would also clear this up, but at the very least, do this. Right. Now.

Third: Ignore the glib, smooth-talking voice on the Lutheran radio program who tells you what to think about this book without actually answering your questions about it, and who suggests starting with the last 50 pages (Luther's positive statement of his position) and then going back to the beginning. First reading Erasmus' diatribe may not be necessary or even recommended. But reading straight through from Luther's introduction to his conclusion actually pulls his case together nicely, as one point builds on another. My advice is not to agonize over it or linger upon passages that aren't immediately clear. My approach would be to read it fast, maybe scribble a note (like, a check mark in the margin) next to something you'll have a question about later, and get through it in three or four sittings without over-exerting yourself. Many things not immediately clear will become clearer from what follows later. Other things can come out in group discussion or conversation with someone who studied theology like (say) your pastor. More to the point: Don't sweat the details. The case Luther makes, in its broad strokes, is overwhelming enough. And if the after-parts to this book (the Wildside imprint, at least) have anything to tell us, it's that Luther was really remarkably restrained in his treatment of Erasmus in this treatise. His final conclusion was that Erasmus was really not a Christian at all, and the case he makes for that opinion is pretty convincing, too.

Three Movie Reviews

A Dog's Way Home – I think this is the third movie in the series that started with A Dog's Purpose, which I didn't see, although I read the book by W. Bruce Cameron that it was based on. Remembering the original book as a sentimental tear-jerker that would appeal to dog lovers, I dragged my parents to see this movie during a weekend visit with them. I think we all pretty much enjoyed it. This movie follows the progress of a dog named Bella (voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) who is sent away to stay with her owners' relatives while they look for a different place to live when she is falsely accused of being a pit bull – part of a corrupt campaign of retaliation against them by a developer they crossed and the animal control officers in his pocket. It also stars Ashley Judd as the mother of the college boy who belongs to Bella, and whom she tries to find again in a multi-year journey through the wilds of the Rockies. Along the way, she is mistaken for one guy's dog when she helps his actual dog dig him out after an avalanche buries him in snow; she runs with the dogs that beg for food at the back doors of restaurants, only to realize that each of her packmates has a human family to go home to; she almost gets adopted by a couple of nice guys, but he just isn't Lucas; she almost dies of thirst when a hobo chains her up and then kicks the bucket; she befriends a mountain lion cub and almost chooses to become its mom; and everything finally comes together in a stand-off at a veterans' home against a couple of improbably wicked dogcatchers.

Not a subtle movie, this. It has some nice scenery and good human and canine performances, though some of the animal business seems to have been handled with CGI. The connection between Bella and her boy Lucas is adorable. If I was expecting something quite as poignant as A Dog's Purpose, I was disappointed. But I don't recall feeling disappointed. Visually appealing, with a nice journey story-line for the hero dog and a hard-won happy ending, it left me nothing to complain about. Three things that made it for me: (1) The scene in which the avalanche guy rejects not only Bella, but his own dog after they both saved his life. Ouch. Sad as it is, a lot of the pathos in this scene is sold by dog body language. (2) The recurring theme of Bella being tempted to stay and become part of a family where she's at – both with another dog and with a wild cat. (3) Grizzled Wes Studi's resolution of the standoff with the gung-ho dogcatcher.

The Kid Who Would Be King - Louis Ashbourne Serkis, a son of Andy "Gollum" Serkis, headlines this film about a present-day London teen who comes to realize that he is destined to draw Excalibur from the stone and become the "future" part of the Once and Future King. Alex, not Arthur, is his name, and among his central circle of knights are a pudding of a boy named Bedders (Sir Bedivere, anyone), a girl named Kaye (only the girl part is a surprise) and a handsome bully named Lance (like, Lancelot, right?). The latter two are really sketchy converts to the cause, however. Together with a rather flamboyant teenage avitar of Merlin (dude lives backward in time, you know), who sometimes transforms into Patrick Stewart, they travel all the way to Tintagel in Cornwall to learn stuff Alex would rather not know. For example, his book of Arthurian legends, the obsession of his childhood, was not a gift from his mysterious, missing dad but from his mum, who wanted to protect him from knowing that his dad didn't spare a thought for him. In spite of disappointments along the way, however, Alex leads his sidekicks on a pretty successful quest, and they make it back to their school in time to head off an attack by Morgana and the forces of evil.

That's enough to go on with. Three things that made this movie for me: (1) The whole "defending the school" sequence, in which they somehow train the entire student body in swordplay in a couple of hours, while at the same time rigging the gym with anti-demon booby traps. (2) Alex belatedly explains everything to his mum, then proves it's all true by summoning the lady of the lake – in the bathtub. (3) The recipe for Merlin's power-restoring tonic. However, I must add one thing that somewhat un-made this movie for me: All that hand-jive stuff young Merlin does, way too many times during the movie, to execute spells. It really got irritating.

The Mule - Just when you think you can write off Clint Eastwood as a piece of film history, the nearly 90-year-old actor/director pulls this off. Supposedly based on a piece of journalism about an elderly man who smuggled Mexican cartel drugs under the noses of law enforcement before finally surrendering himself to the authorities, the movie is a grim, emotionally stifling spectacle from one end to the other. Clint plays a day lily enthusiast whose obsession has caused him to become estranged from his wife (Dianne Wiest) and their daughter (Clint's real-life daughter Alison Eastwood). Hoping to retrieve the good graces of his family by contributing to his granddaughter's wedding, he responds to a job offer that leads him to become a drug mule, driving a pickup truck to and fro across the country and not asking questions about who takes the drugs out and puts money in while the truck is parked overnight. At first things are going great. He buys a new truck, saves his day lily farm, gets his VFW local remodeled, impresses the fam. But all the while, he gets in deeper and deeper, becoming a trusted favorite of the cartel chief – just in time for a bloody change of management, which puts the old guy on the wrong side of the hombres in power. Meantime, the feds have a confidential informant, with whose help they are slowly closing in; and then Clint goes AWOL in the middle of a drug run to rush to his wife's bedside and hold her hand while she dies, which puts him rather between a rock and a hard place. His survival becomes the matter of supreme suspense, leading to something like a modern-day version of the bittersweet ending of a classic western, where the tough guy ends up all alone.

My dad and I had an argument after seeing this movie. There was a scene where the cartel guys caught up to Clint and were about to kill him, but when they realized why he had gone AWOL they questioned their orders and considered maybe just roughing him up, to teach him a lesson. Clint is all, "I'm ready to take my medicine." Then the scene cuts to him driving down the road with a truckload of drugs and getting caught by the law. Asked how he came to look so badly beaten, he says something like, "I only got what I deserved." I took this at face value: the cartel guys took pity on him and only gave him some bruises and scrapes, then let him continue on his run. My dad, however, is positive that "between the lines," Clint killed the cartel guys and that later, when he pleads guilty on all charges, the murder charges are due to their deaths. I just assumed the murder charges had to do with the court throwing everything at him because he was the only member of the cartel they had to charge with stuff; and if anyone dies in connection with a felony you're committing, you get charged as if you killed them. So, on at least this point, the film is open to multiple interpretations.

Also co-starring in the movie are Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Andy Garcia, Richard Herd and Loren Dean. Three scenes that made it for me: (1) The one in which Earl's (Clint E.) controller, who has gradually warmed to him, is basically forced to tell him they're not friends anymore in front of the new thugs who run the show. Perhaps meaningfully, they never see each other again. It puts salt on a previous scene in which Earl tells the young guy he should get out of the business and find something else that he loves to do. Too late for him, right? (2) The scene in which Clint bamboozles a Texas state trooper into leaving without interfering any further, after he stops him along with the two cartel guys tailing him and starts to give them a hard time. For a minute, you're sure the two Mexican guys are going to waste the trooper. They're pretty sure, too. (3) Clint sings at the wheel of his truck, not caring what the cartel guys who have him bugged think about it. I love the scene in which they start to sing along with him.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Two More Sixths

I spent some time during the weekend adding stanzas to my "Acrostic Psalm." In order to break up the tedium, I decided to split it into separate hymns of four or so stanzas each, each with its own tune. Here, therefore, are the Second Sixth with its appropriately titled, original tune; and the third, which I wrote in the sleepless wee hours of this morning, together with its own tune. Excuse me if it seems a little repetitive; but observe, Psalm 119 covers the same ground more than a few times. Also, one of my goals is to ensure that Law and Gospel are explicit in every stanza, just in case somebody chooses just one letter of the alphabet to deal with on some occasion or other.

265. Acrostic Psalm, Part II
Tune: SECOND SIXTH by moi, sometime this weekend.
Eternal Christ, who into time
Essayed to answer for our crime,
Ennobling, by incarnate grace,
Each facet of our fallen race:
Erase our sins of unbelief;
Ease, if You will, our time of grief;
Encourage us, by promise sure,
Earth’s fleeting sorrows to endure.

Firstborn of all the risen dead,
Fit us to live with You our Head:
Forgiven through the font’s dear flood;
Filled with Your body and Your blood.
Form us in faith: firm, fixed on You;
Forsaking false friends, not a few;
Frustrating foe and our frail flesh;
Freed from the grave each day afresh.

God, whose it is to bless or damn,
Garb us in Christ, Your spotless Lamb!
Grant us the grace, in faith to grow;
Ground it on You whose love we know.
Guide, who proceeds eternally,
Gird us in Your full panoply;
Guard us along the way, till we
Gaze on Your glory openly.

Hope of the sinner, Lord of life,
Help us resist the hour of strife.
Heal that disease which faith’s eye dims,
Halts holy hands, hamstrings our hymns.
Have mercy on the sinner – yes,
Hide us in Your own righteousness;
Hence will we in Your footprints live,
Held fast by ev’ry gift You give.

266. Acrostic Psalm, Part III
Tune: IMMENSE IMMORTAL, by the same guy as before, around 3 a.m. today.
Immense Immortal, for our need
Into our flesh You came, indeed:
If God imbibes our nature thus,
Is any ill designed for us?
Impress on us Your image, Lord,
Implanted by Your living word;
Imbued with life, let us at length
Invest death’s doors of iron strength.

Jehovah, whose discerning flame
Job felt throughout his wretched frame:
Judge not by what our hands have done,
Jet though our deeds be, every one.
Join justice to the love that sent
Jesus, our cause to represent;
Joy, therefore, may we feel within,
Justly absolved of ev’ry sin.

King of creation, clothed in light,
Keen to be known, yet hid from sight:
Knock on our hearts, that we may find
Ken of Your favor, free and kind.
Keep from us all that smacks of sin;
Kit us in You, our pride, our kin.
Key our replying anthem, when
Kiss we the Son and cry, Amen!

Lamb, who for us was pierced with pain,
Laid in the dust, yet lives again:
Lend light upon our darkened way,
Lest loss and lowness lead astray.
Let smiling lip and laugh return;
Loose heart and mind, that we may learn
Love for the lot of last and least,
Lord, till we see Your longed-for feast.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

264. Hymn for the Liturgy

Here is another addition to my ongoing work-in-progress, EDIFYING HYMNS, with a suitably smells-and-bells-inspired tune in the Mixolydian mode. While I'm mentioning it, I'm wondering if anyone will notice the musical symbol, or one might say musical joke, that I embedded in my tune ABECEDARIAN the other day. Extra credit if you did before I mentioned it just now.

Tune: LEITOURGIA, written last night with the hymn itself.
Lord, who above all heavens dwell
Respecting neither offering’s smell,
Nor burning light, nor clanging bell:
Take pity on our hopeful fear;
By word and sacrament draw near
And tabernacle with us here.

As we in prayer and praise unite,
Let all our rev’rence, all our rite
Be pleasing in Your gracious sight;
Attentive ears and voices grant
Unto the words we say or chant,
Nor let them firm conviction want.

Before Your grave, majestic law
We quail, just God, in guilty awe.
Lest the accuser cry “Aha”
In haste our souls like wheat to sift,
Your gospel send on pinions swift,
That we clean hands and hearts might lift.

What we repeat and what is new
Lead us to draw alike from You,
Distinguishing the false from true:
Yet, knowing what we oft repeat
Is welded in with holy heat,
Let us account that doubly sweet.

What we receive from saints of old,
Help us with humble hearts to hold,
As we would cherish precious gold.
Their witness keep within our reach
Where they are faithful, apt to teach;
Thus each age ministers to each.

What we present as sacrifice
Accept as but Your due, O Christ,
Who once paid our redemption price.
Yet let us ever fix our view
Upon the purer gifts that You
Extend to us, each morning new.

Now, God, whose works of old attest
That what You give is always best,
Be active on this day of rest.
Redeem this time; this space defend,
Dear Father, Son and Spirit; send
Your light and peace, world without end.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Hymn and a Sixth

I've been having somewhat of a hymn-writing dry spell lately. Last night, prompted by an opportunity to compose and arrange an original hymn tune for another Lutheran poet, I opened the work-in-progress EDIFYING HYMNS for, I believe, the first time since early August. Meantime, I had scribbled down the beginnings of two original hymns. So, I completed one of them and whipped up original tunes for both. First, the one I finished; then, the one I still have some work to do on. I reckon I have five-sixths of Hymn 263 to write yet. It's an attempt at something like Psalm 119.

262. Hymn on the Efficacy of God's Word
Tune: EFFICACY, written last night by Yours Truly.
God is not dead, nor does He sleep,
Nor from His purpose turns aside,
Nor lies, nor jests, nor idly speaks;
What He affirms is not denied.
What He commands, straightway is done,
Pledged on His dear, eternal Son.

God’s word is strong, active, alive,
Speaking the darkness into light;
It both can heal and can divide,
Kindling faith and shaming sight.
Let reason sneer, law’s bailiff brood;
God’s foolishness is true and good.

God opens hearts, calling to faith;
God speaks through men and calls to men,
Bringing to life relics of death,
Making the broken whole again.
What He calls clean is clean indeed;
Likewise forgiven, favored, freed.

God’s word can do; it will suffice:
Trust it to do the Spirit’s will.
Use but the means that God supplies;
All that He vows, He will fulfill.
All that He has, already Yours,
Thereby into Your hands He pours.

263. Acrostic Hymn
Tune: ABECEDARIAN, also written last night by Moi.
Almighty God in heaven above,
Answer our cry with faithful love.
Account our cause before Your throne
According to Your holy Son.
As He descended to our state,
Anointed with the sinner’s fate,
All who by faith are grafted in
Are thereby reckoned free of sin.

Bend down with mercy in this hour
Before we perish by the pow’r
Beëlzebul, with thousand pranks,
Brings forth against Your City’s ranks.
Build up Her walls with words of strength;
Breathe peace throughout their height and length;
Bless them who, girded for the fray,
Bear arms in spirit night and day.

Cause angels from the realm of light,
Chaste warriors, to aid our fight.
Commit, as well, through storm and calm,
Clay vessels, charged with healing balm;
Call servants, feeble though they be,
Christ’s little lambs to oversee,
Correcting those who go astray,
Cleansed, fed and guided on Your way.

Delude the enemies who would
Destroy our peace, pollute our good;
Derange the counsels that devise
Deception in the gospel’s guise.
Defend the faithful, who defy
Denial of Your name most high;
Deliver us from all distress,
Decked daily in Your righteousness.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Aquaman

Jason Momoa, late of Baywatch and Stargate: Atlantis, debuted as Aquaman in last year's Justice League. He seemed to be right for the role, and this film confirmed it while earning the dubious distinction of sucking less than the previous handful of Marvel and DC movies. I really quite enjoyed most of it, and a lot of its imagery sticks in my head. There are some gorgeous fantasy-world vistas under the ocean, terrific creatures, rip-roaring fight scenes and, of course, the unreconstructed masculinity of Jason Momoa to deal with. When he cracks a smile, or at least smiles with his eyes, he goes the distance that Black Panther never can (i.e., showing even the slightest evidence of a sense of humor). He takes a serious beating and keeps going. He breathes air and water, whichever is most convenient at the time. He bridges two seemingly unbridgeable worlds, and steps up to protect the one (above the waves) against the other (deep below). He holds the screen against such acting powerhouses as Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman, not to mention the voices of Julie Andrews, John Rhys-Davies and Djimon Hounsou, perhaps more by an excess of charisma than by qualitative acting ability. He also gets to play around with such stars as Amber Heard (Zombieland, Pineapple Express), Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Insidious), Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV, Johnny Mnemonic) and Michael Beach (Third Watch). He battles a high-tech villain named Manta, challenges his own half-brother for the throne of a powerful underwater nation, survives attacks by swarms of creatures that amply illustrate how savage sea life can be, and succeeds in a quest to recover the McGuffin that entitles him to command everything that swims in saltwater. It would really be awesome if... if... well, if 40 percent of it wasn't so obviously computer-animated.

Tip: We're not as dumb as we look. Movie audiences can still tell whether we're watching something shot with live action, with lots of special effects layered on, or something entirely conjured inside a computer. And stuff entirely conjured in a computer just isn't as interesting to watch. Massive swarms of characters moving within a huge canvas just isn't that much fun to see. Epic battles stop feeling epic after less time than you think. Take note, DC Studios. Put everything that had live action in it on one side of the scales, and everything that had CGI in the other side, and I don't know how it balances out frame-for-frame but in terms of entertainment vs. boredom, this whole movie was pretty much a wash. Sorry! And I mean it. Because if you took some of that battle extravaganza out, I actually think this would be a more watchable movie with the added attraction of not being quite so trying on my 46-year-old bladder.

Also, Manta could have stood to be a more serious threat. Really, having two different boss conflicts going on in the story is probably what ultimately hurts this movie the most.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) Arthur Curry's (Aquaman) battle with Black Manta in Sicily, complete with rooftop-running exploits, explosions, real estate damage and serious injuries on both sides. (2) The Sahara desert interlude, including an interesting way to exit an airplane and a Raiders of the Lost Ark moment in an abandoned, underground city. (3) The flashback scenes in which Dafoe trains a younger Arthur to give him a fighting chance to claim his destiny under the sea.

I'm not guaranteeing that I'll see a sequel to this, if there is one. I make no promises that I will faithfully follow any film franchise that runs to multiple numbers. Sometimes I tune in; many times I don't. I would, however, be interested in an Aquaman sequel if there was credible buzz about it improving on the deficiencies noted above.

The Chaos King

The Chaos King
by Laura Ruby
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to The Wall and the Wing, Georgie has a bit of trouble adjusting to the change from being an unwanted orphan to the richest girl in the universe. She has her rare ability to turn invisible, but the boy she cares about has let his fame as a Wing – someone who can fly – go to his head. Though Bug doesn't really enjoy all the perks of being the airborne equivalent of a star athlete, he goes along with everything his agent says because he has to. But he doesn't understand why things aren't working out with Georgie. Meanwhile, she has to face the other girls at an elite school where, it should be no surprise, a girl who went from unwanted orphan to richest girl in the universe isn't kindly looked on. The loneliness of these two kids, and the bad feelings that come between them, are enough to stir the reader's sympathy, even before they get embroiled in a mystery involving a social clique of bored vampires, giant extinct creatures coming inexplicably to life, stone lions that stalk the basement of the public library, secret passages, double agents, an avant-garde art show that goes completely mad, and a seemingly all-powerful villain who has evil designs upon reality as we know it. Or rather, as Georgie and Bug know it, in their somewhat magical alternate world.

Georgie finds a girl who she thinks understands what she's going through, but she ends up disappointed. A homeless man with an army of cats finds himself on the run from a deadly enemy. Plots and counterplots, violent attacks and hostage situations, monstrous rampages and heroic saves, and embarrassing moments captured by news cameras (or worse, missed by them) change the fortunes of the two hero kids, test their ability to rely on each other, and begin to reveal deeper feelings in a story that seems to beg for another installment – though, more than a decade later, none has materialized.

Laura Ruby has also written the two "York" books (The Shadow Cipher and The Clockwork Ghost), plus several other books including Lily's Ghosts, I'm Not Julia Roberts, The Boy Who Could Fly, Bone Gap and, due to be released later this year, Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All.

The Last Kids on Earth

The Last Kids on Earth
by Max Brallier
illustrated by Douglas Holgate
Recommended Ages: 11+

During a fit of not being able to stand looking at their covers on the book rack at Walmart any longer, I bought this book and the previously reviewed Pottymouth and Stoopid one day and read them both before the day was out. Speaking of this book in particular, it was a fun, fast-paced diversion with amusing illustrations about a group of kids fighting to survive the zombie-and-monster apocalypse that has otherwise wiped out their town. The hero group includes a sometime foster kid named Jack, who now lives full-time in a treehouse; his nerdy best friend Quint, who has been studying different kinds of monsters and developing sciency weapons to use on them; school bully Dirk, who used to terrorize them, but who turns out to be a good guy to have on your side when school's out forever; June, the girl Jack has had a crush on since he came to town, and who turns out not to need as much saving as he'd hoped; and Rover, a devil dog who becomes kind of a pet. Together, they must survive swarms of brain-eating ghouls, giant mutant creatures and, biggest and baddest of all, the uncannily canny Blarg.

Told in a format that freely shifts between straight text and graphic novel panels, the story mines thrills and laughs both from Jack's adventures and from the way he imagines them, and himself, as more in line with a comic book hero's exploits. He doesn't let the fact that he's just a kid armed with little more than sports equipment get him down – at least, not for long. The promise of more to come is a welcome one, as the series starting with this book continues with The Zombie Parade, The Nightmare King, The Cosmic Beyond and, due out later this year, The Midnight Blade.

Brallier is also the author of such middle school readers' titles as Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? and its sequel Highway to Hell, The Galactic Hot Dogs trilogy (second book: The Wiener Strikes Back), two Lego Nexo Knights Academy books, and some humorous nonfiction such as Reasons to Smoke and Reasons to Drink. Under the pen-name Jack Chabert, he has also written 10 books in the Eerie Elementary series. Holgate, who hails from Australia, is also the illustrator of Something's Amiss at the Zoo.

Pottymouth and Stoopid

Pottymouth and Stoopid
by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
illustrated by Stephen Gilpin
Recommended Ages: 10+

As a rule, I don't read books of the type in which James Patterson receives top billing as author, followed by some other writer, usually listed in a smaller typeface. Patterson is only one of a handful of authors to whom this rule applies – authors who have allowed their names to become a brand and who, I rather imagine, did less of the actual writing of most of those books than the less famous writer operating in their shadow. The book racks at Walmart and your neighborhood supermarket tend to offer more of this type of book than any other except, perhaps, those cheesy romance novels whose selling point is the hunky guy depicted on their covers. I might be induced, someday, to peruse the books actually written by James Patterson, Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton; in fact, I've already read one or two by those last two guys. But on principle, I try very hard to avoid books whose big-font author is, for all I know, a front for a sweat-shop talent factory in which almost all the work is done by someone who isn't getting the credit they deserve. Also, there's a legitimate concern that the quality of the work may not be very high, since, on the one hand, you may wonder why it needs a great big brand name stuck on it to make it sell, and, on the other hand, the brand is coming out with new products at such a rapid pace that quality control must suffer.

Now I've gotten that off my chest, I'll give you a hint why I bothered to read this book. One reason is that I was frankly curious. I guess the cover art, and the fact that it was always there when I looked at the book rack at a particular store for months on end, made me wonder. Another reason is that the second-billing author, Chris Grabenstein, is one whose books (credited to him alone) I have already read and enjoyed. So, I gave it a shot. But don't expect me to start spewing reviews of the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" or "Middle School Diaries" production line. Not gonna happen.

It is, after all, a nice little book, in an unusual niche between a chapter book and a graphic novel, with lots of illustrations and even bits of dialogue in the form of comic panels. (The Last Kids on Earth had something similar going on.) It features a pair of misadventure-prone, lifelong buddies who, from the first day of kindergarten on, are bullied by their classmates, teachers and even their principal. Nobody calls them by their real name, but always by a couple of hurtful nicknames that, in spite of their mean-spirited intent, everyone comes to assume is all right. Then the deadbeat dad of one of the boys pitches the most hurtful version of their life story to the Cartoon Network, and animated characters based on them become an overnight TV sensation. This doesn't make things any easier for David and Michael – especially when their bullies realize that they, too, are being ridiculed on TV. Only when the media catches on to the fact that David and Michael are the real-life Pottymouth and Stoopid do things start to turn around.

This book isn't outrageously funny, but it has a nice streak of gentle humor that lightens up the touching and often sad story of two boys who can't help being a little different. They are lovable, distinctive characters. As for the talent displayed in this book, I really think Chris Grabenstein and Stephen Gilpin should have been trusted to carry it to success without sticking a great big James Patterson seal of soulless commercialism on it. Most of Grabenstein's numerous titles come under the Patterson umbrella, but Patterson's umbrella shelters so many other ghost writers that it's hard to believe he had much to do with them personally. Meantime, Grabenstein solo-authored the John Ceepak, Christopher Miller, Haunted Mystery, Mr. Lemoncello and Welcome to Wonderland series, The Explorer's Gate and The Island of Dr. Libris, as well as some Christmas-themed short stories and a play for children. Gilpin, meanwhile, has also illustrated at least some of the books in the Super Chicken Nugget Boy, Gecko and Sticky, and A-Z Mysteries series, as well as other children's books and comics, including Fart Squad and What to Do When You're Sent to Your Room. I've just looked through some of his catalog, and they're exactly the kind of pictures I want to look at when I'm feeling like a kid.