Friday, October 31, 2008

End-of-Month Debauch

Today's end-of-the-month debauch included a visit to Borders (where I spent a 40%-off coupon and bought 3 books), a movie (the richly textured kidnapping drama Changeling, for which Clint Eastwood deserves another best-director Oscar), and a meal (eggplant parmagian' at Pasta House). And now, in total defiance of my "It's Reformation Day, not Halloween" principles, I am sitting around waiting for trick-or-treaters with a jack-o-lantern-shaped bucket full of Dum-Dums. Let's unpack each of these frivolities, working backwards.

I picked up the Dum-Dums and the bucket at Wal-Greens on my way home, when I realized it was still only 7:00 and there still might be kids at large, begging for sweets. I figured if no one showed up, I could enjoy them myself over a more or less long period of time. It never hurts to have a pumpkin-shaped bucket around the house. And the price was right, $5 for a 2-pound bag of assorted-flavor suckers.

The Pasta House was the one at 9012 Gravois Road, about a mile outside the city in the village of Wilbur Park. It's an old, rambling restaurant that looks like it's had a few additions put on. The staff were all wearing cute costumes - cheerleaders, the devil, a nurse, a cat, etc. - and the place was really busy. I started with a couple of warm, crusty rolls and a big lettuce salad, drenched in parmesan cheese and vinaigrette dressing, and loaded with chunks of onion, pepper, and artichoke. Then came a huge plate with steamed broccoli at one end, shell pasta in bolognese sauce at the other. For the most part, I only had eyes for the enormous helping of melanzane alla parmigiana in the center of the plate. Some of it was very good, though not the best I've ever had. The sauce might have been a bit too tangy, I thought, and the breading was pretty soggy. But over all I was very satisfied.

What about the movie? It's a period piece, based on events that took place in the Los Angeles area between 1928 and 1935. It features Angelina Jolie as a single mother whose 9-year-old son Walter is snatched from their house one day while she is at work. You would think that when the police find a boy matching Walter's description, and admitting to be him, her nightmare would be over. But it's only just starting. For the boy who steps off the train and into Momma's waiting arms... isn't Walter. Jolie's character spots this right away, but the detective in charge of the case insists that she's just being difficult. When Jolie enlists the aid of a local crusading minister, and obtains testimony from her son's dentist and schoolteacher that the boy claiming to be Walter isn't her son, the detective has her committed to a psychotic ward where the police put a lot of women who get in their way. What began as a mere mother's worst nightmare turns into a horrific ordeal of police corruption and psychological abuse, all while a child serial killer continues to rack up victims.

This film sustains a high level of emotional intensity, largely on the strength of Jolie's heroic-yet-vulnerable performance. She is supported by a solid cast - many of them cast decidedly "against type" - including elegant Colm Feore as the crooked police chief, handsome Jeffrey Donovan as the sickening Captain Jones, often-creepy John Malkovich as the saintly Rev. Briegleb, everyman Michael Kelly as the good cop who really cracks the case, distinguished-looking Geoff Pierson as the lawyer who fixes everything, weasely Frank Wood as Jolie's apparent love interest, and boyish Jason Butler Harner as the unbalanced axe-murderer who ends up twitching at the end of a rope.

If I had been casting the movie, I might have shuffled those actors around a bit; but Eastwood draws surprising effects out of his choices, and underlines them with music he composed himself. A man of many talents, our Clint is. If you haven't been emotionally moved by the end of the movie, you're hopeless. If the acting and the story don't do it, maybe the mint-condition-antique look of the film will; it's beautiful to look at. And though perhaps it isn't "the thing" to see on Halloween (like a freakishly scary slasher flick), it does have some scary moments in it.

As for the books I bought...well, I went out with the intention of getting Anne Ursu's The Siren Song, but it wasn't to be had. Instead I spent my bucks on Alfred Kropp: The Seal of Solomon by Rick Yancey, The Day of the Djinn Warriors by P. B. Kerr, and Flora Segunda by Ysabeau S. Wilce. The first two carry forward series that I have been following; the third just looked good, and I intend to start reading it right away.

Finally, I may have said this before, but it's my duty as a Fine-Art-Music Snob to say it: If you're throwing a Halloween party, consider the classics as you choose chilling background music. Obvious choices are Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre, Liszt's Totentanz, Sibelius's Valse Triste, Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette, Mussourgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice, and Tchaikovsky's hair-raising depiction of hell in the tone poem Francesca da Rimini. But don't forget to throw in some shiver-inducingly nasty moments from the world of opera: Jago's Credo in un Dio crudel aria from Verdi's Otello; Menotti's Halloween opera The Medium; the Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner's Die Walküre; and to my ear the spookiest opera outtake of all, Rocco & Leonore's gravedigging scene from Beethoven's Fidelio. Rest in pieces!

Euro-Jongg, Mark 2

Some time ago I proposed special cards and rules for a westernized version of Mah Jongg, using the type of playing cards familiar to fans of poker and bridge. I have continued to brainstorm about it and have hit upon a few ways to dial down the complexity even more.

First, we may not need 193 cards after all. I'm now thinking a mere 187 will do. That's four suits (clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds) from Ace to 9 (=36 cards) times four (=144), plus one each of seven face-cards (kings, queens, jacks, bishops, wenches, horses, fools) in each suit (=28 cards), which brings us up to 172. Add four identical flower cards (say, a rose) - identical except each is indexed with a different suit. Likewise add four identical trees (oak?), four identical birds (falcon?), one in each suit (+12=184). Lastly, throw in three cards with a crown centered on each, one black, one red, and one gold. That brings us to 187.

The dealer distributes 13 cards to each player, then arranges the remaining cards into a "wall" made of 9 piles of 15 cards each. Each player in turn draws a card from the front of the pile or the waste pile. To draw from the waste pile, he needs to declare a Book, Tome, or Run and immediately lay down the relevant set of cards in his hand. Books are 3 number cards of the same number and suit, or 3 face cards of the same denomination; Tomes are 4 of ditto; and Runs are sequential sets of 3 number cards OR face cards (but not both) in the same suit. The aim is to "go out" by accumulating at least 4 such sets of 3+ cards, plus a Pair of the same denomination and (if they are number cards) suit.

A player holding one of the flower, tree, bird, or crown cards can lay it down for bonus points and draw a replacement card from the back of the wall. The fourth card in a Tome must also be replaced from the back of the wall. Play stops either when someone goes out, or when the next player cannot draw a card without breaking into the last untouched pile on the wall.

Points are then tallied as follows. Base score: 5 points for a Pair or Run of face cards, 10 for going out and for each open Book, 20 for each closed Book or open Tome, 50 for each closed Tome. Each Book or Tome of face cards scores double. Ditto Books and Tomes in the player's "seat suit."

Base score x2 bonuses: hand made up entirely of runs and a pair; all Aces and 9s; no Aces or 9s; all face cards; all red cards or all black; going out as the dealer. Base score x5 bonuses: all cards of the same suit; books of the same denomination in all 4 suits; 3 consecutive runs in the same suit; go out by making a pair; go out by drawing from the wall. Base score x10 bonuses: 4 consecutive runs in the same suit; go out by drawing from the back of the wall; go out by drawing last available card; go out on your first turn; completely hidden hand. Alternate "go-outable" hands worth a flat 1,000 points: 7 pairs; 14 sequential cards of the same suit; going out with no base score bonuses.

Points for bonus cards (birds, flowers, and trees): 5 points for each lonesome little bonus card; 25 for holding 2 bonus cards of the same type or the same suit; 100 for holding 3 ditto; 1,000 for holding all 4 ditto. If a lonesome bonus card or a set of bonus cards is in the player's "seat suit," its point value is x10. Points for joker cards (the 3 crowns): 10 points for holding one, 100 points for holding two; 1,000 points for holding all three.

The player who "goes out" deals the next hand. If anyone but the dealer goes out, the deal passes to the next player in turn. Each round of the game ends when all 4 players have lost the deal. The game may continue for any number of rounds, but if going 4 rounds, I suggest passing the "seat suit" markers to the left at the start of each new round.

And if this is too complicated, I have even brainstormed a "radically simple" version with only 172 cards. It is so stripped down, in fact, that I think it should be called "Mini-Jongg." In this version, only the 144 number cards and the 28 face cards are used; there are no bonus cards, so the only occasion for drawing from the back of the wall is when you make a Tome. Instead of 9 piles of 15, the wall has 8 piles. There isn't much need for seat suit markers, either. Again, play stops when the last pile of cards remaining untouched is about to be breached. Scoring is as simple as totaling up the base score and multiplication bonuses.

If you wanted to reduce the game to the absurd - somewhere between "Micro-Jongg" and a nondescript form of Rummy - you could simply shuffle 4 decks of bridge cards together (note, with all the kings, queens, and jacks, but none of the custom face cards I have proposed). After dealing the remaining cards are stacked in one or two piles, from either of which (or the waste pile) you can draw. Then you simply try to be the first player to come up with 4 books, tomes, and/or runs and a pair, and the face-card books and tomes now have to be of the same suit. At this rate you almost might as well forget about counting scores and just designate the player who goes out as the "winner." The game continues until some player has won enough times to make everyone else feel depressed.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


The Crystal Cave
by Mary Stewart
Recommended Age: 14+

Of the writing of many books about Arthur, Merlin, and the knights of Camelot there is seemingly no end. Of their beginning, of the real people and events that inspired them, we know little for sure. But tales of that romantic age, drawn from the legends of Britain and Brittany, hold such a fascination for readers today that we could lose ourselves in them, and many happily do so. If you filled a swimming-pool with such books and jumped in, you would probably plunge past this book or one of its companions floating near the surface among the leading entries in recent Arthurian fiction.

The Crystal Cave unfolds as an elegant, candid memoir of the childhood and early maturity of Merlin. The mage behind the throne of Camelot begins life as the illegitimate grandson of the king of South Wales. His early talent for seeing the future blossoms under the tutelage of a cave-dwelling hermit, until the deadly treachery of his uncle forces Merlin to flee. He finds his way across the Channel to Brittany, joining forces with the rightful high king of all Britain, who is preparing an invasion to take back his throne.

You'll gape in astonishment at what Merlin learns under the guidance of Aurelius Ambrosius, at how he uses his strange powers to aid in the latter's campaigns, and at the costly bargain with magic Merlin makes to arrange the birth of the Once and Future King. You'll squirm with suspense when the vile tyrant Vortimer takes him captive, and later when Merlin helps Uther take the Cornish fortress of Tintagel. Your flesh will creep as Merlin visits Stonehenge and other sacred places, and your blood will race as armies clash on the battlefield.

Readers and parents concerned about occult & adult content, take note: this wizard's chronicle summons power from several strange, historic religions, and has some sexual content including one particularly steamy scene. The book also has deaths that some sensitive, younger readers might find disturbing. Merlin's narrative surrounds his most impressive deeds with a cloud of ambiguity. You're never sure - perhaps because he isn't, either - how he did them, who or what gave him the power. Even told from Merlin's point of view, the book remains unclear as to whether Merlin's choices are right or wrong, wise or foolish. I suppose you'll have to read further in the series to find out.

For this is Book One of the Arthurian Saga, written 1970-1995 by a British writer mostly known for romance-mystery novels with a paranormal twist. Inspired by the Legend of Merlin as told by medieval historian-cum-romanticist Geoffrey of Monmouth, it comes complete with an informative Author's Note and the text of the original Legend. Other titles in this series include The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, The Wicked Day, and The Prince and the Pilgrim.

The Shadow Thieves
by Anne Ursu
Recommended Age: 12+

In this first book of The Cronus Chronicles, Minnesota-based author Anne Ursu poses the question: "What if Greek myths were real?" I know what you're going to say. You've read Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, so you've already covered this ground. Well, surprise! You haven't. Not like this. For this twist on the "today's teens meet Greek gods" premise isn't at all like Riordan's rollicking adventure of teens with demigod powers and cute, goat-footed sidekicks. It's a darker, spookier fantasy - though with its own witty, engaging style and its own touch of perverse humor. To be honest, I wasn't always sure that witty, engaging style agreed with me. Sometimes I thought Ursu laid it on too thick. But by and by it grew on me until I was completely won over. As for her perverse humor... Well, I've been to the Mall of which she writes, and the idea that it contains an entrance to the Underworld was so perfect that I had to pause for breath.

Charlotte Mielswetzki - all together now: Meals-Wet-Ski - lives in a city near that Mall, and unlike your typical hero of a Percy-Jackson-like adventure, there isn't anything special about her. She is, in fact, excruciatingly average in spite of the best efforts of her parents, who are a high school teacher and a child psychologist. Charlotte has a bit of an attitude problem, actually. The word "prickly" comes to mind.

Things start looking up when a stray kitten adopts her. But then her cousin from England comes to stay with the Mielswetzkis, and the bubble slips back the other way. Zachary - Zee to his friends - seems to have all the ingredients for popularity in one handsome, athletic, kitten-stealing package. Horrible, yellow-eyed men in inappropriate tuxedos start haunting Charlotte's dreams. But before she can settle down to enjoy a really bad mood about it all, kids at their school start getting sick. Really sick. And not getting better, either. It's as if a plague is sweeping through everyone in their age group who has come into contact with Zee. And since the same thing happened before, back in England, Zee thinks it's because of him.

Then the tuxedo men attack Charlotte and Zee for real, and the adventure veers into the world of Greek mythology. It turns out somebody has been building an army to invade the realm of Hades, King of the Underworld where people go when they die. And that somebody - a low-ranking immortal named Philonecron - is stealing children's shadows to do it. If the shadows are not returned, the children will remain sick; if their shadows are killed, the children will die. It is now up to Charlotte and Zee to infiltrate (shudder) the Mall... and then (double shudder) the world of the dead... in order to stop Philonecron's dastardly plan, restore the stolen shadows to their rightful owners, and save the whole world from eternal torment.

That might not sound like much to you. But to do it, they'll have to survive an ingenious trap, cross the River Styx, get past countless monsters and dangers, and encounter very real (but not very bright) gods. Zee will have to find something locked up inside himself, a courage and strength he doesn't know is there. And Charlotte - prickly, attitude-challenged Charlotte - will be just as important. It's a dark, dangerous, menacing mission for two misfit cousins who, to start with, don't think much of each other. By the end, you'll be grateful for the quirky style and the sly wit; and, if you're like me, you'll be on the lookout for Book Two, titled The Siren Song.

The Bagpiper's Ghost
by Jane Yolen
Recommended Age: 10+

In this third installment in the "Tartan Magic" trilogy, twins Jennifer and Peter squeeze one more creepy, magical adventure into the first week of a family vacation in Scotland. This time Peter foolishly invites the magic to find them, and the magical dog they met in The Wizard's Map leads them into the middle of a ghostly love story. Before you can say "By my fegs!" Peter is possessed by the spirit of an 18th-century minister.

Andrew McFadden's selfish meddling in affairs of the heart led to his twin sister's early death. Even in the afterlife, old Andrew refuses to let the ghosts of his sister and her bagpipe-playing lover settle down in happiness. Jennifer and her witchy Gran know that they must somehow settle this family feud, and soon, if they ever want their own Peter back.

With a chilling yet romantic twist on the legend of the "lady in white," this book ties up a lot of Scottish folklore and magic into a package young American readers can open and enjoy. Plus, it has a glossary that will help them live their fantasy of talking like a Scotsman. Complete in three slender, quickly-read books, this trilogy about magic in the land of Hogwarts should bring joy to many younger Harry Potter fans.

Dragon and Judge
by Timothy Zahn
Recommended Age: 12+

This is the fifth book in an excellent sci-fi series for younger readers. And yet it remains, by and large, unnoticed by the major booksellers. Neither Barnes & Noble nor Borders carries the Dragonback novels; I have looked for them, many times and at many branches. The story is always the same: "We can order this for you..." Order, shmorder! These are books kids need to see, so they can think about buying and reading them. I can't recommend them strongly enough!

I didn't have to order this book, as it turns out. After hunting in vain for it at any number of bookstores, I found it by accident at the grocer's, of all places. I was blowing time while having my car repaired at an adjacent shop, and as I mooched along an aisle of magazines and paperbacks, my eye fell upon Dragon and Judge peeking out of a small display of children's books. God bless the grocer!

In Books 1-4 of Dragonback, one gets acquainted with Jack Morgan and his symbiotic partner Draycos. Jack is an orphan being raised by a starship whose computer is programmed with the personality of his con-artist Uncle Virgil. Draycos is a K'da poet-warrior, an alien rather like a dragon, only he needs to spend some time in two-dimensional form, like a living tattoo on Jack's skin. Together they are trying to stop a bunch of shadowy villains from ambushing a Battlestar Galactica-like convoy of refugees from Draycos's part of the galaxy - refugees fleeing from the sinister Valahgua and their weapon simply, but aptly, called the Death.

In this fifth book, Jack and Draycos have been joined by another symbiotic pair: Alison Kayna and a female dragon named Taneem. It's hard to rely on them, though. Jack knows very little about Alison, and suspects her of having her own agenda. Taneem, meanwhile, is new at being a poet-warrior, and a bit mentally delayed - like a child in an adult's body. Nevertheless, a lot is going to ride on these uneasy partners. For as soon as Jack sets foot on the backwater world of Semaline, he is kidnapped by a bunch of canyon-dwelling aliens and forced to act as a dispute-resolving, crime-solving Judge-Paladin.

While Jack slowly works out what all this has to do with the identity and fate of his parents, Alison falls prey to a second kidnapping. Captured by the very villains who want to wipe out all the K'da, she ends up back on the planet Brum-a-dum, on the same plantation from which Jack escaped in Dragon and Slave. There are still slaves on the plantation, waiting for another liberator like Jack, and expecting Alison to be it. Only this time, the Brummgas are prepared for a slave uprising. And the only chance Alison has of staying alive is to crack the safe containing the coordinates where the K'da fleet plans to rendezvous - and the ambush where the fate of Draycos's people will play out in the sixth and final book, Dragon and Liberator.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Closest to Harry?

A MuggleNet reader named Tracy sent me feedback asking if I could name the one series of books closest to Harry Potter. Evidently she has read her copies of the seven Harry Potter books to shreds, and is champing at the bit to move on to the next thing. My reviews on the Book Trolley are all very nice, Tracy says, but she wants a narrower field to choose from.

While I could simply refer her to my "Top 45" list of books to get hooked on after Harry Potter, I reckoned she wanted a somewhat narrower scope. Nevertheless, I couldn't just give her one choice and say, "Read this, this is the closest you can get to Harry Potter." Instead, I came up with a dozen series of books, each similar to Harry Potter in some way. If you're where Tracy's at, perhaps my response to her can help you too. Here's what I wrote back:

I'm not sure which one you would consider closest - depends on in what ways you want it to be similar to Harry Potter. Nothing is exactly like it, but at least a dozen series come to mind. Each in its own way is "close" to Harry Potter. Try them and let me know which one you like best.
  • Diane Duane's "Young Wizards" series, starting with So You Want to Be a Wizard - New York City teens learn wizardry together at home. Excellent quality stuff, IMHO.
  • Emily Drake's "Magickers" series starting with (duh) The Magickers - American kids learn magic at summer camp. Not as well done as Harry Potter, though.
  • Diana Wynne Jones' "Chrestomanci" series, starting with Charmed Life - British kids in an alternate universe learn magic via private tutoring in a "Gosford Park"-style setting. Very good.
  • E. Rose Sabin's trilogy beginning with A School for Sorcery - I have only read the first two books, but Book 1 takes place in a private school for the magically talented, and Book 2 is a prequel that explains how the school was started.
  • Caroline Stevermer's trilogy beginning with A College of Magics - only the second book and half of the first book take place in a school of magic, and it's more of a college-level setting.
  • Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea is partly set at a school for wizards. This is the first book in a series.
  • Suzanne Collins's "Underland" series, starting with Gregor the Overlander, doesn't have a school of magic, but it does share Harry Potter's theme of a boy who enters a strange, undiscovered world and finds out that there are prophecies about him.
  • David Lubar's Hidden Talents and its sequel True Talents are about a group of misfit kids who meet at a correctional school and discover their "super powers" together.
  • Jonathan Stroud's "Bartimaeus" trilogy, starting with The Amulet of Samarkand, is about an apprentice wizard who rebels against his master and goes on to change the magical world.
  • P. B. Kerr's "Children of the Lamp" series, starting with The Akhenaten Adventure, is about young djinn (genies) discovering their talents and the nature of the magical world they belong to - though they don't actually go to a school for djinn.
  • Rick Riordan's "Percy Jackson & the Olympians" series, starting with The Lightning Thief, concerns a present-day summer camp for mortal children of the Greek gods.
  • Cinda Williams Chima's trilogy starting with The Warrior Heir also depicts teens finding out they have magical powers, including wizardry, and book 2 (The Wizard Heir) is partly set in a really scary school of magic.
Best of luck! and do let me know which series you like best!

EDIT: Oops - I just remembered another series for you, which makes a "baker's dozen"... Jenny Nimmo's "Children of the Red King" series, starting with Midnight for Charlie Bone. This series features a sinister boarding school where magically talented kids get extra attention. It's aimed at the younger end of the age range for Harry Potter fans.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Easily Confused Books 1

I've been noticing a number of books whose titles tend to get confused in the jumble at the back of one's brain. Starting with today's theme of "Thieves in Book Titles," I'm going to throw out a few examples of bunches of books that are increasingly hard to tell apart. The following is by no means an exhaustive list!

First, there is The Thief, pure and simple, by Megan Whalen Turner; but there is also, just as simply, Thief by Brian Winter. Then, with emphasis, comes The Real Thief by William Steig, The Second Thief by Travis Thrasher, Lady Thief by Kay Hooper, The Professional Thief by A Professional Thief, and The Holy Thief by Mark Borovitz and Alan Eisenstock. Topping them all is The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke, though he may be related to The Thief Queen's Daughter by Elizabeth Haydon.

Some of these thieves make competing claims: The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti, plus The Good Thief by James Buchanan, and a book of poems titled The Good Thief by Marie Howe.

Most book-title thieves, however, are rather specialized in their larceny. Consider The Art Thief by Noah Charney, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, The Map Thief by Heather Terrell, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, and another The Orchid Thief by Carolyn Keene.

Some thieves specialize in stealing intangibles, like The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas, The Dream Thief by Shana Abe, Storm Thief by Chris Wooding, The Tear Thief by Carol Ann Duffy, Sleep Thief by Virginia N. Wilson et al., The Water Thief by Ben Pastor, and Diary of an Oxygen Thief by Anonymous.

It seems a lot of time is being stolen these days. There is Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett, but also A Thief of Time by Tony Hillerman, The Thief of Time by John Boyne, The Time Thief by Linda Buckley-Archer, and (for good measure) The Thief of Always by Clive Barker. Some book-title thieves seem to specialize in particular points in time, such as The Christmas Thief by Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark, The Thanksgiving Thief by Carolyn Keene, and Thief in the Night by William Sears (one of several authors of a book with this or a similar title).

Sometimes you can sense a progression from one thief to another. For example, there are The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, The Fire Thief by Terry Deary, The Smoke Thief by Shana Abe. Then there are The Thief of Lives by Barb and J. C. Hendee, The Thief of Souls by Ann Benson, another Thief of Souls by Neal Shusterman, The Soul Thief by Cecilia Holland, another The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter, Thief of Hearts by Teresa Medeiros, and The Tale of the Body Thief by Anne Rice.

Some literary thieves will snatch the butter right off your bread, if you let them. Take The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland, The Honey Thief by Elizabeth Graver, Mysterious Cheese Thief by Geronimo Stilton, Grape Thief by Kristine L. Franklin, The Cupcake Thief by Ellen Jackson, and The Snack Thief by Andrea Camilleri and Stephen Sartarelli.

Other thieves seem to be carrying off people, such as The Bride Thief by Jacquie D'Alessandro, The Baby Thief by Barbara Bisantz Raymond, The Jesus Thief by J. R. Lankford, and in an obviously related category The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood.

There are even thieves, it seems, stealing hard-to-move items, such as The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolff, The Palace Thief by Ethan Canin, and Gallows Thief by Bernard Cornwell. And if this isn't talent enough, consider The Thief with No Shadow by Emily Gee and Demon Thief by Darren Shan.

Some thieves work together with members of other professions. Take The Cowboy and the Thief by Mychael Black and Shayne Carmichael, The Joker and the Thief by Raymond Obstfeld, The Merchant and the Thief by Ravi K. Zacharias, The Thief and the Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz, Beggerman, Thief by Irwin Shaw, and The Dancer and the Thief by Antonio Skarmeta and Katherine Silver.

And some books give away the location of their titular thief, such as The Thief in the Theater by Sarah Masters Buckey and The Thief and the Beanstalk by P. W. Catanese. It's a wonder these guys aren't caught.

I'm going to pass on many, many other thief-related titles, such as The Thief Taker, It Takes a Thief, Once a Thief, The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep, I Come As a Thief, To Love a Thief, and several different books titled To Catch a Thief; plus tons of thief-related books whose titles also include the name of a character or place. This is just a taster. And it's pretty amazing, isn't it!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Improvised Cat Toy

This week I put together two things my cats love into a single, homemade cat toy. And my cats love it!

Ingredient #1: Wind chimes. I used to live in a place that had little padded brace things attached to the hinges on the front door, to keep it from banging into the wall. Someone had given me a set of wind chimes, so I dangled it from one of those hinge braces at a height that my cats could just reach, if they stretched for it. I could tell by the amount of indoor, non-wind-assisted music those chimes made that the cats enjoyed playing with them. But lately I have lived in an apartment where the only place I could hang the chimes was a hook on the ceiling, which the cats couldn't reach. So....

Ingredient #2: A dangling string. I have a pair of sweatpants and several pairs of shorts that are held up by drawstrings. I have noticed in the past that, when the string is left dangling outside the waistband of my pants, the cats are drawn to it and want to play with it. This week when I was folding my laundry, I found a pair of shorts that was losing its drawstring. Since I couldn't put it back in, I pulled it out the rest of the way and tied the end of the string to the wind chimes. It hangs down to within a couple feet of the floor - high enough that my cats have to stand on their hind legs and reach for it.

The results have been hysterical. Every couple of hours, day and night, I hear one of my cats playing a recital on the wind chimes. When I'm in a position to watch, I see them stretching upward, and sometimes jumping up and down, to grab the string with their front paws and tug it on the way down. Often it's just one cat or the other, but I have also seen them taking turns at it, playing together. They dance and leap and show every sign of having a grand time. The result is a pleasant sound and, no doubt, some good exercise for my all-too-lazy cats!

Four Book Reviews

The Fairies of Nutfolk Wood
by Barb Bentler Ullman
Recommended Age: 10+

Since her parents' divorce, Willa has been caught up in a whirlwind of change. Change upsets her. She picks at her food, suffers bouts of nausea, and has strange dreams. One of those dreams prompts Willa and her mother to move away from the city and try something new in the country with its woods and mountains.

Soon they find a little fixer-upper home to make their own. Something draws Willa to the place, even. Is she dreaming? Is she seeing mirages? Or are there, perhaps, sparkly little people living in dollhouse-sized huts in the woods along Wicket's Road?

Willa isn't sure whether to believe in the Nutfolk or not. But she hears stories of them - little fairy people of a distinctively American type - from the elderly neighbor who takes care of her when Ma is at work. As she gets caught up in the mystery and magic of the Nutfolk, Willa starts to forget about the anxiety that twists her insides. She makes a friend. She shares a secret. She has an adventure with magic in it (maybe). And she starts to feel better.

This is a gentle, homey romp "behind nature's magic." It is touched by real-world problems that may make your heart ache, including the death of loved ones, alcohol abuse, family conflict, depression and anxiety, aging, and loneliness. But it is also warmed by hard work, a sun-dappled glen, inspired art work, courage, friendship, love, and a little bit of magic. It is a rare story in which fairies provide comfort and healing in an all-American setting. And the fairy magic is only part of the reason to cherish this gentle, charming book.

The Little Broomstick
by Mary Stewart
Recommended Age: 10+

I paused while reading Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave to relish this chilling little romp through a child's world of magic. Apart from her Arthurian Saga, Stewart is mostly known for books that blur the line between romance novels and supernatural thrillers. But in the midst of all that yucky grown-up stuff we also find a few magical tales for the young, such as Ludo and the Star Horse, A Walk in the Wolf Wood, and this book. You may have to search used booksellers for it. It's worth the trouble.

The adventure comes to a plain little girl named Mary Smith, one dull summer when she is staying with her elderly aunt in Shropshire. While mooching dispiritedly around the garden, Mary meets first an intelligent black cat, then a rare and magical flower, and finally an enchanted broomstick. Such a spirited little broomstick!

Before you can say boo! Mary has experienced her first terrifying, exhilirating broomstick ride. This takes her to the steps of a school of witchcraft quite unlike Hogwarts. And though it really is all a mistake - though Mary is only, by accident, a witch for a day - her arrival at Endor College proves as fateful for the school as for her.

The craft taught by Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee is strange and sinister. When Mary realizes what they are up to, she mounts a brave rescue mission. Aided by a boy she has just met, Mary races to escape from the magical world in a hair-raising chase involving brooms, wands, a book of spells, and a multitude of enchanted creatures.

For all we know, J. K. Rowling's creation of Hogwarts may have been influenced by this pint-sized thriller. Fast paced, laced with droll wit, and complete with a broomstick advertisement from Harrods, this delicious confection will satisfy anyone with a taste for Harry Potter.

Enna Burning
by Shannon Hale
Recommended Age: 12+

Here is the second of The Books of Bayern, a magical thriller-romance series that started with Goose Girl. If you have read that book, then you will already know the heroine of this one.

Two years after Princess Isi's fairy-tale marriage to Prince Geric of Bayern, happily-ever-after isn't looking so good. The prince's brother has died, so the royal couple is under more pressure than ever to produce an heir. But instead of having babies, Isi has problems. Her gift of wind-speaking has turned into a curse. Unable to control or filter out the voices in the wind, Isi is beginning to lose her mind.

Meanwhile, back in the forest, Isi's best friend Enna has problems of her own. Her brother Leifer discovers a buried scroll that teaches him how to control fire by magic. Suddenly this gentle forest lad is dangerous and hard to control. Just when it seems he may set the kingdom ablaze, news that the neighboring kingdom of Tira has invaded Bayern gives him a channel for the power that blazes within him. But the heat of battle proves too much for Leifer. And now Enna, desperate for a way to connect with her lost brother, takes up the vellum scroll and learns fire-speaking herself.

This decision could cost Enna everything. While she hopes she can help Bayern win the war - even believes that she must - a burning desire begins to consume her. It changes her, making her a stranger to her closest friends. And finally, it puts her and all of Bayern in deadly jeopardy when a charismatic Tiran officer captures her and tries to seduce her. Instead of being Bayern's last hope to drive the invaders out of their land, Enna may become the Tiran's ultimate weapon to destroy Bayern. At stake are her life, her sanity, and her ability to control the inferno within - plus everything and everyone she loves.

Enna Burning is the rare sequel that matches, if not surpasses, the quality of the original. Veering out of the sub-genre of novelized fairy tales, it delves deeper into a remarkable fantasy world in which certain people have amazing gifts: the gift of speaking to animals, to the elements of air and fire, and to the hearts of other people. Once again, author Hale shows us some of the exciting, and often terrifying, ways such gifts can be used. She shows us the horror of war, the cost of power, the agony of grief and guilt, and the confusing muddle of feelings that may be love. She crafts passages of exquisite suspense, gut-wrenching horror, and mystical eeriness; yet she also manages to include moments of romantic tenderness and comic relief.

In short, this book shows a compelling writer in full command of her craft, speaking to us as magically as her gifted characters speak to the elements they command. Once you read it, you will be on fire to pick up the third Book of Bayern, River Secrets.

River Secrets
by Shannon Hale
Recommended Age: 12+

This third of The Books of Bayern focuses on a character who provided comic relief in both Goose Girl and Enna Burning. Razo, the short and slight forest lad with the expressive face and the upright-sticking hair, has been chosen as one of Bayern's Own - the 100 personal bodyguards of King Geric - and apart from his friendship with Queen Isi, no one knows why. He isn't a good fighter with the sword or javelin. He can't win a fair wrestling match. All he seems to know how to do is eat, make jokes, and get into trouble. He has scars all over his body to show for it. And yet, when Captain Talone announces his hand-picked team to accompany the new Ambassador to Tira, Razo is one of them.

Even Razo comes to question this decision during the gruelling journey to the Tiran capital city of Ingridan and the tense, volatile weeks after their arrival. Some in Tira are unhappy about the end of the late war with Bayern. There are groups in Ingridan who want to go to war again. Some of them will try using assassination to get their point across. Everywhere Razo turns, he seems to be running onto the point of a knife or getting himself attacked by hostile Tirans.

Meanwhile, someone is leaving a trail of charred corpses lying around in places that throw suspicion on the Bayern delegation. Razo shares these suspicions, knowing that another member of their mission - his friend Enna - has the magical gift of fire-speaking. She has burned people in the past, though only during the war. Could she be burning again?

As Razo investigates this mystery, he gradually recognizes his own gifts that make him valuable to the diplomatic mission. Razo is a deadly slingshot, a capable spy, and in some ways a more effective ambassador than the Lady Megina who officially speaks for Bayern. He befriends the city's strange, lonely prince. He engineers a change in local fashion and public opinion. He spots clues no one else would notice. And against all odds, funny little Razo becomes a dashing hero in the eyes of a young Tiran lady with her own strange secret to protect.

If you read the first two Books of Bayern, you may have spotted Razo as a character who seriously deserves to have his own story. Here it is, with bucketloads of danger, mystery, intrigue, and action - and a generous serving of romance. Everything Razo does, says, or thinks will endear him to you, from the moments of levity he is always ready to provide to the troubled thoughts and soul-searching he does. You'll think you're cheering for the underdog until he discovers (and you with him) what he is capable of. And when you learn that Razo plays a major role in the fourth book in this series, titled Forest Born, you will surely add it to your wish-list.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Five Book Reviews

The Little Gentleman
by Philippa Pearce
Recommended Age: 10+

Bet lives with her grandparents the Allums, and often accompanies her grandmother when Mrs. Allum cleans house for the eccentric Mr. Franklin. One day, after Mr. Franklin breaks his leg in a fall, he asks Bet to do him a strange favor. She is to go out to a tree stump in the garden and read aloud from a book about worms. Bet does as Mr. Franklin asks, and soon makes the acquaintance of a mole. A talking, intelligent mole who has been touched by magic.

Little by little, Bet's new friend tells her his strange history. Some parts of it are scary, some parts sad. The magic has given the "little gentleman" an unnaturally long life and the intelligence to communicate with humans; but it has cut him off from his true home, his true nature, and his own kind. Bet learns that she can help her friend get home. But to do that, she must lose him forever.

This brief tale from the author of Tom's Midnight Garden is filled with a young girl's confusion at a time of change in her life - a turning point in her family and in the way she views herself. The chance of happiness is mixed with the risk of disappointment, just as the chance to show true friendship is tinged with the fear and pain of loss. It is a touching story, and one full of vivid scenes of nature, history, and a terrible side of magic. I urge you to welcome Bet, her family, and her flawed but memorable loved ones into your life. I urge you to experience this book.

The Battle of Bubble and Squeak
by Philippa Pearce
Recommended Age: 10+

Bubble-and-squeak is more than just a fry-up of leftover cabbage, potato, and sausage. In this story by the author of Tom's Midnight Garden, Bubble and Squeak are two gerbils that become the focal point of a family war.

Young Sid owns the gerbils. His younger sisters Peggy and Amy love them. Their kind, softspoken stepfather doesn't mind them. But their Mum is driven to distraction by them, and can't wait to find a way to get rid of them. Just when it seems the two innocent pets will tear the family apart, it suddenly brings them together in a surprising, heart-touching way.

Not all tales have to have orphans, magic, and a cosmic battle of good and evil in them. Here we see everyday people - perhaps like your family - people with some good and evil in each of them, engaged in an everyday battle. I think the battle will engage you too.

The Alchemyst
by Michael Scott
Recommended Age: 12+

Not to be confused with The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho - notice the title of this book contains the letter y - here is the first book in a series called The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. If you haven't already spotted a reason this book should appeal to Harry Potter fans, you need to re-read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone.

Yes, this is the same Nicholas Flamel who discovered the secrets of turning lead into gold and coal into diamonds, and who learned how to brew an elixir of immortality. Rumors of his demise have been exaggerated. The grave were he and his wife Perenelle were supposedly buried in 1418 was soon dug up and found empty. And although you know that Dumbledore told Harry the Flamels were going to die, this book finds them alive, well, and running a book shop in San Francisco.

Soon after this book finds them there, so does their arch-enemy, the somewhat younger Dr. John Dee - who was only born in the 16th century, and who used to cast horoscopes for Queen Elizabeth I. Dee obviously doesn't need the elixir of life, but he is after something else the Flamels have: the Book of Abraham the Mage, otherwise known as the Codex. This magical book, dating back to the dawn of human civilization, contains knowledge that could bring back the ancient gods (also known as the Elder Race) and end the world as we humans (or humani) know it.

Dee nicks most of the book and Perenelle. The only thing stopping him from destroying modern civilization is the handful of pages he left in the grip of a terrified teenager named Josh Newman. Now Flamel, Josh, his twin sister Sophie, and a relatively young Elder named Scathach (Scatty to her friends) must quickly prepare to defend themselves against attacks by Dee and the older, stronger, darker forces he serves.

Prepare for a primer on world mythology, wrapped up in a thrilling adventure with magical battles, bizarre creatures, and a couple of scared kids who are only just beginning to learn about the power in store for them. For it is, after all, only the beginning of a series. Though it isn't quite in the top tier of fantasy-adventure books - one could, for example, fault it for a certain repetitiveness - it is enjoyable enough to ensure that I'll be reading book two, The Magician.

by Christopher Paolini
Recommended Age: 12+

If you consider how strongly I endorsed Eragon - the first book of the Inheritance Trilogy - you might think it odd that it has taken me so long to get around to reading this second book. Written by the same youthful, Montana-based author, Eldest continues to follow the development of its hero from an illiterate, outdoorsy farmboy to a dragon-riding, magic-using, evil-emperor-defying warrior.

So why did I hesitate to read it? I don't know. Perhaps I was afraid - terrified, even - that it wouldn't measure up to the high standard of Paolini's debut. In fact, I'll even admit right now that I was swayed by a couple of strongly-worded internet rumors suggesting that Eldest was a huge failure. And the less-than-terrific movie based on the first book did nothing to encourage me to continue with the series. It was finally my boss's wife who convinced me that I had to read it. Besides, the final book - Brisingr - is out now, so I may soon know how the whole saga ended.

Now that I have read Eldest, I know that those vicious rumors were nothing more than irrational rantings. For I have now seen Paolini continuing to mature as a writer, and Eragon maturing with him. The series continues to draw on a broad background of past fantasy literature - not, as I have seen it unfairly described, in an act of plagiarism, but in a new synthesis and, at times, an homage to books we love. It is evident that Paolini loves them too. And it isn't just fantasy, either. When he casually dropped a sailor named Bonden into the story, I put the book down and did a little dance in the middle of my living room. Surely, any fantasy author who draws inspiration from Patrick O'Brian deserves the benefit of a doubt!

Eragon and his dragon partner Saphira have survived their battle with the tusked Urgals and the demoniac shade Durza. But Eragon has come away from the latter encounter with a crippling injury. Nevertheless, he goes to the enchanted forest of Du Weldenvarden to train among the elves - a highly accelerated training regimen, compressing a decade worth of studies into the months-long warmup to the next battle against the wicked King Galbatorix and his forces. At times, his physical and mental pain brings Eragon to the brink of despair. Meanwhile, he is frustrated in love, constantly provoked by a sparring partner who despises him, and pushed to the limits of his ability and beyond by a master who calls himself the Cripple Who Is Whole.

As moving as one may find the transformation that comes over Eragon during the main part of this book, no less compelling is the story of his cousin Roran. Embittered by Eragon's seemingly cowardly desertion the day their farm was burnt and Roran's father killed, Roran's anger grows when his village of Carvahall is threatened by the Empire's forces. A couple of hideous creatures called the Ra'zac are particularly interested in capturing Roran himself, because of what he may be able to tell them (under unthinkable torture) about Eragon. But the Ra'zac cross the line when they abduct Roran's fiancee.

In a trice, this soft-spoken man of the forest becomes a fiercely driven man of war, leading his small army on a desperate journey over mountains and sea, through breathtaking dangers, until the cousins finally meet on a battlefield. And on that battlefield, Eragon experiences the fulfillment of a prophecy, going all the way back to the first book, that someone in his family will betray him.

This middle book is a book about transformations. Some of the transformations - as in the cases of Roran and Eragon - are moving to behold. Others are horrifying; read the book and you'll know what I mean. Though perhaps Eragon's personal journey isn't as thick with thrilling incidents as it was in Book 1 - though at times Roran cuts a more heroic figure - he becomes more and more a force to be reckoned with. And then comes the awful surprise delayed until nearly the last chapter - a surprise you at least partly expect, because of promises made on the front cover. Honestly, I totally expected that surprise, and have dreaded it since witchy-woman Angela's prophecy in Eragon; but from his vantage point in the center of it all, Eragon had no reason to expect it. And reading the shock in his eyes was just as good as feeling surprised myself.

I won't delay your reading of Eldest any longer, except to warn you that it contains a magical mistake whose results will really creep you out; a battle (also involving magic) that may upset you almost as much as it upsets Eragon himself; and an elven Yoda whose atheistic philosophy of magic sounds, at least at one point, like a "god is not good" tirade by Christopher Hitchens. Mr. Paolini is welcome to his religious (or irreligious) convictions, and I don't blame him for bringing them to bear on his own fantasy world; I would only warn him that, by demystifying the magic of that world, he risks making it less magical for his readers. Perhaps this only poses a greater challenge to him in making Brisingr a satisfying climax to his trilogy. I think (and hope) he may be up to that challenge.

100 Cupboards
by N. D. Wilson
Recommended Age: 12+

A reader named Emily sent me feedback saying I should read this book. Over the years I have become quite jaded about reader recommendations. Once or twice a year I forward a few hundred of them to the editors at MuggleNet and have them added to the Reader Recommended Titles list. Other than that, I don't concern myself much with what other people say I should read. I already have plans to read more books than I have time for. But then Emily wrote me a five-sentence email about 100 Cupboards and something she said - I really can't remember what it was - intrigued me enough to go to a bookstore. After I read what the dust-jacket said about it, I decided I had to read this book right away - hardcover or not. And I did. And now I thank Emily for nudging me toward the first book in a new fantasy series that I will surely, and eagerly, follow.

It begins when a boy named Henry steps off the bus in the small, remote town of Henry, Kansas. He has come to stay for a while with his Aunt Dotty and Uncle Frank, who at first remind one of the couple in the painting American Gothic, and with his cousins Penny, Anastasia, and (ha, ha) Henrietta. How long a while? Possibly forever, because Henry's parents have been kidnapped in Colombia and there is no way to be sure they'll ever come home. How does Henry feel about this? He feels guilty, in the second place, because in the first place he feels relieved. Henry's parents have raised him to fear everything. This has made it hard for him to fit in with other kids his age, hard to learn to do things he wants to do - like playing baseball - and really hard, as he soon finds out, to master his own fear and act with decisiveness and courage.

But the town called Henry will soon give the boy called Henry a chance to do all those things. It will be good practice. Especially the last bit. Because he will need to make courageous decisions as a terrifying, magical adventure unfolds around him. And he will need courage to face the question about who he really is and where he came from.

For Henry's real parents aren't the ones being held captive in Colombia. They are somewhere in another world, a world that exists perhaps in another time or another universe. Whatever world it is, though, there is a door that leads to it somewhere in the farmhouse owned by Uncle Frank and Aunt Dotty. It'll be one of the 99 worlds behind the 99 cupboard doors that Henry finds behind the plaster in his bedroom. But before he can find the world where he truly belongs, he must face a series of threatening letters from one of those worlds, a tremendously evil witch from another, and the ominous secret that lurks behind the door that no one has been able to open for two years. He will have to plunge into one hair-raisingly perilous world after another to save one of his cousins who has gotten lost. He will emerge with new friends, new enemies, and at least a hundred possibilities in store for his next adventure.

I immensely enjoyed this quirky, thrilling fantasy. I sympathized with Henry - I hate to say in how many ways - yet enjoyed a private snicker at the burn notice that addressed him as "Whimpering Child." I adored each individual in his family, from the quietly amazing Uncle Frank to the snotty little monster Anastasia. I stood in awe at the intellect, sensitivity, and originality evident in its writing. And I pass on to you what Emily passed on to me: a love of this book that I hope you, too, will share with others.


When I first noticed the poster for the new western film Appaloosa, I thought it had Clint Eastwood on it. Then I looked closer and saw that it was only Ed Harris. "Only" Ed Harris? He led the cast of the movie. He co-wrote the movie. He produced the movie. He directed the movie. Heck, he cast his father in it - Bob Harris, whose handful of acting credits have all been in projects featuring Ed Harris, and who here appears as an elderly judge. Ed Harris left his stamp all over this film.

And ultimately, he makes good on his first-glance resemblance to Clint. For it is a tough, manly, atmospheric western. It creates a sense of vast space, and fills it with suspense and melancholy, enlivened by occasional explosions of violence. It puts its cast in a situation from which one knows they cannot escape without tragedy, and makes us watch the whole grim unfolding.

If I had to complain about one thing, however, it would be a vague feeling that the unfolding wasn't as grim as the situation promised. Did Harris fall so in love with his characters that he had to spare them a measure of suffering? He should worry more about us than them.

The situation presents itself when Jeremy Irons shoots a town marshall and two deputies off the backs of their horses. The unfolding begins when Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen ride into the western town of Appaloosa. Longtime partners in the "peace-keeping business," as Mortensen's voice-over calls it, they have come at the request of the local aldermen (including Timothy Spall) to investigate the disappearance of their lawmen. Harris forces the aldermen to give him sweeping powers. Together with his 8-gauge-wielding deputy, he soon stares down Irons and his goons in what promises to be a highly sanguinary feud.

The tragic tableau seems set when an intriguingly well-groomed widow, played by Renée Zellweger, rides in on the train and sets herself up as the piano player in the hotel bar, breaking local precedent by being neither accompanied by a man nor a prostitute. Zellweger charms the socks off of Harris, and you squirm with the joy of anticipated anguish as flashes of jealousy between her and Mortensen flicker on the horizon. By the time Zellweger makes a pass at Mortensen, then throws him out when he spurns her, you're positively rubbing your hands together.

But Harris never lets the expected tragedies boil over. He leaves the Irons affair to simmer while he heats up the Zellweger one. When he swaps back to the Irons plot-line, it seems to have mellowed. A young cowboy turns state's evidence against Irons. Harris and Mortensen sneak into Irons's ranch and cut him out without spilling a drop of blood. In spite of all the tension leading up to the trial, the witness lives to deliver his testimony and rides away, safe and sound, never to be seen again. Meanwhile, a new ingredient enters the stew: a pair of gun-for-hire brothers played by Lance Henriksen and Adam Nelson.

It doesn't come as much of a surprise when these brothers help Irons escape from his slow train to the gallows, taking Zellweger with them as a hostage. Nor, frankly, is it very surprising when Harris and Mortensen catch up with their quarry and find Zellweger fooling around with Henriksen. What is surprising, and sometimes disappointing, is how easily things seem to work out for Harris and Mortensen. Up to the gunfight that results when Henriksen and Nelson lead them into a trap, they seem to work things out too easily for tragic, western heroes. They capture Henriksen's party, Irons and all, without a shot being fired. They avoid having their throats cut by Indian raiders. And when Zellweger claims that Mortensen "put his hands on" her, and Mortensen flatly denies it, Harris simply believes Mortensen. By the time Harris and Henriksen's duel turns into an ambush, you're starting to feel more like you're watching a romantic comedy than a western tragedy.

But then the true shape of the arc comes clear. It's not an everybody-must-die, last-man-standing type of story. It's about how a wild, dangerous, nomadic lawman like Harris becomes tamed, de-fanged, and house-trained. How he begins to lose his power, together with his wanderlust, while his younger, still-wild partner Mortensen itches to move on. How his complex relationship with Zellweger and his position in Appaloosa teeter on the brink as a pardoned and newly-respectable Irons takes everything over. And how, after a grim, low-key buildup, Mortensen solves all these problems - at least temporarily - with a single bullet.

It may never be said that this movie was taut, gripping, or intense. It has its moments, but in the end it seems to be a portrait of a strong character when his powers have begun to slip away, and of a manly friendship that has started to be unmanned. The tragedy ends up being about the end of Mortensen's and Harris's partnership. And although Harris and Zellweger end up staying together in Appaloosa, the romance rides out of it at the end, accompanied by another low-energy voice-over by Mortensen. It isn't a thriller or an emotionally devastating movie. It is simply a neat - perhaps too neat - little story about a parting of the ways between two men who walked the thin line between law and outlaw.

A last murmur: Viggo Mortenson is terrific, but he should never be allowed to deliver a voice-over. As this film repeatedly demonstrates, his acting loses 82% of its charisma when you can't see the smolder in his eyes.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Composing Day

The iron was hot, so I struck. In spite of being 80% ready to send out 3 more resumes, I spent most of today working on musical compositions that have been warming on the back-burner of my brain for years and years. They wanted out and now was their chance.

Two of the pieces have been mentioned retroactively in Tuesday's list of my chorale-based works. It's wonderful how you can revise history through the miracle of Blogger and its "Edit Posts" feature. I ransacked some old notebooks and found a couple of musical sketches - "improvised" hymn intros that I scribbled down maybe 10 years ago. Neither of them was a complete setting of a hymn tune; but they seemed well started, so I finished them.

Then I tackled a project I have been putting off and off and off. A friend of mine in California has been needling me to write a choral extravaganza on the hymn "Christ Jesus lay in death's strong bands." We're talking a setting of all seven (7) stanzas of Luther's resurrection hymn. Until today all I had done was brainstorm (decide which section of the choir would have the melody and in what key) and write a prelude, which I can't seem to find at the moment. It's just as well; I was never quite happy with the prelude. The way things are going now, the piece may not need one. Since lunchtime I have written the first two-and-a-half stanzas' worth of this whatever-it-is (motet? chorale fantasia?). And God Saw That It Was Good.

In fact, the first stanza appeared in my mind quite suddenly, complete and clear in every detail, including the dynamics, which are often the last thing I grudgingly add to a score. It's very exciting when that happens. I felt I was discovering something, rather than inventing it. And it touched me and surprised me. It unfolds quite differently from how I would have planned or expected it to go. And to think I've been planning myself to the point of paralysis on this piece! Sometimes, it seems, "relax and let go" is a key part of the process.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Revisionist Lyrics

Bought me a cat and the cat pleased me,
I fed my cat under yonder tree.
Cat goes Thufferin' thuccotash!

Bought me a hare and the hare pleased me,
I fed my hare under yonder tree.
Hare goes Eh... What's up, Doc?
Cat goes Thufferin' thuccotash!

Bought me a duck and the duck pleased me,
I fed my duck under yonder tree.
Duck goes You're dethpicable!
Hare goes Eh... What's up, Doc?
Cat goes Thufferin' thuccotash!

Bought me a mouse and the mouse pleased me
I fed my mouse under yonder tree.
Mouse goes ¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!
Duck goes You're dethpicable!
Hare goes Eh... What's up, Doc?
Cat goes Thufferin' thuccotash!

Bought me a bird and the bird pleased me,
I fed my bird under yonder tree.
Bird goes I taut I taw a puddy tat!
Mouse goes ¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!
Duck goes You're dethpicable!
Hare goes Eh... What's up, Doc?
Cat goes Thufferin' thuccotash!

Bought me a pig and the pig pleased me,
I fed my pig under yonder tree.
Pig goes Th-th-th-that's all folks!
Bird goes I taut I taw a puddy tat!
Mouse goes ¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!
Duck goes You're dethpicable!
Hare goes Eh... What's up, Doc?
Cat goes Thufferin' thuccotash!

Bought me a skunk and the skunk pleased me,
I fed my skunk under yonder tree.
Skunk goes Ah, my little darling, it is love at first sight, is it not, no?
Pig goes Th-th-th-that's all folks!
Bird goes I taut I taw a puddy tat!
Mouse goes ¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!
Duck goes You're dethpicable!
Hare goes Eh... What's up, Doc?
Cat goes Thufferin' thuccotash!

Bought me a horse and the horse pleased me,
I fed my horse under yonder tree.
Horse goes Hello, Wilbur!
Skunk goes Ah, my little darling, it is love at first sight, is it not, no?
Pig goes Th-th-th-that's all folks!
Bird goes I taut I taw a puddy tat!
Mouse goes ¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!
Duck goes You're dethpicable!
Hare goes Eh... What's up, Doc?
Cat goes Thufferin' thuccotash!

Bought me a dog and the dog pleased me,
I fed my dog under yonder tree.
Dog goes Ruh-roh, Raggy!
Horse goes Hello, Wilbur!
Skunk goes Ah, my little darling, it is love at first sight, is it not, no?
Pig goes Th-th-th-that's all folks!
Bird goes I taut I taw a puddy tat!
Mouse goes ¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!
Duck goes You're dethpicable!
Hare goes Eh... What's up, Doc?
Cat goes Thufferin' thuccotash!

Well, it's a good thing I'm out of stanzas. It's hard enough to imagine buying a skunk, but even willing suspension of disbelief would have a hard time accepting a bear ("I'm smarter than the average bear!") or a roadrunner ("Beep beep!"). My apologies to Charles Ives.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Creative Idea

I have been pulling together some of the church music I have written in the past few years. Maybe I'll try to interest some people I know at Concordia Publishing House. It would be neat to get them published.

First, way back when the new LCMS hymnal was in its early planning stages, I submitted an original setting of the Divine Service to the Commission on Worship as an entry in a sort of contest. I later heard over 70 settings were submitted. Mine wasn't picked to be submitted to the Synod for approval; but then again, the settings that were picked never made it in the hymnal anyway. But I think my submission had some nice musical ideas in it, and maybe some of the longer bits could be marketed as choir anthems.

Second, between my college and seminary years I composed several SATB, TTBB, and (in one case) SSA choir pieces. Most of them are based on hymn tunes, though I have also written several pieces based on the Easter Vigil and, within the past few weeks, a setting of Psalm 133. One of these choir numbers actually got performed and recorded by the Seminary Kantorei in Fort Wayne. A couple others were at least given a reading, in one case by the St. Olaf College alumni choir Magnum Chorum - my closest brush with fame so far. To make these choral works marketable, I think I would need (A) to touch up the voice-leading of the SSA piece and maybe replace the text; (B) transform the TTBB pieces into SATB and add piano reductions to aid in rehearsal; and (C) prepare keyboard-only versions, with no choir parts, to beef up my chorale prelude catalog.

Third, I have more recently written several chorale preludes, and some pieces for my church choir that I have already transformed into organ pieces. Together with the keyboard arrangements in C above, I could very soon have a decent, publisher-ready bundle of preludes to market as my own "Little Organ Book" or "First Book of Chorale Preludes." At the same time, I could bundle up the choir pieces in a similar collection. I reckon being able to offer the same music in both choral and keyboard formats might actually make them more marketable. Then, perhaps with my "foot in the door," I could look forward to commissioned work and royalties to support my composing habit. Wouldn't that be nice!

The hymn tunes I have treated so far:
  • Ach bleib bei uns (Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide)
  • Allein zu dir (In Thee alone, O Christ, my Lord)
  • Alles ist an Gottes Segen (All depends on our possessing)
  • Aus tiefer Not (From depths of woe)
  • Der mange skal komme (Lo, many shall come)
  • Es ist das Heil (Salvation unto us has come)
  • Es wolle Gott (May God bestow on us His grace)
  • Fred til Bod (Peace to soothe)
  • Hiding Place (When time was full)
  • Ich sterbe taeglich (I come, O Savior, to Thy table)
  • Jesu Kreuz, Leiden und Pein (Jesus, I will ponder now)
  • Lasst uns erfreuen (A hymn of glory let us sing)
  • Lobe den Herren (Praise to the Lord, the Almighty)
  • O Lamm Gottes unschuldig (Lamb of God, pure and holy)
  • O Mensch, bewein (O man, bewail thy sin so great)
  • Valet will ich (Farewell I gladly bid thee)
  • Vom Himmel hoch (From heaven above to earth I come)
  • Warum sollt ich (Why should cross and trial grieve me)
  • Wir glauben all (We all believe in one true God)
  • Wo soll ich fliehen hin (O bride of Christ, rejoice)
What do you think? Is that a long enough table of contents for my "First Book of Chorale Preludes"? Some of them have multiple variations of the same tune, since they were originally written as choral motets. I've bought books of organ music that had less in them. Gee, would it be nice if someone else would buy mine!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Flipped-Out Tackiness

For those who enjoy a refreshing kick of spiritual tackiness, the ELCA church down the street from my place rarely disappoints. The last two weeks in a row, it has boasted two-sided lighted-sign messages. Last week it was: CANCER IS A WORD, NOT A SENTENCE. And on the flip side: CANCER AWARENESS WEEK, etc., etc.

This week's two-faced tackiness reads: IF WE CAN CONQUER SPACE, WE CAN CONQUER CHILD HUNGER --BUZZ ALDRIN. And on the flip side: JOIN US TO FIGHT POVERTY, SUNDAY 10 A.M., etc.

That's two weeks in a row that the message has been about social causes and humanitarian issues. Which is all very nice, but where is Christ? Do the members of this church need God for any reason, other than to bring them together so they can do good? Do they need Christ as anything but an example of how to liberate the world? Do not sin, death, and the armies of spiritual darkness oppose them or trouble them at all?

Clearly, most of these people are going to vote for Obama. After all, he's going to heal the world, right? And that's what it's all about.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Scope Some Gyros

I always feel good about myself when I discover a top-quality, hole-in-the-wall eating joint. I found one recently when a rain squall drove me indoors while I was walking between my bank and the grocery store where I had parked my car. It was a tiny, family-owned shop called the Gyro Company, at 7240 Gravois Rd. in St. Louis city, on the corner of Allemania Ave., about a block northeast of the corner where Hampton and Germania meet at Gravois.

I had a nice gyro there, but I wasn't sure that was enough to base a food review on, so I went back a few days ago and had a "gyro supreme." It was as exceptional as their regular gyro: succulent, pressed beef with just the right amount of crispiness from being fired up on a vertical rotisserie, folded into a piece of soft flatbread, and topped with onions, lettuce, and that tart, yogurt-and-cucumber concoction that I love - tsatsike, or zaziki sauce, depending on whose spelling you go by. The "supreme" gyro adds tomatoes and the clincher, feta cheese. I salivate thinking of it.

I have had decent gyros at many places, but for a little corner shop that serves its food in a plastic basket, the Gyro Company does an exceptional job. They have a few wrinkles in their operation - for example, they let their soda fountain run out of carbon dioxide, so the only drinks you could get for several days were canned soda and bottled water. But they really know how to carve that juicy, crispy meat off the turntable and serve it on soft, delicious bread, with equally good stuff on top. They also serve spanakopita (a flaky pastry number with spinach in it), baklavas (the same pastry, only filled with nuts and enough honey to knock out a Pooh bear), various cakes and custards, and my latest serendipitous discovery: doner kebabs.

D.K.'s, as the Gyro Company makes them, contain pretty much the same stuff that comes on a gyro supreme. But, instead of folding it into a pice of flat bread, they slice a pocket into a slightly-less-flat disk of raised bread and stuff the fillings inside. The bread was so soft it had to be fresh, and it had a wonderful, sweetish, hand-made taste. It was all that a gyro supreme is, except perhaps bigger and better. Truly, my taste adventures have just begun if that was really my first doner kebab. But if you haven't ventured to try one, I would recommend it. On my last visit, I brought a friend, who tried the gyro supreme, the doner kebab, and the baklava, and who repeatedly seconded my opinion that the Gyro Company serves great food.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Movie Not To Miss

A movie I have been eager to see opened today. I've just come home from a matinee, and I must say, The City of Ember is not to be missed. Based on the book by Jeanne DuPrau, it tells the beautiful and riveting story of a city that has existed underground for 200 years.

The inhabitants have no idea that there is anything outside the circle of electric light that surrounds their city. But time is running out. Their generators are failing and nobody knows how to fix them. Replacement parts have long since run out. Supplies are getting low, and blight is killing an increasing portion of their crops. Yet no one believes there is any way to escape, or anywhere to escape to, since the instructions to exit the City of Ember have become lost through a twist of fate.

The turning point comes one Assignment Day, when kids of a certain age (say, 14) are assigned their careers by a blind drawing. A boy named Doon Harrow, who believes he can figure out how to fix the generators, draws the assignment of messenger. A girl named Lina Mayfleet, who loves to run and mix with people, gets assigned to the pipe works. So, on impulse, the two classmates swap assignments . . . and thus become the right people, at the right place and time, to unlock the secrets of Ember before it's too late.

The film is gorgeously produced and excellently cast. I think it tells its story very effectively, and a moving story it is. Playing the villain is funny-man Bill Murray - a choice you won't think of as "casting against type" once you see it. Toby Jones plays his seemingly mild-mannered assistant. Doon's father is played by Tim Robbins, and the old hand who shows Doon around the pipe works is Martin Landau. Liz Smith, who was the more senile of Charlie's two grannies in the late Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, appears as Lina's granny; after granny dies, the lady who takes Lina in is Mary Kay Place. Lina's friend who works in the greenhouses is Marianne Jean-Baptiste of TV's Without a Trace.

But the cast members I must particularly note are the exceptional young actors who played Doon and Lina. The latter is Saoirse Ronan, who at age 14 has already been nominated for an Oscar (for her role in Atonement). She is a sweet-looking, vivacious girl who can handle a range of emotions without looking like she's acting. I thought she was the perfect choice for Lina, and what's unexpected is that she acts on the level of the adult stars with whom she shared the screen. Beside her as Doon was young-looking-for-24 Harry Treadaway, who first appeared with his real-life twin Luke in 2005's Brothers of the Head (about a pair of conjoined twins who become rock stars). He played Doon with the correct mixture of brooding intensity and gentle innocence - which must have been a difficult balance to hold.

I see a bright future as lead actors for these two attractive and talented young professionals. And, if this film has anything like the success it deserves, I see them working together on the sequel, based on DuPrau's equally excellent book The People of Sparks.

IMAGES: Treadaway and Ronan as Doon and Lina; Murray as the mayor of Ember. I wish I could find more stills, or better ones. There simply aren't any out there! If this movie flops, it will certainly be because it hasn't gotten the publicity it deserves. That, and maybe because there's more too it than the all-sugar-and-air confections that pass for family fare these days.