Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Grocery Shopping Whimsy

Sights seen, and thoughts thunk, while shopping at a multi-ethnic, discount-priced grocery store today...

This is FANCY Ketchup. If you want a condiment based on FACT, buy another brand.
This milk chocolate is FULL COOL.
So this is what...ROOM TEMPERATURE?
This sauerkraut is OLD FASHIONED. None of that HIGH-TECH SAUERKRAUT for us.
And it isn't only the Amish who say so.
Nope. I'm just speechless.
I actually decided to try this last one, because it was on clearance for $.29. It's the best chocolate-covered-banana-flavored candy bar I have tried so far. Skinny, curved like a banana, with a marshmallowy center, it's coated with the same kind of chocolate as those "jaffa" tea biscuits you may have tried... Quite weird, actually.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Captain Blood

Captain Blood
by Rafael Sabatini
Recommended Ages: 12+
As they went, he considered her admiringly, and marveled at himself that it should have taken him so long fully to realize her slim, unusual grace, and to find her, as he now did, so entirely desirable, a woman whose charm must irradiate all the life of a man, and touch its commonplaces with magic.
I chose this quote to illustrate why this book has been so popular since it first appeared in 1922: It is beautifully written, achingly romantic, and full of swashbuckling fun. It's the kind of novel that you can imagine being made into a film starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland—which it was, in 1935. This was a remake of an even earlier silent film. Even if you haven't seen one of these films or read this book, you have probably heard of Captain Blood. His name has become embedded in our culture's folklore, tied in with children's make-believe about buccaneers and knights-errant of the sea. There is probably a direct line of lineage between the legend of Captain Peter Blood and the Disney franchise of Captain Jack Sparrow.

Peter Blood does not start out as the sort of many you would expect to become a pirate. A physician by training, a soldier and naval warrior by experience, he has just settled down in a quiet corner of England's West Country when the Monmouth Rebellion breaks out. This bit of trouble was a response to the Catholic James II becoming king of Protestant England in 1685. Being an Irish Catholic himself, Peter takes no part in the rebellion. But when he is caught giving medical aid to one of the rebels, the full frenzy of the Lord Chief Justice falls on him and he is sentenced to hang for treason. Perhaps it's a stroke of luck that King James decides to commute the sentence of several rebel-convicts, Blood among them, to ten years of slavery in the plantations of the West Indies. The young doctor doesn't feel very lucky, though. The injustice rankles him, and the cruelty of his master—a certain Colonel Bishop—embitters him, even though he is allowed to continue practicing medicine rather than toiling in the fields. Arguably the hardest part of his servitude, however, is his growing devotion to the slave-master's niece, a frank tomboyish beauty named Arabella—hard because of the uncrossable barriers between them. When Blood seizes a chance to escape into a career of piracy, the barriers to their love become even more cruel and seemingly impossible to get over.

I won't spoil for you what shape this opportunity for escape takes, but obviously it has something to do with ships and sailors and a daring band of outlaws. They roam the sea, mostly taking their feelings out on the Spanish navy, which at that time was little better than a band of pirates itself. They take prizes, recruit followers, and grow into a fleet of buccaneers, based on the lawless French island of Tortuga. And Peter Blood commands them all, exerting a remarkable degree of discipline (for pirates) and restraining their most uncivilized impulses. As far as anyone can in the circumstances, Blood remains a civilized, honorable, thinking pirate. And his men put up with it because, well, he's just so good at it. Sometimes, though, this means walking a dangerous line between doing what he sees as right and losing control of his crew. And sometimes, even that isn't enough to justify himself to the specter of Arabella Bishop who rules over his conscience.

There are some funny, old-fashioned expressions in this book, such as "what time" (meaning "while") and "filibuster" (meaning "pirate"). There are a few sentences you may have to read twice before you can sort out their grammatical subtleties. And there are a couple of plot threads that Sabatini drops without explanation—such as the ominous report of Lord Julian's developing villainy, which leads to nothing much in particular. In the balance, however, are a love story so juicy that you'll feel wetness on your cheeks, a series of sea adventures each more gripping than its forerunner, and a tale of poetic justice so satisfying that you will close the book with a sigh and a smile.

If you read this book unawares, you may come away convinced that there really was such a historical person as Captain Blood. Prolific, best-selling, internationally-educated author Rafael Sabatini—whose works are always described as "historical novels"—takes pains in this book to suggest that its writing was chiefly a case of selecting, arranging, and retelling the contents of credible historical documents, with only a teensy bit of embellishment for popular effect. He even quotes directly from the original documents, describes where they can be found for further study, and argues that a particular caper elsewhere attributed to Captain Morgan seems more likely to have been pulled off by Peter Blood. And yet Morgan is actually one of several historical figures on whom the very fictional Captain Blood is based. And so, in part, this book is the cleverest literary hoax I have seen since William Goldman fabricated a certain "S. Morganstern classic." I say this not to gloat. Until I did a little independent research, I had fallen for it too.

Originally titled Captain Blood: His Odyssey, this book started out as a series of short stories published in magazines in 1920–21, later recast in novel form. Its two sequels—Captain Blood Returns and The Fortunes of Captain Blood—are really collections of additional short stories featuring the same hero. Among Sabatini's numerous other books, mainly of the "swashbuckling romance" variety, are such titles as Scaramouche and The Sea Hawk, each of which was also made into at least two movies, including another Errol Flynn vehicle. He also wrote on non-fiction subjects, including the Borgias and the Spanish Inquisition—subjects chosen, I gather, for their ready access to thrills, chills, and other entertainment opportunities.

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy
by J. K. Rowling
Recommended Ages: 14+

When I admit that I waited to read J. K. Rowling's first novel for adults until the audio-book version came available at my local library, I knowingly risk my credibility as the book reviewer for the internet's Number One Harry Potter Fan Site. In fact, I left it till so late that I was still reading it when news broke that J. K. R. had published The Cuckoo's Calling under the pen-name Robert Galbraith. Alas, to be scooped! A taste more bitter than earwax!

On the other hand, my strategy paid off so far as letting me hear the book narrated by the talented Tom Hollander, known around the world for his villainous role in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies—though it is his asphyxiatingly funny turn in Pride and Prejudice, as yet another character hoping to marry Keira Knightley, that most stands out in my memory. Between deftly handling the characters' variety of dialects and vocal colors, he delivers the narration with a sympathetic dignity that prompts thoughts such as, "J. K. Rowling does for small-town U.K. in the twenty-first century what George Eliot did for nineteenth-century ditto." All right, so the depiction of sex, drugs, and moral collapse in the homes, workplaces, and local politics of today's Everytown may be a lot grittier, grottier, and more potty-mouthed than anything you would expect from the author of Middlemarch, in any age. (Surprise! Adult Content Advisory!) But the manners and mores of the society Eliot captured in ink are not the manners and mores of today. And yet the weaving together of so many vividly distinctive characters' destinies into a sensitive, emotionally intelligent, tragically and cathartically inevitable whole, is a skill Rowling here demonstrates at a level that I think invites the comparison.

It begins and ends with death and public grief. The events that connect the deaths at opposite ends of this novel illustrate the unexpectedly many ways the people of one small town are connected to each other. The first death comes suddenly to Barry Fairbrother, a forty-something member of the Pagford parish council who coaches the girls' rowing crew and stands up for the poor and troubled residents of a lower-class subdivision. Barry's demise touches off a domino effect that spreads in several directions, many of them relating to a race to fill his vacant seat on the council. Political enmities and family conflicts escalate, while a mysterious hacker (or series of hackers) calling himself "The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother" logs into the Parish Council website, stirring up hidden agendas and long-buried secrets. And through it all, the only thing you know for sure is that problem child Stuart "Fats" Wall and rebellious teen Krystal Weedon don't have a chance. Especially with Barry gone, you know they're doomed. It's only a matter of finding out when and how.

Pagford, U.K., is a charming, historic West Country village adjacent to the larger, more diverse town of Yarvil. The old guard in parish politics wants to return to a simpler time, before a seedy development spilled over the Yarvil town line. Prejudice against foreigners, such as the married couple of Sikh doctors, and resentment of the high rates of unemployment, have led that faction to wish the problem of "The Fields" on Yarvil, complete with the addiction clinic that serves Krystal's heroin-addicted mother. No one could have fought for the Fields and its people as Barry did. Now that he is gone, three candidates come forward to fill his shoes, but each of them has skeletons in his closet. Successful lawyer Miles, whose father heads up the council, doesn't realize how unhappy his wife Samantha is. Insecure deputy headmaster Colin can scarcely control his own urges, let alone those of his amoral adopted son Fats. Abusive father Simon underestimates the fury that will drive his son Andrew to an act of defiance that will set loose an avalanche of ugly disclosures and even, ultimately, deadly results.

The ripples don't stop there. Revelations of adultery, a bullied girl's suicidal behavior, a rape, a last-chance junkie's relapse into drug use, a teenage couple's sexual experiments, a councilwoman's explosive tirade, and a campaign of vicious rumors drive parents and children, husbands and wives, doctors and patients, social workers and school teachers, into collisions that will change everybody's life. Some will be saved. Others will be destroyed. And readers who thought the creator of Harry Potter needed magic, make-believe, and syrupy kid's stuff to bring a world to life, will be surprised and impressed. Make no mistake; this book is not a comedy. It is a very serious story that does not pull any punches. It may leave you winded and feeling a funny sting at the corner of your eye. I'm not saying that sting is the only funny thing you will find in this book, but whimsical it is not. Convincing, however, it is. And of all the things that impress me about this book, what impresses me most is the realism of the picture it opens on my mental movie-screen, and the fully-fleshed humanity of the people in that frame. It's enough to convince me that, pen-name stunt or no, her next novel is worth looking into.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Disambiguation You Can Eat

Now and then, right in the middle of an otherwise enjoyable meal, my headspace has been invaded by a question like, "What's the difference between frankfurters and wieners?" It's like an itch I can't scratch. Only, thanks to Google, I actually can scratch it. And here, boiled down to their essence, are some of the answers I've found to pesky questions about what makes the difference between two equally delicious things. At least now, you won't have to Google them yourself.

Wiener vs. Frankfurter
I guess this is the obvious starting point. When it comes to the two pieces of "tube steak," either of which can form the active ingredient in a hot dog, the real difference is that there is no difference—except, perhaps, whether the manufacturers trace their lineage back to Germany (where Frankfurt is) or to Austria (home of Vienna). Some hot-dog brands, however, market products under both appellations. The distinction, in those cases, probably exists more for marketing purposes. There is a perception, for example, that wieners are slightly smaller, or that franks tend to be made of a single kind of meat (such as all-beef or all-turkey) rather than a blend (such as chicken, pork, and turkey). But in my opinion, that perception is all a matter of carefully-crafted imagery.

Not a sausage in sight!
Wienerschnitzel vs. Jägerschnitzel
Here's where I begin to cut through some confusion and misinformation. Some popular answers to the question of what separates these two delicious morsels allege that one is made of veal, the other of pork; or that one is breaded, and the other isn't. The trouble is that they can't get straight which is which; reports conflict with each other. The most credible authorities, however, admit that both dishes may be made of pork, but are most authentically and preferably made of veal; breading is optional; and being pounded thin with a meat tenderizer before pan-frying is crucial. But the single factor that really determines which is which is the mushroom gravy. Jägerschnitzel has it. Wienerschnitzel does not. (A twist of lemon, however, would not go amiss.)

Cannelloni vs. Manicotti
The confusion between these two mouth-watering baked-pasta dishes is not helped by packaged pasta sold in grocery stores, nor by dishes offered on the menus of Italian-American restaurants, which treat the two as virtually interchangeable names for all but identical dishes. The only difference seems to be what you stuff the pasta tubes with. But actually, if you're stuffing ingredients into tube-shaped pieces of pasta out of a box, it's got to be manicotti. Righteous cannelloni starts with flat rectangles of dough, which are loaded with toppings and then rolled into a tube or shell shape before being cooked. The former tends to have a cheese-based filling and a red, tomatoey sauce (sometimes with meat and veggies added). The latter tends to be stuffed with the meat and veggies, and the sauce may be either red (marinara) or white (bechamel). And Roberto's your uncle.

Stromboli vs. Calzone
I've looked up the difference between these two delicacies on several websites, and some of the explanations I've found are pure static. Again, restaurants are no help—the products I have seen served under these very different names are sometimes nigh unto indistinguishable. And frankly I don't care what city each one originated in, or whether one of them got its name from a song lyric. What I really wanted to know (and now I can share with you) is that, although both dishes start with pizza dough and come out of a steaming oven, stromboli is conceptually a rolled-up sandwich while calzone is more of a folded-over pizza. So, essentially, it's what goes inside the dough that makes the difference.

Springrolls vs. Eggrolls
Depending on whether you dine out at a Chinese-, Vietnamese-, or Thai-themed restaurant, you may come up with a variety of ideas on what distinguishes these two appetizers. The trouble is that the boundary will seem to change as you go from one ethnic tradition to another. Are springrolls supposed to be fried or not? Are they supposed to be bigger or smaller than eggrolls? Is one more authentically Chinese and the other rather Indochinese? Actually, neither of these questions is quite the right question (though the third one is close). The difference is really in the dough. Springroll dough is made from more of a rice-noodle mixture, while eggroll dough is more egg-noodle based. Thus, whether uncooked or fried, the rolled part of the springroll will tend to be thinner than its eggroll counterpart.

Wontons vs. Potstickers
Again, wontons are made of a thinner type of dough, and they are more likely to end up either deep-fried to a crunchy crisp or floating in a soup. Potstickers, whether steamed, boiled, or pan-fried, are sheathed in a thicker dough and may also be slightly longer in shape.

Which Mexican Soup Should I Order?
You're at an authentic Mexican restaurant. You're thinking about starting with a soup. The first thing you should know is that the difference between a "small" bowl and a "large" bowl is not the same as the difference between a "cup" of soup and a "bowl" of soup at most restaurants. If you order a "small" bowl, you will get an honest-to-goodness bowl. It may even be bigger than the largest size of soup-bowl served at most restaurants. A "large" bowl, on the other hand, will be big enough to drown a litter of puppies in (or kittens, depending on your proclivities). After settling that part of your ordering decision, the only other thing you need to know is that: Pozole is made with pork parts (soup-bone-type pieces, such as the face, knees, and ankles); Menudo is made with with beef parts (and in this case, I use the word "parts" out of delicacy—put another way, the dish will pass through the part of you that the cow contributed to it); and Albóndigas is made with little spicy meatballs. Either Pozole or Albóndigas may also include little balls of hominy, sort of like a maize-based matzo soup. I recommend them all, though it takes guts (pun intended) to chew on the meat pieces in Menudo, once you start thinking about where they come from.

Chickpeas vs. Garbanzo Beans
There is actually no difference. They're the same thing.

Jam vs. Jelly
It's simple. Whole fruit = jam. Gelled fruit juice = jelly.

Whiskey, Bourbon, Rye, Brandy, or Schnapps?
Whiskey is a distilled liquor, usually barrel-aged, made by fermenting a mixture of water and malted grain. Certain types of whiskey, such as Scotch, Canadian Whiskey, Irish Whiskey, etc., are literally named after the country in which they were produced. Bourbon is an American variant of whiskey in which the grain in question is specifically corn. Rye is another version of whiskey featuring a particular variety of grain (which, funnily enough, is rye). Brandy, though similar in color and often aged in the same kind of barrels, is made by distilling wine. And anything purporting to be brandy, but made from fruit rather than wine, technically falls under the broad category of Eau-de-vie, which means "fruit-based distilled liquors." This broad category branches out into narrower ones delineated by their country of origin; for example, Schnapps comes from Germany. Some drinks that ride the boundary-line between brandy and eau-de-vie are the pomace brandies, such as grappa, made in Italy; these are made from what's left of the grapes after wine-making. And even these categories leave out a lot of choices for your next choosy bender.


by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves
Recommended Ages: 12+

High school sophomore Joey Harker has such a poor sense of direction that he sometimes gets lost in his own house. One day, during a social studies exam in the form of a scavenger hunt around the downtown area, he walks into a patch of fog and comes out in another reality altogether. A world where McDonald's sports a single, green tartan arch, and where his parents have a daughter his age—but no son. While he is still reeling from this terrifying discovery, Joey is attacked by men on flying disks, and escapes capture only with the aid of a kid in a liquid-silver encounter suit. Joey runs for it, only to fall right into the clutches of another faction in a pan-dimensional war between the forces of science and magic. His awful captors plan to boil him down to his spiritual essence, inflicting unimaginable pain in the process, and then use his ability to walk between realities as fuel for their invasion fleet in the conquest of the multiverse.

Lucky for Joey, the silver-suit guy catches up before the agents of HEX have time to heat up their cauldron. Joey quickly learns about the multiverse—new universes branching off at every major decision-point in history—and more particularly, the altiverse—the arc of roughly earth-like worlds, each of which potentially has a version of Joey with the otherwise unique ability to "walk" from one dimension to another. The worlds at one end of the arc follow pure science, while those at the opposite end are ruled by magic. Both ends are trying to take over the middle, which is where InterWorld comes in—an organization made up of versions of Joey of all shapes, sizes, sexes, and biological classes: Joeys with wings, Joeys with fangs, Joeys with cybernetic implants, Joeys built extra tough for higher gravity, etc., etc., etc. And between the worlds is the psychedelic chaos of the In-Between, a place where sights, sounds, and smells swirl into one another and where creatures called mudluffs—short for Multi-Dimensional Life-Form—lie in wait for a chance to ooze into an unsuspecting world.

Jay (the silver suit guy) tries to lead Joey back to InterWorld Prime, but ends up sacrificing his life to save Joey when the latter runs to the rescue of a trapped mudluff. As a result, Joey starts his basic training as an InterWorld agent at a disadvantage, blamed for the death of a top operative. Worse, during a training exercise he inadvertently leads his team of six into a HEX trap. He manages to escape, only to realize that he can't get back to the dimension where his friends have been caught. It looks very bad when he gets back to base. With his memories wiped and his ability to walk taken away, Joey is sent back to his old life. The only good thing weighing against all this bad stuff is his unique friendship with a mudluff he calls Hue. And with all his InterWorld memories reduced to a three-week bout of amnesia, that doesn't give him much to work with. Not if he's going to save his team and stop an imminent invasion by a power so chilling, so evil, that an army of super-commandos couldn't beat them. But one disgraced, easily muddled, average-Joe kid just might have a chance.

This novel started life as a proposal for an unsold television series in the mid-1990s. One of its authors had created the U.K. cult series Neverwhere and the Vertigo comic series The Sandman; he has since gone on to write lots of excellent, bestselling and award-winning books. The other produced and co-wrote the U.S.-based programs Gargoyles and Batman: The Animated Series; he also wrote many of the key episodes of the American fantasy and sci-fi TV programs of the 1980s and -90s. So it's amazing that when these two creative powerhouses came together to pitch a TV project, it didn't take spark. A dozen years later they decided to publish it as a novel. And so today's young readers are the lucky beneficiaries not only of this thrilling adventure in time, space, and in-between, but also of a recently published sequel, titled The Silver Dream.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages
by Tom Holt
Recommended Ages: 14+

Polly Mayer is an in-house lawyer for a property development company. Her brother Don is a jingle-writing musician. For whatever reason, these two siblings have been chosen to be the next pair of contestants in a multi-dimensional game designed to answer the question, "Which came first—the chicken or the egg?" Their first clue that something funny is going on is when Polly realizes that somebody has been drinking her coffee, answering her calls, and even doing some of her work. Then, when she goes to the dry cleaner's shop to pick up her party dress, it's disappeared. Not the dress; the shop.

Somehow this is mixed up with the strange history of Polly's boss, Mr. Huos, who doesn't know his own first name and whose first memory is waking up with a wad of cash and a magic brass ring. With this source of power, Mr. Huos learns to bend the laws of space-time in the service of an almighty real-estate scam. He simply keeps selling the same piece of land over and over, and keeps several teams of in-house lawyers working in the same time and space, without anybody noticing—until his brass ring gets lost at (you guessed it!) the dry cleaner's.

Not coincidentally, it is when Don brings home his dry cleaning that funny things start to happen around him. The very hairs of his head become magical familiars. The annoying bloke upstairs (an amateur guitarist whose sister happens to be a real estate lawyer) disappears before his eyes, leading Don to believe he may have murdered him with a thought. As things grow even weirder around Don and Polly, the fate of reality increasingly depends on a sort of paranormal detective, whose specialties include staking vampires, unraveling mummies, and sorting out space-time anomalies.

Even this cool customer will find himself facing danger, doom, and disaster on a cosmic scale, as a refrigerator becomes a teleportation device, a multi-dimensional legal department becomes a penful of poultry, a pig discovers quantum physics, and a planned neighborhood becomes lost in a pocket universe. Two knights who have been forced to reenact the same duel five times a day since the middle ages mix with a middle-aged couple whose laundry business won't stay put longer than 48 hours. And once again the author of Little People demonstrates his almost magical ability to pack a twinkle of charm, a wink of wit, and often a snort of laughter into every paragraph.

I would not be saying anything original if I were to compare Tom Holt to Douglas Adams; indeed, author Christopher Moore does so in a blurb quoted on the cover of this very book—and the genius therein is that some would probably also compare Tom Holt to Christopher Moore. But I'm not here to market the book; I'm only recommending it, as one satisfied reader to my big worldwide family of fellow book nuts who especially like to mix their fantasy with a bit of comedy and a savor of satire on the mundanity and inanity of modern life. Even in our success, we ourselves are often disappointing. And yet if we can think of ourselves as part of a weird story of magic (defined as science on which nobody has published a journal article yet), of infinite possible universes stacked like the layers of pastry in a baklava, of time travel and riddles and transfigurations and mysteries too bizarre for most people to deal with—why, the workaday world might just be easier to face.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tom Trueheart and the Land of Dark Stories

Tom Trueheart and the Land of Dark Stories
by Ian Beck
Recommended Ages: 10+

In the sequel to The Secret History of Tom Trueheart, the youngest of seven brothers in the last surviving family of storybook heroes must, once again, set out to save the older six. Not only that, but he must rescue five princesses who were spirited away on their wedding day before the helpless, horrified eyes of their wedding guests. Also, he has to stop a renegade Story Bureau scribe, now styling himself the King of Unhappy Endings, from marching an Army of Darkness against the Land of Stories. Just to make it fair, Tom is given a storybook handicap: the role and dimensions of the title character in the tale of Tom Thumb.

Some kids, seeing all this stacked against them, might give up. But not Tom Trueheart. He hops on the back of his trusty friend Jollity, a talking crow. Together they fly to the horrible Land of Dark Stories, where it is always winter, where nobody's wishes come true, and where "happily ever after" has been officially canceled. There five of the Trueheart brothers sweat in a gold mine run by trolls and goblins. There five of the prettiest princesses in the history of fairy tales languish in a castle, guarded by wolves, crows, and bats. There Ormestone and his dark sprite minions mean to play out the nastier bits of the stories of Rumpelstiltskin and the Seven Swans, among others, all while scraping together enough sprite gold to buy the services of a skeleton army.

The only thing preventing the completion of the horde's hoard is a teensy detail of alchemy (namely, that it doesn't work), one full-size Trueheart brother's escape from custody with the aid of a devoted cart-horse, one sprite's hopeless crush on the princesses, and of course, the crack dark-castle-infiltrating team of Jollity and the thumb-sized Tom. Magic swords, a stitched-together man, a hungry spider, and the fate of Tom's long-lost father all come into play before the final free-for-all of magic, sword-fighting, skydiving, and escapes on a piratical airship. And though most of the mess is finally cleared up, the ending leaves open the door for at least one more adventure: Tom Trueheart and the Land of Myths and Legends.

Ian Beck has written and illustrated over a dozen picture-books, at least one chapter-book (The First Third Wish), a collection of fairy tales, and five other novels, including Pastworld and Samurai. Here's a complete list of them.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Rope Trick

The Rope Trick
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 11+

"Lidi was not easy to ignore, especially when flame shot out of her fingertips. Also, she had an attractive smile." A book that begins with a pair of sentences like this is off to a strong start. There's even more to say about it if it comes to an ending as mindblowing and intense as this book does. If, in between a strong start and a powerhouse finish, it is a tight-built, thrilling tale of love and magic and danger and perhaps much more, the trifecta may be downright overwhelming. Though it's in danger of becoming one of my all-time favorites, I can't hold back two tiny complaints. First, there's so little of this book that I came to the end wanting more. My other quibble is simply that the final pages left me wrestling with ambiguity, torn between joy and sorrow. It's the kind of ending that could keep a book club debating possible interpretations for a month. These are, technically, good things. But good things often give as much pain as pleasure.

Lidi is a young woman living an independent life at a time when such women—especially among commoners—were rare. Her father taught her the trade secrets of a performing magician, then died resenting her for being more talented than he was. His troubling hint that she will never be a true magician until she learns the Rope Trick haunts Lidi, forming as much a part of her outlook on life as the advice of her burly canvasmaster Jericho, telling her to love her audience. And so she has an open heart, giving love without hesitation, first to a ragged orphan named Danielle, then to a farm-boy named Julian who is on the run from the law. But at the same time, she remains restless and dissatisfied, always seeking the legendary magician Ferramondo, who alone can teach her the fabled Rope Trick.

One of the things that is most interesting about Lidi's quest is how she does not believe in magic, even though her own talent is so strong that it occasionally crosses the line between illusion and something more. In a sense, it is magical how she brings tiny, starveling Danielle out of her shell of imbecilic silence, and goes on to witness Danielle's strange power to tell the future. But even when Danielle is faking it, her seeming power attracts a danger and an evil that follow in the little troupe's wake.

Likewise, it is almost magical—and more than almost—how Lidi captures the heart of Julian and turns him from dark path of rebellion and revenge. But when her search for Ferramondo leads them perilously close to where Julian's troubles began, it seems his destiny won't so easily turn from him. In the scary and agonizing climax of the tale, the search for Ferramondo, the young man's quest for justice, and the little girl's flight from abuse and slavery, converge on one point where the only way out is the Rope Trick.

Award-winning American author Lloyd Alexander here does for medieval Italy what he did for Wales (in the Prydain Chronicles), ancient Greece (in The Arkadians), India (in The Iron Ring), the Arab world (in The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha), and probably many other cultures, from the age of myth and legend to modern times. He creates an original story that vibrates with the resonance of a folk tale, and that tickles the tummy, surprises the mind, and warms the heart by turns. I feel a strong urge to devour as many of this man's books as I can, including the Westmark trilogy, the six-book Vesper Holly series, and such magical stand-alone titles as The Wizard in the Tree and The Fortune-Tellers.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

35. Crucified God

Crucified God, my Righteousness,
Thine image on my life impress!
All shapes beside Thy holy Cross
I lightly prize, nor mourn their loss.

My self was crucified with Thee,
That from sin's corpse I might be free;
Raise me with Thee, and live within,
Lest I remain the slave of sin!

Offense to Jew, nonsense to Greek,
Christ crucified be all I speak!
Not in shrewd thoughts nor words of pride,
I know naught but Thee Crucified!

Like Thee in weakness, trembling, fear,
I bear Thee witness, Savior dear;
Nor proof nor pleading win the hour,
All resteth in Thy Spirit's power.

I have been crucified with Thee;
The life I live, Thou liv'st in me.
Thee will I serve with every breath,
As Thou didst serve me unto death.

By word and water crucified,
To fleshly passions I have died;
Now and through life's uneasy length,
Thy suff'ring shall be all my strength.

Nor shall I boast, save in the tree
Whereon in love Thou diedst for me.
I to the world, dear Christ, have died,
And it to me is crucified.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


by Marissa Burt
Recommended Ages: 11+

Lately a lot of writers have been sending us dispatches from the Land of Stories. According to sometime Glee star Chris Colfer, it's a cluster of magical kingdoms where a pair of children from our world, transported through a family heirloom storybook, discover the true history behind many of your favorite fairy tales. In another account by Ian Beck, the Land of Stories is a country where designated heroes have adventures which the sprites of the Story Bureau set up for them, publishing the results for your reading enjoyment. But in Marissa Burt's debut novel, we visit not the Land of Stories, but the land of Story. This is an important distinction.

Like the other two similarly-named realms, Story is a place where the characters in books live their behind-the-scenes lives; and like those other two, it's a place people from our reality can visit, though only rarely and by a little-understood process called (in this case) being Written In. Unlike the Land(s) of Stories, however, the land of Story is not just a world where fairy tales become real. It is more like the Bookworld of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, in which characters from every branch of literature live together, though perhaps segregated into genre-specific communities. It's a world where boys and girls go to school to learn subjects such as basic enchantments, backstory, advanced heroics, and villainy.

Una Fairchild is a lonely little girl from our world who, one day, finds a book in the library purporting to be the Story of Una Fairchild. Even more amazingly, the book's blank pages begin filling with text before her eyes, as though she were part of a story being written down as it happens in real time. Before she has a moment to stop and consider what is going on, she finds herself really inside the story—or rather in Story—gate-crashing two students' practical exam in heroics. No one is more surprised than Una at her being Written In; though, as she learns, it isn't safe to be a WI these days. Generations of Characters have been taught to hate WIs and the Muses who took their side in a civil war that once tore Story apart. Now the Muses are gone; the surviving books are locked in a vault; and Characters are fed a thin, bland diet of stories to act out, all under the control of the Talekeepers, the Tale Master at their head.

Una gets a top-speed initiation into the facts of life as a Character, and tries to blend in as a transfer student while keeping her WI status a secret. But more people know about it than she intends, and some of them have dark plans for Story. Plans that go back to the time of the Unbinding, when the Muses were driven out and the Talekeepers took power. Plans that involve lies and propaganda, the destruction of powerfully magical books, and the release of a long-imprisoned Enemy who once betrayed his oath to a King nobody now remembers, a King who was expected to return one day. And while Una struggles to find out who this King is, what happened to the Muses, and why she was Written In, she unwittingly becomes the key to restoring the Enemy's powers.

The land of Story is such a weird and wonderful fantasy concept, and Una's adventure in it is so surprising and complex, that I could go on describing it for twice as long and only succeed in spoiling it for you. Suffice it to say that Una finds some wonderful friends, including heroic boys named Peter and Indy and a talking cat named Sam; dastardly enemies, including two whose connection with Una will prove pivotal to the plot; and several striking examples of people who may be either heroes or villains, or maybe neither—people whose motives are so mysterious that Una doesn't know what to make of them. She will have more opportunity to fit them into her own story, as the adventure continues in the sequel, Story's End.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Verse vs. Poetry

I recall reading, in my salad days, a number of interesting definitions of "art," "music," and "poetry." What I mainly remember about these definitions is that, with each successive attempt, the authors increasingly tied themselves in more knots to deal with complexities arising from modern experiments in color and line, tonality and structure, meter and form. Often the result was a definition that was either useless in its abstractness or so lengthy and complicated that it defeated the purpose of defining anything. As I understand that purpose, a definition should be short, simple, and useful. I appreciate the difficulty of making such a definition apply to the variety of things that have hitherto taken refuge under the banner of, say, "poetry." Nevertheless, I think it's doable.

To start with, our language has two key names for the same art form: Verse, on the one hand; and Poetry, on the other. I think it might help things if we explored them as distinct concepts. It's also interesting to point out how other languages cope with the naming of this thing. For example, the Russian word Shtihi, with a nice guttural h similar to the German ch, suggests an analogy to the obsolete English word Stich, which in turn comes from Greek. In either English or Greek, this word can mean either a row (of trees) or a verse (of measured poetry or of Scripture).

A rough synonym for either sense of the word "stich" might be Line. And this, in turn, suggests a short, simple, useful distinction between Prose and Verse. While the former organizes thoughts into grammatical structures (sentences, paragraphs), the latter organizes them in lines. Whether these lines are metered or free, rhyming or blank, arranged in stanzas or continuous, indented or blocky, restricted to one typographical line or allowed to wrap, are all accidental modifications of the one essential fact about Verse: it is the organization of thoughts into lines.

There are several reasons I think it is helpful to distinguish this concept from Poetry. And none of them is that the definition of Poetry needs to be less simple, brief, and useful. One reason is that I don't think this concept of Verse as "language arranged in lines" sufficiently covers what one intuitively understands Poetry to be. Another reason is that one can imagine, and with a certain amount of experience one is almost certain to encounter, either cases of Verse that are not Poetry, or cases of Poetry that are not Verse. So what is Poetry, regardless of whether or not it is also Verse? I think it is the use of unusual language to give special significance to a thought.

The "unusual language" clause in this definition covers a broad range of rhetorical effects such as figures of speech, plays on words, the use of archaic terms and foreign borrowings, and metrical patterns such as alliteration and assonance. Meanwhile, the "special significance" clause is broad enough to encompass a range of meanings, all the way from "sacred oracles" to "greeting-card sentiments." It isn't a judgmental definition. Any judgment of what does or doesn't constitute as "unusual language" or "special meaning," is a gloss on the definition that a given interpreter may freely apply in specific cases, subject to a difference of opinion. But in my opinion, the definition itself rises above differences of opinion.

And so the distinction between Verse and Poetry can become clear, especially when you imagine possible conflicts between the two. Adding line-breaks to an ordinary, banal paragraph may or may not make it Verse, but it certainly does not make it Poetry. On the other hand, a paragraph written with exquisite care and full of interesting word-choices and thought-figures might deservedly be called Poetry, though it clearly is not Verse.

Another way to spot the distinction is to observe works that are both Verse and Poetry, but that succeed as one while failing at the other. Again, the interpreter's opinion is crucial here. Poets like E. E. Cummings could write Verse that was all but unreadable but which, when read aloud, struck chords in the heart and mind that only Poetry can reach. The arrangement of the lines may look as though a typewriter took a crap on the page, yet the words themselves convey a powerful thought in a unique way. On the flip side, you get writers like Ogden Nash, whose Verse forms sparkle with wit and originality, while the effect of his Poetry is often little more than a mild groan, as at a lame joke. Robert Service and Rudyard Kipling are both masters of conventional and even tedious verse forms in the service of colorful language and sometimes overwhelming emotional effects; while many a college literary magazine can boast examples of fascinating verse-form experiments that utterly fail to deliver originality in either word or thought. Good Verse can be bad Poetry, and vice versa.

A third way to perceive the distinction between Verse and Poetry is to observe that they have different opposites. We have already contrasted Verse with its opposite, which is Prose. The opposite of Poetry, however, is not Prose, properly speaking. The opposite of Poetry is something more like "banal, everyday language."

I think this distinction and two-fold definition can also help to properly define "art" and "music." Maybe the trouble critics and theoreticians have, arriving at a "short, simple, useful" definition of these things, is that they are trying to define one thing by itself rather than a relatively successful integration between two things. Art isn't just the decoration of space through the manipulation of visible materials, nor is it necessarily a visual representation of something intelligible to the human mind. Music isn't just the decoration of time through the manipulation of organized sound, nor is it necessarily a perceptible structure of rhythm, harmony, and memorable tunes. Maybe, in each case, we're talking about two things that work best when they go together. I'm thinking of something like the ratio between the structuredness of thoughts in time or space and the intelligibility of units of visual or aural language when organized within that structure. I don't have my thoughts on this completely in order yet, certainly not enough to arrive at one or two (or four) short, simple, and useful definitions; but it's something to work on.

Sixteen Thoughts About God

A social-networking friend suggested that I read this article yesterday, and I did. Once you get past sentences like, "The problem with the story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story is that story is a story that you have not chosen," which hit the eye as the kind of philosophical drivel that could have been twice as clear in half as many words, it's an excellent, thought-provoking piece. I slept on it, got up this morning, and put in order a few of the thoughts the article had provoked. And here they are:
  1. A god who is not free to be who he is, but is constrained to be who you believe him to be, is a god of your own inventing.
  2. A god who needs you to believe in him, cannot help you.
  3. A god you freely choose to serve, can impose no moral or ethical restrictions on you.
  4. A god who would not be in the right to destroy you, cannot meaningfully show mercy and save you.
  5. A god whose promises are at all conditional, even if the condition is only that you believe his promises, cannot be trusted with full assurance.
  6. A god who accepts you as you are, and does not challenge you to repent, is a fantasy personifying your desire to justify yourself.
  7. A god whose revelation is open to a wide range of interpretations, is not real enough to reveal himself with any authority.
  8. Worship designed to appeal to people who are allergic to religion, is the worship of an unreal god.
  9. Preaching centered on success, prosperity, or the collection of funds to enrich the ministry, is the preaching of the god Mammon.
  10. Preaching centered on happiness, personal fulfillment, and healthy relationships, is the preaching of the god Self.
  11. A god whose revelation is subordinate to one's religious reasonings, is the god of one's Mind.
  12. A god whose revelation is subordinate to one's religious experiences, is the god of one's Feelings.
  13. A god whose revelation is subordinate to one's pious service or observances, is the god of one's Works.
  14. A god whose revelation can be fully grasped by human thought, cannot be a transcendent god.
  15. A god whose presence and activity is not located in ceremonies that he specifically commanded, can only be approached through one's pious sentiments and imagination.
  16. A god whose chief characteristic is that he incarnates (or has incarnated) himself, will always be rejected by the majority.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Ropemaker

The Ropemaker
by Peter Dickinson
Recommended Ages: 13+

A few pages into this book by the author of The Tears of the Salamander, I decided that Peter Dickinson is probably the best writer living today. Given that I have only read these two of his fifty-odd books, that may come across as a hasty judgment. But I haven't forgotten that Tears was the best book I read in 2005, and I don't plan to forget that this was the best book I have read so far this year. It is not only a powerful and entertaining story, conjuring a lovely and dangerous new world, and peopling it with believable and lovable characters. It is also a prime feat of the writer's craft, perfectly balancing plot and pacing with dialogue and description. Its language is both transparently beautiful and beautifully transparent, with not one word out of place. Even when he is describing things that ought to be indescribable, Dickinson does it right.

One of the indescribable things in this book is the kind of magical gift that Tilja Urlasdaughter has. In the beginning, she feels left out of the line of magical inheritance that has run through her family, mother to daughter, for twenty generations. It's the ability to hear the trees talking, and to sing to them, maintaining the barrier of sickness that afflicts only men, filling the forest that protects their peaceful valley from the cruel Empire to the south. It's part of a tradition that grows out of an improbable tale of magic, also connected to a line of men who sing to the snows that close the mountain pass to the north of the valley. With this gift—a touch of magic in an otherwise unmagical but blessed little world—come the keys to the farm at Winterbourne, which is all that Tilja has known. Her grandma Meena passed it on to Tilja's Ma, even though there was an older daughter in that generation. And now the talent, together with the farm, will pass to Tilja's little sister Anja, meaning that Tilja will have to leave that loved place and make a life for herself elsewhere.

But as Tilja gradually learns, she has a different kind of power. In the year when the snows fail to keep the pass closed (exposing the valley to marauders from the north), and when a terrifying encounter with a horned creature interrupts Ma's singing to the cedars, four travelers from the valley set out in search of a great magician who can renew the charms that protect their homeland. It is the valley-dwellers' first visit to the south after hundreds of years worth of attempts to recover what the Empire calls its Lost Province. And if their culture-shock is extreme, so also is the shock they administer to that corrupt, dangerous, magically watched land.

Two facts about the Empire should give you a sufficient idea of what they're up against. First, the Emperor holds the power of life and death over his subjects—literally. So literally, in fact, that anyone who dies without written leave must forfeit his property to the crown. Those who can afford all the permits, the bribes, and the kickbacks along the way, must travel to the capital city Talagh and purchase death-leaves. Anyone else must make a pilgrimage to Goloroth, the City of Death, in the far south of the Empire, and allow themselves to be cast adrift on the ocean before they die. Otherwise their loved ones may be sold into slavery to pay the penalty. Nasty, eh? But it's also lucky for Tilja and her companions—her own grandmother, plus a blind old man and his grandson from the northern end of the valley—because it gives them a cover story as they journey southward, past checkpoint after checkpoint.

The second fact is, magic is everywhere in the Empire—but only those serving the Emperor are allowed to use it. Twelve of the Empire's most powerful magicians therefore serve as Watchers, straining their senses to detect any unregulated magic use throughout the country. Meanwhile, Tilja's companions can hardly avoid doing magic, even if they try. In their search for the magician Faheel, they are guided by a wooden spoon (don't ask), an object so magical that nothing can subdue it... except the touch of Tilja's skin. Somehow, her lack of magic has grown so profound that it has become a kind of magic all its own, hushing and in some cases undoing the workings of other magicians, if not the magicians themselves. The closer the spoon leads them to Faheel, the more danger Tilja, Meena, Alnor, and Tahl must face. And though the other three have considerable talents, it is finally on Tilja's gift that their quest depends.

The discouraging thing about writing a synopsis of this novel is that, after doing my best for four paragraphs, I haven't even mentioned the Ropemaker who gives the book its title. And short of spoiling everything for you, I don't know what I would say about him, except to hint that the quest to save the valley grows to include helping a ring of great power pass from one great magician to another, and to prevent the latter from falling under the bad influence of the Watchers. Along the way, Tilja and friends are kidnapped by bandits, helped and hindered by strange animals, attacked by wielders of great power, and subjected to strange distortions in time itself. And so the story itself warps the barrier between fantasy and science fiction. And then, after drawing to a conclusion both satisfying and delicately heartbreaking, the book continues with a brief epilogue teasing the sequel: Angel Isle. With that to look forward to, and my opinion of Peter Dickinson's writing burnished to a dazzling sheen, I am quite sure it won't be eight years before I next read one of his books.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Seven Keys of Balabad

The Seven Keys of Balabad
by Paul Haven
Recommended Ages: 11+

Oliver Finch is an all-American boy who likes wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt, and a New York Yankees baseball cap. But thanks to his father's career as a journalist and his mother's interest in archaeology, he finds himself living so far from Yankee Stadium that, in his time zone, the night games start at 5:00 the next morning. The country is Balabad, somewhere between Pakistan and Afghanistan: a country of mountains, deserts, and plains, inhabited by hundreds of often-warring tribes who speak as many strange, complex languages, none of which Oliver speaks. Between terms at the International School, he has nothing to do except hang around with his only friend: a Baladi boy named Zee, whose rich parents raised him in London. They spend most of their time visiting a friendly carpet salesman, and listening to Mr. Haji tell tall tales about his illustrious ancestors. It promises to be a hot, tedious holiday.

But then the boys get caught up in a mystery involving the disappearance of the country's culture minister, the theft of a priceless carpet, and a series of interconnected burglaries around the globe. When Mr. Haji himself is kidnapped, the armchair detectives find themselves on a serious mission. Zee realizes that his father has a secret, and it has something to do with a secret organization called the Brotherhood of Arachosia. Joined by the beautiful daughter of a gigantic one-eyed warrior, the boys follow a trail of clues to the city's dangerous Thieves' Market, the posh Mandabak Hotel, and finally the ruins of the capital city's royal palace. There they find the villain waiting to spring a trap on them. For the three children carry with them the final piece to the puzzle of a national treasure that has lain hidden for five hundred years.

Oliver, Zee, and Alamai are mostly playing at being detectives, so they are surprised to find what a dangerous game it is. If they only knew, beforehand, the history of how and why King Agamon's treasure came to be sealed by seven massive iron keys, they might be better prepared for the seriousness that awaits them. On the other hand, their courage and concern for Mr. Haji could make them national heroes... provided the grown-ups show up on time to save them. In the meantime, they bring an attractive innocence to an otherwise dark, mysterious, spooky adventure. And their shared risks cement a friendship that could change Oliver's miserable foreign exile into a colorful experience, an experience to relish.

Paul Haven, the author of Two Hot Dogs with Everything, is an Associated Press foreign reporter (similar, I suppose, to Oliver's dad). His inspiration for this book came from his experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He seems to be having an interesting life. I look forward to seeing what he creates next.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Dirty Magic

Dirty Magic
by Carol Hughes
Recommended Ages: 12+

Joe Brooks, a boy who likes models and Monster Machine magazine, gets up in the middle of the night and finds that his bathroom door opens into a muddy plain stretching to the horizon all around. Suddenly Joe is in a strange, island world where the sun never shines, the war never ends, and the lost children who regularly appear out of nowhere never seem to get home again. A world torn apart between two sister queens who both blame each other for the death of a third sister. A world where trenches, barbed wire, and automated war-engines surround a walled city crumbling into ruins, where bureaucratic paralysis and water damage are together eroding the foundations of society, and where the secret police uses cruel interrogation techniques to wring the guilty secrets out of children, using them as leverage to keep the kids in line.

Before he can get home to his models and his magazines, Joe must find his sister Hannah. Why? Because he's dreamt that he did her wrong, and she got sick, and someone carried her away to this awful place, and it's all his fault. In search of his sister, Joe must crawl across acres of mud, wriggle through fetid sewers, hunker in the belly of rusty old trucks, rub shoulders with some frankly sickening people (like the thief who stows pork chops in his socks), and elude machines designed to destroy people in a gruesome variety of ways. He couldn't survive it without the help of a young fetcher named Katherine, who wants to prove that her brother Tom hasn't turned traitor; and of a guide named Spider, who doesn't let blindness get in the way of his keen navigational skills.

The dirt is obvious, but it's not clear exactly why the word "magic" is in the title. What magic exists in this land of mud and machine is vague and notional only. There's something magical about the way Joe arrives there, and in the route he must eventually take to get home—if he makes it that far. There's something otherworldly about the Heathermen's ingenious designs, the Skulkers' shrewd resistance tactics, Spider's super-keen senses, and the hint of a dragon beyond the mountains to the north. There are even unexplainable feats of engineering, such as an invisible bridge. It seems possible that this might be a magical world, and its rightful rulers women of supernatural power, if only the veneer of soot, rust, grime, and technology could be scraped off.

Joe commits himself so completely to finding his sister that he willingly gives himself up to the bad guys, particularly the villainous Ambassador Orlemann. He learns a lot about the history and politics of the world he has joined, and we learn it with him. He grows quickly from a bewildered, lost child to an effective spy and a courageous hero: enduring danger and torture as well as flattery and temptation; delivering thousands of children from an awful fate; and unraveling a fiendish plot to seize absolute power. But to find his way back to Hannah, he will have to face a harsh truth. And, unfortunately, the journey home will make him forget all his adventures.

Other than a handful of stylistic goofs (such as saying twice in a row that Joe looked up, or using the phrase "gloomy effect" where "gloom" would do), this last twist (Joe's forgetfulness) is the only blemish in an otherwise terrific piece of fantasy world-building. It's an exciting story, clothed in unusually drab yet vividly interesting atmospherics. Without doubt, Carol Hughes is a talent to watch. Other books by this British-American author include Toots and the Upside-Down House and Jack Black and the Ship of Thieves.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Long Earth

The Long Earth
by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
Recommended Ages: 13+

Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is part of the bedrock of the Book Trolley's growing list of books to read after Harry Potter. Stephen Baxter is a science-fiction novelist, active since the early 1990s, whose forty-odd books I had never read or heard of until I found this book on CD, narrated by the talented Michael Fenton Stevens. Pratchett specializes in examining the nature of our civilization through the lens of a silly, off-bubble fantasy world. Baxter, I take it, likes to play with ideas related to time travel, alternate history, and parallel worlds. Put these two creative minds together, and you get a fascinating world-building experiment that shows what might happen to mankind if (or maybe when) we suddenly figure out how to "step" from one possible Earth to another.

From Step Day onwards, humanity has been surging "east" and "west" along the branches of the Contingency Tree, discovering quantum duplicates of the Earth reaching, perhaps, to infinity. The main difference between "Earth Zero," also known as the Datum, and these other worlds is that the latter have developed—mostly—without human civilization. Until now. Now governments are crumbling and economies are crashing as the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, build their own "steppers" (homemade electronic devices that most people need to step from one Earth to another), and pop off to find a better life. Some of them settle down and do the pioneer thing. Others drift up and down the chain of worlds like hobos, stopping now and then to exchange labor for supplies. And of course, some use their new-found stepping ability to commit crimes.

Only a few people fully recognize the opportunity and the responsibility that come with this new frontier. One of them is a "natural stepper" named Joshua Valiente, who was an orphaned boy when Step Day happened, and whose presence of mind (not to say his ability to step without puking) saved a lot of kids' lives that day. Now he's a restless explorer, driven by some unnamed instinct toward places untouched by man, yet also returning often to refill his humanity tanks by visiting the nuns who raised him. Other such hero is a lesbian police officer in Madison, Wisconsin, nicknamed "Spooky" because of her specialization in transdimensional issues. Then there's Sally, the daughter of the man who invented steppers, who knows secrets about stepping that Joshua never dreamed of. And finally, there's Lobsang: a Tibetan motorcycle mechanic reincarnated as an artificial intelligence, who recruits Joshua for a voyage into the strange, far reaches of the Long Earth.

Traveling on board a sentient airship—because only sentient beings can step, together with anything they are carrying except metallic iron—Joshua and Lobsang flit from Earth to Earth, thousands—hundreds of thousands—millions of steps from Earth. Along the way they encounter ice worlds, an ocean planet, a few "joker" Earths utterly devoid of life, and many strange life-forms as each copy of Earth grows just a little less like the Datum. They also find colonies thriving in unexpected places, traces of a dead civilization, and several species of nearly sentient humanoids—some of which have evolved the ability to step between the Earths. As you journey with them, you will be charmed by the gentle Trolls and chilled by the predatory Elves.

I can't remember the last time I read anything that grabbed my imagination the way this book did. When, in Joshua's first encounter with them, the Trolls sang an exquisite polyphonic choral setting of "Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road," I had that song stuck in my head for a whole week and a mental image of the Trolls that I may never shed. But things get increasingly serious after that. Joshua can feel something coming in the worlds ahead, a painful pressure in his head like the presence of a huge mind. Elves, Trolls, and other humanoids are migrating through the Long Earth, fleeing in the opposite direction. Something terrible is headed toward Datum Earth; while, at the same time, trouble is brewing back at home, and may spread from there toward the pristine worlds where, for the first time in history, mankind seems to be doing it right.

Disaster, doom, and sacrifice await Joshua, Lobsang, and Sally at the end of their westward journey of exploration. The solution may seem to come a bit too easily, in proportion to the build-up to its full revelation. But in the end, the biggest shock is the one that rocks Datum Madison. This will create new problems that only a sequel can resolve. And behold, that sequel has arrived, as of June 2013: The Long War.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Tale Dark and Grimm

A Tale Dark and Grimm
by Adam Gidwitz
Recommended Ages: 11+

This book is what happens when a New York City schoolteacher stitches together nine fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm to form one coherent story—while, at the same time, restoring much of the original versions' weird, scary, and bloody bits. And although the narrator often pulls the reader aside and begs him to make sure there are no small children in the room to hear the tale, the entire book demonstrates an amazing faith in kids' guts, brains, and hearts—not only that they can understand and appreciate such strong stuff, but that they are brave enough to take it, worthy to enjoy it, and keen to learn from it. Some parents may not agree that their little ones are ready to experience full-strength Grimm (let alone Shakespeare, as Gidwitz's students have done). But if they read this book, they might be won over.

Parents should take the narrator's advice, however, and read the book themselves before sharing it with their kids. Not only will this enable them to judge whether it is right for them, but it will also prepare them to discuss it. I would be the last person to suggest censorship of any kind, but I generally believe parents are the best judge of what is good for their children, and I think Mr. Gidwitz is with me on this. On the other hand, I predict that a parent pre-reading this book will be impressed by what it has to offer—including lessons in courage, forgiveness, sacrifice, and endurance. As strange and perhaps excessively violent as the stories are, they also carry deep insights into human nature. And their blend of familiar fairy-tale structures with new and thrilling details may result in a fresh wave of interest in the original tales of Grimm.

To start with, Hansel and Gretel are the twin children of the King and Queen of Grimm. The reason they end up nibbling on a house made of cake, and nearly getting baked and eaten by a crazy baker lady, is different from what you have heard. They've run away from the castle after the main events of the story of Faithful Johannes, a servant who sacrificed everything to serve his king—even to the point of facing execution for treason. They don't understand the bit where their parents cut their heads off, though the part that ought to bemuse them is how their heads got stuck back on.

And so they go out into the wild, wonderful world, looking for a better family. But all they find are folks like the crazy baker lady—or a man who curses his seven sons so that they turn into swallows—or a forest that brings out the animal in Hansel—or a handsome young sorcerer who steals girls' souls and eats their bodies—or a father who gambles away his son in a bet with the devil. They go through death and transfiguration, the loss of a finger, heartbreak after heartbreak, and finally hell itself. And when they return home, it is only to face a terrifying dragon.

These stories—some familiar, some all but forgotten today—dovetail together amazingly well, bringing out old patterns in new shapes, new details against a familiar background, and a compelling overall structure. In his pauses to address the reader personally, the narrator sometimes veers uncomfortably close to sermonizing, but not so close that his point misses its target. In spite of a just slightly tiresome overuse of a running joke on the words "The End," and the authorial asides' unintended resemblance to the italicized parts of The Princess Bride (which one tends to skip after the first reading), it's a richly satisfying book that will not only thrill and chill young readers, but may also provoke fruitful thought and character-building. You may even wish more Grimm tales could have been included. But that's all right. There is already a companion book, titled In a Glass Grimmly; while a third book, The Grimm Conclusion, comes out in October 2013.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The False Prince

The False Prince
by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Recommended Ages: 12+

The kingdom of Carthya is in trouble. Its king and queen, together with their eldest son, have been poisoned. The younger of the two princes was lost at sea four years ago, presumed dead. Its borders are lined with the armies of neighboring countries, hungry for the land's rich resources. Once the noblemen begin squabbling over succession to the throne, the resulting civil war will show the weakness their enemies are waiting for. And so you almost can't blame a young nobleman named Conner for coming up with a plan to put a pretended prince on the throne.

Conner's idea is to teach an orphan who looks vaguely like the late Prince Jaron how to act like ditto. The fraud only needs to work long enough for the Council of Regents to crown the boy king. Then Conner will be in control of the government and can save the country from the tight spot its previous king got it into. To be sure his ruse will work, Conner plucks not one but three orphans out of hunger and degradation, and gives them two weeks to learn how to walk, talk, read, fence, and ride horses like a born prince. The winner will become his puppet on the throne. Technically, he collects four boys from the country's orphanages—then has the fourth killed in front of the other three, so they understand the stakes they are playing for. For Tobias, Roden, and Sage are contestants in a non-televised reality show where the winning contestant gets to live with a lie for the rest of his life... and the other two get to die.

From the beginning, you're in Sage's corner in this no-quarter-given, suspense-laden, intrigue-packed, upside-down boys' version of The Princess Academy. No doubt the fact that Sage narrates it has a lot to do with it. But even though he starts out as a hot-tempered, stubborn, rebellious pickpocket, he soon shows qualities that could make him either the best king or the hardest puppet to control. Sage swings rapidly and repeatedly between leading the pack and looking like he might get kicked off the island early, and with extreme prejudice.

Sage survives being beaten, stabbed, and singled out for all kinds of rough treatment. And while the other boys are willing to trade his life for their ambition, he makes a pact to save their lives if he wins. But first he must act the role of a lifetime, risk breaking the hearts of two beautiful girls, and fulfill a promise to his most dangerous enemy, all while saving a surprise of his own until the key moment when, if he survives, a pickpocket will become a king.

Tension, mystery, multiple layers of conflict, and various athletic exploits keep the pages turning swiftly. Plus, Sage's mischievous but honorable character should hold a lot of appeal for young readers of both sexes. First in the projected "Ascendance Trilogy," this book recently gained a sequel titled The Runaway King. Its Utah-based author has also published a trilogy called "Underworld Chronicles," starting with Elliot and the Goblin War.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Little People

Little People
by Tom Holt
Recommended Ages: 14+

At age eight, Mike Higgins was playing Captain Kirk in his backyard when he spotted a tiny, green-skinned man with pointy ears, leaning against a head of lettuce and smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. "'Mummy, mummy,' I yelled out as I ran back into the house. Guess what! There are Vulcans at the bottom of our garden!'" Being the boy who saw an elf shapes the course of his life from that point forward—a life fraught with inadequacy and disappointment, conflict with his rich stepfather, mediocrity at his boarding school, off-and-on romance with a sharp-tongued co-ed named Cruella, awkwardness at talking with girls, and troubles with the authorities—so, basically, the quintessence of being a young British male. Only most young blokes don't stumble into an adventure in Elfland, skip fifteen years of their own life, and come back to find out they've won two Nobel Prizes after being declared dead. And I'm guessing that most of them can't tell the tale in a way that packs in as much heartbreaking honesty as this book does, while saving room for an average of one laugh per paragraph.

One Christmas holiday home from school, Mike discovers that there may be more to his boyhood elf sighting than a trick of the mind. On his first night back, he literally trips and falls on one elf. Soon afterward, through scientific study, he spots a few more. When he gets back to school, he realizes that one of the elves has come with him, stowed away in his luggage. His pint-sized friend explains that everybody in the human world has a counterpart in Elfland, where everyone is nice and happy and good-looking, brilliant at maths and physics, but otherwise a bit thick. In our world, their personality turns sour—though part of that may be a result of Mike's stepdad shrinking them down to six inches tall and working them like slaves in his garden and shoe factory. All this is tied up with Mike's own, untold origin story—the half-elf son of a girl who... well, if I told you, you wouldn't believe me. You'll have to read it for yourself.

And I daresay you will enjoy finding out not only what makes Mike so special. Because of his unique knowledge and abilities, he is the only one who can save the elves from his wicked stepfather. But before he can do that, he must survive several interdimensional crossings, elude police custody, earn the trust of a girl whose love for him ruined her life, join the ranks of the little people, and find an answer to the question "Why me?" other than, "Because everyone else is still at lunch." And finally, with the fate of worlds in his hands, he must lose to win. It's a perfect example of contemporary fantasy-comedy, with a main character who fits Stephen Fry's description of the classic British comic to a tee. And it's also a story that may leave you surprisingly moved at the end.

Besides this book, Tom Holt has also written dozens of novels since the 1980s, including many more in the humorous sci-fi and fantasy line, plus historical novels set in ancient Greece, and a quartet of books about a supernatural version of the company in TV's The Office. A few of his titles include Earth, Air, Fire and Custard; Expecting Someone Taller; Who's Afraid of Beowulf?; Grailblazers; Djinn Rummy; Paint Your Dragon; Snow White and the Seven Samurai; and Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages. So far I have only read this one book by him, but it's been an exciting discovery. I plan to raid the public library for more of the same.

Bachelor Chow Lentil Soup

Cooking for one can be a drag, especially if you hate leftovers as much as I do. The package directions on virtually everything assume that you're cooking a family sized meal, and if they offer single-serving measurements, the proportions seem best suited to those wee people who actually need to refrigerate the uneaten portion of a six-ounce cup of yogurt. So, in effect, you're torn between the risk of overeating by doubling the proportions and eating the same thing at every meal for three days because you cooked the whole package.

Well, I've gradually figured out a few handy proportions that have stood me in good stead. For example, I buy rice by the sack and store it in reusable plastic tubs. When I want rice for dinner, I use my 1/3-cup scoop to combine two scoops of rice and four scoops of water in a saucepan. I heat it to a boil, cover it snugly with a foil-wrapped lid, reduce the heat to the lowest flame my stovetop will allow, and set the microwave timer to 15 minutes. That's just ordinary white rice; with something fancier like basmati, I might let the rice stand in the unheated water for 20 minutes before lighting the flame. But basically, the proportion "two parts water to one part rice" has proved to be a handy rule of thumb, and it cooks in the same time whether I'm using the 1/4-, 1/3, or 1/2-cup measuring scoop.

This didn't take much trial and error. It actually came of reading the package directions and doing a bit of math in my head. But I haven't had such good luck with dried beans, peas, and lentils. Generally the time needed to cook them to the desired tenderness was far in excess of what the printed recipe indicated. Sometimes I left them cooking just a tiny bit too long, only to find the beans had totally dissolved into a thick, dry mush that then burned at the bottom. Either I used too much liquid, requiring me to devote hours to reducing it to a smooth slurry of nominally souplike density, or I found myself rushing to add more water. All of these problems arose during one miserable cooking marathon that stretched right through suppertime and into the wee hours of the morning.

And then there were the times when I overdid the seasonings, or forgot that the meat I was adding to the soup was spicy enough without dumping in another load of spices; the number of nuclear pea soups I have endured has led me almost to prefer the times when it came out too bland. These kitchen disasters have tended to discourage me from making much soup of the dried-legume persuasion. And of course, there is always the problem that I have to use the biggest pot in the pantry to cook a whole pound of the dried whatever, all the cleanup afterward, and (God help me!) the leftovers.

And that's kind of sad. Because I have such fond, wistful memories of perfect lentil and pea soups that have been served to me over the years. I would never have believed that reproducing them would be such a pain.

Well, at least I now seem to have some of the basic proportions right. To start, I emptied my one-pound bags of lentils and peas into the same kind of storage tubs wherein I keep rice. Then I dispensed with the idea of cooking a whole pound of them at one time. I started today's lunch with two 1/4-cup scoops of lentil, followed by six identical scoops of water—i.e. three parts water to one part bean. Then, while heating it to a boil, I added about a spoonful of minced onion, about 1/4 spoonful of rosemary leaves, and a slice off a stick of summer sausage cut into roughly 1/3-inch cubes.

I covered the boiling pan loosely (actually, my lid has a steam vent in it) and left it simmering on low heat until a 20 minute timer went off, stirring once or twice in the meantime. I tested a couple of lentils, found them too tough, and set a 5 minute timer. The next time I tested the beans, they seemed just right, so I poured the lot into a bowl and put a spoonful in my mouth... and it was too tough. Back in the pot, on low heat, loosely covered, for another five minutes... and again they tested just right. I ate the soup at this point, though again, once served, the lentils proved to be a bit tougher than when I tested them. They weren't so overly tough that I didn't enjoy the dish.

So I reckon 35 minutes should do it for next time; the same amount of beans and water, no more and no less; and, as a rule of thumb, I shouldn't just nibble one or two beans when I'm testing to see if it's soup; rather, I should munch a whole spoonful of them at once before deciding whether to add another 5 minutes or serve. As for the flavor, I was very pleased. The flavor of the summer sausage combined nicely with the lentil juice and the simple seasonings, which seemed neither bland nor overdone. The fat in the sausage had dissolved into the broth, leaving the meat with just the right texture. After one brimming bowlful I was happily full, and there were no leftovers. Bonus points!