Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Magician King

The Magician King
by Lev Grossman
Recommended Ages: 14+

The Magicians introduced us to Quentin Coldwater, a young American whose heart belongs in a Narnia-like world of juvenile fantasy novels called Fillory. When Quentin gets into an exclusive school called Brakebills (think: a college-level Hogwarts in upstate New York), he learns the dangerous art magic, then joins several of his buddies on a journey that takes them to the very real world of Fillory. And still happiness eludes him. That is all background to this book, in which Quentin and friends delve further into a world proving that magic and adventure are no substitute for a strong course of antidepressants.

The chapters of The Magician King alternate between two storylines. In the one that gives the book its title, Quentin grows restless on the throne of Fillory, which he shares with three other Brakebills alumni. Convinced that he needs a quest, or some kind of adventure, more than the easy life of a pampered royal, he sails out to the edge of the known world just to see what is there. What he finds is a portal back to the Real World, from which he and his troubled friend Julia make a narrow escape back into Fillory. But their adventure has just started. Now it seems the magic is being taken away from all the worlds, and in Fillory's case that means the end of the world. Quentin started it all by getting the attention of the powers behind the magic; now it is his quest, more than anyone else's, to seek the seven keys that will keep magic and Fillory alive.

Meanwhile, the book also fills us in on Julia's background in magic. While the previous book focused on how Quentin learned the art in the (more or less) safe environment of Brakebills, alternating chapters of this book show us how Julia made do in the harsh, painful world of hedge magic. Her search for magical enlightenment takes her through many dark places, in the outside world as well as in her own heart. By the time she joins up with Quentin again, she has begun a transformation that will only be completed when her oldest friend makes the ultimate sacrifice for her. And that, if I can say so without spoiling everything for you, is why this book takes such a shockingly tragic turn at the end—the type of ending that, were there not hope of another installment yet to come, might lead to a rise in Zoloft prescriptions.

I am happy to say, that hope exists. This sequel to The Magicians will soon (in August 2014) become the middle installment of a trilogy. Look for Book 3, The Magician's Land, now available for pre-order. Meanwhile, you can enjoy this dark, emotionally deep, unflinchingly honest work of contemporary fantasy with the guilt-free assurance that it also measures up as serious literature. Often bawdy (Adult Content Warning!), sometimes eerie (Occult Content Warning!), full of strange creatures and danger and action and weirdness and gut-shaking comedy, it's the full package—rounded off by a message of solidarity with those suffering from chronic mental illness. It's Narnia for the grown-up and disillusioned—It's Harry Potter for the clinically depressed—and it doesn't offer easy (i.e., fake) answers.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

45. Christmas Hymn for the Unborn

O blessed birth, Love's condescension,
That made the womb a holy place;
Fulfillment of God's kind intention,
Bestowing favor on our race:
What peace is ours, what comfort, joy,
All swaddled with this lovely Boy!

'Twas not her reason, will, or merit
That filled the Virgin full of grace,
But that which was of God the Spirit,
Express from God's most holy face:
Behold, the temple God has built
To purge mankind of shame and guilt!

That lady ran to greet another,
Her hail exuberantly flung;
The prophet leapt within his mother
And inspiration to her tongue:
"Behold how God deals graciously!
My unborn Savior visits me!"

O gentle Savior of all mortals
Who, saving You, are born in sin,
We who have passed the world's first portals
Now likewise plead for those within:
You who the womb deigned not to scorn,
Have mercy on those yet unborn!

Such honor, Christ, Your birth once granted
To every stock and state of men;
Now that in death Your flag is planted,
Restore life's dignity again!
Since You once died that all might live,
Stay those who kill! Rebuke! Forgive!

Teach us to cherish young and old, Lord,
Barren or fertile, strong or weak;
Let all Your lambs be gathered fold-ward,
And make their shepherds bold to speak
That, knowing You, incarnate Love,
They be reborn, born from above!

Saturday, December 21, 2013


by Sarah Rees Brennan
Recommended Ages: 14+

Book 1 of "The Lynburn Legacy" introduces us to Kami Glass, a teenaged girl of mixed Japanese and English ancestry who lives in the Cotswolds village of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Since she was a baby, Kami has had an imaginary friend named Jared who talks to her in her head, telling her all about his make-believe life in America. Even into high school she continues to converse with this secret voice, though she has increasingly learned to hide it from her concerned parents and her weirded-out friends. Then one day the surviving members of the Lynburn family, the old lords of the manor, come back into town—and one of them turns out to be a boy named Jared, who grew up in America believing that the voice in his head was an imaginary friend named Kami.

It turns out to be kind of scary to discover that the voice in your head is a real person, sharing your thoughts and feelings from half a world away. Once she starts getting to know the real Jared, Kami isn't so sure she wants to share head-space with him. The real Jared comes across as a sullen loner, always getting into trouble and barely tolerated even by his mother, uncle, aunt, and cousin. On the other hand, having a sturdy young fellow ready to run to your rescue the moment you even think you're in danger proves handy when, for example, somebody pushes Kami down a well.

Kami's lifelong hometown—a quiet place seemingly without secrets—suddenly reveals itself to be a dangerous place. A place where animals are brutally sacrificed in the woods, and where magic is at work—magic even darker and more disturbing than whatever links Kami and Jared. Now both youngsters must work out just what it means that neither of them can truly hide from the other, and whether they really want to go on this way. They seem to have a choice about it. But the people who offer them the choice also seem to have a purpose of their own: a hunger for power that will not stop short even of murder.

Kami, Jared, and their family, friends, and neighbors, fill out a cast of interesting and believable characters—every one of whom is, at some point, a plausible suspect in a creepy mystery involving sorcery, sacrifice, and a grim type of slavery. While the plot is thrilling and terribly serious, the moment-by-moment details are fraught with laugh-out-loud humor and romantic undercurrents that, finally, flow around a surprisingly dark and tragic bend. But don't bail out now. The Lynburn Legacy continues in a second book, the recently-released Untold. Sarah Rees Brennan is also the author of the Demon Lexicon trilogy and, with Justine Larbalestier, the teen-vampire novel Team Human.

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer
by Lish McBride
Recommended Ages: 14+

Even though Samhain is not pronounced anything like how it looks, somehow young Samhain Corvus LaCroix has picked up the nickname Sam, along with a mediocre career path based on dropping out of college and working at a burger joint. He shares a one-bedroom apartment with his buddies Ramon and Frank (who sleep on the couch and the living room floor, respectively), and has zero love-life in spite of working with a hot number named Brooke and living next door to a Betty White type who always encourages him to walk on the wild side. Nevertheless, Sam only begins to suss out what the wild side is when an irate customer picks him up by his neck and demands to know where he gets off being an unregistered necromancer. This is news to Sam, who had no clue that magic even existed. But the tough customer ought to know; he is none other than Douglas Montgomery, the necromancer who presides over Seattle's Council of magic-users and magical beings.

Douglas has Sam roughed up by a supernatural goon, threatens to exterminate him if he doesn't become a good little apprentice, and gives him one week to think about it. Then, just to drive the point home, he has Brooke's head delivered to Sam's apartment in a brown-paper-wrapped box. Murdering one of his best friends would be a strong enough message, indeed. But Douglas goes even further, by bringing Brooke's severed head back to life. You know, like a necromancer would do.

Understandably, Sam and his friends are freaked out. But taking care of a talking, bodiless head is now the least of their troubles. They feel the urgency of finding out how Sam managed to reach college age without realizing that he can see dead people and do magic. Their sleuthing has a built-in time limit, and there aren't many people Sam can turn to for information. Sure, his mother has secrets. His estranged father's side of the family may hold even more. But just as he finds another necromancer to reach out to—one who is not under Douglas's control—the fiend bumps up the time-table even more. Now Sam finds himself trapped in the middle of a gruesome experiment involving a cute werewolf girl, zombies, waffle-craving grim reaper in saddle shoes, and dark incantations powered by blood and death. As Sam's friends and family race to the rescue, time is quickly running out for both him and his lupine cellmate.

This book is a fabulous beginning to a promising new series. Already this includes is a second book, titled Necromancing the Stone, as well as a stand-alone short story called Necromancer. If they live up to the promise of this debut, they are most certainly worth seeing. I tore through this book in no time, laughing heartily at its wry humor, appreciating the subtly adult romantic subplot, and steering my way through the intense action sequences with a white-knuckled grip. I see a lot of promise in this modern-day fantasy world, and in an up-and-coming author whose other work includes a unicorn novel titled Heads Will Roll.

Friday, December 20, 2013

44. Maundy Thursday Hymn

I know, it's a little out of season. But I just came across the fragment of this hymn that I must have written years ago, and I had to see it through! The relevant Bible passages are John 13:1-12; Isaiah 34:4; and Daniel 12:3. I didn't have a tune in mind while writing this, but a quick check of my "master metrical index of anglophone Lutheran hymnals" turns up a 16th-century tune called OLD 107TH that I think would do nicely.

Lord, on the night You were betrayed,
You proved our faithful Friend;
Did not desert Your own, but stayed
And loved them to the end;
Then, holding all things in Your hand,
In Your most holy feast
Obeyed the Father's stern command
And, stooping, served the least.

You bathed Your children's wandering feet,
Lord, Master of all men,
Who journeyed from God’s mercy-seat
And now turned back again.
You took the ewer, basin, cloth,
And acting as their slave,
Girded Yourself and, kneeling, both
Began to teach and lave.

When Peter saw what was afoot,
Ashamed, he took it ill.
You said, “You have not understood
What I do—but you will.”
When he refused, You said, “Unless
I wash you, you are lost.”
“My head as well,” in his distress,
He begged his kneeling host.

But You, Lord, called already clean
Those You had washed—indeed,
A cleanliness within, unseen,
Sufficient to their need.
Your word and water even now
Combine to cleanse and save:
Not as men understand, but how
You freely choose to lave.

“Do you know what I’ve done to you?”
You asked the awestruck twelve.
“What Lord and Master else would do
What you have seen yourselves?
The path that I have shown you, walk,
And serve with bondage sweet;
For where the Shepherd goes, the flock
Must trail His wounded feet.

“As I, your Lord, have served you well,”
You then went on to say,
“So serve each other while you dwell
Upon My servant way.
If you lead many a footsore soul
Onto this path of Mine,
You, when the sky shuts like a scroll,
Shall like the planets shine.”

We thank You now, foot-washing Lord,
Who served and made us clean,
For present peace no ear has heard,
Tongue uttered, or eye seen.
Implant in us a mind like Yours,
That stooped and loved and bled;
Chart in us such a servant course,
To live in You, our Head!

43. Hymn of Grief

Here is my attempt to flesh out that "Funeral Hymn Fragment" from my previous post. Before you complain that it's too long, remember that there are more uses for a hymn than being sung in church.

O Christ, You know: to live
Is good; to die is best.
For while we here yet strive,
Those yonder taste Your rest.

They run ahead to joys
Whereof our hope is keen.
We grope with grief-dimmed eyes;
They blessed light have seen.1

Their sicknesses are healed,
While yet we suffer more;
Their happiness is sealed;
We yet are sad and sore.

They’ve run their race and won
The crown life in heaven;
We’ve many miles to run,
Still sinful, though forgiven.

Those perfect ones now live,
Yet we remain to die;
While in Your arms they thrive,
Regretting them, we sigh.

They still are whom we love,
Though Your love is the best;
While they have passed above,
Dare we begrudge their rest?

Your love for them and us
Excels all in our heart;
Dare we resent You thus
For drawing us apart?

For they have but arrived
Where we shall join them soon,
And all shall be revived
By You, for bane or boon.

Till then, help us to strive
For their victorious rest!
Though dying, yet alive,
Death’s ramparts we invest.

They who have passed beyond
Unite with us to pray:
How long must we, how long
Endure this evil day?

Amen! Come quickly, Lord!
Come, wipe away all tears.
We long to be restored;
Our dawn of freedom nears.

1This stanza went through several versions. This version is closer to my original concept for the stanza, except with a less glaring blip in the rhyme scheme. My initial attempt to resolve this conflict was the less satisfactory
They run forth to delight
Whereof our hope is keen.
We grope behind in night;
Your brightness they have seen.

Fragments from an Organist's Notebook

I recently unearthed a notebook I used to keep by me at the console of the pipe organ I played for several years at a certain LCMS church in Saint Louis. I needed the notebook for another purpose, so I tore these pages out. Before I throw them away forever, here are some of the tidbits I had scribbled on them...

General Preset 1: "Hymn Intro," etc.
Pedal: 16' Bourdon, 16' Flute, 8' Bour., Fl., 4' Bour., 8' Sw.-Ped.
Swell: 4' Principal, 2' Fl.
Great: 8' Pr., 4' Fl., 8' Sw.-Gt.

General Preset 2: "Stanza 1," etc.
Ped.: 16' Bour., Fl., 8' and 4' Pr., 8' and 4' Sw.-Ped.
Sw.: 8' Fl., 4' Pr.
Gt.: 8', 4', and 2' Pr., 8' Sw.-Gt.

General Preset 3
Ped.: 16' Viol., Bour. 8' Pr., Bour. 4' Pr., Bour. 8' Gt.-Ped.
Sw.: 8' Fl., V Cornet (4' Pr., Fl., 2-2/3' Nazard, 2' Fl., 1-3/5' Tierce)
Gt.: 8' Pr., Fl., 4' Pr., 2' Pr., 8' Sw.-Gt.

Comment: I am pretty sure this list dates from an early stage in my tenure on that instrument. Later I had as many as five general presets that I kept pretty much all the time, and Presets 4 and 5 were much more massive registrations. However, these "bare-bones" registrations left plenty of room to add stops between stanzas (such as 4' couplers, combinations, 2' stops, and mutations), and to create custom presets for specific preludes and postludes.

And now, some poetical fragments that I may someday flesh out and repost as completed works.

Lord, on the night You were betrayed,
You proved our faithful Friend;
Did not desert Your own, but stayed
And loved them to the end;
Then, holding all things in Your hand,
In your most holy feast
Obeyed the Father's stern command
And, stooping, served the least.

You bathed your children's wandering feet,
(fragment breaks off)

I do not say, when I have died,
That I shall stand with you aside;
Rather, whate'er I see or do,
Where'er I go, the love of you
I take with me; when in my ears
Resounds the music of the spheres,
Should I be called to join the same,
Into my song I'll pour your name.

When to my eyes the vision blest
Breaks open stores of perfect rest,
Before that throne of fear and grace
I'll bear your love. And when I face
The long road of eternity,
Your last kiss shall go on with me.
With my last breath this vow I give:
I who now die, commence to live.

You still, a little while, must stay
And watch the dying of this day;
So soon as, where I go, makes naught,
You shall be likewise upward caught:
No more to die, henceforth to live.
This final word of peace I give.
(bottom of page)

O Christ, you know: to live
Is good; to die is best.
For while we here yet strive,
Those yonder taste your rest.

They run ahead to joys
Whereof our hope is keen.
We grope behind in shade;
They blessed light have seen.

Amen! Come quickly, Lord!
Come, wipe away all tears
(fragment breaks off)

At the bottom of another page, I found a two-column table that evidently served as a guide for writing this hymn. The columns were headed "Deceased" and "Us." Beneath these headings were the following notes:
Healed / Still in Pain
Happy / Sad
Perfect / Still sinners (but forgiven)
Living / Dying
In Arms of Christ / Selfishly wanting them back
Still the one we loved / Loved by Christ
Arrived / In Transit
Victorious / Still in Battle

I think I jotted this down while listening to a seminary student trying to preach.
  • Explain the text
  • Use analogy when you need to, to explain the text!
  • Interpret the text via proper distinction of Law & Gospel
  • Proclaim the cross, forgiveness
  • Locate Christ and His gifts in the Means of Grace
  • Be audible
If I correctly remember which seminarian was preaching that day, the underlining of that last item represented profound frustration.

I listed the titles (only) of several "parables," to use as talking points for a series of piano lessons I was giving to a child in the congregation. I have added comments below each one, attempting to flesh out what I was thinking at the time.

Wild Horses & Paths (really two parables)
The only way to tame a wild horse is to catch it, climb on its back, and fight it until it submits to your control. Beginning to learn how to play the piano is like that: you have to force your hands to do things that (at first) they don't want. The more you wrestle with them (through persistent practice), the more obedient they become. Also, it can be hard work to walk across ground that has no path on it. But if people walk over the same ground often enough, their footsteps compress the earth into a path where they can walk faster and more easily. Learning the piano is like that: For a while it seems like a lot of tedious hard work; but over time you will feel less resistance, and your progress will come more easily.

Tennis/Badminton/Volleyball/Ping Pong
The successful player of any of these sports will always return to a central position at his end of the court or table after hitting the projectile over the net. This saves energy running, jumping, and reaching, wherever his opponent may send the object flying back. Likewise, a pianist who does not want to wear his hands out must always bring them back to a relaxed position after extending the fingers.

Dizzy Dean
This legendary baseball pitcher burned out early because he played while nursing a broken toe. Since he favored his injured foot, Dean's pitching motion changed in a way that resulted in permanent shoulder damage, effectively ending his career. Likewise, a pianist who practices with an incorrect technique runs the risk of disabling injury to the muscles and joints of the hand.

Muscle Memory
When you practice something the same way, over and over, you are building a habit that makes it ever easier to do. This applies equally to shooting free throws, playing a video game, and performing a piece of music. One of my music teachers liked to put it this way: Each time you learn something new, it puts a wrinkle on your brain. The wrinkles on your brain represent processes that your brain, nerves, and muscles have worked out among themselves—but adding these wrinkles takes serious work.

Right Paths
It is important to practice in the right way, so that you do not learn bad habits or etch mistakes on your muscle memory. This means (at the very least) slowing down enough to play every note perfectly, counting every beat out loud, using a metronome to keep time, and gradually speeding up until you can play the piece with equal accuracy at the target tempo. It also means using the correct expressions and articulations every time you practice a piece, rather than attempting to "add the dynamics later."

Thursday, December 19, 2013


by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 16+

In Book 3 of "The Parasol Protectorate," Lady Maccon, a.k.a. La Diva Tarabotti, is forced to flee England by the scandal of her pregnancy, which no one seems to believe could be the result of her marital relations with Lord Maccon, Alpha werewolf of the Woolsey Pack. Seriously, nobody can find any precedent for a werewolf reproducing except via bite. And though His Lordship is good at that, even he knows that a man in his "mostly dead" condition is extremely unlikely to father a child. Spurned by her husband, turfed out by her own family, and fired from the Shadow Council by Queen Victoria herself, Alexia crosses Europe on a Steampunk-themed quest to vindicate her honor.

Meanwhile, every vampire on the continent seems to be mad for her blood (metaphorically speaking, since they can't actually bite her). A German scientist in the French city of Nice wants to do not-very-nice things to her. A mysterious white werewolf is (har har) dogging her steps. A plague of clockwork ladybugs comes dripping with menace. Escaping from one only to be menaced by the next, Alexia makes her way to Florence. There she seeks answers from the Knights Templar, who rule Italy with an anti-supernatural fanaticism at least as terrifying as any of these. It's such a pity that, just as she is finding answers to what kind of child a soulless Preternatural like herself could have, the Templars realize that Alexia is of more use to them dead than alive.

Back in England, Lord Maccon has been indisposed—drunk, if you must know; and where a werewolf is concerned, that takes some doing. His Beta (second in command) suspects that Alexia may be innocent. But while he waits for his principal to sober up enough to face that probability, more problems crop up. Lone wolves see their chance to challenge the Alpha for leadership of his pack. Lord Akeldama, the flamboyant vampire who happens to be Lady Maccon's friend, has disappeared along with all his drones. So has the Woolsey Pack's Gamma. And the Potentate of all vampires in England has been acting in a way that threatens to overturn the British Empire's progressive society in which mortals, vampires, and werewolves are integrated in a delicate alliance. Before the smoke clears, the situation will have become more complicated than ever—not to mention, deadly.

In this installment, Alexia learns more about her mysterious father, the care and feeding of Preternaturals, and the possibility of accepting and loving her "infant inconvenience" even before it is born. If it lives to be born, that is. Her faithful retainer Flute, her enthusiastic but silly friend Ivy, and the mannish French inventor Madame Lefoux, all show surprising qualities. And unlikeliest of all, her love affair with Lord Maccon gets a second chance, even after the unforgivable. To know what I mean, you had to have read the previous book in the series, titled Changeless. To find out what happens next, steer your dirigible, sky-rail car, or submersible toward Book 4: Heartless.

As usual, this book flies under an Adult Content Advisory—though the erotic bits take more of a backseat to the adventure than in the first two installments. And while it entertains with its distinctively playful, arch tone, it also contains some dark imagery that may disturb some younger readers. Grammar Nazis may be miffed to see the word "antennae" used as a singular noun, and those following the series by way of the Emily Grey-narrated audio-books may challenge her butchery of German pronunciation. Apart from such minor details, both Carriger and Grey are at their most entertaining in this far-flung tale of travel, mystery, action, and intrigue.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

42. On Mental Illness: A Hymn

God, who mourns with those who mourn,
Who has in Christ our weakness borne,
Command the storms of thought and will
Within Your servants: "Peace, be still!"
Lord, have mercy!

Lord, in our bitterness of heart,
We pray You, take the healer's part.
When life is dry and pleasure scant,
For your refreshing draft we pant:
Lord, have mercy!

When restless thoughts our souls employ,
Convict us of Your peace and joy;
Nor let us drown in darkness deep,
But hold our heads up as we weep.
Lord, have mercy!

Take pity on our pain of mind;
And though we worry, pray be kind.
Rebuke us not for feeling doubt,
While devils rage within, without.
Lord, have mercy!

Lord Jesus, cover with Your blood
The fractured mind, the antic mood;
Be medicine to heal the soul
That thirsts and hungers to be whole.
Lord, have mercy!

And though our road be long and sore,
Give us from Your unbounded store
The spirit-balm of sin forgiven,
The never-failing hope of heaven.
Lord, have mercy!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fall of a Kingdom

Fall of a Kingdom
by Hilari Bell
Recommended Ages: 12+

Inspired by a Persian legend and originally titled Flame, this is the first book of the Farsala Trilogy. The new and improved title, while dramatically distinctive, has the drawback of giving away the ending. But since the story is only getting started, that's probably all right.

The kingdom that falls in this book is called Farsala, a society that has held its own for many centuries against hostile neighbors on both sides. Its strength is also its vulnerability: an aristocratic class of cavalry officers, called the deghans, that has ridden down every enemy it has faced in battle. But the deghans are also proud, prickly, jealous of each other's position, and apt to treat the peasantry as a lower life-form than their horses. There is also something about their religion, which propitiates eleven evil djinn—sometimes to an extent that corrupts the rule of law—while doing lip-service to a single, benign deity called Azura. Throw in an enemy empire with a relatively liberal system of laws and a tradition of either conquering a country within a year or giving up—which sounds like an easy foe to beat until you realize how seldom they have given up—and you might begin to see why Farsala is poised, tipping, ready to fall.

At the heart of this tragedy are three young people, ranging in age from fifteen to about twenty. Teenaged Oraya is the spoiled, haughty, willful daughter of Farsala's military commander. Merahb dotes on his daughter above all things—more than his wife, his younger male heir, even his illegitimate son Jiaan, whose career he has advanced with a patronage that makes Oraya jealous. Jiaan, for his part, has to put up with a lot of hazing from full-blooded deghans his age, who refuse to accept him among their ranks, and from the half-sister who seizes every opportunity to call him a "peasant-born bastard." The unlikely third side of the triangle is a young peddler with a maimed hand, who nurses a deep grudge against the deghans, their social system, and especially their treatment of peasants like him. Kavi travels up and down the trade road with his beloved mule Duckie, trading with miners and farmers and travelers from foreign lands, and keeping his shadier dealings just a click downwind of the law.

The book, alternately told from the point of view of each of these three characters, doesn't spend much time introducing them before events start swirling and sweeping them into a collision course with their country's fate. Rumor has it that the Hrum Empire will soon be ready to invade Farsala. Merahb fears for his country's future, especially if his political rivals succeed in replacing him as high commander. But thanks to the twisted church-state politics of the deghans, young Oraya must be sacrificed to the djinn—supposedly to enable Farsala to win the impending war. Merahb has other plans for his daughter, however. Plans that involve a skillful deception, a hiding place in the mountains, and a little help from the Suud—strange, nocturnal people who live in the uncharted desert beyond the mountains. Both Jiaan (willingly) and Kavi (unwillingly) play a role in Oraya's escape. But as calamity descends upon Farsala like a thunderstorm, each of them faces sudden changes in their status, their importance, their role in history. By the end of this first installment, it looks as though at least one of them may be the great mythical hero, promised to return in the hour of Farsala's greatest need.

Though this book is very fast-paced and oriented toward teen readers, it is also a challenging book in several ways. Oraya is not an easy character to sympathize with, even after she begins to transform under the magical influence of the Suud. Jiaan's first taste of battle is humiliating and heart-breaking, yet somehow he seems destined to become a great military leader. Most surprising of all is Kavi, whose loyalties are up for grabs and who may not seem to have the strength—either of body or of character—to influence events other than toward disaster. While you're still deciding whether you care about him or despise him, or to guess whose side he will end up on and whether he will live long enough to make a difference, everything changes in a rush of emotionally staggering events. And just like that, you'll be on the hook for Book 2, Rise of a Hero (originally published as Wheel).

Denver-based author Hilari Bell has written a dozen and a half books, of which I have only read one so far (The Wizard Test). After dipping another toe in her work, I will surely pick up more of the Farsala Trilogy on my next trip to the library. Other titles of hers that interest me include The Goblin Wood (also the start of a trilogy), a trilogy (soon to become a quartet) called "Knight and Rogue," and the conclusion of this trilogy, Forging the Sword.

Food Stamp Gourmet

You're on a ridiculously tight food budget. Say, you've been on food stamps for half a year because your income dropped to below the amount you pay in rent (just hypothetically). And say your food stamp benefits have been cut by about 10% because the state found out about the $125 stipend you collect four times a year (which doesn't quite cover the overdraft in your checking account after paying the rent). How do you make mealtimes interesting?

Well, not to make a meal of it (ha, ha), you combine cheapo store-brand boxed dinners with crappy generic processed-meat products in creative ways.

The other day, I decided to try cutting up a couple of jumbo Polish sausage links (which I have been dying to get rid of) into a pan of macaroni and cheese (the type with the sauce already mixed in a foil-and-plastic pouch). Results: dismal. Halfway through my dinner, I realized that I didn't like the taste of Polish sausage enough to justify letting it dominate the so-called cheddar flavor of the sauce. Desperate for something to off-set the Polish-sausageness of the dish, I ended up stirring in several spoonfuls of sauerkraut (a jar of which turns out to be a necessary fixture in my refrigerator). Though this improved things a bit, I don't think the experiment was a success.

Today I was discouraged to find lots of Polish sausage still in my fridge. A zip-lock baggy full of the links, even. Why do there seem to be more of them in there every time I look? Is this some kind of perverse recap of the miracle of Zarephath?

Chastened by my recent mac-and-kielbasa debacle, I decided to try cutting up a couple of the links into a pan of instant cornbread stuffing. And surprise! This time it worked! Who would have thought that a preparation mostly of stale bread soaked in water would out-flavor a meat byproduct that had already proven too pungent for mac-and-cheese? I suppose one must never underestimate the power of sage and related spices, combined to excess as they generally are in box dinners of this sort. The flavors balanced perfectly... or as close to that as prevailing conditions allowed.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


by Mike Lupica
Recommended Ages: 13+

When New York sports journalist Mike Lupica first turned toward writing Young Adult fiction, it was mostly in the form of sports-related novels, such as Travel Team, Heat, and Miracle on 49th Street. And he's still writing them. You may be surprised at the length of his list of titles, and whether part of a series or a standalone novel, each one is primarily about sports—with only a couple of exceptions. One of them is a murder mystery. And the other is this story about a kid who discovers that he has super-powers.

To be sure, Zach Harriman is an eighth-grade athlete. When we first meet him, the toughest thing he has to deal with is a school bully who puts pressure on him, on and off the basketball court. But the role of hoops in Zach's life fades into the background as a bigger and more dangerous game enfolds him.

It begins when Zach's Dad dies in a plane crash at the eastern tip of Long Island. Zach has always thought of his father as a kind of superhero, but he had no idea how literally that was true. Tom Harriman, officially an adviser to the President of the United States, is unofficially a problem-fixer who flies around the world, stopping the Bads (as he calls them) from messing things up for everybody else. Now Tom is gone and Zach suspects that it's because the Bads got to him. Meanwhile, he suddenly discovers abilities he never knew he had—like a Spidey Sense of where and when trouble is about to happen, and super-sharp senses, and incredible speed, and maybe even a tiny bit of invisibility.

Zach's best friend Kate would probably tell him he was imagining it, if she didn't see some of it for herself. And it's freaky. Magically-transporting-himself-from-the-far-end-of-Long-Island-to-Central-Park freaky. Plus, a mysterious old man keeps turning up, siccing goons on the kids, then claiming to be helping Zach prepare for something he has to do. Whatever it is, it's going to be soon. Meanwhile, Zach's "Uncle" John (his father's best friend) claims that the old man is one of the Bads, and a mysterious message on his computer ("Trust no one") could apply to either of them. Zach doesn't know what is going to happen or what he's going to do about it—and then it happens, and he does his thing, and he solves his father's murder, and the world (or at least one country) has a hero again.

It's an interesting conceit: although there are many bad guys, somehow there can be only one hero at a time. As superhero origin stories go, it's a pretty down-to-earth book. While one is impressed that a writer like Lupica would attempt such a book, the real surprise may be how little play he gives to the kid's superpowers. It's as though he wanted to site Zach's magic and heroism in as natural and un-comic-book-like a world as possible. A love of New York and of sports is vividly evident in it, in not only the hero's heart but the author's too. Young readers hungry for stories of sports heroes may come away bemused, or perhaps beguiled, by this unexpected foray into fantasy, while superhero-comic fans may find the whole presentation a bit too low-key. Still, it's an interesting mash-up that points up a similarity between two genres that you may never have thought about.

Friday, December 13, 2013


by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 16+

In Book 2 of the "Parasol Protectorate," a racy supernatural riff on Victorian steampunk, something has taken the fangs out of London's werewolves and vampires. No worries! Lady Maccon (formerly Miss Alexia Tarabotti) is on the case. In her role as the preternatural adviser to Her Majesty's Shadow Council—a role she earned by being the only soulless, supernatural-powers-neutralizing, respectable married lady in town—she gate-crashes a reunion between her werewolf husband and his former pack, somewhere in the southern Scottish Highlands.

Coming along for the dirigible ride are her French maid (formerly on track for immortality as a vampire drone), her half-sister Felicity (haughty, envious, and sharp-tongued), her best friend Ivy (she of the awful hats), and her husband's red-headed valet (who is hopelessly in love with the already-engaged Ivy). Also joining them, for mysterious reasons of her own, is a French lady inventor who scandalously dresses in men's fashions, and whom Lady Maccon suspects of being a spy.

It certainly seems that someone is up to no good. Two attempts are made on Lady Maccon's life before her airship touches down. Then there's the fact that a plague of humanization—turning vampires and werewolves into mortals, and exorcising ghosts within a certain radius—has been following the Scots pack around. It's as though they have somehow picked up an anti-supernatural weapon while campaigning in India or Egypt. But what could it be? Even armed with a military-grade parasol, Lady Maccon has her job cut out for her—especially while someone keeps trying to break into her dispatch bag, ransacking her room, and firing weapons in her direction. It's enough to put even a strongly-constituted Englishwoman off her haggis!

Like the preceding book Soulless, this book takes a naughtily funny turn in a world of rough-and-tumble werewolves, elegant vampires, slightly mad ghosts, and a daffy alternate history in which the manners of George Eliot's time were invented to make these denizens of the night acceptable to polite society. Although it has its rough spots (such as describing an accomplishment as a "social coup de grâce"), it makes for an enjoyable diversion. I laughed, I hung on every clue of the mysteries, I guessed one or two surprises ahead of time, and I particularly enjoyed Emily Grey's audio-book narration. Be advised of Adult Content, not only of the birds-and-bees persuasion; for some of the mysteries come to a ghastly conclusion. One or two of them come to no conclusion at all—for now. A pair of characters find romance together. And in a surprisingly dark ending for this installment, another couple's happiness comes into doubt—effectively hooking you into the third book, Blameless. How fortunate that I checked the latter out of the library at the same time as this book, so I don't have to wait to find out what happens next!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Album for the Mature 6

Hearken, ye cheapskates: Here's a low-priced Christmas gift idea for the pianistically inclined lover of fine-art music...

Masterpieces for Solo Piano
by Franz Schubert
Recommended Ages: 14+

20 works?! A later edition?
The precise title of this bargain-basement volume (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002) is Schubert Masterpieces for Solo Piano: 19 Works. The titles listed below are identified by the customary opus numbers if available. Because many of Schubert's works remained unpublished at his death, this system of numbering is supplemented, and sometimes superceded, by the "D" numbers—referring to the Deutsch Thematic Catalog of Schubert's works, created by musicologist Otto Erich Deutsch.

Who is Franz Peter Schubert? He was an Austrian composer who lived from 1797 to 1828—just shy of 32 years. He wrote some notable orchestral and chamber works, such as the famous "Unfinished" Symphony, the "Trout" Quintet for Piano and Strings, the "Death and the Maiden" String Quartet, several settings of the Mass, and incidental music for the play Rosamunde, to name just a few pieces representative of his varied output. His greatest legacy, however, remains his songs for vocal solo and piano. Hundreds of them, including the Song Cycles Die schöne Müllerin ("The Fair Milleress"), Die Winterreise ("The Winter Journey"), and Schwanengesang ("Swan Song")—songs that challenge professional singers to the utmost, and yet also reward the efforts and appreciation of amateur musicians and private music-lovers.

Schubert was a younger contemporary of Beethoven, who lived a longer life but died only a year earlier. His early works are recognizable, to those in the know, by the way they make one think, "Haydn could have written this, but I don't think he would have." As he matured, his music developed along unique lines that were never followed up by a direct musical successor, but that independently paralleled some of the progressive tendencies in late Beethoven: more expansive musical structures, combined with more passionate Romanticism, more adventurous harmony, and (to a lesser degree) more intricate counterpoint.

He never knew Beethoven's fame in his lifetime, though. Many of Schubert's masterpieces were first performed years, even decades after his death. In his time, Schubert was appreciated mainly by his own circle of friends, whose gatherings to listen to his music were known as "Schubertiads." Music lovers to this day are enchanted by Schubert, and frustrated by his legacy of unfinished masterpieces. Among the Schubertiads you can enjoy are Luciano Berio's Rendition—one of several attempts to realize the fragmentary sketches for Schubert's "Tenth" Symphony, left incomplete when the composer died; Leopold Godowsky's Passacaglia for piano on the theme of the Unfinished (Eighth) Symphony; several composers' orchestral arrangements of the "Seventh" Symphony (which Schubert completed in piano score but never took any further); and strangest of all, a dubious text of an "1825" Symphony (committed to CD by Gerhard Samuel and the Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra), which sounds exactly as though someone took apart Schubert's Ninth Symphony and put it back together in a different order with a different set of tunes. No one seems to hold out much hope that this piece is really by Schubert. I just mention it to give you a feel for a composer who, perhaps more than any other, inspires music lovers around the world to mull over "what if" scenarios.

Schubert also, of course, wrote music for solo piano. Here's a list of his piano works. This book makes no attempt to be a complete collection of them, as you can readily see. For a more complete collection, or for full sets of specific genres such as the sonatas, you will have to look into more expensive editions, perhaps an Urtext. But for the purposes of giving my testimonial as an amateur player, I can only bear witness to the book I have.

It begins with one (the first) of the Two Scherzi D 593, written in 1817, after dozens of earlier works in a variety of genres. This Scherzo in B-flat major is one of those pieces to which I have already alluded, of the "Is this by Haydn? Surely not!" persuasion. I'm not sure how to put into words the reason for the "Surely not!" Haydn, though often remembered for high polish and sparkling blandness, often—especially in his maturity—pulled surprise tricks and introduced rugged, spare effects, touched by harmonic daring and a droll wit. Any of these characteristics would be easy to confuse with Schubert's youthful brashness and the occasional roughness of his technique. The difference is really between the Classic period at its fullest flowering and the Romantic period in embryo—a difference you can't miss if you know how to listen for it, but that might elude you otherwise.

Next, skipping over several fragmentary works in the catalog, the book includes the Sonata in A major, D 664, also published posthumously as Op. 120. It is not Schubert's first piano sonata, though some of his earlier ones survive only in fragments. Nor is it Schubert's last sonata; at least seven of his piano sonatas are both later and greater than this, and yet are not included in this book. Written in 1819, it is early enough to have (again) a whiff of Haydn about it, though with less tendency to subtlety, rhythmic variety, and textural intricacy. It's very playable, fun to play and pleasant to hear. Artistically, it isn't much more than a pleasant diversion.

Following this is Schubert's greatest virtuoso showpiece, the Fantasy in C major, D 760, op. 15, written in 1822, around the time he unfinished the Unfinished Symphony. You may have heard of it under the popular nickname "Wanderer Fantasy," which comes from the fact that the theme of the second movement is based on a song of his called "The Wanderer." In structure it is very similar to a four-movement piano sonata; but as a single work played without a break, it is more than usually unified by the use of the same motive in all four movements—also derived from that song's theme. Movement 1 (Allegro con fuoco ma non troppo) is a sonata-form movement of a very loud, flashy, extroverted persuasion, focusing on one theme throughout. Movement 2 (Adagio) is a set of increasingly decorated variations on the aforenamed song. Movement 3 (Presto) stands in place of the customary Scherzo—a quick, energetic piece in 3/4 time. The last movement (Allegro) broadens out into 4/4 time and gives the opening motive of the work a fugal treatment, tending increasingly toward the spectacular. I only dare to play select parts of this masterpiece, and them below tempo; to fully enjoy this piece, I rely on recordings like this.

Next, paginated in a way that stresses their unity as a set (and conserves paper) rather than their identity as separate pieces, come the Six Moments Musicaux, D 780, op. 94, written in 1823 and first published in 1828. Now we are well and truly among Schubert's masterpieces, single-movement works that rank among his most widely known and frequently performed pieces. No. 1 is a Moderato in C major whose opening is distinguished by a broken C major triad, played by both hands in octaves, with only a single grace-note to embellish its simplicity. The middle section, in G major, gives the amateur pianist an opportunity to practice a cross-rhythm frequently encountered in Schubert's keyboard music: a dotted-eighth-and-sixteenth-note figure against a pattern of triplet eighths. No. 2, an Andantino in A-flat major, is a warm, tender, lyrical piece in a light 9/8 rhythm, with a gently yearning B section in F-sharp minor and an ABA'B'A' structure. No. 3, Allegro moderato in F minor, is a dance in 2/4 time in which a perky, almost jaunty energy is held back by gentle dynamics. No. 4, Moderato in C-sharp minor, also has a light touch, though with darker, more varied harmonies shading its constantly flowing surface. The middle section in D-flat major has somewhat of a country-dance flavor; this idea returns briefly at the end of the piece. No. 5, Allegro vivace in F minor, is the passionate member of the set, reminding you that the piano is a hammered instrument as the keyboardist hammers on it for all (s)he's worth. It is either a prophecy of Brahms to come, or something Brahms had in mind when he wrote his Rhapsody op. 119 no. 4. And finally, No. 6 is an Allegretto and Trio in A-flat major, a piece of breathtaking delicacy and expressiveness, whose far-reaching harmonies again look into a musical future that would take shape without any knowledge of Schubert's genius. Sigh...

The next little bit of this book is given to the Eleven Écossaises, D 781, written in 1823. Écossaises are a style of dance originating in Scotland and popular throughout Europe in the early 1800s. They are characterized by a sprightly 2/4 rhythm and sudden contrasts between loud and soft; they often have an "oom-pah, oom-pah" accompaniment, and if one is to judge by Schubert's examples, they tend to fall into a compact and predictable form. Allow me to be unsparing in my opinion. Schubert's 11 Écossaises are of very slight artistic merit. In fact, to be perfectly frank, they are completely boring. Each one is sixteen bars long, not counting repeats, and has little harmonic or melodic interest to enliven it. I can only think of two things in their favor: first, the sight-reading practice value of mastering pieces in keys with four, five, or six sharps or flats (which accounts for 6 out of 11 numbers in the set); and second, the appeal for those interested in actually dancing the Écossaise today, in a series of brief dance figures that can be played straight through without a break.

After this, however, comes a set of Twelve German Dances, D 790, op. 171, also written in 1823 and usually referred to as Ländler, although that is not Schubert's title. (He did give the name Ländler to quite a few piano pieces.) A Ländler, for your information, was a type of dance in 3/4 time, originating in the neighborhood of Austria and Switzerland, and now thought to be an evolutionary ancestor of the Waltz. By the time of Schubert this dance of the village watering-hole was being taken over by the dance-hall set, and its impact on European culture is attested by the echoes of Ländler in the music of Beethoven, Mahler, and Bruckner. This set of piano Ländler is comparable to Brahms' Waltzes op. 39—not great masterpieces, but interesting miniatures of considerable quality. Most are half a page long; the last three all fit on one page; only the first takes up a whole page in the Dover edition. Their charm is such that Schubert's feeling for the Ländler becomes obvious. And again, seven of the twelve give the amateur player good practice in keys with four or more sharps or flats.

Then there are the Impromptus, in which this book's tendency toward selective omission becomes most irksome. Schubert wrote eight Impromptus late in his career: four Impromptus D 899 (op. 90), and four Impromptus D 935 (op. 142), all written in 1827, though the latter set was published posthumously. Unfortunately, Dover's editor only saw fit to include four of the eight Impromptus in this book—Nos. 2 and 3 of the first set, 3 and 4 of the other. If anything will spur me to invest more money in a better edition of Schubert's piano works, it is the hope of playing through all eight of his Impromptus. The title "Impromptu" was supplied by Schubert's publisher; the evident care with which each piece was written gives it the lie. 899/2 in E-flat major is a lively exercise in playing running triplet eighth-notes with the right hand. Again I see a prophecy of Brahms in the middle section. 899/3 in G-flat major (six flats) is a study in harmony with a "Moonlight Sonata"-type texture, with rolling eighth-notes in the middle above left-hand chords and a tenderly lyric melody on top. 935/3 in B-flat is a set of variations on a simple melody full of naive loveliness. And 935/4 in F minor is a scherzo that also contains, embedded within it, a scale-playing exercise in octave sixteenth-notes.

Standing by itself is the Allegretto in C minor, D 915, written in 1827. Like the first of the Moments Musicaux, it begins with a broken-triad melody in octaves. This time major/minor contrasts are much more important. It's a pensive piece of the sort that is technically easy to play, but musically very challenging.

Concluding this collection are the Three Piano Pieces, D 946, which some say Schubert wrote in 1828, shortly before his death, as part of a planned third set of Impromptus that he never completed. Others allege that at least some of this material came from an earlier stage in Schubert's career, around the vintage of the Moments Musicaux. Either way, they were not published until 1868, under the editorship of Brahms himself, and are somewhat overlooked in comparison to the Impromptus and the Moments. There are also disputes about what to call the pieces (some editors paste the title "Impromptus" above them) and whether or not to play a passage that Schubert crossed out in his manuscript (not included in this book).

No. 1 in E-flat minor is a dramatic piece with a growling triplet pulse, long stretches of 2:3 cross-rhythms, virtuosic flourishes, and a slower B section (structurally speaking) that happens to be in B major. No. 2 in E-flat major is a sort of rondo whose refrain is a sweet, gentle Allegretto in 6/8 time. This progresses to a C minor episode (later moving to C major) with threatening left-hand tremolos and hemiolas (i.e., bars with a 3/4 pulse alternating with 6/8). After a return of the refrain comes a very long second episode in A-flat minor (seven flats!) in which the melody is accompanied by repeated chords in the left hand and between-the-beats chords in the right. In the middle of this episode is a bonus passage in B minor which, in the context of repeat-signs and a return both to A-flat minor and finally E-flat major, comes over as an episode-within-an-episode.

Finally, No. 3 in C major wraps up the collection with a celebration of syncopated rhythms (weak-beat accents). Its central section modulates to a distant key and time signature, probably requiring an unmarked tempo change. The crudeness of Schubert's development of this theme suggests to me that this was an earlier work than Brahms believed. But its final page supplies an appropriate coda for a volume of often great piano pieces that, for the most part, are not too hard for a reasonably diligent amateur to play and enjoy.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Parable of the Thermostat

To what shall I compare this generation?

It is like the tenants in an apartment building that was heated by a central boiler during cold winter weather. The boiler gave out too much heat for some people's comfort, and they could not control the temperature in their own apartments. So the tenants petitioned the landlord to have electric heat installed, with a separate thermostat in each flat. The landlord complied, making each resident responsible to pay for his own heating bill.

What happened next? After a month-long cold snap, the residents received their electric bill and were shocked at the expense. To make ends meet, most of them had to dial down their thermostats and keep their apartments uncomfortably cool. The cost was still high, and the landlord spent more time than ever dealing with malfunctioning thermostats and heating registers.

Let him who has earmuffs...

Monday, December 9, 2013

Tam Lin

Tam Lin
by Pamela Dean
Recommended Ages: 14+

The author of the Secret Country trilogy, when asked to contribute a volume to a series of fairy-tale novelizations, delved instead into a traditional Scots ballad about a girl named Janet who saves her lover from being sacrificed to the powers of Hell by the Queen of Faerie. Transferring the setting to the campus of a small midwestern college in the 1970s, she weaves this eerie storyline into a tale of ghosts, time travelers, young people discovering love and friendship, and the magic of literature, especially English and ancient Greek.

The Tam Lin of the original ballad becomes, in this book, a college kid named Thomas Lane who, surprisingly for the title character, doesn't show his handsome face until a half-dozen chapters in, and then only to say something rude to Janet Carter and disappear in a huff. Gradually he becomes part of her circle of friends and their significant others, though the two of them do not become an item until their fourth year at Blackstock—nearer the end of the book than one would expect. By then events are moving very quickly, the way those golden college days do after a certain point. By the time Janet realizes her danger and Thomas's, she has only hours to make up her mind what to do. It's a "do I keep the baby" decision at one level, and on another a decision whether to defy an alien being who has strange and terrible powers, and a vindictive streak with it. All on a cold Hallowe'en night, Janet has to decide—and Thomas's fate is in her hands.

Reading this book is a very immersive experience. At times it seems to move very slowly, though it gathers momentum until time seems to be getting away from you faster than you would like. The scenery and characters are amazingly vivid and life-like, though some of them speak rather oddly—for reasons you might guess before Janet does. Alumni of Minnesota's Carleton College might find the fictitious Blackstock strangely familiar. Anyone who has struggled through tough college courses and the fortunes and misfortunes of dormitory life, planning a class schedule, and balancing the pressures of pursuing a degree against enjoying a beautiful and never-to-be-repeated time of life, will feel a tug of nostalgia while reading this book. And, of course, the drama of quarrels with friends, the rocky start of a love life, the pleasure and pain of forming new relationships and growing away from old ones, and growing doubts about one's long-held beliefs (or unbeliefs)—all that is in here, along with sly undercurrents of danger, mystery, and magic.

To a certain extent, an Adult Content Advisory also needs to be in here. The college students in this book get busy in more than one sense. Though their adult business is never graphically depicted, it involves frank discussion of birth control, feminine health, and abortion. And though the Girl Power aspects of the original ballad are certainly included in the story, girl vulnerabilities—including the risk of suicide—are also presented. But this is not to say that kids younger than the main characters in this book shouldn't read it. For this book is also a good advertisement for enjoying a richer life by taking huge doses of books, plays, and poems—especially really good ones—and starting the habit early. This book makes many recommendations along these lines, including works that I can personally vouch for, some I wish I had discovered at a younger age, and even some I have yet to read. A value of having this book to re-read, or at least to use as a reference, is its rich literary background, pointing the reader both to new pathways to explore, and old ones to visit again with new eyes.

Besides this book and the trilogy mentioned above, Pamela Dean's novels also include The Dubious Hills and Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary. This is not the first time I have felt the effects of this author's ability to draw one wholly into a compelling and attractive fantasy world. I am now more interested than ever in reading more of her stuff—perhaps after I read more of the stuff on Janet Carter's reading list.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Tacky Hymns 45

More Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnody high jinks...

Hymn 726 "Light dawns on a weary world" is by Mary Louise Bringle (b. 1953) and set to a contemporary tune by William Rowan (b. 1951). On first glancing through it, my sleepy eyes picked up on the final line of the refrain: "As all the world in wonder echoes shalom." One had better prepare the congregation ahead of time for that little Hebrew surprise. The real trouble, however, is in the verses, where we read (st. 1): "When eyes begin to see all people's dignity... the promised day of justice comes." Is that right? I thought the "promised day of justice" comes at the return of Christ in glory. Huh. Stanza 2 talks about feeding "hungry hearts... and children's dreams," which sounds a bit spiritualized to say the least. And finally Stanza 3 says, "When creatures, once forlorn, find wilderness reborn... the promised green of Eden comes." Who knew that environmentalism was so messianic? So sorry, but when I'm driving, the Lutheran worship bus does not stop at liberation theology.

727 "Lord Christ, when first you came to earth" is really quite a good hymn by Russell Bowie (1882-1969), set to the medieval chorale MIT FREUDEN ZART ("With high delight"). I appreciate the (for a change) Christ-centered lyrics that actually admit that God hates sin; though I have to accept an exclamation point at the end of Stanza 2 as an excuse for the whole stanza being one long, incomplete sentence. The grammar freak in me rebels against sentences of the "O awesome love!" variety, especially when it runs into multiple subordinate clauses; I cope, however, by blaming "alt." at the end of the text credit. As for why I even mention it in this hit parade of tackiness, I just wonder whether it's really fair for a fine Advent hymn to be stuck in the section on "Justice, Peace," where the overwhelming majority of hymns are tacky somehow or other.

The "Justice, Peace" department ends with 729 "The church of Christ, in every age" by Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000), set to the familiar 18th-century tune WAREHAM1. Green starts things off with a striking argument that, amid the changes from age to age, the church "must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead." Stanza 2 draws attention to the hungry and homeless "across the world, across the street," who "never live before they die." It gets down to the nitty-gritty in Stanza 3 where Green opines that "the servant church... longs to be a partner in Christ's sacrifice"—which again, like so many other texts in this book, suggests a new spin on the Sacrifice of the Mass that makes it all about us feeding the hungry. It takes opportunity from a few Pauline statements about becoming "co-workers with God" and "filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ" (taken, I think, out of context) to put us on the cross next to Christ, if not instead of Him where relevance to today is concerned. Stanza 4 mentions that Jesus shed his blood and so "can cure the fever in our blood," but without more clearly articulating the gospel it goes straight on to sharing bread and feeding the hungry—an equivocal description that could be either (literally) about helping the poor or (figuratively) about spreading the gospel. Stanza 5 further muddies this distinction by claiming that our only mission is "to care for all, without reserve, and spread his liberating word"—which, for all this hymn tells us, could be the message of liberation theology. Caring for the poor is a Christian thing to do, but I ask you: is it necessary for the church to test its heritage so far as shedding the forgiveness of sins and the teaching of a kingdom not of this world, to which we are heirs in Christ? I believe a church that crawls out of its crypt on that basis becomes not the heirs of life, but the Walking Dead.

The next section of hymns is titled "Creation." It leads off with 730 "Lord our God, with praise we come before you," an 18th century Danish hymn set to the tune ROMEDAL, which I have seen elsewhere under the title DEUS FORTIS. In my opinion, this hymn is a historic artifact of how close Scandinavian Lutheranism veered to Calvinist thought. It was featured in the classic film Babette's Feast as an example of the hymnody practiced by a strict, pietist sect. Stanza 2 has always particularly astonished me with its argument that, even if God were to extinguish all human life, his sovereign majesty would still find itself reflected on the cold starry night of space. Eventually, after shaking heaven and earth off their foundations, Stanza 3 assures us that "Christ descending shall bring unending salvation." But until that line, the hymn majors in terrifying imagery of a God so remote from earthly concerns that He could seriously entertain the destruction of all life without changing His nature. And this, beloved, is why I can never be a Calvinist. Go and learn what this means: "God is Love" (1 John 4:8, 16; see also John 3:16). If love for mankind is not an essential attribute of God, then how do we answer our M****m neighbors who—if one with whom I used to discuss the faith can be taken as a representative—are offended by the idea that God would condescend to become a Man and die on a cross for mankind because, they inquire, what in His simple, unchangeable, impassive, divine nature could conceivably compel Him to do so?

732 "I was there to hear your borning cry" is a song by John Ylvisaker (b. 1937), set to his own tune that sounds like a contemporary ditty putting on airs of an early American folk hymn. All three stanzas, plus a shorter fourth stanza, are enclosed in quotes, in the hope that no one will be confused about the fact that we're singing in the character of God speaking to us. If the opening phrase can get past your throat without blocking the airway, you find God (so far as He is okay with the words we are putting in His, I mean your, mouth oh please my head hurts) talking about your baptism, your childlike faith, and how "in a blaze of light you wandered off to find where demons dwell." Isn't that sweet! Stanza 2 continues with God saying, "When you heard the wonder of the Word I was there to cheer you on"—because far be it from God to take a more hands-on role in your spiritual formation! Later He says that when you find the right person to share your life with (paraphrasing here), He'll "make your verses rhyme from dusk till rising sun" (giggle). Stanza 3 refers to "the middle ages of your life, not too old, no longer young" (also giggle-worthy), at which point God starts to pilot you through the encroaching night of old age and death: "I'll be there as I have always been, with just one more surprise." It saddens me to think how many people must feel powerfully moved by this piece of banal tripe; otherwise it wouldn't be such a familiar fixture in worship literature. At times unintentionally ridiculous, at times suggesting really screwy ideas, and sustaining a self-indulgent tendency to role-play God throughout its verses, it finally doesn't offer us any significant knowledge about God except that, in some benignly observant way, He is There.

735 "Mothering God, you gave me birth" is by Mennonite poet Jean Janzen (b. 1933), based to some extent on Julian of Norwich (14th/15th century) and set to an original tune by Carolyn Jennings (b. 1936). Its three stanzas include one addressing each person of a feminized trinity ("Mothering Christ," "Mothering Spirit") and shakes its fist at the Bible's masculine depiction of God. You would think, though, that a consistent feminist would resist the characterization of birthing, feeding, and nurturing as particularly female traits. What next? A female body on a crucifix?2

736 "God the sculptor of the mountains" is by John Thornburg (b. 1954), set to a melody by Amanda Husberg (b. 1940) that does not impress me much. It's one of those hymns whose stanzas fall into a pattern of varied repetition. Each of the four stanzas begins with four descriptions of God similar to the opening line, quoted above. It then ends in a variant on the theme: "You are womb of all creation, we are formless; shape us now" (st. 1). Always "God the... God the... God the... God the... you are... we are... us now"—with different images and verbs in between. Some of these descriptions are eyebrow-arching, such as the "womb" one already cited. Stanza 2 calls him "the nuisance to the Pharaoh," stanza 4 "the unexpected infant." It sums up Biblical history through these images of God, and concludes each segment with a prayer like "Lead us... feed us... meet us now." While all this is somewhat effective, if perhaps a bit monotonous (especially given the tune), its most serious offense against good, Lutheran taste is its four-line summary of the history of Jesus, which touches on his infancy, his "calm, determined youth," his office as a prophet, and his "resurrected truth," concluding that he will meet us in our searching because He is "present every moment." Thus lightly do we pass over His sacrificial suffering and death, His promised bodily presence in the church and particularly in Word and Sacrament (as opposed to a broader, more spiritualized omnipresence).

737 "He comes to us as one unknown" is by Timothy Dudley-Smith (b. 1926), set to Hubert Parry's (1848-1918) tune REPTON. It's a nice, thought-provoking piece of poetry, but I really think it is too heavy to throw at a congregation that one expects to sing its sophisticated words and music on sight. The five-stanza lyric takes its sweet time working through a sequence of thoughts about the ever-present God who locates Himself for us personally in Christ, and sacramentally in His message proclaimed and believed. Without considerable time to mull it over, what are Grandpa and Grandma Smurf going to make of such lines as "a pulse of being stirred"?3

739 "Touch the earth lightly" is an environmentalist hymn by Shirley Murray (b. 1931), set to a modern tune by Colin Gibson (b. 1933) that reminds one of BUNESSAN ("Morning has broken"). Murray's lyrics put the onus on us to "nourish the life of the world in our care," accuses us of creating hunger, death, and disaster, and prays for environmental renewal. Its concluding (fourth) stanza asks Christ to "teach us, deflect us, (and) reconnect us." So firmly does the hymn cleave to the green worldview that it never seriously considers trusting God to preserve His creation for the benefit of mankind.

741 "Your will be done on earth, O Lord" (Mayenziwe) is taken from a South African paraphrase of the Lord's Prayer, combining words and music transcribed from the oral tradition by way of the Iona Community. The single stanza selected for this book can be sung in either English or the original (unspecified) African language. While all this is reasonably simple, it's a language (musical and otherwise) unfamiliar to the target audience of this book, and its most effective performance will be by a group that can sing it in four-part harmony. All this adds up to much more trouble than I think five repetitions of the same line (quoted above) really merits, in the time-scale of the holy liturgy.

Thanks in part to a stretch of rather good hymns (including one with a fetching tune from the Philippines, and another by Martin Luther himself), and in part to a few songs I have already savaged in this thread, this segment of "Tacky Hymns" comes to a surprisingly early close. The superior quality, on average, of hymns under the topic-heading of "Prayer" might also have something to do with this. Till next time, flee tackiness, ye who savor the good things of the Lord!

1My mnemonic for identifying this tune on a "drop the piano" hymnology quiz was to sing it in my head to the words, "This tune is WAREHAM. This tune is WAREHAM. This tune is WAREHAM," etc. In case that doesn't help you spot it, it's the tune The Lutheran Hymnal pairs with "Let thoughtless thousands choose the road."
2Oh, wait.


Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Runaway King

The Runaway King
by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Recommended Ages: 12+

Jaron, alias Sage, proved to be more than as advertised in The False Prince. After convincing an ambitious nobleman he was the best impostor for a long-lost prince, Jaron proved to be the real prince after all—supposedly killed by pirates, but lying low in the guise of a street urchin. Now he has returned to claim his throne, just when his country's aggressive neighbors are poised to strike at any sign of weakness. In the second book of the Ascendance trilogy, the young king must run away from his kingdom in order to save it from an imminent threat of invasion.

This time Jaron goes undercover as a thief who wants to join up with the very band of pirates that was supposed to murder him four years ago. Using his knowledge of where Carthya's royal treasure is hidden, he offers the pirates a chance to stage the heist of a lifetime. But what he really needs to do is destroy the pirates before they can join forces with his country's most powerful enemy. If he fails, the Avenians and their pirate allies will destroy Carthya. But succeeding will mean doing things that go against his nature—such as killing people. With people he cares about putting themselves in harm's way to help him, with a sometime friend turned attempted assassin bound to show up at any moment to expose him, and with innocent people caught in the middle with no idea what he has planned, the chances of disaster run high. The nation's only frail hope rests in a reckless young king who is painfully aware that his people neither love nor trust him.

And so Jaron, as Sage, crosses the border into the country that represents the greatest threat to Carthya's peace, and infiltrates the pirates who want him dead more than anyone. He risks being recognized, being caught in deception, being outmatched in battles of wits and blades. Besides his well-known qualities of stubbornness and recklessness, he also shows spectacular courage and toughness—facing awful danger, fighting through agonizing injuries and physical exhaustion, and brazening out some horrifically dangerous situations. Nimble, wily, clever with a sword, and often outrageously mouthy, he proves to be the hero his country needs. But he, in turn, needs luck on his side—and at several stunning, crucial moments, it seems to turn against him. And so when the subtle approach fails, and all hope seems lost, the only way remaining open is a gamble so outrageous that it beggars belief.

The adventures of Jaron are clever, thrilling, and emotionally gripping. Fans of The False Prince won't want to miss this installment. The third book in the trilogy, titled The Shadow Throne, is due for release in February 2014. Another trilogy by the same author is the "Underworld Chronicles," starting with Elliot and the Goblin War.