Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Not for Trump, but...

During the U.S. presidential campaign of 2016, I had a hard time getting my social-media friends to understand what I meant when I insisted that I was not in favor of Trump being elected, but I was absolutely against Hillary Clinton becoming president.

In these post-apocalyptic days, still early in the Trump presidency, press coverage has made it abundantly clear that the nation's choice of its 45th president was a massive boo-boo. Of course, I would have predicted this even in the advent of a totally righteous, non-left-wing-cuckoo president. Recall, again, how the national news media spent most of practically every news cycle harping on what a lousy president George W. Bush was, precisely for doing or not doing more or less the same things the press had no complaint about when done by the Democratic presidents before and after him. It is sufficient not to be of the donkey party to be branded as evil, along with all your acts and omissions in exhaustive detail.

The ideological differences between the last four or five presidents have not been very significant, excepting perhaps some of Obama's apparent veers toward the far left; they've pretty much continually led the country in the same direction - with bad and good results mixed, but a definite and constant trajectory with regard to the limits of government in-reach into people's lives. Their ideological colors as reported in the mainstream press, however, contrast much more vividly. It seems to be to the press' purpose to position one shade of purple (bluish) as the good guys and the other (reddish) as the bad guys.

It plays right in with the tired old theme of modern American politics, on which 2016 was really just a very blatant variation: What is permitted for the left is forbidden for the right, or even those perceived as being on the right because the party they represent isn't as far to the left. I'm not sure there's any honesty in it. It begins to look like theater for the amusement of the masses.

For example, the press is OK with Bill Clinton's pandering to bubbly crony capitalism, but condemns W when his virtually identical policies lead to the real estate crash of 2007.

The press is all right with Clinton's firing of the previous administration's federal appointees, but jumps down W's throat for doing the same thing.

The press considers the collapse of the FBI investigation into Hillary's email scandal a vindication of their candidate, though it's really more of an indictment of a politicized Justice Department stifling the Bureau's ability to dig for evidence by refusing to issue subpoenas; if anything, the FBI's persistence is reported as a sign that Director Comey is in the Trump Campaign's pocket.

Meanwhile, there is nary a murmur from the press about the fact that the same Justice Department opened a fishing expedition into any possible wrongdoing by Trump, using recently expanded federal powers (per W's Patriot Act) that circumvent the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. This allows the department, on some national-security rationale or other, to petition a secret court to open an investigation that can continue indefinitely without any evidence of or probable cause to suspect a particular crime. How would you like having a cop watching your every move, just for the chance of catching you doing something wrong?

The press is OK with the guy from the blue party expanding executive authority and using it at will, but it's suddenly concerned about the size of government when a red-party guy is in office. It's OK with the blue party's presidential candidate lying out of both sides of her mouth, and down the middle as well, but it will gladly run a full-court press, all day, every day, about every "alternative fact" that oozes out of the new administration.

In other words, the press is saying their favored party is right to run roughshod over Americans' civil liberties, and to issue an unbroken tissue of lies as though telling the truth under any circumstances grates on their aesthetic sensibilities; but when the other party is in power, it suddenly remembers these things are wrong and a danger to the republic. I say this, dear press, dear safeguard of liberty and whatnot, not because I want to justify Trump or any Republican for doing these things. If they're wrong, they're wrong. I say this because, dear press, I am ashamed of you, and I want you to know it.

But there is an even bigger backlash against Trump's leadership this time around - louder, more forceful, even violent at times - and the press is working harder than it has ever worked to sell the perception that the whole world is uniting, as it has never united before, to combat the evil of President Trump. I'm pretty sure a great deal of this vitriol is a distillate of the left's unwillingness to accept the result of the election. But that goes hand-in-hand with the left's inability to recognize the reason Trump won, or rather, the reason he was an acceptable alternative, for the majority of voters in by far the majority of electoral precincts nationwide, to the candidate the Democratic Party offered us.

As a newspaper writer, I can find nothing more painful than to admit that I think election night 2016 was not so much a vote for the evil of Trump or against the evil of Hillary, but a vote against the press. We had it coming to us. It wasn't really a choice between a liar and a truth-teller, or a choice of which candidate was the better liar, or of which was the lesser threat to freedom, the rule of law, and government by the people. It was a choice between the candidate whose lies the press would dutifully expose, day in and day out, versus the one in whose constant prevarication the press would be a silent accomplice. It was a choice between the president against whom the journalistic media would be doing its duty to defend the public and hold up the mirror of truth, and the one for whom it would shamefully abdicate these duties. The election was, in my last analysis anyway, mostly about the press.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Summer Tree

The Summer Tree
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Recommended Ages: 15+

Ailell, the king of the High Kingdom of Brennin in Fionavar, the first of all the worlds, is about to celebrate his 50th anniversary on the throne. As a special gift to mark the occasion, a wizard named Loren Silvercloak crosses the void between realities to bring back five special guests, one for each decade of Ailell's reign. Who are these special guests? Why, a group of modern-day university students from Toronto. Who else would you expect?

Things start to go wrong before their trip gets off the ground. First, something vicious has followed Loren and his dwarf companion Matt to Toronto. Then, one of the five students gets separated from the group on their way to Fionavar. Worst of all, they arrive at a tipping point in the history of Loren's world, when an evil god is about to break free of his thousand-year prison, while the king's reluctance to make the ultimate sacrifice causes the entire kingdom to be punished with a drought. And of course, the five young Canadian guests find themselves at the center of things, in ways even Loren did not quite foresee.

Kevin becomes a brother-in-arms to the kingdom's dissolute, dashing younger prince and heir, joining in a reckless mission to seduce the princess of a neighboring country. Kim picks up the mantle of the world's leading seer, and also discovers the true identity of Prince Diarmuid's exiled older brother Aileron. Dave, the one who became separated from the group, forges a bond of brotherhood with a band of nomadic hunters. Paul, emotionally paralyzed after his girlfriend's death, offers to make the sacrifice Ailell is unwilling to make. And Jennifer, captured by dark forces during a picnic with the elves, is fated to become a dark lord's plaything.

Though this is only the beginning of a much larger story, it is a beginning with tremendous promise. Kay juggles a large cast of characters, sustaining their conflicting motives and complex feelings seemingly without effort, and lets them move against a background of legend, history, culture, and magic that can stand scrutiny at any power of magnification. After one volume of a trilogy, it is more than possible to love these characters, to be ready to cheer them on as they step into heroic roles in a world that badly needs heroes.

Kay writes with a very distinctive voice, embracing sentence structures that may seem like mistakes until you recognize them as the marks of an individual style. In one passage, he drops mythic pronouncements as though from the lips of a bard in the full throe of epic; in another, he drops into the ironic cant of a law school professor intellectually demolishing a smart-aleck student in front of his class. Yet these changes of register work for Kay, just like the whole concept of five 20-somethings from the University of Toronto getting mixed up with kings, wizards, elves, etc. I am eager to see what miracles he works next.

This 1984 debut novel is the first book in the "Fionavar Tapestry" trilogy. Its companions are The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road. Kay, a Canadian author who helped Christopher Tolkien edit his father's unpublished notes into the fantasy epic The Silmarillion, specializes in creating fantasy worlds with a touch of real-world history. His other books include the two-book "Sarantine Mosaic" series, the two "Under Heaven" books, and the novels Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Last Light of the Sun, Ysabel, and Children of Earth and Sky. Frequently a nominee for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature (including for this book) and the World Fantasy Best Novel award, he won the latter for Ysabel in 2008.

EDIT: I forgot to mention it, but both an Adult Content Advisory and an Occult Content Advisory are in order for this book.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

208. Seven Deadly Sins Hymn

This is another one of those sermon series-inspired hymns, on which I have been meditating for quite a while. My father used to preach a Lenten midweek sermon series about the "seven deadly sins" (a medieval catholic tradition, not a biblical list of spiritual vices), and I remember it being very useful for self-examination - although the number of Wednesdays during Lent always made it necessary to combine two of the sins, I think they were gluttony and lust, into one installment. A brother in the ministry recently told me he was considering developing a similar Lenten series, though I think he decided to go a different route; but, just in case, I hope this might be a useful accompaniment to such a sermon series in the future. Like other hymns I have written to go with Advent and Lenten sermon series (and even one or two that were used as such, without having been planned for that purpose), the idea is to use the first and last stanza every week, and stick between them the stanza(s) relevant to the sin(s) of the week. Stanzas 2-8 represent, respectively, the seven traditional sins in the descending order of the circles of hell in Dante's Purgatorio: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. At this writing (watch for updates!) I have no particular hymn-tune in mind for this hymn.
Lord, lest in sin we harden,
So let Your holy passion
Your image in us fashion,
That we, Your judgment fearing,
From evil passions steering,
Might love Your hard-bought pardon!

Since You desire to save us,
Forgive the carnal longing
Wherein, our neighbor wronging,
We fall and feebly wallow;
Make firm our hearts to follow
The narrow way You gave us!

Lord, who devoutly fasted,
Your neighbor's hunger heeding
And needy thousands feeding:
Fulfill our deepest craving,
From gross excesses saving
All who Your bread have tasted!

Since You all things provide us,
Shall any need concern us?
From Mammon, therefore, turn us:
Let neither hoarding, winning,
Nor want that leads to sinning,
From Your rich grace divide us!

Lord, brook not our desertion
From any state or duty
That draws from You its beauty!
Rise, listless spirits blessing
With zeal and fire, impressing
Your cross on our exertion!

How can we rightly bless You
Who could in wrath deny us,
Yet died to justify us?
May we, with all men living
In peace, their sins forgiving,
Slay wrath, and so confess You!

Lord, o'er the city weeping
Before You drank the chalice
Filled by its bitter malice:
Let no man's gain annoy us,
Nor his loss overjoy us,
Our hearts from envy keeping!

Since You came as a servant,
Lord, to the grave descending,
Our proud delusion ending:
Implant in us Your Spirit,
Relying on Your merit
With humble faith, and fervent!

Amen! Lord, cleanse the leaven
Of sin that grows within us,
That would to Satan win us;
Ere shades of evening lengthen,
Forgive us now, and strengthen
Our faith with graces seven!

EDIT: I searched hard for any hymn tune that would fit the meter of this poem. I found none; all other "7777 77" tunes were tailored to a trochaic rhythm, rather than the iambic meter above. So I dashed off the following original tune, which I am titling COUILLARD after my great-grandparents, Alphonse and Bessie Couillard, whose example of faith and domestic evangelism is one of the reasons I find myself a Lutheran today. There is no particular reason I am associating them with the seven deadly sins; I just couldn't think of anything else to call the tune. Al was my paternal grandpa's stepfather, and Bessie (nee Erschfeldt) was a tough cookie who converted not one, but two French Canadian husbands to the Lutheran faith, and saw to it that her only child (my Grandpa Fish) and his kids were brought up in it. Thanks, God, for them!

Thursday, January 26, 2017


by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 15+

Agnieszka (ag-NYESH-ka) is a 17-year-old girl from the middling village of Dvernik, in a mountain-rimmed agricultural valley at one end of the kingdom of Polnya, where life is pretty simple and people tend to put down deep roots. People from the valley don't even have to serve in the king's army, which is constantly at war with the neighboring kingdom of Rosya, so that's all right. The only problems are the Wood that runs along the side of the valley adjacent to Rosya - a Wood full of malice and corruption, that is slowly trying to devour the whole valley and perhaps, in time, the world - and, of course, the Dragon, who once every ten years chooses one 17-year-old girl from the valley and takes her from all that she knows and loves, as a sort of sacrifice to pay for his protection against the Wood (and against military service, for that matter).

The Dragon (with a capital D) is actually not a dragon (small d). He is only a wizard, albeit one who has lived centuries without apparently aging. Whatever his reason for requiring a local girl to serve him for 10 years at a time, he doesn't eat them, either. Eventually, he lets them go; but in the meantime, something in them changes, and they can never go back to their former life in the valley.

All her life, Agnieszka and everyone else in Dvernik have expected the Dragon to choose her brave, beautiful best friend Kasia as his next human tribute. Both their lives, up to the day of choosing, have been shaped by that assumption. But instead, the Dragon picks Agnieszka - a willful, average-looking girl whose clothes are always torn, disheveled, and dirty, and who seems to have no aptitude for the magic that (to her surprise) the wizard begins trying to teach her. At first she puts up a struggle against the cold, irritable master of the tower at the end of the valley. But then she discovers a path to magic that he never would have expected to work, and none too soon. For the Wood is suddenly on the move, trying to take another bite out of the valley; and fatefully for all concerned, the first morsel it tries to swallow is Kasia.

Whatever happens after that is too big, too powerful, too terrifying, too emotionally complex to summarize in a brief review. Let it be enough to say Agnieszka's determination to save Kasia sets events in train that will rock the entire kingdom, and that will either save the world or destroy it. It will be a near thing either way, since the farther the Wood reaches into Polnya's affairs, the more the kingdom is seized with warfare, betrayals, assassinations, madness, monsters, and more. And the more Polnya is seized with warfare, assassinations, and whatnot, the more the Wood's power grows. Expect a climactic buildup that lacks no conceivable horror, terror, or awfulness; a passionate and adult-content-advisory-worthy romance; an all-but hopeless hope; and a ridiculous amount of strikingly original and yet totally believable magic. What I'm saying is, it's good. If it wasn't so early in the year, I would be shortlisting it for a 2017 Robbie Award.

New York-based author Novik was inspired to write this book, in part, by the Polish fairy tales she was raised on. She is also the author of the nine-book "Temeraire" series, starting with the John W. Campbell Best Book award-winner His Majesty's Dragon (a.k.a. Temeraire) and concluding with League of Dragons, and of the "Liberty Vocational" series of graphic novels, which so far comprises one volume, Will Supervillains Be on the Final?. Uprooted won the 2016 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for best adult literature and the Nebula Award for best novel.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Steel Kiss

The Steel Kiss
by Jeffery Deaver
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the first novel by Jeffery Deaver that I have ever read, but it is the 12th of (so far) 13 Lincoln Rhyme novels, continuing a series that started in 1997 with The Bone Collector. It features an unusual sleuth: the quadriplegic forensic consultant Lincoln Rhyme, who solves murders alongside his professional and life partner, NYPD major-cases detective Amelia Sachs (think "Kate Beckett from Castle" and you pretty much know who I mean). And in this installment, it pits them against not one, but three mysteries.

For starters, Sachs' uniformed-cop squadmate Ron Pulaski seems to be trying to score some super-shady painkillers to manage the side effects of a head injury, but actually he's (BLEEPED OUT DUE TO SPOILERS). Also, Sachs' former partner and lover, a handsome and totally non-disabled detective who has just gotten out of prison on parole, is back in her life, asking for her help proving he was innocent of the charges of corruption, hijacking, and assault for which he confessed to protect his now-dead junkie brother; the trouble is, he (BLEEPED OUT DUE TO SPOILERS). But most dramatic of all is the series of murders being carried out by a suspect nicknamed Unsub 40 (because one of his crimes took place outside a nightclub with that number in its name), a physically distinctive yet strangely elusive character who alternates between bludgeoning his victims to death with a ball peen hammer and hacking into appliances containing a wireless controller, using the Internet of Things to carry out an anti-consumer terrorist agenda. While his victims' gruesome fates leave panicky New Yorkers afraid to use escalators, smart stoves, and microwave ovens, Rhyme and his wheelchair-bound intern discover a link between the victims that means the killer is actually (BLEEPED OUT DUE TO SPOILERS).

It's obvious a lot of water has flowed under the proverbial bridge in this series. The recurring characters all carry wounds from previous installments. Rhyme, for his part, is in crisis because he feels responsible for the death of a suspect in a previous case who may have been innocent. His decision to quit solving crimes throws his partnership with Sachs, to say nothing of the rest of their team, into chaos. It is actually a civil suit relating to the escalator incident that brings the pair back together on the same case - and, ironically, in the end it is Sachs who (BLEEPED OUT DUE TO SPOILERS). The story is full of chilling surprises, shocking twists, gripping tension, and sinister agendas - and yet the guy who has been doing most of the actual killing turns out to be a surprisingly sympathetic and even tragic character, compared to someone else who (BLEEPED OUT DUE TO SPOILERS). Where you would expect a scene fraught with deadly conflict, you may instead find an almost friendly conversation... and vice versa. Expect the unexpected. And don't expect me to spoil it for you.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Sing & Patriots Day

A couple weeks ago, I treated myself to a movie night with the animated musical comedy Sing. It was directed by Garth Jennings, who also did 2005's star-studded (ha!) sci-fi yukfest The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the 2007 low-budget film Son of Rambow, both of which I have actually seen. (The latter is about a youth whose religion forbids him to watch movies, who partners with another boy at his school to enter a film-making contest. It's sort of like Super 8, only without aliens, military guys, or high production values.) I can't remember what other movies were on offer at the five-screen cinema I visited that night, but I don't recall the decision to go with Sing was a difficult one. These days, I'm lucky if there's even one movie playing in nearby theaters that I would care to see. So I jumped at the chance.

Sing is an uplifting, funny, toe-tapping movie combining the latest animation technology with the oldest type of musical revue: a story about a struggling impresario and his gang of misfit talents, pulling together a big show in one last, desperate attempt to save their beloved theater. Its musical numbers are mostly covers - good ones - of well-known songs, like Leonard Cohen's "Alleluia" and Elton John's "I'm Still Standing." The characters are various species of anthropomorphic animals who live in a city full of the same. The voice cast includes Matthew McConaughey as the koala theater owner, John C. Reilly (who also voiced the lead character in Wreck-It Ralph) as his sheep buddy, Jennifer Saunders of Absolutely Fabulous as Reilly's character's scary-diva grandma ("the meanest sheep in the world"), Reese Witherspoon as a housewife pig with big dreams, Scarlett Johansson as a punk-rocking porcupine who channels her relationship troubles into creative power, sometime American Idol contestant Tori Kelly as a teenage elephant whose shyness almost sinks her chance to show her talent, and Rhea Perlman of Matilda and TV's Cheers as a llama who works for the bank.

The voice talent doesn't stop there. Playing such characters as a young cockney gorilla trying to escape his family's tradition of bank robbery, a flamboyant German-accented pig, a caddish lounge-singer mouse, and an elderly iguana with a glass eye are Taron Egerton of Kingsman: The Secret Service, Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy, Nick Offerman of Parks and Recreation, Jennifer Hudson of Dreamgirls, Leslie Jones of the recent Ghostbusters reboot, and her fellow Saturday Night Live cast members Beck Bennett, Laraine Newman, and Jay Pharaoh. The cast also includes Peter Serafinowicz, who voiced Darth Maul in Star Wars: Episode I; Bill Farmer, who has been the voice of Disney's Goofy since the 1980s; and members of director Jennings' family, including Garth himself. (His self-casting as the crazy-eyed Ms. Crawly is the funniest director's voice cameo in an animated film since Brad Bird played Edna Mode in The Incredibles.)

There's nothing much to say about the storyline that you can't guess from what I've already hinted. But it's a really fun movie, with lots of humor, some poignant moments, and great music. I'm afraid it might become a victim of Hollywood's mania for sequels. So for now, let me continue my recent practice of just recalling three scenes that really made the movie for me: (1) Buster Moon, the koala, has to resort to washing cars for a living. How does he do it? By having Ms. Crawly splash a bucket of water on him. Then, clad in a speedo, he jumps on the hood of the customer's car and rubs his sudsy, furry body against it, while his sheep pal provides drying services. (2) The porcupine girl's ex-boyfriend is dumbstruck when he sees her singing on TV. His new girlfriend goes, "She's nothing special," clicks the TV off, and leaves the room. Boyfriend grabs the controller and turns the TV back on. (3) The pig housewife invents a Rube Goldberg machine that hoodwinks her husband and 36 piglets(?!) into not noticing she is out of the house, at rehearsals. Later, it malfunctions horribly, but hilariously.

Last night, I traveled halfway around the Lake of the Ozarks to visit a cinema large enough to offer more choices than the five-plex where I saw Sing, which wasn't showing anything that interested me. Way over in Lake Ozark, however, they were screening Patriots Day, a Peter Berg-directed dramatization of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. The cast is headlined by Mark Wahlberg, playing (I assume) a fictionalized Boston police character, most likely a combination of several real people and a screenwriter's device for putting words he wants the audience to hear into somebody's mouth. Whoever Wahlberg is supposed to represent, I reckon no single cop could have been in all the places his character was, from half a block away from the first bomb blast, to the FBI command center, to right on the scene of every development in the manhunt for the two terrorist brothers whose actions resulted in four deaths, numerous injuries, and a lot of localized property destruction. Plus, he gets to deliver a too-good-to-be-true speech, toward the end of the movie, that can only be an artifact of the writers' being unable to resist getting preachy.

Joining Wahlberg are John Goodman (The Big Lebowski, etc.) as the Boston police commish; J.K. Simmons (Oscared for Whiplash) as a Watertown, Mass. police sergeant; Kevin Bacon as the FBI special agent in charge of the manhunt; Michael Beach (TV's Third Watch) as then-Mass. governor Deval Patrick; Michelle Monaghan (the Mission Impossible films) as Wahlberg's wife; Melissa Benoist (TV's Supergirl) as the American-born, stand-by-her-man wife of one of the terrorists; Rachel Brosnahan (TV's House of Cards) as a woman who, together with her husband, loses three legs in the bombing; and Alex Wolff, one of two real-life brothers featured on Nickelodeon's The Naked Brothers Band, as the younger and more assimilated of the two Chechen-American brothers, the one who was captured alive and is now on death row for his crimes. The young MIT campus cop the brothers shot to death is played by Jake Picking, who also played a musclehead in Dirty Grandpa. Another Wahlberg brother, Brandon, also plays a cop. Khandi Alexander (TV's CSI: Miami and Scandal) has a brief role as an interrogator from an unnamed agency who tries to break Benoist's character. Jimmy O. Yang of TV's Silicon Valley plays a young Chinese man who is carjacked by the terrorists. And once again, the director (who also has a lengthy list of acting credits) shows up in a hard-to-recognize cameo, as some random dude whose appearance on the scene scares the bad guys off before they can retrieve the slain cop's gun.

As the film follows the movements of several characters before, during, and after the bombing - including victims, investigators, and the villains - it comes close to portraying the terrorists in a sympathetic light, during scenes following their point of view; but once the carnage starts, the possibility of sympathizing with them rapidly slides to zero. For a moment, I thought Wahlberg's little "only love can beat terrorism" sermon sounded like a pretty weak response to the war that the enemies of free civilization have brought to us; but an epilogue, in which the real-life people portrayed in the movie deliver their own testimonials, makes it clear the movie is preaching more of the gospel of "Boston Strong" - that when a community pulls together to fight a threat from outside, it can beat the bad guys faster and leave the place, blood-spattered rubble and all, stronger for it. It's a good message, and at several points in the film I was overwhelmed by its emotional impact.

It's hard to choose my top three "scenes that made it for me," but here goes: (1) Alexander, interrogating Benoist in the person of a Muslim woman who understands her worldview all too well, keeps chipping away at the younger woman's defenses with different approaches to the question, "Are there more bombs?" When Benoist demands to see a lawyer or to be let go, and the interrogators say no to both, she tries to invoke the social order she has, until now, been only too happy to undermine. "I have rights!" she cries. At that, Alexander drops out of character and deadpans, "Honey, you ain't got shit." The audience loudly approved. (2) The young Chinese guy sits in the front passenger seat of his own car while the older Tsarnaev brother pokes at the screen of his smart phone, and the younger brother is inside a convenience store buying food for their planned trip to take Manhattan. Berg crafts a scene of unbearable suspense as the terrified carjacking victim, without a single line of dialogue, visibly thinks about jumping out of the car and running for it. In a follow-up scene, Wahlberg shakes hands with the victim-who-got-away, who suddenly drops the soft-and-blubbery act and says with a steely look, "Go get those motherf***ers." More audience cheers and laughter. (3) Kevin Bacon's FBI guy doesn't want to release pictures of the Tsarnaev pictures to the press until he has more evidence they're the bombers; he's afraid the city will go medieval on them, and anyone else of a Muslim persuasion, and it won't be take-backable if they turn out to be innocent. Then somebody holds up a cellphone and says Fox News is on the line; they already have the suspects' photos and are threatening to release them to the public with or without a statement from the FBI. Bacon, recognizing he's cornered, orders a press conference and then, for the duration of one line, his face and voice become terrifying as he says, "When this is over, I'm going to hunt down whoever leaked those pictures and f***ing RUIN THEM." I had chills.

Actually, I need to throw in a bonus fourth scene-that-made-it-for-me. It was early in the movie, before the bombings happened. It introduces the couple who both lost limbs in the bombing; but at that point, there was no telling (unless you already know the story cold) whether they're going to live, die, come to other people's aid after the bombings, or what. But I got choked up anyway as the wife, a nurse, explained to her husband how the husband of a patient who had recently died came to her ward and gave her a beautiful necklace that his wife had asked him to give her, and she held him while he cried. She wondered aloud why the wife had singled her out, since they had only known each other for a short time at the end of the lady's life. But the nurse's husband said (loosely quoting now), "I think I know why she chose you. She knew you would hold him." A day later, I can't replay that scene in my head without crying.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Queen of Sorcery

Queen of Sorcery
by David Eddings
Recommended Ages: 14+

In Book 2 of the five-book "Belgariad" series, 15-year-old Garion remains on the move with an ethnically mixed group on a quest to save their world. Zedar, a traitor to the immortal sorcerers who have watched over the west during the thousands of years since the gods withdrew, has stolen a certain stone and intends to use it to revive Torak, the god of chaos and evil. Harrassed by priests of Torak, in the disguise of traders and diplomats from the eastern Angarak nations, the Nadraks, Murgos, and Thulls, and hampered on their way by plots and conflicts the Angaraks have conjured with their mind-corrupting gold, Garion's party struggles to catch up with Zedar. They include representatives of all the western realms the group has passed through so far. While Garion struggles to understand and accept who he really is and what he is capable of, he and his friends experience the varying climates, geography, and culture of each country in turn, a feat of fantasy world-building notable in its breadth of scope and variety of detail.

Each country in Garion's world has its special charms and dangers, just as each member of his party has good qualities and character flaws. For the most part, their shared quest holds the friction within the group down to a cheerful banter, with only a few outbursts of real conflict, soon healed over by forgiveness. Around them, however, they witness gruesome murders, savage battles, horrible treatment of lower-class people, assassination plots, moral and political corruption, and doomed romances. Arendia, where the group finds itself as this book begins, is divided by a thousand-year-old ethnic grudge, and further threatened by a too-delicate sense of honor. Tolnedra faces a succession crisis as a line of emperors that has stood for millennia comes to an end, and a headstrong princess runs away from her responsibility to offer her hand in marriage to a Rivan king who may never return. In the forest of the Dryads, Garion comes face to face with an enemy who has been tracking him all his life - and with a power within him that he doesn't want to accept. And finally, in the stifling jungle country of Nyissa, the heavily drugged populace serves a queen who is both the priestess and the betrothed bride of a serpent-god, and she recognizes what Garion is becoming and makes her move before he knows how to use his power.

In this installment, Garion learns his true name, which finally makes sense of the over-arching title of the series. But there is still much he doesn't know about his true identity and his destiny. The fact that an attentive reader can probably guess things about the main character before he grasps them himself, lends an oddly picaresque touch to this adventure, along with powerful magic, shocking violence, intrigues within intrigues, and an engrossing complexity of landscapes, cultures, and politics. Besides all that, it has a touch of sweet romance, a goodly helping of humor, and some convincingly human emotions, especially within the confused brain of its young protagonist. And who would be less confused, with a dry voice residing in his head, piping up with advice from time to time? And that's beside mental messages from Garion's Aunt Pol and Grandfather Wolf, and the sinister grip of Asharak, a.k.a. Chamdar, on his mind. Though not everything Garion says and does is to his credit, credit we give him because he is growing, learning, and becoming something whose importance we can yet only guess. For its characters, for its dialogue, and for its overall richness of conception, I am sure to use any opportunity to read the rest of this series.

This sequel to Pawn of Prophecy is followed by Magician's Gambit, Castle of Wizardry, and Enchanters' End Game. Eddings (1931-2009) also wrote the five-book sequel series "The Malloreon" (Guardians of the West, etc.), among other companion novels, and several other fantasy novels and series, sometimes co-authored by his wife Leigh Eddings.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Darkness at Sethanon

A Darkness of Sethanon
by Raymond E. Feist
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the conclusion of the Riftwar trilogy - which, by the way, the author specifically calls the third book in a three-book series in his foreword, in spite of many publishers splitting Magician in two - Prince Arutha, younger brother of the King, finally faces his doom either to stop the Enemy of all Midkemia (to say nothing of other worlds) or to die trying. Meantime, two young men, who not many years ago were kitchen boys in the same castle Arutha grew up in, reach the fullness of their powers: one as a magician, and the other as something for which I have no word, sharing a mind and a body with a being older and more terrible than the gods themselves.

Pug, sometimes called Milamber, and Tomas, who sort of is the last of the Valheru known as Ashen-Shugar, travel on a quest of literally epic scope; and I use the word literally literally. Riding a dragon, they comb through several worlds, visit the world of the dead, consult a mad oracle, pass through the void between universes, and experience the entire history of the cosmos, first on fast rewind, then on fast forward. This, and finding an immortal magician with the knowledge of who or what the Enemy really is, prepares them to come to Arutha's aid with just a ghost of a chance of stopping an invasion that means death for every living thing on Midkemia, and little short of it for every other world in the multiverse. The history they witness, including the memories of both Macros the Black and Ashen-Shugar, rivals Tolkien's The Silmarillion in vastness of conception.

But while they swing on a star at the spacy, science-fictiony fringe of the fantasy genre, Arutha and his party must fight their way through the horsey, swordy, goblins-vs.-dwarvesy heart of it. While a lot hangs on whatever Pug and Tomas find out in their trek across the universe, the blood and guts of the affair center on one brooding prince, his minstrel brother-in-law, a teenaged reformed thief, a not entirely reformed pirate, and a handful of other rugged, rough-and-tumble types. It's a nice outdoor excursion, livened up by colossal amounts of death and destruction. And, forgive me if this blows the surprise, their adventure is only briefly set back by a successful assassination attempt right at the beginning of the book. It takes more than a knife in the heart to stop a good hero, and Arutha is a good hero - good enough to continue to be a hero while leading a retreat for most of the book; good enough not to be upstaged by more flamboyant characters, which is to say, everybody else in a given scene; good enough to choose one of his family's worst enemies as his second-in-command; good enough to make a virtually unstoppable villain falter in his tracks just by proving to be alive. But in their final confrontation, will good enough be good enough? Don't be surprised, really, if the answer isn't exactly, "Hell, yes!" The expected is never what you get with this author, or in this world.

While the original Riftwar saga ends here, it is only the beginning of a long list of spinoff series, including the Empire trilogy (co-authored with Janny Wurts), the two "Krondor's Sons" books, the Serpentwar quartet, the Riftwar Legacy series (a trilogy of novels, concluded by a novella in lieu of two canceled novels), the "Legends of the Riftwar" trilogy (each co-authored by a different guy), the "Conclave of Shadows" trilogy, the Darkwar trilogy, the two-book Demonwar series, and the Chaoswar trilogy. Whew! I'm going to have to think about whether I want to spend my next two-and-a-half lifetimes reading this whole saga. I am completely satisfied with the series so far, however - an immersive, genre-stretching, exciting, humorous, romantic drama staged against a titanic backdrop of both history and geography. I would have been surprised had there not been more stories to come out of this world, or rather, this infinite series of nesting-doll worlds. So long as the quality stays up at or near this level, I'll be happy to read them.

Monday, January 9, 2017

207. Assumption Hymn

I think the idea for this hymn has been percolating in my brain since I heard a funeral sermon last November that riffed on some of these ideas. The "assumption" it is based on is the christological principle that any part of human nature God the Son did not assume in His incarnation, He could not have redeemed; and also, that Christ (God and Man in one person) remains undivided from the moment of His incarnation to eternity. When I wrote this hymn, I had no particular tune in mind, and I'm not sure one even exists (yet) that will fit its meter. When I find one, or compose one, I'll let you know.

Dear Christ, in touching aught of ours
You sanctify and bless it;
Despite its brokenness, it
Drinks wholeness from Your powers.

In You God breathed, a human soul,
Below the angels living,
Our earth-born spirits giving
A yet more lofty role.

Since You assumed our flesh and bone,
Our very skin esteeming
A temple worth redeeming,
Our eyes will view Your throne.

From birth You did not shrink, nor death,
Nor toil however lowly;
In You we may count holy
Our first and final breath.

By hunger, weakness, grief, and woe
With us Your whole life joining,
An image You were coining
Whereby we grace might know.

From cross, from spear, from shuttered crypt
You blazed forth in perfection;
So we, in resurrection,
Shall see death's pinions clipped.

To God's right hand, in public show,
You mightily ascended,
Though still in You is blended
All that we are below.

As You before the throne appeal,
All grace by right demanding,
There we as well are standing,
Our union firm and real.

Whatever, Christ, you once assumed
When You on earth alighted,
With You remains united,
Has but in glory bloomed.

Therefore, Redeemer, one with men,
We will rejoice to savor
Our Father's peace and favor,
'Til You raise us again.

EDIT 1/27/17: Here is an original tune I wrote today for this hymn, titled ASSUMPTION.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Close to the Broken Hearted

Close to the Broken Hearted
by Michael Hiebert
Recommended Ages: 15+

In the second "Alvin, Alabama" mystery, Leah Teal's dual careers as a police detective and a single mom collide once again. On one hand, she uses her detective skills to check the background of family on her late husband Billy's side, whom she never knew existed until a woman claiming to be Billy's sister shows up in town. On the other hand, daughter Carry, 15, and son Abe, 12, are in the car with her during her climactic race to the scene where a fragile young woman and her three-month-old baby are at the mercy of an ax-wielding psychopath. But that's at the end of the story. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

In the first case, the main thing standing between Leah and clarity is her own grief over Billy's death 10 years earlier in a car accident. It isn't so much that she has gotten stuck between the denial and anger stages of grief, as that she has put off the whole process by packing away every picture of her dead husband, and refusing even to confront his memory. Meanwhile, Abe is so desperate to know more about the father he doesn't remember, he carries in his wallet a photo of Billy that he stole from a box in his mother's bedroom closet. His questions about the grandparents and aunt he never knew he had become so persistent that Leah would have good reason to worry about Abe taking matters into his own hands. After all, Abe is also staking out his - and her - lead suspect in the other case, the one that ends with an ax-wielding psychopath battering down another single mom's front door.

I mentioned Sylvie Carson is fragile. You would be, too, if you lived every day with the memory of seeing your baby brother blown to smithereens in front of you when you were five years old. The man responsible for doing it, a sometime preacher with a hair-trigger temper and designs on the Carson family farm, has just gotten out of prison and moved back to Alvin. The timing coincides perfectly with a series of incidents in which it seems someone is trying to drive Sylvie crazy - ranging from rearranging the junk in her back yard to killing her cat with rat poison. No one else on the Alvin police force takes Sylvie's constant alarms seriously. But something about Preacher Eli's show of repentance smells off to Leah, and as she digs deeper, she begins to doubt the findings of the original investigations of the deaths of both Sylvie's parents - one a suicide, the other a murder for which a man went to the electric chair. But the truth is... Well, you didn't think it was going to be that easy, did you?

Like the previous installment in this series, Dream with Little Angels, this book is a more or less equal mixture of crime thriller and family drama, told partly in Abe's precocious, picaresque first-person voice, and partly in third-person narrative that mostly follows Leah's movements, and sometimes Sylvie's. It is a mystery in which an obvious suspect obscures a slightly less obvious suspect only for a while; but even after whodunit becomes completely clear, the thrills and chills have only just begun. Style-wise, the book is written with attractive clarity and economical lyricism, with a mild tendency to let grammatically iffy southernisms slip in even in the third-person passages.

Apparently, the ruse works, because in spite of being written by a present-day Canadian author, the book fills the senses with a vivid impression of its 1988, southern-U.S. setting. Not that I've spent much time in Alabama, to judge. But I've read books written by residents of my own county in Missouri whose characters sounded less convincingly like they belonged here, and whose scenery did not come to life in the imagination in as much detail. Even though Alvin isn't a real place on the map of Alabama, it lives in the hearts and minds of anyone who has read Hiebert's work. That work, by the way, includes two more Alvin, Ala. sequels - A Thorn Among the Lilies and Sticks and Stones - the serialized thriller Rose Garden Arena Incident, the stand-alone novels Dolls and Darkstone, and the short story collection Sometimes the Angels Weep.

The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens

The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens
by Henry Clark
Recommended Ages: 11+

Time trombone. Did you read those two words? I repeat: Time trombone. Let them sink in. This should save me the trouble of spinning the pointer on my not-very-handy Wheel of Adjectives, so I can decide whether zany, goofy, loopy, kooky, off-the-wall, or madcap best describes this adventure from the author of (deep breath) What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World. Yes, friends, this is a book in which time travel is made possible by a brass musical instrument with a valve slider. Depending on what six notes you toot on it, and what place and time you are thinking about, and which people within earshot have psychic powers, you and those people could end up anywhere, anytime in history. Blow one note a bit flat, and you could go 5,000 years off course. Change something and you could come back to a seriously messed-up future. Travel with best friends Ambrose and Tom, present-day middle-school kids from Freedom Falls, Ohio, and carnival-schooled Romani girl Frankie, and you could get mixed up in an adventure that will tickle, tease, teach, and touch the heart.

Ambrose is worried that his father, an English teacher at the local school, may lose his job because of his alternative lifestyle as a "transtemporal" or "cross-time dresser," showing up every day in a different historical costume, ranging from a Roman legionnaire to Mark Twain. Tom, a Chinese-American boy whose mom is pushing him to become an all-American surgeon or a stockbroker, would really rather be an all-Chinese archaeologist. And Frankie, who believes she is destined to be the steward of her clan's prized time-trombone (known as the Shagbolt), just wants their help retrieving the artifact from its hiding place inside their school, plus maybe a valuable first-edition book that she lost while borrowing it from her dad.

But one mishap follows another, and together with a friendly Gigantopithecus, the kids find themselves in 1852, on the run from slave-catchers empowered by the Fugitive Slave Act, and with the lives of a growing number of people depending on their actions. Somehow, everything they do contaminates history and makes things worse. Soon all their hopes of making it back to the future they remember depend on Tom's knack for deciphering Morse Code messages hidden in ancient Chinese I Ching hexagrams, Frankie's toughness and bravura Shagbolt-playing, Mr. Ganto's willingness to play the long-suffering but super-strong sidekick, and Ambrose's sheer daring, quick thinking, and willingness to broaden his mind.

This book is packed with pop-culture and literary gags, corny humor, suspense, excitement, weird magic, witty dialogue, thought-provoking history lessons, and conscience-pricking meditations on right and wrong. It explores such wide-flung regions as the freedom to be different, the evils of slavery and intolerance, and the human mind's tendency to recognize patterns - not to mention time paradoxes, destiny, civil liberties, and the strange ups and downs of the fortunes of books such as Moby-Dick and Uncle Tom's Cabin. It isn't the sequel one might hope for to its author's previous book featuring the alternate world of Indorsia, though it makes a winking reference to it.
But winking aside, it's a seriously fun book that will keep bright, curious young eyes glued to its pages.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Elusive Elixir

The Elusive Elixir
by Gigi Pandian
Recommended Ages: 15+

Zoe Faust looks like any other 20-something Vegan antique dealer and organic herbalist. In spite of her prematurely white hair, she fits right in with the Portland, Oregon tea-room crowd. But actually, she is an alchemist who, except for her hair, has not aged since the 1700s, when she found the elixir of life. She returns to Paris, the scene of a World War II-era heartache, in search of a dark alchemical secret that may help save her best friend, a living gargoyle named Dorian, from reverting to lifeless stone. But against all odds, she is recognized by a woman who was a child when they last met in 1942, and who refuses to buy Zoe's story that she simply looks like, and is named after, her grandmother.

Forced to flee back to Portland ahead of a possible police investigation of a 75-year-old murder she knew nothing about until now, Zoe thinks it's going to be hard to face Dorian after failing to find his cure. But there are much bigger problems awaiting her back at home. Her friend Ivan, dying of cancer, now knows alchemy exists and has become obsessed with finding the elixir of life. Her relationship with Max, a detective who only believes in what can be rationally explained, may not survive him finding out alchemy is real. Fourteen-year-old Brixton, who is in on her secret, stumbles upon a murder that seems somehow to be connected with alchemy - or, worse, to "backward alchemy," a perverted shortcut to transformation that relies on sacrifice to achieve its goals. A figure from Zoe's past, long believed dead, resurfaces but cannot be trusted. And it seems someone is trying to steal a powerful, dark book from Zoe's workshop, one that may contain the secret to saving Dorian. The mysteries and menaces surrounding Zoe, Dorian, and the book build to a climax that threatens the life of one person she cares about and the soul of another.

This third book in the "Accidental Alchemist" series is a finely-seasoned mystery thriller, with a dash of sexy romance, a pinch of macabre occultism, a heaping spoonful of authentic history (including Zoe's personal connection to good old Nicholas Flamel), and a generous splash of humor. Its quirky, endearing characters include one stone chimera who enjoys gourmet cooking, another who drinks a lot and quotes French poetry, and a heroine based on the author's own experiences as a breast cancer survivor who swears by her organic Vegan lifestyle. It also has an inventive take on the secrets of alchemy, including a completely original "backward" version that will give many readers the heebie-jeebies.

Previous books in this series are The Accidental Alchemist and The Masquerading Magician. Pandian, a San Francisco Bay area author, has also written the four "Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mysteries" and many short stories. This latest book is due to be released Jan. 8, 2017. My review is based on a pre-publication Kindle proof made available through Netgalley dot com.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Rogue Knight

Rogue Knight
by Brandon Mull
Recommended Ages: 13+

In this second book of the "Five Kingdoms" series, Cole Randolph - a boy from Mesa, Arizona who was among a group of kids abducted and sold into slavery in an alien world called the Outskirts - has escaped from his death-defying duties with the Sky Raiders and gone on the run with an odd assortment of friends. One of them is an insectoid boy named Twitch who is looking for a champion to save his village from a petty tyrant. Another is a princess, one of five daughters of the realm's High Shaper, who faked his daughters' deaths and stole their powers, freezing their ability to age.

Joined by other members of the resistance, these youths flee from the kingdom of Sambria, where enchanted artifacts like Cole's jumping sword work, and cross the border into Elloweer, where enchanters create fantastic illusions and sometimes, if they're very powerful, change living things. The group's goal, besides avoiding capture by relentless slavers, legionnaires, and enforcers, is mostly to save Mira's royal sister Honor, who according to the stars (don't ask) is somewhere in Elloweer, and may be in danger. In addition, Cole is on a personal mission to free his enslaved Mesa friends and, if possible, take them back home.

The path to these goals proves to be anything but straightforward. The young folks find Elloweer being disrupted by not one but two mysterious powers, each of which seems to be using a shaping ability stolen from someone else to attack the Ellowine way of life. One is a monster whose name, the kids learn, is Morgassa, and who empties entire villages by converting everyone in them into her mindless drones. The other is an armored champion calling himself the Rogue Knight, who has been taking over Ellowine politics in the kingdom's time-honored way - by beating each town's champion in a duel, one town at a time - and who has taken to robbing travelers as a way of pressuring the capital city's champion into accepting his challenge.

Between these forces and the High King's abuses - which include the forbidden shapecraft, tampering with the fabric of magic itself - there soon won't be anywhere safe for Cole and his friends in Elloweer - especially after they snatch his slave-marked friend Dalton out of a heavily guarded compound and spring the most secret prisoner from the most highly guarded prison in the land. To find where to turn next, they must first visit one of the most terrifying beings in all the Five Kingdoms, win a contest of wits against a caged demon, beard the Ellowine Grand Shaper in her den, and confront both the Rogue Knight and Morgassa. Plus, Cole must personally figure out how to command his unique shaping ability in time to save everybody from doom.

This sequel to Sky Raiders introduces a surprise crossover character, or at least crossover species, from Brandon Mull's "Beyonders" series, tying the two entirely separate sagas together in at least some kind of multiverse. Torivors were depicted as terrifying, living shadows in "Beyonders," but only gave a vague hint of their true nature, which is here explored in more fascinating detail. This series also abounds in its variety of imaginative forms of magic, using those introduced in this book to thrilling effect. Mull truly has a great imagination, demonstrated before not only in "Beyonders" but also the "Fablehaven" series, and this book shows his ability to invent novel magical creatures and surprising twists on familiar concepts is far from exhausted. Above all, once he gets his story rolling, he knows how to make these inventions and twists tell for gripping dramatic effect.

My only quibbles about this book are that, after setting the series aside for about 2.5 years, it took me a while to recover my feel for the story and the world in which it takes place. For once, I find myself complaining about a follow-up book getting underway without a ton of re-exposition to bring lapsed readers back up to speed. I know, it's a lame thing to complain about, but when there are a lot of speaking characters right at the beginning of a book, it's nice to be given at least a sketch of each character to hold in one's mind. It took me a few chapters to really get a feel for who Twitch, Jace, Mira, and Joe were. Their background gradually came back to me. It may be a strength as well as a weakness, but at least it's interesting to note, this is one of those books that errs on the side of assuming you recently read the one before it.

The ones after it, meanwhile, are Crystal Keepers, Death Weavers, and a yet-to-be-announced fifth title. Meanwhile, Mull is also planning to release Dragonwatch, the beginning of a "Fablehaven" sequel series, in March 2017.