Thursday, April 19, 2018

Unsub

Unsub
by Meg Gardiner
Recommended Ages: 14+

Caitlin Hendrix is a young Bay Area narcotics cop when she gets a chance to join the homicide squad. The reason for her sudden career advancement is objectively gruesome and personally disturbing at the same time. A serial killer, nicknamed the Prophet by the press but calling himself Mercury, has returned after an unexplained 20-year hiatus after driving Caitlin's homicide detective father insane. Mack Hendrix actually attempted suicide after watching a couple being burned to death and his partner shot dead without being able to save them. To catch the resumed killer, or perhaps his copycat, the cops are relying on Caitlin to get through to her still disturbed dad and get him to open up about clues that may not be in the case files. Soon enough, however, she finds the chase threatening her own mental stability as the killer zeroes in on her, taunting her publicly and personally as his crimes swell in a crescendo of terror.

I would be hard put to provide any further synopsis without spoiling some of the chilling surprises in this book. It sketches a dark, scary, often suspenseful descent into psychological torment and evil, with fiendish roots probing deep into western culture. It's a smart, visceral thriller that puts its protagonist on a tight spot between professional duty and concern for the people she cares about most. It builds inevitably to a climactic struggle that doesn't stop being scary even after the peril is past.

Meg Gardiner is the Edgar Award-winning author of Ransom River, The Shadow Tracer, Phantom Instinct, five "Evan Delaney" thrillers (China Lake etc.), four "Jo Beckett" thrillers (The Dirty Secrets Club etc.), and a sequel to this novel, Into the Black Nowhere, in which Caitlin returns as an FBI profiler.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Stronger

Stronger
by Jeff Bauman with Bret Witter
Recommended Ages: 13+

In case you weren't following the news five years ago, and if you also missed the movie Patriots Day, Jeff Bauman was this guy who was standing near the finish line at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 when a couple of pressure cookers loaded with explosives, nails and ball bearings detonated in the crowd, killing three people and wounding more than 200 others.

A minute before the blast, Bauman looked into the eyes (or at least, the sunglasses) of one of the Tsarnaev brothers, who set the backpack bombs. A minute after the blast, he was the central figure in an iconic photo, depicting three people rushing a man on a wheelchair to an ambulance for lifesaving treatment. Bauman was the man on the wheelchair, both his legs blown off above the knee. This book is the story of the first few weeks of his recovery, when Bauman unwittingly became an inspiration to millions of people. His survival and rapid recovery from grievous injuries, his adaptation to the lifestyle of a four-joint amputee, his instant fame as an example of "Boston Strong" and an eyewitness whose sharp memory of the bombing helped police catch the bad guys faster, the impact of his injury on his family and friends, and some of the not-so-glorious moments in his recovery are the raw material of an emotionally gripping, true-to-life story.

It's a fast read that makes sense of a complex story. I was frequently moved by it, and I mean, choked up and sniffly, and occasionally a little indignant at some of the crap a guy has to put up with even with as good a reason for getting a break as Jeff. And though the story is Jeff's, I take it the effectiveness of the writing is partly down to co-author "with Bret Witter." If I may be permitted the liberty to call him by his first name, With is frequently listed as an author on the cover of such books as Pure Heart: A Spirited Tale of Grace, Grit, and Whiskey by Troy Ball, Santa Is Real by Charles Edward Hall, A Golden Voice by Ted Williams, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron, The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel, Until I Say Goodbye: My Year of Living with Joy by Susan Spencer-Wendel, Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him by Luis Carlos Montalván, a couple of "Tom Locke novels" with Sean McFate (Shadow War, Deep Black) on which With doesn't even get front-cover billing, and various sequels and children's-book spinoffs of the above. I guess helping other people get their stories out is what he does.

I'm usually not keen on books co-authored by somebody named With, but I made a rare exception here because I already knew some of the story (from the fictionalized movie account), and I correctly guessed that it would "get me right here." I wish I had any idea how much credit should go to each of this book's authors for its overall effectiveness. When With drops that first name of his and starts publishing books "by Bret Witter," I'll be interested in seeing what he can do.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Latest New Hymns

Here are the fruits of my latest efforts in hymn writing - including the last of the hymns I had pre-planned before a marathon brainstorming session last night, during which I completely reorganized the manuscript of my projected book with working title Edifying Hymns. It's a relief to have a lot more ambitious hymns planned - and experience has taught me that preparation is the secret to being a productive writer. For these hymns I recycled a tune that I wrote last year for a "Seven Deadly Sins Hymn," the alternate tunes that I chose for a couple other hymns, and a rhythmically altered version of a historic Easter hymn that I thought would be just right for a song about perceiving beauty beneath the surface. (The rhythmic version of HERZLICH...ERFREUEN is in the Lutheran Book of Worship and Lutheran Worship; a much boringer isometric version is in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book; my version kind of splits the difference, hopefully making the tune more approachable without sapping its energy.) Constructive feedback is welcome.
257. For Unbelieving Loved Ones
Tune: COUILLARD by R. D. Fish, 2017
Zeal for Your house consumed You;
Love of the sinner doomed You,
O Christ, who died to save us:
No strife or hatred fearing,
God’s wrath, man’s judgment bearing,
Peace passing ken You gave us.

With just such zeal, though tender
And frail, we pray: engender
The faith to grasp Your promise
In our dear ones who grumble
Against Your word, who stumble,
Or scoff like doubting Thomas.

Indeed, Lord, You did warn us
Our flesh and blood would scorn us,
A sword our house dividing.
And yet, behold, we love them:
While time remains, then, move them,
Your Spirit’s gift providing.

If, Lord, despite our closeness,
Our arguments’ verboseness
And loudness fail to win them,
Then send a voice more distant,
Yet with life’s way consistent,
From hell’s broad road to spin them.

Remind us, in our anguish
O’er friends whose spirits languish
In chains of death while living:
It lies not in our power,
But in the word You, Sower,
As living seed are giving.

Your word, though out of season,
Yet puts to shame man’s reason,
Breaks through his heart’s resistance,
Recalls to life the buried,
Protects the demon-harried,
Gives what-is-not existence.

Therefore we leave them, trusting
In Your rich mercy, lusting,
Like us, for their salvation.
Hasten Your will unfailing;
The night grows pallid, hailing
Your dawning revelation.

258. Hymn for Joy
Tune: SONG 22 by Orlando Gibbons, 1583
In childhood, Jesus, give Your children joy,
For even You were once a little boy;
So we may join in ev’ry wholesome game,
Cheered by the thought You might have done the same.

In daily toil, give grown-up Christians joy,
Lest burdens chafe and poverty annoy;
For even You once plied the lathe and plane,
Took pleasure in the panel’s burl and grain.

When work is done, give aging Christians joy
That neither pain nor weakness can destroy;
For even You went feebly to Your death,
And for our life gave up Your final breath.

And when at last we sleep, as once You slept,
Let our clay rest, like Yours, for that day kept
When we awake, and perfectly employ
Pure hearts and tongues to worship You with joy.

259. Hymn for Beauty
Tune: HERZLICH TUT MICH ERFREUEN from J. Walther’s Geistlicher Berckreyen, Wittenberg, 1552, alt.
Lord, give us eyes for beauty,
Wherever it may be,
And hearts that feel a duty
From sordid filth to flee.
Let cheap and empty glitter
Crowd no good thing aside;
Nor let our hearts grow bitter
At private taste denied.

Lord, give us minds to measure
The beauties you design;
Give gentle hands to treasure
The delicate and fine;
Ears with apprecation
Of skillful, lovely lays;
Tongues tuned to the vibration
That best becomes Your praise.

Give makers and performers
Awe of Your holy throne,
Though they be heaven-stormers
Or trained on earth alone.
Lord, bless our arts with fitness,
Through Your ascended Son,
To bear the Spirit’s witness
That God with Man is one.

With beauty You surround us
To draw us nigh to You;
Its strong proportions ground us
In what is sure and true.
Thereby our hope has sounded
Heights, depths no eye has seen,
Led on to joy unbounded,
To beauties evergreen.

260. For Persecuted Christians
Tune: UNDE ET MEMORES by William H. Monk, 1823-89
Embrace, O Christ, with Your protecting arm
The saints who suffer shame or pain or need
For Your name’s sake: which neither flame can harm
Nor blade can vanquish. Though our bodies bleed,
Though devils all the world like locusts swarm,
Our harvest is secure through Mary’s Seed.

Receive our prayer, O Christ, for them who face
The inquisition of this troublous age:
Convict them, while they answer for Your grace,
Of liberty untouched by tyrant’s rage.
Let them, if called upon, complete their race
Cheered by the promise of the martyr’s wage.

Deliver them from doubt, O Christ, from fear,
Whom You have counted worthy to partake
With You of cross and death. Their groaning hear;
Hear, too, the good confession that they make.
Then hasten in Your glory to appear,
Your witnesses at rest, at last, to wake.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Gravedigger's Cottage

The Gravedigger's Cottage
by Chris Lynch
Recommended Ages: 12+

Sylvia, her little brother Walter, and their twice-widowed dad have already moved into a quaint cottage by the sea before they realize that a local tradition holds that the owner of the so-called Gravedigger's Cottage has a deep connection with death. Sylvia won't stand for that nonsense, though she does have a history of burying beloved pets in the yard, not to mention losing two moms. She and Walter only really get worried when their dad takes a leave of absence from work and starts obsessing about the house - saying he needs to seal up all the leaks. Sylvia likes the cottage the way it is. She likes her dad the way he was. She depends on her family's rituals to get along. She doesn't know quite how to deal with a dad who seems to be getting lost.

This is a charming, heartwarming little tale with some funny bits, some appealing characters, and a light touch of spooky mystery. The chapters alternate between the family's present-day experiences and Sylvia's memories of all the pets (not to mention moms) the family has lost. My one criticism of this book would be that it seems to make a sharp turn, partway through, from being one kind of story to being another. Okay, I'll add a second criticism, which is that it passes rather lightly over what I took to be a mental-health-related issue, which maybe could have been handled more honestly and thoroughly. I sensed that the author let himself out of this book by a side door when it started to get too hard. Judging by the type of material he is known for writing, I find that a little surprising.

This is my first encounter with the work of Chris Lynch. Nevertheless he is a very prolific author for young adults, with almost 50 books so far in a career going back to 1993. They include series about warfare (Vietnam and World War II), date rape, misogyny, growing up overweight, growing up gay in a tough neighborhood, growing up in a future world where animals can talk to people (I haven't Cyberia, etc., so I'm not sure how accurate that description is). A lot of his stand-alone novels seem to involve sports and other school activities, or issues relating to troubled youth. Their titles include Johnny Chesthair, Inexcusable, Shadowboxer, Who the Man, The Big Game of Everything, Angry Young Man, and Little Blue Lies.

Friday, April 6, 2018

256. Prayer For Help Against a Besetting Sin

This hymn is chiefly inspired by Chapter 7 of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, with a bit of Chapter 6 tacked on at the end. The tune, for which I don't have artwork at the moment (stand by for an update), is titled REMNANT and was written by yours truly in 2014 for one of the "scratched and dented" hymns of my college years. It occurred to me, while I was studying Romans 7 prior to writing this hymn, that it's a wonderful treatment of the theology of the cross as distinguished from the theology of glory. I made an effort to express that in this verse-prayer. It will also, I hope, become another much-needed burr under the saddle of the deniers of objective justification at large within Lutheranism today.
Behold a wretched creature, Lord:
So oft astray, so oft restored!
While to Your word I give assent,
Believe in Christ, of sin repent,
My flesh with covetousness burns,
To its old god returns.

Though in Your will I now rejoice,
I find in me another voice:
Beside the new man, freed and saved,
The old yet lives, to sin enslaved.
The law that once to me seemed life
Now cuts – a killing knife.

Though in the inner man I will
Good things, my members render ill.
That which my spirit knows is good
I do not do, although I would;
The sin from which I would refrain,
That sin I do again.

How long, O Lord, will You endure
My faithless faith, my heart impure?
And though Your mercies never cease,
How oft, while my misdeeds increase,
Will I return to seek Your face
Ere I despair of grace?

Behold a wretch! Lord, who shall set
Me free from such a husk of death?
Thanks be to God, through Christ my Lord:
Oft as I stray, I am restored!
No work of mine secures release;
Christ is alone my peace.

I thank You, Christ, that by Your bath
I die with You to sin and wrath
And with You rise, reborn and clean,
My new life not yet fully seen;
Free me anew from day to day
To bear Your yoke, I pray.

Now when the old man surges back
To smear my festal garb with black,
Let him remind the saint who brags:
My righteous deeds are filthy rags.
You robe me, Christ, in perfect white
Before the throne of Light.

The Accident Season

The Accident Season
by Moïra Fowley-Doyle
Recommended Ages: 13+

October is upon them, and for Cara's family that means all the sharp corners in the house have to be padded, and everybody has to wear extra layers of padding. The family has a tradition of getting cuts and scrapes during the tenth month - their "accident season" - such as older sister Alice's concussion after falling down the stairs, ex-stepbrother Sam's bloody nose from being hit with a soccer ball, and that time a wooden pedestrian bridge collapses under Cara and leaves her wading across a stream.

In this mash-up of teen romance, family drama, mystery and magical realism set in County Cork, Ireland, the latest accident season challenges Cara to confront family secrets she has been willfully keeping from herself. It starts with her realization that a girl from school, who used to be her friend, has disappeared and nobody seems to have a clear memory of her. Elsie, who operates an art installation involving secrets that students type up and stuff into a box in the school library, stops showing up for school around the time Cara notices that Elsie is in every one of her photographs - at least part of her, cut off on the edge of the frame. As Cara digs deeper, trying to find out what happened to Elsie and why she seems to be following her family around, other secrets float to the surface that challenge everything she believes about herself and her loved ones.

This is a spooky book, a richly atmospheric book, a sometimes funny and often touching book, and a book with some material that obliges me to stick an Occult Content Advisory on it, as well as an Adult Content ditto. But I'm not trying to discourage anyone of a teenage persuasion or older from reading it; in fact, some of the adult stuff in it is the kind of adult stuff that kids should be aware of and know how to talk about. Maybe what I want to say is that this book could do a lot of good for kids whose family lives include secrets they have a hard time admitting to others, or even to themselves. The kids in this book are, morally and spiritually, very much teens of today, and Christian parents may not like them much as role models for their children. But Christian parents, by now, are pretty used to holding their nose and plunging into risky material, since the alternative may be to have nothing to talk with their kids about. And I think when they talk about this book, they will have an entertaining discussion painlessly, repeat painlessly laced with an important message.

Since this debut novel, Fowley-Doyle has also published Spellbook of the Lost and Found.

Smoke

Smoke
by Dan Vyleta
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this book, whose German-Canadian author seems to specialize in fiction set in a society going through or recovering from a totalitarian nightmare (such as post-World War II Germany and Austria), an alternate-history version of Victorian England is in the grip of an isolationist ideology combined with an ultra-Puritan religious doctrine. In this parallel universe, people give off smoke to show when they are having sinful thoughts. This fact has hardened the lines between the upper class, who are educated to repress their animal instincts, and the common folk, who are taught to expect to go to hell based on the amount of smoke issuing from their bodies. One effect of this is that the ruling class seems to have a mandate from God. Another is that, with a little illicit aid from secret, smoke-suppressing sweets, the art of hypocrisy has been carried to a level rarely seen in our reality. Besides that, some of the smokeless elite find themselves tempted by an opportunity to sneak a puff, often in the form of going to London (which is one big cloud of smoke) to do good works for their thankless inferiors.

In this strange world, two schoolboys - one naturally good, the other naturally naughty, but best friends just the same - and a prim, almost nunnish girl get caught in a deadly swirl of conspiracies. On one side is a plot to blow up the moral high ground, no matter how many people get hurt. On another side is a man whose fanatical commitment to breeding the sin out of mankind makes him capable of torturing children. Circling behind the scenes is a secret police force led by a sometime witchfinder. And stalking right through the middle of it are a coldblooded angel and a demon in human form. All Charlie, Tom and Livia can do is ride out the storm and, if possible, try to save one innocent child.

I enjoyed the interplay between the characters in this book, and I found the conflicts and sympathies that developed among them emotionally compelling and thought-provoking. Though the book seemed to be trying to take some kind of ideological position, it was never quite clear what it was - except perhaps something preposterous like "down with morality." It got close enough to that, at times, to take some of the pleasure out of reading it. Nonetheless, I felt sympathy, disgust, horror, and suspense regarding all the characters and scenes the author intended, so I think on balance it was a successful book. It was also very clearly the work of an original prose stylist and a reasonably capable world-building fantasist. So I was inclined to swallow an objection that occasionally rose in my throat, regarding how easy it is to destroy a straw man when you build him just so.

Vyleta is also the author of Pavel & I, The Quiet Twin and Crooked Maid. It is rumored that he plans to publish a sequel to this book.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Ready Player One

I enjoyed the book by Ernest Cline several years ago. The other night, I also mostly enjoyed the movie, directed by Stephen Spielberg from a script co-written by Cline and comic-book-movie maven Zak Penn. It stars Simon Pegg (Scotty in the Star Trek reboot films), Mark Rylance (an Oscar winner for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies who also played the BFG for Spielberg), Ben Mendelsohn (whose aristocratic lisp, here minus the British accent, is the reason I recognized him as King George VI in Darkest Hour), and a bunch of younger folks who have been in stuff I haven't seen. There is one actor, T.J. Miller, whose voice was paired with a virtual-reality character; otherwise, I might have recognized him as the bartender in Deadpool who told Wade Wilson that his mutilated face was "haunting." Which reminds me of the reason I enjoyed main character (in this movie) Wade Watts' line about how he got his name - his dad thought it made him sound like a superhero's secret identity.

Of course, being a film adaptation of a book, it inevitably fell short of being a totally satisfying alternative to reading the book. The stakes didn't seem as high, what with (for example) one of the "High Five" getting killed in the book but staying alive in the movie, and (for another example) the hero being the one who lets himself be enslaved by the evil IOI corporation in the book, while another character plays this gambit in the movie. The overall texture was less completely saturated with 1980s pop culture references. Putting a few years between reading the book and watching the movie probably helped ease my sense of injustice about some of the changes the movie made. So, I would grade the movie with a B-minus overall for being fun to watch, but perhaps not as much fun as it might have been.

The cast was cute; the virtual-reality effects were cool; there was a lot of action and, in many scenes, an impressive swirl of imagery, concepts, and issues for the viewer to process all at once. But I missed some important things, like the fact that the Oasis allows kids to go to school in a bully-free virtual world carpeted, from pole to pole, with schools; more emphasis on Wade's poverty holding him back while other gunters ("Easter egg hunters") were able to travel more freely and accessorize their avatars better; and the whole social scene of Aech's virtual basement where, for example, you might run into an IOI spy pretending to be a regular gunter. A certain surprise about a certain character wasn't as surprising as I would have liked - demonstrating, for once, the impact sound editing can make on the quality of a film. Also, if there was a closing credits Easter egg in a movie that prominently featured the idea of an Easter egg, and that came out (I thought very significantly) right around Easter, it didn't materialize during the portion of the credits I stayed for. Bummed.

Three scenes that made the movie for me: (1) How the High Five scams IOI baddie Sorrento into mistaking a virtual reality for his real-world office, and how Sorrento figured it out; (2) The whole sequence set in the haunted hotel from The Shining; and (3) Wade's creative use of Chucky, the evil doll from Child's Play, as a melee weapon. Now let's see what the cinema world does with Ernest Cline's Armada. Maybe, if fans of the book are very lucky, the answer will be ... nothing. Failing that, maybe the writers and filmmakers will learn from this movie's shortcomings. Naaaah, never happen.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Two More Hymns

I squeezed in two more fits of hymn-writing this week. OK? The first hymn, which was part of my ongoing 14-hymn plan (of which I think there are still two hymns to go), takes a cue from Psalm 118 and a tune from a nice Scandinavian chorale for the Annunciation to look at the end of life from the point of view of both those who are dying and those they are leaving behind. Its tune is one that I tried to use for a previous hymn, but I couldn't make it go until I chose a different melody; I'm glad to see it work out at last. The second new hymn is based on some ideas I had been thinking about turning into an essay or homily, but decided to set down in verse on the spur of the moment.
254. For the Terminally Ill
Tune: MARIA, HUN ER EN JOMFRU REN by Johan Christian Gebauer (1808-84)
The hour has come for us to part,
Our paths a while dividing.
Still, one remains our mind and heart,
Our fellowship abiding.
Behold, we shall not die but live –
Not die but live! – and tell God’s works forever.

The fight has been with valor fought;
Now victory is certain.
Life’s busy scene at last has brought
A pause, a bow, a curtain.
Behold, we shall not die but live –
Not die but live! – and tell God’s works forever.

Rejoice with us whose pain now ends,
From sin this passage freeing.
Christ welcomes us, all sorrow mends;
Joy fills our inmost being.
Behold, we shall not die but live –
Not die but live! – and tell God’s works forever.

We who depart bless you who stay,
A few steps sooner gaining
The rest we crave, the peace we pray
For those still onward straining.
Behold, we shall not die but live –
Not die but live! – and tell God’s works forever.

We who remain bless you who leave,
Christ’s upward call obeying.
Not without comfort shall we grieve,
Nor claim one hour’s delaying.
Behold, we shall not die but live –
Not die but live! – and tell God’s works forever.

Dear brothers weep when any weep;
Dear sisters share in laughter.
If some must wake while others sleep,
We’ll meet again hereafter.
Behold, we shall not die but live –
Not die but live! – and tell God’s works forever.

The lambs of Jesus never die,
But sleep, and will awaken.
The day is coming, yea, is nigh
When every grave is shaken.
Behold, we shall not die but live –
Not die but live! – and tell God’s works forever.

When comes that day both bright and grim,
We’ll recognize each other;
More wondrously, shall we know Him:
Ourselves, and not another.
Behold, we shall not die but live –
Not die but live! – and tell God’s works forever.

Sing to the Lord, our strength and song,
Who is become salvation!
His right arm acts, is proven strong,
Is full of exaltation.
Behold, we shall not die but live –
Not die but live! – and tell God’s works forever.

255. Dignus Est Agnus Hymn (Revelation 5:12)
Tune: AXION ARNION by R. D. Fish, 2018
With loud voice, angels, testify;
All creatures, elders, peoples cry:
Worthy the Lamb who lives, though slain,
All that is His to claim again.

His is the pow’r to build and break;
Our pow’r He gives, and He can take.
How can we give Him any pow’rs
Except to trust His more than ours?

His are the riches, not our own;
We hold them, if at all, on loan.
What treasure dare we place above
The priceless value of His love?

His is the wisdom, though man’s mind
Makes haste His fallacy to find.
If we must give Him wisdom, how
But at His foolishness to bow?

His is the strength; He can endure
The guilt of all, though He is pure.
What strength can we to Him extend
But on His succor to depend?

His is the honor, His the grace
To call us to a higher place.
He served us, beaten, mocked and cursed;
How shall we, then, vie to be first?

His is the glory, He the sun
From which our pride must shrink and run.
What brilliance can our lives project
But, like the moon, His to reflect?

His is the blessing, speaking well
Of sinners, saving us from hell;
To Him what blessing can we give
But in His blessedness to live?

Worthy indeed is God the Son,
Who ransomed all mankind as one
With infinitely precious blood,
And made us kings and priests to God.

To King of kings and Lord of lords
Respond unnumbered heav’nly hordes:
Take up the scroll, unseal the page,
Thrice-holy God from age to age!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Three New Hymns

Further to my "new crop" of original hymns, planned as a set of 14 but written (strangely enough) one at a time, here are a few more that came together during the past week. This latest crop (of 14, I mean) seems to divide naturally into hymns of compassion, like 251 below, and hymns of citizenship, of which 252 seems to be the parade example. The tune, which appeared in Useful Hymns, was written "on deadline," along with many others, as the book assumed its final form. It originally went with a "scratched and dented" metrical setting of the Morning and Evening Prayers from Luther's Small Catechism - a two-stanza poem that I wrote when I was in college in the 1990s and, after a few revisions, thought worthy of publication. So if you notice the tune isn't that great, observe that it absolutely shines next to the text for which I wrote it and was, after all, done in a rush. For the present text, I make no excuses. I'm saving those up for Hymn 253.
251. Prayer About Caregivers
Tune: HOLY ANGEL by R. D. Fish, 2014
Christ, who men’s illnesses dared to command,
Often with fasting and prayer:
Help and bless those who with heart and with hand
Their weaker neighbor give care.
Strengthen their courage to face, undismayed,
Emblems of man’s fallen state,
Nourished on hope, though the sight be delayed,
Of the new life we await.

Strengthen the hands whose caress eases pain,
Muscles that lift, cleanse and feed;
You who bore all things, their spirit sustain,
Knowing, fulfilling their need.
Cause what their hearts can endure to increase
Even beyond what they must;
From selfless labor at last give surcease,
Fair recompense for their trust.

Now, Lord, to heaven we lift hands and hearts,
Asking for pardon and aid
On both the sower’s and bread-eater’s parts,
Master, man, mother and maid;
Those who serve many and those most in need,
Those who Your word speak and hear,
Giving the comfort for which all hearts plead:
Heavenly helper, draw near!
For this hymn, I recycled another one of those "written in the rush to publish Useful Hymns" hymn-tunes that I thought might deserve another airing. The hymn it originally accompanied was a burial hymn of the "scratched and dented" persuasion. I feel I've done better, multiple times, where it comes to burial hymns. So, to rescue this tune from total oblivion, here's another text to go with it.
252. Prayer About Civic Duty
Tune: COMMITTAL by R. D. Fish, 2014
Almighty, Most High, who teach the wise
And rule those who rule, now give us eyes
To view the rich blessing You intend
When leaders both bad and good You send.

Just as You appoint both flood and drought
On both those in grace and those without,
So help us accept, if You command,
The governing yoke and grasping hand.

May we in the rule of law delight
And render to Caesar what is right:
All meekness, yet shot with courage through,
Nor failing to render, Lord, Your due.

What duties to neighbor and to state,
What rights in which we participate,
Help us to observe with thoughtful care,
Perceiving their value, frail and rare.

And come the hour when we must obey
You rather than men, be near, we pray.
Deliver us from our exile long,
To serve in Your kingdom fair and strong.
I expect to be accused of heresy for the following hymn. I'm not sure why, but I'm more nervous about this than about 252 previous instances when I have taken the same risk. Of course, part of why I put them out here is to get discussion going and maybe receive correction, or notes for improving my work, which I would happily put into effect. Also, I can recall practically inviting rebuke on several previous occasions, such as when I embedded a joke in my hymn, or took a polemical stance, or when I wrote the hymn that originally paired with the tune below - a prayer for healing of the grief of those whose unbelieving loved one has died. Funnily enough, a bunch of people went on a tear about how you can't promise anything about that person being in heaven without checking whether that hymn made any such promise. In the hymn below, however, I deal with another issue in which I have a deep, dark, personal interest, and for which I sensed an urgent need - whether we may offer any Christian comfort, and just what comfort that is, to the survivors when a professed Christian commits suicide. This has been brought home to me not once but twice, when Christian friends have ended their own lives. I also took into account the testimony of several faithful Christians I know, including ministers, who have leaned over the brink of suicide and, thank God, stepped back; not to mention Martin Luther's hint that a suicide victim was murdered by Satan. But I also had to wrestle with the advice of respected colleagues that one can't proclaim with assurance that a given person is in heaven in such a case - and that's what usually makes it fun to preach at a Christian's funeral.

This hymn's pose of being willing to risk a departure from doctrine was at least partly angling for a shock value commensurate with the depth of my feelings. But beneath the feelings is a conviction that the case for the automatic damnation of anyone who commits suicide is a figment of "pious reason" and not a doctrine revealed by Scripture. There is hope here, but it is a hope founded on objective justification (the work of Christ and the character of God) rather than subjective (the necessity of faith). Also at issue: What is taken as dogmatically certain may actually be founded on hearsay or speculation, unquestioningly accepted by too many for too long until the distress of faithful hearts bursts forth and demands a better answer.
253. After a Loved One’s Suicide
Tune: HEALING by R. D. Fish, 2011
Lord, hear our groans, which rise
As from the planet’s roots;
Regard with gracious eyes
The prayer our doctrine moots.
Though it may seem the dead
Have been destroyed, cast out,
Relieve our hopeless dread;
Make good use of our doubt.

Though pious reason says
Self-murder murders hope,
Let foolish faith shed rays
On that with which we cope.
If Satan or sick mind
Can such advantage take,
What safety can we find
For our salvation’s sake?

But You shed drops like blood;
You wished the cup held back.
Forsaken, You withstood;
You offered what we lack.
Should some dark moment come,
Brief weakness, swift mistake,
Must lifelong faith grow numb?
Must instant wrath awake?

If every sin again
Parts us from grace, Lord, why
Have you so ransomed men?
Who dares to sleep or die?
Shall we not rather trust
That we are now your own,
Bathed once, once raised from dust,
For One’s sake named and known?

Forbear, Lord! For Your word,
If not our faith, is firm;
Your pity must be stirred,
As ours, for such a worm!
Nay, more; for where our love
Is cool, Yours blazes forth;
Your kindness is above
All that we know in worth.

If reason’s doubtful guess
Gives only sharper pain,
Our foolish error bless;
Soothe, heal our hearts again.
For here Your word is dumb;
Here dogma growls and sneers;
Here, Lord, with comfort come,
Come wipe away our tears.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Changing Planes

Changing Planes
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Recommended Ages: 13+

Contrary to the descriptive blurb on the back cover of this book, Sita Dulip isn't the protagonist of the series of interconnected short stories comprising it. She's just the pioneer of a method of traveling between planes of reality, discovered when a hellish - well, maybe "limboish" - day of air travel led her to realize that, as a non-place between planes, airports are an ideal base from which to strike out into alternate dimensions. The narrator, who isn't named, proceeds to share her experiences, tales told her by other travelers, and extracts from various documents about some of the remarkable places a person can visit during layovers at the airport, provided they are sufficiently stressed and dyspeptic.

The odyssey this book describes smudges the boundary between short fiction and novel. Tying them together are Sita Dulip's method, mentions of airports and the Interplanary Agency, etc. One could imagine some of these vignettes being unrealized sketches for some of Ursula Le Guin's larger-scale fiction, reduced to a brief introduction to the cultural background of some of the possible worlds in an infinite multiverse. There's the one where people become silent as they grow to adulthood; the world whose feathered denizens harbor a stigma against the small minority of the population that grows wings and can fly; an island whose residents never sleep; another island where some of the residents can never die; a civilization whose language defies interpretation; another that toils, generation after generation, on a building where no one lives; people who share each other's dreams, whose social fabric is knit entirely from conflict and rage, whose supremely peaceful libraries contain records of a grim and violent history. There's a satire of the commercialization of holidays that turns into a rebuke on cultural exploitation; there's an equally pointed satire that turns the vogue for gossip about the royal family upside-down. There are moments of lyrical sadness, flashes of devastating wit, and disturbing scenes of horror.

Tying it all together is the down-to-earth sensibility of an amazing speculative author who died approximately two months ago as I write this (Jan. 22, 2018). Le Guin was a great writer who applied insights from ecology and sociology to science fiction and fantasy. Though one person to whom I read a sample of this book detected signs of a writer who was trying too hard to be clever, my acquaintance with Le Guin led me rather to suspect a critic who got up on the wrong side of the bed. She did not have to try hard to be clever. She could take one's breath away with a mere lift of her finger, as she did for me (for example) in the closing sentence of the story "The Silence of the Asonu." Whether you agree with her political or spiritual outlook or not, you have to admit, the late Ursula K. had a keen insight into the motives of even marginally human hearts, a vivid imagination, and the gift of words to bring strange scenes to life.

Le Guin's other works include A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels - an achievement that I think rivals Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in breadth of conception, albeit with a much slimmer word count - and The Left Hand of Darkness, which is on my list of books that I have dubbed "the best book I read this year" over the years. Among her books are the winners of multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, a Newbery Honor Book, and a National Book Award winner. I have read fewer of them than I have yet to read, which is a comforting bit of math, because it portends many more hours of reading pleasure in the company of an author who has not let me down yet.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Bands of Mourning

The Bands of Mourning
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 14+

Six books in, the world of Mistborn is already vast to start with. With this book, a huge new dimension is added to it. Already there are the almost forgotten ages before the ascension of the Lord Ruler; then his thousand-year Final Empire; then the brief era between his downfall and the world-ending-and-recreating event that the current sequence of books calls the Catacendre; and now, some 340 years later, a new crisis is upon the planet that is actually described for the first time in this book as Scadrial (not counting extra features in the back of the previous couple of books, The Alloy of Law and Shadows of Self). A revolution is brewing, or perhaps a civil war between the outlying cities of the Elendel Basin and the ruling metropolis at its heart. An entirely different side of the world is about to reveal itself. And we get our clearest glimpse yet at a new evil that threatens the whole globe. It's exciting, intoxicating stuff - heady in the proper sense, and not just the popular misconception of the word to mean "it'll blow your mind." Though it will do that, too.

In this installment of a series of mystery adventures in an early-20th-century-ish world still haunted by the memory of super-powered heroes and villains and of mortals who became divine, a sometime frontier lawman-turned-gentleman and urban troubleshooter follows a rumor of an ancient, powerful relic into a train robbery, a hotbed of political discontent, an assassination, a top-secret facility, and finally a lost temple whose secrets may determine the fate of civilization. Meanwhile, he finds love in the most unexpected place - the woman he has already promised to marry. Count on every page to reveal a new wonder, a surprise, something exciting, funny or emotionally moving.

You wouldn't think your brain had room for all the fantastic concepts that are in play in this book, all at one time. By now, if you've been following this series, you've probably grown used to the "metalborn" magics of Allomancy, Feruchemy, and (ugh) Hemalurgy. They continue to combine in increasingly complex ways, while new forces come into the picture. Also woven into the fabric are several competing religions, most notably Pathism and Survivorism, with something wicked called Trellism lurking in the shadows and now, apparently, a fourth faith flying in over the rim of the world. God himself, as main character Waxillium "Wax" Ladrian knows him, makes an appearance that - from Wax's perspective - it would be an understatement to describe as "life-changing." The god of another religion also shows up, but not the one you're expecting to see. The Faceless Immortals, also known as kandra, need Wax's help. Wax himself, though only briefly, achieves a sort of divine status. Harmony reveals a cosmic threat that even he doesn't understand - which is scary, if like Wax you think of him as God - but after all, on Scadrial at least, the gods are only human. Finally, the snappy dialogue, the gripping action, the taut conflict laden with treachery and moral dilemmas, and the evolving relationships between Wax and his circle of characters, combine to furnish a hell of a good time. I don't care whether you understand the word broadly or narrowly: this adventure is EPIC.

In little more than a year or so, I have gone from saying I've only read one or two of Brandon Sanderson's novels to having practically read them all. There isn't one that I've read but that I would recommend it without reservation. I still look forward to getting my hands on more of his "Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians" series. But the most exciting prospect on the horizon is the fourth book in the "Mistborn Second Era" sequence, which (according to an author's note at the end of this book) will be titled The Lost Metal. It can't come soon enough!

Monday, March 19, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time

I thought highly of this book when I was in my early teens. I re-read the series it kicked off as an adult and was less impressed. I went and saw the Disney movie more-or-less based on it this past Friday night, and was seriously underwhelmed. Since then, I've received a secondhand report about an interview in which the screenwriter admitted to feeling free to hijack the message of Madeleine L'Engle's teen fantasy/romance classic, removing most of the Christianity-based material and replacing with New Agey, Oprah-ish stuff. Perhaps not coincidentally, Oprah Winfrey gets top billing in the cast, playing a character that was much less substantial in the book. Much of what made me impatient with this movie had to do with the amount of screen time devoted to Oprah's Miss Which character offering nuggets of daytime-talk-show life-coaching psychobabble to troubled main character Meg Murry. Another chunk of what made me impatient was its plodding pace and its tendency to wallow too much in touchy-feeliness. The ending of the movie in particular had that "when is this damn movie going to end" vibe, thanks to the number of individual hugs and kisses between various combinations of characters that the writing and directing team felt it required. They could have gotten the same payoff for less - and when you already can't wait for a movie to end, less is definitely more - by simply having everybody rush into a group hug and rolling credits. Even the credits were over-indulgent, though, with not just one lingering still of each main cast member, but a whole series of them. Oy vay!

The film had exactly this going for it: a cute cast (notwithstanding the unnecessary emphasis on Oprah); gorgeous photography; spectacular costumes, makeup and hairstyles; gosh-wow special effects; and the handful of scenes that it relatively faithfully duplicated from the book - like the suburb from hell, with all the kids bouncing red rubber balls in perfect unison, in a rhythm that made Charles Wallace's head hurt. But its pacing was slack and it kept pulling back from being a cosmically significant story, which was in my opinion the better part of what sold the L'Engle book. In spite of my overall dissatisfaction with the movie, I can even list three scenes that "made" it for me, to the extent that the movie was "made" for me at all: (1) Calvin, the cute boy who takes a shine to Meg for reasons she cannot fathom, tells her early in the movie that he likes her hair and she replies, "Don't. Just don't." Later, after they've been through hell together and they they pause to wash in a stream and do up her hair, he repeats his compliment and she goes all shy and demure and says, "Thank you." I loved that change in her character. (2) Charles Wallace, the genius little brother, introduces Meg and Calvin to Miss Who, the cosmic warrior who (up to a certain point in the movie, when the screenwriter seemingly quit caring) always speaks in literary quotations. Everything in that scene, from Calvin showing up and saying he had this feeling he needed to be there at that exact time and place, reminded me warmly of the book - one of the few scenes that did. (3) Michael Peña's bit as "Red," a character who increasingly appears to be a puppet guided by strings, is really eerie and menacing. And of course, I've already given up that one about the red bouncing balls.

Unfortunately, the book didn't explore the world of "Camazotz" all that much. It didn't end up having the oppressive, scary, gigantic scale I thought I remembered being conjured by the book. Too much of it was dialed down to a bit of family drama between Meg, her brother, and her dad. The climax of the movie just didn't seem all that climactic to me. And if they're going to pursue this series as a franchise, they're going to regret writing the other Murry siblings out of the script. At the end of the day, this is just another example of the principle that if you really love a book, you should pray that nobody ever makes a film out of it.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Crop of New Hymns

I described my recent "Prayer for Addiction" as the first in a new crop of hymns that I have planned as part of my projected book Edifying Hymns, the sequel to Useful Hymns. A lot has been going on lately with that book; it's coming together fast, though there is still a lot of room for it to grow. Over the past few days, I've knuckled down and developed a bunch of new texts, mostly set to existing tunes either by myself or someone else, for purposes I identified as being due for a fresh hymn treatment. So, here's more of this "crop," but don't worry; there are at least as many again to go before I have to pause and plan again. Note: The tunes for Hymns 249 and 250 are interchangeable. Also, the tune to 247 should not be confused with the better-known ST. COLUMBA. While I'm mentioning it, I acknowledge not all these hymns are of the highest quality to which my work has ever attained; 247 in particular suffered, I think, from a too-cramped meter and rhyme scheme. But as my beloved brother very helpfully says about 32 times a day, "It is what it is."
244. Prayer for the Imprisoned
Tune: DEBENHAM (Richard Redhead, 1820-88)
Lord of life, whose dying freed us
From the chains of sin and hell:
To the prisoner now lead us,
Stinting not, good news to tell.

Grant that, visiting and caring
For the least of these and worst,
We may follow You in sharing
Bread with those despised and cursed.

Open wide their inward prison,
Dark, curved in on self, enslaved;
House in them the broad horizon
Held in trust for all the saved.

Let them know the peace of living
Freed from guilt and holy wrath
By Your verdict, all forgiving,
And Your purifying bath.

Help them breathe Your Spirit daily,
Walk in light, and freely love
Till, acquitted at Your bailey,
Into boundless life they move.

245. Prayer About Poverty
Tune: HOLY DESIRE (R. D. Fish, 2014)
Jesus, Lover of the poor,
Who the widow’s penny reckoned
Not the least of gifts, but more
Than another’s castoff second,
Give them faith that firm will stand
Though to famine they be beckoned;
Feed them from Your goodly hand
Till they come to pastures fecund.

You required the rich young man
To disperse his cherished treasure,
Lest his own works-righteous plan
Bar him from eternal pleasure.
Oh, that he had to Your word
Given thought again at leisure,
On the poor his wealth conferred,
And been blessed in equal measure!

Oh, that we as well might give
As You, Lord, to us have given!
Unaware by whom we live
Or with what need we have striven,
Shall we pass the beggar by,
Striding eyes-ahead to heaven,
While an angel from on high
From our heels, unknown, be driven?

May it never be, dear Lord!
Rather, pardon us and lead us
All to live in one accord,
Feed the hungry as You feed us,
Shelther, clothe, and give to drink
E’en where mocking words precede us;
Nor of their deserts to think,
But that fellow sinners need us.

Christ, made poor that we might be
Heirs with You of God the Father,
Pour Your gifts abundantly
Where like hungry chicks we gather.
Let our powers here be bent
Toward the needs of sister, brother.
Soon throw down the heavens’ tent!
Be our wealth; we own no other!

246. Prayer for Political Leaders
Tune: EXSURGAT DEUS (R. D. Fish, 2014)
God bless the leaders of our land,
Who have their lawful office from His hand.
May they the sword with justice wield,
With equity promote the nation’s yield.

Let those who rule aspire to serve,
Nor from the course of upright duty swerve.
With honor let them hold the reins;
Let our esteem and trust reward their pains.

Let evildoers be afraid,
While prospers ev’ry good and useful trade;
So far as may be in their brief,
Let those who govern foster pure belief.

May God restrain the tyrant’s will,
Nor let the anarchist contrive our ill;
Turn back our land’s aggressive foes,
And show us means to heal our inward woes.

To God the Father, to His Son,
And to the Holy Spirit, Three in One,
We give but what from Him descend:
Pow’r, riches, wisdom, glory without end.

247. For Peace and Public Safety Officers
Tune: ST. COLUMBIA (Herbert S. Irons, 1861)
On officers of peace
Have mercy, Lord.
Their angel guard increase;
Help them till troubles cease.

As they patrol their beats,
Have mercy, Lord.
Make soft their shoes or seats
While they keep safe our streets.

With each call or alarm,
Have mercy, Lord.
In any threat of harm,
Protect them with Your arm.

On ev’ry neighborhood
Have mercy, Lord;
Restrain whoever would
Therein shed guiltless blood.

Because they are but dust,
Have mercy, Lord.
Draw weapons though they must,
Restore the people’s trust.

On their integrity
Have mercy, Lord;
As nearly as may be,
Let them be blemish free.

While they enforce the law,
Have mercy, Lord.
Upon Your gospel draw;
Forgive the sinner’s flaw.

248. For Service Personnel and Veterans
Tune: MELITA (John B. Dykes, 1861)
Commander of the heav’nly host,
Dear Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
Thrice-holy Lord, whom angels laud:
Be also earthly forces’ God!
Help them their needful task to do
With courage, strength and honor true.

Grant those who serve in every branch –
Land, sea and air – a spirit staunch,
In peace to serve, in war to fight,
To stand in darkness for the light.
In barrack as on battlefield,
Be our defenders’ hope and shield!

When they return, help those who find
Fresh battles in their flesh and mind.
The wounded limb and spirit lift;
Pour on them ev’ry holy gift.
At any peril let us prove
The strength of our respect and love.

249. Prayer to Open Church Meetings
Tune: PETERBOROUGH (John Goss, 1864)
Lord of the church, to You belongs
All that we have; not only songs
And sentiments, but all the reign.
Our counsels, therefore, now constrain
To trust Your word and hew thereto;
To learn Your will and so to do;
In blameless doctrine to concur;
To wiser voices to defer.

Keep our deliberations free
From worship of prosperity,
From pride or lust for worldly fame,
From shrinking courage or from shame,
From love of rule or fear of cost,
From small concern about the lost,
From jealous spite or party lines,
Or misplaced faith in our designs.

Let peaceful love and patience guide
The small decisions we decide,
Nor let our conduct here besmirch
The good name of Your bride, the church.
In God the Father’s mighty name,
And in the Son’s, who from Him came,
And in the Spirit’s, Three in One,
We pray: Amen, Your will be done!

250. Prayer to Close Church Meetings
Tune: O GROSSER GOTT (Stuttgart, 1744)
Lord, as from business we adjourn,
Bless our departure and return.
Our useful works by grace accept;
Make small the harm where we misstepped.
Teach, by the fruits of what we do,
That good things only come from You;
Help us to learn, all else above,
To walk and work as one in love.

Now bless and keep us by Your grace;
Now shine on us Your kindly face;
Clothed in Your Lamb’s unblemished fleece,
With favor send us on in peace.
In God the Father’s mighty name,
And in the Son’s, who from Him came,
And in the Spirit’s, One in Three,
We pray: Amen, so let it be!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Parable of the Car Cake

I recently saw a video in which an executive at a major supplier of Imitation Pasteurized Process Cheese Food (coughkraftcough) was quoted saying something to the effect that it might as well be considered cheese because it contains all the components of cheese. This rather reminded me of the claim that used to be kicked in my eyes like so much sand that certain books (coughleftbehindcough) should be considered Christian because they contain biblical themes. To what shall I compare these amazing claims? He (or she) who has ears to hear, let him (or her) hear...

Suppose I set out a huge mixing bowl and blended some eggs, milk, vanilla extract, flour, baking soda, baking powder, sugar, and a pinch of salt. Then suppose I continued to add the following ingredients: 1 cup ground aluminum steel, 1/2-cup ground cast iron, 1/2-cup shredded plastic, 1/4-cup crushed glass, 1 cup diced rubber, 2 tbsp. motor oil, 2 tbsp. gasoline, 1 tsp. antifreeze/coolant, 1/2 tsp. brake fluid, 1/2 tsp. transmission fluid, a splash of windshield washer fluid, a spritz of mercury vapor, ceramic dust to taste. Stir together and pour into a cake pan. Bake in a really hot oven for, like, ages. Test done with a toothpick. Allow to cool on a wire rack. Frost with automotive paint and sprinkle with bits of copper wire, leather zest, and a few other trace materials.

Hey, that cake contains pretty much all the components of an automobile. So, voila! I've just baked you a car!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

243. Prayer for the Addicted

This hymn is the first in a fresh crop of devotional prayer-songs on topics I have prepared beforehand to study, brainstorm, and attempt to address in an edifying way. To give you an insight into the way I work, my impetus in this instance for turning the intention into an action was an evening when I had too much of a headache to concentrate on the book I wanted to read. I made good use of the evening anyway, the same way I have employed some recent restless nights or a long weekend sick at home. Verily, tentatio is a fine seasoning for oratio and meditatio. The original tune I wrote for this hymn is titled EMANCIPATION.
You, Christ, laid hands on the afflicted,
Made paralytics walk,
Gave vigor to the lame.
Now turn Your heart to the addicted:
Their helplessness unlock;
Their broken lives reframe.

You, Christ, set free the demon-fettered,
Restored the tortured mind,
Made frenzied members calm.
Let gall and wormwood now be bettered:
The captive will unbind;
Soothe it with holy balm.

You healed the deaf, the dumb, the sightless,
And made the leper clean -
So, Christ, the Scriptures tell.
To those bound, blemished, gagged and lightless
Let this at last be seen:
Your word can make them well.

You said, "Your faith has healed, yes, saved you"
To many who in prayer
From You sought, asked and knocked.
Would that Your Spirit now revealed You
To some who hardly dare
Suppose that door unlocked!

You bade the dead arise; obeying,
They quit the bed of grief
And joined in joyful speech.
Send forth Your living voice, now saying,
"Wake from your unbelief;
Behold, your prison's breach!"

You, Christ, went bound, betrayed and beaten,
Derided and denied,
To bear our sin and curse.
The medicine here drunk and eaten,
Drawn from the death You died,
Heals all our woe and worse.

You, Christ, poured out as a libation
To pay in full our debt,
Have made salvation sure.
Now let men's cry for liberation
With cleansing grace be met;
Wash them and make them pure.

You, Son of God, Word uncreated,
Were born the woman's seed,
Our flesh and blood to raise
To God's right hand, where You are seated.
Hear now, as those You freed
Cry out in prayer and praise.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Screaming Staircase

The Screaming Staircase
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Ages: 12+

If you like your ghost stories shaken, chilled, and brewed extra-dark, this book is the first installment in a series you have to read. It features a small firm of ghost-busters in a present-day, alternate London where a plague of paranormal visitors - known as the Problem - has been a national concern for several decades. Neighborhoods are protected by rills of running water, iron plates across thresholds, super-bright "ghost lights" that go off at intervals all night, and warning bells to summon people home before nightfall. For icier, ickier manifestations that can't be staved off by standard precautions, there is also a highly competitive market for Visitor-vanquishing agencies that employ mostly children - because kids are more sensitive to ectoplasmic emanations than adults. Lockwood & Co. is like these, except that it has no adult supervision. Its founder is a mysteriously parentless, charismatic teen named Anthony J. Lockwood, and his assistants are a chubby nerd named George Cubbins and a 13-year-old runaway named Lucy Carlyle.

Together, they face down ghouls and specters, armed with a range of more or less effective anti-ghost weapons: salt, iron, silver, a bit of lavender water, and when the need is great, Greek fire, also known as magnesium flares. Unfortunately, they haven't had very good luck lately. An encounter with the ghost of a vanished socialite, whose remains have been walled up for 50 years, has left them in debt, at risk of losing their license, and in possession of a clue to a murder whose culprit is now after them. The only way they can save their struggling agency is to accept an all but suicidal job from an iron tycoon who happens to own the most haunted house in Great Britain. Combe Carey Hall, in Berkshire, not only has ghosts out the wazoo, but it continues making more with all the fury of a long-pent-up evil. And now Lockwood, George and Lucy are expected to face the dreadful Screaming Staircase and the deadly Red Room without, repeat without, their most powerful weapon - Greek fire.

I've had issues with ghost stories in the past. When I was Lucy's age, I read Stephen King's The Shining and came within two hairs of never sleeping again. At about that same time, I chucked a copy of Haunted Heartland the length of a rather long room, not out of dissatisfaction with the scares therein, but as an involuntary reflex. I remember warning my friends not to read Christopher Priest's The Prestige in bed - and that's not even really a ghost story. And I believe it was the movie Jeepers Creepers that convinced me, sometime around age 30, to make a pledge to myself never to watch another horror movie as long as I live. But I had to make an exception for a book by Jonathan Stroud, whose fiction I have so far found to be richly rewarding. I'll admit, though, I had to pace myself reading this book. When I saw the spooky part coming with bedtime only an hour or so away, I closed the book for the night and resolved to come back to it during the daytime. I wisely made sure I had time to read a couple chapters of something else between finishing this book and going to bed last night. It's not that I'm chicken, but oy gevalt! There are some dark images in this book, including the answer to why they call the Red Room the Red Room, and likewise with the Screaming Staircase.

When you get to the end, though, it's really the living who are scarier than anything. The thrills and chills are all very well, but this book also works quite well as a mystery, and it promises more of the whole package in installments to come. Meanwhile, one can also look forward to more fun repartee between the main characters, conflict with the branch of Scotland Yard that oversees paranormal investigations, and perhaps - heck, knowing Stroud, it's practically guaranteed - a build-up of drama about what is causing the Problem and where that's all headed. I anticipate shivering over every book in the set.

This is the first book of the haunted "Lockwood & Co." series, which so far continues with The Whispering Skull, The Hollow Boy, The Creeping Shadow, and The Empty Grave. There is also a novella that fits into the series somewhere, titled The Dagger in the Desk. Jonathan Stroud is the author of many exciting, scary, and magical books for young adults, all of which - this series excepted - I have already enjoyed. They include the four-book "Bartimaeus" series (The Amulet of Samarkand, etc.), Buried Fire, The Leap, The Last Siege, and Heroes of the Valley. His work also includes four children's picture books, the novella The Ghost of Shadow Vale, and some nonfiction.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 10+

Readers who love goofy, fourth-wall-breaking narration and meta-fiction gags about how mean authors are to readers will enjoy suffering through Alcatraz Smedry's meanness as he tells about his first adventure as an Oculator, in an inside-out reality in which the world we know is a deception foisted on us by a conspiracy of evil librarians. If you think guns are more advanced than swords, or that elevators are more convenient than stairs, you might have fallen victim to their disinformation campaign. Leading the fight to keep Inner Libraria from spreading to the Free Kingdoms (on continents that you won't find on any map) are members of the Smedry clan, whom Alcatraz has just met after spending most of his life bouncing from one foster home to another.

One of the things that has kept him bouncing is his secret power - all Smedrys of the true line have one. Grandpa Leavenworth (you might notice a pattern with their names) has the power of always arriving late. Cousin Sing Sing (just Sing to his friends), a collector of vintage weaponry, has the power of tripping and falling. Cousin Quentin (I'm guessing he dropped a "San" somewhere) has the power of saying things that make no sense. Bastille, a 13-year-old warrior, is like, a warrior. And then there's Alcatraz, whose secret power - breaking stuff - has only caused trouble so far. Yet on the very day he learns about the true nature of reality, he is expected to help this crack team infiltrate the downtown library and steal back his inheritance - a precious (cough) bag of sand.

It's a funny, weird, magical, world-within-a-world-building or maybe world-demolishing-and-totally-rebuilding type of fantasy, with some good action and a number of gimmicks that will make your jaw drop. And did I mention the meta? Yeah, you're going to notice that. Brandon Sanderson, I mean Alcatraz Smedry, doesn't just like to play with the reader, like an ordinary author. He likes to banter about what he's doing, sort of like how comic-book arch-villains like to make boastful speeches revealing what they plan to do just in time for their hero nemesis to stop them. But there seems to be no stopping Alcatraz (or is it Brandon) from messing with us. For more of his silly, cliché-tweaking adventures, see the sequels Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones, Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia, Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens, and The Dark Talent.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre
by Gail Carson Levine
Recommended Ages: 12+

Perry has been raised to be the perfect Lakti warrior. Her father is third in line for the throne of a kingdom that, many years ago, sought asylum from a plague of monsters in the peaceful neighboring kingdom of Bamarre - then turned on the Bamarre, conquered and enslaved them. Perry's beloved father Lord Tove despises the subjected Bamarre people for their cowardice. Little does Perry know, until a fairy sets the record straight, she is actually a Bamarre, forcibly adopted by her childless Lady Mother, after her real father was caught stealing food. Her sour-faced Bamarre nurse Annet is actually her older sister. And the perfect Lakti daughter is now, in one fairy godmother's opinion, the best hope to free the people she never guessed were her own.

Perry has her people-freeing work cut out for her. When Tove realizes what his adopted daughter is, his fury is terrifying. Perry learns that she has misjudged both of her parents - not only the always (until now) loving Tove, but also the seemingly cold and distant Lady Mother. Plus, getting the Bamarre to accept her isn't easy, and leading them to freedom is even trickier. Their peaceful, passive-aggressive manners are a difficult adjustment for her. For one thing, she is used to telling people what to do - a dead giveaway that she isn't a typical Bamarre. Her pride, her independent streak, and her habit of speaking out of turn or even contradicting those who have spoken first, put her at odds with the family she lost and found again. Only with luck, a fairy-made disguise as an elderly aunt, and some handy magical items (such as seven-league boots) will she have any chance of uniting her people in a rebellion against the treacherous Lakti. Then, she just has to face her once worshiped father (Tove, I mean) in a duel on which the fate of two kingdoms depends.

The synopsis I have just given doesn't do full justice to this magical romance, weaving together threads of multiple princess-centered fairy tales into one compelling novel. Besides the issues of racial prejudice and cultural differences, it also touches on the horror of war and the often overlooked type of courage that refuses to kill. It has dragons, gryphons, ogres, and specters in it, besides fairies and at least a hint of elves and dwarves. It also has a wonderful world in which men and women are different, but no one entertains a doubt as to their equality. Fans of Howl's Moving Castle and the animated film Tangled may get a special charge out of this story, which is obviously a companion to Levine's 2000 book The Two Princesses of Bamarre and, in a less obvious way, of her books Ella Enchanted, Fairest, and Ever.

Gail Carson Levine is also the author of Dave at Night, the six "Princess Tales" books (The Fairy's Mistake, etc.), A Tale of Two Castles and its sequel Stolen Magic, The Wish, and Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems, among other books. As I have noted before, her work is an important recent development in the reinterpretation of classic fairy tales. But don't let that word "important" scare you. It's also beautiful, heart-touching, and full of fun.

Tumble and Blue

Tumble and Blue
by Cassie Beasley
Recommended Ages: 12+

Blue Montgomery is a kid who always loses, no matter what the competition is. His dad Alan, a car racer who always wins, may not have the right perspective where it comes to raising Blue. For example, his advice to stand up to a bully results in the boy having a cast on his arm. But what really hurts Blue is when his dad drops him off at Grandma Eve's house in the off-the-map town of Murky Branch, Georgia, and drives away in the middle of the night. Blue doesn't want to accept that he's going to be living there for the foreseeable future. He argues with the kudzu-strangled population sign when it magically updates to include him. He starts training to see how fast he can run the two miles of dirt road from the town to the highway. And he tries not to get too comfortable in Grandma Eve's house - though that's not likely to be a problem, with a sudden flood of houseguests pushing Blue up to an attic filled with boxes of trophies won by the luckier half of the Montgomery clan.

You see, the Montgomerys have a thing about fate. According to family lore, a Montgomery appealed to a golden alligator named Munch 200 years ago in the heart of Okefenokee Swamp. As a result, half of the family has gifts, like the toddler who sings country music and Cousin Howard, who can eat all he wants without putting on weight. Then there are the ones like Blue, who have to live with a bad fate - such as Cousin Ida, who lives in fear of her twin sister's pet gerbils because she knows all animals hate her; another relative who is always starting fires; one who is constantly getting into car accidents; and, well, Blue. Every Montgomery knows that one person in the family has a chance, once every 100 years, on the night of an impossible red moon, to visit Munch and ask for a different fate. And now, with a red moon apparently coming up, every Montgomery wants Ma Myrtle (Eve's mother) to choose which of them will get that chance.

Blue has been trying every way he knows to change his luck, but everything he tries just gets him hurt. His friend Lily Wilson, who lives next door, calls herself Tumble and wants to be a hero, like her role model, Maximal Star; but every time she tries to save somebody, she ends up needing to be saved. One night, the two of them seize an opportunity to steal a march on the Montgomerys and follow the path of the red moon, where their friendship and their worthiness for a better fate will be tested.

This is a truly weird and wonderful book. I'm not really much into the idea of fate ruling over people's lives - but neither are the main characters, to tell the truth. Still, with that concept lying under it, this book stands up as a work of great originality, full of emotionally powerful moments and surprising imagery. It faces family relationships, friendship, grief, guilt, fear, greed, hopeless romance, self-sacrifice, and acceptance of the not-so-lucky things in one's life with courage and compassion. And crawling right through it is a chilling reptile whose cold-blooded comments add just the right tingle of creepiness, keeping the sentimental side of the story under control. I'm interested in what else author Cassie Beasley has to offer. For now, there's just her debut novel, titled Circus Mirandus.

The Countdown Conspiracy

The Countdown Conspiracy
by Katie Slivensky
Recommended Ages: 12+

Miranda Regent is 13, and she's going to Mars. I know! That's crazy, right? It's as preposterous as spy kids, a school for wizards, and a family of sparkly vampires, right? Where could this happen except in a world invented by a Young Adult author? Well, once you visit the world invented by this Young Adult author, the possibility starts to seem more like an inevitability. For one thing, peace has finally returned after a decade-long world war over who owns the swag brought home from an international asteroid-mining operation. The U.S. has come out of it smelling pretty bad. So a lot of eyebrows are raised when this girl from Ohio wins one of six spots in a program to train kids for a Mars mission specifically limited to those born after the conflict began.

Does she really deserve to be there, or did the U.S. pull strings to get her in? Even Miranda herself doesn't know, which makes it harder for her when she has to struggle to keep up with her fellow cadets at an international base in Antarctica. At least one of her classmates is pretty open about not wanting her to be there. And someone involved in the program apparently feels pretty strongly about it, too, considering the series of attempts on Miranda's life, starting from Day One of her training. Miranda feels increasingly isolated, especially after an attempt on her life kills two innocent people and causes the cadets' first leave to visit home to be canceled. Then her best friend Sasha, who almost made it into the program, falls off the planet and stops answering Miranda's texts. Pretty soon, she has no one to talk to except her pet robot Ruby, with whom she spends countless hours working on the spaceplane that the kids are supposed to take to Mars someday.

Then comes the day of the practical exam, a launch simulation, when everything goes totally pear-shaped. Thanks to a brilliant saboteur working within the program, the astro-kids face an ordeal of survival in which Miranda's engineering skills will play a crucial role.

Katie Slivensky, whose previous book The Seismic Seven depicted a group of kids racing to stop a super-volcano from erupting in Yellowstone National Park, evidently did a lot of research for this book, and it paid off. This is a terrific adventure that I think could get a lot of kids excited about the space program - any space program, not just the U.S. one. Perhaps even more importantly, it explores the feelings of a brilliant young person who finds herself struggling to meet expectations and being tested by adversity, with seemingly everyone against her and no one for her when it really counts. How she overcomes this, without becoming bitter or giving up, is an inspiring thing to behold.