Wednesday, January 31, 2018

237. Hymn for Sleepy Little Heads

This is also known, in my handwritten draft, as "Children's Bedtime Hymn." I wrote an original tune for this entry in my series of "silly but reverent children's hymns," titled BEDTIME. The tune was inspired by "Twinkle, twinkle, little star." My apologies.
Wide-awake and watchful God,
Bless and keep us when we nod.
Guard our sleepy heads.
Make Your angel, strong and good,
Stand, as he has always stood,
By our little beds.

Lord, You want for us the best.
Give us, then, our needed rest.
Send us gentle dreams.
Clear our sins for Jesus' sake,
Now and till at last we wake
Where Your glory gleams.

236. Litany Hymn for the Aged

With this hymn, I complete my planned series of "litany meter" ( hymns for times in the Christian life. Its basic concept is inspired by the idea that the disabled elderly of the church have an important spiritual office: prayer warriors. Perhaps because I had this office in mind, I made it the most strictly litany-like prayer in the series. The original tune is titled PLENUS DIERUM, though in the final draft the hymn uses the phrase "full of years" instead of "full of days."
Hear us, Ancient One of days,
Softly though we sing our praise,
As the aged faithful raise
Psalms of intercession.

Seasoned well and full of years,
Missing loved ones and careers,
Prey at times to doubts and fears,
First we ask: Be with us.

Help our weakness; ease our pain;
Show us our first love again,
Now by wisdom's light made plain;
Seal to us Your promise.

As You humble us to serve
More by patience than with verve,
Tune for prayer each restless nerve;
Make our struggles fruitful.

Failing eyes train on Your face;
Stir weak hearts to beat with grace,
Feeble hands Your deeds to trace,
Dull ears Your voice heeding.

Nor, Lord, let the young forget
Who their feet on life's way set:
Senior saints who serve them yet,
Daily called to battle.

Arm us for this unseen fray,
By Your word and faith to pray,
Fighting pow'rs by night and day,
Grappling for a blessing.

Though dishonored be our lot,
Or with tribulation fraught,
Past endurance test us not;
Yet, Lord, as You will it.

Since it pleased You to extend
Thus our life, so to its end,
To our cry Your ear now bend;
Hear our supplication.

For the church, for those who rule,
Those in field, in shop, in school,
Those at arms, in bondage cruel,
Hear our supplication.

For the lonely, sick, and poor,
Lost in city, sea, or moor,
Wanting but an open door
To Your word, Lord, hear us.

For the little and unborn,
Bearing mothers, households torn,
Little lambs of parents shorn,
And for widows, hear us.

For the heartsick and bereaved,
Those by any trouble grieved,
That their woes may be relieved,
By Your cross, Lord, hear us.

Should at last we live a day
Past our strength to watch and pray,
Close our eyes and take away
All remaining weakness.

After death's sharp sting has stung,
When this age's knell is rung,
Raise us, Christ, again made young,
To rejoice forever.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Canoes in Winter

Canoes in Winter: Beneath the Surface
by Bob Guelker
Recommended Ages: 15+

Sam Ryan has some serious issues to work through, but by the end of this book, he has only started to address them. That's a start, though, and the fact this is Book 1 of a trilogy suggests the reader may have the satisfaction of seeing a troubled character clean up his act somewhat.

Sam is 53 years old, has two marriages behind him, and doesn't get along with his family very well. In spite of being a "people person," intelligent and hardworking, he has a problematic employment history. Lately, he's been living in a cabin in the woods of northern Minnesota, working on and off as a substitute school bus driver and a stonemason-for-hire, but mostly just looking after his chickens, canoeing up and down the nearby creek, hunting morel mushrooms in the spring, and making wild grape wine in the fall. He professes to hate God (while also claiming not to believe in him), but at the same time practices a unique form of spiritual healing, which comes in handy every now and then since, for some reason, he always seems to be there when a woman goes into labor in public. He professes to hate horses, but he still misses riding them with his second wife. He professes to be OK with having an affair with a married woman, but... well, let's not get too far ahead of things.

Now and then, Sam goes a little crazy - his most recent episode occurring during a trip to Idaho to witness the birth of his second grandchild. He more or less blacked out and came to himself a few miles from home, having taken 48 hours to drive a trip that usually takes 20, looking like hell and feeling likewise. Maybe he's still a little crazy when, during a morel-hunting hike a couple days later, he practically trips over a beautiful woman who has been sunning herself naked in a rock quarry. They develop a close friendship, even though he knows she doesn't plan to leave her no-good husband. They both seem determined to stay "only friends," though other people close to both of them see more going on between them. But the flame of love growing between them cannot catch fire as long as she keeps going back to abusive Bill, and as long as he is still fighting whatever demons have sent him back to a psychiatrist's couch.

Decidedly deserving of an Adult Content Advisory, and maybe an Occult Content ditto, this story raised some "family values" flags for me, particularly concerning its main character's morals and spirituality. At the same time, it gave an attractive account of nature's richness, a compelling glimpse of northwoods life and rodeo competition, and a touching glimpse into the hearts of lifelike and sympathetic characters.

Not to be confused with the late American soccer coach by the same name, author Bob Guelker is a Nevis, Minn.-based writer. His "Canoes in Winter" series continues with Let Go, Let the River and Stone Creek. I became interested in his work after I moved recently to the nearby city of Park Rapids, where I write for a newspaper that has Nevis in its coverage area, and where I saw the trilogy amid a display of books by local authors while browsing a furniture shop. I thought I would give it a try, and I was entertained enough that I plan to read the rest of the trilogy soon.

The Darkest Road

The Darkest Road
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this third book of the "Fionavar Tapestry" trilogy, the surviving four of five visitors from modern-day Canada to the "first of all worlds" witness, and more than witness, the final battle between the Light and the Dark. Each of them has a crucial role to play in the build-up to the melee that will decide the fate of all the worlds, all of which share common threads in the weave of history - such as the tragedic legend of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, and the chaotic myth of Owein and the Wild Hunt. Gods, goddesses, andain (a sort of demigods), nature spirits, dwarves, elves (by another name), giants (likewise), priestesses, wizards, kings, and seers are all bound up in it, along with Paul (who became the Lord of the Summer Tree in Book 1), Kim (lately the white-haired seer of Brennin), Jennifer (the latest reincarnation of Guinevere), and Dave (known among the Dalrei horse people as Davor, a berserker). And let's now have a moment of silence for Kevin, who made a self-sacrificing contribution back in Book 2.

The good guys are vastly outnumbered in the war that is now rushing upon them. The ultimate bad guy, Maugrim the Unraveler, has chosen his moment well. If I listed the forces he has marshaled against the side of the Light, I would be spoiling too many surprises. But with the powers they now command, the four young people from Toronto can make a real contribution to the cause of Light - provided they are willing to pay an awful price. Through it all runs the course of a wild card: the son Jennifer bore after Maugrim forced himself on her, and whom she set free to find his own way and make his own choice between Light and Dark. On his choice, and on a few other terrible points of crisis, all will hinge. Among those working against them, meanwhile, is an andain so filled with hate that he is determined to annihilate all life.

This is a powerful and magical story, written at a level of literary quality that puts it in the rarefied circle of Tolkien. An Occult Content Advisory applies, as the antecedents of this particular fantasy are decidedly pagan, even in its interpretation of the essentially Catholic Arthurian tradition. The judgment of its four main characters, driven by present-day values out of step with the period of the rest, is often frustrating and sometimes seems a poor match for the material. Kay at times seems to recognize this and allows his characters to criticize themselves or each other, as when Kim wonders why Jen couldn't simply, you know, love her own child, rather than subjecting him to a heartless program of absolute self-determination. It's a fantasy in which you sometimes have to make allowances for the heroes being full of it. But it is not without its sensual wonders and emotionally overwhelming developments of storyline and characterization.

This book is a sequel to The Summer Tree and The Wandering Fire. Kay is also the author of the "Sarantine Mosaic" and "Under Heaven" books, about six other novels, and a book of poems; as well as the editor, with Christopher Tolkien, of J.R.R.'s The Silmarillion.

Monday, January 22, 2018


by Luke Rhinehart
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is a hilarious, but at times politically obnoxious, fantasy about the effect on a Long Island family's lifestyle when they become bosom friends with a race of extraterrestrial beings, variously called FFs (furry fish), Proteans, Ickies, or (in government parlance) Alien Terrorists. The FFs just want to play, and their message to the world is that people should take life less seriously and spend more time doing things "for the hell of it." The Powers That Be couldn't disagree more strongly. The conflict reaches the intensity of, literally, a nuclear explosion, but even that isn't the end of it.

I was 38-percent entertained by this book about an alien invasion of the present-day world by sentient, hairy beach balls from another universe. I was 62-percent put off by its shrill, over-the-top, left-wing politics. It was about two-fifths funny, weird, thought-provoking fun, and three-fifths Social Justice Warrior bull hockey, tinged with an unmistakable hatred for everything historically American that, in my opinion, demands a blind acceptance of a lot of disinformation and a blithe dismissal of many facts about the flip side. I'm not going to go into for-instances here. I do not want this to become a space for hammering out political arguments. I'm just saying what I felt about the book, which is that it kept me just amused enough to pick it up again after repeatedly provoking me to slam it down in disgust.

I've been up front about the negatives, but the positives all have to do with the characters in the story and their adventures. I could even enjoy reading about them when their political views didn't align with mine. I think the parts of the book that turned me off were when the author dropped the pretense of telling a story, brushed the characters and their situation aside, and went full-throttle political. In my opinion, his failing as an author in this instance arose from a lack of discipline and trust in his readers to draw their own connections to real-world politics and make up their own minds. I think it would have been a better book if it had stayed focused on the adventures of Billy, Lita, their two boys, and their super-intelligent, shape-changing, furry friends from Ickieland, or whatever their homeworld is called. "Good people against a corrupt system" is a story-shape that has worked in many contexts, and this particular rendition of it really had me in its grip. But Rhinehart, unfortunately, kept loosening that grip to scratch his own peculiar itch.

Luke Rhinehart, a.k.a. George Cockcroft, is the author of The Dice Man, The Book of est, The Book of Die, Naked Before the World, Jesus Invades George, and at least four other novels, plus the play The Dice House and several screenplays based on his own books. There is a rumor that a sequel to this book is coming, titled The Hairy Balls and the End of Civilization.

The Apprentice Witch

The Apprentice Witch
by James Nicol
Recommended Ages: 12+

There's a war on, and everybody has to do her part. So, Arianwyn sneaks out of her grandma's magic bookshop and takes the test to qualify as a full-fledged witch. Unfortunately, the readout on the testing device shows a negative result, meaning she has to do her apprenticeship over - this time, in the backwater village of Lull, hard against the Great Wood. A place where magic runs deep, and terrible creatures of darkness are at large, isn't necessarily the ideal place to assign a young, inexperienced witch who has lost confidence in her abilities - especially when, like Arianwyn, she is plagued with visions of a magical glyph that shouldn't exist, a glyph full of dark power that heralds disaster every time it appears.

Arianwyn has a tough time, starting out as an independent young woman. She has to be nice to her worst enemy. She has to be firm with her best friend. She has to face people after they have seen her making terrible mistakes. She has to protect a community that has been neglected for too many years, and whose charms are all but worn out. And she has to learn to believe in herself. Fortunately, she is under the supervision of a tough-but-fair senior witch who views her with a sympathetic eye. She has found favor, if not with the administrator of the Civil Witchcraft Authority, at least with her cheerful young assistant. Most importantly of all, she has a kind heart, which wins her strange but important friends.

This book is slated to have a sequel, A Witch Alone, released March 1, 2018. Meantime, it is a highly entertaining, emotionally gripping story, featuring a main character who is at least as interesting as the original fantasy world in which she lives. I picture her kingdom of Hylund as a sort of sideways version of England during the era of World War I. It has telephones and motor-cars and a shiny bus whose owner calls her Beryl. It also has spirit creatures of light, dark, and something in between. It will be fascinating to explore further, especially with an inspiring heroine like Arianwyn to provide the point of view.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus
by Dusti Bowling
Recommended Ages: 10+

Aven was born with no arms, but if you don't want trouble, you won't call her disabled. Raised by adoptive parents who refused to let her be pampered like the Queen of Sheba, she knows how to do most things "armed" people can do, though many tasks take longer and are more difficult for her. She has a good sense of humor, mad soccer skills, lots of friends at schools, and a lot to be happy about - until her parents decide to move from Kansas to Arizona, where they get to run an old-west-themed tourist trap, and Aven has to start over at a new school. Suddenly it's back to being stared at and treated like a freak. Not her favorite thing.

But then Aven discovers a couple of friends who are lonely for different-yet-similar reasons: each in his own way is different from the other kids, and prefers hiding to being stared at or called names. One has a form of Tourette syndrome that makes him afraid to eat in front of people or go into public places, like a movie theater. The other is a fat kid who is just tired of being picked on. Partly together, but mostly each at his or her own pace, these three kids learn to accept being different and discover the courage to stand out. Aven leads the charge, inspired by her parents to think of herself as a shining light. Meantime, back at the ranch (ha, ha), she solves a mystery that has a surprising connection to who she is.

This is a beautifully, lyrically written book with a touching message about accepting differences. It brims with laughs, tears, and the instantly relatable kind of drama that springs from honest disagreements between good but imperfect people. I found it personally moving. Among its attractions is a depiction of its Arizona setting, apparently drawn from the author's personal and affectionate experience - a setting that mirrors the story's theme of finding beauty in unusual places. Arizona native Dusti Bowling is also the author of the young adult books The Day We Met, Grace and Daisies, and The Boy Who Loved Me.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Drive-By Blog Post

I beg your pardon for being out of touch for a bit. This is just a quick note to explain that, between Friday, Jan. 12 and Sunday, Jan. 14, I moved from my beloved Show Me State to Minnesota, where I have started a new job as a reporter at a small-town newspaper. I can now visit either of my parents (at least, when my mom is at her lake place) with little more than an hour of drive time each way - less, in the case of my dad and stepmom - and my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew are only a couple-three hours away. In fact, I'm suddenly much closer to most of my relatives than I have been these last 20 years and more. I guess I'll have fewer excuses for missing family events.

Unfortunately, the move required me to leave behind Sinead, my cat of more than 10 years. It also required some ridiculous maneuvers involving Uhaul Roadside Assistance, which I am itching to tell you about. But not yet. I don't have an internet connection at home, so I can only spare a moment or two on lunch breaks at work to post this. Stand by for more book reviews, original hymns, and whatnot, as soon as all my living arrangements are back up to snuff. Thanks for your patience!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

235. Business Hymn

This is the installment in my series of "litany hymns for times in the Christian life" that has to do with the greater part of the typical person's life: work. I could have called it a "labor hymn," but I've already written one; I could also have called it a "vocation hymn," but I've already written one. So, it is what it is. And what its tune is, is a more-or-less original melody titled VINEYARD. It is inspired, in part, by the "laborers in the vineyard" parable in Matthew 20, and in part by select verses of Ecclesiastes 9. And yes, I know it's 11 stanzas. But it's a litany, you know? Go with it.
God, who made both day and night,
Help us work while it is light,
And to do with all our might
What becomes our calling.

For the grave no power knows,
Nor the fruit of wisdom grows;
One man reaps, another sows,
In this age of folly.

Yet, though time and death destroy
All we build, and woes annoy,
Help us nonetheless enjoy
What You give us daily.

Let us take, with merry heart,
Good supply that You impart;
Knowing, from creation’s start,
You declared us pleasing.

Though with sin our work is fraught,
Bring its reign in us to naught;
Cleanse us of its crimson spot
Through Christ’s dying labor.

As, in office, shop, or field,
Wares we sell or service yield,
Plowshare pull or weapon wield,
Help us love our neighbor.

As Your vineyard’s workers, we
Yearn the eventide to see,
When the late-hired hand will be
Long day’s wages given.

What more can be said or done?
“It is finished,” cried God’s Son;
Love’s reward, for sinners won,
God dispenses freely.

May we, therefore, watch and pray,
Work with Christ while it is day,
And when all things pass away,
Gather in Your vintage.

Then no more shall worry spoil,
Sorrow taint, or envy soil
Heaven’s rest, the new earth’s toil;
Death and sin shall perish.

Yet a little while, we view
This life’s empty striving through
Christ, who has made all things new.
Come again, Lord, quickly!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

234. Education Hymn

Here is another installment in my series of "litany hymns for times in the Christian life." I wrote the original(ish) tune, titled FORMATION, late last year, knowing the hymn (like all of them in this group) would have the "litany meter." The idea that appealed to me, as I planned this hymn, was the concept of a Christian's education as mental and spiritual "formation." The previous hymns in this series are here, here, and here.
Jesus, Teacher sent from God,
Both in Judah and abroad,
Wield Your disciplining rod,
Even now, before us.

Help us as we, by Your will,
Study precept, practice skill,
Pass the trial, and be still
Formed to trust and serve You.

Rabbi, Your disciples yearn
Daily at Your feet to learn,
That our steps again might turn
Where Your voice directs us.

Sow in us Your living seed;
Feed and tend it as we need,
That, in spirit and in deed,
We bear fruit aplenty.

That our minds may be transformed,
Every thought by Scripture normed,
And our hearts with mercy warmed,
Master, we implore You.

To Your saving work made wise,
Let us train on You our eyes
Till You draw us to the skies:
Amen, Lord; so be it!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Long Live the Queen

Long Live the Queen
by Kate Locke
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the conclusion of the "Immortal Empire" series, an alternate-timeline version of present-day Britain teeters on the edge of a civil war between "aristos" (ruling-class vampires and werewolves, plus goblins, who have a queen of their own) and regular humans. The last time there was a human insurrection was early in the 175-year reign of her fanged majesty Queen Victoria, and it's an experience neither she nor newly-crowned goblin queen Alexandra Vardan wants to repeat. They may not have a choice about it, however, with the Human League lobbing bombs and inciting reprisals by the Halvies (half-blood vampires and werewolves) who serve the aristos. Plus, someone is still using secret laboratories to prepare a nasty surprise for the empire, if not the whole world.

Xandra, naturally, is in the thick of it. Her troubles never seem to cease, with first her lover, alpha werewolf Vexation MacLaughlin, then her father, the vampire Duke Vardan, being attacked and nearly killed by a new type of monster. Worse yet, the monster considers Xandra to be her mommy. Worst of all, this shape-changing killing machine has Queen V in her crosshairs. Stopping her will be the ultimate test of Xandra's fighting ability, the love of her lycanthropic mate, and the survival skills of everyone she holds dear.

I will frankly miss this series. After reading God Save the Queen, The Queen Is Dead, and this book, I'm a bit sad to think I may never again read the interjection "Fang me and chew the wound!" Another word that I think I will miss is "cobbleside," a splendid word that can probably have no application outside a universe in which London's Mayfair district is home to an undead subculture. It's a very, very nearby parallel dimension, one in which (for example) the American film Truman Show apparently exists; so it almost feels like home - only ever so much more dark and exciting. In fairness, I have to slap a strong Adult Content Advisory on it, especially out of consideration for Christian families. In this book, they may encounter sexual themes from what I like to call "the cutting edge of societal evolution," and I don't want them to be blindsided. Other than that, chill out and have fun!

Among Kate Locke's other works under a total of four pen-names, mostly period paranormal romances as Kathryn Smith, I am most intrigued by her Kady Cross "Steampunk Chronicles" titles, such as The Girl in the Clockwork Collar and The Girl with the Windup Heart, and her Kate Cross "Clockwork Agents" series, Heart of Brass, Touch of Steel, and Breath of Iron.