Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Robbie Awards 4

It's time for the fourth annual Robbie Awards (or 11th, if you count retroactive awards), recognizing the best of the books I read during 2019.

Not necessarily top-selling new releases – some of them came secondhand, many through the library – these mini-reviews represent my personal recommendations and were not, repeat not, sent to me for review by publishers, publicists or authors. (I wish.)

However, I did get the author’s autographs in a couple of them. Also, I got to interview author Peter de Jonge this year.

Why only 69 when I've been hitting around 100 pretty consistently? I blame it on TV-on-DVD binges. But I'm working on it and, with the blessing, I think 2020 will be a better-read year.

The nominees (imagine a drumroll):
  1. Pottymouth and Stoopid by James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein, ill. by Stephen Gilpin
  2. The Last Kids on Earth by Max Brallier, ill. by Douglas Holgate
  3. The Chaos King by Laura Ruby
  4. The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinniss
  5. A Measure of Darkness by Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman
  6. I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
  7. Runemarks by Joanne M. Harris
  8. Gone to Dust by Matt Goldman
  9. Persuader by Lee Child
  10. The Glass Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg
  11. Guardians of the West by David Eddings
  12. The Boy Who Knew Everything by Victoria Forester
  13. The Forgotten Room by Lincoln Child
  14. Full Wolf Moon by Lincoln Child
  15. How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks
  16. Die Trying by Lee Child
  17. Possession by Kat Richardson
  18. Killing Floor by Lee Child
  19. Deep Storm by Lincoln Child
  20. Night Moves by Jonathan Kellerman
  21. Simon Bloom: The Octopus Effect by Michael Reisman
  22. As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti
  23. The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman
  24. When the Bough Breaks by Jonathan Kellerman
  25. The Bone Collector by Jeffery Deaver
  26. Walking Shadows by Faye Kellerman
  27. The Third Gate by Lincoln Child
  28. Even by Andrew Grant
  29. Broken Ice by Matt Goldman
  30. Tripwire by Lee Child
  31. The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan
  32. Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo
  33. The Golem of Hollywood by Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman
  34. The Coffin Dancer by Jeffery Deaver
  35. Blood Test by Jonathan Kellerman
  36. Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner
  37. Terminal Freeze by Lincoln Child
  38. Die Twice by Andrew Grant
  39. Buried on Avenue B by Peter de Jonge
  40. Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
  41. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
  42. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork
  43. Sacred and Profane by Faye Kellerman
  44. Running Blind by Lee Child
  45. Over the Edge by Jonathan Kellerman
  46. Shadows Still Remain by Peter de Jonge
  47. The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross
  48. Reliquary by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
  49. The Portable Door by Tom Holt
  50. The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross
  51. The Empty Chair by Jeffery Deaver
  52. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
  53. Monstrous Devices by Damien Love
  54. The Doom Machine by Mark Teague
  55. The Golem of Paris by Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman
  56. The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt
  57. The Hero Revealed by William Boniface
  58. The Candymakers by Wendy Mass
  59. Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey
  60. The Candymakers and the Great Chocolate Chase by Wendy Mass
  61. The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage
  62. Holy Ghost by John Sandford
  63. Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
  64. The Odds of Getting Even by Sheila Turnage
  65. The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
  66. Messiah: The Greatest Sermon Ever Sung by Tony Pittenger, ill. by Jonathan Mayer
  67. I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
  68. The Remember Balloons by Jessie Oliveros, ill. by Dana Wulfekotte
  69. The Wedding Guest by Jonathan Kellerman
And now the awards:

Critic’s Choice
I’m a critic, of sorts. I give my honest opinion when I review a book, and I recognize and appreciate quality in the art of writing. For beauty, power and mastery of literary techniques, I award this year’s Critic’s Choice to “As You Wish” by Chelsea Sedoti.

This young adult novel focuses on a boy named Eldon Wilkes as his 18th birthday approaches. On that day, Eldon, like everyone else brought up in his small town in the Mojave desert, is expected to enter a certain cave and make a wish that will certainly come true – then deal with the results for the rest of his life.

As he prepares for his wish day, Eldon researches what other townsfolk wished for and how it turned out for them. What he learns is horrifying enough, but he’s already spent his entire life living in a household poisoned by the unintended consequences of wishes. And although his parents, especially mom, expect Eldon to mend a family tragedy with his wish, he becomes increasingly certain that he doesn’t want to make any wish at all.

Carrying the consequences of “what you wish for” to the utmost, this strikingly original book takes the reader on a far-flung emotional journey, filled with ethical questions that will keep you thinking and feeling as you read. Meanwhile, you fall in love with the characters, squirm with their discomfort, forgive their flaws, struggle with their decisions, worry about their wellbeing and appreciate the slightly unexpected way everything turns out.

People’s Choice
I’m also a person, and like a lot of people, I value pieces of entertainment that take me out of my world and into theirs. For wowing me in 2019, my People’s Choice award goes to “The Doom Machine” by Mark Teague, which seems to be the only novel by a mostly children’s book author and illustrator.

It features a group of oddball characters caught up in the alien invasion of upstate New York in the mid-1950s. Including a boy who can fix any kind of engine (including a flying saucer’s) and a girl who can throw a baseball with deadly accuracy, the group is all that stands between earth and enslavement to the vicious, insectoid skreeps.

As period-piece science fiction goes, this book was a total gas. The aliens, even at their most loathsome, are kind of adorable. Touches of time travel and prophecy, details of an alien planet’s weird scenery and culture, smart dialogue with space pirates and a conflict over the fate of many worlds make it thrilling, touching, brainy fun from start to finish. I wish Teague would write more novels!

Kids' Choice
I’m still a kid at heart, younger inside than out. I’ve always read a lot of books designed for middle grades and young adults, but two that stood out this past year were actually aimed at small children. Of them, the winner is I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.

Klassen’s perfectly structured book uses subtle variants of a few simple pictures, rearrangements of a few well-chosen words, and a clever bit that doesn’t actually have to be shown or stated, to pull laughter, irony and charm out of a silly tale of a bear searching the woods for his lost hat. It may also be just the thing to cheer up a child who is frustrated about losing a favorite hat, toy or whatever.

Best Comeback
This new year would be a great time to re-read The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinniss. Alternately hilarious and horrifying, the book documents the innovative use of television to market Richard Nixon’s successful campaign for president.

Seemingly working from inside the campaign, McGinniss shows how carefully calibrated imagery and faux-spontaneous set-pieces snowed an entire country – or just enough of it to elect an obviously unsuitable candidate. It delivers laughs, chills and an important message for all media consumers.

If anything, its lessons are even more urgent today, when we have just-this-second journalism, targeted ads, machine learning and social media with few to no ethical filters. It’s proof that there’s a payoff for holding a long train of thought (like reading a piece of long-form reporting). If we don’t learn what this book can still teach us, I hate to think where we’re headed.

Best Newcomer
Everything I read this year was new to me, of course. As for the most promising debut novel by an author who shows signs of not being a one-hit wonder (cough Mark Teague cough), I feel this award belongs to Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo.

It's an exciting, spirited romp through the folklore of Spanish-speaking cultures. It features a street-wise Miami boy in search of his missing parents, helped by some strange allies and pursued by terrifying monsters. Along the way, his progress is hampered by outbreaks, not of zits (heaven forbid), but of feathers and horns.

You get all the fun of Rick Riordan's "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series, plus you get to try out some Spanish phrases! Its sequel, Charlie Hernandez & the Castle of Bones, was released in October 2019 and will (I hope) find its way into my fist in 2020.

Best Documentary
In I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, true crime maven Michelle McNamara does deep-dive journalism into a cold case about a creep known at the time as the “Original Night Stalker,” who raped some 50 women, murdered 10 people and terrorized a large swath of California, on and off, from 1976 to -86.

By the time the killer was caught in 2018, McNamara had died at age 46, leaving this book unfinished. Other writers, including her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, filled in some missing pieces to complete the book, based largely on a series of magazine articles by McNamara and her unpublished notes.

The authorities deny that McNamara found any new facts that helped them capture Joseph DeAngelo. But it seems likely that her crusade, online and in print, spurred law enforcement to keep devoting resources to the case and re-examining the evidence.

Her deep sympathy for the crimes’ victims and their grieving survivors is evident, and it stirs similar feelings. It makes both her and them real on a personal level. I only know McNamara from reading this book, and yet somehow I miss her.

Best Audiobook
Out of a small list of candidates, I’m going to go with The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, read by Dan O’Grady.

It’s the beginning of a series of books about an Australian geneticist whose personality is wired differently from most people’s – he seems to have something like Asperger’s syndrome – and who is about to give up on ever finding the love of his life when a psychologist friend suggests approaching it as a research project.

Don Tillman puts together a scientific study, including a questionnaire to filter out unsuitable applicants. Just when some promising data starts coming in, he encounters a random variable – a graduate student named Rosie. Even though everything about her goes against his notion of the ideal mate, he can’t stop thinking about her.

Cue an outrageous and romantic comedy of errors, in which the narrator himself misses the irony that permeates his point of view and everything builds to a sweet climax. O’Grady’s voice acting has just the right comic touch, enhanced by a down-under accent and a firm but not unkind grasp of the main character.

Best Graphic Novel
Taking the place of last year’s Short Subject award, this category represents only a small handful of books I read in 2019. Nevertheless, I think The Last Kids on Earth by Max Brallier, illustrated by Douglas Holgate, deserves a plug.

A funny, monster- and action-packed tale of teens surviving a zombie apocalypse, it alternates between comic panels and prose. The art and the writing share the same kind of youthful goofiness.

Jack, the hero kid, imagines himself as more heroic than he actually is, which adds laughs to the thrills. Joining him in a street-to-street battle against the walking dead and worse are his nerdy best friend, his ex-bully (who, Jack finds, is nice to have on his side) and the girl he dreams of saving, but who is pretty good at saving herself.

It’s part of a five-book series that I grew tired of seeing in a store’s book aisle and finally decided to try. I’d recommend it for kids who need encouragement in reading.

Best Art
For the most beautiful book art, my vote goes to Messiah: The Greatest Sermon Ever Sung by Tony Pittenger, illustrated by Jonathan Mayer.

I recently traveled to the Twin Cities to attend a two-day retreat in which Pittenger, a Lutheran pastor from the Seattle area, played a recording of the Messiah and paused every few tracks to discuss his book, along with Mayer’s spectacular artwork.

Pittenger’s words study of how George Frideric Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens, used Bible selections and musical symbolism to bear powerful witness to Christ – laying out our world’s need, God’s promise and its fulfillment from the beginning of the world to the end.

It’s the book about Handel’s Messiah that I’ve been looking for all my adult life, even before Mayer’s art takes it to a new level. One image alone – a slaughtered lamb whose blood forms a map of the world – has become a permanent exhibit in my mind’s gallery; many others are just as excellent.

Till we read again, happy book hunting!

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Wedding Guest

The Wedding Guest
by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

Child psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware hasn't heard much lately from his best friend, LAPD homicide lieutenant Milo Sturgis. Then he gets called in to look at a pretty weird murder scene – a beautiful young woman, dressed to kill, found strangled in the ladies' room at a wedding reception. Nobody on either the bride's side or the groom's admits to knowing her. But clearly, something twisted is up, and members of the wedding party are hiding something.

For one thing, the specific method of killing the young woman resembles a series of crimes that happened several years ago in Poland – and at the mention of Poland, the groom and other members of his family clam right up. For another thing, a drug used to subdue the dead girl is used in the father-of-the-groom's veterinary practice. Also, the sister-of-the-groom lives in the same college student apartment complex as at least one other girl who died under similar circumstances, and where a caretaker died a drug-related death within hours of this latest murder. Finally, there's the victim herself, whose real identity remains elusive more than a week after her death; all Milo and Alex know about her is that she dances (poorly) for a living, gives everybody she meets a slightly different name and used to date another caretaker at the same building, whose overdose death no longer seems like an accident.

Who all these clues point toward doesn't become clear until quite late in the book, when a young woman's life depends on catching the bad guy in the act with not a moment to spare. That much you could guess from the shelf where you'll find this book, and what experience tells you about the kind of book that lives there. There's always a last-minute race to confront evil, face to face, with someone's (or more than one's) life on the line – and the danger will be real for the investigators, too. Heigh-ho, ho-hum, yawn. What gets you in this mystery is the elusiveness of the identity of both the victim and the dark figure behind her death. Also, as murderers go, he has an unusual specialty – talking pretty, promising young women into killing themselves, or letting him kill them – that adds its own macabre dimension to the thriller.

As always, Milo and Alex make a fun crime-solving duo. Their patter is comfortable, experienced, and witty. Their familiar roles as partners in investigation continue to show room to stretch. Their relationships with the recurring characters around them – from Milo's homicide squad to Alex's longtime girlfriend Robin – establish a baseline against which their forays into danger and the unknown show up in all the sharper relief. Recent developments in the politics and science of crime detection keep that background up to date. And cameo appearances (at secondhand) by Robin's real-life clients in the music world, such as guitar virtuoso Sharon Isbin, help keep the whodunit grounded in the known. Clearly, author Kellerman knows something about the psyche of his readers, and he plays that (along with the psychological aspects of the crimes we're reading about) with a bravura touch.

This is the 34th of soon-to-be 35 Alex Delaware mysteries. The next installment, The Museum of Desire, is due to be released Feb. 4, 2020.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Remember Balloons

The Remember Balloons
by Jessie Oliveros
illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
Recommended Ages: 4+

This children's picture book was a selection for my local public library's "Leaders are Readers" program. I read it as an exercise in cross-generational communication about one of my favorite subjects (books), and ended up being emotionally touched.

This story uses balloons as an analogy for memories, in hope of helping little ones understand what's happening when grandma or grandpa starts to show signs of dementia. With warmth and courage, it faces an issue that may cause confusion, sadness and anger for children while their loved ones become confused and forgetful. In a final touch that still gets me choked up, it suggests a use for the shared life experiences that younger family members still have in their grasp.

Jessie Oliveros is a former nurse who (according to Goodreads) lives in Texas with her husband and four kids. This seems to be her first book. Illustrator Dana Wulfekotte seems to have contributed art to at least eight children's books, including three "Cilla-Lee Jenkins" books by Susan Tan, as well as her own book, Rabbit & Possum.

I Want My Hat Back

I Want My Hat Back
by Jon Klassen
Recommended Ages: 4+

Here is a perfectly structured children's book that uses subtle variants of a few simple pictures, rearrangements of a few well-chosen words, and a clever hint of what isn't directly shown or stated, to pull laughter, irony and charm out of a silly tale of a bear searching the woods for his lost hat.

As it clues very little readers, perhaps for the first time, into the concept of incriminating yourself by protesting your innocence too much, it may also be just the thing to cheer up a child frustrated about losing a favorite hat, toy or whatever.

This picture book was one of the selections for my local public library's "Leaders are Readers" program. The debut book by a Canadian author, it was followed up by the Caldecott and Kate Greenaway medal-winning This Is Not My Hat and, later, We Found a Hat. Klassen is also the co-author with Mac Barnett of a children's picture book titled Square.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Messiah: The Greatest Sermon Ever Sung

Messiah: The Greatest Sermon Ever Sung
by Tony Pittenger
Illustrated by Jonathan Mayer
Recommended Ages: 10+

I couldn't find a decent-resolution picture of the front cover of this book online. It's just as well, because this excerpt is a fortuitously beautiful example of the kind of work you can expect from this book. Many years ago, I was horribly disappointed by a book titled Messiah: The Gospel According to Handel's Oratorio by Roger A. Bullard – a scholarly treatise that I picked up in a Lutheran college or seminary bookstore (I forget which) and that I hoped would go through the theology expressed by librettist Charles Jennens' choices (and adaptations) of Scripture for the lyrics of Handel's Messiah, and by Handel's musical treatment. Instead of that, the book took a great big, smelly, higher-critical dump on the Biblical texts used by Jennens and Handel – demythologizing this, documentary-hypothesizing that, and just generally making a case against the believing exegesis of Scripture in general and Messianic prophecy in particular.

The book I wanted to read at that time is now in my hands. As a bonus, it's written with incredible economy, at a layman's level (musically as well as theologically) by a faithful Lutheran pastor who happens to be nuts about Handel's Messiah. As another bonus, it's illustrated with breathtaking loveliness by an at-that-time starving artist who really got the theology the author was trying to get across. It's a Bible study wrapped in a music appreciation class, packaged in the dimensions of a children's illustrated board book – but like the oratorio it helps the reader understand, it's more than the sum of its parts. The Messiah is not, according to those in the know, Handel's best work; even Jennens thought so. But it's the piece that communicates with millions of people, generation after generation, on a profound level. It's the piece that hits you right there.

Read in alternation with musical examples (at a recent workshop on this book, Pastor Pittenger played his recommended recording (Christopher Hogwood conducting the Academy of Ancient Music and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford – a truly beautiful performance), the book is a refreshing supplement to what you already think you know about Handel's Messiah, which may not really be all that much. It is beautifully done, and that's even before you take in Mayer's stunning visuals, several of which deserve to be printed on an embroidery machine and hung as tapestries in your church. Or screened onto canvas and worked into an altar triptych, or something. I am full of admiration for this book, and that's not even getting into the story I heard at the aforementioned conference about the book being translated and used for evan- I mean, music appreciation classes in a country where that sort of thing must be done with immense care.

I'd like to tell you all about my trip to hear Pastor Pittenger hold forth about the Messiah a couple weekends ago at a beautiful Lutheran campus chapel at the University of Minnesota and all the other interesting things I saw, did and blew money on. But that wouldn't be to the purpose of this book review. I don't get out as much as I used to, and above all I don't get to share cultural and spiritual experiences as rich as a performance of Handel's Messiah as often as I used to. The chance to discuss these things with Pastor P. and others was a wonderful bleeding of the release valve for me, more needed than I would have guessed. But it's not all about me, you know. This book, with or without the presentation Pastor Pittenger seems to be willing to travel long distances to make, would be a wonderful topic of discussion for a Bible study circle, a book club, an art or music lovers' group or a larger organization (like, say, a circuit or district church workers' conference, women's auxiliary rally or doctrinal retreat). I think you'd be surprised at the quality of the insight it offers, not only into a piece of music that has perhaps been overplayed to the point many of us can no longer hear it, but into the faith it proclaims and confesses.

Sci-fi DVD Binges

I used to have a commitment on this blog to review starship-based TV series on an episode-by-episode basis. Please forgive me, but I just don't have the time for that any more. In fact, the amount of time I spend looking at a computer screen at work, and the fact that I haven't budgeted for an internet connection at home for the past several years, has somewhat deterred me from reviewing everything I watch on DVD like I used to and has led to long delays between when I watched something and when I wrote about it.

Nevertheless, I don't want to let some fine pieces of starship-based entertainment go by unremarked on. So, with only a few brushstrokes, here are my reviews of a few of my TV on DVD binges during the past year.

Andromeda (Seasons 1-5) – I got hold of a boxed set of this complete series for a reasonable price, and watched it straight through in one of those "every waking hour except when you're at work" video binges that, when measured by the care one takes of oneself and one's living environment, are effectively indistinguishable from an episode of bipolar depression. I was mostly rewarded by good entertainment.

Developed by sometime Star Trek writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe from unproduced notes left behind by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Andromeda aired for five seasons (2000-05) and 110 episodes, mainly in first-run syndication but also (at least in part) on Canada's Global Television Network and cable's Sci-Fi Channel. It was produced by Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the Great Bird's widow and the actress who played Nurse Chapel and Lwaxana Troi.

Set thousands of years in the future, the storyline begins about 300 years after the fall of the Systems Commonwealth, a diverse planetary alliance that spans three galaxies and includes many species. Structured as a sort of constitutional monarchy, its royalty (if you will) are an advanced race called the Vedrans.

Kevin Sorbo plays Dylan Hunt, the captain of a self-aware starship called the Andromeda Ascendant, which gets stuck on the event horizon of a black hole with only him on board right at the moment when the Nietzscheans – a coalition of clans devoted to eugenics, racial purity and the practice of existentialist ideology – betray the Commonwealth, fracture civilization and usher in an era known as the Long Night.

Now Hunt and Andromeda are back, thanks to a crew of scavengers who tractor-beam them off the event horizon. For him, only moments have passed. But he finds the universe totally changed. The Commonwealth fleet has been destroyed. Earth has been devastated, first by a Nietzschean occupation, then by an invasion of the voracious Magog. Former Commonwealth worlds have not done so well on their own. And the Vedrans have totally disappeared.

With Andromeda's artificial intelligence still loyal to him, Hunt recruits (most) of the scavengers to help him rebuild the Commonwealth – an at first seemingly quixotic quest that they actually achieve, little by little, during the first three years of the series, in spite of constant push-back by the Nietzscheans and others.

In Season 4 or so, all their gains are clawed back, and another wave of Magog seems to be on a collision course with all other life in the known universe. Then there's Season 5, in which the climax is seemingly suspended and the main characters find themselves stranded in limbo, or rather a pocket universe, looking for a way out of a planetary system that was apparently designed as a colossal machine.

Co-starring with Sorbo are Lisa Ryder as Beka Valentine, the captain of a freighter/smuggling ship called the Eureka Maru, which for all its significant size fits comfortably inside the Andromeda Ascendant's shuttle bay; Gordon Michael Woolvett as Seamus Harper, a nerdy engineer; Laura Bertram as Trance Gemini, a mysterious alien who changes color partway through the series and turns out to be the avatar of a star; Lexa Doig as the ship's AI and its android avatar; Keith Hamilton Cobb as a Nietzschean named Tyr who grudgingly joins the crew for a few seasons before finally becoming their foe; Brent Stait as a reformed Magog named Rev Bem, who also flakes off after a couple of seasons; Steve Bacic as two different Nietzscheans named Rhade, one of whom takes over Tyr's position in the group in later seasons; and Brandy Ledford as another android named Doyle, who joins the group for Season 5.

Sorbo is at the height of his manly charisma in this role, and he does a lot with his catch-line, "It's never easy." Ryder and Woolvett get a lot of opportunities to show their characters wrestling between noble ideals and mercenary impulses; they also both excel at sarcasm and have bad luck in their love lives, though the scales tip toward Beka where sex appeal is concerned; Seamus is more of a comedic sad sack in that respect.

Cobb and Bacic's characters were seemingly designed to look sexy in revealing costumes or a lack thereof, thereby gratifying the male-attracted segment of the audience. However, it's impossible to like Tyr very much, since (unlike Telemachus Rhade) he never exhibits the faintest tint of loyalty and, except for sexual tension with Beka, has no chemistry with any of the other main characters. Tyr also has no apparent sense of humor; even when he laughs, there's no joy in it.

For the other characters, you have two sexy female androids who are, after all, androids with the mind of a warship; a cute girl who comes across like everybody's kid sister and whose character, toward the end of the series, develops in an incomprehensible direction; and that Magog guy, whose makeup must have been stifling and isn't very pleasant to look at, but who (up to a point) gave the crew a spiritual dimension.

Overall, I thought it was a terrific adventure for about three years, with ups and downs along the way. It seemed to be building toward a big climax throughout Season 4, but whatever big payoff one might expect going into Season 5 was dissipated by a whole season stuck on and around one planet (or a few variations on it), and that took back all of the main characters' positive development up to that time. I felt let down by the series finale, and I collected a sense that a change in personnel behind the scenes (like, RHW losing control of the show) might have contributed to the show's decline.

Three Episodes That Made It For Me: (1) Season One episode "The Banks of the Lethe," in which Dylan is offered an opportunity to reunite with his lost love and perhaps change history on the eve of the Nietzschean attack. (2) Season Three episode "Cui Bono," in which John de Lancie ("Q" on Star Trek) plays Beka's no-good Uncle Sid and his evil corporation takes out a hit on everybody who might be responsible for putting him in a coma.

(3) The two-part episode "Dissonant Interval" at the end of Season 4, after which the series is more or less one long anticlimax. In this episode, the Andromedas encounter a space habitat whose peaceful inhabitants believe (alas, wrongly) that they can make peace with the impending horde of Magog. Dylan learns that he's a Paradine (for more info, watch the show), T. Rhade falls in love, and everything comes to the ultimate cliffhanger – certain doom for all! – except for a cryptic ending in which it seems Dylan has somehow escaped the carnage. The only thing that could have made it better is a halfway decent Season 5. But in a TV series where the writing staff turned over almost completely from one season to the next, that's not something you should bet on.

Doctor Who (9th & 10th Doctors) – Only recently have I taken steps to correct a huge oversight in my sci-fi TV fandom: I had never watched an entire episode of Doctor Who. I was aware, from TV specials about it, fragments of episodes stumbled on now and then, and recreational reading on and off the Internet, that Doctor Who was a show going back to the 1960s and featuring a funny little man with no name traveling through time and space in a blue police box called TARDIS, or maybe Tardis, with a crew of tag-alongs that turned over frequently and was mostly there to say, "What's that, Doctor?" I was also aware that some of his enemies include these giant gliding pepper-pots called Daleks that like to scream "Exterminate!" in a hysterical manner, campy robot-like creatures called Cybermen, and more recently (thanks to their frequent appearance in Facebook memes) weeping angels that freeze into statues when you look at them, but close in quickly when your back is turned or your eyes blink.

I've read a lot of about Doctor Who, actually. I remember a story, a few years ago, about how it's reinvented itself as a different type of show every few years. Self-reinvention seems to be the secret to the show's longevity – weathering all those years between 1963 and 1989, coming back for a one-off TV movie in 1996, starting up again in 2005 and still going today. For the Doctor's sidekicks (I mean, companions) aren't the only things that turn over on a regular basis. The Doctor himself keeps changing, or rather, regenerating into a different guy – still the same Doctor, but (thanks to his alien biology) able to start over in a new body every now and then, if he gets hurt badly enough. You know, the sort of situation where a character would say, "It's still me, I'm just being played by a different actor now."

We're now, I think, on the 13th Doctor in first-run, canonical broadcast. Let me make short work of them before I go on to talk about Doctors IX and X. Though, to be sure, my ignorance will show itself.

Doctor I (1963-66) was played by a guy named William Hartnell as sort of a crusty old professor type. I think I've heard he was starting to lose his ability to memorize his lines by the end of his turn in the role, with some whimsically improvised results. Then there was Patrick Troughton as Doctor II (1966-69), a recorder-playing, Charlie-Chaplinesque hobo type of Doctor, who mindfully set a precedent for only hanging onto the part for three or four years in order not to get into a rut. Doctor III (1970-74) was a certain Jon Pertwee, who had silver hair and made up the technobabble catchphrase "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow." Doctor IV (1974-81) was Tom Baker, the curly dark-haired guy with the incredible scarf who was in the role when U.S. viewers started taking notice of him. Doctor V (1982-84) was Peter Davison, a young blond dude who affected a Panama hat and a cricketer's getup with a celery stalk stuck to his lapel. Doctor VI (1984-86) was Colin Baker, a flamboyant type with blond curls and a multi-colored costume. Doctor VII (1987-89) was Sylvester McCoy, an umbrella-carrying little guy who saw the series canceled from under him. Doctor VIII, for just one TV movie in 1996, was Paul McGann.

And now, for one year only (2005), Doctor IX is Christopher Eccleston, a leather-jacket-wearing adventurer with big ears, a goofy grin and a disarming habit of saying "Fantastic!" like he really means it whenever a weird and dangerous situation arises. His companion, overlapping into Doctor X's era, is Rose Tyler (played by Billie Piper), an (at first) 19-year-old shop girl raised by a single mum in a somewhat low-rent part of London. She develops romantic feelings for Doctor X (2005-10), played by David Tennant, a.k.a. Barty Crouch Jr. from the Harry Potter films. I might as well mention that as far as my dad is concerned, he's the best Doctor of them all. I think he's pretty good, too. After these guys there's Doctor XI (2010-13) played by a younger, frequently fez-wearing Matt Smith, Doctor XII (2014-17) played by an older guy named Peter Capaldi (who actually appears in a guest role during Tennant's tenure) and most recently, the first-ever female Doctor (XIII) played by Jodie Whittaker. So, that's that.

Tennant's Doctor goes through a few companions. After a spell with Rose Tyler, he leaves her in an alternate dimension and moves on to a pretty young medical student named Martha Jones (played by Freema Agyeman, who had also guest-starred as somebody else a few episodes earlier). Then, for a while, it's the bossy, brassy Donna Noble (played by Catherine Tate), who actually accompanied the Doctor on one of his Christmas Specials before he met Martha, and was eventually fated to forget all about him, for her own safety. All three of these companions brought family complications into the TARDIS, which meant additional, recurring cast members such as Rose's mum Jackie and boyfriend Mickey, Martha's parents and siblings and Donna's mum and granddad.

Then there's Capt. Jack Harkness, the flamboyantly omnisexual, time-traveling ne'er-do-well played by John Barrowman, lately of "Arrow," as a recurring character throughout the Eccleston/Tennant years and also, I gather, as a leading role in the spinoff series "Torchwood," which I have yet to see. Also, Elisabeth Sladen reprises her role as the Third & Fourth Doctors' companion Sarah Jane Smith, in appearances that overlap with her own spinoff series ("The Sarah Jane Adventures") which ended in 2011 with the actress' death. Some other Time Lords put in their appearances, including the villainous Master, played by Derek Jacobi and later John Simm, as well as the Lord High President of Gallifrey (the Time Lords' planet), played by Timothy Dalton of 007 fame.

But anyway, I'm ready to commit to my Three Episodes That Made It For Me. I'll give you one for each doctor, though there are only 13 episodes to choose from for Doc 9. Here they are, though: (1) "Boom Town," where a devious creature from the planet Rexicoricofallapatorius (I love saying that) – her full name, Blon Fel Foch Passemer-Day Slitheen (which I also love saying) – dons a human woman's skin and tries to blow up Cardiff. The specific scene that makes it for me is when Blon, while dining out with the Doctor on the pretext of having her last meal before being turned over to her homeworld for capital punishment, begs for her life. As part of her argument, she makes three unsuccessful attempts to poison the Doctor in quick succession, one of the most perfect comic scenes in the series so far as I have seen it.

(2) "The End of the World," in which the Doctor and Rose encounter the last "pure" human being, voiced by Madam Hooch from Harry Potter. Obsessed with being as thin and white as possible, Lady Cassandra has been surgically reduced to a rectangle of skin stretched across a metal-tube frame with two eyes and a mouth, constantly needing to be spritzed with moisturizer by her attendants. Her character, hateful as she is, is an absolute gas.

(3) "Bad Wolf," in which the Doctor, Captain Jack and Rose find themselves in a nightmarish, mechanized version of Reality TV, about which I'll say no more for now. An honorable mention has to go to "Dalek," in which the apparent last Dalek in existence taunts the Doctor with the awful assessment, "You would make an excellent Dalek."

As for Doc 10, my Three Episodes should be so much harder to choose, because there are ever so many more of them and quite a few of them are of the highest quality. However, it really isn't that hard, because three just stand up head and shoulders above all: (1) "Blink," featuring those terrifying Weeping Angels and the Doc's famous speech about "wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff." Surprisingly, it's one of those stories told from the perspective of a non-recurring character who just brushes up against the Doctor in a weird but wonderful way.

(2) "Midnight," an episode in which the Doctor and a group of strangers become trapped together when their ground transport breaks down in the middle of a trip across a planetscape completely hostile to life. An impossible life-form infiltrates the cabin and takes over one of the passengers, setting everyone against each other and especially against the Doctor. It's an hour or so of the most exquisite terrors – paranoia, claustrophobia and xenophobia to start with, topped off by the fear of fear itself.

(3) The two-part episode "Silence in the Library" / "Forest of the Dead," introducing a time-traveling character named River Song (played by Alex Kingston) who seems to know the Doctor intimately from their shared future, but whom he has never met before. It's their last meeting for her and their first for him, apparently. The mystery, strangeness and emotional power of this two-parter makes it a standout all around.

Space does not permit me to list all of the honorable mentions that I would like – for just a couple of examples, there's the 2007 Christmas Special "Voyage of the Damned," in which Kylie Minogue plays a one-off companion who joins the doctor on an adventure on the the Starliner Titanic and comes to an end brimming with pathos; "Gridlock," featuring a worldwide traffic jam set to go on forever; "Smith and Jones," in which Doc 10 and Martha Jones are transported along with an entire hospital to the moon; "The Girl in the Fireplace" (oh, my goodness! That should have been one of my top 3!) featuring Madame Pompadour (played by the beautiful Sophia Myles) in a most unusual and emotionally devastating twist on the "Doctor Does History" type of episode.

The Orville, Season 2 – I already introduced the premise of this show in my review of Season 1 (in the same post as my review of Season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery). So what else is there to say except that it continues to be the closest thing to Star Trek that isn't Star Trek, with a comedic twist based largely on the idea of how lame the 25th Century would be if it was full of 21st Century us.

I'll get right on to Three Episodes That Made It For Me: (1) "The Happy Refrain," in which Dr. Claire Finn and super-intelligent android Isaac explore the possibility of a romantic relationship – a concept that miraculously stays just this side of ridiculous and is actually kind of touching at times. My favorite moment is when Isaac decides he wants to break it off without hurting Claire's feelings, so (on the advice of the ship's designated ladies' man) he tries to provoke her into dumping him. Robot in tighty-whities, nursing a bottle of beer? Hysterical! (2) "Identity," the two-parter in which Isaac's people lure the Orville into becoming part of their bid to conquer all organic life in the universe. This episode has lots going for it, including (at last) some common ground between the Union and their whilom worst enemy, the Krill. But the icing on the cake is the way Dr. Finn's adorable younger son saves the day, simply by making Isaac choose to love him. (3) "All the World Is Birthday Cake," in which Kelly and Bortus are chucked into a concentration camp on a first-contact planet simply because their birth month puts them under an unfavorable horoscope. Again, it's a belly-laugh funny, preposterous concept that somehow comes across as deadly serious, could-have-been-an-episode-of-classic-Trek stuff, without losing touch with the humorous side. Guest cast members include John Rubinstein and Ted Danson.

Honorable Mention could go to practically all of the season's other episodes – which isn't hard, considering that the show is excellently put together and had, after all, only 14 hours of material last year. Among the issues it explored were more reasons Bortus' Moclan race is a strange bedfellow with the Union (there are multiple episodes in which their alliance is tested by an explosive issue, mostly revolving around gender politics), the devastating butterfly-effect results of tampering with the timeline, the captain's loneliness and trouble moving on after his failed marriage with Kelly, porn addiction, cyberstalking, making peace with the enemy, the fine line sometimes between asylum seekers and terrorists, and (for my top Honorable Mention) "Home," the last episode for original security chief Alara, which features the actors who played the ship's doctor on two different Star Trek series (Robert Picardo of "Voyager" as Alara's father and John Billingsley of "Enterprise" as a guy who terrorizes their family). Other Trek alumni turn up this season, too, with former cast members Jonathan Frakes (Will Riker) and Robert Duncan McNeill (Tom Paris) both directing episodes, episodes written by former Trek writers Andre Bormanis, Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky, and a couple appearances by Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi) as the ship's schoolteacher.

Star Trek: Discovery, Season 2 – Again, I'm going to save myself the trouble of re-introducing this entire series by referring you back to the above-linked post in which I reviewed Season 1. Additions to the regular cast this season include comedian Tig Notaro as Jet Reno, an engineer rescued early in the season from a wrecked medical ship, whose dry, sarcastic wit makes her a welcome addition to the cast; Alan van Sprang as Leland, an intelligence operative with Starfleet's Section 31, who develops into the season's main heavy; Anson Mount as original-pilot Capt. Christopher Pike (played in previous appearances by Jeffrey Hunter and Bruce Greenwood); Rebecca Romijn as Pike's "Number One"; Rachael Ancheril as security officer Nhan, an alien of the "needs an implant to puff air from her planet into her nostrils to survive in our atmosphere" persuasion; and Ethan Peck, grandson of Gregory Peck, as a pre-Kirk era version of Spock, who (you may remember) is main character Michael Burnham's foster brother.

Long story short, this season's serialized format sends Pike, Spock and the Discoveries in search of the source of a series of mysterious signals that, they gradually learn, has something to do with a time traveler from the distant future (often described as a "Red Angel"), something to do with a threat to all sentient life in the universe, and something to do with an artificial intelligence that is close to reaching the tipping point to achieve full sentience. Meantime, Michael and Spock have some serious sibling issues to work out; the ship's astromycologist (!) Paul Stamets gets his boyfriend, Dr. Hugh Culber, back from the dead; Michael rekindles her romantic flame with ex-Klingon sleeper agent Ash Tyler, now an agent for Section 31; and everything ties up nicely so that, from Season 3 onward, diehard Trekkers need not worry about this series effing up Original Series continuity. (That hint is big enough to almost be a spoiler. Sorry.)

I liked a lot about this season, which I felt was a distinct improvement on Season 1. It started to feel more like classic Trek. The look of it was increasingly there, too – including a beautiful redesign of the original Enterprise bridge. There was a more episodic feel to it, which I thought was also a plus, given the way Season 1 was so heavily serialized that, with only a couple of exceptions, it became hard to distinguish one episode from another. And so I found it easier to choose the Three Episodes That Made It For Me: (1) "The Sound of Thunder," in which Saru undergoes the Kelpien death process, only to discover that it isn't what his planet's dominant race, the Ba'ul, have sold it as to his subservient people. We get to see his planet; we meet the super-creepy Ba'ul for just a moment; and we see this important character undergo a huge change that will have far-reaching consequences. Already a cool and original guy, Saru becomes even more so in the episodes following this one. Also, might I mention, he has the coolest on-board quarters I've ever seen in a starship-based TV series. (2) "Through the Valley of Shadows," in which Pike visits a Klingon shrine, meets Ash Tyler's love-child by the female Klingon chancellor (a victim of an extreme case of Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome), and confronts his own disturbing future before making a movingly courageous choice. (3) "Project Deadalus," in which a recurring bridge officer named Airiam meets her demise. It's a terrific installment loaded with suspense, pathos, chills and action.

In this instance, I'd also like to mention Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) A fight between Ash Tyler (who is still working out what species he is) and Hugh Culber (who hasn't quite come to terms with his death and resurrection), which ends with an arm-lock. Culber: "I don't know who I am anymore!" Tyler: "Who do you think you're talking to?" (2) The 3D chess game between Michael and Spock, which ends with him upending the board and declaring that he enjoys feeling anger. Peck does a great job depicting Spock in the throes of crisis between emotion and logic, lashing out at his foster-sister with breathtaking hurtfulness. It's delicious. (3) Ensign Tilly's hallucination of a girl she knew in junior high school comes to a head when she's sitting in the captain's chair on the bridge as part of a command-training exercise. Unable to cope any longer with what she thinks is evidence that she's losing her mind, Tilly explodes at the captain, says "I quit" and storms off the bridge in front of all her shocked crewmates. It's a tipping point for a really offbeat, mysterious storyline.

Again, Honorable Mentions are due – including a segment in which the ship's universal translators go on the fritz, Michael's discovery of who's wearing the Red Angel timesuit (after she was set up to believe it was her future self), and practically any scene featuring the Machiavellian character of Bizarro Capt. Philippa Georgiou (actually the deposed emperor of the Terran universe), played with fiendish zest by Michelle Yeoh. I particularly enjoyed her attempt to pick up Stamets and Culber (with whose mirror-universe doppelgangers she had shared some unlawful carnal knowledge). Visiting Talos IV again was also quite the trip.

Ford v. Ferrari

I broke a recent at-the-movies dry spell last night and went to see this movie. It's about how Henry Ford III struck back at a certain Modena, Italy based auto manufacturer you may know of, who turned down an offer to buy his company in an insulting manner. Ford, the CEO of his granddaddy's car manufacturing giant, listened to the advice of a bright young executive named Lee Iacocca and started a racing program in partnership with race car designer Carroll Shelby, who in 1959 had been the first American to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans before having to quit racing due to a heart condition. Shelby designed the Ford GT40 (which would go on to collect all four Le Mans wins by any American car) with input from a rough-around-the-edges British driver named Ken Miles, whose dominating performance in the 1966 Le Mans the movie goes on to dramatize.

The movie makes excellent use of its cast, including Matt Damon as Shelby, Christian Bale as Miles, Jon Bernthal as Iacocca, Josh Lucas as a Ford exec whose face you want to punch, Caitriona Balfe (of TV's Outlander) as Mrs. Miles, and more faces that may be more or less familiar to constant TV and movie watchers. The film depicts Lucas' character as the one who sticks it to Miles in the end, but let's not spoil it more than that.

I thought this movie does a great job depicting the excitement of auto racing – as well as the frustration, the danger, the heartbreak and a whole complex tangle of other feelings. Besides the engineering breakthroughs that put the GT40 over the top, it also shows an intergenerational struggle for the soul of American car manufacturing, personality conflicts between grown men, the struggles and triumphs of a working-class family and the levels of gamesmanship that go way, way up above the race track.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Shelby's staff traps Lucas in the office, giving Shelby an opportunity to take Henry III in a spin in their race car. After experiencing land speeds he has never dreamt of, as well as sharp corners and a screeching halt, Ford bursts into tears. At first you're laughing, because you think he's crying from being scared half to death, and Shelby has kind of put him in his place. Then he says something to the effect, "I wish my grandfather could have experienced this. The exiliration!" And suddenly he's totally on board with Shelby's program (which is, simply put, to have Miles anchor their driving team). (2) Shelby and Miles get into a fist fight on the street, and Mrs. Miles sits down on the stoop to watch with apparent enjoyment. (3) Miles' happiness when he realizes that he has the race clinched – a moment of joy so fragile that you already know it's going to be taken away from him before you understand how the trick is done.

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Rosie Effect

The Rosie Effect
by Graeme Simsion
Recommended Ages: 14+

This sequel to The Rosie Project finds differently-wired Australian geneticist Don Tillman and his grad student wife Rosie living in New York City, where the discovery that she is pregnant throws Don and their relationship into uncharted territory.

His proven strategy of changing himself to become what Rosie needs begins to backfire when an attempt to study children in their natural habitat gets Don arrested at a school playground on suspicion of being a pedophile. Hoping to reduce stress in Rosie's life, he tries to keep this a secret from her – resulting in a series of deceptions that goes wildly out of control. Meanwhile, he hooks onto a research project by and about lesbian mothers, commandeers a parenting class and undergoes group and couples therapy (with the wife of a friend impersonating Rosie), all just to sort out whether he can be the kind of father Rosie expects for their child.

Those who have followed this series from the start have been rooting for Don and Rosie from the minute he called her (inside his own head) the most beautiful woman in the world. His difficulty communicating what he feels will ensure that every step of their journey as a couple is fraught with errors and emotional pitfalls. But now that there's a child on the way, the obstacles to their happiness together seem increasingly insurmountable.

Meanwhile, Don intervenes in the father-son affairs of his rock-star landlord, helps one of his best friends save his business, tries to help another friend put his broken family back together, and lets his mouth get him in trouble in more than one situation. The plot complications and misunderstandings pile on deeper and deeper until Don's pursuit of the woman he already married reaches the tipping point between heartbreak and hilarity.

Audio-book reader Dan O’Grady’s voice acting has just the right comic touch, enhanced by a down-under accent and a firm but not unkind grasp of the main character. The series continues in The Rosie Result.

The Odds of Getting Even

The Odds of Getting Even
by Sheila Turnage
Recommended Ages: 11+

In the third of (so far) four Mo and Dale Mysteries, the Desperado Detectives of Tupelo Landing, North Carolina pick up a third partner – a charming boy named Harm, introduced in The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing as a possible rival to Miss Moses "Mo" LoBeau as the smartest kid the sixth grade class. He sort of becomes a rival in another way, as Mo feels the title of Dale's best friend slipping in Harm's direction – and at one point, the boys even vote her out as the detective in charge of their current investigation. But Mo kind of has it coming, assuming that Dale's daddy Macon is whodunit just because all the evidence points that way – and doubting the feeling in Dale's heart that tells him that Macon is not guilty.

What is Macon guilty or not guilty of? I mean, the guy escapes from jail in the middle of his trial for kidnapping Mo's guardians, part of a criminal conspiracy two books ago. Now there are clues that point toward Macon stealing the collection plate from the town's Baptist church, starting a fire that threatens his older son Lavender's life, breaking into the Johnson family's house and more sinister doings. Everyone thinks Macon has come back to town, perhaps threatening some kind of revenge against his estranged son, and is up to no good.

Poor Dale, who believes in his dad's innocence in spite of everything, would just like a reason to know Macon loves him – or that his friends trust him. Meantime, everyone in town seems to be turning against him and his family. Dale's plight and this rocky patch in his friendship with Mo are the stuff of a surprisingly moving, human story threaded among the humorous pranks, mysteries and manners of a small, southern U.S. town. Adding color to the adventure are a suspicious lady reporter from the big city, the pregnancy of a family dog, dirty tricks on the racetrack and the meanest old lady on the eastern seaboard. It's a fun, worthwhile return to the familiar world of Mo and Dale.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Three Times Lucky

Three Times Lucky
by Sheila Turnage
Recommended Ages: 11+

Moses LoBeau, 11, is a precocious young lady who has been raised, since the day she was born, by the folks who found her riding a piece of floating wreckage in the wake of a flood. For a father figure, she has the Colonel – an erect, nameless man who slings hash at the town's diner and calls Mo "soldier." For a mother, she has Miss Lana – a woman who impersonates actresses of bygone decades and fancies herself on a first-name basis with Bill (Shakespeare) – You know, the guy who said, more or less, "All the world's a stage, sugar, so hop on up there." Her grandma figure is the richest lady in town. And her knight in shining armor is a 19-year-old racecar driver named Lavender, who always kids with her when she says she's going to marry him someday – "You? You're a baby!"

When a police detective rolls into town, Lavender's little brother and Mo's best friend, Dale Earnhart Johnson III, worries that he's going to be arrested for borrowing (without permission) the town miser's fishing boat. Going to jail would be like going to a reunion of the male side of his family, Lavender excepted. Just imagine how scared Dale feels when the old guy turns up dead – murdered. Dale and Mo get ahead of Detective Joe Starr's investigation by starting their own, along with the Desperado Detective Agency. There sure are some suspicious characters in town, any of whom could have done the crime. Unfortunately, one of them is Dale's daddy.

In the little pond of Tupelo Landing, North Carolina, Mo is a pretty big fish – albeit in a small package. She has an outrageous mouth on her, and a commanding attitude, and when it comes to sleuthing, she's actually quite good. There is no shortage of quirky personalities around her, though, from the preacher's kid who can't stop talking about the weather, to the little girl who hasn't let age and a lack of a law degree get between her and a career as a lawyer. There's also a kid who likes doing accounting stuff (and who's sweet on Dale), a group of garden club ladies whose gossip embodies the shifting winds of public opinion, and a snotty rich girl affectionately known as Attila Celeste. Some of the guests in town are pretty weird, too – including that cop, Joe Starr, who soon begins to realize that he's met his equal in young Miss Mo.

This hilarious, heart-warming mystery of manners in small-town southern USA was a runner-up for the Newbery Medal. Its (so far) three sequels include The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, The Odds of Getting Even and The Law of Finders Keepers. Sheila Turnage is also the author of a children's book Trout the Magnificent and a couple of non-fiction travel books about the Southeastern U.S.

Holy Ghost

Holy Ghost
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

A womanizing wunderkind, a one-legged mayor who campaigned on a promise to do his best, and a shop girl cook up a scheme to bring crowds of the faithful to their small Minnesota town – using high tech to fake a few appearances by the Virgin Mary. For a while, this brings prosperity to the struggling little burg. Then another kind of opportunist takes aim – with a sniper rifle – and Virgil Flowers of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is on the case.

Early in the case, there are some promising suspects – but they come to a bad end, while the shootings go on. It is soon apparent that whoever's doing it has blended into the community so well that his next-door neighbor wouldn't suspect him. A couple of times, Virgil is actually chasing the guy but somehow loses him in streets where the killer evidently knows how to disappear. How can you even be sure he isn't the guy standing on the next stoop, waving and yelling, "He went that way!" It's the kind of Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd scenario that would be funny if people weren't dying.

This is the 11th of currently 12 Virgil Flowers novels by the author of the Lucas Davenport/Prey series, which is heading into its 30th book. That –—ing Flowers (as people generally call him, behind his back) is up to his usual brilliant detecting, but the danger for him and those close to him is real. He takes an arrow(!) in this outing, and half of the golf-hooligan duo of Shrake and Jenkins almost catches his death. A side helping of domestic violence keeps the plot twists nice and violent. But it's the final stalk of the bad guy – or girl – or both – that puts this adventure over the bar in suspenseful, psychologically twisted deviousness.

Book 12 in this series is titled Bloody Genius. Sandford's next novel, due for release April 21, 2020, is the Lucas Davenport novel Masked Prey.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing
by Sheila Turnage
Recommended Ages: 11+

The tiny town of Tupelo Landing, North Carolina, isn't too tiny to have its own detective agency. The Desperado Detective Agency, comprising a mouthy sixth-grader named Mo (short for Moses) and her best friend Dale (named after a race car driver), has already solved a murder and now undertakes the ghost-busting of an old inn. The mystery encompasses a girl's death way back when Mo's Grandmother Miss Lacy was a girl herself, stirring up decades worth of guilty consciences, undeclared love, family conflict and a bona fide restless spirit.

Found family seems to be the norm in Mo's small corner of the world. Mo, short for Moses, was found on the day of her birth floating on a makeshift raft in a flash flood. Since then, she has lived with an eccentric couple in the living quarters at the back of the town diner – a man everyone calls the Colonel, because nobody including himself knows his name, and a drama queen named Miss Lana who dresses up as a different movie starlet every day of the week. She writes letters to her "upstream mother" and puts them in bottles for friends and neighbors to toss off bridges when they travel out of town. She tries her teacher's patience to the limit (which is a considerable distance, since she's also a star pupil). She crushes on Dale's older brother Lavender, a real race car driver, and interferes in everybody else's business with a tactlessness that would be horrifying if it wasn't so darned funny.

There's also another interesting boy at school, whose grandfather is the curmudgeonly town moonshiner, and whose older brother is part of a group of ne'er-do-wells who are trying to run Miss Lana and Grandmother Miss Lacey out of the haunted inn they impulse-bought at an estate sale. What these conspirators are after and how far they will go to get it is a matter for the police to work out – or for Dale and Mo, if they get there first.

It's a spooky, funny mystery brimming with quirky characters, small-town charm, heart-touching moments of friendship and above all, the exuberant personality of Mo. I would recommend it to readers of all ages who are up for a little kid-friendly romance and a generous serving of laughs.

This is the second of four "Mo & Dale Mysteries." The series started with the Newbery Honor Book Three Times Lucky and continues in The Odds of Getting Even and The Law of Finders Keepers. Sheila Turnage is also the author of a chapter book titled Trout the magnificent and is credited with two nonfiction titles, Compass Guide to North Carolina and Haunted Inns of the Southeast.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Tied in a Bow

Bowfishing. With a bow. From a bow.
I take credit, or blame as the case may be, for the following limerick: "Our tongue's spelling rules beget laughter, But weeping will follow soon aughter. Correctly to draught Is a treacherous craught, To which children are led as to slaughter."

I know, there's something not quite right about that ditty. Maybe it's the spelling errors, meant to point up the inconsistencies in the way similar sounds are spelled in different words. Maybe it's the broken rhyme, resulting from the different ways similar spellings are pronounced. But it's all to the point -- a point that twists in the wounded wits of everyone who tries to read or write in English.

It's hardly news that the pronunciation of "ough" is a tough thought to think through. I remember seeing an "I Love Lucy" rerun in which Desi vented his frustration with that very thing. But I don't think you even need to deal with silent g's or gee-aitches that stand for effs to realize the full horror of the reality we live in every day.

Take, dear reader, the simple three-letter combination "bow." What word is that? Can you tell if it's the "bow" that rhymes with "row," as in "The girl with the bow sits down to row"? Or is it the "bow" that rhymes with "row," as in "The boy takes a bow after winning the row"? (You almost have to be British to get that one.)

Also, notice that even if you do have the pronunciations straight, you still don't know whether to visualize the girl in the first example as wearing a bit of ribbon tied in a bow, or as carrying an archery weapon. Nor can the boy in the second example be relied on as bending at the waist, perhaps with a gracefully extended leg, when he could conceivably be making off with the front end of a boat.

It's the kind of thing that, whether you're reading aloud or just listening to the words in your mind's ear, makes you go back and read a sentence again. And maybe a third time, just to be sure.

But now and again, even the context doesn't help that much. You need to actually hear someone knowledgeably say certain terms to be sure you've got the right pronunciation, because they don't occur in everyday speech outside of certain lines of work.

A sailor, for example, could tell you that the "bow" in the term "bow wave" is the one that rhymes with "how," "now" and "cow," presumably because it's bow of the vessel that produces the wave as it cuts through water, and not because it's shaped like the bow that the girl in the first example must have set down before picking up the oars.

However, the "bow" in "bow window" rhymes with "low," "crow," and "glow," apparently because that one *is* shaped like the girl's bow, and I'm not talking about the one in her hair as she lounges on the window seat. Perhaps the clue to this is that any bow window on a seafaring vessel would most certainly be at the stern, not the bow.

Now, riddle me this: How are we supposed to guess that the "bow" in the word "bowsprit" rhymes with "grow," "flow" and "show"? I mean, a bowsprit is a spar extending from the bow of a sailing vessel.

Another nautical word incorporating "bow" is "bowline," which Merriam-Webster defines as "1: a rope used to keep the weather edge of a square sail taut forward; 2: a knot used to form a loop that neither slips nor jams." If you assume from the "forward" bit that it's pronounced "bow line," as in "a line to the bow of the ship," you're out in your reckoning, sailor! It's "boh-lən" with a schwa in the second syllable. M-W allows "line" with a long i as a secondary pronunciation, but I gather that's an example of over-pronunciation.

There's apparently room for disagreement about how to pronounce the words "bowdlerize" and "bowdlerization." Merriam-Webster allows the "ow" to be pronounced either as "oh" or "au." Never mind the fact that the word originated with Thomas Bowdler's 1818 expurgated edition of Shakespeare's plays, and that (according to Wikipedia) the guy's name was pronounced with the "au" option.

There's a college in Maine called Bowdoin. If you've never been there, you're probably making up your own unique pronunciation in your head. Does the first syllable have an "oh" or an "au"? That part's easy: it's "oh." But then there's an additional concern: Does the second syllable end in "oyn" or a nasalized "wa," like a French word? Answer: Neither. It's just a schwa with a good, old fashioned n at the end. Boh-dən, the same vowels as in "bowline."

What about that 19th century mathematician who revolutionized celestial navigation and pioneered the noble calling of insurance actuary? Nathaniel Bowditch, right? Well, that guy's "bow" rhymes with "scow," "brow" and "wow." As in, if you haven't kept up with your Bowditch (the navigational guide he published, an updated version of which is still in print and is informally named after him), why, you might just put your bow into a ditch.

Every boy's dream, by the "Dangerous Book for Boys" value for the term "boy," is to possess a bowie knife someday. But how is said boy supposed to pronounce the item when the time comes to boast about it? Well, that depends. Apparently it could go either of two ways: "oh" as in "mow" or "oo" as in "boo." Wait, what? That's a third possible prounciation of the letter combination "bow!" And it's maybe the right one, since it's more likely that the bowie knife was named after Jim Bowie (late of the Alamo) than David Bowie (late of The Man Who Fell to Earth).

"Bow" obviously isn't the only "ow" word with these issues. We've already seen that "row" could go either way, as could "sow" - rhymes with "cow" if it's a female pig, and with "sew" if it means to plant seeds. I'm sure there are other "-ow" words, whether of one syllable or more, that may surprise you as to how they are officially pronounced - such as dhow or trow (both "oh"). But I won't go into them now. Instead, you can look them up either here, a sovereign site for discovering Scrabble words, or some other online dictionary.

Perhaps another time we can laugh about some of the -augh and -ough words that make life in the English-speaking world so rough. There are definitely examples I can name off the top of my head that I wouldn't have known how to pronounce if I hadn't looked them up - for example, lough (lock or loch), sough (sow, as in female pig) and slough (which can be either sluff or slau or sloo). Lord, have mercy on us.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Candymakers and the Great Chocolate Chase

The Candymakers and the Great Chocolate Chase
by Wendy Mass
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the sequel to The Candymakers, four friends from diverse backgrounds, chaperoned by a teenage spy, go on a road trip to promote the musical candy bar they invented together in Book 1. Secretly, they are really searching for the secret ingredient without which their contest-winning recipe will be disqualified. But along the way, they find a lot more than that. They find, for example, lost family members, a barking cat, lots of shooting stars and a magical place that needs protection by just such a group of friends as they have become.

After briefly sampling the "same events told from four different points of view" effect that made up the best part of the original book, the sequel continues from the foursome's combined point of view. In addition to the wonderful world of candy, it further explores one kid's brilliant musical mind, another kid's fascination with maps, the talents and gadgets of two teenage spies, the strain of competition and the heartwarming and heartbreaking ties of family and friendship.

All in all, I thought it was a pretty good book, though it didn't hold together as tightly as the first one. There seemed to be room at the end for a third installment, and I'd definitely read it. That says something, I think, about the quality of the characters and relationships developed in this book, earning the reader's trust and affection. Also, it's funny, quirky, magical, and full of delicious (on the mind's palate) candies and treats.

Wendy Mass is also the author of four "Twice Upon a Time" books, reimagining fairy tales and folklore; five "Willow Falls" books, starting with 11 Birthdays; six "Space Taxi" books co-authored with Michael Brawer, including one titled B.U.R.P. Strikes Back; four "Time Jumpers" books, including Dodging Dinosaurs; and a few other books. I think some characters from at least one of them, A Mango-shaped Space, find their way into this book.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Deadweather and Sunrise

Deadweather and Sunrise
by Geoff Rodkey
Recommended Ages: 12+

Egbert is the youngest child of an ugly fruit farmer named Hock Masterson. I mean he farms ugly fruit, not that the farmer is ugly – though he isn't very nice to his thirdborn child. Also, his rough and tough older siblings, incongruously named Adonis and Venus, hate his guts and treat him accordingly. Here's a hint as to why this may be: on Egg's 13th birthday, which also happens to be the 13th anniversary (need I say more?) they all travel from the sweltering, remote, pirate-infested island of Deadweather where they have lived all Egg's life to the nearby, much richer isle of Sunrise. Hock seems to have made a discovery, about which he feels it necessary to consult a lawyer. Unfortunately, the lawyer betrays him, and the richest and powerfulest man on the island arranges a ridiculous hot air balloon accident to wipe out the whole family, which only Egg survives. Then the rich guy, let's call him Roger Pembroke, tries to adopt Egg, but that doesn't work either. Also, Egg and Pembroke's beautiful daughter fall in love with each other. So, apparently seeing no other solution to his problems, Pembroke orders one of his stooges to throw Egg off a cliff. But that doesn't work either.

Egg, naturally, goes on the run. I mean, people are trying to kill him, right? Also, he's suspected of murder, because the aforementioned stooge plunged off the cliff instead of him. But things could get worse. For example, Egg gets caught stowing away on a luxury liner (tourism has just been invented in his world). The cruise director makes him up to look like a pirate and sentences him to flogging and marooning, just to keep the passengers entertained. Then pirates attack and take over the cruise ship. Suspecting Egg of belonging a pirate, they pit him in fight to the death against a scrawny, feral, one-handed kid named Guts, who could be a great friend if he weren't completely insane. Then the ship blows up and Egg and Guts get marooned after all. Then...

Look. Just trust me. It could get worse, and it does. Egg has many adventures to survive before he can even think about taking back his family's plantation, claiming the mysterious treasure buried on it and reuniting with the lovely but strong-willed Millicent. And then, he just has to survive an assault by a regiment of soldiers, led by Millicent's father, with only the dubious loyalty of a group of maimed and crippled pirates in his favor. Everyone tells him his only chance of survival is killing Roger Pembroke, but if he does that, he'll lose Millicent. It's quite a dilemma for a 13-year-old kid whose only advantages over his dead siblings, besides not being dead so far, is that he has read 137 books and has an admirable character, including a longstanding familiarity with adversity.

This book is the first installment of the Chronicles of Egg, which continue in New Lands and Blue Sea Burning. It's a good, solid book that opens up a remarkable fantasy world, where the map is different but a lot of other things are very much the same as an 18th- or 19th-century version of our world. It provides swashbuckling, cliffhanging entertainment with a generous splash of humor and a pinch of youthful romance. Mixed together, it's like an athletic workout that you can enjoy without leaving your reading nest. Geoff Rodkey, whose bio blurb claims that someone briefly wanted to kill him when he was a teenager, is also the author of four Tapper Twins books and the novels Stuck in the Stone Age and We're Not from Here.

Monday, October 21, 2019

My Interview with Peter de Jonge

Having read several well-written interview pieces in GQ, I would like to say I met novelist and journalist Peter de Jonge at a rooftop bar in Manhattan. I would like to describe the way he sips his beer (dropping the name of a trendy brew), the fit of his crisply tailored trousers and the fashionably random fall of hair over his forehead. But actually, I have no idea what he was wearing when I interviewed him, what his hairstyle was or what he was drinking at the time.

We didn’t meet at a rooftop bar. Next best thing: We “met,” in the social media sense of the word, via messages on Goodreads, where he spotted my review of his second solo novel, Buried on Avenue B, then graciously waited until I had gone back and read its predecessor, Shadows Still Remain. After accepting my honest criticism of his work, he even more graciously let me pelt him with interview questions via a series of emails.

So, for full disclosure, we didn’t have a face-to-face, back-and-forth conversation. After an exchange of Goodreads messages, I emailed him some questions and he emailed me some answers. Nevertheless, I think our exchange opens up an interesting vista on the life of a writer. Any impression, in the story that follows, that we sat down and chatted over cocktails is unintentional, and probably an artifact of my fantasy of doing what Peter de Jonge does.

De Jonge is the author of two “Darlene O’Hara” novels, featuring a hard-living New York City cop who makes Detective First Grade by solving a high-profile murder, and who specializes in doggedly pursuing the truth, going to the mat for the most vulnerable victims, and pushing back against authority including her own department’s chain of command. His other writing credits include articles in Manhattan Inc., Harper’s Bazaar, National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine, as well as four novels in which his author credit appears after that of James Patterson: Miracle at Augusta, Beach Road, The Beach House and Miracle on the 17th Green.

I gave Peter the option of skipping over questions he considered boring or impertinent; he took that option in the question I asked him about working with James Patterson. Enquiring minds will have to learn to live with disappointment.

The first I heard from Peter, he had just spotted my review of Buried on Goodreads, in which I quoted a paragraph that I found delightful. “I really appreciate your thoughtful reading of my novel and your enthusiasm for that opening paragraph of the Florida section,” he wrote in the kind of flattery of my critical perceptiveness that really draws me out. “That kind of reaction means a lot,” he said. “The Florida section was the first part of the book I handed in, and because it was late it was crucial that it make a good impression immediately.”

Later, Peter admitted that he probably spent too much time on that paragraph, “but I probably would have done it anyway because, like a lot of writers (I’m guessing here; I have not conducted a survey), I tend to spend a lot more time polishing something that is already OK than addressing the parts that are bad.”

In a later DM, he said, “I think your criticism of the novel is valid and it's something I'm keeping in mind with the book I'm working on now, which has elements of a crime novel.”

That must be a reference to the bit of my review in which I noted that a sense of closure eludes the sleuth in Buried, perhaps due to a lack of the stereotyped crime-thriller ending in which the good guy (or gal) looks the true face of evil in the eye – followed by a cathartic fit of violence. If I was a kiss-ass, I would hasten to say I meant that as a compliment. But with left-handed compliments like that, who needs criticism?

“I don't really think of myself as a crime novelist,” Peter explained, “and have a tendency to shy away from the most dependable satisfactions of the genre. Shadows Still Remain probably does a better job in that regard.”

I asked him to unpack this a bit. In reply, he confessed one of the challenges of his career: an inability to fully embrace whatever he is doing. “In my perverse way of looking at things,” he said, “I’m not so much a professional writer as someone who has proven quite a few times that I’m capable of being one. I’m just trying to make a point that this is something I can do, and having done it, I don’t see a lot of advantage of doing it again and again; and if you’re writing crime novels, publishers don’t have much enthusiasm unless you’re pounding out one a year.”

In college, De Jonge majored in English, writing some short stories for his senior thesis – “none of which prepared me in the slightest way for gainful employment,” he said. He graduated from Princeton University in 1977.

The first piece of writing he sold was a feature on a dart champion who owned a bar in Trenton, N.J. “I just went to his bar and interviewed him and then sold the story,” Peter recalled. “Getting your first writing job can be excruciatingly hard, but you don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to go and write a story, and if nothing else, it can help you get that first job.”

He worked a couple of years for a chain of Connecticut weeklies, then a year with the Associated Press, before quitting to look for a job as an advertising copywriter. “The idea,” he said, “was to find a relatively lucrative, cushy job that would enable me to write on the side, and that’s what I did.”

A year or two later, his profile of young, driven director’s rep Stavros Merjos got published in Manhattan Inc. “I spent several months on it and sent it in unsolicited and caused a minor sensation,” he said. “That led to an assignment for The New York Times Magazine and others.”

Any way of writing for a living, he said, is helpful for a novelist – “doing the best you can in a finite amount of time and sending it off.” He noted that magazine stories are more challenging in some ways because, “in addition to being surprising and entertaining and hopefully having something to say, they have to be true – or at least not clearly wrong.”

According to his online biography, de Jonge was working as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson when Patterson, then an executive at the firm who was just establishing himself as a bestselling author, noticed his articles in the NYTM and NatGeo. “Instead of firing Peter for slacking on the job, he hired Peter to be the first of his many co-authors on the golf novel Miracle on the 17th Green,” the bio went on. After a few more collaborations, he struck out on his own.

I asked Peter whether he parks fiction and journalism in different parts of his headspace. “I don’t make a big distinction between my magazine writing and the fiction,” he said. “In both cases, my goals, pretentious as it sounds, were literary. Given a choice of paucities, I’ve always been more interested in a little glory than a little money. What gets more confusing, he added, is when the choice is between a lot of money and very little glory.”

Also, one of his motives for writing two crime novels was the hope that if they were a hit, there would be interest in a collection of his magazine work.

The biggest crossover between fiction and feature writing is the importance of a strong lead. “I have probably given up on reading more books on the first page than I’ve read – many of them highly praised – but then again, I’m kind of a hater,” he said.

By choosing crime fiction for his first solo flight as a novelist, De Jonge was able to approach the project like a reporter. “Before I had any idea of the story,” he said, “I spent several months hanging out and riding around with detectives in the 7th Precinct in lower Manhattan.”

He happened to know someone who was married to a former detective from that precinct, who offered to take Peter in and make introductions. In the process, De Jonge discovered an amusing fact: “There is such an entrenched fictional crime industry that all of these detectives had already spent time with a writer at one point or another. It was kind of embarrassing, and may be one of the reasons I don’t want to think of myself as a crime novelist.”

The starting point for the character development of Darlene O’Hara was an actual NYPD homicide detective. “One thing I was doing, when I was researching the book and hanging out with detectives, was looking for a hero or heroine,” said de Jonge, “and I eventually stumbled upon her.”

By her, he means NYPD Homicide Detective Donna Torres, according to that online bio. “Like Darlene, she had a son when she was a teenager and still managed to end her career as a first-grade homicide detective,” Peter explained. “That indicated just how smart and ambitious she was, while also revealing latent self-destructive tendencies, and I worked with both of those elements.”

Darlene’s colorful, rough-and-tumble background and her issues with authority at times make her a great sleuth, but they come at a cost. Peter commented, “Deep down, Darlene O’Hara knows that she is lucky as hell to have stumbled into one of the few vocations in America where the lack of a college education is not a deal breaker. Darlene is an extremely smart and hardworking detective, and she earned her spot among her overwhelmingly male colleagues. On the other hand, being white and Irish didn’t hurt, and like a lot of New York cops, she would not be quick to concede that point.”

As readers get to know Darlene during the two books, de Jonge said, her distinctive voice emerges naturally from conversations with other characters. “Writing dialogue can almost be fun,” he said, “because it really isn’t planned. One character says something, another responds; and unlike the rest of the book, I have no idea where it might lead.”

I asked Peter about his living situation as compared to Darlene. I’ll admit, it’s a weird question to put to a male author regarding a female character, but he answered it anyway. “I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but when I came to New York after college, I lived in the East Village and it is still the neighborhood I am most attached to, and where I hang out on the rare occasions that I hang out. Unlike Darlene, I’m not much of a drinker, but I’ve been to all the bars she frequents and, for research purposes, I went to Milano’s one morning when it opened.”

Darlene has one adult son. Peter has two. “Like Darlene,” he said, “I have experienced the carefree pleasure of watching them sleep.”

Both crime novels have autobiographical touches, he admitted. “To a large degree, Darlene has been saddled with my personality and issues, etc. My current project is [more] overtly autobiographical.”

He didn’t want to say more than this about the book he’s working on now, except that readers should be able to look for it “hopefully quite soon.” As of now, he said, “there are no O’Hara stories in the pipeline,” but if “there was a groundswell of demand, I would probably write another. Once you have the characters, it can go on indefinitely, and by now the characters are very real to me and hopefully to readers.”

Darlene’s cop partner in the first book, who also helps her in the second, is a guy named Krekorian who, at least on Fantasticfiction.com, shares billing with her in the title of the “O’Hara & Krekorian” series. De Jonge said this is a misnomer, as Krekorian is a secondary character. “Nevertheless,” he added, “I have a great deal of fondness for Krekorian, who is not based on a cop, but an Armenian American friend who died in a plane crash.”

Peter said writing a crime novel is about managing the sequence of revelations. “The intelligent path, which I followed in the first book, is to start at the end and work backwards,” he said. “The much harder road, which I went down in the second, is to come up with an intriguing start and then try to figure out someplace for it to go.” As a result, he considers Shadows “a cleaner, tighter piece of entertainment” but believes that Buried is “hopefully … richer.”

“Writing is hard for me,” he said. “But it’s also a source of pride and satisfaction. From an early age, this is what I’ve wanted to do, and I’m very grateful that I’ve been lucky enough to do it and make my living at it.

“Some of that is really due to luck,” he added in what I would like to describe as a moment of O’Hara-like moodiness. But alas, the distance across the imaginary cocktail table between us was too wide for me to read his face.

PHOTO CREDIT: Peter de Jonge, a selfie shot while on assignment in Moscow(!)