Monday, July 29, 2019

Marcelo in the Real World

Marcelo in the Real World
by Francisco X. Stork
Recommended Ages: 13+

Marcelo Sandoval, age 17, has a condition that could be described as similar to a high-functioning form of autism. He wants to spend his senior year at a special school where disabled children feel safe, and where no one will judge him for his special interests – including the study of holy texts, the music that plays in his head and caring for the school's ponies. But Marcelo's father is a high-powered patent attorney who thinks his son is more likely to succeed in life if he spends the next year at a public high school. As a sort of bet between them, Arturo talks Marcelo into spending the summer working at his Boston law firm. If he succeeds in his assignment, he can go back to his beloved Patterson. If he doesn't, it's gen pop for Marcelo.

Ironically, Marcelo kind of proves that his father is right. But he goes about it in a way that could irreversibly change their relationship. Meantime, he explores friendship with a male law clerk who probably isn't worthy of the honor, and romance with an office girl who at first resents having to work with him. He learns a lot about office politics, legal ethics and how to look after himself. He also feels his conscience pierced by a photograph of a girl disfigured by a product made by one of the firm's clients. His journey to figure out what is the right thing to do tests his faith in everything from dear old dad to God himself.

Marcelo is a paradoxically powerful and vulnerable character whose voice elicits affection and protective feelings in the reader's heart. Although his current dilemmas seem to resolve themselves rather quickly – it's not a very long book, at all – the journey he takes is significant, and in a few encounters with each of a handful of important supporting characters, he makes huge strides as an self-contained individual. His unique way of looking at things may also make an all-too-familiar world, indoors and out, really interesting to look at in the mind's eye. Themes of family ties, sexual attraction, love, honor and faith also come into it, but it's the magnetism between the characters – both attracting and repelling – that give this book its unique energy.

This review is based on listening to the audiobook read by Lincoln Hoppe. Mexican-born author Francisco Stork, who apparently based a character in this book on himself (try to guess which), is also the author of Disappeared and its upcoming sequel Illegal, as well as The Way of the Jaguar, Behind the Eyes, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, Irises and The Memory of Light.

Buried on Avenue B

Buried on Avenue B
by Peter de Jonge
Recommended Ages: 14+

Ever since I ran across it, I've been reading aloud the first paragraph of a major structural division in this book to anyone who will listen. It goes like this:
Instead of a shot from a starter's pistol, there's the bing made by a microwave when the soup is warm. O'Hara pushes from her seat in the second-to-last row and with two hundred compressed, vaguely nauseated travelers plods toward the exit. She presses through the malodorous air of coach and the still-warm party debris of business and does that little perp walk past the chipper smiles of the flight crew. When she steps into the rubber hose that connects the plane to the terminal, the crappy seal offers the first inkling of Florida heat.
Isn't that just delicious? I thought so the moment I clapped eyes on it, and I still think so. That's top quality writing, there. It's observant, sensuous, funny, and sizzling with personality. It also cleverly achieves the effect of a picture gradually coming into focus, leading you to understand what the scene is about without hitting you right in the face with it.

Good writing, rich characterization, crisp dialogue and a perplexing mystery are all strong points of a nevertheless imperfect novel – what novel isn't imperfect, though? It starts when a home health care aide tips O'Hara that her client, a career criminal with a touch of dementia, hints that he buried the body of his sometime partner in a public garden off Avenue B. O'Hara manipulates her captain into letting her dig up the body, expecting it to be an easy case to close for a division known throughout the department as Homicide Soft. But the bones that turn up are those of a 9-year-old boy, buried only a couple months ago. Finding out what happened to Johnny Doe becomes an unhealthy obsession for Darlene, leading her to explore the subculture of skateboard punks, high culture kiddie porn, and a network of Gypsy grifters reaching to the Gulf shore of Florida and back. Each twist along the way proves darker, grimmer and grislier.

If I have anything against this book, it is a sense of closure denied by the fact that each time O'Hara seems to be about to catch up to a person of interest in the case, somebody else gets them first. The true face of evil seems always just around the corner but never meets her eye to eye. One nursed on a steady diet of genre thrillers might notice a certain nutrient missing – that direct, violent confrontation between the protagonist and her quarry. But that doesn't make the last twist any less chilling or soften the case's effect on O'Hara's professional and personal wellbeing. The subplots, including O'Hara's enthusiasm for her college-age son's music career, the sex appeal of an elderly man who used to be a boxing champion, and an alliance with a lesbian cop from Sarasota, all flesh out the speaking image of a remarkable and memorable character who could, if she keeps working at it, become a great detective.

This is the second book of the O'Hara & Kerkorian series, featuring a pair of New York Police Department homicide detectives who, by the time this story takes place, are only former partners. Darlene O'Hara - a middle-aged, single mother who drinks too much - is really the central character. I haven't read their first adventure yet; its title is Shadows Still Remain, and it's currently De Jonge's only other novel on which he doesn't share author credit with James Patterson. Their joint titles include the inspirational golf trilogy Miracle on the 17th Green, Miracle at Augusta and Miracle at St. Andrews and the mystery-thrillers The Beach House and Beach Road.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Die Twice

Die Twice
by Andrew Grant
Recommended Ages: 14+

Fresh off his self-therapeutic break (following the events of Even) to avenge the death of a colleague for whom he had unprofessional feelings, British Navy intelligence agent David Trevellyan is reassigned to help the Chicago consulate catch the rogue operative who recently traded bullets with Trevellyan's new handler. Tony McIntyre has gotten mixed up with black market arms deals, and now he has brought a canister of something hideous to the Windy City, with the apparent intention of selling it to at least one side in a small African nation's next civil war. Every time Trevellyan thinks he has McIntyre where he wants them, however, somebody either hits him over the head, or blows something up nearby, or crashes a car into his handler's vehicle, etc.

My father and I both enjoyed reading early chapters of this book together, aloud, during a short road trip. By the end of that excerpt, however, I was already starting to detect something fishy. I didn't know if it was a flaw in Andrew Grant's pacing as a writer of dialogue, or whether I should be suspicious that Trevellyan was being had. I am happy to report that those suspicions were on target, and that it led (if possible) to an even tougher, tighter, brusquely violent conclusion than the previous book. In the middle, there were loads of gripping action, suitably complex spy-vs.-spy intrigue, some sky-scraping suspense and, of course, opportunities to appreciate the special skills of a guy whose entire upbringing (as he feels free to tell us, little by little, throughout the book) make him really well suited to this kind of work.

Trevellyan is pretty much Jack Reacher with a British accent, albeit a little chattier and more given to making witty quips. He isn't a big fan of traitors to the service, either. No surprise, then, that Lee Child of Jack Reacher fame is Andrew Grant's older brother, as I may have mentioned once before. What I might not have noted is that Grant's wife is also an author – Tasha Alexander, whose "Lady Emily" mysteries run to 16 books. Hmm. I may never get out of this "reading books by authors who are related to other authors" business. Anyway, for more about Trevellyan, you'll have to settle for the third and (since 2012) latest book, More Harm Than Good. But Grant is also the author of at least six other novels, including two other series and the standalone thriller Run.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – This is the first Quentin Tarantino flick I have seen in quite a long time, because I have come to think of Q.T. as being rather full of it. But I decided to watch it for pretty much the same reason I saw Kevin Costner's The Postman back in 1999 – I was too drunk to drive home and the movie was starting at a convenient time and place to allow me to dry out. Full disclosure, I'd had only one (large) margarita, but it hit me hard and I didn't trust myself not to get a DUI. All right? Can we move on? Yes? Good.

So, I was surprisingly OK with this flick, in spite of it being full of it in trademark Quentin Tarantino style. For example, I needn't have seen Inglourious Basterds to recognize one scene, flashing back to highlights of fictional film-and-TV star Rick Dalton's career, as a take-off of that movie. Dalton (played by Leonardo di Caprio, whose recent career I have avoided following as much as the director's) is depicted starring in an episode of Lancer (one scene of which was Luke Perry's last film role), fantasizing about himself playing Steve McQueen's role in The Great Escape and starting to cry every time he thought about the decline of his career until, at one point, his tears made the audience laugh. In the words of Brad Pitt'z character (Dalton's sometime stunt double, who has gradually taken on the role of a body servant), "Don't cry in front of the Mexicans." The plot, to the extent that there is one, hinges on the fact that this washed-up TV actor, recent star of a handful of Spaghetti Westerns and newlywed husband of an Italian starlet, happens to arrive home after several months abroad the night members of the Charles Manson family target Sharon Tate and her house guests at the Roman Polanski mansion next door. After gradually and atmospherically building for quite some time (according to my bladder, almost 3 hours), Tate & Co.'s inevitable, historical doom takes an incredible, hysterical swerve sideways – one door sidewise, to be exact – and for the rest of the movie, the audience's vocalizations register a unique mixture of shocked ejaculations, laughter and enthusiastic cheers.

So. Good cast. Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Emile Hirsch, and Al Pacino are in it. Timothy Olyphant, Damian Lewis and the lovely Margot Robbie are in it. Cute young things like Lena Dunham, Austin Butler and (above all) Dakota Fanning prove that they can be fricking terrifying when they put their minds to it. And there were Three Scenes that Made It For Me: (1) The one in which Brad Pitt's character drops in on the Spahn ranch and forces his way past all the Manson Family drones to make sure George Spahn is OK. The suspense kept my flesh crawling throughout the entire sequence – relieved only a little by the enjoyment of (1.5) that one male cult member's feet leaving the ground in slow motion as Pitt's fist connects with his face. (2) Everything that happens at Chez Dalton after Leonardo comes out of his house to yell profanities at the Manson groupies and their excessive engine noise. Mind you, some of what makes it work is the hallucinogenic quality imparted, in the segments governed by Brad's point of view, by an LSD-dipped cigarette. (3) Sharon Tate's visit to a movie theater to watch her own movie. Her character's innocence and beauty went to my heart. I'm so glad that, in this movie's parallel universe, she got to live. What a shame that in reality, she didn't.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Two Spider-Movies

Spider-Man: Far from Home – These Marvel Universe movies have been coming out so thick and fast that my reviews of them always seem to begin with a confession of how many of the previous installments I missed. So, to be as brief as possible, let me admit that I've only ever seen Tom Holland as Spider-Man before in the last two Avengers movies, in which (respectively) he died and came back from the dead. (That's nothing. I never saw any of Andrew Garfield's outings as Spidey, and I'm sure I missed at least one of the Tobey Maguire ones.) Anyway, it's a good thing that I saw those two Avengers flicks (to be sure, only those two) because this movie's taking-off point is the "blip" in which people whose existence was erased in Infinity War resumed existing several years later, at the end of Endgame. So when young Peter goes on a class trip to Europe, it's with a confused and confusing group including people, like him, who blipped and others who were five years younger before the blip and are now their age. Man, life in the Marvel Universe is tough.

Peter's trip to Europe is especially tough. I mean, do you think Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and SHIELD will let him just relax and enjoy himself? No. Their whole itinerary gets covertly hijacked so that Peter can try to maintain his cover while, at the same time, trying to stop a monster apocalypse from a parallel dimension. Luckily, there's a new superhero on the job – some guy from the other universe, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who (SPOILER ALERT!!!) is actually just some guy who wants to con Peter out of this thing that I've decided not to describe because this sentence is making me tired. Pant, pant. So, in this post-Iron Man and post-Capt. America age, Spider-Man has to step forward as a global hero. And he does a pretty good job. Also, he has some romantic moments with M.J., some comic moments with his chubby buddy, and a lot of opportunities to tear up some of the best scenery in the western world.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) One that, in my opinion, played even better in the trailer: a mouthy member of Peter's class trip group is yakking about how much he respects Spider-Man, then spots Peter standing nearby and cracks, "What are you looking at, ass face?" (2) The scene in which Peter inadvertently calls down an airstrike on one of the kids on his tour bus – a piece of slapstick comedy-action-suspense that makes the most of high-school-age insecurities that even superheroes aren't spared. (3) J.K. Simmons returns as yellow journalist J. Jonah Jameson in a bonus scene in which he unmasks the web-slinger in front of the entire world.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – In this animated flick, multiple Spider-Men (or women, or pigs) from different realities merge into young Miles Morales' version of New York City and have to work together to stop a female Doc Ock and a rampaging Kingpin from opening a black hole under Brooklyn. I waited weeks to be able to borrow this movie on DVD from my local public library. Then I watched it twice back to back. I fell in love with it. It is one of the best movies I have seen all year – and I saw it during the same week as Yesterday. What a week!

So, I'm not going to give you a synopsis on this one. Great cast, though, with vocal turns by Liev Schreiber, Lily Tomlin, Lake Bell, Zoë Kravitz, Nicolas Cage and Mahershala Ali. Gifted comedians Kathryn Hahn and John Mulaney both do good work here. Hailee Steinfeld, whom I loved in the Jeff Bridges version of True Grit, provides a romantic foil for Miles as Gwen "Spider-Woman" Stacy. And the character of Peter Parker gets a win-win, with Chris Pine playing a heroic 20-something version of him and Jake Johnson as a 30s slob Peter. At the center of the movie is a beautiful trio of performances by Shameik Moore, Bryan Tyree Henry and Luna Vélez as the ethnically mixed young hero who picks up the mantle of his world's Peter Parker in a moment of great danger, and his loving parents. The boy's voyage of self-discovery, combined with a terrifying and exhilarating adventure, is beautifully depicted in animated artwork of tremendous energy and originality. The story, the dialogue, the interplay between characters, thrilled me as well as making me laugh and cry.

OK? Enough about that. Let's get quickly to Three Scenes That Made It For Me, because I've been dying to get them off my chest since I saw this movie. (1) Miles first encounters Peter "B." Parker (Johnson) and mayhem ensues. In an extended sequence involving web-slinging mishaps and collisions with various vehicles, I never stopped laughing – although, at one point, I had to stop the playback so I could catch my breath. (2) After studying a Spider-Man comic, Miles sets off to emulate his web-swinging learning curve by climbing the stairs to the roof of a high-rise building. In mid-phrase of a musical buildup as he prepares to launch himself out into space, the music cuts out and we see (and hear) the boy running back down the stairs, sneakers squeaking. He then chooses a lower-rise building and, as a result, survives his hilarious fall. (Later, when the web is spinning the other way for him, the imagery of this scene is triumphantly reversed.) (3) The emotional scene in which Miles cradles his dying Uncle Aaron. The acting in that scene is incredible, considering that most of it was being done by animated characters.

See this movie. This is the film that animated features should be trying to top from now on. I mean, in style AND in substance. Not in the magnitude of the numbers at the end of their titles or the number of kicks a dead horse can endure while remaining dead. I don't know how else to say it except that this is a breathtakingly excellent movie and I want everyone to experience it.

Terminal Freeze

Terminal Freeze
by Lincoln Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

Way north of the Arctic Circle, a team of scientists is studying the effects of global warming from a mothballed military base when they discover a gigantic predator trapped in the ice under a retreating glacier. A documentary filmmaker descends on the scene with a complete production crew, eager to exploit the discovery. But the dying remnants of a native tribe warns them that they are about to unleash an instrument of the gods' wrath. And that's exactly what seems to be happening when the mega-smilodon comes out of suspended animation and starts doing grisly things to the soldiers, the scientists and the film crew.

Is there a scientific explanation for what's going on? Maybe, maybe not. Would a paranormal explanation, in line with Native American beliefs, be more plausible? Maybe, maybe not. There's even a hint of an idea that what is stalking the Federal Wilderness Zone is from another world beyond the stars. Whatever is behind it, a lot of flesh-and-blood people are in front of it, and with the Northern Lights doing weird things and the grandmother of all blizzards pummeling the base, their options mainly narrow down to (1) beating a perilous escape across the Alaskan Ice Road and (2) turning around and fighting this unimaginable terror from Native Alaskan pre-history. Also, there's the option of trying to turn it into a TV spectacle, but let's not even go there. It's so stupid, it almost makes you cheer for the monster.

Everybody's survival is in serious jeopardy, and some of them make you care about them, darn it. It's a thriller swarming with diverse characters, a few of them with heroic characteristics, and some of them showing unexpected flashes of courage under pressure. There's a bit of romance in it, a heaping helping of "the polar ice is melting" alarmism, and some interesting hints that the author may harbor ill feelings toward certain show-biz types. But boy, is this story's monster a doozy! If I still had cats, I would be very polite to them for a while after reading this book. Also, the next time I come around a dark corner and find myself facing a pair of giant, yellow, slit-pupiled eyes, I'll think twice before I scream. If I have time.

This is the second of five paranormal thrillers featuring "enigmalogist" Dr. Jeremy Logan – and so, naturally, the fifth in the order I read them. As in Deep Storm before it, but unlike the three after it, Logan plays only a supporting role in this book. To see him as the point-of-view character, try The Third Gate, The Forgotten Room and Full Wolf Moon. With Douglas Preston, Child is also the co-author of 19 "Agent Pendergast" novels (including The Relic), five "Gideon Crew" books, and about five other novels. Lincoln Child's other solo works include Utopia (a.k.a. Lethal Velocity) and Death Match.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Into the Black Nowhere

Into the Black Nowhere
by Meg Gardiner
Recommended Ages: 14+

In Unsub, we met a Bay Area cop named Caitlin Hendrix who, partly as an accident of birth, became a key player in the hunt for a serial killer. Now she's a member-in-training of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (you know, like on TV's Criminal Minds), where she shows enough promise as a profiler to be assigned to a three-agent team chasing a psychopath in Texas. This guy has been abducting attractive young women from a town halfway between Austin and San Antonio, and soon after Caitlin's team arrives, a couple of the victims turn up dead.

As the killer's profile comes into clearer focus, Caitlin finds herself once again in a very personal relationship with a diabolical genius whose special gifts include manipulating people, eluding capture and leaving a trail of carnage behind him. Once Caitlin figures out what really makes this monster tick, he only gets scarier as the hunt turns into a high-speed chase across half of the U.S.A. to save, if possible, his next intended victim. And once again, Caitlin's special gift proves to be her willingness to jump off a cliff with the bad guy handcuffed to her. Well, that's me speaking figuratively. But as you'll see when you read this book, and you will – gaze into my eyes – I'm not exaggerating very much. Not at all, really.

This is, to date, the second book of the UNSUB trilogy of which book 3, The Dark Corners of the Night, is due for release in February 2020. Meg Gardiner has also written five Evan Delaney novels (China Lake, Mission Canyon, Jericho Point, Crosscut and Kill Chain) and four Jo Beckett novels (The Dirty Secrets Club, The Memory Collector, The Liar's Lullaby and The Nightmare Thief) and is the winner of an Edgar Award.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Blood Test

Blood Test
by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the second of going-on-35 novels featuring a child psychologist who burned out of clinical practice in his early 30s and, for a refreshing change of pace, turned toward helping an LAPD homicide detective solve crimes. This time, Dr. Alex Delaware and his cop friend Milo Sturgis are brought together when a former colleague of Alex's fears that a little boy who has cancer will die needlessly after his parents yank him out of treatment – and then the parents turn up murdered.

Hoping to find little Woody before his lymphoma passes the point of no return, Alex finds himself on a dangerous trail of clues that leads past, if not straight toward, a religious cult in the southern California desert, an experimental botanist's greenhouse of horrors, a teenage seductress' menagerie of twisted conquests, and more. Fear and loathing ain't half of it. The deeper Alex digs, the more icky evidence he unearths that he is just the kind of sleuth this case needs. We're talking all the ingredients, bar none, of a psychopath mixed up as no one but parents can mix them. And to make sure your cuticles are bleeding and your eyes are dry from lack of blinking by the climax of the tale, Alex goes past the point no one should go beyond without his cop partner, without his cop partner. If he didn't have 33 more mysteries to solve, you'd know for sure he was going to die this time.

Alex Delaware sees a lot of gritty stuff, but he is a refreshingly un-gritty guy. He doesn't have the worries in life that make other sleuths a psychological mess. He's independently well-off. He has a girlfriend who is doing so well at her line of work that he's just a little insecure about becoming a kept man, but he doesn't take it all that badly. He doesn't give a damn that his cop buddy is gay, and there isn't even a little bit of ambiguous sexual tension between them. Alex Delaware is as clean as a whistle, which provides a sharp contrast with the human dreck he has to cut through, case after case. If it doesn't get to him, maybe it won't get to you. But when it nearly does, as it seriously tries to do in this book, well ... that's entertainment!

The next book in this series, for me to go after in canon order, is Over the Edge. Other Alex Delaware titles include, but are not limited to, Devil's Waltz, Doctor Death, The Murder Book, Heartbreak Hotel, most recently The Wedding Guest and, due for release in February 2020, The Museum of Desire.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

The Coffin Dancer

The Coffin Dancer
by Jeffery Deaver
Recommended Ages: 14+

This book showcases all that is most strikingly original about the formula for the Lincoln Rhyme crime thriller. What kind of crime is best solved by a quadriplegic criminalist who analyzes crime scene evidence at superhuman speed in his home lab, aided by a crack team of canvassers, detectives, a master of disguise and a tough, beautiful crime scene tech like Amelia Sachs? Why, crimes that are still in progress or are about to be committed, of course! Solving diabolically clever murders under extreme time pressure is Rhyme's bread and butter, and the fact that he needs a home health aide to feed it to him is just a detail.

In this outing, Rhyme and Sachs are after a hit-man who has been hired to rub out three witnesses who are supposed to testify at a powerful arms dealer's grand jury. One of the three has already gone down in a plane crash, along with his innocent co-pilot. That leaves his grieving wife and their business partner to bear witness to what they saw – but protecting them won't be easy. For one thing, the widow insists on making their aviation company's next flight. Their business depends on it. Only a quick grasp of the evidence can enable law enforcement to anticipate the Coffin Dancer's next move (like that nickname?). But even though he's psychologically twisted, the killer has an eerie way of eluding detection and, at the same time, penetrating protection.

The fact that you have a good idea who the killer is from a relatively early part of the novel isn't important either. There are twists aplenty in this fast-paced, nerve-wracking, gore-splattered thriller. Conflicts between the good guys, not only among the law enforcement types but also between them and the people they are tasked to protect, charge it up to the next energy level. Sachs suffers a fit of jealousy. Rhyme has one of those moments when he can't warn anybody on time about something he knows is going to happen. And of course – it's happened before – certain agencies don't appreciate the value of what Rhyme and Sachs are doing until it's tragically too late. As a special bonus, there's an agonizingly prolonged scene of suspense in which a pilot knows she has to stay above so many thousand feet because there's a bomb on board triggered by air pressure. Someone in this book has a fingernail chewing problem. I'm not saying it's you, but after scenes like that it might be.

This is the second of 14 Lincoln Rhyme novels by the author of three Rune novels (starting with Manhattan Is My Beat), three John Pellam novels (under the pseudonym William Jefferies), four Kathryn Dance novels (most recently Solitude Creek), and other titles such as The Devil's Teardrop and The Bodies Left Behind. The next book in this series, which I plan to request from my regional public library system, is The Empty Chair.

Friday, July 5, 2019

The Golem of Hollywood

The Golem of Hollywood
by Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

Jacob Lev is a sometime homicide detective who has burned out before his time, while also losing his faith in the religion of his rabbi father. His mother went insane before she died, and now he wonders if he is starting to lose his mind, too. Ever since he had what must have been a night to remember with a disturbingly beautiful woman – if only he could remember! – every time he approaches intimacy with another woman, she recoils as if he is hurting her. A strange, flying beetle seems to be stalking him. He has been seconded to a mysterious branch of the police department, against his will, to investigate a bizarre if not impossible murder. The victim himself seems to have been a monster with a trail of victims behind him – or rather, them, as Lev gradually comes to realize this particular serial killer is part of a traveling team. His, or their, MO is particularly disturbing. But who killed the killer? His partner, perhaps? Or could it be (don't pretend the title didn't give it away) something out of medieval Jewish folklore, something created to protect the denizens of the Jewish ghetto in Prague, now somehow free to move about the planet?

OK, you'll have seen that twist coming since you turned the title page. Those of us who have read, say, Bari Wood's The Tribe may go into this book expecting something like it – a creature made of clay, created to avenge a wrong suffered by an Orthodox Jewish community in Big City U.S.A. and now gone on the rampage – an ultra-violent novel of erotic horror with a slivovitz chaser. What those of us won't expect is what this novel actually is: a penetrating exploration into the heart of a deeply confused and depressed young man; a disturbing, speculative spin on the biblical account of Cain and Abel; a heartbreaking tale of love and grief that spans millennia; scenes that will batter you emotionally, chill your insides with anxiety, and leave your mind reeling with shock; a final twist that might be just a bit too far over the top, if you think about it. And you'll think about it. Trust me.

Jacob Lev is a more flawed and vulnerable hero than one is used to seeing in books issued by the Kellermans – though I feel a little silly saying that, after reading a Decker/Lazarus novel which will soon prompt me to say something similar about Peter Decker. He's practically a danger to himself, in a way that somehow makes you feel protective of him. I suppose I should accept it as a sign that I've gone over the hill: I feel a bit fatherly toward him. I sympathize with his old man, up to a point. But do I really buy the trick the old man proves, in the end, to have played on him? Not really. Nevertheless, I'm interested in seeing where this business takes Jacob next – especially given good reason to expect it to be narrated in striking, lyric prose, full of vivid atmosphere and beautiful, terrible imagery.

This book is the first of (at present) two Jacob Lev novels by the father-son writing team that has also produced (so far) two Clay Edison novels and a third on its way. The sequel is titled The Golem of Paris.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Fabricated Folk Lyric

My moments of inspiration as a pop-song lyricist always seem to come when I'm at the wheel of my car. Back in 2009, I wrote the lyrics to a Tango in my head while driving from St. Louis to Arkansas. I can't remember whether a similar case applies to my 2011 masterpiece, "The Temporal Anomaly Blues," but I was definitely trippin' when I wrote that. And last night, driving home from my parents' house at the opposite end of a tall, narrow Minnesota county, I mentally composed two-thirds of this. Mainly, what I wanted to achieve was a heart-squeezing effect when the key phrase comes back at the end with a different shade of meaning than before. If somebody wants to set this to a fabricated folk tune, I wouldn't object.

In Clover

Now golden-head, won't you come down
And leave these fragrant grasses?
We'll drink the health of London town
In leaded crystal glasses.
– Nay, blue-eyed one, thanks all the same;
For when all's said and over,
You'll have the fortune and the fame,
But I – I'll be in clover.

Now golden-head, come down to me
And leave these fragrant grasses!
We'll drink the coffee of Paree
In china demitasses.
– Nay, blue-eyed one, don't take it wrong;
For when all's said and over,
You'll have the dances and the song,
But I – I'll be in clover.

Now golden-head, for sea I'm bound
To leave these fragrant grasses.
When next I drink on solid ground,
'Twill be with New York lasses.
– Go, blue-eyed one, but mind the wave
Till you're the ocean over;
For that would be a lonesome grave,
But I – I'll be in clover.

Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows

Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows
by Ryan Calejo
Recommended Ages: 10+

Charlie Hernández is this kid in Miami whose parents up and disappeared one day. Then weird stuff starts happening to him, stuff that nothing in his experience has prepared him for except – and this is a weird exception – that it increasingly reminds him of the Hispanic folklore his late grandma used to teach him. Charlie doesn't know where to turn when, for example, horns pop out of his head and, later, he breaks out in feathers. Other than a suspiciously friendly girl at his school, who may or may not be interested in him only as a subject for a school newspaper story, poor Charlie has to face an increasingly scary succession of Latin American and Spanish monsters all on his lonesome – until a secret society devoted to fighting the darkness is revealed to him.

A boy's quest across the magic of multiple countries, united only by a Spanish-speaking culture, would be thrilling enough. More than Charlie's life is at stake, though. His adventures work on a similar level to Rick Riordan's repackaging of Greco-Roman, Egyptian and Nordic myths and legends, complete with the present-day kid's street-wise attitude and goofy sense of humor. Another book this reminded me of is The Avion My Uncle Flew, with its clever way of getting the reader to read (maybe aloud) words and phrases in a (ha, ha) "foreign" language, in this case Spanish. I think it's a lot of fun, and I would recommend it not just as an edifying lesson in cross-cultural understanding but as a solid piece of entertainment. And that, amigos, is as American as apple empanadas.

This is Ryan Calejo's debut novel. A sequel, titled Charlie Hernandez & the Castle of Bones, is set for release Oct. 22, 2019.