Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The 11th Doctor

Matt Smith took over the role of the Doctor in I frankly can't keep track of which season (or series?) of "modern era" Doctor Who. All I know is that it was long enough ago that two Doctors have gone after him and the latter has already been at it for a couple years. The DVD of the Matt Smith episodes recently turned up at a price point I could afford, so I brought it home and semi-binged on it over the past week or two. I'll say out front that I am guardedly satisfied with this segment of the Who saga. Take that for what it's worth, considering that (apart from the Christopher Eccleston/David Tennant boxed set) I'm a newborn where the Tardis (TARDIS?) is concerned.

Matt Smith's Doctor delivered some pretty good episodes. For about the first two-thirds of them, he is accompanied by a girl named Amy (or Amelia) Pond, whom he first meets when she's a small girl praying to Santa Claus for someone to help her with the crack in her bedroom wall. For reasons related to this crack, which runs straight through the fabric of reality, she's a pretty remarkable girl and by the time the Doctor straightens her trouble out, she's a fine young woman. Also joining them a lot of the time is her boyfriend/fiance/husband Rory, who follows his own unique path to distinction by dying, being erased from history, reappearing as a Roman Centurion in the wee years A.D., turning out to be a sleeper agent programmed by the Nestene Consciousness (which has the ability to possess plastic), switching sides, waiting for his true love for 2,000 years, losing her and getting her back at least a couple of times – once by time travel and once by divorce – and who comes to his ultimate fate, more or less hand-in-hand with Amy, at the hands of the (spoiler deleted). I mean, really. They're a pretty romantic pair.

The 11th Doctor's other companion is "the impossible girl" Clara Oswald, who dies the first two times he encounters her – first in the future, then in the past – before joining him for the duration in the present day. Yeah, it's weird, but you didn't come to Doctor Who for a slice of ordinary life, did you? There are also numerous encounters with River Song, the purported Time Lord's Wife whose previous encounter with the 10th Doctor was her last and his first. Time travel! Other past Doctors make appearances, including the one who famously fried the Time Lords' homeworld thinking it was the only way to end the Time War against the Daleks. This pre-Doctor (not one of the official number) is played by the late, great John Hurt, who had the title character burst out of him in Alien and sold Harry Potter's wand to him. Also returning are former Doctor players David Tennant and Tom Baker – besides a Who's Who of archival footage.

These adventures also feature crossover appearances from other great fantasy/sci-fi franchises (well, at least actors from them), adorable Star Trek references, and so many instances where the Doctor's or the universe's demise seems imminent (or actually occurs) that the gimmick actually becomes tiresome. S'truth, the 11th Doctor seems to spend half of his tenure bracing himself for the end, even though he eventually proves to be the one incarnation of Gallifrey's Last (the Oncoming Storm, etc.) to expire of old age. Fortunately, he also finds a loophole in the rule that was supposed to prevent him from regenerating any more, so we meet Peter Capaldi's Doctor in the final episode.

As I said, lots of great adventures happen in this season, in spite of a tiresome trend in the writing that seemed to be telegraphing Matt Smith's exit from the role long before it happened. He seemed (contrary to actual fact) always to be the Doctor who wasn't going to make it much longer. He faced the Daleks a few times, the Weeping Angels two or three times, some Cybermen, Silurians (a.k.a. Homo reptilia), fish vampires from space, dinosaurs on a spaceship, a Westworld-worthy cyber-gunslinger, carnivorous snowmen, a Martian who has been frozen for 5,000 years, programmable flesh doppelgangers who try to steal the identities of the people they are based on. He rubs elbows with Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Elizabeth X, Winston Churchill, Vincent Van Gogh, Adolf Hitler, 17th century pirates, 1970s ghost hunters, and the crew of a 1980s Soviet nuclear sub. He gets a lot of help from a Silurian lady who is apparently the basis for Sherlock Holmes, and a little help from a comically warlike Sontaran named Strax who has been in the Doctor's debt for some time, among other recurring allies. He gets a lot of flack from a religion devoted to preventing the ultimate question ("Doctor Who?") from being answered; among its acolytes are the Silence, a terrifying race so genetically engineered that as soon as you stop looking at them, you forget you ever saw them. They're the coolest new alien since the Weeping Angels, right?

During his run, Doc 11 voyages to the center of the earth and the center of the Tardis. He reboots the entire universe. He arranges his own death (to save the universe another time), botches it, and nearly causes all of reality to collapse. He visits a pocket universe outside the real universe, where he meets a being that eats Tardises for breakfast. In his Christmas specials, he recapitulates such holiday classics as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and – this is where I have to start my list of Three Episodes That Made It For Me – (1) A Christmas Carol, with Michael Gambon (lately Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies) playing the equivalent of Scrooge on a world where fish fly in fog, and only a time traveler with the ability to tinker with the old guy's Christmases Past, Present and Future can prevent a space liner from crashing. I know, that synopsis doesn't sound like a story. But it really is a pretty good one. You just have to be there.

(2) "The Lodger," in which the Doctor moves in with a hopeless bachelor played by James Corden while trying to find out what their upstairs neighbor is doing to prevent the Tardis from landing. The scene in which the Doctor takes a shortcut to explaining everything to Corden – a headbutt followed by "Wait. You're..." "I know." "From..." "Shhh." "You have a Tardis!" – reduced me to a quivering Jell-o mold of laughter. Corden's performance of this moment of discovery is by far the funniest moment in this boxed set.

(3) Sorry, Matt Smith's episodes don't get much better than first one, "The Eleventh Hour," in which the Doctor meets Amy Pond and leaves her waiting for 12 years before fulfilling his promise to deal with the crack in her bedroom wall. In the meantime, an escaped prisoner who can hide from you when you're looking right at him (except at the corner of your eye), and who can assume the form of a comatose patient, takes up housekeeping in her house and manipulates her so profoundly that she forgets that the room he lives in is even there. I thought this creature was so creepy, and the build-up to saving the world from him (or rather, from the police force that was willing to incinerate the planet rather than deal with him) was so effective that it did a great job of launching the Matt Smith era Doctor.

HONORABLE MENTION: The Van Gogh episode was very touching. It made me cry, actually.

All Three Sandlot Movies

I knew I was going to have a DVD watching binge when travel restrictions meant I wasn't going to get out much last weekend. So, during a quick tour of Walmart, I picked up a cheapo DVD of all three "Sandlot" movies – The Sandlot, The Sandlot 2 and The Sandlot: Heading Home. I'd managed to reach this date without having seen any of them, in spite of having received numerous reps of "You're killing me, Smalls!" from a publisher under whom I worked as a newspaper editor for a couple of years. (In my defense, the "rookie mistakes" I was making were part of the adjustment from the house style of the previous publisher, who sold the paper to him.) But that record no longer stands.

In the original movie (way back in 1993), these guys played a gang of baseball-crazy kids in a Los Angeles valley community who spent the summer of 1962 bonding over baseball and getting into various other kinds of mischief. The kid in the blue cap was the only real baseball whiz, and most everybody else was just there to help him practice his skills so he could someday make the big leagues. The guy in the front row touching his face (ew! how unsanitary! report him to the COVID-19 cops!) is the aforementioned Smalls, the movie's point-of-view character, who doesn't know anything about baseball and has no skills whatsoever when Blue Cap invites him to the sandlot, over the initial objections of everybody else.

Smalls picks up some skills right quick, smashing his first home run over the fence into a yard guarded by the meanest dog on the West Coast. Unfortunately, it's a very valuable ball that he borrowed from his stepdad without permission. So, breaking the mold of most baseball movies, this isn't one that builds up to the big game and the final inning, where victory or defeat comes down to the last at-bat. Instead, it ends up mostly being a nostalgia flick about the zany antics of a bunch of kids with nicknames as quirky as themselves. They camp out and tell scary stories. They go to the pool and ogle (in the case of a kid called Squints, more than ogle) the pretty lifeguard. They make the regrettable decision to try plugs of chewing tobacco before going on a carnival ride. They make a series of cartoonishly silly attempts to retrieve the precious baseball from a dog named Hercules, and they finally let loose a madcap chase through town. Though not exactly a great piece of cinematic art, it's sweet, funny and upbeat, and features James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader) as a not-as-mean-as-everybody-thought old man, Karen Allen (Starman, the Indiana Jones movies) as Smalls' mom, Denis Leary (Ice Age, Rescue Me) as the stepdad, Chauncey Leopardi (who was in half the episodes of Freaks and Geeks and the third movie in this series) as Squints, Tom Guiry (Mystic River, The Black Donnellys) as Smalls, and as a dream-sequence appearance of the Babe, an actor named Art LaFleur whom IMDB credits with 168 actor credits, yet it considers this his best-known role. Huh.

Besides the freckly fat kid saying, at least twice, "You're killing me, Smalls" – the line that can make you feel like you know this movie without actually seeing it, sort of like "If it ain't Scottish, it's crap" for So I Married an Axe Murderer – it was a decent piece of entertainment. It made me squirm (I was totally that Smalls kid, when it came to athletics). It made me laugh out loud. Here are the Three Scenes That Made This Movie For Me: (1) After three vacuum cleaners simultaneously blow up in their tree house (please don't ask), the one kid who didn't get out in time limps up, coated in dust, and says, "We've been going about this all wrong." (2) It's a cumulative thing, but the way Benny (the blue cap boy) bestows his friendship on Smalls without expecting anything in return – and his friendship proves to be such a valuable thing – is really kind of moving. (3) Yes, of course, the scene that gets the kids banned from the swimming pool, which would go down in the books as sexual harassment today (at least) but that played as boyish high spirits in 1962-cum-1993, bolstered by the epilogue revealing that Squints and the cute lifeguard got married and had nine kids. Nine kids!

Made 12 years later and set in 1972 is the straight-to-video sequel, The Sandlot 2. Both are written, directed and narrated by David Mickey Evans, whose other writing and/or directing credits include the feature films Radio Flyer, Smitty, The Final Season, the regrettable chimpanzee-baseball comedy Ed, and some TV movies and straight-to-video films (notably two sequels to Beethoven and a certain Ace Ventura: Pet Detective Jr.). I think The Sandlot (original movie) may be the pinnacle of his career. This movie comes across to me as a shameless attempt to cash in on it. Other than taking out most of the baseball action and replacing it with a women's lib subplot, a chaste teen romance and a little amateur rocketry, and transposing it one decade later, it is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the original movie – including the James Earl Jones cameo at the end, teaching the kids the same lesson their predecessors learned in 1962. Even the quest to retrieve the priceless baseball from the vicious dog is recapitulated, only with a different dog (a descendant of Hercules) and a working scale model of the space shuttle instead of a ball. Other than the fact that hero boy David's backstory means he must face his worst fear (the dog, appropriately, is named Goliath), it adds essentially diddly-squat to the franchise.

OK, it does have a few things going for it. Teryl Rothery of Stargate SG-1 and The Good Doctor plays the hero girl's mom, and her NASA engineer dad is the really quite funny Greg Germann (whose character name on Ally McBeal was Richard Fish, so I have to support him). Also, the hero boy is played by the stupidly good-looking Max Lloyd-Jones, who could have passed as a 13-year-old reverse age double for Brad Pitt. And I can actually award it Three Scenes That Made It For Me, which is more than I can say for some movies that I truly hated. To wit: (1) The obligatory fat kid says, in one speech, the two funniest lines in the film: "I crapped my pants" and "We've done everything we can – badly." Truly, though, we didn't need to see the back of his pants when he turned to leave. Imagination good. (2) The epilogue reveals that a certain character was abducted by aliens and never seen again. That's what you miss when you eject the disc early. (3) The mean dog saves David when he gets buried alive, a nice variant on the first movie's twist in which Smalls saves the mean dog. I must say, though, that the sandlot team's rivalry with a bunch of snotty little leaguers is a wasted opportunity to be more of a sports movie; that plot line ends early and with very little drama.

The Sandlot: Heading Home, made in 2007, benefited from having different writers and director. Set in 1976, it approaches the sandlot from an entirely different angle, bringing back Benny (now played by the better known Danny Nucci, who was in Titanic, Crimson Tide, Alive and The Rock) and Squints (still played by the same guy, but now grown up) together with a new bunch of kids who now have to win the championship little league game in order to save the sandlot from being turned into condos. As an added plot twist, an arrogant, self-centered baseball star (played by the late Luke Perry) takes a baseball to the head and gets sent back in time for a second chance to do things right. Instead of being a complete ass, walking all over everybody and seeking his own fame and glory, he could stick by his friends for the love of baseball and all that. So, it ends up being kind of a time-travel-and-personal-redemption story, only with baseball. Plenty of baseball.

The hero kid, in this film, is played by a certain Keanu Pires who seemed to have the sarcastic snot with a heart of gold role down to a T; I really thought he had the charisma to go somewhere, but alas, besides this movie he had only two minor acting roles and (ironically, his most successful movie) a stunt performer gig in the "dog from outer space" movie, Good Boy. The child actor you probably would recognize, if you saw this film, is Alexander Ludwig, who lately played one of the three characters I cared about in Bad Boys For Life – the most recent film that had no scenes that made it for me – because unlike most everyone else in the picture, he had an aversion to violence. In this movie, he plays the snotty star of the evil little league team, whose coach/father (in that order) wants to redevelop the sandlot. When you see him, you have two thoughts in such rapid succession that you might mistake them for simultaneous. The first is, "I'd like to smack that little rat-fink across the chops." The second is, "Why is he familiar?" He was also in The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, The Hunger Games, Race to Witch Mountain (the one with the Rock) and has been playing the lead on TV's Vikings. You almost wouldn't recognize him today. Gee whiz, has that guy grown into his full potential as a human animal.

So, enough of that. Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The little boy who hasn't talked since his father died, suddenly pipes up when it's time to set the (anti-)hero boy straight. Someone interrupts him to marvel that he can speak, and the kid snaps, "Shut up, it's my turn to talk!" Actually, that kid is the soul of the movie – or rather, he has it in his eyes. (2) Officer Pork Chop (played with comic zest by Chris Gauthier) aids and abets the kids when they want to break into the movie theater to talk with Young Tommy (the kid whose older version is played by Luke Perry). Sneaking past the concession stand guy proves hilariously difficult. (3) The obligatory fat kid's line (more or less): "Tommy, I'm going to ask you a question and I need you to be honest with me. Will you spot me a quarter for a pack of Jujubes?" The DVD's blooper reel attests to how difficult it was to deliver that line without somebody cracking up.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman

The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman
by Ben H. Winters
Recommended Ages: 12+

Mr. Melville is the kind of sixth-grade history teacher who says things like, "Ah! Mr. Lashey! You've decided to favor us with your company! What a pleasant surprise!" and who announces a "floating midterm" exam that could come at any time, on a day's notice, and accounts for one-third of your grade. On the plus side, he has a whimsical streak that leads him, for example, to assign special presentations about whatever interests each student. Bethesda Fielding takes his latest Special Project – to get to the bottom of some mystery – and runs with it, uncovering the secret identity of Mary Todd Lincoln Middle School's mousy music teacher, Ms. Finkleman. Bethesda's announcement that the shy, soft-spoken teacher used to headline an all-girl punk rock band astounds everyone, and leads the school's eccentric principal to order Ms. Finkleman to forget about entering a program of traditional English folk ballads in a music competition called the Choral Corral, and instead to prepare a rock concert.

To make the rock concert come off, and to pay Bethesda back for outing her, Ms. Finkleman strikes a deal: Bethesda will tutor an easily distracted, rock music obsessed classmate named Tenny to make it through Melville's floating midterm, and Tenny will actually put together the rock concert. The sixth-grade music class forms three bands, each learning a song from a different decade and the whole group working up an encore number for the Choral Corral. They start out sounding awful, but with Tenny coaching them in a way that makes it seem like Ms. Finkleman is doing so, they gradually pull together as a band (I mean, three bands) and are about ready to rock the town when Melville announces the surprise exam on the eve of the contest. This last-minute crisis goads Bethesda and Tenny into desperate undertakings, with the pride of Mary Todd Lincoln Middle School on the line.

This is a heartwarming and hilarious tale about middle school friendship, the love of music, the pressure of performing, and making peace with people who have hurt you or been hurt by you. It is full of zany characters, including a classically trained boy pianist who "needs to rock," a pathologically competitive principal who makes embarrassing bets with the head of a competing school, a goofy assistant principal and an overachiever whose cold, unnurturing father stands in the doorway saying "there, there" at her without moving a step closer, and who proceeds to coach her on how to blackmail a teacher into letting her will be done. Bethesda and Tenny don't come out squeaky clean, considering the choices they make, but their music class catches an enthusiasm for rock music that's really infectious.

Ben H. Winters is the author of the parody/pastiche novels Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina, the Last Policeman trilogy (The Last Policeman, Countdown City and World of Trouble), the speculative fiction novels Bedbugs, Underground Airlines and Golden State, and this book's sequel, The Mystery of the Missing Everything.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Book Scavenger

Book Scavenger
by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
Recommended Ages: 12+

Emily, her older brother Matthew, and their parents move around a lot. Seriously, mom and dad are work-from-home parents who, as a sideline, are writing a blog about living in all 50 states. So, Emily is pretty well used to being the new kid in school. But it gets harder for her to think about moving on again when they land in San Francisco, Calif., home of eccentric publisher Garrison Griswold, who created the Book Scavenger game. It's kind of like geocaching, only it's all about books.

The day Emily and her family arrive in San Francisco (don't call it Frisco; the locals hate that), Griswold is mugged and gravely wounded in a BART station while on his way to announce the latest new game he has been developing. A bit later, Emily, Matthew and their downstairs neighbor James – a fifth-generation Chinese-American who loves puzzles and codes – inadvertently find a book with clues hidden in it, a book that Griswold's attackers want. While the kids work on what they think is only a harmless game, some dangerous people are after them.

The kids' adventure is an intriguing book lovers' tour of San Francisco, featuring local points of interest both real and fictional. It weaves in mysterious facts about Edgar Allan Poe and other authors, including a feud between Poe and a literary rival that transcended death. It mixes in a bit of rock'n'roll, some competitive cryptography, lessons about friendship and forgiveness, an object lesson in Wheaton's Law of online gaming (don't be a dick), and a game concept so clever that you'll wish someone would steal the idea and bring it into the real world. It's funny, mysterious and, now and then, a bit exciting, but all at a level a brainy kid can appreciate.

This book is the first of a (so far) three-book series. Its sequels are The Unbreakable Code and The Alcatraz Escape.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Circus Mirandus

Circus Mirandus
by Cassie Beasley
Recommended Ages: 10+

Once there was a boy named Ephraim who was thinking about maybe growing up to be a train robber – anything to avoid going to school – when he stumbled upon a magical circus called the Circus Mirandus. During one glorious week, he tasted unforgettable flavors of candy, reached out and touched magnificent creatures, fell in love with a flying girl and saved up a promise of a miracle from an illusionist known as the Man Who Bends Light. (Ephraim always thought of him as the Lightbender.) The experience is so wonderful that it changes the boy's heart. In this book's own words, he carried in him a new conviction that "a world that had such magic in it must not be as awful as he had sometimes feared."

Ephraim always wanted to go back to the Circus Mirandus, but life got in the way. Now that boy is known as Grandpa Ephraim, at least to a 10-year-old named Micah whose parents died when he was 4. As the cough in Ephraim's lungs settles in for a struggle that can only end one way, he finally decides to call on the Lightbender for that miracle. And Micah, who has heard all his grandfather's stories about the Circus Mirandus, becomes certain that if he finds the circus and the Lightbender, Grandpa Ephraim will be saved. He becomes so single-minded in that belief, in fact, that it becomes a point of contention with the magic-denying aunt who has come to stay with him during Ephraim's illness. It also threatens to mess up his chance of making friends with Jenny Mendoza, the smartest fifth-grader at Peal Elementary.

Like Micah's great-aunt Gertrudis, Jenny has learned at an early age to disbelieve in magic. Nevertheless, she allows Micah to drag her along on his adventure, trying to rationalize away everything she sees along the way – from a talking parrot named Chintzy to a real unicorn. When the head of the circus (known, funnily enough, as Mirandus Head) decides to ban Micah from the grounds, the boy takes desperate and dangerous measures – hilarious though they may be. When he must finally accept the limits of what the Lightbender can do, Micah and his wise, kind grandfather go through one of the most emotionally powerful passages I have read about this year. I'm a light touch, but I haven't sobbed so hard in a long while.

This book made me laugh, too. Written with great expressive beauty, it also carries a touching theory about what magic should (and shouldn't) be used for, and why that could be important for a world like Micah's. It even lends a touch of compassion to Aunt Gertrudis, explaining the reason she is so taken against any idea of magic – though the feeling the reader may experience during that chapter might lean more toward disgust at the character who turns out to be the story's real villain. Believable people in this book hurt with pain the reader can share, but the magic they find in the Circus Mirandus holds out a fragile possibility of healing that, in the end, proves to be what the whole show is about.

Georgia (USA) based author Cassie Beasley is also the author of Tumble and Blue and this book's sequel, The Bootlace Magician. Her sister, Kate Beasley, is also an author with the youth novels Gertie's Leap to Greatness and Lions and Liars to her credit.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Wizards of Once

The Wizards of Once
by Cressida Cowell
Recommended Ages: 10+

Before Britain knew it was Britain, its dark forest was divided between the tribe of Wizards, who consort with animals and magical creatures, and the Warriors who invaded from across the sea, dedicated to destroying all magic. Both sides of the conflict have one belief in common. They think the Witches – creatures of stupendous evil whose blood is an incurable poison – are extinct. Only the Wizard King's disobedient younger son, a reckless kid named Xar whose lack of magic is a matter of shame, thinks otherwise. One day, Xar sets out in the Badwoods to prove that he's right. But instead of catching a witch, he meets the Warrior Queen's daughter Wish – a frizzy-haired misfit with an eye patch and a limp – and takes her and her assistant bodyguard, Bodkin, as his prisoners.

Wish is in enough trouble as it is. She harbors a pet enchanted spoon (cuddly, but against the law). She also borrowed her mother's enchanted sword, which has the words "Once there were witches ... but I killed them" inscribed on its blade. It's bad enough that magic and iron shouldn't be able to exist together. Even worse, Wish has let Xar steal the blade from her, hoping to use a drop of what might be Witch blood at the tip of the blade to infect himself with evil magic. Xar just wants to be able to compete against his snotty older brother in a Wizard duel. But he risks far more than that by bringing the sword into the Wizard fort. Next thing Xar, Wish and Bodkin know, they have to escape the Wizard fort and return the sword to Queen Sychorax's dungeons before Xar's favorite sprite, the stupid but loyal Squeezjoos, pays the ultimate price.

That's just the beginning of what could turn out to be a long synopsis, but won't. This book is a daring, hilarious, kid-friendly adventure full of silly magic, touching family issues and endearing characters. The author's own scratchy illustrations are full of exuberant charm and express the characters' key qualities and feelings with remarkable rightness, considering their style – like something a kid Xar's or Wish's age might have scribbled in the margins of their spelling book. There's also a streak of menace in it. The evil of the Witches is serious stuff, and you might feel concerned by the imperfection of the kids who seem to be the world's best defense against it. There are obviously more adventures ahead for them, and more for us to learn about their quirky but dangerous world. It'll be fun.

This is the first book in the Wizards of Once series. Its sequels are Twice Magic, Knock Three Times and the upcoming Never and Forever, slated for release in November 2020. Cressida Cowell is a London based author who illustrates her own books, also including the 12 "How to Train Your Dragon" chapter books (quite unlike the movies based on them) and several associated works, plus about 16 children's picture books including The Seasick Viking, Emily Brown and the Elephant Emergency and The Story of Tantrum O'Furrily.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Boneshaker

The Boneshaker
by Kate Milford
Recommended Ages: 12+

As I held this book in my hand, I saw youth fiction grow up. A powerful, terrifying, emotionally rich and beautifully written story, it invites comparison to Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes). It spotlights a moment in a very unusual girl's coming-of-age that, I think, will speak equally well to kids and adult readers.

Natalie is a strange girl who lives in a strange small town called Arcane, Mo. in the early 20th century. Before she truly realizes how strange she and it are (because she has never known anything different), she becomes a witness to and participant in goings-on of all-surpassing strangeness. It starts when the local doctor tootles out of town in his jalopy, after Natalie's dad – the town's bicycle mechanic – gives it a bit of a tune-up. The doctor is bound for the next town over, which has been struck by a plague of influenza. But as soon as he leaves, several concerning developments arrive. For one, Natalie begins to notice that there is something wrong with her mother, something the local pharmacist isn't prepared to deal with. For another, a sinister traveling medicine show arrives from the direction the doctor was headed. Their travel plans are paused by a bit of the bad luck that haunts the abandoned town at the crossroads a few miles up the road from Arcane. So they decide to offer their nostrums and panaceas to the good townsfolk, in a carnival-like atmosphere filled with vaguely disturbing sights and sounds.

As Natalie tries to figure out just what makes Dr. Jake Limberleg's medicine show tick – a very apt verb, there – she is accompanied at times by a couple of local boys who are mostly interested in seeing moving pictures, and a girl named Miranda who seems to consider it her mission in life to question everything Natalie does, but who later proves to be her most reliable friend. She also spends a good deal of time pushing around an old-fashioned bicycle that she hasn't figured out how to ride yet, though she won't admit it to anybody, and fiddling with a miniature automaton of the Wright Brothers' first-flight airplane, which she can't quite get to work. Meanwhile, the medicine fair is absolutely crawling with automata that shouldn't work, but somehow do. The more Natalie finds out about Limberleg and Co., the more disturbed she feels – and you'll share her unease.

This is a tale full of dreadful omens, weird characters and creepy stories-within-the-story that turn out to be closer to the truth than makes one comfortable. It has devils in it, not to mention the big-D Devil. It has at least two characters who serve as examples of how dangerous it is to deal personally with Old Scratch. It has in it beings perhaps even stranger than these, some of them gradually becoming so scary that you might have to put the book down and pace up and down the room a few times. It has material that will make you laugh out loud and get choked up with emotion. It creates a place where folklore comes to life, and where a very perceptive girl turns out to have a crucial role. It has an all but unbearable climax. Its originality, intelligence and gut-level intensity will leave a lasting impression. Note to self: Remember this book when Robbie Awards time comes round again.

Not to be confused with the steampunk novel Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, this book has a prequel titled The Broken Lands. Kate Milford is also the author of four Greenglass House books – Greenglass House, Ghosts of Greenglass House, Bluecrowne and The Thief Knot – and the novel The Left-Handed Fate.

Monday, March 9, 2020


Onward is a Disney/Pixar movie that makes good use of the voice acting talents of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Octavia Spencer and Tracey Ullman, and indifferent use (sorry) of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Mel Rodriguez – whom I stupidly mistook for other actors while at the same time wondering why they weren't as good as they usually are. It's set in a world that used to be magical but is now kind of like ours, only with vestigial traces of magic like a centaur sheriff, a manticore who runs a medieval-themed restaurant, a cute pet dragon that reminded me of my parents' miniature dachshund, and so on. It has pixie motorcycle gangs that don't fly, mushroom-shaped houses and a couple of teenage troll brothers who set off on a quest to unearth a surviving nugget of magic so they can spend one day getting to know their dad, who died when they were very little.

Older bro Barley (Pratt) barely remembers him; younger Ian (Holland) has no memory at all of their dad. But on Ian's 16th birthday, they inherit his wizard staff and a spell that's supposed to bring him back for one 24-hour period. It only works halfway, however – the bottom half. So, joined by a pair of legs that can communicate with them only by bumping sneaker against sneaker, they set off in search of a crystal to bring the staff back to full power and finish the spell. Along the way, the brothers bicker and eventually fall out, before Ian realizes that everything he missed doing with his dad, he did with his older brother. It's a touching, feel-good family story with a surprising mixture of magic and modernity (such as rusty old vans and overpasses), climaxing in a scene involving an attack by a stone dragon that manages to be funny, exciting and heartwarming all at the same time.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The brothers use a spell to impersonate their centaur stepdad, hampered by the fact that every time they lie, the illusion fades a little. (2) The invisible bridge spell, which will only bear your weight if you completely believe that it's there. It reminds me of an analogy I used to make during theological arguments about a certain doctrine, but I won't go into that right now. (3) Everything that happens after the brothers realize their long, arduous quest has led them around to (spoiler deleted), and Ian goes off to sulk while Barley keeps trying, and Ian comes to an important realization, and a curse brings the stone dragon into being, etc., etc. It's all the things I already said it is, and it fits together beautifully.

Private Eyes

Private Eyes
by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

Dr. Alex Delaware no longer practices as a child psychologist, other than consulting on family law cases and helping an LAPD homicide detective solve an occasional twisted case. But he's always available to his former patients. Now a young woman he hasn't seen or heard from since she was nine years old – nine years ago – calls on him for help, and he can't refuse. Melissa was a remarkable patient – almost a magical case, Alex has always thought – a girl who called for help at age 7 to deal with her own crippling phobias. Now Melissa is concerned about her mom, a former actress and model who was severely burned by an acid attack years ago and has been agoraphobic ever since. Gina Ramp is starting to come out of her shell, with the aid of a new husband and a pair of therapists. But Melissa, who has been accepted at Harvard, is feeling a little jealous and suspects these people's motives. Also, the guy who burned her is out of jail, off parole and back in town. Melissa worries about leaving her mom to their tender mercies, and wants Alex's read on the situation.

Alex is still reading it when Gina up and disappears, apparently while driving to a therapy session all by herself – something nobody thought she was ready to do. Melissa is at her wits' end. Alex's cop buddy, on suspension after decking a superior officer on live TV, is willing to come on board as a private investigator. So, while Milo follows the trails of all possible motives for hurting Gina – including love, revenge and money – Alex looks at the behavioral angles. Something is off about Melissa's stepdad and his tennis instructor. Then there's the girl's boyfriend, whose mother works for the stepdad. The family banker and the family lawyer, who seem in an awful hurry to take control of Gina Ramp's estate. An ex-con who claims to be trying to make amends, but whose motive for burning Gina's face was never explained. A hint of something inappropriate going on between Gina and her therapist. Unanswered questions about the fate of the psychologist who originally referred Melissa to Alex. When evidence surfaces suggesting that Gina Ramp is dead, it becomes terribly urgent to put the pieces together.

With a late 1980s-early 1990s Los Angeles setting, this book is recent enough to qualify as present-day while still providing nostalgic glimpses of that cultural moment. At the same time, it has the literary quality of a perfectly-worked-out hardboiled mystery updated for a later generation. That's in spite of the fact that the "private eyes" are actually a child psychologist who really cares about his client's wellbeing and an investigator who is, and always will be, a cop at heart. The particular terms of their partnership in this case put a certain strain on their friendship; and of course, it also allows Alex to find himself in one of those dangerous situations you should never go into without police backup, four or five novels since he should have learned that lesson. But still, as I say, it's pretty hardboiled, with a sense of self-deprecating irony, detailed eye for architecture, home decor, personal appearance and dress, and a blues-tinged romantic dilemma between two women he loves in different ways. You'll think he's going to break both of their hearts, or maybe it'll go the other way around. It's so very Philip Marlowe.

This is the sixth of (currently) 35 mystery-thrillers featuring child psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware and his LAPD detective buddy Milo Sturgis. Previous installments are When the Bough Breaks, Blood Test, Over the Edge, Silent Partner and Time Bomb; coming next after this book is Devil's Waltz. The author, himself an authority on child psychology, is part of the powerhouse Kellerman writing family that also includes his wife Faye (cf. the Decker and Lazarus crime novels) and son Jesse.