Tuesday, September 29, 2020

His Majesty's Dragon

His Majesty's Dragon
by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 13+

Will Laurence has a promising career as a prize-taking frigate captain in the Royal Navy during his country's conflict against Napoleonic France. Even that career earns frowns from his father, Lord Allendale, who would prefer that his younger sons go into the clergy. But when a ready-to-hatch dragon's egg turns up in the cargo hold of a captured French man-o'-war – nay, when the just-hatched reptile refuses to be harnessed by anyone but Laurence – all his ambitions and prospects go out the cabin window. The young dragon, scarcely out of the shell, begins talking to him, exchanges polite greetings, allows Laurence to give him a name – the young captain loses his head and names him Temeraire, after a famous warship – and accepts a bridle, effectively swearing both of them into His Majesty's Aerial Corps. For naval guns and army maneuvers are all very well, but everone knows that the key battles of the Napoleonic wars can only be fought in the sky, between two air forces in which human officers and crewmen harness dragon power.

At first, Laurence is a bit discouraged by the sudden end of his naval career, his hopes of marrying a certain young lady, and all the other comforts a gentleman can expect from polite society. But very quickly, he and the growing dragonet form a bond. It would not be hyperbole to say that the first part of this book is a love story between a man and his dragon. The last two pages of that section are as warm and movingly tender as anything I have ever read. And so it's already past the time for me to try disguising the fact that I fell in love with this book, and stayed in love with it all the way to the end.

After the first test, whether Laurence and Temeraire will stay together in the aerial service, Part II moves on to their training at a Scottish covert, where they meet a variety of other dragons and their human handlers. Temeraire grows up, and together they learn all kinds of air warfare maneuvers. Dragons turn out, even to Laurence's surprise, to be the equals if not (in some cases) the superiors of the men and women they serve with – and pray, pay attention to that "and women" bit. The women of the Corps are ahead of their time, for reasons (and with results) you'll have to read the book to understand. But I assure you, it's worth the reading.

They see action in Part III, and Temeraire shows rare qualities that, according to a leading scholar on dragon breeds, may be a sign of different kinds of trouble to come. Like, apparently, the young dragon belongs to a breed jealously guarded by the Chinese and reserved for imperial use alone. Like, apparently, his egg was meant as a gift to Napoleon himself. And as a traitor reveals, after nearly getting the best of Laurence, Temeraire and friends, the Corsican upstart resents having his bespoke dragon harnessed by a British officer. Besides the consequences of this in their first book of adventures, it seems this may lead to further developments as the series continues.

At the risk of repeating myself, I love this book. I love-love it. I love, love, love it. All right, enough repeating myself. It's a book showing the results of wide and deep research into the history, methods and manners of naval warfare. It's also a beautiful piece of writing exhibiting powerful imagination, an eye for scenery, and ear for dialogue, a knack for depicting thrilling action and a compelling storyline, and just a tremendous talent overall. I want to read more books by this author. I want to read them all.

Originally titled Temeraire, this book won a John W. Campbell Best Book award, actually beating two of my favorite books by Brandon Sanderson. It's also the first of nine books in the "Temeraire" series, followed by Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory, Victory of Eagles, Tongues of Serpents, Crucible of Gold, Blood of Tyrants and League of Dragons. Naomi Novik is also the author of Will Supervillains Be on the Final?, Spinning Silver, the Nebula and Mythopoeic Fantasy Award winner Uprooted, a collection titled Golden Age and Other Stories and, coincidentally released this very day, A Deadly Education.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Worst Witch

The Worst Witch
by Jill Murphy
Recommended Ages: 10+

Mildred Hubble is the most mishap-prone Year One student at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches. Her broomstick is held together by cellotape. Her familiar, who would traditionally be a black cat, is only a gray tabby. When she tries to turn a bullying snob named Ethel into a frog, she gets the spell wrong and turns her into a pig instead. Her poor judgment even affects her best friend Maud, like she makes a mistake in potions class and turns them both invisible.

Poor Mildred is constantly being sent to Miss Cackle's office, and she's afraid that if this keeps up, she'll be sent away from the school. Mildred's misery comes to a head on Halloween night when, thanks to a prank by Ethel, everybody blames her for spoiling a broomstick formation flight in front of all the local wizards. Mildred decides to run away from school, only to stumble upon a sneaky threat to Miss Cackle's Academy. In less time than it takes me to write this, the school's most hopeless witch becomes the hero of the hour.

Not so much a novel as a very slim chapter book, this story bubbles like a cauldron full of laughing potion. It's warmhearted, funny, full of insight into a child's anxieties about school, with friendly illustrations and just a pinch of Halloweenie spookiness mixed with its magic. Written at a level that I think would go over a treat with kids too little to start on Harry Potter, it bears comparison on a number of points with J.K. Rowling's later series of books (like, for example, being set in a castle). I like Mildred, and I'll surely look in on some of her other adventures in the future.

Written way back in 1974, this is the first installment in the eight-book "Worst Witch" series, with sequels running from 1980's The Worst Witch Strikes Again to 2018's First Prize for the Worst Witch. It's been adapted as a TV movie starring Fairuza Balk (1986), A Canadian TV series (1998-2001) with at least two spinoffs, and an ongoing CBBC series that started in 2017. There has even been a live stage version. British author Jill Murphy has also penned about 11 "Large Family" children's books and the standalone books Geoffrey Strangeways, Worlds Apart and Dear Hound.

Keeper of the Lost Cities

Keeper of the Lost Cities
by Shannon Messenger
Recommended Ages: 11+

It wouldn't be true to say that there's never before been a book series to answer the question "What if Harry Potter was a girl?" I mean, Nita in Diane Duane's "Young Wizards" series is a girl – although she doesn't learn magic at a school like Hogwarts. E. Rose Sabin's A School of Sorcery features a female magic student named Tria, but after her acceptance letter the adventure bears little resemblance to anything in the Potterverse. The heroine of Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics spends only part of the book actually studying at said college. These are all series (or parts of series) in which we find girls studying magic, but they don't really have much in common with the Boy Who Lived. So, although it's not quite accurate to say it's never been done, flipping the gender roles in "Harry Potter" hasn't been done as thoroughly as in this book.

Sophie Foster isn't a wizard who's been brought up by muggles, however. She's an elf who has been raised among humans. Long ago, in the world this book inhabits, humans broke their side of a treaty between all the intelligent races in the world, including elves, dwarves, goblins, gnomes, etc. So, the allied races took themselves into hiding – for example, by sinking the continent of Atlantis to the ocean floor – and they pointedly have nothing to do with humankind. However, our Sophie has reached age 12 believing she's a human and knowing nothing about the world she really belongs to. Her only clue that there's something different about her is her ability to hear other people's thoughts, which is more of a disability than an ability; without any idea how to control it, telepathy afflicts Sophie with headaches and loads her down with a secret she's terrified others will find out.

She's having a hard enough time fitting in at school even before someone publishes an article about her, exposing her as a freak. During a field trip to a museum, a strange boy recognizes her and reveals that he's a telepath, too. He whisks her off to the elvin world and tells her it's where she really belongs. In fact, for her family's safety, they have to forget they ever had her, while Sophie finds herself set up for adoption by a couple still grieving from the death of their own child – an experience so rare among elves that nobody understands what they're going through.

Sophie is still struggling to accept all this as she is enrolled in Foxfire, a school for elvin nobility, where she starts learning things that overturn all the science she learned in human school, and where things that you and I would take for magic are just the way everyday things work. She struggles to keep up in alchemy class, learns to bottle rainbows and starlight, practices a version of dodgeball where you move the ball with your mind, feels tempted to cheat on her midterm, and tries to hold together a group of friends who belong to totally different social cliques. All the usual angsty teenage stuff, only with telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis and a bunch of other mind-over-matter talents that will blow your mind right alongside Sophie's.

But Sophie isn't just any student. Sort of like how Harry is the Chosen One, there's a secret about Sophie's past that endangers her and those close to her. There's a dissident movement that the elvin council doesn't even to want to admit exists, and they have something to do with why Sophie spent her first 12 years living as a human. Someone has buried secret knowledge in her brain, and as each piece of information comes to the surface, it causes her to inadvertently say or do something dangerous and/or forbidden by elvin law. She has powers she doesn't know about, waiting for the right trigger to become manifest. There are forces in play that seem to want her to get in trouble, to be kicked out of Foxfire, to be exiled or worse. And there seem to be people who want to use her for what purpose she can scarcely guess.

So, Sophie's first year at Foxfire is, somewhat like Harry's at Hogwarts, a year of discovering all kinds of magical possibilities that all the other kids her age have known about all their lives, making new friends and enemies, getting into weird scrapes, and wondering, "Why me?" What she's up against isn't anything quite as definite as a Dark Lord. In fact, the deeper she gets into it – naturally, by poking her nose into matters she's been warned to pay no mind to – the more apparent it becomes that whatever is going on is more complicated than anybody has guessed. She breaks open hidden reserves of stupendous power. She survives an inordinate number of life-threatening accidents. She suffers doubts about who her true friends and family are, and has particular trouble managing her feelings for two boys who don't get along with each other.

So, as I said, it's the closest thing to "what if Harry Potter was a girl," with a 12-year-old girl who suddenly learns that there's a hidden world of magic in which she truly belongs, and a school for kids like herself. But there are also people who don't want her to be there, and people who want to destroy her, and people who want to use her for (no doubt) nefarious purposes, and all kinds of ways a gifted girl can be in terrible danger, ranging from mishaps in P.E. class and severe allergic reactions to an ordeal in which she almost sacrifices her life for a friend. It's an emotional ride for a girl who feels things strongly, and who cares about doing the right thing (though she is often tempted to do otherwise), and whose need for family and friends and a place to belong is put to a painful test. It's a peek into a unique magical world with whimsical creatures, strange powers, dark secrets and fabulous scenery – and a parade of strong personalities, working out a dramatic storyline in front of it. Funny, thrilling, heartwarming, a bit teen-romancey, and with scary undercurrents, it has something in it to keep pretty much anyone turning the pages.

This book is the first installment in a series by the same name, whose succeeding titles include Exile, Everblaze, Neverseen, Lodestar, Nightfall, Flashback and Legacy. Messenger is also the author of the trilogy Let the Sky Fall, Let the Storm Break and Let the Wind Rise. I've obviously come to the party late. This series already has a fandom, as evidenced by a Youtube video I just saw in which a teenage boy announces his dream cast if they ever make a movie out of "KotLC" (an acronym he rattles off so fast that it doesn't sound like an acronym). I must be losing touch with the times, because I never realized it existed until this book showed up on the discount rack at the local Walmart. It took a few chapters for the hook to set, but I enjoyed it overall and I can see the attraction of continuing with the series.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Thick as Thieves

Thick as Thieves
by Megan Whalen Turner
Recommended Ages: 12+

In a fantasy world inspired by ancient Greece, a slave named Kamet has realistic hopes of becoming the most powerful man in the Empire. Already he wields enough independent power over the household goods of his His master, which more than makes up (in Kamet's mind) for the occasional savage beating. Plus, Nahuseresh, the younger brother of the heir to the dying emperor, has signaled his intent to give Kamet to his brother as a coronation gift. Then one fateful day, Kamet's life is changed by two encounters in the corridors of Nahuseresh's home in the imperial capital. First, a burly soldier from the tiny, independent country of Attolia whispers to him that if he wants to be free, Kamet should meet him later. Kamet's initial reaction is to bust a gut laughing: Free? In that filthy, uncultured backwater? But then, a maidservant Kamet secretly loves and trusts whispers that their master is dead, poisoned; and when the emperor finds out, the entire household staff will be tortured and killed, starting with Kamet.

So Kamet and the Attolian, only much later identified as Costis, begin a long trek across the Empire, pursued by a force of imperial law that, Kamet knows, reserves its most terrible punishments for crimes related to slavery. Slave rebellion, slave escape, slave theft – compared to these crimes, assassinating a high ranking member of the royal family is a minor infraction. The unlikely pair marches across forbidding landscapes, hunted by vicious animals and equally vicious men – from imperial bodyguards to slave traders. They tangle with the violently insane, with treacherous cowards, with bounty hunters and (this part will seem familiar to some, nowadays) with health officials whose plague prevention measures are monstrous.

Meanwhile, Costis and Kamet form an odd bond that Kamet is slow to recognize as friendship. It tests the level of priority he places on his own survival. It challenges his ideas about strength and weakness, foolishness and wisdom, savagery and civilization, slavery and freedom. Their journey binds them together in a friendship that mimics the heroes of a series of myths that Costis likes to hear Kamet tell, and at one moment whose effect teeters between chilling and heartwarming, they experience something that makes them wonder whether it's more than a myth.

Of course, their whole adventure serves a purpose understood only by the maddening, wonderful, self-contradictory King of Attolia – a man so obviously flawed, weak and stupid that his enemies always underestimate him; a man so unbelievably good, strong and brilliant that, when he finally sees him up close, Kamet immediately has his measure and blurts out a word that changes how both of them are addressed from then on. It's an adventure with a clever twist that, at one point early in the book, I guessed was coming, then forgot about for long enough that it surprised me when it came. It's a story with stories embedded in it, bearing witness to the romance of literature itself. It's a tale that conjures a whole, complex world, tests the character of the men in it and rewards the reader on a deep emotional level.

This is the fifth of soon-to-be six in the "Queen's Thief" series, preceded by The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings, all of which deservedly share a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for children's and young adult fiction. Book 6, Return of the Thief, is set to be released on Oct. 6, 2020. Turner is also the author of the young adult novel Instead of Three Wishes.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Tacky Hymns 80

For the last time I repeat:
We continue our run-through of the hymns in The Lutheran Hymnal (Concordia Publishing House, 1941) with emphasis on three types of hymns: (1) instances of bad judgment by the folks who selected hymns for the book, judged on the basis of historic, confessional and liturgical Lutheranism; (2) noteworthy quirks of hymn-tune pairing; and (3) wonderful hymns that I think should receive more play time (by which I mean singing time) in confessional Lutheran congregations, even if it means undertaking a challenging process of getting acquainted, because of their precious spiritual and artistic value.
In this last installment regarding TLH, we tackle the section toward the end of the book titled "Carols and Spiritual Songs," which I foretold would carry a lot of "Type 1" tackiness in proportion to the rest of the book.

(645) Behold, a Branch is growing begins the section with a weird translation of the German Christmas carol "Es ist ein Ros," set to an isometric version of its own tune. Usually the translation runs "Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming," and the rhythmic version is quite well-known. I'm guessing the editors of TLH weren't down with the Rose metaphor that runs through this carol. Like some other carols that really don't measure up to the standards of being sung in church, this one imposes some assumptions on the Christmas story that aren't supported by Holy Writ, such as stanza 1's description of the flower of Jesse's stem being born "in midst of coldest winter, at deepest midnight hour" (a bit of poetic license, to be sure). The "midnight" canard is repeated in stanza 2. Some of this carol, however, is unusually fine, such as stanza 4, which continues the flower metaphor with a description of sweet fragrance that dispels darkness, confessing, "True Man, yet very God; from sin and death He saves us and lightens every load." So I'll withhold tacks from it, except for a tack shaving for the isometric melody and for flinching back from the Rose metaphor in line 1.

(646) Silent night! Holy night! has previously gotten lip from me.

(647) O little town of Bethlehem, or rather its tune ST. LOUIS, has also already been honored by my criticism. However, I might also note that besides ST. LOUIS and frequently seen alternate tune FOREST GREEN, I have detected ties between this well-known Christmas carol and several other hymn tunes, including Henry Walford Davies' CHRISTMAS CAROL (cf. SBH 27).

(649) Jesus, Savior, pilot me is another been-there, done-that.

(650) Behold a Stranger at the door is a flimsy little scrap of decisionistic, altar call rubbish that shouldn't be in a Lutheran hymnal. Written by a certain Joseph Grigg (1765), set to Lowell Mason's HAMBURG (itself adapted from the Gregorian First Tone) and based on an obnoxious interpretation of Revelation 3:20, it (or through it, the singer) reasons and begs and pleads and cajoles and nags some imaginary person whose tush is warming the anxious bench to "admit Him" before He departs in wrath, before "the hour's at hand when at His door denied you'll stand." Oh, let Him in, it insists; let His reign in your heart begin; open the door. And presto! Your Lutheran congregation has become Methodist.

(651) Be still, my soul is a song I've frequently mentioned on this blog but, at the moment, I can't confirm my impression that I've taken it head-on. Set to the tune FINLANDIA, excerpted from the tone-poem by that name by Jean Sibelius – which, depending on who you ask, is either the one piece that makes him as a composer or the piece because of which they (classical snobs) write him off, and so both groups miss out on all his really great music – it's both an example of my long-running thesis that themes from secular music mix with hymnody only at great peril to both hymnody and the original music, and an example of really stinky taste. As a hymn tune, Sibelius' chorale theme is a great big gushy mess of inconclusive waffle, weighted down with pompous sentimentality. Wedded to Catharina von Schlegel's 1752 poem, it absorbs an additional layer of sentimentality, particularly in the repeated words "Be still, my soul." What in the name of all good is the congregation doing singing a pious individual's pep talk to his or her own soul? On the face of it, everything else the hymn says is fine, but it leaves so much unsaid – undertaking to encourage the struggling Christian by reasoning with them about God's love without ever mentioning Christ's cross, or the resurrection, or the means of grace.

I touched on (653) Now the light has gone away before – or at least, its too-precious tune, MUEDE BIN ICH. About Frances R. Havergal's children's bedtime prayer poem, I have to admit it hits many points that I think would be good for children to learn to pray about. It actually puts to shame a lot of other kiddie hymns, simply by including such lines as "Thou didst die that I might live. All my blessings come from Thee" and "Thou wilt love me to the end." Also to be commended to parents seeking a hymn for their children to learn by heart are (654) Now the day is over (words and music by Sabine Baring-Gould, best known for this hymn and "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and for his translation of the Basque carol, "The angel Gabriel from heaven came") and (655) I pray Thee, dear Lord Jesus, a one-stanza hymn from Thomas Kingo's Danish, set to Hartnack Zinck's beautiful tune JEG VIL MIG HERREN LOVE.

As evidence that a single remark made in passing can ruin something beautiful for you, I might mention (656) Behold a host, arrayed in white, which I thought was all right until a certain pastor mused aloud that the line at the end of stanza 2, "The Lamb, their Lord, at festal board Himself is Host and Guest" doesn't really make sense in the context of the paschal feast – or at least, fails to mention that He actually is the feast. Let's put it down to things inevitably going astray in translation and note that (1) TLH employs a pretty hymn-like arrangement adapted from Edvard Grieg's harmonization of the Norwegian folk melody DEN STORE HVIDE FLOK, which TLH titles GREAT WHITE HOST; compare the much more theatrical arrangement in LW 192. (2) Folks who can imagine no other tune being paired with this hymn may be astonished to learn that in LHy 492, the Grieg piece is only the second tune, while the first is a Ludvig Lindeman number by the same name. And finally, (3), I'm the organist who missed a repeat sign while playing the second tune out of LHy 492 and left the congregation hanging at the end of Stanza 3. Mea maxima culpa.

(657) Beautiful Savior is that hymn, which everyone knows by heart from Sunday School on up and can probably sing in harmony even if on most days of the week they can't carry a tune, translated from German by Joseph Seiss, a 19th Century dispensationalist and leader of a movement within American Lutheranism toward being more American and less Lutheran. At risk of burning any bridges still standing after all my caustic remarks in the first 79 installments in this thread, let me note that his musical masterpiece is really not all that it's cracked up to be. Stanza 1's phrasing "Truly I'd love Thee, Truly I'd serve Thee" comes across as oddly conditional, though the conditions aren't stated; maybe it's a contrary-to-fact statement, like "if only You weren't like the Lutheran Confessions say You are." Stanza 2 waxes lyrical about meadows, woodlands and flowers, only to claim that Jesus beats them all. In case that theme hasn't been sufficiently developed, Stanza 3 applies the same richness of description (mostly the adjective "fair") to sunshine, moonlight, stars and even the angels of heaven, than all of which Jesus shines brighter and purer. And finally, after a semi-repeat of stanza 1, the fourth ascribes glory, honor, praise and adoration to Him. Which all adds up to about as much fun as a group of Lutherans can have singing about Jesus without devoting even one word to our reasons for praising Him – who He is and what He does for us. I just wish Seiss had mentioned glacier-topped mountains so I could make clever use of the phrase "snow job."

(658) Onward, Christian soldiers is that other well-known hymn by Sabine Baring-Gould, with music by Arthur Sullivan (yea, he of Gilbert & Sullivan), and (660) I'm but a stranger here also partakes of a Sullivan tune, and on both of them I have previously commented at least once; and beyond what I said there, peace.

Next time, I think, I will follow a reader's suggestion and begin a new segment, praising the beauties (and occasionally knocking the blemishes) of The Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, the ELS hymnal that came out in 1996 when I happened to be in the ELS, and for whose editors I hold much personal and professional love and admiration. Could they be guilty of tackiness? Well, nobody's perfect. Wait and see. We might just find out that they've uncovered rare treasures worthy to be more widely known.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Word Coining Dream

In the past week or two, I've posted a couple of whimsical word coinages on Facebook:

Boinkruptcy: n. financial ruin resulting from sexual misconduct.
Pressert: n. dessert eaten before the meal.
Priesta: n. a nap taken before a meal.

Last night, or early this morning, I had a dream in which I subconsciously coined a new word – unless it's a foreign word that I'm not aware that I'm aware of. The latter has happened before, you know. I had a dream once from which I awoke and wrote down a marvelous line that I had heard coming out of my own mouth, thinking that a portion of it was just beautiful gibberish, only to realize in the morning that it was ancient Greek. (And before you go woo-woo, I studied Greek in college.) So, I'm not ruling out the possibility that this might mean something in a real language, but at the moment I can't find any evidence of that.

Then again, as this blog elsewhere bears witness, I have coined words before – I seem to remember "uplight" and "downlight" being among them – even sometimes in my dreams, such as "relect" and "prelect."

So, back to this morning's dream. I was listening to some guy with an Irish accent, who I believed to be a highly cultured person – maybe an author, like James Joyce or Patrick O'Brian – talk about horrible places he'd been to as a child. For imagery, I seemed to be looking at a slideshow of more or less abstract images illustrating the horribleness of those places. At one point, he mentioned the airport of a certain city in Ireland and added, with tones of disgust, a word that sounded like either ometha or olmatha – with accent on the initial o – then repeated the word with emphasis. At once, I understood that it was a rarely used but beautiful word that somehow combined the meanings "a ruin," "a shambles," "a labyrinth" and "a place whose ugliness traumatized me for life." It described somewhere badly designed, badly maintained, full of disorder and ugliness; a place where one could get lost and feel damned.

The image that went with the disembodied voice's description of yon horrible airport was something like this. Very helpful, eh?

So, I suppose, my imaginary Irish author friend may have been lamenting the brutality of brutalist architecture. But I awoke only a moment after his remark, still impressed by the vehemence with which he cried, "Ometha! Ometha!" I was so impressed that I got right up, though it was 5 a.m., and searched Google and Merriam-Webster for it, using various spellings. No luck. Can anyone tell me whether I dreamed this word up or whether it's really out there somewhere?

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Big-Ass Witch

The Big-Ass Witch
by Gary Jonas
Recommended Ages: 14+

"Half-assed wizard" Brett Masters has been granted a reprieve from being turfed out by his rich, powerful wizard father, on the condition that he take wizard lessons from cousin Sabrina and additional guidance from a Galveston, Texas witch named Lakesha. Mostly, however, Brett just wants to sleep into the afternoon, play gigs with his band and get drunk. Lakesha challenges him to show that he can care about helping others, beginning with a little ghost boy whose aunt, also a ghost, has been kidnapped.

How do you kidnap a ghost? You'll have to ask a trio of Houston-based occultists that. One of them is a woman whose perfume turns Brett into her love slave, though she has no interest in him. Another is a tattooed security guard who turns up gruesomely dead in a shopping mall toilet. The third guy seems to be connected with a strange jewelry store heist: just one stone, a black onyx, has been stolen. By a funny stroke of happenstance, Brett finds himself in possession of the hot rock. But then he also finds himself possessed by the spirit of a woman who committed suicide before he was born, and who won't rest until Brett suicides himself as well.

Forced to devote more effort to not killing himself than he has exerted toward anything in recent memory, Brett joins Lakesha and Sabrina in trying to track down a coven of witches who have apparently ghost-napped Brett's little buddy for some nefarious purpose. Or maybe it isn't so nefarious, and the two wizards and one witch are the final weapons needed in a magical battle against soul-devouring evil. Well, good luck with that.

This is the second book in the "Half-Assed Wizard" quartet, of which book 3 is titled The Dumbass Demon. I was genuinely entertained, and I thought this book outshone its predecessor, funnily enough titled The Half-Assed Wizard. A tiny, struggling spark of a sense that Brett may care about somebody other than his own lazy, willfully stupid self may be a thin thread to hang onto, but there's also sex appeal – though you shouldn't let the cover art mislead you; Brett isn't the character who's got it – as well as spooky magic (worthy of an Occult Content Advisory), laughs, charming local scenery and a touch of a hint of a clue, once again, that the way Brett's dad treats him may really be to blame for the way Brett acts most of the time. Could he be on course for self-improvement? Stay tuned.

The Half-Assed Wizard

The Half-Assed Wizard
by Gary Jonas
Recommended Ages: 14+

Brett Masters isn't just a slacker and a disappointment to his father. He's about the most epic slacker-stroke-disappointment since Abraham said to Lot, "I give you half of my fortune and you don't even think to bring back a little salt?" (I'll be here all week.) The all-important third son of a wizard who controls the oldest and most powerful magical bloodline west of the Mississippi, Brett slacked off in his magic lessons, skipped the final exam, and now slums around a house his parents own in Galveston, Texas, where he plays in a band when he isn't sleeping into the afternoon, drinking too much and trying to get laid. Even in his music, he takes the easy route, depending on a magic guitar pick to bring the tunes in his head out of the strings. He considers napping to be his superpower.

All that starts to change – well, no, it doesn't – when Brett intercepts a package from his Uncle Paul, addressed to his dad, and inadvertently tunes a tarot deck of eldritch power to himself. Now a bunch of magical bad guys who want the deck have to kill him in order to get the deck back. (I hate to mention it, but Uncle Paul kind of stole the cards.) With his son-of-a-witch dad (ha ha) testing him from one side and his dad's enemies closing in from the other, Brett's margin of survival narrows down to a vanishingly thin thread of loyalty from his cousin Sabrina (not a witch, a wizard), a sexy vampire bandmate named Michael (luckily, he can't drink wizard blood) and the fact that he, Brett, actually possesses enormous though undisciplined power.

This is a relatively short novel, fastpaced and direct, with a magically hilarious take on millennial slacker culture and a somewhat distinctive concept of how magic works. Brett's bad attitude about everything in general, and his father in particular, makes him sometimes hard to sympathize with, but since he's the narrator you kind of have to go along with it. Nevertheless, there are hints of a private pain that may explain, to a degree, how he got to be that way, and more than a hint that his adventures as a half-assed wizard are just beginning. The characters surrounding him make entertaining company, and the seawall neighborhood of Galveston reveals unexpected possibilities as a setting for weird and dangerous adventures. All in all, I thought it was the start of a series I'd be willing to continue with.

This is the first of four "Half-Assed Wizard" books, followed by The Big-Ass Witch, The Dumbass Demon and The Lame-Assed Doppelganger, about which I would like to observe (1) that I never imagined I would go to so much trouble verifying the difference between "ass" and "assed," and (2) although I scored this book for free on Kindle, it succeeded in scoring money from me to get the sequel. Gary Jonas is also the author of about 12 "Jonathan Shade" novels (Modern Sorcery etc.), six "Hitman" books (So You Wanna Be a Hitman etc.), five "Kelly Chan" books (Vampire Midnight, etc.), and about five other novels.

Friday, September 18, 2020

You Are a Ghost (Sign Here Please)

You Are a Ghost (Sign Here Please)
by Andrew Stanek
Recommended Ages: 14+

Through six deaths in about as many days, Nathan Haynes has been waging a one-man battle against the afterlife bureaucracy. But now the senior manager in charge of getting Nathan to stay dead thinks he may have found a way. Denied a replacement body, Nathan returns to the world of the living as a ghost. He can't really do much to protect himself against apparatchiki's efforts to ensnare him in an eternity of non-corporeality. Luckily, he has friends, kind of. One of them is an eccentric dude named Travis, who lives outside the laws of nature because he refuses to believe in them; another is an afterlife bureaucrat named Brian, who actually hates Nathan but wants to use him as an instrument of revenge on his own higher-ups.

Together, this quirky trio continues to explore the bizarre, violent community of Dead Donkey, Nevada, where a university economics prof is as close as you can get (and close enough, apparently) to a worker of magic, where "particularly cynical atheists" are in hot competition with the Cult of Dave for the fastest growing local religion, where dogs and waterfowl have amazing abilities and where one guy is such a loser (surprisingly, we're not talking about Nathan here) that he enables our hero to win a cosmic game of chance. Also, we meet another serial killer, take another doomed flight on Dead Donkey Airlines, and experience yet another death by a combination of stroke, badger attack and falling bathtub – all by way of exploring deeper philosophical questions about the stupidity of life.

It's not exactly fertile ground for feel-good material, and at times the worldview of the author becomes a bit irritating. Nevertheless, I remain one of those people who laugh at his jokes – which I'm sure makes me a bad person, but there it is. While there's a certain cyclic repetitiveness to the plot so far (especially taking into account the previous book in the series), it builds on that foundation by focusing its ridicule on different fields of endeavor and aspects of life in a universe that has perhaps never been depicted as so absurd and pointless. Stanek's religious views are no doubt obnoxious, but they can't be more obnoxious than the cultists of Dave or the atheists who, once again, prove willing to go to ironically transcendental ends to advance their cause. And then there's Nathan himself, whose brain damage explains but doesn't excuse his apparent unwillingness, bordering on inability, to escape from Dead Donkey even if his life depends on it.

This is the second installment in a Kindle "boxed set" of the six-book "You Are Dead" series, or maybe it's the "Sign Here Please" series. The first book was You Are Dead (Sign Here Please) and the other titles following this book all include the same first two words and the same paranthetical remark, varying only by such words as Doomed, Undead, On Fire and Concluded. What the author says in an afterword to this book is apparently true, judging by reviews that I spotted on Amazon: Everyone who reads these books either thinks they're funny or conceives a violent hatred of them and their author. Nevertheless he has also published several other books, including works of mystery, fantasy, sci fi and humor. Other titles of his that interest me at the moment include Murder on Wheels – one of 16 books featuring "kleptomaniac detective" Felix Green; Unverified – a comedy of social media manners; and Andrew's Anarchy – a novel about using time travel as a tax shelter.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Shadow Cipher

The Shadow Cipher
by Laura Ruby
Recommended Ages: 11+

Twins Tess and Theo and their across-the-hallway neighbor Jaime live in an alternate-world version of New York City, where a pair of mysterious twins named Theresa and Theodore Morningstarr (notice the similar names?) changed the course of history. More than 100 years ago, the Morningstarrs built marvelous machines that still work but that nobody understands – from animated suits of armor that cook and clean in people's homes to caterpillars that pick up trash and other metallic creatures that clean windows. They built the Underway, a system of underground and elevated trains that knocks our world's subways into a cocked hat. The skies and rivers are clean because of the energy sources they discovered, and the towers they built around the city are magical places to live in – including 354 W. 73rd St., where our heroes live. It's a building where the elevator moves in all directions and never follows the same route twice, where some families have lived for generations, and where three kids with varied problems feel uniquely safe. But they're about to get kicked out, because the city has decided to sell the building to a sinister developer named Slant, whose creepy goons Stoop and Pinscher don't even wait for the residents' 30 day notice to expire before they start sneaking off with pieces of the building.

The kids are devastated. They realize that to save their home, they have to solve a puzzle called the Old York Cipher – a series of clues that the Morningstarrs left behind before they disappeared, promising that whoever solved them would be richly rewarded. Loads of people have been trying to solve it for many years. There's even a society devoted to exploring the Cipher, but the search is at a standstill. Could the real solution lie at the end of a completely different series of clues? Is it possible that the Cipher has a mind of its own, and it has chosen these three kids at just this moment to solve it? Will they get there on time to save 354 W. 73rd St., and will they survive what the Cipher throws at them?

In an adventure ranging all over the city, their new branch-line of clues leads Tess, Theo and Jaime to museums, architectural wonders, and precariously preserved remnants of the United States' early history, including lots of real-world discoveries with perhaps just a twist of alternate-world difference. The kids discover little-known facts (and artifacts) about George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Dickens, and more. But also, they find themselves in hair-raising danger, menaced by machines, a traitor in friend's clothing, and a horrible creature that Pinscher and Stoop have at their command. On top of all that, they also have to deal with family and social issues like watching a loved one lose his memory, missing an absent parent, suffering from paralyzing anxiety, getting along with abrasive neighbors and relatives, and of course, the growing certainty of losing their home.

The three kids in this book are special. One of the twins is very bright, but his sister teases him about being an emotional robot. The other really needs the companionship of a huge, superintelligent cat. Then there's Jaime, who has a remarkable gift for drawing and who has comic books on the brain. Besides their talents, they have have big hearts, which connect them with a larger cast of zany but endearing characters. Their adventure is fraught with fun, mystery, moments of terror, and humanity that touches the emotions in a variety of ways. There are some weird, ominous and horrible things moving around the edges of the story, too. But there are also jaw-dropping scenes that will definitely max out the art design and special effects budget of your mental movie studio.

This is the first book in the "York" trilogy. Its sequels are The Clockwork Ghost and The Map of Stars. Other titles by Laura Ruby include The Wall and the Wing and its sequel, The Chaos King; the children's book Lily's Ghosts; the young adult novels Good Girls, Play Me, Bad Apple, Bone Gap and Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All; and the adult novel I'm Not Julia Roberts.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Tacky Hymns 79

Again I repeat:
We continue our run-through of the hymns in The Lutheran Hymnal (Concordia Publishing House, 1941) with emphasis on three types of hymns: (1) instances of bad judgment by the folks who selected hymns for the book, judged on the basis of historic, confessional and liturgical Lutheranism; (2) noteworthy quirks of hymn-tune pairing; and (3) wonderful hymns that I think should receive more play time (by which I mean singing time) in confessional Lutheran congregations, even if it means undertaking a challenging process of getting acquainted, because of their precious spiritual and artistic value.
(542) The sun arises now is a "Type 3" phenomenon, a "morning" hymn by Danish author Thomas Kingo (1699) set to its own tune, NU RINDER SOLEN OP, from H.O.K. Zinck's Koralbog (1801), both well deserving to be introduced into the predominantly German-American circles of Missouri and Wisconsin at the time TLH came out – but apparently not such a hit that it stuck in their repertoire. Of two other instances of this hymn I have found in Anglophone hymnody, one is in the American Lutheran Hymnal (Columbus, Ohio: The Wartburg Press, 1930) – at last, I've located one of those books whose acronym, in my personal index of Lutheran hymnals, has stymied me lately – and the other is in ELHy. The tune, also known as SUNRISE and ZINCK, also appears in three other hymnals (LHy, ALH and The Concordia Hymnal, hereafter TCH), paired with three other texts. I get that the editors of the latest hymnals are all about representing a more "catholic" range of hymn writers, but in my opinion, letting excellent work by key representatives of a whole, culturally and historically strong branch of Lutheranism fall by the wayside is a huge missed opportunity.

(543) When, streaming from the eastern skies is a mild case of "Type 2," a morning hymn by William Shrubsole (1813, cento, alt.) that TLH sets to the respectable chorale ALL EHR UND LOB (Strasbourg, 1541). I only bring it up because LHy 550 pairs it with BROWNELL, a tune by Franz Joseph Haydn that I think may be the ultimate example of a beautiful, classical music theme that has been co-opted into the church's hymnody to the detriment of both classical music and hymn singing. It's gorgeous, but way too difficult for the congregation to sing. If you want to better appreciate the musical legacy Haydn left our culture, I recommend listening to the Philharmonia Hungarica's boxed set of his complete symphonies (available on Naxos CD), in which I immersed myself for a full year (c. 1998-99) and which I now miss like an amputated limb.

(550) O Splendor of God's glory bright is a "Type 3" hymn – nine stanzas translated from the Latin of St. Ambrose of Milan (4th century) and set to Nikolaus Herman's 1560 chorale O HEILIGE DREIFALTIGKEIT. LSB 874 swaps in a nice modern tune (PUTNAM by living composer Stephen Johnson) and on that difference, I have no opinion whatsoever. However, I don't care for the fact that LSB snips out three of the stanzas of a hymn that I once memorized for extra credit on a seminary exam. I don't remember whether it was a history class on the early church or a dogmatics class on God and creation, but I found the exercise very fruitful and I cherish all nine stanzas that I learned. Here's a sample of this brilliant, theologically rich hymn: "On Christ, the true Bread, let us feed; Let Him to us be drink indeed, And let us taste with joyfulness The Holy Spirit's plenteousness."

(556) O God, be with us (for the night is falling) is another "Type 3" – an "evening" hymn by Petrus Herbert (1566), plus one stanza by an anonymous 17th century writer, set to a 16th century chorale by Petrus Nigidius titled DIE NACHT IST KOMMEN. The tune has a tricky rhythm to it, and it wouldn't be unreasonable to substitute a tune like HERZLIEBSTER JESU; however, I think the challenge is one a congregation can rise to meet once conditioned to sing the rhythmic chorales prevalent in TLH. It has a distinctly Reformation era character, a solemn energy that I find intriguing. But enough about the tune. The text is also remarkable, starting (at the end) with a one-stanza paraphrase of the Lord's Prayer and working backward to include a statement of faith in the protecting presence of God the Father; a prayer for relief of all the afflicted; a prayer for grace whether asleep or awake; and a two-stanza paraphrase of Luther's evening prayer, complete with the "let Thy holy angel be with us, that the wicked foe may have no power over us" bit. Installing this hymn in your congregation would be like a shot of Lutheranephrine right in the heart.

(558) All praise to Thee, my God, this night is kind of a reverse "Type 2" – one of those odd hymns for which TLH furnishes multiple tunes, including one that most likely nobody ever uses. Tune 1 is the aptly named TALLIS' CANON by the 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis, which can indeed be sung as a canon (in fact, the tenor line of the TLH arrangement is identical to the melody, only transposed an octave down and shifted one bar to the right). So, there's practically no use for Tune 2, a piece of shmaltz titled EVENING HYMN and arranged from something by French Romantic opera composer Charles Gounod. Another odd thing about EVENING HYMN is that it's twice as long as TALLIS' CANON, and so the Gounod tune burns two stanzas of Thomas Ken's 1695 poem to the Tallis' one. If, however, your organist claims to find the Gounod tune easier to play than the Tallis one, be aware that (s)he is probably lying (and also, definitely, has bad taste), because the Tallis is in G (one sharp) and the Gounod is in D-flat (5 flats). Just sayin'.

(559) O Christ, who art the Light and Day is a 6th century Latin hymn, set to an ancient melody, that I also fear needs a "Type 3" boost because it doesn't sing in today's most popular style. I've personally made the effort to teach this hymn to at least one congregation, and I think it was effort well spent. Here's a sample stanza from the seven included in TLH: "Behold, O God, our Shield, and quell The crafts and subtleties of hell; Direct Thy servants in all good, Whom Thou hast purchased with Thy blood." A hymn about which I could say many of the same things is (561) Now that the day has reached its close, albeit with words from 18th century German and a beautiful, darkly colored tune by the same Adam Krieger (1667) whose tune to "One thing needful" is better than the one in TLH.

(565) Savior, breathe an evening blessing ("Type 2") is another case like 558 where the first tune, RINGE RECHT (Basel, 1745), is the clear choice over against the overly sentimental, operatic alternative, EVENING PRAYER by George C. Stebbins (1878).

I get a perhaps unjustified kick out of the Psalm 136 paraphrase (570) Praise, oh, praise our God and King, with the charming tune MONKLAND (1824) co-opted from the United Brethren church. The fact that you spend half of this hymn's eight stanzas singing the same refrain doesn't bother me in this instance, because it reflects the original Psalm's repeats of "for His mercies endure forever." Also, the tune really is a joy, if you can stretch your voice over its wide-ish melodic range.

While I'm not thrilled in general that TLH devotes 10 whole hymns (575-584) to "The Nation," I'm not particularly cross with any of them and even think some of them are pretty good. There's even a Paul Gerhardt opus in there. It could, on the whole, be worse – as evidenced by those hymnals that actually put the U.S., Canadian and other national anthems in there. Congregations that sing those songs in worship probably also have a national flag standing in the Holy of Holies, as if the country is to be worshiped alongside God. (I say this after belonging to at least a couple churches where the question of where the flag should stand, in relation to the altar, was a never-ending controversy settled, from one Sunday to the next, by whoever showed up early-early to shift the flagpole stand to where they wanted it. Not for nothing does St. John call the church "little children.")

The "Death and Burial" section has some wonderful, "Type 3" numbers in it, including lovely, spiritually enriching works by Paul Gerhardt (586), Simon Dach (589), Martin Luther (590), Norway's Magnus Brostrup Landstad (592), Nikolaus Herman (594), Michael Weisse (596), Formula of Concord contributor Nikolaus Selnecker (600), J.G. Albinus (601) and several other pieces of superior quality. One (595) is particularly aimed at the funeral of a child. Another (597) is the inspiration for one of the greatest Lutheran chorales (CHRISTUS, DER IST MEIN LEBEN by Melchior Vulpius, 1609), a prodigious example of eloquence compressed into brevity and simplicity. There are, however, one or two numbers where TLH's editors' judgment is a bit suspect, like (587) Asleep in Jesus! blessed sleep, a sentimental chestnut by Margaret Mackay (1832) set to a teeth-rotting piece of spun sugar by William Bradbury (1843) titled REST.

The "Resurrection" section has all of one hymn, (603) In the resurrection, from an anonymous Slovak author and set to a Slovakian tune, both from the 17th century. TLH calls the tune RESURRECTION, which I suppose is easier to pronounce than the Slovak title. As I've said about several previously mentioned hymns from the Czechoslovak branch of Lutheranism, it's a striking, different and memorable piece, in spite of a few rough spots in its English versification. To the extent that preserving the legacy of a culturally and historically distinctive shoot from the stem of Luther, I think it deserves to be preserved; and by that I mean practiced and sung.

(607) Day of wrath, O day of mourning is a 19-stanza adaptation of the Dies irae, a 13th century Latin sequence hymn associated with the Roman Catholic mass for the dead. Often the most dramatic part of any composer's setting of the Requiem, the Dies irae is also, at the same time, both the only distinct part of the Requiem liturgy that readily transfers to Lutheran usage and perhaps the only use the church has ever made of the book of Zephaniah in worship, going all the way back to Messianic Judaism B.C. So, it's useful to keep around, even if its lens for viewing death and judgment is chiefly tinted in shades of abject terror. (It's basically a prayer for mercy to a God whose majesty becomes awfully, but understandably, real at the point of physical death.) Any hope or consolation this hymn has in it is gently shaded in toward the end. Meanwhile, the tune (called, funnily enough, DIES IRAE, and also found in ELHb and CW) comes from about the same period of the text, but is a little different from the Latin plainchant most widely associated with the sequence; for that, you should seek out ELHy 537. As for what I think of the through-composed DIES IRAE tunes by L.M. Lindeman and J.B. Dykes, click on the composers' names so I can spare the repetition. And by the way, (612) That day of wrath, that dreadful day is an abbreviated translation of Dies irae by Walter Scott (1805).

Moving from the "Judgment" section to "Life Everlasting," (613) Jerusalem the golden and (614) For thee, O dear, dear country are two of four hymns in TLH (cf. 448 "Brief life is here our portion" and 605 "The world is very evil") all cento'd from Bernard of Cluny's long poem De Contemptu Mundi (On Contempt of the World). Three of them are set to Alexander Ewing's 1853 tune EWING, while 614 switches to an 1876 English tune BONA PATRIA, which breathes a similar spirit of warm, Romantic pomp and circumstance. I suppose it's down to the power of the lyrics, which haven't suffered much from being translated by John M. Neale, that I just can't resist the emotional tug of these tunes. I'm kind of on a "Type 2" wavelength here, though, in case you didn't notice that these four hymns are all fragments of the same poem that other hymnals, perhaps, dismembered and put back together differently.

(615) A rest remaineth for the weary is the type of prolix poem whose negative example points up the importance of verbal economy when attempting to write best-quality hymns. Partly due to the tune having an alternate ending that the book includes (please don't play both endings!), just four stanzas of J.S. Knuth's 1730 hymn spread across two whole pages in TLH. (And this, mind you, is only a cento.) OK, I've written some hymns with a long stanza structure, too. But I recognize that they're not my best work. This is a hymn that I think is deservedly neglected and on its way to being forgotten. If it isn't taking its tune with it, that's only because the same melody (WIE WOHL IST MIR) also goes with TLH 362, "My soul's best friend," which we've already discussed.

(617) There is an hour of peaceful rest is a cloyingly sentimental "Life Everlasting" hymn by William Tappan (1818) whose tune, PAX CELESTE out of an 1824 Edinburgh publication, I've actually paired with one of my own, original hymns – but only because it's pretty much the only tune I could find that fits the meter of the words. I may have to knuckle down and write an original tune for that song.

(618) Jerusalem, my happy home is a "Type 2"-er if there ever was one. TLH's choice of the brief, straightforward tune ST. PETER might have been driven by page format (allowing the hymn to squeeze onto the lower half of a page), but I think the American tune LAND OF REST has become the more universally accepted choice. Evidence: SBH 587, LBW 331, LW 307, CW 215, ELHy 539, LSB 673 and ELW 628.

(619) Jerusalem, Thou city fair and high – words by J.M. Meyfart (1626) set to Melchior Franck's 1663 tune JERUSALEM, DU HOCHGEBAUTE STADT (also attributed to Michael Praetorius) – is, I think, another hymn that may be too prolix for its own good. The third line of stanza 1 ("My longing heart fain, fain, to thee would fly") is one of the most obnoxious dollops of syrup in TLH, which can only partly be blamed on translator Catherine Winkworth; the German reads "Mein sehnlich Herz so gross Verlangen hat," and so also packs in two words that mean "longing." In stanza 2, the thinness of poetic ideas expands to fill the space allotted by the tune, so far as to allow a line to call upon a "happy day and yet far happier hour," and to spread a question over four lines so that the question mark comes as a surprise and you have to reread the sentence to understand what you just sang. Stanza 3 takes the liberty of jamming two adverbs at the end of its first line ("gently, wondrously"). So as not to join in this hymn's prolixity, I'll let your imagination work on Stanzas 4-8 but let me assure you, what they add to the meaning of this hymn is out of proportion to the amount of space (and time) they take up. If you're going to do that, you might as well do Contemporary Worship Music. I'll just add, however, that the nagging sense that there should be a line about "gates adorned with pearl" somewhere in this hymn is a result of LSB 639 ("Wide open stand the gates"), which uses the same tune but is a much shorter and better structured communion hymn by Wilhelm Loehe.

(623) O perfect Love (all human thought transcending), from the section on "Marriage," is a hymn by Dorothy Gurney (1884) that TLH pairs with the tune CARITAS PERFECTA by F.C. Atkinson (1885). To be sure, there's no better occasion than a wedding for importing sentimental smarm into worship, and Gurney's lyrics certainly do bring a bit of that, but I think Atkinson's tune may put this hymn over the top. TLH stands alone on this pairing, among the hymnals I checked; Joseph Barnby's O PERFECT LOVE is the choice of ELHb, LHy, CSB, TCH, SBH, LBW, LW, CW, and the Australian Lutheran Hymnal of 1973 that I'd like your leave to call LHA from here on out. About Barnby's tune, and Gurney's text, I have previously written; suffice it to say, CARITAS PERFECTA vs. O PERFECT LOVE is a distinction without a difference. It's worth noting, neither ELHy, ELW nor LSB has this hymn at all. I think this is an encouraging sign that the bad taste of former times may be starting to heal.

(626) O happy home where Thou art loved most dearly, from an 1833 German poem by K.J.P. Spitta and set to an 1854 tune, O SELIG HAUS, by Edward Niemeyer, is another example of what I've suddenly decided to call toxic prolixity. What a great phrase! It has two exes in it! (Hopefully, unlike a marriage at which this hymn is sung.) In spite of having "ab." in its credit line (not to mention "alt." after Sarah Findlater's translation credit), its four stanzas spread across two whole pages – and that's without an alternate ending this time. Hold up, you say; duplication (such phrases as "high and honored" and "holy faith and blessed hope," both occurring in stanza 1) is a mark of the style of psalms and of German devotional writing. Yabbut, I say, Luther and many other hymn writers could pull off terrific fits of hymn-writing without saying as little in as many words as this hymn does. It could be a case like "O living bread from heaven" (TLH 341), which LSB 642 and ELW 542 both cut to fit tunes with a shorter meter, and arguably improved it in so doing; I've done this to some of my own hymns.

(628) Shepherd of tender youth comes from a third century Greek church father named Clement of Alexandria – a fact perhaps hard to guess when you're singing it to OLIVET by Lowell Mason (1832). Among other tunes found with this hymn are ITALIAN HYMN (LW 471, LSB 864), KIRBY BEDON (SBH 179) and MONKS GATE (ELHy 183).

I'm skimming lightly over the section of hymns about such "Special Occasions" as cornerstone-laying, dedication and church anniversary. They're just not going to be used often enough, per gross of copies of the book, to be worth fussing over. The fact that exactly one hymn (641) speaks to seminary life might be inconvenient for planning services in the seminary chapel, but you know how such institutions are; they're never short of custom-written hymns that blow in and out with a given academic year. There's also one hymn (642) for foreign missionaries, useful (but not spectacular) if one shows up as a guest speaker on Mission Sunday. Absent loved ones get their own hymn, too (643). Shall I criticize? I wrote a whole book predicated on the concept of "useful hymns" for this, that and the other seldom felt purpose, and I'm working on a sequel.

But this length of thread on "Tacky Hymns," so far as TLH is concerned, comes to a fitting end in the section titled "Carols and Spiritual Songs," hymn 645ff., which I'm going to save for Post 80 because I feel many of them will play to a theme I have in mind – that the designation "carols and spiritual songs" is a frank admission that the songs from that number on (excepting the canticles at the end of the book) aren't really fit for use in public worship. Fight me if you disagree. Did I say fight me? I meant write me. Like, a comment.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

You Are Dead (Sign Here Please)

You Are Dead (Sign Here Please)
by Andrew Stanek
Recommended Ages: 14+

Nathan Haynes has a remarkable attitude about living in Dead Donkey, Nevada. This is partly due to a brain lesion resulting from an accident in childhood, which makes it hard for him to remember much farther back than a week ago – which can be a plus, when you live in a garbage dump where the top economic drivers are arson, mugging and violently protesting against Pluto being downgraded from a planet. Another drawback of Nathan's brain injury is that he has no sense of self-preservation, so he keeps being friendly and compliant, serving coffee and cake and whatnot, when a serial killer drops by to murder him. This happens repeatedly because, as I may have forgotten to mention, Nathan is also allergic to signing forms, and the afterlife (it turns out) is nothing if not a giant bureaucracy. So, because he refuses to sign a liability waiver upon arrival, he keeps getting sent back by increasingly frustrated bureaucrats, who turn to devious methods to obtain his signature.

During his repeated returns to life (each time, in a new body – making disposal of the old ones a growing problem), Nathan gets caught up in the conflict between the local university's departments of neurology and psychology. He experiences the sole, long delayed, tragically terminated flight of the world's worst airline. He makes friends with a guy who lives outside the laws of nature, and enemies of some of the folks whose i-dotting and t-crossing labors apparently keep those laws humming along. He also furnishes us an opportunity to guffaw at some truly hilarious jokes, many of them at the expense of the intellectual world's sacred cows.

It's a truly funny book, albeit with a dark outlook and stated assumptions about which sciences are based on fact and which on waffle that indicate either that the author is pulling our leg(s) or that I would probably disagree with him about most things. But his sense of humor is on point, and he apparently has the ability to sustain a gag about the nature of life, the universe and everything for not one but six books without (judging by the first book) running out of gas. Some of that just comes down to sharp writing, like the following sample from the beginning of (I think) Chapter 6:
Nathan resurrected with a faint scrunching noise, like the sound of an autistic woodchuck chucking a log particularly hard into the knee of an unwary passerby.
That's not just goofy, it's lyrically goofy, with a way of recruiting all the mind's senses into the fun. It's goofy in a way that makes you chuckle on a different level each time you re-read it, unto the third or fourth time at least. It's a kind of goofiness that puts you in a mood to forgive the ultra-violent sociopathy that pervades the adventure. Maybe you'll be a slightly worse person after reading this book. But being one such worse person at this point, I think the laughs are worth it.

This is the first installment of a six-book series that I bought as a "boxed set" on Kindle. The second title in the series is You Are a Ghost (Sign Here Please). Stanek is also the author of 16 "Felix Green" books (Death by Nostalgia, etc.), the "Dragon Rage" trilogy, two "Tomorrow's Mysteries," three volumes of "Super Quick Mysteries," two "Take Us To Your Trump" books, two "Unverified" books, and more than a dozen other books, including such titles as Spellthieves, Flat Space and Josh Fights a Philosopher.

Friday, September 4, 2020

New Lands

New Lands
by Geoff Rodkey
Recommended Ages: 12+

Egg (full name: Egbert Masterson) has survived the assassination of his family by hot air balloon, falling in love with their killer's daughter, being captured by pirates, becoming best friends with a homicidal lunatic with a hook hand, and having to defend his family's ugly fruit plantation from a field hand mutiny on the one hand and an armed invasion on the other. The second book of his adventures finds Egg and his buddy Guts (the hook guy) under sail for the New Lands, a continent colonized by the short-eared Cartagers, who are sworn enemies of the boys' Rovian people. A map that now exists only in Egg's head is supposed to lead them to a buried treasure. But first, they have to get past kidnappers, more pirates, a tribe of natives who enslave other tribes, and a reappearance not only of Millicent Pembroke but also of her evil father, the not very jolly Roger.

It's a tale of youthful romance, survival on a strange continent, reuniting with old friends and enemies, and meeting new ones. Egg, Guts, Millicent and an Okalu girl named Kira seek out a treasure that could (if the legends are true) give the possessor invincible power, not to mention enough money to buy back the plantation that Egg bartered away for his workers' support. In the seeking, they find an ordeal of agonizing illness, an at least temporary return of some lost loved ones from the dead, and a religious ritual whose deadliness Egg only gradually comes to understand, due to a language barrier with the vile Moku tribespeople. Egg himself faces a supreme test and doesn't like how he scores on it. His path to riches doesn't run in a straight line and, indeed, doesn't come to its destination (at least, not in this book). But he also gains valuable knowledge, learns to stand up to someone who has terrorized him all his life, and says a couple of things to a couple of people that he really needed to say – such as "I love you," for one example.

For a middle book of a trilogy, New Lands makes a strong impression, full of surprising discoveries and growth for its characters. Their pain and joy are easy to share. Not to mention surprises, suspense, thrills, scenic and cultural wonders, and the promise of intrigues, battles and chases yet to come. This is Book 2 of the Chronicles of Egg, between Deadweather and Sunrise and Blue Sea Burning. Geoff Rodkey, whose personal website redirected to a pharmaceutical scam page three out of the four times I tried it just now, is also the author of four "Tapper Twins" books, a children's book titled Stuck in the Stone Age and a kids' novel We're Not from Here.