Monday, November 30, 2020

281. Sacramental Christmas Hymn

A friend of mine who's in the holy ministry prompted me today to try writing a Advent or Christmastide hymn that specifically locates Jesus' coming in the Means of Grace, with a minor emphasis on urging Christians to attend worship on more than a "Christmas and Easter" basis. Here's a first, feeble attempt toward that. The tune I've selected for it, after not looking at all hard and long, is WÜRZBURG (see below), from a devotional songbook published in 1705 in that city; some may know it as the tune to "Hark! what mean those holy voices." Theo, the author of the tune GRATIA CORONAM for my St. John Passion hymn, advises me that this text would also sing nicely to O DU LIEBE MEINER LIEBE.

Hark! A murmurous vibration
Is become a shout of joy!
Bethlehem brings forth salvation;
God becomes a baby boy.
Shall we key our jubilation
To a tone aught can destroy?
Rather, let our celebration
His abiding gifts employ.

Must we to a far-off manger
Fly in pious fantasy,
Or through sentiments yet stranger
Dandle Jesus on our knee?
In the hour of trial and danger,
How can such our bulwark be?
Christ, our narrow way's arranger,
Comes to us, and only He.

Not in pageant, whether facile
Or that rich with rhythm thrums,
Nor in market's frenzied hassle,
But in lowliness He comes:
Less attuned to royal castle
Than to shanties, huts and slums;
Caring not for gilded tassel,
Deepest need He rather plumbs.

As a child He comes, thus daring
Such susceptability,
All our race's weakness sharing,
Even children to set free.
Therefore hear His voice, declaring
Those He washes, clean to be:
Come, salvation's garments wearing,
All you baptized, big and wee!

As a prophet He comes, aiming
God's good pleasure to increase,
Praying, suffering, proclaiming
That our war with Him must cease.
Now the keys He proffers, naming
Men to speak our sins' release.
Come, therefore, as promised, claiming
Absolution's pledge of peace.

As a priest He comes, displaying
In the presence of the Lord
Recompense for sinners, paying
All God With Us can afford.
Hear Him now, at table saying
What for us is broken, poured;
Taste His love, your failures laying
At His sacramental board.

As a king He comes, receiving
Honor from each trusting heart.
Hear His voice today, believing
What His means of grace impart:
Whether glorying or grieving,
In His gracious gifts take part
Till, His joyful shout perceiving,
To eternal life we start!

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Tongues of Serpents

Tongues of Serpents
by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 13+

It's the year 1809, and Napoleon's invasion of England has been repelled. You don't remember when Napoleon invaded England? Well, you wouldn't, if you don't live in the version of our world where dragons play a role in modern history. It was an, ahem, revolutionary strategy involving dragons that put the French on English soil, and it was a forward-thinking young dragon named Temeraire and his human companion, Will Laurence, who turned the tide and sent them packing again. But that's all another story; you can read about it in Victory of Eagles. Now, however, Laurence's death sentence for treason – didn't I tell you about that? Never mind; you can read about it in Empire of Ivory – has been commuted to transportation. Which is to say, exile (and a term of hard labor) to the New South Wales colony. Which is to say, Australia.

In lieu of hard labor, Temeraire and Laurence are meant to chaperone a clutch of dragon eggs to the remote outpost of Sydney, joined by some mildly disgraced aviators still in the service of His Majesty's Aerial Corps, where upon the eggs' hatching they can start a new covert of dragons to support the country's interests on that side of the world. Bad luck, that Rankin fellow (from His Majesty's Dragon) is back, angling for another dragon to mismanage, and Laurence not only has to be reconciled with him after – well, you've read the series this far, haven't you? No? Do it! – anyway, after my favorite scene in the first book of the series, but he has to put up with Rankin being in command of the squadron while Laurence isn't even an officer. They arrive at Sydney just in time to learn that the governor (the same Bligh who was put over the side of the Bounty in that ship's famous mutiny) has been put over the side of the continent by another mutiny. This actually happened in history, by the way. But what the history books won't tell you is that Bligh's insistence that the dragons must be used to put him back in power, while the leaders of the mutiny expect the same sort of help on their side, drives the aviators off on a survey of the continent's wild interior.

It starts as just a hunt for a well watered pass through the mountains and, maybe, the trail of some smugglers who are wreaking havoc on English shipping. Then it turns into a chase across a wilderness full of fantastic dangers, always behind and never quite in sight of the natives who stole one of the eggs in their care. Each of the eggs hatches sometime during the adventure, introducing three more characters to the remarkably varied cast, all connected by lines of conflict and sympathy that promise to pay off with many interesting stories to come. They also experience devastating forces of nature, encounters with not one but two types of monsters that could bedevil a world in which dragons are on the side of the angels, terrific battles and challenges to their survival – filling in another corner of the canvas in a panoramic picture of a world in which humans and dragons live together.

This is the sixth of nine Temeraire novels, coming on the heels of Victory of Eagles and followed, in publication order, by Crucible of Gold, Blood of Tyrants and League of Dragons. This far in, I'm still enjoying myself immensely. My breath caught at the beauty of some of Naomi Novik's scenic description, sympathy with the emotions of her characters and, of course, the thrills of the action-packed bits. Even the long trek through the desolate Outback is livened by the curious characters of Caesar, a dragon who deserves to be saddled with Rankin if any does, and Kulingile, a runty hatchling who is only just saved from being knocked on the head and who turns out, by and by, to have big things in store for him (ha ha). There are political intrigues, exotic cultures, clashes of worldviews (seen, for example, when Temeraire takes over as the point-of-view character) and uncanny puzzles, but underlying all as a foundation for our enjoyment, the deeply devoted bond between Laurence and Temeraire, which draws us in and makes us care about everything that happens to them. See, I'm not speaking for myself. I'm speaking for you, too. Why haven't you read this series yet? Hop to it!

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Museum of Desire

The Museum of Desire
by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

There's definitely something psycho about the latest homicide consulting psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware is called in on. In the backyard of a mansion rented out for a party, barely inside the LAPD's jurisdiction, a cleaner finds a stretch limo containing four dead bodies – including the limo driver. Drenched in blood (not theirs) from the waist down, killed in multiple ways, and posed in a disturbing (and therefore, seemingly disturbed) manner, the victims seem to have nothing in common. But the sickness of the scene gets even more sickening when Alex's girlfriend Robin pokes around on the internet and finds a lurid painting, missing since it was plundered by the Third Reich, whose subjects and their positions match the tableau in the death limo. Someone, perhaps with a connection to Nazi war crimes, has developed the dangerously dotty idea of reproducing trashy Renaissance art, using murdered bodies – and their ghoulish project isn't done.

Mystery-wise, it's another skillfully crafted police procedural, only with a detective who has an amazing case closure rate and a consulting psychologist whose talents, as always, play a key role. Just when you (along with everybody in the book) think you know whodunit and are only looking for the opportunity to spring the trap on them, there is, of course, a surprise – which is really only not a surprise to the extent that you're expecting a surprise, based on experience – though I don't think I would have guessed the particulars of this surprise even one time out of ten. The thought actually crossed my mind around the midpoint of the book, "By now Milo, Alex and I have seen the killer, but we have no more of a clue who or when than that one time it was some random guy spotted in passing, in Victims." And I was right, only the killer in this instance doesn't go quietly. The operation to arrest them is played for maximum suspense, with a climax of grisly shock.

These can be hard-hitting mysteries. For all his therapeutic training and experience, Alex continues to prioritize catching the bad guy above any individuals' psychological needs – up to a point. He does, to his credit, balk at putting pressure on a young witness who's on the autism spectrum, though he ends up getting the kid's evidence anyway. What he witnesses in this book is, for sure, not the kind of imagery you'd want to expose to someone in a delicate state of mind. And although he and Milo haven't aged (much) in the 30-plus years since they became sorta-kinda partners in crime, and seem to live in a changeless state regardless of the changes going on in the world around them, nevertheless a certain younger detective's difficulty processing the trauma that occurred in a previous book proves that what happens to these characters does affect them. If you cut them, figuratively speaking, they do bleed. Which, I suppose, is reality enough to keep us tuned in for installment after installment.

This is the 35th of soon-to-be 36 Alex Delaware novels, immediately following The Wedding Guest and scheduled, in February 2021, to be followed by Serpentine. With this book, I think I've read 13 of them, so I still have better than half the series to enjoy. Some of the titles I haven't caught yet are Silent Partner, Time Bomb, Devil's Waltz, Bad Love, Survival of the Fittest, The Murder Book, A Cold Heart and Breakdown.

Monday, November 23, 2020

280. St. Mark Passion Hymn

Continuing my current project to write a distinctive hymn to accompany a Lenten sermon series on the Passion According to each of the four evangelists, I come thirdly to the second gospel, Mark. (Don't ask why I'm working my way through them from back to front.) This is the first one on which I haven't personally written and preached a sermon series. But I went through the text and thought about what I would do with it, and I came up with the idea of framing it with Jesus' question in Mark 8:27-30, "Who do men say that I am?" and Peter's faithful answer, "You are the Christ." The first two stanzas and the last stanza will be sung at all times; the in-between stanzas, which will play on the theme of what different people say about Jesus during His Passion, will be inserted when they are relevant to the day's message.

I'm using a comparatively short meter to compensate for the fact that there will be more stanzas than in the John and Luke hymns, what with Mark's account falling naturally into 11 segments – and that's after conflating the presentiment of Peter's denial, 14:27-31, with the actual event, 14:66-72. So, don't be a stickler about the length of this hymn. The purpose for which I'm writing it, and the material I'm trying to encompass in it, makes a certain length inevitable. Rather, I pray, notice the economy with which I treat this enormous narrative. Or, from another point of view, think of it as a short hymn you can use with a Passion According to Mark sermon series, only one that has a different third (and maybe fourth) stanza for each installment.

Finally, here are the titles and texts that I would assign to those sermons, right at this moment, if I was going to preach all 11 of them – although to do this, I'd have to preach one on every Sunday and Wednesday from Invocavit to Palmarum: "Tsk!" (Mark 14:1-11), "Who, Me?" (14:12-21), "Huh??" (14:22-26), "Zzzzz" 14:32-42, *Smooch* (14:43-52), "Never!" (14:27-31, 66-72), "Ptooey!" (14:53-65), "Arrgh!" (15:1-15), "Hail!" (15:16-20), "Aha!" (15:21-36), and "Alas!" (15:37-47). And so, I hope, with the help of God:

Hymn on the Lord's Passion according to St. Mark

Christ asked His pupils on the road,
"What do men say of Me?"
Their given answers only showed
What fools our race can be.
"But what say you," He said, "If I
Say I Myself must surely die?"

The voice of Jesus bids mankind
Say who He is again,
And in His passion, now, we find
The right response made plain.
We, therefore, Christ as Lord confess;
Ourselves, the race He died to bless.

One Simon wondered at the waste
When fragrant oil was poured
On Jesus' head: his "Tut!" disgraced
Such tribute to the Lord.
Then Judas joined the leaders' plan,
Who wondered how to kill this Man.

Warned that betrayal was at hand,
Not one in twelve asked why;
The burden of that fearful band
Was, "Master is it I?"
Oh, better to have died unwhelped
Than Jesus' killers to have helped!

When fed His body and His blood
At solemn Paschal meal,
None dared to ask Him how this could,
For one and all, be real:
Bemused, they sang a final hymn,
His sacrifice at work within.

While Jesus prayed in garden gloom,
His soul in deep distress,
He wrestled with His coming doom;
Submitted nonetheless;
Yet His disciples proved too weak
To wake and watch, one word to speak.

Now fawning Judas, with a kiss,
Marked Jesus for arrest:
The faithful fled in cowardice;
One showed his heels, undressed.
"This force of arms for such as I?"
Christ asked; but no one made reply.

Admonished that he would deny
His Lord by rooster's crow,
"No," Peter said, "I'd sooner die!"—
But later it was so.
His "Never!" soon amounted to:
"That man, I swear, I never knew!"

False witnesses against Him lied,
But no two could agree;
Accused and quizzed on every side,
He answered, "I am He."
At this they spat into His face
And buffeted the King of grace.

Denounced to Pilate, He stood mute.
The Roman, at a loss,
Sought some way to dismiss the suit;
But men cried, "To the cross!"
Thus Gentiles and the Jews as one
Delivered up God's only Son.

The soldiers paid Him mocking court
And worshiped Him in jest;
A laurel of the coarsest sort
Hard on His brow was pressed
Whom, had they known the King they hailed,
They had adored with awe unveiled.

Nailed to a tree with vilest jeers,
He bore sin's shame and curse.
His anguished cry rejoiced men's ears;
God's silence struck still worse.
Yet while His foes cried out, "Oho!"
His struggle dealt death's dying blow.

With His last breath He tore the veil,
Set God and man at one.
A Roman soldier knew the tale;
He recognized God's Son.
The faithful, slower to believe,
Entombed Him and set in to grieve.

Lord Jesus Christ, not long to sleep,
We glorify Your name.
Let us Your good confession keep
And speak it without shame.
Whatever men may rashly speak,
Yours is the blessing we will seek.

UPDATE: Here are two existing tunes that I think would go nicely with this hymn. First, in alphabetical order, there's ERFURT by L. Herman Ilse, 1910, which the Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book and The Lutheran Hymnal both set to the hymn "Let songs of praises fill the sky."
Second, there's O JESU, WARUM LEGST DU MIR, attributed to Johann B. Reimann (1702-49) in the Evangelisches Gesangbuch, Hirschberg, 1741. It's been used with "I look to thee in every need" in Service Book and Hymnal, and with "Lord of my life, whose tender care" in TLH and Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

If I had a dollar ...

If I had $1 for every page view this blog has received, as of today, I would be a millionaire.

The counter rolled over 1,000,000 sometime today – I had noticed it was getting close. Not a bad number, even if it took me almost 14 years to get there.

I know, some people get that kind of traffic every week. Me, I've just been quietly keeping a record (mostly as an aid to memory) of my experiences in music, books, food, movies, life as a (now former) Lutheran clergyman, a fond (now former) cat owner and now newspaper reporter, perpetrator of stupid people tricks and (only within about the latter half of this blog's lifetime) an absolutely unhinged creator and critic of contemporary hymnody.

If you've looked in a few times at what I had on my mind, thank you. Your pageviews tell me that even if I feel mostly alone, I'm not altogether alone.

Unless I racked all those views up myself by checking to see how my blog was doing. Naaaaaaah.

If this platform survives, and I do as well, maybe it won't take me until 2034 to break 2 mil. But whatever happens, God is gracious.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

279. St. Luke Passion Hymn

I had to page through a filing cabinet full of sermons that I preached in the wee years of this century to find it, but I did deliver a second Lenten series based on a continuous reading of the Passion of our Lord according to one of the four evangelists. I couldn't even remember which gospel it was, what year or at what church. But it turns out to have been 2003 at a little LCMS church in the foothills above Yuma, Arizona. I didn't give the series a title, other than "Passion According to St. Luke" – none of that fancy stuff like "The Unraveling" the previous year in Platte City, Mo. – but somehow, I milked 10 sermons out of it, instead of seven. This unusual number, of course, means that my hymn following the same outline will have even more stanzas than the previous ditty. Sorry, I mean, you're welcome.

How did I pull off a 10-part Lenten series, you wonder? I guess there are several ways you could do it, but in my case, I didn't confine myself to midweek services or Sunday mornings; I did some of both, wrapping up with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Another option would be to combine two stanzas' worth into one meditation and just program your sermon series (with accompanying hymn) for the Wednesdays after the first five Sundays in Lent. So, before I proceed with an attempt to turn the Passion According to Luke into 12 hymn stanzas – an all-purpose first and last stanza, and 10 in-between ones to go, one or two at a time, with whatever segment(s) of Luke's passion account you happen to be meditating on – here are the titles and texts of those 10 sermons I preached in 2003: "Like Drops of Blood" (22:39-46), "The Kiss of Death" (22:47-53), "Plausible Deniability" (22:54-62), "Bent on Death" (22:63-71), "King or Pawn?" (23:1-12), "Death on Demand" (23:13-25), "In the Green Tree" (23:26-31), "Place of the Skull" (23:32-38), "Baptism of Blood" (23:39-43) and "Eclipse" (23:44-56).

Hymn on the Lord's Passion according to St. Luke

Come, bear with Christ a little while:
Can any less be due
One who bore all for You?
However woeful be your trial,
Whatever sins your soul defile,
Let it a moment's pause beguile
To hold His work in view.

With sweat that fell like drops of blood,
He prayed God, sorely pained:
"And must this cup be drained?"
Then, yielding to our race's good,
Caressed by angel hand, He stood
To see done what His Father would,
With choicest vintage stained.

By bosom friend, by kiss, betrayed
To misrule's destined hour,
To forces dark and dour,
He pushed aside defending blade;
He gave His wounded captor aid;
Into their trick He calmly played,
And yielded to their pow'r.

While crafty men bade Him confess,
A friend fresh from His side
Their friendship thrice denied.
Would even we, in such a press,
A kinship to that Man profess,
Who answers sin with righteousness
And love returns for pride?

Blindfold and beaten, He withheld
The self-condemning word
His foes as lief had heard,
Till, bent on death, their fury swelled;
"Are you the Christ?" they fairly yelled.
His "So you say" their conscience quelled,
Their hands to violence stirred.

Denounced to Pilate, lacking cause,
To Herod He was sent,
Kept still, and back He went.
Though He stood blameless by their laws,
They bantered Him with scarce a pause –
A plaything in small vermin's jaws,
Yet steering the event.

'Twas Pilate's will to set Him free;
But men, with single cry,
Required that He should die.
At last persuaded to agree,
Weak hand set down that it should be
According to God's strong decree,
On which our hopes rely.

As He to Calvary was borne,
With miscreants to die,
The crowd began to sigh.
He answered, "Women, do not mourn.
Of days to come, I rather warn:
For if the green tree thus is shorn,
What will befall the dry?"

A skull-place was His dying ground
Where, duped into their roles,
Men quoted David's scrolls.
Mocked by their voices all around,
He scarcely answered with a sound;
Yet those few words with love abound
For just such captive souls.

Blasphemed by even one who hung,
Deserving, at His side,
So sore was Jesus tried!
The other convict then gave tongue
To hope and faith, with dying lung;
The pass to Paradise then flung
That sinner justified.

Daylight withdraws, no mere eclipse;
He to the Father cries,
Yields up the Spirit; dies.
Confessed as just by heathen lips,
Bound hurriedly in linen strips,
Down in a borrowed tomb He slips:
For us, thus, His demise.

And so this Lamb of heav'nly birth
Is slain, His flock to save;
Outside the camp His grave.
Keep silent, therefore, all the earth!
Away, all sounds of senseless mirth!
For nothing can approach the worth
Of what Christ Jesus gave.

UPDATE: Here's the original tune I wrote for this hymn, titled COME, BEAR WITH CHRIST. A harmonized arrangement is available upon request.

Monday, November 16, 2020

278. St. John Passion Hymn

To parcel up the fourth evangelist's account of Jesus' Passion, John chapters 18-20, I follow the outline of a seven-part sermon series on it, titled "The Unraveling," that I preached many years ago* during all seven days of Holy Week. For what it's worth, the titles and texts for the seven meditations were "He went willingly" (John 18:1-14), "He spoke openly" (John 18:15-27), "He stood innocent" (John 18:28-40) "The tide turned" (John 19:1-16), "The sentence carried out" (John 19:17-27), "The promise fulfilled" (John 19:28-42) and "The body raised" (John 20:1-18). I'm pretty sure I have a similar list of texts and titles for the other three gospels, somewhere, but I don't know where I've laid it; so, in setting out to write a hymn to go with a sermon series on each of the gospels' passion accounts, John is my clear starting point.

I make no apology for its being rather a long hymn. It is, after all, meant to be sung in a "first stanza, a different middle stanza for each installment, last stanza" format, with the middle seven stanzas deployed as the preacher chooses. So it's really not so much a nine-stanza hymn as seven three-stanza hymns who all share the same first and last stanza. This also gives me the opportunity to correct a shortcoming of the "Passion According to" formula, as it touches John's account, since the night of our Lord's arrest properly begins all the way back in John 13:1, where the evangelist tells us, "Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end."

Hymn on the Lord's Passion according to St. John

Dear Lord, who knew Your hour was nigh
To leave this world, to reascend
The throne You'd never left on high,
And loved Your own unto the end:
Bind us as well, God's righteous Son,
Into the weaving there begun.

Betrayed by treachery and guile,
Your merest word could lay men low;
Yet You are willing, for the while,
Beneath the pow'r of men to go.
Rise, Caiaphas, and prophesy:
'Tis good that One for all should die!

Abased and questioned by the proud,
You answer their abrupt disdain:
"Ask synagogue and temple crowd
What I spoke publicly and plain."
Turn, holy cheek, receive their blows;
What men deny, God's justice knows!

Despite the heathen's cynic sneer –
"What is the truth?" – "Am I a Jew?" –
His conscience tells him, loud and clear,
There is no cause of death in You.
Yet Justice stands upon her head:
The mob demands a brute instead!

In mocking robes, with piercing crown,
You reign, unbowed by earthly scorn;
Men's madness all good motives drown
And Pilate's timeless shame suborn.
Behold, the sentence has been passed:
Our King and God, condemned at last!

They lead You to a refuse hill
And hang You, with two thieves athwart;
Above Your head, the mocking bill,
"King of the Jews," draws hot retort.
"So I have written," Pilate snaps,
While God's Word undergoes collapse!

All things fulfilled that God required,
In thirst and and agony You cry.
God's wrath, blood-sated, has retired;
You, Lord of all the living, die.
Oh, ravaged hands! Oh, ruptured heart!
What rest must from your stillness start!

And now we find Your body gone!
The women wonder how and where,
When on the third day, close to dawn,
They come and find Your grotto bare.
What does this mean, that You arise?
Just this: Our Savior justifies!

Now, sin's soiled bindings torn apart,
Death's yoke unchained, hell harried quite,
We know a Father's gracious heart;
We spy ahead a mansion bright,
Where Christ Himself, God's righteous Son,
Robes us in all that He has done.

UPDATE: Two fine composers have volunteered, each to write an original hymn tune for this hymn. All right, I dropped a hint in a hymnwriters' social media group that an original tune wouldn't go amiss – although I know of about 39 existing hymn tunes that would more or less fit these stanzas. I just didn't have any particular music in mind as I wrote this text, and I'm happy to be spared the trouble of having to choose between those 39. Nonetheless, I'm thrilled that not one, but two people felt inspired to join their notes to my lines. And now, just to give you an eyeful of how they go (mind you, these tunes are copyrighted, so please respect that and seek permission before using; however, harmonized arrangements are available), here they are:

IOANNES by Tapani Simojoki (© 2020 Tapani Simojoki, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License):
and GRATIA CORONAM by Theo Kavouras (© 2020 Theo J. Kavouras. All rights reserved):

*Holy week of 2002, to be exact, at Our Savior Ev. Lutheran Church in Platte City, Mo.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Victory of Eagles

Victory of Eagles
by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 13+

When last we saw Capt. Will Laurence, of His Majesty's Aerial Corps, and his dragon companion Temeraire, they had just committed an unpardonable act of treason – bringing the cure for a deadly dragon plague to Napoleon, after the Admiralty purposely allowed an infected enemy dragon to return home. Of course, both of them believe they did what was right, but their reward for it is that Laurence is dismissed the service, stripped of his honor and sentenced to hang. The last part of his punishment has been delayed, however, until Temeraire's spirit may be sufficiently broken that he'll accept Laurence's death. Meanwhile, the strong-willed dragon tries to make his new nest, in a breeding ground for unharnessed ferals and retired veterans, as comfortable as possible – only to be challenged, almost immediately, by the biggest dragon around.

If you're worried that Temeraire loses his mojo, or Laurence his life, take comfort from the fact that this is (currently) the midpoint of a nine-book series. It has a lot in common with the age of Napoleon, Nelson and Wellington – all three of whom, in fact, figure in this book – but history has taken a tight left turn, thanks to the involvement of dragons in the affairs of nations, warfare in particular. Already, history has been changed to the extent that Nelson survived the battle of Trafalgar, while Napoleon attempted to invade British soil – a strategem that Temeraire was instrumental in thwarting, way back in Book 1. Also, the slave trade has not so much been abolished as utterly destroyed by an uprising from within Africa, led by dragons. And now, instead of fighting his way up the Iberian Peninsula to destroy Napoleon's military forces, Gen. Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington, to you) has to organize a desperate defense after Napoleon tries again, more successfully this time, to invade England.

For a goodly part of this book, Laurence and Temeraire are forced to act separately. The dragon thinks his man his dead; the man fears his dragon has escaped the breeding grounds and tried to flee the country, with little chance of survival. But actually, Temeraire has come into his own as a military leader, organizing a militia of unharnessed dragons and attacking the flanks of the French army. When they are finally reunited, they must move forward in a service where Laurence stands in disgrace; take part in a claw-biting retreat from an already conquered London; regroup in Scotland and then, at a little more cost to Laurence's already wounded conscience, wreak savagery upon the French scouts who are foraging for supplies. It all builds up to a colossal battle on which hangs all hope of continuing British resistance in Napoleon's bid for mastery over all Europe.

I have seen critical blurbs by other writers, comparing this series to Dragonslayer and Eragon on the dragon side, and to Jane Austen and Patrick O'Brian (Master and Commander) on the historical period side. A reference by Stephen King to Susannah Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, is perhaps the most intelligent comparison I've spotted, as it covers both fantasy and the Napoleonic period. After reading this book, however, I think the hero of Napoleonic war fiction who best compares to Will Laurence is C.S. Forester's creation, Horatio Hornblower: A man tormented by his own estimate of what his honor is worth, by a conscience too exacting for even the best of men to live up to – although, in Laurence's case, other men share his low opinion of himself. Nevertheless, when his sense of honor is reawakened in this book, it is an emotionally wrenching turning point after which anything that happens is a bonus adventure, in which one follows along with breathless enjoyment.

I love these characters. I love this period. I love what Novik is doing with them. And although I don't know what the next books have in store for Laurence and Temeraire, I'm already a little sad to be past the hump and on the downhill stretch. This is the fifth of (at present) nine books in the "Temeraire" sequence, coming just after Empire of Ivory and before Tongues of Serpents. Naomi Novik's other novels include Uprooted, Spinning Silver and A Deadly Education, which is due to have a sequel, The Last Graduate, published in July 2021.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Half Upon a Time

Half Upon a Time
by James Riley
Recommended Ages: 12+

Jack is in training to be a hero in a world where youths customarily make their fortune by defeating giants, plundering a dragon's treasure and marrying the princess. The 13th in a line of adventurers named Jack, he doesn't buy into the whole hero thing. He's just telling his grandfather how ridiculous it is to expect a princess to drop into his arms, when he holds out his hands and just misses catching a girl falling out of a momentary portal in midair.

The girl, who calls herself May, comes from a place with computers and cellphones, but of course, she has to be a princess; her T-shirt ("Punk Princess") says so. Where this Punk place might be, Jack hardly knows; May herself is pretty fuzzy about the idea that her grandmother, who has been snatched before her eyes, may actually be Snow White. The two, joined eventually by a real prince named Phillip, set out to save May's grandma, who (in Jack's world) was last seen at the climax of a war between the forces of good and the Wicked Queen. Also aiding their cause is the Wolf King, who can sometimes take human form, while their enemies include the Huntsman (who betrayed May's grandma) and a certain Red Hood, who travels under a cloak of invisibility.

The young trio's adventures are an action-packed tangle of the not-so-happily-ever-afters of the stories that May calls fairy tales, but that Jack and Phillip understand as history. Relics of that history live in a magical sack that Jack carries around, containing such things as a knife that will cut anything except living flesh, a magical bean that survived Jack's dad's adventure with a beanstalk, a witch's broom and a broken mirror that could become the most dangerous magical weapon in the world. Also, Jack finds himself the bearer of a sword whose last owner, deceased though he may be, keeps trying to get a message through to him. Could it be turning him toward evil? Could their entire quest be a trap? And how about the Wicked Queen's prophecy that one of May's suitors will betray her and the other will die?

For a mildly romantic, richly funny romp in the realm of make-believe, there's some heavy stuff in this book. The kids face some serious evil, ranging from a legitimately terrifying witch in a house made of poisoned candy to a fairy who wears her nickname, Malevolent, rather well. Jack, in particular, faces all kinds of mortal peril, including repeatedly falling from a great height as well as being eaten by a giant, cooked by a witch and tempted by a spiritual force that might be trying to turn him evil. Most challenging of all, there's this infuriating princess who can be so provoking, he might just give up the whole hero racket and let her rescue herself. Maybe. OK, not really....

This is the first book of a trilogy that continues with Twice Upon a Time and Once Upon the End. I've already bought all three of them, and for what it's worth, I love their cover art – though I suspect the material under their covers isn't quite as lightweight as the artwork suggests. Los Angeles-based James Riley is also the author of five "Story Thieves" books and four "Revenge of Magic" books, with a fifth (The Chosen One) scheduled for release in March 2021.

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Great Powers Outage

The Great Powers Outage
by William Boniface
Recommended Ages: 10+

After saving all of Superopolis, the city's only non-super-powered kid, Ordinary Boy, has quietly gone back to being treated as less than nobody. You'd think people would show a bit of gratitude, right? But no, O.B. just goes back to school, where even fulfilling a campaign promise to save the city again isn't enough to get him elected class treasurer. This time, the city needs saving from a villain who has come out of retirement (cough prison cough), using his ability to talk anybody into doing whatever he says to sell a brand of suspiciously uniform pseudo-chips (I mean, really! They come in a can!), driving local favorite brand Dr. Telomere's Potato Chips out of business. And somehow, this seems to be connected with everybody losing their powers.

O.B. doesn't make any friends by suggesting that something must be causing everyone (except himself) to have superpowers, and therefore something must be causing them to lose those powers. Besides a total lack of curiosity about such idle topics as history, the people of Superopolis think of their powers as an organic part of who they are. Does that mean Ordinary Boy is, like, nobody? Literally? Some may think so. But among the few who would disagree are his longtime nemesis, Professor Brain-Drain; the secret figure behind Dr. Telomere's chips; the retired superheroes who live at the top of Needlepoint Hill; and of course, the villain of this piece, the Red Menace, alternately known as Comrade Crunch.

Ordinary Boy and his gang undertake another hilarious, perilous adventure in which curiosity, an interest in history and the reasons stuff works, courage and critical thinking skills are as good as a super power any day. Although that may not win them the class election – but politics is politics. Some credit is due to illustrator Stephen Gilpin for helping make this book fun to read. But ultimately what makes the book is its author's whimsical insight into the strange ways people think and behave, with and without off-the-wall imaginary abilities.

This is the third and, so far, latest book in the "Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy" series, and although its ending hints that more may be in store, its publication date (2008) suggests otherwise. Despite a lot of children's books to his credit, William Boniface doesn't seem to have published anything new since this book. His picture-book titles include Mystery in Bugtown, What Do You Want on Your Pizza, The Jewels on the Crown, The Stars Came Out on Christmas, Easter Bunnies Everywhere, Max Makes Millions and There's a Dinosaur in My Soup! – among others.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Tacky Hymns does ELHy

When the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) put out the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELHy) in 1996, I was a member of the ELS church in Mankato, Minn. that serves the synod's Bethany Lutheran College and Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary community as well as the synodical offices. It was ground zero for testing out the new hymnal. During that period, the synodical president was our vacancy pastor, and his manner of chanting the liturgy out of the hymnal supplement that paved the way for ELHy has stuck in my memory ever since. The members of the worship committee who edited the hymnal are three men that I know and respect deeply; I credit at least one of them with helping make me the choral singer, parish organist and lover of fine church music that I am today. They include Dennis Marzolf, an organist whose example and leadership in the musical establishment of congregation and campus bears witness to the powerful way Lutheran hymnody can be used to form and reinforce faith; Mark DeGarmeaux, who served as BLC's dean of the chapel for a while after I moved on from there, and who is now a religion prof, chapel organist and organ instructor at the college; and Harry Bartels, whom I've only met a couple of times, but who contributed a wonderful hymn paraphrase of the Athanasian Creed to this book.

Like the old Norwegian Synod's previous hymnal, The Lutheran Hymnary (LHy), ELHy contains many excellent, historic Lutheran hymns and proportionally few artifacts of wider English and American protestantism – something on which Gracia Grindal, in her essay on "What Makes a Hymn Lutheran" for the ReClaim Hymnal, drops disapproving hints that I think both books should wear as a badge of honor. Like LHy, ELHy also contains a lot of hymns from the Scandinavian Lutheran tradition that may be entirely new to the German-American heritage of the Wisconsin and Missouri synods. The two books have many other things in common – including a couple of liturgical quirks that I shall mention presently – and they also both open with the full text of the Augsburg Confession, which you don't see in the foreparts of many Lutheran hymnals.

Actually, the A.C. comes after a table of contents, a topical index of hymns, a Church Year calendar, an explanation of liturgical colors and a table of the dates of Easter from 1997 to 2034. After it is Luther's Small Catechism, some prayers for worship (p. 40), and four Rites of the Divine Service.

Rite 1 is the "Bugenhagen" setting, familiar to those who previously used the LHy (as I did, but only while attending Mount Olive in Mankato). One quirk of this liturgical form, which I've run by liturgical scholars in the LCMS and received only disapproving comments, is that the Kyrie Eleison ("O God the Father in heaven, have mercy upon us" etc.) is inserted between the Confession and the Absolution, and the Gloria in Excelsis Deo ("Glory be to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men") is placed after the Absolution, rather than the entire service of Confession and Absolution prefacing the service and being followed, bang-bang-bang, by the Introit, Kyrie and Gloria. (The rite actually puts the Introit before the confession of sins.) This is strange and perhaps misses the point that, first, confession and absolution are a preparation for the Divine Service, which begins with the Introit; and, second, the Kyrie is all-purpose worship and not merely a plea for forgiveness. Another quirk is that instead of the Laudamus Te ("We praise you," etc.) following the Gloria proper, the Bugenhagen rite inserts the first stanza of the Gloria hymn paraphrase, "All glory be to God on high." Other than these details, I think highly of the Bugenhagen rite, and of ELHy's inclusion of the minister's chant notes in the pew hymnal. The melody for the Sanctus ("Holy, holy, holy") is similar to the one used in one of the Divine Service settings in Lutheran Worship (LW) and The Lutheran Service Book (LSB). The chant melody for the Lord's Prayer is also tucked away somewhere in LSB. Those familiar with The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH) "Morning Service with Communion" liturgy and its heirs in LW and LSB will recognize the tune for the Agnus Dei ("O Christ, the Lamb of God").

Rite 2 is pretty much that TLH communion service, reinstating the liturgist's chant melodies that the TLH pew book left out (consigning these to a separate "Music of the Liturgy" book that many congregations never used). A Lenten sentence to be used in place of the Alleluia is also provided, as well as a beautiful chant melody for the Lord's Prayer that I can still hear, in my mind's ear, being chanted by Prof. Wilhelm Petersen. The music is pretty much exactly TLH, only some of it transposed down a step.

Rite 3 is a churchly setting by a contemporary composer named Alfred Fremder, who had at one time directed the choirs at Bethany College. Fremder actually furnished the liturgist's chant parts (in his duet with the congregation during the Preface) with harmony, so that he could sing it with support from the organ; I remember helping to introduce this innovation with some enthusiasm from the organ bench.

Rite 4 is actually just a one-page list of hymns that can be used to replace the liturgical canticles in the Divine Service. ELHy also includes Matins and Vespers (morning and evening prayer services) pretty much just like in TLH; a spoken Office of Compline (prayer at the close of day), all in one page; services of private and corporate confession and absolution; a Baptism liturgy; the Litany; the Suffrages; graduals, introits and collects for the church year; daily and weekly prayers; selected psalms pointed for chant with a choice of four tones (I once composed several extra tones for use with this book, at the request of an ELS pastor); tables of Psalms for the seasons of the church year and monthly reading; several biblical canticles; the ILCW three-year lectionary; the historic one-year lectionary; and a liturgical glossary.

So much for the foreparts. After this come hymns numbered from 1 to 602, which we will begin considering next time. Skipping to page 908, we find a couple pages of acknowledgements regarding gifts that supported the production of ELHy; copyright notices; an index of authors, sources and translators of the hymn texts; an index of the composers and sources of the hymn tunes and their settings; alphabetical and metrical indexes of the hymn tunes; an index of psalm paraphrases; an index of the first lines of translated hymns by their original language – where one can see that the number of Scandinavian hymns, though considerable, is still dwarfed by the German representation; an index of Scriptural citations as well as other texts that the hymns allude to; finally, the index of hymns by first line (including alternate titles); and on the last leaf, an order for emergency baptism.

So, when this thread resumes with "Tacky Hymns 81," I'll begin repeating (once again) that I mean to comb through the hymn selection of ELHy with the objective of identifying three categories of hymns: (1) Unfortunate selections by the worship committee, that shows that even their judgment is not infallible; (2) Interesting hymn text-tune pairings that are worth noting, either in themselves or regarding alternate pairings; (3) Hymns of such excellence or importance that they deserve more attention than I think they are getting outside the circles that use this book. At the risk of letting the cat out of the bag, however, I'll say up front that I rank ELHy alongside TLH as one of the best worship books the anglophone (English-speaking) world has to offer intentionally Lutheran congregations. I'm not expecting to lift up a lot of "Type 1" ditties. Come along and see how it all works out!

Monday, November 9, 2020

Will Supervillains Be on the Final?

Will Supervillains Be on the Final?
by Naomi Novik
Illustrated by Yishan Li

Until now, I've loved every book by Naomi Novik that I've read. I've enjoyed several books about schools for young superheroes. I've even had positive experiences with graphic novels. But the most positive thing I have to say about this graphic novel by Novik, illustrated in the style of shōjo manga by Shanghai-based comic book artist Yishan Li, is that I was able to get through it quickly.

I've always considered myself more of a book booster than a book critic, so I don't want to belabor it. Since I (relatively recently) discovered Naomi Novik's work, I've been thrilled and delighted by every encounter and I have learned to hold her in the highest respect. While I don't at all understand what happened in this book, I must accept the possibility that the fault lies somehow with me. But I did not feel that her storytelling gifts, the scope and originality of her vision, the richness of her skill with description and dialogue, the depth of her literary power shone through these pages as well as they did, for instance, in Uprooted and the Temeraire books I have read so far.

Will Supervillains etc. follows a 16-year-old prodigy – an atom manipulator, to be exact – named Leah Taymore through her rocky start at a prestigious college for tomorrow's superheroes called Liberty Vocational. A transfer student from a lower-level institution, she has trouble adjusting to life on the big campus, especially because a supervillain (whose secret identity is a professor of ethics) and his dreamboat son are messing with her. Every mistake she makes seems to bring Leah closer to getting expelled before she's even gotten started, and she's stressed by the pressure to perform, the coldness of some of her peers, the strictness of the dean and the indifference of her advisor. Plus, she has a bit of a crush on a guy named Paul, who has issues of his own.

While Professor Locke, a.k.a. Bane, sneakily sows an antiheroic worldview in Liberty's student body, we see Leah joining in a study group, struggling to grasp the principles of caped hero costume design, causing a couple of disasters with misjudged uses of her power, and somehow, despite it all, making some friends and surviving the first semester. However, in my opinion, the story flies by too quickly, resolves too simply and is paced in a jerky, confusing way. Also, I find the contrasts between relatively realistic character panels and very stylized, cartoonish ones to be too abrupt and extreme.

Art carries the storyline as much as the dialogue, and as for narrative – well, there isn't any; it's a graphic novel. For what it is, maybe it's all right – though again, I was sometimes by confused when the plot jumped forward – but it just doesn't show Naomi Novik's talent to its best advantage, I feel. I kept wishing the comic panels would alternate with paragraphs of prose.

As far as the slimness of the book goes – how fast one gets through it, how simple the plot structure is, and ultimately how inconclusive the ending is – I guess you can put all that down to the fact that this was intended to be the first issue of a series of "Liberty Vocational" comics, or graphic novellas, or whatever. Perhaps there's a conclusion to be drawn from the fact that, after almost a decade, the series hasn't progressed beyond Volume 1. I wish Naomi Novik (and Yishan Li, too) every success. But I don't think this series is one.

Escape to the Above

Escape to the Above
by Adam Jay Epstein
Recommended Ages: 10+

Wily Snare has been lied to all his life. Brought up thinking he's a hobgoblet (one of the creatures, along with gwarves and oglodytes, that guard Carrion Tomb), he believes sunlight will melt the flesh off his bones – as evidenced by the burn mark on his arm. He also thinks that, in his role as trapsmith, he is doing tomb raiders a favor by giving their lives purpose, toiling in the mines. But then a team of treasure seekers slips past all his clever traps and plunders the treasure room, forcing the crypt wizard Stalag to give up one more thing: Wily himself. Apparently, an oracle told them that to accomplish their mission – to escape the mechanized tyranny of the Infernal King – they need Stalag's trapsmith.

Taking along his adopted hobgoblet sister Roveeka, Wily joins the unlikely team of Odette, an acrobatic elf whose mood swings follow the sun; Pryvyd, a knight who has forsaken his vows; Righteous, Pryvyd's detached arm that has ideas of its own; and Moshul, a golum covered in moss, mushrooms and insect nests, sort of a walking ecosystem who speaks in sign language. Their plan is to use Wily's trapsmithing skills to raid tombs and crypts all over the kingdom, until they raise enough money to buy passage across the sea. But as Wily learns more and more about who he really is – from accepting that he's a human to realizing that his mother and father are still out there – their mission changes toward saving the world.

This fast-paced book places a remarkable young character in the middle of a whimsical and dangerous fantasy world. Its magic has moods that vary from sad and grim to exuberant. It is full of weird creatures, goofy personalities, menacing machines and ingenious inventions – from a cackling skull who offers "a riddle for your life" to a mechanical flying machine to a mysterious hero who conceals his or her identity under a rainbow-colored collection of scarves. It has dragons, giant slugs and squid, bone soldiers, a floating city, a castle on wheels, tests of cleverness and courage and, best of all, the enchantment of finding family where you never would have looked.

This is the first book of the "Snared" series, continued in Lair of the Beast and Voyage on the Eversteel Sea. Adam Jay Epstein is also the co-author, with Andrew Jacobson, of four "Familiars" books and at least a couple "Starbounders" books, all for younger readers.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Rejoice, O Zion! Sing!

Rejoice, O Zion! Sing! – Hymns for the Lutheran Service Book One-Year Lectionary and Other Occasions
by Alan Kornacki, Jr.
Recommended Ages: Now and Henceforward

Missouri Synod Lutheran Pastor the Rev. Alan Kornacki, Jr. of Campbell Hill, Ill., sent me an advance proof of his book, which is the basis of my review. Since I'm starting off with disclosures, I should also disclose that Pastor Kornacki is a friend of mine; I even preached at his church a couple of times, when I still lived in St. Louis and was on the LCMS clergy roster. I was a beta reader for the book before it reached the proof stage. I composed a couple of the original hymn tunes in it and harmonized a couple more that Pastor Kornacki had written. I've been following developments in his hymnwriting career with interest for a number of years, via his blog and social media, including a Facebook group for Lutheran hymnwriters. I have discussed the ins and outs, ups and downs of hymnwriting with him, perhaps more than any other fellow hymnwriter currently working in Lutheran circles. I even did a little typesetting for the original tunes written for his texts by Theo Kavouras and the Rev. Robert Mayes, the latter of whom is also a dear brother in the ministry whom I know from all the way back at the seminary and who composed two or three tunes for my own hymn texts.

The bottom line of all this disclosing is that you can take my opinion of this book for what it's worth, under the circumstances. I can't pretend to be coming at it afresh or with a wholly unbiased mind. But at the same time, I might as well get this out of the way: Pastor Kornacki, or rather his work product represented in this book, fits my idea of what kind of hymn writer contemporary Lutheranism needs better than any other single creative writer that I know of. And if you think I'm either unaware of a lot of the alternatives or just easily satisfied, you haven't read this thread.

ROZS (that's an initialism for Rejoice, O Zion! Sing!; try to keep up) has 102 original hymns by Pastor Kornacki and, I'm happy to say, he hasn't stopped writing since he called it soup; a second collection is already in the works. Before you ask why the church needs another hundred-plus hymns, let me remind you of something I said in an argumentative essay about my own first collection, Useful Hymns:
(I would like to) redirect the way hymns are being introduced in today's church, away from "springing hymns that have not been discussed or tested on the church through the latest synodically approved pew hymnal" and toward "authors putting their own stuff out there and seeing what people make of it." ... Like creating art music, writing excellent hymns is not something we should leave up to other ages of history or other religious communities. I have a conjecture that an active culture of hymn-writing is as vital to the health of the living church at any time as an active culture of yeast is to a commercial bakery.
Hymns 1-74 of this book comprise one or more hymns for each Sunday of the Church Year according to the LSB one-year lectionary. So, a good use of this hymn collection is to provide a thought-provoking alternative "hymn of the day" (or two or three) keyed to the introit and Scripture lessons planned for Sunday's Divine Service in a liturgical Lutheran congregation. Also, it could provide devotional material for families, divinity students, ministers and teachers to meditate on between Sundays. Hymns 75-81 add liturgical feasts, festivals and saints' days to the list of topics for meditation and singing. Specifically, there are hymns for St. Stephen's day (Dec. 26), the Circumcision and Name of Jesus (Jan. 1), the Visitation (May 31), the Martyrdom of John the Baptist (Aug. 29), St. Michael and All Angels day (Sept. 29) and the Reformation (Oct. 31). Hymns 82-102 are "general texts for the Church," with topics including Baptism, Communion, matrimony, prayer, morning and evening, the anniversary of a congregation, "Cross and Comfort," "Baptismal Life," Life Sunday, the holy ministry and the death of a pastor. This last section also features hymns on the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32), the Venite (Psalm 95), and Jesus' "seven last words" on the cross.

Now, by way of evaluating Rev. Kornacki's work, let me at least start by paraphrasing some of the feedback I sent him (among constructive suggestions about punctuation, page layout, etc.) when I was beta reading it.
  • I love Pastor K.'s tune selections. At times as I read through his book, I caught myself hearing the music in my mind's ear before I looked at what tune he picked and almost every time, it was the tune in my head.
  • Hymn 23 ("Through faithful preachers You have planted," for Sexagesima Sunday) is better than the hymn originally set to ICH WILL DICH LIEBEN. That's what I call grace, giving a tune a better text than it deserves. Maybe this is its chance.
  • Hymn 24 ("The mighty Word goes forth today," also for Sexagesima), has a line in it saying, "Repent! Be washed in Satan's bane" – an awesome description of Baptism.
  • Hymn 26 ("Lord, teach me so to count my days," for Ash Wednesday) is a beautiful pentitential psalm inspired by the imposition of ashes.
  • Hymn 36 ("Oh, Pilate fixed three crosses," for Good Friday) is a paraphrase of Romanos the Melodist's allegorical dialogue between Satan and Hell, meditating on how Jesus' death on the cross looks so very like defeat but is, in fact, our victory over sin, death and hell.
  • Hymn 42 ("Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer," for Easter V) is a wonderful metrical paraphrase of the Litany, an ancient prayer that pretty much covers everything the Church prays about.
  • Hymn 82 ("Christ said, 'Bring the little children'") is an eloquently simple, brief hymn addressing the issue of infant baptism.
  • Hymn 83 ("In Babylon we weep") is a poignant expression of hunger for the Lord's Supper.
  • Hymn 92 ("Before I formed you in the womb I knew you") addresses the sanctity of life, including that of the unborn, in powerful, prophetic terms. Which is to say, biblically faithful ones.
  • Hymn 100 ("Oh, be present, God of mercy"), of which I told its author, "This is a precious piece. I mean that unironically," is a prayer for nighttime that vibrates with trust in God's protecting presence through all the dangers of the hour(s) of darkness.
  • Rev. Kornacki has a gift for economy and for directly getting to (and sticking to) the purpose of a hymn – a virtue I prize highly in a hymnwriter. There are one or two of my own hymns (saying nothing about anyone else's creative efforts) that, when I read them today, leave me wondering what I was thinking about. Not so with Pastor Kornacki.
Finally, here are the exact words with which I concluded my beta review, addressed to Rev. Kornacki: "Your hymn writing hits all the notes (no pun intended) that I think are required to represent all that a Lutheran hymn should be." Theologically (i.e., regarding doctrinal content), it is faithful to the doctrine that accords with the pure word of God, and rich in biblical language and imagery. Spiritually (i.e., regarding the character or tone color that it fosters in the worshiping soul or body), it is Christ-centered and constantly pulls the focus off of sentimental feelings and pious imagination and onto the promises written in the blood of Christ and entrusted to the church in word and sacrament. Artistically, I think it meets and exceeds the level of skill and taste that it has taken me more than twice as many hymns to reach; indeed, some of his hymns are aimed at the same target as certain hymns of mine, and I think they may have struck closer. To put a polemical point on it, I regard this book as an antithesis, not to say antidote, to Gracia Grindal's reductionist answer to the question "What makes a hymn Lutheran?" in the Reclaim hymnal. Praise the Lord!

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Gobbelino London and a Scourge of Pleasantries

Gobbelino London and a Scourge of Pleasantries
by Kim M. Watt
Recommended Ages: 13+

A plague of niceness has broken out in Leeds, England, and if it isn't stopped in less than a day, it could shred the fabric of reality. It's up to a pair of private investigators to stop it, and one of them – indeed, the senior partner in the firm of G & C London – would know about shredding fabric, since he's a cat.

Gobbelino, or Gobs as he hates to be called, and his pet human Callum are just struggling to get by, living and working out of a tiny, tatty office where they would probably starve if it weren't for nice Mrs. Smith across the hall. Currently on his fourth life, Gobs isn't keen to burn through his remaining ones in a hurry, which is why he tries to stay below the radar of the Watch – an organization of feline enforcers that once took justice a bit too far, costing him one of his former lives. One of the after-effects of this experience is that he's terrified to travel through the Inbetween, a void between dimensions where only cats, faeries and gargoyles dare to go – and by the way, always say "faeries" like it's spelled with an e; they can tell.

But keeping your ears clean (or whatever) isn't easy when you and your human partner have a reputation for helping people (and folk) with magic-related problems. This is probably why their current client sends them to retrieve what turns out to be a book of power, which her ex-huband got in the divorce. Before they can collect their fee, however, Mrs. Smith finds the book and unleashes a horrible, multidimensional catastrophe out of a sincere desire to make the world a nicer place. Gobbelino and Callum's building and the city block around it turn rapidly from shabby to posh, then goes way over the top as the kind old lady refuses to give up the book.

By the time man, cat and a few friends finally make their way back inside to deal with the crisis once and for all, existence itself has started to come apart. Besides multiple people insisting that the book belongs to them, there's the problem that the book has grown a will of its own and will destroy anyone and everything to absorb more power. Callum and Gobs are tested to the limits of their strength, among pastel-colored rats, a python, penguins, flamingos, dragons and some of the deadliest predators of the feline family.

It's a furry bundle of fun, full of dangerous magical weirdness and smart laughs. It's told from the point of view of a cat with all the smugness, cold pragmatism and sarcasm you would expect. His relationship with Callum seems to be made up of equal parts snarkiness, disapproval of each other's misguided values and genuine affection. Gobs is a cat who fervently wishes, more than once, that he could roll his eyes. He's a bit mercenary, a bit amoral, a bit disloyal, and more than a bit cowardly. Meanwhile, Callum has his rough spots, among which is a compulsion to correct his cat's (and other people's) malapropisms. He's a bit of a weenie; he reads too much; he smokes too much; he's too attached to his beater car; he's hopeless at talking to women; and he has a history of drug abuse, which apparently ended around the time he rescued kitten Gobs from one of the tentacled horrors from the Inbetween. In spite of it all, they make a great team and turn out, for all their mistakes, to be the right detectives for the job. I, for one, look forward to reading about their next job, too.

This is the first "Gobbelino London" novel. The series continues in A Contagion of Zombies and A Complication of Unicorns. New Zealand native Kim M. Watt lives in Yorkshire, England and is also the author of the "Beautfort Scales" or "Cozy Mysteries (with Dragons)" series, including Baking Bad, Yule Be Sorry, A Manor of Life and Death and Game of Scones. This review is based on a Kindle e-book.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Let Him Go

It's been ages since I've been able to go to the movies. Tonight, the movies came to me. Through my employer, I was given a chance to see an invitation-only, virtual sneak preview of the new film Let Him Go via Focus Films. Based on a novel by Larry Watson, it's written for the screen and directed by Thomas Bezucha and features Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as the middle-aged, married, western U.S. farm couple they were meant to play, at long last, in a film that doesn't stink. I had to add that last bit because they already played a middle-aged, married, western U.S. farm couple, but that was in Man of Steel and was a complete waste of their talents and potential as a screen couple. This movie, however, was not.

I don't want to over-discuss the Man of Steel thing, but I think it might be worthwhile to count some of the ways that movie was terrible in order to appreciate more fully the precise reasons I found Let Him Go satisfactory. To start, the 2013, Zack Snyder-directed Superman flick featured Costner and Lane as George and Martha Kent of rural Smallville, Kansas. While they made a valiant effort to elevate already well-canvassed material, there was finally no way they could save a film that was so badly photographed, badly dramatized, badly production-designed, badly directed, badly edited – I mean needlessly, pointlessly, aggressively bad on pretty much every level of the filmmaking craft. It's infuriating cinematic drivel, full of unearned and unmotivated camera movement, accidental-on-purpose autofocus effects, terrible CGI, an ugly color palate, ugly scenery, gratuitous property damage, stupid character treatments, a lack of personal charm and what seems like a perverse unwillingness to capitalize on Henry Cavill's good looks. But I've said more than enough about that.

Rather, let's now turn toward Let Him Go, and never look back. You're welcome. It's a fine picture to look at. It's superbly lit, textured, decorated, shot. I don't know the technicalities of how one would do this, but one did it. I don't think I've ever, in my many movie reviews, mentioned the names of the director of photography or the production designer, but I want to honor them now because I appreciate so much what they did on this picture: DP Guy Godfree and PD Trevor Smith. If I really had the background to be a movie critic, I could probably also say intelligent things about the editing, sound design, and whatnot. But I was just super into the whole look of this movie. It was so beautiful that it touched my heart, from the scenic vistas to the little, 1960s home interiors, the period streets and cars, the sleek horses and the remote highways with hardly a power line to be seen. It brings its time and setting to life and makes them feel lived in.

The story is also very powerful. It involves a Montana couple named George and Margaret Blackledge; he's a retired sheriff and she used to break horses for a living, until their son James died in a fall from a horse. A few years later, James' widow, Lorna, has gotten married to a weasely guy named Donnie Weboy, who Margaret sees beating on Lorna and little Jimmy, her son by the late James. No sooner has Margaret made up her mind to do something about this, than the couple ups stakes and moves back to Donnie's mother's ranch in North Dakota, the Blackledges' grandbaby and all. George grudgingly joins his wife on a road trip to look for them, and when they find them, the Weboy clan turns out to be a brutal gang who won't let Lorna and Jimmy escape without a fight. A fight they get – making the last half of the movie a slow-cooking stew of suspense that finally boils over into shocking violence.

Joining the dream couple in the film that finally deserves them are Jeffrey Donovan, late of Burn Notice, as one of the Weboy boys; Lesley Manville of The Crown as the terrifying Blanche Weboy; Booboo Stewart of the Twilight films as Peter, the young hermit who ran away from Indian school too late and found that it had already "killed the Indian inside"; and Will Hochman, whom I recognized as the surprise "new Reagan" who materialized at the end of last season on Blue Bloods, here playing a shopkeeper with an ominous scar on his neck. Overall it's a good cast, playing their roles effectively enough that you react emotionally to them. For example, the sheriff played by Greg Lawson (who also plays a sheriff on Wynonna Earp) made me so mad that I swore at him and wanted Kevin Costner to get up off his hospital bed and hit him. (A vague spoiler, there.) But since I evidently can't wait to talk about them, here are the ...

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Over dinner in a restaurant, George asks Margaret what she whispered in the ear of a beloved family horse named Strawberry, just before he put it down. What she says, and what Costner says back, brought me to the edge of tears and kept me there for a span of minutes. (2) The awful night when the Weboys force their way into the Blackledges' motel room, which made me feel helpless, angry and scared on their behalf. (3) The final shot of the film – and here I should mention that having to narrow it down to just three has rarely been harder – when the sun rises behind the car as Margaret heads west, and its light reflecting off the windshield mirror casts a golden glow around Diane Lane's eyes, and for the last of many times during this movie's run-time I'm reminded that every aspect of filmmaking came together perfectly in it from the acting, writing and directing to the lighting, photography and beyond. It's so good, in fact, I just wish Costner and Lane had waited for this movie to bring them together on screen. But if even Man of Steel can be forgiven, this is the movie to make it happen.

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking
by T. Kingfisher
Recommended Ages: 12+

Mona is a 14-year-old apprentice baker in the city-state of Riverbraid, where people like her, with magical abilities, have been pretty well tolerated until lately. But when she finds a dead girl in the kitchen and the royal inquisitor accuses her of murder, Mona begins to awaken to the fact that magic folk are disappearing all over town. Some of them have been murdered. Some are moving away, warning of a growing danger. Aided by a street urchin, a carnivorous sourdough starter and an animated gingerbread man, she tries to warn the Duchess that a conspiracy is afoot. But unmasking the Inquisitor, to say nothing of a traitor among the royal wizards, may be too late. The army is five days' march away in one direction. An enemy horde, in cahoots with a banished traitor, is only two days away in the other. The "Spring Green Man" has stuck his knife in the last surviving, loyal wizard in the city – except for a madwoman who literally rides a dead horse, and Mona.

What can she do to hold the city against attackers who are only interested in destroying and devouring? The only magic Mona knows has to do with bread. Making dough rise. Keeping biscuits from being too tough. Telling cinnamon rolls not to burn. OK, now and then, when she's really stressed, she lets out a little more power than she intended and creates living bread, like Bob (the sourdough starter) and her gingerbread man. Does she even have enough power to turn all the city's bread dough into weapons? Finding out may cost Mona her life. But she's all the city's got in the crisis.

As narrators go, Mona has a lot of attitude and a good sense of humor. For example, as she describes what it's like to walk on water wearing magicked bread crusts on her feet, she whimsically appeals to the experience of those in the audience who have traveled in this way. When challenged to find ways to weaponize bread, the ideas she comes up with are just hilarious – from "bad cookies" running around and creating chaos to 12-foot-tall golems made from not mud but dough. She is forced to grow up beyond her years, thinking wise things about (for example) the difficulty of being a good ruler, the trouble about being a hero, and what nobody ever tells you about how magic really works. Her adventure is both thoughtful and exciting, by turns. With one problem arising just as another is solved, it has a satisfying heft to it and avoids too-easy outcomes. I wouldn't mind meeting Mona again, in a sequel.

T. Kingfisher is a pseudonym of author Ursula Vernon, under which she has also written the novels Bryony and Roses, The Seventh Bride, The Raven and the Reindeer, Summer in Orcus, Clockwork Boys, The Wonder Engine, Swordheart, The Twisted Ones, Paladin's Grace, and The Hollow Places; the story collections Toad Words And Other Stories, The Halcyon Fairy Book and Jackalope Wives And Other Stories, and the novellas Nine Goblins and Minor Mage. As herself, she is the Hugo, Nebula and Mythopoeic Fantasy Award winning author of Nurk, Castle Hangnail, and many kids' graphic novels including the "Digger," "Black Dogs," "Dragonbreath" and "Hamster Princess" series and Irrational Fears. This review is based on a Kindle e-book.