Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Nose from Jupiter

The Nose from Jupiter
by Richard Scrimger
Recommended Ages: 11+

Alan Dingwall, 13, is an ordinary seventh grader in Cobourg, Ontario: not particularly good at math or sports, not very popular, cowed by the school bullies, and a little lonely, especially at home with his divorced mother who doesn't have much time for him and an even busier father who lives all the way across the continent. He doesn't feel loved. His unhappiness is almost a speaking character. Then a tiny alien from outer space flies up his nose and takes residence there, and a bunch of these things start to change.

At first Alan worries that Norbert's smart-aleck remarks will get him in trouble. Or maybe people like his parents and teachers will decide he's crazy. But as some of the kids at school – including a girl Alan has a crush on – assume Norbert's comments are a ventriloquism act and his mom thinks he has an imaginary friend, he starts to relax. Almost. There is just one tiny problem: Norbert humiliated the school bullies in an intramural soccer game, and they don't forgive or forget. You'll suspect that has something to do with the fact that Alan wakes up in the hospital with a pain in his head, doctors puzzled about a spaceship-shaped shadow in his MRI, and no memory of being pulled out of a swollen river by a girl.

Alan tells us the story of the days leading up to his accident, with a little help from Norbert, while trying to remember what happened. What they discover is strange, funny and touching. It's a well-written, intelligent story that doesn't pull punches, settle for cuteness or talk down to young readers. In fact, they may find its vocabulary and concepts challenging, and some of its pop culture references (like k.d. lang and land-line phones) might be dated enough, after 20-plus years, to raise questions for today's youngsters. Asking them, or doing a little research, hurts nobody, though. And anyway, Alan's wit, his heart, his growth as a character, the realism of his situation, and Norbert's smart mouth all make the effort seem more than worthwhile.

This is the first book of a series that continues in A Nose for Adventure, Noses Are Red and The Boy from Earth. Canadian author Richard Scrimger has also published several other novels for adults and children, including The Way to Schenectady, Of Mice and Nutcrackers, From Charlie's Point of View, Me & Death, Zomboy, Lucky Jonah and Downside Up. He also co-authored Viminy Crowe's Comic Book with Marthe Jocelyn.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Lower Decks, Season 1

The DVD box set for Season 1 of Star Trek: Lower Decks finally came out, and I watched it all in one day. It wasn't as much of a binge as you might expect. Only two DVDs, with five episodes each, plus a few special features; and each episode only 22 minutes long. I was ahead on my 40 so I took a couple hours off in the afternoon, then watched the rest after a work-related meeting in the evening. It was tiny as Trek series go, but I got a big kick out of it. And that's saying something. I mean, I actually owned Star Trek: The Animated Series on DVD at one point, and hated it so much that I got rid of it after watching only a couple episodes. I know, I'm going to regret that if I ever feel driven to complete my cycle of Star Trek reviews. But honestly, I was already working on it when that happened. Animated Star Trek can suck and, prior to this, has sucked. But the pattern is broken, so maybe there's hope for the still-to-come series Star Trek: Prodigy.

STLD is was created by a nerd named Mike McMahan, and boy! would it be fun to be him. In the Trek timeline, it's set approximately just after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis (the Next Generation film in which Will Riker and Deanna Troi got married). The main characters are junior ensigns on board the starship Cerritos – as unglorious as a Starfleet career can be. They do the scut work that keeps their ship going, like scraping crud off of filters, fixing food replicators when they go on the fritz, and installing space-age gizmos on second-contact planets. Their ship is no Enterprise, either. Old, out-of-style, showing a lot of wear and tear, and crewed by misfits from the top of the command chain down, it specializes in "second contact" – not first, mind you – with new life and new civilizations. What they mostly learn is that the neat solutions to the first-contact stories of the elite Trek crews often lead to new and perhaps worse problems later.

The show is a menagerie (heh) of alien races from most of the Trek series so far – including ones only previously seen on the animated series, or briefly glimpsed in the background of the other shows. It revisits a planet last seen in The Original Series, and even brings the acronym "TOS" into canon (albeit standing for different words). It brings back a one-off race of TNG villains and makes them a bigger threat than the first time. It hints at not all Ferengi living up to the hand-rubbing, furtive stereotype. It takes advantage of being drawn by animators to explore environments that would be too far-out or expensive to depict in a live-action episode. It does Trek, legit Trek, but with the character-design sensibilities of a prime-time animated sit-com like The Family Guy, The Simpsons or Rick and Morty, and the laughs to go with it.

Here are the main characters for you. From the left, there's D'Vana Tendi (played by comedian Noël Wells), a perky, relentlessly optimistic Orion girl who, as the newest addition to the crew, serves somewhat as a point-of-view character, taking in every new experience with wide-eyed wonder. Then there's Sam Rutherford (comedian Eugene Cordero), an engineer who is still getting used to being cybernetically enhanced (read: he doesn't fully understand how his implants work yet). Next is Brad Boimler, an ambitious, rules-bound, insecure klutz whose best friend describes him as a weasel with a tiny human inside. Playing him is Jack Quaid, late of TV's The Boys and (no kidding) the son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. (And you thought having Gregory Peck's grandson playing Spock was a big deal. Well, it is.) Finally, we have Beckett Mariner, a rebellious, reckless, super-talented type of young female Kirk, who rose rapidly through the ranks on sheer talent and was busted down to ensign again (and again) on sheer bloodymindedness. She lacks respect for authority and therefore seems reluctant to earn any. Played by Tawny Newsome of Space Force, she is also secretly (until the secret gets out) the daughter of the Cerritos's captain.

While we're on that subject, here are the senior officers of the ship, who are (not surprisingly, if you recall the title of the show) secondary characters. The security chief, at left, is an insanely aggro Bajoran named Shaxs (pronounced "Shacks"), played by the great voice actor Fred Tatasciore (pronounced "ta-ta-shore"), whose notable roles include AAARRRGGHH!!! in the Trollhunters franchise, the Hulk, Megatron, Yosemite Sam, Dracula, Bane, Commissioner Gordon, Hades, Zeus, Deathstroke ... all right, I almost hyperventilated there. Next to him is Captain Carol Freeman, played by Dawnn Lewis of A Different World and Hangin' with Mr. Cooper: uptight, a stickler for authority, frayed to the end of her last nerve by her daughter's undermining behavior. Then there's First Officer Jack Ransom, played by Jerry O'Connell of Sliders, My Secret Identity and, of course, Stand By Me. His character is a gung-ho, Riker-on-steroids type (I'm not kidding about the 'roids; wait till he rips his shirt off) and it's hinted that there might be an attraction between him and Mariner. And finally, there's the cat, I mean Caitian, chief medical officer, Dr. T'Ana – be careful how you pronounce that apostrophe – played by Gillian Vigman of MADtv and Sons & Daughters. A little battle-scarred, with a smoky voice that hints at an excess of nighttime screeching, she's the hilarious opposite of the last Caitian character depicted in Trek's 1970s animated series.

So, there are 10 episodes. And all though I'm soooo over listing every single episode (as I did in my first umpteen Star Trek revies), I'll say in fairness that an episode-by-episode breakdown of Picard and Discovery is pointless because they've been so heavily serialized that you don't even notice where one episode ends and another begins. However, I think with only 10 episodes, and very episodic ones at that, I can reasonably distinguish that Second Contact is the one where most of the crew turns into zombies; Envoys involves a disastrous errand to ferry a Klingon negotiator to an embassy on what a writer described in the DVD extras as the Epcot Center of alien planets; Temporal Edict is the one where Capt. Freeman cracks down on the crew's time management ethic of "buffer time" (the old Montgomery Scott chestnut about saying a task will take much longer than it really will, so you'll seem a miracle worker when you get it done faster), and this almost destroys the ship; Moist Vessel involves a ship full of terraforming fluid and a crewman whose ascension to a being of pure energy Tendi inadvertently screws up; Cupid's Errant Arrow is the one where Mariner is suspicious of Boimler's all-too-beautiful girlfriend; Terminal Provocations features an ensign who makes both Boimler and Mariner look like the ideal Starfleet officer, and introduces Badgey, a psychotic tutorial hologram obviously inspired by Microsoft's "Clippy"; Much Ado About Boimler finds this series' master-of-suffering-from-weird-problems turned into a blue, transparent wraith by a transporter mishap; Veritas has the main characters interrogated about their officers' recent activities by what appears to be an alien drumhead trial, but is really more of an object lesson about cultural misunderstandings; Crisis Point is where Mariner works out her mommy issues by casting herself as the villainous Vindicta in a holodeck movie parody of the TOS feature films; and No Small Parts brings the season to a cliff-hanging conclusion (not literally) with one regular character killed off in an act of sacrifice and another transferred to a different ship.

Guests include John de Lancie as Q, Jonathan Frakes as Riker, Marina Sirtis as Deanna, as well as J.G. Hertzler (Martok on DS9), Haley Joel Osment, Kurtwood Smith, Jack McBrayer (30 Rock), etc. etc. What else can I tell you? There's a lot of profanity in this series but it's all bleeped out ... barely. Use your imagination.

So, this is weird, but because this is a Star Trek comedy, all three of my Three Scenes That Made It For Me are going to be jokes that really landed. I mean, I laughed hard. (1) Ransom tells Freeman that her plan to drive Mariner into quitting by assigning her the worst jobs has backfired, because she keeps finding ways to make it fun. Freeman snaps at him, "I have her emptying BLEEP out of the holodeck's BLEEP filter!" Ransom, shocked, says, "They actually use it for that?" You laugh, knowing BLEEP well they do. (2) Mariner asks Boimler if he's just excited about having a new ass to kiss, and he says, "I wouldn't put it that way ... but yes." (3) Really, every horrible thing that happens to Boimler – there's about one per episode – but I think the one that takes the cake is when a giant, spider-cow slurps him into her mouth and gums him senseless. I still laugh every time I picture it in my mind. Does that make me a bad person? Oh, well.

Honorable mentions: The trippy thing that happens when that one crewman ascends, the gag about the most important person in the history of Starfleet, and the movingly Shaxs thing that Shaxs does when his character arc arrives at its inevitable conclusion.

Bottom line, I love these characters. I love them from page one. They're well designed, well written, super-well acted – I mean, these folks have scene-stealing comedic talent, and that's with their voices alone. The imagery is great. The storylines are a gas. The visual and audible Easter eggs are a treasure trove for Trekkies. It's truly Trek, not just a parody of Trek; but it's so, so funny. And it manages all these things in 10 episodes of 22 minutes each, not a wasted moment among them. Knowing CBS had this up its sleeve makes me wonder how they've botched Discovery so badly. (In fairness, I've only seen the first two seasons of that show; but in unfairness, the only parts I totally loved are spinning off to become a separate series, Strange New Worlds.) Just think, this show was in development before Discovery went on the air. It takes a year to make each episode. It's a process that must be fraught with tremendous care, and it's paid off so far. The hard part is waiting for another year for my next 3 hour, 40 minute fix of Lower Decks.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Tacky Hymns 88

We continue with the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELHy, 1996). I repeat:
I'm pointing up three types of hymns in this series of critiques: (1) Hymns that I think the editors should have known better than to put in the pew hymnal of a liturgical, confessional Lutheran church – the kind that, doctrinally and artistically, qualify as "tacky" in the sense I've been using it on this thread; (2) noteworthy text-tune pairings; and (3) hymns of such high quality that I feel they deserve to be better known and more widely sung. I'll try, but not too hard, to avoid vain repetition from previous threads. That's a lot of material to try to keep in mind, you know.
Perhaps I should also beg indulgence for taking, perhaps, a more persnickety tone below than in my previous remarks on ELHy. Certainly, there are a lot of good hymns in this section of ELHy; but many of them happen to be in Missouri Synod books such as TLH, LW and LSB, with the same tune and all, so I thought I'd spare the blather of singling them out. Please take it as read that the missing hymn numbers below are all right in my books.

(555) Rise again, ye lion-hearted (Type 2) is a "saints and martyrs" hymn by an unknown 18th-century German author, translated by Martin Franzmann and set to STRATFORD, a tune by the same Alfred Fremder who also composed a setting of the Divine Service for this hymnal. It's a very impressive tune. The few Missouri Sinners who are familiar to this tune may know it better to the 19th century chorale LÖWEN, LASST EUCH WIEDERFINDEN (written, I daresay, for this hymn), used in TLH.

(558) From all Thy saints in warfare (Type 2) is a Bottom of the Page Text Block (BOTPTB) by Horatio B. Nelson (not the admiral), which this book confines to three general-purpose stanzas referencing "apostles, prophets, martyrs and all the sacred throng" (stanza 2) and suggests singing to AURELIA ("The church's one Foundation"). Both LW (193-194) and LSB (517-518) change it to "By all your saints in warfare"; set it to the majestic English folk tune KING'S LYNN, collected and arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams; and expand it to include separate stanzas for specific apostles, prophets and martyrs – so many of them that they end up spread across two numbered hymns and, in LSB's case, include additional stanzas written by Harlyn Kuschel and Gregory Wismar. I guess the latter version will be useful if you're going to observe every saints day that comes along in the church calendar, though I think the soundest liturgical advice is to give priority to Whatever Sunday of the Church Year. However, I do like KING'S LYNN and find AURELIA a bit watery after all the use it's been given.

(560) Now the day is over, a hymn by Sabine Baring-Gould of "Onward, Christian soldiers" fame, gets a Type 1 ding because of Joseph Barnby's boring tune MERRIAL. I mean, seriously: two out of four phrases are entirely made up of the note E repeated over and over. It manages despite that to exude shmaltz all over the place. One of my least favorite pieces by Barnby and, I think, a melody the church should have outgrown a century ago.

(565) All praise to Thee, my God, this night (Type 1-1/2) is an evening hymn by Thomas Ken, set here to the shmaltzy tune EVENING HYMN by Charles Gounod. This was one of the two tunes TLH had for this hymn and, I'm sorry to say, ELHy picked the wrong one to carry over. The one good thing ELHy did with it was to transpose it down to the white-note key of C, rather than forcing Mrs. Gundersen to read the five flats of D-flat major.

(566) Thus far the Lord has led me on (Type 3) is a BOTPTB by Isaac Watts, brief and accessible for an individual's or a family's bedtime prayer. The suggested tune, J.S. Bach's GOTTLOB, ES GEHT NUNMEHR, is what TLH aficiones may recall as the tune to the Maundy Thursday hymn "The death of Jesus Christ, our Lord." For what it's worth, the tune takes its title from a funeral hymn by Christian Weise, which Bach used in one of his cantatas.

(567) Christ, mighty Savior is a hymn credited to the 10th century Mozarabic community, translated into English by somebody McDougall and revised later by somebody LeCroy, and set to David Hurd's tune MIGHTY SAVIOR, about which I have commented before. In ELW and LSB, this hymn is set to the tune INNISFREE FARM, about which I have also commented before. To sum up, I like both tunes but I've learned by experience not to foist them on my little, small-town congregation. What this hymn needs is a tune they can sing.

(569) Now rest beneath night's shadow is a Paul Gerhardt bedtime hymn set to a J.S. Bach harmonization of Heinrich Isaac's O WELT, ICH MUSS DICH LASSEN (a.k.a. INNSBRUCK). While I love this piece of music and, as an ambitious music student in the town-gown community that produced this book, would have loved the idea of having it in the pew hymnal at that time, I've ripened (so to speak) to the point that, today, I wouldn't make that choice. It just doesn't reflect a realistic view of the service playing abilities of Mrs. Jorgensen or the singing skills of the folks at Sherpherd of the Cornfield Lutteran Church. However, you could just use a standard, hymnal-style arrangement of the same tune instead.

(570) Now the light has gone away is Frances Ridley Havergal's evening hymn, set to the trite yet boring chorale MÜDE BIN ICH, which achieves almost the same level of monotony as MERRIAL without the shmaltzy harmony.

(574) O Trinity, most blessed Light is a fine evening hymn by Ambrose of Milan, translated by John Mason Neale, which TLH sets to the Nicolaus Decius chorale O HEILIGE DRAIFALTIGKEIT. I'd also like to mention that there's a plainchant melody written for this hymn, O LUX BEATA TRINITAS, which I've personally arranged as a hymn tune and I think it also works pretty well, not that the editors of ELHy would have known about it. They went with the British ballad tune O WALY WALY, which American singers may associate with the song "The Water Is Wide." I'm ambivalent about the success of this pairing, or about any tune associated with well-known secular folk lyrics being yoked into hymnody. (Other examples are THE ASH GROVE and BUNESSAN.)

(575) The sun has gone down comes from the Danish author Samuel Olsen Bruun, and it's set to that Norsk folk tune FAR VERDEN, FAR VEL that was only hinted at in ELHy 529. It's a beautiful, atmospheric, expressive piece that perhaps relies a bit over-much on its harmony to make melodic sense. It'll probably be most warmly received by people who feel their Scandinavian heritage.

(576) Holy Father, in Thy mercy is a BOTPTB by Isabella Stephenson, with the suggested tune STEPHANOS ("I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus"). While I'll naturally complain that this tune makes me feel starched and stifled the way only artifacts of English Romanticism can, I have to be fair and add that there could be a use for this hymn praying for absent loved ones.

(579) Abide in grace, Lord Jesus is just a different translation of Josua Stegmann's hymn, given in TLH as "Abide, O dearest Jesus," set in both places to the beautiful chorale CHRISTUS, DER IST MEIN LEBEN.

(583) God's Word is our great heritage is a one-stanza hymn by N.F.S. Grundtvig that Missouri Sinners are accustomed to sing to the tune REUTER, by Fritz of that name, whereas ELHy follows LHy in setting it to the isometric version of EIN FESTE BURG. And that pretty much epitomizes the everlasting schism between American Lutherans of Scandinavian and German extraction.

(584) Grant peace, we pray, in mercy, Lord (Type 2) is a Latin hymn adapted by Martin Luther, set to the tune VERLEIH UNS FRIEDEN. It's an interesting case study in hymnal editing, because there's a version of this hymn that goes on much longer than this in phrase after through-composed phrase; J.S. Bach's chorale harmonizations include a setting of it, of which ELHy's harmonization is only an excerpt. Then again, there's a more plainchant-like version of the same excerpt (minus the final phrase) that you can find in LW 219 and LSB 778, the latter opposite an alternate tune by Mendelssohn in LSB 777. Making this already complex picture even more confusing is the existence of a tune called CHRISTIAN LOVE, attributed to Paul Benoit, which is so similar to VERLEIH UNS FRIEDEN that they just have to be related; and while we're mentioning it, ERHALT UNS, HERR bears some similarity to it, too. Just sayin'.

(588) Lord, dismiss us with Thy blessing (Type 2) is the close-of-worship hymn that TLH and other Missourian books (plus LHy and TCH) pair with Henry Smart's tune REGENT SQUARE ("Angels from the realms of glory"). ELHy joins ELHb, CSB, ALH, SBH, LBW and ELW – basically, the ELCA side of American Lutheranism, plus the English-language forerunner of TLH – in going with the tune SICILIAN MARINERS (a.k.a. O SANCTISSIMA, a.k.a. O DU FRÖHLICHE, a.k.a. SICILIAN HYMN, a.k.a. SICILIAN MARINERS' HYMN), which the German side of Lutheranism probably associates with the Christmas hymn "O thou holiest, O thou happiest" (a.k.a. "Oh, how joyfully, oh, how merrily," etc.). So, either way you slice it, this Hymn to Depart lends a Christmassy note to the end of the worship hour.

(593) On my heart imprint Thine image (Type 2) is that one-stanza hymn by Thomas Kingo, which I learned by heart from TLH as set to the tune DER AM KREUZ ("Jesus, grant that balm and healing"), then had to re-learn at Bethany Lutheran College (the nursery of this hymnal) to the tune FREU DICH SEHR ("Comfort, comfort ye my people"), and in an isometric version at that. (Missouri Sinners have been singing the rhythmic version of this tune since TLH.) Hymn 598 is the same hymn, set to an eight (or more) voice choral arrangement of the same tune by Alfred Fremder, which was always the closing number of choir concerts at the college. I guess Fremder is Bethany's F. Melius Christiansen, and this hymn was his "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty." A consequence of this heavy exposure to the FREU DICH SEHR version of the hymn is that I'm OK with either tune, but I'm NOT OK with hymnals-come-lately such as LW and LSB altering the lyrics that I've known by heart since childhood. To this day I stumble when my heart leads me one way and the book points another.

(595) Peace to soothe our bitter woes (Types 2-3) is a Grundtvig hymn that, as it were, bookends the previously mentioned "In Jesus' name our works must all be done" (about which, see here and here.) In other words, it's the hymn that, I believe, the Norwegian Lutherans in America customarily used to close church meetings. The tune is FRED TIL BOD, but not the one by Ludvig M. Lindeman that you probably know from the Lenten hymn "Come to Calvary's holy mountain" (though I reckon it was originally written for this text). Rather, it's a tune of the same name by J.P.E. Hartman, which isn't quite as polished but definitely has a warm, devotional appeal that accords with the tone of Grundtvig's words. And what words! "Jesus bought our peace with God With His holy, precious blood; Peace in Him for sinners found Is the Gospel's joyful sound." That's just stanza 1. Stanza 2 describes peace as "our baptismal dow'r" and says it "shall bless our dying hour," before closing with a sweet benediction. I love this hymn and I'm heartbroken that it isn't better known across American Lutheranism. It's definitely something I'd like to import into Missouri.

(597) Savior, again to Thy dear name we raise is a benediction hymn by John Ellerton, about which see here, set to Edward J. Hopkins' tune ELLERS, about which see here. Type 1, don'tcha know; mostly due to the tune. There had to be at least one.

After a whole page of text-block hymns (three different table prayer hymns), the book concludes with (602) God bless our native land, set to an English tune improbably titled AMERICA, which is really "God Save the Queen," which is really the British national anthem, which the U.S. co-opted as the tune for its own patriotic song "My country, 'tis of thee," which is so widely known in the States that I've known a choir director at a state college who used it without a score to audition singers. The present hymn text, which reads to me as an attempt to convert this secular nationalist ditty into a church hymn about the nation, is credited to John Sullivan Dwight and Charles T. Brooks; however, credits them as translators and claims the hymn was originally written in German by one Siegfried A. Mahlmann. I suppose we can debate all day whether the hymnal or the worship service is the proper place for a patriotic song or hymn to mark public holidays like July 4, but on the other hand, better this than "God bless America" (which my congregation sings every Memorial Day), or "America the Beautiful" or "The Star-Spangled Banner," either of which (and more) I've come across in other hymnals. The thing to watch for, I guess, in deciding whether the song has any business being in worship is whether the song sentimentalizes a particular country, exalts it over other countries or takes the "my country, right or wrong" line without adding "if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right." In other words, is it the kind of prayer for the nation that you could paraphrase directly from Scripture and that addresses God as the Lord of all nations?

So, that's ELHy. I have an idea for what book I'm going to tear to bits next. In the meantime, with a few reservations (fewer than maybe any other book I've looked at, including TLH) I recommend this hymnal for the consideration and use of all American Lutherans who are interested in being purposefully, distinctively Lutheran in doctrine and practice. It has much in it to enrich the repertoire of those, for example, who have been nourished on the TLH-LW-LSB line of hymnals, with only a few hymns whose addition to our literature I challenge as examples of "tackiness on holy ground."

Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Hush

The Hush
by John Hart
Recommended Ages: 15+

Ten years ago, Johnny Merrimon was a 13-year-old juvenile delinquent with a heart of gold. When law enforcement was stumped by a series of child abductions – including Johnny's twin sister – he and his best friend Jack Cross caught the bad guy, found all the dead bodies and saved his last would-be victim. The true crime book based on their exploit was a best seller.

Now in his twenties, he lives by himself at Hush Arbor: 6,000 acres of wilderness in northern Raven County, North Carolina. His mother and stepfather don't understand why he doesn't mind living surrounded by dangerous animals, a treacherous swamp, huge and ancient trees, a scrubby rock ridge and a spooky, abandoned village that used to be inhabited by slaves freed by Johnny's great-great-grandfather. And let's not forget the hanging tree, where three men died a horrible death that brought ruin to that previous John Merrimon. Today's Johnny has become so attached to this wild piece of land that he pines for it when he's away. But it isn't just one of those noble savage things. It's more like an addiction ... or maybe a case of possession.

Now his buddy Jack has become a lawyer, and Johnny asks him for help fighting an ongoing legal battle with some relatives of those former slaves who claim the land should belong to them. Plus, he recently served four months in jail for shooting up the camp of a billionaire who was trespassing on his land to shoot bears out of season. The billionaire is now bankrolling the Freemantles' appeal against him. The county sheriff has taken a dislike to him – to the tune of suspecting Johnny whenever anything bad or mysterious happens – and historically, a lot of bad and mysterious things have happened at Hush Arbor. Disappearances. Bizarre deaths. People going in whole and coming out broken. And now, that billionaire has turned up dead while hunting at Hush Arbor, and his hunting companion has gone out of his mind.

Of course, the sheriff tries to pin this on Johnny, though city police Det. Clyde Hunt – who happens to be Johnny's stepfather – tries equally hard to protect him. Even when the evidence exonerates Johnny of the billionaire's death, the sheriff continues trying to find evidence against him, leading to even bigger trouble with the law. Adding to the danger are the comings and goings of Freemantles, including one particularly scary old lady and a girl who's been having disturbing dreams. But Johnny's been dreaming, too, and even Jack has noticed that something is off about the Hush. The more he digs into its history, the more disturbing the picture becomes – and the more Jack grows convinced that Johnny has gotten tangled up in something old, dangerous and secret. At the risk of laying the cards face-up, there's something magic about Hush Arbor – but we're not talking about sparkly-fairy-dust magic, good witches or that kind of stuff. We're talking something so terrifying, dark and angry that it starts to look unlikely that Johnny, Jack and the Freemantle girl will all make it out of the Hush alive.

It's been a long time since I've had to work so hard at a synopsis of a book, hitting that sweet spot between saying too much and not saying enough. I'd like to ask you, "How'd I do?" but then, you'd have to read this book to answer me properly. And then, you'll have absorbed the full impact of its exquisite horror, suspense, chills, shocks and sometimes cruel depictions of personal terror and agony. Right now, you might be thinking most of those words are synonyms, but once you read it you'll appreciate how many distinct shadings there are from "slow-building dread with a sense of certain doom" and "creepy crawlies running up and down" to "freaked out heebie-jeebies" and "I'm too squeamish to look, maybe I'll skip over this next bit." They're all in this book somewhere.

This is the sequel to a previous novel titled The Last Child, which won both a Barry and an Edgar award. Other novels by John Hart include The King of Lies, Iron House, Redemption Road, The Unwilling and the Edgar-winning Down River. This review is based on an audiobook read by Jeremy Bobb.

The Goldfish Boy

The Goldfish Boy
by Lisa Thompson
Recommended Ages: 11+

Matthew has been trapped indoors for weeks by severe and worsening fears and anxieties – mostly germs, but also the unlucky number "tenplusthree" – and his family is starting to show strain. He's been missing school. He's done so much washing and cleaning that the skin of his hands is sore. His parents don't see eye to eye on how to deal with him. And he doesn't have much to do except keeping detailed records of the movements of everybody on Chestnut Close, their cul de sac. His constant hovering behind the upstairs windows of his bedroom and the family office earns him some dirty looks from their neighbors and a nickname from the snotty granddaughter of the codger next door: "Goldfish Boy."

Some of you may have guessed what Matthew's diagnosis will be when his mother finally cajoles him into seeing a couneslor. Yes, kids, its OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder when not at home – but then, Matthew is hardly ever not at home. His case of OCD comes with the full equipment: obsessive thinking (germs crawling on him!), compulsive behavior (hand washing, deep cleaning) and even some mildly psychotic symptoms (like his conversations with the lion he imagines looking down from the corner of his bedroom wallpaper). He's a right mess, almost never descending from the second floor of his house, avoiding the family cat like the plague (literally), and experiencing guilt about the death of his infant brother as a beetle gnawing at his innards. Yet in spite of his challenges, or rather partly because of them, he's the last person to see a little kid – the neighbor codger's toddler grandson – before he up and disappears.

Despite everyone in the neighborhood joining in the search, and police swarming all over the close, little Teddy persists in not turning up. At first it looks like the lonely, homebound kid with too much time on his hands is going to show everybody up by his unique thought processes and powers of observation. But even he, albeit reluctantly, has to accept a little help from a couple other kids in the neighborhood, although the girl is a little weird and the boy is a bit of a bully. As suspicion falls on one resident of the neighborhood after another, Matthew is drawn farther and farther outside his comfort zone – as well as to the realization that he wants to get better.

This is a story with a heart for hurting people that I think will touch many readers' hearts. So many people in his neighborhood reveal frailties, fears and sorrows that at elicit first suspicion, then compassion and understanding, from both Matthew and us. And though you may have guessed some facts before they're revealed, the gradual payout of crucial information works for this book – a hint that the missing child on Chestnut Close is only the outermost of multiple, nested mysteries. In my non-expert opinion, I feel that Matthew's condition is depicted in a thoughtful and thought-provoking way, and his growth and the development of his relationships with family, friends and neighbors tug on the emotions in a non-cheap, well-earned way.

This was Lisa Thompson's debut novel. In August 2021, its sequel will be released, titled The Graveyard Riddle. Thompson is also the author of the young readers' books The Light Jar, The Day I Was Erased, Owen and the Soldier, The House of Clouds, The Boy Who Fooled the World and The Small Things.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Spy Camp

Spy Camp
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 11+

Ben Ripley is only a first-year student at the CIA's top-secret Academy of Espionage, but he's already caught an enemy mole and learned, by harsh experience, that the intelligence community is riddled with incompetence. For example, he's only been on summer vacation one day when he is approached in public by the very mole he put away five months ago – right under the noses of an undercover security detail that completely misses it and doesn't believe him when he tells them about it, insisting that kid he caught trying to blow up the school is still safely incarcerated. But later, when Ben visits the juvenile prison where his ex-friend is supposed to be, he finds a lookalike kid doing time in his place. This means incompetence is the least of what the CIA is riddled with. It has double agents out the wazoo.

So, obviously, Ben can't call on the CIA for help when the nefarious organization known as SPYDER sends him an ultimatum on the first day of the spy kids' summer camp. He's about to get an extreme test of survival in the mountains, rivers and forests of Virginia and West Virginia, hounded at every step by villains armed with missiles who are somehow two or three steps ahead of every move he makes. The only people he can trust are a beautiful teenage superspy named Erica, her grossly incompetent dad Alexander and a handful of kids from the camp, some of whom don't even like him. By the time they figure out what SPYDER really wants, it may be too late to stop them from carrying out an attack that will change the world in a horrible way.

Poor Ben spends much of this adventure wracking his brains, trying to figure out what it is about him that SPYDER wants so much – only to come to the depressing conclusion that he's really nothing special at all. And yet, when everything comes together in a thrilling and perilous climax, a lot rides on the abilities of a nothing-special trainee spy who just happens to be in position to make a difference. I'm starting to detect a slow-building crescendo of irony here, that SPYDER chose to pick on this guy on the pretext that he has special skills that he actually doesn't, while at the same time, there is something in him that nobody (including himself) knows about. Yet. Whatever that thing is, I expect to see more of it develop in the conflict brewing between SPYDER and the CIA, in which Ben will certainly be right in the middle.

This funny, kid-friendly spy thriller is the second of going-on-nine books in the "Spy School" series by the author of the "Last Musketeer" and "Moon Base Alpha" trilogies. The next book in the series is Evil Spy School, and the latest installment (coming in August 2021) is Spy School at Sea.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines
by Philip Reeve
Recommended Ages: 14+

All right, so I saw the movie first. Given the impression it made on me, it was an easy decision to grab this book when I saw it, this past weekend, at a small-town independent bookstore. Of the six books I bought there, it was the one I knew I had to read immediately. And now I'm astonished that I haven't read anything by Philip Reeve before, despite the fact that I'm sure I've seen several of his titles displayed in various bookstores and was intrigued by some of them. Better late than never, eh?

If you've already seen the movie, please do not fear reading the book as well. In fact, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by their similiarities and differences, and the real possibility of enjoying both. It's not one of those cases, and I can name a few, where you end up loving one and hating the other. Reeve writes with charm and wit, describing a distant future version of our world that is at once wonderful, weird and awful. A world whose "ancients," maybe a couple thousand years after us, wiped themselves out in what is now known as the Sixty Minute War, leaving behind fragments of culture and technology that the surviving humans struggle to understand. A world divided between Traction Cities – literally, entire cities mounted on tracks, moving across the landscape – and fixed settlements, the latter existing mainly behind a shield-wall that protects them from roaming, predatory conurbations. When one town, suburb or city catches another, it devours it, consuming its resources and adding its citizens to the workforce. It's all in line with a philosophy known as Municipal Darwinism.

When we first see the city of London in this book's fabulous opening sentence, it's "chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea." Everything unfolds from there with scenery charged with strangeness and menace, yet also a sense of history. Apprentice historian Tom Natsworthy, who at age 15 is considerably younger than his movie incarnation (as are several other principal characters), believes in Municipal Darwinism with all his heart, and he hero-worships Thaddeus Valentine, the head of the Historians' Guild, who climbed the social ladder while adventuring far and wide in pursuit of archaeological discovery. But then a girl with a hideously scarred face tries to stab Valentine right in front of Tom and the great man's beautiful daughter. Tom tries to chase the girl, but she throws herself down a waste chute after telling him to ask Valentine about her. Recognizing the girl's name – Hester Shaw – and desperate to protect his darkest secret, Valentine pushes Tom down the chute after her.

The unlikely pair miraculously survives their fall from the moving city and begin trying to get back – Tom, to the only life he knows; Hester, to the man she is sworn to kill, after he murdered her parents and scarred her face. Everything that could possibly goes wrong in their very rugged, dangerous world happens to them, one after another. They are captured by people who mean to sell them into slavery. They are stalked by an undead cyborg who has orders to kill them. They encounter vicious, murdering pirates and surprisingly nice Anti-Tractionist terrorists. And they gradually figure out, in tandem with Valentine's daugher Katherine and her apprentice engineer friend Bevis Pod back in London, that the city's Lord Mayor plans to unleash a monstrous, ancient weapon on the shield wall and open up a whole new Hunting Ground in the one part of the world that hasn't already been destroyed by Municipal Darwinism.

Tom gradually comes to reconsider what is and isn't good and beautiful. Hester gradually warms to his unselfish kindness, courage and decency. As for Katherine, Bevis, Valentine, Magnus Crome (the Lord Mayor of London), Anti-Tractionist heroine Anna Fang, and other characters, their fates are rather different from those depicted in the movie, in many cases darker. Maybe the most interesting point of comparison is the character of Valentine, who in spite of having Hugo Weaving to play him, comes across in the movie as just noble enough that you'd believe Tom would hero-worship him but, otherwise, totally and uncomplicatedly evil. In the book, he's a more complex and even tragic character, with whom you might actually sympathize a little by the end. The book and the film diverge more and more as the plot goes along, and ultimately there's so much more to the book (as one should expect). But regardless of which version you like more after experiencing both, you have to agree that Reeve has built a totaly absorbing fantasy world, worthy of being compared with the greats.

This highly original book was followed by several sequels, prequels and a volume of short stories, collectively known as the Predator Cities series. Their titles include Predator's Gold, Infernal Devices, A Darkling Plain, Fever Crumb, A Web of Air, Scrivener's Moon and Night Flights. Philip Reeve, a British author and illustrator specializing in children's books, has also written four Buster Bayliss books with such titles as Night of the Living Veg and Custardfinger; the Larklight, Goblins and Railhead trilogies; five Not-So-Impossible Tales; four Roly-Poly Flying Pony Adventures; and the standalone novels Here Lies Arthur (winner of a Carnegie Medal), No Such Thing As Dragons, Jinks & O'Hare Funfair Repair and, coming in September 2021 in the UK, Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep.

PS: If you're desperate to know what the other five books were that I bought along with this, they were Spy Camp by Stuart Gibbs, Gustav Gloom and the People Taker by Adam-Troy Castro, Mutation by Roland Smith, The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson and Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

304. Hymn for Pre-Lent

From the old one-year lectionary that was in use until about the time of Vatican Council II – and that still has some adherents – comes a now vanished season, or transitional phase between seasons, of the Church Year. Some call it Gesimatide, in reference to the three Sundays between Transfiguration (the last Sunday of the Epiphany season) and Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent). Their names are Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, which are Greek for 70, 60 and 50 respectively: as it were, a countdown to the 40-day season of Lent. Obviously, the names aren't to be taken literally, as if there are 10 days in a week. Everything involved in liturgics has a funny name, so deal with it.

Anyway, Useful Hymns had a hymn for every Sunday of the Church Year according to the historic lectionary, but it didn't have a hymn for the Season of Pre-Lent, or Gesimatide if you will. The following hymn is an attempt to remedy that, for inclusion in the "Seasonal Meditation" section of the upcoming sequel, Edifying Hymns. As in my Lent and Advent midweek-sermon-series hymns, my intention is that the first and last stanza be sung each week during Pre-Lent with the appropriate verse between them for that Sunday. And so, with the help of God ...
When it came to pass, dear Lamb and Lord,
That You as drink-offering must be poured,
Acknowledging that the time was come
You set Your face toward Jerusalem.

The sorrows of death encompassed me.
I cried to the Lord in misery.
From out of His shrine He heard my voice;
In Him, my strong Rock, shall I rejoice.

Lord, why do You sleep? Why hide Your face?
Arise, cast us not away from grace!
Forget not our woes, souls bowed with grief;
Speed forth with redemption and relief!

Lord, be my strong Rock and safe Redoubt!
Both guide me and guard me round about!
For sake of Your name, which I shall bless,
Deliver me in Your righteousness!

Hosanna, Christ Jesus! God who came
That all might have life who trust Your name:
Do good to Your people; heal our land,
And lead Your beloved by the hand!

UPDATE: Here's a tune I whipped up just now for this hymn, titled GESIMATIDE. The same words could also be sung to my tune COMMITTAL, which you can find here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Tunes for Hymns of 11 Lines

As I noted in my post about 12-line hymn tunes, there are only seven hymn tunes in my study sample that are designed to serve hymns with 11-line stanzas. As for what I mean by "my study sample," let's say it's a big whopping pile of English-language Lutheran hymnals dating from throughout the 20th century. I may have missed a few because I'm not sure I was done compiling the data on one or two of the books when I moved on to another project; and also, this data is a bit out of date, since it ignores hymnals published since the turn of the 21st century, such as Evangelical Lutheran Worship and The Lutheran Service Book.

So, with that firmly in mind, here's what these tunes look like, how they were used in that category of books and what I think about them. And for just this segment, I'm going to take them alphabetically, since most of them are indexed under the meters "Irr." (irregular) and "PM" (peculiar meter) and the three that aren't, each has a meter all to itself anyway. Abbreviations of the books cited are explained here.

I JESU NAVN (Irr.) is sourced from Kingo's Gradual of 1699. Both LHy and ELHy have it set to the hymn "In Jesus' name our work must all be done," which I learned by heart when I was a student at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minn. (where I moved within LHy/ELHy circles) and often sang to myself during a period of time when I was so unhappy with my job that I felt like singing memorized hymns to myself was the only way to stay sane. I picked up on a tradition, in those Danish- and Norwegian-American Lutheran circles, of using it to open church-related business meetings. I frankly love this hymn, but I understand that it isn't for everybody. I learned this, in fact, when I tried to introduce it to some Lutherans of my own, more German-oriented tradition, who swore it sounded like a random series of notes and couldn't make heads or tails of it. Ah, well. For those who don't mind a bit of peculiarity, it's a treasure.

LIFT EV'RY VOICE AND SING (PM) is by J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) and goes with the hymn by the same name. To me, it smacks of the type of anthem sung at Billy Graham rallies – an emotionally manipulative, commercial counterfeit of Gospel music best peformed by amplified soloist(s) and back-up choir. Oddly, it also reminds me of the Easter hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana – which is pretty trashy as operas go, now that I mention it. I'd just as soon let the evangelism rallyists keep it. The only book in my original study that carried it was LBW; however, on checking my current holdings, I find that This Far By Faith, ELW and LSB also have it – with perhaps one exception, books that I would describe as dwelling on the bleeding edge of American Lutheranism's development into a mainline Protestant group undistinguishable from any other.

MEIN HEILAND (8989 8899 888) is a tune from the book Musikalischer Christenschatz, Basel, 1745, which only TLH pairs with the excessively prolix hymn "My Savior sinners doth receive," out of the books in this study. However, Ludvig M. Lindeman's O KOM DOG HVER, seems to have been written for a Danish version of the same hymn, heroically cut down to 10-line stanzas; LHy has it as "O come, if sinner be thy name." Returning to the topic, however, I bear no malice toward the tune MEIN HEILAND, other than the fact that any hymn set to it is almost bound to be a stodgy, verbose, slow-to-get-to-the-point number. It almost seems to be challenging me, aspiring hymnwriter that I am, to do better by it. Don't look at me like that, tune.

RORATE COELI (7777 77 33337) is a 1914 tune by Herold Lewars, used in CSB for the hymn "O ye heavens, bend and see." The title is a reference to the Introit for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which seems to go with the given text. The tune is simple and transparently written, suitable for use as a children's Christmas hymn (nudge), but in my notes on the hymn I commented that the text of each stanza is fairly good at the start and vaguely obnoxious at the end. Unfortunately, it's the latter part of the hymn tune that will most likely stick in kids' minds. My advice would be to rescue the first six lines of each stanza and set them to a 7777 77 tune.

SHIBBOLET BASADEH (PM) is a Jewish folk-melody used in CW for the hymn "Glorious in majesty, holy in his praises." Though it's a distinctive, interesting and enjoyable piece of music with an infectious, folkish energy, it's possible that the mode (similar to Aeolian), rhythm and certain intervals in this tune may put it out of the average congregation's reach. Also, for what it's worth, Jews might object to its use with a specifically Christian text. This I should worry about? Meh. But what I do worry about is that it really belongs in the choir portfolio, not a pew hymnal.

WIE SCHÖN LEUCHTET (887 887 44448) is the "Queen of Chorales," by Philipp Nicolai, 1599. Its original pairing is with Nicolai's own hymn "How lovely shines the Morning Star," used as such in at least nine of the original-study-group books and more anglophone Lutheran hymnals since then. Not to be confused with it is another hymn titled "How lovely shines the morning star," notice the different capitalization, by Burkhard Wiesenmeyer (1640) and also sung to this tune in three of those books. Then there are nine that pair the tune with "He is arisen! Glorious word"; 12 with "O Holy Spirit, enter in"; eight with "Rejoice, rejoice this happy morn"; three with "All hail to thee, O blessed morn"; three with "For many years, O God of grace"; four with "Hallelujah! Let praises ring"; and one each with "Behold, how glorious is yon sky," "Lord Jesus, who didst consecrate," "O God, whom we as Father know," and "O wondrous Conqueror and great." Whether or not some of those are duplicates by dint of different translations, I'm not going to check at this point. It would be ridiculous if your congregation didn't already know, love and regularly sing this tune.

WONDROUS STORY (PM) is credited to a certain J.A. Theiss, undated, in ALH with the hymn "O have you heard the wondrous story" – a text, also undated, by a certain G. Schaller. That's all I know about it, from an isagogical standpoint. Musically, I find it to be a long, rambling, unsignposted landscape full of soughing, sighing, and miserable sentimentality. With parts actually designated for "Solo" and "All" (which may as soon mean "choir" as "congregation"), it frankly admits that it isn't designed as a hymn for the folks in the pews. In my original study notes, I put it down as "the German answer to 'Christians, awake, salute the happy morn' – a pedestrian, prolix, overwrought bit of Christmas tidings draped in a penny-dreadful semblance of German folksong." I think I'll stick with that, adding only that it has a fabulously wide melodic range, too. People could hurt themselves on this tune.

If I get around to it, the 10-line hymn-tune post will be a good deal longer than this. Worth it, do you think?

Tacky Hymns 87

We continue with the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELHy, 1996). I repeat:
I'm pointing up three types of hymns in this series of critiques: (1) Hymns that I think the editors should have known better than to put in the pew hymnal of a liturgical, confessional Lutheran church – the kind that, doctrinally and artistically, qualify as "tacky" in the sense I've been using it on this thread; (2) noteworthy text-tune pairings; and (3) hymns of such high quality that I feel they deserve to be better known and more widely sung. I'll try, but not too hard, to avoid vain repetition from previous threads. That's a lot of material to try to keep in mind, you know.
(502) Lord of the Church, we humbly pray is a "ministry" hymn by Edward Osler, based on a longer hymn by Charles Wesley, which TLH sets to the chorale KOMMT HER ZU MIR. ELHy's choice of PURLEIGH by Arthur Henry Brown is nice but maybe not so memorable.

(503) Fling out the banner! let it float is a "bottom of the page text block" (BOTPTB) by George Washington Doane, whose five stanzas all begin with the same four words, the same running metaphor of the cross as a flag or battle standard to which angels (stanza 2), heathen lands (st. 3) we ourselves (st. 4) and all creation look. I'm ambivalent about the martial imagery, which (once again) could be read as coded language for baptized imperialism. But if you're not reading it that way, it scores some interesting points, like the one about angels desiring to look into these things (redemption), and how "nations, crowding to be born, baptize their spirits in its light," and how "our glory (is) only in the Cross, our only hope, the Crucified," and that it excludes our skill, might or merit (st. 5). Worth discussing, and maybe using for a home devotion, but I'd be careful not to breathe a word of politics anywhere near a church service where this hymn is sung.

(505) O Lord, who in Thy love divine (didst safely leave the ninety-nine) is a Christopher Wordsworth hymn that TLH 493 has as "Thou who the night in prayer didst spend." Explanation: TLH omitted six of the 10 stanzas, including stanza 1, included in ELHy. It's kind of weird to see the stanza-omitting boot on that foot, isn't it?

(506) Forth in Thy name, O Lord, I go is a nice little Charles Wesley hymn, here presented as a BOTPTB with the suggested tune PUER NOBIS NASCITUR (cf. 106, "On Jordan's bank the herald's cry"). LW and LSB both set the tune to the modern melody LAKEWOOD by Barry Bobb, which is how I learned the hymn and is all very nice, but I'm OK with substituting a more historic tune.

(509) Father, Son and Holy Ghost, (bless the young before Thee) is a confirmation hymn from early 19th century German, set to the chorale tune STRAF MICH NICHT. I guess we could use more confirmation hymns, provided we retain enough baptized youngsters long enough to confirm them.

(510) Fear and love thy God and lord is a Scandinavian confirmation hymn, here set to SPANISH CHANT – TLH's underpowered tune to the Ash Wednesday litany hymn "Savior, when in dust to Thee," which LW, LSB and ELHy all improved by upgrading to ABERYSTWYTH. I'm afraid putting "Fear and love" to SPANISH CHANT was a downgrade for this hymn. In the old LHy, the hymn begins "Fear, my child, thy God and Lord," has each stanza shortened from eight lines to seven, and is set to the striking and powerful tune SINGEN WIR AUS HERZENS GRUND (a.k.a. DA CHRISTUS GEBOREN WAR, also the tune to "Jesus, let my soul be fed" in The Concordia Hymnal). Despite losing a line of each stanza, I'd go with the SINGEN WIR version, personally.

(512) My God, accept my heart this day is a Matthew Bridges confirmation hymn that you can take or leave, as far as I'm concerned. I'm not a big fan of William H. Havergal's tune EVAN ("Oh, that the Lord would guide my ways"), which reeks to me of Old Lady Church in the golden age of American Methodism to which too many Lutherans look with misplaced nostalgia. I'm also ambivalent about Bridges' words, which smack just a bit of making a decision to ask Jesus into one's heart. To be sure, there's always a proper way to understand words like this, particularly in the context of confirmation Sunday ... unless you question the high place confirmation has held in post-Reformation Lutheranism ... but that's a topic for another knock-down-drag-out.

(514) Our Lord and God, O bless this day is a Johan Nordahl Brun confirmation hymn that was in TLH, set to the tune REUTER (best known to Missouri Sinners as the tune to "God's Word is our great heritage"). However, ELHy suggests singing this BOTPTB to the isometric version of EIN FESTE BURG ("A mighty fortress"), a tune preference that LHy and ELHy also extend toward "God's Word is our great heritage." I've mentioned before, somewhere on this blog, witnessing a debate at the end of a Bible study about which of the two tunes to sing the latter hymn to, which broke almost 50-50 along party lines (folks who grew up with LHy vs. folks who grew up with TLH). Fun times. I'm for Reuter, obviously. But not just because I'm a TLH boy, born and raised – I mean, I did the LHy thing, too, and liked it – but because I don't hold with isometric EIN FESTE BURG. Let the congregation learn one version of the tune and let it be the rhythmic one, I say.

(516) O(h,) watch and pray, my soul, the way is a Hans Adolf Brorson confirmation hymn with the Lenten chorale melody O TRAURIGKEIT ("Oh, darkest woe"). It's a stern admonition to confirmands to use God's Word to defend themselves against the foe's assaults. Like a lot of confirmation hymns, some of the word choices (possibly due, in this case, to George Rygh's translation) leave you wondering, such as st. 3: "O(h,) make thy choice the Spirit's voice" – but let's be charitable and assume this hymn is preaching to the already regenerated, K? Anyway, you've got to enjoy a hymn that uses words like "havoc" (st. 4) and "foul spell" (st. 6).

(529) Vain world, now farewell is a Thomas Kingo burial hymn (section title: "Death: A Sleep") presented as a BOTPTB. I think this does a disservice to the hymn because the beautiful, expressive Norwegian folk tune FAR VERDEN, FAR VEL (cf. Hymn 575, "The sun has gone down") is quite tricky if you don't know it well.

(531) O blessed Sun whose splendor is a three-stanza K.J. Philipp Spitta hymn, billed as a burial hymn although it only directly addresses the topic of death during the latter half of stanza 2. As texts go, it's a nice, warm expression of dependence on Jesus. Musically, it's saddled with Felix Mendelssohn's tune HEAVENLY LOVE ("In heavenly love abiding"), to which I object on two grounds – first, my usual quibble about dragooning themes by classical composers into service as hymn tunes; and second, its excessive syrupiness, Romantic to a fault, which in my opinion is a (excuse the strong language) damning fault in the context of hymnody.

(534) The world is very evil is a cento from Bernard of Cluny's De Contemptu Mundi, combining the parts that TLH split into four hymns (also including "Brief life is here our portion," "Jerusalem the golden" and "For thee, O dear, dear country"). The entire, 14-stanza omnibus, still a cento, is set to the tune EWING that TLH used for several of those fragments.

(536) O Son of God, we wait for Thee is a Philipp Friedrich Hiller hymn welcoming the Day of Judgment, set to the (perhaps incongruously) cheerful chorale WAS GOTT TUT. Translator Joseph Seiss (author of "Beautiful Savior") may have done this hymn a favor, because I see a hymn that addresses Christ throughought, while an alternate translation that seems more in line with the original German suggests a more inward-directed gaze ("Aspire, my heart, on high to live").

(537) Day of wrath, O day of mourning is based on the 13th century funeral sequence Dies irae, well known to anyone who has heard or peformed almost any setting of the Requiem. (I've had the pleasure of singing in the chorus of Mozart's and Verdi's, myself.) Among other hymnals, I've seen this long, oddly structured hymn set to several different tunes, including a brief (three-line) Latin melody called DIES IRAE in TLH, as well as longer, more through-composed tunes by John B. Dykes and Ludvig M. Lindeman. This is the odd case in which a hymnal actually tried to set the hymn to an arrangement of the Gregorian melody for the Dies irae, often quoted in classical music as a musical symbol of death, though the way the strains of chant melody are stitched together makes for a larger stanza structure (nine lines) than the original hymn. And like I may have mentioned before, while this hymn definitely does hit some people right where they feel death and burial, its overall tone of existential terror at facing the judgment of God needn't always be the way to go at a funeral. It may be more appropriate, as this hymnal sections it, for a service focusing on Judgment Day.

(542) In heaven above, in heaven above is one that I've reviewed before, though a brother in hymnology hit back in the comments. Note, this hymnal cites the author as L.L. Laurinus, which I suppose helps to distiguish him from the other hymn-writer named Laurentius Laurentii, though I imagine all those Laur- names made signing checks rather tedious for him. I still feel a bit squinty in the soft-focus brightness of this hymn's depiction of heaven; it's so heavenly I just can't stand it.

Finding nothing else to remark on by Hymn 550, I feel this is as good a point as any to quit for today. Still feeling pretty positive about the book, on balance.

Dead City

Dead City
by James Ponti
Recommended Ages: 12+

Molly Bigelow is an unusual girl, not just because she has one blue eye and one green. She likes to hang out at the morgue, where her late mother used to work. She has no friends, even among the nerdy students at the elite science school she attends in New York City. She joined the Audubon Society's Junior Birder program instead of Girl Scouts. Instead of ballet, she took Jeet Kune Do. Instead of volleyball, she took up fencing. In a city full of high-rise buildings – not to mention a school on an island connected to the mainland by a cable tram – she has a paralyzing fear of heights. And by the way, she sees dead people walking around.

I know, that last surprise is on a different level. It surprises her, too, when a group of older students invite her to become part of a secret organization known as Omegas, dedicated to policing and protecting the undead who live, mostly, at or below ground level in Manhattan. In other words, zombie killers – although they only kill the undead when they have no other choice. Molly trains with them, learns the principles of fighting zombies and surviving in Dead City, and passes her final exam – trying to blend in at an undead party. Then things get gnarly.

Some of the city's undead population are up to something weird, and it seems to have something to do with a book Molly's mother left behind at the morgue when she died. Molly finds a connection between these ghoulish goings-on and a terrifying figure who once chased her and her mother up to the roof of a high-rise building, influencing Molly's fear of heights. Recognizing that she can't investigate this very personal mystery without violating all the rules of the Omegas, Molly goes rogue and ends up putting herself and her team in danger. It all comes to a head when a member of the walking dead attacks her in the locker room after a fencing tournament. And now, without anyone coming to her rescue, one very odd girl faces the worst odds of survival.

This is the first book of a trilogy by the same name. Its sequels are Blue Moon and Dark Days. Ponti is also the author of the "TOAST Mysteries," a.k.a. "Framed!" trilogy, and the "City Spies" series, which all share a similar flair for fun and the theme of exceptional kids in peril.

Darker than most of Ponti's books that I've read before, it nevertheless presents a version of zombie lore in which you can, sort of, sympathize with the undead. Some of them, anyway. The surprise is that there are options other than slaying them. Sometimes. And there are even zombies who can pass for the living. Somewhat. Maybe more emphasis should be put on the second verb in "police and protect." Maybe they have rights that should be considered. But yeah, some of them are dead in more ways than one – dead in a way that makes them super-dangerous to have around. And that's where a scary thrill joins this book's tough attitude, sense of humor, juvenile high spirits and heartwarming moments with family and friends. His ability to squeeze all those things between the covers of a rather thin book make Ponti a voice to listen for.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Spy School

Spy School
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 11+

Ben Ripley, age 12, is a bright student who has often dreamed of being James Bond. One day, his dream comes true when a CIA agent shows up at his house and invites him to join the Academy of Espionage, just across the river in Washington, D.C. When Ben tells us that accepting the invite was the worst decision he ever made, it's serious foreshadowing. Between the night he arrives on campus and his first-hour class the next morning, he gets shot at by snipers, targeted by an assassin and attacked by three ninjas. Of course, the snipers were just a test of his survival skills (not that he's had a chance to learn any), and the ninjas are honestly the funniest pop quiz ever (though Ben doesn't see it that way). But the assassin is a serious problem.

It turns out Ben has been admitted to spy school under false pretenses. He's actually there as bait, with phony skills in his confidential file that was meant to flush out a mole passing CIA secrets to the enemy – whoever that is. It worked too well, too fast. The leak is more serious than anyone expected, and now that Ben would just like to go home, it's no longer safe for him there. In spite of being half a year behind everyone in his class and unqualified to be there, he has to keep pretending to be a genius cryptologist (that's something to do with codes, right?) and trying to develop his spy skills. And since the real spies, along with the faculty and administration of the spy school, are clearly too incompetent to catch the mole, he's got to do that too. His survival depends on it.

Ben is a really smart guy, but otherwise a regular kid with whom lots of young readers will be able to relate. He's crazy about James Bond; he has a knack for embarrassing himself in front of cute girls; he doesn't have super powers, unless you count a knack for numbers; he can be scared and vulnerable, but also brave and resourceful. He has a fun attitude about things, and he's surrounded by quirky friends and goofy enemies (or frenemies, maybe) who may remind you of some of Harry Potter's schoolmates at Hogwarts. He gets into zany and often scary situations. He notices and figures out some pretty tricky things. And even while becoming disillusioned with the intelligence community, he finally proves that he really belongs there.

This is a fun book. It made me laugh out loud several times. It provides an intriguing look at some sites you may have missed in your tour of Washington, D.C. It has some exciting action and suspense, intriguing mystery and a load of words that'll stretch the vocabulary of a middle-school-aged reader. It doesn't talk down to kids, and it doesn't leave adults looking like the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree. I'm still young enough at heart to recognize it for a book that I would have loved at Ben's age or thereabouts. Give or take 35 years or so.

This is the first book of an eight-book series whose other titles include Spy Camp, Evil Spy School, Spy Ski School, Spy School: Secret Service, Spy School Goes South, Spy School: British Invasion and Spy School Revolution. A ninth book, Spy School At Sea, is due to be released on Aug. 31, 2021. Children's author Stuart Gibbs has also published seven "FunJungle" books (the latest, Bear Bottom, is actually coming out the day after tomorrow as I write this), the "Last Musketeer" and "Moon Base Alpha" trilogies, and currently two "Charlie Thorne" adventures.

Thursday, May 6, 2021


by James Ponti
Recommended Ages: 11+

Margaret and Florian are seventh-grade best friends in Washington, D.C. She's a soccer star. He's a genius detective. Together, they have helped the FBI foil an art heist, a spy ring and a kidnapping. Now they have to decide which of four plausible suspects is trying to frame their FBI handler, a certain Special Agent Marcus Rivers who has become like family to them, before he is forced to resign from the Bureau. It isn't asking much of them. They just have to break into – and more importantly, out of – the Library of Congress and ask an eensy-weensy little favor from a Romanian gangster who secretly – only Florian knows – is Margaret's biological dad.

It's all because somebody with an inside line on the Library of Congress has been passing government secrets to a Russian spy. Books stolen from the library's collection of rare Russian books also turn up when a concerned citizen follows a message in a library book to a PO box full of spy stuff. Cracking the code that the spies are using to communicate with each other is just the first part of figuring out who did it and where they're hiding the evidence. And it's all up to two kids, who have 24 hours to solve the case before their friend's career is over.

Once again, I enjoyed the adolescent energy, humor and intelligence of the hero kids, as well as their surprisingly useful parents. Florian's mom, in particular, shows a certain flair for intelligence work in this outing. The story also opens up views of some of the sights and cultural experiences the nation's capital holds, from little neighborhood libraries and a Russian cafe to the grand library of Capitol Hill and the secret recess of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. Different intelligence agencies with their clashing interests, a peek into the preservation of old books, codes, dead drops, and the concept of lawyers being officers of the court are only some of the things young readers may learn from this book, besides some big vocab words and a smattering of the Russian language.

But really, the fun stems from the characters of Florian and Margaret, their amazing abilities, the strain this adventure puts on their friendship, and the personal warmth between them and extending to the people around them. It's a spy-slash-detective caper brimming with laughs, puzzles, tense moments and aha! discoveries, all tied up in a familiar but comfortable structure from the opening jeopardy to the jump backward in story-time at the words (roughly) "This clue changes everything!" Best of all, it's tempting to imagine young brains trying out the "Theory of All Small Things" (TOAST) that makes these two kids so very special.

This is the third "TOAST Mystery," following Framed! and Vanished! James Ponti is an Italian-American author who specializes in books for middle school-aged readers, including junior film novelizations and series about spy kids and young zombie hunters. Here's hoping this isn't his last piece of TOAST!

Saturday, May 1, 2021


by James Ponti
Recommended Ages: 11+

To most people, Florian and Margaret look like a couple of seventh grade buddies at a public school in Washington, D.C. To an elite few, they're a special projects unit for the FBI, using the "theory of all small things" (TOAST) to spot clues everyone else missed in cases ranging from international espionage to art theft. But now, they've been assigned to infiltrate an exclusive prep school, where a series of disruptive pranks seems to involve the President's daughter.

Somehow, the two junior sleuths have to find out whether Lucy (the first daughter) is being targeted by the pranks, framed for doing them, or possibly the guilty party. But at the same time, they have to keep up with school work, prepare for a talent contest and survive a social piranha tank of entitled jocks and mean girls. The plot thickens when they detect the presence of a secret society within the student body, which could mean even more trouble for Florian and Margaret. But the situation doesn't really hit full crisis mode until a friend of theirs disappears during a school trip to the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

With plenty of juicy clues and puzzling mysteries to qualify as a detective thriller, this book and the series to which it belongs remain kid-friendly and full of spirited fun. The prank that made me laugh out loud was actually pulled by the main character, and if you don't love him by then, you'll love him afterward. I look forward to this series continuing.

This is the second "TOAST Mystery," between Framed! and Trapped!. Ponti is also the author of the "City Spies" and "Dead City" series.