Monday, June 28, 2021

308. Hymn for Saints' Days

I'm going to play against type here, and instead of writing a super-long hymn with lots of substitute middle stanzas (like, one for each of the apostles and evangelists) – which othes have done already, anyway – I decided what the world of hymnody needed is one all-purpose stanza for any and all of the apostles, one for either of the four evangelists, and a few spare stanzas for miscellaneous observances – albeit with the obligatory opening and closing stanza regardless of who is in view. The tune I had in mind while writing this hymn was PAA SIT KORS, which I previously used with this hymn. And in case anyone is interested (skip this sentence if you feel a yawn coming on), this hymn was a rare instance in which the first and last stanza were the last two that I wrote; usually, in this type of hymn, they're written first. Weird, huh?
Christ, with those who saw Your glory,
First to preach and write Your story,
First our crosses' weight to bear,
With the martyrs and confessors,
Make and keep us fit possessors
Of the blood-washed robes we wear.

(Apostles' Days)
Some You called from humble stations,
Sending them to tell all nations
Of Your cross and victor's crown.
Let us hold their doctrine purely,
Founded on the Rock securely
That through them found wide renown.

(Evangelists' Days)
Lest long years and leagues should fetter
Word of You, some preached by letter:
Worthy scribes of scenes that live.
Let it be our sweetest pleasure,
Seeking in their page the treasure
That Your words and wonders give.

(Holy Martyrs)
Some because of You were slaughtered,
While the seedling church was watered
With their willing blood and loss.
Teach us, by their brave example,
Satan underfoot to trample
And to glory in the cross.

(Confessors of the Faith)
Some, though spared the last full measure,
Risked their age's sharp displeasure,
Standing firm through storm and strain.
As we bear the same confession,
Let our blest communion freshen
Heart and hope despite all pain.

(Feasts of Mary)
Even Mary, best of mothers,
Blest more highly than all others,
Felt the Spirit's piercing sword.
Keep us, too, in You confiding,
All our thoughts and actions guiding
In accordance with Your word.

(Closing stanza)
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
All dominion, strength and merit,
Riches, wisdom, honor, laud,
Have been since the world was founded,
Are, and unto worlds unbounded
Will be Yours, the only God.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Hills Have Spies

The Hills Have Spies
by Mercedes Lackey
Recommended Ages: 13+

Disclaimer: This is my first time reading anything by Mercedes Lackey, and most certainly my first visit to the realm of Valdemar in which she and her fans have invested so much. So please excuse my ignorance. I was mooching around the bargain books bin at a Discount Chain Store That Shall Not Be Named, when I found this book and its immediate sequel, Eye Spy, in a nicely decorated hardcover, priced at only $5.97 each. So, I bought them, and I found myself right in the middle of what I recognized at once to be an already well-established fantasy franchise. So, I feel at a bit of a disadvantage.

Anyway, what I learned in this book is that Valedmar is a kingdom in a pre-industrial world where magic is not unheard of, but it's also not trusted. Guys like Mags, who holds the title of Herald Spy and who has the Gift of Mindspeech – being able to send and receive thoughts with other human beings – don't really count as magicians, and you'll even catch him in this book saying he doesn't know anything about magic. Heralds are apparently some kind of law enforcement outfit that handles national security issues, and spies probably don't need explanation, so as the Herald Spy, Mags is a pretty important guy. Important enough, and trusted enough, that he, his wife and three children live in the apartment right next to that of the royal family.

Part of earning the white robes of a Herald, apparently, is being Chosen by a Companion – notice the capital letters – and sorry, I'm not sure exactly what sets Companions apart from other horses, other than being superintelligent and able to send thoughts back and forth with their Partner. It's apparently something quite obvious, however, because I've been given the impression that anyone less nearsighted than, like, me would likely spot it immediately. Oh yes, I guess they also have other psychic abilities and can become practically invisible if they want. There's that. Actually, that's a lot of information about Companions, I guess. But I spent a good part of this book feeling acutely like I'd walked in late and missed the bit that explained everything.

Not to worry, once things moved past the exposition stage, the action, intrigue and suspense became too absorbing to worry about the background information I'd missed. To be extremely brief, Mags decides it's time to take his 13-year-old son Perry out on a mission. Perry shows promise as a future spy but hasn't been Chosen yet, and at that age, most likely never will – and therefore, will never be a Herald either – so there's a sense, lingering between father and son, of someone getting close to feeling disappointed about something, but neither wants to admit what it is. They go out into the sticks, right on the edge of the kingdom, to find out if a disorganized, semi-retired Herald named Arville has any reason to suspect something is indefinably off about his corner of Valdemar. They find out that not only was Arville right, but it's worse than anyone could have expected: a twisted being of insane evil has started to gather an army just outside the kingdom's borders, and the nature of his powers may mean there's nothing all the King's Heralds and all the King's Spies can do about it.

But Perry, being the hot-headed brat that he is, decides someone's got to try. Naturally, he gets caught up with it, along with a semi-talking wolf/cat creature called a kyree, Larral is his name, with whom the boy forms an instant bond. (After Larral told Mags, "Rags, Ry roose Rerry," I couldn't stop repeating that line with a little giggle.) Yes, Larral can talk – in a Scooby-Doo kind of way – but better than that, he can communicate mentally with Perry. Not because their bond counts as Companionship or anything; Perry just happens to have the Gift of Animal Speech. This gift comes in handy as Perry get himself hired at the bad guys' fortress, disguised as a mentally addled dog-boy (named Dog-Boy) who has a mad talent for managing a kennel. But it's the idea of infiltrating the Master's compound that turns out to have been really mad – and so, increasingly, is the Master himself: a cannibal with a Mind Speech gift so powerful that he can enslave hundreds of people, and who is building up power by doing evil blood magic.

The sense of inevitable disaster builds and builds, even as Mags, Perry and various animal friends – and some that are, frankly, more than animals – do all they can to distract the Master from their presence while trying to work out how to stop him. From Mags' perspective, it's a father's worst nightmare. For Perry, it's a man-sized test of his skills as a spy, despite being barely more than a child. And for hundreds of people and creatures in the middle of an eerie, empty city in the middle of a quite possibly haunted forest, every tiny thing father, son and friends do could tip the teetering balance between life and death.

It's a pretty intense little thriller that took me to some fantasy-world places I haven't been before. The darkness that Perry goes up against may push this book up the maturity scale to the main character's age if not higher. However, it would be a dull reader who wouldn't come away from this book interested in learning more about such concepts as candlemarks (as a measure of time), Bondbirds, whatever those white-robed Heralds and their horsey Companions do, to say nothing of Mages, Watchers, Hawkbrothers, Sleepgivers and all those queer creatures of the Pelagir Hills.

I'm a little uncertain how to go about counting the books by this author, even broken down into their various sets or series; even the usually helpful Fantastic Fiction is uncharacteristically agnostic about this. The usual numbered lists of titles break down into standalone titles that may, so far as I know, be short stories, novellas or standalone books spinning off from the main series. I know, however, that Lackey's titles include multiple series based in the fantasy world of Valdemar, including Heralds of Valdemar, Vows and Honor, Last Herald Mage, Mage Winds, Mage Wars, Mage Storms (those three are trilogies), Collegium Chronicles, 15 anthologies of Valedmar stories, and a bunch of other titles just grouped under "Valdemar." Also within this Valdemar bracket are three Herald Spy novels, which directly feeds into the Family Spies trilogy, Lackey's most recently completed cycle, of which (sigh! at last) I can now tell you this book is the first installment. There's also a new book titled Beyond, just out on June 15 of this year, which is supposed to be the start of a new series called Founding of Valdemar.

But in case that last paragraph isn't enough, Lackey has also co-written a number of novels with her husband, Larry Dixon; and has either ghost-written, collaborated with or been ghost-written by Elisabeth Waters, Josepha Sherman, Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Eric Flint and Dave Freer, James Mallory, Roberta Gellis (a.k.a. Max Daniels) and Rosemary Edghill (a.k.a. Eluki Bes Shahar); contributed to several multi-author series; put out, more or less solo, the (as far as I can tell) non-Valedmaran series Diana Tregarde, Shipscat, Bardic Voices, Elemental Masters, Fairy Tale, Dragon Jousters, Five Hundred Kingdoms, Martis and Hunter; and with or without various co-authors (including Piers Anthony, Cody Martin, C.J. Cherryh) penned or contributed to some 12 or 16 other books. Among her nonfiction works, she also edited a book called Mapping the World of the Sorcerer's Apprentice, an "unauthorized exploration" of the first six Harry Potter books. Her list of credits is obscenely long and difficult to parse out; I think I'll be doing well if I deal with the Herald Spy and Family Spies trilogies, for now.

307. Hymn for the Easter Season

Like my recent hymns for Pre-Lent and the Epiphany Season, this new piece is designed to be sung with the same first and last stanza on all occasions from Easter Day to the Sunday after the Ascension (Exaudi), and a different middle stanza each week based on the propers for the day. Try to contain your surprise that I'm basing all this on the historic, one-year lectionary; that's how I roll. The tune (below) is called JESU, MEINES LEBENS LEBEN but is not the same as the tune by that name which I selected for this hymn. I stole it from the baptismal hymn "God's own child, I gladly say it" in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, though in the long term, I reckon it was originally paired with the Lenten hymn "Christ, the Life of all the living." And finally, rejoice with me, for I believe that with this hymn done, there are fewer than 10 hymns to be written according to my plan for E.H.
Christ is risen: faith replieth,
Hallelujah! Ris'n indeed!
Living now, He no more dieth;
We ourselves are likewise freed.
For our sins He was delivered;
His knock Hades' door hath shivered,
And a path blazed from the dead
That our very feet shall tread.

(Easter Day)
Christ arose, the angel crieth;
Seek Him no more in the grave!
He declared, who never lieth,
How the sinner He would save:
Trial, scourge and death enduring,
In the earth His clay immuring,
On the third day to arise,
Taking Satan by surprise.

(Easter Monday)
Was it not in Scripture written
That the Christ must suffer thus—
By the ancient serpent bitten
That its power He might crush?
Feel this truth within you burning
As, from His sure promise learning,
You behold in broken bread
Jesus, risen from the dead!

(Easter Tuesday)
Christ arose, and no mere spectre:
See, His wounded hands and feet!
Now He feedeth, as with nectar,
Those who taste His wisdom sweet:
To our hearts He now discloseth
What of Him God's writ proposeth,
Sending men to tell in turn
Tidings meet for all to learn.

(Easter 1: Quasimodogeniti)
Like an infant, pure milk craving,
Long for Christ's unblemished word!
Listen, ye who thirst for saving,
Where His gracious breath is stirred!
It bears witness that the Savior
Died to mend your misbehavior,
Three days thence the grave to leave;
Be not doubting, but believe!

(Easter 2: Misericordias Domini)
With God's love the earth aboundeth;
By His Word the heav'ns were made.
From His saints a song resoundeth:
Joy and praise their hearts pervade.
Christ, most excellent of pastors,
Guardeth us through all disasters;
Knoweth, cheriseth His own,
As by them He, too, is known.

(Easter 3: Jubilate)
Shout with joy to God, ye nations;
Sing the honor of His name!
Christ for us paid reparations,
When through death to life He came.
God, His own dear son not sparing,
All goods with the sinner sharing,
Garbeth Him without a flaw,
Filling all His foes with awe.

(Easter 4: Cantate)
Sing a new song, for God doeth
Things both marvelous and new:
Freely, far abroad He streweth
Saving acts in public view.
His strong arm hath won the battle,
Spoiling death and Satan's chattel.
Thus the hope these tidings give:
Neither shall we die, but live.

(Easter 5: Rogate)
With a voice of singing tell it,
Even to the farthest lands:
Let their hale rejoinder swell it,
As with glee they clap their hands.
Christ, who did by blood restore us,
Liveth and hath gone before us;
Hence, we lift a glorious cry
Till He draweth us on high.

(Ascension Day)
God has gone up, all victorious,
With a shout and trumpet's call;
Christ ascendeth, ever glorious,
Seated in His Father's hall.
Thus our earthly, earthy nature
Gains in heav'n a heav'nly stature
And an envoy in God's eyes,
Till He calls us to our prize.

(Easter 6: Exaudi)
Hear, O Lord, Thy children's pleading,
Whom Thou badest seek Thy face:
Hide it not, lest we, still needing
Daily help, despair of grace.
Thou whose holiness is flawless,
Leave us not bereft of solace!
Come, with Jesus' living voice,
That again we may rejoice!

(Closing stanza)
There will be an end to sighing,
Though our day must have its close;
Likewise weeping, groaning, dying.
He who died—yea, who arose—
Standeth by us in our grieving,
In our spirit's hour of leaving,
Till we see His quick'ning ray
On our resurrection day.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

306. Hymn for the Epiphany Season

Further to my plans to publish a second book of original hymns titled Edifying Hymns, here's one of those hymns whose first and last stanza are to be sung throughout the liturgical season in question, with the proper stanza for each Sunday thereof in between. Like my previous hymn for the season of Pre-Lent, its stanzas take their riffs from the propers in the historic lectionary, with a feeble attempt to tie them in with the Gospel for the day. I stuck in the Baptism of Jesus (although it's a more recent addition to the lectionary) as either an alternate text for the First Sunday after Epiphany or a special observance on Jan. 13. I also had to be a bit creative with Epiphany 4 and 5, since their propers are thin on the ground.
Lo, Christ is manifested:
Come, worship Him and lift,
All lands from darkness wrested,
Pure hearts and songs and gifts!
Arise! Your Light is come;
His Word proclaims salvation
To every kith and nation,
Yea, even heathendom.

(Epiphany Day: Visit of the Magi)
This King holds pow'r and glory
In tiny, infant hands:
A tinpot tyrant's quarry,
Yet sought from distant lands
By men who saw His star,
An ancient promise knowing
And kingly gifts bestowing:
He draws them from afar.

(Epiphany 1: Young Jesus in Temple)
We saw, enthroned in Godhead,
The fruit of Mary's pains.
A multitude applauded:
The Lord Almighty reigns!
Wise in His Father's word,
His Father's undertaking
He does, all else forsaking;
Let songs of joy be heard!

(Baptism of Jesus)
Praise Him, the Lord appointed,
Unequaled of our race,
Whose lips have been anointed
With everlasting grace.
For love of righteousness
The oil of joy He carried,
The tempter's kingdom harried;
His glorious name we bless.

(Epiphany 2: Wedding at Cana)
All earth shall sing His praises
And lift His name on high
Who wine from water raises,
Gives joy when cheer runs dry.
His healing word He sends,
Restoring sight for blindness,
Repaying hurt with kindness
Unto the sons of men.

(Epiphany 3: Two Healing Miracles)
You hosts of heaven, praise Him,
That Zion may rejoice;
Let isles and mountains raise Him
A single, worthy voice!
For them who cry for aid,
In abject need appealing,
He answers, bringing healing;
Therefore be unafraid!

(Epiphany 4: Stilling the Storm)
Who is this Man, whose orders
The wind and sea obey?
What terrors or disorders
Can answer Jesus nay?
Although our courage fails,
Our Savior will protect us
And finally collect us,
Safe from all squalls and gales.

(Epiphany 5: Parable of the Tares)
What joy, in His house dwelling,
In true faith to be kept!
What honor, to be telling
That nourishing precept!
Oh, that His word would grow—
Despite the devil's cunning
And lying prophets running—
A harvest white as snow!

(Last Sunday after Epiphany: Transfiguration)
The lightning blazed in heaven;
The earth with thunder shook.
The Father's witness given,
The honored Son betook
His way to cross and grave;
From thence to be perfected,
All things to Him subjected,
Most fair and strong to save.

(Closing stanza)
To You, Christ, and Your glory
Shall come the nations' kings;
Drawn to Your wondrous story,
Rich tribute they will bring.
Still richer be our praise
For Your cross-beckoned turning,
Your heart with passion burning
To lighten all our ways.

The intented tune is ZEUCH EIN by Johann Crüger (1598-1662), below. I can't remember if I've paired it with one of my hymns before; but I've loved it for ages and I've often felt it deserves to be heard more often.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Worth Dying For

Worth Dying For
by Lee Child
Recommended Ages: 15+

You know how it goes, when you're Jack Reacher, a drifter and ex-military policeman who has never quite given up the habit of protecting the innocent and ruthlessly crushing the guilty. You're sitting at a bar in a motel halfway between the middle of nowhere and Interstate 80, when the phone rings. It's a woman whose nose won't stop bleeding, and the alcoholic town doctor tells the bartender to say he isn't there. Naturally, you offer to give the drunk doc a ride to the woman's house, and you don't take no for an answer. And then you realize she's been knocked around by her husband, so you drop in on the fellow in the middle of a night out with his friends and give him a taste of his own medicine. It's what you do. But what happens next puts your travel plans on hold.

It's the old, old Jack Reacher story: Something is up in a Nebraska community so small that it doesn't even have a name. One family has terrorized everyone else into silence and submission. The silence partly has to do with what their shipping business actually ships, when it isn't hauling harvested crops for the farm folks who stay in line. And partly, it has to do with the unsolved disappearance of an 8-year-old girl, 25 years ago. The Duncans have an ironclad alibi for it, and no body was ever found, but something about it stinks to Reacher. And as he starts to look around, pairs of goons representing different ethnic gangs start coming to town, each pair vying to control an illicit trade of some kind, and all of them instructed to stop Reacher from looking into it. Why, there's even a sniper waiting to blow Reacher's head off, if he gets too close to the thing itself.

It's all very mysterious. But Reacher, as always, cuts through the enigma and the intrigue with brutal directness, through a combination of willingness to risk getting badly hurt and a talent toward making sure the other guy gets hurt worse. He gradually pulls behind him a core group of scared townsfolk (or townshipsfolk, really) and inspires them to take a hand in their own liberation. And he finally gets to the bottom of a nauseating secret that has been guarded for decades by an unwilling conspiracy of willful blindness. Where subtle thinkers and by-the-numbers investigators failed, brute force cracks the puzzle. And if you're Jack Reacher, you're the embodiment of brute force.

This is the 15th Jack Reacher novel. The 26th book of the series, titled Better Off Dead and co-authored with Andrew Child (a.k.a. Andrew Grant), is scheduled for release in October 2021. This review is based on an audiobook read by Dick Hill. I don't know what I missed between the nearest preceding book that I've read and this, though uncharacteristically, it seems to have left Reacher with lingering injuries. Nevertheless, these hurts only slightly slow him down as he takes out the bad guys with a straightforwardness that inspires awe. Other than that, I've detected very few signs in this series of the kind of continuity that makes what order you read the books in matter much. I'm sure it's been said many times: sometimes you weary of soul-searching, spiritually broken novel characters whose struggles meet with mixed success at best. When ambiguity and human frailty get you down, a blunt object that gets the job done every time may be just the medicine you need. And lo, his name is Reacher.

Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation

Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 12+

Charlie is short for Charlotte, and she's a 12-year-old genius who went to college in Colorado for two reasons – to get away from her parents and to skip class and go skiing. She's acing her classes with one lobe of her brain tied behind her back. She has a history of getting away with cybercrime. She does whatever she wants ... until the day a CIA agent recruits her to help him find Albert Einstein's elusive "Pandora" equation, which could unlock the secrets of cheap nuclear energy or, in the wrong hands, enable every fly-by-night terrorist to pack a nuke in his carry-on.

Every government on earth, if they knew where Pandora was, would go to any length to control it. Until now, its whereabouts have been an unsolvable puzzle, despite an obscure clue concealed in Einstein's last words. All the efforts of the U.S. intelligence community have turned up nothing but disaster. Only a white-supremacist hate group seems to know something. Special Agent Dante Garcia believes that the world's survival depends on trying something different, something crazy – like entrusting the search to his out-of-control, kid genius half-sister.

Dante and another CIA agent named Milana Moon ruin Charlie's day on the slopes to dragoon her into the operation. Only Charlie, and maybe Agent Moon, truly realize that if she actually produces Pandora for the U.S. government, the CIA can't let her live. But there isn't time to worry about that as the unwilling asset leads the team to Jerusalem. Like, in Israel. Of course, the bad guys arrive at about the same time, and what with Mossad (Israel's answer to the CIA) gunning for both groups, the odds of survival seem slim and escape is practically impossible. But let's give Charlie some credit for knowing that "practically impossible" means "possible" and leading everybody – good, bad and in any shade of gray area you prefer – on a deadly, double-crossing, desperate race to retrieve a maguffin that might be better for all concerned if it stayed lost.

This is the first of currently two Charlie Thorne books; its sequel is Charlie Thorne and the Lost City. Stuart Gibbs is also the author of the Funjungle, Last Musketeer, Spy School and Moon Base Alpha books. Charlie reminds me a lot of Ben Ripley, the hero of the Spy School series, except that Ben is willingly learning to be a CIA agent (despite the incompetence and corruption of his adult colleagues) whereas Charlie is more of a free agent. Maybe I'm also thinking a little of James Ponti's "TOAST Mysteries" character Florian Bates, who has a bit of the same young-Sherlock-Holmes vibe going for him. But the level of danger in Charlie's adventure is much more real than in either of those series – mortally so. It's practically an adult novel that just happens to have a teenage hero. Her fate, and everything that depends on the success of her mission, will keep readers of all ages on the edge of their seat until the very end.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Last Musketeer

The Last Musketeer
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 12+

It's a good thing Greg Rich got to learn French, fencing and horseback riding at his elite private school in Connecticut, before his family lost everything and he had to transfer to a public school in New York. I mean, it isn't a good thing right away, because all that stuff makes it harder to fit in, and he never really felt like he belonged even before the family fortune went. But it all turns out to be really handy for Greg when an evil, immortal sorcerer tricks his parents into giving him their half of a stone that he then uses to take the four of them 400 years back in time. It's really lucky because present-day American kid Greg turns out to be D'Artagnan – the hero of Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers – and if he's going to save his parents and get back to the future, he'll need to bring together that book's real-life title characters.

In Greg's favor, Aramis, Athos and Porthos really exist in 1615 Paris, and he practically stumbles over them and makes friends with them easily. The problem? Well, to start, they're only teenagers. D'Artagnan wasn't supposed to meet them until years later, when the Musketeers were already an established unit, answering directly to King Louis XIII. But thanks to unscheduled time travel, and the very much scheduled execution of his parents, Greg doesn't have the luxury of waiting for the boys to grow up and become friends. He brings them together in a just cause – saving the lives of his unjustly condemned parents – albeit without sharing all the details, at first. And honestly, he wouldn't get very far without them in the fetid streets and waterways of pre-Revolution Paris. He needs all the advantage he can take from cathedral clerk Aramis's intelligence and clerical skill, militiaman Athos's skills as a swashbuckling warrior, and the foppish Porthos's ability to move among the nobility and even royalty – not to mention the almost insane bravery, resourcefulness and loyalty that soon binds them together, "all for one and one for all."

Also, they're in a lot of trouble. I should have mentioned that before. The captain of the king's guard has put out a description of Greg, wanted for an alleged conspiracy to assassinate King Louis. The prison he's put Greg's parents in is a dreadful pit of filth, disease and death – and it's designed to be unjailbreakable. A certain Milady de Winter, a teenager herself, already seems to be on her way to becoming a formidable mischief-maker. And of course that evil, time-traveling sorcerer I mentioned is still out there, pulling strings behind the scenes, manipulating the impetuous youths into a trap that he has designed to destroy the Musketeers before they can destroy him. These kids have a rocky road ahead of them, and I don't just say that because the streets of Paris were a cobblestoned mess at that date. Greg will be too busy fighting to stay alive in 1615 to worry about making it back to the future.

I mentioned before how Greg never felt like he belonged in the 21st century. But even though he feels like the weakest link in the Musketeers Club, soon he enough he's pulling zany stunts like climbing walls, swimming the Seine River, swinging from chandeliers and shimmying down ten-story ropes – in short, not lagging far behind his newfound friends in derring-do. So let's not be too upset with the fact that this book doesn't end with him and his folks making it safetly back to the era of indoor plumbing, cellphones and the internet. He apparently has more adventures ahead of him as D'Artagnan, and it would be a shame to break up the band before it makes the big time. Still, you can only imagine (sorry, spoilers) how proud and bemused Greg's parents must have felt, seeing him and the other three boys officially becoming the king's Musketeers.

Maybe I'm showing my age when this book leaves me seeing that scene from their point of view. But while I'm showing my age, let me pause right here to tell young readers that not only will they enjoy this book, but they have nothing to fear from Dumas's original, either. Despite being one of those classics that generations of kids have whined about being forced to read for school, it's a purely enjoyable adventure that is worth getting to know – maybe (hint, hint) before reading this book – so that you can appreciate even better what Stuart Gibbs is doing with Dumas's characters. And then, perhaps you will feel that lump in your throat when the four(!) Musketeers pledge their "all for one" oath to each other, because the possibility of such heroes – even in a historical romance – matters so deeply, and resonates in the heart.

This is the first book of the "Last Musketeer" trilogy, which continues with Traitor's Chase and Double Cross. Its author is is the same Stuart Gibbs who has written nine "Spy School" novels, three "Moon Base Alpha" books, at least two "Charlie Thorne" books and seven "FunJungle" books. Meanwhile, the original Musketeers was also only the first book in a series (whose number of books varies, depending on how they're divided up) by a prolific author who specialized in sensationalized historical fiction. Here's a list of Dumas's titles, if you're interested.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Book of Answers

The Book of Answers
by A.L. Tait
Recommended Ages: 12+

Gabe is a novice from a monastery who is on the run, accused of stealing a book that powerful men would kill to possess – but that, apparently, no one can read. He has been joined on his adventure by a band of merry men who are secretly girls: sisters Merry and Gwyn, who rob the rich and give to the poor while plotting to spring their wrongly imprisoned pa; their cousin Scarlett, a runaway child-bride; and tiny Midge, who has an uncanny ability to communicate with animals. Then there's Eddie, who claims to be a royal prince, victim of a conspiracy to replace him with an impostor. Together they've had some thrilling adventures before this book even begins, but their perils have only just begun.

After traveling to the furthest edge of the kingdom with their enemies in pursuit, the youngsters only learn enough about the book Gabe carries to be really concerned. Apparently, if it falls into the wrong hands, it could unleash terrible powers on the world. And now, it's Gabe's responsibility to protect it. Gabe finds all his certainties, moral and otherwise, put to the test as he, Eddie, and the girls do what seems necessary to survive and fight back against bad people who hold all the game pieces. There's the crooked Prior Dismas, from the abbey that was all Gabe knew until recently, who will abuse all that is holy to seek the book. There's Whitmore, the captain of the royal guard, who has turned against the king and his rightful heir. There's the ruthless Lord Sherborne, who controls the district around Gabe's abbey, and whose heavy taxes are reducing the peasants to starvation. And there's the cruel sheriff, Ronan, who salivates at the prospect of torture and death.

These are bad enemies to have against you, but Gabe also finds he has more friends in his corner than he expected, and they're the ones who really count. Gwyn can go wherever she wants, undetected. Merry laughs at danger and can shoot an arrow with legendary accuracy. Midge can get her trained hawk to do anything she wants with just a whistle. And even the pampered Scarlett and the royal Edward have their qualities, now and then – qualities that, in the end, will be needed to keep the kids' necks out of nooses and to stop the bad guys from making off with the kingdom.

It's a youthful yet old-fashioned adventure, set in medieval times, featuring kids who (mostly) aren't cut out to accept the way their world is rigged to work. Gabe, who of the lot of them has the most difficulty turning rebel against the values he was raised under, discovers unexpected resources within himself while remaining essentially faithful to his values. And the appealing young heroes are really put to the ultimate test before it becomes apparent how, or if, they will prevail.

This is the second of two "Ateban Cipher" books, the sequel to The Book of Secrets. Australian writer A.L. (Allison) Tait has also published four "Mapmaker Chronicles" books and The Fire Star.

The World's Greatest Adventure Machine

The World's Greatest Adventure Machine
by Frank L. Cole
Recommended Ages: 11+

Four kids out of millions just won the opportunity to be the first passengers on the thrill ride of the future: a high-tech roller coaster that taps into their minds to incorporate what they're scared of into a shared experience. Is it all done with high-definition special effects? Or are the monsters, meteors, volcanos and villains as real as they look, sound, smell and even feel? That's the question facing Trevor, Nika, Cameron and Devin when they find themselves on a ride that has spun dangerously out of control.

They're certainly a special group of kids. They couldn't have been picked better for the task – which is one thing that raises their suspicions. Maybe they weren't brought together at random. Maybe there's a reason the Castleton brothers of Beyond, California picked Devin, who has flashes of insight into the future but isn't sure he wants to be a social media superstar; Cameron, a hyperactive genius who sometimes has to take his clothes off and write math equations on the wall; Nika, whose insensitivity to pain is only half of the reason her rich, Russian grandfather is so protective of her; and Trevor, who has a short circuit in his brain that makes him incapable of feeling fear, and who is therefore getting into constant danger and trouble. As the kids make their way through an apparently malfunctioning ride, pursued by terrifying creatures seemingly grown in a lab just to chase them, they receive disturbing messages from someone within the company that lead them to suspect that they've been brought together for a purpose, and it isn't about mass entertainment.

The question becomes: Whom can they trust? But the Adventure Machine is cleverly designed to call even their sensory experiences into doubt. So the answer comes down to "nobody but each other" as the kids survive thrills, chills and spills that beggar belief – from being chased by a meat cleaver-wielding maniac to swinging over a pit on live electric wires. Their adventure will leave them, and you, questioning what is and isn't real, and its fast-paced, life-or-death excitement will create a bond of friendship between misfits and strangers that will warm the reader's heart. They're fun characters to share the ultimate adventure with, and the blend of high-tech fantasy, paranoia, horror and kid-friendly fun makes the whole book an impressive experience.

Frank L. Cole is also the author of The Afterlife Academy, four "Hasbrown Winters" adventures, three "Guardians" novels and three "Potion Masters" novels, all apparently written for kids. His latest book, scheduled for release in August 2021, is The Die of Destiny, purported to be the first installment of a series called "Champion's Quest."

Friday, June 11, 2021

Blue Moon

Blue Moon
by James Ponti
Recommended Ages: 13+

Molly Bigelow and her friends Natalie, Alex and Grayson are all members of a secret group called Omegas that patrol the undead world of New York City. Zombies can only exist at or below ground level (not very much higher) in Manhattan and maybe Roosevelt Island, thanks to a particular composition of bedrock there that was somehow involved in their undeath. And the original undead, known as the Unlucky 13, rule Dead City from below in a system that involves annually revealing themselves in public view to "verify" that they're still in power. Coming back from suspension, Molly's team is specially tasked with monitoring the Unlucky 13 – and their mission may be extra-important now, as the Mayor of Dead City, Marek Blackwell, took it on the chin at the end of their previous adventure and his Verify – at midnight New Year's Eve in Times Square – will reveal a power vacuum that could trigger a war with the undead.

Molly and Co.'s quest to learn more about the Unlucky 13 is interwoven, somewhat, with a firsthand account by one of them, the elusive Milton Blackwell, who became alienated from his brother Marek and the others in part because his mistake made them all undead. In an zombie hierarchy where a Level 3 is brain-eating goon, a Level 2 is a soulless psychopath and a Level 1 is practically human, Milton is a nice Level 1 while his potential rival for power, Ulysses Blackwell, is a dangerous Level 2. You can guess which one the Omegas would like to see step up into Marek's place.

But adding complexity to their run-up to New Year's Eve is the discovery of an electronically sealed vault deep beneath Grand Central Station. Now the Omegas may have bigger things to worry about than Marek's Verify. Now they may be facing a program called Blue Moon, based on a pro-Soviet scheme from the Cold War era, to convert millions of New Yorkers – not to communism, but to undeadism. With a chance that wheels are already moving to turn hearts across Manhattan as cold as the Manhattan schist, Molly's little group and even the larger, secret organization behind the Omegas may not be able to move fast enough to save New York.

So, that's the basic gist. But between the covers of the book there is so much more – a glimpse of New York history featuring then-Police Chief Theodore Roosevelt; a family secret involving Molly's mom, who isn't quite as dead as most people thought; a sizzle of high-tech gadgetry, including a biometric scanner calibrated for room-temperature flesh and a talking computer that can scan top-secret documents; views from all levels of New York, from the tram line running 250 feet above the East River to the deepest abandoned subway tunnels – not leaving out 30 Rock and St. Patrick's Cathedral, thank you; fast-paced combats, surprise revelations, grisly horrors and a final shock that will set the hook for the next book in the series.

This is the second book of the "Dead City" trilogy, between Dead City and Dark Days. Ponti is also the author of three "TOAST Mysteries" and so far two "City Spies" books, all for young readers.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Spy School Secret Service

Spy School Secret Service
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 12+

Cyrus Hale is the most accomplished spy 13-year-old Ben Ripley knows. For most of us, that wouldn't be saying much. But Ben goes to the CIA's Academy of Espionage, also known as spy school. And both Cyrus and Ben have learned in their past missions together that there aren't very many people they can trust, in an intelligence community riddled with moles and double agents. So when Cyrus picks up on chatter that the nefarious organization known, only to a few, as SPYDER is plotting against the President's life, he can think of no better way to deal with it than to plant Ben in the White House on the ruse of a "play date" (eurgh) with the First Son, Jason Stern.

Ben's first problem is that Jason Stern is a complete jerkwad, and the two boys fall in hate at first sight. His first visit to the White House goes downhill from there, with a slight misunderstanding about an unlocked bathroom door leading to Ben being tackled by Secret Service agents, held for questioning, then sent home with his tail between his legs. The second day goes off with a bang – which is to say, Ben realizes almost too late that he himself has been duped into assassinating the President, and only by blowing up the Oval Office (empty at the time) does he manage to thwart the attempt. But the Secret Service doesn't understand that. Pretty much everyone in law enforcement thinks Ben is a traitor, forcing him to go on the run.

The only way this young spy can come in from the cold involves figuring out who really planted that bomb in Ben's jacket and why. Because it turns out the President wasn't really the target; his death was only meant to hide the true motive for the crime. But it's hard to investigate when everyone's trying to capture you and put you away forever and ever. This leads Ben, and the very few friends who believe in his innocence, on a series of wild escapades, including a chase through the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, an insane break-in to a secret prison for evil spy kids, and a desperate, climactic caper in the hallways of the Pentagon.

The scenery is highly educational, showing readers a side of the White House, the Smithsonian and the Pentagon most people never see – you know, like, the inside. Ben's attitude about all of it is a big part of the fun, but his resourcefulness is amazing and the loyalties (and, in one case, disloyalty) of his circle of friends at spy school continue to confirm that this series has a very special young hero. It's an exciting, clever, funny adventure that will keep fans hooked for at least another go-round.

This is the fifth of nine "Spy School" adventures. Coming up next is Spy School Goes South.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Spy Ski School

Spy Ski School
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 11+

A super-rich Chinese businessman with ties to the underworld has come to Vail, Colorado for a week of skiing with his cute, but very sheltered, 13-year-old daughter. Naturally, the CIA thinks its best shot at finding out what Leo Shang is up to is to get Ben Ripley, a second-year student at the agency's Espionage Academy, to befriend her on the slopes. Luckily, skiing turns out to be the one sport that comes naturally to Ben. Unluckily, his better-looking, cool and charming buddy from middle school, Mike Brezinski, shows up in Vail that same week. Mike isn't supposed to know that Ben's science school is really a school for spies, and Jessica Shang's instant attraction to him threatens to mess up Ben's mission.

Luckily, fourth-year student and cloak-and-dagger genius Erica Hale is on the ski trip, too. While Erica turns on the flirt, trying to lure Mike away from Jessica, you can watch with evil glee as an avalanche of teenage jealousy threatens to bury Vale. Warren (the kid from spy school whose only good subject is camouflage) is jealous of Zoe, who likes Ben. Zoe is jealous because Ben likes Erica. Ben is jealous of the attention Erica is showing Mike – and so, by design, is Jessica Shang. It's even possible that Erica is a little jealous about the way Jessica looks at Ben. Though it's hard to tell with her – her school nickname is Ice Queen, after all. The whole adolescent romance vibe builds like a bomb fixing to go off, providing just the distraction needed to make it a surprise when things really start to explode. Only then do Ben and his friends – spy kids and otherwise – realize how explosive Shang's evil plan may be. And their race to stop it isn't just a test of survival for them, but maybe for the whole free world.

Once again, young Ben's top-secret adventures bring the whole range of rewards for readers in search of fun. It has terrific scenery, thrilling and (literally) chilling action and danger, intriguing mystery, and lots and lots of laughs. You'll meet a character named Dane Brammage and, rather than wonder how a smart author like Gibbs would think he could get away with something like that, you'll be amazed that it hasn't happened before. (Don't correct me if I'm wrong; I'm having fun here.) The bad guys are scary. The good guys are hilarious. And Ben has special qualities that will leave you in no doubt that he has a great career ahead of him.

This is the fourth of going on nine "Spy School" adventures. The next title in the series is Spy School Secret Service.

Evil Spy School

Evil Spy School
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 11+

One the first day of his second year at the CIA's Academy of Espionage, 13-year-old trainee spy Ben Ripley blows up the principal's office. Naturally, he is immediately expelled from spy school – even though he has already saved the U.S. intelligence community from two dastardly plots by a chaos-sowing covert organization known as SPYDER. So when SPYDER offers him a free ride at their evil spy school, Ben takes it. It's not that he's thinking about turning evil or anything. It's just that he thinks, or maybe hopes, that his expulsion was a cover for inserting him into the enemy's headquarters.

Evil spy school doesn't look at all like Ben thought it would. It doesn't even look like a school, really. He shares a house in a gated subdivision with two other students – the only two – and is kept so busy doing math problems, trying to improve his marksmanship, and working out at the rec center that he doesn't have time to find out what SPYDER is plotting. He just knows that it's happening soon. And maybe it has something to do with a place on the Jersey shore called Sandy Hook, where Ben's nemesis since his earliest days in the spy game takes the evil spy kids for a day off. By the time Ben realizes that he may have already, unwittingly, given SPYDER the means to carry out a fiendish attack on New York City, it may be too late to stop it.

Like the two books before it, Ben's adventure in Evil Spy School is packed with mystery, suspense, action, and laughs, with just a hint of teen romance and some family drama to round out the entertainment. Ben makes new frenemies whose paths will cross his again, including a video gaming addict named Nefarious Jones (not as bad as he sounds) and a perky, word-coining, gymnastics princess named Ashley, who might be more dangerous than meets the eye. And of course it features many more characters readers will love, hate, or (most likely) chuckle at in a series that consistently earns high marks in Smart Sense of Humor 101.

This is the third "Spy School" book by the author of the "Moon Base Alpha," "Last Musketeer" and "Charlie Thorne" series. The next book on deck is Spy Ski School.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

305. Hymn for the Confession of St. Peter

This hymn has long been part of my design for the upcoming collection titled Edifying Hymns. It is good to get it out of the back of my head, at last! The tune I have in mind for it, right now, is one that I recently wrote for a hymn by my friend Alan, titled ARISE FROM DEATH (see below). Sure, I could write a new one, but that would be more work.

For him on whose confession
Your Church, O God, is built,
To whom the keys were given
That bind and loose men's guilt:
We praise You from the precincts
Whose bulwarks cannot fail,
And with dear Simon Peter
Your Son as Christ we hail.

Not flesh and blood reveals this,
But You, the God who lives;
Who now, through mortal servants,
Our sin retains, forgives.
You stay the realm of heaven
Not on what lies in man
But on the Seed of Mary:
Anointed, chosen Lamb.

Why should we need another
Elijah or a John,
Except if they, like Peter,
Point out the Christ, Your Son?
We need the Lamb appointed
Above all other things.
Of His full satisfaction
A ransomed people sings!

What men may say of Jesus,
Lord, soon will pass away;
But what Your Spirit teaches
Seal on our hearts, we pray.
Place on our lips Your doctrine,
The courage of Your creed
Protecting us from Hades,
Supplying all our need.

Though we may sink, hearts quailing,
Beneath life's stormy waves,
Or though we, in our weakness,
Deny the Name that saves,
Restore us, Lord, in mercy;
Account to us by grace
The right to stand with Peter
Before Your holy face.