Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The Time Shifter

The Time Shifter
by Cerberus Jones
Recommended Ages: 10+

One day on their way home from school, Amelia and her best friend Charlie follow her pet dog-thing, Grawk, to a strange object he has dug up. Soon after they touch it, they encounter a suspicious guest at the hotel where their parents cater to both regular humans and pretend humans from outer space. Before they can stop the woman (or whatever) from cracking the safe in Amelia's bedroom, which has been locked for almost 150 years, everything disappears in a flash of light and they find themselves back in school, getting ready to head home.

The same time loop repeats several more times while the two kids gradually work out that the suspicious lady is a time shifter, and also a member of the sinister Guild that wants to control the system of wormholes that allow aliens to travel all over. And somehow, the item stored in the safe in Amelia's room seems to be the key to making that happen. They must by no means let the Guild have it. But they're up against a couple of tough alien baddies, including a member of boss villain Krskn's reptilian race and a certain tall drink of water (literally) who can kill with one touch of his liquid finger. Knowing that any more laps around the time loop could break the fabric of time and space, the kids make sure there won't be another do-over before facing these truly deadly villains one, last time. No pressure for a couple of schoolkids. Like, it's not as if anyone has ever beaten these baddies before.

Because of the random order in which I read this series of niftily designed chapter books, this was the last one for me – for now. It's kind of bittersweet to think about. I've enjoyed the company of Amelia and Charlie, who are smart and fearless and full of joyful mischief. I'm going to miss them ... until, as I confidently hope, more of their adventures become available.

This is the fifth book in "The Gateway" series. Like their namesake, Australian author Cerberus Jones has three heads. Chris Morphew, described in the "about the author" blurb as the series' story architect, is also the author of the six "Phoenix Files" titles: Arrival, Contact, Mutation, Underground, Fallout and Doomsday, which are alternately packaged as a trilogy titled Man in the Shadows, Blood in the Ashes and Life in the Flames. The team's chief writer, Rowan McAuley, is credited with about 19 books in the "Go Girl!" series. David Harding, who departed the series after book 6, was in charge of editing and continuity. I can't find much information about him other than the fact that he's easily confused with at least one other author by the same name, but his bio blurb in this book credits him with "Robert Irwin's Dinosaur Hunter" series and several "RSPCA Animal Tales" stories.

The Four-Fingered Man

The Four-Fingered Man
by Cerberus Jones
Recommended Ages: 10+

Amelia, James and their parents have just moved to a spooky old house outside a remote Australian town, so they can clean up all the mess and operate it as a hotel. While James is just unhappy, Amelia is curious. She wonders why they had to move and how it can be true that the hotel is a step up for her parents, an astrophysicist and a diplomat. Maybe James got into some kind of trouble back in the city? Even curiouser is the behavior of the pirate-like caretaker, Tom, who's missing an eye, a finger, and a trustworthy vibe. Even Charlie, the housekeeper's son, thinks so. Together, they go on an adventure to investigate what's up with Tom, and whether (for example) he is stealing from their first guest.

Their snooping just gets the kids in trouble, of course, when the lady catches them in her room. Worse, whatever she keeps in her handbag has cast a spell over the kids and Tom as well, leading them to discover a secret all the grown-ups are already in on, but it was hoped they wouldn't pick up on – namely, that the Gateway Hotel takes its name from a cave beneath Tom's cottage where wormholes bring visitors from all over the universe, and that certain guests – like the lady with the handbag full of "jewels" – only look human because of hologram technology. Now that Amelia and Charlie know, the family business is in danger of ending just as it's getting started. But even if it doesn't (end, that is), they already have signs of weird adventures to come, including the creepy feeling that comes over Amelia at the mention of the name Krskn.

This is the first book in "The Gateway" series, although as luck would have it, it was the sixth that I read. So, I had to pretend not to know all the stuff the main characters found out in it, before they did. Talk about suspending disbelief! Whatever it says about the fact that I couldn't wait until all the books I'd ordered in the series came in, one or two at a time, before reading each one, let it be said. For those of you joining the program late and reading these reviews in canon order, I'll repeat (once again) that Cerberus Jones is an Australian author made up of three (or, later, two) people: Chris Morphew, Rowan McAuley and (for six books) David Harding.

Also, watch out for price gouging by online booksellers. Amazon, at the time I made the link above, wanted an incredible $17.10 for a copy of this book, which says $5.99 (slightly higher in Canada) on the back cover. I scored a copy for $4.79 at Thriftbooks. But that's nothing; there's actually one book in the series (#7, The Lost Home World) that I won't be reading for the foresseable future because copies of it are running upwards of $45 everywhere I look. So, maybe you should check your local library for copies before you go wild. If you get too hooked to help it, don't blame me. I tried to warn you.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

The Dark Giants

The Dark Giants
by Cerberus Jones
Recommended Ages: 10+

It's Amelia's birthday, and for the first time, she's allowed to invite her school friends Sophie F. and Sophie T. to her parents' hotel, and even to have Sophie T. stay overnight. Her main worries leading up to the party are that her best friend, Charlie the housekeeper's son, won't be nice to the girls, and that her alien dog, Grawk, has run away. Of course, keeping the fact that some of the hotel's guests are aliens from outer space, traveling via a wormhole to gateway at the bottom of the garden, is another concern. What she doesn't count on is for the night's festivities to be interrupted by an obnoxious alien scientist and his two hulking accomplices hunting for a feral alien beast. And when Sophie T. gets in the middle of it all, the circle of the gateway secret gets just a bit bigger.

It's a thin chapter book that takes only a little time to read, so I'm loath to extend my synopsis any further. It continues to be a fun series, full of fun kid attitude and the thrilling possibilities of having a gateway to anywhere in the universe in your backyard. Things are developing, too, like the relationships between Amelia, Charlie and Sophie T., the size and troublesomeness of a certain otherworldly puppy, and an ongoing plot arc involving a canister full of a mysterious substance that has been hidden at the hotel for many years.

This is the sixth of (so far) eight books in "The Gateway" series by the two- or three-headed Australian writing team of Chris Morphew, Rowan McAuley and (for the first six books) David Harding. I continue to read them out of order as copies of the installments trickle in via Thriftbooks; but they're coming close enough together that my enjoyment isn't hampered too much by knowing what happens two books later, or picking up hints about something I missed in a previous book that hasn't come yet. And finally, don't take Amazon's prices as gospel (e.g. at the link above); if you shop around, you may be able to find a better deal on these books, as I did.

The Memory Thief

The Memory Thief
by Jodi Lynn Anderson
Recommended Ages: 11+

Rosie Oaks has always been a quiet girl – a trait that saved her life on the night she was born. She has grown up with a single mother who doesn't know how to show her love, and her only friend – a tomboyish force of nature known as Germ – seems to be growing in directions Rosie can't follow. Her defining gift has always been her imagination for making up stories. Then one day, after taking to heart some criticism from Germ, she burns every story she ever wrote. Somehow, this changes something inside her. At first she thinks it's just growing up, accepting that there's "no magic to speak of" in the world. But then she starts to see and hear ghosts.

There are ghosts everywhere. One of my favorite scenes in the book is an overwhelming experience at Rosie's 105-year-old school, which is just loaded with ghosts. The ones in her house show her the ropes a bit – particularly a boy ghost named Ebb, who recognizes something in Rosie that she doesn't see herself. He guides her to a book, and a quiver of magical weapons, from which Rosie learns that she is descended from a long line of Oaks women who all had the sight, and who hunted and fought against the 13 evil witches that bring darkness on the world. She also realizes that her mom is under a curse from a witch known as the Memory Thief, and the only way to lift the curse is to destroy the witch who laid it. With the witches already on notice that another Oaks has developed the sight, she won't have long to figure out how to fight an evil being that's scarcely more substantial than a ghost. Whatever weapon she has to fight with, its power must come from Rosie's heart. And Rosie's heart already has a hard enough time believing there's magic anywhere, especially within her.

Parents who are alert to what their kids put into their heads will appreciate the Occult Content Advisory I've put on this book, whose theory of magic involves a moon goddess and various other kinds of spirits. However, I think they'll also find that the ghosts, cloud shepherds, phantom insects and a certain sea creature that keeps its maw furnished as a cozy parlor, are rather unlike the nature spirits one encounters in mainstream paganism, New Ageism or Wicca. Indeed, the witches in this scenario are all bad, ferociously bad, and difficult to destroy. Hints are dropped of a dualistic concept of the world, where good and evil are opposed to each other but kind of depend on each other at the same time. Christian moms and dads may want to be prepared to discuss these themes rather than let them work on their kids' worldview unchallenged. I think the way forward, for all families to appreciate this book together, is to recognize it as a therapeutic fantasy for children whose home lives are affected by mental illness and related issues, or how it models the use of imagination as a way find joy in the midst of sadness.

This is one of those books that would be easy to confuse with a bunch of other books. There's The Memory Thief by Rachel Morgan, book 1 of her "City of Wishes" series; The Memory Thief by Lauren Mansy, a YA fantasy; The Memory Thief by Bryce Moore, a children's book; The Memory Thief by Emily Colin, a romance novel; The Memory Thief by Don Donaldson, a thriller; The Memory Thief by Rachel Keener, a work of literary fiction; A "Memory Thief" series by Sarina Dorie, starting with a book titled The Memory Thief; A "Memory Thief" trilogy by Nik Korpon; A Thief in the House of Memory by Tim Wynne-Jones; Amelia Fang and the Memory Thief by Laura Ellen Anderson, part of a series of children's books; and maybe more – those are just the titles that turn up in a search of Fantastic Fiction. I guess the way to tell this book apart is that it's book 1 of the "Thirteen Witches" series, of which a second book, The Sea of Always, just came out on April 5, 2022. Jodi Lynn Anderson is also the author of the "May Bird" and "Peaches" trilogies and the novels Loser/Queen, Tiger Lily, The Vanishing Season (also easily confused with at least two other novels), The Moment Collector, My Diary from the Edge of the World, Midnight at the Electric and Each Night Was Illuminated.

The Lady from Nowhere

The Lady from Nowhere
by Cerberus Jones
Recommended Ages: 10+

When the enigmatic Leaf Man emerges from the gateway beneath the hotel that James and Amelia's parents own and operate, he carries with him the lady who built the hotel 150 years ago – and she hasn't aged a day since she disappeared into the Nowhere between the wormholes that connect earth to many far-flung worlds. Matilda Swervingthorpe brings with her dire news. Putting her evidence together with James's math-genius calculations, it seems that intergalactic villain Krskn, a shapechanger and deceiver whose true form is appropriately reptilian, is back with a plot to seize control of the wormhole system that controls travel across the universe. All he needs is to put together an artifact that Gateway Control has held for generations, not knowing what it was, with a source of power that's been lost as long as Matilda – I mean, Miss Swervingthorpe. And there's only one place where he can set it up.

If he gets away with it, it'll mean more than revealing the existence of aliens and interstellar travel to a planet Control doesn't think is ready for the knowledge. It'll also probably destroy the wormhole network and all the worlds connected to it. Which, notably, includes Earth. And when the phone lines conveniently go down at the hotel, the only people who have a chance to get a warning out on time are, you guessed it, Amelia and her best friend Charlie. But even a well-placed "Black Alert" may be too little, too late in the installment that brings the world to a turning point. If the series goes on after this book, it will be in a changed world.

This is the eighth and, so far, latest book in "The Gateway" series by Australian author Cerberus Jones, who is really two or three people – at this point in the series, Chris Morphew (author of the "Phoenix Files" series) and Rowan McAuley (author of several "Go Girl!" titles). I'm reading them out of order, as used copies that I ordered online arrive on my doorstep, which is an interesting way to go through a series for sure. Each book is a complete and satisfying, albeit brief, story in a well-crafted, chapter book style with attractive illustrations, smart dialogue, characters with real personality and a wouldn't-this-be-cool, world-changing story arc running through them. And of course, there's this book's cover art depicting a bipedal lizard rubbing its hands together while what looks like an electric guitar glows with jagged, dangerous-looking power. I mean, who can resist?

Friday, April 22, 2022

The Midnight Mercenary

The Midnight Mercenary
by Cerberus Jones
Recommended Ages: 10+

Amelia's family operates a fancy, old-fashioned hotel on a headland overlooking the sea. The place has a local reputation for being haunted, but there's a reason for that, which Amelia and her best friend Charlie, the housekeeper's son, are sworn to keep secret: in a cave below the hotel, there's actually a gateway where a system of wormholes brings alien travelers from all over the universe. It's so crazy, even Amelia's older brother James hasn't accepted it yet. And yet her pet dog Grawk is not of this world.

One night when the weather is as scary as it can be, something even scarier arrives in the gateway: an evil mercenary named Krskn who apparently plans to kidnap an alien child from a group of last-minute guests. And just to make the night even more confusing and challenging, the holographically disguised kids show up at the same time as a lost troop of real, human scouts. By the time Amelia and Charlie realize Krskn is already inside the hotel, an alien child has been abducted. And so have both of Amelia's parents. To save them, the friends must discover a spooky part of the hotel they never knew existed, face a terrifying villain with a gadget designed for carrying abductees to a slave market, and somehow make friends with beings who ooze slime that burns human flesh.

Learning to embrace the strange and different is a theme of this adventure, not only for Amelia and Charlie but for James as well. Telling the difference between friend and foe, no matter their disguise, is another. And of course, this book introduces a recurring villain whose long-standing evil has made him kind of a "He Who Must Not Be Named" figure in the Gateway world. Despite the (slight spoiler) horrible comeuppance he gets in this outing, you can bet he hasn't played his last trick on the kids and their hotel family.

This is the third of eight chapter books in "The Gateway" series by an Australian author who is actually two or three people. And although Amazon (as of the date I created the link above) seems to want an extortionary $10.28 for a book I was able to order online for only $4.69, I'll forego repeating what I said here and just say, it's a fun book and if you think you'd like it, shop carefully and compare prices.

The Warriors of Brin-Hask

The Warriors of Brin-Hask
by Cerberus Jones
Recommended Ages: 10+

Amelia's family is trying to operate a hotel on a headland overlooking the sea, in what locals regard as a haunted house. But now Amelia and her best friend Charlie, whose mum is the hotel's housekeeper, know that there's a gateway under it where aliens from across the universe arrive via wormhole. Only the adults are supposed to know about this, but already the business is off to a rocky start with their first alien guest lodging a complaint against them with the gateway control authority, an army of cyborg rats attacking from beneath the floorboards and, for their second group of guests, a band of fierce, fuzzy and deceptively cute warriors in retreat from a demoralizing defeat.

Also, there's a strange character the kids call the Leaf Man jumping about, a mysterious lady guest whom no one has ever seen and a disbelieving teen (Amelia's older brother, James) spreading discontent with every sneering remark. With the future of their whole enterprise on the line, Amelia, Charlie and their parents must somehow prove they can keep the gateway safe and secret before Control comes to shut them down. Luckily, the warriors of Brin-Hask prove to be the right guests at the right time.

Attractively designed and whimsically illustrated, this book sells big concepts, vibrant characters, laughs and chills and a heady sense of adventure with such a transparent, economical writing style that you'd never suspect it was written by committee. This is the second of (so far) eight books in "The Gateway" series by an author who is actually two or three people, and I'm reading them out of order as used copies come in from Thriftbooks.

I'm a bit shocked to see Amazon (at the time I created the link above) offering a copy for $31.18 when I paid between $4.69 and $5.79 each for six books in the series, including this one at $4.79. The suggested retail marked on the cover is $5.99. Also, Fantastic Fiction doesn't seem to know that this series exists. I suppose that's because it comes from Down Under. And yet somehow, I stumbled across a copy of Book 4 in a local bookshop. Short of keeping your eyes peeled for it in stores, my best suggestion is to troll used book websites for it. I would definitely balk at paying $30 for it – not because it's not a fun book but really, we're talking about a 136-page chapter book here. Anyway, see this for the titles of the other installments and some bibliographical notes on the authors.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

The Basque Dragon

The Basque Dragon
by Adam Gidwitz & Jesse Casey
illust. by Hatem Aly
Recommended Ages: 10+

Elliott is an uptight kid who memorizes maps and books. Uchenna is almost his exact opposite, always up for adventure. Nevertheless, they've become fast friends, brought together by an eccentric teacher named Professor Fauna, who has recruited them for a secret society to protect the mythical and imaginary creatures of the world. In this adventure, they cross the Atlantic between the end of school day and dinner to rescue a fire-breather in the Basque Country between France and Spain, a creature with healing spit that represents the Euskaldun (Basque people)'s yearning for independence. Of course, the creature is threatened by the evil Schmoke brothers, whose designs on the dragon are at the same time nefarious and silly.

Silliness is kind of the strong suit of this book, actually. It tickles the same funny bone as the theme running through the Harry Potter books of teachers (notably Dumbledore) holding students to ludicrous expectations and standing back to let them sort things out for themselves, in flagrant disregard of their safety. It also sneaks in a lot of information about Basque Country, including some Euskara vocabulary with aids to pronunciation. Its writing is goofy and smart at the same time, with a bright streak of magic going through it: the kind of entertainment that will especially appeal to bright kids. And lest I forget to mention it, there's also a Jersey devil in it, for an added layer of mischief.

This is the second of (so far) five books in "The Unicorn Rescue Society" series, which started with The Creature of the Pines and continues with Sasquatch and the Muckleshoot, The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, The Madre de Aguas of Cuba and The Secret of the Himalayas. The first installment was written solo by Adam Gidwitz, and each succeeding book has a different co-author. Gidwitz is also the author of the "Grimm" trilogy, So You Want to Be a Jedi and The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog. Jesse Casey is an animator and filmmaker who co-founded a studio called Mixtape Club. The entire series is illustrated by Hatem Aly, an Egyptian-Canadian artist who has also illustrated The Inquisitor's Tale, Ibtihaj Muhammad's The Proudest Blue, Geoff Rodkey's Stuck in the Stone Age, James Patterson and Joey Green's Not So Normal Norbert, Ryan Miller's How to Feed Your Parents, M.O. Yuksel's In My Mosque and Saadia Faruqi's Meet Yasmin.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The Ancient Starship

The Ancient Starship
by Cerberus Jones
Recommended Ages: 10+

Amelia and Charlie are friends who live with their parents at a hotel that caters to visitors from outer space, thanks to a gateway in a cave beneath the caretaker's cottage. Nevertheless, when an alien ship is found buried beneath a 6,000-year-old Egyptian pyramid, they're the last kids in their schoolroom to find out. It's funny that this has to happen just when the hotel is welcoming its first human guests, arriving by car at the same time Amelia's dad and a group of holographically-disguised aliens from wormhole Control are teleporting to Egypt to scope out the archeological dig.

Things develop fast, with some of the human guests proving as strange as the aliens, an alien guest turning up looking completely human even before being fitted with a holo-emitter, a suspected infestation of ravenous alien spider babies breaking out, and one of the hotel's long-term guests revealing her secret lab to the children, which only raises more questions and concerns. There's a grouchy alien who threatens the future of the human management of the hotel, a daring theft of an archaeological treasure, and a romantic subplot that gives a strange new meaning to the phrase "star-crossed lovers."

I'm impressed by this book's smart dialogue and crisply delineated characters, the adventurous hero kids and their amazing alien dog, and a storyline spanning awesome spans of time and drawing in a variety of concepts that will blow kids' minds. Having found a used copy of it at a local bookstore, I regret not being able to read the series it belongs to in sequence, but I don't regret it much; my imagination seemed to do fine, filling in the background implying what I'd missed in the earlier installments. And anyway, I dialed up a used bookseller on my phone and ordered most of the books in the series as soon as I was done with this one.

This is the fourth book in "The Gateway" series by Cerberus Jones, the Australian two- or three-headed writing team of Chris Morphew, Rowan McAuley and (for the first six books of this series) David Harding. The other installments are The Four-Fingered Man, The Warriors of Brin-Hask, The Midnight Mercenary, The Time Shifter, The Dark Giants, The Lost Home World and The Lady from Nowhere. Morphew is the author of either three or six "Phoenix Files" books, depending on how they're packaged. McAuley is the author of several "Go Girl!" chapter books. I think David Harding is a teacher and author of the "Israel Folau" books and titles in the "RSPCA Animal Tales" and "Robert Irwin: Dinosaur Hunter" series.

Murder Gone Cold

Murder Gone Cold
by B.J. Daniels
Recommended Ages: 14+

James Dean Colt is back in town, Stetson hat and all, recovering from injuries earned on the rodeo circuit. The first thing he finds is the burned wreckage of the trailer that he left his last girlfriend staying in, out on the ranch he co-owns with his three bronco-riding brothers. Turns out the girlfriend rented it out to some meth cookers and they blew it up. The second thing he finds is an unfinished case, left open on his father's desk in the late private investigator's office downtown, where James goes looking for a backup place to rest and heal. Intrigued by a sense that the old man was close to solving the hit-and-run death of a child at the time of his own death nine years ago, James applies for a P.I. license and reopens his dad's last case. The third thing he finds is a whole lotta pushback to the kid's murder being reopened, from the crooked town sheriff and his even crookeder, sheriffer brother to the tightly-wound yet strangely sexy woman running the sandwich shop next door.

Lorelei, as said sexy sandwich purveyor calls herself – James calls her Lori – can't make up her mind whether she loves him or loathes him, and it's been that way since high school. She's always thought of him as a reckless ladies' man, never suspecting that he's always had a crush on her, too. And lately, he's been bitten by a strange urge to settle down and start a family. Torn between solving the case quick and getting back out on the broncs, James follows up on his dad's leads and finds himself getting in deeper and deeper trouble. Lorelei's stepmother has a secret life that she's hot to protect, and it involves not only a philandering U.S. senator but also the father of the dead boy. The ex-sheriff also has secrets to cover up, and may not be above a little arson, attempted murder and planting incriminating evidence on the Colt brothers' land. And then again, members of a construction crew working in the area where the boy's body was found seem to be tied in with the crime in various ways, including one guy who turns up shot to death when James goes out to see him. There somehow seems to be more people carrying a bad conscience away from the kid's death than could possibly have been responsible for it – and thereby hangs a red herring or two.

It's a short, quickly read mystery that surprisingly (this being the first Harlequin title I've ever read, to my knowledge) doesn't lean too hard on the romance. In fact, it's downright chaste; it wouldn't have to change much to air on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. In its favor, I'll say that it sketches in several multi-faceted and interesting characters, presents a real puzzle of a case, and depicts a heartwarming love story between two people who must decide whether they are ready to alter their entire way of life before they can turn toward each other. The vision both James and Lorelei have of a little girl not yet born is a plot device that really grabs the reader's heart. On the not-so-positive side, apart from the shooting death that most likely wasn't connected with the case and the final, climactic ramp-up, I felt this book held back from putting its characters in as much jeopardy as it could have, and even walked back some potential peril without letting it pay off. In short, it felt a little too safe. Nonetheless, it had charms, the small-town Montana setting among them, and I'd definitely give further installments a chance.

This is the first of (so far) three "Colt Brothers Investigation" novels, whose sequels Sticking to Her Guns and Christmas Ransom are due for release on May 24, 2022 and Nov. 29, 2022 respectively. Sometime newspaper writer B.J. Daniels is also the author of about 19 other series of Montana-based mystery-romance-thrillers, as well as about 11 standalone novels, many of them (like this book) published under the Harlequin Intrigue imprint – which, if this book is typical, means low-priced, lightweight, PG-rated tales of love and crime in the American west.

Friday, April 15, 2022

320. Good Friday Hymn

Since I wrote a Maundy Thursday hymn on Manudy Thursday, it seems appropriate to try this today. Not that my output as a hymnwriter has lacked hymns on the Passion of Christ, at all. I'm hoping this one will be just a bit different. The tune I'm feeling is the Norwegian folk melody FAR, VERDEN, FAR VEL ("The sun has gone down," LHy 554, TCH 74, ELHy 575).
The hammer comes down:
Nails piercing the Victim who bears the world's frown,
Thorns pressed on His brow like a blasphemous crown.
Jeers darken the air. Comprehension takes leave:
The mob stirred to madness, the faithful to grieve.
Fear not, but believe!
Fear not, but believe!

Has not the Lord said
That God's Son and man's must, in all sinners' stead,
Be taken and punished and rise from the dead?
As once in the desert a bronze serpent raised
Brought healing to many who thereon but gazed,
Look on Him, amazed!
Look on Him, amazed!

Behold, for His sake
The daytime is darkened; the earth's pillars quake;
Their graves broken open, the dead saints awake.
The spear proves Him dead, ruined in the world's eyes,
Yet even a heathen this moment makes wise:
His blood justifies!
His blood justifies!

Thursday, April 14, 2022

319. Maundy Thursday Hymn

I had time to blow in the wee hours, and this came out of it. I hope it proves useful and edifying to somebody. I have no particular tune in mind but I'm sure there is no shortage of appropriate candidates.
O Christ, our Teacher and our Lord,
How wondrously at festal board
You girded up and stooped to serve
With godly love and manly nerve!

You stooped to show how it is meet
That God should wash the sinner's feet,
And that the Fairest and the Best
Lay all aside to greet His guest.

You preached and prayed and coined a new
Passover custom filled with You:
In willing agony arrayed,
Unto Your enemies betrayed.

With Your pure flesh, let us devour
The strength to meet temptation's hour,
And with the blood shed for our sin
Enliven us and live within.

A righteousness let us imbibe
Exceeding Pharisee or scribe;
So cleanse our way that we anew
May trace the footprints left by You.

Thus, serving all and ruling none,
God grant that we indeed be one
Till, cleansed by resurrecting grace,
We worship prone before Your face.

Monday, April 11, 2022

The Lost City

This past Sunday night, I took advantage of a brief break in the otherwise unremitting hideousness of spring weather in Minnesota (guess what! it snowed again today – or rather, sleeted) and went back to Detroit Lakes for another attempt to guess which movie that I haven't seen yet doesn't suck. I pretty much had a choice of Ambulance, a shoot-'em-up directed by Michael Bay, and The Lost City, whose trailers read like a mash-up of Pim's Island (in which an agoraphobic author finds herself lured to a tropical paradise to meet the embodiment of her books' studly hero) and The Proposal (another Sandra Bullock comedy that over-relies on her male costar's naked butt to ensure its preservation as a cinematic treasure). Also like The Proposal, it forgets that it's already a comedy and brings in Oscar Nunez for comic relief. It costars Channing Tatum as the cover model for Bullock's series of steamy adventure novels who sets off to rescue her when she is kidnapped by a nefarious rich guy; Brad Pitt as the real-life action hero the not really very heroic Tatum hires to help; Daniel Radcliffe as the kidnapper who, ridiculously, thinks a romance novelist can find the Lost City of D and then, even more ridiculously, proves to be correct; and Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Bullock's editor who mounts her own rescue when Tatum and Bullock are both swallowed by the jungle. I might as well tell you now that I decided to watch the mashup. And surprisingly, I was entertained without coming away feeling insulted, as I did from last week's trip to see Morbius.

Now that I've kinda synopsized the movie, I might as well cut to the Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Bullock and Tatum set up a trap for a couple of motorcycle goons who are chasing them through the jungle, and end up unintentionally sending two of them plunging to their deaths. Their reaction is a prime example of the nervous, motormouth type of comedy both actors play throughout this movie, seemingly improvising their hilariously awkward dialogue in moments of distress. (2) One of the villain's henchmen plunges to his death immediately after mocking Tatum for stumbling on a cliffside path. There's an awful lot of henchmen death in this movie; it's a miracle that even one survives, no thanks to Tatum's klutziness when they're sent to kill him during an attempt to extract Bullock from a luxury armored vehicle. (3) Nunez, tackling Radcliffe as he attempts to escape capture: "Where are you going to go? You're on a boat."

All right, so the movie gave me some belly laughs. There was also a certain delicious irony in the way it subverted romantic adventure tropes while increasingly turning into a romantic adventure. You have to accept some inconsistencies to enjoy it, like the fact that Tatum gradually transforms into a heroic figure after being accurately described as a Ken doll earlier in the movie. Somewhere around the point where he shames Bullock for assuming that being a romance novel cover model was the highlight of his existence, he imperceptibly stops being the guy who arrives on a jungle island with a neck pillow still around his neck and a pouch of facial masks in his survival kit, and becomes the guy who instantly picks up Latin dancing at an open-air bar and never lets anything stop him after the night he uses the facial masks to soothe the eczema on his back. Both hero characters' vulnerabilities gradually disappear as they increasingly come to resemble the novel characters Bullock imagines them as, and the secret of the ancient royal tomb inspires the burnt-out author to find her romance-writing groove again, and we are mercifully spared a romance between Randolph and Nunez, and despite a slightly creepy mid-credits scene in which Pitt's character's gruesome demise is preposterously walked back, the audience – most of whom have already left the theater by that point – walks out with a smile. Which, in the last analysis, is the point. It seems so easy, but how many recent movies have gotten it?

Tuesday, April 5, 2022


I had time to blow on Sunday night, so I drove to Detroit Lakes to see a movie. (The one here in Park Rapids still hasn't reopened, and the lovely Bear Pause theater in Hackensack has, alas, closed.) On the recommendation of a friend, which included the remark "Don't listen to the critics," I opted for Morbius. And it was certainly a diverting diversion. However -- and I say this without consulting the critics -- a few things took away from my enjoyment of it. And before you say "you wouldn't have this problem if you didn't think all the time," believe me, I can't help it.

So, Morbius stars Jared Leto -- whom comic-book movie fans are apprently expected to have forgiven for his turn as the Joker in Suicide Squad -- as a guy with a chronic blood disease who snubs a Nobel Prize for Medicine (for inventing synthetic blood), then skates outside the lines of medical research ethics to create a cure for his condition by splicing genes from vampire bats into the human genome. When he tests it on himself, he goes full Dracula on a ship full of mercenaries. Once he comes back to himself, he swears off human blood, but the "blue" stuff (synthetic blood) is steadily losing its ability to sustain him.

Meanwhile, his lifelong best friend (Matt "The 11th Doctor" Smith), a fellow victim of the same blood disease, refuses to take "Forget it, the cure is worse than the disease" for an answer. He also doesn't go for the "blue" option, and decides he enjoys being a bloodsucker and getting back at all the healthy people who ever bullied him. Milo, as Morbius nicknamed him the day they met, goes on a killing rampage while two cops try to catch both vamps. He also wants to get Morbius to join him in his revolt against non-blood-drinking mankind. But Morbius is having none of it, and makes it his mission to destroy Milo and himself -- spurred on by the murder of two people close to him.

So, there's your synopsis, and before I forget, here are Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Whenever the two detectives are on screen, pursuing the vampire killer(s) with persistence and pretty accurate insight into what's going on, but remaining steadily a step behind. (2) Young Morbius saves young Milo's life, using a spring from a ballpoint pen. This leads the doctor who cares for them to recognize that Morbius is a genius. (3) The moment when Morbius realizes Milo has taken the cure, leaving his cane behind in Morbius's jail cell.

But there are far more than three Scenes That Unmade It For Me, and they basically come down to the film's apparent controlling premise, which is that I (the viewer) am stupid. Are we stupid, moviegoers? Are you OK with being treated as if you are? If not, then why would we put up with such inanities as a cylindrical, glass-walled habitat for vampire bats that has no apparent place for them to perch, no apparent method of feeding them and way too much light for their comfort, and where they flap about in a continuous vortex without resting day or night, and yet not even one escapes when someone opens the door to the enclosure? What the hell is that, a giant bat-themed lava lamp to decorate the lab? What is it even for?

There's a scene where Morbius is helicoptered to a mountain cave in, I believe, Costa Rica, apparently to collect vampire bats for his experiments, but nothing about that scene makes sense. There's a scene where an otherwise intelligent detective proves that a cat is not at home by shaking its litterbox and observing that the cat doesn't come running -- a precept of cat husbandry that I never picked up in my ever so many years as a cat slave. There are action sequences so dark, with so much blur, with such spatially confusing movement and so little detail for the eye to focus on, that you can't understand a single thing you're seeing on the screen. In two consecutive scenes, Morbius arrives too late to save two different people he cares about, but just on time to witness their last moments alive, but Milo's motive for killing them doesn't make a lick of sense and, in the case of their longtime doctor/guardian, doesn't really pay off. I mean, Nicholas (Jared Harris) is a very underutilized character. The demise of Milo is played as if you're meant to shed a tear at the pathos of the situation, but any sympathy you may have had for him at the start has long since been, like, exsanguinated. There are two mid-credit "Easter egg" scenes featuring another villain/antihero character (played by Michael Keaton) that I don't know anything about, so being a comics noob, I could make no sense of them and don't understand how they relate to this movie -- other than maybe teasing another movie that (based on past experience) may or may not ever materialize.

Other than atmosphere, sound and fury, and a certain amount of sex appeal amongst its principal cast, the movie offers a paper-thin story that could really be synopsized in one sentence: Crippled genius cures himself but accidentally becomes a vampire, tries a non-blood diet but is forced to bat out so he can destroy his bloodsucking bestie. There really aren't any plot surprises after the jail cell scene where Milo accidentally-on-purpose forgets his cane. The creature effects aren't as awesome as they could be, because you know they're CGI. The fights aren't as awesome as they would be if you could actually see what was going on. The tragedy of the hero and the woman he loves would be more effective if the movie didn't (at least ambiguously) take it back. And everything after Michael Keaton materializes is non sequitur. I'll tell you what would be an interesting twist: if the movie was over when the credits rolled. In this movie, it might have been better if that happened a lot sooner.

The people who made this movie aren't dumb, as evidenced by their cute name dropping of "Murnau" (look at the stern of the ship of death). But they think we are. I'd rather it was the other way around.