Sunday, July 31, 2022

Worst Witch 6, 7 & 8

The Worst Witch to the Rescue
by Jill Murphy
Recommended Ages: 10+

Despite having been put down as the worst witch at Miss Cackle's School for Witches since she began, Mildred Hubble arrives in an upbeat mood for the summer term of her third year. For one thing, she has come up with a really creative spell for her holiday project, which she knows will impress her often exasperated form-mistress, Miss Hardbroom. For another thing, she discovers a real aptitude for art, giving her hope of not always being the worst student in every subject. But it doesn't even take her nemesis, Ethel Hallow, until lunch on the first day of term to ruin both happy prospects for Mildred, thanks to a couple of mean-spirited tricks (one of which actually crosses the line into cheating) that will obliterate any hope you may still cherish that the two girls will ever grow into friends.

Add the fact that Ethel's sneaking friend, Drusilla, discovers that Mildred is secretly harboring an illegal pet in her dorm room, and the stage is set for a heartbreaking term for Mildred – and that's if she doesn't get expelled. Thank goodness for a temporarily talking toad, knocking on Mildred's door at just the right time. Otherwise, things might not go well for a certain tortoise up a tree, and Mildred may lose her chance to get a fair shake.

This is the sixth of eight "Worst Witch" stories written and illustrated by the late Jill Murphy. For those who are struggling to tell one book from another in the series, this is the one where Ethel starts to get a little of what she deserves, and perhaps a turning point in Mildred's progress from "worst witch" to a student even Miss Hardbroom might someday be proud of. If there's hope for her, there may be hope as well for any kid who struggles in school. And it couldn't happen to a more warm-hearted and courageous little witch.

The Worst Witch and the Wishing Star
by Jill Murphy
Recommended Ages: 10+

During her fourth year at Miss Cackle's School for Witches, the teachers give "worst witch" Mildred some new responsibility, perhaps in the hope of maturing her a little. And they've got to admit, she takes her duties as East Wing Lantern Monitor very seriously. But one night during her rounds, she rescues a dog and begins hiding him in her room as yet another forbidden, secret pet. Star, as she names him, even proves to be a better broom balancer than Mildred's adorable but useless cat, Tabby. The pair secretly begin practicing aerial acrobatics, with an excellent effect on Mildred's slow-to-develop flying skills.

If you're wondering what could ruin it, you must be new to the series because, of course, the answer is Ethel Hallow, Mildred's nemesis – a horrible, snobby, entitled, jealous sneak of a girl who could give witches a bad name. Incapable of leaving Mildred alone to enjoy anything or do well in any subject, Ethel smokes out Mildred's doggy secret and interferes in her lantern monitoring in a way that just happens to sink the school's chances of winning a talent contest against other magic schools, for which the prize is a new swimming pool. Now half the school hates Mildred because they blame her for ruining their act, and the other half hopes she'll win the contest for them with her last-minute dog-and-broomstick show.

This is the seventh of the eight "Worst Witch" chapter books by the late Jill Murphy. So by now, it shouldn't be spoiling anything to point out that she wouldn't be Mildred if she didn't somehow turn disaster into triumph and worst-witchdom into heroism. With a gentle spirit, a streak of mischief, and a firm grasp of the difference between right and wrong, she's the kind of underdog (no pun intended) many kids will sympathize with and root for.

First Prize for the Worst Witch
by Jill Murphy
Recommended Ages: 10+

Mildred Hubble, the worst witch at Miss Cackle's School for Witches, has somehow made it to the summer term of Year Four, the year during which first prizes are awarded and the head girl is named because Year Five is all about studying for the Witches' Higher Certificate exams. Between Mildred and her best friends, Maud and Enid, only one of them hopes to win anything at the end of the term – Maud is hoping for a first prize in Team Spirit – but everyone knows all the serious prizes will go to Mildred's nemesis, Ethel Hallow. And also, there's never been a Hallow at the school who didn't end up as head girl. Mildred's just hoping to continue flying with her acrobatic dog, Star, and work hard to prove that she isn't always the worst witch.

Hardly surprising, if you've followed the series so far, Ethel isn't content to let Mildred have even that. She and her toadie, Drusilla, arrange to have Star's previous owners – Mr. and Mrs. Brilliantine, who run a small circus – show up at the school to claim their dog. It's an entertaining scene in which you might realize that no one from the non-magical world has appeared in the series till now. Of course it wrecks Mildred, emotionally and academically, to have Star taken away from her. But slowly, she and Enid and Maud concoct a scheme to get Star back – a scheme that incidentally involves a couple other circus animals, some zany enchanted objects and a transportation spell that goes hilariously wrong. Will they succeed or will the whole caper end in disaster? Don't just guess. Grab the book, or better yet, the box set.

This book represents the end of an eight-book, 44-year project by Jill Murphy, a British children's author and illustrator who passed away in 2021. Perhaps sadly, it leaves to our imagination what Mildred Hubble would have gotten up to during her final year at Miss Cackle's School for Witches. But seeing the "worst witch" named Head Girl going into that last year also brings the series to a pretty satisfying conclusion. It's nice how things like that work out sometimes.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Worst Witch 4 & 5

The Worst Witch All at Sea
by Jill Murphy
Recommended Ages: 10+

During her previous term at Miss Cackle's School for Witches, second-form mischief-maker Mildred managed to save a magician from a hopless, I mean hopeless, froggy fate. As a reward for her heroism, Mr. Rowan-Webb has invited the entire second form to a seaside vacation at his attractively named Gloom Castle on Grim Cove.

It might be more of a treat for Mildred if she didn't have a secret to keep. Her beloved, but half-baked, cat Tabby has been traded in for a more traditional black model, who is better at balancing on broomsticks, while Tabby has been demoted to a kitchen mouser despite being afraid of mice. He's such a useless cat, but Mildred loves him and it breaks her heart to be separated from him, so she sneaks him along on the seaside holiday and, naturally, hijinks ensue.

The hijinks involve class sneak Ethel, their ever disapproving form-mistress Miss Hardbroom, a boat, an island rumored to have a buried treasure on it, and the amazing sport of broomstick water skiing that'll leave you wondering why they never mentioned it at Hogwarts. And of course, despite being well known as a poor student and troublemaker, it's Mildred whose warm heart and resourcefulness save the day.

This is the fourth of eight "Worst Witch" books by the late Jill Murphy, a British children's author also known for her "Large Family" series of picture books. It is also published in the U.S. as The Worst Witch At Sea (with no "All"), apparently based on the assumption that American children won't understand the British expression "all at sea" (which means "in a state of confusion or uncertainty"). The copy that came with my box set has the "All" on it; however, that may be related to the fact that the price listed on the back cover is in pounds.

The Worst Witch Saves the Day
by Jill Murphy
Recommended Ages: 10+

Of course Mildred, the worst witch at Miss Cackle's School for Witches, saves the day. Doesn't she always? But first, and just as naturally, she messes up. Her botched attempt to repair a "bad hair day" results in disaster, and sends her beloved but mental cat Tabby into a nervous breakdown. At least this term, the girls in Form Three will have a break from always having super-strict Miss Hardbroom as their form-mistress. The trouble is, their mysterious new teacher doesn't seem interested in actually teaching.

It doesn't take long for the girls in Form Three to miss a bit of structure and discipline. But that thought has scarcely formed in their minds when Miss Granite suddenly turns mean and threatening, and poor Tabby gets caught in the middle. Luckily, Mildred isn't the kind of girl to take catnapping lying down. (That sentence somehow doesn't sound right.) Unluckily, that's exactly what Miss Granite is counting on, forcing Mildred to stretch her spellcasting skills in order to avert yet another attempted hag takeover of the school.

Mildred and her friends, frenemies and enemies are fun company as always, full of warmth and mischief and magic. Their adventure is typically weird, hilarious and just a bit spooky, including (in this case) a transformation spell that leaves Mildred in a tiny form. Her struggle to communicate her plight with her friends, Enid and Maud, and to stay on task despite the allure of cake crumbs all over the floor, is the type of verbal and visual fun that makes this book, and this whole series, priceless.

This is the fifth of eight "Worst Witch" books by the late Jill Murphy. Next after it is The Worst Witch to the Rescue. After a slow start, I'm zipping through the series thanks to a box set that was apparently printed for sale in the U.K. Since the books are so brief and quick to read – and there are (sadly) no worries that more installments will be added to the series – I'd say the box set is the way to go.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Worst Witch 2 & 3

The Worst Witch Strikes Again
by Jill Murphy
Recommended Ages: 10+

In her second term at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches, Mildred continues to lag behind her classmates – especially under the withering eye of their form mistress, Miss Hardbroom. Partly this is due to bad luck; partly, Mildred's irrepressible high spirits; and partly because she somehow manages to catch the blame whenever another student causes a bit of mischief. With a new student named Enid making enough trouble for two, Mildred is soon on the verge of being expelled.

In the light strokes of a short, quick-to-read novella and the strangely attractive imagery of a school of magic being held in a castle (an idea somebody should really do something with one of these days), Mildred's adventure shines a sympathetic light on the plight of every student who has ever had trouble concentrating in class, or who couldn't help getting into trouble despite good intentions, or who had a warm heart toward the down-and-out (including awkward new classmates and dimwitted kittens), and yet who also wanted to smack the tale-bearing teacher's pet. If you resemble that remark, this one's for you.

This is the second of eight "Worst Witch" books written from 1974 to 2018. British children's author Jill Murphy passed away in August 2021, about a year after I read the first installment in this series, The Worst Witch. I've taken my time getting around to reading this series, which has been going nearly as long as I have and has already spawned a TV movie and several TV series. Anyway, the other slim, adorably illustrated books in this series – of which I now own a boxed set – include A Bad Spell for the Worst Witch, The Worst Witch All at Sea, The Worst Witch Saves the Day, The Worst Witch to the Rescue, The Worst Witch and the Wishing Star and First Prize for the Worst Witch. Murphy also left behind 11 "Large Family" books, the novels Geoffrey Strangeways, Worlds Apart and Dear Hound, and multiple picture books for children.

A Bad Spell for the Worst Witch
by Jill Murphy
Recommended Ages: 10+

Despite being the worst witch at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches, Mildred has made it to the second form. Unfortunately, so has her former first-form mistress, the repressive Miss Hardbroom. This year, a feud with her snooty nemesis, Ethel, results (much later) in Mildred being able to say the priceless words, "We were frogs together." In the meantime, she has a hard time communicating her plight to her friends Enid and Maud, so that she can get switched back. And then she has a bigger problem: how to keep a promise to a wizard who has been trapped in froggy form for decades.

It's another slim, charmingly illustrated breeze to read that should please even – or maybe especially – kids who sometimes have trouble keeping up in class, or staying out of trouble, or getting along with their classmates. Mildred has a streak of mischief in her, which she sometimes can't control. You may likewise have trouble controlling an urge to giggle as she makes up a scary story instead of comforting a first-year student as she intended. But there's also much to admire in her, such as her tenderness toward the powerless and vulnerable, her sincere effort to show good manners (like when she politely declines an offer of a fly), and the lengths she'll go to in keeping a promise. (However, kidnapping is bad, children. It should go without saying.)

This is the third book of eight in the "Worst Witch" series, between The Worst Witch Strikes Again and The Worst Witch All at Sea. A prolific, British children's author whose works have often been adapted for television, Jill Murphy passed away in 2021.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Spy School Revolution

Spy School Revolution
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 11+

Ben Ripley, a second-year student at the CIA's Academy of Espionage, has gone on rogue missions before. But they've never been as rogue as this. Not only is the CIA after him, but even his most trusted friends don't believe him. It starts when Erica Hale, a slightly older student and his almost (but not quite) hopeless crush since Day 1 at spy school, makes an attempt on his life. With a rocket-propelled grenade. At CIA headquarters. The explosion destroys the room next door to where a couple of CIA agents are breaking the secret to Ben's parents that he hasn't, after all, been attending St. Smithen's Science Academy for the past year and a half, and now that his cover has been blown, they are no longer safe in their home.

The Ripleys' reaction to the news that they have to go into federal witness protection is the first instance in this book where I had to set it down for a bit, while I got my laughter under control. There were other instances, including passages that caused me to make a fool of myself in public when I had taken the book along on an all-day newspaper assignment, to pass the time between separate but connected events that I needed to photograph. (It was that or make two 26-mile round trips in one day to cover them.) I'm a bit worried that other people in the picnic shelter around me thought I was sobbing and wondered what had made me so upset; I was laughing that hard. But enough about me. There's a book to talk about.

So, Ben refuses to believe that Erica has really turned evil, despite the fact that she was obviously targeting him for death. Most of his friends don't have that kind of faith in the girl popularly known, around campus, as the Ice Queen. And it doesn't help that the closer he gets to a working theory of what's going on, the more it sounds like a cracked conspiracy theory. Almost no one else is ready to buy into Erica's claim that a secret, anti-American organization called the Croatoan, which has existed since the disappearance of the Roanoke colony in 1590, is really behind all the really bad things that have happened during U.S. history because – get this – they believe the continent rightfully belongs to Spain. The only evidence of it seems to be hidden somewhere among the effects of the nation's first president, and first spy master, George Washington.

Breaking into Washington's historic mansion, Mount Vernon, proves to be only one of many crazy things Ben finds himself doing among the landmarks of the Washington, D.C. area. There's a wild ride on a decrepit conveyor belt under the National Mall. There's a parachute drop out of a helicopter (ugh, again) onto a heavily secured rooftop. There's a leap over a cliff, followed by a boat-free trip down whitewater rapids. An explosion at a bowling alley. A fire at a middle school. More chases than you can shake the reins of George Washington's personal team of horses at. There are double-crosses by people Ben trusts, as well as (oops) an embarrassing moment when he falsely accuses the wrong CIA agent of being crooked. And there are moments that force Ben to reconsider who his real best friends are. Also, there's this quote, which was hard to choose out of several candidates:
Mike said, "Have you ever noticed that, wherever we go, we leave a trail of chaos and destruction?"

"Yes," I said. "That had occurred to me, too."

"It's awesome, isn't it?" Mike asked, grinning from ear to ear.
This is Book 8 in the "Spy School" series, smack between Spy School British Invasion and Spy School At Sea. A 10th book, Spy School Project X, is scheduled for release in September 2022. Besides this series tickling millions of youngsters' fancy of becoming a secret agent, Stuart Gibbs's other novels for middle school-aged kids include a series of mysteries set in a zoo/theme park, a trilogy about a present-day kid who time-travels to become one of the Three (or four) Musketeers, a mystery trilogy set on the moon, and a developing series about a medieval kid who wants to be a knight. Among the fellow writers mentioned in this book's acknowledgments are a few who you may also like if you enjoy this series, such as James Ponti, Michael Buckley, Chris Grabenstein and Sarah Mlynowski.

Spy School British Invasion

Spy School British Invasion
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 11+

As Ben Ripley's remarkable adventures as a CIA spook-in-training continues, he and his friends find themselves once again on a totally unsanctioned mission to save the world and bring down a secret, evil organization named SPYDER, that has turned a lot of their fellow agents to the dark side. Trusting nobody but themselves, and on the run from practically every law enforcement and intelligence agency in the West, they chase and are chased through a tourist's dream (and nightmare) of places to see in London and Paris – including the British Museum, the Tower Bridge and the Eiffel Tower on the one hand, and a subterranean sewer and a tunnel lined with skulls on the other.

Along the way, Ben walks a perilous tight rope (as it were) between two girls he's attracted to, both of whom are dangerous to cross. He saves his bestie, Mike, from a potty emergency by staging a breakout, under enemy fire, involving a laser pointer, a bra and a priceless Egyptian artifact. He breaks into the palatial home of one of the world's most reclusive hackers, only to find the guy lonely and desperate for company. They crash a double-decker bus, jump out of a Russian helicopter, race against time to stop a doomsday device, duke it out with bad guys, squirm as Erica Hale's parents bicker about the fact that her father (a very bad spy) hadn't known her mother was a very good spy the whole time they were married, and experience the truth of such Spy School precepts as Hogarth's Theory of Fear-Based Urination.

In short, it's action packed, hilarious fun with a bit of junior high romance woven in. It mines all the comedic possibilities out of spy caper stereotypes, including the kid-pleasing idea that the adults are cracked and only the kids know what's really going on. For all its silliness, there's an honesty about Ben's narration, a wholesomeness about his character, that makes him easy to root for – and meanwhile, Mike's point of view occasionally knocks us sidewise with his goofy observations, like how cool it is (for Ben) to be the face on the dartboard in a master villain's lair. The characters are quirky – in some cases, downright daffy – but with a dangerous edge that ensures, for example, you won't snicker when you find out about Erica's childhood game of pretending to be a princess (or rather, pretending to be a spy pretending to be a princess). And although SPYDER may be down to its last nefarious scheme in this installment, you can be sure some other evil orgnization will rush in to fill the void.

This is the seventh book in the "Spy School" series, following Spy School, Spy Camp, Evil Spy School, Spy Ski School, etc., and continuing (so far) with Spy School Revolution, Spy School at Sea and, scheduled for release in September 2022, Spy School Project X. Stuart Gibbs is also the author of the "Last Musketeer" and "Moon Base Alpha" trilogies, going on eight "FunJungle" books, the "Charlie Thorne" series (whose third book, Charlie Thorne and the Curse of Cleopatra, just came out in June 2022) and Once Upon a Tim (which just came out in March and whose sequel, The Labyrinth of Doom, comes out in November 2022). Unlike some writers (eyebrow lifted), this guy doesn't seem to be running out of ideas.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Ratatouille Revisited

About nine years ago, I posted about my first time making ratatouille, based Emeril's recipe. I've more or less winged it since then, after quickly checking that initial recipe for reference, achieving decent results several times and screwing up once or twice. (I remember one version being "death by thyme." But I was getting ready to move and I didn't want to have to pack fresh thyme, so ... anyway.)

Yesterday, I made a yummy version of ratatouille that was loaded with ingredients that aren't listed in the recipe. So, maybe it's not really ratatouille. Since it was just for me, I figured no one would judge me if I just put in what I wanted, and that was a lot of stuff. But now I'm telling the internet about it, so I guess I'll be judged after all. Whatever.

I went shopping for the ingredients on Wednesday and started prepping when I got home from work on Thursday. I was unsurprised (having done this before) that the prep took about an hour. I snacked a bit between tasks and while the dish was cooking, since dinner was coming up later than usual for me. And of course, I knew that I'd end up with enough food to feed six, or myself from Thursday through Tuesday, so it wasn't as if saving my appetite was crucial. Nevertheless, when I dug in, I found it pretty darn good.

Of course I got all (well, most) of the orthodox ingredients: a small eggplant, a yellow squash, a zucchini, four Roma tomatoes, a medium yellow onion, bell peppers (one each red, yellow and orange), a couple bulbs of garlic, and a bunch of ... oops. Here's where my brain farted, and I brought home a bunch of fresh rosemary instead of thyme. It's hard to reckon how I made that mistake. But I intentionally omitted the parsley and basil because I felt that the one herb would be plenty.

And then, I went a little mad and bought several things that aren't in ratatouille as it has been transmitted down to me. I figured where you have onions in French cookery, you may as well also have carrots and celery. And on a lark, I also bought some mushrooms that I imagined would be close to eggplant in consistency. That made for a good deal more prep work, though, and by the time I got around to them, I was too sick of chopping to give them due care and ended up cutting them up into bigger chunks than I really should have. And of course, I seasoned everything with salt.

While I'm dwelling on should-have beens, I also wish I had redesigned my mise en place. Going by memory of the Emeril recipe, I divided the chopped ingredients into four bowls, based on what stage of cooking I meant to throw them into the pan. If I recall correctly, Bowl 1 was the eggplant (peeled and chopped into roughly 2/3-inch cubes) and a couple of carrots (not peeled but cut in half lengthwise and then chopped into pieces of similar size). I now think I should have either julienned and more finely chopped the carrots or started them first, by themselves in a pan drizzled with hot olive oil. As it was, I couldn't give them the time they needed to soften without risking the eggplant dissolving into nothing.

Bowl 2, going in a few minutes later, was the onion and garlic. After the onion started to soften and the garlic released its aroma, I threw in Bowl 3, containing the pepper (I ended up chopping only the orange bell, pith and seeds removed), celery (three stalks, sliced in half lengthwise and then chopped to a similar size as the carrots), both kinds of squash (peel on, quartered lengthwise and cut into roughly similar cuboids), and the shrooms (sliced but not too thin). The lid went on the pan, except for the occasional stir.

When I started to worry about it being done before I had added Bowl 4, in went the tomatoes and the rosemary. I'd actually tried, for the first time, the "dip in boiling water for 10 seconds, then de-stem and peel" method before quartering the tomatoes and chopping them into about 1/3-inch dices. Of course, I de-stemmed the rosemary, about 3 branches worth, which I'm sure is quite conservative considering how much food I was adding it to, but I was mindful of "death by thyme" and chose the long way around to avoid repeating that type of mistake. In a more perfect univserse, I would have given more effort to the rosemary, but I was at the end of my resources by that time so I gave up after just a few feeble chops; I would only regret that a litte, later.

Stir. Lid on. A couple more stirs. At the last moment I remembered to grind some black pepper over the pan and to cut off a quarter of a large lemon and squeeze its juice in there. (I actually plated a serving of it before I remembered the lemon, so I had to shake a few drops of the juice onto that, too. I can scientifically say that a little lemon juice really is essential.)

And then I ate. Despite being meatless and untouched by such animal products as butter, cream, cheese, broth or stock, it turned out to be a thick, chunky, savory stew with just the right amount of herb flavor (not death, but life by rosemary); exactly enough salt (if not, in a few bites, just a shade too much – and all that was from the prep stage); a good chew on the mushrooms, yellow squash and zucchini; and some tender, bursting-with-flavor morsels of orange bell pepper and celery. Also, the dish was a feast for the eyes, full of bright colors; and speaking of brightness, that squeeze of lemon brought a welcome shine to the top end of the dish, like a soprano note that lightens an otherwise muddy chord.

Regrets, I had a few – but they weren't big ones. The eggplant pieces were softer than I wished, but they hadn't completely mushed out, so I guess that was half a win. Like I said, next time they'll go into the bowl with the squash, and let the carrots hang out by themselves in Bowl 1. The onions and garlic lent flavor, but they pretty much disappeared in the texture – which I guess is fine where garlic is concerned (and may I also mention, I have yet to perfect my garlic peeling technique; that leg of my prep marathon was the slowest and most miserable). But I kind of missed sinking my teeth into the onion pieces; so, maybe Bowl 2 and Bowl 3 should go in at the same time, another day. I definitely need a separate bowl, however, since most of my mise en place bowls are plastic and I didn't fancy washing garlic and onion funk out of a plastic bowl; ceramic for that one.

My final quibble: as I mentioned before, I should have remembered thyme, rather than rosemary; perhaps that would have lent more success to my herb-chopping efforts, such as they were. As it is, the last few bites of my dinner came with big chunks of rosemary that stayed in my mouth no matter how much I chewed, and I had to spit into the kitchen trash multiple times to get them out. Another alternative might be just to throw whole branches of the herb (or herbs) into the stew and fish them out when cooking was over and their purpose was served. A next time there will be, however; just not very soon, because I still have two multi-serving containers of leftovers from this batch cooling in the fridge.

Last word: Prep may have been a pain, but cleanup really wasn't that bad. I used three nesting bowls for the mise en place, plus a ceramic soup mug for the onions and garlic; one wooden cutting board for everything, which fit nicely over one side of the sink so I didn't have to clear counter space for it; a big, heavy, hardened-nonstick pan and its lid for the stewing; a medium-small saucepan for the 10-second boil on those tomatoes, along with a wire scoop to fish them out of the water; one big chopping knife for almost everything; and a paring knife for just a couple things (like de-stemming the tomatoes and peeling the eggplant). Somehow, a wire-mesh strainer got dirtied, though I can't now remember what I needed it for. And a dinner plate.

The star of my armaments was an old, hard-plastic spoon with a metal handle and a hard-plastic grip, which I rescued from my old office when it was being packed up and moved to a new location that doesn't have a kitchen; the kind of thing you can't seem to get anymore, but that ran circles around the bendy plastic stirring spoons, spatulas, etc. that fill most of my kitchen counter tool jug. I used it throughout the preparation of this dish, from stirring the stew to plating to scooping the leftovers into to-go (into the fridge) containers. This is the kitchen tool I've wanted for years and it finally takes a rushed, office-moving, disposing-of-used-kitchen-junk party to bring it to hand. It's an ill wind that blows no good.

Monday, July 18, 2022

The Inevitable Country-Western Song

My pickup was self-drivin',
The latest in A.I.
It hit the road without me,
And never said goodbye.
I'm an old fashioned man
With the new-fangled blues.

My smart home's vital systems
Connected to my phone.
It locked me out one morning
And left me all alone.
I'm an old fashioned man
With the new-fangled blues.

The world keeps getting faster,
And everything is wired.
I'd be a lonesome cowboy,
But robots got me fired.
I've got tech-challenged heartache,
Baby I sure am tired.

My Facebook's all atwitter
With the latest news,
But I'm an old fashioned man
With the new-fangled blues.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Bad Kitty School Daze

Bad Kitty School Daze
by Nick Bruel
Recommended Ages: 9+

Kitty and Puppy are raising too much of a ruckus for a house with a baby in it, so they get sent to an obedience school that is ridiculously (or strangely) like a pre-kindergarten for human pups. Their school day includes a bus ride, art projects, a talent show, storytime and more, all featuring a wacky cast of pets with issues – from the bulldog who hates cats (but believes it when Kitty says "Moo!") to the bunny who craves world domination.

Alternating with informative lessons about the differences between cats and dogs, the story provides laughs, information about pets and maybe a subtle message about getting along with other small humans, perhaps to take the fear out of going to preschool. The art is comic-strip cute with a zest of gross-out humor, surprises, charm and a kid-friendly dose of irony.

This graphic novella is about the eighth book in the long-running "Bad Kitty" series by the picture book author of Boing!, Poor Puppy and many more. This review is based on, believe it or not, an advance reader's edition that I obtained second-hand. Obviously. I mean, the book's been out since about 2013.


I had a break between county-fair-week newspaper assignments this weekend and I decided to use it to go to a movie. I wasn't turned on by Top Gun: Maverick, Thor: Love and Thunder, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, Jurassic World Dominion, Where the Crawdads Sing or Minions: The Rise of Gru. I mean, that's a lot of sequels and fanchise films, with one exception that was just a little too teen-melodramatic for my taste. So I went with what was left, and that was Elvis. It's a biopic about guess who, directed by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) and featuring Tom Hanks as Colonel Parker, Faramir from The Lord of the Rings as old-time Country and Western singer Hank Snow (back before the "and" was replaced with a hyphen), Dracula (from Van Helsing) as Elvis's dad, Anthony LaPaglia as Elvis's tailor, and Austin Butler of The Shannara Chronicles (whom I last saw playing the member of the Manson family who gets his face stomped by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) as the King himself.

Well, clearly it's a very Australian production. But you wouldn't know it to hear the accents. The only person in the movie who doesn't sound all-American is Tom Hanks. Exactly where his character is supposed to be from is hard to tell; apparently the Colonel was a man without a country, and most certainly not from Wheeling, W.V. as he claimed. With the Colonel sporadically narrating, Luhrmann frames the biopic in the context of the relationship between Elvis and his abusive, con-man manager, with a some out-of-chronology callbacks to the superstar's earlier life, collage and montage effects and some weird, dream-like material. It's definitely got style, and it's loaded with music, and it's sadder than all get-out. Most definitely a tragedy, it even takes on (during part of the last act) almost the tone of a horror movie. Like Butler as Elvis as the protagonist in Polidori's The Vampyre, with Hanks as the Colonel as Mr. Ruthven, the monster in human form who drives him to his doom.

Elvis's impressive career is telescoped into four phases – the early part where he exploded onto the music scene and proved so sexy that the authorities wanted to throw him in jail for moistening the panties of too many nice southern girls; the film career (lightly glossed over) after his rehabilitation as a clean-cut American boy, fresh out of the army; his shameful interlude hawking Singer sewing machines and recording Christmas jingles; and the descending slope of his career as a Las Vegas entertainer, when he struggled to break free of the Colonel and found himself completely trapped. This last bit was the ruin of his health, his marriage and (as the film depicts it) his identity as an artist. The movie's depiction of his career is such a downer, despite the glitzy production numbers, that you may end up feeling surprised when one of the title cards at the end informs you that he is the best-selling solo recording artist ever; most of that recording career is left out of the film.

OK, so the movie slices the material a certain way and focuses on the Presley-Parker aspect of the story, which is the kind of thing dramatists do. It's very effective and hits a wide range of feelings along the way, from the excitement and joy of his first public performance of "Hound Dog" to the tear-jerking scene where Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) tries to persuade Elvis to go into treatment. The movie makes Elvis look pretty good, only forcing Butler to wear a fat suit for one scene toward the very end; which is a good marketing strategy, considering that Butler is mostly known for his good-looking sex appeal. (I also remember him playing a short-lived love interest for Thea Queen on Arrow.) From now on, I suspect, he's going to taken seriously as an actor – something, ironically, that Elvis craved but was denied. He may, in fact, end up in line for major awards, like the stars of many other rock star biopics in recent years. What I mostly took away from his performance in this movie is that he can disappear in a role, and throw himself into it with disturbing intensity, and look terrible in a way that cuts you to the heart (as an interesting alternative to just looking good). Also, in a certain light, he looks a little bit like a young Johnny Depp – which could save Hollywood a lot of trouble right about now.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The collage of Elvis's big-band-Vegas-act version of "That's All Right" with his early-career recording of it and his childhood musical-religious ecstasy, a sort of fourth-wall break in which Luhrmann seems to turn toward the audience and go, "Get it? See how far he came?" Or maybe "fell?" (2) The heartbreaking horror sequence, in which Elvis tries to break free of the Colonel, then gets pulled back in. (3) The first moan of the first girl who is whammied by Elvis's jittery stage charisma in that first performance (which also colleges in that childhood experience of his). First time in front of a live audience, it was almost a disaster ... and then he just took off. It was a great moment, and not the last moment of pure fun in the movie, but even that scene carried foreshadowings of things to come. The tragic unities. With tight pants.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Thursdays with the Crown

Thursdays with the Crown
by Jessica Day George
Recommended Ages: 10+

Two princesses, two princes, a family friend and a pet griffin have been transported from their magical castle in the kingdom of Sleyne to an entirely different world, the world where their castle was built and from which it was transported some 400 years ago. They arrive to find a couple of towers where the castle's living magic doesn't respond to them, some ruins, and a poisoned wilderness inhabited mostly by wild griffins. And also, a couple of wizard who are mortal enemies. They come from rival cultures that all but wiped each other out in a war centuries ago, which is more or less why the castle moved to Sleyne. And neither of them is much help to the young people in their quest to get back home.

The longer they stay in the world of Arkower, or maybe it's Hathelocke (depends on whom you ask), the more the kids are convinced that nobody is telling them the truth. Both wizards are pretty much evil. The young royals and their growing retinue of young griffins are in constant danger, being threatened from both sides of a conflict older than their home country. Their adventures take them inside a hollowed-out mountain, into the burial mound of an ancient king, through the skies above a plague-ridden lake and the moment two royal griffin eggs hatch. They make surprising discoveries about each other and themselves, learn the whole horrible story of what happened between the two races of their castle's homeworld, and keep getting in worse and worse danger right up to, if not beyond, the moment they find a way home again. As I noticed with the previous two books in this series, it runs deeper and darker than the cover design would suggest.

To quote a bit from page 107:
"You know," Rolf said, "you read stories when you're little, and you think it would be so amazing to have adventures happen to you. Then you actually go on one, and find out that it's awful. Nothing but bad food, sleeping cold on the hard ground, and treachery."
But there's another side to it. There's the side that shows that magic has a sense of humor, and where, if the right people are involved, beautiful things can happen. The side that's learning to hope that something awesome could come of the growing understanding between Rolf, his sisters Celie and Lilah, their friends Pogue and Lulath, and the griffins. There is a warmth between the castle and Celie in particular. And little surprises, like the fact that seemingly silly Lulath, who is obsessed with fine clothes and tiny dogs, ends up calling his griffin Lorcan the Destroyer, may hint at character growth that will be interesting to follow in subsequent books. It's a fantasy concept that started simple (what if there was a magic castle) and continues, after three books, to branch out in unexpected directions.

This is the third "Castle Glower" book, following Tuesdays at the Castle and Wednesdays in the Tower. The series continues with Fridays with the Wizards and Saturdays at Sea. Jessica Day George is also the author of the "Dragon Slippers," "Rose Legacy" and "Princess of the Midnight Ball" trilogies, as well as the novels Silver in the Blood and Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow.

Ghoulish Song

Ghoulish Song
by William Alexander
Recommended Ages: 10+

Kaile lives on the poorer, south side of the river the cuts the magical city of Zombay in half. Her parents run a bakery; her younger brother deserves the nickname Snotfish; and her late grandfather was one of the musicians who played every day on the Fiddleway, the bridge that links the two halves of the city. He taught her to play, and he claimed his music helped keep the bridge from falling apart. But that's the farthest thing from her mind one disastrous day when she risks her mother's displeasure, and worse, by showing kindness to a troupe of goblin minstrels. One of them thanks her by giving her a flute carved from bone, which will only let her play one tune on it; and the first time she plays it, her shadow separates from her.

I realize that whenever that happens to you or me, lighthearted hijinks ensue. But in Zombay, not having a shadow means you're dead. Despite her protests, Kaile is declared dead. Her family holds a funeral for her. She is driven out of their home. No one will look at her, talk to her, shelter her, or help her. It could be worse. In the old days, they used to cut up people suspected of being the unquiet dead, or ghouls, and bury pieces of them in separate graves. At various points in her adventures, Kaile meets one person who is willing to maroon her on a haunted island that could flood at any moment, and another who very politely tries to push her into a furnace. So, having a shadow that doesn't stick to your heels isn't as much fun as you'd expect.

Shade, as Kaile calls her shadow, can suddenly talk to her; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, Kaile can suddenly hear her voice. Despite the understandable tension between them – Shade has a lot of reasons to resent being Kaile's shadow – they have to stick close to each other if they ever hope to, er, stick together again. Meanwhile, a flood is threatening to wash out the Fiddleway, and something is wrong with music on the bridge. Kaile tries out to be an official musician, but that doesn't go her way, either. Before she can save herself, she (and her shadow) will have to save her family, her city and everyone who has turned their backs on her.

I'm amazed that forgiveness isn't a more explicit theme in this book, considering that a lot rides on Kaile pulling off heroics on behalf of people who have rejected her – which is to say, pretty much everybody. But being honest with oneself is a big theme; taking responsibility for one's own faults, and not taking for granted any of the blessings in one's life. Zombay is an eerie, strange place with ghouls, goblins, men who have replaced some of their body parts with gear-work, people who trade in ghastly goods, and a river haunted by terrifying spirits that become increasingly restless as the floods draw near. Knowing, too, that the author is a descendant of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the U.S., I wonder if there's any significance in his decision to design Zombay with a wealthy Northside (north of the river) and a shabby, working-class Southside. But really, the magic seems to flow with the river itself, under the Fiddleway, along the floating market, the focal point of so many other colorful details and imagination-grabbing ideas. It's a rich place to visit, stirring up a variety of emotions and provoking bendy streams of thought.

This is a companion to the book Goblin Secrets, by the author of A Properly Unhaunted Place, A Festival of Ghosts, Ambassador and Nomad. Try not to confuse this William Alexander with a couple other authors by the same name.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Strange New Worlds, Season 1

My reviews of seasons of different Star Trek series have tended to be based on DVD-watching binges months or years after the episodes were first broadcast. It gives me a little tingle to reflect that this is my first time covering a season of Trek immediately after the season finale aired. Just watched it today on Paramount+, and with that I might just cancel my subscription unless the streaming service hurries up and says, like, "We'll be airing Season 2 starting in two weeks" or maybe, "Tune in for the next 10 Thursdays for the second half of Prodigy Season 1."

Arguably a spinoff of Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 – or, as some fans prefer to think of it, the real follow-up to the original Star Trek pilot of 1965, "The Cage" – SNW features the Starship Enterprise (registry no. NCC 1701) before it was captained by James T. Kirk. Its captain is currently Christopher Pike, originally played by Jeffrey Hunter (Jesus in King of Kings), later by Bruce Greenwood in the Kelvin timeline films, and now played by Anson Mount (late of Hell on Wheels). First officer is Commander Una Chin-Riley, a.k.a. "Number One," originally played by Majel Barrett (a.k.a. the original Nurse Christine Chapel, Lwaxana Troi and the voice of the Enterprise computer on Star Trek: The Next Generation), who happened to be married to Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and here played by Rebecca Romijn (Mystique in the X-Men films and Eve on The Librarians), who happens to be married to Trek cast member Jerry O'Connell (Ransom on Lower Decks). And the science officer is, of course, the half-Vulcan, half-Human Mr. (Lt.) Spock, previously played by Leonard Nimoy from "The Cage" on through 2009's feature film reboot, as well as Zachary Quinto (late of Heroes) in the Kelvin timeline movies. Here, he is played by Ethan Peck, the grandson of Gregory, who starred in the teen TV series 10 Things I Hate About You and played Kelso in childhood flashback scenes of That '70s Show. What we know about these characters going in, or find out during this season, is that Pike struggles with foreknowledge of his awful fate in a reactor explosion, less than a decade in the future; Number One has a secret that's going to bite her on the butt sooner or later; and Spock hasn't fully committed yet to purging his emotions and is a bit insecure about where he fits in either Vulcan or human society.

In the sickbay we find Nurse Chapel, played in this case by Australian model/actress Jess Bush, as initially a civilian doing genetic research who develops a tragic crush on the emotionally unavailable, and also engaged-to-be-married, Lt. Spock (his fiancee, T'Pring, is played on multiple appearances by Gia Sandhu). Meanwhile, the chief medical officer is Dr. Joseph M'Benga, who appeared in two TOS episodes played by Booker Bradshaw and is now played by Nigerian-born actor Babs Olusanmokun. His little secret, up to a certain point, is the terminally ill daughter, Rukiya, played by recurring guest Sage Arrindell, whom the doc keeps in the medical transporter to slow the progress of her disease.

Up on the bridge is Cadet Nyota Uhura, with Celia Rose Gooding playing a younger version of TOS's communications officer (originally played by a racial boundaries breaking Nichelle Nichols, and later by Zoë Saldana). Best known for playing Frankie in the Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill, she plays a younger Uhura who isn't sure she's cut out for Starfleet, but doesn't know what else to do with herself and her linguistic genius. Then (moving from left to right) is security officer and third-in-command Lt. La'an Noonien Singh, a descendent of genetically augmented war criminal Khan, who at this point was last heard of in the late 20th or early 21st century and was one of the reasons the Federation has a thing against being genetically modified. She's played by English actress Christina Chong, who once appeared on Doctor Who and also starred in the British police procedural series Line of Duty. Her main character notes include being all-business and fanatical about security, and harboring childhood trauma from surviving a colony that was destroyed by the reptilian Gorn.

At the helm is hot dog pilot Erica Ortegas, played by Colombian-born actress Melissa Navia as a high-spirited, wise-cracking junior officer with no other specific character notes other than a broad suggestion of butchness. Playing the ship's chief engineer, Hemmer, and a member of the Andorian subspecies known as the Aenar (cf. Enterprise Season 4), is vision-impaired actor Bruce Horak. A gruff father figure, particularly to Uhura, his character was designed with a built-in exit hatch, as this SPOILER review will point out in due time. He's the guy with the funky face ridges, antennae, albino-pale skin and filmy eyes, who compensates for his blindness with other senses that humans don't have, including a bit of telepathy and prescience. He actually doesn't appear in that many episodes, and there's a big question mark about whether he'll return for Season 2, but despite not being developed very much, his character showed promise this season.

Other significant recurring or guest characters include Adrian Holmes (19-2, Red Riding Hood) as Admiral Robert April, Pike's predecessor as captain of the Enterprise; Dan Jeannotte (Good Witch, Reign) as Lt. Sam Kirk (James T.'s older brother, a life sciences officer); Paul Wesley (The Vampire Diaries) as Capt. James T. Kirk; and André Dae Kim (Degrassi: The Next Generation) as a baby-faced Transporter Chief Kyle.

So, here's a quick run-down of this 10-episode season, which (thank the Great Bird of the Galaxy) aren't one big serialized story arc but actually 10 free-standing episodes. In the self-titled episode Strange New Worlds, April recalls Pike from a leave, during which the captain is reconsidering his entire career, to rescue Una from a first contact mission gone horribly wrong. The episode deftly introduces all the main characters (except Hemmer, who is barely glimpsed) and preaches a sermon about conflict threatening to destroy a world before it's ready to turn toward the stars. Children of the Comet faces the Enterprise with an ancient comet, or maybe it isn't a comet so much, that appears to be on a deadly collision course with a pre-warp planet. The trouble is, anything they do to try to stop the collision riles a spacefaring alien cult that calls themselves "Shepherds" and that consider the comet, or whatever, to be holy. The episode focuses on Uhura's unique abilities and gives credit to the possibility of something like divine intervention.

Ghosts of Illyria explores an abandoned colony of a race that practiced genetic modification, which is verboten in the Federation. It also reveals what Una's secret is (just guess). Memento Mori is about the Enterprise's cat-and-mouse chase with a Gorn ship, a superbly suspenseful episode that unearths some of La'an's buried memories. Spock Amok is a romantic comedy romp in which Spock and T'Pring perform a ritual to get to know each other better, and inadvertently switch bodies. It also starts the clock on Christine's slow-burning attraction to Spock. Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach is the episode where Pike helps ensure that a child, designated as the "First Servant" of his world, makes it to his "ascension" to what turns out not to be so much a throne as a torture device that will drain his lifeforce to power a levitating city.

The Serene Squall takes its name from a pirate ship that attacks the Enterprise, but the entire affair turns out to be a ruse to blackmail T'Pring (who runs a logic restoration center for Vulcan criminals) into giving up one of her inmates – hinted to be a certain seldom-mentioned half-brother of Spock's. (Cf. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.) The Elysian Kingdom is the one where Dr. M'Benga steps onto the bridge and finds himself in the world described in the fantasy novel he has been reading and re-reading to his daughter. There turns out to be one of those incorporeal entities behind it, offering Rukiya an alternative to spending what's left of her life in the transporter buffer. All Those Who Wander is the season's horror episode, taking place on an Enterprise-like ship that has crashed and become a hatching ground for baby Gorns. They're kind of like a mash-up of Predator and Alien, with heat vision and that whole "bursting out of people's chests" thing, and let me just say, not all of the main characters make it out of this one alive.

The season concludes with A Quality of Mercy, in which Pike spots an opportunity to save the life of a future Starfleet cadet who is destined to die in the accident that will leave him (Pike) paralyzed and deformed. As he's contemplating what to do about it, a future version of himself materializes, offering a bizarro It's a Wonderful Life opportunity to see what the world will be like if he doesn't take it on the chin. The episode reenacts TOS Season 1's "Balance of Terror," only with Pike in the captain's chair instead of Kirk, and because of who he is in contrast to Kirk, the result is what future-Pike calls "end of the world stuff."

It's kind of an odd way to bring Pike and Kirk together, and looked at from a certain angle it might be interpreted as saying Kirk would be a better captain than Pike – an odd position to take in a series in which Pike is the hero. Really, the lesson (for Pike at least) is that you can't mess with the timeline. And the dreadful reality, from his point of view, is that he and the cadets involved in the accident are just going to have to go through it, despite what he knows about what will happen. You could say his situation parallels that of the Romulan commander in this episode, as far as facing-up-to-an-incredibly-grim-duty goes. Just imagine the strength it would take to do that, especially with nearly a decade for his imagination to play with it. Ouch.

My overall judgment is that this is an almost blameless Star Trek series. Every episode was excellent, and the season as a whole was terrific, with satisfying story shapes, well-written dialogue, fine acting and beautiful production values. It consistently succeeded in all the ways the latest crop of live-action Trek series has failed and failed and failed again. I'd only quibble about a few things. First, "Woke Trek" stole a few of its patented "rubbing the audience's noses in radical gender politics" marches, which seems inescapable but at least was done with a little more subtlety and not in such a way that it stalled the momentum of the storyline. Second, the show purposely burned up at least one of its main characters without really even trying to fulfill all of their potential; only a hint dropped by the actor in an interview, suggesting that his Trek career may not be over, mitigates this sense of waste. And finally, there are some cute things the show tries to get away with, like suggesting that the Gorn (a cold-blooded species with practically nothing in common with humanoid lifeforms) communicate in a Morse Code-like replacement cipher based, apparently, on the English language. For just one example.

Nevertheless, I'm happy to report that I'd have a hard time coming up with Three Scenes That Made It For Me without just going with the first three that randomly come to mind: (1) In "Spock Amok," Spock and his betrothed explain to Pike that they've switched bodies and T'Pring (in Spock's voice) adds, "You can likely tell the very clear differences between our mannerisms," to which Pike deadpans, "Yeah, totally." (2) The game of brown dwarf chicken with a Gorn ship in "Memento Mori." (3) Pike screaming "Stand down!" at Erica in "A Quality of Mercy," a tipping-point moment when it becomes heartbreakingly evident that he's the wrong captain at the wrong time. Don't mess with the timeline, kids!

Of course, I could have made a lot of different choices. They're coming at my brain already, so I'd better cut this short.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

A Festival of Ghosts

A Festival of Ghosts
by William Alexander
Recommended Ages: 11+

On the second page of this book, hero girl Rosa looks down from a great height (and she hates heights), and the author tells us, "Her heart grabbed both lungs to steady itself." It was just about the fastest a book has gotten a belly laugh out of me, and I think it's also a good example of the type of writing William Alexander does – always keen to find an original and colorful way to say something when the average author would probably settle for the same-old, same-old. I noticed it in a previous book in which Rosa was repeatedly described as saying nothing, loudly. Part of it goes toward vividly depicting his main character with her offbeat charisma. Rosa is a disruptive character, in a sense that some people (like her friend Jasper) recognize her as having a positive influence on her community, but others (like the hostile Talcott family) blame her for everything that has gone wrong since Rosa and her mother moved to the town of Ingot.

Before the Diazes arrived, Ingot was widely known as the least haunted place in the country. Athena Diaz is a librarian, which is to say, an appeasement specialist, dedicated to quieting the unquiet dead and the restless memories that cling to places, books, people and things. But there's another school of thought about how to deal with ghosts, called banishment – only, it doesn't work long-term, and when it backfires, the fallout can be deadly. This is what almost happened to Ingot soon after the Diazes arrived, and although Rosa and Jasper managed to save everyone's lives, things haven't settled down since then, and now both the living and the dead are restless.

One of the issues at stake is the fate of the town's Renaissance festival, which gave a purpose and a made-up sort of history to the town when it didn't seem to have one of its own. But the festival grounds have become a battleground now, with memories of the reenactors taking ghostly form (even when the people in question are still alive) on one side, and the long-banished spirits of the town's copper miners taking the other. Meanwhile, at the town school, spiritual disturbances somehow connected to Ingot's tragic, early history are stealing the voices from students and teachers alike. These problems add a weight of responsibility to Jasper and Rosa that no kid their age should have to bear, but it's specially theirs because, in the first place, Jasper has quickly grown to become the town's first-ever ghost horse whisperer and, in the second place, the root of much of the evil going on in town has a personal connection to Rosa.

It isn't all spookiness and horror, though. I mean, there's plenty of that, despite the fact that Rosa and Athena's worldview makes ghostly hauntings a lot less scary than you'd expect. Except when they aren't, which is what makes it a story. Some of these ghosts are understandably pissed, and at least one of them is sickeningly mean, but dealing with them isn't about slaying them or banishing them; it's more about negotiating with them and giving them something they want. And when you dig down to the root of Ingot's problem's, naturally, there's somebody very much alive behind it all, and what they're doing is the most chilling thing in the whole book. But again, let me stress that there's also whimsical magic, lighthearted fun and wamrth in this book, with characters who grow, surprises and thought-provoking solutions to mind-blowing problems.

This is a sequel to A Properly Unhaunted Place. William Alexander either teaches in the Twin Cities or at the University of Vermont. I've been given conflicting information about this, although I've sensed a certain influence of the Twin Cities on his writing (such as the weather term "snizzle," which was coined by a local TV meteorologist there). Anyway, he is also the author of Goblin Secrets, Ghoulish Song, Ambassador and Nomad.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

The Gargoyle at the Gates

The Gargoyle at the Gates
by Philippa Dowding
Recommended Ages: 10+

Toronto's two living gargoyles, Gargoth and Ambergine, have been happily reunited and now divide their time, mostly, between the rooftop of Candles by Daye (Cassandra's New Age gift shop) and the small, gated park across the street. Their young friend Katherine still visits several times a week, and a new boy-next-door called Christopher becomes a new friend. All would be well, except The Collector is still hanging around, watching and waiting for his chance to recapture Gargoth, whom he considers his private property.

It's a disturbing case of evil obsession, and it brings our kind-hearted, winged friends into their direst danger yet. It almost seems like it could be the end of two living works of art who have already endured so much during the past 400 years. Meanwhile, however, they have friends they don't even know about, and one of them is closer than you'd expect. For on the other side of Toronto lives a teenager who's just gotten to know his estranged grandfather and the strange creatures that live in his English garden. Maybe Gargoth and Ambergine aren't so alone after all. And maybe there's a safe place in the world for beings like them.

This is the third installment in the "Lost Dragon" trilogy, an early series by Canadian author Philippa Dowding that is unaccountably rare and hard to find. Despite being very compact, it's a sweet and emotionally touching story with a unique magic and multiple plot threads in play. Having previously read nothing else by Dowding but Everton Miles Is Stranger Than Me, I find my interest in her work rejuvenated after zipping through this series. Again, she is also the author of Firefly, Oculum, Oculum Echo (coming in October 2022), The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden and the six "Weird Stories Gone Wrong," including Jake and the Giant Hand, Myles and the Monster Outside, Carter and the Curious Maze, Alex and the Other, Blackwells and the Briny Deep and Quinn and the Quiet, Quiet.

Saturday, July 2, 2022

The Gargoyle Overhead

The Gargoyle Overhead
by Philippa Dowding
Recommended Ages: 10+

Katherine has a gargoyle living in her Toronto backyard. His name is Gargoth; he's over 400 years old; and although he tends to be grouchy and rude, he has a tender heart that yearns for the only other living gargoyle he knows: Ambergine, who was separated from him for 148 years and with whom he had only briefly reunited before they were separated again.

Katherine and her grown-up friend, Cassandra, are determined to help the gargoyles get back together. For example, Cassandra lets Gargoth set up a candle-lit beacon on the roof of her New Age knick-knack shop. As for Ambergine, she knows how to fly (unlike Gargoth) and uses that ability to search for him from the night sky. It seems like it should take no time for the two lonely hearts to find each other. But someone else is trying to find them, and he's Gargoth's worst enemy, the reason for half the years the gargoyles have been kept apart. Chillingly known as The Collector, he's always a step away from recapturing Gargoyle – and when Katherine, Cassandra and Ambergine mount a desperate rescue, that proves to be a trap as well.

For such a thin book (only 148 pages, including the "about the author" blurb) this story packs in a lot: Magic and wonder, suspense and action, hilarity and touching sorrow, and interspersed between present-day chapters, the moving story of Gargoth's long and often lonely life. He tells Katherine and Cassandra about his first friendship with a human, their adventures together, how he met Ambergine, and what brought them to the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris on the night he was first captured. He keeps to himself a few not altogether tragic chapters that followed, and it is Ambergine who relates Gargoth's first rescue from The Collector. Put it all together and you have an all but epic tale of a magical creature's long life, up to the present, and every page of it touches the reader's feelings in one way or another.

This is the second book in the "Lost Gargoyle" trilogy that kicked off Canadian author Philippa Dowding's career; the other installments are The Gargoyle in My Yard and The Gargoyle at the Gates. Dowding is also the author of Firefly, Oculum, the "Nightflyers Handbook" duology and the "Weird Stories Gone Wrong" sextet. While her other titles are more widely distributed, you may have to browse used booksellers to find reasonably priced copies of this trilogy. It's worth shopping around for.