Sunday, October 1, 2023

Lines for Sherlock and Watson

(Interior, evening.)

SHERLOCK: Watson ...

WATSON: Yes, Holmes?

SHERLOCK: There's something I've been meaning to tell you about myself.

WATSON: Indeed, Holmes?

SHERLOCK: (Sighing) It's just that we've been close associates for so many years, and I'm ashamed to say, I never had the nerve to bring it up.

WATSON: What is it, Holmes?

SHERLOCK: Attend to me, Watson.

WATSON: I'm all ears, Holmes.

SHERLOCK: It's just that ... my name is pronounced "Homes," with a silent L.

(long silence)

SHERLOCK: Well? Watson?

WATSON: You think you know a man ...

Monday, September 25, 2023

Golda

I wanted to see this movie as soon as I saw a trailer for it, and I decided to see it on Sunday because that's when the local movie house has a matinee. I'm not sure whether the word "ironically" applies, but funnily enough, it happened to be Yom Kippur, or a couple hours short of it (it started at sunset; the matinee was at 4 p.m.) and, don'tchaknow, the movie portrays Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir's handling of the Yom Kippur War, about this time 50 years ago.

Helen Mirren has the lead role, expertly portraying a grandma who led her country through a crisis regarding its very survival, who remained outwardly calm (mostly) while imploding inwardly under the pressure. Another remarkable thing about the lady, as this movie portrays her, is that she took the heat for bad decisions other people made behind her back, in order to protect her nation's interests such as a secret eavesdropping system and the ability to manipulate Henry Kissinger into sending vital material support.

I don't know from the other members of the cast except Liev Schreiber, who inhabits Kissinger. I do know some of the other characters in the movie by name, such as Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon, but it looks like a lot of the cast is Israeli and that's all right with me. I was also interested by the fact that the camera-facing characters all speak English while the radio chatter and news footage is all in Hebrew, subtitled, a compromise between reality and the fact that this movie was made for American audiences. Another intriguing thing is the movie's use of historic footage, including the originals as themselves – from Nixon, Carter and Sadat, who are otherwise not portrayed in the movie, to Kissinger and Meir themselves. It's neat to see that the movie isn't abashed by the differences in looks between the real Golda and the actress playing her.

I must make haste to deliver the Three Scenes That Made It For Me, and get outta here. (1) The phone call during which Golda scares the daylights out of Kissinger. Frail as she was at times – the movie also graphically depicts the toll the war took on her nerves, not to mention her lungs – she was one tough lady. (2) "Arik" Sharon stealing a slice of cake before he leaves Golda's house. (3) The beginning of the closing credits, in which (music nerd that I am) I recognized a string arrangement of Dido's Lament, from Henry Purcell's baroque-era opera, Dido and Aeneas. The original words to that melody are very appropriate given the movie's ending: "When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast. Remember me, but ah! forget my fate!"

One bonus observation about this movie: Apparently, the key to bringing the historical era of 1973 to life on film is to have someone lighting a cigarette in practically every shot. This movie makes it a major visual and audible theme, yet somehow without glamorizing it. Golda lights countless cigarettes during this movie; the sound of her lighter striking fire, the plumes of smoke, cigarettes in various stages of being smoked, ashtrays overflowing with crushed butts, are all but constantly in the frame or the soundtrack thereof. Once, Golda actually uses an ashtray to gavel a meeting to order. The cost of all this smoking also comes into the tale, figuring in it right up to the last scene.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Big Game

Big Game
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 11+

Teddy Fitzroy has somehow not gotten kicked out of FunJungle yet, despite his previous investigations uncovering skullduggery afoot at the Texas zoo/theme park where his parents work. He's been menaced by poisonous snakes, sharks and some dangeours crooks, to say nothing of a security guard who is just looking for a reason to bust him. Then one day, he goes home from school and finds out his house is missing.

OK, that isn't the mystery he has to solve in this book. It's just a minor irritation for a family that includes an ape biologist mom and a wildlife photographer dad. It turns out, having to relocate their trailer is the least of the family's challenges when mom suffers a leg injury, and said security guard is sure Teddy is responsible for a series of break-ins, and someone with a high-powered rifle is taking shots at a pregnant rhino.

The zoo's owner, zillionaire J.J. McCracken, actually blackmails Teddy into investigating the rhino case behind his parents' backs, which is a nice change from being warned to keep his nose out of things. But chasing the would-be rhino poacher makes Teddy uncomfortably aware of how critically endangered the animals are, thanks to a black market in rhino horns driven by demand for an unscientific folk remedy. And then there's the discomfort of being caught between his school's head cheerleader, who likes him, and J.J. McCracken's daughter Summer, whom he likes, and who are both caught up in the investigation with him.

Before it's over, the kids will encounter a shadowy gunperson and various species of more or less dangerous animals. And as always, everything will depend on whether Teddy can spot the crucial detail on time.

This is the third of eight FunJungle books, following Belly Up and Poached and followed directly by Panda-monium. Besides this series, Stuart Gibbs has also written some 25 other books for young readers, featuring brilliant but relatable kids having thrilling but hilarious adventures.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Space Case

Space Case
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 11+

The year is sometime after 2040, and among the 20-or-so residents of mankind's first non-terrestrial colony – Moon Base Alpha – are Dashiell Gibson, age 12, his little sister Violet, and their scientist parents. As Dash narrates it, living on the moon was sold as a spectacular adventure, but actually it's pretty lame. The inflatable furniture makes farting noises when you sit on it. The toilets suck, literally – especially when they don't. The dehydrated, rehydrated food is 50 shades of lousy. And there isn't much for an active, Hawaii surfer kid to do, when the only other kid his age always has his head inside a virtual reality game and the next nearest, potential playmates are mostly bullies. But Dash's discontent takes on a new dimension when he sort-of, kind-of witnesses mankind's first murder on the moon.

It isn't so much that he saw the crime happen. But Dash is the first person to guess that Dr. Holtz may have been murdered, when he turns up dead outside the base's main airlock after taking a solo lunar walk in the early hours of the morning. Something about it doesn't jive for Dash, who had only a few hours earlier overheard Dr. Holtz excitedly discussing a new discovery that he was about to announce to everybody. But the base commander has strictly forbidden Dash to discuss or investigate his theory, insisting that Holtz's demise was a tragic accident.

Nevertheless, investigate he does, encouraged by a couple of new arrivals on board the base's supply rocket. One of them is a girl his age who shows signs of making the rest of Dash's time on the moon much more fun. Another is a technician who is just as interested as Dash in finding answers – but secretly. Meanwhile, someone has sent Dash a mysterious warning to drop it, or else. With evidence drawing them closer to the identity of the killer, Dash and friends can hardly stop now – especially with the next rocket back to earth potentially carrying a killer to freedom. Or worse, leaving him or her on the base for at least another month.

This is the first of three Moon Base Alpha books for kids. Stuart Gibbs, who happens to have children named Dashiell and Violet, is also the author of the fun, kid-friendly FunJungle, Last Musketeer, Spy School, Charlie Thorne and Once Upon a Tim series. Further titles in this trilogy are Spaced Out and Waste of Space. It's a fun adventure, with an attitude and sense of humor that will appeal to young readers, as well as some thrills, scares, intertwining character conflicts and a mind-blowing secret revealed at the very end. I look forward to following this series further.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Jules

This week's Sunday matinee for me wasn't in quite an empty theater; at least three or four other people enjoyed it with me, and I do say "enjoyed" without fear of contradiction. The movie is directed by Marc Turtletaub, whose previous directing credits are amazingly sparse compared to the number of movies on which he is credited as a producer. It stars Ben Kingsley as an aging resident of a small Pennsylvania city who is starting to get a bit forgetful. He stands up at the city council meeting every week to make the same comments. He occasionally does bizarre things, like leaving the newspaper in the freezer or a can of green beans in his medicine cabinet. He gets impatient when his daughter hints that his mind might be slipping and maybe he should go into assisted living. And then, just to bring her concern onto the front burner, he starts talking about a spaceship crashing in his backyard and an alien (not the illegal kind) crashing on his couch.

Two older ladies are in on the secret, played by Jane Curtin and Harriet Sansom Harris. They don't agree on what to call the alien; one dubs him Gary, the other Jules. The little blue fellow, who somehow doesn't look naked despite not wearing any clothing (until the ladies fit him with some tacky T-shirts), has expressive eyes and repeatedly draws kitty cats, but otherwise doesn't communicate much. But while he (or she, or whatever) tries to repair his spacecraft, the Men in Black are getting closer to discovering where the UFO went down.

Despite an itty bitty incident involving somebody's head exploding, it's mostly a gentle, low-tension movie that, I increasingly felt as I watched it, is more about aging and the onset of dementia than E.T. What little you learn about Jules (or Gary) is ambiguous and/or completely daft, like what he needs to restore power to his ship (my lips are sealed) and to what degree he understands what Milton and his lady friends are saying to him. They open up to him, though, and pour our their hearts in a touching way. He ends up making Milton an offer to which the old guy's response suddenly becomes the heart of the movie, what it's all about.

It's a funny enough movie that I heard myself bark with laughter several times. It's a gentle, tender movie that moved my emotions. It's a thinking movie that will leave you feeling and pondering things related to getting old and forgetful. It's a low-key movie whose taste lingers on the palate. And it's a movie whose final scene could stir conversation and debate – like, what does it mean?

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Sandy (Harris) pours out her soul to Jules, getting choked up about how she's been cut out of her daughter's life. (2) Joyce (Curtin) sings a song for Gary (as she calls him), taking a trip down memory lane to her big-city days in Pittsburgh, while he telepathically intervenes in a crisis Sandy is having at home. It's the deepest this movie descends into horror – and afterward, the way Jules glances back over his shoulder at the elder trio when they agree to be on his side since he's on theirs, is the strongest evidence throughout the movie that he understands when they talk to him. (3) How the three elder humans realize they've landed on earth after a brief ride in Jules's ship.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

The Hill

This past Sunday, I was the sole audience member of a matinee showing of this movie, which I've wanted to see since the first time I watched a trailer for it. It's a sports movie, which (if you've been following this blog for any length of time) you probably know means it made me cry. It's just something I've known about myself since way back in Field of Dreams. It's also, supposedly, based on the true story of a certain Ricky Hill, who overcame a degenerative spinal condition to play minor league baseball for about the latter half of the 1970s, despite also having a bad ankle injury only weeks before MLB tryouts, to say nothing of a preacher father who was anything but supportive of his baseball dreams.

The movie features Colin Ford (We Bought a Zoo, Canadian TV's Daybreak) in a role that, I feel, should do for his career what October Sky did for Jake Gyllenhaal all those years ago. What those roles have in common, for example, is how nicely each showcases its young star's soulful gaze. Their all but hopeless hope goes right to your heart, and if big-time casting directors don't take notice, they must not be going to the movies much.

Also in it are Dennis Quaid as the Bible-thumping but not altogether unsympathetic dad (he makes a heroic attempt to steal the show toward the end, when he confesses his arrogance to the members of his small, salt-of-the-earth congregation); Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard, etc.) as the grandma who don't take no nonsense from her son-in-law, and who gets an emotional death scene; Joelle Carter (Justified) as the minister's mostly loyal and longsuffering wife (just wait till she tells him off!), a dry-aged Scott Glenn as an MLB scout, country singer Randy Houser as a supporter of young Ricky's aspirations, singer Siena Bjornerud as Ricky's love interest, and the actual Ricky Hill in a small role.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) James Hill (the dad) takes Ricky's older brother, Robert, out back to give him a whuppin', then has a crisis of conscience and sends the kid back inside. The kid is so shocked, he almost insists on being whupped. (2) James's tearful confession to the members of his flock who are missing Ricky's big game (you know, the one where he D.H.es for both teams and gets a hit in 11 straight at-bats), explaining why he has proudly never seen his son play baseball and why he now realizes he was wrong. (3) Naturally, Ricky's big tryout, when he basically bullies Glenn's MLB scout into letting him bat in the exhibition game and then refuses to cave when he's basically told he should just give up and go home. It was actually the practice scene where Ricky hits 16 home runs in a row (dropping the balls right next to Glenn in the adjoining stadium) where my emotions really peaked.

Man, that kid had guts. The real kid, mind you. A postscript to the movie gives you the good, mediocre and sad news, in order: the boy got the girl (James married them at home plate); he was drafted into the Montreal Expos farm system (so, not quite major league); and after his spine went out, he never played baseball again (but he does coach Little League and work as a golf instructor). So, his dreams only came true up to a certain point. But he's still kicking, and that makes the viewer's feelings so much more interesting as he walks out of this movie.

Tears of Pearl

Tears of Pearl
by Tasha Alexander
Recommended Ages: 13+

Lady Emily has just become Mrs. Colin Hargreaves, and for their honeymoon, they've traveled to Constantinople. Mysterious stuff starts happening before they even arrive, however. First a gentleman on their train barely survives an overdose of sleep medicine. Then, during a night at the opera in the Sultan's private theater, a concubine is strangled to death in a nearby courtyard and proves to be the aforementioned gentleman's daughter, kidnapped when she was a child. The old gent, who works at the British Embassy, is showing signs of slipping mentally, and his estranged son seems to be up to some kind of mischief, and as far as Emily can find out – I mean, obviously, she's going to investigate, right? – the young woman's murder is tied up in harem intrigue, and meanwhile another concubine imposes on Lady Emily's social conscience in an appeal for help to escape from the seraglio.

Working alongside her intelligence-agent husband, Emily penetrates the strange and exotic world of eunuchs and concubines. She bathes in the hammam. She stumbles socially in an unimaginably remote culture where women are all at once captives and yet more free than their English counterparts, slaves and yet powerful, and where jealousies, illicit affairs and treasonous plots fester despite the walls having countless eyes and ears. The scenery and architecture are gorgeous, the food is incredible, the clothing and jewelry are exquisite, and the leading concubines move with grace, all while an undercurrent of brutal savagery flows not too deep below the surface.

Meanwhile, as Emily struggles to piece clues together, she is hampered by her own frailties and fears – fear for her friend Ivy back home, whose pregnancy has a matter of grave concern; fear that she herself may be with child, a thing she has dreaded since childhood when she heard the screams of an aunt dying in childbirth. And it certainly doesn't help that a high-ranking concubine, known for her gift of prophecy, has given Emily a dire omen of her future.

As Emily moves from one palace and harem to another, in and out of favor with the Sultan, learning something new with each visit, the circuit of luxurious settings grows increasingly, and paradoxically, claustrophobic. An oppressive sense of doom lowers over her like a storm cloud, doing justice to this book's designation as "a novel of suspense." Her rare (for a Westerner) peek into the unique, inner circles of the declining Ottoman Empire reveals both fabulous opulence and morbid rottenness. And when the solution clicks – you'll definitely feel it – Emily's genius, daring, foolishness and vulnerability combine to put her in breathtaking danger.

This is the fourth Lady Emily mystery. Coming next is Dangerous to Know, with subsequent titles including (but not limited to) Behind the Shattered Glass, Uneasy Lies the Crown and a soon-to-be-released 17th novel, A Cold Highland Wind.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Musings of a Minnesota Farm Boy

Musings of a Minnesota Farm Boy
by David Alton Johnson
Recommended Ages: 10+

Enclosed with my copy of this book is a cover letter from the author, under a Washington state return address, dated March of 2020 and addressed to the editor of the newspaper where I'm a reporter. Clearly, the book was handed to me – or maybe I saved it from being tossed out; I don't recall. Although the book comprises reminiscences of a "Leave It to Beaver"-like childhood on a Minnesota farm, and even mentions family names that vaguely ring a bell, it nowhere makes clear exactly how local to our coverage area its setting is, and for sure the author isn't local. So, it isn't the kind of thing that we would cover in our hyper-local, small-town weekly. Nevertheless, I've held onto it, and I finally read it today during a Labor Day book binge on my parents' deck.

The thing that comes across in this loosely connected, 58-page series of memoirs is the author's belief that his time and manner of growing up were golden. His nostalgia has a warmth that the reader can feel. However, and this is a big "however," there is no connected narrative here. A few brief stories, including accounts of some youthful, near-death experiences justifying Johnson's boyhood nickname of "cat" (nine lives, you know). Some snippets of scene dressing for a stage on which nothing much happens. The vignettes, sometimes less than a page long, leave one with a sense of wistfulness, not so much because one shares in the nostalgia, but because one wishes Johnson had taken them further, unpacked them a bit, mused on them more deeply. He frequently draws the same conclusions at the end of his snippets, like how kids got along just fine without screens and social media, and that gives the book as a whole a certain repetitiveness that it could have done without, given its low word count. Even a little fiction might have done a lot to impress this story – forgive me, this book – on one's long-term memory. I feel as if I've come into possession of a memoir that belongs in somebody's family album or scrapbook, to be brought out every decade or so for a family reunion, or used as a primary source for an author planning a well-researched, period novel.

For what it's worth, I don't know much else about David Alton Johnson, other than the return address on his cover letter and the date range of his first 10 years, before his family moved out west. I searched the internet and the most relevant result I got was an obituary for a much younger man by the same name, hopefully not someone whose passing brought grief to this book's author. If you're still out there, David, and this review finds its way to you, let me encourage you to open up a bit more and, perhaps, expand your storytelling beyond a few disconnected scenes.

Poached

Poached
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 11+

Teddy Fitzroy lives at a wildlife theme park in Texas with his parents, who work there. Known for pulling pranks, he's often in trouble at FunJungle, even while he's mercilessly bullied at school. Being friends with the daughter of the park's richie-rich owner doesn't save him from big trouble when his two worlds cross, and his personal bully comes to the park and forces him to commit a truly tasteless prank. Nor does his track record of solving the murder of a hippo keep him from becoming Suspect No. 1 when a koala on loan from Australia goes missing.

The embarrassing thing, for the park, is that the koala-napping wasn't even detected until the next day, thanks to a stuffed toy koala that the thief left in its enclosure. But as funny as that is, Teddy isn't laughing. The park's chief of security hates his guts and is convinced she's got her guy, without bothering to look any further. Meanwhile, Kazoo (that's the koala's name) doesn't have a lot of time. For starters, there isn't much of a local supply of the type of eucalyptus leaves that forms the cuddly creature's entire diet. And who knows how its captors are treating it!

For a little kid who has been cowed by bullies his whole life, Teddy shows a lot of spunk and hustle while trying to elude capture and, at the same time, solving the case. He has more suspects than he knows what to do with, but tangling with them could be dangerous – as he finds out when a sketchy guy in shades and a Houston Astros ball cap punches him on his nose. Luckily, he's wearing a Kazoo costume at the time, because otherwise that could have hurt. The next time ball cap guy makes a move, Teddy and others find themselves in real danger. Like, "what happens when you're in a glass tunnel under a shark aquarium and a bomb goes off"-type danger. It's a nonstop theme-park ride of chases, snooping, hiding, and sleuthing in an environment full of exotic (and sometimes dangerous) animals and a cast of comical yet complex characters. It's fun, and it's also low-key educational about the lifestyles of zoo animals and the people who work around them.

This is the second book in the FunJungle series, which started with Belly Up and, to date, features eight titles including Big Game, Panda-monium, Lion Down, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks, Bear Bottom and Whale Done. Stuart Gibbs is also the author of the Last Musketeer and Moon Base Alpha trilogies, 11 Spy School novels, and soon to be four books each in the Charlie Thorne and Once Upon a Tim series. I've enjoyed lots of his books, and I think kids from middle school or so up will, too.

A Fatal Waltz

A Fatal Waltz
by Tasha Alexander
Recommended Ages: 13+

Lady Emily Ashton, a beautiful young widow whose interest in classical scholarship and ability to solve murder mysteries strain the boundaries of Victorian society, has finally accepted a marriage proposal from the dashing Colin Hargreaves, her late husband's best friend and one of the country's most valuable secret agents. You'd think it would be smooth sailing from there on, but almost immediately trouble looms. First, she attends a quail hunting party at the country home of a nasty politician, who directly threatens her (with blackmail, I mean) if she doesn't throw Colin over in favor of her lifelong friend, Jeremy – an idle, bachelor playboy who, unfortunately, has chosen this moment to fall in love with her. Then she is faced with the previous woman in Colin's life, an Austrian countess who makes Emily feel like a lightweight. But things get serious when Lord Fortescue, their host, is murdered and suspicion falls on Robert, the husband of Emily's best friend, Ivy.

That's a lot of names to drop in just one paragraph, but there are plenty more characters in this book. Despite Robert being a conservative type and disapproving of Lady Emily's tendency to flout Victorian gender roles, when he sees the evidence stacked against him, he begs her to prove him innocent. Emily promises to do all that she can, and she bravely sticks to that promise despite a non-stop crescendo of danger, discouragement and increasingly unveiled warnings to back off. She finds herself in Vienna, surrounded by artists, poets, and intellectuals. She even meets the empress, Maria Theresa, in person. But it isn't all lounging in cafes and dancing at balls. Emily also sees the gritty underside of the city – the harsh poverty, the frequent suicides, the political discontent, the fragile balance of international peace that could be tipped by one nefarious plot. She is menaced from one side by a British government agent who leaves bullets for to find everywhere, as reminders of how easily he could get to her. On the other side, she has to deal with the leader of a ring of anarchists, who has admittedly killed people and who has a motive to see Robert hang. And let's not forget the Countess Katarina, whose significance is disturbing to the fiancee of the man they both love, not least as Emily becomes increasingly aware of how widespread marital infidelity has become at every level of society. It's almost as bad as suicide.

Speaking of suicide, the closer Emily gets to the truth, the more danger she believes Colin's life to be in. Almost she forced to choose between his life and Robert's, or between either of them and the countless lives that may be lost if the anarchists' latest plot goes forward. And just in case that isn't enough intrigue for one adventure, she also takes it upon herself to investigate the Mayerling affair (you know, where the crown prince of Austria and his mistress were found shot to death – it really happened; look it up). And although the solution she arrives at may be no more historically authentic than, say, the fate of the dauphin of France and his descendants as revealed in her previous adventure, this added layer adds palpably to the atmosphere of mystery, danger and tragedy that threads into every corner of this novel. Even with romantic subplots and witty dialogue, this is after all a thriller, right up to the ingenious solution to the initial crime.

The passion between Emily and Colin, the quirky appeal of the company surrounding them, the historical and cultural color of upper-crust London society and every stratum of Vienna circa 1889, make this an explosive addition to a series that has already drawn me fully in. Yes, folks, I think I'm addicted. I've got a few more books in this soon-to-be 17-book series lined up to read soon, so expect to see more about them right here. Further titles include (to start with) Tears of Pearl, Dangerous to Know and A Crimson Warning.

A Poisoned Season

A Poisoned Season
by Tasha Alexander
Recommended Ages: 13+

In her second adventure, beautiful young widow, scholar of Greek classics and antiquities, and crime-solving sleuth Lady Emily Ashton promises another widow she will do her best to solve her husband's murder. No one even realized the gentleman was murdered until his valet fell victim to the same poison, and the bereaved wife believes the maidservant arrested for the crime is innocent. This time, the crime seems somehow related to a rash of burglaries in which artifacts connected with Marine Antoinette have been stolen. Pretty soon, Emily begins to experience personal danger, as the burglar strikes inside her own London townhouse and begins brazenly leaving love-gifts for her. Meanwhile, someone tries to run her down with a horse-drawn carriage; someone, evidently with a source insider her household, starts vicious rumors calculated to destroy her standing in genteel society; and the Queen herself commands Emily to choose a new husband by the end of the season – an unwelcome pressure on a lady who has learned to enjoy a certain freedom in widowhood.

Emily continues her investigation, despite threats and ominous messages warning her to stop. She somehow can't believe the cat burglar is the murderer, although he is chillingly skilled at appearing out of nowhere, disappearing again and watching her undetected. She also finds herself embroiled in something of a love triangle, between an idle playboy she has known since they were both babies and the handsome intelligence agent who happened to be her late husband's best friend. There's never any doubt about which one she'd prefer, but the question becomes whether she can make up her mind to accept his proposal before the choice is taken away from her. Even with a queen on the throne, Victorian England is no time and place to be a liberated women, if you care at all about being admitted to the best circles of society. And despite her independent streak, Emily still does care. Just not enough to let an innocent woman hang for a murder she didn't commit.

This historical mystery-thriller is, if anything, even more delightful than And Only to Deceive, to which it is the sequel. Some of the characters in it are so horrible that their behavior might make you gasp. Many of them are just plain fun, in some cases subversively so. On vivid display are the "marriage market" of the London season, cynical political intrigues playing across the English Channel, and the frankly unromantic state of romance in a period, culture and class where marriage is often little more than a business arrangement. The heroine has spirit, wit and grit. Her friends, suitors and servants fill out a colorful main cast, supported by a domineering mother, a socially varied range of witnesses and suspects, a broad moral spectrum of more-or-less villains, and a central passion that heats up to where the kettle whistles just as Emily risks her life on a final gambit to trap a murderer.

This is book 2 of going-on 17 (so far) in the Lady Emily series. Further titles run from A Fatal Waltz through the upcoming A Cold Highland Wind.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The House Witch 3

The House Witch 3
by Delemhach
Recommended Ages: 14+

Finlay Ashowan, palace cook to the royal family of Daxaria, has won the heart of Lady Annika Jenoure, one of the realm's highest-ranking noblewomen and, incidentally, a high-level spy. Now his only problems are figuring out how to marry her, when unions between nobility and common folk just aren't done ... and defending the kingdom against an aggressive enemy whose military is headed by Fin's estranged father. Well, he thinks those are his only problems (and they're plenty), but so many more are ready to line up behind them, such as a kitten familiar with pyromaniac tendencies, a network of enemies hidden within the kingdom waiting for the signal to strike, a savage king who has taken Annika's brother and his family hostage, and more tricks that Fin's fire witch father has up his sleeve. Oh yes, and also, not one but two bouncing bundles of joy (and trouble) on the way. Fin will have to learn to use his unusual powers – not all designed for conflict and violence – to save his kingdom, and when either he or Annika must make a perilous journey to meet with the Troivackian king, the only thing certain is that an awful sacrifice will have to be made.

Fin's journey from lowly cook to hero of the kingdom is an emotionally stirring marvel to behold. It's also a bit sexy and all kinds of hilarious, with plenty of suspense and lots of super scenes of magic, combat, and magical combat. The court politics of Troivack are perhaps a little over-the-top in nastiness; the ditto of Daxaria, ditto in silliness. But the relationships and characters established over three long novels pay off well in this installment, with breathtaking plot twists and a satisfying ending that only outstays its welcome a little bit.

This third book in a trilogy of identically titled novels (except for the numerals) is a pleasurable indulgence, full of action, romance and rollicking good fun. I'll put it bluntly: it could have used another pass with an editorial pencil. Not that it's badly written, but another round of polishing might have taken away a couple of grammatical errors, such as "could ofs" and dangling participles, and the occasional clunky sentence that cried out for a rewrite. Delemhach, whoever he, she or they is/are, has some capital ideas on the architectural, or strategic, level of writing but could perhaps stand to take some lowercase, constructive criticism on the level of tactics – like going to the trouble of calling the main character Fin, the redhead and the house witch in alternation, when just calling him Fin most of the time would be so transparently easy. When Fin's feline familiar made a telepathic speech including the words, "I am war, chaos, and seductively fluffy," I threw back my head and howled with laughter. Two pages later, my spirits were dampened by the following sentence:
The magnitude of his losses descended upon him in a sickening realization that began to consume him until he was left with nothing but the helpless action of seizing the grass beneath his hands in clumps – and screaming.
Just imagine, that sentence could have read something like "As he realized the magnitude of his losses, all he could do was pull up clumps of grass and scream." Just sayin'.

Definitely a candidate for Adult and Occult Content Advisories, this book concludes the House Witch trilogy by a Canadian author whose follow-up titles include The Burning Witch and The Princess of Potential.

The Clackity

The Clackity
by Lora Senf
Recommended Ages: 11+

Evie lives with her Aunt Desdemona, a paranormal expert, in the seventh most haunted town in America (per capita). She isn't afraid of ghosts, which is lucky, because she also suffers from panic attacks and although her parents disappeared in a house fire, she refuses to accept that they're dead. To make sure her aunt doesn't disappear on her, she keeps close tabs on her whereabouts. One of the few things she is strictly forbidden to do is go to the abandoned abattoir (fancy talk for slaughterhouse) on the outskirts of Blight Harbor. But she breaks that rule the day her snooping reveals that Des has gone to the abattoir, a chilling place that stinks of wrongness. And she goes back the next day when Des disappears, leaving he car parked outside the sinister building.

Evie follows Des's footsteps into the abattoir and meets a horrible creature that calls itself the Clackity. The Clackity strikes a deal with her, promising Evie that she can get her aunt back if she travels into (what I take to be) the land of the dead, at the end of a passage inside the abattoir, and visits seven houses there. And whoops, I haven't even mentioned Jonathan Jeffrey Pope, a serial killer whose ghost has been conspicuously absent from Blight Harbor's famous hauntings. He's been saving up his evil for something special. And now he'll be at Evie's heels while she travels through seven roughly house-shaped nightmarescapes, facing her most bloodcurdling fears. Above all is her fear of losing Des, so she's in a race against Pope, really – and when he's not breathing down her neck, the Clackity is meddling in her adventure in his own uniquely horrible way. Perhaps the worst part of it is the thought, which Evie keeps pushing aside, of what will happen when she finally brings Pope and the Clackity together.

Apparently based in part on a visit to a real-life abattoir, this book is sure to send shivers down the young spines of ghost story fans. It's really too disturbing to be left to kids alone; adults just have to experience its exquisite creepy-crawlies as well. A couple of the houses in the Clackity's netherworld wouldn't be too bad, if it weren't for Pope's ghost in cold pursuit. But no nightmare is left untouched, from doors that disappear after closing behind you and landscapes that seem to stretch onward forever, to plunges into a bottomless pit and encounters with child-eating witches. These are only the lighter removes in a multi-course feast of fear, headlined by two grotesquely evil spirits, testing the courage of a vulnerable girl.

I am totally slapping this book with an Occult Content Advisory, which concerned parents can take for what it's worth. Despite their Grimm Bros. trappings and appetite for children, some of the witches in this story are depicted sympathetically enough to suggest a more than fairy-tale witchcraft. But not all the magic in this book is of the dark kind – for example, the unexplainable shadow of a sparrow that perches on Evie's skin like a living, moving tattoo, and whose encouragement keeps her going through some super-dark places. And if you can stomach the sometimes paralyzing, suffocating fear that her adventure puts Evie through, you may be the type of horror maven this book was made for.

This is Washington state-based Lora Senf's debut novel and the first book in the Blight Harbor trilogy. The second book, The Nighthouse Keeper, is set for release on Oct. 17, 2023.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Gran Turismo

Let's get my little joke out of the way before it burns a hole in my brain: Someday, some movie house or cable channel is going to show a double feature of Gran Torino and Gran Turismo and for the occasion, I hope they get a Billy Ocean type to sing the inevitable theme song for the event: "Get off of My Lawn, Get into My Car."

Whew! Well, folks, it's been weeks since my last trip to the movies. The local theater has either been repeating stuff I've already seen, such as Oppenheimer, or stuff I never wanted to see, such as Barbie. I've been holding out for a movie I actually liked the looks of, and that was (in this instance) Gran Turismo: a PlayStation Studios flick about a PlayStation car racing simulator and the Welsh kid who became so good at playing it that the brass at Nissan decided, as a marketing stunt, to make him a real-life race car driver.

All right, that's a gross oversimplification. To correct that, I'd recommend watching the movie. The kid's name is Jann Mardborough, and somehow, beyond belief, his adventure is based on a true story – to the extent that the real Jann Mardborough served as a stunt double for the actor playing him. He was the son of a sometime professional footballer (in American, that's a soccer player) who is constantly pressuring Jann to turn off that stupid video game and start preparing for a real career. But the kid has dreams, and he fights his way to the top of an auto racing boot camp tailored to elite Gran Turismo players, and then he has to deal with the harsh reality of driving real race cars on a real race track surrounded by real drivers, to say nothing of pit crews, who hate his guts.

Boy, is that kid tested. But as things go in sports movies, as well as (apparently) video game movies, he aces the test in a way that makes all kinds of people proud, including people who never believed in him when it mattered. He gets beaten up, emotionally and physically. He experiences setbacks and downright tragedy. He also kisses a cute girl and forms a deep connection with a grizzled veteran of the racing circuit. It's a heart-string-yanking story of personal growth and heroic achievement, and the icing on top is footage at the end showing the real Jann (pronounced "Yon") right alongside the young actor who plays him.

Directed by Neil Blomkamp (late of District 9, Elysium and a couple more recent flicks I didn't see), the cast is headlined by David Harbour of Stranger Things and the 2019 Hellboy as Jann's chief engineer, Geri Halliwell (a.k.a. Ginger Spice) and Djimon Honsou as Jann's parents, Orlando Bloom as the Nissan U.K. marketing wonk who cooks up the whole stunt, Thomas Kretschmann as the father of a snotty rival driver, and (apparently) the actual creator of Gran Turismo in a cameo role as a sushi chef. The hero kid is played by somebody named Archie Madekwe, a name that means nothing to me but that I'm bookmarking in my brain in case I start seeing a lot more of it. He does a good job, covering a remarkable range of emotional states, despite playing a basically softspoken guy who spends a lot of time encased in a costume that inhibits scenery chewing (outside of one heart-stopping crash scene).

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Salter, Jann's engineer, blasts Kenny G and Enya at him through their comms when Jann freezes on the racetrack. It's a funny yet dramatically clinching moment. (2) The crash scene and its immediate sequelae. Wow. Gripping stuff. (3) The bit where Jann's race car "explodes" around him and we find him mentally in his bedroom back at home, driving his PlayStation – a striking inversion of a previous scene in which an imagined car builds itself around him while he's driving the simulator at his neighborhood arcade.

There really were a lot more scenes that made it for me, though. For a movie in which a blink-and-you'll-miss-it verbal referenace to Speed Racer isn't out of place, it carries a lot of weight and is just a top-quality piece of entertainment. Perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that I spent a goodly portion of this movie squeezing a rolled-up Reese's Pieces box in my fist, too caught up in the moment to blink or breathe. Don't sneer at it. Movies like this get re-watched.

Closer to Nowhere

Closer to Nowhere
by Ellen Hopkins
Recommended Ages: 12+

In a novel in the form of verse, young cousins Hannah and Cal share narrator duties. Hannah resents the disruption Cal brings to her perfect family when he moves in after his mother dies and his father goes to jail. Cal has behavioral problems – telling whoppers, disappearing for hours at a time and, now and then, having screaming meltdowns – but Hannah is slow to recognize that he's making progress.

It's all about feeling safe for the boy who has lost everything and is only gradually learning to trust that his new family won't be taken away from him, too. And now he has good reason to melt down. His mean-drunk grandma has dropped in for Thanksgiving, holding nothing back in her treatment of a kid who represents all of her dead daughter's bad decisions. His uncle and aunt, whose home has been his first point of stability in years, are thinking about splitting up. And his abusive dad has gotten out of jail and wants to take him back from the first safe place he has known since his mom died. Only a few well-placed words, the start of a new friendship and the first stirrings of a change in Hannah's heart may help decide whether Cal's next running-away stunt proves to be for good.

I feel for Cal and Hannah – a cagy boy whose narrative is structured around "Fact or Fiction?" challenges, and a driven-to-succeed girl who's all about the definitions of words. I know their type and, in a way, I see a little of myself in both of them. My heart was touched by their story.

As for the author's conceit of pitching this novel in the form of verse, meh. I was working myself up to deliver a massive burn on the idea that writing poetry is all about adding extra line breaks to prose. Without altering a word, this book could have been typeset in the form of paragraphs, saving perhaps dozens of pages and neither gaining nor losing artistically. But there was one chapter, or poem, at the heart of this novel that suddenly grabbed my heart and squeezed, and I had to admit, it was a beautiful moment – a single, moving page of legitimate poetry. (Hint: Watch for Cal's description of what he feels when the lady cop tells him to keep shining his light.)

Ellen Hopkins is a novelist and author of socially relevant verse novels for young adults whose books often come in sets of two or three, including the "Crank" trilogy (Crank, Glass and Fallout, based on her daughter's struggle with addiction), Burned and Smoke (featuring an abusive religious cult), Impulse and Perfect (exploring issues surrounding suicide), Tricks and Traffick (featuring trafficked teens), Triangles and Tilt (featuring the sexual awakenings of three moms and three teenagers), Love Lies Beneath and A Sin Such as This (a pair of soapy, sexy romantic thrillers). Her other titles include Identical, Collateral, Rumble, The You I've Never Known, People Kill People, What About Will? and Sanctuary Highway, addressing issues ranging from bullying and gun violence to the effects of child sex abuse and traumatic brain injury.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

And Only to Deceive

And Only to Deceive
by Tasha Alexander
Recommended Ages: 13+

It's the late 1880s, Victorian England, and a young lady named Emily has no sooner married a rich viscount than she finds herself a widow. She barely knew her husband, Lord Ashton (Philip to his friends), so she finds the socially expected mourning period rather tedious and decides to enliven it by learning about the man. Too late, she discovers that he deeply loved her and wanted to make her happy, and that he was a much more interesting character than she'd suspected. A patron of the arts. Passionate about ancient Greek artifacts. Well versed in the classics. So much more than the thoughtless sort of rich gentleman who normally goes off and dies of fever during an African big-game hunt within months of his wedding. To her horror, and that of the ladies closest to her, Lady Ashton finds herself falling in love with her dead husband.

But then comes a cold splash of reality. Ah, yes, it seems Lord Ashton is somehow connected with a scheme to steal antiquities from the National Museum and replace them with highly credible forgeries. If he's really involved in the plot, he wasn't the man of principle Emily had come to believe in. As much as it breaks her heart, only too recently given to the man who widowed her, Emily just has to find out for sure. But dangers and intrigues swirl around her. A man with a scarred face has been following her. Someone burgles and ransacks her Paris hotel room. Her husband's scorchingly handsome best friend, Colin Hargreaves, is up to something fishy – maybe up to his neck in it. And now credible evidence has come to light suggesting that Philip may still be alive after all, alive but not at all well, and stranded in the African bush. Obviously, nothing will stop Emily from going to him. Nothing except, perhaps, still more surprising discoveries, romantic encounters and risky detective work amid the social elite in London and Paris.

Emily is one of those ahead-of-her-time female protagonists of historical novels set in the era of corsets, like a certain Venetia and Enola Holmes of whom I've previously written. Partly due to the course of study she pursues while trying to understand her late husband, she becomes uncomfortably aware of the bounds that her society places around her, and even begins to reflect on the unlikelihood that her husband would like what she is becoming. If only there were a guy whose ideal woman was not just beautiful but independent, intelligent and strong-willed. Oh, who could that be ...?

Tasha Alexander is the wife of Andrew Grant, author of the David Trevellyan thrillers, who is in turn the brother of Lee Child, the creator of Jack Reacher. Quite a literary family, there. Apart from a film novelization titled Elizabeth: The Golden Age, her literary output comprises 16 "Lady Emily Mysteries" written from 2005 to the present day, plus a handful of related short stories. This is the first novel in that series; next after it is A Poisoned Season, while book 17, A Cold Highland Wind, is scheduled for release on Oct. 3 of this year. I doubt I'll have caught up with the series by then, but I'm interested in reading further, for sure.

The Notebooks of Doom (1-3)

Rise of the Balloon Goons
Day of the Night Crawlers
Attack of the Shadow Smashers
by Troy Cummings
Recommended Ages: 8+

When we first meet Alexander Bopp, he is scared to death – of starting over at a new school, after he and his dad move to the quirky town of Stermont. Unforgettably described as a "mop-haired, bug-eyed, gut-filled bag of bones," Alexander (Salamander to friends) will soon need all those guts, because Stermont is afflicted with monsters. And thanks to a notebook that he finds by chance, Al has the knowledge to fight back. He soon recruits a sometime bully named Rip and a functionally invisible girl named Nikki to re-form the defunct S.S.M.P. (Super Secret Monster Patrol), saving Stermont from rampaging air dancers (a.k.a. balloon goons), dirt-dwelling tunnel fish and renegade shadows that want to bring the town under eternal darkness.

Thrills and giggles ensue. Alexander and friends experience bizarre situations just enough to the silly side of spooky to ensure that little readers, or maybe pre-literate kiddoes interested in following along as you read to them, will only cover their eyes to wipe away tears of laughter. It's goofy, creepy fun with a few gentle lessons about making new friends and being loyal to them, having the courage to help out even in a scary situation, reocgnizing that people aren't necessarily bad just because they're different, and (of course) realizing that kids are smarter and braver than adults, which is terribly important. Isn't it?

The illustrations are whimsical but expressive. Select pages from the Notebook of Doom leave you salivating for more. And each book takes only a few minutes to read, making it quite possible that even a short attention span might stretch to devour these books in only a few reading sessions. To say nothing of such succeeding titles as Chomp of the Meat-Eating Vegetables, Pop of the Bumpy Mummy and Sneeze of the Octo-Schnozz.

Troy Cummings is the picture-book author of Otto the Ornament, The Eensy Weensy Spider Freeks Out, Giddy-up, Daddy!, Can I Be Your Dog? and Arfy and the Stinky Smell. These three books, which I read in a not-very-thick omnibus edition, are but the start of the 13-book "Notebook of Doom" series of very short, illustrated chapter books featuring Alexander Bopp and his friends, Rip and Nikki. These, in turn, are followed by (currently) four "Binder of Doom" books. For a full list of their titles, click here.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Her Colton P.I.

Her Colton P.I.
by Amelia Autin
Recommended Ages: 18+

I figured Harlequin's "Romantic Suspense" department would be somewhat similar to its "Intrigue" series, a title of which I read back here. You know, with more weight on the suspense and mystery and maybe lighter on the graphic sex. Whoops. Was I ever wrong. I've actually been holding off on reviewing this book for a few weeks, thinking I'd pull another one of those gimmicks like "one graphic novel and two (cough) graphic novels," but nothing else materialized to pair it with. So with apologies for not making it cute, here's my quick and (ahem) dirty take on this smutty thriller.

Chris Colton is the P.I. mentioned in the title. He actually owns a multi-office detective agency in Texas. He comes from a family of (mostly) lawmen and -women, at least as far as his siblings are concerned – despite the fact that they were pulled in all different directions as kids when their father turned out to be a serial killer and their mother, one of his victims. Nasty baggage this guy is carrying. But that's just the appetizer. He also built a house for his beautiful wife, Laura, only to lose her and their unborn child in a tragedy from which his heart still hasn't healed.

Now Chris has been hired to track down a couple's widowed daughter-in-law, who is preventing them from seeing their adorable twin grandsons. Chris is quick to realize that his clients are actually trying to kill Holly McCay so they can take custody of the boys and control their dead dad's money. Chris recruits a couple of his cop siblings to help him set up a sting to catch the McCays in their murderous plot – while, at the same time, they're working an ongoing serial killer case that dredges up foul memories of their father.

There's a lot of plot points in play in this book, including a dying serial killer dad (now on death row) who holds the secret of where he hid their mother's body over his grown-up kids' heads; a female killer whose alphabetized victims all represent a single, hated person in her mind; a missing youngest sibling who disappeared, quite possibly after klling a drug dealer related to her adoptive parents; and a bouncing baby addition to the wider Colton family.

There is absolutely an Adult Content Advisory in effect concerning this book. Despite the vividly specific depiction of the hero couple's lovemaking, however, it's also very pointedly a romance between two people who have never been with anyone else besides their respective, deceased spouses and the moment they meet each other, it's pretty much guaranteed to be a lifelong thing. They just have to get over some personal hang-ups to realize it for themselves – a process that may provoke the reader's impatience at times.

As for the mystery-suspense-thriller subplots circling around the romantic core, this book resolves some of them but leaves others dangling for a future book. This is, after all, the fifth installment of a 12-book, multi-author series called "The Coltons of Texas" which, I guess, is paced to give the alphabet killer time to cover the whole alphabet. The series starts with Colton Copycat Killer by Marie Ferrarella and includes such titles as A Baby for Agent Colton, The Pregnant Colton Bride and Runaway Colton. Meanwhile, Amelia Autin is the author of the companion books Reilly's Return and Cody Walker's Woman, the nine-book "Man on a Mission" series (also under Harlequin's Romantic Suspense label), and an installment (book 18 of 48) in the "Marry Me, Cowboy" series titled Gideon's Bride.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Mutant Mayhem

The full title of the big movie, not last weekend but the one before, was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. I've never been a big fan of the Turtles, but it looked like fun and, behold, it was. It has a scratchy, comic-book-arty look that appeals in a similar, visual way to the Spider-Verse movies. It's loaded with juvenile humor, urban attitude and bizarre, gross-out creatures. The action is almost non-stop, paced in a way that keeps the eyes moving almost to the limit of their ability to follow. Its reptilian heroes have teen appeal (though voiced by nobody I know). Other cast members include co-writer Seth Rogen, Ice Cube, John Cena, Rose Byrne, Jackie Chan, Paul Rudd, Giancarlo Esposito and Post Malone.

If you're not familiar with the concept of TMNT, you can probably guess a lot from the title of the franchise. It features, funnily enough, four teenage brothers who happen to be giant, anthropomorphic turtles, thanks to contact with a mysterious ooze in their infancy, and are now adept at martial arts thanks to their mutated rat "dad." They love pizza and long to go to high school and fit in with the human kids, but their dad hates humans and tries to confine them to the sewers. Stuff happens, the kids run a little wild, and the next thing you know, they're saving New York City from a crew of even weirder mutants whose leader, Super Fly, has decided to destroy mankind. Also, there's a little bit of a crush between the lead shellback, Leonardo (they're all named after Renaissance painters), and a human girl named April, who fancies herself a crusading journalist but has as much trouble fitting in among other teens as the Turtles.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The turtle bros. experience their worst nightmare: being "milked" by evil human scientists! (2) Pretty much any scene in which the turtles banter boyishly with each other, talking right over each other. Their eye-roll-worthy lameness is not lost on April, but you've got to admit, the young cast interacts exactly like a bunch of adolescent brothers and it isn't hard to imagine the actors improvising the scene. (3) April's TV news reporting debut, during which she (naturally) pukes on camera, nevertheless succeeding in turning public opinion in favor of the heroic young turtles.

I'm not saying this movie is for everyone. In fact, if it was a little louder and more visually agitating, it probably would have ruined my evening the way the first Fast and Furious flick did all those years ago. It's not going to calm hyperactive kids down or anything. But it's funny, thrilling and, in its own dark, dank, sewer-centric way, a feast for the eyes.

Monday, August 7, 2023

The House Witch 2

The House Witch 2
by Delemhach
Recommended Ages: 14+

Finlay Ashowan would just as soon spend his days cooking meals for a castleful of courtiers, but when he requests a week off after a gruelling festival, the king gives him another assignment – intelligencing out a foreign threat in the adjacent city of Austice. He'll have to manage without his powers at a house witch, since his magic is limited to home and hearth. Meanwhile, his romance with the noble Lady Annika Jenoure has reached a tipping point where it will surely either ruin both of them or break their hearts. She has her own covert assignment to deal with, and the pair's adventures take them into some of the most dangerous corners of Austice, all without a moment's rest from court intrigues, delicate diplomacy, marital politics, treasonous plots and most dangerous of all, the food Fin's assistants cook up in the castle kitchen during his vacation.

This second, unimaginatively titled installment in the House Witch trilogy suffers a bit from Middle of a Trilogy Syndrome, leaving an overall sense that it doesn't add much to the series other than connecting the first and third books. It incrementally moves forward with the question of how Fin and Annika can ever work as a couple, and builds ominously to the dreaded arrival of Fin's father in the Daxarian capital without leaving much time for that development to mature. Also, Fin takes some time off from his main calling as the castle's house witch, saving the kingdom in a low-key way by making the royal home as safe and comforting a place as can be, and consequently doesn't have a lot of scope to exercise his impressive and growing powers; everyone in the book, including you, feels impatient for him to return to where he belongs. There's a major theme of things needing to be gotten out of the way before we can address the main business at hand.

However, that impression of being a lightweight but odiously necessary middle part might be somewhat deceptive. There are some significant developments in this book. The hero witch and his kitten familiar discover a new dimension to their relationship, and Kraken applies his covert ops skills on the task at hand more effectively than Fin or even Annika do. The hero couple's romance, and another between Fin's mother and the captain of the royal guard, both come to a highly significant point, as does the jeopardy of Annika having to marry for diplomacy. The queen's perilous pregnancy comes to a climactic crisis, and Fin & Co. deal thoroughly (and entertainingly) with a concern about the kingdom's enemy in a brewing war already having forces hidden around Daxaria.

Yes, there is a The House Witch 3, and I've got it and have started reading it. There's also The Burning Witch, the first novel in a sequel series, and The Princess of Potential, another (but apparently separate) follow-up, all by the same Canadian author. Please observe an Adult Content Advisory for this book.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Fart Quest

Fart Quest
by Aaron Reynolds
illust. by Cam Kendell
Recommended Ages: 8+

This kids' chapter book, lightly illustrated in a graphic novel style, features a trio of apprentice heroes who, just as they're training for a career in monster slaying and tomb raiding, witness their masters and mistresses being wiped out. Instead of going back to hero school, they decided to go on their own quest and prove themselves. Pan the elf, Moxie the warrior, and Fart the mage don't have much experience, but they figure it's all in the presentation.

That theory is immediately put to the test when a wizard challenges them to collect a rare potion ingredient – the flatulence of a golden llama. It seems to be right up Fart's alley, given that the young mage got his nickname by choosing as his first spell one that can change anyone (including himself) into a puff of foul-smelling gas. But the sense that the three kids are in for more than they bargained isn't just a case of the vapors. Their quest leads straight to the lair of a horde of ogres, a two-headed ettin and something even nastier. Not to mention giant bees, ew!

This is a funny, action-filled story affirming the values of friendship, courage and appreciation of potty humor. Its recurring gimmick of awarding experience points to the main character are evidence that both the author and the illustrator are into Dungeons & Dragons. Further installments in the "Fart Quest" series include The Barf of the Bedazzler, The Dragon's Dookie and The Troll's Toe Cheese, if you're into that sort of thing. Am I? You judge from the fact that I chose to read this book, and actually had fun along the way.

Reynolds is also the author of two "Joey Fly, Private Eye" books, three "Creepy Tales!" books, two "Caveboy Dave" books, and three "Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter" books. Kendell's art may also be found on such board games as "Rocket Ranchers," "D&D Dungeon Mayhem: Monster Madness" and "My First Castle Panic," and in comics including Choose Your Gnome Adventure, Mortimer B. Radley: The Case of the Missing Muunkey Skull and Flopnar the Bunbarian.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Three Movies

I've fallen so far behind on writing my movie reviews that I'm scrambling here to post about the last three features I've seen at the local movie house.

First, there was Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the sequel to the magnificent Into the Spider-Verse, which I still consider the best Spider-Man movie. Box office-wise, this second movie in what will surely be a trilogy also seems to have knocked this year's crop of comic book-based films into a cocked hat. Miles Morales is back as his (our?) universe's Spider-Man, and his new adventure explores the implications of the fact that there's a multiverse full of Spider-Persons of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, species, art styles, etc. Not to mention the implications of how he picked up the web-slinger's mantle in a universe that already had a Peter Parker Spider-Man, when (as Highlander teaches us) There Can Be Only One.

In this installment, our Miles finds himself on the run from all the other Spideys in the multiverse, instigated by one in particular who refuses to accept him. He tries to find his way back to the Mom who told him not to let anyone tell him he doesn't belong, only to realize in one of those "blood runs cold" moments that he hasn't made it home after all. The whole movie has a brilliant, comic-bookish look to it with swooping movement, breathlessly paced action and reality-shattering flights of fantasy.

Shameik Moore is back as Miles, Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as another universe's Spider-Woman, Jake Johnson as an older variant of Peter Parker, Brian Tyrree Henry and Luna Lauren VĂ©lez as Miles's parents, and (spoiler warning) Mahershala Ali as an alternate version of the uncle Miles lost in the first movie. Joining the cast as various Spideys and/or villains are Oscar Isaac, Jason Schwartzman, Andy Samberg, Elizabeth Perkins, Rachel Dratch, as well as callbacks to live-action Spider-film characters played by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Cliff Robertson, Martin Sheen, Denis Leary, Alfred Molina and Donald Glover.

Only the fact that it comes to a "To Be Continued" cliffhanger, rather than completing its story in one go, detracts from this being as good as, if not better than, Into the Spider-Verse. The art is fantastic. The animation, writing and sheer creative energy of this movie run circles around anything coming out of Disney and Pixar these days, not to mention all the other superhero movies right about now. At a moment when popcorn movies seem to be on the ropes, and when anticipated box office cash cows are turning up as road kill instead, this movie is the one that's keeping fanboys/girls' hopes alive.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The madcap chase/melee across the reality that serves as headquarters for the Spider-Verse, with our Miles holding his own against a multitude of alternate Spideys each with his, her or its own unique powers – notably including one with a baby on board! (2) Miles's attempts to fight The Spot, the bizarre, interdimensional-portal-slinging villain who at first reminds you of Rorshach from Watchmen but who turns out to be infinitely zanier. (3) The last, dreadful sequence when Miles finds himself in the universe that never had a Spider-Man, in the clutches of a villain whose identity will leave you chilled. Expect a third movie, Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, approximately next spring.

Next, I went to see the movie everyone was talking about at the time: Sound of Freedom, featuring Jim Caviezel as a Homeland Security agent who specializes in busting child sex traffickers until a former partner hits him with the question, "How many kids have you saved?" Turning on a dime, Caviezel's character risks (and eventually quits) his career to save children being trafficked in Latin America, including a pair of Honduran siblings who went to a talent audition and ended up in a shipping container bound for Colombia.

The publicity around this movie has already said all that needs to be said – about, for instance, this movie killing it while the fifth Indiana Jones flick fizzled; like the political left sneering at it and smearing it as a piece of coded alt-rightism to be disregarded out of hand while the right continues to chant, "yeah but what about child sex trafficking?" The movie did pretty well for a relatively low-budget movie whose soft-spoken star emotes on a level that can only be detected in extreme close-up. It is, after all, a moving story depicting a man who faces incredible danger to pluck one little girl out of her personal hell. And it has, I think, an Oscar-worthy supporting performance by Bill Camp as a former cartel strongman who rededicates his life to saving trafficked kids. The scene in which Camp's character, "Vampiro," confides to Caviezel what led him to turn his life around is worth seeing the whole movie.

Obviously, that's going to be one of the Three Scenes That Made It For Me. The others are: (2) The little boy that Caviezel saves early in the movie recognizes "Timoteo" as the saint who protects children, and gives him the St. Timothy medallion that his sister gave him when they were separated, along with a plea to find her. (3) The whole nail-biting sequence when Caviezel travels into rebel-held territory, where even the Colombian military and law enforcement are afraid to go. It seems so improbable that he will make it out alive, with or without the girl he seeks. Truly a powerful, emotionally hard-hitting movie, with a good cast that also includes Mira Sorvino, José Zúñiga, Kurt Fuller (TV's Psych) and lots of Latin American talent.

Finally, this past weekend I chose Oppenheimer over Barbie, and I take serious issue with the New Yorker review that calls it "a History Channel movie with fancy editing." The star of the film is, of course, director Christopher Nolan, who uses brilliant visual and sound effects to depict the disturbing psyche of the man who gave the world the atomic bomb. As Robert Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy (with a hard C) delivers a performance that should finally pull him out of the talent bracket in which you struggle to describe him other than as the lead actor in 28 Days Later – a Zombie apocalypse movie I walked out of midway through because it was too intense, and which I have yet to mention in person to anyone who saw it – or as the villain with bees all over his face in Batman Begins – which, again in my circle of acquaintance, I seem to be the only person who remembers. (I also remember his villainous turn in Red Eye and somehow didn't remember him being in Inception.) I'm not making award predictions or anything, because if I did I'd say this year is Murphy's the way last year was Austin Butler's and you know how that turned out, eh?

Also in the movie's oustanding cast are Emily Blunt as the wife who defended Oppie during his witch trial more passionately than the man himself, Matt Damon as the general in charge of the Manhattan Project, Robert Downey Jr. as an Atomic Energy Commission official who stabbed Oppie in the back, Tom Conti as Einstein, Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr, Gary Oldman as Harry S. Truman, Casey Affleck as a terrifying security officer, and in other more-or-less recognizable roles Josh Hartnett, David Krumholtz (Numb3rs), Tony Goldwin (Ghost), Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), James D'Arcy (Agent Carter), Jack Quaid (Star Trek: Lower Decks), Matthew Modine, Scott Grimes (The Orville), Florence Pugh, David Dastmalchian (a recurring villain on both Flash and the MacGyver reboot), Louise Lobard (CSI), Harry Groener, James Remar and Gregory Jbara (Blue Bloods). I'm sure I've omitted names that many people will recognize.

So, yeah, this movie does show how the bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan to end World War II were developed, but the movie is really more about the political imbroglio surrounding Oppie's application to renew his Top Secret clearance and the confirmation hearings of a U.S. cabinet secretary (Lewis Strauss) who saw to it that Oppie's clearance was denied. To be sure, Oppie had made some questionable decisions, and his left-wing political associations hurt him. But seriously, the guy gave us the bomb. The movie dramatizes the situation as though destroying him was really about silencing his opposition to the nuclear arms race – and it also gives us some viscerally powerful insights into what lay behind that opposition. Which leads me to:

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) While giving a "Hooray, we really gave it to those Japs" speech, reality seems to warp around Oppenheimer and he ends up hallucinating that the audience in front of him is being burned by radiation. The gruesome climax is when he seems to put his foot through the ribcage of a charred, human corpse while stepping down from the podium. (2) When you finally find out what Oppie and Einstein said to each other that day at the pond, and how it ties up the question of nuclear proliferation in his mind. (3) The suspenseful countdown to the test detonation at the Trinity site in New Mexico.

All in all, it's a beautifully made movie, with gorgeous artistic design and cinematography, a great cast doing their best work, a dramatic conflict that will stir almost anybody's feelings and force them to reconsider politicial and historical beliefs, and surrounding it all, the directing work of Christopher Nolan (Following, Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, Dunkirk, Tenet) who, as always, creates a look and uses special effects that challenge reality, or the perception thereof. His movie carries its argument forward despite mixing up the story's chronology, paying out each particle of information at just the moment that generates the most power. It wrestles with difficult emotions in and around a difficult subject. It depicts epic heroes and villains across a huge canvas while acknowledging gray areas and keeping the audience guessing. That jackass with the "History Channel" quip shouldn't be able to spew his ignorance on a platform like The New Yorker.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Venetia

Venetia
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 14+

I've often described Georgette Heyer (rhymes with "mayor") as a 20th century author who channeled Jane Austen to the tune of 26 Regency romances (besides about as many other books). But in fairness to both Jane and Georgette, the latter-day author's female protagonists had sensibilities that would never have entered the pretty little heads of even Austen's most audacious heroines. This book's title character is a case in point, if not the case: a young gentlewoman whose original ideas and independent character, more in line with the values of Heyer's time and of ours than of Austen's, make them highly unusual – eccentric to the point of iconoclasm. Originals in every sense.

Yes, that especially applies to Miss Venetia Lanyon, a 25-year-old lady who has grown used to managing her own affairs, and violently chafes against the expectation that she must either marry a "worthy" (read: unbearably dull) country gentleman, or get a dowdy widow to chaperone her around town until some society dandy makes an offer for her. Frankly, she would rather set up a little place in London, with perhaps room for her bookish younger brother Aubrey when he's not at university, and live the life of an unconventional spinster, in disregard of social norms. But everyone around her, from the busybodies neighboring her family's country estate to her uncle and aunt in the city, are desperate to prevent her from making a scandal of herself.

Everybody, that is, except a no longer young and handsome rake who owns the next estate down the road. Lord Damerel has seldom spent time at his country house, except for an infamous orgy of some kind a few years ago. He has been a hiss and a byword since he ran away with another man's wife, long years ago, and is now well known to have wasted nearly all of his family's fortune. He's the type of character Austen heroines are meant to recoil from. But when Damerel and Venetia become acquainted, sparks begin to fly. They are each other's match in intelligent banter, frankness and strength of character.

Venetia's two suitors are soon stirred to take shocking steps. (I forgot to mention the other one, besides the "worthy" fellow – a romantic lunatic who has been making calf-eyes at Venetia despite her attempts to discourage him.) Venetia finds herself hemmed in by people doing their best to keep her from soiling her reputation, when she would enjoy nothing more than to live in disgrace with a fascinating character like Damerel. Meanwhile, he starts out with the idea of toying with her, as he has done with so many fetching girls, only to realize that he wants to become a better man for her. Social propriety and the gravitational pull of the London ton seem destined to pull them apart, and keep them apart. Even Damerel seems ready to accept it. It's only when Venetia learns a shocking secret that's been kept from her, and her alone, all her life that she hits on a scheme to save their romance.

Perhaps Austen's heroines, spirited though they are in their way, sometimes annoy you with their devotion to the appearances of propriety. If so, Venetia may be the romantic heroine for you, unconcerned as she is about all that – even to a fault. She's her own woman in the same either-anachronistic-or-Wollstonecraftian way as Enola Holmes, if you know who I mean. She means to stay that way, and she stakes her chances of doing so on the devoted love of a cad who has never felt such an emotion before. You come away unsure how it's really going to turn out or whether you quite sympathize with her, but she doesn't want your sympathy so I guess that's all right. And neither does Aubrey, by the way, who hates it when people take notice of his lameness – a character I think people with disabilities will understand better than most of the people he meets.

I haven't even mentioned the other brother, who in a low-key way is the villain of the piece without even appearing in person; his actions from afar bear a lot of blame for the unbearable position Venetia finds herself in, along with the behavior of ... well, let's not spoil that for you. Let's just say the novel could have been a tragedy, considering the constraints Venetia was forced to bear – and that it turns out to be a lighthearted, romantic comedy testifies to the keenness of her character.

Anyway, I'm now reading Regency Buck, Heyer's very first Regency romance. Other titles in that series, written from 1935 to 1972, include An Infamous Army, Cotillion, The Toll-Gate, Sprig Muslin and Charity Girl.