Sunday, September 17, 2017

Another "Is THAT How You Say...?"

During a recent road-trip spent joyfully listening to Ulli Birvé read Georgette Heyer's 1939 mystery No Wind of Blame, I encountered several more intriguing examples of the difference between how I have been brought up pronouncing English words and the way the English themselves pronounce them.

I'm more than ever on the lookout for such examples since I read portions of H.W. Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926), in which that high-ranking authority on how English out to be used refers to a certain law, already at that time not being vigorously enforced and nowadays all but forgotten, called the Recessive Accent. This rule, which apparently means the accent should land on the syllable as far to the left as possible, no doubt accounts for the fact one may still occasionally hear a highly educated, upper-class Brit putting the accent on the first syllable of such words as "despicable," "hospitable," or "exquisite."

But this rule doesn't quite explain why Ulli Birvé says "exigencies" with the emphasis on the second "e" - ex-i-GEN-cies. I was so struck by this, I had to grab the little commonplace book I keep in the center-island of my car (yeah, I know) and make a note of it.

The next note below that reminds me that in at least two places, Birvé pronounced the verb "demur" or its past-tense form "demurred" (to voice disagreement) exactly as I would expect to hear the adjective "demure" (modest, bashful), with a "y" sound before a long "u." This is one of those words I have probably never heard anyone use in casual speech, but have read silently in many books. I always guessed the "u" in the second syllable was pronounced with a more neutral vowel sound, like the accented vowel in "preferred."

Below that, I scribbled the word "raiment," which again, is a term I may have only encountered in literature, and seldom if ever heard spoken aloud. I would never have quibbled to hear it pronounced exactly the way anyone would expect to hear an English word thus spelled: "RAY-mənt," with a schwa in the second syllable, followed by a garden-variety "n" and some notion of a final "t," even if the latter exists more in the realm of imagination than in actual sonic reality. I can't tell whether Heyer italicized the word, but apparently Birvé took it as a French loan-word and pronounced it as such, with no particular accent on the first syllable, and a second syllable essentially ending with a nasalized ẽ vowel. I don't know about this. I have little doubt the English word "raiment" can be traced back to some similar French word; but since it occurs more than 50 times in the King James Bible (1611), flaunting that debt is probably overdoing the francophilia just a bit. The question now is whether that fetish should be attributed to Heyer (by dint of italics) or to Birvé.

Finally, or rather first of all, I remember being surprised at the beginning of the audiobook by Birvé's pronunciation of the author's last name. This probably goes down to germanophilia, or whatever the right word for it is, owing to the influence of the German language on the speech of the American midwest, but ever since I first saw the name Georgette Heyer in print, I have assumed her second name was pronounced like the English word "higher." Now I owe it to Birvé's qualifications as an audiobook reader to assume she is correct when she pronounces it more like "hayer," as in a person who makes hay, or "heyer," as in a person who says "Hey!" Maybe you knew this before, but I didn't.

I don't know much about Birvé, but a search for her turns up some credits in Australian film and TV productions, so her authority on English pronunciation may by confined to the land down under. Her accent sounds cultured and neutral enough to be from anywhere, and she does put on a variety of regional English accents with seemingly no effort whatever; so I just don't know. But if there are multiple ways to skin a cat, there are surely even more ways to pronounce some English words.

The King's Buccaneer

The King's Buccaneer
by Raymond E. Feist
Recommended Ages: 14+

Nicholas conDoin is the youngest son of Arutha, Prince of Krondor and brother of Lyam, King of the Isles. Overshadowed by his older twin brothers, one of whom will be king after Lyam, he has also been allowed to lead a relatively soft life by dint of his deformed left foot. As he approaches the age when his father started to do heroic deeds, Arutha decides to do something to make a man of him - like, sending him to the remote duchy of Crydee, to serve as a squire to his Uncle Martin and maybe rack up some leadership experience. Nicholas gets more than his father bargained for, starting when a horde of the darkest villains in all the world of Midkemia sneak into Crydee, taking captive everyone young and healthy, and killing pretty much everyone else. By chance among those who survive the raid, Nicholas leads an expedition across a seemingly endless ocean to rescue those captives, including his cousin Margaret and her lovely lady-in-waiting, Abigail.

If you've guessed Nicholas is impelled partly by his attachment to Abigail, you're not as dumb as you look. But before he finds her and the other captives, things happen that draw his heart in another direction. Meantime, he becomes the captain of an increasingly diverse group of sailors, soldiers, mercenaries, and more - including two notable wizards, and possibly the only half-elf/half-human ever to exist in their world. They endure heartbreaking disaster, struggle against deadly conditions, battle enemies as powerful as they are ruthless, and sustain terrible losses. They visit an alien continent, witness a conflict between legendary forces, and end up racing against a terrible plot to destroy the world.

I'll confine my review to these sweeping generalities, but believe me: the fun in this book is in the specifics. Characters like Nakor, the cheerful wizard who swears "there is no magic," and Anthony, whose love for a woman above his station shines bright enough to steer a ship by; villains like Lady Clovis, whose seductive power can drain a man's life force in minutes; romantic interests ranging from a girl who haunts the streets of a pirate hide-out to a bossy-pants princess who has been marked for death; and above all, Nicholas himself, who faces his own deepest fear and grows as a man beyond anyone's expectations - all these and incidents galore fill this book with excitement, surprises, and satisfying emotional arcs.

Depending on how you slice up Feist's Midkemia-related output, involving 30-some books written over 30-some years, either this book is the second of two stand-alone companion novels to the Riftwar trilogy (or quartet), which begins with Magician (or at least Magician: Apprentice); or it is the second book of the Krondor's Sons duad, following Prince of the Blood; or both books are a continuation of the Riftwar saga. Each of these options has its pros and cons, and the author's views on the matter don't seem to feature much in the debate. But I reckon the next book to read, in following the multi-layered Midkemia canon, seems to be Daughter of the Empire, book 1 of the "Riftwar: The World On the Other Side" trilogy with co-author Janny Wurts; though that book was published before Prince of the Blood and this book. Just be quiet and nod your head. Good.

No Wind of Blame

No Wind of Blame
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 12+

Nearly everyone at the Palings, an English country house owned by the retired actress Ermentrude Carter, has a motive for murdering Ermentrude's good-for-nothing husband Wally. But when someone shoots him dead in the middle of a footbridge on his way to tea at the neighbor's house, the police are puzzled. None of those apparent motives seem to match up with the ability to have smuggled the victim's own rifle out of his gun safe, or an opportunity to have pulled the trigger from the cover of nearby shrubbery. And of those people with a shred of opportunity, everyone seems to have an airtight alibi - or, at least, no one can explain how they could have gotten the gun out of the house, or how they would have known where and when to lie in ambush for poor, worthless Wally.

This murder mystery has first the local police, then Scotland Yard scratching their heads, while members of Ermentrude's circle of family, friends, and neighbors act out a complex weave of romantic melodramas in a style that I would like to describe as "Agatha Christie meets P.G. Wodehouse." One particular couple had me often chuckling, and occasionally laughing out loud, especially at the girl's spirited meddling and stage-struck eccentricity. Incidentally, who done it and how they (almost) pulled it off account for a really nifty surprise. Spread over everything is a layer of between-the-world-wars English charm, enhanced by a possibly fraudulent Georgian prince, a couple of Bolshevik sympathizers, and masterful scenes of drawing-room histrionics.

One of Regency romance maven Heyer's 12 detective novels, this is the first of four "Country House Mysteries" featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Hemingway. The other three are Envious Casca (a.k.a. A Christmas Party), Duplicate Death, and Detection Unlimited. I enjoyed the audiobook version read by Ulli Birvé during a recent interstate road trip.

The Pillars of The Earth

The Pillars of the Earth
by Ken Follett
Recommended Ages: 14+

A dear friend of mine, from whom changes in the circumcstances of life have separated me, once gave me a copy of this book, along with one or two others, and strongly urged me to read it. I can still recall her enthusiastic description of it, doing a pantomime of the eager turning of pages, with breathless comments like, "Oh my God! Did she really! No way! He didn't! They wouldn't! Tell me more!" It testifies to my trust in that friend's judgment that I kept that book on my (admittedly enormous) to-read shelf for years and years, though I gave priority to other books in the meantime. I finally found an opportunity to heed my friend's advice when the availability of an audiobook edition, just when I was about to go on a long road-trip. So now I can say, "Thanks, Amanda, for pointing me in the direction of some terrific entertainment!"

The Pillars of the Earth has achieved bestseller status without any help from me; in fact, it is probably the best-known book by its fairly prolific author. It was adapted as a TV miniseries in 2010, which is useful to know, because I wouldn't have known how to spell the characters' names correctly were it not for a webpage listing the cast of that film. It focuses on a large handful of characters whose status as protagonists or antagonists is in reference to the building of a great cathedral in the village of Kingsbridge in 12th-century England, during a period known to historians as the Anarchy, due to the effects of a civil war between three rival claimants to the throne (for the record, Stephen, Maud, and eventual winner Henry I). It was also the period during which Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury, became in rapid succession a martyr and a saint, due to his conflict with King Henry; and when the trend in cathedral-building tipped from Romanesque (rounded) arches to Gothic (pointed) ones.

Embedded in that historical context, high drama spins out of the rivalries between a Benedictine monk named Philip and a ruthlessly ambitious bishop named Waleran Bigod, and between a headstrong girl named Aliena, who has sworn to restore her brother Richard to the earldom that was taken from their father, and the monstrous Percy Hamleigh, who... well, if I listed his crimes here, you wouldn't believe me. You'll just have to read the book. Caught in the middle are a stonemason named Tom Builder and his gifted stepson Jack, who has a rivalry of his own both with Percy and with Tom's rather disappointing son Alfred. Jack also happens to be in love with Aliena, but both Percy and Alfred are in lust with her, and... well, you know where this is going, whether you read the book or not; but along the way are the kinds of surprises that will have you eagerly turning pages and making breathless comments like, "Oh my God! Did she really! No way! He didn't! They wouldn't! Tell me more!" I was warned about this, so now I warn you. Amanda was right.

I didn't realize until my road-trip was underway that the audiobook I had purchased of this novel, read by Richard E. Grant, was an abridged edition. If someone finds out who made the decision to produce an abridged audiobook of this novel - part of a series of abridged installments that I have seen on store shelves, but will now know better than to buy - I wish they would do me a personal favor and leave a flaming brown-paper lunch bag full of dog poo on that person's doorstep. Those of us who frequently drive great distances with only audiobooks to keep us sane, will not feel we have been done a favor by having a long-anticipated bestseller reduced to eight measly CDs. So, not only didn't it last even half of my road trip, it didn't provide me with the full Pillars of the Earth experience that I could have gotten by listening to the version recorded by John Lee. And since I have spoken of a series, let it be known that, whosoever may have recorded them in abridged or unabridged audio, the sequels to this book are World Without End and A Column of Fire.

Ken Follett is also the author of the Apples Carstairs trilogy (The Big Needle, etc.), the Piers Roper books (The Shakeout, etc.), the Century Trilogy (Fall of Giants, etc.), and a variety of other novels, some of them written under the pen-names Symon Myles, Martin Martinsen, Zachary Stone, and Bernard L. Ross. Their titles include The Power Twins, The Modigliani Scandal, Capricorn One, The Key to Rebecca, Lie Down with Lions, Night Over Water, A Dangerous Fortune, The Hammer of Eden, Hornet Flight, and Whiteout.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Prince of the Blood

Prince of the Blood
by Raymond E. Feist
Recommended Ages: 14+

Twenty years after the Riftwar (see Magician, Silverthorn, and A Darkness at Sethanon), the 19-year-old twin sons of Prince Arutha are a couple of trouble-making scamps. They certainly don't have the maturity to rule over the Kingdom of the Isles in the world of Midkemia. And now that Arutha has declared his intention to renounce his claim to the throne, should he outlive his brother King Lyam, Borric and Erland are first and second in the line of royal succession. It's a pretty pickle. So, Arutha sends the boys to Kesh, the vast and dangerous empire to the south, to serve as the kingdom's delegates to the Empress Lakeisha's 75th birthday jubilee. Attending them are Barons Locklear and James, who were boys themselves when we last saw them, and (after a stop to visit Pug the Magician) James' new wife Gamina, who can communicate telepathically.

Arutha only hopes the trip will teach the twins some responsibility. But their schooling takes a nasty turn soon after they cross the Keshian border, when their party is attacked by bandits. Believed by all except Erland to be dead, Borric is taken prisoner and cruelly driven to the slave market of Durbin, where is to be sold. He escapes with the aid of a fast-talking beggar boy named Suli, and later joins up with a mercenary named Ghuda and a fun-loving wizard named Nakor. They make their perilous way to the capital city of Kesh, while trying to elude capture by forces who are determined to kill Borric for mysterious, political reasons. Meantime, Erland finds himself unexpectedly representing the Kingdom as its heir presumptive in the middle of a vast, culturally alien court swirling with sex, intrigue, and danger. A high-ranking member of the royal family is murdered, and two nations are brought to the brink of war, before the true nature of the plot is revealed. By then, it's open season on the twin princes and their entourage.

Every book by Feist that I have read, including the massive Magician, I have found easy to enjoy: written in a transparent style, with fast-paced action, romance, humor, and mighty feats of world-building filling every page with fun. Though at times this book felt like a lighter-weight piece of entertainment than the three (or four) I had read before, I came to the end thinking it might have been my favorite so far. I'm not sure that isn't something that's going to happen every time I read another Feist novel. The twins, Jimmy, Locky, Gamina, Ghuda, Suli, and Nakor are compelling characters, and as the two groups pursue vastly different types of adventures, a rich variety of culture and scenery is revealed. The tale abounds in suspense, excitement, Adult Content Advisory-worthy titillation, and intrigue, with differing views about the place of women and attitudes about sex coming in for some comment. And most importantly, the twins' characters are transformed by their adventure.

I have learned to tremble a little when I get to the part of a review of one of Feist's books where I have to describe where it fits into his body of work. Feist himself apparently counts the Riftwar books, listed above, as a trilogy; most everyone else divides Magician into two books (Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master), and therefore counts the same series as four books. The situation only becomes more complex with this book, which I have seen described as the first of two stand-alone companion novels to the Riftwar saga (the second being The King's Buccaneer) - rather as Belgarath the Sorcerer is viewed as a stand-alone companion or prequel to David Eddings' Belgariad quintet. On the cover of my copy of The King's Buccanneer, however, that book is described as the second book of the "Krondor's Sons" series, apparently taking Prince of the Blood as the first. And on one of my favorite websites for settling arguments about the canon order of various series of books, both books are listed as part of the Riftwar series. I don't want to get into the middle of this, but for the sake of simplicity, I'm going with this last option in my index to these reviews.

Now that that's settled, I can go on to note this five- or six-book series, or trilogy or quartet with two outlying books, or whatever it is, is only the beginning of a literary canon of some 30 books set in the world of Midkemia, which (if I am correctly interpreting the author's acknowledgements to both books) took shape in the collaborative setting of a fantasy role-playing game. Other titles include the "Riftwar: The World on the Other Side" trilogy (co-authored with Janny Wurts), the "Riftwar: Serpentwar" quartet, the "Riftwar Legacy" quartet, the "Legends of Riftwar" trilogy (with various co-authors), the "Conclave of Shadows" trilogy, the "Darkwar" trilogy, the "Demonwar" duad, and the "Chaoswar" trilogy. Most recently, Feist started an entirely new fantasy series with the book King of Ashes.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Silver Dream

The Silver Dream
story by Neil Gaiman & Michael Reaves
written by Michael Reaves & Mallory Reaves
Recommended Ages: 12+

Joey Harker used to be just this kid, but now he's one of several hundred "paraincarnations" of pretty much the same exact kid, gathered from around the altiverse - which means the earthlike, inhabited part of the multiverse - which means... never mind. They all live, study, train, and travel between parallel dimensions on a ship/city/school called InterWorld, whose mission is to fight the evils encroaching from both ends of the spectrum of possible worlds - the HEX pirates trying to conquer everything from the magical end of the continuum, and the Binary clones encroaching from the technological end. And though some are boys and some are girls, and some have feathers and others have cybernetic implants, and some come from planets with super-high gravity, and so on, they all look and sound more or less exactly like Joey Harker. They all have names beginning with a J, too, so be sure to keep your list of characters handy.

A couple years into his tour of duty with InterWorld, Joey has started to feel like he belongs. He more or less leads a team (though he isn't the senior officer on it). He doesn't spend quite as many meals at his own table in the mess hall, writhing in social awkwardness, as he did when he first arrived and everyone was suspicious because he had accidentally gotten his recruiter killed. And though the Old Man (kind of a far-future version of Joey) never seems to approve of anything he does, he hasn't been suspected of selling out his team to the enemy, lately.

But now things start to go downhill. First, his team botches a mission to retrieve Binary data from a world called Earth FΔ986, and brings back an uninvited guest whose name doesn't begin with a J - a mysterious girl named Acacia Jones, widely and embarrassingly rumored to be Joey's girlfriend. Then they have to go back to FΔ986 to complete their original mission, plus rescue a Walker - someone like Joey and all his InterWorld friends, who can Walk (with a capital "w") between worlds - who turns out to be way cooler and more popular than Joey. Then a training exercise leads to an accident that injures Joey and kills one of his best friends in a way that leads many, Joey included, to suspect that he, Joey, is to blame. Every time Joey tries to make things better, things get worse, and before anything happens that you won't hate me for spoiling, the multiverse is on the verge of an almighty disaster called Frost Night, and Joey is marooned, hurt, and helpless to do anything to stop it. Or is he? (Cue scary music.)

As the second installment in a series of at least three books, it is perhaps understandable that the mood in this book hits a low note, and it has an unresolved ending. That just gives you more to look forward to in books to come, right? Meantime, there are loads of far-out fantasy ideas, weird images, exciting conflicts, and scary moments in this book, along with some tenderer emotions. While I would prefer to see a book take a story all the way to the end, there is good precedent for leaving us in suspense - so long as the pay-off is worth it.

This sequel to Neil Gaiman & Michael Reaves's InterWorld is one of the few books I have reviewed whose author credits read like the writing credits of a screenplay. Gaiman is the Hugo, Nebula, Newbery Medal, and Carnegie Medal winning author of The Graveyard Book, Coraline, American Gods, Anansi Boys, Neverwhere, Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, etc., etc. Michael Reaves is an Emmy-winning TV writer who has contributed to Batman: The Animated Series and Disney's Gargoyles, as well as Star Wars novels and more; increasingly, he has been working with co-authors while struggling with Parkinson's disease. Mallory Reaves is his daughter, who specializes in adapting manga series such as Afterschool Nightmare and Her Majesty's Dog. Their writing credits grow even more complicated in the third installment of this series, Eternity's Wheel, with the younger Reaves probably doing most of the writing but still getting last (if not least) billing. I hate getting in the middle of messes like this, but I still plan to enjoy this series while it lasts.

Monday, September 4, 2017

God Save the Queen

God Save the Queen
by Kate Locke
Recommended Ages: 14+

Alexandra Vardan is a half-blood, or halvie, in an alternate version of present-day London descended via divergent history from the Madness of George III, when in Xandra's universe the Plague mutated into something called the Prometheus Protein and turned the aristocracy into either vampires (mainly English), werewolves (mainly Scottish), or goblins (um, you'd rather not know). Most commoners, without the mutated gene allowing them to become fully plagued, have continued living life as they otherwise would have, with some weird differences. Instead of CDs and DVDs, they have audio and video cylinders. Instead of push-button cellphones, they carry portable rotaries. They still have Sid Vicious, but he's singing covers of Frank Sinatra now. And Adolf Hitler, instead of causing World War II, made his mark on history as a mediocre landscape painter. Humans have only risen up against the aristos once - during the Great Insurrection of 1932, when Her Ensanguinated Majesty Queen Victoria's beloved Prince Albert was among the slain - but pressure has been building lately in British society, with anti-plague hate groups running amok, and with a carefully-bred buffer class of halvies training to defend the aristos against another attack.

Xandra, for example, is a member of the Royal Guard, a terrific fighter, a star pupil of the academy, and a pet of her teacher, the vampire Churchill. Of her three half-siblings on the side of her aristocratic vampire father, one is an inspector with Scotland Yard, and two are private security consultants - including the youngest, Dede, of whom Xandra is especially protective. When Dede disappears, Xandra makes her perilous way to the city's main goblin plague den, seeking information about where to find her sister. The answer seems terrible enough: Bedlam, the lunatic asylum where Xandra's mother, a breeding courtesan who bore halvie children to more than one aristo, was committed before she died. Even worse news comes on the heels of that bulletin: Dede has committed suicide. So Xandra must face an even more paralyzing fear - the fear of insanity - going to the very place into which her mother disappeared when she was a girl, to identify the charred remains of her sister. But lest you think things can't get even darker and weirder, she can tell right away the burned body is not Dede. So what's going on?

What's going on, she learns, is far deeper and weirder than the matter of what happened to Dede. As she gradually finds out, there is something about Xandra herself that has been hidden from her. On the way to accepting it, however, she stops an assassin from shooting Queen Victoria at her 175th Jubilee Ball; she survives, just barely, an attempt to assassinate herself; she falls in love with the alpha werewolf of all Great Britain; she discovers a heartbreaking betrayal; and she finds herself at the center of a personal scandal and a political crisis that could shake the Empire.

This book has an energetic pace, an Adult Content Advisory-worthy romance, and a fascinating, not-undead take on what vampires and werewolves are (not to mention goblins), and what makes them that way. It also has one of the most valuable assets a fantasy novel can have, in its immersively convincing close-parallel-world setting, sort of like what you get when you take Regency Steampunk and fast forward 200 years. Best of all, it has a heroine with a vibrant personality, a tough attitude, and, well, a lot of other unique stuff about her that I don't want to spoil for you. It fills a niche I didn't know existed, between the period Steampunk of Gail Carriger's "Parasol Protectorate" series and the darker, more dystopian vision of Clay and Susan Griffiths' "Vampire Empire" series. I'm eager to see where Xandra's adventures lead next.

This is the first book in the "Immortal Empire" trilogy, which also includes The Queen Is Dead and Long Live the Queen. The Canadian-born author has also published books under the names Kathryn Smith, Kady Cross, and Kate Cross, including the "Brotherhood of the Blood" quintet, the "Steampunk Chronicles" quartet, and the "Clockwork Agents" trilogy.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

When Friendship Followed Me Home

When Friendship Followed Me Home
by Paul Griffin
Recommended Ages: 11+

One day, while trying to evade bullies on his walk home from school, Ben Coffin befriends an adorable little dog that he comes to call Flip. The two of them make friends with Halley, the librarian's fascinating daughter, who wears snazzy colors, makes up fantastic stories, and plans to beat cancer. They've even started training Flip as a service dog, to assist in a reading program for kids who are not reading at grade level, when Ben arrives home from school and finds his adopted mom dead.

Most of us would readily understand Ben's grief. But only kids who have made it out of the foster-care program can probably understand the fear that plagues him, as he lands with his mom's up-tight sister and her slob boyfriend. Ben even experiences guilt, as he sees tension and conflict growing in Leo and Aunt Jeanie's relationship; he blames himself for messing things up. But his next safest place to crash is with his best friend Chucky, whose parents have way too many kids already, and whose cats set off Ben's allergies. After that, all he seems to have is the street, where he can only last so long before someone will take him into state custody, and separate him from his beloved Flip.

Surprisingly to Ben, he finds a safe haven with the parents of Halley - even though her father is a stage magician, and Ben has a fear of magicians going back to a horrible incident during his foster-care years. But becoming a family with Halley and her folks means facing another heartbreaking loss, and more of that worry that he is messing things up for the family. Only by co-writing Halley's masterpiece story can Ben seem to learn what he has that the people around him need so much.

I was coming down with a cold when I read this book during a three-day holiday weekend, which I spent coughing and sniffling and feeling generally miserable indoors, while the weather outside was beautiful. So I can't blame all the blues or the Kleenex I went through on this book. Nevertheless, I think it deserves enough credit to score well into the "heart through a wringer" band of the emotional effect gauge. It is a really moving study of a young man struggling to find a family to belong to, learning to forgive and accept friendship, opening his heart and mind to trust and a kind of faith, and coping with different kinds of loss. Flu or no flu, something to blow your nose on is a definite prerequisite for reading this book.

Paul Griffin is a New York-based author who specializes in urban fiction for young adults. His other books include Ten Mile River, The Orange Houses, Stay With Me, Burning Blue, Adrift, and Saving Marty, which is scheduled to be released Sept. 19, 2017.

Chosen Prey

Chosen Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this 12th of 27 (and counting) Lucas Davenport/Prey crime thrillers, Davenport gets the news that his job as a politically appointed deputy chief of the Minneapolis police will soon end, setting the stage for his later adventures as an agent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. But lest you feel any apprehension about this, he has officially made up with his ex-ex-fiance Weather Karkinnen, and the two are trying to get pregnant together. But the plot line that will make longtime readers of this series (can there be any other kind?) perk up and say, "Oh, that one!" is the one where an art history prof at a local Catholic college goes on a crime rampage.

James Qatar's crimes are many. He steals from the women he sleeps with, especially the ones he strangles and buries on a hilltop in Goodhue County, and uses the proceeds to buy himself nice clothes. Did I mention he likes strangling women? Busty blondes, especially. He really gets a sexual kick out of it, so he does it a lot. Also, when he's not in the mood to murder, he uses a combination of Photoshop and art skills to create hand-drawn pieces of revenge porn, featuring the heads of women who have displeased him, grafted onto the bodies of online porn actresses; he then anonymously mails these masterpieces to their real-life subjects.

Qatar could get away with all these crimes for a long time, especially given his utter selfishness, his insane lack of conscience, and his ability to cry convincingly on cue. But then one of his victims comes unburied, and a drawing in her possession (which, incidentally, she stole from her killer) connects the crime to all those harassing drawings targeting a similar artsy, blonde body-type in the Twin Cities area, Davenport jumps on the case. He and his ally, outgoing Police Chief Rose Marie Roux, both see it as an opportunity to enjoy the twilight of their career on the M.P.D. Also, there's a sheriff's deputy from Wisconsin hanging around, who sees a connection between the murdered girl and several other missing women, including his own niece. More digging - literal and otherwise - turns up a whole graveyard of murder victims.

With the media dubbing him the "gravedigger," Qatar feels the noose tightening around his neck, and this pushes him to take desperate steps that cost more lives. Meantime, Davenport and his team of investigators have their own obstacles to overcome - such as the involvement of a crack-smoking pimp who has his own reasons to hate Lucas and everyone else wearing a badge, and a potential witness's hyper-sexual approach to setting a trap for the killer, and that Wisconsin guy's increasingly fragile emotional state endangering the whole case.

It's a legal, police-procedural, and psychological thriller, wrapped in an Adult Content Advisory-worthy depiction of deviant sex, violent action, down-to-earth humor, tragedy, and romance. It features many of the recurring characters who are, individually and as a group, among the reasons this series remains satisfying after ever-so-many installments, and whose changing circumstances provide an illusion of the passage of time in a series that could otherwise easily play like the Simpsons, with Bart eternally in fourth grade. You know this is "that" book because Marcy "Titsy" Sherrill is recovering from being shot in the previous book, and Sloan's hair has turned a paler shade of silver, showing his age; it's the book in which the governor first seems to take notice of Lucas as a potential political asset, and which ends with... oh, that was close. I almost spoiled it!

John Sandford, a.k.a. John Camp, has written another 15 Prey books since this one, plus 10 or so books in the spinoff series featuring Virgil Flowers, plus several books featuring a character named Kidd who has a cameo in this book (possibly his first crossover to this series), and even more. Unless I stumble across some of his books that I haven't spotted locally, my opportunities to read his stuff are played out for the time being, but I'll be watching the library's holdings and used book sales for more of this author's sure-fire formula for making a dull evening zip by.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Fronday Morning Dream

Today is Fronday at the newspaper where I work. That is to say, our regular Monday deadline for next week's paper has been pushed up to Friday, because of the Labor Day holiday. Friday + Monday = Fronday. The phenomenon is also known as "the dread week of two Mondays." Get it? Good.

So, early this morning, with the prospect of Fronday looming in my subconscious, I had an interesting journalism-related stress dream.

In my dream, I was sent on a photography assignment to a high school dance, where I was somehow dragooned into shooting a picture of each couple attending the dance. First in line was a quadriplegic boy in a wheelchair, who was accompanied by a male caregiver. I pulled out my pen and reporter's notebook and asked for their names, but the caregiver insisted his name was "88 Colt" and launched into a long-winded, melodramatic story about how he came by it - probably something to do with a Dodge subcompact car, I suppose - but I interrupted him and politely asked him to save it for later. Then I tried lining up the shot, but one of the bulbs on this sort of track-light fixture above the dais was pointed in my direction and it was causing a lens flare. So, I started looking for a chair or something to stand on, so I could adjust the angle of the light, and started to get flustered by the evident impatience of the long line of dance-goers waiting to be photographed...

Yeah, it was a pretty miserable dream. It made me glad to wake up and realize that I only have to deal with Fronday.

Macatouille?

I tried to make a ratatouille for a church potluck this past Sunday. Not the movie "Ratatouille" version with alternating thin slices of eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, and Roma tomato fanned out in a spiral formation in a baking dish and broiled in a piperade, but the Emeril version with the ingredients cooked al dente in a pot on the stove. Also in the recipe are sweet peppers, onions, garlic, rosemary, thyme, basil, salt and pepper, a dab of olive oil to start, and a goodly squirt of lemon juice to finish. It's one of those recipes that makes you feel like you're really cooking, because of the amount of time you spend slicing things before anything goes into the pot, and because there's a precise order of battle as to what goes into the pot and when.

I've been making it long enough to do it without looking at a recipe, and it turned out rather well, except that I got a little overenthusiastic with the fresh thyme and rosemary. That, and the fact that some people apparently expected there to be some kind of meat in the dish, perhaps explains why only a couple people at the potluck tried it. I ended up with a potluck-sized potful of leftover ratatouille, which I am still eating at home.

Last night, to shake things up, I decided to combine one of the few dishes I make from all-fresh ingredients with an old bachelor-chow standby, boxed shells-and-cheese macaroni - the kind with the packet of ready-mixed cheese sauce that you can heat up in the same boiling water as the noodles. I've combined a lot of different things with boxed shell or elbow mac and cheese; things everybody has tried, like tuna, peas, and cream-of-mushroom soup, or canned chili without beans; things most people would know better than to stir in, like leftover spaghetti sauce and meatballs; and things few people have even thought of adding, like Italian clam sauce or a spicy Indian entree. Most of these mixers are pretty much on the order of adding junk to more junk. But it turns out that adding homemade, leftover ratatouille to the shells-and-cheese both elevated the mac and broke the monotony of a week of eating a stew of perfectly cooked but over-seasoned summer vegetables.

While I'm confiding my culinary transgressions, here's another bachelor chow tip I just discovered this week: You can make instant oatmeal with the Keurig machine in your office's break room. First, empty two serving-size packets into a soup mug (because, face it, one is never enough); put the mug under the nozzle of the K-cup machine. Then, whatever your Keurig model requires to get it to run 4 ounces of hot water into the mug, do that twice (once for each packet of oatmeal). Stir and let stand for a couple minutes. It's actually faster, less messy, and tastier than the microwave way that you, I, and the wall have been practicing lo, these many years.

Based on this picture, I am apparently not the first person to realize this. But if you're behind me on the Keurig learning curve, you're welcome.

Easy Prey

Easy Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the 11th of currently 27 crime thrillers featuring Lucas Davenport, a guy whose crime-solving genius is founded partly on his ability to organize a team of detectives and partly on his keen predatory instincts - bad guys being his prey of choice - rises to what I reckon to be the peak of his career as a deputy chief of the Minneapolis police force. So that makes the murder of a bisexual, heroin-chic supermodel named Alie'e Maison the crowning case of that phase of his career.

Alie'e is found strangled in a bedroom at a socialite's house during a party attended by more than a hundred people. Even more disturbing, a second corpse falls out of a closet while the cops are clearing the scene - a hostess from a swanky hotel, whose head appears to have been smashed against a doorjamb. Assuming Alie'e was the primary target and the other girl was killed to cover up the crime, Davenport's team gets nowhere fast. Interesting things start to drop, however, when they turn it around and start investigating the possibility the hotel hostess was killed first, and Alie'e died because she was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Among the things that start to drop are more dead bodies. The case is further clouded by the fact some of the new murders seem to be motivated by revenge for the fate of Alie'e, while others look like the work of the original killer. Davenport likes Alie'e's brother, an ecstatic saint-type charismatic preacher, for the former and a drug-dealing real estate kingpin for the latter; but when more murders happen right under the noses of a police protection detail, the possibility that he may be wrong about both suspects becomes a dead certainty.

It's a keep-you-guessing mystery, a fascinating police procedural, and an entertaining cop romance all rolled into one. The surrender of one of the killers is one of the goofiest surprises I have come across in crime fiction. How he becomes a suspect is one of the most out-of-the-blue surprises since I don't remember when. The romance bit also places this installment at an interesting point in Davenport's character arc, with one ex-girlfriend languishing in a hospital bed, another having a midlife crisis and trying to drag him into it, a third (probably the love of his life) warming up to him again after their relationship cooled a book or two back, and topping it all, a sexually ravenous young beauty throwing herself at him. Yes, a murder mystery involving a supermodel would be wasted if... well, let's put it this way: Adult Content Advisory!

John Sandford, a pen name of the Pulitzer-winning newspaper writer John Camp, is a long-running, prolific crime fiction franchise that, so far, hasn't missed a trick - and I say this after having read a couple dozen of his titles. The older titles in this series show their age a bit, but mainly in their references to then-current technology, such as Palm Pilots, and Davenport's attitude about it, such as constantly having to be lectured about keeping his cell phone turned on. But their dialogue, action, intrigue, and character interplay remain just as crisp and full of twanging tension, laugh-out-loud humor, and action sequences that choreograph themselves perfectly in the theater of the mind.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Certain Prey

Certain Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

When I wrote in my review of Secret Prey that I couldn't wait to get back to reading this, the next and 10th book in the now-27-book Lucas Davenport/"Prey" series, I was lying a little bit. I wanted to mention the fact that this was the next book, and that I was eager to get back to my couch to read more Prey, but in actual truth, I had already finished this book and was on to book 11, Easy Prey. But there is some truth in the lie, since I would have written that previous review sooner if I hadn't spent an entire, agoraphobic Saturday camped out on the couch, reading Lucas Davenport mysteries. I finished Secret Prey in the morning, stayed up until late at night to read all of this book, and was a chapter into Easy Prey before the day was out. No checking email, no blogging reviews, no minor housekeeping chores or shopping trips, no poking my head outside to see what the weather is like. I didn't even raise the blinds. I took full advantage of a rare weekend with no urgent responsibilities to absolutely pamper myself, and broke from reading this book only to use the bathroom and to fix myself a few things to eat or drink. I probably put on five pounds reading this book. I hope you appreciate the sacrifice I'm making to inform you of all the great reading entertainment that's out there.

If you've read at least a few books in this ongoing series, in which almost every book has a two-word title ending with "Prey," I suppose the first thing you want to know is: This is the one in which Sex and the City meets Thelma and Louise. Kinda.

Carmel Loan is a powerful Twin Cities lawyer who is used to getting things her way. One day, she decides she wants a gorgeous, though not too bright, real estate lawyer named Hale Allen. Small problem: He's married to an heiress. He may fool around on her, but he's not going to leave her. Solution: Squash the heiress like a bug. Carmel does this by going to one of her clients, a lowlife Hispanic drug dealer with ties to the St. Louis mafia, and calling in a marker. Accordingly, Rolo sets things up with a nice girl named Clara Rinker, a Wichita bar owner who is finishing her college degree, and who has a thriving side business putting six or seven .22 slugs into the brain of anyone her clients want. She is very careful, very quick, and very elusive; the FBI wants her for at least 27 killings. But the one she does for Carmel, in the stairwell of a downtown Minneapolis parking ramp, goes just wrong enough to send both their lives spinning out of control.

Perhaps their mistake is trying to get away with murder in the same city where Lucas Davenport is the deputy police chief in charge of investigations. Davenport has a great team, including mild-mannered interrogation genius Sloan, the hard-driven Marcy Sherrill - a former flame of Lucas's, who (unless I'm mistaken) first gets her nickname "Titsy" in this book from Carmel Loan - and Sherrill's semi-closeted gay partner Tom Black, among others. They almost don't need Davenport's help, but he willingly joins them; anything to get out of having to read a 600-page anti-discrimination policy for a departmental committee.

Once he is involved, however, things get really messy. When Rolo attempts to blackmail them, the hit-girl and her client go on a rampage of torture, terror, and murder to try to cover up their previous crime, only to get mired even deeper - a situation Clara aptly likens to the tar baby from the tales of Br'er Rabbit. Now their lives are on the line, not only because being convicted of murder would be bad, but also because Clara's mafia connections will come after her as soon as they see her as a liability. With Davenport little more than a step behind - and in one thrilling scene, considerably less than a step behind - you almost sympathize with these killer women; especially since Davenport is not above pulling some ethically iffy stunts to find out who done it. As he has pointed out in previous installments, finding that out is the biggest part; making the charge stick, however, is what makes this a twisty, dangerous, unpredictable thrill-ride.

Though it's the 10th book in an ongoing series, Certain Prey shows no sign of losing energy or slackening tension. And though it's only the 10th in a series that has grown to 30 installments, it already seems to be going full speed, with a mature main character in full command of his crime-solving assets, and a mature author in full-command of whatever makes a book sexy, creepy, suspenseful, and in all other ways fun. You might not be able to remember, a year from now, whether this particular mystery was the fourth, or the 14th, or the 24th book in the series; but canon-order issues only matter so much. The formula, "At first the crime seems to be about one thing, and by the time they reealize it's really this other thing, the lead detective and those close to him find themselves personally in danger," could describe literally hundreds of books, and is pretty much the recipe by which this entire series has been cooked. But one seldom finds an author who more regularly and reliably does it to a turn.

Secret Prey

Secret Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

In his preface to a relatively recent re-issue of this book, novelist John Sandford (a.k.a. sometime journalist John Camp) recalled this ninth of currently 27 "Prey" novels featuring Lucas Davenport as having the most complicated plot of them all. If he hadn't mentioned it, the reader wouldn't have noticed, since the book seems effortlessly structured, so that one is caught up in its twists and turns. For the author, it was secretly "brain prey." For the reader, it's simply brain candy - a completely satisfying thrill-ride of crime and detection, with something enjoyable on every page.

For the benefit of any confirmed John Sandford readers who can't keep all these Prey novels straight - and let's face it, their titles aren't much help - this is the one in which the chairman of the board and CEO of a major Twin Cities bank takes a load of buckshot in the back while hunting with four of his top executives. With the bank about to be swallowed up by a corporate merger, and thousands of jobs on the line, there is no shortage of possible suspects, but the four most obvious ones were right there in the woods with him, toting guns. Nevertheless, Sandford keeps us guessing about which one done it until the chairman's death proves to be only the latest in a series of murders by the last person anyone would have suspected of being a psychopath. Although, to be precise, it doesn't stay the latest murder for very long.

Minneapolis Police Chief Lucas Davenport - a dangerous hunter to have stalking you, if you're a killer - is on the hunt, joined by several of his regular cronies, such as incurable sad-sack Del Capslock, whose discomfort is hilarious as he finds himself forced to bust an opium ring of nice old ladies; mild-mannered Detective Sloan, who is frequently described as the best interrogator in the department; and Marcy Sherrill, whose 40-day affair with Davenport takes place during this installment, during a cool-down in his relationship with then-fiancee Weather Karkinnen (for reasons better understood if you have read Sudden Prey). Between these two subplots, the creepy, violent, gruesome murder mystery is livened up by sexy romance and laugh-out-loud comedy, not to mention a gentle exploration of Lucas' struggle with depression.

Because I have been reading this series out of order, I happen to know things aren't really as "over" between Lucas and Weather as they appear in this book; also, I know how and when Sherrill and Sloan part company with the series. I have not yet seen Lucas's career take him to some the places I know it goes. It's a little weird to be finding out what role they played in it after seeing their role end, so I would recommend the "read straight through the canon" approach, starting with Rules of Prey, rather than my "catch as catch can" reading order. But I can bear witness that in whatever order you read them, each Lucas Davenport novel is a gripping mystery, full of shocks and fumbles, battles and chases, intriguing puzzles and astonishing discoveries. I'm torn between wanting to read them all right now and dreading to run out of them. But for the moment, I'm just looking forward to getting back to my couch and the next book in the series, Certain Prey.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Sudden Prey

Sudden Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

Minneapolis-based cop Lucas Davenport is kind of a scary guy. In this book, his plans to marry microsurgeon Weather Karkinnen hit a snag when she gets a good look at how scary he is, but people are constantly noticing it: the cold way he smiles, the hard gleam in his eye, the way he just lights up when he's on the scent of a bad guy. You might think he is the protagonist of a series of books that all have the word "Prey" in their title because he so often goes up against predators of the worst kind. But the fact is, those predators are the Prey. And Lucas Davenport is the most dangerous predator - the apex predator who hunts other predators, and likes it. When the chase is on, he comes alive. And sometimes, it looks scarily as though he means for it to end in death, and gets a charge out of it - like the way he manages the hunt for a pair of female bank robbers at the beginning of this book, maneuvering them into a situation from which they cannot escape alive.

Even though he doesn't fire a shot in the gun battle that follows, a lot of people read the situation as though he killed the two women. Among those people is a prison inmate named Dick LaChaise, who happens to be the husband of one of the women and the brother of the other. Dick takes advantage of their joint funeral to escape, plotting vengeance against the cops who cornered his late and lamented. He gathers two nut-job accomplices, a female hostage, and a crooked cop who has been blackmailed into feeding him inside information, then goes to war against Davenport's team and their families. And because they're insane, LaChaise and friends are hard to stop. There's no predicting what they'll do next, where they'll strike; and they don't particularly care whether they live or die. You know what drops out of all that, don't you? Yes, indeed: a bloodbath.

While Dick LaChaise is at war with Lucas Davenport, nowhere is safe. Not the homes or workplaces of anyone on the police payroll. Not the hospital where Weather works, nor the other hospital where the victims who survive their attacks lie injured, nor the neighborhood where Lucas's ex-girlfriend is raising their daughter. Even when the nut-jobs are holed up in their lair, bodies continue to drop because there's a cop involved, who needs to cover up his involvement. And caught in the middle is a desperate woman who needs to escape from her insane captors, but who is afraid to take the chance of running into some unknown cop who needs to silence her. Count on one thing, and one thing only: the violence and danger will only increase as the case rushes to its disturbing conclusion.

This is the eighth of currently 27 "Prey" novels featuring Lucas Davenport, back when he was a mere Deputy Chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, and before the fictional Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was even a gleam in his eye. If my verb tenses seem strange, it's because of the fact (which I have repeated a nauseating number of times) that I'm reading this series in more or less random order. To-date, this is the 12th book that I have read in the series, but the first in canon order, part of a group of books from the early-middle Davenport period that I recently picked up at a used bookstore, after exhausting the late-late Davenport books I started with, and then the late-middle books I found at the local library. It's an interesting way to progress through a series, but I would recommend starting at the beginning, with Rules of Prey. The next book after this, however, both for me and in publication order, is Secret Prey.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Reamde

Reamde
by Neal Stephenson
Recommended Ages: 14+

What do Islamist terrorists, Chinese hackers, Russian gangsters, British spies, mountain militiamen of the American northwest, and creatures from a medieval sword-and-sorcery fantasy world have in common? Improbable as it may seem, they all get caught up in one big, complicated, deadly mess when a piece of low-rent ransomware (bascially, "Pay us $73 and we'll send you the decryption key so you can have your computer files back") targets users of a massively multiplayer online role-play game called T-Rain.

T-Rain was designed by its founder, Richard Forthrast, to make the most of a fact resisted by the proprietors of other online games, such as World of Warcraft: the tendency of certain users to try to monetize their game-play. Underlying all the game-world's medieval combat simulation stuff is a detailed geological structure purpose-built to allow young Chinese operators to mine virtual gold and turn it into real-world money. That isn't the only thing the game has going for it, though. It also has a mythology designed by not one, but two bestselling fantasy authors, and a user interface so true to life that it has actually been used to beef up airport security. But thanks to some technobabble that is not within my powers of description, it also exposes some of its users to a cyberattacker calling himself the Troll, who requires his victims to transfer the ransom money for all their saved files via an in-game cash drop. When thousands of characters suddenly show up at a certain place in the fantasy world of T-Rain, loaded with gold, hordes of bandits take advantage and a chaotic melee breaks out.

As generally happens in a situation like this, one of the first victims is an associate of a Russian mob boss named Ivanov, who instantly blames Forthrast's adopted niece Zula and her slightly dodgy, internet security consultant boyfriend Peter. Held at gunpoint, Zula narrows down the Troll's whereabouts to the Chinese city of Xiamen, where the couple is illegally whisked forthwith, joined by a Hungarian hacker named Csongor, a former Soviet special forces soldier named Sokolov, and the latter's team of armed bodyguards. There they use wardriving to narrow down the Troll's location even further. But at the last moment, Zula lies to Ivanov about which of two possible apartments houses the hive of hackers who have inconvenienced Ivanov. As a result, Sokolov and his men find themselves in a firefight against a jihadist cell headed by Interpol's most wanted terrorist, a black Welshman named Abdallah Jones. When the building blows up around them, Zula falls out of the frying pan into the fire - which is to say, she becomes Jones' hostage in a madcap flight from China to Canada.

A stupendously complicated plot then unfolds, with several groups, pairs of people, and individuals converging at a point on the border between British Columbia and Idaho, where it all ends in blood. Along the way, we meet a member of the Hakka tribe of "big-footed women," a CIA snake-eater in a remote corner of the Philippines, an icky busload of white male sex tourists and their very young Asian escorts, a motley crew of Islamists from a variety of backgrounds, and a female spy who goes off the reservation to hunt down the most dangerous man on earth. Also, there's a man-eating cougar in there somewhere. Get used to flinching. You'll be doing a lot of it.

Three brief phrases in this book stuck in my mind, illustrating why the language-mad side of me fell in love-at-first-book with its author. Two of them came from the same chapter, around the middle of the book: "repurposed cuisine" and "sous-novelists." The third popped up closer to the end: "vehicular mosh pit." Even without knowing anything else about the book, I would be interested just to see what a writer who thinks up phrases like that will do. They aren't very big spoilers, considering the audio-book version consisted of 32 CDs and lasted me more than one and a half round trips between southern Missouri and northern Minnesota.

Neal Stephenson, whose fantasy novels I understand are pigeon-holed alternately as "cyberpunk" and "baroque," is also the author (or at least co-author) of the "Baroque Cycle" of Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World, and such novels, spanning from the mid-1980s to the present day, as Zodiac, Snow Crash, Interface, Cryptonomicon, Anathem, Seveneves, and most recently The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. I tend to balk at diving into a very long novel by an unfamiliar author, but after making his acquaintance through the easy-to-take medicine of an audio-book, I'm eager to read more of his stuff.

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 12+

Is it ironic that an adventure inspired by the tales of the 1,001 Arabian Nights begins with its main character setting off on an adventure inspired by the tales of the 1,001 Arabian Nights? Irony is certainly well-represented in this book's rich variety of textures and hues, along with romance, comedy, magic, sickening violence, and suspense.

Carlo Chuchio, the orphaned nephew of a fat merchant on an island somewhat like pre-19th century Sicily, is widely considered a fool by those who know him. Impractical, accident-prone, and given to daydreaming, he is finally given his marching orders and sent to the mainland to make his own fortune, carrying with him a tattered book of tales in which he found a mysterious treasure map. He is joined on his search by a grumbling, idle camel puller, a wise old man, and a lovely but terribly serious girl who has sworn revenge on the slave merchant who abducted her, possibly after killing her whole family.

Together they witness deadly battles with bandits, explore caves painted by a hermit with the ability to see the future, purchase dreams, face seemingly certain death, and (in more than one couple's case) fall in love. Do they find the treasure? Well, that would be telling. All you need to know for now is that there is a laugh, a sigh, a thrill, or a gasp of wonder on every page.

This was the last book published by Lloyd Alexander, published in the year of his death, 2007. A winner of both the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award, he was the author of many folklore-based pieces of original fiction, including The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, The Fortune-Tellers, The Arkadians, The Iron Ring, Gypsy Rizka, The Rope Trick, and the five-book "Chronicles of Prydain" series. I have loved many, many of his books, and there are still lots of them I haven't read yet, including the Westmark trilogy and the Vesper Holly sextet.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Goblin Secrets

Goblin Secrets
by William Alexander
Recommended Ages: 10+

Rownie is an orphan living in the bizarre, magical city of Zombay, where it is forbidden to wear masks or act in a play, and where coal is made by stealing people's hearts. After their mother drowned in the river that divides the city in half, Rownie and his older brother Rowan stayed with Graba, a "grandmother" to many of the city's most desperate urchins, who also happens to be a witchworker on giant, clockwork bird's legs. But now Rowan has disappeared, and Rownie runs away to join a troupe of goblin actors who have invited them to play a role in their strange, magical drama.

While traveling with the goblins, who call themselves Tamlin, Rownie learns that masks have power, a different kind of power from that practiced by Graba. While the witchworker uses spells and curses, wearing children as masks and sending pigeons as her spies, the goblins are enacting make-believe stories that alter reality. They hope Rownie will lead them to Rowan, who they believe was destined to wear the mask of the city, acting out a scene that must be acted out to prevent the river from flooding and washing away half of the city. But just when so much depends on Rownie, the jealousy of Graba and a heartbreaking betrayal may spell doom for all of Zombay.

Goblin Secrets is a refreshingly original book, with an innocence, oddness, and transparently direct style sure to appeal to young readers, combined with an emotional depth and perfectly-measured lyricism that may take a jaded adult's breath away. This debut novel by a Minneapolis-based educator and author won the 2012 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Since then, Alexander has written a sequel, Ghoulish Song, and three more novels, Ambassador, Nomad, and A Properly Unhaunted Place.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Frederica

Frederica
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 13+

This book dates from 1965, considerably later than the previous two Regency-period romantic comedies by Heyer that I have read. She evidently hadn't lost her feel for the genre, though. The twist in this book is that my lord the Marquis of Alverstoke, 37, has reached the point where his title will almost certainly pass to his dim-witted but handsome male cousin Endymion Gauntry, because he isn't likely to make a successful marriage. After flirting with an entire generation's most beautiful heiresses, he has developed a tendency to become quickly bored with them. Also, he doesn't promise to be much use to his three matronly sisters and the brood of nephews and nieces with which they plague him. He doesn't seem capable of caring about anyone but himself. Enter a very distant cousin named Frederica Merriville, the de facto head of her household of fatherless siblings, appealing to his lordship to help her launch her blindingly beautiful younger sister Charis into the ton.

At first, Alverstoke only seems interested in gratifying Frederica's wish so he can aggravate his pushy sister Louisa and Endymion's histrionic mother Lucretia, who both have launch-ready daughters, and who both have begged his lordship to launch them with a ball at his house in London. The two matrons' smiles turn to scowls when they realize how far Charis outshines their daughters, which mightily tickles Alverstoke. But to the amazement even of himself, he continues to act as a protector of the Merriville family, and it gradually dawns on him that he really cares about youngest sibling Felix, too-serious-for-his-years brother Jessamy, and most of all, the no-nonsense older sister Frederica. As he comes to their rescue in a series of crises, each more serious than the last, the Marquis must admit to himself that he loves Frederica - but how to declare his love to her, he doesn't know.

Between a chocolaty under-layer of emotionally satisfying romantic drama and an effervescent surface of zest and humor, this book is held together by a cast of engaging characters and a wealth of rare linguistic marvels, such as the words "thatchgallows" and "snatchpastry." It is the type of romantic comedy that gives full strength to both ingredients listed on the label. It has the intoxicating flavor of a historical period that impresses all the mind's senses with a conviction of its authenticity. It is laced with dialogue that includes some of the most crushing "set-downs" in the annals of high-class snobbery, along with a lot of pure fun.

A partial list of Georgette Heyer's works, different from but almost as long as the one I gave in my last review, would include Devil's Cub, The Talisman Ring, The Corinthian, Cotillion, Sprig Muslin, April Lady, Arabella, Venetia, Charity Girl, The Great Roxhythe, Barren Corn, Death in the Stocks, A Blunt Instrument, Detection Unlimited, and They Found Him Dead. I am beginning to think that if I read them all, they wouldn't find me dead of boredom.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Friday's Child

Friday's Child
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 13+

If you like your novel-length romantic comedies to have a Regency-period setting, but you've already pretty thoroughly surveyed everything by Jane Austen - which doesn't take long, actually - Georgette Heyer is the right shop to come to. She was the reigning queen of Regency restoration throughout the middle 50 years of the 20th century; she was a credible authority on all things authentic to that period; and more than half of her 50-odd books fit the bill - the remainder being mostly mysteries and historical novels set in other periods. My first exposure to Heyer's work was The Grand Sophy, which cleaves pretty closely to the pattern set by Austen, with an unconventional female arriving at her cousins' London residence and giving the place a full shake-down, including arranging the love-affairs of everyone in sight, before finally finding the love of her life practically under her nose.

Surprisingly, but not disappointingly, this 1944 book, one of Heyer's earlier works of Regency romance, departs from that relatively predictable story-shape right from the beginning. The lucky couple have already found each other and gotten married, practically at the starting gun. The trouble is, they don't realize they truly love each other until almost the end. Meantime, they endure misunderstandings, social blunders, jealousies, affairs of honor, moral and financial misgivings, and close scrapes with a cast of wacky friends, including a ridiculously romantic young buck, an adventurer who ruins decent people for a living, and an heiress who takes a bit too much enjoyment out of having a few too many ardent suitors.

Young Anthony "Sherry" Verelst, a.k.a. Viscount Sheringham, is set on course for romantic hijinks when the Incomparable Isabella refuses point-blank to marry him. Further exasperated by an interview with his passive-aggressive dowager mother, Sherry swears to marry the first young lady he sees. It so happens that turns out to be Hero Wantage, a girl of scarcely 17, who has adored Sherry all her life. Hero, soon nicknamed Kitten, has been living a Cinderella-like life on the grudging charity of her cousin and that lady's three ugly daughters. Terrified of being sent to Bath to serve as a governess, she willingly joins Sherry's crazy enterprise, and the two of them are swiftly hitched. But at once it becomes clear they should have given this more thought, since Hero really isn't ready to mix in the most fashionable circles of London society, and Sherry isn't grown-up enough to be the husband she needs. With each new adventure, they skate closer to disaster, with always entertaining but not always helpful contributions from their friends, frenemies, and one certifiably Bad Man.

Readers who don't like to see a husband give his wife a slap across the face may not find this novel to their taste. It isn't a feminist novel; it is, rather, a novel set in a scrupulously faithful reconstruction of a historical period. I think it succeeds pretty well in making that period come credibly to life. Where it needs strong female characters to capture the sympathy of today's readers, it gets them by giving Hero a good excuse for not understanding what is and isn't proper for a woman of her class, period, and marital status, and by letting the shark tank of 19th-century London's "Marriage Mart" shove Isabella to her wits' end. It has imperfect but endearing characters, scintillating wit, richly transporting language, and at bottom, a heart-touching drama of a marriage on the razor-edge of failing, all worked into a dramatic shape that achieves a spectacular climax. It's the kind of book that one can imagine being a terrific movie, even though one knows better than to trust the movie industry to make it. So, I guess that's a long way of saying it's a terrific book.

The titles of some of Heyer's other Regency romances are An Infamous Army, The Spanish Bride, The Reluctant Widow, The Quiet Gentleman, Bath Tangle, The Unknown Ajax, False Colours, Black Sheep, and Lady of Quality. In other genres, her interesting-sounding titles include The Convenient Marriage, Simon the Coldheart, Royal Escape, Instead of the Thorn, Why Shoot a Butler?, Duplicate Death, and the short story collection Pistols for Two.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Grand Sophy

The Grand Sophy
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 13+

The Rivenhall family of Berkeley Square has fallen on hard times. Lord Ombersley, the father of the household, is a man of weak character, whose debts have all but bankrupted them. Lady Ombersley is a nervous wreck. Their oldest son Charles has inherited a fortune from his uncle, putting him in position to save the family's fortune, if he really works at it; but as a side effect, he has become so tyrannical, the whole family is afraid of him. Also, he is engaged to a moralizing bore named Miss Wraxton, who disapproves of everything. Add to these characters a younger brother at Oxford, who is also struggling with debts; a sister named Cecilia, who has fallen in love with a completely useless fellow, breaking the heart of a man far more worthy of her hand; and several younger siblings, who haven't enjoyed themselves in ever so long; and you have a household just crying out for a visit from a fearless, forceful, frequently interfering female named Sophy.

Sophy is the daughter of Lady Ombersley's brother, Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy. An important diplomat, Sir Horace has raised his daughter abroad, during a most dangerous and exciting time for English folks to be abroad. Now it is up to Lady Ombersley to look out for a prospective husband for this strong-willed, rough-around-the-edges young woman - if Charles can refrain from strangling her first. The two cousins butt heads frequently, as Sophy tries the boundaries of what is considered proper for young ladies to do, and interferes in everyone else's affairs. Luckily for her, she is also highly intelligent, nervelessly brave, and driven by the purest motives - otherwise, someone would certainly strangle her, sooner or later.

At first, it seems Sophy is going to get into the same kind of romantic-comedy scrapes as Jane Austen's Emma. But then, her escapades begin to top anything in Austen, and each successive one tops the last, until you find her in the middle of a scheme of un-looked-for quirkiness and daring. There is no chance of getting bored with this heroine or her hijinks; they build to a climax more exciting and hilarious than one generally expects from a Regency romance, or at least one unadulterated by zombies or Steampunk paraphernalia. Some readers, I imagine, pick up a book like this as though digging in for a night-long struggle to wring the least drop of enjoyment out of a book full of old-fashioned manners. But Georgette Heyer brings the fun right to the reader, and then draws him or her into it.

Published in 1950, this book is only as old as my parents. Nevertheless, it fizzes with energy, as if in the prime of its life, while at the same time guiding you through a captivating mental time-warp to London, circa 1815. It's a perfectly charming piece of light entertainment that, on the one hand, rollicks along in a romantic-comedy rumble full of perils, surprises, and laughs; it is also, on the other hand, a finely crafted work of literary art, written in a style that conjures an immersive, if not addictive, imaginary world around you, then otherwise stays out of the way of its striking characters or their convoluted concerns.

Georgette Heyer, who wrote approximately 50 novels in a more than 50-year career (1920s to 1970s), more or less invented the Regency romance sub-genre of period fiction, which is still bowling along almost a century later. Her passion for scenic and fashion details, her study of the way people talked and behaved at that period in English history, lend her writing a convincing realism and sensuous vividness that transcend the predictable formulas of romantic fiction. But what gives her writing zip is, most of all, her understanding of character, her knack for inventing marvelous people like the Grand Sophy, her cousin Charles, and others, and playing them off each other to sparkling effect. Also, perhaps, the fact that she is looking back on the Regency period allows her to pull stunts Jane Austen never would have dared, and that's all right with me. I look forward to reading at least a few more of Heyer's books, which I picked up with this one at a Half-Price Books store in the Twin Cities during a recent, long-overdue vacation. Their titles include Friday's Child and Frederica.

Monday, July 31, 2017

216. Thanksgiving for Health Restored

I haven't given any thought to what tune should go with this hymn, but I've been thinking about the text itself for several weeks - particularly since my brother spent a week in the hospital, and my father and stepmother both underwent successful surgery, and my mother was diagnosed with a serious illness, etc. It simply occurred to me that there could be a use for a hymn like this. I couldn't think of any existing hymns that met that need, however. So, here is my attempt to do so.
We thank You, Christ, our healing Lord,
For strength renewed and health restored,
That yet a while Your child may bide
To serve and be served by our side.

To heal is Yours; for at Your word
Fell fiends have fled, dead limbs have stirred.
The weak, the lame, and the unclean
Your healing grace and might have seen.

You straighten what has gone askew:
The limb, the tongue, the senses too.
If from the dead we will arise,
Our frail flesh You cannot despise.

A yet more wondrous balm we have,
As weary consciences You salve.
Our bodies You do not malign;
You pardon them through bread and wine.

Our very life is in Your hand,
The hour of our departure planned
As suits Your always loving will;
If then we grieve, You love us still.

Though, in affliction, we may cringe
To touch Your garment's lowest fringe,
Your healing kindness, strong and swift,
Has proved You keen our hearts to lift.

And so we lift them, healing Lord,
In gratitude for health restored;
Now help us use these lengthened days
In fitting service, prayer, and praise.

EDIT: I've settled (for now) on the 1857 hymn-tune ST. OSWALD by John B. Dykes for this hymn, pictured here.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
by Seth Grahame-Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

Some books require no synopsis. The title says it all. But that doesn't make it any less fun to read. Yes, this book really is a biography of Abraham Lincoln, a literally and metaphorically over-sized figure in U.S. history. It hits all the highlights of his often-told, well-documented life from beginning to end, with the addition of his never-before-revealed career as one of the greatest vampire slayers of his time. That someone would start a book like this doesn't seem strange, these days. The fact that he made it all the way through the book, and successfully published it, merits a lift of the eyebrows, if not a tip of the hat. Nevertheless, I bought this book without any expectation that it would be at all good. It surprised me with hours of enjoyment that, in retrospect, demand thinking about.

The audio-CD version of this book beguiled my recent drive from mid-Missouri to the Twin Cities and part of the way back. It is one of two books by this author that have been on my "haven't gotten around to reading it yet" shelf for several years, so I enjoyed the opportunity to listen to Scott Holst read it aloud. Taking nothing from Holst's considerable skill as a spoken-word recording artist and a thrilling story about slaying vampires, I am especially impressed that Seth Grahame-Smith, a past master of genre mash-ups, actually manages to deliver a fairly respectable biography of America's 16th president. The fact that the slave-holding south wasn't, in reality, driven to secede by the motives of literal bloodsucking fiends, doesn't at all detract from the greatness of Lincoln's achievement in rising from an unschooled frontier farm boy to successful lawyer, state legislator, congressman, and first Republican President of the U.S., to say nothing of abolishing slavery and preserving the union through a devastating civil war. The book does fair justice to his great speeches, his important accomplishments as president, and his often heartbreaking family life. It would be pretty good without all the stuff about vampires.

The second major achievement in this book is that, having added all the stuff about vampires without which it would have been a good book, it is still a good book - and not, as one might expect, merely a good joke. Surprisingly, it isn't particularly funny; but the paranormal fiction part of the book is very entertaining in exactly the way it should be - scary, thrilling, and dramatically well-structured.

The book's third achievement is nothing short of a miracle: fitting these two seemingly disparate, individually complete elements together into a single, seamless whole that, with apologies to the historians and biographers of Lincoln, improves on both. Of course, the improvement on the biography and history takes the form of pure fantasy, so calling it an improvement is merely to register a taste judgment on my part. Going the other way, however, the history/biography piece improves the fantasy piece in a way that can be objectively measured and asserted beyond any doubt. It does this by lending the vampire-slaying plot a depth of character, an emotional truth, and (at the end) a movingly tragic-yet-triumphant beauty that I would like to think surprised the author as much as me.

Grahame-Smith is also the author of the paranormal Jane Austen spoof Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; the paranormal Bible spoof Unholy Night (depicting the three wise men as some kind of monster-slaying ronin); the non-fiction books The Big Book of Porn, The Spiderman Handbook, How to Survive a Horror Movie, and Pardon My President: Ready-to-Mail Apologies for 8 Years of George W. Bush; and most recently, a sequel to this book titled The Last American Vampire.

Tyrannosaurus Lex

Tyrannosaurus Lex: The Marvelous Book of Palindromes, Anagrams, and Other Delightful and Outrageous Wordplay
by Rod L. Evans, Ph.D.
Recommended Ages: 13+

The title pretty much tells you what you will find between the covers of this book: plentiful examples of palindromes, anagrams, and other forms of wordplay in the English language, broken up into categories that include heteronyms (words that look the same but have different pronunciations and meanings), homophones and homonyms (which sound and/or are spelled the same, but have different meanings), tautonyms (terms that repeat the same meaning twice), oxymora (terms that seemingly contradict themselves), parasprodokians (sentences that veer in an unexpected direction), names that (intentionally or not) sound like puns, and a lot more.

I bought this book during the same shopping spree, and read it during the same week of vacation, as June Casagrande's Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies. The inevitable comparison between the two books tends, perhaps unfairly, against this book, which doesn't have that book's through-written narrative, effervescent humor, or personable tone. While parts of both books were fun to read aloud to members of my family with whom I was enjoying drinks, munchies, and sunshine on an outdoor deck, a number of chapters were composed of lists of examples so long that I actually skimmed them, because reading them in full, even to myself, would have been unbearable. Another unfortunate comparison arose when I happened to open a book by Richard Lederer (Anguished English, Crazy English, The Play of Words, etc.), to whom this book repeatedly acknowledges its indebtedness. Lederer presents a lot of the same material, with approximately equal exhaustiveness, but does so in a consistently more entertaining way.

So, this book has some fun bits, and could come in handy as a quick-reference handbook to different types of wordplay, with useful examples of each; but as something to read on that outdoor deck, cover to cover, it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Well, je sais réellement quoi, but it's awkward to say, "I wished I had bought a book by Richard Lederer instead, or perhaps another book by June Casagrande," so excuse me for feigning ignorance. I'm trying to be nice here. And this is a nice enough little book; though perhaps it shouldn't have been packaged as if it were meant to be a "marvelous ... delightful and outrageous" piece of entertainment. That just sets the reader up for a disappointment.

Evans, a philosopher and lecturer who specializes in everything (politics, religion, ethics, language, etc.), is also the author of The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language; Thingamajigs and Whatchamacallits; and several other books.