Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Five Fakirs of Faizabad

The Five Fakirs of Faizabad
by P.B. Kerr
Recommended Ages: 12+

When siblings John and Phillipa Gaunt, age 14, learn they have to complete a Djinn rite of passage by choosing a deserving person to grant three wishes, each twin separately stumbles on a plot to tamper with the luck of the whole world. The goal of whoever is causing an outbreak of bad luck seems to have something to do with a group of mystical Muslim hermits from northern India who, centuries ago, buried themselves alive to protect the five holiest secrets known to their order. Unluckily enough, a group of "fake fakirs," who practice just enough Sufist self-denial to be dangerous, have joined forces with one of the twins' Uncle Nimrod's deadliest enemies. To save the world's luck, not to mention Nimrod's faithful butler Groanin, they must visit the worst hotel in the world, travel long distances by flying carpet, and find the lost shrine of Shangri-La.

Like other books in this series about adolescent Djinn finding their powers in the modern world, this one is filled with thrills, laughs, and a surprising amount of educational value. It satirizes the xenophobic manners of some Englishmen, the unsuitability of some hoteliers for the hospitality industry, and the reasoning behind British spies being expert gamblers. It depicts a chilling (literally and figuratively) encounter with pre-World War II Nazis who have become stuck in time, a man-made monster out of Jewish folklore, a man who has fallen out of an airplane (without a parachute) and lived, an elusive monster of the American west, and a couple interesting cases of reincarnation. It's a globe-trotting, religiously syncretistic adventure for spirits of fire and luck who are, nevertheless, touchingly (and sometimes hilariously) human at heart.

My only quibble, besides advising readers who like their religions straight and unblended about that syncretism, is the book's solution to its final dilemma, which effectively resets the characters (with a few exceptions) to their status at the beginning of the book. If I didn't know they would be haunted by déjà vu during their next installment, I would say the ending made the book pointless. But I just happened to have the next book about the Gaunt twins, The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan, on deck to read right after this one, so that worry has been mooted.

This is the sixth of, so far, seven "Children of the Lamp" novels by Edinburgh-born young adult author P.B. Kerr, also the author of the standalone book One Small Step. As Philip Kerr, he is also the author of 13 Bernie Gunther/Berlin Noir mysteries, counting Greeks Bearing Gifts, due for release in 2018; three Scott Manson mysteries, featuring a London football coach who solves crimes; about a dozen standalone novels for adults; and the children's book The Most Frightening Story Ever Told, for some reason published under his adult fiction name.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Wandering Fire

The Wandering Fire
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Recommended Ages: 14+

Five 20th-century Canadian university students have gotten swept up in a magical adventure in the first of all worlds, of which our world is only one of many cheap knock-offs. Their acts, their loves, and their fates are now woven into the tapestry that shapes history throughout the multiverse. Tall, athletic Dave has become an axe-wielding berserker on the battlefield. Kim has been burdened with the inner sight of a seer. Paul has come back whole, and more than whole, after offering himself as a sacrifice on the Summer Tree. Jennifer has endured a violation that will strain her ability to love, just when her heart proves to be one point of an eternal story on which everything depends. And Kevin has reached the sorrowful conclusion that his only usefulness lies in the deep abandon that characterizes his sexuality. On these five visitors from modern-day Toronto hang the fortunes of kings, princes, princesses, priestesses, clan chiefs, warriors, and more. In this middle installment of "The Fionavar Tapestry," they awaken dangerous forces, summon terrifying beings, fight monstrous creatures, race against evil armies, and take journeys from which no one has ever returned before - and sometimes, they don't return. And after imbibing this heady mixture of a variety of strong spirits old and new, we the reader surface with wonder, realizing the epic is only two-thirds done.

I took my sweet time moving from the first volume of the trilogy, titled The Summer Tree, which I enthusiastically loved, to this second installment. Perhaps that explains why I found my enthusiasm had cooled somewhat. I'm of two minds about this book. After reading it, I still admire Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped edit Tolkien's posthumous masterpiece The Silmarillion, as a unique prose stylist whose every sentence is an original work of art. In my other mind, however, I was a little disappointed to have to slot him in with Peter S. Beagle in a class of authors who write with breathtaking lyricism, at the expense of choosing words sometimes (or, as Beagle would put it, "betimes") more for their musical effect than for their actual meaning; in this book, for example, Kay uses the word "evanescent" that way. Also, there were occasional moments in this book when I didn't altogether catch the drift of what Kay was saying in his oh, so clever way. My education, or rather the sad neglect thereof, is no doubt at fault.

Going back to my first mind, I also recognize in Kay a master adapter and synthesizer of folklore material into a compelling, moving new fantasy epic that puts him in the same class as Ursula K. Le Guin, Peter Dickinson, Robin McKinley, etc. He frequently writes passages of intense emotion that reach deep inside me and grab something that often go months, if not years, without being touched. I literally wept tears while at a couple points in this book, and had to go back and re-read one passage, aloud, so my cat would understand why I was so upset. I don't think the cat felt it, but I sure did. In the other mind, however, I saw through what sometimes seemed a precious conceit that every emotion every character felt at every point in this adventure, including (at times) terrible numbness, was the most powerful manifestation of its kind since the beginning of time, or at least since the age of legends. Perhaps, again, the fault is mine, in having a capacity for "drama fatigue" that makes me see melodrama where there is nothing but true drama, or bathos where there is really pathos. I am, after all, the guy who lapsed into acute "lyricism fatigue" while reading a certain book I won't name here.

Returning for a third time to my first mind, Kay's talent, his work experience, the scope of his material, and the overall richness, depth, complexity, and power of the weaving he has woven here, put him within striking distance of standing alongside Tolkien as a creator of great fantasy. But the other me hastens to point out that, where Tolkien's fantasy is essentially of a Christian character, Kay's is loaded with pagan tropes. So it behooves me to paste an Occult Content Advisory on this book, as well as an Adult Ditto, since this particular book seems on some level to be all about the various ways you can screw, and be screwed by, deities of classical and Celtic tradition. It depicts, for example, the ultimate sexrifice. Yes, I just said that. Versions of a lot of neo-pagan myths, beliefs, and rites get woven together in this tapestry, including mother goddess stuff, the legends of King Arthur, a cyclic view of history, the wild hunt, the horned god, etc., etc., etc. I'm not saying it isn't entertaining. I'm saying Tolkien might have been a bit miffed to find himself classed with this kind of thing. It is because the comparison is apt that I think Christian families who read together - and I know some - will appreciate the heads-up before they plunge into this epic.

Book 3 of "The Fionavar Tapestry" is The Darkest Road. For what all I have said above is worth, I am interested in seeing where it leads. Kay is still active as a writer, bringing forth new fantasy epics every few years based, in part, on the lore of various cultures. His other novels include Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, Sailing to Sarantium, Ysabel, and most recently Children of Earth and Sky.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt
by Jack Gantos
Recommended Ages: 10+

In a fictionalized version of a summer in his childhood, award-winning children's author Jack Gantos brings to life the model community of Norvelt, Pa., in the twilight of its life cycle. Norvelt, named after former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, began during the Great Depression as an experiment in giving laid-off coal miners an opportunity to live with dignity, owning their own homes, operating businesses, growing gardens, bartering goods and services, and being self-sufficient with just a little, initial boost from Uncle Sam. It was, frankly, kind of a Communist idea, and was ultimately doomed by the market forces of a country with a cash economy. By 1962, Jack is torn between his mother, who still believes in the Norvelt dream, and his father, who has grown disillusioned with the dying community and wants to move to Florida, where there is plenty of work building houses for rich people. Young Jack's dilemma comes to a head when his father orders him to mow down his mother's garden, so he can build either a bomb shelter or a runway. Caught between direct orders from each of his parents, Jack finds himself grounded for the summer. It's enough to make the boy's nose bleed, though to be sure, that doesn't take much.

From nosebleed to nosebleed, and from one misadventure to another - including a cautionary tale about gun safety - Jack experiences a summer that transforms his character. He helps the spinster across the street write a series of obituaries for the last remaining founding residents of Norvelt, who are suddenly dying off in quick succession. He spends a lot of time digging a hole in his yard that may or may not become a bomb shelter. He gets pushed around by the local undertaker's bossy, tomboyish daughter, and witnesses scenes of gruesome death. He gets drawn into a feud with Norvelt's adult-sized tricycle-riding volunteer policeman/firefighter/rat catcher, who has a love-hate relationship with Miss Volker (the obituary lady), and between the whole town and the motorcycle gang that has aimed an evil curse at Norvelt. He witnesses acts of arson, poaching, and practicing medicine without a license, and finally, helps solve a series of murders. And he faces the consequences of lying, sneaking off while grounded, and (possibly) dive-bombing a drive-in movie theater.

In a way, this book reminded me of the Spike Jonze movie Adaptation, with its low-key, down-to-earth, introspective exploration of characters' private lives and matters of the heart, increasingly mixed with over-the-top fantasy and silly high jinks. It takes off like the small plane Jack's father learns to fly, but doesn't go very high; high enough for that down-to-earth stuff to appear smaller and more distant, in perspective, but not so high that it goes out of sight. It has humor, heart, a throbbing vein of sadness, the twitching muscle of a conscience for social justice, and a jangling nerve of creepiness. It shows a fading, failing, but still attractive experiment in a community's way of life; a wistful moment in the life cycle of fragile friendships and family relationships; and a perspective on small-time life that only an unusually observant kid might pick up. It provokes thoughts about community journalism, political ideals, animal rights, economics, courage, history, responsibility, and the essential give-and-take of relationships. Even if the details aren't altogether believable, the heart and the humor are right on target.

Jack Gantos is the author of some 20 "Rotten Ralph" books, five "Jack Henry" books, five "Joey Pigza" books, and several stand-alone novels, picture-books, and memoirs, mostly written for young readers. This book, which won both the Newbery Medal and the Scott O'Dell Award for 2012, has a sequel titled From Norvelt to Nowhere.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Dragons vs. Drones

Dragons vs. Drones
by Wesley King
Recommended Ages: 11+

Marcus, 12, has been searching for his missing father since he was 4 years old, refusing to believe George Brimley was a traitor to his country. During that time, he has noticed a freaky pattern in the dates of each year's biggest storm to hit Alexandria, Virginia - the day of the month has been counting down. Somehow, Marcus knows this is connected with his father's disappearance. This year, when a big storm blows up on the first of the month, Marcus pedals his bicycle right into the heart of it, heedless of swirling black clouds, flickering lightning, and the suspicious fact that a bunch of drones are chasing him. At the heart of the storm, he guts sucked into a parallel dimension, to a city called Dracone, where the drones immediately begin blowing stuff up, killing people, and attacking the dragons that, incidentally, exist there.

The dragons of Dracone come in four flavors: Nightwings, Sages, Outliers, and Flames. Some of them have been allies of mankind for a long time, but that time is now over. Francis Xidorne, the country's new prime minister, has decided to modernize his country, and that means doing away with the dragons and people who sympathize with them. The first person Marcus meets in Dracone is a member of the new underclass, a 12-year-old girl named Dree, whose father was a dragon rider before the regime changed. Stripped of their wealth, her family now lives in a waterfront shack, and Dree and her mother work hard to support her crippled father and the younger kids. Both Dree and Marcus have the same mysterious gift, or maybe it's a curse - their skin doesn't burn, but sometimes fire comes out of their fingertips. Dree also has a secret: the Nightwing dragon Lourdvang, whom she raised from a hatchling.

Between them, boy, girl, and dragon resolve to fight the drones that are destroying the poorer parts of Dracone, and that are also beginning to exterminate the dragons. Using Dree's genius as a welder and an inventor, Marcus' gifts as a computer whiz, and Lourdvang's ability to fly, they start a small rebellion that, through sheer spunk, spreads to include at least three dragon clans. Saving Dracone from the deadly drones will involve solving the mystery of Marcus' father's disappearance, seeking an object of great magical power that they believe is hidden in the world's most impenetrable fortress, and surviving action scenes packed with unbelievable excitement. Also, it will require a sequel, picking up on the other side of the portal between Dree's world and ours.

This is a fun, screwy adventure, full of magical thrills, high-tech gadgetry, and danger. The dialogue is snappy; the characters have a lot of emotionally grueling issues to work through; and it proves themes of black-helicopter paranoia, coexistence with sentient alien creatures, the impact of space-age technology on the environment, and family melodrama can be mixed with good results. It also shows how quickly a nervous nerd like Marcus can develop into a swashbuckling hero, once he's in his proper element; the image of him free-falling from the back of a drone that he has just disabled in mid-flight, screaming, "Anyone?" while dragons and drones battle each other around him, seems likely to be my most durable memory of this book. On the other hand, I felt a little let-down by the way Dree's family dropped out of the storyline. After setting up her devotion to her sister Abi, the book proceeds to make awkward excuses for keeping the sisters apart after a relatively early point in the plot. The family drama aspect of the story would be more interesting if the family were more present.

Wesley King is the Canadian author of The Vindico, The Feros, The Incredible Space Raiders (From Space!), OCDaniel, and Laura Monster Crusher, besides the sequel to this book, titled Enemy of the Realm, and the upcoming book The World Below, set for release in March 2018. His works have won several awards, including a 2017 Edgar Award for "best juvenile" (for OCDaniel).

Monday, July 10, 2017

Shadow Scale

Shadow Scale
by Rachel Hartman
Recommended Ages: 13+

This sequel gratifies the burning desire in the heart of practically everyone who read Seraphina - namely, to explore further the world of Goredd and its neighboring realms, where dragons (called saarantrai) walk in human shape, and where many humans worship a pantheon of "saints" who, half-dragon/half-human heroine Seraphina now learns, were actually people like her. As the civil war between the saarantrai heats up, she travels to the ends of the world as she knows it, seeking to collect her fellow halfbreeds and bring them home, so they can combine their mental powers to defend her city from the anti-human faction of dragonkind. Meanwhile, she has to solve a number of interconnected mysteries - such as how the saints came into being, and why the anti-human dragon ideology suddenly arose, and above all, how to stop one especially bitter half-dragon from destroying everything.

The name of Seraphina's true nemesis turns out to be Jannoula. They are well-matched adversaries, the one traveling the world in search of her kind, and the other arriving either just ahead of her or a few steps behind, to sink her psychic hooks into the minds of those like them. The few half-dragons (a.k.a. ityasaari) who have the ability to unhook Jannoula from each other's minds, are helpless when she takes control of them. And though Seraphina is the only one who seems impervious to being controlled by Jannoula, she finds herself no less helpless when the self-appointed saint finally has everyone where she wants them. The seeming inevitability of disaster, for a nation and for a whole civilization, is stomach-twisting. Equally painful is the personal revenge Jannoula wreaks on Seraphina, whom she blames for abandoning her to years of hideous torment. But the real concern is whether Seraphina will ever learn to open her mind, which she has been at pains to keep closed most of her life, when the survival of her whole world depends on it.

I was mostly delighted with this sequel, though I did not think it struck quite as pure a note as the first book. I noticed, for example, Seraphina's first-person narration dropping phrases of 20th century psychobabble, like "cognitive dissonance," which struck me as something like an anachronism - though I am fully aware Seraphina's world is not on the same historical timeline as ours. I suppose a little anachronism might be excused, in a world in which the quigutl - human-sized, but not anthropomorphic, cousins of the saarantrai - appear able to operate electrical generators and devices similar to today's computers, and in which an earlier age's dragon-fighting martial arts, now lost to human memory, included flying machines and missiles. The relationship between technology and human history is mysterious in Seraphina's world; there are even hints that more advanced human cultures live across the sea, or on the other side of the land barrier occupied by the dragons, so inaccessible to Goredd and its neighboring countries that they have faded almost to the status of legend.

This is only one example of the thought-provoking themes that peek out of the polyphonic texture of this fantasy epic, but not all of the themes are equally satisfying. For example, the neighboring culture of Porphyry has a fluid concept of gender, with the result that good manners dictates the greeting "How may I pronoun you?" when being introduced to someone. In my opinion, there is a (cough) cognitive dissonance between the essentially medievalist setting of the book and this piece of post-modern sophistry; and also, it persuades me to drop an Adult Content Advisory on this book, to encourage traditional-family-oriented parents to be alert to this theme when sharing the series with their children.

Rachel Hartman's third book, also set in the world of Seraphina, is expected in February 2018, and will be titled Tess of the Road. I don't know what her plans are for it, but I hope she explores the quigutl in more depth. I really liked those guys.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Seraphina

Seraphina
by Rachel Hartman
Recommended Ages: 12+

I can't wait to say it: This is the best book I have read so far this year. It isn't just good; it's beautiful.

Seraphina is a lawyer's daughter; yawn, right? Ah! But that particular lawyer, Claude Dombegh, is the foremost legal expert on dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Have I got your attention now? Why did Dombegh become the leading authority on the treaty between Goredd and the fierce reptiles of the north, with whom they were at war until 40 years ago? He has eaten, drunk, breathed, and slept the treaty for 16 years, since the day Seraphina was born and her mother, dying in childbirth, was revealed to be a dragon in human form. He honestly didn't know until then. And now he has an awful secret to protect - a daughter whom many dragons and humans alike would consider an abomination - and so, while learning every line and loophole in the law, he has become its greatest interpreter, and even a noted legal defender of dragons. As for Seraphina, she has led a life of loneliness, forced to hide scaly patches on her arm and around her waist, afraid to become too close to anyone, afraid to share her musical gifts, hollow with loneliness. In an act of rebellion, she runs away to the royal palace and auditions successfully to be the crusty old court composer's assistant.

The book compresses all this into background information that you learn while the story is in progress. It actually begins sometime later, while Seraphina is directing the funeral music for the queen's son, whose body was found headless in the forest after he became separated from his huntsmen. As the 40th anniversary of the treaty approaches, along with an anticipated visit by the dragon general Comonot, who co-signed the treaty with the now-elderly Queen Lavonda, anti-dragon sentiment runs high in the streets of the capital. Many, including the queen's bastard grandson Prince Lucian Kiggs, suspect a dragon of having killed the older prince. But unlike the hate-filled mob in the streets, Kiggs wants to learn the truth - he wants to save the peace - and he knows that means protecting Comonot from a danger only he and a certain secretive young music mistress seem to see.

Seraphina becomes increasingly tangled up in Kiggs' inquiry into the slaying of his uncle. But both of them also develop an emotional conflict, as they fall in love with each other, although they both care about his fiancee, the young Princess Glisselda, granddaughter of the queen. And for her part, Seraphina becomes hopelessly tangled in the lies and secrets she must keep to protect herself and her family from the backlash they expect, should anyone find out she is a half-dragon. Adding to her trouble is a series of visions that seize her with dangerous suddenness, and her growing realization that the garden of grotesques she must daily tend in her mind is actually a connection to the minds of other half-dragons - some of whom will become her friends, and some who may be her enemies. Then there is a series of maternal memories, passed to her by her dying mother at the moment of her birth, bursting upon her consciousness at the most inopportune moments. As ties of family loyalty, romantic love, friendship, and the preservation of peace between her two peoples press on her with growing urgency, it becomes more evident every moment that she cannot save everything and keep her secret as well.

And so I come back to this point: This is a phenomenally beautiful book. I'm apparently not the first person who noticed it; it won the 2013 William C. Morris YA Debut Award, a medal given annually since 2009 by the Young Adult Library Services Association division of the American Library Association; in other words, it's a Newbery Medal for the best "first-time author writing for teens."1 It builds an engrossing fantasy world, with an intriguing concept of dragons I would be willing to explore at much greater length; it depicts a varied gallery of breathing, speaking, fully original yet believable characters; it develops a culture with a complex pantheon of saints and a rich culture of beautiful music, dreamed up by a writer who knows how to write about music - and with my background, similar to the author's in multiple ways, I'm not easily fooled in that area. Besides all that, or rather above all, her scenic invention and deft hand for dialogue are but instruments in a symphony of storytelling that throbs with danger and sings with emotion, from the anguish of loneliness to the exhilaration of love. I do not exaggerate, even a tiny bit, when I say there were several prose passages in this book during which I paused and said to myself, "Someone should set this to music." And I wouldn't be surprised if the author herself has written tunes to go with some of the lyric poems sprinkled throughout the book. It's a fantasy so perfectly conceived, I would have enjoyed it even were it indifferently well-written. But it is, rather, differently well written; and that difference puts it on a level apart.

As the Morris award suggests, this is a first novel by a U.S.-born author, now living in Canada. It has a sequel, which I am already reading, titled Shadow Scale. A new book set in the same world, titled Tess of the Road, is due to be released Feb. 27, 2018. This book, also nominated for a 2013 Andre Norton Award2, comes (at least in some editions) with a bonus prequel short story titled "The Audition," revealing how Seraphina got her job as (among other things) Princess Glisselda's harpischord teacher.


1Among the award's past winners and nominees that I have read are Graceling by Kristin Cashore, A Curse Dark As Gold by Elizabeth Bunce (a winner), and Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride; the full list contains a bunch of titles I suddenly want to read.
2That was the year China Miéville's Railsea won; a tough book to beat.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Ghostgirl

Ghostgirl
by Tonya Hurley
Recommended Ages: 14+

As a new school year starts at Hawthorne High, Charlotte is determined to cross over from being the invisible girl to fitting in with the popular crowd, and even having a chance to kiss Damen Dylan at the big dance. But just after scoring Damen as her lab partner in first-period physics class, she crosses over in a way she didn't intend, thanks to an imperfectly chewed gummy bear. Now she's stuck in the afterlife, attending Introduction to Dead Ed class with such gruesome classmates as Piccolo Pam, a marching band member who tripped and swallowed her instrument; Rotting Rita, who always has maggots crawling out of her nose; Call Me Kim, whose death proves the link between cell phone use and brain cancer is no myth; and an angry girl named Prue, who is ready to blame Charlotte if the house they all haunt together gets condemned and torn down.

Unfortunately, Charlotte is too caught up in her own, selfish issues to worry about her dead friends and the fate of their home. She hasn't given up on Damen, even if it means stirring up trouble for everyone. She makes a pact with the alpha cheerleader's goth sister, possessing Scarlet's body while Scarlet, in spirit, delightedly explores the other side. But what she hasn't told Scarlet is that she plans to use her body to get Damen to fall in love with her, and (if possible) to enjoy being just a little popular, for a little while. Naturally, mayhem breaks out, including a flood in the gym and a fun haunted house that turns just a little too real. In the end, everything depends on Charlotte getting her ghostly head on straight, and thinking about someone else before herself.

Tim Burtonesque cover art drew me into this book with a promise of satirical, black-comedic ghoulishness. While I wasn't fully satisfied with the book after reading it, that promise went not entirely unkept. I enjoyed some guilty giggles, particularly at some classic film references it would probably take a grown-up well-read in popular culture to appreciate fully. The songs mentioned in the book would make an interesting soundtrack, with plenty of teen goth appeal. On the other hand, each chapter is prefaced by an explanatory blurb that lays out, in general terms, the issue Charlotte has to work through in the next few pages; reading like cards from a deck of pop psychobabble, these blurbs add little the book wouldn't be better off without. There is some legit mystery, suspense, and romance in it, though, and some of the characters show emotional growth. But even in a book that openly acknowledges the shortcomings of its self-absorbed teenaged characters, one that confronts some of them with their need to change, it was hard to sympathize with the brats depicted in this book. They became irritating in large doses, even with tongue in cheek; and in spite of suspense winding up to a tight climax, I was a little let down by how easily their issues were resolved. Perhaps I'm being premature, though; this book has two sequels, Homecoming and Lovesick. So their problems, somehow, must not be altogether over.

Their author, a sometime music publicist, TV writer/producer, and video game creator, has also written a trilogy about modern day urban martyrs, comprising The Blessed, Passionaries, and Hallowed.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Silken Prey

Silken Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

It's election time in Minnesota, and the incumbent Republican U.S. Senator has been caught with child porn on his campaign office computer. The governor, although a Democrat, believes Porter Smalls when he says he's being framed. But with two weeks to go before the election, this vicious attempt to hijack the election may not be fixable. Nevertheless, the governor asks his friend, state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent and all-purpose fixer Lucas Davenport, to prove whether Smalls is guilty or innocent before election day.

Davenport's job gets tougher when he realizes the planting of the porn is probably connected with the disappearance of a Democratic Party "political" - which here means "master of dirty tricks," among other things - named Tubbs. Tubbs apparently scored a stash of kiddie porn from someone at the Minneapolis Police Department, where the pictures were part of an evidence file from a three-year-old vice case; then he worked through a spy inside the Smalls campaign to set up a smutty booby trap on the senator's computer. The person most likely to benefit from this is Smalls' Democratic challenger, a silken beauty (hence the book's title) named Taryn Grant. Grant has brains; she has money; and she has a couple of ex-military guys on her security detail with experience as stone-cold killers. They could totally get away with killing Tubbs, and later, his campaign-staffer spy, without leaving any evidence pointing back at themselves. But can Davenport prove they did?

His chance comes on election night, when the Grant campaign is moving back and forth between her heavily-guarded house and the hotel where she plans to accept her victory in the election, if she wins. Sometime during that night, Davenport learns, one of Grant's goons is going to kill the other and bury his body near that of Tubbs. Best-case scenario: they stop the murder while it's in progress. Next-best: A hair-raising chase into a November night, trying to follow a killer without letting him realize he's being followed. Meantime, Lucas' long-time friend Kidd, an artist with a sideline in computer hacking, and his cat-burglar wife get mixed up in the deadly scenario, drawn into a hotbed of murder and betrayal by the tempting gleam of jewels in Grant's bedroom safe.

I had read several books beyond this in the series before I came back around to this book, so I had a weird experience while reading it. For one thing, I happen to know Taryn Grant is at least mentioned later in this series, and one of her bodyguards (not implicated in any criminal business) shows up on Governor Henderson's security detail in Extreme Prey. For another thing, this is at least the second case Davenport has worked with BCA colleague Bob Shaffer, whose entirely different approach to crime-solving proves to be his undoing in the book after this. These continuities, along with the ongoing development of several other interesting, recurring characters, are among the reasons this series still works after so many books. Besides the fact that each crime presents a unique problem, the series benefits greatly from a group of well-developed characters and relationships that are a welcome addition to the ruthlessly driven Lucas - himself a fascinatingly imperfect figure, and certainly one you wouldn't want to see when you glance over your shoulder while fleeing a crime.

This is the 23rd of currently 27 "Lucas Davenport" mysteries by John Sandford, a pen-name of Pulitzer-winning journalist John Camp. Click here for a mansplanation of why I'm reading this series so atrociously out of canon order; sorry, I'm just tired of repeating it. Next on deck is Book 24, Field of Prey, which was the first book in the series that I read. So, it's come full circle now -- except for the first 14 books, which I haven't read yet, and Book 19, which I unavoidably skipped. Stay tuned...

Stolen Prey

Stolen Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

When a suburban family of four is viciously tortured and killed in the style of a Mexican drug gang, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Agent Lucas Davenport is all over it. He brings in some computer experts from past phases of his career - a programming expert nicknamed ICE and a database maven, not to say hacker, named Kidd. Together with team of DEA agents and another BCA team led by the more by-the-book Agent Bob Shaffer, Davenport's investigation is soon hunting for three targets: (1) the hitmen from south of the border who carried out the killings, and who aren't done yet; (2) a drug money laundering pipeline that leads back to a gang with the improbable name "Los Criminales del Norte"; and (3) the Twin Cities-based embezzlement ring whose scheme to hijack the cartel's bank transfers has triggered an ongoing bloodbath.

Each group of investigators has his own priority. And though solving murders is usually Lucas' forte, in this case, his target of choice is the thieves who inadvertently unleashed a string of grisly murders, in which most of the victims are completely innocent. The danger of being captured and killed gives the felonious foursome an incentive to stay hidden, in addition to escaping justice. But if Lucas can't catch them, he can't protect them either - as one of them finds, to his cost. His prey in this hunt includes a depressed, almost humorously lazy guy who nevertheless shows enough initiative to be the only victim to escape from the assassins; a schizophrenic hippie chick; and a Lithuanian Jew who frequently wears a veil to impersonate a Syrian Muslim. The killers, on the other hand, include three guys named Juan who distinguish between themselves using the numbers Uno, Dos, and Tres - and at least one of them is legitimately insane - plus, an extra ace in the whole, a spy that the cartel has placed inside the investigation.

So, naturally, things get a little out of control. While killers and the cops run parallel investigations into who stole the cartel's money, it takes Davenport a while to realize the killers aren't just a step ahead or behind the cops, but that they're racing neck-and-neck. Everywhere they go, they arrive just a moment after a body drops. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity to catch the thieves is closing, as the increasingly desperate accomplices begin to turn on each other. Turning the case around requires a classic Davenport move, using a bit of manipulation and deception to force the killers into a no-win situation, so he can stop the bloodshed before the thieves have time to get away clean. Albeit with a sprinkling of humor, the storyline's twists and turns torque the tension to a climax of exquisite menace, right up to a closing line of dialogue that is so perfect, you won't know whether to laugh or cringe.

This is the 22nd of currently 27 "Lucas Davenport" mysteries by John Sandford, a pen-name of Pulitzer-winning journalist John Camp. Click here for a mansplanation of why I'm reading this series so atrociously out of canon order; sorry, I'm just tired of repeating it. Besides this series, Camp/Sandford is also the author of going-on-10 Virgil Flowers mysteries (featuring a character who figures in this book), four Kidd novels (ditto), and the recent sci-fi thriller Saturn Run. Next on deck for this series is Book 23, Silken Prey.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Buried Prey

Buried Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

This book shows how a long-running series can become new again, ironically, by looking backward at where it all started, if not farther back. When the bodies of twin girls turn up under a foundation during a large-scale demolition project, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Agent Lucas Davenport flashes back to his first case as a plainclothes detective, when the girls first went missing 30 years ago. It's a case that brings back guilty memories of a failure that perhaps led to more deaths during the years between; a case that first saw Lucas paired with his longtime Minneapolis Police partner Sloan, and with his current BCA buddy Del Capslock; a case that haunts him even more after the female detective on the case, with whom he had an affair years ago, becomes one of the killer's latter-day victims; a case in which the police investigation, then and now, was jerked around by a killer with an intimate connection with one of the detectives; a case in which mayhem and death abound, and in which Lucas is in more danger than ever of becoming a murderer himself.

I can keep this review very brief by confirming that it is, I think, the most spiritually disturbing and viscerally moving installment in this series, as far as I have read it; and by noting that, in spite of the mindblowing way the killer eludes capture, and the equally mindblowing way Davenport closes in on him, what really grabs me about it is the interplay of the characters - climaxing in a sort of intervention, with his BCA buddies gathering around Lucas and refusing to let him destroy himself. It is a case whose scars Lucas will carry on him, and in him, for many books to come. And if, like me, you've already read most of those books, you'll recognize it as the case that explains some of the je ne sais quoi that raises those books above the unchallenging tripe Books 22ff. of a long-running crime thriller series can become.

This is the 21st of currently 27 "Lucas Davenport" mysteries by John Sandford, a pen-name of Pulitzer-winning journalist John Camp. Click here for a mansplanation of why I'm reading this series so atrociously out of canon order; sorry, I'm just tired of repeating it. Next on deck is Book 22, Stolen Prey.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

215. Incarnation Hymn

Two months isn't much of a dry spell as a hymn-writer, unless you factor in the fact that I once wrote approximately 100 hymns in a bit over one year;
but here's a hymn that I couldn't stop writing in my head during a desperately needed naptime this afternoon - and it wasn't one of the hymns I've been brainstorming during the past two months. It just started coming out of my brain, as if writing itself; but that was a mean trick, because after I gave up on the nap and sat up to write it,
the rest came out only with much effort and many crossings-out. I have no particular hymn-tune in mind at this time. If that changes, I'll update you.

Incarnation Hymn

Come, praise with songs of priestly joy
God's holy Son and Mary's boy:
Begotten ere the world's first morn,
Now at the end of ages born.
If from our flesh God does not shrink,
What cup for us will He not drink?

Now He who shaped the fiery spheres
In puny, infant flesh appears;
A virgin's breast, a workman's hands
Embrace Him who the cosmos spans.
So far committed for our sake,
What will our God not undertake?

Befuddled shepherd, heathen sage,
Your worship warms the holy page;
While He whom seer and angel sing
Is marked for death by priest and king.
If they so treat the tender shoot,
What will befall the ripened fruit?

So Christ, our All in all, was born
For all, and daring pain and scorn,
Did all that must for man be done,
And in man's place became as none.
Can God be bound in such degree
And fail to set the captive free?

Your love, O Lord, Your gracious plan
Compelled You to unite with man;
Your Word is given, sealed in blood,
Applied by washing, shared as food.
Since You have so restored the earth,
Can we but sing with heav'nly mirth?

Monday, June 26, 2017

Storm Prey

Storm Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

Sometimes, you have to read most of a book to figure out why it came to be titled so-and-so. In this installment, deep within a long series of crime thrillers that all have "Prey" in their title, the only question in a franchise fan's mind, besides "You don't mean Storm Front, do you?" (Answer: No; that's one of Sandford's "Virgil Flowers" novels) is, "What is stormy about it?" The storm might be a play on the name of Davenport's wife Weather, a surgeon at a major Twin Cities hospital, who finds herself targeted by killers while participating in a complex series of surgeries to separate a pair of conjoined twins. It might, after all, be a literal reference to the blizzard that blankets the ultra-violent ending of this book. Or it might simply be a subtle nod to the old saying, "It never rains, but it pours." The proverb seems to apply in this case, when a little crime - three small-time crooks and a drug-addicted emergency room doctor knocking over a hospital pharmacy early one winter morning - sets loose a whirlwind of betrayal, torture, kidnapping, and murder that doesn't let up until nearly all of the crooks are dead, along with several innocent people.

If you've read this whole series, and can't remember which book is which, maybe this will help. This is the book in which a hired killer rides a motorcycle up alongside Weather's car on the freeway, planning to shoot her through the side window... and she swerves into his lane, nearly running him over, then chases him. When the key witness to a crime is that tough to rub out, it's no wonder the gang starts turning against each other. In spite of the bloodbath, there always remains someone who wants to shut Weather up, even if that means dropping a grenade inside the very hospital where she is helping save the lives of two baby girls.

The whole crowd is back in this ensemble crime novel, including chick-magnet Virgil Flowers (who had his own series by the time this book broke), the hilariously thuggish Jenkins and Shrake (Who knew Shrake could play the piano?), typographically named Del Capslock (who is about due to become a father, around the time-frame of this book), and more. But as always, the one who scares the bad guys, driving them to increasingly desperate and reckless acts, is Davenport himself. He's a scary guy, and I can't guarantee that, given a chance to meet him in real life, I would like him or trust him, but there's no denying, you don't want to be the crook he's trying to catch. It just wouldn't be good for you.

This is the 20th of currently 27 "Lucas Davenport" mysteries by John Sandford, a pen-name of Pulitzer-winning journalist John Camp. Click here for a mansplanation of why I'm reading this series so atrociously out of canon order; sorry, I'm just tired of repeating it. Regrettably, I had to skip Book 19, Wicked Prey, because my local public library no longer has a copy of it; but I'm already enthusiastically into Book 21, Buried Prey - in which Davenport revisits one of his earliest cases, one that he mentions in this book. Like the whole series, this book keeps the pages turning, even to the point of causing a problem - like, by the time I get a chance to write a review of one book, I'm so deep into the next book that I get them a little mixed up. I'm not mixed up, however, when I say this is fine entertainment, albeit with a sharp edge and an adult content advisory.

Phantom Prey

Phantom Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

When Lucas Davenport, a highly successful agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is on the case, the bad guys - be they living or be they dead - had better look out. This fact is put to the test in this crime thriller, in which the sleuth takes time off surveillance of an escaped gangster's gorgeous, exhibitionist wife, to help one of his wife's friends figure out who killed her daughter.

The crime is very mysterious: no body has been found, only a splash of blood on the wallpaper, and a few fragments of bloody paper towel stuck between the tiles on the kitchen floor. At first, it isn't even a sure thing a murder has taken place; but Alyssa Austin is both a tough businesswoman, good at getting her way, and a somewhat goofy new-ager who claims to have received reliable advice from the spirit world. Bottom line, Weather (that's Davenport's wife) wants him on the case. So, on the case he goes.

Naturally, bodies immediately start dropping. Someone in the Twin Cities' goth scene (you know, those folks who dress all in black and wear black-on-white makeup) is killing other goths, and in a crazy way, it's connected with the Austin girl's disappearance. If I told you how crazy, or what this has to do with villains from beyond the veil of death, I would be spoiling the whole creepy, edgy, death-and-gore-drenched plot for you. And you wouldn't want to miss all the psychological and paranormal twistedness. The shivers and goosebumps alone are worth the ride, but added to them are the thrills of a vanilla shoot-'em-up with hardened criminals.

This is the 18th of currently 27 "Lucas Davenport" mysteries by John Sandford, a pen-name of Pulitzer-winning journalist John Camp. Click here for a mansplanation of why I'm reading this series so atrociously out of canon order; sorry, I'm just tired of repeating it.

This is the type of mystery in which the reader finds out whodunit long before the detectives do; then you writhe in agonizing suspense while they pick up the trail of clues and bumble after it, trying (but never quite succeeding) in catching the bad guy before more dastardly deeds are done. And of course, while Davenport slowly but steadily closes in on his quarry, he/she/it (whatever) looks back, sees the danger, and inevitably, thinks about striking at him. If you're the type of mystery reader who, observing this is only book 18 of 27, reasons the danger the hero is in may be taken lightly, consider: he gets shot and seriously injured while working this case. But it doesn't stop him; which is good, because that means there will be more tough, smart, funny, sexy, and unusually scary (even for this series) crime-solving fun.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Broken Prey

Broken Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this 16th of (so far) 27 "Lucas Davenport" thrillers, award-winning journalist John Camp (who writes novels under the Sandford pseudonym) introduces the recurring character of Star Tribune writer Ruffe Ignace - about whom I have read many times, but only now learned how to pronounce his name correctly, as a consequence of starting near the end of the series, then skipping back to about the midpoint and moving forward again. (Sorry, I've already explained this off-color procedure for reading a book series in several reviews, but for the sake of future readers who will probably read my reviews in the order the books were published, I feel I must mention it again, to be clear. These explanations will get really tedious around the time I catch up to where I first joined the series, then skip back all the way to the beginning and go forward from there. Maybe I'll just bookmark this parenthetical blurb and drop links to it into future reviews, to save time. Whew!) Even more confusingly, I skipped from Book 15 to Book 17 of this series, then had to go back to catch this one. So it's been hard (or is going to be hard, depending on your point of view) to keep my reviews from spoiling books not yet read. Sorry in advance!

So, anyway, as I meant to say before I so rudely interrupted myself, Ruffe Ignace (Roo-fay Ig-nas; now you know) is this weaselly, ambitious reporter who wants like nobody's business to work for The New York Times. In spite of his shortcomings, he begins to develop into an ally of Davenport and soon-to-spin-off Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Virgil Flowers; they amiably use each other to further their own agendas, and in the main, those agendas eventually prove to coincide with the public good. Ignace isn't a complete reptile; I know, I know, but that just goes to show the subtlety and depth of Sandford's characterization - not to mention the fact he was a newspaper writer himself, when he was still John Camp; so his portrait of Ignace probably has some affectionately satirical resemblance to a type of character he might have drawn from life. Ignace is perhaps more important in this book than any of his subsequent appearances, because this is the one in which the serial killer calls him up to tell his story to the press - information Ignace dutifully passes on to Davenport, who eventually discovers most of it is designed to mislead the cops.

Whoever the real killer is, he doesn't seem to care whether the people he tortures, rapes, and murders are male or female. He (or she, or even possibly they) also proves terrifyingly adept at dragging red herrings across the trail the BCA and local law enforcement are following. Slowed down by deceptions, including steering the investigation after the wrong suspect, the cops realize they are two steps behind the killer and falling farther behind, even while the race to save the life of the next victim is roaring down the roads of rural southern Minnesota at breakneck speed. Somehow, the killer is tied to the "big three" inmates at a secure mental hospital near Mankato - yet even with the suspects narrowed down that much, the killer remains elusive. Somehow, again, the killer is connected to - Sandford uses the phrase "hovering near" - an orgasmic college girl and her randy, Serbian-American surgeon lover; but in what way, I didn't guess until the explosive revelation. As Lucas & Co. get closer to identifying the real bad guy, as the killer gets closer to what he and his "Gods Down the Hall" speak of as Armageddon, the number of lives and limbs at stake, including (of course) Lucas' own, increases on a steep curve - a graph drawn in blood. Ick.

I gather this is also the last book to feature Davenport's recurring crime-solving partner Sloan as a Minneapolis police detective. Sloan reaches the burnout point while investigating the case in this book; I happen to know, again due to my non-linear reading of the series, he is featured in Book 17 as a former cop who runs a bar. I don't remember him figuring in any subsequent books in the series. So, again, I have the awkward sense that I'm going to see more of Sloan in the part of this series I should have read before this, but that is too old to be held by my local public library; awkward, because I won't see most of his character arc until long after I have seen where it ends.

Other than little continuity snarls like this, however, I find this to be a series that can be read in any order, or simply enjoyed as freestanding novels. Each one presents its own world of literary and criminal problems and solutions, and a convincingly unique twist on the crime-thriller cliche, "It started like any other homicide case, but by the time Lucas Davenport (or whoever) realizes something really sick is going on, it may already be too late to stop a disaster in which many lives, including our hero's, will be at stake." Okay, if not unique, at least distinctive enough to remember amid all the other variations on it played by this and similar authors. And part of what sells this particular variation of it, is the believable humanity of Lucas Davenport and the characters around him, taking his toughness and frailty together, his crime-detecting brilliance that makes him so dangerous to bad guy after bad guy, along with his human limitations and even moral failings that make this duel of wits a frighteningly even match.

EDIT: For future reference... This is the book in which Davenport makes a list of the 100 best songs of the rock era - an amusing fount of non sequitur banter between the characters throughout the book, as well as an actual list at the end. It's notable for including (1) no Beatles songs and (2) a waltz from Shostakovich's Jazz Suite No. 2.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Invisible Prey

Invisible Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

It is this 17th novel in the currently 27-book "Lucas Davenport" mystery-thriller series in which Virgil Flowers, a Davenport protégé whose going-on-10-book spinoff series hadn't yet spun off at the time, shoots a woman in the foot while aiming for center mass, only to see her finished off by another woman more inclined to shoot to kill. It's an incident I've already seen mentioned, in spare outline, in many other Davenport/Flowers books written after this, due to the order in which I have been reading the books being stupendously at odds with their publication order; but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

The case that brings together the pistol-marksmanship-challenged Flowers and the victim of his first shooting-related fatality is, after all, a Lucas Davenport mystery. It starts with a rich, politically connected old lady and her maid being beaten to death with a pipe. At first, to Davenport and the St. Paul homicide detective working the case with him, it seems like a robbery gone wrong. But there are pieces missing - pieces from the old lady's collection of antiques and paintings, that is - suggesting that the robbers/killers weren't just junkies trying to raise drug money by selling stolen stuff. The perpetrators could apparently tell the difference between really valuable stuff, items of middling value, and worthless junk - choosing what to steal, what to leave intact, and what to smash to cover their tracks, accordingly. Then the sleuths spot connections between the murders at the Bucher mansion and the unsolved killing of another rich, antique-collecting old lady in Wisconsin; and then a connection to a supposedly solved murder in Iowa, for which a suspect has already been tried and convicted. Then a young woman comes forward and claims her grandmother's seemingly accidental death must also be connected; though Davenport isn't sure, until the young woman herself disappears in ominous circumstances.

The case really gets interesting when a witness in the prosecution of a state senator who had sex with a teenage girl is targeted for kidnapping in a way that bizarrely connects the two seemingly unrelated cases. Unlike that granddaughter of one of the murder victims, the girl in question gets away from the kidnappers, thanks to the doggy heroism of a pit bull/rat terrier mix named Screw. Once bitten, the killer - who turns out to be frighteningly close to the murder investigation - goes increasingly out of control. Even stealing the really valuable objets d'art isn't his whole motive; nor is he only trying to cover up a colossal fraud. In fact, the dude is a flat-out psychopath, and he isn't acting alone. And so, as Davenport's cases so often do, what begins as a straightforward whodunit turns into a bedlam of betrayal, blackmail, frame-ups, fire-bombs, grisly (and never entirely explained) discoveries in a southern Minnesota farmyard, and a downtown St. Paul sting operation that goes completely sideways and ends with shots fired. And at the turning point of it all, a sniper has Davenport himself in his crosshairs.

I promise you, there are good reasons why I'm reading this series so ridiculously out of order - starting toward the end, jumping back to about the halfway point, and working forward from there with the occasional hop, skip, or jump in one direction or other. The fact that I skipped from Book 15 to this is apparently due to a mistake on my part, when I was trying to check out the earliest handful of books in this series held by my local public library. I'm going on (back?) to Book 16 next; it's titled Broken Prey. I've got five more Lucas Davenport novels to read after that; and then I'll be in the awkward position of having to skip back again and try to find copies of earlier installments that my library doesn't have.

I'm not saying these are the best books I've read in this decade, but I'll tell you this much: I'm not getting much else read while I stumble and weave through the John Sandford oeuvre (or John Camp, if you want his real name). A hard-core critic would probably describe it rather as an hors d'oeuvre, but I'm just a humble book booster, so I'll bear witness that this series of books has sufficed to keep me reading during every spare moment so far this summer. It's as good as a season of a TV crime show on DVD; it's so good, if someone turned it into a crime show, I would get that DVD. But when you're all about keeping the TV unplugged and stashed in the front closet, I have to give this series credit for keeping my couch time devoted to the joy of books.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Hidden Prey

Hidden Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

To continue reading the 27-book "Lucas Davenport" series, without springing for the latest hardcover, I had to skip backward in the series. This 15th installment is as far back as my local public library goes. It depicts the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's top agent at the height of his career, solving a murder on the Duluth waterfront that leads him to unearth a circle of Soviet-era spies, dating back to World War II, stretched out among Iron Range towns such as Virginia, Hibbing, and Eveleth. It finds him partnering with a Russian counterintelligence agent, witnessing the slaughter of a local policeman, and receiving a key clue from an eyewitness who is as determined to disappear as - and more successful at doing so than - the killers themselves.

The killers, plural, are an elderly man and the teenaged great-grandson in whom he has instilled a passion for Communism. Together they carry out a series of reckless yet infuriatingly successful stealth killings, fighting to protect their aging spy cell from post-Soviet Russian intelligence, from the Russian mafia, and from discovery by the American authorities. But as good as they are at covering their tracks, Lucas is even better at sniffing them out - realizing, for example, that the physically wrecked suspect they have framed for the murders would never have been able to outrun him in the hilly streets of Duluth.

This mystery hops back and forth between the sleuths' and the killers' points of view, building sympathy for both sides of their deadly game, and ultimately leading to the type of ending that reminds one of real life - bitterly short on satisfying resolution, but with the characters' frustration felt by the reader, and their compromises with their consciences sitting uneasily on ours. It's a grim, gruesome, sometimes shockingly violent, heartbreaking, occasionally sexy, not infrequently funny, fascinating exercise in the arts of committing and solving a series of crimes that stir up memories of revolutionary fervor. It is a glimpse into a type of extremism that could, and perhaps does, hide under the guise of ordinary citizenship. And it comes to one of those climaxes in which you bite your nails, in part, out of concern for what will happen to the bad guy. So, it's a most interesting cocktail of crime thriller and tragedy, set in a part of Minnesota not far from where I went to high school. I could have known the junior killer in this tale. The thought gives me chills.

John Sandford, in case you just tuned in, is the pen-name of sometime Pulitzer-winning journalist John Camp. His fiction also includes the Virgil Flowers novels, a spinoff of this series.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Lights Out

Approximately 2:37 this morning, the power went out where I live. I must have been awake, lying in bed, because I noticed. The fan blowing toward my bed stopped blowing. The light from my bedside digital clock went out. Something in the next room went "beep." Ambient light from outside, like from a street lamp at the nearby corner, faded to black.

After about 30 seconds of eerie stillness and pitch blackness, the lights came back on - including my digital clock, now reading approximately 2:38 a.m. My first thought was, "Well, the battery backup works."

A moment later, the power went out again. This time, it seemed to go gradually, dimming the light of my alarm clock a bit before going altogether. This time, the outage lasted about a minute; then everything came back on again.

I was just starting to hope that was the end of the story when, about 2:39 a.m. by my clock, the lights went down and stayed down.

After lying in darkness a few minutes, listening to a rainstorm blow overhead, I saw the first flickerings of lightning in a storm that answered my unspoken question, "What is causing this outage?"

I decided I should do something, like my civic duty of calling the power company and reporting the outage.

In the dark, I could not find my latest electric bill. So, I groped for my cell phone and dialed directory assistance, asked for the power company, and got their voicemail system.

This is when I learned a grave lesson about my particular model of AT&T Go! phone - an LG clamshell model that I bought only a year or two ago when my previous Motorola model went on the fritz. I've noticed that I can't get my own voicemail to recognize any of my number button-pushes when I am, for example, trying to erase a message. Now I discovered that, after the first minute or so of a call, my phone won't let me respond to a voicemail prompt, such as, "To report a power outage, press 2." I can press 2 until my fingers bleed, but the recorded voice on the power company's voicemail system will just keep reading its list of options, then say, "Sorry, I didn't hear your response. Would you like to hear these options again?" After reading all the options two or three times, it says something to the effect, "Since you don't have anything to say to me, goodbye," and hangs up.

Somewhere between "Press 2 for a residential account" and "Press 2 to report a power outage," my phone flew up its own headphone jack.

Trying again - going through directory assistance again, because my phone didn't save the number for the power company - I hoped I could get through the prompts before the phone's willingness to do the voicemail-keypad-options dance expired, but I couldn't. Also, unlike some businesses, my power company doesn't have a voicemail system that will respond to voice prompts, such as, "Two, you dumbass!"

Sitting in the darkness, listening to thunder and rain on the roof, I realized that if my life ever depends on my ability to respond to a recorded voice's instructions to press numbers on my cell phone, I am going to die.

I tried calling AT&T Customer Service, but no one was available at that time of night to help me with this technical issue - though, to their credit, their voicemail system does respond to voice commands.

I tried looking for the setting in my phone that lets the number buttons go to sleep during a call, but only succeeded in draining the battery down to two bars - which, in the language of battery charge indicators, means "minutes away from dropping to one bar, then making a long series of obnoxious sound effects, then going dead." Those three bar-indicators are so helpful. You get three bars for days (in the case of my camera battery, weeks), telling you your battery is fully charged; then it goes two, one, zero in about a handful of minutes.

All this pushback started to piss me off. I wasn't going back to bed without knowing whether my alarm was going to go off in the morning. I wasn't going to accept not being able to do anything because my LG phone is stupid, and because my power company's voicemail system was programmed in 1995. So, I groped my way into a shirt, felt around for my house keys and car key, and found my way outdoors. I had decided I was going to try the landline phones at work.

I already knew I was going to have to pull the emergency release cord on my garage door opener, so I could back my car out of the house. I hadn't reckoned on how utterly black the garage was, inside. I couldn't find the cord, and I was starting to get lost in the garage. So I groped my way back out into the rain, got back into the house, and miraculously managed to find a flashlight I had stashed in the front closet without knocking anything over (it was a close thing, though). Back out to the garage; up with the garage door, now disconnected from its lift mechanism; out with the car; down with the garage door (manually; grr); and out to the street in my car, in reverse. I only narrowly avoided falling into the ditch, because I couldn't see where the end of the driveway was.

I made it to the office. I used the flashlight to find the keyhole on the back door. I picked up the first phone inside the building, and... dead. Yes, reader, the power outage was also a phone outage. I couldn't report the outage if my life, or the lives of everyone in town, depended on it. And I could tell by the darkness in the streets between home and the office that the outage affected at least a significant part of my town.

The happy ending is, about the time I reached the end of the blue streak of profanity that issued from my mouth when the office phone proved dead, the power came back on. It was about 3:30 a.m. and, since I no longer had any news to share with the power company, and a computer was right at my elbow, I decided to share this example of my mother's favorite literary genre, "Robbie stories."

EDIT: Shortly after I finished blogging this, the power cut out again, and stayed out from approximately 4:15 to 5:50 a.m. I went to bed kicking myself for not having taken advantage of the 45-minute interval when power was restored to call the power company and yell at them about their stupid voice mail system. But that's all right. I'll probably go to the AT&T Store later today and yell at them, instead, about their lousy cell phones.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Escape Clause

Escape Clause
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the ninth and latest "Virgil Flowers novel" (that is, until Deep Freeze comes out Oct. 17, 2017), the cowboy-boot wearing, Leinie's-sipping, skirt-chasing Flowers, whose business-casual look is dialed a notch or two farther toward casual than most in his business, proves himself to be the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's choicest asset in his first adventure since fellow agent Lucas Davenport's separation from that agency. (Hint: This series is a spinoff from the 27-book series of "Prey" novels, featuring now post-BCA Lucas Davenport.) Either it's that, or it's the fact that everyone else in the BCA has been pulled off other duty to work security at the Minnesota State Fair, following the politically targeted bombing at the Iowa State Fair in Extreme Prey, but for one reason or the other, when two tigers are cat-napped from the Minnesota Zoo, Virgil gets the case.

I hope you're starting to pick up the pun in this book's title. "Clause," eh? OK, never mind.

Virgil's quarry in this book is not a pair of rare Amur tigers, but whoever stole them. The motive immediately, and correctly, suspected has to do with Chinese immigrants on the U.S. west coast being willing to pay virtually any price for traditional remedies, some of which involve the dried organs or ground-up bones of endangered animals. Thanks to his mind's quickness to make connections, it isn't long before Virgil suspects exactly the guys who are doing this to the irreplaceable cats. There's an inside guy at the zoo; there are two guys with connections to the Armenian mafia; there is a Chinese tycoon and his playboy son; and, at the center of the web, there's a sociopath who specializes in traditional medicine, since he was barred from practicing professional medicine.

This Winston Peck VI, M.D., becomes an increasingly absorbing character as he observes his own descent into murder and villainy with almost clinical detachment. Not that he isn't stressed out. His desperation not to get caught, his almost paralyzing anxiety, his growing dependence on Xanax and the number that plays on his brain, come close to eliciting the reader's sympathy, in spite of the cold-bloodedness with which he commits crime after grisly crime. It would be nice to say Virgil never misses a trick, and catches up with him step by dogged, methodical step. But actually, luck favors Peck most of the time, leaving the BCA's top investigator looking flat-footed while a reckless killer of man and beast slips past his surveillance, or spots him before he is spotted, time after time. The evidence that could help Flowers and his cronies Jenkins and Shrake find where Peck has stashed the tigers, keeps getting farther away. Whenever Peck makes a move that could get him caught, Flowers' attention is diverted by a separate case involving his girlfriend as a victim of assault.

And then, luck turns just enough to put Flowers and Peck together in one place, and you just know the backup won't arrive before one of them is dead. While a tiger's life teeters in the balance, a physically injured Virgil and a mentally unhinged Peck fight it out in one of the hair-raisingest scenes of suspense and violence I can remember ever reading. If the depiction of a habitual murderer as a Xanax-addled nervous wreck doesn't do it, I'm pretty sure this scene will make you remember the name of John Sandford - which is actually John Camp. Don't ask. Just go with it.

Storm Front

Storm Front
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

It begins in Israel, but most of this mystery-thriller unfolds in the part of Minnesota where I went to college. So, apart from everything else, it's a bit of a homecoming for me; I haven't been back there since the beginning of this century. It was fun to see the towns of Mankato (where I went to school), St. Peter (home of Gustavus Adolphus College, where many of my friends went to school), and other burgs in that area, at least through the eyes of fictional crooks and cops; though, after living in Missouri as long as I have, it takes some effort to check the urge to add an "s" at the end of St. Peter. One of Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Virgil Flowers' two cases in this book has to do with a Gustavus anthropology prof who absconds from an archaeological dig in Israel with a priceless artifact that, if authentic, just might spell the end of Judaism and the modern state of Israel.

The Rev. Elijah Jones represents a branch of Lutheranism whose grip on the Bible is just loose enough to be capable of the theological and text-critical enormities unleashed in this novel; if awful Christian doctrine could be described as occult, I would be hanging an Occult Content Advisory on this book along with the Adult ditto that, with this series, invariably applies. But that's no excuse for Jones to go rabbiting off with a stone that seems to mention Solomon in an early form of Hebrew script, and a certain Egyptian Pharaoh in hieroglyphics, as though they're the same person. He obviously doesn't have pure motives, since he's already trying to sell it to the highest bidder, even before Virgil can tell whether the Israeli Antiquities Authority agent shadowing him on the case is really who she says he is.

While Virgil tries to reel in the terminally ill renegade minister before he does something worse than steal a national treasure, his garage gets fire-bombed, seriously endangering his fishing boat; which, as you know, is not cool at all. Also, he has to deal with a Mossad agent who has exceeded her brief, a couple of reluctant Hezbollah operatives, a pair of Turkish enforcers, a stone-cold Iranian killer, two rival celebrity treasure hunters, and an unspecified U.S. intelligence agency. And all that's before the target of his other investigation - a hot momma known as Ma Nobles, who is suspected of selling fake antique barn lumber - gets caught up in the stone-of-Solomon case for her own personal reasons.

If, like me, you have already peeked into some books farther down John Sandford's list of works, you might recognize Ma as a "doing business as" of Virgil's main squeeze from here on; so, it's interesting to see where that started. Their relationship is fraught from the start with the tension that results when opposites attract; though some of that tension may also come from the complexity of case involving all these characters' agendas, double-crosses, and power plays, not to mention gunplay, a kidnapping, a hospital prison-break, unusual vehicle chases, and the creative application of skinny-dipping as surveillance.

This is the seventh of nine-going-on-ten "Virgil Flowers novels" by the journalist formerly known as John Camp, also author of some 27 "Lucas Davenport" novels and at least 10 other books. I'm working through the parts of both series that my county's public library has in its collection. The fact that I've stopped reading anything else for the time being, bears witness to their addictiveness.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Mad River

Mad River
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

The sixth "Virgil Flowers novel" hands the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's second-best case closer a case that, forgive the spoiler, is destined to become his most frustrating adventure so far. And that's saying a lot, considering how the femme fatale in Heat Lightning got away after successfully hitting everyone on her revenge-for-a-Vietnam-massacre hit list. In this book, a "Bonnie and Clyde plus one" team of down-on-their-luck small-town ne'er-do-wells goes on a southwestern Minnesota killing spree, and one of their victims is a cop. Unfortunately, that means most everyone in law enforcement plans to shoot to kill and ask questions later. Meanwhile, Virgil needs to collect the spree killers alive, so they can testify against the guy who hired them to shoot his estranged wife, their first victim.

How this turns out to be an exercise in frustration is best left up to your imagination, or to your reading enjoyment. I'll just mention that Virgil gets to spend some time with his parents - including one chilling scene when the Rev. Flowers, Virgil's dad, goes pale while listening to his son talk about his case, realizing that a couple of parishioners who missed Sunday services might be on the killers' list of targets. Also, he enjoys a romance with a girl who wouldn't give him the time of day in high school, and he continues experimenting with the concept of market research as an aid to crime solving (further to his previous adventure, in Shock Wave). But that's about all the joy he has, in a manhunt littered with blood and death, in which the police can't seem to do anything except wait and see where the next body drops, because there are just too many places a couple of desperate kids can hide. And then there's the problem of folks taking justice into their own hands, which puts Virgil in a lose-lose-lose situation. And finally, he gets his ass kicked, which is never fun.

So, if you want a break from the kind of mystery in which everything works out and justice is served, here you go. Troubling, emotionally turbulent, at times wrenchingly painful, and shot through a lens tinted with human frailty and an agonizing sense of helplessness, it is a mystery-thriller of the most human kind. It shows that even a terrific detective doesn't always come out a winner, and maybe (from some points of view) shouldn't. And it also shows, once again, that where award-winning journalist John Camp (writing under the pseudonym John Sandford) is concerned, the supply of powerhouse murder/suspense plots might just be inexhaustible. Virgil, for example, has dealt with a mad bomber, a team of assassins, a child-sex-abuse cult, a local government-corruption conspiracy that turned to murder, a series of revenge murders about a crime covered up years ago, and a lesbian country-western singer who can't catch a break without somebody killing whoever is about to make her career. Those are just the installments I have read so far. On deck, for me, are Storm Front and Escape Clause.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Shock Wave

Shock Wave
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

Virgil Flowers, an agent of the fictional Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension who happens to live a few blocks from where I went to college, is a small-town Lutheran preacher's son (though, in one book, author John Sandford had a lapse of memory and said Presbyterian) who doesn't believe much anymore, but he still has to think about God before he goes to sleep. His methods as a homicide investigator feature large measures of improvisation, gossiping with the regulars at the local cafe, hopping into bed with the sexiest female cop/witness/suspect in sight, and sneaking off to work "undertime" in the fishing boat he hauls behind his state-owned 4Runner; but his closure rate speaks for itself. He hates to carry a gun (once claiming, when asked why, that the weight of a gun on one's hip leads to back problems later in life), but he rather likes getting into fights. Strange and notoriously unfriendly cats have been known to walk up to him, climb on his shoulder, and settle down to purr. He has been known to act heroically while under fire, but to freeze up when he feels responsible for an innocent person's death. In this book, when he survives a mad bomber's attempt on his life by sheer luck, he comes close to the edge of hysteria, then (on the advice of his BCA superior, Lucas Davenport), he sits down at Country Kitchen and devours an enormous breakfast, and goes back to work feeling better; and is then gobsmacked when another cop expresses amazement at his coolness. He's the epitome of "smarter than he looks" - outwardly an easygoing surfer dude/cowboy whose wardrobe majors in indie rock band T-shirts, and inwardly the one guy involved in a federal, state, and local joint investigation who is going to see through not one, but two red herrings dragged across the killer's trail. He is, aside from his unhealthy preference for Diet Coke and loose women, one of the awesomest sleuths ever.

And this is the sleuth the BCA sends to the fictional Butternut Falls, in the non-fictional Kandiyohi County, Minnesota, when a second bomb in a week targets a PyeMart facility, killing one person and injuring another. PyeMart, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., is sort of an upmarket competitor of Walmart or Target, run by a guy whose lines (in my mental full-cast recording) are read by 1980s TV pitch-man Victor Kiam. The first bomb went off at its headquarters, apparently targeting Willard Pye himself and his board of directors; but it missed, because the board was drinking breakfast in the next room, and only a secretary was killed. The second went off at the construction site of the Butternut Falls store, for which the city council's zoning approval was a suspiciously sudden reversal. Some people are screaming corruption; others are screaming about the disruption of locally owned business; and don't even ask about the fishermen and environmentalists, who worry the runoff from the PyeMart parking lot will poison one of the state's last pristine trout streams. Naturally, the bomber is a left-wing crazy - either economically, politically, or environmentally - and it shouldn't take too long for him (probably a "him") to make a mistake and get caught.

But something isn't fitting together for Virgil. It isn't just that the killer seems to miss his target half the time. First, there's still no explanation for how the first bomb made it past the security at PyeMart headquarters. Then, why did he expend at least 16 bombs' worth of his limited supply of explosives to destroy a stockpile of water and sewer pipes that had yet to be installed? And why, dear God why, did he blow up Virgil's fishing boat? What could this nutjob be trying to make happen?

To be sure, the investigation lands some big fish. Flowers' thuggish cronies Jenkins and Shrake have to come up to Butternut to help nab the crooked mayor and aldermen who greased the skids for the new PyeMart, in return for some cleverly concealed bribes. This investigation pays off with some thrilling moments of entertainment, but it doesn't get Flowers, the sheriff, or the ATF agent in charge of the bombing investigation any closer to stopping the killer. When hard evidence seems to be getting them nowhere, Flowers tries an experiment in "market research," hoping to use the responses of a select group to an opinion poll to narrow the list of suspects a bit further than "somebody in Kandiyohi County." But then a potential suspect seemingly blows himself up, and it seems too easy. Looking past that too-pat solution to the mystery, Virgil realizes the real killer has yet to set his most explosive trap.

Since I front-end-loaded this review with my opinion of Virgil, as a mystery/thriller hero, there isn't much left to say except, I hope I haven't spoiled too much of the boom-boom, funny, sexy, Adult-Content-Advisory-worthy fun for you. But if that's a worry, there are (or soon will be) nine other Virgil Flowers novels to surprise you, in addition to 27 mysteries featuring Davenport. (This is Virgil Flowers #5, for your information.) Drop Moby-Dick, which is overrated anyway, and read this. You're welcome.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Hymnal Review: ReClaim

Reclaim: Lutheran Hymnal for Church and Home
Edited by Gracia Grindal
Recommended Ages: All Ages

This hymnal weighs in a bit on the light side, with only 275 hymns, plus three settings of the Divine Service, some additional services, and a small selection of psalms. Historically arising, as I understand it, from a conservative group in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that didn't agree with the direction that church body's most recent pew book Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006; hereafter ELW) was taking it, it was preceded by an "Introductory Edition" (kind of like a hymnal supplement) that caught my attention some years ago. Published in that book, and repeated at the end of this one, was editor-in-chief Gracia Grindal's essay "What Makes a Hymn Lutheran?" (She also wrote an introduction to the present book.) I recognized then, and re-recognize now, that Grindal's essay is an important document - though I disagree with it. Hand to heaven, I intend for this to be a fair review, but it is worthy of full disclosure now, at the beginning, that a lot of Grindal & Co.'s hymn choices are of the same persuasion as what I have often lampooned on this blog as "tacky hymns." But before I lampoon them again, several things must be understood.

First, I have the highest respect for Gracia Grindal. She has done some very important work as a hymn writer and translator. Her achievement, for example, writing a book of original hymns for every Sunday of the church year, all with original tunes by a composer of my (slight) acquaintance, is an outstanding showing of hymnnographic industry that both challenged and inspired me when, several years later, I attempted a similar thing. I also have great respect for many of Grindal's co-workers named in the acknowledgements at the end of this book - including Dr. Oliver Olson, with whom I have conversed a couple times and who has done important work in the study of the history of Lutheranism. But I am reasonably certain both Grindal and Olson evaluate Lutheran Pietism (and probably other kinds of pietism) one way, and I evaluate it quite another way. I have seen evidence of this in their writings, and have heard it from Dr. Olson's mouth in person: to them, a condemnation of Pietism is entirely out of place. It is part of the heritage of the ELCA, or rather, of its parent bodies. So, you need to know as I go forward in this review, that when I gather pietistic hymnody into the heap of "tacky hymns," I am evaluating them as a confessional Lutheran.

In my idea of a hymnal that would "reclaim" the hymn-singing heritage of Lutheranism, there would be an overwhelming prevalence of hymns of specifically Lutheran origin and of distinctively Lutheran doctrinal content. Grindal's essay, on the other hand, holds up the example of a China missionary who argued "any hymn that told of the unconditional love of Jesus Christ for us was Lutheran," and goes on to conclude "a hymn that preaches or assumes faith alone, grace alone, word alone, Christ alone, the cross alone is a Lutheran hymn." This may seem to some to be a very strict and exclusive test, but in my opinion, especially because of the phrase "or assumes," it is all but meaninglessly reductive.

Second, Grindal advises bringing hymns "from the entire ecumenical and global church" into the canon of Lutheran hymns, but I have observed that, in practice, this works out as a few Lutheran hymns squeezing in among a selection of predominantly British and American Protestant standards. Among the hymns of historically Lutheran origin gathered in their net, many (possibly most) come from hymn writers who were at least heavily influenced by Pietism, such as Paul Gerhardt (a controversial designation - I myself, at times, have been ready to fight bare-knuckled to defend his hymns against the charge of Pietism, but they have that odor on them). I have also proudly worn the epithet "Norwegian Wannabe" because of my interest in introducing more hymns of Scandinavian origin into Missouri Synod circles, with their mainly German historic roots; but, while entertaining this openness to the creative output of Scandinavian hymn-writers, I've also had to wince, at times, at some of the embarrassing guests who crash the party.

In a third section of her essay, Grindal makes the point that early anglophone (English-speaking) Lutheran hymnals in the U.S. imported "many favorite hymns by Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, which Lutherans have sung ever since with joy," she makes a point that, I think, obscures the important distinction that selecting suitable hymns by these Anglicans or Methodists, or what have you, required keen attention to, and often subtle alteration of, their doctrinal content. While she notes some groups (like the Norwegian-American editors of The Lutheran Hymnary, 1912) selected "mostly classic Lutheran chorales and made very few gestures toward American hymnody," I sense a tone of approval when Grindal contrasts this with the Swedish Augustana group's The Hymnal (1925) being "very friendly to the American songbook, including gospel hymns."

Finally, Grindal notes some contemporary hymns are not suitable for Lutheran worship because they do not confess the truth. She stresses, and here I feel closest to her in spirit, that only hymns that preach the gospel - as opposed to those that "tell God what we are doing, and seem to imply that our works should do anything to win us favor with God" - should be given a place in our worship, no matter how popular they are. But, again, I think the reductiveness of her main thesis about what makes a hymn Lutheran has a very telling effect on what examples from "contemporary" hymnody get pulled into this book. Taken together with the essentially conservative character of the impulse to create this book, I think the point that divides us in our judgment of what makes a hymn Lutheran strikes very close to the point that divides us on what, in the historic heritage of hymnody, we should be "reclaiming" for posterity.

Foreparts
The book begins, as I said, with Grindal's introduction, but I think I've spent enough time on essay material and I want to get into the guts of the book. I'll just point out a few of the flags it raised for me: 1) the equation between the 1888 Common Service and the liturgy from Martin Luther's era (which aren't really as identical as Grindal suggests); 2) the stated objective of cleansing the liturgy of the Lord's Supper of ceremonies that suggest we are participating in the atonement (a veiled criticism of ELW, with which I sympathize); 3) the emphasis on a formula of absolution that "both binds and looses the sinner" (for my money, a flat-out misapplication of Jesus' institution of absolution and a horrible intrusion of law at a point when the gospel must be unconditional and final); 4) carrying the idea that "the words in the liturgy are more important to the music" so far as to allow for folk, jazz, and traditional chant settings of the Divine Service (and I'll spare you my opinion about D.S. Setting 2 other than to kid that Cole Porter surely never wrote a more churchly liturgical setting); 5) and a defense of its small selection of hymns as making the book "physically lightweight while heavy in content," and suited to learning by repetition. This point is well taken, but it would be better taken if, in my opinion, the content really was heavier and more worthy of learning by repetition.

Finally, I can confirm that, besides the three settings of "The Service with Holy Communion," as it calls the Divine Service - the folk one composed by the late John Ylvisaker, who fell asleep in the Lord this past March, and whose hymn "I was there to hear your borning cry" is a classic example of the type of song that causes me to twitch; and the lily-white jazz setting by Douglas Norquist, who could have a successful career as the house composer at virtually any Christian music publisher in business today, and I'm sorry if that doesn't sound as bitchy as I intend - the book also contains Luther's Small Catechism, the Athanasian Creed, rites for baptism, confirmation, marriage, burial, individual and public confession and absolution, general prayer, evening prayer (like Vespers), and two Gregorian-style chant tones followed by "selected Psalms" 1, 8, 19, 23, 51, 84, 90, 103, 121, 126, 139, and 150. Then the hymns begin.

Hymns
There are some good hymns in this book. There are a lot of hymns that I'm not going to complain about, because there is a limit to how much of a jerk even I am willing to make of myself; and although they are as bland and thin as gruel and seem to have skated into this very exclusive collection on the force of inviolable tradition, if perhaps not a specifically Lutheran one, they don't increase this hymnal's tackiness quotient any more than they do, say, The Lutheran Hymnal (1941), which also has many of them. And then there are the tacky ones, but they're not all tacky for the same reason or to the same degree, so they're the one's I'm going to discuss in detail. I apologize in advance for the negative tone this will necessarily cast over the review that follows. Keep thinking about the fact that the hymn numbers we are skipping include some really good hymns. And if I can remember to do so, I'm going to point out one particularly good hymn that was new to me when I read through this book. And so, in order of hymn number...

3. "Glorious things of thee are spoken." This only registers 0.5 on the tackiness scale of 0 to 51 because of F.J. Haydn's tune AUSTRIA, also known as the Austrian Imperial Hymn, also known to millions of people scandalized by the actions of German's Third Reich as the tune to "Deutschland über Alles." Alas, most of those folks are now gone, or going fast, so this beautiful tune may soon be safe for hymnody again; but I have personally known Holocaust survivors who felt ill at the sound of this melody, and until I'm sure nobody with that sensitivity is still around, I would advise substituting a different tune, such as GALILEAN. Also, I've expressed my views before about the pairing of classical tunes with hymns, which I think harms both the hymn and the original masterpiece from which the tune was copied; so I'll skip mentioning 36. "Joyful, joyful we adore thee" (whose tune HYMN TO JOY does violence to a great theme from Beethoven's 9th Symphony) when it comes up in sequence.

4. "All things bright and beautiful," by a 19th-century lady named Cecil F. Alexander. This precious, saccharine little children's ditty about God's First Article blessings (creation) doesn't mention Jesus or really have anything to do with the gospel. As an example of the reductiveness of the "or assumes" clause of Grindal's essay on what makes a hymn Lutheran, and as a pretty lightweight specimen in what is meant to be a content-heavy, 275-load jug of concentrated liquid Lutheranism, I reckon it rates 2 tacks out of 5.

5. "God of our fathers," whose tune NATIONAL HYMN is by George W. Warren (d. 1902). Not only is it one of the most pompous-sounding pomp-and-circumstance hymn tunes heard in any church, but it's also one of those golden oldies that play on the electronic church carillon system at whatever church in your town wants to be known for its carillon system - even if the hymn tunes broadcast over it conflict with that church's culture. With this book, it need conflict no more! But it is still, I am afraid, a shaky-kneed, elderly, pompous bore. Also, just to make sure nobody misses the pompous bit, trumpet cues are actually written into the accompanist's score for the beginning of each stanza and after each phrase. So, because music is only a little important (but important nonetheless), and because Daniel C. Roberts' (d. 1907) lyrics are probably only remembered today because of the tune, 2 tacks out of 5.

9. "Sweet hour of prayer," words by William W. Walford (d. 1850), tune SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER by William R. Bradbury (d. 1868). It is best described as "that hymn you tend to confuse with 'Leaning on the everlasting arms.'" Since it assumes the reader/singer/congregation will understand a reference to Mount Pisgah, perhaps the fact that it forgets to mention Jesus can be put down to relying on their biblical literacy. For sheer flattery, and for helping make Lutheranism indistinguishable from any other moribund sect in 19th-century American Protestantism, 3 tacks out of 5.

18. "For the beauty of the earth," words by Folliott S. Pierpoint (d. 1917). All very First Article; only the fifth stanza hints at Jesus, without naming him. It calls him "best gift divine, to the world so freely giv'n, agent of God's grand design," but that's about it. It's apparently one of those hymns that "assume" the gospel - which I think makes for a pretty thin helping of whatever makes a hymn Lutheran. 1 tack out of 5.

21. "Lord, listen to your children praying," words and music by Ken Medema (b. 1943). The fact that it is four lines long means that I almost can't quote it without running afoul of the Hope Publishing copyright, but it sounds like either the refrain of a considerably longer gospel song, or one of those Taize ditties that need to be repeated to the point of self-hypnosis to repay the licensing fee. I personally suspect the former. I also smell a Pentecostal rat in the lyrics "send your Spirit" and "send us pow'r." 3 tacks out of 5.

23. "Awesome God" (first line "Our God is an awesome God"), words and music by Rich Mullins (1955-1997). Sort of the epitome of the type of CoWo2 anthem that many of us have probably seen stretched out into a long, passionately emotional musical spectacle at a hand-waving, praise-band-led mega-church service. Seeing it in a hymnal is a bit jarring, partly because the layout makes it apparent how very little there is to this song. If the words are more important than the music, as Grindal says, then what is this pop-charting little scrap of sweet nothings to some God, perhaps any God, doing here? 4 tacks out of 5.

24. "Shout to the Lord" (first line "My Jesus, my Savior"), words and music by Darlene Zschech (b. 1965). It mentions Jesus, calls him "my Savior," and alludes to his "mighty love" and "the work of [his] hands," but that's about as much gospel as this song contains. The rest of it seems to be about my emotions as I join the mountains and seas in praising him. Looking at the sophisticated, pop-music rhythms of this piece, I'm dubious about the prospect of inducing a whole congregation to sing this, unless they've been fed a diet of nothing but CoWo since childhood - which would be another problem altogether. 4 tacks out of 5.

25. "Lord, I lift your name on high," words and music by Rick Founds (b. 1954). It's another piece of baby-boomer Christian pop, and even less congregationally oriented than Hymn 24. Totally a band & song-leader number, performed at the congregation (not by the congregation), probably with the aid of an expensive sound system. Songs like this defeat the purpose of having a pew hymnal. 5 tacks out of 5.

26. "How great thou art" (first line "O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder"), words by Sutart K. Hine (d. 1989), set to his arrangement of a Swedish folk tune. Everybody knows this, and some of us have gone to a church where it was pasted inside the cover of a hymnal that very pointedly didn't have it within; some of us have also belonged to churches where a motion to paste it inside the hymnal could not be sustained. My church's current hymnal has it right inside, so I guess I'm going against my own policy here, but I just have to say, it takes so long to get to the Gospel in this hymn, Christ could come before we make it that far. 1 tack out of 5.

27. "God is so good," a "traditional"/"anonymous" little children's ditty whose four stanzas, minus repeats, add up to the following total: "God is so good, he cares for me, he loves me so, he's so good to me." There so very little there, I feel compelled to speculate that it got in because it fit at the bottom of the second page of "How great thou art," saving costly pages in the hymnal layout. It pains me to think what "heavier in content" hymn might have been squeezed out by such an economy. 1 tack out of 5.

31. "The numberless gifts of God's mercies," words by Carolina Sandell-Berg (d. 1903), tune by Albert Lindström (d. 1935). Lina Sandell, whom I have heard described as "the Fanny Crosby of Sweden," was a popular gospel-song writer in the old country, best known here for "Children of the heavenly father" and "Day by day." In Grindal's translation, and taking the tune into account, I find this example of her work comes across rather like a gospel-song in translation that, interesting to note, was popular in the old country. It isn't terribly specific about the content of God's mercies, although it goes on at some length about them in general. Perhaps I missed out on the ability to detect the merit in this hymn by being born without a drop of Scandinavian blood. 2 tacks out of 5.

33. "Father, I adore you," words and music by Terrye Coelho (b. 1952). The tune, titled MARANATHA, could be sung as a round. Its four stanzas differ only by the first half of the first line, addressing all three persons of the Trinity in succession, and finally "Three in One." Other than that useful bit of doctrinal instruction, and exercising little kids' ability to sing a round, it is hard to detect this song's "heaviness in content." 1 tack out of 5.

34. "This is my Father's world," words by Maltbie D. Babcock (d. 1901), to the English folk tune TERRA PATRIS. This strikes me as another one of those stereotyped Anglo-Protestant hymns that can only be understood as an indispensable part of an American Lutheran hymnal because it was, deservingly or not, in some older American Lutheran hymnals. It may even have been more popular, in the churches that used those hymnals, than quite a few of the weightier, more historically Lutheran hymns in them (if "quite a few" made it in, at all). And that may, in turn, have come about as a result of cues from other American protestant groups, whose taste in hymns was entirely unpolluted by German chorales. I'm only speculating here. I have nothing else to go on. I can't tell whether this hymn is any good or not; it never gets out of the First Article of the Creed, mentioning only the first person of the Trinity and his acts of creating and ruling the world. I just have a feeling it would be a good idea to keep the sound of this hymn out of my congregation's ears, so they don't get the idea it's more Lutheran than it is. 1 tack out of 5.

37. "Sunshine and rain," words by Britt Gerda Hallqvist (d. 1997), tune by Egil Hovland (d. 2013). Another translation by Grindal of a hymn made up of very short phrases, which apparently make it difficult to say much of interest. There's a stanza for each person of the Trinity, and a rather awkward refrain, and some repetitiveness seems to be a casualty of the odd meter. For example, it says Jesus died "so that we may live, and live today; and he is here; here with us now..." I know new hymns have to be introduced from time to time, and it's always a risk. Sometimes it doesn't pay off. I've written worse hymns than this. I just hope they don't get published. 0.5 tacks out of 5.

38. "Majesty (worship his majesty)," words and music by Jack. W. Hayford (b. 1934). More or less "Awesome God," but longer. 4 tacks out of 5.

41. "Thine the amen (thine the praise)," words by Hebert Brokering (d. 2009), music by Carl Schalk (b. 1929). Schalk's tune THINE is a guilty pleasure of mine, but Brokering's text is an example of a type of hymn that I comprehensively hate: a run-on list of sensory impressions that never, and I mean never, add up to a complete thought. See also Jaroslav Vajda's "Now the silence, now the peace," also with a tune by Schalk (but not one I like so much). "Now the silence" didn't make the cut in this book, so in that respect, the ReClaim crowd showed better taste than the editors of several bigger publishing houses' pew books. 2 tacks out of 5.

51. "Lord, with grateful hearts (we share your faithfulness)," words paraphrased by Ylvisaker from Psalm 89, set to the traditional Italian tune SANCTISSIMA (a.k.a. SICILIAN MARINERS; similar to the German carol "Oh, how joyfully," and also used in hymn 54, "Lord, dismiss us with your blessing"). My first kvetch is that Ylvisaker's lyrics fit the tune with great difficulty. Some of it doesn't quite make sense. For example, I don't understand the line "Honor, justice and respect all righteousness." Maybe the comma is the problem? 2 tacks out of 5.

53. "Go, my children, with my blessing," words by Vajda (d. 2008), to the Welsh tune AR HYD I NOS ("Sleep awhile and peace attend thee, all through the night"). I'm injuring myself by saying this, because everybody loves this song, and it does have some merits; but I just have a wee hangup about a hymn that is entirely set in quotes, as though we are singing God's words to ourselves. As a newspaperman, I have to ding it for failing to properly attribute the quote. Since I split an infinitive there, I'll split the ding down to 0.5 tacks out of 5.

55. "God be with you till we meet again," words by Jeremiah Eames Rankin (d. 1904), tune by William G. Tomer (d. 1896). One of those stereotypical, old-timey numbers that wouldn't sound out of place coming from a clapboard church in a spaghetti western as Father Clint Eastwood rides into town. It has some nice stuff in the interior lines of its four stanzas, but it totals out at a great cost in time in proportion to the amount of that good stuff. I would call it more lightweight than heavy-duty: 1 tack out of 5.

56. "Lord, now let your servants depart," Ylvisaker's paraphrase of the Nunc dimittis, set to his arrangement of a traditional Norwegian tune that I personally find uninspired. It's hard to go wrong with a liturgical paraphrase, but Ylvisaker may have managed it. Instead of compressing his material into fewer words, he drew it out into unnecessary verbiage (or necessary only because of the meter), such as "depart in peace and quietness" in place of "depart in peace." Some of this unnecessary verbiage is almost ridiculously so: "We have seen salvation right before our eyes," for example. Some of it exceeds his brief as a paraphraser, such as "a world that has no ending; a world of peace and harmony." The one time the meter forced him to compromise in the other direction, it was to change the name of the Holy Spirit to "The Holy One." Now, I'm not being hard on Ylvisaker because I think I can do better. I've also written a bad paraphrase of the Nunc dimittis, and published it, too. So, making allowances for being in the same boat, 1 tack out of 5.

64. "Day is dying in the west," words by Mary A. Lathbury (d. 1913), tune CHAUTAUQUA by William F. Sherwin (d. 1888). The text is a little odd, combining a nice evening hymn with a refrain that seems to be a paraphrase of the Sanctus. Whence comes the impression that it was intended for a tent revival in the burnt-over district of upstate New York? Perhaps from the title of the tune, but more likely from its sentimental smarminess. Yeccchh. 2 tacks out of 5.

66. "Now the day is over," which I'm only going to ding because its tune MERRIAL, by Joseph Barnby (d. 1896), is so dashedly boring, in the manner of a late-Romantic masterpiece of the genre of "tunes in which smarmy harmony covers up the fact the tune doesn't go anywhere." 2 tacks out of 5.

67. "The day you gave us, Lord, has ended," also gets dinged primarily for its tune ST. CLEMENT by Clement C. Scholefield (d. 1904), another stereotyped number on the town carillon that only recently made it into an LCMS hymnal, at which point I felt like I had fallen into a sepia-tinted photograph. 1 tack out of 5.

68. "When seed falls on good soil," words by Norman P. Olsen (b. 1932), tune by Frederick F. Jackisch (b. 1922), a most unsatisfactory treatment of the Parable of the Sower that I am sure I have slammed before. It misapplies the parable to a spiritually dangerous degree, and that's only the beginning of its artistic failures. The tune isn't bad, so 4 tacks out of 5.

73. Ylvisaker's "Borning Cry," about which I have already commented. I will say no more, except to note that Ylvisaker's tune WATERLIFE is notated in a rather un-hymn-like piano figuration, and also, isn't the first tune in this book to come with guitar chords; the idea of it being performed on an organ doesn't even seem to have entered the composer's mind as an afterthought. 4 tacks out of 5.

74. "We are baptized in Christ Jesus," also words and music by Ylvisaker (tune OUIMETTE). I'm not awarding this any tacks, because I actually think it's a good hymn - though it's not the one I had in mind earlier, when I mentioned discovering a superb hymn in this book that I hadn't seen before. I wouldn't call this hymn superb, and I don't particularly care for its tune; but it does show that Ylvisaker could be on his game at times. For that, I honor his memory.

76. "Thy Holy Wings (O Savior)," Sandell's words translated by Grindal, set to a Swedish folksong that I have seen set to Gregory Wismar's hymn "In holy conversation." The setting of the hymn in this book is, again, very pianistic and not at all considerate of organists. I also come through this hymn's four stanzas feeling a bit cloyed by all the warm, fuzzy, feminine imagery relating to Jesus. 2 tacks out of 5.

77. "Jesus came with simple things," words by Petter Dass (d. 1707), translated by Grindal and set to a Norwegian folk tune. I think this is the great discovery of this hymnal, with a beautiful confession about how the sacrament of baptism connects us to Christ. It isn't perfect verse ("so sin and death won't snare us"), but it is a beautiful, powerful baptism hymn, never before published in English to my knowledge. Negative 3 tacks!

78. "Stand up, stand up for Jesus," words by George Duffield (d. 1888), tune WEBB by George J. Webb (d. 1887). Again, I'm making no friends by saying this, but I don't get a lot out of this militaristic piece of pomp and triumph. This book's suggestion that it be used as a confirmation hymn only adds to the impression that it would go over best at a Boy Scouts meeting. 1 tack out of 5.

79. "O Jesus, I have promised," words by John E. Bode (b. 1874), set to a good old 17th-century chorale. I pick up a lot of pietistic vibes from this hymn, starting with its starting point, which is what "I" have promised to Jesus! As a confirmation hymn, it might have some merit. But some of that merit will be best perceived by a pietistic eye, including such lines as "Oh, let me feel you near me." It does turn things around the right way in Stanza 4, which opens, "O Jesus, you have promised..." But then it flips back again to "I have promised..." and asks for grace to follow him to the end. Depending on how you read it, and maybe what you had for dinner before doing so, you might find this hymn shaving pretty close to Grindal's description of hymns that "should be banned no matter where they come from or how popular they are." 4 tacks out of 5.

82. "Jesus, I long for your blessed communion," words by Peder Jacobsen Hygom (d. 1764), set to a Norwegian folk tune. In four long stanzas, I can't see any reason this should be included in the "Lord's Supper" section of the book, except for the rather equivocal word "communion." If this was really meant to be a Lord's Supper hymn, it does not give a very good account of the Lutheran faith about that article. 4 tacks out of 5.

83. "Let us break bread together (on our knees)," an African-American spiritual of the type that burns the most time delivering the least amount of information, and what it does deliver is far from the best. As an account of the Lord's Supper, it talks about "breaking bread" and "drinking wine," and in Stanza 3, praising God. It suggests very little, and openly says less, but I don't think this hymn is with us in perceiving the Lord's body and blood. 5 tacks out of 5.

85. "Break thou the bread of life," words by Lathbury, tune by Sherwin. Particularly in the context of the Lord's Supper section of the hymnal, this is an obnoxious selection, since the only bread it is interested in is the bread Jesus broke by the Sea of Galilee (i.e. during the feeding of the 5,000), thereby suggesting (as no less a foe of Lutheran doctrine than Ulrich Zwingli taught) that, according to John chapter 6, the sacrament is only an allegory about believing in Jesus' word. If I do this hymn an injustice, I was set up to do so by the section heading at the top of the page. 4 tacks out of 5.

96. "When He cometh," words by William O. Cushing (d. 1902), tune PRECIOUS JEWELS by George F. Root (d. 1895). A bit of Stanza 1 may serve as a brief example of the deficiencies of Cushing's poetry: "When He cometh, when He cometh to make up His jewels, all His jewels, precious jewels, His loved and his own." The refrain, following this, makes it clear the hymn is talking about Jesus adorning himself with us as jewels in his crown; but the three stanzas grope and stumble toward that in such an awkward, halting manner, it makes me a nervous wreck. It's an artificial instance of the tendency of some folk hymns to spend a lot of time, by repetition and other techniques, covering very little territory, and perhaps not very interesting territory either. 2 tacks out of 5.

111. "I heard the bells on Christmas Day," words by Longfellow (d. 1882), music by John Baptiste Calking (d. 1905). I won't go into the details on this one, because I've hammered it before. Let me just say, you've been warned, and you didn't listen. For a poem that has nothing to do with the gospel, 5 tacks out of 5.

121. "The First Noel," a 17th-century English carol. Again, not doing myself any favors saying this, but this is not hymnal-caliber material. For one thing, it dithers and delays: "...in fields where they lay; in fields where they lay, keeping their sheep..." Also, it introduces details that are not in the biblical record: "...on a cold winter's night...three wise men..." Then, it gets downright confused about which Christmas story it is telling, by apparently depicting the shepherds as following a star - unless it only seems that way because a stanza was mislaid between 1 & 2. Finally, it takes forever to get to the punchline about "gold, and myrrh, and frankincense." For being kids' stuff, not meant to be sung in church, 3 tacks out of 5.

122. "Bells are calling (ringing, tolling, ringing, tolling from steeple spires)," Grindal's translation of words by Elias Blix (d. 1902), set to a Norwegian folk tune that sounds similar to a tune I have heard set to "Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding." This is another example of a hymn with an awkward meter, whose text ratchets itself forward in repetitive jerks. Though this is done with more skillful intent than Hymn 37, it's still a hymn that gives me a strange feeling, like I'm wading through thick mud. Only after three long, frustrating stanzas do I hear the news that Christ is born and has redeemed us, and once that brief item goes by, the slog (albeit full of bright scenery like "joyfully singing") continues for another whole stanza. For sheer aggravation in the service of lightweight content, 2 tacks out of 5.

124. "In the bleak midwinter," by Christina Rossetti (d. 1894) and Gustav Holst (d. 1934). As in the case of Hymn 111, I've been here before. You were warned. 3.5 tacks out of 5.

130. "We three kings of Orient are," words and music by John Henry Hopkins Jr. (d. 1891). Again, you were warned before. There are some merits in Stanzas 2-4 to mitigate the inaccuracy of Stanza 1, so I'll let it off with 2 tacks out of 5.

131. "Bright and glorious is the sky," a hymn by the much admired (even by me) N.F.S. Grundtvig, set to a 19th-century Danish tune. I'm only dinging this hymn because of the biblical inaccuracy of suggesting (in Stanza 2) that the Christmas star brought the eastern sages to Bethlehem on Christmas night. 0.5 tacks out of 5.

137. "There is a green hill (far away)," Alexander's hymn about which I have previously commented because, in my view, it cruelly took back the comfort of the gospel from a child who (on the occasion for which the hymn was meant to be written) was believed to be dying. How very clever of the editors of this book to omit the stanza that gave me offense. Grudgingly, 0 tacks out of 5.

138. "In the cross of Christ I glory," by John Bowring (d. 1872), wedded to the tune RATHBUN by Ithamar Conkey (d. 1867). Again, at risk of blowing up a beloved hymn that has been in the hymnal(s) used by every church I have attended, I'm a little weirded out by this sentimental poem about a glowing, almost personified cross. It's too bad the author couldn't give credit to word and sacrament for the benefits he saw fit to attribute to his (perhaps imaginary) relationship with the cross. 2 tacks out of 5.

139. "The old rugged cross," by George Bennard (d. 1958). This is the Billy Sunday-era equivalent of "Lord, I lift your name on high" - a singable, but mostly by paid singers, contemporary-worship anthem that is no longer contemporary; really, at bottom, an old-fashioned country-western song that addresses its melancholy endearments to the cross of Jesus. Because it actually has gospel in it, I'm going to take it easy and give it only 3 tacks out of 5 - tacks well-earned by making me sit through four long stanzas of a slow ballad, and by its sentimental individualism.

140. "Jesus, keep me near the Cross," by Fanny J. Crosby (d. 1915), tune by William H. Doane (d. 1915). I automatically suspect any Fanny Crosby hymn of tackiness until I am persuaded otherwise. This one doesn't persuade me otherwise. It opens by describing a "precious fountain" and a "healing stream" that flow from the cross, without giving me any encouragement to think Crosby had baptism in mind. It then pulls out stops on my mind's Wurlitzer organ that I would just as soon leave pushed in, by mentioning such creatures as "a trembling soul" and "my raptured soul," praying to be visited by the cross's "scenes" and "shadow" (as on the movie screen of one's pious imagination), and looking forward to reaching "the golden strand, just beyond the river." Best sung by middle-aged spinsters who have never in their adult lives taken a deep breath, due to the constraints of corsets, I give it 4 tacks out of 5.

142. "Beneath the cross of Jesus," by Elizabeth Clephane (d. 1869), tune by Frederick C. Maker (d. 1927). I am grieved to admit I have wronged Fanny Crosby by mistaking this hymn for one of hers, at least in my heart. I have loathed it, word for word and note for note, since I first ran across it in my youth. I find it sickeningly sentimental, full of first-person subjectivity and wallowing in the cult of the pious imagination; it spiritualizes, or rather emotionalizes the cross, and even has the word "fain" in it (line 2 of stanza 1), which just goes to show. Its piety is that of a retreat from the world, more catatonic than monastic. Since it does mention Jesus dying on the cross, I'll go easy and award it 4.5 tacks out of 5.

144. "Go down Moses" (first line "When Israel was in Egypt's land"), African-American spiritual. I'm all right with this as a cultural artifact; I've even enjoyed singing an arrangement of it, as part of a performance of Michael Tippett's "A Child of Our Time" (not in church, though). But it does measure out its material in very small doses, over a long period of time. I just don't think I would have the patience to sit through this in church, where you only have so much time to teach or learn as much as you can. If you went to one of those churches where services go on for hours, and sometimes you just need the choir to vamp for a while, I can see the point of it. In the worship hour where the congregation is expected to instruct itself by singing the faith, I'm not seeing it. 2 tacks out of 5.

147. "Were you there (when they crucified my Lord?)," African-American spiritual. Everything I said about "Go down Moses" goes for this one, plus it has way too much "tremble, tremble, tremble." While I can see the Exodus being brought in as a lesson during the Lenten series, I'm not sure what day of the church year is ready for a long, slow hymn that is 3/4 about Jesus being crucified, dead, and buried and 1/4 about him rising from the tomb. I have actually had to veto, on the day itself, a church choir's plan to sing this as their Easter Sunday anthem. But it's because all this song's waffle boils down to asking a ridiculous question, I'm giving it a full 5 tacks.

160. "In the Garden" (first line "I come to the garden alone"), words and music by C. Austin Miles (d. 1946), does for Easter what "The Old Rugged Cross" does for Good Friday - very little, but at a premium price in length and patience-trying sentimentality. The singer is supposed to be in character as Mary Magdalene, did you know that? The idea of a congregation singing this is a little bizarre, because it's definitely a solo number; and also, because that would obliterate the Mary Magadalene-ness of it. I am also rather suspicious about the type of religiosity it is suggesting. 4 tacks out of 5.

161. "Thine is the glory" is an Easter hymn that I mostly ding because of its tune JUDAS MACCABEUS by Handel, a particularly unfortunate (in my opinion) example of what happens when you marshal a piece of classical or theater music into service as a hymn-tune. I don't think Handel's oratorio "Judas Maccabeus" will ever be the same, now that this tune has become a stereotyped old-timey meetin'-house song. On the other hand, its pompousness is just a little too much for a just-OK text by Edmond Budry (d. 1932). I give it 2 tacks out of 5.

172. "In heaven above, in heaven above," by Laurentius Laurentii (d. 1655). This Swedish poet, not to be confused with a very prolific German hymn-writer by the same name (1660-1722), is pretty much known for just this hymn, set to a Norwegian folk tune, which paints such an idyllic word-picture of heavenly bliss that I grow concerned. In fact, this is the most striking exhibit among several hymns that suggest to me that something unhealthy is going on within the Scandinavian pietist tradition, a morbidly spiritualizing turn of mind that despises this world perhaps too much. Because I'm open to discussion about this, 1 tack out of 5.

177. "Softly and tenderly (Jesus is calling)," by Will Lamartine Thompson (d. 1909). It's another one of those stereotypical town-carillon hymns, perhaps the one you were most likely to go looking for in the hymnal because you were sure it was there, but it wasn't. Only now, it is. Why am I not rejoicing about this? Because it's a Methodist revival altar-call song, that's why. 4 tacks out of 5.

182. "Is it true (that Jesus is my brother)?" by Lina Sandell, translated by Grindal and set to a Norwegian folk tune. I'm mostly OK with this hymn, but the first line raises a flag; I'm not sure what the opening question is driving at until Stanza 3. It had me worried that it was going somewhere weird. 0.5 tacks out of 5.

183. "Cleansed and forgiven," a Grindal translation of Ole Brattekaas (d. 1916) with an interesting Swedish folk tune, gets maybe a sliver of a tack because I'm not sure the line "Sin cannot hurt me" is altogether sound. Because the spiritual autobiography laid out in Stanza 2 may not fit all Christians' circumstances, I'm giving it a full 1 tack out of 5.

186. "There's a wideness in God's mercy," by Frederick W. Faber (d. 1863), set to an early American tune (LORD, REVIVE US), is another one I have previously poked at, probably because its persistent use of impersonal sentence structures comes across as passive-aggressive doubletalk, and also because its overall aim seems to be to sanctify pious broadmindedness - to coin a word, platitudinarianism. 3 tacks out of 5.

190. "Blessed assurance (Jesus is mine)," by Fanny Crosby, with a tune by Phoebe Knapp (d. 1908). Another stuffy stereotype of old-timey, old-womanish, blandly sentimental, white people's gospel music. It is full of anemic imagery, such as "visions of rapture," "echoes of mercy, whispers of love," and a slightly romantic (as in boy-meets-girl) conception of union with Christ. Plus, the refrain, which twice runs through the words "This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long," reminds one impiously of "walkin' along, singin' our song..." 4 tacks out of 5.

193. "Just As I Am," by Charlotte Elliott (d. 1871), to Bradbury's tune WOODWORTH. Because we got this from Billy Graham, and because it is fundamentally an altar-call song, and because it suggests the decision to come to Christ is up to you, and because your congregation will sing it at 10 times the loudness and emotional commitment as a more faithfully Lutheran hymn, as though to shame you into never making them sing the latter, 2 tacks out of 5. If I were vindictive, I would make it 3 to avenge myself on the organist who lied to me about not being able to play an alternate tune (ST. CRISPIN) that sounded less Billy Graham-y.

196. "My Jesus, I love thee," by William R. Featherstone (d. 1873), tune by Adoniram J. Gordon (d. 1895). This hymn, with the refrain "If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, 'tis now," has some gospel in it, but I'm concerned about the proportion of verbs in which the action flows from me to Jesus. As a "faith and justification" hymn, it's pretty lightweight stuff, especially compared to some rich treasures of Lutheran hymnody that didn't make the cut. 2 tacks out of 5.

199. "Amazing grace (how sweet the sound)," by John Newton (d. 1807), with the tune NEW BRITAIN by William Walker (d. 1875). Note, this couldn't possibly be the tune originally paired with this hymn, since Walker was born two years after Newton died. And though it's hardly any fault of this hymn that it has been so successfully, yet ridiculously, sung to "House of the Rising Sun," the "Mickey Mouse Club" theme, and the "Gilligan's Island" theme, this is nevertheless a hymn I am not comfortable having in a Lutheran hymnal - especially after it seemingly confuses Law and Gospel in the line "'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear." At bottom, my objection to it is that it is a pretty primitive, lightweight hymn that talks about "grace" either in abstract terms, or using the word to mean a variety of different things across one person's lifetime of religious experience, and all without explicitly mentioning Christ or proclaiming the gospel.

200. "Lord of all hopefulness," by Jan Struther (d. 1953), set to the Irish tune SLANE. I'm pretty sure I've registered my opinion on this hymn before; 2 tacks out of 5.

202. "Have no fear, little flock," by Marjorie Jillson (b. 1931), set to Heinz Werner Zimmerman's LITTLE FLOCK. Compared to, say, "O little flock, fear not the foe," it delivers very little material, spread out over four somewhat repetitive stanzas. Some of it is a bit hard to sing to the rhythm of Zimmerman's tune. 1.5 tacks out of 5.

204. "Because he lives" (first line "God sent his son"), words and music by Gloria Gaither (b. 1942) and Bill Gaither (b. 1938), is a no-longer contemporary Christian pop song from, I believe, the 1980s. The last time I heard it sung in public, I was disappointed; I had remembered it being better than it actually is. I guess my imagination, colored by Scripture, filled in gaps in my memory. Instead of something like "Because he lives, I will live forever," it actually says, "Because he lives, I can face tomorrow." It's as if all the resurrection of Christ is good for is a day-to-day mood adjustment. 4 tacks out of 5.

205. "Savior, like a shepherd lead us," words by Dorothy A. Thrupp (d. 1847), to a tune by Bradbury that wouldn't sound out of place with any lyric by Lina Sandell. While not quite a refrain, the last half of each stanza includes four repetitions of "Blessed Jesus." My mind's ears hurt when I imagine the tuning problems of this hymn's stereotypical singers, those corseted females of whom I have made mention. That a conservative group in the ELCA is digging precisely this hymn out of the discard-pile of ELW prompts me to ask, what again, why this era of American Protestantism seems to be the heritage they want to ReClaim. I can think of a couple of more deserving fields of repristination. 3 tacks out of 5.

206. "Precious Lord, take my hand," words by Thomas A. Dorsey (d. 1993), music adapted by Dorsey from a tune by George Nelson Allen (d. 1877). This Dorsey is not to be confused with jazz trombonist Tommy Dorsey, who died in 1956. This hymn captures the sound of the type of Christian oldie that would be sung, with full-throated sentimentality, by a soloist at a Billy Graham rally. It's not really congregation material. 4 tacks out of 5.

207. "On Eagle's wings" (first line "You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord), words and music by Michael Joncas (b. 1951), is undeniably a solo or choir piece, as evidenced by the complicated four-page layout in this book. Again, not congregation material; and nor is the soft-pop/jazz piano accompaniment at all organist-friendly. 4 tacks out of 5.

208. "Leaning on the everlasting arms" (first line "What a fellowship"), words by Elisha A. Hoffman (b. 1929), tune by Anthony J. Showalter (b. 1924). It sounded great in the Coen brothers' remake of "True Grit," didn't it? But again, why are we repristinating meetin'-house hymns from the Methodist Old West in 21st-century Lutheranism? 4 tacks out of 5.

210. "Day by day," by Lina Sandell, with music by Oskar Ahnfelt (b. 1882). This is perhaps the perfect example of a song that might have some use during personal devotions at home. I guess, since the book does specify "for church and home," it wouldn't be altogether right to accuse it of pushing individualistic prayers on the congregation as a whole. But if the hymnal's purpose is really so divided, maybe going so light on the hymn selection was a mistake. 2 tacks out of 5.

211. "Great is thy faithfulness," by Thomas O. Chisholm (d. 1960), with a tune by William M. Runyan (d. 1957). It is another one of those mildly smarmy, old-timey hymns for soloists with a stained-glass voice, though it is just simple enough to edge into the skill range of an average singing congregation. I was disappointed when the LCMS' latest hymnal included it. If Jesus were in it, it might be improved. 2 tacks out of 5.

212. "Turn your eyes upon Jesus" (first line "O soul, are you weary and troubled?"), words and music by Helen Howarth Lemmel (d. 1961). It again has that early 20th century sound of something that would be sung at a big revival, preferably by a soloist whose vibrato can wring gallons of emotions out of every smarmy chromatic note. It also makes some poetic moves that give me the odd sensation of being stifled, like stanza 1's "there's light for a look at the Savior," and the refrain's "the things of earth will grow strangely dim." 2 tacks out of 5.

214. "Give me Jesus" (first line "In the morning when I rise"), African-American spiritual. Again, this comes from the school of hymn in which very few words are repeated so many times, and in which so much time is spent saying so little, some of us spend approximately the last four stanzas praying for the Lord to come, or for a wall to fall down nearby so we can escape. These exercises may have their spiritual uses, though how the hymn intends for us to receive Jesus is left strangely vague. 4 tacks out of 5.

215. "In Christ alone my hope is found," words and music by Keith Getty (b. 1974) and Stuart Townend (b. 1963), not to be confused with the Irish actor Stuart Townsend. It's CoWo, whatever else it is. It rankles me to admit that this hymn makes a good case for the opinion that a CoWo song can do a good job of preaching the gospel; though I hasten to add that, in my experience, this makes it almost unique. For being unsingable by a congregation, and really requiring a professional soloist, 1 tack out of 5.

216. "Faith of our Fathers (living still)," words by Faber, with the tune ST. CATHERINE by Henri F. Hemy (d. 1888) and James G. Walton (d. 1905). Another stereotyped town-carillon tune, it seems to be an anthem to religious conservatism that doesn't specifically confess the faith. 2 tacks out of 5.

220. "Jesus, Savior, pilot me," words by Edward Hopper (d. 1888), tune by John E. Gould (d. 1875). I have mentioned this tune before as being a bane of mediocre organists, who can't get the rhythm right, and compound their inaccuracy by playing it too slowly. I have the ability to play it, but not the will; I find its long-drawn-out wordplay about piloting a ship grows tiresome quickly. 2 tacks out of 5.

223. "What a friend we have in Jesus," words by Joseph Scriven (d. 1886), tune by Charles C. Converse (d. 1918). I think we may finally be seeing the last days of this hymn's undeserved popularity. Once again, I'm probably losing my last handful of friends by saying this, but I have come to the conclusion this hymn is more trouble than it's worth. If you (as the organist) play it a tick too fast, nobody can keep up; a tick too slow, and they go blue in the face or, perhaps, pass out from lack of oxygen. There's a very narrow range of tempos for this hymn that isn't deadly, one way or the other; and in my opinion, it's Converse's fault. Meantime, there's a really lovely tune for this hymn by Henry Smart (author of REGENT SQUARE, known to you as the tune of "Angels from the Realms of Glory"), but nobody will let you play it because it's got to be this gushy, syrupy, mediocre tune by Converse. As for the text, last time I heard it sung in church (at a funeral not too long ago), I was reminded how disappointing it is. There are several moments when Scriven seems to be leading up to something really strong, and then he wimps out and just repeats "take it to the Lord in prayer." 3 tacks out of 5.

224. "When peace like a river," by Horatio G. Spafford (d. 1888), tune by Philip Bliss (d. 1876). By now you must have noticed a great prevalence, among tunes registering on my tack-o-meter, of authors and composers from just about exactly the same point in history. This is, again, the exact period the editors of ReClaim seem intent on "reclaiming" for their church's heritage of hymnody; and yet I wonder what they, as Lutherans, see in it. Take this part-songy number, with different sections of the choir coming in with staggered entries of the refrain "It is well with my soul." It has some gospel in it, albeit related in a very individualistic and melodramatic register. But it would be a shame to waste this old-timey choir number on a mere congregation. 2 tacks out of 5.

226. "Rock of Ages, cleft for me," by Augustus M. Toplady (d. 1778), tune by Thomas Hastings (d. 1872). Lutherans who try to baptize the Pentecostal theology of the line "be of sin the double cure" are doing a disservice to Lutheranism. Also, while our ears may hear baptism in the line "foul, I to the fountain fly," I wonder what Toplady would have thought of that. Finally, either they don't make organists like they used to, or playing Hastings' tune TOPLADY badly has become a hallowed tradition. 3 tacks out of 5.

227. "Come, thou Fount of every blessing," by Robert Robinson (d. 1790), tune NETTLETON by J. Wyeth (b. 1858). To me, the sound of this hymn still sends an impression of Presbyterianism straight to my brain-stem, thanks to early childhood experiences at my grandparents' home church, when I first conceived an impious amusement at the line "here I raise my Ebenezer." My judgment may be off, however, since there is a decided "choosing Jesus" aspect to Robinson's poem. 2 tacks out of 5.

228. "Onward, Christian soldiers," by Sabine Baring-Gould (d. 1924), tune by Arthur Sullivan (d. 1900) - yes, that Arthur Sullivan. You wouldn't ask if you'd heard this song, which you probably have, since it's hugely popular. I'm not sure why, unless it's the catchiness of the oom-pah bass line. It's kind of like a love-child of "How Great Thou Art" and "Stand Up for Jesus," with all the spiritual appeal of a British-accented military march. Except on Boy Scout Sunday, 2 tacks out of 5.

232. "He leadeth me (oh, blessed thought)," by Joseph Gilmore (d. 1918), with a tune by Bradbury. With all its inflections of religious part-songs from around the time of Abraham Lincoln and its repetitive text that goes on and on about being led by God's hand, without ever mentioning Christ, I wonder again what the ReClaim folks see in this, other than it being a throwback to the Americana of yesteryear. 3 tacks out of 5.

239. "You have come down to the lakeshore," by Cesáreo Gabaráin (d. 1991), a Spanish priest. Drawing on imagery of a fisherman being called away from his nets and boat to follow Jesus, it seems to be (even on an allegorical level) a very personal expression of one man's religious experience. I can see its value as a work of devotional art, performed by a soloist on some informal occasion. I don't really get its appeal as a congregational hymn, which should probably be a lot more direct and plain in its language, and more relevant to the corporate body. 2 tacks out of 5.

242. "I look not back," author unknown, music by Oskar Ahnfelt, has the ring of a poem that would circulate on a tract rack, back when church tract racks were the thing; perhaps today, on a Facebook meme with a nice landscape photo in the background. There's a stanza on the theme "I look not forward," and another on "I look not round me," and another on "I look not inward," and finally "But I look up into the face of Jesus." Again, the whole character of it is personal, individual; it sounds like it would work better as a solo number in a church talent show, than as a congregational hymn. 2 tacks out of 5.

244. "Have thine own way, Lord," by Adelaide Pollard (d. 1934), tune by George Stebbins (d. 1945). It's another one of those gospel songs that tend to turn up at church talent shows in communities where the old-timey stuff is still best loved. I think the fact this kind of hymn only gives incrementally more quality content than the average CoWo anthem may contribute to some of the intergenerational strife between old-timers and the CoWo crowd; in my opinion, a nice, robust, teaching hymn from the best of historic Lutheranism would provide more of an alternative to the dilemma between clinging to the old (American) stuff or going full-on rock band. Anyway, for its soft, pleading blandness, I give this hymn 2 tacks out of 5.

246. "All the way my Savior leads me," by Fanny Crosby, with a tune by Robert Lowry (d. 1899). More 19th-century old-timey pious sentimentality, with Jesus cast as a guide, and full of tantalizing references such as "feeds me with the living bread" and "Gushing from the rock be fore me, lo! a spring of joy I see" - neither of which Crosby probably intended as a reference to the sacraments. 2 tacks out of 5.

248. "Just a closer walk with thee" (first line "I am weak but thou art strong"), words and music by "North American traditional." This is another example of the type of song that, if you're not careful, will be sung so loudly by the usually-mum old mumblers of the congregation that you'll start to feel afraid of choosing a better hymn. I had that exact experience while attending a church that had this hymn in a photocopied supplement to its pew hymnal; I couldn't sing along, because I had never heard it before and the music wasn't printed with the words. It gave me the disturbing sensation of having mistakenly attended worship with the wrong denomination. But now, thanks to this book (among a few others), Lutherans can sing it without giving any such confusion. For stagy, evangelism-rally smarm, 4 tacks out of 5.

251. "I'm a pilgrim, and I'm a stranger," by Mary Shindler (d. 1883), tune by Oskar Ahnfelt. This is a clear example of the unchurchliness of Ahnfelt's music in general, which wouldn't have been confused for anything but a piece of Swedish Christian popular/folk music 100 years ago. Shindler's poem, which is a very poor patch on Paul Gerhardt's "A pilgrim and a stranger," is (once again) all about despising this world and looking forward to the next, where "there is no sorrow, nor any sighing, nor any sinning, nor any dying." That, right there, is about the high-point of it. 3 tacks out of 5.

253. "My life flows on in an endless song," words and music by Robert Lowry. Many people know this song by its refrain, "How can I keep from singing?" I've participated in it as a very effective choir piece. It may also be a good solo song. But with its tricky pop/folk rhythms, I have doubts about its chances of success as a congregational hymn. 2 tacks out of 5.

254. "What wondrous love is this," of early American origins. It's a movingly beautiful piece, but as a congregational hymn, it drives me crazy with impatience. Why? Because, once again, it is of that long, slow-paced persuasion that lets out the minimum of information over the maximum amount of time. 2 tacks out of 5.

255. "Nearer, my God, to thee," by Sarah Flower Adams (d. 1848), with the tune BETHANY by Lowell Mason (d. 1872). I've read somewhere, perhaps The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal, that this is only one of a great confusion of very similar hymns, many of which were written in direct response to one another. How all that variety got pared down to this particular example, I can't tell; I only know that with its umpteen repetitions of its first line, over the course of five stanzas, it tries my patience. I also can't help but question Adams' judgment in wishing on herself, or anyone else who sings her song, a Jacob-at-Bethel type of experience - if I can gather that much from the slow trickle of useful information that drips through this hymn. 3 tacks out of 5.

257. "Like Noah's weary dove," by William Augustus Muhlenberg (d. 1877), set to an early American tune. To be brief: altar call hymn. 4 tacks out of 5.

259. "I saw him in childhood," by Vilhelm Birkedal (d. 1892), set to a Norwegian folk tune. This hymn is a five-stanza spiritual autobiography, in somewhat allegorical terms, of some individual's personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Oscar Overby's translation has some cute licks in it, like a rhyme between "decorum" and "before him" - but I shouldn't speak, having once rhymed "Gomorrah," "flora," and "fora" with each other in a single stanza. My objection is this is, again, too personal and subjective an account of a person's faith to be a good fit for a singing congregation. 2 tacks out of 5.

264. "Go forth, my heart, this summer day" is a Paul Gerhardt hymn, translated by Grindal, about which I only want to comment about the tune GEH AUS, MEIN HERZ by August Harder (d. 1813). Its folk-songiness has the effect of making Gerhardt's hymn sound like a nice, pietistic Lina Sandell/Oskar Ahnfelt number, which puts a serious crimp in my design to defend Gerhardt against the charge of pietism. I know, Grindal doesn't care about that. 1 tack out of 5.

265. "I love to tell the story," by Katherine Hankey (d. 1911), tune by William Gustavus Fischer (d. 1912). It's a pity this song is so catchy, because, ironically, it goes on at great length about loving to tell the story about Jesus, but doesn't ever tell the story about Jesus. What was it Grindal was saying about hymns in which one seems to pat oneself on the back?

269. "Lift high the cross," by George W. Kitchin (d. 1912) and Michael R. Newbolt (d. 1956), tune by Sydney H. Nicholson (d. 1947) - an older hymn than I realized, having associated it all my life with the latest vogue in the triumphalistic, written-for-synodical-meetings type of hymn. I was surprised to see it mentioned, recently, in a mystery thriller featuring a standoffish little Christian sect; I wondered where that group had picked it up, to be singing it at one of their barn meetings. Anyway, it's a bunch of pomp-and-circumstance with loads of militaristic imagery and numerous references to "conquering," "triumph," and "victory," which in the context of mission work may be getting a bit ahead of ourselves. 3 tacks out of 5.

271. "O beautiful for spacious skies" (America the Beautiful), words by Kathryn Bates (d. 1929), tune by Samuel Ward (d. 1903). Who are we addressing in this hymn? America! 4 tacks out of 5.

272. "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (first line "Mine eyes have seen the glory"), words by Julia Ward Howe (d. 1910), set to an American folk tune. This militaristic remnant of the at first political, and finally military war to end slavery in the U.S. has some pretty iffy theological formulations in it; plus, its whole appeal is historical, rather than having any spiritual use for today. 4 tacks out of 5.

275. "Shall we gather at the river," words and music by Robert Lowry, is a bunch of glittery, future-tense stuff set to a 19th-century part-song. How very quaint. 3 tacks out of 5.

I'm not taking a composite score, or an average. I'm just suggesting that, out of the few hymns in this "physically lightweight" book, there is a great weight of hymnody that I wouldn't have gone out of my way to "reclaim" for the edification of a future generation of Lutherans. American Protestantism can have them, and preserve them; it should, in the cases that have artistic merit or historical value; it will, in many cases that have neither. I think the branch of Lutheranism that flirts with them, flirts with disappearing sooner into the indistinct vista of American Protestantism. If I could have expected anyone to listen to me, I would have advised the ReClaim folks to reconsider what they aimed to reclaim.


1Hereafter to be described as "x tacks out of 5," as a measure of how tacky I think the hymn is in the context of a highly selective selection of hymns representing Lutheranism; the more tacks, the tackier.

2Contemp. Worship