Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Miracle at Speedy Motors

The Miracle at Speedy Motors
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 13+

With Book 9 of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, I have just crossed the center line of what is currently a 16-book series featuring Botswana's only lady detective, her bespectacled assistant, her mechanic husband, and the rest of a cast of endearingly flawed recurring characters.

The agency's main case at the time of this installment is a search for a woman's family. She only learned at her mother's deathbed that she was adopted as a small child. She has no surviving family on her adoptive parents' side, and she doesn't know who her people are on her biological parents' side. Being without any relatives of any kind is strange in Botswana, where everyone seems to be related to everyone else in some degree. The lonely client asks Mma Precious Ramotswe to find her a family, but what Mma Ramotswe finds is not what they planned.

Meantime, her husband, the kindly Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, takes their foster-daughter, sweet-tempered but wheelchair-bound Motholeli, to Johannesburg in search of a miracle cure. Although Mma Ramotswe disapproves of this quest and the cruel hope it represents, she finds herself joining it in a moving, personal way.

As the rainy season closes in, Mma Ramotswe's assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi, makes a foolish mistake with the expensive bed her fiance bought her, and is tempted to let a lie come between them. And then there's the matter of a series of anonymous, threatening letters, almost leading Mma Ramotswe to do something terrible. The solution to this mystery, at least, relies on Mma Ramotswe's secret weapon: kindness - though it comes only after a rambunctiously silly chase scene through the aisles of a grocery store.

By now, part of the appeal of this series lies in the comforting sense of being in familiar surroundings. Yet at the same time, it teaches western readers to appreciate distinctive aspects of a culture very different from ours - one in which owning cattle is the ultimate security, in which calling "Ko, Ko" is an essential point of courtesy before entering a home or an office, and in which a certain disease casts an ever-present shadow, though it seems to be considered indelicate to call it by its name. I can call Book 10 by name, however, because I am already reading it: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.

The Copper Gauntlet

The Copper Gauntlet
by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Recommended Ages: 12+

If you haven't read The Iron Trial, the first book in the Magisterium series, beware of spoilers ahead. Don't worry, I'll talk amongst myself while you click away.

So, this is Book 2 of a five-book series featuring a school of magic different in many ways from Harry Potter's Hogwarts. For one thing, the Magisterium is in the U.S. Instead of in a castle, it is located underground. Its magic draws on control of the five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and chaos, which comes from the void out of which all things were made; and to some extent, this means the control of elementals, strange creatures that will consume any mage who gets too close to them. It boasts the authors of City of Bones and Tithe, so there is no surprise that it has a bold streak of darkness running through it.

Coast clear? All right, here's the spoiler for those who skipped past Book 1. The main character, Callum Hunt, is also a bit like Harry Potter. He grew up in a home that was opposed to magic, but that didn't stop him from getting into a school of magic. And while he was an infant - practically at the moment of his birth, in fact - a deadly attack by an evil magician left a permanent mark on him. His mother died in the attack... but here the resemblance ends. For she died not trying to save him, but using the last of her strength to scratch a message into the floor of an ice cave warning his late-to-arrive father: "Kill the child."

Call has grown up maimed, with one leg shorter and weaker than the other, because of his dying mother's feeble attempt to do him in. The reason for this unnatural behavior? Like Voldemort, the Enemy of Death - a wizard who did horrible things in search of a way to escape death - transferred a bit of his soul to the boy who lived. No, that isn't right. Actually, he transferred his soul, period. In his first year at the Magisterium, Call learned that he actually is the Enemy of Death, also known as Constantine Madden. The soul that truly belonged to little baby Call was pushed out to make way for Constantine's evil soul.

Even though he doesn't remember being anybody but Alistair Hunt's mischievous, slightly crippled son, Call now knows he is the very dark lord who taught his father to hate magic. And now, during his first summer home from school, the 13-year-old realizes Alistair has suspected this all along. When he finds evidence that his dad is planning a dark ritual that could kill him, Call runs away with his chaos-ridden wolf Havoc.

He runs away to spend the rest of the summer with his friends, Tamara and Aaron; but he can't bring himself to share his dark secret even with them. He finally has a best friend, and Aaron turns out to be the Makar - the chaos mage everyone has been waiting for, their best hope against the Enemy of Death, who is expected to break his 12-year truce with the mage Assembly at any time and resume his fiendish war. How can Call explain to Aaron that he, Call, is the Enemy himself?

Keeping this awful secret becomes even more of a dance when someone steals the Alkahest, a rare magical artifact that, in the Enemy's hands, could spell the doom of the Makar. Being the Enemy, Call knows he will never use it against Aaron. But nobody else knows that. So how else can he explain that he thinks his dad stole the Alkahest? And how can he and his friends stop his dad from giving it to the bad guys - because there still are bad guys, you know? Not only do the trio of Aaron, Call, and Tamara have to run away from school, but they must take with them their most obnoxious classmate to keep him from telling on them. Meanwhile, the mages from the Assembly are sending deadly elementals after them and doing everything in their power to stop the kids, while a scene of stomach-upsetting evil awaits them at the end of their quest.

So, basically, this is a Harry Potter-type story in which the hero is painfully aware, almost from the beginning, of what an evil mark he is marked with. It is one where the kids are on the run with the intensity of Harry & Co.'s flight from the snatchers, already in Book 2 instead of in the climactic last book. It is a series where so much has already happened, two-fifths of the way in, that one trembles to imagine what could come next. It is full of a young teen's self-questioning, anxiously checking himself to see where he stands on the "Evil Overlord" spectrum. But it is also deeply, richly fun, with a curly thread of goofy humor, a brisk pace, clever dialogue, surprising twists, and scenes full of original imagery that will impress itself on the reader's imagination. I hear Book 3 will be titled The Bronze Key, when it arrives in August 2016.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Four More Hymns

I actually had a whole day off from work today, and I'm still getting used to the loneliness since my parents moved out of state and I'm in my own digs again, so although it was a beautiful day outside I spent swaths of it writing hymns. Here are the results, pushing me closer to my 200-hymn goal.

188. Intercession for the Sick
I couldn't decide between two tunes for this hymn. The first, of Welsh extraction, is CAERGYBI by John D. Roberts, 1883:
The second, from the Slovak tradition, is ROK NOVÝ, from T. Závorka’s Kancional, 1602:
Lord Christ, made known in being kind
To those unclean, lame, fevered, blind,
Those sick in body and in mind:
Be merciful, we pray!

For those now ill or bearing pain,
Show healing mercy once again;
Let patient peace within them reign
Along affliction’s way!

Uphold their faith throughout this test,
Assuring them You mean the best;
Let those who care for them be blest
With faithful words to say!

Give their physicians, nurses, aides,
Skill that becomes their honored trades;
Guide them, with love that never fades,
To do their best today!

Bless those who anxious vigils keep
By loved ones sinking, slow and deep;
Help them accept Your gift of sleep
For that exhausted clay!

Should their affliction end in death,
Take them, O Lord, who gave them breath;
In heaven, gather them beneath
Your throne until that Day!

And so, Lord Christ, Your will be done!
Be they restored to us or gone,
You are the Health of flesh and bone,
Our spirit’s Rest and Stay!

189. Hymn for Troubled Families
For this hymn, I went back to my own tune HOLY BODY, which I wrote in 2014 for my hymn on the fifth commandment, "You shall not murder."
Man and woman You created,
Lord, the parents of our race;
Though unlike, Your purpose mated
Two as one in loving grace.
When a marriage now is troubled,
Cause Your blessing to be doubled
On the bond You set in place!

Grant that he may do his duty
As her shield from shame and harm;
Grant that she, his grace and beauty,
May hold up his heart and arm!
Help them, sharing all together,
Every storm and strain to weather,
Temper cool and bosom warm!

When their first love’s heat is waning,
Let a stronger take its place:
Caring for each other, gaining
Second selves through active grace!
One another’s burdens bearing,
Friendship and forgiveness sharing,
May new love the old erase!

Should their children be divided
Or deprived of homely peace,
By Your word let them be guided;
Bless their conflict with release!
Every grudge with mercy lighten;
Shared respect and patience heighten;
Let Your healing love have lease!

If at last, dear Lord, their severance
Proves to be the lesser sin,
Through their penitential reverence
Pardon them, that they may win
With the church, Your bride, communion,
Till You consummate the union
And we rise, one cherished kin!

190. Hymn for Healing of Division
For this hymn I chose the 15th-century Bohemian tune SÆLIR ERU TRÚADIR, which I associate with Hallgrimur Petursson's Icelandic Passion hymn, "And then the Savior turned," a segment on Peter's denial of Jesus from a most impressive sequence of sacred poems. It was a tough meter to work with, though!
O Christ, the church’s Head,
Heal her divisions,
Nor let her be misled
By lying visions!

When You were bruised and torn,
For her sake bleeding,
The witness thereby borne
Let her be heeding!

You gave a dying thief
The hope of living;
You bore men’s unbelief,
Their scorn forgiving.

Your sin-atoning death,
Our pardon buying,
Is now our ground of faith,
Our hope while dying.

Since You died in our place,
God’s favor sealing,
So surely must that grace
Shape all our dealing!

You bade us, Lord, forgive
Our erring brother,
And as the servant live
Each of the other.

You prayed that we be one,
With joy abounding;
Now let that prayer be done,
From our hearts sounding!

Behold! Your body still
With wounds is weeping,
Its members their own will
And counsel keeping.

Lo! Some Your lambs divide
Through wicked teaching;
Some open points decide,
Our union breaching.

From needless strife preserve
The church; and answer
Through us, with steady nerve,
False teaching’s cancer!

Provide us minds to see
Your wisdom clearly,
And hearts with all to be
United dearly!

Should, Lord, the church remain
On earth divided,
Present us once again,
Above, united!

191. Hymn for Courage
I was tempted to call this "Terrorism Hymn," but I didn't want to seem to be promoting terrorism. The tune, which I don't think quite works with this hymn (see particularly Line 2 of Stanza 1), is HEALING, and I wrote it in 2011 to go with this hymn for an occasion of grief.
O Lord, our Strength and Song,
Deliverance You give;
Since Your right hand is strong,
We shall not die, but live.
As war and terror seek
All nations to possess,
Surround the poor and weak
With walls of righteousness!

Christ, sprinkle Your true blood
On those called forth to serve
In evil times with good,
In dens of fear with nerve!
Lend courage to our hearts,
That we Your works may tell;
Defend us from the darts
Hurled by the prince of hell!

O Spirit, of whose gifts
The fear of God is one,
Give us a fear that lifts
Our eyes to Christ, His Son!
When all alarms are past
And we have fought the fight,
Draw us on high at last
With all the sons of light!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Two Hymns

186. Hymn for the Despised and Rejected
Here is another hymn that I planned to submit to one my hymn-composing friends for a brand-new, original tune. I had Isaiah 53 open before me as I wrote it. The designation "despised and rejected" describes three parties in this poem: first, Christ Himself; second, the faithful; and third, those whom Christ bids His church to serve in love. And yes, I know I got the rhyme scheme flipped around in stanza 3. I consciously decided to do that, partly out of necessity and partly because I thought it might be a clever way to signify the exchange aspect of the gospel.
To Christ, by men rejected,
Well-versed in scorn and grief,
For discipline elected
By blows without relief,
The prayer of the afflicted
Be now and e’er directed:
Let mercy be perfected,
And strengthen our belief!

Behold, what rage surprising
Meets them who trust You so:
The devil’s foul devising,
The world’s allure and woe,
False brothers’ ill advising,
Men’s lies, kings’ terrorizing,
Our very flesh comprising
An arch and bitter foe!

You, Lord, were not exempted,
But through all sorrows went,
Like us in all things tempted
And for that purpose sent.
God’s justice thereby vented,
Your sacrifice has scented
Our way of woe; contented,
We bear the world’s contempt.

And so in You believing,
In whom we find God’s grace,
Help us to walk, receiving
The outcast of our race;
To gather in the grieving,
The need of all relieving,
Our beggarhood perceiving
Before Your holy face!

187. Timothy Hymn: For Faithful Youth
This is one of those hymns from the "Heroes of the Faith" section of my hymn-book, but unlike some of the others, it doesn't recite the deeds of the biblical character. It simply uses him as an illustration of the concept of faithful youth, which should be a major theme in the church's prayer in every generation, not only because we want our kids to be saved but also because the next generation will need faithful leaders of its own. The women named in stanza 3 are Timothy's grandmother and mother, held up by Paul in 2 Timothy 1 as witnesses of the sincere faith in which Timothy, his spiritual son, was brought up from childhood. Again, although I have written a tune that will fit these lyrics, I do not want to re-use it for what would be the third time; so I am floating it among my hymn-composing brethren (and sistren) to see what original tunes they can cook up.
Hold fast, younger sisters, brothers,
To the true faith you received
Through your godly fathers, mothers,
Who passed on what they believed
And for you with tears have prayed!
Your salvation’s price is paid;
On a Rock unlike all others
Is your faith’s foundation laid!

Even if your way seem humble,
Other ways more smooth and broad,
And your footsteps sway or stumble,
Lean on Christ, the Word of God!
For God’s power, joy and light
Are of faith and not of sight;
While earth’s edifices crumble,
His forgiveness sets you right.

Though your Lois, Paul, or Eunice
May be long in years, or sleep,
They yet share the wondrous newness
Of God’s mercies broad and deep.
For the gospel dares to say
Christ took sin and death away;
Now we count with pressing fewness
Days remaining till His Day.

Lord, we therefore pray, send latter
Timothies, such faithful youth,
Whose late vintage will not matter,
Only that they know the truth!
Form them for your church’s need,
Future youth in You to lead,
Gathering where others scatter,
On sound words Your lambs to feed!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

185. Hymn for a Cheerful Heart

Here is another hymn I am farming out to my hymn-writing friends to supply it an original tune. I wrote it with one of my own tunes in mind, but I've already over-used that tune, so an infusion of fresh melody is in order. Plus, I think something is needed to lighten up the tone of the planned hymn-book a bit... but just a bit.

Dear Lord, whose presence fills the heart with joy,
Give us the gift no trouble can destroy:
To know Your promises with pleasure keen;
To grasp by faith the kingdom not yet seen!

A broken heart You, God, will not despise;
Yet lest our bones grow dry, lift up our eyes!
Grant us the fruit Your Spirit can impart:
To taste that healing draft, a cheerful heart!

To bring us joy, O Christ, you gave your word;
That it may be complete, let it be heard!
As You blessed merry Cana with good wine,
In what You bid us drink, let gladness shine!

Poured out for us, You drank the cup of woe,
That all who taste Your cup Your death might show;
And so as we Your cross and nailmarks bear,
Let us as well Your Easter triumph share!

Though past may haunt and present may annoy,
Sustain in us the hope of future joy
That, grasping even now the life to come,
We might with joy draw near our heav’nly home!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Iron Trial

The Iron Trial
by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Recommended Ages: 12+

Shortly after his birth, Callum Hunt was the sole survivor of a massacre in a magical war. His father, arriving too late to witness the carnage, found him badly injured in an ice cave near the body of his mother, whose dying act was to scratch the words "DESTROY THE CHILD" in the ice.

From that gruesome beginning, Call grows up being taught to hate the world of magic by a father who blames magicians for the loss of his wife. When the time comes for him to take the entrance exam to the Magisterium, the underground school of magic where his parents met, Call is convinced his only option is to throw the test. But even though he tries to fail it, he gets accepted as one of three apprentices to Master Rufus, the senior mage who trained his father.

His next hope is to get thrown out of the school, but against his father's dire warnings and in spite of Rufus' tough approach to teaching, he is soon caught up in a feeling of belonging like none he has ever felt before. His fellow apprentices include Tamara, a legacy student who has a hard time living down her family's past mistakes; Aaron, an extremely powerful young mage who has never known a family of his own; Jasper, a snotty rich kid cut out of the Draco Malfoy mold; Celia, a pretty girl who seems attracted to bad boys; and Drew, who seems slow to accept the fact that the Magisterium isn't a pony school.

Call is a fun main character, full of mischief and prone to hilarious pratfalls. When he isn't making trouble, he shows promise of being an important wizard in the fight against evil someday. But then again, somebody at the school is up to no good, and just when a new champion is revealed in the war against the enemy who massacred Call's mother - an enemy who believed to be biding his time during the long years of a truce, gathering forces for another attack - Call learns a terrible truth about his own truth in all this, a truth that may affect which side of the line between good and evil he comes down on.

By this time, readers will care enough about Call and his friends to be on pins and needles as the five-book Magisterium series moves on to Book 2, The Copper Gauntlet. This series is a collaboration between two New England based teen fantasy authors - one known for the Spiderwick Chronicles and such Modern Faerie Tales as Tithe, the other for the Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series. If the series lives up to the promise shown by this book, it may be their biggest success.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

184. Onesimus & Philemon Hymn

The full topic/title of this hymn is "Onesimus & Philemon; Honor in Humble Service." These "heroes of the faith" were a runaway slave and his master, both of whom (while separated) came to Christ through the apostle Paul, who then reunited them. The whole story is sketched out in Philemon, the briefest of Paul's New Testament epistles. As a last resort I could pair the hymn with a tune I have used before, CHRISTE, WAHRES SEELENLICHT; but I am hoping I can stir up one of my hymn-writing friends to contribute an original tune, and one better structured to make sense of the rhyme scheme.

Christ, to serve all men You came,
Lashed and bound to set us free,
Crowned with thorn, arrayed in shame,
Kissed with whip, enthroned on tree,
Forced a bitter wine to drink:
When on humble tasks we think,
Call to mind Your lordly fame
Set aside on Calvary!

One Onésimus, a man
Useful more in name than deed,
Fled his master, ere God’s plan
Bade Paul plant the gospel seed.
Thus did Christ, their Lord and Slave,
Choose both slave and lord to save;
What in uselessness began
Was for useful service freed.

Well the one served Paul in chains;
Yet though slave and free are one,
Paul commended him with pains
To his lord, Paul’s other son:
Both begotten by one word,
Equal grace on each conferred,
Cleansed alike of vice’s stains,
Aught between them pardoned, done.

Lord, as with Onesimus,
Make us willing, patient, true,
Brave, devout, industrious,
Fruitful, useful unto You.
Like Philemon, let us live
Fellow sinners to forgive,
And to those be generous
Who the deeds of service do!