13 January 2007 to 3 March 2007

3 March 2007

We hanker after the unnatural or supernatural, that which does not exist, a miracle. As if ordinary reality isn't enigmatic enough!
- M.C. Escher

My apologies to writer David Cox, who forewarned me that March 1 was a big day for Welsh nationals; I fumbled the ball and prepared to include the traditional greeting in this edition, which is obviously after the fact, rather than last week's, which would have, you know, made sense.

So please, allow me to wish everyone a happy (belated) St. David's Day: Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant yn hapus! Scroll your eyes further down the page for an interview by David (Cox, not the saint) with Welsh icon Tudur Morgan. But first, a Welsh music review....

Welsh singer Gwilym Morus "has a rhythmic, meditative style, and his debut CD, Traffig, has a quality and maturity unusual in a debut solo recording," David Cox reveals. "I enjoy the very sparse use of instrumentation, the light touch of the piano and the banjo, for instance. Some might think his delivery a bit predictable, or find the arrangements lacking in musical variety. But I think Morus has set out to accomplish something with mood and tone, and in this he succeeds."

Martin Simpson delivers Kind Letters with love. "Simpson's unadorned, unforced vocals are on fine form throughout, faultlessly following the infectious rhythms he picks out with his outstanding guitar playing," Mike Wilson says. "Simpson is surely at the top of his game."

Songwriter Cheri Dale and singer Helene Attia have planted A Garden of Songs for the Magical Child. "These are mostly songs to be shared between parent and child, in those quiet times when the rest of the world is far away," Laurie Thayer says. "Children should love this CD, but even an adult might enjoy a visit to A Garden of Songs."

Jenn Lindsay is running Uphill Both Ways on this folk CD with a conscience. "All too often singers like this are sidelined because the powers that be are rarely comfortable with social comment expressed in mass media," Nicky Rossiter says. "This album has a number of tracks that need and deserve wider audiences."

Ember Swift is quite political on Disarming. "It doesn't come out in every song, but it is a consistent part of the CD, and for some it may well decide if they like her music," Paul de Bruijn says. "There is passion in the music here, as Swift doesn't hold much back from what she puts to song."

LeRoy Bell believes there are Two Sides to Every Story. "Bell has a voice ideally suited to the flavor of bluesy pop he's delivered," Gregg Thurlbeck says. "It has texture, passion and strength. It recalls Steve Winwood at his best, or perhaps Seal. It resists being clearly labeled as black or white and yet it doesn't merge into some sort of bland grey, either."

Billy Stapleton's music is Slide Swiped with this triumphant return to the blues, slide guitar style. "The veteran guitarist is happily responsible for writing all but two tracks on the CD, and he is joined by a talented cast of friends, each bringing his own skills to blend with the maestro," Jenny Ivor says. "This is a triumph of an album, proof that sequels need not be of lesser quality than introductions, and a welcome return of stylish blues."

Keith Sykes has been at this for a while -- Let It Roll is his 10th album. "At this stage of his career, Sykes' songwriting ambitions are modest, and nothing here swings for the bleachers or shoots for the stars. I like that," Jerome Clark says. "Though in the liner notes he lists Bob Dylan among his influences, Dylan's influence is surely a distant one. Straightforward and earthbound, Sykes' lyrics are typically delivered with rueful grin or chuckle, observing ordinary life in which nobody dies, gets killed, drowns in despair or misbehaves melodramatically."

Chris Jones "boasts a long, impressive history in bluegrass" despite his youth, Jerome says. "Bluegrass influences -- not to mention bluegrass artists such as Chris Hillman and Rhonda Vincent -- are in ubiquitous evidence all over Too Far Down the Road. His first recording for the Burbank-based roots label Little Dog Records, however, is no straightforward bluegrass exercise, rather a creatively conceived take on traditional country music."

Amir Beso blends flamenco, gypsy and Middle Eastern sounds with a modern touch on Fatamorgana. "Beso is, in the best sense of the word, a virtuoso," John R. Lindermuth says. "You don't even have to like the kind of music on his album, Fatamorgana, to admit his virtuosity. It's evident by the precise fingering and fretting that this is a skilled guitarist."

Alberto Balia & Enrico Frongia share Sardinian music on Argia. "What many people don't know is that Sardinia is a hotbed of languages -- four of them not including several dialects -- and authentic music," says David Cox. "This is a recording that, to be fair, does not sound overly polished. Balia and Frongia's acoustic guitars when they stand alone sound a bit raw. But the playing is first rate, as are the vocals."

Tudur Morgan has made a career of Welsh music, particularly of the rarely sung language of Wales. In this interview, David Cox chats with Tudur to tap into the pulse of the Wales songs.

Charlaine Harris launches a new series with Grave Sight, and reviewer Tom Knapp thinks it's off to an excellent start. "Harris is a gifted writer, plain and simple," Tom says. "Her Sookie Stackhouse vampire novels have kept me well entertained, while my wife enjoys Harris's more straightforward mysteries. Now, this talented imagination has conjured up a new kind of heroine who straddles the line between mystery and contemporary fantasy."

Kelley Armstrong introduces the Women of the Otherworld with Bitten, a novel featuring the world's only female werewolf. "In a genre dominated by vampires, Bitten ... is a refreshing change," Tom Knapp says. "One might think Armstrong has spent some time in wolf packs, to be able to weave together aspects of two disparate societies so well."

Jayel Gibson disappointed reviewer Chris McCallister with The Wrekening. "The story is not what I hoped for," he says. "The Wrekening is good if you want a fast-paced fantasy story that is light on character development but heavy on action, monsters and battles -- and if you can tolerate and enjoy repetitiveness."

Cindy Cruciger adds a couple of twists to romance with her Revenge Gifts. "Daring to be different, Revenge Gifts doesn't fit your standard stereotypical romance," Daniel Jolley says. "If you're looking for some kind of sappy, melodramatic romance, you might want to pass this one by. If you're up for some sexy fun, with a little weirdness on the side, Revenge Gifts may just have exactly what you're looking for."

The Hulk fares badly at the hands of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale in Gray. "Probably the biggest failing here is the art," Tom Knapp explains. "Sale's distinctive style doesn't lend itself well to the Hulk, who is supposed to be an awe-inspiring figure of strength and rage. Here, the Hulk has beady little eyes, splayed toes and jagged teeth, all of which makes him more comical in appearance than inspiring. If that's not enough, he looks less muscular, more pudgy."

Who approved the cover art for Hellfire & Brimstone? Tom wonders. "The Phoenix storyline is Jean Grey's big moment, but in the collected editions of Ultimate X-Men, the emergence of this fiery familiar still boasts Wolverine cover art. Don't the decision-makers at Marvel think other characters will sell?"

The Hawks can't seem to get a break in the romance department, Tom decides after reading the Hawkman collection Allies & Enemies. It's at times like this you're almost glad to see a dead yeti come smashing through the ceiling with a threat knifed into its chest," he says.

Tom doesn't feel like spending much energy on Zatanna's Search. "Zatanna, the magic-wielding, backwards-speaking, tophat-and-fishnets-wearing magician of the DC Universe, has developed into a very cool, useful and sometimes complicated character," he says. "But Zatanna didn't start off quite so cool or powerful. And Zatanna's Search, which picks up various appearances by the character in mainstream DC titles, is a weak collection at best."

Tom continues catching up on the Powers with volume three, Little Deaths. "Another superhero is dead, and homicide detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim aren't going to like where this investigation leads," he says. However, alas, "although an entertaining chapter in the ongoing Powers saga, Little Deaths is far weaker than the two preceding trade collections."

Prose poet Thomas Wiloch is Screaming in Code. "In Wiloch's material, all of the possible worlds come together and create a phantasmagoria that is a fine place for an occasional visit but one which, in the end, you are really glad you don't live in," says Michael Scott Cain. "In fact, there's so much oddness and weirdness going on that you tend to overlook the quiet skill and art the author uses to draw you into his special world."

Berdj Kenadjian attempts to combine religion, economics and his own life's story in From Darkness to Light. "There are probably books out there that take religion into the marketplace and show how those principles can change the way you do business. There may even be other books that tell the authors journey to discovering that path," Paul de Bruijn says. "If that is the type of book you are after, look elsewhere. From Darkness to Light is a very frustrating read and I can not recommend it on any point."

Arthur Birkby sets out to tell the story of his life through his early years in Dig Up My Gold, But I Won't Say Where It's Buried. "One of the main strengths of the book is his voice and how he describes the incidents of his life," Paul says. "He is a raconteur and it does show as the flow of the narrative carries you through the book."

Jen Kopf is off to see the sights in her RV. "You've been over this road enough; you don't need a map," she says. "And yet, if the National Lampoon flicks are your style, you need to take this road trip. ... Is RV mindless? Sure. Are its characters one-dimensional? Pretty much. Is its ending innovative? Not a bit. And yet, for a lightweight 99 minutes, it won't demand many of your brain cells and could deliver some laughter."

Miles O'Dometer has a taste for a little Hard Candy. "From the second you see its cubist credits appear, you know Hard Candy is not going to be your usual Hollywood fare. In fact, it doesn't even feel like your usual independent fare, assuming there is such a thing," he says. "Instead, Hard Candy takes us in a direction few filmmakers have ever chosen to go, and with good reason."

Check back soon, more's on the way! (And be sure to browse the archives of our past editions, below.)

24 February 2007

Those who find beauty in all of nature will find themselves at one with the secrets of life itself.
- L.W. Gilbert

Snow. Sleet. Sun. Rain.


Donal Clancy stays Close to Home with this traditional Irish recording. "The 12 tracks on this CD are composed of the sort of traditional tunes that Clancy grew up with," Laurie Thayer says. "The arrangements are all his own, but played here in a rather unexpected manner -- on an acoustic guitar. That's all you get here, just Clancy and his guitar, and these marvelous traditional tunes. And without the distraction of voices or other instruments, we get to hear just what an accomplished guitarist Clancy is."

Tim Van Eyken is no newcomer to the British folk scene, for all that Stiffs Lovers Holymen Thieves is his debut recording. "Stiffs Lovers Holymen Thieves is a stellar example of how the tradition can be enhanced with sympathetic contemporary arrangements -- maintaining the integrity of the material, but simultaneously making it palatable to a wider audience and ensuring its longevity," Mike Wilson says. "The tradition is safe in the hands of Van Eyken and his colleagues, and his is sure to be a name that plays an important role in the evolving English tradition for many years to come."

Simon Fox shares A Winter's Tale that reviewer Nicky Rossiter finds mesmerising. "If you like guitars, you will love this," Nicky says. "Fox is a master of that combination of wood and strings, and he brings the instrument to life on A Winter's Tale in a fashion that will entrance the guitar lover and passing listener in equal amounts."

Sean Turner is ready to Begin Again. Unfortunately, Nicky says, excellent music and musicianship is not enough to win the day. "You will not find a hit single on here," he says. "This is one of those releases that will find its way to a wide range of CD players. It will be played in the background at parties. It will accompany you on road trips and it will ease you out of a busy hectic day."

Peter Nardini "reminds me of that coterie of singer-songwriters who are the lifeblood of music," Nicky says. "He is one of those who writes songs of time, tide and place. He awakens the listener to the world around him and reminds us of the wonders that are in the ordinary." For more, read Nicky's review of Nardini's latest, Rain Din.

Peter Rowan & Tony Rice make music happen on You Were There for Me. "Awash in moods and colors, mostly autumnal, You Were There is accomplished in the flawlessly proficient way one expects of these two veterans of modern acoustic music," Jerome Clark says. "Old fans will nod appreciatively, and first-timers will be pleased to make the acquaintance."

Jackie Morris seeks inspiration Where the Legends Grow Like Weeds. "Morris writes in a country-folk-pop vein, singing in a sweet, chirpy soprano," Jerome says. "The album has a clean, pleasant, unbusy acoustic arrangement, mostly devoid of percussion and percussive sounds. Morris has an ear for engaging, easy-to-take melodies. ... The problem is that Morris's lyrics and delivery are mostly unsuited to the material."

Jack Cooke and Curly Seckler "aren't household names, but committed bluegrass followers know them well and fondly," Jerome says. Here, Jer takes a look at Cooke's latest recording, Sittin' on Top of the World, and Seckler's, Bluegrass, Don't You Know. "As figures revered by fellow bluegrass musicians, each gets all-star backing on his solo outing," he notes.

Maria Muldaur touches Bob Dylan with this Heart of Mine. "Muldaur could sing the proverbial Manhattan phone book and have most men thinking about reproduction long before she got to the Abbotts. Imagine the effect when she does Bob Dylan love songs," Ron Bierman says. "While showing us just how good Dylan's songwriting really is, she's at her likable and enticing best, and it's one of those albums that grows on you the more you listen."

Jenny Davis sings about jazzy love on It Amazes Me. "It Amazes Me never becomes sappy or overly sentimental; Jenny's voice and the music keep the songs feeling real," says Paul de Bruijn. "There are some very beautiful love songs on the CD, just as there is some wonderful jazz to be found here."

Maximum Grooves goes Coast to Coast with a "tight, punchy studio confection" of jazz, Gregg Thurlbeck reports. "But while I can hear passion in the performances, particularly some of the sax work, the overall impression I'm left with is too calculated, too sugary-sweet."

This recording of Basque music, art and poetry, Zaharregia, txikiegia agian (Too Old, Too Small, Maybe), is based on a 2003 visit to New York. "This is a project that can be appreciated on several levels -- just enjoy the texts, the music and the images, or use them as food for serious contemplation," says David Cox. "All in all, a very worthwhile effort."

Posmrtne Zkusenosti brings an intriguing mix of pop, folk, jazz and world music from the Czech Republic on the Aither. "I'll just say that this is a CD full of surprises," says Dave Howell. "It is world dance and pop music like you have never heard."

Gardner Dozois, George R.R. Martin and Daniel Abraham share the writing credits -- over the course of a couple of decades -- on Shadow Twin. "The book presents an insightful exploration of the concept of self," Tom Knapp says. "Shadow Twin is a short science-fiction novel that packs a punch and leaves you thinking, and the three authors involved deserve kudos for a successful -- if long delayed -- collaboration."

Edgar Allan Poe, for all his genius, was not especially well known for playing well with others. But now, at long last, the master of the macabre has sat down with a selection of writers to collaborate on a new short story. Poe's dead, you say? No argument there. But if anyone could reach beyond the grave to scribe one last story, it would be him. Poe's Lighthouse, edited by Christopher Conlon, is a collection of 23 stories, all of which share Poe's byline. Each is based on a single story fragment, left unfinished by the occasion of Poe's untimely death. "Naturally, personal taste will dictate which stories one prefers," John R. Lindermuth says. "But, be assured, there's something for everyone here, and I think Poe would have found the experiment to his liking."

Deborah Howe crosses Dracula with Peter Cottontail to come up with Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery. "I don't care how old I get, I'm just not going to turn down a chance to read a book about a vampire rabbit, especially if it's told from the point of view of a dog," Daniel Jolley remarks. "I'm sure kids will get a big kick out of the story as well."

Brian Rouff rolls up a little mystery in Dice Angel. "Dice Angel is not going to make you think very hard as it unfolds," says Paul de Bruijn. "But it will entertain you and keep you reading to see what happens to the hero of the story."

Tom Knapp battles The Scorpion in volume four of Sandman Mystery Theatre. "This modern reinvention of the pre-World War II hero Sandman continues to get better as it goes," Tom says. "Sandman Mystery Theatre is less about crimefighting and dramatic costumed battles than it is about personalities and atmosphere."

Spider-Woman gets a reboot in Spider-Woman: Origin by Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Reed and Jonathan & Joshua Luna. "Origin is an entertaining read," Tom says. "However, to be honest, I'm not sure Spider-Woman warrants an ongoing series of her own. At least, this book didn't convince me. But Bendis and Reed still managed to intrigue me, and I look forward to seeing how the character is rewoven back into the fabric of the Marvel Universe."

The revamped hero Doctor Mid-Nite has his day in this self-contained origin tale. "It doesn't exactly scream originality," Tom admits. "But it does present the story in a well-written package that includes a strong protagonist, an equally strong and varied supporting cast (including a fairly unique choice in sidekicks), and stark, shadowy art that sets the mood perfectly."

Tom is unimpressed by Jim Balent's Wicca-friendly series, Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose. "Balent, whose work I so admired back in his Catwoman days, has used his clout in the comics world to market soft-core fantasy porn as a statement for religious tolerance," Tom says. "Instead, all he's created is some colorful 'private time' material for adolescents who manage to sneak these 'mature reader' books past inattentive comic-store cashiers."

Last up for today, Tom checks out an altered DC Universe in Elseworld's Finest: Supergirl & Batgirl. "It's a stand-alone book, yet it's an Elseworlds tale I wish had been pursued further," he says. "After all, some ideas deserve more than a single look."

Carmine Starnino's poetry comes With English Subtitles. "He's at home with both lyric and narrative poems, both objective and subjective approaches and can write a good poem about just about anything," says Michael Scott Cain. "I'd have to say that his is the best poem about a winepress I've ever encountered."

Jen Kopf is focusing her attentions On a Clear Day, a film about a middle-aged guy named Frank (Peter Mullan) who decides to exorcise some demons by swimming the English Channel. "He and Brenda Blethyn, who plays his wife, Joan, are phenomenal in service of a movie that was, well, nice enough -- with some great spots -- but just doesn't evolve into a fully dimensional piece of work," Jen says. "Where it falls short as a movie is more than made up for by Mullan and Blethyn, who show us, both as characters and actors, how to make the most of what you've got."

Tom Knapp, meanwhile, discusses his advance screening of Journey of the Badiu: The Story of Cape Verdean-American Musician Norberto Tavares, and chats with both Tavares and documentary filmmaker Susan Hurley-Glowa. "The movie details the styles of Cape Verdean music, such as the unique forms of morna and funana," Tom explains. "But Tavares, as other island musicians attested in interviews, took the traditional forms in new directions -- and always with a political subtext in his lyrics."

Check back soon, more's on the way! (And be sure to browse the archives of our past editions, below.)

17 February 2007

Once you begin being naughty, it is easier to go on and on and on,
and sooner or later something dreadful happens.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder

Anyone wanna shovel my driveway?

Mim Twm Llai, a.k.a. Gai Toms, "straddles the line between folk and pop in the manner of the legendary Welsh folksinger Meic Stevens" on Straeon y Cymdogion, says David Cox. "His repertoire has some variety to it."

The spotlight shifts from Ireland for Celtic Women from Scotland, a compilation disc from Greentrax. "The tracks range from the haunting to the rousing, with all shades in between," Nicky Rossiter says. "There are songs in the Gaelic alongside those in English. There are well-known singers mingled with new voices."

Karen Taylor-Good wonders How Many Women in this folk-song outing. "Taylor-Good has a wonderful voice that brings her lyrics to life," Nicky says. "The lyrics are well crafted and are used to express the sentiments of all our lives."

French singer Camille makes an entire orchestra of her voice on Le Fil. "Experimental, defiantly French and impossible to ignore, the 18 brief tracks, united by the thread of a single unobtrusive note sustained throughout the album, get under the skin and stay there," says Jennifer Mo. "Alternately sounding like a schoolgirl, a retro chanteuse and a rebellious teenager, Camille's pleasant but otherwise unextraordinary voice becomes distinctive in its extreme versatility."

Adrianne's vocals "are the heart of the songs on 10,000 Stones, and they bring out the moods and emotions of the lyrics. The music tends to run on the barebones side of things, but it swells to match her voice," Paul de Bruijn says. "10,000 Stones is about life and the sometimes rough, sometimes wonderful, often mixed-up edges that come from relationships and sometimes just living."

Vance Gilbert recasts his jazz influences as folk songs on Angels, Castles, Covers. "His stated goal is to pay tribute to the artists and the songs that influenced and inspired him, turning him into the singer that he is," says Michael Scott Cain. "And that, I believe, is the key to the album's success. Instead of trying to replicate the style and tone of the originals, he adapts them to his own folk style."

Ian Rapien "makes a formidable debut on Spectrums with nearly an hour of music filled with riffs and ideas," Dave Howell announces. "Rapien shows a be-bop influence at times, as he takes off with complicated solos. And there is a bit of smooth jazz influence with his use of melody and the careful production, although he never becomes bland or boring."

Zac Harmon reveals his gospel roots on The Blues According to Zacariah. "He honed his skills as a guitarist, organist and vocalist in church, expanded them as a guitarist with Z.Z. Hill and Sam Myers, among others, and then spent a long time in the record business before coming back on stage," John Lindermuth says. "Apparently all that preparation paid off."

Slick Ballinger doesn't quite reach the potential of his Mississippi Soul, Jerome Clark says. "What we have here, perhaps, is a want of seasoning. The blues, after all, is about a lot of things a 22-year-old young man doesn't -- can't -- know about yet. I have no doubt that down the road Ballinger has some memorable records in him. Though this one certainly isn't bad, it isn't one of them."

The Circuit Riders carry on the tradition of the Country Gentlemen with Let the Ride Begin. "There's a big, fat sound here -- bluegrass albums are often produced like rock and pop records these days -- showcasing lots and lots of hot picking," says Jerome. "I listen to bluegrass for the same reason I listen to blues -- for riveting, soulful performance -- and the Circuit Riders, like so many current younger acts inspired by the example the Gents set, only make me wish Charlie Waller were still singing, still ripping my heart open."

Bruce Molsky, "a singer and player of the first rank," never seems to disappoint Jerome (who, by the way, marks his 200th review right here and now). "Molsky consistently produces well thought-out, beautifully arranged albums, loaded with smartly chosen material," he says. "Hard to believe, but Soon Be Time is even better than all those admirable recordings that preceded it."

Reckless Kelly Was Here, and the evidence is found in a pair of CDs and a DVD recorded live in Austin, Texas. "Listening to this set is like having a high-energy group of friends invite you and everybody they know to their house," says Michael Scott Cain. "It's one of those parties where the crowd is as important as the act. And the band appreciates the way the crowd appreciates them. They work hard to give their fans all they have, offering a variety of music in their set."

Svart Kaffe serves up a dose of Swedish folk music on Tretar. "It's mostly joyful music and as uplifting as a jolt of caffeine," says John Lindermuth. "The 17 tracks include traditional and modern songs, polkas, waltzes and a few whose origin goes back to ancient times."

Amber Benson and Christopher Golden have invented a new, modern mythology in The Seven Whistlers. "For all its brevity, it is powerful, beautifully conceived and developed, and utterly riveting," Tom Knapp says. "This is a writing force to be reckoned with, a team who can produce the kind of modern mythic fiction that drives Gaiman, de Lint and Bull fans wild."

Maureen F. McHugh shares "beautiful, poignant, impassioned short stories" in Mothers & Other Monsters, Gregg Thurlbeck says. "And she delivers these stories in a clear, unassuming style that allows her characters and their exploits to flow off the page with tremendous ease."

Connie Willis falls a little short of her mark with D.A., Katie Knapp remarks. "Following the tried and true formula -- the set-up of an initial mistake and the madcap adventure its correction entails -- D.A. was only a step ahead of me as I read, wheras most Willis tales tend to be about four," Katie says. "That's why she's so good. I love that feeling of cluelessness while I'm pulled along just as haplessly as the protagonist through a series of improbable, but not impossible, misadventures."

Christopher Pike did not reach his potential with Alosha, Gregg says. "There are a lot of fantasy novels aimed at teen and pre-teen readers, and standing out from the crowd takes a mixture of authorial skill and good luck," Gregg says. "But I was underwhelmed by Alosha, which struck me as an entirely ordinary book. The characters are reasonably well crafted but no more than that. The plot is standard fantasy fare and the landscape, always an important component in a fantasy quest, is too sketchily presented. The combination of these components adds up to a distinctly bland book."

Irene Nemirovsky "was a prolific and rising young French author when World War II began," David Cox explains. "After she died in one of Hitler's death camps, her family kept what they thought were her diaries. Instead, they found after 60 years the two connected novels that have been acclaimed as a masterpiece." You can learn more about them in David's review of Suite Francaise.

Amanda Lumry and Laura Hurwitz invite us along on the Adventures of Riley with Dolphins in Danger and Mission to Madagascar. "The colorful illustrations by Sarah McIntyre are packed with detail, and it's as much fun to read the story as it is to sit and study her pictures for the little extras that might not catch your eye the first time around," Tom Knapp says. "All in all, Lumry and Hurwitz have managed to craft short, interesting stories that might just teach young readers about the world's environment without them realizing that education is happening along the way."

Tom Knapp is thrilled to see Ju-Nen, a new storyline from Shi. "The story is almost secondary to the presentation," he says. "The artwork is graceful, colorful and fluid, and both the kabuki performance and the combat that follows are electric on the page. Once again, Billy Tucci immerses his readers in a world of destiny, honor, history and art, and the result is a remarkable package. I can only wish Shi was a more regular publication and not so rare a pleasure."

Tom is off for adventure with Jack Hightower, a new release from Dark Horse. "It's a silly story that would be suitable for kids if it weren't for Jack's libido and the scanty attire of the women he encounters," Tom says. "Even so, it's a fun romp for grownups who enjoy spy adventures from James Bond to Austin Powers -- as long as they don't mind their hero fitting into your average pencil box."

Tom recalls a long lost love with Spider-Man: Blue. "Pure, sweet, innocent Gwen Stacy is back in ... a lovely, romantic and melancholy tale by Jeph Loeb," Tom says. "Art is by Tim Sale, Loeb's longtime partner, and while I've often thought his work was a little too pinched and drawn, he does a beautiful job in Blue. ... As the title suggests -- and as was similarly done with two other Marvel tales, Daredevil: Yellow and Hulk: Gray -- Sale works with a largely blue palette. Far from being a monochromatic work, however, it serves to accent the remaining colors."

Tom is ready to Roleplay with Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming in volume two of the Powers storyline. "Roleplay is a riveting peek into the role of a no-frills cop in a world where superheroes fly above them," Tom says. "This is another series I'll enjoy following as long as its creative team stays this fresh and original."

Fifth and final graphic novel review for today is Endless Flight, the first volume of DC's ongoing Hawkman series. "The main story of Endless Flight provides an Indiana Jones-style adventure," Tom says. "It's always hard to get a new series off the ground, but this first collection from Hawkman proves this one's off to a great start."

Jen Kopf is Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, starring and directed by Albert Brooks. "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is typical Brooks: he's playing an everyman, and he's not going to force a single joke -- in fact, he almost seems to apologize for ever thinking you'd laugh at something he said and, oh, never mind, he'll just go over here and mumble some standup comedy and try to blend in," Jen says. "There could be easy laughs here, but Brooks' intelligence won't allow them, and his trademark discomfort feels natural in this world, onscreen and off -- he's anxious, we're uncertain and, like it or not, we're all in it together."

Jen also takes a close look at American Women, a.k.a. The Closer You Get. "I'm a sucker for small-budget films about the sometimes odd people you'll find in charming little villages, in bleak urban cities, in isolated small towns," she says. "It's a pleasant enough movie, with small ambitions to match what presumably was a small budget (makes setting your movie in a small town even more practical). But much of what it does -- the neighborly complaining, the marital battles, the mock confidence -- has been done before, and more memorably."

Check back soon, more's on the way! (And be sure to browse the archives of our past editions, below.)

10 February 2007

Randomness scares people.
Religion is a way to explain randomness.
- Fran Lebowitz

Let me ruminate for a moment on the Cult of Anna.

I don't wish to dismiss the sadness with which all feeling people greet the news of an individual's death, particularly a young person (she was only 39) who leaves behind a young child (5 months old). It's a shame and, given her fame -- or notoriety, if you prefer -- she certainly deserved coverage of her sudden, unexpected death.

But Anna Nicole Smith was famous for only a couple of reasons. One, of course, was getting naked. A former Playboy centerfold and Playmate of the Year, she used her generous curves to help break the anorexic image that was, for a time, the seeming ideal for all models. For that alone, I applaud her; I hate it when my first reaction to seeing a famous model is an urge to make her a sandwich. For a time, Anna Nicole was the epitome of the healthy-bodied female.

Things went down from there, of course, from her marriage to a billionaire more than twice her age (she deserved her inheritance, she testified after his hasty but inevitable death, because she performed her "wife duties") to the court battles with his family over his wealth, from her ballooning weight problems to her embarrassing reality series. Still, she moved from humble beginnings to achieve fame and fortune, and one has to imagine she'd be pleased by the media frenzy that followed her own demise.

But there lies my problem. People die every day, many of them young, many of them leaving children behind. It's sad, but it's rarely news. But Anna Nicole, whose fame was no more or less valid than, say, Paris Hilton's, commanded far greater attention. News helicopters circled the hospital where she was taken. Respectable cable news networks ran hours of coverage of her life and death. Here's a kicker: one network news program led the 6 o'clock broadcast with Anna Nicole's death; the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Iraq came in a pitiful fourth. OK, perhaps American soldiers are dying too often in Iraq to warrant better coverage, but the priority still seems misplaced to me.

Anna Nicole's family and friends have my sympathy. But I remain a little stunned at the importance placed on her death by the media. Those soldiers deserved better. Every butcher, baker, police officer and homemaker deserves as much. Heck, I'm not sure the recent death of former president Gerald Ford garnered so much attention. And that, my friends, is sad.

Iona supplies the music for A Celebration of Twenty, a two-disc set marking the Celtic-American band's long career. "It is immediately obvious that Iona is no Capercaillie or Altan clone," says Jennifer Mo. "Longtime fans of Iona be interested in the evolution of their sound and in the disc of new music; Celtic folk lovers who are unacquainted with Iona will probably also find much to like on the two discs."

Blackthorn is ready to Push & Pull its way through a new selection of Irish-American music. "Blackthorn is a group that plays great music with the musicians' hearts and souls as well as hands," Nicky Rossiter says. "The band deserves a wide audience."

Andy Jurgis takes another look at classic Capercaillie with The Blood is Strong. "This album is one of Capercaillie's most pleasing when considered in its entirety," Andy says. "Although there are perhaps less highlight tracks than some of the later albums, the whole creates a harmonious unity."

Ed McCurdy's spirit is revived on A Ballad Singer's Choice. "Among the pleasures of the past year was having this album, which I hadn't heard in many years, back in my life," Jerome Clark says. "If anything, A Ballad Singer's Choice is better than I remembered it."

The Robber Barons share a Kerosene Communion with their fans. "No doubt about it, these are talented and capable musicians with the original intelligence to fashion a genre that is almost distinctly their own," Jerome says. "The songs are set inside sonic skyscapes where clouds are dark and sunlight dim."

John Wright leads The Gypsy Life in song. "Wright's voice is one of the best on the English acoustic/folk scene, and this album will underpin his reputation as a fine singer," says Andy Jurgis. "Although the songs he chooses are perhaps less varied than some of his other recent recordings, there is an appealingly mellow and chilled feel throughout this understated album."

Rodney Crowell is once again The Outsider on this recent recording. "Crowell is a proven songwriter, having begun his career back in the 1970s as part of Emmylou Harris's Hot Band and written some of her more memorable material from that era," Mike Wilson says. "Whilst his knack for creating great songs is undeniable, I struggle to warm to his own recordings. In particular on this recording, I find the country-rock sound a bit repetitive across all the tracks. There are moments lyrically that should jump out and grab you, but for me, it just failed to muster this type of connection."

Jen Elliott & Bluestruck are making the blues on 8 Days Down. "Elliott has a fine voice," says Michael Scott Cain. "It's as supple as glove leather and, with her writing and singing partner Anne Husick backing her, you get two people who know their way around a song and who are able to stir up an emotion or two."

Terry Plumeri "puts a new spin on the piano trio on Blue in Green, Dave Howell says. "This is somewhat of a classical music approach to classic jazz tunes, one that is well worth listening to."

Terry Oldfield evokes Yoga Harmony with an hour of instrumental music. "It serves both as background and focus, depending on whether the mind is concentrating on other external stimuli or going where the music takes it, journeying eastward," says Jenny Ivor. "Oldfield's music is the healthiest addiction I know, and the quickest, most economic mode of transportation across this wondrous globe we call Earth."

Samite's ninth album, Embalasasa, "is also the name of a colorful but poisonous lizard, which Samite uses in the title track to represent AIDS, a huge problem for his native country of Uganda," Dave Howell explains. "His music is about as far from poisonous as you can get, however. Samite's music, like much of Africa's, remains positive despite all of the continent's problems."

Cherie Priest sheds her Dreadful Skin in a collection of three stories dealing with an Irish nun and late 19th-century lycanthropy. "The goosebumps raised by my contact with this dreadful skin will doubtless lure me to other works by Priest," Gary Cramer opines. "She is already a strong voice in dark fantasy and could, with care, be a potent antidote for much of what is lacking elsewhere in the genre this decade."

William Browning Spencer supplies a long-overdue collection of short fiction in The Ocean & All Its Devices. "While the ocean of the title story provides a deep, dark setting for this collection's first story, Spencer's most remarkable explorations take place in the realms of future cyberspace," Tom Knapp says. "Spencer paints his stories with a subtle hue of horror that is often more unsettling than frightening, and that lingers in the back of your thoughts long after you've turned your attentions elsewhere."

Isaac Asimov's work does not get its best showcase in Robot Dreams, Gregg Thurlbeck reports. "Robot Dreams is a nice-looking collection of decent, but mostly unexceptional stories with a couple of genuine highlights. Fans of Asimov's fiction will likely be pleased to see some lesser-known pieces included, but this is hardly a definitive or essential collection of the grandmaster's work."

Heather Hayashi, on the other hand, is not quite ready To Save the World. "It was painful to wade through the misused words, the grammatical errors, the awkward sentence structures," Gregg says. "It's writing like this that gives science fiction and fantasy such a poor reputation in the book business."

Diane Matchek makes The Sacrifice for a successful debut novel. "It successfully combines elements of adventure, culture and romance with vibrant and living settings and a fabulous main character," says Jennifer Mo. "The Sacrifice is definitely recommended for everyone who enjoys survival-in-the-wilderness stories or Native American tales, or for teenagers looking for a coming-of-age novel that says a lot about destiny and direction."

Tom Knapp gets the lowdown on the origins of X-23 in Innocence Lost. "The Marvel Universe still holds wonders and, although my interest in the mainstream X-Men saga waned years ago, X-23 has snatched my full attention," he says. "Let's hope the Marvel team doesn't waste her potential. At least they're off to a fantastic start."

Tom is back with the Girls of Joshua and Jonathan Luna's fine imagination. "Anyone who thought there wasn't enough action in Conception should be mollified by Emergence, the second book in the Girls series," he says. "Emergence is an intense action-drama reminiscent of old science-fiction/horror flicks of a bygone day. Will the townsfolk survive in the face of these inexplicable attacks? It's anyone's guess at this point, but it's sending me scurrying for the next volume."

Tom mourns the loss of Ruse but is glad to see The Silent Partner, a second volume from its short-lived run. "Mark Waid's writing is delightful, with strong plotting and the ever-present sense of mystery matched by his finely tuned characterization. Coupled with gorgeous art by Butch Guice, this is a series that should have had a long, illustrious history; it's a shame it was cut short by circumstance."

Tom witnesses The Return of Hawkman in JSA #3. "I was slow to come to the JSA, but now I find myself preferring it to the more popular, mainstream JLA," Tom says. "It's grittier and, in many ways, more human. It also has a sense of history that the JLA -- constantly revamped and revised for the times -- never attains."

Tom visits the Elseworlds line for Batman & Demon: a Tragedy. "I am quite often fond of the less-trodden paths explored in Elseworlds, and this one is rich and mysterious," he says. "Unfortunately, it is also brief, and as is too often the case, the story would benefit from a more detailed look."

Thomas King reveals The Truth About Stories in this collected lecture "about personal stories, world creation stories and everything in between," says David Cox. "It's a short, but poignant, reminder that the stories we tell determine what we think, and who we are."

Giles Tremlett examines both history and modern life in Ghosts of Spain. "In a lively mix of social analysis and political commentary, his main theme is that Spain still hasn't dealt with the trauma of its 1930s civil war," David decides. "Spain, says Tremlett, made a pact with itself to forget the past and move forward. As a result, the country has done extremely well, both economically and socially, over the past 20 to 30 years."

John Terpstra "is a poet of quiet moments," says Michael Scott Cain. In Two or Three Guitars, Michael says, Terpstra "writes about daily life, love, the history of his home town, walking, thinking and feeling. A rich spiritual vein runs throughout his work and he gives the occasional nod to miracles. In all, what he puts in these pages is good stuff and it's nice to have it all in one volume."

Miles O'Dometer tunes his dial to Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion for a bit of noirish glee. "A Prairie Home Companion, like so many Altman films, is a cinematic combo platter to die for," Miles says. "It weaves together a rich collection of characters, stories, songs and scenes in ways most people -- and few directors -- would even consider."

The much-maligned instrument of Tiny Tim is going through a new wave of interest, as documented on the DVD The Jumping Flea: Tales of the Modern Ukulele. "Here's a film that attempts to put all the recent fuss about the ukulele into historical and contemporary context," says John Bird. "The diminutive four-string chordaphone is finally beginning to emerge from the long, lugubrious shadow of the aforementioned Mr. Tim, whose irritating falsetto voice and unusual persona left many with a bad feeling about the uke."

Katie Knapp sits down with her daughter for a bit of Me, Eloise. "This is the first episode in a new, six-disc series based on the popular Eloise books by author Kay Thompson and illustrator Hilary Knight, originally published in the 1950s," she says. "This is a sweet movie you'll be happy to play for your kids and you won't mind watching over and over again yourself."

Check back soon, more's on the way! (And be sure to browse the archives of our past editions, below.)

3 February 2007

Nature, in her blind thirst for life, has filled every possible cranny of the rotting earth with some sort of fantastic creature.
- Joseph Wood Krutch

So, what did the whistlepig see in your neck of the woods? Six more weeks of winter, or six more weeks 'til spring? Well, let me tell ya what shadow is looming large here at Rambles.NET -- with this edition, we can boast more than 10,000 individual reviews in our permanent online archives! That's a whomping big number, and one we didn't even imagine back when this site was new and so wee in 1999.

Of course, we owe it all to the many writers who have contributed to the site over the years -- more than 200, all told -- as well as the countless musicians, authors and filmmakers (and their tireless promoters) whose contributions to the arts we celebrate, analyze and share with the world each week. We like to think we do what we do better than anyone else on the World Wide Web, and I think our increasing readership bears out that theory. Thanks to all of the readers out there who make what we do worthwhile!

Bruce Piephoff supposes that Fools Get Away With the Impossible. "Ranging through 16 tracks, he introduces us to a real America with lyrics that are easily wedded to his gentle delivery," Nicky Rossiter says. "We need writers and singers like this who battle on against the odds to express lives in lyrics and chords."

Thomas Easaw makes his feelings plain on Don't Start the Last World War. "Easaw has written a very interesting set of songs here to strike chords with many listeners all over the world," Nicky says. "He appears to be a writer of high principles who follows the tradition of the protest singer, so common a few decades ago."

Mary Kaye makes ready to Spin Your Web on this child-oriented recording. "I may be a little bit outside the age range targeted by this album, but I must admit I found it fascinating nonetheless," Nicky says. "If you work with children or have young relatives visiting, this is a great investment."

Trout Fishing in America is sharing My Best Day. "This duo, composed of Ezra Idlet and Keith Grimwood, has been entertaining kids both young and old(er) for decades," says Wil Owen. However, he says, this live presentation is lacking an important element.

Li'l Son Jackson gets some long-overdue exposure on Vol. 1: Rockin' & Rollin'. "Jackson plays pretty standard blues and his songs cover all of the standard blues themes: evil women, whiskey, being broke, addiction to gambling, hard times and booze," says Michael Scott Cain. "What makes the CD worth hearing more than once is the depth of Jackson's soul: you can feel the man's suffering in his music."

Eric Bibb brings his Friends along for this blues production. "For me the biggest problem with Friends is that it has too little tying the individual tracks together in terms of mood," Gregg Thurlbeck says. "When the last note fades I think most listeners will have a tough time deciding whether to file the disc under B (for Bibb and Brilliant Blues) or F (for Friends and Failed Experiment)."

Joe Ross "is not a professional musician, but his bluegrass journalism and criticism are well known to those who read the genre press," Jerome Clark says. "The Spirit of St. Louis represents his own distinctive take, which in his approach has an unmistakable regional accent -- not Southeastern, where bluegrass grew up and which remains its heartland, but Northwestern, where Ross lives. In other words, this is not the high-lonesome sound of Bill Monroe or the deep-mountain soul of Ralph Stanley, but a kind of North American ballad music with bluegrass accompaniment."

The nice folks at Compass Records put a new spin on an old style for The Other Side of the Mountain: Bluegrass, Newgrass & Beyond. "This album is a great sampler of what is happening as new artists not only discover bluegrass, they take it, shake it and make it their own," Nicky Rossiter says. Hey, hey, Nicky, that's review #600!

Euge Groove plays smooth jazz that Just Feels Right, Dave Howell says. "Smooth jazz fans, particularly those who like a subdued '70s feel, are the audience who will groove to this release."

Christine Rosholt offers a selection of jazz standards from the 1930s and '40s on Detour Ahead. "Rosholt combines a great voice, charming attitude and presence to breathe new life into a baker's dozen of old standards," says John Lindermuth. "She has an expressive, clear voice and a warm, engaging style. Even on a CD without seeing her on stage, you can tell she really enjoys singing."

Panoramic sees a Rhythm Through the Unobstructed View with this jazzy release with Caribbean flair. "Uniting Liam Teague's acclaimed steelpan playing with saxophone, jazz piano and a dizzying array of drumbeats from around the world, this recording straddles world fusion and jazz genres without ever losing sight of its chilled Caribbean roots," Jennifer Mo announces. "The whole thing, at just under 50 minutes, is consistently pleasant to listen to, though not always demanding the attention required to appreciate the intricate rhythms and techniques detailed in the liner notes."

Johnny Whitehorse "moves at a stately pace, suggesting landscapes from a past when nature and man were in harmony" on this self-titled CD, Dave Howell says. "Those who like the ethereal, faraway atmosphere of Native American flute music will find this a worthy addition to the genre."

David Wellington sets his course for New York City, which -- in the wake of a zombie epidemic -- has become known as Monster Island. "I've never been a big fan of zombies," Daniel Jolley admits. "I am impressed with Monster Island, though, largely because of the science and imagination Wellington applies to create something more than your average zombie."

Jenna Solitaire continues her quest for the mystical Boards in Keeper of the Flames, the third volume of her Daughter of Destiny series. "The heroine of the series is also the author. Supposedly," Laurie Thayer says. "It's a conceit that, rather than bringing verisimilitude to the series, is merely precious beyond words, and the novel, I think, suffers for it. ... Still, the story is entertaining enough to capture a reader's interest, though the surprise twist is fairly broadly telegraphed."

Paul Di Filippo's The Emperor of Gondwanaland & Other Stories "is one of the best short-story collections I've read in the past few years," Gregg Thurlbeck says. "I don't say this because I loved every story contained in the book. But each story was a revelation, each was surprising, each was masterfully constructed, even those I enjoyed least."

Andre Norton spreads The Opal-Eyed Fan for a book that is one of reviewer Jennifer Mo's favorites. "It's romantic suspense, tinged with a bit of the supernatural," Jennifer says. "And while it might not be particularly intellectually stimulating, it serves a very necessary function as brain candy."

A.H. Holt heads back to Colorado in 1898 with Kendrick. "Kendrick is a fast-paced western that involves a lot of interesting characters and a lot of action," Liana Metal says. "The plot is complex and exciting, while the story is well constructed and offers readers a satisfying end."

Tom Knapp sees The Evil That Men Do in this Spider-Man/Black Cat team-up. "The long delays that often dog Kevin Smith's comic-book scripts can sometimes have devastating results," he says, noting in this case that "the long gap between issues caused fan interest to wane -- and created a Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy between the first half of the miniseries and the last." Still, Tom says, "it's a really good package, and I'm glad Smith finally finished it."

Sticking with the Marvel line, Tom believes there's something Unnatural in the third volume of Mystique. "Now written by Sean McKeever, the book takes Mystique on a mission to save fellow mutants from illegal experimentation," he says. "While Unnatural isn't quite as good a read as the two previous volumes, written by Brian K. Vaughan, McKeever puts together a solid story that has moral quandaries, diverse agendas and unresolved threads leading to the next book."

Switching now to the DC line, Tom witnesses A Darker Shade of Justice in this Nightwing collection. "Chuck Dixon has always been the perfect writer for current and former Robins, and in A Darker Shade of Justice he gives us a character who is comfortable standing alone, no longer in the shadow of his Bat-mentor," he says. "Scott McDaniel isn't my favorite artist, but I must say his jumbled, chaotically detailed art here expresses a kinetic energy perfect for Dixon's script."

Tom turns to Holly Golightly for a change in vampire attitudes with School Bites. "Tired of dark, brooding, angst-ridden vampires in blousy shirts? Perhaps Cherri Creeper is more your style," Tom says. "Cherri appears to be irrepressibly cute, and I'll confess it's not really to my taste. But it's a fun little book, colorful, bouncy and aggressively cheerful, and anyone who likes that sort of thing will surely like this."

Mark Allen sees happy trails ahead for Iron West. "Cowboys and Indians? Robotic cowboys and Indians? A giant train monster!? Sasquatch?!? What in the name of the wild, wild West is going on, here?" he exclaims. "Well, I'll tell ya, pardner. It's called Iron West, and it's just about the strangest, most unique and certainly entertaining graphic novel to come out in 2006."

Daniel Stashower delves into the death of Mary Rogers in The Beautiful Cigar Girl. "Stashower, who has also penned mysteries involving Sherlock Holmes and Harry Houdini, knows how to tell a story that holds one's interest, replete with little tidbits about the times in which the case unfolded and the various personalities involved," John Lindermuth says.

Tim Bowling poetically tackles change and loss in Fathom. "It's a look back, a nostalgic recollection of the poet's time growing up amid the salmon fisheries along the Fraser River in Vancouver," says Michael Scott Cain. "His way with an image is striking."

Jen Kopf attempts to decipher Ron Howard's film treatment of Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code -- without much success. "Howard's movie showcases both strengths -- the codes, the mysteries -- of Brown's novel and makes the most of some pretty spectacular filming privileges -- in the Louvre, various castles, temples, abbeys and cathedrals," she says. "But it also lays bare the awkward dialogue and betrays some pretty improbable coincidences. ... But after all that, what it comes down to is this: If you like the book, you'll forgive the movie."

Tom Knapp experiences 12 Days of Terror with a shark (or sharks) off the coast of New Jersey. "Jaws is kids' stuff," Tom says. "OK, the Peter Benchley novel and the movie it inspired are actually really good. But there's something about the low-budget docudrama 12 Days of Terror -- based on actual events in 1916 that supposedly inspired Benchley's book -- that brings the real terror home."

Check back soon, more's on the way! (And be sure to browse the archives of our past editions, below.)

27 January 2007

Science plays a vital role in your life; but when it comes to scientific knowledge, there's an excellent chance that you're a moron. ... This is, after all, a nation that has produced tournament bass fishing and the Home Shopping Channel; we should be shocked that the average American still knows how to walk erect.
- Dave Barry

Snow squalls and stomach bugs -- oh, what a world!

Niamh Parsons gets off to a poor start on The Old Simplicity and, while the music improves, she doesn't achieve the quality for which she's become known. "Overall, this is a good album -- Parsons, a pro, records no other -- and fans (in whose ranks I number) will want it in their collection," Jerome Clark says. "I doubt, however, that any will judge it among her most memorable."

Chris Norman is the Man with the Wooden Flute. "Although he uses the same instrument throughout most of the CD, Norman displays a remarkable variety in styles, both in song form and playing technique," Dave Howell says. "He never shows off with the latter, but effortlessly changes rhythms, styles and moods in different compositions. It hardly needs to be said that his tone is always perfect."

The muscle behind the Winona Folk Acoustic Music Concerts celebrates its efforts with The Artists from Our Freshman Year. "There are 20 artists featured on this CD, which was compiled through volunteer efforts and was made to commemorate the concerts performed during the first year of Winona Folk," Ann Flynt explains. "The music is wonderful."

The early work of Odetta is revived on At the Gate of Horn. "With her booming, full-throated voice, Odetta could have been an opera singer or a musical-theater performer or a gospel artist," Jerome Clark says. "As is customary with early revival records, the accompaniment here is solely a strummed acoustic guitar. Nothing fancy, but that's all right. We are here, after all, for that voice, to remind us that there was, is, and always will be only one Odetta."

Lara Herscovitch proves to be Juror Number 13 after ditching a pending law career for music. "Juror Number 13 is an accomplished album of well thought-out and touchingly performed songs," says Nicky Rossiter. "Her writing is simply complex, if there is such a category. Her life experiences appear to colour her lyrics and sentiments."

The Skylighters offer "14 tastefully chosen songs of the sort one might expect to encounter on a Country Gentlemen or Seldom Scene disc" on this self-titled CD, says Jerome Clark. "It would take a stern disposition indeed to resist such abundantly evident charm as dazzles in these grooves. ... The Skylighters aren't just playing music, they're casting spells. This is one powerful and lovely recording."

Rhonda Vincent is an All American Bluegrass Girl. "Next to Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent is the most popular woman on the current bluegrass scene," Jerome remarks. "Actually, since Krauss is only a part-time bluegrass artist these days (the rest of the time, she's fashioning a kind of acoustic chamber-pop heavy on love songs), you could fairly say that Vincent is the genre's foremost female figure."

Tim May is hoping to Find My Way Back with "an album of 11 tracks that are each and every one a joy to hear," Nicky Rossiter says. "The mixture on this CD is just about right with new works, traditional and re-worked standards giving a full appreciation of May's abilities."

Alexander Zonjic jazzes up his Seldom Blues. "If there is a smooth jazz mafia, flautist Alexander Zonjic is close to the godfathers," Dave Howell says. "The flute fits well into the smooth jazz sound, perhaps too well in this case. The rough edges are rounded off, and although Zonjic varies his playing a bit throughout the 10 tracks, he stays close to the melody. ... Nothing else really stands out here."

Billy Price sings the blues on East End Avenue. "Unlike the Delta, Nashville and Chicago, Pittsburgh isn't a place normally equated with the blues," John Lindermuth says. "That may change if Pittsburgh soul singer Billy Price has his way. ... Price belts a song with energy and emotion."

Susheela Raman performs Music for Crocodiles. "If your jaded tastes are in need of something different, this album may be the answer," says John. "It's a deft blend, offering lyrics in both Tamil and English, featuring classical Indian instruments along with the more familiar guitar, mandolin, violin, cello and organ and skillfully weaving the Carnatic influence into a finger-snapping pop beat."

Stella Chiweshe is musically exposed on Double Check: Two Sides of Zimbabwe's Mbira Queen. "This is quintessential African music, the type that many may have only heard in clips of field recordings or in 'jungle' films," Dave Howell says. "There is a trance-like element in its repetition. Listeners will not find a lot of melodic variation, for the mbira is a small instrument that can only play a limited number of notes. But there is also a beauty that should touch anyone who is open to the sounds of world music."

William C. Dietz remembers For Those Who Fell in the sixth book in his Legion of the Damned series. "Dietz is truly a master at this kind of futuristic hard science fiction, nimbly handling large numbers of familiar characters across multiple worlds," says Daniel Jolley. "A variety of subplots really infuse this ongoing saga with a richness most military science fiction can only dream of."

George R.R. Martin serves up A Feast for Crows, and reviewer Chris McCallister responds with an analysis of the good, the bad or the ugly in this installment of Fire & Ice. "Martin has maintained the writing quality, plot complexity and character depth that marked the earlier books in the series," Chris says. "I am glad I have the book. I am also frustrated."

Cecilia Tan uncovers the Sex in the System in this collection of erotic science-fiction yarns. "There are 15 stories (technically, 14 stories and a poem) in this collection by authors such as Joe Haldemann (who appears twice), Sarah Micklem, Paul Di Fillipo and others, and they cover a wide range of aspects of life, including love and loss, that weird guy/gal at the office, even late-night infomercials," Laurie Thayer says. "The stories are not only entertaining, they are, as Tan says in her introduction, 'just plain hot.'"

Vila SpiderHawk speaks to women of all ages in Hidden Passages: Tales to Honor the Crones. "This book celebrates not only cronehood, but maiden- and motherhood as well," Laurie says. "While the stories are entertaining, most of them run a little long and could really use a bit of tightening. ... The emotional impact of the stories, especially 'Mima Po' and 'Lavinia,' is undeniable, however."

Tom Knapp devotes a full week to Ultra: Seven Days by Jonathan and Joshua Luna. "It's rather like Sex in the City for the superhero set," he says. "The Luna Brothers have created a world that, much like Astro City, seems much more real than your average comic-book setting. Grand battles and superheroics happen, sure, but the focus is on the people beneath the leotards -- and it works surprisingly well."

Tom is off on a World Tour with the Ultimate X-Men. "World Tour is an action-packed chapter in the Ultimate X-Men series, but it continues to fall short of its potential," he says. "The spark that has made other books in the Ultimate line so exciting has yet to burst into flame."

Next, Tom gets medieval in Red Sonja vs. Thulsa Doom. "I'm glad to see Robert E. Howard's heroine Red Sonja getting the attention she deserves; today's comic-book interpretation of her is far superior to past efforts," he says. "And yet, I think they can do better still."

Tom welcomes Supergirl back to the DC Universe in this second collection of the Superman/Batman line. "Given that she's identified as being 15 or 16 years old, alien or not, the amount of Kryptonian cheesecake might attract undo prurient interests to the book," he warns. "Prurience aside, Supergirl is an excellent story that heralds a welcome return."

Walt Kelly's Our Gang collection caused heart palpitations in reviewer Michael Vance. "This is not Kelly's best work," he says. "Our Gang is only recommended for diehard Kelly fans, adults who love to read to preliterate children and for very young readers."

Peter Sanger "is an objective poet," says Michael Scott Cain. "Sanger's not a difficult poet; he just takes an elliptical approach to his subjects. Read Aiken Drum slowly and attentively. It will reward the attention."

Bradford Keeney wants to share Shamanic Christianity with the world. "The fact is, there's a lot of good stuff in this book. The exercises and meditations are valuable and much of the advice is worth considering," says Michael -- but notes that Keeney's conclusions came from "an altered state of consciousness" and not substantial research. "If, when he came out of his altered state, he'd given the text a good critical edit, Keeney might have come up with a work that spoke to more than just the already initiated."

Bob Snider has a few things to say On Songwriting. "This short book by Canadian singer/songwriter Bob Snider is almost as much a philosophical treatise on songwriting as it is a practical guide. Snider's book indicates, however, that songwriting is a personal process anyway, one that does not really have a fixed set of rules," Dave Howell says. "This book is a bit brief to be extraordinarily useful, but any singer/songwriter who is learning their craft is likely to find some helpful information here."

Tom Knapp's fondness for The Wicker Man of 1973 led him to view The Wicker Man of 2004. "The little girl with dead eyes who appears on the cover of The Wicker Man DVD never appears in the film as anything other than a little girl with perfectly normal eyes and a smile," he says. "That should tell you how hard filmmakers were trying to convince potential video renters that this movie is scarier than it actually is."

Jen Kopf monkeys around with Curious George, and says your decision to watch it "all depends on how happy you want to make your kids -- especially if your kids are little. ... Having experienced Curious George in the theater and now, let's just say, 'several times' on DVD (within a week of its release) with my own kids, I can unequivocally say kindergarteners find lots to enjoy about Curious George."

Check back soon, more's on the way! (And be sure to browse the archives of our past editions, below.)

20 January 2007

You are not angry with people when you laugh at them. Humor teaches them tolerance.
- William Somerset Maugham

Tempest lets fly with The Double Cross. "This is folk-rock with attitude," Nicky Rossiter enthuses. "Think of Steeleye Span updated to the 21st century with original songs in the traditional vein, and you have an idea of what to expect. ... If you like your music Celtic, loud and lively, this is the album for you. Put it on, turn it up and stand well back."

The duo Suil met in Connemara before coming together to produce L'annmoor. "Lynn Saoirse plays the Irish harp to perfection and enhances the vocals of Sue Matthews over a series of 13 songs ranging from the familiar to the brand new," Nicky says.

Our man Nicky wraps up this Celtic music triple-header with the Muses, who "tell us very little about themselves" on the insert to Tramps & Hawkers, he grouses. "They let the music speak, and it does so with eloquence."

Tradition Records got it started in 1963, and Empire Musicwerks keeps it going in 2006. Anthology of the Twelve String Guitar is a collection sporting the artistry of the instrument, Michael Scott Cain opines. "If you're a musician, this album will have you wondering if you should buy yourself a 12-string."

James Isaak is a singer-songwriter who creates folk music with his guitar and harmonica. His self-titled CD did not impress Wil Owen as much as Wil hoped. "James' musical style and vocals sound a lot like Shawn Mullins, but at a much less polished level," Wil says. "I enjoy his guitar playing and harmonica much more than his singing or lyrics."

The Lonesome Brothers go Mono with their New England/country-folk sound. "To my hearing, the problem with this stuff is that -- even when rendered competently in a technical sense -- it lacks roots and resonance," Jerome Clark says. "It is, instead, quite the contrary: ephemeral and evanescent. ... The Lonesomes aren't that bad -- I've certainly heard worse -- but their songs, which seem to come from nowhere but other songs in this effectively nameless genre, are just sort of there, and when the CD has stopped spinning, they're not there."

Byron Hill catches our reviewer off-guard with Ramblings. "That it's an album of commercial country songs by a successful commercial country songwriter is not the surprise. The surprise is how good this is," Jerome opines. "Hill underscores a point that Nashville's recent history has done all in its considerable power to obscure: that songs can be commercial and meaningful."

Walter Beasley "is a master at making the saxophone speak," Nicky Rossiter (he's back again) says. After spinning For Her, he says the jazz album "is in essence a musical journey through a romance. ... As a personal album for the writer/performer, it has an added spark in that all listeners will have run the same race at some time in life -- or will do so in the future."

Guarneri Underground's CD Wander This World "is nothing if not innovative, experimental and energetic," says Jennifer Mo. "Eclectic is right. On what other CD could you find Celtic fiddling, flamenco guitar, African rhythms, tabla and a cover of Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir'?"

Tim Powers keeps A Soul in a Bottle for this tale. "I wasn't sure what to expect from him as a novella writer," says Gary Cramer. "I'm happy to say, however, that even with A Soul in a Bottle filling up to just 80-some pages (including some nifty J.K. Potter illustrations and not many words per page, at that), Powers serves a subtle and memorable brew."

Tanya Huff is Stealing Magic for this collection of stories. "You may find that some of these stories seem familiar; they have all been published elsewhere," Laurie Thayer says. "In her afterword, Huff notes that the stories are arranged in roughly chronological order and hopes that her more mature writing ability shows. I don't think she needs to worry on that score."

C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp blend romance and fantasy under a Captive Moon. "It is published as a Tor Romance, so the reader knows right away that there's going to be a certain amount of longing glances, heavy breathing and a need for cold showers," Laurie admits. "But there's also the adventure story ... and the urban fantasy aspect of the Sazi's world, hidden right in plain sight within our own."

David Wellington throws back the gates to his Monster Nation with an outbreak of mindless, vicious cannibals at a state penitentiary. "The story moves rapidly, the characters are fascinating, action abounds and the whole thing is just plain interesting and, in a grisly way, fun," Chris McCallister says. "If you can stomach a grisly zombie novel, as long as it contains a good story, here is where to find just that."

Jennifer Roberson begins an epic fantasy series with 1986's Sword-Dancer. "This is a well-told tale of adventure, action and a noble quest. What makes it good, first and foremost, is the character development," Chris says. "The lore and rituals that surround sword-dancing, in this fictive world, are complex and highly reminiscent of many martial arts, but with aspects of magic."

Gail Carson Levine, after succeeding so admirably with Ella Enchanted, falters with The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Jennifer Mo reports. "The most severe failing of Two Princesses, particularly as it is written as an epic high fantasy with dragons and fairies and sorcerers, is its continual failure to ask why things are the way they are," she says. "These are questions I didn't think about until I finished the book and realized nothing is explained; everything just is."

Tom Knapp joins the Powers in asking Who Killed Retro Girl?, a title written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Michael Avon Oeming. "The series won the Eisner Award for best new series in 2001 for material collected here, and it's easy to see why," he says. "In a market glutted with the flash of superheroics, this title is invigorating."

Tom takes a look at the new Supergirl in Power, the heroine's first solo outing since her recent revamp over at DC Comics. "Power has the unenviable task of making readers forget about the several Supergirls who have passed through the DC Universe so far and fall in love with the new one," Tom says. "Granted, this Kara is a bit too pop-idol in her style of dress, and her legs and bare midriff are long and thin enough to make most supermodels grab for a sandwich, but writer Jeph Loeb has crafted an innocent, yet powerful new version of the heroine that's easy to adore."

Next, Tom decides it's time to Return to Weapon X with the Ultimate X-Men. "Return to Weapon X is a good story that furthers the development of the X-Men as a team, and it has some nifty military action throughout," he says. "Still, I have to admit that, two books into the series, UX isn't thrilling me the way Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate Fantastic Four and The Ultimates have done. Still, I'm willing to read on and see how it grabs me later."

Tom reignites his passion for Shi in this landmark collection by William Tucci, The Way of the Warrior. "Sure, a casual browser of the decade-old storyline might lead one to believe it's just another hot chick with a sharp blade, a skimpy costume and a grudge. And yes, for those who don't like much meat to their comics, Shi provides plenty of fast and violent action and smooth, well-exposed skin," Tom says. "But Shi is a beautiful tapestry of plotting, with layers of story that weave in and around each other."

Michael Vance likens a comic-book alien to a singing and dancing frog ... sort of. "It isn't easy being green for either Kermit the Frog or Decoy, the little alien. Both have seen better days," Michael explains. "For Decoy, his better days seem like yesterday since he is a relatively new character, and his problems begin with the lack of visual continuity in a new hardback anthology called Decoy: Menagerie."

Patricia Smith reveals her poetry in the Teahouse of the Almighty. "A four-time national poetry slam champion, Smith's poetry does not simply lie on the page," says Michael Scott Cain. "It asks to be read aloud, shouted. It is loud, aggressive, with lots of adjectives and the good strong plain American language."

Pauline Hager shares her Memoirs of an American Housewife in Japan. "American Housewife is a travel book that will entertain the readers as well as educate them," Liana Metal explains. "The experiences of the author and the way they are presented make this book a very different memoir from others on the market, as much a travel guide to Japan as an autobiography."

Miles O'Dometer revs his engine for Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. "Like many of the movies made by Saturday Night Live stars, Talladega Nights is at heart a series of hilarious vignettes," he says. "Unlike many of those films, though, this one is masterfully strung together. It will have you laughing long after you've turned off the credits -- which themselves contain quite a few laughs -- and even after you've returned the film."

Chris McCallister approaches this new Stephen King adaptation with a certain degree of Desperation. "As with many works of Stephen King, this is a classic Good-versus-Evil showdown, with the religious and the supernatural invading the real lives of some very realistic characters," he says. "We saw this in The Stand and The Green Mile, and we see it done beautifully here. We get to know these characters, and we get to like or dislike them, and we get to cheer them on toward some form of triumph. Bravo!"

Check back soon, more's on the way! (And be sure to browse the archives of our past editions, below.)

13 January 2007

The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we ALL believe that we are above-average drivers.
- Dave Barry

Ceilidh Minogue gets full marks for a clever name on this self-titled CD. "With a name like Ceilidh Minogue, how can you not give them a listen?" Nicky Rossiter asks. "This collection of fine Scottish musicians has been together for more than eight years, playing to delighted audiences not just in the United Kingdom but also in Dubai, Tunisia and Lithuania."

Inishowen sets its sights on The Banks of Newfoundland with "a baker's dozen of great traditional songs and tunes alongside a few newly or not so newly written pieces in the traditional style," Nicky says. "The members of Inishowen and some guests perform them with gusto."

Gavin Whelan demonstrates mastery of the tin whistle on Another Time. "Whelan is more than just an accomplished exponent of the whistle, displaying also an impressive knowledge of the tradition," Mike Wilson says. "There are no tricks here or technical wizardry, just plain and simple traditional music, played exceptionally well -- exactly as it should be!"

Smithfield Fair continues its shift from Celtic to folk traditions with Walking Through This World. Jerome Clark gives it short shrift: "This is not to my taste. If it is to yours, this is for you."

Glenn Yarbrough makes memorable music on Come Sit By My Side, a new reissue of a 1957 classic. "I first heard Yarbrough's celestial voice when he was the lead singer with the Limeliters, a trio popular in the 1950s and early 1960s that jump-started a folk music revival. His expressive voice is the one I remember best," says Barbara Spring. "This CD will touch the hearts of those who love roots music sung in the way it should be."

Nathaniel Maloney opens a window to this Old Empty Farmhouse for some folk music inflected by bluegrass artistry. "Slow songs, easy listening and folk dirges can often slow the spirit if they're not done well, but I feel there's not a boring spot or a serious misstep on this CD," Virginia MacIsaac says. "I can listen to it again and again, and Maloney deserves a listen for the songwriting strength on this CD, smooth vocals and pleasing but interesting musical arrangements."

Jeffrey Harrison takes his leave of the Shakes for this self-titled EP. "Harrison's vocals are weaker than both his musicianship and songwriting skills," Wil Owen says. "His singing is scratchy as he sings from his throat. Be that as it may, this is not a bad CD. But it has not found much rotation in my CD collection."

Garrison Starr celebrates The Sound of You & Me with this Vanguard recording. "Born and raised in Mississippi, she retains enough of her southern drawl to lend a rootsy feel to her sharp, clear vocal performance," Mike Wilson says. "The Sound of You & Me is a charmingly introspective collection from a maturing writer who isn't afraid to mine the depths of her most personal thoughts and fears."

Hooverville is ready to Follow That Trail of Dust Back Home. "The music, all original, is built on the foundational likes of Guthrie, the Carter Family and Hank Williams, with echoes of revival folk singers, bluegrass outfits and the Band," Jerome Clark says. "All of this is comfortably rooted, and the material is solid and likable, if unspectacular."

Chris Whitley treds those Soft Dangerous Shores with his own brand of "euro trash/folk blues." Nicky Rossiter says it's "a very personal album of songs that mean a lot to the writer/performer and probably to his loyal fan base. Unfortunately, none of the tracks resonated with me."

Saxman Greg Vail gets jazzy with The Gospel Truth ReVisited. "Vail gives us a wonderful collection of tunes that will inspire, haunt and relax you in turn," Nicky says. "We are programmed to think of the genre connected to smoky bars and a rather decadent, bourbon-soaked lifestyle, but Vail reclaims the music for the soul."

Jerry Byrd was an unlikely hero of the Hawaiian steel guitar, as he proved on Master of the Steel Guitar, Vol. 1. "Byrd's playing is all that the legends attest, and they attest that he was, as the usual accolade had it, 'master of touch and tone,'" Jerome Clark says. "In lesser hands some of this could be pure schmaltz, but these are not lesser hands."

Kaitlin Hahn takes us back again to Celtic Colours for a look into Irish Eyes. Be sure to check out the show, which featured Michael Black, Kimberley Fraser, Nuala Kennedy, Troy MacGillivray and McGinty!

Mea culpa, Corrine Smith! Tom Knapp owes Corrine a big apology for sitting on her excellent review of an autumn Eric Clapton and Robert Cray concert for several more weeks than he can explain. Sorry! Please, help Tom feel better and share Corrine's belated experiences of that awesome night of music!!

Peter Crowther fills in The Spaces Between the Lines with this new collection of short stories from Subterranean Press. Chris McCallister scarcely pauses for breath in his analysis of the tales, so get a drink and take a bathroom break before sitting down to read this review!

Robyn and Tony DiTocco are in place for Atlas' Revenge. "Tony and Robyn DiTocco co-wrote this book as a sequel to The Hero Perseus, the adventures of PJ's first Olympian encounter at age 17, and it is part of their Mad Myth Mystery series for young adult readers," Chris says. "The book is very fast-paced and, once one gets past the somewhat simplistic beginning and into the more complex storylines, this is a very exciting and interesting mystery-adventure story, with lots of action. The authors did an excellent job of giving the reader enough information on the preceding book, so that this book can stand alone."

Chris Wooding's latest young-adult fantasy Storm Thief "simultaneously manages to be literally breathtaking -- and distinctly disappointing," Jennifer Mo says. "Wooding's newest fantasy is edgily innovative, its vaguely postapocalyptic world alien yet gritty and well-realized, and its action of the adrenaline pumping variety. But like the mercurial figure who provides the book with its title, Storm Thief frustrates as often as it exhilarates, and never offers as much as it denies."

Mercedes Lackey throws open the doors at Jinx High to recollect some days gone by. "The reissue of the Diana Tregarde series in trade paperback is most welcome," says Laurie Thayer. "The story rips right along without taking a breath, but rather than seeming relentless, the fast pace is more likely to mean staying up past bedtime."

Charles Stross views an Iron Sunrise in this SF novel, which reviewer Conor O'Connor describes as "a fast-paced space opera, with plenty of high technology and weaponry on display. ... This SF novel is certainly worth your time."

Sarah Meador takes a stroll with The Walking Mage in this stand-alone volume from Mark Oakley's Thieves & Kings. "Without a doubt, The Walking Mage is a work of political commentary, but it's commentary about politics rather than any specific party or person," she says. "There's offense to be found for those who seek it out, but there's a lot more comedy and a few surprising moments of hope."

Tom Knapp is disappointed with the execution of Freshmen, a new storyline crafted by Seth Green and Hugh Sterbakov. "The storyline has potential -- although it is largely wasted in this book, given that most of the book is devoted to getting to know the crew," Tom says. "However much latent potential it has, though, this book left a sour taste in my mouth because of an unexpected dose of religious mockery. ... It might be worth overlooking if the book went somewhere interesting, but since volume one of Freshman mostly just sits around inspecting its navel, I can't see any reason to recommend it."

On the other hand, Tom has his ticket and ID ready for a showing of The Vamp in Vertigo's Sandman Mystery Theatre. "As always, writer Matt Wagner -- now joined by co-author Steven T. Seagle -- works plenty of social issues into the text, all seen through the gauzy social fabric of 1930s America," Tom says. "I love this series -- even the rough, unpolished look supplied by artist Guy Davis -- and I sincerely wish it'd had a longer run. Enjoy this one while you can!"

Tom gets a little Inhuman with the Ultimate Fantastic Four. Still, despite the quality points in its favor, it's not a grand slam for the series. "Artistically, the book falters a bit. Jae Lee's work is certainly darker and less refined than his predecessor, Adam Kubert, who set such a high standard on the first and third books in the series," Tom says. "This is definitely the weakest book in the series so far."

To wrap up today's graphic novel extravaganza, Tom takes issue with this Batman/Demon team-up. "I can't quite believe it saw print," he says. "Let's just pretend this one never existed, OK?"

Sean Astin details his life as an actor, up to and including the filming of The Lord of the Rings, in There & Back Again: An Actor's Tale. "Astin is quite candid about his own attitudes and shortcomings, and modest about his successes," Laurie Thayer says. "While his journey 'there' might be a bit longer than would interest most folks, what he did while there and what happened after is fascinating."

Kathryn Rantala's poetry "is often deceptively straightforward" in The Plant Waterer & Other Things in Common, says Karen Trimbath. "Some of the poems have a lightweight, evanescent quality. Yet this collection is one that should not be abandoned upon first glance, but pondered over."

Judy Lind might irk a few Jennifer Aniston fans, but recommends Mr. & Mrs. Smith all the same. "OK, so the plot is more than a little contrived, and the action is sometimes so over the top that the entire film seems more like a camp action/adventure movie, but nobody in their right mind would take this movie seriously anyway," she says. "The real reason to watch this film is the onscreen chemistry between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. They're an absolute delight to watch. They're perfect together." (Be sure to compare her opinions with Daniel Jolley's, expressed back in June.)

Tom Knapp just had to see it, even though he knew it was a bad idea. Yes, we're talking about The Dukes of Hazzard. "It was with a certain sick fascination, mixed with groaning resignation, that I decided to give the 2005 movie a try. I really need to resist these impulses," he says. "Believe it or not, Hollywood took a TV series with little substance and managed to give it less."

More good stuff's on the way! Check back often for updates on this page. (And be sure to browse the archives of our past editions, below.)