5 July 2008 to 23 August 2008

23 August 2008

There is only one blasphemy, and that is the refusal to experience joy.
- Paul Rudnick

With our editor on vacation (waterpark! waterpark!) we're making do with an abbreviated update this week. Enjoy the reviews, and we'll be back with more in seven days. Woohoo!

No music today, alas and alack, but we have plenty of books, a movie and, of course, archives that are packed to the gills with reviews from the past decade. Enjoy your visit!

First up, fiction.

J.R.R. Tolkien is making headlines again with The Children of Húrin, a packet of tales edited by his son, Christopher, and illustrated by Alan Lee. "Those who know the story will be amazed by the beautiful illustrations and the new editing," says Adolf Goriup. "New readers will discover that Tolkien's world covers much more than the battle of the One Ring. In any case the book is a must for those who would like to dive deeper in this fascinating universe."

Adrienne Barbeau & Michael Scott shine their lights on the Vampyres of Hollywood. "While this story was clever, the ideas and characters interesting, I really didn't get to love it like I thought I would," Cherise Everhard says. "That being said, the book isn't a total loss and I did enjoy parts. ... The idea behind it still has me interested and I hope if there is a next book they will stay away from so many celebrity detours and concentrate more on the plot and current characters."

Diana S. Zimmerman gets things underway in Kandide & the Secret of the Mists, the first book of The Calabiyau Chronicles, a new young-adult fantasy series. "The book itself is very handsome, with heavy glossy pages and full-color character portraits," says Laurie Thayer. "Unfortunately, all this glitz does not hide the book's flaws, which include dialogue that is awkward in some spots and sounds unnatural in others. One does not expect a fairy king, for instance, to speak like a teenager at the mall. ... Still, despite its flaws, the story is full of rousing adventure, romance, intrigue and magic. I predict it will be a great success with its intended readers -- those youngsters obsessed with Disney fairies and princesses -- but they will undoubtedly outgrow it just as quickly."

C.E. Murphy opens The Walker Papers with Urban Shaman. "Urban Shaman is a quick read and a good one. I strongly recommend you get into this series," Becky Kyle says. "Trust me, if you enjoy the work of Kim Harrison, Jim Butcher and other authors of this sort, you will be catching up when the others in this series come out!"

Nick Hornby's High Fidelity gets a comparison to the film of the same name. "After modestly enjoying Stephen Frears' theatrical adaptation of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, I was overcome with the feeling that the story would be told even better in print. So, like any person stuck in such a conundrum, I took it upon myself to test my hypothesis, even though in the back of my head I knew I had to be right," says Eric Hughes. "OK, I was wrong. Hornby's novel is no good. And this is not just in comparison to the 2000 film, but to most other novels I have read as well. I hardly looked forward to reading the book following my commute home from work, and certainly breathed a strong sigh of relief when it was finally over."

We also have a fine trio of graphic novel reviews on offer.

Tom Knapp has a little dissatisfaction to express. "It evokes elements of Lovecraft and Verne. But Jenny Finn: Doom Messiah, a steampunk yarn set in Victorian London, falls short of its lofty mark," he says. "Unfortunately, the story by Mike Mignola and Troy Nixey (along with the art by Nixey, aided by Farel Dalrymple) never achieves any real level of horror. Instead, there's some vague sense of 'ick,' a feeling of mild distaste that makes you want to wash your hands after reading it. Jenny Finn isn't horrifying, it's just unpleasant."

Catwoman proves to be Her Sister's Keeper in a volume that follows up on Frank Miller's landmark Batman: Year One storyline. "Dialogue overall is choppy and awkward. Motivations seem weak. Scenes change abruptly, without a discernible flow. And the artwork ranges from fair to mediocre," Tom says. "There are a lot of good Catwoman stories on the shelves. This one, despite a certain degree of notoriety for its touchy content, is just not a very good read."

The Dare Detectives hatch The Snowpea Plot in a graphic novel Mark Allen describes as "frantic ... in the very best way." "First of all, 'frantic' describes the action, which nearly runs from the first to the last page. It is action that is peppered with good humor throughout. It is almost as if the 100-mile-an-hour doings are more of a set-up for the ha-has than action for action's sake. And I did, by the way. 'Ha-ha' that is," he explains. "The humor is something like a cross between Looney Tunes and the late-1980s-era Justice League by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis. With a funny talking rabbit. I bet some of you will 'ha-ha' as well."

From pirates to taxi drivers to Native American vibrations, this section has a variety to share.

Nigel Cawthorne doesn't live up to the title of A History of Pirates: Blood & Thunder on the High Seas. "Almost entirely bereft of illustrations, this volume takes an exciting topic and presents it in endless pages of gray text. The writing is dry, reducing stories of adventure and mayhem to dull recitations," Tom Knapp says. "It also fails to deliver on its promises; for instance, after telling readers about a pirate noted for his cruelty, the narrative labors on for several paragraphs detailing the pirate's history -- without a single example of cruel behavior."

Larry Sager has a few anecdotes to share in No Guns, No Knives, No Personal Checks: The Tales of a San Francisco Cab Driver. "This book was interesting and a definite eye-opener for anyone individually offering a service to the public," Renee Harmon says. "As an additional bonus Sager includes a cabbie glossary in the back of the book. After reading this enjoyable book, I was left to wonder how in the world cabbies unwind at the end of an insane day."

Joseph Rael taps into global harmonies in Being & Vibration. "Nobody can accuse this book of being run of the mill, because Rael breaks out of the mold and introduces us to unique concepts," says Alicia Karen Elkins. "If you seriously approach this subject and apply his teachings, you will get positive results. At the very least, the book will give you plenty to contemplate and discuss. It may even challenge serious intellectuals to rethink their positions on the world around us."

We have just one film review for you today, but it's a doozie!

Tom Knapp goes along with Brendan Fraser on a Journey to the Center of the Earth. "Journey to the Center of the Earth is not a film version of Jules Verne's classic novel, but the adventures of a modern uncle-and-nephew team who follow in the novel's footsteps," Tom says. "The story is in many ways as hollow as Verne's Earth. But it doesn't really matter, since the star here is the special effects, presented in all their three-dimensional glory. And there's an 'oh wow' waiting at each new cinematic marvel."

That concludes our abbreviated weekend edition. Hurry back next week for a full-sized update!

There's SO much more on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

16 August 2008

In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.
- Terry Pratchett

I don't have to work this week! I don't have to work this week! I don't have to work this week! Nanna nanna boo boo!

The Rogue's Gallery takes advantage of the current public fascination with pirates. "The wealth of music that has grown out of that ancient lifestyle is wide and deep, much like the ocean they sailed upon, and there are innumerable recordings of those songs in a variety of traditional and modern styles," Tom Knapp says. "Unfortunately, the rushed nature of the project seems apparent to a listener with any familiarity with these songs and this style. ... Don't get me wrong, I often enjoy nontraditional reinventions of old music; nothing could be more boring than hearing the same song performed in exactly the same way over and over and over again. But a basic understanding of the source material is still useful before recording, and in many cases here that is lacking."

Andrew Calhoun & Campground get back to the basics with Bound to Go: Folk Songs & Spirituals. "Bound to Go's very existence is a tribute to the determination -- and talent, too -- of longtime Chicago-area folksinger and songwriter Andrew Calhoun (who's also head of the excellent Waterbug label)," Jerome Clark says. "I can't tell you what your favorite cuts will turn out to be -- I'm still finding mine each time I return to this magnificent collection -- but I can guarantee you, I think, that the first two will be the title tune and 'Sandy Land.' And you're just getting started. A loving and fully realized work of art, music and memory, Bound to Go will take you to places you've never been, and then return you home."

Rosalie Sorrels meets Strangers in Another Country in a tribute to the late Bruce "Utah" Phillips. "A hard-left ideologue in the fashion of Joe Hill, Ralph Chaplin and Woody Guthrie, Phillips lived the life -- he'd been a hobo and persecuted activist (for the feebly extant Industrial Workers of the World) in the very conservative state from which he took his nickname -- and brought what many thought as 'authenticity' to the program," Jerome says. "There is also no more soulful a Phillips interpreter than Sorrels, who knew Bruce before he became Utah. ... Sorrels, a warm and appealing singer who puts an understated jazz lilt into her phrasing, has always been a distinctive voice on the folk scene, no less so at 75."

Anthony da Costa relates a Typical American Tragedy through song. "Anthony da Costa has it all. He plays beautifully, sings well and writes brilliant songs. He knows how to produce a record, dressing his songs up for maximum effectiveness, and he knows enough to bring in gifted musicians and producers to help him," says Michael Scott Cain. "The result is one of the best folk albums of the year, given to us by a kid who is all of 17 years old."

James Hollingsworth is Coming Home to Stay with his music, and Michael has a lot to say about the words to Hollingsworth's songs. "I'm emphasizing the lyrics because, frankly, that's about the best thing James Hollingsworth has to offer," he says. "If you respond to the single-minded sincerity and earnestness of his music, you'll probably like this CD. Me? Well, I found myself longing for Hollingsworth to relax, maybe laugh a little."

Paroplapi, an Italo-French folk trio, makes its mark with La Finestra dell'Ultimo Piano, the band's second CD release. "In Italian, French and Provençal-Occitan, Paroplapi's sound is a joy," David Cox says. "Ten of the 12 songs on this endearing and lively CD are traditional, arranged by members of the band."

Masha Campagne defies her Russian roots to create Caminhos Cruzados (Crossroads), an album of Brazilian jazz. "Everything you expect from Brazil is here -- the light, breezy vocals, the Latin American beats, the rhythmic piano and the cool saxophone," Dave Howell says. "This is not an interpretation of the music of Brazil, but a CD that captures its soul."

Kevin Deal's Roll and Kort McCumber's Lickskillet Road get a look-see from Jerome Clark. "Though singer-songwriter Kort McCumber's laid-back country-folk sound will be familiar from a genre's worth of comparable material since the 1960s, it is always a pleasure to hear when it is capably delivered. The model here, broadly speaking, is Guy Clark, though McCumber is technically a more accomplished singer and his melodies are more consistently memorable," Jerome reports. "Kevin Deal, very much a Texas musician, has worked the circuit for years, as both solo artist and bandleader. Since last I heard him -- about a decade ago -- he has gotten a lot better."

Corinne Smith takes off to see The Eagles perform at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, Mass. "This was my fifth Eagles concert. Time will tell if turns out to be my last," she says. "I have seven albums, five concert t-shirts and lots of memories to sustain me. Those who don't remember the 1970s are fated to relive them. And musically speaking, that may not be a bad thing."

Yxta Maya Murray seeks The King's Gold in the second volume of Red Lion. "The pacing of this novel is frenetic -- there are very few moments of quiet reflection," says Laurie Thayer. "Comparisons with The Da Vinci Code are, perhaps, inevitable, but Lola is less like Robert Langdon and more like Indiana Jones -- or perhaps more like Indie's one-time love Marion Ravenwood, the daughter of famous academics who is drawn into adventure. In any case, Lola's adventures make for excellent summer reading -- the literary equivalent of the popcorn flick."

Simon R. Green finds his answers in The Unnatural Inquirer, the eighth novel in his ongoing Nightside series. "The Nightside is London at its worst, always at 3 a.m. ... Legends, living and dead, walk the streets and lives are cheap," says Becky Kyle. "The Nightside series is stand-alone in that the main issue in each novel is solved within its pages. Stories do continue from the first book and the characters are fascinating to follow, but you can read this book on its own and enjoy it."

William Dietrich turns The Rosetta Key for the second novel in the Ethan Gage series. "At different times, The Rosetta Key reminds me of Indiana Jones, The Da Vinci Code or National Treasure," Wil Owen says. "Ethan narrowly escapes death every couple of pages. He has more lives than a cat and more luck than a person carrying a rabbit's foot, horseshoe and a four-leaf clover. Ethan casually solves riddles and puzzles that have fooled other adventurers for centuries. He also changes sides more often than a tennis ball bounces across the court during Wimbledon."

A pair of classic Peter Rabe novels are dusted off for a new generation as Anatomy of a Killer/A Shroud for Jesso. "One of the most welcome trends in mystery fiction today is the reissue of classic noir novels from the 1940s and '50s," says Michael Scott Cain. "Rabe's books are just too much fun. He is back in a big way, having become the biggest-selling author at Stark House. Read these titles and you'll be scouring thre used paperback shelves for more."

Jodi Picoult "may be unjustly passed over by the so-called literary critics, but she sure knows how to grab the attention of the true reader. She has an uncanny knack of choosing a subject that will hit the headlines a few weeks after her book appears or one that resonates with recent news reports," says Nicky Rossiter. "In Vanishing Acts, she takes a protagonist whose life as an adult has been a lie. ... As in all her novels, we are given food for thought and we are not given easy answers to the dilemmas of her characters. We must make up our own minds on the philosophical questions posed by the plot. Who is right? Who is wrong? Can there be two, three or more sides to an argument, and can all be valid?"

Stephen King wields Misery like a pen. "I cannot pinpoint an exact reason for it, but I waited until well into my 21st year to complete my first Stephen King novel, Misery. Some dub it a classic, and the tell-tale signs behind it are obvious: a quick, entertaining plot; sharp, well-written prose and a slow, horrific change in character on the part of Annie Wilkes, from semi-sweet morsel of goodness to axe-welding, scary-as-hell maniac," Eric Hughes remarks. "Though it is a masterful horror story I would casually recommend, Misery has a significant shortcoming, which eventually led me to read the piece at a subdued pace. And more importantly, I couldn't help but feel like my expectations of the novel -- and of King -- had not been met once the story had completely unfolded."

The Witchblade saga continues with Gods & Monsters. "Ian Nottingham returns. Jake McCarthy wakes from his coma. Patrick Gleason very nearly gets kissed. And Sara Pezzini gets busted by her boss for stealing a soda from a machine in police headquarters," Tom Knapp says. "Oh, and she mentions she's pregnant, too. All in all, it's a busy couple of pages."

The problem with most superheroes, Tom says, "is that their villains, no matter how cleverly evil they are, grow tiresome. I mean, they keep coming back, no matter how often they're sent to prison. But many efforts to introduce new villains fall flat." Batman: Hush, however, "faced the challenge head-on, introducing a new villain to the Batman stable with masterful plotting. ... Jeph Loeb has proven himself time and time again as a master plotter, particularly where Batman is concerned. He exceeds himself here, giving the complicated Batman character more depth and detail than most writers even dream of achieving."

Harvey Pekar's work is revisited in The Best of American Splendor. "Pekar has a finely tuned instinct for the algorithms of human existence and captures them beautifully in quiet moments of observation that condense an enormous amount of information into a nanosecond of human existence. He knows when to let a moment just be itself: the stories are as hauntingly intuitive as they are sentimental and compelling," Mary Harvey says. "It's a victory of style and substance. Highly recommended for those who need a decent introduction to both Pekar and his work. It is truly an American rags-to-mainstream-acceptance-and recognition story."

Johanna Skibsrud spends Late Nights With Wild Cowboys in her new collection of poetry. "As a poet, Johanna Skibsrud describes herself as continually astounded that the border between her and the outside world is so hard to describe," says Michael Scott Cain. "Here is a poet who is nostalgic for a world that never was. She writes in good, plain speech and her poems do not overpower you, as she chooses to let the ideas quietly overpower plain fact so that they build up to small and silent explosions."

Susan Nagel explores the aftermath of a bloody period in French history with Marie-Therese, Child of Terror: The Fate of Marie Antoinette's Daughter. "Marie-Therese saw the change from royal to representative rule in Europe. After her release, she married and lived in exile. Although she never had children, she always hoped for the return of the Bourbons to the French throne," Dave Howell says. "Nagel gives a lot of insight into how royalty thought of themselves and how they behaved. There is also a lot of intrigue, as might be expected, by some historical figures who are loyal, and others who switch sides to join the Revolution or Napoleon."

Tom Knapp enjoyed the graphic novel by Mark Millar, but the movie adaptation of Wanted, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, pales in comparison. "Bekmambetov has stripped the book of its meaning, creating something entirely different that shares only a title, a couple of main characters and a brutal training sequence," Tom says. "The movie expends a lot of time on baths, pig-shooting and exploding rats. There is a cool effect with colliding bullets, but Bekmambetov, apparently deciding the effect was really cool, used it and overused it until I got bored seeing it. ... I recommend you stick with the printed version of this one."

Becky Kyle says Smoke Signals "is a 1998 film based on short stories from Sherman Alexie's book Tonto & the Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven." The movie, Becky says, "is one of the first films directed by, written by, acted by and crewed by a full Native American team. ... Both the journey and the stories are beautifully told with humor and grace. The way the young Native Americans live is told with a warmhearted empathy."

Bunches more is on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

9 August 2008

It was the music of hill and moon, a calling-down music, keening and wild. There was a stag's lowing in it, the murmur of sea against shore. There was moonlight in it and the slow grind of earth against stone. There was harping in it, and the sound of the wind as it sped across the gorse-backed hills.
- Charles de Lint

Four years ago, I married an amazing woman. I'd do it all again today, because I made the right decision then. I love you, Kate, and happy anniversary!

Saffron Summerfield blends the folk and art music worlds on her 2007 release, The Stonemason's Dream. "The voice is trained, the guitar fingerpicked, the cellos, melodeons and trombones create a sound pattern -- but it is all studied and formal; it is as though she made a decision before starting the record not to let any genuine emotion creep into the performances," Michael Scott Cain cautions. "In all, The Stonemason's Dream is not bad, but I believe most listeners will find it too sterile and remote to become a favorite."

Natalie MacMaster celebrated her married and mommied state in 2006 with Yours Truly. "Her immeasurable talent on the fiddle, matched only by her boundless energy, is back full force," Tom Knapp says. "The album pays equal tribute to Natalie's native Cape Breton tradition and her own sparkling creativity as a composer and arranger. And, while there are certainly touches here and there that harken back to her roots as a pure-drop performer, Yours Truly signals her further growth into a unique and diverse star."

Michael Jerome Browne is ready to Double the fun with his blend of folk and blues. "He's at home with all of the styles, so while the album sometimes seems to be a history lesson, it still swings; it shows the depth of folk blues as well as convincingly showing Browne's love of the form," says Michael Scott Cain. "He's at home with all of the styles, so while the album sometimes seems to be a history lesson, it still swings; it shows the depth of folk blues as well as convincingly showing Browne's love of the form. ... You're going to want to hear this one more than once."

Crooked Still is, just in case you were worried, Still Crooked, despite some changes in membership. "The five band members are all -- very clearly -- classically trained. They're technically as proficient as you can get, and the sound they glean from their interaction is not quite like anything I've heard applied to folk music," Jerome Clark says. "There's not only a deep British/New England ballad sensibility but a subtly restrained jazz tone, plus a dazzling interplay of cello and fiddle weaving a sonic universe of its own. And there is Aoife O'Donovan's amazingly expressive voice, sometimes melancholic, sometimes warm, sometimes apparitional."

Luke Powers opens up his Picture Book to share. "A Nashville songwriter and college professor, Powers is an original," says Michael Scott Cain. "These are fine songs, characterized by original images, sharp observations and strong hooks."

Christa Haberstock reveals her view of the world on this six-song CD. "The lyrical content of Christa's music is Christian in nature, but her compositions contain elements of African, Celtic, Middle Eastern and Australian traditions," Sherrill Fulghum says. "And, like the title of the CD suggests, Christa leaves you wanting just A Little More."

Ruby Dee & the Snakehandlers are Miles from Home with a mix of rockabilly and roots rock. "Plenty of hard-core country accents, too, but most of all, it's the beat and Ruby Dee & the Snakehandlers' chops, humor and solid songwriting that trigger the pleasure," Jerome Clark says. "Though this approach is best done live in its native habitat -- funky blue-collar bars -- Ruby Dee and her band know how to put an approximation of that sound onto an album. If you like rooted electric hillbilly music, you'll have no complaints about what the Snakehandlers do with it. Their love for this distinctive genre, more than half a century old and yet unkillable, shines through."

Next, Jerome takes a look at two new bluegrass recordings: Marcie Horne's Everything's Blue and Mike Mitchell's Thirteen Hours. "Everything's Blue and Thirteen Hours are both first albums," Jerome says. "The first is straight-ahead bluegrass, the second a mixture of bluegrass, fiddle tunes, Western swing and folk. Each is an auspicious debut, yet more evidence that -- as long as talented singers and pickers are around to care for it -- the well of tradition-based music will stay close to bottomless."

Sam Barsh steps up with the music on I Forgot What You Taught Me. "Barsh has put together a CD of beautiful, light jazz," Dave Howell says. "Not smooth jazz, however, with its accompanying overproduction and blandness. ... The delicate and ethereal melodies stand out here."

Will Clipman gets percussive on Pathfinder. "Clipman does vocal chants and plays percussion that includes hand drums, bowls, chimes, djembe, water drums, cymbals, rainstick, gongs and many things you have probably never heard of (for example, caxixis, udu and corn goddess whistle)," Dave says. "This is a meditative CD, something you would most likely play for a quiet time of reflection."

Tom Knapp had an opportunity to chat with Malian singer/songwriter/guitarist Habib Koite before a recent performance in Lancaster, PA. "Life made me a musician," he said, with absolute certainty in his voice. Read what else Habib had to say about making a musical life.

Also recently, Tom got to see the Maidens IV perform at the Adams County Irish Festival -- although he first discovered them camped out in the shade by his car in the musicians' parking lot, taking a break from the relentless midday sun. "The young ladies seemed unable to hold back the grins as they performed, as if they'd just found something new in the melody and were swept away by the music. Throughout the show, they tossed the spotlight around, giving each girl and each instrument its due," he said. "Also throughout, Maidens IV made excellent use of some hard-soled dance shoes, the wooden stage and some simple but effective and exquisitely graceful choreography. Like elegant clockwork, their dance steps made the music into a celebration."

Mercedes Lambert's hard-boiled mysteries are featured in the republication of two books in one: Dogtown/Soultown. "These two novels, long out of print, have been brought back by Stark House, and we can only hope they'll find the wide readership they deserve," says Michael Scott Cain. "Lambert knows L.A. intimately, and the city emerges as another character in her novels. She creates a milieu in which the escalating and mad actions of some of the characters make perfect sense, and by the time you finish one of her books, you find you've been given insights into the human condition and have learned something about how environment shapes character and how people sometimes fail to live up to the best that is in them and sometimes discover resources in themselves they did not know they had."

G.P. Taylor begins The DoppleGanger Chronicles with The First Escape. Laurie Thayer says the book "is an odd combination of novel and graphic novel that should appeal to 10- to 14-year-olds. The graphic novel sections' artwork is simple, with faded sepia-tones that match the story's early 20th-century setting, while the strong graphics of the text sections of the book are surprising and visually arresting. Add to this a rousing adventure story full of action, near escapes, enemies on all sides and clever, resourceful children, and you have a winning combination."

Jeremy McGuire digs into Irish lore with the kids' tale O'Shaughnessey: A Boy & His Leprechaun. Cherise Everhard and Liana Metal both have opinions to share. "In my house believing in the fey is practically a requirement, and this story was a fun addition to the tales that already fill our walls. The drawings that accompany the story are detail-rich and delightful, and they really help bring this story to life," says Cherise. Adds Liana, "The author knows well how to attract a reader's attention and tell a beautiful story that will keep a kid interested and happy to the very end."

Michael Chabon invites us along for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. "Kavalier & Clay is filled with smart words, quick dialogue and in-depth descriptions of settings, characters and background history," says Eric Hughes. "At the same time, however, so much description, which seems to come to endless amounts here, made it difficult at times for me to navigate through Chabon's text. Oftentimes I wouldn't take breaks because I had tired of the story, but because I had tired of Chabon, who densely packs a lot of information between Kavalier & Clay's covers."

A.H. Holt offers Blood Redemption in her recent western. "The author uses her talent skillfully in depicting true characters that illustrate the right time and place aspects of the western that unfolds page by page," says Iliana Metal. "The first chapter is so absorbing that the rest of the story can be read in one sitting."

Tom Knapp is up next with a trio of graphic novel reviews -- none of which really met his expectations this week.

Jack of Fables is The Bad Prince in this third volume of the popular Fables spin-off series. "Having peed into the Grand Canyon, our hero Jack is recaptured by the minions of Revise, who wishes to erase the Fables from mortal memory. But the van crashes and lands in the bottom of a ravine, and most of The Bad Prince is spent going nowhere fast," Tom says. "It's not easy to hang an ongoing series on one character's greed, lust and lack of humility, but that's all Jack has going for him."

Steve Niles takes us Beyond Barrow in a book that proves even great ideas can't last forever. "Sure, the 30 Days of Night series has given us some impressive material since its debut more than five years ago. But Beyond Barrow, the ninth book in the series, falls flat on its fiercely fanged face," Tom says. "To make things even grimmer, Niles decided regular old vampires weren't good enough, so he invented a new breed of ice-vampires that are so durned tough, they can beat up a trio of regular old vanilla-flavored vampires without breaking a sweat. It's, um, overkill, Steve."

The Manhunter book Origins fizzles, Tom says. "Origins explains the background of Kate's suit, gauntlets and supercharged stick, but in an odd, unsatisfying way," he explains. "This book also includes its portion of DC's overblown One Year Later storyline, in which every title was asked/forced to skip a year in continuity and posit what changes might have occurred in the meantime. In the case of Kate Spencer, they fumbled the ball. ... This is still a good character and a good series, so let's hope they get back on track soon. This book, however, falls far short of expectations."

Daniel N. Paul digs deeply into the history of North American conquest and colonization in We Were Not the Savages: Collision between European & Native American Civilizations. "We Were Not the Savages is the Native American history book written for me. Here is a native author who used the Europeans' own documents to prove their dastardly deeds and show that, when compared to the Mi'kmaq, the Europeans were the honorless savages," Karen Elkins says. "It is an awesome piece of literature that every history buff should own."

Todd Kwait is Chasin' Gus' Ghost in this new and fascinating documentary about jug-band music. "The basic jug band lineup of guitar, harmonica and bass (or in this case, jug), is the very thing that evolved into the electric sound of the Chicago blues," John Bird says. "And as any fan of early Elvis, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Lovin' Spoonful, Cream, Led Zepplin, Creedance Clearwater Revival and so many other classic rock bands knows, the Chicago blues (and jug-band music) were huge influences in the development of rock 'n' roll."

Batman returns in the much-anticipated summer blockbuster, The Dark Knight. "Believe every bit of the hype surrounding Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight," Tom Knapp says. "This is a whole new kind of villain. Ledger's Joker is neither the clown nor the giddy and gimmicky killer of past interpretations. He is disturbingly demented, shockingly amoral and utterly without conscience. He is, frankly, scarier than any comic-book bad guy I've seen. And, fine performances all around notwithstanding, Ledger completely owns this film, singlehandedly turning what could have been a cape-and-costume slugfest into a rich, psychological thriller through his mastery of over-the-edge madness."

Becky Kyle gets a taste of reservation justice in Thunderheart. "The performances on Thunderheart are excellent," she says. "The story really keeps you on the edge of your seat until the very end. This is one of the best Val Kilmer movies I've ever seen, and Graham Greene is always stellar."

Bunches more is on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

2 August 2008

When a species dies, it leaves a silent space in the worldsong that can never be filled.
- Charles de Lint

Someone needs to clean this office. Any volunteers? Anyone? Anyone?? ... Bueller?

Bowfire is Live in Concert. "If you haven't heard of Bowfire, it's a group of 10 of the world's top fiddle players in every genre from classical to Chinese," Becky Kyle says. "What I am most impressed with is the sound quality of this CD. For a live recording, the rendition of the strings sounds particularly good on everything from my laptop to my car stereo. Even if you don't care for live music, you will hear so little of the audience -- only applause at the end of the tracks -- that you will lose yourself in the joy of the music and just want to listen."

Bruce Holmes "is a teacher, science-fiction author and award-winning songwriter who at one time wanted to be one of the Beatles. Instead, Illinois resident Bruce Holmes turned his hand to folk music," Sherrill Fulghum says. "Holmes' debut CD, Life's an Intelligence Test, is a collection of mostly original folk and Celtic-styled songs. ... Holmes produces songs that at times are real tearjerkers that can rival the best country music has to offer."

Peter Cooper throws open the Mission Door to a mixed review. "Cooper is a fine songwriter, with a wide variety of subjects and approaches," says Michael Scott Cain. "When it comes to singing, though, Cooper is not as strong. He comes across as too laid-back, too polite. Songs that need to be given an anthemlike treatment are merely sung. You keep waiting for the energy to kick in and it doesn't. ... Mission Door is well worth hearing and I hope it gets a wide reception, but I fear it's going to wind up as a sort of demo that other singers will raid for cuts on their own CDs."

Ronny Elliott slaps a coat of Jalopypaint on his ninth recording. "Elliott's point of view may be skeptical, but it is never cynical. It's always engaged with its subject and with life's circumstances, tragic or merely lamentable, in general," Jerome Clark says. "If none of Jalopypaint's songs quite measure up to the finest and most memorable ones on Hep, that's only because Elliott is so good that his only competition is himself. He suffers the misfortune, sadly, of being in that class of great living American songwriters unheard by Americans. An America that listened to Ronny Elliott would surely be a better country."

The Near Myths have Words to Burn in a recording the band calls a "tuneful and eccentric mix of folk, rock, pop, country and blues, featuring compelling lyrics," says Michael Scott Cain. "What I heard in this CD was not an eclectic mix of good stuff, but a set of dull and mundane pop tunes featuring five singers, all of whom appear to be singing high harmony so they sometimes seem to be going in different directions. ... What they call compelling, I'd call everyday, overly familiar and cliched. Sorry, but I just can't respond to what the Near Myths are offering."

Yvonne Lyon asks A Thousand Questions Why on this folk-rock recording. "I can really get in to this type of folk-rock and will confess I have found myself playing this CD multiple times over the course of a day," Wil Owen says. "If Yvonne had the backup of big-record marketing, she very well could be the next Sarah McLachlan. I have no doubt!"

Randy McAllister serves up a steamin' bowl of Dope Slap Soup for the blues fan. "He's a Texas based singer-songwriter with a funky gospel blues sound that is going to strike a chord with fans of many music genres," Becky Kyle remarks. "McAllister's got some strong messages that are going to appeal to the human condition as well. You listen with a laugh and a wry headshake. And yes, sometimes you want to shout, 'Amen, brother!'"

Ellen Rawson had the good fortune to take in a Bella Hardy performance featuring Chris Sherburn of Last Night's Fun in Basingstoke, England. "Traditional ballads were the focus of the night," Ellen says. "However, it's not just Hardy's voice and fiddle that made the show. ... The two of them were almost a comedy act on stage, with Sherburn's wry, droll wit making comments at just the right moment."

Judith Owen is a bit of an eccentric Welsh singer, and writer Gwen Orel had a chance to see her perform and sit backstage afterwards for a chat. Gwen describes Owen's music as "a terrific blend of jazz, pop and folk-rock. It's moody, angry, compassionate, easy to listen to, hard to categorize -- imagine Kate Bush without the whimsy." Read all about it right here!

Mel Odom sees a grim future in Hellgate: London: Exodus, in which a rift opens over London and "in comes a horde of horrifying creatures that methodically and rapidly devastate the city, killing anyone they catch and transforming areas of London into a nightmarish swamp of bubbling acid pools." Odom, Chris McCallister says, "provides a complicated plot, rich with detail and populated by three-dimensional characters, yet the pace remains quite fast, with no slow spots. Some of the action scenes are almost overwhelming, especially near the end of the book. Another aspect I like is the characters have moments of reflection during which they work to reconcile what they are doing with what they believe."

Frewin Jones strolls further along The Faerie Path with The Sorcerer King and Tania, the seventh daughter of King Oberon and Queen Titania. "Tania is a strong, determined heroine, yet still a little confused about her two identities: Mortal teenager and Faerie princess. Her feelings are conveyed well and make her a likable character, as does her agonizing over the dilemma presented by two sets of loved parents," says Laurie Thayer. "The Sorcerer King is a quickly paced young-adult novel. But, as it is the third in the series and very dependent on the preceding books (The Faerie Path and The Lost Queen), I do not recommend beginning with it."

Carrie Vaughn is off to Denver with Kitty & the Silver Bullet. "Vaughn does some of the best world-building in urban fantasy today. She's taken very logical steps with cause and effect to generate some very plausible scenarios in how a post-paranormal world would develop," says Becky Kyle. "Her character development is also stellar."

Ann Rinaldi takes us back to the Salem witch trials in her novel A Break with Charity. "If you know your history, you know how it all turns out. But ... I cannot imagine reading this book without feeling a sense of dread the people then must have experienced, the constant terror that they or their families might soon be touched by the madness," Tom Knapp says. "Historians will probably never know the complete truth of the Salem hysteria, but Rinaldi has captured its essence."

Sybil G. Brinton dabbles in the classics with Old Friends & New Fancies: The Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austen. "While it stretches credulity that all of Austen's many characters should have known one another, Brinton manages to pull it off," Laurie Thayer says. "And what is the story? Love, of course. Will she have him? Will he propose? Has he set his sights on the wrong girl? Will her past continue to haunt her? And will Emma ever learn to stop matchmaking? ... Old Friends & New Fancies is utterly charming and difficult to put down -- were it not for that pesky day job and occasionally needing to sleep, I'd've finished it in one sitting -- and at 377 pages, that's saying something!"

Jeffrey Eugenides gets into Middlesex with a "coming-of-age story about a (genetically speaking) male coming to terms with his ambiguous genitalia," Eric Hughes says. "The book is unlike any other piece of fiction I have ever come across. ... Though only Eugenides' second novel to date -- The Virgin Suicides precedes it -- Middlesex is Eugenides at his best. It is a high achievement in fiction writing, and will be near impossible to beat should Eugenides publish a third time."

Ron Marz continues his reinvention of Witchblade in Awakenings, Tom Knapp says. "While the last bit is mostly filler -- a wonderful assemblage of artists notwithstanding -- the book otherwise shows Witchblade still climbing in promise as Marz shakes the heroine free of her cheesecake image. These stories are solid and entertaining, and Sara Pezzini is growing rapidly into a mature character with staying power."

Tom likes what Steve Niles has done with vampires over at IDW. "He's redefined a tired horror cliche into something new that, while I doubt it will ever replace the majority view of vampires, has injected some new life into the genre. So, when he had a chance to work with A-list character Batman over at DC, who'd he bring to the party? Zombies." Trek out with Batman to the Gotham County Line if you must, Tom says. "OK, so maybe Niles is stuck in an undead rut, but if he can give us some solid Batman storytelling, it's all good. Right? We'll never know, with Gotham County Line as the evidence, 'cause this book is crap."

Marvel Comics set a lofty goal but fell short in the execution of Last Hero Standing, Tom says. "Set in the misty, uncertain future of Marvel's Spider-Girl and Fantastic Five titles, Last Hero Standing is an attempt to recapture the climactic, end-game potency of past tales like The Last Avengers Story or DC Comics' Kingdom Come. But Last Hero Standing just doesn't have the juice needed to bring it home."

Karen Houle gets poetically philosophical in During. "It explores ideas, particularly those of continuity, of -- as the press release says -- being in process and of seeing through," says Michael Scott Cain. "You can see that her images are fresh, her connections mainly implied and that, if she makes demands on her readers, she offers a lot in return. Ready slowly, attentively, with a little reflection on each poem, and Karen Houle will reward you."

Women share their moments in Water Cooler Diaries: Women Across America Share Their Day at Work, edited by Joni B. Cole and B.K. Rakhra. "These glimpses into other women's lives are extraordinary," Laurie Thayer says. "Some of the diarists work in very nontraditional jobs, and following them through their day is simply fascinating. But one thing revealed is that no matter how disparate women's lives and occupations may be, there are often more similarities than differences."

Ready for another movie? Becky Kyle is ready to roll the video for Dreamkeeper.

Set on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the movie has a great deal to teach about Native American folklore and culture. "The imagery on this 180-minute special is amazing," Becky says. "Director Steve Barron has gone to a lot of trouble to create a mystical landscape for the stories to take place and the work far exceeds any made-for-TV production I've ever seen."

Alicia Karen Elkins heads back to the 1980s for a horror classic called Wolfen. "If you want a horror movie to scare the stuffing out of you, get Wolfen. It will terrify you, make your heart pound, make you hold your breath and send chills up and down your spine," she says with great enthusiasm. "Someday, Wolfen will be considered a horror classic and a pioneer in werewolf photographic manipulations. For now, simply consider it a must-see, super-scary movie!"

Bunches more is on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

26 July 2008

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
- William Shakespeare

On July 26, 1958, my parents got married. Sure, they didn't really do anything all that remarkable for about eight years, when they finally got around to making me, but even so, it's worth noting that they're still together and pretty darned happy to be so exactly 50 years later. Happy golden anniversary, Mom and Pop!

Hecate's Wheel offers its self-titled CD for anyone who enjoys Celtic or Ren Faire-style music, says Becky Kyle. "I'd liken their sound to the Indigo Girls harmonics and folk sentiment with a little more vocal 'oomph.' Individually and collectively, the group has strong, listenable voices."

The Crooked Jades solidify their brand of folk music with Shining Darkness. "In their approach the Jades conjure up the notion that they almost literally skipped the 20th century, leaving one foot stranded in the 19th and the other striding forward into the 21st," Jerome Clark says. "Listening to the Jades has always been a curiously emotional experience for me, as if stirring sensations I could not have imagined 'mere' music could touch. More prosaically, you could make the case, which as one called upon to render these judgments I am inclined to do, that no better neo-oldtime string band exists in America."

Richard Gilewitz's approach to writing music "is as unusual as his playing style. Teacher, author, guitar player and storyteller Richard Gilewitz is often referred to as the strangest man in acoustic music today," says Sherrill Fulghum. "Gilewitz's approach to writing is that each note is an individual and a group of notes is a society. On his album Thumbsing, Gilewitz takes it a step further with each song being its own entity, thus providing an album of 13 original and cover tunes where no two tunes are the same."

Jacanda takes it to the mellow side on Back to the Sky. "I hesitate to use the term 'easy listening' in regard to an album of folk-pop music," John R. Lindermuth says. "But Jacanda's Back to the Sky is easy listening for grown-ups. And that's not a bad thing."

Fayssoux steps into the limelight with Early. "You've more than likely heard her voice. Back during Emmy Lou Harris's glory days, Fayssoux was all over Luxury Liner, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, Elite Hotel -- on all of the great albums Emmy Lou made in the 1970s, Fayssoux was the harmony voice, and on several, she sang duets with Harris," says Michael Scott Cain. "The CD is sparsely but beautifully produced, its instrumentation ideally suited to her voice and the material, and Emmy Lou drops by to sing backup. ... All told, this is one fabulous CD. It's good to have Fayssoux MacLean back from retirement, and I hope she sticks around a long time."

Zoe Mulford "blends folk-rock, the blues and bluegrass to create the music for Roadside Saints. The imagery pulls on the everyday, and the warmth in her voice keeps the message of the songs down to earth," says Paul de Bruijn. "There is a connecting thread that winds from start of finish of Roadside Saints as the songs are tied together by simple things. Zoe Mulford reminds us that they have meaning and weight and relevance in the lives we live."

Swamp Cabbage makes ready to Squeal on this top-notch recording. "I can safely say Squeal is one of the best contemporary blues albums of the year. It is simply brilliant," says Michael Scott Cain. "It's an album about the lost people who rely on faith to see them through. Swamp Cabbage writes about individuals, and the characters populating the songs and stories they tell are at one and the same time universal and specific to the American South."

Drew Gibson makes his blues debut with Letterbox. "He's a Virginia native who can roll out the slow blues with the best of them," Becky Kyle remarks. "He's got a soft, husky voice that has you chilled out through most of the cuts. The instrumentation is spare and simple, which is good."

When Martha Tilston performed recently at Union Chapel in London, Ellen Rawson was there to see the show. "The night," Ellen says, "was magical." For more, read Ellen's review.

A gang of seasoned writers -- Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette and Amanda Downum -- take their fiction online, masked as "television," with Shadow Unit: Season One. "Despite the mix of writers, the tone of the stories is consistent," says Laurie Thayer. "Shadow Unit shares a certain sensibility with The X-Files; in her essay 'Sanding the Oyster: the Origins of Shadow Unit,' Emma Bull mentions other influences as well: Millenium, Criminal Minds, Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers and Emergency! Fans of any of those shows might find themselves interested in Shadow Unit, undoubtedly the best television show that never aired."

Phaedra Weldon launches Zoe Martinique Investigations with Wraith. "Wraith is a fresh concept on the urban fantasy market, and author Phaedra Weldon will probably finagle Zoe into a successful series. But there's one very big problem standing in her way," Tom Knapp says. "Zoe is a very annoying character. ... The trick of having a character speak directly to the reader isn't new, but it's one that must be used carefully and shouldn't ever be overused and abused to the extent it is here. It got to the point I dreaded another parenthesis in the text."

Katie MacAlister continues the saga of Aisling Grey, Guardian in Fire Me Up. "I love Katie MacAlister's books. They're funny, smart, sexy -- but not too overpowering," Becky Kyle says. "MacAlister successfully combined a romance, mystery and comedy in You Slay Me. Fire Me Up has many of the same elements working."

Phil Rickman uncovers The Man in the Moss in a story surrounded by English moors and peat bogs. "This book is for patient readers only," Chris McCallister warns. "There is a large cast of characters, all of whom are well developed. The setting is also developed well, as is the theme of how pagan and Christian beliefs can mesh, or clash. All that detail makes for a long story with a pace that is far from quick. The writing is impeccable, though, and the development of setting and cast combines with a complex plot to yield a very rich tale."

Diana Patterson and Rita Turner take The Longest Journey on this period novel. "I have mixed feelings on this story as there were bits I absolutely loved and parts I could have done without," Cherise Everhard says. "While I love the detailed writing that really set the scenes, I felt it was lacking in the physical descriptions of the characters and excessive on the dresses Elspeth wore. I think I could probably bring out my Singer and recreate each frock based on those descriptions, but don't ask me to describe Elspeth."

Alicia Erian takes an ambitious track with her first novel, Towelhead. "I find the book's major themes -- bigotry, racism, pedophilia, underage sex -- to be ones oftentimes reserved for more seasoned writers," says Eric Hughes. "But Erian tackles them all here, while told in the first person through the eyes of a 13-year-old Arab girl."

Gotham City is caught off guard when Catwoman Dies. "I think we can all agree that making Catwoman a mom wasn't the best idea to come out of DC Comics' big 'One Year Later' hoo-ha. Neither was making former prostitute Holly Robinson into the new Catwoman while Selina Kyle relaxes at home in her robe and fuzzy slippers. Actually, come to think of it, I can't think of many good things that came from that 'One Year Later' stunt, but that's beside the point," Tom Knapp says. "Catwoman Dies addresses that mistake. Yeah, we all know that, title notwithstanding, Catwoman doesn't really die. But she does realize that juggling part-time costumed adventuring with motherhood is a tough act, and tough decisions must be made."

The shelves of fiction and graphic fiction "are filled with a lot of the same monsters, who recur with annoying regularity. In the hands of a good writer, vampires and werecats can still be a lot of fun, but with the field so crowded, it takes a really good story to excel," Tom says. "Kudos to Jason M. Burns for trying something different. In The Rabid, as you might guess from the title, a virulent new strain of rabies spreads quickly through a small town, infecting dogs and people alike. ... Concept, good. Execution? Unfortunately, Burns falls quickly into a rut. When dogs are infected (apparently via some psychic doggy connection), they act like rabid dogs. When people are infected (through bites), they turn green and act like zombies. Nuts."

Spider-Man gets just One More Day in a storyline that, frankly, annoys the heck out of our reviewer. "Spider-Man has always been my favorite Marvel character, but in recent years, it's been harder to really enjoy his books. Stories involving a mystical line of spider totems and the sudden appearance of Gwen Stacy's now-adult children from a teenage fling with Norman Osborn -- these are stories born from an attempt to be edgy, clever or somehow different, but the fertile ground of Spidey inspiration was clearly running dry," Tom says. "A writer who believes the only way to get around a bad plot development is to make a deal with the devil should probably just throw up his hands and pass the script over to someone with fresher ideas. Unfortunately for Spider-Man's fans, this team waited too long to step down."

Michael Vance pages through volume three of the All Star Companion from TwoMorrows. "If you'd like to learn everything about the Justice Society and its spin-off characters and titles, there is no better source than the first three volumes of All Star Companion," he says. "If you want to learn everything about the editors, writers and artists who brought the Justice Society and its spin-off characters and titles to life since the 1940s, that information is also there."

Ruth Holmes Whitehead gets to the heart of an enigmatic Mi'kmaq figure in Tracking Doctor Lonecloud: Showman to Legend Keeper. "This is a biography of a man surrounded by fame, flamboyance and mystery," says Karen Elkins. "Many of his stories are amazing."

Charles E. Skoller gets to the heart of the matter in Twisted Confessions: The True Story Behind the Kitty Genovese & Barbara Kralik Murder Trials. "Skoller's writing style wavers between lively and technical," Karen says. "At times he draws the picture for you, but at other times he simply states what happened and moves on. It is difficult to classify his writing style or rate his quality, but the story is fascinating enough to keep you reading even when the writing is dry. And when it is dry, it's really dry; Skoller himself says a large part of the spectator crowd did not come back to court because the trial was boring."

Becky Kyle brings this edition to a close with her review of Spirit Rider, which brings a boy from foster care back to his roots on a reservation.

Says Becky: "The story in this made-for-television film is very similar to that of Smoke Signals. The tale relates to a fire and the saving of a child. Both are well done and likable for different reasons, though I think Spirit Rider is more appropriate for younger audiences."

Bunches more is on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

19 July 2008

Not everything has to mean something. Some things just are.
- Charles de Lint

Does anyone want to come to Pennsylvania and mow my lawn?

FootLoose takes a long overdue Trip to the Moon. "Much of the CD has a Celtic feel to it, despite some unusual instruments for Celtdom (clarinet and sax), but other influences are at work here, too," says Laurie Thayer. "FootLoose's primary purpose is to 'rock the socks off of contra-dancers.' I'm not a contra-dancer, but I think I just saw my socks dancing away across the room."

Jonsson, Carr & Marin rely on Nordic traditions on Timber! "I don't know if this CD of spirited Swedish instrumentals will, as the artists declare (tongues firmly in cheek), 'result in massive publicity and a life of luxury.' Probably not, but it's not for lack of skill or energy," says Jennifer Mo. "If the only Swedish music you know is Abba, prepare to be pleasantly surprised. With Maria Jonsson on violin, Ian Carr on guitar and Mikael Marin on viola and violin, the instruments are classical, the melodies a mixture of traditional and new, the pace brisk and redolent of crisp, clean air."

Heybale has recorded The Last Country Album for fans of unhyphenated country. "As the title ruefully acknowledges, the sorts of songs played here barely exist in today's Nashville mainstream. You can still hear them preserved, however, on independent record labels and self-issued discs and by committed singers and bands performing in regions where the style still finds an appreciative audience," Jerome Clark says. "These five guys, all veterans with impressive credentials, bring top-drawer talent to the project and so engender comparably high expectations from the informed country listener. Let's not belabor the point: they are all met."

Derrick Gardner & the Jazz Prophets take Becky Kyle for A Ride to the Other Side. "Derrick Gardner plays the trumpet like I've never heard," she says. "Skilled music critics have better descriptions for his stylings than I have, including: intelligent, soulful, moving past the notes into higher realms. ... All this reviewer can say is that I enjoy the music."

Spook Handy sets the wayback machine to the 1960s with Whatcha Gonna Do. Unfortunately, says Michael Scott Cain, "Handy's targets are so safe -- I mean, who, other than a few insane neocons, is going to defend war? -- and his music so pedestrian, that I found myself wondering if I were being put on, if this was satire. ... I'm afraid it isn't."

Andrew McKnight has found Something Worth Standing For in his music. "Always a socially conscious writer and performer, Andrew McKnight gets political on his new CD," Michael says. "McKnight sings of murdered civil rights workers in the deep South, the government's tendency to spy on its citizens, the loss of family farms -- it's a familiar litany, but McKnight is careful to make it personal. ... He might be aware of the dark side of our times, but Andrew McKnight remains an optimist."

Brian Blain may be Overqualified for the Blues. "Canadian folk and blues singer-songwriter Brian Blain has been making music for some 40 years, and he is still playing the same guitar. During his career, Blain has been involved in every aspect of the music business and, in true musical style, Blain had a jam session at his 50th birthday party," says Sherrill Fulghum. "The CD of 13 mostly original songs will not impress anyone with fancy riffs and licks, but it is a pleasant diversion from the toils of everyday life and shows that you don't have to be a virtuoso to make good music."

Chris Whitley's Hotel Vast Horizon gets another look from Dirk Logemann. "As the appreciative owner of much of Chris Whitley's recorded work, I find he's one of the few artists whose music I feel compelled to revisit," Dirk says. "There truly was some magic about what he did, and while he appeared to have complete mastery over his instrument, it clearly wasn't his sole reason for making records. Whitley had no time for flashy guitar histrionics; he seemed more intent on creating texture, mood and a sense of space."

Folk and blues sensation Ruthie Foster brought her show to Pennsylvania on a rainy Sunday evening. "While a multitude of fair-weather fans stayed away, everyone who came out Sunday evening was rewarded with an exceptional performance in the park," Tom Knapp reports. "Foster is a diminutive singer -- just five feet tall -- who packs a voice strong enough to shake soggy leaves from the park's many trees. Her voice is rich and smooth and thick like honey, but with a touch of grit that adds spice to the music. Plus, she has amazing projection and some vocal sustains that had the audience gasping for breath."

Cornelia Amiri falls short of her goal with Druid Quest. "Several times I thought about giving up the quest and setting it aside, but I persevered, hoping at some point this story would transform into what the wonderful idea behind it promised," Cherise Everhard says. "I'm sorry to say it didn't happen. When I finally finished it this morning, all I felt was relief."

Celia Rees takes to the highways of old England in Sovay. "Rees is an accomplished historical novelist, and her young-adult perspective is always a treat to read," Tom Knapp says. "And yet, although I found the novel engrossing and story well-researched, it seemed at times like the plot grew too fantastic, with exploding towers, a Frankenstein lab and an escape over the countryside via a hydrogen balloon among its more sensational elements."

Vicki Pettersson detects the Scent of Shadows in Sign of the Zodiac #1. But, warns Becky, "while she has a killer 'blurb circle' including some of my favorite authors, she doesn't quite live up to the promise of the stellar endorsements. ... Pettersson's characters are interesting and I'd definitely consider reading the sequel. Character development is awkward and reads more like she's moving pieces on a board, but that could change as the author matures -- which she hopefully will do, unless the mass media sells her book so well that she doesn't have to. That would be sad."

Diane Duane has a few words to share about Stealing the Elf-King's Roses. "First, let me say that Diane Duane is one of the top science fiction/fantasy writers today. But this is not her best work," Becky says. "Still, Stealing the Elf King's Roses is well-written and worth a read if you like the rest of Duane's books. I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel in this world with a bit more focus."

Norma Lehr dips into Chinese lore for Dark Maiden -- but the horror, says Whitney Mallenby, never quite congeals. "It's apparent the author knew the storyline she was going for, but in order to get it across she needed far too many coincidences and supernatural accidents. The result is an implausible hodgepodge of theories that need a lot of exposition to connect and make logical. Thus, after the crisis situation is set up and the great revelations start coming unveiled, the reader must wade through a long, slow-moving mass of backstory and loose ends instead of racing towards what should have been a fast-paced and exciting end."

Just a few years following his 50th birthday, Eric Hughes says, "Ian McEwan achieved the assumed dream of anyone else working in his profession: he published a masterpiece. Atonement, the British author's eighth novel, is an ambitious tale of love, deceit and misunderstanding that begins on a hot summer day in 1935 and dashes ahead another 64 years by the turn of the final page. Told from multiple points of view, the story focuses on how a misinterpretation, combined with a touch of imagination, can lead to lasting consequences for all involved parties."

Simon Van Der Heym is In Search of a Brilliant White Cloud. "This could have been a very good book," Chris McCallister says. "Van Der Heym has all the basic skills of a good writer, but I think he lost his way. In Search of a Brilliant White Cloud has a good beginning and a good ending. A book needs a middle, though, and this one is weak."

The ongoing Y: The Last Man reaches its end in volume 10, Whys & Wherefores. "Y: The Last Man has been an absolute thrill ride, one of the strongest, most fascinating comic-book series to come down the pike since Neil Gaiman's The Sandman," Tom Knapp says. "The plot by Brian K. Vaughan has been deliciously tantalizing, keeping readers guessing through 60 page-turning issues. ... The art by Pia Guerra has matched Vaughan's work every step of the way, pulling together a package of action and exposition that I never wanted to end. ... But things do end. Y is over, and I just read the final volume, Whys & Wherefores And I'm ... oddly disappointed."

Tom admits to being a little confused by the new numbering system on Witchblade, beginning with Witch Hunt, which should have been Vol. 10 but is instead Vol. 1. Again. "But hey, it was priced to sell, so I bought it," he says. "And it's good. ... The creative team -- Ron Marz on words, Mike Choi on pencils -- have put new energy into the title. And it's not just a rebirth for Witchblade bearer Sara Pezzini -- literally, since she begins the story in an unexplained coma -- but a reinvention of the spirit of the book."

The battle comes to a head in War Games #3: Endgame. "Did you ever want to see what it would be like if Batman really, truly screwed things up?" Tom wonders. "You'll see it here. ... There have been some complaints -- and they are legitimate ones -- that major crossover stories such as this one employ too many creative cooks in the kitchen, leaving the overall storyline disjointed. That is certainly the case to some extent here. But the overall success of the War Games trilogy is the dramatic tale that is well presented by all of the writers and artists involved."

Marjane Satrapi, the best-selling author of Embroideries and the Persepolis series, is serving up an order of Chicken With Plums. "Good storytellers understand powerful myths, in whatever form they take," says Mary Harvey. "Satrapi has a pretty decent grasp of American culture and its iconic gods and goddesses. It's a highly effective combination that makes this novella as wonderful as her previous efforts."

Richard Ellis chases Monsters of the Sea in this insightful, highly detailed work. "Although the book is highly academic in nature, it also approaches the subject with a great sense of fun, and readers will share Ellis's sense of delight regarding the mysteries that swim below the waves," Tom Knapp says. "Topics range from the fantastic, or at least unproven, such as mermaids, sea serpents and the Loch Ness Monster, to the real, including whales, manatees, sharks and octopuses. Ellis details the obvious parallels -- the kraken is a giant squid, for instance, and the leviathan is the sperm whale -- and explains exactly what about these creatures might be monstrous and what is simple fiction."

Richard Guy addresses a matter of global concern in The Mysterious Receding Seas. However, "Guy is not helped in his quest to inform by a lack of editing and some incorrect printing," says Nicky Rossiter. "I really wanted to like this book -- anyone coming up with an unusual theory and setting it out for public inspection deserves to be read and considered. If you are interested in unusual theories on the fate of our planet, this book should be on your shelf."

Tony Hillerman's The Boy Who Made Dragonfly is a modern rendition of an A'shiwi (Zuni) story first written down in 1883. "This 81-page book is a reprint of Hillerman's 1972 release of the story, and is for children over 10," says Karen Elkins. "In Hillerman's opinion, this story is the equivalent of a Bible story from the Old Testament. It is meant to teach the history of the people as well as their morals and code of conduct. In true Hillerman style, this is a story that engages all senses and emotions, and it keeps you turning the pages. The narrative flows smoothly and at a rapid pace."

Indiana Jones is back, and two reviewers this week couldn't wait to tackle the long-awaited, much-anticipated Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. "Weathered by years of ill use and hard traveling, the archeologist, adventurer and part-time professor stands proud, tough as old leather and as unyielding as a mountain. God, I've missed that man!" Tom Knapp says. "Ultimately, an Indiana Jones movie is what it is. If you like this sort of thing, then surely you already realize that nobody does it better than Indiana Jones -- especially when you get Ford together with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Williams and the whole crazy gang. Arguing if Crystal Skull is better or worse than the previous films in the series is a waste of oxygen; they're all varying degrees of great. This one is, too." Dale Hill has this to say: "I'm not a big fan of Steven Spielberg, except when he's not taking himself seriously. (I still think Jaws is his best movie.) And in Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- a jawcracker of a title -- believe you me, he's not taking himself seriously."

Bunches more is on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

12 July 2008

The writer who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always master -- something that at times strangely wills and works for itself.
- Charlotte Bronte

Archie Fisher is back after 13 years with Windward Away. "In some sentimental place in my mind, I imagine the nation of Scotland has a voice. That voice sounds a whole lot like Archie Fisher's, a burry baritone that seems to rise up out of that North Atlantic landscape as naturally as the wind," Jerome Clark says. "In dull truth, though, in common with so many on both sides of the ocean, my initial exposure to the Scots tradition was through Fisher, whose debut album dates back to the mid-1960s. He is a product of the same Edinburgh folk scene that nurtured two other enduring masters, Robin Williamson and Bert Jansch, themselves still recording and creating music that amply rewards any who care to listen."

Fox & Branch are having a Hot Time tonight. "To listen to Milwaukee's Dave Fox and Will Branch, you'd think they haven't heard a single song that was recorded after 1939," says Michael Scott Cain. "Their playing is rooted in the '30s also -- no flashy licks here, no guitar or fiddle heroics. The most up-to-date solo is played on a kazoo."

Terri Hendrix is prepared to Celebrate the Difference in her music. "Some of the songs on Celebrate the Difference are written with a message that ties into the title of the CD. There are also some that are there purely for the fun of singing them with children," says Paul de Bruijn. "Terri Hendrix brings both together and does not let one side overwhelm the other."

Mac and Jenny Traynham may Never Grow Old through their music. "Mac and Jenny Traynham live in Floyd County, southern Virginia, where old-time music and bluegrass survive and thrive into the 21st century. Once or twice a decade since the 1980s, they release an album's worth of their duet singing, showcasing songs from the same broad traditions that turned another Virginia family -- A. P., Sara and Maybelle Carter -- into immortals of American folk and country music," Jerome Clark says. "Like the Carters', the Traynhams' repertoire consists of material taken largely from the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, expressing sentiments that may feel -- at least in the words used to evoke them -- quaint today; nonetheless, they retain the power to move with their simple, or in fact not so simple, truths."

Eleven Hundred Springs serve up a tasty dollop of Country Jam on their latest recording. "You don't have to scrutinize the photographic evidence to discern that Eleven Hundred Springs is an assembly of mostly young guys. Clearly, though, they've been around long enough, touring the Texas circuit that Chris Thomas's Palo Duro label so ably documents in its recordings, to know precisely what they're doing," Jerome says. "They've absorbed influences from hard-core honkytonk, rockabilly, hillbilly boogie and even (though less pronounced now than heretofore) California country-rock. The band's mission is not to reinvent anything or to push any envelopes. It's simply to carry forward an honorable tradition of Southwestern Saturday-night good-time music."

Becky Schlegel performs her music For All the World to See. "What hath Alison Krauss wrought?" asks Jerome. "What she's wrought, for one thing, is For All the World to See, part of what seems to be an emerging genre of ... well, in the traditionalists' complaint, whatever that genre may be that is neither quite country nor quite bluegrass, though elements of both are audible. Nobody's given it a name yet, but one is surely on the way. Meantime, call it a kind of pop music, slickly produced yet not rendered sterile with studio gimmickry; it's urban and urbane while faintly -- if ever more faintly -- rural and rustic. The singers are women with clear, expressive voices, taking the personal and romantic point of view. Neither a note nor a hair is out of place."

Ingram Hill is feeling a trifle Cold in California -- even though they're from Tennessee. "Lots of good stuff comes out of Memphis, TN. B.B. King, Elvis and good barbeque are my top three favorites from that sultry city by the mighty Mississippi. Another good thing to add to that list is Ingram Hill," says Becky Kyle. "Their sound is a fusion of what makes Memphis good: rock, country and blues."

John-Alex Mason drives a Town & Country to the blues. "Mason explores both acoustic country blues and the electrified city style," says Michael Scott Cain. "The songs are a tasty blend of originals and covers. ... Mason treats the material, whatever its origin, with respect and enthusiasm."

The New Lark Rise Band (featuring Ashley Hutchings) roosts in Guildford, and Ellen Rawson was there to see the show. "The music, and even simply the folk life performed and discussed that night, perhaps is what needs to be taught to children as a part of being British," Ellen says. "It's part of their heritage, their past, their folklore, and, as the audience showed when they eagerly arose to partake in a simple circle dance (Hutchings taught them the steps), it's fun. I think, what struck me the most about this evening, besides the excellent musicians, voices and dances, was the whole idea about preserving our past: how necessary it is that we know from where we came."

Lloyd Alexander says farewell with The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio. "While not his finest work, The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio brims with Lloyd Alexander's trademark wisdom and warmth, laced with a slight, autumnal melancholy," says Jennifer Mo. "It's a fitting final story for a consummate storyteller. For veteran Alexander fans, both story and characters may seem a little familiar, but there's plenty of appeal in the details of the Old World setting and in meeting -- for the last time -- characters who already seem like old friends."

Neil Gaiman unearths a new winning character in The Graveyard Book. "I don't really like the title, which sounds a bit mundane," Tom Knapp says. "There's nothing mundane about a Neil Gaiman novel, and The Graveyard Book is no exception. ... Gaiman is a modern master of the unconventionally odd, and he deftly paints the landscapes of urban fantasy with a dark brush. His prose is macabre but not morbid, and his dryly humorous touches can be laugh-out-loud funny without ever being overdone."

Daniel Waters speaks for Generation Dead in Oakvale, an atypical American high school. "A strange new phenomenon is happening in the United States; some teenagers who have died are not staying dead. Scientists don't have any answers as to why, but while they try to come up with answers, there are a few groups of people willing to help the living impaired try to fit in. At Oakvale these zombied (not the PC term) teens make up another class of students," Cherise Everhard says. "There are some funny, scary, tender and sad moments in this book, and I loved and devoured every word. Generation Dead is a clever, witty and brilliantly entertaining story that has me hoping desperately, and willing to beg the author, that this is the first in a series."

Laurell K. Hamilton shares her Incubus Dreams with the masses, and Becky Kyle must look away. "Anita Blake is no longer the star of a fantasy series, but it's not even titillating enough to be termed erotica -- it's just one long, meaningless sex scene after another strung together very loosely by plot," she complains. "It's not even porn, because it tries to be a novel. It's sad, especially because bringing this book out in hardcover and paper editions is a huge waste of trees. I don't say that about many books."

Scott Smith is back with The Ruins. "Though the story contains many of the traditional (read: stereotypical) elements -- a cast of a half-dozen vacationing twentysomethings, exotic locale, multiple deaths -- that one typically finds in horror stories, Smith's scary tale still felt overwhelmingly fresh," Eric Hughes reports. "And where Smith best differentiates from the genre path is in his polished storytelling, which kept me guessing about the fate of the story, and of its characters, until the final page."

Maggie O'Farrell reveals The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox in a time "when an obstreperous, inconvenient or unwanted woman could be committed to an asylum whether or not she was mentally ill," Laurie Thayer explains. "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a gorgeous novel and highly recommended."

Steve Niles attempts to Wake the Dead with this reimagination of Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein. "It certainly adds nothing new to the original novel. It lacks any kind of real character development. It introduces a last-act love triangle subplot that does nothing to advance the story. And, well, it's just kind of dumb," Tom Knapp says. "It relies heavily on artwork by Chee to push the story along, but Chee has a flawed understanding of the human body, particularly in the ways it breaks and tears under duress. Striving for realism but never looking realistic, his work here is just, well, gross."

The new Manhunter series continues in Trial By Fire. "Trial By Fire is not a book that will grab you by the scruff and make you read it," Tom says. "It's interesting, it's entertaining and it continues to expand and explore the still fresh characters of Kate Spencer and her supporting cast. I look forward to seeing where this series goes next."

Tom wonders if a book can "survive, even thrive, when its title character makes only a few appearances between its covers." The answer he finds in Spider-Man's Tangled Web #2 is, unreservedly, yes. "Spider-Man's Tangled Web is less about Spider-Man, more about the people whose lives he touches in some way, be it major or minor," he says. "This, the second collected volume in the series, shows just how good that concept can be."

While talk of dwarfs, mages and evil armies from beyond might give the impression of a fantasy tale, C. Nathan Coyle says readers should make no mistakes about Warhammer: Forge of War. "Warhammer: Forge of War is a war story (that's probably why the word is used twice in the title)," he says. "While the setting is certainly fantastical and medieval, the ongoing omnipresent theme is the brutality of war."

Brian Righi gets a little ghosty in Ghosts of Fort Worth: Investigating Cowtown's Most Haunted Locations. "Ghosts of Fort Worth touches on 20 supposedly haunted locations in the Fort Worth area. The locales range from cemeteries and restaurants to hotels and residences," Wil Owen says. "While I do not feel any proof was provided to substantiate any of the reported ghosts, I did find this alternate view of Cowtown's storied past to be interesting. So, whether you believe in ghosts are not, if you are a resident or visitor of this Texas city, Ghosts of Fort Worth might provide some light reading -- if nothing else."

William K. Powers studies the Oglala Religion in this academic text on the subject. "It is not meant for pleasure reading and will force the average reader to spend as much time looking up words in a dictionary as reading the book," warns Karen Elkins. "If what you seek is a scholarly treatise on the Sioux religion, this will serve your purpose soundly. But if you are seeking a reference on the topic that will double as a pleasure read, I would suggest Sioux Indian Religion. For me, this book serves an excellent example of how not to write your dissertation results if you wish to sell the book outside academia."

The long-awaited Prince Caspian, the second film in The Chronicles of Narnia and sequel to The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, "has problems with tone and scale and proportion that were hinted at in the first movie and are now thundering back like a herd of turtles," Dale Hill remarks. "For those of you who are fans of the literary Narnia, what you need to ask yourself before you see Prince Caspian is, how much can you stand to see the book messed with?"

Becky Kyle says Powwow Highway "is a tale of Native American life today. ... Powwow Highway takes viewers across the gambit of emotions. You cannot look upon the third-world vistas of Native poverty without being moved to tears. But, there are light moments where Philbert is telling ancient stories to his friends. And yes, there are moments in this story that will make you laugh out loud and cheer."

Bunches more is on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

5 July 2008

It's always good to hear that people you like are happy.
- Will Shetterly

Maine was, as always, lovely, and our visit was, as always, too short. But we're back, as always, and we're here with another exciting edition of Rambles. As always!

Anne Roos shines A Light in the Forest for who has wished "that Renaissance Faire musicians were a little less drunk and a little more classy," says Jennifer Mo. "As with Anne's earlier release Mermaids & Mariners, this CD boasts unusually thorough and beautiful liner notes with details about each of the songs and artists, plus plenty of illustrations and folklore about fairies and woods. ... Bottom line: like its subject matter, A Light in the Forest is pleasantly evocative and sprightly, if not entirely substantial."

David Cortello swoops Through an Open Window with this one-man show that, according to Corinne Smith, doesn't pass muster. "It's surprisingly average on all counts. There is no discernable hook and nothing remarkable to attract repeated play," she says. "So if you're in the market for music that's deliberately non-intrusive and that can remain thoughtlessly and effortlessly in the background, this CD could serve your needs."

Hunter Robertson offers Songs for the Masses. "Listening to Songs for the Masses (that title comprising the album's one and only flash of humor), I reflected on how rarely these days one hears traditional songs -- field recordings aside -- performed traditionally. Even less commonly encountered are records by raised-outside-the-tradition artists who choose to recreate a sound that seems to capture the feeling of homespun front-porch, dance-hall, street-corner music from the age before the advent of the recording industry," Jerome Clark opines. "Robertson, who now resides in Vermont but who has lived in the United Kingdom, Greece and France, has produced that kind of record."

Natasha Borzilova makes a Cheap Escape into a solo career after ending a career with Bering Strait. "Cheap Escape is her first solo record. It shows where she's been and where she is going," says Michael Scott Cain. "The fabulous thing about the CD, though, is Natasha Borzilova's voice, which is deep and husky, with a nuanced intensity that causes you to pull your car over to the side of the road and just listen."

Debi Smith makes her living as The Soprano. "The Soprano is a kitchen-sink album, a flat-out showcase for Debi Smith's voice -- which is, by any measurement, pretty spectacular," says Michael Scott Cain. "She has, as the album title indicates, a soprano that is as pure and clear as uncharted waters and, on this release, the inclination to show us exactly what she can do with it."

David "Honeyboy" Edwards is Roamin' & Ramblin' with the blues. "Honeyboy Edwards is absolutely the best 93-year-old bluesman on the planet. Actually, he's one of the best at any age, way up there in the pantheon and well deserving of his status," says Michael Scott Cain. "His playing and singing are as soulful as a church congregation and as strong as a tank. His solos, never complicated and all based on riffs he must have learned 70 years ago, still sound as new and fresh as organic vegetables from the local market."

Hope Nunnery is "not just another sweet-voiced singer-songwriter," as evidenced on Wilderness Lounge, Jerome Clark says. "Southern Gothic is almost a genre in itself. Hope Nunnery's music falls roughly within the same noirish rural landscape as the Earl Brothers, a San Francisco-based oldtime/bluegrass band that also operates on the sunless side of the mountain -- except that if the Earls are about sin, Nunnery adds 'and salvation' to the equation. Her music, I need to stress, is not bluegrass even by the ignorant definition often applied to white Southern roots sounds, nor is this a gospel record in any ordinary understanding of the phrase. It's more in the vein of Hazel Dickens and Olabelle Reed, like them coating no sugar over emotional truth, speaking in a language that permits no lies."

Buzz Matheson and Mac Martin offer Echoes of the Past for the bluegrass fan. "The songs are in close company with the bluegrass stylings of Bill Monroe and the vocal harmonies of the Louvins," Dirk Logemann says. "These recordings overstep slick commercial production and achieve a warm and simple ambience, in keeping with such a refreshing and timeless set of tunes, and are highly recommended to any lover of older country, gospel or bluegrass."

Fous de la Mer provide the Stars & Fishes for a relaxing music experience. "The music on Stars & Fishes is well crafted and the vocals fit neatly into the instrumentation," Paul de Bruijn says. "So if you are looking for relaxing music that will wrap itself around you, then Fous de la Mer delivers."

Van Morrison is not all he seems in Under Review 1964-1974. "Morrison and his people had absolutely nothing to do with this documentary, which means he and the people closest to him are not interviewed. It's all built on secondary sources," says Michael Scott Cain. "All of this is not to say the film has no value. Many of the interviews are interesting and, since the DVD covers a wonderfully creative time in Morrison's career, we learn stuff we hadn't known before. The only problem is that it doesn't live up to its promises."

First in books, we have a mixed bag of fiction reviews for you today.

Khaled Hosseini's debut novel, The Kite Runner, "is an incredible achievement in fiction writing," Eric Hughes says. "Set in Afghanistan against a backdrop -- the fall of the monarchy, the Soviet invasion, the exodus of refugees, the rise of the Taliban -- that hasn't been previously detailed in fiction, Hosseini's story is so riveting, so breathtaking that it is simply unforgettable. Its compelling story, coupled with its broader themes of friendship, betrayal and the price of loyalty, will certainly allow the piece to stand the test of time."

Simon R. Green says there's Hell to Pay on the Nightside of life. "Welcome to the Nightside, an alternate London where it's always 3 a.m. and the living isn't easy. You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant -- if you're willing to pay the price. Think about that -- in Nightside, ambulances are fueled by pain and suffering, and taxis run on virgin's blood," says Becky Kyle. "This seventh book of the Nightside stories is one of the best so far."

Carlton Mellick III raises eyebrows with The Menstruating Mall. "This is one of the most bizarre books I have read, and I am sure author Carlton Mellick III would take that as high praise," Chris McCallister warns. "While very strange, there is also a very, very interesting story here. I often found it revolting and disgusting, but it was also riveting. I had trouble stopping, despite wanting to seek out the nearest incinerator in which to deposit this book. ... I did not enjoy reading this book. I did not hate reading this book. I will never read it again. I will never forget it. I will try to, but I will fail. I could not stop reading it, either."

Michael Dobbs details Churchill's Triumph in a historical novel set in 1945, as world-altering events unfolded at the close of World War II. "Three men who had a dominant hand in shaping these events met in February 1945 in Yalta at the Black Sea Resort. For eight days, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Russian Dictator Joseph Stalin discussed, bargained and harangued over the fate of the world," Wil Owen says. "Dobbs presents a fictitious accounting of this event in his novel Churchill's Triumph. Instead of simply reading the documents they signed and getting an outsider's view of what happened after the fact, Dobb provides a look at what happened through the eyes of the participants on each of those eight days."

Shizue Tomoda visits both Japan and the United States in Sachiko. "It is about a teenage Japanese girl, Sachiko, who fights against odds to travel to America and find herself. Her parents object to her leaving Japan, but Sachiko is determined to go," Liana Metal says. "The heroine is a courageous female who seeks love as well as her place in the world. Her journey in life is full of surprises, and the plot helps to reveal and discuss important issues such as women's independence, racism, politics and romance."

And in graphic novels...

Woe, and more woe, as the Bomb Queen returns as a Suicide Bomber. "I keep hoping Jimmie Robinson will learn from his mistakes and turn the Bomb Queen concept into something worth reading," Tom laments. "The premise -- a city cut off from the rest of the nation where crime runs rampant, all under the rule of an amoral supervillain -- has boatloads of potential good storytelling, but Robinson apparently prefers to draw naughty bits for giggles."

The saga continues in War Games #2: Tides, as Batman faces a massive outbreak of gang violence in Gotham City. "The gang war begun in Outbreak spills over into Tides with bloody and devastating results," Tom says. "By no means just a bridge between the first and third volumes of War Games, Tides is loaded with action and some truly horrific developments. While this is not a good stepping-on place for Batman novices -- simply because of the sheer number of Bat family and supporting characters involved -- this is an excellent crossover collection that packs a lot of punch."

The big Civil War crossover does not pass without its share of War Crimes. "The problem with Civil War: War Crimes is that it has very little to do with the ongoing War Crimes saga that rocked the Marvel universe," Tom says.

Ace Reid's Cowpokes: Cow Country Cartoons earns a chuckle from Mark Allen. "I'm no cowboy, but, I've known plenty over the years, living in Oklahoma, and I see some of them well-represented within Reid's single-panel cartoons," Mark says. "Besides the honest and realistic humor, Reid offers fans an art style like no other. His unique characters display a gaunt, yet rugged appearance. They look constantly hungry (as do the horses and cattle), haggard, worn out and played out. Yet, they're obviously not too spent to get into tons of trouble."

Larry Gonick gets educational in The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 1. "When you consider the correlation between history and the political cartoon, and how, in some instances, cartoons actually shaped political history, it seems like a natural jump to frame history in cartoon format. The political cartoon is uniquely suited to relaying masses of information in a compressed format, which is the one of the best ways -- apart from extraordinarily tiny print -- to relay the history of the world from the time of the Portuguese conquest of South America, to the fateful decision by King George III of England in 1783 to rid Britain of its expensive, and increasingly upstart, pesky colonies," says Mary Harvey. "This book is perfect for anyone who wants a working knowledge of the basics of world history but who only has time to read one book. It's engaging, funny, accurate and easy to zip through for all its density."

Raymond J. DeMallie and Douglas R. Parks delve into Sioux Indian Religion: Tradition & Innovation in this collection of 12 essays. "This book excites the mind and fulfills your desire for action and drama. As you read about these ceremonies and rituals, you will feel that you are in attendance," Karen Elkins reports. "The writing is beautiful. While the editors tried to produce a grammatically sound book, they wanted to retain the individual storytelling flair. So you get solid information that is a pleasure to read."

Joanne Shenandoah and Douglas M. George come together for Skywoman: Legends of the Iroquois. "This hardcover, 109-page book contains nine stories that explain a great deal about the Iroquois beliefs of ancient times. Most of the stories, in typical indigenous fashion, relate lessons for life: to remember to pray and give thanks, to respect your elders, to share, to keep your promises and to live a good life," Karen says. "Skywoman: Legends of the Iroquois is one of the must-own books for any Native American or folklore collection. This is a top-notch book by a brilliant team."

Todd Cobb reveals the Ghosts of Portland, Oregon in this new release from Schiffer Publishing. "I have friends in the Portland area and visited the city in the past," Wil Owen says. "But with this book and its 14 tales of hauntings around the town, I got to see a side of Portland I was unfamiliar with -- a side I might have to check out during my next visit."

Elizabeth D. Samet reveals a Soldier's Heart based on her adventures teaching literature at West Point. "The tendency is to think of these young men and women as people trained to kill, to unquestioningly carry out the orders given them, regardless of the morality or immorality of those orders," says Michael Scott Cain. "Samet's job, though, was to teach them to think and feel, to recognize and respect their common humanity and to see that they share it with everyone on this Earth. ... The main thing her book accomplishes is to remind us that no stereotype tells the truth, and that even though they wear identical clothing and follow identical rules, customs and folkways, no two army officers are the same."

We have just one movie review to share with you today, but Becky Kyle says it's one worthy of consideration for serious cinema buffs!

Becky opens her door to The Visitor without hesitation. "Overall, the film is one that will leave you thinking: The Visitor is not a summer popcorn film. By the time you have walked out, you will want both to find the music in you and to learn more about U.S. policies towards immigration and whether they are as inhumane as they appear to be," she says.

She adds: "My husband and I left The Visitor wishing there were more, hoping there was a good outcome for all the characters. In the lobby, we met a man who had attended the Sundance Film Festival where The Visitor screened for the first time. He told us this was the only film that year to get a standing ovation. I understand why."

Lots more is on the way! (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)