18 October 2008 to 13 December 2008

13 December 2008

To live is so startling, it leaves little time for anything else!
- Emily Dickinson

Nothin' like a big ol' rainstorm to get ya in the mood for the holidays....

In the mood for some holiday music? This week's edition begins with five selections.

The CD/DVD called Holiday Yule Log is "the perfect gift for the person who has everything except a fireplace," says Alicia Karen Elkins. Besides turning your television into a virtual fireplace, the disc offers 25 musical selections. "The tracks are mostly instrumentals, but when they do add vocals, they definitely make them count. The harmony and backup are great. Your first impression will be: 'Elevator music!' However, if you give it a listen, you will be amazed. This music is engineered with remarkable skill. Do not expect this full orchestral sound to allow you to relax too much. Instead, it energizes and often forces your feet to respond."

The music is sometimes lacking -- as are the production values -- on Norman Rockwell: A Tenor's Christmas, Karen warns. "If you are specifically looking for the works of Jose Carreras, this is a good buy. But if you are looking for general opera and you do not enjoy poorly recorded live performances complete with a coughing audience, do not buy Norman Rockwell: A Tenor's Christmas."

Next up is Navidad Gozosa: Voces Del Milenio, a collection of traditional and contemporary Spanish-language Christmas songs. "Mexican Christmas songs have always been lively and spirited, seeming much more like the celebration of the birth of a savior than those dirges we so often hear," Karen says. "I enjoyed every selection in Navidad Gozosa: Voces Del Milenio. It is a festive musical collection to energize your holidays."

El Grupo Santa Clara is a children's choir that performs 14 brief Christmas songs on Angelitos Navidenos. "The beauty of this collection lies in the music and sound effects supporting the whole group," Karen says. "Unfortunately, in a few places, there were solos where the singer strained to reach a note or actually cracked on the note."

Lorie Line & her Pop Chamber Orchestra are back with Sharing the Season, Vol. 3. "Having created a strong following by the time of this release, Line is accompanied here by a 14-piece group of musicians," Corinne Smith explains. "Not necessarily the strongest of the Sharing the Season albums, this is certainly an entertaining one that uses far more intricate instrumentation and varied musical arrangements then the first two volumes. It also offers fewer selections than those first two do, but avid fans won't care."

The songsters on this Greentrax compilation disc are Wooed & Married & Aa in the finest of Scottish traditions. "The recordings on Wooed & Married & Aa are from the archives of the School of Scottish Studies -- No. 23 in an ongoing series of collections -- and draw together tunes, songs and customs relating to marriage," Nicky Rossiter explains. "Here you can experience the traditional sounds from weddings of fishermen, farmers and factory workers. These show that there is a lot more to it than the piper preceding the couple to the reception."

Todd Burge brings his West Virginia sound to My Lost & Found. "Burge's compositions skip along on easy-going rhythms that call the late John Hartford's songs to mind, with something of the same amiably bent sensibility. And there's something of John Prine there," Jerome Clark says. "Even with evident influences Burge has his own talent, which is good-sized, and his own eye, which is sharp. The tunes and arrangements mix folk, bluegrass and pop in varying degrees of strength."

John Sonntag is Chasing Stars from his Pennsylvania roots. "This singer-songwriter has filled Chasing Stars with romantic, thoughtful and heartfelt songs that sound like letters home," Virginia MacIsaac says. "This easy listening music could find a place in your car's CD holder, something to enjoy while the wheels are turning and the pavement is rushing up to meet you. Something about the songs brings to mind old-time truck-driving ballads and waltzing, times of peacefulness, times of mellow-persuasion."

Thomas Ardizzone joins us today with a bit of the Genghis Blues. "Genghis Blues is a documentary film about the amazing journey of blind blues musician Paul Pena," he says. "This film explores both the inner and outer journey. ... The documentary is also a wonderful introduction to this amazing art form that seems to stretch the boundaries of what is possible with the human voice."

Christie Dickason takes us back to the reign of James I with The Firemaster's Mistress. "Dickason has a knack for descriptive writing that transports us to the filth and squalor that is so often erased in movies about such a period. From the opening pages, you feel you are there watching events unfold," Nicky Rossiter says. "The great tests for historical fiction are credibility, emotion and education. This book fulfills all of these in a great thriller."

James David Jordan presents a Christian suspense yarn in Forsaken. "Certainly its plot lends itself to suspense: the daughter of the world's most famous televangelist is kidnapped by Muslim terrorists, who demand the televangelist renounce Christ on TV," says Michael Scott Cain. "So the plot has potential. Unfortunately, its development kills all of that possibility, as well as every opportunity for suspense. Jordan may have created the first suspense novel with no suspense."

Shari Goldhagen has a few words to share about Family & Other Accidents. "It is a character study, and a fictional, longitudinal view of how people develop throughout young adulthood. It is about the people much more than what they do or what happens to them," Chris McCallister notes. "Wow. That's not 'wow' as in the pace was in overdrive, or the action was incredible, or anything like that. It is 'wow' as in, by the end of this novel, I knew these people and everyone in their lives. I knew them, and I cared about them. I cheered their (occasional) successes, and was saddened by their (oftimes self-created) losses."

Tom Knapp kicks back for some relaxation with this down-home, friendly Welcome to Tranquility. "Tranquility is a small American town where superheroes -- and a fair number of supervillains -- have gone to retire for a few quiet years with their families. It's a peaceful place, where former arch-foes can sit down for a cup of coffee and a slice of pie in the local diner or chat over the picket fence without pummeling one another into insensibility," he says. "The story isn't earthshaking in its originality, but it's a good concept that is exceptionally well executed. Writer Gail Simone has stamped unique, recognizable personalities on a diverse and numerous cast, and it's a real pleasure getting to know them."

Tom must also confess to having The Trouble with Girls. "In 2007, I read the first volume of The Trouble with Girls and was prepared to write an enthusiastic review when I realized another writer, Michael Vance, had beaten me to the punch," he says. "In volume two, however, the jokes often fell flat or felt overused; I was not enjoying the book nearly so much as I had the first time around with international superspy Lester Girls, who wants nothing more than to give up his life of adventure, fame and wealth so he can settle down with a mousy wife in a small-town bungalow."

Mary Harvey shares a Mensa kind of day with Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. "Jimmy Corrigan began life as a weekly strip in Chicago's New City alternative newspaper, where it won the Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series in 1996 and 2000," she notes. "It was collected and published in hardcover in 2000 and is now available for the first time in paperback. Inventive, sweeping and definitely pushing the boundaries, it is a masterpiece of graphic art and storytelling."

Robert C. Evans heads the analysis of Frank O'Connor's "Ghosts." "This is a book about a short story by a master of that abbreviated genre," Nicky Rossiter says. "This, apart from the actual story, is very much an academic book that will be used in formal study, but it also has merit for the general reader, as it will give insights into the genre and the particular tale that is unlikely to be found elsewhere."

Alicia Karen Elkins has a trio of holiday-themed movie reviews to share. The first is Mr. St. Nick. "For every person that has ever been pressured by a parent, here is your Christmas movie," she says. "Mr. St. Nick is one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies. I am sure that it will become one of yours too. It is an excellent holiday movie value."

Next up is Call Me Claus, which is another of Alicia's favorites. "Nick St. Nicholas has been Santa for 200 years. He has four weeks to find a replacement Santa or the 'or else' factor kicks in: the North Pole melts, and the world ends by flood," she says. Whoopi Goldberg "puts her special pizzazz" on the experience, Karen notes. "Like so many moviegoers, I am a diehard Whoopi Goldberg fan. She always puts her unique flair on any character that she plays, and this role is certainly no exception. She was a perfect choice for the cynical and bitter Lucy. From hardcore to scared-to-the-core, she takes every emotion to the very limit."

Karen rounds out her movie trilogy with A Season for Miracles. "A Season for Miracles is a suspenseful drama that will leave you believing in angels. It is anything but the 'typical' Christmas movie," she says. "It keeps you in suspense and surprises you often, all the way through."

For a decidedly non-holiday turn, Becky Kyle offers up The Last of His Tribe. "In the early 1900s, one of the few remaining free-ranging Indians is caught raiding a slaughterhouse for food. He turns out to be the last of the Yahi tribe," she explains. "The story is a strongly moving tale based on a true-life event. ... If you can see this and not be moved to tears, your heart is of iron."

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

6 December 2008

The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why does my daughter love otters so much? I don't know. But I love that she loves otters! Sharks, too. The girl loves her some sharks.

First up today, Lorie Line is back with another holiday selection, titled Sharing the Season, Vol. 2: Piano Instrumentals. "Combining familiar songs with the not-so, she is accompanied here by a few musicians that lend a varied touch to the keyboard-based instrumentation," Corinne Smith says. "This will always be my favorite Lorie Line album, because it was the first one I ever owned -- at first, on cassette. I now have two CD copies, one for the house and one for the car. This music is the perfect accompaniment to decorating the tree, looking out the window at a light-snowfall day, or driving to Grandma's house for the feast disguised as dinner."

Celtic Woman is on The Greatest Journey in music, Nicky Rossiter says. "Here are the female superheroes of Celtic music -- Lisa, Chloe, Mairead, Alex, Orla and Lynne, along with some of the top professional musicians available on these shores -- with a gem of an album," he insists. "The ladies of Celtic Woman achieve the almost impossible in taking on Enya's 'Orinoco Flow,' probably one of the tracks most tied to the original performer, and giving it a new life."

Linda Welby has A Story to Tell. "From the opening track, 'The Galway Fiddler,' Linda Welby sets a scene and continues through the other 11 tracks on A Story to Tell -- the vocal offerings in particular -- to recount stories, just as the album title suggests," Nicky says. "The singer/songwriter lists her influences ranging from Sean Keane to Pat Boone, and her output on this album certainly gives evidence of this. She is not corralled into a particular genre and as such will appeal to a very wide audience. In addition many of the songs have the strength to become hits for some more established artists."

Joanna Newsom misses her mark with The Milk-Eyed Mender. "The subject matter: ballads, startling metaphors and mythological allusions. The instrumentation: harp, piano and harpsichord. The Milk-Eyed Mender is defiantly unclassifiable and hyperbolically artsy," says Jennifer Mo. "This one's right up the alley of the serious music fan in your life. You know the type -- the more avant-garde-than-thou person who sneers at anything that isn't atonal, obscure, indie and impossible to like on first listen."

Rachel Harrington finds a City of Refuge for her listeners. "Understated and precise, City of Refuge casts an almost hypnotic spell in its finest moments, and there are many of them," Jerome Clark remarks. "With her band, whose membership includes Tim O'Brien on fiddle and regular accompanist Zak Borden on mandolin and guitar, Harrington fashions gorgeous, spiraling melodies topped by lyrics of startling originality and power."

Peter Verity offers the "perfect soundtrack for anyone interested in contemporary Canadian folk music" on Sometimes a Journey, Corinne Smith says. "True to the CD title, Verity takes us on a circuitous musical journey around the North America continent, via his voice and his guitar. A small band of musicians provides background instrumentation and vocals."

Justin Roth is ready and willing to Shine. "The silver voice of Justin Roth is just as provocative as his guitar accompaniment. His poetic song lyrics combined with the finesse of his guitar picking add up to a successful CD," Virginia MacIsaac says. "With eight very decent songs and two captivating instrumentals, I'd recommend Shine as a sure addition to the shelves of those who like modern folk served up with velvety vocals, incredible guitar structures and atypical but discerning lyrics."

Virginia MacIsaac continues our Celtic Colours coverage with Common Ground: Carlos Nunez' Celtic Journey in Port Hawkesbury. "Host Nunez, a musician from Galicia, was here for the fourth year to participate in the festival, and his energetic presence continued to impress," she says. "Dressed in stark white while performing against the black Celtic Colours' backdrop, he reflected the music emanating from all areas of the stage and orchestrated its flow to the audience with rhythmic body movements, even while he wasn't playing." Other performers included the Blue Engine String Quartet, J.P. Cormier, Annie Ebrel, Gaiteros de La Habana, Corrina Hewat, Jerry Holland and Sabra MacGillivray.

Paul Headrick digs into the merits of Bing vs. Frank in That Tune Clutches My Heart. "That Tune Clutches My Heart is an entertaining book that will leave readers contemplating their own musical choices and reminiscing about their own teenage years. It is a perfect offering for a book discussion group or for use in high school or college English classes," Corinne Smith says. "Author Paul Headrick leaves us with loose ends and much food for thought."

Jonathan Carroll bears the heart and soul of The Ghost in Love. "The book involves swift, often unexpected trips into the past, picnics with one's selves, flashbacks, introspections, negotiations, conversations with splintered character flaws, hiding in a closet, vivid memories, a perfect date at a fancy Chinese restaurant, zouk, burnt marshmallows, theological evolutions and a painted rock," Tom Knapp says. "It's a love story, a ghost story, a philosophical yarn and a cautionary tale. And that's not even the half of it."

Holly Lisle shows a little Sympathy for the Devil in this outing. "It addresses a serious subject, but it's also one of the funniest and flat-out best novels from author Holly Lisle," Becky Kyle remarks. "Just pick up the book and read the first page. If you're not laughing out loud enough to embarrass yourself, then Sympathy for the Devil is not the book for you."

Peter Ackroyd "is an undisputed expert on London and a number of its literary inhabitants. He has written prolifically on subjects ranging from transvestism in Dressing Up to Notes on New Culture with biography, brief lives and many fine fiction titles added," says Nicky Rossiter. The Lambs of London "is one of those fiction titles. ... Writing a novel based on real events is a blessing and a curse. The bones of the narrative are already in place, but woe betide any who deviates too much from known fact. However, Ackroyd is so steeped in the history and lore of London that there was little chance he might stray from the facts. In fact, he knows the city and its past so well he manages to transport the reader to a very real and vivid streetscape. This novel evokes a London that disappeared centuries ago."

Ian McEwan has The Daydreamer to share. "This is a light-hearted set of linked stories about a boy, Peter, between the ages of 10 and 12, who is a chronic daydreamer. Sometimes, this results in big problems, and sometimes it results in ... knowledge and understanding," Chris McCallister says. "At first glance, I wondered if this were a children's book, and it could be used that way. I can imagine parents, or grandparents or aunts or uncles, reading this book along with children, ages 4 through 10, but I think it is mainly to help remind adults of the power of imagination, including the potential for growth and for damage."

Many comic-book heroes "have spent decades forgotten on a dusty shelf for good reason. Some are silly concepts, others wear ludicrous costumes, and most don't have the wherewithal to make it in the 21st century," Tom Knapp says. "Of this, writer J. Michael Straczynski seems well aware. And yet, he unearthed a dozen risable heroes from the World War II era -- and made it work." Read Tom's review of The Twelve to learn more.

Zorro makes a triumphant entrance in The Lady Wears Red. "This collection, published in 1998 by Image Comics, reprints a trilogy of comics first printed earlier that decade by Topps. It is satisfyingly brimming with clever whip and rapier work, verbal ripostes and swashbucklery of the Old West variety," Tom says. "The action is thrilling and the dialogue is even better. This is a crisp, fun story that deserves to come back into print, and soon. The only problem in this case is that, despite the fine artwork by Mike Mayhew, the book would only improve with color."

Mark Allen rounds out today's trio with Zinc Alloy collections Super Zero and Revealed. "As a parent, I want my children to enjoy reading. As a comics fan, I want more young readers drawn to the hobby. Zinc Alloy could help on both counts," Mark says. "Author Donald Lemke has created a character in Zack Allen to which most young children will be able to relate. He has also produced a story that is brimming with action, humor and the potential for great learning."

Mary O'Brien is Dicing with the Tide in her new book of poems. "There is a saying that to meet a global audience, you are best to write about local subjects -- because in the end, everything is local," Nicky Rossiter says. "In this slim volume of poetry, Mary O'Brien concentrates on town and parish, and in so doing she will strike chords in hearts from her chosen Wexford to Sydney to Santa Fe and to Moscow -- anywhere people who enjoy words and feelings read the poems."

Roger Osborne examines the history of Civilisation for the education of all. "Osborne has done the almost impossible. He has managed to condense the history of the West into just under 500 pages without missing a single important epoch, incident or person. Indeed, not only has he tabulated the history, he gives some excellent, concise and erudite interpretations of events that will make reader consider points previously overlooked," Nicky says. "The book is sweeping in scope, microscopic in examination and a joy to read. It treats so many epochs of history with new evidence that we can discard some of our older volumes."

Also in time for the holidays, Alicia Karen Elkins offers up this Christmas Present. "Christmas Present is in many ways the Irish version of Christmas Vacation -- and it's a perfect example of a movie that does everything right!" she exclaims. "Christmas Present is a splendid choice for any time of the year. I would love to see a series of sequels so I could spend more time with this family. It is the next best thing to being home with my own folks."

Miles O'Dometer descends into a London subculture in Eastern Promises. "Eastern Promises is a brutal tale, an endless stream of bloody killings that, had you missed the beginning, might have fooled you into thinking you'd walked in on a slasher film," he warns. "What distinguishes Eastern Promises from such fare, however, is an intelligent script that offers viewers an insight into a very real world most have never heard of or know little about. ... Stuff like this doesn't come along very often. Make a note of it."

Jen Kopf, meanwhile, dips into the life of New York Dolls bassist Arthur 'Killer' Kane via the aptly titled New York Doll. This documentary of his life could have become a second-rate VH1: Behind the Music episode, Jen says. "Instead, it's one of the most bittersweet, inspiring movies you'll see this year. And the soundtrack? It rocks. ... The concert footage will blow you away."

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

29 November 2008

An utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.
- Herman Melville

Well, I'm stuffed. How 'bout you?

Given the official start of the holiday season this week (as opposed to the retail start, which was in October), we begin this edition with a trio of timely CD reviews.

Pianist Cindy Keller Wittenberg and flutist Tracy Dietrich invite you to share your Christmas with Silver, Wood & Ivory. "This CD features carols and interwoven medleys that don't often appear on typical holiday albums. Wittenberg's piano is most often featured in the foreground, with Dietrich's ethereal woodwinds either echoing in the distance or hovering just above, as if in a cloud," Corinne Smith says. "Overall, Christmas with Silver, Wood & Ivory should be a welcome addition to any holiday/seasonal CD collection. Running more than an hour in length, it's something you can listen to in a nonstop loop without noticing any repetition."

Gary Hoey offers an atypical Christmas celebration with Ho! Ho! Hoey: The Complete Collection. "What if Santa arrived at your house outfitted in leather and chains, and you watched as he lifted off his mirrored sunglasses once he parked his Harley by the curb? What if his cadre of elves included Eddie Van Halen and the members of KISS, AC/DC, Black Sabbath and Metallica? What if someone arranged holiday songs with a hard rock or heavy metal bent?" Corinne says. "That would be Gary Hoey, an excellent guitarist in his own right, and technically a one-man band. Here he shows off his arranging skills as well as his fretwork, using a variety of guitars, keyboards and effects."

Lorie Line is the focus of Corinne's third holiday-themed review this week: Sharing the Season: Piano Instrumentals. "This first Lorie Line holiday album, by far the simplest in structure, is followed by three additional Sharing the Seasons volumes," she says. "The music here may lure you to listen to the others. And who knows? Maybe the day will come when you'll have the opportunity to see Lorie Line perform during one of her winter tours. I highly recommend doing so."

This week's regular edition begins with a double-header from Jerome Clark, who takes a look at Equinoxe by the supergroup Celtic Fiddle Festival, and Rikedom och gavor by Sweden's own Svanevit. "Given the solid credentials of all concerned, it is no surprise that the music, all instrumental and nearly all traditional, is uniformly robust and eminently approachable, the tones full, warm and rich," he says of the former, and, of the latter, "One need not understand a word of Swedish to be entranced with the extraordinary musicality and passionate performance in evidence. The Scandinavian revival has always set the highest standards, and if anything Svanevit exceeds them."

Junior League Band urges you to consider Mitchell Williams fo Govena. OK, the candidate isn't real and the elections are over to boot, but tune in anyway for this "roots outfit, fusing rock, folk, blues, pop, country and jug-band sounds," Jerome Clark says. "Mitchell Williams fo Govena (that's 'for Governor,' by the way; there is no Mitchell Williams in the band) has a little something for most discerning tastes. Even in an era when young bands strive to accommodate tradition with innovation, it stands out for its creative ambition and reached grasp."

Lori Michaels offers the word from The Lilac Testament. "Michaels' cool, distinctive voice is only half used on this album. She did write all the songs, but the lyrics don't pull her voice in and out of the melody; she skims the top and that makes it difficult for us to get with her to appreciate what she has to offer," Virginia MacIsaac says. "The Lilac Testament is a brave beginning for Michaels. There is much to like about her voice and the promise of more is evident in every track."

The Melroys "combine banging beats with spot-on lyrics to form a sound like a locomotive heading straight for the honky-tonk. Or sock hop. Or barbecue pit," says Melissa Kashner. "If you're dying for a road trip to Memphis, Kansas City or New Orleans, keep your truck in the garage and instead pop in Walls Will Fall."

The Dixons get their honkytonk groove on with Still Your Fool. "Stylistically, the Dixons, who keep the flame of pure honkytonk burning out of their home base in Brooklyn, split the difference between Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours and Buck Owens's Buckaroos. Harder-driving than the Troubadours, less rock 'n' roll than the Buckaroos, they bring sufficient originality to the project to keep things interesting," Jerome Clark says. "The analogy is a well-toned traditional bluegrass band that reminds listeners why they were drawn to Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers but drops its own distinctive accent into a familiar language."

Los Fabulocos, with Kid Ramos "are veteran musicians who have spent their careers playing pretty near every form of roots music, from the classical Mexican styles to blues, rockabilly and country," says Michael Scott Cain. "On this, their debut CD on Delta Groove records, they range all through their repertoire, showing exactly how versatile and talented they are."

Check back next week, when our live reviews will continue.

Jim Butcher reveals the White Night in volume nine of The Dresden Files. "In my opinion, Dresden is one of the best urban fantasy series around," Becky Kyle remarks. "White Night is very tightly paced. You have very little time as a reader to contemplate what's going to happen. This is also one of Butcher's more intricate novels. He's definitely improving with each book."

Margo Lanagan serves up a selection of Tender Morsels for your careful consideration. "Considering that, within its first 50 pages, Margo Lanagan's book contains child molestation, sex and abuse, it's not hard to see why this ostensibly young-adult book might be banned. That would be a mistake," says Jennifer Mo. "Neither didactic nor explicit, Tender Morsels is a compelling story and a psychologically acute examination of the repercussions of actions, both well-intentioned and otherwise. ... It's not at all a comforting book to read. But it is a quietly powerful and unflinching story that roots itself in your bones and weaves its world of sorrows and joys around you."

Rory Macaraeg shoots for the future through The Fifth Dimension. "I really enjoyed several aspects of this book. The premise was creative and ambitious, with the author really trying to take the book in a very nontraditional direction for fantasy," Chris McCallister says. "I really wanted to like this book and be able to give it a positive review, but there are just too many flaws to be able to stay positive. ... The author might have tried to put too much in this book, leaving it overlong and confusing at times."

Sheila Hendrix makes her first appearance on the book racks with Bad Company. "This is an interesting concept novel with two good point-of-view characters," Becky Kyle says. "Bad Company is a quick read at only 72 pages. For the most part, it's enjoyable; however, the manuscript could have used another editorial pass. There were far too many spelling and punctuation errors for a finished publication. This manuscript has the 'gem in the rough' quality that needs some polishing to make it shine as it really should."

Howard Pyle brings a boy's love for adventure to The Book of Pirates. "From the first sentence of Howard Pyle's preface to his collected works on piracy, you know you're in for a treat with a writer who spares no adjective, wastes no metaphor in his pursuit of thrilling text," Tom Knapp enthuses. "Pyle is, without question, a renowned author and illustrator of tales for young readers. While historical accuracy wasn't always his focus, his retelling of traditional stories and his invention of new ones certainly made for dandy reading for adventure-hungry youth in his day. His writing might seem a trifle stilted to a modern audience, but his stories are every bit as entertaining as they were a century ago."

Joann Sfar has a lot to tell us about The Rabbi's Cat. "The Rabbi's Cat is the quintessential Jewish folk tale: there is a connection to holidays and the tropes of Jewish existence," Mary Harvey says. "More importantly, The Rabbi's Cat is a prima facie example of Jewish irony. As the argument between the cat and the rabbi proves, the teachings of the Talmud can be taken to an extreme that lends itself to satire."

You might expect The Astounding Wolf-Man to be a horror comic, but it's actually a superhero tale. "This new series by Robert Kirkman has a great premise, cool characters and ample room to grow," Tom Knapp says. "The story is fun -- and artist Jason Howard's loose-limbed style reflects that, although he could use a little more polish on his final drafts -- but Astounding Wolf-Man doesn't lack for serious turns. The cliffhanger ending will leave you begging for the second volume."

There's not much humanizing going on in Marvel Comics' Witches: The Gathering. "The three witches -- and, of course, they're all babes -- at least seemed to dress in normal clothing, if nothing else," Tom says. "Think equal parts Charmed and Charlie's Angels."

Laura Pedersen describes her life before the American Stock Exchange in Buffalo Gal. "Pedersen's recounting strays away from her own life on occasion," Corinne Smith says. "In order to set the stage for the time period, she includes major current events, song and TV show and movie titles, fads and trends. While these details prompt us to remember those days, they sometimes read like mere laundry lists. The best part of the book comes during Pedersen's high school years, when she can regale us with original material and can set aside information about the landmarks in Buffalo or U.S. history."

Tom Knapp headed out eagerly for Quantum of Solace, the latest James Bond outing and the second featuring Daniel Craig in the title role. "My wife loathes James Bond with the fiery intensity of a megalomaniacal supervillain, and my fondness for Bond films has earned a mixture of her derision and pity. And yet my wife loves Daniel Craig to the extent that she has said on several occasions she would gladly watch Daniel Craig watch paint dry," he says. "You see our quandary. However, her Craig lust was sufficient to get her to go with me to see Casino Royale in the theater -- and an amazing thing happened. My wife fell in love with James Bond, and her anticipation for Quantum of Solace outstripped my own."

Miles O'Dometer shares the buzz on the Bee Movie. "Ever wondered what Seinfeld would have been like if Jerry had actually been the main character on his show instead of the eye in a hurricane of neurotic New Yorkers who could turn a poorly placed "gesundheit" into an O'Neillian psychodrama? Now you've got your chance, thanks to Bee Movie," he says. "Granted, Bee Movie doesn't push the envelope on animation. It's basic at best. And it's probably one of the few films that could use a little less story: it might be nice if Barry had one less problem to resolve. But when it comes to kooky characters and crack dialogue, Bee Movie rates with the best."

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

22 November 2008

Do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know.
- J.R.R. Tolkien

Stop me if you've heard this rant before.

It's mid-November as I write this. Thanksgiving is not yet upon us (in the U.S., that is). And, although we've seen a few snow flurries here in Pennsylvania, it is still most definitely autumn. And yet ... Christmas is everywhere you turn.

I'm not talking about the merchants, who are all so desperate to turn around a bad year of sales. As ludicrous as it is, we have come to expect that they'll start selling Christmas before Halloween. Sure, Santa Claus is already at the mall. But I see Christmas lights on houses already. We know people who have already put up their Christmas tree. A couple of local radio stations are playing Christmas music around the clock.

There's no denying Christmas is a season, not a day. But couldn't we agree to limit it to a month? Kick it up all you want on the day after Thanksgiving, folks, but if this keeps up we'll soon be hanging our stockings with care on the Fourth of July!

Moira Cameron says howdy with Sands of the Shore: Be Tricked or Betrayed. "Sands of the Shore is my first experience hearing Moira Cameron, who describes herself as a balladeer. I wouldn't dispute that title at all and I will be looking for more of her music in the future," says Becky Kyle. "The CD is pure, simple pleasure to listen to. If you enjoy Kate Rusby, Cathie Ryan or Connie Dover's lovely soprano, you should add this disc to your collection."

Gypsy Soul are back with Beneath the Covers: A Rediscovery. "The album applies the band's Celtic/folk/Americana sound to covers of seven hits by an eclectic range of artists including U2, The Moody Blues, Stevie Wonder and John Denver," Melissa Kashner says. "With such an intriguing premise and the band's impeccable credentials, how could you lose? And yet, I found the result a mixed bag."

Sparky & Rhonda Rucker perform to The Mountains Above & the Valleys Below. "Folk-scene veterans James 'Sparky' and Rhonda Rucker, who live in east Tennessee, offer up a straightforward, crisply delivered collection of familiar Southern ballads, songs, hymns and spirituals," Jerome Clark says. "Many neo-trad artists these days dress up old material in new apparel with more complex arrangements, but here the tunes are delivered the old-fashioned way, with guitar, banjo, harmonica and the unaccompanied voice (plus occasional piano or bones), with emphasis on the stories and sentiments that caused these songs to be written, then carried on, in the first place."

Dead Men's Hollow conjures the notion that Death Must be a Woman. "Most casual fans don't realize the Washington, D.C., area is one of the hotbeds of bluegrass in the United States. When the music was peaking, you couldn't drive through the northern Virginia suburbs without nearly running over a banjo picker. The heat has died down a lot now, but many area bands are still keeping the music alive," says Michael Scott Cain. "Dead Men's Hollow has three strong female voices who sing harmony leads. You rarely hear a single voice up front. This means their approach is gentler, folkier, than most bluegrass bands. They can cook and they do, but mostly they cook with the heat set on medium. The results are finely done but never burned."

Joe Ross goes back to the basics with his Bluegrass Alphabet. "Ross's songwriting is solid and sturdy, and many of the songs on Bluegrass Alphabet are good enough to deserve a presence in the larger bluegrass repertoire," Jerome Clark notes. "Ross's approach brings to mind that of a longtime favorite of mine, Bill Clifton, who had a taste for the sorts of heart songs -- anthems of home, place, family, love lost or found, religious sentiment -- that practically defined the Carter Family catalogue."

Albert Cummings makes a distinctive mark with Feel So Good: Live. "When a guy creates a medley out of Willie Dixon's 'Hoochie Coochie Man' and Little Feat's 'Dixie Chicken,' you know you're not dealing with a traditional bluesman," says Michael Scott Cain. "Albert Cummings knows his rock and he knows his blues, but most importantly he knows how to blend them into something unique and purely his."

Mercedes Sosa overcame the mandates of a military dictatorship just to make Corazon Libre for your listening pleasure. "The simple accompaniment emphasizes Sosa's superb singing and gives it a perfect frame," Adolf Goriup says. "Corazon Libre is a hauntingly beautiful piece of art that introduces the listener to folk music from Argentina. There's more than samba, rumba or tango to be heard when you listen to Mercedes Sosa."

Uun Budiman & the Jugala Gamelan Orchestra combine gamelan and pop music on Banondari. "Gamelan is a traditional music of Indonesia, played here by an orchestra of xylophone-type instruments, Javanese clarinet, two-stringed violin and drums. Jaipongan arose in the 1960s, with pop stylings that inspired a dance craze," Dave Howell says. "Describing this music is difficult, especially if you have never heard gamelan. There is some similarity to Japanese and Chinese music, but the 26-piece Jugala Gamelan Orchestra gives a far different sound that the often sparse backup of music from further east."

Don McLean did more than just sing "American Pie" for the ages, as you'll hear on Christmastime! The Complete Collection. "His arrangements hearken back to the good old days of the 1950s and '60s, when holiday records featured instrumentations that included full orchestras and choruses," Corinne Smith says. "You can pop in this disc and let friends and family members guess at the singer's identity. They probably won't be able to figure it out for the duration of the CD. It's obviously not Bing, Dean, Perry, Andy, Tony or Frank. It's someone with professional experience, someone they've heard somewhere before, but who? Your guests may never guess correctly."

Jackson Browne performed earlier this year in Providence, Rhode Island, and Corinne Smith offers her recollections of the show. "A handsome man, a keyboard and 15 guitars," she says. "When brought together, they foreshadow a wonderful evening of acoustic music. Place them in a magnificent auditorium with a receptive audience and the result is a visit to the past, many smiles and much appreciative applause." Read the rest of her review here.

Steve Berman shows a mastery of variety on Second Thoughts: More Queer & Weird Stories. "The stories are without exception well-wrought, fluent gems that reveal Berman's gift for taking absolutely unremarkable situations, little fragments of everyday life, or sometimes bits of popular apocrypha, and twisting them off their path into bizarre and surprising places," Robert Tilendis says. "My only reservation about the collection is Berman's use of author's notes, some of which do, in fact, offer helpful insights, some of which deserve to be developed into stories in their own right, but some of which offer information that I don't think helps the story at all, and may even take something away from it."

Robert Fate brings a lot of guns into play in Baby Shark's High Plains Redemption. "Let's say the book doesn't lack for action," says Michael Scott Cain. "Baby Shark's High Plains Redemption is a compelling action novel, a throwback to the pulp classics of the 1930s and '40s. Readers will enjoy it, although they'll be disturbed by a few of author Fate's choices."

Toanne L. McGonagle tells a story and teaches an environmental lesson in The Tiniest Tiger. "On the surface, it's a cute little children's story about a lost kitten that wanders into a zoo and talks to all the big cats there in an effort to find a new home," Tom Knapp remarks. "But the not-so-subtle message in Joanne L. McGonagle's The Tiniest Tiger is that the wonderful diversity of the world's big cats -- from lions and tigers to jaguars and ocelots -- is at risk of being lost forever. ... You won't learn a lot about cats here, but young readers should come away with some level of understanding that these cats require protection or else we'll lose them for good. The message, however, is wrapped in a short, entertaining story that will hold young readers' attention."

Sean Johnston offers a story encompassing All This Town Remembers. "There are two good stories here," Chris McCallister says. However, he warns, "the stories do not, in my opinion, complement one another; they clash and muddy each other." Still, he adds, "I do not want to spoil it, but there is a scene, very near the end of the story, that is written absolutely perfectly. ... This one scene tells me this author has greatness in him, and I hope he shows it much more, and more consistently, in the future."

Mary Harvey says fans of Ghostworld will love The Plain Janes, a new book from DC's Minx line for female-oriented young-adult fiction. "Cecil Castellucci expertly mines the same sources as the movies Mean Girls and Thirteen as well as MTV's cult cartoon, Daria. Though the Janes are somewhat exaggerated, based as they are on rather typical stereotypes of any teenager in any high school, they could still be real people for whom the uncertainty of life, and the need to belong, is as scary as it is silly," Mary says. "Jim Rugg's neat, clear art keeps the action moving. The characters are distinct from one another (one of the hardest feats to accomplish in graphic storytelling, as most artists, even the best ones, have a tendency to make all the characters look like one another) and convincingly expressive."

Tom Knapp, on the other hand, is less thrilled with Gypsy: Collected. "It's another nasty view of the future," he says. "The potential of this story falls flat, however, and I just couldn't work up much interest for this collection of tales. There is no specific problem with Thierry Smolderen's writing or Enrico Marini's art, but they just never hook me enough to make the story palatable."

Kent Thompson takes us back to the 18th century for The Man Who Said No: Reading Jacob Bailey, Loyalist. "Bailey was not a particularly important figure in history except for his writings, but as a Harvard graduate, he crossed paths with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and others," Dave Howell says. "His writings give some interesting views of these people not found in mainstream histories. ... Bailey's loyalty to England caused him to be examined by local 'committees,' an experience he wrote about in detail. These groups used tactics that uncomfortably remind the reader of McCarthyism two centuries later."

Joe S. Sando and Herman Agoyo tell the story of a Native American hero -- and his statue -- in Po'Pay: Leader of the First American Revolution. "This is a study in how to not write a book about something," Karen Elkins warns. "It is possible to get so caught up in documenting every time somebody coughs in a council meeting that your reader becomes bored to tears. It is possible to turn off your reader as soon as they realize that you were too lazy to even paraphrase your previous work before sticking it into this latest edition."

Miles O'Dometer offers a sincere hail to The Queen. "It's good to be the king. Of that, Mel Brooks left little doubt. But what about the queen? That can be a tough nut to crack, as Helen Mirren shows us in -- what else? -- The Queen," Miles says. "In the end, we get a surprisingly good history lesson, while Blair and the queen learn a little about politics -- all in the comfort of our respective living rooms." Hey, congrats to Miles for his 300th review!

Becky Kyle, meanwhile, takes a step Away from Her. "Away from Her brings into focus issues of eldercare and elder sexuality that many of us might shy away from. The story is treated with grace and compassion and, while it could be depressing, it's uplifting in many ways," she says. "Sarah Polley, just 22 years old, did an astounding job bringing this cast and story together. She's already a force to be reckoned with and has been since her film debut at 9."

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

15 November 2008

To live is so startling, it leaves little time for anything else!
- Emily Dickinson

This week, Tom Knapp bade farewell to his 12-year-old cat, Puck. You are invited to share his goodbyes.

Gillie McPherson brings the music of her native Belfast to Our Street. "McPherson's music certainly is a wonderful sample of Irish folk-rock music fused with influences from her second home, Brittany," Adolf Goriup says. "These influences are strongest when it comes to instrumental tracks or tunes that are interwoven in her songs."

Jerome Clark examines two CDs today: Chris Knight's Heart of Stone and Wilderness by Mad Buffalo. "Heart of Stone and Wilderness can both be characterized justly as works of rural folk-rock as opposed to country music. Besides being the creations of gifted artists with clear and specific ideas of whom and what they're about, however, that's about all they have in common," he says. "Unlike Knight, who eschews pop notes entirely in favor of full-force rock and folk, Mad Buffalo -- not a band but the nom de plume of singer-songwriter Randy Riviere -- isn't, in fact, mad at anybody, and so his folk-rock is sweetened, albeit not sickeningly, with pop."

The fine folks at Putumayo have another winner in Nuevo Latino. "Putumayo has been introducing people to international music and culture since the company was established in 1993," says Adolf Goriup. "With Nuevo Latino, they've released an exciting collection of Latin music."

Ben Sidran gets his jazz thing going on Nick's Bump. "As the liner notes say, Nick's Bump is a mixed drink," says Michael Scott Cain. "That fact pretty much establishes the tone for this CD from Ben Sidran. It's a sort of party album, a set of mostly classic jazz tunes -- Eddie Harris, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan and Sonny Clark contribute tunes -- along with a few originals from Sidran, played with taste and verve."

Mike Zito has his blues on Today. "Sometimes artists go through a long development, often in public, before they hit maturity. Others develop in private so that when they appear, they're pretty much in full control of their art," Michael Scott Cain remarks. "Mike Zito is one of the second type. Today doesn't sound like a debut album. Listening, you get the feeling you're hearing a veteran artist who has been concentrating on creating, refining and sharing his art with a public for decades. It's hard to believe this is his first recording."

Woody Simmons comes to you Live at WVMR. "You can't get more down home than this collection by the late fiddler Woody Simmons. The tunes are drawn from 20 years of archives of fundraising benefits for community radio network WVMR of West Virginia," Dave Howell says. "The excellent 20-page CD cover booklet gives the story of each tune. It says that Simmons won 300 prizes for his playing. That's no surprise, judging from this wonderful recording of old-time bluegrass."

Our second feature from this year's Celtic Colours International Festival is the Legendary Celts, formerly known as the Whycocomagh Gathering. The performance this year featured music by Joey Beaton, Archie Fisher, Aongus Grant, Burton MacIntyre, Theresa MacLellan, Doug MacPhee and Mairi Smith. "Many of the Celtic Colours shows feature the younger generation of musicians, but this one gave the older generation its time to shine," says Kaitlin Hahn. "It was a sold-out venue, which shows how respected these musicians are."

Frank McCourt, the Irish-American author of bestselling memoirs Angela's Ashes, 'Tis and Teacher Man, made a recent visit to Lititz, Pa., and Tom Knapp was lucky enough to get a seat at a private book discussion. "For most of the hour-long discussion, McCourt held court over 50-some fans who asked questions and listened attentively to his rambling, often whimsical anecdotes. An amiable, tireless conversationalist with a shock of white hair, McCourt was dressed casually for the event in a blue-and-white striped shirt and a black leather jacket," Tom reports. "A colorful speaker, florid and uninhibited, his style of speaking often mirrors his stream-of-consciousness method of writing." Read the full story here.

Elizabeth Bear sends a vampire into Nazi England in Seven for a Secret. "I didn't have the good fortune to read New Amsterdam, Elizabeth Bear's previous novel set on an alternate Earth where the British colonization of the New World was successfully hindered by a French and Native alliance. Fortunately, I didn't need to, as the sequel Seven for a Secret stands nicely on its own," Tom Knapp says. "The novel's tone is dark and moody, more about stealthy and strategic moves than it is the occasional burst of supernatural action. Bear has crafted an atmosphere of layered mystery and dread in which the wampyr is more hero than monster."

Rachel Caine takes a walk down a Midnight Alley in the third volume of her Morganville Vampires series. "While the series is written for young adults, it's a great read for older fantasy fans, too. While you can read Midnight Alley without reading the two prior novels, it's fascinating to see how each novel builds on each other developing complex characters and storylines," Becky Kyle says. "One caveat: if you are a person who likes novels to stand alone within a series, you may have trouble with Morganville. You'll get some answers from book to book, but the storylines continue with each of the series. Fortunately for the readers, this isn't too much of a problem since Morganville is coming out every few months instead of making us wait a year or more for the next addition."

Jackie Kessler has another spell of Hell on Earth that is, as its title suggests, Hotter Than Hell. "The first two books in Jackie Kessler's Hell on Earth series -- Hell's Belles and The Road to Hell -- focused on Jesse Harris, the former succubus Jezebel, and her adventures in escaping, then rescuing her lover from, Hell. In the background of each book was her infernal paramour, the incubus Daunuan, whose level of personal raunch made Jesse seem downright pastoral by comparison," Tom Knapp says. "Now Daunuan has his own story to share. ... Daun is not a character who's easy to like. I dreaded his appearances in the previous two novels, and I didn't look forward to reading a book entirely about him. Still, credit to Kessler for taking his two-dimensional self and gradually giving him depth. I am curious to see what he takes from this into the next novel, which I have no doubt is already in the works."

R.D. Wingfield wraps it all up in A Killing Frost. "I am very sad as I write this review. It appears that Jack Frost has solved his last case. If so, the world of crime, detection and fun will be a much bleaker place," Nicky Rossiter says. "Jack Frost is a sort of British Columbo but with much better lines and a classy gift for insubordination. He has been personified on television by the portrayal by David Jason, but this should in no way take from the talent and genius of the writer."

Tom Knapp says "the concept almost seems obvious, now that someone else has had it: Zombie Pirates! Sure, there are a handful of vampire/pirate yarns out there already, but zombies? Sure. And the title, Dead Men Tell No Tales, is just too perfect. ... But the story by Dwight L. MacPherson about the bloody efforts by Captain Kidd, Blackbeard and Black Bart Roberts to possess the Holy Grail just sort of flounders around aimlessly beneath the trappings of violence and madness at sea."

C. Nathan Coyle deals with Another Fine Mess from Hero Squared. "Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis are best known for their 'bwa-ha-ha' superhero-meets-comedy take on the Justice League in the latter part of the mid-1980s (or 'Post-Crisis JLI,' for those in-the-know)," he says. "And while that take was refreshing (especially given the prevalence of grim 'n' gritty storytelling thanks to The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen), comedy in superhero comics has been rather hit and miss since that title. While Hero Squared, Vol. 2: Another Fine Mess has a well-told story, it is unfortunately a bit of a miss."

Scott McCloud is sharing the secret of Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga & Graphic Novels. "McCloud has lots to say about the art of creating comics, all of it quite fascinating. More than anyone else since Kirby and Eisner, he has actually gotten the word 'art' close to the word 'comics' without receiving a single condescending guffaw," Mary Harvey says. "Making Comics leaves no stone unturned. From the type of brush to the sort of computer, from the paper stock to the possible plot devices: the building blocks, the tools, the techniques, and the choices available to a beginning artist are laid out in concise instruction."

Joseph Campbell reveals The Hero With a Thousand Faces in this new edition of his timeless classic. "Originally published in 1949, Joseph Campbell's discussion of the archetype of the hero revolutionized modern psychology, the study of mythology and the way we live our lives," says Michael Scott Cain. "It was a groundbreaking work when it was published and it continues to inspire and enlighten artists, filmmakers, songwriters and writers, as well as millions of general readers."

Miles O'Dometer starts off this week's movie section with a look at Black Snake Moan. "Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a former bluesman turned farmer, has just lost his wife to his brother," Miles says. "Rae (Christina Ricci), on the other hand, is lying unconscious in the road in front of Lazarus's farmhouse, the victim of sex, drugs and physical abuse, all of which are very clearly depicted for us in this very R-rated movie. ... It isn't long before Lazarus finds Rae wandering about his house and fields in a state altered by both the drugs she's been taking and the fever she hasn't been treating. So Lazarus does the only thing he can think of to help her: he chains her to his radiator."

Chris McCallister has a few words to share on Tara Road. "This is not my typical film-choice, as I usually go for science-fiction, comedy, fantasy or adventure films. I am therefore surprised by how much I liked the film," he says. "This movie is a bit of an oddity in that the tear-jerker part, which definitely exists, is more in the beginning, instead of at the end. The movie is really a character study, and an exploration of novel ways people can work through grief and loss."

Jen Kopf checks into this Hotel -- but not for a little rest or relaxation. "Half an hour ... a full hour ... two hours and at the end of 2001's Hotel, and I keep asking myself -- what, exactly, is Mike Figgis' sinister, all-over-the-map, creepy, erotically charged film trying to do?" she asks. "Whatever enjoyment I got out of Hotel came from fleeting cinematic images, not characters (nobody has much of a backstory) or cohesiveness or any real inventiveness on the part of Figgis. It's a two-hour exercise in seeing how often you can stare, perplexed, at the screen and say 'Whaaaat?!'"

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

8 November 2008

EEveryone is criticizing and belittling the times. Yet I think that our times,
like all times, are very good times if only we know what to do with them.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

I speak for myself, and not for the staff of Rambles.NET, when I say, "Thank you, American voters, for giving my country back to me!"

Daithi Sproule is back for more with The Crow in the Sun. "Let's start with two complaints," Jerome Clark says. "The first: This is only Daithi Sproule's second solo album. Such paltry output amounts to an outrage on lovers of fine music everywhere. The second: The Crow in the Sun, whose elegant beauty nobody with ears will fail to appreciate, has none of Sproule's vocals, this in spite of the truth that he's as good a ballad singer as any Irish artist currently breathing. ... It is grand and glorious stuff, and I've listened to Crow repeatedly since it arrived in a package from Rambles.NET a few weeks ago. I just hope we don't have to wait another 15 years for the next one. And next time -- there will be a next time, I hope -- I would be thrilled to hear some ballads along with the instrumentals."

Alpcologne isn't selling cough drops on Alpha, although those long, long alphorns might make you think they are. "They have a four-octave range. Still, you would not think much could be done with three alphorns and a female singer," Dave Howell says. "You would be wrong, as this wonderful CD proves. ... You might call this a novelty CD, but it is a great novelty CD."

Eleanor McEvoy "is a singer who defies being put into a category. This seems to be a deliberate policy of a singer who changes direction with every album and manages to win new fans while retaining those who were hooked by her earlier efforts," Nicky Rossiter says. On Love Must be Tough, "she gathers the cream of contemporary writing and mixes them in with some of her own compositions. The odd thing is that the songs by Jagger & Richards, Nick Lowe and Rodney Crowell, among others, are tracks usually sung by men about women. McEvoy takes them on board, rattles them round and delivers a new take on the old as on she can do."

The David Bromberg Quartet sends a postcard from the past with Live: New York City 1982. "This recording is exactly as advertised: guitar/mandolin/fiddle master David Bromberg's string band (long since extinct) at its hottest, recorded before Bromberg packed it in for a couple of decades to make violins, first in California," Jerome Clark says. "From the sound of things, all concerned -- wherever they were standing in relation to the stage -- were having a good time that night. I'm not a huge fan of live albums, but this is undoubtedly among the better ones, and it's good to have it to listen to while we wait (I hope not years again) for Bromberg's next studio outing."

Craig Schumacher showcases "a wistful and pleasant voice" on New Shoes, says Michael Scott Cian. "He sings softly, never pressing, never getting insistent; his is a light jazz, calm pop voice that does not so much sell his songs as simply present them. ... Had he varied the formula more and varied his vocal approach, he would have had a more intriguing album."

Lisa Karp teams up with Dr. John for some Fucsia Blues. "The music includes some wonderful funky grooves and, combined with Karp's range in styles, makes this a CD to listen to. It is a well-rounded package," says Paul de Bruijn. "Fucsia Blues may not be the be all and end all of jazz music, but Lisa Karp and Dr. John have crafted a solid CD that is consistently good, and very good at that."

Chris Stuart & Backcountry sing of a Crooked Man on this memorable recording. "In a very good year for bluegrass music, Crooked Man still manages to stand out. It will roost high on many best-of lists when such are tolled as 2008 recedes," Jerome Clark says. "This is a superior recording on any number of levels: the breath-taking songwriting, the inventive arrangements, the extraordinarily seamless fusion of innovation and tradition. It's the kind of CD that both affirms the genre and transcends it. In this instance, it does so not by moving into pop, rock and jazz territory, as some ambitious contemporary bluegrass bands have done, but by delving into the antique folk music -- without itself sounding in any way antique -- out of which bluegrass arose six decades ago."

Albert Castiglia demonstrates promise as a blues-rocker on These are the Days. "When he is good, he is very good," says Michael Scott Cain. "In all, you come away from the CD feeling that you've been spending time with a promising talent whose promise hasn't exactly been fulfilled yet."

Robert Mirabal lives his craft on Indians Indians. "Robert Mirabal -- or the Mira Man, as he calls himself in a note on the CD booklet -- lives in a traditional pueblo at the foot of sacred Taos Mountain, New Mexico. He is musician, composer, flute-maker, poet, actor, craftsman, farmer and horseman," says Adolf Goriup. "The eagle of wisdom is flying high above our heads; we should not let him slip out of our sight. I love this CD with Mirabal's self-crafted songs, full of philosophical thoughts, spellbinding music, modern grooves and traditional elements."

Ensemble Odila provide listeners with some Traditional Songs from a Georgian Village. "All of the 25 songs here are sung a cappella, and the sound will be strange to most Western listeners because of the unusual vocal configurations. It somewhat resembles the singing of Eastern Orthodox church services," Dave Howell says. "This is a valuable work. It is not something for the casual listener, however. Everything tends to sound the same without careful and repeated listening."

Gwen Orel had the privilege of attending an Oct. 29 concert by the legendary Joan Baez at New York City's Town Hall -- a performance that "moved the audience to cheers and tears," she says. Read Gwen's full review of the experience, and bask in the glow of a '60s folk icon who is still going strong today.

October is a time for many things -- Halloween and the Canadian Thanksgiving among them -- but one of our favorite October treats is the annual Celtic Colours International Festival. Although our editor and his wife, Tom and Katie Knapp, spent the week sobbing at home in the States, unable to attend, the festival went off without a hitch, and Kaitlin Hahn headed up without them to enjoy (and report on) the musical doings. Here's her first report from the scene: Ceilidh at the Big Fiddle, a festival opener that included performances from Beolach, Brock McGuire, Gaiteros de La Habana, Genticorm, Grace, Hewat & Polwart, Jerry Holland and Mairi Smith.

Nicholas Pekearo makes his debut -- and his swan song -- with The Wolfman. "Pekearo had a damn promising career as a writer ahead of him, and now he'll never have the chance to tell those stories. He never even got to see his first novel, this one, published," Tom Knapp says. "Pekearo had planned to turn this book into a series -- sadly, now, never to be -- but The Wolfman still is a complete story that won't leave readers hanging. It's a savory paranormal thriller; although the identity of the killer becomes apparent to readers far sooner than Marley catches on, the people here -- including a fairly broad collection of supporting characters -- make this book a deeply satisfying reading experience."

Marion Dane Bauer summons The Red Ghost for a little spooky reading. "This is a good book for young readers -- unless your child, like my daughter, is really freaked out by ghosts," Tom says. "The fairly innocuous cover of this one was enough to spook my faint-hearted girl. Others should be fine with the story, which manages to be eerie without ever becoming actually frightening."

Greg Egan gets mathematical with Dark Integers & Other Stories. "In this, my first exposure to the work of Greg Egan, I discovered that even a math-challenged, former liberal arts major such as myself can find enjoyment in stories that use a lot of phrases like 'omega-inconsistent number theory,' 'strong bullet femtomachines' and 'eight-dimensional hypercube,' so long as the plots that such terms are factored into make some overarching sense in the end," says Gary Cramer. "Slightly weak characters aside, there are many fine moments of suspenseful action, gee-whiz invention and thoughtful reverie here, plus enough nuances of cyberpunk, space opera and sociological sci-fi that readers with tastes ranging from Gibson to Brin to Le Guin should all find something worth relishing."

J.L. Miles is Divorcing Dwayne in the first in a three-part humorous series based on the marital trials of Georgia girl Francine Harper. "The formula here isn't original," Becky Kyle remarks. "We've got our heroine with her crazy sidekicks and nutty grandma. But throw in some man troubles and some criminals, and you've got a plum of a tale. What keeps this story from being just another knockoff is the writing itself. Voice is one of those aspects of writing that's hard to define, but as a reader you know it when you read it."

Jodi Picoult finds a Perfect Match in a novel addressing a serious subject. "The sexual abuse of children is a subject that can provide prurient interest or a discussion of moral dilemmas. It is a matter not to be taken lightly, and one that many shy away from for fear of being seen as sensationalists," Nicky Rossiter says. "Jodi Picoult attacks it with a steady hand and sure eye in this novel. ... As ever, she has her subject researched very well, but again she manages to package the most heinous of crimes so well that the reader never feels voyeuristic. We read the story for entertainment, but we are also being educated on a subject that we, as a society, must confront."

Robert M. Tilendis serves up his thoughts on the first volume of Tanpenshu. "Hiroki Endo is best known for his epic manga series Eden: It's An Endless World. Tanpenshu is a two-volume collection of short pieces -- 'tanpenshu' translates as 'short stories' -- that reveal Endo's range and a taste for the surreal elements of life," he says. "If you've discovered manga -- and even if you haven't -- Tanpenshu offers a good look at some of the possibilities of the form."

Tom Knapp thinks the second volume of Tag is a trifle Cursed, so far as sequels go. "The story -- which focuses on Ed, a minor character briefly mentioned in Tag -- isn't nearly as interesting as its predecessor. Ed, who was tagged by a zombie and became one himself until he was able to pass it off on the next victim, becomes obsessed with tracking the curse down to its current bearer and ending it once and for all," he says. "But Ed is a bit of a schlub, a sadsack lacking in imagination and esteem, and it's hard to picture him in any sort of heroic, or even moderately active, role. Sure, Leib gives us an endlessly guilt-ridden man who fumbles his way along through the narrative, but I had a hard time believing he got as far as he did. The repetitive voice in his head of his shrewish and long-dead mother just weakened the story even further; it was an unnecessary and distracting device that added zilch to the plot."

Tom also takes a gander at 28 Days Later: The Aftermath. "The Aftermath is a stand-alone graphic novel intended to fill in some gaps in the movie, 28 Days Later, and build enthusiasm for its inevitable sequel, 28 Weeks Later. But, although written by Steve Niles, whose resume is filled with a varied selection of graphic horror fiction, this book is more mess than must-read," he warns. "It's hard to sympathize with truly stupid characters, which many of these are, and since the book doesn't fill in any important holes in the film nor add anything of substance to the story, I can't see any reason to recommend it."

Miles O'Dometer harkens back to days of glory in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. "Blanchett, who in 1999 was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for Elizabeth, is even more convincing here, in part because director Shekhar Kapur allows her to look almost as homely as the real Elizabeth I -- no mean feat, given Blanchett's natural gifts," he says. "Sadly, however, it does not end there. Somewhere along the way, just about the time Philip sends his fleet toward England, Shekhar lets his film slip out of the personal and into action-film mode. ... By trying to give us more, Shekhar ends up giving us less. More's the pity."

Jen Kopf is watching movies In the Shadow of the Moon. "As In the Shadow gains momentum, it goes beyond the usual talking-head documentary style, or the re-enactment of Apollo 13 with astonishing rare or never-seen footage of the flights, of the speech President Nixon recorded in case Apollo 11 ended in disaster, and of people around the world in 1969 anxiously awaiting Apollo 11 reports and erupting in joyous celebration when the astronauts landed safely," she says. "And you're left to wonder: Will any triumphant event ever unite the world in quite the same way again?"

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

1 November 2008

We live in a culture that discourages empathy -- a culture that too often tells us
our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe and entertained.
- Barack Obama

Halloween is SO much fun! Woohoo! Woo-boo! Yippee!

Deirdre Scanlan shows all her Faces with this new debut. "Scanlan has a voice that defies categorization. At times her accent seems to come through the singing giving a lovely intimate feel to the songs. Then on songs like 'The Scholar' she reminds me of performers like Eleanor Shanley with that universal appeal," Nicky Rossiter says. "This album is very well put together and production values are high, as are the guest musicians adding to the professional content."

Mark Dunlop sings from Islands of the Moon with some old familiar songs and new works, too. "Dunlop returns to his Antrim roots as the source of some of the tracks on Islands of the Moon," Nicky says. "He also shows his talent as a composer on a few tracks."

Harp 46 takes a Passage between new age and Celtic music. "The trio's second album Passage includes nine self-crafted tracks, three traditional hymns and a traditional dance tune," Adolf Goriup says. "The CD is a beautiful sample of new age music with traditional influences, interpreted by three gifted musicians. When you listen to their music you automatically feel relaxed, a real chill-out package."

A.J. Rosales fires up the Resistor for a broad range of music. "Resistor brings the many facets of A.J. Rosales into the light," Virginia MacIsaac reports. "This CD exhibits some of the great range that this musician is known for. It's a little dark in spots, but he draws us into his musical travels with the promise of a deep reward and overall doesn't fail to produce."

Joel Kraft has a few Big Ideas to share. "This is a colourful album. So colourful, I thought it was a children's piece because the cover is full of balloons and kids wearing rabbit suits and a man in a big red suit with striped socks and a crown on his head singing at the top of his lungs on a floating green chair," Virginia says. "Excuse me for being mistaken. At first the songs appear haphazard and quirky. At a second listen they still do, but pieces of them gather together to stay in your mind. The music is all well done, the production great, and Joel Kraft has a very pleasing voice. I'm left trying to catch what's gong on here, and the more I look there's more to see."

Asylum Street Spankers get all kinds of blue on What? And Give up Show Biz? "There is nothing genteel about the Asylum Street Spankers, beginning with the acronym," Jerome Clark says. "On this double CD, compiled from highlights of a two-week gig in New York City in January 2008, that fact is underscored in the title, the punch line to an old, preposterous yet sharp-edged scatological joke. Let's be clear up front: What? And Give Up Show Biz? is not for the prudish, the faint of heart, the easily offended, the politically correct or the Christian rightist."

Ellis Hooks brings his music to bear on Another Saturday Morning. "Hooks' raspy tenor belongs to another time, a time when the soul charts were dominated by Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, a time when Stax Volt put out astonishing records that featured crisp horn sections and big, aggressive vocals that made even the most profound soul cliches sound new and fresh," says Michael Scott Cain. "Hooks would have been right at home back then and would have probably become a major star. He fills the space with his voice, which sounds like a cross between a growl and a prayer and, if his lyrics are not always strikingly original, they are well within the soul tradition; he sings of love and life, of hope and longing."

The Starline Rhythm Boys are performing Live at Charlie-O's World Famous in this new CD release. "I happen to love rockabilly more passionately than reason allows, and I am confident I would feel that way even if I hadn't been around (albeit as a little kid) when you could actually hear it on the -- which is to say AM -- radio," Jerome Clark says. "And I love it even more when it's a form of raw honkytonk, when rockabilly is less elemental rock 'n' roll than hopped-up country. Call it, as some do, honkabilly. And call the Starline Rhythm Boys my kind of outfit. They make music whose natural habitat is the barroom and the dance floor, and they do it with heart, soul, aplomb and chops."

Nick Colionne is Keepin' It Cool with a little jazz for your consideration. "Upon the first go-around, the music works. It is fresh, breezy and provides good background for a quiet dinner out," Ann Flynt says. "However, the music never reaches the soaring joie de vive that others less well known in the clubs seek and often attain with no less effort or talent."

Caroline Moreau supplies smoky flavor of France on Paris is Burning. "Moreau grew up in the north of France with the sound of the best French chansons in her ears. When in 2003 she met gypsy violin virtuoso Oleg Ponomarev, the pair started a great collaboration that cumulated in Moreau's debut album Paris is Burning, featuring some of the most beautiful French songs," says Adolf Goriup. "Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, Leo Ferre, Barbara and Astor Piazzola have passed away, but their music keeps haunting our ears with Caroline Moreau, a brilliant singer."

Fred Nassiri, who goes by his last name as a singer and songwriter, "has just released a DVD that might be the most spectacular -- and expensive -- music video ever produced," Dave Howell says. Learn more about it in Dave's interview with the singer and find out why the production took him to the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, the Sphinx and Pyramids of Egypt, the Holocaust Memorial and Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the Roman Coliseum, in Australia, and at Unification Park in South Korea."

Kealan Patrick Burke slips into the Twilight Zone with The Number 121 to Pennsylvania & Others. "Seemingly effortlessly (unless you read his story notes and find out what a difficult time he had crafting some of these tales), Burke takes us down the tracks to visit funny fantasies with just a hint of bile in the aftertaste, hard-hitting psychodramas that don't rely too heavily (if at all) on the supernatural to make their point and a few truly nasty creep-out sessions that will have you thinking twice about how fragile everyday reality might be," says Gary Cramer. "Overall, having taken these jaunts on The Number 121 to Pennsylvania, I am eager to see what Burke can do at greater lengths with plots on which he can really stoke the engines. But he shouldn't stray too far away for long from the short-but-shocking tales that he shows so much engineering skill at here."

Brian Selznick takes an unusual tack with The Invention of Hugo Cabret. "The story itself is done well, with interesting characters, a breathtaking pace and a good degree of plot complexity, especially with how the secrets are gradually uncovered and have fascinating interconnections and ramifications that stretch well beyond the characters. However, that is not what makes this book stand out," Chris McCallister says. "Of its 525 pages, roughly 300 pages are beautiful illustrations, mainly complex, detailed pencil drawings by the author, Brian Selznick. Selznick was an illustrator before he became an author, and his skill and love for the visual medium sings loudly and clearly in this work of art."

Shelly Fredman decides there's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch in her latest Brandy Alexander tale. "Fredman has hit her stride with this one. Once the plot gets underway, No Such Thing as a Free Lunch is a fast-paced and gripping mystery," Corinne Smith says. "The timing and action of this book follow tight on the heels of the previous two volumes (No Such Thing as a Secret and No Such Thing as a Good Blind Date), leaving Brandy -- and us -- intellectually and physically exhausted. Perhaps we'll get some time to breathe and to digest the latest developments before the fourth episode shows up. Would ya pass the cupcakes, please?"

James R. Olson's An Eagle Unchained is "definitely timely," says Nicky Rossiter. "Olson has written a number of historical novels, but he comes right up to date with this book. The pace is frantic and very cinematic in the writing, but there is also an echo of his historic work. ... In many ways this book -- especially in the early stages -- remind me of Daniel DeFoe. That is not to say it is old-fashioned but rather that it reads a bit like one of the tracts that DeFoe wrote using fiction to suggest a better way of life. In this book the words put into the mouth of the hero Theodore Winston Hale sound so convincing and are so well constructed that it could be political polemic of older days."

The next Boom! title on our plate is Cover Girl. "No big surprises here," Tom Knapp says. "But in a story like this, it's the ride that matters, and in this case Cover Girl is a lot of fun. Writers Andrew Cosby and Kevin Church have crafted some genuinely likable characters here, and the plot keeps them hopping. I enjoyed reading the book, and that's enough for me to recommend it."

Tom also celebrates The Last Christmas with an over-the-top and over-the-edge Santa Claus. "It was the death of Mrs. Claus that really pushed him over the edge," Tom says. "Sure, the nuclear apocalypse was hard to take. And the mutations that followed, turning a majority of the surviving humans into zombified ghouls, was even harder. But Santa Claus continued spreading Christmas cheer with a wink and a smile as long as there were good boys and girls in the world. But then human marauders raid the North Pole one Christmas, leaving dead elves, reindeer and, yes, Mrs. Claus in their bloody wake...."

Mary Harvey says Italian award-winning graphic novelist Gipi (The Innocents, Garage Band) brings us a tale of life in a Balkan war state in Notes for a War Story. "But, for a story that takes place in a war zone, Notes for a War Story is somewhat interesting but not terribly evocative," she say. "While the story is most effective in terms of driving home the powerlessness of these young men and how emotionally detached they have to be to survive, there's nothing beyond that. It's a very mixed bag that is riveting in some parts and rather unexciting in others. As much can be accomplished in quiet stories as in huge epics, but there were times the story was so anemic that I felt I was waiting for something to happen."

Alan Rogers dips into the thoughts and actions of a serial killer in New England Remembers: The Boston Strangler. "Whether you believe the official line -- that Albert DeSalvo was the Stranger and paid for his crimes -- or you suspect there was more than one killer or, equally likely, that police got the wrong man based on false confessions, the fact remains that the story of the Boston Strangler is as thrilling, horrifying and fascinating as anything to come from the Whitechapel region of London nearly a century before," Tom Knapp says. "DeSalvo was never formally charged for the murders, and some investigators argued he wasn't the Strangler at all. But the matter was dropped after DeSalvo's conviction for other crimes, and his death in prison seemed to put an end to it. Rogers certainly seems to think DeSalvo was the right guy; whether or not you agree should not stop you from enjoying this book."

Miles O'Dometer spends some time gazing into the Zodiac. "If there were an Academy Award for choosing the best roles, my nomination would go to Jake Gyllenhaal," Miles says. "Whether he's playing Homer Hickman in 1999's October Sky (one of my favorite films ever) or not-your-run-of-the-mill cowpoke Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain (for which he was nominated for a real Oscar) or Marine sniper Anthony Swofford in Jarhead (possibly my favorite war movie ever), Gyllenhaal has a way of bringing depth of character to difficult parts. And the good news is he's at it again."

Tom Knapp is having trouble Forgetting Sarah Marshall. "Forgetting Sarah Marshall is one of those films you approach with low expectations. Despite an intriguing cast ... it just didn't look much different from the constant flood of romantic comedies that threaten to overwhelm the cineplex with a tropical tsunami of blandness," he says. "Forget that. It's hilarious. And quirky. SO quirky."

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

25 October 2008

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.
We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.
- Barack Obama

By and large, I am opposed to pneumonia on general principles.

Dick Gaughan is Live at the Trades Club on this memorable recording. "Melodic he is not, nor does he ever claim to be. But when you can produce work like his that will make the listener stop and think, who needs dulcet tones?" Nicky Rossiter says. "The album captures the atmosphere very well and makes for a lovely period of imagining you are there among the smoke (oops, no smoking anymore) and the smell of real ale and the true people of the land let their hair down and appreciate a great entertainer. Through the 13 tracks on here he gives us old favourites, some new works and a few lovely instrumentals."

Greg Spatz has a Fiddler's Dream that expands on his work as a fiction writer. "Though the styles are various, the sound is cohesive and uniformly enjoyable," Jerome Clark opines. "Most of the album is devoted to traditional songs and fiddle tunes, with a couple of Spatz originals and a song written and sung in French by his wife Caridwen Spatz, also a fiddler. The smartly chosen material documents Spatz's deep knowledge of folk music."

AvaLoon targets the children with I Can Go Anywhere. "Led by Papa Don McLelland, you get 12 tracks filled with music aimed at the young ones in your life," Wil Owen says. "While not as parent-friendly as children's albums by artists like Lisa Loeb, I Can Go Anywhere is palatable to adult listeners as well. Topics range from riding a bike to bugs to taking a nap. There is enough fun to get the little ones involved. The CD puts some focus on kid's imaginations."

N'faly Kouyate & Dunyakan bring songs from Guinea, Mali, Gambia, Senegal and Burkina Faso, among others, to a world market. "On Kora Grooves from West Africa , the singer as storyteller lives and breathes ancient times and tales and makes each piece rich, vibrant and exciting," Ann Flynt says. "The rich texture of Kora Grooves from West Africa weaves a story of its own due to stories told long ago, and still resonant to all of us in a world gone mad."

Mac Arnold & Plate Full o' Blues have got Nothin' to Prove. "This music gets you moving from the get-go. Arnold's got the rough and ready voice that celebrates the blues and a rhythm that swallows you up," Virginia MacIsaac exclaims. "The music is rich, filled with traditional blues sounds."

John Stein takes his music on the go for In Brazil: Concerto International de Jazz. "The first cut on this disc, 'Happy Hour,' is a joyous tinkle of the soul. Stepping into the album through this light and happening beat is an awesome listening experience. It's a six-minute march that just warms you up for more," says Virginia MacIsaac. "The CD takes a quick twist, though, and the next thing John Stein churns up is moody and dark 'Lonely Street,' which is beautiful like a moonless night with cool fingers of a night breeze at your neck."

Maya & Sage share the Spirit of Love on this new age CD. "The recording includes devotional chanting and spiritual love songs, featuring 10 self-crafted tracks from mantra chanting to esoteric and romantic songs performed by the two multi-instrumentalists and a few guest musicians," says Adolf Goriup. "Sometimes the music is pretty commercial and mainstream, but always the two deliver melodic and rhythmic tracks that will certainly appeal to some of you."

Corinne Smith had the pleasure of seeing Gordon Lightfoot perform in Northampton. "He's been in the music business for more years than many of us have been alive. So it was a real treat to finally have an opportunity to see Gordon Lightfoot in person. And I must say that, unexpectedly, this concert was the quietest one I have ever attended," she recounts. "Gordon Lightfoot will be turning 70 in November, and despite everything he's been through, he's still singing, playing, writing and touring, clocking in more than 60 concerts this year alone. There may be more lines on his face, and his vocals might not be strong, but he's still one talented, professional musician." Read more in Corinne's review of the show.

Mercedes Lackey -- former artist's model, security guard and fast-food clerk ... oh yeah, and she writes some, too -- shared a little of her time with our Becky Kyle. Read her interview and learn how Lackey obeys the rules, fantasizes about a million-dollar movie deal and makes sure her readers will "get it."

Terry Pratchett's Nation "is basically two, converging, coming-of-age stories set in an alternate history of Earth, back in the days of three-masted sailing ships and the British Empire in its colonial heyday," Chris McCallister says. "Before Nation, the only Pratchett story that I had read was a short story called The Sea Fishes & the Little Fishes, which is a well-crafted blend of fantasy, humor, folklore and witchcraft set in his Discworld universe. I might read more of his books now." Hey, Chris, that's review #100!

Edward Chupack carries the legend of Treasure Island's infamous pirate Long John Silver forward in his new novel, Silver. "In Robert Louis Stevenson's fabulous tale, we learn very little about the black-hearted rogue at the center of the story, which focuses instead on the heroic adventures of young Jim Hawkins," Tom Knapp says. "But Stevenson and Chupack both could tell you he was no one-dimensional character; he has layers, and depth, and fathoms of fascinating history captured in the grime under his nails and on every bloody scar. ... Pirates are too easily made into cartoons and caricatures, romantic heroes and sympathetic, misunderstood rogues. They weren't. Pirates cut a bloody swath through history, and Silver -- although a fictional device -- is perhaps the most dangerous of all. Chupack finally gives him his due."

Jim Butcher continues the Dresden Files with a Small Favor. "As always, Jim Butcher puts a lot of heart into his novels. He's kept Harry a good man, someone who'd risk his own life for others, a real hero in the urban fantasy genre," says Becky Kyle. "Small Favor is one of the faster-paced Dresden novels around. Jim had me hooked from the beginning and didn't let up until I turned the last page."

John Scalzi sets foot on The Last Colony to conclude a science-fiction trilogy that began in Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades. "My first John Scalzi book was Old Man's War, and I felt it was 10 steps beyond 'good.' That continues to be true here, with characters who are well-developed and realistic, despite their fantastical natures," Chris McCallister says. "It is like watching a chess game where half of the pieces are trying to take control and be the one playing the game. Scalzi comes close here to the complexity of Frank Herbert in Dune ('a feint within a feint within a feint'). Overall, there is little less action than in the previous two books, but this one also comes off as more personal and interactionally rich."

James Alexander Thom relates the story of the mighty warrior Tecumseh and the Shawnee people in Panther in the Sky, a historical novel. "While it is a fictionalized biography of one man, this book has more value as a cultural study of the people and their situation nearing the turn of the century and through the War of 1812," says Alicia Karen Elkins. "Panther in the Sky is an outstanding read. For almost 700 pages, you will experience the lives of the Shawnee in their final effort to remain free on their homeland. It is a story that will leave you in awe of Tecumseh and with a newfound respect for his people."

Mary Engelbreit goes trick-or-treating with the Queen of Halloween. "It's a simple little story that is perfect for young readers on the spookiest holiday of them all," Tom Knapp says. "Never even slightly scary, the book teaches a lesson about courage. Engelbreit's bright and cheerful illustrations make it even more fun to read."

Be sure to check out even more Halloween goodness on our special holiday page!

Gilbert Hernandez takes off from his popular Love & Rockets series with a Chance in Hell. "Hernandez is a brilliant artist whose three decades of work with his brother, Jaime, on the cult classic Love & Rockets has earned him well-deserved critical praise and multiple Harvey Awards. Chance in Hell is connected to Palomar, the fictional Central American town in the L&R series," Mary Harvey explains. "The surrealistic episodes fragment time in very interesting ways. The story is concerned with the pressure to conform and the loneliness this creates in terms of identity as we search high and low to find out who we really are. This is a morality tale about the human dilemma of dealing with societal restrictions with a young female protagonist as its moral center."

Tom Knapp is off to the jungle. "With the successful reappearance of Shanna the She-Devil in 2006, you had to figure her inspirational ancestor, Sheena, would not be far behind. And here she is," he says. "Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, as reimagined by Steven E. de Souza and written by de Souza and Robert Rodi, is not just the blond counterpart to Tarzan she was conceived to be back in 1937. Here, she is yanked by her roots from the African jungle and replanted firmly in Val Verde, a fictional nation in a heavily rainforested portion of South America."

Our third graphic novel review this week is for Zombie Tales, a slim collection of short, undead vignettes. "With writers including Mark Waid, Andrew Cosby, Keith Giffen and more, this anthology from Boom! Studios comes in delicious, bite-sized snippets of gore and decay," Tom says. "Zombie Tales is a neat little package of undead delight. Many of the stories will make you chuckle, while others are somber or, occasionally, poignant. I'm pleased to learn a second anthology is already on its way."

Tom also takes a look at the new Boom! series Hexed. "It begins at a nightclub, with an angel's severed wings. It ends swimming in the guts of a newly dead fat man," he warns. "Series writer Michael Alan Nelson has already impressed me with his storytelling in Second Wave, and he seems to have another winner on the way. ... I'm less thrilled with the art by Emma Rios, which is just on this side of looking done."

Oliver Sacks delves into the psychology of sound in Musicophilia: Tales of Music & the Brain. "Just as we hold dear a compassion for living things (with what E.O. Wilson recognized as 'biophilia'), this 'musicophilia' that we humans experience transcends time and culture. Though music seems always to have had the potential power to evoke emotion, it does this even more so in our electronic age, when recordings constantly swirl around us. We don't need live musicians to provide a background for our every movement. But how music affects the average person is almost indefinable. It's only when we study individuals with physical or mental challenges and their relationships with music that we begin to fully grasp how important music is to human life," comments Corinne H. Smith. "I found myself, so to speak, in various parts of this book. If you are an audiophile, you may see yourself here too. At least you'll know you're not the only one with a continual song in your heart ... or in the back of your mind."

Eugene and Mary Kuryla Yelchin provide another touch of Halloween to today's edition with Ghost Files: The Haunting Truth. "This book isn't really a serious study for ghost hunters to reference. Rather, it's the presentation that makes this book a treat," Tom Knapp says. "The stories here aren't just text on a page. Instead, the Yelchins have crafted their tales into a collection of windows that slide, packets that fold out and letters you can remove from their envelopes, all making Ghost Files seem very much like a ghost hunter's scrapbook. There's even a variant on a Ouija board tucked in the back. Eugene Yelchin provides lavish, ghoulish illustrations throughout."

Olof A. Eriksen shares his Memoirs of an Immigrant in this evocative tale. "It would be hard to find a more sincere, less ego-ridden narrator than Olof. It is because he is so honest about himself that he never comes across as boastful, though he has done many things worth boasting about, and he does describe them in detail," says Barbara Scott. "His stories are captivating and his philosophy of life is worthy of study, except you get the feeling that in order to succeed like Olof you'd have to just be Olof. He not only conquered the world of money-making, but several times managed to trick the Grim Reaper."

Miles O'Dometer takes some time to contemplate Juno. "So there you have it -- a witty and insightful script by former stripper and phone-sex operator Diablo Cody, brought to the screen in delicately nuanced form by director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) and performed by a cast of incredibly talented actors, including three under the age of 20," he says. "Juno won an Academy Award for best screenplay written directly for the screen and was nominated for Oscars for best picture, directing and performance by an actress in a leading role. More importantly, it's a work of art. Really fun art. And touching, too."

Jen Kopf, meanwhile, calls on her Waitress for a little service. "Waitress could have become a farce, with hurried exits and slamming doors. Instead, writer/director Adrienne Shelly aims to cook up something more meaningful," she says. "Shelly, who wrote Waitress while pregnant with her first child, sometimes comes close to crossing the line between quirky and saccharine. And yet, at its heart, Waitress is a warm look at people ultimately trying to act decently no matter what their first intentions may be. ... There's a sweetness that's hard to resist in Waitress, and it's impossible to mention it without wishing Shelly still were around to expand her beguiling talent: She was murdered in 2006, shortly before Waitress debuted at Sundance, at age 40. Waitress is just a taste of what we're all missing."

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)

18 October 2008

The advances we make in technology and the sciences are very important to our development as a race. But, like religion, science depends on what one brings to it. Were we only seeking cures for cancer and world hunger and the like, I would have no complaints. But what I condemn is this narrow-minded quest for the most devastating weapon or years of research that go into a better deoderant or shampoo. It's madness. It has no heart -- no care for the spirit, be it ours or that of the earth itself.
- Charles de Lint

We can put a man on the moon -- or, at least, we used to be able to do that -- but we cannot cure the common cold. Where's the justice? I ask you. Where are the priorities? I want a cure and I want it NOW.

Walter Trout comes Full Circle with "one fine album," according to Michael Scott Cain. "Trout, a veteran of 35 years in the music business, invited a few friends to come into the studio and play -- facing each other, live, at the same time, without overdubs or layering," he says. "It's a jam, rather than a recording session; most of the songs are first takes, imperfections have been allowed to stand and some songs were not even rehearsed. ... And let me tell you, you're going to want to be there with it."

Pete Seeger is still crankin' out the music At 89. "Over the decades, Seeger also did more than any other single individual to generate an awareness of folk music among his fellow Americans. Along with many other happy consequences, that effort made jobs and records for self-identified folk musicians possible," Jerome Clark proclaims. However, he adds, "At 89 is strictly for the faithful, those who have filled the pews at the Church of Seeger all these long years. Which is to say it's not for me, though I quarrel with not a single lofty sentiment expressed."

Dave Potts "writes pure poetry that pulls at the heart," Virginia MacIsaac says. "His songs celebrate the small but important things in life, and his lyrics express in a heartbeat the moods, thoughts and hopes of everyday people. His music themes are about as far from celebrity life or star-status as one can get." Learn more for only $12.99. ("Can you remember how the last $12.99 you spent improved your life?" Virginia asks. "Dave Potts shows how $12.99 brought three beautiful experiences into his life. Once you listen, you'll catch the drift.")

Hannah's Field "produces an interesting mix of reflective rasta music that covers topics from politics to pot smoking" on Warriors of Love, says Becky Kyle. "The collection's eclectic and the mix takes unexpected turns, which definitely keep you listening. You never know whether Hannah is going to be singing about Zen or zinging the bossman."

The Boban Markovic Orkestar offers The Promise for your listening pleasure. "Boban Markovic leads the most successful of the Balkan brass bands. Some of the raucous New Orleans groups -- the Dirty Dozen, for example -- will give you a rough idea of what it sounds like. But Markovic is part of a much older and more exotic tradition that traces its origin back to the Turks' first use of the violent sound of trumpets and drums to terrify enemies during battle in the 13th century," Ron Bierman states. "Fans of New Orleans brass bands who are willing to stretch their ears a bit, and listeners who just like good trumpet and flugelhorn playing, will find this one a delight from beginning to end. Enthusiastically recommended: 300,000 Slavs can't be wrong."

Jim Love & the Blue Groove hits the mark with Guerrilla Groove. "There has never been a more fulfilling sound than Jim Love & the Blue Groove," says Virginia MacIsaac. "I've seen it referred to as acid jazz, but it's way too fantastic to be backed into a corner like that. ... The fantastic music by this band is something to dish out your money for. This is one of the most exciting music CDs you'll hear in a long time."

Vince Seneri goes all kinds of jazz on The Prince's Groove. "In the hands of a few masters, the Hammond B3 organ has moved out of the place where we generally anticipate its use -- playing fills in the background of R&B songs -- and has become a lead jazz instrument. Guys like Jimmy Smith, Wild Bill Davis and Jesse Crawford pioneered its use in jazz, and a new generation of players has taken up its use. Vince 'The Prince' Seneri is one of these musicians," Michael Scott Cain remarks. "Seneri displays a wide range; he's at home with the blues, standards and Latin sounds, and he shows that the Hammond B3 does not have to serve its traditional roles as either a a piece of the background or as the sole lead instrument. It's also at home in a small jazz ensemble."

Sandra McCracken's Gravity/Love CD "is a powerful combination of many good things," says Virginia MacIsaac. "With a voice that is powerful but feminine, full-bodied and musical, she uses it to it reach for the heavens. The music and lyrics arranged with her voice are instant country soul."

The top-billed act was the Old 97s, but Tom Knapp was more interested in the opener, the esteemed Charlie Louvin. "At age 81, Louvin is still rocking pretty hard," Tom says of the country music Hall of Famer. "We couldn't hear him all that well, but it was a treat to see old Charlie out there on stage, doing what he's done for so many years and still enjoying it to the hilt."

Kaya McLaren pulls back the veil at the Church of the Dog. "This is a very character-driven tale, with a hint of the supernatural," Chris McCallister says. "Events occur in the story, but action is a minor aspect of this book. What is dominant is the relationships, interactions and emotions of the characters. Not all four of those main characters will still be alive by the end of the tale, and the focus of the book is handling the changes that occur, and how crises can encourage people to grow in maturity and perspective. In what is actually a small story, told in but 221 pages, is almost every aspect of the human condition. It is resplendent with the joy of living fully, with the premise that the richness of life is to be experienced fully in its every form, even when that includes tragedy."

George R.R. Martin pulls together the pieces of an Inside Straight in this, the 18th volume of his alien Wild Card series. "This is a mosaic novel -- all the individual stories by various authors are pieced together to fit into the American Hero and/or Egypt storylines, which eventually come together into a single story. This gives the writers the freedom to follow multiple different viewpoints, which makes for a rich and diverse narrative. The individual stories all move along quickly, without bogging down the overall narrative arc," Laurie Thayer says. "Long-time fans of the series should enjoy Inside Straight and it makes a fine introduction to the series for newcomers."

John C. Wright unleashes the Titans of Chaos to end his ongoing chronicles. "The strength of this book, and in retrospect of the entire series, is the gradual unfolding of character, even more remarkable because Wright gives us insights not only into the characters as they exist at any given moment, but also reveals their development -- maturation, actually -- through the course of events," says Robert Tilendis. "Although a bit talky, the talk is entertaining in itself, and the milieu is certainly original enough -- and fleshed out enough as the story progresses -- to offer something new and engaging."

Tobias S. Buckell returns to the sci-fi world of Crystal Rain in Ragamuffin. "After the steampunk of Crystal Rain, the shift in vision here is remarkable," Robert says. "Although Buckell has called Ragamuffin a 'space opera,' the milieu reflects a trend I've seen more and more in science fiction, which is the integration of our contemporary information age into the matrix of the created universes in a fundamental way. I don't see this as a form of cyberpunk, particularly -- there's not the gritty, noir cast to it that you might find in Gibson or Sterling -- and in this instance and a couple of others that come to mind, the technology is central to the story in a way that it's not in many other similar tales."

Georgette Heyer takes us to meet Friday's Child in this reinterpretation of the classic "Cinderella" tale. "From wedding to romance, Heyer's genuine characters absorb the reader into their practical marriage, their practical problems and practically all the twists that "happily ever after" can take. With the main couple married at the beginning, Heyer's psychological delving moves beyond questions of romance to those involved in other life-altering decisions," says Whitney Mallenby. "While Heyer's romantic touch definitely guides the plot of Friday's Child, the questions behind it are about growing up and what it really takes for someone to change. In both aspects of this novel, Heyer's wit, insight and beguiling protagonists succeed in offering readers an enjoyable journey."

The elite Danger Girl team is back, and this time they're riding motorcycles!" Tom Knapp exclaims. "OK, I don't know how to say it other than that. These highly capable but barely dressed superspies, archeologists and adventurers are back for another go-around in Back in Black, a tale that sends them off to a gathering of redneck bikers in order to find and acquire a Native American artifact. ... The story is fairly one-dimensional but will satisfy readers looking for something fast-paced and sort of funny. The art is a good slice of cheesecake, although it's not nearly so tasty as J. Scott Campbell's earlier renditions of these oh-so-dangerous and delightfully underdressed women."

Tom also makes a stop in Death Valley for a bit of zombie fun. "It's one thing to plan a rave for your cool high school buddies in abandoned bomb shelter. It's another thing entirely when a geek interrupts your decorating efforts and bumps the door closed, sealing you and several friends inside," he says. "But what are you going to do when you finally get out and discover the entire San Fernando Valley is populated with zombies? Your family, your friends, your teachers -- everyone who wasn't in the shelter with you is now out to eat your brains."

Chris McCallister rounds out this trio of reviews with The Arrival. "The Arrival tells the story of an immigrant who leaves his homeland for reasons that are unclear but definitely seem to be unpleasant. He is overwhelmed by his new home and absolutely nothing seems familiar, to the point of no longer being recognizable. The food is different, the language is different, the currency is different, the animals are different and he cannot read the writing," he says. "My initial impression of the book was the author had gone a bit too far in making his point. By taking the unfamiliar and portraying it as surreal and unearthly, I thought this was an example of overstatement causing the author to lose track of his own point. But this is a book that, once read, keeps echoing and reverberating."

Paul Wallace touches on Native American society in this reprint of White Roots of Peace: The Iroquois Book of Life. "This is the story of how one man united the five warring Iroquois nations -- Mohawks, Senecas, Oneidas, Cayugas and Onandagas -- into a single confederacy," says Alicia Karen Elkins. "I wish I could give everyone a copy of White Roots of Peace. This book could change the world if people would simply read it and adhere to the teachings of The Peacemaker."

Rick Seidel takes us along on holiday with Sunsets & Shooting Stars: A Cape Cod Memoir. "Family vacations can be fun times to remember, especially when the distance of years softens even the most stressful calamities from the past," Corinne H. Smith says. "Sunsets & Shooting Stars documents the Cape Cod adventures of a Pennsylvania-based family over the course of the last 35 years. Author Rick Seidel is quick to remind us that he's grown up to be a doctor, not a writer. But his passions for both his family and for that special sandy Massachusetts peninsula come through loud and clear with his well-chosen words."

Jen Kopf quite indignantly wants to know about the recent remake of a childhood favorite. "Who," she asks, "is responsible for making the movie Nancy Drew boring? ... Is it writer/director Andrew Fleming, for a plotline that can barely fill 90 minutes? Is it Emma Roberts, Julia's niece, whose spark flounders in a role that requires her to be hopelessly naive? Or, is it my expectation that a movie aimed at kids should still act like it cares: be a little inventive, engaging -- maybe even, considering it's supposed to be a mystery, a little suspenseful?"

Miles O'Dometer, on the other hand, is more than pleased with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. "Hollywood has long loved the musical biopic: Ray, Walk the Line, The Buddy Holly Story, Words & Music, The Glenn Miller Story. ... So it was never a question of when someone would get around to spoofing it. It was just a question of who," he says. "Fortunately for us, it was Jake Kasdan (Orange County) and Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin). And fortunately for us they stocked it ... with a wonderful cast."

You think we're done? Hardly!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below.)