26 September 2009 to 28 November 2009

28 November 2009

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

Let's be honest now: who among you who celebrated American Thanksgiving on Thursday is still stuffed?

Maggie MacInnes is Leaving Mingulay with music closely identified with that abandoned Scottish island. "MacInnes, who grew up on Barra 12 miles north of Mingulay, has followed an impressive career as Scottish harp (clarsach) player, singer and composer. Leaving Mingulay (A Fagail Mhiughalaigh) remembers the island with authentic songs and airs associated with its once-thriving rural culture," Jerome Clark says.

"Accompanied by some first-rate Scottish musicians on pipes, fiddles and other native instruments or providing harmony vocals, MacInnes offers up a dozen cuts' worth of something like musical perfection. Her strong and clear voice communicates emotions even if in a language with which few of us are conversant."

Tanya Tucker is taking My Turn with some well-known bluegrass tunes. "There was a time when a new album from Tanya Tucker was an event. My Turn, her first album since 2002, doesn't quite qualify. On it, she takes on familiar songs first done by men and gives them what the promo for the CD calls a 'female twist,'" says Michael Scott Cain.

"The problem is, she doesn't twist them far enough. Tucker's approach to this material is too cautious, too tentative. She never cuts loose; her essential energy rarely breaks through. It's as though she doesn't want to offend anyone, anywhere, as if she's anticipating negative reactions and wants to cut them off before they come."

Caroline Herring's Golden Apples of the Sun gets a second look from Jerome Clark, whose review of this album came in hard on the heels of another by Dave Townsend. "Small miracles abound on this marvelous recording. It arises from an unlikely, in lesser hands unpromising, premise: a modern-day folk singer's effort to pay tribute to two 1960s heroes, Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell," Jerome says.

"Every song is some variety of alluring. I've heard few singers who have so perfectly integrated art and folk song. And unlike Mitchell, Herring knows the tradition well -- it's part of her natural vocabulary -- but it is very much her own personalized vision of that tradition."

Felipe Salles presents a South American Suite for your listening pleasure. "South American Suite is Brazilian music presented in a somewhat formal context, using jazz arrangements. It is not orchestral as the title might indicate, however, since only eight musicians are used," Dave Howell reports.

"Some of the compositions are more like tone poems than songs, and at up to 15 minutes in length, a few might have been tightened a little. However, Salles changes the dynamics often in these pieces and takes the melodies through some twists and turns. This is a worthy experiment that is pleasant to listen to, and successfully reflects the wonderful variety of Brazilian music."

Taking another look at the Festival Club at the Celtic Colours International Festival, Kaitlin Hahn focuses on a spellbinding performance by Pierre Schryer and Quinn Bachand.

"They were looking at each other, with their faces only inches apart, and I swear, it was like they were reading each other's minds," Kaitlin says. "Schryer did a fancy descending run down his fingerboard, and Bachand did the same, flawlessly. They were playing off of one another so well and they blasted through tune after tune, consistently wowing the crowd."

Laini Taylor makes a memorable mark in the fantasy realms with Lips Touch: Three Times. The book is a collection of three stories, "each centered around the importance of a single smooch. All are fantasy-based -- two contemporary, one set in a bygone time -- and each is, in its own way, haunting. Beautiful. Lush," Tom Knapp says.

"While it's easy to draw comparisons to other authors, I would pay Taylor a disservice if I didn't acknowledge her unique voice and presence, which swept me away in a manner uniquely her own. Her writing is simply gorgeous, her plot and character development rich and stylish."

C.S. Forester's adventures of Horatio Hornblower continue with Ship of the Line. "Picking up almost immediately after the conclusion of Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line takes Horatio Hornblower and his crew aboard the 74-gun HMS Sutherland to escort a convoy of merchant ships to safety and patrol the coast of Spain," Tom says.

"Action, of course, follows hard on his heels. And, once he rejoins the fleet, he is given the freedom of three days to take his own initiative against Napoleon's forces. In the pages that follow, Hornblower orchestrates an astonishing, pulse-pounding series of assaults by land and sea. This right here is ample evidence why Hornblower, the character, is a brilliant navy captain and why C.S. Forester, the author, was a brilliant writer."

Terry Brooks offers a bleak future in The Gypsy Morph, the third book in Genesis of Shannara. "Terry Brooks has long since proven himself a master storyteller," says Becky Kyle.

"He kept us enchanted with Shannara for many years and through many novels, then moved to The Word & the Void, a trilogy. Now, with the third series in this multi-book universe, he's finally revealing to his fans where Shannara originated from."

Israel del Rio's Honeycomb "expounds upon the fascinating idea that every life being lived slowly generates the one true God, as opposed to a god having created life. Del Rio explains this theory through the heart-wrenching stories of various interconnected individuals living in modern-day Denver and Santa Fe, all of whom are potential incarnations of the main character," Whitney Mallenby says.

"Unfortunately, the overemphasis on the logistics of the underlying idea of a constantly generated god or Honeycomb detracts from the merits of the actual stories being told through the main character's dilemma about which life to choose. The constant explanations take the readers out of the story and away from the more touching and appealing aspects of this book."

Mark Allen checks in with Conan the Barbarian for a collection titled Conan the Reaver. "A straightforward tale, to be sure. As is common in Conan yarns, however, it isn't the intricacies of the story that are the highlight, but the intensity, purity and realism of the characters, as well as the action and artwork," Mark says.

"Emotions run high in this tale, be they results of the contempt of the elite for those less fortunate, the ghastly glee of a pagan priest as he offers a helpless sacrifice, the horror experienced as one comes face-to-face with the Mother of Darkness, or the seemingly selfless acts of one considered a barbarian."

Tom Knapp prepares to take a beating over his dim view of Twilight: New Moon. "I avoided the Twilight frenzy through all the books and first movie. But when New Moon, the second film in the four-film series, came out, there was a birthday wish that needed granting. And so, despite my firm bias against vampires who sparkle in the sunshine, I find myself sitting just three rows from the big screen with Molly, my broadly grinning 11-year-old daughter," he says.

"So, let's look at this first from an adult's point of view. It was telling that the packed theater had relatively few adults in the seats, and a few at least were quietly texting rather than watching the screen."

Dave Sturm, meanwhile, has time to spend Fighting. "This is about as intense a street-level view of the crummier parts of New York City as you're ever going to get. The helicopter shots are stunning as well. At ground level, some set pieces really put you there, including an opening street brawl in front of Radio City Music Hall. This is Gotham as tourists seldom see it -- tacky shops, low-rent hotels, cheesy diners, crowded side streets with that only-in-New-York jumble of signage," he says.

"But make no mistake, this is a B movie. Standard acting. The bad guys all sneer outrageously. The fighters endure punishment no one really could. The love subplot is off the shelf."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)

21 November 2009

Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.
- Winston Churchill

Eleanor McEvoy has been Singled Out for yet another review. "Listening to this CD one tries to classify the unclassifiable. She strides across styles with ease," Nicky Rossiter says.

"At time you think of Mary Chapin Carpenter and then you say it's deep down blues or rocking country. This CD may never get the audience it deserves on radio so it's up to you to go out and get it."

Way to go, Nicky, that's review No. 750!!

Buffy Sainte-Marie is Running for the Drum with her latest collection of folk and Native American music. "It's a beauty," says Michael Scott Cain.

"The world has changed a lot in 45 years, but Sainte-Marie has remained insistently her own woman, going her own way. She has neither become a nostalgia act, burdened by her old music, nor has she abandoned her earlier styles and concerns. She has, however, deepened. Her work is stronger, truer and more powerful than it has ever been."

Jerome Clark follows bluegrass North to Ontario for this 2009 edition of a well-made compilation. "Inasmuch as Canada boasts country and blues musicians in reasonable abundance, it should be no surprise that another Southern genre is well represented, too," Jerome says.

"The current edition of North to Ontario -- there are three predecessors, none heard by me -- documents the bluegrass scene in Canada's most cosmopolitan province. Appropriately, however, the two compilers, Gene Gouthro and Tom McCreight, have rural or small-town mailing addresses, possibly quelling fears of the traditionally minded that the sounds to follow are uptown ones. It turns out that -- at least if North is any indication -- Ontario bluegrassers tend to opt for the downhome approach."

Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin travel with a pair of youngsters to Arthurian times in The Taker & the Keeper. "If you know an 8-year-old who wishes the Back to the Future movies had gone just a little -- well, OK, kind of a lot -- further back in time, go ahead and hand him Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin's The Taker & the Keeper for a brisk romp through the age of chivalry," Jennifer Mo suggests.

"The story is simple and occasionally a bit illogical, but it's still a fun, fast-paced read that plunges straight from one adventure into the next," she adds. "While it won't win any prizes for subtlety or sophistication, at under 200 pages, The Taker & the Keeper is a short but enjoyable read for Arthurian fans (ages 8-10) who are just a little too young for the Gerald Morris series."

Brant Randall and Bruce Cook do a little Tommy Gun Tango in this sequel to Randall's earlier novel, Blood Harvest. "Like the first novel, there is more than murder and mayhem in this one. Instead of the KKK, we now have the Hollywood elite and a corrupt police force," Wil Owen states.

"I was happy to revisit several of the characters from Blood Harvest. The writing style is still witty. The books both read quickly and are full of dark humor."

Georgette Heyer makes a Royal Escape for fans of historical fiction. "Charles II's Royal Escape provides Georgette Heyer's readers with both an accurate account of the true monarch's adventure and a coming-of-age story through one of England's most unusual royals," Whitney Mallenby says.

"This day-by-day saga showcases Heyer's talent for transporting her readers back through time and giving them a grand tour of the various lifestyles then lived. Moreover, she portrays the young Charles II with both great tenderness and much playfulness, which makes it easy for readers to stay by his side along his physical and mental journeys."

Jake Adelstein's Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan is "journalism, a business novel, outsider memoir, cultural analysis and true crime. It's a page-turner, too," says Carole McDonnell.

"When the typical North American reader of police procedurals picks up a true crime book written by some intrepid journalist, we're pretty aware of the basics of the American law and culture. We assume things. The same with books on travel to Japan. Again, we assume. All those assumptions have to go out the window when one picks up Adelstein's book. Luckily, we're in good hands: Adelstein not only has to explain Japanese culture, but Japanese newspaper culture, Japanese cop culture, Japanese sex crime laws and the workings and upiquitousness of the yakuza. He does a great job."

Tom Knapp spends a little time with DC Comics' Bad Girls. "Take elements of the movies Heathers and Mean Girls and mix with any number of low-grade superhero comics. The result, if you avoid tainting the recipe with too much originality, creativity or decisive character development, might be Bad Girls," he says.

"Attempts at intrigue fall flat, and the few surprise twists fail to inject any real excitement into the tale. Bad Girls is the most unforgivable of comic-book failures: a bore."

Mark Allen is a fan of Xenozoic Tales, a Kitchen Press release later reprinted by Marvel Comics' Epic line as Cadillacs & Dinosaurs. "I really like dinosaurs. And I enjoy well-done comic book material on dinosaurs. For my money, Xenozoic Tales is probably the best series ever done on the subject, from both art and storytelling standpoints," he says.

"Xenozoic Tales is set 600 years in the future, when dinos roam once more and souped-up automobiles race alongside them. An odd combination, to be sure, but creator/writer/artist Mark Schultz made it all work."

Mary McGrigor takes a careful look at a true-life hero of the Napoleonic wars in Defiant & Dismasted at Trafalgar: The Life & Times of Admiral Sir William Hargood. "Hargood, unless you're a scholar of the Napoleonic wars, is likely an unfamiliar name. But this valiant officer led a storied career in the service of Britain, including bold action at Trafalgar that demonstrates amazing courage and loyalty," Tom Knapp says.

"Mary McGrigor -- working with a rare copy of Joseph Allen's biography commissioned by Hargood's widow and written shortly after Hargood's death -- gives this hero his due in Defiant & Dismasted at Trafalgar."

Tom Knapp looks back at Dracula 2000, one of the truly bad movies of that year. "Vampire films, by their very nature, skirt a thin line between stylish and cheesy, hokey and horrific," he says.

"Dracula 2000 is both hokey and cheesy. Except for a touch of gravitas by Christopher Plummer as the ageless Van Helsing and a swift chuckle earned by Danny Masterson as vamp fodder, there is very little else to say about it."

Dave Sturm takes a look back at Sorcerer. "I saw Sorcerer in a movie theater when it first came out (having seen and like director William Friedkin's two earlier films) and was knocked for a loop. I wonder how many of the critics today who disparage Sorcerer have only seen it on a TV screen. Because, I gotta tell you, some parts of this movie seen on the big screen are mind-blowing," he says.

"This is truly one of the great adventure movies."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)

14 November 2009

Most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do.
- James Harvey Robinson

New from the World Music Network, The Rough Guide to Irish Folk "is a great addition to a series of CDs highlighting the music of various countries. This collection will appeal to visitors and natives alike because of the variety and the quality of the performers as well as the songs," Nicky Rossiter says.

"Karan Casey, Cara Dillon, Arty McGlynn and a host of other big names in the business rub musical shoulders with a number of performers who are new to me over the 17 tracks on the album."

Caroline Herring takes a new musical tack with Golden Apples of the Sun. "While her music tends to fall into the alt-country/Americana format, this CD has more of a stripped-down folk sound. It is a nice mix of original songs and some very uniquely arraigned covers," Dave Townsend says.

"With Golden Apples of the Sun, Caroline proves that she is not only a talented singer-songwriter, but also has a strong ability to give us interesting interpretations of other people's songs. Both of those qualities make this a very enjoyable CD."

Will Scott makes his music debut with Gnawbone. "When it's good, Gnawbone is fine, but when it isn't, it's because it's all over the place -- unfocused, leaping from style to style. It's as though Scott wanted to take this opportunity to show us how versatile he is, but it sounds as though he's firing a shotgun instead of taking carefully aimed shots with a rifle," Michael Scott Cain says.

"Still, it's hard to fault an artist for being ambitious. Will Scott might be a singer-songwriter who is all over the place, offering up blues, rock, power ballads and folk, but he's also a man who appears to know what he's doing and determined to do it his own way."

Jerome Clark takes a look at a diverse pair of Muldaurs: Geoff Muldaur & the Texas Sheiks in their new self-titled CD, and Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy in, likewise, a new self-titled CD. "The musical and marital partnership of Geoff and Maria Muldaur ended its run in the early 1970s, but here, by happy chance, their separate new releases arrive in the same mail. Even more remarkably, they're both jug-band discs marking returns to their roots in a style that first brought them to popular attention," Jerome says.

"Jug-band music (JBM) encompasses all of those, but in its original incarnation in the 1920s, as a Southern urban-street music with rural references, it was an African-American genre. It was a good-time music, sly and humorous, not in short a vehicle with which to examine the darker side of human existence as was its contemporary, the Delta blues. JBM is roughly analogous to, if less musically sophisticated than, the Western swing that was soon to sweep the southwestern section of the nation."

Greg Dawson pays tribute to his mother -- and her struggle for survival as a Jewish Ukrainian during Hitler's domination -- in Hiding in the Spotlight: A Musical Prodigy's Story of Survival, 1941-1946. "The facts serve as testimony to the power of music, offered under even the most dire and most horrific of circumstances," says Corinne Smith.

"Hiding in the Spotlight is a compelling narrative that deserves wide readership. Even non-musicians or readers apart from The Greatest Generation will be thunderstruck by this true tale. It is the kind of book that makes you shake your head as you read it."

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro enters A Dangerous Climate -- in Russia, during the reign of Peter the Great -- with this new tale in the saga of the vampire Count Saint-Germain.

"Yarbro's intensely detailed historical background offers readers a very dense and accurate account of life in early Petersburg. Her plot, which centers around an unknown stranger appearing during Saint-Germain's undercover work and claiming to be the Count Saint-Germain himself, makes small impression against the true facts included in A Dangerous Climate because, from start to finish, it remains a network of slow-moving loose ends. The threats to Saint-Germain's physical person are easily eluded and lacking context, the impostor's threat to his identity never comes to a satisfactory conclusion, no female character claims the role of heroine or even romantic interest, and the Count's mission itself fails to really alter events.," Whitney Mallenby says. "In short, while both well researched and well intentioned, no aspect of this episode of Count Saint-Germain's life manages to rouse enough interest to really engage its readers."

Dudley Pope doesn't waste any time getting into the action in Ramage, the first in a series of sea-going adventures. "There are weaknesses here. One is Ramage's habit of day-dreaming when his attention really should be focused elsewhere; this is obviously a tool Pope uses to bring readers up to speed on important information, but it strains believability to have a man of Ramage's station drift off during combat, for instance, or while being interviewed by the esteemed Commodore Nelson. Ramage's endless stream of good luck and happy coincidences also tests the reader's credulity," Tom Knapp says.

"But there is plenty to like here, and I like Ramage a great deal. This is only the first book in an 18-book series, and I know already I'd love to read the lot. Ramage is a promising character with boatloads of growth potential, an interesting set of character flaws and a personal history that could stand in his way. Pope, meanwhile, has an obvious knowledge of and love for the sea, and it shines through in his writing." This, by the by, is Tom Knapp's 2,200th review for Rambles.NET.

Alex Bledsoe mixes vampire stereotypes in Blood Groove. "Baron Rudolfo Zginski was a vampire of the old school, a powerful, Eastern European bloodsucker who was finally revealed and staked in a small Welsh village in 1915. Sixty years later, the stake is removed by a medical examiner in a Memphis, Tenn., and Zginski rises once more," Tom says.

"But the United States in 1975 is nothing like the world Zginski remembers. The few vampires he finds in the city are timid, filthy beasts who know little of their true power. And the public perception of vampires seems to be reflected in the contemporary blaxploitation film, Blacula, which Zginski watches with the single-minded fascination of a person who has never before seen anything like it."

Cassandra Clare touches off The Mortal Instruments with City of Bones. "Author Cassandra Clare has taken a blend of fantasy and horror characters and mixed them liberally with the spice of Goth and a dash of urban myth, then dropped them into a gritty New York setting," Belinda Christ remarks.

"Highly entertaining and well-written, City of Bones is a blend of adventure, high and urban fantasy, with a smidgen of romance thrown in for good measure. I breathlessly breezed through the book, drawn in by Clare's unique world. But an unexpected turn at the end of the book had me the book left me so devastated that I nearly decided to give the rest of the series a pass. In the end, I chose to complete the series, a decision that was rewarded time and time again."

The Luna Brothers, Joshua and Jonathan, launch a new series, The Sword, with style and flair. "Volume one of this new series from Image, titled Fire, introduces college art student Dara Brighton, a paraplegic, who is sharing a pleasant dinner with her parents and sister when a trio of strangers bursts into the house, calling her father by an unfamiliar name and demanding a stolen sword from him. Not getting what they want, the strangers exhibit strange powers, which they use to torture and kill Dara's family. Only a fluke keeps her alive but, crashing through the floor of her burning house, she finds a hidden -- yes, you guessed it -- sword," Tom Knapp says.

"Fire is a brilliant kickoff to the series," he says. "The twists and turns as friends and foes alike seek Dara and the sword, as the police chase her and a secret government agency tries to lock her down, as her new friend Justin reveals her father's secrets and Dara discovers just what this centuries-old sword can do -- well, it's a page-turner that, when you finish, will have you looking for volume two."

Jesse Rice testifies for The Church of Facebook. "Rice is concerned about the death of community in our time and the building of a new one. Facebook, he says, with its millions of users who are creating networks of 'friends,' is becoming our new community. What we do not have in face-to-face relationships, we will get in virtual ones," says Michael Scott Cain.

"The problem, however, is that as our list of friends grows, as we're trying to keep up with more and more people, the quality of our online relationships declines; we keep up with dozens or hundreds of people, but our relationship with them is superficial. We have limited 'channel capacity' and when we try to keep up with more than 15 or so people, we begin to overload."

Mel Gibson's Hamlet has a lot going for it ... but it has one major problem, too: Gibson's age. "Gibson, who was 38 when this movie was released, was far too old to play the role of the young prince, who is no more than 20. So why would the producers of the film choose to cast a man twice the age of the character?" Belinda Christ asks.

"While Gibson does an admirable job in acting the emotions of the character, his age cannot be hidden. His physical appearance becomes a detriment, particularly in the scenes opposite Glenn Close. Every attempt was made to make Close look older and Gibson look younger, but with only a nine-year age difference between the two, scenes between mother and son seem awkward at best."

Dave Sturm says "those who say Stir of Echoes isn't as good as Sixth Sense are really saying, 'Kevin Bacon isn't as famous as Bruce Willis.' That's unfortunate, because Stir of Echoes (the vague title probably should have been changed to something more chilling, even though it's the title of the novel by Richard Matheson on which the movie is based) stands up very well."

The movie, directed by David Koepp, is "a perfectly serviceable whodunit mystery that happens to have a scary/supernatural element," he adds.

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)

7 November 2009

I don't believe that life is supposed to make you feel good, or make you feel miserable either. Life is just supposed to make you feel.
- Gloria Naylor

Let me make the record plain: the pig flu sucks.

The new CD 65 Roses isn't just a collection of good music, it's also a fundraiser for a good cause. "65 Roses is an album that you can buy as an excellent showcase of very good local Irish talent or you can do your bit for a cystic fibrosis charity -- either way or both, you will be the real winner," Nicky Rossiter says.

"This recording has been a cooperative effort that attracted a wide range of singers and performers and is a worthy tribute to a young girl who left this world all too early, but in her life she touched worlds as diverse as those of her pupils in the local technical college and that of composer Phil Coulter, who spoke movingly at her funeral," he adds. "But this is not a maudlin album. It is life-affirming and reflects her love of music and its deep enjoyment."

Kerstin Blodig "has a clear, cool voice that can send chills up your spine -- and surely will on at least one of the 13 tracks gracing Nordic Soul. No need to mince words: this is uncommonly good stuff," says Jennifer Mo.

"Mythology, musicianship and more than a little magic meet on this CD. It doesn't matter if you've never heard Scandinavian folk music before; Nordic Soul is readily accessible while remaining fresh and evocative. It also doesn't matter if you've never heard of Kerstin Blodig; her voice and acoustic guitar are pitch-perfect and arresting from the opening notes of the CD."

Wheeler mixes both gospel and pop sounds into its bluegrass for its self-titled release, Wheeler. "This is not Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers but something that used to be called newgrass, in other words more bluegrass-like -- or (as misanthropes and mouldy figs would insist) bluegrass-lite -- than the thing itself," Jerome Clark says.

"While Wheeler hails from Virginia, it sounds neither especially Southern nor particularly Appalachian. It could have come from anywhere, in contrast to Mountain Roads' other releases, which highlight a more traditional, more clearly regional sound. My listening preferences are not generally newgrass-oriented, but I know the worthwhile stuff when I hear it."

Ashley Lennon Thomas "can sing, there's no doubting that. When she wraps her warm, rich contralto around a song, it stays wrapped. In fact, it's so thoroughly covered that it'll stay comfortable right through the winter," Michael Scott Cain reports.

"Thomas's brand of blue-eyed soul, languorous and subtle, is, for much of the album, a pleasure to listen to. She has the lingering aroma of Memphis in the 1970s in her songs, with a hint of Stax-Volt in her vocal and instrumental arrangements," he adds. "When Sparkle Plenty is good, it is very good, but not all of the disc is up to the standards set by the best of it."

Kaitlin Hahn files another report from the Celtic Colours International Festival; this time, she comes to you from Wagmatcook and the From Coast to Coast fiddle extravaganza featuring Qristina and Quinn Bachand, Fidil, Ashley MacIsaac and Sierra Noble.

"The Wagmatcook Culture & Heritage Centre is a nice little venue, right on the Trans Canada Highway in Wagmatcook. Before the show, I took a little time to look around the room as people took their seats," Kaitlin says. "There is a beautiful mural of a tree on the back wall, which portrayed the beliefs of the native people of this area, and in one of the front corners of the room, near the stage, there was a group of these very people who were performing their native songs and drumming. The pre-concert music was a really nice touch, and the audience was appreciative."

Francesca Lia Block delves into a question of personal identity in The Waters & the Wild. "This moody, young-adult fantasy benefits a great deal from author Francesca Lia Block's lyrical style of writing. Rich, descriptive prose could easily become poetry with only a nudge or two in the right direction," Tom Knapp says.

"I read this book in one sitting. It is, at 113 pages, short enough to read quickly, but the narrative also gets its teeth into you and doesn't let go easily. (I tried to stop reading for the night at least twice, but never managed to put the book down until I had finished.)"

C.S. Forester once again must Beat to Quarters in the first novel he wrote in his highly acclaimed Horatio Hornblower series but the sixth in the chronological order of the tales. "Although in some ways lacking the polish of his later books -- Forester's habit of writing with a wink to innovations and expressions unknown in Hornblower's time is especially irksome -- Beat to Quarters is a nonstop thrill. From the insane Central American dictator who fancies himself a god to the noble lady who shares Hornblower's ship and pokes holes in his indomitable facade, the book just rolls along at a heady, breathtaking pace," Tom says.

"Of particular note, however, are the sea battles -- three in total, all against the same Spanish ship of the line that outweighs and outguns Hornblower's newly commissioned frigate, Lydia. The Natividad boasts more guns and crew, it's true, but the Lydia has Hornblower, who remains more than a half-century after his invention one of the best and truest fictional heroes of the British navy."

C.L. Talmadge begins the Green Stone of Healing with The Vision. "The strengths of this book are many and varied. The writing is crisp, clear and fast-paced, creating a real page-turner. The characters are definitely well-developed and three-dimensional," Chris McCallister says.

"The story is also replete with complexities, including religious oppression, racism, political intrigue, attempted murder, kidnapping and complex interpersonal relationships. ... Underlying all of this there is the hinted-at possibility that this world and its culture are the surviving remnants of our world after some form of cataclysm. This is not clearly stated, but there are enough clues to leave the reader guessing."

Perry Moor reveals a Hero in this off-the-wall novel. "High-schooler Thom Creed is trying to come to terms with two life-altering changes: the development of his superpowers and his emerging sexuality. It's not easy being a teen superhero, but being a gay teen superhero is an extra helping of angst. Add to that the fact that Thom's father Hal is a disgraced former hero with a troubled past he won't discuss with his son. This sets the stage for one of the more interesting hybrids -- or rather, what should have been one of the more interesting hybrids -- to emerge in the superhero genre in the last few years," Mary Harvey reports.

"As stories go, it's interesting in places, but about halfway through, Hero begins to fall short of its own expectations before dissolving into hazy mess of borrowed plot lines and a total loss of empathy for the lead character, who seems to do little more than muddle through life at the complete mercy of events."

Mark Allen lauds the four-color adventures of Conan the Barbarian. "One of the best series ever produced by Marvel Comics was, in my opinion, Conan the Barbarian. Begun in 1970, Conan was the first adaption of Robert E. Howard's wandering Cimmerian to comic books. It made an instant splash among what became rabidly loyal readers, most likely due to the ready-made fan base inspired by the novels," he says.

"To simply label Conan a 'sword and sorcery' comic does it an injustice. Though it certainly had its share of wizards and magicians -- and there was, indeed, plenty of steel clashing and teeth-gnashing -- this particular sequential series was about a man of indomitable will, from a hard, unforgiving place, making his mark on the world -- whether the world liked it or not."

Zecharia Sitchin takes his readers along on Journeys to the Mythical Past. "Journeys to the Mythical Past concentrates on various archeological findings to establish his hypothesis that aliens actually visited Earth in the distant past and not only built several ancient monuments and space stations, but genetically created mankind," Whitney Mallenby says.

"While Sitchin's sensational writing style does hook the reader in, it does not extend to cluing in the audience to opinions conflicting with the author's notions unless coupled by insinuations that those other opinions are the faulty results of the duped or cover stories. Add to that the fact that his one-sided explanations of the points he brings up lack references to other sources than Sitchin's previous works, and his credibility fades to nothing."

Tom Knapp visits a mixed-up past in Year One. "The trailer for Year One was funny enough when we saw it in the theater that my wife and I kept it on a short list of movies to watch -- and, while we never caught it on the big screen, we did finally rent it and settle in for a few hearty guffaws," he says.

The thing is, Year One isn't all that funny. Certainly it pales beside that classic caveman flick, Caveman, starring Ringo Starr. Now, read that last sentence again and realize just what that means for Year One."

Dave Sturm takes a look back at The Counterfeiters (a.k.a., Die Falscher). "The Counterfeiters is the true story of the largest counterfeit operation in history, Operation Bernhard, in Nazi Germany during World War II. The Nazis recruited about 20 expert engravers, printers, photographers, etc. -- almost all Jews -- and stashed them in a secret compound at Sachsenhausen concentration camp," he says.

"At first the men are astounded at their 'good luck' at being spared the gas chambers. Yet as they work and become successful forgers (especially with the pound), they face a moral dilemma -- they are helping the Nazis in the war effort. One of the forgers, the only one who knows the rotogravure processs to make passable dollars, begins sabotaging the operation. The others are ready to throttle him because he's putting their lives at risk."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)

31 October 2009

There were monstrous shapes in the mist. The stench of old graves dug open and corpse breath haunted the air. Childhood night terrors came to life: a Pandora's box of horrors and fears; specters of death and pestilence....
- Charles de Lint

Boo! (By which we mean, happy Halloween!)

The Baileys caught Tom Knapp's attention with A Song for Ireland. "Whether or not you've been to Ireland, this 20-track CD will have your heart longing for its shores," he says.

"The Baileys are the real thing. Sure, the Irish music tradition these days is saturated with world-music influences and glitzy electronics, but these two gents -- Michael Banahan and Anthony McDermott -- are the true, pure sound of Irish songcraft. ... At its heart, this recording is a couple of guys who love their musical tradition and offer it up with touching sincerity."

Jerome Clark examines a pair of new releases: 500 Miles: The Blue Rock Sessions by Cliff Eberhardt and How to Rob a Bank by Willy Porter. "Singer-songwriters keep on chuggin' along into the 21st century," Jerome remarks.

"Though 'singer-songwriter' as a genre got its name in the mid-1960s, performers who sang mostly their own material date at least to the 1920s. Probably not too many observers would cite Blind Alfred Reed as a pioneer of the genre, but unlike just about anybody else, one of his songs -- 'How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times & Live?' -- is still sung and recorded, most recently by no less than Bruce Springsteen. With the rarest of exceptions, songs by singer-songwriters get sung only by the songwriters. Too many have no business writing songs at all."

Jason Ring offers a Patchwork selection of his music on this multi-faceted recording. "With skill on about a dozen instruments, Jason plays his version of bluegrass, the blues and a couple other genres on his CD," Wil Owen says.

"The title refers to the various styles of music he brings together to showcase different aspects of the American culture. I should note that this is a solo CD and while you will hear a total of seven instruments, he is the only musician playing."

Perfectly timed for the season comes a new, hefty collection of short-shorts titled Half-Minute Horrors. "The challenge with short-shorts is giving readers an entire story, with characters, conflict and resolution, in such a short space. Well handled, these tales can be a delight," Tom Knapp says.

"'Delightful' describes maybe half of the entries in Half-Minute Horrors, a new volume out just in time for Halloween, edited by Susan Rich and boasting work by a who's who of contemporary writers. The other half, sadly, are less satisfactory.

Raymond L. Atkins worries less about the mystery, more about the folks, in Sorrow Wood. "You don't read Atkins for plot. Sorrow Wood has a murder at the heart of the story, but it's really not that important. We don't even discover that it has taken place until we're a hundred or so pages into the novel," says Michael Scott Cain.

"No, with Atkins, what counts is the characters. He has a keen eye for the oddballs and outlaws of the American South and loves them, loves being in their company and rendering them alive on paper. He is also good at puncturing the balloons of self-inflated people who think money and position make them somehow better than the rest of us."

Bruce Hennigan continues the Jonathan Steel Chronicles with The 12th Demon: Vampyre Majick. "I wasn't quite sure what to think when I encountered this genre. Most Christians tend to eschew vampire fiction, but here Bruce Hennigan is writing about both vampires and demons. The concept of Christian dark fantasy intrigued me enough to pick up this book," Becky Kyle says.

"The Twelfth Demon is an interesting and mostly stand-alone read. Dr. Hannigan (a radiologist by trade) writes very well and does a decent job of integrating demons and vampyres into his fantasy landscape."

Broos Campbell offers No Quarter in the first Matty Graves novel of nautical adventure. "Campbell is a relatively new voice in the rich tradition of naval fiction, and he is a welcome addition to the ranks. While many top novelists have followed in the wake of Forester and O'Brian in detailing the valor of the mighty British fleet, Campbell instead takes on the fledgling American navy at a time when it was small, weak and poorly regarded," Tom Knapp says.

"Campbell breathes life into an obscure chapter of American history, and I look forward to reading the further adventures of Matty Graves."

Jan Dynes "may have a dynamite story to tell, but she has to learn to write better in order for me to finish it," Dave Sturm grumbles. "I saw plenty of 'wow' reviews for Refraction and thought I'd check it out. After starting it I kept thinking, 'It has to get better.' It didn't.

"Sorry, this book is lame."

Richard Russo summons That Old Cape Magic for a book whose only real failure is its brevity. "Russo's best books -- in particular Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs -- held my and other readers' attention over the course of 500 pages or more. In that space, Russo's characters shifted from the past to the present, sometimes -- like in Bridge of Sighs -- giving us a peek inside what they're up to at 10 years old, 20 years old and middle age," Eric Hughes says.

"In That Old Cape Magic, Russo lays the groundwork for a similar decades-long story to be told, but then, unfortunately, just never gets there. Glimpses into the past, for example, are truncated into bite-sized recaps, as if That Old Cape Magic was whittled down by a heavy-handed editor."

Artist and writer Melissa Lakso-Gross "takes an unvarnished look back in this collection of wry, poignant semi-autobiographical sketches based on life in grade school" in Escape from "Special", Mary Harvey says. "This debut graphic novel is perceptive and unstinting in its unsentimental look at childhood and early adolescence. It's also morbidly funny, dark and twisted. It is about as far from idealized and romanticized as a writer can get, which is what sets this eloquent and touching story apart from the rest.

"Escape from 'Special' is a portrait of an actual, lived life, set down as it happened. It's as urgent as it is unnerving. Lakso-Gross pulls off a great feat: she makes you feel less like you're reading it and more like you're living it right along with her."

In The Hanged Man, Mark Allen says, "Adam Cadman is a condemned man on his way to the gallows, long after the death sentence has been abolished on English soil. A cold-hearted man, with seemingly no redeeming qualities or value, fate has decreed that he meet his end dangling from a rope ... or has it?

"Writer Alan Grant draws the reader in by presenting the possibility that such an ignoble character could be changed for the better. In the story, Cadman is directly confronted with the terrible deeds he has committed, and he even experiences a tightening of the noose around his neck when he is caught in betrayal, cowardice or the like. As a result of his sins being ever before him, a part of Cadman begins to emerge that has long been buried, if it ever existed at all."

S.E. Schlosser deals a pack of Ghost Stories in this new collection of tales that's perfect for reading in a small group by firelight. "Schlosser has written a fair number of spooky collections over the years, but for some, even reading from a book is too cumbersome. Now, working with illustrator Paul Hoffman and designer Danielle Deschenes, Schlosser has made it even easier to share haunted tales around a campfire or other setting," Tom Knapp says.

"It's a deck of cards.

"Ghost Stories comes with 50 cards, each illustrated, presenting a short, spooky tale on both sides. Obviously, these stories are very short -- perfect for swapping tales in any small gathering. And, because they're in card form, they can shuffled up, dealt or traded among the group so everyone can take a turn."

Tom Knapp digs into the seedy side of supernatural Chicago with The Dresden Files. "Constantine has much to answer for," Tom laments. "It's bad enough that the movie took the concept of Vertigo's groundbreaking Hellblazer series and diluted into an uninteresting shadow of itself. It's bad, too, that British mage John Constantine was transformed into a California wizard played with a single note by Keanu Reeves. It's worse still that the movie, even standing apart from the graphic series that spawned it, is a soulless mess.

"Now I learn that the short-lived Dresden Files TV series, which lasted only one season on the Sci-Fi Channel, would have been a feature film if Constantine hadn't beaten it to the punch and cornered, undeservedly so, the supernatural detective market. Even banished to cable and a lower budget, however, The Dresden Files stands head and shoulders above its competitor."

Carole McDonnell says Knock 'Em Dead, Kid "is not your parent's coming-of-age flick. And, unless your neighbor is into indie flicks, it's probably not your neighbor's coming-of-age flick either.

"At the core of its $3,000 indie heart, it's a cautionary tale about the dangers of being an unthinking slacker. It's an unexpectedly sober treatment of most of the basic tropes and of the typical guy film -- and their consequences. Unthought-out violence, beat-downs, substance abuse, one-night-stands. Not that the film isn't funny. And not that it's dark, either. Like its commercial counterparts, it's full of raunchy sex scenes, fat jokes, etc. But it has an earnestness that is almost downright evangelical. Don't worry, it isn't. Religion doesn't really pop up. The spiritual awakening in this film is the wakening to common sense."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)

24 October 2009

We are not born all at once, but by bits. The body first, and the spirit later. ... Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer the longer pains of our spiritual growth.
- Mary Antin

A few months ago, our editor predicted that, in the wake of recent layoffs, furloughs, wage freezes, reduced benefits and a big ol' merger, there would be a 10 percent reduction in oxygen in the office -- at his bread-and-butter job, mind you, not at the spacious and congenial home of Rambles.NET -- at some point in the near future. He was disturbed this week to see that all of the once-thriving live plants in the office have been removed. Next up: timed trips to the restroom and water rationing.

Eamon Friel may prove Smarter than before with his latest release. "Eamon Friel continues to plough the fertile land of personal experience. His songs are rooted in the ordinary, the everyday, in what you and I can and do experience," Nicky Rossiter says.

"He maintains a strong output over the 11 tracks on offer and proves the adage that to appeal to the world you should keep it local."

Sarah Goslee Reed presents a sedate disposition on It's About Time. "It's About Time is folk music; very quiet, calm, dispassionate folk music, as played by a classically trained artist," Michael Scott Cain says.

"They are nice songs, nice in every way, polite songs that clear their throats trying to get your attention instead of shouting at you. If Reed feels passionate about this music, it doesn't show in her performance. Mostly ballads, the songs settle into the background. They're good but in a never-insisting way."

Patty Loveless keeps her music alive with Mountain Soul II. "Mountain Soul II showcases all of Loveless's many strengths and picks up where Mountain Soul (Epic, 2001) left off, with the sounds of acoustic country, bluegrass, gospel and her native Kentucky. Soul deservedly garnered much praise, but as doesn't always happen with sequels, Soul II is even a little better, perhaps simply because Loveless continues to work conscientiously at her craft," Jerome Clark says.

"If you haven't heard Loveless, think of a less ethereal, more grounded Emmylou Harris -- in other words a rooted artist with brains and taste to spare. Not to mention a spectacular singing voice."

Lalgudi G Jayaraman provides over an hour's worth of music on Violin Soul: South Indian Classical Music. "If you enjoy classical Indian music and/or the violin, Violin Soul: South Indian Classical Music might be the CD for you," Wil Owen says. "For me, this CD always makes me hungry. Fortunately, there are several good Indian buffets in my town. Maybe this CD should come with a warning that it might lead one to becoming fat...."

Virginia MacIsaac files another report from Cape Breton regarding Sandy MacIntyre's Trip to Toronto, a spotlight performance from the second night of the Celtic Colours International Festival.

"This tribute to Sandy MacIntyre was a concert and more," she says. "The delight and appreciation for the man of the hour was evident from the opening moment to the final note. The venue at St. Matthew's in Inverness is a small, intimate setting, but the music was vast and vibrant."

Kaitlin Hahn also reports from opening night, when the Festival Club demonstrated the caliber of talent gathered for this year's event.

"One of my favorite things about the Festival Club is how artists are taken from their various bands and are put together in different configurations for impromptu, often unrehearsed performances on the stage," she says. "It keeps things exciting and interesting, which brings audiences back again and again."

Dan Brown follows up The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons with The Lost Symbol. "The book, third in a series of novels featuring college professor Robert Langdon, has the renowned symbolist scurrying around on American soil this time around. He's on the hunt for the Ancient Mysteries, which are powerful secrets guarded by the Freemasons and believed by some to be buried somewhere in Washington, D.C.," Eric Hughes reports.

"Unlike its predecessors, The Lost Symbol occurs over a period of about 12 hours. No chance for sleep on this one. (That goes for both you and Langdon, as events fly by, from multiple characters' perspectives, in rapid succession). In this respect, The Lost Symbol is more frantic, given that much of Langdon's decision-making must be made and finalized right away. Granted, there are a few instances where the characters break from the main action, but not many. There just simply isn't time."

Douglas Clegg introduces readers to Isis, a novella Tom Knapp says "evokes a time when horror fiction was cerebral, like Poe, rather than visceral, like every slasher film to hit the big screen in the past few decades.

"Clegg doesn't spatter readers with gore; he haunts them with feelings of loss and remorse. And the dead who wander here don't rend flesh or crave brains for sustenance; they linger in a much more painful, pitiful state," Tom says. "Isis fits neatly, I am told, into Clegg's ongoing Harrow series of books. I am not familiar with Clegg's other writings, but Isis stands alone as a dark, lyrical tale of sadness and regret. It is a short but spooky read that will stick with you long after the pages are closed."

C.S. Forester is back for more with Hornblower & the Atropos. "It's amazing how much can happen without the usual flash and bang of cannons and broadsides at sea," Tom says.

"Atropos is not action-packed by any stretch, but it is packed stem to stern with historical detail and rich characterizations that make C.S Forester's novels such a joy to read. Now five books into this classic series, I find it hard to put down a Hornblower tale even for the basic necessities such as sleep and work! It is a thoroughly enjoyable problem to be so engrossed in a story."

In the fictive universe of Kelly McCullough's MythOS, "magic, science and mythology are all equally powerful and equally true," Chris McCallister says.

"As with the previous books in this series, the action is non-stop, the characters are not only well-developed but are also evolving and the plot is complex but coherent," he says. "The author gave himself the task of creating another entire type of reality that differs from the one in the prior books. The resulting story therefore has a freshness that would be hard to create otherwise. Meanwhile, the bits and pieces of disaster-remnants, that keep showing up, add a sense of urgency and tension, as they suggest that terrible things are happening back home, but not in any definitive or clear way."

Matthew Loux's Salt Water Taffy: The Seaside Adventures of Jack & Benny is the sort of comic that gets maligned as being 'an all-ages romp' or, worse, 'fun for the whole family.' Which is true, but unfortunate. 'All ages' has become associated with dull, placid stories where people learn the value of teamwork, and often a cute animal inexplicably talks to deliver half-funny jokes," Sarah Meador remarks.

"But as young brothers Jack and Benny soon discover, The Legend of Old Salty is a very different sort of story. From the time they pull into town, they find characters more often associated with late-night horror movies than afternoon cartoons."

Mark Allen, meanwhile, takes a look at Aztek, The Ultimate Man, who leapt from the pages of the Justice League of America at the hands of Grant Morrison and Mark Millar. "Aztek showed a lot of promise as a superhero book. The combination of an intriguing lead character with a solid supporting cast, set in a brand new city in DC lore (Vanity), gave the book the best foundation any new comic could have," Mark says.

"And yet, despite having everything going for it, Aztek's sales figures deemed it unworthy of continued production, and it was given the ax by DC."

Mark Steele questions the practice, if not the intent, of religion in Christianish: What If We're Not Really Following Jesus at All? "Steele's is an important message but, as a reader, I've got a few problems with the book," says Michael Scott Cain.

"First, he's not that graceful a writer. His development technique is to state something and follow up the statement with a series of sentence fragments. Second, he has structured the book as a sort of memoir; most of the examples come from his own experience and he hasn't managed to make the examples quite as compelling as they should be."

It's been 15 years, but Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction still stands out as a groundbreaking film. "The thing that really sets Pulp Fiction apart from all the other worthy films of 1994 is its director," Belinda Christ says.

"With his 1992 Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino threw down the gauntlet, promising that his was a talent to watch. In Pulp Fiction, he delivered on that promise. But what makes Tarantino so unique? He does something few directors are brave enough to attempt: he trusts the audience."

Tom Knapp offers this counterpoint to Cherise Everhard's enthusiastic review of 300. While Cherise, in 2007, wrote that the film "was like watching artwork come to life, a feast for the eyes," Tom has a different opinion.

"Far from appearing like a movie derived from a comic book, which it is -- and believe me, I have a great respect for films of that subgenre -- 300 looks like a movie made from a video game," he says. "Not a very deep or plot-driven game, either -- 300 is all about the style of hack and slash, the graceful dance of pivot and stab, the severed limb, the sundered head and the spray of blood."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)

17 October 2009

People are very inclined to set moral standards for others.
- Elizabeth Drew

Sheesh. Snow so early? I'm expecting a nice Indian Summer by Halloween!

Ronan Tynan is once again The Yankees' Tenor, and he marks that status with a very short -- but memorable -- recording. "My favorite singer and my favorite sports team! A two-track CD! A recording officially licensed by Major League Baseball! Somewhat unusual, no?" Bill Knapp remarks. "At the time of this writing, the Yankees are still in the playoffs. If they make it to the World Series (or win it) and Ronan Tynan sings "God Bless America" in the stadium again, this CD will become very special to me. Now, if I could just get Ronan Tynan and Derek Jeter to autograph it, how great would that be?"

Ana Popovic is Blind for Love on her new selection of blues. "Equally at home with electric and acoustic guitar, this woman wails. Her playing is hot, skilled and moving. She takes the old blues cliches and turns them inside out, creating something new out of the old. Sure, she knows the formulas and uses them but she goes beyond them, giving the music her own original twist," says Michael Scott Cain.

"This one will spend a lot of time in your CD player."

Ben Winship and David Thompson kick back with a little Fishing Music II. "Songs about recreational fishing aren't exactly a staple of American folk and popular music, but they're hardly absent," Jerome Clark says.

"If you have no interest in fishing -- I last fished when I was 10 or 11 years old, and that isn't because I live far from any pastoral fishing hole -- you may think, reasonably enough, that this CD has nothing for you. You would be wrong. Frankly, I don't see how anybody who likes music could dislike this record. More than fishing alone, it celebrates the communion of human beings and the natural world."

Shotgun Party demonstrates a Mean Old Way in music. "The Austin-based acoustic trio Shotgun Party doesn't entirely elude classification, but it comes close. Whatever it is -- a cracked 21st-century take on Western swing probably gets nearest -- it's weird and wild, in the old Johnny Carson catchphrase," Jerome says. "Mostly, though, it's music, literally and metaphorically, to jaded ears. It's also a high-wire act, something that couldn't go the distance without exceptional musical chops, bracingly unhesitant vocals and songwriting of a high order."

The 13th Celtic Colours International Festival kicked off in style last Friday, and while editor Tom Knapp is bewailing his absence this year, Virginia MacIsaac was on hand to catch the opening show, Island to Island: The Cape Breton-Ireland Musical Bridge, in Port Hawkesbury. "Amid the coloured haze and beams of light in autumn hues against a black backdrop with a stylized silver Cape Breton Island hanging like a shining moon, the musicians delivered a solid opening concert, and it was both a reunion and a beginning to something fine," Virginia says. Read her review for more ... as Tom sobs quietly into his pillow.

Jonathan Groff, star of the Broadway musical Spring Awakening and the recent movie Taking Woodstock, took some time to visit his hometown, and Tom Knapp took the opportunity to chat with him. "Waiting tables in New York City isn't all that bad. Working with director Ang Lee on a movie is better -- and a lot more intimidating," Tom learns. Read on to see what Groff has to say about his experiences on stage and screen.

Cherie Priest brings a new sensibility to 19th-century Seattle in Boneshaker. "There were zombies running amuck in Seattle in the 1880s -- but this is not the Seattle we know," Tom Knapp says.

"Cherie Priest has built quite a world here, an Old West variation on the popular steampunk theme. The separate but inexorably entwined stories of Briar and Zeke are densely packed with suspense and amazement. The menace of the mindless rotters provides a constant undercurrent of tension to the more immediate dangers presented by Dr. Minnericht -- a shadowy figure with a great many secrets and, perhaps, a few answers -- and the ominous yellow clouds of drifting blight gas. Trust me, you will find yourself holding your breath while reading this one -- and again while waiting for the upcoming sequel!"

Michael Harvey takes this mystery to The Fifth Floor for this sequel to The Chicago Way. "This mystery series is a real winner, and I hope that it continues," Corinne Smith says.

"Those readers familiar with the streets of the Windy City will appreciate the dedication to accuracy in the setting. But you don't have to be from Chicagoland to be able to picture the action. And you don't have to have read The Chicago Way to understand Kelly and the other characters in this book. Harvey reminds us that there are indeed some bad guys out there, and they can come in either gender and any color. And maybe private detective Michael Kelly isn't the only person taking matters into his own hands."

Terry Brooks concludes The Word & the Void with Angel Fire East. "If, like me, you've read Running with the Demon and Knight of the Word, you'll want to know what happens to series protagonists John Ross and Nest Freemark. Answers are waiting in Angel Fire East," Becky Kyle says.

"While I still love Ross and Freemark, it almost feels like some of this story is templated -- particularly the fight scenes. I'm glad to have read the book. It's good to know what happened to two characters I value, but this is a lackluster end to what I consider a stellar beginning."

Mark Allen has a blast with Doris Danger Giant Monster Adventures! "Any true comics fan has at least a passing knowledge of the monster comics published by Timely/Marvel Comics in the late 1950s and early '60s. These comics have become famous, and quite admired by some, for their corny, over-the-top drama, goofy monster names and indefinable charm. Very nearly a parody of themselves, they are the definition of 'kitsch,'" Mark Allen says.

"I say 'very nearly' because, as parodies of those curiously classic tales are concerned, Chris Wisnia has set the standard with his wonderfully whimsical digest-format graphic novel, Doris Danger Giant Monster Adventures! While spoofs of this material have been done in the past, none have offered the humor, the creativity and the sheer (strange as it may be) imagination of DDGMA."

Sarah Meador scrutinizes the new Tales From the Crypt series with volume one, Ghouls Gone Wild. "Tales From the Crypt was first a comic anthology in the early 1950s. Stories were introduced, with rotten puns and great cheer, by the Crypt Keeper and his friends. The stories followed a predictable pattern of petty betrayal, death and vengeance from beyond. Enthusiastic melodrama and often wonderful art lifted Tales above itself," she says.

"But as the Crypt Keeper would agree, you can't keep a good haunt down, and Papercutz has brought Tales From the Crypt back to life -- or undeath -- in its original, unfettered comics form. The new series has all the old trademarks. Like the earlier incarnations, it's horror for a younger audience, with gore and violence often played as comedy. Exaggerated character flaws, ghoulish punishment and improbable crimes abound. There's even the old Crypt Keeper, with his friends the Old Witch and the Vault Keeper, to bring back the old, painful puns."

John Luther Adams delves into the creation of sound in The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music. "Adams is one of the more interesting composers working today, and I mean that in a very complimentary way: his music seems as much translation as composition, based on a wide understanding of music as sound and sound as meaning," Robert Tilendis says.

"The Place Where You Go to Listen is a book about the creation of one of his works, of the same title, that illustrates perfectly what I mean. ... it's partly a journal, partly a set of essays, some technical, some philosophical, partly a reverie on art and its place in the human sphere, and humanity and its place in the world."

Today, Tom Knapp takes a look at two divine movies: Bruce Almighty and its stand-alone sequel, Evan Almighty.

"In Bruce Almighty, Bruce (Jim Carrey) is temporarily given the powers of God (Morgan Freeman) in order to earn a revelation through his own trials and errors. In the sequel, Evan Almighty, Evan (Steve Carell) is given an order from God (still Freeman) to build an ark," he says. "Watch Bruce first, then give Evan a chance. You'll enjoy both -- but chances are good you might watch Bruce a second time."

Dave Sturm gets a little post-realistic with Umberto D. "When I plunged into Italian neo-realism -- Paisan, Open City, Bicycle Thief -- I had seen most of the earlier movies before I encountered Umberto D," he says. "It took me by surprise. The tough-mindedness of the earlier films did not prepare me for the naked emotion of this story of a proud pensioner trying to maintain his dignity while on the verge of becoming homeless."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)

10 October 2009

People are very inclined to set moral standards for others.
- Elizabeth Drew

The world recognizes the value of hope. Hallelujah.

The folks at the Aurora Lights label bring together a variety of musicians for Still Moving Mountains: The Journey Home.

"'Moving mountains' is ordinarily a phrase used to denote extraordinary effort. To the musicians and activists who put this collection together, it has two meanings. One is the vile practice of mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia, and the other is the struggle to protect the environment of the Southern mountains and the health of those who live there. Still Moving Mountains is for a good cause: the financing of the opposition. Even if it weren't a good album, it would be a project worth supporting with your purchase," Jerome Clark says. "Happily, the music is excellent."

Eyal Maoz offers Hope & Destruction in this follow-up to Edom. "The Tzadik Records website describes this CD as a part of 'Radical Jewish Culture,' whatever that is. Actually, I guess it is whatever you want it to be. This CD, at a radical length of over an hour, combines rock, metal, surf, avant-garde, electronica and Jewish melody in an intriguing mix," Dave Howell says.

"It seems that some of this music must be improvised, but Eyal Maoz's group of musicians never falls in to the tiresome noodling of many jam bands. Each of the 12 tracks are compositions, with a defined beginning and end, often incorporating Jewish musical elements."

Eric Bogle brings his concert experience to DVD on Live at the Stoneyfell Winery. "Welcome to the finest live presentation of this year. Eric Bogle is a performer ideally suited both to the live show and to the DVD market. His show is not all bells and whistles, needing 40 camera angles and state-of-the-art surround sound with possibly 'vibrovision' to enjoy it. He stands, he sings, he plays, he chats and he has a brilliant team of musicians backing him," Nicky Rossiter says.

"Add to this the stature as one of the finest songwriters of modern times -- people all too often forget this attribute, thinking his songs are traditional -- and that his repertoire spans comic through historical and personal to tragic, and you have the ingredients for a great show."

The Boston Pops Orchestra blends disparate sounds on the aptly named The Celtic Album. "For those whose musical tastes include both classical and Celtic, here is the perfect recording. The Celtic Album, featuring the Boston Pops Orchestra, provides both on every one of its 16 tracks," Bill Knapp says. "I've had this CD for a few years, but somehow it became buried in the pile. I recently came across it again and discovered I had a perfect gem that went unheard for way too long."

It's Celtic Colours time again, and for those of us who cannot be in Cape Breton this year, Virginia MacIsaac offers these recollections of Ceilidh anns a'Bhraigh, the Ceilidh in the Glen.

"The Glendale concert is always one of my favourites. There are several reasons that I go out of my way to try to do Glendale. It's a small wooden venue with a welcoming old-time concert feel; it showcases lots of home-grown talent; and displays the type of concert you'd see in Glendale almost anytime of the year," Virginia shares. "The setting is a wooden parish hall on church grounds, shadowed by the imposing Creignish Hills to the west, located just a few minutes from the Canso Causeway at Port Hastings. On a clear fall evening, the roadway is dark, the parking lot is near, light and voices float through the open doors into the night as the concert begins."

Francesca Lia Block picks a bouquet of nine Blood Roses for this new collection of tales. "In nine brief tales, a dense veil of modern fantasy is drawn over the events that take place. The mood is dark, dream-like and subtly metaphorical. Some conclusions are vague, or they are wrapped in lyrical prose that mask reality. But I'm pretty sure that in many cases here, these characters -- mostly young girls -- come to some form of unpleasantness by the end ... although, sometimes, one suspects the conclusion is more healing than harmful," Tom Knapp says.

"These loosely linked, transformative stories are magical in some ways, ripe with blossoming sexuality and confusion and, in a few cases, predation. They are beautiful and sad and quite often cautionary. Thoroughly modern, they just might steer young readers away from the Big Bad Wolf that awaits them in the woods."

Roxanne Longstreet, better known to many readers as Rachel Caine, shows off her early work in The Undead. "The Undead is a typical early novel in some ways. Slight gaps in logic, some disjointed scenes and other little inconsistencies sprinkled throughout prevent me from enthusiastically recommending this book to non-Roxanne Longstreet/Rachel Caine fans," says Belinda Christ.

"But if you are willing to overlook the problems, true fans will find a fairly satisfying read, with plenty of scenes in which you can see the seeds of the writer Roxanne has grown into today."

Jack Ford uncovers The Osiris Alliance. "What makes a thriller? With so many titles printed each year vying for the attention of readers, the most important requirement of a thriller like any publication is that it attracts you. But, most crucially, the next step is to hold you. It has to make you want to know more from the first few pages, and this book does just that," Nicky Rossiter says. "In his writing debut, Jack Ford has created characters that attract the reader, but more importantly they are interesting enough to have us want them to progress and for us to follow them."

J.A. Nevling fumbles with Burned: A Tragic Mystery. "The storyline seemed interesting enough; unfortunately, there are way too many things about it that ended up ruining what could have been a decent read," Cherise Everhard remarks.

"The mystery portion of the story was more than a little weak. I had pegged one of the culprits from the moment they entered into the story and before the mystery began. Also, the two detectives that are assigned to the case were like the Keystone Kopps. They bumble their way through the case with jokes that fall flat and questionable crime-solving skills. How they actually solved the case was the real mystery to me."

Andrew Vachss falls under Dave Sturm's microscope with Flood. "I know all about Harry Bosch, Tess Monaghan and Matthew Scudder. (Lucas Davenport, too, but he's not quite in their league.) I hadn't met Burke yet. Now I have, in Flood," Dave says. "All in all, I think I'll be spending more time with Burke."

Mark Allen gets beneath the skin of a classic Spider-Man villain in Zeb Wells' Doctor Octopus: Year One. "It's always exciting when comics creators can broaden and more deeply define a classic character. And, as so many popular superheroes have even more interesting villains, this is all the more true with the bad guys," Mark says.

"Kaare Andrews lends his considerable artistic talents to the story, bringing wonderfully vibrant life to the characters. Visually, he stays true to the classic look of Ock, while being unafraid to take chances with some more realistic design characteristics where his mechanical appendages are concerned. His subtle variations were enough to make me wonder why Ditko, the Romitas, Andru or any of the other classic Spidey artists never thought of similar possibilities."

Marla Brooks attempts to unearth the spooky side of Tinsel Town in Ghosts of Hollywood: The Show Still Goes On. "Glancing down the table of contents, the reader gets the impression that this book is packed with ghostly encounters, but in truth, the author only gives personal accounts of a few places," Donna Scanlon reports. "For the most part, Marla Brooks recounts local legends of ghosts and hauntings, usually prefaced with 'it is said.' The actual information doesn't meet the buildup; often, she doesn't even cite other people's experiences but relies on what the legends are or alludes to 'reports' of sightings."

Tom Knapp, burned once by the Hulk fiasco, gives The Incredible Hulk a try. "At a time when superhero movies are box-office gold, it's almost unheard of to let a prime comic-book character languish after only one film, with no sequels in sight. But, after the letdown that was 2003's Hulk, filmmakers wisely let the green-skinned behemoth rest for a few years. When they brought him back, it was clearly a reboot, not a sequel, and everything was new, from the actors and crew to the CGI-animated Hulk himself," he says.

"Thankfully so. The Incredible Hulk, directed by relative newcomer Louis Leterrier, puts Ang Lee's Hulk to shame."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)

3 October 2009

The mind of the bigot is like the pupil of the eye;
the more light you pour upon it, the more it will contract.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes

Can someone please tell me how it got to be October already? I mean, didn't spring just end??

Irish singer-songwriter Tommy Sands finds "that magical mixture of good music well sung with historical titbits and fascinating background notes" on his latest album, Let the Circle be Wide, Nicky Rossiter says.

"Tommy Sands starts as he means to continue with 'Young Man's Dream.' This is a lovely song made all the more interesting when we read in the notes -- all by Tommy -- that it is a recreation of the original 'Danny Boy.' He gives us seed, breed and generation of the opus."

Casey Joe Abair and Hunter Robertson recall the wisdom of old-time banjo player Charlie Lowe on If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed. "The message: if you don't like lively music, get lost. Though Lowe is long gone, Casey Joe Abair (fiddle) and Hunter Robertson (banjo, lead vocals) carry on the fiery tradition of Southern mountain music," Jerome Clark says.

"Their music is bright, vivid and lovely. If you find yourself nodding off through Sleep, see your doctor."

Acacia Sears is listening to Dialtones on her recent recording. "Acacia has a beautiful and alluring voice, and her melancholic and sometimes even hypnotic songs put a kind of spell on the listener," Adolf Goriup says.

"You forget about daily troubles and you start looking dreamingly into the void. She sings songs of love and hope, self-doubt and broken hearts, happy moments and sad farewells. Her guitar playing is rhythmic, melodic and matches perfectly to the pensive atmosphere of her songs."

With Celtic Colours 2009 right around the corner, Virginia MacIsaac has two reviews of last year's events still to share. (Watch for the other next week.) At Cutting Edge in Inverness, she said, Gillian Boucher, Haugaard & Hoirup, Mary Jane Lamond, Angus Lyon, Ashley MacIsaac and Liam O'Maonlai took the stage.

"It's been nearly a year since players at the 'Cutting Edge' kicked up the night air in the school gymnasium in Inverness. Then, it was fall and now it's the end of summer, but I can easily transport myself into the energy and flow of that concert as if it were yesterday. As I stood there that evening, in the dark of school gym, I didn't expect a heck of a lot more than a pretty good concert, certainly not the high vibes that took over the room," she says. "This remains one of my favourite Celtic Colours concerts and the audience response to all the acts proved it a perfect place to hold this show."

Melissa Francis takes on the teen-vampire with Bite Me! "As teen dramas go, Bite Me! has nearly all of the basics covered," Tom Knapp says.

"Francis's first novel is well written and entertaining, particularly for readers who want something a little new in the fast-growing teen vampire genre. AJ in particular is an interesting character who deserves further development," Tom adds. "Complaints aside, I enjoyed the book and predict Francis will find willing and eager readers among her target audience. Love Sucks, the pending sequel, will hopefully show a little more polish."

Rafe Martin takes a riff off the Grimm Brothers' popular tale, "The Wild Swans," with Birdwing. "Picking up where Grimm left off, Rafe Martin tells the angst-ridden tale of Ardwin Birdwing, the youngest prince. Possessing vivid memories of his life as a swan and the ability to speak to animals, Ardwin is caught between two worlds, neither of which he can wholly belong to. Much teenage angst ensues," says Jennifer Mo.

"The integration of another fairy tale ('The Goose Girl') into Ardwin's does nothing for the story, but Birdwing's primary faults lie in its wooden characters, stilted dialogue and clunky psychology. Neither Ardwin, whose angst quickly becomes tiresome, nor any of the other characters emerges as a distinct or particularly likable entity. At the end of 300 pages, I was entirely indifferent to their fates. I flipped to the end only for the sake of good form."

Janet Paisley steps back to the days of Prince Charlie and Culloden in White Rose Rebel. "If you are looking for a hardcore Scottish romance with some slight basis in historical fact, you may not be disappointed with this story. In my case, I was searching for historical fiction and felt cheated," Becky Kyle warns. "For one thing, the setting of the scene and the explanation of history and the politics of the time just aren't up to par. The narrative relies too much on sex and sensuality rather than the facts."

James Crumley's The Wrong Case is "one of the most hard-boiled, vivid, cruel, sleazy, tender, brutal, alcohol-soaked and brilliant noir novels you'll ever read," Dave Sturm crows. "I wouldn't want to live there, but I love visiting Crumley's world."

Kristin Hannah shows her True Colors in this book about sisterhood. "As a veteran novelist, she has taken the foundation of a solid romantic plot (hardly Harlequin!) and has sprinkled into it a few cowboys, horses and Native Americans to add a Western flair," says Corinne H. Smith.

"Then she tucked a murder mystery and investigation inside of it. The result is a satisfying all-in-one-weekend read that should please a wide range of women readers."

Brian Froud and Ari Berk collaborate to reveal the secrets of Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Letters. "Lady Cottington was one warped individual and as a result, this book -- a sequel of sorts to the notorious Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book -- is very fun to read," Cherise Everhard says.

"The fairies she chose to squish onto the paper are all fabulous in their splatters. Some of the images are sticking their tongues, or bums, out to the reader, others have a look of shock, and I giggled on every page. Lady Cottington is a little sarcastic and witty, and I would suspect she might have had some fairy blood herself as she also seems very much mischievous."

Mark Allen says this Ultimatum from Jeph Loeb failed to produce the universe-altering changes it promised. "Far from being meaningful, the deaths of characters with such history behind them seem much smaller than they should be, the fact that it took place in Marvel's much younger Ultimate universe, notwithstanding," he says.

"The only good thing about the series is the incredibly detailed art of David Finch. His work crackling with energy and emotion, Finch could one day become a master of comic book art ... IF he can learn to be a bit faster, and tone down the super-model quotient among his female characters."

Tom Knapp buckles in for The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. "Despite what other reviewers on this site have said about The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, I've always liked them quite a lot. They aren't great cinematic art, for sure, ranking somewhere between Indiana Jones (the high) and Lara Croft (the low) for popcorn-munching, tomb-raiding fun. Brendan Fraser, as affable archeologist and reluctant hero Rick O'Connell, is about as pleasant a protagonist as you're likely to find, and the fact that he doesn't quite fit the mold of the action hero is actually a plus," he says.

"Dragon Emperor falls down because it is, at its heart, a buddy film missing a buddy. Would they have sent Crosby to Hong Kong without Hope? Of course not. So don't send Rick to Shanghai without his beloved Evy."

Dave Howell also buckles in for "a cross-country motorcycle trip of more than 10,000 miles" called Redline America.

The documentary focuses on photographer Cliff Adams, Dave says. "There are those who might not find such a project interesting. But those willing to watch it will find a nearly perfect film."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)

26 September 2009

Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
- John Muir

It's a beautiful day!

Robin Rogers asks that you Treat Me Right. "The good people at Blind Pig Records have gotten it right again. They went out and found Robin Rogers, a woman with the voice that would make Dinah Washington look over her shoulder to find out who was creeping up behind her, a way with a song that makes most contemporary blues singers sound like they ought to be on Sesame Street, and a band that cooks like Julia Childs," says Michael Scott Cain.

"Friends, we've got a major talent here."

The Emmitt-Nershi Band offers up some New Country Blues for the discerning bluegrass fan. "I here affirm that this is an eminently listenable album as well as a modestly ambitious one. Drew Emmitt (mandolin, vocals) and Bill Nershi (guitar, vocals) cover just about any style that can still be called 'bluegrass' in the new century," Jerome Clark says.

"They provide something for any listener with an open ear."

Jeremy Udden is on a trip to Plainville. "Plainville is a project of the busy saxophonist Jeremy Udden, who has played with a number of well-known performers in jazz, avant-garde, rock, pop and world music," Dave Howell explains.

"The album is named for Udden's Massachusetts hometown. It puts Udden's alto and soprano sax in a generally more pastoral setting, largely backed by instruments more associated with folk and country music. ... This city meets country idea does not always work. Udden sounds out of place in a few spots, and he might be accused of noodling at points. This is a generally solid release, however. The unique sound draws your attention, and there are many beautiful melodies that carry these nine tracks along in a mellow but always interesting manner."

Corinne Smith takes us along to see Kenny Loggins perform in Interlochen, Massachusetts. "Veteran performers know what their audiences expect. Fans want to hear as many of their favorite melodies from the singer's catalogue as possible (and to hear them sooner, rather than later in the evening); they want to be able to sing along with those tunes; and they want to feel free enough to let the music take them to any dancing dimension that seems appropriate. Conversely, they'll tolerate new or unknown songs only sparingly and only if they're given a reason to do so," she says.

"I'm pleased to report that Kenny Loggins still delivers on all points, after almost 40 years in the music business."

Douglas Glenn Clark plumbs the depths of The Lake That Stole Children. "This is an entertaining fable with the feel and the appeal of the classics we have all grown up with. I read this story one evening and then went back to page one and read it all over again to my son," Cherise Everhard says.

"Like most fables, The Lake That Stole Children has an important lesson and it weaves it into the compelling prose and story. This is definitely a tale that begs to be read aloud and that can be enjoyed by the whole family and by all ages."

Margaret Redfern travels back in history with Flint. "Flint is a tale of love and loyalty set in that dangerous period in British history when Llewellyn, Prince of Wales, defied Edward I, who launched a powerful army in retaliation," John Lindermuth says.

"The novel is not so much about the political situation and the war as it is about its effect on ordinary people caught up in the wake of events. ... In lyrical, mesmerizing prose, author Margaret Redfern describes the hardships of the long march to Flint, the homesickness of the recruits and the cruelty of their overseers. The real story begins to unfold amidst the mud, the stench of the privation of the one solid spit of land surrounded by empty marshland where the castle is to be built."

C.S. Forester takes us along to witness Hornblower During the Crisis. "The biggest problem with Hornblower During the Crisis is that C.S. Forester died before finishing it," Tom Knapp laments.

"The story is enjoyable right up to the point it leaves you hanging. But at least there is a one-page summary of what was to come, drawn from Forester's notes. ... As a bonus, there are two short stories, one set early in Hornblower's career and the other, more whimsical, set much, much later. My only complaint here is that the latter tale revealed more about Hornblower's future than I was ready to know."

Jonathan Lethem earns acclaims from Eric Hughes with Motherless Brooklyn. "Motherless Brooklyn marks my first time reading a Jonathan Kethem novel. It won't be my last. The book -- published in 1999 -- is a truly gripping, fantastic read, with a first-person protagonist unlike any other I've come across," Eric says.

"I look forward to reading more Lethem."

Terry Brooks introduces A Knight of the Word in the second book of his The Word & the Void trilogy. "But, frankly, this one's not as much of a page-turner as Running with the Demon, the first book in the series," Becky Kyle says.

"Overall, it's a decent follow-up, but it's not a thriller like Running. We'll see what happens in book three."

Tom Knapp relives the harrowing adventures of two sly, monochromatic masters of espionage in the rerelease of three volumes of MAD Magazine's Spy vs Spy: Missions of Madness, Masters of Mayhem and Danger! Intrigue! Stupidity!

"When I was a very young child, much of the satire in MAD Magazine went right over my head. Many of the movie spoofs were beyond my grasp because I hadn't seen the movies; besides, a lot of the humor was geared for a slightly older audience than my tender self. But I always flipped through the pages eagerly anyway, looking for a few select features that always earned a grin. Spy vs Spy was one of them," he says.

"Back then, I didn't know -- and probably wouldn't have cared -- that creator/artist Antonio Prohias was a Cuban national who fled to America after Fidel Castro, who apparently didn't have a sense of humor and didn't like the political cartoons Prohias drew, threatened his life. ... All I knew was he drew silly little wordless strips in which two spies contended for military supremacy and tried constantly to steal each other's secret documents. Their efforts always fell somewhere between ludicrous and ingenious, and it was always a treat to watch them succeed or fail, in either case spectacularly."

Mark Allen finds a lot of comic-book depth in Robin's The Joker's Wild. "Some of the best characterization ever done in comics has been in DC's Robin, protege of Batman. And, of the several youngsters who have occupied that role, Tim Drake has shown the most character depth," Mark says.

"Chuck Dixon is perhaps the most accomplished writer where Robin is concerned, and this is one of the high points of the character's history, as well as Dixon's career. Readers see Tim tackle his own failures and shortcomings, not with self-indulgent whining and 'introspection,' in the sometimes-overdone Marvel Comics manner, but by changing and adapting his strategy. ... Artist Tom Lyle injects the story with all of the drama, action and emotion needed to complete this fun superhero romp."

D.P. Roseberry, working with psychic Laurie Hill, reveals the spirits at the shore in Cape May Haunts: Elaine's Haunted Mansion & Other Eerie Beach Tales. "Cape May has much to recommend itself for a vacation spot, with its beaches and Victorian architecture, but apparently it is also an area rich in haunting. Roseberry, the writer, and Hill, the psychic, describe the lore behind the hauntings as well as recounting encounters with the spirits," Donna Scanlon reports.

"Whether one believes in ghosts, the writing is engaging and the organization makes it a pleasure to read. Roseberry certainly makes it easy to find these places for readers to make up their own minds."

Dave Sturm has a few things to say about the quirky -- and currently banned from distribution -- Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. "I thought it was moving. I had expected it to be John Waters-ish. Not so. The Barbie gimmick -- dolls instead of actors -- really works," Dave says.

"I just wonder what thought process went through director Todd Haynes' mind to think this up. 'A movie about Karen Carpenter. Using Barbie Dolls. Hmmm.' The man's an artist."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions, below, and find some good stuff you might have missed over the years. We have more than 10 years' worth of our work online for your perusal, totaling more than 12,500 reviews!)