13 February 2010 to 10 April 2010

10 April 2010

Saturday, April 10, is Baby Massage Day. Really. It is also the 12th anniversary of the Good Friday Peace Accord in Northern Ireland, the 40th anniversary of the breakup of the Beatles, the 68th anniversary of the start of the six-day Bataan Death March and the 142nd anniversary of the premier of Brahms' "Requiem." It is Commodore Perry Day. It is the launch day of the 41st annual Cimarron Territory Celebration & World Cow Chip-throwing Championship Contest in Beaver, OK. It is National Siblings Day and National Love Our Children Day (because, apparently, some parents only love their kids when a federal holiday demands it). It marks the annual Prairie Dog Chili Cook-Off & World Championship of Pickled Quail-Egg Eating in Grand Prairie, Texas.

And no, we didn't make any of this up.

Follow your bliss. ... If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on the kind of track that has been there the whole while, waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.
- Joseph Campbell

Mary Custy and Eoin O'Neill joined forces for two albums, The Ways of the World and With a Lot of Help from Their Friends. "Every now and again, I feel obliged to dig into the dusty shelves of Irish music I've collected over the years and share a bit that might otherwise be forgotten or overlooked. This week, I pulled out a pair of CDs from 1991, both featuring Mary Custy and Eoin O'Neill, a pair of fine Doolin musicians from Co. Clare. Custy, the fiddler, was the main draw for me, but guitar and bouzouki player O'Neill is certainly the bedrock Custy builds upon. They're well matched on these recordings," Tom Knapp says.

"Both CDs are pleasant listening experiences and would serve well in any Irish music collection. Hearing them now, nearly two decades after their release, makes me wonder what Mary and Eoin are up to these days."

Joe Pug needs no Messenger for his music. "Happily, folk music -- actual folk music, in other words traditional music -- has made something of a comeback over the past decade or so. Though not a folk singer in that strict sense, Joe Pug -- a 20-something Chicago immigrant, born Joe Pugliese -- takes his inspiration from revival artists, most apparently Dylan, Phil Ochs and John Prine," Jerome Clark says.

"To my ears, though, what's missing is the explicit link that the above-named have -- in Ochs's case, had -- to the older musical traditions fashioned on guitars, harmonicas and banjos. That connection afforded all their creations a greater authority (I am unable to think of another word that will do here), giving them at least the illusion of voices carrying forth time-worn wisdom."

Old Man Luedecke gives a Maritime slant to the banjo on My Hands are on Fire & Other Love Songs. "Though his previous CD won Canada's Juno award as best roots album of 2009, My Hands are on Fire marks my first exposure to Luedecke, a solo artist on the road but here backed by a small, largely acoustic studio ensemble," Jerome says.

"The result is a full but uncluttered sound, sensitive to both the traditional and the contemporary sides of Luedecke's songwriting."

Paganus is sharing a little Skogsrock with the masses. "Paganus is a Swedish folk-rock band with an emphasis on the rock. This might put them out of consideration for many Rambles.NET visitors, but these guys deserve a chance. They are often heavy, but it is in the tradition of classic rock or metal, without the nihilism or grinding chords of many groups," Dave Howell says.

"The variety of these 12 songs makes for interesting and enjoyable listening."

Michele de Wilton new age recording Myths & Legends doesn't live up to its title. "Judging by the title alone, I expected something a little livelier than de Wilton delivers. A talented pianist and composer, she has filled this new-age album with a baker's dozen of solo piano tracks inspired at some level by mythology," Tom Knapp says.

"Well, Jason must have had a pretty tame voyage, judging by the sleepy-eyed tune his legend inspired. And that, I'm afraid, is true of everything offered here: the music doesn't evoke great deeds so much as it encourages listeners to find a quiet corner and take a little nap."


Seth Grahame-Smith addresses the art of slaying the undead in the mid-19th century in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. "Much like he did with Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Grahame-Smith is able to take a story Americans think they know and change it into something completely new and exciting. The basic premise of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter involves the author being given a stack of very old diaries that once belonged to Lincoln, diaries that have remained hidden for decades. He is tasked with turning these diaries into a book, to spread the truth of Lincoln's struggle as a Hunter and share the true history of the United States of America," Charissa Jelliff reports.

"Grahame-Smith completely rewrites our history and is able to blend the fact and fiction together almost seamlessly -- and not only that, but makes it relevant to modern history as well. Anyone who may have worried that Grahame-Smith may have been a one-shot wonder with Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, needn't have worried; Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is completely original and shows that even when left to his own devices, Grahame-Smith is a good writer."

Orson Scott Card sends his hero to another planet in Ender in Exile. "Ender has been hailed as a hero by some and reviled as a mass murderer by others. Once he defeated the enemy, Ender was deemed more useful if he were to be sent out on Earth's first colony ship to another planet rather than be allowed back to his home," Wil Owen explains.

"I quite enjoyed Ender in Exile. While not the best book in the series, it is definitely a worthy addition."

Alexander Kent sets sail again with Midshipman Bolitho & the Avenger as they tangle with smugglers off the coast of England. "This naval adventure is a far cry from the great battles with pirates that marked the previous book in the series. But there are dangers a-plenty here, from the smugglers themselves to the perils of serving under a brother with something to prove. By book's end, Hugh Bolitho's future in the British navy hangs in the balance," Tom Knapp says.

"Although a short novel by itself, Midshipman Bolitho & the Avenger was repackaged in 2006 with the previous novel and a shorter, newer volume that fills in another gap in Bolitho's life. The Complete Midshipman Bolitho is a must-read for fans of nautical adventure."


Next, Tom Knapp serves up a trio of graphic-novel reviews.

The Black Widow, an underused Marvel Comics character, is about to shoot into the spotlight with the upcoming movie, Iron Man 2. Thus, Marvel is packing the shelves with as many Iron Man and Black Widow titles as they can. "In the past, similar tactics have sometimes paid off poorly for the big comic-book companies. In the case of Deadly Origin, they came up with a winner," Tom says.

"I don't know yet how well the Black Widow will come off in the new movie, nor do I know how successful her new, ongoing comic-book series will be. But Deadly Origin gives this underused character a solid foundation from which to build. Let's hope the creative teams at Marvel are up to the task."

The folks at IDW continue the adventures of the original Star Trek crew in Star Trek Year Four. "The introduction to the original series always referred to the Enterprise's five-year mission, but those short-sighted network executives canned the series after only three years. So now, the gang at IDW has decided to finish off the mission in graphic form," Tom explains.

"The results are mixed. The artwork is fair -- the characters, at least, are recognizable as the actors who portrayed them on TV, which is a far cry beyond some earlier attempts with this title -- but it's never stellar. I suppose that's good in a way, since it gives the graphic novel a low-budget look, much like the original series."

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is back for more in The Blood of Carthage. "Unlike many of the stories told in Buffy's original comic-book/graphic novel series, this tale by Christopher Golden is epic," Tom says.

"There are a lot of good stories in the Buffy collection, but if you're only planning to collect a few of the best, this is one for the list."


Amy Friedman, Jillian Gilliland and Laura Hall have a solution for children who clamor for their parents to Tell Me a Story. "With children's tales from around the world, this CD contains eight tracks ranging in length from just under 5 to more than 13 minutes. In all, there are more than 70 minutes worth of stories," Wil Owen says.

"I have quite enjoyed these audio stories. I think the various readers do a fairly good job. Plus, the extra music and behind the reading background noise adds another layer to the experience. If you have young ones, I think Tell Me a Story could be a nice addition to your child(ren)'s library."

Ah! Snakes!!

Daniel Jolley has "a bloody good time" with Slither. "Knowing nothing about the movie going in, I initially thought this was going to be a somewhat disappointing horror film. It didn't take long, though, for me to figure out that what we have here is a real gem of horror comedy," he says.

"The secret to its comedic success is the fact that, instead of going over the top for laughs, the characters pretty much play it straight throughout. This thing is just full of terrific one-liners, not to mention subtle in-jokes that extend even beyond the horror genre. There is also plenty of blood and guts for gorehounds to enjoy. This is just one of those films that actually manages to balance that fine line between horror and comedy almost perfectly."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions 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 13,000 reviews!)

3 April 2010

My brother's home again, and spring is here. Ahh!

When humans speak for God in terms of rejection or condemnation, we may rest assured that dangerously narrow minds are at work.
- Rev. Webster "Kit" Howell

North Sea Gas makes a return to its roots in Edinburgh Toon. "I can only assume the name North Sea Gas is a reference to one of Scotland's most valuable natural resources. In this case its an apt comparison, because I'd say the same about the band North Sea Gas, which has been promoting the sounds of Scotland for three decades, and counting," Tom Knapp says.

"Edinburgh Toon is the latest in a series of 10 more albums this excellent trio has recorded over the years. This one was recorded live at The Lot in Edinburgh, a caber's toss away from the site of their first gig, the White Hart Inn. One might joke -- and the band does, in its opening to the show -- that they haven't gotten very far in 30 years ... but it's not the mileage so much as the quality of the trip. And these three musicians have continued to be unfailingly great at what they do."

Deanta, a band that had its peak in the 1990s, deserves another look, so Tom Knapp takes a look at the Northern Ireland band's debut album. "The band's sound is pure Ireland. ... The instrumental sets, heavily favoring the harp, tend toward the gentler side of Irish music. There's no faulting the tightness of the band's performance," he says.

"Where Deanta truly shone in its heyday was in songs led by Dillon's crystal-clear vocals. Full of the wild, heart-breaking passion for which Irish songs are renowned, Dillon wrings every iota of emotion from the words with strength and sweetness. I could listen to her sing all the live-long day."

The Haints Old Time Stringband preserve the spirits of long-dead folk performers on Shout Monah. "Participants in the current stringband revival fall into two categories: the traditionalists and the revisionists, the latter employing the tradition as a launching pad for modern exploration and expression. The Haints take the more risky first approach, too often resulting in what might be called -- pardon the oxymoron -- sterile reproduction. It requires both massive knowledge and masterly chops to pull off what the Haints do, which is not to try to escape from the old style but to burrow into it and find something yet undiscovered -- to make it, you might say, even deeper and truer than it already is," Jerome Clark says.

"Beyond that, there is an attractive warmth and sweetness to their sound. I don't mean to suggest sentimentality. Not at all. But their affection for the venerable rural-Southern songs, singers, and tunes is palpable."

The Guy Mendilow Band covers many types of music on Skyland. "It might be that Mendilow varies a bit too much here, and that some of the songs are a bit too mellow, like 'Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain.' Mendilow learned the latter from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, though, so that one is hard to argue with. And even the slow songs benefit from unusual arrangements," Dave Howell remarks.

"You could say this is like a compilation of world music, all by one band."


Our fiction reviews today take us from the supernatural side of Boston to ancient Jerusalem and American coastal waters during the War of 1812.

Nancy Holzner throws wide the gates to Deadtown in this novel about vampires, zombies, werewolves and Victory Vaughn, shapeshifter, all in a plague-ridden neighborhood of Boston. "Deadtown is the sophomore novel by English Ph.D. Nancy Holzner. All those years of voracious reading definitely paid off for this author. She's created an engaging character and a fantasy world that blends many common urban fantasy elements in a different manner," says Becky Kyle.

"For the most part, the novel is a an interesting and diverting read. Holzner puts a lot of balls into the air, but manages to keep the threads running clearly enough that an attentive reader can pick them up easily enough."

Elizabeth Cunningham continues The Maeve Chronicles with Bright Dark Madonna. "The novel is classed as religious fantasy/historical fiction -- and it is a fascinating read," Nicky Rossiter says.

"In some ways this is a logical outcome of the thesis put forward in books like The DaVinci Code. Maeve is the lady who gave rise to that story, but was only alluded to in general explanatory terms in such books. Here she takes center stage, and what a stage it is. ... As with all great fiction, there are conundrums and half-truths based on fact, and these add spice to the tale."

William H. White concludes his War of 1812 trilogy with The Evening Gun. "It's a shame when a promising writer with a good story to tell doesn't get the editing he deserves," Tom Knapp says.

"White knows his history, and The Evening Gun -- the third book of White's War of 1812 trilogy -- continues the adventures of Isaac Biggs and his shipmates in the naval defense of America. Unfortunately, the pleasure of reading the tale is diminished by some simple repetitions that a good editor should have caught," he adds. "White, himself quite experienced as a sailor, knows his subject and paints an interesting tale. It's just too bad he didn't get more help in preparing the text for public consumption."


Tom Knapp has a pair of selections today from the graphic novel department, both of which draw from the ookier side of comics.

First, Tom pays a visit to Richard Moore's Boneyard and decides to stay a while. "When Michael Paris inherits land from his grandfather, he has no idea what to expect. He plans to roll into town, sell the land and vamoose, but when he gets to Raven's Hollow -- and town that, quite literally, lies under a cloud -- he discovers his land is a cemetery, and the townsfolk are eager to buy it so they can raze it and send its population of resident monsters packing," he says.

"Boneyard is a cute, original story with a charming sense of humor. The characters are likable and fun, and I'll be curious to see where they're headed in volume two."

The second volume of Hack/Slash, Death by Sequel, carries an extra dose of the shivers. "It's always creepy when the killer is a kid," he says. "It's a little creepier still when the killer is a dead kid."

He adds: "The story, again, is good; the art, however, is handled by several artists and the result is uneven."


Richard Guy brings a life's experience to bear in The Ascent of Man. "His basic theory is a combination of planetary expansion and receding seas, and he certainly makes a case for this over more than 100 pages of closely argued facts. My jury is still out on the theory, but reading the book is an education for anyone who likes to be challenged and to accumulate interesting information," Nicky Rossiter says.

"You may not agree with this phenomenon, but Guy deserves to be heard as he expounds some very plausible arguments for something that, if correct, could affect us all."

Tom Knapp was largely disappointed by Dolphins & Whales: Tribes of the Ocean, a recent IMAX experience. "When the subject is dolphins and whales and the setting is an IMAX theater, you expect a certain degree of visual excellence. And Dolphins & Whales: Tribes of the Ocean doesn't disappoint, as it places viewers right in the midst of playful dolphins and massive whales. At times, I felt like I could reach out and touch a passing fin or crusted back, and I was amazed at every turn by the graceful beauty of the scenes," he says.

"But a movie -- even a three-dimensional IMAX event -- thrives on more than just pretty pictures. The overall package here falls short."

Horatio Hornblower has his plate full in The Frogs & the Lobsters, also known as The Wrong War. "Hornblower goes from sailor to soldier when he is ordered to lead a crew of cannoneers ashore in revolutionary France to assist Loyalist troops hoping to retake the nation," Tom says.

"Ioan Gruffudd continues to excel as Hornblower, a young officer in the British navy who is growing in maturity, experience and, most importantly, confidence as his various successes build."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions 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 13,000 reviews!)

27 March 2010

Damn it. My brother John is back in the hospital. Condition reports as available will be posted here. Let's hope this time the problems are fixed for good and he can get back to living a healthy life!

A wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings, and learn how by his own thought to derive benefit from his illnesses.
- Hippocrates

Marianne Green "sings with a voice as gentle and delicate-sounding as Belleek porcelain," Tom Knapp says. "But delicate doesn't mean fragile. Green's lovely voice is a strong presence on her first full-length recording, Dear Irish Boy.

"Dear Irish Boy is rare in its restraint. Far from the heavy production values that clutter so many contemporary Irish albums and lacking the trend to plug in the guitars and add a drum kit to the ensemble, this album is clear, pure and deeply rooted in Ulster."

Ceilidh Minogue gets you up and dancing with There Y'are Now. "The 'punny' name of this band might lead one to expect a sultry lead singer who belts out danceable songs while strutting across the stage with a short dress and attitude. Come to think of that, that doesn't sound like a bad idea," Tom says.

"But that's not Ceilidh Minogue, and Ceilidh Minogue is doing just fine the way it is. There's nary a voice to be heard on There Y'are Now, their second CD release, but this Scottish ceilidh band serves up a blast of danceable sets that will keep the feet tapping, the blood pumping and, quite likely, the neighbors pounding on your door to turn it down."

Ian McFeron builds on a growing reputation with Love Me Blue. "Together the ensemble creates a smooth but edgy sound, one that rocks on the uptempo stuff and sells the mellow stuff without drifting into a predictable groove," says Michael Scott Cain.

"McFeron, the writer and lead singer, can come up with a good tune and a sound lyric. His writing range isn't all that strong; he writes love songs almost exclusively, but within that range he does good work, coming up with colorful situations, nice metaphors and good turns of phrase."

The Sojourners bring three lifetimes' worth of singing experience to their self-titled CD. "Though Black Hen is a Canadian label, the three Sojourners are Americans who grew up in Illinois, Texas and Louisiana, all of them tutored in the musical traditions of the black church. That music has infused a whole lot of secular genres, most apparently doo wop, r&b, soul and pop, and that's not even to mention white Southern gospel," Jerome Clark says.

"This superb album, produced by roots maestro Steve Dawson, divides its 11 cuts between modern and traditional approaches without compromising the organic unity of the music."


Barbara Sullivan is Unraveling Ada in this new mystery novel. "Unraveling Ada is a complex and intriguing read that had me fighting myself so I wouldn't skip to the end and spoil the outcome," Cherise Everhard says.

"I still have a few more questions after closing this book, but hope the next book will come with some answers for me. The characters in this story leave an impression and I look forward to unraveling the next mystery with them."

Lani Massey Brown allows for A Margin of Error in this dramatic tale. "Political thrillers have taken over from the courtroom drama and the hidden conspiracy of the ages as a potent genre for a reader in search of a good read with perhaps a bit of education included," Nicky Rossiter says.

"A thriller of this order is difficult to review for fear of spoiling any of the suspense by forewarning the reader. But be warned, there are trips and twists here, but throughout the story you will be intrigued."

C.S. Forester's most memorable character reaches his conclusion in Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies, the 11th book in the series. "One might expect the final volume in C.S. Forester's venerable Horatio Hornblower series to end the saga with a crash and a bang. Unfortunately, Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies is one of the weaker books in the set," Tom Knapp laments.

"Less a novel, more a collection of short tales, West Indies takes place after the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars. Hornblower is protecting trade from piracy in a much sunnier climate than we've seen him in before, but -- without the thrilling dangers of war -- this sequence of his adventures in the Caribbean seems like a cakewalk to a man of Hornblower's proven cunning and experience."


Tom Knapp is Storming Paradise with Chuck Dixon and company. "Storming Paradise is Chuck Dixon's look at an alternate end to World War II. The story is a little messy and even a touch confusing as Dixon follows the loosely woven stories of various characters -- from a Japanese-American translator to an Irish priest and a Japanese boy whose family has already paid the price of defending their nation -- but the picture he and a cadre of talented artists paints is stark, dramatic and decisive," Tom says.

"You can sense by book's end that there is more to come. Certainly, there is no neat or easy conclusion to the war in the near future, and Dixon makes it clear that no character, no matter how well you know them, is safe in wartime."

Mark Allen takes a gander at three volumes in the Marvel Adventures set: Iron Armory, Hero By Design and Triple Threat. "Having reviewed volume 1 of Marvel Adventures: Iron Man a few weeks ago and found it worthy of fans' attention, I decided to hunt down a few more of Marvel's digests, as much for the reading enjoyment of my children and myself as for review purposes," Mark says.

"Volumes 2 and 3 of the series were, if anything, even better than the initial volume. As before, characterization does not take a back seat to superhero action," he adds. "Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man, Hulk & Iron Man, while not anything fans haven't seen before, is a fine source of entertainment for kids, or adults who want superhero tales that are clean-cut and straightforward, albeit a bit goofy here and there."


Anthony Aveni unravels the conundrum of doom in The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012. "To judge by the cover, Anthony Aveni's The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012 is another in the high stack of books suddenly warning of impending doom or possible salvation on a convenient calendar date. There's the ominous red sky around a mysterious glowing Earth, the wonderful lurid title font and, of course, the title itself. The End of Time! How portentous!" Sarah Meador says.

"Inside, it's a very different story. Aveni writes not to add to the clamor of 2012 disaster theories, but to quiet them. An award-winning astronomer and longtime researcher of Mayan culture, Aveni confronts doomsday interpretations of the Mayan calendar with the best current research, all available original sources and an amazing fairness in his response."

Tom Knapp, a big fan of the first Crow movie and a detractor of the third, takes another look at the second in the series, The Crow: City of Angels. "I referred to The Crow as 'an elegant dance of horror and death.' The Crow: City of Angels, the first in a line of subpar sequels, is a frantic spasm of bad acting and worse direction," he says.

"The Crow concept is a winning idea, but Hollywood has bungled it at every turn since its initial success with Brandon Lee. It's sad to say, but the series really should have stopped at one."

Daniel Jolley takes a look back at Faust, directed by F.W. Murnau and released in 1926. "Faust is just an incredible accomplishment in the art of silent cinema, one of the most ambitious and masterfully directed films of any era. If you've never seen a silent film and wonder if one could even keep your attention, Faust is the film to watch," he says.

"Thanks to earlier successes such as Nosferatu and The Last Laugh, Murnau had complete control over the making of Faust. Something of a perfectionist, Murnau made sure that every aspect of every single shot met with his satisfaction. It's obvious that the man was a genius, as even the contrast of light and shadow reinforces the central motif of the story he is telling. The special effects seem years and years ahead of their time."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions 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 13,000 reviews!)

20 March 2010

Wooooo! Rambles.NET editor Tom Knapp, fiddler for the Irish band Fire in the Glen, has 12 St. Patrick's Day performances over a nine-day St. Patrick's Week period ... with three shows still to go! His arms, they are weary, but the spirit is strong. Now, onto the reviews!

Give me a lever long enough, and I shall move the world.
- Archimedes

Sierra Noble, who made a splash during the opening ceremonies at the Olympics in Vancouver a few weeks back, has an all-fiddle CD worth noticing. "From what little I've heard of Sierra's more recent CD release, Possibilities, the new album reveals more of her pop-folk vocal skills while the fiddle takes a back seat. Spirit of the Strings, on the other hand, is an album to make fiddle fans sit up and sing with joy," Tom Knapp says.

"I'm not sure where Sierra's musical journey will take her, but this CD is a milestone along the way that should be preserved and treasured."

The fine folks at Putumayo are serving up the goodies at a Picnic Playground. "The latest release in Putumayo's ongoing series of kid-focused music compilations is Picnic Playground and, as its title suggests, the theme here is eating. And in this case, with apologies to Shakespeare, music be the love of food," Tom says.

"Some songs are sung in English, others are in different languages from around the world. Each song is a treat to hear and the accompanying liner notes might teach kids a thing or two about the foods they eat without being tedious about the subject."

Jenn Lindsay "sometimes describes her music as anti-folk, But a better explanation might be that she is part of a group of New York City-based singer-songwriters who share a distaste of mainstream popular prepackaged music. So, even before I listened to her CD, I already I liked her attitude," Dave Townsend says.

"Perfect Handful is a very pleasing collection of original songs. Her songwriting style could be compared to artists like Ani DiFranco, as well as many other female artists from the Lilith Fair era who influenced her songwriting style. Her songs have a delicate but tough sound, and her voice also has a more delicate sound than some of her fellow artists."

McNamara & Neeley have released a new CD -- and it's About Time. "Except among those with long memories, Bob Gibson (1931-1996) is a forgotten figure in mid-20th-century popular music. If not for substance-abuse problems that short-circuited his career just as the folk revival was about to be launched, however, he might have been a star of its more commercial end," Jerome Clark says.

"When I lived in Chicago in the 1970s and '80s, I would see Gibson, a fellow Chicagoan, on occasion. I tended, fairly or unfairly, to view him as a figure of more historical than musical interest. I also observed that some performers on the local folk scene, even two or three decades after Gibson's prime, sounded like acolytes," he adds. "The female-male duo Chris McNamara & Rick Neeley, who live in suburban Chicago, are veterans of that scene. They bring Gibson to mind, as any knowledgeable listener will notice the moment Neeley's booming 12-string introduces About Time's first cut."

Gene Segal is a bit Hypnotic for fans of guitar-based jazz. "Segal is an excellent guitarist -- maybe a bit too good, in that he can fall into noodling when he plays fast. The pace is varied throughout, however, and the more relaxed style of keyboardist Sam Barsh equalizes things," Dave Howell says.

"The sound tends towards fusion. Segal seems influenced by rock, particularly in his occasional use of effects, although he does not copy any of the genre's overdone riffs."


Julian Stockwin's Kydd series sails on with the Seaflower. "Tom Kydd's life in the British navy keeps getting more complicated," Tom Knapp says.

"Sure, Kydd continues to be just a little too good at everything he tries. Yes, women from every walk of life fall in love with him a little too quickly. Certainly, he gets out of scrapes a bit too easily and a few too many coincidences. And there's no question that things happen a little faster than they should, sweeping over the details to get onto the next adventure," he adds. "But despite the book's flaws, I can't help liking Tom Kydd. This former wig-maker, pressed into service, is a unique voice and an entertaining focus in Stockwin's series, and I enjoy following his adventures. Fans of British naval fiction should certainly check this series out."

Harlan Coben wants Just One Look into the resolution of this story. "I did not understand the ending to this book. There, I said it," Dave Sturm confesses.

"Now, I do understand how it turned out. I just don't get how we got there. There are so many hidden motives, masked identities and dark secrets that you practically need a flow chart to keep track. Seriously, you will probably enjoy this book more if you take notes, write down names and facts and then draw arrows."

Laura Lippman hangs By a Spider's Thread in this novel in her Tess Monaghan series. "By halfway through this novel it's pretty clear what everyone's motives are and why they are doing what they are doing. The only question is how it's going to play out. The ending poses a classic How Will They Escape from the Death Trap? scenario, and that's where Lippman absolutely nails it. I did not see it coming, even though I should have because it fit perfectly," Dave says.

"All in all, this is a good but not great Tess effort. It's still true that Lippman's stand-alones are her true masterpieces."


Tom Knapp is happy to see The X-Files back in competent hands. "For all the good books they've produced, Checker Publishing really dropped the ball when they got their hands on The X-Files franchise. Fortunately, WildStorm has it well in hand now," he says.

"Writers Frank Spotnitz, Marv Wolfman and Doug Moench and artist Brian Denham join forces to create a book that, while it never exceeds the high bar set by Chris Carter's acclaimed television series, certainly finds its place within the framework of existing stories. Wisely, the stories collected here are set in the heyday of the series, before the final season and misguided second movie jinxed that magical TV chemistry."

Tom also takes a stab at the slasher genre with the inaugural collection of Hack/Slash, First Cut. "The concept is elegant in its simplicity," he says.

"Fans of slasher films know that one person, usually female, always survives the predations of a maniacal killer. Likewise, the killer almost always has some supernatural, hate-driven origin that drives them to keep slaying even after they've taken enough damage to, themselves, die," Tom explains. "So, in Hack/Slash, we have Cassie Hack, the lone survivor of the Lunch Lady killings, who has partnered with the misshapen but supernally strong Vlad to roam the country taking out slashers. Although still quite young, Cassie has become quite adept at the task."


Mark Seinfelt takes on death and writing in Final Drafts: Suicides of World Famous Authors. "Final Drafts is an amazing look at the mind-boggling frequency in which influential writers take their own lives. Examining writers spanning the entire 20th century, Seinfelt takes his readers on some of the most uplifting and depressing trips I have been on in a long time," Gregg Winkler says.

"In each chapter, Seinfelt paints for us a beautiful picture of the lives of our doomed authors, the significance of their work, the temperament of the culture and times, as well as a moving depiction of the author's final acts. Each chapter celebrates the lives of the authors, examining their works, oftentimes pointing out how in many cases the concept of suicide had raised its ugly head in each of their lives. In nearly all cases, Seinfelt shows us the author's greatest moments, and then in a flip of the page, shows us those same authors at their most vulnerable. Each chapter ends on a downer."

Tom Knapp has a few quibbles with Tim Burton's new take on Alice in Wonderland. "The comedy Alice is now a tragedy, and there is a great deal of violence, implied death and a moatful of severed heads along with its talking animals and marching card soldiers," he says.

"Of course, being a Burton film, Alice is startling in its color and vividness. The special effects are amazing and sometimes quite lifelike. It's a visual treat with some strong performances from its cast; Depp is at his usual level of excellence, while Wasikowska is an actress to keep an eye on. But are those reasons enough to make a movie? Possibly not -- especially when Alice is supposed to thrive in Carroll's world of poetic nonsense, not a linear plot involving a quest and epic battle scene."

The saga of Horatio Hornblower in film continues with The Duchess & the Devil. "In the testosterone-laden world that is Horatio Hornblower's British navy, the Duchess of Wharfedale (played as a force of nature by Cherie Lunghi) is a breath of fresh, if perfume-scented, air," Tom says.

"There are many layers, too, to the duchess, who is much more than just a fine dining and strolling companion. She is more than meets the eye, and Lunghi plays the role with with and relish."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions 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 13,000 reviews!)

13 March 2010

Hey kids, what time is it?? It's the start of St. Patrick's Week!!! It's going to be mighty busy 'round here for us Irish fiddlers, so let's keep this short. Um ... oh yeah, look, we have new reviews!!

Meanwhile, thanks for asking, condition reports on my brother John are still available here.

The thing about late-night cookery was that it made sense at the time. It always had some logic behind it. It just wasn't the kind of logic you'd use around midday.
- Terry Pratchett

Rumgumption will Cross the Roaring Main for music's sake. "If traditional Irish and Scots music stirs your soul and moves your feet, then this CD is made for you," John Lindermuth says.

"The Celt in a Twist radio pick of the month for February 2010, Cross The Roaring Main features 11 melodic, haunting and rousing ballads, jigs and reels, mostly traditional but with a few variations and an original composition thrown in for good measure."

Rachel Davis, a 20-year-old fiddler from Baddeck, Cape Breton, makes her long-overdue self-titled debut, much to Tom Knapp's delight. "I wasn't having a very good week. To be honest, I wasn't paying much attention when I picked up a CD from the waiting stack and slid the disc into my car stereo," he says.

"Within minutes -- perhaps even seconds -- I was tapping my foot. My mood had measurably improved. The day was looking up."

Fergus is taking a drive down Green St. with this brand-new release. "It was the second track that really caught my ear," Tom says. "When Cait Sargent started singing 'Rocky Road to Dublin,' I didn't pay much attention. ... It's an oft-covered song and, while Sargent has a good voice, I wasn't hearing anything to make me sit up and take notice. And then the music started to build, and Green St. -- the first full-length album from Worcester, Mass.-based band Fergus -- had my full focus.

"I hope to hear more from Worcester soon."

Tommy Gardner appeals to the younger set with Kangaroo Waffles & Other Treasure. "The songs are aimed at younger school-age children and feature sing-along lyrics with solid music behind the message-laden tunes," Michelle Doyle says.

"While the arrangements are occasionally repetitive and the songs are unrelentingly cheerful (even 'The Monster,' which provides strategies for dealing with grief), the optimistic tone and impressive tongue-twisters made this adult enjoy singing along."

Kate MacLeod is Blooming into a true folk act to watch. "In keeping with folk tradition, these are story-songs. But they are presented in a variety of musical styles, ranging from folk to pop and country. There's more than a little bow to country in this collection with its emphasis on love, loss and hope," John Lindermuth says.

"She has a warm and poetic style in both her singing and playing. Though some of the songs are poignant, there's understated humor in unexpected places."

Ray Wylie Hubbard brings his brand of folk and blues out of Texas with A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment. "Hubbard's roots grow out of the soil of folk music, both in the original definition (traditional song) and in a later one (literate self-directed lyrics in acoustic settings)," Jerome Clark says.

"In his recordings of recent years, in common with Bob Dylan whom he broadly resembles, he has fashioned a sound that is both modern and tradition-steeped, a seamless integration of downhome blues, back-country folk and beer-joint rock. His more often chosen instrument today is electric, not acoustic, guitar. As is not the case with most of Hubbard's Lone Star singer-songwriter compatriots, country music is an all but invisible influence."


Terry Pratchett tosses a pigskin into the Discworld mix in Unseen Academicals. "Unseen Academicals is a grand entry in the Discworld series. The cast feels like a cast -- people real enough to smell and get nervous around," says Sarah Meador.

"Pratchett is as keen as ever in his social commentary and satire, and even the puns are pretty good -- for puns. But it's not the easiest starting point for new readers. Anyone who's ever met a fantasy novel will recognize Ankh-Morpork, the Guild-owned, tyrant-operated fantasy city brimming with trolls, vampires and every other sort of oddity familiar to swords-and-sorcery genre. Those who don't already know that it's also full of lawyers, sewage workers, traffic cops and meat pies might be a little lost."

Alexander Kent takes off on a new series with Richard Bolitho, Midshipman. "The novel, originally published in 1975 and now collected in the larger volume The Complete Midshipman Bolitho, launches an ongoing saga that very nearly exceeds the combined length of C.S. Forester's Hornblower series and Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey series -- and it's still going," Tom Knapp says.

"As for quality -- well, it's hard to match Forester and O'Brian in the specialized British navy genre they claimed as their own, but Alexander Kent (actually a pen name for British author and former naval officer Douglas Reeman) is off to a very good start."

Harlan Coben offers No Second Chance in this thriller. "Coben is an absolute master at page-turning excitement. I cannot count the number of times the good guys close in on the bad guys in some isolated place and think they have the upper hand when they feel the cold press of a gun against their ears from someone who has snuck up on them," Dave Sturm enthuses.

"And the plot surprises are placed at regular intervals so that about every three chapters there's an Oh My God! moment. You never see it coming. You can't. These books are designed in such a way to be unoutguessable."


Tom Knapp visits the Marvel world of NYX in Wannabe. "Teens with powers. It's been done and done to death," he says.

"NYX is a little different, however. It's not neat and tidy. There's no spandex. No wise costumed mentors to lead their sidekicks through danger. These are mutants on the loose in a dark and dangerous city, and all the wise-cracking in the world won't make things better."

In Richard Moore's Fire & Brimstone, an angel and a demon work together to capture or kill monsters. "It's a fair-to-middling concept. Moore's dialogue between the girls is entertaining. But the book falls short of having a workable plot, and his art makes his otherwise attractive characters look a little too plastic," Tom says.

"Really, it's just an excuse to look at cartoon violence and cartoon butts."


Johnny Duhan unearths the roots of his own music in To the Light. "I love to know the story behind the songs I listen to. Thankfully, Johnny Duhan has produced To the Light, which is just the sort of publication that could usefully accompany every serious album on the market," Nicky Rossiter says.

"Released in conjunction with his latest album -- of the same name -- this excellent book provides us with insights into the songs as well as a fitting if fragmented autobiography of the writer/singer."

Tom Knapp takes a look back at the original Clash of the Titans before the big-budget remake hits the screen. "I thought it only proper to expose my children to the original version that had me so excited in my youth. But it's funny how that thrilling film of 1981 fails to hold up to 21st-century eyes," he says.

"The special effects, which seemed so grand when I was a kid, seem fairly tame now. Full credit to Ray Harryhausen, who was a master in his day and created many memorable effects during his 40-year career, but very little in this film looks real any more. Worse, the dialogue is stilted, the pacing is slow and the acting is amateurish (even by the great Laurence Olivier, who, as Zeus, can't seem to summon the breath to speak normally to his son Perseus via shield-o-vision). And don't even get me started on Bubo, a terrible mechanical owl that chirps and wheezes like a Grecian R2-D2."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions 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 13,000 reviews!)

6 March 2010

Many thanks for the well-wishes for my ailing brother, who -- I am ecstatic to report -- has finally turned the bend and is beginning to improve. Details on his condition, for those who have asked, can be found here. Now, on with the show!

Some things cannot be spoken or discovered until we have been stuck, incapacitated, or blown off course for awhile. Plain sailing is pleasant, but you are not going to explore many unknown realms that way.
- David Whyte

Maggie Drennon makes her return in Just Now. "The trappings have vanished. The sensuous voice remains," Tom Knapp says.

"If you've heard Maggie Drennon in the past, perhaps as part of Ceili's Muse, SixMileBridge or the Maggie Drennon Band, you might be expecting her new CD Just Now to follow in a similar vein. But the rocking bagpipes, the blazing fiddle, the electric guitar, bass and drums -- they're mostly absent here. Just Now is just Maggie, with a rich, soprano voice that stands alone quite well."

A selection of Putumayo artists are featured on Blues Around the World. "The blues is still blue in any language. And when the music is right, you don't need to understand the words to feel that bone-deep, torn-soul kind of pain," Tom says.

"Putumayo takes the blues -- a uniquely American form of music -- and follows it around the world to see where it's gone. It's gone far, obviously, and the music on this universal collection will cut to your heart whether the lyrics are in English, Portuguese, Catalan or Taiwanese."

Michael Hurley marks his 21st album release with 2009's Ida Con Snock. "It's easy to think of Hurley as an old-school, amiably cracked hipster, and that's not wrong, but it would be a mistake to overlook his considerable musical gifts. They're such that with every listening, as often as not one has the impression of hearing something radically unlike what one had just thought one heard. On initial exposure I took Hurley's singing to be distracted, even narcoleptic, but since then, the warmth and humor -- a chuckle seems somewhere within range even in some of the more melancholy material -- have risen to audibility, at least temporarily. He is, however, mumbling more than he was in the 1970s, and I still can't make out a good share of the words," Jerome Clark says.

"All the same, the songs and performances are eminently listenable, and some are downright beautiful."

Teri Joyce is broadcasting her brand of country music on the Kitchen Radio. "Active in the Austin scene as both performer and composer of songs for fellow artists, Teri Joyce is country by any definition," Jerome says.

"The title song of this, her debut CD, celebrates the great stuff that used to glide over the airwaves from country's outposts in Nashville and elsewhere. In those days country was a common language that spoke to all who would hear, and it was as close as your nearest AM radio. In the 1970s -- the decade in which her particular melodic country-pop approach dominated playlists -- Joyce probably would have been a star. Happily, she's young and doing what she does, which she does very well indeed, in the early 21st century. That means -- I hope -- that we'll be hearing her for years to come."

Chris Smither mixes folk and blues on Time Stands Still. "If his name doesn't sound familiar, chances are you've heard one of his songs covered by artists ranging from Bonnie Raitt to Diana Krall," Dave Townsend says.

"His songs of love, loss and insightful looks at life have a light, pleasant, seasoned feel to them. His voice has a distinctive husky drawl. His trademark foot-tapping and finger-style guitar continue to nicely complement his great songwriting, which often includes some very thoughtful lyrics." (Smither's name also might sound familiar because Jerome reviewed this disc not but one month ago. We decided to add Dave's opinion to give readers another view.)

Gloria Estefan spotlights some of her Spanish-language work on Oye Mi Canto: Los Exitos. "If you're already a fan of this Cuban-born pop artist, many of the 18 tracks on Oye Mi Canto: Los Exitos are already favorites. If you're not, this is a good introduction since it comprises all in one the best of several previous Spanish-language albums that, over the past 20-some years, veered sharply from the pop-rock roots that made her famous in the late 1980s," John Lindermuth says.

"The album offers a lovely and interesting mix of traditional Cuban, Salsa and Mexican-inspired music, guaranteed to provide hours of pleasant listening."

Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith join forces (post-humously, in the one case) for Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. "From the very first sentence, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies lives up to its name. This is not your typical Jane Austen romance. Co-author Seth Grahame-Smith takes the beloved classic and morphs it into an action-packed zombie massacre while at the same time maintaining all the elements of the original that made hopeless romantics like me fall in love with it," Charissa Jelliff says.

"This novel is a great read, whether you're an Austen fan or not, but I think it's easier to appreciate Grahame-Smith's contributions to the story if you're already familiar with the original. However, you don't have to be a Pride & Prejudice fan to enjoy it."

William H. White keeps his eye on the War of 1812 during A Fine Tops'l Breeze. "This novel is in many ways superior to the first book in the 1812 trilogy. Weaknesses include White's penchant for repeating himself -- both by recounting plot points in dialogue shortly after the action occurs and by reintroducing major characters every time they wander onto the page -- as well as his overuse of certain phrases and his habit of providing exposition through awkwardly timed conversations. Overall, however, Tops'l Breeze is another excellent entry into the field of American naval fiction," Tom Knapp says.

"Fans of the genre will no doubt have read countless books on Britain's conflict with France, but few authors give equal attention to the Age of Sail in America. It's gratifying to see that White has the period well in hand, and we can only hope he joins author James Nelson and others in keeping the genre fresh and exciting for years to come."

Lee Child has Nothing to Lose in this recent Jack Reacher adventure. "There is a need to suspend disbelief just a little if you are to truly enjoy the adventures of Jack Reacher," Nicky Rossiter says.

"Other than in fiction there are probably very few drifters in the United States who live without transport or credit cards and only the clothes on his back. Get past that and settle down and buckle in for a ripping ride."

Graphic Novels

Tom Knapp turns up his nose at the offerings of Marvel Divas. "There is no Marvel villain at work here. This yarn is about talking, about feelings, about talking about feelings. It's about bonding with your girlfriends and dissing your boyfriends. Oh yes, and it's about cancer, too, because Marvel apparently thinks tossing a major, real-world disease at a character no one cares about will give them cred as a 'sensitive' publisher," he says.

"Oh, and while the contents are supposed to be all about empowerment and the like, the cover is all about breasts, impossibly skinny waists and improbably muscular thighs. I am woman, hear me meow."


Barbara Oakley discusses the roots of badness in Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed & My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend. "Ever since Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince, humanity has been concerned with why highly manipulative people, charming on the outside and completely self-centered at the core, exist and how we stop being burned by them. In the last few years an amazing amount of research in the fields of brain scans and genetics has provided an interesting view of what may be a biological basis for antisocial personality disorders," Mary Harvey reports.

"As Barbara Oakley explains it, Machiavellian behavior is another word for borderline personality disorder, or a sort of cross between sociopaths, psychopaths and narcissistic personality disorder. ... Oakley not only outlines a wonderfully concise explanation of just what Machiavellians truly are and how they probably tick, she also seems to have found, by the end of the book, a way to come to terms with her sister's life and rather sad death. This makes Evil Genes a rather personal exploration, adding a very human touch to a book that could easily have been coldly factual."

The remake of Poseidon (originally The Poseidon Adventure) finds little favor with Daniel Jolley. "Whereas The Poseidon Adventure (the 1972 original classic) focused on the characters trying to survive the upside-down-ship-sinking disaster, this incredibly unnecessary remake merely uses its characters for a good excuse to put a lot of cool special effects together and call it a film," he says.

"The CGI-laded special effects are pretty good (albeit excessive), but it's just a mistake to build a film around the special effects. I certainly appreciate the filmmakers going to so much trouble to make the climactic first few minutes of the capsizing surprisingly graphic and as real as possible, but it would have served the film well to devote some of that same passion to the script. As it is, the film -- like the ship itself -- sinks more and more with each passing minute."

The second episode in the excellent Horatio Hornblower series is titled The Examination for Lieutenant, or The Fire Ships if you're an American. "This busy little movie ... includes a bookended pair of blazing fire ships, a starving fleet manning the French blockade, a rebellious seaman, an attempted desertion, a ship full of cattle and a dose of the Plague," Tom Knapp says.

"Even so, Horatio might have wanted to study a little harder before his big test."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions 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 13,000 reviews!)

27 February 2010

A note from the editor: This edition will be delayed a week. As mentioned in the introduction to last week's edition, my brother had open-heart surgery. Since then, a host of very serious complications have cropped up, and every time something seems to get better, something else gets worse. As a family, we are no closer to answers than we were a week ago. And John hasn't been awake in seven days. So you'll forgive me, I hope, that I spent much of this past week in the hospital, which took time away from putting together this week's reviews.

Anyone out there who prays, please pray hard for John Knapp's swift and full recovery. I want my brother back, and his wife and children need him.
- Tom Knapp

P.S. You can keep up to date on John's condition -- and lend a hand to his family, if you're able -- right here.

In family life, love is the oil that eases friction, the cement that binds closer together, and the music that brings harmony.
- Eva Burrows

20 February 2010

A personal note, if I may: Earlier this week, my brother had open-heart surgery and, although the operation seems to have fixed some of those pesky, life-threatening problems he was having, there have been various hitches and complications in the days following that have kept me and my family nervous, on edge, worried and sometimes downright scared. Before you click on the links below and trundle off to read reviews of our selections this week, please spare a thought for John, along with his wife and kids, and let's all just hope that everything turns out OK.

We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance.
- Harrison Ford

The fine folk at Putumayo are sending the world's Celts off to a pleasant rest with Celtic Dreamlands. "I very nearly slipped this compilation disc into my car stereo tonight as I was coming home from work. Fortunately, I had another Putumayo disc handy -- something a little livelier, hailing from the caravan fires and dance floors of Eastern Europe -- and I put this one off for later. Otherwise, I may well be napping in a gutter somewhere," Tom Knapp says.

"To suggest that this collection of 10 tracks is soothing is an understatement. Sitting here in my home office, I quite nearly relaxed myself right out of my skin. And yet, while I typically prefer the more energetic vein of Celtic music, I found the quality here to be every bit as good as I have grown used to from the Putumayo label."

Katie Evans passes the time with A Passing Afternoon. "Katie Evans is a young singer/songwriter who moved to Austin, Texas (by way of Ohio and Alaska) several years ago to give the love of her life -- a career in music -- a chance. Her debut CD, A Passing Afternoon is the culmination of years striving to reach her goals. Katie has rather soft vocals and sometimes sounds like Lisa Loeb, another folk-rock singer with a Texas background," Wil Owen says.

"Overall, I give Katie Evans first CD, A Passing Afternoon, a passing grade. She is growing in to her voice. It isn't always perfect, but when she hits her notes, you know she has something special. I hope her sophomore album improves even more."

Naomi Sommers has been Hypnotized by her music. "Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris performed similar old-time folk music on several albums a few years ago, and this CD is as pleasing and well performed as those," Ann Flynt remarks.

"Sommers is joined on this CD of Americana music by such musicians as Dan Tressler on vocals and fiddle, Beth Sommers on vocals and bass guitar, and a number of others who play dobro, guitar, banjo, mandolin, mandala and the like, all of which unite in seamless little gems that flow as smoothly as mountain stream water after the snow melts. With Hypnotized, spring is here to stay, and that too is a good thing."

Arty Hill & the Long Gone Daddys have Montgomery on My Mind. "If you've been around long enough, your first instinct on encountering a Hank Williams tribute disc is to wonder what the point is. But as you reflect on the matter, depressing thoughts cloud the mind. Maybe there is a reason after all. The cultural distance between us and Hank -- as all his fans called him -- grows daily," Jerome Clark says.

"The Baltimore-based Hill is a country singer and songwriter under the influence of 1950s hillbilly bands. I am enamored of his distinctive approach to that tradition, and I have no doubt that Hank himself would feel the same."

The gypsy caravans of old are taking over the modern dance clubs of Eastern Europe, as demonstrated on Gypsy Groove. "Gypsy Groove is a recent release from Putumayo, one of the world's greatest purveyors of global music traditions. In this case, however, the tradition has evolved; far from the sounds you might hear by a Rom caravan fire somewhere in Eastern Europe, this music has migrated to the nightclubs and dance floors of a modern age," Tom Knapp says.

"That's not to say the music isn't recognizable as gypsy; instruments including violin, cimbalom, rubob and accordion vie for attention with remix loops, electronic percussion and Balkan-language rap. This music will get your heart pumping, your toes tapping, your feet itching to dance."

Mike Zito takes a trip down Pearl River and arrives at his destination in good standing. "Last year, I had the pleasure of reviewing Mike Zito's first album, Today, and reported that it introduced a major talent. His new one, Pearl River, surpasses Today," says Michael Scott Cain.

"It's an amazing piece of work, demonstrating that Zito is not just a born bluesman -- he is certainly that -- but is a complete musician."

Connie Willis experiences a Blackout in London during the Blitz. "Blackout is funny, tense, wacky, zany and extremely entertaining. The one thing it isn't is long enough," Katie Knapp opines.

"OK, I understand that actually it was too long, forcing Willis to divide the tale between two books, Blackout and All Clear (to be published this fall), but even at 528 pages, I wasn't ready to stop reading. ... Any Willis novel is so extraordinarily complicated as to defy easy summary, and any detail revealed in advance is one too many. Suffice to say, I read Blackout in less than one week and will read it again."

Rachel Hawthorne launches Dark Guardians with a little Moonlight. "This book isn't very deep and can be rather predictable, but the characters are likeable enough and the plot is easy to follow. The werewolf storyline itself isn't anything original. Hawthorne's werewolves remind me of a cross between the werewolves in the Twilight series and the wolf shifters of Wolf Lake, the TV series that aired briefly several years ago. The danger associated with their initial transformation and the societal structure is very reminiscent of the series," says Charissa Jelliff.

"I don't think there was anything about these wolves that makes them stand out from other werewolf stories. In fact, I don't think there is anything about this book at all that would make it stand out against all the Twilights, Percy Jacksons and Harry Potters that are being published these days. That being said, if you're just looking for a quick, easy and fun read to help you forget the stresses of real life for a few hours, this would be a good book."

Broos Campbell concludes his Matty Graves trilogy with Peter Wicked. "'He's recovering from injury and illness. He's in hot water for his involvement in a duel that led to the death of a ship' captain (his cousin). He's lost his status as acting lieutenant and is back among the ranks of the lowly midshipmen. His best friend proves boorish, his true love proves both fickle and shallow, and his family is dull and demanding," Tom says. "It can only get better for poor Matty from here, right?

"Broos Campbell has once again kept me engrossed in his tales of Matty Graves and America's fledgling navy. The author has a gift for both story and dialogue, and the subtle, wry wit of his characters kept me smiling."

Graphic Novels

Mark Allen takes a look at Essential Man-Thing, Vol. 1 ... and finds it good. "Never a big fan of Marvel's denizen of the swamps in my 30-plus years as a comics reader, I've formed the opinion that it's because I never read more than an appearance here or there," he says.

"Having 32 consecutive stories in a row, beginning with Man-Thing's origin, changes the landscape a bit. Now, after all these years, I tip my hat to the creators of such compelling fare."


Lori Foroozandeh presents a memoir "that reads like an adventure story" in Lori's Song: The True Story of an American Woman Held Captive in Iran. "This book is a good read that will cater to all adventure and travel lovers, memoir readers and culture researchers," Liana Metal says.

"The story is full of cultural elements that are very interesting to westerners who don't know much about Iran and its people. It may also help those who are addicted to drugs, since the author herself was an addict and her troubles are closely related to this fact."

Tom Knapp took his daughter to see Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, and he was somewhat relieved by what he saw. "The Lightning Thief is somewhat rare in that this kid-friendly film has some level of intellectual depth and a great deal more excitement and legitimate plotting than a sparkly vampire could ever provide," he says.

"There are places where the special effects ring false and the fight choreography seems forced, but overall it's a treat for its age set that won't bore adults in the audience to tears."

Molly Ebert says Last Chance Harvey is "a very self-aware film ... that is, if a film was ... or had, in fact ... a self ... but no matter!"

Last Chance Harvey is as coherent and suave as my opening sentence. It's also unapologetic like my opening sentence; it swishes away all flaws concerning writing and acting with a wave of its hand and an air that says, "No matter! Let's just move on." The film most certainly does move on through a storyline that follows the dismal lives of American Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) and Englishwoman Kate Walker (Emma Thompson). As two people separated by an entire ocean they are socially awkward and single; when placed together amidst the beauty of London they are ... still awkward. But the companionship they find in one another makes sense."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions 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 13,000 reviews!)

13 February 2010

Well, what do you think? We've done a little sprucing up of the "what's new" page, and we hope the new look meets with everyone's approval. As always, feedback is welcome!

Just because everything is different doesn't mean anything has changed.
- Irene Peter

The Putumayo people are back again with an Animal Playground. "Sometimes, a CD doesn't need to give us anything more than a good time," Tom Knapp says.

"Animal Playground, a kid-oriented album from Putumayo, is exactly that. Each song is, as the title suggests, about animals, and they're all fun, bouncy and child-friendly to an extreme," he says. "Yeah, we've all heard children's recordings that drive adults absolutely bonkers, especially when a darling cherub hits 'repeat' on the CD player over and over and over again. But Animal Playground passes the grownup test, too, because it's enjoyable, interesting for all ages and of a consistently high quality."

Also check out our new Putumayo page for reviews of more than 60 CD releases from this exceptional world-music label.

Candye Kane is a true blues Superhero. "This is the album we almost didn't get. Blues belter Candye Kane spent all of 2008 fighting off pancreatic cancer, a deadly forms of cancer that she says kills most of its victims within six months. Now, cancer free, she is recording and doing road shows once more, and I, for one, could not be happier," says Michael Scott Cain.

"Superhero shows us one tough woman, a fighter, who comes out of the gate swinging," he says. "Here's what it boils down to: buy this one. You won't regret it."

The Mr. Groove Band pays homage on Rocket 88: Tribute to Ike Turner. "It might be impossible to capture the excitement of the classic Ike and Tina Turner revue, but this CD comes has close as you can get," Dave Howell says.

"All of the I&T hits are included, but luckily with different arrangements and modern production that keeps their power and freshness with a full horn section and Ikette-inspired background vocals. ... Unlike many tribute albums that are just cover versions, this is a loving and well-crafted remembrance."

Buckley Mills plays a Violin on Fire in this brand-new album. "Mills takes a dozen well-known jazz and popular pieces with a jazz feel and translates that to the violin on this newly released CD," Chris McCallister says.

"While it has been almost 35 years since an injury ended my violin-playing days, I still enjoy the sound of a well-played violin. ... The music here is smooth and melodic, and I can picture Mills playing vigorously yet simultaneously effortlessly."

The new Mountain Roads release Born into Bluegrass: The Songs of Cullen Galyean "virtually defines genre traditionalism," Jerome Clark opines.

"Born into Bluegrass is a solid success, the songs uniformly strong, rich in melody and emotion. In the fashion of pure bluegrass, they celebrate Jesus and the mountain life or recount love's tribulations in what might be called Carter Family language. The sound bows a tad more to the smoother delivery of Flatt & Scruggs than to the harder expression of the Stanley Brothers, but there is no question that this is what bluegrass was meant to be: music planted deeply in its native soil."

Cherie Priest follows up on her highly acclaimed Boneshaker with Clementine. "Boneshaker introduced readers to Priest's steampunk America, a late 18th-century setting where the Civil War drags on and the path of technology runs a bit differently than it did in our own history books. But, while the first book focused on strange yellow gases and the science-spawned zombies that roam within the walled city of Seattle, Clementine takes us on a wild chase across the sky in hydrogen-powered airships," Tom Knapp says.

"The second in Priest's ongoing Clockwork Century series, Clementine is a slim but exciting stand-alone tale that builds on Boneshaker's foundation without relying on it. This book is much faster-paced than its predecessor; what it lacks in intricate detail and layered world-building it makes up for in sheer exuberant thrills."

C.S. Forester eponymous hero makes an advancement in British society in Lord Hornblower. "Peace -- Hornblower doesn't remember what it's like. But peacetime presents its own challenges, both at home in England and abroad -- in Vienna, where his wife Barbara plays a role in negotiations for the new Europe; in France, where Hornblower visits old friends; and on Elba, where Napoleon refuses to retire quietly. There is plenty of danger and death still to come. Even Hornblower makes a betrayal of sorts that seems somewhat out of character," Tom says.

"Lord Hornblower lacks the high adventure at sea that marks the majority of this series, but it has plenty of action, splendor and sorrow amid the historic conclusion of Napoleon's reign. On the negative side, there is only one novel in the series remaining."

W.R. Burnett is ready to step back in the limelight with this re-release of It's Always Four O'Clock and Iron Man. "Although he was one of America's finest crime writers, most people -- if they know of him at all -- know him through the film versions of his novels Little Caesar, High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle. He produced, during a long career, more than 40 novels and a couple dozen original film scripts. Almost all of them dealt with crime and criminals and almost all of them are forgotten today," says Michael Scott Cain.

"These are fascinating novels, well worth rescuing from oblivion, and the fact that they are not as good as the best of Burnett's crime fiction just tells you how fine a writer he was."

Tom Maremaa draws on the experiences of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq in Metal Heads. "I first became acquainted with Jeremy Witherspoon, a.k.a. 'Spoon,' in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards contest of 2008. The excerpt I read was one of the most haunting of that contest, and I hoped some smart publisher would choose Tom Maremaa's work for publication. Thanks to Kunati Press, I got to read the rest of the story," Becky Kyle remarks.

"While this story is fiction, Maremaa had extensive interaction with real 'metal heads' before he writing this novel. Spoon is rendered with a depth, heart and compassion that speaks of the author's concern for these valiant survivors. I read a good part of Metal Heads with my eyes blurring from tears."

Graphic Novels

Mark Allen hitches a ride with Iron Man for the first volume in his Marvel Adventures, Heart of Steel. "Part of me still can't believe I'm saying it, though I've been saying it for at least four years now: What's needed more than anything in superhero comics today is FUN. The stands are dominated by Marvel and DC, whose products seem primarily to be dark, angst-driven, delighted with death and generally 'mature' to some degree," Mark says.

"This is why the Marvel Adventures line was and is such a breath of fresh air. In this case, Iron Man, Vol. 1: Heart of Steel takes Tony Stark and his iron-clad alter ego back to formula, so to speak. Thanks to writer Fred Van Lente and artists James Cordeiro and Ronan Cliquet, this is my favorite version of the character since the run of Kurt Busiek and Sean Chen, which began in 1998."


Dan Bartges gives art pointers in Color is Everything. "This color guide is a must for every artist who needs a fast seminar on color combinations," Liana Metal says. "Mastering color is made a lot easier to learn by following the author's tips and advice. It also stimulates the desire to use the new hues one learns and create unique pieces of art."

Molly Ebert lays bare The Lovely Bones. "Nauseatingly beautiful is the only way The Lovely Bones can ultimately be described. Thanks to director Peter Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, audiences everywhere have been given the chance to see what misdirected creativity looks like -- literally," she says.

"Watching the film is like watching the outcome of two halves of completely separate screenplays shoved through a shredder and then recombined with Elmer's glue. It's not that I have a problem with mixing genres -- because, when you think about it, practically all films have multiple genres thread through them -- but The Lovely Bones abruptly cuts from suspense and thriller to fantastical drama without comfortable pacing or tone. I'll admit it's a little frustrating to allow your heart and energy to be carried into the aching build-up of a murder scene ... and then nothing."

Tom Knapp sets sail with Horatio Hornblower in The Even Chance, a.k.a. The Duel. "Although the novels of C.S. Forester have not gotten the modern big-screen treatment that Patrick O'Brian received in Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, Forester's great naval hero Horatio Hornblower was the focus of a long-running series of British made-for-TV movies, the first of which is The Even Chance," Tom says.

"A young Ioan Gruffudd portrays Hornblower in a series of episodes from Forester's first novel in the series, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower. ... Gruffudd is perfect for the role, bringing Hornblower's anger, uncertainty, resolve and growing confidence to the screen with a deft hand."

You think we're done? Ha!! Come back for more next week. (Meanwhile, browse through our vast archives of past editions 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 13,000 reviews!)