21 May 2011 to 6 August 2011

6 August 2011

On this date in history: In 1284, the Republic of Pisa was defeated in the Battle of Meloria by the Republic of Genoa, thus losing its naval dominance in the Mediterranean. In 1787, 60 proof sheets of the Constitution of the United States were delivered to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In 1806, Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor, abdicated, thus ending the Holy Roman Empire. In 1825, Bolivia gained independence from Spain. In 1890, at Auburn Prison in New York, murderer William Kemmler became the first person to be executed by electric chair. In 1914, Serbia declared war on Germany; Austria declared war on Russia. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel. In 1942, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands became the first reigning queen to address a joint session of the United States Congress. In 1945, Hiroshima was devastated when the atomic bomb "Little Boy" was dropped by U.S. B-29 Enola Gay, killing around 70,000 people instantly; some tens of thousands would die in subsequent years from burns and radiation poisoning. In 1965, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. In 1991, Tim Berners-Lee released files describing his idea for the World Wide Web, and WWW debuted as a publicly available service on the Internet. In 1996, NASA announced that the ALH 84001 meteorite, thought to originate from Mars, contained evidence of primitive life-forms.

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• • • MUSIC

A music legend gets his due on Long Gone: Utah Remembers Bruce "Utah" Phillips. "Produced by veteran Utah musician Kate MacLeod at the invitation of Phillips's son Duncan, himself a folk singer, the 18 cuts of Long Gone revive Phillips originals, along with the Duncan composition that gives the CD its title," Jerome Clark says.

"Straightforward and unaffected, the performances rely on no more than acoustic guitar, voice and sincerity. Hearing them, one feels as if sitting in a living room with friends as each remembers his or her most beloved Phillips tune. One expects that Phillips would have wanted that kind of tribute."

Bob Dylan is the focus of two albums reviewed this week: Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 and A Nod to Bob 2: An Artists' Tribute to Bob Dylan on His 70th Birthday. "In recent years, as the Dylan industry has overseen the reissuing of a host of outtakes, alternate versions, concert material and other obscurities in the self-mockingly titled 'Bootleg Series,' the effect on many Dylanists, including me, has been a surely unintended mounting frustration with much of Dylan's 'official' discography. A case in point: when you listen to the two-disc Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8, pay particular attention to the alternate versions of songs from his albums of recent decades, then ask yourself, Isn't just about every one of these a considerable improvement on its "official" equivalent?" Jerome asks.

"A modest proposal: Head on over to A Nod to Bob 2. I haven't listened to every Dylan tribute, nor do I want to, but permit me to declare with no immediately discernible reservation that this is the best one I've heard. (The first Nod to Bob, released a decade ago, was good, too, but as practically never happens, the sequel tops the original.)"

The Moon & the Nightspirit promotes Hungarian pagan music on Osforras. "Whether you speak Hungarian or not, this world music volume will evoke night spirits and woodland dreams," Becky Kyle says.

"Agnes, the female vocalist, has a power and range that's daunting to describe. Her powerful voice is an evocative instrument in itself. The male vocalist, Mihaly, uses his voice as backup, beautifully weaving a lower counterpoint and sometimes singing percussively along with the drums."


Ann Halam gets bit by a Snakehead. "If your young adult readers (and those young at heart) haven't gotten enough of the Percy Jackson series, Ann Halam's Snakehead offers another glimpse into Greek mythos," says Becky Kyle.

"Back as a young-adult reader, I could not get enough of mythology. There's a good bit sprinkled within these pages, while the stories of some little-touched characters are expanded and elucidated. Snakehead is a fascinating read, and one I think all ages will appreciate."

Ed Lynskey casts an eye over Lake Charles. "A violent, action-filled thriller ensues," says Michael Scott Cain.

"If you're a reader who isn't bothered by prose that periodically strangles up your mind, you'll find a lot to like in Lake Charles. I couldn't get past the use of language."

P.G. Wodehouse sets sail with Three Men & a Maid, also known as The Girl on the Boat. "A beautiful young red-haired woman is wooed by three men. Much of the action takes place on a cruise ship traveling from New York to London. Now, at least, you know the basis for this short novel's two titles," Tom Knapp says.

"The characters are purposely shallow and laughably entertaining. Wodehouse himself appears in the story as its chronicler; he narrates with a great many first-person asides to his readers -- a conceit that some readers will love, although I personally found intrusive. Still, the overall tone of the book is delightful, and I encourage folks to sample this frothy and entertaining example of Wodehouse's early work."


Mary Harvey has A History of Violence. "In the story of Tom McKenna, history and tragedy are inextricably intertwined. McKenna's past may contain a secret whose influence unfolds into the present in a clear chain of cause-and-effect. Sometimes history is a tragedy in and of itself," Mary Harvey remarks.

"The self-referential title certainly lives up to its name in both theme and content. The violence is as frequent as it is graphic. This novel is definitely for mature readers only."

• • • MOVIES

Mary Harvey is quite pleased with the new Marvel Comics flick, Captain America: The First Avenger. "Though it's lacking in a couple of areas, Captain America is a solid summer flick that does a better than average job at spinning a good comic-book yarn. Chris Evans was a good choice for the title role, fairly radiating sincerity, honesty and bravery," she says.

"It isn't a masterpiece but it's pretty well-done, and lots of fun besides. In fact, it's exactly like the sort of movies that were made in the World War II era in which CA is set."

Molly Ebert switches to the latest DC Comics hero on the silver screen: Green Lantern, which doesn't stack up well against the competition. "Simplicity isn't necessarily a bad thing, but simple can quickly morph into boring. In combination with its borderline boring story, the Green Lantern's jumpy plot line and flat characters do little to make our imaginations light up and our pulses race with anticipation," she says.

"As the leading man, Reynold's isn't charismatic enough to make us overlook the film's mediocre plot. He doesn't yet have a star persona grand enough to save a film (unlike, for example, Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man series)."

Look for more comic-book movie reviews here.

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30 July 2011

On this date in history: In 762, Baghdad was founded by caliph Al-Mansur. In 1502, Christopher Columbus landed at Guanaja in the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras during his fourth voyage. In 1608, at Ticonderoga (now Crown Point, N.Y.), Samuel de Champlain shot and killed two Iroquois chiefs, setting the tone for French-Iroquois relations for the next hundred years. In 1619, in Jamestown, Va., the first representative assembly in the Americas, the House of Burgesses, convened for the first time. In 1932, audiences saw the premiere of Walt Disney's Flowers & Trees, the first cartoon short to use Technicolor and win an Academy Award. In 1965, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Social Security Act of 1965 into law, establishing Medicare and Medicaid. In 1971, David Scott and James Irwin on the Apollo Lunar Module module Falcon (Apollo 15) landed on the Moon with the first Lunar Rover. In 1975, Jimmy Hoffa disappeared from the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant, near Detroit.

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• • • MUSIC

The folks at Veteran offer "Traditional Music Making from Mid-Suffolk, Recorded 1958-1993" on Many a Good Horseman. "Overwhelmingly, these were not music professionals but ordinary people drawn to singing and playing, in their spare time, songs and tunes they loved growing up. The performances took place at home or in local venues, usually pubs," Jerome Clark says.

"The material draws on both authentic rural traditions and (once-)popular styles, though everything is performed pretty much as if it were an antique folk song. While every cut is interesting on one level or other (Suffolk seems to be unusually receptive to its native musicians), the older, folk-derived material is more likely to engage the average Rambles reader."

Davina & the Vagabonds are playing under a Black Cloud. "Black Cloud is a ridiculously entertaining record, shamelessly retro without ever giving off the feeling that it is. The four-member Vagabonds echo the sounds of century-old New Orleans bands -- trumpet, trombone, drums and upright bass -- and pianist/vocalist/composer Davina Sowers, she of extraordinarily deep but never ill-used pipes, contributes songs defined, albeit idiosyncratically, by the jazz-inflected blues, gospel, pop and swing of another era," Jerome says.

"It speaks to the band's remarkable gifts that that these are done with such verve that they seem fresh, almost shockingly original. Then of course, good music-making is its own excuse, and the amount of good music-making here will have your ears ringing ecstatically."


The Monkees, hey hey, paraded into Columbus, Ohio, on their 45th anniversary tour, and Corinne Smith was there to share the experience. "The small outdoor venue in the middle of a state capital city was crammed full this evening with tireless veteran performers and an energetic fan-filled audience who automatically mouthed lyrics they hadn't thought of in decades. Most of the people in attendance qualified for AARP membership, both on and off the stage. Sure, in its day, the Monkees' music was categorized as 'pop' and 'manufactured.' But some selections were serious slices of 1960s life that still resonate with us in the 21st century," she says.

"Columbus is used to hosting far more monstrous crowds than this one whenever the Buckeyes' football season comes around in the fall. But on this beautiful starry night in June, as we swayed and sang along with the songs of our past, everyone was a winner."


Jim Butcher is performing a few Side Jobs with Harry Dresden. "Side Jobs is a collection of 10 short stories and one novella based in the Dresden universe in and around the novels," Becky Kyle explains.

"Side Jobs is probably not the best book to start with in the Dresden series. I'd recommend readers start with Storm Front; however, each of the stories is well-written enough that readers won't feel deprived. This is an excellent book if you want more Dresden and would like to know things like what Harry does on his day off, etc."

Mary Ann Winkowski and Maureen Foley present The Book of Illumination. "Co-authors Mary Ann Winkowski and Maureen Foley do a good job of taking us to Boston, a fascinating locale with history and culture all its own. They take a couple of side trips into Anza's personal life, which distract from the main story, but I believe may make the series more believable and interesting in the long run," Becky says.

"This is the first book of a supernatural series featuring Anza, which will hopefully feature more of Bean Town's fascinating locales and history."

Brent Ghelfi douses The Burning Lake. "Colonel Alexei Volkovoy, often called Volk, works for the Russian government. His job title? Who knows? The agency or department for whom he works? That's another mystery. Volk is not even sure of the answers. The bottom line, though, is that he solves problems -- sometimes ruthlessly," Chris McCallister explains.

"The pace of the book is good, but the two stories, before they begin to converge, give the book a disjointed feel, and I almost gave up on it. Also, this book is not for the squeamish, as there is a lot of brutality in it, and the author pulls no punches in describing it."


Tom Knapp got a Headache from reading this graphic novel. "I'm willing to suspend disbelief by the busload in exchange for intriguing characters, believable dialogue and an overall good story. None of that is here, however, and I finished this short tale with a yawn," he says.

"I'm not even sure where the title came from, beyond the fact that our heroine has a headache in one scene. OK, I guess that will do."


Peter Lourie cuts a bloody swath through Whaling Season, following the work of John Craighead George in Barrow, Alaska, as part of the Scientists in the Field series of educational books. "It's a little disquieting, I think, just how much the scientist studying whales in this book revels in their deaths. Unlike some cetacean biologists who tag whales to study their movements and learn what they can from watching these gentle giants in their natural environment, George learns what he can by cutting open their stomachs to see what he can learn from their last supper -- and guesses their ages by removing their eyeballs," Tom Knapp says.

"Houghton Mifflin's Scientists in the Field series is, so far as I've seen to date, an excellent collection of books designed to inspire young readers to love science and nature. To that end, Whaling Season succeeds. ... You'll learn a little about whales, a bit about whale autopsies and a lot about Eskimo customs regarding their hunting traditions."

• • • MOVIES

Molly Ebert sits through Transformers: Dark of the Moon and comes back with a full report on the experience. "Director Michael Bay and writer Ehren Kruger create messy visuals and an even messier storyline that do little to make our pulses flutter," she says.

"It's no wonder that most viewers wonder why human beings are in the films at all. Whether or not male gender-appropriate amounts of testosterone are running through their veins, most will agree the transformers steal the show. Even in terms of emotional depth and conflict, the bots trump most of the fleshy beings buzzing uncontrollably around the film hanging each other out to dry and genuinely not caring until a time of crisis -- such as the end of the world -- arises."

Tom Knapp finds little appealing about this 1999 version of Beowulf. "It is hard to convey just how bad this incarnation of Beowulf truly is," he says.

"Everything here is pretty much awful, from the characters to the wooden acting, from the set to the script, from the cheesy dialogue to the dreadful soundtrack ... and the utter lack of sense that marks this film throughout. Even the swordplay, which was so elegant for Christopher Lambert in the classic Highlander film, is wooden and cartoony here."

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!)

23 July 2011

On this date in history: In 1829, William Austin Burt patented the typographer, a precursor to the typewriter. In 1903, the Ford Motor Company sold its first car. In 1962, Telstar relayed the first publicly transmitted, live trans-Atlantic television program, featuring Walter Cronkite. In 1972, the United States launched Landsat 1, the first Earth-resources satellite. In 1984, Vanessa Williams became the first Miss America to resign when she surrendered her crown after nude photos of her appeared in Penthouse magazine.

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• • • MUSIC

Philip Gibbs races into The Petroleum Age. "Gibbs is an Austin-based singer-songwriter -- not, all things considered, a particularly novel occupation," Jerome Clark says.

"He turns out to be a fashioner of materials set in folk, downhome-blues and rockabilly arrangements, with a small band backing his strummed acoustic guitar. The music isn't novel, either -- then again, hardly anything in popular music is; there are, after all, only so many notes and so many musical approaches and arrangements -- but it is ably accomplished. And as unpretentious music often does, it seems to get better each time you hear it."

David Bromberg implores you to Use Me as you will. "This time around, Bromberg turns to more modern roots music, namely electric blues, r&b and country," Jerome says.

"Use Me is a decent record which -- my own ultimate test -- you'll want to hear more than once or twice. In other words, its pleasures don't soon evaporate. I also give high credit to Bromberg for resisting the lure of singer-songwriterdom, choosing instead to dare the dangers of song interpretation. In that regard, even the occasional failure only engenders admiration. Rare today is the performer who loves a song more than he loves himself."

Carlo de Lorenzi enjoys Four Seasons in One Recess. "Canadian keyboardist Carlo de Lorenzi has a nice mix of jazz, pop, funk and hip-hop on these 10 tracks," Dave Howell says.

"De Lorenzi has jazz chops, but he uses them to enhance his songs without taking long solos. He is not afraid to use electronics, but they do not overwhelm his work as happens in a lot of fusion."


Ann Turner makes introductions to the Father of Lies in old Salem Town. "Ann Turner's book is set in a frightening time in American history, when being different or unpopular could earn you a rope on Gallow's Hill," Tom Knapp says.

"And, while the action is a little slow at times, the story itself is both entertaining and mysterious; not all questions posed by Turner's story will be answered by its end."

Kelli Sue Landon experiences a young-adult Nightmare at Camp Forrestwood. "The characters and their dialogue in Nightmare at Camp Forrestwood are pretty realistic. Some of the characters are a bit extreme, but, well, teenagers can be extreme at times. The social groupings of the kids fits what often happens in a setting such as this. And the story is compelling enough that I definitely wanted to read it to the end to discover the identity of the culprit or culprits, as well as the motives behind the crimes," Chris McCallister says.

"The writing is the weak spot for this 129-page book. The vocabulary and plot complexity fit readers who are about 11 to 13, but the story is pretty gory for those ages, plus there is a lot of talk about sex and drugs. In short, the story and the characters are aimed at readers the 16 to 18 range, but the writing is not."

Rachel Caine finds a Ghost Town in this recent chapter in The Morganville Vampires. "Every book so far has left me wondering. Ghost Town had me up until 2 a.m. turning pages as fast as I could," Becky Kyle reveals.

"While Ghost Town is a stand-alone book, I strongly recommend that readers start with Glass House and move through the series. Rachel Caine's storytelling is well worth the effort!"

Sara Gruen is up for a visit to the Ape House. "Water for Elephants was a magical read. That book by Sara Gruen had the capacity to bring together humans, animals and history and transport the reader into an unfamiliar world," Becky says.

"Obviously, I'm going to compare every elephant and circus book to Water, and I'm pretty sure most will fall short. Sadly, I'm going to have to compare Gruen's own Ape House to Water as well and come to the same verdict."


T.M. Gray reveals the Ghosts of Maine. "When I read ghost stories, I expect to be a little creeped out," Tom Knapp remarks.

"The author tells entertaining stories in a light, conversational tone, but never once did I feel even the slightest chill from the narrative. It is, by and large, a comprehensive guide for tourists in Maine who like ghosts; the text reads like hauntings are just another perk beside the state's many fine restaurants, overnight accommodations, natural wonders, historical sites and quaint little towns. Gray even tells you what hours the various locations will be open for exploration, and frankly, there's nothing spooky about easy and convenient scheduling."

• • • MOVIES

Mary Harvey has a little Salt with her Angelina Jolie. "The plot for Salt would have made a perfect James Bond movie. Keep that in mind and you'll have a good time with it. Expect it to make sense and tell a story in a linear fashion and you'll miss out on something that would have made Bond look pretty darned good," she says.

"Interestingly enough, this movie was supposed to have had Tom Cruise in the starring role as Edwin Salt. Why the change was made, I don't know, but I am glad it was; otherwise, Salt would simply have been yet another conventional thriller. As it is, both Jolie and the somewhat twisted but still entertaining plot deliver up a clean, adrenaline-laced action film with lots of terrific editing and fantastic camera work, worthy of the sort of movies Stallone and Schwarzenegger have starred in."

Tom Knapp spent a little down time with Mega Python vs. Gatoroid. "Oh my god, it stars Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, a pair of teen idols from the 1980s who, I guess, aren't making enough from shopping mall appearances and Playboy residuals. How could I not sit and watch this made-for-SyFy movie, which wasted no time in going to video? And I wasn't disappointed -- because my expectations, meds aside, were so very, very low," he says.

"Everything about this movie is awful, from the 'science' that drives the plot to the acting, the script and the horrible computer-generated monsters. And yet, I laughed to see it -- no one involved in the production was taking it seriously, so why should I?"

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!)

16 July 2011

On this date in history: In 622, the Islamic calendar began. In 1769, Father Junipero Serra founded California's first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcala, which evolved into the city of San Diego. In 1790, the District of Columbia was established as the capital of the United States after signature of the Residence Act. In 1935, the world's first parking meter was installed in Oklahoma City, Okla. In 1942, the government of Vichy France ordered the mass arrest of 13,152 Jews who were held at the Winter Velodrome in Paris before deportation to Auschwitz. In 1945, the leaders of the three Allied nations -- Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill, President of the United States Harry S Truman and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin -- met in the German city of Potsdam to decide the future of a defeated Germany. In 1948, following token resistance, the city of Nazareth, revered by Christians as the hometown of Jesus, capitulated to Israeli troops during Operation Dekel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. In 1969, Apollo 11, the first manned space mission to land on the Moon, was launched from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. In 1994, the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 collided with Jupiter, with impacts continuing 'til July 22.

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• • • MUSIC

Christopher Cross reminds us of his existence with Doctor Faith. "It might surprise you to know that Cross has released at least eight albums (including some compilation and Christmas volumes) in the years since his first hits reached the airwaves. Doctor Faith is his first all-new studio offering in 12 years," Corinne Smith says.

"Back in the early 1980s, Christopher Cross's music was a refreshing respite from the disco era. Thirty years later, it can serve as an alternative to your teenager's hip-hop drone or the passing sports car's booming bass beat. Pop in this CD when you're in the mood for some adult contemporary accompaniment to whatever task you might be involved with."

Various artists join with the Zoho Roots label for this Tribute to J.J. Cale, Volume 1: The Vocal Sessions. "If even now he isn't all that famous, J.J. Cale would be a whole lot more obscure if years ago Eric Clapton hadn't decided to champion his songs, brought him on stages and even recorded with him," Jerome Clark remarks.

"On Tribute to J.J. Cale, Volume 1 -- a second volume, which I haven't heard, is devoted to instrumentals -- Cale gets covered by some able blues, rock and other acts. ... As always, the material is well crafted with solid grooves and cliche-free lyrics. Tribute is an enjoyably low-key excursion into Cale country."

Crowe, Lawson & Williams do what they do when Old Friends Get Together. "On Old Friends Get Together three leading bluegrass artists -- with a century and a half's experience of the genre among them -- turn their attention to sacred songs associated with the late Jimmy Martin, a towering figure in the history of the music," Jerome says.

"Martin also had a reputation as something of a crazed wild man as opposed to, say, a devout witness to the Lord. No matter. Martin could sing, he always had superior bands and he knew good songs."

Jerome also takes a look at two dissimilar instrumental recordings: Double Play by Liz Carroll and John Doyle, and Ben Hall! by Ben Hall. "The two CDs cited above have two things in common. They're trafficking in vernacular sounds (Irish folk in the case of Liz Carroll & John Doyle, mid-century country swing in Ben Hall's), and they're mostly instrumental," Jerome says.

"A third thing is that any listener, whatever the background and expectation, will recognize them as accomplished and satisfying. Anybody's CD collection will be enriched by their inclusion."

Andrea Wood demonstrates "the confidence of a seasoned performer" on Dhyana, Dave Howell reports. "Wood has a perfect voice. At first listening I thought she might be showing it off a bit too much at points. But since she only does it on a few songs, I changed my mind," he says.

"Singing jazz standards is an overcrowded field, but it would not be at all surprising if Wood soon rises to the top."


Jenna Black traces the roots of a Dark Descendant. "Dark Descendant, playing a bit off the popularity of the Percy Jackson series, has taken the concept in a markedly different, more mature direction. Her protagonist, Nikki Glass, is a fairly run-of-the-mill private investigator in the Washington, D.C., area until an enigmatic client places himself in her path and she learns, rather abruptly, that she is descended from the Greek goddess Artemis. And she's not alone; there are a fair number of godly descendants in the D.C. area, from the Norse gods ot Tyr and Loki to the Hindu Kali and more," Tom Knapp says.

"This is assuredly not a Percy Jackson adventure, and Dark Descendant is, perhaps, a little too brutal for younger readers -- particularly when you consider the methods of coercion used on both sides of the playing field. Even the good guys have their negative aspects, which keeps both Nikki and readers guessing at the true motives throughout."

Patrick O'Brian preceded Aubrey and Maturin with Palafox, who sailed against the Spanish in The Golden Ocean. "This epic mission to disrupt Spanish interests in the Pacific takes Palafox and Centurion around stormy Cape Horn and eventually all the way to China before returning to Britain. Those who survived were richer men," Tom says.

"O'Brian is unparalleled in the nautical genre. By book's end, you'll have faced down cannons and tropical storms ... and damned if your teeth don't ache just a bit from sympathetic scurvy."


Tom Knapp finds Trouble in this Marvel Comics one-shot about the true nature of Peter Parker's (not Spider-Man's) origins. "We're setting up some backstory here for Marvel's most popular character. And, as far as that's worth, the tale here is an entertaining romp about four young, attractive people romping. There are no superheroics here, just sex, romance, sex, betrayal, sex, a devastating secret, love and sex," he says.

"I doubt Marvel will do many books like this, so enjoy it while it's there. It is entertaining, to a point, and it's certainly nice to see May in happier times."


Mark Warner sets the sea on fire with The Tragedy of the Royal Tar. "The Tragedy of the Royal Tar tells a horrific tale, but the events themselves are fairly succinct. The steamboat Royal Tar on Oct. 25, 1836, caught fire in Penobscot Bay, off the coast of Maine. Besides 32 people killed in the fire, a traveling menagerie of exotic animals was lost in the terrible accident," Tom Knapp explains.

"Mark Warner has researched the subject thoroughly, and he presents the story in this slim volume. But there's not a lot to say, really; the entire story of the fire and attempts at rescue span little more than 10 pages. So, to flesh out his work, Warner has included just about every piece of information, no matter how vaguely related to the matter at hand."

• • • MOVIES

Mary Harvey examines superheroes back in the day in X-Men: First Class. "The first, most salient feature of this prequel is that it no way compares to the first three X-Men movies. The reason why is because it's in a league of its own, being the most superior offering thus far in the highly successful franchise," she says.

"A combination of incredible acting, fantastic special effects and one heck of a plot line combine to make X-Men: First Class one of the most interesting, fun and well-made superhero movies yet made. It is, in a word, simply superb."

Molly Ebert, meanwhile, suffers the effects of a Sucker Punch. "Back in the day (circa the 1980s) directors like Michel Gondry and Michael Bay made popular creating movies for the music video generation. It was all about films with fast cuts and rapid sequences -- basically productions on Ritalin. Zack Snyder missed the ride on that novelty train by about two decades, but nonetheless Sucker Punch hit theaters this past April with an all too literal interpretation of what's known as the MTV Filmmakers movement. His latest film is nothing more than one blaring, boring music sequence after another," she says.

"We spend most of our time acutely aware that Snyder is trying to pack a plethora of boyhood fantasies into one film, and so we spend our time fending off exhaustion from the overload."

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!)

9 July 2011

On this date in history: In 1540, King Henry VIII of England annulled his marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. In Versailles, in 1789, the National Assembly reconstituted itself as the National Constituent Assembly and began preparations for a French constitution. The Act Against Slavery passed in Upper Canada in 1793, prohibiting the importation of slaves into Lower Canada. In 1816, Argentina declared independence from Spain. In 1868, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, guaranteeing African Americans full citizenship and all persons in the United States due process of law. In 1900, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom gave royal assent to an act creating the Commonwealth of Australia, uniting separate colonies on the continent under one federal government.

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• • • MUSIC

Robin Laing is serving up plenty of Whisky for Breakfast. "Robin Laing must have a great love of the amber nectar. No, I am not suggesting an over-fondness of drinking, it but rather a great love of writing and singing songs about it. This is the fourth CD dedicated to whisky from his collection and it does not disappoint," Nicky Rossiter says.

"A bit like his subject matter, Laing's music improves with time and savouring. There is a more country feel to this collection than some earlier offerings, but it is a joy to listen to his melodious voice sing with obvious enjoyment."

David Wood is a little bit Country. "Country, let us be clear, is not meant ironically or humorously. David Wood's Country is precisely as advertised," Jerome Clark says.

"It's a friendly voice if hardly a technically perfect one, which basically is what you want in your country: something that calls to mind how the guy on the next barstool sounds when he's telling you a story. Country is an enjoyable record, intended for those who like their country music like their bar food: tasty in a greasy kind of way, and served with no seasoning save salt, pepper and ketchup."

Two Guitars are Bending Time for your pleasure. "Gus Wieland and Brian Conigliaro are two guitarists with many credits," Dave Howell says.

"The best tracks are the two instrumentals. Although both men have pleasant voices, the guitars, all acoustic, are the real standouts here. There is very little evidence of lead and rhythm playing. Both guitars weave in and out seamlessly with each other."


Michael Scott Cain catches a performance by Red Molly & The Seldom Scene in Alexandria, Virginia. "The Seldom Scene and Red Molly. The veterans and the newcomers, the old and the young, the standard bearers and the receivers of the standard, the men and the women. You couldn't help but be struck by seeing the present and the future of Americana music together," he says.

"In all, a great night."


Sarah Blakley-Cartwright is the author, after a fashion, of Red Riding Hood ... and in this case, her work rises above the level of its source. "I haven't seen the film, and frankly the flood of negative reviews and comments would probably have kept me away (as if the Twilight connection alone wasn't enough reason to pass) but I was tempted by the book ... and Blakley-Cartwright succeeded in making the story interesting," Tom Knapp says.

However, his loyalty is soured by a ill-considered marketing ploy. "The book doesn't end. Want to see what happens next? You have to go online and read the final chapter there. And you know what? The final chapter sucked. It was stupid, trying too hard to connect the story to the tropes of the fairy-tale. And, after Blakley-Cartwright's richly developed book, which developed people and their backstory in languorous fashion, these last few pages were rushed and unfulfilling. What a disappointment."

William P. Crawford takes an unfulfilling dip in The Lake. "The premise of The Lake is an interesting one. A lake in California starts making everyone that drinks from it chronically healthy. As posited by the central character (Los Angeles Water District's new public relations director Jeff Lindsay), too much of a good thing can really turn into a disaster," says C. Nathan Coyle.

"Staying on task, though, seems to be a recurring problem with the story/structure -- there are just so many tangents. Sometimes the asides are oddly interesting (like these tiny foxes on an island or a historical subplot) but sometimes the tangents get so involved that you wonder if the author wanted to write another book instead."


Bernar Yslaire and Jean-Claude Carriere consider The Sky Over the Louvre. "Don't judge this book by its cover, as misleading as it may be. The windswept hair, the ruby lips, the eyes semi-closed and head reared back in seeming ecstasy -- the cover gives different expectations. It is certainly a striking rendition, but the presumed emotional context of passion or lust does not come into play at all inside (unless it's passionate ideological discourse or a lust for blood and beheading)," C. Nathan Coyle remarks.

"The Sky Over the Louvre is as stirring as it is stunning. These magnificent historical figures are treated with respect while given a very human portrayal."


Allison Lawlor describes the heady days of Rum-Running along the Atlantic coast. "The book packs a lot of detail into a slim volume. Readers will learn about alcohol production and the various directions in which it was shipped. They'll learn about the boats adapted to smuggling or specially built for the purpose. They'll meet some of the characters who captained them and learn about the conflicts that took place along the coastline and in international waters," Tom Knapp says.

"Lawlor tackles her subject with enthusiasm, explaining with some glee how some rum-runners who ran afoul of the law were able to conceal their activities or otherwise beat the rap. Some encounters turned grim, and she describes those, too."

• • • MOVIES

Tom Knapp has a passing fling with the Black Death. "Black Death aspires to be a Wicker Man for the Dark Ages. It fails," he says.

"The film drags for most of its 102 minutes; I kept watching mostly out of curiosity whether the tales of necromancy and resurrection in the village would introduce a fantasy element to the movie or hold to a more realistic storyline. An interesting plot twist near the end is unable to lift Black Death out of its own doldrums, and a dreary coda is a leap completely out of character for one of the leading men."

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!)

2 July 2011

No history lesson today. Important personal matters have prevented Rambles.NET editor Tom Knapp from hitting the books. Sorry!

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• • • MUSIC

Suzy Bogguss takes a page from the American Folk Songbook. "Bogguss has always had a fabulous way with a song. Clearly, she's in love with this old material, and she sings it straightforwardly, eschewing distracting flourishes. She is smart enough to know these grand old tunes can carry themselves," Jerome Clark says.

"The arrangements, built around a small acoustic string band with occasional augmentation via concertina, accordion and tin whistle from Jeff Taylor and snare drum from Harry Stinson, are uncluttered and perfect. Just like the songs they carry."

The Sparrowses fall short of the mark on Lost Love: Songs of Murder & Trouble. "Instrumentally, they're pretty good. And the choice of tracks on Lost Love: Songs of Murder & Trouble is pure fun for anyone who enjoys a bloody knife or lonesome gallows in their countrified folk singin'," Tom Knapp says.

"The tone of the rest of this review depends largely on the Sparrowses' own level of self-awareness. Because, let's face it, neither Davy Jay Sparrow nor Sarry Ann Sparrow can carry a tune. Or, if they can, they don't show it here."

The Grascals demand that you Dance Til Your Stockings are Hot & Ravelin'. "The Grascals' new EP pays tribute to the music performed on the old Andy Griffith Show, which the band declares to be a favorite of theirs and a strong influence on their lives, their values and their music," says Michael Scott Cain.

"You don't have to be as obsessed with the Andy Griffith Show as the band is to enjoy this CD. As a tribute, it's sincere and fun, and as an album of well-done if well-known songs, it works also. If there's a problem with it, it's that there isn't enough of it."

Troy Roberts has some Nu-Jive to share. "Troy Roberts plays jazz that is accessible but not blandly commercial. It is all melodic. There are solos, but they all fit into the framework of Roberts' compositions without any superfluous runs or meaningless jamming," Dave Howell reports.

"There is a slight tendency for the songs to sound alike, as they were all written or co-written by Roberts. Most listeners should not mind, though, since they also share Roberts' straight-ahead sax work that never lags."


Simon Brett commits crimes in style with Blotto, Twinks, & the Ex-King's Daughter. "When playing host to an exiled king and his entourage, the aristocratic family of Tawcester Towers become embroiled in foreign politics and, of course, murder. Both are highly inconvenient, but with his brilliant sister Twinks at his side, Blotto is good-natured enough to investigate," Whitney Mallenby explains.

"The plot of Blotto, Twinks, & the Ex-King's Daughter adheres severely to the tropes and necessary attributes of a British manor house mystery: dull policemen, significant details and elaborate unveiling of perpetrators. Brett cheerfully exploits them, with tongue firmly in cheek. The comedic tone is amplified by overly romantic declarations, foreign word substitution and a writing style reminiscent of Wodehouse."

Vicki Delany is Among the Departed. "This is the sixth novel in the Constable Molly Smith series, which is a set of traditional cozy mysteries set in Trafalgar, British Columbia, and featuring Smith and her colleague, Sgt. John Winters, and a cast of supporting characters, who, I presume (since this is the first in the series that I have read) recur," says Michael Scott Cain.

"Delany's plot goes down its quiet, calm and somewhat predictable path, never getting in the way of her real subject, which is love. Among the Departed explores the idea of love in all of its permutations, but to my mind, it never finds anything startling or new to say about it."

P.G. Wodehouse comes into some Uneasy Money. "P.G. Wodehouse has been a revelation to me, a new discovery that has dominated my reading time in recent weeks. While these reviews certainly are not timely -- the books were published, after all, close to a century ago -- I can only hope more people are intrigued enough to pick up some of his works," Tom Knapp says.

"This self-contained story is another of his delectable tales involving fascinating characters, intricate plot twists and an exquisite command of the English tongue. I recommend it highly, strongly and without reservation."


Donald G. Shomette takes a close look at The Othello Affair. "History is often told through weighty tomes, some of which are read laboriously to gain two or three morsels of interesting knowledge. The Othello Affair, on the other hand, is a tightly packed nugget of information about a very specialized incident, and in that it succeeds admirably at its purpose," Tom Knapp says.

"Author Donald G. Shomette sets out to describe the events surrounding the seizure of Othello, an American merchant ship fresh out of Liverpool, by French pirates lurking in the region of the Chesapeake Bay. Bound for Baltimore, the Othello in 1807 had reason to fear the British blockade ships -- after all, tensions were high between the two, recently sundered nations, leading up to the War of 1812 -- but the French were considered allies."


Marcus LiBrizzi reveals the Ghosts of Acadia with flair. "If the only test of a collection of ghost stories is the atmosphere it conjures, Marcus LiBrizzi's Ghosts of Acadia is a rousing success," Tom Knapp says.

"As ghost stories go, this is exactly the sort of book you turn to for entertainment and chills. It's not written in the most scholarly fashion, although the list of references in the back shows that LiBrizzi did ample legwork before writing. Sure, it'd be nice to know if any of these haunts have been studied in any scientific kind of way, but I suppose that would kill the mood."


Tom Knapp enters the House of M, albeit with some reservations. "I typically avoid 'big event' crossovers in the comic-book world. They are obvious ploys to sell more titles, and often they're not worth my time. It's been a few years since the big House of M storyline in the Marvel Universe, but I finally decided to pick up the main book in the series just to see what was what," he says.

"It turns out I'm glad I read it. And yet, it felt rushed and incomplete at the end, and I still resent the suggestion that I need to go buy a stack of other books to get the whole story."

• • • MOVIES

Molly Ebert is taken by surprise with the latest film interpretation of Jane Eyre. "My own jaded familiarity with the story and its overabundance of directorial stabs at filmic renditions have caused me to be genuinely shocked by ... well, by the audience's genuine shock when this classic story's secrets are laid bare," she says.

"Passion isn't lacking in this production's efforts. The scenes depicting Jane and Mr. Rochester's romance are gorgeously set up: they meet with gnarled black trees and swirling mist framing their bodies, and the romance continues amongst symmetrically positioned Victorian furniture and outdoor frolics framed by flowered vines and cherry blossom branches bordering the scenes. Even Buffini's script captures some of Bronte's original fiery writing concerning her frustration -- nay, anger -- at her inferior position as a woman (something rare to find in any adaptation of the novel)."

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!)

18 June 2011

Hey! We're taking a bit of a much-needed summer break, so there'll be no update this week or next. Check back soon for more reviews ... and take some time to browse our archives while you're waiting. Cheers!

11 June 2011

On this date in history: In 1184 B.C., Troy was sacked and burned by the Greeks, according to calculations by Eratosthenes. In 1509, Henry VIII of England married Catherine of Aragon. In 1776, the Continental Congress of the American colonies appointed Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston to the Committee of Five to draft a declaration of independence. In 1898, U.S. war ships set sail for Cuba in the Spanish-American War. In 1919, Sir Barton won the Belmont Stakes, becoming the first horse to win the Triple Crown. During the U.S. Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1920, U.S. Republican Party leaders gathered in a room at the Blackstone Hotel to come to a consensus on their candidate for the U.S. presidential election, leading the Associated Press to coin the political phrase "smoke-filled room." Inventor Edwin Armstrong in 1935 gave the first public demonstration of FM broadcasting in the United States at Alpine, N.J. In 1944, USS Missouri (BB-63) -- the last battleship built by the United States Navy and future site of the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender -- was commissioned. Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin in 1962 allegedly became the only prisoners to escape from the prison on Alcatraz Island. In 1970, Anna Mae Hays and Elizabeth P. Hoisington officially received their ranks as U.S. Army Generals, becoming the first females to do so. In 2001, Timothy McVeigh was executed for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing.

There are 203 days remaining until the end of the year.

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• • • MUSIC

Fire in the Glen is prepared to Shout 'til the Break of Day. "Based in Lancaster, Pa., Fire in the Glen has been thrilling audiences for well over a decade now. One of the main reasons for the duo's success is the excitement in their performances, and that excitement is something they've captured on Shout 'til the Break of Day, their fourth CD," writes Jamie O'Brien.

"Much as I like the earlier incarnations of the band, I feel this is probably the best."

Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt, two Austin-based singer-songwriters, "share both a record label and a romantic relationship. Each contributes to the other's recording. Man of Many Moons is Schmidt's second Red House release, ... while Call It My Garden is Elkin's debut on the label," Jerome Clark says.

"Schmidt has been much praised, and justly so, for his music, lyrics and vocals, which reflect some knowledge of the folk tradition while nodding, if only in passing, to the contemporary songwriting influences of Bob Dylan, Jesse Winchester and Leonard Cohen. Man is solid and accomplished, if nothing on it ascends to the high atmosphere," he adds. "Elkin's record is bursting with strong originals, some of which engage my interest more than others (the more pop-flavored ones). Regardless of personal taste, however, all ought to alert the discerning listener to the presence of a new talent bestowed with a more than ordinary gift."

Grasstowne is Kicking Up Dust with this new release. "Grasstowne is a fascinating blend of the old and the new, a mixture of hard-driving banjo and fiddle-driven bluegrass and acoustic Americana. Co-leaders Alan Bibey and Steve Gulley are veteran players, Bibey putting in time with the New Quicksilver, lllrd Time Out and BlueRidge while Gulley played guitar and sang with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver and Mountain Heart," says Michael Scott Cain.

"So, how's the music this combination of vets and newbies puts out? In a word, marvelous. They play well, sing well and write well and know how to choose good songs from other writers."

Abbie Gardner has a lot of Hope in this one. "As a member of Red Molly, Abbie Gardner sings sweet ballads, light bluegrass and applies wonderful harmonies to her two partners' voices. On her solo CDs, she stretches out and shows us the other arrows in her quiver," says Michael Scott Cain.

"Hope, her best yet, shows off Gardner's blues chops, with occasional dips into jazz, and traditional country. It's a varied set, unpredictable and capable of going into rhythmically and stylistically different directions, but altogether unified by Gardner's playing and singing and the way she conveys the sheer delight she gets from the act of making music."


Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters came to Lancaster, Pa., and Tom Knapp was there to witness the show. "The groove began at a fast pace, but Earl soon took it down low and slow, a moody exploration of the theme. Then he hopped down from the stage and joined the crowd, working the music with nimble fingers and generally looming large over the seated audience. His eyes were often closed as he played, face working the music as expressively as his hands," Tom recollects.

"It was an up close and personal moment for Ronnie Earl fans that they'd be taking with them and carrying for years to come. And he stayed there, among his fans, as he rolled into a boogie-woogie blues piece, his pearl-gray Fender parting the crowd like a knife."


James P. Blaylock indulges in a little steampunk delight with The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs. "The story is a very entertaining read, filled with the tropes -- such as an emerald-powered confusion ray -- that make steampunk such a delightful genre. The Victorian elements are also in play, and Blaylock has obviously mastered 19th-century England," Tom Knapp says.

"My only complaint about this book is its brevity; I could easily have enjoyed more pages in a similar vein."

Stacey Jay invents a new reality for modern fairies in Dead on the Delta. "There have always been fairies in the world. It wasn't until toxic contamination along the Mississippi Delta mutated these secretive fey creatures into blood-sucking fiends that people became painfully aware of their existence," Tom explains.

"The fairy problem is merely the backdrop to the story, the setting that sets Dead in the Delta apart from your more standard mystery novels. A little girl has been murdered, possibly in connection with a series of recent killings in the region, and neither the local police nor the FBI can pin down the killer."

Val Gunn stands In the Shadow of Swords. "The plot consists of assassinations, the race for the Books of Promise and a whole lot of traveling. Most of the book seems to be people journeying through this world thinking about past or coming action," Whitney Mallenby says.

"The action itself is quirky and explicit, but also so mysterious that it's hard to get the point or properly feel involved. That is to say: this book doesn't really make sense."


Guy deLisle takes an outsider's view in his graphic novel, Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China. "It's classic stranger-in-a-strange-land fare, with plenty of sidesplittingly funny moments, such as a doorman in his hotel who keeps trying, without any success, to practice his English on the French-speaking Canadian; working out by candlelight in the local Gold's Gym on one of the many nights the power goes out, with only the singing juice-bar man for company; and co-workers who would rather watch Michael Jordan highlight videos than do anything with their lives," Mary Harvey says.

"Daily life is conducted through a series of hand gestures, verbal shadowboxing and cultural misunderstandings that border on slapstick, when they aren't nearly tragic, such as the female coworker who attempted to seduce him by leaving Big Macs on his drawing board at work."


Innocent Emechete shares Animal Stories Daddy Told Us. "Animal Stories Daddy Told Us is a collection of various African animal fables. Every story is written to teach the morals demonstrated through the characters' actions and is accompanied by discussion questions," Whitney Mallenby says.

"Unfortunately, there are some issues with the execution of Animal Stories Daddy Told Us. First of all, much of the vocabulary Emechete uses is very advanced. As someone who's worked in the elementary school system, I know this would be a very difficult read for many."


Laura Pedersen returns to her roots in Buffalo Unbound: A Celebration. "Buffalo-area native Laura Pedersen took it personally when Forbes magazine listed her hometown among America's 'Ten Most Miserable Cities' in its February 2009 issue. She was moved enough to pen this book-length treatise as counter argument," Corinne Smith says.

"Buffalo Unbound makes for good general reading about Buffalo and western New York. It's a quick and entertaining read that is designed to be devoured from cover to cover. No matter whether you are a Buffalo resident, a fan, a tourist or a newcomer, you are apt to pick up a few interesting tidbits from among these pages."

• • • MOVIES

Mary Harvey sees cult-classic status in the future for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. "Yes, it's a combination of Mortal Kombat-like games and incredibly loud, thumping music that takes some getting used to. Yes, it has Michael Cera in it, star of many independently made films and the apparent poster child for geeky, self-conflicted tweeners in crisis," she says.

"But an awful lot of heart went into making this clever, imaginative movie that really has nothing gimmicky going on with it at all. For all its intense, eye-popping graphics and teenage angst, it's a quite sincere, and very engaging, action-comedy."

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!)

4 June 2011

On this date in history: In 781 B.C., the first historic solar eclipse was recorded in China. In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh established the first English colony on Roanoke Island, Virginia (now North Carolina). In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers publicly demonstrated their hot air balloon. In 1812, following Louisiana's admittance as a U.S. state, the Louisiana Territory was renamed the Missouri Territory. In 1876, an express train called the Transcontinental Express arrived in San Francisco, California, via the First Transcontinental Railroad, only 83 hours and 39 minutes after leaving New York City. In 1896, Henry Ford completed the Ford Quadricycle, his first gasoline-powered automobile, and gave it a successful test run. In 1917, the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded. In 1919, Congress approved the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed suffrage to women, and sent it to the states for ratification. In 1939, the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 963 Jewish refugees, was denied permission to land in Florida after already being turned away from Cuba; forced to return to Europe, more than 200 of its passengers later died in Nazi concentration camps. In 1942, the Battle of Midway began when Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo ordered a strike on Midway Island by much of the Imperial Japanese navy. In 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "Power of Nonviolence" speech at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1989, the Tiananmen Square protests are ended violently in Beijing, China, by the People's Liberation Army.

There are 210 days remaining until the end of the year.

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• • • MUSIC

The artists on Absolutely Irish are top-notch. "Absolutely Irish is the product of a one-off performance of various luminaries in the field at the Irish Arts Center in Hell's Kitchen, New York City. The concert, which followed two days of hurried rehearsals by musicians who had known and worked with each other in various capacities over the years, was videotaped for a PBS and recorded for Compass Records," Tom Knapp says.

"The resulting CD, which unfortunately carries the sort of title you'd see in Irish-themed gift shops rather than serious Irish music collections, is very good. And there's nothing surprising about it, either in the quality of the music or the music they pulled together."

Paul Pigat's Boxcar Campfire and Cousin Harley's It's a Sin get a joint examination by Jerome Clark. "Listening to Pigat makes me feel good," he says.

"Cousin Harley is the name of Pigat's electric trio. ... As in its Boxcar folk incarnation, Pigat's writing on It's a Sin is the musical equivalent of meat and potatoes: if not fancy or high-brow, undeniably satisfying and nutritious."

The Roys cut loose on that Lonesome Whistle. "Brother-and-sister duo the Roys are believers in the new bluegrass. They don't throw away the old -- they can swing and do the hard-charging solos as well as anyone, but they also know when to lay back and let their songs speak for themselves," says Michael Scott Cain.

"Lonesome Whistle is an album you'll really enjoy on first hearing and will grow to love as you experience it more."

Carlos del Junco brings his blues and jazz chops to bear on Mongrel Mash. "If you aren't familiar with Carlos del Junco's work, you're welcome to make his acquaintance now. Widely considered to be one of the top harmonica players in the world by blues enthusiasts, Carlos del Junco has quite an impressive resume," says Bryan Frantz.

"Mongrel Mash is a top-notch mixture of jazz and blues with even a twist of samba on one track. Featuring guitarist Kevin Breit, of Norah Jones fame, this collaboration works terrifically, both as a complete album and an assortment of individual songs."


Denison Witmer talks about building spaces through song in this interview with Tom Knapp. "Songwriting for me has always been about presenting an idea to people. You hope there is some sort of relationship with the song -- but you can't choose how people are going to relate to your music," Witmer says.

Crafting music, he says, is "like trying to build a space where the truth can move inside. All art is that way. You try to open a door or window where some kind of realization can come to someone. But I don't feel that it's my job to state what the truths are. I don't need to say these are the facts, this is how it is. But conclusions can be drawn from the way you relate to the music."


Charlene Costanzo presents The Thirteenth Gift for your consideration. "The Thirteenth Gift is a fairy-tale story lurking inside the frame of contemporary drama," Whitney Mallenby says.

"Charlene Costanzo's novella is a quick, well-written read. The best way to describe this book is as a portal for personal affirmation, like a comfort ritual or an angel-card reading."

Eunice Banks expounds on The Trouble With Tom. "There is a quiet humor in this book. It did not make me laugh, but I did smile often. Even the sub-title, 'In which five gallant old men flout the law,' reflects the tone of the book," Chris McCallister says.

"Without ever demeaning her characters, Banks showed their quirks and eccentricities, while also describing their strengths. Their relationships with their spouses and with their friends rang completely true."

P.G. Wodehouse comes to the aid of A Damsel in Distress. "A twisted knot of romantic threads ties P.G. Wodehouse's A Damsel in Distress together," Tom Knapp says.

"The lives of these young lovers are neatly woven into a yarn so tangled that, I swear, I didn't know how Wodehouse would manage to unravel it. Wodehouse hasn't disappointed me yet, however, and A Damsel in Distress is an absolute joy to read."


Tales of the old West gain new life in Western Classics, the 20th volume in Tom Pomplun's Graphic Classics line. "I had expected some variance in quality, as that is common with anthologies, but there was much more variation than I had anticipated. I am guessing this because the stories had different authors and different illustrators," Chris McCallister says.

"All told, the book averages out as a solid mediocre; I feel that is an underestimate though, as The Right Eye of the Commander and El Dorado are worth getting this book, all by themselves. Just skip a few of the others."

Adam Warren continues the misadventures of his hapless heroine in Empowered 6. "I'm not sure writer and artist Adam Warren knew quite what to do with his buxom, scantily clad heroine this time around, because the storyline, such as it is, is a mess," Tom Knapp remarks.

"I like the title character, and I enjoy her circle of friends. Warren's art is appealing, and his writing is usually pretty good. But some of these ongoing plot points -- Ooh! Emp has been captured and tied up by the villain! Ooh! Emp is being ridiculed by her teammates! Ooh! Emp is insecure! -- are being rehashed and overused without any variety or development to keep them fresh."

• • • POETRY

Three poets from the stable at Wesleyan University Press are considered this week by Michael Scott Cain: Rae Armentrout's Money Shot, Evie Shockley's The New Black and Elizabeth Willis's Address. "Not content to deal only with academic poetry, as so many university presses do, Wesleyan has taken seriously its commitment to the form, publishing only on the basis of quality, not school or type of poetry," Michael says.

"These three books continue the tradition. Rather than being safe, conventional poetry, all three flirt with the avante-garde and all feature poets who speak with their own voices in their own particular styles. And all three books are excellent."

• • • MOVIES

Molly Ebert sets sail with Jack Sparrow, once again in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. "On Stranger Tides has a plot with an abundance of superfluous side stories ... and it becomes difficult to remember the point of the film mid-viewing (oh wait, it has something to do with a six-film contract and Depp's soul signed over to Disney)," she says.

"But at least it's in the spirit of The Curse of the Black Pearl. It could have easily turned into another dreary, nautical soap opera like Dead Man's Chest and At World's End."

Be sure to check out our reviews of the first three Pirates films while you're at it!

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!)

28 May 2011

On this day in history: In 585 B.C., a truce was called during a battle between Alyattes and Cyaxares (in what is now Turkey) when a solar eclipse occurred, as predicted by Greek philosopher and scientist Thales. In 1503, James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor were married according to a Papal Bull by Pope Alexander VI; the Treaty of Everlasting Peace that was signed between Scotland and England on that occasion resulted in 10 years -- not an eternity -- of peace. In 1533, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declared the marriage of King Henry VIII of England to Anne Boleyn valid. In 1588, the Spanish Armada, with 130 ships and 30,000 men, set sail from Lisbon en route to the English Channel. In 1754, in the first engagement of the French & Indian War, Virginia militia under 22-year-old Lt. Colonel George Washington defeated a French reconnaissance party in the Battle of Jumonville Glen in what is now Fayette County in southwestern Pennsylvania. In 1859, Big Ben was drawn on a carriage pulled by 16 horses from Whitechapel Bell Foundry to the Palace of Westminster.

In 1863, during the American Civil War, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment, left Boston, Mass., to fight for the Union. In 1892, in San Francisco, Calif., John Muir organized the Sierra Club. In 1930, the Chrysler Building in New York City was officially opened and, seven years later, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco was officially opened by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., who pushed a button to signal the start of vehicle traffic over the span. In 1952, Greece gave women the right to vote. In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization was formed. In 1987, a robot probe found the wreckage of the USS Monitor near Cape Hatteras, N.C. In 1999, after 22 years of restoration work, Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece The Last Supper was put back on display in Milan, Italy. In 2002, the Mars Odyssey found signs of large ice deposits on the planet Mars.

There are 217 days remaining until the end of the year.

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Hey! Monday's a pretty big day!! Not only does Katie (the editor's lovely wife) celebrate her birthday, but this site turns 12! Hard to believe we've been around a dozen years, but it's been a blast every step of the way!!! We hope you like what we do -- and keep coming back, each and every week!

• • • MUSIC

Laura Cortese is about ready to Blow the Candle Out. "Blow the Candle Out solidifies Laura Cortese's position as a singer who also fiddles, discarding much of her earlier focus of her debut album Hush and providing only a single instrumental track. It's a shame in my book; for all that she's a fine, folksy singer, she should give her fiddle a bit more time in the sun," Tom Knapp says.

"Taken at face value, however, listeners should be pleased by her vocal acumen. Cortese has a pleasant tone with shades of slyness that make you wonder sometimes what she's thinking when she sings. Her ability to play the fiddle while singing is impressive and, although the instrument is kept to a supporting role here, she demonstrates plenty of skill there as well."

Gareth Davies-Jones is Chasing Light. "On Chasing Light, Gareth Davies-Jones displays a pleasant voice, some pretty good writing and nice arrangements. The overall feel is pleasant, with touches of imagination in the accompaniment," says Michael Scott Cain.

"And that's a good thing because Davies-Jones' voice and mostly fingerpicked guitar playing don't really deliver the unexpected. When I first heard the album, I kept waiting for Davies-Jones to break out, to energize, and it didn't happen."

Jay Aymar is just Passing Through. "His melodies flow, and he is a pure sort of singer with a fluid, expressive voice that conveys wry humor on the lighter songs, a convincing compassion on the darker ones. As nearly every writer on Aymar remarks -- for the right reasons: it's true, and it's central to his art -- he has an approachable, everyman persona. Listening to him is such a comfortable experience that sometimes you have to hear a song more than once to grasp that he's raising some not-so-comfortable issues," Jerome Clark says.

"Misstep or two notwithstanding, Aymar is one of the good guys, possessed of a distinctive, charming musical personality and an easy-going intelligence. There may or may not be another career-defining song in him, but regardless, the ones he's writing are worth hearing."

The music of Tom T. Hall is reimagined on I Love: Tom T. Hall's Songs of Fox Hollow. "In 1974 Tom T. Hall, then a major star of country music, released Songs of Fox Hollow (For Children of All Ages) featuring a couple of chart-toppers ... along with self-penned songs about animals, nature and conservation. The newly issued CD I Love reprises that album with a whole new set of artists assembled by Eric Brace and Peter Cooper, country-folk performers and committed Hall fans. The principal qualification for inclusion, they report, was that the others love Hall's songs as much as they do," Jerome says.

"I am not a kid by a long shot, but I like this record, which is very nicely accomplished with loving vocals and solid production."


Kris Kristofferson was live in Worcester, Mass., and Corinne Smith was on hand for the special occasion. "After all, none of us is getting any younger. Kris himself will be turning 75 this summer. I thought it was time for us to be breathing the same air for a few hours. Hearing the classic work of an astute singer-songwriter would be worthwhile, too," she reports.

Check out her review for details on the performance.


Jason Mundok's guest at the Wood Stove this week is Stephanie Carlin, who chats about her music and a deeper look at structure.


Theodore Taylor triggers The Bomb in this fictional account of the A-bomb tests on Bikini Atoll -- a black mark in U.S. history to which Taylor was a witness. "It took Taylor nearly 50 years to tell the story of the A-bomb tests on Bikini Atoll. His narrator is 16-year-old Sorry Rinamu, who survives the Japanese occupation of his island only to become suspicious of the U.S. military men who rescued his people. His questions about the explosion lead him to understand that his home will be gone forever, not just for a few years," Donna Scanlon says.

"Sorry, his grandfather Jonjen and the island's teacher Tara, make an ill-fated decision to try to stop the bombing. Only too late does Sorry realize that his mission is doomed to failure."

Laura Lippman invites you into The Sugar House. "Having read this book way back when and now listening to it anew on audiobook, I can say Laura Lippman has fooled me twice with The Sugar House. Its plot is so labrynthian (but easy to follow) that it can indeed do that trick," Dave Sturm remarks.

"I've read all of the PI Tess Monaghan novels and this is the best one. ... Lippman is not a particularly deft prose stylist, but she is terrific storyteller. And that's plenty."


Tom Knapp pays a visit to both India and England in Mike Carey's Untouchable. "The art of this story, set first in India, then England, is excellent. Kudos to Ashok Bhadana for his work. The story by Mike Carey and Samit Basu is likewise very good -- to a point," he says.

"Billed as a horror, Untouchable is never scary or even very tense. The unfolding of events is fairly predictable. And the ending is weak."

Tom also says hello to The End League in Ballad of Big Nothing. "The End League: Ballad of Big Nothing begins with the end of the world. Well, not quite, but the violent green explosion that rocks the planet kills a large portion of the population ... and triggers an evolutionary step toward superpowers. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of an apocalypse, more folks are interested in helping themselves than the rest of the world, so the number of villains rises exponentially while the number of heroes is few," Tom says.

"The tone is gloomy, but the action is constant and will hold your attention. There are plenty of overused comic-book tropes at play, and you'll recognize not-so-subtle variations on a great many popular DC and Marvel characters here."

• • • POETRY

Emily Dickinson's great work is revisited in A Spicing of Birds. "When works are readily available to the public at large, one must question sometimes the reasons for reissuing them in a new package. Is it, in some way, a significant improvement over previous formats?" Tom Knapp asks.

"In the case of A Spicing of Birds, the answer is a resounding 'yes.' Sure, the poetry of Emily Dickinson is already on the market in numerous forms, but this new, specialized collection is a meaningful and appealingly packaged alternative."

• • • MOVIES

Tom Knapp exposes a beating Angel Heart. "I remember being surprised by the ending of Angel Heart when I first saw it on the big screen in 1987. When I watched it again on DVD this year, I couldn't believe I didn't see it coming. Ah, hindsight," he says.

"Angel Heart deserves a second look, even if you already know how it ends, if only to admire the complexity of the story (based on William Hjortsberg's novel Falling Angel) and the craft with which the film was constructed."

Hey, do you have a hankering to review movies? We could use another hand or two on the oars! Drop us a line and let us know if you're interested!

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!)

21 May 2011

On this day in history: In 293, Roman Emperors Diocletian and Maximian appointed Galerius as Caesar to Diocletian, beginning the period of four rulers known as the Tetrarchy. In 1758, Mary Campbell was abducted from her home in Pennsylvania by Lenape during the French and Indian War. In 1881, the American Red Cross was established by Clara Barton. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh touched down at Le Bourget Field in Paris, completing the world's first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1932, bad weather forced Amelia Earhart to land in a pasture in Derry, Northern Ireland, making her the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1936, Sada Abe was arrested after wandering the streets of Tokyo for days with her dead lover's severed genitals in her hand. In 1937, a Soviet station became the first scientific research settlement to operate on the drift ice of the Arctic Ocean. In 1966, the Ulster Volunteer Force declared war on the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland. In 1979, the White Night riots in San Francisco follow the manslaughter conviction of Dan White for the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.

Oh, and depending who you believe, it's also Judgment Day. So you might not want to make plans for next week.

There are 224 days remaining until the end of the year.

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• • • MUSIC

Ryan's Fancy gets its long-overdue revival on What a Time! A Forty Year Celebration. "The members of Ryan's Fancy carried the music of their homeland, Ireland, to their new home, Canada, and made a rousing success by blending the two. Now, nearly 30 years after the Irish-Canadian trio disbanded, their music is gaining new life through the band's first-ever CD release," Tom Knapp says.

"I'll leave it to the scholars to explain -- in great detail, if you look around -- just how influential these boys were on Newfoundland's strong musical tradition, to say nothing of the broader scope of Canadian music. Suffice it to say, these 42 tracks are the tip of a much larger iceberg that I would love to see released soon."

Mike Seeger and Peggy Seeger make a final appearance together on Fly Down Little Bird. "All of my adult life, the release of a new Mike Seeger record was reason to rejoice. On the occasion of his passing, I assumed his voice was forever silenced. What a happy surprise is Fly Down Little Bird, appearing as if out of nowhere -- 14 pure traditional American songs in duets with his sister Peggy, herself a notable folk singer albeit more known for her political songwriting," Jerome Clark says.

"If this is Mike Seeger's last word, it is a true one. But then, he never sang another."

The Wailin' Jennys are true to form on Bright Morning Stars. "The Wailin' Jennys, three young women from Winnipeg (two) and New York City (one), are among the most sought-out acts on the current folk circuit. Sometimes the popularity of particular acts is a mystery to me, but in this case the grand talents of Ruth Moody, Nicky Mehta and Heather Masse are there to be enjoyed if you have good taste and functioning ears," says Jerome.

"They hail from various musical backgrounds -- folk, of course, but also jazz and classical, the latter of which is presumably responsible for their chamber-music approach. One can hear echoes of this sound in a few British folk bands, but the Jennys are still distinctive in their richly conceived arrangements."

Hal Cannon sends greetings from Utah on Hal Cannon. "Along with his work as a musician, Cannon is a professional folklorist, National Public Radio broadcaster and founding director of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which meets every year in Elko, Nevada. In short, he's immersed in cowboy and Western culture, not least the vernacular music and songs that are so much a part of it," Jerome says.

"His new CD is not a sentimental trip down home so much as a plausible evocation of what remains of the old West in the new. Thus, inevitably, this is a rural sound, however urbanized the region has become. Cannon himself lives in Salt Lake City, which is not a small country town."

Dafni shares a little Sweet Time that fans of early Joni Mitchell might enjoy. "Her voice is solid, folky with a slightly jazzy overtinge, and she writes songs that suit her range and inflective choices. Accompaniments are sparse, mostly fingerpicked guitars, with the occasional piano and chorus of male backup voices behind her," says Michael Scott Cain.

"Sweet Time is a celebration of mellowness. Whether Dafni is working the folky, jazz or country sides of the street, she never leaves the range of the laid-back; her favorite key appears to be low."


On tap from Jason Mundok's Around the Wood Stove series of podcast interviews we have the return of the Indian Summer Jars in an encore appearance titled "Don't Watch Her Foot". Also today, Jason chats with Oliver Craven, who is just pickin' for fun. Have a listen!


Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris introduce agents Eliza Braun and Wellington Books in Phoenix Rising. "More James Bond than Sherlock Holmes, Phoenix Rising is an excellent introduction to the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, a special investigations branch of Her Majesty's government that brings a touch of The X-Files -- and shades of Steed and Mrs. Peel -- to the glory days of Queen Victoria's England," he says.

"Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris have gotten this steampunk mystery and adventure series off to a jolly good start. Both lead characters have hidden depths that need a good plumbing, and there are ample games afoot in the background to keep the series going for a good, long while."

Carolyn Kephart makes a fantasy splash with Wysard. "Wysard is one of the best fantasy novels I've read in some time -- and the best thing is that it ends with the tantalizing promise of more to come," Jay Whelan says.

"Ryel's tale continues (and concludes) in a sequel, Lord Brother, which I've just begun reading; it promises to be even better than its predecessor. Kephart is without a doubt a major new voice in the field, and I hope you enjoy what she has to say as much as I did."

Tim Powers penned On Stranger Tides a few decades before Disney adapted his novel into a Jack Sparrow vehicle. "Powers is known for his ability to juggle complex storylines populated with interesting believable characteristics, and he does not let down the reader here. He blends history and mythology together into a ripping yarn on a literary level, bringing together such disparate elements as Blackbeard, zombies and puppets," says Donna Scanlon.

"Will Captain Jack Sparrow be able to live up to the expectations set by Powers' novel? Time will tell."


Kato, of Green Hornet fame, is Not My Father's Daughter. "Most sidekicks keep to their place, providing colorful but subservient support to the starring character," Tom Knapp says.

"But when Kevin Smith gave long legs and boobs to his second-generation Kato, he probably knew she'd soon be creeping out from behind the Green Hornet's cape. ... The action here is strong, with good storytelling carried along with exceptional artwork. Mulan Kato is an intriguing new character whose breakout origin tale is a solid reading experience."

Tom next pays a visit to Alien Pig Farm 3000. "In prehistoric Kentucky, a passing space battle left a ship full of pissed-off aliens in suspended animation deep beneath the Earth's crust. Now, a moonshiner's exploding still has released them. They're angry. And hungry, very hungry," he says.

"It's actually a fairly entertaining book, although not one you'd ever think to take very seriously. Before it's done, you'll tiptoe through diverse topics such as door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesmanship, a lovesick deputy, middle-aged hillbilly porn, World War II-era gun-running, a pair of high-riding Daisy Dukes, more shotgun shells than you can count, sex with animals, wet t-shirts, biscuits with sausage gravy and a whole lot of homemade whiskey."


Cheryl Simone spends a few fruitful Midnights With the Mystic. "Simone describes herself as a lifelong seeker. She's spent all of her life looking for wisdom, she says. She describes her early LSD experiments and her attendance at seminars, and she talks her early marriage to an ex-con who surprised the hell out of her by meditating in prison and then surprised her again by behaving like an ex-con after he was released and they were married," says Michael Scott Cain.

"Although she says she was not looking for a guru, the book explores her search for one and her receptivity to his guidance once she has found him. All well and good, and I'm glad she professes to be happy and satisfied in her search, but I found myself wishing that Cheryl Simone would think for herself."

• • • MOVIES

The latest comic-book movie, Thor, gets both cheers and jeers in a pair of reviews from Mary Harvey and Tom Knapp.

"Thor is, first and foremost, an awful lot of fun, and it's probably a serious mistake to approach it any other way. Basically, it's an old-fashioned epic adventure with lots of human drama, great performances, classical contests of good vs. evil and bold, well-done special effects," Mary says.

"I was beyond pleased to see a film that actually took itself seriously, rose above its source material and gave us a story -- with all-around good performances from the cast -- that we could believe in," Tom counters. "It's a shame, then, that the overall success had to be marred by an overabundance of cheesy special effects and a 3D transference that distracted more than it improved."

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!)